As longtime readers of my blog probably recall, when I was laid off from my day job as assistant director of the Cambridge Center for Adult Education seven years ago, I decided to devote my life to making music.
A few months after my lay-off, a Boston-area jazz pianist named Joe Reid reached out to see if I might like to do a gig at the retirement community where his dad lives.
I had met Joe several years earlier — when HE was in the midst of a life transition from working full-time as a lawyer to working full-time as a musician — and promptly said, “Yes!”
We needed to prepare an hour of music, and I mentioned that I had long loved many songs co-written by composer Harold Arlen — a list which includes “My Shining Hour,” “I’ve Got The World On A String,” “Accentuate The Positive,” “Anyplace I Hang My Hat Is Home,” “Come Rain Or Come Shine,” “Blues In The Night,” “That Old Black Magic,” “If I Only Had A Brain,” “Over The Rainbow,” “Happiness is Just A Thing Called Joe,” “Let’s Fall In Love,” “Get Happy,” and “It’s Only A Paper Moon.”
I had sung a few of these songs in a program of music featuring the lyrics of Johnny Mercer with singer Bobbi Carrey and pianist Doug Hammer — because one of Mr. Arlen’s many collaborators was Mr. Mercer.
And I was familiar with others due to the movie version of The Wizard Of Oz, for which Mr. Arlen composed the music and Yip Harburg wrote lyrics (and a lot of uncredited dialogue — a topic I will explore in a future blog post dedicated to Yip).
I biked over to Joe’s house — in the town next to mine — with a bunch of sheet music.
We spent about 90 minutes running through thirteen songs — picking comfortable keys and exploring tempos/feels for each of them.
And that was it for rehearsing with Joe.
Joe (on the left) is very much a “let’s-trust-in-the-moment” kind of musician who welcomes improvisation and spontaneity.
I, too, value spontaneity — and I also appreciate structure.
So I booked time with pianist Doug Hammer at his studio north of Boston.
We recorded all of the Arlen songs once or twice so that I could have a set of piano-only tracks to play on my iPod as I walked around Arlington memorizing lyrics.
And some of the versions we recorded — such as the version of “It’s Only A Paper Moon” included in the player at the beginning of this blog post — came out surprisingly well.
“It’s Only A Paper Moon” was written for a 1932 play (not a musical) called The Great Magoo set in Coney Island which was not a big success.
It is credited to Arlen, Harburg, and impresario Billy Rose — who was somewhat infamous for adding his name to the songwriting credits of other people’s work after having contributed an idea or two during the creative process.
You may recognize Rose’s name because he was married for many years to the great performer Fanny Brice, and his character appears in the movie Funny Lady starring Barbra Streisand as Brice.
Somehow this Coney Island hot dog made me think of him…
Luckily the song was rescued from The Great Magoo and included in a movie called Take A Chance the next year — which led to successful recordings by a wide range of musicians over the past 70+ years.
I love the metaphors and imagery used in the song — all things one might encounter at an amusement park like Coney Island.
I also love the sentiment of the song — that if someone believes in and loves another person, their belief and love can be transformative.
And looking at these photos, I am struck by the way an amusement park transforms from day to night…
Valentine’s Day is just around the corner, and I would like to dedicate Doug’s and my version of “It’s Only A Paper Moon” to all of the folks who have at one time or another believed in me — including friends and acquaintances in the WordPress blog-o-sphere.
Your positive feedback regarding my music and my blog continues to touch and inspire me every day.
Thank you to Pixabay for the great color photographs of Coney Island and other amusement parks around the world.
Thank you to Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg and Billy Rose for writing this wonderful song.
And to Joe Reid for asking me to do a gig with him seven years ago.
Since then Joe and I have done hundreds of gigs together and created twenty five different one-hour musical programs.
Thank you to Doug Hammer for his engineering excellence and his playful virtuosity at the keyboard.
And THANK YOU for reading and listening — and even leaving a comment or two from time to time.
I love this song written by Frank Loesser in 1947.
Apparently it was not created for a particular movie or show.
And Mr. Loesser thought that it was fine to sing it any time of the year — because it is about someone who is in the early stages of a romantic relationship who is thinking ahead…
I recorded it with Doug Hammer when I was putting together an hour-long program of winter holiday songs written or co-written by Jewish lyricist and/or composers.
Mr. Loesser started off as a lyricist, collaborating with Jule Styne (with whom he co-wrote “I Don’t Want To Walk Without You, Baby”), and Hoagy Carmichael (with whom he co-wrote “Heart and Soul), and other composers in New York and in California.
During WWII he joined the military and helped to create original musical shows which could easily be produced with minimal costumes, props and scenery at military bases and camps all around the globe as a way to boost the morale of the troops at home and abroad.
It was during this time that he became more confident about composing the music to go with his lyrics — and one of first hit songs for which he wrote both music and lyrics was “Praise the Lord and Pass The Ammunition.”
After WWII his career as a songwriter gained momentum.
He wrote songs for the hit musical WHERE’S CHARLEY? — which gave us the standard “Once In Love With Amy” sung by Ray Bolger (who had starred as The Scarecrow in the movie version of THE WIZARD OF OZ many years earlier).
Then he wrote songs for the musical GUYS AND DOLLS, which was a huge hit when it opened on Broadway in 1950 and which — almost seventy years later — continues to be performed all around the USA and beyond…
He expanded from writing lyrics and music to writing the libretto (script) as well for his masterwork THE MOST HAPPY FELLA, which was as much an opera as it was a Broadway show.
His other shows include GREENWILLOW — starring a young Anthony Perkins, which was not a hit — and HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT TRYING, which was a hit and won the 1962 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
He also wrote songs — including “Inchworm” and “Thumbelina” for a successful movie about Hans Christian Anderson starring Danny Kaye.
