Whenever I play “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love,” I introduce the song with this oft-told story about how it came to be written: One day a struggling songwriting team walked past Tiffany’s in New York, and overheard a young man tell his sweetheart, as she gazed longingly at the window display, “Gee, honey, I can’t give you nothin’ but love.” Inspired, lyricist Dorothy Fields and her business partner, composer Jimmy McHugh, rushed back to their office and started writing. The resulting song, which debuted in the Broadway musical revue The Blackbirds of 1928, was their first success. “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love” was covered by popular artists and jazz musicians ranging from Dean Martin and Doris Day to Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong. Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant even sang a bit of it to a leopard in the 1938 film Bringing Up Baby.
Dorothy Fields was the daughter of Lew Fields, half of the vaudeville comedy duo Weber and Fields. They’re best known for this old joke: Who was that lady I saw you with last night? That was no lady, that was my wife. Lew Fields didn’t want Dorothy to go into show business. “Songwriting is no career for a lady,” he insisted.
Over her father’s objections, Dorothy began working as a lyricist in the 1920s, writing for Harlem’s Cotton Club. She continued her productive collaboration with Jimmy McHugh, churning out classics like “On the Sunny Side of the Street,” “I’m in the Mood for Love,” and “Don’t Blame Me.”
She later teamed up with Jerome Kern, notably for the score to the movie Swing Time, a Fred Astaire and Ginger Roger classic. Almost every song became a standard: “A Fine Romance,” “Pick Yourself Up,” and the 1936 Academy Award winner “The Way You Look Tonight.” She partnered with Sigmund Romberg, best known for his operettas. My favorite among their joint efforts is the 1945 tune “Close as Pages in a Book.” With her brother Herbert she wrote the libretto (the script, also called the “book”) for the 1946 Broadway musical Annie Get Your Gun. In the 1960s she worked with Cy Coleman on the music for Sweet Charity, including the hit “Hey, Big Spender.”
Dorothy’s writing style has been described as witty, urbane, marked by the kind of slangy sophistication we associate with Ira Gershwin, Lorenz Hart, and Cole Porter. Her rhymes were inventive:
A fine romance, my good fellow,
You take romance, I’ll take Jell-o
And sometimes sarcastic:
You’re calmer than the seals in the Arctic Ocean
At least they flap their fins to express emotion.
Her lyrics were usually unsentimental. Some even called them “unladylike.” That was okay with Dorothy. Back when she first informed her father of her career intentions, and he argued that songwriting was no job for a lady, she had the perfect comeback: “I’m no lady, I’m your daughter.”
Copyright © 2013 by Paulette Bochnig Sharkey
All rights reserved.