Obituary: Dave Frishberg

    The pianist and songwriter combined a solid command of bebop with a subtle sense of irony and a self-conscious nostalgia

    Dave Frishberg

    Before being recognised as a songwriter of uncommon originality Dave Frishberg had served time in the fast-lane of the jazz world accompanying Carmen McRae, Anita O’Day, Ben Webster, Gene Krupa, Al Cohn and Zoot Sims. He celebrated those days with his 1992 recording of I Want To Be A Sideman which opens with a satirical nod to In The Mood. Rosemary Clooney with Count Basie and Susannah McCorkle both covered it a little later.

    He was born in St. Paul, Minnesota on 23 March 1933 and during the war years he listened to recordings by Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, Count Basie and Bing Crosby. Art Tatum, Teddy Wilson, Albert Ammons and Pete Johnson became very influential too but his horizons were really expanded when he first heard Charlie Parker’s Ornithology.

    After graduating from the University of Minnesota, he served two years in the military before moving to New York in 1957. He began working at a local radio station (WNEW) writing continuity material for $65 a week. Tiring of his day job he joined Kai Winding’s four-trombone group which played “slick, smooth arrangements” mostly by Winding. In the early 1960s Blossom Dearie introduced him to Bob Dorough which resulted in a lifelong friendship. Their first collaboration was I’m Hip with Dave’s lyric (which came first) and Dorough’s music.

    In 1962 he wrote Peel Me A Grape. He was working with Dick Haymes’s wife, the glamorous Fran Jeffries, at the time and she wanted something new along the lines of Whatever Lola Wants. She thought Dave’s original was cute but she declined to use it. Anita O’Day liked it and she introduced it on her album with Cal Tjader. It has been recorded more than 80 times and possibly the most famous version is by Diana Krall, who gave it her seal of approval in 1992. The title actually comes from a Mae West quote in her 1933 film I’m No Angel.

    From 1962 to 1964 Dave worked with Gene Krupa’s quartet at the Metropole and on one disastrous occasion the great Benny Goodman sat in. Turning to Dave he said “Sweet Lorraine in G”. Benny started in F and things went downhill pretty fast after that. He had a happier time with Ben Webster who told him he was one of the few pianists “who could emulate Ellington’s time-feel”.

    In the early 60s he began a 10-year engagement as one of the house-pianists at the Half Note – “the hippest place in town”. He worked there with Webster, Roy Eldridge, Richie Kamuca and Jimmy Rushing along with the Al Cohn and Zoot Sims team who frequently held court at the club. Frishberg said at the time: “If you were a piano player doing jazz work in New York in those years, you couldn’t ask for a more nourishing, more rewarding experience than to play with Al and Zoot.”

    In 1971 he moved to Los Angeles to work on an NBC television show The Funny Side, hosted by Gene Kelly. He was also invited by Bob Dorough to provide new material for an ABC educational series called Schoolhouse Rock. Dave wrote several themes for the show including the ever popular I’m Just A Bill sung by Jack Sheldon. The latter might be the most well known of all his compositions because it was frequently heard on the show, which ran from 1973 to 1984 and 1993 to 1996.

    He wrote jingles and worked on shows like Charlie’s Angels and Mary Tyler Moore Survives The Seventies as well as finding time to travel with Herb Alpert’s Tijuana Brass. As a composer of classic themes these were particularly productive years. His love of baseball was reflected in titles like Van Lingle Mungo, The Sports Page, Play Ball, Dodger Blue and Matty. He had issues of Baseball Magazine dating back to 1911 and in 1984 he became a member of the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR).

    Frishberg once said: “The older I get, the more I’m convinced that everything really used to be better.” That outlook was revealed in nostalgic themes such as Sweet Kentucky Ham, One Horse Town and The Dear Departed Past – each a deeply felt hymn to nostalgia. His own favourite was one of his lesser known songs, You Are There, which was a collaboration with Johnny Mandel. His albums Dave Frishberg Songbook Volume 1 (1981), Dave Frishberg Songbook Volume 2 (1982), Live At Vine Street (1984) and Can’t Take You Nowhere (1986) were all nominated for Grammy Awards.

    After battling illness for several years Dave Frishberg died at a hospital in Portland, Oregon on 17 November 2021. He is survived by his wife April Magnusson and two sons.

    Dave Frishberg was the subject of a two-part survey by Gordon Jack published by Jazz Journal earlier this year.