News Column

For Steve Tyrell, this one's 'Magic'

June 19, 2013

YellowBrix

June 19--To hear singer and producer Steve Tyrell tell it, the legendary songwriter Sammy Cahn was always looking for a little magic that could be turned into a song. Some of Cahn's best-known songs have back stories that suggest he was always listening for a phrase that would lend itself to a song.

"Early in his career, he was supposed to write a song for a movie called 'Anchors Away,' " Tyrell says. "He drove to Vegas, him and (co-writer) Jule Styne, to see Frank Sinatra. Frank met them at the door, looking depressed. He was having some issues of the heart, you might say. They asked him, 'What's wrong, Frank?' And he said, 'Man, I just fall in love too easily.'

"Sammy left, went in a room and wrote 'I Fall in Love Too Easily' in five minutes. Only had eight lines in the whole song. And it turned out to be one of the classic songs in jazz. Chet Baker did the most famous version. Miles Davis has done it. But honestly, everybody's done it."

That song closes Tyrell's latest collection of standards, fittingly titled "It's Magic: The Songs of Sammy Cahn."

Tyrell -- who started his music career in Houston more than a half century ago -- returned home last week for a private party celebrating the release of the album. He'll return next spring to perform with the Houston Symphony.

In the meantime, he's enjoying a successful start with "It's Magic," which debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard jazz album chart earlier this month.

Standards have been Tyrell's go-to songs over the past 20 years as he's enjoyed an unlikely second career as a singer. Born Steven Bilao, Tyrell got his start making music as a teenager in Houston with CL and the Pictures. In 1962, he released a popular single called "Payday Someday." He moved to New York, where he worked for Sceptor Records, working closely with songwriters Burt Bacharach and Hal David as they were writing for a young Dionne Warwick.

Tyrell's work was largely behind the scenes at the time and included bringing his friend B.J. Thomas to the label. He enjoyed success as a songwriter and producer himself, and then, in 1991 a demo he recorded for the film "Father of the Bride" resulted in his being cast in the film to sing "The Way You Look Tonight."

A new career began, and Tyrell has recorded tributes to Bacharach and Sinatra as well as several collections of standards since. Over the years, he's touched on Cahn's songbook, which he decided to dig deeper into this year, which happens to be Cahn's centennial.

"He was an amazing writer and had an amazing career," Tyrell says. "Sinatra recorded 87 of his songs. He was nominated 27 times for Academy Awards. I think he won four Oscars, five Golden Globes and an Emmy. He wrote for so many movies, which has become a lost art in a way. But at that time, some of the greatest songs ever written were from movies."

Tyrell also sees pop culture doubling back for Cahn's work. He points out a recent commercial for Sean "P. Diddy" Combs' vodka that makes use of "Come Fly With Me," which Cahn wrote with Jimmy Van Heusen.

"There's this great period in American music history where pop culture collided with the sexual revolution," he says. "It was after 'Father Knows Best' and before the Beatles, when you have Las Vegas and the Rat Pack, Playboy magazine, James Bond. Sammy Cahn was speaking to that generation. Most people don't know it, but it was this little bald Jewish guy who was putting the words into the mouths of some of the most hip and revered figures of 20th-century pop culture."

Cahn's writing could be coy and funny. He sometimes came up with little challenges for himself. "Call Me Irresponsible" sprang from wanting to write a song with five-syllable words.

"He was such an exact and professional writer," says Tyrell. "He was proud of his songs, because he thought the words sang on their own. The words could make the melody. He thought the singers would know how to hit the notes just based on the words."

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(c)2013 the Houston Chronicle

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