I like the idea of a day to celebrate and honor love.
This blog post features two songs written by Steve Sweeting — a jazz pianist, songwriter, teacher, and composer who currently lives in New York City.
“I Carry Your Heart” is a song he wrote while living in Shanghai, when he was commissioned by Chinese choral conductor Jie Yi to write a song — based on an American poem — for a festival in Ningbo.
Steve chose an early poem by ee cummings.
A few years later he and I recorded a non-choral version at Doug Hammer’s studio on the north shore of Boston.
I love the images in ee cummings’ poem, and I love the way that Steve set them to music.
And I love Steve.
He and I have been friends since he lived — with a Yamaha grand piano — in a studio apartment above an ice cream store in Brighton, MA.
He and his wife and two children have lived all around planet earth, but we have remained in contact.
Right now he is working on an original musical with lyricist/librettist Geoffrey Goldberg called Piece of Mind.
It is about an 80-year-old former USO dancer named Robert whose mind is failing him.
If you live in the NYC area, Steve and Geoffrey are having two staged readings — on Monday, March 5th at 6pm and on Tuesday, March 6th at 2:00 pm — at the Davenport Theatre (354 W. 45th Street @ 9th Avenue).
It is by invitation only, but you can click on this Piece of Mind link to find out how to be invited…
The second song — “What Am I Doing Alone?” — was inspired by a phone conversation that Steve’s wife once had with a friend.
When Steve’s wife told him about this conversation, he took notes and then wrote a song inspired by her conversation.
And it took him about an hour!
These two songs represent a yin and a yang perspective on love.
Valentine’s Day is much more pleasant to celebrate when one has a beloved person with whom to share the festivities and hoopla.
And Valentine’s Day can feel rather raw and lonely if one does not have a special someone in one’s life…
I love the story that unfolds in this song.
And the sense of longing and hoping that Steve captured in the music…
I was looking through a list of past gigs on my web site recently and was surprised to realize that almost 15 years has passed since I was part of a vocal quartet called At The Movies.
Three of us — Nina Vansuch, Michael Ricca and I — had attended a week-long cabaret symposium at the O’Neill Theater Center on the Connecticut coast of Long Island Sound in the summer of 1999.
Our teachers included musical luminaries such as Margaret Whiting and Julie Wilson along with Broadway actress Sally Mayes and a slew of other generous (and mostly inspiring) experts from the worlds of musical theater, jazz and cabaret.
We came back to Boston fired up and ready to sing.
I don’t remember who had the idea that we three would join forces — maybe Nina and/or Michael and/or Brian will weigh in some day with THEIR memories of how we got started using the comments section at the end of this blog post.
I’m pretty sure, however, that it was Nina who brought another wonderful singer AND pianist AND arranger — Brian Patton — into the mix.
For four years we met after work — usually at Nina’s place in Belmont or Brian’s place in Jamaica Plain — to eat dinner and make song choices and work on arrangements and write patter and rehearse, rehearse, rehearse.
I remember many delicious meals cooked by Nina — and also a lot of patience from Brian as we fine-tuned our harmonies.
I had forgotten, however, how much publicity we got.
Thankfully Nina scanned some of it and included it on her web site.
Gradually we added some outside eyes and ears to our creative process, bouncing rough drafts of performances off local directors and working for a while with a warm and loving choreographer/director named Marla Blakey who lived on Martha’s Vineyard.
At one point in her career Marla had worked in this capacity with Bette Midler and also with the vocal group The Manhattan Transfer.
So we were honored and excited to learn from her AND to hear some of her stories about how show business unfolds behind the scenes…
As you can see from the media clippings and hear from the recordings I have included in this blog post, we had a lot of fun together.
Most — or maybe all — of our great photographs were taken by a very talented friend of Nina’s named David Caras.
You can visit his web site by clicking here if you are curious to see more of his work.
After we had sold out Scullers Jazz Club (thank you for booking us, Fred Taylor!) a couple of times, we decided to record a CD, which can still be purchased at CD Baby by clicking here.
We recorded it at Doug Hammer’s studio north of Boston along with additional musicians Gene Roma (drums), Chris Rathbun (bass), and Spartaco John “Sparkie” Miele (saxophone).
In addition to the songs I have included in this blog post, you can find other songs from our CD — “Journey To The Past,” “Wives & Lovers,” and “That’ll Do” — in the right hand column of this blog.
My memory is also hazy as to why we decided to focus on songs written for or performed in movies…
There are so many great songs in existence — just waiting to be sung! — that we probably knew that it would be wise to narrow our focus a bit.
It may also have been related to Michael’s somewhat savante-like knowledge of movie history.
We performed at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education (where I then worked) and also at the Boston Public Library as part of First Night; participated in John O’Neil’s wonderful CabaretFests in Provincetown, MA, Newburyport, MA, and Newfound Lake, NH (thank you, John!); traveled to perform in Providence, RI at the Hi-Hat Club (thank you, Ida Zecco!) and to NYC at a club called Arci’s Place (thank you, Erv Raible — may you rest in peace!) I think our last gig may have been in Quincy for John McDonald (thank you, John!)
One thing I came to appreciate as a result of being part of At The Movies is that an audience doesn’t just enjoy the music when they go to a concert.
