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Mark Blackburn

A great melody first, then lyrics,(only) THEN 'vocals'

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Just reading the thread "Are Vocals the most important part of a song?" reminded this oldtimer (nearly 63) of the age-old question: Which is ultimately more important, in making a song a 'classic' that sticks in our memory.

If your memory, like mine, includes The Great American Songbook -- standards written by the likes of truly gifted composers of melody, like Jerome Kern, George Gershwin and (my favorite) Richard Rodgers . . . then your answer to that timeless riddle may still be . . . as Stackabones would say, "YesNoMaybeso."

We just finished celebrating (in November) the 100th anniversary of the birth of Johnny Mercer -- arguably the greatest (non-theatrical) LYRICIST . . . though he wrote a few classic melodies to go with his words -- most notably DREAM (when you're feeling blue) and ACCENTUATE THE POSITIVE (don't mess with 'Mr. In-Between').

I transcribed a radio interview that Johnny did, a few years before his untimely death following surgery for a brain tumor. May I share it here?

INTERVIEWER (as applause dies down) "Ladies and gentlemen, this section of our program is absolutely unrehearsed: the deal, between Johnny and me, is this: he would not know ANY of the questions I am about to ask; so these are coming at him absolutely cold!

"Johnny, you must know that you are the model and inspiration for a generation of younger lyricists, many of whom are in the audience tonight. Some questions I'm going to ask on their behalf: What qualities do you look for in a collaborator?

JOHNNY MERCER:

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" . . . is the face in the misty light . . . footsteps that you hear down the hall . . . the laugh that floats on a summer night . . . that you can never quite recall . . . and you see Laura on the train that is passing through . . . those eyes! How familiar they seem! She gave . . . your very first kiss to you . . . that was Laura . . . but she's only a dream."

Not very good, was he?

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You bet.

Though I was far more attuned to folk, blues, and acid rock when I started playing and writing (about 20), I grew up on a mix of rock'n'roll, R&B, and show tunes, the latter from my parents, who invited me to come along with them to a series of touring company reprises of B'way musicals... every other week through the season for a few years. A lot of shows. Before I was 15, I'd seen stage presentations of everything from Anything Goes to Flower Drum Song -- and I think Li'l Abner, too, although it seems that the road show Daisy Mae's creamy thighs may have displaced the most of the songs...

  • A Typical Day - Dogpatchers
  • If I Had My Druthers - L'il Abner and Cronies
  • If I Had My Druthers (Reprise) - Daisy Mae
  • Jubilation T. Cornpone - Marryin' Sam and Dogpatchers
  • Rag Offen the Bush - Dogpatchers
  • Namely You - Daisy Mae and L'il Abner
  • Unnecessary Town - L'il Abner, Daisy Mae and Dogpatchers
  • What's Good for General Bullmoose - Secretaries
  • The Country's in the Very Best of Hands - L'il Abner and Marryin' Sam
  • Sadie Hawkins Day (Ballet) - Dogpatchers
Act II
  • Oh Happy Day - Dr. Finsdale, Dr. Smithborn, Dr. Krogmeyer and Dr. Schleifitz
  • I'm Past My Prime - Daisy Mae and Marryin' Sam
  • Love in a Home - L'il Abner and Daisy Mae
  • Progress Is the Root of All Evil - Gen. Bullmoose
  • Progress Is the Root of All Evil (Reprise) - Gen. Bullmoose
  • Put 'Em Back - Wives
  • Namely You (Reprise) - Daisy Mae
  • The Matrimonial Stomp - Marryin' Sam and Dogpatchers
  • Finale - Entire Company
Don't think too many of those became standards... wink.gif

And, in a funny way, it's kind of reassuring that a true legend like Mercer could put out a whole show full of songs that never went anywhere. (For fun, I just popped the OCR [original cast recording to those out of that loop] of Li'l Abner on Rhapsody.) Since I don't recall a single one of these songs (I'm pretty sure "Oh Happy Day" is not the gospel number, but it's not in the recording, anyhow), I'm interested in seeing why... I note that composer Gene de Paul has, among his compositions, the great torch song, "You Don't Know What Love Is," which he wrote with Don Raye. But, so far, the overture music sounds a bit, shall we say, generic.


One musical I thought was really corny when I was younger but was amazed by when I caught up with it in recent years is The Music Man (from 1959, 3 years after Abner). Since the "gay nineties" [1890s] is one of my least favorite mainstream musical decades [with the exception of true ragtime, mind you], I hadn't been looking forward to watching it when it came on TCM, but I got hooked from the first song, the rhythmically inventive, lyrically quite droll discourse on credit sales (among other things) "Rock Island."

