Record Producer Milt Gabler
We remember record producer Milt Gabler, who died July 20 at the age of 90. Gabler founded America's first independent record label, Commodore Records. He was the first to record Billie Holiday's anti-lynching song, Strange Fruit, after major record companies refused. He was also the first to pair Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald. Later, he produced records for Bill Haley and the Comets, Peggy Lee, the Weavers, the Ink Spots and many others. His record store Commodore Music was legendary and a hangout for musicians and music lovers.
Other segments from the episode on February 26, 2001
DATE July 26, 2001 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Howard Fishman discusses his career as a musician
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
My guest, Howard Fishman, is a guitarist, songwriter and singer who leads a
quartet that was described in The New Yorker as spinning out the freshest
small-group swing in the city. In The New York Times, critic Stephen
Holden praised the band for resurrecting the upbeat spirit of early
20th-century jazz and swing. Howard Fishman tries not to describe his music
other than saying it breaks down the walls between American music. This
Sunday, the Howard Fishman Quartet wraps up a month of Sunday performances
at Joe's Pub at the Public Theater in New York. They've been performing
music from a work in progress, a jazz opera being developed in conjunction
with the Public Theater. Fishman has also worked as an actor and director,
specializing in the work of Eugene O'Neill.
The Howard Fishman Quartet has a new CD called "I Like You a Lot." Let's
start with a track from it, "Night After Night."
(Soundbite of "Night After Night")
(Soundbite of music)
HOWARD FISHMAN QUARTET: (Singing) Night after night I still wonder when will
I see you again. Your memory echoes and thunders; I can't get you out of my
head. Day after day how I miss you, hour after hour how I cried. Night after
night, I get confused and I can't tell what's wrong from what's right.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Howard Fishman, welcome to FRESH AIR. Is there a story behind the
song we just heard?
Mr. HOWARD FISHMAN (Howard Fishman Quartet): There's a story behind the way
that it came out on the record, which is that we initially had recorded it as
a waltz in pretty straight 3/4 time and it was this very pretty, somewhat
haunting, you know, but basically pretty song. And we went back in at the
last minute at, like, 1 or 2 in the morning and decided that we needed to sort
of rip one of the songs up a little bit because that part of the band, that
aspect of the band which comes across mostly when we play live, was not really
represented on the record. So we chose "Night After Night" as our guinea pig
and we went in and just tried to tear it apart a little bit. And that's how
the song came up. And actually, the song ends with--I mean, I'm banging the
guitar so hard at the end, you know, I pop a string. And rather than stop the
take, I just sort of kept playing on that broken string. And finally, the
bass played the last note and I yanked the string out, and you hear the `pop'
of the peg coming out. And it was kind of a good way to finish the song.
GROSS: Where did you first hear music outside of the pop of your time, you
know, outside of what was playing on contemporary radio?
Mr. FISHMAN: Well, I was kind of a square peg when I was growing up. I never
really listened to pop radio. When I was younger, I was very immersed in the
theater world, and so I naturally listened to a lot of sort of pop standards,
The American Song Bag(ph) and Gershwin and Cole Porter and things like
that. And then as I got into my late teens, I started getting into some of
the older styles of roots American musics. But the first time I heard some of
the old music, I listened--I happened upon somebody's old record collection of
music from the '20s and '30s and I heard these old guitar players and singers.
And a lot of them were singing some of those songs, some of the, you know,
American Song Bag kinds of songs, but they were singing them in this very
earthy, folky, bluesy street way. And it just excited my imagination so. You
know, `I want to do that.'
GROSS: Who were you listening to?
Mr. FISHMAN: I listened to, like, Jesse Fuller and Reverend Gary Davis and
Mississippi John Hurt, Lonnie Johnson, Tampa Red, you know, guys that were
generally considered blues guys but they, a lot of times, would play popular
American songs or older American songs. And I just--I loved the idea that
they were doing them in this sort of non--this irreverent way. And I just
sort of thought, well, nobody else I know is doing that. I'm going to try it.
GROSS: Why don't you choose a song by Lonnie Johnson that falls in this
category that you're, you know, describing, blues musicians who sang
standards, you know, a song that had a big effect on you.
