R.I.P. Mr. Frishberg

Frishberg in 2011. Photo by Beth Nakamura, The Oregonian

There are two great things about my job. The first is that you can do it in a room in your house. The second is that you get to call up people like Dave Frishberg and, if they’re agreeable, hang out with them for a while.

Frishberg was very kind and generous to me when I contacted him for an interview for my book The B Side. He met me in a bar downtown Portland, Oregon (we both had coffee), and gave me great stuff, including a word-for-word memory of the advice Frank Loesser had given him about lyric writing, sixty years previously:

“Make every statement in the lyrics that you’re using refer to the concept that’s in the title. Don’t leave the listener hanging. Keep the listener interested and surprised, so he can appreciate it and be ready for your next thought. And when you pull off something flashy that you want the listener to remember, to be impressed by, that’s when you put in a riff, a couple of bars. Don’t pile climaxes or punchlines next to each other.”

“Take Back Your Mink”/”Peel Me a Grape.” QED

At the time he was talking to Loesser, in the mid-to-late 1950s, his songwriting was going nowhere and he was making a living as a (superb) piano accompanist to singers like Dick Haymes and Carmen McRae. (His jazz chops were never in doubt.)

He told me: “I tried to write for what I perceived was the market. I ended up writing shit, on purpose. I was trying to sound like this writer or that. A few country songs, a few folk songs–that was big at the time. After two or three years of futility, I abandoned that. I began to write songs as if it were 1937. The music that I liked to play, the music I liked to listen to, was music from the Gershwins, from Porter. I thought to myself, ‘If that’s the stuff you love so much, that’s what you should try to write like.’ Of course, when I said that, I abdicated from the market. But I began to enjoy songwriting more.”

There followed “Devil May Care,” “Do You Miss New York?”, “Quality Time,” “My Attorney Bernie,” “Van Lingle Mungo,” “I’m Hip” (music by Bob Dorough), “You Are There” (music by Johnny Mandel), and, all the obits remind us, “I’m Just a Bill.”

I talked to him by phone a bit after our Portland interview and he pulled out a postcard sent to him by Johnny Mercer, circa 1969 or ’70. He read it aloud in its entirety: “You are my favorite lyric writer at the moment. Boy are you uncommercial!!!” (Frishberg counted out the four exclamation points.)

When the book came out, Frishberg gave it a great blurb. Ever the mensch, he said he would play the piano and maybe recruit his colleague Rebecca Kilgore to sing if I could arrange a book event in Portland. The worst thing about my job are the regrets, and one of my biggest is that I didn’t do whatever it took to make that happen.