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A Triple Crown Of Tunesmiths This Week On Riverwalk Jazz

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Jim Cullum Jr.
This week on Riverwalk Jazz, it’s the music of songwriters Vincent Youmans, Johnny Green and Harry Barris. Special guests Shelly Berg and Dick Hyman join The Jim Cullum Jazz Band on piano and Topsy Chapman, Marty Grosz and Carol Woods handle the vocals.

The program is distributed in the US by Public Radio International, on Sirius/XM satellite radio and can be streamed on-demand from the Riverwalk Jazz website. You can also drop in on a continuous stream of shows at the Stanford Archive of Recorded Sound.

Jazz blossomed into a golden age in the 1920s, and three men with talent to spare left an indelible mark on its repertoire. One was a show-biz wonder with a big personality. Two wrote for Broadway. All three turned out huge hits that remain jazz standards today.

“Tea for Two”

Vincent Youmans had a high success rate when it came to writing hit songs. A fifth of the tunes he composed went on to become lasting hits, like his torchy ballads “Time on My Hands” and “More Than You Know.” As highly regarded on New York’s music scene in the 1920s as George Gershwin, Youmans and Gershwin often competed for the same work. But Youmans was only 27 when his stage musical No, No, Nanette took him to the top, becoming the hottest musical comedy of the Jazz Age in both Europe and America. In 1933 he received an Oscar nomination for Best Song, writing ”The Carioca” for the score of the first Fred and Ginger movie musical, Flying Down to Rio.

Vincent Youmans tasted success early, but his life was short and sad. His tragic flaw appears to have been his burning desire to be respected for writing “serious" music—not just show tunes. He wasn’t content to be a composer. His efforts at becoming a producer and theater owner eventually bankrupted him. Though he was one of the least recognized of America’s Golden Age songwriters when he died at the age of 48, his songs like “Tea for Two” and “I Want to Be Happy” rose to the top of the list of popular jazz standards.

“Body and Soul,” The Gold Standard

A stylish Harvard man in the late 1920s, Johnny Green was writing dance arrangements for the Guy Lombardo Orchestra when he composed his first hit, “Coquette.” A jazz standard today, it’s been recorded by a slew of jazz artists, including Bix Beiderbecke and Sidney Bechet—and more recently, George Shearing. Another popular Johnny Green hit song is “I Cover the Waterfront,” made famous in the '30s by Billie Holiday.

Green hit a home run in 1929 when he was only 20 with his song “Body and Soul,” which became one of the most recorded jazz standards of all time. “Body and Soul” topped the charts for six weeks the first time it was recorded. Louis Armstrong, Red Allen, and Benny Goodman all made their own recordings of the tune, but it is Coleman Hawkins’ 1939 record that became highly influential, especially among jazz musicians and composers.

Johnny Green went on to win five Oscars, a Grammy, a Golden Globe and was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. He wrote hit songs for Broadway and was the bandleader on Your Hit Parade, in its day the top radio series in the country. In the '40s he turned to film and became a staff composer and conductor at MGM—the hub of Hollywood musicals. In the '50s Green branched out into composing for television.

Writing Hits for Bing

Harry Barris sprang on the scene as the living stereotype of a 1920s jive-talking jazzman. Dark hair slicked back and parted in the middle, he cracked jokes and banged the lid of the piano as he sang his show-stopping novelty songs that had the audience tied in knots.

But there was more to Barris’ songs than Roaring '20s “razz-ma-tazz." Several found their way into the pantheon of jazz standards. Bix Beiderbecke was among the artists to record Barris compositions like “Wa Da Da” and “Mississippi Mud.”

Harry Barris had a big personality that sometimes got him in trouble—and at other times got him breaks. Brought in to revive Paul Whiteman’s flagging vocal group the Rhythm Boys, Barris’ slapstick comedy combined with the voices of Al Rinker and Bing Crosby made the group a star attraction. When the Rhythm Boys’ love of partying got them in trouble with Whiteman, they moved on to a gig at Los Angeles’ chic nightspot Coconut Grove which broadcast their shows throughout California. It wasn’t long before Bing Crosby’s voice gained a state-wide following.

Success ultimately spelled the end of the Rhythm Boys. Alhough Bing left to pursue stardom as a solo act, Harry Barris continued to compose songs for Bing and wrote his first big solo hit, “I Surrender, Dear.”

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