By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 18, 2009
Jack Lawrence, the composer of hit songs that helped establish the careers of Frank Sinatra, Rosemary Clooney, Bobby Darin and the Ink Spots, died March 15 at Danbury Hospital in Danbury, Conn., after a fall. He was 96 and lived in West Redding, Conn.
Mr. Lawrence's name might not be well known, but his songs were on America's lips from the 1930s through the 1950s and were recorded by such diverse artists as Fats Waller, Billie Holiday, Dinah Shore, Tony Bennett, Willie Nelson, Dizzy Gillespie, Diana Krall and the surf duo Jan and Dean. His best-known works include "All or Nothing at All," "Tenderly," "Beyond the Sea," "Foolin' Myself" and "If I Didn't Care."
Known primarily as a lyricist, Mr. Lawrence sometimes wrote words and music, as with "If I Didn't Care," which established the career of the Ink Spots in 1939 and later became a hit for Connie Francis and the Platters. The same year, he composed lyrics for a melody written by childhood friend Arthur Altman.
"It had some wonderful key changes, and it had a big, broad melody and a nice range," Mr. Lawrence told National Public Radio in 2000. "I knew it would be a wonderful song for singers, and I was intrigued and I kept working away at it and I finally came up with this title, 'All or Nothing at All.' "
The Harry James Orchestra recorded the song in 1939 with Sinatra, who was little known then. The record languished at first but sold more than 1 million copies when it was rereleased in 1943. Sinatra's casually intimate reading of Mr. Lawrence's words -- "It it's love, there is no in-between. Why begin and cry for something that might have been? No, I'd rather have nothing at all" -- cemented his reputation as a peerless interpreter of lyrics.
Mr. Lawrence occasionally wrote for musicals and film soundtracks, including the theme of the 1965 film "The Pawnbroker," with Quincy Jones. But his greatest gift was in creating well-crafted words for individual songs, such as the lyrics he wrote in 1946 for a lilting melody by Walter Gross.
" 'Tenderly' was unstoppable," Mr. Lawrence later wrote on his Web site. "But it wasn't until the early '50s that it truly reached great stature when [Rosemary] Clooney recorded it with true simplicity -- no vocal tricks -- just the pure melody and words."
He wrote another of his most memorable songs in 1946, when he re-imagined Charles Trenet's "La Mer" as the story of someone pining for a lost love "beyond the sea." In 1959, it became one of the best-loved hits for Darin.
"Lawrence's words to 'Beyond The Sea' constitute a lyric of the highest order," critic Will Friedwald wrote in 2002. "He started by adding that one word, beyond, and that drove the entire song."
Mr. Lawrence was born Jacob Louis Schwartz in Brooklyn, N.Y., on April 7, 1912. He studied to be a podiatrist but gave it up when he sold his first song in 1932.
In 1947, Buddy Clark had a No. 1 hit with "Linda," which Mr. Lawrence wrote for 6-year-old Linda Eastman, the future wife of Paul McCartney.
Mr. Lawrence owned two theaters in New York in later years and co-produced the Broadway productions "Lena Horne: the Lady and Her Music" and "Come Back to the 5 and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean." He also wrote two memoirs, which explored his life in music and the gay underworld of Hollywood. At the time of his death, he was writing a song with Quincy Jones.
Survivors include his longtime companion and adopted son, Richard D. Lawrence.