May/June 1998 | Volume 49, Issue 3
It’s rare for writers of any kind to become overrated in this country, but it happens all the time to entertainers. Now that the singers allegedly write their own songs, it’s possible that they’re all overrated. Anyhow, no pure writer of tunes has ever come anywhere near it—not even Rodgershammerstein, who was such a comedown from Rodgershart, or Irving Berlin, who wrote at least ten underrated songs for every “White Christmas"—and precious few lyricists have either. Sammy Cahn may have overrated himself, and Irving Caesar gave the impression he’d written everything in the twenties instead of surprisingly little. But what Irving did write was “cherce,” as Spencer Tracy would have said. And Sammy at least deserves the title Burton Lane unofficially gave him of “our eighteenth best lyricist,” which is not such an insult as it sounds; the competition was dazzling.
That’s another story. Insofar as a whole class of people no one has ever heard of can be said to be underrated, everyone who ever wrote anything for the movies qualifies. (Who knows, for instance, who wrote “The Continental” or “When You Wish Upon a Star"? Both songs won Oscars, but it didn’t help a bit.) By silent consensus, the king of this army of unknown soldiers, the Hollywood incognitos, was Harry Warren, who had more songs on the Hit Parade than Berlin himself and who would win the contest hands down if enough people have heard of him.
But of course, if he wins, he loses. Warren’s ghost lives in constant danger of becoming famous for being unknown, and even a dubious honor like this one might push him over the edge. So for emergency backup, I nominate the impenetrably unknown and unlegendary Albert Von Tilzer, who wrote the tunes for “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” and “I Used to Love You but It’s All Over” among other things. Albert and his brother Harry, who wrote “Wait Til the Sun Shines Nellie” and so on, actually came as close as two relatives probably can to being exactly equal in talent. But the last three relevant books I’ve read discuss Harry as if he had no brother. So the Von Tilzer boys make a mathematically perfect answer to your question, with Albert down to the exact measure Harry is up.
But on a scale of Paul Anka or Stevie Wonder, neither man exists, of course.