Saturday, January 26, 2013

"I May Be Wrong," But I Think You're Wonderful"

By Chet Williamson

The author of the great American standard "I May Be Wrong, But I Think You're Wonderful, was born and raised in Worcester. Composer, pianist, and songwriter Henry Sullivan grew up on the west side of Pleasant Street and his early education found him at both St. John’s and Worcester Academy.

He was later a student at Dartmouth College, and according to school records, “Henry Anthony Sullivan is considered to be a member of the Class of 1923 -- although it appears that his degree was granted in 1924.” A brief description on file at the school says he was a “composer of operas and songs.”

Although he wrote “I May Be Wrong,” and other popular songs of the 1930s and ‘40s, Sullivan’s was largely focused on music for the theater. A collection of newspaper clippings on file at Worcester Academy indicate that Sullivan had written scores for several musical shows, many produced in London.

On May 15, 1939, under the heading of “Musical Son of WA,” an item ran in the Worcester Academy Bulletin stating: “Recent Dartmouth Alumni Magazine had a fine write-up on Henry A. Sullivan, W.A., ’17, which said in part: 'After advanced study in Vienna, following graduation from Dartmouth, Henry landed back in New York and did odd bits from many musical shows.'"

The Bulletin also pointed out that, the former U.S. Ambassador to EnglandJoseph Kennedy (father of John, Robert, and Teddy), was at that time, head of Pathe (record company) had signed the songwriter to a Hollywood contract. Sullivan spent two years on the west coast and contributed songs to Paramount films such as Pardon My Gun.

Sullivan wrote his first complete show, Almanac, in 1929. It was produced in New York by John Murray Anderson. “I May Be Wrong” came from the show with music by Sullivan and lyrics penned by lyricist Harry Ruskin, a frequent songwriting partner. The American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) lists Sullivan as the author of  a number of other songs such as “Caught in the Rain,” written with Howard Dietz and “My Temptation,” which was recorded by Fred Astaire.

Coleman Hawkins

Since the 1930s, “I May Be Wrong,” has been a favorite of jazz artists from Red Nichols and his Five Pennies to Hoagy Charmichael and the Chicadees. And, with its cool, self-effacing, and smart turn-of-phrase lyrics it has also been a fave of singers from Libby Holman and Judy Garland to Peggy Lee and Etta Jones. And, with its hip harmonic changes, instrumentalists from Coleman Hawkins to Miles Davis have also recorded the work. 
John Murray Anderson at the keyboard, his best pal on the piano 

Sullivan was a frequent collaborator with John Murray Anderson, who was a major figure in the theater world from the 1920s until his death in 1954. Sullivan wrote songs and scored a series of shows with the impresario. In addition to Almanac, Sullivan contributed songs to Anderson’s Bow Bells, Hush, Thumbs Up! and one of the “Little Shows.” (Note: Clinton-born pianist Carroll Gibbons and his orchestra played in the show of Bow Bells at the London Hippodrome and also note that actress Bette Davis starred in a production of Hush.) 

A 1939 edition of Worcester Academy Bulletin also reported that of Sullivan’s, “numerous recent successes, [we] might mention Home and Beauty, the Coronation Show of 1937. “A Nice Cup of Tea” from that show was pronounced biggest musical hit in England since the era of war songs. [He] is now scheduled to do an operetta in Paris, and another review is waiting for him in London. Sullivan holds a high place with the English there and justly deserves all the fine tributes which have been paid him.”


In February of 1948, a small piece on Sullivan appeared in the Feature Parade section of the Worcester Sunday Telegram. The composer had recently returned to town and was visited by Telegram photographer Edward A. Cournoyer and reporter Donald F. Williams, who wrote: “His score for Auld Lang Syne, a stage biography of Robert Burns, is tabbed by the experts as ‘sure hit material,’ although it isn’t scheduled for production until next fall or winter. At the moment, Mr. Sullivan is writing music for the 1948 Ringling Brothers Circus.

"The Worcester composer seldom writes popular songs, devoting most of his attention to musical comedies, operettas and revues. He prefers to do his composing in the day, but if the mood is right, he will work far into the evening. During that time he will have smoked innumerable cigarettes, for the cigarette, at least while he is composing, is his constant companion.”

The Worcester Academy file also notes that in 1951 it was the fourth year that Sullivan had written music for the Ringling Brothers Circus. One notable tune it suggests from the collection is “Circus Ball.”

