Remembering Steve Allen the Songwriter – Part One

Today marks the date, ten years ago, of the passing of a legendary entertainer, Stephen Valentine Patrick William Allen. If you were to look up the definition of “polymath” or “renaissance man” you should include at least a picture of Steve Allen. He should, without a doubt, hold his own in the modern era with such greats as Albert Schweitzer, Isaac Asimov, Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci. But let’s not get carried away here, I don’t idolize the man at all. In fact, his secular humanism and elitist political views on pop culture made me shake my head in bewilderment. But a man’s politics doesn’t necessarily stain a man’s character, and I believed that’s what he displayed in his life. He always seemed to be a gentleman, and he always put tenacity and passion into his endeavors.

So what has this jack-of-all-trades done to earn such a place in history? Let’s see, he created and hosted “The Tonight Show” among many others, including his own “Steve Allen Shows”. He and his wife Jayne Meadows appeared several times on What’s My Line? in the fifties, and he was also a panelist on shows such as Match Game.  Then he was a comedy writer and performer, eventually publishing joke books such as “Steve Allen’s Private Joke File”.  He was a serious author who wrote more than fifty books (“Steve Allen on the Bible, Religion, and Morality”, “Dumbth”). He of course was an actor who appeared in over 45 shows and movies; I loved his performance in The Benny Goodman Story! And The Simpsons! He was a radio broadcaster, who at one time announced for pro wrestling (It was said that he used to make up names on the fly for wrestling holds, and nobody ever called him on it). He worked for CBS Radio based on live late-night show he had on KNX here in Los Angeles. Pretty astounding if you stop there, but there’s more.

Since I love music, it was his songwriting skills that were impressive to me. Steve Allen was an accomplished composer and lyricist who wrote upwards of 9000 songs before his death. That achievement alone put him in the Guinness Book of World Records as “the most prolific composer of modern times”. He produced over 75 albums including those for Coral and Dot records, which featured instrumentals on jazz piano and organ (many that were taken off his T.V. show). Although his musical works have been critiqued as mediocre or pedestrian, he was regarded as a musician, even though his musical training was confined to three years of piano lessons before the age of ten. But he did have some notable songs to his credit. “This Could Be the Start of Something Big” was used as the “Tonight Show” theme and as a jingle for Ocean Spray cranberry juice and has recorded by dozens of jazz greats including Ella Fitzgerald, Mel Torme, Count Basie and Oscar Peterson. He wrote the lyrics for George Duning’s “Theme from Picnic” in 1956, and also for “South Rampart Street Parade”. His best recognition though, was a 1963 Grammy for Best Jazz Composition for “The Gravy Waltz” written with Ray Brown. I also need to include his jazz Christmas classic “Cool Yule” made famous by Louis Armstrong.

More in Part Two >>