Essay For Dr. Robert Riehemannʼs Course
The Life Of My Mind
At Thomas More College in Crestview Hills, Kentucky
THE LIFE OF MY MIND
Your instructor, Dr. Riehemann, has invited me to write an essay about my creative life. He has played my musical work for some of you, but otherwise itʼs unlikely that you would know who I am. Iʼve never been featured prominently on TV, or had a big pop hit. I describe myself as a “lyricist/jazz singer.” I put “lyricist” first because I can envision giving up singing at some point, but never writing. Iʼve been involved with some big projects as a lyricist, have been in and out of work, written lyrics for film and TV, done seven solo recordings since the late 1990s. I have what I would call a most interesting career, one that engages me tremendously.
I donʼt have children and I donʼt know anything about parenting, but Iʼve seen it done. As I understand it from friends of mine with kids in college, thereʼs a fair amount of pressure these days to offer some idea of what you want to do in life by the time youʼre in your late teens or early twenties. The basic point of this essay—to quickly end the suspense as to whether there might be one—is to share a little of my own experience regarding the setting of goals, changing of goals, despairing over whether itʼs possible ever to reach any of them, and lessons Iʼve learned along the way in the course of pursuing my own.
The Wonderful World of Grade School
I was born in New York, NY, the only child of Leonard and Jane Feather. My father was a jazz writer. This was not what would be considered a normal-type career, and I was at a loss trying to explain it to my little friends. My dad and mom went out to clubs a lot. My dad spent a lot of time at home during the day, furiously typing a review on his manual typewriter, or album liner notes or an extended analysis about bebop (a hotly debated form of jazz back in the day) for Esquire or Down Beat. His soon-to-be-famous Encyclopedia of Jazz was being pieced together at that time from dozens of stacks of musiciansʼ biographies that covered our long black dining room table. Though everyone thought of him as a critic, my father was a prolific songwriter, mostly blues tunes, eventually to be recorded by artists ranging from B.B. King and Mel Torme to Cyndi Lauper and Aretha Franklin. Famous jazz people were in and out of the apartment on a regular basis, and there were parties at which Billie Holiday, who was my godmother, would sing, and the erudite Bobby Short would play. I had no idea what a big deal this was until much later. Privately, my mother and I used to love singing along, as much as one could, to the dazzling vocalese records of Lambert, Hendricks and Ross, with their adventurous, lyrically dense renditions of classic jazz compositions and the complex, wildly inventive solos that filled them. My mom had been a singer with big bands but gave it up early on without, seemingly, much regret. She always told me that she was painfully shy onstage. She would never have jumped up to sing at a party.
I know my dad would have liked it if Iʼd shown promise as an artist early on. I had piano lessons with John Lewis, head of the Modern Jazz Quartet, and later with another esteemed pianist and teacher, John Mehegan. I simply wasnʼt interested. I resented having to practice, and eventually stopped taking lessons. In my office, where Iʼm writing this, I have my parentsʼ last Yamaha piano, but my husband jokes that I use it as an “A-440,” a tuning fork, to see if something Iʼm singing is in the right key; I canʼt play at all.
What I did like to do as a grade schooler was make up little stories and write poems. I went to an Episcopalian school called St. Hildaʼs, and at one point my folks passed along a book of my poems to the principal, The Reverend Mother Ruth. I didnʼt know they had done this at the time, but many years later I found the correspondence in a file in my parentsʼ garage, marked “Lorraine.” Mother Ruth expressed admiration for my childish efforts, some of which were pretty morbid. One poem was called “The Ocean of Death” and featured skulls washing up onto the shore. In the same note she alluded to my having had an IQ test that rendered my poor grades all the more puzzling. My mom used to bemoan the fact that she had agreed to let me be skipped ahead when I was in the midst of first grade because of my reading skills. I was young for my class anyway because of my September birthday, and in retrospect it might not have been a great idea, but oh well. There was one girl in our class who had been skipped not one grade but at least three, and she was a real mess, often in tears. In my case, I just didnʼt respond to math or history or geography or anything but English, which I loved. To this day, I get goose bumps at the thought of diagramming a sentence.
I was not a terribly popular kid. I was the only child on my block on the Upper West Side who couldnʼt roller skate. My bike-riding was marginal. I was afraid of sledding and I couldnʼt turn somersaults or do cartwheels. I had a friend or two, but enjoyed being alone. I used to love sitting in the west-facing living room window, looking out across the park and the river to the electric Crisco sign as it went from red to white, and the distant lights of Palisades Amusement Park in New Jersey. My parentsʼ world was lively and interesting and the musicians who came by for cocktail parties seemed dazzling, larger than life.
The Dancing Bug
When I was 12, we moved to California; my dad had taken a job at the Los Angeles Times. A lot of musicians had relocated there, and I believe there was some idea that it would be nice for me to be able to experience greenery without having to go to the park. We had a house in the hills above the San Fernando Valley, not fancy or huge, but with a view and a pool. I was ungrateful and miserable. I missed the window seat of our New York apartment, missed watching snow turn the park white in winter. I liked the sound of buses, and walking to the grocery store on upper Broadway with my mother, everyone hurrying past. In Southern California there was no walking, it was always hot, and when you were home alone you seemed isolated from all the world.
I wound up in another Episcopalian school, this time with no nuns. Being almost two years younger than my classmates became more noticeable than it had been, now that it meant I was twelve and they were fourteen. The girls carried purses and wore frosted lipstick and clip-on bows above their bangs. The vibe, shall we say, was different in California in many ways. This period of my school career was memorialized in the Lorraine file I mentioned before, by an incensed note my father wrote the principal about a handout one of the best-liked teachers had sent home with us. This handout was a take on "Ten Little Indians." I think it began, "Ten little Indians, all doing fine/Then came socialized medicine, and then there were nine." Putting aside the clumsy scansion, my parents were nothing if not liberals, and in my father's infuriated and of course eloquent missive to the principal, he said that it just so happened his home country of Great Britain had socialized medicine ... I won't go on and I don't know what your political persuasion is of course, but in retrospect it strikes me as funny.
I'm sure you've all experienced as much or more teenage angst as I did. Let's just say that I did not fit in terribly well in the new place, and was still scholastically unremarkable. I once failed to get a passing grade in geography because I simply could not draw a map of China, and I mean even after the teacher had let me look at one ten minutes previous. I still enjoyed English, and found that I could remember long stretches of text, for whatever it was worth. Once we were asked to memorize a poem and I picked Edna St. Vincent Millay's Renascence, 1500 words or so. What a kiss-ass.
My mother decided to enroll me in jazz dance class. I think she was under some misapprehension that it was a social event and I would mix and mingle. The jazz dance class I took was taught by a fantastic teacher named Carlton Johnson. There was a conga player for the exercises and Carlton favored Motown music for the routines. I did not have the ballet training that was almost always necessary to be great in jazz dance. 12 is old to start. I was chunky. I had a lazy eye, making “spotting,” the practice of focusing on a spot as long as possible as you were doing a pirouette, troublesome. I never did learn to do a cartwheel. But I was immediately, deeply smitten with the excitement of dance. I started bugging my mom to enroll me in more classes more times a week. I went on a diet. I discovered that despite my well-known dorkiness I was naturally flexible and could almost immediately do a split. I had a feel for the music and was able to pick up the combinations. There was no mixing, no mingling. Class was competitive and the girls even bitchier than the ones at school. I didn't care.
"This is it!" I thought. "I'm going to be a dancer!" My mom's loving attempt to socialize me had backfired; I was now an obsessive class-taker who didn't want to go on trips with them or help plan a picnic when there was jazz at the Hollywood Bowl, if it meant missing a class. I blasted Motown nonstop in my room. As far as my musical tastes went, my father was never judgmental with the exception of referring to a Johnny Mathis LP I once brought home as "saccharine." Their music was Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Gil Evans. We spent holidays with Peggy Lee or George Shearing or Benny Carter. I did make a good friend, Kathy King, who was the great singer Jeri Southernʼs daughter. We talked about boys, set our hair in the prickly brush rollers that were de rigeur in the 60s, went to the Monterey Jazz Festival with my parents and hung out in the press tent. Because Kathy was going to a Catholic girls' school I asked if I could go there too. It was only for one grade but something happened there that started my teen career fantasies moving in a different direction.
The Acting Bug
The only thing that stands out for me about my time at Corvallis, except for the brief return of nuns into my life and learning to say a Hail Mary in Latin and French, was the school's all-girl production of Euripides' Electra. The student playing the lead was, I thought, very good. I was in the chorus. Shortly before we were to do the play at assembly, the lead got sick and had to drop out. The most important ability required of the girl who would fill in would be the capability of learning all the lines in a hurry. I knew I could, and I did it.
I don't think our production of the Greek classic would have won any Tony awards, but I really got into it. When we did our curtain call at the end and I took my bow, my class gave me a standing ovation. For a child who have never been a standout in the popularity department, this was heady stuff. I began thinking about what it would be like to be an actress. This led to my surprising my parents with a request to transfer to public school for the upcoming year: Hollywood High.
Hollywood High was by far the largest school I had attended and had many sub-groups. An intense excitement permeated the extra-curricular drama department; there were always scenes to prepare, festivals to attend in competition with the other Southern California high schools. At one festival I won an award for my portrayal of the mother in a scene from Long Day''s Journey Into Night. Our student body president was John Ritter, who was not an actor then but of course became a beloved TV star in a few years. Two of my classmates were Barbara Hershey, née Herzstein, and Meredith Baxter (later Meredith Baxter Birney), who were to make names for themselves in film and television.
In all this time, shifting from one showbiz aspiration to another, it never occurred to me to sing. I loved music but didn't have the kind of instrument that attracted attention. Once I auditioned for a school choir and my "break," the transition between chest voice and head voice (a female's version of falsetto) kicked in as I was going up the scale, prompting laughter from the other students and dissuading me from singing a peep for some years.
As far as college went, it became rather obvious that I wouldn't be attending Yale or anything. My father told me that all he wanted was for me to go to somewhere, for a year at least. This was no problem, because all the aspiring actors from Hollywood were heading for L.A. City College, which was known for its great theatre department. I enrolled as a theatre arts major and spent two fun-filled years rehearsing and performing scenes, this time with professional lighting and on a good-sized stage; learning to apply pancake makeup, and making friends, many if whom were considerably talented. One life lesson I learned after the two years were over, was that some of the most gifted kids, the ones both teachers and we students held in the highest esteem, did not go on to be as successful as others who had more hustle or— more importantly in the world of Hollywood—were more photogenic.
The highlight of my time at LACC was playing the lead in Dark of the Moon, dying my hair in an attempt to match Barbara Allen's much-mentioned copper tresses, though mine turned out more of a Lucille Ball color. I hadn't succeeded in landing a pilot or being swooped up to go on location for a teen film, so I decided to turn my sights toward New York, of which I had such fond memories anyway. I was about to turn 18 and finish my two years in junior college, so I applied for Circle in the Square's summer theatre program in Manhattan and was accepted, with a work scholarship for ushering at their theatre downtown.
Part of the exit routine when you left the theatre department was a one-on-one with a senior professor there. In mine, he took me aback by offering an assessment of what he perceived to have been my m.o. in life up to that point. He told me that ever since I was little, I had undoubtedly gotten whatever I wanted because I was pretty, and had only to bat my eyelashes ... and that it all was going to be a lot harder than I thought. I found this evaluation of my history to be bizarrely off base, since I had only achieved what you'd call prettiness, pretty recently. He was right about the other part, though. It was all going to be a lot harder than I thought.
Back in the Apple
Students at Circle in the Square were housed in Rubin Hall, near Washington Square, on lower Fifth Avenue in New York. I was unbearably excited to be back in the city, to be young and fit and a future Broadway star. The summer raced by, and when it was over I asked my best friend from the L.A.C.C. theatre department, Lynne, to join me so we could be fledgling actresses together. She did, and in no time we had snagged the waitress jobs that would pay our rent. Apartments were so hard to come by that you had to literally run to a listing when it popped up before someone beat you to it, but we found a place on 10th Street in the Village, one room, with a single bed that had a trundle bed underneath it. Like the apartment of everyone else I came to know in Manhattan, it had a terrible roach problem. We tried insecticides of various kinds, but I still wound up knocking on the cabinet before I opened it so they would scatter.
My waitressing gig was at the Top of the Gate, which offered the bonus of my being able to hear the top- flight jazz pianists who played there, including Mose Allison singing his swinging, funny songs, like “Parchman Farm” (“Iʼm gonna be here for the rest of my life,/And all I did was shoot my wife”), Bill Evans, and Horace Silver, who I always thought was just the cutest. The big-group acts were downstairs at the Village Gate, and sometimes Iʼd go check them out when my shift was over. Lynne worked at a gay menʼs club called Carrʼs Inn in the Village. “It Must Be Him” by Vikki Carr, seemed to be blasting from the jukebox every time I stopped by to pick Lynne up for the walk home. Iʼm wondering suddenly if the club was named after Vikki Carr. Huh.
One night when I was collecting my check downstairs at The Gate, a busboy who seemed to like to give me a hard time, asked me about my acting audition progress. Then he asked how old I was. When I told him I was 18, he said “Ooh, itʼs getting too late for you.” I remember flushing angrily because I actually did feel, ridiculous as it sounds, old at eighteen, and that time was running out. 30, I thought, was the deadline, and Iʼd better hurry.
During the day, Lynne and I went about the business of trying to jump-start our acting careers. Neither of us was in the union, Actorʼs Equity, but we would get up at the crack of dawn for every off-off-Broadway audition, every one of which included hundreds of other hungry young performers. It seemed that no matter how early you arrived, you were never in the first hundred, and inevitably, rumors would filter down the line that the show was already cast. The big-time world of Broadway theatre seemed to be surrounded by some kind of invisible, impassable moat. Because I could dance, and had enough of an ear to sing a bit, I auditioned for everything, and eventually got into a musical revue that wound up going union and getting me my Equity card before it closed a couple of months later. It was called Walk Down My Street and was about ghetto youth (hey, what can I tell you). The show had a running gag about a couple from a Jules Feiffer cartoon, a white girl and a black guy. There was even a picture of me and my onstage paramour in the Daily News; one day an envelope showed up in my dressing room that contained the torn-out article, scrawled with an ugly note peppered with the N word and starting, as I remember, “Your daddy oughta horsewhip you ...” KInd of a nasty result from my first appearance in the press.
My roomie and I found ourselves on a treadmill, month after month, trying to find any opportunity to do what we thought we were prepared to do after reading plays and working up scenes back in California. It wasnʼt even a question of getting rejected after having auditioned; there seemed no way to get in the door to try out for anything meaningful unless you had an agent. This led to a climate of desperation and panic in the world of unemployed actors, who filled Manhattan by the bazillions. People would line up around the block in 10-degree weather just to get a shot at being cast in a showcase performance that paid nothing, in hopes that an agent would see them.
Lynne wound up marrying a rock musician and moving in with him, shortly after she and I had relocated to the then-relatively-cheap Lower East Side. I moved into an apartment with another roommate on the Upper West Side, then another a few blocks away, then to a rented room. I always checked the buildings on Riverside Drive, but you literally canʼt go home again when that home was an apartment with a Hudson River view. At this point they were all going co-op and there was no way.
I kept showing up at more or less every audition I saw listed. For musical theatre, I had two songs that I sang: “Two Lost Souls,” from Damn Yankees, and “Knowing When to Leave” from Promises, Promises. I got cast in the chorus of a regional theatre production of Stop the World, I Want to Get Off, and a regional theatre version of the same show, which took me briefly to Buffalo, than which there is no place colder. During the years I was back in Manhattan I kept working as a waitress: The Village Gate again, an Italian restaurant, a Middle Eastern one, a cozy West Village bar, an English pub, a Greek coffee shop up on Broadway. I was not a great waitress. If youʼve ever done this kind of work, you know that some patrons are bossy and rude to those who bring food (a little rhyme there). I didnʼt want to learn a white-collar skill, though, like typing, because I thought that would mean I had given up on my acting dream. There are plenty of performers who have temped, so my rationale might not have made much sense. But thatʼs how I felt.
I did too much living during that decade or so to possibly fit into even the wordiest of essays. Letʼs just say that with all my frustrations I had a thrilling time being young in the city, dated many musicians, and did my fair share of recreational drugs. If you count the lesson I mentioned learning about success after L.A.C.C. (talent is less important than hustle, and being photogenic is more important than either) as Lesson #1, this is Lesson #2, should you care: Drugs are the ultimate in Russian Roulette. One person can drop acid and come through it okay; someone else will take a header off a balcony. Cocaine might give you no more than a case of acne after staying up for three days, and make you realize you need to stop; or you might not be able to stop and wind up dead on a gurney or transition over into shooting smack or eventually sport a collapsed nose. These dire things all happened to people I knew.
And Then I Sang
My transition to being a chanteuse did not go neatly, but in fits and starts, in between trying to get acting jobs, studying acting at the Herbert Berghof studio, waiting tables at various restaurants, and working now and then as a singer-dancer. At one point I was dating a saxophone player who rented a little recording studio downtown, sharing it with a pianist who had played in Walk Down My Street. I was practicing one of my two audition songs with the pianist, when my boyfriend heard me and said he thought I had something as a singer, kind of a Billie Holiday thing, and that I should audition for a jazz-rock group who needed a singer for their upcoming gig at the Village Gate. I got the job. It felt odd being onstage as myself rather than a character. I was not motivated to switch gears after that experience, but I found later that I could sing Top 40 in The Bronx or Staten Island and make grocery money. It was exhausting, six sets a night not counting staying onstage for the club ownerʼs after-hours performance of “You Make Me Feel So Young.” There was something about it, though, that was good for my self-esteem. Unlike with acting, it was not feast or famine; there was a modest level of the music business where a gal could make a living.
The zenith of my stage career came when I auditioned for Jesus Christ Superstar and was hired to replace someone on the concert tour. It was an adventure, and I later was moved into the Broadway show for the last year of its run. As usual I was a singer-dancer. In the chorus I played various parts, of course, but there were no speaking lines. Many of the performers in the show had been in Hair and there was a rock ʻnʼ roll ambience, looser, you might say, than a classic Broadway show. One night the stage manager gathered us all at intermission to announce grimly that someone had dropped a packet of heroin onstage during the “Hosannah” scene... but I digress . Having a theatre to go to every night, getting a paycheck, was intoxicating. I was able to pay rent on a loft, able to buy furniture.
When the show closed and the unemployment checks finally stopped, I didnʼt seem to have gotten anywhere. One day, after arriving at an audition for an Equity waiver production (meaning no money) and seeing the line of hopefuls that wrapped around the block, I decided that Iʼd had enough, and instead of getting in line I went back home. I felt that I might choke on the sadness of it all if I added one more moment to the seven years of pretending I was going somewhere that clearly I could never get. I announced to anyone who was interested that I was no longer an aspiring actress. I was an aspiring singer.
As if by magic, a few days later I got a call to sub for one of Petula Clark's backup singers at the Riviera Hotel in Las Vegas. The pay was good, the outfits were becoming, and Petula, the orchestra, and the other two backup angers, Linda Lawley and Margaret Dorn, were excellent. Over the next few years I did a variety of singing gigs, from backup singing for Grand Funk Railroad to more Top 40, and eventually a cabaret act. I finally moved back to LA, sang at a few jazz clubs there. I was definitely improving as a vocalist, but it was a slow road and I was still not working more than I was working.
I didn't want to waitress anymore, feeling I needed something more anonymous to make ends meet. I discovered phone sales, the only part-time job I was ever good at. Selling pencils and toner to strangers in other states required a knack for connecting with people and convincing them you were giving them a good deal. My specialty was a low-key approach and I did quite well. Meanwhile, here I was, past 30. My deadline had come and gone and I had never achieved any momentum at all as an artist. I was feeling fairly crummy about my alleged music career, but one day I decided to stop moping and just be ready for the next thing that presented itself. My parents worried about me and my father in particular often asked me if any opportunities had come up. I told him it was probably best to forget that I was an aspiring anything and just be glad that I was healthy and sane and back in California. I practiced singing on my own when I got home from my phone sales job.
One afternoon, a friend of mine called to tell me that she had just auditioned for pop producer Richard Perry, who was putting together a vocal trio to front a swing band. She had told Richard and movie producer Joel Silver, who had cooked up the idea together, that she was the wrong person for the slot, but knew the perfect candidate. I called the number she gave me and went to the audition for the trio, Swing. I could tell they wanted to hire me, and when I was there I ran into an old Superstar cohort, Charlotte Crossley, recently of Bette Midler's Harlettes, who knew they liked her too. We worked up an old Nat King Cole tune together, "Call the Police." We got the Swing gig, were signed to do an album for Richard's label, Planet Records, and recorded it at his recording studio, Studio 55. Richard had produced numerous hits at that point, was about to have another with The Pointer Sisters ("I'm So Excited"). Steve March Torme signed on to be the guy in the group and we started working on material.
Richard wanted to do a version of a tune written by Tommy Newsom of the Tonight Show orchestra. He was going to bring in a lyricist but I said that I wanted to take a crack at it. It was on the complicated side and took my fancy, seeming to call for the kind of high-energy vocalese treatment I remembered from the Lambert, Hendricks and Ross albums. I sang it for Richard and the gang at his office; he rejected it, but explained what he did want lyrically for the song, and my next version flew. I wound up writing lyrics for five songs on the album, two of which were based on big band pieces I'd found in my parents' LP collection.
In the 15 years I studied dance, I had gotten good enough to land a low-level job. In my decade or so of trying to act, I'd never gotten much of a chance to do what I'd dreamed of, and acting was something that could scarcely be worked on as a solo effort in the meantime. I knew I had talent as a singer but I was not fully confident at that point. Writing, something I had all but put aside for my entire adult life, and specifically writing lyrics, suddenly blazed into focus as the endeavor I was better suited for than anything else. Each song was like a delightful puzzle to be figured out; the task was endlessly absorbing once I put my full attention on it. It was hard, but the harder I worked at it, the more ideas seemed to bubble up out of nowhere. It suited my solitary temperament. It was my purpose in life.
Over the next eight years, I wrote dozens of lyrics for the different configurations of the group, which never did become particularly successful but did a national TV special and lots of club dates, some touring, festivals, three albums in all. The last release, The End of the Sky, got wide airplay on what was then called New Adult Contemporary radio, and it was the first time I realized that I had become comfortable as a singer and capable of having a great time in the studio. I had begun developing professional musical relationships with co-writers that would blossom for many years, and still continue to flourish. The group, though, had never financially sustained anyone as an entity, and it was time to pack it in.
By this time I was 40. When youʼre a performer and, though I hate to whine, a woman in particular, as you roll along lifeʼs highway you see what metaphorically might be called giant billboards of horror about every new year ending in zero after you pass 20. I connected 30 with Mick Jaggerʼs “She was common, flirty, looked about 30.” The disparaging remark I remember about turning 40 was when Billy Vera, of Billy Vera and the Beaters, had a big hit with his own recording of his pop anthem “At This Moment.” An executive from the record company who released this single, Rhino I think it was, made the sarcastic remark that now every 40-year-old singer-songwriter in the world would try to get a deal on their label.
I had a heart-to-heart with a close friend, asking him if he thought after all my disappointments, the opportunities that didnʼt pan out, it was too late for me to forge any kind of career in show business. He considered this for a moment with eyes closed as if the answer were some calculation he had to retrieve, then opened his eyes and said simply that in my case it was not too late. My friend, by the way, was also a singer-songwriter, and died of AIDS two years later.
Through most of the 1990s, I wrote a lot of lyrics with different people, and was able to get songs recorded on jazz and adult contemporary albums by some well-known artists including Patti Austin, Phyllis Hyman, Kenny Rankin, Diane Schuur and Cleo Laine. Through a co-writer who worked on various soaps, Rick Rhodes, I wound up doing several songs that appeared on the TV show Santa Barbara. I liked writing for TV because of the quick turnaround. There would be a deadline and you would find out yea or nay quickly if they wanted your song. Soap opera was not really my forte, since what they generally wanted was a commercial-sounding pop ballad, and though I watch my share of non-PBS television, soaps are not my weakness. What I discovered I did have a knack for, though, was cartoons. I sent some of my work to Ray Colcord, whom Iʼd known as a pianist at an LA club called The Improv. Ray was now busy in television and working on songs for the Disney TV show Dinosaurs. I did quite a few songs for the show, which was very sardonic. My lyrics have been described more than several times as “quirky,” and it was a good fit. I was able to visit the set, and learned that each character required three people to bring it to life: The person in the suit, the voice performer, and the puppeteer operating the movements remotely. Between scenes the actor would take off his or her dinosaur head so a tech with a blow dryer could cool off the sweat.
My experience with Ray led to my working with Mark Watters, a busy composer who was currently seeking lyrics for his main title theme to a new TV pilot called Bonkers, about a cat who worked as a messenger. It was also for Disney but this time there were more people involved with the decisions and we were not allowed to deal directly with the main guy, so it was trickier. Thereʼs more to writing for cartoons than you might suppose. For instance, my lyric, which went by at breakneck pace, began “Now Bonkers is a feline who will make a major beeline to your door ...” I was instructed not to mention anything to do with cats because Bonkers did not know he was one. This is case-by-case in animation. I have since done many songs for My Little Pony and you do not want to say anything about hooves or manes. Miss Piggy, on the other hand, often makes porcine references and I believe her new perfume is called “Swine.”
Mark and I did the main title theme for a popular show called All Dogs Go to Heaven, a pilot called The Lionhearts that ran one season only, and other songs for MGM Animation. Mark is a conductor too, and in the course of his work with the 1996 Olympics, we got the chance to submit an original piece for the opera singer Jessye Norman to sing. She approved it, and performed the song in front of a massive crowd at the Opening Ceremonies. It was called “Faster, Higher, Stronger.”
During the course of this TV period I (with my co-writers) received seven Emmy nominations. Itʼs true that itʼs enough just to be nominated, until that moment when someone elseʼs name is called and you have a momentary, primal desire to snatch the statuette from their hands. Still, though, it was a great thing to put on my resume, and getting a call that youʼve been nominated for an award is one of those purely joyous career moments that seem to wash away a world of exasperation.
Midway through this writing period, I realized that I did want to record again. Rewinding for a moment: I had for some years declared that I was never getting married and that the whole idea was stupid, but I wound up having to “eat crow” at age 34, six months after meeting a cute young drummer named Tony Morales. We were living in a tiny house in La Crescenta, CA when I was thinking that I did want to do an album project of my own, and Tony was experimenting with some drum machine and bass machine grooves (this was now the 80s) in his studio next to the garage. The Bass Man bass machine he had, was low on batteries one day and started making these otherworldly bending sounds, which Tony worked into a groove that became the basis of an odd little song we wrote called “Five.”
With Tony and other co-writers Iʼd begun working with, including guitarist Eddie Arkin and pianist Don Grusin, I did a mostly-electronic album with vocal overdubs. It was released by a California label called Bean Bag in 1996. At one point Walter Becker, one half of Steely Dan, had been going to produce the record after he heard the demos I sent him through a musician friend. Unfortunately, the indie label he was working with couldnʼt give us a budget he thought was adequate, and a major jazz label claimed they were interested initially but then decided that “If we were going to sign someone unknown it would need to be some young chick.” Walter, a sweet and very funny person of legendary candor, relayed this to me after their meeting.
The album, entitled The Body Remembers, sported an arty, kind of disturbing cover of a seemingly headless woman in front of a painted backdrop. It got some nice notices but there was no place for it on radio. It was too electronic for the jazz stations, too much multi-tracking of my voice, and far too weird for adult contemporary radio. I do remember that it was quite popular on a college station in Lexington, KY. The thing was, I knew that I had progressed in developing a style of my own, and that I really ... really ... loved writing and recording my own material as a solo artist. I went back to my lyricist pursuits for a couple of years but that particular little flame had been lit.
The Best Part Starts, Eventually
My husband Tony became keenly interested in the Internet, something that was growing with insane speed in the late 1990s ( how well I remember the Commodore 64 we bought shortly after we got together, and our first dial-up connection, sometimes referred to as “... EEEEEE errrrrr chhhhh budum budum CRRRRRR SCHHHHHHH ...” ). He had a natural feel for this world only a handful of people fully grasped at the time. Tony was offered a job in Silicon Valley and we wound up moving north, living below San Francisco in the Half Moon Bay area for about 10 years. I was about to turn, eek, 50. At this point the references to people one's own age become truly scathing in sitcoms and the like, and you wonder at what point you will officially be the dour-faced old lady shaking her wizened finger at the merry young rollerbladers in some commercial. I was writing for MGM Animation with Mark Watters, but then the animation department closed their doors and I was going through a period of no work. I'd been there before of course, but I found myself antsy to do something interesting.
My father had passed away in 1994. My mom was still living in LA and on one of my trips to see her, we were going though old CDs to decide which to donate, and I borrowed a few as I often did, to listen to on the drive up north. One of them was Fats Waller's Turn on the Heat, a double CD reissue of his stride piano solos. Stride piano, for those unfamiliar with the term, is a high-energy style of jazz piano-playing in which the right hand plays the melody while the left hand alternates between playing a single note and a related chord. This was extremely old music, as Fats died before I was born, and because of this I hadn't heard much of it growing up, though my dad had once produced a recording session for him. I found it wildly entertaining and held onto the CDs after I returned the rest, becoming obsessed with the driving rhythms and dazzling virtuosity.
For fun, I wrote lyrics to one of my favorite pieces from Turn on the Heat. I didn't know any pianists who played stride, which is extremely tricky and not a style required of any modern musician, so I booked a recording studio and had live players accompany the original Fats Waller piano performance. I sent my recording to Dick Hyman, the living master of stride. He and his wife Julia, old family friends, were now living in Florida. Dick phoned me after he listened to my version of "Smashing Thirds," which I had made into a little story about the painter Cezanne, and told me he thought I should do a Waller album, adding my lyrics to the original music. He offered to help me find the most suitable compositions for lyrics, and to play on it, so of course I said yes.
My mom had not been doing well, and one day a friend of hers called and told me that she had been rushed to the hospital with what turned out to be a stroke. I flew down to LA; it seemed that she was going to recover, but a few days later she went into a coma and slipped away.
This was an awful time of course, and stressful in unexpected ways. The IRS audited my parents' returns for several years posthumously, there was a lot of information I couldn't find, and it seemed to drag on forever. I was down in LA quite a bit trying to sell my folks' townhouse, which I really needed to, going through the mountains of their papers, photos, household items. I wasn't sleeping well, and my whole life seemed to be about dealing with bewildering paperwork, the scary IRS, and endless boxes of heartbreaking memorabilia (much of it mildewed from the 1994 Northridge quake and resulting flood in my parents' garage).
Dick Hyman called me one day and told me he thought I should do the Fats Waller project as planned, work on something creative during this difficult period, and I realized I wanted to. I had enough money to piece it together a few sessions at a time. It took me about a year, including writing and recording and mixing. I thought of the tricky piano lines when I was at home, in the car, walking the dogs, weeding the garden. I wept copiously while working on the slow tender pieces. I hired some fantastic musicians and flung myself into the singing, which was challenging to say the least. I had always had a facility for singing fast and spitting out words, though, a lot of which was required for the tasks at hand, and I was beyond smitten with the music; it all came out well. When the album was done, a friend of mine turned me on to an independent label called Rhombus that licensed it from me.
New York City Drag was released in . The cover was a flyer from an old New York club called Small's Paradise, one small piece of the jazz memorabilia I inherited from my mother and father and treasure beyond words. NYCD was played on hundreds of radio stations and was well-received by critics. I performed the songs live with Dick, then with Shelly Berg, back then head of the jazz department at USC, who (unbelievably) taught himself to play stride in a few weeks when we had a live performance coming up. Shelly and I have performed together across the country since our first Los Angeles gig. Our live shows have also received great press.
This leads me, however, to Lesson #3. Of course these life lessons are just my opinion about things, but I think you'll have to agree with me on this one: It is LITERALLY IMPOSSIBLE for everyone to like you. If you don't believe me, looks at the book reviews on Amazon. If there are a thousand reader reviews of something that has topped the best-seller lists and has also won every major prize, it's very unlikely that you will not see a robust sampling of one-star slams. These will range from the curt "it was a snooze-fest" or "If I could give it no stars I would," to absolute tomes of devastatingly articulate, passionate loathing.
