By MARGALIT FOX
Published: August 23, 2010
George David Weiss, a songwriter who had a hand in some of the biggest hits of midcentury pop music, recorded by some of the biggest stars, died on Monday at his home in Oldwick, N.J. He was 89.
The death was of natural causes, his wife, Claire, said.
Among his most famous numbers were “Can’t Help Falling in Love,” recorded by Elvis Presley; “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” recorded by the Tokens; and “What a Wonderful World,” recorded by Louis Armstrong.
“Can’t Help Falling in Love,” introduced in Presley’s 1961 film “Blue Hawaii,” was a million-seller. It has words and music by Mr. Weiss, Hugo Peretti and Luigi Creatore.
“The Lion Sleeps Tonight” (1961), based on a South African Zulu song first recorded in the 1930s, was given a reworked melody and new lyrics (“In the jungle, the mighty jungle/The lion sleeps tonight”) by Mr. Weiss, Mr. Peretti and Mr. Creatore.
Their adaptation, which kept the refrain — “Wimoweh, wimoweh” — popularized in a 1950s version by the Weavers, became a million-selling hit for the Tokens. Widely recorded since, the song has been used in many motion pictures, including “The Lion King” (1994).
“What a Wonderful World” (1967), with words and music by Mr. Weiss and Bob Thiele, came to renewed attention after Armstrong’s recording of it was featured on the soundtrack of the 1987 film “Good Morning, Vietnam.” The Armstrong version has since become a contemporary standard.
Mr. Weiss’s other standards include “Lullaby of Birdland” (1952), the vocal version of George Shearing’s jazz standard, and many songs with his frequent collaborator Bennie Benjamin, among them “Surrender” (1946), recorded by Perry Como; “Confess” (1948), recorded by Patti Page; and “Wheel of Fortune” (1952), recorded by Kay Starr.
He collaborated on several Broadway musicals, the best known of which is “Mr. Wonderful” (1956), starring Sammy Davis Jr., for which Mr. Weiss contributed original music and lyrics with Jerry Bock and Larry Holofcener.
His other Broadway credits include “First Impressions” (1959), an adaptation of Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” starring Polly Bergen, Hermione Gingold and Farley Granger, for which Mr. Weiss wrote music and lyrics with Robert Goldman and Glenn Paxton; and “Maggie Flynn” (1968), starring Shirley Jones and Jack Cassidy, with book, music and lyrics by Mr. Weiss, Mr. Peretti and Mr. Creatore.
Mr. Weiss was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1984. As president of the Songwriters Guild of America from 1982 to 2000, he spoke widely about copyright issues and testified before government bodies.
George David Weiss was born in Manhattan on April 9, 1921. He wanted to be a musician. His mother wanted him to be a lawyer. The ensuing emotional battle, he later said, drove him to consult a doctor.
As Mr. Weiss recounted in a 1995 interview with The Miami Herald, the prescription was simple. The doctor asked: “Mrs. Weiss, what would you rather have? A live bum of a musician or a dead lawyer?”
Mr. Weiss, who played the violin, piano, saxophone and clarinet, earned a bachelor’s degree in music theory from the Juilliard School and afterward served as a military bandleader in World War II before beginning his songwriting career.
Mr. Weiss’s first marriage, to Bea Foster, ended in divorce, as did his second, to Rosalyn Marks. In addition to his wife, the former Claire Nicholson, whom he married in 1976, he is survived by a sister, Harriet Harbus; two sons, Barry and Jeffrey, and a daughter, Peggy Self, from his first marriage; a son, Robert, from his second marriage; and eight grandchildren.
In an interview with The Santa Fe New Mexican in 1995, Mr. Weiss described the making of one of his early hits, “Oh! What It Seemed to Be” (1946), written with Mr. Benjamin and Frankie Carle.
After finding a publisher for the song, the writers went in search of a singer. They called on Frank Sinatra, and a nervous young Mr. Weiss played it through for him.
“Before I had finished it Sinatra was on the phone calling the record company and telling them he just heard a great song and wanted to record it,” Mr. Weiss recalled. “You can imagine what happened to me — I froze at the piano. I just kept playing. See, the publisher had told me that no matter what happens, I should keep playing to make sure the tune got into their heads.”
He continued: “So everyone sat down and discussed horses and women and gossip for a half hour or so, and I’m still playing that song at the piano. Finally, the publisher comes over to me, lifts me up under the armpits and says, ‘Say goodbye to Frank.’ I said goodbye and they led me out like a zombie.”