What do Marlo Thomas, Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, Roberta Flack, Dionne Warwick, Mel Brooks, Rosey Grier, and Harry Belafonte have in common? They all performed on the million selling record and/or Emmy winning special, “Free To Be…You And Me.” I was the Music Director and composed five songs for the landmark project and I am going to tell you, from the beginning, how we created the music.
Mel Brooks is a one-of-a-kind comic talent, an explosively funny writer and actor. His films and shows are unlike any others.
The late Ed Kleban, a superb songwriter who wrote the lyrics for A Chorus Line, was asked to write a song for the television version of Free To Be. His song, “Let’s Hear It For Babies,” was sung by Mel and conceived as a puppet production number in the style of Busby Berkely, the great director and choreographer of the 1930s. I had prerecorded the band track in New York and taken it to Los Angeles to overdub Mel’s voice. In contrast to some of the smaller bands I used for Free To Be, for this song I had a full Broadway-size orchestra and it sounded fabulous.
Ed had written a catchy vamp and Mel sang it a cappella before the band came in. Naturally, he had heard the arrangement in advance and he had to start singing roughly in the same tempo the band would be playing in when it joined him. When we had finished, everything was smooth and it sounded spontaneous.
What was not smooth was the rehearsal process. I met with Mel at Marlo’s house in Beverly Hills. Being a songwriter himself (“Springtime For Hitler,”) he must have realized how terrific Ed’s song was, but he soon began to take liberties with the melody. Either that or he hadn’t completely learned it. Ed was my friend as well as a fellow songwriter and I was determined that the song be sung as written, allowing for a certain amount of personal styling by the singer. But when Mel changed the tune I was quick to correct him and this met with a certain amount of resistance. Finally, he walked out of the room. Marlo entered and said “Stephen, what are you doing?! That’s MEL BROOKS! He’ll leave!” I said “I’m protecting the song; an extraordinary songwriter wrote a great piece of material and I don’t think it can be “improved.” I felt confident in saying “He won’t leave; he’ll come back and learn the song and he’ll be perfect.” I was right. Mel was able to sing the correct notes and still filter it through his comic genius and the song was one of the highlights of the show.
There was a similar situation when Dionne Warwick recorded my and Elaine Laron’s song, “The Sun And The Moon.” More on that in another part of this blog.
One of the main themes that run through Free To Be is the joy of friendship. With this in mind, lyricist Shelley Miller came up with the idea for “When We Grow Up.” Within a few days she gave me a first draft and I showed it to Carole and Marlo. They liked it and gave me a green light to write the music. At that point I didn’t know who the singer would be but I did know I wanted the song to be simple and innocent. I developed an instrumental pattern for two guitars and two flutes before I wrote a note of melody. I found a musical feeling that I could easily float a simple melody over. I played it several times and began to sing the melody as if I had already composed it.
When the song was finished I played it for Shelley, and then Carole and Bruce, and finally, Marlo. Everyone was very happy with it and I recorded a quick piano-vocal demo which was sent to Diana Ross. I was extremely happy when Carole told me that she would sing it on the record.
For most of the songs I pre-recorded an instrumental track in New York and then brought it to the performer on tape to add his/her voice. With “When We Grow Up,” time was tight. We had Ms. Ross’s schedule and we had to leave soon to record her voice at Motown Studios in Los Angeles. I spoke to her on the phone and we set a key. I had already worked out the basic sound of the arrangement and finished it on the plane. I arrived at Motown Studios and thought about the many famous recording artists who had recorded there, none more famous than Diana Ross. I realized that the entire Free To Be project was lifting my career to new heights. I felt confident about my composing skill and enjoyed every minute of it. The musicians began to arrive. In addition to two flutes and two guitars, we had bass, drums, and finger cymbals. We recorded the instruments first and then Diana. In contrast to the amount of rehearsal some of the other songs required, it was clear that she had learned the song and, more important, she intuitively knew that it needed to be sung as I composed, it without much of her unique pop phrasing for which she is so well known. As I remember, she sang it exactly the way I wanted it in one take.
For the TV version of Free To Be, “When We Grow Up” was made into a duet for Michael Jackson and Roberta Flack. Shelley was asked to add something to the lyric about gender stereotypes and she wrote the lines
(WHEN WE GROW UP) WILL I BE ON THE MOON?
WELL, IT MIGHT BE ALRIGHT TO
DANCE BY ITS LIGHT, BUT I’M
GONNA GET UP THERE SOON.
I will write more on recording Roberta and Michael and also about the experience of watching them shoot the song at ABC TV studios in Los Angeles.
