International Songwriters Association (ISA) Songs And Songwriting • Herbert Kretzmer Interview

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Herbert Kretzmer


Introduction by Garald Mahlowe
Twenty years ago, it is unlikely that Songwriter Magazine would have carried an in-depth interview with Herbert Kretzmer. True, he had written the lyrics for a quartet of immensely popular songs, several of which had won awards: the Peter Sellers/Sophia Loren duets, "Goodness Gracious Me" and "Bangers and Mash", and the Charles Aznavour successes, "Yesterday When I Was Young" and "She". But the bulk of his lyric writing had been in the rather more anonymous spheres of TV (the 60's satire show, "That Was The Week That Was", and its successors), theatre (two shows, neither a smash hit), and film (Anthony Newley's 1969 epic, "Can Heironymus Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humppe And Find True Happiness?").

And more importantly, this whole side of his work had been overshadowed by his stature as a leading feature writer and critic for a string of Fleet Street newspapers, most recently the Daily Mail.

But in January 1985, when he was 59 years of age, everything changed.

West End producer Cameron Mackintosh, attempting to adapt the hit French musical "Les Miserables", for London, asked him to write the English lyrics. and Herbert Kretzmer soon had a blockbuster on his hands.

Gerald Mahlowe met Herbert Kretzmer for Songwriter Magazine.

I know you were born in South Africa, but I don't know which part.
In a little riverside town called Kroonstad, which literally means Crown Town. Crown was a horse which apparently saved its master from a swollen river, or some such tale.

What sort of place was it to grow up in?
It was larger than a village, but not much. One knew almost every face in town. Every time you turned a corner, you could see a natural horizon -or so it seems in retrospect. It was an idyllic childhood in a quiet town and I've never really gotten used to cities ever since.

What sort of education did you get?
A very ordinary high school education ...brought up in two languages -Afrikaans and English.

Can you remember having an early ambition?
Yes. I can remember at the age of about 12, being suddenly seized with the idea that I wanted to be a reporter. The ambition hadn't taken the form yet of press journalism or radio journalism or whatever, but I knew that I was going to be a reporter on the move, and I stuck with that. It was as much a yearning for freedom, for travel, as it was an artistic or creative ambition.

I know that early on, you wrote the commentary for a cinema newsreel in South Africa. Was that your very first job?
It was among the first. My very first job was writing for a weekly newspaper -although that's a rather grandiose word for it!- in Johannesburg, called Burnside's Weekly. Burnside was a member of parliament at the time, and turned out this newspaper largely as a vehicle for his own views, I think. And he needed one or two guys to fill it up with features and stories and so on, so 1 wrote almost everything in it. That lasted for a while and then I got a job of writing this weekly newsreel, which stood me in good stead later, when I began writing lyrics seriously, because it was an exercise in thrift, in economy. You couldn't have one word too many because that would take you beyond where the picture ends. So 1 was writing literally to split-second timing; you couldn't negotiate any extra words and 1 enjoyed that discipline.

Was there just the one cinema in town?
Yes, a cinema called The Empire, and it's true to say that for my generation, our images of the world were totally formed by going to the movies once a week. It was the height of Hollywood's myth-making history and my brothers and I lived for that Saturday afternoon experience. It was movies that first got me going as a songwriter, as well. I remember seeing a movie called "Flying Down To Rio", a Fred Astaire musical. during a summer vacation. I didn't know I wanted to be a songwriter than, but I knew that I was excited by songs and by lyrics in a way that didn't seem to affect my fellows.

When did you first come to England?
In 1948. 1 was wandering. I stayed here for a while, I went to Paris for a while. In Paris, I played piano in a bar in the evenings in return for an evening meal - I literally played for my supper! And I wrote little newspaper articles. That was '48. I went back to South Africa at the end of '48, then I returned to London and Paris in '51 and tried to write a couple of novels, which I never showed to anyone. I didn't want to settle down yet - I wanted to get some experience and travel under my belt.

France later became a very important country to you. Could you speak the language on those early visits?
No, and 1 still can't - that's the odd thing. People think of me as a sort of translator, but in fact my French is very rough, it's 'street French', you might say.

But you fell in love with France?
Yes, in love with the idea of France and with the French country-side. Europe - Paris really - represented for me a sense of freedom, a door opening, which has never closed, really.

