When did your interest in composing music start?
I come from a musical background. Both of my parents were musicians. My father was a trained operatic baritone and a pediatrician. My mother was a concert pianist; she spent her summers studying piano at Julliard and taught piano lessons during college. Whatever I do musically is probably coded in my genes, like so many other things that seem to be inherited.
I’m just carrying on the tradition.
I started playing piano when I was 4 or 5 years old; I began to pick out tunes by ear and study piano with my mother, my first teacher. When I was 6 years old, I gave my first recital by performing “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and I’ve been playing ever since. I started playing the organ when I was 9 years old, which was the first year I could reach the pedals with my feet.
I was trained as a classical pianist but started playing popular music when I was in junior high school. That’s also about the time I started writing my own songs – mainly jingles for selling the high school newspaper. As an undergraduate at the University of Michigan, my interest in musical theater developed. I wrote two prize-winning musical revues for a carnival called “Michigras,” with eight or 10 songs each. Then, in 1960, I entered medical school at the University of Chicago and didn’t write another song until 2002.
Did you still play and practice music during that time?
In 1993, I became the organist, pianist, and script-writer on a unique radio program, “The Mighty Wurlitzer Radio Hour,” that was broadcast globally from WCLV, Cleveland’s fine arts radio station, for 21 years. When I was writing the scripts for those, I thought, “Maybe I’ll pull out a song that I wrote a long time ago and see if it will work … .” That song was called “You Can Be a Broadway Star.” A few people asked me after the show where the song came from, not knowing it was an original.
So, for the fall 2002 broadcast of “The Mighty Wurlitzer Radio Hour,” I decided to try to write another song. That song became “Whispers of Autumn,” a romantically nostalgic song featuring an eight-voice chorus. The program’s announcer and host, Robert Conrad, looked at me and he said, “Did you write that song?” I told him yes, and he cocked his head to the side and said, “You know, you should do more like that.” That’s all it took. Then it was like Fibber McGee’s closet from the old radio show; Bob opened up the door and everything came tumbling out. All of these songs started emerging, one after the other, and it’s been non-stop ever since. From the time that Bob gave me that jumpstart in 2002, I’ve written about 4,800 songs and been nominated twice for an Emmy. I really owe a lot to him.
Were you always interested in music from that era?
There was always music playing in the house when I was growing up, everything from classical to popular. I loved the music from the swing era and the 1920s, ‘30s, and ‘40s. Composers like Cole Porter and Irving Berlin exemplify the very best in American popular music, and the songs they created are remembered with such nostalgia.
I’ve always had a special admiration for the music of that era and the history of radio guided by a soundtrack. I founded a museum dedicated to radio broadcasting history 15 years ago – the John Milton Williams Museum of Radio Broadcasting History. My wife and I were able to purchase the History of Radio Exhibition, which was in the NBC Exhibit Hall in the RCA Pavilion at the 1939 World’s Fair. John Milton Williams was an announcer and actor on NBC, and a good friend of Joseph D’Agostino, who was the director of special exhibits for NBC.
When the fair closed, the collection – all these wonderful, vintage microphones and historically significant artifacts – were moved to what was intended to be a permanent home at the NBC’s Radio City Studios. However, when NBC’s focus shifted from radio to color television, the exhibit was scheduled to be closed and demolished. John Milton Williams offered to serve as the conservator of the collection for many years, and in 2000, my wife and I got word that he would be willing to part with the items. We made him an offer he couldn’t refuse: We promised to name the museum after him and to never sell a single piece of the collection.
We built a rotunda for the collection in our home, opened up the museum for visitors, and many thousands of people have seen it over the past 15 years. To my knowledge, it is the only place that one can tour the history of radio. For me, the most valuable treasures in the collection are the vintage microphones. The microphone represents the connection between the performer and the rest of the world.
