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

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