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Van Heusen, James “Jimmy” (originally, Babcock, Edward Chester)

Van Heusen, James “Jimmy” (originally, Babcock, Edward Chester)

Van Heusen, James “Jimmy” (originally, Babcock, Edward Chester), American composer; b. Syracuse, N.Y., Jan. 26,1913; d. Rancho Mirage, Calif., Feb. 7, 1990. Working primarily with lyricists Johnny Burke and Sammy Cahn, Van Heusen wrote the music for songs used in at least 68 motion pictures released between 1940 and 1974. These efforts brought him 14 Academy Award nominations for Best Song—the most for any composer—and four awards, for “Swinging on a Star,” “All the Way,” “High Hopes,” and “Call Me Irresponsible,” He was a favorite songwriter of Bing Crosby, writing songs used in 22 of the singer’s films, and of Frank Sinatra, who recorded far more Van Heusen tunes than those of any other composer. Among his most successful songs with Burke were “Imagination,” “Sunday, Monday or Always,” and “Personality”; with Cahn he wrote such hits as “Love and Marriage,” “(Love Is) The Tender Trap,” and “The Second Time Around.”

Van Heusen was the son of Arthur Edward Babcock, a building contractor and amateur musician, and Ida Mae Williams Babcock, through whom he was said to be related to Stephen Foster. Van Heusen showed an early interest in music and took piano lessons as a child. In his teens he worked as an announcer and program host on local radio stations, which led to the adoption of his pseudonym. From 1930 to 1932 he attended Syracuse Univ., studying piano and composition; he also studied singing with Howard Lyman. He collaborated with a fellow student, Jerry Arlen, younger brother of Harold Arlen, through whose auspices they placed two songs, “Harlem Hospitality” and “There’s a House in Harlem for Sale,” in the 23rd edition of the Cotton Club Paradein 1933. This brought Van Heusen to N.Y., where he worked as a pianist for song publishers for several years until he collaborated with Jimmy Dorsey on “It’s the Dreamer in Me” (music and lyrics by Van Heusen and Dorsey). This song was recorded by Dorsey, Paul White-man, Harry James, and Bing Crosby and reportedly sold almost 100,000 copies of sheet music, leading Van Heusen’s employer, Remick’s, to sign him to a two-year contract as a staff composer.

Van Heusen formed a songwriting partnership with bandleader, singer, and lyricist Eddie De Lange, and the two wrote “So Help Me,” which was recorded by Mildred Bailey and spent 12 weeks in the hit parade starting in September 1938. Their next song, “Deep in a Dream,” did even better; recorded by Artie Shaw and His Orch., it spent 14 weeks in the hit parade starting in December.

Van Heusen’s career took off in 1939. “Good for Nothin’ but Love” (lyrics by De Lange), recorded by Fats Waller, had a week in the hit parade in March; “Heaven Can Wait” (lyrics by De Lange), recorded by Glen Gray and the Casa Loma Orch., hit #1 in April; and “All I Remember Is You” (lyrics by De Lange), recorded by Tommy Dorsey and His Orch., had a week in the chart in July. His next hit, “Oh, You Crazy Moon,” marked his first collaboration with Johnny Burke; recorded by Tommy Dorsey, it spent six weeks in the hit parade starting in September.

With De Lange, Van Heusen wrote the songs for a swing musicalization of Shakespeare’s play A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Swingin’ the Dream,which featured such performers as Louis Armstrong and Benny Goodman, ran only 13 performances after opening at Radio City Music Hall in November But “Darn That Dream” from the score was recorded by Goodman with Mildred Bailey on vocals and topped the hit parade in March 1940. By then Van Heusen had already placed two more songs in the chart: “Can I Help It?” (lyrics by De Lange), recorded by Bob Crosby and His Orch., and “Speaking of Heaven” (lyrics by Mack Gordon), recorded by Glenn Miller and His Orch., had each spent two weeks in the hit parade in December 1939.

Van Heusen again collaborated with Burke on “Imagination,” recorded by Glenn Miller, which topped the hit parade in June 1940. This was enough to convince Paramount Pictures, Burke’s employer, that Van Heusen would make a good replacement for Burke’s departing songwriting partner James V. Monaco. The studio signed the composer, who moved permanently to Calif, to write for the movies. Meanwhile, two final efforts written with De Lange: “Shake Down the Stars,” recorded by Glenn Miller, and a promotional title song written for the motion picture All This and Heaven Too,recorded by Tommy Dorsey with Frank Sinatra on vocals, made the charts during the summer.

