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Persistence paid off for the songwriting duo of Ray Evans W’36 and Jay Livingston C’37, whose compositions include multiple Oscar winners, a much-loved Christmas song, and the themes from Bonanza and Mr. Ed. Their creative and personal journey—and the lost world of popular music pre-rock-and-roll—is documented in fascinating detail in a collection of materials recently donated to Penn.  

BY BEN YAGODA


It was the spring of 1939, and Ray Evans W’36 and his fellow Penn alumnus Jay Livingston C’37 had gotten pretty much nowhere in their careers as songwriters. (Evans wrote the words and Livingston, who had recently changed his name from Jacob Levison, the music.) They’d started their partnership at Penn, as fellow members of Beta Sigma Rho and as musicians in a shipboard dance band that hit the high seas during vacations: one summer to South America, another to Russia and Scandinavia. They moved to New York after graduation and waited for success to knock on their door.

And waited. By 1939, there had been just—barely—enough intermittent positive reinforcement to keep them going. The year before, one of their songs, the cleverly titled “Monday Mourning on Saturday Night,” had been recorded by a singer named Virginia Merrill. But the record had gone nowhere. Evans—always the more assertive of the pair—had tried to follow up by contacting a top publisher, Jack Yellen (also the lyricist of “Ain’t She Sweet,” “Happy Days Are Here Again,” “My Yiddishe Mamma,” and dozens of other hits). Yellen’s reply was encouraging, but, of course, encouragement and a nickel could get you a subway ride:

“I read your lyric on “MONDAY MOURNING ON SATURDAY NIGHT” with a great deal of interest and satisfaction. It’s certainly a novel idea and shows that your thoughts do not run in hackneyed grooves. You will find a demand for lyric writers who have a flair for new ideas.

You’re tackling a tough racket—one which isn’t as fruitful financially as it used to be—but if that’s your chosen field, go to it. Don’t get discouraged if success doesn’t come easy. You never know when your lucky break will come. Get acquainted with the boys who write the tunes and the people who make them hits—and keep writing lots of songs. Good, bad or otherwise, keep writing and peddling.

You’ve overcome the toughest obstacle—getting your first song published. The rest is up to you—and Lady Luck.”



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Photography by Candace diCarlo

 

 

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