This piece is about an extraordinary man who perhaps literally,
in the words of one of my sources, wrote the last page of the Great American
Songbook. Composer and lyricist Lew Spence passed away on January 9th of 2008.
This brief piece about Lew took a lot of time to get up the courage to write,
and a lot of tears in the writing. It's my sincere hope that you'll enjoy it.
Ladies and Gentlemen, we have a special surprise for you this evening.
Earlier today, our esteemed vocalist showed me her set list and I noticed
she'd written in "Nice 'N Easy." Now, that's a song a gentleman named Frank
Sinatra took awfully seriously, so she's got big shoes to fill. I have
right now on a telephone hook-up from Beverly
Hills the fine gentleman who wrote that song with the team of Alan and
Marilyn Bergman. Lou, can you hear me?
Oh, yes. (Slight squeal of feedback is adjusted.)
Lew, do you want to say a few words about how "Nice 'N Easy" got into
Oh, I don't know. He didn't like it much, at first. Tossed it in
the garbage. But Hank Sanicola, he was Sinatra's music man, he came back to
us for copy after copy. Sanicola would slip it under Sinatra's office door,
and Sinatra would trash it. Well, we kept making copies. You know, in those
days, you either had to keep writing it out by hand, which was what we did,
or get a photostat or a plate made and have it printed on paper. But that
was very expensive. Finally Sinatra heard Nelson Riddle futzing around
with it and he was hooked. He really liked the part Nelson arranged into it
that puts the rest after the word "stops," you know, the part that goes
"stops...along the way." Sinatra, as you know, was so taken by it he titled
the album after it.
Well, Lew, we're gonna let you hear our little songbird sing it with a
nice combo. If you'd hold the line for just a moment...
(Interrupts EMCEE) Tell her to swing it.
Okay, Lew, swing it we will. Ladies and Gentlemen, Ms. Ethel Lee sings
"Nice 'N Easy." Take it away, everyone...
(VOCALIST SINGS SONG)
Well, what do you think?
Oh, she did a lovely job. A great job.
Well, thanks for the anecdote, Lew, and I hope you and...
(Interrupts EMCEE again) Say, Paul, when're you going to
Oh, Lew, you know that song's outta my range.
Paul, I'm glad you said that so I didn't have to. (Audience
Laughter) Thanks, and good evening. It's been a pleasure.
Friendly, erudite, polite to a fault, a great raconteur, self-taught
musician, composer and lyricist. Lew Spence was all of this and more. I had the
pleasure of making his acquaintance via the internet, where we sent tid-bits (he
jokes; me musical questions and jokes) back and forth. We talked on the
telephone once in a while. Sadly, I only had the pleasure of his company in
Each year Spence would make a pilgrimage to New York to catch up with old
friends, and for a man over eighty years old by the time I got to meet him, he
was usually exhausted from the whirlwind of activities, mostly parties and
cabaret performances, that his close friends planned for him. The fact that he
spent as much time writing and talking with a "youngster" like myself was an
honor; but he was like that and was delighted that someone from my generation
had such admiration for the songs of his day, and how they're arranged and
Lew Spence was born on June 29, 1920 in the hamlet of Cedarhurst, on New
York's Long Island. There's a lack of data about his childhood, which he
described as quite happy and musical. He did, however, take an interest in music
at an early age. His mother played piano by ear, and there was also plenty of
sheet music around the house. He organized a nine-piece band by the time he was
in his teens. Most amazing, Spence had very little formal musical training.
Asthma forced a move to Arizona. Lucky for Lew, there was also a shortage of
pianists, so even during the Depression he found work. He
played with small bands and then got a gig at the Santa Rita hotel. The manager,
after hearing him sing the lyrics to some of the popular songs of the day that
he'd play, demanded that he sing and play the piano. That was the beginning of
his show-business career. His early material was the stuff just coming out on
sheet music; songs performed by the great crooners like Bing Crosby and Perry
Como. Later he'd embrace the stylizations of Johnny Mercer, Harold Arlen
and the likes.
