Tears, Memories and the Long Parade

If you’re a regular reader of Sixties Music Secrets, you’re probably familiar with my history and may know that I spent 40 years in the music business. During that time, I have been affiliated with every kind of music trend or artist you can imagine! Naturally, there were certain kinds of music (and  artists) that played a more profound role in my experience. However, one important lesson I learned during my time in the business applies to every great song you have ever heard: That no song springs into existence fully formed. Every song you have ever heard, whether at a dive bar, the radio or Youtube, each one has taken a journey, from an idea to a few chords on a guitar or piano then, on to the phone calls, demos, debates, meetings, re-writes, emails, and many late night conversations right up until you drop the needle or press play! Much like with paintings, sculptures and other works of art, the finished product is often only half the story.

I recently came across an anonymous reviewer on the internet who has now found himself in the journey of one such song. A very unusual piece of music which played an unexpectedly profound role in guiding me through the murky and turbulent waters of The Music Business. So today dear reader, I’m going to ask you for a little patience as I share my half of a very personal, Sixties Music Secrets story. Or, what the great Paul Harvey famously called “The Rest Of The Story”.

It is a haunting piece of music, full of depth, rife with emotion. And it’s even more poignant because of its tragic tale. The singer, by the way, is Johnny Mathis. The composer is Michael Moore (no, not that one!). And this song is called “Yellow Roses on her Gown.” I had never heard of it until now!

posted by Unknown at 1:44 PM on Mar 11, 2019

And now, the rest of the story.

Tears, Memories and the Long Parade 

In the early 1970’s I landed my first job and began my 40 year love affair with songwriting, songwriters and the music business! I took a job working for two very successful personal managers where my role was to find new songs for their artists to record. A few of their clients included Poco, Iron Butterfly and Loggins and Messina. Each day, I’d sit in my small, windowless office with a Teac tape machine and patiently stand by as a long line of eager songwriters would parade through my tiny office, offering up their best work! It took some time but I eventually got comfortable and soon began to look forward to meeting each hopeful, aspiring songwriter. They’d sit down in front of me with only a guitar or take a seat at the tiny Spinet that doubled as a piano, and the only stick of furniture I had. So many songwriters!

Eventually, I met the classic ‘new kid in town’.  His name was Michael Jackson Moore. He came in, sat down at the always out of tune Spinet piano and began to perform his trilogy. The first song was a melodramatic ode to a tree called “They Cut Ralph Down Today” complete with the evil Lumberjack etc. The second song was “Pam at The Piano,” a real eye roller about his girlfriend learning the piano, full of all the usual cliches you would expect about her being his muse… “She’s my melody, she’s  my symphony.” You get the idea.

I was about ready to compliment Michael on his “enthusiasm,” offer some gentle  advice and then kindly show him the door. I think he knew what was coming. But then he said to me, “I want to play you a song I wrote about my parents!” You can imagine how I felt at that moment, having just sat through a song about a tree named Ralph and then his girlfriend’s piano lessons. So it probably won’t surprise you that my first reaction was ‘yikes‘. However, fortunately, my second reaction was, ‘But this is my job‘. So I said, ‘O.K Mike, let me hear it’, all the while mentally preparing myself to be about as nice as I could be and still shuffle him out of my office.

“The singer explains, “He remember’s how they looked then, when their eyes were always living, and his father loved a girl with yellow roses on her gown.” And then they moved to Placer County, “where the weather was a joker, and he watched his parents’ laughter turn from amber into ice.” He continues to explain that  the father would endure the insults of a pair of loaded dice.” And the mother stood beside him, “though her heart was on the hillside of a city where a soldier and his lover bedded down…”

posted by Unknown at 1:44 PM on Mar 11, 2019

Michael took a deep breath, and his eyes got something of a faraway look in them. Then he stared me straight in the eyes in a way I haven’t forgotten even forty years later and told me ‘It’s called ‘Yellow Roses On Her Gown”. And it’s very sad” He began with a moody piano introduction, and softly sang, ‘I was born in San Francisco, where the bay is full of cruisers and the west wind smells of fishing boats for fifty miles around…