And he won an Academy award in 1949 for his song, “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” which he had originally written as a fun duet for him and his first wife, Lynn to perform at parties.
She was apparently very upset when he sold “their song” to MGM FOR a movie called NEPTUNE’S DAUGHTER starring Esther Williams.
In recent years this song has generated some controversy since the lyrics involve a man (called “the wolf” in the original sheet music) seducing a woman (called “the mouse” in the original sheet music) using persistence, charm, and alcohol.
Since relatively few books have been written about Mr. Loesser, his daughter Susan Loesser penned a book called A Most Remarkable Fella: Frank Loesser and the Guys and Dolls in His Life.
It is very candid and informative about Mr. Loesser — who does not sound like he was the easiest or the happiest guy to work with. In fact he infamously slapped one of the original leads in GUYS AND DOLLS, Isabel Bigley, during rehearsals because he did not like the way she was interpreting one of his songs.
However, he was extremely supportive of up-and-coming songwriters and helped nurture the careers of Meredith Willson (THE MUSIC MAN), Richard Adler and Jerry Ross (THE PAJAMA GAME and DAMN YANKEES), and even Stephen Sondheim, who received a very supportive and empathetic letter from Frank after one of Sondheim’s early musicals, ANYONE CAN WHISTLE, closed after only nine performances.
Mr. Loesser was also a lifelong three-pack-a-day smoker, and died in 1969 at age 59 from lung cancer.
Deep breath in.
Deep breath out.
As another year — and another decade — draws to a close, I would like to thank everyone who has visited my blog during the past six years to read and listen.
And the wonderful photographers whose work has graced my blog posts.
Also all the folks with whom I have made music during this past year!
This next decade is a make-or-break one for human beings here on planet earth.
We have ten years — or less!!! — to change the way we consume resources before climate change will swing more and more out of balance in un-imaginable, catastrophic, and un-fixable ways.
I have no idea what a contemporary human society which consumes only sustainable/renewable amounts of food and water and fuel and natural resources would look like.
But I deeply hope we are all able to WAKE UP and STOP CONSUMING fossil fuels and plastic items and unnecessary consumer goods and air travel and vacations-to-far-away-places, and car travel, and excessive food and water so that future generations of beings — human and otherwise — can exist on this lovely planet.
Many of us have somehow been raised to feel we are entitled to consume/enjoy/waste natural resources simply because we want to consume/enjoy/waste them — with no consideration or reflection about how our choices and actions affect the larger web of sustainable life here on planet earth.
I was slightly ambivalent to buy and give books (made from dead trees, after all…) about how amazing and wise and generous and precious trees are to life here on planet earth.
But I am hoping that sharing these books will help with the process of AWAKENING all of us human beings to the extraordinary web of life — of which we are merely one (albeit an often-times astoundingly ignorant and destructive) strand.
Another deep breath in.
And deep breath out.
I will be hanging out with family in upstate New York this New Year’s Eve.
I learned yesterday from my older sister that the hens started laying more eggs as soon as the days started getting longer here in the northern hemisphere.
How amazingly calibrated to subtle changes in light they are!
And I bore witness to the sheeps’ concern about getting their fair share of the grain which my sisters feed them each evening.
I learned from a television program earlier this year that a wide variety of animals — not just sheep — are very aware of what IS and is NOT equitable.
Here we are walking the sheep to a temporary pasture area in another field.
The snow has almost all melted due to several days of non-freezing weather including rain…
Here is one of my nephews testing fate by walking on a previously frozen stream…
Tomorrow night after evening chores are done, we will drive to the next town and cook a small feast with cousins.
Then we will play ukuleles, sing, and reflect upon the past year.
We share them at public libraries, retirement communities, memory cafes, and coffee houses.
Our latest program features songs written for — and/or made famous by — Bing Crosby.
I had known very little about Mr. Crosby before requesting several biographies about him via our local inter-library network (which includes the terrific Robbins library pictured above in a photo by Jinny Sagorin).
Mostly I remembered him for singing an incongruous but lovely duet with David Bowie on a Christmas TV special.
I also knew that he loved golfing and had sung “White Christmas” — which became one of the highest selling recordings ever made.
And I was aware that at least one of his children had written about how challenging it was to have him as a father.
After reading several books about him, my perspective on Mr. Crosby has become much more complicated and fascinating and human…
To begin with, I hadn’t understood how HUGE a star Bing was.
His weekly radio programs reached millions of listeners for decades.
He was in the top ten of Hollywood box office money-makers for decades.
His recordings regularly topped the charts for decades.
He was definitely one of America’s first “superstars.”
He was also a devoted Catholic, following the spiritual path of his mother (who had requested that Bing’s father convert to Catholicism before they were married).
He sang an extraordinarily wide range of songs — from cowboy to Irish to jazz to pop to show tunes to hymns to Americana.
Although a Republican, he had a huge hit during the early years of the Great Depression with Yip Harburg and Jay Gorney’s empathetic lament for the common man, “Brother, Can You Spare A Dime?” — which hit the airwaves right before FDR was elected to his first term as president.
And he was one of the first recording artists to release an album of Christmas holiday songs.
One of the many Christmas songs Bing recorded — “I Heard The Bells On Christmas Day” — has become a new favorite of mine.
Bing recorded it on October 3, 1956, and it soon became a holiday classic.
I recorded it earlier this month with pianist Doug Hammer at his studio in Lynn, MA (and our version is included in the player at the beginning of this blog post).
I discovered on Wikipedia that the lyrics were written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow on Christmas Day, 1863 while the USA was in the middle of our astoundingly horrible and bloody Civil War.
He lived in Cambridge, MA — a couple of miles away from where I now live — and one of his sons had left home to fight in the Union Army.
