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Larry Whitler

Singer and Songwriter

@LarryWhitler

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Songwriters Who Shaped Our World

Welcome to my blog

 

In addition to being a songwriter and a performer I have also been a student of songwriters and songwriting all of my life.

 

In this blog I explore the influence, whether subtle or blatant, that songs, and therefore songwriters, have had on all of us.

 

Thank you for your interest.

By Larry Whitler, Jan 5 2017 08:04PM

Teachers have a difficult job. If you are a teacher, thank you for choosing to do what you do.


I don’t know how teachers reach their students the way they do. When we are children, and especially later on when we are teenagers, we can be so unreachable. We’re easily distracted, we’re easily bored, we’re concerned that we appear “cool” to our peers, we can be arrogant, we can be moody, we have crushes, we can even be simply tired. So how any teacher ever reaches us when we are in their class is somewhat of a miracle. The teachers that do reach us have done something pretty amazing so, again, if you are a teacher, thank you.


Seventh grade was my first year in a school which had us students changing classes every forty five minutes or so. It was winter in early 1968. I was twelve years old, soon to turn thirteen. The school I attended was called Brookside Junior High School and was located in Merrick, New York. I used to ride my bicycle to school with my friends and lock it into the bicycle rack.


Brookside Junior High School was a two story building. From the entrance of the school closest to the bicycle rack I could look up and see the classroom of one of my favorite teachers. Her name was Mrs. Barr. She taught English.


For the forty five minutes I sat in Mrs. Barr’s classroom each day I learned a lot about this language that I’ve spoken since I said my first words. Mrs. Barr helped me understand that language wasn’t just about communicating but that it was also about expression and the conveyance of human emotions through words.


When Mrs. Barr told the class that we were going to learn about poetry the students let out a low, but audible, groan. Poetry? Nobody wanted to learn about poetry. Okay, maybe a limerick with the word ‘Nantucket’ cleverly setting up a funny punchline (to an adolescent, anyway). But REAL poetry? No no no! We’re all going to fall asleep. How could she POSSIBLY interest us in POETRY?!!


How? Well, she was a great teacher. And she knew EXACTLY how to interest us in poetry.


Mrs. Barr opened up the little record player that looked like a suitcase when it was closed, she removed an LP vinyl disc from a white paper sleeve, and she placed the record on the spindle of the turntable. I’m guessing she intentionally didn’t let us see the album cover because she wanted to surprise us.


We had heard records played in class many times before. Typically we heard records with monotone voice actors reading Shakespeare or Robert Frost. The spoken-word records commonly played in the classrooms of my adolescence did not excite me very much. I owned none of them but often checked them out from the public library as a shortcut to actually reading a book assignment. Even in my own home I would fall asleep trying to listen to them.


Before putting the record player arm down onto the now spinning vinyl, Mrs. Barr looked at the students in the class and said, “I wanted to share with you some poetry that is written by a new poet. He’s a young man who grew up not far from here and is making a name for himself with his poetry.”


When Mrs. Barr lowered the needle onto the record, the amazing sounds of Simon And Garfunkel suddenly filled the classroom. The cut she was playing was the song, “I Am A Rock,” written by Paul Simon.


I don’t know about the other students, but every cell in my body woke up. It was as if a refreshing spring of fresh water had burst into the classroom and refreshed my very being. I loved it. The lilting acoustic guitar intro, the contemporary singing style of Paul Simon, the amazing harmonies when Art Garfunkel joined in, all reached my ears with a colorful brightness that stirred everything I seem to be about. Now THIS was a great class!


Wow. Mrs. Barr was so cool. Simon And Garfunkel were everywhere in those days. They had songs on the radio, giant posters of them hung up in the record store at the Roosevelt Field Mall, and they even were on the soundtrack to the movie, “The Graduate.”


But, was THIS poetry?


Mrs. Barr then handed out sheets of paper to everyone in the classroom. When each student had the paper on their desk Mrs. Barr said, “I have just handed you the words to the song we just heard.”


Sure enough, there it was: “I AM A ROCK – by Paul Simon.”


“Does anyone want to read the words aloud for the class?” Mrs. Barr asked as she looked for a volunteer.


I raised my hand. “I’ll read it,” I said.


“Okay, Larry, thank you.”


