July 15, 2005

FIELDS OF GOLD

On the centennial of Dorothy Fields' birth, songs such as "On the Sunny Side of the Street" and "I'm in the Mood for Love" shine as bright as ever

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July 15, 2005 will mark the one hundredth birthday of one of our country's premiere lyricists, Dorothy Fields. Among her many timeless contributions to the American Songbook are: "I Can't Give You Anything But Love, Baby," "On the Sunny Side of the Street," "The Way You Look Tonight," (Academy Award-winner in 1936) "A Fine Romance," "I'm in the Mood for Love," "Big Spender" and "If My Friends Could See Me Now." Her songwriting collaborators included such fellow legends as Jimmy McHugh, Jerome Kern, Arthur Schwartz, Morton Gould, Harold Arlen and Cy Coleman. Fields, a lifelong New Yorker, made her initial mark writing for the legendary Cotton Club revues of the 1920s, with Broadway and Hollywood success to follow, success that continued into the 1970s.

Looking toward the Fields centennial, the lyricicist's son, composer/pianist David Lahm, recently spent some time with Playback, offering some thoughtful insights into the life and career of Dorothy Fields.

Your mother was born into a prominent show business family. Did that smooth her way into a songwriting career?
David Lahm: She was the daughter of a famous comedian and producer, Lew Fields. The team of Weber & Fields were major vaudeville headliners in the 1890s and early 20th Century, and were theater owners, as well. All of Lew's three children eventually became playwrights, librettists or lyricists. And Lew had connections to songwriting – he was a producer or coproducer on early Rodgers & Hart musicals. Dorothy's brother Herb was the book writer on some of those.

But Lew Fields was very much opposed to Dorothy becoming a songwriter.
"Ladies don't write lyrics," he said to her. She replied, paraphrasing one of his vaudeville lines – "I'm no lady, I’m your daughter!" It was the composer, J. Fred Coots, who brought Dorothy to meet the publisher, Jack Mills. She convinced Mills she could write and he began to give her assignments.

What was her breakthrough?
The first major songwriting success, probably very defining for her life, was "I Can't Give You Anything But Love, Baby," for the downtown revue, Blackbirds of 1928. The composer was Jimmy McHugh. The fact that she wrote a really big hit, right out of the box, was different than for other writers. She was the first female lyricist to enjoy sustained success.

Jimmy McHugh was just one of many collaborators, but an important one.
The McHugh partnership lasted about ten or twelve years. McHugh was a very jazz-appreciative songwriter. When the swing era was sweeping America, he was a very good person to be writing with because he had a real feel for jazz. Dorothy Fields and Jimmy McHugh never wrote a book musical. But they went to Hollywood and put many songs into films, such as "Don't Blame Me," "I'm in the Mood for Love" and "I Feel a Song Comin' On."

Dorothy Fields undoubtedly stands out as one of the pioneering women of American song. What else, in your view, distinguishes her?
One of the distinctive features of her career was that, unlike many of her contemporaries and companions in the songwriters pantheon, she died with a first-run show (Seesaw) – not a revival — playing on Broadway that night. In later years, a lot of the other writers of her era and stature felt they were being passed over or felt chastised for the declining quality of their work in later years.

One associates Dorothy Fields with the Art Deco elegance of the 1930s and also as an integral part of the 1960s. A great deal of her latter-day success is tied to her association with Cy Coleman, with whom she wrote Sweet Charity and Seesaw.
She got this incredible infusion from Cy, who had a different musical perspective. It was a very fortunate thing, but I don’t want to imply that she was on the receiving end of a lucky break – that he approached her to be a writing partner indicates that he sensed how contemporary her ear was for the vernacular on the street.

The bottom line on Cy and Dorothy was her joy at being able to work with someone at her level and be able to produce as much stuff as they did. And there are quite a few songs that they wrote together that have never seen the light of day. Will they be heard? You never know.

A revival of Dorothy Fields and Cy Coleman's Sweet Charity, starring Christina Applegate, opened on Broadway on May 4, 2005.