Henderson, Ray (actually, Raymond Brost)
Henderson, Ray (actually, Raymond Brost)
Henderson, Ray (actually, Raymond Brost), popular composer; b. Buffalo, N.Y., Dec. 1, 1896; d. Greenwich, Conn., Dec. 31, 1970. Henderson was best known as the composing member of the songwriting team of De Sylva, Brown, and Henderson, which wrote songs for nine Broadway shows and four Hollywood movies between 1925 and 1931, making them the most successful partnership of the period. The trio specialized in timely, upbeat songs, such as their major hits ’The Best Things in Life Are Free,” “You’re the Cream in My Coffee,” and “Button Up Your Overcoat,” which caught the frothy spirit of the 1920s. In addition to his association with De Sylva and Brown, Henderson wrote similarly cheery songs such as “I’m Sitting on Top of the World,” “Five Foot Two, Eyes of Blue (Has Anybody Seen My Girl?),” and “Bye, Bye, Blackbird” for Tin Pin Alley. After the trio’s breakup, such Henderson songs as “Animal Crackers in My Soup” and “Life Is Just a Bowl of Cherries” helped to counter the dire effects of the Depression.
Both of Henderson’s parents were musicians, and he was encouraged to pursue music as a child. His mother gave him piano lessons, and he played organ at church. After years of private study in Buffalo, he apparently studied academically (accounts vary), perhaps at the Chicago Cons, of Music. (He is said to have studied later with composers Vittorio Giannini and Benjamin Britten.) He moved to N.Y. around 1918 and became a song plugger, staff pianist, and arranger at a succession of music-publishing companies, establishing the contacts that allowed him to become a songwriter.
”Humming” (lyrics by Louis Breau) was Henderson’s first songwriting success; it was interpolated into the musical Tip Top (N.Y, Oct. 5, 1920) and recorded by Paul Whiteman and His Orch. for a hit in July 1921. Henderson was working for publishers Shapiro-Bernstein in 1922 when Louis Bernstein introduced him to lyricist Lew Brown. Their first success together was “Georgette,” which was performed in the Greenwich Village Follies (N.Y, Sept. 12, 1922) by Ted Lewis and His Band and recorded by them for a hit in November 1922.
Henderson also succeeded on Tin Pan Alley, scoring his biggest hit yet in 1923 with “That Old Gang of Mine” (lyrics by Billy Rose and Mort Dixon), which drew a number of hit recordings, the most successful of which was the duet by Billy Murray and Ed Smalle that became a best-seller in November. The team of Henderson, Rose, and Dixon followed with two hits in 1924: “Follow the Swallow,” which was featured in the Ziegfeldfeld Follies of 1924 (N.Y., June 24, 1924) and recorded by Al Jolson, and “I Wonder Who’s Dancing with You Tonight/’ recorded by Benny Krueger and His Orch. in July. Henderson also scored a hit with Brown, “Why Did I Kiss That Girl?” (music also by Robert A. King), recorded by Whiteman with the American Quartet on vocals, in June.
Henderson first teamed with B. G. De Sylva for “Alabamy Bound” (lyrics also by Bud Green), which became a hit for Blossom Seely in May 1925 and sold a million copies of sheet music. De Sylva had been writing songs with George Gershwin for the revue series George White’s Scandals, and when Gershwin moved on to book musicals, White brought in Henderson to replace him; Henderson brought in Brown to collaborate on lyrics, and the team of De Sylva, Brown, and Henderson first worked together on the 1925 edition of Scandals. Though it did not produce any song hits, the show had a healthy run, encouraging White to bring the trio back for the 1926 edition.
Meanwhile, Henderson continued to work on independent material for Tin Pan Alley. The comic song “Don’t Bring Lulu” (lyrics by Rose and Brown) provided equally popular record hits to both Billy Murray and the team of Ernest Hare and Billy Jones in August 1925; “If I Had a Girl Like You” (lyrics by Rose and Dixon) was a hit for Benny Krueger in November; Murray and Aileen Stanley had a hit with the comic song “Keep Your Skirts Down, Mary Ann” (lyrics by Andrew Sterling, music also by Robert A. King) in January 1926; Ted Lewis scored with “Bam, Bam, Bammy Shore” (lyrics by Dixon) in February; and Henderson wrote two best-sellers with the team of Sam L. Lewis and Joe Young: “I’m Sitting on Top of the World” for Jolson in April, and “Five Foot Two, Eyes of Blue (Has Anybody Seen My Girl?)” for Gene Austin in May.
