Dave Frishberg, author of sardonic and nostalgic songs, dies at 88


Dave frishberg, the jazz songwriter whose sardonic wit as a lyricist and melodic intelligence as a songwriter placed him at the top of his game, died Wednesday in Portland, Oregon. He was 88 years old.

His wife, April Magnusson, confirmed the death.

Mr. Frishberg, who also played the piano and sang, was an anomaly, if not an anachronism, in American popular music: an accomplished and unregenerated jazz pianist who managed to transcend the eras of rock, soul, disco , punk and hip-hop by writing hyper literate songs reminiscent of Hoagy Carmichael and Johnny Mercer, passing by Stephen Sondheim.

His songwriting spirit was aimed at adults, but he reached his widest audience with children’s songs as a regular music contributor to ABC-TV’s longtime animated Saturday morning show “Schoolhouse. Rock!”

Just being aware of Dave Frishberg and his songs conveyed a well-known sophistication. He laughed at this self-righteous hipness in his lyrics for ” I am connected “ a clueless classic he wrote to a melody by fellow jazz songwriter Bob Dorough:

See, I’m plugged in. I am not square.
I am alert, I am awake, I am aware.
I’m still on stage.
Go around, dig the sounds.
I read People magazine.
Because I am connected.

Mr. Frishberg’s original lyrics for “I’m Hip,” written in 1966, were “I Read Playboy Magazine,” but he later changed them.

People magazine never managed to profile him (although he briefly reviewed one of his albums in the 1980s). But his niche in the world of smart set cabaret niche songwriting (when such a breed still existed) was high. Superb saloon singers identify with the Frishberg tunes they sing. One of these singers was Blossom Dearie, whose interpretation of her “Peel me a grape” was, in Mr. Frishberg’s opinion, final.

Yet no one has really sung a Dave Frishberg song like Dave Frishberg, with his thin, sweet voice and irresistibly choked vocal range. Mr. Frishberg’s performance of his acerbic hymn to “My lawyer Bernie” was unmatched, especially her terse vocals of the song’s chorus:

Bernie tell me what to do
Bernie puts it on the line
Bernie says we carry on, we carry on
Bernie says we sign, we sign.

Mr. Frishberg’s gift as a composer extended far beyond the satirical jab. He composed beautiful ballads, and he was an elegant nostalgic who wrote with envy (but also knowingly) about the mists of time and loss. There was the bittersweet Frishberg from “Do You Miss New York?” “, The painful Frishberg of” Sweet Kentucky Ham “and the ingeniously eloquent Frishberg of “Van Lingle Mungo”, a touching strand of a ballad constructed solely from the chained names of former major league baseball players.

David Lee Frishberg was born March 23, 1933 in St. Paul, Minnesota, the youngest of three sons of Harry and Sarah (Cohen) Frishberg. Her father, who owned a clothing store, was an emigrant from Poland; her mother was from Minnesota.

He started drawing athletes from news photos at the age of 7 and hoped to become a sports illustrator, but he also listened intently to music growing up and could sing the entire score of “The Mikado” and other operettas by Gilbert and Sullivan. His brother Mort, a self-taught blues pianist, quickly steered him towards jazz and blues records, and the keyboard, where teenage Mr. Frishberg by ear reproduced the boogie-woogie styles of Pete Johnson and Meade Lux Lewis before discovering the modernist pianist of bebop.

“Jazz musicians were hip,” Frishberg wrote in his memoir, “My Dear Departed Past” (2017); “They were funny, they were sensitive, they were clans and they seemed to have the best girlfriends.”

After graduating from St. Paul Central High School, Mr. Frishberg briefly attended Stanford University before returning home to enroll at the University of Minnesota. Although he was already a semi-regular on the local jazz scene, his sight reading skills were too weak for a formal music degree. Instead, he flirted with a major in psychology before turning to journalism and graduating in 1955.