Most of us also enjoy observing the relationships we see in action on stage — both the planned and the spontaneous interactions that unfold during a performance.
After four years of working and playing — and dining — together, however, our creative collaboration came to an end.
But thanks to the digital magic of zeros and ones, the songs we recorded at Doug Hammer’s studio for our CD Reel One live on…
And I was able to find these media clippings on Nina’s web site (thank you, Nina!)
Perhaps someday we will dig our harmony practice cassettes out of the basement and do a few more shows together.
Although the days are getting longer, many months of cold and icy weather lie ahead…
Today I am visiting my sisters and nephews in upstate NY, where a flow of air from the Arctic has lowered the temperature to the single digits.
At least once a day we bundle up and tromp with the dogs through fields and woods, observing nature in a somewhat frozen, dormant state.
Ponds are covered with ice and snow.
Creeks are mostly a cascade of ice, with an occasional hint of water still flowing underneath.
Crows fly overhead.
We see many animal tracks in the snow — rabbits and deer and something very large (a bear?) which is stepped on by one of the dogs before we can correctly identify it.
Woodpeckers and blue jays and cardinals and chickadees and sparrows and finches visit the bird feeder.
How any animal manages to stay alive during the long winter months amazes me.
The nights are SO COLD with a breeze to make it feel even colder.
I made this recording of “Winter Wonderland” with Doug Hammer at his studio in Lynn, MA, many summers ago.
It is another great winter holiday song written or co-written by a Jewish lyricist or composer.
In this case the composer, Felix Bernard, was Jewish.
Born in Brooklyn, NY, in 1897, his father was a violinist from Germany while his mother was Russian. His family spoke Yiddish at home.
Felix worked as a pianist on the American vaudeville circuits, and also performed in Europe. Like many other composers (including Jerome Kern and George Gershwin) he worked at one point for a music publishing company, and eventually formed his own dance band.
According to historian Nate Bloom, he also “wrote special musical programs for leading singers of his day, including Sophie Tucker, Eddie Cantor, Al Jolson, and Nora Bayes (all of whom were Jewish).”
Unfortunately he died when he was only 47 years old.
Deep breath in.
Deep breath out.
Wikipedia tells us that Richard Smith — an Episcopalian — was inspired to write the lyrics for “Winter Wonderland” after seeing the Central Park in Honesdale, PA (his hometown) covered in snow.
He contracted tuberculosis in 1931 and died at Lenox Hill Hospital in NYC in 1935 — just a year after “Winter Wonderland” was published and recorded.
He was only 34 years old.
Another deep breath in.
I love the melody of “Winter Wonderland” and agree with the lyrics — winter IS a great time for hoping and dreaming about the future.
What will 2018 hold for the astounding and intricate web of life on our planet — of which we humans are only one thread?
Sometimes it seems like we human beings are an enormously successful invasive species — ignorant of our place in the web of life and daily ignoring the balances which must remain in effect between plants, animals, decomposers, microbes, etc. for all to flourish.
Why do we human beings devote hours and hours and hours of our lives to watching (or listening to) seemingly endless amounts of news, commentary and speculation — as well as entertainment in the form of sports contests, TV shows, movies, web-videos, etc?
Why do so many of us choose to live so many hours of our precious lives transfixed by an electricity-powered, screen-delivered deluge of images and words and ideas and stories and opinions and advertisements?
There are so many more important things we could be doing — or NOT doing — which would actually be helping re-balance some part of life on planet earth which is currently out of balance.
We could be sitting still and breathing.
We could be helping someone else learn a new language or a new skill.
We could be singing or dancing or maybe even making music with friends and family.
We could be walking outside in a winter wonderland, gazing at trees and sky and earth.
Perhaps in 2018 more of us can choose to put down our phones, ignore our Facebook feeds, turn off our devices, and simply be with ourselves — and with the natural world — on a regular basis.
As 2017 fades away…
Here’s to a sense of flow!
Here’s to singing!
Here’s to consuming fewer natural resources!
Here’s to health!
Here’s to friends!
Here’s to family — human, animal, plant, fungal, microbial!
Here’s to hope and faith and patience and perseverance!
Here’s to life!
Here’s to love!
And here’s to you for reading and listening to another blog post!
Thank you for your participation with my blog in 2017.
Thank you, too, to my sister Christianne for letting me use a few of her lovely photographs — taken during current and past winter walks.
A healthy, happy, well-balanced, low-impact, music-filled, surprisingly-satisfied New Year to you!
Last week jazz pianist Joe Reid and I shared our program of winter holiday songs written or co-written by Jewish lyricists and composers at a retirement community in Newton.
As I have probably noted in previous blog posts, a significant number of great winter holiday songs were written or co-written by Jewish lyricists and composers.
In 1942 Irving Berlin gave us “White Christmas.”
In 1945 Mel Tormé and Bob Wells gave us “The Christmas Song.”
In 1949 Johnny Marks gave us “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”
In 1950 Jay Livingston and Ray Evans gave us “Silver Bells.”
In 1959 Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen gave us “The Secret of Christmas.”
In 1966 Jerry Herman gave us “We Need A Little Christmas.”
In 1995 Jason Robert Brown gave us “Christmas Lullaby,”
And the list goes on and on!
In this political moment here on planet earth — when many are working to arouse a righteous sense of “us” versus ‘them” in their followers — I am grateful to be reminded of the folks who bridge cultures/identities and bring people together.
Mel Tormé’s parents were Jewish immigrants who fled Russia for a new life in the United States. Although he is most famous as a jazz vocalist, he also co-wrote 250+ songs, many of them with Bob Wells (born Robert Levinson), who was also Jewish.
According to Tormé, the song was written during a blistering hot summer day in an effort to “stay cool by thinking cool.”
As Mel recalled, he “saw a spiral pad on Bob’s piano with four lines written in pencil: Chestnuts roasting… Jack Frost nipping… Yuletide carols… Folks dressed up like Eskimos. Bob didn’t think he was writing a song lyric. He said he thought if he could immerse himself in winter, he could cool off. Forty minutes later that song was written. I wrote all the music and some of the lyrics.”
The forty minutes that they devoted to creating that song certainly paid off extraordinarily well for Mr. Wells and Mr. Tormé!
Many songwriters aspire to create a holiday standard, which will then be recorded and performed year after year — generating an ongoing stream of revenue.
When I was first putting together a program of winter holiday songs written or co-written by Jewish composers and lyricists, I worked with the wonderful pianist Megan Henderson — who is now the musical director for the Revels organization, which creates the beloved Christmas Revels held at Sanders Theatre each December.
As we were musing about the different reasons that these winter holiday songs came to be written, we came up with the term, “Christmas ka-ching!” to describe the economic motivation that no doubt was driving some of the songwriters.
Several winter holiday songs were created to be performed in films.
One of my favorite holiday standards, “Silver Bells,” was written by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans for a 1950 movie, The Lemon Drop Kid, where it was sung by Marilyn Maxwell and Bob Hope.
I always associate it with my mother’s mother, a hard-working private nurse who lived in the borough of Queens for most of her life and no doubt did a lot of her holiday shopping on “city sidewalks, busy sidewalks — decked in holiday style.”
Jay Livingston, who wrote the music for “Silver Bells,” and Ray Evans, who wrote the lyrics for “Silver Bells,” were a famous Jewish songwriting team with many hits to their credit including “Mona Lisa” and “Que Sera Sera.”
Jay was born Jacob Harold Levison in 1915 in a small industrial suburb of Pittsburgh, PA, and Ray was born Raymond Bernard Evans — also in 1915 — in Salamanca, not far from Buffalo, N.Y.
They met at the University of Pennsylvania when they both joined the university dance band, and their songwriting partnership endured until Livingston’s death in 2001.
I love the verse — not always sung — they wrote for “Silver Bells.”
“Christmas make you feel emotional. It may bring parties or thoughts devotional. Whatever happens or what may be, here is what Christmastime means to me…”
A contemporary Jewish songwriter, Jason Robert Brown, wrote another one of my favorite winter holiday songs — “Christmas Lullaby” — for his first musical revue called Songs for a New World.
Mr. Brown is an extremely gifted human being who sometimes works as music director, conductor, orchestrator, and pianist for his own productions — and has won Tony Awards for his work on the Broadway musicals Parade and The Bridges of Madison County.
“Christmas Lullaby” honors one of the deepest miracles of all — how a woman (with a little genetic input from a man — or, in the case of Jesus’ mother Mary, with the help of the Holy Spirit) can grow an entirely new human being inside her body.
I think about this miracle in my Music Together classes, because I have been teaching long enough for many mothers — who originally attended with their first child — to become pregnant and return for more music with their second (and even third) child.
Neil Postman wrote at the beginning of his book, The Disappearance of Childhood, that “Children are the living messages we send to a time we will not see.”
Although this sentence also appears in a book published the following year by John Whitehead called, The Stealing of America, it appears to have been coined by Postman.
And regardless of who gets credit for it, I LOVE this idea.
One of my sisters-in-law — who has parented two children and worked with hundreds of others in the public schools of Western, MA — incorporated this quotation into a work of art which I see hanging on her wall every time I visit.
Sometimes I remember during my Music Together classes that part of my modest legacy here on planet earth may be the spontaneous and affirmative musical fun I shared with these extraordinary little souls — who will grow up to face unimaginable challenges stemming in part from the ignorant (and at times utterly greedy) choices that we grownups have made during the past 100+ years.
Perhaps some seeds of improvisation and collaboration and harmony and community and inter-connectedness and playfulness and creativity and love and respect will have been sown during our musical time together — which will blossom to help solve/resolve future challenges in a time that I will not see.
And perhaps these wonderful holiday songs will also travel into the future, continuing to touch and guide people’s hearts and minds for generations to come…
Let’s keep singing and humming and whistling and playing them!
Thank you to all of the songwriters who have created such a great legacy of music for us to share.
Thank you to Joe Reid for performing 47 shows with me in 2017 at retirement communities, public libraries, community centers, memory cafes, and synagogues around New England.
If you are curious to see what’s on our calendar for 2018 you can click here.
Thank you to Doug Hammer for recording — while playing the roles of both pianist AND engineer — the songs in this blog post with me.
Thank you to Nate Bloom, a writer who has made it a personal quest to track down and figure out which winter holiday songs have been written or co-written by Jewish lyricists and songwriters.
