Al's First Record, "The Dance of Love" HEAR
In 1952, when I was around 17 years old, a local disc jockey in Hollywood named Peter Potter hosted a local television show called "Search for a Song." The idea of the show was any amateur songwriter could come to the Tuesday afternoon audition and play their composition for him.
If Mr. Potter and his associates liked your song, his producer would schedule you to perform it in front of four or five music publishers as well as going over the air to the local television audience. The show aired on Friday night at 8 o'clock and I watched it religiously but don't remember ever seeing anyone who became successful. It is unfortunate there is no such program for young songwriters today like that.
Anyway, recognizing a good opportunity, and without telling anyone, I took the one hour bus ride from my home in East Los Angeles and went to Hollywood. The audition took place in a renovated television studio, with the call letters "KTSL" on the side, located at the corner of Fountain Avenue and Vine Street. That building is now an AIDS rehabilitation center and the television station is now CBS-TV, relocated in Television City at the corner of Beverly Boulevard and Fairfax Avenue in West Los Angeles.
I arrived at the audition in the early afternoon and waited among the rows of empty seats with a few other people I assumed were also songwriters. We all sat in the seats meant for the audience since the auditions were being held on the stage where the T.V. show would be performed.
The person before me finished auditioning their song and was talking with the producers, who were probably giving their decision. Suddenly, someone informed me I'd be next. Even though I was easily the youngest one there, I don't remember being nervous as I walked quickly up on the stage. As I recall, my mood would be better described as eager and excited.
Anyhow, there I was, sitting at the baby grand piano across from Mr. Potter, surrounded by microphones and lighting equipment with large cables strewn about the floor. For some reason, I recall being strangely distracted by a musky smell consistent with an old building and the used equipment probably left over and discarded from abandoned film studios.
However, I quickly regained my focus and began to play one of the first songs I ever wrote, titled "Climb Upon A Hill." I had to play it from memory; even though I brought a lead sheet of the song, I gave that to Mr. Potter so he could follow along as I sang.
I had written the song a couple of months earlier, while sitting on top of the hill behind my home, a place where I would sometimes go to contemplate the complexities of life as a kid. From there, I had a wonderful view of Los Angeles and the City Hall, which was the tallest building at the time. I think it was about 25 stories high.
"Climb Upon a Hill" was a philosophical song suggesting that, when things go wrong in your life as they sometimes do, try going up on a hill where you can rise above your worries. The song also went on to suggest that while you are getting in touch with the beauty of nature, try to gain a better perspective on what's important to you and perhaps that insight will help you realize how small your problems may look from there.
When I finished, Peter Potter was very complimentary about the idea of my composition. But, he told me my song was not written correctly and I needed to learn how to properly construct a popular song if I wanted to succeed in the business. I remember asking him what he meant by "construction" and he said he didn't have the time to explain it to me, I'd just have to learn it on my own somehow.
Since I had no idea what kind of construction he was talking about, I went home and studied the songs I heard on the radio. Little by little, I began to realize most songs written at that time had a construction known as AABA. The "A" stood for the verse of the song and the "B" symbolized the "bridge" or "break" of the song. The three verses and the bridge would each have eight bars (or measures) so the total count would be thirty-two bars. Although this was a typical construction of a song, it was by no means the only type written.
There was another popular construction symbolized as ABAC, where "A" stood for the verse and "B" stood for the chorus. In this case, the chorus could be repeated, except it usually became "C" at the end when the composer enhanced the ending for dramatic effect. In this construction, the amount of bars could increase from the usual thirty-two bars to thirty-four or thirty-six bars due to the tag ending. The truth is today the variety of song construction and the final number of bars is practically endless.
The more I listened to the radio and studied songs, such as "What'll I Do?" and "Always," both by Irving Berlin, the more I figured out what Mr. Potter meant by song construction. I started to write new songs and, after a couple of weeks, at around 3 o'clock in the morning, I was inspired to write a song called "The Dance of Love."
I can still recall how I was sitting on my bed, late at night, leaning against my bedroom wall and writing each sentence down as it came to me. The words just seemed to flow onto the paper with very little mental effort. Sometimes it can be like that; when the song just about writes itself.
I was exhausted by the time I finished "The Dance of Love" at about 4:00 in the morning. As soon as I wrote the last line of the lyric on a piece of scrap paper, I tucked it under my pillow and dozed off. Actually, I was not only too tired to write down the melody, but I was also not permitted to play the piano in the middle of the night for obvious reasons.
I awoke about 11:00 a.m. and, before I did anything else, I sat down at the piano and started writing down the melody on some manuscript paper. I added the lyric and by noon I had written my lead sheet and was ready to show it to Mr. Potter.
The following week, the middle of January 1952, I rode the bus back down to the studio at Fountain and Vine with my new song and waited once again for my turn to audition. I guess I was a little nervous this time because I felt confident I had a good song and I really wanted to succeed. As I walked up on stage, Mr. Potter was kind enough to say he remembered me from my first visit and was glad I had not been discouraged by his previous comments.
I took a deep breath as I sat down at the piano, just like the last time, and played "The Dance of Love" for all to hear, including his producer. Mr. Potter was smiling broadly as he approached me after hearing my performance, and specifically complimented me on the construction of my song. Luckily, this time my composition was accepted and I was given a date by his producer to perform it on a Friday night, two weeks later on the "Search for a Song" television show.
The news about my success soon got around at Garfield High School and my good fortune was printed in "The Campus." the school newspaper. Suddenly, students I didn't even know started to say hello to me in the hallway and I began to experience my first taste of show business notoriety. Many of my schoolmates were complimentary and supportive of me, wishing me good luck on my upcoming television appearance.
