December 13, 2012
Guests: John & Martin Pizzarelli
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. If you've opened for Frank Sinatra and played guitar for Paul McCartney, you've got to be good. My guest John Pizzarelli is, and he's going to perform some holiday songs and other songs for us with his brother Martin Pizzarelli on bass.
John made his first recording in 1980 with his father, the great rhythm guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli. Over the past 30 years as a singer and bandleader, John's released more than 20 albums. He opened for Sinatra on his world tour in 1993, recorded and performed with Rosemary Clooney, and played on Paul McCartney's recent album "Kisses on the Bottom."
Now Pizzarelli has a new memoir called "World on a String" and a new album called "Double Exposure." John Pizzarelli, Martin Pizzarelli, welcome back to FRESH AIR. You're going to perform my favorite Christmas song, "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," but before you do, John, you tell a good story about this song in your new memoir "World on a String," and it's about performing it with James Taylor. So before you do this song, tell us the story.
JOHN PIZZARELLI: Well, we had just recorded a song called "Mean Old Man" for his "October Road" record, and it went so fast in the studio that we were just all staring at each other listening to the playback, and we thought that was it. And I sort of leaned over to James Taylor, I really wasn't supposed to speak, and I said: Hey James, you got any more originals like that?
And he sort of looked over at Russ Titelman, the producer, and he said, well, we could do that other song. And the song was "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." I guess they wanted a bonus cut. He said I want to do the verse, but I can't figure the verse out. And I looked at the music, and it just had chords, you know...
(Singing) Christmas messages far away, Christmas (unintelligible)...
It was just sort of very simple, and I remember advice from my father, who always says look in the bass line, the treble clef, the bass clef. He goes there might be different notes in there that'll lead you in the right direction. And so I looked down at the bottom, and I saw it just wasn't an A chord, it was actually an A with C-sharp in the bass (humming).
And I put it all together, and I was able to play it with him, and we did some beautiful takes of that. And it was my father's advice that saved me on that spur-of-the-moment little moment there in the studio.
GROSS: So do me a favor. Just, like, do a couple lines the way it was written, with the more bland chord.
PIZZARELLI: Sure, oh sure.
GROSS: And then do a couple lines the way you did it after reading the bass clef.
PIZZARELLI: Sure. I think it would probably be like this. It was probably like A and E, just...
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
PIZZARELLI: (Singing) Christmas present is far away, Christmas past is past.
That would be the beginning. But instead it was...
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
PIZZARELLI: (Singing) Christmas present is far away, Christmas past it past.
And it really was beautiful when I put it all together. It was really lovely.
GROSS: Nice, well, now do the song for real for us, and this is John Pizzarelli on guitar and vocal and Martin Pizzarelli on bass.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HAVE YOURSELF A MERRY LITTLE CHRISTMAS")
PIZZARELLI: (Singing) Christmas future is far away. Christmas past is past. Christmas present is here today bringing joys that will last. Have yourself a merry little Christmas. Let your heart be light. From now on, our troubles will be out of sight. Have yourself a merry little Christmas. Make the yuletide gay. From now on, our troubles will be miles away.
(Singing) Here we are as in olden days, happy golden days of yore. Faithful friends who are dear to us gather near to us once more. Through the years we all will be together if the fates allow. Hang a shining star up on the highest bough. And have yourself a merry little Christmas now.
GROSS: Nice, that's John Pizzarelli singing and on vocals with Martin Pizzarelli on bass. So Martin, what do you think of the story that John told about reading the bass line in that song and then really understanding what the chord would be, and you are a bass player, and the bass clef is kind of where you live.
MARTIN PIZZARELLI: That makes perfect sense, and I'm sure that's - my dad always has told us to look at the bass note, it's the most important part of the chord, especially on the left hand of the piano.
PIZZARELLI: It's all, really the ear training comes from all that, too. If you didn't know - if you are on a bandstand playing rhythm guitar, I would always turn to bass players who were working with me like Milt Hinton or Bob Hagert(ph) or, you know, Slam Stewart, and I'd say, you know, I need your help. And they'd say no problem.
They just play - when you hear the bass note, you can always hear the harmony first. The bass note was always the most important part of hearing the harmonies.
GROSS: So you both played in a rock band together.
PIZZARELLI: Several, yes.
GROSS: Several, in high school, I take it?
