Born Samuel Cohen, June 18, 1913, in New York, NY; son of Abraham and Elka Riss Cohen; died of congestive heart failure, January 15, 1993, in Los Angeles, CA; married Gloria Delson, 1945 (divorced, 1964); married Virginia "Tita" Basile, 1970; children: Steven, Laurie.
Call him irrepressible--Sammy Cahn always had a way with words. As a skinny, bespectacled kid, it kept him out of trouble with his parents and the neighborhood bullies. As an adult, his way with words made him one of the most popular and successful lyricists of all time.
Young Samuel Cohen was not a good student in the classroom, but he studied the theater voraciously; from an early age, he would cut classes to see movies and watch vaudeville shows. One time when he had been at the theater instead of at school, he was spotted by a friend of his mother, who reported Sammy's truancy. He avoided punishment by brazenly lying his way out of the jam.
As a kid, he played the violin. But this was only a hobby until he was 13. At his bar mitzvah, he saw his mother pay the musicians and realized he could make money playing the violin. A year later he joined the small Dixieland orchestra his mother had hired, the Pals of Harmony. The group played local gigs and then began traveling to perform in hotels in Atlantic City and the summer resorts of the Catskills.
Sammy Cohen, who adopted the professional surname Cahn, wrote his first song when he was about 16 years old. As he recalled in his autobiography, I Should Care, "It was actually Jackie Osterman at the Academy of Music on 14th Street who inspired my song writing career.... In the middle of the act, [Osterman] took a change of pace and said he'd like to sing a song he'd written. It was a fascinating thing for me to be actually looking at a songwriter--in person.... Walking home ... I began to frame a song in my head. By the time I reached home I had actually written a lyric.... The song was a piece of idiocy called "Like Niagara Falls, I'm Falling for You--Baby!" But if, as ... somebody said, a journey of a thousand miles starts with the first step, that was the first step." Soon he teamed up with the pianist from the Pals of Harmony, Saul Chaplin, and a songwriting team was born.
The duo of Cahn and Chaplin soon began to have some success at writing specialty numbers for vaudeville acts, but they could not get their songs published. Then one day in 1935, a friend told them that the bandleader Jimmy Lunceford, who was then playing at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, needed a song. They wrote "Rhythm Is Our Business," which was recorded for the Decca label and became a modest hit. They began to write for other big-band stars like Ella Fitzgerald ("If You Ever Should Leave"), were accepted as members of ASCAP (the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers), and were on their way.
The song that made Cahn and Chaplin famous and rich enough for Cahn to buy his parents a new house was the specialty number "Bei Mir Bist Du Schon (Means That You're Grand)." Cahn heard this Yiddish song at the Apollo Theater and thought an English version would work well. He had trouble selling the idea at first, but then an as-yet-unknown sister act from the Midwest heard the song. Cahn explained in his autobiography: "One day Lou (Levy) brought the Andrews Sisters, Patty, Maxene, and LaVerne up to our apartment. On the piano was this copy of a song in Yiddish. Patty asked ... 'How does it go?' I played it for them, and they started to sing right along and to rock with it. 'Gee,' said Patty, 'can we have it?' Cahn penned English lyrics to the song, the Andrew Sisters recorded it, and it shot both Cahn and the Sisters to national fame, eventually selling over one million copies.
During the late 1930s the team of Cahn and Chaplin wrote under contract for New York City's Vitaphone Studios, a subsidiary of Warner Bros. that produced short feature films. The duo wrote songs sung in these films by performers such as Betty Hutton, Bob Hope, and Edgar Bergen. In 1940 Vitaphone Studios closed, and Cahn and Chaplin, still under contract to Warner Bros., moved out to Hollywood. But they had no luck with the western studios, got no commissions, and parted ways.
About the time Cahn was becoming frantic from lack of work, he was asked to write songs with composer Jule Styne. "From the beginning it was fun," he remembered. "He went to the piano and played a complete melody. I listened and said 'Would you play it again, just a bit slower?' He played and I listened.... I then said, 'I've heard that song before'--to which he said, bristling, 'What the hell are you, a tune detective?' 'No,' I said, 'that wasn't a criticism, it was a title: "I've Heard That Song Before.'" This song, the first of many Cahn and Styne hits, led to a fruitful series of film collaborations. The duo wrote songs for the films Anchors Aweigh (1945), Tonight and Every Night (1945), Wonder Man (1945), The Kid From Brooklyn (1946), Romance on the High Seas (1948), and The West Point Story (1950). Their songs include "I'll Walk Alone," I Fall in Love Too Easily," "Saturday Night Is the Loneliest Night in the Week," "As Long as There's Music," "Come Out, Come Out," "Five Minutes More," and "The Things We Did Last Summer."
Cahn wrote many songs specially for certain singers. After he met young Frank Sinatra singing with the Tommy Dorsey Band, he provided Sinatra with a number of songs that became hits and helped to make both men stars. In the early 1940s Sinatra was signed by MGM to appear in the musical Anchors Aweigh; he refused to sing unless Cahn wrote the material. In 1954 Cahn and Styne wrote "Three Coins in a Fountain" for Sinatra to sing in the film Three Coins in a Fountain. The song garnered Cahn his first Oscar.
