Bart Howard

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May/June 2015
by Rob Lester


He said that “the song poured out of” him “in twenty minutes,” but it sure has lasted: “Fly Me to the Moon” put composer-lyricist Bart Howard on the map with just that one audience-pleaser. Successful both as an uptempo number and its original setting as a romantic ballad, with its original title “In Other Words,” it has  consistently been sung, swung and favored by singers and bands since its debut in 1954. Cabaret singer Felicia Sanders was the first to sing it, Kaye Ballard the first to record it, Peggy Lee’s TV performance on The Ed Sullivan Show and her disc caused widespread attention and she suggested its title change to the chorus’s first line. And upon the U.S. moon landing, the astronauts had Frank Sinatra’s version blasted after blast-off. While surely the most prominent feather in his cap, there’s much more to the art of Bart, the musically-powered Howard than that.  He was born 100 years ago this June. In his book Intimate Nights, author James Gavin states, “Few other songwriters glorified romance or mourned its failure as passionately as Howard. His lyrics spoke of commitment, of the great love that lasts forever, or of the crushing pain when it ends. They captured an era when nothing seemed more enchanting that the thought of pledging one’s hand for a lifetime.”  Thomas Fowler was Howard’s own companion of 58 years, until the music man’s death in 2004.

Born Howard Joseph Gustafson in Burlington, Iowa, he grew up in a musical family, with a mom at the piano and his dad playing mandolin, guitar and piano, the instrument Bart took to. He gave his first recital when he was 16, playing Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” among other selections. He left home the same year to tour as pianist of a dance band in vaudeville with the star attractions the conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton, much later subjects of the Broadway musical Side Show. Work brought him to New York City and the Rainbow Room, and he met the woman whom many consider the quintessential cabaret artist: Mabel Mercer. He became her accompanist and she his champion, singing and recording many of his works, beginning with “If You Leave Paris” (co-writer: Ian Grant) and including “Let Me Love You” and “You Are Not My First Love.” He found a home at the Blue Angel in Manhattan, where he was the emcee and pianist. A young Johnny Mathis was one of those who performed in the club, backed by Bart. He took the singer under his wing, suggesting repertoire and making sure he had a decent meal now and then. Johnny repaid Bart’s kindness by recording several of his songs, earning Bart enough so that he could finally quit the Blue Angel.

Over the years, his material (besides just his giant hit) was recorded by artists including Frank Sinatra, Rosemary Clooney, Eydie Gormé, Andy Anselmo, Petula Clark, Dinah Washington, Steve Ross, Chris Connor, Lena Horne, Sylvia Syms, Morgana King, Shirley Horn,  and in more recent years by Joyce Breach, Sarah Partridge, and Dianne Reeves.  Portia Nelson, a songwriter herself, dedicated a whole LP to his work. KT Sullivan did a full nightclub act of Howard material at Rainbow & Stars, with the man himself featured, and it was released as a CD (her first). She also participated in another album, titled Bart!, which also included him along with William Roy and cabaret’s great lady, Julie Wilson.

“What can I say except: My songs are about love, that crazy mixed-up feeling as full of laughter and tears, simple understanding, bewildering rejection, comic bravado, and straight-faced foolishness. I always approach the writing of lyrics with a kind of smiling compassion for the poor creatures who keep trying to cope with this dear devil emotion. And, since words alone cannot tell the tale, I aim for melodies and harmonies that betray the anxieties behind the casual lyric observation.”

It is our not-so-casual observation that his songs are for the ages. In other words (to re-coin his phrase), his place is in our Hall of Fame.

Rob Lester

2015 is native New Yorker Rob Lester's eighth year as contributing writer, beginning by reviewing a salute to Frank Sinatra, whose recordings have played on his personal soundtrack since the womb. (His Cabaret Scenes Foundation member mom started him with her favorite; like his dad, he became an uber-avid record collector/ fan of the Great American Songbook's great singers and writers.) Soon, he was attending shows, seeking out up-and-comers and already-came-ups, still reading and listening voraciously. He also writes for and, has been cabaret-centric as awards judge, panel member/co-host, and produces benefit/tribute shows, including one for us.