Songwriters Anonymous - Part One

by Mary Dawson

It's not a Twelve Step Program, but it is definitely a Fellowship of the Anonymous! It's the always essential -- but too often invisible -- community of geniuses who write the songs we love.

Most music fans can sing every word and note of their favorite songs -- and they idolize the artists who made them famous. But few are aware of the other essential ingredient in the soundtrack of our lives -- that shadow behind the scenes known as the songwriter.

While it is true that some songwriters are also performers, it is also true that many artists do not write or write well. Their talent lies in their vocal or musical gift, so they are on a constant search for that killer song that will bring them to the top of the charts. Without the songwriter, there would be no song for the artist to melody for us to whistle…no lyrics to touch our hearts. Yet as indispensable as they are, many songwriters pass through life almost completely unknown to the world -- and we are the poorer for our ignorance.

In this series we will meet some fascinating characters -- past and present -- whose craftsmanship has contributed to the treasury of our favorite American songs. Of course, we will only be able to meet of few of these wonderful tunesmiths, but I trust that once you are introduced to them, you will begin to search out others. You will become a diligent reader of CD inserts and learn to explore the stories of the craftsmen behind the songs. I promise that you will be fascinated by their lives and grow to love their music even more than before.

Harold Arlen

So...if you thought that Harold Arlen was the guy who owns the dry cleaning shop you to take your clothes to, you would be dead wrong!

But don't feel bad. Very few of his contemporaries knew him either. Although he was one of the most gifted and multi-faceted musicians of the 20th Century, he was probably also one of the least known by the general public. But you do know him -- even if you don't think you do -- because you know his songs. Do any of these titles ring a bell with you?
Stormy Weather
Blues in the Night
We're Off to See the Wizard
It's Only a Paper Moon
One for my Baby and One More for the Road
Let's Fall in Love
Come Rain or Come Shine
Or how about this one? "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" -- the song that was declared the Greatest Song of the 20th Century by the Radio Industry Association of America and the National Endowment for the Arts. Now…are you interested? Wanna know more?

Harold Arlen was born Hyman Arleck, the son of a Jewish cantor, on February 15, 1905, in Buffalo, New York. Early in his childhood it was obvious that Hyman had inherited his father's musical talent, and his family hoped that perhaps he might follow his father's career. But as a teenager Hyman discovered the exciting world of Black Music -- jazz, ragtime and blues. These influences, coupled with his love of Jewish synagogue music and classical training, lit the flame that would compel Hyman to drop out of school and make his living as a composer -- first for Harlem's famous Cotton Club, and later for musical theater.

As his talent and catalog of songs grew, artists of every genre and style began to seek out Mr. Arlen's tunes. Singers as diverse as Louis Armstrong, Barry Manilow, Barbra Striesand, Frank Sinatra, Natalie Cole, Diana Krall and Ella Fitzgerald are just a few of the literally hundreds of artists who have performed and recorded his songs.

Wanna do a little more research? Visit the ASCAP website and then click on Harold Arlen's name. You won't believe the number of songs to his credit or the number of artists who have recorded them!

What made Harold Arlen such a prolific and skilled songwriter? Clearly, it was not the notoriety he received. While he was still alive (he died in 1986) many music professionals mistakenly thought that his songs were simply anonymous American folk songs because they were so much a part of the American musical tapestry.

Even Arlen himself was humbled by his own anonymity. He once told about an occasion when he was riding in a New York taxi. The driver was humming Arlen's song, "Stormy Weather." Arlen asked him if he knew who wrote the song. The driver started guessing -- Irving Berlin? Cole Porter? George Gershwin? With each guess Arlen replied, "No." Finally Harold said, "Harold Arlen wrote that song." Surprised, the taxi driver turned around in his seat, looked straight at Harold and said, "Who?"

No -- it was not celebrity and fame that drove Arlen. It was something far deeper. You can hear it in each song -- his love of the craft, his commitment to be and to do his best at all times and -- above all -- to be himself. Comments from some of his longtime friends and collaborators go to the source of the man.

