DATE January 8, 2001 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: David and Karen O'Connor discuss their Olympic
equestrian success and horses in general
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
(Soundbite of equestrian event)
Unidentified Announcer #1: Eighty seconds, John. He's got the time in hand.
One jump to go for gold. And there it is! David O'Connor, under the time,
one rail down. He is the gold medalist. Looks like David can't believe it.
Unidentified Announcer #2: ...pull together for this combination, the last
combination of the course. As they approach the...
Mr. HARRY SMITH: Incredible. Karen O'Connor gets the third fastest time
of the day, saving US medal hopes.
GROSS: At the Olympics in Sydney last September, my guests David and Karen
O'Connor were part of the US Equestrian Team that won the bronze medal for
the three-day event. This made them the first husband-and-wife team to twice
share an Olympic medal. Also in Sydney, David became the first American in 26
years to win the gold medal for the individual three-day equestrian event. He
had the best score in Olympic history.
We invited the O'Connors to talk with us about horses, the Olympics and how
being married affects their ability to compete together. They've been married
about seven years and live in Virginia. The three-day events they competed in
include dressage, cross-country and stadium jumping. I asked the O'Connors if
they thought of themselves and their horses as athletes.
Mr. DAVID O'CONNOR (Olympic Equestrian): We have this kind of way of thinking
about it, that in training basically it's kind of 75 percent rider and 25
percent horse, and on the day of the competition, it really kind of reverses
itself. So over the months and years that it takes to prepare for an Olympic
Games, or really any international competition, you really are honing your
skills personally as an athlete. You don't see anybody that is not fit in our
sport. And the same thing with the horses. Our horses are treated totally as
athletes from every aspect, from nutrition, their fitness programs, their
physiology. It's amazing how technical it's become, especially, I would say,
in the last 10 years with some revolutions of how bodies work within
themselves, and we've applied that to the equine sciences.
GROSS: Karen, you know when you're competing and you know what's at stake in
the Olympics, you know today is the Olympic event. But what about the
horse? Does the horse realize, `This is a special event. Everything's at
Mrs. KAREN O'CONNOR (Olympic Equestrian): I think there's no question that
the horse--he experiences an adrenaline rush in various aspects of his life,
and these horses that we would have at the Olympic Games, we would probably
have been riding them for a number of years. The horse I rode, Prince
Panache, I've been with him for nine years, and within that period of time,
that's a large portion of his life where he has been a competitive athlete,
and so he's quite competitive, quite enthusiastic about his game. And so when
he gets to a competition site, the amount of atmosphere at that site is a bit
of a barometer to how he's going to react to it. And I think that at the
Olympic Games there is not another competition that has the height that the
Olympic Games themselves have. And the horses, they have a very clear reading
on that. They're amazing on how much they can take in.
GROSS: I'd like you to each describe the horse that you rode in the Olympics
and personality of the horse.
Mrs. O'CONNOR: I rode a horse that I've been riding for eight or nine years
now. His name is Prince Panache, and he was born in England and that's where
I purchased him, along with his owner, Mrs. Jacqueline Myers(ph), and she
purchased the horse so that I could compete him. His personality--he's a
very, very distinguished gentleman and always has been. If he was to wear
clothing, he would always be in Armani suits and have--his shoes would be
impeccably shined whenever he went out. He's very articulate about everything
he does and very businesslike. He's a very loving horse and a horse who I
would call--who has a big heart, meaning that if you ask him to do something,
he will always give you 110 percent effort, which is a quality that is always
something you want to look for in a competition horse, is a horse that really,
really enjoys his work to the point where he never feels like he's trying hard
enough. He always wants to try harder for you, and that's a wonderful thing,
to have been a part of the horse's life like that.
Mr. O'CONNOR: I rode two horses in the Olympic Games, one horse called Gilt
Edge and another one--the gold medal horse was a horse named Custom Made, and
they're very, very different personalities. Gilt Edge is a technician. He
would be the semi-geek you--he would always be working on the computer, and he
studies his sport very--down to the last, last detail. And he has been one of
the most successful horses in the United States in the last 30 years. This is
his fifth medal in Olympic or world championship or Pan-American games, and he
is, by far, done that because of his desire to play, he loves to compete, and
he's a technician. He would know exactly how fast he's going and where his
feet are going to go and all that. He has that type of attitude.
