Jule Styne

Prolific American songwriter Jule (pronounced “Julie”) Styne (b. London, England, December 31, 1905; d. New York City, September 20, 1994) estimated in 1987 that he had written 2,000 songs, published 1,500 of them, and had had 200 genuine hits – among them were “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!,” “Saturday Night Is the Loneliest Night of the Week,” “I’ll Walk Alone,” “I Fall in Love Too Easily,” “Time After Time,” and “Make Someone Happy.” He composed scores to a dozen Broadway hits (and very few duds), winning a Tony Award® for Hallelujah, Baby! in 1967. His songs have appeared countless times in feature films and cartoons, and he won an Oscar® in 1955 with “Three Coins in the Fountain.” Nine others have been nominated for Best Song by the Academy®.

Julius Kerwin Stein was born in London’s East End to Jewish immigrants from the Ukraine who ran a small grocery. When he was only three, his parents took him to a music hall to hear Harry Lauder, the Scottish entertainer, and the child created a sensation by jumping on to the stage and singing a song. At Lauder’s urging, little Julius’s mother arranged for him to take piano lessons and practice on a rented instrument. At the age of eight, moving with his parents and two younger siblings to Chicago, he enrolled at the Chicago College of Music. Before he was ten he had won a piano competition medal from the Chicago Symphony and performed with the Symphony Orchestras of Chicago, St. Louis, and Detroit. A prominent pianist and pedagogue, however, declared to the world and to him at age thirteen that his hands were too small for a concert artist. His father was devastated.

Stein himself bounced back by forming his own dance band and playing in his high school lunchroom. Soon he was engaged at a burlesque house and sitting in at jazz clubs. While still a teenager, he established a friendship with Michael Todd (also a teenager, but later producer of blockbuster films and third husband of Elizabeth Taylor) who was putting together a musical show and commissioned Stein’s first published song.

After high school, Stein was associated with the dance orchestras of Edgar Benson, notorious for his stranglehold on music bookings in Chicago clubs and hotels. At the time, said Styne, “more or less, musicians fed off the mob.” In 1922 he and Ernie Young formed the Music Corporation of America, a booking agency for bands both black and white, with the express purpose of moving in on Benson’s territory. They opened an office in New York City in 1926, expanding the agency’s reach nationwide. It was at this time that an associate executive suggested he change the spelling of his name: “Stein” seemed “too Jewish.” His first big hit, composed in the same year to impress a young lady, was “Sunday.” Meanwhile he was playing with Ben Pollack’s band, along with the teenaged Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, and many other up-and-coming greats.

Working also as a vocal coach and band leader for popular Broadway entertainer Harry Richman, Styne came to the attention of Hollywood producers, who brought him to 20th Century Fox where he coached Shirley Temple and Constance Bennett. Frank Sinatra was another client with whom Styne had a regular, if rocky, relationship. Writing songs for Gene Autry and Roy Rogers at Republic Pictures in the ’30s, he met lyricist Sammy Cahn, with whom he would collaborate for many years (“It’s Been a Long, Long Time,” “Five Minutes More,” “I’ve Heard That Song Before,” “It’s Magic,” “Three Coins in the Fountain”). He also partnered with Frank Loesser when he was lent to Paramount for Sweater Girl (1942) (“I Don’t Want to Walk Without You”).

Styne did not write a full score for a Broadway musical until 1947, when he and Cahn turned out High Button Shoes. Starring Nanette Fabray and Phil Silvers, with choreography by Jerome Robbins, it ran two and a half years. But despite their success, after one more joint project with Cahn on the film The West Point Story (1950), Styne did not work with Sammy Cahn again. For the next two decades and more, he dedicated himself to Broadway with a steady stream of shows created with a variety of book-writers and lyricists: with Leo Robin Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1949, “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend”); with Betty Comden and Adolph Green additional songs to Peter Pan (1954) and full scores to Bells Are Ringing (1956, “Just in Time,” “The Party’s Over”), Say, Darling (1958), Do Re Mi (1960), Subways Are For Sleeping (1962), and the Tony®-winning Hallelujah, Baby!; with Bob Merrill Funny Girl (1964, “People,” “Don’t Rain on My Parade”) and Sugar (1972); and with Stephen Sondheim only Gypsy (1959, “Everything’s Coming Up Roses,” “Let Me Entertain You,” “Rose’s Turn”). Rarely did Styne return to Hollywood: in 1951 for Meet Me After The Show and in 1955 for a remake of My Sister Eileen, both with lyricist Leo Robin.

Styne was also a successful producer, backing a revival of Pal Joey in 1952 and other plays and musicals (Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?, Mr. Wonderful, his own Say, Darling). Elected to the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1972 and the Theatre Hall of Fame in 1981, and a recipient of the Kennedy Center Honors in 1990, he was given a New Dramatists Lifetime Achievement Award in 1992.

Styne was married twice: his first marriage to Ethel Rubinstein in 1927 ended in divorce after twenty-five years; the second was to English-born model Margaret Ann Bissett Brown in 1962. He had two children by each marriage. At eighty-eight he died of heart failure in Manhattan, some weeks after undergoing open-heart surgery.

It would be difficult to conceive of the careers of Broadway’s brightest female stars – Carol Channing as Lorelei Lee in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Judy Holliday as the daffy telephone operator in Bells Are Ringing, Mary Martin as Peter Pan, Barbra Streisand as Fanny Brice in Funny Girl, or Ethel Merman singing “Rose’s Turn” in Gypsy – without the showstopping songs, so precisely molded to the outstanding talents of each, of Jule Styne.

– LEC

Back to Artists