I soon realized this was a much more sophisticated composition than his first two offerings, as the strangely sad melody and the softly vivid lyrics grabbed me right away. In only two lines, Michael had gone from singing about a tree named Ralph, to conjuring something special in my tiny, windowless office. Something I could see, hear and smell, as if I were standing there at the pier when he wrote it. Somewhere near the end of the third verse a sudden wave of emotion came over me, a subconscious connection or identification was welling up inside as I sat and listened to Michael’s beautifully sad and curious song of his childhood in San Francisco as the  backdrop to the gradual demise of the love between his mother and father. I was completely caught up in the relentless poetry of Michael’s very personal story, which revealed the true depth of his potential.

As Michael reached the final verse and the heavy pall of loneliness is all that’s left in my tiny office, remnants of  the vivid pictures he had painted, I began to feel a deeply alarming sensation. My eye’s well’d up as a single lone tear began to burn for release onto my cheek. Oh my God! I can’t  let this kid see me cry.’ Remember, this was my first job in the “Ruthless / cut throat” music business! And there’s no way I am going to let another grown man catch me crying! Let alone a kid who was singing about a’ tree named Ralph just five minutes ago! But it was too late. Michael trailed off, and then looked at me with this plaintive expression and asked if I was ‘O.K’. What could I say? How could my younger self tell him that hearing him sing just then had tapped into the very deep and confusing pain of having watched my own parent’s love decay into bitterness and distance, until one evening my own father left and never returned? How could I possibly explain how it had stirred up a distant, forgotten memory of a five year old boy, scared and desperate to understand where his daddy went? A boy that learned at an early age that not all prayers are answered, no matter how many times you beg ‘Please God’.

By the end of the song, the father is living eastward, near the Sacramento River, “and he swears that he is happy with his practice and some land.” And, in the springtime and the summer, when the fog is off the valley — the narrator visits his dad on weekends, “but his grass is overgrown.” And in the end, he reveals that his mother has past,  gone, forever! As he further admits “sometimes after dinner, I will gaze away the evening, in the attic at a sash of yellow roses on her gown…”

posted by Unknown at 1:44 PM on Mar 11, 2019

So I told Mike, somewhat curtly, that I was fine, as if those hopeful, soulful eyes of his had been seeing things. I thanked him for the chance to hear his music, and after a moment’s hesitation, invited him to come back with a simple recording of just him at a piano singing ‘Yellow Roses On Her Gown’. Definitely not the one about the tree named Ralph or his girlfriend’s piano lessons. It took Michael about a week to get back to me with a 5 inch reel of tape with just the one song. I thanked him again, and then I just sat there in my little windowless office and simply looked at it for what felt like a decade. Would this simple tape have the same power? So I got up, closed the door, and very carefully fed the tape into the machine with an odd kind of anticipation blended with trepidation that my younger self found very disconcerting. The small 5 inch turned over, and then to my relief (or horror?) it all started happening again. The flood of memories, and this time, truly alone in my office – the tears. I still remember the catharsis of that moment, and how truly powerful a song can be. I took a little while to collect myself, because it won’t  matter how evocative and beautiful I found the song, if my boss didn’t care for it.

I was a pretty confident guy (you had to be in the music business in the 1970s), but I had never felt so nervous about a meeting. I had to play this emotional tear-jerker for not just any man – but, my boss,  Larry Larsen. He was a real ‘Wolf of Wall Street’ type – a good looking, whip smart, hugely successful street savvy guy with more money than God. He effortlessly dominated every room he was in, such that it was absolutely clear that his attention was his most precious commodity. Most people got very little of it, unless they were young and gorgeous or had a big check with his name on it. So, yes dear reader, I was more than a little intimidated at the idea of sitting across from Larry for four or five minutes while Michael crooned out his ‘Yellow Roses On Her Gown’ into the ominous silence of my boss’s elegant / larger office! No tears for me, this time.

