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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learning, music, music biz

Things We Do For Lo♥e

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No professional I know in the arts began with the idea “to get rich”.  Indeed, pursuing the arts comes from an irresistible impulse to write, to make music, to act, to paint, to perform, to create something new. As artists, we spend countless hours and prodigious amounts of money to develop our skills.  I began with the piano which drew me like a magnet. It was an inner impetus: I had to take lessons. I had to learn how to play. It was an all-consuming urge that could not be denied. I didn’t start out with the idea of becoming a star, or even of making a living in music – although that goal developed in pretty short order!  When I was learning to hand-copy music manuscripts in college, a teacher gave me an orchestral work that had been composed by a friend of his. I was delighted to spend weeks extracting the parts from the score, just for the practice and experience of learning. I don’t think the tiny check I received covered the price of the paper and ink I used!

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To my mind, the performing arts can be more treacherous than fine arts (painting, sculpture, etc.) in this regard because in most instances performers crave to relate directly with other performers and ultimately to the audience. One has to “keep up their chops” between gigs, so workshops are formed and often participants pay-to-play, as if they were out bowling recreationally, instead of working hard on perfecting their professional skills.

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As the daughter of two people who met on stage, I’ve noticed theater people appear to be more eager than many other performing pros to assume that one will volunteer for unpaid rehearsals, free rewrites, event promotion, set-building, etc. – Just For The Joy Of It.  This delusion persists their entire lives, apparently!?  One of the reasons I found it so onerous to work at The Gaslight Theater was the presumption that my time was worthless and therefore I need not be compensated for it. That idea may have been okay when I was in school, but it didn’t pass muster when I was in my 50s!

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As I see it, the stage is set for such gross exploitation at the outset of one’s creative life, when we’re so eager, we’ll do anything to scratch that itch! (It also doesn’t help that the world refers to what we do as playing music, as if it isn’t actually work!) Granted, there are so many more of us who get bitten by the creative bug than opportunities exist to do our thing, let alone get paid for it; it can become a desperate scene.

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Last week an article ran in The Hollywood Reporter recounting the tale of an actor who suffered terrible abuse at the hands of a powerhouse film director.  My heart was touched by the catch-22 in which he found himself; an ordeal that’s been echoed in my own life experiences all too often, though not as frequently now as in my younger years. Yes, there are still many Things We Do For Love – but increasingly, just as we learn to drive defensively, we may need to lo♥e defensively!

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music biz

Leaving Los Angeles

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We just finished binge-re-watching EPISODES on Netflix and I enjoyed it even more than the first time. While we were never heavy hitters in the “big time” of television, movies or the music biz, enough of the glitter rubbed off from our years striving to get projects, and we met enough other people / wannabes, that every scenario was somehow familiar. Many of our friends had encountered these types of disappointments and we’d experienced enough sucker-punches ourselves to know that, by and large, THIS STUFF IS TRUE!  It actually happens!

One true story for us involved submitting music thru an industry list for a terrific-sounding film project called PRE-K. The script was smart and tight, with well-drawn characters; parents all vying to get their kid into a prestigious exclusive preschool. We were so excited at the prospect of becoming involved in this project that we not only composed and produced demos of the theme song, we wrote a school anthem in 4-part choral harmony! I felt in my bones that we had NAILED the essence of the film and would be a shoo-in as composers for the film!

Alas, a week after we’d sent in our submission, we drove by the offices of the production company and found it completely empty, with no hint that PRE-K had ever existed! We wondered whether this had been a “long con”  ala THE GRIFTERS (1990) , or a “sting” set up by the FBI to catch conmen who were defrauding film investors!? We never did find out!

There are heartwarming as well as heartbreaking stories about the mad grab for the brass ring of fame and fortune in show biz – and I DO miss some of the people I met and worked with in LaLa Land – the fact that many of them have also abandoned Hollywood has not escaped my notice. There were good reasons we went there, besides the generally agreeable weather…. AND there were good reasons why we left!

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music biz

Right! Here! No Regrets.

 

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Last year I read a piece in The New Yorker about Orange City, IA, and how the town has prospered, unlike so many small towns in America, because much of the population has stayed put, instead of moving on to a larger life in a big city.  It made me think of the various moves I’ve made over the years, and how inconceivable it was for me to have done otherwise.

My family moved around a bit while I was growing up – from Syracuse to Cicero to Albany, NY – and then to East Hartford and Hartford, CT when my dad got a new job. Cicero and East Hartford were the only real suburbs, and my parents hated them both – my dad referred to East Hartford as “the armpit of the world”, even tho I don’t recall it being so bad. Sure, there was baseball in middle school, which I totally sucked at – but I bought my first piano when we lived there – how bad could that be? Still, my folks breathed a huge sigh of relief when we moved back to “civilization” where we could walk or take the bus to pretty much wherever we wanted to go.

