Friday, May 10, 2013

Usher In My Room

By David "Chet" Williamson Sneade

There's a world where I can go / And tell my secrets to / In my room / In my room ….”

The above words are the opening lines to an international rock ‘n’ roll anthem. It’s time we reclaim one of its authors as our own. Though born in Los Angeles, he grew up here. He went to grade school in Grafton and later graduated from a local high school.

His name is Gary Lee Usher, a prolific songwriter who is widely recognized as an architect of the surf music. Along with Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys, Usher co-authored the immortal “In My Room.”

According to IMDb (Internet Movie Database), Usher was born on December 14, 1938, and “grew up in New England. He attended Norcross Grammar School and graduated from Westborough High School in Massachusetts in 1957.”

In high school Usher was a well-liked and active student. He was called “Ush.” He liked “convertibles, haircuts, cards, clothes, transmissions,” and his favorite expression was “Oh, say now!”

Usher’s activities were playing baseball, basketball, and in addition to writing for the school paper, the Oriel, he worked on the Yearbook, The Cotton Gin – named for another famous Westborough citizen, Eli Whitney). Appropriately, his school epitaph read: “Race with the Devil.”

Usher's high school shot
Absolutely nothing is said about music. In a 1964 article in the Worcester Telegram, writer James Lee pointed out that Usher “had no interest in music in his school days. He had a talent for art and he spent much of his time on that. He even taught it in the lower grades.”

The headline to the story read: “Former Bank Teller Here Becomes a Top Songwriter.” Lee opened his piece with the question: “Like to hear a success story?” Answering the question, he stated, “The subject is Gary Usher, who resigned as a teller at the Worcester Five Cents Saving Bank three years ago to go to Hollywood to write music. He’s now one of the leading rock ‘n’ roll composers in the country – specializing in surfing music – and his weekly income reaches four figures.”

Lee also noted that between 1963 and ’64 Usher published more than 150 songs, 100 of which had already been recorded. At the time, his songs were recorded on more than 40 albums and he was under contract to Capitol records as both a writer and a singer. Usher was also committed to writing music for American International Pictures. As Lee duly noted, “Not bad for a 24 year-old who never had any musical education,”

Lee reported that Usher became interested in music in 1958, a year after graduation, while stationed in Korea, “at a lonely outpost on a 2,000 foot mountain. Out of boredom, one day he walked 13 miles to a store, where he bought a Japanese guitar, then sent for a booklet on how to play it. It took him six months to learn. Then he started composing songs.”

Pvt. Gary Lee Usher
Returning stateside, Usher was stationed at Ft. Devens. He told Lee that he purchased an electric guitar, made some demonstration records, and began shopping his songs around Boston. The results? “They were bad,” Usher admitted.

After his discharge in 1960, Usher moved to Los Angeles, worked in a bank, and studied art at El Camino College. “He received an associate art degree but was discouraged when he realized the time it would take to get established in art,” Lee said.

In 1961, Usher returned to Westborough and for six months worked at the Worcester Five Cents Savings Bank. “Yearning to get into the musical mainstream, he left for Los Angeles late in 1961,” Lee wrote, adding, “There he filled some minor entertainment jobs, attended college, wrote music, pitched for the San Francisco Giants’ farm teams and worked at the City National Bank in Beverly Hills.”

Lee contends that Usher’s big break came in June, 1962. As legend has it, while visiting his uncle’s home in Hawthorne, CA. five unknown kids calling themselves the Beach Boys were rehearsing across the street. “Gary got acquainted with them,” Lee said. “He collaborated with one of them, Brian Wilson, in writing a song, ‘409,’ which was paired with ‘Surfin’ Safari’ for Capitol. Named after the Chevrolet 409, the tune sold a million and a quarter records in ’62.

In a 1971 interview with writer Gene Sculatti, Usher said, “I was a hot rod freak. I had a 409. One day we were driving up to Los Angeles looking for a part for my car, and I said 'Let's write a song called '409'. We'll do a thing 'giddy up, giddy up,' meaning horses for horsepower,' just kidding around. We came back and put it to three simple chords in five minutes, and it developed into a million-dollar car craze.”

“That was the turning point,” Lee said. “Within a month Gary figured in the writing of 40 songs. He quit his bank job that August and resigned from baseball in the fall. The Beach Boys used many of the Usher/Wilson songs in 1962 and ’63 to skyrocket them to No. 1 position among American vocal groups.

