It is reasonably common knowledge that John Green wrote "Body and Soul," Fats Waller "Ain't Misbeha" and Duke Ellington "Mood Indigo." Most of the great jazz and pop standards, in fact, are closely identified with their composers. Yet one of the most indomitable hits of all, "What's New," is a remarkable exception to the rule. Even some of the artists who have recorded it might have trouble recalling who wrote it.
"What's New" has lived at least four lives. Born in 1938 as "I'm Free," it became a Hit Parade favorite in 1940 as "What's New," lapsed into semi-retirement, returned in the 1950s through dozens of new recordings, fell into disuse again, and took on its newest and biggest lease on life in 1983 through Linda Ronstadt.
Bob Haggart, who composed the melody 48 years ago, is a still-active bassist, a gifted painter whose works have been exhibited, and a composer for whom "What's New" turned out to be a totally unexpected sinecure.
"I was with Bob Crosby's band at the Blackhawk Hotel in Chicago," he says, "and during intermission, while the plates were rattling, I'd sit at the piano and make up melodies. Well, one day I came across this idea.
"I took it out to a friend's house where a lot of us went on weekends. They had a primitive disc recorder there, and we'd make records and play them back. That was when I played this tune for Billy Butterfield, the band's featured trumpeter, and we decided it would be worth recording. I made an arrangement, and a week later the band did it on a Decca session, built around Billy."
The melody was unusual in that instead of the then-customary A-A-B-A structure, it repeated the same eight-bar strain four times, simply shifting it up a fourth during the third statement. As for the original title, Haggart says: "I'd been married in March, and we were at the Blackhawk for six months starting in April. I'd been very lonesome, but now we were together, away from our families, and I was freed from the loneliness, so I decided to call it 'I'm Free.' "
Haggart wanted Johnny Mercer to write a lyric, and Mercer kept assuring him that he was working on it, though he confessed, "I keep coming up with 'Free as the birds in the trees,' but don't worry. I'll find something."
Meanwhile, Crosby's brother, Larry, sent a telegram to Haggart. It read: "Tune 'I'm Free' recorded by Bing. New title: 'What's New.' Lyric by Johnny Burke." "That was the first I'd heard of it--I'd never heard the lyric or even met Johnny Burke."
After the Bing Crosby recording came the deluge. During 1939, it was recorded by the Charlie Barnet and Benny Goodman orchestras, Hal Kemp, the Golden Gate Quartet and numerous others. "In 1940, it was on the Hit Parade," Haggart recalls. "Kate Smith sang it on her opening radio show in the fall; it stayed on the Top 10 list for three or four months, though it never reached No. 1.
"After that, it went into a lull that lasted about 10 years. Then a lot of jazz musicians and singers began to pick up on it. Zoot Sims recorded it in 1954; so did Helen Merrill, though I didn't even know about that until long afterward, when Marian McPartland told me about it and sent me a copy. It was a beautiful version, with Clifford Brown on trumpet."
Soon the recordings proliferated again: Stan Kenton in 1955, Billie Holiday soon after, Frank Sinatra in his "Only the Lonely" album in 1958 with Nelson Riddle's orchestra. This was, of course, the album that inspired Linda Ronstadt to hire Riddle and to record, among other songs out of that album, what became the eponymous title tune of her multimillion-selling LP. "And," says Bob Haggart, "I've been smiling ever since." (Johnny Burke never got to observe the song's latest incarnation; he died in 1964.)
Foreseeing a windfall of royalties that might get out of hand for tax purposes, the Haggarts decided on a write-off:
"We purchased a condominium in Key Biscayne, Fla., but we outsmarted ourselves, because it was a losing proposition and we can't sell it. Still, my ASCAP payments are well into a healthy four-figure sum every quarter."
Haggart's career has had many other facets. In 1940, with Bob Crosby, he initiated "Big Noise From Winnetka," a bass-and-drum duo in which he whistled and Ray Bauduc slapped his drumsticks on the bass. This has become a regular in his repertoire ever since, performed with any available drummer. Another of his more durable compositions, "South Rampart Street Parade," originally an instrumental, evolved into a standard after Steve Allen wrote lyrics for it in the mid-1950s.
After touring with the Crosby band from 1935-42, Haggart settled into the comfortable life of a free-lance New York musician, mainly at NBC, where he played on "The Tonight Show" from 1963-69. During the 1950s, he maintained his jazz image through a series of recordings for which he was co-billed with a former Crosby colleague, the trumpeter Yank Lawson.