Obituary: Fred Spielman

Though his songs were sung by Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra and Judy Garland, the name of Fred Spielman (as Fritz Spielmann called himself in America) is little known today. One of several Viennese composer musicians who fled to the United States in the late Thirties, his work never achieved the sort of sustained popularity that led to public recognition, though his work encompassed Broadway, Hollywood (where he was under contract to MGM) and Tin Pan Alley.

He was born in Vienna in 1906, and displayed an early flair for the piano and for composition, in which he was encouraged by his engineer father. He studied at the Music Academy of Vienna under Joseph Marx, but on leaving abandoned plans to be a concert pianist and instead took work in night- clubs and composed popular songs, one of which, "Warum spielt bei den Schinkenfleckerl alleweil das Fleisch Versteckerl?" became a hit. With the rise of Nazism, he went to Paris and just before the outbreak of war managed to leave on one of the last ships for Cuba. There he married, and with his wife sailed for New York to settle on the Upper West Side.

One of his first compositions, "Shepherd Serenade" (1941, lyrics by Kermit Goell) became a hit with best-selling recordings by both Bing Crosby and the Horace Heidt band. He teamed with George Gershwin's brother Arthur to write the score for a Broadway musical, The Lady Says Yes (1945), starring Carole Landis, but the only song to stop the show was an interpolation by another composer, and the show lasted only 11 weeks. Spielman then decided to move to Hollywood, where he had already provided material for the Andrews Sisters to perform in their roles as munition workers in Swingtime Johnny (1943).

After providing songs for Ann Dvorak in her role as a dance-hall hostess in Abilene Town (1946), he signed a contract with MGM as a house composer. For Luxury Liner (1948), a glamorous piece of escapism in which Jane Powell was a stowaway on the liner captained by her father, Spielman provided a lilting Viennese waltz, "Spring Came Back to Vienna" (with Janice Torre and Fritz Rotter), while for In the Good Old Summertime (1949) he wrote for Judy Garland a vibrant ballad, "Merry Christmas" (lyrics by Janice Torre). Though tender and touching, it lacked the appeal to become a holiday standard.

Spielman never wrote complete scores for MGM musicals, but contributed numbers to Big City (1948), The Duchess of Idaho (1950) and most of the songs for Tom Thumb (1958). In 1950 he had a surprise hit with a melody composed during his childhood days at the Academy. Adapted as "One Finger Melody" by Al Hoffman and Kermit Goell, it was recorded by Frank Sinatra and spent 16 weeks on the Hit Parade. (Its lyrics, "Yum-de-da-de-da, I love to play this melody . . .", precluded its becoming a lasting standard.) "Paper Roses", a country-and-western song written in 1960, became a hit 13 years later when recorded by Marie Osmond, and in 1962 he provided a song for the Elvis Presley musical Girls, Girls, Girls.

In 1969 he and Janice Torre composed the score for a television musical, The Stingiest Man in Town, based on A Christmas Carol. The starry cast included Basil Rathbone (as Scrooge), Vic Damone, Patrice Munsel, Johnny Desmond and Martyn Green, and the Columbia LP of the soundtrack is now a collectors' item.

Spielman's final hit came by chance when in 1990 the jazz singer-pianist Shirley Horn was watching a Joan Crawford film, Torch Song (1953), in the middle of the night and was taken by a ballad sung by the star ("ghosted" by India Adams). Called "You Won't Forget Me", it was written by Spielman and Kermit Goell, and had been totally forgotten. Horn recorded it and it topped the jazz charts.

Tom Vallance

Fritz Spielmann (Fred Spielman), composer: born Vienna 20 November 1906; married; died 21 March 1997.

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