Oscar Levant

Concert Pianist, Composer, Recording Artist, Broadway Star, Movie Actor, 
Radio and TV Star, Best Selling Author, Conductor, and World Class Wit
Oscar Levant was a man of many talents who entertained the world with his music and great wit. At the height of his popularity pianist Oscar Levant was the highest-paid concert artist in America out drawing Arthur Rubinstein and Vladmir Horowitz. Levant is considered to be the foremost interpreter of the music of George Gerswhin. His 1945 recording of Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra reached number #1 on the Billboard classical chart and remained one of Columbia Records'best selling albums for ten years. In classical music Levant recorded with Aaron Copeland, Eugene Ormandy, Toscanini, Issac Stern, Dimitri Mitropoulos, and others. Levant released over 100 records on the Columbia and American Decca labels.

Levant composed both popular and classical music. His best known song "Blame It On My Youth" is an American popular music standard. His popular songs have been recorded by Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole, Nancy Wilson, Keith Jarrett, Chet Baker, Carmen McRae, Aaron Neville, Judy Garland, Rosemary Clooney, Perry Como, and many others. His noted classical compositions that have been performed by many major symphonies are "Sonatina for Piano", the orchestral work "Sinfonietta", "Caprice", "Nocturne for Orchestra", and 'Dirge" his tribute to his friend George Gershwin. The Song Writers Hall of Fame honors Oscar Levant as a notable songwriter.

As an actor Oscar Levant starred on Broadway and appeared in 13 movies including the Oscar winning classic "American in Paris".  He wrote the screen play for the 1934 movie "Orient Express" and wrote scores and songs for dozens of films.  Levant's sharp wit made him a sought after host and guest on radio and television shows.  His irreverent wit has been preserved in the three best selling books that he authored "Memoirs of an Amnesiac", "A Smattering of Ignorance", and the "Unimportance of Being Oscar".  

Oscar Levant was a musical genius and a self deprecating neurotic. 

"There's a fine line between genius and insanity. I have erased this line. " - Oscar Levant

“What the world needs is more geniuses with humility, there are so few of us left”

Hill District Prodigy

Born in Pittsburgh on December 27, 1906 Levant spent his first 15 years in the lower Hill District.  He grew up in a small house at 1420 Fifth Avenue with his three older brothers and his parents Max and Annie.  Max, a watchmaker, immigrated from St. Petersburg Russia in 1891 at age 22.  Annie, the daughter of a Rabbi who had also immigrated from Russia was strictly religious.  .Annie's brother Oscar Radin was an accomplished violinist with the Pittsburgh Stock Company who later became Al Jolson's conductor at the New York's Winter Garden Theater. 

Max Levant ran a jewelry shop, M. Levant, "Jewelry Manufacturer, Diamond, Watches, Clocks, and Silverware" in the showroom on the first floor of their Fifth Avenue house.  Their home and shop was located in then bustling Bluff business district across from Nieman's Department Store.  

Both of Oscar's parents loved classical music and insisted their sons receive musical training.   Oldest brother Harry became a professional violinist and conductor of Broadway musicals.  In the living room behind the jewelry shop was the upright piano where Benjamin Levant taught his younger brother Oscar the piano.  Within a few weeks of his first lessons Oscar mastered pieces by Chopan, Schumann, and Beethoven. The demanding Max made his sons perform frequent living room recitals for friends and family dictating what and how they would play.  

At age seven Oscar began studying with Martin Miessler, a graduate of the Leipzig Conservatory who specialized in the Czerny piano method.  Oscar was trained in the music of Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt, and Schumann.  Within a year of his studies with Miessler he was giving recitals.  Oscar performed at the Forbes Elementary School, the Kaufman Settlement House on Center Avenue, at the YHMA, and at private parties   He was once called to perform for actress Lillian Russell who was appearing in Pittsburgh.

