Reflections of Gene Lees on His Birthday
by Harrigan Logan
Harrigan Logan knows Gene Lees because her father, director/producer/playwright
Joshua Logan (Annie Get Your Gun, South Pacific, Mister
Roberts, Picnic, etc.,) was one of Gene’s dear
friends. Harrigan is a singer/ songwriter/ musician and
among the favorite comments she has received for her music
is this from Rosemary Clooney, "the minute the music started
playing I burst into tears and reached for the Kleenex.
That song is amazing. You sing dead center on the note which
is exactly where you want your voice to be. Perfect."
You can learn more about Harrigan and listen to her music
at her website: www.harriganlogan.com
When Gene Lees celebrated his birthday on February 8th
2006 at a quiet dinner in Meiners Oaks, California, Canada
also celebrated the birth of one of its exceptional native
sons. When Gene’s book, You Can’t Steal A Gift: Dizzy,
Clark, Milt, and Nat was published in 2001, Glen Woodcock
of the Toronto Sun wrote, "Let me get straight
to the point: Gene Lees is the best writer on the topic
of jazz in the world today." When prominent jazz critic
and journalist, Nat Hentoff was contacted for this article,
he said "in many years to come, Gene Lees will be one
of the few writers on jazz whose works will be permanently
valuable because of the quality of his perceptions, the
depth of his research, and his personal knowledge of the
musicians about whom he writes." Gene’s contributions
to jazz are enough to ensure him a place of honor in Canadian
cultural history, but Gene’s other accomplishments are also
Gene wrote the English lyrics to Quiet Nights of Quiet
Stars (Corcovado) for Brazil’s most celebrated composer,
Antonio Carlos Jobim; it is one of the more famous songs
of the twentieth century. He wrote Bridges with Milton
Nascimento and Yesterday I Heard The Rain with Armando
Manzaneiro. Those and other Lees songs have been recorded
by Frank Sinatra, Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, Peggy
Lee (one of Gene’s favorite singers and best friends), Tony
Bennett, and hundreds of other singers and jazz instrumentalists.
Three of his lyrics are included in Reading Lyrics: More
Than 1,000 of the Century's Finest Lyrics, edited and
with an introduction by Robert Gottlieb and Robert Kimball.
The Lees lyrics included in the book are Quiet Nights
of Quiet Stars, Waltz For Debby which he wrote
with brilliant jazz pianist and composer, Bill Evans, and
The Right To Love with music by Lalo Schifrin.
In 2004, Gene received his fifth ASCAP award; The Timothy
White Award for Outstanding Musical Biography for Portrait
of Johnny: The Life of John Herndon Mercer. In the same
year he opened his home to two different film crews; one
from Brazil and the other from the BBC. Both crews were
after the same subjects: jazz and Jobim.
In the Fall of 2005 he sat patiently while a reporter from
the Parisian magazine Jazzman, interviewed him for
several hours. The resulting article is a paean to Gene.
(At Home ...with Gene Lees, Décembre 2005,
#119.) He is celebrated in France for his contributions
to jazz and also for his songwriting with Charles Aznavour.
Gene adapted some of Aznavour’s songs into English; Paris
Is At Her Best In May, For Me, Formidable and
Venice Blue. Gene also wrote much of the material
that was featured in Aznavour’s first Broadway solo concert,
The World of Charles Aznavour, 1965.
In 2004 Gene published his second novel, Song Lake Summer
in the Jazzletter, his own magazine which he publishes
twelve times a year and exclusively writes for.
Gene founded the Jazzletter in 1981, devoting it
to history and biography. He’d earned enough money with
The Modern Rhyming Dictionary: How to Write Lyrics (Cherry
Lane, 1981), that he didn’t have to work for anybody else.
He sent letters to all the musicians he knew and "asked
if they’d be interested in this magazine and I had a tremendous
response." The Jazzletter, begun on a typewriter,
"would not have survived had it not been moved to a
computer. I got my first computer in 1984." Seven volumes
of Jazzletter essays have been published by Oxford
University Press, Yale University Press, and Cassell. No
other publication in jazz history has produced as many anthologies
and the magazine is still going strong after twenty-five
years without a single advertisement.
In the summer of 2005, Gene become so excited about his
article on Artie Shaw for the Jazzletter, he's expanded
that writing into his eighteenth book and is almost finished
with it. At the beginning of March 2006 he "got a groove
going" with his writing on Shaw and has to "consciously
stop myself in the evening after pounding out three thousand
words during the day. I have to consciously pull myself
away from the work and tell myself to ‘relax, rest, you’ve
done enough for the day.’
"For people who are artists," he told me, "the
work is the life. It defines and justifies your very existence.
If you’re not actively doing a project you’re nothing in
your own mind. You can’t retire from it. There is no way
out. You are your work. You’re life is defined by it."
I told Gene that in the early 1980s my father visited Irving
Berlin, then in his nineties. Josh had directed This
Is The Army, Annie Get Your Gun and Mr. President
with songs by Mr. Berlin and they were good friends. Pop
came home shaking his head. "He doesn’t think he’s
written anything important." I was incredulous. Irving
Berlin doesn’t think he’s written anything important?
Gene explained, "Mr. Berlin was likely depressed because
he hadn’t done anything lately." As it happened
Mr. Berlin hadn’t written a new song in twenty years. Gene
said when an artist is not doing his art he agonizes over
the questions "who am I really and what is the point
On February 17th, nine days after his 78th birthday, Gene
sat in the control booth of Capitol Records’ Studio A, "one
of the best recording studios in the world, "as coproducer
for an album of classical music written by his friend, composer
and arranger, Claus Ogerman. The four pieces, Nightwings,
Prelude and Chant, Sarabande-Fantasie and Concerto
Lirico, originally composed for violin and orchestra,
were recorded in duet by world renowned pianist, Jean-Yves
Thibaudet who Gene feels is "one of the truly great
pianists of our time" and Gene’s brilliant young protégé,
violinist Yué Deng. The recording was done for Decca
Gene Lees is the only person I know who’s tweaked a Pope’s
poems and been praised by said Pope for his efforts. In
1984 Gene was approached by the record producer, Gigi Campi,
to set the late Pope Paul II’s poems to new music. Mr. Campi
had read Gene’s The Modern Rhyming Dictionary: How to
Write Lyrics and felt he was the man for the job. Gene
was very reluctant to do it at all. "The translation
of foreign lyrics is nearly impossible because you cannot
possibly make a verbatim translation that will fit the music,
and you also lose the rhymes."
