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    who wrote that?

    Songwriters

    by | 4 | Jun 13, 2014

    I’m convinced that songwriters are the Rodney Dangerfields of popular music. Name any popular hit song of the last 50 years and ask your friends who wrote it. The most likely response will be, “Duh?” Like Dangerfield, the late king of one-liners (“I went to the fights and a hockey game broke out”), songwriters get no respect.

    Why? Beats me. People just seem to pay no attention to who wrote something, no matter what it is.

    Scout’s honor: as he cut my hair, my barber, a news junkie, used to tell me all about this or that story he had just read in the local newspaper. Often it was one I had written. My byline was on it. In bold type. He never made the connection – even when I said, “Yeah, I wrote that.” He’d go right on telling me the story, my story! I never called him on it. After all, he was wielding scissors and I was unarmed. But he’s no longer my barber, and poetic justice has allowed me to forget his name.

    But what is it with bylines anyhow? Even I, a former newspaperman, overlook them at times. The other night, I was reading a story in National Geographic that was so good that, halfway in, I went back to the first page to see who had written it. No wonder I liked it; the author was Garrison Keillor.

    But I have strayed from the subject of songwriters, which has been nibbling at my subconscious lately every time I find myself admiring some particularly good lyrics.Here, for instance, in a 1937 recording of “I Must Have That Man,”* by the one and only Billie Holiday, is a couplet, one of a string, that even Shakespeare might have envied:

    Jimmy McHugh and Dorothy Fields

    Jimmy McHugh and Dorothy Fields

    ”I need that person much worse ‘n just bad;
    I’m half alive and it’s drivin’ me mad.
    He’s only human: if he’s to be had,
    I must have that man
    .”

    Who wrote the song?

    Jimmy McHugh, a songwriter who was a legend in his own time (July 10, 1894 – May 23, 1969). He’s been dead for nearly half a century, but if you have ever lamented the lack of eloquence to say to your Significant Other “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” or “I Can’t Believe That You’re In Love With Me,” you can thank Mrs. McHugh’s son Jimmy for putting your tongue-tied feelings into immortal words and even setting them to music.

    For three decades, from the 1920s to the 1950s, McHugh, working with a variety of fellow tunesmiths – not least the equally talented Dorothy Fields – turned out hit after hit. One of them, as infectiously hummable today as it was back then, even helped Americans shed the Great Depression blues, urging them to grab a coat and hat, leave their worries on the doorstep, and start life anew “On The Sunny Side of the Street.”

    No, my musical tastes aren’t mired in the past. But they aren’t exactly au courant either. Somehow I can’t persuade myself that what dominates the Top 40 airwaves these days is music. It strikes me as theatre, socio-political theatre – hostility and crudity chanted monotonously to the beat of jungle drums, hinting at violence just a hip-hop away. Hey, where are the likes of Leiber and Stoller when we really need them?

    Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller

    Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller

    Who?

    Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, a songwriting team from the golden age of rock ‘n’ roll whose songs, like those of McHugh, have been playing somewhere in the world for half a century and bid fair to keep going for another 50 years.

    Never heard of Leiber and Stoller? Think “Jailhouse Rock.”

    “Everybody in the whole cell block was dancing to the jailhouse rock.”

    Think “Love Potion #9.”

    “She bent down and turned around and gave me a wink.
    She said I’m gonna mix it up right here in the sink.
    It smelled like turpentine and looked like India ink.
    I held my nose, I closed my eyes, I took a drink.”

    Think “D.W. Washburn.”

    “If you don’t get out of that gutter before the next big rain, D.W. Washburn, you’re gonna wash right down the drain.”

    Truth is, the team of Leiber and Stoller was a virtual hit-making machine throughout the 1950s and 1960s. Even today, you can hardly surf the radio dial for a minute without landing on one of their songs, be it “Stand By Me” or “Poison Ivy” or “I’m A Woman” or “Searchin’” or “Charlie Brown,” or “Hound Dog” or “Kansas City” or “Little Egypt” or “Fools Fall In Love” or “Youngblood” or “There Goes My Baby” or “Yakety Yak,” or the sublime ”Spanish Harlem,” a tune that fused rock ‘n’ roll with intricate poetry, violin and cello strings, and came out sounding perfectly lovely:

    ”There is a rose in Spanish Harlem, a red rose up in Spanish Harlem. It is a special one, it’s never seen the sun, it only comes out when the moon is on the run and all the stars are gleaming. It’s growing in the street, right up through the concrete, but soft and sweet and dreaming.”

