Theater News

Well Said, Fred

The first half of Caruso’s conversation with the garrulous, marvelous, master lyricist Fred Ebb.

Fred Ebb
Fred Ebb

This interview is long overdue. Having a sit-down conversation with my favorite lyricist of all time has been a goal since I started this column two years ago.

While it’s true that any conversation with Fred Ebb is at once hilarious, informative, historic, and endearing, this one proved even more exciting because of two current projects. When we chatted, Ebb and his songwriting partner for the past 35 years, John Kander, had just returned from Toronto where they were introduced to the razzle-dazzling, star-studded cast of the long-awaited film version of Chicago. This was after Kander and Ebb (“K&E” to their hordes of fans) spent the fall in Chicago, the city, putting the finishing touches on their newest piece, The Visit, at the Goodman Theater. Raves later, it looks like the show will be visiting Broadway soon with the sizzling Chita Rivera continuing in the lead.

Below is the first of half of an interview that took place on November 20 in the cozy photo- and poster-lined den of the man who wrote “Start spreading the news…” The transcript of our conversation will continue in my next column.


JIM CARUSO: What should we talk about?

FRED EBB: “Lamar, that Hedy so fair, why does she let Joan Bennett wear all her old hair? Do you know Garbo? Then tell me this news: Is it a fact the navy’s launched all her old shoes? Let’s write a tune that’s playable, a ditty swing and swayable, or say whatever’s sayable about the Tower of Bayabel, or cheer for the career of itsy-bitsy Betty Gray-abel, but let’s not talk about love!”

JC: You didn’t write that.

FE: No.

JC: What’s the first thing you remember writing?

FE: In college, I wrote short stories.

JC: Did you take creative writing in school?

FE: We didn’t have anything like that, so I just wrote on my own. Then I went to a short story seminar at NYU and that’s when I fell in love with the notion of writing. Lyric writing occurred to me because I loved the musical theater. I could only write lyrics because I didn’t know how to write music.

JC: Did you perform as a child?

FE: Not to any extent, no. I do remember that my father would enter me in talent contests in Atlantic City. They’d put me on a table and I’d sing “Shuffle Off To Buffalo.” I’d always win the $25. Then my father would take the money out of my hands and that was that.

JC: Did you dance, too?

FE: No–although I moved my little booty around. I was a cute kid. I won $50 for “The Most Beautiful Child In The Bronx” when I was about 11. I never saw that money, either.

JC: Did your parents try to get you into the movies?

FE: Well, I can sort of remember that we had a distant relation who was a talent coordinator at one of the movie studios. Someone took me to meet this guy, whose name was Boris Kaplan. I was terrified. He handed me the script of Ah, Wilderness! and made me read the part of Richard. Then we left. I never heard anything, so I must not have been so good.

JC: How did lyric writing come about for you?

FE: I met a guy named Phil Springer through a mutual girlfriend named Patsy Bamos. She and I were on a date at One Fifth Avenue. I told her that I wanted to write lyrics but I wasn’t a music writer. She told me about another guy she was dating who was kind of a successful composer. She arranged a meeting. I was a West Side boy so, on the bus to meet him on the East Side, I decided to write a lyric on a couple of matchbooks to show him how good I was. It was a lyric called “Four Eyes.”

JC: How did that go?

FE: “More and more as each day passes, my romance in horn-rimmed glasses seems to mean much more and more to me. Less and less am I concerned by all the women he’s been spurned by, just because he finds it hard to see. He hasn’t got a lot I know, but he’ll always be my darling, myopic Romeo. So let him fall and let him blunder, he remains my cockeyed wonder, still the one most wonderful to see. And I pray for the day when my four-eyes has eyes for me!” I wrote that on a bus! When I got to Phil’s apartment, I gave him the matchbooks. He couldn’t make heads or tails out of it; I, however, was very impressed with myself. Later, Phil sat down at the piano and played a tune he’d written. I sat behind him with a pad and pencil and started scratching out a lyric. When I finished it, I put it in front of him and he played it. He said, “This is swell.” It was called “I Never Loved Him Anyhow.” He thought I had talent and wanted to get together every day from 9am to 5pm–regular business hours. He said he’d teach me all he knew.

JC: Was he a lot older than you?

FE: Not by much. He was dating Patsy Bamos, after all.

JC: Were you still dating Patsy Bamos?

