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At the Intersection of Abbey Road and Tin Pan Alley (Field Notes From a Music Biz Life, Part 3)

‘Ebb Tide,’ oil on panel, painting by Teri Melo
‘Ebb Tide,’ oil on panel, painting by Teri Melo

 

[box_dark]This is part three in a series of excerpts from the forthcoming book Field Notes from a Music Biz Life.[/box_dark]

[dropcap]B[/dropcap]y the late ’50s, Carl had racked up a decade of hits along with a certain amount of unwelcome notoriety. One day, Mom answered the front doorbell to find a rank stranger with her daughter in tow. The stranger asked if they could come in and watch Carl write a song. Without missing a downbeat, Mom said, “He does most of his writing on the john.”

She was protecting a man who sought anonymity almost as avidly as he sought hits. When book agents began calling to ask him to write his autobiography, Carl invariably declined. He was horrified at the prospect of sharing personal information with the public. And by then his golf game interested him far more than his past.

But successful agents see “no” as an inevitable speed bump on the otherwise smooth road to “yes.” In 1972, when I was a year out of college and editing the music biz trade magazine Record World, an agent who’d been firmly rebuffed by Carl called to say a book deal was in the offing. All Carl had to do was submit a sample chapter. I said I’d see what I could do.

Roy Hamilton, ‘Ebb Tide’

Carl’s early tee times were sacred, so I had only a few minutes the following Saturday morning to make my case. Over sunny side up eggs and buttered Wonder-toast, I laid out a vision: a book would extend his string of charttoppers, I explained. But this time there’d be no worrying about hippie promo men, rock ‘n’ roll DJs, and record store clerks who didn’t know Frank Sinatra from Eddie Fisher. So what if this chart would be the New York Times best-seller list and not the Billboard Hot 100?

Carl was unconvinced, but he didn’t say no. As he rushed out the door, he said over his shoulder, “You write the chapter.”

Though Carl considered himself a craftsman, not an artist, he conceded that once every decade or so inspiration would arrive, unbidden, and a song would, as he put it, “write itself.” I decided to make the chapter about one of those rare songs.

That chapter is long gone and the book never materialized, but the song, now in its seventh decade, has had a profound effect on many lives, including mine.

***

Early in 1953, the No. 1 record in the country was “Ebb Tide,” an instrumental by Frank Chacksfield and his Orchestra. Singers were clamoring to be the first to cut what was sure to be a smash.

Alas, no lyric existed. That prompted an SOS call to Carl from the powerful publisher Jack Robbins, who owned the copyright to harpist/composer Robert Maxwell’s stirring melody.

The mission impossible: write a brilliant lyric, and write it yesterday. Carl chose to accept it.

Carl was undaunted by the deadline; he’d written one of his biggest hits, “My Heart Cries For You,” in 10 minutes at the trotters with Percy Faith. And he adored the tune. What he couldn’t fathom was how to write a lyric about Ebb Tide. Who says those two words together? And where are the rhymes? Spider-web Tide? Celeb Tide? Schmebb Tide?

For four fitful days and nights, Carl played the opening phrases of the tune endlessly on the upright piano in his den, hoping a few words would wed themselves to those majestic tones. The only words that came were in response to the publisher’s increasingly angry calls: “I’m working on it.”

On the fifth day, Carl rested. Ho opened the paper to see what movies were playing in town and the muse struck in the form of an ad for the World War II romance From Here to Eternity.

“I took one look at the image of Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr locked in an embrace on the beach as the tide washes over them,” Carl said, “and it seemed so natural and simple. I couldn’t understand why I hadn’t thought of it before. I wrote out the lyric with scarcely a moment of reflection.”

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1-_YxeqM0Xs

Frank Sinatra, ‘Ebb Tide’

Vic Damone became the first to hit the Top 10 with “Ebb Tide” a few months later. I was just four, but I remember the joy that filled our house when it came on the radio. Mom would yell, “Plug!” I’d yell back, “Victor Moan is a hit!”

A flood of covers followed. Roy Hamilton’s towering rendition, which went Top 5 R&B in ’54, was the best of the early versions. Even more stunning was Frank Sinatra’s reading for his canonical 1958 album, Frank Sinatra Sings for Only the Lonely, which featured a Nelson Riddle string arrangement that flowed mightily enough to make even the most landlocked listener feel that the beach–and true love–were at hand.

Bob Dylan wrote in his autobiography about the impact he felt from Carl’s lyric: “I used to play the phenomenal ‘Ebb Tide’ by Frank Sinatra a lot and it had never failed to fill me with awe. The lyrics were so mystifying and stupendous. When Frank sang that song, I could hear everything in his voice–death, God and the universe, everything.”

First the tide rushes in

Plants a kiss on the shore

Then rolls out to sea

And the sea is very still once more

 

So I rush to your side

Like the oncoming tide

With one burning thought

Will your arms open wide?

