Fresh Air Celebrates Frank Loesser's 100th Birthday
Today would have been Frank Loesser's 100th birthday. The Broadway musical legend is responsible for writing and composing both Guys and Dolls and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying -- in addition to composing over 700 tunes used in movies, on Broadway and on the radio.
Loesser grew up in New York and moved to Hollywood in 1936 to write songs under contract for Paramount and Universal. Over three decades, he penned the scores to more than 60 films and wrote the wartime hit "Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition." But his first love -- the stage -- beckoned, and he moved to New York after World War II to pursue a career writing music for the theater.
"Loesser had written for Broadway early in his career without much success, but it gave him the desire to create theatrical pieces," explains Michael Feinstein. "In Hollywood, he was -- in the words of [composer] Oscar Levant -- a cog in the wheel. He didn't have control over what was done with his songs. He turned them in and then the producers took them and did as they pleased. On Broadway, the composer had control, and Loesser wanted control. Because he really knew better than the other people how his work should be performed."
"He could write anything, and because he had the ability to create any genre, it gave him so much latitude," says Feinstein. "He had the ability to write songs that were stand-alone -- that could be hits, but work in [a] plot." On today's Fresh Air, Feinstein discusses Loesser's musical legacy with Terry Gross and plays some of his favorite Loesser tunes -- including several recordings, by the likes of Doris Day and Bob Hope that he found in archives. He tells Terry Gross that Loesser's career trajectory was surprising, to say the least.
"Nobody ever expected that he would become this extraordinary man who would go onto write both music and lyrics, win a Pulitzer Prize and change the face of American music theater and American popular song," he says. "It's an amazing story, and simply his work is as good as it gets. He won two Tony Awards, got four Academy Award nominations, an Oscar for "Baby It's Cold Outside. [He wrote] over 700 songs, and it put him in the the rarefied air of those who wrote both words and music of which there are a handful -- Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Stephen Sondheim, Jerry Herman, Hugh Martin, [and] Noel Coward. But it's amazing that he had this journey and achieved a musical success that few people can only dream of."
Loesser died in 1969, at the age of 59 in New York City. He received the Pulitzer Prize in Drama in 1962 for How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.
On Frank Sinatra's relationship with Loesser
"Sinatra is so connected with the persona of the Guys and Dolls characters even though he had great conflicts with Frank Loesser personally. But he was a huge fan of Frank Loesser's works, so much so that when he started his own record label, Reprise Records, he recorded four musical shows in their entirety as part of the Reprise repertoire in musical theater."
On Loesser's salacious early material
"Burton Lane insisted that Frank was writing kind of dirty stuff. ... When Frank Loesser came to Paramount, there was great reticence among the studio heads, because he had this reputation as being a loose cannon, and they didn't know if he'd be able to conform to the studio system and create love songs that didn't have an edge to them or had to be censored. And, of course, Loesser's attitude to working in Hollywood was very humorous. He took it all in stride."
On what Loesser's family members thought of his career
"His brother Arthur was very snobbish. ... After Frank had this extraordinary success, Arthur still looked at him as the black sheep. He didn't consider Frank's achievements valid in the world of real music. He thought that it was absolutely lowbrow and insignificant, as extraordinary as that sounds."
On writing dummy melodies
"His first huge hit, "Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition," was a melody he wrote that he considered a dummy -- and he had asked another composer to write music for it, and the other composer said 'No, no, no keep what you got. It's great.' So [writing dummy melodies] was a pattern he engaged in very early. And actually, if a lyric writer is working on a project where they have to come up with a type of song that would be a story-song or a character-song, sometimes they'll write the lyric first, and they'll have their own dummy melody in their head, which they never reveal to the [eventual] composer. Ira Gershwin told me that he did [this], so it would give him some of form in which to set the words."
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Happy Thanksgiving. We're celebrating the holiday with the music of Frank Loesser. We're going to listen back to the program we first made on June 29, the centennial of his birth.
Loesser is best known as the songwriter for the musical "Guys and Dolls," which has so many great songs, including "If I Were a Bell," "I've Never Been in Love Before" and "Luck Be a Lady."
And Loesser wrote the songs for the Pulitzer Prize-winning Broadway musical "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying," which features the songs "I Believe in You" and "Brotherhood of Man."
Loesser's musical "The Most Happy Fella" is nearly an opera. Some of his popular songs include "Baby It's Cold Outside," "Slow Boat to China" and "I Hear Music."
To help us celebrate Loesser's centenary, we invited Michael Feinstein, who was generous enough to bring some of his favorite recordings of Loesser's songs, including a few rarities. Some of the recordings feature Loesser singing.
Feinstein is a Grammy Award-winning singer and pianist. He was Ira Gershwin's assistant for six years. His nightclub, Feinstein's at Loews Regency in Manhattan presents people performing American popular song.
Michael Feinstein, welcome back to FRESH AIR, and thank you for celebrating Frank Loesser's centenary with us. You've brought some great songs with you. Let's start with a popular song from his most popular show. Would you introduce it for us?
