Caesar, Irving

views updated

Caesar, Irving

(b. 4 July 1895 in New York City; d. 17 December 1996 in New York City), important Tin Pan Alley lyricist who collaborated with some of the industry’s most famous composers and who wrote such classic songs as “Tea for Two” and “Swanee.”

Caesar was the son of Morris Caesar, a teacher and book dealer, and Sofia Selinger. Born on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in New York City and originally named “Isidore,” Caesar received his early musical training at the Music School Settlement in Manhattan. He purchased his first piano as a young boy for $5 and with the help of neighbors got it to the upper floor of the tenement he called home. After graduating in 1914 from Townsend Harris Hall (a high school for advanced students that compressed four years into three), Caesar spent one year at City College of New York pursuing a business major.

In 1915 Caesar answered a newspaper advertisement and found himself appointed secretary to Henry Ford’s Peace Ship, whose ill-fated mission was to try to stop World War I. On board, Caesar wrote a series of short songs telling the Germans to stop the war. He tried to no avail to convince Ford to translate the lyrics into German and drop them over the troops in the trenches. Nevertheless, he formed a friendship with Ford, and Ford asked Caesar to work on the assembly line in order to prepare for running his own branch of Ford’s export business.

Caesar’s life, however, was destined to go in another direction. While continuing to work on the assembly line during 1916 and 1917, Caesar enjoyed going to the publishing house of Jerome Remick to hear a young man named George Gershwin play the piano. Within a short time, Gershwin began to set Caesar’s lyrics to music in songs like “You-oo, Just You,” “There’s More to the Kiss than the X-X-X,” and “I Was So Young.” These songs appeared on Broadway in the Gershwin shows Hitchy-Koo (1918) and Good Morning, Judge (1919).

Gershwin and Caesar became good friends and could often be seen going to concerts, shows, and clubs together. While riding on the top level of a double-decker bus, the two friends composed their first huge hit, “Swanee.” It was first heard in the stage show that opened the Capitol Theatre movie house in New York City on 24 October 1919. “Swanee” might have faded away had it not been for Al Jolson. The song was introduced at the Winter Garden Theatre as part of Jolson’s act and became his signature song. Thanks in no small part to Jolson, Caesar’s first-year royalties for the song were $10,000, a significant amount in 1920. Caesar earned money from the song for years afterward.

The 1920s proved to be one of the most prolific decades in Caesar’s long life. With Eddie Cantor, Caesar wrote the song “I Love Her, She Loves Me.” In 1922 Cantor both recorded the song and used it in his show Make It Snappy. For the W. C. Fields show Poppy, Caesar put new lyrics to a Viennese song, “Wien, du Stadt der Lieder,” retitling it “Someone Will Make You Smile,” and wrote lyrics for the Stephen Jones melody “What Do You Do Sunday?” Between 1922 and 1925 the show Greenwich Village Follies teamed Caesar with Cole Porter, Lew Fields, and John Murray Anderson. During this decade, Caesar and Gershwin also collaborated for “The Yankee Doodle Blues” (1922) and “Nashville Nightingale” (1923). No, No, Nanette, which proved to be the most successful play of Caesar’s life, was produced in 1925. This show paired Caesar with the esteemed composer Vincent Youmans and included two huge hits that have become American standards, “Tea for Two” and “I Want to Be Happy.”

Caesar’s most famous song, “Tea for Two,” had an inauspicious beginning. As legend has it, late one night Youmans played the just-composed melody to Caesar. After performing the song, Youmans became agitated and insisted on having lyrics written that evening. As a way to calm Youmans down and get some sleep, Caesar wrote a quick set of silly improvised lyrics, with the intention of writing better lyrics in the morning. Youmans, however, thought the improvised lyrics were perfect for the show, and they were left untouched and added to No, No, Nanette. Thus the “silly” lyrics “Picture you upon my knee / Just tea for two / and two for tea” became part of Americana.

By the mid-to late 1930s the focus of Caesar’s career had shifted away from the Broadway stage toward the classroom. His Songs of Safety were sung by children across the nation. “Let the Ball Roll,” “Ice Skating Is Nice Skating,” and “Sing a Song of Friendship” were some of the most widely popularized. Caesar’s governmental work also included a musical setting for “The Pledge of Allegiance” that was accepted as an official government document. In the 1930s and 1940s Caesar also wrote songs for motion pictures such as George White’s Scandals and Curly Top.

In the 1950s he offered Songs of Friendship to the federal government to promote international goodwill. The collection included “Thomas Jefferski,” “Election Day,” and “There’s Something About America.” It was rejected by the government and the New York City Board of Education but was finally printed by the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai Brith.

Caesar was also a well-known practical joker and wit. When once asked what came first, the music or the lyrics, Caesar made his famous reply, “What comes first is the contract.” Caesar spent his final years in his huge Manhattan apartment, having years before grown disgusted with the direction modern music had taken. He complained that “good lyrics and tunes are no longer wanted” and that “we have a form of musical juvenile delinquency abetted by adult delinquency.” He was always ready, it seemed, to burst into every verse of almost every song he had ever written. He died at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City and was survived by his wife, Christina A. Ballesteros.

Information about Caesar’s life and work is included in the following: David Ewen, American Popular Songs from the Revolutionary War to the Present (1966) and American Songwriters (1987); Roger Kinkle, ed., The Complete Encyclopedia of Popular Music and Jazz, 1900–1950 (1974); Peter Gammond, Oxford Companion to Popular Music (1991); and Colin Larkin, ed., The Encyclopedia of Popular Music (1998). An obituary is in the New York Times (18 Dec. 1996).

Robert Pispecky