The New York Times’ indispensable music critic Stephen Holden basically took up the topic of this blog a couple of months ago in an article entitled “Setting New Standards: American Songbook Series Reshapes the Canon.” Assessing the sixteen-year-old “American Songbook” concert series at Lincoln Center, Holden concluded by noting, “The American Songbook is no longer just the standards of Berlin, Porter and Gershwin. Increasingly songs from rock, pop, R&B folk and hip-hop, as well as newer show tunes, are finding a place there.” He listed twenty-five nominees from himself and other Times critics, and welcomed readers’ suggestions.
In coming weeks I’ll be mining and assessing the various nominees, starting with “Heart’s Desire” (1991), by Dave Frishberg (words) and Alan Broadbent (music). Frishberg, who was born in 1933 and lives in Portland, Oregon, was a great help to me as I worked on The B-Side. He’s probably best known for his funny songs like “I’m Hip,” “My Attorney Bernie,” and “Van Lingle Mungo,” but he’s penned a lot of wonderful jazz-inflected ballads as well, including “Heart’s Desire,” a collaboration with New Zealand-born jazz pianist Broadbent.
Frishberg, who started out as a session pianist in New York in the ’50s, told me that he initially tried to write hits. “I tried to write for what I perceived was the market,” he said. “I ended up writing shit, on purpose. I was trying to sound like this writer or that. A few country songs, a few folk songs–that was big at the time. After two or three years of futility, I abandoned that.”
Frishberg said he then made a conscious effort to write songs “as if it were 1937… I said to myself, ‘If that’s the stuff you love so much, that’s what you should write like.'”
The idea bore fruit, as Frishberg produced (and continues to produce) such fine songs as “Devil May Care,” “Do You Miss New York,” “You Are There,” and “Little Did I Dream.” They’re much beloved by jazz aficionados but haven’t exactly burned up the charts. When I talked to Frishberg on the phone not long ago, he pulled out a postcard that the great Johnny Mercer had written to him circa 1969 or ’70. He read the card to me, in its entirety: “You are my favorite lyric writer at the moment. Boy, are you uncommercial!”
Carol Sloane has one of the best versions of the song. (You can buy her CD Heart’s Desire here.)