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Remembering 'Schoolhouse Rock!' songwriter Dave Frishberg

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Today we pay tribute to Dave Frishberg, a songwriter, jazz pianist and singer. He died Wednesday. He was 88. Many of his songs have the wit that's associated with American popular song of the past. But the lyrics he wrote were about the anxieties of contemporary life, songs like "I'm Hip," "My Attorney Bernie" and "Quality Time." But he also wrote beautiful ballads like "Heart's Desire, "Sweet Kentucky Ham" and "You Are There." One of his most famous songs, "I'm Just A Bill," was written for the kids TV series "Schoolhouse Rock!" to explain how a bill becomes a law. Some of the performers who recorded his songs are Rosemary Clooney, Mel Torme, Blossom Dearie, Al Jarreau, Jackie and Roy, Diane Krall (ph), Susannah McCorkle and Rebecca Kilgore. Four of his own albums were nominated for Grammys. I love hearing him interpret his own songs and feel so lucky that he was willing to perform on our show several times. Those multiple appearances are a sign of just how much we enjoyed his music. Today we'll hear highlights of some of those FRESH AIR interviews and performances, starting with this 1991 FRESH AIR studio performance and interview.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: Dave Frishberg, welcome to FRESH AIR.

DAVE FRISHBERG: Thank you, Terry. I'm glad to be here.

GROSS: You've brought a brand-new song with you, and I'd love to hear it.

FRISHBERG: OK. Great. I'd like to do it for you.

(Playing piano, singing) I'll be late getting home from the office, and so will you because we both got a million calls to return and a million things to do. We're not seeing enough of each other 'cause truth be told, we're up to our ears in our careers, and we're putting our hearts on hold. So darling, let me bring you up to speed. A little time together's what we need. Quality time - we both deserve a little quality time. We'll find a small hotel, remote and quiet. In case they want to sell, my firm could buy it. Then we develop it and gentrify it. We're talking quality time.

(Playing piano, singing) Quality time - we owe ourselves a little quality time. In the Bahamas, we can let our stress go. We'll walk along the beach and dine al fresco. I'll take a power lunch with Robert Vesco. We're talking quality time. Come fly with me. Unwind, kick back, relax. I'll bring my laptop fax. You'll work on your new screenplay. I'll update my resume.

(Playing piano, singing) Quality time - a little frolic and frivolity time. We'll take a seminar on self-hypnosis so we can learn to stop and smell the roses. We'll do a workshop on the grieving process. Learning to cry is no crime. We're talking quality time. We'll hit the tennis courts in our Adidas. Some influential sorts are bound to meet us. We'll play it smart, of course, and let them beat us. We're talking quality time.

(Playing piano, singing) We'll find some upscale friends to share some space with, a wealthy couple we can interface with, a smart attorney we can start a case with. We're talking quality time.

(Playing piano, singing) Come dine with me. This time you choose the wine. Romance is the bottom line. And later, when we're alone - hang on; there's my other phone - we'll have a ball. But now I got to deal with this other call. We've both been chewing more than we can bite off. We got to take at least a day and night off. I'll speak to Sid. He'll make it all a write-off. This may not cost us a dime. I'll fax you back with a plan of attack to let the quality time begin. We'll lock in the time frame, and you can pencil me in. Better pencil me in.

GROSS: I love it.

FRISHBERG: Oh, thank you.

GROSS: That's a great new song. You know, you do something that Cole Porter used to do, which is, like, incorporate like proper nouns, you know, like names of people from the period that you're writing this song.

FRISHBERG: Oh, yeah. Right, right.

GROSS: And - oh, that's a really funny song. You've gotten in everything.

FRISHBERG: (Laughter) That's my job.

GROSS: (Laughter) You got your start as a pianist as opposed to a songwriter, pianist and singer.

FRISHBERG: As a pianist, yes.

