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Words or Music?

Just found this article on the Facts & Arguments back page of the Globe & Mail today and thought I’d share it… it speaks for itself and I’m reprinting it merely ‘cos it will be gone in a week from G&M’s website. BTW, I’ve written every which way – words first/music first/contemporaneous, but I haven’t really collaborated yet, although the few times I have it’s mostly been putting music to lyrics written by others… which is a bit ironic ‘cos I consider myself more of a lyricist:

Which comes first, words or music?

It’s an eternal conundrum: Do wordsmiths speak before musicians hum?

‘I’m a conduit, I interpret,” vocalist Rosemary Clooney once said. “Most of all I look for a word that means something to me.”

Jazz singer Mark Murphy, speaking about Cole Porter, Johnny Mercer and Jack Kerouac said, “I like the flow of words and the way words sound. With Cole Porter, the harmonies are there and the fantastic word thing is there. It has to be a very astute combination.”

Cabaret singer Mabel Mercer, says: “I think constantly about the lyrics and what they mean, and I try to make my listeners feel the vision of what the words are saying.”

So why don’t lyricists — the wordsmiths — get more respect?

How many times have you heard a radio announcer introduce “Hoagy Carmichael’s immortal Stardust“? It isn’t Hoagy Carmichael’s Stardust, it’s Mitchell Parish’s. (Parish also wrote the lyrics for Carmichael’s lovely One Morning in May.)

And how about One for My Baby (And One More for the Road), called by Frank Sinatra “the ultimate saloon song”? Harold Arlen gets the credit, but if ever a song lives on its words, it’s this one, and they were written by Johnny Mercer. In his groundbreaking book American Popular Song, Alec Wilder wrote: “Marvelous as is the musical setting, I believe the honours must go to the lyric.”

Sonny Rollins is only one of the musicians who read the lyrics of songs to their sidemen before they play, and many hear the lyrics as they perform, even though no one is singing.

That’s a question often asked: Which comes first, the words or the music? Sammy Cahn (Call Me Irresponsible) said: “The telephone call comes first,” meaning the deal to start writing. Dave Frishberg, one of the handful of songwriters who compose both words and music (My Attorney Bernie), says: “I think of a title. That’s what comes first.”

Some songs begin with a word. For Cole Porter, one of those words was “de-lovely,” coined by his friend, actor Monty Woolley. Other songs have also been cued by a phrase. Carmichael and Frank Loesser were going out with their wives for dinner one evening when someone said, “Here we are, out of cigarettes.” They instantly sat down at a piano and came up with Two Sleepy People. Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart were in a cab, going to a brunch party, when a handful of words tumbled into their minds. At the brunch, they skipped the Bloody Marys and scrambled eggs with lox, sat at the piano and, in 45 minutes, completed With a Song in My Heart.

Rodgers liked his lyricists to bring the words to him before he began to write the music. (Oscar Hammerstein did, Hart didn’t.) The names of Rodgers and Hart and Rodgers and Hammerstein are almost inextricably linked, as are a few other creative unions, most notably Gilbert and Sullivan, and Lerner and Loewe. (If you also thought of Dubin and Warren, Dietz and Schwartz, and Burke and Van Heusen — good for you.)

But there have been so many songwriting teams in which the lyricist often is ignored: Consider E.Y. (Yip) Harburg’s lyrics for the songs in The Wizard of Oz, including a little ditty called Over the Rainbow. Stephen Sondheim’s name is notably absent when West Side Story is mentioned, and sometimes even Ira is forgotten and only George gets the credit for songs such as Love is Here to Stay.

Ira Gershwin, late in his long career, wrote a book recalling collaborations not only with his younger brother, but also with Kurt Weill, Jerome Kern and Harold Arlen.

Sondheim (mentored by Hammerstein) happily needs no assistance. He has become, with Loesser and Frishberg, Porter and Irving Berlin, Joni Mitchell and Hank Williams, a complete, self-contained songwriting machine.

(A curious aside: In some hymnals, only the writer of the text is credited.)

A listener writes (not really, I made that up): “I remember words, my husband remembers music. Is there a male/female thing going on?” The research on this is incomplete, but venerable bandleader Dal Richards says, “Sometimes when I see a couple dancing, the woman will be singing the lyrics. Perhaps the words prompt memories. The man may be humming, but the woman is singing.”

In some male/female songwriting teams (Dave and Iola Brubeck, Burt Bacharach and Carole Bayer Sager) the guy wrote or writes the music and the woman the words.

Then there are the songwriting teams who, at the end of the day, were never sure who had written what. This list includes the incomparable (Betty) Comden and (Adolph) Green who wrote lyrics for Leonard Bernstein’s New York, New York (from the musical On the Town) and Jule Styne (The Party’s Over).

And think of all the wonderful women lyricists, among them, in addition to those already noted, Lil Green, Lil Hardin Armstrong and Peggy Lee.

Worth checking out is the recent film Music and Lyrics in which the man (played by Hugh Grant) writes the music and the woman (Drew Barrymore) pens — apology for the cliché — the words.

The last word in this matter forever belongs to Dorothy, the wife of Oscar Hammerstein II. Fed up with people praising what they called Jerome Kern’s Ol’ Man River, she declared, “Jerome Kern didn’t write Ol’ Man River. Jerome Kern wrote ‘Dum dum dum dum.’ “

Lyndon Grove lives in Burnaby, B.C.


  1. Pinball King says:

    He asks “Why don’t lyricists get more respect?”, I ask “Why don’t songwriters get more respect?”. When you look at the want ads, you see people looking for guitar players, bass players, drummers, vocalists, lessons, gear, everything imaginable. But have you ever seen an ad that says “Wanted: Great songs for our next recording”? Never! Songwriters are the most important part and the least appreciated.

  2. Renz says:

    I couldn’t agree with you more… that would be nice to have that opportunity present itself, but it seems that’s where the publishing business comes in… Maybe we should find a way to cut out the middle-man!

  3. Pinball King says:

    a.k.a. self-publishing?

  4. Renz says:


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