Writing clever, literate songs must be a difficult process, because there are so few of them. Sure, there’s no shortage of silly songs, or mildly amusing tunes, but there’s a paucity of songs that reach the level of wit of a great humorist.
Pianist and singer Dave Frishberg was one of the few songwriters of the past 50 years who had the rare ability to craft witty, inventive songs of smart sophistication. He was something of a throwback to the songwriters of what’s known as the Great American Popular Songbook. He’s often compared to Hoagy Carmichael and Johnny Mercer. They had a similar flair for lyrical wordplay and melodic invention, but Frishberg’s songs have a contemporary sense of irony and, on occasion, cynicism.
I first heard Dave Frishberg on the radio while visiting my brother in Minneapolis. A local station had Frishberg’s then-new recording of “My Attorney Bernie” in regular rotation. Over a rollicking piano-based jazz groove, Frishberg’s thin, reedy voice sang about his amazing lawyer and their adventures. The record hit my sweet spots: it swung and was funny.
And when I dine
With my attorney Bernie
He buys wine
From the rare imported rack
That’s ‘cause Bernie is a purist
And not your polyester tourist
Bernie waves the glass around awhile
Then takes a sip and always sends it back
That Christmas, my brother put under the tree for me the album featuring “My Attorney Bernie,” The Dave Frishberg Songbook, Vol. 2. Much to my delight, every song was a gem and I was hooked. In that ancient era before every song since the dawn of time was immediately accessible with the click of a mouse, I had to search various record stores to find The Dave Frishberg Songbook, Vol. 1 and other albums in his rather slim back catalog. I eagerly anticipated his new releases, flipping through “F” in the jazz section, just in case a new Frishberg collection had materialized. I also grabbed albums featuring him as a sideman, playing piano with saxophonists Al Cohn and Zoot Sims, singer Jimmy Rushing, and even Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass.
As you can probably tell by now, Dave Frishberg ranks among my all-time favorite musicians and my heart sank when I learned of his death on November 17 at the age of 88.
He didn’t start out as a singer/songwriter. Born in St. Paul, he began his career as a pianist in the Twin Cities post-war jazz scene. After graduating from the University of Minnesota with a journalism degree, he served as an Air Force recruiter before landing in New York and finding work as a pianist with tenor saxophonist Ben Webster, drummer Gene Krupa and saxophonists Al Cohn and Zoot Sims.
He also accompanied singers, including Carmen McRae and Anita O’Day. This gave him an intimate understanding of song construction and he started writing his own. Frishberg published his first song, “Peel Me a Grape,” in 1962 which was quickly recorded by O’Day and others. With this experience, Frishberg thought being a songwriter was going to be easy. He continued writing songs, but no one was interested. So, he recorded them himself on his 1970 debut album, Oklahoma Toad.
The album failed to catch on, other than a bossa-nova titled “Van Lingle Mungo” after a pitcher for the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants. The lyrics were nothing but the names of major league baseball players, primarily from the 1930s and 40s during Frishberg’s childhood passion for the game. (Frishberg met Mungo when they both appeared on The Dick Cavett Show. Mungo was disappointed that he wouldn’t get any money from the song. Frishberg told the retired ballplayer he could always write a song called “Dave Frishberg.”)
While continuing to work a sideman throughout the 1970s, he started receiving assignments to compose new songs for television and other projects. He wrote “The Sports Page” for a short-lived variety TV show starring Gene Kelly, The Funny Side; and the poignant “Listen Here” for a Mary Tyler Moore variety special. He wrote his most famous song for the ABC Saturday morning educational cartoon series School House Rock. He was asked to write a song about how a bill becomes law. The result was “I’m Just a Bill,” featuring a memorable vocal by trumpeter Jack Sheldon.
By 1982 he had written enough songs for the pair of Dave Frishberg Songbook albums. The first volume was nominated for a Grammy award. He was now known more as a singer/songwriter than a tasty, flexible jazz pianist.
What first attracted me to Frishberg’s music were his humorous songs. And he wrote plenty of them. Along with “My Attorney Bernie,” there were “Blizzard of Lies,” “Let’s Eat Home” and “Quality Time.” Many of these songs are sharp social commentary with a strong satirical edge, most notably “Wheelers and Dealers.”
Soon we’ll all be zooming off for the moon
Like pioneer’s we’ll roam
To find some peace up there
And make a home
But the wheelers and dealers are getting there first
And setting up shop in the craters
To eat beyond hunger and drink beyond thirst
Like unsatisfiable Satyrs
Yet Frishberg was more than just a songwriter of wit and humor. He wrote many poignant, wistful ballads of love, loss and loneliness. And these songs hit me harder than the funny songs that first caught my attention. “Sweet Kentucky Ham,” is a dirge about the sorrows and tediousness of life on the road. Frishberg sometimes wrote lyrics to music by other composers. To a long, flowing melody by Johnny Mandel, Frishberg penned an aching set of lyrics to an absent loved one for a song titled “You Are There.”
When I’m dreaming
And I find myself awake without a warning
And I rub my eyes and fantasize, and all at once I realize
And my fantasy is fading like a distant star at dawn
My dearest dream in gone
I often think there’s just one thing to do
Pretend the dream was true
And tell myself that you are there.
Frishberg’s songs are multi-layered, but through them all is a strong sense of nostalgia and longing for bygone days. He often said he had a pathological interest in the past and felt the past was much better than the current times. He wrote songs about more long-gone baseball players (“Matty”), ill-fated jazz legends (“Dear Bix”) and the joys of being a big band musician (“I Want Be a Sideman.”) He spelled out this fascination with the past in a song lamenting all things gone by in a song that serves as something of his manifesto, “The Dear Departed Past.”
Am I hopelessly old fashioned
‘Cause I’m harboring a passion for the olden days?
Is my sense of time so out of joint
It’s starting to distort my point of view?
Does my antiquarian brain contain
Imaginary memories of golden days?
Can one feel a real nostalgia
For a time and place one never even knew?
I anticipate times to come with something less than jubilation,
And I’m looking to times gone by with something more and more
Frishberg ranks among America’s greatest songwriters and his songs are favorites of jazz and cabaret vocalists searching for fresher material than the tired, oft-performed standards. Anita O’Day, Blossom Dearie and Rosemary Clooney recorded his songs, and so have contemporary singers like Diana Krall, Veronica Swift and Connie Evingson, who recorded a whole album of his songs featuring Frishberg himself at the piano.
Yet even though Frishberg’s voice was pinched and thin with a limited range that became hoarser and gruffer in later years, no one could sing Dave Frishberg songs like Dave Frishberg. He had a dry, hip, utilitarian approach that served his lyrics best. “A lot of my songs sound so much better if they’re sung conversationally,” he told NPR’s Terry Gross in 1991. “Like, I hear singers sing ballads of mine. And they hold those notes up because I know singers. They like to hear the sound of their voice…. I’m not complaining, but a lot of times when I hear singers do my songs, I wish they wouldn’t sing so much.”
After being a devoted Frishberg follower for several years, I finally had the opportunity to see him perform a solo show in a downtown Minneapolis hotel lounge in 1992. I dragged a girlfriend and another couple to join me, although they were mostly unfamiliar with him other than my enthusiastic fandom. I couldn’t contain my excitement while to them it was just a classy night out, and not the chance to see a beloved musical icon in performance.
Between sets I summoned up the courage to approach him and ask if he’d sign his Classics CD, a collection of his songbook albums. He wrote “Hello, Karl” in a cartoon quote balloon over his photo on the cover. I tried to engage him in a little awkward conversation, but he seemed more interested in the World Series game on the lounge television. I felt chagrined as I walked back to our table, but I was still thrilled to have a signed copy of his CD.
Several years later I had the chance to engage him in a real conversation during a recorded phone interview to help promote a solo performance in St. Paul. He was warm and friendly as he answered questions about his music and career, many of which I’m sure he’d answered in countless other interviews. When the interview concluded, I took off my professional radio interviewer hat and put on my enraptured fan cap. I told him how much his music meant to me and he thanked me graciously. He seemed pleased with the interview and asked me to make a tape of it for him and introduce myself to him at his upcoming performance. Which I did. “That was a good interview,” he told me as I handed him the tape. I have never been happier to get that compliment from one of my interview subjects.
I had the opportunity to interview him again about a decade later and always went to hear him perform anytime he had a show in the Twin Cities. Some music fans I know go to concerts by Bruce Springsteen or U2 anytime they can. For me it was Dave Frishberg.
He was a singular talent. As he sang about legendary cornetist Bix Beiderbecke in his song “Dear Bix,” Frishberg was one of a kind. There has been no one else like him with the same gifts as a composer, lyricist and jazz pianist, or the same combination of wit, poignance, hipness and swing. Frishberg has now slipped into what he called the dear departed past, with a body of work unique to the late 20th Century.
Yet so many of his songs like “You Are There” evoke timeless and universal sentiments. And even his darkly satirical songs written in the 1970s and 80s such as “The Sports Page” and “Blizzard of Lies” remain all too relevant today. And “My Attorney Bernie” will always be funny.