The poems were written by the Pope in the late 1940s when
he was a young priest in Krakow; the original Polish had
been translated into Italian and some of the Italian translations
were set to music. Gene "read the poems in English,
French, Spanish and Italian," languages he is fluent
in, "and found variance in all of them. Nothing ultimately
can be translated," he told me. Gene thought "I
don’t want to write what the Italians think the Pope
said," so he did what he always does, he consulted
an expert: Gene contacted the distinguished Polish film
composer, Bronislau Kaper. (Mr. Kaper cowrote the words
and music to the song Hi-lili Hi-lo with Helen Deutsch
and his film scores include Green Dolphin Street, Butterfield
8, and Somebody Up There Likes Me.)
Gene spent an afternoon at Mr. Kaper’s home in Los Angeles
while the composer explained exactly what the Polish words
meant. Gene made crude but accurate translations; then Gene
constructed lyrics, using his own translations of the Pope’s
poems. After he’d done that he wrote two original lyrics
to bookend the project: The Mystery of Man which
opened the evening and Let It Live which closed it.
The songs were to be sung by Sarah Vaughan with a full orchestra
in front of a live audience at the Tonhalle, in Dusseldorf,
on June 30th, 1984. As well, the performance was being filmed
When Miss Vaughan arrived in Dusseldorf, barely four days
before the live performance, she didn’t know the songs.
"She had a tremendous technique," Gene explained,
"and like all people with big techniques, she trusted
it, so consequently she hadn’t learned the material. But
this stuff was difficult and when she saw the music and
heard it, it scared the hell out of her." She learned
the music because Gene rehearsed her every moment right
up until she put on her beaded gown and stepped out onto
the stage; she was pitch perfect, faultless and magnificent.
I’ve listened to the live recording and heard the thunderous
When the Pope saw the television broadcast, he turned to
his aide and said, "I am only an amateur - this man
is an artist."
In the last few years, Gene has been slowly and often painfully
recovering from a list of ailments including open heart
surgery. Because of this, Gene’s friend, the Canadian conductor,
arranger and composer, Marc Fortier, wanted to have a birthday
tribute written about Gene. "I want him to know how
loved he is now," Marc told me.
Both Marc and Gene deeply mourned the loss of their great
friend, composer, conductor, musical arranger and trumpet
player, Robert Farnon in April, 2005. When I contacted him
for this article, Johnny Mandel told me "I stole everything
from Farnon." Gene said "Everyone stole
from Farnon. And Mandel often says ‘what I know of orchestration
is what I tried to steal from Farnon.’"
"I’ve done my best prolific writing on Scotch,"
Gene once told me, "and my best hangouts with Farnon
were on Scotch."
"Growing up in Canada," Gene said, "I had
this overwhelming feeling that nobody Canadian could do
anything. I was listening to Farnon records one day and
was astounded to learn he was Canadian. I was working for
the Montréal Star in 1954 and going to Europe.
I wrote to Farnon and arranged to meet him in London. We
became immediate friends. For years I tried to get Canadian
publications to write about him and they always said no.
Canadians don’t recognize Canadians. Of course, Bob went
to England for the orchestras, which, at the time he left
Canada didn’t exist there. He’s got a lyrical melodic sense
that’s unsurpassed. He wrote richly romantic music without
sinking into the saccharine. Farnon had exquisite taste."
Gene introduced me to Mr. Farnon’s music by playing his
score for the 1951 film, Captain Horatio Hornblower starring
Gregory Peck. Then he played Farnon’s arrangement of À
La Claire Fontaine. "Bob wrote that arrangement
when WWII ended. He thought it would be nice to get back
to peace time. He wrote it for himself. Marc Fortier calls
it a ‘tone poem.’ Farnon took a wisp of a beloved phrase
of music and created a masterpiece. Marc played that arrangement
at a luncheon for Canadian composers and they all wept when
they heard it."
In Gene’s article on Artie Shaw, [Jazzletter, Vol.
23, No. 6] he wrote: "When you are young, in any generation,
major public names surround you like great trees. When you
grow older, and start losing friends, one day you realize
that you don’t have many left. And then there is another
dark revelation: even those famous figures are going, and
one day it comes to you: They’re clear-cutting the landscape
of your life."
I happen to know Gene was writing that article around the
time he lost three of his friends, one on top of the other,
and the world lost three great film composers; Jerry Goldsmith
in July, Elmer Bernstein and Dave Raksin, both in the same
week in August, 2004.
If The Russia House is showing on television and
I’m visiting the Lees, Gene will holler for me to come into
his room and listen to the hauntingly beautiful score by
Jerry Goldsmith, featuring Branford Marsalis on saxophone.
Gene is always teaching me something. He’s said to me,
more than once, "You are my target audience, Harrigan.
As a child of ‘the Beatle generation,’" a phrase
he practically spits out it’s so distasteful to him, "you
know absolutely nothing about good music." Then
he’ll look at me as if he’s just sucked a lemon.
I might weakly mention how much it meant to me to listen
to Joni Mitchell or Marvin Gaye when I was a kid, and whether
he likes it or not I adore John Lennon with or without The
Beatles, but these admissions of my early musical influences
move Gene Lees not one whit.
My musical knowledge is assuredly a drop in Gene Lees’
musical bucket and my comprehension is unschooled.
Gene knows what he’s listening to; he can read the
score, analyze whether or not the music is exquisite, place
it in historical context, understand the harmony, recognize
the quality of the playing and compare it to the best or
worst musicians who ever played which instrument.
My lack of good musical knowledge is redeemed in
Gene’s eyes by the kindness of two members of my family
who took the time to educate me. My older brother, Tom,
has been passionate about jazz since he was a child and
he took me to listen to the music every chance he could.
We were underage children when we went to Shelly’s Manhole
in Los Angeles to hear Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock. I
asked Gene why Mr. Davis kept leaving the stage every so
often and then returning after half an hour or so. Was he
doing drugs off stage? Gene enlightened me; "He left
the stage because he didn’t want to attract attention away
from the soloists. Miles knew the audience would keep staring
at him even if he wasn’t playing, which they did, because
he was so magnetic. He also didn’t want to look stupid with
his horn hanging down. Miles would sometimes just go over
to the bar and have a brandy. He did that with me. Sometimes
we’d just sit at the bar together, talking and drinking
brandies. One night Miles walked up behind me and pulled
my curly hair. He said ‘you ain’t no ofay’ which is pig
latin for foe’ meaning white. The word ‘honkey’
has replaced ‘ofay.’ I liked Miles. And I liked him a lot.
Miles was funny and sardonic and dry and sarcastic. He could
be an absolute delight."
My second redemptive musical heritage is that my father
taught me the songs of Lorenz Hart, Kurt Weill and other
giants of the theatre from babyhood, and that early training
instilled in me a lifelong love of great lyrics and beautiful
melodies. Gene began teaching my father, Joshua Logan, about
jazz when they worked together on a musical play and Josh
taught Gene about musicals. Josh thought Gene was one of
the greatest lyricists there’s ever been. In a recent article
for the Jazzletter, Gene referred to my father as,
"my late friend and great mentor."
