Brill Building genius Roger Atkins was nice enough to chat with the Rare Rockin' Records blog - I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I did asking the questions!
(above:Roger Atkins in 1970 with his new-born son)
Kyler:How did you get started in song writing at the Brill Building?
ROGER:When I was thirteen or fourteen my mother bought me a ticket to a Saturday matinee of The Music Man on Broadway. I'd never seen a Broadway show before and I was so blown away by what I saw that by the time I left the theater I'd decided that I was going to write Broadway musicals. I saved up my money and bought tickets to as many musicals as I could. Then, after seeing My Fair Lady, and reading about how Alan Jay Lerner adapted the play Pygmalion, I wrote the book, music and lyrics to Like Father, Like Son which was my adaptation of one of my favorite plays (I'd only seen the movie but bought a copy of the play), Life With Father. I sent my work to BMI and to my amazement they invited me to join their theatrical workshop.
One day I met a guy named Richard Costiera. We hit it off and began writing together. He wrote music and I wrote lyrics. We started writing what was then contemporary Doo Whop, street corner songs. His father was also a musician and had some contacts at Hill & Range Music Songs in the Brill Building. We played them what we had written and they gave us publishing contracts for some of them. Then we went door to door playing songs for whoever would listen. Of course we could say that we had songs published by Hill & Range and Regent Music, which was also a Hill & Range company. But I must say we spent most of our time writing at 1650 Broadway, not the Brill Building. One of the doors we knocked on at 1650 was Unbelievable Music, which was owned by Teddy Vann. He liked what we played him and he asked us to work with him. We went up there to write almost everyday for months. Then Richard decided he didn't like what Teddy wanted us to write so he left, but I stayed. The first records I ever had released, "My Top Ten Chart" by Roberta Meshell and, "My Mamma Said (originally titled, "Be Tough" but changed by Diamond records) by the Bobbettes, were with Teddy.
Kyler:Who were some of the collaborators you worked with in the 60s?
ROGER:Richard Costiera; Teddy Vann. Then at Screen-Gems Columbia Music: Ronnie Dante; Jerry Robinson; Big Dee Irwin; Helen Miller; Carl D'Errico; and Neil Sedaka. At the very tail end of the 60's and early 70's, Helen again; Peter Allen; and one song with the great arranger Peter Matz.
Kyler:When writing, would you strictly do lyrics, music, or a bit of both?
ROGER: I mostly write lyrics. However, I have on occasion written both music and lyrics. I do try to convey musical ideas to whomever I'm working with, though. Sometimes they're used and sometimes they're not.
Kyler:You wrote a number of wonderful songs with Neil Sedaka. Can you tell our readers the incident involving "Kissin' My Life Away"?
ROGER:This was the first song we wrote together. Don Kirshner asked me one day if I'd be interested in writing with Neil and of course I jumped at the chance. The company was looking for songs for their new TV show, The Monkees, which had yet to be made. All they had was the audition footage of each of the cast which they had shown to all the staff writers. I told Neil my title, "Kissin' My Life Away" and he loved it so I came up with the lyrics, "I got nothin' but trouble, girls don't leave me alone. Goin' twenty-four hours, I've got no time of my own. Oooo, oooo, oooo, I feel I'm kissin' my life away. Kiss-a-kissin' my life away. Kiss-a-kissin' my life away" Well, Neil got very excited and before long played me his melody which I thought it was very catchy. But I said the beginning sounded exactly like George Gershwin's, "I Got Plenty O Nothin'" from Porgy and Bess. He thought about it a while. I could see him going over it in his head as he played. Then he said he didn't think it would matter because it was only two bars and two bars was acceptable. He sat and tried several different openings but didn't like any of them and always came back to his original. Truthfully, I should have thrown a tantrum and insisted that he change it but I was insecure and, after all, it was Neil Sedaka who'd written a gazillion hits! Who was I to tell him how to write? If he said it was OK, then it was OK!
We played the song for Kirshner and the professional staff all of whom had the same reaction as I did but no one insisted upon a change, either. I'll let you in on a little secret, in those days there was a general attitude among publishers and record companies that went like this: If we get sued, we get sued! Go for the hit and deal with being sued later! For example, do really think that no one at Capital records realized that "Surfin' USA" wasn't really "Sweet Little Sixteen" on a surf board? They just went along with it until the law suit came and then they changed the credits and split the publishing.
