I was looking through a list of past gigs on my web site recently and was surprised to realize that almost 15 years has passed since I was part of a vocal quartet called At The Movies.
Three of us — Nina Vansuch, Michael Ricca and I — had attended a week-long cabaret symposium at the O’Neill Theater Center on the Connecticut coast of Long Island Sound in the summer of 1999.
Our teachers included musical luminaries such as Margaret Whiting and Julie Wilson along with Broadway actress Sally Mayes and a slew of other generous (and mostly inspiring) experts from the worlds of musical theater, jazz and cabaret.
We came back to Boston fired up and ready to sing.
I don’t remember who had the idea that we three would join forces — maybe Nina and/or Michael and/or Brian will weigh in some day with THEIR memories of how we got started using the comments section at the end of this blog post.
I’m pretty sure, however, that it was Nina who brought another wonderful singer AND pianist AND arranger — Brian Patton — into the mix.
For four years we met after work — usually at Nina’s place in Belmont or Brian’s place in Jamaica Plain — to eat dinner and make song choices and work on arrangements and write patter and rehearse, rehearse, rehearse.
I remember many delicious meals cooked by Nina — and also a lot of patience from Brian as we fine-tuned our harmonies.
I had forgotten, however, how much publicity we got.
Thankfully Nina scanned some of it and included it on her web site.
Gradually we added some outside eyes and ears to our creative process, bouncing rough drafts of performances off local directors and working for a while with a warm and loving choreographer/director named Marla Blakey who lived on Martha’s Vineyard.
At one point in her career Marla had worked in this capacity with Bette Midler and also with the vocal group The Manhattan Transfer.
So we were honored and excited to learn from her AND to hear some of her stories about how show business unfolds behind the scenes…
As you can see from the media clippings and hear from the recordings I have included in this blog post, we had a lot of fun together.
Most — or maybe all — of our great photographs were taken by a very talented friend of Nina’s named David Caras.
You can visit his web site by clicking here if you are curious to see more of his work.
After we had sold out Scullers Jazz Club (thank you for booking us, Fred Taylor!) a couple of times, we decided to record a CD, which can still be purchased at CD Baby by clicking here.
We recorded it at Doug Hammer’s studio north of Boston along with additional musicians Gene Roma (drums), Chris Rathbun (bass), and Spartaco John “Sparkie” Miele (saxophone).
In addition to the songs I have included in this blog post, you can find other songs from our CD — “Journey To The Past,” “Wives & Lovers,” and “That’ll Do” — in the right hand column of this blog.
My memory is also hazy as to why we decided to focus on songs written for or performed in movies…
There are so many great songs in existence — just waiting to be sung! — that we probably knew that it would be wise to narrow our focus a bit.
It may also have been related to Michael’s somewhat savante-like knowledge of movie history.
We performed at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education (where I then worked) and also at the Boston Public Library as part of First Night; participated in John O’Neil’s wonderful CabaretFests in Provincetown, MA, Newburyport, MA, and Newfound Lake, NH (thank you, John!); traveled to perform in Providence, RI at the Hi-Hat Club (thank you, Ida Zecco!) and to NYC at a club called Arci’s Place (thank you, Erv Raible — may you rest in peace!) I think our last gig may have been in Quincy for John McDonald (thank you, John!)
One thing I came to appreciate as a result of being part of At The Movies is that an audience doesn’t just enjoy the music when they go to a concert.
Most of us also enjoy observing the relationships we see in action on stage — both the planned and the spontaneous interactions that unfold during a performance.
After four years of working and playing — and dining — together, however, our creative collaboration came to an end.
But thanks to the digital magic of zeros and ones, the songs we recorded at Doug Hammer’s studio for our CD Reel One live on…
And I was able to find these media clippings on Nina’s web site (thank you, Nina!)
Perhaps someday we will dig our harmony practice cassettes out of the basement and do a few more shows together.
I am not sure why I love reading about the lives of songwriters.
And learning many of their songs.
And then sharing what I have learned in one-hour musical programs at retirement communities, public libraries, senior centers, memory cafes, and coffeehouses.
But I do!
The most recent program I put together with jazz pianist Joe Reid features the life and music of Dorothy Fields.
She was a terrific lyricist who co-wrote hit songs from the late 1920s right through the early 1970s.
When many of her friends and contemporaries — such as Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, the Gershwin brothers, Oscar Hammerstein, Larry Hart — were either dead, discouraged or stymied by evolving musical trends such as folk and rock, Dorothy Fields achieved one of her biggest hits on Broadway, the wonderful musical Sweet Charity.
She was 61 years old.
Dorothy Fields was born into a theatrical family and raised to be a wife and mother — NOT an actress or a songwriter (both of which occupations her parents strongly discouraged…)
Her father was half of a very famous and successful vaudeville team called “Weber & Fields” who had started as childhood friends performing in the Bowery and had risen as adults to the top ranks of theatrical entertainment in the US .
Eventually her father tired of performing and touring, and began to produce shows by other people, including a young team of songwriters named Rodgers & Hart, who were friends with Dorothy’s older brother Herbert (having collaborated together on original theatrical productions while attending Columbia University).
Dorothy and her three siblings had been exposed to theater their entire lives, and Dorothy played lead (male!) roles in amateur theatrical productions at her high school, The Benjamin School for Girls at 144 Riverside Drive on the upper west side of Manhattan.
