J23: The Tin Pan Alley Tobias Brothers

The Tobias brothers were known as “The Esquires of Tin Pan Alley.” By no means could you call them jazz songwriters, but collectively their material has been covered by the likes of Bing Crosby, Jimmy Dorsey, Nat Cole, Ella Fitzgerald and Lou Rawls.

The Tobias name is remembered for penning such tunes as “Sweet and Lovely,” “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree,” “Miss You,” “Comes Love,” “If I Had My Life to Live Over,” “It’s a Lonesome Old Town,” and the eternal summer novelty hit “Lazy, Hazy, Crazy Days of Summer.”

They were three songwriting brothers in a family of five boys who grew up on Harrison Street in Worcester. Out of the three, only Henry was actually born here. Brothers Harry and Charlie were born in New York City. Henry was the musician of the family, playing piano as well as being a prolific songwriter like his older brothers. He was also a recognized show-biz personality who shared stages with such legendary figures as Eddie Cantor, Milton Berle, Jimmy Durante and Sophie Tucker.

In addition to his music, Henry spent much of his career as social director and master of ceremonies at a host of famous Catskill resorts like Grossinger’s, Totem Lodge and Fontainbleau.

In his autobiography, Music in my Heart and Borscht in my Blood, published in 1987 by Hippocrene Books, Henry opened with memories of Worcester. In Chapter One, called “How it all started,” he wrote, “I was born in Worcester, Massachusetts, on April 23, 1905, and given the first name of Hyman, later changed to Henry for professional reasons. My father, Max, was a struggling tailor who had decided to leave New York several years before I was born and try his luck out of town.

“He chose Worcester because a fellow cloak-and-suiter had moved there and painted a pleasant picture of small-town life and steady work as compared to life in New York slums. I was the fourth boy in the family of five brothers. My three older brothers, Harry, Charlie and Nathan, were born in New York City. Milton was born 10 years after I was, in Worcester.

“Up until I was about 10 years-old, nothing unusual happened that I can remember other than that I led a very normal kid’s life – going to Providence Street School, living on the top of the hill near the Worcester Academy, enjoying the usual children’s pleasures: in the winter romping in the high snow, racing downhill with our double-runner sleds; in the summer going to White City at Lake Quinsigmond with the family. I recall my father teaching me to swim the breaststroke for the first time, getting my first taste of hero worship when I was introduced to Jess Willard, the heavyweight champ of the world, at the lake.

“My life has been so closely associated with show business that my memories really start with the first day I faced an audience. I was only nine years old and, like other kids attending Hebrew School, I had to recite a poem in my synagogue at the foot of Providence Street Hill. I chose the 23rd Psalm, ‘The Lord is My Sheppard.’

“That was my first appearance before an audience. I was petrified. The next big event of my life was when I met Eddie Cantor, but more about that in a later chapter. We moved back to New York City because my brothers Charlie and Harry chose songwriting as their careers and knew that they could accomplish their ambitions only in the big town.

“The folks bought a piano and Harry and Charlie encouraged me to learn to play. They said it would be nice if someone in the family could play music as they were both lyric writers.”

Henry’s book reaches through most of the 20th century – from Tin Pan Alley into the 1980s when he appeared in 1983 at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, DC, in a one-man concert, “A Tribute to the Royal Family of Tin Pan Alley.” Henry is credited with writing “Miss You,” which he wrote with his brothers Harry and Charlie. It was covered by, among others, Bing Crosby, Nat Cole and the Mills Brothers. He wrote “If I Had My Life to Live Over” with Moe Jaffe and Larry Vincent, and recorded by Lou Rawls. He and Don Reid composed “The Sleep Song,” which was recorded by Glenn Miller. Lastly, he penned “Moon on My Pillow,” with brother Charles and his son Elliot Tobias, recorded by Jimmy Dorsey.

When Harry Tobias died in 1994, James Dempsey, the long time columnist for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette wrote a column about the Tobias family. The piece was called, “Some tunes are hard to forget; Tin Pan Alley trio hit all the right notes.” He opened with “Harry Tobias died this month just one year shy of a century old. During his long inning here, he wrote more than 1,000 popular songs, providing material for musicians who ranged from vaudevillians to rock ‘n’ rollers. He lived in many places, including Worcester, New York and Los Angeles, but his real home was Tin Pan Alley.”

