teacher Harriet Schock has had an incredible career in composing for TV and film. She still performs in live concerts around the globe, gives master classes in songwriting and is lauded for her great skill and humanity in writing songs that resonate with the human spirit. "Ain't No Way to Treat a Lady" and "First Time on a Ferris Wheel" are but two of her magnificent hit pop songs. In our conversation she really digs deep to help us understand and feel the songwriting process.
I have been a fan of yours since I heard Carl Anderson sing "First Time on a Ferris Wheel". It's one of my favorite songs of all time. Reaching out and finding love, the exhilaration of it all is perfectly presented in your music and lyrics for this song. Is there a specific event or person that inspired you?
HS: Well, in answer to the question which comes first the music or the lyrics, Sammy Cahn said “the phone call.” In my case, in answer to what inspired it, it was a film assignment. Misha Segal wrote the beautiful melody, in my presence, in the music studio where we worked. I watched him write those notes and those chords and I felt I was riding a horse that I was steering not to make one false move. Of course, I had nothing to do with it, but that was the sensation I had—like I was willing every note and chord and he was doing it exactly as I wanted. After the melody was written, I wrote the lyric. It was for the Motown film, “Berry Gordy’s The Last Dragon.” I asked myself “What do I have in common with this character?” He’s African American, from the ghetto, a virgin, studying Kung Fu—so far nothing in common. But we had one thing in common…we both had fallen in love for the first time—he with a character played by the actress Vanity. I thought, “Falling in love is sort of like being on a Ferris wheel---it’s exhilarating but terrifying.”
We showed it to Mr. Gordy late one night at his house. He prefaced listening to it with the complaint “Why did you write a love song? There’s no love song in this film.” He then heard it and called the head of Tri Star Pictures on the phone (it was 2AM by then) and asked him to come over and hear the song, telling him they were re-writing the film for that song. Carl Anderson sang the demo and it became his trademark song. In the film, Smokey Robinson sang it. Over 35 singers have sung it but no one could beat Carl’s version. He was Judas in the film, “Jesus Christ Superstar,” as you must know. He was one of the finest singers who ever lived. It was an honor to be in the audience when he sang it.
"Ain't No Way To Treat a Lady" fit Helen Reddy like a glove. What are your memories about creating this piece? Were you happy with Helen's interpretation of it?
HS: I was very happy that Helen sang the actual melody. That may sound absurd but when you’ve had a lot of covers, that can be a miracle, a gift. Even the intro was almost identical to my record. She was very kind to me. After the record started getting airplay, she flew me to Las Vegas and introduced me from the stage. It apparently was a custom started by Edie Gorme who sang a song of Helen’s and did that for her. She continued the tradition with me. My publishers had been bragging about getting her the song, but when I asked her how she heard it, she told me she’d heard my version on the radio. That made sense because “Hollywood Town, “ my first single and “Ain’t No Way To Treat a Lady,” my second got a lot of airplay. Not as much as she got, but enough to get it heard by her. The label I was on—20th Century Records—had 2 top forty stations poised to go on my record on a Monday.
The Friday before it happened, the program director of the first station (in L.A.) quit. When that happened the second station (in San Francisco) pulled out. The promotion team at my label are still upset about it. I was happy to have a hit my parents could point to when they were still around, even if it wasn’t my record. Helen went on to record my song, “Mama,” which my mother used to great advantage to get backstage at Helen’s shows. “Ain’t No Way To Treat a Lady” had a Wikipedia page before I did. Whoever wrote the info on the Wikipedia page must have come to one or more of my shows because he quoted my introduction to the song: “I wrote this song on an airplane as I was leaving someone for the last time. It was one of the last times I left him for the last time.” That pretty much sums up what inspired it.
As I listened to Breakdown on Memory Lane, I marveled at the songs with the word "search" in it. We are all searching for love and some memories are painful as well as happy. Tell our readers about this from the viewpoint of a songwriter. What makes you choose one memory over the other? What makes it tick for you?
