Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music


WEISS, George

(b George David Weiss, 9 April 1921, Manhattan; d 24 August 2010, Oldwick NJ) Songwriter. He wanted to be a musician; his mother wanted him to be a lawyer; the stress, he said in 1995, sent him to a doctor. The doctor asked his mother, 'Mrs. Weiss, what would you rather have? A live bum of a musician or a dead lawyer?' He played the violin, piano, saxophone and clarinet, earned a bachelor’s degree in music theory from Juilliard and was a military bandleader during WWII.

In an interview forty years later, Weiss described the making of one of his early hits in 1946, 'Oh! What It Seemed to Be', written with his frequent collaborator Bennie Benjamin and pianist/bandleader Frankie Carle. After finding a publisher for the song, they went looking for a singer. Weiss played the song for Frank Sinatra, and 'Before I had finished ... Sinatra was on the phone calling the record company and telling them he just heard a great song and wanted to record it ... You can imagine what happened to me — I froze at the piano. I just kept playing. See, the publisher had told me that no matter what happens, I should keep playing to make sure the tune got into their heads ... So everyone sat down and discussed horses and women and gossip for a half hour or so, and I’m still playing that song at the piano. Finally, the publisher comes over to me, lifts me up under the armpits and says, "Say goodbye to Frank." I said goodbye and they led me out like a zombie.'

His other best-known collaborations with Benjamin include 'Surrender' '46, for Perry Como; 'Confess' '48, for Patti Page; and 'Wheel of Fortune' '52, for Kay Starr. He also wrote the words for 'Lullaby of Birdland', a 1952 vocal version of George Shearing’s jazz standard. Weiss collaborated on several Broadway musicals; the most successful was Mr. Wonderful '56 starring Sammy Davis Jr, written with Jerry Bock and Larry Holofcener. Other Broadway credits include First Impressions '59, an adaptation of Pride and Prejudice starring Polly Bergen, Hermione Gingold and Farley Granger, written with Robert Goldman and Glenn Paxton; and Maggie Flynn '68, starring Shirley Jones and Jack Cassidy, with book, music and lyrics by Weiss, Hugo Peretti and Luigi Creatore.

Further collaborations with the pop producers Peretti and Creatore included 'Can’t Help Falling in Love', introduced in Elvis Presley’s film Blue Hawaii '61, and 'The Lion Sleeps Tonight' the same year, adapted from a Zulu song first recorded in the 1930s, keeping the refrain — 'Wimoweh, wimoweh' — popularized in a 1950s version by the Weavers. This was a hit for the Tokens, and has since been used in films including Disney's The Lion King. (Later the family of the song's true South African composer came forward and finally got some royalties.)

'What a Wonderful World' '67, with words and music by Weiss and Bob Thiele, was disliked by critics when Louis Armstrong recorded it, but that recording was heard on the soundtrack of Good Morning, Vietnam '87, and the Armstrong version has become a contemporary standard, whether we like it or not.