Heritage Moments: Harold Arlen, from Pine Street to Somewhere Over the Rainbow

Jun 20, 2016

For one brief era, Buffalo, or at least one part of it, was an integrated place where people of different races and ethnicities mixed freely and comfortably. The time was the turn of the 20th century, the place was the Near East Side, and the environment that flourished there produced some of the greatest music America has ever heard.

Hyman Arluck—who would become known to the world as Harold Arlen, composer of “Stormy Weather,” “Let’s Fall in Love,” “It’s Only a Paper Moon,” “That Old Black Magic,” and the music for The Wizard of Oz—was born into that special place in 1905. He was the son of Samuel Arluck, a cantor in Buffalo’s Jewish community.

From the start, Hyman’s musical background was assured as the son of a cantor, who sings all the music in the daily, Sabbath and holiday prayer services. When Hyman was 7, his father took a job as full-time cantor of Congregation B’rith Sholem, popularly known as the Pine Street Shul, and Hyman started singing at the synagogue. When he was 9 he started taking piano lessons.

But he was also intrigued by other music. William Street along Pine and neighboring streets was a place where Jews, African-Americans and German-Americans lived side by side, and their sounds commingled in a rich mélange. The Arlucks rented the upstairs flat of their two-family home to a black family, and Hyman attended School 32 in Bennett Park, one of the city’s first integrated schools.

Thus it was no surprise when he started collecting jazz and dance band recordings by black musicians, a absorbing their melodies and rhythms. He gravitated downtown to listen to bands. As a 15-year-old student at Technical High School (known today as Hutch Tech), he and his friends started a small combo, the Snappy Trio. They began playing downtown clubs and vaudeville houses.

Cantor Arluck disapproved of all this, even though he liked the music of Louis Armstrong and other early jazz musicians. To dissuade Hyman from his budding career in dance music, in 1921 he recruited a Buffalo Courier sportwriter, Jack Yellen, to talk the lad out of it.

Yellen was 13 years older than Hyman, but he was also Jewish and a product of the same Near East Side neighborhood. Most important, he was a successful lyricist, having already written the words to hits like “A Young Man’s Fancy,” “Down by the O-H-I-O” and “Are You From Dixie (’Cause I’m From Dixie Too).” All those hits, and yet he had to keep working in the newspaper biz; Yellen knew how tough the music business could be.

But when Yellen heard Hyman play the piano, he was convinced. “It’s all your fault,” Yellen told the cantor. “He’s going to be a musician.”*

(Yellen would go on to write several more hits, like “Happy Days Are Here Again,” “Ain’t She Sweet” and “My Yiddishe Momme.” His friend growing up near William Street was Ray Brost, later known as Ray Henderson, composer of such standards as “Bye Bye Blackbird,” “I’m Sitting on Top of the World,” “You’re the Cream in My Coffee,” “Button Up Your Overcoat,” “You Are My Lucky Star,” and “Keep Your Sunny Side Up.”)

Hyman dropped out of high school to concentrate on his new band, the Southbound Shufflers, whose best gig was playing aboard the Crystal Beach ferry Canadiana. He started writing songs, using the name Harold Arluck. When he was 20, he formed the Buffalodians, a band prestigious enough to get bookings in Cleveland, Pittsburgh and New York City.

Hyman and the Buffalodians wanted to make the move to New York full time. He confronted his father, who gave his blessing – but only for a year. If Hyman couldn’t make it in the Big Apple in that time, Samuel Arluck said, he was to return to Buffalo.

Hyman, of course, did make it in New York, as Harold Arlen, writer of some of the most beloved melodies of the 20th century. In addition to the songs already mentioned above, he wrote “Acc-Cent-Chu-Ate the Positive,” “Any Place I Hang My Hat Is Home,” “Blues in the Night,” “Come Rain or Come Shine,” “Get Happy,” “Happiness Is a Thing Called Joe,” “I Love a Parade,” “Lydia the Tattooed Lady” – and no list of his tunes would be complete without citing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and all the other songs from The Wizard of Oz.

From time to time Harold Arlen would return to Buffalo, the place that infused in him its musical influences when he was a boy, and he would remember his father, Samuel Arluck, the cantor.

“I don’t know how the hell to explain it,” he said, “but I hear in jazz and in gospel my father singing.”

* The best account of Arlen’s life is Harold Arlen: Rhythm, Rainbows, and Blues, by Edward Jablonski, which includes this anecdote.

Cast (in order of appearance):

Cantor Samuel Arluck: Steve Vaughan
Hyman Arluck (Harold Arlen): Sean Ebert
Narrator: Susan Banks

The Buffalodians, performing “Buffalo Rhythm”: The Fredtown Stompers
    Sean Ebert (trumpet/vocals)
    Mike McGough (piano)
    Melissa Sauers (clarinet)
    Ralph DeMarco (tenor sax)
    Brian DeJesus (bass)
    Brian McKenna (drums)

Sound recording, dialogue: Omar Fetouh (WBFO)
Sound recording, music: Ralph DeMarco (The Fredtown Stompers)
Sound editing: Micheal Peters (WBNY, Buffalo State)

Piano theme: Excerpt from “Buffalo City Guards Parade March,” by Francis Johnson (1839)
Performed by Aaron Dai

Produced by the Niagara Frontier Heritage Project
Written by Jeff Z. Klein
Associate producer: Karl-Eric Reif

Casting: Darleen Pickering Hummert (Pickering Hummert Casting, 234 Carmel Rd., Buffalo)

Special thanks to:
Brian Meyer, WBFO news director
Nick Lippa, WBNY general manager, 2015-16 academic year

Webpage written by Jeff Z. Klein (Niagara Frontier Heritage Project)