|Q: How did you get started in writing?
A: My book writing came out of my songwriting. Having played clarinet in high school -- it was a great passion for me; I’d practice several hours every day -- and loving Top 40 pop radio, my interest in music was always high. I started writing pop songs in college but never got anything published because my songs sounded like they were from the ’50s -- no, not the 1950s, the 1850s. Yes, I loved the old songs, the very old songs, like “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” and “Home on the Range.”
I was a biology (pre-med) major in college, but then I decided I should see if my songwriting would lead anywhere. After graduating college, I met a producer whose partner was Sammy Turner, who had a big hit in the fifties called “Lavender Blue” (produced by Leiber and Stoller, who wrote “Hound Dog,” “Love Potion #9,” and scores of other hits). I worked with these two men, producing records and going to record companies to sell our product. I got a real street education that I think would be hard to get today. I also got to meet many big musical people -- both in front of and behind the scenes -- from the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s.
After this I worked for a music publisher. My boss gave me a week to sit in my small office and listen to recordings of all the songs in the company’s catalog, and then he gave me a list of music-building addresses in New York City. He told me to start at the top floor and work my way down, knocking on every door behind which might be someone who could record the company’s songs. He also sent me to Nashville a few times to do basically the same thing on Music Row.
All this taught me a great deal but didn’t lead to much. Then one summer day I saw an advertisement for a songwriting workshop at a nearby library. I didn’t think it would have a lot to offer me, but at the last minute I decided to go. It turned out everyone there was a beginner, and I was able to answer all their questions. The librarian who set up the meeting asked me to run the workshop in the fall. I agreed and started preparing notes. Perhaps I went overboard with this, but before I knew it I had a book-length manuscript.
Then I met someone who knew an editor at a big publisher. When at his suggestion I went to drop off my manuscript at T.Y. Crowell, I saw in the lobby books touted as New York Times bestsellers such as Dr. Wayne Dyer’s Your Erroneous Zones and Robert Ringer’s Looking Out for #1. I was so excited by all this that I could hardly contain my enthusiasm when the editor came out to the lobby to greet me. He told me they get about 10,000 manuscripts a year and not to get my hopes up. He said he would read my manuscript, and if he liked it he would pass it on to the editorial board for consideration. He’d have an answer for me in three weeks. It was torture waiting, but sure enough, three weeks later he called to tell me my manuscript had been accepted for publication. I think he said something after that about an advance, but I’m not sure because I put the phone down and jumped up to high-five the ceiling.
Q: That book, of course, was The Songwriter’s Handbook. Was that the first thing you wrote professionally?
A: No. I had been writing about songwriting for a couple of journals. Syde Berman published The Songwriter’s Review in New York City, and he was the first to publish my music articles. Then Jim Liddane in Limerick City, Ireland, published my articles in his magazine called The Songwriter. These two publishers helped me more than I can say. While writing for these journals, I also freelanced for teen magazines. I interviewed up-and-coming pop stars, and I got to see how the publicity system worked with public relations firms and managers.
Q: After years of pounding the pavement trying to sell recordings and songs, you must have been pretty excited to have your first book published.
A: Yes, and that was only the beginning of the adventure. The editor asked me to get back-cover endorsements, and somehow I managed to get great blurbs from six Academy-Award winning songwriters: Burt Bacharach, Sammy Cahn (who wrote the foreword to the book), Marvin Hamlisch, Henry Mancini, Richard Rodgers, and Jule Styne. After the book was published I called Richard Rodgers’s office to ask if I could drop off a copy of the book and meet with him. I went up to his Madison Avenue office and sat alone with him in his office for twenty minutes -- just the two of us talking. The thrill of this I cannot convey. Here was perhaps the greatest composer in Broadway history -- The Sound of Music, Oklahoma!, The King and I, Flower Drum Song, Pal Joey -- and of course he worked with perhaps the 20th century’s greatest lyricists, Lorenz Hart and Oscar Hammerstein II -- and I had his exclusive company for almost half an hour. When I walked out of his office onto Madison Avenue, I looked up at the sky and whispered, “I just met a piece of history.”
Next were TV talk shows. The first was Joe Franklin, a staple in New York. Then I told the publicist at my publisher to get me on Dinah Shore’s show. She said there was virtually no chance, but I begged her to try. A few weeks later she called back (I think in utter disbelief) to say that someone from Dinah! was going to call me for a “pre-interview.” The next thing I knew, I was making reservations for my first trip to California.
I’ll never forget the day I was on Dinah’s show. It was filmed at Paramount Studios in Los Angeles. Hundreds of people were lined up along the sidewalk to get in. The theme of the show was “Dinah and the Music Makers,” and her guests included Melba Moore and other singers who had hit records out at the time. The stars all seemed to arrive at the same time. I pulled up in my rented car behind folk-singing legend Burl Ives, who was in a camper. I heard people screaming as each car drove in. I put on my sunglasses, opened the top buttons of my shirt, and flashed a big grin. I heard people say, “Who the hell is he?”