I had a queasy feeling in my stomach from the first moment that a visibly busy Larry Larsen motioned me in and gestured for me to shut the door. I knew better than to attempt a conversation, so I didn’t say much beyond “Well Larry, I just found a song that I think is pretty special”. That earned a distracted half-smile of polite interest, which was about the best reaction one could hope for from Larry Larsen, absent being a gorgeous young woman or offering him a lot of money).  I almost fumbled putting the small 5 inch tape reel on Larry’s expensive tape player. It didn’t start for a moment, and it felt like a boulder in my stomach, as Larry stared out his window down at the Sunset Blvd. traffic below. Then it began to play.

I was struck by the song for several reasons. One, it is interesting stylistically in that it has no chorus or bridge. The closest is the repeating phrase “yellow roses on her gown.” Two, this song is filled with such emotion, such obvious pain, that I knew it had to be a true story. And, sure enough, it turns out that the songwriter’s father was a lawyer who represented those accused of being Communists during the McCarthy Era. The strain of it — and the danger to his own reputation — caused his marriage (and his life) to fall apart. Such detail, such descriptive lyric (the words about the family’s early life are so very  poetic), such overt passion, is rare in most popular music.

posted by Unknown at 1:44 PM on Mar 11, 2019

At first, Larry didn’t show much reaction at all. He just got something of a strange look in his eye and tilted his head as if he were listening to something far away. Then, after a minute or two, he began to fidget in his chair, and turned his head to stare up at the ceiling. Then, when we were about three quarters of the way through the song, I noticed that Larry’s jawline muscle began to tic, and his face had started to blush. I wondered for one brief moment, if the song had affected THEE Larry Larsen on the same soul deep level that it had struck me. And then suddenly, Larry shook his head in an almost violent fashion and exploded at me, “Jesus Christ, Rick, turn that piece of shit off!” I had never seen him that shade of red before. Not even when he was on the phone screaming at some agent about his commission!  I was initially mortified, and this time my fingers really did fumble at the tape player as he continued, “No band of mine is ever going to get close to this!” …The band he was referring to was Loggins and Messina (and in retrospect, Larry was probably right).

I could see my whole career circling the drain right then. Was I as bad at my job, as Larry Larsen appeared to be suggesting at this point in time?  I had never known such self-doubt and embarrassment, as Larry chased me from his office. I should have kept going. But something made me stop at the door, with it partially open. I looked back at him, and I’m still not sure what I intended to say. I guess I just didn’t want my boss to think he had hired the wrong guy. And that’s when I saw the reason for Larry’s visceral eruption. His eyes were red, and in the horribly awkward silence between us, I heard something that I’ve never forgotten. A single wet, ragged sniffle, followed by a glare of those reddened eyes. I immediately left – but it was too late. We never talked about it again, but I also don’t think he ever forgave me.  I knew I was done. My first job in the music business, and I could already feel it was over. Oh Jeeze, maybe I should have pitched the song about the fucking tree?

I was out of that job within a few months, but it turned out for the best. Because I went on to work for a  company that you know today as ‘Universal Music’. A massive, multi-billion dollar global music publisher. The very last place I ever expected to get reacquainted with Michael Jackson Moore and his yellow roses. And this time, Larry Larsen wasn’t around to stop it. However, as I began  my new journey as a music executive, I continued to witness the unusual emotional impact that “Yellow Roses On Her Gown” would have on nearly everyone who listened to it! Including even the great Jack Gold, a record industry Czar and Johnny Mathis’ “In house” producer at Columbia records , and yes during the meeting where I played him Michael Moore’s 5 inch tape Jack’s face turned red and he started to choke on the sandwich he was enjoying while getting caught up in the power of “Yellow Roses On Her Gown.” Thankfully Jack survived and after he recovered , he’d go on to produce Johnny Mathis’ beautiful  recording of this beautiful song! In fact, during the recording process, Jack invited Michael Moore into the studio to assist with “That freaking piano part” as Jack would refer to it! ‘

But here’s the best part, Johnny and Michael would become great friends, and I established a strong relationship with a true record business legend, Jack Gold! But the sweetest  iceing on this delicious cake was later: When ever Johnny Mathis would perform the song,he’d introduce it to his audience, by saying….“A while ago, a very young man brought to me a song which by coincidence reflects in many ways the background of my own life…”  Everytime I’ve heard that, I remember that little boy,  Larry Larsen, Jack Gold, Michael Jackson Moore and (of course) One, unusual, powerful song….

