A Jazzman In The Jingle Jungle

This is a music post. Probably not for everyone, but here it is.

The Berklee College Of Music is an incredible place for musicians to get a special, in depth education in music. It has merged with the Boston Conservatory Of Music and has become a powerful educational force in several countries around the world. Back in the ’60’s, when I attended, it was called the Berklee School Of Music. The whole school was located in a 3-story building on Newbury Street. Here is a link to what some of the students did in March of 2020 during the coronavirus – What the World Needs Now.

I attended 4 years of classes there and would have graduated but for failing my piano final. I bring this up to illustrate what Berklee did for me in those 4 years. I went there in ’64 hoping to learn to be a jazz piano player, which I did. The other required classes brought out other abilities I had that I was not aware of… to compose music and to arrange and orchestrate it. This is important for several reasons, which I will now relate.

I don’t need this other stuff… I just want to play jazz!

As a jazz pianist, my life would have been pretty rough. Even great jazz players have to travel a lot, play small clubs for fairly small pay, and are forced to live a life style that leads many jazz musicians to drugs and depression. The more financially successful jazz giants of the ’40’s and ’50’s moved to Europe and enjoyed making more money and being more appreciated on a larger scale. But for the successful jazzer in America, touring was essential.

So yes, for me, the life of a jazz pianist would not have worked in the long run. In the ’60’s and into the ’70’s the clubs were smokey, the money wasn’t very good and there was a lot of competition for the good steady gigs. Hell, there weren’t many steady gigs. There were some decent jazz clubs that had “house pianists” who played during the weeks when the club didn’t feature a big name. But there were far better players out there than I, who were vying for those gigs. I would never have made enough money to buy my own home, for instance.

I began playing around Boston in ’65, one nighters, and it wasn’t bad. We usually made between $50 and $75 a night, but it was never steady work, which is the gig most musicians end up working toward. There is little enough security in a music career in the first place, and for musicians who didn’t teach, a “steady” was the way to go.

That’s where Berklee totally changed my life and my career. My arranging classes taught me how to arrange a standard tune for a 16-piece band. That knowledge translated later on (with a bit of tweaking) to arranging for strings, woodwinds and vocals. That knowledge, along with the composition classes I took, should have made me a good composer. But that didn’t happen right away. How it did happen is fairly hilarious.

James Progris

In either my junior or senior year, I took what we called a jingle-writing class, which was taught by James Progris. I didn’t like Progris, didn’t like his ego, his teaching style, his whole attitude. It was as if he felt he was too good to be teaching, and that we were lucky to even be in his presence.

I remember the first day of his class like it was yesterday. When we all got seated, he stood in front of us, almost snorting. He looked us over with a scowl, then, “I would guess none of you guys want to be here right now. You all think you’re hot musicians who are going to go out into the world and take it by storm. You probably think you’re going to get a record deal of some sort and make money in buckets.” He paused, looked at us, then began pacing a bit.

“Well, you’re not! You have no idea of the competition that’s out there now. You think you’re hot stuff… maybe you are, in your ensemble, but you won’t cut it once you leave this building. Oh, there might be one or two in the whole school who finally make it in the real world. The rest of you? Forget it. Which is where this class comes in.”

“You probably think that taking a jingle-writing class is a waste of time… that you’re taking it just for the credits. You see, I know you guys… all your cool licks and big dreams. But I’m telling you the day will come when you’ll be damn glad you took this class. It could make the difference between you making a living in music, or going back to school to learn something more practical. I suggest you take this class seriously! I’m not going to waste my time trying to teach you something you don’t think you need. So pay attention, do the homework, and we’ll all get through this somehow.”

———————————————

True, I never liked Progis, but he sure got my attention, to the point where I remember his opening remarks 54 years later! The class itself was simple enough… Progris was well-prepared and gave us assignments which were straightforward, almost simplistic, developing with practical applications what we had already learned. He passed out a sheet of almost stupid lyrics to us, lyrics that were selling some laundry soap or something, and told us to go home and turn those lyrics into a thirty-second jingle.

That class turned out to be a class that changed much of what I did for the rest of my life, not to mention my attitude toward jingles! Progris taught us a lot about the dynamics of the ad business in general, how ad agencies worked, how and why they advertised certain products, how and why they used demographics. As the class went on, I got more and more interested in the whole aspect of jingle writing, while still believing I would be a player when I left school.

