Assuming you want to learn more about songwriting, and assuming you agree with me that you can learn a lot by studying the old masters, I can give you a resource that will give you a basic and graduate education.

Songwriting Tools -- Ella Fitzgerald's Song Books

The Ella Fitzgerald Song Books were records issued from the mid-50s to the mid-60s by VERVE, a Jazz label known for having the top talent in the field.

Verve guru Norman Granz came up with the idea for this series, which basically delineated the Great American Songbook (GAS). Now, the GAS is not a formal list of music, but it is basically a repertoire that is agreed-upon by people as the Standards (with a capital “S”) of popular music prior to the rock and roll era.

What makes a song a standard? And why would you like to write a standard?

The term is given to songs that are so great that they never go out of style and most popular singers like to record their versions. Don’t let the “pre-rock and roll” tag fool you. These songs are still recorded many times a year by big stars. In the past we have seen collections of standards from people like Rod Stewart, Carly Simon, Linda Ronstadt, Harry Nilsson, and the Supremes who were big stars in the 60s and 70s and found new audiences when their own style of music was no longer in great demand.

Recently, Lady Gaga teamed up with 40s and 50s crooner Tony Bennet to record those same standards. Michael Buble has been active for about 15 years keeping the Sinatra torch burning for new audiences. Queen Latifah broke away from her hip-hop base with “The Dana Owens Album” (guess what her real name is?). And Cyndi Lauper had some girl-fun with the standards too.

The benefits to a songwriter are apparent — constant royalty checks from getting your songs recorded over and over. Even if you beat the odds and make the pop charts, your song may only have a shelf-life of a few months. An “evergreen” standard can be your retirement program and support you the rest of your life.

Ella Fitzgerald was the perfect person to present the great songbooks. Her voice was versatile and she could handle anything from “sweet” to “hot.” Even without the songbooks, she would have been considered legendary. We are fortunate she made these albums.

Two things that set Ella’s songbooks apart from the many other collections of GAS:

1.) She usually includes the verse. Terminology has changed in the past century, but basically what we know a song today is usually the refrain (or sometimes called chorus) of the song. Take a well-known song like “My Funny Valentine” and you will discover that there is an introduction to the song you may never have heard before. Ella’s version is one of the best (of course). It was traditional for a song to have a verse. Later, the verse was dropped and a lot of the short-attention-span people would say, “Don’t bore us, skip to the chorus). Trivia: Jerome Kern preferred the term “burthen” — an archaic term. That’s just the kind of guy he was, and you’ll see it written on sheet music.

2.) Norman Granz made sure she had the best arrangers of the day in the studio with her — the people that made the biggest hits with Sinatra, Nat King Cole and Bing Crosby. The arrangements range from large, lush orchestras to swinging big bands to cool and smooth small jazz combos. They frame Ella’s voice perfectly and Ella is a chameleon who can take on any style.

The collection includes eight albums. Most have more than one disc. They all start with “Ella Fitzgerald Sings …” and the titles are —

… the Cole Porter Songbook (1956)
… the Rodgers & Hart Songbook (1956)
… the Duke Ellington Songbook (1957) (Duke Ellington & Billy Strayhorn)
… the Irving Berlin Songbook (1958)
… the George and Ira Gershwin Songbook (1959)
… the Harold Arlen Songbook (1961)
… the Jerome Kern Songbook (1963)
… the Johnny Mercer Songbook (1964)

And there was one later addition that Granz convinced Ella to record for another label (Pablo Records in 1981 that was not “American” — but many of the songs are standards that are included on GAS albums:

… the Antonio Carlos Jobim Songbook (Portuguese title: Ella Abraça Jobim) (1981) Jobim was a Brasilian songwriter and performer who brought his Bossa Nova stylings to the mainstream. He wrote for and even recorded with Sinatra and his songs have been covered by all the stars of the GAS.

Verve reissued the eight albums in 1994 in a boxed set and won the 1995 Grammy for Best Historical Recording.

When I say these recordings are great learning tools, I am not saying that you have to learn to write these types of songs.

What I am saying is that you can learn what can be done … and learn tricks used by the greatest songwriters of the 20th century. Most of the techniques of songwriting — even the songs at the top of the charts today — are old. Maybe more than a century old. They come from roots in other countries as well as the USA.