Princess Rospigliosi
Another note in the Sullivan file at Worcester Academy reads: “(June 1951) Sailing for Paris to prepare music for an operetta to be staged in the fall, Never Apart, written by Princess Rospigliosi, music and lyrics by Sullivan.” (Also known as the “beautiful princess,” Rospigliosi was the former Mary Jennings Reid). 

Although none of his songs ever reached the popularity of “I May Be Wrong,” Sullivan was a prodigious composer who wrote music and songs for a playbill full of theater productions and films throughout his career. In addition to the aforementioned theater productions, Sullivan’s work graces the shows of The Third Little Show and Walk A Little Faster. His film credits include The Greatest Show on Earth, Perfect Understanding, Red Heads, The Return of Ruffles, Swingtime Johnny, Wildflower, You’re My Everything, and Young Man with a Horn

Sullivan’s legacy is largely forgotten. Nonetheless, being the author of “I May Be Wrong, But I Think You’re Wonderful,” will always give him a rightful place in the cannon of great songwriters in the American Songbook. He spent his final days in New York County where died at the age of 80 in 1975.


“I May Be Wrong, but I Think You’re Wonderful” (1929) 

Writers: Harry Ruskin and Henry Sullivan

“I May Be Wrong, But, I Think You’re Wonderful” was written on-demand for John Anderson Murray. In his book, The Encyclopedia of Musical Theater, Stanley Green reported that “because Anderson believed that the best songs are created under pressure he locked Sullivan in a room with a piano and threatened to keep in there until he came up with a potential hit. When finally liberated, the composer had written the most successful number in the show. The song was introduced by singer Jimmy Savo in the revue. It was later used in a reel of films, including the Swingtime Johnny, starring the Andrew Sisters; You’re My Everything with Dan Dailey; Young Man with a Horn, starring Kirk Douglas and sung by Doris Day; and On the Sunnyside of the Street, sung by Jane Wyman. 

Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis

The American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) reports that more than 50 artists have recorded the song over the years. A partial list includes Charlie Parker, Stan Getz, Lee Konitz, Eddie Lockjaw Davis, Doris Day, Perry Como, Count Basie and the Mills Brothers, Frank Rosolino, George Barnes, Dave Brubeck, Helen Forrest, June Christy, Frankie Laine, the Four Freshmen, Pee Wee Russell, Hoagy Charmichael, Tommy Dorsey, and John Kirby, among others. 

Gerry Mulligan, Chet Baker Quartet w/Chico Hamilton and Carson Smith

Instrumental version by Gerry Mulligan and Chet Baker

Sung by Doris Day

“My Temptation” – sung by Fred Astaire –

Lilly Belle May June – Django Reinhardt --


“A Nice Cup of Tea” – sung by Binnie Hale --

“There’s Happiness Over the Hill – performed by George Olsen, with singers Fran Frey, Bob Borger, and Bob Rice

“I Love you So Much I Hate You” – sung Gloria Swanson  --

Other songs written by Henry Sullivan: “A Page from Jonathan Swift,” “A Picnic in the Park,” “Ballerina,” “Bow Bells,” “Break Down and Weep,” “Catherine the Great,” “Caught in the Rain,” “Color Blind,” “Command to Love,” “Coronation Revue,” “Cowboy Song,” “Eileen Avourneen,” “Falling in Love,” “Flamenco,” “Fanfare,” “Frisco Fanny, “Going, Going, Gone,” “If Every Month Were June,”  “I Like to Learn the Rumba,” “Martinique,” “Mayfair,” “Merrily We Waltz Along,” “Mona Lisa” (from the show Bow Bells), My Arab Complex,” “Nightingale, Over the Page, Bring Me A Rose,” “Popcorn and Lemonade,” “Shake Trouble Away,” “Sing A Happy Song,” “So Nonchalant, “Song of Heart’s Desire,” “Storm in My Heart,” “A Taste of the Sea,” “There’s Happiness Over the Hill,” “Time and Tide,” “The Torch Singer (What Do You Think My Heart is Made Of?), and “Valentine.”
Howard Dietz

Collaborators: Hugh Abercrombie, John Murray Anderson, Nicholas Brodzky, Desmond Carter, Monty Collins, Earle Crooker, Walter DeLeon, Howard Dietz, Al Dubin, Ray Eagon, Eddie Eliscu, Roland Leigh, Harry Ruskin


DOB: December 7, 1895 (Worcester)

DOD: December 1, 1975 (New York County, New York)

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


See: John Murray Anderson’s memoir, Out Without My Rubbers On

Saturday, January 19, 2013

"Don't Sit Under the Apple Tree"

By Chet Williamson 
Charles Tobias once tagged himself as “the boy who writes the songs you sing,” and his output of more than 400 songs  certainly reflects such a proclamation.