You can click here to learn more about Longfellow’s poem on Wikipedia if you are curious.
He experienced many deep losses during his lifetime — his first wife died after a miscarriage and his second wife died from burn wounds after her dress accidentally caught on fire — and perhaps as a result, he developed very empathetic heart.
Many different composers have been moved to set this particular poem to music over the years.
In 1956 Johnny Marks — a Jewish songwriter whose creative output also includes “Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer,” “Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree,” “Run, Rudolph, Run,” “Silver and Gold,” “A Holly, Jolly Christmas,” and all of the other songs from the Rudolph holiday TV show — devised a lovely tune for a few stanzas from Longfellow’s poem.
I’m not sure why this song touches me so deeply…
Perhaps it is an echo of Longfellow’s broken-heartedness and faith reverberating from the depths of America’s civil war to our present moment of cultural unrest…
I am grateful to be reminded of the gentle power of words and music during this season of short days and long nights.
I am grateful to Pixabay and Wikimedia Commons and Stephen Fischer and Jinny Sagorin for the images in this blog post.
And I am grateful to YOU for reading and listening to this blog post.
May we experience more peace and empathy in the new year!
Although it is still autumn for another two weeks here in the northeastern United States, last weekend we had our first big snow storm.
So it feels like winter has already begun, with the holidays of Solstice and Hanukkah and Kwanzaa and Christmas looming on the horizon…
As recent readers of this blog may recall, my two sisters live on a farm in upstate New York.
One of them has lived there for many years, is a terrific photographer, and has agreed to let me use her photos in this blog post. You can click here to read a post from two years ago which also featured her photos and the song “Winter Wonderland.”
My sisters take at least one long walk with their dogs each day.
Stella, a very large black Lab mix, is unfazed by rain or snow.
My younger sister and nephew moved from California a couple of summers ago.
He, too, is unfazed by snow…
Their beloved dog of 14 years recently died, and after some reflection they decided to welcome a herding dog into their lives.
This is Tasso.
Right now he’s still growing.
But eventually he will help with these woolly beings..
My older sister works in Cornell’s department of Fiber Science and Apparel Design.
This is one of the reasons why she invited several pregnant Icelandic ewes onto the farm last winter.
Here is a sampling of their un-dyed wool…
They have a soft, insulating undercoat as well as a hardy outer coat which helps them keep warm during the winter months.
My older sister also has a very hardy flock of Australorps who are willing to venture out into the snow if someone offers something delicious such as sunflower seeds.
They have been very healthy and generous egg-producers.
My sister has learned firsthand how intimately connected with sunlight their egg-laying cycles are.
Egg production drops off as the days get shorter and gradually picks back up after the winter solstice.
I continue to be amazed that hens can create such enormous and beautiful and nutritious objects inside their bodies ON A DAILY BASIS!!!
My sister feeds them organic grain from a local mill and lots of left-over vegetables — and in non-snowy months they forage outside all day long, too.
She sells some of the eggs to local customers, and her family consumes a goodly number of them, too.
During the holidays my grown up nephew and niece and her husband return to town to partake in various family rituals.
The cutting of a tree..
And decorating of cookies.
The chopping of wood…
The singing of songs…
The lighting of torches with cousins to drive away the winter’s gloom…
The trimming of the tree…
The baking of pies…
The eating of pomegranates…
And those daily walks around the farm with the dogs…
Past the irrigation pond…
Along the edge of a field…
Admiring the beauty of an invasive species…
Sometimes shoveling a path…
Sometimes visiting with a sheep…
Or watching a squirrel’s adventures on the side of one of the barns…
Under which Stella is taking a break…
I have long loved the song “We Need A Little Christmas” — written by the songwriter Jerry Herman for Angela Lansbury to sing in the musical Mame.
Here he is with Angela and Carol Channing, who starred in another one of his hit musicals — Hello Dolly.
Pianist/composer Doug Hammer and I recorded the version in the player at the beginning of this blog post several years ago.
I also perform it each December as part of an hour-long program of winter holiday songs written or co-written by Jewish lyricists and composers which jazz pianist Joe Reid and I bring to Boston-area retirement communities and public libraries.
In our current era of cultural polarization, I am grateful to remember that some of our favorite winter holiday songs — including “Silver Bells,” “I’ll Be Home For Christmas,” “Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer” (and all of the other songs from that animated TV special), “The Christmas Song” (a.k.a. “Chestnuts Roasting On An Open Fire”), “Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow,” and “White Christmas” — were written or co-written by Jewish-American songwriters.
I thank them for their creativity and their appreciation/respect for the loving spirit of Christmas.
I thank my older sister for letting me grab all of these photos (except the one of Angela, Jerry and Carol) from her Facebook archives.
And I — standing in snowy field during a visit to upstate NY — thank you for reading and listening to another blog post.
May you enjoy healthy and happy holidays during this season of short days and long nights…
And maybe some pie and tapioca pudding and colorful root vegetables, too…
Last fall my niece married her boyfriend at a beautiful place called the Treman Center in upstate NY not far from the farm where she spent most of her childhood and teen years — and where her mother still lives.
Here she is with her father, husband, mother, brother, and dog.
My niece recently gave me access to a huge cache of their wedding photos, which I plan to feature in two separate blog posts.
Today’s theme is “The Look Of Love…”
The Treman Center is itself a labor of love by a wife and husband team — full of all kinds of beauty. The husband is a tremendous stone mason. The wife is a terrific host who — among her many gifts — is also an extraordinary makes-things-beautiful person.
Beauty can be found everywhere at the Treman Center — as well as whimsy, such as this rubber ducky floating in their reflecting pool…
My niece’s husband’s family also lives in the area, and we have loved becoming friends with them over the past six years.