Mr. MICHAEL FEINSTEIN (Musician): Yes, indeed. This is the title song of "Guys and Dolls," which is certainly Frank Loesser's most popular and famous Broadway musical. And I chose this particular recording because Sinatra is so connected with the persona of the "Guys and Dolls" characters, even though he had great conflicts with Loesser personally.
But he was a huge fan of Frank Loesser's works, so much so that when he started his own record label, Reprise Records, he recorded four musical shows in their entirety as part of the Reprise repertory musical theater. And "Guys and Dolls" was among the first that he chose to memorialize in that way, with an all-star cast of people who were under contract to him at Reprise.
GROSS: And one of them was Dean Martin, I guess.
Mr. FEINSTEIN: And Dean Martin, yes, by the way.
GROSS: Because he's dueting with him on this.
Mr. FEINSTEIN: Yes. So it's part of the Rat Pack.
GROSS: So this is Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra singing a duet of Frank Loesser's "Guys and Dolls."
(Soundbite of song, "Guys and Dolls")
Mr. FRANK SINATRA and Mr. DEAN MARTIN: (Singing) When you see a guy reach for stars in the sky, you can bet that he's doing it for some doll. When you spot a John waiting out in the rain, chances are he's insane as only a John can be for a Jane.
When you meet a gent paying all kinds of rent for a flat that could flatten the Taj Mahal, call it sad, call it funny, but it's better than even money that the guy's only doing it for some doll.
When you see a Joe...
GROSS: That's Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin singing "Guys and Dolls" from Frank Sinatra's own version of the show. And it's one of the songs that my guest, Michael Feinstein, has chosen to play in celebration of Frank Loesser's centennial, which is today. He was born 100 years ago today.
So Michael, tell us why you love Frank Loesser.
Mr. FEINSTEIN: I love Frank Loesser because to me, he is the most perfect lyricist. I think that he and Johnny Mercer are the most versatile, the most extraordinary in their growth throughout their careers and their ability to reach for and write any kind of song.
Frank Loesser started as a guy who, according to Burton Lane, was writing salacious special material and nobody ever expected that he would become this extraordinary man who went on to write both music and lyrics, won a Pulitzer Prize, which he always called his Putziler, and change the face of American music theater and American popular song.
It's an amazing story, and simply his work is as good as it gets. He won two Tony Awards, had four Academy Award nominations, an Oscar for "Baby It's Cold Outside," over 700 songs. And it put him in the rarefied air of those who wrote both words and music of which there are a handful: Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Sondheim, Jerry Herman, Hugh Martin, Noel Coward. But it's amazing that he had this journey and achieved a musical success that few people can only dream of.
GROSS: Did you say he started writing salacious material?
Mr. FEINSTEIN: Yes. Burton Lane insisted that Frank was writing kind of dirty stuff that was I don't know where it was performed, but he said that when Frank Loesser came to Paramount, there was great reticence among the studio heads at first to hire him because he had this reputation as being a loose cannon. And they didn't know if he'd be able to conform to the studio system and create love songs that didn't have an edge to them or had to be censored. And, of course, Loesser's attitude towards working in Hollywood was very humorous. He took it all in stride.
He once said what it's like to work in Hollywood: the producer orders a certain title, the musical director orders a certain rhythm, the dance director orders a certain number of bars, and the composer orders a certain number of aspirin.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: That's great. That's great. So since we just heard Sinatra singing "Guys and Dolls," I thought I'd play a soundbite from an interview I did years ago with Susan Loesser, Frank Loesser's daughter, and she had just written a biography of her father.
And apparently when Sinatra was preparing to play Nathan Detroit in the movie adaptation of "Guys and Dolls," Frank Loesser did not like the way Sinatra was doing the song. So here's Susan Loesser, talking about that.
Ms. SUSAN LOESSER: Nathan Detroit is a very rough character, a Broadway character. And the original Nathan, Sam Levene, couldn't sing. He only had one song, "Sue Me," and he came in wrong all the time on the first note. So my father had to write him a four-bar phrase - call a lawyer and - and if you listen to it, I will not sing it, it slides up to the correct note to come in on.
That was how bad Sam sang, but he was also brilliant and wonderful and rough and tough and Runyon-esque, whereas Frank Sinatra was very smooth and crooned his songs. And in fact, Goldwyn had my father write three more songs for Nathan in the movie, for Frank Sinatra.
And my father would listen to Sinatra rehearsing and would become angrier and angrier. And finally, they had it out, and my father kind of met his match with Frank Sinatra, who exploded about the same way my father did, both of them screaming words that I won't say on the radio.
As it ended, Frank Sinatra, of course, performed the songs his way, and they never spoke again.
GROSS: Well, that was Frank Loesser's daughter, Susan Loesser. Michael Feinstein, have you heard other stories like that about Frank Loesser?
Mr. FEINSTEIN: I've heard many stories about his insistence that his scores be performed a certain way. But unlike Richard Rodgers, he loved popular recordings of his songs, where the songs would be reinterpreted with different kind of phrasing.
