Joel Grey: Only the Beginning 1967 / Black Sheep Boy 1969
As I recall, the time when we made these LP’s (as we called them then) was very special and exciting. First off, Only the Beginning was to be full of Broadway show tunes. This was 1966–67. I was appearing in the original production of Cabaret, and show tunes were definitely my passion and had been for years. Columbia chose Ed Kleban (A Chorus Line) to produce, and he turned out to be a canny and sympathetic collaborator. Fred Ebb wrote the liner notes. About a year before Cabaret, Barbra Streisand’s first brilliant breakthrough album was a great success and had amazing orchestrations by Peter Matz. Lucky for me, Peter and I had been pals since high school in Los Angeles. And the chance to work together again on my first record was really swell, and so were the charts Peter created for me. All through Peter’s and my long friendship and collaboration, his arrangements were unique, as they always felt like a “dialogue” between the singer (me) and the orchestra (him).
Black Sheep Boy a few years later was a compilation of the contemporary hits of the late 1960s: The Beatles, Donovan, Judy Collins, even Cream (yikes!). It also had a cover by the legendary Richard Avedon.
– Joel Grey, July 2004, New York City
Only the Beginning
“Joel Grey…like a tracer bullet”
It was a sunny spring afternoon and I was sitting on the couch in Joel Grey’s living room. Joel stood in the center of the room and sang to me. There was no pianist present and no musical accompaniment of any kind. But Joel Grey sang and I sat facing him, listening. I am fully prepared to admit that it all sounds slightly bizarre, but those are the facts.
He had called me a few days earlier and asked me to go over his nightclub act with him, as he was anxious to change it and add some new material, it seemed only proper that he show me the material he was currently using. He was now about half-way through.
“In this spot, I tell this joke,” he was saying. “It’s all about Miami Beach and people who walk this way.” He started to walk around the room mimicking the sound of a cha-cha band. The walk itself was a devastating parody of what, for lack of a better phrase, we would call the “cha-cha mentality.” It was at once scathing and amusing, and for the first time that afternoon, but hardly the last time in our relationship, I became aware of the incredible range of Joel Grey. I made him do it over and over.
It has always seemed to me that the finest comedy stems from truth. What is truly funny has a strong underlying logic although, of course, we raise it to the nth power. Furthermore, it must be accurately observed. So the truly funny people are excellent actors as well. It’s curious to realize, looking back, that a little cha-cha around a living room should persuade me that Joel Grey was a major talent. But again, those are the facts. I knew how well he sang. What I didn’t know was how astute and unusual he was. I could see he had watched people and picked up their eccentricities to use in his work. I could see too that although his eye was clear and accurate, it never lost its sympathy so that he never became too cruel to be funny. A singer, a dancer, an actor, a clown, a mimic, and only so high. I couldn’t wait to work for him.
But that was, to use the title of this album, only the beginning. We saw each other often after that. It seemed he never stopped working. There were pilots for television shows that never materialized. There were parts on many already being shown – December Bride, Maverick, Sunset Strip, Billy the Kid. There was a road tour of Stop the World in which he received marvelous notices and thunderous audience approval. There was a period during which he played Half a Sixpence right here in New York. (The night I saw it the audience gave him a standing ovation.) There were the usual wildly successful club dates (and that cha-cha). But when we would meet and talk (because we were close friends by now) I knew that he was still not happy. He had, after all, played in clubs since he was eleven years old (or something equally preposterous). The television shows were fine for the “bread” but hardly rewarding. It was the theater he really loved. But in the theater he had only played roles that were originally played by someone else. What he really wanted he had never had – to come to Broadway in a role he had created. I had no idea then that I would be a part of that.
When we first started to work on Cabaret, there was no role of a Master of Ceremonies. He happened suddenly and with that great good luck which plays a part in any successful production. The character started to materialize, and John Kander and I started to write songs for him. Little by little he grew and we all became enraptured with him. He could personify the whole morality of the period. The part got bigger and bigger, and one day producer Hal Prince (out of the blue, I promise you) suggested Joel Grey as the perfect performer to play him. I needed no convincing, of course. And I knew how happy and excited Joel would be to do it. A part of his own! Written for him! I was dead right.
One night at my apartment John and I played the score of Cabaret. Now it was Joel’s turn to sit on the couch and my turn to perform (and without a cha-cha to my name). When it was over my eyes went right to him. How was it, pal? Will we be all right? His eyes were wide and watery and I needed no other answer.
So rehearsals began and, because of the nature of the part, Joel was rehearsed apart from the principals. His numbers were separate entities and required separate attention. I watched almost daily. My respect grew and grew. His voice was phenomenal, strong, and musical, but there were so many other things to worry him – accent, gesture, movement, detail. I watched him experiment, listen, and then try again. Would it ever be right?
