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In 1934 Vernon Duke composed three pieces for producer Murray Anderson’s musical “Thumbs Up”: “Words Without Music” with lyrics by Ira Gershwin as a tango for J. Harold Murray, a tap-dance number for Hal LeRoy “You’ve Heard It All Before” with lyrics by Ballard MacDonald, and a finale “Autumn in New York”. While the first two were dropped during the out-of-town run, “Autumn in New York” went on to become a standard, with well over 230 recordings. The song took off thirteen years later with the 1947 recordings by Jo Stafford and Frank Sinatra, as it was well ahead of its time.
Born Vladimir Aleksandrovich Dukelsky on 10 Oct 1903 in Prafianovo, Russia (currently Belarus), relatively close to Estonia and Latvia, while his mother was on a railway trip. He spent his early years in Kiev, wrote his first ballet when eight years old and studied composition at the Kiev Conservatory starting at the age of eleven. One of his fellow students there was Vladimir Horowitz. The family fled the Russian Civil War in 1919, going first to Constantinople, where he helped support the family by playing piano in cafes, then to New York, where he became a protegé of George Gershwin. Gershwin suggested the pen name Vernon Duke and until 1955, when he formally changed his name, he continued using the Dukelsky name for classical works and poetry. In 1924 he moved to Paris where Serge Diaghilev commissioned him to write the ballet “Zephyr and Flora”. While there he counted among his friends Sergei Prokofiev, Pablo Picasso, Jean Cocteau, George Balanchine, and Coco Chanel. In 1929 he returned to the United States, where his first complete Broadway score was for a revue (“Walk a Little Faster”), starring Beatrice Lillie, which featured the song “April in Paris”. He once said that they meant to have people visit Paris in May, but the rhythm called for two syllables. When George Gershwin died in 1937, leaving an incomplete score for “The Ziegfield Follies of 1936”, Duke was chosen to complete the score. In 1941 he wrote the book/score for “Cabin in the Sky” as his first complete Broadway musical. It included the song “Taking a Chance on Love”. He was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1970, a year after his death.
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