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New York City was mecca for my parents, so of course that was where I envisioned myself settling after school; I could have no sooner stayed in Hartford after graduation than I could have sprouted wings. It was terrifying but also essential for me to go – New York had been calling me my entire life! And when other opportunities beckoned, I moved to Chicago and Los Angeles to pursue a career in music. Since Arizona isn’t exactly a music biz hotbed, I’ve puzzled at times how and why I wound up here.

But looking back, I can see how each location we called “home” turned out to be the right place, ultimately – even if it may not have appeared that way at the time. For example, I’d been cowed by the incredible musical skills of Los Angeles musicians, to the degree that I didn’t feel adequate to pursue recording sessions as a piano player because, literally around the corner from us lived Ralph Grierson, a pianist who was expert at ALL styles of music. Plus, with so many musicians ready and willing to work for “exposure” (AKA extremely low pay), the competition felt overwhelming! Most of my experiences playing live gigs at clubs and parties left a lot to be desired. But since moving to the Tucson area, I’ve been recommended for a lot of gigs that I wouldn’t have been called for in L.A.  and I got to experience some “steady” work, playing church gigs and musical theater, as well as ongoing work in jazz trios, which increased my confidence substantially.

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My life has hardly embodied the adage to “bloom where you’re planted”, but my current perspective is that I went where I went, when I went, to the right place at the right time. If it should have been different, it would have been different.

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♫ ♩Home again, ♫ ♩home again, ♫ ♩ ♩jiggety jig!!

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music biz

Waiting for Harold Vick

I fell in love with recording studios the first time I stepped into one, so in the 70s I was always happy to get to hang out observing sessions after I’d finished copying parts for the musicians. One winter afternoon my client had booked Harold Vick, (who I had never met before), to add a solo to the song “Dream of a Child” on David Forman debut album  but at session time Mr. Vick wasn’t anywhere to be seen. So we waited. And waited. Tweaked David Forman’s vocal track, listened to some preliminary mixes. And waited. And waited.

90 minutes late, Harold rushed in to the studio. I can’t recall his excuse for being so tardy, or if he even offered an excuse. And I thought to myself, “buddy, you’d better play your ass off, after making everyone wait around so long for you!”

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Harold brushed the snow off his coat, got out his tenor, put on headphones and absolutely nailed it, first take. He was perfect. Turns out his contribution had been well worth waiting for.

Unfortunately, my client’s work on the album was thrown out and replaced by Joel Dorn. And although Harold is still listed in the credits for this album, there’s no trace of the gorgeous solo he’d played on the final release.

In spite of the album being virtually all ballads, Rolling Stone thought quite highly of it – even 40 years later. I can only imagine what they would’ve thought of the record with Harold’s solo!?

My old boss at E.B. Marks Music, Don Sickler agrees with my high opinion of Harold – he was head and shoulders (literally!) above the rest. Harold was taken from us way too young, but is remembered in Did You See Harold Vick? – Sonny Rollins – a 2-chord riff of a song that doesn’t evoke Harold in any way, other than mentioning his name. It’s the least Sonny could do, considering that Harold played rings around him, IMHO.  Here – listen and judge for yourself:

Harold Vick – Don’t Look Back

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learning, music biz, self-acceptance

Career Advice 101

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Since I grew up craving to hear stories about how other musicians had succeeded in “the biz”, I always assumed that younger musicians and students might someday take an interest in my career trajectory. Alas, I haven’t had many opportunities to share my experience with very many over the years and as time passes and technology changes everything, my music biz life seems to be less and less relevant to anyone. Which is a shame, since it still fascinates me!  🙂

That said, my adventures were what they were, and I think I’ve learned a few things that aren’t totally outdated and actually apply to “the real world” as well as the music biz.

  • Having the desire and skills are necessary, but developing relationships with other people is absolutely essential. Nothing else will take its place. It really is “who you know” and who knows you and what you can do.
  • It helps to be a member of the clan – whether that’s ethnic, gender, age, education, sexual orientation, religion or whatever else sets you apart from the crowd.   Be aware of where you’re already included and exploit the hell out of it!

Believe me – Scientologists look out for other Scientologists and Berklee alumni look out for fellow Berklee alumni. “Birds of a feather” hire one another.

  • The music biz, like life, is not a meritocracy. (just look who’s occupying the White House these days!) Don’t waste time and energy bemoaning the unfairness of stupid music being championed as “great” – even those stars whose careers have withstood the test of time have to keep paying their publicists to stay in the public eye.
  • Once you’ve identified a gig/persona/objective you really want, stop asking for validation from your friends, family and mentors and just do it!

