The musical journey of David Wolfert

Feature Interview

Volume 117, No. 1January, 2017

Bob Pawlo

David Wolfert

David Wolfert, a member of Local 802 since 1972, is a Grammy and Emmy nominated composer, arranger, songwriter, orchestrator, producer and instrumentalist who has worked in all areas of music, including film, records, advertising and television. Wolfert’s songs have been performed by Whitney Houston, Barbra Streisand, Ariana Grande, Kelly Clarkson, Jennifer Hudson, Usher, Dolly Parton, Dusty Springfield, Eddie Murphy, the Four Tops, Cher, Lynn Anderson, Julio Iglesias Jr. and many others. Wolfert has also worked as a producer, arranger and guitarist with many icons of the music business, including Rod Stewart, Bette Midler, Whitney Houston, Elton John, Peter Criss, Jimmy Cliff, Johnny Cash, Harry Nilsson, the Temptations, Aretha Franklin, Judy Collins, Brenda Russell, Don Covay, the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, Dr. John and many others. He has written and produced music for thousands of television and radio commercials for virtually every major advertiser and has won two Clios for his work. His scores have appeared in numerous documentaries, television shows and independent films. Wolfert teaches at the Steinhardt School of New York University and is a founding member of both the Council of Music Creators and MusicAnswers, which are advocacy groups for composers, songwriters, performers, producers and engineers. Bob Pawlo recently sat down with David Wolfert – who lives in New York and has studios in New York City and Bridgehampton, Long Island – to hear about his life in music.

Bob Pawlo: How did your journey in music get started?

David Wolfert: My dad, may he rest in peace, was a recording engineer and a music professor at Brooklyn College. He never leaned on me to study music, but he was always playing piano and flute around the house when I was young. When I was in seventh grade, I picked the trumpet to play at school; I don’t know why. I ended up in all the competitions in Nassau County and played the Haydn trumpet concerto when I was 14. When my dad saw that I had a real interest in music, he started ear training with me whenever he could get me to sit still, and we would often sit and listen to records and he would teach me how to follow along with the scores. It was the best lesson you could get in orchestration. Later, I took three semesters of music theory at the Manhattan School of Music. That plus some great guitar lessons were the extent of my formal music theory education. Everything else I’ve learned came from being around people who were more experienced and smarter than me.

Bob Pawlo: What were some of your early gig experiences?

David Wolfert: I was the guitarist in an absolutely awful band led by this guy who wrote his own songs. The songs were not very good, but they were original, so from the very beginning I was exposed not just to covers but to songs that no one else had heard before. Since my dad was a recording engineer, we could go into his studio and record demos. I’m sure I don’t want to hear them now. We played high school dances, an occasional bar mitzvah and local battles of the bands. We actually competed against Billy Joel’s band many times and lost every time…deservedly so. I was big into folk music, so I was also performing in local coffee houses. I had abandoned the trumpet long ago, and I was serious about guitar. I got home from school and started playing around 3 p.m. and put it down at midnight.

Bob Pawlo: When did you figure out that you wanted to make music your life?

David Wolfert: I spent time at the University of Wisconsin and I visited the Berklee School of Music, but I ultimately decided that I wanted to find my own path in music. Someone told me there were these things called music publishers that actually pay you money to write a song. My parents still lived in New York, so I hitchhiked home from Wisconsin, took a shower, went to a phone booth, opened the Yellow Pages, looked up music publishers, and recognized the name of this one little publishing company called Koppelman-Rubin. I went over, played them my songs, and walked out with a publishing contract for $50 a week. A producer there named Gary Klein also wanted me to record my own songs, even though I couldn’t really sing. So I brought my band from Wisconsin, except the bass player who didn’t want to come. I ended up getting to use John Miller, the wonderful New York bassist and contractor, who was the first real, serious professional musician I ever met. John would come in, hear the tunes once and play them perfectly. We made a demo, but we didn’t ultimately get a recording contract. Soon after, I got two auditions – one for Hall and Oates’ band and one for Labelle’s backup band, neither of which I got. But in order to prepare for the auditions, I had to listen to the records and learn the guitar parts. That was the first time I really had to listen to the inner workings of how pop records were made, and I decided that I wanted to be a studio guitarist. The guitar parts were really musical but also really understated, and they were there to support the important stuff on the record, which is the song and the singer. There was just something about it that sparked me. But my real big break happened soon after. Through a random encounter, I ended up meeting the songwriter Don Covay at a bar and he asked me to record with him. Incredibly, I found myself shortly thereafter in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, at the famous recording studio with the legendary studio musicians all in a room, and I’m leading the sessions. Completely out of the blue. And that was a life-changing experience. This is the level of musicianship where nobody ever plays out of tune, nobody ever plays out of time, where everybody’s instrument sounds great all the time because they take care of it and it matters to them, and where they’re just all sitting there looking at the songwriter and me and asking, “What should I play here? What should I do here?”

