Buffalo Songwriters

Sheet music for Jack Yellen's "Happy Days Are Here Again"

Photo optimization of sheet music covers courtesy Steve Loncto


Many internationally renowned musicians are from the Buffalo area, but Western New York is also known for its songwriters, who have penned memorable songs of all musical styles.

The earliest songwriter from our area was Edwin Pearce (Ned) Christy, who is best remembered as the founder of the original Christy’s Minstrels. He wrote the classic “Buffalo Gals Won’t You Come Out Tonight” and was even credited with writing some of Steven Foster’s songs, because he paid Foster for the exclusive right to initially perform several of his compositions.

Chauncey Olcott got his start as a minstrel performer and became one of the best-known Irish tenors of the early twentieth century. He wrote “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling” and “My Wild Irish Rose.” The next time you celebrate Saint Patrick’s Day, keep in mind you are singing the words of a Buffalo native.

Ray Henderson began his career as an accompanist for vaudeville acts, before moving to New York City where he became a popular composer during the Tin Pan Alley days. His songs were included in George White’s Scandals and Ziegfeld Follies, with two of his most popular hits being “Bye, Bye Blackbird” and “Five Foot Two, Eyes of Blue.” His career with songwriting partners Lew Brown and Buddy De Sylva was dramatized in the 1956 movie The Best Things in Life Are Free.

Composer Adolph Deutsch began his career in 1914 as a movie house musician, accompanying silent films at Buffalo theaters. He translated these musical interpretations into composing orchestrations for Broadway plays. He moved to Hollywood where, during the 1950s, he won three Oscars for Scoring of a Motion Picture for the movies Oklahoma, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers and Annie Get Your Gun. Deutsch was not the writer of the songs in the movie, he composed, conducted, and arranged the music for the soundtracks.

Before he became a successful lyricist, Jack Yellen worked as a reporter for the Buffalo Courier. His song “Happy Days Are Here Again” was the campaign theme song for Franklin D. Roosevelt in the election of 1932 and was associated with the Democratic Party throughout the twentieth century. The Beatles recorded Yellen’s 1927 composition “Ain’t She Sweet” in Hamburg Germany on June 24, 1961, when they were hired to perform as the backing band for Tony Sheridan and Peter Best was still the drummer for the group. It was a European hit and The Beatles recorded it again in 1969, with Ringo on drums, including it on Anthology 3. Yellen also collaborated with vaudeville star Sophie Tucker, writing her signature song “My Yiddishe Momme” and for two decades was on the board of directors of ASCAP, working to protect songwriters’ royalty rights.

How many times have you heard the Christmas classic “Silver Bells?” This song was one of numerous hits written by Salamanca’s Ray Evans. During his career, he won three Academy Award Oscars for best song and also wrote the classic “Dear Heart.” He and his writing partner Jay Livingston wrote over 700 songs and composed for television, including the theme songs for Bonanza and Mister Ed. The city of Salamanca honored Evans by renaming its movie theater the Ray Evans Seneca Theater.

The most successful Buffalo songwriter was Hyman Arluck, the son of the cantor who directed the choir at the old Pine Street Synagogue. Samuel Arluck hoped his son would follow him as cantor, but while Hyman was still in his teens, he garnered a reputation for his jazz-inspired arrangements and bluesy rhythm numbers. His bands The Southbound Shufflers, Yankee Ten Orchestra, and Buffalodians performed on the Crystal Beach Boat, were the last band to perform at The Crystal Beach Dance Pavilion in 1924 and the first to perform at the Crystal Beach Ballroom in 1925.  

After moving to New York City in 1926, he changed his name to Harold Arlen, and, by 1929, he composed his first hit song “Get Happy.” During his career he wrote over 500 songs, including the score for The Wizard of Oz, which produced the Academy Award winning classic “Over the Rainbow.” Arlen is considered one of the main contributors to Great American Songbook, popular songs, and jazz standards from the early twentieth century.
In addition to these songwriters, who wrote songs for other artists, Buffalo based recording artists like The Goo Goo Dolls, 10,000 Maniacs, Rick James, Jackson C. Frank, Eric Andersen, Willie Nile, Peter Case, Ani DiFranco, and numerous self-released groups, wrote the material for their albums. Some of their songs were recorded by other artists, and more recent writers like Michael Spriggs, Phil Dillon, Gurf Morlix, Ed Bentley, Nick DiStefano, Steve Nathan, Debby Ash, Michael Campagna, Gary Mallaber, and others wrote songs that they and other artists recorded.

So, the next time you find yourself humming or singing a song, it just may have been written by someone from Buffalo.


Rick Falkowski gives Buffalo Music History presentations, is the author of History of Buffalo Music & Entertainment, and is co-founder of the Buffalo Music Hall of Fame. Send questions or comments to info@buffalomusichistory.com.

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