Gary James' Interview With Songwriter
L. Russell Brown
He's been writing songs since he was 16 years old, and oh, the songs he's written! Songs like "Tie A Yellow Ribbon Round The Ole Oak Tree", which has been recorded over 1,000 times, making it one of the most recorded songs in the history of Pop music, "I Woke Up In Love This Morning" as recorded by David Cassidy, "Knock Three Times" and "Say Has Anybody Seen My Sweet Gypsy Rose" as recorded by Tony Orlando and Dawn. Some of the other artists who have recorded his songs include Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Dean Martin, Perry Como and Al Hirt. How often do you get to interview the "star" behind the "stars"? Not very often. That's why it's a real pleasure to present an interview with one of the most talented songwriters of the 20th century - Mr. L. (Larry) Russell Brown.
Q - You once auditioned for Bob Crewe for 3 hours, playing your original songs. Three hours?!! What executive would give anyone that kind of time today?
A - My later partner, Ray Bloodworth and I waited an hour and went into his (Bob Crewe's) office and met the great Bob Crewe. He looked like Robert Redford's better looking brother, with all the Gold records up on the wall, 50 of them, from The Four Seasons. He said "Play me a song." So we sang him the record that we made. "Play me another song," and it went on and on for 3 hours. Playing songs without a paper in front of us, at which time he said "How would you like to write for our company?" "We'd love to." And that's how it began.
Q - Could you write songs for American Idol contestants?
A - The song I have coming out right now would be the quintessential song for the winner of American Idol. It's called "No One Ever Told Me It Would Be Like This". It's about how it feels to have that great elation of love for the first time or being a graduation song or a wedding song or winning American Idol. Engelbert Humperdinck got his hands on it, loved it and did it.
Q - When you write a song, do you write the words or the music or both?
A - Both. I like to have a partner to bounce off of. But I do both, words and music.
Q - How long did it take you to write "Tie A Yellow Ribbon Round The Ole Oak Tree"?
A - Honestly, what you're about to hear is going to sound impossible. It didn't take 15 minutes.
Q - Words and music?
A - No. I'll tell you how it happened. I read a story in Reader's Digest the night before. It was one of those human interest things. It was a half page. It was by Pete Hamil and it started off by saying "Here's a story I heard in a Greenwich Village pub that's been handed down through the ages about a soldier coming home from the Andersonville Prison during the Civil War and he told the stage coach driver that he had written a letter to his girl that he was coming home after being in the Confederate prison for 3 years. There was a big oak tree outside of town. If she wanted him to get off the stagecoach, put a handkerchief on it. He had told the story to the driver and a few other people on the stagecoach. He said he couldn't bear to look. When they got in front of the tree, it was all filled with handkerchiefs." It put a chill up my neck. The next morning I drove up to my partner's house and asked if I could tell him the story before we wrote a song. He didn't want to hear it. I insisted on it and he said "Well, tell it fast." So, I told it fast and he said "Larry, I just got a chill up my neck and my arm. A rush. Tell it again." So, I told it again. He said "I love that story, but handkerchiefs, they have snot in them. Disgusting." I said "Well, what can we do about that?" He said "Let's change handkerchiefs to ribbons. That's prettier." I said "I like that." And he said "Stagecoach...that's yesterday. Let's make it a bus." I said "I love it. What are we gonna call it, Irwin?" Irwin Lavine. To which the late, great Irwin Lavine replied "What do you think if we call it 'Tie A Yellow Ribbon Round The Ole Oak Tree'?" I looked at him and said "I think that's fantastic!" I picked up the guitar. I wrote the first verse and the chorus as if I knew it. Right off the bat it popped out of me, like I knew it like my name. And then I got to the end of the chorus. I'd written the verse and the chorus, all the words on a piece of yellow paper. At the time I'd gotten to the end of it, Irwin says "You didn't tell me you liked it, but I've got the second verse." I looked at him and said "Oh yeah? What is it?" He said "Write this down." So I wrote it down. He said "Sing it." So I sang the first verse, chorus, second verse, chorus. Irwin Levine says "I have the ending." I said "You're kidding. Let me hear it." Just disbelief. "Show me." He wrote the words and melody to the end of the song - "I can't believe I see..." We put it on a tape recorder, jumped up, listened to it one time and gave ourselves a powerful high-five. We both knew that it was fabulous and that's the story of how we wrote it. Not how we got it recorded, that was another story. Nobody wanted to hear it. We first played it for Ringo Starr. The people who listened for Ringo Starr put their hands on the guitar and said I should be ashamed of showing songs like this to people. It's ridiculous about a ribbon in a tree. We should be ashamed of ourselves. It could ruin us and to never show this song to anybody again. The guy's name was Al Steckler. He was the head of A&R for Apple Records in New York.
