Sammy Cahn And The
Miracle Of Songwriting
By David Fantle and Tom Johnson
Reel to Real Special for Modern Times Magazine
June 1, 2015 — It’s not a Steinway and it doesn’t even have white and black keys. In fact, the composing instrument of choice for four-time Oscar-winning lyricist Sammy Cahn (1914-1993) wasn’t even a piano. He used an IBM typewriter to create the words to such American song standards as “High Hopes,” “All the Way,” “Three Coins in the Fountain,” “I’ve Heard that Song Before,” “Let It Snow,” “Call Me Irresponsible,” “Come Fly with Me,” “(Chicago is) My Kind of Town,” “Love and Marriage” and dozens of others, mostly in collaboration with composers Jule Styne and Jimmy Van Heusen.
As Cahn explained to us in a 1981 interview in his Beverly Hills home, he began his musical education by writing parodies of popular songs while attending high school in his native New York City.
“The greatest exercise for a beginning songwriter is to write parodies,” he said. “Education is a tool, especially for a man who deals in words. I started to read voraciously when I was very young and, funny enough, I think I know all the most important words.”
A born and bred New Yorker, Cahn (who dispensed with formality and received us naked from the waist up, his slight pot-belly protruding over his belt like a second cousin of Buddha three weeks into the Scarsdale Diet) never lacked for patter.
“I would have given my soul to be a performer,” he said. “If I would have been born 13 years earlier in 1900 instead of 1913, I would have been George Burns. So I took out my frustration in demonstrating my songs. I’m considered quite a lethal demonstrator.”
Cahn called his ability to write lyrics an unexplainable miracle. “I put the paper in and type. That’s it. No margin for error, no paper strewn around the floor. It never fails. It’s a miracle, and I’m pleased to be part of the miracle.
“I say this most modestly,” he added. “I’m not calling myself a miracle. I’m calling it a miracle. The point is, I just sit and type, and there’s no way in the world that it doesn’t come out. And I’ve learned after 50 years it will always come out. I don’t write the songs as much as the song writes me.”
In his later years, Cahn spent most of his time writing special lyrics for corporate events. “It’s a source of great revenue for me,” he told us. “People send me specific information and I reduce it to the song. And I ask you to believe that they’ve written as impeccably as I know how to write. I’m not being casual about it.
He shared with us an example of how he fashioned new, customized lyrics to melodies that are part of the American song canon – a “special lyric” he wrote for Steven Gray for an IBM banquet in Rochester, New York set to the music of “The Tender Trap.”
It all began way back in May
A phone call from a Mr. Gray
He said my name is Steve and I had to believe the chap
So you can see it’s me and the IBM trap
And I’m a ham
Yes, I am
I mean the purest and without shame
I’ll inform you I was flown here tourist
Some special lyrics I have made
Please do applaud, don’t be afraid
The applause is how I’m paid in the IBM trap
Inspiration for a new song lyric was never more than a phone call away, he said. “People always ask me what comes first, the words or the music? It’s the phone call. If the phone stops ringing, I will stop writing.
For Sammy Cahn, the phone never stopped ringing.
David Fantle & Tom Johnson have been entertainment journalists for more than 30 years and co-authored the 2004 book, Reel to Real: 25 Years Of Celebrity Profiles From Vaudeville To Movies To TV. Fantle teaches film and television at Marquette University in Milwaukee and Johnson is a former senior editor for Netflix. They can be reached at www.reeltoreal.com
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