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.
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…
I haven’t written a new blog post for over a year.
And I am amazed to discover — after visiting my stats page — that people have continued to visit my site.
THANK YOU to everyone who nosed around my blog while my creativity was lying fallow for the past thirteen months.
I’m sure exactly how or why I stopped writing new posts.
Partly — because we have created an economy which encourages us to replace and discard things as often as possible — I needed a newer computer, which a friend extraordinarily gave to me at the end of last year!
Partly I lost blogging momentum.
And partly I didn’t feel that I had much to share that would brighten anyone’s day.
But I HAVE continued to write new songs as well as create demos of my songs using Apple’s wonderful GarageBand program.
And I have continued to offer hour-long programs of music at retirement communities, assisted living homes, senior centers, and public libraries accompanied by pianist Joe Reid or pianist Molly Ruggles.
I was inspired to finish working on it by the youth-led climate march earlier this month.
As I have mentioned in previous posts, I had a somewhat unusual childhood.
My mom, siblings, and I spent our summers at my grandmother’s home in Queens, NY (where my mom had grown up) while my dad stayed home in Washington, DC.
A few days each week we’d walk to the end of the block, get on a bus to Flushing, and then ride the #7 train into Manhattan so that we could go on interviews for TV commercials, voice-overs, modeling jobs, plays, and movies.
As I look back, I realize that it was rare for us ever to drive anywhere using a car during these summer months. We just used buses or trains.
Maybe this is why I still like to use public transportation.
When we started out, my older sister was five and I was an infant. Eventually my younger brother and sister were born and joined the process.
This is what I looked like as a small child.
My family became very familiar with the lobbies, elevators, and waiting rooms of many advertising agencies (depicted in the TV series Mad Men) such as Young & Rubicam, Doyle, Dane & Bernbach, and Grey Advertising.
The ratio of interviews to actual jobs was very steep — and in my early years we considered ourselves a success if each one of us managed to film one commercial per summer.
However, the summer before fifth grade I was cast as a standby in a musical which was trying out at the newly-built Kennedy Center.
My parents allowed me to do this partly because we could live at home during the out-of-town preview period (although I would miss the start of fifth grade that fall), partly because most Broadway musicals flop, and partly because it would be exciting to watch Bob Fosse and the rest of his creative team build a new show,
The musical — Pippin — proved to be a hit, and we ended up moving to my grandmother’s house in Queens year round.
This is when my and my siblings’ careers gained a lot of momentum — since we were now able to audition for work year-round.
This is what I looked like as my career gained momentum…
During the next three years I ended up doing many commercials, a couple of made-for-TV movies, another play, and a lot of voice-over work.
Then I entered prep school, and my life as a child performer came to an end.
This is my last professional headshot.
With hindsight — and many years of psychotherapy — I have come to see how odd it was to learn to say “yes” to almost anything we were asked in an interview such as “Do you like to eat peanut butter on bananas?” or “Can you roller skate backwards?” or “Would you be comfortable singing and dancing on a tugboat in the harbor?”
People who said “no” (as one of my siblings did when asked if they liked to eat peanut butter on bananas…) didn’t get hired.
We were supposed to say “yes” and then — if we found out we had gotten a callback visit — we quickly learned how to do whatever we had claimed to be able to do during the initial interview.
Even more sobering is to realize that much of the time I was using my g-d given talents to encourage people to buy stuff that they didn’t need (more clothing, for example) or that was unhealthy to ingest (such as Ring Ding Juniors, Lifesavers, Oreos, and Dr. Pepper) as part of an economy built on our ongoing over-consumption of natural resources.
The climate march this week and Greta Thunberg’s speech in Washington, DC a few days before it — in which she explains how necessary it is for all of us human beings to pull the emergency brake NOW on our fossil-fuel-driven lives — gave me a few minutes of much-needed hope.
But I continue to feel deeply discouraged by the stuckness/denial/apathy/fear regarding fossil-fuel consumption and climate change that I see all around me — in the media, in the advertising industry, in my neighborhood, in my friends’ lives.
Almost everyone seems to be continuing to take lots of trips via airplanes and automobiles, continuing to eat lots of meat, continuing to use our air conditioners as much as we want, and continuing to behave as we have been behaving for the past many decades here in these not-so-united states.
And really, why should I expect anything different?
I know from psychotherapy how very difficult it can be to change one’s behavior.
We in the USA have grown up in an era of hopes and dreams and habits and assumptions which are based on using way more than our fair share of fossil fuels.
Of course we can travel anywhere — and as often — as we want.
