Writing A Song
Introduction by Jim Liddane
Ron Miller was born Ronald Norman Gould in Chicago, USA, and after working as he put it, "at a million different jobs", was heard playing piano in a bar one evening by no less than Barry Gordy.
Not that Ron had ever heard of Barry Gordy!
Barry however, liked what he saw, promptly invited Ron to Detroit, and (for once, the cliche is actually justified) the rest was indeed history.
Since he arrived in Motor City, practically every major artist has recorded or performed at least one of his songs but he's probably best known for his success with artists like Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross, Barbra Streisand, Celine Dion, Jermaine Jackson and Ray Charles.
Some of his hits (with the number of BMI-logged U.S. radio and TV performances) include "For Once In My Life," (over 4 million performances); "Touch Me In the Morning," (over 2 1/2million performances); "Yester-Me, Yester-You, Yesterday," (1.7 million performances); "I've Never Been To Me," (over 1 million performances); and "A Place In The Sun" (over 700,000 performances).
His songs have also been recorded by such singers as Sammy Davis Jr, Billy Eckstine, Kiki Dee, Marhta Reeves, Smokey Robinson, The Temptations, Tony Bennett, Jackie Wilson, Dorothy Squires, The Four Tops, The Rascals, Bill Cosby, Engelbert Humperdinck, Glen Campbell, Randy Crawford, Charlene, Nancy Wilson, Michael Bublé, Craig David and Frank Sinatra.
Impressive - or what?
And yet...and yet...very few people seem to even know his name.
Well we've decided to change that!
Harvey Rachlin spoke with Ron Miller for "Songwriter Magazine".
There is a law in the natural order of life that says when two heterogeneous groups come together there will be assimilation between the two. Autarchic songwriter Ron Miller defies this law. He may have been the first white staff writer hired by Motown during the label's golden age, but while the company's talent was defining modern rhythm and blues Miller was still grooving to old-time classic white-bread pop tunes (to the delight of fellow staffers, however, he was eventually able to keep rhythm with his finger-snapping).
Indeed, if you want to analyse Ron Miller's approach to crafting lyrics to melodies think Ira Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Sammy Cahn, and Oscar Hammerstein II (his idol). He's a wordsmith from the old school who happens to write rock 'n roll and other forms of contemporary pop songs. He doesn't waste words or syllables nor write silly lyrics or dummy lyrics just to fill spaces. To Ron Miller words are so sacred that he'll even change freshly-minted melodies at the risk of offending his composer-collaborators just to derive the most perfect songs he possibly can (with no desire, of course, for any kind of composer credit).
So who is this Ron Miller? Unless you're an erudite student of pop songs or you study the writer credits of sheet music and songbooks, chances are you've never heard the name before. Sure, you know his songs but he's low-keyed as a writer because he'd rather be penning new ditties than exploiting his self-image.
So you've never spoken before to Ron Miller and with his terrific, optimistic, buoyant catalogue of pop standards you wonder just what kind of fellow he is. You're not disappointed. You call him up and from the start he's amiable and candid. He has a deep, professorial voice but with the storytelling charisma of a Burl Ives. Indeed, having a long conversation with Ron Miller is like talking with an old friend over rounds of drinks at a dimly-lit bar. He's at once animated and jocular, serious and wild and woolly.
You enjoy listening to him recount his Motown days (some of which you can't print) and how he goes about his craft as a lyricist. You realise here's one happy dude who loves music like life itself and feels he has lots more great hits ahead of him. You feel the sheer delight he gets out of writing songs and bringing joy to others and you know he doesn't take his success for granted. He'll spend hours wrestling over which conjunction to use -"and" or "but" in a tune - and he even enjoys the gestation process of mulling over lyrical ideas for new melodies, a regimen that often lulls him to sleep.
