Sammy Timberg

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Sammy Timberg was a New York-born contemporary of George Gershwin and Aaron Copland, and shared the same music teacher, Rubin Goldmark, with them -- and his music was nearly as ubiquitous in our popular…
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Sammy Timberg was a New York-born contemporary of George Gershwin and Aaron Copland, and shared the same music teacher, Rubin Goldmark, with them -- and his music was nearly as ubiquitous in our popular culture, even if his name wasn't remotely as well known. The youngest child in a Jewish immigrant family from Austria, Timberg (who was sometimes credited as Sam Timberg or Samuel Timberg) was born in New York City in 1903, and from his early teens had entertained serious hopes of being a concert pianist. The death of his father in 1919, when he was 16, however, forced him to turn to vaudeville for a living -- his older brother Herman was already a successful comic and Sammy joined him as the straight man in the act. The two later turned to writing for other performers, including the Marx Brothers and Phil Silvers early in their respective careers. Sammy Timberg wrote songs for such Broadway musicals as The Duchess of Chicago and The Street Singer -- although he was versed in classical music (and had even written and conducted a critically acclaimed jazz rhapsody for 100 instruments), his preferred idioms were jazz and popular music.

He got to explore and mix both idioms in 1931, when he went to work for Fleischer Studios, founded and run by Max Fleischer and his brother Dave Fleischer. Over the next 14 years, sometimes working in tandem with Sammy Lerner, he scored as many as 200 cartoons built around the characters of Betty Boop and Popeye the Sailor, and supporting players for each, such as Grampy, Wimpy, Poop-Deck Pappy, Bluto, and more. His output included a brace of songs that swept through the popular culture of the period, including "It's a Hap-Hap-Happy Day" and "Don't Take My Boop-Oop-a-Doop Away" -- the latter was one of the most sexually suggestive and humorous songs ever to grace a mainstream cartoon from a major producer. He also worked on a pair of Fleischer-produced full-length animated features, Gulliver's Travels and Mr. Bug Goes to Town, the latter in collaboration with Frank Loesser and Hoagy Carmichael. At his best, Timberg could freely mix pop and jazz into a memorable whole, either instrumentally or vocally -- his music was at the center of the appeal of the Fleischer cartoons, as much as the art or the direction, the jazz scoring and textures often driving the cartoon shorts' action. Max Fleischer knew it, keeping the composer on his payroll until the end of his tenure as head of the studio he'd founded. Timberg continued working with the studio even after it was taken over by Paramount Pictures as Famous Studios, and scored the renowned early/mid-'40s Superman cartoons. In the 1940s, he also provided the music for the Lionel Barrymore radio version of A Christmas Carol, which was a perennial favorite holiday event, and did music for Casper the Friendly Ghost and other postwar cartoon creations -- meanwhile, in popular recordings, he enjoyed his greatest success when, in collaboration with Buddy Kaye and Sammy Kahn, he co-wrote "Help Yourself to My Heart," which was recorded by Frank Sinatra during his period at Columbia Records.

After an unhappy period working for Columbia Pictures in the second half of the 1940s, he gave up movie work and returned to performing, preparing a revue of songs and comedy that he took on the road. He took up residence at a particularly inviting venue, in Scranton, PA, and lived there for the next 40 years, until his death in 1992. Timberg's name fell out of view across the decades, but his music continued to be heard -- in the early '60s, there was even a national theatrical re-release of the 24-year-old Gulliver's Travels, which had already become a fixture on television -- and was known by millions of baby boomers who had grown up watching Popeye and Betty Boop cartoons on television, and a few thousand theater mavens who remembered his songs for the stage. Timberg's daughter Pat later oversaw a CD release of modern re-recordings of Timberg's classic 1930s songs and music, in his own arrangements, entitled Boop-Oop-a-Doin' (2004).