Ruby, Harry (originally, Rubenstein, Harold)

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Ruby, Harry (originally, Rubenstein, Harold)

Ruby, Harry (originally, Rubenstein, Harold ), American songwriter, librettist, and screenwriter; b. N.Y., Jan. 27, 1895; d. Los Angeles, Calif., Feb. 23, 1974. Ruby was primarily a composer, though on occasion he also wrote lyrics, and he frequently collaborated with his long-time partner, lyricist Bert Kalmar, on the librettos to their stage musicals and the screenplays to their film musicals. Ruby’s hits included “Three Little Words,” “I Wanna Be Loved by You,” “Who’s Sorry Now?” and “A Kiss to Build a Dream On.” He and Kalmar generally worked alone, but their other collaborators included Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, and Oscar Hammerstein II.

Ruby had no formal music training. He began his career playing piano in cafés and in vaudeville, then became a song plugger for a succession of N.Y. music publishers, meeting Kalmar, a vaudeville magician, along the way. (Unless otherwise noted, Kalmar wrote the lyrics to Ruby’s music for all the songs discussed below.) His first songwriting recognition came when two of his songs, “If You Hadn’t Answered No” (lyrics by Kalmar and Edgar Leslie) and “It’s All Right If You Love (One Another)” (lyrics by Leslie), were used in the Broadway revue Words and Music (N.Y, Nov. 24, 1917). He wrote several songs for the Ziegfeld Follies of 1918 (N.Y, June 18, 1918), among them “Come On, Papa” (lyrics by Leslie), which became a hit for the Avon Comedy Four in April 1919. Vaudeville star George Jessel introduced and popularized “And He’d Say Oo-La-La! Wee Wee!” (lyrics by Jessel), but it was recorded for a hit in October by Billy Murray.

For the Ziegfeld Follies of 1920 (N.Y, June 22, 1920) Ruby and Kalmar collaborated with Irving Berlin on “I’m a Vamp from East Broadway,” introduced by Fanny Brice. The songwriters themselves introduced “So Long, Oo Long” on the stage of the Palace Theatre in N.Y, donning false beards to appear with the King of David Band. Frank Crumit recorded the song for a hit in August. British actress Beatrice Lillie popularized “Snoops, the Lawyer,” but the hit recording in October was by Eddie Cantor. “Timbuctoo” was a hit for Crumit with the Paul Biese Trio in April 1921, and “My Sunny Tennessee,” interpolated by Cantor into the revue The Midnight Rounders of 1921 (N.Y. Feb. 7, 1921), was a hit for the Peerless Quartet in January 1922.

Up to 1922, Ruby and Kalmar had placed only individual songs in vaudeville, revues, and on records. The first revue for which they received primary credit was Arabian Nights, written for the Marigold Gardens in Chicago and opening on April 3, 1922. The following year brought their first musical to reach Broadway, Helen of Troy, N.Y., which ran for 193 performances but produced no hits. At the same time, however, they scored two independent hits: “I Gave You Up Just Before You Threw Me Down” (music also by Fred E. Ahlert) for Billy Murray and Gladys Rice (under the pseudonym Rachel Grant) in May 1923, and “Who’s Sorry Now?” (music by Ted Snyder, lyrics by Ruby and Kalmar), a sheet-music million-seller introduced by vaudeville stars Van and Schenck that had its most popular recording by Isham Jones and His Orch. in August.

Ruby and Kalmar’s second musical, No Other Girl, had a long, troubled tryout on the road during 1924 before arriving in N.Y. for a 56-performance run. The team finished the year writing the libretto for Irving Berlin’s Music Box Revue (N.Y, Dec. 1, 1924). They also wrote the libretto for the American musical version of the German play Frühling im Herbst, retitled Holka-Polka (N.Y., Oct. 14, 1925). They were finally able to mount their third musical, The Ramblers, in 1926, writing the songs and cowriting the libretto with Guy Bolton. It ran 291 performances and launched “All Alone Monday,” recorded for a hit by Nat Shilkret and the Victor Orch. in January 1927.

Ruby and Kalmar collaborated with composer Jerome Kern and lyricist/librettist Otto Harbach on their next show, Lucky, which ran only 71 performances but included two hits, “Dancing the Devil Away” (lyrics also by Harbach), recorded by Dan Voorhees and His Earl Carroll Vanities Orch., and “The Same Old Moon” (lyrics also by Harbach), recorded by Carl Fenton and His Orch. The Five O’clock Girl was more successful onstage, running 278 performances, and it too had two hits, which appeared on either side of a record by Nat Shilkret—“Thinking of You” and “Up in the Clouds.”

Ruby and Kalmar worked on three musicals that opened in 1928. The first was She’s My Baby (N.Y, Jan. 3, 1928), for which they cowrote the libretto with Guy Bolton; the songs were handled by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart. For Good Boy, Herbert Stothart was brought in as a cocomposer with Ruby. The show ran 253 performances and was memorable for Helen Kane’s performance of “I Wanna Be Loved by You,” which she recreated in a hit recording in November. Her tag phrase, “Boop-boop-a-doop,” became her trademark and inspired the Betty Boop cartoon character. Ruby and Kalmar’s third show of the year was Animal Crackers. Their talent for writing comic songs stood them in good stead as they provided material for the Marx Brothers, and “Hooray for Captain Spaulding” became Groucho Marx’s signature song. The show ran for 213 performances.