PIZZARELLI: We played a lot in high school together. Actually, he joined the band. We were - there was Omega, which is the last word in rock 'n' roll.
PIZZARELLI: He was in a band we had called Sanpaku. We had As Is. We eventually, like into our late 20s, my late 20s anyway, we had a band called Johnny Pick and His Scabs, which was...
PIZZARELLI: It started because we replaced a band at our local club, and so we were calling ourselves The Scabs because we were replacing our friends' group. But then we - I had a play on words. And we would change the name on a weekly basis, Johnny Ride and the Waves, Johnny Shuck and the Clams was another one, right.
So - but The Scabs were infamous in downtown Manhattan for a six-month period of time on Saturday nights.
GROSS: OK, so on your new album "Double Exposure," you do some, as you put it, songs of your generation, as opposed to - because you usually do American popular song, which are songs of your father's generation but songs that live on and that, you know, the three of us love a lot. So one of the songs you do on there is "Ruby Baby," which is a Leiber and Stoller song that Dion had a big hit off.
And I thought why - this is a great record. Dion's record is a great record. But why is John Pizzarelli, Mr. American Popular Song Guy, doing this? And then I learned from the liner notes and from your memoir that your father, the rhythm guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli, actually played on all the Dion and the Belmonts records. So aha, that I suppose is the reason why.
PIZZARELLI: Yeah, well, there was a Donald Fagen record of it in 1982, and I was playing it in our house, and my father came in the room, and he says, you know, I'm on that record. And I was going you're not on the Donald Fagen record. He goes no, I'm on that record. And so after further review, I said, well, what are you talking about. He said I made the original record with Dion of that.
And then as we got older, and we started to talk to him about it more, we realized he was on all the Dion and the Belmont records, all the Dion records, "Teenager in Love," "The Wanderer," "Runaround Sue." He was on "Stand By Me," and he was on the flip side of Benny King's record of "There's a Rose in Spanish Harlem."
We even had a gentleman who brought the contract from the session of "Runaway."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RUNAWAY")
PIZZARELLI: The Del Shannon record and showed my father. You're on this record. And he wanted to interview him and set up a big camera and a microphone and said to my father please tell me all about "The Runaway" session, Del Shannon. You're the surviving member.
And my father said oh, I don't remember that at all.
PIZZARELLI: He did so many things.
PIZZARELLI: Yeah, he said I did so many dates. And the poor guy, he felt so bad, but...
GROSS: That is - "Runaway" is one of my all-time favorite recordings. It's...
PIZZARELLI: Yeah and, you know, the funny thing is my father was rhythm guitar playing Milt Hinton, the great jazz bassist, was the bass player, and O.C. Johnson(ph) was the drummer. Milt and O.C. are in that famous picture, "A Great Day in Harlem," too. They were great jazz musicians. So there were a lot of jazz musicians making all those records in those days.
GROSS: You father didn't play the line that you just played, though, did he?
PIZZARELLI: No, he - I don't know exactly what he played, and I don't think he does, either. But there's a picture of Del Shannon in front of my father on the Del Shannon website. He's playing a big A-minor, and my father's looking up at him. I guess he's sort of looking at him going, like, really? My father has this white shirt and little thin black tie on, and there's Del with the big pompadour.
GROSS: OK, so now you have to do "Ruby Baby."
GROSS: Which Dion and the Belmonts recorded, and your father played on the session. This is a Leiber and Stoller song, and it's on your new album "Double Exposure."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RUBY BABY")
PIZZARELLI: (Singing I got a girl, and Ruby is her name. She don't love me, but I love her just the same. Ruby, Ruby, how I want you. Like a ghost I'm gonna haunt you. Ruby, Ruby, Ruby, when will you be mine? Each time I see you, baby my heart cries. I'm gonna steal you away from all those guys. From the sunny day I met you, I made a bet that I would get you. Ruby, Ruby, when will you be mine?
(Singing) I got a girl, and Ruby is her name. I'd give the world just to set her heart aflame. I got some lovin' and some money, too. I'm gonna give it all to you. Ruby, Ruby, when will you be mine?
GROSS: Great, that's John Pizzarelli guitar and vocals and his brother Martin Pizzarelli on bass performing for us today, and that's also a song that John does on his new album, which is called "Double Exposure," and John has a new memoir, as well, called "World on a String."
So John, you were telling us that, you know, in high school you and your brother Martin were in rock bands. How did you decide that what you really wanted to do was perform American popular song and not covers of, you know, rock or rock 'n' roll?