So it seems a bit surprising (to me, anyways) that her parents attempted to dissuade her from a life in the theater.
When she was growing up, the family had blank books into which everyone was encouraged to jot down ideas for jokes, skits, plots and routines — which served as inspiration when a new show was being created by her father.
And both of her brothers were very successful on Broadway and in Hollywood as writers.
In fact, later on in her life, Dorothy and her older brother Herbert co-wrote the librettos (aka scripts) for shows by Cole Porter and Irving Berlin — including the smash hit, Annie Get Your Gun — which had originally been HER idea as a starring vehicle for her friend Ethel Merman.
Dorothy was supposed to write the songs with one of her most beloved collaborators, Jerome Kern, until Kern unexpectedly died.
Among other hits, she and Jerry had co-written “The Way You Look Tonight,” which won an Academy award for best song in a motion picture in 1936.
After a period of mourning, she and her producers — Richard Rodgers & Oscar Hammerstein — asked Irving Berlin if he would consider joining the project.
And the rest is history…
But Dorothy was born in 1905, when middle and upperclass women were expected to become wives and mothers (not actresses or songwriters or librettists).
Women didn’t get the right to vote until 1920 — when Dorothy was 15 — and her life illuminates many of the social changes that unfolded in the US until her death in 1974.
Dorothy managed to finesse her parental/societal expectations by BOTH marrying young (to a doctor) AND pursuing a career as a lyricist.
Although she worked with a “who’s who” list of composers during her long career, three of them stand out as being particularly significant in her creative life: Jimmy McHugh, Jerome Kern, and Cy Coleman.
Jimmy McHugh was a Catholic pianist from Boston, where he had left a wife and son (whom he dutifully supported from afar) when he moved in his 20s to Manhattan to find work as both a composer and business manager for music publishing companies.
He crossed paths with Dorothy when her friend J. Fred Coots — whom she had met while golfing and who went on to write hits of his own such as “You Go To My Head” and “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town” — began introducing her to music publishing companies as a budding lyricist.
Dorothy and Jimmy hit it off creatively — and possibly romantically — although they were both extremely protective of their private lives and mindful about the potential for bad publicity.
During their ten-year collaboration they wrote hits including, “I Feel A Song Coming On,” “On The Sunny Side Of the Street,” and “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love.”
I love learning that “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” was not an immediate hit (one critic called it “sickly” and “puerile”) and was cut from two different shows before it finally caught on as part of the Blackbirds of 1928.
Persistence, persistence, persistence!
Her next significant collaborator was Jerome Kern. They wrote songs — including “Pick Yourself Up,” “I Won’t Dance,” and “A Fine Romance” — for Hollywood movies with stars such as Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire.
Here she is with Jerry Kern (on her left) and George Gershwin (on her right) at a nightclub in the 1930s.
Jerome Kern was older than many of his contemporary songwriters (Gershwin, Arlen, Youmans and others looked up to him when they were starting to write songs) and had a reputation for speaking his mind — and not suffering fools gladly. Some people in the entertainment industry were intimidated by him.
But not Dorothy. She loved him and even gave him a nickname which few others would have dared to choose: “Junior” (Dorothy was 5″ 5″ tall and towered over Kern, who was much shorter).
I have wondered whether the lyrics she wrote for their song “You Couldn’t Be Cuter” might have been something of an “in joke” between the two of them.
Here’s a version of that song — combined with an earlier hit she wrote with Jimmy McHugh, “Exactly Like You” — that I recorded with pianist Doug Hammer earlier this year.
Her third significant collaborator was Cy Coleman, a composer who had already written hit songs with Carolyn Leigh (including “The Best Is Yet To Come,” “Hey, Look Me Over,” and “Witchcraft”) before he met Dorothy at a party.
She was 59 years old, and he was 35.
He asked her if she might be willing to explore working together, and she allegedly said something like, “Thank g-d someone asked me…yes!”
They ended up collaborating on a musical inspired by a Fellini film — “Le Notti Di Cabiria,” about a prostitute looking for love — which Bob Fosse and his wife Gwen Verdon had seen and which had immediately inspired Fosse to start working on a musical version for Verdon to star in.
With Neil Simon added to the creative team as librettist, Fosse, Verdon, Fields and Coleman created what became the hit musical Sweet Charity — which went on to become a movie starring Shirley MacLaine and John McMartin, and which gave us songs such as “Hey, Big Spender,” “I’m A Brass Band,” and “If My Friends Could See Me Now.”
Dorothy Fields achieved a remarkable level of success in a male-dominated industry —where women were expected to be on stage, not behind the scenes as part of the creative team.
She was not a glamour girl nor a prima donna — although she was always very well-dressed and had separate closets for her shoes, dresses, suits, sportswear, and evening gowns.
She was reliable, respectful and professional.
And she was a hard-worker.
At one point she said, “I wrote the words to ‘I Feel a Song Coming On,’ but I don’t believe a word of it. A song just doesn’t ‘come on.’ I’ve always had to tease it out, squeeze it out. Ask anyone who writes — it’s tough labor and I love it.”
I’ll end with two more gems she wrote with Jimmy McHugh — “Don’t Blame Me” and “I’m In The Mood For Love” — which I recorded with pianist Doug Hammer at his terrific studio, Dreamworld, in Lynn, MA.
