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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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I should really post this on the thread titled, "are vocals the most important part of songs?" But since this thread has attracted "persons of a certain age" (ahem) and musically-literate replies (above) I thought I'd share this here:

Recently, the great Tony Bennett performed for the third time in this, "the world's coldest major city" -- Winnipeg, Manitoba Canada, a city of 700,000 which gave the world some important actors, the guy who hosted "The Price is Right" (Monty Hall) and the greatest all-around guitarist who ever walked this earth, Lenny Breau. [i know, you've never heard of him: Tony Bennett tried to hire Breau as his 'staff guitarist' and Lenny always said it was "the biggest mistake I ever made" (not hitting the road with Tony Bennett. He wound up dead, at the bottom of a swimming pool in L.A. -- an unsolved murder. Chet Atkins told me, in 1971 "Lenny is the greatest guitarist in the world." Pardon the long aside.]

Well, Tony Bennett in an interview on "Siriusly Sinatra" satellite radio had this to say, after a

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. . . and since there's no one in the place, except you and me (hey, I feel a song coming on!)

I take your point with a chuckle. I wrote Sinatra a note around this time of year December 17, 1992 to say I'd "discovered your greatness a little late in life" (he wrote back immediately, the nicest note!)

In my two page letter I'd said to him "I'll bet you don't know any people my age who could (reel off) the names of the composers and lyricists of most everything in the 'Great American Songbook' -- including (I said) "51 really strong melodies by my favorite composer, Richard Rodgers, 38 each by George Gershwin and Irving Berlin, 32 each by Cole Porter and Harry (Salvatore Guaragna) Warren," (and so on).

Then I noted that while the "dean" of the great composers, Jerome Kern "was said to have written 'a thousand songs,' all but 21, by my calculation were pedestrian junk, deservedly forgotten."

Tony Bennett would agree with both of us, Mr . . . er, "chickenmonkey" that the vast majority of melodies played on the radio in the golden era -- the 1930s and 40s --- were, as you put it, "dross" and deservedly forgotten. But Tony Bennett's vast repertoire of songs never included ANY of it.

Now, your turn: Would you single out your own nominations of really strong melodies, written in say, the past decade? I sincerely would like to be introduced to a song that I could hum, at first hearing (like any of those 50 plus strong melodies by Dick Rodgers). To my ears the last strong melody of the 20th century was Billy Joel's I LOVE YOU JUST THE WAY YOU ARE (which made it onto our kids Yamaha keyboard as the default tune). Diana Krall revived it on her "Live in Paris" album, employing the same great sax player (Phil Woods) who soloed on Mr. Joel's original.

That was exactly 30 years ago (1979). I'm sure I've missed a strong melody since then, but I can't think of one. Help me out, please.

[i went to your link; are you "Moses Roosevelt" and do you really include Weird Al Yankovic among your friends? His song parodies are absolutely brilliant (even if the tunes on which most of them are based . . . are not).]

p.s. My wife and I watched MY FAIR LADY on Turner Classic Movies a few hours ago, and not for the first time I said, "Every single song is memorable." And by that standard, it's pretty much unique among musicals, would you agree?

Be well and happy! And thanks for the thought-provoking reply.

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Oscar Hammerstein believed that each of us may have "one good song" within us, waiting to "come out into the light." Hammerstein wrote with authority (he had huge hit shows, with both Richard Rodgers and Jerome Kern) that, "If I meet a man with just one song, I'd be more interested in that man than those who have 'written 400.' I believe that anyone who stated sincerely what was in his heart, could not only write a song, but get it published, because it would be sure to be a good song." (More words of advice from the greatest 'theatrical' lyricist in a moment.)

I'm enjoying my latest "rhyming dictionary" (I have several). But what sets this book apart, as "essential reading" for would-be song-writers, is the first 50 pages: the best advice frustrated song-writers (like me) will ever find -- anywhere.

As I type this I have two 'classics' of the genre in front of me: Oscar Hammerstein's book, titled simply, "LYRICS," and Ira Gershwin's "LYRICS ON SEVERAL OCCASIONS." If both those giants of the art were still with us, I believe they'd agree that GENE LEES has written the best book of its kind. And, whether or not your "one great song" ever sees the light of day, you'll have much fun reading what Mr. Lees has to say. Just one example:

There was a night in 1967 the Canadian-born jazz writer 'crossed paths' with Nancy Sinatra (even if they didn't actually meet). I close my eyes and imagine Frank Sinatra emerging from a night-time session with Claus Ogerman's stellar orchestra (for Sinatra's album with Antonio Carlos Jobim) and immediately starting work with another, much smaller group of musicians, assembled by his first-born, Nancy, for the duet with her Dad that would sell a million copies.

