Tuesday, December 18, 2012

"It's a Lonesome Old Town"

By Chet Williamson

He was the oldest sibling of three songwriting brothers, known as the Royal Family or the Esquires of Tin Pan Alley.

Although born in New York City, Harry Tobias grew up in Worcester, where he began his pursuit of songwriting at a young age. According to his 1994 obituary in the Worcester Telegram & Gazette, Tobias wrote his first song at 16 while “working as a stock boy at John C. McInnes Co., a Worcester department store.”

“I wrote a little poem and then read an article, ‘Write a Song and Make a Fortune,’” he recalled in his brother Henry Tobias’ autobiography, Music in My Heart and Borscht in My Blood. The piece was called “National Sports” and the catch was that he had to pay the publishers $25 for 200 copies, which Harry himself had to sell.

While the setback was costly, Tobias was undeterred. His first hits were “Take Me to My Alabam,” and “That Girl of Mine,” published in 1916. And with the money garnered from sales Harry bought the family its first piano.

Tobias told writer Karen Maquire that both he and his brothers pitched their songs in music stores around the city, including Carl Seder’s Music Shop in Trumball Square

Music store owner Carl Seder. Credit Bob Johnson
In 1917, Tobias, joined the Army. Based at Camp Johnston in Jacksonville, FL, he met another songwriter Abe Olman and the new songwriting team began entertaining the troops – shouting their song lyrics into megaphones to be heard.

“That was a lot of fun, and I kept on writing lyrics while I was serving there,” Tobias said. “Music was always on my mind.”

After serving in WWI, Harry joined his older brother Charles’ music publishing business in New York. And, according to music writer Sandra Burlingame, the brothers, “including younger brother Henry, wrote songs together, including "Miss You" (1927), a modest hit which was recorded by Bing Crosby 12 years later.”

According to the Songwriters Hall of Fame, Tobias moved to Hollywood in 1929 and from that time forward wrote songs for studio musicals. His filmography includes such hits as Blondie of the Follies, Dizzy Dames, The Old Homestead, Daniel Boone, Trail Dust, One Rainy Afternoon, Criminal Lawyer, Sing While You’re Able, Sweetheart of the Navy, Meet the Boyfriend, Roll Along Cowboy, Knight of the Plains, Pride of the West, The Girl From Rio, Rancho Grande, Carolina Moon, Let’s Go Collegiate, She Has What it Takes, Sensations of 1945, Two Girls and a Sailor, I’ll Remember April, and Moonrise

In 1936, Tobias had, as Sandra Burlingame offers, “the distinction of having one of his songs, ‘No Regrets,’ recorded by Billie Holiday." She also notes that “It’s a Lonesome Old Town,” -- first popularized by the Modernaires in the early 1940s -- was “revived by Frank Sinatra."

In 1945, Tobias contributed an excellent collection of songs for the film, Sensations of 1945, including “Circus in the Sky, “Divine Lady,” “Kiss Serenade,” “Mr. Hepster’s Dictionary,” “No Never,” “One Love,” “Spin Little Pinball,” “Sensations,” “Wake Up Man, You’re Slippin’.” 

According to his obit, Tobias wrote lyrics for more than 25 movies and several Broadway shows. He was elected to the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1982.

STANDARDS: “It’s a Lonesome Old Town,” “Miss You” (w/brothers Henry and Charles Tobias), “No Regrets,” and “Sweet and Lovely”

“It’s a Lonesome Old Town” (1930)

Writers: Harry Tobias, Charles Kisko

Sung by Sting

According to Sandra Burlingame, “It’s a Lonesome Old Town,” which was written with Charles Kisco and first popularized by the Modernaires in the early ‘40s, was revived by Frank Sinatra in his 1958 album Only the LonelyIt resurfaced in the 1995, film Leaving Las Vegas, in which the song was performed by Sting. According to Billboard magazine’s Jack Burton, Tobias wrote “It’s a Lonesome Old Town” soon after he arrived in Hollywood, “which Ben Bernie adopted as his theme song.” It was also, oddly enough, the opening theme of the Jimmy Palmer Orchestra, but the song was first introduced by Seger Ellis who recorded the piece for Brunswick in 1930 with Jimmy Dorsey, Ruby Bloom and Eddie Lang.

“No Regrets” (1936)

Writers: Harry Tobias, Roy Ingraham

Sung by Billie Holiday 

This song was already a popular song that was being played by Tommy Dorsey and the Casa Loma Band when Billie Holiday made it a jazz vehicle for singers in 1936. Recorded on the Vocalion label, the date featured an all-star cast that included Bunny Berigan, Artie Shaw, Joe Bushkin, Dick McDonough, Pete Peterson and Cozy Cole. 

Artie Shaw and Billie Holiday
In the book, Three Chords for Beauty’s Sake: The Life of Artie Shaw, author Tom Nolan quotes the clarinetist take on Holiday’s version of the song. “Most people would sing No re-grets,” said Shaw, ‘going upward with the note as written.’ “She went: No! Re! Grets!” Pow, Pow, Pow -- right on the beat! He laughed, sixty-five years later by the memory of Holiday’s art … She had a way of making a song hers. She’d inhabit the song.” Phoebe Snow also covered the tune beautifully.

“Sweet and Lovely" (1931)

Writers: Harry Tobias, Charles Daniels, Gus Arnheim

Performed by Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane -- http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-HLujHZMeqw

In writer Burlingame’s estimation, Harry Tobias’ “most famous song, and one that is solidly in the jazz standards repertoire, is “Sweet and Lovely.” Her opinion is hard to dispute given that fact that no less than Woody Herman, Teddy Wilson, Dexter Gordon, Flip Phillips, Coleman Hawkins, Ella Fitzgerald, and Thelonious Monk, have all covered the work. Written in 1931 with Gus Arnheim, and Charles N. Daniels, the song was first introduced by the Gus Arnheim Orchestra and soon after it was soon recorded by Russ Columbo and Bing Crosby. “It’s sweet melody lingered and in 1944, it was revived in the film Two Girls and a Sailor, starring June Allyson, Gloria DeHaven and Van Johnson,” said music writer Gail Masinda Hunt.


“Mr. Hepster’s Dictionary” – Cab Calloway

“I’m Sorry Dear” – performed by Eddie Condon, featuring Jimmy McPartland -- http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FY4E4mYUL1I

“The Trouble With Me Is You” – sung by Nat Cole

“Spin Little Pin Ball” – sung by Woody Herman

“Somebody Loves You” – sung by Skeeter Davis


“Sail Along, Silv’ry Moon” – performed by Bill Vaughn

“At Your Command” – sung by Bing Crosby

“What Are You Doing Tonight?” – performed by Ben Pollack http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PQ7HeuZ7vGQ

“Coffee in the Morning & Kisses in the Night”—sung by Jimmy Newell

“Somehow or Other” – sung by Marjorie Reynolds

And, “The Daughter of Peggy O’Neil” (Del Courtney) “In God We Trust” (Anita Bryant), “Keep Off My Shoes” (Paul Whiteman), “Moon on My Pillow” (Jimmy Dorsey), Take Me To My Alabam” (Peerless Quartet), “Wild Honey” (Harry Soskin).  

Other songs by Harry Tobias include: “Any Place is Heaven,” “The Broken Record,” “Brother,” “Bugs Bunny,” ‘Call of the Wild,” “Divine Lady,” “Fascinating You,” “Forget Me Not,” “The Girl From Rio,” “That Girl of My Dreams,” “Goodnight My Love,” “Haunting Me,” “I Remember Mama,” “I Am Sorry,” “Just A Letter From Home,” “Kiss Serenade,” “Lost and Found,” “Love is All,” “Made For Each Other,” “Oh, Bella Mia,” “Paris is Paris Again,” “Rhythm Ranch,” “So Divine,” “Star of Hope,” “Take Me Back to Those Wide Open Spaces,” “Take Me To My Alabam,” “That Girl of Mine,” “Thy Will Be Done,” “Under Blue Montana Sky,” “Villain Still Pursued,” “Wait For Me, Mary,” “When It’s Harvest Time,” “You’re So Very Necessary” and “Zei Guzunt.” 

Young Gus Arnheim

Collaborators: Gus Arnheim, Harry Barris, George J. Bennett, Phil Boutelie, Will Dillon, Don George, Charlie Kisco, Roy Ingram, Jules Lamare, Neil Moret, Jean Schwartz, Al Sherman, Jack Stern, Henry, Charles Tobias, Elliott Tobias (son), and Percy Wenrich

Harry Tobias quote: “I’ve always contended that you need words that are easy to remember and a melody that is hard to forget. If you can’t remember it, whistle it or hum it, you haven’t got a hit.” See: T&G


DOB: September 11, 1895 (born in New York City, educated in Worcester Public Schools)

DOD: December 15, 1994 (St. Louis, MO)

This is a work in progress. Comments, corrections, and suggestions are always welcome. Also see: www.jazzriffing.blogspot.com


http://www.songwritershalloffame.org/exhibits/C103 http://content.cdlib.org/view?docId=tf558006cx&doc.view=entire_text&brand=default

Thank you for taking the time to read this piece. If you are interested in supporting this project, contributing material, or advertising on the site, please contact me at: walnutharmonicas@gmail.com. Thanks again. Be well, Chet

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