A Conversation with Dave Frishberg

By Phillip D. Atteberry

This material is copyrighted and was originally published in The Mississippi Rag, April, 1996.


Garrison Keillor speaks of Minnesota as a place where "all the children are above average." That may not be true of "all the children," but it was true of Dave Frishberg, who was born in St. Paul in 1933. The son of a clothing store proprietor, Frishberg had three older siblings, including two brothers who provided his first "musical nourishment."

"My brothers were six to eight years older than I," explained Frishberg. "They were hip, jitterbug types in high school and brought home all kinds of jazzy records, especially my brother, Mort. He brought home all the Benny Goodman sextet stuff, Count Basie with Lester Young and Jimmy Rushing, and all the Jay McShann records. Jay McShann’s "Confessin’ the Blues" was my favorite. I wore the wax off of it. That record, more than anything else, turned me to the piano."

Frishberg began piano lessons at age eight, but found them tedious. "I studied with a classical piano teacher in St. Paul," Frishberg recollected. "‘Discipline’ was his mantra, and that’s fine. Discipline is important. But discipline should not be the goal. Enjoyment should be the goal. Discipline helps you get there. My first teacher was never able to help me enjoy music, so my first keyboard experiences were quite negative.

"My first important teacher," continued Frishberg, "was my brother, Mort. He wasn’t much of a piano player, but he could play a little boogie-woogie in C and G, and he taught me that. I was fourteen or so, and a natural. I picked up bass figures easily and learned even more licks by copying records. A lot of days I sat at the piano for six to eight hours without thinking of anything else. I didn’t regard it a drudgery, or even practice. It was just something interesting to do.

"When I got into high school," recalled Frishberg, "I met other kids who were interested in music, but many of them were deep into be-bop, which was the craze in the late forties. I couldn’t understand it. My idols by this time were Joe Sullivan, Jess Stacy, and Teddy Wilson, who was the pianist I most tried to emulate.

"When I was a junior in high school, however, I got a job with the local Columbia record distributor packing 78’s for the Christmas rush. There I met a be-bop piano player. His name was Jimmy Mulcrone. I don’t know whatever happened to him, but he changed my life. He showed me the minor seventh chord, what happens with be-bop harmony and how it happens. I was enslaved from that moment on. He turned me on to Bud Powell, Al Haig, George Wallington, and sent me down a road that I would travel for several years."

Though Frishberg remembers wanting to be musician from the time he discovered boogie-woogie and the blues, he went to the University of Minnesota upon his high school graduation and pursued a journalism degree. "You have to remember," explained Frishberg, "that I was raised in a practical, middle class family. My parents hoped that I would have a steady job, a house, a family, a good pension plan and all the rest of it. I majored in journalism rather than music because I didn’t associate music with school. I didn’t want to repeat the experience of my first piano lessons. And I was interested in journalism from an abstract point of view. I liked to read. I especially enjoyed writers like Robert Benchley, Ring Lardner and James Thurber. When I thought of journalism, I thought of people like that. So I thought journalism might be fun.

"And I was good in school. Plus I had all kinds of motivation for doing well. I started in college in 1951. The Korean War was heating up, the government was raiding the campuses for young men, so my tactic was to do well in school, join the ROTC, and stay out of the way. And that’s what I did. I got my degree in 1955, after the war had ended, went into the Air Force for a couple of years and then on to New York in 1957."

Though Frishberg had hopes of breaking into the music business after arriving in New York, he initially worked at WNEW radio, writing promo copy, especially NCSA’s (non-commercial spot announcements) for the Red Cross, the Urban League, the Community Chest, etc. "As silly as it sounds," confessed Frishberg, "I had some fuzzy idea that being around a radio station--even if it was in an office writing copy--put me closer to music than I would otherwise be."

Frishberg explains that no single break landed him in the music business. "I played piano around New York when I got the chance," he said, "usually for very little or nothing. My first road gig was in 1959 with Kai Wending’s band--a four trombone outfit that did one-nighters. We traveled in two cars. That was a growing experience. Then I left Kai Wending to join Carmen McRae’s trio, and I was with her about a year and a half."

Frishberg found the Carmen McRae experience valuable but not very pleasant. "I was green and knew nothing about all the temperamental storms you have to face in the music business," he acknowledged, "especially when backing up a vocalist. Carmen was difficult. She was upset with the music most of the time, and I took it personally. I shouldn’t have. I realize now that she was undergoing a difficult period in her life--professionally and otherwise. She had lost some close friends, had quarreled with Decca records, her long-time recording company, and--quite frankly--her skills were deteriorating. She felt threatened, unappreciated and exploited. All of that had nothing to do with me. And her dissatisfaction with the music had nothing to do with me. But it was impossible for me to understand all that then. I quit largely because I was tired of trying to please her. We parted amicably, however. I remember when we said good-bye. It was the first time she betrayed any affection for me. I was touched. I suspect she understood me better than I did her. I lost track of her in later years, so I don’t know whether she ever worked through her anger and achieved peace."

Frishberg left McRae in 1961 and began doing jazz gigs at night and freelance work during the day. In spite of his success, he admitted that he still carried a considerable musical weakness--reading. "Because I had abandoned lessons as a kid," he explained, "and because I disliked my teacher so much, I had a bad attitude about reading music. I was intimidated by it. Regrettably, I got along without reading much for years. I was a good ear player. I could comp or play choruses with anyone, and I could read chord charts and find my way through simple band arrangements, so for a long time I suffered under the illusion that reading wasn’t important. When I got to New York, however, I learned otherwise. I didn’t need to read that much on a jazz gig, but most of the work a freelance pianist gets in New York is accompanying singers. And most of that is theatrical accompaniment. Directors call you to play auditions and rehearsals. Actors and actresses call you to prepare material. If your name gets around in the right circles, you can work all the time. And I did--after a while. Initially, the reading was too much for me. I was exposed to new music every day. Theatrical stuff. Standards. The music of Leonard Bernstein, Frank Loesser, those guys. I not only worked hard on my reading, but I got deep into the standard repertoire. I became a song fan. I not only wanted to discover new songs, but I wanted to know everything I could about the people who wrote them, how those people wrote, when, what helped them write. It was that love of songs that made me aspire to write songs myself, which I began to do in the early 1960’s when I was working with so many singers."

Frishberg’s idol is Frank Loesser. "To me, Loesser was a revolutionary composer, both musically and lyrically. I was surprised to learn that he spent the first ten or fifteen years of his career exclusively as a lyricist because I was initially attracted to his music. He’s not as melodic as Berlin or Kern (at least not consistently so), but he has an unparalleled ability to fit a musical line to a lyric. In my judgment, no one has ever been better. He combines wit, literacy and emotion with a good dose of the vernacular."

Through a series of odd events, Frishberg became affiliated with Frank Loesser’s publishing house and attracted the attention of Loesser himself. "Getting a song published is hard," Frishberg explained. "You would be surprised at how many people are out there pedaling songs. I knew nothing about the process. I assumed that if I took some songs to Frank Loesser Publishing that Loesser himself would look at them. My naiveté was amazing. At any rate, I did take some songs there and waited for a response. I waited for weeks. And then--out of blue--the phone rang one day, and Frank Loesser was on the other end. He told me he liked the songs that I had submitted and wanted to meet me. So I went to his office.

"We talked almost exclusively about lyrics. I wanted to talk music, too, but he refused. ‘You know more music than I do,’ he said, ‘and I don’t want to embarrass myself.’ Can you imagine? But of course he was just role playing. I sensed that he wanted to impress me as being a regular street guy, like a character in Guys and Dolls. He seemed to think it was somehow high falutin’ to talk about harmony and how it moves, he was more comfortable talking about language. And he showed me how I was misusing it. He cautioned me about putting colorful words in places where they would be overlooked or distract the listener in a way that would be detrimental to the song. ‘Save that color for where you’ve got a rest or two afterwards,’ he said. ‘Let it sink in. That’s a good word. Don’t throw it away.’ Loesser’s objective in writing a lyric was to make the words work throughout so that the end provides a payoff rather than a repetition of what comes before. That was a great insight for me. It changed the way I listened to lyrics and evaluated them."

Frishberg’s first published song was "Peel Me a Grape" (1962). "I worked for a short time with Dick Haymes and Fran Jeffries on the hotel circuit," continued Frishberg. "Dick asked me to write something for Fran--a cute, sexy piece. (He knew that I had been dabbling with composition.) So I came up with ‘Peel Me a Grape.’ She never performed it, but some of my friends liked it, so I submitted it to Loesser’s office, and he published it. Nobody picked it up, however, so I assumed it had died in obscurity when I got a call to do a record date some months later. That was unusual. I was well connected in the night club circuit but played very few studio dates. At any rate, I showed up. An impressive group had assembled. Jimmy Crawford, Phil Woods, Clark Terry, Eddie Costa on vibes, plus a big band. Wow! John Hammond produced the thing. When I walked to the piano and saw the music, I saw "Peel Me a Grape." My first reaction was, ‘Hey, what is this? I wrote a song called "Peel Me a Grape?" And then it hit me that they were recording my song. That’s why I had been called to play piano on the date. It was a thrill."

Unfortunately, it was eight or nine years before another Frishberg song was recorded, though he continued to compose. "I wrote a lot of stuff," he recalled. "I was trying to write a hit song, so I wrote for the market--or what I perceived the market to be. My desires were partly prompted by the middle class, business values of St. Paul, but also the whole ethic of the music industry. Every song writer wants a hit. Irving Berlin tried to write hits. So did Gershwin. So did Porter. So why shouldn’t I? I paid attention to what was selling. I studied Paul Anka’s songs. I looked at the Beach Boys’ hits, at the Beatles. I analyzed Burt Bacharach’s style, Neil Sedaka’s. I tried to discover a song-writing formula that would make me some money. I even tried to write folk music. It was awful. In fact, most everything I wrote was horrible because there was no sincerity to it--none.

"And yet through it all, my technique got better. I became more knowledgeable about song structures, about handling lyrics, and all of that paid off down the road."

Frishberg explains that writing music and lyrics go together. "It’s not that I find one more difficult than the other," clarified Frishberg, "though admittedly while I’m writing the music, I sometimes say to myself, ‘Gee, I wish I was writing the lyrics, and vice versa. But I always start with a title. I learned that from Loesser also. A title helps me in a lot of ways. It tells me what the song is going to be about, who’s going to be singing it, and a little bit about the attitude of the singer. A title gives me a target to point all the lyrics toward. Loesser hammered home the point that you don’t have much time in a song. You’ve got to make the lyrics focus immediately on the title. You’ve got to make every word count, and you’ve got to say something worth saying. Those are the precepts I start with in every song."

While Frishberg was writing songs by day and freelancing among theatrical people, he also found steady work in the nightclubs.

"I worked virtually every night for a decade--a whole array of jobs. I worked for a while with Gene Krupa, but my big break was landing a gig with Ben Webster’s quartet. That gave me some status and plugged me into an elite crowd.

"Webster spent most of 1962 in New York," explained Frishberg. "That’s when I joined him. It was a whale of a quartet. Mel Lewis was on drums and Richard Davis on bass. I couldn’t believe I was playing with them. We played a lot of clubs around town but spent the summer at the Shalomar in Harlem, across the street from the Teresa Hotel. I met Malcolm X during that gig. Important people stayed at the Teresa when they were in town and walked over to see Ben, who was the reigning monarch up there that summer. He was a celebrity--like Joe Lewis. I mean a lot of people hung out there that summer--Strayhorn, Hodges, and Paul Gonsalves--Ben once even took me to meet Ellington. It was terrific. That’s where I met Al Cohn and Zoot Sims. When Ben headed for Europe in 1963, Al and Zoot asked me to join them."

Frishberg’s tenure with Al Cohn and Zoot Sims lasted almost ten years. "Amazingly," recalled Frishberg, "we played for six years at the Half Note--from 1963 to 1969. Jimmy Rushing was our singer on the weekends--how’s that for a pick-up guy? We did a radio broadcast every Friday night on WABC, as well as a few recordings."

The most notable of those recordings was Rushing’s last album, The You and Me that Used to Be, for which Frishberg provided the musical direction. "That was a grand piece of irony," admits Frishberg. "I was the musical director, but I hired Al Cohn and Bud Johnson for that date--two of the hippest arrangers around--so let’s just say I had plenty of help."

Frishberg was not only happy with the album, but remembers it as a high point of his career. "That, of course, was Jimmy’s last album," Frishberg notes. "He died less than a year later. His leukemia hadn’t been diagnosed, but we all knew that Jimmy was coming to the end. He was hurting. You could see it. And he was struggling with his voice. But we were all so committed to the music during those two or three days that the album turned out to be one of the best Jimmy ever did. It was almost as if the more we immersed ourselves in the music the more we escaped--for those hours anyway--the reality of Jimmy’s demise.

"The thing I always loved about Jimmy," mused Frishberg, "even during the weekends at the Half-Note, was how powerful he could be one minute and how touching the next. Of course, Jimmy’s whole style originated without a microphone. He wasn’t a crooner. And yet one night at the Half Note, he sat down to the piano and did "Trixie Ain’t Walkin’ No More." Have you ever heard it? My God it was touching--that song and the way he exemplified it. Forever after that, I heard more depth and subtlety in Jimmy’s work than I had ever heard before.

"I have very emotional memories about that album. It was Jimmy’s last and represented the end of an era in that respect, but it was also made during my last days in New York, and consequently closed an important chapter of my own life. I was recently divorced and felt, musically, that I had gone as far as I could go in New York. So I made the decision leave."

Frishberg left New York in 1972 for California, giving up the nightclub world of the East Coast and plunging into the strange, West Coast world of television. "I was hired by a new NBC show called ‘The Funny Side.’ It was produced and directed by my old bosses at WNEW. That’s how I got the job. The lifestyle change was cataclysmic. I was forced to write original production numbers every week that involved as many as ten characters. The pressure was terrible but exhilarating at the same time. I’m not a compulsive writer. My head is never swimming with ideas, and I benefited from the deadlines and strict requirements. A typical directive would be: ‘Write a song about traffic tickets and write it for ten people. It has to be funny. There has to be a scenario of some sort. There has to be jokes. It has to be a song. It has to be quickly and easily learned.’ Of course I didn’t have a week to write it. I had more like two days. The song had to be orchestrated, and that took a day. It had to be learned by the cast. That took at least a day. It had to be rehearsed--another day--and revised if necessary. I worked eighteen hours a day for thirteen weeks. I have never been so exhausted, but it was stimulating. Unfortunately, we were canceled after thirteen weeks."

And yet even though "The Funny Side" was canceled, Frishberg had established a foothold on the West Coast. His song writing had been noticed, as had his piano playing, which led to more keyboard jobs on the hotel circuit as well as song writing jobs, one of the most notable of which was with the Los Angeles Dodgers.

"The first baseball song I ever wrote was ‘Van Lingle Mungo,’" explained Frishberg, "who was an old baseball player. The lyrics are nothing more than a string of ballplayers’ names--some famous, some not. Somebody in the Dodger brass heard the song and wanted me to write new lyrics using all Dodger names. To me that was silly. I said, ‘why don’t I just write a new song about Dodger ballplayers.’ They agreed, and I wrote ‘Dodger Blue.’ I wrote it from a Dodger PR book that listed complete rosters since the inception of the team."

Frishberg insists, however, that there was nothing insincere about it. "Songwriting is a craft. It’s all very well to talk about emotion and inspiration. It’s nice for a baseball fan to imagine ‘Dodger Blue’ being written in an explosion of ecstasy after a ballgame. But songs aren’t written that way. I had a specific assignment and specific materials to work from. It was a business proposition. That doesn’t mean that the song didn’t come from the heart. Where else is it going to come from? Baseball was important to me as a kid, and the history of baseball has always been of some importance to me. But I don’t follow the game closely, and it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter that I wrote the song from a PR book. I’ve lived enough and experienced enough to understand the joy that some people find in baseball. I was able to merge that understanding with the craft of song writing and come up with ‘Dodger Blue.’"

Frishberg recalled one particularly humorous anecdote about his first baseball song, "Van Lingle Mungo," the lyrics of which are a long litany of baseball names. "I was playing in a Portland hotel one night, and introduced ‘Van Lingle Mungo’ as being names I had remembered and that were dear to me from my childhood. After the set, a fellow came up to me and said, ‘I really enjoyed that song about your childhood friends.’ I thought, ‘Here is a man who truly understands my music.’ But then he added, ‘And you know one of those guys grew up to be a baseball player.’

Frishberg says that over the years his musical tastes have become more "conservative."

"When I came to New York in the late fifties, I was a be-bopper. I was charmed by the whole be-bop lifestyle and attitude. But as the years have passed, I’ve grown more traditional in my harmonies and rhythms. I’ve lost interest in modes, suspended harmonies, augmented figures and the like. It’s almost as if the New York jazz scene went forward into fusion, free jazz and avant-garde forms, and I went backwards to try to find something that I had missed."