I imagine Gene Lees feeling so lucky, that the stars had finally aligned in his own life; sitting off to one side by himself, perhaps, watching and listening in amazed silence, (pinching himself to make sure it was true?) as Sinatra brought to life, as only he can, the English words Lees had composed for one of Jobim's loveliest songs, QUIET NIGHTS OF QUIET STARS ("quiet notes from my guitar") And there was Mr. Jobim himself, Brazil's Cole Porter (as I've always thought of him) plucking the strings of his own guitar, while the greatest singer of them all worked his magic.

Recalling that moment, Lees said: "After Frank had rehearsed 'Quiet Nights' a few times, he said, 'There are a lot of esses (S's) in this song.' And so there are. I had never noticed it before."

----

I know what it's like to treasure every word Sinatra says to you (he once directed 50 words my way) and so it seems perfectly natural that Lees never stopped thinking about what Frank said: That seemingly throw-away remark prompted Lees to reflect, deeply, years later in his advice to those of us who'd love to write at least "one good song lyric."

"Recording engineers," said Lees, "don't like the letter `S' because it presents them with an equalization problem. If they boost the high frequencies, the `esses' become exaggerated." (Sirius Radio can sometimes be terrible for this, when your reception is going a little `funny' just as Lees wrote, in the days before satellite radio: "Turn up the highs (treble) on your stereo - you notice the attenuation of the `S'."

Then, going further into reflection (remember, all this stemming from a 'chance' remark by Frank Sinatra) Lees said, "The prejudice (against using a lot of `esses' in song lyrics) seems to me now, to date back to a time before high fidelity recording: Ira Gershwin wrote "'S'Wonderful" in the 1930s - and he used esses all over the place, apparently having fun with them, if not poking fun at the prejudice."

Which set Lees to "wondering about the source of this bias? Scholars tell us (or at least hypothesize) that the letter was (given that shape) like a snake to designate the sound a serpent makes. And . . . if that's so . . .the fear of snakes may underlie the prejudice."

Which brought Gene Lees back to his 'Whatever made me think of all this?' moment . . . that long ago evening in a recording studio with Sinatra, by way of an anecdote about 'The Bard.'

"The `S' problem is a problem only in overuse," he says, recalling the line from Mcbeath's soliloquy, "If the assassination, could trammel up the consequences, and catch with his surcease, success."

"That's pretty bad," said Lees. "In four syllables Shakespeare gives the actor a phrase that is hard to pronounce and quite unattractive when you DO get it out."

"As for whatever reservations recording engineers may have," said Lees, "I am reminded of what Sinatra said to his engineer at that (same) session when the latter asked him to stand further from the orchestra since their proximity was creating a `separation' difficulty."

"'That's YOUR problem!' Sinatra said pleasantly."

I believe Oscar Hammerstein would declare this book the best of its kind. Even as Hammerstein provided the best (and simplest) summing up of what is required to write your own "one great song."

"The most important ingredient in a good song," wrote Hammerstein, is sincerity: Let the song be yours and yours alone. However important, however trivial, believe it. Mean it from the bottom of your heart, and say what is on your mind as carefully, as clearly, as beautifully as you can. Show it to no one until you are certain you cannot make one change that would improve it. After that, however, be willing to make improvements if someone can convince you they are needed."

-- Oscar Hammerstein II (1949)

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Study the masters.

Every artist begins by studying the masters . . . at least, according to someone who wrote English lyrics for Brazil's Cole Porter (as I call Antonio Carlos Jobim). Canadian-born jazz writer and lyricist Gene Lees says,

"Begin by imitating the masters," (regardless of your field of music). "At least you should do that if you have any brains.

"Eventually you'll begin to understand what the masters did, and why . . . and grasp the technique itself.

"If you have what is generally called 'talent' you'll begin to do fresh and personal work . . . and it will be said of (your) work that 'it has a style.'

"If you have no talent, and remain 'derivative,' you will at least, through the imitation of good models, produce competent work and will do no great harm to the art."

"Perhaps," writes Lees (in his "Practical Guide to Lyric Writing for Songwriters and Poets") "perhaps there is no such thing as 'talent.' Perhaps what we call talent is simply an unquenchable curiosity about how things are done, or made . . . coupled with a dogged patience about becoming adept in the principles that (you) have uncovered.

"Or, inverting the thought, we might say that everyone has talent . . . not everyone has the determination and patience to develop it. The beginning place in that process is . . . the study of the work of the masters.

-- Gene Lees (circa 1981)

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Quote Originally Posted by Mark Blackburn View Post
..."perhaps there is no such thing as 'talent.' Perhaps what we call talent is simply an unquechable curiosity about how things are done, or made . . . coupled with a dogged patience about becoming adept in the principles that (you) have uncovered.
I agree. I've never liked the concept of "talent". The concept of talent is just an excuse for the lazy.

(sigh) "I wish I could do that..."

