Bandleader, ‘A-Tisket, A-Tasket’ co-writer
Van Alexander, a musical jack-of-all-trades who co-wrote Ella Fitzgerald’s biggest hit in the 1930s, led a swing band, composed arrangements for other bandleaders and later became a composer and music director in Hollywood, died July 19 at a Los Angeles hospital. He was 100.
He had heart and kidney ailments, said his daughter Joyce Harris.
Mr. Alexander was a self-taught musician who grew up in New York during the early years of jazz and the swing era. He went on to be a busy behind-the-scenes figure in music studios, working with such stars as Dean Martin, Doris Day, Mickey Rooney and Lena Horne.
“Van was the consummate professional,” film music historian Jon Burlingame said Saturday in an interview. “He was a great arranger, and he knew how to write for a vocalist with a band.”
As a teenager, Mr. Alexander played piano and led a band under his original name, Al Feldman. His father ran a drugstore in Harlem, and Mr. Alexander became a fixture at nearby dance halls, particularly the Savoy Ballroom, where the featured band was led by drummer Chick Webb.
He told Webb that he had some musical arrangements to show him. When Webb said he was interested, Mr. Alexander “went home with fear and trepidation” because he hadn’t yet written the arrangements, he recalled in a 2012 interview with jazz writer Marc Myers.
“Over the next four or five days,” he said, “I knocked out two charts.”
Webb liked the music, “paid me $10 for each one, and I went home on Cloud 90.”
At age 20, Mr. Alexander became a regular arranger for Webb, whose hard-swinging group bested Benny Goodman’s in a now-famous Savoy Ballroom battle of the bands in 1938. Webb’s singer was a young Ella Fitzgerald, who kept asking Mr. Alexander to write a song for her.
She suggested a variation on a nursery rhyme, “A-Tisket, A-Tasket,” and she and Mr. Alexander, who was still known as Al Feldman, took joint credit as the song’s composers. He wrote the playful call-and-response lyrics in which the band shouts out questions to Fitzgerald about her lost yellow basket: “Was it green?” No, no, no, no. “Was it red?” No, no, no, no. “Was it blue?” No, no, no, no. Just a little yellow basket.
“A-Tisket, A-Tasket” spent more than two months as the country’s No. 1 song in 1938.
“No one knew what we had at the time,” Mr. Alexander said in the 2012 interview with Myers for his “Jazz Wax” Web site. “It was just another novelty song, and picking a hit is next to impossible. It just happens.”
Alexander Van Vliet Feldman was born May 2, 1915. His father was a pharmacist, and his mother was a classical pianist who began giving lessons to her son when he was 6.
Mr. Alexander briefly studied at Columbia University, but he mostly learned on his own. Besides his work with Webb and Fitzgerald, he wrote arrangements for other bandleaders, including Goodman and Cab Calloway.
In 1939, he signed with RCA, and a record-label executive suggested he adopt a “more dramatic” name. By reversing his first and middle names, Al Feldman became Van Alexander.
As a bandleader, he helped launch the careers of drummers Irv Cottler and Shelly Manne, bassist Slam Stewart and trumpeter Neal Hefti, who later found greater success as a composer and arranger.
Mr. Alexander moved to Hollywood in 1945 and began working in film and recording studios. He recorded several albums with his own groups but became better known as a standout arranger and conductor for such singers as Peggy Lee, Doris Day, Dinah Shore, Kay Starr and Gordon MacRae.
Mr. Alexander composed music for several movies featuring Mickey Rooney, including “Baby Face Nelson” (1957) and “Andy Hardy Comes Home” (1958), and wrote the scores for two of Joan Crawford’s later films, “Strait-Jacket” (1964) and “I Saw What You Did” (1965).
He also composed music for dozens of TV shows, including “Hazel,” “Bewitched” and “I Dream of Jeannie.” From 1965 to 1974, he was the chief arranger for Dean Martin’s variety show. He received Emmy nominations in the 1970s for his work on television variety programs hosted by Jonathan Winters and Gene Kelly.
In 1946, Mr. Alexander published a music textbook, “First Arrangement,” and he mentored many other composers and arrangers throughout his life. He also wrote an autobiography, with Stephen Fratallone, “From Harlem to Hollywood” (2009).
He received a lifetime achievement award from the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, the music publishing association, in 2002.
His wife of 72 years, Beth Baremore Alexander, died in 2011. Survivors include two daughters, Joyce Harris and Lynn Tobias, both of Los Angeles; four grandchildren; and 14 great-grandchildren.
Mr. Alexander remained active into his 90s. In May, more than 200 people attended his 100th birthday party, at which he regaled the gathering with memories and jokes.
“I never touched a cigarette or a drink in my life,” he said, explaining his longevity. “I also never touched a woman until I was 11 years old— my future wife.”
Van Alexander was a songwriter, bandleader and music arranger for TV and film. He was the co-writer of “A-Tisket, A-Tasket.”