Free To Be – Part 4: Mel Brooks

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.

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