Title: “When a Man Loves a Walnut”
I’ve missed ya!
I hope this finds all of you well and looking forward to a great Summer!
I’ll skip the usual melodrama and tell you that my book, “ICONS, IDOLS and IDIOTS,” is 65% written and moving steadily towards completion.
I’m at the keyboard several hours every day and recalling so many events and dear friends and colleagues is proving to be a very nostalgic and emotional experience.
I can’t tell you how much your responses encouraging me to finish the damn thing have inspired my efforts.
I just hope you readers will find it interesting and get a chuckle or two out of my various (mis) adventures over six decades in show business.
In the meantime, I ran across a memory that I have to share with you.
I have a wonderfully brilliant editor in New York who is an enormous help in putting together “3 eyes” as she calls the book.
One day she e-mails me and asks if I’m certain I have enough tales about “idiots” to justify the title.
I sit down and make a list, and determine that I have more than enough idiots to go around.
You can’t be in show business for six decades and not run into plenty of mental midgets… some of whom even run TV networks and record labels.
I can’t resist telling you about one such character whose denseness was a kind of idiocy. It still makes me laugh all these years later.
It happens in 1969, when David Somerville and I leave the Four Preps to start performing as Belland and Somerville (clever name don’cha think?).
We’re immediately signed by William Morris, the prestigious booking agency and soon we’re off and running.
Not to brag - aw hell, to brag a little - David and I are equally adept at straight singing and comedy, and within a couple of months, B & S are the opening Act for artists like Johnny Mathis, Glen Campbell, Rowan and Martin, Dionne Warwick, Brazill ’66 and Henry Mancini who jokingly refers to us as “The Righteous Smothers.”
Soon we’re performing at venues like Caesar’s Palace, The Sands, The Coconut Grove, Tanglewood and The Seattle Opera House.
Henry Mancini and me backstage at Tanglewood in 1970.
His inscription reads, “To Brucie, 'fellow genius!' Hank” (his “genius” quip refers to a running joke between the two of us).
When we open for Mathis or Mancini, we emphasize our comedy, some of which is highly political and increasingly anti the war in Vietnam.
If we open for Rowan and Martin, we sing the hell out of some dynamic, show off vocal selections, recap our hits from the 50’s groups we fronted and then throw in just a little comedy.
We make our TV debut on the Tonight Show, which is quickly followed by The Johnny Cash show from the legendary Ryman Auditorium, home of the Grand Ol’ Opry in Nashville.
By the end of our first six months we have appeared on 33 network and syndicated TV shows like Merv Griffin, Joey Bishop, Della Reese, Playboy After Dark and Steve Allen.
Around that time, David and I sign a development deal with CBS-TV who intend to groom us to host the summer replacement show for the Smothers Brothers. (That (mis)adventure is a book in itself!)
Then along comes a songwriting contract with Warner Brothers Music where David and I will ultimately write over 100 songs.
One of them is “The Troublemaker,” an anti-war protest song, which in 1973 will become the title song of Willie Nelson’s triple platinum LP and the subject of a cover story in Rolling Stone.
During this period, the two of us become friends with Bob Russell, a true mensch and the gifted songwriter of so many great standards like “Dance Ballerina Dance,” “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore,” “Do Nothin’ Till You Hear From Me,” “Brazil,” “The Eyes of Love,” “Crazy He Calls Me,” “I Didn’t Know About You,” “No Other Love” and “You Came a Long Way from St. Louie.”
After a dry spell as musical tastes evolve, Bob then goes on to co-write “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother” and by sheer happenstance shows it to David and me before anyone else.
We fall in love with the story it tells and are thrilled to be the first American artists to feature the song in our concerts, where it ultimately becomes our closing number.
“He Ain’t Heavy” is a powerful song with a touching lyric, and backed by Henry Mancini’s full concert orchestra our version rattles the rafters and never fails to bring the audience to its feet.
O.K. Here’s the funny part of all this.
David and I have fallen into a routine that seems to work pretty well when preparing a new number for our concert appearances.
We rehearse it in a small studio in our manager’s suite on South Beverly Drive.
Whenever we prepare a new number, we work on it diligently, some times for a week, until it’s polished and performance ready.
Somerville has a time worn axiom that always proves true… “You really can’t know how a song should be performed until you sing it for another person.”
So when a new number is ready, we walk down the hall to the office of an earnest, but somewhat hapless agent named Murray Resnick, who runs a one man booking operation a la Broadway Danny Rose.
