By Christopher Smith, Special to the Los Angeles Times
July 25, 2010
Among other things, the new musical "Robin and the 7 Hoods" is a love letter to composer Jimmy Van Heusen. On first glance it might seem an homage to Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack in their heyday, but it's Van Heusen's infectious melodies, found in "Come Fly With Me," "The Tender Trap," "Ain't That a Kick in the Head," "High Hopes" and 15 other tunes, that are the lifeblood of the effort.
The show's music supervisor and vocal arranger, John McDaniel, listens to Van Heusen with an admiring ear. "His uptempo songs have a harmonic jazz beat," he said. "These are intricate chords, influenced by swing band orchestrations from the generation a decade or so earlier."
It's also noteworthy to McDaniel what these songs are not.
"This music isn't rooted in classical construction, what you hear in shows from Richard Rodgers or Cole Porter. They're also not defined by the 4/4 rhythms of rock, which was just on the verge of dominating popular music. But this window in the late '50s and early '60s finds lots of brisk, inviting pop … you hear it in Nat King Cole or Henry Mancini."
There's reason to believe that Van Heusen's good-time tunes were a product of his lifestyle. Born Chester Babcock — two-thirds of his pen name came from seeing a Van Heusen shirt ad — by the late '50s he'd been in Hollywood for a decade and living life as the quintessential ring-a-ding-ding swinger that Sinatra was eager to professionally and personally become.
Sinatra recorded more songs by Van Heusen — 85 — than by any other composer he worked with. That reflects not just Van Heusen's prolific skills, but the output that Sinatra, Bing Crosby and others required of him and, in the '50s and '60s, his lyricist partner Sammy Cahn. When asked which came first in their songwriting, the lyrics or the music, Cahn famously replied: "The phone call."
By the mid-1960s, with rock taking over popular music, the phones stopped ringing. He and Cahn split in 1967 and around then dedicated bachelor Van Heusen threw in the lifestyle towel — he married, albeit to a woman who reportedly carried a gold-plated derringer in her purse.
Van Heusen died in 1990 and is buried near Palm Springs; a few feet away lies Sinatra. Their music, however, still hums along.
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