Obituary: Irving Caesar

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The Independent Online
"I write fast", maintained the lyricist Irving Caesar. "Sometimes lousy - but always fast."

During his song life he dashed off the words for such standard songs as "Swanee", "Animal Crackers in My Soup", "Just a Gigolo", "Is It True What They Say About Dixie?" and "Tea for Two". The words of the last-named song were fluke: Caesar wrote them late one night as a "dummy lyric", just putting down the first came into his head to remind himself of the shape of Vincent Youmans's tune: "Picture you upon my knee, / Tea for two and two for tea, / Me for you and you for me, / Alone . . ."

"I was going to write the real lyric in the morning," he said. "But while I was still asleep, Youmans found what I'd scribbled, liked it, and that was that." In 1963 the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers selected "Tea for Two" as one of 16 songs making up its All-Time Hit Parade.

Irving Caesar wrote verse and song lyrics as a child, but trained as a stenographer at New York's City College. In that capacity, he worked with Henry Ford's doomed Peace Mission to Europe during the First World War. Towards the end of the war, Caesar returned to America to begin his songwriting career. In 1918, when "Hindustan" was a popular one-step, he and George Gershwin met for lunch in New York to discuss future collaboration. Caesar suggested they write a one-step of their own, and the result was "Swanee", which they completed within hours.

The following year, it was sung in the stage show at New York's newest cinema, the Capitol, and then danced to by 60 chorus girls with electric lights on their shoes. The song came into its own in 1918, when Al Jolson sang it in one of his legendary Sunday night concerts. The reaction was so enthusiastic, Jolson interpolated the song into his show Sinbad, after which his recorded version sold over two million copies.

The success of "Swanee" opened many doors for Caesar, but the songs he co-wrote for such shows as Morris Gest's Midnight Whirl and The Sweetheart Shop (both 1920) aroused little excitement. "Sixty Seconds Every Minute", which he and Louis Hirsch wrote for the 1922 edition of The Greenwich Village Follies, was a popular hit, but nothing he wrote for the next three editions of the revue was successful.

He had a hit with "Gigolette" (music by Franz Lehar) in Andre Charlot's Revue of 1925, and a huge success that same year with his lyrics for No, No, Nanette, for which he and Vincent Youmans wrote such standards as "I Want to Be Happy", "Too Many Rings Around Rosie", "You Can Dance With Any Girl at All", the title song and, of course, "Tea for Two". A follow-up show Yes, Yes, Yvette (1927), which Caesar wrote with the composer Ben Jerome, ran only 40 performances.

Caesar felt Yvette might have been a hit had be been allowed to interpolate "Sometimes I'm Happy" into the score, but Youmans, with whom he'd written the song, refused to allow this. In the spring of 1927, Caesar returned from a long stay in Europe to find everyone whistling "Sometimes I'm Happy", which Youmans had interpolated into his then current musical Hit the Deck! without asking its lyricist's permission. "I gave Youmans two choices", Caesar remembered with satisfaction, "Get himself a new lyric for the song, or pay through the nose, giving me huge royalties for every single company of the show - and it was playing everywhere. The song was already a smash with my words, so I got the royalties."

Although Here's Howe (1928) was a quick Broadway flop, it produced "Crazy Rhythm", a hig song with music by Roger Wolfe Kahn. Caesar also wrote with such composers as Victor Herbert, Sigmund Romberg, Rudolf Friml, and Oscar Levant. With the latter, he wrote "Lady, Play Your Mandoline", which boasts the grisly line: "Senorita, sweet Chiquita, I could eat your heart".

In 1930 Caesar wrote an English lyric for "Schoner Gigolo", a Viennese melody. "Just a Gigolo" was recorded successfully by Bing Crosby, Louis Armstrong and Vincent Lopez's orchestra, and revived in the 1960s by the Louis Prima band.

In the mid-1930s Caesar worked with the composer Ray Henderson on two films for 20th Century Fox: George White's Scandals (1934, which produced Alice Faye's successful song "Oh, You Nasty Man!", and Curly Top (1935), which produced Shirley Temple's even more successful "Animal Crackers in My Soup".

Although he never learnt to read music, Caesar also composed many children's songs. His instructional collections Sing a Song of Health, Sing a Song of Friendship and Sing a Song of Safety were widely used by schools across America. Recently he wrote a song called "Who Wants Marijuana?", and was still writing to the end. In 1995 his publishers announced that he had married the previous year.

The show Caesar was never allowed to forget was My Dear Public (1943), a "revusical story", which ran for only 43 performances, and received such notices as the New York Journal-American's "The piece is presented by Irving Caesar, who, even if you don't ask me, should be ashamed of himself", while the review in the Daily News bore the headline "Caesar is Buried, Not Praised". Caesar, who not only produced the show, but wrote all the lyrics and collaborated on the music and book, telephoned Ira Gershwin and asked irately, "Why is everybody blaming me?"

Dick Vosburgh

Irving Caesar, lyricist, composer: born New York 4 July 1895; died New York 17 December 1996.