GROSS: You were a sideman with a lot of musicians. You were a house pianist at one of the New York clubs. What made you realize that, like, your ultimate calling was going to be writing songs as well as playing and singing those songs, too?

FRISHBERG: Well, as far as writing is concerned, I began to write soon after I got to New York. And while I was a sideman, as you say - and I used to try to write so that other singers would be interested or that - because I never dreamed of myself as being a singer. And I would write to make other recording artists - I don't even know who they were - but to get their interest, to see if maybe, you know, who could it be? Connie Francis or Paul Anka or - would sing such a thing, you know? And it turned out that I was writing - I wrote terrible stuff. It wasn't very good because I didn't mean it. You know what I mean?

GROSS: Mmm hmm.

FRISHBERG: I was kind of writing down to my song. And that doesn't make it. It was obvious that I wasn't really that kind of a writer, and I was just trying to write amateurishly. And so I stopped. And I began to just write what came naturally to me and ended up being probably the only one who sings it.

GROSS: What I like about composers singing their songs, you know, is that if you aren't, like, relying on a lot of technique, then there's something else in your voice. It's - do you know what I mean? - in addition to...

FRISHBERG: Well, my main purpose is to make sure that the words are all understood.

GROSS: Well, I think composers like you have a way of kind of putting across a song and of putting a certain kind of - well, the right emotion, whether it's wit or sentiment - do you know what I mean? - just kind of striking the right emotion in the way you're performing it.

FRISHBERG: Well, that could be. That could be. And if there's any technique to what I do as far as accompanying myself, I think it might lie in the fact that a lot of times, I sing to silence. I stop playing when I sing certain songs, especially up-tempo jazz things. And I leave open spaces for my voice to execute the music. And then I hear other singers trying to do some of my up-tempo songs, and I wonder why it sounds cluttered. And I wonder why they sound, why they express difficulty - that's a hard song, you know? - to get those things out. Well, then I see, well, the reason I'm getting it out is because, instinctively, I stopped playing behind myself at that moment and allow the words to happen. And of course, that doesn't occur to them because someone else is playing the piano, and it wouldn't occur to him either, you know - or her.

GROSS: What's an example of a song where you lay out like that?

FRISHBERG: Well, for instance, a song like "Zoot Walks In," which is full of jazz articulation, you know.

(Playing piano, singing) Jazz is a saxophone sound. Not every player's got his own sound.

Well, you see how much there was silence in back of me. And so other singers try to sing this, and they got piano player playing. (Playing piano, singing) Jazz is a saxophone sound. You know what I mean? And they got all this stuff going on in back of them, naturally it sounds a little cluttered. I've noticed that myself recently. I can get the words out because I'm accompanying myself. And I know enough to stop playing at those moments.

GROSS: Have you ever sang with anybody else accompanying you?

FRISHBERG: Oh, only for brief hysterical moments.

GROSS: (Laughter).

FRISHBERG: I sang with a full orchestra once. That was really terrifying. In California Peter Matz was conducting, and it was a tribute to Johnny Mandel. And I was doing a Johnny Mandel song called "El Cajon" with a full orchestra behind me. What a panicky feeling. I sent Peter Matz the music, and he called me back on the phone. He said, don't you want to put this maybe the whole tone higher or maybe a minor third higher? I said, well, yeah, I can't sing that high. He says, well, you got it in a very confidential key.

And I realized that, you know, I wrote most of my keys for myself in a range that I can handle, but it is a confidential one. And when you got an orchestra in back of you, you can't sing like that. You can't sing - (singing) jazz is a - you got to sing - (singing) jazz is a - you've got to do that because otherwise you're not going to be heard. So yeah, that's terrifying to sing with an orchestra. And it's also scary to sing with another piano player. I did that a couple of times. It's like jumping out of a plane without a chute, you know.

GROSS: Dave, you got another song for us?

FRISHBERG: Sure. I thought maybe I'll play the piano a little bit.

GROSS: Sure. Oh, yeah.