Q - I wonder where he is today.
A - Well, he's an old man. We went out to the elevator and said a few choice words about that man. I remember that day pretty clearly.
Q - How long did it take you to write ("Has Anybody Seen My Sweet) Gypsy Rose"?
A - We were coming back from a Connie Francis session at two in the morning. Stopped in a diner. On the back of a napkin; we talked about my late mother-in-law who ran away like that. We started to write the words on the back of the place mat. Then we got into the car and pulled into Irwin Levine's house at four o'clock in the morning. He sat in the front seat. I got in back with the guitar and we wrote that song. That's probably around a half an hour. When we were all done with that song, we knew there was something missing. The song needed something else. There was the introduction and after the song was written, it didn't have an introduction. Of course, while we were recording that song, which was the follow-up for "Yellow Ribbon", we got a phone call. We were on a golf course. He said "They're having a problem with one of the lyrics. Would we change it?" They didn't have cell phones then. A guy drove out to the golf course and drove us in and we spoke to the producer, Hank Medgars, who was with Tony (Orlando). He said "We're having a problem with this line about this little French cafe. We changed it to "this smoke filled honky-tonk we call the land of dreams." It was really called the little French cafe in New Orleans. We changed it to "a smoke filled honky-tonk." That satisfied him.
Q - How about this song: "I Woke Up In Love This Morning". How long did that take you to write?
A - That was for David Cassidy, which became one of the top songs in the history of The Partridge Family as you know. We wanted to kind of write a Beatles song like "She Loves You" and that's how that came about. That was the inspiration. I love McCartney and Lennon. I'm one of the greatest Beatles fans alive. That's how that song came to be.
Q - How long did it take you to write that song? A long time?
A - Nah. That was a short one too. I don't remember how long it took to write it, but I don't think it was very long at all. Irwin and I were very quick together.
Q - How many songs do you figure you've written in career?
A - At least 2,000.
Q - Of those 2,000, how many of them have been what we call "hits"?
A - Smash hits...two dozen. Chart records...over a hundred.
Q - So what happened to all the other songs? Did they get published? Are they sitting around in a drawer somewhere?
A - No. They all got published because a person like myself gets published. But they just get lost in the shuffle and they become exercises to help you get to the next one. It's like a question was asked of Thomas Edison. "How do you feel about your 10,000 failures?" His answer to the question was "I never have a failure. I just proved there were 10,000 ways it couldn't be done." That's how I feel about my songs. I felt there were 1,000 ways it couldn't be done, not a failure.
Q - Would you consider this ability to write songs a God-given gift? This isn't something you can go to college to learn, is it?
A - No. You have it exactly. You said it perfectly. I'm just a messenger. I don't read music. I never studied music. They tried to teach me. I couldn't be taught because I didn't want to be involved in the notes and reading them. It didn't interest me. I hear the music in my head. I just don't know how...music comes to me. It comes out of me.
Q - You probably don't want to know "why me?", do you?
A - I just do it and don't question it.
Q - I recall Bernard Goldberg of CBS asking Paul McCartney where this ability to write songs comes from. Paul McCartney flinched. He was uncomfortable with that question. I got the distinct feeling he doesn't want to know.
A - Me either. I met him once. I met two of The Beatles. I met McCartney walking done the street on 58th Street. He was shaking a very old lady's hand. His wife then was walking toward Central Park. She never even turned around and gave the courtesy to the woman. But I stopped and told him who I was. I told him he was the Mozart of our time and shook his hand. I told him it was a thrill to shake his hand. I told him I wrote "Yellow Ribbon" and he took ten steps and turned around and said "I don't know about the Mozart of our time thing, but it's a thrill to shake your hand." That's what he told me.
Q - Who was his wife at the time you met him?
A - Heather. Of course it was different when I met John Lennon. I was producing Billy Vern, Billy And The Beaters, in New York City, I think at the Power Station or The Hit Factory. Sitting in a little church-like chair in the studio, a guy squeezes next to me and it was John Lennon. I looked at him and I couldn't believe it. I said "John, I'm Larry Brown. I wrote 'Tie A Yellow Ribbon' and I love you." After awhile he put his arm around my head and started punching me, make believe punching me in the head saying "That bloody song is driving me crazy! It never stops playing. And you wrote it! I'm gonna kill you!" I looked at him and said "I'm probably copying it from you, John." He looked at me and said "No Larry, amateurs copy. We steal." We had a great conversation. He brought me in the studio. It was a great thrill. He was a wonderful man. I never pursued a relationship with him, but I did think he was a great guy. I never met the other guys, unfortunately.