The 1926 edition of George White’s Scandals was the breakthrough success for De Sylva, Brown, and Henderson, running 432 performances and generating three hits: “Lucky Day,” recorded by George Olsen and His Orch.; “The Birth of the Blues,” a best-seller for Paul Whiteman; and the dance sensation “Black Bottom,” recorded by Johnny Hamp and His Orch. With a fourth best-seller in 1926, “Bye, Bye, Blackbird” (lyrics by Dixon), recorded by Gene Austin among others, Henderson was clearly established as the top pop composer of the year.
Henderson’s success continued into 1927, a year when he scored eight hits, all with De Sylva and Brown. The first was “It All Depends on You,” which Al Jolson interpolated into the road tour of his show Big Boy, and which was recorded most successfully by Paul Whiteman. Whiteman also had hits in 1927 with the independent De Sylva/Brown/Henderson songs “So Blue” and “Just a Memory,” and with “Broken Hearted,” which was used in the revue Artists and Models (N.Y., Nov. 15, 1927). But the biggest beneficiary of Henderson’s melodies in 1927 was bandleader George Olsen, who appeared onstage in De Sylva/Brown/Henderson’s longest running musical, Good News! (it played 551 performances), and recorded the most popular versions
of all four of its hit songs, “The Best Things in Life Are Free,” “Lucky in Love,” “The Varsity Drag,” and “Good News.” Due to the success of the 1926 edition of George White’s Scandals, White did not mount an edition in 1927, but the musical Manhattan Mary—which he produced and directed and which featured the songs of De Sylva, Brown, and Henderson—was the next best thing; it ran for 264 performances.
The next De Sylva, Brown, and Henderson hit was the independent song “Together,” which became a bestseller for Whiteman in April 1928. In July the team saw the opening of their third George White’s Scandals. It ran 230 performances and produced a hit in “I’m on the Crest of a Wave,” recorded by Whiteman, among others.
De Sylva, Brown, and Henderson were in Atlantic City working on their next show when they received a call from Al Jolson in Hollywood wanting a song for his film The Singing Fool. De Sylva and Brown’s maudlin lyric for “Sonny Boy” reportedly was written facetiously, but that didn’t keep the song from becoming the biggest hit of 1928, and the biggest recording of Jolson’s career, a million-seller in sheet music and on records, while The Singing Fool became the biggest box office success in movie history up to that time.
De Sylva, Brown, and Henderson completed their show, Hold Everything!, which ran 413 performances and contained the hit “You’re the Cream in My Coffee,” recorded by Ben Selvin and His Orch. Within days, the team also had the musical Three Cheers, which ran 210 performances and featured “Pompanola,” also a hit recording for Selvin. Meanwhile, “For Old Times’ Sake,” which had been interpolated into Jack McGowan’s long-running play Excess Baggage (N.Y, Dec. 26, 1927), finally became a record hit in November 1928 for Annette Hanshaw.
De Sylva, Brown, and Henderson’s next show, Follow Thru, debuting at the start of 1929, was another hit, running 401 performances. Helen Kane successfully recorded two of its songs, “Button Up Your Overcoat” and “I Want to Be Bad,” while Paul Whiteman scored with a third, “My Lucky Star.” Later in January, the Fox feature In Old Arizona used the team’s “My Tonia”; it became a hit for Nick Lucas in March. “The Song I Love,” an independent song, was a hit for Fred Waring’s Pennsylvanians in February. In June, “My Sin,” another independent song, was a hit for Ben Selvin among others.
Following the success of “Sonny Boy” and The Singing Fool, De Sylva, Brown, and Henderson were a natural choice to write the songs for Al Jolson’s next film, Say It with Songs. Following its release in Aug. 1929, Jolson made hits out of four of the songs he sang in the movie: “Little Pal,” a similarly themed follow-up to “Sonny Boy,” which became a best-seller; “I’m in Seventh Heaven”; “Why Can’t You?”; and “Used to You.”
The songwriters’ next project was also a movie musical, Sunny Side Up, released in October 1929. It produced another four hits: Johnny Hamp recorded “If I Had a Talking Picture of You” and Paul Whiteman cut “I’m a Dreamer, Aren’t We All?” while Earl Burtnett and His L.A. Biltmore Orch. had the most popular versions of the title song and ’Turn on the Heat’
De Sylva, Brown, and Henderson returned to Broadway for the last time in March 1930 with Flying High, which was the biggest musical comedy hit of the 1929-30 season and featured ’Thank Your Father’ recorded by Al Goodman and His Orch. The songwriters then moved permanently to Hollywood under contract to Fox. While they prepared their next film, “If I Had a Girl Like You” was revived by Rudy Vallée in June and became an even bigger hit than it had been five years before. In September, film versions of Good News and Follow Thru were released. In October, Ruth Etting had a hit with the independent song “Don’t Tell Her What Happened to Me.”