During the course of conversation Ron Miller likes to recite his own lyrics to illustrate particular points. It's so natural the way he suddenly segues to verses which he renders impeccably even though they may be decades old. In delivering his lyrics he emotes such love and passion and care you get the feeling he thinks of his songs as his own children.
If there's any bit of ego here, its well deserved and said as innocently as possible. He doesn't name drop and tell you he was one of the collaborators of legendary composer Jule Styne, whose other wordsmith partners included Frank Loesser, Leo Robin, Sammy Cahn, Bob Hilliard, Bob Merrill and Adolph Green. No, he doesn't try to impress you with the stars he's worked with. If you want to know, you have to pry it out of him. He doesn't tell you that Diana Ross's recording of "Touch Me In the Morning" was a Number One song on the Billboard charts in 1973. If you want to know, you have to look it up.
You quickly cotton to Ron Miller not just because he's written some of the most outstanding pop tunes ever written but because you sense he's a huggable, avuncular sort of guy. And you also appreciate that he talks about songwriting as being a noble art, not something you should be in for the money even if he mistakenly thought in the beginning of his career that it was an easy way to cash in!
Ron Miller is a sage and a philosopher who caters to everyday people. He's a quintessential word merchant who loves words and sentiments and dreams up ideas and lines that common folk, of any era, can relate to. And you come away liking him immensely because he is, like his inimitable catalogue, terrific, optimistic and buoyant.
Talk about your upbringing and how you first became interested in music.
I was born in Chicago and came from a very poor family. We lived on relief, which is the equivalent of what ADC is now. I lived with my mother and two sisters. My father was never around; he was divorced from my mother. But the few times my father did come around, he would take me into a bar and play Al Jolson records. He told me he had gone to school with Al Jolson, which I later found out was a lie but I was initially impressed and Jolson became my favourite singer.
I was about nine when the war started and I began to write patriotic songs about how America would defeat its enemies and win the war. I wrote these songs in my head because I couldn't read music or write it down or play piano. I just wrote melodies and words in my head. And I always did that up until the time I was 18 and went into the Marine Corps. I came out when I was 21 and decided I wanted to become a songwriter because I really didn't want to work for a living. I thought that writing songs was the easy way to paradise! I thought I was pretty good at it and maybe I was but I surely wasn't as good as I thought I was. I had very high standards because I spent my childhood constantly listening to the radio, to shows like the Hit Parade. I just loved music, I loved songs. I especially loved the words and if I fell in love with a song I would do everything I could to get hold of the record and play it until the needle saturated the groove.
What were your favourite songs at the time?
All the war songs like I'll Walk Alone" and "What My Heart Tells Me," and of course all the Oscar Hammerstein and Richard Rodgers show songs like "You'll Never Walk Alone" and all that stuff. I loved all the Broadway show tunes and yet I didn't know they were from Broadway shows. I didn't know what a musical was, I didn't know what it meant.
When I got out of the Marine Corps in 1953 I bummed around, had a million jobs and tried to become a professional baseball player until I found out I wasn't good enough. I joined some theatre groups because I liked to act and I was in Second City for a while. But what I really wanted to do was become a songwriter. So I started writing songs again.
Were you writing both words and music at the time?
Yes. I had never collaborated with anyone else at that time. Now on a scale of 1 to 10 my music was like a 5. It always acquiesced to the lyric because I had much more lyrical talent than musical talent. I wrote like three good melodies a year and the rest were mediocre.
One day I went to see a show. It was Damn Yankees. I watched five guys sing "You Gotta Have Heart." As the harmony went down the size of the men went down. When the harmony went up the size of the men went up. I thought I was really good until I saw this show. And then I realised how good I wasn't!
So I went home and looked in the mirror. I weighed 173 pounds then and I lifted weights and was an athlete and was built like an Adonis. Now I don't care who you are and what you look like, but when you look in the mirror buck naked - you look ugly. I looked in the mirror and said you ain't shit!
