The Greatest Songwriters of the 20th Century : Sheet Music Selections

Sammy Cahn

Sammy Cahn

Born June 18, 1913 in New York, NY, Sammy Cahn is remembered today as one of the 20th Century's most diverse lyricists. He scored his first hit at age 21, but his most famous works were written years later as collaborations with other popular songwriters of the era, Jule Styne and Jimmy Van Heusen, after ending a writing partnership with Saul Chaplin for Warner Bros. in the early 1940's.

Cahn's enormous popularity, however, stemmed from his songs written for old friend and leader of the Rat Pack, Frank Sinatra. As his relationship with Jule Styne weakened in the mid-1950's Cahn began writing songs for Sinatra including hits such as "High Hopes" and "Come Fly With Me."

From 1973 until his death in 1993, Sammy Cahn served as President Emeritus for the Songwriters Hall of Fame, "the organization dedicated to recognizing and honoring the accomplishments and lives of those men and women who create the popular songs that serve as the soundtrack of our lives".

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Hoagy Carmichael

Born in Bloomington, Indiana in 1899, Hoagy Carmichael is considered to be one of the greatest composers of popular American song. What's more, unlike most other composers and songwriters of his era, Carmichael was also considered a fine vocalist, pianist and trumpeter.

As a trumpeter, Carmichael held the jazz trumpet of Bix Biederbecke in high regard. His first composition, "Riverboat Shuffle" was eventually recorded by Bix and the Wolverines in 1924 - and Carmichael quickly became one of the top composers of his era, before moving on to songwriting.

Throughout his career, (which included acting in 14 films, forming a jazz group with Art Pepper and penning two autobiographies) Carmichael wrote a multitude of songs that have gone on to be performed by such contemporary artists as Nat King Cole ("Stardust"), Norah Jones ("The Nearness of You"), Ray Charles ("Georgia on My Mind") and others.

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Hoagy Carmichael

Cy Coleman

Cy Coleman

Born June 14, 1929 in New York City, Cy Coleman's career began at an early age with a recital at Steinway Hall at the age of six. By the time was was seventeen years old, Coleman had moved on from recitals to a more public role: performing at Manhattan supper clubs. In the late 1940s Coleman continued his pursuit of music through an education at the New York School of Music, where he also started his own performance trio.

Stil, it wasn't until the 1950's that Coleman gained recognition in the larger music community, when Frank Sinatra made two of Coleman's songs into hit singles. After the successes of "Try to Change Me Now" and "Witchcraft," Coleman continued his popular writing career with the Tony Bennett success, "Firefly." Soon thereafter, however, Coleman switched focus to the stage, where he wrote popular musical favorites such as "Little Me" and "Sweet Charity."

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Duke Ellington

Born April 29, 1899 in Washington D.C., Duke Ellington is considered by many to be the single most important composer in the history of Jazz music. Furthermore, unlike many influential composers of his era, Ellington not only was a performer, but his band remains a legendary force in jazz. Where many of his contemporaries struggled to find outlets (performers) for their music, Ellington utilized his band to test new material.

Among his most memorable compositions are "Mood Indigo" and "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)." As his career progressed, his compositions eventually took on a more "popular" tone, especially after signing with Frank Sinatra's Reprise label. In 1966 Ellington went on to win a Grammy (his first of six during his lifetime) for best original jazz composition for "In the Beginning, God" - a piece stemming from a series of sacred concerts he performed.

Ellington continued performing until spring of 1974 when he died from a combination of lung cancer and pneumonia. His band, however, played on.

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Duke Ellington

Gershwin

George & Ira Gershwin

Born in New York, NY in 1889, George Gershwin's career was fatally cut short due to a brain tumor in 1937. Still, in his relatively short life, George Gershwin managed to become one of the most important and prolific songwriters of the 20th Century - as well as a "serious" composer of classical music.

George Gershwin's first major hit, featured in the show Sinbad in 1919 was "Swanee." After 1924, however, he teamed with his brother Ira and the two quickly became one of the most important songwriting duos in history. They scored a series of hit shows in the late 20's and early 30's including Porgy and Bess (the source of the nominal favorite, "Summertime"), An American in Paris, Girl Crazy (home to "I Got Rhythm") Oh, Kay! and many others.

