‘What would you rather have? A live bum of a musician or a dead lawyer?’

George David Weiss
April 9, 1921-August 23, 2010
By Dave Laing

“What a Wonderful World,” “Can't Help Falling in Love” and “Stay With Me Baby” were a few of the many hits written or co-written by songwriter George David Weiss, who died of natural causes on August 23 at age 89. His career spanned Broadway, rock ‘n’ roll and soul music and in his later years he was an ardent advocate of copyright as president of the Songwriters Guild of America.

Weiss was born into a Jewish family in New York City, where he attended Seward Park high school and City College. He wanted to pursue a career in music but his mother was adamant that he should train to be a lawyer. The subsequent battle of wills led his mother to consult a doctor, who asked her: "What would you rather have? A live bum of a musician or a dead lawyer?" She relented and Weiss went on to gain a degree in music theory from the Juilliard School, where he excelled as a multi-instrumentalist, performing on piano, violin, saxophone and clarinet.

George David Weiss (left) and his songwriting partner Bennie Benjamin began working together in 1946. In the first year of their partnership, the duo had three chart topping hits. This photo was taken in their office in April 1947. Photo: William P. Gottlieb

The entry of the U.S. into World War II prevented him from embarking on a professional career, but he served as an army bandmaster until 1945, when he launched himself as an arranger and composer. He wrote scores for the big bands of Stan Kenton and Johnny Richards but was much more successful as a songwriter. In 1946, he formed a partnership with Bennie Benjamin, a black performer and lyricist, and in that year they had three No 1 hits: Perry Como's “Surrender,” Frankie Carle's “Rumors Are Flying” and Frank Sinatra's “Oh, What It Seemed to Be.” Weiss and Benjamin had buttonholed Sinatra to play him their song; Weiss recalled that "before I finished it, Sinatra was on the phone to the record company telling them he just heard a great song and wanted to record it.”

The run of hits continued into the early 1950s and included “Confess,” by Patti Page (1948), and “Wheel of Fortune,” by Kay Starr (1952). Weiss also wrote the lyrics (under the pseudonym B. Y. Forster in order to circumvent a rule that forbid collaboration between BMI and ASCAP composers) for “Lullaby of Birdland,” the jazz standard composed by the pianist George Shearing.

can't helpWeiss branched out into musical theater and composing for the films. His most successful Broadway show was Mr. Wonderful, which ran for 383 performances from 1956 to 1957. Co-written with Jerry Bock and Larry Holofcener, this musical comedy was conceived as a vehicle for Sammy Davis Jr. and co-starred Chita Rivera. Weiss also collaborated on First Impressions (1959), a musical based on Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, and Maggie Flynn (1968), co-written with Luigi Creatore and Hugo Peretti, whom he had met in the late ‘50s. Through them, he gained an entree into the new world of teenage music. Together they wrote one of Weiss's most enduring and lucrative songs, “Can't Help Falling In Love.” It was pitched to Elvis Presley's manager and chosen for inclusion in the 1961 Presley film Blue Hawaii. With a tune based on an 18th-century French melody, it was a  #1 hit for Elvis and became a staple of his stage show at Las Vegas in the ‘70s, usually signaling the end of the set and cueing the announcer’s “Elvis has left the building” advisory.

Hugo and Luigi, as they were known throughout the music industry, were businessmen as well as writers and through their executive roles at RCA and Avco Records they brought Weiss's songs to younger musicians such as the Philly soul group the Stylistics, who had hits in the ‘70s with “Let's Put It All Together” and “Thank You Baby.” Weiss also wrote “Stay With Me Baby” with soul producer Jerry Ragovoy. Lorraine Ellison's dramatic rendering of the song is justly regarded as a classic of the genre.

tokensThe most controversial episode in Weiss's career concerned “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” a big hit for the Tokens in 1961, which was revived for the 1994 Disney film The Lion King. Of South African origin, the song had been introduced to America by the folk singer Pete Seeger as a traditional piece called “Wimoweh.” Weiss, Hugo and Luigi then added new lyrics and a new title, but it was later discovered that the song originated in a composition by the Zulu musician Solomon Linda. Complex lawsuits ensued as Linda's family sought a share of the royalties from “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Lion_Sleeps_Tonight)

The most notable of Weiss's songs is “What a Wonderful World,” which he wrote in 1967 with another music business veteran, Bob Thiele. Louis Armstrong's version of the song was a worldwide hit (and Pops’s last hit) the following year. It inspired numerous recordings by other artists and was used in the 1987 film Good Morning, Vietnam.

In the ‘80s, Weiss turned from songwriting to advocacy for his fellow professionals as president of the Songwriters Guild of America, a post he served in without pay. Perhaps unconsciously fulfilling his mother's ambitions for him, he was a familiar figure at congressional hearings into copyright reform and music piracy, testifying as to the vital importance of intellectual property protection for composers.

Weiss was married three times. He is survived by his wife, Claire; two sons and a daughter from his first marriage, to Bea Foster; a son from his second marriage, to Rosalyn Marks; his sister, Harriet; and eight grandchildren.

Reprinted courtesy guardian.co.uk, http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/2010/aug/24/george-david-weiss


The Stories Behind The Songs

'Can't Help Falling in Love,' Elvis Presley, 1961 (from Blue Hawaii)

George David Weiss on the ‘Can’t Help Falling In Love’ scene from Blue Hawaii: ‘It was touching, and it was a music box, so I thought I could write something sweet for Elvis' voice, I was hearing Elvis in the melody, but the lyrics just came. When I played the song for the publisher, he listened to it, and after a 10-second silence, he said, 'Well, George, it's nice, but we want 'Hound Dog' for Elvis.' Presley was the only person who initially liked the song.’