But for Broadway, he absolutely wanted them performed a certain way, and for the movies he wanted them performed a certain way because he knew that if they weren't performed to his specifications, number one, they could ruin the intent of a song in the show. And also, since these were the first hearings of his songs, he wanted them sung exactly the way he wrote them, and then if people took liberties with them later, that was okay.
There's a famous story about Frank punching the soprano Isabel Bigley in the nose when they were working on "Guys and Dolls" because he was so exasperated that she kept singing one of his songs incorrectly. I mean, he absolutely was a martinet about it. But then he would turn around and be the most generous, sweet guy. He just wanted what he wanted for the sake of his art.
GROSS: Well, I thought this might be a fun time to hear Frank Loesser sing. And, ironically, even though he didn't like Frank Sinatra's crooning, Loesser himself really is a crooner. He has a small, behind-the-beat kind of voice.
Mr. FEINSTEIN: It's really interesting because he does, and this recording that we're going to hear is one that he made with his wife Lynn. It's a commercial recording that they made of the song "Baby It's Cold Outside," which was a number that they sang as a party song.
And Loesser was working on an Esther Williams film, "Neptune's Daughter," and they were going to use the song on "A Slow Boat to China," but the censors turned it down, saying that it was too salacious. And so, Frank pulled this trunk song out and it eventually went on to win an Academy Award.
One of the things that I love about the printed sheet music of "Baby It's Cold Outside" is that the sheet music describes the tempo as being performed as Loesserando(ph).
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: Is that something he made up?
Mr. FEINSTEIN: Yes.
GROSS: That's great. So do we know what year this is from?
Mr. FEINSTEIN: This is 1948.
GROSS: Great. So this if Frank Loesser and his wife, his first wife, Lynn, dueting on Loesser's song "Baby It's Cold Outside."
(Soundbite of song, "Baby It's Cold Outside")
Mr. FRANK LOESSER (Composer): Hey baby, where you going?
Mr. LOESSER and Ms. LYNN LOESSER: (Singing) I really can't stay but Baby it's cold outside. I've got to go away But baby it's cold outside. This evening has been So happy that you dropped in. So very nice - I'll hold your hands, they're just like ice.
My mother will start to worry But beautiful, what's your hurry? - My father will be pacing the floor - Listen to the fireplace roar - So really I'd better scurry - Beautiful, please don't hurry - Well maybe just a half a drink more - Put some records on while I pour.
The neighbors might think But baby, it's bad out there. Say, what's in this drink - No cabs to be had out there. I seem to be in - Your eyes are like starlit sand. Some crazy spell - I'll take your hat, your hair looks swell. I ought to say no, no, no, sir You mind if I move closer? At least I'm gonna say that I tried Baby, make my conscience your guide. I really can't stay - Baby don't hold out. Ahh, but it's cold outside.
GROSS: That's Frank Loesser and his first wife, dueting on Loesser's song "Baby It's Cold Outside."
Mr. LOESSER: Whom he referred to as the evil of two Loessers.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: And my guest is Michael Feinstein, who is here to celebrate Frank Loesser's centenary with us today. Today is the 100th anniversary of Loesser's birth. And Feinstein has brought some great recordings with him of Loesser songs.
They sound so great together, don't they, Frank Loesser and his first wife?
Mr. LOESSER: They do. Her name was Lynn Garland, and she was a band singer, and she was quite talented. He was very, very much in love with her and said that she was his inspiration until a number of years later, she wasn't.
GROSS: That's right. And then he married the star of "The Most Happy Fella," Jo Sullivan Loesser.
Mr. LOESSER: Right, and found new inspiration.
GROSS: Well, you brought a few rarities with you, and you have this 1943 radio interview with Frank Loesser that you brought. So I want to play that for our listeners, but I want you to tell the story behind this interview and how you got access to it.
Mr. LOESSER: One of the great things about living in Los Angeles part-time and New York part-time is that going to flea markets and garage sales, one can find all sorts of interesting things.
And this is a wartime, 16-inch transcription disk that I stumbled upon at some estate sale in Hollywood, and it contained this appearance by Frank Loesser on this radio show in which he speaks about his writing, about how he writes songs.
And this was in a period in his career where he had just started to write both music and lyrics.
GROSS: So here's a 1943 radio interview with Frank Loesser.
(Soundbite of radio show)
Mr. KENNY DELMAR(ph): Ladies and Gentlemen, I'd like you to meet Private Frank Loesser of the United States Army.
Mr. LOESSER: Thank you, Kenny Delmar. All I can say is I'm present and awaiting orders.
Mr. DELMAR: Oh, well, you'll get your orders from Earl Wright(ph), and I understand he's going to ask you a few very personal questions.
Mr. LOESSER: Well, fire away, Earl.
Mr. EARL WRIGHT: Well, here's the first question, soldier. How did you get bitten by the musical bug?
Mr. LOESSER: Oh, that's an easy one. You see, my father was a well-known piano teacher. My brother Arthur, well, I'm sure you've heard of him. Right now, he's one of the head men at the Cleveland Institute of Music.