And THANK YOU for reading and listening to another blog post!
Joe Reid fortuitously called me four summers ago — a few months after I had been laid off from my day job of sixteen years at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education — and asked if I might like to do a gig at a local retirement community with him.
This first gig — an hour of songs co-written by Harold Arlen plus a few stories about how they came to be written — has led to over a hundred performances together at public libraries, coffee houses, and retirement/assisted living communities with programs featuring the songs of Dorothy Fields, Oscar Hammerstein II, Larry Hart, Cole Porter, the Gershwin Brothers, Jule Styne, Jerome Kern, and Hoagy Carmichael as well as a program of songs written (by the Gershwins, Porter, Berlin, Styne/Sondheim, and others) for Ethel Merman to perform and a program of winter holiday songs written or co-written by Jewish songwriters.
It has been a fruitful collaboration with no end in sight. Soon we’ll be debuting a one-hour program of songs co-written by Sammy Cahn, and 2018 will bring a program of songs written (by Porter, the Gershwins, Berlin, Kern, Fields and others) for Fred Astaire to perform.
But so far Joe Reid and I have no recorded evidence of our collaboration because we have not gone into a recording studio together…
Tom LaMark, Mark Shilansky, and Joe Mulholland have all been a pleasure to work with as well, but I similarly have no recordings to document our time together.
Mike Callahan is now a professor at Michigan State (and the person conducting and/or playing piano in the Pops concert clips on YouTube — which he also arranged and orchestrated!) I hope to make music with him some day in East Lansing…
Steve Sweeting currently lives in NYC; so I don’t get to make music with him as much as I would like. I have, however, included many recordings that he and I have made together in past blog posts.
Which brings me to Doug Hammer.
Doug in his backyard with trees and water…
I do not remember exactly when I started working/playing with Doug.
It may have been when Steve Sweeting moved from Brighton, MA to the upper west side of Manhattan (in the mid-1990s?)
I was living as an au pair with a wonderful family on Spring Hill in Somerville, and Doug and his wife were living not far away on the Somerville/Cambridge border.
If I am remembering correctly, Doug had a very intimate but functional recording studio near the back of his apartment — as far away from the traffic of Beacon Street as possible.
He’d come from Chicago to Boston to study at Berklee, had played piano in other countries (which is how he met his stupendous wife, who is French), and then moved back to the Boston area to build a life as a pianist, composer, accompanist, engineer, and producer.
I think our paths crossed because he played with other singers I knew from having taken a class with Mike Oster in the South End.
Maybe some day Doug can read this blog post and correct or fill in some of missing details…
In any case, I loved the way he played the piano and accompanied singers and built a life with his wife (who is an artist and graphic designer).
And I loved that I could walk or ride my bike to his home studio.
But as many wise texts remind us, life is full of changes.
Doug and his wife decided they needed more space and moved to a new home on the north shore of Boston — where Doug built a recording studio in the lower level of the house and where he and his wife began raising a family.
Luckily it is accessible by public transportation (a surprisingly scenic bus ride from Haymarket T station), and Doug has also been kind enough to drive me to the nearest T stop, Wonderland, when the weather is horrible or the hour is late.
And his family is willing to be quiet upstairs when someone is recording downstairs with Doug.
There are two isolation booths to the right of the piano (which you can’t see in the photo above) which is where I usually stand when we are rehearsing/recording.
This is what Doug looks like when we are rehearsing/recording.
One of the many great things about working/playing with Doug is that we are able to record all of our rehearsals in high fidelity.
He is not only a terrific, playful pianist, but he is also a super competent sound engineer and producer.
Over time he has invested in high-quality musical tools — a Schimmel grand piano, great microphones, and endlessly upgraded recording software and hardware (including an Apple computer which almost never misbehaves) — and he is able to switch effortlessly from being an engineer/producer to being a collaborative pianist/accompanist/co-creator and back again.
The songs at the beginning of this blog post are from a show we did called Will Loves Steve, which featured all songs written by people named Steve, Stephen or Stevie. “Love’s In Need Of Love Today” is by Stevie Wonder, and “Everybody’s Got the Right” is by Stephen Sondheim from his extraordinary show Assassins.
They demonstrate how imaginative and improvisational Doug’s accompaniment often becomes when we work together.
He and I have been operating on a very simple guideline — familiar to improv comedians among other creative beings — for many years.
We always say “yes” to each other’s ideas.
Sometimes I have a specific set of images I share with Doug: “Let’s imagine that we are next to the Charles River and someone has started a fire in an old oil drum” or “We’re in a piney woods on the Cape, and a downy woodpecker is hopping up and down one of the tree trunks.”
Sometimes Doug starts playing something interesting on the piano while he is familiarizing himself with the sheet music for a particular song, and I encourage him to pause and hit the record button so that we can start with his fresh idea before either of us has had much time to think about it.
After each take we usually offer each other feedback about what we liked, what we might retain, and what we might like to explore further (“Let’s try going into a Latin feel on the bridge…” or “How about we do it twice as long so that you can take a solo and then we’ll end it with a triple tag at the end?”)
By the third or fourth take we often find ourselves in completely new and unexpected musical terrain.
Then we let that particular song rest and move on to the next one…
I don’t remember what ideas led us to this thoughtful version of “In My Life” by John Lennon.
I think we recorded it when we were rehearsing for a benefit concert (or maybe when we were rehearsing for a show I did at my old high school in Connecticut?)
Doug’s solo on this take is one of my favorite things that we have ever recorded together.
In the past decade Doug has been devoting more and more of his time and energy to composing and recording CDs of original piano — and increasingly orchestral —compositions.
I am not sure why I love reading about the lives of songwriters.
And learning many of their songs.
And then sharing what I have learned in one-hour musical programs at retirement communities, public libraries, senior centers, memory cafes, and coffeehouses.
But I do!
The most recent program I put together with jazz pianist Joe Reid features the life and music of Dorothy Fields.
She was a terrific lyricist who co-wrote hit songs from the late 1920s right through the early 1970s.
When many of her friends and contemporaries — such as Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, the Gershwin brothers, Oscar Hammerstein, Larry Hart — were either dead, discouraged or stymied by evolving musical trends such as folk and rock, Dorothy Fields achieved one of her biggest hits on Broadway, the wonderful musical Sweet Charity.
She was 61 years old.
Dorothy Fields was born into a theatrical family and raised to be a wife and mother — NOT an actress or a songwriter (both of which occupations her parents strongly discouraged…)
Her father was half of a very famous and successful vaudeville team called “Weber & Fields” who had started as childhood friends performing in the Bowery and had risen as adults to the top ranks of theatrical entertainment in the US .
Eventually her father tired of performing and touring, and began to produce shows by other people, including a young team of songwriters named Rodgers & Hart, who were friends with Dorothy’s older brother Herbert (having collaborated together on original theatrical productions while attending Columbia University).
Dorothy and her three siblings had been exposed to theater their entire lives, and Dorothy played lead (male!) roles in amateur theatrical productions at her high school, The Benjamin School for Girls at 144 Riverside Drive on the upper west side of Manhattan.
So it seems a bit surprising (to me, anyways) that her parents attempted to dissuade her from a life in the theater.
When she was growing up, the family had blank books into which everyone was encouraged to jot down ideas for jokes, skits, plots and routines — which served as inspiration when a new show was being created by her father.
And both of her brothers were very successful on Broadway and in Hollywood as writers.
In fact, later on in her life, Dorothy and her older brother Herbert co-wrote the librettos (aka scripts) for shows by Cole Porter and Irving Berlin — including the smash hit, Annie Get Your Gun — which had originally been HER idea as a starring vehicle for her friend Ethel Merman.
Dorothy was supposed to write the songs with one of her most beloved collaborators, Jerome Kern, until Kern unexpectedly died.
Among other hits, she and Jerry had co-written “The Way You Look Tonight,” which won an Academy award for best song in a motion picture in 1936.
After a period of mourning, she and her producers — Richard Rodgers & Oscar Hammerstein — asked Irving Berlin if he would consider joining the project.
And the rest is history…
But Dorothy was born in 1905, when middle and upperclass women were expected to become wives and mothers (not actresses or songwriters or librettists).
Women didn’t get the right to vote until 1920 — when Dorothy was 15 — and her life illuminates many of the social changes that unfolded in the US until her death in 1974.
Dorothy managed to finesse her parental/societal expectations by BOTH marrying young (to a doctor) AND pursuing a career as a lyricist.
Although she worked with a “who’s who” list of composers during her long career, three of them stand out as being particularly significant in her creative life: Jimmy McHugh, Jerome Kern, and Cy Coleman.
Jimmy McHugh was a Catholic pianist from Boston, where he had left a wife and son (whom he dutifully supported from afar) when he moved in his 20s to Manhattan to find work as both a composer and business manager for music publishing companies.
He crossed paths with Dorothy when her friend J. Fred Coots — whom she had met while golfing and who went on to write hits of his own such as “You Go To My Head” and “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town” — began introducing her to music publishing companies as a budding lyricist.
Dorothy and Jimmy hit it off creatively — and possibly romantically — although they were both extremely protective of their private lives and mindful about the potential for bad publicity.
During their ten-year collaboration they wrote hits including, “I Feel A Song Coming On,” “On The Sunny Side Of the Street,” and “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love.”
I love learning that “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” was not an immediate hit (one critic called it “sickly” and “puerile”) and was cut from two different shows before it finally caught on as part of the Blackbirds of 1928.
Persistence, persistence, persistence!
Her next significant collaborator was Jerome Kern. They wrote songs — including “Pick Yourself Up,” “I Won’t Dance,” and “A Fine Romance” — for Hollywood movies with stars such as Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire.
Here she is with Jerry Kern (on her left) and George Gershwin (on her right) at a nightclub in the 1930s.
Jerome Kern was older than many of his contemporary songwriters (Gershwin, Arlen, Youmans and others looked up to him when they were starting to write songs) and had a reputation for speaking his mind — and not suffering fools gladly. Some people in the entertainment industry were intimidated by him.
But not Dorothy. She loved him and even gave him a nickname which few others would have dared to choose: “Junior” (Dorothy was 5″ 5″ tall and towered over Kern, who was much shorter).
I have wondered whether the lyrics she wrote for their song “You Couldn’t Be Cuter” might have been something of an “in joke” between the two of them.
