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Brooklyn, Blintzes, Baseball and Ballads With Johnny Mercer (Field Notes From a Music Biz Life)

johnny-mercer

This is Part 6 in a series of excerpts from the forthcoming book, Field Notes from a Music Biz Life

Rae Sigman, Carl’s strong-willed mother, was proud of her son’s ability to navigate Beethoven sonatas and improvise pop tunes at the piano. But when he turned 21 and declared his intention to make a living as a songwriter, Rae gave him two choices: doctor or lawyer. Blood nauseated him, so dutiful son that he was, he earned a law degree from NYU and passed the New York State Bar Exam.

In lieu of practicing law, Carl practiced songwriting. Before long he’d composed a trunkload of tunes and set out to play them for anyone who’d listen.

Many months of unanswered phone calls, unreturned letters and fruitless meetings followed. Finally, an uncle who owned steam baths in Harlem got Carl an audience with regular patron Ira Gershwin at the master’s Upper West Side apartment. Carl played song after song until Gershwin sent him on his way with a polite, “Keep on trying.”

Carl got his big break via a meeting with Henry Spitzer at Harms, a leading music publisher. This time, there was no “and then I wrote…” He played only his best tunes. Spitzer liked them well enough to suggest that Carl pair up with a young lyricist he had his eye on: “I can put you with somebody. There’s a guy named Johnny Mercer who’s going to be on the radio on Monday night. He’s going to be singing a song called ‘Watch a Darky Dance.’ Why don’t you listen in, and I’ll give you his phone number and you can call him.” (It’s a measure of historical distance that a song with that title was acceptable fare for a national radio show during the 1930s.)

The day after the radio show, Carl called Johnny, who lived just a few blocks away from the apartment Carl shared with his parents and his younger brother Marty on Crown Street in Brooklyn.

Carl recalled what happened next with characteristic understatement. “Johnny walked over to Crown Street. We talked and I played a few tunes. He sat there like a lyric writer. Then we established a relationship. We wrote a few songs. They weren’t very good, but they were professional. I was a beginner at the time, but he liked my melodies, some of them.”

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IHIdSRbl8rM

Glenn Miller, ‘Peekaboo to You’

Carl and Johnny became fast friends, sharing their enthusiasm for music, movies, baseball and the rich Jewish food Rae served up to Johnny and his wife Ginger.

In his memoir, Johnny remembered Rae as, “[Carl’s] little, round attractive mother [who filled me up] with blintzes or chopped liver on rye bread.” He added, “After playing softball together in the Brooklyn schoolyards, (Carl and I) would spend long nights writing what seemed to be Isham Jones songs. (Jones led and wrote songs for his own dance band in the pre-swing era.) But I loved Carl’s tunes. As it turned out, he was also a great lyric writer, which he later proved.”

Johnny wrote the lyrics for “Just Remember,” Carl’s first published song. Carl remembered it as a flop, but it was in fact recorded by three established acts: BBC Orchestra leader Henry Hall, Henry Jacques and His Correct Dance Tempo Orchestra (he was billed on the HMV label as “Britain’s Champion Dancer of 1934-36”) and Australian expatriate singer-violinist Brian Lawrance & His Lansdowne Orchestra.

Other 1930s Mercer/Sigman collaborations included “On Our Golden Wedding Day” and “Peek-a Boo To You,” recorded in 1938 by Bea Wain with Larry Clinton and his Orchestra and covered by Glenn Miller three years later with Paula Kelly and the Modernaires.

When Johnny moved to Hollywood to become a show biz mega-star, Carl stayed in Brooklyn and continued to write melodies, most of which went nowhere. He knew he had at least one tune with hit potential; all it needed was the right lyric.

On one of Johnny’s trips to New York, he and Carl met in the piano room of a publisher’s office. Carl recalled, “Johnny liked [the tune] very much, and I mentioned a title–‘Come Out Of Your Dream And Into My Arms.’ That was my little catch phrase. About two minutes later, he suggested, ‘Please Come Out Of Your Dream…’ About two minutes after that, we finished the lyric, most of which was his. When I left he said, ‘Good luck with your song.’ I said, ‘What do you mean, it’s our song.’ He replied, ‘No, it’s your song. It was your title, it’s your tune, I just helped you. I had nothing to do with it.’ I fought with him, but he insisted, and he wouldn’t put his name on the song. He was that kind of man.

