Remembering Ben Weisman

When I spent an afternoon with Elvis' lyricist in 2001, he was as modest as his home in Marina Del Rey, though disappointed and puzzled that his work did not command more respect.
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Heinz met its match in Ben Weisman, who wrote with a variety of lyricists an astounding 57 songs recorded by Elvis Presley and died on May 20 at the age of 85. Although "Clambake," "Rock-A-Hula Baby" and "He's Your Uncle, Not Your Dad" can't hold a candle to the quality of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller's "Hound Dog" and "Jailhouse Rock" or Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman's "Viva Las Vegas" and "Little Sister," Weisman far surpassed in quantity more famous contributors to the Presley songbook. Few of them are remembered today, but Weisman racked up more than 60 gold records and sales of 75 million. Not only Elvis but everyone else, from Jackie Gleason, Lefty Frizzell and Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers to Barbra Streisand, the Beatles, Bruce Springsteen and Reba McIntyre, recorded his songs.

If time had pretty much forgotten Weisman well before his death, he was ahead of it in at least one regard. He was among the first pop songwriters of his and the following generation to sense the power shift in the music business from the East to the West Coast and to light out for Los Angeles. When I spent an afternoon with him in 2001, he was as modest as his home in Marina Del Rey, though disappointed and puzzled that his work did not command more respect.

Born in 1921, the same year as Hal David (with whom he would write a few songs), Weisman grew up in Brooklyn, studied classical piano, and switched to swing when he wrote arrangements for military dance bands as a member of the Army Air Force Special Services during World War Two.

By 1950 he was writing songs and pitching them at the Brill Building, Manhattan's legendary citadel of popular music publishing at 1619 Broadway. Dean Martin was the first performer to record one of his compositions, which soon caught the ear of Jean Aberbach, the dapper Viennese co-owner, with his brother Julian, of Hill and Range Songs. The Aberbachs, then quartered a couple of blocks away at 1650 Broadway, a few flights above Irving Berlin, signed Weisman to an exclusive contract.

In 1956, Jean Aberbach told Weisman to watch Presley's first nationally televised appearance on the Dorsey Brothers' Stage Show. "Okay," he said, "now write for him." "I went through the usual procedure," Weisman recalled. "I studied his range--how high he could go, what kind of lyrics he wanted to hear--and, like a tailor, I started writing for Elvis."

Presley used to call Weisman "the Mad Professor" ("'cause I didn't look like a rock 'n' roll guy"), but Weisman considered himself "a dissector." He could pick apart and simulate any style. When Jean Aberbach asked him to write country music, Weisman balked, but only for a second. "I said, 'Jean, I don't write country music.' He said, 'Weisman, you see this check? You're going to write country music. Go out and buy the top ten country albums and come back a few weeks from now.' So I went home and listened to them until finally it came out my ears and I was loaded with country music. Because I was able to adapt to it, I immediately got records by the Sons of the Pioneers, Hank Snow, Jim Reeves--I got 'em all."

Weisman arranged for and occasionally sat in with Noro Morales's Latin band ("Doc" Severinsen played fourth trumpet). He even wrote a popular gospel song, "The Robe of Cavalry," though under a pseudonym because Hill and Range didn't want to attach a Jewish name to a gospel song.

Such journeyman versatility left little room for personality, and most of Weisman's generic tunes could easily be attributed to Anon. That was fine by the Aberbachs. Cranking out as many as four Presley movies a year was assembly-line work, and most of the songs were as formulaic as the films. Besides, the Aberbachs never wanted songwriters to get too big for their britches and threaten Hill and Range's strangle-hold over Presley's publishing.

Yet it was Jean Aberbach himself who warned Weisman that "publishers are losing a lot of their power" and suggested he move to California, where film, television and music were consolidating into the entertainment industry. Weisman made his move in 1962, in advance of a mass migration from Manhattan that included Burt Bacharach, Hal David, Gerry Goffin, Carole King, Barry Mann, Cynthia Weil, Jeff Barry, and a slew of other songwriters. "Suddenly you found that everybody you wanted to talk to was three hours earlier than you were," Cynthia Weil explained. In 1964, even Dick Clark's American Bandstand pulled up its stakes in Philadelphia and trekked across country.

His new surroundings inspired Weisman to write his most memorable song. He met Dorothy Wayne, who came up with a catchy title he couldn't wait to set to music. Weisman had yet to acquire a piano for his new apartment, so he snuck into UCLA, borrowed a piano, and worked out the melody. "The Night Has a Thousand Eyes" became one of Bobby Vee's -- and Ben Weisman's -- greatest hits.

Ken Emerson is the author, most recently, of Always Magic in the Air: The Bomp and Brilliance of the Brill Building Era.

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