Bob Pawlo: Incredible. Then what?

David Wolfert: We came back to New York to record more tracks, and the band was Steve Gadd, Cornell Dupree, Paul Griffin, Airto Moreira and myself. It was indescribable. I caught the bug of becoming a studio guitarist. All I did next was listen to records and hear what the guitar players were doing and try to learn the inner workings and how these musicians managed to maintain their own personalities as players but also be totally sympathetic to all the other stuff that was going on.

Bob Pawlo: What was your big next step in your career after this incredible breakthrough?

David Wolfert: I met two producers who became my first mentors: Hank Medress, who was a genius, a crazy song picker and a record producer – and his partner Dave Appell, one of the original pioneers of rock-and-roll. Through him, I got to record with New York’s finest and I also recorded and toured with Melissa Manchester, an up-and-coming New York singer-songwriter who had been one of Bette Midler’s background singers. One thing led to another. I moved to Los Angeles and reconnected with Gary Klein, who had been my first producer in New York. He remembered my playing and asked if I could show up that night to do a studio date. I walk in…and Barbra Streisand is standing there. It’s her session. We cut three songs and one of them was a big hit. Gary started using me more and more as a rhythm arranger. We worked with Dolly Parton and a whole list of amazing people. Eventually I began writing songs for the projects we were working on and soon started producing projects on my own. I got married, moved back to New York as my home base, but went back and forth to Los Angeles to record and arrange. I got a budget to hire musicians with union wages, which meant I could hire anyone I wanted.

I was working with the best, and it was an education every day in professionalism and musicality and communication. Later, at my best sessions in New York, the string section was made up musicians from the Philharmonic and the Met. My rhythm players were always hugely experienced peers who respected me enough to work with me. If what I wrote wasn’t right, all of these musicians would just play what was right without being asked. Or they would take me aside so the client wouldn’t hear. The copyist would catch all my mistakes and fix them as if they never happened.

Bob Pawlo: When did you start teaching?

David Wolfert: About four years ago, an old friend of mine named Phil Galdston, who’s a songwriter in residence at NYU, called me up and asked me if I’d be interested in teaching in their songwriting department. It’s worked out great. The goal is to not teach people how to write hit songs, but to write better songs. A lot of what we do with the kids is one-on-one. I go through their songs, take them apart and put them back together. Through that, they learn some of the technique. The kids that are in the program are phenomenal; they are so far ahead of where I was when I was 19 or 20, both because of technology and also because they’re just really gifted kids. The problem with technology, though, is that it can separate and isolate musicians. Songwriters don’t necessarily meet other songwriters. People make whole albums in their basement without ever getting any real feedback. I try to give them a little bit of that and share some of what I’ve learned over the years. I think their songs have definitely gotten better in almost all cases. I have to say, it’s enormously gratifying, and it’s helped my own songwriting immeasurably. I have a new crop of songs that I think are among the best I’ve ever written, and I know one of the big reasons is because of teaching songwriting. I’ve actually analyzed the process and given it some thought. I’ve been able to throw out the stuff that doesn’t work and keep what works.

