|Sammy Cahn at the piano surrounded by honors.|
He may not be quite in the same class as Cole Porter, Ira Gershwin or Johnny Mercer, the artful poets of the American popular song, but Sammy Cahn’s cheerful, upbeat songs entertained generations.
Samuel Cohen was born in Manhattan’s Lower East Side on June 18, 1913 to a family of immigrant Jews from Galicia in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The family was successful enough to provide music lessons for the children—piano for his four sisters, and the violin for him. At sixteen he left school and joined a Dixieland band playing in the Catskill resort hotels.
Back in the city after the season ended he supported himself by odd jobs and spent most of his money attending vaudeville performances. He studied the style and form of the musical numbers and concluded he could do as well writing the material he saw on the stage as anyone.
He soon teamed up with the first of many partners he would have over his long career, Saul Chaplin. Using the joint credit of Cohen and Chaplin, the pair started churning out an astonishing volume of specialty numbers for vaudevillians. Seldom published these songs sometimes were written for special events or appearances, often reworked over and over for subsequent uses, or as novelty numbers in longer acts. They were clever and soon in demand if not well paid. Clients included rising stars Milton Berle, Danny Kaye, Phil Silvers, and Bob Hope.
With the addition of sound to motion pictures they also picked up work doing songs for Warner Bros. Vidaphone shorts at the company’s Brooklyn studios, their first work in movies.
The duo finally broke into the big time when a childhood chum, music publisher Lou Levy got their tune Rhythm is Our Business into the hands of Black bandleader Jimmie Lunceford who made it his signature song. Not only was it their first ASCAP credit, but opened the door to work with other big band leaders Glen Gray and Tommy Dorsey.
The pair relocated to Hollywood where they were under contract to Warner Bros. Their hits included Until the Real Thing Comes Along and Please be Kind. Cahn also wrote the English words to the Andrews Sister’s break out hit, Beir Mir Bist Du Schöen.
Cahn and Chaplain broke up when their Warner contract expired in the early ‘40s, but Sammy wasted no time in finding a new partner who would help bring his career to greater heights—Jule Styne. The soon busy new duo were soon churning out songs for big bands and radio crooners, as freelancers in the movies, and even co-wrote a Broadway hit, High Button Shoes.
Through Dorsey Cahn met Frank Sinatra and was soon the singer’s favorite lyricist. Sinatra recorded Saturday Night (Is the Loneliest Night of the Week), The Things We Did Last Summer, and Five Minutes More. Other hits from this fertile period included I’ve Heard that Song Before for Harry James; Doris Day’s I’ll Walk Alone; It’s Been a Long, Long Time, a hit for both Bing Crosby and Harry James; and Let it Snow, Let it Snow, Let it Snow.
The pair also wrote scores for almost a dozen films. But the success of High Button Shoes temporarily broke up the songwriting team. Styne wanted to stay in New York and dedicate himself full time to musical theater. Always practical, Cahn figured there was more work in Hollywood and as a freelancer.
He hooked up with partner number 3, Nicholas Brodszky, a refugee from the Nazis and war torn Europe. Brodszky’s European sensibility and affinity for operetta, got the new team work for Mario Lanza films including Lanza’s signature song Be My Love. They also penned numbers for Doris Day including I’ll Never Stop Loving You.
Despite their success, Cahn reteamed with Styne for just one fruitful year in 1959. They won Cahn’s first Academy Award for Best Song after 9 previous nominations stretching back to 1942—Frank Sinatra’s Three Coins in the Fountain. They also did the score to The Seven Year Itch.
Styne went back to New York, but the unstoppable Cahn teamed up once again, this time with Jimmy Van Heusen. Soon they were known as Sinatra’s favorite writers and established the signature sound and the infectious, up-beat lyrics for which Cahn is now best known. The resultant string of hits and included Love and Marriage, The Tender Trap, All the Way, The Second Time Around, Ain’t That a Kick in the Head, Pocketful of Miracles, High Hopes, Come Fly With Me, My Kind of Town, and September of My Years. Those included two more Oscar winners and almost innumerable nominations. This work alone would cement a reputation.
But there was more. Call Me Irresponsible, introduced by Jackie Gleason in Papa’s Delicate Condition won Cahn his fifth Oscar. Cahn and Van Heusen teamed up to write the films Robin and the Seven Hoods, Thoroughly Modern Millie, and Star!
Cahn also occasionally collaborated with others over his career including Sammy Fain for You Can Fly, You Can Fly, You Can Fly from Disney’s animated Peter Pan, Written on the Wind with Victor Young, and The Best of Everything with Alfred Newman.
In the late ‘70’s and ‘80’s when his contemporaries like Hoagie Carmichael and Johnny Mercer were discouraged by the lack of opportunities. Cahn kept plugging away, still providing songs for Sinatra with Van Heusen but also doing work with new partner George Barrie for a couple more Oscar nominees, All That Love Went to Waste and Now That We're in Love.
But Cahn really carved out a new career when he launched his one man show Words and Music in 1974 on Broadway. The critically acclaimed show featured Sammy and a piano performing a parade of his hits interspersed with charming recollections of his long career. The stories, some perhaps embellished for effect, were mostly true although some of his former collaborators found nits to pick. The show won Cahn the Outer Circle Critics award for, ironically, Best New Talent on Broadway. The same year his autobiography, I Should Care: The Sammy Cahn Story was published.
Cahn took his show to London and toured the States with it. He became a popular guest on TV talk shows. The show was remounted to more success on Broadway in the 1980’s.
Cahn was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1972 and later took over as President when his friendly rival Johnny Mercer became ill. Over the course of his career, he was nominated for 23 Academy Awards, five Golden Globes, Emmy, and received a Grammy nomination with Van Heusen for Best Original Score. In 1988 a new award for movie songs and scores was named The Sammy in his honor recognizing that he had received more Oscar nominations and awards than any other songwriter.
When he died on January 15, 1993 at the age of 79, Sammy Cahn was memorialized as one of the most successful—and prolific—lyricists in history.
So, happy 100th birthday, Sammy!