During his long career, Cahn worked with many different composers. In 1957 Cahn and composer Jimmy Van Heusen won an Oscar for their song "All the Way," from the movie The Joker Is Wild ; they won another in 1959 for "High Hopes," from A Hole in the Head, and in 1963 they won their third Oscar for the song "Call Me Irresponsible," from the film Papa's Delicate Condition. The duo also received Academy Award nominations for their songs "To Love and Be Loved," "Second Time Around," "High Time," "My Kind of Town," "Where Love Has Gone," "Thoroughly Modern Millie," "A Pocketful of Miracles," and "Star." Other Cahn collaborators included Nicholas Brodsky, Sammy Fain, Arthur Schwartz, Sylvia Fine, Vernon Duke, Axel Stordahl, Paul Weston, and Gene de Paul.
In 1974 Sammy Cahn starred in his own Broadway show. Two years earlier he had been asked to put together a show to run as part of a now-legendary series at the 92nd Street YMCA called "Lyrics and Lyricists." The audience loved him. When he finally took the act, titled Words and Music, to Broadway, critics raved, and Cahn became the toast of the town. His show ran for nine months on Broadway and almost two decades on tour before declining health put an end to Cahn's performing career.
Cahn died of congestive heart failure on January 15, 1993, at Cedars-Sinai Medial Center in Los Angeles. In 1972 he had been inducted into the Songwriter's Hall of Fame and had later served as its president. He had labored hard to establish a Songwriter's Hall of Fame Museum, and he never lost his love for popular music of any variety. In 1992 he told Pulse! that he would love to write songs for contemporary singers like belter Michael Bolton or superstar Madonna. "My opinion of the music of today," he told Pulse!, "is simply put: Whatever the number-one song in the world is at this moment, I wish my name were on it."
by Robin Armstrong
Sammy Cahn's Career
Joined Dixieland group Pals of Harmony as violinist, 1927; wrote first song, c. 1929; with pianist Saul Chaplin, wrote specialty songs for vaudeville acts; wrote songs for big-band singers, including Ella Fitzgerald, mid-1930s; wrote English lyrics to Yiddish song "Bei Mir Bist Du Schon (Means That Your Grand)," 1937; worked for Vitaphone Studios, New York City, late 1930s; split from Chaplin and began working with Jule Styne; worked with Frank Sinatra, early 1940s; worked with various composers; mounted Broadway show Words and Music, 1974; toured with show, 1975-early 1990s. President of Songwriters Hall of Fame. Contributed music to films, including Lady of Burlesque, 1943; Anchors Aweigh, 1945; Tonight and Every Night, 1945; Wonder Man, 1945; The Kid From Brooklyn, 1946; Romance on the High Seas, 1948; West Point Story, 1950; April in Paris, 1953; Peter Pan, 1953; Three Coins in a Fountain, 1954; You're Never Too Young, 1955; The Court Jester, 1956; All the Way, 1956; The Man With the Golden Arm, 1956; Serenade, 1956; The Joker Is Wild, 1959; A Hole in the Head, 1959; High Time, 1960; A Pocketful of Miracles, 1961; Papa's Delicate Condition, 1963; Robin and the Seven Hoods, 1964; Where Love Has Gone, 1964; Thoroughly Modern Millie, 1967; and Star, 1968.
Sammy Cahn's Awards
Academy awards, 1954, for "Three Coins in a Fountain," from Three Coins in a Fountain; 1957, for "All the Way," from The Joker Is Wild; 1959, for "High Hopes," from A Hole in the Head; 1963, for "Call Me Irresponsible," from Papa's Delicate Condition. National Cash Box Award, 1959, for "High Hopes." Inducted into Songwriters Hall of Fame, 1972.
- Selective Works
- Walking Happy Capitol, 1966.
- An Evening With Sammy Cahn DRG, 1978, reissued, 1993.
- Frank Sinatra Sings the Songs of Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne Vintage Jazz Classics, 1993.
- Cahn, Sammy, I Should Care: The Sammy Cahn Story, Arbor House, 1974.
- Cahn, Sammy, Sammy Cahn's Rhyming Dictionary, Warner Bros.
- Publications Inc., 1983.
- Songs With Lyrics by Sammy Cahn, Cahn Music Co., 1982.
- Periodicals Chicago Tribune, January 16, 1993.
- Entertainment Weekly, January 29, 1993.
- Gentlemen's Quarterly, July 1991.
- Facts on File, January 21, 1993.
- London Times, January 18, 1993.
- Los Angeles Times, July 10, 1990; January 16, 1993.
- New York Times, January 16, 1993.
- Newsweek, January 25, 1993.
- People, February 1, 1993.
- Pulse!, April 1992; October 1992.
- Time, January 25, 1993.
- Variety, January 25, 1993.
- Washington Post, July 11, 1990; January 16, 1993.