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!
Farrow ends the interview by saying how he remains hopeful even though he has born witness to — and experienced himself directly — intense bullying, surveillance, and threats of retribution during the process of researching and writing his book.
I end this blog post, as I ended my “Humpty Dumpty” song, with a hope that many of us will remain engaged with our country’s political process and vote in the upcoming election cycle.
And I remain grateful to the Pixabay website — where I found all of the images used in this blog post.
And to the folks in my ukulele meetup group who liked this song when I played it for them a couple of weeks ago and asked me to make a recording of it.
And to Apple for their wonderful program GarageBand, which is what I used to record it.
And to you for reading and listening to yet another blog post!
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.
I recorded the song “That’ll Do” when I was part of a vocal quartet called At The Movies many years ago with fellow singers Nina Vansuch and Michael Ricca plus singer/pianist/arranger Brian Patton.
All the songs we performed were related in some way to the film industry.
If you are curious, you can click here for a link to the CD we made together called Reel One.
“That’ll Do” appeared in a movie called Babe: Pig In The City — which was a sequel to the movie Babe.
Both of them featured extraordinarily well-trained animal actors plus a few human actors who illuminate heart-breaking lessons about ostracism and community, betrayal and faith, love and loss.
“That’ll Do” was written by Randy Newman — who has crafted songs and soundtracks for a bunch of movies including the Pixar Toy Story series.
And it was originally sung by Peter Gabriel — who is also a great songwriter as well as a globally-engaged rock musician.
I love the wisdom of this song.
It feels like an antidote to many of the forces wreaking havoc on our cultural, political, and environmental landscapes these days.
How easy it can be to overlook the gentle power of kindness…
In an age of instant gratification, how reassuring to be reminded of the value of perseverance.
My mind immediately connects the concepts of steadiness and balance with boats — canoes, kayaks, row boats, and sail boats.
One doesn’t want to tip too far to the right OR to the left — unless one wants to capsize.
And one has to communicate and cooperate with any other beings (human, dog, cat — yes, our family even took our cats sailing with us on occasion) on the vessel, or else everyone aboard runs the risk of capsizing.
Space exploration notwithstanding, for the foreseeable future planet earth is our shared vessel, our shared home, our shared ark.
And some of us (almost all HUMAN beings) are making choices each and every day that are tipping ALL of us closer and closer to some epic/epoch capsizings.
What choices could each of us make differently which might lead us back in the direction of balance?
How might we live more simply?
How might we consume fewer shared resources?
“That’ll Do” reminds me somehow of social justice, too — of folks who are brave enough to show up and engage in non-violent social protests.
I am pretty sure steadiness is a hallmark of non-violent protest.
As is kindness.
I also appreciate that “That’ll Do” doesn’t espouse perfection as a goal.
The next blog post I write, or music class I lead, or song I create doesn’t have to be perfect.
I do not need to be cowed into inactivity by the powerful illusion of perfection.
Finally, “That’ll Do” reminds me of the humble — yet powerful — concepts of “enough” and “gratitude.”
I am grateful for the extraordinary blessings of today — such as the hundreds of people who work to bring food to my table, water to my faucets, power to my electrical devices, and peace to my neighborhood.
What I have right now is more than enough!
I am grateful to Michael Ricca, Nina Vansuch and Brian Patton for the hundreds of hours we spent rehearsing, performing, and eating home-cooked dinners together.
I am grateful to Randy Newman for writing so many terrific songs, and to Peter Gabriel for putting his heart into the original recording of this song, and to the extraordinary cast and crew of the Babe movies.
I am also grateful to Pixabay for most of the images in this blog post.
And I am grateful to you for reading and listening to another blog post.
Let’s show up with a kind and steady heart… and see what happens.
Anyone who has spent time on the outer arm of Cape Cod can be deeply grateful to John F. Kennedy due to the creation on August 7, 1961 of the Cape Cod National Seashore during his short presidency.
According to Wikipedia — which is where I borrowed this map — it includes over 68 square miles of “ponds, woods and beachfront (in) the Atlantic coastal pine barrens ecoregion.”
It’s also where I and my sweetheart and various family members are fortunate to camp each summer during the last week of July and the first week of August — in North Truro on the Atlantic side of the outer arm (or wrist, really…) of the Cape.
In 2010 the campground where we have stayed for over 25 years — called North of Highland — was protected with a conservation easement thanks to the hard work and generosity of many people and organizations — including JFK’s younger brother, Senator Ted Kennedy.
So hopefully it will remain in operation for generations to come!
For me camping in North Truro is heavenly…
This is a view of our site from a site which some of our family members rent above us.