And of course these are not the only examples that you should pay attention to. There are many great songs that have been written through history.

But if you really love music and you really love songwriting, you won’t view these songs as some drudgery like school homework. You will greedily consume them and keep returning to them whenever you feel the need for inspiration.

But I urge you — pay attention to the music. Pay attention to the lyrics. Learn from these songs.

And like consuming good food, these will nourish your talent and make you into a powerful songwriter.

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The best way to learn to be a great songwriter is to study the past masters. And my personal pathway to songwriting (like most of my generation) was through John Lennon and Paul McCartney.

You may scoff and scorn them as ancient history, outdated and irrelevant to today’s dance-groove-oriented scene. But most of what you hear today is derived from those two revolutionary Liverpool lads 50 years ago.

Although the Beatles’ songs are simple in most cases, they contain some amazing complications that make the songs rise above the ordinary pop songs of their day (or later days). Part of that was using more than the ordinary chords — like diminished chords, sus4 chords and that delicious 6th chord that ends “She Loves You.”

Another of their wonderful techniques was the innovation of the bridge (or as they called it, “The Middle Eight”). They worked hard on getting some novel twist for the bridge but never making it sound out-of-place and bringing it back to the song naturally rather than forcing it.

My example today is not one of their hit singles, but an intelligent and creative uptempo song by John Lennon. “You’re Going To Lose That Girl” was featured in the movie “Help!” and is on the soundtrack album.

This is a “call and response” song with Lennon singing the lead and Harrison and McCartney repeating his phrases back to him. It is yet another of their twists on the standard “I love you” songs. To break out of the rut, Lennon & McCartney ingeniously engineered “She Loves You” and then the opposite in “You’re Gonna Lose That Girl” (the way everyone sings it, although the formal spelling is the official title).

The chord structure is also a common variation favored by L&M. The 4-bar refrain starts out with I-vi-ii7-V7 instead of the usual I-vi-IV-V7 progression.

The Beatles play this in the key of E. I will use the key of C since that is where I sing it and it simplifies the chords used.

In the key of C, the refrain is C-Am-Dm7-G7.

The song quickly moves into the first verse and lends some interesting variation with a I-iii7-ii7-V7 progression (C-Em7-Dm7-G7).

Following a standard pattern of singing two verses they then turn in to the bridge — and this is where the artistry shines through.

Ending the first verse, the Dm7 resolved to the G7. But when the second verse transitions to the bridge the Dm7 leads to Bb — and now we are in another key.

We are now in Eb and following a pretty standard I-IV-I progression — Eb-Ab-Eb — but being in different key, it sounds exotic. The same phrase is repeated in this “Middle Eight” leading to the transition back to the key of C. The second time through, the chords are Eb-Ab-Db (Notice the circle of 4ths) and the Db is simply a half-step above the original key of C, so the vocals sustain on the Db and glide down to the C to pick up the last verse.

There is an instrumental with the same chords as the verse in the key of C and then they go back to the bridge one more time which resolves into the last verse (repeat of verse 3) in C.

The Beatles were always good about having an introduction and an ending to their songs instead of fading out or just stopping cold. In this case, they go through the transition to the bridge, but change it.

When the Dm7 leads to the Bb, they hold it an extra measure, then follow it to the IV (F) and end on the C for a clean 1 measure ending.

Overall this is a text-book perfect example of creative songwriting. They fulfill the listener’s expectation yet add a couple of fresh elements to make it rise above the standard pop song. And it only takes two minutes and twenty seconds!

And of course, it has John, Paul, and George harmonies. Nobody could beat that.

Listen through the song and perhaps look at the guitar tabs to follow along when they change keys and do their other magic.

Respect your elders, study the masters, and become the best songwriter you can be with inspirations like The Beatles.

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It is important for today’s songwriter to get away from the concept of being an employee.

To many, the dream is to write a hit song and make money from it. The traditional route involves working for a music publisher who pays a salary and takes at least half of the earnings.

Or it involves working for an organization that supports recording artists by providing them songs for recordings and live concerts.

But those days are long gone.

Today the music business has evolved because of the digital revolution.

