Quite by accident I met Norman Gimbel in Harold Levanthal's
office in New York City, 1960. I was looking for work as a
folk singer while attending Yale's School of Drama as a playwriting
student. When Norman came out of Harold's office he noticed
me off to the side with my guitar, walked over and held out
his hand: "Hi, I'm Norman Gimbel." When I told him
my name he said, "Billy Edd Wheeler. Wow. My wife's in
love with you." Startled, I said, "How's that?"
"She passed by Monitor Records' store one day and saw
your album in the window," Norman said. "She bought
it and brought it home." Knowing how few copies the album
had sold, I marveled at the coincidence. Norman went on to
tell me he was a lyricist. I'd never heard of him, but when
he named some of his titles I was impressed. He told me he'd
listened to my LP, said I was a natural songwriter, but went
on to say that I would never make any money at it. Naturally,
I wanted to know why, so he gently pointed out that some of
my songs rambled, had too many themes, and needed shaping.
When I asked how I could get better - maybe even make some
money at it - he thought for a moment and said, "Tell
you what. On your next trip down from New Haven I'll introduce
you to two friends of mine who are the best, the most successful
songwriters in the world. OK?"
I'd never heard of the Brill Building or the legendary Leiber-Stoller
duo, but by the time I met Jerry and Mike and Norman had filled
me in on their hits and artist roster, I was nervous as a
cat in a room full of rockers. The walls of the hallway to
their office glistened with gold records, adding to my jitters.
But Jerry and Mike were very cordial and gave me their full
attention when I played them a few of my folk-sounding original
songs. Their response was essentially like Norman's: the songs
showed promise but were not commercial. I should start listening
to songs more critically. What's the theme? How is it introduced
and developed, and how does it end? Best of all, they said
that when I moved to the city and thought I had a good idea
I could give them a call. If they liked it, I could bring
it in. Norman, ever the gregarious catalyst, hosted me out
of the office and told me not to be disappointed. Actually,
I wasn't. Everything Jerry and Mike had told me made sense,
and it sank in. I had some homework to do. And some thinking.
These were the days when story songs were popular - "Big
John", "Ringo" and other westerns - so I started
writing a song about a gunfighter. But halfway into the song
I realized that I didn't know a roan from a gelding. The west
wasn't my turf. Then I saw a photo of a preacher on horseback,
a mountain preacher, and the idea struck me for "The
Rev. Mr. Black". The same intro for the gunfighter worked
for the preacher: "He rode easy in the saddle, he was
tall and lean. And first you thought nothing but a streak
of mean. Could make a man look so downright strong. But one
look in his eyes and you knew your were wrong." When
I called Jerry and started reciting the lyrics, he seemed
somewhat interested. When I got to the refrain he started
snapping his fingers, saying, "Yeah, baby. Uh-huh. Yeah,
bring that one in." The song was about 8 or 10 minutes
long, so Jerry and Mike dug in and helped me rewrite it, honing
it down to 3½ minutes. That was a real lesson. Shortening
the song made it stronger, more focused. They knew the Kingston
Trio was recording in California, so they put their song-plugger
on a plane and he got the song on their session. John Stewart
sang it just like my demo. Leiber-Stoller put me on a draw
at $100 per week and suddenly I was rich!
"Jackson" came to me when I read the script for
Edward Albee's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf"
(I was too broke to see the play on Broadway). You know, the
way the man and woman go at each other. When I played it for
Jerry, he said "Your first verses suck," or words
to that effect. "Throw them away and start the song with
your last verse, 'We got married in a fever, hotter than a
pepper sprout.'" When I protested to Jerry that I couldn't
start the song with the climax, he said, "Oh, yes you
can." So I rewrote the song and thanks to Jerry's editing
and help, it worked. I recorded the song on my first Kapp
Records album, with Joan Sommer, an old friend from Berea,
Kentucky, singing the woman's part. Johnny Cash learned the
song from that album, "A New Bag Of Songs", produced
by Jerry and Mike.
On "The Rev. Mr. Black" and "Jackson",
they took 25% of the writer's share. At that time I knew nothing
about publishing, but they went out of their way to explain
the writer's split. They said, "Before we dug in and
helped, you had 100% of a song that didn't work. Now you have
75% of one that does work." It made good sense to me.
They deserved a piece.
What I liked about writing with Jerry and Mike, already legends,
was that they treated me as an equal. They were class acts.
As a case in point, they were working on a song called, "The
Man Who Robbed The Bank At Santa Fe (And Got Away)",
and were stalled. They asked me to help them finish it. I
listened to the song and said, "You've got no girl in
the song. It needs a woman, a love interest." So we rewrote
the song and titled it: "The Girl Who Loved The Man Who
Robbed The Bank At Santa Fe (And Got Away)". It was a
chart record for Hank Snow.
One other song worth mentioning is "High Flying Bird".
It's my most recorded song - over 50 artists have recorded
it. Jerry added a great line to it. The chorus went, "But
Lord, look at me here. Tired as can be here." When I
sang it to Jerry, as quick as a flash he said, "But Lord,
look at me here. Rooted like a tree here." He didn't
take anything for adding that line, but to me it was a GREAT
line, very important to the song.
It was fascinating watching Jerry and Mike work. Mike was
the music man, but he also contributed lyrics, just as Jerry
suggested melody riffs to Mike. And rhythms. I knew I was
in the presence of super talents, working with them. Jerry's
mind was like heat lightning, flashing from idea to idea.
They were New York guys, something new to me, but sophisticated
and hip, streetwise. But they were sensitive too. I don't
mean overly effusive or candy-ass. I mean, aware of each other's
feelings and mine, but in a frank, no bullshit sort of way.
Complex talents oozing with class. Gentlemen even when they
argued or disagreed.
My fondest memories of writing solo with Jerry was when he
invited me to his place on Central park West after hours.
My wife Mary and I were not exactly plush, living in a one-room
apartment in Brooklyn Heights, so when Jerry said, "There's
some supper left - you hungry?" You kidding? I was always
hungry. Another thing about Jerry, he wouldn't let me write
lines down too soon. We'd come up with a line and I'd say,
"That's it. That's perfect." But he'd say, "Wait
a minute. Maybe
" And he would go back to previous
lines, in his head, rewrite one of them and then come back
to the line I said was perfect and improve it. Finally, I
would be allowed to scribble the lines down on my yellow pad.
Even then, we kept changing them and polishing them. What
a songwriting lesson for a West Virginia hillbilly! From picking
coal in the hills to picking Jerry Leiber's brain on 49th
Another thrill in writing with Jerry and Mike was seeing
celebrities, their acts, coming in and out of their Brill
Building office. I wrote a song called "Blistered"
and when we demoed it, Mike came up with a great piano lick.
But we needed some vocal backup. The Coasters were hanging
around, so Mike enlisted them to sing with me. And while we
had them, we also did a demo of the song Jerry and I had written
at his Central Park West place, one called "After Taxes".
The Coasters would sing: "Mmmm, federal tax," and
I would respond with, "There goes that bracelet for her
arm." They'd sing: "Mmmm, State income tax,"
and I'd respond, "There goes that new fence for my farm."
Etc. Johnny Cash cut both of those songs.
Norman Gimbel advanced my songwriting career by leap years.
Jerry and Mike advanced it by light years! They were, as my
grandmother used to say, "The berries above the persimmons!"