Hyman Arluck, later known as the great American composer Harold Arlen, was born February 15, 1905 in Buffalo, NY and died in New York City on April 23, 1986. The son of a cantor, he became infatuated with jazz and hot dance music, dropped out of school and began writing musical arrangements, playing piano and singing for a living. Songwriting, at first, seems to have been an afterthought. This Living Era collection traces Arlen's gradual rise to maturity using records he made between 1926 and 1954 in front of ensembles led by Red Nichols, Arnold Johnson, Leo Reisman, Joe Venuti, Ray Sinatra, Eugene Hayes, Woody Herman and Ray Matz. Unlike Al Jolson, whose synagogal training helped him to develop a rich and powerful voice, Arlen at first sang in a high, thin tone with a delivery ranging from smooth and endearing to rubbery and goose-like; his mannered awkwardness was comparable to the tonsil-tight chortling of Red McKenzie. Everything on this compilation is pleasantly nostalgic, much of it bringing to mind hotel lobbies populated by potted aspidistras and uniformed bell boys. Although the vocal trio used on the 1928 recording of "Happy Go Lucky Lane" seems to have kept Arlen in line, as a lone vocalist he sometimes strayed onto thin ice as he does during his puerile performance of "Pardon Me, Pretty Baby," an unintentionally humorous exercise in self-consciousness backed by excellent jazz players Jimmy Dorsey, Frank Signorelli, Joe Venuti and Eddie Lang. While during the '20s the contrast between top-notch instrumentalists and Arlen's naive sounding pipes bordered upon silliness, during the '30s he really began to sound more dignified. Not all of the songs heard here were composed by Harold Arlen, but most of them were. There is something magical about hearing melodies like "Stormy Weather," "Ill Wind," "Let's Fall in Love" and "As Long As I Live" sung by the man who wrote them. "Over the Rainbow," which Arlen once said seemed best suited to Nelson Eddy, is heard here voiced by Judy Garland with Arlen at the piano in front of an audience at a 1940 ASCAP concert in San Francisco. According to Arlen, "Blues in the Night" was the only authentic blues that he ever wrote. Certainly by the time he sang this version of it with Woody Herman's orchestra in 1941, Harold Arlen was worldly enough to deliver the words convincingly. By 1954 the awkward epiglottal wonder had ripened into a wistful adult who expressed his emotions marvelously, as he does while singing "Last Night When We Were Young" with all the passion and weltschmerz of his years.
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