It doesn’t take a visit from Mr. Obvious to acknowledge that music has the power to trigger memories, and sometimes they’re very specific memories, relating directly to a certain time or person. A good example is what happens when I hear “Blue Tango,” one of prolific composer Leroy Anderson’s most popular melodies. It reminds me of my childhood — and of my Dad.
Dad always had a real fondness for the kind of music that was described as ‘light classics’ — generally orchestral works that included some of the better-known classical pieces, along with waltzes, exotic foreign tunes, and a few modern songs from composers like Leroy Anderson.
Anderson grew up in New England, the offspring of Sweden immigrants, and his first musical experiences included learning to play keyboards from his mother, a church organist. As he grew up he continued studying music, not only at home but also at the New England Conservatory of Music, before finally entering Harvard. During his years there he studied several instruments, wrote and arranged music, sang in the glee club, and even spent some time as a drum major. His musical education was multi-faceted, as was his talent.
After college he did some teaching himself, but it was his activities in composing and arranging that changed his life forever. In 1936 he managed to connect with Boston Pops director Arthur Fiedler, then in the early years of what would become a legendary career. He recognized Anderson’s talent and encouraged him, eventually commissioning an original piece, “Jazz Pizzicato,” which proved to be a hit with audiences and led to a full-time job with the orchestra.
Although his career was interrupted for a while by World War II, Anderson prospered from his relationship with the Pops and even after he later began leading his own orchestra he always stayed in touch. Over the next two decades his successes included “Syncopated Clock,” “The Typewriter,” and “Sleigh Ride,” all demonstrating his ability to blend in unusual rhythms and sound effects. Other big hits included “The Waltzing Cat,” “Bugler’s Holiday,” and of course “Blue Tango,” which became the first instrumental to sell one million records.
As the years passed Anderson continued to stretch himself musically. For example, he spent a lot of time writing serious classical music and he also tackled Broadway, writing the music for a show called Goldilocks. In 1972, his status as a national treasure was acknowledged in a special ceremony with the Boston Pops, one that was also televised on PBS. He died in 1975, leaving behind a very special collection of unique music.