FRISHBERG: I'll do - I always end up playing Duke Ellington music. I don't know why. I just seem to gravitate toward it. He's one of my favorite people. This is "The Mooche." Duke wrote this in the late 1920s. And in the middle of it, I've incorporated a more recent Ellington tune called "Jones." I kind of slide into that in the middle. (Playing piano).

GROSS: That's Dave Frishberg at the piano. He died last week at the age of 88. We'll continue our tribute to him after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Today we're paying tribute to songwriter, pianist and singer Dave Frishberg. He died last Wednesday at age 88. Let's get back to his 1991 interview and performance on our show.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: You said something once to Whitney Balliett of The New Yorker about lyrics that I quite like, that good lyrics come up to the edge of poetry and turn left.

FRISHBERG: Well, I think a better, more telling little aphorism was said by Frank Loesser, who said that lyric writing is not literature and it's not poetry, it's journalism. And I think that really says it.

GROSS: Since we're talking about lyrics, let me ask you to do another of your own. And I think we've got a song coming up that's - I think it's really become one of your most popular.

FRISHBERG: "Sweet Kentucky Ham." Yes, it - I don't know if it's mine, one of my most popular, but I was very flattered and pleased to receive a book in the mail the other day from a writer named Terry Teachout. He's written memoirs called "City Limits" about his life as a young boy and as a student in Silkeston, Mo. And he quoted this song "Sweet Kentucky Ham" as part of a chapter on life on the road with a jazz band, Woody Herman. And I was very pleased. It's a terrific book, by the way.

(Singing) It's 6 p.m. Suppertime in South Bend, Ind. And you figure, what the hell? You can eat in your hotel, so you order up room service on the phone. And you watch the local news and dine alone. You got to take what little pleasures you can find when you got sweet Kentucky ham on your mind, on your mind. Nothing but sweet Kentucky ham on your mind. It's 10 p.m. They're rolling up the sidewalks in Milwaukee. And the only place to eat is just across the street. So you sit there with a bowl of navy bean, and you turn the pages of your magazine. And you feel you want to quit while you're behind because you've got sweet Kentucky ham on your mind, on your mind, nothing but sweet Kentucky ham on your mind. And you feel like you're forever on the phone. Half past 10. Let it ring. Dial again, same damn thing. And you're really getting hungry for some talk. Grab a shower. Take a walk. It's 1 a.m. They're serving up last call in Cincinnati. But it's still a nighttime town if you know your way around. And despite yourself, you find you're wide awake. And you're staring at your scrambled eggs and steak. And you must admit your heart's about to break when you think of what you left behind, and you got sweet Kentucky ham on your mind, on your mind, nothing but sweet Kentucky ham on your mind.

GROSS: Really nice.

FRISHBERG: Thank you.

GROSS: Dave Frishberg.

That's Dave Frishberg singing his song "Sweet Kentucky Ham," as recorded on our show in 1991. We enjoyed his songs and performances so much than in 1997, to help celebrate our 10th anniversary as a daily NPR show, we commissioned him to write an anniversary song. Here he is performing it on that 10th anniversary show. The song is called "Fresh Air Fanatic."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

FRISHBERG: (Singing, playing piano) FRESH AIR hooked Up with NPR exactly 10 years ago. So today's the day to toss a bouquet to my favorite radio show. I must write a timely tribute. But what song form shall I choose? Why not just kick back and take a crack at some good, old-fashioned 12-bar blues? So here's to you, FRESH AIR. Of thee I sing like a middle-aged middle-class, Jewish B.B. King. It was 1987 when FRESH AIR went coast to coast. Now they're starting year 11 with my favorite talk show host. Yes, I'm a FRESH AIR fanatic. Got to have my Terry Gross. She's so crafty and Socratic. No other host comes even close. She can talk to anybody - poet, scientist or star. Conversation flows because she knows exactly who they are. That's why I'm a FRESH AIR fanatic. Got to have my interviews. Terry Gross makes me ecstatic when I hear her murmur, first, the news. Now, it's not a harmful habit. It's much cheaper than cocaine. And when Terry Gross can't make it, they got Marty Moss-Coane. So I'm a FRESH AIR fanatic. Happy anniversary number 10. And if you run out of folks to talk to, just play the first 10 years again.