We are in a bowl which is home to pine trees, grasses, chipmunks, red squirrels, all sorts of birds, lots of ants, a few oak trees, crickets, various fungi, and quite a few blueberry bushes.
There are also visiting dragonflies, bees, mosquitos, horseflies, June bugs — who appear in the evening, attracted by our lights — and on some nights we can hear coyotes howling in the distance.
Although I have never seen a raccoon or opossum or rabbit or turkey or deer at our campsite, on one night someone DID get into our niece’s trash can.
So I am guessing that larger animals are around — just wisely inconspicuous during the day.
I love the way that sunlight dapples the trees and grass — and I love picking a few blueberries each morning.
There weren’t very many this summer, which may be because it has been somewhat dry.
We only experienced rain three times this summer while we were camping — a) on the day we drove down to set up camp, b) once overnight, and c) a substantial storm on the day that we were packing up to return home.
When it rains I imagine how good the moisture must feel on the roots of all of the trees and shrubs and grasses.
Each berry is such a jewel… and hopefully there are plenty more for the folks camping at this site right now as well as for any animals who like to eat them, too.
I spend most of the day in our tent — which is quite spacious — with a ukulele, a little handheld digital recorder, a rhyming dictionary, two lap top computers, and several bags worth of song ideas.
Each morning I stretch and listen to song ideas I’ve accumulated during the previous months — or in some cases years — until something catches my fancy.
Then I focus on that particular idea for the rest of the day — writing lyrics, coming up with chords for a missing bridge, etc.
The song in the player at the beginning of this blog post is one I wrote a few camping sessions ago and later recorded with the pianist Doug Hammer at his studio north of Boston.
This is a view of our (green) screen house — where we cook and eat — and our (orange) tent.If you look past our tents in the upper left corner of this photo, you can glimpse the tent site from which the first photo in this post was taken…
There are many, many things I love about camping.
For example, when we are camping, we become much more aware of our relationship with water — since we are carrying it in big multi-gallon containers down to our campsite for drinking and cooking and cleaning dishes.
Also all of the sinks in the bathrooms at the campground have faucets that automatically shut off after a couple of seconds.
And hot showers cost 25 cents for three minutes of bathing time.
I also love that there are LOTS of stars visible at night.
I went for several long walks along the beach late at night when the sky was clear — and the moon so bright that I didn’t need to use a flashlight to see where I was going.
Being away from street lights and TV screens and radios — while spending hours and hours surrounded by birds and insects and trees and sky — helps me reconnect with what’s important.
Like time with family and friends.
And intact ecosystems.
Before dinner — which is often something delicious cooked by my brother-in-law who bikes to the local fish store on an almost daily basis, bless him — I usually walk down a pine-needle-covered path to the Atlantic ocean and swim.
In recent years the tide and winter storms have created a gully along the beach which ranges in depth from one to five feet depending upon the time of day.
Since there is now a robust population of seals who swim up and down this section of the Atlantic ocean — as well as great white sharks who come to eat them — my family is much happier if I swim laps in the gully rather than in the ocean.
There were a couple of great white shark sightings during our two weeks at the camp ground, and also one day when a bunch of whales cavorted within sight of the beach.
But I did not see them because I was working on new songs in my tent…
Everyday I checked in with a hydrangea plant which grows near the path to the bathrooms and showers.
There was so much happening on this plant — it was a world unto itself!
Every day flowers would unfold new petals.
And bees and wasps and even flies in many different shapes and sizes would gather pollen.
During the course of our time at the campground, several spiders wove webs — which in due time trapped a quite a few meals.
Here is a close up of one of the spiders against a green hydrangea leaf.
Eventually it was time to pack everything up and return home.
This is always a sad and somewhat stressful process for me.
But my sweetheart and family members are very patient, since they know it happens every summer on the last day of our camping adventure.
What doesn’t usually happen, however, is an hours-long rain storm on the day of our departure.
Strangely this lifted my spirits…
I even got to continue working on a new song after our tent was down — with our brown tarpaulin providing protection during a prolonged period of deluge…
Thank you to all of the folks who keep North Of Highland camping area going year after year. I highly recommend it if you are in need of some rejuvenation!
Thank you to Andrew for letting me use his photo looking down towards our camp site, and for making so many delicious meals.
Thank you to the Kennedy family, whose love for — and lobbying on behalf of — Cape Cod has impacted millions of people — and plants and animals — for many, many decades.
Thank you to my sweetheart for all of the beach photos and for letting me use his phone to take photos of the hydrangea and our camp site.
And thank YOU for reading and listening to this blog post.
“Here’s To Life” is a song I recorded with pianist Doug Hammer many years ago
It was written by Phyllis Molinary and Artie Butler and first recorded by Shirley Horn in 1991.