Here’s a version of that song — combined with an earlier hit she wrote with Jimmy McHugh, “Exactly Like You” — that I recorded with pianist Doug Hammer earlier this year.
Her third significant collaborator was Cy Coleman, a composer who had already written hit songs with Carolyn Leigh (including “The Best Is Yet To Come,” “Hey, Look Me Over,” and “Witchcraft”) before he met Dorothy at a party.
She was 59 years old, and he was 35.
He asked her if she might be willing to explore working together, and she allegedly said something like, “Thank g-d someone asked me…yes!”
They ended up collaborating on a musical inspired by a Fellini film — “Le Notti Di Cabiria,” about a prostitute looking for love — which Bob Fosse and his wife Gwen Verdon had seen and which had immediately inspired Fosse to start working on a musical version for Verdon to star in.
With Neil Simon added to the creative team as librettist, Fosse, Verdon, Fields and Coleman created what became the hit musical Sweet Charity — which went on to become a movie starring Shirley MacLaine and John McMartin, and which gave us songs such as “Hey, Big Spender,” “I’m A Brass Band,” and “If My Friends Could See Me Now.”
Dorothy Fields achieved a remarkable level of success in a male-dominated industry —where women were expected to be on stage, not behind the scenes as part of the creative team.
She was not a glamour girl nor a prima donna — although she was always very well-dressed and had separate closets for her shoes, dresses, suits, sportswear, and evening gowns.
She was reliable, respectful and professional.
And she was a hard-worker.
At one point she said, “I wrote the words to ‘I Feel a Song Coming On,’ but I don’t believe a word of it. A song just doesn’t ‘come on.’ I’ve always had to tease it out, squeeze it out. Ask anyone who writes — it’s tough labor and I love it.”
I’ll end with two more gems she wrote with Jimmy McHugh — “Don’t Blame Me” and “I’m In The Mood For Love” — which I recorded with pianist Doug Hammer at his terrific studio, Dreamworld, in Lynn, MA.
Thank you to Dorothy Fields and her many collaborators for writing such terrific songs.
Thank you to pianist Steve Sweeting for recording “I Feel a Song Coming On” and “The Way You Look Tonight” with me many years ago at his apartment in Brighton, MA.
And thank YOU for reading and listening to this blog post.
It is a perfect example to me of a “wisdom song” — which helps me to re-align with my better, wiser self whenever I sing it.
Writing this post inspired me to search on Pixabay for some butterfly images, and I was astounded by what I found.
The idea that earthbound caterpillars can transform themselves into winged butterflies — that they can literally dissolve themselves and re-form their molecules into a new type of being — has fascinated and inspired us human beings for millennia.
I am also inspired by the paths they take — paths which do not travel in a straight line from point A to point B yet manage to cover vast amounts of mileage none-the-less.
Butterflies have a inner sense of where they are headed, but they also follow and respond to whatever flowers and breezes appear along their journey.
This seems to be how I, too, am moving through my musical life here on planet earth.
I looked online to learn more about the current health of our butterfly populations.
First I was directed to a relatively new company called “Butterfly Health” that seems to specialize in adult diapers…
Then I found a lovely story about vineyards in eastern Washington which “stopped using harmful pesticides and created natural habitats with native shrub-steppe plants around the vineyards to keep out harmful insects (e.g., mealybugs) and attract beneficial insects (e.g., parasitic wasps) that feed on pests.”
These vineyard saw a significant increase in butterflies — from an average of five different species to more like twenty different species!
The article noted that “butterflies don’t protect the vineyards or provide wine growers with economical benefits, (but) they are pollinators and an important element of the ecosystem. Furthermore, having butterflies flutter around a vineyard increases its aesthetic appeal and provides proof of earth-friendly pest control practices.”
It reports that “more than three-quarters of Britain’s 59 butterfly species have declined over the last 40 years, with particularly dramatic declines for once common farmland species such as the Essex Skipper and Small Heath…
‘This is the final warning bell,’ said Chris Packham, Butterfly Conservation vice-president, calling for urgent research to identify the causes for the disappearance of butterflies from ordinary farmland. ‘If butterflies are going down like this, what’s happening to our grasshoppers, our beetles, our solitary bees? If butterflies are in trouble, rest assured everything else is.'”
Deep breath in.
Deep breath out.
What, I continue to wonder, will it take for enough of us human beings to wake up and take significant actions so that the extraordinary species extinction we are now experiencing on planet earth can slow down…and maybe even stop?
Why are so many of us seemingly oblivious to what is happening to our ecosystems and unable/unwilling to make wiser choices?
I recently visited a friend’s house (his/her second home, actually) and saw a small vat of RoundUp that I assume s/he is using to take care (??) of weeds in his/her lovely garden.
It was sitting alongside an aerosol can of pesticide to kill wasps.
This is an extremely well-educated person who loves the views of nature from his/her home overlooking a beautiful river.
Yet s/he is completely oblivious to the increasingly well-documented scientific research linking herbicides and pesticides to all sorts of profound disruptions in the overall health of a wide variety of ecosystems. And disruptions to our own human metabolisms — since we human beings are deeply rooted in nature from an evolutionary perspective and share many of the same biological pathways/systems as our animal and plant cousins..
