Which 20th century songwriter had a six-decades-long career with work recorded by Count Basie, Benny Goodman, Nat King Cole, Billie Holiday, Louis Prima, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, The Four Coins, Elvis Presley, Ray Charles, Brenda Lee, Sonny and Cher, Andy Williams, Sammy Davis Jr., Sarah Vaughan, Jerry Lee Lewis, Merle Haggard, Van Morrison and Joni Mitchell – among others?
Why, Carl Sigman, of course. But most people would ask, “Carl who?” And that’s just the way he liked it, explained his son, Michael Sigman, who just released a three-CD set featuring the remarkable career of a man who preferred to let his music speak for itself.
“The interesting thing about doing this whole package was (by his own design) he didn’t want people to really know him or even his work as the work of one person,” Michael Sigman said. “He just wanted people to like each individual song.”
Well, people certainly did like Carl Sigman songs – and not just the artists whose voices poured out of the radios and records for years. Sigman’s life very much followed the ebbs and flows of mid-century American pop music created in and around New York City for people who enjoyed a dash of wit, sophistication and urban style.
Born in 1909 and raised in Brooklyn Carl Sigman’s career had humble beginnings. While giving piano lessons, he started writing his own melodies. He found Johnny Mercer best known for working with Duke Ellington, and Mercer became his friend and musical mentor.
“After playing softball together in the Brooklyn schoolyards, we’d spend long nights writing what seemed to be Isham Jones songs,” Mercer wrote in his memoirs. “But we had only one song published, ‘Just Remember,’ and it was not a hit. But I loved Carl’s tunes. As it turned out, he was also a great lyric writer, which he later proved.”
Michael Sigman says his father soon focused on lyrics and tried to write songs that sounded like snippets of conversation. The titles attest to success: “All Too Soon,” “What Now My Love?” “Losing You.” Of course, hearing artists such as Nat King Cole implore a disappointed lover to “Come Out Of The Rain” added a timeless touch.
Before World War II, Sigman tended to get assignments from big bands to write lyrics. He would go to the Brill Building in Manhattan, NY and write. The CD features “It’s Square But It Rocks” from this era, performed by Count Basie and his Orchestra with Helen Hume. The title refers to the dance floor and hip club, said Michael Sigman.
After the War, Carl Sigman continued on his own, but also began collaborating with Bob Russell and Bob Hillard. They often spent hours writing music and lyrics, Michael Sigman said.
“As he got older and the business changed. It became much more that he would not necessarily meet the person that he was collaborating with, but would get – even in the mail, or by messenger – a whole bunch of melodies from a publisher, with a note saying, ‘Carl, can you write lyrics to any of these?'” his son recounted. “He wouldn’t do the two-hour-a-day discipline thing. He would just be obsessed until they were all done.”
Sigman remembers his father sitting at the piano at their Long Island, NY home, playing the key phrases of a melody over and over. “He always said if you come up with a title, you’re halfway there.” Michael Sigman said. “And what he would try to do was get a title of those venacularese words – if I can say that – with a melody.”
As you might suspect, Frank Sinatra was Carl Sigman’s favorite singer. Sinatra recorded 13 Carl Sigman songs, started with “Love Lies” in 1940 to “What Now My Love,” in a duet with Aretha Franklin in the 1990s. What Carl Sigman liked best about Sinatra was what everybody liked – his amazing vocal phrasing, Michael Sigman said.
What’s been most gratifying to Michael Sigman about the project has been the reaction by artists who know his father’s music – and in some cases still perform it. Sigman got a surprise phone call this winter from Keely Smith, who told him, “I knew your dad wrote ‘Bong, Bongo’ but I didn’t know he wrote all that other stuff.”
“My favorite one from someone who is on the disc is a hand-written letter I got from Brenda Lee, which said that ‘Losing You’ is one of her favorite songs and she still does it whenever she plays. It shows the value of great songs,” Michael Sigman recalled. “It was signed ‘Love, Brenda.’ That was a thrill.”