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This piece is about an extraordinary man who perhaps literally, in the words of one of my sources, wrote the last page of the Great American Songbook. Composer and lyricist Lew Spence passed away on January 9th of 2008. This brief piece about Lew took a lot of time to get up the courage to write, and a lot of tears in the writing. It's my sincere hope that you'll enjoy it.

EMCEE

Ladies and Gentlemen, we have a special surprise for you this evening. Earlier today, our esteemed vocalist showed me her set list and I noticed she'd written in "Nice 'N Easy." Now, that's a song a gentleman named Frank Sinatra took awfully seriously, so she's got big shoes to fill. I have right now on a telephone hook-up from Beverly Hills the fine gentleman who wrote that song with the team of Alan and Marilyn Bergman. Lou, can you hear me?

SPENCE

Oh, yes. (Slight squeal of feedback is adjusted.)

EMCEE

Lew, do you want to say a few words about how "Nice 'N Easy" got into Sinatra's hands?

SPENCE

Oh, I don't know. He didn't like it much, at first. Tossed it in the garbage. But Hank Sanicola, he was Sinatra's music man, he came back to us for copy after copy. Sanicola would slip it under Sinatra's office door, and Sinatra would trash it. Well, we kept making copies. You know, in those days, you either had to keep writing it out by hand, which was what we did, or get a photostat or a plate made and have it printed on paper. But that was very expensive. Finally Sinatra heard Nelson Riddle futzing around with it and he was hooked. He really liked the part Nelson arranged into it that puts the rest after the word "stops," you know, the part that goes "stops...along the way." Sinatra, as you know, was so taken by it he titled the album after it.

EMCEE

Well, Lew, we're gonna let you hear our little songbird sing it with a nice combo. If you'd hold the line for just a moment...

SPENCE

(Interrupts EMCEE) Tell her to swing it.

EMCEE

Okay, Lew, swing it we will. Ladies and Gentlemen, Ms. Ethel Lee sings "Nice 'N Easy." Take it away, everyone...

(VOCALIST SINGS SONG)

EMCEE

Well, what do you think?

SPENCE

Oh, she did a lovely job. A great job.

EMCEE

Well, thanks for the anecdote, Lew, and I hope you and...

SPENCE

(Interrupts EMCEE again) Say, Paul, when're you going to sing it?

EMCEE

Oh, Lew, you know that song's outta my range.

SPENCE

Paul, I'm glad you said that so I didn't have to. (Audience Laughter) Thanks, and good evening. It's been a pleasure.
 

Friendly, erudite, polite to a fault, a great raconteur, self-taught musician, composer and lyricist. Lew Spence was all of this and more. I had the pleasure of making his acquaintance via the internet, where we sent tid-bits (he jokes; me musical questions and jokes) back and forth. We talked on the telephone once in a while. Sadly, I only had the pleasure of his company in person twice. Each year Spence would make a pilgrimage to New York to catch up with old friends, and for a man over eighty years old by the time I got to meet him, he was usually exhausted from the whirlwind of activities, mostly parties and cabaret performances, that his close friends planned for him. The fact that he spent as much time writing and talking with a "youngster" like myself was an honor; but he was like that and was delighted that someone from my generation had such admiration for the songs of his day, and how they're arranged and performed.

Lew Spence was born on June 29, 1920 in the hamlet of Cedarhurst, on New York's Long Island. There's a lack of data about his childhood, which he described as quite happy and musical. He did, however, take an interest in music at an early age. His mother played piano by ear, and there was also plenty of sheet music around the house. He organized a nine-piece band by the time he was in his teens. Most amazing, Spence had very little formal musical training.

Asthma forced a move to Arizona. Lucky for Lew, there was also a shortage of pianists, so even during the Depression he found work. He played with small bands and then got a gig at the Santa Rita hotel. The manager, after hearing him sing the lyrics to some of the popular songs of the day that he'd play, demanded that he sing and play the piano. That was the beginning of his show-business career. His early material was the stuff just coming out on sheet music; songs performed by the great crooners like Bing Crosby and Perry Como. Later he'd embrace the stylizations of Johnny Mercer, Harold Arlen and the likes.

