Harburg (Hochberg), E (dgar) Y (ipsel) “Yip”

views updated

Harburg (Hochberg), E (dgar) Y (ipsel) “Yip”

Harburg (Hochberg), E (dgar) Y (ipsel) “Yip”, politically oriented American lyricist and librettist; b. N.Y., April 8, 1896; d. Los Angeles, Calif., March 5, 1981. Harburg’s socially conscious lyrics and librettos of the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s made him a major influence on the politically charged popular music of the 1960s, when many of his peers were in eclipse. He also wrote lasting song standards that did not have explicitly political themes. Working with his primary collaborators, Harold Arlen and Burton Lane, as well as such others as Ira Gershwin, Vernon Duke, and Jerome Kern, he wrote the Depression-era anthem “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?,” “April in Paris,”It’s Only a Paper Moon,” and “Over the Rainbow,” the last from his best- remembered movie musical, The Wizard of Oz. Dividing his time between Broadway and Hollywood, he also wrote such successful stage works as Finiar’s Rainbow, which typically combined his interest in political issues with an affection for hopeful fantasy.

Harburg was the child of poor Russian immigrant parents on N.Y.’s Lower East Side. By grade school he was writing parodies of popular songs and light verse. At Townsend Harris H.S. he coedited the literary column of the school newspaper with fellow student Ira Gershwin. He and Gershwin also attended the City Coll. of N.Y. together.

During his college years, Harburg began to publish his poetry in periodicals. After earning a B.S. degree in 1917, he took a job with an American firm in Uruguay, staying until 1920, when he returned to the U.S. and founded an electrical appliance company. In 1923 he married Alice Richmond. They had two children but separated in 1929 and later divorced.

In 1929, Ira Gershwin introduced Harburg to composer Jay Gorney, musical supervisor at the Paramount film studio in Astoria, Queens, N.Y. With Gorney, Harburg wrote several songs used in the Broadway revue Earl Carroll’s Sketch Book (N.Y, July 1, 1929), which, with a 392-performance run, was the biggest musical hit of the 1929-30 season. Harburg and Gorney also wrote “What Wouldn’t I Do for That Man?” it was sung by Helen Morgan in two Paramount releases, Applause (Oct. 9, 1929) and Glorifying the American Girl (Dec. 7, 1929), and became a record hit for Ruth Etting in November. These successes, combined with the failure of Harburg’s business in the wake of the stock market crash, determined him on a career as a lyricist.

In 1930, Harburg had songs in four Paramount features and two shorts as well as in four stage musicals. His most successful songs of the year were “I Am Only Human After All” (music by Vernon Duke, lyrics also by Ira Gershwin), which was featured in the revue The Garrick Gaieties (N.Y., June 4, 1930) and became a hit for the Colonial Club Orch. in July, and “I’m Yours” (music by Johnny Green), used in the short Leave It to Lester (June 11, 1930), interpolated into the touring version of the Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart show Simple Simon, and a hit for Bert Lown and His Orch. in November. (Significantly, “I’m Yours” is the only one of Harburg’s published songs to use the phrase “I love you.”)

Harburg’s film work dried up in 1931, as the movie studios temporarily lost interest in musicals, but he continued to write extensively for the theater, contributing to three more musicals, though Accidentally Yours, his and Gorney’s first attempt to write a show themselves, was not a success. Ballyhoo of 1932, written with composer Lewis E. Gensler, did only slightly better, running for 94 performances. Americana had only 77 performances, the play The Great Magoo, to which Harburg contributed a song, was performed only 11 times, and Walk a Little Faster ran for a barely respectable 119 showings. But among the songs Harburg wrote for these stage works were three that became standards. Americana featured “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” (music by Gorney), Harburg’s first-person account of the effect of the Depression on working men; it became a best-seller for both Bing Crosby and Rudy Vallée and is remembered as the defining song of the era—a rare instance of a popular song with an overt political viewpoint prior to the 1960s.

Harburg’s song for The Great Magoo was originally entitled “If You Believed in Me” (music by Arlen, lyric also credited to producer Billy Rose). Renamed “It’s Only a Paper Moon,” the song was used in the Paramount film Take a Chance (Nov. 26, 1933) and recorded for a hit by Paul Whiteman and His Orch., and by Cliff Edwards, who appeared in the movie. Walk a Little Faster featured “April in Paris” (music by Duke), a song Harburg wrote without ever visiting the city. It took recording artists a year to find the song, but in December 1933, Freddy Martin scored a hit with it. Thus Harburg had written three of his most memorable songs during 1932.

