The Composer Who Tested Fighter Planes And Partied With Sinatra

Jan 26, 2013
Originally published on January 26, 2013 5:36 pm

You've never heard of Jimmy Van Heusen? Well, the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers has. You certainly know many of his songs, says Brook Babcock, Van Heusen's grandnephew and president of his publishing company.

"There's 330,000 songwriters listed with ASCAP. Van Heusen, as far as his catalog, is probably within the Top 20. That's a pretty good number," Babcock says. "Yes, he's not as known as Cole Porter, Ira Gershwin, George Gershwin, but when you put that name out there — Jimmy Van Heusen — to be in that Top 20 is, to me, pretty significant."

The songwriter behind "Swinging on a Star," "Love and Marriage," "Come Fly with Me" and "My Kind of Town" won four Academy Awards and one Emmy for his work; he would have been 100 today. Jimmy Van Heusen was born Edward Chester Babcock and grew up in Syracuse, N.Y., where he was a terrible student but a born entertainer.

"I don't think there's a school in Syracuse that I didn't attend," he told an interviewer on Armed Forces Radio in the 1960s. "And I was usually unceremoniously expelled."

Among his crimes: a suggestive performance at a high-school assembly.

"I chose, for my song, 'My Canary Has Circles Under His Eyes,' " he said. "It was written by Yip Harburg, and I just copied it off the air. But it went, 'Since making whoopee became all the rage / It's gotten round to the old birdcage / And my canary's got circles under his eyes.' ... It was the biggest laugh! You never heard 2,000 kids laugh so hard!"

Babcock took his pen name from the dress-shirt brand Phillips-Van Heusen. He made his way to New York, where Harold Arlen gave him a shot to write for the Cotton Club revue. Cab Calloway was the first to record a Van Heusen song.

A few years later, Van Heusen wrote a big hit for Benny Goodman, "Darn That Dream." Bing Crosby heard it and brought Van Heusen to California, where the composer began a successful collaboration with lyricist Johnny Burke.

In Hollywood, Van Heusen became known as a man about town. Even though he wasn't conventionally handsome, he always had a beautiful woman on his arm. And, Brook Babcock says, he threw great parties.

"His house was always open, his bar was always open," Babcock says. "Even when he was not home, people could go over to his house and basically let their hair down, so to speak, and take it easy."

But Babcock says Van Heusen had another side. During World War II, while writing songs for Hollywood movies, he was also doing dangerous work as a fighter test pilot.

"He would work from 5 a.m. to 1 p.m., five days a week, going over to the Lockheed plant, flying these airplanes on behalf of the Air Force," Babcock says. "And then, from 2 o'clock onward, he was writing songs."

Singer Michael Feinstein says Van Heusen was a man of contradictions, both in his life and in his music.

"He was a real partier, and yet the romance in his songs is something that came from another part of him, because I would not say that in life he was a romantic guy," Feinstein says. "I mean, he didn't get married until the age of 56 — that was the first time he got married! But then here he is, writing all these songs like 'Darn That Dream' and 'Polka Dots and Moonbeams' and 'Love and Marriage' and 'The Tender Trap' and 'All the Way.' And I don't think that he actually believed in those songs, you know? But he knew how to express what people wanted to believe in."

One of Van Heusen's partying pals was Frank Sinatra, and when the partnership with Johnny Burke came to an end, Sinatra helped pair the composer with lyricist Sammy Cahn. Together, they wrote a remarkable 76 songs for the crooner.

"The thing I find fascinating about them," Feinstein says, "is that Sinatra is famous for changing lyrics and switching around things in songs to make them his own, but he never changed anything in the Van Heusen-Cahn songs."

Sinatra and Van Heusen were such good friends that, at times, they roomed together. Chuck Granata, who has produced several Sinatra reissues, says Van Heusen was Sinatra's confidant when the singer was breaking up with Ava Gardner.

"He was the one that saw Frank Sinatra's desperation," Granata says. "When you you think about the underlying subtext of songs like 'Only the Lonely' and 'No One Cares,' which were Van Heusen melodies, I think Van Heusen was able to distill the raw emotion that he saw in Frank in that mid- to late-1950s period and really bring it out in those recordings and those songs."

When Jimmy Van Heusen died, he was buried in the Sinatra family plot.

"There were two people who were nonfamily members who Sinatra wanted near him through eternity," Granata says. "[The first was] his longtime friend, bodyguard and very close companion, Jilly Rizzo, and the second was Jimmy Van Heusen. And I think that's the ultimate tribute, really. That really speaks volumes about Sinatra's admiration and adoration for those two people."

Jimmy Van Heusen was 77 when he died. His headstone reads, "Swinging on a Star."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Jimmy Van Heusen was one of America's greatest popular composers. He wrote "Darn That Dream," "Swinging on a Star," "All the Way," "High Hopes," "Here's That Rainy Day," "Come Fly With Me" and more. He was the guy Frank Sinatra wanted to be: cool kind of ladies' man who flew his own plane. He was born Edward Chester Babcock on January 26, 1913. On this 100th anniversary of his birth, Jeff Lunden has an appreciation of the man who became Jimmy Van Heusen.

JEFF LUNDEN, BYLINE: You've never heard of Jimmy Van Heusen? Well, the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers has. And you certainly know many of his songs, says Brook Babcock, Van Heusen's grandnephew and president of his publishing company.

BROOK BABCOCK: There's 330,000 songwriters listed with ASCAP. Van Heusen, as far as his catalogue, is probably within the top 20. So that's a pretty good number.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG MEDLEY)

BING CROSBY: (Singing) Would you like to swing a star, carry moonbeams home in a jar.

