Songwriters Anonymous - Part Three
by Mary DawsonWelcome to the third installment (See, Part One, Part Two) in our quest to find the gifted storytellers behind our favorite songs. As we have been learning, many of them are completely anonymous -- unknown to us because we associate their songs with the singers who made them famous. We scarcely entertain a passing thought about the soul of the writer who forged our favorites on the anvil of his life experiences.
For example, who do you think is the author of these powerful words?
I love you in a place where there's no space or timeYou might guess that this is the work of 19th Century romantic poet, Elizabeth Barrett Browning…or the heartfelt creation of her contemporary, Percy Bysshe Shelley. But, be honest! How many of you would have known that these words were penned by...
I love you for my life -- you are a friend of mine
And when my life is over
Remember when we were together
We were alone and I was singing this song for you
Well, actually, his real name is Claude Russell Bridges and if you are a long time resident of Tulsa, you may have known him or his family. Nothing ringing a bell yet? Well, let's go back to his lyrics above. I'll bet that as soon as you hear the first notes of his beautiful composition, "A Song for You," you will recognize it immediately. You have your choice of artists because it has been recorded by vocalists as diverse as Willie Nelson, Ray Charles, Andy Williams, Aretha Franklin, Simply Red, Christina Aguilera and Michael Buble (just to name a few). Recently, it was impeccably performed again by American Idol, Elliott Yamin, in the 2006 American Idol Finals.
One reviewer has described Leon Russell as "pop music's most anonymous big shot." Always just below the radar, Leon has written and worked with some of the greatest names in music. Beginning a study of classical piano at age three, he soon became proficient on several instruments. At age fourteen, he began playing backup for Jerry Lee Lewis in a Tulsa nightclub (he had to fib about his age to land the job). A couple years later he moved to Los Angeles where he continued his career as a session player for artists and producers as varied as Glen Campbell, the Byrds, Herb Alpert, Phil Spector and Snuff Garrett.
Leon's first major songwriting hit came in 1970 when legendary artist, Joe Cocker recorded his song, "Delta Lady," and Leon became the organizer of Cocker's Mad Dogs and Englishmen Tour. Also in 1970, Leon released a self-titled solo album that included his haunting number, "A Song for You." One fan who heard Leon's album was a young arranger named Richard Carpenter. "A Song for You" became the title cut of the Carpenters 1972 recording -- one of the strongest albums of their star-studded career. Richard later commented:
I heard this song on Leon Russell's debut album and thought immediately it would be a good vehicle not only for Karen's lead, but for our overdubbed "choral" sound as well.1But how, you might wonder, did Richard Carpenter even know enough about Leon Russell to seek out and listen to his debut album? The answer is that this was not the first time the Carpenters had struck gold with a Leon Russell song. Their self-titled third album released in 1971, had also included a unique and mystical Russell masterpiece called "Superstar." Richard recalls:
Karen and I came home from the studio relatively early one evening in early '71. She went to bed, but I tuned in The Tonight Show. The host, Johnny Carson, was championing a then relatively unknown performer named Bette Midler. One of the songs she sang was "Superstar." It was quite a bit different than what my arrangement turned out to be, but I knew it could be a hit. As the lyric never mentions the word "Superstar," I had to quiz a few people about it to find out its name in order to get a lead sheet or recording. It turned out that Leon Russell and Bonnie Blamlett had written it for Rita Coolidge and the Joe Cocker Mad Dogs and Englishmen recording and tour. The album was on A&M and I owned a copy of it, but never got around to playing it. I opened the album, familiarized myself with the piece and constructed my arrangement; a perfect song for Karen and the Carpenters' sound.2The rest -- as they say -- is history! The Carpenters' version of "Superstar" went to #2 on the Billboard Charts and propelled the brother-sister duo into Grammy history as Best Pop Vocal Group in 1971. "Superstar" has since been covered by a plethora of artists including Luther Vandross, Joe Cocker and Ruben Studdard. (It is, incidentally, one of the only successful songs in history that does not contain the title anywhere in the song!)
The vulnerable lyrics and delicately crafted melodic structure of Leon's songs make them an arranger's dream -- adaptable to any genre and timeless in their musical and lyrical impact. Let's look at one more Russell masterpiece…the song entitled, "This Masquerade" which also, by the way, became a Carpenters hit in 1973. (Did Richard know a great songwriter when he found one, or what?)
"This Masquerade" is another intricate tapestry of words, melody, harmony and rhythm that has been recorded by artists of every genre. The Carpenters were not the only ones to score with this song. George Benson won Record of the Year at the 1976 Grammys with his version. Artists as varied as Vic Damone, Robert Goulet, David Sanborn, Doc Severnsen -- and even Cybill Shepherd -- have recorded their own renditions.
