Kahn, Gus(tave), German-born American lyricist; b. Coblenz, Nov. 6, 1886; d. Beverly Hills, Oct. 8, 1941. Kahn was a prolific, consistently successful lyric writer in Tin Pan Alley, on Broadway, and in Hollywood for more than 30 years. His most memorable songs include “Pretty Baby,” “I’ll Say She Does,” “Ain’t We Got Fun?,” “Carolina in the Morning,” “My Buddy,” “Toot, Toot, Tootsie! (Goo’bye),” “The One I Love Belongs to Somebody Else,” “I’ll See You in My Dreams,” “It Had to Be You,” “Yes Sir! That’s My Baby,” “Makin’ Whoopee,” “Dream a Little Dream of Me,” and “You Stepped Out of a Dream.” They were written with such collaborators as B.G. De Sylva and Walter Donaldson, and sung by such performers as Billy Murray, Al Jolson, Henry Burr, Gene Austin, and Eddie Cantor.
Kahn was the son of Isaac Kahn, a cattle dealer, who brought his family to the U.S. in 1891, settling in Chicago. Kahn began writing songs in high school and also wrote special material for vaudeville acts, though he supported himself at hotel, catering, and other jobs until the success of his first published song, “I Wish I Had a Girl,” the music for which was written by his future wife, Grace LeBoy. (The couple eventually had a son and a daughter.) A series of recordings appeared in the spring of 1909, the most popular being the one by Murray.
The Kahns placed songs in two musicals, The Isle of Love (1910) and Jumping Jupiter (N.Y., March 6, 1911), but the lyricist’s next hit came when he teamed up with composer Egbert Van Alstyne for “Sunshine and Roses,” which “Edna Brown” (actually Elsie Baker) and James F. Harrison made into a popular recording in the summer of 1913. The Kahns’ “Everybody Rag with Me” appears in the sheet music for the musical Dancing Around (N.Y., Oct. 10,1914), which starred Jolson, but it may not have been performed in the show. Nevertheless, George O’Connor enjoyed a hit recording of it in the spring of 1915.
The team of Kahn and Van Alstyne became permanent with the hit “Memories.” John Barnes Wells had the most popular recording in the spring of 1916. “Pretty Baby,” which Van Alstyne co-composed with ragtime pianist Tony Jackson, was interpolated into The Passing Show of 1916 (N.Y., June 22, 1916) and became a million-seller in sheet music, with a popular recording by Murray in the fall. Kahn’s other notable lyrics for the year included ’That Funny Jas Band from Dixieland” (music by Henry I. Marshall), a song about the Original Dixieland Jazz Band that was the first song to use a version of the word jazz in its title.
Kahn was brought in by Jolson to revise a song by De Sylva, “N Everything” Jolson recorded the song for a big hit and interpolated it into Sinbad (N.Y., Feb. 14, 1918). Kahn once again collaborated with Jolson and De Sylva on “I’ll Say She Does,” which Jolson interpolated into the road tour of Sinbad and recorded for a giant hit in the summer of 1919. (There were also popular instrumental versions by the All- Star Trio and Wilbur Sweatman’s Original Jazz Band.) Then came a third Kahn-Jolson-De Sylva song, “You Ain’t Heard Nothin’ Yet,” interpolated into the road tour of Sinbad and recorded by Jolson for a hit in the spring. Later the same season, Kahn and Van Alstyne enjoyed success with John McCormack’s recording of “Your Eyes Have Told Me So.” The song had been featured in the show Dere Mable, which closed before reaching N.Y. A similar fate befell Satires of 1920, which featured Kahn, Whiting, and Egan’s frothy comic song “Ain’t We Got Fun?”; but the tune was picked up by the vaudeville team of Van and Schenck, who had a bestselling record with it in September 1921. The song’s enduring appeal was suggested by its revival only a year later for a hit recording by Billy Jones.
