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Frank Loesser

As a young man in the 1920s, future songsmith and one-day Pulitzer Prize-winner Frank Loesser refused any and all formal training in music. He had decided that popular -- not classical -- music was the way for him, and had come to feel that a stuffy education based on the German master composers would be of little value. Now, a formally untrained songwriter is no extraordinary thing: Irving Berlin, after all, could barely read and write music and could find his way around the keyboard only in certain keys. And in the twenty-first century, classical training is not at all expected or even encouraged for songwriters. But Loesser's refusal to take the prescribed dose of schooling was extraordinary considering the family from which he came. His father was a well-known New York-based classical pianist, who took it upon himself to start Frank's older brother, Arthur Loesser, on the road toward concert pianism. That young Frank somehow escaped classical training is not far short of remarkable. But his decision to remain self-taught in music did have consequences, as it turned out: it took many years for Loesser to find the confidence to write his own music -- years during which he supported himself not by writing music, but by writing lyrics for other peoples' music.

Loesser was born in New York City in early summer of 1910. He taught himself the rudiments of piano playing and, still a teenager, enrolled at the City College of New York. Finding academic life distasteful, he dropped out of college in 1926 and went to work as an errand boy, an official messenger, a newspaper scrub, or whatever came his way. Around this time, he began to write lyrics and, after a few abortive attempts to sell his work, his first published song, "In Love With the Memory of You" with music by William Schumann, appeared in 1931.

The early '30s were spent running between New York and Hollywood. Loesser just couldn't seem to make it work in California and had to rely on his knowledge of the New York nightclub circuit to make ends meet. But in 1936 - 1937, both Universal Pictures and Paramount Pictures noticed his lyric-producing skills and Loesser was off to the races. With Bing Crosby and Bob Hope singing his words on the big screen (in movies like Thanks for the Memory and Sing You Sinners), Hollywood had to sit up and take notice.

The war turned out to be an eventful time for Loesser. While serving in the U.S. Army, he shed his lyricist-only skin and took up composing. The much-loved military swagger-tune "Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition" was his first published musical effort that was an instant success, giving Loesser the confidence that he needed to make a real run at full-time composing. After World War II, Loesser took Hollywood songwriting by the reins. He was responsible for both words and music for such classic songs as "Now That I Need You" from Red, Hot and Blue and the Academy Award-winning "Baby, It's Cold Outside" from the film Neptune's Daughter. Broadway was next; Loesser penned words and music for five Broadway shows in all, the two biggest successes being Guys and Dolls (1950) and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (1961), the latter of which won him a Pulitzer Prize. He effectively disappeared during the 1960s, however, penning nothing of commercial note in the years leading up to his death.