Songwriter penned Armstrong classic
Like many artists before him, the man who was to write some of the most melodious songs of the 1950s and 1960s had to overcome great parental opposition to realise his dream. His mother wanted her son to be a lawyer and consulted a doctor who observed: "What would you rather have? A live bum of a musician or a dead lawyer?" New York-born George David Weiss was then allowed to study music at the Juilliard School, where he mastered the piano, violin, saxophone and the clarinet. The Second World War intervened and he became an army bandmaster until 1945.
With his partner, Bennie Benjamin, Weiss wrote three No 1 hits, including Frank Sinatra's Oh, What It Seemed To Be. In 1952, Weiss penned the lyrics for the enduring Lullaby of Birdland. His best Broadway show was Mr Wonderful in 1956. Written with Jerry Bock and Larry Holofcener, it ran for nearly 4,000 performances. First Impressions, a musical adaptation of Pride and Prejudice in 1959, was less successful.
When publishers first heard his Can't Help Falling In Love With You, co-written with Hugo Peretti and Luigi Creatore for Elvis Presley, there was a 20-second silence before one of them said: "That's nice, but we want another Hound Dog." Nevertheless, it opened Presley's movie Blue Hawaii, sold one million copies and became one of The King's favourite Las Vegas encores. In 1961, the same trio wrote The Lion Sleeps Tonight for the Tokens. It had begun life in 1939 as Mbube, by the Zulu musician Solomon Linda, before being adapted by Pete Seeger as Wimoweh, to which Weiss added some melodies and counter-melodies. The song was revived for the stage and screen musical The Lion King.
Weiss's last hit was surely his best - the sublime What A Wonderful World, co-written with Bob Thiele in 1967 and sung by Louis Armstrong. Many others subsequently recorded it, including Tony Bennett, who had been offered it first but turned it down. Armstrong's rendition conveys the sweet optimism, evident in the last verse: "I hear babies cry, I watch them grow, They'll learn much more than I'll never know, And I think to myself what a wonderful world." Unsurprisingly, it featured often in film and on television, and became a favourite choice for father-daughter wedding dances.
In 1984, Weiss was inducted into the Songwriters' Hall of Fame and, as the president of the Songwriters' Guild of America for two decades, he became an energetic advocate and defender of composers' intellectual property rights. Weiss is survived by his third wife, Claire, two sons and a daughter from his first marriage, and a son from his second. George David Weiss was born on April 9, 1921, and died on August 23, 2010, aged 89.
* The National
Published: August 28, 2010 04:00 AM