Mr. WRIGHT: I see. Well, Frank, I guess you're a popular composer with a real grounding in music.
Mr. LOESSER: Well, to tell you the truth, Earl, I can't read a note.
Mr. WRIGHT: Well, how did you break into...
GROSS: That's an interview with the composer Frank Loesser, who was born 100 years ago today. This is one of the recordings brought by Michael Feinstein, who is here to celebrate the centenary with us.
And Michael, I love those kind of old, scripted interviews. You can tell both the interviewer and interviewee are reading their parts but it's still fascinating to hear his story.
Mr. FEINSTEIN: It is, and one of the things that's interesting about that interview is that he states that he cannot read music, and he could read music, and he studied music, and he actually became a very fine musician.
It wouldn't have been possible for Frank Loesser to write a virtual opera in "The Most Happy Fella" if he hadn't been studying music, and he came from a family that was very cultured, a German immigrant family. And his brother, Arthur, was a musical chronicler of classical music and wrote a couple of very important books on concert music and pianists.
And Frank was a guy who cultivated this dees, dem and does kind of persona, which was his exterior, but in truth, he was very cultured, and he could read music. But he says on that interview he can't.
GROSS: I was so surprised to hear about his background because I had always, you know, assumed that he was from probably parents who were immigrants and that he was this, like, shocking success story in the family. But according to his daughter Susan, they kind of looked down on his career, and they looked down on the kind of pop music that he was writing.
Mr. FEINSTEIN: It's so true, and his brother Arthur was very snobbish about Frank, and after Frank had this extraordinary success, Arthur still looked at him as the black sheep.
He didn't consider Frank's achievements valid in the world of real music. He thought that it was absolutely lowbrow and insignificant, as extraordinary as it sounds.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is singer and pianist Michael Feinstein, who has devoted his life to the American popular songbook. We'll continue our celebration of songwriter Frank Loesser, who was born 100 years ago today after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Michael Feinstein, who through his performances, his archival work and his broadcasts has done so much to celebrate American popular song and to bring those songs to new audiences. And he's here to celebrate Frank Loesser's centenary with us. Frank Loesser was born 100 years ago today.
Let's hear another great Frank Loesser song, and this is from the early part of his career, and this is perhaps the only song that Bette Davis ever recorded.
Mr. FEINSTEIN: Bette Davis did make other recordings, some of which were not released. For example, she recorded...
Mr. FEINSTEIN: (singing) ...I've written a letter to daddy...
Mr. LOESSER: ...but they didn't release it. In the Broadway show "Two's Company," she sang. And she loved her own voice. Nobody else did, but Bette Davis was, she was fearless.
And this song was written by Loesser and Arthur Schwartz(ph), the composer, for a movie called "Thank Your Lucky Stars," which was a 1943 Warner Brothers morale-booster that starred all of their contract players, including Humphrey Bogart, Errol Flynn, who sang, Olivia de Havilland, Eddie Cantor, Dinah Shore, Hattie McDaniel, Spike Jones and his orchestra, and Alexis Smith, John Garfield. It was produced by the Broadway producer, Mark Hallinger(ph), and they did not actually have to work hard to convince Bette Davis to sing. She already thought she was great.
GROSS: The song is called "They're Either Too Young or Too Old." So before we hear Bette Davis sing it, would you set the context of the song for us?
Mr. FEINSTEIN: This scene takes place in the Hollywood canteen, which was the place in Hollywood where all the servicemen of all the different branches of the service would come for a respite and to meet a star, to dance with a movie star. And it was something that was actually started by Bette Davis.
And she plays a hostess who's greeting various servicemen. And during the Second World War, all of the able-bodied men were inducted into service and, of course, there was a paucity of available guys, either they were youngsters or they were ancient and not eligible for service.
And so Loesser picked up on that idea and wrote this marvelous song that details all of the problems that dames are facing during that time. And Bette is singing the song about a lover who is unavailable.
GROSS: So here's Bette Davis in 1943 singing the Frank Loesser song "They're Either Too Young or Too Old."
(Soundbite of song, "They're Either Too Young or Too Old")
Ms. BETTE DAVIS (Actress): (Singing) You marched away and left the town as empty as can be, and I am like the driftwood in a deadly comedy.
I can't sit under the apple tree with anyone else but me, for there is no secret lover that the draft board didn't discover.
They're either too young or too old. They're either too gray or too grassy green. The pickings are poor, and the crop is lean. What's good is in the Army. What's left will never harm me.
They're either too old or too young. So darling, you'll never get stung. Tomorrow, I'll go hiking with the Eagle Scouts, unless I get a call from grandpa for a snappy game of chess.
They're either too warm or too cold...
GROSS: That's Bette Davis, singing the Frank Loesser song "They're Either Too Young or Too Old." Frank Loesser was born 100 years ago today, and we're celebrating his centenary with Michael Feinstein, who has brought some terrific Frank Loesser songs for us to hear.
