It’s me again.
I’m really touched by the feedback to my last little newsletter.
Gosh, some of you really missed me… and the stories too of course.
I missed you too.
I hadn’t intended to be back in touch this soon, but a recent development involving a cherished colleague now deceased, a song we wrote and the sentiment it expresses, compelled me to contact y’all.
“At the Corner of Goofy and Pluto”
Robert “Bob” Brunner was a true gentleman… and truly a gentle man.
He and I created the title songs for a handful of Disney films between 1970 and 1981, including the 70’s youth comedy classic, “The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes” starring new teen heart throb Kurt Russell, with a title song performed by Bruce Belland and “Diamond Dave” Somerville.
Bob Brunner was graced with extraordinary talent and unwavering gentility, and I loved being his musical collaborator, particularly since it brought me back to the most idyllic movie studio on the planet.
My first visit to Disney Studios had been in 1966, when I was cast to perform some of the animal voices for their beloved classic “Jungle Book.”
(I played a singing buzzard and a harrumphing elephant among others.)
I was at Disney in front of a mic mimicking a crooning buzzard, on the afternoon word came down to our sound stage that Walt Disney had passed away hours before at St. Joseph’s Hospital directly across the street.
His death was not unexpected, but it hit all of us hard, particularly some of the veteran guys in the control room who’d helped him build his empire right from the beginning.
A couple of them were unashamedly weeping and all activity was halted for the day.
Teary-eyed secretaries and assistants roamed sadly through the halls.
Executives closed their doors and told their secretaries to hold their calls.
A Giant had fallen.
He was a trailblazer who left a legacy never to be equaled.
The Disney studio lot was like no other.
In fact, Walt never called it a “lot”.
It was the Disney “Campus.”
Women all wore skirts, men sported neckties and volleyball was a popular lunchtime diversion on the sprawling green lawn next to the dining hall.
The streets and lanes all had Disney names.
Bob Brunner’s office was on the corner of Pluto Avenue and Goofy Way.
Bob would call me with a assignment for a new film and I’d drive over to Burbank, say “hello” to the genial guard at the gate and park.
Then I’d stroll my way along immaculate sidewalks winding through lush green lawns while thinking to myself, “what a wonderful way to make a living, collaborating with an amiable genius on a song for a new Walt Disney movie.”
Bob, ever well mannered and earnest, would always welcome me with a firm handshake and we’d get down to work.
One weekend we were asked to create 10 original songs by Monday for the Mickey Mouse Club kids to learn and film on Tuesday.
We pulled a couple of all nighters and came up with gems like, “Have You Ever Thanked Your Thumb?”, “I Like Hickory Music,” and “You’re Really Terrific” which earned us an Emmy nod.
I could hand him a so-so lyric – remember we were working on very little sleep – and he’d turn it into a singable, delightfully melodic song that practically sang itself.
After creating several Disney film themes together, including one that made the short list for an Oscar nomination, we got an exciting phone call.
Michael Girilikhes, a prominent producer of gigantic arena style productions, had been commissioned by the Long Beach Civic Light Opera to create an original Christmas-themed musical starring Sammy Davis Jr.
Mike had heard our work and called to invite us to compose the score for Sammy and a cast of 80.
At the time, Long Beach California boasted more immigrant social and cultural groups than any other community in America.
We were asked to create a keynote song for the finale celebrating the richly diverse racial make up of that great city… and America itself.
The show was to end with Sammy on stage starting to sing “So Many Voices Sing America’s Song” as dozens of 4 to 8 year old children flooded on stage wearing the colorful native costumes of their original homelands.
(As the kids clustered around Sammy at rehearsal, he looked over at me in the wings and wise cracked, “this is the first time in my life I’ve been the tallest person on stage.”)
(Lots about Sammy coming up in the book by the way. Pardon the plug.)
The show, called “Hallelujah Holidays,” was a smash success and plans immediately started for Sammy to bring it to Broadway the following Holiday season.
Sadly, Sammy soon fell ill and that never became possible.
But, as is so often he case with a song, “So Many Voices” began to develop a life of its own.
The Mormon Tabernacle Choir recorded it and their magnificent version became the sound track for a stirring film montage visually saluting all the diverse types of Americans within our borders.
The Choir’s version became so acclaimed, they began to close their concerts with it in place of their traditional finale, “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”
Shortly after that, George H. W. Bush asked the Choir to sing it at his Inauguration which aired on CBS, and then requested it be performed again (accompanied by the Air Force Academy Band) when he spoke at the decades-delayed Official Dedication of Mount Rushmore.