GROSS: That's Dave Frishberg in 1997 on our show, celebrating FRESH AIR's 10th anniversary as a daily NPR program. That line, which rhymed cocaine with Marty Moss-Coane - that was a shoutout to our colleague Marty Moss-Coane, who used to guest host FRESH AIR on my days off. Dave Frishberg died last Wednesday. We'll continue our tribute to him in the second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WANT TO BE A SIDEMAN")

FRISHBERG: (Singing, playing piano) I want to be a sideman, just an ordinary sideman. I go along for the ride, man, responsibility-free. I want to fill behind the vocal, double on flute and jam on the blues. I want to go and join the local, buy a dark suit.

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Today, we're paying tribute to the songwriter, jazz pianist and singer Dave Frishberg and listening back to some of his interviews and performances on our show. He died last week. He was 88. Frishberg wrote witty songs like "I'm Hip," "My Attorney Bernie" and "Quality Time," ballads like "Heart's Desire" and "You Are There" and songs for the kids TV series "Schoolhouse Rock!" like "I'm Just A Bill." In 1999, as part of our series about some of the notable composers and lyricists who contributed to the American popular songbook, we invited Frishberg and singer Rebecca Kilgore to perform songs by the lyricist Dorothy Fields. Frishberg and Kilgore often performed together. They recorded together, too. Here's a duet they did for us of the song "A Fine Romance" with a lyric by Dorothy Fields and music by Jerome Kern.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A FINE ROMANCE")

FRISHBERG: (Singing) A fine romance with no kisses, a fine romance, my friend, this is. We should be like a couple of hot tomatoes, but you're as cold as yesterday's mashed potatoes. A fine romance you won't nestle. A fine romance you won't wrestle. I might as well play bridge with my old maid aunts. I haven't got a chance. This is a fine romance.

REBECCA KILGORE: (Singing) A fine romance, my good fellow. You take romance. I'll take Jell-O. You're calmer than the seals in the Arctic Ocean. At least they flap their fins to express emotion. A fine romance with no quarrels, with no insults and all morals. I've never mussed the crease in your blue serge pants. I never get the chance. This is a fine romance.

FRISHBERG: (Singing) A fine romance, my dear duchess. Two old fogies who need crutches. True love should have the thrills that a healthy crime has. We don't have half the thrills that the march of time has. A fine romance, my good woman, my strong aged in the wood woman. You never gave the orchids at a glance. You prefer cactus plants. This is a fine...

DAVE FRISHBERG AND REBECCA KILGORE: (Singing) Romance, romance, this is a fine romance. Am I out of line or is this a fine romance?

GROSS: That was Rebecca Kilgore and Dave Frishberg recorded on our show in 1999, performing the Jerome Kern-Dorothy Fields song "A Fine Romance." Let's continue our tribute to Frishberg with an excerpt of his 1995 interview and performance on our show.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: Dave, what was the music that you grew up with? What was the pop music of your time when you were coming of age?

FRISHBERG: Well, I was born in 1933, so I grew up - you know, I grew up in a house with two jitterbug older brothers. They wore saddle shoes and my brother, Mort, who was seven years older than I, he had a keychain that he used to swing. Remember, they used to wear keychains on their belt. And he used to talk on the phone and swing and twirl that keychain in his saddle shoes. And he'd listen to Benny Goodman records. That was the music. It was like "Harold Teen," you know what I mean?

GROSS: (Laughter).

FRISHBERG: And that was the music that was in my house when I was a kid. In other words, at 6 and 7, 8 years old, the music that I remember was Count Basie, Lester Young, Jimmy Rushing, Jay McShann with Walter Brown - they were deep into that swing music - Cab Calloway, Benny Goodman records, Artie Shaw. I was deep into that music as a kid and never thought of myself as a player but, like, a fan, you know?

GROSS: What was your father's music or your parents' music?

FRISHBERG: My father was a singer in the temple, in the Jewish temple, you know, in the choir. He was deeply interested in liturgical music. He used to listen to Richard Tucker records and Jan Peerce and those good, you know, the good cantors. He loved cantorial music. I heard a lot of that, too. And you know what else my brothers like that really hit me hard was Gilbert and Sullivan. Wow, that really stamped me. I knew all of "The Mikado" as a kid. And my family and I used to sing those songs together. And - who's the guy? Gilbert was the guy who wrote the words. That guy, he just knocked me out. That's great lyric writing. I don't think that's ever been equaled.

GROSS: Now, when you started to play piano, what did you play?

FRISHBERG: Boogie-woogie, the blues - I was a blues player. When I was 12 or 13 years old, I was deep into Pete Johnson. He was my hero, Pete Johnson from Kansas City and Joe Turner. My brother Mort, the guy with the keychain, he used to sing like Joe Turner.

GROSS: Really?

FRISHBERG: Yeah. And so he and I would play the Joe Turner-Pete Johnson boogie-woogie records, and we would copy them. I would copy them off the record. And we would - that's how I began playing the blues. I could play in C, F and G the blues. I loved McShann's playing and I loved Count Basie's playing and Pete Johnson's playing. I was hooked on the Kansas City jazz musicians.

GROSS: Did you ever get to see these guys play when you were young?

FRISHBERG: Well, I had occasion to meet and play with Jay McShann and duets and stuff. That was really fun. I admired him so. And I did meet Count Basie under very odd circumstances once. I don't know if you want me to go into it. It was very strange. I was rehearsing - I was rehearsing the show for Mel Torme, who was going to arrive a few hours hence, and I was rehearsing the band. And when I got there to rehearse the band for Mel Torme - this is a very odd circumstance because I had nothing to do with Mel Torme at the time. It was one of those phone calls.

GROSS: (Laughter).

FRISHBERG: When I got there, the band was Count Basie's band. I was rehearsing them. And Basie stepped aside and I went to the piano and began to rehearse Count Basie's band and Mel Torme's opening number. I felt completely at a loss and - because I hadn't heard the music either. So I said, well, the first one is called - forgot what it was called - "Doggin' Around" or something like that. It was a Basie piece, you know. So I say is everybody ready? And Freddie Green was sitting there and I said, Freddie, you don't have your music out. And he looked at me with this - just this cold look. And he says, I wrote this.

GROSS: (Laughter).

FRISHBERG: I rehearsed the band and I said, well, that's fine. And Basie, from where he was sitting, said, what do you mean that's fine? That's terrible. Let me show you how it's supposed to sound. Oh, those guys took me that day.

GROSS: Oh, God. So...

FRISHBERG: That was fun. That was funny, actually.

GROSS: Did you feel in on the joke or insulted?

FRISHBERG: Not insulted, certainly. But it was good-natured. They weren't mean guys. And I knew several of the people in the band, including the meanest was Marshal Royal, and he was on my side.

GROSS: So how did you get to rehearse the band?

FRISHBERG: Somebody called me. Torme was going to be late, and whoever was going to rehearse was going to be late with him. And they needed somebody to rehearse the band. You know, this this happened in Los Angeles years ago.