That was one of Loesser's early hits, wasn't it?
Mr. FEINSTEIN: Yes, it was. He, of course, had some hits in the '30s, but this was a big wartime hit. He also wrote the music and lyrics. His first song for which he supplied music and lyrics, "Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition," but this song was, let's see, Jimmy Dorsey. Jimmy Dorsey's band recorded it, and it went up to number two on the charts. So it was immensely popular.
GROSS: Not only did Loesser write two great songs during World War II about that were war-related, "Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition" and "They're Either Too Young or Too Old," he joined the Air Force during World War II. I'm not sure how long he was away, but I know he was in it.
Mr. FEINSTEIN: And he wrote a lot of wartime reviews for the servicemen, you know, stuff that the public never saw. And he wrote a song for the infantry called "Rodger Young," because all the other branches of the service had their songs, you know, like "Anchors Away" or "Wild Blue Yonder." And so Loesser wrote "Rodger Young," and he also wrote "What Do they Do in the Infantry? We March, We March, We March."
GROSS: Michael, I want to play something for you. This is a soundbite from an interview I did with Loesser's second wife, Jo Sullivan Loesser, and this was about the importance of lyric writing to Loesser, even when he was writing words and music. And I think we have heard how wonderful and clever his lyrics can be. So here's Jo Sullivan Loesser talking about him writing lyrics.
Ms. JO SULLIVAN LOESSER: The words were very important to Frank, too. He loved the words because when he wrote a piece, he always wrote the words first, and then he would write a melody.
And he used to say to me now, don't pay any attention to this melody. It may not be the right one. It's just a dummy melody. Just listen to the words.
So then, after he decided that the words were correct, then he would work on his music and develop that. And he was very, very particular to every single person in the cast about how they sang his music.
GROSS: You know what I find fascinating about that? That he'd have dummy melodies. He'd tell her that this might not be the final melody. I know of songwriters who've had dummy lyrics, just like placeholders to sketch out the rhyme and take up the beat. But I never heard of dummy melodies before, writing melodies that might not be the final melody just to have something to accompany the lyric.
Mr. FEINSTEIN: Well, his first huge solo hit, "Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition," was a melody he wrote that he considered a dummy, and he had asked another composer to write music for it. And the other composer said no, no, no keep what you got. It's great.
So that was a pattern that he engaged in very early. And actually, if a lyric writer is working on a project where they have to come up with a type of song that would be a story-song or a character-song, sometimes they'll write the lyric first, and they will have their own dummy melody in their head, which they never reveal to the composer - as Ira Gershwin told me that he did so it would give him some of form in which to set the words.
GROSS: Really? So Ira Gershwin would write these fake melodies just to have a melodic shape for the words he was writing?
Mr. FEINSTEIN: Yes. He did that sometimes. And the interesting thing about Loesser is that once he started to write alone musically, somebody said, well, why do you prefer to write alone musically? And he said, well, that's so I can preserve the exclusivity of failure.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: You know, in talking about how Frank Loesser wrote songs, one of the things that Jo Sullivan Loesser, his second wife said, was that he'd sometimes he'd often wake up at four in the morning so he could write songs from, like four until eight, before the phone started ringing. And then he'd often ask someone to like drive him around so he can write songs away from the telephone. I just found that so amusing. And today you wouldn't be able to do that because you'd have your cell phone in your pocket.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. FEINSTEIN: Yes, the world has changed.
GROSS: Yeah. Well, you brought another great song with Loesser as the lyricist. And the composer of this is Hoagy Carmichael. The song is "Two Sleepy People." Tell us why you brought this.
Mr. FEINSTEIN: This song is a beautifully evocative song. And it's one that was a mighty achievement for Loesser because it was the first hit song that he wrote with Hoagy Carmichael. And it really was, in many ways, the turning point of Loesser's career in that the song was written for Bob Hope and Shirley Ross to sing in a movie called "Thanks for the Memory." And the movie was called "Thanks for the Memory" because the previous year, Bob Hope and Shirley Ross had introduced the song "Thanks for the Memory" in "The Big Broadcast." And it was so successful that it won an Oscar. And the producers at Paramount wanted a sequel to "Thanks for the Memory."
Now, how the heck do you write a song that's a sequel - that they wanted as a hit, of course - to an Oscar-winning number? And sure enough, Loesser came up with this idea. And it - well actually, according to Susan Loesser, his wife Lynn came up with the idea, that they were - the Loessers and the Carmichaels were together socially and Frank said we got to come up with a song idea, a song title. And they kicked around ideas until about 3 a.m. And finally, as the Carmichaels were leaving, Lynn said look at us. We're just four sleepy people. And suddenly, the light went on, and that gave Frank the idea for the song.
GROSS: And how did Frank Loesser start collaborating with Hoagy Carmichael?
Mr. FEINSTEIN: Frank Loesser was under contract at Paramount Studios, and so he was assigned composers. The first composer to whom he was assigned was Manning Sherwin, and then he started working with Burton Lane, and then he started working with Hoagy Carmichael, then Frederick Hollander, later Jule Styne. But they were assigned the collaborators, and they didn't really have any choice.
