A life rich in song

Robert Arthur '49

Robert Arthur ’49

As music director of The Ed Sullivan Show, Robert Arthur ’49 worked with the best of the best, including the Beatles, Judy Garland, Ella Fitzgerald, and Sly Stone. But he’s often cited for deftly handling one of live TV’s iconic moments: The Rolling Stones’ appearance in January 1967.

At the time, a spot on Sullivan’s show was a must, and like every band that performed, the Stones planned to play their latest hits. However, CBS censors insisted the lyrics to “Let’s Spend the Night Together” be changed. So, Arthur was given the task of sitting down with Mick Jagger and fixing the problem.

A prolific songwriter, Arthur came up with a rather elegant solution. The Stones would sing “Let’s Spend Some Time Together,” words that were similar enough to be barely noticed by the screaming audience. “The Stones wanted to capture America and it wouldn’t help them to challenge CBS, so it was a solution that made everyone happy,” said Arthur.

Now retired and living in Los Angeles, the 85-year-old looks back on a career that is so packed with famous moments that an hourlong conversation barely covers the entertainers he worked with and the TV shows he produced.

A soft-spoken, Long Island native, he grew up playing piano and began songwriting in high school. At Colgate, where he majored in economics and Spanish, he wrote two musicals, both performed using veterans’ wives and women from nearby Cazenovia College for the female parts. After graduation, he became an accompanist, conductor, and arranger.

Things came to a two-year halt when he was drafted to serve in the Korean War. He went into the infantry and became a bayonet instructor, “but they couldn’t stop me from writing songs, entertaining my buddies and maintaining my sanity.”

Robert Arthur ’49  laughing on the set of the Ed Sullivan

Robert Arthur ’49 (far left) on the set of The Ed Sullivan Show.

When Arthur returned to New York in 1952, top TV music director Ray Bloch hired him as his assistant to work on shows including Jackie Gleason’s and Ed Sullivan’s (then called Toast of the Town). Within a few years, Arthur was hired full time to handle all the music for Sullivan — arranging, supervising, composing, and working with guests.

He influenced many artists who appeared on the show. “Bob Arthur was the first one to talk Diana Ross into doing classics rather than just doing the pop stuff,” show director John Moffitt recounted on the Ed Sullivan website. “He talked her into doing Rodgers and Hammerstein and other composers. He helped to diversify her material and her career.”

In his last few years with Sullivan Productions, Arthur wrote and produced the annual Entertainer of the Year Awards. When The Ed Sullivan Show ended in 1971, Arthur moved to California, where Dick Clark was looking for someone to help him mount his new American Music Awards. Clark hired Arthur to write the script, the music, and produce special portions of the show. This became the first of dozens of music awards shows Arthur wrote and produced over the next four decades. He worked closely with artists such as Michael Jackson and Natalie Cole, setting videos of Jackson’s dancing to Beethoven and Bach, which Jackson showed at his concerts, and co-writing one of Cole’s favorite songs, “All About Love.”

Arthur now enjoys life in Topanga Canyon with his wife, Jeanne, playing tennis, and composing songs in the style of Cole Porter and the Gershwins. “They had great lyrics, interesting chord changes, clever rhyming, and wonderful harmonics. There’s never quite been that class of music [since],” Arthur said.

When he finishes a CD’s worth of songs, he puts his music on the independent online music store CDBaby.com. “It if moves [sells], fine. If it doesn’t, that’s OK, too,” he said. “Most of my pleasure comes from writing a great thing and enjoying listening to it. It’s almost like I didn’t have anything to do with it — the song just pops out.”

— Anne Stein