Eighteenth in a series: Gentiles, religion and the American songbook
I was recently watching a Shirley Temple movie (Curley Top) with my three-year old granddaughter, Alexis, and the adorable little muffin began to sing one of her signature songs, “Animal Crackers in My Soup.” I thought I would learn to play this cute little ditty for Lexi and I found that this song was written by Ray Henderson with lyrics by the great Ted Koehler, a powerful writing team for little Shirley. I knew of Koehler but I didn’t know much of Henderson, except to play some of his tunes on the piano. What I found caused me to include him in my list of prominent Gentile songwriters and lyricist of the American songbook.
Born Raymond Brost in Buffalo, NY, to a German musical, church-going family, Henderson was encouraged to pursue music as a child. His mother gave him piano lessons and his father taught him the fundamental elements of music. He played organ and sang in a local Episcopal church. After years of private study in Buffalo and playing in local dance bands, he apparently studied piano and composition at the Chicago Conservatory of Music. While in Chicago, he is said to have studied with composers Vittorio Giannini and Benjamin Britten. In Chicago he continued to play in dance bands and vaudeville.
Around 1918, he moved to New York and became a song plugger, staff pianist, and arranger at a succession of music-publishing companies, establishing the contacts that allowed him to become a songwriter. In 1920 he wrote “Humming” (Tip Top musical) which was a hit record for Paul Whiteman and his orchestra in 1921.
In 1922, lyricist Lew Brown joined Henderson to write such hits as “Bye, Bye Blackbird” and “I’m Sitting on Top of the World.” In 1925, Buddy DeSylva joined the duo to create the top song writing team of the 1920s and the most popular trio of song writers in the history of the American songbook. In 1925 the three musicians formed a music publishing company. They wrote songs for the very popular George White Scandals of the late 1920s and early l930s, and some Hollywood films of the same period. David Ewen writes of Henderson’s tunes, “His was music with a nervous rhythm, restless beat, frenetic accentuation – so apt an expression of those feverish times that it inspired one of the most famous social dances of that period, the Black Bottom.” Henderson once described the team’s variety: “We tried to write a balanced score – love songs, rhythm songs, comedy, low down or torch numbers, and ensembles.”
In l929, at the birth of the “talkies,” the great Al Jolson was filming his movie, The Singing Fool, and he needed a song. Jolson telephoned the trio on the East Coast to request a new song overnight. They asked, “What kind of song?” Entertainer Eddie Cantor relates the story: “Jolson replied, ‘a song about a kid – a boy supposed to be my son – a ballad to make people cry.’ The trio promised to fill the bill. Then the minute they hung up the songwriters went to work, not on a beautiful ballad but on the corniest creation they could dream up. In no time at all, they called Jolson back, all three singing it into the telephone. Jolson loved it. ‘It will be the biggest ballad I’ve every sung,’ he said excitedly. The three songsmiths could hardly keep from laughing, but they solemnly assured Al that they would send him the words and music immediately. When Jolson finally hung up, they started to laugh – and they never stopped. Because what they had written as a joke was the hit of the picture, selling 1,500,000 copies of sheet music and becoming Jolson’s best selling song – ‘Sonny Boy.’”
In l931 DeSylva left the trio to become a producer of films and Broadway shows. Brown and Henderson continued to write music for and produce Broadway shows. In l931 Brown and Henderson wrote the music for White’s Scandals of l931 which produced five hit songs and made musical history when Bing Crosby recorded the score, making it the first basic score of a Broadway show to be recorded on one record. Henderson’s last hit was the Ziegfeld Follies of l943. Apart from an occasional gig over the next 30 years Henderson fell into obscurity.
In l956 a movie based on the lives of Henderson-Brown-DeSylva, Best Things in Life are Free was released, with singer/dancer Dan Dailey playing Henderson.
In the l993 movie, Sleepless in Seattle, Henderson’s “Bye, Bye Blackbird” was featured. And in 2000 a revue of Henderson’s music was mounted in New York City entitled It’s the Cherries as the inaugural show of the American Composer Series.
My favorite Henderson songs: “Five Foot Two and Eyes of Blue,” “You’re the Cream in my Coffee,” “It All Depends on You,” “I’m Sitting on Top of the World,” “Birth of the Blues,” “Animal Crackers in My Soup.”
Henderson’s private life
Ray Henderson died in 1970 of a heart attack in his home in Greenwich, Conn. He was 74 years old. IBDb web biography notes that he was briefly married to a Marie Armstrong from whom he was divorced in l925. I could find no confirming source for this. He was married to Florence Hoffman Henderson with whom he had three children: Howard (b, 1922), Jane (b, 1925) and Dorothy (b, 1926). Dorothy Brost Johnson died in April 2011 while living in Florida at the age of 85. Jane married a prominent Episcopalian businessman and Howard is retired and living in Greenwich, Conn. There is little information about Henderson’s private life or his personal relations with people around him.