Mr. FISHMAN: The thing that comes to mind is this version of "I'm Confessin'
(That I Love You)" which you'll hear it if you play the whole track, he
says in the beginning of it, he says, `Well, this is a song you might know as
"I'm Confessin'" but it's not really called that. What it's really called is
"I'm Lookin' for a Little Sweetie,"(ph) and I know 'cause I wrote it and then
it got stolen from me. But I'm gonna sing you the original version.
GROSS: OK, let's hear it.
(Soundbite of "I'm Confessin'")
Mr. LONNIE JOHNSON: (Singing) Looking for a little sweetie, someone I can
call my own. When I find that certain someone, I'll take her home, 'cause I'm
longing for the loving. Just a little kiss from you, dear, promise me that
you'll always be true, as so many I know, but I'll always be faithful to you.
When we take our honeymoon...
GROSS: That's Lonnie Johnson. My guest is Howard Fishman, a songwriter,
singer and guitarist. And one of his influences is Lonnie Johnson.
What did you hear in Lonnie Johnson's singing that affected you and maybe
changed, you know, your own approach?
Mr. FISHMAN: I like singers that are unaffected and unadorned and use what
they have to get across what they want to get. And Lonnie Johnson just sings
with so much humility and sincerity that it just breaks my heart every time I
GROSS: Once you started listening to music that was outside of your time, did
you go in search of more of it?
Mr. FISHMAN: Oh, yeah. I...
GROSS: I mean, physically in search, you know, either to record stores...
Mr. FISHMAN: Oh, yeah.
GROSS: ...or to other parts of the country?
Mr. FISHMAN: Oh, absolutely. Yeah. No, I've scoured record stores and
libraries and thrift shops and come home with armfuls of 78s and old songbooks
and things like that. Yeah, I was obsessed for a little while, but, you know,
that's what I did.
GROSS: Why don't we hear another one of your songs. And this is called
"Dreams of You," and I think of this as almost sounding like a cowboy lullaby.
Mr. FISHMAN: (Laughs) OK. That's cool.
GROSS: And you think of it as...
Mr. FISHMAN: I've never heard it described that way, but...
GROSS: Yeah. What do you think of it as?
Mr. FISHMAN: "Dreams of You"--I don't know. "Dreams of You" is one of those
melodies that I just--it just came in my head one day. And it was just fully
formed and I just sat down and really easily wrote the words out and there it
GROSS: OK. Well, let's hear it. This is Howard Fishman from his CD "I Like
You a Lot."
(Soundbite of "Dreams of You")
(Soundbite of music)
HOWARD FISHMAN QUARTET: (Singing) What's life without romance? Without you,
I've got no chance. And every night has no end. I can't escape these dreams
of you. I see the world in black and white, but when I go to sleep at night,
I'm transfixed. I can't pretend, I can't escape these dreams of you. Do you
see me in your dreams? Do we share this other world? Are we still together
somewhere? Am I still your boy? Are you still my girl? I wake up each day,
the world cold and gray. I'm haunted by these dreams. I'm lost, alone and
blue. If I should die before I wake, I know at least I'll be with you.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is singer, songwriter and guitarist Howard Fishman, and his
CD is called "I Like You a Lot."
Now I think your father was a classical violinist, or is a classical
Mr. FISHMAN: That's right. He was a classical violinist, and it was because
of him that I started my musical education by playing the violin. I started
when I was eight years old, and I played until my young teen-age years. And,
yeah, my family has always been very musical and very appreciative of music.
GROSS: Now it sounds like you didn't really discover the music that you
loved, such as, you know, blues and country blues, until you were in your
Mr. FISHMAN: That's right.
GROSS: When you were playing as a child, did you love music as much then and
did you feel like the music you were playing meant much to you?
Mr. FISHMAN: It did, and I always loved music and I always loved performing.