You can do one of two things I told myself. You can jack off your mind to think you're great and wake up when you're 50 and say "Well, I just didn't get the breaks," or you can do whatever you have to do to, to be as good as you want to be. And I decided I would do whatever I had to do to be good. I was about 24 years old. And I went and bought every theatre arts magazine and every album to every show I could find. I had all these odd jobs so I could buy records and librettos so I could learn where these songs came from and how they were related to the shows they came from. And then I started imitating. I would take "Ol' Man River" and write a different lyric to the music. I would take "Manhattan" and do the same. Richard Rodgers really made me a great lyricist because I took all his music and wrote new lyrics to it! And I learned how to write.
So you never had anybody teach you?
It was all by myself. I had no formal education toward it at all. I didn't even play piano although I finally learned how to play by ear. I would write a song in my head in ten minutes and take several hours to learn how to play it on the piano.
One day when I was about 30, I was in this place where I would go to after I got finished with my pizza wagon. It was the Patio Lounge of the Maryland Hotel in Chicago. The piano player's name there was Zelda. She looked like something out of a Toulouse-Lautrec! She had a pointed hat and orange lipstick and she hated my guts. She played like she had oranges in her hand. So after she would leave I would grab her piano and play for conventioneers. I'd make up dirty songs for which I'd either got beer or money. It was all in fun, of course. I would ask a man what his name was. "Jack?" So on the spot I'd sing "I knew a man, his name was Jack, he's got a wife with a great big..." And I'd get money for this.
Then one Wednesday night I was in there and it was empty except for this little black guy in the corner. He said to me, "Play something pretty. You got something pretty?" So I played a pretty little ballad I wrote called "Close Your Eyes." And he said "Where did you get that song?" I said I wrote it. He put five dollars in the bottle and said "Play another one you wrote." So I played three more songs I wrote and he put twenty bucks in. And he said "How many songs do you have like that?" I said "Oh, about a thousand." He asked if they were all that good. I said yeah and he asked if I had any modesty. I said yeah, but not when it comes to writing songs!
Then he asked if I ever heard of him. He said his name was Berry Gordy and he had this place in Detroit with black artists. He asked me if I ever heard of Marvin Gaye or Stevie Wonder. I said no. Then he asked if I ever heard of rock 'n roll. I said once. I was just being facetious. And then he asked if I would like to come work at his company. I said, yeah, right. He asked me where I lived and at the time I was staying upstairs at the Encore theatre, living with a bunch of mannequins.
The next morning he knocked on the theatre door. He asked me how much I wanted to bring my songs to Detroit. I said $5,000, but believe me, I hadn't had twenty bucks stay in my hand for more than ten minutes. The next morning he knocked on the theatre door with a thousand dollars in cash and two two-thousand dollar money orders. He said, "Come on, let's go to Detroit." So I called my mother and said "What should I do, Ma?" She said "Put everything you own in a Dixie cup and go!" So I went to Detroit and I was the first Caucasian at Motown. About three months later Berry introduced me to Stevie Wonder, who was twelve at the time. This was 1963. And Stevie and I started palling around. He recorded some songs I wrote that were really non-commercial ballads that were for albums.
Then John Kennedy died. We were all on the lawn outside of Motown. Stevie came out and put his head on my shoulder and started crying. He said, "You know I'm glad I'm blind." I asked "Why?" He said "Because I see everything the way I want to see it." I never forgot that and then I wrote "A Place In The Sun," which was my first hit.
So I worked with Stevie and had five or six gold records with him. My hits with Stevie included "Heaven Help Us All," "Yester-Me, Yester-You, Yesterday," "A Place In The Sun," and "For Once In My Life."
Have you ever had a commercially-released song whose performance disappointed you?