Profits used to come from selling a tangible object — sheet music, discs or tapes.

Now there is no physical object involved. The music is a series of electrons. Profits come from performance royalties, and the royalties are miniscule compared to what they were 30 to 50 years ago.

Because the profits are smaller the opportunities are fewer. Big organizations consolidate most of the business and earn most of the money.

The dream of being discovered, of your merit being recognized and rewarded by somebody with a lot of money is remote. Actually it is very, very rare that this happens in today’s music world.

But not all is lost — if you have the right mind-set.

This is the golden age of Do-It-Yourself (DIY).

You can be your own record label, your own music publisher, your own TV/Radio station thanks to the very same digital revolution that put an end to the old ways.

It is easier and cheaper to record a high-quality song than ever before. Gone are the days of recording studios packed with expensive gear. Now we have the same — or better — capabilities with home computers and even telephones.

The big record labels have been replaced by YouTube and specialized websites like SoundCloud and Band Camp and Reverb Nation.

And best of all — you can make music directly from the consumer instead of having “the middle-men” take the majority of the money and giving you a small percentage.

The key to everything is what’s called “Tribal Marketing.”

You carve our your territory — your niche — and build your fan base. This is your Tribe. This is your cult. They will reward you for your creativity.

You can DIY with your mailing list, people who are specifically interested in what you do. You can reach them directly or you can use a service like Patreon to distribute what you do.

You not only can sell them your music, you can interact real-time with them in a way that traditional concerts cannot. And you don’t have to tour the world — you can do it via the World Wide Web.

If you get out of the employee mindset and take charge of the DIY mindset, this is the best time in history to be a music creator.

If you don’t do it yourself, nobody else is going to do it for you.

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Many musicians and songwriters still believe that they can strike it rich by becoming a recording artist.

It has never been easy — and seldom lucrative — to be a star. In the top 40 era (1950s through 1980s) most artists who had a major recording deal went broke in a big way. Recording and songwriting royalties were swallowed by the record companies and music publishers. The artists were even paying the record companies the majority of their live performance money since those companies paid for the touring expenses (and charged huge interest on the “loans”).

Creative bookkeeping more often favored the companies than the artists — even the Beatles. Their first recording/publishing deal was a giant rip-off.

Yet even today, people have stars in their eyes about having a hit song.

Here’s the reality — you need to get your song played 1,000,000 times on Spotify to make $3,000. And only a handful of songs ever reach that. And those songs are all “Producer” songs — the artists are just puppets.

Winners of competition shows (American Idol, The Voice, Star Search, etc) have signed outrageous contracts to get into that system and their future career is basically indentured servitude.

The people making money today are doing their own live performance and tour bookings and are licensing their music themselves.

The glamor has faded — but it was always just a mirage.

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Dory Previn died on Valentine’s day.  She was 86.

Known mostly for her work on songs for the movies, she also had some success in the pop field with records released in the 70s.  She and her first husband, André Previn, were nominated several times for an Academy Award but never won.

Her six records were recorded after her divorce from Previn, her most successful being a live album.

Dory Previn

Dory Previn

Her songs were intelligent and insightful and most dealt with her personal life, which was a fertile field.  Her abusive father was gassed in WWI and suffered severe mood swings which resulted in violent behavior.  He deteriorated to the point where he boarded his family up in their home and held them at gunpoint for several months.

She broke into show business as Read more on Dory Previn — 1925 to 2012…

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Congratulations to Corey Stewart — he’s in 7th Heaven because he signed a publishing deal with a music publishing company.

His conclusion — “Persistance does pay off in the end.”

If you’re not acquainted with Corey and his various web sites, I think a good place to start would be his home page. Of course, he’s also on MySpace.

Along the way you can sign up for his free report on how to beat writer’s block.


TAGS: Songwriter, publishing, songwriting, Corey Stewart

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John Lennon was asked, “What do you write songs about?”

And he answered, “Whatever annoys you.”  (From what I’ve read, John probably used a stronger word than “annoy.”)

I recommend checking in on Corey Stewart Songwriting Tips regularly.  A recent posting there says, “To be a songwriter you need to have the mindset of one. Always be on the lookout for an idea.

You can check out some methods of determining the subject of your next song, and how to always have a “next song.”




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