I think the only reason that I changed course--things might have been very
different had it not been for my violin teacher, who was very mean and very
cruel, and it was because of him that I stopped playing violin and said, `I'm
never going to take another musical lesson again.' So when I started playing
piano and started playing guitar and started singing, all that was
self-taught. And to this day, whether it's to my benefit or detriment, I
still haven't taken a lesson on any of the instruments I play, mainly because,
you know, of the scars that were left by this horrible teacher I had.
GROSS: Oh, boy. How cruel was he?
Mr. FISHMAN: He was mean, yeah.
GROSS: What did he do?
Mr. FISHMAN: He told me I was really inadequate and said that I was no good
and just really discouraged me. And it was just a really traumatic
GROSS: What kinds of bands did you play in before forming your own band?
Mr. FISHMAN: Not too many. I started as a solo act, and I traveled around
quite a bit of the country just playing solo guitar and piano and singing.
And my first band was--when I lived in New Orleans, I started a band called
The Bold-Faced Liars(ph). And we did that for a little while, and it was
similar to this band in that it was acoustic and it didn't have a drummer and
like that, but it was a much more traditional band in that we didn't play
original material and we didn't do too much experimenting with the songs.
GROSS: And did you go to New Orleans because of the music?
Mr. FISHMAN: Oh, absolutely. Yeah.
GROSS: Were you disappointed in what you found, or pleased?
Mr. FISHMAN: I was disappointed in that it seemed that the traditions that
are so strong that come out of New Orleans, it's not that they had been
forgotten, but they had really been turned into this Disneyland kind of
version where you would go down Bourbon Street and every club, you know,
would have this sort of super, super watered-down version of old New Orleans
jazz and, you know, that Dixieland thing with guys in straw hats and red
suspenders and banjos and things like that. And there was not a lot of the
real old things still there, but there was some and that some was what I went
for and I got it.
GROSS: Via who? Who did you meet? What did you hear?
Mr. FISHMAN: I met Danny Barker, who was this--he was in his 80s at the
time. He died about a year after I got there. And he played with Jelly Roll
Morton and Duke Ellington and just about everybody--Cab Calloway. He was a
banjo player, a guitar player and singer. And he was just a very friendly,
GROSS: What are some of the things you learned from Danny Barker?
Mr. FISHMAN: The first time I met Danny Barker, he was playing in a club.
And, you know, I went up to him after the show really meekly and said, you
know, `Hey, Mr. Barker, you know, do you think--um--um--um, do you think maybe
I could ask you a question?' And he just said, `Man, you know, what are you
being so shy for? Come over here. I'm going to introduce you to people.'
And he brought the whole band around and he said, `Introduce yourself and, you
know, speak up.' And, you know, he was just very friendly and sort of that
was the first and best lesson I got when I got to New Orleans, which is just
don't be shy. Just, you know, if you've got something to say or something you
want to do or you want to meet somebody or you want to express something, just
GROSS: Was it hard for you to find like-minded musicians, for instance, in
putting together the band that you play with now?
Mr. FISHMAN: If they're going to be like-minded with me, all that means is
they have an open mind. I don't care where the person comes from in terms of
their musical background or what they want to play or what they want to bring
to the band, as long as, you know, they have an open mind about it. So the
guys in the band, and musicians I've put together in the past, have always
come from very different backgrounds, and that's what I like. The violinist,
Russell Farhang, comes from a classical background. The bass player, John
Flaugher, comes from a jazz background but he also has this funk thing that
he does. Erik Jekabson, the trumpet player, has a mixture of classical and
jazz and has a straight-ahead thing, but he also composes his own music. And
so you throw those three guys together with me, who comes from this background
of country blues and rural kinds of stuff and, you know, interesting things
GROSS: My guest is songwriter, guitarist and singer Howard Fishman. More
after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is songwriter, guitarist and singer Howard Fishman. His
quartet has a new CD called "I Like You a Lot."
Why don't we hear another song from your CD "I Like You a Lot." This is
another original, which is called "Hey, Little Girl." Tell us about
writing this one.
