THE COTTON CLUB YEARS
The Cotton Club was the place to be in Harlem in the late 20's and early 30's. Aristocrats poured into the pricey club with a $3.00 cover charge to hear the bands of Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington and to watch other celebrity talents of the time, while sipping back beverages banned by the Prohibition.
Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler, neither of whom remembered how they became associated with the Cotton Club, wrote music for the Club from 1930 to 1934, turning out two shows a year. And each year they managed to turn out new hits. The songs that they wrote for the Club's 1931 show, Rhythmania, such as Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea, Trickeration, Kickin' the Gong Around, and I Love A Parade, became instant sensations.
For the twenty-first edition of the Cotton Club series in 1932, the first of the Cotton Club Parades, Arlen and Koehler made a splash with their new songs I've Got the World On A String and Minnie the Moocher's Wedding Day, which was a specialty number for Cab Calloway as a follow-up to his hit song Minnie The Moocher.
Since Calloway was not signed to appear in the twenty-second edition of the Parade, Ethel Waters was slated to sing Stormy Weather instead. An RCA Victor recording of Stormy Weather performed by the Leo Reisman Orchestra stirred such interest in the song that by opening night of the 1933 Cotton Club Parade, crowds of New York elite's gathered just to hear Ethel Waters sing it.
Nineteen Thirty-three was a pivotal year in history. Ratification of the Twenty-first Amendment officially brought prohibition to a close on December 5th and the Depression, which seemed nonexistent inside the Cotton Club, was at its lowest point. Arlen and Koehler took a year off during the twenty-third edition of the Cotton Club to spend a few weeks in Hollywood on their first film assignment entitled Let's Fall in Love (which was also the name of the hit song from the movie). They returned in 1934 to write their final big Cotton Club numbers, Ill Wind and As Long As I Live. By 1935-36, the novelty and the excitement of the Cotton Club had evaporated and on February 15, 1936 the Club finally closed its doors.
During his years with the Cotton Club, Harold was also busy writing music for other shows. While none were big successes like the ones at the Cotton Club, several of Harold's songs from the other shows became tremendous hits. For example, in the summer of 1930, he collaborated with lyricist Jack Yellen to compose the score for Broadway show You Said It, from which the song Sweet and Hot became a success. In 1932, Arlen and Koehler wrote the hit song I've Got A Right To Sing The Blues for a show called Earl Carroll's Vanities, which ran at the Broadway Theater for only eighty-seven performances. Then, in 1932 Arlen paired up with lyricist E.Y. (Yip) Harburg to write Satan's Lil' Lamb for a musical review called Americana. This show flopped after seventy-seven performances. Finally, in 1932 Harold worked again with Yip Harburg and co-lyricist Billy Rose to write a song for The Great Magoo called If You Believe In Me. This song was later interpolated into the film version of Take A Chance, newly titled It's Only A Paper Moon, which in turn became one of Harold's most well known songs.
Interestingly, in addition to composing, from 1931 through 1934, Harold still managed to do what he loved - perform. In late 1931, he appeared at the Palace playing and singing his most popular tunes and accompanying other performers in the vaudeville show. It was at the Palace in 1932 that Harold met and befriended singer Ethel Merman while accompanying her on the piano. Harold also performed at Radio City Music Hall on May 19, 1933 as the opening act, singing his ever-popular Stormy Weather. He and a group later toured with this act through Baltimore, Washington, D.C., and New York. He also recorded many renditions of his own compositions during those years.
The Cotton Club years were busy years for Harold Arlen. He had many great successes come of his hard work. Yet amidst the hustle and bustle of the show business life that he led, he managed to fall in love.