“I got it published, and Guy Lombardo introduced it. In those days, that was important. The only reason it didn’t make it big was that there was another ‘dream’ song called ‘Darn That Dream’ at the same time, and it got smothered. It was the first really noisy song I had in this country.” Noisiness, in Carl’s parlance, meant action, which in this case included covers by Ruby Newman, Larry Clinton, Ginny Simms, Seger Ellis, and Johnny Messner.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TiBPYG8XPwg

Ruby Newman, ‘Please Come Out of Your Dream’ (1938, Ruby Newman, vocal)

Soon thereafter, Johnny provided Carl with a turning point in his career.

“Johnny said, ‘Look, you write great melodies, but you’ve also got a real flair for lyrics. We need lyric writers. There are fifteen tune writers for every lyric writer. Every band has a couple of guys who can write a couple of tunes a day.’ That,” Carl recalled, “was one of the great things (Johnny) did for me. He steered me into writing lyrics.”

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I was between college semesters when Carl arranged for us to meet Johnny for drinks at the swanky Oak Room in the Plaza Hotel on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan.

I hated swank. I was a late-’60s longhaired rock’n’roll-loving Vietnam-war-protesting pot-smoking semi-hippie. At my parents’ insistence, I’d put on my one fancy outfit–powder blue seersucker sports jacket, blue tie, itchy black pants, off-white shirt, and ugly black shoes–and hustled over to the Plaza from my summer job as reporter for the trade magazine Record World, whose offices were a few blocks away at 200 West Fifty- Seventh Street.

I’d met plenty of accomplished and famous people, but given what Johnny had done for Carl and the transcendent beauty of his lyrics, this felt like an audience with a deity. Without the love and support of the genius who wrote the lyrics to “Skylark,” “Autumn Leaves,” and “Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive” I might have grown up in a house full of legal briefs instead of sheet music.

When we arrived, Johnny was already seated and nursing a drink. His slurred greeting was friendly enough when he half-stood to embrace Carl, but my wide smile and outstretched hand were met with a jellyfish handshake, no eye contact and an unintelligible but nasty-toned comment under Johnny’s alcoholic breath.

For the next hour, I tried to win him over with small talk, compliments and grins. But he seemed interested only in expressing his contempt for rock ‘n’ roll and the lifestyle treason of “the hippies.” Carl didn’t help much. He himself was less than clear about whether I was becoming an upstanding music journalist or a decadent druggie.

We parted with thin smiles and awkward nods. On the train back to Great Neck, Carl explained that Johnny was a wonderful human being but a mean drunk–and that he frequently offered sincere apologies and gifts after ugly dust-ups with those he cared about.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UB0GkgHpJLY

Andy Williams, ‘Days of Wine and Roses’ (1963)

I wish Carl had told me that before our meeting. But I understood that Johnny’s reaction to me was informed by a bitterness that his career had been cut short by longhaired rockers who didn’t need songwriters and who cared more about reefers than rhymes.

It’s true that Johnny’s stardom declined as rock ‘n’ roll ascended, but he remained a Hollywood favorite during the ’60s. Two of his most enduring songs–“Moon River” and “The Days of Wine and Roses” (music by Henry Mancini)–won consecutive Oscars in 1961 and ’62.

For me, the Mercer song that most pierces the heart at this time of year is “Autumn Leaves” (music by Joseph Kosma). Jo Stafford, Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra, and hundreds of other Great American Songbook era singers covered it, as did rocker Manfred Mann at the height of the British Invasion.

The falling leaves

Drift by the window

The autumn leaves

Of red and gold

I see your lips

The summer kisses

The sunburned hands

I used to hold

Since you went away

The days grow long

And soon I’ll hear

Old winter’s song

But I miss you most of all

My darling

When autumn leaves

Start to fall

Sadly, “Old winter’s song” visited Johnny in 1976, so we’ll never know whether he would have approved of affectionate covers by Jerry Lee Lewis and Eric Clapton.

Nat King Cole, ‘Autumn Leaves,’ from the October 29, 1957 episode of The Nat King Cole Show

I wish I’d met Johnny under happier circumstances. But I’ve gotten to know the real man in a far more meaningful way through his lyrics and through Carl’s stories, which, late at night when the world is quiet, evoke lazy Brooklyn afternoons of fungo on the sandlots and long nights of ardent music-making fueled by blintzes and chopped liver on rye.

Now when I listen to “Just Remember,” I can almost grasp what it must have been like for two friends starting out in a music business that would be unrecognizable a few decades later.

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What Now? Sad Songs, Standards and Sweet Sixteens

By Michael Sigman

(This is Part 7 in a series of excerpts from the forthcoming book, Field Notes from a Music Biz Life.)

elvis-what-now

It was good to be 16. (It was the best of times…)

It was the first week of January 1966, the beginning of the second semester of my junior year at Great Neck South High School. Our varsity basketball team was well on its way to winning the Nassau County Championship. And though it had hurt to get cut from the Rebels (this was the north shore of Long Island, but we were Great Neck South), watching the games, especially the David-vs.-Goliath, come-from-behind wins, was thrilling.