Bob Pawlo: Could you describe some of your advocacy work?

David Wolfert: I became involved in music advocacy because ASCAP asked me to testify as a working composer in a federal court case about royalties, and I was glad to help. I’m a big devotee of those organizations that take care of us – the musicians’ union, ASCAP, BMI, SAG. But by the time the trial was over, I realized how little I actually knew about how we all collectively make a living, and it was shocking to me – and really depressing. I’ve had a long career and I still didn’t know the intricacies and the complexities of laws and regulations and policies that affect how all of us get paid – musicians, songwriters, producers, engineers and performers.  So I set about educating myself and linked up with a couple of like-minded folks – one other songwriter and another very successful composer – and we started an organization called the Council of Music Creators. The purpose was to advocate for songwriters and composers, and we managed to make a little bit of noise and make an impact on the conversations that were going on. Eventually we realized that the real strength would come if we could organize all the artists together – composers, songwriters, producers, engineers, and performers. We began a campaign called MusicAnswers. We asked a lot of other music advocacy organizations to sign on, and many of them did. Our mission is to educate and advocate for our community; we have a web site called On it, you’ll find a bunch of educational documents and a whole slew of lighthearted but informative videos about the problems we face – and maybe some solutions. We’ve advocated with the Justice Department; we’ve advocated with members of Congress. We’ve advocated with other music rights organizations. We’re beginning to make alliances with some of the big music publishing organizations that traditionally are not always so friendly to songwriters, but we share a lot in this climate. We share enough that we can start to have conversations. What makes us unique is that we don’t take money from anybody. We can speak out where other organizations can’t. We can speak out on behalf of ASCAP and BMI when their relationships with the government or with publishers don’t permit them to. We can speak out for artists in ways that the recording academy can’t because they’re also taking money from the record companies. We’ve not yet made a formal alliance with the unions, but we’d certainly love to and we’re talking about it, and we have 2,500 people who’ve read and signed our declaration of principles. We have a pretty active profile on Twitter and on Facebook, and we’re aligned with similar organizations all over the world who collectively represent half a million songwriters and performers from literally every country on the planet. We’re doing what we can.

Bob Pawlo: What has been the importance of the union in your career?

David Wolfert: My career could not have happened without the union. When I first started, I found out quickly that if I played a union session or a Broadway show or a union wedding gig, I would get a fair wage and get access to re-use payments. When I did a commercial, I got paid for the session, and if the commercial ran for a year, I did very well, because as the client was spending money on that commercial, they were required to spend money on me, so there’s that. There’s the fact that the musicians I’ve worked with have been the best musicians in the world, and those are the musicians who are drawn to the union. The union, especially back then, encouraged a level of professionalism and artistry that might not have existed if musicians hadn’t organized themselves in that fashion. Perhaps best of all, every union gig I’ve done since I was 16 contributed to the AFM pension fund, and I’ve accumulated a generous pension. I worked for every penny of it and it’s invaluable. We need to support the union. It’s really the only means we have to guarantee that we’re treated fairly. There’s a massive worldwide campaign to convince musicians and creative artists that what we do isn’t worth very much, because the tech companies profit greatly from having free content. But if the world becomes convinced that music isn’t worth money, there won’t be any more music, because we won’t be able to afford to make it. We won’t be able to afford to raise families, and we won’t be able to afford to support ourselves. The union fights against this and resists this.

Bob Pawlo: What advice would you give to young musicians, especially songwriters, in today’s world?

David Wolfert: If I look back at my career, which has been long, super interesting and very gratifying, my big breaks often came from a chance phone call or a chance meeting or a just being at the right place at the right time. So the first advice I would give is don’t isolate yourself. Get yourself out there. Put yourself in a position to meet people, because often the people that will help you aren’t the people who you expect. The second piece of advice is be ready. Be ready when that door opens. Listen to the musicians you admire and make sure that what you’re doing is good enough so you can live in their world. Because if you get an opportunity and you’re not good enough, you may not have that opportunity again.