Koehler, Ted

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Koehler, Ted

Koehler, Ted, American lyricist; b. Washington, D.C., July 14, 1894; d. Santa Monica, Calif., Jan. 17, 1973. Koehler took an unusual route to prominence as a lyricist by writing songs and material for nightclub revues, primarily at Harlem’s Cotton Club, in the 1930s. His most successful songs, including “Get Happy,” “Stormy Weather,” and “I’ve Got the World on a String,” were written with composer Harold Arlen and introduced by such performers as Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway. Koehler went on to write primarily for motion pictures, earning three Academy Award nominations.

Growing up in Newark, Koehler had a public-school education and studied piano; he initially worked as aphotoengraver in a N.Y. plant owned by his father. Then he played piano in clubs and for silent films. Soon he was writing lyrics and stage patter for vaudeville singers, eventually becoming a song plugger and staff writer with music publishers. His first published song was “Dreamy Melody” (music and lyrics by Koehler, Frank Magine, and C. Naset) in 1922; it became a million-selling instrumental record for Art Landry and His Orch. in June 1923. Koehler’s next hit, in February 1924, was also recorded as an instrumental—it was “When Lights Are Low” (lyrics also by Gus Kahn, music by Ted Fiorito), performed by the Benson Orch. of Chicago. During this period, Koehler married Elvira Hagen; they had three children, two sons and a daughter.

In the summer of 1929, Koehler was introduced to singer Harold Arlen by Harry Warren, who suggested he put words to a tune of Aden’s. The result was “Get Happy,” which the new songwriting team placed in the Nine-Fifteen Revue (N.Y., Feb. 11, 1930), where it was performed by Ruth Etting. The revue was a failure, running only seven performances, but the song became a hit for Nat Shilkret and The Victor Orch. in July. Koehler and Arlen were hired to write songs for another revue, Earl Carroll’s Vanities of 1930 (N.Y., July 1, 1930), and their contributions included “Hittin’ the Bottle,” which became a hit for the Colonial Club Orch. in August. They also wrote two nightclub revues during the year, Biff-Boom-Bang and Brown Sugar, the latter playing at the Cotton Club. (Koehler’s efforts at the club went beyond lyric-writing to include production as well as set design and construction.)

Koehler’s next hit, “Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams,” was cowritten with lyricist Billy Moll and composer Harry Barris. Barris had been one of Paul Whiteman’s Rhythm Boys vocal trio with Al Rinker and Bing Crosby, and Crosby recorded the song for his first big solo hit in May 1931. Meanwhile, Koehler and Arlen had collaborated on another Cotton Club revue, Rhythmania, starring Cab Calloway and His Orch. It was the source of three hit songs: “Kickin’ the Gong Around,” for Calloway in November; “I Love a Parade,” for The Arden-Ohman Orch. in February 1932; and “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea,” for Louis Armstrong in March 1932. “I Love a Parade” was interpolated into the 1932 Warner Bros, film Manhattan Parade along with another Koehler-Arlen song, marking the duo’s first work for motion pictures.

Koehler and Arlen provided a series of hits for Calloway during 1932. “Minnie the Moocher’s Wedding Day,” later featured in the Cotton Club Parade revue and a follow-up to Calloway’s signature song “Minnie the Moocher,” was a popular record in June. “I’ve Got the World on a String,” also in Cotton Club Parade, was a hit in November; and “I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues,” one of several songs Koehler and Arlen contributed to Earl Carroll’s Vanities of 1932 (N.Y., Sept. 27, 1932), was a hit for Calloway as well as others in January 1933.

Koehler and Arlen wrote “Stormy Weather” with Calloway in mind, but since he was not to be featured in the next edition of the Cotton Club Parade, it was given to Leo Reisman and His Orch., who recorded it with Arlen singing. The record became a massive hit in the spring of 1933, and the song was then sung by Ethel Waters in the Cotton Club Parade; her recording also became a best-seller, making “Stormy Weather” the most successful song of the year. Koehler initiated a new songwriting partnership with Rube Bloom in 1933, the two writing a song alternately called “Stay on the Right Side, Sister” and “Stay on the Right Side of the Road.” Under the first title, it was introduced by Ruth Etting and later featured in her film biography, Love Me or Leave Me (1955), sung by Doris Day; under the second, it was recorded by Bing Crosby and also used in the MGM film Penthouse.

The success Koehler and Arlen had with their songs for the Cotton Club, combined with the upsurge in the production of movie musicals after the success of 42nd Street in the spring of 1933, brought the team to Hollywood to write songs for Columbia Pictures’ Let’s Fall in Love. Only two of the five songs they wrote actually made it into the picture, which was released at the end of the year, but one of them was the title song, which became a best-seller for Eddy Duchin and His Orch. in February 1934. (Arlen’s own recording was also a modest hit.) Koehler and Arlen were back in N.Y. by then to write the next Cotton Club Parade. (Koehler was also credited for conceiving and supervising the production.) “Ill Wind,” its hit, was something of a follow-up to “Stormy Weather”; Duchin and Arlen teamed up to make it the most popular recording in April.

With Bloom, Koehler again scored with a weather-themed lyric when Glen Gray and the Casa Loma Orch. made a hit of “Out in the Cold Again” in September. By then, Koehler and Arlen had separated amicably to write book musicals with others. Arlen’s was Life Begins at 8:40, with E.Y. Harburg and Ira Gershwin; Koehler teamed with Ray Henderson for Say When, which starred Harry Richman and Bob Hope and ran only 76 performances despite favorable reviews, generating no outside hits.

