Frank Sinatra met songwriter Jimmy Van Heusen in the meager days of the mid 1930s. At the time, the two were nobodies. But over the next 40 years, the two artists lives and careers became intertwined. This week on the show, we’ll feature the many songs of Jimmy Van Heusen, as performed by his good friend Frank Sinatra, including “Come Fly With Me,” “Polka Dots and Moonbeams,” and many more.
Chester and Francis
Francis Albert Sinatra met Jimmy Van Heusen in New York City around 1935, when Sinatra was still just a skinny kid from Hoboken, and Van Heusen was a song plugger, trying to sell his music to whoever was willing to perform. Van Heusen was not his real name—it’s the nom de plume of Chester Babcock from Syracuse, New York, taken off the label for a dress shirt.
In the 1930s, Sinatra and Van Heusen quickly became brothers in arms—they bonded over their love of revelry and women, but they each recognized that the other was also capable of incredibly sensitive musical gifts. When Sinatra signed on to be a singer with Tommy Dorsey’s band, it was Van Heusen and lyricist Johnny Burke who provided him with his first big hit: "Polka Dots and Moonbeams." Through each big transition in Sinatra’s career, Van Heusen was there with a melody.
Jimmy Van Heusen wasn’t just Sinatra’s friend, he was one of his closest confidants. Van Heusen was a notorious partier: a man who liked his wine, women, and song, perhaps even more than Sinatra. He could always lift Sinatra’s spirits, but immediately after recording Songs for Young Lovers in November of 1954, Sinatra was having some difficulty. After losing out on the lead role to his Hoboken-hometown film On The Waterfront to Marlon Brando, and as his marriage to actress Ava Gardner began to crumble, Sinatra was at the lowest point of his life. Deeply depressed, Sinatra escaped to New York, and began a week long bender in Van Heusen’s apartment. One evening, Van Heusen returned home to find Sinatra had attempted to commit suicide. And it was Jimmy who saved Frank’s life.
A month later, Sinatra’s marriage to Gardiner was officially over, and he found himself back in the recording studio. In that session, one of the songs he recorded was Van Heusen’s “I Could Have Told You,” an eerily poignant at this moment in Sinatra’s life. The lyrics by Carl Sigman read, "I could have told you she'd hurt you, She'd love you a while then desert you. If only you asked, I could have told you so."
A Musical Partnership
In fact Sinatra recorded more song by Van Heusen than any other songwriter in his career—a more complete playlist of Sinatra's 60+ Van Heusen songs is found below. Some of these songs (like "Nancy (With The Laughing Face)" or "All The Way") were hits for Sinatra, while others (like "If You Stub Your Toe On The Moon" and "I Got A Gal I Love In North and South Dakota") were perhaps less memorable.
Sinatra continued to record Van Heusen’s tunes in the 1950s when he was recording songs for Capitol Records and increasingly, for films. When Van Heusen was not writing for Sinatra, he became a songwriter for films. Van Heusen also became associated with Bing Crosby, and was the musical force behind many of Crosby's Road To... films.
In the 1950s and especially the 1960s, Jimmy Van Heusen and typically lyricist Sammy Cahn were behind many of Sinatra’s most popular tunes, including “High Hopes,” “Love and Marriage,” as well as the title tracks to many of Sinatra’s albums, including “Only The Lonely,” "Come Fly With Me," “Come Dance With Me,” "Ring a Ding Ding" and “September of My Years.”
Although Van Heusen’s well-known extroverted personality can be heard in such fun, swinging tunes as “Come Fly With Me,” or “Ring a Ding Ding,” he truly possessed a remarkable gift for melody. His melodies were rarely easy. Songs like "Call Me Irresponsible" and "But Beautiful" remain staples of the Great American Songbook, but they each contain a serpentine and complex melody, full of chromaticism and difficult leaps. A Van Heusen melody usually required a singer like Sinatra to pull them off.