The other horse that I have, Custom Made, who we call Taylor(ph), is all
flare. He is a very big jumper. He loves to run fast. He loves to get
semi-near the fence and just leave the ground and doesn't really care where he
lands. He's very much a showman. The interesting thing about it, he's got
really two sides to his personality 'cause his private side in his stable, in
his stall, he really doesn't want to talk to a lot of other people and he
looks, you know, grumpy, he looks like, you know, the Grinch. And when you
get him out in front of the public in any type of competition, he is all show.
And then this other personality kind of blossoms out of him and he's very much
of a ham and an actor in that way. So he is all flare and all, you know,
bravado and all talk, and the other one's all technician. It's--they're very,
very interesting horses to be around.
GROSS: And I think in the stadium jumping, the horse has never seen the
course, but you're given a chance to walk through it, so you know what you're
Mrs. O'CONNOR: Yes, that's right. And that be true also in the cross-country
phase as well. The horses would never have seen the cross-country course, but
you have the ability to walk it as many times as you like.
GROSS: So what kind of mental calculations are you making when you're looking
at the course before competing on it?
Mrs. O'CONNOR: Well, on your first couple of walkings of the cross-country
course, you're just becoming familiar with the course itself. And it takes
you probably two walkings before you can really have it in your mind which
jump comes after which, the succession of the jumps, how they're numbered,
because there are usually 30 efforts on the course, and within those 30
efforts there are probably 50 to 60 jumping efforts for the horse because some
of the numbered jumps have two or three jumping efforts. They're
combinations, as we call them, of jumps. And so how we kind of break it down
is once we get familiar with the course, then we start to get very familiar
with the lay of the land and where every lump and bump and blade of grass is
on the course. And then we have to start breaking that course down in
one-minute increments, because it is a timed event and the time plays a very
big key role in the overall outcome.
And so we would measure the course with a wheel--it's all done in the metric
system--and we would measure that at the specific speed that we're required to
go the cross-country at. And then from there, we break down the minutes and
we get a very clear idea as to what minutes take a long time, what minutes are
going to go by very quickly, so that we are within one or two seconds of where
we want to be during the 13 minutes of that course.
GROSS: David, when you're about to jump, what are you thinking? What's going
through your mind?
Mr. O'CONNOR: `I hope he jumps high enough.' I think you don't really--it's
not that sense. You have a tremendous confidence in what the horse is going
to do and what you have done and your training leads you to that point where
it's not a conscious effort of trying to make them jump. You don't make the
horses jump in this aspect. You get them there right, you get them there at a
certain speed, you get them there and it's helping with their balance and it's
their job to jump and you get to enjoy that process as it goes on.
So it's not so much, you know, that you're thinking one specific thing, like
you would ask a soccer player, what is he thinking just as he's about to kick
a ball? You know, I don't think it's a conscious level at that point.
GROSS: Now I know if I were jumping, which I wouldn't be, that just as we
got, you know, to the obstacle, I would be tensing my body and thinking,
`Uh-oh.' Now tensing your body is probably the last thing you want to do as a
horse is about to jump?
Mr. O'CONNOR: Yeah, it's exactly right. I mean, in that situation we,
because of our experience, are at a level where you really--you don't--as the
horse is going to take off, you don't think of whether the horse is going to
jump of if he's going to jump. You're only trying to help him jump better.
So there's not that nervous feeling at all in this level of sport.
GROSS: Now, David, you said something like you have to get the horse right to
the jump. What are you looking for in getting the pacing right and making
sure that they're in the right--at the right distance from the obstacle before
the horse has to jump over it?
Mr. O'CONNOR: The easiest way to explain how a rider helps a horse with his
jumping is there are certain things that the rider has control over. One is
the speed, and the other is what we call the striding. And the example of
that you could use from just our point of view is that if you were running
across the street and were going to jump--even step up onto a curb, you would
adjust your footfall in order to--so that you would step up onto that curb
Mrs. O'CONNOR: And not run into it.