HS: Generally, I don’t write a song if the communication I want to make doesn’t have an effect on me, unless it’s on assignment. There’s a physical feeling I get, sort of like tears starting or a yearning feeling. I feel I have to say something and only the saying of it—both melodically and lyrically—will stop the feeling or satisfy it. It’s hard to describe but if it’s not physical, it manifests that way. That feeling will carry me through the writing of the song. Usually it’s not a memory that will do it, it’s something I’m trying to get, to communicate, to express or to share. I might start with a memory but the impetus to write it is outward—something I’m trying to accomplish or say to someone or about someone. I often tell my songwriting students songs are like little trials. You’re in front of a jury trying to win your case. The pictures you use are your exhibits A and B…you have to make your case or a disaster could occur. If you lose your case, she’ll never come back, or he’ll think you never loved him or the world won’t understand the way things REALLY are…whatever you’re on trial about. If I don’t have that gnawing tears-at-the-back-of-my-throat thing, I probably won’t write a song at all. There are so many other fun things to do. Like errands.
One song in particular "I'd Forgotten" really grabbed me. Did this grow out of a personal experience of yours or someone close to you? What inspired it?
HS: The recurring line is “I’d forgotten you were God,” spoken very sarcastically at the end of the first two verses, after which the audience always laughs. Then the bridge says “When I stopped admiring you, I thought it was your loss…but the one who’s disillusioned always pays a higher cost.” Then in the last verse, after discussing some soul searching and reading I say “It reminded me divinity lives inside the spark—that glows in us, each of us, even in the dark… and it showed me I’d forgotten you were God.” When people listen all the way through, they sometimes have the realization that it’s about forgiveness and understanding. When you really know someone and see that person, you can’t dismiss him or her as I was doing in the first half of the song. I like revealing my own flaws in hopes that others will see their own.
You collaborate with other lyricists, but most of the time you write both music and lyrics. That is a true gift. Do you prefer to work alone?
HS: I mostly work alone. In the beginning, I wrote alone. Then I got signed to Motown’s publishing company with a composer named Misha Segal and I wrote mostly lyrics. I generally write second—if I’m given a melody, I write words and if given a lyric, I write the melody. When I write with Arthur Hamilton (Cry Me A River, et al), I write melodies even though he can also write both. . Lyricists like Hillary Rollins and Chana Wise write lyrics that leap from the page to the piano. How can I not write melodies with them? But most of my album songs I wrote alone or, if there’s a collaboration in there, I’ve written the music.
Let's go back in time. Tell us about your background. How did music play into your world? When did you realize it was your life's dream?
HS: I was very close to my father. He was a musician. My sister got piano lessons and when she came home and read the music she was practicing, I’d play that song by ear. So my father taught me some chords when I was about 4. Eventually I’d say “I know, I know.” Then I studied with a piano teacher who was sweet and innocent enough to believe I was reading music after I got her to play it “just once so I’ll know if I want to learn it,” and then I was mostly playing by ear again. I never learned to read music well. My father was a much better musician than I am. He put himself through school playing cello and marimba. Eventually his father convinced him to become a doctor (dermatologist) and I lived out my father’s dream of becoming a musician. It was definitely my dream too. At what age did that start? Probably before my foot could reach the pedal.
Do you have a mentor or mentors? If so, tell us about these people, or person, and why they (he, she) mean (s) so much to you.
HS: I was probably discovered by Roger Gordon who signed me to my first publishing deal at Colgems. I’d write songs each weekend and bring them in on Monday. I got the songs for my first two albums that way. He was my mentor and inspiration in many ways. Colgems had signed Carole King also so there was a lot of pressure to say the least. I performed at what was then The Ice House, owned by Bob Stane who now owns The Coffee Gallery Backstage. He suggested I perform “6 songs and show.” I said “What is show?” He said, “You know, talk to the people!” This unleashed a monster. I think people come to hear my intros to the songs now as much as the songs themselves. Bob has been a wonderful mentor not only to me but to many singer/songwriters over the decades. By playing Bob’s club, I got signed to 20th Century Records. At that point, Russ Regan took me under his wing. He was a true record and song man.