Thank you to Dorothy Fields and her many collaborators for writing such terrific songs.
Thank you to pianist Steve Sweeting for recording “I Feel a Song Coming On” and “The Way You Look Tonight” with me many years ago at his apartment in Brighton, MA.
And thank YOU for reading and listening to this blog post.
And here in the USA we mostly don’t think about them.
And that’s just the human-to-human devastation…
There is also an extraordinary wave of extinction of other forms of life on planet earth unfolding right now… and most humans don’t want to think about that either.
We are ignorant — choosing to ignore the complicated and heart-breaking repercussions of our actions because it is too painful.
And because the challenges of how we might change some of these patterns seem too vast.
And because our media tends to give us a very limited glimpse of what is happening here on planet earth.
And because our media — which at its most basic level exists to entice human beings to BUY THINGS — has very little incentive to do anything other than reinforce the allure of fame and wealth and celebrity and insane over-consumption.
Over-consumption of cars and alcohol and clothing and accessories and medication and food products and music and fossil fuels and hair dye and eyeliner and TV shows and lipstick and sunblock and pesticides and movies and plastic bags and electronic devices and travel and “entertainment” and a myriad other things that most of us do not need.
Deep breath in.
Deep breath out.
“When I’m worried and I can’t sleep, I count my blessings instead of sheep,” the songwriter Irving Berlin once wrote and set to music.
According to Wikipedia (and a book edited by local musical expert Ben Sears called The Irving Berlin Reader) it was based on Berlin’s real life struggle with insomnia.
He wrote in a letter to Joseph Schenck:
“I’m enclosing a lyric of a song I finished here and which I am going to publish immediately… You have always said that I commercial my emotions and many times you were wrong, but this particular song is based on what really happened… The story is in its verse, which I don’t think I’ll publish. As I say in the lyrics, sometime ago, after the worst kind of a sleepless night, my doctor came to see me and after a lot of self-pity, belly-aching and complaining about my insomnia, he looked at me and said ‘speaking of doing something about insomnia, did you ever try counting your blessings?’”
Mr. Berlin certainly had experienced many things that might have hung heavily on his heart.
He emigrated to the US when he was a small child to escape the anti-semitic pogroms unfolding in Czarist Russia.
His father died when he was young, which catalyzed Irving (or Izzy as he was called by his family) into leaving school and earning money as a paper boy on the streets of lower Manhattan.
His own son died when he was less than a month old on Christmas Day.
Mr. Berlin served in both the first and second World Wars, producing (and performing in) theatrical revues to raise money, lift the spirits of a country at war, and comfort soldiers fighting all around the planet.
As a Jewish man, he must have been deeply affected by the unimaginable reality of the Holocaust… and atomic weapons… and so many other astoundingly destructive human creations of the 20th century.
Mr. Berlin used the song in the 1954 film White Christmas.
Bing Crosby’s character sings it to Rosemary Clooney’s character to comfort and (it being a Hollywood movie — perhaps to begin a romantic relationship with) her.
I join with millions of people who have sung this song in the past 62 years to restore a sense of peace and gratitude in their lives when they are tossing and turning in the middle of the night.
And as 2016 slouches towards 2017, I also count my blessings:
Clean water at the twist of a faucet…
A functioning furnace…
Fossil fuels to power the furnace and stove and water heater…
My sweetheart of almost 25 years…
One remaining parent + a wonderful step parent…
Siblings who love and communicate with each other…
Employment that involves relatively modest consumption/destruction of natural resources (CDs of music to the families in Music Together classes, electricity to play them, fossil fuels to heat and sometimes cool the karate studio where we lead classes, gasoline to power the hybrid car in which jazz pianist Joe Reid and I drive to gigs, electricity to run the PA systems where we perform)…
The magic of digital recording…
My trusty iPods for learning songs…
My ukuleles and laptop computers for creating new songs…
My rhyming dictionaries for inspiration…
The amazing interlibrary book/CD/DVD loan system for more inspiration…
How our bodies can heal themselves…
US citizen privilege….
Once one starts, the list of blessings goes on and on and on.
Thank you yet again to Pixabay photographers for the lovely images in this blog post.
Thank you to Irving Berlin for his musical and poetical genius.
Thank you to Doug Hammer for his reliable studio plus his exquisite rapport while playing the piano (and simultaneously engineering our sessions).
And thank you, brave and hardy soul, for reading — and listening to — this blog post.
I shared this song by Barbara Baig a couple of years ago in a blog post.
Today I found myself thinking about it a lot.
Many people in the USA are very happy today.
I honor their sense of excitement and accomplishment.
Many people in the USA are very surprised and scared and shocked today, too.
I honor these feelings as well.
I don’t know what comes next, but I am pretty sure that the effects of yesterday’s election will ripple for weeks and months and years to come — not just here in the US but all over our planet.
Deep breath in.
Deep breath out.
I dearly hope that the horrible coincidence of learning the results of our election with the anniversary of Kristallnacht is just that…a horrible coincidence and not an uncanny foreshadowing of what may lie ahead in our not-very-united-states.
As soon as we start viewing — and scapegoating — fellow human beings as “other,” we are heading down a very unhappy and slippery slope…
I was very glad that jazz pianist Joe Reid and I were booked to perform our hour-long program of songs co-written by Harold Arlen this afternoon at a retirement community in Newton.
