Ah, the wonderful world of jingles! An adventure into the world of music for money, the world of advertising, a world of ad agency execs whose sole purpose in life seemed to be to make a composer’s life a living hell, throwing more bad ideas, more last-minute changes and more ridiculous deadlines than you could ever imagine! A successful jingle writer didn’t have to be a great song writer, or a great lyricist, for that matter. The best tools a good jingle writer could have were the patience of Buddha, the ability to translate verbal gibberish into musical terms, nerves of steel and a sixth sense to know when Enough Is Enough! So in truth, a jingle writer really didn’t have to be a great composer…. what he needed to be was consistently fast, dependable and wildly versatile!
The ad agencies that a jingle writer worked for during my years in the business usually supplied the lyrics and the copy for the radio or TV commercials. The jingle writer was then charged with making a wonderful and magical 30 second or 60 second experience the world would never forget! Piece of cake, right?
How many times did a client catch me in the break room of Doppler Studios or in a quiet moment in my little studio and say, “I don’t care how you handle this, just make me look good back at the office.” Really! Or, “Make me a hero back at the agency, okay?”
Now, occasionally the person was joking, because many of the writers and producers in the agencies had great senses of humor… like Mack Kirckpatrick, who always smiled at me and said, “Do what you want, just make sure there’s a french horn or two in there somewhere.” Or, “work your magic, Stevie Wonder. I want my clients dancing in the halls!” And how many countless times did I hear a producer say, “Have fun with it, make it something new and exciting!” And they always thought we were hearing those well-worn motivational dinosaurs for the first time.
There was the time I was hired on Monday to do a jingle for an agency and have it finished by Thursday noon. I had heard that their presentation to their client wasn’t until late Friday afternoon, so I asked the account exec why he didn’t give me another day. “You don’t need it,” he smiled, “but we do!”
“What for?” I asked, fighting irritation.
“Practicing our presentation.”
A cool guy named John Shirley used to come up from Florida to Atlanta to do a jingle with us several times a year. He would roll in and give us a piece of music from a movie and say, “Make it sound like this.” Then he would disappear for three days while we got the jingle written and the players decided upon and booked. John would magically reappear for the recording session, give thumbs up on everything, then disappear again for about six months. I liked John.
Charlie, from Raleigh, N.C. used to come down to Atlanta to do jingles with us at Doppler. One day he came walking up the Doppler hallway in a nice jacket and a cool vest. I met him and told him I liked his vest. He stopped right there, put his brief case down, took off his jacket and vest and handed me the vest, dead serious. “It’s yours,” he said. And insisted later on that I keep it, which I did.
There were a lot of “full moon” experiences in the jingle world. There were so many rude surprises, that after a time there were no more rude surprises… we simply came to expect the next surprise, and were rarely disappointed. A day cut off our deadline, half the players removed from our recording date “for budgetary purposes,” a demand to get rid of those 3 or four notes “right there” became par for the course. My favorite time with agency clients was when they stood right behind me while I sat at the keyboard, trying to compose a new piece for them. “I like that…” “I don’t like that…” “No, that’s just not right…” “You need to pick it up a bit. No, wait, maybe slow it down a touch…” Standard fare.
My favorite, though, has to be the bank president from Alabama, who phoned in that he liked the jingle we’d just recorded for his bank, but we had to remix it, and remove the french horns. “I hate French people,” he quietly confided.
Now I knew that the French horn wasn’t made by French people, it was actually called “horn in F” and was developed by the English. But what the hell, we were gonna give that “president” what he wanted. Pete, the owner of Doppler, and I discovered that the English horn, a lower-pitched oboe, was actually developed by the French. So we replaced the French horn with the English horn, and informed the bank president what we had done. Naturally he was delighted, and I’m sure he never had a clue as to what we really did!
Having made a big deal here about the speed bumps of being a jingle writer, I have to say there were a lot of great folk in the Atlanta ad world, and sooner or later we, at Doppler, got to work with most of them. Many of them made our work fun and entertaining. They also brought us incredibly creative projects from time to time… projects that were truly new and different, and challenged us to be up to the task. The other composer at Doppler, Jim Ellis, was more of a rock player and writer, while I was the jazzer. We complimented each other very well and usually made it easy for Pete, the boss, to cover all the musical bases, knowing that one or the other of us could get the job done.
Were we prolific? Oh hell yes! And who wouldn’t be, after writing and recording one or two jingles a week for several years? Jingle writing has to be one of the world’s best ways to deepen one’s skills at composition and orchestration, to say nothing of being forced into musical styles that ranged from 13th century classical to today’s jazz! My favorite assignment was one Pete gave me one afternoon over a beer. “Well Hulse, I’ve got good news for you and bad news. The good news is, you get to do a symphony with most of the Atlanta Symphony players!”