Ruby and Kalmar’s last Broadway show for nearly 12 years was Top Speed, which they coproduced and cowrote the libretto for with Guy Bolton. Running 102 performances, it was a relative disappointment and may have hastened the team’s decision to move to Hollywood in 1930. There they worked on film adaptations of three of their shows, all released in 1930: The Cuckoos, based on The Ramblers; Animal Crackers; and Top Speed. For The Cuckoos they wrote “I Love You So Much,” which became a hit for Bob Haring and His Orch. in August. They also wrote the screenplay and two songs for Check and Double Check (1930), one of which was “Three Little Words,” performed in the film and recorded by Duke Ellington and His Famous Orch. with vocals by the Rhythm Boys, a trio including Bing Crosby. The record became a best-seller in November.

The flood of movie musicals in 1930 was followed by a drought in 1931. But Ruby and Kalmar scored an independent hit in June with “Nevertheless (I’m in Love with You),” recorded by Jack Denny and His Orch. Things started to pick up in the second half of 1932, when Ruby and Kalmar had two films in release. They cowrote the Marx Brothers film Horse Feathers with S. J. Perelman and wrote the incidental songs including “Everyone Says ‘I Love You,’” which became a hit for Isham Jones in September. Then they cowrote the Eddie Cantor film The Kid from Spain with William Anthony McGuire, also writing four songs, among them “What a Perfect Combination” (music also by Harry Akst, lyrics also by Irving Caesar), which Cantor made into a hit in November.

Ruby and Kalmar were back with the Marx Brothers for Duck Soup, cowriting the script with Nat Perrin and Arthur Sheekman. Probably signing to RKO in 1934, they wrote Hips Hips Hooray with Edward Kaufman and contributed the songs. Next came Kentucky Kernals, for which they wrote the script with Fred Guiol, as well as the songs. In 1935 they wrote the screenplay and one song for Bright Lights at Warner Bros. Back at RKO they collaborated with Viola Brothers Shore on the screenplay for Walking on Air; Sid Silvers cowrote the song lyrics. Ruby, Kalmar, and Shore also wrote The Life of the Party (1937). The late 1930s were less active for the team, though they wrote songs for MGM’s Everybody Sing (1938) and RKO’s The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle (1939), starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.

Ruby and Kalmar returned to Broadway in 1941, writing the songs for High Kickers and collaborating on the libretto with the show’s star, George Jessel. It ran 171 performances. After five years of inactivity, Ruby returned with the title song for Do You Love Me? (1946), for which he wrote both music and lyrics. In the film, Harry James and His Orch. backed Dick Haymes in his performance of the song; on records, James used singer Ginnie Powell for a hit in July, the month after he had scored a hit revival of “Who’s Sorry Now?” Ruby wrote lyrics to Rube Bloom’s music for the two songs in Wake Up and Dream, including “Give Me the Simple Life,” which became a hit for Benny Goodman and His Orch. in March 1946. Ruby wrote most of the English lyrics to the songs by Ernesto Lecuona for the film Carnival in Costa Rica (1947). He and Kalmar had their last new song in a film with “Go West Young Man,” used in the Groucho Marx movie Copacabana (1947). Kalmar died on Sept. 18, 1947.

Ruby wrote lyrics to Johnnie Scott’s music for “Maybe It’s Because,” which was used in the Broadway revue Along Fifth Avenue (N.Y., Jan. 13, 1949). Dick Haymes recorded it for a Top Ten hit in August 1949. Ruby and Kalmar’s story, “Life of Marilyn Miller,” was the source material for the Miller film biography Look for the Silver Lining (1949), and Ruby again worked solely as a lyricist, this time for composer Alfred Newman, on “Blue (With or Without You),” written for the film Pinky (1949), though the lyric was used only for promotional purposes.

In July 1950, MGM released Three Little Words, a film biography of Ruby and Kalmar in which Red Skelton played the former and Fred Astaire the latter. Ruby himself had a cameo as a baseball player. The film stimulated the team’s song catalog, leading to Top Ten revivals of “Thinking of You,” which earned three chart covers, the most popular being the one by Don Cherry, and “Nevertheless (I’m in Love with You),” which produced six new chart recordings, with Paul Weston and His Orch. having the most successful one.

In the 1930s, Ruby and Kalmar had written a song called “Moonlight on the Meadow,” which was not a success. Oscar Hammerstein II revised the lyric to produce “A Kiss to Build a Dream On” for the 1935 Marx Brothers film A Night at the Opera, but the song was not used. Finally it was used in the 1951 film The Strip, resulting in two chart recordings, the more popular of which was the one by Hugo Winterhalter and His Orch. and Chorus, which reached the Top Ten in February 1952, though the one by Louis Armstrong, who appeared in the film, had a longer life, later being used prominently in the 1993 film Sleepless in Seattle. The song was Ruby’s only one to earn an Academy Award nomination.

Ruby’s last film credit came when he cowrote the screenplay to Lovely to Look At, the 1952 remake of Roberta, the stage and movie musical by Kern and Harbach. Ruby reached television in 1957, writing the theme song for the long-running series The Real McCoys. The same year, his music entered the rock ’n’ roll era, as Connie Francis enjoyed her first hit with a cover of “Who’s Sorry Now?” that reached the Top Ten in March 1958 and sold a million copies.


(only works for which Ruby was one of the primary, credited songwriters are listed): musicals/revues (dates refer to N.Y. openings): Helen of Troy, N.Y. (Sept. 4, 1923); No Other Girl (Aug. 13, 1924); The Ramblers (Sept. 20, 1926); Lucky (March 22, 1927); The Five O’Clock Girl (Oct. 10, 1927); Good Boy (Sept. 5, 1928); Animal Crackers (Oct. 23, 1928); Top Speed (Dec. 25, 1929); High Kickers (Oct. 31, 1941). films: The Cuckoos (1930); Animal Crackers (1930); The Kid from Spain (1932); Horse Feathers (1932); Duck Soup (1933); Hips Hips Hooray (1934); Kentucky Kernels (1934); Walking on Air (1936); Wake Up and Dream (1946).

—William Ruhlmann