My Steely Dan Story

In 1971 in a Universe very far from here, noted arranger and my first mentor Jimmie Haskell called me about an audition. ABC Dunhill was looking for a lead singer for this new group, Jimmie was going to be arranging for—and he thought I might be a good fit. It seems Walter Becker and Donald Fagen had been signed to the publishing company as writers and they were going to do an LP, but ABC Dunhill didn’t think Donald Fagen had what it took to sing lead. What Jimmie didn’t tell me is that they had run an ad in the old Los Angeles Free Press, and had seen everyone in town—so by the time I got to them they were pretty frazzled. I remember going to the old ABC Dunhill Office on Melrose—and entering a rehearsal room and meeting Walter, Donald, their drummer and Skunk Baxter—and they asked me what I wanted to sing and I said Motown—well—they all loved Motown, so we did DANCING IN THE STREET and BACK IN MY ARMS AGAIN—it seemed to go well. Walter was a really sweet guy, Skunk Baxter played his ass off- and I was excited. They gave me a 7” reel of some songs they were thinking of doing on their LP—the only one I can remember is PEARL OF THE QUARTER- asked me to learn them and to come back and see them. Well, I took them home with me—and to tell you the truth didn’t “get them”- but I remember my best friend at the time Myrna did—she loved the stuff—and told me they were going to be huge (Smart Girl)—I learned the 3 songs and the next week came back and sang it with the group—once again – the band played great and I was getting to be pretty friendly with Walter and Skunk. Donald who was quiet and sort of was slinking next to the fender Rhodes—smoking cigarettes and not saying much. The guys all had a vote to see if I made it into the band—and everybody raised their hand to let me in the group—everyone except for Donald Fagen. He said he needed to think about it.


Well, of course he should have been the lead singer—but that’s not what the label wanted. Of course I wound up not getting it. I did stay in touch with Walter Becker for a few years giving him updates on my career—and I sometimes think what would have happened if I had sung lead — like Dave Palmer (Who did sing some songs on their first LP inclduding “Dirty Work”) Would I have wound up a druggie, worn out at 26—but I do remember that they sure played good. Later on, I became a huge fan of their writing. I guess I just hadn’t caught up to their level of sophistication at 21!

Six Things I’ve Learned As A Singer

I’ve been singing all of my life (I sang so much in my high school years, I was taken to court by my deranged neighbor because I sang incessantly, I won by the way), I produce singers, I go out to see a lot of them in LA where I live -singers make great friends- my phone book is full of them. I have CDs and Lps full of some of the greatest- Carmen McRae and Mark Murphy and Claire Martin and Joe Williams- among too many others to name—and my Mom was a big band singer. So yes I love singers—and as one, I think I’ve learned a few things.

These are my opinions. We’re not curing cancer here—If you disagree, so be it. Here goes

1. It’s the Basics Stupid- before we go any further—I don’t care if you are the most wonderful interpreter in the world of lyrics or you have a 4-octave range, if you’re pitch is bad- fuhgeddaboudit!!

Unfortunately, there’s still too many people who sing flat or sharp. Go to a singing teacher, do not stop at FACEBOOK where 7 of your friends will like anything you do, no matter how shoddy.

Also, Breath is the magic elixir in my view. Amateurs usually stop breathing when they hit the stage. I’m always looking at singer’s stomach’s (no I’m not a pervert) The good one’s stomach’s go in and out– Breath helps you sing higher, lower and it is what controls your tone and pitch. A voice supported- can reveal all it’s beautiful colors- while a voice robbed of breath can sound pinched and ugly. When we have no breath, we tend to push through—and nothing’s worse than somebody belting too hard! Lady Gaga are you listening?

2. Sing in your range. Knowing the best key for you to sing in makes a big difference—Generally I see “Mature” singers singing in their “young” higher singing keys way too often. Whenever I revisit an old chart of mine from 15 years ago, I most always have to bring it down. Bite the bullet, you’ll be glad you did. I love going to “Arthur Prysock” land

3. Every song is a rhythm song, especially ballads- this applies to Jazz singers in particular, but to every singer too. Rhythm and a wonderful familiarity with it, makes all of us sound “Hip” and interesting. Nothing is more boring than hearing someone singing a ballad and hitting everything on the beat—Vary it people! Naturally, honor the composer’s intentions, but small rhythmic pleasures can really set you apart. It’s amazing how many people don’t know where “one” is at—Are you on it? are you behind it, are in front of it? None of this matters if you don’t know where “one” is. —and while I’m at it, there’s far too many singers who back phrase till they’re so far behind in the song, the momentum is lost. Back phrasing will only work, if we as singers establish the original melody (generally on the beat) so we can play off of it—I know enough about music to see the chart as a grid where I place the rhythm patterns of the song along the bars—varying them much as a horn would do— And “less is more” don’t sing too much, syncopate too much or sing too loud. Try singing “softly” it’s amazing what varying volume can do-