Having listened to the first few lyrical songs of Abner now, yeah... I suspect de Paul's reliance on a sort of turn-of-the-century use of melody and rhythm, as well as Mercer's frankly rather awkward efforts at working around the thick dialect of the comic strip and stage patter doomed this music in the long run, thought the stage musical was a big hit. (Could it have been the luscious Edie Adams as Daisy Mae that helped put it over on B'way? Great minds might suspect...)

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Quote Originally Posted by Lee Knight View Post
Not very good, was he?
You are SO right Lee. I mean, just compare Mercer's lyrics to some more modern masterpieces such as those from the pen of Freddy Mercury (RIP):

"I see a little silhouetto of a man/Scaramouche, Scaramouche, will you do the Fandango/Thunderbolt and lightning, very, very fright'ning me/Galileo, Galileo, Galileo Figaro"

or perhaps Des'ree:

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Hey... I really did not like Queen... Freddy Mercury (God rest him) really gave me the creeps. (And I'm pretty gay friendly, as they say.)

But I have to say that, on long consideration, "Bohemian Rhapsody" is flogging brilliant. It's a little musical all in one longish pop song. It capsulizes the Roman Church's persecution of scientists and free thinkers with the same sort of irreverent zeal as those One Minute Shakespeare plays.


Lee, of course, was kidding, but I have to say that, as lovely as the post-facto lyrics of "Laura" are -- it's the melody that really, really grabs me. Maybe because I'm a hopeless fan of that (Otto Preminger) movie. Damn, I mean, it's just a great little movie. (How can you not love a movie that keeps focusing on the gauzy oil painting of the titular Laura -- and reminding you that in the first moments of the movie someone apparently blows her face off with a shotgun? All off camera, thankfully. It's deeply noire influenced, I guess you could say, but it's more, too. You follow the world weary police detective as he tries to peel apart the mystery and falls in love with who he believes the dead girl to be... And character actor Clifton Webb is utterly brilliant. No wonder it ended up in AFI's Top Ten Mysteries list.)

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It's interesting that Mercer preferred to write lyrics to existing music.

In the Bertold Brecht - Kurt Weill collaborations, the lyrics were written first.

I wonder how the Gershwins did it?

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Figures that a thread such as this would bring out all you old guys.wink.gif

I was a mere seven years of age when Music Man came out but those early years passed with the constant soundtrack of musicals such as My Fair Lady, South Pacific and, of course, Oklahoma.....where the melody comes sweepin' down the plain....and the lyrics come right it.

Melody rules in that genre, but it still amazes me how those writers crafted such perfect lyrics around it.

For me........I need a melody first.

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Quote Originally Posted by blue2blue

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But I have to say that, on long consideration, "Bohemian Rhapsody" is flogging brilliant. It's a little musical all in one longish pop song. It capsulizes the Roman Church's persecution of scientists and free thinkers with the same sort of irreverent zeal as those One Minute Shakespeare plays.

 

Well I won't argue with you (although I really really want to icon_lol.gif) except to say that whilst I can put up with the random invocations of romantic figures such as Gallileo or Figaro, the line "very very fright'ning me" is so far from grammatical that it makes my teeth hurt!

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Quote Originally Posted by LeonardScaper View Post
Figures that a thread such as this would bring out all you old guys.wink.gif

I was a mere seven years of age when Music Man came out but those early years passed with the constant soundtrack of musicals such as My Fair Lady, South Pacific and, of course, Oklahoma.....where the melody comes sweepin' down the plain....and the lyrics come right it.

Melody rules in that genre, but it still amazes me how those writers crafted such perfect lyrics around it.

For me........I need a melody first.
Making me one year older than you... rolleyes.gif

Old guys?!?

Donchya know 60 is the new 17?

[Erm... I look over and see that "old guy" is the avatar tag line I chose for myself to get rid of "moderator"... biggrin.gif ]



I just popped the "Flower Drum Song" soundtrack on... it's not my favorite R&H music, but it's a sentimental favorite, nonetheless. And I love the movie, which I only saw in recent years, though, as mentioned, I saw the stage play c. 1963 or '64.

My mom brought the TOPS way-non-original cast recording home from the supermarket. The cover was graced with an illustration of a highly stylized B-girl with a mini-sheath dress slashed up the side of the thigh to about a half inch from the waste... it hit me where I lived about that time in my early pubescence.

Drawn like a Wall Street broker to a chorine, I would listen to that recording (which actually had "Like a God" on it, dropped from the movie) and dream about my future with the slinky Chinese girl on the cover...

