Obituary: Harold Spina

Dick Vosburgh
Friday 08 August 1997 23:02

The first of the composer Harold Spina's many hits was launched by a bandleader who couldn't decide whether it was a funny song or a tragic one.

The tongue-in-cheek "Annie Doesn't Live Here Any More" (1933), which Spina wrote with Joe Young, veteran lyricist of such standards as "My Mammy", "You're My Everything" and "I'm Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter", and the fledgling Johnny Burke, was considered a dud by its publishers, who sent it to the bandleader Guy Lombardo in a parcel of tunes they regarded as equally hopeless. Although unsure whether the song would make people laugh or cry, Lombardo asked the publishers if he could have it exclusively for six weeks. They replied, "You can have it for six years!" In less than three weeks, the number became a nationwide hit.

Like Lombardo, America was divided about "Annie"; college students and big-city types found it funny, while those in the hinterlands thought it poignant; its ending ("She was oh-so faithful - what a pitiful sight! / Waited for a letter that you promised to write. / A gentleman with a top hat called around the other night, / And Annie doesn't live here any more") led many to think Annie had died of a broken heart, and that the top-hatted gentleman was not a rich lover, but an undertaker.

Obsessed with music from an early age, Spina led his own high-school dance band at 14. Soon after graduation he became a pianist and vocal arranger for a music publishing firm in his native New York, turning full- time composer in 1932. After the success of "Annie Doesn't Live Here Any More", he and Johnny Burke turned out a dozen songs, including "It's Dark on Observatory Hill" (1934) and the Fats Waller hits "You're Not the Only Oyster in the Stew" (1934) "You're So Darn Charming" and "My Very Good Friend the Milkman" (both 1935).

The partnership ended in 1936, when Burke left for Hollywood to write for Bing Crosby. In 1937 Spina too went west; with Walter Bullock he wrote the score for United Artists' 52nd Street (1937), a tedious musical whose title invited invidious comparison with Warner Bros' 42nd Street (1933). After being signed by 20th Century-Fox, Spina and Bullock provided songs for the Sonja Henie-Don Ameche-Ethel Merman film Happy Landing, Alice Faye's Sally, Irene and Mary, and Shirley Temple's Just Around the Corner and Little Miss Broadway (all 1938).

Frank Loesser was his lyricist on Paramount's True to the Army (1942), which starred the hillbilly comedienne Judy Canova. Spina later worked on her equally corny Honeychile (1951) and The Wac from Walla Walla (1952) with others providing the words.

In 1950 Dinah Shore had a hit single with Spina's "It's So Nice to Have a Man Around the House". Jack Elliott wrote the lyric, which ended with the cynical "Though it's two to one you'll wind up with a louse". Patti Page had a million-seller with "Would I Love You?" (1951), which Spina wrote with Bob Russell. Soon afterwards, the composer became his own lyricist; his "Lazy Summer Night" (1958) was a leading record for the Four Preps. He also provided both words and music for "The Velvet Glove" (1953), which his long-time friend Jerry Colonna recorded. "If Jerry hadn't been a friend," joked Spina, "I wouldn't have let him do that to my song!"

During his long life, Harold Spina also founded two music publishing firms and a film studio, produced and directed for record companies, developed the first automated music programme in radio, and campaigned tirelessly for his union, the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers. Although his most enduring song was the Latin-American "Cumana", (written with Barclay Allen and Roscoe Hillman), his most remunerative composition was "Man Around the House", which was adapted for a long-running television cake-mix commercial. It became "It's so nice to have a cake around the house".

Harold Spina, composer, lyricist, music publisher and record producer: born New York 21 June 1906; married (two sons); died 18 July 1997.

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