Oscar began attending Pittsburgh's Fifth Avenue High School in 1919.  Music teacher  Oscar Demmler recognized Levant's talent and became his piano teacher.  Demmler recruited Levant to join the school orchestra and featured him as a soloist performing a piece by Mendelssohn at age 12.  Levant in a article in Etude magazine thanked Demmler for teaching him how to play with an orchestra.  Demmler also influenced his students by taking them to the performances of pianist Jan Paderewski and conductor Leo Stokowski at the Syria Mosque.  

In high school Oscar developed into a wise cracking Pittsburgh street kid.  He was exposed to book makers, pool halls, crap games, and whore houses on nearby Colwell Street. Oscar started smoking at age 12.  He was frequently truant from school and had poor grades. He'd rather play  baseball in the alleys of the Hill and dreamed of  becoming of Pittsburgh Pirate.  He had to be dragged in from baseball games for his piano lessons.

Piano Studies in New York

After his father died in 1921, Oscar dropped out of high school.  His mother found him a job selling shoes.  Failing as a shoe salesman Annie decided that Oscar should pursue a music career .  Wanting to get Oscar away from his seedy Colwell Street friends she sent him to New York at age 15 to study classical piano.  He was to become a concert pianist.  Living on his own in New York Oscar took intense lessons from internationally known concert pianist Zygmunt Stojowski, a compatriot and disciple of Paderewski.  Oscar played a recital for Paderewski on December 27, 1922.  Paderewski told Stojowski "No one could teach Oscar anything about technique, but he doesn't have the soul of a concert pianist".  History proved Paderewski wrong.

To earn money to pay for his rent, music lessons, and a practice room Oscar took jobs playing piano in hotels and road houses.  Working with a booking agent he found work playing popular music in hotels.  His first long engagement began in 1923 at the the Mikado Inn road house.  Working those gigs he developed an affection for popular tin pan alley songs and Broadway show tunes.

Big Bands and First Recordings

In the Spring of 1925 Oscar became the pianist for Ben Benier's Lads playing at the Roosevelt Hotel.  Oscar made his first record in August of 1925, recording "Yes Sir That’s My Baby" and "Collegiate" with Ben Bernie on the Vocalion label. Oscar joined saxophonist Rudy Wiedoft's band in 1926 to tour the U.K and accompanied Rudy on the hit record "Sax-o-phun"

In May of 1928 Oscar was called in as a last minute replacement to record Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" on the Brunswick label with Frank Black and his Orchestra.  He recorded it in 15 minutes with no rehearsal.  Oscar was the first artist to record Rhapsody after Gershwin recorded it. Oscar's recording became a hit played frequently on stations across the country.   Every time his mother Annie heard it on the radio in Pittsburgh she would call Oscar saying "Again, the Rhapsody?"

Popular Songwriter

Oscar at age 21 published his first song "Keep Sweeping the Cobwebs Off the Moon" that became a minor hit in 1927. Over his career he published 80 songs including "If You Want the Rainbow (You Must Have the Rain)" (1928), "Lovable & Sweet" (1929), "Lady, Play Your Mandolin" (1930), the classic standard "Blame It On My Youth" (1934), and Wacky Dust (1938).

Social Butterfly

In his early years in New York Oscar read voraciously giving himself an education in literature and the Greek classics.  With his knowledge of literature and music he became an intelligent wit.  As a teen and young adult Oscar Levant used his wit and intelligence to became part of the elite circle of people in the the music, Broadway, and literary scenes of New York and Hollywood.  Introduced at age 18 by his friends Phil Charig and the Paleys he became friends with Walter Winchell, Dorthy Parker, Robert Benchley, George S. Kaufman, the Gershwins, music publisher Max Dreyfus, playwright Sam Behrman, John Houston, Edward G. Robinson, Harpo Marx and more.  He was the life of their social events with his witty put downs and piano playing  He became a household member of the families of the Gershwins and Harpo Marx.  

