Cabaret

Interview with
Bob Grimes

by Jonathan Frank

One of the unsung heroes of cabaret has to be Bob Grimes, who lives in San Francisco. He's not a singer or a writer or even a director, but has had an amazing impact on cabaret nonetheless. His services as a historian and provider of music have been utilized by just about every major and minor performer in cabaret. If you need an obscure song by any writer or on any subject, Bob's number is the first you call. His collection of music and tapes spans the golden years of the Great American Songbook and he has been highly instrumental in keeping works from that era alive and accessible. Bob has been recognized in articles published all over the world and with a gala performance entitled Almost A Celebrity. Next year he will be honored at The Plush Room with a tribute to celebrate his 80th birthday.

Jonathan: Welcome to Talkin' Broadway, Bob!

Bob: Thanks, Jonathan.

JF: First things first. Just how many pieces of music do you have, anyway?

BG: I think around 32,000. I used to keep a list, just because people kept asking me that.

JF: Wow! I always had you pegged at 10,000 or so ...

BG: Oh no, it's much more than that! And I keep getting more and more. One day Peter Mintun called and asked, "What are you going to do this afternoon?" I said, "I'm going to a concert." He replied," Afterwards, go to this address on Judah Street. This lady's father died and he was a musician and had lots of music." So I went, thinking I would find maybe twenty or thirty songs. But down in the basement were cartons and cartons ... I still haven't finished cataloging what I got from her, and I am also working on getting all my songs cataloged on the computer; I have stacks of music that I haven't catalogued yet.

JF: How do you have you collection organized?

BG: All the stuff in this hall is by composer or who is on the cover ... usually the singer. For instance, I have all the music with Ruth Etting on the cover in one drawer, which worked out great because when Andrea Marcovicci put together her Ruth Etting show, I had it all in one place. That was the most fun show to help work on. She said she wanted everything I had on Ruth Etting ... so I sent her 250 songs! (Laughs) She nearly died! But she said she was glad she got them, because she found things she never would have known otherwise.

I hardly have time to catalogue anyway ... I'm trying to get my book finished. I started it about a million years ago. [Goes and gets a mock up copy]. That's how I want it to look. That volume is Film Songs of the 1930s.

JF: Oh wow. So you're going to have a picture of the sheet music cover ...

BG: Right. It's going to list all the cover variations, who performed it, if it was in a movie or show ... I'm 90% done with it now. I have to finish typing it all up.

JF: Do you have a publisher?

BG: I did a million years ago when I started! But they backed out because it has been taking me longer than I thought it would. They also thought it was going to be too expensive to produce. But it's actually a good thing; I've now seen all the movies from that period so it's more complete. No one has ever dared to attempt this before ...

JF: Nobody has probably ever had all the resources to do it either.

BG: Well, there are people who have as much sheet music as I do, but they haven't sat and watched all the movies. I've watched them over and over, because you keep picking up these little snippets of songs that are in the background. It would actually be a great resource to put on the Internet ...

Bob Grimes and Jonathan
Bob and Jonathan

JF: So how did you get started collecting sheet music, Bob?

BG: When I was young, I started collecting movie star photographs. Have I ever shown you my collection?

JF: No! That's another new thing I've learned about you today ...

BG: [goes and brings a candy box full of movie star pictures] You used to be able to get pictures of celebrities from the studios by writing penny postcards. Paramount always charged a dime, which I couldn't afford too often. I used to go out and sell old books and coat hangers and bottles to get money to buy movie star photos. One day ... it was the first day of school and I had a dollar to spend on school supplies. I was in a store and saw a piece of sheet music with a movie star's picture on it. I always liked the song, which was "All My Life," so I bought it ... I didn't know it would start an obsession that would last all my life! (Laughs)

JF: What movie is it from?

BG: It's from Laughing Irish Eyes with Phil Regan. I bought that and a few more. When Mother found out, she gave me hell and told me never to do it again. She hated my collection of photographs ... everybody did. She didn't know what 'gay' was, but figured it was something like that. My brothers were all athletic, and here I am collecting! And I still am. And everybody thought I was an idiot for collecting music since I can't play an instrument or sing. The answer that I finally came up with is that people who collect stamps and coins don't write letters with them or spend them. But they are considered legitimate hobbies while collecting sheet music is lunacy.

But now it's a legitimate hobby, and I think I've helped make it so, since I've been written up in the paper quite a bit for my collection. Plus, now I am sending out music all over the world. I have a jazz pianist in Sweden whom I have sent several thousand songs to. You just can't find this music out there any more. Paula West has had songs of mine in every show of hers ... and Wesla Whitfield gets songs from me ... and yourself. Andrea is the one who sort of discovered me. It's funny; she sends more people to me and yet I always hear her say she wants to keep me to herself!

JF: Well, with thirty some odd thousand songs, I'm sure that there are still plenty of gems to be found by her ... or me, for that matter!

You were in the service, right?

BG: Yes. I was in the army. I was stationed in Reno for about two years, and constantly went to a store called Mariner Music. Mrs. Mariner bought everything but never sold anything but the big hits. So for years I was buying all these songs that are now real rarities ... like a Shirley Temple song, "Someday You Will Find Your Bluebird," from the film The Bluebird.

After I was in the service I went to New York, since everybody told me they had lots of junk shops there. I remember I spent three days there and ended up buying a stack of sheet music about three or four inches high! I ended up shipping my suitcases back and carrying the music in my arms all the way home. I found all this rare stuff that I never saw turn up anywhere else afterwards ... like "Who's The Beau of the Belle of New York" from Little Old New York with Alice Faye that recently sold for $300. Now, I don't collect music to ever sell it but it's nice to know what it's worth; it makes me feel like I haven't wasted my time and life! Unfortunately all the people in the family who hated my collecting are dead now, so they never got to see that my collection ever amounted to anything or all the publicity I've been getting for it.