Sometimes people say, “They don’t write songs like they used to.”
I respond that many great songs ARE still being written.
But the era of different pop stars each recording their own version of a particular hit — with different versions of the same song riding up and down the charts simultaneously — are long gone.
So a song like “Here’s To Life” is savored by a few rather than beloved by multitudes.
I had not known anything about Mr. Butler and Ms. Molinary until I started poking around on the internet.
Mr. Butler is a composer, arranger, songwriter, music director, and record producer who has worked on an extraordinary range of songs — including Janis Ian’s “Society’s Child,” Louis Armstrong’s “What A Wonderful World,” and Barry Manilow’s “Copacabana.”
He was inspired to write the tune for “Here’s To Life” after watching Johnny Carson interview George Burns on The Tonight Show.
He gave it to a few different lyricists before Phyllis Molinary (about whom I have not been able to learn much of anything…) wrote the set of lyrics which became “Here’s To Life.”
And now we are all blessed with this wise and elegant song…
It reminds me of a birthday party I recently attended for a vibrant eighty-year-old who has lived much of her life in western Massachusetts.
Before dessert was served, many of her friends shared stories about their relationships with her.
In her understated, thoughtful, generous, organized, humorous, and wide-minded — as one woman from South America described her — way, this woman has touched thousands of her fellow human beings in significant ways.
She taught for many decades at her local college, serving as the head of the psychology department (if I am remembering correctly) and also overseeing the college’s counseling center.
She has advised several generations of students, mentored countless faculty members, led the campus teachers’ union, been very active in town politics, and on and on and on…
I know her mainly as a very faithful cousin-in-law.
She always visits during the winter holidays, bringing gifts for everyone and sharing stories about a web of family and friends she has accumulated around the planet.
And she shares her perspectives on what is happening locally — what options her town is exploring to mitigate an underground plume of contamination that the water department has recently discovered, for example, or how a new local restaurant (which she, of course, is eager to support) is faring.
She has a gentle finger on the pulse of her town…
Her birthday party was held at a local retreat center which is run by a very ecologically-minded order of nuns.
As the festivities were winding down, we were invited and encouraged to explore the property.
They have converted a huge carriage house — originally built in the late 1800s by the Crane family, who earned a lot of money making paper (including the paper which is still used to print US currency) — into a function hall.
On the second floor of the carriage house they have created many different areas where guests can make art, meditate, read, pray, explore eco-spirituality, marvel at the miracle of evolution, and rejuvenate their souls.
Outside the carriage house are fruit trees, free-ranging chickens, a labyrinth, a cathedral of very tall pine trees, a huge community garden, and lots of flowers.
I found these great photographs on Pixabay, and I am grateful to all of the photographers who have shared their images there.
I am also grateful to Doug Hammer, for his exquisite piano playing and terrific engineering skills.
And to the birthday woman whose life is an ongoing inspiration for how to move through the world with empathy and wisdom and generosity and balance.
And to the Genesis Spiritual Life and Conference Center for inviting us to roam around their property after her birthday gathering.
And to Art and Phyllis for writing such a lovely song.
And to you for reading and listening to another blog post.
A healthy and happy summer to you — full of berries and flowers and friends and family (unless you are reading this from somewhere in the southern hemisphere, in which case I wish you delicious winter adventures instead…)
May all your storms be weathered, and may all that’s good get better.
Last Sunday jazz pianist Joe Reid and I debuted a one-hour program of music devoted to the composer Harry Warren at an enthusiastic retirement community in Milton, MA.
Mr. Warren had a long and extraordinarily successful career as a songwriter, but his name is not as familiar as that of Irving Berlin, Cole Porter or the Gershwin Brothers — all of whom were his contemporaries.
Warren and lyricist Al Dubin wrote the first song in this blog post, “Lullaby Of Broadway,” for the Hollywood movie musical Gold Diggers of 1935 — and it earned them an Academy Award for Best Song in a Motion Picture.
It’s kind of ironic, however, that this love song to Broadway was written in California.
Harry had grown up in New York, and wanted for much of his adult life to move back east and write for the theater.
But he ended up living in California for over 50 years — where he composed more than 400 songs for 90 different movies.
And the songs he co-wrote — including such gems as “The More I See You,” “Serenade In Blue,” “Chattanooga Choo Choo,””The Boulevard of Broken Dreams,” and “At Last” — continue to be performed at weddings, included in commercials, featured in movies, etc. to this day!
Harry was the born on Christmas Eve, 1893, in Brooklyn, NY, and he was christened Salvatore Antonio Guaragna — the second youngest of eleven children. His father was a successful custom boot maker who had emigrated from Italy and changed the family name from Gauragna to Warren when Harry was a child.
