Obituary: Sammy Cahn

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The Independent Online
'I DON'T sing songs, I do them,' he used to say. 'I have too much respect for the word 'sing' to profane it.' Yet in 1972, Sammy Cahn, a slight, owlish 59- year-old with a voice like a gate in search of an oilcan, agreed to star on Broadway in a one-man musical show, writes Dick Vosburgh. How did they get him to do it? 'Easy', he said, 'they dropped a hat.' At the time, Cahn told me, he had 2,500 published lyrics to his credit. 'Well, sometimes to my debit', he added. 'But I loved writing every last one of them.'

Most of the 2,500 were written for films. In 1938 Cahn and his first composer, Saul Chaplin, managed the neat trick of creating a hit ballad for a Warner Brothers short subject. Soon the world was singing: 'This is my first affair,/So please be kind/Handle my heart with care,/Oh please be kind . . .'

The brothers Warner had an odd way of rewarding Sammy and Saul for their success; they were traded to Columbia Pictures, the fiefdom of the fearsome Harry ('White Fang') Cohn. 'We spent three long years with Cohn,' said Sammy. 'And we wrote him all the hits he deserved. None]'

After an amicable parting from Chaplin, Cahn joined forces with Jule Styne. The two men were born for each other, and were Frank Sinatra's favourite tunesmiths. But after the success of their Broadway show High Button Shoes, Styne decided to stay in New York and concentrate on theatre work, while Cahn preferred Hollywood. Sinatra was the matchmaker who put him together with Jimmy Van Heusen.

I first met Cahn on the television quiz Looks Familiar, after which I congratulated him on his autobiography I Should Care. 'Yeah, it is a great book,' he replied, 'I couldn't be prouder if I'd written it.' Frank Lazarus and I then had A Day in Hollywood a Night in Ukraine playing in London, and Sammy came to see it. When we told him the show had been picked up for Broadway, he gave us his number, saying, 'Call me if there's anything I can do to help.' We did call and he did help, opening up a lot of important doors for us and offering useful warnings about a lot of people.

I last saw him in 1984, shortly after his Songwriter's Rhyming Dictionary was published in Britian. He was fuming about one of the reviews, which knocked the book while getting most of his song titles wrong. 'I've got a good mind to set my Uncle Genghis on this character]' he shouted.

If you ever saw Sammy in a television interview, or in his one-man show, or read I Should Care, or even bumped into him in the street, you'd have been told the story of the writing of 'Three Coins in the Fountain'. He always said that, having persuaded Sinatra to make the demonstration record, he and Styne hijacked 60 musicians who were on the 20th Century-Fox lot scoring Captain from Castile. One day in New York, I took a deep breath and ventured, 'You wrote 'Three Coins' in 1954, and Captain from Castile was made in 1947.' He grinned and said, 'Yeah, I suddenly realised that a few years ago.' I said, 'I checked on the costume epics 20th did make in 1954. That orchestra could have been there to score Demetrius and the Gladiators or Prince Valiant or The Egyptian. So why did you keep saying 'Captain from Castile'?'

The man who wrote 'High Hopes', 'Teach Me Tonight' and 'The Tender Trap' shrugged and replied, 'I like the alliteration.'