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Arts & Culture
The KPAC Blog features classical music news, reviews, and analysis from South Texas and around the world. To listen to KPAC 88.3 FM, simply open the player in the gray ribbon at the top of this page and choose KPAC: Classical Music.

Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive with The Art of Harold Arlen

Credit Sam Arlen
Harold Arlen and Toto

The KPAC series of more than a decade ago, "The Art of American Popular Song," followed a blueprint laid out by the composer and writer Alec Wilder. His book, American Popular Song: The Great Innovators, begins with six chapters which describe the work of the essential creators of The Great American Songbook: Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Richard Rodgers, and Harold Arlen. But wait! Who is this Arlen guy? This is where the slope becomes slippery, for Harold Arlen was in many ways the boldest of the half dozen mentioned here. He was, and remains, the composer's composer. Yet, it is Arlen who most often elicits the reaction: Who?

Harold Arlen was well known to his contemporaries. Both George and Ira Gershwin ranked Arlen as one of the elites. “Yip” Harburg, with whom Arlen wrote “Over the Rainbow,” stated that Arlen's melodies are “so fresh and original that they challenge the lyricist.” Lyricist Johnny Mercer described Arlen's melodies as “way out.” Alec Wilder wrote: “I respect Gershwin, but I envy Arlen.”

Judy Garland sings "The Man That Got Away" in "A Star is Born"

Certainly, Harold Arlen was unlike any of his contemporaries. Ira Gershwin said Arlen was “always original, always himself.” Much of that originality came from the ease with which Arlen fit into the scene at Harlem's Cotton Club. He absorbed the energy and the blues-iness of African American performers such as Cab Calloway, Ethel Waters, and Duke Ellington. In turn, Arlen infected others with what he had learned, as well as what he was inventing. Judy Garland and Lena Horne were direct beneficiaries of Arlen's songs. Sinatra found his theme song, “One for My Baby,” within the Arlen songbook.


Of all the essential writers of the Great American Songbook, Arlen was the most comfortable with jazz. Johnny Mercer told Walter Cronkite in a 1960s TV special: Harold “had that crazy jazz going.” Thus, when we began mapping out the parallels between the McNay Art Museum's exhibition, “Broadway: 100 Years of Musical Theatre” and KPAC's series “The Art of American Popular Song,” certain pieces in the McNay's show resonated with the week featuring Harold Arlen. Designs for “Ain't Misbehavin',” “Dr. Jazz,” and “Shuffle Along” seemed to illustrate in one way or another the jazziness of Harold Arlen's music.

Both shows, KPAC's survey of American popular song and the McNay's Broadway salute are drawing toward an end. You have until June 18 to view the McNay's show and until June 11 to revel in the Great American Songbook. Those shows continue for three more episodes, every Sunday afternoon from 2-4 on KPAC 88.3 FM and online at TPR.ORG.

The Art of American Popular Song, vol. 6

The Art of Harold Arlen


  1. Who? [14:24]

    1. The Wizard of Oz Concert Suite (Mauceri, Hollywood Bowl, PHIL 468 686)

    2. Over the Rainbow (Oscar Peterson, Verve 3145891032)

    3. I’ve Got the World on a String (Fitzgerald/Pass, Pablo 2310-772)

    4. This Time the Dream’s on Me (McPartland, Concord 4460)

    5. Optimistic Voices (McGovern, Fynsworth Alley 302 062 196)

    6. Berlin: How Many Times? (Arlen & Buffalodians, Reflections 8102)

    7. Get Happy (Tatum, Reflections 8102)

    8. Stormy Weather (Red Garland Trio, Original Jazz Classics 193)

    9. Down With Love (Blossom Dearie, Verve 314 529 906)

  2. The Early Years / Cotton Club [22:25]

    1. Ode / Rhythmic Moments (Joseph Smith, Premier 1028)

    2. Sweet and Hot (Arlen w/Red Nichols Orchestra, Reflections 8102)

    3. If I Only Had a Brain (Bolger, Rhino Records 71999)

    4. Get Happy (Torme, Coral CRL-57012)

    5. Get Happy (Benny Goodman, Past CD 7095)

    6. I’ve Got the World on a String (McNair, PHIL 446 818)

    7. Kickin’ the Gong Around (Cab Calloway, Past CD 7079)

    8. Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea (McNair, Previn, PHIL 446 818)

    9. I Love a Parade (Unknown, Winstar DVD 73047)

    10. Stormy Weather (Ethel Waters, Past CD 7079)

    11. I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues (Audrey Lavine, Ostinato CD001)

    12. It’s Only a Paper Moon (McGovern, Fynsworth Alley 302 062 196)

    13. Let’s Take a Walk Around the Block (McNair, PHIL 446 818)

  3. Alec Wilder [19:44]

    1. When the Sun Comes Out (Eileen Farrell, Reference Recordings 30)

    2. Ill Wind (Fitzgerald, Verve 314 537 284)

    3. Last Night When We Were Young (Sinatra, Capitol 94755)

    4. Last Night When We Were Young (McPartland, Concord 4853)

    5. Let’s Fall in Love (Arlen, Reflections 8102)

  4. Harold’s Toolbox [11:08]

    1. That Old Black Magic (McNair/Previn, PHIL 446 818)

    2. A Sleepin’ Bee (Streisand, Sony 86123)

    3. Accentuate the Positive (Mercer, Reflections 8102)

  5. Judy Garland [15:28]

    1. Somewhere Over the Rainbow (Garland, Rhino 71999)

    2. The Man That Got Away (Garland, Capitol 72435)

    3. Little Drops of Rain (Garland, Rhino 7600)

  6. Singin’ the Blues [10:24]

    1. One for My Baby (Sinatra, Capitol 99225)

    2. Blues in the Night (Torme, Mobile Fidelity 592)

    3. My Shining Hour (Flanagan, Inner City 1071)