Veteran lyricist Mel Glazer enjoys showing off the artifacts of a 60-year career spent writing the words for other people’s music. On a recent afternoon inside his Great Neck apartment, a lifetime of memorabilia is neatly piled on the dining room table inside — press clippings, LPs (33 1/3 long-play records) with his songs recorded by the likes of Etta James and Elvis Presley, and even a contract signed decades ago by the MGM musical star, Kathryn Grayson.
However, Glazer really brightens up when he pulls out a letter demonstrating that his lyric-writing skills are still very much in demand. Bruce A. McDonald, the band director of the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, is planning to perform “You, You’re Going Down,” a patriotic song Glazer wrote in 2002 in the wake of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
The song is “based upon anger that I was feeling, as well as sympathy for all the people who lost their lives” on 9/11, Glazer explains. Despite the song’s topicality, it took over 10 years of effort to find a place for it.
Doggedly plugging a song he believes in has been Glazer’s credo since his very first early 1950s hit, “If At First You Don’t Succeed, Try, Try Again.”
Since that auspicious beginning, Glazer has written songs for and with some of the music industry’s best known artists. If you owned a radio in the early 1960s, you likely heard his quirky 1961 hit, “Your Ma Said You Cried in Your Sleep Last Night,” recorded by Long Island-based pop singer Kenny Dino (and covered by a number of rockers including The Turtles, and, in 1990, by Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant). Elvis fans probably recall the title tune to the King of rock and roll’s 1968 flick “Speedway” – Glazer wrote the hard-charging lyrics. His composer/collaborators have included Carole King, currently being celebrated in Broadway’s “Beautiful,” and Sammy Fain, the latter a two-time Academy Award winner.
Glazer considers lyric writing an “avocation” – he worked fulltime as an executive in the cosmetics and confectionary industries until retiring in the mid 1980s as vice president of sales at Godiva Chocolate in Manhattan. He continues to receive royalties for songs written as far back as the 1950s. He’s also a respected music historian, serving as a speaker on Frank Sinatra for the New Jersey Council for the Humanities. And he’s teaching a potential crop of possible industry executives, as well as younger songwriters, as an adjunct professor of salesmanship at Five Towns College in Dix Hills. But writing song lyrics continues to be his avocation.
Glazer wrote his first lyric at age 10, and hasn’t stopped since. “If At First You Don’t Succeed, Try, Try Again,” was written while he was a teenager growing up in late 1940s Long Beach. With music by Stephen Weiss, a composer Glazer had met while he was working behind the counter at Kanter’s Pharmacy in Long Beach, the bouncy Samba-flavored tune was recorded by Edmundo Ross and His Orchestra in the early 1950s, hitting No. 24 on the charts.
Nowadays, Glazer works in the apartment he shares with his wife of 20 years, researching information for his lyrics at the Great Neck Public Library and writing on a pad or on his home office computer. His shelves are stocked with the tools of the lyricist’s trade – two frayed rhyming dictionaries, and a well-worn copy of The Word Finder, a reference book lyricists use to find adjectives and adverbs to fill out a line.
Once Glazer has completed a lyric, he sends it to a composer-collaborator. (He can also write lyrics to music.) He’s known for his artistry and prolific output, says composer and producer Stephen Schlaks, a collaborator since the early 1960s.
“He’s a poet,” says Schlaks, formerly of Syosset and currently living in Boca Raton, Fla. “The words would come out of him, and it would just blow my mind.”
Glazer and Schlaks originally began working together in the early days of rock and roll, writing “Your Ma Told Me You Cried in Your Sleep Last Night.” Recorded in a New York City studio, the single was an all-Long Island production with lyrics by Glazer, then living in Long Beach; music by Schlaks, lead vocal by Dino, and back-up vocals by The Bobby Pins – Jeanette Lendemer, Caren Pilzer and Judy Gould of Syosset. “Cashbox had that song in the Top Ten in 1961,” Glazer says.
Six years later, Schlaks was working on a song for “Speedway” with another lyricist, who was called to military service in Israel during The Six-Day War. Schlaks got the go-ahead from Elvis Presley Music in Manhattan to substitute Glazer, and they sequestered themselves in Glazer’s Long Beach home – with a “Speedway” movie script and turned out their song before the weekend was over. They were not just working against time but also against songwriters across the country. Along with dozens of other songwriting teams, each got $50 “just for trying,” Glazer says.
Glazer recalls the process of writing lyrics for the song, which would become the movie’s title tune, sung by Presley over the opening credits. Glazer recalls, “I thought about the speedway and I started to feel the rhythm of the racetrack, I started to think about the one in Indianapolis and I thought about the racing cars and that’s where I got ‘Take a ton of bolt and steel, a whole lotta sweat, a set of wheels, on the Speedway.”
“Elvis loved it,” recalls Schlaks, who had written previous songs with the entertainer. Glazer never actually met Presley in person, but Presley called while Glazer and Schlaks were picking up a script for Presley’s next movie. “I heard his voice saying ‘thank you’ over the phone,” Glazer says, adding “There were only nine Presley movies with title songs, and Steve and I wrote one of them.”
Glazer has had other successes since the 1960s. In 1998, for instance, “The Magic is There,” a Glazer lyric recorded by Daniel O’Donnell, was a Top 20 country song in England.
And after all those years of writing, the lyrics keep coming. “When I’m creating,” Glazer says, “boy, that’s a thrill, that’s where my energy flows.” The key, he says, is persistence. “If you believe in the song, you don’t ever give up. It only takes one yes.”