Mr. FISHMAN: When I was in New Orleans, I played in a Cajun band. And for
better or for worse, it affected me greatly. And for those people who know
what traditional Cajun music sounds like, they know what I mean. I mean,
there's a lot of sort of violins and accordions and things that sound like
they're out of tune. It's not the kind of music that you want to hear first
thing in the morning. And so this song came out of that thing, that Cajun
thing. And then the band added their sensibilities to it and it became
something much different. And I don't know what you would call it in its
final product, but that's great if you want to play it.
GROSS: OK. And this is a song by Howard Fishman, who also sings and plays
guitar on it. It's called "Hey, Little Girl."
(Soundbite of "Hey, Little Girl")
(Soundbite of music)
HOWARD FISHMAN QUARTET: (Singing) Hey, little girl, come go with me. I'll
take you to New Orleans. Go pack your bags now right away, I'll tell you what
to bring. Bring nothing but what's on your back, you won't need much else.
We'll leave tonight by the light of the moon and soon we will be there.
Hey, little girl, you look so good, you look so good to me. So lovely and
full of life, pity it can't breathe. If you want to have some fun tonight,
I'm gonna show you the way, the way down South to the place called Louisiana.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: That's "Hey, Little Girl" from the Howard Fishman Quartet album "I
Like You a Lot."
One of the places you've played in has been the subway.
Mr. FISHMAN: Yeah.
GROSS: I think it's a subway stop near where you live in Brooklyn?
Mr. FISHMAN: Yeah. That's right. That's where I started playing when I
first moved to New York.
GROSS: It's a good place to start. Can you get a clear sense of what goes
over in a crowd by playing in the subway?
Mr. FISHMAN: Oh, you get a very clear sense because, you know, nobody there
has to listen to you. They haven't paid, you know, $20 to get in the door
and, you know, they have a $10-a-drink minimum to meet or something like that.
You know, if they don't like you, they're just not going to listen and they're
going to walk right by you. But conversely, if you get a crowd on a regular
basis and you're playing in the subway and people stand there applauding and
miss their trains so they can hear more of you, you sort of know you're doing
GROSS: Did that happen that people would miss their trains intentionally
Mr. FISHMAN: It did. We got a lot of fans, you know, that way. People
would--they sort of became these informal concerts, you know, where we'd just
go down there. It started with just me playing by myself, and gradually one
by one I added other members of the band. And people would stay for, you
know, half an hour, 45 minutes at a time, basically, like what would
constitute a set in a club, and then they'd get on their--we'd take a break
and go upstairs and get some coffee or some hot chocolate or something and
they'd go on their way.
GROSS: You've also played in cabaret rooms. And in a lot of the cabaret
rooms, it's, you know, pretty strictly Cole Porter, George Gershwin...
Mr. FISHMAN: Right.
GROSS: ...Harold Arlen.
Mr. FISHMAN: Yeah.
GROSS: Have you felt out of place there, or do you think you have a different
crowd showing up than the crowd that typically comes?
Mr. FISHMAN: At first, I felt out of place. You know, we had our debut at
the Oak Room at the Algonquin a couple of years ago, and we literally
overnight were there. It was like going from the subway to the Oak Room. And
we kind of said, `OK, well, we're starting at the top; we're going to work our
way down,' because we really didn't think it was going to--we thought it was a
fluke, it wasn't going to go any further past that. We thought everyone was
going to hate us. Everybody sort of in that cabaret world around us prepared
us for disaster. They said, `Well, you guys, you know, really are not what
these people are looking for. And you don't have a polished show and you
don't have patter between the songs and you don't tell jokes. And you don't
have arrangements for your songs and you don't have big finale finishes' and
blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. And they sort of all said, `Well, we're
expecting you to fail, but it's OK, you know, we're going to give it a shot
'cause we need to fill this slot.' I forget who it was. There was some
famous singer who was supposed to be doing that two-week slot who canceled at
the last minute 'cause she got a broken leg or a broken arm or something like
But, no, the audiences took to us great, and it was just a wonderful
experience and it always is whenever we go into those rooms.