Harry was very musically inclined, teaching himself how to play his father’s accordion as well as singing in the choir at his Catholic church. He dropped out of school at age 16 to play drums with his godfather in a band that toured up and down the Hudson River valley with a traveling carnival.
He also taught himself to play the piano, and ended up finding employment at the Vitagraph Motion Picture Studios in Brooklyn, NY, doing a wide variety of tasks including prop master, assistant director, and accompanist for the silent movie star Corinne Griffith to help her summon different emotions while she filmed her scenes.
During WWI he joined the Navy and was stationed at the tip of Long Island in Montauk. Since he played piano, he ended up entertaining his fellow soldiers a lot — and also started writing his first original songs.
In December 1918, right after the war had ended, he married Josephine Wensler, and their first child, Harry Junior, arrived the next year.
After WWI, Harry found work playing piano in cafes, bars, and silent movie theaters in order to support his young family.
In 1920 a couple of men from a music publishing company heard him playing piano in a Brooklyn saloon — including one of his original songs, “I Learned To Love You When I Learned My ABCs.” They brought him to meet their boss, Ruby Cowan, who hired him as a staff pianist and a song plugger.
He spent his days and nights visiting theaters, clubs, bars and restaurants all around Brooklyn in order to pitch his company’s latest songs to vaudeville performers, band leaders — anyone who might perform the song and thus help to make it popular so that people would buy sheet music which they could play at home.
Warren later claimed that his basic shyness prevented him from being particularly effective as a song plugger — and perhaps this shyness is also part of the reason why his name hasn’t become better known by the American public.
His first hit, “Rose Of The Rio Grande,” was a collaboration with composer Ross Gorman and lyricist Edgar Leslie in April 1922.
Gradually he was able to do less song plugging and more composing — collaborating with lyricists such as Gus Kahn, Ted Koehler, Irving Kahal and Ira Gershwin (when his brother George was focused on one of his classical music projects) among others…
Harry’s early hits caught the attention of Hollywood, and from 1929-1932 he wrote songs for several minor movies — commuting via the train from New York to Hollywood and back again.
But he did not enjoy his time in California, finding it too parochial — and disrespectful to songwriters.
He later explained: “It was nothing like it is today. The railway station was a wooden building. If you rented a car, you were lucky the wheels didn’t fall off, and there were very few decent places to eat. Hollywood looked to me like a small town in South Dakota, and when you finally got to the Warners studio in Burbank, it was like being on the frontier. You could look out the windows of the music department at the San Fernando Valley and see nothing but wide open land. All I could think about was New York. What made it even worse, the studio was empty — they had laid off most of their people for the summer. Although they had made a fortune with The Jazz Singer in 1927, by the summer of 1932 they were in real trouble.”
Many executives in Hollywood thought movie musicals were done after a flood of them were produced following the 1927 success of the first talking/singing motion picture, The Jazz Singer.
But Darryl Zanuck at Warner Brothers had a hunch that new technologies and the creative vision of Busby Berkeley might turn things around.
So in 1932 Warren was lured back west by Zanuck to write a complete score for a new film, 42nd Street, with lyricist Al Dubin.
And as it turned out, Depression-era audiences were cheered by the singing and dancing of Ruby Keeler and Dick Powell and wowed by Berkeley’s innovative, grandiose and oftentimes bizarre group dance extravaganzas.
Here’s a photo of Al Dubin, Busby Berkeley and Harren Warren at the Warner Brothers studio.
42nd Street yielded several hits, including the title song, “42nd Street,” “Shuffle Off to Buffalo,” and “You’re Getting To Be A Habit With Me” — which has now become a habit with me (and which I find myself singing at all hours of the day and night).
42nd Street had been completed by the end of 1932, but Warner Brothers waited until spring of 1933 to release it.
Warren had returned to his office in New York at the Remick music publishing company.
He still hoped his future would be in Broadway theaters.
However, 42nd Street tested so successfully with preview audiences before it was released that Warner Brothers rushed a similar film into production — Gold Diggers of 1933, which was filmed in 28 days!
Warren and Dubin wrote five songs for Gold Diggers of 1933 and then signed a contract — renewable annually at Warner Brothers’ discretion — to continue writing songs there.
And since he proved to be a tremendous composer of hit songs, his contract was renewed over and over again — thus keeping him in California.
Gold Diggers of 1933 outdoes 42nd Street in the wildness and lavishness of its production numbers.
Busby Berkeley was now the man of the hour and was given more or less free rein to pursue his cinematic visions.
For example, the movie opens with Ginger Rogers and a chorus line of women all wearing bikinis made out of huge coins singing the optimistic anthem to capitalism, “We’re In The Money.”