(Josh received a Pulitzer Prize for South Pacific,
which he cowrote with Oscar Hammerstein, II. He directed,
wrote and/or produced thirty-three Broadway productions;
sixteen musicals, seventeen dramatic plays. Half of Josh's
work in the theatre was produced before The American Theatre
Wing's Tony award was created in 1947, including Annie
Get Your Gun (1946). The Broadway plays Josh either
wrote, produced and/or directed after 1947 were nominated
for forty Tonys and collected twenty-eight trophies. He
personally received eleven nominations and took home nine.
In The New York Times Book of Broadway, edited by
Ben Brantley, two of his plays are listed in the chapter
The Unforgettable Productions of the Century. He
wrote/produced and/or directed ten films which received
a total of thirty-six Academy Award nominations and eleven
wins; Picnic, Bus Stop, Sayonara, South Pacific, Mister
Roberts, Fanny and Camelot. Six of his films
are included in The New York Times Guide to the Best
1,000 Movies Ever Made.)
The musical Gene and Josh worked on in 1973 was called
Jonathan Wilde; it was based on the novel by Henry
Fielding who also wrote Tom Jones. The play was produced
by Roger L. Stevens and two inexperienced authors were attached
to the libretto. Wilde was never presented onstage
not because the songs by Gene and Lalo Schiffrin weren’t
great, and not because they hadn’t raised all the money;
in a single backer’s audition at Josh’s apartment in New
York City they raised over eight million dollars which,
in 1973 dollars, was a gigantic sum. So they had the script,
the songs and the money but it still couldn’t be
produced because the original authors wouldn’t give up their
claim to the public domain story of Jonathan Wilde
so Gene and Josh could go ahead with their own production.
Over the course of the two years they worked together their
friendship grew, which is no surprise, as they are mirror
images of each other. We haven’t yet found a single instance
where they disagree. On anything. Just the other
day I told Gene that my father was bored silly when it came
to sports and Gene clutched his stomach in a hearty guffaw.
"Me too, me too. The minute anyone says let’s turn
on the ball game I’m out of there." Then he shook his
head in amazement.
"My God, Harrigan, is there anything Josh and I are
not alike in?"
"No," I replied. They are so alike I call
Gene, "Josh Jr."
By a wonderful circuitous route of happenstance, Gene telephoned
me out of the blue in September 2003. He wanted me to know
he’d known my father and had some great stories to tell
about him. Gene does things like that. Easily. He is a man
of action. In his world there is no time like the present.
No second thoughts--do.
I adored Gene Lees the moment I spoke with him on the telephone.
Here was my Pop all over again. Gene has the same wit, warmth,
charm, hilarity and mental radiance and is as chock full
of stories as Josh was. When my father died in 1988 I thought
all the light in the world dimmed. The giant soul that was
Josh was gone and everyone in the world seemed small by
comparison--until I met Gene.
On a recent evening, Gene looked at me across his dining
table and made the following pronouncement: "While
you were away at school, I knew your father well. For more
than a year I worked closely with him. Saw him practically
every day. And in the years afterwards we talked on the
phone every now and then or exchanged letters. As far as
I’m concerned, that makes you family."
He repeated "that makes you," and then
he paused and fixed me with a laser beam stare, "fa-mi-ly."
I was touched to hear these words from someone I care for
so dearly. As an adopted child I know about making family
with people whose blood doesn’t course through my veins.
It's simple. People are family if they are in your heart,
if life is unimaginable without them, if you’re a better
person for knowing them, if you can share your secrets and
weather disasters together and still know you are loved.
Gene and Janet Lees felt like family to me from our very
first phone call. We chattered together like clucking hens,
overlapping sentences, interrupting each other’s stories,
telling tales about those departed and those still here,
laughing heartily every few minutes. A few months later,
Janet left a message on my machine, "have Christmas
dinner with us."
Gene and Janet Lees reside in the small Southern California
town that Frank Capra chose as his setting for Shangri La
in his 1937 film, Lost Horizon. Ojai is populated
with artists, musicians, writers, spiritual seekers and
health spas and the Lees have lived in their graceful home
for twenty years. Just down the road is Gene’s dear friend,
Roger Kellaway; "the greatest jazz pianist I’ve ever
heard and certainly the finest musician with whom I’ve ever
I was very nervous to meet the Lees, needlessly, as it
turned out. I’d parked my car in their circular driveway
which is surrounded by oak and eucalyptus trees, walked
the gravel path past night blooming jasmine and cautiously
stepped into their gracious living room proffering a holiday
Poinsettia. I was warmly and winningly embraced from the
first "how do you do."
I’d sat in front of a ceiling high Christmas tree that
Janet had decorated with glittering ornaments, twinkling
lights, mauve satin bows and a host of porcelain angels,
basking in the warmth of scintillating, hilarious conversation,
feeling right at home. Their behavior was what I’d come
to know as parental: a couple in their seventies who’d lived
exciting lives, were chock full of insights and anecdotes
about extraordinary artists they’d known and worked with,
possessed of passionate opinions on everything and ecstatic
appreciation of anything that is the very best. Gene has
lately decided that Laurence Olivier is better than he thought
and taken to quoting Shakespeare at length.
"When you talk about writing, Harrigan," Gene
said, "you never even mention Shakespeare. He’s
out of the equation. There’s Shakespeare and then there’s
Just the other evening Gene told me Shakespeare was his
God. He doesn’t care about the plots and stories so much
as the language. "I can open up to any page and be
gone for half an hour," he said. His favorite play
"Words have always been crucial to you,"
"No, " he said, "not really. Words don’t
hold that great an interest for me."
"Yes they do," I insist. "You’re
a stickler for exact usage."
"Well, yes, that’s true. Exact usage is essential.
I keep The American Heritage dictionary beside me
at all times."
"And you’re studying Latin now and learning the roots
of words," I keep going.
"Well, of course, that fascinates me," he agreed.
"I would also like to study Greek" he said, "because
it’s the true root language," which I didn’t know.
"So it’s clear that words are essential to you,"
I finish, while he pours himself a glass of wine.
For all of his accomplishments, Gene Lees is unimpressed
about what he can do and what he has done. He doesn’t think
whatever he does is particularly remarkable. No one buys
it, of course. Thornton Wilder addressed unassumingness
in brilliance in his novel, The Bridge of San Luis Rey.
In describing his character, the Marquesa de Montemayor,
who wrote masses of letters to an estranged daughter, Wilder
wrote, "The Marquesa would have been astonished to
learn that her letters were very good, for such authors
live always in the noble weather of their own minds and
those productions which seem remarkable to us are little
better than a day’s routine to them."
In other words, great people don’t know they’re great because
being great is natural to them. That’s Gene. Great, and
doesn’t know it.