I know that beautifully photographed and persuasively written advertising messages from the makers of herbicides and pesticides contribute to our human ignorance..
And lots of us think, “Oh it’s just a little bit of RoundUp or a little bit of wasp spray…”
But it all adds up and takes a cumulative toll on a wide variety of plants and animals and bacteria and fungae which we dearly need to be functioning in balance with each other.
Another deep breath in.
And another deep breath out.
Thank you to Pixabay for these wonderful photographs of butterflies.
Thank you to Doug Hammer and John Bucchino for their tremendous musicality and songwriting expertise.
And thank YOU for reading and listening to another blog post.
What steps — small and/or not-so-small — have you taken in your life to help keep life in balance here on planet earth?
“I Wait” was written by Steve Sweeting, a songwriter, jazz pianist, and teacher who currently lives in NYC.
He and I have been friends since we began making music together in Allston, MA, a couple of decades ago.
“I Wait” is one of many songs we recorded two years ago for a CD of his music called Blame Those Gershwins.
I love this song’s bittersweet, thoughtful perspective.
It articulates how I often felt while I had a day job — and only made music at night and on weekends…
It wasn’t until I was laid off by the non-profit organization where I had worked for 16 years that I finally dared/cared to focus on music full time.
Leading classes where we do it together.
Sharing it in retirement communities and assisted living facilities and public libraries.
That was almost five years ago.
And I am now grateful that I was laid off — although I was surprised and shocked and disappointed at the time.
Some of us (such as me) become so grooved/entrenched in the flow of our lives that we need to be forced by outside circumstances to make important changes.
I do not think that waiting is a bad thing.
Patience can be a virtue.
Learning to delay gratification can be a huge developmental step on the path to maturity.
And some animals wait patiently for hours before making their next move.
But — if I understand the concept of yin/yang correctly — within a reservoir of waiting there also lies a seed of activity germinating…
Just as our torrents of activity/accomplishment need to be interspersed with spaces of calm reflection and “not-knowing.”
Time to mull.
Time to muse.
Time to dream.
Time to imagine the consequences of how our actions might ripple for seven generations into the future here on planet earth…
What kind of balance are you able to find in your daily life between waiting and doing?
Thank you for reading and listening to this blog post.
And thank you to the photographers who made these beautiful images I found at Pixabay — and also to my sister Christianne, who (I think) took the photo of me gazing out over Cayuga Lake a few summers ago.
I had a somewhat unusual childhood — as you may know if you have read some of my previous posts.
Most of it was “normal” (in a privileged, white, male, upper-middle-class way).
I grew up with a mother, a father, three siblings, and various animal friends.
I had chicken pox.
I listened to James Taylor, the Beatles, Buffy Saint Marie, Cat Stevens, Peter, Paul & Mary, and Carly Simon (among others) for hours on end.
One of my favorite Carly Simon/Jacob Brackman songs is “The Carter Family” — from her great album, No Secrets — which I recorded a few years ago with pianist Doug Hammer during a rehearsal for a show called Songs about Parents and Children.
You can listen to it using the player at the beginning of this post.
Up until the age of ten I liked to walk, run, bike and climb around our neighborhood in Washington, DC after school (which was Sidwell Friends, where the Obama daughters have been educated in recent years).
We lived in a semi-attached house on the corner of Porter and 36th Street.
One of my best friends was indeed a girl — named Eve — although (unlike the song) it was me who moved away from Eve…
Next we lived for a year in Queens, NY (in my grandmother’s house where my mom had grown up) while I was a standby for the very small role of Theo in the original production of Pippin.
When my mom moved there as a child, it was the first house standing on the block — and by the time my siblings and I knew it in the 1960s and 70s, it was the only house on the block which still had open space on both sides of it.
My grandmother had an organic garden; blueberry, gooseberry and currant bushes; lots of trees (I remember scaling oaks, mimosas, hemlocks and locusts); and big lawns on which we could play with our neighborhood friends.
I don’t recall my grandmother ever “nagging at me to straighten up my spine” (as Carly Simon sings in “The Carter Family”), but I definitely miss this childhood eden.
When my grandmother died, my mother sold this house and a developer immediately built two big houses in what had been her side yards.
I definitely miss this place “mo-o-o-ore than I’d ever have guessed.”
In fact, I dream about it on a regular basis…
Then we moved to the northwest corner of Connecticut — where I attended our local public school and rode my bike up and down the hilly country roads, exploring the woods and fields around our house.
We did not have a swimming pool. Someone else added that after we sold this small log-cabin-style house…
Interspersed within my relatively privileged and relatively normal childhood were days, weeks, and sometimes months when I worked professionally as an actor.
That was not normal.
That was walking into a room full of strangers and doing whatever one needed to do in order to be hired for the job.
That was a lot of anxiety and disappointment interspersed with a few moments of elation — when I learned from my agent that I had been hired to do a commercial or modeling job or voice-over or theatrical production or made-for-TV movie.
The elation inevitably morphed into fear as the date for the actual gig approached.
And then — depending upon the kindness and patience and generosity and humor of the people in charge — the filming or recording or photo shoot or performance was more (or less) bearable.
I do NOT miss working as an actor mo-o-o-ore than I’d ever have guessed. It’s a very stressful life.