I read the words. Only a few of the lines actually rhymed. The words, when read aloud without the musical accompaniment, made me feel sorry for the writer. Did Paul Simon really feel this way? Did he really “have no need for friendship” as the song states? Did he really disdain laughter and loving?


Then Mrs. Barr addressed the classroom. “What do you think this poem is saying?”


One at a time my fellow classmates told their thoughts about the lyric I had just finished reading. Some of them said, “I think he is lonely.” Another said, “I think he was hurt and wants to be alone.” Still another comment was, “Maybe he just likes being alone. Maybe he’s a hermit.”


Mrs. Barr said, “You are all correct. There is no wrong answer.” She went on to explain that poetry, like any literature, only succeeds if it stimulates some kind of an emotional reaction from the reader. She further explained that our reactions to songs, poems, books, movies, etc., are often connected to something deep within ourselves that enables us to relate.


I was moved. For the first time in my life I actually understood why people like poetry.


In Paul Simon’s case he was more than a skillful poet. He was also a skillful composer. In other words, Paul Simon was, and still is, a skillful songwriter.


But Mrs. Barr really made me see an important thing. She made me see that a truly great song did more than string words together just as a way for a singer to deliver a melody. A truly great song carries an emotion to the listener through both the lyrical content and the melody and chord accompaniment.


Words like, “I love you, you love me, we go together like the birds and bees,” don’t move anyone. They don’t stir any emotion. They don’t reach deep within us and connect us to anything. But when Paul Simon wrote, “I have my books and my poetry to protect me,” it is an expression that we can relate to. Even at the young age of twelve going on thirteen.


Like many people my age, I became a huge fan of Simon and Garfunkel and of the writings of Paul Simon. Just as Janis Ian’s songs are timeless, so are Paul Simon’s.


The melody to “Bridge Over Troubled Water” combined with that reassuring lyric gave us strength. The playfulness of melody and lyric in “You Can Call Me Al” or “Me And Julio Down By The Schoolyard” made us smile and helped us get through our daily grinds.


Thank you, Paul Simon, for shaping our world.


And thank you, Mrs. Barr, wherever you are. You will never know how you helped me figure out that some songs are nothing more than little ditties and other songs are true literary masterpieces. You showed me that Paul Simon, and other songwriters like him, are more than the disposable pop stars the fickle record industry tries to sell us. Paul Simon was, and is, a master poet and a true contemporary composer.



By Larry Whitler, Jan 4 2017 09:01PM

Before continuing our discussion and showcasing another songwriter I wanted to say a few things about recordings and records.


You probably play most of your music digitally. Maybe it plays from your phone or from your computer. Some of you may use compact discs and others may even play vinyl records or even recording tape (cassettes or reel-to-reel).


The music that is captured on our various forms of recording mediums is remarkably reproduced so that the modern listener can easily distinguish between the sound of a guitar, or a flute, or the voice of a well known singer. But before there was the technology to record audio, all music was captured with pen and paper. The only way to distinguish that a piece of music was intended for a trumpet or a violin was if that information was written on the paper. The only way to know what the singer would sing was by reading the lyric.


This book is about songwriting more than it is about singers and musicians but, for now, let’s look at the recording.


What is a record? If you ask any music aficionado the answer will probably be something like, “a vinyl disc with sound recorded onto it.” But if you ask the Clerk of The Court she might say, “It is a file containing someone’s information.”


In other words, a “record” could be a document. A piece of paper.


As was already mentioned, and as I'm sure you already knew, music, and songs, were originally recorded on paper.


Much of what we refer to as “ancient texts,” for example in the Bible, seem to read like song lyrics. The entire book of Psalms reads like poetry. The Song of Solomon (or Song of Songs) is even called a “song.”


My guess is that these texts were sung and not just recited. Or maybe if we could travel back in time and listen to our ancient ancestors we would hear these biblical texts being chanted. Chanted is an interesting word as it resembles ‘chante’ which is French for ‘sing.’ In English we often use the word chant to describe a relatively monotone delivery of a verse with very little notation variation.


I suppose we don’t have much information regarding whether the folks in biblical times actually had a way of writing music but evidence suggests that ancient civilizations all over the globe had musical instruments. That, itself, leads me to believe, or at least speculate, that there was SOME form of writing down the music that was created, performed instrumentally, and sung. The earliest sheet music I could find on the internet after doing a quick search revealed a piece of music dating back to 1470.