Unfortunately for us, when our song was finally recorded by The Hondells and the record hit the charts with a bullet, The Gershwin Organization sent a letter to Screen-Gems saying, regardless of the fact that only two bars of their copyright was used, they were going to sue on the basis of, "familiarity." In other words, those two bars were so ingrained in the public consciousness that their use alone was the equivalent of using the entire copyright. Screen-Gems, not wanting to battle The Gershwin Organization, immediately caved and had the record pulled, never to be heard from again. All it would have taken was for Neil to change one note and we would have had a hit, but there's no use now in crying over spilled music!
(above:Neil Sedaka in the 60s, who was a frequent collaborator with Roger Atkins)
Kyler:Did you write your songs for specific artists in mind?
ROGER:Sometimes we did. Every week we'd be told who'd be coming up for recording and we'd try to write for them. Carl and I wrote, "It's My Life" because we were told that Mickie Most was coming to town looking for songs for The Animals. But many times we'd write because I had an idea I wanted to explore or someone had a melody they liked. Some of my favorite songs from back then were written just because we wanted to write them. With Carl I could write about unusual topics like, "Flea Circus", "I'm Whatever You Think I AM", "Born Ahead Of My Time", "Community". These were songs that we really needed our own group for but never had, so all but, "Community", which Tiny Tim did, have never, to my knowledge, been recorded. With Helen I did mostly R&B flavored songs, many of which were recorded. (My first top 40 hit was, "I Can't Let You Out Of My Sight" that Helen and I wrote and was recorded by Chuck Jackson and Maxine Brown. A bit of a distorted record but it did pretty well on the pop charts and much bigger on the R&B charts.) And Neil and I wrote some wonderful pop songs that to this day I don't understand why they're still sitting unrecorded.
Kyler:You co-wrote "The Kind Of Girl I Could Love" with Mike Nesmith for the Monkees 2nd album. What was that like?
ROGER:Well, when I wrote that with Michael it was before the show had gone on the air. There were no Monkees songs, yet. At that time Michael wanted to write all the songs, sing lead, and produce all the records but Don Kirshner had different plans. He sent me to California to work with Michael, I think, to keep Michael occupied while he maneuvered behind the scenes. Michael didn't really want to write with me, or with anyone for that matter. He was polite, brought me to his house in the Hollywood Hills to meet his wife and new born son, and on the set introduced me Micky, Peter and Davy, who I had already met several times in New York before The Monkees came along when he recorded one of my songs, "Face Up To It" on his first Colpix album. But he never really did any writing with me. He would drop off cassette tapes with snippets of music on them, really more like musical doodling. From these I pieced together two or three usable songs and wrote lyrics, one of which was, "The Kind Of Girl I Could Love." The others I really don't remember at all.
Kyler:The Vogues cut a song of yours called "Come And Get Me" that is amazing. It was unreleased until about a decade ago. Can you remember anything about this great track?
ROGER: I'm very glad to hear that you like the record. That's my demo track their singing on. Helen and I wrote that with them in mind and we styled the demo for them and offered our track for them to put their voices on, but we were told that they passed. It wasn't until a few years ago that I found out they did record it. Why it was never released as a single back then I'll never know. I think it would have been a smash!
Kyler: Is it true that Eric Burdon never sang the correct lyrics to "It's My Life" as you had written them?
ROGER:That's true. I wrote,
"It's my life and I'll do what I want!
It's my mind and I'll think what I want!
Sure, I'll do wrong,
Hurt you sometime
But someday I'll treat you so fine ..."
but Eric sings, "..... Show me I'm wrong, hurt me sometime....." which never made any sense to me. Everyone who's recorded it sings the wrong chorus, and sometimes even the wrong lyrics in the verses, too.
Thanks for letting me get that off my chest!
Kyler:"Make Me Your Baby" and "It's My Life" are probably your most well-known hits. They are almost polar opposites! How did you write in such different styles in the same time period?
ROGER:Well, I'd say that, "Workin' On A Groovy Thing" that I wrote with Neil is pretty well know, also, and is probably my most recorded song, even if it is my least favorite title. As for writing in different styles, I just wrote what came to me whether it was thin pop or multi-layered sub-text. I just love to write songs!
Kyler:Finally, Roger, please tell our readers what you're up to today.
ROGER: I'm still writing. Ideas, words, new ways of saying things still come to me. As a matter of fact I recently sent Carl a lyric that he's putting to music, now. Something very sophisticated and different than anything we've done before. It's just a shame that we have no contacts left, no outlet for what we do now. No one wants songs from the dinosaurs. But we still keep writing because that's who we are!
Special thanks to Mr. Atkins for the great interview. Stay tuned to the RRR blog, there are many new surprises in the future! Until next time, rock on....