Kahn’s reluctance to move to N.Y. probably reduced his participation in Broadway shows, but it also led to fortunate local alliances. In 1922 he began writing lyrics to music by Chicago-based bandleader Isham Jones. Their first success came with “On the Alamo,” a top hit in June 1922, in an instrumental recording by Jones. Kahn’s first collaboration with Donaldson seems to have come with “Little Rover (Don’t Forget to Come Back Home),” intended for the Eddie Cantor vehicle Make It Snappy (N.Y., April 13, 1922). But their first success as a team came with “Carolina in the Morning,” used in The Passing Show of 1922 (N.Y., Sept. 20,1922). A million-seller in sheet music, the song enjoyed a best-selling record by Van and Schenck in March 1923, among many other recordings.
Kahn and Donaldson scored another sheet-music million-seller, “My Buddy,” recorded for a bestselling record by Burr in December 1922, as well as in a popular instrumental version by Ben Bernie and His Orch. A third simultaneous hit for the team was “Dixie Highway,” recorded by Aileen Stanley. Meanwhile, during the 1922-23 road tour of his show Bombo, Jolson introduced “Toot, Toot, Tootsie! (Goo’bye)” (music by Dan Russo and Ted Fiorito, lyrics also by Ernie Erdman).
The year 1924 brought a remarkable string of hits, including “When Lights Are Low” (music by Fiorito, lyrics also by Ted Koehler); “The One I Love Belongs to Somebody Else” (music by Isham Jones), with the most popular recording by Jolson; and the sheet-music million-seller “It Had to Be You” (music by Jones). Kahn’s hit streak extended into 1925, starting with more sheet-music million-sellers, “I’ll See You in My Dreams” (music by Jones) and “Yes Sir! That’s My Baby” (music by Donaldson). This song was written for and introduced by Cantor, but the record that hit in September was by Austin, with many competing vocal and instrumental versions. At the same time, Vaughn DeLeath was scoring a hit with “Ukeleie Lady” (music by Whiting), and Georgie Price’s recording of “Isn’t She the Sweetest Thing? (Oh Maw, Oh Paw)” (music by Donaldson) was doing well.
Kahn finally took on a full Broadway musical score when he and Egan wrote the lyrics to Will Ortmann’s music for Holka-Polka (N.Y., Oct. 14,1925), an adaptation of the 1920 German light opera Frühling im Herbst. It ran only 21 performances and produced no hits. Kahn was the sole lyricist for Kitty’s Kisses (N.Y., May 6, 1926), a show with music by Con Conrad that was more successful than Holka-Polka, running for 170 performances, but failed to produce any memorable songs.
Meanwhile, Kahn continued to produce sheet music and record hits. Abe Lyman and His California Orch. had a hit at the beginning of 1927 with “Just a Bird’s Eye View of My Old Kentucky Home” (music by Donaldson), and “Whispering” Jack Smith hit with “There Ain’t No Maybe in My Baby’s Eyes” (music by Donaldson). “If You See Sally” (music by Donaldson) found success later in the year with Lewis and with Lou Gold and His Orch. In October, “Toot, Toot, Tootsie! (Goo’bye)” was sung by Jolson in the first sound film, The Jazz Singer.
Kahn continued to score hits in 1928, with both new compositions and revivals, including his first song written for Guy Lombardo and His Orch.; the band would enjoy a long and happy relationship with the composer. But Kahn’s major creative effort for the year was his collaboration with Donaldson on the songs for the Cantor musical Whoopee! (N.Y., Dec. 4, 1928), a smesh hit that ran for 407 performances and generated four hit songs: “My Blackbirds Are Bluebirds Now,” “Love Me or Leave Me,” and “I’m Bringing a Red, Red Rose,” all recorded by Etting, who appeared in the show; and “Makin’ Whoopee,” its clever lyric about marriage and its consequences recorded by Cantor, with competing versions by Whiteman, using a vocal quartet including Bing Crosby, and Ben Bernie.