PIZZARELLI: Well, what happened was is that I was playing all sorts of gigs as a guitar player, some in the rock band, and then I would do some solo gigs, and I even did some duo gigs. I had one with singer named Joe Francis(ph). And he would sing Sinatra-type songs, Bing Crosby and Sinatra and Tony Bennett and Dick Haymes kind of songs.
And every once in a while, he'd say to me you do something. And I would play either a Michael Frank song, or I'd play Kenny Rankin's "Haven't We Met"...
(Singing) I've ordered some rain for tomorrow.
Those are the kinds of things that I thought would be appropriate for where we were. And his sister Nancy had a record of a guy named Frank Weber(ph) playing "Straighten Up and Fly Right." And I learned it off that record. It was a record called "As Time Flies," I believe.
And I played it for my father, and he said, well, that's Nat King Cole. You've got to find those records. Those will be perfect for you. So literally at that time Capitol Records re-released "The Best of the Nat King Cole Trio" parts one and two. And I heard "Straighten Up and Fly Right," "Paper Moon" and "Frim-Fram Sauce" and "Route 66." And I went crazy.
And that was - I thought that was the foundation for what I was going to do because it was great music, it was fun, it was swinging. The guitar player had to play everything, rhythm guitar, lead guitar, and we would put together little Nat Cole groups and play them with our, you know, trios and things here and there.
And it just evolved into me doing that more and more with my father and probably making more of a living doing that as trying to be Billy Joel. So it worked out better to be Nat King Cole than Billy Joel. It should be a song title.
GROSS: So would you do a few bars of one of the Nat Cole songs that meant a lot to you when you were first learning him and really influenced your style?
PIZZARELLI: Oh sure. Well, it could be "Straighten Up and Fly Right." So it would go...
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STRAIGHTEN UP AND FLY RIGHT")
PIZZARELLI: (Singing) A buzzard took a monkey for a ride in the air. The monkey thought that everything was on the square. The buzzard tried to throw the monkey off his back. The monkey looked at him and said now, listen Jack, straighten up and fly right, straighten up and stay right. Straighten up and fly right, now cool down Papa don't you blow your top.
PIZZARELLI: That's - we sort of played that all the time.
GROSS: Right. If you're just joining us, my guests are musicians John and Martin Pizzarelli. John Pizzarelli is a guitarist and singer, and he has a new memoir called "World on a String" and a new album called "Double Exposure." Martin Pizzarelli is a bass player who plays with the John Pizzarelli Quartet. Let's take a short break here, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is guitarist and singer John Pizzarelli, who does the American popular songbook, and with him is Martin Pizzarelli. They perform together, and they're performing some songs for us today. John Pizzarelli has a new memoir called "World on a String" and a new album called "Double Exposure."
You've been really lucky, I mean you've had a nice career playing American popular song, and you've got - you got to do the thing that everybody who plays American song, American popular song would have wanted to do, which is open for Sinatra on a world tour. And this was in 1993, it was five years before Sinatra died. What are some of the places you got to perform with him around the world?
PIZZARELLI: We played five or six cities in Germany: Dortmund, Berlin, Hamburg, Cologne. I mean, the thing about all the dates in Germany was all the dates were - they started at 5,000 and worked their way up. We were 20,000 people in Hamburg, and we had 8,500 to 10,000 people in Cologne. So - and then we came back to the States, and we played Chastain Park in Atlanta for 7,500 people.
We played the Garden State Art Center in New Jersey, which was another 5,00, 7,500 people. We played The Sands in Atlantic City for a week. It was playing for huge amounts of Sinatra lovers. You know, you play in Chastain Park, and while you're doing your beginning set, there are people with their back to you eating pesto and, you know, having their past and everything and going he'll be done soon, and Sinatra will be on.
GROSS: No, exactly. No, what's it like to perform for, like, 40,000 people who came to hear someone else? Like they came to hear Sinatra, and they don't necessarily know who you are. They don't necessarily care who you are.
PIZZARELLI: That's true. And we had a very quick 20-minute set. It was sort of - and it was fun. It was a good set. It went straight ahead, and it just sort of let everybody settle in to let them know - and you sort of realized they were going to settle down, and, you know, they knew that oh, about 25 minutes now.