Early years in Canada
Eugene Frederick John Lees was born in Hamilton, Ontario
on February 8, 1928. Gene was born under the sign of Aquarius
which reminds me of the song Age of Aquarius from
the 1968 musical Hair, a play that both Gene and
Johnny Mercer absolutely hated. Gene thought it was "musically
cretinous." They’d gone to see it together and after
a few bars of the opening song, Aquarius, Mercer
turned to Gene and said, "let’s go" and they left.
Gene, his three siblings and all his cousins are first
generation Canadians; his parents and grandparents were
born in England. His paternal grandfather, Jack Lees, was
a coal miner born in Taunton-under-lynne, Lancashire. He
married Elizabeth Haslam, also from Lancashire.
Gene’s grandparents and their four children emigrated to
Canada in 1919 because of the collapse of the coal industry
in Britain; one of the children was Gene’s father, Harold.
Harold Lees, no middle name, was born in 1901 and "went
to work at age thirteen in a cotton mill in Lancashire.
He went into a coal mine when he was fourteen or fifteen.
He was a talented painter (like Gene), studied music (like
Gene), and played the violin. He practiced his fingering
on his shovel when he was working in the mines." Gene
has never been in a coal mine in his life but he has "a
brain full of images of what it was like" from talking
with his father.
Gene’s maternal grandfather was Fred Flatman, a gifted
ironworker, who was born in London and married there. His
wife was Lillian Gillard, originally from Bristol. They
emigrated to Canada around 1905 or thereabouts. Gene’s mother,
Dorothy Flatman, was born in England, as were all her siblings.
Gene has a notion the Flatmans’ emigration had something
to do with Fred’s radical politics. "It was my grandfather’s
politics that got him into trouble. He was very left wing."
The Flatmans settled in Hamilton, Ontario. When I asked
Gene if Hamilton was beautiful he replied, "no, not
particularly. It is a cotton mill and steel town. An industrial
town that sits on Lake Ontario." Toronto, Hamilton,
Buffalo and Rochester are located within a hundred-mile
Fred Flatman was one of the great decorative iron workers
and made the georgous wrought iron gates that hang at the
Oakes Garden Theatre in Niagara Falls, Ontario, and the
gates in the Royal Botanical Gardens in Hamilton. He was
active politically and was one of the organizers the Westinghouse
strike of WWI. He was a member of the Independent Labour
Party which grew in power during the war years.
Fred Flatman was a great orator (like Gene.) He founded
a newspaper (like Gene.) He adored Gene and Gene adored
him. Some of the cousins hated Mr. Flatman because he had
a violent temper (as Gene has sometimes.) Gene can’t ever
remember his grandfather having a meal without a book. He
was partially deaf and used to turn off his hearing aide
(like Gene tunes out whenever he feels like it.) He remembers
his grandfather once put a bowl of eggs on Gene’s high chair
and allowed the baby to throw them all on the floor.
During the 1920s, Harold Lees played violin in a theatre
pit band. "In those days many of the theatres had full
orchestras. The idea that silent films were only accompanied
by piano is incorrect. In fact the picture arrived with
orchestra parts. Hugo Friedhofer taught me this."
Hugo Friedhofer, born in 1901, was a renowned film composer
with more than two hundred and fifty film scores to his
credit (The Best Years of Our Lives, The Bishop’s Wife,
The Sun Also Rises, etc.) He and Gene became friends
in 1959 when Gene was the editor of Down Beat. Two
of Gene’s favorite Friedhofer scores are Boy on a Dolphin,
the 1957 film that made Sophia Loren an international movie
star, and One-Eyed Jacks, the 1961 film starring
and directed by Marlon Brando.
One-Eyed Jacks is a Western that, to Gene, is still
frustratingly underrated, an opinion shared by Francis Ford
Coppola. Mr. Friedhofer once told Gene, "I have known
two men of genius in this town--Orson Welles and Marlon
Brando--and Hollywood, not knowing what to do with genius,
Harold Lees, violinist, met Harry Flatman, trombonist,
in one of the orchestras for silent films and introduced
Gene’s parents. Harold Lees and Dorothy Flatman met and
married in 1927 and rented a house in Hamilton. Gene was
born at home but it was a breach birth and he was badly
damaged. They tried to crush his skull in order to deliver
him and when they’d done that they threw him on the bed
convinced that he wouldn’t live. His grandmother, Lillian
Flatman, insisted, "he will live." She
would daily massage Gene’s head with olive oil and squeeze
it like sculpture until it got back into normal shape. Lillian
was Gene’s guardian angel. She literally saved his life
at birth and was one of the lights of his childhood. He
remembers "she always had a full refrigerator and all
kinds of canned food in the basement. Her house was replete
with food" which was a relief compared to the continuous
lack in the Lees household.
Gene is the eldest of four: Patricia, four years younger,
passed away in 1990. When she was in her forties, Patricia
Lees finished and graduated from high school, then took
some college courses. She become a writer and did some editing
and reporting for one of the local newspapers in Fergus,
Dr. Victoria Lees, sixteen years younger than Gene, is
the former Secretary General of Montréal’s McGill
University. Dr. Lees is an expert in medieval English literature
and is often her brother’s research assistant.
The youngest child by eighteen years, David Lees, is an
award-winning science writer in Canada. All three siblings
became writers under Gene’s influence. Gene smiles when
he thinks of them; "the family is witty," he admits.
Gene recalls that "we were all treated very badly
[as children] regarding never having enough money for books
and schooling. I had to work in the paper mills during the
summer and bring my pay home to the family, which I resented,
because I still didn’t have enough to get by on. And there
was no need for stinting. There was actually enough to go
round, but it never did. My parents were not good to us;
yes, we had vitamins and the bare necessities, but as far
as any emotional nurturing, forget it. My mother gave none
of us any confidence and I have never fully recovered
from that. Everything I have ever done has been against
a wind of self-doubt blowing in my face."
His first baby utterance was the complete sentence, "leave
me alone" and he has not swerved from that desire in
seventy-eight years. Regardless of the fact that he is a
marvelous story teller and capable of generating hilarity
in any social gathering (if he feels like it,) "leave
me alone" is his core desire because he is always creating
something in his giant mind - a book, a song, an article
- and that constant creative activity requires solitude.
He needs to be alone to "hear himself think."
I often see Gene sitting peacefully in his chair
at his dining table which is his favorite perch. He gazes
sometimes for hours, through a wall of windows onto a view
he fashioned with his own hands; the fence on the right
side of the swimming pool, the bougainvillea around it which
are now thirty feet tall and hang in graceful arches of
purple, pink and white, the palm tree at the foot of the
pool and the lavender bushes beside it, and Janet put in
a dozen pink and white rose bushes on the left side to complete
the rectangle. Gene will sit serenely in his chair, thinking,
reading and socializing, but mostly gazing wordlessly into
the beyond forming phrases in his mind that are eventually
typed into his computer.