 

At last, we’re face to face

And as we kiss through an embrace

I can tell, I can feel

You are love, you are real

Really mine

 

In the rain, in the dark, in the sun

Like the tide at its ebb

I’m at peace in the web

Of your arms

The Platters’ 1960 recording of “Ebb Tide” was only a moderate hit, but it saved my pre-teen life. I was in my senior year at Kensington School; in other words, sixth grade. I was obsessed with a girl named Kerry but was way too shy to tell her. So one day I asked my friend Ricky to do it. That night, after a few hours of tortured tossing and turning, I planted the Platters’ platter on my tiny turntable and played it again and again. The sound of Tony Williams’ otherworldly voice singing words created down the hall from my bedroom was so powerful I almost forgot how miserable I felt.

Almost, but not quite. I wasn’t more optimistic about my chances with Kerry. But I knew I belonged to a universe vast enough that somewhere people like me were falling in love and being loved back.

The next morning, Ricky reported that Kerry did indeed like me–which, after a moment of spectacular relief, had me erupting in a cold sweat and feeling as others must feel like when in the throes of a nervous breakdown.

The Platters, ‘Ebb Tide

Five years later, “Ebb Tide” was at it again.

It was late Fall of my junior year at Great Neck South Senior High School. I had plenty of guy friends but when it came to girl reaction, I was a notch below the narrator of the Rolling Stones song that had dominated the airwaves the previous summer. At least he knew how to try, and try, and try.

My passions took the form of sports and pop/rock music, and the latter brought conflict between Carl and me. It seemed that the more I rocked, the more he reeled. To me, the Beatles were the most phenomenal thing that had ever happened on the planet; to Carl, they had no sense of melody and you couldn’t understand their words. It didn’t help that when they covered a ballad, it was Meredith Willson’s “Till There Was You,” not Carl’s “Till.”

I couldn’t contain my excitement about the release of the Fab Four’s album Rubber Soul, a masterpiece full of musical breakthroughs, sophisticated lyrics and all original songs. I saw it as the best album ever recorded; Carl saw it as another body blow for songwriters who didn’t perform their own material.

The day after Rubber Soul bowed on American shores, Phil Spector, my number two rock ‘n’ roll hero and someone whose records Carl wouldn’t even listen to, released “Ebb Tide” by blue-eyed soul duo the Righteous Brothers as a single on his Philles label.

The Beatles, ‘I’ve Just Seen a Face’

Coming on the heels of the Spector/Righteous Bros. monster hits “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” and “Unchained Melody” (written by Barry Mann/Cynthia Weill and Alex North/Hy Zaret respectively), “Ebb Tide” re-affirmed that in the hands of a rock genius the old songs could be as earth-shattering as the new.

Carl and I didn’t have to argue about this one. We both loved the way Spector’s production and Bobby Hatfield’s ethereal tenor told the story. The record starts sweetly with a single bell chime and builds slowly to a monumental climax, followed by a man “at peace in the web” of his lover’s arms.

“Ebb Tide” is supposed to end with that post-coital peacefulness. But Hatfield tacked on a rock ‘n’ roll postscript, belting out the song’s title in a volcanic post-climax climax.

Shortly before his death in 2003, I asked Hatfield about the shout. He explained that it was totally spontaneous; in fact, he said, he snuck it in during a break while Spector was out of the studio. That Phil, a notorious control freak, left it in is another testament to the power of rock ‘n’ roll.

Carl and I listened to “Ebb Tide” together a number of times and agreed that a moment of noisy rebelliousness could give an authentic jolt to a standard in a way the writers never intended. Then I played “I’ve Just Seen a Face” and “Michelle” from Rubber Soul for Carl. He loved Paul’s singing and allowed that the rhymes in “Face” weren’t half bad.

My relationship with Carl was easier after that. There would be lots more arguments about music and other things, but thanks to “Ebb Tide,” we could stand together at the intersection of Abbey Road and Tin Pan Alley without needing to turn in one direction or the other.

The Righteous Brothers, ‘Ebb Tide’

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m-sigman

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Michael Sigman is a writer, editor, publisher and media consultant and the president of Major Songs, a music publishing company that handles the catalogs of his late father Carl Sigman and several contemporary songwriters.

While still in high school in Great Neck, L.I., Sigman worked for music publishing giant The Richmond Organization cataloging the music publishing giant’s vast catalogue of pop, folk and rock songs. During the summers between college semesters at Bucknell, he worked as a reporter for Record World magazine, a leading music industry publication. The day after he graduated (Magna Cum Laude/Phi Beta Kappa) from Bucknell, he began full-time work at RW and served as the magazine’s editor from 1972-82.

After a year as a consultant for CBS Records, Sigman moved to Los Angeles in 1983 to become the publisher of LA Weekly, the nation’s largest alternative newsweekly, where he served from 1983-2002. He was also the founding publisher of OC Weekly, sister paper to LA Weekly, when it was launched in 1995.

Sigman’s writing has appeared in Record World, LA Weekly, the L.A. Times, OC Weekly, The District Weekly, LA Style, The Bluegrass Special.com, Record Collector News, LA Progressive, Deep Roots and other newspapers and magazines. He is also the author of a biography of his father. He currently writes a weekly blog for Huffingtonpost.com.

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