He put his first real "act" together with a Depression-era songstress who was
down on her luck due to her heavy drinking (he'd never reveal her name, he was
too polite for that). They ended up playing a club called the Maisonette Room in
New York City in the late 1940s. He didn't like the act; so he packed up and
decided to try his luck in California.
Spence's first job was playing piano and singing at the famous "The Little
Club" in Beverly Hills. The club's mentioned on record by Frank Sinatra and
Sammy Davis, Jr. in their recording of their Vegas performance of the song "Me
and My Shadow" by Dave Dreyer, Billie Rose and Al Jolson.
Lew Spence didn't seriously compose music until he was in his 30s. His first
song was entitled "About That Girl." In fact, a lot of Spence's early songs were
about girls because he was girl-crazy. He was encouraged to submit the song to a
publisher, and it was recorded by a little-known singer within 24 hours. A
composer named Bob Russell ("Do Nothin' 'Till You Hear From Me," "Don't Get
Around Much Anymore") heard "About That Girl," and liked it. They collaborated
on a number of tunes and that was the start of his composing career.
The Right People At The Right Time
A woman named Marilyn Keith approached him with a lyric she wanted him to put
music to. It ended up that Peggy Lee recorded their collaboration, "That's Him
Over There." A fellow named Alan Bergman was a composer and told Spence he could
write better lyrics, so they collaborated. Lew Spence ended up introducing
Marilyn Keith to Alan Bergman, and the three began a collaboration which lasted
for eight years, during which Allan married Marilyn.
The Bergmans are most famous for their collaborations with composer Michel
LeGrand, and have worked with Johnny Mandel, Marvin Hamlisch and many
others. Marilyn is a past president of ASCAP, and Allan has been
on the board of directors of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
Allan Bergman and Spence collaborated on "That Face," recorded by Fred
Astaire in 1959 and sung on his television program "Another Evening with Fred
Astaire." The song was a hit and charted well. Since then, the song has been
covered by many vocalists, both male and female. The most famous contemporary
version is arguably Streisand's.
It certainly didn't hurt Spence to collaborate with the two rising stars of
the music industry. They wrote "Nice 'N Easy" in 1959 and it finally made it
onto record (with no less than Frank Sinatra singing and Nelson Riddle
arranging). The song was nominated for a Grammy for best song, as well as the album for best album and
a technical Grammy. The album hit number one on the 1960 charts, the song coming in at 60; still in the top 100.
Some have commented that around this time singer Perry Como was doing very
well with his smooth, very easy-going style. Sinatra emulated Como not only in
singing style, but the album's cover photograph shows a relaxed Sinatra, sans
signature hat, wearing a cardigan. Como's signature outfit was a cardigan.
"He Should Have Had A Bigger Career Than He Did"
When being interviewed in Hollywood for Spence's obituary, Marilyn Bergman
said, "He was a very talented composer. He should have had a bigger career than
he did." What Marilyn Bergman didn't know was that Spence, especially in his
later years, rejected offers to do movie music, calling most of it "schlock."
Further, Spence was just as happy playing piano for Los Angeles-area singers,
mostly female, and often singing himself. He delighted in playing the old tunes
from the '20s and '30s in a cabaret style. No, jazz improvisation wasn't quite
Lew Spence's cup of tea. Spence was all about the Great American Songbook
delivered unvarnished but with technical excellence. That's called Cabaret.
He was never pushy or imposing songs on the many stars he knew and who knew
him. "He was very gentle and kind and perhaps didn't have the killer instinct
needed to really get out there and flog his songs," cabaret giant Michael
Feinstein said. "He was always gently offering his songs to singers."
Lew Spence was 60 before he started putting lyrics to his own tunes. He made
some great music in a bright, inimitable style that some called dated. Once
again, that's a matter of taste.