“Dick Dale and the Del Tones similarly prospered on Gary’s compositions. In the film, Muscle Beach Party, Gary had a hand in writing six of the tunes. His next film release is Girls on the Beach. He not only wrote the music but he was commissioned to score the picture, a seemingly impossible job for one unschooled in the technicalities of music. However, he accomplished it. The film is scheduled for release in the fall.”            

Ironically, the two biggest songwriters of the surf music craze, Usher and Wilson, knew very little about the subject. "Dennis Wilson was the first Beach Boy to pick up on surfing,” Usher told Sculatti, “He was aware of Dick Dale, the Pendleton jackets and that whole shot. It just rubbed off. I never surfed"

According to the Wikimedia Foundation, Usher said that the experience in writing “In My Room,” found the two fledgling songwriters taking their craft more seriously. “Brian and I came back to the house one night after playing ‘over-the-line’ (a baseball game). I played bass and Brian was on organ. The song was written in an hour …. Brian’s melody all the way. The sensitivity … the concept meant a lot to him.

“When we finished, it was late, after our midnight curfew. In fact, Murray, [the Wilson brothers’ father] came in a couple of times and wanted me to leave. Anyway, we got Audree [the Wilsons’ mother], who was putting her hair up before bed, and we played it for her. She said, ‘That’s the most beautiful song you’ve ever written.’ Murray said, ‘Not bad, Usher, not bad,’ which was the nicest thing he ever said to me.”

Usher also offered his comments on what the song meant to Wilson adding, “Brian was always saying that his room was his whole world.” In the same article, Wilson seconds this opinion: “I had a room, and I thought of it as my kingdom. And I wrote that song, very definitely, that you’re not afraid when you’re in your room. It’s absolutely true.”

In his short, action-packed life, Usher also worked with an amazing array of artists such as Glenn Campbell, Gene Clark, Dick Dale, Wayne Newton, Annette Funicello, Gram Parsons, and Chad & Jeremy, among countless others. He produced three albums for the Byrds, “Bookends” for Simon and Garfunkel, and is responsible for discovering Firesign Theatre.
Usher owned his own record label (Together Records), produced hundreds of sessions, and as IMBd stated he became a major figure on the surf-rock scene. He was involved as a producer and/or songwriter with many surf/hot-rod groups of the period which include the Hondells, the Competitors, the Quads, the Road Runners, the Super Stocks, the Four Speeds, the Silly Surfers, and the Surfaris.”
In the 1970s, Usher took time off from the music scene only to return in 1984 to record Sanctuary, and in ’86 collaborated on a session with old friend Wilson -- although, as of this writing, only "Let's Go to Heaven in My Car" has ever been released. On May 25, 1990, Usher died from cancer. He was 51.

For a complete picture of Usher see: The California Sound, an Insider's Story, the Musical Biography of Gary Usher by Stephen J. McParland  

Gary Lee Usher

DOB: December 14, 1938 (Los Angeles)
DOD: May 25, 1990 (Los Angeles)


“In My Room” by Usher and Brian Wilson

The Wikimedia Foundation offers a few notable facts about “In My Room.” “It was released on their 1963 album Surfer Girl. It was released as the B-side of the “Be True To Your School” single. The single peaked at number six in the U.S. A remake by Usher’s own band, Sagittarius peaked at eighty-six in 1969. “In My Room” remained on the Billboard Top 100 for 11 weeks, peaking at #23 in 1963.”

Continuing its take on the tune, the Foundation also noted that, “David Crosby (of the Byrds and Crosby, Stills, Nash (and Young), admitted to being an admirer of the song, quoting, “’In My Room,’ was the defining point for me. When I heard it, I thought, ‘I give up – I can’t do that – I’ll never be able to do that.’”

In 2001, Crosby, along with Jimmy Webb and Carly Simon, got to sing a version of “In My Room” on “An All Star Tribute to Brian Wilson.”

The song is heard in the animated film Happy Feet and a cover of “In My Room” appears on the soundtrack to the TV series, “Friends.”

