I always thought there were some similarities between “April In Paris” and “Autumn In New York” but I didn’t realize until recently that both romantic ballads were written by the same guy, and his story is a good one. Born in Russia as Vladimir Aleksandrovich Dukelsky, a name that he continued using off and on for much of his career, he was better known as Vernon Duke, one of the most underappreciated songwriters in history. But that might have been because a lot of his attention went into parallel careers as a classical music composer, a poet, and a writer.
Dukelsky spent most of his childhood in Russia, where he studied music and showed promise for a classical career, but his parents — who were part of an aristocratic family — fled the country during the turmoil that followed the Russian revolution. After living in Turkey for a while, they eventually settled in New York in the early 1920’s. By then he’d reached adulthood and was ready to pursue a music career. He was soon frequenting Tin Pan Alley and spending time with guys like George Gershwin, who suggested his name change. Later in the decade he moved to Paris (where he still went by Dukelsky). It was there that he found some success composing classical music before moving on to London and writing for the British stage.
Back in New York by the end of the decade and again calling himself Vernon Duke, he entered a period during which he wrote some of his most memorable songs, many of them for Broadway musicals. For 1932‘s Walk a Little Faster he furnished “April in Paris” (which would also show up 20 years later as the title song for a Doris Day movie), along with “Autumn in New York” for 1934’s Thumbs Up, and “I Like the Likes of You” that same year for the Ziegfeld Follies. You can hear all three at the bottom, but another Duke tune from the Follies has always been a favorite of mine. It wasn’t exactly a love song — more of a lament — and it was performed in the show by a very young Bob Hope. It didn’t really attract a lot of attention at the time, but a couple of years later “I Can’t Get Started” would be turned into a big band classic by the trumpet (and vocalizing) of Bunny Berigan.
Duke (as Dukelsky) continued to write classical music too and his works were performed in a wide variety of venues and by prestigious ensembles like the Boston Symphony, but he’s probably most remembered for his pop music. In addition to his earlier songs, many of which became standards, one of his most notable and lasting accomplishments might have been composing the score for the 1940 Broadway musical Cabin in the Sky. It was a landmark all-black show that starred Ethel Waters, Lena Horne, and Eddie ‘Rochester’ Anderson. (Remember him, Jack Benny’s gravel-voiced sidekick?) The most memorable song from the show is probably “Taking a Chance on Love”, performed by Waters, who also sang it in the movie that was made a few years later.
Duke spent some time in the Navy during World War II (by then he’d legally changed his name and had become an American citizen) but in the post-war years he had a little trouble regaining his career momentum. He spent some time in Europe but ended up moving to California in the early 1950’s, and it was there that he pretty much settled in to write music for TV and the movies, and to expand his poetry efforts. The songs he wrote during this period might have been a little less memorable than some of his earlier efforts, but he was still doing well. He also expanded on his other types of writing, publishing books of poetry and other literary works. He was 65 when he died in 1969 from complications of lung cancer.