Lyricist Irving Caesar, who wrote the lyrics to George Gershwin’s first hit, “Swanee,” died Dec. 17 at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. He was 101.
Caesar hailed from the generation of composers who cut their teeth in Tin Pan Alley.
Although Gershwin was Caesar’s most famous collaborator, he also worked with Vincent Youmans, Buddy De Sylva, Oscar Levant, Roger Wolf Kahn, Victor Herbert and many others.
But it was his connection with Gershwin and Al Jolson that put him on the map. Caesar met Gershwin in 1916 and the struggling composers wrote “Swanee” two years later and even saw it performed onstage at the opening of the Capitol Theatre in 1919.
The song attracted little attention until Gershwin played it at a party for Jolson, who went on to introduce it at one of his Sunday night concerts at the Winter Garden Theatre.
The song became a monster hit, selling 1 million records as well as a million copies of sheet music. It became Jolson’s biggest hit to that date and established Gershwin’s reputation as a major composer.
In addition to writing several of Jolson’s hits, Caesar wrote “Just a Gigolo,” “Umbriago,” the Shirley Temple song “Animal Crackers in My Soup,” “The Yankee Doodle Blues” and “Is It True What They Say About Dixie?”
Caesar, along with Youmans, also wrote the music to the Broadway show “No, No Nanette,” which opened in 1925 and was successfully revived in 1971 with Jolson’s former wife, Ruby Keeler.
Caesar is survived by his wife, Christina A. Ballestros.