GROSS: Well, I absolutely love this recording. This is from 1939, "Two Sleepy People," and we'll hear Bob Hope and Shirley Ross.
(Soundbite of song, "Two Sleepy People")
Mr. BOB HOPE (Comedian, Actor, Singer): (Singing) Here we are, out of cigarettes, holding hands and yawning, look how late it gets.
Ms. SHIRLEY ROSS (Actor and Singer): (Singing) Two sleepy people by dawn's early light. And too much in love to say goodnight. Here we are in the cozy chair.
Mr. HOPE: (Singing) Picking on a wishbone from the Frigidaire. Two sleepy people with nothing to say.
Ms. ROSS: (Singing) And too much in love to break away.
Mr. HOPE: (Singing) Do you remember the nights we used to linger in the hall?
Ms. ROSS: (Singing) Yeah. Father didn't like you at all.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. HOPE: What ever happened to him?
Ms. ROSS: (Singing) Remember the reason why we married in the fall?
Mr. HOPE: (Singing) To rent this little nest and get a bit of rest.
Ms. ROSS: Well, here we are, just about the same. Foggy little fella.
Mr. HOPE: (Singing) Drowsy little dame. Two sleepy people by dawn's early light, and too much in love to say goodnight.
Ms. ROSS: (Singing) Here we are...
GROSS: That's "Two Sleepy People," one of the recordings that Michael Feinstein has brought with him today to celebrate the centenary of Frank Loesser's birth. He was born 100 years ago today. And Loesser just wrote the lyrics for that. Hoagy Carmichael wrote the music.
Michael Feinstein, how did Frank Loesser start writing music, as well as lyrics?
Mr. FEINSTEIN: The interesting thing, Terry, is that he showed no musical ability in his collaborations with other composers. Burton Lane said that Frank Loesser never gave any indication that he had ability as a composer. And Burton said that when Frank mentioned to him very casually that he one day wanted to also compose, Burton almost condescendingly said well, well, good luck. Good luck, Frank, you know, because he didn't think Frank could do that. So Frank clearly had this intention inside, but didn't express it to anybody - maybe to his wife Lynn at the time. But those who knew him said that he was always extraordinarily driven.
And those who were friends of his in the early days were not at all surprised by his extraordinary success, because when he put his mind to something, he would do it. And clearly, he decided that he wanted to run the show and create his own music, probably because he had ideas as he wrote dummy tunes in his head that he felt were appropriate for his lyrics.
GROSS: Frank Loesser grew up in New York, moved to Hollywood to write for movies, and then ended up writing some great shows for Broadway. How did he make the transition from movies to Broadway?
Mr. FEINSTEIN: Well, he set his sights, like Jule Styne. Jule Styne was writing for the movies, but Jule felt that his real legitimacy and respectability as a composer could only come if he was writing for Broadway. And Loesser felt the same way. Loesser had written for Broadway early in his career without much success, but it gave him the desire to create theatrical pieces, because in Hollywood, he was - in the words of Oscar Levant - a cog in the wheel. He didn't have control over what was done with his songs. He turned them in, and then the producers took them and did as they pleased.
On Broadway, the composer had control, and Loesser wanted control because he really knew better than the other people as to how his work should be performed. And on Broadway, the composer could choose the orchestrator. They worked with the book writer. They worked with all the elements. And he wanted to write fully integrated dramatic theatrical pieces, and he could never achieve that in Hollywood.
GROSS: So you've brought with you a song from his first Broadway show, "Where's Charlie?" And this is a duet between Frank Loesser and Doris Day. That's so exciting.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. FEINSTEIN: Yes.
GROSS: I'm a big Doris Day fan.
Mr. FEINSTEIN: Me, too.
GROSS: So tell us the story behind this recording and how you found it.
Mr. FEINSTEIN: Doris Day, as a means of publicity in the early 1950s, had a transcribed radio show. This is actually from 1952. The show was supplied by Warner Brothers free to different radio stations to exploit the current film in which Doris Day was starring.
Well, in 1952, her guests on her radio show were Frank Loesser and Ray Bolger. And she did a tribute to Frank. And the applause of the audience was all dubbed in. It was all done on the studio lot, and then it was manufactured to sound like a live show. And I discovered that Frank had sung this duet with Doris. I'd actually heard about it, and then a friend mine who is a collector of radio recordings came across it. I don't know where he found it, but he got it to me, and I cleaned it up as best I could technically. And I don't believe it's ever been heard since it was broadcast in '52.
GROSS: Wow. Okay. This is exciting.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: So let's hear Doris Day and Frank Loesser singing a duet from a 1952 recording.
(Soundbite of Doris Day's 1952 radio show)
Ms. DORIS DAY (Actor, Singer): Would you join me in a duet on one my Frank Loesser favorites, "My Darling."
(Soundbite of applause)
(Soundbite of song, "My Darling My Darling")
Ms. DAY: (Singing) My darling, my darling, I've wanted to call you my darling for many, many a day.
