excellence, music

My Mother’s Grandson

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She didn’t make a big deal about it, and I know she enjoyed all of her “granddogs” and “grandcats”, but I think my mother would have really loved it if her children had given her human grandchildren. And after seeing Ben Platt perform IT TAKES TWO for Stephen Sondheim’s 90th Birthday, I’m pretty sure that he would have more than surpassed her expectations for a grandson.

Ben first got my attention in DEAR EVAN HANSEN and a couple years later he blew my mind as THE POLITICIAN.  And now, I’m totally convinced – my mother would have adopted him in a heartbeat. For starters, INTO THE WOODS was my mother’s favorite show; for while she adored A FUNNY THING HAPPEN ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM, she was crazy about fairy tales her whole life, and INTO THE WOODS is the only musical she bought copies of for ALL of us.

My mom’s been gone for quite a few years, so Ben has nothing to worry about – but, oh, such a handsome young man – and such a brilliant talent! She would have delighted in and spoiled him rotten!

Instead, she delighted in and spoiled our first boy, Dunkel.  Fortunately, he loved his Grandma Betty right back! 🐾

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learning, self-acceptance

The Guts to Tell My Story

The willingness to share our “mistakes” can be the liberation the whole world needs – I know I certainly need it!

BREVITY's Nonfiction Blog

debonisBy Karen DeBonis

I met my future freelance book editor in 2001 at a memoir-writing class. Robyn’s writing was beautiful, her smile magnetic, and I trusted her to hear my story. One of the biggest fears memoirists have is that readers will dislike or even hate us for our faulty decisions and bad behaviors. With Robyn, I felt safe.

After a few years of shared critique groups, lunches, and coffee, we lost touch. I stopped working on my memoir because it got too painful. In fact, I stopped writing completely. Then a medical leave from work in 2016 presented me the opportunity to pick up where I’d left off. I looked Robyn up and saw that she had earned an MFA, taught creative writing, and started an editorial business. We met at a coffee shop and I told her I needed an editor. A month or two later, I handed…

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growing up, learning, music biz, self-acceptance

That River In Egypt

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New Years tend to bring on reckoning and self-reflection, and I find myself face-to-face with realities, bitter and sweet; the loss of loved ones, and the memory of happy times with them… releasing habits that no longer serve – and pleasures that no longer please. And then there’s that weight I managed to lose… and all the extra pounds I have yet to shed!

One of the greatest hurdles I find in cleaning up my act is to remain conscious of how messed up it actually IS, present-tense. A load of laundry takes a matter of minutes to do and a messy room can frequently be made presentable in a few hours, but healing an unhealthy body may take months and even years – a long time to keep one’s eyes steadfastly on the prize!  This is especially true when a person has used food to ameliorate uncomfortable emotions for their entire life.  Add on the deluge of shaming / blaming, our culture’s harsh judgements and the stigma of living in a larger body, and it’s no wonder I’ve so often chosen to tune-out awareness of my size and not consistently taken the steps needed to change it for the better.

That said, I’m pretty sure that choosing to be as oblivious as possible to my weight has, in some ways, actually served me in my life.  It never occurred to me to identify as a “fat person”, even over decades while seeing shrinks, joining Overeaters Anonymous several times, trying every new diet, shopping at the fat ladies’ store, joining the gym, etc. Sure, I knew I was heavy, and carrying so much extra weight factored into some lost opportunities, but I also felt that it protected me from certain types of unwanted and dangerous attention, (think #me,too). Being fat in some ways made me feel safer.

Not that I wasn’t confronted by friends, family and strangers! I can’t forget the look of shock and undisguised horror on a teacher’s face when he saw how I’d bulked up over 25 years… or the surprise and disbelief of others when they realized that I’d somehow managed to be creative, productive AND happy, all while being (gasp!) fat!!  The assumption that we’re supposed to deny ourselves having an actual LIFE because we don’t fit the idea of what constitutes “normal”? – well, it never held water for me and in hindsight I’m glad I chose to not focus on this particular “elephant in the room” more than necessary.