FE: Yeah. That’s how it all started. I quit my job as a credit authorizer at Ludwig, Bauman & Speers to work with Phil every day. He really taught me the rudiments of songwriting. I kind of knew them, actually, because I had studied hard and memorized all the Broadway shows. Even “Four-Eyes” had a definite A-A-B-A form. Phil took “I Never Loved Him Anyhow” to a publisher who accepted it and, by the end of the year, we had a Carmen MacRae record! I was thrilled beyond belief. We made $80 the whole year.

JC: You must have been incredibly facile to write “Four Eyes” so quickly, on the bus and all. Is it still that easy? Or is it harder now that you know so much more?

FE: I think the more you learn, the less you know. Celebrity, if you’re lucky enough to get it, also creates a burden on your work. You think, “Oh my God, now everyone knows this is an Ebb lyric. Is it as good as…?” When you’re just starting out, they don’t have that yardstick. It’s much harder now. I’m still quick, though.

JC: How long did you work with Phil?

FE: About a year. But he was offered a job as an arranger for a music publisher for $50 a week and he really needed the money, so he took the job. That sort of ended our collaboration. He wrote some great songs after that, though: “Moonlight Gambler” and “Santa Baby” were big hits for him. Then I started writing with Paul Klein in the late ’50s.

JC: Is that when you began to write special material for club acts?

F.E. in younger days
F.E. in younger days

FE: Yes. I’d write for anybody who paid me. The first one to really encourage me was Kaye Ballard. I wrote her a song called “Merrill, Lynch, Pearce, Fenner, and Bean,” about a lady getting drunk on Christmas Eve and singing the praises of this company. It was a very successful number for Kaye. She was the very first person to tell me I was funny. Even though I’d had a published song, I always needed validation. I had self-doubt in every area, from what I looked like–although I see now that I was a handsome young man–to my talents. I was a mess. Kaye helped to dispel that.

JC: Do you think those insecurities helped you write songs like “Maybe This Time?”

FE: I have no awareness of that. It’s hard to know what may have shaped you as an artist. You’re not aware as the shaping is happening. I would credit Kaye for keeping me in show business, though, and putting the stamp of approval on me. She also paid me actual money. It wasn’t a lot, but it sure seemed like a lot. A few years later, John Kander and I wrote a song called “My Coloring Book.” We took it to Kaye, who was then a regular on Perry Como’s television show. She pitched it to the producers. They loved the song but didn’t want Kaye to sing it because they considered her a comedienne; they wanted their singer, Sandy Stewart to do it. Kaye said it was okay, so Sandy sang it, and the song became a big hit overnight. Kitty Callan recorded it, then Barbra Streisand had a huge-selling record with it.

JC: When did John Kander come onto your scene?

FE: Well, Paul Klein and I had a few hits. There was a song called “Little Blue Man.” Then, Eddie Arnold recorded a country song we wrote called “That Do Make It Nice.” Unfortunately, Paul’s insecurities played right into my insecurities so that I almost couldn’t write. He had an overriding philosophy that nothing good could ever happen to us. A publisher who thought I was writing with the wrong guy asked me to meet a composer who he also thought was writing with the wrong guy. He said his name was John Kander.

JC: Was it a match made in heaven right away?

FE: Yes. Perfect. The first song we wrote was a title song for Take Her, She’s Mine. Nothing ever happened to it, but I loved it. John understood how I thought. We worked in the same room at the same time. I didn’t have to finish a lyric, then hand it over to him to compose it.

JC: You literally write in the same room together?

FE: Yeah. John had worked with Hal Prince on a show called A Family Affair. One day, Hal called us both to his office and told us he had optioned a book called “Love Is Just Around The Corner.” It was about the depression and George Abbott was to direct. I nearly fainted right away; Mr. Abbott was like God to me. Hal asked us to write two or three songs on spec to show to Mr. Abbott. I felt enormous confidence that we could do it, for some reason. We wrote some songs, then played them for Mr. Abbott. He smiled and said, “Well, you got your first Broadway show!” The title was changed to Flora the Red Menace. I don’t think I’d ever been that happy; then I turned petrified overnight, which is what I do. Like when I won my first Tony: You’re all full of yourself when it happens and, the minute you get in the cab to go home, all the air goes out of you. You’re frightened, you’re insecure and full of self esteem problems all over again. And you’re clutching the Tony all the while.

JC: How did Liza become involved with Flora?