We all needed to sing together — beautiful, timeless songs which touched our hearts and connected us with each other.
Not surprisingly, one song moved us to tears — “Over the Rainbow,” which Mr. Arlen wrote with Yip Harburg in 1938 for MGM’s masterpiece, The Wizard of Oz.
Filming for The Wizard Of Oz began on October 13 1938.
A month later Kristallnacht occurred in Germany, Austria and parts of Poland, Russia and the Czech Republic.
The emotional resonance of “Over The Rainbow” — written by two American-born, fully assimilated Jewish songwriters for a movie produced by a Jewish-owned film company — cannot have gone un-noticed at the time.
No wonder so many of us are still moved to tears by it, almost 80 years after it was written.
I love “Let Me Be Strong,” too.
Barbara Baig wrote it when she lived in Somerville, MA and was an active member of the Boston Association of Cabaret Artists (BACA).
I recorded it many years ago with Doug Hammer on piano at his wonderful Dreamworld studio in Lynn, MA, plus Gene Roma on drums and Chris Rathbun on bass.
Thank you, Barbara, for writing this song.
May all of our hearts remain open in the days and weeks to come… as we move through our joys and our fears here on planet earth.
Let us be strong.
Deep breath in.
Deep breath out.
Thank you to Pixabay for the photos.
And thank you to anyone who reads and listens to this blog post!
I have loved Stephen Schwartz’s music ever since I heard the cast album of Godspell in 1971.
I don’t remember how I came to own it, but I played that record over and over again.
So I was wildly excited and nervous when — at age ten — I auditioned for a new musical being directed by Bob Fosse with songs written by Mr. Schwartz.
I sang Cat Stevens’ song “Father and Son” at the audition. (My aunt had given me and my siblings many of Cat Stevens’ albums, which I also loved.)
I vaguely remember standing on a stage, singing to a few people in a darkened theater.
At one point during the audition — or maybe during a callback? — the pianist played a particular section of “Father and Son” in different keys in order to get a sense of my vocal range.
I gamely sang higher and higher until my voice finally cracked.
I must have also have read from some sort of script, but I don’t remember doing any dancing during the audition.
Much to my delight and terror, I ended up being cast as the standby for the role of Theo. I did not attend the first few weeks of rehearsals, but joined the cast midway through the creative process in NYC.
I remember that Ben Vereen was very friendly and welcoming, even though he was one of the stars and was working his butt off during rehearsals.
Mostly I watched from the sidelines and kept a low profile.
I moved with the cast and crew to the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, where Pippin previewed.
The Kennedy Center had only recently been built and was enormous. I spent a lot of time exploring the different theaters and backstage areas — as well as the snack room where I often heated up a slice of pizza using an amazing new (to me at least) technology called the microwave oven.
I also spent a lot of time hanging out unobtrusively in the back of the theater, watching rehearsals and mimicking all of the dance routines to the best of my ability (which grew over time…once we were living in NYC year-round I studied tap and jazz at the Phil Black dance studios on the corner of Broadway and 50th street).
The role of Theo — Catherine’s son — was never large and grew smaller as the show was tightened up and re-written out of town.
And then, much to my parents’ surprise — since so many Broadway shows close out of town or last only a few weeks once they open in New York — Pippin proved to be a big hit.
I had to be backstage for every performance, but I never played the role of Theo on stage.
The various standbys — me, the standby for Irene Ryan, the standby for John Rubinstein, and the standby for Ben Vereen — along with the understudies for the other main roles would rehearse our parts with the stage manager on matinee days between the afternoon and evening performances.
Ben’s standby was a lovely man named Northern Calloway, whose day job was playing the role of “David” on Sesame Street, which was filmed in a converted theater on the upper west side of Manhattan.
Jill Clayburgh’s understudy was Ann Reinking, who was then a member of the chorus (but who may have begun dating Bob Fosse during Pippin and went on to all sorts of success afterwards as a performer and as a choreographer).
A boy named Shane Nickerson played the role of Theo each night.
He and I became friends.
Shane’s sister Denise had played the role of Lolita in an unsuccessful musical version of the Nabokov novel and then was cast as Violet Beauregarde in the original movie of Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory. Except she was not really Shane’s sister. She was actually his aunt. But that is another story — and a fascinating example of how we human beings often play roles in real life as well as on stage.
Other than an ever-present anxiety that I might have to perform the role if Shane were to become ill, I had a lot of fun backstage.
I fetched hot beverages for some of the dancers before the show began at the coffee shop across 46th street (where the stage door was located).
I learned how to play chess with one of the younger stage hands.
I watched endless poker game conducted by dressers, musicians and stage hands at a big table behind the orchestra pit while the show was running.
I became friends with the back stage hair dressers and helped brush out the many different wigs which the chorus members wore during the show.
And I hung out with the wonderful animal handlers, Jack and Mary, who took care of the duck and the sheep who appeared nightly in the show.
Among other duties they had to walk the sheep up and down 46th street and along 8th avenue in order to encourage it poop before it went on stage.
The sheep liked to eat cigarette butts, which was not conducive to its health; so I would keep an eye out for them when we strolled around the theater district, chatting with surprised passersby.