Although Gene was blessed with a giant intellect it separated
him from the other children; he told me "being brilliant
was humiliating." For all his intelligence he "was
a lousy student. Terrible. My parents were so disturbed
by my poor showing in school they took me to a psychiatrist
when I was twelve. I was given an IQ test and the doctor
said, ‘the trouble with this boy is he’s bored.’
"Radio was a huge influence on me. Stamford,
Ontario was only five miles from the American border and
I’d listen to WBEN, Buffalo, WKBW, WHAM in Rochester, all
the American network on radio. Most of what you listened
to was live. I remember Jack Benny, Fred Allen, and especially
Duffy’s Tavern which was written by Larry Gelbart.
Duffy’s was based on McSorley’s Saloon. Forty
years later, when I met Larry Gelbart, I blew his mind by
reciting whole segments of that show for him. He couldn’t
believe I used to listen to it and actually remembered it.
"The Metropolitan Opera broadcast every Saturday afternoon.
My grandmother would never miss that. The Service Gasoline
Company and Firestone Tires subsidized orchestras. Artie
Shaw was on staff for CBS. The Bell Telephone Hour
had Donald Voorhes conducting their orchestra. All the live
comedy shows always had an orchestra. Fibber McGee and
Molly had an orchestra on the show. The Billy Mills
orchestra would play theme music and spots in between. I
could pick out the guitarist. I was particularly struck
by the rhythm section which turned out to be Perry Botkin."
"Johnny Mercer’s Music Shop had to perform
twice; once for the East coast and once for the West. Jo
Stafford told me that after the first show they’d all go
out to dinner and have a few drinks so by the time they
did the second show they were a whole lot looser.
"I went to the movies as much as I could. You could
get into the movies for a nickel. I went every week, regularly.
The Royal Theatre in Hamilton.
"I wanted to be a painter when I grew up. I was naturally
good at it and it is what I really focused on. I won a scholarship
to the Ontario College of Art. I dropped out of High School
at seventeen to go."
When Gene went to The Ontario College of Art in September,
1945, "it was full of returning service men. One guy,
a navy man, was a brilliant painter. He taught me what under
painting was and he taught me about Rembrandt. And I remember
there was an old beat up piano in the school and he would
play Bach. It was the first time I ever heard Jesu Joy
of Man’s Desiring. When I listened to Teddy Wilson’s
piano, I knew he’d played a lot of Bach."
"When you’re discussing music, Harrigan, there are
two people you don’t ever mention because they are
Divine. They are not even human: Bach and Mozart. There’s
them, and then there’s everybody else.
"They were playing Andy Russell’s Besame Mucho
a lot on the radio. He was a great singer on Capitol Records.
Some of those people who were far away distant stars of
mine eventually became friends in later years. Especially
Peggy Lee. I adored Peg."
Gene told me one of the remarkable things about Peggy Lee
was how still she stood on the stage. "She was completely
motionless. Maybe she’d give a flick of the eye brow or
the slight gesture with a finger. The point was that you
heard the song. She got out of the way of the song.
She let the song happen. I once asked her ‘where
do you get the courage to do nothing? And she replied, ‘there
is power in stillness.’"
Becoming a writer
"I was in Art School for only a year and a half. What
happened is I found myself skipping classes and haunting
the Public Library. I read Fitzgerald (I don’t think he
wrote a memorable phrase in his life.) I also read Robert
E. Sherwood, Eugene O'Neill, the complete works, Sherwood
Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, Hemingway’s Islands
in the Stream, a novel I love and John Dos Pasos, another
huge influence. The best novelist I’ve ever read is John
Steinbeck. Steinbeck is the guy who taught me how to show.
Don’t tell, show. Show the external behavior of people
and let the reader figure out what it means. I also read
Morley Callahan who wrote Now That April’s Here which
was a collection of short stories I was enraptured by. He
is the best short story writer of our time." Mr. Callahan
is also an angel in the life story of Gene Lees.
"I happened to be reading one of his stories that
referenced ‘Younge Street’ which is in Toronto. It also
referenced ‘Windsor’ making it the city of Ontario, across
the river from Detroit. I didn’t think Canadians could achieve
anything, that we were inferior to England and the United
States. What I did not know was that key Canadians practically
created the U.S. movie industry: Max Sennett, Mary Pickford,
the Warner brothers from Ontario, and Louis B. Mayer, who
always considered himself a Canadian even though he was
born in Russia...
"Anyway, I was absolutely enthralled by Callahan’s
short stories. I did some research on Morley Callahan and
found out he was Canadian which absolutely blew my
mind. It occurred to me that if he were Canadian then he
might live in Toronto. I picked up a phone book and saw
‘Callahan, Morley, Walmer road.’ I was sharing a room with
Harry Harley, who later became a prominent cartoonist, and
I got to talking to Harry about this. Harry suggested, ‘why
don’t you go and meet him.’ I said, ‘oh, I couldn’t do that.’
But one day, with Harry in tow, I walked up to the door
and knocked on it and a man answered the door. I asked ‘sir,
are you Morley Callahan?’ ‘Yes, I am,’ he replied. ‘Sir,
I think I want to be a writer.’ ‘Well, I’d invite you in
but my son has the mumps. There’s a restaurant called the
Varsity, and if you go down there and wait for me, I’ll
join you in twenty minutes’
"He talked with us for three or four hours. The one
thing I remember he told me is, ‘the only thing you can
do about writing is to keep doing it until you get it right.’
"The worst advice given to writers is ‘write about
what you know about.’ That’s bull----. Learn what
you want to write about.
"That meeting with Morley was the turning point in
my life. The fact that this man of towering stature took
the time to talk to me, changed my life.
"The year was 1947. I went home at Christmas and my
mother actually had insight into me. She said, ‘you don’t
want to go back to school, do you?’ I said no, so she said
"My mother was stupefyingly well read (like Gene).
She could quote Wordsworth by the yard, also Walt Whitman
and Robert Frost."
Inspired by Callahan, Gene wrote his first novel. "The
authority on William Blake is Northrop Frye. He’d published
the book Fearful Symmetry (1947) which was
an analysis of all of Blake’s writing. My friend, Bill Mather
was studying with Frye and I’d written a novel I would sell
my soul to get a copy of, incidentally. Bill encouraged
me to show it to Frye. I went up to Frye’s office. I was
tremulous at meeting the great man. I sat down and I gave
him the manuscript and he said, ‘yes, I’ll read it.’
"And he did and he taught me another great lesson.
‘Some of this is very good,’ he said. ‘Some of it is ordinary.
If it were entirely ordinary, you could sell it. But unfortunately,
what is good shows up what is ordinary.’
"From that moment I never let up on my writing. From
1948 I’ve tried to keep it all at a high level. Don’t
ever get lazy.