4. The Ending of phrases tell me a lot about who you are as a singer. A lot of the identity of a singer is forged by the end of their phrases. Are they vibrato laden?, are they generally short?, are they always held to the bar? Generally, less vibrato on the ends of phrases works—by not filling up the line—that way you make space (which is always cool) and the space gives you more time to play with the rhythm. I know We all love to hold our notes and the higher the better—but really that puts you in a cabaret/Broadway world—I guess I’m more of a jazz pop guy. At least vary your endings- short, long, controlled vibrato and flat.

5. Don’t be Marty and Bobbi Culp-Remember Will Farell and Ana Gasteyer on SNL doing the hopelessly square Marti and Bobbi Culp tackling Nicki Minaj or Justin Beiber material. Well what made them so square is that they had no connection to the material they would do. But in their quest to be “current” they sang totally inappropriate stuff. Once you get the basics down—it’s up to you to pick material that reflects who you are- that “tells your story”- and lets the audience in to the personal perspective only you can give them. if you’re a 55-year-old white mother- don’t be singing TLC’S “Waterfalls”. And pick songs that melodically highlight your vocal strengths. Material is key. Most of my friends have a whole lifetime of experiences to draw from- and stories to tell—tell them. And know what you’re singing about- don’t be smiling if you’re singing a song where your man just left you—That drives me nuts. As a listener I want to believe what you’re singing so much that it touches my heart—Cheryl Bentyne is brilliant at always capturing the story of the song—You “always” know who she is, who’s she singing too and what she’s trying to accomplish- paired with her vocal and musical strengths – she’s a gem—and it’s one of the reasons I love singing with her. She’s like a “laser beam” to the emotions in a song. Also, sing songs that aren’t the same “12 jazz songs everybody sings” and that are sometimes out of your demographic- surprise people- if it tells your story- sing it. I just did a Prince song on my last CD. Now I didn’t do “1999” or “Head” I did a jazzy tune with a romantic and clever lyric that fit me.

6. I love Bob Dylan’s Voice- Yes, I do, and I love Joe Cocker’s Voice and Mabel Mercer’s Voice and Tom Wait’s Voice-I don’t need perfect voices- who can sing 5 octaves and sound like they’re infallible (I actually find them boring) I love people who are totally who they are—embrace the “uniqueness of their gifts” And once you sing in pitch in a musical way—exploit your differences. Cryill Aimee has a lovely, breathy, yet rhythmic style that is totally intoxicating. She’s not trying to be Shirley Horn or Betty Carter—but herself. My favorite singers- Mark Murphy, Laura Nyro and Randy Newman—all can sound “ugly beautiful”—I love that!!!

To wrap it up, I am a student of the voice- I have had wonderful singing teachers in Lee and Sally Sweetland and Mike Campbell- and I’m always learning new things about how to sing. I’m a student- I look forward to taking more singing lessons and navigating my more “maturing” voice in the coming years- some wonderful “mature” singers like Barbara Cook, Tony Bennett and Barbra Streisand have shown me, you can sing as long as you live, as long as you have something to say- and don’t smoke too many cigarettes and gargle with bourbon for breakfast—and last but not least, have good “technique” (full circle) It’s always the basics.
Mark

Tropical Nights: Me ‘n’ Liza!

The first song I ever had recorded was a song I’d written called TROPICAL NIGHTS. I had originally written it as a little show biz shuffle- and it was by far the best song I had written up to that point. Well some of the other candidates were KING KONG and something called LOVE STAINS (hell, I was young!). So there wasn’t a lot of competition.

I was working as a waiter at this crazy restaurant in Beverly Hills, and Steve March Torme would always be coming in – he was Mel Torme’s son and a very talented singer-songwriter in his own right. He knew that I sang and wrote songs too, so one day he informed me that he was producing an album for Liza Minnelli and asked if I had any songs she might like. You see, Steve and Liza had grown up in Hollywood together as offsprings of famous parents. Well, I thought “Tropical Nights” sort of being an old fashioned shuffle was just the ticket for Liza. I remember making him a cassette (remember those?) and then not hearing anything back from him. Nothing unusual about that, In those days, with my three or four songs I never heard anything back from anyone.