Old coins found by archaeologists depict imagery of harps and the Bible references horns, lyres, pipes, and other instruments. In the Americas the indigenous people clearly had drums.


So if there was a way of writing music onto paper then there were rules about how to decipher that music so that musicians, besides the composer, would be able to play it. We call those sets of rules “music theory” today. I have always been amused that the rules of playing written music are called music “theory.” The word “theory” almost makes it seem like it is an unsettled science.


Whether you are looking at written music from 1470 or sheet music from Taylor Swift’s latest song you are not truly looking at music. What you are looking at is a RECORDING of that music. Music is a sound perceived by the ear. The notes and notations on sheet music are simply a representation of those sounds which exists for the sole purpose of enabling a musician or singer to perform, or re-create, that music.


Jump ahead in time from biblical times to somewhere in the 1400s. That piece of music I found online from 1470 may have very well been written for someone who played the harpsichord. The harpsichord, which looks very similar to the piano and has an identical keyboard to the piano, predates the piano by about 300 years.


Here are two facts about the harpsichord that help understand its use: Fact number one: It is polyphonic (meaning you can play multiple notes all at once). Fact number two: It is too heavy to carry so it was simply not practical to be used in military marches.


It was probably also very expensive and would have been in castles, royal dwellings, cathedrals and churches. Also, the harpsichord musicians were probably rare and treated as valued members of a kingdom or the clergy.

The subtle difference between the harpsichord and the piano is in the way the keys activate the device that interacts with the strings inside of the instrument. On a harpsichord the device, activated by pressing on a key, plucks the strings while on a piano the felt hammers strike the strings. Plucked versus struck. A subtle difference. Two examples of ingenious design and engineering. And, while very similar, also very different.


Have you ever known anyone who just purchased a very expensive home entertainment system? Maybe it was even you. They like to brag about their stuff. Or, maybe another way to say this is to say that the proud owner of the latest and greatest in audio entertainment systems gets a lot of satisfaction by demonstrating, for his or her guests, all of the cool things it can do.


The same was true with the royalty of yesteryear. The difference between then and now is that, back then, that brand new harpsichord or piano required someone to play it and someone to write for it. So the composers in demand were those who could write and perform mind boggling works of musical art. No king or high priest would own a harpsichord just for it's aesthetic value as a piece of furniture. It was simply not complete without a musician and composer sitting on the bench playing the thing.


I’m sure the kings and priests looked long and hard throughout their kingdoms to find the likes of Giacomo Antonio Perti, Nicolas Siret, Johann Christoph Pepusch, and, Johann Nicolaus Bach to go along with their harpsichords.


So while today you might brag about owning an Apple, or a Jensen, or a SONY, when the "owners" of the instruments in the 1400s were showing off their possessions to their friends they very well may have pointed to the man at the keyboard and bragged, "I own a Bach."


It is probably fair to say that the classical composer movement of the 17th and 18th centuries set the stage for the music that was to follow. Even some of today’s popular songs have extracted segments of classical works and utilized those writings into the modern incarnations you may be familiar with. Procol Harum’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” for example, contains that famous intro adaptation of Johann Sebastian Bach’s ‘Ich steh mit einem Fuß im Grabe’ (‘I Stand With One Foot In The Grave’). In newer music you might recognize ‘Csárdás’ by Vittorio Monti in Lady Gaga’s intro in her single 'Alejandro.'


Needless to say, the earlier versions of ALL of these classical examples existed ONLY in written form. The only records, until the invention of the phonograph in 1877, were PAPER records. Not vinyl, not digital, not audio tape. Just paper. Just SHEET MUSIC.


Also needless to say is that the playing of these complex compositions required musicians, mostly harpsichord and piano players, who were highly skilled performers.


Nearly all the parts required the skills of amazingly dedicated musicians and performers. The performers of the works of the classical composers for over two centuries had to be top notch or else they would be out of the royal orchestra and back into the fields harvesting crops by hand. Even the compositions with vocal parts required singers with incredible range and stamina.


Music was, like a lot of stuff in those days, something only the rich had access to.


And again, just to stay on track, records were sheet music. Just remember that for now. RECORDS WERE SHEET MUSIC.


Now, jump ahead to early America. The 1800s. Think of life for those early Americans.


