Sammy Cahn was born Samuel Cohen in the Lower East Side of New York City, the only son (he had four sisters) of Abraham and Elka Reiss Cohen, who were Jewish immigrants from Galicia, then ruled by Austria-Hungary. His sisters, Sadye, Pearl, Florence, and Evelyn, all studied the piano. His mother did not approve of Sammy studying it though, feeling that the piano was a woman’s instrument, so he took violin lessons. After three lessons and following his bar mitzvah, he joined a small dixieland band called Pals of Harmony, which toured the Catskill Mountains in the summer and also played at private parties. This new dream of Cahn’s destroyed any hopes his parents had for him to be a professional man. Some of the side jobs he had were playing violin in a theater-pit orchestra, working at a meat-packing plant, serving as a movie-house usher, tinsmith, freight-elevator operator, restaurant cashier, and porter at a bindery. At age 16, he was watching vaudeville, of which he had been a fan since the age of 10, and he witnessed Jack Osterman singing a ballad Osterman had written. Sammy Cahn was inspired and, on his way home from the theater, wrote his first lyric, which was titled “Like Niagara Falls, I’m Falling for You – Baby.” Years later he would say “I think a sense of vaudeville is very strong in anything I do, anything I write. They even call it ‘a vaudeville finish,’ and it comes through in many of my songs. Just sing the end of ‘All the Way’ or ‘Three Coins in the Fountain’—’Make it mine, make it mine, MAKE IT MINE!’ If you let people know they should applaud, they will applaud.”
Much of Sammy Cahn’s early work was written in partnership with Saul Chaplin. They first met when Cahn invited Chaplin to audition for him at the Henry Street Settlement. Cahn said, “I’d learned a few chords on the piano, maybe two, so I’d already tried to write a song. Something I called ‘Shake Your Head from Side to Side.'” Billed simply as “Cahn and Chaplin” (in the manner of “Rodgers and Hart”), they composed witty special material for Warner Brothers’ musical short subjects, filmed at Warners’ Vitaphone studio in Brooklyn, New York. “There was a legendary outfit on West 46th Street, Beckman and Pransky … they were the MCA, the William Morris of the Borscht Belt. I got a room in their offices, and we started writing special material. For anybody who’d have us—at whatever price.” They did not make much money, but they did work with up-and-comers Milton Berle, Danny Kaye, Phil Silvers, and Bob Hope. One of his childhood friends was Lou Levy, who had gone from neighborhood bum to blackface dancer with the Jimmie Lunceford Orchestra.
The song became the Orchestra’s signature song. The duo then worked for Glen Gray’s Casa Loma Orchestra and their premiere at Paramount Theatre. They also worked for Andy Kirk and his Clouds of Joy and they wrote Until the Real Thing Comes Along. Sammy Cahn wrote the lyrics to “Love and Marriage,” which was used as the theme song for the FOX TV show Married… with Children. The song originally debuted in a 1955 television production of Our Town, and won an Emmy Award in 1956. This was only one of many songs that Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen wrote for Frank Sinatra. They were “almost considered to be his personal songwriters.” Cahn contributed lyrics for two otherwise unrelated films about the Land of Oz, Journey Back to Oz (1971) and The Wizard of Oz (1982). The former were composed with Van Heusen, the latter with Allen Byrns, Joe Hisaishi, and Yuichiro Oda. Cahn became a member of the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1972. He later took over the presidency of that organization from his friend Johnny Mercer when Mercer became ill. Sammy Cahn died on January 15, 1993, at the age of 79 in Los Angeles, California from heart failure. His remains were interred in the Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery.
- June, 18, 1913
- New York, New York
- January, 15, 1993
- Los Angeles, California
- Westwood Memorial Park
- Los Angeles, California