Broadway and Films

In 1927 Oscar Levant appeared in the hit Broadway play Burlesque with Barbara Stanwyck.  Playing the part of songwriter Jerry Evans Levant appeared in 327 performances.  He returned to Broadway as he co-composer of the musical Ripples in 1930.  Oscar worked as a song composer and lyricist on the musical "Out of the Bottle" that premiered in London in 1931.  One song that he wrote for the show "We've Got the Moon and Sixpence" was recorded by Ray Noble in the U.K.  Levant conducted the musical the Fabulous Invalid in 1938.  He composed and conducted the music of The American Way in 1939.

Oscar went to Hollywood in 1929 to film the movie version of the musical Burlesque that was re-titied "Dance With Life" and launched his movie career.  Levant was a featured player in 13 movies including Rhythm on the River, Kiss the Boys Goodbye, Humoresque, and The Barkleys of Broadway.   In 1943 Oscar played himself in the hit movie about George Gershwin titled "Rhapsody in Blue" and performed Gershwin's "Concerto in F".  Mayor Cornelius Scully of Pittsburgh declared  "Oscar Levant Week"  when the movie premiered in Pittsburgh.  Oscar's most famous role was in ‘An American in Paris’ which won “Best Picture” and 9 other Oscars in 1951.

Film Scorer

After his appearance in the "Dance of Life" movie Oscar became a songwriter for RKO studios.  Age 22 he began working with lyricist Sidney Claire on three songs for the movie Street Girl.  He also worked as a rehearsal pianist, sat in on production meetings, and read scripts during his time at RKO.  Oscar wrote songs and scores for 17 films between 1929 and 1939 for RKO Studios, Fox, and United Artists.  His song "If You Want Rainbows" was used in the 1975 Funny Lady movies.  His most memorable film work was a series of operatic sequences entitled "Carnival" used in the 1936 movie "Charlie Chan at the Opera".

Classical Composer

In 1932 Levant wrote his "Sonatina for Piano" that was premiered by Aaron Copland at his new Yaddo Festival of contemporary American music.  Later in 1932 Levant began writing his orchestral work, Sinfonietta. The three-movement Sinfonietta was premiered in February of 1934 at New York's Town Hall.  At George Gerwshin's recommendation Levant began formal study of music composition with Russian born composer Joseph Schillinger in 1934.  

While working in Hollywood from 1935 through 1938 Oscar studied composition and continued to write classical music.  He studied music composition for three years with Arnold Schoenberg, the inventor of the 12 tone row.   During his time with Schoenberg Levant wrote his Piano Concerto, his "First String Quartet", and his "Nocturne for Orchestra" that was premiered in 1937 by the Los Angeles Philharmonic under Otto Klemperer.  In October of 1937 the Kolish Quartet performed Levant's "First String" Quartet at the Arnold Schoenberg festival in Denver.  Levant conducted the premier of his "Dirge" rom his Suite for Orchestra with the Pittsburgh Symphony at the Syria Mosque.  At the end of the 1930s, Levant's classical works were being  by symphonies across America.

Information Please Radio Star

Before 1938 Oscar Levant was unknown to the American public.  His reputation grew when columnist Micahael Mok of the New York Post called him "the wag of Broadway" and Dorthy Kilgallen of the New York Journal named Oscar the "Town Wit".  Needing an entertaining musical expert for a new radio quiz show appear as a guest on "Information Please"  Listeners swamped the network demanding the return of Levant.  Oscar became a regular member of the quiz show panel and  national celebrity with his appearances on "Information Please" from 1938 through 1943.  With a weekly audience of 12 million listeners Oscar Levant became widely known as an intelligent witty humorist   Levant was also a frequent guest on the shows of Jack Benny, Fred Allen, Frank Sinatra and others.  Oscar returned to radio appearing regularly  on the NBC Kraft Music Hall from 1947 through 1949 with Al Jolson.  Oscar accompanied Jolson on the piano, performed classical and popular solos, and acted in comedy sketches. 

Concert Pianist and Classical Recording Artist

Oscar Levant became friends with George and Ira Gerwshin in 1930.  He became part of the Gershwin household spending much of his time socializing and playing piano with George.  At the Gershwin house Oscar met composer Russell Bennett who asked him to perform a duet.  Oscar made his debut as a concert pianist performing with Russell Bennett at the Hollywood Bowl in July of 1930.  He performed again with Bennett at Lewishom Stadium in August of 1931.  