Dempsey wrote soulfully about the Tobias boys’ days spent on Grafton Hill saying, “The family settled into the second floor of a three-decker at 79 Harrison St., and it was there that Harry Tobias and his four brothers did their growing up. The older boys sold newspapers at Union Station to earn money. In summer they climbed the cherry tree in the back yard, and in winter sledded down the hills around Providence Street with a lookout at the bottom to make sure there were no carriages or cars coming. The old man who lighted the gas street lights every night outside the Tobias’ three-decker was later memorialized in “The Old Lamplighter,” a song by Harry’s brother Charles.”

Dempsey also reported that the Tobias family was related to great vaudeville singer Eddie Cantor. One night after performing at the Poli Theater on Pleasant Street, Cantor dropped by the Tobias’ Harrison Street apartment and the boys were bitten by the show-biz bug. At the time of Dempsey’s writing Henry was 89 and lived in West Hollywood. “In those days, you only used the parlor for important events like weddings and bar mitzvahs, and the most important event of my childhood was when Eddie Cantor came,” he told Dempsey. “That’s what made me want to be in the business.”

Dempsey said after the Cantor visit, Harry was so eager to get into the business that at the age of 16 he borrowed $25, then a small fortune, to have his first song published. He knew he was being taken, but even so he said later there was no thrill as great as that of seeing his name on a real piece of published music. To recoup the money, he sold the 200 copies around Worcester, knocking on doors and playing the song on the upright pianos that were then in almost every household. It was at this time he learned there were two parts to being a songwriter — composing the song, and then selling it.”

Dempsey reported that Harry Tobias wrote songs for 25 movies and several Broadway shows. He again quoted Henry who said, “Harry wrote at least a thousand songs. He wrote his first when he was working for the MacInnes department store (which was on Main Street opposite City Hall). He got fired for spending too much time on his lyrics. He sent $25 to one of these phony songwriting ads to have his first song published.” That was “National Sports,” a tribute to Harry’s boyhood hero Ty Cobb.”

According to the Big Bands Database Plus Website, Harry mainly worked with brother Charles. Other composers and songwriters that he collaborated with during his seven decades of writing include Harry Barris, Neil Moret, Percy Wenrich, Harry von Tilzer, Al Sherman, Jean Schwartz, Jack Stern and Gus Arnheim, with whom he penned the standard, “Sweet and Lovely.”

In his book American Popular Song: The Great Innovators 1900-1950, Alec Wilder wrote this about the song: “‘Sweet and Lovely’ (1931), by Gus Arnheim, Harry Tobias and Jules Lemare, impressed me mightily when it first appeared, due, I’m certain to its unusual harmony. Actually, its four-measure concentration on C-dominant seventh and its suspension should have irritated me somewhat. But looking at it after all these years I don’t know what else the writers could have done – in so far as they wanted such a beginning and they also wanted the F-dominant seventh in the fifth bar as well.

“What is particularly unusual is the B-flat major chord in the sixth measure, moving arbitrarily on in the seventh measure to a G-dominant chord. The release is even more innovative — here the song moves way out from its key center and
very deftly back.”

“Sweet and Lovely” is registered with ASCAP and list more than 100 performers recording the tune, including such heavyweights as Ella Fitzgerald, Erroll Garner, Dizzy Gillespie, Coleman Hawkins, Lee Konitz, Thelonious Monk, Gerry Mulligan, George Shearing , Art Tatum and McCoy Tyner.

Wikipedia has an entry on Charles. They report that he was born on August 15, 1898 in New York City, writing, “He started his musical career in vaudeville. In 1923, he founded his own music publishing firm and worked on Tin Pan Alley. Tobias referred to himself as “the boy who writes the songs you sing,” a title which he richly deserves.”

The Big Bands Database Plus Website also writes about him: “Lyricist Charles Tobias is mainly recalled today as a lyricist who was active from the mid-1920′s into the 1960′s. But he really was a very busy Keith-Albee vaudevillian.”

Dempsey’s, whose outstanding columns can be found online, archived on the Telegram‘s site, refers to Charles in a column called, “Street lamps solid fixtures of old charm; Gaslights brighten streets and hearts of residents.” He writes: Once, all public illumination in Worcester came from the city’s gaslights. They were tended by men who bore ladders, tapers and matches, and whose predictable evening rounds became a well-loved part of a neighborhood’s life. Old-timers will remember the song Worcester’s Charles Tobias wrote about the man who cared for the lights along the Harrison Street of Mr. Tobias’ childhood in the first decades of the century. The Harrison Street lights and their tender are long gone, but they live on in the words and music of “The Old Lamplighter.”

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