Nashville is arguably the music-publishing capital of the world. All up and down Music Row, companies with names like Sony/ATV, Curb, Full Circle, EMI and HoriPro oversee music catalogs of varying sizes, some featuring works by many dozens of legendary artists and songwriters.
Meanwhile, in a nondescript office on Elm Hill Pike — eight miles from the power corridors of Music Row — Brook Babcock and his wife Kit oversee the catalog of one man: Brook's great uncle, Edward Chester Babcock.
The composer's birth name likely won't ring a bell. Even his assumed name, Jimmy Van Heusen, is far from a household one. But he's responsible for some of the most familiar and hummable melodies in the history of popular music — songs such as "High Hopes," "Love and Marriage," "My Kind of Town," "Call Me Irresponsible" and "Come Fly With Me." There are over 850 songs in all, 85 of them recorded by Frank Sinatra alone.
Van Heusen died in 1990, and Jan. 26 marks what would have been his 100th birthday. At 3 p.m. this Sunday, Jan. 20, musicians from the Nashville Jazz Workshop will celebrate by performing a program titled "Come Fly With Us: Celebrating 100 Years of Jimmy Van Heusen" at Lipscomb University's Collins Auditorium. Brook and Kit Babcock's Van Heusen Music Corp. is sponsoring the event, along with Lipscomb and the Frist Center.
So how did the Van Heusen Music Corp. wind up in Nashville?
"Jimmy Van Heusen was a bachelor most of his life," Brook Babcock tells the Scene. "He married when he was almost 60, therefore he had no children. My father was the closest relative as a nephew. We inherited the catalog after Jimmy's wife died 14 years ago." At the time, Babcock and his father had been running an auto parts business for 30 years.
Back when he was in his 20s, Babcock got to be with his great uncle a couple of times, but since Van Heusen lived in Palm Springs, Calif., he didn't get to know him well. Through family stories and the memorabilia he inherited, however, Babcock (now 51) has gotten to know a fair bit about his relative.
"He loved first and foremost songwriting," Babcock says. "His other loves were women, booze and airplanes. He excelled at all four."
Considering the company he kept, Van Heusen's wild ways shouldn't be that surprising. He was one of the original members of the Holmby Hills Rat Pack, a social circle that included Sinatra, Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Judy Garland, Rex Harrison, Katharine Hepburn, David Niven and Spencer Tracy. It's little wonder the composer developed an outsize reputation.
In fact, Van Heusen was the inspiration for some of Sinatra's renowned swingin'-bachelor roles in films like The Tender Trap and Come Blow Your Horn. Though Van Heusen was not particularly handsome, Angie Dickinson famously said of him, "You would not pick him over Clark Gable any day, but his magnetism was irresistible." And according to a recent Wall Street Journal profile, lyricist Sammy Cahn once joked, "The trouble with Sinatra is that he thinks he's Van Heusen." When Sinatra tried to commit suicide after his breakup with Ava Gardner, it was Van Heusen who drove him to the hospital.
Of course, it's Van Heusen's music that lives on in the popular consciousness. In addition to the aforementioned hits, Van Heusen also teamed up with lyricists such as Cahn, Johnny Burke, Eddie DeLange, Johnny Mercer and Jimmy Dorsey to write classics like "Darn That Dream," "Ain't That a Kick in the Head," "Like Someone in Love," "Polka Dots and Moonbeams," "Heaven Can Wait," "All the Way," "Ring-a-Ding-Ding!," "Here's That Rainy Day," "It Could Happen to You" and many more. His songs were favorite vehicles for vocalists like Ella Fitzgerald, Bing Crosby, Sarah Vaughan and Dean Martin, not to mention instrumental giants like Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins.
And how did Edward Chester Babcock become Jimmy Van Heusen? "He was working as a DJ in Syracuse, N.Y., at age 16," says Brook Babcock. "The manager of the station did not like the last name: 'bab-COCK.' " The budding composer and his childhood friend Ralph Harris looked out a window, saw a sign for Van Heusen collars, and voila! And Jimmy? It just sounded better than Edward Chester.
If you're assuming that overseeing a catalog of great American standards is more fun than a career in auto parts, you're right, Babcock says. "At parties, no one ever wants to have a discussion about a motor mount."
Admission the Jan. 20 program is free. The Lori Mechem Quartet — with Duffy Jackson, Denis Solee and guest vocalists Jeff Hall and Liz Johnson — will perform. Don O. Henry will narrate a biography of Van Heusen written by Ken Roberts.
This post just introduced me to Justice Yeldham. Holy shit.
Never heard of any of these artists?
Awesome!Love everything Jerry puts out. Definitely check out the Tue Mommies bandcamp for more golden…
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"I love the smell of napalm in the morning...wait, what? That's not napalm??!"