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Irving Caesar Recollections
Irving Caesar Recollections & "Ka-Lu-A"
by Randolph Herr (001114 MMDigest)

Once again, a Matthew Caulfield article in MMD (00/11/10) has inspired me to write a "follow up", if that's the correct term.  Mr. Caulfield was writing about identifying pop songs, and he mentions the similarities between "Dardanella" and "Ka-Lu-A".  Boy, did that bring back memories...

It was back in 1977 that I was walking in Manhattan.  I noticed a recognizable figure headed my way, and I asked him if he were Irving Caesar.  He said he was, and asked how I knew him.  I said that I was very interested in the era he grew up in, and I knew who he was for a long time.

 In case anybody needs reminding, Irving Caesar and George Gershwin wrote "Swanee" in 1919, and Irv and Vincent Youmans wrote "Tea For Two" in 1924.  By the strangest of coincidences, George and Vincent were born on the same day in September, 1898, within a few hours of each other.  I think George was born first, and affectionately called Vincent "Junior", and Vincent referred to George as "Old Man".  Another coincidence is that Irv wrote the words for the biggest hit song either one ever had.

Well, we quickly became good friends.  Irv was then 82 and, except for macular degeneration reducing his eyesight, he was in mint condition, and remained so for another twenty years.  Irv was a fountain of information to historians, and I always enjoyed hearing little facts that I knew would normally escape the history books.

To give the briefest example, somehow the name Felix Arndt came up.  Irv said, "I remember Felix.  He was the guy who got George hired at Aeolian Hall.  Felix was a great pianist.  He died in that flu epidemic.  He was married to a girl named Nola.  After Felix died, Nola and I lived together for a few years..."

As you can imagine, it was fun to be around Irv.  So let me finally get to the inspiration for this article.  While visiting Irv one day, he asked me to get him a cigar out of his humidor.  I had never paid much attention to the mahogany box before.  I could not lift the lid, and I noticed a silver button on the front, which was the lock.

I didn't know which way to slide it, and as I figured it out, I realized that the flat top of the box had a square metal plate inlaid.  A little more examination showed that there was an inscription engraved.  It seemed to say: "I.C. - from Jesse - Christmas 1923."  All the engraving was in standard typeface, but the word that looked like Jesse was a reproduction of somebody's handwriting.

I asked Irv who Jesse was, and Irv corrected me: it was Jerry.  Irv then told me there was a story behind the humidor.  Having said that, let me give my roughly 10-year-old memory of Irv's nearly 70-year-old memory.

"Dardanella" was a big hit in 1919, and one aspect of the song was an unusual bass figure in the verse.  In 1921, Irv's friend Jerry wrote a song, "Ka-Lu-A", that included the aforementioned bass figure.  The publishers of "Dardanella" then sued Jerry.  This was something new -- nobody said Jerry plagiarized a melody; the suit argued that nobody else could put this bass line in their music.

Jerry was complaining about this to Irv one day.  Irv said, "I have been trying to take piano lessons recently, and I remember that bass line is in one of my exercises."

Jerry got quite excited, and forwarded a copy if Irv's music book to the lawyers.  Because of that evidence, they won the case, and Jerry was so grateful, he went to Tiffany and had an inscription engraved on top of one of their humidors as a present for Irv.

The publishers of "Dardanella" would not give up, however.  They appealed the decision, all the way to the Supreme Court and ultimately, they won.  If anybody could research this I would be curious to know what the reason was.

Poor Jerry -- not only did he lose the case, but the humidor cost him a pretty penny also.  Don't feel too sorry for him, because Jerry Kern, who we now refer to as Jerome Kern, would go on to write some of the finest music ever.

A few years after Irv told me this story, he said that he was giving up cigars, and that if I wanted the humidor, I could have it.  I didn't want it, so it was thrown away.  Just kidding, folks.  I have sent a photo of the lid to the editors, and they can put it in the photo collection.

Randolph Herr
Tue, 14 Nov 2000 08:38:36 -0500

"Ka-Lu-A" and  "Dardanella" and the U.S. Supreme Court case appear in articles by Matthew Caulfield (MMD 970609) and Adam Ramet (MMD 970611).

irvingCaesarHumidor1.jpg (38 kb)


15 November 2000

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