I remember I wrote a song for an artist called Charlene in 1983 called "I've Never Been to Me." It was a huge hit. I produced her and wanted to follow it up, because it's always the second record that's hard. So I wrote a song called "Used to Be," but I knew it was very controversial and I needed some star power so I asked Stevie if he'd do it as a duet with her. He hadn't done a song that he hadn't written by himself since 1970. And he heard it and freaked over it so I did a duet of it and it came out and went to #83 with a bullet, then to #53 with a bullet and then all of a sudden it disappeared from the charts. The Reagan administration totally destroyed the record. And it was my heart. It tore my guts out (he recites the lyric). It was banned by hundreds of radio stations that were part of a big chain that had something to do with the administration. I left Motown in 1983 and went on my own. And since then I've basically been independent.
Do you still write with others or by yourself?
Mostly I've been writing on my own but the hits I've had I collaborated with other people. I had one hit by myself which was "Heaven Help Us All." The rest I collaborated with other people on. I'd rather write a lyric to a great melody that someone else wrote than to a mediocre melody that I wrote.
Do you publish your own music since you've been on your own?
No. Once the artist records a song I make a deal and give it to a publisher. I was never an active publisher.
I guess I'm stupid but I just don't like the business end. I like money like everybody else but I've never been in it for that. I like the challenge and I like the finished product and if it's a hit, great, but I don't write for the money. I write for quality and hope the song says something and I hope it's a hit. If it is great, and if it isn't, who cares? That's the only way I can relate to it.
I believe that songwriting is a noble art and like Oscar Hammerstein said, it's the art of conciseness -you have to in 32 bars say an awful lot, repeat phrases and rhyme the words. To me, songs are like puzzles.
You know I'm scared to death to die. But I want to leave something because that will immortalise me!
I think you already are.
I don't think so. But the more songs I write the more I'm still alive!
How do you write lyrics?
I wrote to music. I only write to music. I'm not a poet.
Did you would reject a lot of melodies?
Oh yeah, because melodies influence how I write. On a scale of 1 to 10, if I feel a melody is a 10 I will write a lyric that's a 10. If it's a 6 I'll write a 6. I'm always inspired by the music. Music is a kind of invisible language in which the lyrics are a little more overt. You can play a lyric for 10 people and maybe at least 5 of them will say it means the same thing, but music, 10 people will give you 10 different interpretations of it.
When I was a kid I wanted to be George Gershwin but I knew I wasn't good enough. I was always very honest with myself about what I could and couldn't do, so I figured, well, screw it, I can't be Gershwin I'll be Hammerstein.
And I've always loved music so much that I feel like it's an obligation for me to bring out the intrinsic beauty of a melody and to make it sound like it was written by one person. So I always write to the music - even if it's my own music. I finish it first and then write a lyric to it. And then I'll make changes. In practically every song I've written with anybody I made some input into the music and never took credit for it. When I get the melody I have to shape it the way I know I can deal with it lyrically. The composers sometimes reject it but I say if you want my lyric you do it my way.
It's so hard not to sound pedantic in writing lyrics. And everything that can be said has been said. To say it in a new fresh way is very hard. But the thing about it is is that the English language is the easiest vehicle to use because we don't speak in phrases like other languages. We make up our own language. If you ask four people to tell you about going to a movie, they'll say "We took in a show" or "We went to a matinee" or "We went to a movie" or "I took her to a drive-in." There are so many different ways to say things. We make up our own language and because our language has so many different synonyms, we're allowed to make up ideas the way we want. But the problem is you've got to work at it. You've got to really work and while you're writing it you've got to be able to figure out "Oh yeah, well, that's beautiful, but it's been said before." And you've got to keep going. It's not easy.
There's not a lyric now that I can't write in two hours. But it wasn't always that way. You know, I've spent many a night with a blank piece of paper. But I love it. I remember once I was giving a lecture on lyrics to a class at UCLA and this kid stands up and asks why I am so good. So I asked him what he was doing at 3 o'clock that morning. He said he was messing with his old lady. I said I wish I'd been messing with his old lady too but I was working on a song that I had passed on to Diana Ross, (Motown executive) Suzanne DePasse, and Berry Gordy, and they all loved it - yet I was unhappy because I couldn't decide what was better in a conjunction - whether to use "and" or "but." And I spent three hours on a perfect song deciding which was better. And that's because I care that much. And if I'm good that's the reason why.