You settled in London in '54, I believe.
Yet, I got a job on the Daily Sketch as a holiday relief sub-editor, writing headlines to other people's stories and that sort of thing. Then after about six months, I went to the book editor and said, "Give me a book to review". He gave me a book and I reviewed it and it was very well received. It ran as a feature, not as a book review, and after that they called on me more and more to write features, and that's how I became a feature writer in Fleet Street.

Had you done any lyric writing by this time?
Yes, in South Africa. It was during one of my trips back - I can't quite remember when - and I supplied three or four songs for a little revue called Christmas Box, which ran in Johannesburg. I supplied words and music - I fancied myself as a lyricist/composer and I still suffered from that delusion when I arrived in this country.

What changed your mind?
Taking a good look around me, 1 realised that there were about 25 composers per city block in London alone who could see me off as a composer, but that 1 stood some kind of chance as a lyricist! That's the only way one really learns about oneself - by looking at the competition! Also, lyric writing seemed to make a more coherent package with journalism - and so it's proved.

How did the journalism develop in the 50's?
I left the Sketch before it vanished, and joined the Sunday Dispatch, which was very interesting because there I was writing profiles, 1500-2000 word pieces on the great men and women who were either in England or passing through England. It was a fascinating time and 1 interviewed almost everybody, from writers like Steinbeck and Capote to jazz musicians like Brubeck and Ellington. Then the Dispatch folded underneath me and I was invited to join the Daily Express as a feature writer. In those days the Express had a circulation in excess of four million, it was still under the great Beaverbrook, and there wasn't a newspaperman in London who didn't secretly nurse an ambition to work for it.

Around the time you're joining the Express, you're having your first hit with "Goodness Gracious Me" (a hit for Peter Sellers and Sophia Loren in November 1960, produced by George Martin).
That's right. I'd had a couple of songs recorded before then by, people like Dennis Lotis, but "Goodness Gracious Me" was the first song that made any kind of impact and certainly the first of my very few hits. I've never been one of those guys who sits down and writes for the market. Most of the stuff I've written has been for television, or by invitation, or commission, something like that. I've written very few songs and just submitted them to a publisher, hoping they might catch on.

Who wrote the tune for "Goodness Gracious Me"?
Dave Lee, an excellent jazz pianist who I met in South Africa, though he's English-born - I think from Leeds. I got to know Dave very well out there and when we both found ourselves here, we naturally tied up together and began writing songs - some for Lotis, then "Goodness Gracious Me", then later came "That Was The Week That Was" (60's BBC TV satire show).

Was "Goodness Gracious Me" written by invitation?
Yes, it came to me through Sellers himself. Peter called me and told me about this film he was making with Sophia Loren, and suggested that one of the scenes - where an Indian doctor becomes fascinated by the heartbeat of a glamorous patient - might provide the springboard for an amusing song, which could not be used in the film, but might help promote it. A lot of people swear to this day that they saw it in the film, and that shows you the tricks memory can play.

You wrote the follow-up. "Bangers and Mash", too?
I did. I delivered "Goodness Gracious Me" to Peter's home on a Sunday afternoon. He loved it and said, "What about the B-side?" and 1 said, "Well I'm off to Spain tonight, but I'll try and send you something". So whereas I'd written "Goodness Gracious Me" with Dave Lee in London, "Bangers and Mash" was written as a lyric first, sitting in the back of a car - because I was being driven down to Spain by friends. And 1 sent it to Dave by express or whatever, and by the time I returned to London two weeks later, both songs were in the can. But they decided not to put "Bangers" on the B-side, but to hold it for another A-side some months later. (A wise decision, as it reached No. 22 in January 1961).

Ned Sherrin (producer) asked you to write a song a week for That Was The Week That Was, and I understand you said you couldn't do it. Why?
Because I've never really had a very high regard for my standard of education. 1 said (to Ned), "Oh that's not for the likes of me - that's for the likes of Christopher Booker and Bernard Levin, people from Oxford and Cambridge. You have to be very clever to write stuff like that." And he said , "Anybody who can write 'Goodness Gracious Me' can write for TW3." I’ve always been grateful to Ned for that.