Since Dinah! was my first national television show, I was quite nervous. I stood in the bathroom by the green room and looked in the mirror trying to give myself a pep talk when suddenly the door opened and I saw the director’s finger motioning hard for me to follow him. My mouth was as dry as a cotton field, and whenever I spoke I made a clicking sound. Word must have gotten around about how nervous I was, because ten or fifteen people were offering me some kind of beverage. They were obviously afraid I would trip en route to the set, so instead of walking onto the set for my segment, I was seated next to Dinah during a commercial. Dinah rested her hand comfortingly over mine before we began. I heard the director count “10-9-8 . . .” and suddenly the set lit up brightly, the audience area became pitch dark, and all the cameras moved right up close to us. Dinah was sweet as could be, and it seemed like I was just getting warmed up with smiles, a bubbly personality, and lively chatter when the piano tinkled signaling a commercial -- and the end of my segment!
Q: After all this, you probably wanted to write a second book.
A: Well, sure. What does a writer do after his first book but write another one? That was The Encyclopedia of the Music Business, which was accepted by Harper and Row. I got endorsements this time around from Elton John, Aaron Copland, Johnny Mathis, and Pat Boone. The book won the ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award, was named an Outstanding Reference Book of the Year by the American Library Association, and was put on the U.S. Copyright Office’s “Select Bibliography for Musicians.
At the end of the 1984 internationally televised Grammy Awards show, Henry Mancini came on to say that on behalf of CBS and the Library of Congress, he was recommending two books for anyone who wanted to pursue a career in music. One was a book by R. Serge Denisoff, and the other book was my music encyclopedia. I was watching the Grammys and wishing I could be on it, but I turned it off just before Henry Mancini came on, so I missed him. A friend called to say he’d seen my book touted on the Grammys, and I thought he was playing a joke. But then someone else called, so I knew it was true. If I had seen it live I think I would have fallen off my chair.
And so I began my unlikely career as an author. Other books followed, but I wanted a larger audience, so I pursued subjects outside of music. My next books included The Money Encyclopedia (I was actually the editor of this volume, which was a Library Journal Outstanding Reference Book of the Year), and then a pair of police books: The Making of a Cop and The Making of a Detective.
Q: You started out writing essentially reference books, then moved into narrative books. How was that for you?
A: I was fortunate to do this under the guidance of Judith Stein, who not only helped me make the transition but taught me so much about writing. She is an editor's editor and I seek her counsel for all my books.
Q: Writing about cops is so much different than writing about music. How was that for you?
A: I went through the New York City Police Academy for the first of these books and spent almost two years in the 75th Precinct Detective Squad in East New York, Brooklyn, for the second. It was brutally difficult to get permission to do the books from the NYPD; I had to meet with deputy commissioners and almost beg my way in. But luck must have been with me. The experience was amazing, to say the least. The training at the New York City Police Academy was absolutely fascinating. I’ll never forget the mesmerizing role-plays and going through the gun-run house at the shooting range.
But nothing could have prepared me for the Seven-five squad. My instructions from the top were that in entering the Seventy-fifth Precinct, I had to immediately go to the upstairs lounge by the squad room and stay in the lounge where I could interview the detectives. Under no circumstances was I to enter the squad room. Well, my first day in I blundered into the squad room by mistake, and the sarge immediately told me to suit up. “Put on a vest,” he barked. “We’re going on a stakeout, and if you get shot, it would be embarrassing to us.” From that point on, it was a roller-coaster ride.
Q: Then you segued into new area -- history.
A: Yes. Soon after my NYPD travails, a book I had been working on for a while was published. It was called Lucy’s Bones, Sacred Stones, and Einstein’s Brain. I can’t tell you how satisfying this was for me, as this was a book that I really loved. There are too many highlights with this book to list them all, but let me tell you a few of the top ones. I was on the Late Late Show with Tom Snyder (I was one of two guests, the other was comedian Chris Rock); the book was listed in a slew of “best” books lists, including the Reader’s Catalog of “Best Books in Print”; and something I dreamed of throughout the writing of the book came true: it was made into a television series called History’s Lost and Found on The History Channel. Edward Herrmann was the narrator, and the initial shows were introduced by the famous newscaster Roger Mudd. The show debuted at the end of 1998 as three one-hour pilots, and because the ratings broke records at the History Channel, it was green-lighted for a series that ran in prime time at 8:00. It was later broadcast all day long in marathons on July Fourth and New Year’s Day, and it’s still on the air in reruns and is now shown in countries around the world.
