AMERICAN ICONS: Carl Sigman
“Anyone involved with songwriting,” Carl Sigman once said, “will testify to the fact that each song, no matter how pure, or from the heart, has its own story, its own peculiar way of getting written.” In fact, each of his famous songs-from “Ebb Tide” to “Where Do I Begin?” [The Love Story theme] to “It’s All In The Game” came about through an array of accidental and intentional collisions of melody and words, and like all savvy songwriters, he learned how to walk through any creative door that opened before him. “Some cases are more peculiar or paradoxical than others,” he said, “but invariably some quirk or twist of luck enters the picture to prod a lyric or melody to its completion.”
Though he’s most famous as a lyricist, he also sometimes wrote his own music as did his lifelong friend, Johnny Mercer. Sammy Cahn, who wrote lyrics only, said that Sigman’s catalog was the only in existence he envied, because of his propensity with both music and words.
Sigman’s songs offer such a considerable arc of stylistic potential that they have been recorded and performed by artists from every aspect of the musical spectrum, including Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, Count Basie, Frank Sinatra, Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole, Ray Charles, Elvis Presley, Barbra Streisand, Linda Ronstadt, Van Morrison and Joni Mitchell.
Born in Brooklyn in 1909, he was more excited by baseball than piano lessons as a kid, but did learn his way around a keyboard. After high school his mom presented him with two career choices-that of a lawyer or a doctor. Since he hated the sight of blood, he went the law route, attending NYU Law School and passing the New York State bar. But he knew then-as did his childhood pal Mercer-that the only career for them was music. It was Carl’s wife Terry who joked that music, and not law, was up his (Tin Pan) Alley.
Mercer became a successful published songwriter before Sigman did, and generously offered to launch his friend’s career by collaborating with him. They wrote a song called “Just Remember” -music by Sigman, words by Mercer-which became a hit in the U.K. Mercer, who got most of his career mileage out of his ability to write lyrics for others-although he could compose music as well-told Carl that writing lyrics for other was the way to go, since more composers needed lyricists than vice versa. It was good advice. His first big hit was for big band impresario Glenn Miller-the song was clever and funny-”Pennsylvania 6-5000,” which became a standard.
In 1942 he was drafted into the Air Force, and fought in Africa. Awarded the Bronze Star for bravery, he also was awarded with a $25 war bond for writing the song “The All American Soldier,” which became the anthem for the 82nd Airborne.
After the war his career kicked into high gear, and he wrote a string of hits, such as “Ballerina,” “Crazy He Calls Me,” “Enjoy Yourself” and “Civilization.” He also wrote his first and final Broadway show, Angel In the Wings, which ran for more than a year. He met his future wife Terry then, at the Brill Building in New York, where she worked for Louis Prima. They soon were married and raising three sons, and Carl cooked up some of the most famous and beautiful songs of his career, such as “Answer Me” and “Careless Hands.” He collaborated with a legion of great songwriters, including the legendary Duke Ellington, Bob Hilliard and Peter De Rose. But it was one of his most unusual collaborations that created one of his most poignant songs, “It’s All In the Game.” He wrote the music to existing lyrics written in 1911 by Vice President Charles Gates Dawes. Though countless singers have since recorded it, it became a No. 1 hit first for Tommy Edwards in 1958.
As the 1950s dissolved into the 1960s, many songwriters of his ilk felt trumped by the incursion of rock and roll and stopped writing. He didn’t. Knowing great singers would always need great songs, he continued to create standards such as “Ebb Tide,” a hit in 1953 by Vic Damone, and more famously in 1965 for the Righteous Brothers-with monumental wall-of-sound production by Phil Spector. “Shangri-La,” co-written with Matt Malneck and Robert Maxwell, was a hit first for the Four Coins and again in 1969 for The Lettermen. Frank Sinatra recorded 15 of his songs, and Elvis recorded Sigman’s “Fool,” co-written with James Last. In 1970, long after most of his peers had concluded their era had ended, he wrote the lyrics to Francis Lai’s instrumental “Theme from Love Story,” which became probably his most famous song, “Where Do I Begin? (Love Story),” the theme to the hit movie Love Story. It became a hit for Andy Williams, and has since been covered by hundreds of artists.
But like all great songwriters, Sigman worked hard for his success. His initial lyric for “Where Do I Begin?” was rejected by Paramount because they felt the refrain “Jenny came” was too suggestive. At first, justifiably proud of the fine lyric he crafted, he was angry and felt like refusing to do a rewrite. But the next day he cooled off, and pacing around his living room said to his wife, “Where do I begin?” and the new lyric was launched.
He lived to be 91, passing away in 2000, leaving behind a legacy of amazing songs for which he wrote words, music or both. And like the songwriters of many of this world’s most beloved songs, his name is unknown to the mainstream public. But they know the songs.