Harburg’s only other hit of 1933 was “Isn’t It Heavenly” (music by Joseph Myer), one of his few songs not related to a show or a film, which had a popular recording by Eddy Duchin and His Orch. in June. In August he earned his first major film credit, writing lyrics to Gorney’s songs in Universal’s Moonlight and Pretzels.

Harburg had two Broadway shows in 1934. Ziegfeld Follies of 1934 had only a legal right to the name, since impresario Florenz Ziegfeld had died and his widow had sold the rights to the Follies to his rivals, the Shuberts. But the revue was a success, running 182 performances, and it featured a hit in “What Is There to Say?” recorded by Emil Coleman and His Orch. Life Begins at 8:40, for which Harburg and Ira Gershwin shared lyric duties for Harold Arlen’s music, was an even more successful revue, running 238 performances and generating two hits: “Fun to Be Fooled,” recorded by Henry King and His Orch, and “You’re a Builder Upper,” recorded by Leo Reisman and His Orch. with the composer providing the vocal. Harburg had another independent hit in September when Fats Waller recorded “Then I’ll Be Tired of You” (music by Arthur Schwartz).

Harburg relocated to Hollywood in late 1934, initially contracting himself unproductively to Universal, then signing up with Warner Bros., where Arlen was working. The two scored three films in 1936: The Singing Kid, an Al Jolson vehicle; Stage Struck; and Gold Diggers of 1937. They then returned to N.Y., where Harburg conceived the story and wrote the lyrics for his first book musical, Hooray for What? Intended as both an antiwar political satire and as a vehicle for comedian Ed Wynn, the show ended up being more of the latter than the former, which helped it to a successful run of 200 performances. Its most memorable song was “God’s Country,” which was interpolated into the film version of Babes in Arms (Oct. 19, 1939) and revived as a hit recording by Frank Sinatra and by Vic Damone in 1950.

Harburg and Arlen returned to Hollywood in 1938, signing to MGM, where their first assignment was a film adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s children’s book The Wizard of Oz. The result was a timeless classic that made a star of Judy Garland and featured her signature song, the Academy Award-winning “Over the Rainbow,” which topped the hit parade in September and October 1939 in recordings by Garland and by Glenn Miller and His Orch. Harburg and Arlen’s delightful score also featured “Ding-Dong! The Witch Is Dead,” “We’re Off to See the Wizard,” and “If I Only Had a Brain.” Before the end of the year, the team had contributed four songs to the Marx Brothers film At the Circus, including the patter song “Lydia, the Tattooed Lady,” written in the style of Gilbert and Sullivan and a signature song for Groucho Marx.

Harburg teamed with Burton Lane in 1940 to write the songs for Hold On to Your Hats, a stage vehicle for Al Jolson that had a 158-performance run on Broadway, curtailed only by the star’s decision to abandon it. Back at MGM, Harburg contributed to many movie musicals during the war years, notably working with Lane on Ship Ahoy, a vehicle for Tommy Dorsey and His Orch. that led to hit recordings of “The Last Call for Love” (music and lyrics by Harburg, Lane, and Margery Cummings) and “I’ll Take Tallulah,” the latter with a vocal by Frank Sinatra. He added songs to the film version of Cabin in the Sky, among them “Happiness Is a Thing Called Joe” (music by Arlen) sung by Lena Home and nominated for an Academy Award. Harburg married Edelaine Gorney, the ex-wife of his former writing partner, in 1943.

Harburg wrote the lyrics for and produced MGM’s Meet the People in 1944, then went back to Broadway with Arlen for Bloomer Girl, which presciently touched on issues of civil and women’s rights. It was his biggest stage success yet, running 657 performances. In a score that included such notable songs as “The Eagle and Me,” the hit was “Evelina,” taken into the Top Ten by Bing Crosby in Jan. 1945. By that time Harburg had returned to Hollywood and collaborated with Jerome Kern at Universal on the Deanna Durbin vehicle Can’t Help Singing. “More and More” from the film earned an Academy Award nomination and became a Top Ten hit for Tommy Dorsey in March 1945. Later in the year, Ella Fitzgerald and Benny Goodman each recorded revivals of “It’s Only a Paper Moon” that made the Top Ten.