"My mother knew Lady Hendrie of the Hendrie truck
company because my grandfather had built the gates in front
of their mansion. She called Mr. Hendrie who arranged for
me to have an interview at the Hamilton Spectator
with the city editor, Frank Keene. There is no law that
says the city editor has to be Irish, but it helps.
"I went down there wanting to be a copy boy. He interviewed
me for a while. He said, ‘OK, come in Monday at 9 o’clock.’
So I went in and discovered I was assigned to be a reporter.
My assignment was sitting on my desk: it was a photograph
with information attached as to where it came from, with
the caption 2 col. cutlines. I had no idea
what that meant. I was sitting next to a guy out of the
Air Force named Ray Blair. I said ‘Ray, what does this mean?’
He said ‘Caption for this picture. You write in capital
letters two or three words marked bold face about the subject.’
That was the only lesson in journalism I ever had. I was
a reporter from then on.
"Somewhere in my early newspaper days I trained myself
not to arrive at a conclusion because I wanted to
but to arrive at a conclusion I disliked. If I let it get
too emotional, I lose control of the material. It’s the
same with writing lyrics. Your way into a lyric is not to
let any emotion into it.
"There are two major serious errors a writer can make:
to assume ignorance on the part of the reader and to assume
knowledge on the part of the reader. The trick is to teach
the reader without letting them, him, or her, know it. When
I was a young reporter and I would be sent to cover a story
I didn’t understand, I had no problem telling people, ‘I
don’t understand anything.’ The person who doesn’t know
often does better work than someone who does. The person
who does know takes knowledge for granted. The one who doesn’t
has to research it.
"In 1955 I was at the Montréal Star.
The editor was George V. Ferguson, who had once been a Canadian
delegate to the United Nations. He was a very distinguished
and fine man. I went in to see him and told him I wanted
to leave Montreal.
"In those years, artistically, Canada was very restricting.
For instance, you couldn’t make a big orchestral recording
in Canada like Farnon did in England. The publishing industry
was very small. There was no movie industry. The theatre,
back then, came in from England or the States. I wanted
greener pastures. Nowadays it’s different: Norman Jewison
still lives in Canada and Donald Sutherland does. But Canadian
artists generally come to America. (Mary Pickford, Colleen
Dewhurst, Raymond Burr, William Shatner, Peter Jennings,
Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Dan Aykroyd, Michael J. Fox,
Céline Dion, Jim Carrey, Mike Meyers, Shania Twain,
"Ferguson said, ‘where do you want to go?’ I said,
‘England or the States.’ He advised ‘go to the states. They
pay better.’ I asked him if he would write me a letter of
recommendation and he did better than that. He wrote applications
to all kinds of American newspapers and I got five offers.
Two were from the Washington Post and the Louisville
Times. I took Louisville because they wanted
a music editor and I knew music.
"I’d never been south of New York City. I was shocked
by the fact of segregation and on the other hand I was astonished
by the warmth and kindness and generosity of Americans.
One of the first stories I was sent on was to do color stories
at the Kentucky Derby. I was very good at reporting atmospheric
stories. So I’m sitting in the press box next to a gentlemen
who looks kind of familiar. After a little while I said,
‘how do you do sir, my name’s Gene Lees.’ He said, ‘how
do you do, my name’s Bill Faulkner.’" It was an auspicious
start to life in the United States.
Gene originally went to Louisville to be the music editor.
"I was part-time music and part-time general assignment.
Then it became full-time drama, and then I was handed the
entire arts section of the paper. I covered ballet, the
symphony, opera (which I don’t particularly care for but
I had to be fair about it.) I like Puccini, Bizet and Mozart;
all the connoisseurs will cut my head off but I don’t like
Verdi and I don’t like Wagner."
Gene once sent me into paroxysms of laughter when he quoted
Mark Twin’s quip, "Wagner’s music isn’t as bad as it
sounds." And "you know," Gene said at the
time, "it isn’t as bad as it sounds" making
me laugh even harder.
"All the people I was covering, major pianists, conductors,
movie actresses, Alan Ladd, James Stewart, Larry Parks,
I met a lot of them. I was able to discuss movies with them.
Not reading it out of a book but discussing it with them.
One of the first things I asked Josh about was the scene
where Brando discovers the bodies in Sayonara. And
how the music scene in Picnic was done. I’d ask him
all kinds of things like that. How did that happen,
and this. You can’t get it from books.
"I met Nat King Cole for the first and only time in
Louisville. I spent the whole day with him. We met in his
hotel room and had lunch. He was very gracious. Always was--to
everybody--famous for it. It was only later that I realized
we’d never have been allowed in the hotel restaurant and
he knew it and wasn’t going to make an issue of it."
Gene said to me, "you probably only think of Nat Cole
as a singer, Harrigan, but he was also a great jazz pianist.
He influenced every piano player who came after him--Bill
Evans, Oscar Peterson, Roger Kellaway. He had an exquisite
touch and fabulously good time. I’ve said this many times:
if I could be reincarnated I would come back as Nat Cole,
Eventually I left the Louisville Times because I
got into a row with the managing editor.
"I had lunch with a friend who was a press agent from
Disney. He told me Down Beat had two openings: editor
and New York editor which was was Nat Hentoff’s job and
he was leaving. I wanted Nat’s job and to move to New York.
The PR man picked up the phone and called Down Beat and
then handed the phone to me. ‘Can you come up here this
weekend and see us?’ they asked. I flew up to Chicago on
a Saturday and a week later I was the editor for Down
Beat. I knew a lot about jazz."
jazz & Jobim
"I’d studied music as a kid. Various instruments.
I hated practicing, however, and so do a lot of musicians.
Roger Kellaway hates practicing. Bill Evans hated
practicing. I’ve know few major jazz pianists who like to
practice except Oscar Peterson. He actually likes
"I grew up surrounded by Beethoven and by jazz. I
was drenched in drums and a little later, Stravinsky. I
started listening to jazz on the radio, although at the
time, we didn’t know it was jazz."
At the risk of causing a collective sigh heard round the
world, I asked Gene what exactly is jazz?
"Jazz is a particular form of music that originated
in the United States which puts down a steady and specific
pulse over which the rest of the music occurs. The rest
of the music is syncopated. It’s off the center of the beat,
unlike classical music. Duke Ellington’s song, It Don’t
Mean a Thing if it Ain’t Got That Swing is literally
true. To me, the beat is essential in jazz. Over that and
on top of all of that, it has the wonderful dimension of
improvised solos. The thrill is the unpredictability of
it. I know people who compare jazz to football, meaning
that it’s athletic."
"What is written down?" I ask.
"Sometimes nothing at all. It’s like this. Let’s say
five guys get together on a bandstand who’ve never met.
One of ‘em says, how about I’ve Got You Under My Skin
in D flat? They all know the tunes, they all know the keys.