The Ceremony was an NBC Special hosted by Tom Brokaw and Jimmy Stewart.
At the Rushmore ceremony, Simone and I sat in the front row four seats from President Bush #41 and his wife Barbara.
There we were with the mountain’s four iconic images towering over us, 10 feet from the President as the song moved towards its rousing conclusion.
Then, just as the music hit its peak, Air Force One executed a flyover at about a thousand feet.
I get goose bumps just recalling it all and it was truly a gratifying event for Bob and me.
As it ended, I had only one regret.
The whole event was a star-studded affair with celebrities everywhere and in all the hecticness I never got the chance to meet Jimmy Stewart.
There are very few people I admire as much as him.
He was a lifelong military reservist who ultimately rose to the rank of Brigadier General in the Air Force Reserve after piloting a B-17 on 28 bombing missions over Nazi Germany in WWII.
(And some people call John Wayne, who never served a day in the military, “America’s Hero.” Go figure.)
After an exhilarating and exhausting day, Simone and I finally head back to our motel full of wonderful moments we’ll never forget.
We park in the lot at the rear, knowing our room key will open the back door to the building.
I take my key and try to insert it in the lock… no luck. I can’t make it fit.
After struggling for a minute, I withdraw the key just as a women’s hand reaches in holding a key and a lovely voice says, “Here… let me try it.”
Her key slides in effortlessly and the door opens.
I playfully say, “Well gee, you didn’t have to make it look that easy – did ya?”
Then a familiar man’s voice drawls from behind me…
“Yep… that’s… that’s what they do… they… they make it look easy… you bet… yep…”
Simone and I turn around, and there stands General Jimmy Stewart.
It was his lovely wife, Gloria, who’d wielded the key.
I thanked him for all the joy he’d given me with his body of work and for his service to our country.
His response was low key and genuinely appreciative.
We briefly made small talk, he complimented my song and then headed up the hall to his room.
I’ll take it!
Now our composition starts winning still more acclaim.
Senator Orrin Hatch recites the lyrics before the House and enters them into the Congressional Record.
Next thing we know, “So Many Voices” is designated as the Official Anthem of the Bi-Centennial of the U.S. Constitution and we are awarded the Freedom Foundation’s Presidential Medal of the Arts.
Four years later, Bill Clinton will have it performed at his Inaugural Gala.
Bob Brunner died in 2009, leaving a rich legacy of music, much of which I was proud to be a part of.
In recent years, as some virulent anti-immigrant sentiment began gripping the country, the song fell out of favor.
Then, just a short while ago, I was told that a new rendition had been recorded by a marvelous vocal ensemble out of Dallas called The Vocal Majority.
I went to YouTube and cued it up.
As I listened, fond memories of the gifted, modest, soft spoken genius who so beautifully set my prose to music came flooding back.
He was a profoundly decent man and I miss him greatly.
I hope the message of our song will simply be that America is a nation of immigrants from all over the world who come here to be part of this great country.
Of course, I’m not talking about illegal immigrants, but I’m simply trying to stem the rising tide of sentiment against anyone who isn’t a cookie-cutter replica of ourselves.
Lately, it’s as if we’ve been given permission to mistrust, dislike, even despise and denigrate anyone who doesn’t perfectly meet our definition of “a real American.”
This magnificent country sings one great song when the choir consists of every color in the human rainbow.
I hope you like what Bob and I put together and I hope you share its sentiment.
Thanks for listening.
Now, back to the book.
Click here to listen to "So Many Voices Sing America's Song" on YouTube.
Note: When the song starts, I recommend clicking back to this tab so you can read along with the lyrics provided below... OR, you can scroll down on the YouTube page and in the comments I've provided the lyrics, but you'll have to click "Read more" to see them. Enjoy!
“SO MANY VOICES SING AMERICA”S SONG”
We come from everywhere
We’re called Americans
From every distant shore
But what matters more
Is we’re Americans
United by the promise etched beneath the flame
That says beyond this golden door you enter, everyone’s the same
So many voices sing America’s song
So many dreamers come from different shores to proudly sing along,
So many colors in our rainbow choir
So many hearts from many homelands
All with one desire
To raise their voices in a country that’s free
To blend their music with America’s from sea to shining sea
So many voices from so many lands
Make one great song when we join voices, hearts and hands.
(Repeat chorus into 2nd ending)
Make one great song
Make one great song
When we join forces…hearts… and hands!