I made 3 albums for that label and during the seventies there was a station that played album cuts. Every cut on all three albums got played. It was how other artists heard my songs and covered them. I was devoted to Russ and his belief in me made a huge difference back then. Then I met Berry Gordy who also inspired both me and Misha Segal. I had met Misha in the early eighties and had started writing with him. We met with Mr. Gordy regularly while we were signed there. He inspired me and during that time, Misha and I wrote “First Time on a Ferris Wheel” among many other songs. In 1991, I met Nik Venet. He reminded me of my records in the seventies and urged me to get back to who I was as a singer/songwriter writing from real communication. He made 2 albums with me which I really love—American Romance and Rosebud. Then Phil Appelbaum came to town and produced a live CD with me. My most recent CD is “Breakdown on Memory Lane,” produced by Travis Allen. All of these business people, in some way, were mentors of mine. As Nik Venet often said, “If you wouldn’t eat dinner with that person, you shouldn’t be working with him.” All my mentors were also friends.
You are helping to keep great standard pop music alive for future generations. What is your opinion of hip hop and other contemporary music styles?
HS: That’s kind of you to say. I have no problem with any style of music. It’s all so subjective. Hip hop has bled into pop and given us rhythms of melodies we wouldn’t have had without it. Everything has a purpose. I do still appreciate melodies that have movement and chords that do change occasionally. And I prefer lyrics that make sense or at least have enough pictures that I don’t care that they don’t make sense. I have trouble enjoying constant repetition and my greatest irritant is chords that never change…either one progression of two chords or even one chord over and over. The fashion parallel seems to be this: You see people dressing in clothing that looks really bad on them and their reasoning is that it’s in fashion. This illogic has spilled over into songwriting and I think we are the poorer for it.
You have done a lot of work in composing for film and TV. Which are your favorites? Why these choices?
HS: I have written or co-written a lot of songs for film and TV but I’ve scored only a few films by Henry Jaglom. That was a lot of fun. Mostly, though, I write songs for films and for TV. I love solving a problem in a film with a song or deepening a message. When I co-wrote (with Misha Segal) the songs for the animated “Secret Garden,” a film by Mike Young Productions, our audition was to solve a problem of the bird singing a song even though he didn’t speak English—or anything else for that matter. So I solved it by the phrase “If you listen to the meaning, not the words.’ Luckily that got us the job and I’ve done a number of shows with that wonderful company, now called Splash Entertainment.
Henry Jaglom came to one of my concerts and decided to make a movie sort of like “Oh Lucky Man,” where the band comes in and out of the film commenting on the story. The film was called “Irene in Time” and my entire band (at the time) was in it along with four of my songs. It was always a thrill working with Henry. He later cast me in a play called “Just 45 Minutes from Broadway,” directed by Gary Imhoff, which ran for nearly a year, and I was later cast in the film version of that. It was great working with the other wonderful actors: Tanna Frederick, David Proval, Diane Louise Salinger, Jack Heller, David Garver, Julie Davis and Judd Nelson.
Anything you care to add that I did not mention?
HS: I have some exciting things coming up. I’m making a new CD of my unrecorded new songs with my fabulous band. When I perform, I get to hear their beautiful accompaniment and I truly have the best seat in the house. There’s Joe Lamanno on bass, Jennifer Richardson on cello, Kelly DeSarla on flute, Eden Livingood on violin and Andrea Ross-Greene on backup vocals. I play keyboard, of course. And sometimes Carmael Frith fills in the third harmony. At my last Coffee Gallery Backstage concert with this amazing group of musicians, a filmmaker was inspired to create a film of some sort about and/or with me. It’s in its formative stages, but it would probably be some sort of documentary. The work he does is always wildly entertaining and never dry so to even call it a documentary is misleading. I am looking forward to his creative ideas on what he wants to do.
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