GROSS: Howard Fishman will be back in the second half of the show. The
Howard Fishman Quartet has a new CD called "I Like You a Lot." I'm Terry
Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of song)
(Soundbite of music)
HOWARD FISHMAN QUARTET: (Singing) Listen here, Ms. Molly, I mean, I like all
kinds of pies. I like them big, I like them small. I like them all. Give me
sweet pies with frosting, give me apple and honey al a mode. I really like
them, I mean, I like them, I like all kinds of pies.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with songwriter, guitarist
and singer Howard Fishman. His group, the Howard Fishman Quartet, has a new
CD called "I Like You a Lot."
Some of the songs that have inspired you are blues songs which tend to have
pretty basic lyrics, variations on a theme.
Mr. FISHMAN: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: Are there different kinds of sentiments that you want to express in
songs than the kind of songs that have inspired you?
Mr. FISHMAN: I don't know, I mean, there's only so many emotions that you--I
mean, emotions are pretty basic and there's only so many ways you can express
them. There's a project that I'm working on now, I'm developing with the
Public Theater that is based on the story of the Donner party, which I
think will have some music in it, which expresses things in a way that is not
maybe quite so simple and basic as, you know, the blues-type things.
GROSS: So you're writing songs about the Donner party, and this is the group
that was on an expedition I forget where, where they ran out of food and they
were in dire straits and ate each other.
Mr. FISHMAN: That's right.
GROSS: So the lyrical possibilities are kind of interesting, songs about
Mr. FISHMAN: They're interesting, although we're not really dealing with the
cannibalism part of it. That's really the part that everybody knows about the
Donner party, and oftentimes it's the only part that people know. And it's
equally, if not more, fascinating to me to get into what happened before and
after that. After, you know, half of the people--there were about 100 people
that got stuck there and got into the dire straits, and about half of them
survived and re-acclimated themselves into society. So that, to me, is
fascinating. And also what led them to that place and what kinds of issues
would lead people to uproot themselves and leave their home and go someplace
which is completely unknown, which was California in the 1840s before the gold
rush. It was basically like going to Mars.
GROSS: So you've been playing at Joe's Pub, which is like the cabaret room at
the Public Theater in Manhattan. Have you been doing songs that you're in the
process of writing for this musical about the Donner party?
Mr. FISHMAN: Yes, we have. We've been working through those songs,
experimenting with them. And, you know, anytime we play live--it really is a
live band, you know. The recordings that we have are great, but they are just
documents. And the band is really about playing live, and anytime we do a
live show, we're always doing new stuff and playing with new stuff and
experimenting with new stuff. And that's what makes the show exciting.
GROSS: Well I'd like to close with another song from your CD "I Like You a
Lot." And this one is a standard. This is one that you didn't write. It's
"I Surrender, Dear." What inspired you to record this song and what are
your associations with this song?
Mr. FISHMAN: I first heard this song played by Thelonius Monk and I always
thought it was a really pretty song. And we were in the studio and we were in
between takes for something and I played it for the guys, and they said, `Hey,
man, that's really a great song. We should record that.' And we recorded it
and I really didn't think we would use it. And we almost didn't use it
because it is a non-original song and we didn't want to have really so many
links or, really, any links to the past or anything like that. But it's just
a very pretty song and it's very basic and it's kind of a different groove and
a different feel for the band.
GROSS: Well, let's hear it. And, Howard Fishman, thank you so much for
talking with us.
Mr. FISHMAN: Thank you, Terry. Thank you so much.
(Soundbite of "I Surrender Dear")
HOWARD FISHMAN QUARTET: (Singing) We played the game of stay-away, but it
costs more than I can pay. Without you, I can't find my way. I surrender,
dear. I may act proud and say that I'm OK, it's just a pose; I'm not that
way. Deep down in my heart I say, I surrender, dear. Those little things
that we were doing must have been part of the game, lending a spice to the
wooing, but I don't care who's to blame. When stars appear and shadows fall,
that's when you'll hear my poor heart call to you, my love, my life, my all.
I surrender, dear.
GROSS: The Howard Fishman Quartet concludes their performances at Joe's Pub
in New York this Sunday. Next month, they resume their residency at Pete's
Candy Store in Brooklyn. In November, they'll perform at the Steppenwolf
Theatre in Chicago.
Coming up, we remember the great jazz record producer Milt Gabler. This is
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