At first I did not understand why my niece and her (then) boyfriend wanted to have a fancy wedding.
But as soon as I arrived at the Treman Center, I got it.
They wanted to create and share a weekend of love and beauty with a small tribe of their nearest and dearest.
Weddings can be a transformative event not only for the bride and groom, but also for the community of family, friends, and beloved pets whom they invite to surround them, bear witness to their vows, and celebrate with them.
This wedding proved to be a wonderful mix of hands-on work by family and friends + catered deliciousness which wove everyone together in new ways.
For example, the wedding cake was made by the groom’s mother.
It featured custom-made replicas of the groom and the bride plus their beloved dog.
All of the flower arrangements — except for the bouquets and boutonnieres of the bridal party — were grown and harvested and assembled by local family members who spent most of Friday focused on this exquisite undertaking.
Here is some of their — and mother nature’s — handiwork…
All of the wedding favors for guests were also grown, harvested, and preserved by members of our family.
My other sister (the bride’s aunt) is — among many other things — a terrific chef, and she took leadership of a pre-wedding pickling marathon.
My sisters also canned a lot of peach-raspberry jam…
And my sisters’ neighbors keep bees; so some guests took home jars of local honey, too.
Many friends and family members also pitched in to make pies.
A lot of pies…
They were served from a Ferris Wheel Of Pie — which was something I had never seen before.
And very delicious.
Friday night was the rehearsal dinner, and somehow the caterers were running late.
So everyone — except the bride and groom — pitched in to set up tables, plates, glasses, silverware on the second floor of the elegantly converted barn that is the heart of the Treman Center.
Working together like this is one of my favorite ways to spend time with other human beings — and a tried-and-true way to jumpstart a sense of shared purpose and community.
After dinner the father of the bride — who is a professional trumpeter — and I and a dear friend of the bride and groom who happens to be a great pianist (and who had driven all the way from Norfolk, VA, with his fiancee to be part of the celebration) sang jazz standards at a funky old Steinway which graces the Treman Center.
My niece wore a beautiful and very red dress.
She had a terrific group of friends as bridesmaids, and the spirit throughout the weekend was often quite playful.
The groomsmen were also full of fun and creativity.
I love this photo of the groom and his parents.
The bride’s quietly extraordinary younger brother (my older nephew) was part of the bridal party, and pitched in to help at every conceivable opportunity.
Their mother is a hardworking farmer and photographer who like many hardworking farmers — and photographers — also has a day job.
Currently she works at Cornell University’s department of Fiber Science and Apparel Design — which meant that she was able to have a gown created for her by an up-and-coming clothing designer.
One of the unexpected pleasures of this wedding was seeing friends and family members whom I usually see in shorts and swim suits — or in the case of my sister, a one-piece jumpsuit which she wears when she takes care of the chickens and sheep and gardens on her farm — wearing somewhat fancier clothing.
Everyone cleaned up very nicely!
My younger nephew and some of my younger cousins looked very sharp when they were given permission to drive a golf cart around the venue.
The wedding ceremony was held in a stone courtyard which had all sorts of fruit trees growing in huge planters.
While everyone was assembling on Saturday afternoon before the ceremony began, the pianist friend and I shared more standards while the bride’s father rocked his trumpet.
He has toured with Wynton Marsalis, Maynard Ferguson, and Harry Connick, Jr. among others…
I will share lots of photos from the actual wedding ceremony in my second (future) post.
Here are a few observations:
The groom is very tall.
He has a wonderful family.
And he and my niece are very fond of each other.
If I am remembering correctly, they originally met when he was an assistant coach for her crew team.
They both went to the same college — although they didn’t overlap as undergraduates because he is a few years older — and their romance began when they both worked on the island of Elba in the Mediterranean one summer.
She was the cook and he was the gardener on the estate of a college professor.
She wrote a wonderful blog which documented many of her adventures on Elba — culinary and otherwise. You can click here to get a taste of her blog if you are curious…
One of the highlights of the ceremony on Saturday was the ring-bearer — their beloved dog companion named Dozer.
The ceremony was not-too-long and very sweet — culminating, of course, with a lovely kiss.
After this was dinner.
And an extraordinary sunset.
The proactive and very congenial wedding photographers grabbed the bride and groom for a sunset portrait…
Then we all danced for several hours in varying states of abandon to a great live band.
Dancing was interspersed with a few wedding games.
And the cutting of the cake…
One of the unplanned highlights of the night was when the band started playing the song “Uptown Funk” — which my younger nephew had previously memorized to perform in a talent show at his school.
One of the singers in the band gave my nephew a mic so that he could lead us in what became a Dionysian explosion of energy on the dance floor.
If you got tired of dancing, there was also a wall for Polaroid photos + written thoughts…
And lots of bittersweet ice cream…
I will devote a future blog post to the wedding ceremony itself — which included its own spontaneous surprise from their beloved ringbearer, Dozer.
Thank you to my niece and nephew-in-law for letting me blog about their wonderful wedding.
Thank you to everyone who pitched in to help make this such a loving and delicious and memorable wedding celebration.
Thank you to Julian Huarte with Couple of Dudes Photography, to Mary Bloom (a longtime family friend and professional photographer), and to everyone else whose photos of the wedding I have included in this blog post.
Thank you to Nina Vansuch, Michael Ricca, and Brian Patton for recording the two-song medley (included at the beginning of this post) with me many years ago. You can click here to hear more of our music at CD Baby.
And thank YOU for reading all the way to the end of this post!
I recorded the song “That’ll Do” when I was part of a vocal quartet called At The Movies many years ago with fellow singers Nina Vansuch and Michael Ricca plus singer/pianist/arranger Brian Patton.
All the songs we performed were related in some way to the film industry.
If you are curious, you can click here for a link to the CD we made together called Reel One.