Van Heusen and Burke began their partnership at Paramount with the Jack Benny-Fred Allen comedy Love Thy Neighbor,released in December 1940. They then wrote songs for Road to Zanzibar,the second of the series of “road” movies starring Bing Crosby and Bob Hope, released in April 1941. Although the radio ban on ASCAP material prevented any of the songs from becoming hits at the time, “It’s Always You,” recorded by Tommy Dorsey with Frank Sinatra on vocals, became a Top Ten hit upon reissue in July 1943. Van Heusen and Burke next wrote songs for two Kay Kyser vehicles, Playmates (December 1941) and My Favorite Spy (May 1942), then for the third “road” movie, Road to Morocco (November 1942), from which Crosby recorded the chart entry “Constantly” and the Top Ten hit “Moonlight Becomes You”; Harry James and His Orch. had a million-selling version of the latter.

Van Heusen toured army camps as Crosby’s accompanist during the summer of 1942. Under his real name he also took a job as a test pilot for the Lockheed airplane manufacturing company, maintaining the risky occupation throughout the war without telling Paramount.

Van Heusen and Burke’s next movie with Crosby was Dixie (June 1943), a film biography of songwriter Daniel Emmett. From it, Crosby (recording a cappella due to the musicians’ union recording ban) scored a million-selling #1 hit with “Sunday, Monday or Always” and a chart entry with “If You Please.”

The team had songs in four movies released in 1944, enough to dominate the charts and the box office for the year. “Suddenly It’s Spring” was cut to only an instrumental accompaniment to Ginger Roger’s dancing in Lady in the Dark,released in February, but Glen Gray took a version into the charts in May. That month Paramount released Going My Way,in which Bing Crosby played a priest who sang, among other songs, the million-selling, Academy Award-winning #1 hit “Swinging on a Star” and the charting title song. The movie was the top-grossing hit of 1944, and Crosby’s studio album of the songs hit #1 in October 1945. And The Angels Sing,released in July 1944, starred Dorothy Lamour and Betty Hutton. The score generated two Top Ten hits, “His Rocking Horse Ran Away,” recorded by Hutton, and “It Could Happen to You,” recorded by Jo Stafford. Belle of the Yukon,released toward the end of the year, gave a Top Ten hit to Dinah Shore, who sang the Oscar-nominated “Sleigh Ride in July” in the picture, and a chart entry to Crosby with “Like Someone in Love.”

Van Heusen and Burke had songs in three features released in 1945, but their first hit for the year was the novelty duet “Yah-Ta-Ta Yah-Ta-Ta (Talk, Talk, Talk),” which hit the Top Ten for Bing Crosby and Judy Garland in June. In July, the film The Great John Lfeatured “A Friend of Yours,” taken into the Top Ten by Tommy Dorsey. Duffy’s Tavern,released in September, did not add to the songwriters’ hit total, but The Bells of St. Mary’s,the sequel to Going My Way,released in December, featured “Aren’t You Glad You’re You?” which earned an Academy Award nomination and which Crosby took into the Top Ten; the film was the top box office hit of 1946. Van Heusen’s last hit of 1945 was another special song, “Nancy (With the Laughing Face),” written for Frank Sinatra’s baby daughter. With lyrics credited to actor-comedian Phil Silvers (reportedly with assistance from Burke and Sammy Cahn), the song was recorded by Sinatra for a Top Ten hit in December.

The long-delayed fourth “road” movie, Road to Utopia,finally released in early 1946, gave Van Heusen and Burke a #1 hit with “Personality” recorded by Johnny Mercer. At the same time the songwriters mounted their first Broadway musical together, Nellie Bly;it was a flop, running only 16 performances, but “Harmony” from the score became a belated hit in November 1947 after it was used in the film Variety Girland recorded by Johnny Mercer and the King Cole Trio. Returning to their regular job with Crosby, Van Heusen and Burke wrote the songs for his August 1947 release, Welcome Stranger,which became the most successful film of the year, then for the fifth “road” movie, Road to Rio,which topped the box office rankings for 1948 and featured “But Beautiful,” a chart hit for Frank Sinatra in April 1948.

