If I Loved You…

If I Loved You…

 

Rodgers&Hammerstein

Today’s post is inspired by the act of collaboration.

Theater is all about collaboration — as are many forms of music.

I have been part of a musical collaboration with singer Bobbi Carrey for almost 20 years.

The song at the beginning of this blog post — “If I Loved You” — was written by Oscar Hammerstein II and Richard Rodgers for their musical Carousel.

Both Hammerstein and Rodgers had achieved tremendous success working with other collaborators before they joined forces during WWII to create the musical Oklahoma! 

Following the triumph of Oklahoma! they rose to new heights, co-creating a new musical every couple of years — interspersed with producing plays and musicals (such as Annie Get Your Gun) created by others.

And as their extraordinary list of hit shows — including South Pacific, The King and I, Flower Drum Song and The Sound of Music — expanded, they also devoted a considerable amount of time to overseeing touring companies, movie adaptations, and revivals of their work.

It was an extraordinary creative and business collaboration — the fruits of which will continue to be harvested  and celebrated for decades to come!

Collaboration can be a mysterious process — and theirs was not without its challenges.

But they persevered, remained respectful of each other’s gifts, and left an astounding body of work for the rest of us to savor for decades to come.

Pianist/composer/engineer/producer Doug Hammer, singer Bobbi Carrey and I recorded “If I Loved You” — one of their most beautiful ballads — for a CD we put together with exquisite arrangement input (both vocal and instrumental) from Michael Callahan.

Mike wrote the cello part on this recording of “If I Loved You,” for example.

My collaboration with Bobbi, too, has included a variety of challenges — and we have also respectfully persevered

Right now, due to a variety of factors, our collaboration is in a fallow period.

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Mike is busy being a music professor at Michigan State as well as an enthusiastic husband and father.

Doug’s career as a composer, producer and touring musician — in addition to being a devoted husband and father of two terrific sons — has meant that he is less available to perform with singers (although regular readers/listeners of this blog know that he is still willing to make music together in his wonderful home studio on the north shore of Boston).

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Bobbi was working for a while in various parts of Asia — with a home base in Kuala Lumpur.

And I — now that I am making a very modest living as a singer, songwriter and teacher — am (somewhat paradoxically) less available to collaborate with Bobbi than when I had a full-time, non-musical day job.

Will&Bobbi2

Blessedly, recording technology exists so that all of the collaboration we did together has not evaporated without a trace.

 

Here’s a version of “The Little Things You Do Together” that we recorded with Doug playing piano plus a playful string arrangement by Mike.

Stephen Sondheim wrote it for the musical Company, and it paints a slightly different picture of love and marriage (another type of collaboration) than one might find in a Rodgers & Hammerstein show.

I have loved this song ever since my parents bought the cast album — which I listened to again and again and again as a child.

Sondheim knew both Rodgers and Hammerstein very well, having been unofficially adopted into the Hammerstein family when he was a teenager.

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Hammerstein became a role model and mentor for Sondheim as he, too, devoted himself to musical theater and songwriting.

And after Hammerstein died, Sondheim even collaborated as a lyricist with Richard Rodgers on a show called Do I Hear A Waltz? — along with one of Sondheim’s collaborators from West Side Story, librettist Arthur Laurents.

As someone who writes songs, I am always curious to learn more about the lives, practices, and habits of other songwriters.

I forget where I read it (maybe in one of Laurents’ great memoirs? or one of Sondheim’s terrific books about his own creative process?) but I was surprised to learn that Sondheim — with Laurents’ approval and support — transformed chunks of the dialogue  which Laurents wrote for early drafts of the West Side Story libretto into lyrics for certain songs in West Side Story.

And Laurents did not ask for co-credit on the lyrics for these songs,

It was simply part of their generous and respectful collaborative process.

Now Sondheim continues to support, nurture, encourage and inspire new generations of musical-theater-lovers. librettists, songwriters, and performers.

STEPHEN SONDHEIM

Thank you to Sondheim and Laurents and Rodgers and Hammerstein — and all of their scenic, costuming, choreographic, lighting, casting, directorial, production, and performance collaborators — for leaving us an extraordinary body of songs and shows and ideas.

Thank you to Bobbi Carrey, Doug Hammer, Mike Callahan, Jon Lupfer (who did the final mix of our CD at Q Division), Jonathan Wyner (who mastered our CD at M Works), and the musicians who played on it — Mark Carlsen (bass), Jane Hemenway (violin), Mike Monaghan (tenor sax and flute), Gene Roma (drums, percussion), Johann Soults (cello), and Kenny Wenzel (trombone).

