Interview with
John Wallowitch

by Jonathan Frank

I'm not sure when I first heard one of John Wallowitch's songs and fell in love with his music. It could have been Karen Akers' recording of "I See The World Through Your Eyes." Or perhaps Shirley Horn singing "Come a Little Closer." Personally, I think I fell hardest upon hearing Blossom Dearie singing his camp classic "Bruce" which tells the saga of a poor, misguided, fashion impaired drag queen. The discovery that John, who has won both the MAC and the Bistro Award for Composer of the Year, is also an accomplished performer was icing on the torte. It is always a treat to talk to John, and I had the pleasure of chatting with him recently as he prepared for his first solo show in many years, which opened July 7th at The Firebird Café in New York City.

Jonathan:  Welcome to Talkin' Broadway! I wish I could see you do your show at the Firebird this month. How long is it running?

John:  It's going to be at The Firebird Café every Saturday during the month of July at 9:00pm.

JF:  I assume you're accompanying yourself for the show?

JW: Yes. It's just me, the piano, my words, my music and my voice. I'm a quadruple threat! (Laughs)

JF: Are you going to be introducing any new songs?

My Manhattan
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"This Moment"
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JW:  Yes. Some of the songs aren't exactly new, but it will be the first time that I will be performing them. I'm doing "The Summer When I Was 17", "Manhattan Blue, " which has never been done, "Intimate Nights," which is also the title of a book by James Gavin about the Golden Age of Cabaret. I'm doing "Songs From Manhattan," which I wrote after my songbook, Songs From Manhattan, came out; I didn't have a title song in there so I wrote one. I'm also doing a song called "At Last I'm Here," which is about coming back to New York after being out in Hollywood for a while and going "Damn! This is where I belong!" I'm also introducing a song called "June Allyson" and "Millicent's Triumph."

JF:  Ooh ... I almost forgot about your Millicent Saga! I love those songs! What's this chapter about?

JW:  It's about Millicent finally getting pregnant at the age of 85 or so. I hate to spoil the denouement, but she does give birth and it's not Rosemary's Baby either ... it's two happy, healthy twins!

JF:  Have you thought about compiling the complete Millicent Saga onto a CD or a show?

JW:  Do I have enough? Let's see ... I have "Cosmetic Surgery," "Binky's Ascension" ... There must be other ones ... right now I'm dizzy from going through all this material trying to decide what I'm going to do for my show. Everybody wants to hear my standards, "This Moment," "Come a Little Closer," "I'm 27" and "Bruce," so I have to do those songs. I'm also doing a tribute to Judy Garland. I wrote two numbers that she was going to record, "Play Melancholy Baby" and "Discover Who I Am," along with a separate song called, "Liza," which I wrote some years ago.

JF:  When was Judy going to record your songs?

JW: Her recording session was scheduled for three days after she died, unfortunately. I'm not sure if it was going to be for an album, exactly, or it was going to be singles ... it was 1969, kid, and I wasn't even born then!

JF:  You grew up in New York, right?

JW: No. South Philadelphia.

JF:  Really? With all your New York songs I pegged you for being born and bred in the heart of Manhattan!

JW:  No. I'm from the home of Mario Lanza, Joey Bishop, Fabian ... all those Italian people ... and Bill Cosby! So I'm from a very musical place.

JF: When did you move to New York then?

JW:  I came here to go to the Juilliard School of Music.

JF:  That was for classical piano, right?

JW: Yes. I went for eight years. Made my concert debut and toured for the State Department ...

JF:  When you toured with the State Department, was it for various armed forces bases?

JW: No, darling, concert halls all over Europe, playing Liszt, Stravinsky, Chopin, Charles Ives, etc., etc.

JF:  So was classical piano your first love then?

JW:  Yes. The way I really got to Europe was that I was playing for Ethel Barrymore Colt. I was accompanying her for shows she did around the country and when I made my concert debut, the State Department said, "Wallowitch got great notices. We can send him to accompany Ethel in Europe and he can do his own concerts as well." Ethel was very instrumental in my life. She was a wonderful, sensitive performer with incredible musicianship and was very knowledgeable about music.

JF:  What kind of show did the two of you do?

JW: She did a retrospective of American Musical Comedy from The Black Crook to the present. She even did songs from before The Black Crook, actually, some early Colonial songs. It was a wonderful show.

JF: How long did you tour with her?

JW:  Off and on we worked together for a period of over twenty years.

JF:  How long have you been writing songs? Did you start before you went to Juilliard?