Nevertheless, Koehler and Henderson were engaged by the Fox studio for a Shirley Temple feature, Curly Top, and among their three songs was “Animal Crackers in My Soup” (lyrics also by Irving Caesar), which was forever associated with Temple. Koehler and Bloom wrote the 1935 edition of the Cotton Club Parade (the final revue staged at the club’s Harlem location). Although the show’s stars were Lena Home and Jimmie Lunceford and His Orch., Fats Waller took its most popular song, “Truckin,” into the hit parade. Koehler moved permanently to Calif, and returned to the film studio now called 20th Century-Fox to write the songs for King of Burlesque with Jimmy McHugh. Their efforts yielded five compositions, two of which made the hit parade: “I’m Shootin’ High” (for Jan Garber and His Orch.) and “Lovely Lady” (for Tommy Dorsey and His Orch.).

In 1936, Koehler worked on three films, contributing two songs with music by Sam Stept to Republic’s The Big Show, four songs with music by McHugh to 20th Century-Fox’s Dimples, another Shirley Temple vehicle, and four songs with music by M. K. Jerome to RKO’s Glory. This freelance activity continued in 1937, as Koehler contributed lyrics to four films at four different studios, most notably a collaboration with Burton Lane at Paramount for Artists and Models, which produced the hit parade entry “Stop, You’re Breaking My Heart” for Russ Morgan and His Orch. in August and marked a reunion with Arlen on “Public Melody Number One.”

Reflecting the downturn in production of movie musicals in the late 1930s, Koehler was less active in 1938, working only on Columbia’s Start Cheering with Johnny Green and contributing one song to RKO’s March 1939 release Love Affair, “Sing, My Heart,” with Arlen. He then accepted an assignment to conceive, write, and direct the World’s Fair edition of the Cotton Club Parade with Bloom back in N.Y., and their songs included “Don’t Worry ’bout Me,” which was in the hit parade for two months starting in early May for Hal Kemp and His Orch. In September 1940, after working on it off and on for two years, Koehler and Arlen completed their six-song Americanegro Suite, a concert work; it was published in 1941 and recorded in 1942 by Decca Records under Arlen’s supervision.

The early 1940s was an even less active time for Koehler, though he scored a minor hit with “Ev’ry Night about This Time” (music by James V. Monaco), recorded by Jimmy Dorsey and His Orch., in October 1942. He and Arlen contributed a song to the Trocadero Club revue Symphony in Brown in 1942. Koehler was reunited with many of the Cotton Club regulars for 20th Century-Fox’s Stormy Weather in 1943. The film, a loosely based biography of dancer /singer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, featured Lena Home, who performed the title song, Cab Calloway, and Fats Waller. Koehler got a cowriting credit on the screenplay.

Koehler worked full-time during 1944, turning out songs for three films. RKO’s Up in Arms, starring Danny Kaye and Dinah Shore, found him working for the last time with Arlen, notably on “Tess’s Torch Song (I Had a Man),” which became a hit for Ella Mae Morse in May, and “Now I Know,” which was nominated for an Academy Award. Koehler and Lane wrote four songs used in Paramount’s Rainbow Island, and Koehler’s three songs in the all-star Hollywood Canteen in December brought a second 1944 Oscar nomination to a man who had never been nominated before with “Sweet Dreams, Sweetheart” (music by M. K. Jerome). In November, Cab Calloway had scored a modest hit with Koehler’s “The Moment I Laid Eyes on You.” Koehler had three songs in three films in 1945, the most notable being “Some Sunday Morning” (music by Jerome and Ray Heindorf) in Warner Bros.’ San Antonio —it became a Top Ten hit in the hands of Dick Haymes and Helen Forrest and earned Koehler his third Academy Award nomination.

Koehler probably was under contract to Warner Bros, between 1945 and 1947, when all of his efforts were released in the company’s films. He had one song with Jerome in 1946’s Janie Gets Married, then contributed to four features in 1947. The last of these was My Wild Irish Rose, a film biography of tenor Chauncey Olcott, for which Koehler and Jerome wrote six songs. Koehler then retired, though his catalog of songs turned up frequently in movies of the 1950s, one prominent example being the Judy Garland production number of “Get Happy” which was added to the 1950 MGM musical Summer Stock and remains one of Garland’s most memorable performances. Major revivals of Koeh-ler’s work on record include Richard Hayes’s recording of Out in the Cold Again/’ which reached the Top Ten in 1951; Frank Sinatra’s 1953 hit recording of “I’ve Got the World on a String” (subsequently one of his signature songs); and Peaches and Herb’s cover of “Let’s Fall in Love,” a Top 40 hit in 1967.


(only works for which Koehler was the principal, credited lyricist are listed): musicals/revues:Biff-Boom-Bang (N.Y., 1930); Brown Sugar (N.Y., 1930); Earl Carroll’s Vanities of 1930 (N.Y., July 1, 1930); Rhythmania (N.Y., March 1931); Cotton Club Parade (N.Y., Oct. 23, 1932); Cotton Club Parade (N.Y., April 6, 1933); Cotton Club Parade (1933); Cotton Club Parade (N.Y., March 23, 1934); Say When (N.Y., Nov. 8, 1934); Cotton Club Parade (1935); Cotton Club Parade (N.Y., March 24, 1939). films:Let’s Fall in Love (1933); Curly Top (1935); King of Burlesque (1935); Dimples (1936); Glory (1936); The King and the Chorus Girl (1937); 23 Hours Leave (1937); Artists and Models (1937); Start Cheering (1938); Up in Arms (1944); Rainbow Island (1944); Hollywood Canteen (1944); Cheyenne (1947); My Wild Irish Rose (1947).

—William Ruhlmann

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