Tobias was one of the most prolific songwriters of the 1920s and ‘30s and although born in New York City, he was educated and grew up in Worcester. He was a student of Ledge Street School and Classical High School

“I used to sell the Worcester Telegram and The Evening Gazette as a kid,” Tobias recalled.

While still a youngster, Tobias began his career as a vaudeville singer before moving on to becoming a staff writer at a New York music publishing firm. In 1923, he founded his own company, Tobey Music Corp., which would later employ his brothers, Harry and Henry.

Ruth Etting

Primarily known as a lyricist and singer, he collaborated with numerous songwriters producing hits sung by such legendary artists as Ruth Etting, Gene Austin, Bing Crosby, Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Frank Sinatra and Nat Cole.  

He contributed songs to such Broadway shows as Earl Carroll’s Vanities of 1932, Sketch Book, Yokel Boy, Banjo Eyes, and Hellzapoppin'

One of the shows songs, “I’m Painting the Town Red,” was described by music writer Warren W. Vache as the most memorable when “recorded by a Teddy Wilson all-star group for Brunswick and a vocal by Billie Holiday. Other sides were made by Richard Himber for Victor, Bob Howard for Decca, and the Little Ramblers on Bluebird. The song was a collaboration between Charles Tobias, Charles Newman on words, with music by Sam H. Stept.” 

And, for more than 30 years, Tobias also wrote songs for Hollywood musicals such as So Long Letty, Manhattan Melodrama, Poor Cinderella, Gift of Gab, Dancing on the Moon, You’re a Sweetheart, Start Cheering, Having Wonderful Time, Forty Little Mothers, the film version of Yokel Boy, Sweetheart of the Fleet, Chip Off the Old Block, Shine On Harvest Moon, Hi, Beautiful, Saratoga Trunk, Patrick the Great, Tomorrow is Forever, Twilight on the Rio Grande, Love and Learn, The Daughter of Rosie O’Grady, On Moonlight Bay, About Face, and Kathy O. 

Quotes: “Songwriting is a matter of having faith in one’s own ideas. If a theme sticks in your head and you keep humming it, that theme may prove to be a hit…. Sometimes a hit flows right off the end of your pen. I’ve known a hit to be written in 15 minutes. That’s an exception.”  


“Comes Love”  (1939)


Writers: Charles Tobias, Lew Brown, Sam Stept

Sung by Helen Forrest with Artie Shaw 

Written with Sam Stept and Lew Brown, “Comes Love” is a favorite of many singers, including Worcester’s own Georgia Gibbs and Linda Dagnello, as well as Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Helen Merrill, Louis Armstrong, and more recently Dianne Reeves, Joni Mitchell, Dave Van Ronk, Jamie Cullum, Ann Hampton Callaway, Norah Jones, and Stacey Kent. 

Worcester singer  Georgia Gibbs

Wynton Marsalis

Given its cool and open chord changes in a minor key, it is also a favorite of instrumentalists like Wynton Marsalis, Warren Vache, Harry Allen, Ray Anderson, Grace Kelly, Conte Condoli, among many others.  It was first introduced in the 1939 Broadway musical called Yokel Boy, starring Buddy Ebsen and Judy Canova at the Majestic Theater in New York. In the production the song was danced to by Dixie Dunbar.

“Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree” (1942)

Writers: Charles Tobias, Lew Brown, Sam Stept
Sung by Andrew Sisters with Harry James --

“Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree” was also featured in the musical, Yokel Boy. It was a major hit in 1942 for Glenn Miller with the Tex Beneke and Marion Hutton. That same year, it was also recorded with Harry James, who featured the Andrews Sisters singing with great verve and infectious enthusiasm, a needed ingredient in the middle of WWII. 

With its sentiment of love and patriotism it resonated with young romantics promising to be true from San Francisco to Manilla, from Boston to Normandy. A third recording of the tune by Kay Kyser also fared well. And, according to M. Paul Holsinger, author of War and American Popular Culture: A Historical Encyclopedia, author M. Paul Holsinger, “This was one of only a few times in history that three different recordings of the same song reached the radio’s Hit Parade simultaneously.” As writer George T. Simon pointed out in his Big Band Songbook, “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree” proved to be custom made for its times, when boys were away from their girls, wondering what they were doing, with each group avidly hoping that the other would heed the original words of Charlie Tobias not to ‘sit under the apple tree,’ and especially Lew Brown’s follow-up line of ‘with anyone else but me.”

