AMERICAN ICONS: Vincent Youmans

A friend and contemporary of George Gershwin, Vincent Youmans had much in common with his famous friend-they both collaborated with George’s brother Ira, they both wrote pop songs and serious music, and they both, tragically, died young-George at 39 and Vincent at 47.A friend and contemporary of George Gershwin, Vincent Youmans had much in common with his famous friend-they both collaborated with George’s brother Ira, they both wrote pop songs and serious music, and they both, tragically, died young-George at 39 and Vincent at 47. Unlike George, though, Youmans left behind only a handful of songs that are truly famous-most notably “Tea for Two,” “I Want To Be Happy,” “Too Many Rings Around Rosie,” “Hallelujah,” and the 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 For decades, a legend circulated that Youmans had left behind a trunk of unpublished songs, all notated in a secret code that only he could decipher.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 fable was true, and, in fact, it was. The trunk was discovered, due to the diligence of music historians such as Miles Kreuger and Stanley Green, and, indeed, it contained a profusion of unheard melodies and scores, all rendered in his mysteriously mirrored and intricate Da Vinci-like cipher. Fortunately, many have cracked this code, and a rich trove of musical treasures has been rescued from obscurity.

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He came from privilege: Born in 1898 in Manhattan, he was raised on Central Park West, and later in posh, suburban Larchmont. His father found his fortune in the hat manufacturing business, and, wanting his son to follow in his affluent footsteps, sent him first to private schools and then to Yale. But Vincent dropped out when World War I called, and it was there-in the Navy-that he fell in love with musical theater. After the war, rather than become the engineer he’d planned on becoming, he went to work as a song-plugger for the prestigious TB Harms Company, publisher of the Gershwins and Jerome Kern. These were the pre-phonograph days when people purchased sheet music in order to sit around the piano at home and sing the hits of the day. It took talented pianists who could put a song over with panache to sell the sheet music songs to music stores. By performing the work of the great Tin Pan Alley songwriters of the day, Youmans grew familiar with the infrastructure of hit songs, and quickly surmised he could create his own.
His next job was as a rehearsal pianist for the renowned composer of operettas, Vincent Herbert. But it was work, like his song-plugging, intended only to generate some income while he wrote his own songs. A composer, he turned to other lyricists, and soon collaborated with the greatest ones around, including 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, which became an immense Broadway smash in 1921.

His next show, with lyrics by Harbach and Hammerstein was Wildflower, a success that he followed in 1925 with the greatest triumph of his life, No, No Nanette. With lyrics by Irving Caesar, it became one of the most successful musicals of all time, with simultaneous productions on Broadway and in London during much of the 1920s. It played for many successive seasons, and has been reinvented several times throughout the years-in the 1940s featuring the beloved tap-dancing Ruby Keeler, at which time it played on Broadway even longer than the original, and again in the 1970s. Subsequent self-produced shows included Hit The Deck, another great success which launched the beautiful “Hallelujah.” He wrote songs for movies, most famously for Flying Down To Rio, with Fred Astaire dancing and singing his music. But his heart was on Broadway, and unfortunate failures followed, shows which bombed and closed quickly although the songs he wrote for them were always memorable. In 1932 he took one more chance with a Broadway show, Take A Chance, but it went nowhere. Disheartened, he retired in 1934, after a career of only 13 years, but worked clandestinely for years on the songs and scores in his secret trunk, and returned to Broadway in 1943 with a colossal and ambitious extravaganza called The Vincent Youmans Ballet Revue, which merged classical and Latin-American music. A failure of unprecedented proportions, it lost more than $4 million dollars, and the magnitude of this fiasco might have been the key to his inclination to stash secret songs in his hidden trunk.

Irving Caesar remembered Youmans as a tireless worker, one who was inclined to rewrite a song several times to achieve perfection. Unlike his pal George Gershwin, Youmans didn’t sing his songs-but he was a great pianist, but only whistled his melodies.

“Tea For Two,” his most famous song, is an ideal example of his economic use of short melodic phrases. Caesar has said that its opening section was actually a dummy lyric on which Vincent could hang a tune, but it worked so well, they kept it. The song is unusual as a hit in that it’s in two keys at once-A flat and C-major-a chromatic fusion that the Beatles and others would use some half a century later, but which was mostly unheard of in the 1920s. It’s this kind of modernization of the American pop song that inspired the musicologist Alec Wilder to write that Youmans was “one of the innovators of American popular song, and one of the truest believers in the mew musical world around him.”

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