J30: Local songwriters, part IV, Henry A. Sullivan

Last week I received an email from Frank Callahan, director of planning and giving at Worcester Academy. He informed me that he had run across a “write up” on Henry A. Sullivan, the author of “I May Be Wrong, But I Think You Are Wonderful,” a jazz standard recorded by Miles Davis, Stan Getz, Coleman Hawkins, Peggy Leeand Charlie Parker, among others.

“It is a jazz standard recorded by several big bands and is the theme song of the Apollo Theater,” Callahan says. He also noted that Sullivan was from Worcester and went on to Dartmouth, studied in England and later wrote shows in London and New York.

Sullivan was indeed born in Worcester on December 7, 1895. He grew up on the west side, but is also listed as residing at 150 Lincoln Street. According to Worcester Academy records, Sullivan attended the school as a senior from January 17 to June 17, 1917. He lived in Cedar Hall at 96 Vernon, but his home address was 728 Pleasant Street.

Ellie Smith, who works in the office of the vice president of alumni relations at Dartmouth College says their records show that “Henry Anthony Sullivan is considered to be a member of the Class of 1923 (although it appears that his degree was granted in 1924.)” A brief description on file at the school says he was a “composer of operas and songs” and that he died December 1, 1975.

Other notes on file at Worcester Academy indicate that Sullivan has written scores for several musical shows, many produced in London. One dispatch states: “January 1, 1935 premiere of Thumbs Up! (with Eddie Dowlin as star) in New York City, for which Sullivan wrote many tunes. Contributed song to John Murray Anderson’s Almanac, Hush, and one of the “Little Shows.”

“I May Be Wrong” came from the show Almanac. The music was written by Sullivan and its lyrics were penned by Harry Ruskin. The copyright is 1929 and was first published by the Almanac Theatrical Corporation. The original key is Eb Major and set a moderato tempo. After a two bar introduction the lyrics open with “When I play roulette, when I place a bet, I have been a loser all my life.”

The American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) reports that more than 50 artists have recorded the song over the years. In addition to the aforementioned, those on the roster include Howard Alden, Count Basie with the Mills Brothers, Dave Brubeck, Eddie Lockjaw Davis, Doris Day, Harry “Sweet” Edison, Etta Jones, Stan Getz, Benny Goodman, Lee Konitz, Claude Thornhill and George Van Eps.

Almanac reopened at the Imperial Theater in New York in December of 1953 with a tremendous cast of Orson Bean, Harry Belafonte, Polly Bergen, Hermione Gingold and Tina Louise. The new book consisted of songs by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross. After 229 performances the show closed in June 1954.

Although not known as a tunesmith, ASCAP lists Sullivan as the author of 25 other songs such as “Caught in the Rain,” written with Howard Dietz and “My Temptation,” which was recorded by Fred Astaire.

On May 15, 1939, under the heading of “Musical Son of WA,” an item ran in the Worcester Academy Bulletin stating: “Recent Dartmouth Alumni Magazine had a fine write-up on Henry A. Sullivan, W.A., ’17, which said in part: “After advanced study in Vienna, following graduation from Dartmouth, Henry landed back in New York and did odd bits from many musical shows.

“Mr. Joseph Kennedy [father of John, Robert and Teddy], present U.S. Ambassador to England, was at that time, head of Pathe; he signed Sulllivan to a Hollywood contract. Out there two years, then in ’29 did his first complete show, Almanac, produced in New York.

“In this show he scored his first real hit with ‘I May be Wrong, But I Think You’re Wonderful;’ bestseller for many years, and recently revived by leading orchestras. After several more hits, [he] was asked to write music for a show to be produced in London — such an immediate success that since then he has done nearly all his work on the other side.

“Of his numerous recent successes, [we] might mention ‘Home and Beauty,’ the Coronation Show of 1937. A ‘Nice Cup of Tea from that show was pronounced biggest musical hit in England since the era of war songs. [He] is now scheduled to do an operetta in Paris, and another review is waiting for him in London. Sullivan holds a high place in the English there and justly deserves all the fine tributes which have been paid him.”

In February of 1948, a small item on Sullivan ran in the Feature Parade section of the Worcester Sunday Telegram. The composer had recently returned to town and was visited by Telegram photographer Edward A. Cournoyer and reporter Donald F. Williams, who writes: “His score for ‘Auld Lang Syne,” a stage biography of Robert Burns, is tabbed by the experts as ‘sure hit material,’ although it isn’t scheduled for production until next fall or winter. At the moment, Mr. Sullivan is in Florida writing music for the 1948 Ringling Brothers circus.

“The Worcester composer seldom writes popular songs, devoting most of his attention to musical comedies, operettas and revues. He prefers to do his composing in the day, but if the mood is right, he will work far into the evening. During that time he will have smoked innumerable cigarettes, for the cigarette, at least while he is composing, is his constant companion.”

Another note in the Sullivan file at Worcester Academy reads: “(June 1951) Sailing for Paris to prepare music for an operetta to be staged in the fall, Never Apart, written by Princess Rospigliosi, music and lyrics by Sullivan.” (Also known as the “beautiful princess,” Rospigliosi was the former Mary Jennings Reid) The WA file also notes that in 1951 it was the fourth year that Sullivan had written music for the Ringling Brothers Circus. One notable tune from that collection is “Circus Ball.”

If you are keeping score this makes Worcester the birth place of an impressive list of American standards, including “Good Morning Heartache,” by Irene Higginbottom; “When Your Lover Has Gone,” by Einar Swan; “When You’re Smiling,” by Joe Goodwin; “I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart,” by John Redmond; “Comes Love,” “Sweet and Lovely,” “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree,” “Miss You,” “It’s a Lonesome Old Town” (collectively) by the Tobias Brothers and “I May be Wrong,” by Sullivan.

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