He's the Last Word On Great American Lyrics

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Corlyss_D
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He's the Last Word On Great American Lyrics

Post by Corlyss_D » Wed May 10, 2006 2:22 pm

He's the Last Word On Great American Lyrics
By JOANNE KAUFMAN
May 9, 2006; Page D6

When the phone rings in the middle of the night, Robert Kimball is pretty certain who's on the line: someone at a party -- more specifically, someone at a party who'd need considerable coaching to pass a sobriety test. Likely the caller wants to know if it was Cole Porter or Irving Berlin who wrote the lyrics to "My Heart Stood Still." (In fact, it was Lorenz Hart). Or there's a bet going about what Broadway musical included the song "Love Is Sweeping the Country." (It was "Of Thee I Sing.") Or who sang a particular song in a particular show.

As editor of "The Complete Lyrics of Cole Porter," "The Complete Lyrics of Lorenz Hart" (with Dorothy Hart), "The Complete Lyrics of Irving Berlin (with Linda Emmet), "The Complete Lyrics of Frank Loesser" (with Steve Nelson), the just published "Cole Porter: Selected Lyrics" and a work in progress, "The Complete Lyrics of Johnny Mercer," Mr. Kimball, even if only half awake, is fully equipped to handle such calls -- and really quite forgiving of those who get a kick from champagne.

When it comes to ferreting out lyrics -- the unheralded, the unknown and, quite literally, the unsung -- his M.O. is simple: "Follow every lead and pursue the byways," says Mr. Kimball, age 66, who estimates that 60% of lyrics exist in published form. To gather the rest, he goes through script pages, front and back, music and vocal scores, sometimes piecing together scraps of paper from different file folders to reconstruct a song.

"It's fair to say I'm...well, 'plodding' isn't the word," Mr. Kimball says. Bobby Short, the late cabaret singer, "once described my singing in a way that could describe my work: ardent and earnest. A lot of it is basic research, nothing dramatic. It's not a King Tut's tomb situation exactly. But I've been in some basements and attics." One such subterranean space was a repository for some lyrics by Eubie Blake, the subject of one of Mr. Kimball's books. A garret housed some Irving Berlin material. "He owned a house on 46th Street that he kept for years after he moved out," Mr. Kimball says. "We had to go in with flashlights, but things turned up on the top floor.

At other times, "people who were contemporaries of a writer, like friends of Porter, remembered lyrics and sent them or recited them for me," he says. "You really don't know where you're going to find something. I don't know when to stop looking except that the publisher starts clamoring for the book." Occasionally, lyrics have shown up after publication. "It happens," says Mr. Kimball philosophically. "People will say, 'Oh, I forgot I had this in my closet.'"

While Mr. Kimball is not in the business of producing variorum editions, he will nonetheless offer a few versions of a lyric if the song is particularly well known, if the changes were significant or historically interesting. A case in point: the penultimate line of Porter's "Begin the Beguine," which most singers render "we suddenly know what heaven we're in," but which began life as "we suddenly know the sweetness of sin." "That's useful for people to know," he says, adding that the adjustment had nothing to do with propriety and all to do with Porter's muse.

He'd also like them to know that "Flying too high/with some guy/in the sky" from the last verse of "I Get a Kick Out of You" originally read "I wouldn't care/for those nights in the air/that the fair Mrs. Lindbergh goes through." "That got changed because of the Lindbergh kidnapping," Mr. Kimball says.

His sedulousness has occasionally been a bit worrisome for his subjects. "I'm sure Ira Gershwin didn't want a complete lyrics book," he says of the volume that was published in 1993, 10 years after the lyricist's death. "I'm sure he wanted to husband what he saw as his best work. Mrs. Gershwin's view was that Ira would have complained, but we're going to do it anyway."

If Mr. Kimball's got a favorite lyricist, he's keeping it to himself. Asking him to name his favorite song is like suggesting he reveal which of his two children he prefers. "But I have special memories of certain songs," he allows. "Ira Gershwin sang a song for me that he knew I liked and that few have heard of -- 'Wait a Bit, Susie.'" Irving Berlin, meanwhile, sang Mr. Kimball a parody of "God Bless America" that he wrote specially for his friend and fellow lyricist Yip Harburg in 1969. ("God bless America/land we enjoy/no discussions/with the Russians/'til they stop sending arms to Hanoi.") "I think Mr. Berlin became my biggest fan," he says. "He was just great. When I was working on the early books, he offered me counsel and anecdotes. When I was doing the Gershwin book, he sang 'A Foggy Day' to tell me how great a song it was."

Mr. Kimball was born in Queens to parents who loved old musicals. His honors thesis at Yale, which dealt with musicals of the 1920s, subsequently paved the way to a part-time curator's job at the university library. The papers of fellow alum Porter had just arrived, and Mr. Kimball, then completing his studies at Yale Law School, was put in charge. Ultimately, rhyme won out over reason. He became a theater historian as well as artistic adviser to the Ira and Leonore Gershwin Trusts and the Cole Porter Musical and Literary Property Trusts.

"My goal," he says, "is to bring the material to light, to get it out of the archives, out of the attics, away from the old filing cabinets, so it can be passed on."

"Bob is one of the most reliable resources of the musical theater," says Michael P. Price, executive director of the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, Conn., where Mr. Kimball served as a consultant for almost a decade. "A lot of people posit themselves as experts. Bob has never put himself out there like that, but he is the expert."

Mr. Kimball gets what he calls an inner smile when performers sing or record songs he's unearthed. "That's fun." Rather less fun, he says, are fielding the mournful phone calls that come sure as yellow-jackets on a honey jar within a week of a book's publication. "I'll hear things like 'you must be deeply depressed that on page 412 of your book the following mistake occurred...,'" Mr. Kimball says. "I've done these enormous sand castles and someone is going to knock them down. Some of the callers are right, some of them are wrong. Every field attracts people who don't do the work but are sitting there pretending they did."

He'll no longer have to worry about such matters after wrapping up his swan song, "The Complete Lyrics of Johnny Mercer," scheduled for publication in 2009, the centenary of the Savannah bard's birth. "I think I've done what I can do. I'm happy to pass the baton," he says. "I'd like to write my own book about musical theater, not simply be the preserver and promulgator of other people's work."

Consider this final collection -- oh, how did the great Mercer put it? -- "one more for the road."

http://online.wsj.com/article/SB1147126 ... al_journal
Corlyss
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Ralph
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Post by Ralph » Wed May 10, 2006 9:28 pm

Got his phone number? I like calling people in the mdidle of the night.
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Ted

Post by Ted » Thu May 11, 2006 1:51 pm

I find it a bit odd that an article that mentions great Lyricists makes no mention of Oscar Hammerstein, or Yip Harburg….Nor Dorothy Fields (to name a few)
But then I have been AWOL for a wee bit and what better way to say “Hi” than to nitpick and carp
Cheers
t

Corlyss_D
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Post by Corlyss_D » Thu May 11, 2006 7:29 pm

Ted wrote:I find it a bit odd that an article that mentions great Lyricists makes no mention of Oscar Hammerstein, or Yip Harburg….Nor Dorothy Fields (to name a few)
But then I have been AWOL for a wee bit and what better way to say “Hi” than to nitpick and carp
Cheers
t
I was hoping this would catch your eye, Ted. You okay? What's shakin'?
Corlyss
Contessa d'EM, a carbon-based life form

Ted

Post by Ted » Thu May 11, 2006 7:53 pm

You okay?
Absolutely CD..And You?
What's shakin'?
This and That
Been down to Fl -- visiting parents and offspring
Have no excuse as to my lack of postings here....But never a day goes by that I don't think about you guys...
Salutations to everyone
Anyway, I'm here and plan on getting back into the fray

Corlyss_D
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Post by Corlyss_D » Thu May 11, 2006 8:00 pm

Ted wrote:
You okay?
Absolutely CD..And You?
Okay.
Anyway, I'm here and plan on getting back into the fray
Good to see you back. I was watching Criminal Minds last night and part of the plot was Mandy Patinkin's character invited a lady to dinner at his chateau. He had the young Billie Holiday playing in the background. His choice I'm sure. I thought of you and our talks about the Great American Songbook.
Corlyss
Contessa d'EM, a carbon-based life form

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