When the composers of the Great American Songbook are listed, more often than not, Harold Arlen is omitted from the roster.
Here are what some of the many admired composers and lyricists had to say about Arlen:
- Alec Wilder, American Popular Song: "I have had quite a few red-faced arguments concerning the relative merits of the songs of Arlen and Gershwin, and have always, or almost always, been jeered at for preferring Arlen's...Arlen has always had not only an astonishing melodic gift but harmonic sensibilities of the most sophisticated sort."
- George Gershwin: "....the most original of composers. You can never trace his melodies to the Lost Chord or Go Down Moses!"-"Happy With The Blues" by Edward Jablonski
- Irving Berlin: "Harold Arlen wasn't as well known as some of us, but he was a better songwriter than most of us...."
New Yorker Magazine September 19, 2005: "If Arlen's name is not on the American public's lips, his songs are in our hearts. “Harold's best is the best,” Irving Berlin said. The songwriter and historian Alec Wilder, in his canonical book, “American Popular Song,” warns himself at the beginning of his chapter on Arlen, “I must guard against over-enthusiasm.” He goes on, “If the story was true that George Gershwin was his hero”—it was—“then as far as I'm concerned, the pupil surpassed the teacher. . . . I respect Gershwin, but I envy Arlen.” Gershwin himself respected Arlen, whom he called “the most original of all of us.” Unlike the music of most of his contemporaries, Arlen's harmonic flair and his melodic opulence were not influenced by Europe; instead, they grew out of the liberating principles of American jazz. “He, more than any of his contemporaries, plunged himself into the heartbeat of the popular music of his youth, the dance band,” Wilder writes. “He had that crazy jazz going,” Johnny Mercer, one of Arlen's collaborators, told Walter Cronkite in a nineteen-sixties TV special on the composer. “George's jazz was mechanical compared to Harold's.” Mercer continued, touching his solar plexus, “Harold's was right from in there.”
Mention of the name "Harold Arlen" is likely to elicit one of three responses SOMEWHERE OVER THE RAINBOW or THE MAN THAT GOT AWAY or a quizzical stare. It is a mystery that the man that Irving Berlin said was the best of the Great American Songbook writers is not as well known as his songs. True, Arlen has been celebrated in retrospectives by Ella Fitzgerald, Rosemary Clooney, Peggy Lee and other legendary vocalists but these tributes were limited to one album (or in some cases, two); the breadth and depth of his writing demand a much larger scope, one that no other singer has attempted.
By recording a series of ten CDs over time, I will be able to include songs both familiar and rare, classic and novelty, touching upon Broadway, Hollywood, nightclubs, radio, and even the concert hall. The songs have lasted because of the composer's profound humanity, integrity, and artistic depth, which capture the sound of America, as well as any composer, has. Arlen was a man who was clearly touched by genius.
I have decided to keep this project small and intimate, utilizing a jazz trio and, at times, solo piano to allow the songs to remain front and center in this celebration of his work. This is a labor of love, and my hope is that it will be the legacy of which I will be most proud.