Mr. LOESSER: (Singing) My darling, my darling, I fluttered and flagged like a starling. My courage just melted away.
Ms. DAY: (Singing) Now all at once, you kissed me, and there's not a thing I'm sane enough to say except...
Ms. DAY AND Mr. LOESSER: (Singing) My darling, my darling, get used to the name of my darling. It's here to stay.
(Soundbite of applause)
GROSS: That's Frank Loesser and Doris Day, singing together a song written by Frank Loesser, who was born 100 years today. And celebrating his birthday with us today is Michael Feinstein, who brought that record and many other records for us to hear.
They sound great together don't they?
Mr. FEINSTEIN: Yeah, and he was a real crooner.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: Yeah, he was. He was.
Mr. FEINSTEIN: It's so funny because on Broadway he always said loud is better.
GROSS: Mm-hmm. I know. I don't know whether to say he's a hypocrite, or what.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: That he just doesn't appreciate a certain kind of singing on - I guess he just doesn't appreciate it on Broadway. There's another soundbite I want you to hear, and this is from when I interviewed Charles Strouse, who wrote the music for the songs in "Bye Bye Birdie" and "Annie," among other shows. And he was talking about what he learned from watching Frank Loesser audition singers on Broadway. So let's hear that.
(Soundbite of 2009 interview with Charles Strouse)
Mr. CHARLES STROUSE (Composer): I used to work for Frank Loesser.
Mr. STROUSE: I was his assistant for two years. And I remember when Frank was testing people for range, he would often have them sing...
(Soundbite of Mr. Strouse vocalizing)
GROSS: From "Bushel and a Peck."
Mr. STROUSE: From "Bushel and a Peck." And because it was - he would put it in a key with the pianist that it would be out of their range. They had to go...
(Soundbite of Mr. Strouse vocalizing)
Mr. STROUSE: But because they were making fun, they could or could not hit it. Had you said sing that note legitimately in a song like, I don't know, "If I Loved You" or something, they would've said they can't reach it. But when they were playing these characters, they could. So I devised - it's not my own invention. Or maybe it is, I don't know. These kids would come in, and I would just have them sing "Happy Birthday." And once they passed the other thing, I would have a sing a song that they didn't have to worry about anything. And so they would - happy birthday...
(Singing) Happy Birthday.
See? And very often, they found that they could reach notes which, on their resumes, they couldn't reach at all. And that was the sound I wanted.
GROSS: That's sounds like an interesting way to audition.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. FEINSTEIN: Oh, boy. Yeah. Well, he terrified singers. He terrified them.
GROSS: Loesser did?
Mr. FEINSTEIN: Yes. And the thing that's interesting is that he worked with all the people who were going to go on the road, with the chorus people. Even though the show was already a huge success on Broadway, he worked with the people who were going to do the road companies. And he would scream and yell and leave them a shaking mess, but they went away from the sessions with him having learned a lot. And it was not in vain. I mean, he imparted extraordinary knowledge into these people. So he was tough, but always for a purpose.
GROSS: Michael, another song you brought with you was from the show that Frank Loesser won a Pulitzer Prize for, "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying." And the star of the show and the movie adaptation was Robert Morse, who is now on "Mad Men" as Bert Cooper, one of the heads of the ad agency Sterling Cooper. Why did you choose this one to play for us today?
Mr. FEINSTEIN: I chose this song because I think it is autobiographical. I think that it really shows who Frank Loesser was. It's about his own moxie. And, of course, he wrote it for a character in the show, about a guy who is climbing the ladder - the career ladder and trying to get to the top. But, Frank Loesser is that guy. I mean, Frank Loesser was the guy who clawed his way to the top. I mean, he didn't actually have to claw because he had such talent. But this song, to me, is also genius because on the surface it seems like a generic love song, except that in the show, the protagonist sings it to himself in a mirror.
GROSS: Right. I was so surprised when I saw that in the show, because I didn't quite know that.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. FEINSTEIN: Right. And it's...
GROSS: I thought it was somebody singing to somebody they believed in, but it's a very insecure guy who's building his confidence and singing to himself in the mirror. So this is Robert Morse from "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying," the movie adaptation.
(Soundbite of song, "I Believe In You")
Mr. FRANK MORSE (Actor and Singer): (Singing) Now, there you are. Yes, there's that face, that face that somehow I trust. It may embarrass you to hear me say it, but say it I must, say it I must. You have the cool, clear eyes of a seeker of wisdom and truth. Yet there's that up-turned chin and the grin of impetuous youth. Oh, I believe in you. I believe in you. I hear the sound of...
GROSS: That's Robert Morse in the movie adaptation of "How to Succeed." It's one of the recordings my guest Michael Feinstein has brought with him today to celebrate the centenary of Frank Loesser's birth.
I should mention that "How to Succeed" is going to be revived on Broadway soon, with - next spring with Daniel Radcliffe in the lead, and he's the star of the "Harry Potter" movies.