The legendary Richard Rodgers had this to say upon meeting Harold in the 1920s:
"(Arlen)...was a little advanced for me but I caught on pretty soon to his unusual harmonic structure and form. I realized he was the greatest new talent in years. Larry Hart thought he was great. Harold has a real valid talent that is on his own and completely original."
Alan J. Lerner of the famous Lerner and Lowe team said:
... it was impossible for Arlen to write a bad song ...
...and after collaborating with Harold on a theater production, world-famous author, Truman Capote said:
... I had no true understanding of songwriting ... but Arlen ... was very tolerant and infinitely encouraging ... For him music is the entire story. There inside a world of sound he is always courageous, intelligent, and incapable of cliche. I know you're hooked now. You can find more information on the incredible life and music of Harold Arlen in the biographies of his life by Edward Jablonski, Harold Arlen: Happy With the Blues and Harold Arlen: Rhythm, Rainbows and Blues. You have some fascinating reading ahead of you.

Bill Withers

Last summer I was in the grocery store picking up a few things for dinner. Unlike most folks, my songwriter's antenna always seems to be aware of the in-store music that is playing, so I immediately recognized the familiar strains of one of my favorite songs and songwriters in the background.

In front of me, however, was a gentleman -- I would guess him to be in his mid to late forties. He was decked out in shorts and flip-flops, his tummy slightly hanging over his belt. His baseball cap was on backward and his reading glasses were down on his nose. With shopping list in hand, he was carefully perusing the various brands and styles of canned green beans on the shelf. Deep in thought, he had no idea that he was singing every word of the song that was playing. As I watched this amazing phenomenon, I made a "note to self:" When a song is so much a part of our psyches that we sing it unconsciously while we are doing something else...THAT is a hit song!

So the next questions are: What was that song? -- and -- Who wrote it?

The song was "Just the Two of Us" and the writer is Bill Withers. If that doesn't ring a bell for you, let me toss in a few of his other hit titles. Do you recognize "Lean On Me... Ain't No Sunshine When She's Gone... Lovely Day...Grandma's Hands...Use Me?"

Bill Withers is who I want to be when I grow up! His songs are everywhere. Once you become familiar with his haunting vocals and hooky melodies, you will find them on radio stations in every television commercials for every kind of product and as theme songs in films. Amazingly, many of his songs were written more than 30 years ago and he is still taking his mega-deposits to the bank while most of the world doesn't even recognize him.

But great artists sure know Bill Withers! His songs have been recorded by Barbra Streisand, Michael Jackson, Aretha Franklin, Sting, Will Smith, Lionel Hampton, The Temptations, Tom Jones, Joe Cocker, Mick Jagger and Crystal Gayle -- and that's just the tip of the iceberg.

Bill was born on the Fourth of July 1938, in Slab Folk, West Virginia -- the youngest of six children. As a child, he stuttered so badly that he rarely spoke at all. When he was old enough to leave home, he joined the Navy "to get away from people" and spent the next nine years in the service. When he was discharged, he moved to Los Angeles to record some demos of songs he had been writing. Like most of us, Bill had a "day gig" to support his songwriting obsession -- his was working for Boeing Aircraft making toilet seats for 747s!

Bill's music career began when he met Clarence Avant, president of Sussex Records and recorded an entire album. "Ain't No Sunshine" from that first recording went gold in 1971 and won a Grammy as Best R&B Song. The famous standard "Lean On Me" was inspired by his life experiences growing up in a coal mining town and the music of the hymns he heard as a child at church. The song became his second gold single and rose to the top of both R&B and Pop Billboard charts in 1972. Seventeen years later that very same song became the title track for the 1989 movie starring Morgan Freeman.

Although Bill Withers has been recognized with three Grammies and with an induction into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, his name has never been a household word. Like Harold Arlen he writes songs for the sheer joy of music and because he is the music he writes. Bill describes his songwriting this way:
I write and sing about whatever I am able to understand and feel. I feel that it is healthier to look out at the world through a window than through a mirror. Otherwise, all you see is yourself and whatever is behind you. 1
Songwriters like Harold Arlen and Bill Withers are like the air we breathe every day. We tend to take them for granted without realizing how much they help us live the days of our lives with a song in our hearts.

Join us next time for more Songwriters Anonymous!

1Bill Withers Biography /

**From her earliest childhood years writing simple songs and poems with her father, through her twelve years as an overseas missionary, to her present, multi-faceted career as an author, lyricist/songwriter and conference speaker, Mary has always been adept at using words to communicate her heart to others. She is the President of CQK Records & Music of Dallas, Texas, a company which creates and produces songs in a panorama of musical styles for a variety of audiences, She is the host of "I Write the Songs," a nationally syndicated radio talk show, especially created to inspire and instruct the more than 40 million aspiring songwriters in the U.S. Mary is a frequent public speaker and seminar lecturer and teacher of songwriting in her popular Living Room Seminars. She is a Contributing Editor for The Internet Writing Journal ®.

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