Thank you to the internet for the photos of Rodgers, Hammerstein, Sondheim, Callahan, and Hammer.

Thank you to Paul Forlenza for the photos of Bobbi and me.

And thank YOU for reading and listening to this post!

What have YOUR experiences with collaboration taught you?

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Can We Slow It Down?

Can We Slow It Down?

 

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Although spring is just arriving here in the greater Boston area, I am deeply aware of how quickly it will pass.

Yesterday I was celebrating the 22 crocus flowers in my front yard.

And today there are only 9…

Someone nibbled the rest of them down to the ground overnight!

I do not begrudge anyone (rabbit? skunk? possum? squirrel? raccoon? rat?) an early spring feast.

But it was a reminder of how life changes… and sometimes much too quickly.

Stars-Highway

A couple of weeks ago I was asked by the pianist/songwriter Molly Ruggles to share a few songs during a Sunday morning service at the Unitarian Universalist church in Medford, MA.

It’s a beautiful building — with lots of stained glass windows and gently curving pews — and the congregation is very welcoming.

One of the longstanding members of the church is someone I worked with at my very first job after dropping out of college. He and I have reconnected a little bit in recent years due to a shared interest in music and poetry — and it was a pleasure to see him before and after the service.

The minister, Reverend Marta Valentin, was planning a sermon about the value of observing some sort of Sabbath in one’s life.

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I immediately started thinking about standards which might fit this theme, such as “Up A Lazy River” by Hoagy Carmichael and Sidney Arodin or “Bidin’ My Time” by the Gershwin Brothers.

But it also occurred to me that a couple of my original songs might fit the theme, too.

With some shyness, I sent them — “Can We Slow It Down” and “The Beauty All Around” — to Molly for consideration.

Much to my delight, she liked them and forwarded them to Reverend Marta, who also liked them.

In fact, Reverend Marta visited my blog and found another original song, “May Your Life Be Blessed,” which she asked us to include in the service.

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Needless to say, I found this entire experience to be a much-needed affirmation that my original songs can be meaningful to people other than myself…

It was also exciting because I had been thinking that I could only perform my original songs in public with Doug Hammer (who is playing in the recording at the top of this page) at the piano with me.

I write songs using a ukulele — which I play very rudimentarily — and then flesh them out with Doug at his recording studio north of Boston. And Doug has performed many of them with me in different showcases during the past few years.

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So it was a revelation that another pianist would be able to bring them to life as well as Molly did (with very little rehearsal)!

The service itself was very satisfying, too.

My songs — especially “Can We Slow It Down?” — almost seemed as though they had been written to complement the Reverend Marta’s sermon.

Hurrah!

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As I have probably noted in previous blog posts, there is a thriving ukulele Meetup community in the greater Boston area.

I attend a group which meets the 2nd and 4th Wednesday night of each month and another which meets the 1st and 3rd Wednesday afternoon of each month.

Most ukulele Meetup groups include a humble — and very supportive — open-mic period where attendees can share a song they’ve been working on.

This is the main place I have dared to share my original songs during the past few years.

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After I played “Can We Slow It Down?” two weeks ago, a couple of fellow ukulele attendees asked me if I might post it somewhere.

So this post is created for them!

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Thank you to Molly Ruggles, Reverend Marta, Doug Hammer, and my ukulele-playing peers for their enthusiastic support and encouragement.

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Thank you to Pixabay for some lovely images.

And thank YOU for reading and listening to another blog post.

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I welcome any thoughts/feelings you might have about the pace of life these days…

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When Did Snowflakes Fall So Sweet?

When Did Snowflakes Fall So Sweet?

At last winter is melting away.

The piles of snow between our sidewalk and the street are getting smaller.

Tiny green fingers are pushing out of the earth…

And today the first crocus bloomed in our front yard!

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I planted a bunch of bulbs in November, right before the ground began to freeze.

And it appears that the squirrels did not dig all of them up — because crocus leaves are popping up everywhere.

Hurrah!

Several years ago I wrote a very simple song about spring and colored blossoms falling down to the ground.

 

This was before I started playing the ukulele — so I just sang into my lap top computer using the wonderful Apple program GarageBand.

Then I fooled around with a lot of the sounds and loops that are included with Garageband.

And then I took my laptop to my friend Doug Hammer’s studio, where he added a few more layers of sound — including spring peepers! — and I recorded (I think) a few more vocal tracks.

After Doug mixed it, I spent time at the Apple store on Boylston Street in Boston, getting help in terrific “one to one” training sessions (which Apple used to offer) about how to make a video to accompany my song.