Of the many performers he has worked with, Elvis Presley is one of the few Weiss never met, although he wrote ''I Can't Help Falling in Love with You'' specifically for him, said Weiss. The screenplay for Presley's film Blue Hawaii was the impetus for the song, but Weiss couldn't stand the movie. When his publisher forwarded him the screenplay, Weiss didn't want anything to do with it. ''I was appalled,'' he said.

''I loved Elvis. I loved his tender voice, but he didn't exactly make Academy Award-winning movies.'' His publisher tried to convince him otherwise. ''He said, 'You're turning down Elvis Presley! He sells millions of records!' I said, 'Yeah, but I have standards to uphold,''' recalled Weiss.

Finally, he took another look at the screenplay and found a scene he could work with. In it, Presley goes into a souvenir shop and buys a music box for his girlfriend's grandmother. ''It was touching, and it was a music box, so I thought I could write something sweet for Elvis' voice,'' said Weiss. ''I was hearing Elvis in the melody, but the lyrics just came. When I played the song for the publisher, he listened to it, and after a 10-second silence, he said, 'Well, George, it's nice, but we want 'Hound Dog' for Elvis.''' The only person who initially liked the song was Presley himself. He just happened to overhear it at Graceland as his entourage was sampling a pile of demo tapes for the movie.

According to Weiss, Elvis heard the song as he was walking down the hall from his bedroom. ''He said, 'What was that?' and they said, 'Don't worry Elvis, that's some dumb ballad,''' according to Weiss. ''He said, 'No, I want to do that one in my movie.' ''He picked the song. Everyone else turned it down,'' said Weiss. ''He made it his closing piece in every concert he ever played. The last song he ever sang in concert before he died was ‘I Can't Help Falling in Love.’''

'What A Wonderful World,' Louis Armstrong (1968)

Pops live, warm and beautiful on ‘What a Wonderful World,’
‘He was trying to bring people together with music and with love’

As with the Presley hit, Weiss wrote the hymn-like ballad, ''What a Wonderful World'' specifically for the artist who first recorded it, Louis Armstrong. ''To me, he was a great man, not only a great interpreter of songs,'' said Weiss. ''He was going around the world at the time of the Vietnam war, when the races were confronting each other, and he was trying to bring the people together with music and with love. And I loved him for that because I abhorred what was going on.''

'Lullaby of Birdland,' Ella Fitzgerald (1954), et al.

The great Ella knocks it out of the park, live

In another quirk of fate, Weiss had to wait until the 1980s before he would be recognized for one of his most famous songs, ''Lullaby of Birdland.''

Originally, the song was an obscure instrumental written by George Shearing, but when Weiss added lyrics, and Ella Fitzgerald sang them, it soared up the charts. ''Lullaby of Birdland'' went on to become a pop classic recorded by almost every major jazz vocalist, from Sarah Vaughn to Mel Torme. But Weiss could not take credit for the song for more than 25 years. When Weiss composed the lyrics, he didn't know that Shearing had copyrighted the music through BMI. Weiss worked with ASCAP. Because artists with one company were not allowed to publish with the other, Weiss was forced to publish the lyrics under the pseudonym B.Y. Forster, a derivation of his ex-wife's maiden name. ''I had that name on that song even after it was a big smash and a standard,'' he said. ''I couldn't talk about it, put it on my credit list or play it. You don't know what I used to go through to get my royalties. Talk about the Mafia and money laundering. I finally said, 'OK, I can't stand it anymore.''' Even though he feared being sued for fraud, Weiss confessed to the head of BMI and she gave him permission to use his name.

But perhaps his greatest dilemma in co-writing the song was thinking up lyrics to go with Shearing's title, a tribute to the legendary New York jazz club. ''What the hell can you say about a lullaby of Birdland in a love song?'' Weiss wondered. ''But, when I was a kid, my father used to sing songs from his childhood and I remember there were so many talking about you and I are billing and cooing, we're lovebirds. They had that image. When I said that to myself, I knew I had it.''

Anecdotes from New Jersey Star-Ledger interview, "George David Weiss interview: Jersey songwriter wrote thousands of songs" by Carrie Stetler/The Star-Ledger, originally published February 1, 1994, now online at http://www.nj.com/entertainment/music/index.ssf/2010/08/george_david_weiss_interview_j.html

'Oh What It Seemed To Be,' Frank Sinatra (1946)

The Chairman of the Board, ‘Oh, What It Seemed To Be,’ original recording

In an interview with The Santa Fe New Mexican in 1995, Mr. Weiss described the making of one of his early hits, "Oh! What It Seemed to Be" (1946), written with Mr. Benjamin and Frankie Carle.

After finding a publisher for the song, the writers went in search of a singer. They called on Frank Sinatra, and a nervous young Mr. Weiss played it through for him.

"Before I had finished it Sinatra was on the phone calling the record company and telling them he just heard a great song and wanted to record it," Mr. Weiss recalled. "You can imagine what happened to me - I froze at the piano. I just kept playing. See, the publisher had told me that no matter what happens, I should keep playing to make sure the tune got into their heads."

He continued: "So everyone sat down and discussed horses and women and gossip for a half hour or so, and I'm still playing that song at the piano. Finally, the publisher comes over to me, lifts me up under the armpits and says, 'Say goodbye to Frank.' I said goodbye and they led me out like a zombie."

(From the New York Times, August 23, 2010, www.nytimes.com/2010/08/24/arts/music/24weiss.html

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