American Icons: Walter Donaldson

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Videos by American Songwriter

Walter Donaldson is most famous for composing “My Blue Heaven,” “Makin’ Whoopee,” “My Mammy” (Al Jolson’s theme song), and “Yes Sir, That’s My Baby.” The son of a piano teacher, he was among the most prolific hit songwriters of the 1920s. Born in Brooklyn on February 15, 1893, Donaldson never studied music formally, but took immediately to the piano that was always a prominent fixture in his home. In high school, he wrote songs for the plays that his friends wrote, and after graduating, got a job as a clerk on Wall Street, but left when a job opened – at $15 per week – as a demonstrator for a music publisher, playing new songs on piano to sell sheet music. He was fired, though, when it was discovered he was often using the piano not to sell their songs, but to write his own.

In the army, during World War I, he entertained the troops at barracks throughout the country. At Camp Upton, in Long Island, he met Irving Berlin, who offered him a job with the Irving Berlin Music Company, as a staff songwriter, where he stayed for ten years, writing hundreds of songs, including “My Mammy” and “My Blue Heaven.” In 1928, he left to start his own music publishing company, called Donaldson, Douglas & Gumble.

With the lyricists Joe Young and Sam Lewis he wrote “My Mammy,” which, along with “Swanee,” became one of Al Jolson’s signature songs, famous for the lines “The sun shines east, the sun shines west, I know where the sun shines best” and “I’d walk a million miles for one of your smiles, my mammy!” Before Jolson ever got to it, however, it was performed by William Frawley (best known as Fred Mertz in I Love Lucy) in a 1918 vaudeville act. Jolson heard Frawley sing it, and grabbed it for his own, performing it in the Broadway show Sinbad. He recorded the song twice, and performed it in three different movies, the most famous of which is The Jazz Singer (1927), the first full-length non-silent movie, as well as in the films The Singing Fool (1928) and Rose of Washington (1939). Countless singers have recorded it, including Liza Minnelli, Eddie Cantor, Jerry Lee Lewis and Cher. And in 1967, the group The Happenings had a Top 20 hit with their revival of the song. And more recently, Bono of U2 sang the lines “the sun shines east, the sun shines west, I know where the sun shines best” in concert many times as a preamble to the song “Miami.”

The advent of sound movies was a boon both to Hollywood and to Donaldson’s career. Besides having his song in the first-ever talkie, he contributed songs to many Hollywood musicals, such as “Did I Remember,” which was sung by Jean Harlow and Cary Grant in the film Suzy. He moved to Hollywood in 1929 to write for movies, and in 1933 signed with MGM, where he wrote songs for many films, including Panama Hattie, Kid Millions, The Great Ziegfeld, Two Girls On Broadway and Follow The Boys.

He wrote “Makin’ Whoopee!” with the lyricist Gus Kahn for the musical Whoopee. The song, which he once called a dire warning to men about the trap of marriage, was a hit first for Eddie Cantor in 1928, and since then has had a remarkable imprint on American culture, performed by everyone from Ella Fitzgerald to Elvis Costello. Michelle Pfeiffer performed it atop a grand piano in the movie The Fabulous Baker Boys, while Alan Alda, in his role as Hawkeye on TV’s M*A*S*H, sang it at the end of an episode. Elton John has recorded it twice – once as a duet with Rod Stewart, and once in a trio with Costello and Diana Krall.

Donaldson wrote “My Blue Heaven” in 1927 to lyrics written by George Whiting. The following year it became a huge hit for Gene Austin, a famous crooner – and it remained #1 on the charts for 13 weeks, selling more than five million copies of its sheet music. It’s since become a standard, recorded by hundreds of singers and jazz artists, including Frank Sinatra, Django Reinhardt, Art Tatum, Artie Shaw, Rosemary Clooney and even the Smashing Pumpkins. It was a hit also as recorded by Jimmie Lunceford in 1935 and again by Fats Domino in 1956.

Also with Gus Kahn he wrote “Yes Sir, That’s My Baby” in 1925 (with the famous opening “Yes sir, that’s my baby/ No sir, don’t mean maybe/ Yes sir, that’s my baby now…” A hit first for Ace Brigode in 1925, followed by Eddie Cantor, Rick Nelson and Sinatra. The story goes that Donaldson and Kahn were visiting Eddie Cantor when his little daughter Marjorie started playing with her favorite toy, a mechanical pig that walked in rhythm to a two-note tune. Inspired, Kahn wrote lyrics on the spot in time with the toy pig rhythm, coming up with the famous opening line. He and Walter then retired to a nearby piano, where they completed the song in under an hour. The song was performed by Jason Robards in the 1965 film, A Thousand Clowns, and was also a hit for the Yiddish singer Pesach Burstein as “Yes Sir, Iz May Kalleh.”

Donaldson stayed in Los Angeles for the rest of his life, retiring in 1943 and dying in 1947. Though his name is not well known, many of his songs have had a lasting impact on our culture, which is the zenith of any songwriter’s achievement.

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  1. Most people who know popular music DO know the Donaldson name…especially since he was portrayed as a primary character in the 1951 Danny Thomas-Doris Day biopic about Gus Kahn, “I’ll See You In My Dreams.” Frank Lovejoy played the Donaldson role. Donaldson’s first collaborated song with Kahn was yet another Jolson standard, “Carolina In The Morning.”

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