Lew Spence tribute, 11/14/20
Richard and I attended a meeting by the American Popular Song Society on 11/14/20. It was produced by our friend Tom Toce and was a tribute to his friend Lew Spence, who would have turned 100 this year. Tom co-produced the show with Michael Lavine. It was called “Gone But Not Forgotten.” I’d never heard of Spence and was impressed with his songs. They’re well-crafted, solidly built, they do what they set out to do. Not innovative, not surprising, just plain GOOD.
Oliviana Halus-Griep was the first performer, at the ripe young age of 17! Bless her heart. She sang her first song in black and white with a fabulous upswept 1940s hairstyle. The song was “That’s Him Over There,” a touching ballad. She had a lovely voice and injected the song with just enough drama. Her next song (“Love Looks So Well On You”) was in a less glossy setting - - she was sitting at the piano in her living room or similar. She accompanied herself and did an impressive job of both singing and playing. She mentioned that Spence was her godfather. Her performance was followed by a conversation with her parents, talking about how they met Lew and how much he meant to them.
Next we had an archival performance of “Too Much In Love” by Oliviana’s mother, Evelyn Halus. It looked like it was filmed at the Metropolitan Room, though I imagine there are a thousand other rooms that look like it. I wish they had credited her pianist, he or she was marvelous and put in a fantastic key change before the repeat of the final lines. Her singing had that ideal mix of sincerity and show biz. All three of the songs we heard so far had lyrics by either Alan Bergman, Marilyn Bergman, or both of the Bergmans.
Roger Shore did a short overview of Spence’s qualities as a lyricist. He then sang “Live Goes On,” a sweet little ballad, which he sang touchingly. Tom shared video of Lew himself at Danny’s Skylight Palace in 1992, talking about his songwriting influences: Kern, Gershwin, Berlin, etc. He started writing songs by falling in love with girls and writing songs for them. He told a cute story and dropped a few names, like Bobby Troop, Portia Nelson. If they’re friends of yours, you’re not really dropping names, right?
Michael Lavine sang an up tempo number, “About That Girl,” the first song that Spence sold, a very cute song which he sang with disarming verve. He told a funny story about how Spence changed his name. His first gig was with the singer Frances Mattox, and his agent told him that it didn’t sound that good to say the show was going to be “Frances Mattox with with Lew Slifka.” He settled on Lew Spence, and opening night they were introduced by the club’s Mittel European maître d’. He said, “Now, ladies und gentlemen, I present to you: Frances Mattox and Lew Spence.” But with his think accent it sounded more like “Frances Mattox and Loose Pants.”
Tom and Michael introduced “Out of My Mind,” a song that was recorded by Dean Martin and put on the B side to “Volare.” They played a performance of the song by Wesla Whitfield.
Spence talked about how Tex Arnold sent him a tune and asked if he could write words to it. Spence felt that the percussive nature of the opening line needed a very particular lyric. Michael sang “Marmaronek.” Yes, a song about Marmaroneck, a town in New Jersey. A scream! “Seacaucus it ain’t.”
Cynthia Crane sang “Out of Fashion” that Spence wrote with Tom Toce. She introduced the song by saying that being a saloon singer is all about “blues, booze, and smoke,” none of which had much currency these days. A delightful song.
Janie Smulyan sang a couple of songs from a musical that Spence co-wrote about Noah’s ark, told from the perspective of Noah’s wife, Daisy. The characters communicated in a New York Jewish idiom. Like in the song “Mud,” he rhymed “spots” with “plotz.” Smulyan really delivered the songs, she had moxie.
Steve Ross sang “A Rainy Afternoon,” a gauzy ballad. I’d heard about Ross for years but had never heard him, so this was a real treat for me. He’s another singer who accompanies himself, such a talent.
Eric Comstock performed “What’s Your Name and Will You Marry Me, Please,” a darling song about love at first sight. Comstock sang it with flavor. Another self-accompanied performance and his piano playing had wonderful splash. Barbara Fassano, Comstock’s partner, sang “Sleep Warm,” with Comstock playing the piano and chiming in with some vocal harmonies halfway through. It was nice seeing a couple perform together.
Daryl Sherman told a cute story about meeting Spence in the 80s. She sang a song that he had played for her, “Lazy In Love,” and they played a tasty recording she had done.
Stacy Sullivan told the story about becoming friends with Spence and recording his song “It’s a Small Town.” She used that song as the title track on an album she was working on. Spence died before she finished the album.
They closed the show with “That Face” and “Nice ‘n’ Easy,” Spence’s two best-known songs. They showed a clip of the first appearance of “That Face,” sung by Astaire in *Paris When It Sizzles.* Bill Holden is listening to that song on the hi fi and he lures Audrey Hepburn into the room so she can hear it. Movie magic. Cute how Bill Holden is clearly not really a dancer.
Spence told the story behind pitching “Nice ‘n’ Easy” to Sinatra. A lot of Sinatra stories feature him being a real ass, and this one definitely fell into that category. But what a charming song, and perfect for Frank “Ring a Ding Ding” Sinatra.
The very last song was “Because I Can,” a song Toce wrote with Spence, the last song for which Spence wrote the music. Toce sang it himself, with Lavine at the piano.