Monday, 12 September 2011

Mort Shuman interviewed in 1983 by Spencer Leigh (On the Beat)

This is to alert readers to a hugely enjoyable and informative interview with Mort Shuman conducted by Spencer Leigh and broadcast on last Saturday's On the Beat show on Radio Merseyside. It's available till September 17th on BBC iplayer (link below).

Spencer says at the beginning of the programme that the interview, conducted in 1983 in London in a house Shuman had just moved into, took place in a room which didn't yet have any curtains or much furniture and the recording was deemed too echoey for broadcast until recent technology made listenable. It certainly sounds okay now; there is at times a vague rumble in the background from builders working  but that's it.

It's available on iplayer until 8:02PM Sat, 17 Sep 2011 BST if you want to be precise about it, and I think it will be accessible to US readers as well.

Shuman is relaxed and charming, and not afraid to spill the beans - well, no, that's not true, in the sense that it's not really a "Lennon Remembers"-style tell-all scenario, but he does sound miffed, as well he might, with Andy Williams, who apparently announced Can't Get Used to Losing You on his television show as the B side of his record, to indicate his disdain for it. As Shuman says, he's entitled to his opinion but why record it then?

If you are reading this blog then you probably already know that along with Doc Pomus, Mort Shuman wrote some of the most enduring songs of the rock'n'roll / doo wop era, and that he later translated Jacques Brel's songs into English (provided Rod McKuen didn't have first dibs on them).

Among other things in this interview you will hear what he thought of Rod McKuen's Brel songs, Bowie's recording of Amsterdam, how Kenny Lynch cruelly taunted him into writing Sha La La La Lee, the weirdness of his collaborator on Little Children, and much more besides.

Regular readers will know that Spencer's interview with Alan Klein can be found elsewhere on this blog, so I may be biased, but the Mort Shuman interview is highly recommended. It lasts ninety minutes including songs. Spencer has also written a comprehensive survey of Doc Pomus songs - solo and collaborations with Mort Shuman and others - entitled My Room Has Got Two Windows, which you can read on his website here. It's not just a list: there are notes, in some cases quite detailed ones, for most songs. Here are some nuggets from his account of Save the Last Dance For Me:

Doc’s lyric was combined with a wonderful melody, largely from Mort Shuman that tapped into his Latin-American experiences. Because of the Cuban baion feel, Doc wanted to write a lyric that “sounded like it was translated.” He quoted “And in whose arms you’re going to be” and said, “That’s not the way people talk, it sounds like a translation, but people don’t even realise it. Those are some of the tricks that I think are responsible for a lot of these songs lasting so long.” ... After Elvis’ death, Jerry Lee Lewis’ version had an added vocal in a feeble attempt to pass it off as a lost Elvis track. It fooled no one - except Doc Pomus, who endorsed the record on its sleeve, but I suspect his tongue was firmly in his cheek. I enjoyed Nilsson’s ultra-slow scorcher that was produced by John Lennon: so did Mort Shuman as he copied it but sang the lyric in French ... Ben E. King’s dance version in 1987 was not the brightest of ideas, but Aaron Neville was an inspired choice on the Doc Pomus tribute album, Till The Night Is Gone, its very title being taken from the song.
And it's Art Neville's version which ends On the Beat. Listen to it if you can.

Mort Shuman died in 1991, a few months after Doc Pomus.

Related links:

Click here to hear the Spencer Leigh interview (until September 17th).

Find Ben E King's updated version of This Magic Moment at the end of the post here.

My review of Always Magic in the Air, Ken Emerson's account of the Brill Building writers of the rock'n'roll era in an earlier post here

Find the Mort Shuman website here. Maintained by his widow, Maria-Pia Shuman, there's a comprehensive decade by decade timeline of his career, a discography of his hits and what seems to be a complete list of artists who have recorded his songs. And if you are too late to hear Spencer's interview via the BBC, the site has some selections from his and other interviews on a dedicated audio page here, along with demo tracks from his rock'n'roll days and two complete solo albums, Distant Drum and Notes Majeures - in short, if you like Mort, you'd be silly not to give it a go. Literally.

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