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Frank Loesser: A Most Talented Fella

Christopher Loudon on the noted songwriter

Jo Loesser, singer and wife of Frank Loesser
Frank Loesser

If Frank Loesser had written only the songs for Guys and Dolls his place in the pantheon of popular music would be secured. A near flawless score, it represents the exaggerated quintessence of Loesser’s rare ability to craft lyrics that echo the way Americans genuinely speak. Throughout his relatively brief, four-decade career, Loesser wrote more than 1,600 songs, spanning Tin Pan Alley, Hollywood and Broadway, where his contributions extended beyond Guys and Dolls to include the near-equally sublime How to Succeed In Business Without Really Trying and the lesser-known but distinctly ambitious and intriguing Greenwillow and The Most Happy Fella.

Loesser could be as sophisticated as Cole Porter and as warm as Johnny Mercer, but the lasting appeal of his songs must most strongly be credited to their conversational, everyman style, driven by his unerring ability to tap both modish jargon and the pop culture zeitgeist. You can hear it in the jaunty bounce of “Jingle Jangle Jingle,” the barroom frivolity of “The Boys In the Backroom,” the mesmerizing yearn of “Say It (Over and Over Again),” the playful wartime wistfulness of “They’re Either Too Young or Too Old,” the sweet-tempered lasciviousness of “Standing On the Corner” and the hushed desire of “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve.” Loesser could be deceptively simple in his song rendering, as best demonstrates by “Inch Worm,” from Hans Christian Andersen and the indelible “Heart and Soul,” both of which have remained perennial childhood staples since their inception. Indeed, in the superb documentary Heart & Soul: The Life and Music of Frank Loesser from 2006, Loesser’s daughter Susan notes that the first songs every kid learns to play on the piano are “Chopsticks” and “Heart and Soul,” adding that she’d been playing the latter for years before she discovered her father had written it. Loesser also had a unique talent for crafting duets with overlapping dialog, the best example of which – “Baby It’s Cold Outside,” from the 1949 Esther Williams epic Neptune’s Daughter – won him his one and only Oscar. According to no less an authority on superlative tunesmithery as Dave Frishberg, “Baby It’s Cold Outside” is “the most masterful piece of material ever written. It’s one of two songs I wish I’d written – the other being “Crazy” by Willie Nelson… Loesser is so good he brings tears to my eyes even with the clever material. His lyrics are painstakingly constructed with the purpose of seizing the listener’s attention and leading him through the song.”

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