So now that we've heard Robert Morse, I should mention that I know he appeared at one of the Frank Loesser tributes that you did on stage. So any interesting stories to tell about Robert Morse, or about the show "How to Succeed?"
Mr. FEINSTEIN: One of the things about Robert Morse that always impressed me - I met him through a mutual friend, George Firth, who is a wonderful, of course, an amazing writer and actor - was that Bobby Morse is nerveless. When we did this Frank Loesser tribute, he was backstage and clowning and joking. And it seemed as if he wasn't even going to be ready to go on stage, like he was about to miss his cue. He seemed to be so distracted or casual about it. And then the minute that his name was announced, he went on stage and it was total focus and genius, performing with the same energy and fervor that he must've when he did the show 40-some years earlier. And I was just impressed that his talent is so organic that it just comes out in a focused way that was extraordinary.
GROSS: My guest is Michael Feinstein, and he has done so much to celebrate "The Great American Songbook" through his own performances, his archival work and his broadcasts. And speaking of his broadcast, he has a PBS series on American popular song coming up this fall.
So Michael Feinstein, we asked you to bring some Frank Loesser rarities with you today, and I think you certainly succeeded with this one. This is a song called "You're a Natural." Can you tell us about it?
Mr. FEINSTEIN: Yes. This song was written in 1938 for a movie called "College Swing." And the composer is Manning Sherwin, who was Frank's first collaborator in Hollywood and a guy whose music of which he was not very found.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. FEINSTEIN: He tried to get away from Sherwin and complained to Burton Lane, who was also under contract. He didn't think that Manning was up to Frank's standard. Even though at that point, Frank didn't have any hits but he already considered himself better than this guy who was already well-established.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. FEINSTEIN: This demo that you're going to hear was created for the producers at the studios to hear the song, to decide how to film and stage the number and then would be distributed to potential publishing houses and such to exploit the song. The interesting thing about it is that this early number has a lot of the hallmarks of what became trademark Loesser. It has the line: in a world full of phonies, I found you.
And that was really what Frank was about. He hated anything that was phony. And he also has a line about like a haunch on the ponies, which kind of is a precognition to "Guys and Dolls." And then he uses slang, like the phrase cops the pot. I don't know if anyone actually said cops the pot, but I love hearing that in this song.
And the person at the piano for this demo is not Manning Sherwin, but actually Burton Lane.
Mr. FEINSTEIN: Yes.
GROSS: You probably know that from Burton Lane, who you collaborated with on an album.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. FEINSTEIN: Well, I recognize Burton's piano playing. And I know it's Burton, but it's - he's not listed, but it's unquestionably Burton Lane at the piano.
GROSS: All right. So this is from 1938. This is Frank Loesser.
Mr. LOESSER: "You're A Natural." Lyric by Frank Loesser, music by Manning Sherwin.
(Soundbite of song, "You're A Natural")
Mr. LOESSER: (Singing) You're a natural, positively natural. In a world full of phonies, I found you, fresh from heaven, like a lucky seven, like a hunch on the ponies that came true. Why, the moment you passed me by, I said to myself, said, said I: There's a thrill, fills the bill, hits the spot, cops a pot. 'Cause you're a natural, positively natural, so naturally, I'd love to amble down the aisle for one last gamble, naturally with you. 'Cause you're a natural...
GROSS: That's Frank Loesser singing his song "You're A Natural." He wrote the lyrics. Manning Sherwin wrote the music, recorded in 1938. It's one the rarities that Michael Feinstein brought with him today to help us celebrate the centenary of Frank Loesser's birth, which is today.
So Michael, it's time to hear you sing. You've performed a lot of Frank Loesser songs over the years. Which song would you like to play? And this is a recording. We're not asking you to perform live.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. FEINSTEIN: Oh, that's good. That's good. Terry, one of the things I remember reading about Frank Loesser that has stuck in my brain all these years is that he said: I'm in the romance business. I know I can make you laugh. I want to know about what makes you cry. And this song, to me, is definitive Frank Loesser, because it is tender. It is simple. The economy of the lyric is such that it could almost be dismissed as being too lightweight. But the levels of emotion that are contained in it, in those few lines are very deep. And it's a song that I find that immediately puts the audience in a place of transformation. People immediately go, ah, the minute they hear it. And I just love that reaction that comes from it, and that is the genius of Frank Loesser.
GROSS: Such a wonderful song. Michael Feinstein, I can't thank you enough for helping us to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Frank Loesser's birth. And it's a pleasure to talk with you. Thank you so much for bringing in these recordings for us to hear. It's really been great. Thank you.
Mr. FEINSTEIN: Thank you, Terry.
GROSS: And here's Michael Feinstein, singing and accompanying himself at the piano.
Mr. FEINSTEIN: (Singing) I've never been in love before, now all at once it's you, it's you forever more. I've never been in love before, I've thought my heart was safe, I thought I knew the score. But this is wine that's all too strange and strong I'm full of foolish song. And out my song must pour. So please forgive this helpless haze I'm in I've really never been In love before. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.