Harold Arlen (February 15, 1905 – April 23, 1986) may be a name unfamiliar to music students today, but he is, without question, one of the top composers in American music history. Composer George Gershwin said "He's the most original of all of us."[1]

Arlen composed over 400 songs during his long career in music, from jazz tunes to popular songs, and music for film.

His hits include jazz standards like "Stormy Weather," "Ill Wind" and "That Old Black Magic."

He won an Oscar for the song "Over The Rainbow" performed by Judy Garland in the 1939 motion picture classic "The Wizard of Oz." His works have been recorded by the most iconic names in Jazz, on Broadway, and in Hollywood.

Arlen is a highly regarded contributor to the Great American Songbook.


Arlen performed for recordings which rarely resurface. Here are some of his greatest tunes, as sung by the composer himself.


Somewhere Over the Rainbow - The Wizard of Oz (1 8) Movie CLIP (1939) HD02:43

Somewhere Over the Rainbow - The Wizard of Oz (1 8) Movie CLIP (1939) HD



Arlen was born Chaim Arluk, in Buffalo, New York, the child of a Jewish cantor. His twin brother died the next day.

Harold sang in the synagogue where his father worked from the age of seven. He learned the piano as a youth and formed his first group, the Snappy Trio, while still in his teens.

Arlen achieved some local success as a pianist and singer, then moved to New York City in his early 20s, in 1925. (See: Career, below)

220px-Harold Arlen and Anya Taranda
In the mid-1930s, Arlen met 22-year-old Anya Taranda, a celebrated John Robert Powers model and former Earl Carroll and Busby Berkeley showgirl, actress, and one of the Original "Breck Girls." In 1937 they were married.

Arlen was a longtime friend and former roommate of actor Ray Bolger who would star as the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz.

"His ambition... was not a driving force, but something very sympathetic and sweet," remembers Bolger. "And his wonderful sense of humor: It was never an insult kind of humor, but a teasing kind. He used to joke about my eccentricities. And Harold and I had wonderful laughs about that."[2]

He was also friendly with Judy Garland, Lena Horne and many other celebrities who performed his work.

He wrote amazing works as he struggled through many personal challenges and tragedies and always seemed to keep his sense of humor about him.

"He had a wonderful laugh," noted author Edward Jablonski. "For a man who wrote so many sad songs, he was quite humorous and had a great sense of humor."[3]

From 1951 to 1958, his wife Anya was institutionalized in a sanitarium after repeatedly threatening Arlen and others with physical harm.

In 1953 Harold's father, Cantor Samuel Arluck, died. The final straw came in 1970, though, when Arlen's wife died from a brain tumor. He began to lose interest in life, withdrawing from friends and family and becoming more reclusive.

Arlen and his wife Anya had a son in 1958, Samuel Arlen named after his father.

Arlen died in 1986 in New York City. He was interred next to his wife at Ferncliff Cemetery in Hartsdale, New York.

At his passing the great Irving Berlin commented:

"He wasn't as well known as some of us, but he was a better songwriter than most of us, and he will be missed by all of us." [4]

His son Sam formed S.A. Music Co. later that year to continue promoting the works of his father's incredible career.


Arlen began working in "show biz" as an accompanist in Vaudeville theaters [5] Arlen originally did not want to be a songwriter. He wanted to become a singer. The years at the beginning of his career were spent on on stage singing and playing piano.[6] At this point, he changed his name to Harold Arlen.

Even though he was one of the top composers of the famed Tin Pan Alley he worked with numerous partners, and never hired his own publicist, so he never developed the kind of household name recognitions that his songs did. Yet, to a man, the other legendary composers of that time all paid him the tribute he was due.

"At the time, he was a little advanced for me, but I caught on pretty soon to his unusual harmonic structure and form," said legendary Broadway composer Richard Rodgers of Rogers and Hart. "I realized he was the greatest new talent in years. Larry - Hart - thought he was great. Harold has a real valid talent, it is his own, and completely original."[7]

In 1929, Arlen, working with lyricist Ted Koehler composed his first well-known song: "Get Happy" the beginning of a partnership that would last, on and off, most of his professional career.

"When we met I had been writing for quite a while, but Harold never struck me as being a young fellow trying to be a writer," said Koehler. "I felt he was a pro from the start. I mean by that: Unlike most young writers, who start slow and learn as they go, Harold had 'it' when I met him. As a matter of fact, I think our first song was 'Get Happy' and that was as solid as anything we did later. We seemed to feel and think the same way, therefore were able to work well together."[8]

Arlen and Koehler's partnership resulted in a number of hit songs, including the familiar standards "Let's Fall in Love" and "Stormy Weather."

Throughout the early and mid-1930s, Arlen and Koehler wrote shows for the Cotton Club (New York City)|Cotton Club, a popular Harlem night club, as well as for Broadway musicals and Hollywood films.

In the late 1930's he began working with lyricist Yip Harburg. In 1938, the team was hired by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) to compose songs for The Wizard of Oz, the most famous of which was the song "Over the Rainbow" for which they won the Academy Award for Best Music, Original Song.

