Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Words & Music

Recently, someone called in to my weekly webcast (, Wednesday at noon, PST) and, knowing of my high regard for motion picture scores asked me about my favorites. One thing led to another and I began relating anecdotes about some of America’s great composers and lyricists, some of which had been told to me by the men themselves and some of which I had merely read about. They struck me as worth sharing.

There is a reason I have always wished I had had a musical education and could have been a composer. For one thing, nobody needs to translate your work to be appreciated in foreign countries... For another, if you’re lucky enough or talented enough, the music just seems to flow out like spring water.

For instance, I once heard about an occasion when Oscar Hammerstein wrote the lyrics to a song before Richard Rodgers had started work on the tune. Hammerstein left his partner’s New York apartment and took a taxi to his own. By the time he opened the door, his phone was ringing. It was Rodgers playing the song on his piano.

Another time, it involved the team of Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler. They, too, had apartments in New York City. Each morning, lyricist Koehler would walk over to Arlen’s place, and together they would walk to their office. But this one morning, it was extremely cold and blustery, so Koehler suggested they take a cab. But Arlen was in the mood for walking, so while swinging his arms for warmth, he started marching up the street and humming to his own beat. The music he was humming turned out to be “I Love a Parade” by the time Koehler put words to it.

I once had occasion to interview Henry Mancini, the man who with collaborator Johnny Mercer created history when they won back-to-back Best Song Oscars with “The Days of Wine and Roses” and “Moon River. I asked him the same question I invariably ask every composer: How do you know when you write a song that someone else didn’t write it first? I mean, you start out with a few notes and one thing leads to another and, voila! you have a song with your name on it. But how can you be sure it’s not something your mother sang to you when you were an infant?

Whenever I ask that question, I always worry that the reaction will be, “That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.” But Mancini assured me he worried about that very thing every time he wrote a tune. He did go on to say that his wife Ginny had been a band singer, and if he played the song and it didn’t ring a bell with either of them, he felt he was on pretty safe ground.

It was the same question I put to Michel Legrand, who was visiting from his home in France. He started off saying that he didn’t concern himself with such things, but then paused and said, “Well, there was this one time.”

Legrand, whose work was pretty much reserved to writing film scores for the likes of “Brian’s Song” and “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg,” also wrote songs for movies, including “I Will Wait for You,” “The Windmills of Your Mind” and the entire score of “Yentl.” But, once, as he recalled, he had a piece of music in his head that wouldn’t leave him in peace until he put it to paper.

He then proceeded to invite all of his friends to his Parisian studio, so he could play it for them. They were all very impressed, but the next day, one of them called Legrand and said he thought it had sounded familiar. It seems that Legrand had been the second person, the first being Pierre De Geyter in the 19th century, to compose “The Internationale,” the anthem of the Communist Party!

When I interviewed Sammy Cahn, the four-time Oscar winning lyricist, I asked him if he had ever considered writing the music as well as the words. He said the dye was cast when he was still a child and his family moved from one cold water flat in New York to another. When they got to the new place, they discovered that the former tenant had left behind a piano and a violin. When Mrs. Cahn saw the musical instruments, she pointed at Sammy’s sister and said, “Piano,” then at Sammy, “Violin.” He said that if she had reversed her decision, he’d have been able to play the piano well enough to compose at it.

Cahn also told me why he liked Prince Charles so much. It seems that the Reagans once invited several musicians to perform at the White House in the Prince’s honor. They invited Sammy, but only as a guest. And anyone who knew him knew that singing his own songs was what he loved most in life.

He was seated right behind his old pal President Reagan. Knowing that Reagan wasn’t one for late hours, he saw his opportunity ticking away by the second. Suddenly, just as Reagan appeared ready to call it a night, the Prince who was seated next to him, said, “I noticed that Mr. Cahn is here tonight, and I was wondering if you could persuade him to sing for us.”

Knowing Sammy Cahn, he was probably out of his chair before Reagan even had time to think about it.

Some years later, Cahn was in London at one of those royal command performances where all the celebrities stand in line in the foyer waiting for some member of the Royal Family to pass by and say a few cordial words.

This evening it was Prince Charles and Lady Di. As soon as Charles spotted Cahn, he leaned over and began whispering in his wife’s ear, no doubt informing her that Cahn had written nearly one hundred of the songs Frank Sinatra had recorded, about three times as many as the person in second place.

But Fate will have its little jokes, so naturally when the royals reached Sammy, Lady Di stuck out her hand and said, “I’m very pleased to meet you, Mr. Cahn, I just love ‘I Did It My Way.’” Close, as they say, but no cigar. That one just happened to have been written for Sinatra by Paul Anka.

When I interviewed David Raksin, who wrote memorable scores for “The Bad and the Beautiful” and “Forever Amber,” but was never even nominated for an Oscar, even though his Hollywood career stretched from 1936, when he helped arrange Charley Chaplin’s score for “Modern Times,” to his 1983 score for “The Day After.”

His best shot at an Oscar came in 1944 when he composed the haunting score for “Laura.” Unfortunately, in those days, a studio could only submit one score for consideration and because studio boss Daryl Zanuck had personally produced “Wilson,” a cinematic ode to his favorite president, Zanuck opted to go with the pedestrian “Wilson.”

The story Raksin told me about how his score came to be sounded like a corny 20th Century-Fox concoction. He claimed that he had already submitted music to producer-director Otto Preminger, but Preminger had been disappointed and decided to use the Duke Ellington composition, “Sophisticated Lady.” But Raksin begged him to hold off until after the weekend.

When Raksin arrived home that Friday evening, he found a letter from his wife, who was vacationing in New York. She let him know she was getting a divorce. According to Raksin, he placed the “Dear David” letter on his music stand and used it as his muse. Monday morning, he delivered the score to Preminger.

At the time, I must confess it sounded a little too Hollywood to be true, but then I realized that even in Hollywood, guys don’t often boast about being dumped by their wives.

Next we come to the remarkable Johnny Mercer, one of the three or four greatest lyricists who ever lived, a singer, a sometime composer and one of the co-founders of Capitol Records. He was also the fellow who wound up writing the lyrics to “Laura.”

In some ways, he was a model citizen. For instance, when his gambler father died, leaving a lot of debts in his hometown of Savannah, Georgia, Johnny paid off every one of them. However, he drank too much, and when he’d get in his cups, he would insult everyone in the vicinity. The next day, he would send a dozen roses to those he’d hurt.

Once, when I was interviewing singer Jo Stafford, I asked her if she had ever met Mercer. She had. She liked and naturally admired his talent. But one night when they were having dinner in a restaurant, he started drinking too much. She stood up and when he asked where she was going, she said, “Home, and don’t send me any roses tomorrow morning.”

It almost sounds like a Mercer lyric.

Finally, I was good friends with Harry Ruby, the fellow who wrote such hits as “Three Little Words,” “Who’s Sorry Now?” and “A Kiss to Build a Dream On,” as well as a few of the tunes made famous by Groucho Marx, such as “Hail, Hail, Fredonia” and “I’m Against It.”

In fact, he once told me that the perfect marriage would unite him and Groucho in holy matrimony because they were two elderly men of means who both loved baseball. He loved it so much that he never forgave Jack Norworth for writing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” As he put it, “I should have written it. That son of a bitch didn’t even like baseball!”

And once when I asked him what he imagined Heaven was like, Harry said, “It’s where someone has to pay you a nickel every time you catch them whistling one of your songs.”

©2014 Burt Prelutsky. Comments?