During the rest of the 1930s Harry Warren worked on 20 movie musicals with Al Dubin — for which they created standards such as “I Only Have Eyes For You,” “Lulu’s Back In Town,” and “September In the Rain.”
Often the songs Warren and Dubin created had very little to do with the plot.
But they DID fuel the imagination of Busby Berkeley.
He would get inspired by their song titles and then manage — in some fantastic and unusual way — to include their songs in the plot of the movie.
In the 1934 film Dames Dick Powell’s character sings “I Only Have Eyes For You” to Ruby Keeler’s character on the Staten Island ferry.
Then they both fall asleep on the subway, and he dreams that he sees Ruby’s face everywhere — floating in geometrical patterns in the air, and then on the faces of a huge chorus of women who are all wearing masks of Ruby Keeler’s face while climbing up and down huge staircases and/or riding an elegant Ferris wheel.
At the climax of the song, all of these women bend over and form a giant mosaic of Ruby’s face using painted puzzle pieces on their backs.
If you have never seen this movie sequence, you can find it on YouTube.
It’s quite surreal.
This is not the only hit song Harry wrote about eyes.
In 1938 he wrote a song with lyricist Johnny Mercer for Louis Armstrong to sing in the Warner Brothers movie Going Places.
Armstrong plays the trainer of a wild-tempered race horse who only calms down when Mr. Armstrong’s character sings or plays this next song on the trumpet to him.
Given Mr. Armstrong’s decades-long relationship with marijuana — which he once described as being “a thousand times better than whiskey” — I have to think that the lyric might also have been something of an in joke between Mercer, Warren, Armstrong, and their fellow musicians.
Mr. Warren had a deep well of melodic ideas which he tapped into whenever he was composing a song.
Usually he and his lyricist would come up with a title and bat around ideas for lyrics.
Then Harry would compose a melody for which the lyricist would write words.
The list of great songs for which Harry Warren composed the music is quite extraordinary.
From 1931 – 1945, Harry co-wrote more hit songs than Irving Berlin, and had more Oscar nominations for best song (11) and wins (3) than Berlin, George Gershwin, Cole Porter, or Hoagie Carmichael.
Warren ended up winning an Oscar three times — for the afore-mentioned “Lullaby Of Broadway” with lyricist Al Dubin, “You’ll Never Know” with the lyricist Mack Gordon, and “On The Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe” with lyricist Johnny Mercer.
Warren also had more hit records — 42 songs! — on “Your Hit Parade” than any of his peers.
And yet his name is not familiar to many of us.
There appear to be many reasons for this.
As mentioned earlier, Harry was a shy man and not much of a schmoozer.
He didn’t go to a lot of Hollywood parties where a songwriter might sit down and promote his catalog of songs.
He also didn’t hire a publicist to keep his name in the papers the way many of his fellow songwriters did.
In fact at one point a few of his friends hired a publicist for Harry on his behalf, and Harry fired the man as soon as he found himself mentioned in a gossip column.
I was steered towards Warren and his music by a chapter called “I’m Just Wild About Harry Warren” in one of Michael Feinstein’s terrific books — Nice Work If You Can Get It: My Life In Rhythm and Rhyme.
Michael befriended Harry near the end of his life, and has championed his music ever since.
Feinstein’s anecdotes about Warren provide a lot of texture and detail which other biographies omit or gloss over.
For example, the man who wrote the music for so many happy songs was heart-broken by the sudden death of his son Harry, Jr. in 1938.
And according to Feinstein, Warren’s marriage remained deeply scarred by this tragedy for decades afterwards…
Deep breath in.
Deep breath out.
During his decades-long career in Hollywood, Harry worked primarily for four movie studios: Warner Brothers in the 30s, 20th Century-Fox in the early 40s, MGM in the later 40s, and finally Paramount in the 50s.
He co-wrote his last big hit — “That’s Amore” — with lyricist Jack Brooks in 1953 for Paramount’s movie The Caddy starring Dean Martin (which earned Warren his tenth Oscar nomination for best song in a motion picture).
In the mid-1950s, however, Hollywood stopped making many big musical films — so Harry expanded his horizons.
In 1955 he co-wrote the theme song for the TV show The Life and Legend Of Wyatt Earp.
He also wrote scores and title songs for dramatic movies including “Marty” in 1955, and “An Affair To Remember” in 1957 — and continued writing songs for Jerry Lewis’ comedic movies after Dean and Jerry parted ways.
He even returned to Broadway with a musical, Shangri-la, based on a James Hilton novel which sadly was not a success.
To keep himself busy, he composed a bunch of short piano vignettes, and in 1962 wrote a complete Catholic mass with Latin text.