As performed by the Beach Boys

Brian Wilson

Bill Medley w/Phil Everly and Brian Wilson

Wilson Phillips
Danny Gatton

Tammy Wynette

Grant Lee Buffalo

Other popular songs by Usher

“409” – as performed by the Beach Boys

Sacramento” – as performed by Gary Usher


“Tomorrow” – as performed by Gary Usher and Zane Ashton

Lonely Sea” – as performed by the Beach Boys

Usher wrote hundreds of songs. Here are a list of others: “Barefoot Adventure,” “Cactus Juice,” “C.C. Cinder,” “Cheater Slicks,” “Chug-A-Lug,” “Coney Island Wild Child,” “Country Fair,” “Cuckoo Clock,” “Don’t Ever Leave Me,” “Don’t Give Into Him,” “Draggin’ Deuce,” “Four n the Floor,” “Harder and Harder,” “Heads You Win – Tails You Lose,”  “Hot Rod U.S.A.,” “Let’s Put the Fun Back in Rock ‘n’ Roll,” “Lonely Surfer Boy,” “Mag Wheels,” “Milky Way,” “My Little Beach Bunny,” “My Little Surfin’ Woodie,” “My Sting Ray,” “My World Fell Down,” “Nifty 50,” “Playmate of the Year,” “Pom Pom Play Girl,” “Power Shift,” “RPM,” “Ski Party,” “Soul Stompin’,” “Sugar & Spice,” “Ten Little Indians,” “Three Surfer Boys,” “Tied Down,” “Truth is Not Real,” “Twins,” “Wax, Board, and Woodie,” and “You Made a Believer Out of Me,” among many others.

This is a work in progress. Comments, corrections, and suggestions are always welcome. Write to Also see:


Monday, February 18, 2013

"Blue Moon"

By David "Chet" Williamson Sneade  

He was a songwriter’s best friend. Though not a tunesmith himself, Jack Robbins published many of the most popular songs of the 20th century. 

Consider: “Blue Moon,” “Deep Purple,” “Don’t Blame Me,” “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore,” “Ebb Tide,” “I Got it Bad and That Ain’t Good,” “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows,” and “Little Brown Jug." They are among the many songs from A-Z in his prodigious catalog of classics.

Robbins' birth is set at 1894. According to his obituary, which appeared on the front page of the December 17th 1959 issue of Worcester Telegram & Gazette, he was "born in Worcester, son of the late Harris and Ida (Richmond) Robbins. He attended the old Ledge Street School [same school that Charlie Tobias attended] and Rindge School in Cambridge, Mass. His full name was Jacob J. Robbins.”

Ledge Street School, circa 1910

His friends called him Jack. It was a relative that invited him into the music business. “At the age of 17, he joined the music publishing firm of his uncle, Morris Richmond, in New York, starting as a stockroom clerk,” the T&G reported.  

Historically speaking, Robbins is seen as one of this nation’s original “song pluggers,” that is,  someone who actively finds ways to sell the sheet music. Robbins sang countless songs wherever he could find an audience, whether it was on street corners and private parties or department stores and movie houses.

Evidently, Robbins had an ear for talent and the golden touch when came to marketing. As the story goes, in the same year that he was hired to work in his uncle’s publishing firm, he found a song on the stockroom shelf that he recognized as a winner.

As the T&G tells it, the song, “Smiles,” written by J. Will Callahan and Lee Roberts, sold some two million copies in less than a year and earned Robbins a small fortune. “With the money from this venture, Mr. Robbins established his own firm, the Robbins Music Corp.”

According to the Continuum Encyclopedia of Popular Music of the World, “Robbins was an astute assessor of talent, particularly that of band leaders who could produce and promote music. This attribute helped to jump-start the career of Paul Whiteman, among others, for Robbins encouraged Victor to sign the bandleader after he discovered him in 1926.

“Robbins understanding of the mechanisms of promotion and production led to the publication by his company of a handbook detailing the ins and outs of the business – inside stuff on How to Write Popular Songs, written by Variety’s music editor Abel Green.”

Another story of Robbins recognition of talent comes from the book, Ella Fitzgerald: A Biography of the First Lady of Jazz by Stuart Nicholson. The author quotes manager and songwriter Teddy McRae, stating that Robbins had begun to follow the fortunes of the Chick Webb band, Ella’s bandleader and legal guardian. “Jack talked to me about a deal where he would support us with arrangements,” McRae said. “It was like song plugging …. So Jack said, ‘We’re going to give you hit songs [that] come out before anybody … because we feel Ella Fitzgerald is about the top thing right now. We think she’s really going to be tops.”

Young Ella Fitzgerald singing A-Tistket, A-Tasket from an early "soundie."
According to the T&G, two of Swing music’s top song writers, Harry Pierney and Walter Donaldson, “had their work published by Mr. Robbins…. “Others who were associated with Mr. Robbins were Peter DeRose, who wrote ‘Deep Purple,’ and Charles Tobias, another Worcester native, who wrote the lyrics to many songs composed by DeRose.”