He put his first real "act" together with a Depression-era songstress who was down on her luck due to her heavy drinking (he'd never reveal her name, he was too polite for that). They ended up playing a club called the Maisonette Room in New York City in the late 1940s. He didn't like the act; so he packed up and decided to try his luck in California.

Spence's first job was playing piano and singing at the famous "The Little Club" in Beverly Hills. The club's mentioned on record by Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis, Jr. in their recording of their Vegas performance of the song "Me and My Shadow" by Dave Dreyer, Billie Rose and Al Jolson.

Lew Spence didn't seriously compose music until he was in his 30s. His first song was entitled "About That Girl." In fact, a lot of Spence's early songs were about girls because he was girl-crazy. He was encouraged to submit the song to a publisher, and it was recorded by a little-known singer within 24 hours. A composer named Bob Russell ("Do Nothin' 'Till You Hear From Me," "Don't Get Around Much Anymore") heard "About That Girl," and liked it. They collaborated on a number of tunes and that was the start of his composing career.
 

The Right People At The Right Time

A woman named Marilyn Keith approached him with a lyric she wanted him to put music to. It ended up that Peggy Lee recorded their collaboration, "That's Him Over There." A fellow named Alan Bergman was a composer and told Spence he could write better lyrics, so they collaborated. Lew Spence ended up introducing Marilyn Keith to Alan Bergman, and the three began a collaboration which lasted for eight years, during which Allan married Marilyn.

The Bergmans are most famous for their collaborations with composer Michel LeGrand, and have worked with Johnny Mandel, Marvin Hamlisch and many others. Marilyn is a past president of ASCAP, and Allan has been on the board of directors of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Allan Bergman and Spence collaborated on "That Face," recorded by Fred Astaire in 1959 and sung on his television program "Another Evening with Fred Astaire." The song was a hit and charted well. Since then, the song has been covered by many vocalists, both male and female. The most famous contemporary version is arguably Streisand's.

It certainly didn't hurt Spence to collaborate with the two rising stars of the music industry. They wrote "Nice 'N Easy" in 1959 and it finally made it onto record (with no less than Frank Sinatra singing and Nelson Riddle arranging). The song was nominated for a Grammy for best song, as well as the album for best album and a technical Grammy. The album hit number one on the 1960 charts, the song coming in at 60; still in the top 100.

Some have commented that around this time singer Perry Como was doing very well with his smooth, very easy-going style. Sinatra emulated Como not only in singing style, but the album's cover photograph shows a relaxed Sinatra, sans signature hat, wearing a cardigan. Como's signature outfit was a cardigan.
 

"He Should Have Had A Bigger Career Than He Did"

When being interviewed in Hollywood for Spence's obituary, Marilyn Bergman said, "He was a very talented composer. He should have had a bigger career than he did." What Marilyn Bergman didn't know was that Spence, especially in his later years, rejected offers to do movie music, calling most of it "schlock." Further, Spence was just as happy playing piano for Los Angeles-area singers, mostly female, and often singing himself. He delighted in playing the old tunes from the '20s and '30s in a cabaret style. No, jazz improvisation wasn't quite Lew Spence's cup of tea. Spence was all about the Great American Songbook delivered unvarnished but with technical excellence. That's called Cabaret.

He was never pushy or imposing songs on the many stars he knew and who knew him. "He was very gentle and kind and perhaps didn't have the killer instinct needed to really get out there and flog his songs," cabaret giant Michael Feinstein said. "He was always gently offering his songs to singers."

Lew Spence was 60 before he started putting lyrics to his own tunes. He made some great music in a bright, inimitable style that some called dated. Once again, that's a matter of taste.

Spence's Oeuvre includes "Half as Lovely (Twice as True)," "If I Had Three Wishes," "Love Looks So Well on You," "Sleep Warm" and "So Long My Love." Dean Martin used the Spence tune "Sleep Warm" as the title track for one of his albums.

