ADVENTURES IN THE WORLD OF SHEET MUSIC

A recent article by Billy Joel’s music director David Rosenthal made me stop and take notice. He was saying that Joel’s songs in sheet music format have been wrong for years and he is finally correcting them.

For many years and for several companies, I was one of the people who prepared music in many formats for publication in sheet music form – arranging, proofreading and making sure corrections were made. I assure you that I was not the person who prepared Billy Joel’s sheet music, but certain of Rosenthal’s statements brought up many memories. Although I am now known as a composer, arranger, conductor, writer and teacher, I am still active in publishing, but no longer preparing pop songs. I am senior editor at Jazz Lines Publications, where we correct and publish vintage big band, combo and orchestral materials.

There are few of us active as publication editors from the period of Billy Joel’s hits at this point. Steven Rosenhaus went on to get his Doctorate and juggles a teaching career at NYU and a busy life as a commissioned composer. Donald Sosin became one of the leading accompanists for silent movies around the world. Don Sickler formed Second Floor Music and manages the compositions of a number of important composers; his wife Maureen owns the Rudy Van Gelder Studio.

Like being on the music staff at a motion picture studio, a print publishing company was a great way to learn and do a lot of diverse things while making a few bucks. While companies such as Alfred and Hal Leonard are still publishing anything from Piano/Vocal sheets, music books, arrangements for ensembles, textbooks, lead sheet books and much more, the scene is very different from when I was a part of that world. In order to more fully understand why Billy Joel’s music is finally being cleaned up at this juncture in time, it is important to describe to the reader what this part of show business is all about.

Printed music has been with us since the 1400’s, mostly religious music; songs were printed much later and by the mid-19th century, song sheets were a thriving business. A sheet had the melody and words on one stave and a piano accompaniment on two staves, usually with the melody incorporated into the arrangement. Publishing companies had regular staff members and free-lancers preparing these arrangements which were then engraved. Metal plates were utilized, prepared by skilled craftspeople using punches to make noteheads. Once the song was engraved, a proof was generated (by the early 20th century, music proofs were printed using green ink). Corrections were made by filling in the wrong spots and re-punching the right music or lyric into the metal.

By the mid-1920’s, the popularity of the ukulele now caused publishers to add chord frames, so that if you didn’t know how a chord was played, you simply put your fingers on the instrument following the diagram. They often did not accurately represent the harmony of the piano arrangement (Ethan Iverson has recently posted examples of sheet music of various standards to show this and other issues necessary to learn these songs). Uke frames were used for a few years until guitar frames became the norm. There were literally hundreds of small publishers throughout the U.S., and hundreds of songs were published every year; looking at a collection of sheet music at the New York Public Library is instructive to see how many songs came out that went absolutely nowhere. In addition, various arrangements of these songs were available. In the early 1900’s, such combinations as mandolin and guitar, mandolin and piano, mandolin, guitar and piano, piano four hands, piano six hands, military band, small and full orchestra, etc., etc. were arranged, engraved and published. Think about how many people it took to get all of this music out there; obviously there was a lot of work in the music business then.

Many legendary names got their start with music publishers. Robert Russell Bennett and Hans Spialek later became orchestrators for Broadway shows and prepared medleys of Broadway scores for piano and various ensembles. Frank Skinner (later the most important composer of film scores at Universal), Lyle ‘Spud’ Murphy, Jack Mason, Paul Weirick and many more wrote generic arrangements for dance band which were called ‘stock’ arrangements, because they were ‘stocked’ in music stores. They were arranged so that they could be played by both small and large bands, and even bands led by Fletcher Henderson and other popular bandleaders used them and/or modified them. Murphy told me that arrangers of stocks were signed to contracts to provide arrangements of the songs just as songwriters were, and the parts were hand-copied overnight so that they could be quickly published and distributed to any and all bands well-known or local. He told me they were ‘proofread’ by walking the music over to a band rehearsing at a studio or a hotel ballroom and getting the group to play it down (I am still finding the errors that were never caught all these years later).

A publisher wanted to get as many versions of a song out to get the song in the public’s ears before some new song became popular. What many people do not know is that even when recordings entered the home, the arbiter of a song’s success was still sheet music sales. Even during the big band era, songs were given to any and all artists or groups to get the most performances via any possible method, whether it was live performance, radio broadcast, or public and radio-only recordings which would spur sales of printed music. The song-plugger would lure the potential performer with various ‘incentives:’ co-composer credit, tickets to sporting events or Broadway shows, willing sexual participants and the like.