The musical depth and craftsmanship of "This Masquerade" is stunning! If you visit a digital Internet download site like iTunes, you will even find classical arrangements of this song. Music theorists have Internet discussions about musicality employed by the composer. Like a ten-carat diamond, it is exquisite from every facet.
If you are an aspiring songwriter who has never studied the work of Leon Russell, you are definitely missing out! Take time to discover and examine the panorama of styles and techniques in his amazing songs. Leon has set the bar very high for all who come after him and his songs remind us why we wanted to become songwriters in the first place.
Now in his sixties with a flowing mane of white hair, Leon still travels the country with his incredible band. Check out his website at leonrussellrecords.com and make note of his tour schedule. If he comes within a hundred miles of you, don't miss the chance to hear this genius musician live. His like will not pass this way again.
About a year ago I received an email announcing a "house concert" in a neighboring suburb of Dallas featuring songwriter, Richard Leigh. I had never heard of a house concert and I didn't know much about Richard Leigh except that he is the writer of one of the greatest songs of the 20th Century -- the Crystal Gayle hit, "Don't It Make My Brown Eyes Blue?" That was enough for me! I booked two tickets.
My son was visiting me at the time so we went together. It was one of the most delightful evenings either of us had ever experienced. If you haven't been to a house concert, it's time to investigate this very-old-very-new music phenomenon where music lovers simply open their homes to host intimate living room concerts for 30-50 people. (But that's the subject of another article.)
In the comfortable atmosphere of the host's lovely home, we got to know Richard as a real person and found him to be the quintessential "songwriter's songwriter." Though he is a master craftsman, he does not take himself too seriously. He has a very charming, self-effacing sense of humor and loves to tell the stories behind his songs. We were entertained, educated and stimulated to study his music in depth.
Richard's life is the stuff of Nashville legend. Born in 1951, Richard grew up in Virginia and started writing songs at age ten. By age 23, he had already moved to Nashville to follow his dream and had begun writing songs professionally. At age 25, he had his first cut by hit recording artist, Crystal Gayle -- the song, "I'll Get Over You" -- that soared to Number One on the Billboard Country Chart and received a nomination for the County Music Association (CMA) Song of the Year.
As Richard told it at the house concert, he was naturally thrilled with his early success, but he was also feeling the pressure to crank out another blockbuster song to prove he wasn't just a one-hit wonder. He had started writing something that he thought might have possibilities. He knew it had something to do with eyes...maybe blue eyes…or brown eyes. As he struggled to find the hook, his little dog lay in the corner of the room as she usually did. But as he kept playing the guitar and trying various words and chords, the dog got up and sat right at his feet, looking intently into his eyes as if she were hanging on every word and note.
Richard stopped for a minute to pet the pooch. As he admired her beautiful brown eyes, he got the hook..."Don't It Make My Brown Eyes Blue?" The song became a hit in every sense of the word reaching Number One on both the Country and Pop charts and remaining on the charts for more than SIX months! The song was nominated for Grammys in both the Country and Pop categories and won the Grammy for Best Country Song in 1978. "Don't It Make My Brown Eyes Blue?" became a million selling single and was named one of the Ten Most Performed Songs of the Century at the 1999 ASCAP Awards.
There's a bittersweet postscript to this wonderful dog-song-story! When Richard's little dog passed away a few years later, he lovingly placed her collar on his Grammy where it has remained ever since. A fitting memorial for his little muse!
So far, Richard has written or co-written ten Number One hits including "Somewhere in My Broken Heart," which earned him the Nashville Songwriters Association award for Song of the Year in 1991 and "The Greatest Man I Never Knew" recorded by Reba McIntyre and nominated for Best Country Song at the 1993 Grammys. As the 21st Century dawned, Richard snagged another huge hit with the Dixie Chicks' recording of his song, "Cold Day in July," from their Fly CD. Richard continues to write and perform with no signs of slowing down. It is definitely worth your time to study this man's amazing catalog of songs. They will not only be pure pleasure to you as a listener, but they will raise the bar for you as you write your own songs. Please take time to visit his website at richardleigh.com.
Well, that's our Songwriters Anonymous meeting for this time. Keep coming back...it works if you work it -- if you really study the songs of these amazing creative minds. By the way, have you started to notice that these songwriters are really only anonymous to the general public? Although music listeners may never have heard of these writers, it is a slam-dunk fact that hit recording artists know these geniuses VERY well. In fact, great artists are always on a relentless search for that one absolute essential for fame and fortune -- a well-crafted, bulletproof song that will be sung for decades and even centuries.
Keep writing your own songs...stretching yourself every time to aspire to the stature of writers like these. Take it from me -- an old dairy farmer's daughter -- eventually the cream always rises to the top.
1Richard Carpenter / The Carpenters: The Essential Collection / A&M Records / Song Notes
2Richard Carpenter / http://www.richardandkarencarpenter.com/Album_Carpenters.htm#SongNotes
**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 ®.