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Songwirter

Leo Pevsner at 86: "I'll be goddamned if I know how the songs come to me. When I feel like it I write a song, and very often I feel like it."

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In 1932 Leo Pevsner wrote a song about the Depression for Franklin Delano Roosevelt's campaign. The song, "Next Year," like other Depression-era tunes such as "Hallelujah, I'm a Bum" and "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime," took the perspective of a downtrodden man trying to find a glimmer of hope in a bleak economy ("Next year you'll be able to eat again / Chances are you'll find a job by then . . . ").

The song was played at Roosevelt campaign rallies and Pevsner thinks it may have played a small part in FDR's victory over Herbert Hoover. So last year he renewed the copyright and sent the song to Bill Clinton.

"Sixty years later it still fits," says Pevsner. "You have the same situation as you had back then, when there was a depression on and people couldn't get jobs. I sent it to Clinton's people and to the radio stations. Some people played it and I think we got Clinton a lot of votes. Things don't change all that much as years go by."

At least, things don't seem to have changed all that much for Leo Pevsner. Now 86 years old, he is still selling diamonds wholesale, as he has all his life, and whenever the mood strikes him he sits down at his piano and writes a song. Over the years Pevsner has written more than a thousand. He has worked with ABC and NPR, and has written songs to help promote fund-raising drives for the Jewish United Fund and the United Way. His songs have also been used on commercials promoting antidrug and drunk-driving campaigns.

Pevsner follows the tradition of his favorites Hoagy Carmichael and Irving Berlin, penning simple love songs and whimsical political commentaries. The sounds of his tinny piano and brittle voice bring one back to the days when songwriters traveled the country with stacks of sheet music stuffed in a rucksack, looking to make a dime off of their latest song.

A year after Pevsner was born his family immigrated to the U.S. from Eastern Europe. He spent the early part of this century growing up with his eight siblings on a farm in Melrose, Connecticut. His father and uncle ran a diamond business with offices in the States and Antwerp.

"My father used to have High Holiday services every year," says Pevsner. "He wasn't a rabbi, but there were very few Jewish people around where we grew up and we had a Torah and my father would conduct services. When he would sing I was fascinated, because he would make up his own tunes. I used to be fascinated with the music because each time he would say the same prayer, it would have a different tune. So I started to fool around and make up my own tunes too. Whenever I davened I made up the melodies because I admired my father."

When Pevsner was in his early teens, his family moved to Chicago and young Leo began attending high school at Marshall. He says he used to entertain fellow students there by making up songs, mostly parodies of popular tunes. He also entertained his family by making up songs to mock his siblings. One of his favorite parodies was a takeoff on Al Jolson's "Sonny Boy."

"Jolson was in town doing a show," Pevsner recalls. "Jolson had this song 'Sonny Boy': 'Climb upon my knee, Sonny Boy / Though you're only three, Sonny Boy.'

"So I wrote this parody of it that the kids in high school loved. It was funny as hell. It went, 'Climb down from my knee, Sonny Boy / You're almost 23, Sonny Boy / You've had your enjoyment / You better get employment / You can't live off me, Sonny Boy / Though you have gray eyes, I don't mind / I don't mind your gray eyes / I'll make 'em black and blue, Sonny Boy / You're so doggone lazy / Your school grades drive me crazy / But I love you so, Sonny Boy.'

"And then they really went crazy over this part; they loved this part: 'I sent you to college. You said you'd get Bs / I look at your report card. All I see are Ds / God damn it! Here's my consolation / Thank heaven for probation / But I love you so, Sonny Boy.' That's what would get them going crazy. That 'God damn it.'

"A friend of mine was mixed up with the Jolson cast somehow," Pevsner continues. "So I came backstage and sang it for him and the cast and Jolson went wild. I couldn't believe it. I'd only sung it for kids before. He went wild. The whole cast did. He invited me to come backstage whenever I wanted and all that crap. But, when I left there, that was the end of it for me. I had other things I was more interested in--girls and all that kind of stuff. I never went backstage again to see him, but I'll never forget the experience."

After some college, Pevsner began working as a traveling diamond salesman in the family business. To pass the time on his trips, he'd write songs and perform them in small towns or sell them for a couple of bucks to singers he'd meet on the road.

