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Won 5 Academy Awards, Wrote 'Body and Soul' : Composer-Conductor John Green Dies at Age 80

May 17, 1989|CHARLES CHAMPLIN | Times Arts Editor

Composer-conductor-pianist-music executive John Green, whose film work won him five Academy Awards and whose songs include "Body and Soul," "Out of Nowhere" and "I Cover the Waterfront," died at his Beverly Hills home Monday night, it was announced Tuesday.

Frank Liberman, a family friend and publicist, said the diminutive, personable musician was 80 and had suffered a stroke two years ago. The official cause of death was listed as pulmonary edema, Liberman added.

Green, who wrote his first hit, "Coquette," while he was still a senior at Harvard, was a dapper, confident and uncommonly articulate man whose trademark was the fresh carnation he wore in his lapel every day. He said the flower was to remind him of the beauty in the world and of his obligation to protect and extend it if he could.

Long a fixture at Hollywood Bowl summer concerts, he was born to a wealthy and cultured New York family. His father was a banker and builder after whom the community of Greenhaven, Long Island, is named.

Green began piano lessons at age 3 and loved them. When he was 12 he was taken to a party honoring George Gershwin, a friend of the family. The boy was asked to perform for the composer and, marching to the piano, played his own arrangement of one of Gershwin's songs.

Gershwin was evidently impressed and Green became a Gershwin protege and lifelong friend. Green remembered, at 16, attending the premiere of "Rhapsody in Blue" in New York. "The bloody place blew up," Green said.

In later years Green arranged much of Gershwin's music for movies and records, including a delightful album of vocals by Fred Astaire. One of Green's Oscars was for the scoring of "An American in Paris," based on Gershwin's music. Green also frequently performed Gershwin in concert.

The elder Green wanted his son to go into Wall Street. Reluctantly but dutifully, Green rushed through the rigorous, progressive Horace Mann School and entered Harvard at 15, majoring in economics.

But he was already deeply involved in music and spent the summer between his junior and senior years living in Cleveland and writing arrangements for the new Guy Lombardo orchestra. (One of his pals that summer was the young publicist for a Cleveland movie house named Lew R. Wasserman, who in subsequent years was Green's agent at MCA and eventually head of that giant entertainment company.)

But Green's father remained unimpressed. "Son," his father told him, "you can be a good banker, a good lawyer or doctor and you'll be a proud, respected citizen in the community. But there is no bum in the world like an artist who is merely good, and I'm afraid as a musician you are merely good."

Took Wall Street Job

Green graduated from Harvard in 1928 at only 19. Despite the fact that his early song "Coquette" was the biggest sheet-music seller in the country, he bowed to his father's will and took a job on Wall Street. "I was a sissy to do it," he confessed years afterward.

He used his music royalties to pay for visits to a psychiatrist. Then, after six months, he defied his father, quit his job and became a rehearsal pianist at the Paramount studio in Astoria, Long Island, for $50 a week.

He was also writing songs, often partnered with lyricist Edward Heyman, a friend of friends, a wealthy young Midwesterner whose family had prospered in sausage casings. In 1931, they wrote a package of four songs for Gertrude Lawrence for $250.

"One of them had to be a comedy number, one an up-tempo item, one a ballad, one a torch song. The torch song was 'Body and Soul,' " Green said not long ago. Did he know he was writing a classic? a reporter asked him. "I only knew I was writing for Gertie for Wednesday," Green said.

Copyright Sold

Green and Heyman had actually sold the copyrights to the singer. But when another singer, Libby Holman, asked permission to use the song in her own act, Lawrence generously gave the song back to Green and Heyman. As it turned out, the royalties from "Body and Soul" would have assured their lifetime solvency if nothing else had. A favorite with both singers and jazz instrumentalists, it is one of the most-recorded songs in the repertoire.

During his Astoria stay with Paramount, Green did his first bit of movie-scoring, an arrangement of "You Brought a New Kind of Love to Me" for Maurice Chevalier. Green is also credited with the music for a forgotten 1930 film called "The Sap from Syracuse."

In 1932, Green conducted the house orchestra for the Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart musical "By Jupiter," and at the time his principal ambition was to write for the musical theater. He wrote show tunes for Jack Buchanan and other performers, but the one musical he wrote a few years later closed out of town, in Boston, and he did not try another.

Formed Dance Orchestra

At the suggestion of William Paley of CBS, Green (who then was still Johnny rather than John) formed a dance orchestra. It opened the St. Regis roof, a posh new night club that opened after the repeal of Prohibition.

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