You wrote one topical song a week for "That Was The Week That Was"?
Yes. The song was never written until the Wednesday or Thursday of each week for transmission on Saturday.

Meanwhile, the Daily Express had made you their theatre critic and you responded by writing a show of your own -"Our Man Crichton"!
That was written with Dave Lee as well, in '64. I saw the Barrie play, "The Admirable Crichton", up in Nottingham and it struck me right away. It had everything that a musical ought to have - an amusing central situation, exotic locations, lots of characters, and a damn good story. So I just went after it, and it was a far better show than its record at the box office might reveal. We were in the wrong theatre, at the Shaftesbury, the wrong end of town. Had we opened even half a mile into Shaftesbury Avenue, it would certainly have doubled its run. We had about eight months; it should have run at least twice that. Cameron Mackintosh (producer of "Les Miserables" and many other hit shows) saw it and remembered it, and a lot of other people are still very fond of it.

You didn't do another musical until the 70's.
Yes! "Our Man Crichton" was my 60's musical, "The Four Musketeers" was my 70's musical, and "Les Miserables" was my 80's musical!

You didn't plan it that way though?
Certainly not - it just happened that way! "Musketeers" ran for about a year and a month at Drury Lane and Harry Secombe was really the reason it ran at all. Harry brings his own audience with him and you have to make very bad mistakes not to get some kind of a run if you have a wonderful star like that.

It's time we talked about Mr. Aznavour.
I did a piece called 'The Voice of Paris' for the Daily Express - Aznavour, Pet Clark and Sacha Distel - and it was later that David Platz of Essex Music, as it was then, called me. He had a tie-up with Aznavour and asked me if I would do some translations. So I went over and spent a weekend with Charles in his house outside Paris, going through all his songs, and I felt attracted to about a dozen of them. He gave me very rough translations in English of what they all meant, and I came back and did that whole bunch in about a month or so. "Yesterday When I Was Young" was included in that first bunch and turned out to be by far the most successful and enduring song I've done with Aznavour. "She" got to Number One here years later (June 1974), but was never really a huge hit in America, whereas "Yesterday When I Was Young", which never got into any chart here, goes on as a sort of standard in America. I know from the royalties that it's consistently played on certain radio stations.

If you had translated literally, the English lyrics wouldn't have rhymed, of course. So how close can you get, while still making it rhyme?
I never try to get too close to the (French) words. It's a peculiar thing - I resist and resent the word 'translator'. As I say, I don't even speak the language. What I tried to do with Aznavour, and subsequently with "Les Miserables", was to recreate in a new idiom, the mood, the thrust, the meaning of what was said in the original. It is a form of translation, of course - I don't want to be too pedantic about it - but it is not direct translation. In "Yesterday When I Was Young", for example, I don't think there is anywhere you can say, "That line comes from that line". It is a form of free adaptation, rather than translation, and it's the only way I can work. The French title of "Yesterday..." was "Hier Encore", which is, in itself, untranslatable. Literally, it means, "Yesterday Again", and it goes on, "Yesterday again, when I was in my twenties, shadows ran before me..." Well none of that is in the song I wrote.

Who has recorded it, apart from Aznavour himself?
Lena Home, Jack Jones, Mel Torme...even Walter Brennan! Remember the old cowboy actor? I even have a recording spoken - not sung - by him in an old man's Western voice! The big recording, of course, was by a country and western singer called Roy Clark. He broke the song. That song was sent to everybody - (Tony) Bennett, Sinatra, Andy Williams - and nobody would touch it. They all admired it, apparently, but as far as I could make out, the title worked against it; "Yesterday When I Was Young” implied that the singer was no longer young - a fatal thing to say if you're an American! Even more fatal if you're an American seeking an American market! So it needed somebody to break the ice and it was Roy Clark - and even he felt it necessary to take the curse off the title by doing a spoken introduction, which they didn't ask me to write - if they had, it might possibly have rhymed! It said something along the lines of, "Seems the loves I've known have all been the most destructive kind and I guess that's why I feel so old before my time..." In other words, he's not old, he just feels old! God bless the Americans!

After that, other people felt able to do it?
Absolutely, and without that introduction. The only other person who ever used it - and she shouldn't have - was Dusty Springfield, one of the few women who sings that song and makes it believable.