The folk songs that immigrants brought with them from Europe and Africa remained with the immigrants and they longed to hear them and sing them when they arrived in America. They longed for anything that kept them in touch with their European and African roots.


As in all cultures there are the rich and there are the poor. In early America the rich folks could afford to buy pianos. The poor folks made their own guitars and violins. The songs they played were mostly from their heritages. German immigrants played German songs, English immigrants played English songs, Irish immigrants played Irish songs, etc.


Entrepreneurs saw an opportunity to make money by selling sheet music of the songs that were the most popular and suddenly the world of music publishing was born. With the availability of sheet music the musical traditions of the early settlers could be passed along to future generations and an important part of their heritage could be preserved.


While you buy your favorite music today as an mp3 downloaded from I-tunes, for example, your counterpart in the 1800s would purchase sheet music and play the song on a musical instrument, usually a guitar or a piano, and then accompany it with singing. It was a hugely important part of life in a time when there was no electricity.


It was the ONLY way that there was any music in the home. Imagine that?


Music publishers would seek out songwriters to give them new products to sell. It was a simple transaction. A publisher would scout for a new song to sell, pay the songwriter for the song, and then reproduce the words and music as sheet music and sell it to as many people as he could interest in it.


Since there was no radio, in order to sell the songs, the publishers would have piano players placed in busy metropolitan areas. The businessmen would pass the piano player and, upon hearing the song, if he liked it he would buy a copy of it and then bring it home for his wife to learn to play on the family piano. The poorer musicians probably never had enough money for brand new sheet music so they most likely learned their new songs by simply listening to them. Either way, it explains how early music was distributed to the masses in those days and how early songwriters and music publishers made names for themselves. The money that was made went almost completely to the publishers.


Some of the names that you may recognize of songwriters from that era, and their songs, are: Jingle Bells by James Pierpont in 1857, Camptown Races by Stephen Foster in 1850, When The Saints Go Marching In by Katherine E. Purvis and James M. Black in 1896, and Row Row Row Your Boat by anonymous in 1881.


By the way, “Anonymous” apparently was a very prolific songwriter because MANY songs from that era are credited in this way. Maybe it was an oversight or maybe it was a way to steal a song. I guess we’ll never know for sure.


With the invention of the phonograph in 1877 by Edison everything was about to change.

Suddenly songs were not only sold as sheet music but, with the invention of the record player, people could bring home the songs AND the singers.


The rest is history.


Technology has continued to improve the quality of the sound and today we have the most amazing ability to capture audio and preserve it.


In addition to the evolution of the mechanical means by which we record songs, whether it is ink on paper to be played on a musical instrument, or captured audio signals to then be replicated as sounds on our stereo systems, the business of music has also evolved. But I'll save the topic of the business of music for another time.


I'll end this chapter with this thought: The one constant in all of this is the song and the songwriter. The talents of those who can write music and write lyrics continues to be the most important part of this curious aspect of our human existence that seems to have been a necessary part of every culture throughout the entire history of mankind.


For whatever reason we seem to need songs. And if we need songs then we need songwriters. Once again I am making the case that songwriters have shaped our world.

By Larry Whitler, Jan 3 2017 07:31PM

A few years ago my good friend, partner, and radio co-host Robin MacBlane and I were invited to dinner by the Martone family who had recently purchased the radio station where we worked. We were the morning hosts on talk station WOCA in Ocala, Florida, and did a morning drive program. Our show was eclectic. It was more like a TV variety show than it was like the standard politically driven show of some of the big-time radio hosts in the country.


To translate that, it simply means that we would try to be entertaining as much as possible. Our guests would run the gamut from local event organizers, to nationally known authors, to recording artists from every level of success and non-success, to actors and actresses, and yes, even politicians and political pundits.


The Martones were definitely a show-biz minded family. Both Robin and I were glad of that. We always feared that the station might be bought by someone with a very politically opinionated agenda. That, we felt, would be the end of our radio show. We really couldn’t do a show that was all about politics. It just wasn’t us. After all, we had been Robin And The Giant for so long writing songs and recording programming for children and families. We really were more cut out to be making people laugh, or at least smile, than making them angry at the government.


Anyway, getting back to the dinner invitation, we went to a local restaurant called Charlie Horse. The restaurant was half restaurant and half bar. Half KARAOKE BAR. It turned out that the Martones were very much into Karaoke. They were into it so much that they even had a karaoke business in North Carolina before buying the radio station and moving to Florida.