I think you've really got to approach songwriting like that. I really go into a song when I write lyrics. I may go three months without writing a song or I might write every day, but whenever I'm writing a song I sit in the room and I don't even hear the telephone. It's self-hypnosis because I've done it for so long.
Do you get a lot of people sending you melodies?
xWell, fortunately people can't find me since I'm no longer at Motown. I've heard a lot of bad melodies and the problem with it is that I'm such a nice guy I can't say "I don't like it, next." I give them long reasons and try not to hurt people's feelings. And I appreciate and respect the fact that they're even trying it, but it takes up so much time so I just kind of avoid it.
Do you listen to the melody to give the mood to the lyric?
Do you look for a place to put the title in and then go back and craft the lyric?
Always. I always get the title first. I usually write backwards. I usually get my ending and then if I know where I'm going I know how to get there.
So the ending comes first?
Most of the time, yeah.
Do you like writing more to hook songs or AABA formats?
I don't believe in hooks. First of all I think "hook" is the worst word ever. It's become a synonym for "chorus" and it really sucks. It's so non-musical. Now if you ever look at my songs like "Touch Me in the Morning," the first verse and the second will have the same music, the lyric will be almost the same but not quite the same. Those are the kind of "hooks" I like, where it's not word for word every chorus the same. I think it's dull when you do that. I did that with "A Place in the Sun" and I didn't even like doing it then.
When you write songs do you have a particular artist in mind?
Always. Rarely do you ever get that artist but I always have someone in mind. Now of course when I was at Motown I could just think of who I wanted and cut it on them if they were my act because I produced records as well there. I always produced the songs I wrote. I didn't always get who I wanted though. I took who they'd give me. In the beginning, I always wrote for Stevie Wonder because I could always get Stevie. No one wanted him in those days. They always liked the groups because with the groups they could get a certain sound. They always liked the girls because they could fuck the girls, so nobody wanted Stevie.
How did being the only white person at Motown for a while work?
It was interesting. They're talking R&B and I'm talking Rodgers and Hammerstein. We were educating each other. I remember once, Eddie Holland [of the famous songwriting trio Holland-Dozier-Holland] came up to me. At this time I had a baby and was making $50 a week and was as poor as a church mouse and these guys are walking around in silk suits and he said "Ron, you're so talented man. Why don't you get off your high horse and write some shit like we're doing and make some money?" I said "I was writing that crap since I was 12 years old and I spent 20 years trying to get out of it. And now you're telling me that in order to make it I'm going to have to regress?" I said "No way. If I don't make it, I don't make it but if I put my name out, at least I'm going to be proud of it." But we loved each other because we were different and we respected each other's differences.
When I went to Motown I had no rhythm. I actually believed that every syllable got a beat. [He starts counting the syllables in the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic "Getting to Know You"]. So when I was in the studio Berry Gordy would say to me, "Ron, man, don't tap. Just write. You're throwing the band off." I'd be tapping my foot and everybody would be going nuts. And then one day after about two years, honest to God, they're doing a song, it wasn't even my tune but I'm sitting there snapping my fingers and they all looked at me and said, "By George, he's got it!" I finally picked up the soul. I guess when you hear it through the walls it becomes an intrinsic part of you.
Do you still produce records?
So after you complete a song with a particular artist in mind will you cut a demo or go directly to the artist?
I'll cut a demo. I have a lot of different singers I work with. I sing also but I don't send demos out of me singing. I don't sing great in a professional way, I just sing great if you want to hear somebody tell a story rather than hit a lot of glorious notes.
Do you work with the composer in cutting a demo?