A second recording ban kept them from scoring hits for the rest of the year, but their score for the Bing Crosby film A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court,released in April 1949, contained the chart singles “Once and for Always” (recorded by Jo Stafford) and “If You Stub Your Toe on the Moon” (recorded by Tony Martin), and Crosby’s A Connecticut Yankeealbum was a Top Ten hit. Crosby also recorded a Top Ten album of the Van Heusen and Burke songs from his December 1950 film Mr. Music.

Van Heusen and Burke wrote songs for The Golden Circle,an unproduced Paramount feature, in 1951, and they contributed songs to the sixth “road” movie, Road to Bali,released in November 1952, and to the Crosby film Little Boy Lost,released in September 1953. Their main efforts during the early 1950s, however, were directed to their second Broadway musical, Carnival in Flanders,which also opened in September 1953. It was another failure, running only six performances, and it marked the end of the songwriting team, as Burke became ill and was unable to work.

Van Heusen began trying out other lyricists. With Carl Sigman, he wrote “I Could Have Told You,” which Frank Sinatra recorded in December 1953 and released as a B-side single the following spring. “You, My Love,” written with Mack Gordon, was used in the Sinatra film Young at Heart,released in December 1954. Van Heusen he wrote the title song for the June 1955 box office hit Not as a Strangerwith Buddy Kaye, but he didn’t find a permanent partner until he teamed with Sammy Cahn. They wrote songs for a television musical adaptation of Thornton Wilder’s play Our Townfeaturing Sinatra. Among these songs was “Love and Marriage,” which Sinatra recorded for a Top Ten hit in December 1955. The song won a 1955 Emmy Award for Best Musical Contribution.

Hollywood was less interested in producing original movie musicals by the mid-1950s, but opportunities remained to write title songs for nonmusical motion pictures. Van Heusen and Cahn specialized in this field, starting with “(Love Is) The Tender Trap,” the theme for the Sinatra-starring film The Tender Trap,released in November 1955. Sinatra’s recording of the song hit the Top Ten, and it was nominated for an Academy Award. Their theme from The Man with the Golden Arm,Sinatra’s December 1955 release, was not used in the film, but several orchestras recorded instrumental treatments that made the charts. The most successful of these was Richard Maltby’s, which hit the Top 40. Van Heusen also reached the charts in 1956 with non-movie songs: “My Dream Sonata” (lyrics by Mack David) was a minor hit for Nat “King” Cole in July, and “It’s Better in the Dark” (lyrics by Sammy Cahn) scored modestly for Tony Martin in September.

Van Heusen and Cahn contributed “All the Way” to Frank Sinatra’s September 1957 film biography of comedian Joe E. Lewis, The Joker Is Wild;it became a Top Ten hit and won the Academy Award. Continuing their work with the singer in 1958, they wrote title songs for his albums Come Fly with Meand Frank Sinatra Sings for Only the Lonely,both of which topped the charts; Only the Lonelywent gold. They also wrote “To Love and Be Loved,” the theme from the Sinatra film Some Came Running,securing another Academy Award nomination. Among the other eight films to which they contributed songs in 1959, the most successful was “High Hopes,” featured in the Sinatra film A Hole in the Headin July and recorded by him for a Top 40 hit; it then earned a Grammy Award nomination for Song of the Year and won the Academy Award for Best Song. Again during the year, they wrote title songs for two Sinatra LPs as well: the January release Come Dance with Me!,which hit the Top Ten and went gold, and No One Cares,released in August, which hit the Top Ten.

Van Heusen and Cahn wrote songs used in seven films released in 1960, the most notable among them being the title song for the April release Wake Me When It’s Over,which was recorded for a chart entry by Andy Williams, and “The Second Time Around,” from the Bing Crosby vehicle High Time,released in September, which earned Best Song Oscar and Song of the Year Grammy nominations and, in February 1961, became a chart entry for Frank Sinatra, who released it as his first single for his newly founded Reprise Records label. Sinatra’s first Reprise LP, the Top Ten Ring-a-Ding Ding!,released in April 1961, featured a Van Heusen and Cahn title song, and the singer also recorded their Oscar-nominated title song from the December 1961 film Pocketful of Miraclesfor a Top 40 hit. Their next chart entry came with “The Boys’ Night Out,” Patti Page’s recording of the near-title song for the June 1962 film Boys’ Night Out.

