[Dixielandjazz] The End of An Era - Sidney Leff passes

Steve barbone barbonestreet at earthlink.net
Tue Dec 20 20:20:33 PST 2005

From: John McClernan <mcclernan1 at comcast.net>
Date: Tue, 20 Dec 2005 19:46:13 -0500
To: Steve Barbone <barbonestreet at earthlink.net>
Subject: Steve, did you see this?

The following information was sent to me by tubist pal and DJML member John
McLernan. One of the great sheet music cover artists of all time has passed.
John and I gig frequently together.

Those of you who collect sheet music have seen lots of Sidney Leff's


Sydney Leff  - Illustrated a Musical Era
The Washington Post,  (DC) December 15, 2005 by Adam Bernstein;  Staff

Sydney Leff, 104, who illustrated the moon-June-spoon romance of the Jazz
Age through sheet music drawings on hundreds of popular songs, died Dec. 10
at an assisted-living home in Ossining, N.Y. No cause of death was
disclosed.In the 1920s and 1930s, Mr. Leff was among the handful of
pacesetters in a field that flourished until radio, film and especially
television made obsolete fun family gatherings around the piano.

"He was the best and the last," said William Zinsser, the author of "Easy to
Remember: The Great American Songwriters and Their Songs" (2000).

Mr. Leff used angular art deco designs to convey the antic or romantic
rhythm of songs by Irving Berlin ("A Little Bungalow"), Harold Arlen
("Stormy Weather") and Duke Ellington ("Sophisticated Lady").

Acknowledging a formulaic aspect to his work, he said he leaned heavily on
images of swaying palm trees under an inviting moon and flirtatious flappers
who hinted at erotic possibility.

His illustration of Gus Kahn and Walter Donaldson's "Yes Sir! That's My
Baby" featured a dolled-up woman in an alluring tangerine wrap set against a
pastoral scene with an all-American town in the distance. It was an ideal
blend of sex and safety that helped sell the song -- 25 cents a copy at the
local Woolworth.

Mr. Leff once summarized his work by saying, "I knew where to put the moon
and the stars . . . and made sure the ladies' gowns were very up-to-date."

He was born Nov. 18, 1901, in Brooklyn, N.Y., where his father owned a
wholesale poultry market. The youngest of eight children born to
Austro-Hungarian immigrant parents, he had little desire to become a
bohemian starving artist.

To learn commercial art, he took a long subway ride every day to a
vocational high school in East Harlem. A classmate was Al Hirschfeld, who
became the revered theater caricaturist and illustrator for the New York

In 1923, Mr. Leff responded to an advertisement by composer and lyricist Sam
Coslow, who was looking for an artist to design sheet cover music. Coslow,
who went on to write "My Old Flame," "Just One More Chance" and "Cocktails
for Two," among other pop standards, paid Mr. Leff $15 for his work and
encouraged him to continue.

Mr. Leff freelanced his talents, making a comfortable living doing at times
four covers a day for $25 apiece. Many of the songs were so forgettable
("Rock Me in a Cradle of Kalua") that he seldom needed to hear the music
played to craft an acceptable cover drawing of a crescent moon floating in a
raven sky above a peaceful slice of beach.

He made an exception for Berlin, a particular fan of his work who insisted
the artist remain on hand to listen to his songs. "He and I became very
close," Mr. Leff told the New York Times. "He was very concerned that I
capture visually what he did on a song."

Mr. Leff left his industry when the sheet music publishers began dropping
pen-and-ink illustrations in favor of still shots from movie musicals -- for
example, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dancing to a Berlin ballad.

Later, Mr. Leff did freelance design work and was an art director with a
Madison Avenue advertising agency, which he sometimes found stifling for its
9-to-5 hours and cerebral, conservative culture.

He tried into his nineties to revive interest in his sheet music work by
placing his drawings on coffee mugs and other novelty items. It was not a
success, but several of his covers were featured in a music exhibit at the
Museum of the City of New York in 2000.

In his prime, Mr. Leff was a bon vivant known for elegant grooming and a
fondness for costume parties. He once said he missed his early work because
of the life he led then. "We would hang out all night at places like the
Algonquin, just talking," he said. "It was fun, creative, a gay, lovely

His wife of 51 years, painter and illustrator Rita Zion Leff, died in 1979.

Survivors include two daughters, artists Joan Miller and Gail Raab, both of
New York; four grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.

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