Despite his rather dense demeanor, he’s a huge fan of ours and always a great sounding board when we have a new song to test on a third person.
Murray has a unique speech idiosyncrasy that takes some getting used to.
Between every few words, he emits a peculiar guttural sound that’s a cross between a grunt and a hiccup.
It sounds a little like, “unk!”
After you’ve known Murray for a while, it actually becomes a kind of whimsical little vocal tic that makes him all the more endearing.
In all the years that David and I collaborate, I don’t recall ever working harder to perfect a song than we do on “He Ain’t Heavy.”
It deserves nothing less.
The song’s lyric is inspired by the tale of a young orphan boy who shows up one hellishly stormy night at the front door of Father Flanagan’s Boys Town, an isolated orphanage in a remote area of Nebraska. He is carrying a younger boy on his back in the driving rain.
When the priest answers the door and sees the drenched and exhausted boy with his piggy back burden, he exclaims, “Oh you poor child. Here, let me take him. He must be heavy!”
To which the little boy softly responds, “No sir. He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother.”
Bob Russell weaves that poignant line into a moving narrative buoyed by Bobby Scott’s beautiful melody.
After a week of polishing, we can’t wait to try it out on Murray and hurry down the hall to thrill him with our moving new number.
As always, he’s delighted to see us, puts his phone on hold and sits back to listen to our latest heart tugger.
We start small… with David softly intoning the opening line:
“The road is long…
With many a winding turn,
That leads us to who knows where… Who knows where?”
I deliver the second line with all the tenor bravado the words require,
“But I’m STRONG! …strong enough to carry him”
Then the two of us in a hushed, reverential whisper:
“He ain’t heavy… he’s my brother”
We’re singing it more exquisitely than we ever have in rehearsal, and as the song unfolds, Murray leans back, closes his eyes, and gets lost in the music. We’ve hooked him.
“No burden is he to bear… we’ll get there…
He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother”
We finally move into the last chorus and employ a time proven dramatic device known as “shout and response,” that calls for the two of us to echo each other on line after line with each new phrase rising higher and higher in pitch, volume… and intensity.
We move into that portion and begin to trade phrases with steadily increasing passion.
“He ain’t heavy…”
Bruce a third higher:
“He Ain’t Heavy…”
David higher still:
“HE AIN’T HEAVY...”
Bruce a full octave higher:
‘HE AIN’T HEAVY!!!”
Both of us triple forte’:
“HE AIN’T HEAVY!!!”
We’re at full volume now and our last unison phrase shakes the pictures on Murray’s wall.
We let it ring fortissimo, then cut it off sharply.
Silence for a beat or two…then we whisper the last muted phrase…
“He’s my brother.”
David caps it off with a soft guitar chord and the room falls silent for a long moment.
Finally, a choked up Murray finds his voice and says with great emotion,
“Aw geez guys… (unk) that is awesome!”
He extends his bare arm.
“Look at this…(unk) I got goose bumps all over. (unk) What a song!”
I thank him and tell him, “A good buddy of ours wrote the lyric. It really grabs you doesn’t it?”
“Aw geez, (unk) it really does. (unk) One question…”
“What is it?”
“(unk) Who’s Henry? (unk)”
“Yeah, (unk) You guys kept singing, (unk) he ain’t Henry, he’s my brother. So, who’s Henry?!”
A couple of months later, David and I visit Bob Russell to congratulate him on the Hollies hit version of his song and, more importantly, to commiserate with him about having recently been diagnosed with leukemia.
He’s a stalwart guy and handling it well.
Of course, we tell him about Murray’s question and he laughs so hard I’m afraid we might lose him right then and there.
He walks us to our car where an awkward handshake turns into a heartfelt hug… a long, heartfelt hug.
I thank him for his friendship and the rich legacy he’s leaving.
He smiles and wise cracks, “And hey – look at me. I’m going out with a HIT!”
Bob dies 3 months later.
It’s a story David and I recount often and is especially meaningful - and relevant - to song writers.
When Belland and Somerville become regulars on Tim Conway’s short lived CBS variety show, we kick off the season with our version of “Heavy”… or “Henry” to those who know the story.
Looking back, I’d say Murray Resnick was not a mental “Henryweight”.
I have a little novelty book someone gave me that’s a collection of “misheard song lyrics.”
It’s titled, “When a Man Loves a Walnut.”
Murray Resnick – bless his heart - could have written it.
All for now.
Stay well. Be good to yourself and each other and keep in touch.