Discovering My First Songwriting Mentor
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.
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.
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.
“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)