Sonny & Cher, ‘What Now My Love’ (1966)

I’d been invited by a pretty girl to a fancy Sweet 16 party at Leonard’s, the garish monstrosity on Northern Boulevard which, 48 years later, elicited this Yelp rating: “The room we were in was overly pink, but I guess it was befitting for a Sweet 16.”

Best of all, the music that filled the air was, my friends and I agreed, unreeel. It wasn’t just the Beatles, the Stones, and Bob Dylan who were churning out what we called crucial records. The Who, the Beach Boys, the Four Seasons, the Kinks, the Byrds, Marvin Gaye, the Four Tops, the Supremes, the Temptations and dozens of other artists served up platter after platter of transcendent pop/rock/soul that got better with each listening.

And there was still room near the top for standards like Carl’s “Ebb Tide,” which hit the #5, courtesy of Phil Spector and the Righteous Brothers.

But I was 16. As January wore on, life began to suck so bad it was ummbuhleevable. (It was the worst of times…)

I suffered from a wicked Basketball Jones after a sprained ankle sidelined me from the addictive daily pick-up games at Wyngate Park.

Sam Cooke’s lament–“Another Saturday night and I ain’t got nobody”–summed up my social situation after, for reasons known only to my unconscious. I’d blown the Sweet 16 by ignoring my friendly good-looking date in favor of a sarcastic snob at the next table. When I summoned the courage to tell a cute cheerleader I liked her, she delivered a time-honored one-two punch of high school heartbreak: 1. “Mike, I think you’re terrific.” 2. “But I only like you as a friend.”

Herb Alpert, ‘What Now My Love’ (1966)

The country was still reeling from the JFK assassination, simmering civil rights tensions erupted with the murder of Malcolm X, the Watts riots and violence in other cities, and kids my age were getting arrested for possession of a single marijuana joint. LBJ’s invasion of the Dominican Republic was bad enough; his dramatic escalation of the Viet Nam War spurred huge anti-war demonstrations, draft card burnings and accusations of treason from an older generation that, from our point of view, didn’t get it.

At home, Carl was convinced that the burgeoning rock ‘n’ roll counterculture would make sure that “Ebb Tide” was his last hit. He was wrong.

Call it synchronicity, coincidence or convenient 20/20 hindsight, but my emotional swings often seemed to eerily parallel the content of Carl’s chartmakers, In this case, during the last week in January–the very week “Ebb Tide,” his most romantic creation, began to roll back out to the murky depths–“What Now My Love,” his most despairing lyric, waded into the charted waters of the Hot 100, courtesy of Sonny & Cher.

By the time the nation’s hottest hippy husband and wife act released their jingle-jangle version of “What Now My Love,” the song had an illustrious history. In 1961, Gilbert Becaud, a French singer/composer/actor whose energy and passion earned him the moniker “Monsieur 100,000 Volts,” asked Carl to write an English lyric to a powerful French number called “Et Maintenant” (French lyric by Pierre Delanoe) that Becaud himself had recorded and taken to No 1 in France.

‘Monsieur 100,000 Volts’ Gilbert Becaud, ‘What Now My Love’/’Et Maintenant’

Compared to the torture Carl had endured in writing the blissed-out “Ebb Tide,” creating the suicidal howl of “What Now My Love” was a walk in MacArthur Park. It had been impossible to fit the already existing title “Ebb Tide” into Robert Maxwell’s tune, but for Carl, “what now my love” presented itself almost immediately as the perfect wedding of words to the first four-note phrase in Becaud’s composition.

Each tune builds to a dramatic climax, but while “Ebb Tide” explodes into orgasmic ecstasy followed by utter peace, “What Now My Love” leaps off a cliff into nothing less than nothingness.

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What Now My Love

What now my love, now that you’ve left me

How can I live through another day

Watching my dreams turn to ashes

And my hopes turn to bits of clay

Once I could see, once I could feel

Now I am numb, I’ve become unreal

I walk the night, without a goal

Stripped of my heart, my soul

What now my love, now that it’s over

I feel the world closing in on me

Here come the stars, tumbling around me

There’s the sky, where the sea should be

What now my love, now that you’re gone

I’d be a fool to go on and on

No one would care, no one would cry

If I should live or die

What now my love, now there is nothing

Only my last good-bye

Shortly after “What Now My Love” was published in 1962, the brilliant arranger Nelson Riddle (Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Nat Cole et al.) was in England scoring the film Lolita when he found the time to work with a 25-year-old singer named Shirley Bassey whose extraordinary pipes were matched by a larger than life stage presence. The resulting album, Let’s Face The Music (its U.S. title was Shirley Bassey Sings the Hit Song from ‘Oliver’) featured an operatic rendition of “What Now My Love” which was released as a single and rose to No. 5 in the UK. The song went on to become a centerpiece of Bassey’s more than 50-year concert career.

