Peggy Lee


National Public Radio celebrates the centennial of composer Jimmy Van Heusen. (Peggy Lee recorded 24 of his songs.)

The Composer Who Tested Fighter Planes And Partied With Sinatra

You’ve never heard of Jimmy Van Heusen? Well, the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers has. You certainly know many of his songs, says Brook Babcock, Van Heusen’s grandnephew and president of his publishing company.

“There’s 330,000 songwriters listed with ASCAP. Van Heusen, as far as his catalog, is probably within the Top 20. That’s a pretty good number,” Babcock says. “Yes, he’s not as known as Cole Porter, Ira Gershwin, George Gershwin, but when you put that name out there — Jimmy Van Heusen — to be in that Top 20 is, to me, pretty significant.”

The songwriter behind “Swinging on a Star,” “Love and Marriage,” “Come Fly with Me” and “My Kind of Town” won four Academy Awards and one Emmy for his work; he would have been 100 today. Jimmy Van Heusen was born Edward Chester Babcock and grew up in Syracuse, N.Y., where he was a terrible student but a born entertainer.
Van Heusen at work in the 1960s. Enlarge image

“I don’t think there’s a school in Syracuse that I didn’t attend,” he told an interviewer on Armed Forces Radio in the 1960s. “And I was usually unceremoniously expelled.”

Among his crimes: a suggestive performance at a high-school assembly.

“I chose, for my song, ‘My Canary Has Circles Under His Eyes,’ ” he said. “It was written by Yip Harburg, and I just copied it off the air. But it went, ‘Since making whoopee became all the rage / It’s gotten round to the old birdcage / And my canary’s got circles under his eyes.’ … It was the biggest laugh! You never heard 2,000 kids laugh so hard!”

Babcock took his pen name from the dress-shirt brand Phillips-Van Heusen. He made his way to New York, where Harold Arlen gave him a shot to write for the Cotton Club revue. Cab Calloway was the first to record a Van Heusen song.

A few years later, Van Heusen wrote a big hit for Benny Goodman, “Darn That Dream.” Bing Crosby heard it and brought Van Heusen to California, where the composer began a successful collaboration with lyricist Johnny Burke.

In Hollywood, Van Heusen became known as a man about town. Even though he wasn’t conventionally handsome, he always had a beautiful woman on his arm. And, Brook Babcock says, he threw great parties.

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