Since this was before the era of the VCR, most of the commercials, voice-overs, and TV movies I made were lost along the way — ephemeral bubbles in the incessant flow of popular (and to a large extent disposable) culture.
So I was happily shocked when two of my cousins looked up a TV movie I had made in 1975 called Bound For Freedom and discovered that it had recently been uploaded in four chunks onto YouTube!
If you are curious to check out the first chunk, you can click here.
That’s me being sold into indentured servitude by my father during the opening sequence.
I played a character named James Porter, and I had a lot of strawberry blond hair back then…
This is a photo from that movie which I found for sale on Ebay.
If my memory serves me, Bound For Freedom was originally broadcast on NBC during the Sunday night time slot usually filled by a Disney movie.
However, the husband and wife team — Suzette and David Tapper — who produced and directed the movie also managed to incorporate it into the social studies/American history curriculum of a few elementary schools in the late 1970s.
I learned about this when a friend in high school, John Gallup, told me how he and some of his classmates at Salisbury Central School had sometimes quoted lines from the movie to each other in jest.
Today I am VERY grateful to a man named Ethan Hamilton (as well as his teacher who at some point loaned him her VHS copy of Bound For Freedom) for recently uploading it to YouTube.
The main thing I remember from making Bound For Freedom is how kind and generous Fred Gwynne was as a fellow actor.
I may have written about this in a former blog post… but it made an impression many decades ago and bears repeating.
Often a non-actor on a movie’s staff will fill in for the star of the movie and read their lines off camera when other people’s closeups are being filmed. This gives the star a break.
But Fred, although he was the recognizable star of this project — having been a main character in the hit TV series Car 54, Where Are You? as well as in The Munsters — willingly stood off camera and interacted with me when my closeups were being filmed.
And something in the kind and empathetic way he made eye contact pulled all sorts of emotions out of me which I doubt I would have been able to access otherwise.
If you have time or interest to watch any of Bound For Freedom, you will see that Fred shines in a gentle, understated way throughout the entire film.
And I AM surprised to find that I miss him mo-o-o-ore than I’d ever have guessed.
Thank you, Fred Gwynne, for your generous spirit.
Thank you, Carly Simon and Jacob Brackman, for writing such a wise and beautiful song.
Thank you, Doug Hammer, for our decades-long creative relationship.
Thank you for the astounding magic of the internet which allowed me to find the images for this post.
And thank YOU for reading and listening to another blog post.
I just opened up WordPress and was happy to find a post about gratitude from The Snail of Happiness in my daily feed.
There are a seemingly-ever-increasing number of energies and actions on planet earth that we can be aware of — due in large part to the magic of electricity and our wide-ranging embrace of modern media — yet which we can do very little to influence directly.
And I am easily overwhelmed by this onslaught of information.
However, we CAN re-align our own energy/perspective by doing something as simple as writing down three things for which we are grateful.
And then — from a more grateful, grounded emotional space — we can send a card to an elected official, give a little money to a compelling cause, or volunteer our time at a local non-profit.
Or make some art.
Or write a song.
Or simply sit and breath.
Today I am grateful that a friend’s husband is alive in New Orleans.
I don’t see this friend very often (our paths used to cross because of work) and have never met his husband.
I learned about his husband’s recent assault and robbery — while he was attending the Unitarian-Universalist annual general assembly being held at the end of June in New Orleans! — when I checked my Facebook page.
Apparently it is all over the Boston and New Orleans news — since our media have (sadly) functioned for decades with a mindset of “if it bleeds, it leads…”
But I have been out of town and away from the local news.
So today I am grateful that my friend’s husband is finally out of the hospital in New Orleans and back at home in Boston.
And I am grateful that the other person who was (less severely) attacked is also recovering well.
And that two of the four young men who perpetrated this crime (some of whom had been staying at a Covenant House shelter for homeless/troubled youth) have turned themselves in.
I hope they — as well as the two people whom they attacked and robbed — are being treated with compassion and respect by the judicial system so that some unexpected healing might take place as a result of this sad and brutal event.
And I am grateful for the basics: health and patience and delicious food — more and more of it organic — and a roof over my head.
I am grateful for people who visit my blog even though I haven’t posted anything new for four months.
I am grateful for progress (sometimes very sloooow) and persistence (sometimes almost imperceptible) on larger tasks such as letting go of un-needed possessions, processing complicated emotional situations, and crafting a CD of original songs.
Which leads me to the song at the beginning of this post.
I wrote it last summer while I was camping with family in heaven a.k.a. North Truro, MA.
Some of the words came from a little piece of paper I picked up after one of my cousins was married a few summers ago on a hill overlooking Cayuga Lake in upstate New York.
The little piece of paper turned out to be a crib sheet that the mother of the bride had used when she spoke during the ceremony.
I expanded her words a bit, consulted my trusty ukulele to find chords and a melody, and eventually brought it to pianist Doug Hammer’s studio on the North Shore of Boston to record.
Thank you to anyone and everyone who reads this blog post.
I am grateful for your interest.
I am also grateful for the beautiful images from Pixabay that I have used in this post.
My cousin who got married loves horses and is an excellent — and very hard-working —equestrian.
She and her husband also just had their first child.