Of course we can own as large a house as we want.
Of course everyone can own and drive a car, everyone can apply for jobs which require a car to commute, everyone can eat as much as we want in any season of the year — foods which may have traveled thousands of miles before ending up on our plates — and everyone can squander the amazing inheritance of fossil fuels from millions of years of photosynthesis by billions of plants that all of us here on planet earth have inherited.
And if you can’t afford to do these things, you can pay for them using one or more credit cards and become ever more deeply in debt.
As you may know from having read previous blog posts, I am blessed to have cobbled together a very modest living during the past six years (after having been laid off from my day job helping run a non-profit in Harvard Square) which depends largely on bicycling and public transportation.
And I live quite happily without a cell phone.
But my sweetheart of 27 years DOES commute to work using a car.
And I gratefully use his cell phone when we drive to see friends and family around New England and New York.
Another deep sigh.
What will it take for us to pull the emergency brake on our selfish, out of balance, unsustainable, fossil-fuel consuming, all-too-human habits?
I think of the anecdotes I have read about conventional farmers who have converted to more sustainable, organic farming practices — but it’s often (very sadly) because they or someone in their family has developed some sort of disease as a result of exposure to toxic pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers, etc.
I wish we human beings could choose to make deep changes in our life habits without having to experience health/climate crises in our personal lives.
But maybe that’s the path we are on…
What do you think?
How have you changed your daily habits in response to climate change?
Where do you find hope in these challenging times?
Thank you, as always, to the folks who share their photos and graphics at Pixabay which is a wonderful resource for imagery.
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!
Last week jazz pianist Joe Reid and I shared our program of winter holiday songs written or co-written by Jewish lyricists and composers at a retirement community in Newton.
As I have probably noted in previous blog posts, a significant number of great winter holiday songs were written or co-written by Jewish lyricists and composers.
In 1942 Irving Berlin gave us “White Christmas.”
In 1945 Mel Tormé and Bob Wells gave us “The Christmas Song.”
In 1949 Johnny Marks gave us “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”
In 1950 Jay Livingston and Ray Evans gave us “Silver Bells.”
In 1959 Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen gave us “The Secret of Christmas.”
In 1966 Jerry Herman gave us “We Need A Little Christmas.”
In 1995 Jason Robert Brown gave us “Christmas Lullaby,”
And the list goes on and on!
In this political moment here on planet earth — when many are working to arouse a righteous sense of “us” versus ‘them” in their followers — I am grateful to be reminded of the folks who bridge cultures/identities and bring people together.
Mel Tormé’s parents were Jewish immigrants who fled Russia for a new life in the United States. Although he is most famous as a jazz vocalist, he also co-wrote 250+ songs, many of them with Bob Wells (born Robert Levinson), who was also Jewish.
According to Tormé, the song was written during a blistering hot summer day in an effort to “stay cool by thinking cool.”
As Mel recalled, he “saw a spiral pad on Bob’s piano with four lines written in pencil: Chestnuts roasting… Jack Frost nipping… Yuletide carols… Folks dressed up like Eskimos. Bob didn’t think he was writing a song lyric. He said he thought if he could immerse himself in winter, he could cool off. Forty minutes later that song was written. I wrote all the music and some of the lyrics.”
The forty minutes that they devoted to creating that song certainly paid off extraordinarily well for Mr. Wells and Mr. Tormé!
Many songwriters aspire to create a holiday standard, which will then be recorded and performed year after year — generating an ongoing stream of revenue.
When I was first putting together a program of winter holiday songs written or co-written by Jewish composers and lyricists, I worked with the wonderful pianist Megan Henderson — who is now the musical director for the Revels organization, which creates the beloved Christmas Revels held at Sanders Theatre each December.
As we were musing about the different reasons that these winter holiday songs came to be written, we came up with the term, “Christmas ka-ching!” to describe the economic motivation that no doubt was driving some of the songwriters.
Several winter holiday songs were created to be performed in films.
One of my favorite holiday standards, “Silver Bells,” was written by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans for a 1950 movie, The Lemon Drop Kid, where it was sung by Marilyn Maxwell and Bob Hope.
I always associate it with my mother’s mother, a hard-working private nurse who lived in the borough of Queens for most of her life and no doubt did a lot of her holiday shopping on “city sidewalks, busy sidewalks — decked in holiday style.”
Jay Livingston, who wrote the music for “Silver Bells,” and Ray Evans, who wrote the lyrics for “Silver Bells,” were a famous Jewish songwriting team with many hits to their credit including “Mona Lisa” and “Que Sera Sera.”
Jay was born Jacob Harold Levison in 1915 in a small industrial suburb of Pittsburgh, PA, and Ray was born Raymond Bernard Evans — also in 1915 — in Salamanca, not far from Buffalo, N.Y.
They met at the University of Pennsylvania when they both joined the university dance band, and their songwriting partnership endured until Livingston’s death in 2001.
I love the verse — not always sung — they wrote for “Silver Bells.”
“Christmas make you feel emotional. It may bring parties or thoughts devotional. Whatever happens or what may be, here is what Christmastime means to me…”
A contemporary Jewish songwriter, Jason Robert Brown, wrote another one of my favorite winter holiday songs — “Christmas Lullaby” — for his first musical revue called Songs for a New World.
Mr. Brown is an extremely gifted human being who sometimes works as music director, conductor, orchestrator, and pianist for his own productions — and has won Tony Awards for his work on the Broadway musicals Parade and The Bridges of Madison County.
“Christmas Lullaby” honors one of the deepest miracles of all — how a woman (with a little genetic input from a man — or, in the case of Jesus’ mother Mary, with the help of the Holy Spirit) can grow an entirely new human being inside her body.
I think about this miracle in my Music Together classes, because I have been teaching long enough for many mothers — who originally attended with their first child — to become pregnant and return for more music with their second (and even third) child.
Neil Postman wrote at the beginning of his book, The Disappearance of Childhood, that “Children are the living messages we send to a time we will not see.”
Although this sentence also appears in a book published the following year by John Whitehead called, The Stealing of America, it appears to have been coined by Postman.
And regardless of who gets credit for it, I LOVE this idea.
One of my sisters-in-law — who has parented two children and worked with hundreds of others in the public schools of Western, MA — incorporated this quotation into a work of art which I see hanging on her wall every time I visit.
Sometimes I remember during my Music Together classes that part of my modest legacy here on planet earth may be the spontaneous and affirmative musical fun I shared with these extraordinary little souls — who will grow up to face unimaginable challenges stemming in part from the ignorant (and at times utterly greedy) choices that we grownups have made during the past 100+ years.
Perhaps some seeds of improvisation and collaboration and harmony and community and inter-connectedness and playfulness and creativity and love and respect will have been sown during our musical time together — which will blossom to help solve/resolve future challenges in a time that I will not see.
And perhaps these wonderful holiday songs will also travel into the future, continuing to touch and guide people’s hearts and minds for generations to come…
Let’s keep singing and humming and whistling and playing them!
Thank you to all of the songwriters who have created such a great legacy of music for us to share.
Thank you to Joe Reid for performing 47 shows with me in 2017 at retirement communities, public libraries, community centers, memory cafes, and synagogues around New England.
If you are curious to see what’s on our calendar for 2018 you can click here.
Thank you to Doug Hammer for recording — while playing the roles of both pianist AND engineer — the songs in this blog post with me.
Thank you to Nate Bloom, a writer who has made it a personal quest to track down and figure out which winter holiday songs have been written or co-written by Jewish lyricists and songwriters.
And THANK YOU for reading and listening to another blog post!
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!
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.
1) I can again ride my bike to and from Music Together classes.
2) The mulberry trees in Arlington have been particularly generous with their berries this season, and there are many days that my tongue has been colored purple as a result…
3) My sweetheart and I recently visited family in upstate NY, where we were fed currants and bok choy and eggs — all of which were grown on my sister’s farm.
4) And jazz pianist Joe Reid and I continue to perform our hour-long programs of songs written or co-written by Harold Arlen, the Gershwin Brothers, Jule Styne, Hoagy Carmichael and Cole Porter at retirement communities, coffee houses, and libraries around the greater Boston area.
After a recent show, I was speaking with one of the audience members about how — before the arrival of amplified sound in theaters — a song had to be crafted so that it could be sung by a performer and heard way up in the highest balcony seat.
Vowels and consonants and words and notes and melodies and ideas all had to travel from one person’s vocal tract to another person’s ear without the aid of electricity.
As far as I can tell from reading dozens of biographies about songwriters over the past couple of years, there were many factors which allowed this to happen.
a) Theaters were designed with great sensitivity to acoustics.
b) Songs were orchestrated to leave some sonic space for human voices to cut through the overall blend of musical vibrations and be heard.
c) The audience was accustomed to leaning forward and LISTENING carefully — compared with today, when I take earplugs with me in order comfortably to withstand the blast of amplified sound that is the norm in today’s pop music and even in today’s musical theater.
d) The singers — Ethel Merman being one of the most famous examples — knew how to generate potent streams of sound.
e) The songwriters knew how to craft songs with vowels and consonants and rhymes in all the right places while telling a story and advancing the plot.
One of my favorite examples of this craftsmanship is the song “Do I Love You, Do I?” which was written by Cole Porter for his musical DuBarry Was a Lady.
It is extremely fun to sing — especially near the end when the melody of the final “Do I love you, do I?” rises to a big, high note with total ease due to the extremely functional (from a singing point of view) vowel sequence of the two words “do” and “I.”
You can listen to this — and sing along if the spirit moves you — by clicking the song bar at the top of this blog entry. It is a recording I made a while back with the great pianist and songwriter Steve Sweeting when he lived in Brighton, MA.
Steve and I have recently finished recording a nine-sing CD of HIS extremely well-crafted original songs which I will very likely be writing about in future blog posts.
May there be lots of music in your life today and every day!
And thank you, as always, for reading and listening.
It may not always be easy to feel, but it’s always there somewhere — or perhaps everywhere? — waiting to be tapped into.
In the two years since I was laid off from my day job, I have come to understand that music is one of our most accessible — and brilliant — technologies for re-connecting with love.
I experienced another love-filled gig with pianist Joe Reid last Saturday at a retirement community to the south of Boston.
It was the first time we had been there; so I didn’t know what to expect.
I was also feeling a bit concerned that our choice of “Make Someone Happy: The Songs of Jule Styne” — rather than a program of songs by the more familiar Cole Porter or Gershwin Brothers — might have been too risky for a first visit.
But we were warmly welcomed, ushered to a lovely performance space (not too big, not too small — a “just right” Goldilocks fit) with a small grand piano, a good PA system, and an audience of American Popular Songbook aficionados.
The size of the room — and the lighting in the room — made it possible for me to make eye contact with everyone.
Many audience members knew the words to the songs we were performing — and I, inspired by my Music Together classroom experiences, exhorted everyone to hum, tap, snap, or even dance if the spirit moved them.
There is something about the structure of a well-written song that allows — even encourages — one to put one’s heart into the singing of it.
And knowing that a song has a beginning, a middle, and an end somehow makes it safe for me as a singer to experience a wide range of feelings while I am singing it.
I think I have written in previous blog posts about how amazing subtext can be — how simply changing what or whom one is thinking about as one is singing can completely alter one’s interpretation of a particular song.
I have even begun to wonder — as I sing and make eye contact during performances with as many different audience members as are willing to connect in that surprisingly intimate way — whether I start connecting on an unconscious level with some of THEIR subtext, THEIR history, and THEIR associations with a particular song.
Whatever is transpiring energetically, it certainly opens MY heart — and re-connects me to feelings of joy and heart-ache and love and fear and desire and hope and pain.
Afterwards Joe and I listened to the stories that these songs evoked in the residents — tales of huge summer parties near Westport, CT in the 30s and 40s, or of seeingBarbra Streisand in the original production of Funny Girl, or of listening to these songs on the radio with loved ones in the living rooms of their past.
One woman said something like, “We have to have you and Joe back again right away — your singing reached inside and touched my soul.”
This is what I live for.
This is what music can do.
Two strangers can, in a safe and well-boundaried way, touch each other’s souls.
John Lennon knew that.
He wrote the song “Love Is Real” — which I recorded several years ago with Doug Hammer at his Dreamworld Studio. Then I monkeyed with those tracks using Garageband to create the version at the top of this page.
Thirty four years ago John Lennon was killed as he got out of his car and headed into his apartment in NYC.
According to Wikipedia, he had chosen to get out on 72nd Street (rather than the driving into the courtyard of his building) so that he could chat with any fans who might be waiting to say “hi” and ask for an autograph.
In fact, earlier in the day he had autographed a copy of Double Fantasy — the life-affirming album he had recently released with Yoko Ono — for the man who later shot and killed him.
After I heard the horrible news of John’s death, I remember walking along Massachusetts Avenue in Harvard Square, feeling very sad and upset that this could ever have happened.
One loss often awakens previous losses — like a metal chime rippling and echoing through the layers of one’s emotional body and memory.
So, with hindsight, it is very likely that I was also grieving other deaths, other losses, other assassinations — as I grieve tonight…listening to John’s music and reflecting on his inspiring life.
You can click here for a link to a comforting essay I found online which offers perspective about why so many of us continue to be so deeply moved by John’s murder.
I loved John Lennon.
I continue to love his music — as well as the music of all The Beatles.