The final product is pasted above.

Here are more crocus photos to savor…

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There is a yard at the top of a hill between Harvard Square and Central Square in Cambridge.

I go there every spring because their front yard is PACKED with crocus, snowdrops, and miniature iris.

It is very similar to this photo except much smaller in total square footage.

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I wonder how many years of planting bulbs it takes to create a field like this!

I am waiting to see my first pollinator of the season.

It is amazing that bees can survive our New England winters — and then they appear as soon as the first blossoms open their petals to the sun.

crocus-honeybee

There are so many important causes to which one can devote time and care and love and money these days.

I am a fan of environmental advocacy — because without functioning ecosystems, the human species will collapse.

Just like our populations of pollinators (bats, butterflies, bees, etc.) have been collapsing in recent years…

Crocii-Yellow-Snow

All sorts of factors may be causing this collapse — including our human use of pesticides and herbicides.

So I no longer use any products like RoundUp or wasp spray.

And I pay extra money to buy organic produce and meat — mostly because it is healthier for the people who plant the food, who cultivate the food, who harvest the food, who clean the food, who package the food, who ship the food, and who handle it in our stores.

I also support organic farming because the hedgerows and bacteria and trees and streams and animals who co-exist with — and in the case of pollinators are partially responsible for — our food crops are not being poisoned either!

May all beings bloom and grow and flourish in an ever-changing balance…

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Thank you to Mother Nature for inspiration.

Thank you to Apple engineers for creating laptop computers and Garageband.

Thank you to the former “one to one” teaching team at the Apple store in Boston.

Thank you to Doug Hammer for his musical and engineering expertise.

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Thank you to Pixabay for beautiful images of crocii.

And thank YOU for reading and watching and listening to another blog post.

I welcome your comments and/or feedback.

In Praise of David Friedman

In Praise of David Friedman

Friedman-Songbook

 

David Friedman is a composer, a songwriter, a conductor, an arranger, a producer, a philosopher, a teacher, AND a dedicated advocate for the singer Nancy LaMott, who died much too young in 1995.

I first became aware of him after hearing one of Nancy’s CDs — and eventually buying all of them because I was so touched by the heartfulness in her voice.

Nancy-LaMott

Nancy recorded many of David’s songs, and I fell in love with several of them.

So when David put together a songbook of his original works, I bought it and got to work!

Two of his songs ended up on a CD of songs about love which singer Bobbi Carrey and I recorded with pianist/engineer/producer Doug Hammer, arranger Mike Callahan, and a handful of Boston-area musicians called If I Loved You.

Baby feet + hands

“I’ll Be Here With You” (on the player at the beginning of this blog post) is one of Bobbi’s and my favorite songs with which to end a performance.

And, although I do not know the details of Nancy and David’s musical partnership, I have the sense that this song may have had a strong emotional resonance for them (and might even have been inspired by their friendship…)

David-and-Nancy

Perhaps people who know more about David and Nancy’s history can weigh in using the comments section at the end of this blog post.

I think of David whenever someone says something along the lines of, “They don’t write great standards like they used to…”

There are, in fact, many people who are alive and well on planet earth and who are writing beautiful, wise songs.

But the ways that those songs reach — and touch — the rest of the world have changed significantly since the days of sheet music and singing around pianos in living rooms.

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No longer does a new song get recorded by many, many different performers — with different recordings of the same song vying for the top spot on a few national radio networks.

The rise of the singer-songwriter — along with self-contained bands who create their own original material — marked a significant shift in our popular musical culture.

David’s songs have been recorded by pop stars including Diana Ross, Barry Manilow, and Petula Clark — but these days Diana, Barry and Petula are not dominating the charts as they once did…

However, we now have many new ways to share music — such as YouTube, Pandora, Spotify… and even personal blogs like mine.

And there are many singers still devoted to both the Great American Songbook of standards from the 1920s-1960s AND to all of the great songs that have been written since then.

So ripples of music continue to wash around our culture and around our planet…

Water-Surface

Thank you to David Friedman for writing songs.

Thank you to Bobbi Carrey for her singing and for her musical collaboration over the past 15 years.

Thank you to Doug Hammer for his piano playing and his engineering and his production skills and his patience and his humor.

Thank you to Mike Callahan for his vocal arrangements.

Thank you to Pixabay for most of the images in this blog post (and to the world wide web for the ones of David and of Nancy).

And thank YOU for making time so that you could read and listen to another one of my blog posts!