Records were not supposed to be played on the air due to licensing issues, and some considered it unfair competition since they had radio shows of their own. Fred Waring had one of the most popular radio shows on the air for many years, and when he realized that small radio stations were using his records as fake broadcasts of the real thing, he simply stopped recording. By 1950, the legalities were straightened out, and the DJ became a local star. Sheet music sales were supplanted by record sales by that point, and publishers now courted the DJs as well as performers. Later on of course, the Payola scandal made the public aware that some record executives were paying off DJs to get their records more exposure on air and hence generate more potential sales.

Also by the mid-50s, more and more music was being arranged and published for school use. Concert bands, choral arrangements, and easy orchestra versions of songs were cranked out as quickly as possible. Student musicians of my generation might well remember names such as John Warrington (or Johnny Warrington if he arranged something for big band). Warrington had an office in mid-town New York, where he wrote a conductor guide and a full set of parts for each arrangement he wrote. It was said that he would write two arrangements a day in this manner.

Steve Rosenhaus and I were both students at Queens College (City University), and in 1977, he asked me if I wanted to do some proofreading for a publisher where he was getting work. The publisher was Warner Bros. Publications, and I was soon working there as well. By that time, music was engraved on a Musicwriter, in effect a music typewriter (even today with programs such as Finale and Sibelius, most of us still call this engraving). The person running the editing department was Anthony Esposito, an arranger/conductor who’d had many professional credits. He was a street kid from Bath Beach in Brooklyn, who would take on the executives who thought that anyone working at WB couldn’t get any music work elsewhere. It took about two years to train as an editor in a publishing company – my work was reviewed thoroughly, and when I would miss something, Tony would either laugh hysterically or get really pissed off (“How could you miss this? It’s right in front of your f***** face!!!).

At the time, there was a pop division (sheet music of pop songs, either individual songs or folios that matched released albums) and an educational division (concert bands, marching bands, choral arrangements, big bands, easy piano, easy guitar). In February of 1979, I was hired full time as an editor of educational and standard music, which meant that I frequently used the music of Gershwin, Porter, Harry Warren, Jimmy Van Heusen and many others in various projects. I would also frequently work with new and vintage film music and Broadway shows.

In one of the dumbest moves that the print company ever made, the Warner Music bigwigs sold the school educational publication division to Hal Leonard Corporation, insisting that their editors knew more about educational music than we did. The pop and standard division became one unit. We created a market for string quartets of pop songs, and we soon introduced wind quintets. I compiled volumes of rare Gershwin sheet music and made many corrections. I still get e-mails about a Looney Tunes compilation I put together that had songs featured in the cartoons. I wrote arrangements for every conceivable solo and ensemble combination, and co-produced and conducted promotional recordings. In a pinch, I also arranged single sheets.

Before the mid-1960’s, sheet music was usually prepared from a professionally prepared lead sheet, which had the melody, chord names and lyrics. Sometimes these came directly from the writers themselves, or were prepared by someone on staff at a movie studio if a song was in a movie. Even though the copyright law was revised in the seventies and a recording was acceptable to copyright a song (today you can send a MIDI file), publishers still wanted lead sheets to send out to professionals before the sheet music became available. A generic arrangement was then prepared, engraved and sold.

In fact, the more prestigious composers such as Gershwin and Porter had sheet music approval, meaning that they examined the arrangements and made changes. One of the most respected arrangers of sheet music for many years was a musician’s musician who was born in Hungary, Dr. Albert Sirmay, who prepared the music often in direct consultation with the composers. Most other songwriters had various levels of involvement with sheet music, from writing the Piano/Vocal arrangements themselves, or not being asked to see them at all.

Several important changes took place after the Beatles became popular. Now many songs were identified with either a group or artist, and more and more, sheet music became ‘off-the-record’ which meant that the piano arrangement was a reduction of the recorded performance. Several composers disliked this intensely because they didn’t want their songs being performed only one way, but the public wanted the hit version to play or sing. A song like “Yesterday” was played and sung by many artists in many different styles anyway. A popular subject among arrangers for many years was what song you arranged the most times.