I also had the amazing opportunity to get to know Ruth Etting, one of the great stars of radio in the 1920s and ‘30s who was known as “the Sweetheart of Columbia Records.” She starred in the Ziegfeld Follies, made hundreds of recordings, and starred in early Vitaphone talking pictures. I was able to get her first-hand information about what Broadway and radio broadcasting were like in the at that time – what it was like to be on a radio program with Victor Young conducting the orchestra or to be on “The Magic Key of RCA” program in 1938, one of the great radio variety shows of the era. Eventually, she would tell me, “Doc, you ask so many questions!” All I could tell her was, “Because there isn’t anybody else who can give me the answers!” It was a thrill to have known her.
Did that help give you inspiration for your songwriting?
My wife, Sara, is the inspiration for all of the songs that I write. I dedicate all my songs and performances to her. We founded our theatrical production company, Razzmatazz Productions, 25 years ago. We record and release the many albums I’ve made over the years; it must be close to 100 albums by now. Sara was influential in this venture, too, even providing the inspiration for the logo.
Certain days I wake up and hear a song lyric with everything all laid out; other days it’s just not there. It’s not really under my control, but I do have a theory that there are sounds, patterns, and harmonies that are free-floating and, for unknown reasons, they somehow come together at one point. That’s when I know I have the beginning of a song. I wish it would happen more often.
I can’t force a song to come. Most of the time, I come up with a melody first. I try to capture the feeling of an old standard, and then the lyrics tend to follow the music. Either way, I love doing them both.
How did you get started writing staged musicals?
In 2013, I wrote a musical called “Tuning In,” which was directed and choreographed by Tony-nominee and Emmy-winner George Pinney, chairman of the Department of Musical Theater and professor of Stage Movement at Indiana University, and with music direction by Terry LaBolt, who was an acclaimed Broadway conductor before coming to Indiana University. Cleveland-based showman Ron Newell was my co-librettist.
“Tuning In” was a great, thrilling experience; it was an original idea, and I wrote 25 original songs performed by a 24-person cast and a 14-piece orchestra with strings. About six months after completing “Tuning In,” I started getting the itch to start something else.
It’s hard to say where “Front Page Flo” originated. In Toledo, Ohio, where I grew up, I was the editor of the high school newspaper and then worked at the local newspaper, so I knew something about the newspaper business. The pandemonium that went on when there was a big story afoot seemed to be a perfect story to put to music. I shared the idea with my wife, but told her I was struggling with the ending. Without blinking an eye, she rattled off the ending. I asked her, “How did you ever come up with that?” She said, “Well, all of life is a soap opera!”
So, Sara and I put the story together. I wrote 24 original songs for it and sent the material to George Pinney and Terry LaBolt. They mulled it over and asked if I could change the setting to the 1940s. That, of course, meant rewriting those 24 songs. But, that’s what you have to be prepared for in musical theater.
In about five weeks, I re-wrote all of the songs with the new setting, and then it began to take off. George became co-librettist and director-choreographer; Terry created orchestrations as music director; and MaryAnn Black joined as co-choreographer. It was amazing. The creative process was just as intense as ever, maybe even more so. It was a thrill to watch the show take shape.
What do you enjoy most about songwriting and composing?
I love working with the unknown. I think there are all kinds of musical sounds and combinations, harmonies, and patterns free-floating in the mind of any songwriter. At those points when they come together into a song, it’s wonderful. Many times, I don’t know how it will turn out, and there are plenty of times when I will be struggling with a song and it just won’t come out.
It’s exhilarating to bring something that has not existed before into existence, but you can’t always predict when that will happen. Working in any kind of creative activity, whether it’s songwriting or painting or seeing new things under the laboratory microscope, means working in an area where no man has gone before.
I also love working and collaborating with show people – or theatrical wonders, as I call them. I have such admiration for them.
Did you ever imagine pursuing a career in music, or were you always set on medicine?
The thought crossed my mind, but I never seriously entertained it. As far back as I can remember, I wanted to be a physician. Even though my father was a pediatrician, he never pushed me to follow in his footsteps. I think I became interested in medicine by sheer force of example.
Like with music, I loved hematology from the moment I was introduced to it. I had never looked at a blood smear under the microscope until a histology class in the first semester of medical school. Everything clicked when I finally did. I had never seen anything like it before; I knew that hematology was going to be my life in medicine. And, after 56 years, it hasn’t stopped.