Evans (left) and Livingston examine art for the film Tammy and the Bachelor, for which they wrote the title song “Tammy.” It was nominated for an Oscar in 1957 and became a No. 1 hit for star Debbie Reynolds.


The Evans collection provides an unprecedented window into what, precisely, it was like to seek and attain a career as an American songwriter in the middle third of the 20th century.

It wasn’t easy—certainly not for two boys from the hinterlands (Jay hailed from a small town in Western Pennsylvania) who were not inclined to aggressively push their prospects and who, frankly, didn’t have the prodigious and immediately apparent talent of a Gershwin, Berlin, Porter, or Rodgers. What they did have was persistence.

One day in August 1939, months after the disappointing interview with George Abbott, Ray saw a short news item saying that Olsen and Johnson, the vaudeville comedy team, were looking for new songs for their wacky revue Hellzapoppin, which had been playing on Broadway for nearly a year. Reflexively, Ray put a sheet of paper in his typewriter and pecked out a letter saying that Livingston and Evans were their boys. Of all unlikely things, Ole Olsen wrote back:

“Appreciate your frank and breezy letter and wanted to answer it personally to assure you that even though we have nothing immediate to offer, will be delighted to hear some of your material after some matinee (Wednesday or Saturday).

“Because even tho we have songs and material shot to us from forty different directions, I’m always glad to hear the other fellow’s contributions. Sometimes you may find that ‘needle in a haystack’!”



Jay and Ray worked on their material and their presentation for a month. Then, on Saturday, September 16, they went to the Winter Garden Theater and were brought backstage. Ray described in his diary what happened next:

“ … Mr. Olsen saw us right away. He listened to everything, and it went over swell. There were a lot of people listening also, show people and others, and the songs brought laughs, the rhymes approval and the melodies, whistling. Olsen said we had the toughest thing to offer as everyone writes songs, but he had us to see the show and then come back to talk with him.”



Ray kept on coming to the Winter Garden; in one diary entry, he refers to his “nightly trip.” On one night he met the cowboy actor Tom Mix; Wendell Willkie and Elliott Roosevelt were backstage another time. (“The latter looked like a wise guy,” Ray observed.) Exasperatingly, Olsen and Johnson didn’t buy any songs, but didn’t kick the boys out, either. Once, Ray noted, “Oncle Oley put me immediately at ease by saying ‘Hello Genius.’”

Eventually, Livingston and Evans were hired to score an ice show Olsen and Johnson were planning to produce. They wrote a full complement of numbers, but, in yet another case of good news-bad news, the show fell through.

This time, for once, it was good news-bad news-good news. The reason is a strange episode in the history of American popular music. On January 1, 1941, because of a dispute over licensing fees, the vast majority of American radio networks stopped playing recordings of songs written by members of the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (universally known as ASCAP), which included the vast majority of American songwriters. Filling the vacuum in part was a licensing organization started not long before by the broadcasters themselves, Broadcast Music, Incorporated (BMI). Starting from zero, BMI desperately signed up tunesmiths. It sought out the “hillbilly” and African-American writers who had traditionally been shunned by ASCAP (and whose compositions, heard by impressionable ears all over the country, would eventually spawn rock and roll). And it snapped up Livingston and Evans’ ice show score.

One of the songs was “G’bye Now,” a charming number about the perennial awkwardness of saying good night. It showed Ray’s knack for the vernacular and Jay’s for melodic bounce; Horace Heidt, Jan Garber, Russ Morgan, and several other popular bandleaders saw its quality and picked it up. Heidt’s record eventually reached No. 1 on the charts, and the title became a nationwide catch phrase. One night in March, Ray wrote in his diary, “Every announcer I heard ended his program ‘G’Bye Now.’”

In May, the song was performed by none other than the King of Swing, Benny Goodman. Ray confided in his diary:

“Got a big kick out of hearing Goodman did ‘G’Bye Now’ last night and hearing Heidt say that it ‘stands a good chance of being song of the year.’ Everything going along very well. Must there be a bad interruption or is this only delayed dividends on 3 years of struggle.”

It turned out to be a little of each. In late October 1941, ASCAP ended its radio boycott, and the BMIers went to the back of the breadline. Ray noted ruefully in his diary, “I suppose that kills whatever chance we had to get established.”



 


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