Calling out other people for the shape and size of their bodies is rude and unhelpful, IMO.  Hating on ANYBODY is bad form.  Okay – I flinch when I hear a musician play or sing out-of-tune, and wrong lyrics / bad chord changes make me cringe. Likewise, I understand how many folks recoil when they see obese people. But the truth is, just about everyone is doing the best they can and it’s no one’s business to pass judgement on someone else’s journey. I believe we all get to where we’re going on our own time, and, as my grandfather used to say, “none of us are gettin’ out of this alive”.  So…

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music biz, self-acceptance

A Thousand Words

I’ve always loved photos, and I agree with the adage that “a picture’s worth a thousand words”. We didn’t take that many photos in my family of origin, (especially compared to the family I married into, who chronicled every birthday and holiday meal with multiple pix of everyone.) As a kid, I rarely got to snap the camera, since film cost money, as did developing and printing.

I’d eschewed graduation photos from both high school and college – I’m not sure why. I think I didn’t want to spend the money – or I just wanted my education to be OVER, so that I could get going on being an adult already!

As soon as I could, I bought a Polaroid Swinger “it’s more than a camera, it’s almost ALIVE!!”  and took some selfies-before-they-were-called-selfies… slightly out of focus. A few years later I bought a used 35mm for $10, with which a friend took my first headshot (see below). I think this photo reveals (in addition to a lot of skin!?) something I couldn’t even admit to myself, let alone the rest of the world, which is my profound ambivalence about being a performer and entertainer. (What kind of performer uses a headshot where she’s gazing away instead of engaging with the viewer? Perhaps someone who doesn’t trust the audience and doesn’t really want to be there?!)

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I always kinda liked this next photo, taken by a friend in 1978 – I think I have a “Candice Bergen smile” here:

Okay…. maybe not so much… let’s just say maybe I felt like Candice that day!!!?

A couple years later it occurred to me that I didn’t actually have anything approaching an actual portrait of myself, and seeing that I was in my late 20s, perhaps I should chronicle my youth while I still HAD some of it.

When I resumed playing piano-bar gigs in the 90s, I needed a new headshot – and this one, taken by Mary Clare in Chicago, I actually like!?

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So – there are nine thousand words (10, if you count Candice!?)  In hindsight, I’m glad I didn’t remain as camera-shy as I felt in my teens – especially since all these wrinkles started showing up!

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#jazzcongress, music, music biz, self-acceptance

Getting Off The Hamster Wheel

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Like many of my fervent enthusiasms, it began innocently enough; a new collaborator suggested I record a jazz CD. Of course, this had occurred to me before and we even made a CD a decade prior – but after production and replication, we’d run out of money and had no budget for promotion, so the CD gathered dust in our closet.

But this time would be different! We’d hire press agents and radio promoters to spread the word and garner airplay! We’d book live performances at jazz clubs and visit radio stations around the country! This time we’d get noticed and on the charts and succeed! At least that was the plan. The reality was slightly different; finding a club willing to take a chance on booking an unknown artist was virtually impossible. Getting radio programmers – even the ones we knew personally!? – to spin a cut on their station even once was iffy! Add to the mix my own profound ambivalence about performing… well, it was a longer-than-long shot.

Even so, there were some victories; I was very proud of both of my jazz albums and after the 2004 release of Future Street and the 2006 release of Round Trip, I finally charted on JazzWeek and became friends with some jazz radio programmers. I got to visit friends and family across the country on my tours. And I introduced some original songs to other artists who wound up performing and recording them.

