Tuesday, August 3, 2010

A Close Brush with Musical Fame

I saw a familiar name in the NY Times today. Mitch Miller. If you're under 50, you probably have no idea who Mitch Miller was. To put it simply, he was an influential figure in pop music during the 1950's and '60's. Yes, ancient history, back there with LP's and AM radio stations. There's a reason I'm telling you about Mitch. You see, Mitch almost catapulted my songwriting partner and me to fame and riches. Unfortunately we weren't aware of how the music business worked, and ended up hiring a lawyer. I'll get to that.

Mitch was head of A&R at Columbia Records, and helped establish singers such as Tony Bennett, Rosemary Clooney, Johnny Mathis, Doris Day, Patti Page. And Frankie Laine - he of "Rawhide" and "My Heart Knows What the Wild Goose Knows" fame. (Mitch also hit it big with his sing-along albums and TV show, where people actually sat at home and sang along with him and his chorus. Times were different then.) But the key here is Frankie Laine. My buddy and I had been writing songs and trying to peddle them, with little success. Actually no success. We'd even traveled to New York, called on music publishers in the Brill Building, and sang our songs to disinterested men in wrinkled suits and stained ties. But we were sure this extraordinary song was destined to become a hit. It was called "In the Beginning. Yep, the first 3 words in the Bible, book of Genesis. We knew it would be perfect for Frankie Laine, at Columbia Records in Mitch's jurisdiction. Here are the opening lyrics, just to stir your imagination: "In the beginning there was nothing at all, other than God and a fiery ball. Then one day a piece broke away, and the Lord called it Earth, so they say." Now can you see why we were so excited about this? And that's just the first chorus.

So we contacted a DJ in St. Louis named Ed Bonner. He played pop, he was the go-to guy before the term "go-to guy" was invented. (Ed urged his fans to frequent his sponsors and tell them "E.B. sent me." Funny how some things stay in your mind forever). So Ed sent our song - the lead sheet - to Mitch Miller. We waited. A week went by, two weeks, four. We figured Mitch was talking to Frankie, working out arrangements, and it'd be just a matter of time before our song was released. We kept waiting. Living in St. Louis, what the hell did we know about how the music business works? Just be nice and patient. Talent will win the day, right? Wrong.

Three months after the song had been mailed, Columbia released a record by Frankie Laine, called "In the Beginning." Only problem was, it wasn't our song. Not the melody, not the lyrics. Same catchy, Biblically-inspired title. Frankie's song wasn't bad, it just wasn't our song. Not even close. To add insult to injury, it was released as the "B" side. I forget what was on the "A" side; it's a mental block, I think. We were hurt, we were sad. And then we became angry. So we found a patent attorney and filed a lawsuit against Mitch and Columbia. Not a smart way to move ahead in the pop music business. To end this charade, I'll just tell you nothing happened. The lawsuit was dismissed. Our lawyer received, as I recall, a letter saying "forget it." The closing scene on this travesty took place in the Saturday Evening Post (that was a popular magazine in those dark days). An article on the "genius" of Mitch Miller made mention of the fact that Mitch no longer accepts unsolicited songs "ever since two St. Louis songwriters tried to sue him for a song they wrote called 'In the Beginning.'" The article then quoted Mitch, as he proclaimed in court, "How can they claim ownership of that title. It's the first three words of the Bible." I hadn't realized till then that Mitch was a biblical scholar.

I still have the lawyer's letter, the Saturday Evening Post article, and several lead-sheets of the music. So if you know of anyone looking for a really terrific song to record, let me know. Just promise me you'll release it as the "A" side.


  1. Gerry,
    I can't stop laughing. When my stepbrother got out of service, we used to sit at our parents' table and write songs. You & Mitch were the talk of the town. Amazing, that I finally got to meet the guy who screwed it up for US. Keep writing. I love your blog. Don't know how many of those churchy women blog followers of mine will sign on to Hey You Hoser, but you never know. (grin)Welcome to blogland.

  2. Gerry,

    It doesn't surprise me that you were "in the music business" however briefly. It seems a direct tie-in to the play writing you do now.

    I've often had the experience of finding out someone came up with exactly the same phrase or idea. Once an employer thought I'd plagiarized the phrase "portable portfolio." Luckily, my workshop design for her pre-dated the article in newsweek.

    Keep on blogging. You're a natural.