Garbo Laughs is co-hosting the second annual Queer Film Blogathon starting today and running through June 22. This post, a snapshot of the life and career of composer/lyricist Jack Lawrence, is my contribution to the event. Click here for a link to more information and participating blogs.
|Jack Lawrence, songwriter|
I discovered Jack Lawrence through the Preston Sturges comedy, The Lady Eve. The film's main theme is the song "With the Wind and the Rain in Your Hair," a lyrical and wistful melody that lingers long after the final credits. In my quest to know more about the music, I came upon Jack Lawrence's website. There I found the story behind the song that was a big hit for Stan Kenton in 1940 and was covered by many others including Kay Kyser's orchestra with vocalist Ginny Simms.
"With the Wind and the Rain in Your Hair" can be heard all through The Lady Eve - right up to the last scene
Jack Lawrence's first published song, co-written at age 19 with his neighborhood friend and first writing partner Arthur Altman, became a number one hit and made a star of Emery Deutsch, "The Gypsy Violinist" who recorded it (and assumed songwriting credit for it). The tune, "Play, Fiddle, Play," was also used in MGM's star-studded classic Dinner at Eight (1933).
Lawrence collaborated with Altman again in 1939, providing the words to Altman's music for a song that was recorded by three major big bands - Jimmy Dorsey, Harry James and Freddy Martin, but none of the records created a ripple. Then, in 1943, Columbia Records signed Frank Sinatra as a solo artist but was prevented by a musicians' strike from quickly getting him into the recording studio. It was decided to re-release the song Harry James had recorded with Sinatra as vocalist three years earlier, Lawrence and Altman's "All or Nothing at All." This time the record was a smash and the first hit of Frank Sinatra's solo career. There had been only one change made and that was to the record label. This time "Frank Sinatra" appeared in large letters above "accompanied by Harry James Orchestra" in small print. One of his early signature tunes, "All or Nothing at All" remained in Sinatra's repertoire for the rest of his career.
In 1939 Jack Lawrence composed a song on his own that became a hit in much less time than it took "All or Nothing at All." His "If I Didn't Care" was a sensation that made stars of The Ink Spots, an African American vocal group that, like The Mills Brothers, achieved enormous mainstream popularity.
|Paul and Linda McCartney|
Joan Crawford in Torch Song
Around the same time "Linda" was published, Lawrence collaborated with composer Walter Gross, who had written music for a song that, with Lawrence's lyrics, came to be known as "Tenderly." Sarah Vaughan's version became a jazz standard and Rosemary Clooney's rendition became a mainstream hit as well as the theme for her TV variety show of the 1950s. "Tenderly" was featured in the 1953 Joan Crawford vehicle, Torch Song, with Crawford's singing dubbed by India Adams.
Rosemary Clooney sings "Tenderly"
In 2004 at age 92, Jack Lawrence wrote his autobiography, They All Sang My Songs. Jack's book tells the story of his early years in Brooklyn, his rise as a songwriter during the heyday of American popular music - along with the stories behind many of the hit songs he wrote or collaborated on. And more. At the outset of the book's 5th chapter he opens up on the most intimate aspect of his life, his sexuality. Quoting his lyrics to a hit song, Lawrence begins the chapter with:
"It's easy to lie to strangers...
But what will I tell my heart?"
In 1925, when he was just 13, he began to realize he was strongly attracted to boys. Raised in an Orthodox Jewish home by immigrant parents and with two older brothers who were well known as ladies men, Lawrence felt increasingly frightened and isolated as his feelings emerged. He began to lead a double life, attending local dances and dating girls, trying to be "one of the guys." But he also escaped into a secret world, a world in which reading Radclyffe Hall's 1928 lesbian novel, The Well of Loneliness, brought him to tears. Describing his long struggle to overcome despair and shame, Lawrence recalls his coming out as a slow and painful process.
After years of living in two worlds and near-marriage to a woman with whom he was passionately involved but not in love, Lawrence eventually encountered the man who would be the love of his life. He met Walter Myden, later a psychiatrist, in the mid-'40s and the two would spend the next 30 years living together - until Myden's death in 1975. Lawrence went on to meet another man with whom he shared a more platonic relationship up until his own death in 2009 at age 96.
Jack Lawrence lived long enough to rest assured that the best songs of the popular standards era had endured the passage of time. He was especially pleased when Tony Bennett and k.d. lang recorded "A Wonderful World," an homage to Louis Armstrong, and thought Diana Krall's interpretation of his own "All or Nothing at All" a "lovely rendition." Lawrence also lived long enough to see the opening of the closet door, the rise of activism and the emergence of a vibrant gay community. Looking back, Lawrence viewed it all as remarkable. Content with his life at last, he chose a classic Ira Gershwin lyric to close his memoir:
"Who could ask for anything more?"
To learn more about Jack Lawrence via his website, click here. To read a 2004 Time Out New York interview with him, click here.