Peter DeRose in front. Charles Tobias is 4th from left

Robbins published music during a time that is viewed as the golden age of sheet music. The Worcester publisher set a number of sales records for the period. For example, the tune, “Five Foot Two, Eyes of Blue,” was played and sung by countless people across the generations of the 20th century. Today, many of these pieces are, as the T&G reported, "recognized classics of popular music in America.”

One of the more famous stories of the Robbins golden touch relates to the song, “Blue Moon,” written by Richard Rogers and Lorenz Hart. The song’s remarkable saga is conveyed on the official Hart website, It was originally called, “Prayer,” and the first version was intended for Jean Harlow to be sung in the movie Hollywood Party. According to the Hart website, neither Miss Harlow nor “Prayer” appeared in the film.

“In its second life, the 'Prayer/Blue Moon' tune was given new lyrics and became the title song of the 1934 MGM film Manhattan Melodrama, which starred Clark Gable, William Powell and Myrna Loy, and was the movie that John Dillinger had been watching when he was gunned down outside the Biograph Theatre In Chicago."

The song had a third and fourth life in film as well. According to Gary Marmorstein, the author of Hollywood Rhapsody: Movie Music and Its Makers 1900 to 1975, the fourth was a charm. “Metro’s music publisher Jack Robbins liked the tune but urged Hart to come up with a more popular lyric for it. Hart sarcastically suggested ‘Blue Moon,’ a counterclockwise turn of the old Tin Pan Alley June-moon-spoon cliché. That was precisely what Robbins wanted. The rest is pop music history.”

Ernö Rapée
By the late 1920s and early ‘30s, Robbins was making inroads into the film industry. At first, as reported by Continuum, while film was still silent, he published the work of composers of incidental music, including pieces by Ernö Rapée and Hugo Riesenfeld.

As the ‘talkies’ replaced silent pictures, Robbins was quick to recognize the new markets for songwriters, becoming one of the first music publishers to work out deals with Hollywood. One of his first projects was the 1929 musical, The Broadway Melody.

Along with a collection of publishing firms such as Leo Feist, and film companies, that included MGM (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer), Robbins created the music publishing dynasty known as the Big Three Music Corporation.

“Hollywood so often found itself using his songs in its films that MGM bought his Big Three Music Corp,” to secure rights to the songs,” stated the T&G. “The movie Singing in the Rain borrowed its title from the popular song published by the Robbins firm.”

According to Continuum, Robbins was bought out of the business by the film studio in 1935. “Before the sale, Robbins had become angered by what he felt were the studio’s inefficient and ill-conceived efforts to promote his music. This resulted in a 1932 lawsuit against the studio and American Society of Composers and Publishers (ASCAP), which Robbins won; as a result he received more reasonable recompense for his material until the catalog was sold. Subsequently, he devoted his efforts to the jobbing and distribution of music,” Continuum reported. Ironically, Robbins became a future director of the American Society of Composer, Authors, and Publishers.

It was not until several years later that he would get back in the game by establishing a new company with his sons called J.J. Robbins Inc., which was best known for handling Broadway musical scores. He would also hold a share in Words & Music Inc., another music publishing house.

Ella singing with Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman and Jack Robbins on the right. Photo by Herman Leonard 

Robbins died in New York in 1959 of a coronary thrombosis. He was 65. His son, Marshall and grandson Andrew continued in the music publishing business.

(First published in Western Front, newspaper covering Hollywood) 
-- Los ANGELES, CAL., May 9.—“An interesting interview with J. J. Robbins, head of the music publishing firm, Robbins Music Corp., New York, appeared recently in the Los Angeles Times, having been written by Edwin Schallert, conceded to be one of the outstanding music critics west of the Rockies. Mr. Robbins, whose firm is closely linked with the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer organization, is an authority on music for the motion picture, and his views on this subject were greatly sought after by newspaper men on the occasion of his recent trip here.  
     Mr. Schallert spent considerable time with Mr. Robbins, and some of the highlights of his interview were as follows: "I talked to Jack Robbins, New York publisher of 'The Broadway Melody' numbers, the other day, and he declares that the popularity of the majority of songs is doubled as a result of pictures. In some instances it is more than doubled. Mr. Robbins mentioned that a number like 'You Were Meant For Me' would have sold probably 100,000 copies had it been written before song pictures came into vogue. As a part of a film musical production, it will sell "HITS"
    "There is another angle to the success of songs, as Robbins relates it, and that is the speed of the success. A picture is an 'immediate plug' for the song. It is more rapid than the radio even. In two or three weeks, with a generally released production, a tune will go round the country. It will hit more quickly and more certainly, because the audience sees as well as hears it sung. This result obtains naturally where the singer appears on the screen as in 'Broadway Melody.' "The song picture promises to cause a quickening in sheet music sales throughout the country. Popular music trade has been at a low ebb for some time. The public much prefers to buy the record, or listen to the number over the radio. Record sales will, of course, be stimulated, and sheet music also.”

