The story behind the song, "Ervin & Edith"
There are songs I remember vividly hearing for the first time, that have stayed in my heart forever. One of them is, “By The Time I Get To Phoenix,” recorded by Glen Campbell, written by Jimmy Webb. I was 12 or 13 years old, a brand new guitarist/songwriter myself, and that song — and arrangement — knocked me out.
Another indelible song that I can never get enough of is, “If You Could Read My Mind” by Gordon Lightfoot, another knockout. And then there’s “Molly” by Biff Rose.
But if I had to choose which is my all time favorite song, bar none, it would be, “It Was A Very Good Year,” by Frank Sinatra. A masterful piece of lyric writing by songwriter Ervin Drake, matched with magnificent music also written by Ervin, arranged by Gordon Jenkins.
I must have first heard it in 1965, not knowing it was debuted by The Kingston Trio in 1961. Growing up in modest surroundings in Peekskill, New York, most new music found its way into our home via the radio. Luckily radio was undergoing a revolution at that time, with WNEW-FM on the forefront, quietly broadcasting wondrous new songs on shows hosted by Allison Steele, Scott Muni, Roscoe, Jonathan Schwartz, and other radio mavericks who left AM radio in the dust.
It had to be one of them who first played Sinatra’s version of Ervin’s classic song, though at first I had to get over my attitude toward Sinatra. To me he was a relic of a bygone era. One of my aunts was a bobbysoxer who screamed for him when he did back-to-back-to-back live shows at movie theaters in Manhattan. The Beatles and the British invasion were in full swing, and that’s what I was mostly captivated by in 1965. Sinatra was old news.
But that song, those strings — there was no denying the pull that song had on me. It would be ten years later, in the mid-1970s, that I would be living at Lena Spencer’s apartment in Saratoga Springs where she had an entire shelf of Frank Sinatra albums that I eagerly played many times over. I especially liked the smaller size albums, like, “I’ve Got A Crush On You,” that only had eight songs, four to a side. But back in 1965, getting hooked on the Frank Sinatra recording of “It Was A Very Good Year” was something brand new to me.
It went on to win top honors — it became Sinatra's first #1 Adult Contemporary single, while it peaked at #28 on the Hot 100. In 1966 it won Grammys for “Best Male Vocal Performance” for Frank and, “Best Instrumental Arrangement Accompanying A Vocalist” for arranger, Gordon Jenkins, who also conducted this orchestra:
Violins: Victor Arno, Harry Bluestone, Herman Clebanoff, Walter Edelstein, Jacques Gasselin, Anatol Kaminsky, Louis Kaufman, Murray Kellner, Joseph Livoti, Dan Lube, Joseph Quadri, Lou Raderman, Mischa Russell, Ralph Schaeffer, Marshall Sosson, Joe Stepansky. Violas: Alvin Dinkin, Louis Kievman, Paul Robyn. Cello: Armand Kaproff.
Flute: Melinda Eckels
Oboe: Gene Cipriano (solo)
Clarinets: Clyde Hylton, Harry Klee, Wayne Songer
Bassoon: Lloyd Hildebrand
Harp: Kathryn Thompson Vail
Guitar: Vincent Terri
Piano: Bill Miller
Bass: Mike Rubin
Drums: Nick Fatool
Spring forward to MAY of 1998, the week after Frank Sinatra died. I was living on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
[I’ll finish the rest of this story, an excerpt from my book, COLD PIZZA FOR BREAKFAST, CHAPTER 26: ERVIN DRAKE]
I remember how personally so many people took Frank Sinatra’s death. He was the skinny kid from Hoboken who grew up to be the defining singing voice of his generation, and a good actor, too. Lots of women adored him, and lots of men idolized him. One of them was a young guy named Stewart, who owned the Broadway Delights delicatessen on the east side of Broadway between West 75th and West 76th streets. For the entire week following Sinatra’s death, Stewart played Frank’s music non-stop in his store.
One of those afternoons I was in there. Stewart was making my sandwich, and I had a slight coffee mishap. Frank’s music was playing, and out of nowhere Stewart asked me if I knew any girls I could introduce him to. He wanted to settle down but hadn’t met the right one yet.
I was surprised by his question—I didn’t know him well. We joked around a lot, but I never saw him outside of his shop, so I never expected he’d think of me as someone who could play matchmaker. I told him that offhand I couldn’t think of anyone . . . but I could write a song about his predicament.
I left with my sandwich, headed for the subway where I had another Sinatra-esque experience, and that night I started working on a song that I eventually titled:
There’s a live recording of it on my album, GETTING IN TOUCH WITH MY INNER BITCH. It was recorded on June 12, 1999 on WFMT’s “Folkstage” program in Chicago, hosted by Rich Warren.
To my knowledge, Stewart has never seen me perform, and now his deli has closed and he’s not in the neighborhood anymore (neither am I). But I gave him a copy of the album that contains this song, and for a couple of years I sang it all over the country. Sometimes women would ask me for Stewart’s number, and yes, I would give them the number for his deli. I said to Stewart in private, “If you meet your wife because of this song, and then if you break her heart, I will have to track you down and smack you.”