Opening night in Boston I stopped worrying. The drums rolled and out he came from behind the black curtains like a tracer bullet (the analogy is Walter Kerr’s and I am extremely fond of it). The mouth opened and out came “Willkommen.” I sat back in my chair. I knew, at least as far as Joel Grey was concerned, we were going to be all right.
The rest is well known. He repeated his triumph in New York, and now everyone who has seen Cabaret knows what a talent Joel is. They know too what he wanted them most to know. He would create a role and stamp it with his own personality.
So, thirty-five years later, he is an overnight success. From the “kid” who played the Copa when he was nineteen, from the son of a well-known father (Mickey Katz), from the good old reliable club act, from the usable replacement, he has become his own man. I don’t think anyone who has seen him in it will ever think of Cabaret without thinking of Joel.
One night in New York I was in his dressing room after the show (I often visit him there so that I can meet the celebrities) when a very effusive lady was busily complimenting him on his performance. She had apparently watched his career for some time. As she left, she took his hand and said, “I always knew it would happen.” Joel closed the door after her and turned to me. “That’s funny,” he said. “I didn’t.”
The truth is, I didn’t either. What should be and what is are often two different things. But I remember thinking back to that afternoon in his apartment and that insane little cha-cha walk. No, I didn’t know it. But it doesn’t matter now. He is going to do another Broadway show, again written for him, based on the life of George M. Cohan. He is, as you can see, recording. He is in demand. And the wonderful thing is, as the record says, it’s only the beginning.
– Fred Ebb, July 1967
Black Sheep Boy
I was brought up on Josh White and Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, The Weavers…that was the music I remember being played in my house when I was a small boy, and I was very affected by it, always, and the next thing I knew I was grown and listening to Bob Dylan and becoming aware of the giant that he was…then came, I guess, the day I was driving my car and I heard a song called “The Sound of Silence” by Simon and Garfunkel, and I was knocked out by the poetry in that song, and it came to speak not only to me, but to the masses and obviously was an enormous hit. I’ve always had a kind of private person inside that this album is a reflection of. This music has always been an important part of my life, especially the poetic aspects of contemporary lyrics.
I can’t tell you why; it’s just a feeling I have. “Are you going to Scarborough Fair, parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme”* can’t explain that to you any more than saying that it moves me…the melodic line of that song is very traditional in a way; it’s like a twelfth-century troubadour, and yet there’s something timeless and totally contemporary. Bob Cato, formerly head of the art department of Columbia Records, about two years ago said, “Hey, you’ve got to hear Tim Hardin.” I said, “What’s a Tim Hardin?” and now I have to say my favorite writer is Tim Hardin and I can’t explain it…never met him…but I think I know him somehow, through his music he gives an enormous amount of his personal self… he’s very exposed and naked as it were. “If I were a carpenter and you were a lady, would you marry me anyway, would you have my baby”** – a simpler thought you probably couldn’t find, but somehow the simplicity and directness of that Tim Hardin lyric is very effective…there is something about his ideas and the way he says them and sings them that is enormously moving. “If you love me, let me live in peace, please understand that the black sheep can wear the golden fleece and hold the winning hand.”*** Now what young man or young woman hasn’t felt like that sometime in his life?
In this album we have songs by Lennon and McCartney, Tim Hardin, Joni Mitchell, Harry Nilsson, Peter Yarrow (Jimmy Wisner, my producer, who guided me enormously in this album, brought me this ballad from the film You Are What You Eat, “Don’t Remind Me Now of Time”), Simon and Garfunkel, the Cream, two songs by Donovan, who is something else and something wonderful. It was hard to choose material from the Beatles’ catalog because it’s all so good and in a class by itself. We picked two songs: one older from Sgt. Pepper, “She’s Leaving Home,” and one from the brand-new album called “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” … it’s kind of a crazy West Indian vaudeville turn.
I would have loved to have done half a dozen of Nilsson’s songs, but we narrowed it down to his story poem “1941.” (One of the hard things was the fact that we had room for only eleven cuts, which meant material that I worked on by Leonard Cohen, Bacharach and David, John Sebastian, Jim Webb, of course Bob Dylan, Laura Nyro, and Randy Newman, would have to wait.
That’s about it. They’re “important songs” today and I am certain they’ll be meaningful to people for a long time to come.
– Joel Grey, January 1969
*© 1966, Charing Cross Music. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
**© 1966, Faithful Virtue Music Co. Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
***© 1967, Faithful Virtue Music Co. Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Tracks 1–11 – Only the Beginning – originally released as Columbia CS 9552 (1967)
Produced by Edward Kleban, Arranged and Conducted by Peter Matz
Tracks 12–22 – Black Sheep Boy – originally released as Columbia CS 9794 (1969)
Produced by Jimmy Wisner
Tracks 12, 14, 16, 17, 20, 22 Arranged and Conducted by George Tipton;
Tracks 13, 15, 18, 19 Arranged and Conducted by Joe Renzetti;
Track 21 Arranged and Conducted by Jimmy Wisner