Every jazz musician knows hundreds of tunes and the harmony.
It is a myth that they can’t read music. I’ve only known
two jazz musicians personally who couldn’t read music: Errol
Garner (Misty) and Wes Montgomery. And Bix Beiderbecke,
who died when I was three, was a very poor reader. It didn’t
hurt them one bit. It’s a myth, coming out of classical
music, that the music is all about reading. That’s not true.
Music is about sound. Unless somebody’s playing it
or listening to it, Beethoven’s Fifth doesn’t exist. The
written symphony is only a diagram.
"In May, ‘59 I moved to Chicago, which is my favorite
city in the United States. The architecture, the vitality.
Carl Sandburg called it the ‘City of Big Shoulders’ because
it’s strong. A functioning city. Beautiful neighborhoods,
parks, museums. A working town. Not some phony Hollywood
town full of movie executives who are all vapid and killers.
Down Beat was in the loop and the clubs were in the
deep South side, in the Negro neighborhood. What we would
now call the ‘black’ neighborhoods."
Gene explained that "the correct word in 1960 was
‘Negro.’ I object to the term ‘African American’ because
it excludes Oscar Peterson, Ray Downs and other musicians
from other countries."
"When I was in Chicago I lived mostly in the black
neighborhoods, as did Dizzy, Oscar, Benny Golson and Art
Farmer. Chicago had a substantial jazz movement of its own.
I knew them all personally as friends: Johnny Pate, Lurlean
Hunger (singer), Eddie Harris, Johnny Griffin. They later
became famous but there was a whole Chicago cadre of fine
musicians. I’d go to sit at the bar and just listen. Sometimes
I’d write reviews and do interviews. I’d listen and hang
out. That’s where my books come from. And the Jazzletter.
All in the space of three years. Within six months I knew
them all--Buddy Rich, Jerry Mulligan--and in three years
I knew them all well. My whole life flows out of
Chicago. There are still a lot of musicians in Chicago who
think of me as a Chicago boy. It was a formative period
of my life. Chicago and Paris."
"I left Down Beat because they wanted to fire
our Art Director, Bob Billings, and I wouldn’t do it. I
wrote my resignation in the form of a song called It’s
National F___ Your Buddy Week.
"At the end of 1961 I went on a State Department tour
of South America with the Paul Winter Sextet. I wanted to
go because I’d heard Joâo Gilberto and knew some of
the songs and I wanted to meet Gilberto and Antonio Carlos
Jobim. When we arrived in Rio de Janeiro I got their number
and called up. I went to a rehearsal at Jobim’s house and
he and I got drunk, and we got drunk many times after
"I had been experimenting with lyrics, but not professionally.
I told Jobim that his songs could be done in English and
I showed him what could be done. He immediately gave the
songs I’d written in English to publishers in New York.
I wrote Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars [Corcovado]
on a bus going to Belo Horizonte [northwest of Rio de Janeiro]
and mailed it back to him in Rio. It was my first professional
"The bossa nova was an aberration. The fact that it
was a hit in the 1960s is proof that in the middle
of all that crap that if they were exposed to it,
people would embrace what is good."
"When I got back to the States from South America
I lived in New York. It was a rough, grim and desperate
time of my life.
"I had no money and no one would hire me. I was living
at the YMCA. It was a time of humiliation and being broke.
But I got an agent and he sold my novel, And Sleep Until
Noon, [about an expatriate singer from the States in
Paris, begun when Gene was in France in 1958], which I hate,
by the way. Then the first recordings of my songs started
to happen. I got a substantial advance from BMI. My song
with Bill Evans, Waltz For Debby, became a hit, and
my songs with Jobim were being widely recorded (Song
of the Jet, Dreamer.) Another adaptation of a Jobim
song, Someone to Light Up My Life, became a standard."
In the winter of 1968, just before Christmas, Gene met
his wife, Janet. Gene was living on West 86th Street between
Central Park West and Columbus. Janet was staying in a friend’s
apartment on Central Park South. She had written a musical
play, Morning After Carnival, which involved Brazilian
music and she needed a lyricist in the first act. A friend
of Janet’s who’d read the play, raved about it to a vice
president at BMI. The vice president said, "there is
only one lyricist I would recommend: Gene Lees."
Gene called Janet after he’d been contacted by BMI. Janet
was going out that night and told her date they just had
to drop off her script to "this writer," and then
they’d go on to dinner. When they arrived at Gene’s apartment
building on West 86th street, they happened to all meet
in the lobby. Gene told me that when he first laid eyes
on Janet he "nearly fainted because she was so beautiful.
I remember seeing her in the doorway of my building and
she was so georgous I actually became weak in the knees.
I was afraid I was going to pass out."
Janet is descended from the Hazelius family of Sweden,
who built the Nordic Museum and the first open-air museum,
Skansen, in Stockholm. Her mother was a member of the Ballets
Russe de Monte Carlo. In the 1920s she went to Hollywood
to visit her Aunt Rose Hazelius and soon worked as a dancer
in a number of movies. Janet’s father, Lawrence Donald Suttle,
was an engineer who helped design the B-29 bomber. After
WWII he worked for Ford and Chrysler and then formed his
own company where he designed and developed the first turbo
Janet majored in theatre at Wayne State University and
she and her friends would often go out to hear jazz. Janet
remembers that "jazz fans were highly educated, intelligent
people" and her crowd was always well dressed as were
the musicians, "who wore jackets and looked very Ivy
League, very Brooks Brothers, which was the look in the
late 1940s and ‘50s. Everything was pretty much segregated
at that time except there were what they called, the ‘black
and tan clubs’ where all colors could mix." They heard
Lockjaw Davis, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Elvin Jones
and many others. Charlie Parker used to call her "Miss
101" because she often had her text books with her.
One evening as Janet was leaving a club after the first
set was done, she heard a voice, "which could only
have belonged to Miles Davis because he had a very distinct
voice. ‘Where you going all by yourself?’ he asked.’"
"I’m going to my car. I’ve got an exam tomorrow,"
"I’ll walk you to your car." Mr. Davis said and
he accompanied her. When she was safely sitting in the driver’s
seat, he told her, "I will watch you ‘til you turn
onto the freeway and then I’ll know you’re OK."
Gene and Janet Lees have been married since 1971.
As far as Gene is concerned, the definitive version of
Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars was recorded by Frank
Sinatra: Francis Albert Sinatra & Antonio Carlos
Jobim, Reprise Records, 1967, Arranged and conducted
by Claus Ogerman. Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars is
Gene loves and admires many singers who have influenced
his own singing but "when it comes to American popular
song in the English speaking language the ones who can deliver
a song like none other are Peggy Lee and Frank Sinatra.
"He was the best," Gene said. "No one came
close to his artistry. The other day Placido Domingo was
asked who he felt the greatest artist was in any
medium and Domingo replied, ‘Frank Sinatra.’