I was delighted! “Great! What’s the bad news?”
He grinned. “It can only be sixty seconds long!”
Here it is –
I didn’t realize it at the time, but this was a high, wonderful moment for kid from SW Montana who had followed his dream, and now he was living it! There were other times, and other realizations like that for other special events, but always I took them for granted at the moment, feeling as if this was where I was supposed to be, that this was the natural evolution of my life. And perhaps it was.
the most difficult and ridiculous set of lyrics I ever had to put to music came from an agency downtown that had a tv project to clean up Atlanta’s rivers and streams. They came up with this animated dude they called “Captain Clean Stream,” and they needed a jingle to go with the good captain’s tv message. Sadly, they came up with their own lyrics, which they thought were very clever. Equally sadly, I was picked to put music to them.
“Please don’t make Captain Clean Stream scream, join Atlanta’s Clean Stream team!”
Sigh. But I did it. Or at least did the best I could. Here it is –
I did one jingle all by myself. That’s right, I wrote it, recorded it and sang it. I had an app that would change the sound of my voice, so I was able to become Speedy Gonzalez. The client was a Mexican restaurant, Rio Bravo. The jingle I’m playing for you here was supposed to be only a demo of what I could do, but they bought the demo. So all I did after this version was lay in the announcer copy.
Can’t write about my version of the jingle business without mentioning the fantastic array of excellent musicians we had access to in the Atlanta area. In almost every session they greatly enhanced what Jimmy Ellis and I had put down on paper. They were masters of their instruments, and musically intuitive to a degree that was, to me, amazing. Often they knew what we wanted before we had a chance to tell them. There were fine players in the area that we never hired, because so many of the in-town players were right there, good readers, and could show up and shine on the spur of the moment. And lest any Atlanta musician out there still feel offended or left out, let me remind you that my own piano playing on sessions got phased out by much better players…. Oliver Wells and Vance Taylor, to name two. A deep and most appreciated talent pool, to be sure!
In hindsight, jingle writing wasn’t half as important as I thought it was all those years. Basically, we made a good living by writing and recording mostly silly, meaningless little ditties in a beautiful recording studio, with some of the best players in the country. After a 13 or 26-week run, mostly on Atlanta TV stations, the ditties would be gone, never again to appear for any worthwhile reason, except as files in my computer. Did any of our jingles change anyone’s life, make any kind of positive difference? Could any of them be defined as art? Probably not, though I thought they might at the time. But a fine draft of Jameson’s and an easy chair to reflect on all that, with a more objective eye, I now realize that jingles did make a difference… but not in an artistic way. Because of those jingles, and those clients, we were able to build several beautiful studios that were used for far more than just jingles. Doppler had a great office staff and the best audio engineers in the South. It was a heavenly place to do music of any kind, and our jingles were at least partly responsible for that. So in my mind, at least, jingle-writing was justified not as an artistic endeavor, but as a practical money-generating activity that helped all of us at Doppler, and about 20 musicians, to live a good life and have a snazzy and comfortable place to work every day.
For a time, Doppler was the Tin Pan Alley for at least 5 surrounding states. I’m sure there were those who thought Jimmy and I weren’t “real” composers… but we were. In the 13 years that we jingled for Consolidated Doppler, (Or “Con Dop,” as we used to call it) no client ever left us at the demo stage and took their project somewhere else. A few of them might not have returned… and that’s okay too. Our whole crew at Doppler was an irreverent bunch. We were loose, confident and were known to “play with” our clients on occasion. As a company of unique individuals, we worked hard and partied hard. That wonderful group of people, who was family for all those years, can thank the magical vibe that permeated the business, its employees and even many of its clients, to one man. Pete Caldwell. His style, his sense of quality and his loose, quiet sense of humor trickled down to all of us. I’m thinking that he didn’t really hand-pick us… well, it was in some cases. But it was more like most of us found him, were drawn to him and set out to prove to him that we wanted to stay on his kind of fun and adventurous merry-go-round. To my memory he fired only one person in all that time.
Yes, we did other kinds of music – a movie score, corporate film scores; themes, opens and closes to TV shows, Jimmy even wrote a national anthem for a small country somewhere. I finally left Doppler in ’88, and it was time. The ad biz, the music biz, the world, were all changing. And so was Doppler. I left her in great hands, with the knowledge that my jingles were a part of the great success that Doppler enjoyed through the ’70’s and ’80’s. Even now I have to smile, and my eyes get wet.