As our president speaks on the radio about his recent decision to kill an Iranian general (and others) in Iraq, I thought I might share a post about love and melody and music…
John Herndon Mercer was born on November 18, 1909 in Savannah, Georgia.
From the 1930s to the 1960s he co-wrote a slew of hit songs including “Jeepers Creepers,” “Hooray For Hollywood,” “You Must Have Been A Beautiful Baby,” “Come Rain or Come Shine,” “One For My Baby (And One More For The Road),” “Anyplace I Hang My Hat Is Home,” “I’m Old Fashioned,” “Moon River,” “On The Atchison, Topeka And The Santa Fe,” “Too Marvelous For Words,” “Accentuate The Positive,” “That Old Black Magic,” “Blues In The Night,” “In The Cool, Cool, Cool Of The Evening,” “Autumn Leaves,” and “Skylark.”
Mercer was nominated for 19 Academy Awards — winning four Oscars for best original song — and had two successful shows on Broadway.
He was also a popular recording artist AND co-founded Capitol Records!
“Skylark” was published in 1941 — when Europe was engulfed in WWII but the USA had not yet entered the fight…
The song had a long creative gestation.
According to Wikipedia, the composer Hoagy Carmichael was inspired to write the melody for what became “Skylark” by an improvisation which his old friend Bix Beiderbecke — a jazz cornet player — had once played.
Bix’s music and too-short life had already inspired a novel called YOUNG MAN WITH A HORN which Hoagy was hoping to adapt into a Broadway show (and which a decade later provided the source material for a movie of the same name starring Kirk Douglas, Lauren Bacall, Doris Day and Hoagy Carmichael…)
Apparently the Broadway production never gelled, and after that Hoagy shared the melody with Johnny in hopes that he might write lyrics for it.
Different books report different versions of how long it took Johnny to write the lyrics for “Skylark.”
Most agree, however, that it was a long period of time — several months to a year — and that Hoagy had kind of forgotten that Johnny was working on lyrics for it (or at least Hoagy had stopped checking in with Johnny to ask him if he had made any progress…)
Around this time Johnny had started an on-again, off-again love affair with Judy Garland.
He was 31 years old (and married…and upset because his father had recently died) and she — fresh off her success as Dorothy in THE WIZARD OF OZ — was 19 years old.
Many writers have speculated about which of Mercer’s lyrics were inspired by his love for Judy — and “Skylark” is one of the contenders.
Here is Judy in an MGM publicity photo from 1943 — when she was 21 years old.
Beautiful and funny and gifted and smart and hard-working and … inspirational.
Another thing which inspired Johnny was the natural world.
His family had a summer home outside Savannah on a hill overlooking an estuary — and he spent his summers as a child fishing, swimming, sailing, picking berries, and lying very still.
He wrote in an unpublished autobiography, “The roads were still unpaved, made of crushed oyster shell, and…they wound their way under the trees covered with Spanish moss…”
“It was a sweet indolent background for a boy to grow up in…and as we drove out to our place in the country there (were) vistas of marsh grass and long stretches of salt water.”
“It was 12 miles from Savannah, but it might as well have been 100…”
“Out on (our) starlit veranda, I would lie on a hammock and — lulled by the night sounds, the cricket sounds… my eyelids would grow heavy (and I would fall sleep) — safe in the buzz of grown up talk and laughter (and) the sounds of far-off singing…”
I started reading about Johnny Mercer when fellow singer Bobbi Carrey and pianist Doug Hammer and I put together a program of his songs that we performed at Scullers Jazz Club here in Boston.
We also were fortunate enough to perform this program of songs on Spring Island — one of the multitude of barrier islands which run along the Georgia and Carolina coast.
Spring Island was once one of the largest cotton plantations in the southern United States.
And echoes of plantation life remain on the island…
Spring Island is now half wildlife sanctuary and half retirement community for folks who are very wealthy — some of whom love music enough that they would fly me and Bobbi and Doug down to perform in their lovely club house.
Although he enjoyed living in New York and California, Johnny returned home to Georgia on a regular basis — usually via a long train trip since he did not like to fly.
He savored the slower pace of life in his hometown as well as the beauty all around.
Having traveled to Spring Island, I have a much more vivid sense of Johnny Mercer’s roots…
A song like “Skylark” or “Moon River” makes sense in a different way now that I have seen and smelled and tasted and heard the environment where he grew up.
Full of streams…
And big old trees…
Thank you to Bix Beiderbecke and Hoagy Carmichael and Johnny Mercer for creating such a lovely song.
And to Doug Hammer for his spectacular piano playing as well as his super-competent engineering skills.
And to Pixabay and Wikimedia Commons for most of the images in this post.
And to YOU for reading and listening to this blog post!
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!
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.
I have been been blessed to sing wonderful songs written by other people for many decades — as the MP3 player on the right hand sidebar of this page can attest.
And every now and then I have helped to write or co-write a song.
But it wasn’t until a few years ago, when I bought my first ‘ukulele, that I started writing songs on a regular basis.
I love reading about how other songwriters have created their hits.
Composer Harry Warren and lyricist Johnny Mercer wrote “Jeepers, Creepers,” “On The Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe,” and “You Must Have Been A Beautiful Baby.”
Warren gave Mercer the nickname ‘Cloud Boy’.
As Warren explained, “A lot of times when I would play a melody for John… particularly if it was after a good lunch… he’d stretch out on a couch and just lie there with his eyes closed and his hands folded across his stomach. He was way up there some place in the clouds. Of course, what came out later was just great.”
When asked by his father about his creative process, Mercer once said, “I simply get to thinking over the song — pondering over it in my mind — and all of a sudden I get in tune with the Infinite.”
Many songwriters have expressed a similar sentiment — that they feel as though they are acting as a conduit or channel for something greater than themselves.
The lyricist Ira Gershwin said that the composer Harold Arlen would never “approach the simplest musical requirement or idea without first calling upon ‘the fellow up there’ — jabbing his finger at the ceiling.”
I cannot say that I have experienced this phenomenon yet.
I have, however, noticed that lyrical themes sometimes emerge which surprise me and lead a song in a different direction than I had originally intended.
And I have had the inspiring experience of writing a song which gradually became true.
It is called “Can We Slow It Down?” — and I wrote it a couple of years ago when I was working full time at my day job in Harvard Square.
I realized recently when I was practicing it at home that my life has in fact slowed down since I began singing this song.
If you are curious, you can listen to “Can We Slow It Down?” by clicking on the audio player at the top of this page.
I will be singing it plus two other originals as part of a mini-set at a lovely open mic in Lexington — hosted by Nourish Restaurant on Massachusetts Avenue — on Tuesday, November 5, 2013, starting around 7:30 pm.
Steve Heck, a wonderful local pro, is playing the grand piano, and I am singing “Over the Rainbow.”
It is one of the songs in a new show about Harold Arlen I have recently begun performing with pianist Joe Reid.
After Steve takes a piano solo, I re-enter at the bridge of the song (“some day I’ll wish upon a star…”) and then I hear elevator doors opening behind me.
Three women — friends of Steve Heck, I later learn — appear on stage. They did not realize that the elevator would deposit them there.
I turn and, still singing, welcome them in order to escort them across the stage and down into the audience. But as I do this, I realize that they probably love music and very likely know all the words to “Over the Rainbow;” so I encourage them to stay with me onstage and sing — which they happily do.
One woman in particular catches my attention because she is singing a beautiful harmony line in a great, big, functional belting voice. We make eye contact as the song builds to a dramatic and completely spontaneous harmonic climax of “Why oh why can’t I?” — each of us singing at the top of our vocal range, my microphone completely unnecessary.
The entire series of events has lasted less than a minute, and the entire room is happily caught up in the moment.
Afterwards, during a break period, I am asked how I managed to time their arrival so perfectly. I explain that I had never met them before and that the entire experience was utterly spontaneous — unfolding moment by moment with no guidance other than the lyrics of the song and our shared love of music.
I have been experiencing a lot of spontaneous musical moments in the past few months.
Joe Reid and I put together our Harold Arlen show in one rehearsal that lasted about two hours. He is a jazz pianist who is very comfortable in the here and now.
I brought a bunch of sheet music to his house plus a rough idea of a run order. We double checked the keys for all the songs, played each one through once or twice, and Joe was ready to take it public.
So far we have performed at two retirement communities to very enthusiastic audiences (and we did get together for another hour-long rehearsal before our second performance…)
Of course, I spent many additional hours apart from Joe — making sure I know exactly how the song was originally written, reading several books about Arlen I ordered from my local library, memorizing lyrics, and writing the “patter” to lead from one song to the next.
All of which helps me to surrender to the moment when we are performing them.
I have also begun leading Music Together (MT) classes in Arlington and Belmont.
MT is a very-well-researched and very-well-planned program to introduce small children — along with their care-givers — to the joy and fun of music-making.
Although one is expected to learn 30+ new songs (carefully arranged to include a wide variety of keys and rhythms) each semester, one is also encouraged to be spontaneous and improvisatory during each class.
I am sure my training during the past six months to become a MT teacher helped me to go with the flow at the BACA open mic when those three women appeared onstage.
And I have experienced many moments of musical connection with children and parents during my first two weeks of MT classes that have given me a similar jolt of delight.
I think this might be what I am supposed to be doing here on planet earth!
I will end with a version of the Harold Arlen/Johnny Mercer classic, “Accentuate the Positive” that I recorded with pianist Doug Hammer during a rehearsal for the “Mostly Mercer” show that he and Bobbi Carrey and I created last year.
One of my cousins told me about songs she heard as a child from her parents and grandparents — some of which were originally sung by people working outside in gardens and fields as a way (according to my cousin) to pass the time and remain connected with their neighbors.
What a different era of human civilization!
Thanks to my ukulele and the great “Daily Ukulele” songbooks, we sang together most nights on the beach around a camp fire — while the younger members of our family roasted marshmallows and made s’mores for all to eat.
I could do this for hours — and in fact on the last night I did play without a break for over three hours.
Music. Stars above. Friends and family all around. Lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore.