music biz, growing up, Jingles

My Married Man

It started out slowly and evolved as most torrid affairs do – into promises of everything you’ve ever dreamed of; connection, love, creative fulfillment, riches, recognition, inclusion and belonging.

“Beethoven” played synthesizer in a jazz band where I’d become the copyist in the mid-1970s and I soon became HIS copyist, as his reputation grew as a freelance arranger.

In the beginning, it was a pretty straightforward client-supplier relationship – he’d call, I’d go pick up the scores, run home to extract the parts and then deliver them to the studio – always last-minute. There was built in drama to the timing – will we be ready? can I get there on time? I always did, but there were some really close calls, when he’d still be writing the 2nd chart in the cab on the way to the studio while I was copying parts to the 1st chart so the musicians would have something to play at the start of the session.

He got plenty of work for pop and disco records as well as music for advertising. New to jingles, I was a little surprised and delighted to discover residual payments; after the initial TV and radio cycle, often ad agencies would continue the campaign using the same music, resulting in another payment for the musicians. When you’re self-employed, “money for nothing” gets your attention!

And then there were magic moments; when the musicians would yell out, “hey, Marilyn’s here! NOW we can get this party started!”, or the guitarist would hold my waist to steady me as I squeezed by the microphones to put parts on the music stands, or when the drummer and bassist would start dancing while listening to the playback. It was great to see pretty much the same fantastically musical guys pretty much every weekday, and watch them switch seamlessly from country tracks in the morning to funk grooves in the afternoon – their musical prowess was spectacular!

“Beethoven” was always the picture of casual elegance with his velvet blazer, tailored jeans, gold Dunhill cigarette lighter. He could “pass” in the business world but had bohemian proclivities; one time I came by to prepare music and found him preparing illegal substances and singing,🎶 “this is the way we chop our coke, chop our coke, chop our coke…” 🎶 Drugs added to the mystique, plus I think he grew to rely on them as much as his chain-smoking and alcohol consumption.

It seemed that he never turned down work, and got to a point where he needed help finishing scores; at first only horn parts, or a string voicing, or vocal harmonies, which I was more than happy to do. It was thrilling to hear what I’d written being brought to life by NYC’s best talent in the best studios. And he’d tell me to add $50 or $75 to my copying invoice. I could use the extra money and heck, we all want to be indispensable. Plus it was dramatic to see him “miraculously” save a session, to notice how impressed the clients were with the results, and to know that behind the scenes, I’d helped contribute to the magic.

What do you give the man who has everything? When his birthday came up, I wanted to get him a suitable gift – it was the only time I’ve ever shopped at Tiffany’s.

Over 4+ years, “Beethoven” was never my only client, but he was the most important one for quite a while. I’d check with him about what was on the schedule before accepting other gigs and I never left town if there was a chance he’d need my services. I was constantly reassured that I was an essential and irreplaceable “part of the team” that sustained his professional success. And that was easy to believe since I bailed him out time and again as he “bit off more than he could chew” work-wise.

Promises were made. While I knew I would never have the keyboard chops he had and I certainly never expected to be asked to play, I was a good sight-singer with choir and studio experience and the ability to blend in vocal groups, and I became frustrated that I was only rarely allowed to sing on sessions (potentially much more lucrative than copying or arranging music). It was confusing when what he’d promised didn’t match up with what went down, and I kept being disappointed when his actions didn’t match his words – much like the married man Carrie Fisher is hung up on at the start of WHEN HARRY MET SALLY. “Will he ever leave his wife?” Umm… no. At a certain point, I realized I was living a cliché.

Fortunately the stars aligned and a few things happened to secure my freedom; I’d taken a film scoring summer course at Eastman, and in my absence, “Beethoven” had found someone else to ghostwrite for him. Simultaneously I had an epiphany where I realized that if I didn’t stop working for him, I would hurt myself so that I wouldn’t be able to work for anybody. I had no idea how this would happen – I might get hit by a bus, or fall down and break my arm. I just knew it viscerally, and unlike so many other messages from my gut, for once, I believed it.

The kicker was when he called me again for a last-minute gig after I’d returned from Rochester. I rushed over to his apartment, but it turned out to be a false alarm – his wife told me that the session had been cancelled. Then she added 5 words that totally broke the spell: “You’re married to him, too”.

Whatever else I may have been clueless about, I knew for sure that THAT was not the case!

I hadn’t thought about him in a very long time but recently learned that “Beethoven” died a couple years ago; one of the earliest victims of COVID. And it stirred up a lot of feelings. At first I thought, “oh, gee! What a shame he’s gone.” But after only a short while, as the memories flooded back… hmm. Maybe not such a loss after all.

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music biz, Jingles

Mangia!

I began trying to get into the jingle business in the mid 1970s; making the rounds of Madison Avenue ad agencies and music production companies, large and small. My demo reel was pretty thin but I was diligent about calling back “next week” and trying to get a meeting with whoever called the shots. Most of them were “too busy” to actually meet with me, so I’d drop off my reel and business card at their office and follow up by “calling back next week” to remind them to listen and get their reaction.

They generally told me to get lost, but a few one-man jingle shops were more receptive – Stan Applebaum, Louise Messina, Marc Brown – or maybe it was just a slow day and they were bored. I actually got in to see some more than once, and would call every time I’d updated my demo. When I asked Norm Richards how he got business from agencies, he told me he treated the ad guys to lavish lunches – maybe he was hinting that he himself was hungry? Whatever – it was something I sure couldn’t afford to do.

A decade later, after our first foray to Los Angeles, we’d bounced back to Chicago and were frantically making sales calls to Michigan Avenue agencies. We’d been leaving messages for the Head of Production at N.W. Ayer-Chicago every other day for weeks. Finally he took our call and agreed to let us take him out to lunch. We could hardly wait for him to hear our new jingle reel! “Friday,” he said. “Let’s try that new Italian place on E. Huron – Avanzare, I think it’s called.”

“Sure!” We were really excited; this was a super elegant 4-star cloth-napkin-upscale-everyone-wants-to-go-to place that we’d read glowing reviews in the trades and heard all the ad folks buzzing about.

We got there early to suss out the menu; everything sounded delicious, came ala carte and was quite pricey – no Businessman’s Lunch here!

But no worries – this guy was the Head of Production! He could throw a lot of work our way! What’s an expensive lunch in the grand scheme of things?

He arrived a few minutes late, apologized for his tardiness and immediately ordered a dry martini. Then appetizers. Another martini. Then soup. Then the most expensive entree. And wine.

Then he told us this was his “farewell lunch”, as today was his last day at N.W.Ayer, and he was retiring from advertising.

At least he didn’t order dessert.

= “push forward” in English
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Jingles, music biz, politics

Deconstructing The Con

Lately I’ve come across some interesting recordings while archiving old cassettes to mp3s on my computer – including jingles I composed over 40 years ago. This has led me to ponder the “art of persuasion” that is advertising itself.

Not as overt as 3-card monte, the jingle is still a bit of a con, as it makes assumptions; about who you are, what you need, your self-image and identity, and a host of other attributes that the advertiser hopes will lead you to embrace their product, service or idea.

…with special attention to #3, #14, #16, #21, #22 and #30!

The following lyrics were for a Honda motorcycles pitch, and the only “given” from the ad agency was the tagline “what life oughta be”; an idealistic, dreamy message, full of hope and promise. My first attempt:


I was told this was too confrontational, ominous and maybe even a little threatening. So, back at the drawing board, I softened the message:

(You can see I was pretty enamored with the phrase “dreamin’ out loud” and wasn’t going to give it up without a fight!) But my attempt to express the urgency of how riding a Honda would change your life tracked as impatience – the underlying message being WTF is WRONG with you? Get GOING already! So – once again, a new tune with a more authoritative “leadership” narrative and slightly less punitive tone:

Ultimately I don’t think I managed to capture the right balance of the Carrot & Stick approach because I didn’t sell any of these jingles, but I certainly tried! Listening to them now, I can’t help but notice the similarities between my ultimatum messages (of life fulfillment-via-motorcycle) and that of the Trump re-election campaign; the promise of making America “Great Again!” coupled with the threat of dystopian apocalypse should anyone else win the White House.

With this much apparently at stake, it behooves us to remember that there’s only one sure-fire way to win at 3-card monte:

Refuse To Play!
Just walk away!
If the Associated Press says it, it MUST be true!?!
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excellence, Jingles, music, music biz

Leadership

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We’d done hundreds of recording sessions together and we’d been married for over 4 years before I discovered what a wonderful conductor Mark Wolfram is. Somehow I’d missed seeing him wave a baton in front of an ensemble before that.

Initially, Mark was introduced to me as another arranger at the Chicago jingle company where we both worked. His charts were always professional, sometimes brilliant – and he seemed to know his way around the recording studio. He picked up his trombone and played my charts beautifully.  A consummate producer, he was detail-oriented, but always got the big picture, especially when it came to the mix. His ears were impeccable; he could always tell when a singer or musician was sharp or flat, ahead or behind the beat.  He was also a skillful, safe driver behind the wheel – I trusted him and felt confident that he knew where he was going, what steps to take and how to get there – on the road and in his career.  I should have known.

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But I honestly had no idea how well he could conduct before I saw him in action and noticed how attentively the musicians were following him – performing for him in a way I could never get them to play for me.

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Having been a “solo act” for much of my professional life, and having not played or sung in very many ensembles, my knowledge of conducting was rudimentary and my confidence as a leader was sorely lacking. Sure, I’d taken the requisite conducting course in college, but I’d always felt uneasy and embarrassed in front of a group – like a fraud – and the results I got were disappointing. I just didn’t have the “it” factor to gain and keep the attention of the ensemble, whereas Mark has a natural ease on the podium, allowing the musicians to relax, knowing that they’re in good hands with him at the helm!

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Experts say there are basic qualities that the best leaders possess: communication skills, awareness, integrity, courage, vision… that great leaders guide and encourage other people to reach their goals, with the same attributes shared by great teachers – and the best music conductors. Ultimately – and ironically – strong effective leadership comes from being of service to those being led, to the project at hand, to the greater good.

I really wish more modern politicians were a fraction as imbued with these leadership qualities as my Maestro Mark.

Qualities

 

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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!

Tony O Ad-1983

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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