So, after we ate, we all went over to the karaoke bar portion of the restaurant and ordered drinks. Joe and Dan Martone, two of the new owners, and I all signed up to sing karaoke. Joe’s wife, Patsy, Dan’s wife, Missy, and Robin all opted to not sing and, instead, just watch the men make fools of ourselves.


The Karaoke guy had a huge book filled with song titles to choose from. The way it worked was that we would sign up to sing and write down the code letters and numbers that corresponded to our song choice.


As I flipped through the book I saw lots of names of recording artists I was familiar with. Here’s a sample of my thoughts as I flipped through the pages of that book: “Hmmm. James Taylor-Fire And Rain. Maybe I’ll do that…Um…Van Morrison-Brown Eyed Girl…nah, I might not hit all the notes…Janis Ian-At Seventeen, well, that might work…nah, they’d never like me doing that song.” Well, I finally settled on, “You Can Call Me Al” by Paul Simon.


I went back to the table and sipped my soda while waiting my turn and listening to all the other karaoke singers. I couldn’t help but think about Janis Ian. She is such a great poet. Her songs really are above this karaoke stuff. Janis Ian had such an influence on me when I was a young songwriter that it almost felt blasphemous that her material was even in a karaoke book. I actually wondered what this rather abrasive crowd would think if Janis Ian, herself, were to step up to that microphone and begin singing.


Rewind to 1971. I was 16 years old and I was trying to learn how to be a songwriter. I just bought Janis Ian’s first album simply titled, “Janis Ian,” and I was sitting on my bedroom floor with a small record player listening to “Society’s Child,” “Too Old To Go ‘Way Little Girl,” “Janey’s Blues,” and all the others on that album.


I was listening to Janis Ian’s well crafted lyrics, her beautiful voice, and her haunting and interesting melodies. She sang lines like, “Her mother plays on the golf course every day and her daddy, he sits at home and plays with the maid.” Her words were holding me spellbound. Her choice of notes to sing those words to was hypnotizing. Her voice was seductive. And her acoustic guitar playing on the song titled, “I’ll Give You A Stone If You’ll Throw It” made me crave to become as accomplished as she was.


You know, at that time, it never even occurred to me how young Janis was when she wrote those amazing songs. I looked it up on Wikipedia and they say she was 14 or 15 years old. Wow. That makes it even more incredible.


Anyway, I loved what she was doing and went on to become a huge fan. When the internet first started up I even had a brief e-mail exchange with her while she was traveling somewhere. A true brush with greatness for me.


Rather than simply gushing over a singer and songwriter I came to love I wanted to tell you why I feel that Janis Ian shaped the world.


From what I’ve told you already you can easily see how she shaped my personal world. She motivated me to be a better writer and a more polished performer. She showed me that sticking to songwriting that maintained integrity was better than simply writing for the commercial marketplace.


But think about this. It was 1967. Janis Ian was sixteen years old. SIXTEEN! And she’s writing these beautifully crafted lyrics about interracial relationships, about adolescent sexual curiosity, about teenage pregnancy, about PROSTITUTION. Holy cow.


And the talent didn’t stop with the words. Janis Ian crafted melodies that still hold up today. She chose to weave together words and melodies in ways that should have catapulted her to superstardom overnight.


And it almost did.


Almost.


Yes, Janis Ian almost launched into the famous-sphere but was stopped short by the attitudes of those who ran the shows. Record executives were afraid of Janis Ian’s honesty. They were afraid of the truth in the messages that cut directly to the soul of the shortcomings of our society. And Janis delivered it all with her delicate yet powerful voice.


Of course Janis Ian did eventually receive the recognition she earned. From the outside looking in it appeared to be an uphill climb but Janis has garnered two Grammy Awards. One of those awards is for her hit song "At Seventeen" and the other is for the audio version of her autobiography titled "Society's Child." According to Wikipedia, Janis Ian has had a total of ten Grammy nominations in eight different categories. Additionally, again according to Wikipedia, her song "Society's Child" was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2001.


In its infancy, “Society’s Child” was tossed around like a hot potato. It was, and is still, a great song. Its interracial story made it a hands-off property but a few brave music radio programmers saw the value in young Janis Ian’s song and played it. The young listeners to radio, both black and white, related to the message and that young audience helped place it on the Billboard charts.


