May 17, 1921- Bob Merrill
”But first be a person who needs people. People who need people are the luckiest people in the world.”
I possess a great passion for the art of the popular song. I have a large library of books by and about 20th century songwriters including everyone from Irving Berlin to Sting.
I met the tall, copper-haired Bob Merrill when I was working at ASCAP (American Society for Composers, Authors and Publishers) in the mid-1970s and was tasked with working on the Jule Styne archives. Styne was a founder of ASCAP and the composer of popular songs and musical theatre scores, including my favorite musical Gypsy. Styne had informed me that the song People from Funny Girl had been his bestselling tune, and he credited Merrill, who did the lyrics, for its success.
The song was released as a single by Barbra Streisand in 1964 with I Am Woman, a solo version of You Are Woman, I Am Man, also from Funny Girl. Andy Williams released a version of the song the same year. Ella Fitzgerald recorded the song live for Ella Fitzgerald Live At Carnegie Hall (1966). People has been covered by Vic Damone, Billy Eckstine, Dionne Warwick, Steve Lawrence, Jack Jones, Aretha Franklin, Nat King Cole, Perry Como and The Supremes, among others, but is considered Streisand’s signature song.
Streisand has recorded 11 versions of People. It spent 16 weeks at Number One on the Adult Contemporary chart in summer 1964. Streisand included a revised version of the song on Partners (2014), an album of duets. On the song she sings with Stevie Wonder, who had performed it at the MusiCares Person of the Year gala in 2011. In 1998, Streisand’s version was inducted in Grammy Hall Of Fame. Streisand’s version on the soundtrack of Funny Girl is Number 13 on AFI’s 100 Years…100 Songs In American cinema.
Merrill is sometimes mentioned as one of the worst songwriters of all time based on his penchant for coming up with bestselling novelty songs such as: If I’d Known You Were Comin’, I’d Have Baked a Cake, Honeycomb, How Much Is That Doggie In the Window?, and Mambo Italiano. Unfair, Merrill is responsible or the music or lyrics for successful Broadway musicals: New Girl In Town, Take Me Along, Carnival, and Funny Girl.
Yet, by the other turn, he gave us the monumental flops: Breakfast At Tiffany’s, Henry, Sweet Henry, Sugar, and The Red Shoes. And, when it comes to stinkers, he also wrote the book and lyrics for the peculiar Angela Lansbury vehicle Prettybelle, plus the music and lyrics for the Robert Preston musical The Prince of Grand Street, both of which closed during their Boston tryouts.
He was nominated for the Tony Award eight times, but never won. He was nominated for an Academy Award for the song Funny Girl. In 1964, he won the New York Drama Critics award for his work on Carnival and New Girl In Town.
Merrill was also a show fixer. For Hello, Dolly!, with a score mostly by the great Jerry Herman, Merrill either wrote or co-wrote the songs Elegance and Motherhood March. According to a friend at ASCAP, he also wrote the original Before The Parade Passes By which was scrapped for a new song by Herman borrowing the same title. Hello, Dolly! had a troubled tryout period and Merrill was brought in to boost the score when the producer David Merrick got worried.
Merrill finally tired of the Broadway grind and turned to writing screenplays. He is responsible for the 1975 film Mahogany, starring Diana Ross, WC Fields And Me (1976) with Rod Steiger; Chu Chu And The Philly Flash (1981) with Carol Burnett; and Portrait Of A Showgirl (1982) starring Rita Moreno, Leslie Ann Warren and Tony Curtis, none of them nominated for an Oscar.
In three years he had 17 Top Ten hits.
”Don’t get me wrong. I’m no Tchaikovsky. I can’t read or write a note. I compose all my songs on this toy xylophone I bought at the five-and-ten for $1.98. You can’t fool yourself with fancy arranging. All my hits have a very simple, hummable melody.”
He said he put numbers on the keys so he could easily transcribe the melody. After his songs earned more than $250,000, he bought a more expensive xylophone. That cost him $6.98.
His songs make liberal use of cliches, Merrill claimed that he filled notebooks with them:
”Cliches make the best songs. I put down everyone I can find.”
Born Henry Robert Merrill Levan, the son of a Philadelphia candy-maker, Merrill hitchhiked to NYC at 17-years-old and found work putting up the titles on theatre marquees. He struggled from job to job and then hitchhiked to Hollywood, starting off as a porter and breaking in as a radio writer and songwriter.
His first popular song was If I’d Known You Were Comin’, I’d Have Baked a Cake written with two collaborators, Al Hoffman, who wrote the novelty hit Mairzy Doats, and Clem Watts. It was given a rollicking, hand-clapping recording by the singer Eileen Barton and it rocketed to the top of the charts in 1950.
”O.K., maybe my songs aren’t brilliant or witty. ‘Maybe they will be forgotten tomorrow. But people do like them. They’re on the hit parade. And I’d rather be writing for the people than a dozen sophisticates in an East Side nightclub… and my tunes make money.”
In 1998, living a life in the closet and suffering from depression, Merrill took his own life by shooting himself while sitting in his car in the driveway at his home in Los Angeles.
I have been considering the work of Bob Merrill this afternoon. This is my favorite of his lyrics and one of the most overlooked songs from the Musical Theatre canon. With music by Jule Styne, it was written for the Broadway show Funny Girl in 1964 but cut from the film version.
The Music That Makes Me Dance:
I add two and two, the most simple addition
Then swear that the figures are lying
I’m a much better comic than mathematician
Because I’m better on stage
Than at intermission
And as far as the man is concerned
If I’ve been burned
I haven’t learned
I know he’s around when the sky
And the ground start in ringing
I know that he’s near
By the thunder I hear in advance
His words alone are the words
That can start my heart singing
And his is the only music that makes me dance
He’ll sleep and he’ll rise,
In the light of the two eyes that adore him
Bore him it might,
But he won’t leave my sight for a glance
In ev’ry way, ev’ry day, I need less of myself
And need more him, more him
Because his is the only music
That makes me dance
Because his is the only music
That makes me dance