Obituary: Sammy Timberg

Dick Vosburgh
Wednesday 09 September 1992 23:02

Sammy Timberg, composer, born 21 May 1903, died Scranton Pennsylvania 26 August 1992.

LIKE his fellow songwriters Buddy De Sylva, Con Conrad and Harry Ruby, Sammy Timberg started out as a vaudeville performer. His older brother and sister were successful vaudevillians: Hermann was a glib, Jewish-dialect comedian and Hattie could dance like a demon, while playing a violin. When Sammy entered vaudeville, it was as Herman's straight man in a patter act.

Enter the four Marx Brothers. In 1921 Herman co-wrote the four's new act On the Mezzanine, with Hattie acting as a manager as well as dancing violinist. When the act reached the prestigious Palace Theater, New York, it was the 18- year-old Sammy who conducted the house band. Soon he was also writing songs, two of which found their way into a 1928 operetta, White Lilacs. Attempting to do for Chopin what Blossom Time had done for Schubert, it reduced the Chopin/George Sand romance to treacle and lasted only 156 performances on the Great White Way. The following year Timberg supplied songs for a revue called Broadway Nights. As the dance routines obliged the chorus girls to bounce rubber balls while dancing, and later mass to form a human railroad train, it should surprise you to learn that their choreographer was a pre-Hollywood Busby Berkeley. The show lasted fewer then 40 Broadway nights, but Berkeley liked Timberg's melodies and employed him on two more musicals that same year. Duchess of Chicago was a quick flop, but a fair run of 191 performances was notched up by The Street Singer, which dealt with the miraculous transformation of a bedraggled flower-girl (from Paris, not Lisson Grove) into a star of the Folies Bergeres.

As the Depression worsened, the number of new musicals dipped steeply, and Sammy forsook composing for bandleading, forming his own orchestra and touring US cinemas. Then Hollywood, in the shape of the animators Max and Dave Fleischer, beckoned. Signed to compose especially for the new cartoon star Betty Boop, Timberg turned out such songs as 'Keep a Little Song Handy' and 'Don't Take My Boop Boop a Doop Away'. Over a decade, Timberg also wrote songs and scores for Popeye, Little Lulu and Superman.

In the late 1930s, inspired by the money coined by Disney's Snow White, the Fleischers decided to make the world's second full-length Technicolor cartoon. For its subject they chose Gulliver's Travels, and considered casting Popeye as the eponymous sailor. Eventually, the book was reduced to one travel, with the Lilliput-Blefuscu War now fought over the conveniently musical issue: 'Which country's national anthem should be played at the forthcoming wedding of Prince David and Princess Glory?' Although the cartoon's score was written by Leo Robin and Ralph Rainger ('Thanks for the Memory'), it was Timberg who (with Winston Sharples and Al J. Neiburg) came through with the firm's hit song, 'It's a Hap-Hap-Happy Day'. The melody may have owed something to the Seven Dwarfs' 'Whistle While You Work', but it was vocalised by everyone from Gracie Fields to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and played by every band from Guy Lombardo and his Royal Canadians to Steffani and his Silver Songsters. The Fleischers must have liked it too, as they reprised the tune in countless subsequent cartoons.

Emboldened by Gulliver's success, Max and Dave turned, in 1941, to the first full-length cartoon to deal with miscegenation (in Mr Bug Goes to Town, Honey, a bee, married Hoppity, a grasshopper). Although the million-dollar film's basic score was written by Hoagy Carmichael and Frank Loesser, Timberg and Loesser's 'Boy, Oh Boy]' was its catchiest tune. The financial failure of Mr Bug (mercifully retitled Hoppity Goes to Town in the UK) sent the Fleischers their separate ways. They hadn't spoken for four years anyway.

Except for an occasional song (Sinatra recorded his and Buddy Kaye's 'Help Yourself to my Heart' in 1947) little was heard of Sammy Timberg for the rest of his life. It was a very long life, but then one had to be durable to survive the formidable Marx and Fleischer Brothers.

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