David Bruce: 250 Music Anecdotes — Comedians, Composers

Comedians

• Comedian Jack Benny played the violin, and many of his friends were famous musicians. Jascha Heifetz, Gregor Piatagorsky, Leonard Pennario, and Mr. Benny once were at the home of Joan, Mr. Benny’s daughter. Mr. Benny sat in a chair, which made a noise, and Mr. Heifetzimmediately said, “E flat.” Mr. Benny, however, said, “E natural.” Joan went to the piano, played E flat, and Mr. Benny sat down in the chair again. The noise it made was E flat. Mr. Benny was happy to have been proven wrong and happy that Mr. Heifetz’ renowned perfect pitch had been proven right once more. By the way, when Mr. Benny celebrated his 80th birthday, movie director Billy Wilder gave him the perfect gift: two copies of the book Life Begins at Forty.

• Steve Martin is an accomplished comedian, actor, author, and bluegrass banjo player. In 2010, he won a Best Bluegrass Album Grammy for The Crow, his first album of original bluegrass songs. In 2011, he recorded another album of original bluegrass songs, with help from friends. The Dixie Chicks sang his song “You,” which is about a past relationship. Paul McCartney sang the lead on the song “On Best Love,” which is about happiness in a marriage. Originally, Sir Paul thought that he would be singing backup, but then he heard Mr. Martin’s singing and told him, “You know, when you said you were a terrible singer, I thought you were being humble, but you weren’t.”

• Before Johnny Carson was a really big star, he went to Jilly’s bar and restaurant, the hangout of Frank Sinatra, who was a really big star. When Frank walked in, Jilly’s went quiet. Frank was king there — and everywhere else, too. Johnny, however, said in an exasperated voice, “Frank, I told you 11:30.” Johnny was present for the launch of the rocket that took Neil Armstrong to the Moon. He was impressed as the rocket took off and quietly said, “Jesus Christ.” In the seat ahead of him was a representative of the Vatican, who turned around and said, “Name-dropper!”

• Comedian Joe E. Lewis’ signature song was “Sam, You Made the Pants Too Long,” which meant he had to sing it at almost every performance. One day, he came out on stage wearing earmuffs and told the audience, “Ladies and gentlemen. Tonight I’m going to sing ‘Sam, You Made the Pants Too Long,’ but I’m wearing these earmuffs because I’ll be godd*mned if I’m going to listen to it again.”

Composers

• Hans Pfitzner, composer of the opera Palestrina, went to a German town for an event and stayed in a small hotel. He got up early and started composing, but at 7:30 a.m. workers began to break up with a drill the street outside his hotel room. Mr. Pfitzner opened his window and shouted, “Quiet! Pfitzner lives here!” By the way, Mr. Pfitzner once asked the young Hans Hotter to sing, with himself as the accompanist, some of Mr. Pfitzner’s songs and some ballads by Carl Loewe. Mr. Pfitzner asked Mr. Hotter to choose the songs by Mr. Loewe that he would sing, and Mr. Hotter chose some ballads that Mr. Pfitzner had orchestrated, thinking that his choices would please him. However, Mr. Pfitzner said to him after seeing a particular Loewe ballad he had selected (“Odin’s Meeres-Ritt”), “Are you crazy? I am not [noted German pianist Wilhelm] Backhaus! I cannot play this!” Of course, Mr. Hotter immediately said that he need not sing that particular song, but Mr. Pfitzner said, “No. It’s in the program. I asked you to choose [the ballads] and you have made this mess for me, and now I have to cope with it. See you tomorrow at 9 o’clock.” Mr. Pfitzner worked both hard and quickly and the next day played the difficult passage in “Odin’s Meeres-Ritt.” Mr. Hotter said, “Fabulous!” Mr. Pfitzner replied, “Isn’t it!” Mr. Hotter said much later, “He was so happy. He was in a better mood then than I ever saw him.” Mr. Hotter was also impressed that such an accomplished composer had gone through so much trouble for a young singer. By the way, Mr. Hotter once complained to Matthäus Roemer, his singing teacher, “What annoys me is that people say, ‘Of course, it’s so easy for you!’” Mr. Roemer replied, “You should take that as the highest praise. It is nobody’s d*mn business to know how much effort it took you to sound so natural.”

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Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved

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