Beside those already mentioned, Spence tunes were recorded by Tony Bennett, Bobby Short, Dinah Shore, Nat King Cole, Bing Crosby, and Billy Eckstine to mention a few. And those in the cabaret business, particularly female vocalists, who knew of Spence's music usually included one of his songs on a recording or two. Rosemary Clooney and Johnny Mathis also included Spence tunes on their recordings.
 

"Lew and The Night And The Music"

A play on the name of another classic American Standard ("You and the Night and the Music') by Arthur Schwartz, Spence put together a cabaret revue of his songs, and other favorites. It played very successfully in the Hollywood area. I never found out if Lew had, before I met him in his later years, taken the review to the cabarets of New York, but I'm certain if it did play there it got a great reception.

Lew was given an opportunity to collaborate with famed songwriter Burton Lane in the 1980s. Sadly, Lane passed away long before the project's completion. Spence and I spoke once about Burton Lane and almost in the same breath mentioned Lane's delightful, evocative tune "Moments Like This." Spence liked an earlier version. I sent him Tony Bennett's version from the 1986 Columbia album "The Art of Excellence." He loved it. Never one to speak bitterly, and rarely talking of regrets, he did consider losing Burton in the middle of their collaboration one of his "bad breaks."

 

I'd not spoken to Lew for awhile. It was after his usual trip to New York in the autumn that I decided to email him a fabulous, ribald joke that had to do with music. He responded, although he'd just gotten through with some surgery, about which I didn't know. Ever gracious, he assured me he was in no discomfort. That was my last communication with him.

New Year's Eve came and went, and then I was checking my email and received a plea for help from a relative of his. He'd apparently been found by either a housekeeper or a relative. His astute friends had the thoughtfulness to go to his computer and send an email to every single person on his extensive email list, telling of his death, asking us to pass the news along to any of his older friends who might not have been as computer-literate as Lew had become.

The Friday after I received that email, the buzz was already all over the world of "our kind" of music, and interviews were being taken by newspapers like the Times of both Los Angeles and New York, and the Boston Globe, about his life. That night there were jazz musicians playing in my restaurant, as usual, and I announced Lew's passing at the beginning of the show. During the first break, one of the musicians asked if I had a chart for "Nice 'N Easy." Of course I did. I had one written in Lew's own hand, which he'd kindly transposed to my key. As I was photocopying the music, the musician asked if I'd like to sing it with them. I sat down, tore up the copies and said "no, no. It's not in my range" (even though I had the music in my key right in my hand). I started crying and waved the man out of my office, where I remained, poking at my computer to try and find one of Lew's emails full of jokes to cheer me up. The band started playing "I'll be Seeing You."

 

SOURCES:

"Nice 'N Easy: Song of the Week #86" by Mark Steyn, Steyn Online, January 28, 2008 (Google Cache) (Accessed March 3, 2008)

"Lew Spence, a Songwriter for Sinatra, Dies at 87" by Peter Keepnews, The New York Times, January 22, 2008 http://www.nytimes.com/2008/01/22/arts/22spence.html (Accessed March 3, 2008)

"Lew Spence, 87; Composed Songs Sung by Frank Sinatra, Fred Astaire" by Dennis McLellan, The Los Angeles Times, January 20, 2008 here (Accessed March 3, 2008)

"Lew Spence" Info.net Big Bands Database Plus http://nfo.net/cal/ts8.html (Accessed March 3, 2008)

"An Interview With Songwriter Lew Spence" by Donna Abraham, Cabaret West, March 12, 2001 http://www.cabaretwest.org/d_lewspence.html (Accessed March 3, 2008)

Website of Allan and Marilyn Bergman: "Collaborations" http://www.alanandmarilynbergman.com/collaborations.htm (Accessed March 4, 2008)

Allmusic.com http://www.allmusic.com (Accessed March 4, 2008)

The experience of the author with Mr. Spence.

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