Until one starry night this musician friend of mine called me up at midnight and said Liza Minnelli was doing my song TROPICAL NIGHTS right that minute with a 30 piece orchestra in Hollywood – and it was fabulous! So fabulous that it was going to be the title of her new album. Well, let me put this in context, Liza had just finished NEW YORK, NEW YORK and was one of the biggest stars on the planet and I’m living in a single apartment somewhere above the Capitol Records Bldg – my apartment was so small, every night when I went to sleep my head was just inches from the front door. So I was pretty excited!

Later, from my friend I learned that they’d turned my little 3 minute shuffle into a 6 and a half minute disco extravaganza with a rainstorm, a conga line and the melody of BALI HAI opening it all up. The label read (Winkler/Rodgers/Hammerstein)– But in the tradition of Hollywood I didn’t hear anything back from Liza or Steve March Torme for two months. In the meantime, I had been working with this wonderful publisher who was starting up a new publishing company and was desperate for some credibility. So when I told him Liza had just recorded my tune, he plopped $500 on the desk in front of me and said that I could have the money if I gave him half the publishing. Well, remember at the time I was living on tuna casseroles and diet cokes, so faster than you can say Bob Fosse I took him up on the offer. Good thing I did, because the record label tried to get my publishing saying they were “thinking” of putting my song on the album. We knew they’d already spent $65,000 hiring ace photographer Reid Miles to create the whole world of Tropical Nights for the album cover, so we were not dissuaded. But it was nice to have some Hollywood muscle backing me up.

Well, the album came out. It didn’t set the world on fire, but it was a smash at Studio 54, and because it was Liza, for years afterwords it was sung by every drag queen from Studio City to Tokyo! And it was featured in an infamous Oscar Nite special with Cheryl Ladd and Ben Vereen that is like some crazy out take from a Village People meets Bob Fosse video. Throiugh the years there was a revue that played in Australia that featured it, and it was even done as a ballet by a prestigious NY dance company! Wow!

Check out Liza’s version of the song and my original demo!

Liza’s version of Tropical Nights

My original demo of Tropical Nights

MY CAREER IS LIKE WAZE

I just found out that I’m #2 on Amazon’s Hot New Releases for Jazz Vocals with my new CD “The Company I Keep”—and I suddenly realized I have reached another destination – the top of this particular measure of achievement—but I got there not with traditional GPs but with a WAZE app. Now what does that mean Mark? (Love talking to myself) It means that at a certain point I realized the major highways and byways of show business weren’t going to take me to where I wanted to go, so I would have get creative and to find the back streets and out of the ways places to get to my end point. My destination is recognition and the ability to sing my songs around the country and have people appreciate it and yes lay down money to hear me.

The highways and byways were closed for a lot of reasons—I’m old, I’m singing Jazz, I was doing a lot of originals in a field where the audience preferred standards. So, I had to be crafty and figure out other ways to get there. The first thing I did was to say to myself, Mark (here I go again) what are you good at? Now as artists, we spend a fair amount of time knowing what we’re not good at (and I’m going to keep that close to my vest), but I thought about this and came up with a few things that were good about me. I had a pleasing voice, it had a nice sound. I wrote really good lyrics, and I had developed over the years a nice stage persona and act.

So, what I did is take those three things and double down on all of them—I started taking more singing lessons and really supported my tone, and yoga helped open up my chest cavity. I started teaching lyric writing (which made me a better writer—because I was constantly teaching the craft, and as a teacher had to walk the talk) and finally I analyzed what was good about my show—and just emphasized that. Whatever song I sang was like a little bit more information about me, I learned to spice up my originals with well-chosen songs written by others and I learned how to read a chart and communicate with the band. I found out I could swing—and that I was “cool” who knew??? I also realized that I was playing in LA too many times a year, so I cut down on the shows and I made each show a special occasion. I started regionally and now I’m slowly expanding my base.

And most importantly, when I put out a self-financed CD I spend money on promoting it.

I’ve done all this without the highways and Drivers of the industry—But with a lot of help from my collaborators, musicians, singers, friends and fans. I love my fans—and always try to give them my best. It takes a village to get you there—Show business is a people business and person by person I’ve made people my allies and collaborators.

And…block by block each CD since 2009 has been getting more notice and increased visibility. Reviewers know me, Downbeat has given me Four Stars, magazines do articles on me—and it’s all going to what’s available to me at that moment.

And as I’ve gained confidence I’ve sought out better routes and lanes that I once would have thought I wasn’t fast enough to go in. Sometimes these lanes block my entrance and—voila! Sometimes the lanes let me in.

My career has been challenging, depressing, elating, quizzical- but I stand here at 67 doing better than ever! And I can get to a “yes” 3 minutes faster by just going for it.

Thanks for reading my blog! Here’s a free download of my song Walk Between the Raindrops, a duet with the wonderful Jackie Ryan, from The Company I KeepFree Download