The truth is, there is even more to tell about just what it took to get that one song finally finished. However, I’ll leave that for another post and let my unknown friend have the final word.

Late at night I’ve often thought about the father who swears he’s happy, though his grass is overgrown; and the mother who’s heart was on a hillside; and the son up in the attic, in the evenings, gazing at a sash, with yellow roses on the gown.  All too often with tears in my eyes!

posted by Unknown at 1:44 PM on Mar 11, 2019

8 Comments

  1. Rick,

    You have to be Rick Shoemaker …yes? It’s been awhile — I don’t remember our first meeting exactly the way you do,but your narrative of the process that brought YROHG to Jack, and Johnny was quite touching. And let’s not forget Hal Yoergler, who published it originally for ABC Music Publishing, and after hearing it, when I brought that 5 song tape in to the A and R dept., said “dynamite.”
    Anyway, good to hear from you — Johnny still does it in concert, saw him four years ago at the Disney Concert Hall with the LA Phil —
    Hope our paths cross again, Rick,
    Michael Jackson Moore

  2. I was beginning to write my reply to the (Elvis anagram) when your “….. Long Parade” piece popped in and TOTALLY captured my undivided attention? ALL the visits to your offices, ALL the nights of music crawling, ALL the concerts, road trips and infinite conversations and I ADMIT I NEVER KNEW the truly specific nuances and visceral soul illuminations of your work. When Damian Lewis received his Emmy he responded that “judging art” is a concept he van not wrap his mind around. Paul McCartney once told us that all the music (past, present, future) exists in simultaneously in all forms at all times in the universal mind. Michaelangelo saw not a block of stone but invisioned a very specific, separate, unique and separate piece of reality. I guess Larry was bound to a very narrow view and subsequent outcome. I feel that you my good friend always envisioned that for every message their exists a messenger wholly appropriate and uniquely suited to it’s presentation.
    Thank You for sharing your message!
    Peace & Love…wood

  3. That is simply beautiful, Rick. You’ve reawakened the old heartfelt emotions that all “song people” share in their core, in the quiet moments of reflection and in the exhilerating and humbling moments of discovery. Thanks so much, I will pass this along if it’s alright by you. Magic.

    • Hey Mark,
      Thanx so much for your kind words, I’m so glad that the experience resonated with you, as it obviously did with me and YES, by all means please share it with all the “Song People” you know!
      Thanx yet again Mark,
      Rick

  4. That was wonderful Rick! I remember hearing about this song from you before but not this thoroughly. You really painted the picture beautifully.

  5. WOW. Talk about painting a picture with words. A powerful story. A wonderful piece of writing, Rick. Thank you. In your intro you lay out how works of art are created as part of a process. They’re not the finished product and many times only half of the story. How true. And I might add, the collaboration between creators is often a challenging one, as you so keenly describe in your article.

    I must say it is beautiful and admirable to see how you were such a magnificent conduit between Michael Moore and Johnny Mathis in bringing “Yellow Roses On Her Gown” to fruition. BRAVO!

    And to include the GREAT Paul Harvey, as part of your intro, is an added bonus of the highest order.

  6. Wow, what a touching story. I have never heard that song before. Of course Johnny Mathis can bring a certain soulfulness to any song. Knowing your back story I can certainly see why it touched you in a special way.
    Thanks for sharing it.

  7. Great story, Rick. Thanks for sharing. Larry Larsen seems like a real peach of a guy.
    There are few singers who can mesmerize me with their voice more than Johnny Mathis. I first saw him perform at Harrah’s in Lake Tahoe in the early ’60s when I was but a wee lad of nine or ten. He had this shyness about him that disappeared the moment he began to sing. Been a fan ever since.

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