The lore goes that, while driving along famed Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood, it came to Arlen as he stopped in front of Schwab's Drug Store, the place where actress Lana Turner was "discovered."

"When I first met Harold I was just 14 years old and the first song of the score for The Wizard of Oz they played for me was 'Over the Rainbow.' ," recalls singer and actress Judy Garland. "I was terribly impressed by Mr. Arlen's great genius and very much in awe of him. As I recall, it seems that Harold always treated me as an equal and not as a child. We have been great friends through the years."[9]

The song was voted the twentieth century's no. 1 song by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA).[10]

They also wrote "[|Down with Love]]," featured in the 1937 Broadway show, Hooray for What!. The song was featured decades later in the 2003 movie Down with Love.

In the 1940s, he teamed up with lyricist Johnny Mercer, and continued to write hit songs like "Blues in the Night", "That Old Black Magic," "Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive," "Any Place I Hang My Hat Is Home" and "One for My Baby (and One More for the Road)."

In 1949 he collaborated with Ralph Blane to write the score for the film "My Blue Heaven".

Arlen's compositions have always been popular with jazz musicians because of his facility at incorporating a blues feeling into the idiom of the conventional American popular song.

Arlen continued to perform as a pianist and vocalist between 1926 and about 1934, Arlen appeared occasionally as a band vocalist on records by The Buffalodians, Red Nichols, Joe Venuti, Leo Reisman and Eddie Duchin, usually singing his own compositions.


Arlen was admired by his peers for his technique.

"...Arlen is no thirty-two bar man. As one of the most individual of American show-composers he is distinctive in melodic line and construction," said lyricist Ira Gershwin. "Frequently when collaborating with him the lyricist - whether Koehler or Mercer or Harburg or myself - finds himself wondering if a resultant song isn't too long or too difficult or too mannered for popular consumption. But there's no cause for worry. Many Arlen songs take time to catch on, but when they do they join his impressive and lasting catalog."

His work was noted for its richness, complexity, and its difficulty.

""Harold doesn't write the cheap commercial tripe that is always recorded," said singer and actress Lena Horne who made Arlen's song "Stormy Weather" her own anthem. "Harold writes a song, not a mood coloring for a scene, and his songs are always singable away from the story. But, oh, their excruciating range!"[11]

"He is always courageous, intelligent, and incapable of cliché," observed author and lyricist Truman Capote. "His songs almost invariably contain some melodic surprise, some difficulty, which is one of the reasons he has not had the recognition he deserves." [12]


Arlen has received numerous honors and accolades.


Arlen won an Oscar, and was nominated for ten more, three in one year. Of the films which did not win Oscar gold, five are still iconic standards.

Awards WonEdit

71st Anniversary - Somewhere Over The Rainbow - Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz02:47

71st Anniversary - Somewhere Over The Rainbow - Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz

Somewhere Over the Rainbow by Harold Arlen


Postal ServiceEdit

On September 11, (1996) Arlen was featured on a U.S. Postal Service stamp, part of a series on the great American composers.


Centennial CelebrationEdit

Arlen's son, Sam, working with celebrities like Barbara Streisand and Tony Bennett developed a two-year long celebration of the centennial of Arlen's birth in 2005 with a series of concerts, exhibits, shows, recordings and memorials in tribute to the life and music of the great American composer, both in the U.S. and abroad. Events included:

  • New York City’s Mayor Bloomberg proclaimed February 15th (Arlen's birthday) as “Harold Arlen Day” in 2005
  • Mayor Masiello of Buffalo, New York, Arlen's birthplace proclaimed June 10th, 2005 “Harold Arlen Day” for their city
  • There was an all-star concert at Carnegie Hall on February 14th, 2005
  • A national Centennial concert tour starring Tony Award winner Faith Prince and television/singing star Tom Wopat
  • A four month museum exhibit honoring Arlen's musical career at the New York Library of Performing Arts at Lincoln Center
  • A Gala Benefit, concerts, film series and lectures at Chicago’s Annual Humanities Festival
  • An award ceremony honoring Arlen at ASCAP’s Film and Television Music Awards in Los Angeles
  • An Actor’s Fund tribute concert to Harold Arlen.

Major CompositionsEdit

Arlen's major commpositions are truly "major." They make up a chunk of the American Songbook and many are not only jazz standards; Some, like It's Only a Paper Moon have come to define the sound of a generation.

Notable Performances of Arlen CompositionsEdit


  1. Quotes - - Official Site
  2. Quotes - - Official Site
  3. Quotes - - Official Site
  4. Quotes - - Official Site
  5. Laurie, Joe, Jr. Vaudeville: From the Honky-tonks to the Palace. New York: Henry Holt, 1953. p. 328.
  6. Tributes with a Foreword by Samuel Arlen
  7. Quotes - - Official Site
  8. Quotes - - Official Site
  9. Quotes - - Official Site
  10.; “New Song List Puts 'Rainbow' Way Up High.” ( Accessed Aug. 26, 2009.
  11. Quotes - - Official Site
  12. Quotes - - Official Site

Other ResourcesEdit

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