Spence's Oeuvre includes "Half as Lovely (Twice as True)," "If I Had Three
Wishes," "Love Looks So Well on You," "Sleep Warm" and "So Long My Love." Dean
Martin used the Spence tune "Sleep Warm" as the title track for one of his
Beside those already mentioned, Spence tunes were recorded by Tony Bennett,
Bobby Short, Dinah Shore, Nat King Cole, Bing Crosby, and Billy
Eckstine to mention a few. And those in the cabaret business, particularly
female vocalists, who knew of Spence's music usually included one of his songs
on a recording or two. Rosemary Clooney and Johnny Mathis also included
Spence tunes on their recordings.
"Lew and The Night And The Music"
A play on the name of another classic American Standard ("You and the
Night and the Music') by Arthur Schwartz, Spence put together a cabaret revue of
his songs, and other favorites. It played very successfully in the Hollywood
area. I never found out if Lew had, before I met him in his later years, taken
the review to the cabarets of New York, but I'm certain if it did play there it
got a great reception.
Lew was given an opportunity to collaborate with famed songwriter Burton
Lane in the 1980s. Sadly, Lane passed away long before the project's
completion. Spence and I spoke once about Burton Lane and almost in the same
breath mentioned Lane's delightful, evocative tune "Moments Like This." Spence
liked an earlier version. I sent him Tony Bennett's version from the 1986
Columbia album "The Art of Excellence." He loved it. Never one to speak
bitterly, and rarely talking of regrets, he did consider losing Burton in the
middle of their collaboration one of his "bad breaks."
I'd not spoken to Lew for awhile. It was after his usual trip to New York in
the autumn that I decided to email him a fabulous, ribald joke that had to do
with music. He responded, although he'd just gotten through with some surgery,
about which I didn't know. Ever gracious, he assured me he was in no discomfort.
That was my last communication with him.
New Year's Eve came and went, and then I was checking my email and received a
plea for help from a relative of his. He'd apparently been found by either a
housekeeper or a relative. His astute friends had the thoughtfulness to go to
his computer and send an email to every single person on his extensive email
list, telling of his death, asking us to pass the news along to any of his older
friends who might not have been as computer-literate as Lew had become.
The Friday after I received that email, the buzz was already all over the
world of "our kind" of music, and interviews were being taken by newspapers like
the Times of both Los Angeles and New York, and the Boston Globe, about his
life. That night there were jazz musicians playing in my restaurant, as usual,
and I announced Lew's passing at the beginning of the show. During the first
break, one of the musicians asked if I had a chart for "Nice 'N Easy." Of course
I did. I had one written in Lew's own hand, which he'd kindly transposed to my
key. As I was photocopying the music, the musician asked if I'd like to sing it
with them. I sat down, tore up the copies and said "no, no. It's not in my
range" (even though I had the music in my key right in my hand). I started
crying and waved the man out of my office, where I remained, poking at my
computer to try and find one of Lew's emails full of jokes to cheer me up. The band started playing "I'll be
"Nice 'N Easy: Song of the Week #86" by Mark Steyn, Steyn Online,
January 28, 2008 (Google
Cache) (Accessed March 3, 2008)
"Lew Spence, a Songwriter for Sinatra, Dies at 87" by Peter Keepnews, The
New York Times, January 22, 2008
http://www.nytimes.com/2008/01/22/arts/22spence.html (Accessed March 3,
"Lew Spence, 87; Composed Songs Sung by Frank Sinatra, Fred Astaire" by
Dennis McLellan, The Los Angeles Times, January 20, 2008
(Accessed March 3, 2008)
"Lew Spence" Info.net Big Bands Database Plus
March 3, 2008)
"An Interview With Songwriter Lew Spence" by Donna Abraham, Cabaret West,
March 12, 2001
http://www.cabaretwest.org/d_lewspence.html (Accessed March 3, 2008)
Website of Allan and Marilyn Bergman: "Collaborations"
http://www.alanandmarilynbergman.com/collaborations.htm (Accessed March 4,
(Accessed March 4, 2008)
The experience of the author with Mr. Spence.