Nathaniel Shilkret (December 25, 1889 – February 18, 1982) was an American composer, conductor, clarinetist, pianist, business executive, and music director born in New York City, New York to an Austrian immigrant family.
Nathaniel Shilkret was born Naftule Schüldkraut, December 25, 1899, in Queens, New York. His parents, Wulf ("William") Schüldkraut and Krusel ("Rose") Zeiger, were immigrants from Austria. In addition to Nathaniel, they had four other children: Jack (who would later record as a bandleader and pianist), Harry (who would record on cornet), Lew (who would record on piano) and a sister named Ray.
By 1895, at age five, Nat Shilkret was already studying violin and clarinet. Two years later, he was also playing the piano.In 1896, Shilkret became a member of the New York Boys' Symphony Orchestra. Six years later, in 1902, the orchestra advertised Shilkret as a 9-year old, "clarinet phenomenon," though he was, in fact, three years older, at the time. Thereafter, Shilkret may have continued to misrepresent his age, since even his own later memoirs show apparent discrepancies of about three years.
By 1905, he was a member of the Russian Symphony Orchestra and Arnold Volpe's Orchestra. Two years later (1907), he was playing in the New York Philharmonic. During the next decade, he is reported to have also played with the Metropolitan Opera House Orchestra, Victor Herbert and Arthur Pryor, among others.
In June 1914, he married Anna Finston, sister of a fellow musician. The following year, in March 1915, Shilkret's only son was born. His name was Arthur. It was during this same year that Nat Shilkret began working for Victor Records, as arranger and conductor. In 1921, he and Eddie King, another Victor executive, co-directed the "Shilking Orchestra." This was Shilkret's first credited recording. In 1923, he conducted John Philip Sousa's band, during the first of several of the band's sessions under his direction. During this same period, he was also appointed Director of Light Music, for Victor.
In 1924, he joined RCA Victor as director of the company's light music division, and subsequently founded the Victor Salon Orchestra, also sometimes called the Victor Orchestra, and he also led bands with names such as the Novelty Orchestra and Shilkret's Rhythm-Melodists. He became one of the top pop bandleaders of the late '20s and early '30s, his credits including hot dance numbers such as "Honey Bunch," "Sweet Thing," and "Zulu Wail," and pop numbers such as "Ain't She Sweet" and "Me and My Shadow"; he also composed songs as a lyricist.
In his own time, however, he was best known as a bandleader and he rivaled the popularity of Paul Whiteman going into the 1930s -- indeed, their rivalry extended to the disputed credit of the first recording of Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue," which bore Whiteman's name but, according to The Big Bands Database Plus, was actually the work of Shilkret, when Whiteman and Gershwin got into a dispute. Though Shilkret received no credit on the disc, Gershwin must have approved of the recording. Two years later, in January 1929, Shilkret was asked to direct the radio premiere of Gershwin's "An American In Paris." Eight years after that, he conducted the Los Angeles Philharmonic, during a memorial broadcast of the same work.
During the 1930s, Shilkret's radio work continued. He was the orchestra director for several shows, including "Music That Satisfies" sponsored by Chesterfield (CBS 1931-1932), "Songs You Love" sponsored by Smith Brothers (CBS/NBC 1933-1935) and the "Palmolive Beauty Box Theater" (NBC 1934-1935).
In 1934, Nat Shilkret received an Honorary Doctorate in Music, from Bethany College, in Kansas. A year later, Shilkret moved to Hollywood. There, he conducted orchestral accompaniment for popular vocalists, especially those who starred in film. He also began composing, arranging and directing music for film. As early as 1928, Shilkret had composed the feature song for "Lilac Time" (Warner Brothers), and he had provided music for other films, as well. By 1936, however, his work in film accelerated. His credits included "Mary Of Scotland" (RKO 1936); "Swing Time" (RKO 1936); "Winterset," for which he received an Academy Award nomination (RKO 1936); "Everybody's Doin' It" (RKO 1937) and "Toast Of New York" (RKO 1937).
Besides providing music for several Laurel and Hardy features, including "The Bohemian Girl" (MGM 1936), "Way Out West" (MGM 1937) and "Swiss Miss" (MGM 1938), Nat Shilkret was also the music director for a number of Walter Lantz cartoons (or "Cartunes," as they were called). These included "Lovesick" (1937), "Keeper Of The Lions" (1937), "The Mysterious Jug" (1937), "The Lamplighter" (1938), "Yokel Boy Makes Good" (1938) and "Trade Mice" (1938).
In the 1940s, Shilkret established the Nathaniel Shilkret Music Company (1940), and continued to provide music for films, including "Shall We Dance?" (RKO 1942), "Ode To Victory" (MGM 1943), "Calling All Kids" (MGM 1943), "Hoodlum Saint" (MGM 1945), "Boys' Ranch" (MGM 1946) and "Faithful In My Fashion" (MGM 1946). During this same period, he began devoting himself more to the composition of classical works. In 1942, he composed his "Concerto For Trombone" for Tommy Dorsey. After its premiere performance, the concerto was lost and remained that way, for almost 60 years. It was not performed, again, until 2003.
A similar fate befell the "Genesis Suite," which Shilkret co-wrote with Igor Stravinsky, Arnold Schoenberg and others. The suite was performed, in 1945, at the Wilshire Ebel Theatre, in Los Angeles. Except for partial copies kept by Stravinsky and Schoenberg, the entire score was lost in a fire, at Shilkret's house.
During the early 1950s, Shilkret continued to conduct, for a number of LPs and short films. However, after his wife's death, in 1958, he considered himself retired. Sometime prior to 1963, he returned to New York, to live in Massapequa. Shilkret lived to be 94 and died totally forgotten. He was living in his sons home in Franklin Square, New York, when he died, on February 18, 1982.
Along the way he lost all of his music in a house fire. However, posterity is slowly recognizing his merit—the Genesis Suite has become recognized as a major event in American Jewish culture, Shilkret's involvement in symphonic jazz is viewed as central to the genre, and the many happy, hot, and semi-hot dance records he made in the 1920s and early '30s form a respectable legacy unto themselves. (Info mainly from Jeff Hopkins amd ALL Music)