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Alas, it ultimately wasn’t as rewarding as I’d hoped, either financially or emotionally. First I began to turn down gigs that involved schlepping keyboards, PAs and other gear, and after a few more years I found myself dialing back my involvement in the jazz-o-sphere at large. While I’d enjoyed the annual IAJE conferences and JazzConnect/JazzCongress, it became apparent to me that, like Henry Gibson recited on Laugh-In, one was expected to “keep-a-goin’!” despite any setback or frustration – and I’d had some: Believe Them The First Time

Now, this doesn’t seem to stop my initial reaction when I notice that other jazzers are releasing new CDs or getting covers of their original songs; this type of news pops up on FaceBook, YouTube, and my email box all the time, and I find my Fear Of Missing Out kicking into overdrive! …until I remember how much work and financial outlay are involved in producing, promoting, performing, etc. to create even the smallest ripple of attention, let alone acclaim – and how fundamentally uninterested I am in those aspects. I continue to watch with appreciation and rejoice in the business and artistic triumphs of my colleagues, especially because I know what it takes to accomplish – but I honestly don’t miss running on the hamster wheel!

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ummm…. not-so-much, any more!

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growing up, self-acceptance

Hippie Dippy Days

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The moment I first heard Jimi Hendrix (who was a warm-up act for The Monkees at Forest Hills Stadium), I knew without a doubt that I was NOT “experienced” – that, at the ripe old age of 15, I had never been “experienced” – but what a concept!!  The teenyboppers and their parents who had gone to the concert to see their dreamboats Micky, Davy, Peter and Mike were aghast, but I was enchanted by both the amazing music AND the multi-colored feathered tie-dyed attire, not to mention the attitude… WOW!!  I ran right out and bought the album the next day!

And I tried. I really tried. “Hippie” was something I desperately wanted to be, but somehow it wasn’t the best fit for me. For one thing, I had curly hair that refused to hang loose and free like the other girls – especially on humid days. For another, I was always too tightly wound to “turn on, tune in & drop out”. Hippie-dom didn’t feel natural to me.

I saw that Janis Joplin had unruly hair and thought, “well, maybe…”  And I sure loved her album cover! Everything R. Crumb, for that matter.

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I tried pot – even though it was totally illegal. And I found that I hated how it made me feel; instead of relaxing, I’d hallucinate scary scenarios, with the Devil trying to take my soul, or to have me committed to a psych ward. There was a dealer on campus whose visage haunts me to this day: he was tall, slim, sexy and intense, with an orange-ochre cowboy hat that matched his full beard. I only saw him once but knew immediately and without a doubt that he was sent from Satan, and that if I engaged with him at all, I would be irrevocably doomed to a life of sin and depravity, instead of a life of music and love. (Hippies can have a dark side, after all!)

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Picture a hat this color… and a matching beard… 

Still, I embroidered colored thread on my jeans. I bought love beads and wore peasant blouses. I sported a badge I’d purchased in Greenwich Village that read, “Save Water – Shower With a Friend”.  I hitchhiked up and down the east coast, as well as back and forth to classes. It was nerve-wracking as all get-out.  I did the best I could, but unlike many of my peers, I was never cut out to be a hippie.

 

I had a flashback recently; I’d been having trouble with insomnia and had heard that CBD oil could help me get a better night’s sleep – or even just a decently restful nap. So I bought a roll-on bottle that smelled nice (it had lavender oil added!), but did nothing for me. So I got a bottle of edible hemp oil – with an equal lack of success. The odor was kinda nasty and elicited nerve-wracking anxiety attacks and visions of that drug dealer from so many decades ago. (Even tho I’ve since learned that CBD and hemp oil are the modern-day equivalents to snake oil, in that any effect they produce is the result of the placebo effect. Hmmm.)

I guess once a non-hippie, always a non-hippie.

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Picture me half-empty.

 

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Jingles, music, music biz

A Dime A Dozen

We’d been pounding the pavement and hitting the phones hard for the first 7 months of 1981.  As a new jingle company, we rode elevators up to meet with potential advertising clients, along side competing music producers who were established and in many cases, offering cocaine as well as music. Totally sold on the idea of meritocracy, we were sure the creative directors would hear the difference between how OUR music fit the bill so much better than the other guys.  I look back now and wonder how we kept going, with “nobody winkin’ back” for so long, as my dad used to say.

And then my partner Mark took a meeting with Tony O.  Upon hearing our demo, Tony recognized some music that he himself had worked on and soon learned that the disco-esque charts for a soft drink had been written by Mark while in another company’s employ!  Suddenly we had an actual real-live client who liked us!!

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Tony wasted no time in asking for a new jingle for La Yogurt  (click on underlined link to hear it!), a regional brand that had been using a lackluster version of Frére Jacques in radio and TV ads. Given an afternoon, a list of the available flavors and the direction to imagine all the various times and places La Yogurt could be consumed, we created and demoed 4 different jingles for presentation. When one was chosen, we hired “jingle queen” Linda November and hit-singer/songwriter Paul Evans, as well as “the usual suspects” of studio musicians (like the wonderful George Marge on ocarina!) and an East coast market jingle “hit” was born!  The inspiration for the back-&-forwards trading of lines was somewhat inspired by the chemistry of the Polaroid ads featuring James Garner and Mariette Hartley that were running at the time. Our jingle proved versatile, running for a number of years, and we used the musical materials to compose YOGURT VARIATIONS  (click on link to hear excerpts) for the New Britain Symphony the following spring.  Tony invited us to the International Radio Festival of NY and La Yogurt took home the Gold Award for best radio spot in 1982!

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Almost immediately thereafter Tony tapped us to create the new jingle for Lee’s Carpets  (click link to hear!), which the agency and client both loved.There was a disruption in this love-fest when our production invoice hadn’t been paid within 90 days, so we re-sent it, waiting another month to follow up with the billing department at the agency. When we finally were connected, the accountant practically laughed in our faces over the phone, sneering, “You wanna get paid?  Ha!  You guys are a dime a dozen!”  We called Tony and eventually we got a check, but it was creepy – and we did NOT “relax” right away!

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A couple months later, the BIG prize account came up: Kinney Shoes  (click link to hear).  With no direction besides the tag line “Kinney Can”, we worked feverishly to create a winning concept. We wanted to build on the established reputation of the brand for being the family-friendly “Great American Shoe Store” while showing that Kinney had kept up with changing times. Encouraged by Tony, we were so excited about the anthem we created that we sank thousands of dollars of our own money into the production, including various versions  (click to hear NBAs version)  for different shoe lines.  We got the best-of-the-best musicians and singers to bring it to life, including Florence Warner  (click to hear) and her angel-voice! We were SURE this was the “big one” that would put us on the map as a jingle company!

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Alas – we eventually learned that on the day of the big Kinney presentation, Tony had been ill and failed to play our tracks for the client. He hadn’t even shown up to the meeting.  Or at least that’s what we were told. Another version of the story was that our tracks had been presented, but all the folks at Kinney were offended that they hadn’t been invited to the recording sessions, so our music was rejected out of hand.  We felt strongly about our work, so much so that we entered it into the International Radio Festival competition (where it earned an Honorable Mention, even though it had never been bought or aired).  18 months later we sent a 5-page single-spaced letter to Tony, begging him to re-present it to Kinney, as we’d heard through the grapevine they were unhappy with the music they had chosen and were looking for something new.  We got no response.

Tony was a vibrant man with fierce affection for his family and friends, as well as strong appetites for tobacco, liquor and food. His enthusiasms were infectious, so that when he told us he was going to audition for a local production of The Music Man (as Prof. Harold Hill, of course!) and he asked us for help preparing the song “Trouble”, we learned it along with him, and found it the perfect accompaniment for marching crosstown from our west side offices to Madison Avenue appointments.  When his boss was having a “big” birthday, Tony asked us to produce a special birthday song; Jerry, You’re the Bess We Got!  (click to hear excerpt) for the party, which we did happily – gratis. And when Tony’s daughter showed interest in learning to play the flute, I cheerfully lent mine so she could try it out for a semester. Tony wasn’t “just a client” – we considered him a friend. And we were pretty sure he felt the same way about us; we weren’t “just a supplier”. He invited us to dinner at his home in Bernardsville, NJ and we met his whole family; believe me, that wasn’t the case with most clients, no matter how well you got along and enjoyed working together!

