Three VERY Famous Songwriters
Updated: Dec 8, 2019
"$" is pronounced: "Dollar Sign."
"?" is pronounced: "Question Mark."
"??" is pronounced: "Two Question Marks."
I was a songwriter in Los Angeles for fifteen years. While I lived there they took a survey and discovered that out of 2 1/2 million people living within the city limits, 3 1/2 million had written at least one song. This is to say everyone in Los Angeles thought he or she was a songwriter, and a cool million of them entered the survey twice, just to make sure.
I worked either as composer or lyricist with several ultra-famous songwriter legends. The first was a lyricist. His career was so weighty he needed only one name, Merv. Like everyone else he wanted me to compose a melody for him that was catchy, poppy, and hummable-within-six-seconds.
We worked in Merv's spacious home studio, where there were gold records on the wall, along with many framed photos of Merv smiling at parties and Merv with his arm around foreign dignitaries. In the corner was a spinet piano, and several easy chairs spaced a few feet from each other. Each chair had its own adjoining side table. On top of each side table were a pad of paper, monogramed with an upper-case Victorian M, a gold mechanical pencil, bearing a lower-case version of the same m, and a sizable abalone shell for an ash tray.
I took this all in, as Merv nodded for me to sit down at the piano. Then he nodded again and I played a melody. "What else you got?" he said. I tried another and he looked thoughtful, then fell back into one of the easy chairs, picked up the abalone shell, which snapped open a secret compartment underneath, from which Merv took out a joint from what appeared to be a sizable collection. He lit it, took a hit, took another hit, took another hit, took another hit, then stubbed it out into the abalone shell. He didn't offer me any. Then he said "Play it again, Sam."
I knew that by now this melody would be sounding better and better to Merv. Sure enough, he said "Yeah, man, that's great, man, great, like, what do you think?" I said I thought it was pretty good too. Merv picked up the gold mechanical pencil and the pad of paper, wrote something on the pad, thought for another moment, then went into the other room and made a phone call, and another one, and another one. Half an hour later when he hadn't come back I looked at what he’d written on the scratch pad. It said “Zig-Zag."
I waited some more. When Merv came back, he seemed surprised to see me. I played the tune on the piano again. Merv said, "Hey, that's very cool. Do you have a title?"
"How about 'Zig-Zag?'" I said. "Umm hmmm," he said, nodded, leaned back, closed his eyes, then suddenly opened them, sat up and violently scratched out "Zig Zag" on his pad, tore out the page, crumbled it up and threw it into the abalone shell. He stared at me.
"OK," I said.
I grabbed my jacket.
"It was great, thanks," he said and fell back asleep.
My second heavy songwriter collaboration was with someone who was so important she only needed her first initial, V. V. was said to be royalty from some Eastern European country. She wasn't sure she wanted to work with me until I told her I had collaborated with her rival, Merv.
"You collaborated with Merv?" V. said, staring at me like I had just told her Lithuanian state secrets, that is, secrets that don't matter very much but are still impressive when you mention that you know them.
“Sure did,” I said.
"Did you work at Merv's house or your house?"
"His house," I said.
"Which chair was Merv sitting in?" V. said.
I mulled that one over. I thought I remembered an easy chair or two between where Merv was and where I was. "I guess maybe Chair Three?" I said.
"Hah! Chair Three!" said V., a touch derisively. She thought some more about it. "OK, I'll work with you. Can you write me a melody that is catchy, poppy, and hummable-within-six-seconds?"
We decided that V. would come to my house to work. She lived in Pacific Palisades and had a view of the ocean. I lived on the East side next to Burrito King. She had never been on our side of town. I had to give her very explicit driving instructions. "You take Sunset Boulevard from one side all the way to the other," I said.
"Do I turn at, like, Mandeville Canyon?" she asked.
"No, Mandeville Canyon would be Brentwood. You just stay on Sunset."
"Do I turn at, like, Doheny?" she asked.
"No, Doheny would be Beverly Hills," I said, "you just stay on Sunset. Now, when you..."
"Where the hell DO you live, anyway?" she interrupted. "Downtown," I said. I couldn’t say ‘EPark,’ which was the real name of my home district, because in those days most people thought EPark’s full name was "Gangland Slaying in EPark News at 11." So I always said ‘Downtown.’
“Downtown,” V. said. ”Downtown...what?"
"Downtown Los Angeles," I said, wondering if my English had developed an undecipherable accent to someone who lived out by the beach. Maybe V. thought everybody had an ocean for a front lawn.
She drove a big inflated Chrysler like someone's uncle in the garment business. She was due at noon and she got there at 1:45. "Jesus Christ," she said as she huffed up my hill. "Do people live out here or what?"
"I do," I said. "Look." From my hillside deck, I had her turn around to see the gorgeous view of downtown L.A. and the wide fields of eucalyptus and marijuana and manzanita. EPark was a great neighborhood, a unique and beautiful one. "Jesus Christ," she repeated. "Do you have a piano or what?"
On the way to the piano room we passed the kitchen. "What do you have to eat?" she asked, and so I made her a sandwich. "Thanks," she said, and attacked that sandwich. She looked like she hadn't eaten since her last chart topper. She dabbed up all the excess mayonnaise with her crusts, swallowed the crusts and licked her fingertips. Then she smiled and glanced at her watch. "Hey, it's 2:15. Gotta run. We'll do it again sometime," she said. "Good luck on those songs you wrote with Merv."
