Saturday, January 17, 2015

Songwriter Spotlight: Ervin Drake Passes Away at 95

In 1965 Frank Sinatra was turning fifty and decided to celebrate that landmark year in his life by recording September of My Years, an album revolving around the concepts of memory, experience, and a melancholy viewpoint on life brought about by the inevitability of aging. The gloomy, evocative LP would turn out to be one of the best from his tenure with Reprise and one of the last truly great concept albums of his career. Thoughtfully arranged by Gordon Jenkins, September of My Years included compositions by Alec Wilder, Kurt Weill, Harold Arlen, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, Yip Harburg, and Gordon Jenkins himself. But one of them stood out and went on to win a Grammy. The song was "It Was a Very Good Year"; the songwriter, Ervin Drake.

As popular songs went in the 1960s, "It Was a Very Good Year" was a little bit of an anomaly. For starters, it was rather long, and its lyrics had a depth that was rare in the mid-1960s, songwriters like Bob Dylan excepted. The tune was haunting, and the words presented the memories of an aging man who is "in the autumn of [his] years" and who reminisces about different stages of his past. With one stanza devoted to a specific snapshot of the character's life experiences, the passing of time is cleverly suggested by the chronological jumps that occur from one stanza to the next. We move from age seventeen, to twenty-one, to thirty-five, until we end up in the present time, described as "the autumn," in a fashion that unequivocally reminds us of the lyrics of the Belgian chanteur Jacques Brel, whose hit "Ne Me Quitte Pas" Sinatra would cover as "If You Go Away" for his 1969 album My Way. In the last stanza of "It Was a Very Good Year," Drake seems to succeed in encapsulating the whole concept of September of My Years:

But now the days are short
I'm in the autumn of the year
And now I think of my life
As vintage wine from fine old kegs
From the brim to the dregs
It poured sweet and clear
It was a very good year.

Surprisingly, however, Drake did not write "It Was a Very Good Year" for Sinatra. The song dates back to 1961, when it was recorded by the Kingston Trio, but after the definitive September of My Years version, it would become forever associated with Ol' Blue Eyes, to such an extent that few artists would record it thereafter. But, of course, "It Was a Very Good Year" was not the only memorable tune written by Drake. Born Ervin Maurice Druckman in New York City in 1919 (less than four years after Sinatra) he began writing songs at a very early age, and one of his first notable assignments was writing lyrics for the Juan Tizol-penned Duke Ellington classic, "Perdido." Over the years he would write several standards, such as "I Believe," sung by Frankie Laine (which Elvis Presley also recorded for a gospel EP), and Billie Holiday's mournful "Good Morning Heartache," and would even go on to write successful Broadway shows like 1964's What Makes Sammy Run?

Ervin Drake at the piano (Photo by Maxine Hicks)

Ervin Drake passed away two days ago, on January 15, at his home in Great Neck, NY, as you can read in his New York Times obituary. Though definitely not as important as classic songwriters such as Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, or the Gershwins, he will be remembered as a witty, learned contributor to the legacy of the Great American Songbook. Discussing "It Was a Very Good Year" in his book All or Nothing at All, Sinatra biographer Donald Clarke has noted that with this song Drake "outdid himself and received one of Jenkins's best symphonic-style arrangements. . . . The song is about memories of love, not sex; it is about happiness that ran through his [Sinatra's] fingers like sand. The longest track on the album, it is also an example of the singing actor at the heart of Sinatra's work: you can't dance to it; you can only listen" (227-28). And, indeed, Sinatra's interpretation of Drake's powerfully poetic lyrics becomes more haunting and more meaningful each time we listen to it.

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