Okay, so a song about interracial relationships makes the record charts. But how does THAT shape the world?


Well, it is hard to prove. But do you think that the song “Brother Louie” (by Hot Chocolate and later by The Stories) would have been as well received a few years later without Janis Ian’s “Society’s Child” first paving the way? Again, it is hard to prove but I think Janis took the war wounds that led to the acceptance of the topic.


By the way, just my opinion, but “Society’s Child” is so much more eloquently written than “Brother Louie.” I’ll let you form your own opinion. You’ll have to look up the lyrics to both songs to see if you agree or disagree.


Beyond “Society’s Child,” though, Janis Ian herself shaped our world. She showed us how to be honest. Janis had, and still has, such a gentle way of slaying giant devils that could have easily held us back from progressing.


Her songs are powerful. Powerful enough to have affected both the immediate listener and a second generation inspired by Janis’s work who then furthered the ripple by also writing songs or poetry or books that spoke honestly to our less than perfect  world helping to make this planet a better place.


Think of any of today’s powerful and influential voices, especially songwriters, be they female or male, and you can probably trace their inspirations back to Janis Ian.


I’ll close this chapter with this. Listen to Janis Ian. Really listen to her. Think of WHEN she wrote some of her early songs. Think of the discriminations she herself must have had to deal with in her lifetime. And think about how she took her own trials and articulated them into the works of art we call songs in order to reach the rest of us and give us all the strength we need to face, what is often, a cruel world.



By Larry Whitler, Jan 3 2017 01:36AM

As a young teenager I discovered WABC Music Radio broadcasting out of New York City. It was 770 on the AM dial and the music they played was, well, music to my ears. I loved the sound of the popular songs. I had my favorites, of course, and my not-so-favorites, but across the board I found myself in love with the records they were playing.


My friends also loved WABC. When we’d get together the discussions about music would always go in the direction of, “Have you heard the newest Beatles song? Man, that guitar part is so cool. I heard that they smoke marijuana. Did you see the shoes George was wearing? Did you know that Ringo has a son? Paul really is everyone’s favorite. They have so much money. My brother says he saw John in the city.”


Trying to get a word in about the songs themselves was a lost cause. While I found chatter about personalities and clothing interesting, what I really wanted to talk about was how a song was written. How did they choose that chord change? Wasn’t that choice of lyrical phrasing so much better? Can you hear how much the horn part sounds like the horn part in another song?

You get the idea. Everyone loved the singers. Everyone loved the musicians. Everyone even loved the music. Nobody seemed to care about the songwriters or, more accurately, the song WRITING.


My sudden shift of awareness from songs in musicals to top-40 radio also created within me a burning desire to learn to play the guitar. I remember my brother, Bob, driving me to a store called Great Eastern in East Meadow, where I purchased my first acoustic guitar for twelve dollars. I also bought a “How To Play Guitar” book and, coupled with the knowledge I learned from my accordion lessons, taught myself how to play guitar.


I had a small cassette recorder in my bedroom and I would write songs and sing them onto blank recording tape. When I say I “wrote” songs, I mostly mean I “made up” songs. In other words I would strum the guitar and sing silly little nothings that I would make up on the spot.

By the way, making up a song is, by definition, creating a song and, therefore, it is writing. You don’t actually have to write anything down on paper to be able to claim that you wrote it. You just have to create it yourself.


The problem with not writing songs down soon became obvious. Without writing them down I would quickly forget them. Writing them down made it much easier to remember. So I began writing my song lyrics down on loose leaf paper indicating the chords that went with the songs.

I knew how to write music in notation form and so, now and then, I would even write out the score to the songs I liked the most.


When I would show my songs to my friends they seemed to like them. It was such a great and accomplished feeling to finally, for the first time in my life, actually be creating the very thing that had captivated me all of my life. I was now a songwriter!


The next step would be to make records. But how do you do THAT?


Back in those days everyone had a phone book. The yellow pages provided a wealth of information and an alphabetical listing of businesses. So I looked up “Record Companies” in the phone book to find a company that would record me and my songs and get me on the radio. I really thought it was that simple.


I found a listing under “Recording Studios” for Ultra-Sonic Recording Studios in Hempstead. So I called them up and said I wanted to make a record. The woman on the phone asked for my address and she said she would send me a rate card. I was on my way!