"My brother had a jewelry store in Oklahoma, so one time I sang midnight shows in this little oil town called Seminole, Oklahoma," Pevsner recalls. "This was during the oil boom and there were lots of businessmen who would come to see shows in these small towns. I had a good voice and I'd entertain sometimes. I got up there, and I sang my parodies and some of my original songs. They advertised me in the paper. One time I played there for a week, and after that I didn't want to remain. I loved it. I loved the applause, but it didn't mean anything after a few days. After a few days, I didn't care about it anymore. The first day I was thrilled. The second day I was thrilled. But the thrill got smaller and smaller and smaller, and by the time the week was over I figured, 'Ahh, this is not for me. I don't want this crap.'"

In 1927, while he was living in Memphis, where he'd set up a small business, Pevsner wrote a Polynesian-style love song that got some play on a couple of local radio stations. And, he says, he was beginning to acquire a reputation among performers.

"They were third-class vaudevillians," Pevsner says. "It was just a way to make a little money and it was great fun. It passed the time on the road. Say a guy was a singer playing in a town. I'd go backstage and I'd play him a little song, and if he liked it I'd say, 'OK you can have it.' He'd say, 'How much?' I'd say, 'Whatever you think it's worth.' Some guys gave me 25 bucks. Some gave me 10. Believe me, the money wasn't the object."

Pevsner moved back to Chicago in the early 30s and married his wife, Ruth, a schoolteacher, in 1935. He continued in the diamond business and sold songs on the side. He also got involved in fund-raising efforts for the Combined Jewish Appeal (now the Jewish United Fund). He was chairman of its jewelers' division and he traveled around the country giving speeches and using his songs to encourage people to buy bonds for Israel. It was at these speaking engagements, Pevsner says, that he had the opportunity to meet such luminaries as David Ben Gurion, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Harry Truman.

"Eleanor Roosevelt was a wonderful person," says Pevsner. "She remembered the song I wrote for her husband--'Next Year.' She thanked me for it, and when she thanked me it really meant something for me that I might have helped her husband become president. I got to meet Harry Truman when I was speaking at the Stadium. We were both speaking there and I had written a song for him called 'Harry, Harry, Harry.' He was crazy about it. He was one of my favorite people. He told me I was the first person who ever wrote a song for him. He was such a genuine guy and having someone write a song for him really made him so happy. He wasn't meant to be a politician; he was too real."

In the 50s, Pevsner nabbed a side gig writing songs for the Don McNeill Breakfast Club, broadcast nationally on ABC radio. The first one that went over big with the ABC brass just happened to be about diamond rings.

To you I bring a diamond ring

A diamond brilliant and blue.

A token of an endless love

A love that's flawless and true.

This diamond ring will last and last

Just like my love for you.

Please take this ring, this diamond ring

Because it's perfect like you.

"People always ask me what the relationship is between diamonds and songwriting," says Pevsner. "I tell them it's easy: Whenever a woman sees a diamond, she hears music."

"Rainy Kisses," another of Pevsner's songs that got national airplay, was written on a cross-country bus trip. Pevsner was traveling to Mobile, Alabama, to visit a sick niece.

Last night while I was walking

Alone in lover's lane

I found a brand new secret

While I was walking in the rain.

Rainy kisses are the sweetest.

Nothing else is quite the same.

Rainy kisses are the sweetest.

Precious kisses in the rain.

"Music just comes to me sometimes," Pevsner says. "'Rainy Kisses' came about because I was sitting on this bus and it was raining like hell and this terrific idea for a song just came into my head. I liked the song so much that after I visited my niece I got on a phone and sang it to Eddie Ballantine, who was the music director of the Don McNeill Breakfast Club. I sang it to him and I made sure he copied it down right. He took it down and it was on the show that week. I liked the song so much that I used the same melody for a song I did to help out the United Way. You didn't make any money for charity work. That's something you do because you feel it's right. But when I was working for the Breakfast Club, I made big cash. I got big checks."

Another of Pevsner's numbers written for ABC was a schmaltzy love song entitled "All the Time." Pevsner decided to try to pitch it to Maurice Chevalier. He says that he and Chevalier had a mutual acquaintance in Eddie Cantor, so when he was in Europe, Pevsner tried to get a hold of the legendary chanteur.

