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Music Memories: Frank Loesser

Keith Chaffee, Librarian, Collection Development,
Frank Loesser on the album cover of Heart & Soul: Celebrating The Unforgettable Songs Of Frank Loesser
Frank Loesser on the album cover of Heart & Soul: Celebrating The Unforgettable Songs Of Frank Loesser

On June 29, 1910, Frank Loesser was born. From the 1930s to the early 1960s, Loesser was one of America’s finest songwriters. He wrote more than 700 songs, and his five Broadway musicals include a pair of masterpieces—Guys and Dolls and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.

Loesser’s father was a skilled pianist who supplemented his income by giving lessons, but he never formally taught Frank. Then again, Frank may not have needed the lessons; by the time he was four, his father reported, Frank could play “any tune he’s heard” by ear.

In his early teens, Frank didn’t care for his father’s taste in music, which was mostly classical, and rebelled by beginning to write popular songs and learning to play the harmonica. He got good enough to win third-prize in a city-wide harmonica contest.

Loesser’s father died when he was 16, and he took a series of wide-ranging jobs to help support the family, working as a restaurant reviewer, a process server, and a political cartoonist. He also worked as a songwriter for several Tin Pan Alley music publishers. He had his first song published in 1931. It was a flop, but it didn’t take long for him to breakthrough. In 1934, Fats Waller recorded his song “I Wish I Were Twins”, written with Joe Meyer and Eddie DeLange.

Loesser’s first attempt at Broadway came in 1936 when the revue The Illustrator’s Show closed in only four nights. But that same year, he got a contract writing songs for Paramount Pictures and moved to Los Angeles. His first song for Paramount was “The Moon of Manakoora,” a bit of imitation Hawaiian music written with Alfred Newman.

In the years leading up to World War II, Loesser continued to have success writing movie songs with various composers. Among his standards from this era are “Heart and Soul”, music by Hoagy Carmichael, “The Boys in the Back Room”, Friedrich Hollaender, and “I Don’t Want to Walk Without You”, Jule Styne.

During the war, Loesser enlisted in the Army Air Force. He spent part of his time as a songwriter, turning out morale-boosting songs for the troops, and occasionally finding time to write more songs for Hollywood. It was during these years that Loesser shifted from writing just the lyrics to work as a solo writer, creating both words and music. Perhaps the most memorable song from his war years is “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition,” written after Pearl Harbor.

In 1948, Loesser returned to Broadway when he was hired to write the songs for Where’s Charley?, a musical adaptation of an 1892 play about a young man whose attempts to help his best friend win the girl winds up with him pretending to be his friend’s aged aunt. Ray Bolger was the star, and he turned “Once in Love With Amy” into a nightly show-stopper, getting the audience to sing along with him. This recording is of the original London cast.

Where's Charley?
Loesser, Frank

Loesser was still selling songs to the movies and won the Academy Award in 1949 for “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” The song is a duet in which a young man urges his date not to leave at the end of the evening; it’s a more controversial song these days, with overtones of possible date rape and one line that suggests the man might have drugged the woman. But 70 years ago, it played as charming comic entertainment. In fact, the song was several years old, and Loesser and his wife had routinely used it as a bit of party entertainment. Lynn Loesser never quite got over her annoyance that he had sold “their” song to the movies.

In 1950, Loesser had a Broadway smash with Guys and Dolls, based on the comic gangster stories of Damon Runyon. It’s a remarkable score, with several classic songs—“A Bushel and a Peck,” “Luck Be a Lady,” “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat,” “If I Were a Bell”—and it won the Tony Award for Best Musical. It’s frequently been revived; this 1992 Broadway production stars Peter Gallagher and Nathan Lane.

Guys & Dolls (Bonus Track Version)

The Pulitzer Prize committee selected Guys and Dolls to win that year’s prize for drama, but this was the McCarthy era. Because the script had been written by Abe Burrows, who was in trouble with the House Un-American Activities Committee, the Pulitzer trustees voided the committee’s choice and awarded no prize for drama that year.

Loesser had been contributing songs to movie musicals for more than a decade, but only wrote the full song score for one musical, 1952’s Hans Christian Andersen, starring Danny Kaye as the children’s author. Loesser received his fifth, and final, Best Song Oscar nomination for “Thumbelina.” Kaye performs all of the movie’s songs, even the ones he doesn’t sing in the movie, in this recording.

His 1956 stage musical The Most Happy Fella was his most ambitious work. It was based on a play about a middle-aged vintner who falls in love with a younger woman, and it had many more songs and much less spoken dialogue than the average musical. Not only that, but the music was an eclectic mix of folk songs, rousing show tunes, and songs that were as close to operatic arias as Broadway had ever gotten. In addition to the original Broadway cast, Freegal has cast recordings of the 1960 London production, and the 1992 Broadway revival.

The Most Happy Fella (Original Broadway Cast Recording)
Loesser, Frank

In 1960, Loesser had his first outright flop. Greenwillow lasted on Broadway for only 10 weeks. It was a romantic fantasy starring Anthony Perkins, who was flying back and forth between New York, where the show was in rehearsal, and California, where he was filming Psycho. The show was not a success, but the song “Never Will I Marry” has endured.

Loesser returned to form in 1961 with the corporate satire How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, about one man’s rise from window washer to CEO. The show made a star of Robert Morse, and revived the career of Rudy Vallee, who had been a teen idol crooner in the 1930s; Loesser even wrote a song for Vallee to sing through a megaphone, which had been his trademark in his heyday.

How to Succeed was Loesser’s second Tony-winning musical; the cast album won the Grammy, and the Pulitzer trustees were happy this time to go along when Loesser was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

The last years of Loesser’s life were less successful. 1965’s Pleasures and Palaces never made it to Broadway, closing during out-of-town tryouts; it was a romantic comedy set in the court of Russian Empress Catherine II, during the years when American naval hero John Paul Jones was leading her military efforts against Turkey. (Which is a thing that actually happened.)

Loesser died of lung cancer on July 28, 1969. At the time of his death, he was working on a new musical, Señor Discretion Himself. He’d finished most of the songs, but the show remained unproduced until 2004, when the theatrical troupe Culture Clash rewrote the script and performed the show in Washington, DC.

Loesser was a famous workaholic, spending long hours each day writing songs and sleeping for as little as four hours a night. When asked why he’d produced relatively few shows, given that work schedule, he replied, “I don’t write slowly; it’s just that I throw out fast.”

A Salute To Frank Loesser
Loesser, Jo Sullivan

The album Loesser by Loesser is a revue of Loesser songs; the performers are Loesser’s second wife, Jo; their daughter, Emily; and Emily’s husband, Don Stephenson. And Loesser himself performs a selection of his songs in An Evening With Frank Loesser.

All of the songs mentioned in this post, and several more, have been gathered into a 2-hour Loesser playlist at Freegal. We chose lesser-known versions of the songs, and have selected from a variety of eras, styles, and genres. One mark of a talented songwriter is that their material isn’t locked into any one performer or style; it’s a rare composer indeed whose music can be comfortably sung by Fats Waller, Doris Day, Johnny Cash, Gladys Knight, and the Norman Luboff Choir.