Meeting a Music Icon

Harvey Rachlin • CommentaryJune 2023 • June 12, 2023

If you could meet your favorite composers from all of history who would they be? I have no doubt some of you would whip up an eclectic and amazing list of music luminaries that span many centuries.  My list would be heavy with classical and popular music composers and at the top would be Mozart, Beethoven, Rossini, Stephen Foster, Debussy, Tchaikovsky, Scott Joplin, John Philip Sousa, Irving Berlin, and Richard Rodgers. This has long been my dream list and while I never expected anything more to come of this than having made such a list, life can be full of the unexpected and sometimes dreams can come true.

Just a couple years out of college in the 1970s, I was pounding the pavement in New York City as a budding music journalist and newly minted author with my first book, The Songwriter’s Handbook, recently published. I hankered to meet great tunesmiths–really, anyone who would talk to me–and I was fortunate to live in the New York City area where many great composers lived. Mozart, Beethoven, Rossini, Foster, Debussy, Tchaikovsky, Joplin, and Sousa were all long gone of course, but Berlin and Rodgers were very much still around.  

Irving Berlin was a legend in his lifetime. With songs like “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” “Puttin’ On the Ritz,” “Blue Skies,” “What’ll I Do,” God Bless America,” “White Christmas,” and all those marvelous tunes from his hit show Annie Get Your Gun, Berlin had already earned a seat in the pantheon of iconic music creators. 

I tried every which way to meet Mr. Berlin, whose primary residence was in Manhattan. I went to his office at 1290 Avenue of the America. I wrote a letter to the Academy Award-winning songwriter at his upstate New York home and received this response from his assistant Hilda Schneider: “Thank you for your nice letter to Mr. Berlin which was forwarded here from Livingston Manor. Mr. Berlin receives so many requests for autographs, letters, manuscripts, etc. it is just not possible for him to comply with them, much as he would like to. I hope you will understand.” That was it. What more could I do?   

Years later, immediately after going to ASCAP’s 100th all-star-studded birthday party for Mr. Berlin at Carnegie Hall, which he didn’t attend, I even went so far as going to his Beekman Place townhouse just after 11 PM to see if I could catch a glimpse of him. Fortuitously at that moment an aide was entering his home and while I feared she might call the police on me I thought this was my big chance to introduce myself to the celebrated tunesmith so I summoned up the nerve to ask her if I could speak with Mr. Berlin. She ignored my impertinence and quickly closed the door in my face. 

With my youthful persistence (and admitted brashness) I was often lucky enough to meet or interview many music luminaries, but I failed with Irving Berlin, whose acquaintance I really wanted to make. My demoralization was somewhat assuaged not long after when a friend at ASCAP told me how Paul McCartney once requested either George Gershwin or Irving Berlin to come to a birthday celebration for him and the word around the office was even though Gershwin had died several decades earlier there was a better chance of getting him to come than Irving Berlin.

There was one other living composer whom I revered: Richard Rodgers. Having been a fan of musical theater, the music of Richard Rodgers was to me like a galaxy of stellar songs. Whether he wrote with Hart or Hammerstein, his tunes were paradigms of catchiness and excellence. Shows like Pal Joey, Oklahoma, Carousel, South Pacific, The King and I and The Sound of Music were world-famous, but his work really hit home with me when I entered 10th grade and played a sparkling arrangement of his “Isn’t It Romantic?” with my high school concert band in our first rehearsal of the academic year. With a level of musicianship I had never experienced before, music really came alive for me that day and I’ll never forget the feeling I had playing the tune. I glimpsed the composer’s name—Richard Rodgers–on the printed music and thanked him in my mind for writing such a great piece. Never could I have dreamed one day I would not only meet him but he would praise my own work.

Trying to make it as a music journalist and composer after college was no easy endeavor for me and with endless days of frustration and despair, I pondered what other career I could go into. It came to a point where a writing or music career seemed hopeless, and I thought many times I should just give up. However, and it’s a long story that I won’t go into here, I managed to get a manuscript I wrote on songwriting published by a major publisher. My editor asked me if I could get endorsements from some notable music people that might help bring attention to the book, and being young and naive I went after the most celebrated composers I could find. These were the days before the Internet so in looking for ways to find these tunesmiths I had to resort to an old-fashioned source: the telephone book. And what do you know? In the Manhattan white pages was the number for the Rodgers and Hammerstein office.

I called Mr. Rodgers’ office and got through to his amiable assistant, Rita Chambers. She was kind enough to let me have my publisher mail a bound galley of my forthcoming book to Mr. Rodgers to review and what happened after that was for me better than winning the lottery: Richard Rodgers—Richard Rodgers!–sent in a blurb for the back cover of the book. I had been down and out, ready to give up, but I can tell you if getting a book published wasn’t amazing enough getting words of praise from the venerable RR was really a dream come true for me. 

When The Songwriter’s Handbook was published, I asked Ms. Chambers if I could bring a copy of Mr. Rodgers’s autobiography, Musical Stages, to his office and have him sign it for me. She said that would be fine and we set up a time for me to come by. “Oh,” I added before we got off, hoping I could add another treasured possession to my life, “Could I bring a photographer so I could take a picture with him?” “Is this for a commercial or private purpose?” she asked. I contemplated the question for a moment and not knowing how to answer but instinctively thinking the first choice was the safer one I thought that is what I should go with. It was a response I would regret to this very day. “Commercial,” I said.

“Oh, Mr. Rodgers doesn’t take pictures for commercial purposes.” I scrunched my face tightly and turned as red as a beet. I wanted to say “No, I meant for private purposes,” but I was afraid she wouldn’t believe me and would cancel our meeting altogether. “Thank you,” I said, and hung up.

On the appointed day I went to the Rodgers and Hammerstein offices at 598 Madison Avenue. I waited in the reception room for a short time and soon was ushered into Mr. Rodgers’ large office. He was seated by a baby grand piano, and I sat in a chair across from him. He was ill at the time and although speaking was obviously difficult, he was as nice as could be. 

I was completely humbled and had to hold myself back from crying. It was all surreal to be sitting across from this icon, whose name I would often see lit up on the silver screen. But there I was, one-on-one, just Richard Rodgers and me, sitting alone in his office. I remembered reading how some of the biggest stars in show business could not get a meeting or audition with him in earlier years, but here I was with him. I was in such a state of disbelief that to be honest I don’t remember what either of us said but I probably told him how much his work meant to me and thanked him for kindly writing a blurb for my book. Seeing how much of a strain it was for him to talk and knowing how busy he must be, after about 20 minutes I stood up and expressed my appreciation to him for meeting with me.

When I walked out of 598 Madison Avenue that bright autumn morning, I looked up at the sky and pinched myself. “Wow,” I said under my breath. “I just met a piece of history!”

Over the years I’ve imparted lessons from that unforgettable experience to my students: if you want a career in music, whether it be as a musician, composer, conductor, or anything else, think big, be passionate about it, be persistent, have a tough hide, and never give up. I had been on the threshold of packing it in but with my persistence and refusal to give up in my twenties, I learned anything is possible when a wonderful dream came true for me.

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