In 1932 George Gershwin asked Oscar to play his "Concerto in F" at New York's Lewisohn Stadium's for an all–Gershwin program.  It was Oscar's first performance as a solo concert pianist.  The concert drew 17,000 people with 4,000 turned away.  Levant performance was hailed by the fans, critics, and Gershwin.  Fearing stage fright Levant did not perform again as a concert pianist for several years.

After the death of George Gershwin in 1938, Gershwin's mother Rose requested that Oscar perform at memorial concert to honor his close friend. Oscar wowed a crowd of 18,000 at Lewisohn Stadium on July 10 1939 with another performance the "Concerto in F".   Offers to perform with symphonies around the country poured in from concert promoters.  Oscar thus finally became a major draw as a concert pianist realizing his boyhood dreams at the age of 39.  

For the next ten years he performed as a soloist with major symphonies across North America including  the New York Philharmonic and Orchestras of Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Rochester, Los Angeles, Montreal and others.  Oscar returned to Pittsburgh to perform with Fritz Reiner and the Pittsburgh Symphony for two shows at the Syria Mosque in November of 1939.  Oscar conducted his world premiere of his composition "Dirge" at those Pittsburgh concerts.  Levant also performed classical works on radio performing with conductors Toscanini and Russell Bennett.  In 1940's he began a series of concert called "concerts with comments", where he performed piano pieces and made humorous comments.  With the popularity of these concerts he was the highest paid concert pianist in the United States.

Capitalizing on Levant'a concert success Columbia Records began releasing Oscar's Masterworks Recordings in 1943.  He recorded the works of Listz, Beethoven, Brahms, Debussy, Chopin, Copeland, Rachimaninoff, Poulenc, Shostakovich, Schoenberg,Gewshwin and others on dozens of albums through 1958. His most acclaimed recording is the "Second Rhapsody for Piano and Orchestra" album released in 1944.  Naxos.com praises Levant's "sensitive and poetic" recording of Rachmaninov’s Prélude in E flat Op. 23 No. 6 and praises his Debussy recordings saying they "are played with the utmost sensitivity for phrasing, tone colour and mood."

Final Years

Oscar suffered health problems in 1953 that slowed his concert performing career. Consuming four packs of cigarettes and 40 cups of coffee a day Levant suffered a major heart attack. Recovering from the heart attack he became addicted to Demerol and was hospitalized in a sanatorium. After that point he made occasional concert performances. Levant made his last movie appearance in 1955 and last concert appearance in 1958.  He was committed to mental institutions several times to treat his addiction to prescription drugs, obsessive compulsive disorders, and bi-polar disease. But he continued to work in television and wrote two books.

Levant hosted the syndicated Oscar Levant Show on KCOP-TV in Los Angeles from 1958 to 1960. He interviewed guests, gave monologues, and played piano. The show was taken off the air when Oscar made some off color remarks, but was brought by viewer demand.  Oscar was a popular guest on the Jack Parr show in 1958, 1963, and 1964. He also appeared on Merv Griffin, Joey Bishop, What's My Line, and the Celebrity Game.  Levant published his second book "Memoirs of an Amnesiac" in 1965 and his last book "The Unimportance of Being Oscar" in 1968.  In his final years he became a recluse and gave up playing the piano.  Like Michael Jackson he found many willing Hollywood doctors who supplied him with drugs.   Oscar Levant died in his sleep on August 17, 1972 at age 65 in Los Angeles.



The Music of Oscar LevantOscar Levant Playlist

Tchaikosvsky Concerto
I Got Rhythm Variations
Fifth Avenue 1400 Block Between Stephenson & Pride 1911
Fifth Avenue School Pittsburgh
Rudy Wiedoft and Oscar Levant
Keep Sweeping the Cobwebs Off the Moon
Top Classical Recording
A Smattering of Ignorance
An American in Paris with Pittsburgh's Gene Kelly
Hollywood Walk of Fame