Pianist Loonis McGlohon, one of the late Alec Wilder’s lyricists who lives in North Carolina, describes Wilder in a letter as “the most erudite, warm, caring, curmudgeonly, ill-mannered, well-manned, rude, Edwardian, insulting, tender, ill-kempt, inconsiderate, hostile, funny, eccentric, original, frightened, unpredictable and talented man I ever met. He would have hated Andrew Lloyd, but he would probably have invested in an air fare to go to one of Sir Webber’s castles and tell him so in person.”
During one of Alec’s visits to his home, McGlohon received a call from Stanley Mills at Mills Music, asking for a song. “You’ve been sending me jazz tunes,” said Mills. “I want a country tune.” After Loonis hung up the phone, Wilder said, “Hell, let’s write him a country song. We’ll take ten minutes right now, we’ll each write a song, and we’ll send him the worst one. You can keep your name on whichever.”
Ten minutes later Alec had written something called “If I Had Done What Mama Told Me To,” and Loonis had written “Let the Phone Ring,” about a young mother whose baby has been legally taken away from her by the cruel father and in-laws, waiting on her birthday for a call from her three-year-old. She decides, if the child calls, not to answer the phone, because it would break her heart to hear its voice. Wilder threw in the towel, agreeing that McGlohon’s song was clearly worse.
Loonis made a lead sheet on the song, but before mailing it to Mills he took it along to a concert he was playing with Buck Owens. He told Buck’s singer about the tune and how it was written, and when she heard it she insisted on recording a demo. She got the engineer to give her the sound effect of a phone ringing as she sang the title line at the end. Loonis was floored when, after letting it ring three times, she picked up the phone and said in a tiny child’s voice, “Hello, Mommy…”
When Mills received the lead sheet and demo tape, he called McGlohon in tears. “Loonis, this is the Great American Popular Song!” He got it to Elvis Presley’s chief writer, who offered to make a small change in the bridge and take 50 percent of the song. Loonis figured that 50 percent was better than nothing, but since he was with BMI and Presley’s writer was ASCAP, they couldn’t write together in those days. At Loonis’s suggestion, Mills arranged the paperwork and his wife, under her maiden name Nan Lovelace, became the co-composer of the tune. Loretta Lynn and Dottie West both considered recording the song but, in the end, nothing ever happened with it. A few years later Mills called Loonis and asked, “Has your wife written any new songs?”
James Cirillo heard this one from drummer Ed Metz, Jr., who played some concerts in Germany with a jazz band. Ed noticed that the printed program listed the title of each number and then gave a German translation. The translation for one number – “Struttin’ With Some Barbecue” – was so long that Ed asked someone to it back into English. It came out: “Walking Pompously Down the Avenue With an Animal Carcass Roasted Whole.”
Derwyn Holder told me about walking into a hotel lobby where Linda Kessler-Ferri was playing a beautiful Chopin piece, a couple of years ago. He said, “I was annoyed to hear a loud conversation, which for me was interrupting and destroying the beauty of the music. The conversation went on at length until I could stand it no longer, and I had to ask Linda to stop talking to the customer.”
Holder also told of seeing another solo pianist – John Phillips in Washington, D.C. – who was wearing a set of headphones while playing standard tunes. When he asked what was up, Phillips told him he was relieving his boredom by listening to the classical station on the radio.
Nick Brignola forwarded a story that he got from Mike Melvoin:
A society band got bored playing the same old tunes and put together a 2-beat version of “Giant Steps,” with bland three-part harmony played at a businessman’s bounce tempo. They tried it out on the last set of a charity ball in a fancy hotel, when the audience had dwindled. Only one couple was still dancing, a very proper-looking pair of 70-year-olds, doing the Lanin two-step. As they danced by the bandstand, the husband asked the bandleader, “What’s the name of that tune you’re playing?” The leader replied, “Sir, that’s John Coltrane’s ‘Giant Steps.'” The wife jabbed the husband with an elbow and hissed, “Told ya!”
Russell George told me about one of his early gigs as a bassist in New York, when he got the chance to play at the Metropole in Ben Webster’s rhythm section. Marty Napoleon was Ben’s regular piano player, but he had sent in Dick Wellstood that night. Dick, a student of the old school stride pianists, played that style superbly. But Webster had gotten used to modern comping and wasn’t pleased with what he heard. He paused during his solo and growled over his shoulder, “No bass notes!” Russell was crushed. He immediately stopped playing, which caused Ben to also stop and turn completely around. He barked at Russell, “Not you, m_f_! Him!” pointing fiercely at Wellstood. Russell quickly resumed his bass line, deeply relieved…