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Railroaded To Anonymous Success.

Who is Harry Warren? Hint: his melodies are more memorable than his name: "I Only Have Eyes For You," "We're in the Money," "At Last," "42nd Street," "That's Amore." These and others earn him a permanent place on the Mount Olympus of American pop music. "He's one of the great songwriter gods to me," said Mel Torme. "I'd lump him with Kern, Rodgers and Hart, Gershwin, Porter, Berlin."

"On the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe" was another Warren classic--his second hit train song, after 1941's "Chattanooga Choo Choo." Like many songs of the WWII era, "Atchison" was written for a musical production, the movie The Harvey Girls, about women who worked for the Harvey House restaurants at AT&SF depots. Written with lyricist Johnny Mercer, the song was destined for the movie's big production scene.

Harry Warren traced his musical ability way back. Born in Brooklyn in 1893 into an Italian American family (which made him one of the few non-Jews on Tin Pan Alley), this one of a dozen children figured out the accordion early on. He moved on to drums and dropped out of school at 16 to hit the carnival circuit. Later he played piano in cafes and theaters before joining the US Navy in 1918.

By World War II, with a number of frequently hummed tunes already on his resume, he met with Mercer to write The Harvey Girls' big song-and-dance number. He recalled that Mercer "would sit in a room with you and just stare silently. I would play him a melody and he'd listen to it and then sit there without talking." Odd as this ritual may have seemed, it worked. Mercer turned out hits like Pullman turned out railcars.

"Atchison" was all over the radio in the summer and fall of 1945. Mercer himself sang the first-released recording, before the movie came out. It chugged all the way to No. 1 on the charts. Other stars--Bing Crosby, Judy Garland, and Tommy Dorsey-put out bestselling versions of their own. For the film, Garland sang the lead. The big scene was shot in two takes, both of which she nailed.

The Harvey Girls opened in theaters in January 1946, and "Atchison" went on to take the Oscar for Best Original Song. It was one of a rarely equaled three times that Warren won the award. Maybe the secret to this success, to the success of his career, was that it was all a numbers game: write more than 800 songs, publish 500 of them, and some are bound to go gold. But maybe not. "You don't have to know anything about music to understand what I write," Warren once said. "Mine are simple melodies." Simple to remember (unlike his name).


editor of America in WWII

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Title Annotation:78 RPM
Author:Zebrowski, Carl
Publication:America in WWII
Date:Aug 1, 2018
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