Sep 15, 2011 Russ Tarby Uncategorized
The world knew him as Jimmy Van Heusen, songwriter for the stars.
But in Syracuse he was Chet Babcock from down in The Valley.
“Chester Babcock and my dad grew up together,” said Frank Malfitano, the jazz impresario who co-produced an all-star tribute for Van Heusen in January 1986 at the then-new Civic Center, downtown. “They played together as kids on the south side.”
When he reached college age during the Roaring Twenties, Babcock’s staunch Methodist parents sent him to the Cazenovia Seminary.
This month, the 10th Annual Jazz’N Caz festival will pay homage to Jimmy Van Heusen who attended Cazenovia Seminary before rising to stardom composing for films and Frank Sinatra.
The festival begins with a kick-off party featuring vocalist Colleen Pratt & Friends at 8 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 22, at the Brae Loch, and continues Friday and Saturday evenings at the Catherine Cummings Theatre, 16 Lincklaen St., with headline sets by New Orleans pianist Henry Butler and the Gap Mangione Big Band, respectively. Admission is free, but donations are accepted; cazenovia.edu/jazz, 655-7238.
Van Heusen, one of the most accomplished melody men of the 20th century, was born Edward Chester Babcock on Jan. 26, 1913, in Syracuse, to Ida and Arthur Babcock. His close friends called him Chester or Chet.
From early on, he’d entertain audiences with his mirthful musicality, though not everyone always dug his act. He was expelled from Central High in Syracuse after performing the satire song “My Canary has Circles under His Eyes.”
“The student body loved the song, but the teachers thought otherwise,” said Sylvia Needel, a writer for the Cazenovia College Office of Communications. Needel researched Van Heusen’s life and learned the story behind his pseudonym.
About 1928, when Babcock was working as a radio disc jockey, a friend named Ralph Harris helped him create a stage name so that Chet’s father, a Syracuse building contractor, wouldn’t learn about his radio program. Ralph glanced out the window of the 11th floor of the Hotel Syracuse and saw a billboard advertising Van Heusen collars. Great last name! “Well, how about my first name?” Chet asked. Ralph’s favorite cousin was named James, and the rest is pop music history.
When he played hooky from school to work at a local radio station, Jimmy would invite listeners to send in lyrics. He believed everyone wanted to be a songwriter, and for a trifling $10 he would compose a piano part to accompany the submitted lyrics.
Following multiple expulsions from Central High, Jimmy’s parents sent him to Cazenovia Seminary in 1928 and’29, but he remained focused on music.
Williams Hall piano
A classmate, Maurice Golden, who later joined the college’s board of trustees, said Van Heusen spent plenty of time at the piano in the Lyceum fraternity meeting room in Williams Hall. “Many of his most famous songs were developed from ideas that had their beginning right there,” Golden said.
Van Heusen broke into the big time in 1938 by collaborating with bandleader Jimmy Dorsey on a song called “It’s the Dreamer in Me.” The hits flowed as he wrote for stage and screen, composing melodies for tunes such as “Polka Dots and Moonbeams,” “It Could Happen to You,” “Personality” and “My Kind of Town.”
In 1963, as co-chair of the Cazenovia College Alumni Fund Drive, Van Heusen lent his song, “High Hopes,” to the campaign, with lyrics supplied by Development Director Ralph Larsen vocalized by Bing Crosby. The song was pressed as a 45 RPM record and sent to alumni, who responded enthusiastically with donations.
Civic Center’s 1986 tribute
In January 1986, 73 years after his birth, Van Heusen was honored in Syracuse with am SRO variety show culminating the Civic Center’s Tenth Anniversary Celebration Week. Among the entertainers who flew here to perform were Tony Bennett, Maxine Sullivan, Sammy Cahn, Margaret Whiting, Jack Jones and emcee Tony Randall.
Van Heusen died on Feb. 6, 1990, in Rancho Mirage, Calif., at age 77. His headstone is engraved with the title of one his best-loved tunes, “Swinging on a Star.”
Russ Tarby’s column appears weekly in The Eagle and online at theeaglecny.com. He also covers the arts and sports. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.