Harold Arlen was born Hyman Arluck on February 15, 1905, in Buffalo, New York. The child of a Jewish cantor, Arlen was reared singing in the synagogue choir and playing classical piano. At the age of 22, Arlen decided to move to New York City to pursue a music career; it was at this point that he changed his name to Harold Arlen.
Arlen is considered on of the greatest composers of the 20th century, writing over 400 songs, many of which became world renowned. In 1929, he composed his first well known song: “Get Happy.” During the 1930s, Arlen wrote shows for the Cotton Club, a night club in Harlem, as well as Broadway musicals and Hollywood films.
During the early and mid-1930s, Arlen co-wrote with Ted Koehler the following songs:
• “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea”
• “I’ve Got the World on a String”
• “Stormy Weather”
In 1938, Arlen was hired by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) to compose songs for the upcoming film, The Wizard of Oz. Along with lyricist E.Y. “Yip” Harburg, Arlen composed the famous song “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” in which he won the Academy Award for Best Music, Original Song. The Recording Industry Association of America voted “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” as the No. 1 song of the twentieth century.
Arlen continued to write song into the 1940s, teaming up with lyricist Johnny Mercer. Together they composed such songs as “Blues in the Night” and “One for My Baby.” He continued to compose songs throughout his life, producing his last one, in collaboration with Harburg, in 1976.
Arlen died on April 23, 1986.
Photo: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Van Vechten Collection