The tunes of Richard Rodgers run through the minds of millions who never stop to think who wrote them, if they ever knew. You don't need Oscar Hammerstein's words to "The Surrey with the Fringe on Top" to take a buggy ride on the clop-clopping Rodgers music. You don't need Lorenz Hart's lyrics to feel the longing in Rodger's melody for "My Funny Valentine" as it boldly rises an octave for its haunting climax.
Yet part of the Rodgers genius lay in the song composer's first task, to make every note fit the story of the song, to make the words and music seem an entity born together. Writing for decades on Broadway, he knew how to serve the "book, " whether a gritty "Pal Joey" or a romantic "King and I"; how to do the atmospheric and show-stopping numbers of traditional musical comedy; how to move into the integrated combination of song, dance, and narrative signalized by "Okalahoma!" That so many of his melodies stand gloriously on their own is a timeless extra -- attested to by the jazz musicians who mine them for improvisation ("Oh, what a beautiful mornin'" turns up on pianist Hank Jone's new record), dance bands that purvey their impelling beat, and all the rest of us hummers and whistlers.
As the tributes mounted after Rodgers's passing this week, his legacy to the world's sheer joy brought back the 18th-century line: "Give me the making of the songs of a nation, and I care not who makes the laws."
Even a song that was pruned from a show before Broadway could wind up as a standard: listen to "Dancing on the Ceiling," with its handful of notes over barely more than an octave superbly exemplifying the way Rodgers wrought art out of simplicity. Perhaps the wit of lyricist Hart spurred the composer to more sophisticated inventiveness than the comparatively old-shoe sentiments of Hammerstein. Yet Rodgers continued to reach peaks -- and wider audiences -- over the years. To echo one of those lyrics which gleam in a Rodgers setting, his works are among our favorite things.