Was the song "She" a translation?
No. "She" was a commission from London Weekend Television. They were doing a series of plays about women at various stages in their lives, called "The Seven Faces Of Women", and they needed a unifying theme tune to do with the mystique of woman. So I was taken to lunch by the producer, who wanted me to write a lyric for Marlene Dietrich to sing and also to choose a composer.

Well I talked them out of Marlete Dietrich - I didn't want to write a song about a woman to be sung by a woman - and suggested Aznavour. So he provided me with a song, and though he had written some kind of lyric, I didn't even want to hear it, because I knew what I wanted to say. So there does exist a French lyric for "She", but it is nothing to do with the lyric I wrote. So we are 50/50 partners on that song.

And so we come to "Les Miserables". By this time, you've left the Express and you're working as the TV critic on the Daily Mail. Can you pick up the story from there?
What happened was, I wrote to Cameron Mackintosh in the middle of '84, asking him whether he would consider reviving "Our Man Crichton" - he was the only man around who seemed to be doing musicals (and still is). Well, he could have written back and said yes, or he could have written back and said no; but he in fact wrote back and said, "No, but why don't you come and see me?" He said he'd admired the show lyrically and had often wondered why I hadn't gone on writing for the theatre. So I went to see him, and we talked about everything and nothing, and just a few minutes before I left him -our lives hang on such strange threads! - I told him about my Aznavour work. He had no idea the lyrics for "She" and "Yesterday When I Was Young" were written by me.

Anyway, six months later, he was looking for a lyric writer for "Les Miserables" - it was January '85 and they were going into rehearsal in August, so it had to be done within five or six months. And according to Cameron himself, he woke up one morning at 6.30, sat bolt upright, and remembered my connection with Aznavour. Kretzmer - Aznavour - French -"Les Miserables"! And he picked up the phone and called me. I wasn't here - I was in Spain again - but I got the message when I got back. So that was in January; February we spent meeting other people in the show; and March 1st, I began work, having taken six months off from the Daily Mail. But if I hadn't written to Cameron about "Our Man Crichton", none of this would have happened.

So if there's any kind of lesson to be learnt from that story, it's that people don't come to you if you sit quietly at home.
Go out and make a little noise, even if you're pushing at the wrong door! I pushed at a door called "Our Man Crichton", and another door opened six months later. One has to create one's own action.

I was amazed to learn that "Les Miserables" was only about the second ever French musical. Don't the French have a tradition of musical theatre?
No. The French don't regard it as a serious form of theatre; they're a very studious race. None of the big Broadway musicals ever goes to Paris. So for that reason, among others, Alain Boublil (writer of the original French lyrics) is running around London looking for a place to live, because he knows there's no future for him as a writer of musicals in Paris.

How did you approach the job of writing the English lyrics? Did you read the book (by Victor Hugo)? Did you listen to the French cast album.
Everything -I listened to everything.And there had been a version written by another writer, an English writer, before me, who had spent two years on it - that's why I only had five months. I also had a full English translation, which was done right at the beginning of the 80's, a word for word translation; I had the French lyrics in front of me, because even though I don't speak French, I can, with an effort, make some sense of it if I know what it's about; as I say, I had the work of my predecessor as well, which I made use of wherever I could. So armed with all this equipment, I refashioned the show and added at least one third of totally original material. The show in Paris was two hours long, in 1980; the reconceived show in England was three hours long. So at least a third of it is original material, a third of it is adaptation of a kind, and I guess the other third might be termed translation. But what does that matter? What matters is that it works.

Finally, could you say something about your working methods?
I need to be alone when I'm writing and I need there to be no other sounds of music, or rhythms. I even have this pair of earmuffs here - I think they're made for industrial purposes actually, for people who work in noisy factories and workshops - because the slightest sound, especially music, drives me crazy. And then I simply sit quietly and listen to the music, and start hearing...it's like Johnny Mercer once described it, at first you don't even look for the sense, you're just reaching for a sound; really; the sound has to go with the music. The music will always tell you - it'll tell you whether the phrase is important or whether it's a secondary phrase, whether there's a comma in it, or something like that. Sometimes it comes very easily. One song in “Les Miserables” took me six months - "On My Own"!

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