In 1980, 42nd Street hit Broadway, using the same songs and story as the 1930s movie. It was a major hit* and ran on Broadway for years, and is still popular with touring shows and local musical theater. Yet, unusually for any Broadway show, there was never any mention in the advertising and posters of the songwriter involved.
That’s typical of Harry Warren. Only those who pay attention to musical theater and especially movie musicals of the 30s, know their names. Yet Warren’s list of songs is filled with tunes everyone knows. “That’s Amore.” “I Only Have Eyes for You” “42nd Street.” “Chattanooga Choo Choo.” “You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby.” “We’re In the Money.” “Lullaby of Broadway.” “Jeepers Creepers.” For some reason, Warren always took the back seat.
Warren was born Salvatore Antonio Guaragna in 1893 in Brooklyn, NY, though his father changed their family name to Warren when he was a boy. He dropped out of school at 16 to play in a band and by 1915 he was working as a staff pianist at Vitagraph pictures. By 1918, he was writing his own music and had his first hit in 1922 with “Rose of the Rio Grande.”
With a handful of popular hits under his belt, he moved to Hollywood with the advent of sound, and started working for Warner Brothers in 1932, where he was teamed with Al Dubin.
Dubin was born in Switzerland and moved to the US when he was two. After a tumultuous academic career where he was kicked out of a couple of schools for his hard drinking and partying ways, he became a staff writer for Whitmark Music Publishing. He had his first hit with “Twas Only an Irishman’s Dream” in 1916, and started to slowly build a career. By the late 1920s, he had a string of hits, including “Tiptoe Through the Tulips.”
Warren and Dubin started hitting it big writing the songs for Busby Berkeley musicals.** These films is probably the second most common way people discover him.
The most common? Well, since they were staff writers for Warner Brothers, their songs could be used in other productions without additional payment, which meant that Warner Brothers’ cartoon unit – Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies – could use them all they wanted. Many of the 30s cartoons used Warren/Dubin songs, either straight (“Shuffle Off to Buffalo”) or with parody lyrics.***
Dubin died in 1945, a victim of his own excesses. He was a serious drinker and partier, using drugs and weighing over 300 pounds. The high living caught up with him.
Warren continued to write hits with lyricists like Johnny Mercer, Leo Robin, Ira Gershwin, Alan Freed, and Alan Freed. As TV shows came into existence, he even wrote a few theme songs, most notably “Legend of Wyatt Earp.”
Warren won three Oscars**** and was nominated for eight more. He had 21 #1 hits from 1931-1045, and many more on the hit parade. His songs are part of the Great American Songbook, and I would put him up with with the greatest songwriters of his era.
Yet somehow, he always seemed to be overshadowed by others, and forgotten by the general public (though not by musicians). It may be that he never had a big Broadway show until 42nd Street, so when his hit parade days were over, he faded from memory. In any case, he’s slowly gaining back recognition and he and Dubin are in the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame
*With the added pathos of having its director die the same day it opened.
**As is typical for Warren, the best CD release of those songs mention Berkeley but not him.
***I can’t recall the cartoon, but it had a song based upon Warren’t “The Latin Quarter” with the lyrics “What is Your Order?”****For “Lullaby of Broadway” with Dubin, “You’ll Never Know” and “On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe.”