Mr. O'CONNOR: And not run into it. Well, the horse does the same thing when
he's going to jump, and a rider can sense where that is. Do you need to
expand your stride? Do you need to compress the stride in order to help you
get to that place to jump at the best way possible? And that is a feeling
that is developed over the years, and you can do that with a horse and help
him. Your job as a rider is to help him make whatever's going to happen,
happen better. So your job is to make the jump happen better by helping him
lengthen or helping him shorten or not letting him go from one side to the
other, not letting him drift, keeping your direction. So in that part, it's
very simple in its idea, though a little bit hard to explain, I think, when
you're doing it.
Mrs. O'CONNOR: And the other thing is, is that--remembering that the horse
has not seen the jump or the course at all, and so we have all of the
information to be able to direct him in a way that he then, when he leaves to
jump the jump, we would know how big the drop is, we would know what's on the
other side, we would know if there's a jump on the other side that would
enable us to be able to place him perfectly so that he does it very easily.
Now that--our job ends up being to make it simplistic for the horse. That
takes quite a lot of complexity to be able to do that.
GROSS: Have either of you been injured in a fall?
Mr. O'CONNOR: Yeah, both of us have, you know, broken bones and done some
damage internally. I mean, I've had a punctured lung before and Karen's had
a--she tore a hole in her kidney once because a horse kneeled on her as it was
getting up. And so we have spent our time in the hospital, and I think as we
say, that is something that you don't dwell on. It's not something that I
think about every day. I don't think Karen thinks about it every day.
Mrs. O'CONNOR: Yeah, I don't think about it much at all, really.
Mr. O'CONNOR: Yeah. It's just--I think that's part of life. You can't make
any sport, and especially a sport like this, safer than life itself, and so
that's part of what we accept.
GROSS: What's the technique you have to learn to fall in such a way that
you're not likely to injure yourself?
Mrs. O'CONNOR: I think when you're a child, in school we go through tumbling,
and that's very much an exercise for children to be able to carry throughout
their whole life on how to dissipate any kind of concussive effort. In other
words, the act of tumbling, jumping off something into a roll, is a safe way
for a person to fall. And I think that the experts would say that they're
trying to prepare the child for their first fall off a bicycle or first fall
on a pair of skis or whatever. And, you know, that certainly follows true to
When you fall off of a horse, the most important aspects of it are to not
brace against that fall. In fact, we try to roll out of the fall, one, so
that your joints are getting a much easier cushion and more of a trampoline
effect, and then the second one, of course, you want to roll out of the path
of the horse because in many times, most cases, the actual fall of the rider
really doesn't injure the rider, but one thing that can injure the rider is if
the horse runs over the top of you. So that comes right back to being able to
tuck and roll as you fall and just roll away from where the situation is.
Mr. O'CONNOR: But I must say that one of the techniques you're also trying to
do is try to not get yourself into a place where you're going to fall off in
the first place.
Mr. O'CONNOR: And that's a big deal.
Mrs. O'CONNOR: Sure.
GROSS: My guests are equestrian Olympic medal winners David and Karen
O'Connor. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guests are David and Karen O'Connor. At the Olympics in Sydney
last September they became the first married couple to have twice shared a
medal. They were part of the team that won a bronze for the three-day
equestrian event. David won a gold medal for the individual three-day
David, during one of the feature interviews with you this past summer during
the Olympics on TV, you and your mother told a story about how she took you
and your brother cross-country by horse when you were a kid. And during this
cross-country trip on horseback, you were, I guess, on a road and there was a
big truck coming at you. Would you tell the story?
Mr. O'CONNOR: Yeah. We were in Nebraska and we were--had been invited,
actually--when we were out in Nebraska and Wyoming, you know, people--you'd be
on the same road, obviously, for a long time, days and almost weeks, and so
people would kind of find out that you were coming. And so we got an
invitation and it ended up being a little bit farther off the road than we
thought and we ended up riding at night. And we were on a bridge, actually,
and it was quite a long bridge, you know, I would say a quarter-mile or so.
And it was pitch dark and I was in the front, and it was a small road off of
the major interstate that goes through the middle of Nebraska. And this truck
comes rolling off the highway and, of course, he doesn't see anything on the
bridge. We're just kind of riding along there and he's driving right down the
middle of the other bridge going, you know, lickety-split. And he didn't see
us until the very, very end and swerved over to the other lane. And where we
were, it was a very narrow bridge, and so there was no room to get off. We
couldn't get off onto the sidewalk. We couldn't do that. It was just the
railing and it was a long drop all the way down to--I don't even know if it
was over a river or over a gully, 'cause it was dark. We never really got to
And I still have this image of this truck, you know, barreling down on you and
having it pass you and, you know, seeing the rivets of the truck. You know
how, when you get into a dangerous situation, a lot of times time slows down,
and I still have that image in my head 20-some-odd years later of the rivets
in the truck passing you by. I'm feeling like they were just literally
inches. And the most amazing thing, really, is the horses. They never missed
a step. You think about--I could never do that on the horses that I have
right now. But these horses had already been, you know, 1,500 or 1,800 miles
by the time they had been there, and they were pretty used to a lot of
different situations. And they never missed a step. They just kept walking
on a straight line. Any kind of shying one way or the other and we would have
been killed. There's no doubt about that, that it was that close. And that
was--it was amazing, really, thinking about it years afterwards, that the
horses didn't react at all. They just kept walking straight down the line.
They knew that that was the only way out and that's what happened.
GROSS: Did your mother give you any advice? Did she holler anything as the
truck was approaching?
Mr. O'CONNOR: Yeah, she was just screaming at me, you know, just about
keeping him straight and, `Keep going. Keep going forward. Keep going
forward,' because we didn't have anywhere else to go. It was a pretty
nerve-racking moment, and it's one of the things that stays out in my head,
obviously, for a big part of that trip. But the whole trip was quite an
experience and there were a lot of different situations, good, bad and not so
great to be in. But overall, the trip, you know, made a tremendous impression
on my life because we stayed with the richest of the rich and the poorest of
the poor and really had a tremendous appreciation about how people in all
walks of life make a living and scratch out a living in agriculture and in
towns. It was quite an amazing deal.
Mrs. O'CONNOR: And he was only--What?--11 years old.
Mr. O'CONNOR: I was only 11 years old.
GROSS: Karen, do men and women ride differently? Is there, like, a different
posture or a different style for men and women?
Mrs. O'CONNOR: Well, it's a good question. There certainly is not a
different posture. Even though the anatomy's quite different, funny enough
the way a person sits on a horse does not change whether you're male or
female. I would say that the only difference is the strength issue. Men are
stronger than women. There's just no getting around that. So the variety of
horses that a man can ride might vary that they can ride a horse that can
become quite strong to ride, whereas a woman has the advantage that they,
being a little bit smaller, can ride a smaller size of horse. So I think the
strengths and weaknesses to each of the sexes balance themselves out.
And on the day--it is the only Olympic sport in the Summer Games where men and
women compete equally against each other, and it is very true that they have a
level playing field with one another, and it's fascinating to be a part of
that. And there's no question that women are equally as talented and strong
enough to do this job as men are, back and forth.
GROSS: You were both on the team that won the bronze medal at the Olympics
this past summer for the three-day equestrian event. And you are, I think,
only the second husband-and-wife team to share a podium for the same medal in
Olympic history. Can you tell us a little bit about what it was like to be on
the podium together for the same event?
Mrs. O'CONNOR: Well, this is the second time, really, we've been on the
podium together, 'cause in Atlanta we won the team silver medal, and at that
moment in time, in Atlanta, when we stepped up on the podium, it was a very
quiet moment for us that we really were not sure we were ever going to repeat
again 'cause it's such a special moment and such an unusual moment. And then
to have it happen again four years later, one of the most significant moments
in your sporting career and the person that you want to share it with the most
is literally standing right next to you and is a part of it, it's a great
moment personally within our sporting lives. And now we have four years to
see if we could do it again. It's pretty exciting to think of the prospects
GROSS: David and Karen O'Connor are Olympic medal winners. They'll be back
in the second half of the show.
I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with David and Karen
At the Olympics in Sydney last September, they became the first married couple
to twice share a medal. They were part of the team that won a bronze for the
three-day equestrian event. Their team won a silver in '96. Also in Sydney,
David won a gold medal for the individual three-day equestrian event.
Do you ever get competitive with each other?
Mr. O'CONNOR: We're sitting here looking at each other, wondering who's
going to answer that one. Riding is a lot like golf in a way that it's a very
individualistic sport, and you practice your own techniques, and you're
competing with your horse against the course, against the clock, against all
this kind of stuff, and so you're not so much competitive with any other one
person, even--whether you're married to them or not. It's not that type of
sport. So I don't think that we have that same level of competitiveness,
let's say, track or field or swimming where you just are faster or stronger or
whatever than--or you can jump...
Mrs. O'CONNOR: It's not head-to-head competition.
Mr. O'CONNOR: Yeah, because it's not head-to-head, you feel that you don't
have that level of competitiveness. But we are extremely competitive people
and competitive about ourselves. And so what we expect of ourselves,
individually, is very, very high. And that is a constant part of our kind of
communication and in our talking between ourselves and, you know, in our
GROSS: How do you prevent that from getting in the way of the relationship?
Mr. O'CONNOR: We have rules. We have, definitely, rules, and one of the
major rules is that both Karen and I were international level competitors
before we got married, and one of the major rules is not trying to make the
other person what you are, you know, with technique. And so in that, we do
not give each other an opinion, unless if it's asked for. And if it's asked
for, then you have to be willing to hear it. But you don't offer one unless
if it's asked for.
GROSS: And if it's asked for, what if the opinion isn't very good? I mean,
will you give that honestly?
Mr. O'CONNOR: Yes.
Mrs. O'CONNOR: Oh, absolutely.
Mr. O'CONNOR: You have to. Because then you're at a...
GROSS: That's the rule.
Mrs. O'CONNOR: That's the rule.
Mr. O'CONNOR: That's the rule. Because you have to.
Mrs. O'CONNOR: And it...
Mr. O'CONNOR: Because at that point, that means the person is stuck about
what they believe in, and so you have to give your honest opinion, or
otherwise, you know, it's not going to help the other person get ready for the
competition at all.
Mrs. O'CONNOR: True. And if the other person is squirming because they
don't really want to hear that, then, of course, you know, we remind each
other of the rule.
Mr. O'CONNOR: One of the biggest things why, I think it does work so well,
is we're two individual people going down the same road. We're not trying to
be one person. And because we're going down the road, we can really enjoy how
the other person competes, when they compete and the only--it's not about who
wins and who loses, it's about--the hardest day is when someone is winning or
second or third or whatever, up on the top and somebody else has a disastrous
day, in that they fall off or they have--that's the much harder situation to
deal with than one person's first and one person's third because then really
does make a lot of difference in the long term.
GROSS: Yeah. Well, that's a good point. So how do deal with your
exhilaration at having won a race while your partner has fallen that day?
Mrs. O'CONNOR: We drive different vehicles home.
Mr. O'CONNOR: Well, the problem is we drive different vehicles there because
we've got so many horses and so many vehicles to take.
GROSS: Right, right.
Mrs. O'CONNOR: Taking the circus on the road, that's for sure.
Mr. O'CONNOR: Yeah. We definitely have a crew. It's like running a Formula
One team, there's a lot of trucks on the road when we go. I think, in that
situation is, we have learned--and you learn that because of experience
because you've been in the situation a number of times and we've been at this
a long time--that the highs are not as high as they used to be, when I think
you were younger because I think you don't feel like your life is going to
make a break whether you win one competition or another. So your highs are
not quite as high, which puts then, your lows not as low. And you try to keep
everything in the middle ground and that's really how you deal with it, is
that tomorrow is always another day, there's always another competition. And
when we start to look up on our wall and see the things that we've won and the
trophies we won, it's amazing, you sit there in your living room and you
think, `When did I--that was '95, no, no, actually, I fell off in '95. That
was '96.' And it puts it into a long-term perspective. It seems very
important at the time but when you get to walk away from it, it loses part of
its, kind of, special moment.
Mrs. O'CONNOR: The intensity of the moment.
Mr. O'CONNOR: Intensity of the moment.
GROSS: How big of a team do you take with you to competitive events?
Mr. O'CONNOR: There are roughly about six or seven people that go out on the
road with us when we're competing a lot of horses. At the Olympic Games, we
would have a person per horse and that would take of that. Plus, blacksmith,
vets, physiotherapists, an administrator for the team, a massage therapist, we
actually even use acupuncture and so on a trip like the Olympic Games, you can
literally have 10 or 15 people that are extra besides you and your horse. On
a private basis, when we're competing, we take four or five people on the road
with us because, most of the time, we're competing three or four horses
together. And so it really is a tremendous crew. That doesn't count the crew
that we have at home, plus the crew we have in the office. I mean, it's a
very, very big group.
GROSS: Is the acupuncture for you or the horse?
Mr. O'CONNOR: For the horse. It's amazing what it does.
GROSS: Well, tell me about it.
Mr. O'CONNOR: It's the same thing. It works along the same lines as what it
does with people--about pain relief for muscles. And it has an amazing
effect, along with massage therapy, so we really do the same level of care,
especially preventative care, as any marathon runner or any track and field
star would and that really is what it takes to keep a competitive athlete at
the top of their game.
GROSS: The horse can't say it hurts over here.
Mr. O'CONNOR: They don't tell you--they obviously can't tell you in words
but they do tell you in--you know, of soreness. That's part of the riders
job is to always feel how a horse is working and how a horse is feeling.
GROSS: Have you ever had to put a horse you loved down?
Mrs. O'CONNOR: Sure. You know, horses--you can't control everything, just
like people, they get sick. And if they have an injury or sometimes they
don't make it. So we've had isolated instances of horses that have had to be
put down over the last 20 years but I think we could probably count them on,
you know, one hand. So we feel very lucky that, with the people that work
with us on the team, in this Formula One team as we call it, we have very,
very good management and the percentage of injury or sickness with our horses
has been very, very small and we feel very lucky about that.
Mr. O'CONNOR: But make no mistake, I mean, it's crushing when it happens.
You feel like a personality that you have been working with over the years is
now gone and that, with any type of situation, is devastating in you feel a
big hole of your life. And that hole, in some ways, gets filled up with other
things but it's never totally filled up.
Mrs. O'CONNOR: And we're as close to these horses as we are to our closest
friends. And so if one of them dies--and, of course, we have horses that die
of old age as well--that's a friend and that's a good friend and it's a time
to mourn and a time to be very reflective on the passage time that you were
able to have with that animal.
GROSS: Well, I want to thank you both so much for talking with us.
Mr. O'CONNOR: Well, thanks for having us. It's been a pleasure.
Mrs. O'CONNOR: It's been fun.
GROSS: Karen and David O'Connor are Olympic medal winners.
Coming up, pianist Bill Charlap. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Bill Charlap talks about his very musical family and
how he got started playing jazz piano
TERRY GROSS, host:
Bill Charlap is a pianist who is described as `lyrical repository,' by the New
Yorker jazz critic Whitney Balliett. In a 1999 profile, Balliett wrote that
Charlap was the best but least well-known of a swarm of gifted pianist who
have appeared in New York in the past 10 years. He has already filled much of
the sizeable space, once occupied by Bill Evans. Charlap grew up with jazz
and show music. His father Moose Charlap wrote many of the songs for the
Broadway musical "Peter Pan." His mother is singer Sandy Stewart. Charlap
has recorded several CDs that reveal his knowledge of standards and obscure
jazz and pop songs. Before we meet him, let's hear a track from his new CD
"Written in the Stars." This is the Frank Loesser song "On a Slow Boat to
(Soundbite of Bill Charlap's "On a Slow Boat to China")
GROSS: Bill Charlap, welcome to FRESH AIR.
Mr. BILL CHARLAP (Jazz Pianist): Thank you, Terry, it's a pleasure to be
GROSS: How did you develop your interest in songs and theater music?
Mr. CHARLAP: Well, I didn't really develop it, it just was always there.
You know, that's really pretty much how anything is developed for me. It's,
basically, something that I like, that's all. Of course, I developed it
because my mother is a professional singer and a wonderful singer who sang
with Benny Goodman and recorded in the '60s an album that was
Grammy-nominated, called "My Coloring Book." And she was a regular on "The
Perry Como Show," "The Mitch Miller Show," so she was really a pop singer of
her generation, like a Rosemary Clooney, someone like that. A pop singer
who sings the melody but swings. And Dad, Moose Charlap who died when I was
seven years old, was a composer of popular songs and, mostly, however, theater
music. He's most known for most of the music to the Mary Martin "Peter Pan,"
songs like "I've Got to Grow," "I'm Flying," "Tender Shepherd," and "I Won't
Grow Up," that's all my dad. So I grew up with those songs as a central focus
in my home.
GROSS: So those songs were all around when you were growing up...
Mr. CHARLAP: They were.
GROSS: ...theater songs and the top songs of that period.
Mr. CHARLAP: They were and so were the composers and lyricists who wrote
them. Nea Parberg(ph) used to come by our house, Charles Strauss(ph) was
around, Marilyn and Alan Bergman, many more, just people that I didn't really
recognize were these people at the time. They were just--`This is your uncle,
GROSS: So when you were starting to play piano--you know how a lot of kids,
when they take piano lessons, they're expected to like perform for their
relatives, show off a little bit.
Mr. CHARLAP: Yes.
GROSS: Were you encouraged to do that when Yip Harburg was over with all
these composers and lyricists.
Mr. CHARLAP: I didn't need any encouragement.
GROSS: You were a ham.
Mr. CHARLAP: Well, you know, I'm a performer. There must be some want to
perform there, you know. But it wasn't really like that. It was more like an
acceptance of, `Oh, this is what he does.' You know, it wasn't really like,
`Wow, it's so special,' perhaps, though I did feel the support of my parents.
It was more like, `Well, this is just what he does.'
GROSS: How come Julie Styne and Comden and Green wrote "Never Never Land,"
which is also from "Peter Pan."
Mr. CHARLAP: Yes, and a magnificent song. My father was a very young man
when he was hired to write the music for "Peter Pan," with Carolyn Leigh, who
went on to become a very famous lyricist, but she was unknown as well. She's,
written, you know, many songs, Cy Coleman and many others. In any event,
my father was very young at the time and the producers got a little bit
skittish as they were doing the out-of-town trials and they felt, `Well, you
know, we have this unknown composer and unknown lyricist on this and even
though they're wonderful, we really need to get a big name in on this.' So
they hired Julie Styne and Betty Comden and Adolph Green to write what's now
called in the program, `Additional songs by.'
GROSS: Got it. Well, I want to play a song that your father wrote called "I
Was Telling Him About You." And this version is featured on a recording that
your mother, Sandy Stewart, made a few years ago, in which you're featured on
piano and your brother Tom Charlap is featured on bass. What are your
memories of this song?
Mr. CHARLAP: Well, to tell you the truth, I don't really have memories of it
from my youth. Again, that song was a hit, I think, before I was born. I got
to know it later because of my mother and some recordings, recordings of
things like--Joe Williams recorded it and...
GROSS: Betty Carter.
Mr. CHARLAP: ...Betty Carter recorded it, Johnny Mathis recorded it, I just
found that, Marvin Gaye recorded it, of all things.
GROSS: No, I didn't know that.
Mr. CHARLAP: I just found that out from Kenny Washington the other day. He
was playing it on his radio show. So many people have recorded that song and
it's just a lovely lyric, a very original tune and one of my father's only hit
pop tunes. It wasn't written for a show, it isn't theater music, it was just
a popular song. And it was nice recording this too because I had my brother
on bass and my mother was remarried to a man called George Trafon(ph), who
plays trumpet on this track and a dear friend of mine called Ron Vincent who
played drums on here.
GROSS: So this is the Moose Charlap melody "I Was Telling Him About You" from
the Sandy Stewart album, "Sandy Stewart and Family." My guest, Bill Charlap,
featured at the piano.
(Soundbite of "I Was Telling Him About You")
Ms. SANDY STEWART (Singer): (Singing) My arms were around him, my eyes were
aglow, the moment was tender, the music was low. But while we were dancing, I
think you should know, I was telling him about you. He kept coming closer,
the magic was there. He wore an expression that made people stare. It looked
so romantic but, darling, I swear, I was telling him about you. When you
passed by and caught my eye, you didn't say a word. You turned about and
walked right out. And the silence was the loudest I ever heard. Come back to
me, darling. I must make you see.
GROSS: I neglected to mention that the lyric to that song was written by Don
George. The recording we just heard was made in 1993. It must be really
interesting to play with your mother singing.
Mr. CHARLAP: Well, you know, every child has a feeling, when they hear their
mother's voice speak, if you know what I mean, and it's the original voice
that you heard. And it's nice to have your mother sing you to sleep. But in
my case, my mother's a professional singer so when I hear her voice, besides
that she is really a magnificent singer by anybody's estimation, for me it's
special hearing my mother's voice sing so beautifully. So, yes, it is special
playing for her and I've learned a great deal about phrasing from her. She's
one of the great phrasers and a real professional, too. My mother, when
you're working with her as a singer, she's one of the boys, in the best sense,
in that she really is an incredibly low-maintenance professional musician so
it's great to play with her.
GROSS: You know, I saw your mother in a rock 'n' roll movie and I can't
remember the title of because all of those great rock 'n' roll movies just
kind of blend together after a while.
Mr. CHARLAP: "Go, Johnny, Go!"
GROSS: There you go.
Mr. CHARLAP: She was Julie Melody.
GROSS: Were you very amused the first time you saw your mother in a
rock 'n' roll movie?
Mr. CHARLAP: Sure, I got a huge kick out of it. Are you kidding me? My
mother in a Chuck Berry movie? She sang "Little Playmate" in it with a
rockabilly beat. You know, the reason for that is it was public domain and
they could use a song like that and they didn't have to pay anybody. But
she's the female lead in that show which is about a talented, yet, juvenile
delinquent guitarist, who she falls in love with. Now when we say juvenile
delinquent, we mean that he--I don't know--I think he may have smoked a
cigarette once and drank half a beer and cut school. It's a different type of
juvenile delinquent in the 1950s.
GROSS: My guest is pianist Bill Charlap. His new CD is called "Written in
the Stars." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is pianist Bill Charlap. He has a new CD called "Written in
How does your life, as a musician, compare to the lives you saw around you
from the music world, when you were growing up?
Mr. CHARLAP: Well, it's similar in some ways, but quite different in others.
Neither of my parents were really jazz musicians. My father wasn't really a
singer or a player, yet he could really sell a song. Other composers used to
hire him to do backers' auditions because he had such an intensity and, you
know, a real salesmanship. But the thing that is similar for me is the work
ethic that particularly I saw in my father because it's the idea of, `Well, we
need a song that tells you about the female lead, about the subplot of the
story, that brings you from this scene to this scene, and that is a waltz, and
that has a dance number in there, and we need it by 3:00 today.' So it's not
about sitting around and waiting for the inspiration, `I can't create under
these conditions.' It's about being able to get to that place, and that's
craftsmanship, and I think that one has to get their craftsmanship to the
highest level before you can really just think about letting go. And I'm
always still working on it. So, in that way, it's similar, but in other ways,
it's quite a different lifestyle. I perform and I travel and I record and I'm
improvising all the time and I'm not a composer. So I think that it's quite
different. It's probably more similar to how my mother's lifestyle was when
she was performing.
GROSS: Why don't we close with something else from your new CD, "Written in
the Stars"? Why don't we close with the Gershwin song "Lorelei"? Want to
say anything about it?
Mr. CHARLAP: That's fine. Well, this is a unique tune, particularly how it
comes out of the bridge. You really have a stroke of genius with Gershwin,
there. You know, one of the things about George Gershwin is that there's
always some little stroke of genius somewhere that you think `Now, my God,
nobody else could possibly have thought of how to get from there to there.
Nobody would come up with anything as good, either, or with such a
naturalness, yet something so interesting.' I will say one other thing. And
I met Julie Styne years after my father died and he told me something really
great which I think you could say about a great jazz solo as well. He said,
`The secret of writing a popular song is that it be melodically simple and
harmonically attractive.' Now I love what he said there. It's not so simple
because he didn't say harmonically complex or even harmonically interesting.
He just said harmonically attractive. And that sort of tells you everything,
you know? I thought that was a great premier on how to make something with
meaning out of the least amount of materials which is a good deal of what it's
about for me.
GROSS: Well, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. CHARLAP: It's been my pleasure. Thank you.
GROSS: Bill Charlap's new CD is called "Written in the Stars."
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
(Soundbite of "Lorelei")
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