In addition to writing the songs for the ambitious science-fiction musical Just Imagine, released in November, De Sylva, Brown, and Henderson wrote the screenplay and produced the film. It was not a success. In early 1931 the songwriters contributed a song to Gus Arnheim and His Orch., “One More Time,” which was a hit in a recording featuring Bing Crosby, and they collaborated on the screenplay for the Gloria Swanson vehicle Indiscreet with director Leo McCary in addition to writing the songs, which included “Come to Me,” a hit for The High Hatters. But in March 1931 the team split up, with De Sylva remaining in Hollywood to pursue a career as a producer while Brown and Henderson returned to N.Y.
Brown and Henderson’s first project as a duo was a new edition of George White’s Scandals that proved nearly as successful as previous ones. Featuring Ethel Merman and Rudy Vallée, it ran 204 performances and four of its songs became hits: Vallée scored with “Life Is Just a Bowl of Cherries,” “The Thrill Is Gone,” and “My Song,” and Kate Smith recorded “That’s Why Darkies Are Born.” There was also a 12-inch disc featuring a medley of songs from the show as performed by Crosby, the Mills Brothers, and the Boswell Sisters. Kate Smith scored a hit at the end of 1931 backed by Guy Lombardo and His Royal Canadians on the ironically titled De Sylva, Brown, and Henderson composition “You Try Somebody Else.”
Brown and Henderson’s next musical, Hot-Cha!, was produced by impresario Florenz Ziegfeld; it ran 118 performances. The songwriters then collaborated on the libretto, production, and direction of Strike Me Pink, which ran 122 performances. The Hotel Commodore Orch. had a hit in May 1933 with “Let’s Call It a Day” from the score, a title that gained resonance when Brown and Henderson split up the same month.
In 1934, Henderson wrote songs with lyricists Jack Yellen and Irving Caesar for the film George White’s Scandals of 1934, and Rudy Vallée, who appeared onscreen, made hits out of “Hold My Hand” and “Nasty Man” in April. Henderson teamed with playwright Jack McGowan to produce the musical Say When, for which McGowan wrote the libretto and Henderson collaborated on the songs with Ted Koehler. It ran only 76 performances. In 1935, Henderson wrote the songs for the Shirley Temple film Curly Top, released in August, including “Animal Crackers in My Soup” (lyrics by
Koehler and Caesar), which became one of Temple’s signature songs. At the end of the year, Henderson wrote one more edition of George White’s Scandals for the stage, this one with lyrics by Yellen and starring Rudy Vallée; it ran 110 performances.
Henderson reunited with Brown and continued to write songs, but without notable success after the mid-1930s. Henderson became a director of ASCAP in 1942, a position he held until 1951. With Yellen, Henderson wrote the songs for a new Ziegfeld Follies in 1943 starring Milton Berle. It became a wartime hit, running 553 performances.
The July 1944 release of the home-front melodrama Since You Went Away gave new life to “Together,” which was prominently used in the film. The most successful of a series of new recordings was the one by Dick Haymes and Helen Forrest that made the Top Ten. In December 1947, MGM released a lavish remake of Good News starring Peter Lawford and June Allyson that spawned a Top Ten soundtrack album in 1948.
As Henderson retired to Conn., where he died of a heart attack in 1970, there were periodic revivals of his work: “Five Foot Two, Eyes of Blue (Has Anybody Seen My Girl?)” charted for Benny Strong and His Orch. in 1949; Johnny Ray hit the Top Ten in 1952 with “Broken Hearted”; Frank Sinatra charted with “The Birth of the Blues” the same year; Les Paul and Mary Ford had a Top Ten version of “I’m Sitting on Top of the World” in 1953; and Connie Francis revived “Together” for a Top Ten hit in 1961.
In September 1956, 20th Century-Fox released a film biography of De Sylva, Brown, and Henderson called The Best Things in Life Are Free.
(only works for which Henderson was the primary, credited composer are listed): MUSICALS/REVUES (dates refer to N.Y. openings): George White’s Scandals (June 22, 1925); George White’s Scandals (June 14, 1926); Good News! (Sept. 6, 1927); Manhattan Mary (Sept. 26, 1927); George White’s Scandals (July 2, 1928); Hold Everything! (Oct. 10, 1928); Three Cheers (Oct. 15, 1928); Follow Thru (Jan. 9, 1929); Flying High (March 3, 1930); George White’s Scandals (Sept. 14, 1931); Hot-Cha! (March 8, 1932); Strike Me Pink (March 4, 1933); Say When (Nov. 8, 1934); George White’s Scandals (Dec. 25, 1935); Ziegfeld Follies (April 1, 1943). Films: The Singing Fool (1928); Say It with Songs (1929); Sunny Side Up (1929); Good News (1930); Follow Thru (1930); Just Imagine (1930); Indiscreet (1931); A Holy Terror (1931); George White’s Scandals of 1934 (1934); Curly Top (1935); Good News (1947).