"I knew it would go over big," said Pevsner. "I spent two days in a hotel room translating it with a couple of French elevator boys and I figured that Chevalier would really go for it. Chevalier said he was so thrilled and glad that I called him. He told me he'd heard about me and that he'd have a man pick me up at my hotel at two, and he'd take me out to his place so we could talk. I waited five hours for this guy to come. I wasted my whole day waiting for Chevalier's guy. I was so mad that when he finally did come I told him I didn't want any part of this Chevalier. I was so angry. So that was the end of that for me. My wife was angry that I had the nerve to tell Chevalier to forget it."

One of Pevsner's favorite projects came in the 70s, when he collaborated with his daughter Hene on a bicentennial musical that was performed at the elementary school where she teaches. (Pevsner's two other children are celebrated in his song "My Two Sons Are Doctors.") The typically loopy songs take a tongue-in-cheek look at figures in American history. "Mama Don't Like to Fly," for example, is from the viewpoint of the Wright Brothers' mother--who's not particularly excited about her sons' invention. And "Cherry Tree" presents a savvy young George Washington admitting to having cut down the legendary tree in order to preserve his political viability.

I cut down the cherry tree. I cannot tell a lie.

I cut down the cherry tree. It almost made me cry.

I won't try to hide the facts.

My finger prints are on the axe.

I cut down the cherry tree. I cannot tell a lie.

Though my guilt was evident

Some day I may be president.

I cut down the cherry tree. I cannot tell a lie.

"Wally Phillips got a hold of 'Cherry Tree' and played it on the radio. That was a thrill," says Pevsner. "But when I heard the applause for my songs when they were performed at the school, Jesus it was fantastic! And the applause! At the end, all the kids raised little American flags and some of the parents in the audience had tears in their eyes. It was fantastic. Really wonderful."

Round about 1980 Pevsner began sending songs to National Public Radio, and he became an occasional contributor to Morning Edition, which treated him as a sort of folksy philosopher. During the 1980 presidential campaign the show featured Pevsner's songs about inflation ("Tighten Your Belt"), the plight of also-ran candidates ("Connally, Crane, and Dole"), the women's movement and John Anderson ("Anderson Needs a Woman"), the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan ("Open Your Eyes"), and shopaholics ("Credit Card").

If you use your credit card from the bank

For your problem you'll have yourself to thank

Though the mailing was a task

For the card you didn't ask

Tear it up and throw it right in the tank.

From the bank.

In the tank.

From the bank in the tank from the bank.

Tell 'em thank you just the same.

We won't play your little game.

Tear it up and throw it right in the tank.

"I'll be goddamned if I know how the songs come to me," says Pevsner. "When I feel like it I write a song, and very often I feel like it."

Though a recent sickness kept him from writing songs for a while, Pevsner is back at the keyboard. He's at work on another song for the Jewish United Fund and he has just started sending a demo tape of his latest song, "Spend It," a Tin Pan Alley number about how to jump-start the economy, to newspapers and radio stations.

Right now you know

The economy's slow

And now more than ever

The prices are low.

Because it's so

If you've got dough

Spend it! Spend it! Spend it!

Business is bad

The merchants are sad

If you spend money now

You'll make everyone glad.

Because it's so

If you've got dough

Spend it! Spend it! Spend it!

You'll get the biggest bargains

Like you never got before

Things will start looking much brighter

You will help both Clinton and Gore

If you spend some dough now

It don't matter how

You'll start the ball rolling

I give you my vow

For all our sakes

That's what it takes

Spend it! Spend it! Spend it!

"This is liable to change the whole picture of the United States and how everyone looks at the economy," says Pevsner.

Pevsner is less excited about some of his older songs, many of which he has tossed out over the years. "My wife died seven years ago, but about ten years ago when she was still alive we got so sick of hearing my old songs that we threw out about a hundred of them. They were all political crap. Half the politicians I wrote about are dead and no one cares about them anymore.

"Listen," Pevsner says, "I've been writing songs for years. I've written thousands. Some of them are terrific, but they can't all be gems."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Charles Eshelman.

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