Thursday, April 5, 2012

Jewish Women Songwriters

Women have always been important in music. In biblical times, women like Deborah and Hannah composed songs of thanks for God. In more recent times, women have consistently been a hugely important presence in the music industry (for the good and bad). There have been dozens of Jewish women performers who went out on stage and entertained the masses, but there were also many Jewish women who preferred to stay behind the scenes and write the songs.

Dorothy Fields was born in 1904 to vaudeville comedian Lew Fields (born Moses Schoenfeld), half of the comedy duo Fields and Weber. Ms. Fields’ songwriting career began in 1928, when she wrote lyrics for Blackbirds of 1928, a wildly successful Broadway revue. She wrote over 400 songs throughout several decades, from “On the Sunny Side of the Street” (1930) and “The Way You Look Tonight” (Academy Award 1936) to “I Feel a Song Coming On” (Judy Garland, 1956) and “Big Spender” (1966). Her lyrics were also featured in several Broadway shows, including Annie Get Your Gun (which ran for 1,147 performances), Up in Central Park, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Swing Time (Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers), Sweet Charity, and Seesaw. Her most successful play was Redhead, which won five Tony Awards. In 1971, she was the only woman of the first ten inductees into the Songwriters Hall of Fame.

Betty Comden was both a performer and a songwriter. She was born Basya Cohen in Brooklyn, New York in 1917 to observant Russian immigrants. Sadly, she was never fully comfortable being a Jew: when she was five, she changed her name to Betty, and at age nineteen got a new nose and last name. As Betty Comden, she partnered up with performer and writer Adolph Green in 1938, a duo that would last for decades. At the beginning, the two wrote and performed their own material as a nightclub act. The first play Comden and Green wrote, On the Town, became a smash Broadway hit. They also penned several screenplays, including Good News and The Barkleys of Broadway. Their most successful show was cult classic Singin’ in the Rain, which won the Best Written American Musical award from the Writers’ Guild of America. Another hit of theirs, The Band Wagon, features a husband and wife musical writing team based on themselves. In addition to writing, Comden also acted. Between 1953 and 1990, Comden and Green were nominated for or won 13 Tony Awards. She was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame and American Theatre Hall of Fame in the 1980s.

Sylvia Fine was also half of a duo, as she was Danny Kaye’s wife, partner, and producer. She was born to a well-off Jewish family in Brooklyn in 1913. Already writing parodies and humor in high school, she taught piano after graduating from college. While playing piano at a rehearsal, she met Danny Kaye, a Catskills tummler, and history was made. She wrote dozens of humorous songs for Kaye to perform, including “Anatole of Paris” from The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, “The Inspector General” and “Happy Times” from The Inspector General, and “(You’ll Never) Outfox the Fox” from The Court Jester. She was also nominated for an Academy Award in Best Original Song for “The Five Pennies” from the play of the same name and “The Moon is Blue,” also from the play of the same name. Fine gave birth in 1946 to a daughter, Dena, who Kaye and Fine named their own production company after. The two separated shortly afterward, but still worked together on a professional level. In 1979, Fine received a Peabody Award for Musical Comedy. In her final years, she donated millions of dollars to the CUNY system for the musical arts and refurbished auditorium.

Carole King, today a household name, began as a middle class Jewish girl born in Brooklyn in 1942. While attending Queens College, she met her first husband and songwriting partner Gerry Goffin. Goffin and King’s first song, “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” became a success by the Shirelles (who were managed by Florence Greenberg). After that, the two wrote dozens of chart-topping songs throughout the 1960s, including “The Loco-Motion,” “Pleasant Valley Sunday,” and “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.” In the 1970s, King began a solo career in music, making several diamond, platinum, and gold records and number one hits. Goffin and King were inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1987 and were given the National Academy of Songwriters Lifetime Achievement Award in 1988. The two also became members of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for songwriting.

Are there any major modern Jewish women songwriters? Only time will tell if their contributions to the music industry will become part of history.

Passover begins Friday night. May everyone celebrate a happy, kosher holiday. Next year in Jerusalem!

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