“You came all this way for a sandwich?” I said.
“It was great, thanks,” she said.
The third famous songwriter with whom I collaborated makes Merv and V. seem like small lumpy sacks of unreconstituted potato flakes. This famous composer is so rich and so famous I only have to hum any of his historic melodies and you would know him in a flash. I am humming one right now. He is so famous he has transcended the letters of the alphabet. I will call him $.
I met $ one night in the A room at Topp Tenn Recording Studios. Most recording studios in L.A. have A rooms and B rooms. The A rooms are used by the huge acts, the ones with recording budgets that include lobster. The B rooms are used by everybody else. A recording star who works in the A room would never enter the B room unless he had been kidnapped, and even then, why? What kind of first-rate kidnapper would work the B room?
It was another of those wonderful career flukes that have taken me to precisely the spot where I am today. I was visiting my friend Steve who was the guitar player in a band called Yo Mama’s a Ho, who had Room A aspirations, but not enough concrete in their truck yet to get past Room B. However, their lead singer, Sarah, with an h, was best friends with Sara, with no h, who was the on-again-off-again girlfriend of an agent whose real name I never did know but she and we and everyone else in the business called him Needledick.
Needledick represented Morrie Katzenbaum. Morrie Katzenbaum was Manny Katzenbaum's brother. Manny Katzenbaum owned Topp Tenn Recording Studios.
Everybody knew Manny, and Manny knew everybody, including the two leaders of a rock group that is so world renowned I cannot even think about them for fear of a lawsuit. This band that I am not thinking about has teams and teams of lawyers, many of them specializing in looking out for people like me who think, or who may someday be influenced to think about their client. $, one of L.A.’s most successful songwriters, and my soon-to-be-collaborator, had once written a huge hit song for this band. You know this song, believe me, you have sung it at ball games.
But $ was hungry for more. So he followed this mega-famous band around the country, hoping that someday he could talk them into recording another of his songs. He followed them like “love you” follows “I will always.” Tonight he was hanging around the A room at Topp Ten, because he had heard this very same band was due to begin recording their next album at midnight, right here. I knew it too, because Manny had told Morrie who told Needledick who told Sara who told Sarah who told Steve, and Steve told me. So there I was, standing in the doorway of the B room, with all my friends from Yo Mama’s A Ho, when the door flew open in the A room. I walked in. That's all it took.
That's where I met $. He was a piano player himself. He was dressed like an underfunded Bollywood movie: tight black pants and green tennis shoes, long-sleeved shirt openly exposing three or four chest hairs, baseball cap backwards but at an undefined angle. He was sitting at the piano noodling on a catchy, poppy, hummable-in-six-seconds melody. I recognized him, heard what he was playing, walked over and started singing the first thing that came into my head as he played. He looked up. "Do I know you?" he asked. "No, but I've written with Merv and V.," I said, and he stopped playing.
"You've written with Merv?" he said. "Which chair?"
I knew better this time. “Chair Two,” I said, “at the very least.”
“Impressive,” $ said approvingly. Then he started noodling again. "Do you like this melody?"
"Yeahhhh," I gushed, and he kept playing so I started throwing in phrases. Within fifteen minutes we had completed our first collaboration, called: "I Love L.A. (Not THAT "I Love L.A.')"
The moment we finished, a huge door I hadn’t even realized was there flew back, and in stepped many tall, thin, beautiful women in tall, thin beautiful clothing. Behind them I was stupefied to see ? and ?? (not their real names), the lead singer and principal guitarist of the band I will swear in court I have never mentioned to you nor anyone else. ? and ?? headed straight for the piano. I could feel my eyes start to bug.
"'G'day, $," said ?, in his working class English accent, and nodded at me: "Nice to see ya, mate."
"Hamma," I blubbered.
"Hello ? and ??, what's happening?" said $.
"Dunno, dunno, here and theh, ovuh, unda, you know," said ??, and ? added: "You know we gon do a recawd."
"Really!?" said $, AS IF he didn't know, AS IF he hadn’t been eating Pink’s chili dogs for six days running while standing in front of this very room waiting for PRECISELY this moment. "You gawt ennythang new?" said ? and, as I began to hyperventilate $ said "Yeh, listen to this! It’s brand new!"
The rest is history. Within six months $ had a number three song in the entire civilized world when ? and ?? and their super group recorded the song $ played for them, as I listened, as my heart thumped in my chest, as I realized $ was not playing them "I Love L.A. (Not THAT 'I Love L.A.') " but a completely different song instead, one which $ had in fact co-written with Merv and V. It was called "Lovey Dovey Moony Juney Ooopy Poopy."
OK, this is not the real title, it's just how I, in my bitterness and bile, refer to it.
The real title is (*** REDACTED BY LAWFUL ORDER ***).
"Say, thet's nawt bed," ? said, as ?? burped and $ beamed. $ got up from his piano chair and the three walked towards a gaggle of gorgeous 6-foot-tall models. It was there I realized you not only have to write it, but you have to make them hear it, and you only get one chance at a time. I realized all this as I looked back over my shoulder, past the lines of tall, thin beautiful women, out the huge door of the A room, to where I could see Sarah, with an H, standing in the door of the B Room.
"So? How was it?" she smiled.
"It was great," I said. "Thanks."