One of his biggest successes came in 1980, when producer David Merrick and director/choreographer Gower Champion adapted the original 1933 Hollywood blockbuster 42nd Street into a Broadway musical which also included many other songs Warren and Dubin had written for Warner Brothers movies.
Warren’s lifelong dream of having a hit show on Broadway was realized.
And yet, according to Michael Feinstein, Merrick and Champion were not very inclusive of — or respectful to — Harry, even managing to leave his name off the poster for what became a huge musical success.
So — although it earned him plenty of money — the Broadway version of 42nd Street brought him very little happiness or satisfaction.
Another deep breath in.
I am going to end this blog post with song Harry wrote with lyricist Mack Gordon for the 1942 20th Century Fox film Iceland.
I am well aware that my ongoing curiosity about the songs, songwriters, and performers of bygone eras is in large part a coping mechanism to drown out the distressing realities of our current political landscape here in the USA.
Perhaps his songs will give you a few minutes of solace and distraction, too!
And yet the real world in which most of Warren’s songs were written included a huge economic crisis, the genocides of millions of human beings, the use of atomic weapons, public lynchings, and many, many other horrific undertakings by the human species.
Blessedly his songs have survived — with some of us still singing them.
As I was finishing the first draft of the patter for our hour-long program of Harry’s songs, I learned that the wonderful jazz singer Rebecca Parris — who was based in Duxbury on the South Shore of Boston with her partner, the pianist Paul McWilliams — had died after sitting in for a couple of songs with McWilliams at the Riverway Lobster House in South Yarmouth, MA.
I also learned from reading her obituary in a local paper that “There Will Never Be Another You” was the last song she performed before leaving the restaurant, collapsing outside., and being taken to Cape Cod Hospital.
So it seems a fitting way to end this blog post in honor of Harry and in honor of Rebecca — and in honor of all of the other singers who have breathed life into Harry’s songs over the past nine decades.
Thank you to Doug Hammer for playing piano so beautifully while simultaneously recording all of these songs with me so that I would have accurate versions of Harry’s songs to practice and learn.
Thank you to Joe Reid for playing over 50 shows a year with me in retirement communities, restaurants, synagogues, assisted living homes, senior centers, and coffee houses around the greater Boston area.
Thank you to Harry Warren and his lyrical collaborators for writing these songs.
Thank you to Michael Feinstein and others who have written about Harry.
And thank YOU for reading and listening to what I know is a lengthy post.
Let’s keep humming and singing Harry’s songs for years to come!
My father (pictured above) died a year and a half ago.
He was a loving man who sang to me and my siblings at bedtime when we were young.
He didn’t teach me much about business or money — unless it was to inspire me to make different decisions than he did regarding concepts like saving…
But he was always willing to talk and listen.
At one point when he needed to stop driving, sell a trailer home he owned which was costing him money, and do some strategic planning regarding his declining health, two of my siblings and I and he met with a mediator.
It was not easy or fun to meet with a mediator, but we emerged with an agreed-upon list of things that needed to be accomplished.
And bless him, he accomplished everything on the list (with significant help from my older sister, with whom he lived for many years…)
As his health declined and he became less and less mobile, the sweetest way to spend time with him was sitting by his bed and playing the ukulele.
He loved to sing — even when his face was more and more disfigured by the cancer which eventually wore him out — and knew lots of standards from the 1920s – 1970s.
The wonderful team of David Shire (composer) and Richard Maltby, Jr. (lyricist) wrote a song called “If I Sing” which always touches my heart.
It was inspired by a visit which David Shire made to his father who was living in a retirement community/nursing home.
When I perform “If I Sing,” I am very grateful that my dad shared his love of music with me.
And I think of several male voice teachers who have nurtured me over the past couple of decades.
And I think of my step father, who was a professional flautist for many years — and is now a passionate music educator who loves his students and continues to teach in his 80s.
A heartful Father’s Day to you, dear reader.
I am well aware that not everyone is blessed with a loving and functional father — or even a father at all…
However, I hope you are able to feel grateful for something your dad — or a trustworthy male teacher, or minister, or rabbi, or mentor — has given you.
Thank you for reading and watching and listening to this blog post.
Thank you, too, to Maltby & Shire for writing such a terrific song.
And thank you to Mike Callahan — himself now an enthusiastic and loving father! — for creating this great orchestration, for inviting me to sing with the Timberlane pops orchestra, and for conducting the orchestra so tenderly and skillfully.
Although Ryan Zinke held much more conservationist views when he was a Montana state senator — acknowledging climate change as a significant threat to US national security, for example — now that he is Secretary of the Interior, he is working hard to remove burdensome regulations to industry on public land and in our coastal waters.