It would take forever to detail what went into the making of the five other albums I have done since New York City Drag, and you may have long since become impatient to get back to whatever it is you were doing before you started reading this. In brief (I hope):
I have spent considerable time during the last decade both writing lyrics to the music of great jazz composers such as Duke Ellington, and writing new songs with living composers I can describe as brilliant without feeling I'm overstating the fact. These have been songs co-created for me to record and to sing live, something Iʼve come to love. The process is continually fascinating and I could go on about it for another 7,722 words. It's difficult sometimes and takes many twists, which is part of the fun of being a recording artist. As a form of artistic expression, it is light years away from what I conceived my destiny to be when I was 18, but it has brought me moments of creative satisfaction that have made the decades of careening around in and out of show business absolutely worthwhile. I've had an album go to #1 on the jazz radio charts and in its sales category on Amazon. My last CD, Ages, was my most personal, but in all of them I have used everything Iʼve done as a person and as a denizen of show business, for lyrical fodder. I make up a lot of stuff too.
Of course, this is jazz we're talking about. Doing what I now do has not made me rich, though as a result of this output, I've been hired for lyric-writing jobs that have in some cases greatly offset the album production expenses. I have also done more animation work including feature films—The Jungle Book 2, and The Princess Diaries 2, which also brought me a gold record for Julie Andrews' performance of a song with my lyrics.
I started a new album this summer, also some other cool projects that will unfold over the next year or two, should you care to check lorrainefeather.com, the website my husband designed (and defends daily against hacking attempts from around the globe).
Most of you probably donʼt watch the Lifetime Network, which I think once bore the name “Lifetime Television for Women” (or whatever they used to call it that was guaranteed to reduce the likelihood that someone like me would tune in) ... but I have to admit I do. I often become addicted to shows after theyʼve passed their heyday or have been on for so long that the young actors who were grade-schoolers in the pilot are now rebellious teens, and thatʼs the case with my recent infatuation with the show Medium. Anyway, in one episode, Patricia Arquette keeps seeing pictures of a guy who has been in and out of the district attorney’s office where she works (as a medium and generally on the down low), and the guy is being given the royal treatment for his acting as a Good Samaritan who helped solve a burglary. But Patricia Arquette, aka Alison Dubois, has visions of this guy as a serial killer, more of whom pass through the show’s Phoenix location than you’d ever expect—whose first victim was a redheaded college girl named Sharona. Patricia/Alison finds out that the girl is presently only 12 and itʼs all going to happen in the future. She goes to the girlʼs school, finds her, and says something to the effect of “Listen, Sharona, you donʼt know me, but in 7, 8 years, a guy is going to try and help you pick up some books that youʼve dropped and offer to give you a ride. DONʼT GO WITH HIM. It doesnʼt matter if right now you think Iʼm some crazy old lady; it doesnʼt matter if you believe me. It only matters that later on, you remember what I just told you.”
I know that at the moment, it probably seems unthinkable that you will not have decided what you want to do in the big world by the time you are 25, or that your ultimate success or failure wonʼt have been decided by age 30. Certainly, any one of you might become a Pulitzer Prize winner or a rock star or head of a corporation by that age; you might have begun a lifelong career that never makes you remotely wealthy but brings you a world of satisfaction, working with kids, rescuing animals, devoting yourself to the eradication of some grievous global ill; or simply, in short order, have settled into any pursuit at all that suits you down to the ground.
But on the other hand, you might go down one path at 25 and change paths at 30. Itʼs possible that you could pursue something with great vigor for 20 years, give it up, and then figure out what it is that truly engages you. You might discover the thing that makes you happiest and that even holds the most promise for material success, when you are 40 or 50 or 60. Of course this might seem absurd or depressing to you now, but thatʼs understandable. When I was 25 and contemplated the Millennium I thought “Ugh, Iʼll be 52 by then, too feeble to care.” Meanwhile, some years after seeing the metaphorical scary billboards I mentioned about aging, I noted that Mick Jagger was still rocking in his 60s and that Billy Vera, whoʼd had a hit at 40, had one again decades later when his song was recorded by Michael Buble.
If any one of you does take a few years or a few decades to figure out what youʼre best at, what ignites the life of your mind, try not to despair. People may judge you if you bumble around for a bit, but what do they know anyway? Finding your heartʼs desire far down the line can be the greatest gift of all. It doesnʼt matter if right now you think Iʼm some crazy old lady; it doesnʼt matter if you believe me. It only matters that later on, you remember what I just told you.
[NOTE: The year after writing this essay, Ages received a Grammy nomination for Best Jazz Vocal Album. My next two albums were also nominated.]