I remained as a standby in the original cast until I grew too large for the role. (Theo enters in the second being carried on the Leading Player’s shoulders, and this was a very direct way to gauge my growth month by month…)
I was not the first to leave the company — that was probably Jill Clayburgh, who was replaced by Betty Buckley early in the run, and also dear Irene Ryan, who died about the same time — but it was a very sad and awkward experience for me.
Show business can be very confusing regarding matters of the heart.
A cast and crew come together to create a show or film a movie — or even just a TV commercial — and everyone strives (at least while on stage or when the cameras are running…) to be friendly and part of a team/family while they are attempting to make some magic together.
And then, when the shoot of the movie or the run of the play is over, everyone becomes a free agent again.
And one may never see any of them again.
Were any of those people my friends? Did any of them think about me when I was no longer part of the cast? I certainly thought about them for years afterwards.
Deep breath in.
Deep breath out.
It is humbling to learn on Wikipedia how the lives of various Pippin cast members unfolded before and after their time on stage at the Imperial Theater in the early 70s.
Some are still involved with show business as performers or choreographers or teachers.
Many are dead.
And composer Stephen Schwartz, bless him, has continued to write wonderful songs for Broadway and Hollywood.
I recorded his song “Magic To Do” (the opening number in Pippin) several years ago during rehearsals for a show I put together called Will Loves Steve, which featured songs written by Stephen Schwartz, Stephen Sondheim, Stephen Foster, Steve Sweeting, Stevie Wonder and Steven Georgiou — a.k.a. Cat Stevens a.k.a. Yousuf Islam.
Doug Hammer played piano — while simultaneously engineering the track — and Mike Callahan played clarinet.
For many years after Pippin I carried within me a sense that success meant starring on Broadway, or in the movies, or on TV.
Yet now I am amazed that anyone is able to perform EIGHT shows each week, month after month, repeating the same songs and dances and lines and emotions with as much authenticity and enthusiasm as they can muster on any given day.
And the life of a star — with folks asking to take selfies with them wherever they go in public, and having to repeat the same stories over and over again during media junkets while maintaining their youthfulness and beauty and fitness and marketability year after year — seems less and less appealing.
I am slightly surprised to realize that I have learned the same lesson as the title character In Pippin: that a normal life without a lot of fanfare is AOK.
And there is still plenty of humble and unpublicized magic — like what happens in my Music Together classes and during performances at retirement communities and singing along at ukulele meetup groups — to be done each day if one is so inspired…
MMG has been happening — one weekend each spring and one weekend each fall — for 25+ years at various camps around Massachusetts.
When I first started attending it was held in Becket, MA, but now we gather in the woods near Worcester from Friday night until Sunday afternoon.
At the opening circle on Friday night, someone spoke about the recent death of a beloved canine companion.
I was reminded of a wonderful song by a writer named Babbie Green called “At The Pound” (in the player at the start of this post) which I recorded with the gifted pianist Doug Hammer for a CD I did with another singer, Bobbi Carrey, called “If I Loved You.”
Although I have not had a dog in my daily life since my teenage years — when my family had a very loving and patient Corgi named Bryn — I see how invaluable they can be in the lives of my friends and family.
I love “At The Pound” because of the details Babbie includes in the song — such as “now my car’s got a permanent blanket of dog hair.”
I also love how it ends…
“And they praise me for saving her life, saying, ‘oh what a lucky dog she…’ but when I think of all I have learned about loving, it is Molly in fact who saved me.”
Bette Midler — you with the wind beneath your wings who sometimes looks at our planet from a distance — you need to record this song!
Thank you for reading and listening to my blog.
And thank you — yet again — to Pixabay for the lovely photographs.
I am not sure if I would have loved him had I had the opportunity to meet him, but I am very grateful he co-wrote so many wonderful songs.
Jerome David Kern was short and a very snappy dresser.
He loved the color green — including wearing bright green, custom-tailored trousers.
He could be quite critical and bossy — and he did not suffer fools gladly.
He was also very funny with friends.
And he knew bird calls well — and was sometimes melodically inspired by them.
Kern was the composer whom George Gershwin and Harold Arlen — and many other composers of what we now call the Great American Songbook — looked up to and strived to emulate.
He was older than they were, having been born in New York City on January 27, 1885 — the youngest of seven children (four of whom died before the age of six…)
His family moved from apartment to apartment around Manhattan before settling into a house across the river in Newark, New Jersey, which is where Jerry went to high school and where he began writing songs for musical events.
His nickname in high school was “Romie.”
Kern’s first job in the music business was doing accounts payable and accounts receivable for a music publishing company run by the uncle of a friend.
He rose to become a song plugger, eventually earning a shift at Wanamaker’s, which was one of the first — and very grandest — department stores in New York City.
He proved to be a savvy businessman, investing money he received as an inheritance in his early 20s to become a shareholder in the second music publishing company he worked for, TB Harms.
Harms started getting Jerry’s songs interpolated into musical productions.
I learned from reading various Kern biographies that in the early days of musical theater, it was very common for individual songs to be added to a show by another composer.
These interpolated songs could freshen up a show during a long run — and also provided great opportunities for unknown and up-and-coming songwriters.
Harms let him work as a rehearsal pianist for Broadway reviews and shows, which he did on and off for ten years.
