Words and Music by Jack Lawrence, Arthur Altman & Emery Deutsch
Some Of The Best Recordings
Heard On Screen
Dinner At Eight
For sheet music contact: www.halleonard.com
The Story Behind The Song
I tell this story in great detail because it was my very first published song and my exhilarating and painful introduction to the music business. In a way it gives answers to the frequently asked question: "How did you start in the business?"
From the age of ten I was a self-taught pianist and songwriter — not very proficient in either endeavor. In my later teens I formed a collaboration with Arthur Altman who was a year my senior and lived in the neighborhood. Although he was equally inept on the fiddle, we were a productive writing team. Living in the wilds of Brooklyn we had made few forays into the glamorous world of Manhattan and had not the slightest idea how to get our songs heard or published.
We got lucky when one of my older brothers dated a Brooklyn piano teacher who said a dear friend of hers headed a string quartet on Columbia Broadcasting and she set up an audition for Arthur and me. Her friend turned out to be a Hungarian fiddler named Emery Deutsch whose quartet played schmaltzy Gypsy music along with Frasquita's Serenade and The Skater's Waltz, etc.
CBS was in a high rise on the corner of Madison and 52nd and we were directed into a small studio where the quartet were playing... not instruments but pinochle. We quickly learned that their job was to stand by and watch for a red light cue. In those early days of radio, the logistics of picking up remote broadcasts was complicated: often there would be a short pause between programs. When the red light flashed, the musicians would drop their cards and pick up their instruments. Then the green light alerted them to start playing until a stop sign flashed. Arthur And I were fascinated. This was the world of music we had dreamed about!
After a bit of conversation Emery suggested that we play our songs... but in between the flashing lights. After three or four numbers, Emery watching the cue lights said: "Look, boys, you write nice songs but there's nothing I can use. I'm a gypsy fiddler. If you ever write something in my style, bring it and I'll see what I can do".
Oddly enough we left happily. That was the first bit of encouragement we'd ever had. All we had to do was write something in his style! That very sleepless night I had an inspiration. I recalled a minor melody Arthur and I had written as a heavy torch song:
What can I do? I depended on you alone,
I decided that was the sort of melody Emery would like. Now if only it had a lyric that would appeal to a gypsy fiddle player! Lying restlessly in my bed, words came to me:
Play, fiddle. Play... play my loved one a melody
I could hardly wait for daybreak to call Arthur who rushed to my house. We finished the lyric and flew back to CBS. We interrupted the quartet in a hot pinochle session but were greeted with enthusiasm when they heard our new song. They picked up their fiddles and started to improvise an arrangement. It was thrilling! We felt we had arrived!
"Boys!" Emery shouted. "You've done it! We'll have a smash". The next few weeks we went through frustrating round of publishers' offices led by Emery. He knew all the publishers because he had airtime so they were polite to us, at the very least. Each publisher, usually chewing a big, fat cold cigar, would point at the piano. I'd sit down to play and sing and Emery would accompany me on his fiddle. Many times before we could finish the publisher would be shaking his head: "No!" I recall one fat, short, dumpy guy stopping us with: "Who the! @#$ is gonna sing a song about a fiddle?" It was most discouraging.
Emery persuaded Morton Downey, Irene Wicker, The Singing Lady and Arthur Tracy to sing our song on their programs and letters began to pour in. Armed with all this Emery went to E.B. Marks, a publisher whose catalog he played frequently. With promises from Emery for more performances, Marks was persuaded to take the song for publication. In the midst of all this excitement, at age twenty, I was quarantined with scarlet fever.
Since I was legally under age, my oldest brother agreed to sign for me but when I read the contracts I was furious. Emery was listed as the sole composer who was to receive two thirds of the royalties and Arthur and I as lyric writers one third. Of course, I refused to sign. Poor Arthur stood outside my quarantined window crying: "Please, Jack. You have to sign. Tillie and I have been school day sweethearts and I promised to marry her when my first song was published."
He finally wore me down and I said that I would if Emery agreed to share credit for the music with one of us since we had both written the music. Since I had written the entire lyric that's what I took credit for and Arthur shared composing with Emery. But we couldn't change that unfair royalty division. There was more salt on the wound when we saw the sheet music: there was Emery's soulful face on the cover and his name in mile-high letters.
Our gypsy song about a fiddle that every publisher had turned down, proved to be a natural. It was number one all over the country and it went into an MGM star-studded film: "Dinner At Eight"still being shown today. It turned our schmatltzy fiddler, Emery Deutsch into a headline star, replacing Phil Spitalny at the Broadway Paramount. Then the boom was lowered.
There was a paranoid character named Ira Arnstein who paraded in front of the ASCAP offices wearing a sandwich sign that read: "My songs have been plagiarized by the following writers: Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Jerome Kern, Rodgers and Hart." A most impressive list which now had the added name of Emery. He claimed that he had left copies of his song at CBS for Deutsch and it was the exact melody now sweeping the country as "Play Fiddle Play." Neither Arthur nor my name was mentioned.
We were summoned to a meeting with the publisher's attorneys; everyone knew that Emery had not written the song so we were relieved that we had a previous copyright in our two names. The attorneys didn't wish to harm Emery's career so we went to court. A new experience for me... I had never been in a courtroom before. The song was now an international hit when the case came to trial in 1934. We had a mid-western replacement for the New York judge who was on vacation. This corn fed pontiff had never had a plagiarism case before and with all the attendant publicity, loved and prolonged our case.
Arnstein's lawyer had a piano and fiddle player in court plus huge music charts, an intriguing presentation. The melody line of a song consists of single notes in the clef treble. Arnstein's chart highlighted notes in both the clef and bass and when the fiddler played only the high-lighted notes... lo and behold! — it sounded exactly like our song! Our attorneys spent hours trying to explain this to the judge, but he would only accept what he was hearing.
The reporters were having a field day with our saga and the courtroom filled with spectators. Finally, our attorneys called another meeting and announced that the situation looked bad. They had decided to put Arthur and me on the stand to tell the truth, that Emery had written not one note of our song; it was our original work. I said no!
"Do you want to lose this case?" said Marks' attorneys. I replied that at one-third royalties we were being screwed anyway. We didn't have that much to lose. Mr. Marks was shrewd. He got the point. What did I want? A fair shake on the contract. I won the draw, the contract was rewritten and each of us got a third. I felt Emery was entitled to his share for helping us get our first publication. And we won the case.
That was my introduction to the music business. I learned quickly how to maneuver in the shoals when the sharks are gathering.
Copyright © 2005 Jack Lawrence. All Rights Reserved.