When the rate card arrived in the mail I learned that I could rent out their studio for $35 an hour. “An hour?” I thought with excitement. My songs were only two or three minutes long. I can record TWENTY SONGS!!!


So I made an appointment, took my acoustic guitar, my electric guitar, and my accordion on a city bus, and rode to Ultra-Sonic Recording Studios.


I was somewhat star struck as I waited in the waiting room.  It was 1971. I was fifteen or sixteen years old (I can’t remember if I went before or after my birthday). The lobby I was waiting in had record album covers adorning the walls. I took it to mean that those albums were recorded at Ultra-Sonic (and I was right).


The names on those albums were Iron Butterfly, Janis Ian, Vanilla Fudge, The Young Rascals, and others that I’m not remembering.


Wow.


When it was finally my time to begin recording I was escorted into this huge room. There were dozens of empty folding chairs. I was told that earlier in the day an orchestra had been recording in that studio.


It was just one engineer and myself. I was so freakin’ nervous. The engineer asked me if I had a cord for my electric guitar. I thought he said “chord” and not “cord” and so I asked him what he meant. He repeated the question, very politely and patiently, “Do you have a cord for the electric guitar?” I must’ve looked like an idiot. The question didn’t make sense. I thought, “I have LOTS of chords” but I didn’t respond in that way.


Finally, the “DUH” moment when I realized what he was asking me. “No,” I said, “I forgot it.”

Anyway, I recorded two songs in that one hour. A song I called, “Mr. Happy Man” and another song called “I Hope It Rains Today.”


I played all the instruments, overdubbing over myself.


When I was done I remember the engineer saying, “I’ve heard worse.” I took that as a compliment.


Then he asked how I wanted to take the demo home with me. I didn’t know what he meant. He went on to explain that they don’t make cassettes and if I didn’t have a quarter inch reel-to-reel tape player at home that I would not be able to show my songs to anyone.


Oh.


So now what?


He went on to offer to make an acetate record, cut on a lathe, that could be played on any record player.


COOL! Of course I said yes.


As I look back at all of this I’m thinking that maybe he gave me the acetate for free. I’m sure I only had enough money for the one hour of recording time and the bus fare. In fact, I’m thinking now that I probably was in that studio longer than an hour. They just gave this naïve kid a break.

I ended up going home on the bus with an acetate 45 rpm single. The label looked cool, too. It had the Ultra-Sonic logo on it and had my name and the names of my two songs typed out on it with a typewriter. I couldn’t wait to show my friends and my family.


Okay. Now, I’ve told you all of this and haven’t shared with you anything about the songs themselves.


Just to reiterate: The two titles of my very first recording session were “Mr. Happy Man” and “I Hope It Rains Today.”


My attempt was to write one song with a happy sounding lyric set to a sad sounding melody, and another song with a sad sounding lyric set to a happy sounding melody. I did succeed at this. Maybe in a primitive way, but I succeeded.


I won’t bore you with the words to the songs but I want you to know that somewhere, somehow, I was writing songs based on influences that must have resonated with me. I can’t say for sure if it was any particular artist or writer. The important thing is my world had, indeed, been shaped by a songwriter. Somehow one or more of the artists and writers I admired had impressed upon me that a happy melody set to a sad lyric was, paradoxically, pretty cool.


Needless to say I showed the record to my friends, played it for my mother, and considered it a major accomplishment.


But it wasn’t on the radio.


Now what? How do I do THAT?


Well, that should be easy, right? Just take the record to WABC Music Radio. Well, I’ll spare you the details but I didn’t even get in the door.


What about WGBB? That was my hometown radio station. Sure THEY would play it. Right?

Well, I didn’t get the record played but I got advice. I needed to have the song on an established record label. Something like Atlantic, Columbia, Warner Brothers, or Apple.


Apple? That was the Beatles. I bet they would LOVE my record.


So, naively I packaged my acetate record and mailed it to Apple Records in England. Nothing was quick in those days. Especially packages sent to Europe.


A few weeks later I received a package in the mail. The return address was Apple Records in ENGLAND! I opened that package like a kid on Christmas morning. They returned my acetate record and included a letter typed neatly on Apple Records letterhead. I still have that letter. It was my first reject letter.


