Chances are that you’ve heard Frank Loesser’s songs in one guise or anothe–maybe around the holidays, when “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve” and “Baby It’s Cold Outside” are ubiquitous, or through any survey of 20th century Broadway musicals that includes Guys and Dolls and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. Any documentary about the World War II era will likely include at least a passing reference to popular tunes that Loesser wrote or co-wrote such as “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition,” “What Do You Do in the Infantry,” and “I Don’t Want to Walk Without You.”
From Meal-Tester to Hollywood Composer
The son of a classical music teacher and the brother of a renowned pianist and critic, Loesser himself never formally studied music and was a college drop-out. A chain-smoking workaholic, he began writing songs during the Depression while scuffling through various jobs, working for newspapers and at one point even taking on what he described as one of the best jobs you could have in those economically challenged times—actually getting paid to eat by working as a meal-tester for a string of restaurants. His nightclub and vaudeville work eventually paid off with a few songs in a Broadway show and a Hollywood contract–and it was in Hollywood that Loesser would experience his first significant success.
Gangsters, Gamblers and Showgirls
Even though Loesser had a number of hits through writing for the movies, he didn’t care for Hollywood much–he was a New York kind of guy, and he headed back to the city in the late 1940s and began writing songs for Broadway, where he scored big first with Where’s Charley, and then in 1950 with Guys and Dolls, a musical based on two Damon Runyon short stories that captures the mid-20th century New York vibe that Loesser loved. Rife with gangsters, gamblers and showgirls, the musical inspired several of Loesser’s most memorable songs and displayed both the humorous and romantic sides of his songwriting muse.
“Loesser Is More,” a centennial celebration of Frank Loesser’s songs (he was born in New York City on June 29, 1910) includes performances by the following artists:
- Frank Sinatra
- Helen Forrest
- Billie Holiday
- Johnny Mathis
- Doris Day
- Dinah Washington
- Chet Baker
Read music writer Will Friedwald’s tribute to Loesser
Watch Bette Davis’ wartime performance of Loesser’s “They’re Either Too Young or Too Old”: