Ervin Drake Interview

To say that Ervin Drake has written some good songs would be an understatement.

Ervin Drake wrote "It Was A Very Good Year," "Good Morning Heartache," "I Believe," "Come To The Mardi Gras," "Made for Each Other," "Al Di La," and "Quando, Quando, Quando."

His songs have been recorded by Frank Sinatra, Billie Holiday, Tony Bennett, Xavier Cugat, Barbra Streisand, Perry Como, and LeAnn Rimes.

It's not often that you get to say this — it is a real honor to present an interview with one of America's finest songwriters of the Twentieth Century, Mr. Ervin Drake.

Q. Mr. Drake, is songwriting something that comes easy to you?
A. Yes.

Q. And you write both the lyrics and melodies?
A. Yes. I have very often done that. There have been occasions when I've only written the words. And I've also done only the music.

Q. Have you ever had a songwriting partner?
A. Yes I have. For about ten years I was partners with Jimmy Shirl. We wrote a few good songs together. 'I Believe' was one of them.

Q. Do you find you write better songs when you're sad or when you're happy?
A. I don't think either emotion has anything to do with it. When I get into the drive mode, everything else is out of my mind. I'm simply writing.

Q. As far as personality goes, are you more of a happy go lucky guy?
A. I'm more of an up guy.

Q. In 1941, you sold a song called "I Like It" for $300.
A. That's right.

Q. Does that mean you sold the rights to a song publisher for $300 and you don't receive royalties for it?
A. No. The advance on that song was something like five or ten dollars, and ultimately I got a check for $300 and the room spun. (Laughs). It was my first real check.

Q. Was that song a hit?
A. No. It was not a hit. I don't even recall any commercial recordings of it. There were transcriptions made of it. They used to call 'em ET's, electrical transcriptions. And, it sold some copies, but it was never commercially recorded to my knowledge.

Q. How long did it take you to write "Good Morning Heartache"?
A. About 20 minutes. Well, let me tell you that's an unfair answer. In the first place I didn't write the whole song. A young woman named Irene Higginbothm wrote the music, and when she played it for me I thought it was one of the most unusual melodies I'd ever heard. When I sat down to write it, it came very easily to me. I can tell you there were several years I was in a depressed state because the young woman whom I loved very deeply, slipped out of my life, and married someone else. I wrote in true despondency. When I heard this melody, it meant that to me, and I wrote that lyric rapidly. Really rapidly.

Q. Do you typically write fast, or was that the exception?
A. When I was younger, I wrote more rapidly, and fortunately some of them came out o.k. As I matured, I became more reflective about a song, and tended to give it more time, although there were a couple of outstanding cases, rather remarkable cases where I also wrote word for word in music and got it out fast and was rewarded by ultimately having a successful work like 'It Was A Very Good Year,' which I wrote within an hour. I wrote that in a hurry 'cause it was what I call target writing. I was writing it for a young man named Bobby Shane, who was part of The Kingston Trio. After The Kingston Trio recorded it, there were seven or eight other recordings of it; groups like Chad and Jeremy, The Modern Folk Quartet, The Gaslight Singers, The Turtles and Lonnie Donegan.

Q. I always thought that song was written especially for Frank Sinatra.
A. Frank Sinatra was driving through the desert on his way to Palm Springs, his home in Rancho Mirage and he heard The Kingston Trio recording of the song. He thought that sounds like a wonderful song for the 'September of My Years' album. This was his comeback album, when he was turning 50.

Q. How much of a hit was that song for The Kingston Trio?
A. It was not a hit at all. It was just part of an album.

Q. Would it have made a difference who recorded "Good Morning Heartache?"
A. Oh, absolutely.

Q. But, outside of Billie Holiday and Diana Ross, no one has had a hit with it?
A. Oh, so many, both men and women, over the years. Men like Joe Williams. So many women like Ella Fitzgerald, and Natalie Cole, and Carmen McRae. There have been at least 60 or 70 recordings of that. It was an underground hit for many years. It didn't really hit the charts until 1972, when Diana Ross did the biography of Billie Holiday, 'Lady Sings the Blues.' Then, it really blossomed.

Q. When rock 'n' roll was introduced, what did you think of it? Did you like it or dislike it?
A. It wasn't a question of like or dislike. It was nothing I wanted to contribute to. They deliberately have always obscured the words. When they sing them, you can never really make out what they are. Ultimately it became evident when they got permission from publishers to print the song lyrics, on the L.P. itself, so you understood what it was they were singing. You were no more rewarded by being able to see them, than if you were able to understand them, when they were sung. They were so simplistic and so repetitious and rather stupid. The music was never interesting music. It was strictly rhythm driven. I think there's more than rhythm to music. I think there's also melody and harmony. I don't think it's an old-fashioned concept. I think it's a demand that reasonable, educated people, people of taste make.

Q. Is there anyone at all you like in rock 'n' roll?
A. I'm gonna mention some people. If you can think in terms of Springsteen, Billy Joel, Paul Simon. These men have contributed some wonderful songs. I don't know what they want to call them. I know they're loosely under Rock, but I don't think of them that way, 'cause most of the stuff in Rock is under a Rock. (Laughs). Women like Amanda McBroom is a wonderful writer. I think Carly Simon has contributed some wonderful things.

Q. How about Carole King?
A. Oh, absolutely. Right.

Q. Did you care for The Beatles?
A. At first, I didn't know what to make of them. Later on, I learned to treasure them, when I heard what followed. Songs like 'Michelle' and 'Yesterday' are wonderful songs, by any standard. The Beatles had George Martin with them. They wrote 'Eleanor Rigby'; a rather incomparable orchestration of low strings that George Martin breathed into that. The Beatles themselves were rather uninstructed. They had no academic information. They had instinctive talent, and if you don't have that, you have nothing. Irving Berlin had no academic information, but, his instinctive talent was that of a genius. On the other hand, you take a Gershwin, who had both the instinct and all the information he could use and kept on filling in over the years, that's when the genius erupts into things like 'Porgy and Bess,' and 'Rhapsody In Blue,' and 'Concerto In F.' That's a whole different thing.

Q. Did you like Elvis?
A. I was always puzzled by Elvis. He also recorded 'I Believe' and did it fairly well. But, I remember one night sitting with Frank Sinatra. I met with him at 2 a.m. at Caesar's Palace after his show, and just sat there in a pool of light in the showroom. Nobody else was there. We just sat there sipping a little bit and talking til 6 a.m. I remember saying to him that I felt Elvis was a real champion considering all that he had achieved in his lifetime up to that point. I said a champion at what he's doing, whatever it is. (Laughs). Frank nodded his head and said, Yup, whatever that is.'

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