He even reversed a recent ban on lead ammunition in wildlife refuges designed to protect birds that eat carrion.
The article concluded by saying that — while it is possible future elections will nudge our leadership back in more sustainable and respectful directions — the damage already being done to our public lands and wildlife will take decades to re-balance or repair (which, of course, is not even possible when a plant or animal becomes extinct…)
Somehow this article has thrown me into what I trust is a temporary tailspin of depression and hopelessness.
As lyricist Fran Landesman once noted, spring can really hang you up the most…
Obviously there is SO MUCH that we human beings need to do to reduce and re-balance our patterns of consumption and destruction as soon as humanly possible.
And yet so many of us — me included — are unable to change a lifetime of habits and assumptions and behaviors in order seriously to address the coming environmental challenges/catastrophes/opportunities.
For example, many of us who are blessed to live in countries such as the United States continue to think, “Of course I deserve to travel as much as I can afford.”
And even if we can’t afford a plane trip to someplace warm (or intriguing or affordable or colorful) we are strongly urged by our morally bankrupt financial institutions to pay for it using a credit card…or two…or three.
How many of us are basically indentured servants to our credit card companies, making minimum payments yet never paying off all our accumulated debt?
Another assumption I find odd is that most of us continue to think that we deserve to have one — or more — cars.
Of course, this is often related to the fact that many of us think that we deserve to live wherever we like — places which may not be located anywhere near public transportation, for example — so, of course, we have to have a car in order to get to work, to shop, to visit friends and family, to drive to the gym (the practice of which I truly don’t understand… why not ride your bike or walk to the gym? Or ride your bike/walk/run instead of joining a gym and donate what you used to pay for your gym membership to a deserving non-profit group?) etc.
And how about those of us who feel that we deserve to own vacation homes — sometimes built in very unwise locations?
Many of these structures sit uninhabited for weeks or months at a time, consuming fuel/electricity so that the pipes don’t freeze, or so that the house doesn’t get too humid, or so that the burglar alarms are functioning…
The list of possessions and privileges to which many of us aspire is loooong — and has been extremely well-marketed for at least a couple of generations here in the USA.
Yet so few of us seem to be able or willing to pause and ponder the consequences of our consumption…
And global greenhouse gas levels continue to rise.
And weather becomes more erratic — affecting wildlife habitats as well as human agriculture (and thus the ability of more and more countries to feed their citizens).
And plastic — some of it visible and some of it in tiny fibers — continues to pollute the waters of planet earth and contaminate aquatic life on all levels of the food chain.
Sadly — depressingly — tragically — hubristically — the list of human pollution, deforestation, and environmental degradation goes on and on and on…
I often feel — as I watch TV or listen to the radio or use the internet — that I have entered a frantic cocoon created solely so that we human beings can hide (for couple of hours or for an entire lifetime) from the terrifying realities of the larger patterns/feedback loops which are unfolding/unraveling right now on planet earth.
And I want to say — to myself and to most of my fellow human beings here in the USA — WAKE UP!!!
Often this is when I catch a cold.
And I stay home and write a blog post like this…
I am aware that I am extremely blessed to live a life where I can moan about larger environmental challenges because my basic needs for food, clothing, shelter, employment, love, and respect have already been met.
However, I am also aware that anyone writing or reading a blog post is using electricity and some sort of magical electronic device which contains metals mined all over the planet by human beings under inhumane conditions as well as plastic from fossil fuels — and which have most likely been assembled by human beings working under inhumane conditions.
And my other job — sharing one-hour programs of beloved standards at retirement communities, assisted living facilities, and public libraries — involves driving many miles per month in a trusty, high mileage Prius belonging to the jazz pianist Joe Reid, with whom I do 50+ gigs per year.
So I am utterly complicit.
And I wonder what the f–k I am doing with my one precious life here on planet earth.
Yet I also know that music matters in some way — that it can touch our hearts and even inspire us to do unimaginably courageous things.
A documentary I watched recently about James Baldwin reminded me that there was a lot of singing by heroic non-violent protestors as they were marching… and as they were being beaten… and as they were being thrown into police vehicles.
Deep breath in.
Deep breath out.
What do you think/feel about any of this, dear reader?
What do you think/feel about the sad news that Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain — two people who have achieved international success, wealth, fame, influence, celebrity, and in theory the happiness which success/wealth/fame/influence/celebrity are alleged to bring — have taken their own lives during this past week?
Another deep breath in.
And deep breath out.
Thank you to David Friedman for writing such compelling songs.
Thank you to Bobbi Carrey for her musical collaboration over the past 15 years.
Thank you to Doug Hammer for his piano playing, engineering, production wizardry, patience, and humor.
Thank you to Mike Callahan for his vocal arrangements.