JW:  Yes. I wrote my first song when I was seven. It was called "Waiting on Passyunk Bridge." It had to do with suicide ... about how I'm going to jump and kill myself because she doesn't love me!

JF:  Such a precocious child! Were you a singer/songwriter when you went to Juilliard or did that come about later?

JW: No. I really devoted myself to playing piano when I was at Juilliard. I had a scholarship, but supported myself by playing for dance classes to keep myself alive. But I eventually discovered I could make more by coaching singers. I suddenly had these people who were doing very well under my tutelage, and it opened the floodgate of my songs being written and performed. At the time I was into all this serious piano music and was taken very seriously as well. I got great reviews in Europe and here in the states, but after I made my concert debut, I realized I could do all these other things ... I had proven myself in Europe and never did another concert since then.

JF: Did you ever do any recordings of your playing classical music?

JW: Not really, no. I have a tape of my debut in New York at Carnegie Hall which is quite spectacular.

JF: How old were you when you did that?

JW:  613 years old! I forget, actually.

JF: One of your songs, "Come a Little Closer," is included in one of my favorite albums, Shirley Horn's Here's To Life.

JW: Isn't that great? It's such a beautiful album. I love performers who seem to melt into the words so that they become one with them and deliver that to an audience. That's what my darling Shirley Horn does. By the way, Label M is releasing a Morgana King retrospective album, which has two songs of mine that she recorded in 1969. They were originally recorded on Reprise. Tony Scibetta wrote the music and I wrote the words, and they are called "What's Wrong With Me?" and "Softly, Say Goodbye," which was the first collaboration between Tony and myself.

JF: Who was the first person to record one of your songs?

JW:  That's a good question ... it's funny, but I'm having a hard time thinking of it. I know the first person to sing one in New York was Charles DeForest ... the pianist/singer ... who sang a song called "There's a Ghost in My Room." I was at the piano bar where he was singing it and I started crying; I was so moved I had to go to the sidewalk and sob! I couldn't stand it! It was so beautiful. You can see where my mind is ... songs about suicide and "The Ghost in My Room!" (Laughs)

The commercial recording, I guess, would be a symphonic piece called "Sonata For a Windy Day." That was not a song, but it was a piece in sonata form that sounded like a movie score which would have been played as background music for an Audrey Hepburn/Cary Grant kind of thing ... very bouncy, very 'city,' very Gershwin-y. It was orchestrated by the great Nathaniel Shilkret and he conducted a thirty-three piece orchestra for it. What a thrill that was!

The first song that got professionally recorded by a top singer had to be when Julius Larosa did a song called "Say Hello For Me" that I wrote with Tony Scibetta. Tony wrote a wonderful song with Johnny Mercer called "How Do You Say Auf Wiedersehen?" He showed me the melody and I said "I want to write the lyrics to it!" To which he replied, "Well, Johnny Mercer had asked for a melody so I sent it to him," and I said "Bitch!" (Laughs) And then when the lyric came back from Johnny Mercer, I was in such awe; it was so beautiful ... Tony has been dead now ten years and I still can't believe it. He was a marvelous composer.

JF:  Did you write a lot of songs with him?

JW: A few hundred.

JF:  He wrote the music and you wrote the lyrics on all of them?

JW:  Yes. Even today I'm doing some songs where I'm writing just the lyrics. It keeps me very much alive to write with people who write differently than I do. I have to love their music, however, otherwise I won't do it. I've been writing a show for David Coury in Los Angeles; he's writing the music and I'm writing the words and providing book ideas. And then, of course, I write with Gary Schocker here in New York, as you know since you recorded one of our songs, "Sleeping in the Arms of Love." I've written at least fifty songs with him now.

JF:  When you work with other writers, does the music come first?

JW:  Yes. I have to have the music first.

JF:  Have you written musicals in the past, or is the one you're working on with David Coury your first?

JW:  I have one called Big Charlotte, which is a gloss on the Bette Davis film Now Voyager. I have another called The Pure at Heart, which I wrote with Gil Gardner, which is a Victorian melodrama ... the heroine tied to the railroad tracks ... that sort of thing. I have a musical called Summer House which I wrote with Stuart Bishop, who died in April, which made me very sad. We wrote it years ago. It's a giant overview of America from 1900 to 1969 ... basically to the moon landing. I wrote the music and lyrics for that one and I'm very proud of it.

JF:  Where have they been performed?