JF: What song do you have the most copies of?

BG: That would be "I Can't Give You Anything But Love." I have at least five or six of those. The first copy was from The Blackbirds of 1928, then Stormy Weather, The Secret Heart, Born Yesterday, and So This Is Paris. I don't know why they didn't publish it with a Bringing Up Baby cover, since that was Baby's song.

JF: What draws you to a piece of sheet music or a song?

BG: It's the lyrics. I always thought that they wrote the lyrics first, because the melody expresses the lyrics so well ... it never dawned on me that the melody generally gets written first and then the lyricists takes over.

JF: Who's your favorite lyricist?

BG: Oh, definitely Lorenz Hart. My favorite lyric is "I may be sad at times and disinclined to play/but it's not bad at times to go your own sweet way."

JF: What song is that from?

BG: "Nobody's Heart." I also love, "You have what I lack myself, and now I even have to scratch my back myself." That's brilliant! I like the wittier lyrics, and Hart is so wonderful with those. And I do love Johnny Mercer. The first time I got written up in a paper was in the mid-60s. I was asked for my favorite song, and I mentioned Johnny Mercer's "I Walk With Music." Someone said I should send a copy of the article to Johnny Mercer. So I wrote to him and asked if I could make it my song, and he wrote back a note that said, "Until we have the proper sheet music, this is your song."

JF: Did you ever meet him?

BG: No. But he said if he ever came up here I could show him around town, which scared me to death! Me? Go out with Johnny Mercer?!?

JF: Have you met any songwriters?

BG: No. I met the widow of Walter Jurman [who wrote the music for "San Francisco" with Bronislaw Kaper] when we worked on changing the official song of the San Francisco; now that is something that I am very proud of. One night I told one of the DJs in town, Fred Gerner, that he should have a radio poll to see about changing San Francisco's official song from "I Left My Heart In San Francisco" to the more appropriate "San Francisco." So he tried it and Dianne Feinstein, who was a friend of his wife and on the board of supervisors at the time, said that if "San Francisco" won the radio poll she would bring it up for a vote. "San Francisco" won, and she didn't do anything.

About ten years later, I was playing a tape of songs about San Francisco for Warren Hinkle and I mentioned about always wanting to change the song. He was writing for the San Francisco Chronicle at the time and he said, "Let's do it!" I mentioned that Dianne would never permit it, and he said, "Oh, we'll do it!" I didn't realize at the time that they loathed each other. I later heard that she poured a drink on his head at a meeting once. (laughs) So this was in October/November, and the following March Warren called me to tell me that the Chronicle was interested in getting the song changed, but he didn't know how to go about doing it. I mentioned that Earthquake Day was coming up [April 18th], so on April 18th he started pushing for it in the paper and everybody just loved it! Tony Bennett was up here and he just stayed out of it.

We had this huge party at City Hall, which the Chronicle reported at 5,000 people but the Examiner claimed was only 2,500. And it just kept getting bigger and bigger. Finally, it was decided that the issue should get wrapped up quickly because it was getting picked up in the papers and the administration was looking pretty silly. It was like an old English movie. Finally, Dianne asked if we could have a second song ... she knew her song had lost. So "I Left My Heart ... " is the official ballad and "San Francisco" is the official song!

JF: When did this happen?

BG: 1984. It was finally resolved in April after going on for a month.

JF: What's your favorite musical?

BG: My favorite stage musical is The Day Before Spring, Lerner and Loewe's first hit. It has a gorgeous score, only five or six songs of which have been recorded on the Ben Bagely Lerner and Loewe Revisited album. My favorite movie musical is The Fleet's In; it has the best score of all! "Arthur Murray Taught Me Dancing In A Hurry," "Tangerine," I Remember You ... " Johnny Mercer and Victor Schertzinger ... nobody remembers him. But he was terrific and wrote lots of great scores.

JF: If somebody could just take a look around your apartment and see all these CDs, scores, and copies of sheet music ...

BG: Here's a funny story ... one day I was at the cable car stop and met a couple from New York. We got to talking and it turned out their son, Michael Strunsky, was the trustee for the Ira Gershwin Trust. They invited me to dinner, so I made up copies of some rare Gershwin covers to give to them. Lucy was very frank and said, "Well, I don't care anything about this, so I'll give them to my son." Michael and his wife, Jean, went mad over them. So they framed them and put them up on a wall at the Trust and call it the Bob Grimes wall. There's a whole wall of sheet music, and they got about 50 from me ... I'm so proud!

I also helped the Yip Harburg Foundation. John Lahr, Bert's son, is going to do a book on Yip Harburg and they want to get all the sheet music and all the covers for it. While they had quite a few of his songs, they were missing some of the rarer numbers and some of the covers. They didn't have a cover for "Lydia The Tattooed Lady" or "April In Paris."

JF: Well, I would think that your contribution to music is secure, Bob.

BG: Oh - before we go, I would like to mention something that is near and dear to my heart. There is a wonderful book out there called This Was Your Hit Parade, which I think is a bible for the Great American Songbook. It's by John W. Williams and it lists all of the songs that were on the radio show Your Hit Parade every week from April 20, 1935 through June 7, 1958. It's a wonderful reference as it tells you the songs, the singers, even the orchestrators. It doesn't mention the writers, but people can contact me for that information and how to order the book. It's a great way to see what was popular back then. My e-mail address is walkmusic@earthlink.net

JF: Well, thanks for a delightful interview and for all the music you've provided me over the years.

BG: My pleasure, Jonathan!


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