I guess it wasn't often a young kid from an East Los Angeles high school appeared on television, so it must have seemed kind of important to them. It was important to me, of course, but in a different way. To me, it felt natural, something I accepted as part of my ambition to be a successful songwriter. However, I admit I enjoyed my newfound popularity.
I was filled with excited anticipation the night of my television performance, as my parents drove me down to the studio in my dad's new 1952 Buick. There wasn't much the folks could say at the time but I knew I had their much needed moral support. After we arrived, we had to separate since I had to enter through the back door of the theater.
I could feel the tension in the air, waiting backstage for the show to begin. The audience was chatting and waiting for something to happen. The stage crew was double-checking the cable connections, the sound levels and making sure the lighting was working and adjusted properly.
Suddenly I heard the sound of the audience applauding as the announcer introduced Mr. Potter. My heart was thumping like a drum as I stood in the wings for my turn to sing. I peeked around the curtain and was happy to see about 20 friends from high school in the audience of around one hundred spectators.
I knew my schoolmates had carpooled from East L.A. and I felt grateful they were there to support me. I was acutely aware once again of the musty old smell of the studio, when I felt a hand on the back of my shoulder. "You're on, Al," came the producer's voice from behind as he gently guided me out onto the stage.
The applause of the audience came to me like a distant echo as I walked directly over to the piano and began to sing my song. This was the first time I'd ever appeared on television and I remember being surprised to find I couldn't see anyone out in the audience. I realized being in the spotlight was like that; sometimes it can feel very alone.
In fact, the whole show was surreal to me that night and seemed to pass by in flashes of isolated moments. My friends, sitting in the audience, assured me later that my performance went well and I was glad to hear that. The whole episode turned out to be a memorable experience for me.
I was so pumped up after the show, which ended about 9:00 PM, I asked my folks if I could go with school friends to a local drive-in restaurant called "Dolores" for hamburgers and Cokes. In those days, if you went to a drive-in restaurant, a waitress would roll up to your car wearing roller skates and take your order. The hamburgers cost around 25 cents apiece and a Coke was a dime.
You could easily have a whole meal for less than a dollar. Then you could just sit in your car in comfort and enjoy your food while listening to the radio and hearing the latest hits such as "Let the Good Times Roll" and "Earth Angel". I don't think there are any more of those drive-in restaurants around Los Angeles anymore.
Anyway, I hung out with my buddies, who were just as pumped as I was, talking about the show and having a great time. I felt like a star for that one night and relished all the attention I was getting. Someone had brought along a bottle of wine and about six of us kept passing it around until it was finished. Since I can get high by just smelling the cork, I felt a little buzz going for the rest of the night. I got home around 3 in the morning and fortunately, since it had been such as special night, I didn't get into any trouble with the folks.
The following Monday, I received a phone call from John Miller, who said he owned a music publishing company called Lance Music. He said he had seen the show and asked me if I would come with my parents to his office the next evening around 7 o'clock.
Mr. Miller went on to say he and his partner Lee Hazelwood were interested in signing my song and I could bring other compositions if I wanted him to hear them, which I did. Although they ended up putting my song "Rainy Days" under contract as well, "The Dance of Love" soon became the first song I ever had recorded.
"The Dance of Love" was recorded on RCA Victor in 1953 and was performed by two talented young girls who called themselves the Bell Sisters. The background arrangement by Nelson Riddle was very unique and featured bongo drums, which was not common on popular recordings at the time. Nelson Riddle was one of the finest popular music arrangers of the day and the Bell Sisters were a popular singing duo, having had a big hit entitled "Bermuda" on Billboard's Top 10 the year before.
I was not invited to the session of "Dance of Love" and I didn't even know it had been recorded until the day after it was done. John Miller called me on the phone the next morning and sounded excited when he told me about it. He said he and Lee Hazelwood had been to the session at the RCA studios and they both felt the record turned out great. He also said he felt certain my song would be a hit and he made me feel like I was on my way to becoming a successful songwriter.
One night, April 30, 1953, the Bell Sisters were scheduled to sing "The Dance of Love" coast-to-coast on the Bing Crosby Radio Show. Mr. Miller notified me the day before that my song was going to be on the program and I couldn't wait to hear it. You must realize that, in those days, being on the Bing Crosby show was a much bigger event than being on any television show of today. It was around six o'clock in the evening and there I was, with my family, sitting in the kitchen staring at our large Philco radio and once again feeling excited. I think I forgot to eat that night.
I'm sure my face was glowing as Mr. Crosby announced the Bell Sisters were about to sing my song, along with Nelson Riddle's wonderful arrangement. This was actually the first time I ever heard the girl's rendition of "The Dance of Love" and I was not disappointed. After their performance, Mr. Crosby complimented the girls and asked them who wrote the song. I thought for sure they would say my name and it would be heard all over the country.
However, what the girls said was "Nelson Riddle wrote the musical arrangement and we wrote the vocal arrangement." Although I later learned Mr. Crosby's writers scripted the girl's remarks, there was an atmosphere of real disappointment that night in my family kitchen because my name wasn't mentioned on a national radio program as the songwriter. I was a young ambitious kid and it would have meant a lot to me.
That was a minor disappointment compared to what followed. My real heartbreak came a few weeks later when Mr. Miller notified me the record was not even going to be released because there was a change in the CEO at R.C.A. Victor Records. He went on to explain the new CEO decided to shelve every song the previous president had recorded.
As it turned out, however, all was not lost. Although "The Dance of Love" didn't get released in 1953, Jasmine Records finally released it in December 2002 on a compact disc set featuring the Bell Sisters, that unreleased track included nearly fifty years later. All good things come to those who wait, I guess.