Tidbits: Surprising Songwriters

In our Feature Article about Peggy Lee for this month, we focus on the fact that Miss Lee wanted to be remembered for her song lyric writing skills, and that most people are surprised to find out she was such a prolific songwriter. In our Forgotten Gem Feature this month, we mention the surprising fact that US Vice-President Charles Dawes composed the melody to one of the top standards of all time, "It's All In The Game."

The world of American Popular Song, in fact, holds quite a few surprises in terms of songwriters. You'll be surprised at who some of these songwriters are -- and also surprised at who didn't write certain songs.

If you're new to this site, you might've missed the mentions of songwriters like Bobby Troup, who penned standards like the Nat King Cole hit "Route 66" and "Their Hearts Were Full of Spring" for the Four Freshmen. Troup is probably best remembered for his starring roles in various 1970s television shows, so a lot of readers are surprised that he made most of his living writing and producing music. Fact is he was a songwriter long before he was a TV star, but he is definitely on the list of "surprise" songwriters.

Another television star that we've mentioned in passing is Chuck Barris, the quintessential game show producer who became personally visible as a result of the shlocky hit The Gong Show. Barris penned two well known songs, one of which was "Summertime Guy," recorded by Eddie Rambeau; it later became the theme for The Newlywed Game. Along those lines, Barris also penned the theme from The Dating Game. But his biggest hit, of course, was the rock and roller "Palisades Park," for Freddy "Boom Boom" Cannon.

Speaking of television, the 1960s bubblegum/pop group The Monkees often takes a bad rap from critics, primarily because they didn't play their own instruments on the earliest records. The four Monkees were hired to be television stars who looked comfortable playing instruments; they weren't actually expected to become a popular performing act. But they could, and so they did, and fought for studio control of their records. Later, word got out that all wasn't what it appeared to be on the early records, and ever since then the Monkees have been sort of a fun oddity. And you wouldn't expect them to write any songs, would you?

In 1968 none less than the venerable Frankie Laine recorded a song written by Monkee Mike Nesmith, called "Pretty Little Princess." But Nesmith's biggest impact was with a song recorded by The Stone Poneys, fronted by a young Linda Ronstadt. The tune that launched Ronstadt's career was called "Different Drum," which peaked at #13 on the Hot 100. Nesmith also penned quite a few songs for the Monkees, few of which are really all that memorable. Another prolific -- but surprising -- songwriter on later Monkees albums was former child star David Jones, the group's diminutive front man. While none of Nesmith's or Jones' compositions for the group were huge hit singles, many of them were on albums that topped the charts.

Another actor/singer/personality you might not think of as a songwriter is the legendary Jimmy Dean. His now standard "Big Bad John" topped the pop charts for five weeks in 1961, and you might be surprised that Dean wrote it himself, with a little bit of help from Opry star Roy Acuff.

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featured performance

Here's Barry Manilow doing his signature song, the standard "I Write the Songs." He's written some great songs, but didn't write that one. Please note that you have to click on the little "play" arrow twice to get it to work.

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Not all unexpected songwriters come from television and movies, obviously. Some, believe it or not, come from the sports world. Mike Reid was a defensive lineman who came from Altoona, Pennsylvania. His late 1960s college career took him just a short ride up US Route 322, where he excelled under (no surprise here) Penn State Coach Joe Paterno. Reid was a first round draft choice, and became an all-pro player with the Cincinnati Bengals. A series of hand and knee injuries ended Reid's career on the gridiron prematurely, which was a good thing for the music business. Reid is an extremely accomplished pianist and composer, and won a Grammy Award for "Stranger in My House," as recorded by Ronnie Milsap. Most of Reid's work was in the field of country and inspirational music; twelve of his country songs topped the charts.

The list of All-Pro NFL players who've written Grammy-Award winning songs probably ends with Reid, but you never know. There could be a few more surprises around.

As far as "surprise songwriters," you might also be surprised to find out who didn't write certain songs.

The two songs most closely associated with certain songwriter/artists that fit this category come from the pop music world of the 1970s. They were poppish at the time, and have since fallen nicely into the folder marked "standards." Yes they're standards, but they're so closely associated with the original artists that hardly anybody is willing to touch these songs.

The first one is a sort-of. When you hear the line...

Standin' on a corner in Winslow Arizona
is such a fine sight to see
it's a girl, my Lord, in a flatbed Ford
slowin' down to take a look at me...

...This song is so much a part of Americana that the town of Winslow, Arizona has a bronze statue of the songwriter standin' on a corner on the old Route 66. Now you're probably wondering, which one of the Eagles is represented in bronze in Winslow? Answer: None of them. The songwriter was Jackson Browne, and it's his likeness standin' on that corner. Eagle Glenn Frey shares the credit on "Take it Easy," but the song is really Browne's composition.

The most notorious song not written by the songwriter who sang it is Barry Manilow's "I Write the Songs." Barry has written some classics, no question. But this one, the one he sings with such believable passion, he didn't write. It wouldn't be so bad, except for the unavoidable fact that he sings "I am music, and I write the songs" so convincingly. The song was originally recorded by David Cassidy, but Manilow had the version that hit. And there's no question that this song became a standard; unlike "Take it Easy," people haven't been scared away from covering it. Johnny Mathis, Tom Jones, Dinah Shore and even Frank Sinatra ("I Sing the Songs") had popular versions. But no, Manilow didn't write it; it was penned by a member of The Beach Boys.

As a student and afficianado of American pop, you probably immediately thought of Brian Wilson. Surprise again, it was Beach Boy Bruce Johnston who accepted the Grammy Award for that one...three decades before Wilson's first Grammy.

To revisit "Tidbits" from last month, focusing on songs that have become something they originally weren't, please click here.