Being a rehearsal pianist meant that Kern became well-acquainted with the movers and shakers in the New York theater world — and it also meant he could be on hand to help create a new number if needed.
He also was allowed to accompany singers on short tours, which provided more opportunities to incorporate Harms and/or Kern tunes into their performances as needed.
I was surprised to learn that Kern was very well acquainted with the theater world in London.
Part of the reason Jerry went to London so many times as a young man was to check on TB Harms’ publishing partners in England.
He saw all of the latest shows and schmoozed as many London theater people as possible, pitching his songs for interpolation into London shows as well.
This is when he first met the author, humorist and lyricist P. G. “Plum” Wodehouse, with whom he began collaborating on songs in 1906.
Nine years later — when Wodehouse was living in New York — Kern introduced him to librettist Guy Bolton, who became one of Kern and Wodehouse’s lifelong friends.
Kern and Bolton had worked together on a musical called Nobody Home which was presented at the intimate, 300-seat Princess Theatre. Wodehouse contributed some lyrics to their next Princess musical, Very Good Eddie, and officially joined their creative team for Oh, Boy! — which ran for 463 performances (and according to Wikipedia was one of the first American musicals to have a successful London run).
The three men collaborated upon what became a very successful series of musical comedies — most of them presented at the Princess Theatre — during and after the First World War.
These shows were inspirational to many songwriters and librettists, partly because the songs and dances and script were well integrated to advance the storyline of the show.
And no songs by other writers were arbitrarily interpolated into the plot!
In an interview following the success of Oh, Boy, Kern explained, “It is my opinion that the musical numbers should carry on the action of the play, and should be representative of the personalities of the characters who sing them….Songs must be suited to the action and mood of the play.”
Kern collaborated with a wide variety of lyricists during his long career on Broadway and in Hollywood.
One of my favorite songs, “I’m Old Fashioned” was written with lyricist Johnny Mercer for a 1942 film called You Were Never Lovelier, which paired Fred Astaire with Rita Hayworth.
Partly as a result of a dear friend’s uncle giving me a Kern songbook when I left college, I became aware of Kern’s body of work early in my singing life.
I recorded three Kern songs with jazz pianist and composer Steve Sweeting when Steve lived above an ice cream store in Brighton, MA — “I’m Old Fashioned,” The Way You Look Tonight,” and “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” — which I have included in this blog post.
Jerome Kern was very successful during the 1910’s and 20’s on Broadway and in London.
In fact one newspaper at the time estimated that he was earning as much as $5000 (which would be the equivalent of $63,000 in 2016) each WEEK from sheet music and ticket sales.
He created what is considered to be his masterwork, Show Boat, in 1927 in collaboration with lyricist/librettist Oscar Hammerstein II and producer Florenz Ziegfeld.
Ziegfeld had made his reputation with huge revues on Broadway filled with beautiful chorus girls, extravagant costumes, and colossal sets.
Thus many people were surprised that he agreed to produce Show Boat — which featured an integrated cast of black and white performers and dove deeply into painful human phenomena including prejudice, gambling and alcoholism (which were not the usual topics for a night’s entertainment on Broadway).
Ziegfeld, in fact, remained very doubtful about the success of Show Boat — postponing the start of production several times.
Although this was very frustrating to Jerry and Oscar, it also gave them extra time to fine-tune their songs and script before casting and rehearsals finally began.
Many of Kern’s Broadway musicals were adapted into movies, including Show Boat — which was filmed three different times — and his 1933 hit Roberta, with a book and lyrics by Otto Harbach.
The Broadway cast included many performers who went on to become stars including Fred MacMurray and Bob Hope — and Roberta also introduced the musical gem “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes.”
Along with many other Broadway songwriters, Kern moved with his family to California during the 1930s.
Although the Great Depression was in full swing, the movie industry was making lots of money.
Mr. Kern wrote “The Way You Look Tonight” with another favorite collaborator — lyricist/librettist Dorothy Fields — for the film Swing Time, where it was introduced by Fred Astaire and Ginger Rodgers, who in this movie was cast as a dance instructor.
“The Way You Look Tonight” won Best Song in a Motion Picture in 1936.
Dorothy Fields later remarked, “The first time Jerry played the melody for me I went out and started to cry. The release absolutely killed me. I couldn’t stop, it was so beautiful.”
In addition to being a composer, Kern was also a collector.
He started collecting books when he first visited London in his early 20s, and ten years later had amassed a collection which — when he auctioned it off in 1929 — earned him almost two million dollars (which would be worth more than $27 million dollars in 2016).
He also collected real estate, antique silver and furniture.
The home he built in Bronxville, NY (north of New York City) was decorated with beautiful paintings, Colonial, Jacobean and Italian furniture, rare vases, lamps with Buddha bases, and books which he had bought during his travels to Europe and around the USA.
And whatever he became curious about, he would soon become an expert in.
As a small example of this, when they were living in Bronxville, Kern and his wife Eva took a trip with their neighbors, Mr. and Mrs. Nathan Newman, to Canada to visit an asbestos plant that Mr. Newman owned.
Jerry asked lots of questions and was particularly concerned about the large amounts of asbestos waste.
After they got home, he did some independent research and wrote a 40-page report — detailing several possible uses for the wasted asbestos — which he gave to his neighbor.
After the huge success of Show Boat in 1927, Kern developed the habit of playing “Old Man River” the last thing before he left his house on a trip and the first thing upon arriving back home.
In fact, during his final trip to New York City from California in 1945 — when he was overseeing yet another revival of Show Boat with Hammerstein and beginning work on a new show with lyricist/librettist Dorothy Fields (produced by Hammerstein and Richard Rodgers) about a sharp-shooting phenomenon named Annie Oakley — he was apparently worried because he had forgotten to play this song before he left his home in California.
Much to everyone’s shock — since he was only 60 years old — Jerome Kern collapsed from a stroke while browsing on the east side of Manhattan.
He died a few days later with his wife and Hammerstein at his hospital bedside.
I would like to end this post with something president Harry Truman said upon hearing Kern had died:
“I am among the grateful millions who have played and listened to the music of Jerome Kern. His melodies will live in our voices and warm our hearts for many years to come.”
Thank you, Jerome Kern, for your wonderful songs — and thank YOU for reading and listening to yet another blog post.
Once upon a time I co-starred in a movie called Goldenrodwhich was filmed in and around Calgary, Alberta.
It had a theatrical release in Canada (I think), and was shown in the USA on CBS-TV.
I was 14 years old.
Because of Canadian rules about airing a certain percentage of shows which have been produced in Canada, it still can be seen from time to time on Canadian TV.
One of the producers had a daughter whom I met on the set when she visited from Toronto.
Although it seemed unlikely at the time — since I lived in New York and Connecticut while she lived in Canada — Sarah James and I have remained friends ever since.
She still lives in Toronto, and like her father (and mother) she works in film and TV production.
For the past few years she’s been helping to create Canada’s version of the TV show The Amazing Race.
She and her husband — who among other things is a wonderful musician who has taught himself how to build ukuleles! — and daughter live in a sweet house with a small garden out back which ends at a garage.
Above the garage is an office/guest bedroom where I love to sleep and read and write songs when I visit them.
I started writing “Another Good Morning” a couple of springs ago.
The sun was shining.
Birds were singing.
And Sarah was making breakfast for all of us.
It is what I call a “gets-me-out-of-bed-in-the-morning” song.
I have probably mentioned this type of song before in this blog, because — in the spirit of “teach what you most want to learn” — I end up writing a lot of songs with upbeat messages.
Because I need them….to muster a little bit of optimism before I head out into the day.
As you have probably already guessed, I continue to love the photo site Pixabay.
I send a huge thank you to all the folks who have shared their lovely images there!
I do not own a cell phone or carry a camera…
But I appreciate those who do.
THANK YOU for reading and listening.
PS: The pianist on this song is the multi-gifted Doug Hammer, and we recorded it at his studio in Lynn, MA earlier this year. It is one of many we will be performing on April 30, 2016 at Third Life Studio in Somerville, MA.
Having recently read many biographies about Larry Hart and about Richard Rodgers, I’ve been wondering how Larry would have told his own story if he hadn’t died at age 48…
Richard Rodgers lived for 36 years after Hart’s heartbreakingly early death, and as a result he had many opportunities to share HIS memories of their often-times challenging creative collaboration.
But we have no hindsight from Larry to balance their biographical narrative.
We do, however, have the lyrics he wrote for 26 Broadway shows and several Hollywood movies.
They range from the simple and sincere — “With a Song In My Heart” — to the playfully brutal — “I Wish I Were In Love Again.”
Here’s a version of “I Wish I Were In Love Again” that Bobbi Carrey and I recorded with Doug Hammer at his great studio north of Boston (with extra musical input from Mike Callahan).
It is tempting to imagine that some clues to his life experiences are encoded into his lyrics.
For example, Larry writes at the end of “I Could Write a Book” from one of his later musicals, Pal Joey: “and the world discovers as my book ends how to make two lovers of friends.”
This lyric makes me wonder about his relationship with the actress and singer Vivienne Segal, one of the stars of Pal Joey who was also his friend and to whom he apparently proposed marriage more than once…
She respectfully declined each time — saying that she had had enough of marriage (she was divorced from a first husband). She was also well aware that Hart was an alcoholic and what we would now describe as a closeted gay man.
Yet Cole Porter, another closeted gay songwriter of the time, had a long, loving, committed marriage to divorcée and millionairess Linda Lee Thomas — while simultaneously carrying on a life-long stream of romantic and sexual liasons with other men.
Porter, like Hart, was also devoted to his mother — although Porter did not share a home with his family for almost his entire life as did Hart.
Lorenz Milton Hart was born on May 2, 1895 and grew up in a boisterous household in Harlem, NY (then a largely Jewish neighborhood) with a father who was well-connected within the Democratic Tammany Hall political establishment.
His father made a living doing a variety of business deals — for example, he was alleged to be an investor in a very popular brothel — and over the years the Hart’s family finances would ebb, when his mother’s jewelry would go to the local pawn shop, and flow, when her jewelry would come out of hock and Larry might be given a $100 bill so that he could take all of his friends out for a night on the town.
It was a tight-knit family.
Larry (or Lorry as he was called by his German-Jewish mother) shared a bedroom with his younger brother Teddy until they were both in their forties.
The Harts regularly hosted parties attended by friends, relatives, local politicians, and — as Larry’s fame mounted — an expanding cast of writers, composers, musicians, performers, stars, groupies and hangers-on.