* Note: Robbins was related to a couple of local jazz musicians. See: Jazzsphere (The Swinging Sheppard brothers) --


Deep Purple – Artie Shaw & Helen Forrest --

Don’t Blame Me --  Jackie McLean --

Ebb Tide – Arthur Prysock -- 

I Fall in Love Too Easily – Chet Baker –

I Got It Bad and That Ain’t Good --  Nina Simone --



A-Tisket A-Tasket –Ella Fitzgerld --   

Blue Moon – sung by the Marcels --

I’m Always Chasing Rainbows -- Judy Garland --  

Alfalfa singing with the Little Rascals
I’m in the Mood for Love -- Alfalfa --

Little Brown Jug -- Glenn Miller -- 

Peg ‘O My Heart -- The Harmonicats -- 

Stairway to the Stars -- Johnny Hartman --  

Three Coins in the Fountain -- Dean Martin --

At Sundown -- Doris Day --


Do Nothin’ Til You Hear From Me – sung by Louis Armstrong, with Duke Ellington --

Elmer’s Tune -- Peggy Lee and Benny Goodman --

Everything I Have Is Yours -- Billy Ekstine --

Something’s Gotta Give -- Fred Astaire --

Temptation -- Mark Sandman and the Either Orchestra --

That Lucky Old Sun -- Louis Armstrong --

A select catalog of songs: A-Tisket A Tasket (Ella Fitzgerald & Al Feldman), Alice Blue Gown (Harry Tierney and Joseph McCarthy), Anchors Aweigh (A.H. Miles & Charles Zimmerman), Angel (Mitchell Parrish & Peter DeRose), At Sundown (Walter Donaldson), Back Bay (Vernon Duke), Blue Moon (Richard Rogers & Lorenz Hart), Blue Sentimental Mood (DeRose, Teddy Powell & Leonard Whitcup), Coming in On A Wing and A Prayer (Harold Adamson & Jimmy McHugh), Darktown Strutter’s Ball (Shelton Brooks), Deep Purple (Peter DeRose), Do Nothin’ Til You Hear From Me (Duke Ellington & Bob Russell), Don’t Blame Me (Dorothy Fields & Jimmy McHugh), Don’t Get Around Much Anymore (Duke Ellington & Bob Russell), Ebb Tide (Carl Sigman & Robert Maxwell), Elmer’s Tune (Elmer Albercht, Sammy Gallup, & Dick Jurgens), Everything I Have is Yours (Harold Adamson and Burton Lane), Has the Nightingale Told You (Parrish & DeRose), I Fall in Love Too Easily (Sammy Cahn & Jule Styne), I Got it Bad and That Ain’t Good (Ellington & Russell), I’m Always Chasing Rainbows (Harry Carroll & Joseph McCarthy), I’m in the Mood for Love (Dorothy Fields & Jimmy McHugh), It’s a Wonderful World (Harold Adamson, Jan Savitt & Johnny Watson), Jumpin’ for Joy (Teddy Wilson & Edgar Sampson), Just Friends (Sam Lewis & John Klenner), Little Brown Jug (Jack Lawrence), Love is All (Harry Tobias & Pinky Tomlin), Maybe (Allan Flynn & Frank Madden), Pagan Love Song (Arthur Freed and Nacio Brown), Peg ‘O My Heart (Alfred Bryan & Fred Fisher), Society Conga (Xavier Cugat), Something’s Gotta Give (Johnny Mercer), Somewhere, My Love (Paul Francis Webster & Maurice Jarre), Stairway to the Stars (Mitchell Parrish, Matt Malneck, Frank Signorelli), Temptation (Herb Nacio Brown & Arthur Freed), That Lucky Old Sun (Haven Gillespie & Beasley Smith), Three Coins in the Fountain (Sammy Cahn & Jule Styne), Whatever You Say, Will Be Held Against You (Herb Adamson), You Are My Lucky Star (Brown & Freed),

Jack Robbins in white. Harry Warren at the piano

John Jacob “Jack” Robbins

DOB: September 15, 1894
DOD: December 15, 1959

Jack Robbins stands to the left of the piano player

This is a work in progress. Comments, corrections, and suggestions are always welcome. Also see: