Richard Rodgers

I would like to be able to tell you I knew Richard Rodgers… that we were friends, and occasionally worked together. But of course I can’t. That doesn’t keep me, however, from telling you about him, and why he is so important to me.

Richard Rodgers

Cole Porter

He and Cole Porter (damn their brilliant hides!) are my two favorite song writers, who wrote songs that make me cry these days. Their music is so beautiful, so inspired, and in neither case is it the memories of their tunes that get me. No, with Richard Rodgers, it is the depth of beauty of his music, whereas it’s Cole Porter’s lyrics that often get to me. There was real heart, real passion in their music; a timeless quality that I no longer find, except perhaps in an occasional James Taylor lyric or a Willie Nelson hiccup.

Both these marvelous composers are important to me, as I played many of their songs on the piano for years… in night clubs, at parties, sometimes even just for myself, late in the evening. As important composers of their time, many of their songs became standards, to be played even to this day, mostly by jazz players, who did much over the years to keep these wonderful songs alive.

They were two totally different men from two totally different backgrounds. Cole Porter was born into wealth and lived lavishly, both in America and Europe, for most of his life. Richard Rodgers also was born to an upper-middle class family in Queens, New York. Both men were well-educated… Rodgers at Columbia And Porter at Yale.

But let me (and Wikipedia) tell you a little about Richard Rodgers –

Richard Charles Rodgers (June 28, 1902 – December 30, 1979) was an American composer who worked primarily in musical theater. With 43 Broadway musicals and over 900 songs to his credit, Rodgers was one of the most well-known American composers of the 20th century, and his compositions had a significant influence on popular music.

Rodgers is known for his songwriting partnerships, first with lyricist Lorenz Hart and then with Oscar Hammerstein II. With Hart he wrote musicals throughout the 1920s and 1930s, including Pal Joey, A Connecticut Yankee, On Your Toes and Babes in Arms. With Hammerstein he wrote musicals through the 1940s and 1950s, such as Oklahoma!, Flower Drum Song, Carousel, South Pacific, The King and I, and The Sound of Music. His collaborations with Hammerstein, in particular, are celebrated for bringing the Broadway musical to a new maturity by telling stories that were focused on characters and drama rather than the earlier light-hearted entertainment of the genre.

Rodgers was prone to depression and alcohol abuse and was at one time hospitalized, proving yet again that genius often comes at a dear price.

Many of his songs are still sung and remembered, including –

Where Or When
My Funny Valentine
Johnny One-Note
The Lady Is A Tramp
If I Loved You
June Is Bustin’ Out All Over
I Enjoy Being a Girl
Hello, Young Lovers
Shall We Dance?
Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’
People Will Say We’re In Love
I Could Write a Book
Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered
My Favorite Things
Climb Ev’ry Mountain
The Sound of Music
Some Enchanted Evening
There is Nothin’ Like a Dame
Bali Ha’i
I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outta My Hair
Younger That Springtime
My Romance
Falling In Love With Love

What an incredible list! I know because I can still play all those songs, and they continue to touch my heart and caress my memory.

Mrs. Oscar Hammerstein and Mrs. Jerome Kern were at a party together and Mrs. Kern introduced herself to someone with: “my husband wrote ‘Ol’ Man River” and Mrs. Hammerstein corrected her: “Mrs. Kern’s husband wrote dum, dum, dum, dum. My husband wrote ‘Ol’ Man River.”

My two favorite Richard Rodgers songs are “Bali Ha’i,” first published in 1949, which is a still-modern and complicated song, and “If I Loved You.” Tears usually come with these inspired pieces, as their beauty and depth sometimes overcome me. And that’s not considering where I was when I first heard them, or their timing and importance to the musical they were written for, which in this case is “Bali Ha’i” for South Pacific, and “If I Loved You” for Carousel.

I want you to hear my version of Bali Ha’i in case you’re younger than 50. It’s a little rough, as I don’t play much any more. But the sheer beauty of this song shines through my attempt. Probably Richard’s assignment here was to compose a song that suggested a magical, mystical South Pacific island, shining through the mist that surrounded it. It’s beauty was hypnotic, and it seemed to whisper,


“Bali Ha’i may call you
Any night, any day
In your heart you’ll hear it call you
Come away, come away

Bali Ha’i will whisper
On the wind of the sea
Here am I, your special island
Come to me, come to me

Your own special hopes,
Your own special dreams
Loom on the hillside
And shine in the Streams

If you try, you will find me
Where the sky meets the sea
Here am I your special island
Come to me, come to me”

I think Oscar Hammerstein II painted it beautifully.

If there’s a touch of irony here, it would be that in my younger years I hated musicals of all kinds… movies or Broadway. Sure, I loved some of the songs that sprang from them, but never associated them with the plays they were written for. And I can’t really say when I changed. Well, maybe about 25 years ago, when someone at a party asked me to play Bali Ha’i. I played it, and remember thinking, “Jesus. What a deep, incredibly beautiful piece this is!”

Probably that broke the ice, an indication that I was beginning to appreciate music on a different level. And it didn’t hurt that most of those songs from musicals had full or nearly full orchestras, playing arrangements and orchestrations that were richer, deeper and more creative than many pop music arrangements of the day. By listening to them and appreciating them, I was learning how to make a song more beautiful, with the right arrangement.

I guess I feel that Richard Rodgers’ and Cole Porter’s music is timeless… as fresh, creative and relevant today as it was 70 years ago. Easy for me to say, however, as I’m from that same age, and was weaned on all these wonderful songs through my childhood and beyond. My musical heart is still back there in the ’50’s, soaking up the music and the emotions of that sweeter, simpler time. The memory of it is so vivid, so real sometimes. Small wonder I feel these songs so deeply, and love them so.

Steve Hulse

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