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Woolworth/Woolco was set to roll out a new line of Christie Brinkley sportswear, and this time our jingle was chosen!  Juxta-positioning Christie in her casual attire and then crossfading to YOU (aka “normal young American woman!) wearing the identical outfit?  Well, it was a winning idea; there you’d be, Lookin’ Christie!  (click link to hear).  Unfortunately, right before the ads could air, Woolworth pulled the plug on Woolco, all their stores shuttered and that was that – another big break bites the dust!

Our finances faltered, a few of our key clients retired and we decided to try our luck in a different market. But even after we’d moved to Chicago, Tony kept calling us from NYC with work.  And he wasn’t shy about letting his colleagues know about how much he enjoyed working with us!

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The Woolworth company had other retail chains, and we produced jingles for *J.Brannam  (click to listen)  (JUst BRANd NAMes clothes and accessories), Frugal Frank’s (shoe outlet) (click to listen) as well as demos for the flagship Woolworth’s  stores (click link to listen).  One of my favorites was Susie’s Casuals (women’s clothing) (click link to listen), the spirit of which was inspired by the Mary Tyler Moore TV show theme song; “hey, girl, you’re makin’ it!  your chance is here and you’re takin’ it! The world will soon be awakenin’, and when they do, all they’re gonna see is YOU!”

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There were some semi-risqué demos for Palmolive soap (international) – one of which  sold and was played worldwide (click link to listen).  And we took a shot at a jingle demo for special Snorks  kids sneakers for Kinney Shoes (click link to listen), after we moved to L.A.  We even hired Tony at one point, to perform a voiceover for an industrial film we were scoring for a different client – recorded in the friendly confines of his San Francisco hotel room while he was on the west coast for business. Those 3-packs/day gave him an authoritative vocal growl and he knew how to work a mic.  Eventually the lack of proximity became somewhat of an issue and his music work went to other suppliers, but our relationship remained warm.

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The last time we got together, Tony was working from his home in Bernardsville, NJ and we met at the diner where the final shot of THE SOPRANOS was filmed a decade later. Tony looked happy and talked about his newest campaigns with zest.  We always made it a point to look him up to meet when we were back east.  And though he and his family never reciprocated, we sent Christmas cards every year.

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Until a few years ago.  His wife finally sent a note to let us know that Tony had passed on in 1999. We were stunned; we’d been sending holiday greetings to a ghost for 15 years!  Once we looked back, a sense of betrayal overwhelmed us, as we realized how compromised our relationship had actually been. Being treated with contempt by a snarly accountant was the tip of the iceberg; the Lee’s Carpet jingle was actually supposed to be a lucrative account, with over 250 dealer “lifts” being edited with our music – each of which was to have been paid separately.  This should have put us on Easy Street financially, as we were in the vocal group as well as among the musicians on the date. We found out later that the money that had been earmarked for all those residuals had been sidelined to the ad agency’s retirement plan. So even though these spots ran for several years, with many more customized versions, we never saw any of those payments, and neither did the singers and musicians we hired.

We realized that this was the case with almost ALL of the work we’d done for Tony, we hadn’t received residuals for virtually any of the music we’d produced! Though this practice is widespread in the arts, (see previous blog  Things We Do For Love). we’d been in denial of how entrenched the corruption had been at the agency and never dreamed Tony would have let this happen. But he had.

It’s a mixed bag and difficult to reconcile such a relationship; while we were cheated out of the money we’d honestly earned that would have enabled us to stay in NYC, through our work with Tony, we had the opportunity to create some music that we’re still proud of to this day. We got to work in the recording studio (our favorite place!), with the best musicians, singers and engineers (our favorite people!). And, for better or worse, we got to hang out with Tony O.  Click thru on the links peppered thru this blog post to hear the  Tony O. Hit Parade.

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Tony’s Dartmouth fraternity brothers miss him. And so do we. Sometimes.

 

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