One unforgettable example of sheet music vs. a performance was the song “I Will Always Love You,” written by Dolly Parton to explain to Porter Wagoner why she was leaving his television show. It was a big hit in the country field when it was written. I have no idea how Whitney Houston, her musical director, or someone involved in the production of the motion picture “The Bodyguard” found it, but Whitney sang it in the movie. It was clear that it was a hit, and sheet music was needed to be available quickly. Someone found the original sheet, prepared a cover using “The Bodyguard” artwork, and WB shipped the sheet out to distributors. Soon we heard about very angry purchasers who brought the sheet home and hit the ceiling since they wanted the “Houston” version, with every single vocal melisma, etc. indicated. An arranger prepared it, it was engraved, proofed, corrected and shipped out VERY quickly, selling millions of copies and providing the ‘script’ for perhaps thousands of singers who sang this version exactly on school stages, clubs, piano bars ad infinitum. Actually, I’m sorry I didn’t get a copy of the Parton version with the Houston cover; it may be going for top dollar in the collector’s market.

By the time I entered the publishing world, many artists had sheet music approval. Although for some groups it was a minor issue (In the words of one rock artist who still didn’t have his head together at 4:00 in the afternoon, “What the f**k is sheet music??”), some like Bob Dylan took his printed music very seriously; he had a musical director who sent us Dylan’s latest album and personally went through every arrangement we prepared. Prince, Michael Jackson, and Burt Bacharach were others who took their printed music seriously. Chick Corea was very clear about what he wanted, and discussions about notation were spirited but always positive.

As a result, I got to work with many of my heroes, and some became friends. I was at the right place at the right time, and happily, many professionals were more than pleased that their music was treated with tender loving care. It was a blast to send a recording of a piece to Neal Hefti that he wrote for Buddy Rich and thought the band didn’t play. Working with Nelson Riddle editing his arranging book was a thank you to a man who inspired me when I was young and looking for direction. John Williams let it be known that he loved an arrangement I wrote of his “Liberty Fanfare,” and wanted more of his music available in different instrumentations. Speaking with Henry Mancini about “The Thorn Birds Suite” as he reviewed my edited score for the music rental division gave me another opportunity to tell a great musician how much his music meant to me. Not every experience was positive; one very well known songwriter was snorting as he dictated changes he wanted. One very well-known jazz star went on a screaming tirade because one note was wrong in an arrangement that was sent for approval. Another legendary songwriter called me into an office to throw his coffee cup out.

So if David Rosenthal is saying that there are missing bars in Billy Joel’s sheet music, various possible issues come up immediately for me. One wonders what was given to the sheet arrangers beyond a recording; were there lead sheets prepared for these songs? It is clear that the sheets were not prepared very carefully if there were note errors, and it is also clear that Joel probably did not see the sheets, let alone have arranging approval. It is a sad fact that printed music can have errors in print for years and not be fixed; what it particularly disturbing to me is that Joel’s songs have sold copies in high numbers and used in folios, and it is only now that these things are being corrected. Did the users simply not notice? No one complained that these sheets were flat-out wrong? What about the arrangers who wrote the concert band, marching band, and big band arrangements of these songs; none of them said anything about these mistakes? I know that we will never really know how this mess was created and aloud to be perpetuated for years, but as someone who did this for many years, I can only wonder how it happened in the first place, and how it took years for someone to finally fix this music.

Maybe people who performed these songs didn’t buy the sheets; many people learn songs directly from recordings. At one time, a night at a piano bar would include at least two or three of Joel’s songs, and I’m sure many of these people simply transcribed them. Then there are the instances of someone playing a song incorrectly and other musicians learning the song from that recording; one of the most famous is Miles Davis’ version of “When Lights are Low.” In the words of Bill Kirchner, “when Miles first recorded the tune in 1953, he omitted Benny's harmonically hip bridge (which Miles probably didn't know) and instead took the A section up a fourth and made that the bridge.” There are those who defended what Miles did, but Benny Carter told people privately that he was not happy.

Despite all of this, I am happy for Billy Joel that his music is finally being given the respect it deserves; as I tell my students, it’s never too late to get it right! I well remember when Gordon Lightfoot spoke to me about a note error in the melody of one his songs that he wanted fixed after many years of it being wrong, and the sigh of relief when I told him that I would not only correct it, but would send a memo to the copyright division and the printer that the corrected version be used in future. He told me it took him several phone calls from California to New York to finally find someone who knew what he was talking about. I told him that it was an honor to work on his music. I’m sure that David Rosenthal is similarly honored to fix Billy Joel’s life work.