Frishberg attributes many developments in modern music to developments in radio and television. "I’m about to become controversial now, so please forgive me," he said, "but I think television ruined everything. It took music out of the realm of personal experience, made it less of an event and more of a commodity. Music is with us all the time. It has become the cheapest commodity in our culture, and as a result, it’s lost value. It’s not only become accessible to everyone at any time, it has become performable by virtually anyone. Nothing can be treasured that is available in limitless quantities. Take onions, to be outrageous for a moment. I don’t know that there has ever been a shortage of onions. And we think nothing of them. We take them for granted. But what if every person were allowed only two onions a year? Think how precious onions would become. Think how we would value them and luxuriate in them. The same principal works with music. Before radio and television, music was an experience. It was a sacrament, associated with the ceremonial parts of our lives, inextricably linked with our most treasured moments. Now it has become--like onions. I think that’s what happened to all music, including jazz. That Elvis Presley is on a stamp is appalling to me. I simply don’t understand it. When we hold up a person who twangs a guitar as a worthy representative of our culture, I’m aghast. I know I’m being a curmudgeon. I know most people disagree, but I don’t understand it. Duke Ellington is something of substance that America has given to the world. But Elvis Presley and the legion of rock ‘stars’ that came after him are not.

"But I’m digressing here," apologized Frishberg. "This is something that I think about a lot, and I want to get back to television and radio. Television destroyed radio--at least quality radio. I have always thought that radio works best as spoken communication. But admittedly, in the era of live radio music--’The Bing Crosby Show’ and such--the music was of very high quality and available in limited quantities. Perhaps the most treasured voices were available only fifteen minutes a week. It was a time for families to come together, for music to be a bonding agent. But television transformed radio mainly into a music medium. Not only is the music available twenty-four hours a day, but most of it is bad music. It appeals to the lowest musical denominator. And people’s tastes gravitate to what they hear. If bad music is played into your head day after day, and if you’ve never heard or imagined anything better (and many young people haven’t), then you will develop poor taste in music. We see it happening, and it’s sad."

As for the future of mainstream and traditional jazz, Frishberg has apprehensions. "The jazz party circuit as it has grown in this country is a fine thing. I call them dominant seventh festivals. But every time I attend one, I have flashbacks to my childhood in St. Paul. The Twin Cities used to sponsor an annual event called the Old Country Music festival. They meant by that, "music of the Old Country"--Scandinavia or Germany--polka bands like the Six Fat Dutchmen. And throngs of people, mostly old and middle aged--flocked to the Midway Gardens in St. Paul to listen. It was literally music of an "old country" that younger people had no connection to. And now when I look around at the jazz parties I play, I realize that I am an "Old Country" musician. But it’s not a country that is overseas. It’s our old country. It’s the culture of our past that we are remembering. Traditional jazz musicians have, in some ways, become the equivalent of the polka bands of my childhood. (But thank God we use no accordions.)"

Frishberg was quite specific when I asked him what he would like to be doing five years from now. "I would like to be collecting royalties on my hit play, Quality Time," he laughed. "In truth, I have indeed written a musical play called Quality Time, and it has been produced by the Milwaukee Repertory Theatre. I was very pleased with the production. The reviews were pretty good, and I have some hopes for it. It’s a three character play, easily and cheaply produced. I think it’s funny, and I hope some producers will jump on it. I like the idea of residual income, of making money and not being there. I make a little from my songs, but no where near enough to live on. Maybe that will change someday."

But Frishberg has no plans to stop playing. "Of course not. I love to produce music, and I love musicians. One of the nice things about being a piano player is that you can play until you die. We don’t face mandatory retirement at sixty-five or sixty-seven. And some of my most satisfying playing has come recently. Five years ago, I started working with Becky Kilgore in Portland. She is such a sweetheart, and she’s introduced me to so much music. She’s a sleuth about songs. She’s still bringing in new stuff every week--very obscure, but very good stuff. That material is not only stimulating for me, but makes me a better, more well-rounded piano player. The longer I live, the more I am struck by the depth of the American popular song. It is truly remarkable. One can’t know or appreciate that depth without working with the music for a long time. It takes a long time just to scan the horizon. For that reason I would never leave the business. To do so would be to leave my greatest source of inspiration."

Phillip D. Atteberry

420 East Walnut

Titusville PA 16354