“That’ll Do” appeared in a movie called Babe: Pig In The City — which was a sequel to the movie Babe.
Both of them featured extraordinarily well-trained animal actors plus a few human actors who illuminate heart-breaking lessons about ostracism and community, betrayal and faith, love and loss.
“That’ll Do” was written by Randy Newman — who has crafted songs and soundtracks for a bunch of movies including the Pixar Toy Story series.
And it was originally sung by Peter Gabriel — who is also a great songwriter as well as a globally-engaged rock musician.
I love the wisdom of this song.
It feels like an antidote to many of the forces wreaking havoc on our cultural, political, and environmental landscapes these days.
How easy it can be to overlook the gentle power of kindness…
In an age of instant gratification, how reassuring to be reminded of the value of perseverance.
My mind immediately connects the concepts of steadiness and balance with boats — canoes, kayaks, row boats, and sail boats.
One doesn’t want to tip too far to the right OR to the left — unless one wants to capsize.
And one has to communicate and cooperate with any other beings (human, dog, cat — yes, our family even took our cats sailing with us on occasion) on the vessel, or else everyone aboard runs the risk of capsizing.
Space exploration notwithstanding, for the foreseeable future planet earth is our shared vessel, our shared home, our shared ark.
And some of us (almost all HUMAN beings) are making choices each and every day that are tipping ALL of us closer and closer to some epic/epoch capsizings.
What choices could each of us make differently which might lead us back in the direction of balance?
How might we live more simply?
How might we consume fewer shared resources?
“That’ll Do” reminds me somehow of social justice, too — of folks who are brave enough to show up and engage in non-violent social protests.
I am pretty sure steadiness is a hallmark of non-violent protest.
As is kindness.
I also appreciate that “That’ll Do” doesn’t espouse perfection as a goal.
The next blog post I write, or music class I lead, or song I create doesn’t have to be perfect.
I do not need to be cowed into inactivity by the powerful illusion of perfection.
Finally, “That’ll Do” reminds me of the humble — yet powerful — concepts of “enough” and “gratitude.”
I am grateful for the extraordinary blessings of today — such as the hundreds of people who work to bring food to my table, water to my faucets, power to my electrical devices, and peace to my neighborhood.
What I have right now is more than enough!
I am grateful to Michael Ricca, Nina Vansuch and Brian Patton for the hundreds of hours we spent rehearsing, performing, and eating home-cooked dinners together.
I am grateful to Randy Newman for writing so many terrific songs, and to Peter Gabriel for putting his heart into the original recording of this song, and to the extraordinary cast and crew of the Babe movies.
I am also grateful to Pixabay for most of the images in this blog post.
And I am grateful to you for reading and listening to another blog post.
Let’s show up with a kind and steady heart… and see what happens.
Last Sunday jazz pianist Joe Reid and I debuted a one-hour program of music devoted to the composer Harry Warren at an enthusiastic retirement community in Milton, MA.
Mr. Warren had a long and extraordinarily successful career as a songwriter, but his name is not as familiar as that of Irving Berlin, Cole Porter or the Gershwin Brothers — all of whom were his contemporaries.
Warren and lyricist Al Dubin wrote the first song in this blog post, “Lullaby Of Broadway,” for the Hollywood movie musical Gold Diggers of 1935 — and it earned them an Academy Award for Best Song in a Motion Picture.
It’s kind of ironic, however, that this love song to Broadway was written in California.
Harry had grown up in New York, and wanted for much of his adult life to move back east and write for the theater.
But he ended up living in California for over 50 years — where he composed more than 400 songs for 90 different movies.
And the songs he co-wrote — including such gems as “The More I See You,” “Serenade In Blue,” “Chattanooga Choo Choo,””The Boulevard of Broken Dreams,” and “At Last” — continue to be performed at weddings, included in commercials, featured in movies, etc. to this day!
Harry was the born on Christmas Eve, 1893, in Brooklyn, NY, and he was christened Salvatore Antonio Guaragna — the second youngest of eleven children. His father was a successful custom boot maker who had emigrated from Italy and changed the family name from Gauragna to Warren when Harry was a child.
Harry was very musically inclined, teaching himself how to play his father’s accordion as well as singing in the choir at his Catholic church. He dropped out of school at age 16 to play drums with his godfather in a band that toured up and down the Hudson River valley with a traveling carnival.
He also taught himself to play the piano, and ended up finding employment at the Vitagraph Motion Picture Studios in Brooklyn, NY, doing a wide variety of tasks including prop master, assistant director, and accompanist for the silent movie star Corinne Griffith to help her summon different emotions while she filmed her scenes.
During WWI he joined the Navy and was stationed at the tip of Long Island in Montauk. Since he played piano, he ended up entertaining his fellow soldiers a lot — and also started writing his first original songs.
In December 1918, right after the war had ended, he married Josephine Wensler, and their first child, Harry Junior, arrived the next year.
After WWI, Harry found work playing piano in cafes, bars, and silent movie theaters in order to support his young family.
In 1920 a couple of men from a music publishing company heard him playing piano in a Brooklyn saloon — including one of his original songs, “I Learned To Love You When I Learned My ABCs.” They brought him to meet their boss, Ruby Cowan, who hired him as a staff pianist and a song plugger.
He spent his days and nights visiting theaters, clubs, bars and restaurants all around Brooklyn in order to pitch his company’s latest songs to vaudeville performers, band leaders — anyone who might perform the song and thus help to make it popular so that people would buy sheet music which they could play at home.
Warren later claimed that his basic shyness prevented him from being particularly effective as a song plugger — and perhaps this shyness is also part of the reason why his name hasn’t become better known by the American public.
His first hit, “Rose Of The Rio Grande,” was a collaboration with composer Ross Gorman and lyricist Edgar Leslie in April 1922.