Fresh from Whoopee!, Kahn was brought in to help George and Ira Gershwin on the musical Show Girl. Its chief selling point was dancer Ruby Keeler, Jolson’s wife. Though not cast in the show, Jolson took to singing one of the songs, “Liza (All the Clouds’ll Roll Away),” to her from the audience, which helped Show Girl to a run of 111 performances and made his recording of the song a hit in September. By then Kahn had scored another hit, collaborating with Joe Sanders on “Little Orphan Annie,” which was recorded by the Coon-Sanders Orch.
Though several of Kahn’s songs had been used in Hollywood films since the dawn of sound, his first credit as lyricist for a movie came with the adaptation of Whoopee!, for which he and Donaldson contributed several new songs. When the movie opened in the fall of 1930, one of them, “My Baby Just Cares for Me,” became a record hit for Ted Weems and His Orch. Nichols revived “It Had to Be You” for a hit in November, and college favorites Vallée and Ted Wallace and His Campus Boys had hits with “Sweetheart of My Student Days” (music by Seymour Simons). In December, Kahn contributed lyrics to ’The Waltz You Saved for Me” (music by Emil Flindt and Wayne King), which became a hit and the theme song for King, a Midwestern bandleader.
In January 1931, King followed with an instrumental version of “Goofus” (music by King and William Harold; it was a hit a year later when it was brought back by Russo’s Oriole Orch.), and in April he released “Dream a Little Dream of Me” (music by Wilbur Schwandt and Fabian André), which became one of the biggest hits of the year. In July, Crosby had one of his earliest solo hits with “I’m Through with Love” (music by Matty Malneck and Fud Livingston). Kahn, Whiting and co- composer Harry Akst wrote “Guilty” for Etting; the flip side of Etting’s record was “Now that You’re Gone” (music by Fiorito), which also became a hit for her, though Guy Lombardo’s recording was more popular. “Nobody’s Sweetheart” was revived for a hit at the end of 1931 by the Mills Brothers, who put it on the flip side of their first record, “Tiger Rag.”
Kahn, who had resisted the lure of Broadway, finally succumbed to the charms of Hollywood, moving west in 1933 to work in the movies. His first major credit came with Peg o’ My Heart (1933), on which he shared lyric-writing duties with Arthur Freed for songs by Herbert Stothart and Nacio Herb Brown. “You’ve Got Everything” (music by Donaldson) was heard only instrumentally in the film The Prize Fighter and the Lady (1933), but Jan Garber and His Orch. recorded a vocal version for a hit in November. Kahn’s biggest success during his first year in Hollywood came at the end of 1933 with Flying Down to Rio, for which he and Edward Eliscu wrote lyrics to the music of Vincent Youmans. The film generated four hits: “Orchids in the Moonlight”; the title song, recorded by Vallée and by Fred Astaire, who appeared in the film; the dance song “Carioca”; and “Music Makes Me,” recorded by Astaire and by Emil Coleman and His Orch. “Carioca” earned Kahn his first Academy Award nomination.
Benny Goodman and His Orch. revived “Love Me or Leave Me” for an instrumental hit in February 1934. In March, Kahn enjoyed one of his few non- movie hits of the period with Vallée’s recording of “Dancing in the Moonlight” (music by Donaldson). His next notable movie song was “Waitin’ at the Gate for Katy” (music by Whiting) from Bottoms Up, which became a hit in May. His lyric for the title song of Riptide (music by Donaldson) was used only in the promotion of the film, but the song was picked up for record hits by Guy Lombardo and by Eddy Duchin and His Orch. in May. The flip side of the Duchin record, also a hit, was “I’ve Had My Moments” (music by Donaldson) from the film Hollywood Party.
