Songwriters Harry Warren (music) and Johnny Mercer (lyrics) — composers of “On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe” — are revered by Tin Pan Alley enthusiasts, but the wider public has never been adequately aware of these masters of the American popular song. George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, and Cole Porter are the names on the tips of most people’s tongues, but other deserving members seem to have a hard time finding their place in the public consciousness.
Most people have no idea just how many American songwriters belong to this extraordinary and exclusive club. Sticking only to personal favorites who come instantly to mind, and in no particular order, the group includes Harry Warren, Fats Waller, Eubie Blake, Noble Sissle, Johnny Mercer, Scott Joplin, Jimmy Johnson, Jules Styne, Arthur Schwartz, Ralph Rainger, Leo Robin, and the incomparable Betty Comden and Adolph Green.
And on and on.
My latest choice for great songs in film was written for the film “The Harvey Girls.” At one point, Director George Sidney casually mentioned that he needed a train song. The story is that Harry Warren immediately began to hum the sound effect of a chugging locomotive, slowly added a melody, gave the melody to Johnny Mercer for lyrics, and the result was a classic.
America at the turn of the century was such a crazy quilt of bias, prejudice and resentment that — at one time or another — virtually every ethnic and religious group took its turn at being despised. This meant that the Tin Pan Alley pantheon is packed with changed names. Irving Berlin was born Israel Baline. And Harry Warren, born during a period of virulent anti-Italian sentiment, was born Salvatore Antonio Guaragna.
And — but you almost certainly know this already — Judy Garland, the luminous star of “The Harvey Girls,” was born Frances Gumm.