Years earlier, Van Heusen and Cahn had written songs for a proposed film version of Papa’s Delicate Condition,which was to star Fred Astaire. The songs were shelved when the project was dropped, but in 1963 it was retooled for Jackie Gleason, and one song was reinstated, “Call Me Irresponsible.” Upon the film’s release in March, the song became a chart entry for Jack Jones, and it went on to win the Academy Award and earn a Grammy Award nomination for Song of the Year.

The last year in which Van Heusen and Cahn were occupied writing for the movies on a full-time basis was 1964. They contributed scores to three films and wrote title songs for two more released during the year. The soundtrack for Robin and the Seven Hoods,which featured Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., and Bing Crosby, was released more than a month before the film opened in August and spent three months in the charts. It earned a Grammy nomination for Best Original Score Written for a Motion Picture or TV Show, and “My Kind of Town” from the score was nominated for an Academy Award. The songwriters earned a second Oscar nomination the same year for their title song from Where Love Has Gone,with which Jack Jones scored a chart entry two and a half months in advance of the film’s November release. Also in 1964, Van Heusen and Cahn completed a score for a sequel to The Wizard of Oz, Journey Back to Oz,and it was recorded by a cast that included Liza Minnelli and Ethel Merman. The animated children’s feature was not released for a decade, however.

Van Heusen and Cahn wrote “The September of My Years” for Frank Sinatra’s August 1965 LP September of My Years. The album reached the Top Ten and went gold, and the song was nominated for a Grammy Award for Song of the Year. In November the songwriters mounted their first Broadway musical together, Skyscraper. Though it did not turn a profit, it ran 248 performances, making it Van Heusen’s most successful stage work—the cast album spent two months in the charts. On Aug. 20,1966, at age 53, Van Heusen married singer Josephine Perlberg, a former member of the Brox Sisters singing group. In November, Van Heusen and Cahn had another Broadway musical, Walking Happy. It ran 161 performances, and the title song (another tune written ten years before for the unproduced Fred Astaire version of Papa’s Delicate Condition)became a hit on the easy-listening charts for Peggy Lee.

Van Heusen and Cahn were less active after 1966. In 1967 they wrote the songs for a musical version of Jack and the Beanstalkthat was broadcast on television in February. They contributed two songs to the Julie Andrews box office hit Thoroughly Modern Millie,released in March, including the title song, which was nominated for an Academy Award; the soundtrack album spent nearly a year in the charts. They wrote the title song for the Julie Andrews box office flop Star!,released in October 1968, and it earned them their final Oscar nomination. The last film for which they wrote songs was the June 1969 release The Great Bank Robbery. Van Heusen then retired, though he collaborated with Johnny Mercer on “Empty Tables,” recorded by Frank Sinatra in 1973 and later released on a single. In 1990 he died at 77after a long illness. In 1995, Swinging on a Star,a musical using many of his songs with Johnny Burke, played on Broadway.

Works

(only works for which Van Heusen was the primary, credited composer are listed): MUSICALS/REVUES (dates refer to N.Y. openings): Swingin’ the Dream (1939); Nellie Bly (1946); Carnival in Flanders (1953); Skyscraper (1965); Walking Happy (1966); Swinging on a Star (1995). FILMS: Love Thy Neighbor (1940); Road to Zanzibar (1941); Playmates (1941); My Favorite Spy (1942); Road to Morocco (1942); Dixie (1943); Going My Way (1944); And the Angels Sing (1944); Belle of the Yukon (1944); Road to Utopia (1946); Cross My Heart (1946); My Heart Goes Crazy (aka London Town;1946); Welcome Stranger (1947); Road to Rio (1947); Mystery in Mexico (1948); A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1949); Top o’ the Morning (1949); Riding High (1950); Mr. Music (1950); Road to Bali (1952); Little Boy Lost (1953); Pardners (1956); The Joker Is Wild (1957); Paris Holiday (1958); Say One for Me (1959); A Hole in the Head (1959); Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959); Ocean’s Eleven (1960); Eet’s Make Love (1960); High Time (1960); Boys’Night Out (1962); The Road to Hong Kong (1962); Papa’s Delicate Condition (1963); Come Blow Your Horn (1963); Honeymoon Hotel (1964); Robin and the Seven Hoods (1964); The Pleasure Seekers (1964); Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967); The Great Bank Robbery (1969); Journey Back to Oz (1974). TELEVISION: Our Town (1955); Jack and the Beanstalk (1967).

—William Ruhlmann

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