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I Carry Your Heart…

I Carry Your Heart…

 

Another Valentine’s Day is here.

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I like the idea of a day to celebrate and honor love.

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This blog post features two songs written by Steve Sweeting — a jazz pianist, songwriter, teacher, and composer who currently lives in New York City.

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“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.

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Steve chose an early poem by ee cummings.

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A few years later he and I recorded a non-choral version at Doug Hammer’s studio on the north shore of Boston.

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I love the images in ee cummings’ poem, and I love the way that Steve set them to music.

BeachStonesHeartAnd I love Steve.

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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.

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He and his wife and two children have lived all around planet earth, but we have remained in contact.

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Right now he is working on an original musical with lyricist/librettist Geoffrey Goldberg called Piece of Mind.

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It is about an 80-year-old former USO dancer named Robert whose mind is failing him.

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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).

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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.

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When Steve’s wife told him about this conversation, he took notes and then wrote a song inspired by her conversation.

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And it took him about an hour!

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These two songs represent a yin and a yang perspective on love.

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Valentine’s Day is much more pleasant to celebrate when one has a beloved person with whom to share the festivities and hoopla.

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And Valentine’s Day can feel rather raw and lonely if one does not have a special someone in one’s life…

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I love the story that unfolds in this song.

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And the sense of longing and hoping that Steve captured in the music…

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I also love finding beautiful photos at Pixabay.

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Thank you to all of the photographers and models who share their work on this site.

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Thank you, too, to Steve for writing these songs.

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And to ee cummings for his poems.

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And to Steve for asking me to sing his songs!

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And to Doug for helping us record them.

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And to YOU for reading and listening to another blog post.

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Happy Valentine’s Day… and Week… and Month… and Year!

At The Movies

At The Movies

 

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.

Bay Windows Reel One

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.

Herald At The Movies

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.

BelmontAtTheMovies

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.

Improper Bostonian Reel One

 

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…

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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!)

Arci's Place At The Movies

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.

Until then it is fun to listen and remember…

Walking In A Winter Wonderland

Walking In A Winter Wonderland

It’s the end of another year.

And the beginning of another winter.

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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.

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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.

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Creeks are mostly a cascade of ice, with an occasional hint of water still flowing underneath.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Another deep breath in.

And out.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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?

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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.

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We could be sitting still and breathing.

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We could be helping someone else learn a new language or a new skill.

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We could be singing or dancing or maybe even making music with friends and family.

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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.

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As 2017 fades away…

Here’s to a sense of flow!

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Here’s to singing!

Here’s to consuming fewer natural resources!

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Here’s to health!

Here’s to friends!

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Here’s to family — human, animal, plant, fungal, microbial!

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Here’s to hope and faith and patience and perseverance!

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Here’s to life!

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Here’s to love!

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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.

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A healthy, happy, well-balanced, low-impact, music-filled, surprisingly-satisfied New Year to you!

The Holy-day Spirit

The Holy-day Spirit


Another delicious Thanksgiving has come and gone.

Days are short.

Nights are long.

And increasingly cold.

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.”

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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.”

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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.

JasonRBrown

“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!

In Praise of Doug (and others!)

In Praise of Doug (and others!)

 

I have been blessed to make music with a terrific array of musicians during my musical life here in the Boston area.

In recent years I have worked mostly with pianists, including Doug HammerJoe Reid, Tom LaMark, Mark ShilanskyJoe Mulholland, Mike Callahan, and Steve Sweeting.

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.

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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.

DougStudio

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.

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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.

You can click here for a link to his YouTube channel if you are curious.

Those of us who love to perform with him have been both excited to see his star as a solo artist rise and also sad because it means that he is less available to perform with singers…

Ahh, yes.

Life is full of changes.

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But so far he is willing to continue to work/play with singers in his recording studio.

Hurrah!

He and I are slowly but surely working on a CD of my original songs — which I write using a ukulele and are then transformed by his inspired piano playing.

I do not know when this project will be finished, but I am enjoying the process — one song, one session at a time.

Thank you to Doug Hammer for being born, pursuing a life in music, and working/playing with me on various undertakings for over two decades.

Thank you to Doug’s web site for the photos (probably taken by his talented wife) I have included in this blog.

And thank YOU for reading and listening to yet another post!

I Feel A Song Coming On

I Feel A Song Coming On

DorothyFieldsSunnySide

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.

Go, Dorothy!

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 .

Weber&Fields

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.

FIELDS MCHUGH

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.

Kern_Fields_Gershwin

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.

cyanddorothy

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.

DorothyFields

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.