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Andrew Melzer: The Art of Song and the Song of Life

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Every known civilisation partakes in music, though definitions of what that music is might vary wildly. Even more contentious is whether music arose simultaneously with language or after it. No matter which side of the debate you might lean towards it’s likely that almost everyone will agree that since the dawn of popular music – be it Singspiel and Opéra comique, Opéra seria or opus [first used to describe composition in which poetry, dance, and music are combined, in 1639] – most of us would agree that the best popular music has endured because of its songfulness.

That is to say: music with a pleasing melody, enriched by harmony, and propelled by danceable rhythm. It’s the reason why music has endured for a very long time – such as the arias of the kings of opera such as Verdi and Rossini, the moguls of lieder such as Schubert and Mahler, the songs of the great writers such as Johnny Mandel, Harold Arlen, Carole King and Gerry Goffin, and Neil Diamond and others such as Simon and Garfunkel, John Lennon and Paul McCartney, or Lerner and Lowe, George and Ira Gershwin and Alec Wilder [names that come easily to mind].

 In 1972, Alec Wilder published a definitive book – American Popular Song. This came from a place of considerable pedagogy and deep analysis. It was written with wit and flair, but also contained bold opinions on what – and what did not – constitute the art of songfulness. This book, together with Gene Lees Singers & The Song have – or ought to become – essential working manuals that young songwriters, singers and even critics must consult on the topic of the art of song. Of course, like Mr Wilder, Jerome Kern, Carole King and others, some songwriters are to the manor born. And they are well-known.

Andrew Melzer as a 4-year old in Budapest

Others – not so well known today – certainly deserve to be. Andrew Melzer is one of those songwriters. Mr Melzer as a young man left Hungary with his parents shortly after the student uprising in 1956, finally in Canada via Austria in 1957. Making Toronto their home Mr Melzer began to chart a course as a Canadian music student in early 1958. “My parents bought me a violin and sent me to Remenyi Music for lessons,” he told me. “[Later they] switched me to Jack Montague at the Royal Conservatory. Jack suggested that I enter the Kiwanis Music Festival competitions,” Mr Melzer reminisces.  It was a happy, fruitful time for him.

Mr Melzer had already come to Canada with a strong foundation in musical studies. “As a child, I wanted to be a conductor. They [his parents] had a piano teacher come by when I was four and he thought I was too undisciplined because I was experimenting. I called it improvising, but he suggested that we should wait until I was older. My parents took me to [another] teacher again and did some tests with me. I was accepted, but had to go to a solfeggio and theory class for a year before they would let me learn an instrument,” Mr Melzer said. The Hungarian-born Canadian has lived as a Canadian since coming to this country via Austria – in 1957, his family making Toronto their home ever since.

The year 1958 proved to be a pivotal one for Mr Melzer. Not only did he win two third prizes at the Kiwanis Music Festival but his performances caught the eye of Irene Hajdu, who was – herself – a pupil of the great Jenő Hubay, the celebrated Hungarian composer, violinist and pedagogue, among whose pupils were Eugene Ormandy, Eugene Lehner and several famous women violinists including Stefi Geyer and Ilona Fehér. Miss Hajdu was convinced that he had a prodigious gift for music and Mr Melzer switched teachers and began to come under her sway.

Andrew Melzer on the Ken Soble Amateur Hour CHCH TV 1960

“I stayed with Irene until she retired in 1966,” Mr Melzer told me. “She was a fantastic teacher and inspired me to learn,” he continued. He knew he had made the right decision for his virtuosity grew along with the breadth of his knowledge. It began to pay off almost immediately and in 1959 he won the first prize at Kiwanis, as well as two third prizes in other parts of the competition. His prize winning ways continued and today his mantelpiece also retains the first prizes he won in 1965 and 1966, and four more second prizes and two third prizes from those years as well. Although he did try out for the National Youth Orchestra, sadly, he didn’t get in.

However, by the year 1966, Mr Melzer had already been writing songs for several years and honing his compositional skills with the guidance of Dr Samuel Dolin from the Royal Conservatory. His demos were also doing the rounds of labels and other venues. “What a year 1966 was,” Mr Melzer enthused. “I produced the [pianist] Norm Amadio Trio and [vocalist] Tommy Ambrose. I was still a student at the conservatory, entering the Kiwanis Festivals when I could, and taking in as much jazz as well,” He said. “Then I met Oscar Peterson and played him my recordings. He encouraged me to continue writing and producing. He also introduced me to his lawyer and this is how I came to incorporate my music publishing entities.

“But I was only 20, so my dad had to be the first president of the company until I reached 21 the next year,” Mr Melzer remembered. “The floodgates opened. I recorded Bobby Gimbys song, “Canada” with musicians from Yorkville. It made some noise in RPM, the country’s trade magazine at the time. Then Stitch in Tyme, the Yorkville group, which was founded in 1968, broke up. I went with two of the musicians to Nova Scotia a year after and we formed Soma, for whom I played electric violin and percussion. I was writing a lot – co-writing with a couple of the musicians. We were very successful in the Maritimes, but by the end of 1969 we broke up over artistic disputes and I returned to Toronto,” Mr Melzer remembered.

Andrew Melzer in a promotional photograph for the 1970 film Rip Off

Between the years 1970 and 1976 Mr Melzer’s professional career made an incredible leap, both in terms of the amount of work he was doing – writing songs and producing records – as well as in the breadth of activity he was engaged in. “A friend who worked in film approached me and asked if I would like to audition with the director Don Shebib for a coming of age movie, Rip Off,” he recalled with laughter. “I got the part and they sent me to do a crash course in acting. You should know that when I was fourteen, I had already studied [acting] with Dora Mavor Moore and I had been on stage in 1966 and 1967. But Rip Off was an important step for me.

“I became friends with the film’s star, Don Scardino. I remember that he played and sang some of his songs for me on the set. One of the songs – “Hey, Hey What a Beautiful Day” – stuck out. I borrowed money to record Don and – lo and behold – we had a hit in 1971. I also got together with Pinky Dauvin [Stitch in Tyme and Lighthouse] and recorded another hit, “Tell Me Who”. Pinky and I would go on to record for several years. We made another hit, “Downtown Feeling”, and I Joey Iaci and I made “You’ve Got Me Going”. With Moira Connelly, I made “Live My Life”, Mr Melzer said proudly adding that the songs were still playing on some digital platforms even today,” Mr Melzer enthused.

Seduced by jazz and yearning to experience the music in the Mecca of Jazz, Mr Melzer had already been several times to New York City as a teenager. “When I was fifteen, I first saw and met Thelonious Monk at the Five Spot,” Mr Melzer recalled. “I watched him perform several times thereafter. Of course, like everyone who listened to him, I was mesmerised by his harmonic and rhythmic conception. I kept going back to listen to him every time I was in New York City – at the Five Spot and the Village Vanguard. I’d also been up and down from Toronto to New York between 1961 and 1975, I loved it there and decided to take the plunge and relocate there sort of semi-permanently in 1976.

Clap overdubs in Hollywood 1977. From left to right Al Ciner, Earl Palmer, Ray Brown, Dianne Brooks and Andrew Melzer

“But I began to get a bit restless. So when friends from Los Angeles started calling me to come over, I gave in. It was there that I made important connections that helped me in my career over the next few decades [and ever since]. One of the most enduring friendships was with Scatman Crothers. We met when he was filming Silver Streak and he told me: ‘This is where you need to be.’ I took him at his word and, boy, am I glad I did! Within months I got to arrange and produce a dance album. By October of 1977 I was in the studio, Scatman and a dream cast of characters that included the legendary bassist Ray Brown, pianist Mike Melvoin, vocalist Dianne Brooks – more about her later – reeds player Tommy Newsom, trumpeters Snooky Young, Oscar Brashear, drummer Ralph Humphrey and the great multi-instrumentalist, Victor Feldman.

“That became the album Groovin’ with… Scatman which you just reviewed. This was perhaps my most productive period. When the Scatman album was recorded, I did one with Dianne Brooks. I was writing furiously and many of the songs we later recorded on an album called Norm Amadio and Friends [Panda Digital, 2010], for which Peter Cardinali did the arrangements. But going back a bit… during the 80s and 90s I was making a good living and taking care of my family. I suddenly found myself centre-stage in the LA scene. I was writing and making demos but unfortunately no masters or releases. It was a frustrating time – great creatively, but not so great commercially.

