“All of Me” is probably the most recorded song of all time. Versions have been recorded by Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, Paul Whiteman, Mildred Bailey, Benny Goodman, Teddy Wilson, Anne Murray, Ella Fitzgerald, Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, Frankie Laine, Johnnie Ray, Django Reinhardt, and Willie Nelson. It was featured in the Steve Martin/Lily Tomlin film of the same name and it was even sung by a couple of monsters on “The Muppet Show.” That hit song was written in 1931 by a Saginaw native, Gerald Marks.
Gerald was born here on October 13, 1900. He learned to play the piano when he was six years old and accompanied his aunt to her piano lessons. Sitting beside her, he picked up everything she was learning and soon was described by his classmates as a “piano whiz.”
He got his start in show business when a Saginaw High phys ed teacher asked him to play for a gym class while they went through exercises with dumbbells. That led to an invitation to perform in an amateur show. “I was looking like nothing more than a mouse in tails the night of that show,” Marks recalled. “I sat down and banged out the ‘Black and Blue Rag.’ I tore ‘em apart and I’ve been sailing since.” Marks added, “The Saginaw News critic who reviewed the show deserves much of the credit in starting me in my career. That rave review swelled my head to twice its size and occasionally, I’m reminded that it has remained that size.”
Certainly, Gerald was never troubled by false modesty. At the age of 15, he sent off a song to Irving Berlin with a note suggesting that, “you and I could make a lot of money together.” Berlin was not impressed but Gerry wasn’t discouraged.
He was not only valedictorian of his Saginaw High class but also wrote the senior class song, “Hail to the Class of 1917.” At their 50th reunion, he confessed, “That was the most gosh-awful song I ever wrote.”
After graduation, he went to Detroit to play piano with the Seymour Smith Orchestra. It was there that he wrote the immortal “All of Me” with Smith doing the lyrics. Later, Gerald tramped the streets of New York, knocking on music publishers’ doors and trying to sell the song.
He faced one-turn down after another until he happened to meet the great ballad singer, Belle Baker. Gerald played the song for her and was amazed when she burst into sobs…and then made the song a smash hit when she sang it on the radio. He later found that she had just lost her husband and his song spoke directly to her broken heart.
Gerald always said that the success or failure of a song was greatly influenced by luck and pointed to another hit, “Is It True What They Say About Dixie?” His friend, Sam Lerner wrote the lyrics and asked Gerald to do the music. Marks hated the words but knocked out a tune just to get Lerner off his back. They sent it to Al Jolson who turned it into one of his most popular standards.
In a long lifetime, Gerald Marks wrote hundreds of tunes. He collaborated with the great poet, Carl Sandburg, setting music to Sandburg’s “Mr. Lincoln and His Gloves” and “Mr. Longfellow and His Boy.” He wrote compositions for the Ziegfeld Follies, for films and theater and even wrote “Dig Down Deep,” the official Treasury Department song to sell government bonds during World War II.
Blessed with a genial disposition as well as talent, Marks was a favorite with his fellow songwriters. He served on the ASCAP board of directors and was elected to the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
He was invited to the White House by Presidents Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Ford and Clinton. In November of 1993, he presented an autobiographical musical revue, “What I Learned in the (Tin Pan) Alley” at Washington’s Smithsonian Institution.
Gerald Marks died on January 27, 1997. Displaying the wit that kept him on the college lecture circuit into his ‘90s, he asked that his remains should go into an urn with the epitaph, “All of Me.”
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