He belonged to a tradition of New York Jewish songwriters who emerged out of actual or comparative poverty to do triumphant battle with the English language. Compared to an Ira Gershwin or Yip Harburg, Cahn kept his sophistication under wraps. He didn't flaunt his rhymes, though he was as fanatical as any of his peers about getting them exact and matching speech rhythms to musical rhythms. His words always fell naturally, which is how they seem to have come to him; and he poured them on to a typewriter, unheard-of in a pencil-chewing profession. He was one of the fastest writers in the business.
'Rhythm is our Business' was actually the prophetic title of his first successful song, and it became the theme tune of the Jimmie Lunceford Band. That was in 1935; Cahn arrived just in time for the swing era, and he was always a pop writer at base. Like Johnny Mercer - his only superior as the master of the one-shot song - he thought in terms of songs rather than scores; in a 50-year career he wrote only five Broadway shows, one of them a success (High Button Shoes, in 1947). Jule Styne, his collaborator on that and on much else, thought Cahn's facility undid him as a theatre writer; he didn't have the patience or the in clination to dig into character.
He did create two characters, though. One was his own; he made it to Broadway and the West End in the 1970s as a performer, in retrospectives of his own material that evoked the glory days of Hollywood and Tin Pan Alley. ('Shows you how long ago that was', he would say every time some once-famous name of the Thirties, Forties or Fifties surfaced in his reminiscence.) He was a natural clown, capitalising on his unglamorous appearance; 'most of us,' he said of songwriters in general, 'look like dentists.' If he couldn't really sing, he could certainly phrase. He punched out syllables with punctilious urgency, as if determined that none of his words should escape our notice. He sang as he talked, with a quiet voice and a loud personality. The show was the natural climax of his career as a hustler of his own wares. 'Can you imagine,' asked the pianist Marian McPartland, 'meeting Sammy Cahn without him pulling out a song he wants you to hear?'
His ego was immense, but he seemed secure within it and happy to give colleagues their due. I once stopped by his office in New York's Faberge building on my way to see the stage version of 42nd Street. 'I envy you the fun you're going to have,' he said, with scratch-voiced fervour, and repeated the line, as he often did to make a point. Maybe that was a lyricist's instinct.
His other creation was Frank Sinatra; anyway he helped. From the Forties on - first with Styne as composer, then with Jimmy Van Heusen - he wrote most of Sinatra's film songs and special material, defining him first as the devoted, bashful romantic ('Time After Time', 'I Fall in Love Too Easily'), then as the high-loving playboy ('Come Fly with Me', 'Come Blow Your Horn') prone to peaceful or lacerating introspection ('Only the Lonely', 'All My Tomorrows', 'September of My Years').
Moods were what Cahn, like any good pop writer, was about. He could be euphoric, and he could strike a nerve. In a world full of songs about first love, 'The Second Time Around' was an inspiration. He was perfectly capable of being clever; in 'Thoroughly Modern Millie', a Twenties spoof, he wrote 'Men say it's criminal/What women'll/Do', adding wide-eyed 'what they've forgotten is this is 1922'. He was also the industry's favourite parodist, happily burlesquing his own lyrics or other people's ('you made me love you, you woke me up to do it').
His most famous mot was his answer to the question of which comes first, the words or the music: 'first comes the phone call.' He would have relished the thought of his obituarists responding to the summons yesterday morning to give him instant commemoration. He would have been - he liked punning on his own name - cahncerned but cahntented. He enjoyed cutting a figure. Call him irrepressible.
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