What wasn’t supposed to happen, happened…

But a funny thing happened on the way to the forum. Toward the end of that semester I began writing fairly good jingles, and discovered, through that “stupid” class, that I could actually make up songs, that I could compose real music! That was transformational for me, as I’d never imagined I had any additional musical ability other than playing. I’d taken two composition classes already, but for some reason they didn’t take… perhaps due to the mechanics, rules and regs of writing good melodies and chords. By simply putting my own music ideas to a set of silly lyrics,  a whole new world of composition possibilities opened up for me! I guess you just never know…

What I learned eventually, out in the real world, was that multiple abilities worked hand in hand to round out a successful music career… that the more versatile one was, the better one’s odds of succeeding. In my case, my playing, plus my abilities in composing and arranging, worked together beautifully throughout my career. And wouldn’t you know, that the single element that made me the most money in a 34-year period of time, was jingle writing?!

Turns out Progris was right! The world of jazz would have slowly eaten me alive. My ability to write a good jingle, both in my little studios and at Doppler, saved my bacon time and time again! One has to smile, remembering that first day of jingle class, and how it all turned out.

Just so you know, my first jingle was for LaVerdiere’s Drug Store in Portland, Maine. The next one was for a Chevrolet Agency in Hartford, Conn. It was the third one, however, that hit the jackpot. I had moved (temporarily, I thought) to Atlanta and had been given a job in a small industrial film company. Somehow, the opportunity came up to do a demo for Georgia Power, Georgia’s electric utility. I was working with a roommate from Boston, Paul Miller, who got me down to Atlanta in the first place. He bought a Scully 4-track tape recorder and we built a little studio in the back of an old industrial building, owned by the film company We did a :30 and a :60 for them, with several singers in Atlanta who were recommended to us. To our amazement, they bought the demo and aired it all over Georgia! And to my amazement, I just found it! Here it is…


“Use a little less, save a little more,
Your electric power’s too good to waste
Turn it down or turn it off, don’t waste it when you’re through
Save on your electric bill, save on energy too!”

“Use what you need, but need what you use, it’s too good to waste.”

What happened next was equally unexpected. As we found out later, several of the ad agencies and recording studios scrambled to find out who the hell wrote that Georgia Power jingle that was playing everywhere! Why, a couple of young guys from Boston with a tiny studio in an industrial complex north of downtown! Was that just a lucky shot, or were they really that good?

We did several more jingles in the coming months, named our new company Tunesmith and actually had enough jingles to make a jingle demo reel and take it around town to the ad agencies. Soon I did a jingle for Bob Richardson down at Master Sound, and shortly after that did one or two for Doppler, a new jingle house in town. They worked out very well and shortly after that, Paul and I dissolved our company and went our separate ways. But Doppler continued to hire me, and thus began a beautiful relationship that lasted for 13 years!

Would love to be able to play you some of those old jingles, but there were three or four different recording formats in a 20-year period, and it was nearly impossible to transfer all I had done to a different format, then another. So most of them are lost now, long gone, except in my head. But because of Progris’ jingle class, and because of Doppler, I ended up writing and recording jingles in Atlanta, Nashville, Raleigh, N.C., New York and L.A. for the better part of 34 years! You were right, James Progris, you were right, goddamnit! My “hot licks” ultimately didn’t cut it, but your stupid jingle class certainly did!

How could I know, back then, that years later I would find myself on an elevator in Atlanta, riding up to the 25th floor to an Ad agency meeting about a new commercial for KFC, and whether I was the right guy to do the music? I’d be wearing a sport jacket and tie, slacks and polished shoes, all of which I despised… especially the necessary briefcase I always carried on those occasions. Several times it would occur to me, watching the elevator numbers go up, that i was probably here because of that damned Progris! I hated wearing a jacket, I hated going downtown to tall buildings, I hated the meetings with the corporate types, but I sure loved the money! To make $3K to $8K for a :60 and a :30, while writing and recording in a quiet recording studio?? You couldn’t make that in a jazz club in a month. I think, Progris, that along with all the other valuable stuff you taught me, you also helped me truly understand the meaning of a love/hate relationship. I hope you’re listening somewhere. Because if you are, I know you are smiling. Insidiously smiling. You bastard…

Steve Hulse


 

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