“The Old Lamplighter” (1946)

Writers: Charles Tobias, Nat Simon

Recorded by the Sammy Kaye Orchestra -- 

“The Old Lamplighter" was written about an actual street lamplighter who tended gas lanterns on the neighborhood of Harrison, Providence, and Water Streets near the Tobias brothers’ Worcester home. It was published in 1946 and made popular that year by Billy Williams, singer with Sammy Kaye’s Orchestra. According to Billboard, it stayed on the charts for 14 weeks and peaked at number one. It was also recorded by such stars as Kay Kyser, Hal Derwin, Teresa Brewer, Russ Morgan, and the Browns, a popular country acts from the 1960s.  


““Shadowland” sung by K.D. Lang

“Trade Winds” -- sung by Frank Sinatra

Helen Forrest

“Time Waits for No One” – sung by Helen Forrest

“Tears Don’t Care Who Cries Them” – sung by Jackie Wilson


“Those Lazy-Hazy-Crazy Days of Summer,” – sung by Nat Cole (a Top Ten Hit)

“That’s All Folks!” (Theme music for Looney Tunes cartoons, Merrie Melodies, adapted from the song “Merrily We Roll Along,” written by Charles Tobias, Eddie Cantor, and Murray Mencher)

“My First Impression of You” – sung by Billie Holiday with Lester Young --

“I’m Painting the Town Red” – sung by Billie Holiday with Teddy Wilson -- 

“Get Out and Get Under the Moon” – Nat Cole  

“I Can’t Pretend” – sung by Billie Holiday

And, “After My Laughter Came Tears” (Annette Hanshaw), “Don’t Sweetheart Me” (Joan Brooks),  “I Can’t Afford to Dream” (Artie Shaw), “I Must Have That Man” (Billie Holiday), “I Still Remember” (Rudy Vallee), “Just A Prayer Away” (Mel Cooper), “Lila” (Fred Waring’s Pennsylvannians), “Me Too” (Paul Whiteman), “My First Impression of You” (Lester Young), “Sail Along Silv’ry Moon” (Billy Vaughn) and “What Do We Do On A Dew-Dew-Dewy Day,” (Jim Miller).

Lester Young
 Among many other songs by Charles Tobias include: (Charles Tobias wrote more than 400 songs.) Here is a sample: “After My Laughter Came to Tears,” “As Long As I Live,” “Back Home,” “Boy Meets Girl,” “Comes Love,” “Dancing on the Moon,” “Don’t Be Like That,”  “Down To This,” “Every Day Away With You,” “Faithfully Yours,” “Fall in Love with Me,” “Gee, But You’re Swell,” “Haunting Me,”  “I Can’t Afford to Dream,” “Just A Prayer Away,” “Kathy-O,” “Leave Me 
Your Troubles,” “Little Curly Hair in a High Chair,” “Little Lady Make Believe,” “Little Sing-A-Lee,” “Merrily We Roll Along,” “Me Too (Ho-Ho Ha-Ha),” “Mighty Nice To Have Met You,” “My First Impression of You,” “My Heaven on Earth,” “My Wife is On a Diet,” “My Young and Foolish Heart,” “No Regrets,” “The Old Lamplighter,”  “Poor Cinderella,” “Rose O’Day,” “Start the Day Right, “Tomorrow Who Cares?” “Up in the Sky with You,” “When the Circus Comes to Town,” “Young Ideas,” and “Zing Zing Zoom Zoom.”


Gus Arnheim, Able Baer, Lew Brown, Eddie Cantor, Hans Carste, Peter DeRose, Sammy Fain, Cliff Friend, Dave Kapp, Jules Lemare, Al Lewis, Carmen Lombardo, Neil Moret, Murray Mencher, Charles Newman, Don Reid, Sigmund Romberg, Jack Scholl, Al Sherman, Nat Simon, Maurice Spitalny, Sam H. Stept, Edna Tobias, Frederick Tobias, Jerome Tobias, Henry Tobias, Harry Tobias, Pinky Tomlin, Roy Turk, Anson Weeks, and Harry Woods.

Charles Tobias 

DOB: August 15, 1898 (born in New York City, educated in Worcester Public Schools)
DOD: July 7, 1970 (Manhasset, Long IslandNew York)

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