I heard through the grapevine that he did find his heart’s desire, though not through my song. I never even knew his last name. However, it was thanks to Stewart that I met one of our greatest American songwriters, the author of “It Was a Very Good Year,” Ervin Drake.
One Monday night three years or so after I wrote the song about Stewart, I was in the audience at a Manhattan cabaret called Don’t Tell Mama for a show called Monday Night Madness, hosted by a stand-up comic named Angela LaGreca. At the time, during the day Angela was the warm-up comedian for the TV show The View, and often on weekends she would play comedy clubs around the country, sometimes as Joy Behar’s opening act.
Angela’s guests for Monday Night Madness would be other comics and sometimes singers (I was one of her guests a few months later). One of her favorite things to do in the show was to point out celebrities in the audience. The night when I was in the audience, she pointed out a well dressed man and mentioned that he was the author of the song “It Was a Very Good Year.” Ervin Drake!
I almost jumped out of my skin. As soon as the show was over I weaved through the crowd to find him. I’d had a couple of cosmopolitans, so I was a little tipsy. When I finally found him, I started babbling. “I love your song so much that I have a song about how much I love your song!”
I don’t know if he couldn’t hear me well or just thought I was some nut, but he seemed to wave me off in a dismissive manner, and then I lost him in the crowd. Or maybe he was motioning for me to meet him outside? Whatever it was, I couldn’t find him, and I couldn’t believe how I had messed up meeting one of my heroes.
The next day I found an Ervin Drake listed in Great Neck in the Manhattan phone book [at the time, the NYC phonebook allowed anyone in the vicinity to be listed in the Manhattan phonebook, paying a yearly fee, even if you didn’t have a residence there. Ervin, as a savvy songwriter, wanted to be easily accessible, so there was his home information on display for me to find].
I wasn’t bold enough to call; instead, I wrote to him. First I wrote out a postcard (my theory is that many people won’t open mail from strangers—but who can resist reading a postcard?). In a separate envelope I sent him Getting in Touch with My Inner Bitch, with a note on the outside of the package asking him to play track nine where his song is mentioned. I included my street address, my email address, and my telephone number. I told him I would love to discuss songwriting with him, if he was interested.
Ervin and I have since become fast friends. He comes from a very creative family. His brother Milton wrote the songs “Mairzy Doats and Dozy Doats and Liddle Lamzy Divey” and “The Java Jive.” His brother Arnold was a comic book writer best known for creating Deadman and Doom Patrol. Ervin knew and worked with many legendary singers and songwriters. He told me great stories about Frank Sinatra—how whenever he would come to New York he would call Ervin up and ask, “How are you doing? How’s the family? Anything I can do for you?” How when any of his songwriters were in the audience when he was singing, Frank would always single them out, praise them to the skies, and make them feel like a million bucks.
Ervin Drake changed me as a songwriter. I can look at any one of my songs and know instantly if it was written before I knew Ervin, or after, based on the rhyming. [end of book excerpt]
Back to writing in 2022. I collaborated on a song with Ervin [The Peter Principle At Work], he sang on several of my recordings, in my shows, I also got to be in a number of shows with him. Between all this I’d attend many music events with Ervin and his wife, mostly in cabarets, clubs, and theaters in midtown Manhattan through 2014. In the year 2001 (or 2002 — both dates are listed on the video, which I didn't make til many years later) I interviewed the two of them when I was subbing for radio host John Platt at WFUV. I have on tape, in their own words, the story of their romance, so it’s a story I have known for more than 20 years, and only now finally set it to music. You can find that 20-year-old interview online as a video if you google: Legendary songwriter Ervin Drake's radio interview Spring 2002 at WFUV at Fordham University vimeo or just click here: https://vimeo.com/117025749
Earlier this year I was in nine concerts around the US with the “On A Winter’s Night” tour, and got to sing this song, though I had the lyrics at my feet at all the shows, since it was so new. I started writing it on January 25th, finished it on January 28th, with the help of songwriter John Forster. Normally I’d take a year to get comfortable onstage with a song, but the pandemic has made that kind of luxury of time uncertain. I practiced it like crazy -- it's in a new tuning (new to me) that I learned from Minneapolis singer/songwriter Ellis Delaney, recorded it between tour dates, listening to mixes over headphones in hotels and airports. Guitarist Cliff Eberhardt played along with me on this song during the last leg of the tour. Audiences responded so warmly to it, I almost cried every night (and some nights I DID cry) as I got to the last line.
My hope is that a filmmaker will hear it and turn their story into a movie. It spans 70 years — how many love stories do that?
Since last Sunday when John Platt debuted the song, I’ve heard from Michael Kerker, head of the musical theater division of ASCAP, Paul Cavalconte, who hosts a three-hour program on wfuv.org (90.7 on terrestrial radio) every Sunday night called, “New Standards,” and singer Michael Feinstein — they all knew the Drakes and encourage the idea that a filmmaker run with this story. I don't know if there was sibling rivalry, but maybe Milton Drake could have a cameo singing, "Mairzy Doats and Dozy Doats and Liddle Lamzy Divey" that Ervin could top with Frankie Laine's cover of Ervin's song, "I Believe (For Every Drop Of Rain That Falls)" Mic drop!
“Ervin & Edith”
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