He served two years in the Air Force as a recruiter, to fulfill his ROTC obligations, then, in 1957, was hired by New York radio station WNEW to write advertising scripts and other materials for his disc jockeys and advertisers. He quickly dropped out of WNEW to write a catalog copy for RCA Victor Records, then eventually came out as a solo pianist working with a night time slot at the Duplex Cabaret in Greenwich Village.

Mr. Frishberg has become a much-requested sideman in jazz spots like Birdland and the Village Vanguard for jazz luminaries including saxophonists Ben Webster, Al Cohn and Zoot Sims and drummer Gene Krupa. He has also accompanied an array of great singers, including Carmen McRae, Anita O’Day and, on a dizzying night while supporting Mrs. O’Day at Half Note, a shy Judy Garland, who sat down shaking and sang. “Over the Rainbow,” Mr. Frishberg then asked to become his musical director. He objected.

In the early 1960s, Mr. Frishberg began to write songs – “all kinds of songs”, as he recalled in “My Dear Departed Past”. When singer Fran Jeffries asked if he could write her some special material, something that she could “sneak in while singing”, he responded with “Peel Me a Grape”:

Peel me a grape
Crush me ice
Peel me a peach, save the down for my pillow
Start me a smoke
Talk to me well
You owe me wine
And dine me.

Written in 1962, “Peel Me a Grape” became Mr. Frishberg’s first published track – although the publisher that acquired it, Frank Music, owned by the illustrious Frank Loesser, did not. does a lot. “As far as I know, the song was a pretty confidential item,” Mr. Frishberg later wrote, “until Blossom Dearie’s version.” Still, he launched Mr. Frishberg as a songwriter.

“I’m Hip” followed in 1966, leading to a bloated song portfolio. The demos he made to teach singers his songs began to tickle the ear of the island jazz record industry. Finally, Mr. Frishberg himself went to the studio to record an album, composed of his own compositions. The record was released in 1970 on the recently formed CTI label under the title “Oklahoma Toad”.

Mr. Frishberg decamped to Los Angeles in 1971, ostensibly to write material for “The Funny Side,” a new NBC variety show starring Gene Kelly. The show only lasted nine episodes, but his work as a studio musician kept Mr. Frishberg afloat. He also started performing his songs regularly in local clubs.

In 1975, Mr. Dorough invited him to contribute to “Schoolhouse Rock! ”, For which Mr. Dorough was the musical director and one of the screenwriters. Mr. Frishberg’s first contribution, in the show’s third season, was “I’m just a bill” an explanatory swinger on the legislative process sung by jazz trumpeter and singer Jack Sheldon. This earned him unexpected praise and lasting residue for what he later regretfully acknowledged to be his “best-known song.”

“The Dave Frishberg Songbook, Volume No. 1” won a 1982 Grammy nomination for Best Male Jazz Vocal Performance. The following year, “The Dave Frishberg Songbook, Volume No. 2” did the same. In support of this album, Mr. Frishberg appeared on “The Tonight Show”. Two other Frishberg albums were Grammy nominated, “Live at Vine Street” in 1985 and “Can’t Take You Nowhere” in 1987.

Mr. Frishberg’s 1959 marriage to Stella Giammasi ended in divorce. He later married Cynthia Wagman.

In 1986, he, his wife, and their one-year-old son Harry moved to Portland, fleeing freeway traffic and what he once called Los Angeles’ “nefarious environment”. He lived in Portland, more or less satisfied, for the rest of his life, producing a second son, Max; divorce a second time; and, in 2000, marrying Mrs. Magnusson. In addition to her, he is survived by his sons.

In Portland, he collaborates regularly with singer Rebecca Kilgore. More often than not, however, Mr. Frishberg reveled in playing solo piano in crowded hotel bars. When illness caught up with him late in life, he never stopped writing, as he had predicted with biting in 1981 in “My Swan Song”:

Once I took them out like waffles
The good and the ugly
A new one every day. But now
I find that I am not inspired, my wig is no longer wired
I have nothing more to say. …
But I will say it anyway.

Alex traub contributed reports.

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