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Are your seasonal songs lacking reason or rhyme?
Is their 'spirit' not festive, but 'sick'?
A foolproof solution, that works every time:
Do something, for somebody, quick!

Are you almost disgusted with life, little man?
You can do the most wonderful trick!
It will bring you contentment

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"Would you single out," (I wrote above) "your OWN nominations of really strong melodies, written in say, the past decade? I sincerely would like to be introduced to a song that I could hum, at first hearing (like any of those 50 plus strong melodies by Dick Rodgers)." . . . "I'm sure I've missed a strong melody since then, but I can't think of one. Help me out, please."

I just answered my own question! After writing a review at the world's biggest website for the new "Disney's A Christmas Carol -- Theatrical Release" I learned (from another review, also in the "spotlight" at Amazon) that the "stirring, new carol" featuring a "truly great tenor" -- so beautiful it brought me tears of joy! -- was written by the last great film score composer, Alan Silvestri. The lyric was written by Glen Ballard. Together those two composed (music & words) "When Christmas Comes to Town" and other terrific 'songs of the season' for POLAR EXPRESS.

Unlike that previous Robert Zemeckis 'best new Christmas movie' (of five years ago) this CHRISTMAS CAROL has no soundtrack CD. So where do you find this great "new" Christmas carol? Well, it turns out that "truly great tenor" is the blind Italian Andrea Bocelli. It's "track 15" (the last) on his new Christmas CD -- currently "sales ranked Number 2."

Taking its title from the concluding words of Charles Dickens' best known work, the lyric by the brilliant Mr. Ballard (helped along by a mixed choir from L.A. and London) concludes, metaphorically on a Let there be light, theme:

"God bless us, every one! We raise our voice, as we rejoice, bow our head and pray . . . a miracle has just begun, God bless us Every One!"

You'll have no trouble finding your way to a Christmas album -- and this carol -- that generations yet unborn may enjoy 100 years from today. As for the movie reviews -- they're more difficult to find. The exact title you must enter is, "Disney's A Christmas Carol Theatrical Release" and if the moderators, in the spirit of the season will permit, I will include a LINK, forthwith, as Scrooge would say. Best of the season to all the poets and musicians. May 2010 bring out your OWN best song!

http://www.amazon.com/Disneys-Christ...0828734&sr=8-1

My review has just popped to the top of their "spotlight"! God bless them, every one!

-- Mark B of the frozen North

post script one year later: That URL is for the DVD, now top-rated among Christmas season movies (No. 1)

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Alot of people I know -- including Frank Sinatra's first-born, Nancy -- say their all-time favorite love song is SOMEONE TO WATCH OVER ME . . . written by 'The Gershwins' --- George and "his beautiful wife Ira" as some radio announcer once intoned in blissful ignorance.

Ira was of course George's brother, and wrote lyrics for several other great composers after George's untimely passing at age 36.

"That tune," Ira recalled 40 years after it was written, "as conceived by George, would probably not be around much today.

"At the piano in its early existence (1925) it was fast and jazzy . . . undoubtedly I would have written a fast and jazzy (and forgettable) lyric for another dance-and-ensemble number.

"One day, for no particular reason -- hardly aware of what he was doing -- George started playing it at a slow tempo; and half-way through (the melody) both of us had the same reaction: This was no rhythm tune at all . . . this was a wistful and warm (melody) to be held on to, until the proper stage occasion arose for it."

The story gets better! The song's eventual title came from another great lyricist, Howard Dietz (who with Arthur Schwartz wrote great songs like, DANCING IN THE DARK and the Oscars' theme song, THAT'S ENTERTAINMENT.

"George and I were well along with the score to OH KAY! (the musical where it was introduced, in 1926) when suddenly I was rushed to Mt. Sinai Hospital for an emergency appendectomy. I was there six weeks -- this was long before antibiotics shortened stays.

"When, after I was permitted to leave hospital, I was weak and could only work afternoons; that's when a friend, and multi-faceted talent, Howard Dietz showed up and offered to help out -- George was saying, 'We need to finish the lyrics!' We collaborated, Howard and I on two lyrics, and he helped me with a couple of others, and suggested the title, SOMEONE TO WATCH OVER ME."

One other note, of interest to me: Not for the first time, Ira Gershwin -- who was Jewish -- quoted from the "New Testament" (twice) in the song's beautiful opening verse!

"There's a saying old, says that 'Love is blind.' And we're often told, 'Seek, and ye shall find!' So, I'm going to seek a certain (girl/lad) I have in mind: Looking ev'ry where, haven't found (her/him) yet, (She's/He's) the 'big affair,' I cannot forget . . . only (one) I ever think of with regret!

"I'd like to add (his/her) initials to my monogram: Tell me -- where is the shepherd for THIS lost lamb . . . "

[And then the familiar chorus that all would-be song-writers should know by heart, as you 'imitate the masters.']

In a little AFTERWARD to his "Lyrics on Several Occasions" (my copy "First published in Great Britain 1977") Ira has trenchant advice for lyricists yet unborn:

"Anyone may turn up with a hit song . . . as evidenced by any number one 'one-hit writers.' I hope what I have written to you -- if only between the lines -- succeeds in [conveying] that lyric writing isn't something anyone can easily muscle in on; that if the lyricist who lasts isn't of the quality of a W.S. Gilbert (& Sullivan), he or she is at least literate and conscientious; that even when the words sound 'off the cuff' -- lots of hard work and experience has made them so!

"I believe, when I say this, that I'm speaking for not only myself but for (in any order) (Cole) Porter, (Dorothy) Fields, (Irving) Berlin, (Johnny) Mercer, (Alan Jay) Lerner, (Frank) Loesser, (Howard) Dietz, (P.G.) Wodehouse, (Betty) Comden and (Adolph) Green, (Oscar) Hammerstein, (Lorenz) Hart, ('Yip') Harburg . . . and two or three others whose work I respect.

"It may seem strange to end (my) book with a definition -- and a borrowed one at that. But here is (my favorite) from a scholarly article on SONG in the Britannica encylopedia:

'SONG is the joint art of words and music, two arts under emotional pressure coalescing into a third. The relation and balance of the two arts is a problem that has to be resolved anew in every song that is composed'."

-- Ira Gershwin (circa 1977)

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Why? (asks the title of a recent thread) do the majority of songs SUCK these days?"

One of my favorites here, STACKABONES replied that "most songs suck" in ANY era --yesterday, today, and tomorrow. I thought of adding my thoughts to that thread: but those of us of a certain age (ahem, I'm nearly 63) -- we know what's implied in "Grace Slick's" (good) question.

I think that those who can appreciate truly great (memorable) melodies and brilliant, deceptively simple (what I call 'artless') lyrics -- the kind that Johnny Mercer gave us . . . we might tend to agree that the last vestige of that kind of songwriting is found in -- country music. Surprised?

A friend, Jim Melko (who prefers country music) reminded me that some of the best lyrics (set, perhaps, to what I call

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Vocals are key part of songwriting.

A 4 chord progression on an acoustic can be boring without 'em or could be an awesome classic with.

Think Pink Floyd's Wish you were here or Mother.

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Pursuant to Alex DeLarge's comment (above) that vocals are a key part of song-writing . . . that's true, whether you're speaking of the composer/lyricist -- you HAVE to sing the words -- or the realization of a song's potential greatness . . . through the vocal chords of a 'great' singer.

I was just thinking of the 'dictum' of a great old songwriter, Jule Styne:

"Without the rendition there is no song."

Jule Styne co-wrote TIME AFTER TIME. No, not the song by Cyndi Lauper (that the late Eva Cassidy helped make famous with a younger generation).

Jule Styne and lyricist Sammy Cahn wrote a much earlier song, of that same name, introduced the year I was born (47) by Frank Sinatra. Nine years later, in 1956, Frank recorded it again to a majestic orchestration by America

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. . . that's quite a compliment (to Gene Lees). I thoroughly enjoy the contributions Lee Knight makes to the world's largest musicians' web site. You write thoughtfully and with a good sense of humor. (Who could ask for anything more?

You also live, I see, in "paradise" California. There's an actual town in California called Paradise and (coincidentally?) that's where Gene Lees resides! I saw Gene most recently on that remarkable Clint Eastwood -produced TCM channel tribute marking the 100th anniversary of Johnny Mercer's birth (last November). Gene's contributions were were short, sweet and interesting. Sort of like your posts, Lee. Thanks for dropping by to enjoy that "cool entry."

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Quote Originally Posted by Mark Blackburn View Post
. . .
You also live, I see, in "paradise" California. There's an actual town in California called Paradise and (coincidentally?) that's where Gene Lees resides! I saw Gene most recently on that remarkable Clint Eastwood -produced TCM channel tribute marking the 100th anniversary of Johnny Mercer's birth (last November). Gene's contributions were were short, sweet and interesting. Sort of like your posts, Lee. Thanks for dropping by to enjoy that "cool entry."
I live minutes from Paradise in Butte County. I will look up his info on Wikipedia.

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Quote Originally Posted by MDR View Post
Yes, Rs are tricky things. In my own Canadian English dialect, the R gets a hard pronunciation. But in most European languages the R is rrrrrrrolled. I speak some French & Spanish, and one of the most difficult transitions (to me, anyway) is rolling the Rs.
But Lees was mainly talkin' about the endings of words -- not the beginnings or middles, which is typically where you'll hear those rolled Rs in those languages.

*

Cool post, Mark!

I do disagree with Lees about whom. We should drop whom as soon as we should drop him. Replace with who and he and you'll hear what I mean. wink.gif

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