JW:  Big Charlotte was done at La Mama. Sweet Mistress, which I wrote the music with lyrics and book by the brilliant Ira Wallach, was done by the Germantown Theatre in Memphis. Ira was a wonderful writer ... he wrote a movie called Hot Millions which starred Maggie Smith and Peter Ustinov and it is a divine movie. I also wrote another musical with Ira called At The Sign of the Queen, based on an Anatole France novel, which I think is stunning. My musicals with Ira border on the operatic ... they are in that funny middle place. Not operatic like, say, how Andrew Lloyd Webber writes but more akin to if Jerome Kern had the notion to compose operatically.

JF: You've written, what, over 1,000 songs?

JW:  I have ... yes.

JF: But only a handful are published, in the one little book Songs from Manhattan ... we need another book, John!

JW:  That 'little book' has twenty songs, Jonathan!

JF: I wish I was going to be in New York to see your show, John ... I've never seen you perform on stage!

JW: It's going to be interesting! I've been very nervous! There's so much that I want to include, but I can't do it all. I'm just hoping people show up to see me! I haven't done a solo show in so long ... once [my partner] Bertram and I got those great reviews doing our shows together in 1984, it became almost impossible to go out as a single performer ... the two of us were booked too much together.

I just ran my show for Bertram, who's my severest critic because he knows what's right for me. I did an hour and ten minutes worth of songs for him today, and he loved it. I pray for Bertram's return to good health so we can return to working together ... he's such a superb performer. The two of us have an album called Wallowitch and Ross which is going to be released sometime between Fall and Christmas. It's being produced by Kitty Skrobela on the Miranda Music label. It is funny and sad, hysterical and crazed. Bertram sings his classic version of Irving Berlin's "Cohen Owes Me $97" and I do "The Pussy Cat Song" by Murray Grand as Bette Davis doing early Baby Jane! I do another song of his called "Up Yours" as Mabel Mercer and Mrs. Miller combined. My other records are on DRG: Back On The Town, My Manhattan and Dixie Carter Sings John Wallowitch Live at the Carlyle.

JF:  How is Wallowitch and Ross: This Moment, the documentary on the two of you, doing?

JW: It's doing well! It's been very well received.

JF: When was it filmed?

JW: It was filmed in 1998 and premiered at the Palm Springs Film Festival in 1999. Incidentally, the next concert that Dixie and I are going to do together is going to be in Palm Springs at the end of January. It's going to be January 31st at Muriel's Supper Club.

JF:  What is the documentary about?

JW: It's about Bertram and me and our career performing together, his career as a dancer for Martha Graham, mine as a writer and performer ... basically our life stories.

JF:  How long have you two been together?

JW: In January it will be 34 years ... even though I'm only twenty-seven! (laughs)

JF: I heard that Wallowitch and Ross: This Moment was on the short list for an Oscar nomination ...

JW:  Yes it was.

JF:  You live right around the corner from where Irving Berlin lived, and I have heard that every year you do a tribute to him, correct?

JW: Yes. Every Christmas Eve I get a group together to sing in front of his place. We've been doing it for years and years. In 1983 he invited us in and said it was the nicest Christmas present he ever got! Somehow it got out and newswires picked it up! It was wonderful for him, since it got his name out again. People had forgotten him ... It was a wonderful experience. We still go every year and the people who currently are there, the Luxembourg delegates, invite us in to sing in what used to be his library.

JF:  Is it safe to say that Irving Berlin is your favorite songwriter then?

JW:  I think so. Of course I adore so many songwriters. I was recently at a party for Cy Coleman, who I just love and think is highly underrated. He's such a wonderful writer! And people seem to forget that he's such an artist ... "You Fascinate Me So," City of Angels, "Witchcraft ... " Somebody really has to do a retrospective of him and Carolyn Leigh ... .they both are so brilliant! Of course, I love Cole Porter. I admire, more than love, Stephen Sondheim. And I love Jerry Herman! Also underrated ...

JF: Are you still doing your show on Public Access in New York?

JW: I am. I've been doing it since October 1980.

JF: I haven't seen it. What is the format?

JW:  I walk on, I think of a song and I sing it! I used to do call-in requests, but I don't any more. I do have guests on the show, so next time you're in town you'll have to come on! It's every other Monday at 11pm on Channel 56 in Manhattan. The tapes of the show are in the Rodgers and Hammerstein archives in the Lincoln Center Library. I'm a New York institution!

JF: You're a landmark!

JW: Just don't call me legendary! Legendary always means 'old!' At least that's what my pal Blossom Dearie says ...

Well ... that's my story, sweetie!

JF: Well, give my best to Bertram and I wish you all the best on your opening night!

JW: Thanks! My nerves! (Laughs!)

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