The great lyricist Sammy Cahn – he wrote the lyrics to many of Frank Sinatra’s best-known hits – published a funny, swaggering boastful memoir called I Should Care. Not a man to hid his light under a bushel, Sammy claimed that as soon as he heard a melody, a title would flash into his head.
‘I don’t write a song so much as it writes me. What I do is sort of trigger it with a title and then follow where it leads.’
Elsewhere, in an introduction to his own rhyming dictionary, Cahn argued that a lyric’s most important quality is ‘singability’. Without that, the most brilliant thought, the cleverest wordplay won’t work. With it, a piece of utter silliness sometimes will.
‘Never have a line you have to explain. Write a new song.’
These are great, no-bullshit rules for songwriters and are as true today as when he wrote them decades ago. I think of them when I come across lyrics like:
You make my heart sing,
You make everything groovy,
‘There’ll be no strings to bind your hands
Not if my love can’t bind your heart.’
Or this, written many years later:
‘There’s a hole in the midnight
Where paradise is slipping away.’
These lines are not particularly poetic, or elegant, or thought-provoking, but they work. They are singable and beyond explanation.
Chip Taylor, who wrote both those words and this week’s Friday Song, is one of the great unsung heroes of songwriting over the past sixty years.
His career is truly astonishing. How many people have not only written straightforward copper-bottomed hits like ‘Wild Thing’ and ‘Angel of the Morning’, but, as he’s grown older, turned out political songs like the superb ‘Black and Blue America’ (Chip’s brother, interestingly, is that arch-Trumpian, the actor Jon Voight) and the angry ‘Fuck All the Perfect People’?
How many songwriters have had their songs covered by Jimi Hendrix, Johnny Tillotson, Frank Sinatra, Dusty Springfield, The Hollies, Aretha Franklin, Emmylou Harris, Anne Murray, Willie Nelson, Janis Joplin, and Willie Nelson, to name only the A-listers?
And, just worth mentioning, his songs are still appearing in shows like Killing Eve, True Detective, The Office and Sex Education.
It has been a long career and, apart from a period in the 1980s when he became a professional gambler (he’s good at that, too), Chip has kept going.
I saw him 15 years ago at Merlefest in North Carolina when he was working the brilliant young singer and country fiddler Carrie Rodriguez, who is his junior by 38 years – an arrangement which, against the odds, worked brilliantly. Their 2002 album Let’s Leave This Town is one of my favourites.
His songs are not complicated but the best of them have warmth, wit, swing and, above all, heart. They are all to be found in this week’s Friday Song ‘Extra’. It’s not a classic but I love its easy good humour, the way the vocals are shared. The arrangement and the solos, including Carrie’s Texas fiddle, are great, too.
‘Extra’ is singable, fun, a good song for times like these.
Researching this blog, I came across an interview Chip Taylor did for the First Amendment Centre in 2001. Discussing how he wrote songs, he said:
‘I’m the kind of writer that doesn’t think too much about what I’m doing. I just let the stuff come out… I try to let my spirit go some place and then I try catch up to it and find out where we’re going with it.’
In other words, like Sammy Cahn, he doesn’t so much write the song as it writes him. Easy to say, tough to do and not many people have the talent that leads them to songs like ‘Extra’.