    If you think I’m suggesting here that they just don’t write them like that anymore, guess again. Really good songwriters continue to pour out the hit tunes that make up the soundtrack of our lives. But the really great ones, the Cole Porters, the Johnny Mercers, the Irvin Berlins, the Gibbs brothers, the Harold Arlens — the ones who turned out whole songbooks of their own musical genius, are now fewer and fewer. How many songwriters now alive can hope to match the feat of Indiana’s Hoagy Carmichael, who wrote four of America’s most-often-recorded songs of all time (“Stardust,” “Heart and Soul,” “The Nearness of You,” and “Georgia On My Mind”)?

    But, thank goodness, the music never stops. After Leiber and Stoller came the Beatles, with gems like “Yesterday,” “Lady Madonna,” and “Eleanor Rigby.” Then came Elton John (and Bernie Taupin) with “Bennie and the Jets” and “Honky Cat;” Carole King with “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” not to mention the other songs on her fabulous album titled “Tapestry;” Don Henley (of the Eagles) with “Desperado,” “Heartache Tonight,” and ”One of These Nights.”

    Close behind them came Billy Joel, the Everyman of popular music, with hits like “An Innocent Man,” “Just the Way You Are,” “New York State of Mind,” and “Keeping the Faith” – a verse of which, come to think of it, gives me the perfect exit lines:

    “You can get just so much from a good thing. You can linger too long in your dreams.
    Say goodbye to the Oldies but goodies ’cause the good ole days weren’t always good
    and tomorrow ain’t as bad as it seems.”

     

    P.S. In case you missed it, this article was written by Robert Lamb.

    *Holiday recorded the song with a team of famous musicians: Benny Goodman on clarinet; Lester Young, tenor sax; Buck Clayton, trumpet; Teddy Wilson, piano, Give a listen:

    ###
    • Images: All of the images used in this story were originally promotional/fair use.
    Robert Lamb

    Robert Lamb

    I grew up in Augusta, Ga., where I attended Boys' Catholic High. After a stint in the Navy, I attended the University of Georgia, majoring in English (Class of '61). I began my (wholly unexpected) journalism career on the old Augusta Herald, an evening paper, and went to work for The Constitution in, I think, 1976. I left in Sept. '82 to write The Great American Novel. That goal has proved remarkably elusive, but my first attempt (Striking Out, in 1991) was nominated for the PEN/Hemingway Award and my second (Atlanta Blues, in 2004) contended for an Edgar Award. My latest novel won no honors but might well get me nominated for a hanging. Titled A Majority of One, it is about a clash between religion and the Constitution over book-banning in a small Georgia town. I've also published a collection of short stories and poems: Six of One, Half Dozen of Another. Before retirement, I taught creative writing and American literature at the University of South Carolina and its Honors College, and feature writing in its School of Journalism. I maintain a now-and-then blog at boblamb.wordpress.com and I walk my dog on the beach a lot at Pawleys Island, S.C.

     

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    • Wonderful piece, Bob. Loved every word!

    • Dallas Lee

      Great piece — a good idea, a great reminder to all of us self-declared wordsmiths, and beautifully written.

    • Richard Eisel

      Hey, Bob: great essay. The only people who get less respect that prose and poetry writers are indeed songwriters (Rodney Dangerfield notwithstanding). As I read your piece, I couldn’t help but think of Jimmy Webb, who wrote an amazing number of songs attributed to the artists who made them popular: “Up, Up, and Away (In my Beautiful Balloon)” (The 5th Dimension), “Galveston” and “Wichita Lineman” (Glen Campbell), and “Highwayman” (Willie Nelson et al), among many others. (Indeed, google “Highwayman” and watch the YouTube of Merle Haggard, Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson, and Johnny Cash performing “Highwayman.” I dare you not to cry.) Webb’s songs have been covered by such diverse artists as The Supremes, Frank Sinatra, Joe Cocker, John Denver, and R.E.M. Anyway, thanks for the important reminder about the unappreciated, unsung (pun intended) songwriter. Nicely done; thanks very much!

    • Richard Eisel

      Damnit, sorry: the performance of “Highwayman” referred to in my comment included Waylon Jennings, not Merle Haggard. My apologies, and all appropriate (and overflowing) respect to both.

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