PIZZARELLI: So some people listened. The funny thing was like in Atlantic City after the gigs, and you'd be hanging around the hotel, and people thought that you really, you know, you were hanging out with Frank. So they would come up to you and say I got this song about Hoboken. You've got to give it to Frank. And I was like, you know, you have to understand I'm lucky if I see Frank Sinatra in the wings before the show.
GROSS: How much did you get to see or talk to him?
PIZZARELLI: I spoke to him once before the show in Berlin. It was a rather funny meeting because Hank Atanio(ph), who ran everything, felt it was the right time to go say hello to Frank, and when he was going to introduce me, he got nervous, which it messed the whole thing up. And he sort of coughed out the words opening act to Frank Sinatra.
And I swung around and shook hand and said it's nice to meet you. And I was about to walk away, and Frank Sinatra said eat something, you look bad. And that was pretty much all I got out of Frank Sinatra the whole tour.
GROSS: So what kind of shape was he in then?
PIZZARELLI: He was - no, he was frail. He was frail. I mean, Martin and I saw him in '86 and the Brenden Burn Arena, and we felt like he was singing to us. It was such a magical concert. They have released that concert now on a record, "Live at the Meadowlands," and it's as good as I thought it was.
But these concerts were - you know, he was just frail. He was walking around, and he was singing OK, but it wasn't the powerful persona that we were used to seeing. But one day in Chastain Park at the rehearsal, he came out, and he sang three numbers because he was challenged by Frank Jr. He put his - Frank Jr. put his fist up into his father's face and said you've got to fight it.
And Sinatra looked him like oh, OK, what do you got? And so he sang "The House I Live In," "Luck Be A Lady Tonight" and "Come Rain or Come Shine." And we were sitting way up in the seats, we were the only people out, 7,000 empty seats except for three of us eating a pizza. And we were crying because it was so beautiful.
He sang so impeccably, without any tele-prompters or anything. He just was like OK, you're going to challenge me, I can still do this. And he did those three songs, put his mic down. It was so hot outside, and he said: Throw another log on the air conditioner. I'm out of here.
GROSS: So can I ask you to do a shout-out to Frank Sinatra and play a few bars of song that he did when you were on tour with him, a song that you love?
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WORLD ON A STRING")
PIZZARELLI: (Singing) I got the world on a string, sittin' on a rainbow, got the string around my finger. What a world, what a life, I'm in love. I got a song I can sing. I can make the rainbow anytime I move my finger. What a world, what a life, I'm in love.
GROSS: Thank you, and coincidentally "World on a String" just happens to be the title of John Pizzarelli's new memoir, which is an amazing coincidence.
GROSS: That was very nice.
PIZZARELLI: We're all about promotion here in the John Pizzarelli duo today.
GROSS: John Pizzarelli will be back in the second half of the show, along with bass player Martin Pizzarelli. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with guitarist and singer John Pizzarelli, who is performing some holiday and other songs for us with his brother Martin Pizzarelli on bass. It's quite a musical family. Their father is the great rhythm guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli. John has recorded over 20 albums as a singer and bandleader. He opened for Sinatra on Sinatra's '93 world tour and played guitar on Paul McCartney's recent album "Kisses on the Bottom." Pizzarelli has new a memoir called "World on a String," and a new album called "Double Exposure."
John, in your memoir you write a little bit about getting to know Rosemary Clooney and you sang duets with her, you recorded and performed with her. How did you get to know her? How did you first start to perform with her?
PIZZARELLI: She played, Rosemary played at the Rainbow and Stars. She was a constant figure around town, around New York City at least once a year with four-week engagements, you know, where the current room was. And when I first became aware of her being close aware, when she was at the Rainbow and Stars. I was working the dance room at the Rainbow Room itself and she was in the Rainbow, it's the Cabaret Room. And so I'd see the posters and things. And my father said, I'm going to be doing February with her, and I had just had "All of Me" come out, my first record on RCA. I think that was the first time I was on FRESH AIR, as a matter of fact, years and years and years ago.
GROSS: Yeah, yeah, yes. Yes. Yes.
PIZZARELLI: And so my father said, I can't do all the dates. You want to sub for me? And I said, oh, I'd love to play with Rosemary Clooney. That would be great. And so my manager at the time, but you shouldn't be s side man. You know, I don't know why you're doing these things. I said it's Rosemary Clooney.
PIZZARELLI: I said so this is why I'm going to do this. And my father was great. You know, he said come over and I'll go over my whole part with you. So he'd say here's, you're going to play rhythm on this thing, you know...
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
PIZZARELLI: And he said on this one, it was "Spring is Here." He showed me, I had to play like (singing) Spring is here, da, da, da, da, da, da-da. Da, da, da. Just follow, he said, you know, those are the chords. Just follow Rosemary as she's singing. I said OK. And at the end he had some ending that was like (singing) spring is here that I hear.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
PIZZARELLI: And I'd play that. So the first night I played that. But the second night I had my own ending and Joe Cocuzzo, the drummer, went oh, that's good, that was good. So I was getting more and more comfortable. Allen Sviridoff, her manager always wanted to have me play with her. He was like he liked having me around because I guess she was comfortable with me and I got to do more of the gigs later on than my father did. And we, you know, it wasn't just about playing gigs, I'd make records, we'd go out to dinner and she was just, she was the other Sinatra to me. And she sang impeccably all the way till the end. She was really amazing.
GROSS: I am such a big fan of hers and got to interview on stage once as she performed songs, so it was a wonderful experience. You imply, or you say in your memoir that one of the things you learned from her is that no matter how you're feeling you can put that aside and give a good performance. And how was she feeling when you knew her? I mean...
PIZZARELLI: Well, there were moments of her, you know, she was, you know, even Steven Holden would talk about her size, you know, she was a large woman and so that hindered, you know, if the room wasn't, you know, they made the rooms pretty cold at Feinstein's, like it's like being on Letterman. It was cold. So she, you know, wouldn't because that helped her breathe better and it kept her body temperature good so she could have, you know, a better experience. And there was one concert in Mackinac Island at the Grand Hotel where she kept singing. It was a big room and it was hot in there. It was look like, it looked like a barn from "White Christmas," which she actually said onstage. But she'd turn around and say, I don't know if I can, we're going to have to cut a number, John, she'd say to John Oddo, her piano player. And I was right there and I was scared. And the more people applauded, she'd just turn around and keep singing. And the crowd would always inform, you know, inform her. If they were really going crazy she could get by bad breathing and all the things and on any given day there was always something magical that she could do, no matter how she was feeling.
GROSS: Can I ask you to do a song that relates to knowing and working with Rosemary Clooney?
PIZZARELLI: Sure. The, you know, the last gig we did with her was at was at Foxwoods, as a matter of fact, was her Christmas show. It was funny because I didn't realize it was the Christmas show and I had only so many charts for the band. They had a band and Allen wanted us - Allen Sviridoff, her manager, wanted us to play a couple of songs upfront, like 25 minutes, then Rosie would do the show that she had done all over the place, this Christmas show, and then I think I did a number with her at the end. And then I went off and she sang "Count Your Blessings" at the very end. The funny thing is I was doing "Route 66" and he said, is that the route Santa Claus takes? Is that a Christmas song, he kept saying to me backstage.
PIZZARELLI: But that's the only chart that I had. But I remembered after she had me come out and take a bow. And I went backstage and I stood in the wings and she was just sitting in a chair in front of this, you know, big Christmas setting with a band behind her and just with John Oddo singing "Count Your Blessings." That's the last song I ever heard her sing. And I remember going well, I just couldn't, I was so touched by it. It was such a beautiful moment. So I'll play that for you in honor of Rosemary.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COUNT YOUR BLESSINGS")
PIZZARELLI: (Singing) When I'm worried and I can't sleep. I count my blessings instead of sheep. And I fall asleep counting my blessings. And when my bankroll is getting small. I think of think of when I had none at all. And I fall asleep counting my blessings. I think about a nursery and I picture curly heads. And one by one I count them as they slumber in their beds. If you are worried and you can't sleep, just count your blessings instead of sheep. You'll fall asleep counting your blessings.
GROSS: Nice. And that song was actually in the 1954 movie "White Christmas," which Rosemary Clooney and Bing Crosby starred in.
GROSS: You a fan of the film?
PIZZARELLI: Oh, I watch it now every Christmas. It's hard to talk about because I love watching her in the movie, so I'll watch it three or four times, you know, I just love it. I love seeing her and I, you know, it's just a special thing for me.
GROSS: Well, my guest is John Pizzarelli, who is a singer and guitarist and now author of the new book, memoir "World on a String," and he has a new record called "Double Exposure." And his brother Martin Pizzarelli is also with us playing bass today and they perform together around the world.
Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is John Pizzarelli, who is a guitarist and singer who is performing for us today. He also has a new memoir called "World on a String," and a new album called "Double Exposure." And Martin Pizzarelli, his brother, is also with us, who is a bass player, who they play together, they've toured the world together. Martin, thank you for being with us today.
PIZZARELLI: It's my pleasure.
GROSS: So John, you recently worked with Paul McCartney. And for anyone who knows Paul McCartney's latest album, "Kisses on the Bottom," which is an album of songs - mostly songs of his father's generation, including some well-known and lesser-known standards, you're on that record. And...
PIZZARELLI: I am.
GROSS: Yeah. And I remember back in the '90s or early 2000s when you had a Beatles album that you did, you know, an album of Beatles' songs.
PIZZARELLI: Yes, I did a record called "John Pizzarelli Meets the Beatles." I think it was 1996 or '97 that it came out. And yeah, I always joke about it because on Amazon, you know, there's always reviews. It's the one record of mine - I have 21 vocal records - that has the most reviews and the most disparate reviews. Some say John Pizzarelli is the greatest interpreter of these songs, and there's one where the subject matter says Abbey road kill...
PIZZARELLI: And so I have all these crazy - there must be 50 of them. And I, you know, there's also, you know, a person from New York writes John Pizzarelli's a genius. And those are written by me to try and knock off the Abbey road kill reviews.
PIZZARELLI: But when I met Paul McCartney at the session he walked in and he said, hello to Diana Krall and then her bass player and then her drummer, and then they came over to me and they said, this is Paul McCartney, and I said, it's nice to meet you, and he went, you made a Beatles CD. And I went, oh boy, here it comes, and he said to me, it's very good. And I was like, oh, I said, could you write that on Amazon, please?
PIZZARELLI: It'd really helped me out. But he was really a real fine musician. He is a real fine musician. And that record was so great because he let the jazz musicians do what they do best and he didn't edit them. And if he liked something he'd say do that. If he didn't, he'd say oh, let's try something else. We were able to do a lot of takes and spend a lot of time and really be relaxed. And Diana Krall ran a great ship with Tommy Lipuma, the producer. And Paul was just tremendous. And the material was great. There were some great songs on that record.
GROSS: So did you pick up anything from him or do you think he picked up anything from you?
PIZZARELLI: He kept saying that the experience was a lot like the early Beatle days because he'd say, you know, when we first came in the studio only John and I knew the songs, you know? So we had to teach them to George and Ringo and George Martin. And then, you know, we could only do three in a session and then we had to move on. So the one story that he told was, you know, he said, you know, that song "And I Love Her," and we'd always go like ah, yeah, I think we know that.
PIZZARELLI: And he said, you know, we just taught George and Ringo and everybody the song and we just went, you know, go. And we counted it off and George went...
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
PIZZARELLI: And played that lick. And he says we didn't tell him to play that lick but can you imagine the song without it? You know, George just did it. And he goes, this is what we were doing when we were learning the songs, see we were just sort of discovering what worked. And he was very, it was just made for a real great experience. The thing that I learned is that it's great to be Paul McCartney because you can spend a lot of time in the studio.
GROSS: Right. Right. They'll cut you some slack if you're Paul McCartney. So...
PIZZARELLI: No it's always, yeah, he always just says, you know, we got to, we already have the take we want, let's do another take just to see what happens. You know, it was always fun and it made for a very relaxed experience.
GROSS: You've written some songs yourself. And one of them is a Christmas song. So I thought I should ask you to do that. And it's called "Santa Claus Is Near." So tell us about the song and why you wrote it.
PIZZARELLI: Well, I had a, well I always like to call the ill-fated John Pizzarelli Christmas CD, which was called...
PIZZARELLI: "Let's Share Christmas." Nobody wanted to share.
PIZZARELLI: And I think it's still available just on one of the, you know, you can send away for it or something. You can get it somewhere. Anyway, I felt that we - it was - it's a great record. There's Jonny Mandela arrangement. There's a Patrick Williams arrangement. Tori Zito, John Sebesky, Dick Lieb, Claire Fisher, John Clayton, Michel Legrand and Ralph Burns. And I always - I just felt we needed a Santa Claus song. And I didn't want to do is "Santa Claus is Coming to Town." And you always want to put an original song on a record that's going to sell in the tens.
PIZZARELLI: So I came up with this little song called "Santa Claus Is Near." So I would love to regale you with that now.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SANTA CLAUS IS NEAR")
PIZZARELLI: One, two, three. (Singing) That special time is coming. The kids are on their best. The cold at times is numbing from the East Coast to the West. Snowflakes keep on falling as its jingle bells I hear. Well, let's all be good like we know we should for Santa Claus is near.
(Singing) Here comes Santa riding in his sleigh. Here comes Santa, my roof is his runway. Special time is coming. The kids are on their best. All, the cold at times is numbing from the East Coast to the West. Snowflakes keep on falling as its jingle bells I hear. Well, let's all be good like we know we should for Santa Claus is here. Santa Claus is here. Santa Claus is here.
GROSS: Well, that's a nice song. That's catchy.
PIZZARELLI: It actually isn't bad. I actually like it. And there's been cover versions I keep discovering now and then. And I'm awfully proud that people are discovering "Santa Claus Is Near." They liked it at the Boston Pops. We did it at the Boston Pops for their TV show because they could, when you say Santa Claus is near and at the end of Santa Claus is here, they brought out Santa Claus. They were like, well, this is going to work for us. But they only used it the one year.
PIZZARELLI: They were being nice to me.
GROSS: I guess that didn't sales of your album, though.
PIZZARELLI: No, it's still - I think the release date, too, was December 26th.
PIZZARELLI: But, you know, what do you do?
GROSS: What do you at your house on Christmas?
PIZZARELLI: We have a really fun Christmas. My sister Ann(ph) comes up from Orlando and her two daughters come in from college. My two children are there. Jessica's there. Mary. Everybody. We have a pretty good group of people. Mom and Dad. And we make the lasagna out of the Mario Batali cookbook and my mother makes her famous eggplant, which is noted is in the book.
And we have a big long table. Aunt Lynn(ph) and Uncle Dean(ph) are usually there. Kelly(ph). And we have just a big party. And at the end, we go upstairs and we play a couple of Christmas songs.
PIZZARELLI: "Twelve Days of Christmas."
PIZZARELLI: "Twelve Days of Christmas." That's right. Everybody gets a day. And it's a lot of fun.
GROSS: So if you're just joining us, my guest is singer and guitarist John Pizzarelli and bass player Martin Pizzarelli. They are brothers and they perform together. John has a new memoir called "World on a String" and a new album called "Double Exposure." There's time for one more song so why don't I ask you to do something seasonal.
GROSS: As we head into the holidays. What would you like to do?
PIZZARELLI: I'm very fond of "What Are You Doing New Year's Eve?"
GROSS: And that's a Frank Lesser song.
PIZZARELLI: By Frank Lesser.
GROSS: It's a great song.
GROSS: Why are you so fond of it?
PIZZARELLI: I actually heard Dave Frishberg sing it many years ago on a record in the midst of a Frank Lesser medley on one of his records from the "Great American Musical" on "San Francisco." I always had that record. Because he did - Zoot walked in on it, too, one of his songs. And I thought this - and it was just beautiful. And basically I'm a big fan of Frishberg's. And it's also on the ill-fated John Pizzarelli Christmas CD.
PIZZARELLI: So I'd love to play it for you right now.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHAT ARE YOU DOING NEW YEAR'S EVE?")
PIZZARELLI: (Singing) Three, four. Maybe it's much too early in the game. Ah, but I thought I'd ask you just the same. What are you doing New Year's, New Year's Eve. Wonder whose arms will hold you good and tight when it's exactly 12 o'clock that night. Welcoming in the New Year New Year's Eve. Maybe I'm crazy to suppose I'd ever be the one you chose out of a thousand invitations you'll receive.
(Singing) Ah, but in case I stand one little chance here comes that jackpot question in advance. What are you doing New Year's, New Year's Eve?
GROSS: Nice. John Pizzarelli, Martin Pizzarelli, thank you both so much for performing with us and talking with us. And happy holidays.
PIZZARELLI: Happy holidays. Thanks so much.
PIZZARELLI: Happy holidays.
GROSS: John Pizzarelli has a new memoir called "World on a String." You can read an excerpt on our website freshair.npr.org where you'll also find links to a couple of the songs that he and Martin Pizzarelli performed. Coming up, our book critic Maureen Corrigan gives us her choices for the best books of the year. This is FRESH AIR.
TERRY GROSS, HOST: If you're looking for books to give as gifts, or just some great books to read yourself, here's our book critic Maureen Corrigan with her picks for the best books of the year.
MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: 2012 has been a jittery year, what with the presidential election, extreme weather events and, now, the looming fiscal cliff. Not surprisingly, many of my favorite books told stories, imagined and real, about people who felt like they didn't have a clue what hit them.
That dazed-and-confused trend kicked off in January with Stewart O'Nan's novella called "The Odds" about a middle-aged, unemployed couple about to divorce in order to protect what little assets they have left. First, though, Marion and Art Fowler book a deluxe suite at one of the honeymoon hotels in Niagara Falls and get ready to gamble their remaining cash at the hotel casino. O'Nan's go-for-broke literary style, by turns elegant and ruefully funny, rivets readers to the fateful spin of that roulette wheel.
Magical thinking also plays a crucial role in "Canada," a dazzling epic of family dissolution by Richard Ford. Set in 1960 in Montana and Saskatchewan, the story is narrated by 15-year-old Dell Parsons whose parents hatch the bright idea of robbing a bank to solve their money problems.
The ragged but resilient young narrator of "Girlchild," a striking debut novel by Tupelo Hassman, also tells readers a thing or two about what it's like to grow up without safety nets. Rory Dawn Hendrix lives in a Reno trailer park where you'd have a better chance of sighting a UFO than a helicopter parent.
Nobody does scrappy, sassy, twice the speed of sound dialogue better than Junot Diaz. His exuberant short story collection, called "This Is How You Lose Her," charts the lives of Dominican immigrants for whom the promise of America comes down to a minimum-wage paycheck, an occasional walk to a movie in a mall and the momentary escape of a grappling in bed.
My pick for best novel of 2012 is something of a dark horse. "Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter veers up, up and away from the downtrodden environs of the novels I've just described. It's a sweeping stunner of a tale that roams from Italy in the early 1960s to Hollywood and the present-day American heartland. The novel assembles a kaleidoscopic collection of beautiful ruins, both human and architectural, including discarded starlets, humble hotel workers and, most spectacularly, the self-destructive actor Richard Burton.
For the year's best in nonfiction, let's start by hopping from the Italian coast to the English moors. Juliet Barker's revised and updated edition of her landmark 1994 biography called, simply, "The Brontes," upends the tall tales that have obscured a clear view of this brilliant clan.
Barker also uncovers new material, such as a charming 1854 letter of Charlotte's in which she confesses to being talked into a white wedding dress, modest though it was. If I must make a fool of myself the 38-year-old bride-to-be wrote, it shall be on an economical plan.
Louisa May Alcott's siblings didn't share her literary gifts, but her supportive mother, Abigail, was an evocative writer, as well as a campaigner for abolition and women's rights. "Marmee and Louisa" is the title of Eve LaPlante's marvelous new dual biography of the hard-working mother-daughter pair.
A charged relationship between mother and child also constitutes the subject of "Elsewhere," Richard Russo's nuanced memoir about his life-long relationship with his emotionally dependent mother. Russo writes about his own class emigration from blue-collar kid to college professor and successful writer.
But what he also chronicles in "Elsewhere" is how his difficult mother came along for the ride figuratively and literally, since she climbed into Russo's rusty Ford Galaxy on his cross-country drive to college. I also loved retired classics professor Charles Rowan Beye's saucy and poignant memoir "My Husband and My Wives." Beye looks back on his long life, including his sequential marriages to two women and now a man, and contemplates the cosmic question: What was that all about?
Sometimes the conventional wisdom is truly wise. Katherine Boo's much lauded work of narrative nonfiction, "Behind the Beautiful Forevers," crowns my best-of-the-year list. Based on three years of embedded reporting, Boo's account takes readers deep into the richly varied world of a few of the thousands of slum dwellers who live in the shadows of the Mumbai airport and its surrounding luxury hotels.
As Boo says in her author's note at the end of the book, the slum dwellers she came to know are neither mythic nor pathetic, but rather distinguished by their ability to improvise. Given the space limitations of lists, many critics, myself included, dislike putting these best-of-the-year pieces together; but if this rattling run-through attracts more readers to these extraordinary books, I will close out 2012 contented.
GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. You can find her best-of-the-year list on our website freshair.npr.org where you can also download podcasts of our show. And you can follow us on Twitter at nprfreshair and on Tumblr at nprfreshair.tumblr.com.
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