The next film for which Kahn was the credited lyricist was Operator 13 (1934), which featured “Sleepy Head” (music by Donaldson), a hit for The Mills Brothers and for Ben Pollack and His Orch. in June. Kahn also wrote songs for Stingaree (1934), including “Tonight Is Mine” (music by W. Franke Harling), which became a hit for Reisman in July. One Night of Love (1934) produced a hit in the title song (music by Victor Schertzinger) for its star, Grace Moore, whose recording was a best-seller in October. Kahn wrote lyrics but no hits for Caravan (1934) and a film adaptation of the Franz Lehar operetta The Merry Widow (1934), but his and Donaldson’s score for Kid Millions (1934) brought record hits for the film’s two stars, Ethel Merman, who scored with “An Earful of Music” in November, and Cantor, who had “Okay, Toots” in December.
Kahn’s first hit of 1935 was another non-movie song, “Clouds” (music by Donaldson), recorded by the orchestras of Ray Noble and Goodman. He had another with “Footloose and Fancy Free” (music by Carmen Lombardo), which was in the hit parade in June and July. His first major film assignment for the year was to rewrite Rida Johnson Young’s lyrics for an adaptation of Victor Herbert’s 1910 operetta Naughty Marietta. He also wrote the title song for Love Me Forever (music by Schertzinger), which became a hit for Russ Morgan and His Orch. in July, and “You’re All I Need” (music by Bronislaw Kaper and Walter Jurmann) for the film Escapade, a hit for Duchin the same month. In the fall, Kahn had two films out with music by Arthur Johnston: The Girl Friend and Thanks a Million, the latter producing hits in the title song and “I’m Sitting High on a Hilltop” (recorded by Guy Lombardo).
In early 1936, Kahn wrote new lyrics for a film adaptation of the 1924 Rudolf Friml operetta Rose Marie and collaborated with Jimmy McHugh on “With All My Heart,” which was used in the film Her Master’s Voice. In June, eight-year-old Bobby Breen, who appeared in Let’s Sing Again, had a hit with the film’s title song (music by McHugh), though the most popular record was by Fats Waller. In July, Garber had a hit with the title song from Small Town Girl (music by Stothart and Edward Ward), and that same month Kahn was the lyricist for the songs in San Francisco (music by Kaper and Jurmann), including the title song, a hit for Tommy Dorsey and His Orch. In the fall, Goodman again recorded an instrumental version of “Love Me or Leave Me,” this time with his quartet, and scored an even bigger hit.
At the end of 1936, “Gone” (music by Franz Waxman) from the film Love on the Run was a hit for Guy Lombardo, and Kahn was the lyricist for songs by Kaper and Jurmann in Three Smart Girls, including “Someone to Care for Me,” a hit for Morgan in January 1937. “Josephine” (music by King and Burke Bivens), a non-movie song, was the biggest hit of King’s career in March; Dorsey had just as big a hit with it in October. Kahn wrote lyrics to Waxman’s music for Captains Courageous (1937) and to Kaper and Jurmann’s music for A Day at the Races (1937), the latter generating hits in Duke Ellington and Artie Shaw’s recordings of “All God’s Chillun Got Rhythm” and Fiorito’s recording of “Tomorrow Is Another Day.” Kahn was credited as lyricist for Friml’s music in Music for Madame (1937) and again for Kaper and Jurmann’s music in Everybody Sing (1938). The inclusion of “The One I Love Belongs to Somebody Else” inspired Dorsey to revive the song on record for another hit in February.
Kahn and Sigmund Romberg didn’t get any hits out of their score for The Girl of the Golden West (1938), but Kahn had more success paired with Warren for Honolulu(1939)—both Gray and Dorsey scored with “This Night Will Be My Souvenir” and Dorsey also had a hit with the title song. Stothart and Earl Brent adapted B. A. Prozorovsky’s “Kak Strano,” and Kahn added lyrics to create the song “How Strange?,” used in Idiot’s Delight (1939). The result was a hit for Fiorito in May. Kahn had no new hits in the fall, but Glenn Miller and His Orch. revived the 20-year-old “My Isle of Golden Dreams” in an instrumental recording, and Crosby followed with a vocal record to make the song a hit again.