Thank you to Pixabay for the images in this blog post.
And thank YOU for making time so that you could read and listen to another blog post.
Today’s post is inspired by the act of collaboration.
Theater is all about collaboration — as are many forms of music.
I have been part of a musical collaboration with singer Bobbi Carrey for almost 20 years.
The song at the beginning of this blog post — “If I Loved You” — was written by Oscar Hammerstein II and Richard Rodgers for their musical Carousel.
Both Hammerstein and Rodgers had achieved tremendous success working with other collaborators before they joined forces during WWII to create the musical Oklahoma!
Following the triumph of Oklahoma! they rose to new heights, co-creating a new musical every couple of years — interspersed with producing plays and musicals (such as Annie Get Your Gun) created by others.
And as their extraordinary list of hit shows — including South Pacific, The King and I, Flower Drum Song and The Sound of Music — expanded, they also devoted a considerable amount of time to overseeing touring companies, movie adaptations, and revivals of their work.
It was an extraordinary creative and business collaboration — the fruits of which will continue to be harvested and celebrated for decades to come!
Collaboration can be a mysterious process — and theirs was not without its challenges.
But they persevered, remained respectful of each other’s gifts, and left an astounding body of work for the rest of us to savor for decades to come.
Pianist/composer/engineer/producer Doug Hammer, singer Bobbi Carrey and I recorded “If I Loved You” — one of their most beautiful ballads — for a CD we put together with exquisite arrangement input (both vocal and instrumental) from Michael Callahan.
Mike wrote the cello part on this recording of “If I Loved You,” for example.
My collaboration with Bobbi, too, has included a variety of challenges — and we have also respectfully persevered
Right now, due to a variety of factors, our collaboration is in a fallow period.
Mike is busy being a music professor at Michigan State as well as an enthusiastic husband and father.
Doug’s career as a composer, producer and touring musician — in addition to being a devoted husband and father of two terrific sons — has meant that he is less available to perform with singers (although regular readers/listeners of this blog know that he is still willing to make music together in his wonderful home studio on the north shore of Boston).
Bobbi was working for a while in various parts of Asia — with a home base in Kuala Lumpur.
And I — now that I am making a very modest living as a singer, songwriter and teacher — am (somewhat paradoxically) less available to collaborate with Bobbi than when I had a full-time, non-musical day job.
Blessedly, recording technology exists so that all of the collaboration we did together has not evaporated without a trace.
Stephen Sondheim wrote it for the musical Company, and it paints a slightly different picture of love and marriage (another type of collaboration) than one might find in a Rodgers & Hammerstein show.
I have loved this song ever since my parents bought the cast album — which I listened to again and again and again as a child.
Sondheim knew both Rodgers and Hammerstein very well, having been unofficially adopted into the Hammerstein family when he was a teenager.
Hammerstein became a role model and mentor for Sondheim as he, too, devoted himself to musical theater and songwriting.
And after Hammerstein died, Sondheim even collaborated as a lyricist with Richard Rodgers on a show called Do I Hear A Waltz? — along with one of Sondheim’s collaborators from West Side Story, librettist Arthur Laurents.
As someone who writes songs, I am always curious to learn more about the lives, practices, and habits of other songwriters.
I forget where I read it (maybe in one of Laurents’ great memoirs? or one of Sondheim’s terrific books about his own creative process?) but I was surprised to learn that Sondheim — with Laurents’ approval and support — transformed chunks of the dialogue which Laurents wrote for early drafts of the West Side Story libretto into lyrics for certain songs in West Side Story.
And Laurents did not ask for co-credit on the lyrics for these songs,
It was simply part of their generous and respectful collaborative process.
Now Sondheim continues to support, nurture, encourage and inspire new generations of musical-theater-lovers. librettists, songwriters, and performers.
Thank you to Sondheim and Laurents and Rodgers and Hammerstein — and all of their scenic, costuming, choreographic, lighting, casting, directorial, production, and performance collaborators — for leaving us an extraordinary body of songs and shows and ideas.
Thank you to Bobbi Carrey, Doug Hammer, Mike Callahan, Jon Lupfer (who did the final mix of our CD at Q Division), Jonathan Wyner (who mastered our CD at M Works), and the musicians who played on it — Mark Carlsen (bass), Jane Hemenway (violin), Mike Monaghan (tenor sax and flute), Gene Roma (drums, percussion), Johann Soults (cello), and Kenny Wenzel (trombone).
Thank you to the internet for the photos of Rodgers, Hammerstein, Sondheim, Callahan, and Hammer.
Thank you to Paul Forlenza for the photos of Bobbi and me.
And thank YOU for reading and listening to this post!
What have YOUR experiences with collaboration taught you?