Gradually he was able to do less song plugging and more composing — collaborating with lyricists such as Gus Kahn, Ted Koehler, Irving Kahal and Ira Gershwin (when his brother George was focused on one of his classical music projects) among others…
Harry’s early hits caught the attention of Hollywood, and from 1929-1932 he wrote songs for several minor movies — commuting via the train from New York to Hollywood and back again.
But he did not enjoy his time in California, finding it too parochial — and disrespectful to songwriters.
He later explained: “It was nothing like it is today. The railway station was a wooden building. If you rented a car, you were lucky the wheels didn’t fall off, and there were very few decent places to eat. Hollywood looked to me like a small town in South Dakota, and when you finally got to the Warners studio in Burbank, it was like being on the frontier. You could look out the windows of the music department at the San Fernando Valley and see nothing but wide open land. All I could think about was New York. What made it even worse, the studio was empty — they had laid off most of their people for the summer. Although they had made a fortune with The Jazz Singer in 1927, by the summer of 1932 they were in real trouble.”
Many executives in Hollywood thought movie musicals were done after a flood of them were produced following the 1927 success of the first talking/singing motion picture, The Jazz Singer.
But Darryl Zanuck at Warner Brothers had a hunch that new technologies and the creative vision of Busby Berkeley might turn things around.
So in 1932 Warren was lured back west by Zanuck to write a complete score for a new film, 42nd Street, with lyricist Al Dubin.
And as it turned out, Depression-era audiences were cheered by the singing and dancing of Ruby Keeler and Dick Powell and wowed by Berkeley’s innovative, grandiose and oftentimes bizarre group dance extravaganzas.
Here’s a photo of Al Dubin, Busby Berkeley and Harren Warren at the Warner Brothers studio.
42nd Street yielded several hits, including the title song, “42nd Street,” “Shuffle Off to Buffalo,” and “You’re Getting To Be A Habit With Me” — which has now become a habit with me (and which I find myself singing at all hours of the day and night).
42nd Street had been completed by the end of 1932, but Warner Brothers waited until spring of 1933 to release it.
Warren had returned to his office in New York at the Remick music publishing company.
He still hoped his future would be in Broadway theaters.
However, 42nd Street tested so successfully with preview audiences before it was released that Warner Brothers rushed a similar film into production — Gold Diggers of 1933, which was filmed in 28 days!
Warren and Dubin wrote five songs for Gold Diggers of 1933 and then signed a contract — renewable annually at Warner Brothers’ discretion — to continue writing songs there.
And since he proved to be a tremendous composer of hit songs, his contract was renewed over and over again — thus keeping him in California.
Gold Diggers of 1933 outdoes 42nd Street in the wildness and lavishness of its production numbers.
Busby Berkeley was now the man of the hour and was given more or less free rein to pursue his cinematic visions.
For example, the movie opens with Ginger Rogers and a chorus line of women all wearing bikinis made out of huge coins singing the optimistic anthem to capitalism, “We’re In The Money.”
During the rest of the 1930s Harry Warren worked on 20 movie musicals with Al Dubin — for which they created standards such as “I Only Have Eyes For You,” “Lulu’s Back In Town,” and “September In the Rain.”
Often the songs Warren and Dubin created had very little to do with the plot.
But they DID fuel the imagination of Busby Berkeley.
He would get inspired by their song titles and then manage — in some fantastic and unusual way — to include their songs in the plot of the movie.
In the 1934 film Dames Dick Powell’s character sings “I Only Have Eyes For You” to Ruby Keeler’s character on the Staten Island ferry.
Then they both fall asleep on the subway, and he dreams that he sees Ruby’s face everywhere — floating in geometrical patterns in the air, and then on the faces of a huge chorus of women who are all wearing masks of Ruby Keeler’s face while climbing up and down huge staircases and/or riding an elegant Ferris wheel.
At the climax of the song, all of these women bend over and form a giant mosaic of Ruby’s face using painted puzzle pieces on their backs.
If you have never seen this movie sequence, you can find it on YouTube.
It’s quite surreal.
This is not the only hit song Harry wrote about eyes.
In 1938 he wrote a song with lyricist Johnny Mercer for Louis Armstrong to sing in the Warner Brothers movie Going Places.
Armstrong plays the trainer of a wild-tempered race horse who only calms down when Mr. Armstrong’s character sings or plays this next song on the trumpet to him.
Given Mr. Armstrong’s decades-long relationship with marijuana — which he once described as being “a thousand times better than whiskey” — I have to think that the lyric might also have been something of an in joke between Mercer, Warren, Armstrong, and their fellow musicians.
Mr. Warren had a deep well of melodic ideas which he tapped into whenever he was composing a song.
Usually he and his lyricist would come up with a title and bat around ideas for lyrics.
Then Harry would compose a melody for which the lyricist would write words.
The list of great songs for which Harry Warren composed the music is quite extraordinary.
From 1931 – 1945, Harry co-wrote more hit songs than Irving Berlin, and had more Oscar nominations for best song (11) and wins (3) than Berlin, George Gershwin, Cole Porter, or Hoagie Carmichael.
Warren ended up winning an Oscar three times — for the afore-mentioned “Lullaby Of Broadway” with lyricist Al Dubin, “You’ll Never Know” with the lyricist Mack Gordon, and “On The Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe” with lyricist Johnny Mercer.
Warren also had more hit records — 42 songs! — on “Your Hit Parade” than any of his peers.
And yet his name is not familiar to many of us.
There appear to be many reasons for this.
As mentioned earlier, Harry was a shy man and not much of a schmoozer.
He didn’t go to a lot of Hollywood parties where a songwriter might sit down and promote his catalog of songs.
He also didn’t hire a publicist to keep his name in the papers the way many of his fellow songwriters did.
In fact at one point a few of his friends hired a publicist for Harry on his behalf, and Harry fired the man as soon as he found himself mentioned in a gossip column.
I was steered towards Warren and his music by a chapter called “I’m Just Wild About Harry Warren” in one of Michael Feinstein’s terrific books — Nice Work If You Can Get It: My Life In Rhythm and Rhyme.
Michael befriended Harry near the end of his life, and has championed his music ever since.
Feinstein’s anecdotes about Warren provide a lot of texture and detail which other biographies omit or gloss over.
For example, the man who wrote the music for so many happy songs was heart-broken by the sudden death of his son Harry, Jr. in 1938.
And according to Feinstein, Warren’s marriage remained deeply scarred by this tragedy for decades afterwards…
Deep breath in.
Deep breath out.
During his decades-long career in Hollywood, Harry worked primarily for four movie studios: Warner Brothers in the 30s, 20th Century-Fox in the early 40s, MGM in the later 40s, and finally Paramount in the 50s.
He co-wrote his last big hit — “That’s Amore” — with lyricist Jack Brooks in 1953 for Paramount’s movie The Caddy starring Dean Martin (which earned Warren his tenth Oscar nomination for best song in a motion picture).
In the mid-1950s, however, Hollywood stopped making many big musical films — so Harry expanded his horizons.
In 1955 he co-wrote the theme song for the TV show The Life and Legend Of Wyatt Earp.
He also wrote scores and title songs for dramatic movies including “Marty” in 1955, and “An Affair To Remember” in 1957 — and continued writing songs for Jerry Lewis’ comedic movies after Dean and Jerry parted ways.
He even returned to Broadway with a musical, Shangri-la, based on a James Hilton novel which sadly was not a success.
To keep himself busy, he composed a bunch of short piano vignettes, and in 1962 wrote a complete Catholic mass with Latin text.
One of his biggest successes came in 1980, when producer David Merrick and director/choreographer Gower Champion adapted the original 1933 Hollywood blockbuster 42nd Street into a Broadway musical which also included many other songs Warren and Dubin had written for Warner Brothers movies.
Warren’s lifelong dream of having a hit show on Broadway was realized.
And yet, according to Michael Feinstein, Merrick and Champion were not very inclusive of — or respectful to — Harry, even managing to leave his name off the poster for what became a huge musical success.
So — although it earned him plenty of money — the Broadway version of 42nd Street brought him very little happiness or satisfaction.
Another deep breath in.
I am going to end this blog post with song Harry wrote with lyricist Mack Gordon for the 1942 20th Century Fox film Iceland.
I am well aware that my ongoing curiosity about the songs, songwriters, and performers of bygone eras is in large part a coping mechanism to drown out the distressing realities of our current political landscape here in the USA.
Perhaps his songs will give you a few minutes of solace and distraction, too!
And yet the real world in which most of Warren’s songs were written included a huge economic crisis, the genocides of millions of human beings, the use of atomic weapons, public lynchings, and many, many other horrific undertakings by the human species.
Blessedly his songs have survived — with some of us still singing them.
As I was finishing the first draft of the patter for our hour-long program of Harry’s songs, I learned that the wonderful jazz singer Rebecca Parris — who was based in Duxbury on the South Shore of Boston with her partner, the pianist Paul McWilliams — had died after sitting in for a couple of songs with McWilliams at the Riverway Lobster House in South Yarmouth, MA.
I also learned from reading her obituary in a local paper that “There Will Never Be Another You” was the last song she performed before leaving the restaurant, collapsing outside., and being taken to Cape Cod Hospital.
So it seems a fitting way to end this blog post in honor of Harry and in honor of Rebecca — and in honor of all of the other singers who have breathed life into Harry’s songs over the past nine decades.
Thank you to Doug Hammer for playing piano so beautifully while simultaneously recording all of these songs with me so that I would have accurate versions of Harry’s songs to practice and learn.
Thank you to Joe Reid for playing over 50 shows a year with me in retirement communities, restaurants, synagogues, assisted living homes, senior centers, and coffee houses around the greater Boston area.
Thank you to Harry Warren and his lyrical collaborators for writing these songs.
Thank you to Michael Feinstein and others who have written about Harry.
And thank YOU for reading and listening to what I know is a lengthy post.
Let’s keep humming and singing Harry’s songs for years to come!
My father (pictured above) died a year and a half ago.
He was a loving man who sang to me and my siblings at bedtime when we were young.
He didn’t teach me much about business or money — unless it was to inspire me to make different decisions than he did regarding concepts like saving…
But he was always willing to talk and listen.
At one point when he needed to stop driving, sell a trailer home he owned which was costing him money, and do some strategic planning regarding his declining health, two of my siblings and I and he met with a mediator.
It was not easy or fun to meet with a mediator, but we emerged with an agreed-upon list of things that needed to be accomplished.
And bless him, he accomplished everything on the list (with significant help from my older sister, with whom he lived for many years…)
As his health declined and he became less and less mobile, the sweetest way to spend time with him was sitting by his bed and playing the ukulele.
He loved to sing — even when his face was more and more disfigured by the cancer which eventually wore him out — and knew lots of standards from the 1920s – 1970s.
The wonderful team of David Shire (composer) and Richard Maltby, Jr. (lyricist) wrote a song called “If I Sing” which always touches my heart.
It was inspired by a visit which David Shire made to his father who was living in a retirement community/nursing home.
When I perform “If I Sing,” I am very grateful that my dad shared his love of music with me.
And I think of several male voice teachers who have nurtured me over the past couple of decades.
And I think of my step father, who was a professional flautist for many years — and is now a passionate music educator who loves his students and continues to teach in his 80s.
A heartful Father’s Day to you, dear reader.
