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:
”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, 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: