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Fresh Air Celebrates Frank Loesser's 100th Birthday.

Frank Loesser wrote the musicals Guys and Dolls and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying -- in addition to over 700 other songs. On today's Fresh Air, musical anthropologist Michael Feinstein discusses Loesser's musical legacy and plays some of his favorite Loesser tunes -- including several rare archival recordings.

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Fresh Air Celebrates Frank Loesser's 100th Birthday

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

I'm happy to have the opportunity to devote today's show to the music of
Frank Loesser. Today is the 100th anniversary of Loesser's birth. He's
best known as the songwriter for the musical "Guys and Dolls," which has
so many great songs, including "If I Were a Bell," "I've Never Been in
Love Before" and "Luck Be a Lady."

And he wrote the songs for the Pulitzer Prize-winning Broadway musical
"How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying," which features the
songs "I Believe in You" and "Brotherhood of Man."

Loesser's musical "The Most Happy Fella" is nearly an opera. Some of his
popular songs include "Baby It's Cold Outside," "Slow Boat to China" and
"I Hear Music."

To help us celebrate Loesser's centenary, we invited Michael Feinstein,
who was generous enough to bring some of his favorite recordings of
Loesser's songs, including a few rarities. Some of the recordings
feature Loesser singing.

Feinstein is a Grammy Award-winning singer and pianist. He was Ira
Gershwin's assistant for six years. His nightclub, Feinstein's at Loews
Regency in Manhattan presents people performing American popular song.

Michael Feinstein, welcome back to FRESH AIR, and thank you for
celebrating Frank Loesser's centenary with us. You've brought some great
songs with you. Let's start with a popular song from his most popular
show. Would you introduce it for us?

Mr. MICHAEL FEINSTEIN (Musician): Yes, indeed. This is the title song of
"Guys and Dolls," which is certainly Frank Loesser's most popular and
famous Broadway musical. And I chose this particular recording because
Sinatra is so connected with the persona of the "Guys and Dolls"
characters, even though he had great conflicts with Loesser personally.

But he was a huge fan of Frank Loesser's works, so much so that when he
started his own record label, Reprise Records, he recorded four musical
shows in their entirety as part of the Reprise repertory musical
theater. And "Guys and Dolls" was among the first that he chose to
memorialize in that way, with an all-star cast of people who were under
contract to him at Reprise.

GROSS: And one of them was Dean Martin, I guess.

Mr. FEINSTEIN: And Dean Martin, yes, by the way.

GROSS: Because he's dueting with him on this.

Mr. FEINSTEIN: Yes. So it's part of the Rat Pack.

GROSS: So this is Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra singing a duet of Frank
Loesser's "Guys and Dolls."

(Soundbite of song, "Guys and Dolls")

Mr. FRANK SINATRA and Mr. DEAN MARTIN: (Singing) When you see a guy
reach for stars in the sky, you can bet that he's doing it for some
doll. When you spot a John waiting out in the rain, chances are he's
insane as only a John can be for a Jane.

When you meet a gent paying all kinds of rent for a flat that could
flatten the Taj Mahal, call it sad, call it funny, but it's better than
even money that the guy's only doing it for some doll.

When you see a Joe...

GROSS: That's Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin singing "Guys and Dolls"
from Frank Sinatra's own version of the show. And it's one of the songs
that my guest, Michael Feinstein, has chosen to play in celebration of
Frank Loesser's centennial, which is today. He was born 100 years ago
today.

So Michael, tell us why you love Frank Loesser.

Mr. FEINSTEIN: I love Frank Loesser because to me, he is the most
perfect lyricist. I think that he and Johnny Mercer are the most
versatile, the most extraordinary in their growth throughout their
careers and their ability to reach for and write any kind of song.

Frank Loesser started as a guy who, according to Burton Lane, was
writing salacious special material and nobody ever expected that he
would become this extraordinary man who went on to write both music and
lyrics, won a Pulitzer Prize, which he always called his Putziler, and
change the face of American music theater and American popular song.

It's an amazing story, and simply his work is as good as it gets. He won
two Tony Awards, had four Academy Award nominations, an Oscar for "Baby
It's Cold Outside," over 700 songs. And it put him in the rarefied air
of those who wrote both words and music of which there are a handful:
Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Sondheim, Jerry Herman, Hugh Martin, Noel
Coward. But it's amazing that he had this journey and achieved a musical
success that few people can only dream of.

GROSS: Did you say he started writing salacious material?

Mr. FEINSTEIN: Yes. Burton Lane insisted that Frank was writing kind of
dirty stuff that was – I don't know where it was performed, but he said
that when Frank Loesser came to Paramount, there was great reticence
among the studio heads at first to hire him because he had this
reputation as being a loose cannon. And they didn't know if he'd be able
to conform to the studio system and create love songs that didn't have
an edge to them or had to be censored. And, of course, Loesser's
attitude towards working in Hollywood was very humorous. He took it all
in stride.

He once said what it's like to work in Hollywood: the producer orders a
certain title, the musical director orders a certain rhythm, the dance
director orders a certain number of bars, and the composer orders a
certain number of aspirin.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: That's great. That's great. So since we just heard Sinatra
singing "Guys and Dolls," I thought I'd play a soundbite from an
interview I did years ago with Susan Loesser, Frank Loesser's daughter,
and she had just written a biography of her father.

And apparently when Sinatra was preparing to play Nathan Detroit in the
movie adaptation of "Guys and Dolls," Frank Loesser did not like the way
Sinatra was doing the song. So here's Susan Loesser, talking about that.

Ms. SUSAN LOESSER: Nathan Detroit is a very rough character, a Broadway
character. And the original Nathan, Sam Levene, couldn't sing. He only
had one song, "Sue Me," and he came in wrong all the time on the first
note. So my father had to write him a four-bar phrase - call a lawyer
and - and if you listen to it, I will not sing it, it slides up to the
correct note to come in on.

That was how bad Sam sang, but he was also brilliant and wonderful and
rough and tough and Runyon-esque, whereas Frank Sinatra was very smooth
and crooned his songs. And in fact, Goldwyn had my father write three
more songs for Nathan in the movie, for Frank Sinatra.

And my father would listen to Sinatra rehearsing and would become
angrier and angrier. And finally, they had it out, and my father kind of
met his match with Frank Sinatra, who exploded about the same way my
father did, both of them screaming words that I won't say on the radio.

As it ended, Frank Sinatra, of course, performed the songs his way, and
they never spoke again.

GROSS: Well, that was Frank Loesser's daughter, Susan Loesser. Michael
Feinstein, have you heard other stories like that about Frank Loesser?

Mr. FEINSTEIN: I've heard many stories about his insistence that his
scores be performed a certain way. But unlike Richard Rodgers, he loved
popular recordings of his songs, where the songs would be reinterpreted
with different kind of phrasing.

But for Broadway, he absolutely wanted them performed a certain way, and
for the movies he wanted them performed a certain way because he knew
that if they weren't performed to his specifications, number one, they
could ruin the intent of a song in the show. And also, since these were
the first hearings of his songs, he wanted them sung exactly the way he
wrote them, and then if people took liberties with them later, that was
okay.

There's a famous story about Frank punching the soprano Isabel Bigley in
the nose when they were working on "Guys and Dolls" because he was so
exasperated that she kept singing one of his songs incorrectly. I mean,
he absolutely was a martinet about it. But then he would turn around and
be the most generous, sweet guy. He just wanted what he wanted for the
sake of his art.

GROSS: Well, I thought this might be a fun time to hear Frank Loesser
sing. And, ironically, even though he didn't like Frank Sinatra's
crooning, Loesser himself really is a crooner. He has a small, behind-
the-beat kind of voice.

Mr. FEINSTEIN: It's really interesting because he does, and this
recording that we're going to hear is one that he made with his wife
Lynn. It's a commercial recording that they made of the song "Baby It's
Cold Outside," which was a number that they sang as a party song.

And Loesser was working on an Esther Williams film, "Neptune's
Daughter," and they were going to use the song on "A Slow Boat to
China," but the censors turned it down, saying that it was too
salacious. And so, Frank pulled this trunk song out and it eventually
went on to win an Academy Award.

One of the things that I love about the printed sheet music of "Baby
It's Cold Outside" is that the sheet music describes the tempo as being
performed as Loesserando(ph).

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Is that something he made up?

Mr. FEINSTEIN: Yes.

GROSS: That's great. So do we know what year this is from?

Mr. FEINSTEIN: This is 1948.

GROSS: Great. So this if Frank Loesser and his wife, his first wife,
Lynn, dueting on Loesser's song "Baby It's Cold Outside."

(Soundbite of song, "Baby It's Cold Outside")

Mr. FRANK LOESSER (Composer): Hey baby, where you going?

Mr. LOESSER and Ms. LYNN LOESSER: (Singing) I really can't stay – but
Baby it's cold outside. I've got to go away – But baby it's cold
outside. This evening has been – So happy that you dropped in. So very
nice - I'll hold your hands, they're just like ice.

My mother will start to worry – But beautiful, what's your hurry? - My
father will be pacing the floor - Listen to the fireplace roar - So
really I'd better scurry - Beautiful, please don't hurry - Well maybe
just a half a drink more - Put some records on while I pour.

The neighbors might think – But baby, it's bad out there. Say, what's in
this drink - No cabs to be had out there. I seem to be in - Your eyes
are like starlit sand. Some crazy spell - I'll take your hat, your hair
looks swell. I ought to say no, no, no, sir – You mind if I move closer?
At least I'm gonna say that I tried – Baby, make my conscience your
guide. I really can't stay - Baby don't hold out. Ahh, but it's cold
outside.

GROSS: That's Frank Loesser and his first wife, dueting on Loesser's
song "Baby It's Cold Outside."

Mr. LOESSER: Whom he referred to as the evil of two Loessers.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: And my guest is Michael Feinstein, who is here to celebrate Frank
Loesser's centenary with us today. Today is the 100th anniversary of
Loesser's birth. And Feinstein has brought some great recordings with
him of Loesser songs.

They sound so great together, don't they, Frank Loesser and his first
wife?

Mr. LOESSER: They do. Her name was Lynn Garland, and she was a band
singer, and she was quite talented. He was very, very much in love with
her and said that she was his inspiration until a number of years later,
she wasn't.

GROSS: That's right. And then he married the star of "The Most Happy
Fella," Jo Sullivan Loesser.

Mr. LOESSER: Right, and found new inspiration.

GROSS: Well, you brought a few rarities with you, and you have this 1943
radio interview with Frank Loesser that you brought. So I want to play
that for our listeners, but I want you to tell the story behind this
interview and how you got access to it.

Mr. LOESSER: One of the great things about living in Los Angeles part-
time and New York part-time is that going to flea markets and garage
sales, one can find all sorts of interesting things.

And this is a wartime, 16-inch transcription disk that I stumbled upon
at some estate sale in Hollywood, and it contained this appearance by
Frank Loesser on this radio show in which he speaks about his writing,
about how he writes songs.

And this was in a period in his career where he had just started to
write both music and lyrics.

GROSS: So here's a 1943 radio interview with Frank Loesser.

(Soundbite of radio show)

Mr. KENNY DELMAR(ph): Ladies and Gentlemen, I'd like you to meet Private
Frank Loesser of the United States Army.

Mr. LOESSER: Thank you, Kenny Delmar. All I can say is I'm present and
awaiting orders.

Mr. DELMAR: Oh, well, you'll get your orders from Earl Wright(ph), and I
understand he's going to ask you a few very personal questions.

Mr. LOESSER: Well, fire away, Earl.

Mr. EARL WRIGHT: Well, here's the first question, soldier. How did you
get bitten by the musical bug?

Mr. LOESSER: Oh, that's an easy one. You see, my father was a well-known
piano teacher. My brother Arthur, well, I'm sure you've heard of him.
Right now, he's one of the head men at the Cleveland Institute of Music.

Mr. WRIGHT: I see. Well, Frank, I guess you're a popular composer with a
real grounding in music.

Mr. LOESSER: Well, to tell you the truth, Earl, I can't read a note.

Mr. WRIGHT: Well, how did you break into...

GROSS: That's an interview with the composer Frank Loesser, who was born
100 years ago today. This is one of the recordings brought by Michael
Feinstein, who is here to celebrate the centenary with us.

And Michael, I love those kind of old, scripted interviews. You can tell
both the interviewer and interviewee are reading their parts but it's
still fascinating to hear his story.

Mr. FEINSTEIN: It is, and one of the things that's interesting about
that interview is that he states that he cannot read music, and he could
read music, and he studied music, and he actually became a very fine
musician.

It wouldn't have been possible for Frank Loesser to write a virtual
opera in "The Most Happy Fella" if he hadn't been studying music, and he
came from a family that was very cultured, a German immigrant family.
And his brother, Arthur, was a musical chronicler of classical music and
wrote a couple of very important books on concert music and pianists.

And Frank was a guy who cultivated this dees, dem and does kind of
persona, which was his exterior, but in truth, he was very cultured, and
he could read music. But he says on that interview he can't.

GROSS: I was so surprised to hear about his background because I had
always, you know, assumed that he was from probably parents who were
immigrants and that he was this, like, shocking success story in the
family. But according to his daughter Susan, they kind of looked down on
his career, and they looked down on the kind of pop music that he was
writing.

Mr. FEINSTEIN: It's so true, and his brother Arthur was very snobbish
about Frank, and after Frank had this extraordinary success, Arthur
still looked at him as the black sheep.

He didn't consider Frank's achievements valid in the world of real
music. He thought that it was absolutely lowbrow and insignificant, as
extraordinary as it sounds.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is singer and pianist Michael
Feinstein, who has devoted his life to the American popular songbook.
We'll continue our celebration of songwriter Frank Loesser, who was born
100 years ago today after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Michael Feinstein, who
through his performances, his archival work and his broadcasts has done
so much to celebrate American popular song and to bring those songs to
new audiences. And he's here to celebrate Frank Loesser's centenary with
us. Frank Loesser was born 100 years ago today.

Let's hear another great Frank Loesser song, and this is from the early
part of his career, and this is perhaps the only song that Bette Davis
ever recorded.

Mr. FEINSTEIN: Bette Davis did make other recordings, some of which were
not released. For example, she recorded...

Mr. FEINSTEIN: (singing) ...I've written a letter to daddy...

Mr. LOESSER: ...but they didn't release it. In the Broadway show "Two's
Company," she sang. And she loved her own voice. Nobody else did, but
Bette Davis was, she was fearless.

And this song was written by Loesser and Arthur Schwartz(ph), the
composer, for a movie called "Thank Your Lucky Stars," which was a 1943
Warner Brothers morale-booster that starred all of their contract
players, including Humphrey Bogart, Errol Flynn, who sang, Olivia de
Havilland, Eddie Cantor, Dinah Shore, Hattie McDaniel, Spike Jones and
his orchestra, and Alexis Smith, John Garfield. It was produced by the
Broadway producer, Mark Hallinger(ph), and they did not actually have to
work hard to convince Bette Davis to sing. She already thought she was
great.

GROSS: The song is called "They're Either Too Young or Too Old." So
before we hear Bette Davis sing it, would you set the context of the
song for us?

Mr. FEINSTEIN: This scene takes place in the Hollywood canteen, which
was the place in Hollywood where all the servicemen of all the different
branches of the service would come for a respite and to meet a star, to
dance with a movie star. And it was something that was actually started
by Bette Davis.

And she plays a hostess who's greeting various servicemen. And during
the Second World War, all of the able-bodied men were inducted into
service and, of course, there was a paucity of available guys, either
they were youngsters or they were ancient and not eligible for service.

And so Loesser picked up on that idea and wrote this marvelous song that
details all of the problems that dames are facing during that time. And
Bette is singing the song about a lover who is unavailable.

GROSS: So here's Bette Davis in 1943 singing the Frank Loesser song
"They're Either Too Young or Too Old."

(Soundbite of song, "They're Either Too Young or Too Old")

Ms. BETTE DAVIS (Actress): (Singing) You marched away and left the town
as empty as can be, and I am like the driftwood in a deadly comedy.

I can't sit under the apple tree with anyone else but me, for there is
no secret lover that the draft board didn't discover.

They're either too young or too old. They're either too gray or too
grassy green. The pickings are poor, and the crop is lean. What's good
is in the Army. What's left will never harm me.

They're either too old or too young. So darling, you'll never get stung.
Tomorrow, I'll go hiking with the Eagle Scouts, unless I get a call from
grandpa for a snappy game of chess.

They're either too warm or too cold...

GROSS: That's Bette Davis, singing the Frank Loesser song "They're
Either Too Young or Too Old." Frank Loesser was born 100 years ago
today, and we're celebrating his centenary with Michael Feinstein, who
has brought some terrific Frank Loesser songs for us to hear.

That was one of Loesser's early hits, wasn't it?

Mr. FEINSTEIN: Yes, it was. He, of course, had some hits in the '30s,
but this was a big wartime hit. He also wrote the music and lyrics. His
first song for which he supplied music and lyrics, "Praise the Lord and
Pass the Ammunition," but this song was, let's see, Jimmy Dorsey. Jimmy
Dorsey's band recorded it, and it went up to number two on the charts.
So it was immensely popular.

GROSS: Not only did Loesser write two great songs during World War II
about – that were war-related, "Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition"
and "They're Either Too Young or Too Old," he joined the Air Force
during World War II. I'm not sure how long he was away, but I know he
was in it.

Mr. FEINSTEIN: And he wrote a lot of wartime reviews for the servicemen,
you know, stuff that the public never saw. And he wrote a song for the
infantry called "Rodger Young," because all the other branches of the
service had their songs, you know, like "Anchors Away" or "Wild Blue
Yonder." And so Loesser wrote "Rodger Young," and he also wrote "What Do
they Do in the Infantry? We March, We March, We March."

GROSS: Michael, I want to play something for you. This is a soundbite
from an interview I did with Loesser's second wife, Jo Sullivan Loesser,
and this was about the importance of lyric writing to Loesser, even when
he was writing words and music. And I think we have heard how wonderful
and clever his lyrics can be. So here's Jo Sullivan Loesser talking
about him writing lyrics.

Ms. JO SULLIVAN LOESSER: The words were very important to Frank, too. He
loved the words because when he wrote a piece, he always wrote the words
first, and then he would write a melody.

And he used to say to me now, don't pay any attention to this melody. It
may not be the right one. It's just a dummy melody. Just listen to the
words.

So then, after he decided that the words were correct, then he would
work on his music and develop that. And he was very, very particular to
every single person in the cast about how they sang his music.

GROSS: You know what I find fascinating about that? That he'd have dummy
melodies. He'd tell her that this might not be the final melody. I know
of songwriters who've had dummy lyrics, just like placeholders to sketch
out the rhyme and take up the beat. But I never heard of dummy melodies
before, writing melodies that might not be the final melody just to have
something to accompany the lyric.

Mr. FEINSTEIN: Well, his first huge solo hit, "Praise the Lord and Pass
the Ammunition," was a melody he wrote that he considered a dummy, and
he had asked another composer to write music for it. And the other
composer said no, no, no keep what you got. It's great.

So that was a pattern that he engaged in very early. And actually, if a
lyric writer is working on a project where they have to come up with a
type of song that would be a story-song or a character-song, sometimes
they'll write the lyric first, and they will have their own dummy melody
in their head, which they never reveal to the composer - as Ira Gershwin
told me that he did so it would give him some of form in which to set
the words.

GROSS: Really? So Ira Gershwin would write these fake melodies just to
have a melodic shape for the words he was writing?

Mr. FEINSTEIN: Yes. He did that sometimes. And the interesting thing
about Loesser is that once he started to write alone musically, somebody
said, well, why do you prefer to write alone musically? And he said,
well, that's so I can preserve the exclusivity of failure.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: You know, in talking about how Frank Loesser wrote songs, one of
the things that Jo Sullivan Loesser, his second wife said, was that he'd
sometimes – he'd often wake up at four in the morning so he could write
songs from, like four until eight, before the phone started ringing. And
then he'd often ask someone to like drive him around so he can write
songs away from the telephone. I just found that so amusing. And today
you wouldn't be able to do that because you'd have your cell phone in
your pocket.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FEINSTEIN: Yes, the world has changed.

GROSS: Yeah. Well, you brought another great song with Loesser as the
lyricist. And the composer of this is Hoagy Carmichael. The song is "Two
Sleepy People." Tell us why you brought this.

Mr. FEINSTEIN: This song is a beautifully evocative song. And it's one
that was a mighty achievement for Loesser because it was the first hit
song that he wrote with Hoagy Carmichael. And it really was, in many
ways, the turning point of Loesser's career in that the song was written
for Bob Hope and Shirley Ross to sing in a movie called "Thanks for the
Memory." And the movie was called "Thanks for the Memory" because the
previous year, Bob Hope and Shirley Ross had introduced the song "Thanks
for the Memory" in "The Big Broadcast." And it was so successful that it
won an Oscar. And the producers at Paramount wanted a sequel to "Thanks
for the Memory."

Now, how the heck do you write a song that's a sequel - that they wanted
as a hit, of course - to an Oscar-winning number? And sure enough,
Loesser came up with this idea. And it - well actually, according to
Susan Loesser, his wife Lynn came up with the idea, that they were - the
Loessers and the Carmichaels were together socially and Frank said we
got to come up with a song idea, a song title. And they kicked around
ideas until about 3 a.m. And finally, as the Carmichaels were leaving,
Lynn said look at us. We're just four sleepy people. And suddenly, the
light went on, and that gave Frank the idea for the song.

GROSS: And how did Frank Loesser start collaborating with Hoagy
Carmichael?

Mr. FEINSTEIN: Frank Loesser was under contract at Paramount Studios,
and so he was assigned composers. The first composer to whom he was
assigned was Manning Sherwin, and then he started working with Burton
Lane, and then he started working with Hoagy Carmichael, then Frederick
Hollander, later Jule Styne. But they were assigned the collaborators,
and they didn't really have any choice.

GROSS: Well, I absolutely love this recording. This is from 1939, "Two
Sleepy People," and we'll hear Bob Hope and Shirley Ross.

(Soundbite of song, "Two Sleepy People")

Mr. BOB HOPE (Comedian, Actor, Singer): (Singing) Here we are, out of
cigarettes, holding hands and yawning, look how late it gets.

Ms. SHIRLEY ROSS (Actor and Singer): (Singing) Two sleepy people by
dawn's early light. And too much in love to say goodnight. Here we are
in the cozy chair.

Mr. HOPE: (Singing) Picking on a wishbone from the Frigidaire. Two
sleepy people with nothing to say.

Ms. ROSS: (Singing) And too much in love to break away.

Mr. HOPE: (Singing) Do you remember the nights we used to linger in the
hall?

Ms. ROSS: (Singing) Yeah. Father didn't like you at all.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HOPE: What ever happened to him?

Ms. ROSS: (Singing) Remember the reason why we married in the fall?

Mr. HOPE: (Singing) To rent this little nest and get a bit of rest.

Ms. ROSS: Well, here we are, just about the same. Foggy little fella.

Mr. HOPE: (Singing) Drowsy little dame. Two sleepy people by dawn's
early light, and too much in love to say goodnight.

Ms. ROSS: (Singing) Here we are...

GROSS: That's "Two Sleepy People," one of the recordings that Michael
Feinstein has brought with him today to celebrate the centenary of Frank
Loesser's birth. He was born 100 years ago today. And Loesser just wrote
the lyrics for that. Hoagy Carmichael wrote the music.

Michael Feinstein, how did Frank Loesser start writing music, as well as
lyrics?

Mr. FEINSTEIN: The interesting thing, Terry, is that he showed no
musical ability in his collaborations with other composers. Burton Lane
said that Frank Loesser never gave any indication that he had ability as
a composer. And Burton said that when Frank mentioned to him very
casually that he one day wanted to also compose, Burton almost
condescendingly said well, well, good luck. Good luck, Frank, you know,
because he didn't think Frank could do that. So Frank clearly had this
intention inside, but didn't express it to anybody - maybe to his wife
Lynn at the time. But those who knew him said that he was always
extraordinarily driven.

And those who were friends of his in the early days were not at all
surprised by his extraordinary success, because when he put his mind to
something, he would do it. And clearly, he decided that he wanted to run
the show and create his own music, probably because he had ideas as he
wrote dummy tunes in his head that he felt were appropriate for his
lyrics.

GROSS: Frank Loesser grew up in New York, moved to Hollywood to write
for movies, and then ended up writing some great shows for Broadway. How
did he make the transition from movies to Broadway?

Mr. FEINSTEIN: Well, he set his sights, like Jule Styne. Jule Styne was
writing for the movies, but Jule felt that his real legitimacy and
respectability as a composer could only come if he was writing for
Broadway. And Loesser felt the same way. Loesser had written for
Broadway early in his career without much success, but it gave him the
desire to create theatrical pieces, because in Hollywood, he was - in
the words of Oscar Levant - a cog in the wheel. He didn't have control
over what was done with his songs. He turned them in, and then the
producers took them and did as they pleased.

On Broadway, the composer had control, and Loesser wanted control
because he really knew better than the other people as to how his work
should be performed. And on Broadway, the composer could choose the
orchestrator. They worked with the book writer. They worked with all the
elements. And he wanted to write fully integrated dramatic theatrical
pieces, and he could never achieve that in Hollywood.

GROSS: So you've brought with you a song from his first Broadway show,
"Where's Charlie?" And this is a duet between Frank Loesser and Doris
Day. That's so exciting.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FEINSTEIN: Yes.

GROSS: I'm a big Doris Day fan.

Mr. FEINSTEIN: Me, too.

GROSS: So tell us the story behind this recording and how you found it.

Mr. FEINSTEIN: Doris Day, as a means of publicity in the early 1950s,
had a transcribed radio show. This is actually from 1952. The show was
supplied by Warner Brothers free to different radio stations to exploit
the current film in which Doris Day was starring.

Well, in 1952, her guests on her radio show were Frank Loesser and Ray
Bolger. And she did a tribute to Frank. And the applause of the audience
was all dubbed in. It was all done on the studio lot, and then it was
manufactured to sound like a live show. And I discovered that Frank had
sung this duet with Doris. I'd actually heard about it, and then a
friend mine who is a collector of radio recordings came across it. I
don't know where he found it, but he got it to me, and I cleaned it up
as best I could technically. And I don't believe it's ever been heard
since it was broadcast in '52.

GROSS: Wow. Okay. This is exciting.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So let's hear Doris Day and Frank Loesser singing a duet from a
1952 recording.

(Soundbite of Doris Day's 1952 radio show)

Ms. DORIS DAY (Actor, Singer): Would you join me in a duet on one my
Frank Loesser favorites, "My Darling."

(Soundbite of applause)

(Soundbite of song, "My Darling My Darling")

Ms. DAY: (Singing) My darling, my darling, I've wanted to call you my
darling for many, many a day.

Mr. LOESSER: (Singing) My darling, my darling, I fluttered and flagged
like a starling. My courage just melted away.

Ms. DAY: (Singing) Now all at once, you kissed me, and there's not a
thing I'm sane enough to say except...

Ms. DAY AND Mr. LOESSER: (Singing) My darling, my darling, get used to
the name of my darling. It's here to stay.

(Soundbite of applause)

GROSS: That's Frank Loesser and Doris Day, singing together a song
written by Frank Loesser, who was born 100 years today. And celebrating
his birthday with us today is Michael Feinstein, who brought that record
and many other records for us to hear.

They sound great together don't they?

Mr. FEINSTEIN: Yeah, and he was a real crooner.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Yeah, he was. He was.

Mr. FEINSTEIN: It's so funny because on Broadway he always said loud is
better.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. I know. I don't know whether to say he's a hypocrite, or
what.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: That he just doesn't appreciate a certain kind of singing on - I
guess he just doesn't appreciate it on Broadway. There's another
soundbite I want you to hear, and this is from when I interviewed
Charles Strouse, who wrote the music for the songs in "Bye Bye Birdie"
and "Annie," among other shows. And he was talking about what he learned
from watching Frank Loesser audition singers on Broadway. So let's hear
that.

(Soundbite of 2009 interview with Charles Strouse)

Mr. CHARLES STROUSE (Composer): I used to work for Frank Loesser.

GROSS: Oh.

Mr. STROUSE: I was his assistant for two years. And I remember when
Frank was testing people for range, he would often have them sing...

(Soundbite of Mr. Strouse vocalizing)

GROSS: From "Bushel and a Peck."

Mr. STROUSE: From "Bushel and a Peck." And because it was - he would put
it in a key with the pianist that it would be out of their range. They
had to go...

(Soundbite of Mr. Strouse vocalizing)

Mr. STROUSE: But because they were making fun, they could or could not
hit it. Had you said sing that note legitimately in a song like, I don't
know, "If I Loved You" or something, they would've said they can't reach
it. But when they were playing these characters, they could. So I
devised - it's not my own invention. Or maybe it is, I don't know. These
kids would come in, and I would just have them sing "Happy Birthday."
And once they passed the other thing, I would have a sing a song that
they didn't have to worry about anything. And so they would - happy
birthday...

(Singing) Happy Birthday.

See? And very often, they found that they could reach notes which, on
their resumes, they couldn't reach at all. And that was the sound I
wanted.

GROSS: That's sounds like an interesting way to audition.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FEINSTEIN: Oh, boy. Yeah. Well, he terrified singers. He terrified
them.

GROSS: Loesser did?

Mr. FEINSTEIN: Yes. And the thing that's interesting is that he worked
with all the people who were going to go on the road, with the chorus
people. Even though the show was already a huge success on Broadway, he
worked with the people who were going to do the road companies. And he
would scream and yell and leave them a shaking mess, but they went away
from the sessions with him having learned a lot. And it was not in vain.
I mean, he imparted extraordinary knowledge into these people. So he was
tough, but always for a purpose.

GROSS: Michael, another song you brought with you was from the show that
Frank Loesser won a Pulitzer Prize for, "How to Succeed in Business
Without Really Trying." And the star of the show and the movie
adaptation was Robert Morse, who is now on "Mad Men" as Bert Cooper, one
of the heads of the ad agency Sterling Cooper. Why did you choose this
one to play for us today?

Mr. FEINSTEIN: I chose this song because I think it is autobiographical.
I think that it really shows who Frank Loesser was. It's about his own
moxie. And, of course, he wrote it for a character in the show, about a
guy who is climbing the ladder - the career ladder and trying to get to
the top. But, Frank Loesser is that guy. I mean, Frank Loesser was the
guy who clawed his way to the top. I mean, he didn't actually have to
claw because he had such talent. But this song, to me, is also genius
because on the surface it seems like a generic love song, except that in
the show, the protagonist sings it to himself in a mirror.

GROSS: Right. I was so surprised when I saw that in the show, because I
didn't quite know that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FEINSTEIN: Right. And it's...

GROSS: I thought it was somebody singing to somebody they believed in,
but it's a very insecure guy who's building his confidence and singing
to himself in the mirror. So this is Robert Morse from "How to Succeed
in Business Without Really Trying," the movie adaptation.

(Soundbite of song, "I Believe In You")

Mr. FRANK MORSE (Actor and Singer): (Singing) Now, there you are. Yes,
there's that face, that face that somehow I trust. It may embarrass you
to hear me say it, but say it I must, say it I must. You have the cool,
clear eyes of a seeker of wisdom and truth. Yet there's that up-turned
chin and the grin of impetuous youth. Oh, I believe in you. I believe in
you. I hear the sound of...

GROSS: That's Robert Morse in the movie adaptation of "How to Succeed."
It's one of the recordings my guest Michael Feinstein has brought with
him today to celebrate the centenary of Frank Loesser's birth.

I should mention that "How to Succeed" is going to be revived on
Broadway soon, with - next spring with Daniel Radcliffe in the lead, and
he's the star of the "Harry Potter" movies.

So now that we've heard Robert Morse, I should mention that I know he
appeared at one of the Frank Loesser tributes that you did on stage. So
any interesting stories to tell about Robert Morse, or about the show
"How to Succeed?"

Mr. FEINSTEIN: One of the things about Robert Morse that always
impressed me - I met him through a mutual friend, George Firth, who is a
wonderful, of course, an amazing writer and actor - was that Bobby Morse
is nerveless. When we did this Frank Loesser tribute, he was backstage
and clowning and joking. And it seemed as if he wasn't even going to be
ready to go on stage, like he was about to miss his cue. He seemed to be
so distracted or casual about it. And then the minute that his name was
announced, he went on stage and it was total focus and genius,
performing with the same energy and fervor that he must've when he did
the show 40-some years earlier. And I was just impressed that his talent
is so organic that it just comes out in a focused way that was
extraordinary.

GROSS: My guest is Michael Feinstein, and he has done so much to
celebrate "The Great American Songbook" through his own performances,
his archival work and his broadcasts. And speaking of his broadcast, he
has a PBS series on American popular song coming up this fall.

So Michael Feinstein, we asked you to bring some Frank Loesser rarities
with you today, and I think you certainly succeeded with this one. This
is a song called "You're a Natural." Can you tell us about it?

Mr. FEINSTEIN: Yes. This song was written in 1938 for a movie called
"College Swing." And the composer is Manning Sherwin, who was Frank's
first collaborator in Hollywood and a guy whose music of which he was
not very found.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FEINSTEIN: He tried to get away from Sherwin and complained to
Burton Lane, who was also under contract. He didn't think that Manning
was up to Frank's standard. Even though at that point, Frank didn't have
any hits but he already considered himself better than this guy who was
already well-established.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FEINSTEIN: This demo that you're going to hear was created for the
producers at the studios to hear the song, to decide how to film and
stage the number and then would be distributed to potential publishing
houses and such to exploit the song. The interesting thing about it is
that this early number has a lot of the hallmarks of what became
trademark Loesser. It has the line: in a world full of phonies, I found
you.

And that was really what Frank was about. He hated anything that was
phony. And he also has a line about like a haunch on the ponies, which
kind of is a precognition to "Guys and Dolls." And then he uses slang,
like the phrase cops the pot. I don't know if anyone actually said cops
the pot, but I love hearing that in this song.

And the person at the piano for this demo is not Manning Sherwin, but
actually Burton Lane.

GROSS: Really?

Mr. FEINSTEIN: Yes.

GROSS: You probably know that from Burton Lane, who you collaborated
with on an album.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FEINSTEIN: Well, I recognize Burton's piano playing. And I know it's
Burton, but it's - he's not listed, but it's unquestionably Burton Lane
at the piano.

GROSS: All right. So this is from 1938. This is Frank Loesser.

Mr. LOESSER: "You're A Natural." Lyric by Frank Loesser, music by
Manning Sherwin.

(Soundbite of song, "You're A Natural")

Mr. LOESSER: (Singing) You're a natural, positively natural. In a world
full of phonies, I found you, fresh from heaven, like a lucky seven,
like a hunch for the ponies that came true. Why, the moment you passed
me by, I said to myself, said, said I: There's a thrill, fills the bill,
hits the spot, cops a pot. 'Cause you're a natural, positively natural,
so naturally, I'd love to amble down the aisle for one last gamble,
naturally with you. 'Cause you're a natural...

GROSS: That's Frank Loesser singing his song "You're A Natural." He
wrote the lyrics. Manning Sherwin wrote the music, recorded in 1938.
It's one the rarities that Michael Feinstein brought with him today to
help us celebrate the centenary of Frank Loesser's birth, which is
today.

So Michael, it's time to hear you sing. You've performed a lot of Frank
Loesser songs over the years. Which song would you like to play? And
this is a recording. We're not asking you to perform live.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FEINSTEIN: Oh, that's good. That's good. Terry, one of the things I
remember reading about Frank Loesser that has stuck in my brain all
these years is that he said: I'm in the romance business. I know I can
make you laugh. I want to know about what makes you cry. And this song,
to me, is definitive Frank Loesser, because it is tender. It is simple.
The economy of the lyric is such that it could almost be dismissed as
being too lightweight. But the levels of emotion that are contained in
it, in those few lines are very deep. And it's a song that I find that
immediately puts the audience in a place of transformation. People
immediately go, ah, the minute they hear it. And I just love that
reaction that comes from it, and that is the genius of Frank Loesser.

GROSS: Such a wonderful song. Michael Feinstein, I can't thank you
enough for helping us to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Frank
Loesser's birth. And it's a pleasure to talk with you. Thank you so much
for bringing in these recordings for us to hear. It's really been great.
Thank you.

Mr. FEINSTEIN: Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: And here's Michael Feinstein, singing and accompanying himself at
the piano.
..COST:
$00.00
..INDX:
128169934

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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