Harburg cowrote the libretto as well as codirecting and contributing the lyrics to Burton Lane’s songs for his biggest stage success, Finiaris Rainbow, in 1947. The show, which conflated the story of a leprechaun with an examination of Southern racism, boasted a strong score, including “Look to the Rainbow” and “When I’m Not Near the Girl I Love,” as well as two songs that became hits: “Old Devil Moon,” recorded by Margaret Whiting, and “How Are Things in Glocca Morrà?” which gave Top Ten records to Buddy Clark, Martha Tilton, Tommy Dorsey, and Dick Haymes. The show ran 725 performances.

Harburg’s outspoken political views made him a target of the anti- Communist witch hunts of the late 1940s and early 1950s. As a victim of the blacklist, he had trouble finding work, especially in Hollywood. He collaborated with composer Sammy Fain on the songs for the stage musical Flahooley in 1951, also cowriting the libretto and codirecting, but it was a flop, running only 48 performances.

Harburg’s last major success came in 1957 with Jamaica, a stage vehicle for Lena Home for which he cowrote the libretto and contributed lyrics to the songs by Arlen. The show ran 555 performances. In 1961, Harburg adapted the music of 19th century opera composer Jacques Offenbach into songs for The Happiest Girl in the World, based on Aristophanes’s antiwar play Lysistrata; it ran 97 performances. After being blacklisted in Hollywood for more than a decade, Harburg had two film projects released in the early 1960s, both with music by Arlen: Gay Purr-ee was an animated movie featuring eight songs sung by Judy Garland, Robert Goulet, and others; and I Could Go On Singing (May 15, 1963), to which the songwriters contributed the title song, marking Garland’s final film appearance.

Harburg had a surprise hit in 1967 when the Fifth Estate took a recording of “Ding Dong! The Witch Is Dead” into the Top 40. In 1968 he had his last new Broadway production with Darling of the Day, which had music by Jule Styne; it ran 32 performances. The film version of Finian’s Rainbow, released more than 20 years after the Broadway musical, proved timely, and the soundtrack album, featuring Fred Astaire and Petu-lia Clark, was in the charts for six months. Harburg’s last attempt at a Broadway musical came with What a Day for a Miracle, based on the novel Our Lives Have Just Begun by Henry Myers, who wrote the libretto and some of the music. The show had a one-week try out at the Univ. of Vt. in Burlington, starting on April 29, 1971. Though it seems to have been written earlier, Harburg’s last musical work to be produced was The Great Man’s Whiskus, based on the play The Great Man’s Whiskers by Adrian Scott, with music by Earl Robinson, which was broadcast on NBC-TV.

In 1981, a month before what would have been his 85th birthday, Harburg died of a heart attack while driving to a meeting to discuss a movie musical version of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island.


(only works for which Harburg was a primary, credited lyricist are listed): musicals/revues (dates refer to N.Y. openings): Accidentally Yours (1931); Ballyhoo of 1932 (Sept. 6, 1932); Americana (Oct. 5, 1932); Walk a Little Faster (Dec. 7, 1932); Ziegfeld Follies (Jan. 4, 1934); Life Begins at 8:40 (Aug. 27, 1934); Hooray for What? (Dec. 1, 1937); Hold On to Your Hats (Sept. 11, 1940); Bloomer Girl (Oct. 5, 1944); Finian’s Rainbow (Jan. 10, 1947); Flahooley (May 14, 1951); Jamaica (Oct. 31, 1957); The Happiest Girl in the World (April 3, 1961); Darling of the Day (Jan 27, 1968). films:Moonlight and Pretzels (Aug. 22, 1933); The Singing Kid (April 3, 1936); Stage Struck (Sept. 27, 1936); Gold Diggers of 1937 (Dec. 24, 1936); The Wizard of Oz (Aug. 17, 1939); At the Circus (Nov. 16, 1939); Rio Rita (May 7, 1942); Ship Ahoy (June 25, 1942); Cairo (Nov. 5, 1942); Cabin in the Sky (May 27, 1943); Kismet (Aug. 22, 1944); Meet the People (Sept. 7, 1944); Can’t Help Singing (Dec. 25, 1944); California (Jan. 14, 1947); Gay Purr-ee (Dec. 5, 1962); Finian’s Rainbow (Oct. 9, 1968). television:The Great Man’s Whiskus (Feb. 13, 1973).


Rhymes for the Irreverent (N.Y., 1965); At This Point in Rhyme (N.Y., 1976).


H. Meyerson and E. Harburg (his son), Who Put the Rainbow in the Wizard of Oz? Y. H., Lyricist (Ann Arbor, Mich., 1993).

—William Ruhlmann

About this article

Harburg (Hochberg), E (dgar) Y (ipsel) “Yip”

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article