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Jerome Kern

Born in New York in 1885, Jerome Kern is considered to be the pioneer of modern American musical shows. While his initial successes came in the early 20th Century with songs modeled after the European waltz, he truly broke through (and broke into the history books as well) with 1927's Showboat. As one of the first Broadway shows to integrate music, song and storytelling into one cohesive package, Showboat has since gone on to become one of the most memorable shows in the history of the medium, with songs like "Ol' Man River" and "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man" still being performed today.

After the advent of sound in film, Kern, like his contemporaries, ventured into this medium as well. He scored several hits, including the Ginger Rogers / Fred Astaire classic Swing Time. Throughout his career Kern wrote or contributed to 37 shows, and had begun work on another classic show, Annie Get Your Gun, when he died in 1945.

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Jerome Kern

Johnny Mercer

Johnny Mercer

Born November 18, 1909 in Savannah, Georgia, Johnny Mercer is one of the forefathers of 20th Century Songwriting. Unlike many of the period's popular songwriters, Mercer was also considered to be a fairly accomplished singer in his own right. Yet, his biggest claim to fame is the sheer volume of songs he penned - nearly 1,500 songs throughout his lifetime.

Mercer scored his first big hit in 1933 with "Lazybones," recorded by Ted Lewis. His career blossomed thereafter, going on to collaborate with such influential artists and writers as Bing Crosby, Harold Arlen, Hoagy Carmichael, Jerome Kern, Bobby Darin, and others. Many of Mercer's songs have gained immortal status as jazz standards, including "Satin Doll" and "Jeepers Creepers."

Amidst the surge in popularity of rock music in the 1960's, Mercer's songwriting career began to fade. In 1969 he founded the Songwriters Hall of Fame, where he served as President through 1973 before handing duties over to fellow songwriter, Sammy Cahn. Johnny Mercer died on June 25, 1976 in Los Angeles.

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Cole Porter

Born in Peru, Indiana in 1891, Cole Porter is considered by many to be America's greatest tunesmith. After a childhood filled with piano and violin lessons, he attended Yale University, and later, Harvard, where he studied law and music.

Porter moved to Paris in the 1920's and soon began scoring hits; his first show was Paris in 1928, which included one of Porter's most memorable tunes, "Let's Do It (Let's Fall in Love)." He returned to New York in 1930 and continued to pen an immense number of songs for the most legendary shows and films of the era, including Kiss Me Kate, The New Yorker, High Society, Night and Day and others.

Porter's tremendous song catalog remains some of the most performed music to this day, as songs including "De-Lovely," "True Love," "Love for Sale," "Begin the Beguine" are continually performed by music lovers worldwide.

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Cole Porter

Carl Sigman

Carl Sigman

Born in Brooklyn, NY in 1909, Carl Sigman enjoyed a childhood filled with baseball games and classical piano lessons. As a young man, Sigman befriended songwriter Johnny Mercer. The two collaborated on "Just Remember," Sigman's first published song.

Throughout his songwriting career, Carl Sigman has written such classic pieces as "Crazy She Calls Me," "Ebb Tide" and the holiday favorite "There's No Christmas Like a Home Christmas." Sigman was also the lyricist behind the swing standard "Pennsylvania 6-5000," made famous by Tommy Dorsey.

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Kurt Weill

Born in Dessau, Germany in 1900, Kurt Weill's first opera, The Protagonist was performed in April of 1926. By this time he had already become an accomplished composer, but had decided to devote his future work to musical theatre. Working with like-minded contemporary, Bertolt Brecht, the two had their first veritable hit in 1927 with Mahoganny-Songspiel and the two became enormously popular throughout Europe.

With the rise of Nazi Germany in 1933 Weill fled his homeland, and after a brief stay in Paris, Weill eventually found himself in New York where he became one of Broadway's most popular composers. But, while hit shows such as The Threepenny Opera and Lady in the Dark propelled Weill into the spotlight of songwriting, he also continued to write music intended to address the real world, including his work for Lost in the Stars, based upon Alon Paton's exploration of South African racial conflict, 'Cry the Beloved Country'.

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Kurt Weill


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