Remembering Ervin Drake


Ervin Drake in 2001. New York Times photograph by Maxine Hicks.

I was sad to read in the New York Times the other day of the death of songwriter Ervin Drake, at the age of 95. When I was embarking on The B-Side, one of the first people I walked to was Michael Feinstein, the songwriter, pianist, and drum-beater for the Great American Songbook. He gave me Mr. Drake’s phone number and said I should interview him, as the last living link to the pre-War Tin Pan Alley era of songwriting.

Good advice. When I called the number, a woman answered; she turned out to be Mrs. Drake, the former Edie Bein, and she turned out to be in charge of his schedule and affairs. In short order I arranged to drive out to the Drake home in Great Neck, Long Island, for a conversation. It was a good talk. He ranged over this long career as a songwriter, television producer, and advocate for songwriters. Here is some of what I wrote:

Songwriter Ervin Drake—born Ervin Maurice Druckman in New York in 1919—had been drawn to the trade in part by his older brother Milton, who’d had some success on Tin Pan Alley, notably with “The Java Jive,” a hit for the Ink Spots in 1940. He got his big break as a result of the radio networks’ 1941 ban of songs by writers affiliated with the venerable licensing group ASCAP. Ralph Peer, a country-oriented publisher who was affiliated with a competing organization, BMI, asked Drake to write lyrics for a traditional Brazilian song called “Tico Tico no Fuba.” The Andrews Sisters charted with the tune in 1944. He developed a specialty in providing English to words South American melodies, including “Yo Te Amo Mucho (And That’s That),” which Xavier Cugat played in a movie called “Holiday in Mexico,” and “You Can in Yucatan,” performed by Desi Arnaz. Also in 1944, Drake wrote the lyrics for Duke Ellington’s instrumental “Perdido.” Between the successes, there was a lot of hustling. “I put in nights sitting in places that were part restaurant, part dance halls,” he recalled. “I’d try to get next to the bandleader and give him a song of my own.”

In contrast to many Tin Pan Alley songwriters, Drake had a social conscience. In 1943, in reaction to the racial and religious segregation practiced by hotels and restaurants, he wrote a tune he called “No Restricted Signs in Heaven.” He took the song to a new recording label, Capitol Records, which had been started just a year before by two songwriters, Johnny Mercer and Buddy De Sylva, and Glen Wallichs, a record-store owner.

“I didn’t want it to seem like a message song so I did it with a boogie-woogie tempo,” Drake said of “No Restricted Signs” in a 1996 interview. “Johnny wanted to record it. He showed it to his partner, and Glen said, ‘John, the way things are in this country if you record that song we will lose our distributorship.’” So Capitol passed, but the musician and producer Enoch Light ended up taking the song to a gospel group called the Golden Gate Quartet, who released their version in 1946.

The biggest hit of Drake’s early career, by contrast, would be unplayable today because it is almost entirely made up of crude racial stereotypes. Lying in the bathtub one day, as he recalls, the song came to him in its entirety: a novelty number called “Rickety Rickshaw Man,” whose lyrics begin “There’s a coolie name o’ Chulee/Runs a rickety rickshaw south of Peking/He goes a clippety-clop-clop/Clippety-clop-clop/As he hobbles down the cobble-stoned street.” Ralph Peer persuaded a sweet bandleader Eddy Howard to record the song, which reached number 6 on the Billboard charts in 1946.

As usual, Drake careered from the ridiculous to the sublime, this time drawing from his own life. He had been dating a showgirl named Edith Bein and felt deeply in love with her. But she began to be courted by “all these Wall Street types,” Drake told Will Friedwald in 2009. “I felt like I couldn’t compete, so I just withdrew from her life.” In the midst of the subsequent depression, he heard a haunting melody by Irene Higginbotham. “It hit me — smack!” he said in the Friedwald interview. “This is exactly what I felt when Edith left me. So in about 20 minutes I wrote the whole lyric to ‘Good Morning Heartache.’” A couple of months later, Billie Holiday made an immortal recording of the song, and it has since become a blues standard.

When I sat and talked to Drake in his Great Neck, New York, home in 2010, sitting in on the conversation was his wife. It was none other than the former Edith Bein. The two had reunited in 1975, after their respective spouses had died.

Drake would go on to co-write the inspirational credo “I Believe” and, on his own, the songs for a Broadway adaptation of What Makes Sammy Run?, which included the swinging “A Room Without Windows.” In 1961, he wrote an elegaic ballad for The Kingston Trio. Four years later, Frank Sinatra heard it on his car radio driving to Palm Springs, California; his recording won him a Grammy award and was a staple of his concerts from that point on. The song? “It Was a Very Good Year.”

Upcoming Appearances

I’ll be hitting the road in the new year to discuss The B-Side: The Death of Tin Pan Alley and the Rebirth of the Great American Song.

January 27
Philadelphia, PA
Free Library
7:30 PM

January 28
Swarthmore, PA
Swarthmore Public Library
7 PM

February 5
New York City
92nd Y
With the Bucky Pizarelli Duo
12 PM

March 9
New York City
House of Speakeasy at City Winery
8 PM

March 10
New York City
New York Public Library – Midtown branch
6:30 PM

March 19
New York City
Library for the Performing Arts
6:00 PM

April 9
Boston, MA
Boston Public Library
6 PM

You Say Expresso, I Say Espresso

I know, enough already about Weird Al Yankovic’s “Word Crimes,” but bear with me for one more comment on the music video that’s given language prescriptivism it’s its biggest shot in the arm since the glory days of Eats, Shoots & Leaves. Perhaps the weirdest of the 17 admonitions Weird Al crams into the song comes at about the halfway point, when he croons, “There’s no x in espresso,” over this image:

weird-al-yankovik Continue reading

Agree to Disagree

The emails come like clockwork, one or two every week. Sometimes they’re abusive, sometimes they’re  gleefully “gotcha,” and sometimes they’re civil and sincere, like this one (name of sender withheld):

I genuinely read and appreciate your articles, but this one stumped me. This sentence is near the end of your article in The Week,  published 14 March 2013: “As I noted in my previous article, the meaning of words inevitably and perennially change.”  If I was working with a student, I would correct the verb to read “changes.”  Can you give me a quick lesson if I’m incorrect?

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When is a Novel Not a Novel?

I was taken aback recently to pick up an (unnamed) magazine for which I’d written an article and see my brief bio begin with the words: “Ben Yagoda is a novelist. … ” I am not a novelist, never have been, and have not (since the age of 15) even had any aspirations in that direction. This isn’t because I have any disdain for the form but rather the opposite. Loudon Wainwright III sings in “Talkin’ New Bob Dylan Blues” that he held off writing songs as a youth because of the mere presence of  Dylan: “It was too damn daunting, you were too great.” That’s roughly how I feel about (first-rate) novelists. Continue reading

Bully for Them

Theodore Roosevelt was apparently the first candidate to declare, "My hat is in the ring."

Theodore Roosevelt was apparently the first candidate to declare, “My hat is in the ring.”

If you’re looking for a great summer read, and you anticipate a summer with a lot of time on your hands, I highly recommend Doris Kearns Goodwin’s The Bully Pulpit. Its 928-page length is to some extent a function of the fact that it covers four separate topics, each of which could have been a book of its own: a brief biography of Theodore Roosevelt, a brief biography of William Howard Taft, a study of the two men’s complicated political and personal friendship, and (the ostensible subject) an account of the two presidents’ relations with muckraking journalists like Ida Tarbell, Lincoln Steffens, and S.S. McClure. Continue reading

From the Archives: Fun City

When a friend in his thirties came up to me at a party the other day and said, “I have a question about fun,” I knew he wasn’t going to ask about whether the word could be used as an adjective. That would be like asking if iced tea could be used as a beverage. Writing in The Atlantic Monthly in 1997, Barbara Wallraff described Steven Pinker as remarking that “he can tell whether people are under or over thirty years old by whether they’re willing to accept fun as a full-fledged adjective.” Today that translates to over or under 47, which seems about right.Indeed, my friend’s question concerned a nuance: he had read a post on the Grammarist blog about the merits of the comparative forms funner and more fun, and wanted to know my thoughts. Before I tell you my answer, a little background.

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From the Archives: Elizabeth Yagoda is Hungry for a Hamburger

Where’s the outrage?

People never stop getting upset about changes in the use of pronouns (“thanks for inviting me wife and me/I”), verbs (comprise/compose), and nouns (data is/data are ), but, with the exception of occasional squawks about those who say “different than” (or, in Britain, “different to”) instead of “different from,” they don’t seem to give a hoot about the pervasive phenomenon I call “preposition creep.” Continue reading