FE: A girl named Marge Cameron, who later changed her name to Carmen Zapata, was in the company of Carnival that Liza had starred in on Long Island somewhere. Liza had a contract to do an LP, so Carmen Zapata talked John and I up to her, thinking maybe we could sell a song or two for the album. Liza came over to my apartment, looking really ratty, with long, stringy hair–not what you’d call dolled up. We played her a few songs, she didn’t say much. Then she asked what we were working on and we told her about Flora. She wanted to hear it, so we sang. The minute we sang “A Quiet Thing,” there were big tears in her eyes. She got up and stood behind John, who was playing the piano, and said, “Can I try singing it?” It was amazing. She got on the phone to her manager, Stevie Phillips, right then and said: “I want to do this show.”

JC: Who was Liza in the show business scheme of things at that point?

FE: She had done Best Foot Forward Off-Broadway, so there was a buzz about her. Plus, she was Judy Garland’s daughter, which had huge cachet then. That impressed me. Judy Garland. My God! I’d have paid to just know her manicurist! I thought Judy was the best thing that happened in the whole world. Mr. Abbott went to see Liza in Best Foot Forward and he didn’t really like her, but an audition was arranged. So there we all were, sitting at the audition. The stage manager announced “Liza Minnelli,” and out she came. Mr. Abbott, whose voice was not quiet, said, “Well, this is a waste of time!”

And she heard him. You know how Liza can get that frightened-little-girl look? She got it then. But she sang. Abbott still wasn’t buying her; he wanted Eydie Gormé or Karen Morrow. John and I started to work our wiles on Hal, who called Mr. Abbott in Florida and said, “George…” (he’s the only one I ever heard call him that), “I really think the Minnelli kid is right.” Mr. Abbott said, “Oh, all right,” and hung up. After all that! That’s how he hired Liza Minnelli. Within three weeks, he was hopelessly in love with her. He thought she was sensational.

JC: And that changed everybody’s life.

FE: Yeah. It did. I hope that’s an interesting story. If these stories can help somebody, I’ll be happy. It just shows you have to keep at it, keep plugging.

JC: I know you influenced many performers in terms of their performing style.

FE: I wouldn’t say I ever had a performing style, but I loved demonstrating the songs we wrote. Just put me up there to sing a song and I was free as a bird, moving my arms around as if I were a performer, which I wasn’t. I guess, deep down, I kinda wish I was. I probably had that notion at one point, but it passed.

JC: You gave Liza the famous “New York, New York” arm twirl. How did that happen?

FE: I have no idea. Whenever she was unsure of how to do a number, I would get up and do it for her. I was very confident. It’s funny how my validation always came from female star performers: Kaye, Liza, Betty Bacall, Gwen, Chita. All these women kept telling me I was good. I wrote club acts for Carol Channing, who thought I was a hoot. I sang her a song I wrote for her once, called “I Love Roz,” and she peed. She sat there listening to the song and literally peed her pants!

JC: Oh, my God. What was that song about?

FE: It was her impression of Ethel Merman not being jealous of Rosalind Russell doing the movie of Gypsy.

JC: You’ve worked with so many female musical comedy icons of our time. Who would you have liked to work with?

FE: Merman! I always wished I’d had a hand in writing a show for her.

JC: Garland?

FE: Well, one of my songs was recorded by Garland. It was a song called “Heartbroken.” I was happy she did it but, at that point, she wasn’t selling a lot of records; we were hoping for Rosie Clooney or Jo Stafford. Years later, Liza found that record and was really pissed that I’d never told her about it. It wasn’t a hit or anything. [Fred sings the entire song.]

JC: Was your family supportive of your writing?

FE: My mother never thought much of my wanting to be a writer. She was a great putter-downer. To give you an example: On the opening night of Cabaret, when it was apparent we had a hit, I said, “Well, Ma, what do you think?” She said, “It didn’t have to be so dirty, big shot.”

JC: I can’t imagine why you had self-esteem problems!

FE: She heard “Night and Day” on the radio one day. She said, “Now, that’s a song. Why didn’t you write that?” She had that kind of sense of humor. She had an edge, that’s for sure. Very sarcastic.

JC: Did she ever admit to liking any of your songs?

FE: No. Never. She came to the opening of The Act because she heard there would be a lot of celebrities there. Elizabeth Taylor sat right behind her, which she kind of liked.


[To be continued. Click here to visit Jim Caruso’s website.]