Although he has penned a great number of songs in an illustrious career largely played out across the silver screen, Arthur Hamilton is best known for writing the classic torch song 'Cry Me A River'. The gifted American wordsmith was born in the notoriously rain-drenched city of Seattle, Washington, the son of songwriter and music publisher Jack Stern, best known for piano-led vaudeville numbers such as 'I've Been Around', 'Take Me Back To Those Wide Open Spaces' and 'Remember Pearl Harbor'. Under his father's tutelage he learned piano as a child, and later studied music theory and counterpoint. Hamilton was working for his father's publishing company in 1949 when he wrote What a Day for KTTV in Los Angeles, now considered to be the first live television musical. While it failed to confer on him instant fame his big break arrived rather fortuitously four years later in 1953, when he contributed three songs to Dragnet star Jack Webb's feature film Pete Kelly's Blues.
Based on a popular radio series, the film was set in Kansas City in the 1920s with Webb starring as the titular jazz cornetist and filling out the director's chair. Having brought 'the Queen of Jazz' Ella Fitzgerald in for a small part as a singer in the local speakeasy where Kelly's band played, Webb decided it would be a great idea for Fitzgerald to sing some original songs. His actress wife Julie London recommended Hamilton, a young man she remembered from high school who had ushered her to the senior prom. Although the pair had drifted out of touch since the mid-40s, she recalled his ambitions as a songwriter and gave him an off-the-cuff call to see if he was still writing music. Hamilton was, but largely on the backs of prescription blanks while making ends meet as a delivery boy for a popular drugstore chain. After preliminary discussions with London and Webb, he was persuaded to write three blues songs for the film: 'He Needs Me', 'Sing A Rainbow' and 'Cry Me A River'. Hamilton wrote the last song to the brief supplied by Webb, addressing the concerns of character so damaged by love that they were turning their back on the emotion. Despite being by far the most emotive of the three songs, the Ella Fitzgerald voiced 'Cry Me A River' was later dropped from the film because of a dispute about the lyrics to its second verse: 'You drove me, nearly out of my head/While you never shed a tear/Remember, remember, all that you said/Told me love was too plebeian/Told me you were through with me…' with Hamilton refusing to excise 'plebeian' from the song.
'Cry Me A River' sat around unclaimed during a period in which Webb and London divorced, and it was London's own sensuous and smoky tones that introduced it to the world as the first single from her 1955 debut studio album Julie Is Her Name. Her reading of the song in the 1956 film The Girl Can't Help It, played simply alongside Barney Kessel's elegant jazz guitar, helped to make it a million-selling hit, reaching number nine in the US Billboard chart and number 22 in the UK. Fitzgerald, for whom it was written, finally released her version on the 1961 LP Clap Hands, Here Comes Charlie!. The song has since taken on a life of its own and became established as a great American standard, covered by a dizzying range of artists including Barbra Streisand, Sam Cooke, Joe Cocker, Diana Krall, Aerosmith, Susan Boyle and Jeff Beck. It was also given the big band treatment in a stomping Bill Ross arrangement voiced by Canadian big band singer Michael Bublé.
After achieving his ambition of becoming a songwriter, the highly self-critical Hamilton refused to rest of his laurels, refining and perfecting his craft after registering himself with ASCAP in 1955 and, with echoes of his father, becoming a music publisher in 1958. It led to him collaborating with a veritable who's who of popular American composers, Hamilton's succinct lyrical flourishes lighting up the works of original songs by the Walter Jurmann, Armando Manzanero, Jerry Fielding, Johnny Mandel and Michel Legrand. Among the many popular songs in his catalogue are 'The Best I Ever Was', 'The Trouble With Me Is Men', 'Wherever You Are It's Spring' and 'Til Love Touches Your Life', with stars of magnitude of Peggy Lee, Dinah Washington, Harry Connick Jr., Johnny Mathis, John Martyn, Ray Charles, Bobby Darin and The Dells breathing fresh life into his words.
Fiercely protective of his craft, Hamilton is a long serving member of the Composers and Lyricists Guild of America: the first organisation to set minimum financial terms and govern working conditions for songwriters within the mediums of film and television. He was also one of its first presidents, enjoying close relations with golden age composers including Max Steiner (Gone With The Wind), Erich Wolfgang Korngold (The Adventures Of Robin Hood) and Bernard Herrmann (Citizen Kane) as he served with great distinction and dedication during its fledgling years. Until 2007 Hamilton was also an influential member of the music branch of the Board of Governors of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences where he served as Vice-President.
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