The scene, or one like it, appears at some point in every B-movie ever made about Tin Pan Alley. The composer is sitting at the piano in the small hours, his collar unbuttoned, necktie hanging loose or entirely discarded: an ashtray sits nearby, overflowing, and there is probably an opened bottle of burbon. The composer plays over and over the melody that has been haunting him, while the lyricist paces up and down, searching for the right words.
Then it happens. "It's magic," says the lyricist-not describing the creative process at work, but announcing the key phrase on which a new hit song will be built. And it is magic. It is a scene that has occurred repeatedly in the life of Jule (pronounced "Julie)" Styne (originally "Stein"), who has composed 1,400 songs, including dozens of chart-busting singles (they called them "Hit Parade songs" when he began) as well as providing the music for "High Button Shoes," "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes," "Bells Are Ringing" and other Broadway spectaculars.
Undoubtedly, many hit songs and musical shows have been written by gentlemen who keep regular office hours, go home to their families every night and invest their financial windfalls wisely. Fortunately for biographer Taylor, Jule Styne is of another breed. Born on the last day of 1905 in London's Bethnel Green, he leaped into show business when he was 5 years old and has been acting colorful ever since.
"The "leap" into show business was literal; 5-year-old Julius Stein had memorized some of Harry Lauder's routines from records, and when he was brought to see the Scottish singer-comedian, he jumped down from his box to the stage and began doing a Lauder imitation. Lauder adlibbed the interruption into the show and afterwards rewarded him with two bits of advice: "Never be an imitator" to the boy, and "Why don't you get him a piano?" to his parents.
The career that was launched by this incident has sometimes been unhappy and has included some spectacular failures, but it has never been dull. Styne's family moved from London to Chicago while he was still a child and he grew up there when it was the center of ferment in American jazz. After learning early that he would not become a great classical pianist, he plunged joyfully into the world of demotic music and became ultimately so successful that he was able to lose in a day at the racetrack more than most people earn in a year.
One of the people he worked for as a musician in Chicago night clubs was Al Capone; he had colleagues who made a small misstep and met an untimely end, and he learned how to duck machine-gun bullets (which fortunately, were aimed at someone else). In comparison, his brief associations with Mike Todd and Howard Hughes, and his longer affiliation with Frank Sinatra (including a brief stint as roommate) were uneventful.
One incident among thousands typifies Styne's hectic career. In 1954, 20th Century-Fox called him in to rescue a picture called "We Believe in Love" that was headed for disaster-beautiful photography, terrible story, $1.2 million budget. Could it be rescued by a title song? Not with that title, said Styne; instead, he wrote a song called "Three Coins in the Fountain," persuaded the company to change the film's title, persuaded Sinatra to record the song, and helped the film to gross $9 million. He also won an Academy Award for the song-not one of his very best, but Oscar watches the box office.
When he was not writing hit songs or musicals, Styne tried his hand at producing other people's material for Broadway and television; sometimes succeeding, sometimes failing, but always doing it spectacularly. His two ruling passions were gambling and Broadway musicals (in a sense, two sides of the same coin). Both themes were united once in a question by an assistant who noted the offbeat types visiting his office and asked him, "Are we casting 'Guys and Dolls?"
The best parts of the story come toward the end, with "Gypsy" and "Funny Girl" and Styne, at 71, looking back and reflecting that "Any composer who could write for both a Sinatra and a Streisand in one lifetime in lucky." The days of high-rolling and bookies visiting the office are over. The luck, good and bad, is less spectacular now-and Styne has over-estimated how much he owed to luck.
Taylor's biography is best at telling how colorful Styne is and was, but he also gives a reasonable idea of how and why he was so good.