One of the most effective devices, and for children, one of the most important, is repetition. Did you write a first line you like? Why not repeat it? Let’s look at John Lennon’s “Imagine.”
“Imagine there’s no heaven.” These seven notes – or slight variations – are repeated three times; we hear the opening idea four times, a perfect example of repetition. This is the central musical idea of the song. These notes together are called a motif – pronounced moTEEF. Here are the first four lines of Elvis Presley’s “Hound Dog:”
“You ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog
Cryin’ all the time
You ain’t nothin but a hound dog
Cryin’ all the time.”
Note that the first line of words and music is immediately repeated. Presley, who never studied music formally, instinctively knew the value of repetition.
Another technique, very similar to repetition, is sequence. A sequence occurs when a musical idea is repeated at a different pitch. One of the most famous and effective uses of sequence comes at the start of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Go to YouTube and listen to the first minute of it. (Of course you might want to listen to much more; this is one of the great works of classical music). The first 43 seconds of this masterpiece are made up of repetitions or sequences of the first four notes:
G-G-G-Eb. By the time you have heard the first 43 seconds this motif will stick in your mind forever.
It is clear that Beethoven, Presley, and Lennon had a lot in common!
Do you play piano or guitar? It’s easy to play the first four notes of of this piece. The Gs are located four white notes above middle C. Listen to the first ten seconds of the piece on YouTube. Sing the first four notes. On your instrument, when you get to the fourth note, play a Cminor chord. You have just played the central motif of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.
I went to Marlo’s apartment for a meeting attended by some of the best writers and playwrights in the business. We all introduced ourselves and I felt somewhat awed by the company I was in. Marlo and Carole spoke about the themes that would underlie all the material on the album. We started brainstorming and ideas flew around the room, one triggering another. The enthusiasm and excitement were palpable. Eventually the meeting ended and most of the participants expressed their interest in being part of this endeavor. A few weeks later I met with Carole and Marlo. They had decided that they want a title song for the album. It would say what the record is about and the music would be cheerful and memorable. Carole suggested that I compose the music and that Bruce write the lyrics and Marlo agreed. Bruce had written the lyrics for the Sesame Street opening song and I looked forward to seeing what he came up with. In a couple of days he phoned and asked if I like the title “Free To Be…You And Me,” and I said “it’s great, charge ahead.” He completed the lyrics quickly and I was eager to get started on the music. As sometimes happens, I got an idea right away and completed the song in one day. Before I decided it was among my best work, I recorded it and listened to it the next morning. As I had hoped, I was very happy with it. I thought people would like it and be able to sing it after hearing it once or twice.
I called Bruce and said I have something I like. I didn’t say I have something that’s perfect. I don’t like to create high expectations when I play and sing a new song for a collaborator. I’d rather let them decide if it’s perfect rather than telling them. Bruce said come on over. He and Carole lived about a block away and I was there in ten minutes. I went to their piano and played and sang “Free to Be….You And Me.” They loved it. Carole asked me to play it again. She phoned Marlo and we set up a meeting for me to play it for her. She loved it too so I was home free.
We talked about who would sing the song. I had had The New Seekers in mind when I composed it. The lead singer, Eve Graham, had a perfect voice for the song, a gentle mid-range sound with an occasional touch of brass. The other singers were a perfect complement for it. I knew their sound because a jingle they sang, “I’d like To Buy The World a Coke,” had gotten a great deal of airplay. They soon recorded a new version of it called “I’d Like To Teach The World To Sing,” which was a big hit for them. I spoke to Ms. Graham and set a key for our song and thought about the next step.
The late lyricist Bruce Hart and I had written many songs together and were experiencing the satisfaction and excitement of hearing some of them broadcast on major radio stations. Bruce was married to writer-producer Carole Hart and they worked together on many television projects. They were members of the original writing staff for Sesame Street. In 1971 Carole received a call from Scott Shukat, who was the Harts’ agent and mine. Scott told her Marlo Thomas was looking for a producer to work with her on a record for children that would be about gender stereotypes, the joy of having friends, and the importance of feeling and expressing emotions. They met, discussed the idea, and decided to proceed. They determined that the record would contain original songs, sketches, and stories and feature well known performers. They knew they needed a Music Director and Carole suggested me. Marlo and Carole and I got together and I found Marlo to be smart, funny, and very enthusiastic about her idea. She asked me to meet her vocal coach, Colin Romoff, who knew her singing range and had worked with her extensively developing her voice to its full potential. Colin had to approve of me and after our meeting, he did, and so I was onboard.