What's the T.S. Eliot take on that...?

April is the cruellest month,
breeding Lilacs out of the dead land,
mixing Memory and desire,
stirring Dull roots with spring rain.
Or maybe I should be quoting Klingsor's Last Summer... biggrin.gif

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Quote Originally Posted by MDR View Post
It's interesting that Mercer preferred to write lyrics to existing music.

In the Bertold Brecht - Kurt Weill collaborations, the lyrics were written first.

I wonder how the Gershwins did it?
I wonder how the Gershwins did as well. Ira was a god.

It's interesting that Elton John and Bernie Taupin did the reverse. Meaning... the lyric before the melody. I've always marveled at how Elton could come up with that stuff given the lyric. I mean, the lyrics are great but... I picture myself being given one of those lyrics, and for a moment let's say I forget how Grey Seal, for instance, goes... and I look at:

Whys it never light on my lawn
Why does it rain and never say good-day to the new-born
On the big screen they showed us the sun
But not as bright in life as the real one
It`s never quite the same as the real one


I mean... WTF? But Elton made magic out of that verse. Lyrics first in their case. Amazing to me.

I do wonder how the Gershwins did it. I suspect George led the charge in their case.

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Quote Originally Posted by Johnny-Boy View Post
As long as we stay away from mirrors we may convince ourselves of that.
Hey, not me - I look GREAT in the mirror.


Mind you, I think I do need some new spectacles.

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Quote Originally Posted by Surrealistic View Post
Hey, not me - I look GREAT in the mirror.


Mind you, I think I do need some new spectacles.
I'd like to think I still look young, but too many checkers in grocery stores give me the senior citizen's discount automatically. cry.gif

John facepalm.gif

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I do look young - except somehow every time I have my picture taken, someome sneaks in and swaps it for a pic of some old guy. I hate it when that happens.

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From Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson's Knickerbocker Holiday (1938 Broadway musical), come these classic lines...

Oh, it's a long, long while from May to December
But the days grow short when you reach September
When the autumn weather turns the leaves to flame
One hasn't got time for the waiting game

Oh, the days dwindle down to a precious few
September, November --
And these few precious days I'll spend with you
These precious days I'll spend with you
"September Song"

The dramatic pause that follows November is, of course, pivotal to the whole song.

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Geez it smells like Ben Gay and butterscotch in here. As to the OP, I'd say that the thread title may be true over the arc of the history of pop music, but for the past couple decades, rhythm has been far more important, up to the point of hip-hop music having very little in the way of melody, at least through the verse.

Given that most non-pop, non-art music, from Irish reels to American Indian rain dances, back to the dawn of time, emphasize rhythm over melody, I'd say you're taking a shortsighted look at music.

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Quote Originally Posted by blue2blue View Post
From Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson's Knickerbocker Holiday (1938 Broadway musical), come these classic lines...
"September Song"

The dramatic pause that follows November is, of course, pivotal to the whole song.
Love that tune. Been in my set for a while. thumb.gif

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Quote Originally Posted by Chicken Monkey View Post
Given that most non-pop, non-art music, from Irish reels to American Indian rain dances, back to the dawn of time, emphasize rhythm over melody, I'd say you're taking a shortsighted look at music.
I'd have to disagree -- at least about Irish reels and European folk. The reel is a structured dance, thus the accompanying music *must* fit a pattern. This yes, is a rhythmic pattern with an accent on the first and third beats, in 2/2 or 4/4. It's the beat pattern that allows people to apply a well known dance pattern to it, but it's the melody over that structure that differentiates one reel from the next, it's the melody that counts.

Much the the European folk, follows such a pattern, polskas, hallings or hornpipes which allows people to dance in familiar ways -- but that rhythm is primary for structure for the the melody (and to kick up yer heels).

Oh, and I'd consider reels, jigs, hornpipes, etc all pop music --- just not today's pop music.

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Quote Originally Posted by Lee Knight

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I wonder how the Gershwins did as well. Ira was a god.

 

Perhaps there was some back-and-forth interaction between the brothers.

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I've enjoyed reading everyone's thoughts about songwriting: Isn't it amazing the directions a thread can take? I laughed out loud at Johnny-Boy's motto: Stop analyzing and just compose the damn thing! Well . . . in that spirit (and hoping not to interrupt the flow here . . .

I

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Quote Originally Posted by Mark Blackburn View Post
The greatest of hurlers just may be the great Satchel Paige.

The first, died the year Jackie Robinson entered the majors,
While Paige was denied

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