Shirley Bassey, ‘What Now My Love’ (1962)

Once Bassey showed the way, a flood of “What Now My Love” covers ensued. But it took Sonny & Cher, fresh off the massive success of their paean to hippy love, “I Got You, Babe” (an answer song to Bob Dylan’s 1964 break-up masterpiece “It Ain’t Me Babe”?) to give it singles cred. As their record approached the Top 20, Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass declared “cover battle” with a syncopated, Latin-flavored instrumental version to follow up their No. 1 smash “A Taste of Honey.” Both singles did well, and Herb’s double Grammy-winning “What Now My Love” album also rose to No. 1, where it fended off all challengers for nine weeks.

Once a song becomes a standard, its inherent versatility takes it to places its creators never imagined. “What Now My Love” has been reimagined by so many artists in so many genres and styles it’s hard to believe it was written as an expression of unmitigated agony.

Dame Shirley Bassey’s 1962 version remains definitive for female vocalists, but that hasn’t stopped Barbra Streisand, Judy Garland, Sarah Vaughn, Brenda Lee, Jane Morgan, Dionne Warwick, Petula Clark, Connie Francis, Nancy Wilson, Dakota Staton, Lana Cantrell and ABBA’s Agnetha Fältskog, from weighing in with their own impressive interpretations.

Despair being neither merely female nor male, but a part of the human condition, male vocalists took to the song even more readily. A partial list seems like a catalogue of the era’s best: Vic Damone, Sammy Davis, Jr., Bobby Darin, Robert Goulet, Steve Lawrence, Al Martino, Anthony Newley, Lou Rawls, Andy Williams, Johnny Mathis, Engelbert Humperdinck, Bobby Darin (who sent up the song’s portentousness by sticking his head in an oven while crooning it on his TV show), Paul Anka (who swung it on the popular TV rock show, Hullaballoo) Lenny Welch (who’d also had a hit single with “Ebb Tide”), Jack Jones, Tom Jones.

The song was a natural for jazz reinvention. In addition to Herb Alpert, it’s been recorded by Lou Donaldson, Stephane Grappelli, Ray Anthony, the Modern Jazz Quartet, and big band Joe “Fingers” Webster & His River City Jazzmen.

Miss Piggy, ‘What Now My Love’

Willie Nelson and Don Gibson took “What Now My Love” into the country, while the Temptations, Martha & the Vandellas, the Supremes, Aretha Franklin, and Ben E. King found its soul.

Frank Sinatra’s finger-snappin’ solo version swings, and his duet with Aretha presents a swing/soul combo you won’t find anywhere else.

The great Lee Dorsey took the tune way down yonder to New Orleans, and there were reggae iterations by Archie Lewis and Byron Lee & the Dragonaires.

If you needed additional evidence that the song was something of a Rorschach test, six decades of rockers took it on: Duane Eddy, Roy Orbison, Mitch Ryder, the Righteous Brothers, Long John Baldry, Wall of Voodoo, and NOFX, whose remodel gives us Herb Alpert by way of the Ramones.

Liberace and Jackie Gleason had their moments with “What Now My Love,” as did a distraught Diva named Miss Piggy.

Given the song’s origin, it is perhaps a surprise that Carl’s English-language lyric has been recorded by French singers including Charles Boyer, Patricia Kass and Amanda Lear on her new Elvis tribute album.

Speaking of The King, for years Elvis gave “What Now My Love” a full-on melodramatic workout in his live act; it was a highlight of his “Aloha from Hawaii” concert, broadcast to over a billion earthlings in 1973.

If you consider that “What Now My Love” has been a staple for four decades of Elvis impersonators, the number of its performances approaches infinity.

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Toward the end of junior year, it was again the best of times.

On Senior Prom night for the class one year ahead of us, a bunch of dateless friends and I snuck into the back of the gym and listened rapturously as the Chiffons sang about a Sweet Talkin’ Guy and the Young Rascals held forth about the need for Good Lovin’. We may not have been sweet talkin’ enough to get good lovin’ at that moment, but being in the presence of music so sublime was just as good. Maybe better…

Elvis, ‘What Now My Love’ (1973, from Aloha from Hawaii)

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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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