I am well aware that not everyone is blessed with a loving and functional father — or even a father at all…
However, I hope you are able to feel grateful for something your dad — or a trustworthy male teacher, or minister, or rabbi, or mentor — has given you.
Thank you for reading and watching and listening to this blog post.
Thank you, too, to Maltby & Shire for writing such a terrific song.
And thank you to Mike Callahan — himself now an enthusiastic and loving father! — for creating this great orchestration, for inviting me to sing with the Timberlane pops orchestra, and for conducting the orchestra so tenderly and skillfully.
Although Ryan Zinke held much more conservationist views when he was a Montana state senator — acknowledging climate change as a significant threat to US national security, for example — now that he is Secretary of the Interior, he is working hard to remove burdensome regulations to industry on public land and in our coastal waters.
He even reversed a recent ban on lead ammunition in wildlife refuges designed to protect birds that eat carrion.
The article concluded by saying that — while it is possible future elections will nudge our leadership back in more sustainable and respectful directions — the damage already being done to our public lands and wildlife will take decades to re-balance or repair (which, of course, is not even possible when a plant or animal becomes extinct…)
Somehow this article has thrown me into what I trust is a temporary tailspin of depression and hopelessness.
As lyricist Fran Landesman once noted, spring can really hang you up the most…
Obviously there is SO MUCH that we human beings need to do to reduce and re-balance our patterns of consumption and destruction as soon as humanly possible.
And yet so many of us — me included — are unable to change a lifetime of habits and assumptions and behaviors in order seriously to address the coming environmental challenges/catastrophes/opportunities.
For example, many of us who are blessed to live in countries such as the United States continue to think, “Of course I deserve to travel as much as I can afford.”
And even if we can’t afford a plane trip to someplace warm (or intriguing or affordable or colorful) we are strongly urged by our morally bankrupt financial institutions to pay for it using a credit card…or two…or three.
How many of us are basically indentured servants to our credit card companies, making minimum payments yet never paying off all our accumulated debt?
Another assumption I find odd is that most of us continue to think that we deserve to have one — or more — cars.
Of course, this is often related to the fact that many of us think that we deserve to live wherever we like — places which may not be located anywhere near public transportation, for example — so, of course, we have to have a car in order to get to work, to shop, to visit friends and family, to drive to the gym (the practice of which I truly don’t understand… why not ride your bike or walk to the gym? Or ride your bike/walk/run instead of joining a gym and donate what you used to pay for your gym membership to a deserving non-profit group?) etc.
And how about those of us who feel that we deserve to own vacation homes — sometimes built in very unwise locations?
Many of these structures sit uninhabited for weeks or months at a time, consuming fuel/electricity so that the pipes don’t freeze, or so that the house doesn’t get too humid, or so that the burglar alarms are functioning…
The list of possessions and privileges to which many of us aspire is loooong — and has been extremely well-marketed for at least a couple of generations here in the USA.
Yet so few of us seem to be able or willing to pause and ponder the consequences of our consumption…
And global greenhouse gas levels continue to rise.
And weather becomes more erratic — affecting wildlife habitats as well as human agriculture (and thus the ability of more and more countries to feed their citizens).
And plastic — some of it visible and some of it in tiny fibers — continues to pollute the waters of planet earth and contaminate aquatic life on all levels of the food chain.
Sadly — depressingly — tragically — hubristically — the list of human pollution, deforestation, and environmental degradation goes on and on and on…
I often feel — as I watch TV or listen to the radio or use the internet — that I have entered a frantic cocoon created solely so that we human beings can hide (for couple of hours or for an entire lifetime) from the terrifying realities of the larger patterns/feedback loops which are unfolding/unraveling right now on planet earth.
And I want to say — to myself and to most of my fellow human beings here in the USA — WAKE UP!!!
Often this is when I catch a cold.
And I stay home and write a blog post like this…
I am aware that I am extremely blessed to live a life where I can moan about larger environmental challenges because my basic needs for food, clothing, shelter, employment, love, and respect have already been met.
However, I am also aware that anyone writing or reading a blog post is using electricity and some sort of magical electronic device which contains metals mined all over the planet by human beings under inhumane conditions as well as plastic from fossil fuels — and which have most likely been assembled by human beings working under inhumane conditions.
And my other job — sharing one-hour programs of beloved standards at retirement communities, assisted living facilities, and public libraries — involves driving many miles per month in a trusty, high mileage Prius belonging to the jazz pianist Joe Reid, with whom I do 50+ gigs per year.
So I am utterly complicit.
And I wonder what the f–k I am doing with my one precious life here on planet earth.
Yet I also know that music matters in some way — that it can touch our hearts and even inspire us to do unimaginably courageous things.
A documentary I watched recently about James Baldwin reminded me that there was a lot of singing by heroic non-violent protestors as they were marching… and as they were being beaten… and as they were being thrown into police vehicles.
Deep breath in.
Deep breath out.
What do you think/feel about any of this, dear reader?
What do you think/feel about the sad news that Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain — two people who have achieved international success, wealth, fame, influence, celebrity, and in theory the happiness which success/wealth/fame/influence/celebrity are alleged to bring — have taken their own lives during this past week?
Another deep breath in.
And deep breath out.
Thank you to David Friedman for writing such compelling songs.
Thank you to Bobbi Carrey for her musical collaboration over the past 15 years.
Thank you to Doug Hammer for his piano playing, engineering, production wizardry, patience, and humor.
Thank you to Mike Callahan for his vocal arrangements.
Thank you to Pixabay for the images in this blog post.
And thank YOU for making time so that you could read and listen to another blog post.
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.
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).
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.
Blessedly, recording technology exists so that all of the collaboration we did together has not evaporated without a trace.
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.
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.
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?