Larry supported his family after his father died — and he was apparently hounded by people to whom his father owed money for many years afterwards.
Hart was acutely aware of his mother’s wish that he would get married like his brother Teddy, who was a performer and who finally got married in 1938.
But none of the women to whom Larry proposed said yes.
I am reminded of Hart’s lyric for the song “Glad To Be Unhappy” (which I once recorded with Doug on piano at his studio during a rehearsal).
“Fools rush in… so here I am, very glad to be unhappy. I can’t win… so here I am, more than glad to be unhappy. Unrequited love’s a bore, and I’ve got it pretty bad — but for someone you adore, it’s a pleasure to be sad.”
Hart seems to have buried or hidden much of his sadness behind a playful, generous, talkative, enthusiastic personality — as well as a thick haze of cigar smoke and LOTS of alcohol.
And Larry carried on his family’s tradition of hospitality and generosity — helping his father pay off debts and loans when he was still alive, lavishing gifts on friends, hosting endless parties, and picking up the tab when out on the town.
He was also generous with his time and creativity.
His sister-in-law Dorothy Hart claimed, “My brother-in-law wrote more lyrics without getting credit for more friends who were stumped or had songwriters’ block. He was very generous, not only with money, but also with his talents.”
About Larry’s death she says, “He was really, I think, a victim of burnout, and at the age of 48, the theater didn`t offer too much surprise for him, because he had done it all.”
I also wonder what effect the news from Europe during WWII had on his spirit.
Before his death — after Richard Rodgers had begun his new collaboration with their mutual lifelong friend Oscar Hammerstein — Larry had been working on a musical about the underground resistance movement in Paris with a composer who had recently escaped from Germany.
So he must have been very well-informed about recent developments in Germany — from which his parents had emigrated in the late 1800s and to which he had traveled as an adult — and Europe.
How did this excruciating information affect his mood? His spirit? His world view?
One of the last songs he wrote in partnership with Richard Rodgers was a witty tour de force for Vivienne Segal to sing in a 1943 revival — and updated version — of their 1927 hit show A Connecticut Yankee.
It is called “To Keep My Love Alive” and relates how the singer has remained faithful to a long list of husbands (“until death do us part”) by killing each of them in a different way.
One death occurs when the singer pushes her husband off a balcony.
Hart would surely have been aware that Richard Rodgers’ wife’s father had died a few years earlier as a result of a fall from the balcony of their NY penthouse apartment when Rodgers’ father-in-law was being treated for depression.
Might this have been a hidden — and ostensibly humorous — way for him to process some of his feelings about Rodgers having begun a new collaboration with their long-time mutual friend and colleague Oscar Hammerstein, II — the first fruits of which was the musical Oklahoma?
A way to needle Richard and his wife Dorothy under the cloak of music and rhyme?
A way for him to express how he might have felt about Vivienne’s declining to accept his marriage proposals?
I’ve been spending a lot of time with Mr Hart’s life story — and his lyrics — while I put together a program of songs and stories to perform with jazz pianist Joe Reid.
And my freely associative mind can’t help but see — or perhaps more accurately imagine — connections between Hart’s life and his work.
I am wildly grateful that he left such a rich and beautifully-crafted body of work for all of us to savor and sing for many years to come.
As 2015 comes to a close, I find myself singing John Bucchino’s wise song, “Grateful,” a lot.
I love the entire song from start to finish (and you are welcome to listen to a version I recorded during a rehearsal with Doug Hammer a few years ago by activating the player at the beginning of this post).
I think my favorite lyric may be, “It’s not that I don’t want a lot, or hope for more…or dream of more — but giving thanks for what I’ve got, makes me so much happier than keeping score.”
It is very easy to fall into the trap of “keeping score” and comparing one’s accomplishments to one’s peers, to people on TV, to celebrities, etc. etc. etc.
But that path tends to be a dead end — and a recipe for dissatisfaction, unhappiness, depression and discouragement.
So here is a list of things (in no particular order) for which I am grateful.
Health…and health insurance.
A devoted and supportive life partner.
Dr. Charles Cassidy and his surgical team at Tufts Medical Center, who successfully pieced together the shattered bits of bone in my left elbow using several titanium screws of various sizes at the beginning of March.
Opiate drugs — which were a daily blessing during my elbow recovery.
Jazz pianist and composer Steve Sweeting, who invited me to record a CD of his tremendous original songs with him and then did two performances to celebrate “Blame Those Gershwins” in Manhattan and Somerville.
All of the families who have chosen to make Music Together with me in Belmont and Arlington — as well as my MT bosses.
Jinny Sagorin for lending her voice and heart and diplomatic feedback to “The Beauty All Around” performance.
Jazz pianist Joe Reid, with whom I put together programs of music about Jule Styne, Hoagy Carmichael, and Jerome Kern — and with whom I also performed programs of music about Harold Arlen, Cole Porter, and the Gershwin brothers at retirement communities, libraries and synagogues around the greater Boston area.
Exceeding my (modest) financial goals for 2015 — thanks in part to two well-paid musical projects at the beginning of the year.
Kyra and Briony and Jill for a heartful musical adventure in honor of an old friend.
Bobbi Carrey, who is embracing new (although not very musical) challenges in Kuala Lumpur.