Then I wrote a sequel to Lucy’s Bones called Jumbo’s Hide, Elvis’s Ride, and the Tooth of Buddha. And now I have Scandals, Vandals, and Da Vincis: A Gallery of Remarkable Art Tales. So I’m really this rather down-to-earth kind of guy who loves what he does and appreciates every moment of it. I’m happy that anyone reads my books, and if you like history, I’ll like you!
Q: Teaching is a big part of your life too.
A: Yes, I teach music-management courses at Manhattanville College in Purchase, New York. It’s a great school with a beautiful campus in Westchester County, not far from New York City. Every year I get terrific students who are just so much fun to teach, and I work in the music department, which has dozens of faculty members and is fortunate to be run under the expert guidance of Dr. Mel Comberiati. Working in his department is a wonderful experience.
Q: Going back to your days of interviewing old-time hit songwriters, are there any anecdotes from your conversations with them that stick in your mind?
A: Yes, plenty. For instance, in this Web site’s Photo Gallery are pictures of me with songwriters Irving Caesar and Johnny Marks.
I remember Irving Caesar telling about the day he and George Gershwin started writing “Swanee” in a restaurant. They went to George’s home to finish it off, which they did in twenty minutes. They were singing it, and George’s father, in the next room playing poker, abruptly left the game to join the boys by playing a kazoo. The poker game was disrupted, but the songwriters had given birth to “Swanee” -- a song that swept America, with Al Jolson doing the crooning.
Caesar also reminisced how Vincent Youmans called him in the middle of the night to hear eight bars of a new song he was writing and come up with some words for it. Caesar resisted getting out of bed but finally relented. After hearing the tune over and over, he didn’t have any inspirations, so he set a dummy lyric to it, intending to change it later. He told Youmans he’d write proper lyrics in the morning. But Youmans liked what he had and asked him to complete it. Caesar responded, “I said, ‘Double the tempo, and I’ll finish it.’ Fifteen minutes later we had the song.” And that was how “Tea for Two” came to be written.
And let me quote an anecdote Johnny Marks told me about his famous song “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” I put it in my magazine article about him:
“Back in the Vietnam War days, I was sent about on a USO tour by ASCAP to entertain the troops in Vietnam with some other songwriters. Our first stop was Tokyo. And the custom there is that these girls give you a bath. Well, if that’s the custom I’ll practice it! And while this girl is scrubbing my back what did I hear? She’s humming “Rudolph”! I turned to her and said, ‘What in the world are you singing?’ She looked at me in disbelief and said with utter scorn, ‘Don’t you know “Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer”? I said ‘Yes,’ and that was the end of that. I didn’t tell her I wrote it. She wouldn’t have believed it. Nobody ever does.”
In the Photo Gallery there’s a picture of me at the ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award ceremonies with ragtime pianist Max Morath. I already knew Max. In one of my top-to-bottom-floor excursions working for the music publisher I mentioned earlier, outside an office I heard a piano playing, and it sounded magical. I couldn’t be sure if it was a recording or a live performance. I listened until the piece was finished and then knocked on the door. I asked the man who answered if that was him playing the piano, and he said yes. I told him how much I enjoyed his playing. It turned out to be Max Morath, and we struck up a friendship that day. He gave me a pile of ragtime music. And I was so enamored by the composition he had played, Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag,” that I immediately set about learning it, one hand at a time. It took me several months to put together, but from then on, whenever I was at a party or a restaurant with a piano, I’d play that electrifying composition. People always thought I was a professional piano player and would ask me to play more. And I always politely declined. The truth was, of course, that “The Maple Leaf Rag” was the only song I could play on the piano!
Coincidentally, on another of my top-to-bottom-floor excursions, I met and befriended a very old music publisher who had met Scott Joplin, the son of Civil War slaves, in the early 20th century when he came to New York City to help launch his opera Treemonisha. So I like to tell people that if you shake my hand, you’re only two handshakes away from Scott Joplin.
Q: What’s the biggest thrill you’ve gotten from your writing?
A: Well, it’s hard to rank thrills. But the excitement of History’s Lost and Found was overwhelming.
There was a million-dollar advertising budget, with full-page or full-color print ads in Newsweek, TV Guide, Smithsonian, Discover, Popular Science, and USA Today. There were scores of Sunday newspaper TV magazine and daily newspaper ads, including a full-page New York Times Sunday TV magazine ad. There were national television commercials on A&E, The History Channel, Comedy Central, and other cable channels. There were radio commercials in most major U.S. markets. And the show was selected by Entertainment Weekly magazine as one of “20 Killer Shows” for the summer of 1999. I thought that was pretty cool.
I don’t like to brag, but I’m incredibly proud of that show. I remember one day I was sitting in the producer’s office going over story ideas for History’s Lost and Found. There were a couple of dozen people there. I was thinking, “All these people are here, are coming to work each day and earning their wages, all because I had an idea.” It was an incredible feeling.
Q: That’s very nice!
A: Yes, it is. And I sure wouldn’t mind having that feeling again!