Songwriter and pianist is an odd career choice for a man born with no fingers on his left hand. But that was the case for Harry Woods. As a child, he learned to play the piano using his right hand for the melody, his left to thump out a bass line. He got good enough to support himself during his student years at Harvard by playing the piano in clubs. After graduation, he earned his living as a farmer on Cape Cod, then spent a few years in the Army, and eventually relocated to New York City. That’s where the songwriting began.
Moderate success came in 1923 when “I’m Goin’ South,” which Woods co-wrote with Abner Silver, was recorded by Al Jolson. “Paddlin’ Madelin Home,” this time by Woods alone, followed. He hit the big time as a Tin Pan Alley composer when Sophie Tucker sang his song “When the Red, Red, Robin Comes Bob, Bob, Bobbin’ Along” at the Woods (no relation) Theatre in Chicago in 1926. It’s a peppy tune I always include in my spring-themed piano programs. The next year, Woods teamed with lyricist Mort Dixon to write “I’m Looking Over a Four-Leaf Clover,” an oldie I bring out for St. Patrick’s Day.
Money was still tight, though, inspiring Woods to write “Side by Side” in 1927:
Oh we ain’t got a barrel of money
Maybe we’re ragged and funny
But we travel along, singin’ a song
Side by side…
The song has a cheerful, rhythmic lilt typical of many songs by Woods. My listeners can’t resist doing a little soft-shoe shuffle—or at least swaying in their seats—when I play “Side by Side.”
Soon Hollywood beckoned Woods. When Rudy Vallée landed his first feature film role in The Vagabond Lover in 1929, Woods wrote “Heigh-Ho, Ev’rybody Heigh-Ho!” especially for him, borrowing the title from the opening line Vallée used on his radio show. (The signature greeting was a nod to the Heigh-Ho Club in New York, where Rudy Vallée got his start).
Woods lived in London for a few years in the mid-1930s, writing songs for British films like Road House, which introduced the enduring “What a Little Moonlight Can Do.” It’s a swinging standard, today mostly associated with Billie Holiday, who made a classic recording alongside jazz pianist Teddy Wilson and his orchestra.
The generally upbeat songs Woods wrote contrasted dramatically with his personal life. Before playing one of his songs, I often share this anecdote, which I found in America’s Songs, by Philip Furia and Michael Lasser:
… Woods was known for his drinking and his violent temper. He once got into a barroom brawl that was so bad somebody called the police. They found Woods sitting astride his adversary, clutching him by the throat with his good hand and pounding the man’s head with his stump. A woman entering the bar was appalled by what she saw. “Who is that horrible man?” she asked. One of Woods’ drinking pals piped up, “That’s Harry Woods. He wrote ‘Try a Little Tenderness.”
Copyright © 2014 by Paulette Bochnig Sharkey
All rights reserved.