GROSS: Dave Frishberg recorded on our show in 1995. We'll continue our tribute to him after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Today we're paying tribute to songwriter, jazz pianist and singer Dave Frishberg. He died last Wednesday. Let's get back to his 1995 interview and performance on our show. That session included this track from one of his albums of his song, "My Attorney Bernie."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

FRISHBERG: (Singing) I'm impressed with my attorney, Bernie. I'm impressed with his influential friends. He's got very big connections, and I follow his directions. Bernie knows his way around, and so I always do what Bernie recommends. I am blessed with my attorney, Bernie. I'm impressed with the way he runs the store. He's got Dodger season boxes and an office full of boxes. It's amazing all the different things your average guy might need a lawyer for. Bernie tells me what to do. Bernie lays it on the line. Bernie says, we sue, we sue. Bernie says we sign, we sign. I'm in touch with my attorney, Bernie. In a clutch, he can speed right to the scene. And if I'm not up in the jail with just one phone call for my bail, he said to call his club collect or deal directly with his answering machine. When I done with my attorney, Bernie, he buys wine from the rare imported rack. That's because Bernie is a purist, not your polyester tourist. Bernie waves the glass around a while, then takes a sip and always sends it back. Bernie tells me what to do. Bernie lays it on the line. Bernie says, we sue, we sue. Bernie says, we sign, we sign.

GROSS: There's actually a book of sheet music of your songs. It's not like I could sit down and play the arrangements or anything, but I was looking through the book of sheet music. And in one of the songs it says - where it should say, you know, like, andante or moderate tempo or something, it says conversationally. I thought, that's perfect. Yes, that song should - it's not the kind of notation you usually see in sheet music, but I thought, yes, that's exactly right.

FRISHBERG: Well, it's not that uncommon, actually.

GROSS: Really?

FRISHBERG: I think I've seen a lot of songs that have those kind of expressions, you know, forgetting the old Italian or German expressions. Conversationally makes a lot of sense, you know. I liked it. A lot of my songs sound so much better if they're sung conversationally. 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. And they get caught up in how it feels and how good it feels to produce those tunes. I think a lot of times it works against the song holding notes out for a long time, you know.

Sometimes I wish - I want to tell them when I say conversationally, I mean, you know, you got to throw that away. That's an aside, almost. Or that's a piece of discourse. It has nothing to do with holding a note out. But you can't tell that to a lot of singers. And you got to just - I'm not complaining, but a lot of times when I hear singers do my songs, I wish they wouldn't sing so much. You know, I wish - you know what I mean?

GROSS: Yeah, I don't know what you mean. The last time I saw you perform, it was in New York a couple of years ago, and you did a song called "Wallflower"...

FRISHBERG: "Wallflower Lonely, Cornflower Blue."

GROSS: Yeah, and it was a really - I really liked the song a lot. And there was a very, actually, funny story that went along with the song. And I'd love for you to tell the story and play the song.

FRISHBERG: Well, you know, I tell the story about how I - when I was starting to write songs in New York - and I'm talking about I had moved to New York, and this was the early '60s. In those days, it was customary for a songwriter to bring the songs directly to the publisher's office. And then you sit at the piano and you sing the song and perform it for the publisher. And the publisher, if he likes it, then he has records made and so forth. That was the norm. I'll shorten this up. But anyway, what happened was a guy asked me to write a cowboy song the way he called it. Play a cowboy song, why don't you write a cowboy song? So I came back and I wrote - and I said, like, I think I got a cowboy song. So this was it. This is what I wrote, you know.

(Singing) I'm wallflower lonely, cornflower blue. You'll never know how sad I feel remembering you. I tried to forget you. What good does it do? I'm wallflower lonely cornflower blue. When we were together, it was sunflower weather. Today only clouds are in view. Your love made me happy more than I knew. But now I'm only wallflower lonely, cornflower blue.

So that was my little entry into the country songwriting business, you know? So the guy says to me - the publisher says to me - he listens to that song. He says, you mind if I just give you a little tip on how to construct a song? I said, no, you know, please help me out. He says, play the bridge for me. I said, OK. (Playing piano, singing) When we were together, it was sunflower...

He said stop. What's that chord on the words sunflower? I say well, it's a B7? He said, that's where you lose them.

(LAUGHTER)

FRISHBERG: I say, what are you talking about? He says, well that's not a cowboy chord.

GROSS: What - did you have a witty retort?

FRISHBERG: No. Later on, I thought of a witty retort. And then - and when I tell the story, I pretend like I really said it at the time. But I didn't think of it till years later. I should have said to him, you mean, if I play a B7, I'll lose the audience? And he would say yes. And then I would say, I didn't know it was that easy.

GROSS: (Laughter).

FRISHBERG: But I didn't think of it at the time. As a matter of fact, I probably - in those days, I probably took him seriously, you know, probably avoided B7 for a few weeks.

GROSS: (Laughter).

That's Dave Frishberg recorded on our show in 1995. We'll hear a story about his famous "Schoolhouse Rock!" song, "I'm Just A Bill," and hear him sing it after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to our tribute to songwriter, jazz pianist and singer Dave Frishberg. He died last Wednesday. Here's more of his 1995 interview and performance on our show. I asked him about a song he wrote for the kids' show "Schoolhouse Rock!"

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: One of your songs from there is actually quite famous.

FRISHBERG: Isn't that amazing?

GROSS: "I'm Just A Bill"...

FRISHBERG: "I'm Just A Bill."

GROSS: ...About how a bill becomes a law.

FRISHBERG: Yeah. Well, I wrote that in 1974, maybe. That's 20-some years ago, and it's still on. And a lot of people know this song, and it shocks me 'cause I never paid much attention to it. I don't watch kids' television.

GROSS: We have to play it.

FRISHBERG: I will.

(Playing piano, singing) I'm just a bill. Yes, I'm only a bill, and I'm sitting here on Capitol Hill. Well, it's a long, long journey to the capital city. It's a long, long wait while you're waiting in committee. But I know I'll be a law someday, least I hope and pray that I will. But today I am still just a bill.

That was sung by Jack Sheldon in the original recording of that.

Listen to this, Terry. A couple of years ago in Portland, a friend of mine was in the hospital. I went to visit him, and he was sharing a room with somebody else who must have been really sick 'cause there was this big screen. I peeked behind the screen, and this guy was - this other patient was ghastly pale, and he had all kinds of tubes stuck in every orifice, looked like he was on his way out. So I was talking to my friend. And my friend says, well, what have you been doing? I said, well, I'm working for "Schoolhouse Rock!" again. He said, oh - he says, gee, that thing you wrote years ago, "I'm Just A Bill," I still hear that. And from behind the screen came the voice of this other patient. And he said, did you write "I'm Just A Bill"? And I said, yeah - I said to thin air, you know out of the - and then from behind the screen, he began to sing it, the dying man singing my song. (Singing) I'm just a bill. Oh, God. It was more than I can handle.

GROSS: Oh, wow - odd, what a strange experience.

FRISHBERG: Very odd. You know, you never know when you - I kept saying, you're singing too much. Just do it conversationally.

GROSS: (Laughter).

So there's a song I want to ask you to do that I think is a fairly recent song, although I'm not sure, you've recorded on one of your recent records. It's called "Snowbound," and it strikes me as being a song that's almost out of character for you because it's not quite the type of character you usually write for. It's not...

FRISHBERG: Yeah, this is - I guess, you know, I don't even have a character in mind at all for this. The reason I wrote such a song is because a lot of singers have been coming to me. And they say, we'd like to sing your songs. But can you write something - we don't want ballads. We want something with a little beat to it. We've got enough ballads. But write something, several of them have said to me, that's not so weird that only you can sing it.

GROSS: (Laughter).

FRISHBERG: And I know exactly what they mean.

GROSS: Do they mean weird lyrically or...

FRISHBERG: Well, weird - yes.

GROSS: ...Melodically or...

FRISHBERG: And also from the fact that the songs that I write are written for characters, and a lot of singers kind of sense that they're written for a character and are reluctant to play a character.

GROSS: Or they don't fit that character.

