Obituary: Robert Wells

"CHESTNUTS ROASTING on an open fire / Jack Frost nipping at your nose / Yuletide carols being sung by a choir / And folks dressed up like Eskimos." Mel Torme found those four lines pencilled on a writing pad when he dropped into the San Fernando Valley home of his friend and songwriting partner Robert Wells one torrid July afternoon in 1945.

Wells explained that he'd written that snatch of wintry verse to cool himself off on such a hot day. Forty-five minutes later, he and Torme had turned the four lines into "The Christmas Song", a tune that was still being revived each year when both its composers had reached their seventies.

Wells was born Robert Levinson in 1922 in the state of Washington, where he attended business college. He studied speech and drama at the University of Southern California, and wrote radio scripts before serving in the US Army Air Force during the Second World War. After the war, he worked for a music publisher.

Meeting Torme at a party led to their writing the ballads "Born to be Blue" and "A Stranger Called the Blues", the title songs for the films Abie's Irish Rose (1946) and Magic Town (1947), and the song "Country Fair", featured in the Disney film So Dear to My Heart (1949). "The Christmas Song", recorded by Nat "King" Cole and many others, was their most successful joint work.

Although Wells dissolved his partnership with Torme in 1949, he never stopped writing songs; his collaborators include Cy Coleman, Kay Thompson, David Saxon and Duke Ellington. He and Morris Stoloff provided the score for Columbia Pictures' All Ashore (1953), an On the Town clone in which Mickey Rooney played a sailor called Moby Dickinson. Time magazine called All Ashore "an amiable little cinemusical with pretty girls, Technicolored scenary, several jingly songs - and practically no story." That story had been written by Wells in collaboration with a neophyte named Blake Edwards. After becoming a leading producer-writer-director, Edwards employed Wells for such films as A Shot in the Dark (1964) and 10 (1979). "It's Easy to Say", which Wells and Henry Mancini wrote for 10, was nominated for an Academy Award.

The French Line (1954), the lavish musical which mortified the censor when Jane Russell sang and danced in a costume too revealing for the prim Fifties, had a score by Wells, Ralph Blane and Josef Myrow. Again with Myrow, Wells wrote the "Ballad of Wes Tancred" for RKO's Tension at Table Rock (1956), in which Tancred (Richard Egan) wanders the west, haunted by a song accusing him of being the "black- hearted, white-livered, back-bitin' sidewinder who murdered his own best friend."

"A Diversion in Song and Dance" said the billing for the Broadway revue Three for Tonight (1955), its stars being Marge and Gower Champion and Harry Belafonte. Boasting "Special material by Robert Wells", the low- budget production inspired the New York World-Telegram and Sun to hail it as "one of those rare shows that is in a class by itself." Despite such reviews and a profit-making run, Wells soon abandoned the theatre for the more secure medium of television. In 1975 his work on Shirley MacLaine: if my friends could see me now won him an Emmy for "Outstanding Writing in a Comedy Variety or Music Special". That same year, he came to Britain as producer and co-writer of the television special Julie - My Favourite Things. Directed by Blake Edwards, it starred Edwards's wife Julie Andrews, Peter Sellers and Jim Henson's Muppets.

For the film From Here to Eternity (1953), Wells and Fred Karger wrote "Re-Enlistment Blues". They also collaborated on "From Here to Eternity", a song which, although not in the film, was successfully recorded by Frank Sinatra. In 1963 Sinatra recorded the Wells-Jack Segal song "Here's to the Losers". The Segal-Wells partnership also provided Tony Bennett with the songs "When Joanna Loved Me" (1963) and "Antonia" (1989). The Wells- David Holt song "What Every Girl Should Know" (1954) was recorded by Doris Day.

Wells wrote and produced television's long-running Dinah Shore Chevy Show and specials starring Gene Kelly, Jane Powell, Carl Sandburg, Andy Williams and Victor Borge, but claimed as his favourite A Toast to Jerome Kern (1959); although the programme featured Wells' first wife Lisa Kirk, Howard Keel, Keely Smith, Louis Prima, Robert Cummings and Carol Channing, he felt its real star was one of his idols: the 76-year-old lyricist Otto Harbach, whom he persuaded to reminisce about Kern and recite his own lyric to their "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes".

Less happy was a 1947 meeting with another idol, E.Y. "Yip" Harburg, brilliant lyricist of "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?", Finian's Rainbow and The Wizard of Oz. Invited to Yip's flat to play him some of their songs, Wells and Torme began with the bucolic "Willow Road", but never finished; Harburg began fulminating at them for ignoring one of the chief rules of songwriting. "You're both hopeless amateurs!", he shouted. "Don't you know you should never write about a place you've never seen?"

Before leading Torme in a hasty exit, Bob Wells took a deep breath looked Harburg straight in the eye and said, "So you've been over the rainbow, have you?"

DRobert Levinson (Robert Wells), lyricist, composer, writer and producer: born Raymond, Washington 15 October 1922; married first Liza Kirk (deceased), second Marilyn Jackson (one stepson, one stepdaughter); died Santa Monica, California 23 September 1998.

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