"Technically," Gene began, "he was superb.
His sound; he had a great natural instrument which he constantly
trained by swimming underwater to expand his lungs. His
voice production; the way he made the sound with his diaphragm,
ribcage, and throat. He had a range of two octaves and he
was terribly in tune with the musical surroundings
and the instruments."
"All our music is played on the tempered scale which
is an adjusted scale that is naturally out of tune. But
if you get rid of the piano and you have only strings they
don’t play the tempered scale, they play the untempered
scale. Sinatra sang in relationship to the chord and the
sound of the orchestra and whichever scale they were in.
The problem in even discussing this technically makes him
sound like a cold singer but he wasn’t. There was a dramatic
inwardness like some of the very best actors; Clift, Brando,
James Dean. He was a Stanislavskian singer. So was
Peggy Lee. They sang like truly great acting. Sinatra was
an actor of the song. An actor cannot control the muscles
of his face by conscious effort. If you want sadness to
register you have to feel it and then it will show
on your face. Sinatra felt the music like none other.
Nobody could surpass it, nobody could get into the emotion
of it like Sinatra.
"He found an emotion in my lyric This Happy Madness
I didn’t even know was there. He sings it at first
like a self-mocking adult ‘I feel that I’ve gone back to
childhood and I’m skipping through the wildwood
so excited—’ but then he goes into this curious puzzlement,
this vulnerable whisper ‘I don’t know what to do.’ It’s
breathtaking. Sinatra does difficult songs and tosses them
off like there’s nothing to it.
"Miles Davis said ‘it takes a long time to sound
like yourself.’ When Frank was with Harry James (c 1939)
his version of All or Nothing At All (Cole Porter)
sounds mechanical and a little piss-elegant like he’s trying
to be British. But as he progresses, when he’s with Tommy
Dorsey he’s finding himself; The Song Is You (Jerome
Kern) and The Lamplighters Serenade (Hoagy Carmichael,
Paul Francis Webster), by then he is sounding like himself
but not as much as he is going to sound. His voice really
sounds like him on the Columbia recordings after he left
Dorsey. There he is inimitable. (1943-1952.) Once he got
the mechanics, then he forgot about it. Sinatra had so internalized
his lessons. He has no peer."
"I love a lot of singers, actually. But Sinatra is
like Shakespeare; there’s him and then there’s everybody
"The night before I was going to sit in on the session
for Quiet Nights I got a call from Claus Ogerman
to come to his hotel room and teach him Change Partners,
which I knew by heart (Irving Berlin, 1938). Neither
Claus nor Jobim knew it and Frank wanted to record it. Claus
was staying at the Beverly Hills Hotel in a room that had
a piano. I sang that song all night long so he could write
the arrangement around me because I sing in the same key
as Frank. When we went into the studio the next day they
recorded it. It was common then to record three songs a
day which is why it only took three days to record the whole
album. Nowadays," Gene couldn’t resist adding, "rock
‘n’ roll bands can’t get a decent sound in five hours,
much less record three songs."
I had the privilege to know Mr. Sinatra from the time I
was a child. He was a friend of my parents and would often
come to dinner. I knew him to be a gracious, funny, thoughtful,
charming and generous man. He was sweet enough to always
say hello to me which, as the child, was very special. When
I became a young woman he’d say, "please call me Frank,"
but I could never do that. Aside from the fact that
he was so much older, he was a little bit dazzling even
if he was just being himself and I couldn’t bring myself
to call that radiant being "Frank," or even "Francis"
which is how he sometimes signed his notes.
I remember an important conversation I had with him that
bears on the recording session for Quiet Nights.
Mr. Sinatra told me that when he was "a kid" he
listened to Arturo Toscanini on the radio and dreamed of
being a great conductor. He also loved classical music and
dreamed of being a great composer. "But," he said,
"I knew I’d never be able to write as well as the great
composers and I just couldn’t settle for writing anything
that wasn’t great. And I didn’t want to split my concentration
and just become mediocre in all three areas. I wanted to
be great and I knew I could sing, so I decided to
concentrate on that." Later he said, "what I love
most about singing is the lyrics. That is the most important
part of the song to me."
When he was sitting in the sound booth in the recording
studio in 1967, Gene could tell the minute Mr. Sinatra walked
in. Gene said "I could feel him enter the room."
Mr. Sinatra always had an acute awareness of everything
going on around him; who was there and where they were sitting,
and he knew Gene was in the control booth because they’d
chatted during the course of the session. By knowing the
lyricist was in the studio, Mr. Sinatra would have wanted
to deliver the song as at no other time and his recording
of Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars has a specialness
I can feel in my bones; I believe the reason is because
Gene was there.
Gene said, "I’d quit smoking at that time but I got
so excited about the way he was recording it, I started
smoking again." Mr. Sinatra was smoking during the
session and you can hear the smoke in his voice. It cracks
a little bit on "by quiet streams" and on a "my
Mr. Sinatra recorded four songs Gene wrote with Jobim and
for Gene, they are definitive; the other three are Someone
to Light Up My Life, Desafinado, and This
Excellence to earnings
Why write about Gene Lees? Why even bother to think about
him? Because Gene is the embodiment of greatness and we
find ourselves, temporarily, because the pendulum
always swings, in an artistically mediocre time. I asked
Gene where was the turning point? What happened that we
lowered our standards in music, books, theatre, ballet,
radio, television, opera and on. Gene said "it happened
in the music business in the 1960s. Money became
the goal. Record companies switched from excellence to
When Columbia Records was headed by Goddard Lieberson in
the early 1960s, it was a company that offered recordings
in all areas of music: popular, country, classical,
jazz, theatre and opera. Gene told me "the violinist
Joseph Szigeti, said to Tony Bennett, ‘I can record for
Columbia records because you record for Columbia.’
Meaning Tony was bringing in enough of a profit for the
company that they could also record an artist that didn’t
sell as much but was important artistically and essential
for the culture. They used to review movies on their
merit but now they tell you what the box office returns
are instead: we slid from excellence to earnings."
This is the reason to reflect on Gene’s life. He is a standard-bearer;
one who exemplifies what is worthwhile, necessary and great
about the arts. When it comes to passionately caring about
a high level of artistic excellence there’s Gene Lees, and
then there’s everybody else.
When we lose our way, as individual artists or as a civilization,
we need to be reminded that there exists a high standard,
a North Star of art from which to navigate. It is a comfort
to know that in a future dark age, the writings and songs
of Gene Lees will ever be twinkling from stores and libraries;
we can read passages from his books and become inspired
to excel, or listen to Mr. Sinatra sing Quiet Nights
of Quiet Stars and be restored to the high road again.
I hear Gene’s mantra in my mind, loud and clear; "Keep
it all at a high level." This is his gift to the
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