September 27, 1898– Vincent Youmans
One of my personal favorites from my much-in-demand self-created playlists is Rutledge’s Happiness Mix. It has proved positively popular in my circle of friends. The Husband and I listened to it on a car trip and sang along for 180 miles. It contains June Christy‘s version of I Want To Be Happy, which is totally swingin’. This got me thinking about the life of Vincent Youmans, who was born 121 years ago today, just one day after his pal George Gershwin.
Youmans has much in common with his famous fellow composer friend; they both collaborated with George’s famous brother Ira Gershwin, they both were geniuses at composing sophisticated, smart popular songs and serious music, and they both died tragically young, Gershwin at 39 years old and Youmans at 47. Unlike Gershwin, Youmans left behind only a handful of songs that are now part of out popular vernacular: Tea For Two, I Want To Be Happy, Hallelujah, and the popular jazz standard Sometimes I’m Happy.
For decades, a legend circulated that Youmans had left behind a trunk of unpublished songs, all notated in a secret code that only he could decipher. Music historians worked for years to determine if this was true. Indeed, the trunk was discovered and it actually did contain hundreds of unheard melodies and scores, written in his mysteriously mirrored and intricate Da Vinci-like code.
Youmans came from privilege, born in Manhattan. He was raised in a spacious apartment on Central Park West. He served in WW I, and while in the Navy, he fell in love with hot men and the musical theater.
After the war, he went to work as a song-plugger for the prestigious music publisher T.B. Harms Company, publisher of the works of the Gershwins. A song-plugger was a singer or piano player employed by music stores and song publishers in the early 20th century to promote and help sell new sheet music, which is how hits were advertised before quality recordings were widely available. They sat in the store and played whatever music was handed to them by the clerk of the store selling the sheet music. Patrons could select any title, have it delivered to the song-plugger, and get a preview of the tune before buying it. Musicians and composers who had worked as song-pluggers included George Gershwin, Jerome Kern and Lil Hardin Armstrong, wife of Louis Armstrong. There were about 600 song-pluggers in the USA.; they have their own union; they are powerful enough to bar outsiders; and they command fees up to $35,000 a year (worth $375,000 today) plus expense accounts.
Now, boys and girls, I am going to give you a little history lesson: before digital downloads, before CDs, before phonographs, people purchased sheet music and sat around the piano at home singing the hits of the day. It took talent to be a song-plugger who could put a song over with panache to sell the sheet music. By performing those unforgettable tunes of the great Tin Pan Alley songwriters of the day, Youmans grew to know the details of the structure of hit songs and quickly decided he could create his own.
As the composer, Youmans needed words and he turned to professional lyricists, collaborating with the greatest: Oscar Hammerstein II, Irving Caesar, Leo Robin, Billy Rose, Mack Gordon, Buddy De Sylva and Gus Kahn. With Ira Gershwin, he wrote songs for Two Little Girls In Blue, a big Broadway smash in 1921.
The greatest theatre triumph of his life was No, No Nanette (1925), with lyrics by Caesar. It became one of the most successful musicals of all time, with simultaneous productions on Broadway and London running for half a decade. No, No Nanette has been revived many times and has been reinvented through the years. In the 1940s, a version featured the beloved tap dancer Ruby Keeler and it played on Broadway even longer than the original 1925 production. It proved to be an even bigger hit in a 1971 Broadway revival, again starring Keeler.
Youmans wrote songs for films also, most famously for Flying Down To Rio (1933), with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. But his heart was on Broadway. Unfortunate failures followed, forgotten musicals which bombed and closed quickly, although the songs he wrote for these stinkers were always memorable. In 1932, he took one more chance with a Broadway show titled Take A Chance, but it also failed to catch on with audiences.
Disheartened, Youmans retired from showbiz in 1934, after a career of only 13 years, but he worked secretly for years producing the songs and scores that went into his secret trunk.
Youmans finally returned to Broadway in 1943 with a colossal and ambitious extravaganza called The Vincent Youmans Ballet Revue, which crossbred Classical and Latin music. A disaster of unprecedented proportions, it lost more than five million dollars, a great deal of dough in those days. This fiasco might have been the reason for even more of the secret songs in his hidden trunk. Its failure, along with his drinking problem and a life as a closeted gay man brought on Youmans’ final emotional and physical decline. He took his final curtain call all alone and largely forgotten, gone from TB in 1946.
Tea For Two is his most famous song. It is an ideal example of his economic use of short melodic phrases. The lyricist Irving Caesar said that the opening section was actually a dummy lyric tossed off so that Youmans could write the melody, but it worked, so well they kept it. The song is unusual as a hit tune; it is written in two keys at once: A Flat Minor and C Major, a musical fusion that The Beatles would use 40 years later, but which was mostly unheard of in the 1920s. Youmans’ modernization of the American pop song inspired the musicologist and critic Alec Wilder to say that Youmans was: “one of the innovators of American popular song, and one of the truest believers in the new musical world around him”.
Youmans is mentioned in a Cole Porter lyric, in a verse from You’re The Top from Anything Goes (1934):
Your words poetic are not pathetic.
On the other hand, babe, you shine,
And I can feel after every line
A thrill divine
Down my spine
Now gifted humans like Vincent Youmans
Might think that your song is bad
But I got a notion
I’ll second the motion
And this is what I’m going to add:
You’re The Top!