Why was it rejected? Was it my voice? Was it my guitar playing? Was it the song? Was it ALL OF THE ABOVE?


Getting rejected is never easy. Here is the formula to get over rejection and actually turn it into a constructive force: a) Think to yourself that the ones rejecting you are stupid. b) Read the rejection letter a few more times. c) Take a nap or just go to bed for the night. d) Wake up and realize that you need a new strategy. e) Be prepared to work even harder than before. f) Mentally thank those who rejected you for making you stronger or better at your craft.


Okay, so I wasn't exactly that philosophical. But I did wonder what it was about the artists whose album covers adorned the walls of the lobby at Ultra-Sonic Studios. After all, they all had recording deals. They were all on major labels. They were all getting their songs played on the radio.


So I bought their albums and I listened to them. The one that struck me the most was Janis Ian. Here was this one woman, only a little older than I was, with one guitar and she was holding me spellbound with her gentle voice, her acoustic guitar, and most importantly her amazing songwriting.


That was it. It was the songwriting.


I compared my own songwriting to Janis Ian's and, after swallowing my pride, surrendered to the realization that she had mastered what I had not: The art of writing a meaningful lyric, the art of composing a compelling melody and chord structure, and the art of delivering that song through the instruments of her guitar and her voice.


In other words, though she never knew anything about this, Janis Ian had become my first songwriting mentor.


In the next chapter I want to share some of the brilliance I observed from Janis Ian and how her songwriting shaped my world as well as the world around all of us.

By Larry Whitler, Jan 1 2017 10:00AM

We live in an interesting world. It is made up of all kinds of people with all kinds of talents and skills making all kinds of contributions.


One tiny slice of the pie in this world is the slice of pie called music. It is a small slice but an ever present and important one. It is the slice of life that is made possible by musicians, singers, and songwriters.


Quite frequently we get caught up in numbers. I suppose it is our way as humans to gauge the value of something. Whether it is sports statistics, economic analysis, or the number of records sold by a recording artist, we like to cite those numbers to fortify our opinions that one athlete, one investment, or one recording artist is more valuable than another.


In recent years we have seen the advent of a proliferation of TV talent shows that pit one singer up against another singer. At the end of the viewing season we see the television networks hyping the grand finale which reveals the winner of the contest and the "best singer of them all."


What?


Music is an art, not a sport. I guess it shouldn't be surprising that we try to measure musical talent the way we measure sports talent because we do live in a sports minded society. Somebody has to be the best and, by gosh, we're going to determine who that person is by having a contest.


There is only one winner and suddenly ten, twenty, maybe one hundred singers are left to feel inadequate and unqualified to pursue the gift of a singing voice. They may ignore the results of the contest and continue to pursue their dreams anyway or they may accept defeat and go on to live a life in insurance sales, fast food, or, as in the case of Harry Chapin's "Mister Tanner," work as a tailor.


But how often have you watched one of those talent shows and thought to yourself, "That is the perfect song" for that singer. Or the opposite, "That is not a very good song for this singer."

If you've ever thought either of those thoughts then you are subconsciously acknowledging the important role of the unseen and often unnamed participant in the contest: the songwriter.


Yes. The songwriter.


How important is the songwriter? Turn on a video of your favorite singer and turn down the volume. Hear that nothingness? That's what you would hear if there was no songwriter.


But, besides giving the singer a song to sing, is the songwriter important in the grand scheme of things? Does Diane Warren actually change the world with her incredible melodies? Does Carole Bayer Sager actually make a difference in society with her well crafted lyrics?


You bet they do. And that is what this book is about. It is about the composers and lyricists of yesterday and today and how they have affected all of us.


This is not a collection of biographies although biographical information will be included in order to tell the stories of the songwriters and their work. This is, instead, a look at the songs themselves. It is a study of the important role of the lyric as well as the important role of the melody and chord progressions.


As we look at the songwriters and their work in this book I will be making my case that the songs themselves have helped to shape the world we live in by influencing the way we think, the way we see each other, and the way we govern ourselves.


© 2017 Larry Whitler

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“Only a truly great songwriter could write 'Marvelous Novelists.' The gentle way you sing this gem of a tune just makes me grin from ear to ear with giddy joy. Brilliant.”

 

- Sills & Smith, ReverbNation Artist (Mar 23, 2012)