FRISHBERG: Or they don't fit that character or they prefer to play themselves. So they asked me, can't you write something - I guess they want a little something more neutral, I call it - you know, something more neutral. This is my entry into the neutral lanes.

(Playing piano, singing) The north winds blow. It's 12 below, streets like ice. Ain't it nice to be snowbound, snowbound? No place to go, hip deep in snow. We're all right, tucked in tight because we're snowbound. Yes, we're snowbound. The bad news is, the weatherman says more bad weather, snowbound. The good news is that here we are socked in together. The clock has stopped. The corn has popped. What a storm. What a sight. We'll stay warm through the night because we're snowbound, snowbound, snowbound, snowbound...

And so forth, it fades off into the night.

GROSS: I love the song.

FRISHBERG: It's, you know, odd because I went to Scandinavian play this last summer and I met a guy there who's translated it into Norwegian.

GROSS: Oh, no.

FRISHBERG: And he sang it for me in Norwegian, and it's hip. I think I like it better in Norwegian.

GROSS: (Laughter) I particularly enjoy songs like that in the winter. It's really nice to have those, like, you know, snow anthems (laughter) when the weather gets really bad. So I'd like to close with another song, and I'd like you to close with another song I mean (laughter) the more correct way of putting it. Let me ask you to choose something and feel free to play something new if you wanted to that I couldn't possibly request because I wouldn't know it yet or one of your classics or anything you'd like. But I'm going to let you select it.

FRISHBERG: OK. Have I ever sung "You Are There" on this program?

GROSS: No.

FRISHBERG: I really like that one.

GROSS: Why don't you do that?

FRISHBERG: This is a song that's mine with the lyric only. The music was written by Johnny Mandel. And he submitted it to me or gave it to me. He had shown it to a bunch of other lyric writers, he told me later. And he said, would you like to take a crack at this? And he gave me this long melody that had no riffs (ph) in it and it just went on and on, and I thought it was a very difficult assignment. And I wrote a lyric to it and Mandel heard it, and he said, well, that doesn't quite make it, you can do better than that, in so many words. And so I had to go back and rewrite the whole thing, which made it doubly difficult to try to do something again that you thought you'd finished. I ended up with a lyric that I was really proud of. It fit the odd metrical requirements and it made sense, too.

(Singing) In the evening when the kettle is on for tea, an old familiar feeling settles over me, and it's your face, I see. And I believe that you are there. In a garden, when I stop to touch a rose and feel the petals soft and sweet against my nose, I smile and I suppose that somehow maybe 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 it's morning. And my fantasy is fading like a distant star at dawn. My dearest dream is gone. I sometimes think there's just one thing to do - pretend the dream was true and tell myself that you are there.

GROSS: That's a beautiful song.

FRISHBERG: I like it a lot, and I'm proud of the lyric. It was a tough one to write.

GROSS: Dave, it's always so wonderful to have you on FRESH AIR. I'm so glad you were able to come back and do the show again. And thank you so much.

FRISHBERG: Thanks, Terry.

GROSS: Dave Frishberg recorded on our show in 1995. I'm so grateful to him for his music and for his appearances on our show. Our sympathies to his family, friends and fellow musicians. We fans will miss him, too. There will be a tribute to him at a club called The 1905 in Portland where he lived. Musicians who knew him will perform and talk about him. It will be livestreamed on Thursday, December 9. As the planning continues, updated information will be available at the1905.org/dave. That's the1905.org/dave.

Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, as we head into the holiday, we have a very entertaining interview I just recorded with Dave Grohl, who had his guitar and played and sang. He founded the band Foo Fighters, which was just inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Paul McCartney inducted the band and in his remarks called the Foo Fighters one of the greatest rock 'n' roll bands in the world. The first time Grohl was inducted was when he was the drummer for Nirvana. And by the way, on Thanksgiving Day, we'll feature an encore of my recent interview with Paul McCartney. I hope you'll join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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