FRANK SINATRA: (Singing) He's got high hopes, he's got high hopes...

(Singing) Love and marriage, love and marriage, they go together like a horse and carriage...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing) Call me irresponsible...

LUNDEN: He was born in Syracuse, New York - a terrible student, but a born entertainer, as he told an interviewer on Armed Forces Radio in the 1960s.

JIMMY VAN HEUSEN: I don't think there's a school in Syracuse that I didn't attend. And I was usually unceremoniously expelled.

LUNDEN: Including once for singing at a high school assembly.

HEUSEN: And I chose for my song, "My Canary Has Circles Under His Eyes." The lyrics are - actually it was written by Yip Harburg and I just copied it off the air. But it went: Since making whoopee became all the rage, it's gotten round to the old bird cage, and my canary's got circles under his eyes. You never heard 2,000 kids laugh so hard.

LUNDEN: Babcock took the name Van Heusen from the shirts. He made his way to New York, where Harold Arlen gave him a shot to write for The Cotton Club Revue.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LUNDEN: Cab Calloway was the first to record a Van Heusen song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HARLEM HOSPITALITY")

CAB CALLOWAY: (Singing) It's the one and only Lenox Avenue. That's the one and only place to travel to. You see kissing and dancing everywhere...

LUNDEN: A few years later, Van Heusen wrote a big hit for Benny Goodman, "Darn That Dream."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DARN THAT DREAM")

BENNY GOODMAN: (Playing)

LUNDEN: Singer Bing Crosby heard it and brought Van Heusen to California, where the composer began a successful collaboration with lyricist Johnny Burke.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MOONLIGHT BECOMES YOU")

CROSBY: (Singing) Moonlight becomes you. It goes with your hair...

LUNDEN: In Hollywood, Van Heusen became known as a man about town. Even though he wasn't conventionally handsome, he always had a beautiful woman on his arm. And he threw great parties, says his grandnephew, Brook Babcock.

BABCOCK: And the well-known fact among his friends that his house was always open, his bar was always open, even when he was not home.

LUNDEN: But Babcock says Van Heusen had another side. During World War II, while writing songs for Hollywood movies, he was also doing dangerous work as a fighter test pilot.

BABCOCK: He would work from 5 A.M. to 1 P.M., five days a week, going over to the Lockheed plant, flying these airplanes. And he was using his real name, Edward Chester Babcock while he was doing this. And then, from 2 o'clock, onwards, he was writing songs.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SWINGING ON A STAR")

TOMMY HAYNES: Hello, Mr. Van Heusen. If you'll climb aboard, I'll meet you on the 88. (Singing) A pig is an animal with dirt on his face, his shoes are a terrible disgrace. He's got no manners when he eats his food. He's fat and lazy and extremely rude. But if you don't care a feather or a fig, you may grow up to be a pig.

LUNDEN: That's Jimmy Van Heusen playing piano with singer Tommy Haynes in a 1944 radio broadcast. Singer Michael Feinstein says Van Heusen was a man of contradictions in his life and in his music.

MICHAEL FEINSTEIN: He was a real partier and yet the romance in his songs is something that came from another part of him because he didn't get married until the age of 56. But then here he is writing all these songs like "Darn that Dream" and "Polka Dots and Moonbeams" and "All the Way." And I don't think that he actually believed in those songs. But he knew how to express what people wanted to believe in.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "POLKADOTS AND MOONBEAMS")

SINATRA: (Singing) A country dance was being held in a garden. I felt a bump then heard her, oh, beg your pardon. Suddenly I saw, polkadots and moonbeams all around the pug-nose dream...

LUNDEN: One of Van Heusen's partying pals was Frank Sinatra, and when the partnership with Johnny Burke came to an end, Sinatra helped pair the composer with lyricist Sammy Cahn. Together, they wrote a remarkable 76 songs for the crooner.

FEINSTEIN: And the thing I find fascinating about them is that Sinatra is famous for changing lyrics and switching around things in songs to make them his own, but he never changed anything in the Van Heusen-Cahn songs.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COME FLY WITH ME")

SINATRA: (Singing) Come fly with me, let's fly, fly away. If you can use some exotic booze, there's a bar in far Bombay. Come on and fly with me, let's fly, let's fly away...

LUNDEN: Sinatra and Van Heusen were such good friends that, at times, they roomed together. Chuck Granata, who's produced several Sinatra reissues, says Van Heusen was Sinatra's confidant when the singer was breaking up with Ava Gardner.

CHUCK GRANATA: When you think about the underlying subtext of songs like "Only the Lonely" and "No One Cares," which were Van Heusen melodies, I think Van Heusen was able to distill the raw emotion that he saw in Frank and really bring it out in those songs.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ONLY THE LONELY")

SINATRA: (Singing) Each place I go, only the lonely go. Some little small cafe...

LUNDEN: When Jimmy Van Heusen died, he was buried in the Sinatra family plot.

GRANATA: There were two people who were non-family members who Sinatra wanted near him through eternity - his long-time friend, bodyguard and very close companion, Jilly Rizzo, and the second was Jimmy Van Heusen. And I think that's the ultimate tribute, really.

LUNDEN: Jimmy Van Heusen was 77 when he died. His headstone reads: Swinging on a Star. For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY KIND OF TOWN" )

SINATRA: (Singing) ...leave, Chicago is tugging my sleeve...

SIMON: You can find photos of Jimmy Van Heusen and more of his music at our website, npr.org. This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Hey, I'm from Chicago too. I'm Scott Simon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.