Sunny Skylar towers among the greats of the Tin Pan Alley era -- an extraordinarily prolific songsmith with a unique flair for supplying new English lyrics to foreign-language hits, he contributed countless…
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Sunny Skylar Biography

by Jason Ankeny

Sunny Skylar towers among the greats of the Tin Pan Alley era -- an extraordinarily prolific songsmith with a unique flair for supplying new English lyrics to foreign-language hits, he contributed countless original compositions to the Great American Songbook but remains best known for adapting "Besame Mucho," cited by some historians as the most frequently recorded song in music history. Born Selig Shaftel in Brooklyn on October 11, 1913, he first pursued a career as a singer, and in the years leading up to World War II he performed with a series of big bands, including stints with Ben Bernie, Paul Whiteman, Abe Lyman, and Vincent Lopez (who suggested his change his name to "Sunny," because it suited his disposition -- "Skylar" was his mother's maiden name). Skylar scored his first significant songwriting hit in 1941 when the Gene Krupa Orchestra featuring vocalist Anita O'Day recorded "Just a Little Bit South of North Carolina," which he wrote in collaboration with Bette Cannon and Arthur Shaftel. A year later, Skylar teamed with George Williams and Chummy MacGregor for "It Must Be Jelly ('Cause Jam Don't Shake Like That)," recorded by bandleaders including Glenn Miller and Woody Herman. Even as his writing career caught fire, Skylar nevertheless continued to pursue fame as a singer, performing at landmark nightspots including the Latin Quarter -- in addition, he spent several years in the mid-'40s as a staple of the nascent Las Vegas Strip, headlining casinos including The Flamingo and El Rancho.

Written by Mexican singer Consuelo Velázquez in 1941 and first recorded that same year by singer Emilio Tuero, the bolero-inspired "Besame Mucho" was the beneficiary of a dispute between American broadcasters and the performing rights association ASCAP, which was demanding higher royalty fees for its members -- rival organization BMI sought to fill the gap with material written outside the U.S., handing the song to Skylar for an English-language rewrite. Although his dizzily romantic interpretation was soon recorded by crooner Andy Russell, "Besame Mucho" truly entered the popular consciousness in 1943, when it was a million-selling chart-topper for Jimmy Dorsey & His Orchestra along with featured vocalists Kitty Kallen and Bob Eberly. The resulting royalties reportedly funded Skylar's first house and put his children through college, and in the decades to follow, "Besame Mucho" was recorded by hundreds of other artists both in its original Spanish and subsequent English incarnations -- the Beatles even recorded the song in 1962 during their failed audition for Decca Records, although the performance was not officially released until more than three decades later as part of the group's first Anthology retrospective. Following the success of "Besame Mucho," Skylar penned English lyrics for Gabriel Ruíz's "Amor Amor Amor," another major Dorsey hit -- in 1949, he returned to the well once again, this time adapting Leoncavallo's "Mattinata" to yield the Vic Damone smash "You're Breaking My Heart."

According to ASCAP, Skylar wrote more than 300 songs across the span of his career -- in his hands, the Carlos & Mario Rigual hit "Cuando Calienta el Sol" resurfaced on American pop radio in 1964 as the Ray Charles Singers' "Love Me with All Your Heart," French composer Michel Polnareff's "Ame Caline" enjoyed a second life as Raymond Lefevre's "Soul Coaxing," and a melody from Dutch composer Jean Senn transformed into Dean Martin's "Watching the World Go By." But Skylar also contributed a number of now-classic original compositions as well -- Frank Sinatra recorded his "Don't Wait Too Long" for the landmark September of My Years, and Ella Fitzgerald cut "Gotta Be This or That" for Ella Swings Lightly. Other notable efforts include "Be Mine Tonight," "Hair of Gold, Eyes of Blue," "And So to Sleep Again," "Fifteen Minute Intermission," "I'd Be Lost Without You," and "It's All Over Now." Skylar additionally cut a handful of efforts as a solo act -- 1946's Mercury label effort Nursery Rhymes (But Not for Children) is much sought-after by collectors of novelty records -- but abandoned his singing career for good in 1952. He retired from songwriting in the early '70s and settled in Las Vegas, where he remained for the rest of his life. Skylar died February 2, 2009 at the age of 95.

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