“Getting back to the Diane Brooks album – From the Heart & Soul… This is one of the highlights of my career. Apart from the fact that Dianne was a miraculous human being, I managed to get some real heavyweights on the music scene in those days – Don Grusin played keyboards on three tracks, the Brasilian drummer Claudio Slon played on one; bassist Paul Stallworth was on that session. And I had the great Doug Riley playing on three tracks which we recorded at George’s Spaghetti House with Tom Szczesniak on bass with Bob McLaren on drums.

Andrew Melzer [with back to camera] listening to playback of harmony overdubs Hollywood 1977. From left to right Clydie King, Dianne Brooks and Grace Cosgrove

“So in 1995 I started my own company and began to make CDs for artists, independent record labels and studios. Four years later I incorporated my production company Panda Digital and signed The Hot Club of San Francisco. We recorded the album Veronica at the famous Coast Recorders in San Francisco and it turned out to be quite successful. We released a second album two years later. The Christmas song “Happiest Time of the Year” and released four versions of the song. It was one of the best moments of my time in the studio. I managed to get Bobby Rodriguez, Alex Acuña, Abraham Laboriel among others were great players to play on it. We became friends too. Alan Paul of Manhattan Transfer did wonderful vocal arrangements and took a beautiful solo on one track as did Darlene Koldenhoven. Sadly, the project went nowhere, Mr Melzer said rather wistfully.

He cheered up once again when he talked about his move back to Canada, which he called “a hoot.” “By 2004, my wife and I were discussing selling the house and moving,” he said. “By the end of that year, we decided to move to Canada. Actually, [my wife] Karin was moving, I was returning. I flew up to look around GTA and the Niagara area. Then I flew to Prince Edward Island and found this dream home. It’s the home we’re still living in today. What an epic journey that move was. I hired a trucking company with a 53-foot truck, packed our entire house along with Karin’s VW Beetle and trucked the load all the way across the continent of North America [from LA] to PEI, with the truck returning empty from PEI to LA.

Andrew Melzer and his wife Karin, December 2017

I guess it would have appeared that I was sort of semi-retiring, but that turned out not to be the case. In 2009, I got a FACTOR grant to produce Norm Amadio And Friends. This turned out to be a set of fantastic sessions. Peter Cardinali wrote fabulous charts and John “Beetle” Bailey did a superb job recording and mixing the album. I was blessed to have had singers Jackie Richardson, Marc Jordan and players: Norm Amadio, Rosemary Galloway, Terry Clarke, Guido Basso, Phil Dwyer, Reg Schwager, Mat Pataki. Some of those songs are still getting airplay today. And I’ve also released another recording I did with Norm and the trio: After Hours 1966.

Between 2015 and 2019, I got 5 American Songwriting Awards nominations for my songs from that album : These were ‘My Love Can’t Wait’, ‘Out Of The Cool’, ‘She Smiled’, ’Round The Bend’, ‘Lower Chakra Love’ and two more other songs ‘Scoot On Over To Scat’s’ [from the Groovin’ with Scatman album], and ‘Music For Madeleine’.”

“Life’s been good to me I have a wonderful extended family now. But… once a musician, always a musician…” Mr Melzer mused. “More than a decade ago, I started writing and composing Island Wedding: The Musical. I was able to get some grants to demo all the 28 songs in it. This is definitely at the top of my list of projects to take to fruition. I want to get it on stage and made into a as a three-part limited series for streaming. My second wish is to develop a sitcom. Then I’ll kick back and work at fulfilling my third wish…” “What’s that?” I asked him. “I am going to travel the world with my wife,” he said dreamily, as if the journey had already begun. So… Fare thee well Andrew Melzer… fare thee well, fair voyager…

Based in Canada, Raul is a poet, musician and accomplished critic whose profound analysis is reinforced by his deep understanding of music, technically as well as historically.

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1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. karin melzer

    October 21, 2021 at 12:51 pm

    Such an awesome interview sweetheart!!

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