Kahn’s next newly written hit was “Blue Love Bird” (music by Kaper), which was used in the film Lillian Russell (1940) and inspired popular recordings by Kay Kyser and His Orch. and Mitchell Ayres and His Fashions in Music in the late spring and early summer of 1940. Goodman dug out “The Hour of Parting,” a song Kahn had written in 1931 with Mischa Spoliansky, and had an instrumental hit with it in August, the same month that Dorsey issued a newly recorded revival of “The One I Love Belongs to Somebody Else,” sung by Frank Sinatra and The Pied Pipers. Kahn didn’t earn any hits from his collaboration with Robert Stolz and others on the songs for Spring Parade (1940), but he and Stolz did share an Academy Award nomination for “Waltzing in the Clouds.” Kahn, Brent, and Kaper next contributed songs to Go West (1940). Kahn’s last newly written hit was “You Stepped Out of a Dream” (music by Nacio Herb Brown), featured in Ziegfeld Girl (1941) and made into a popular record by Kyser in March 1941. His last published song was “Day Dreaming” (music by Jerome Kern), which was released on the flip side of Glenn Miller’s January 1942 hit “A String of Pearls.”
Kahn’s song catalog had been mined extensively by the movies during his lifetime, a practice that only increased in the years immediately after his death. In 1943, six feature films used Kahn’s songs; his lyrics were sung in another seven in 1944 and six more in 1945. The use of “It Had to Be You” in Nobody’s Darling (1943) and Show Business (1944) revived the song to the extent that there were four chart records in the summer of 1944, the most successful of which was a duet by Dick Haymes and Helen Forrest, though the recordings by Betty Hutton, Shaw, and Earl Hines also did well. Hutton then performed the song in the film Incendiary Blonde (1945).
Comic musician Spike Jones sent up “Chloe” in Bring On the Girls (1945) and scored a Top Ten novelty hit with it, and Haymes and Forrest followed up “It Had to Be You” with a revival of “Some Sunday Morning” for another hit. Sam Donohue and His Orch. had the biggest hit of their career with a revival of “I Never Knew (that Roses Grew)” in the spring of 1947, and at the end of the year Margaret Whiting hit the Top Ten with “Guilty,” which her father had written with Kahn, beating out competing versions by Ella Fitzgerald and Johnny Desmond. In 1948, Benny Strong and His Orch. had a Top Ten hit with “That Certain Party”; there was another version by Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis.
The appearance of “Toot, Toot, Tootsie! (Goo’bye)” in the film Jolson Sings Again (1949) led to a recording by Art Mooney and His Orch. as well as a parody record by Mel Blanc, both of which reached the charts. The summer of 1950 brought chart revivals of “Sometime” (by The Mariners, The Ink Spots, and Jo Stafford) and “Dream a Little Dream of Me” (by Jack Owens and Frankie Laine). In the fall Les Paul charted with “Goofus,” the first of a series of instrumental versions of songs for which Kahn had provided lyrics that later included “Josephine” (1951) and “Carioca” (1952).
All of this attention helped to set up the Kahn film biography I’ll See You in My Dreams, based on Grace LeBoy Kahn and Louis F. Edelman’s book The Gus Kahn Story. The film starred Danny Thomas and Doris Day and opened at the end of 1951. Kahn songs continued to turn up in films throughout the 1950s and to come in for revival on the charts. The release of Love Me or Leave Me, the film biography of Ruth Etting, in 1955 led to new hit versions of the title song by Sammy Davis Jr. and Lena Home. “Coquette” was revived by Fats Domino in 1958, and “I’ll See You in My Dreams” by Pat Boone in 1962.
In 1968, Mama Cass with the Mamas and the Papas hit the Top Ten with “Dream a Little Dream of Me,” and in 1985, nearly 100 years after Kahn’s birth, Robert Palmer released the multiplatinum album Riptide, featuring his revival of the title song.