No, I don't work with anybody, I work with myself. I don't co-produce because it's an art form and I have my own way of doing it. If the composer wants to produce his own artist he wants he's more than welcome to and I tell him I'm going to produce it with whom I want to. I might say "It's your song, I love the way you play, will you play the piano on it? I'll pay you for the demo but then get out of the studio."
Do you make elaborate demos?
Well, you can make an elaborate demo pretty cheap now. It's all done on computer. And most of the guys I work with have a studio in their garage and everything is sampled; the piano sounds like a real piano and the strings sound like real strings. I usually use piano, bass, drums, guitar and strings on my demos and the only thing that's live is the guitar. I can't get a good guitar sound on a computer. I have computer pianos that sound like real pianos when they're sampled. If you heard some of my demos, you would think they're made with real symphony orchestras. They have such equipment today its unbelievable. Plus I work with people who know what they're doing. I have a joke now. I say, "Ludwig, you have a recital on Saturday. Practice your typing!"
After you finish a demo do you call artists or just send it in the mail? How do you get it out?
I have certain contacts, you know, from all the years I've been doing this. I find out who's recording and I send out demos.
You collaborated with [composer] Jule Styne"
Yes, on a musical adaptation of Treasure Island. I always felt he never got the kind of notoriety he should have. He wrote 75 standards.
I told him, "Jule, that's incredible." He said it wasn't. I asked him why. He said "I wrote 4,000 songs. If I was in the major leagues with that kind of batting average I'd be sitting on the bench!"
Who else did you work with?
Mike Masser, Ken Hirsh and Tommy Baird who unfortunately died. What a great composer he was! We had a song on the Barbra Streisand album of "The Way We Were." It was from a musical version of Bus Stop called Cherry; the song was "I've Never Been a Woman Before." That's his music and it's incredible. He died in a boating accident in '74. I met him when he came to Motown with a group called Billy Taylor and the Vancouvers. He was producing them; he was from Vancouver. And then we just hit it off. I remember we were in a coffee shop once and I was pouring sugar out of this thing and it fell out of my hand and hit the table. And when it hit the table it made a sound and he said "E-flat." And meant it.
How do you feel about today's music scene?
It's not even music. I call it poetry to drums. I think what's unfortunate about it is that it's so non-musical, some of this rap music.
But these kids really have an incredible sense of how to use the language. So much better than I did at that age. And it's just a shame that they're doing it to non-music. It's easier to do because they're not restricted to melody. They have the talent to use the language and if only they would have learned how to do it to music. There's a lot of potentially great talents that are going right down the tubes because rap will die and all these potentially great lyricists will become nothing because they won't know how to write to music. There's no music any more, and that's what the problem is. It's all drums, all noise, all sounds. And the ones that do have melodies to them - like the Britney Spears songs - it's repeat-nothing-garbage. It's just not saying anything, it's not doing anything. It's all about dancing and sex and it's silly.
How did you write "Yester-Me, Yester-You, Yesterday"?
When "A Place In The Sun" was first written, the original lyric was "yester-me, yester-you, yesterday when love was true." And I thought that was stupid. But when "A Place in the Sun" became a hit I still had that "yester-me" phrase in the back of my head and I decided to write it as a follow up. Well, Berry Gordy didn't understand it so they kept it in the can for seven years, And they put it in the back of an album where it wouldn't be discovered - they needed a twelfth song for an album - but the disc jockeys heard it and loved it and forced it out as a single and it sold three million records.
For all your hits it seems your name should be better known. You're like one of the best-kept secrets in music. A lot of people don't know the name "Ron Miller" although you probably could have a high-profile if you wanted.
That would be nice but I wouldn't even know how to go about it. Someone would have to do it for me. Then I'd sort of go along with it but I've never really been good at promoting myself.
Some writers hire PR firms.
Yeah, they get one hit and they make a lifetime out of it. I couldn't do that. I'd have to keep on writing.
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