Upon graduation, I wanted to become a female Aaron Copland. When I recognized that I was more interested in songwriting, I did everything I could to write pop songs. A couple years later I was introduced to the jingle business and began pursuing that. Over time I began to build a sample reel, and when I was offered a full-time gig arranging music for advertising in Chicago, I didn’t consult with my teacher Hale Smith on the decision, as I thought he would probably not approve. By that time I was hell-bent on jingles and did not want any dissenting opinions on my next move!

  • You can only be who you are. It doesn’t pay to try to be anyone else. Your essential nature is what it is, and while you can strive to become “more outgoing”, for example, or “to have a tougher hide”, you’ll always be fighting your innate nature, and that’s exhausting in the long haul.
  • Listen to the “experts” but ultimately follow your own self-knowledge about your identity. Other people can point out your strengths and encourage you to consider new ideas but no one knows better than you do who you really are.

In the 70s I forced myself to make cold calls to get performing gigs, and I did manage to connect with a few booking agents, but they had their own agendas and were constantly trying to fit me into their idea of who I should be and what I should be doing – i.e. the booker who mistook my being heavy as an opportunity to get me to be a piano-playing Totie Fields– as if 25 extra pounds magically made me a comedian and not a musician!  She told me repeatedly how she could have booked me a lot more gigs if only I was funny, but at 22 years old, I took myself MUCH too seriously to fit into that mold – even if making people laugh is ultimately more rewarding than singing and playing the piano!

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FUNNY Totie Fields

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SERIOUS Marilyn Harris

 

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growing up, Home

Mamala’s Last Week

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In the early 90s I had a steady gig on the 15th floor atrium lobby of the Merchandise Mart Holiday Inn in Chicago and one evening while I was on a break, (hiding in the Ladies Room reading a book,) the concierge burst in, in tears. She began telling me about her mother’s cancer treatments, and how all of her siblings and their spouses were taking care of her, staying with her every night, cleaning up after her and keeping her as comfortable as possible. And something told me to pay attention! You will need this information later.

The concierge was a lovely woman in her 30s, whose face stayed calm and beautiful as the tears slid down her cheeks. She told me how her brothers and sisters all lived nearby their mom, in a downstairs apartment or 2 doors away down the street. How it wasn’t a sacrifice for any of them to be there, tending to their beloved mother who needed them now so much. How they’d worked out a schedule so that no one was overwhelmed by the burden of being a caregiver. How easy it actually was to clean her up after she’d soiled herself, and how grateful they all were to have one another, and the time to talk to and comfort each other and pull together at this time of crisis.

It wasn’t easy to return to the piano after that break. I didn’t really know the concierge and I felt humbled that she shared so much of herself with me. I treasured the idea of a family who lived that close, who trusted one another so deeply, and who could come together so solidly for their mom and one another.

My only experience with death in the family had happened suddenly a couple years prior to this, and the memory still haunted me; how words had been said and feelings had been hurt, how family members had become estranged. It wasn’t just that we hadn’t had the chance to say “goodbye”, altho that did factor into it. I think it was more that we weren’t prepared and were unable to muster our “best selves” consistently. It didn’t help that the clergy hadn’t brought their A-game, either.

When my mom was diagnosed with cancer in 2005, she seemed almost giddy as she called to tell us; “It’s Sayonara, baby!” She’d made arrangements decades earlier to donate her body for scientific research and she opted for the barest minimum of treatment, in an effort to remain mobile and not become a burden. On one visit to NYC I accompanied her to the hospital for a treatment and since we couldn’t catch a cab back to her apartment in the drizzle, we slowly walked home down 5th Avenue and across 57th Street, stopping to warm up in the Steinway Building, where I commandeered a grand piano and showed her my latest song. In hindsight, it might have been better to wait for a cab, but she’d always seen herself as a very sturdy person, and she didn’t complain. And I had really wanted her to hear that song!

After a few months, it was obvious that her body was failing rapidly, and my sister and I were summoned from California to help our other sisters care for her in her final week.

We stayed in a hotel down the street from mom’s apartment and traded off every 12 hours, so that our mom was never left alone. For the first few days, she was fairly lively, receiving visitors and phone calls, showing interest in conversations, food and music. But as her body began to run out of steam and the pain worsened, she napped more and more of the time. The last few days when she’d wake from a nap, she’d be so pissed off that she was still alive! But then she’d heave a resigned sigh and settle in.

She gave me a profound gift, letting me care for and be there for her and my sisters that final week of her life.

I think of you and miss you every day, lovely Mamala.

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