Jump to content
Sign in to follow this  
Mark Blackburn

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

Recommended Posts

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

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

. . . 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.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

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)

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

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)

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
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..."

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

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

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

"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)

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

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)

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

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

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

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.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

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

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

. . . 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."

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
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.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
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

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Join the conversation

You can post now and register later. If you have an account, sign in now to post with your account.
Note: Your post will require moderator approval before it will be visible.

Guest
Reply to this topic...

×   Pasted as rich text.   Paste as plain text instead

  Only 75 emoji are allowed.

×   Your link has been automatically embedded.   Display as a link instead

×   Your previous content has been restored.   Clear editor

×   You cannot paste images directly. Upload or insert images from URL.

Sign in to follow this  

×
×
  • Create New...