DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
In 1955, The New York Times called Richard Adler and Jerry Ross, Broadway's hottest young composers. They wrote the music and lyrics for "The Pajama Game" and quickly followed that with "Damn Yankees," shows which included the songs "Hey There," "Steam Heat," "Hernando's Hideaway" and "Whatever Lola Wants Lola Gets."
Both shows won a Tony Award for best musical, and were directed by George Abbott. But everything changed for Adler when his songwriting partner Jerry Ross died in 1955 at the age of 29, just months after "Damn Yankees" opened.
Last Thursday, Richard Adler died at his home in Southampton, New York. He was 90. Terry Gross interviewed Richard Adler in 1990, after the publication of his memoir "You've Gotta Have Heart." They started with his first Broadway hit, "The Pajama Game."
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
When you wrote a song for "The Pajama Game," who would you have to play the song for before he got OK'd?
RICHARD ADLER: George Abbott, period.
GROSS: Oh, really?
GROSS: What kind of critiques would he give you?
ADLER: Critiques? None. He would say yes or no. For the Dictaphone song - he wanted a song in a, you know, that could be dictated into a Dictaphone machine. They didn't have tapes in those days, they had Dictaphone machines. So we wrote a terrible song called "Dear Babe," and he thought it was terrible. We thought it was terrible too. He said get me something a little bit more unique. And then we wrote "Hey There," and he liked that a lot and went into the show. Then when it was in the show, being a young, idiotic and compulsive man, I suddenly thought gee, this song, it's very lovely but it maybe isn't commercial enough. And I wrote six songs trying to write around "Hey There" to get it out of the show and Abbott kept saying, don't bother me. I like "Hey There," each time he would listen and he, thank God, didn't succumb to my persuasiveness.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HEY THERE")
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing) Hey there, you with the stars in your eyes, love never made a fool of you, you used to be too wise. Hey there, you on that high flying cloud, though she won't throw a crumb to you, you think someday she'll come to you. Better forget her...
GROSS: "Hey There" was actually the big hit from the show. Rosemary Clooney recorded it and she had a top 10 hit with it.
ADLER: Top 10. She had the biggest - maybe the biggest record she's ever had, it wouldn't $3 million. It was number one for over seven months, on and off was "Hernando's Hideaway." I mean they would switch from one and two. And at the time, I don't mean to sound braggadocios, but nobody had ever had number one and two on the Hit Parade before, not Rodgers and Hammerstein or anybody else and since then nobody has either.
GROSS: You worked collaboratively with Jerry Ross and you both wrote words and music, right?
GROSS: What were the mechanics of the relationship?
ADLER: Well, there were no mechanics to the relationship. We wrote every which way imaginable. Sometimes I would come in with a lyric or a melody, and he would elaborate on it. Sometimes he would, like for instance with "Steam Heat," I went bathroom one day and when I got in there I decided, as I said before, I'm a compulsive - I was a compulsive young man, I decided I'm not leaving this room until I've written a song about something in the room. So, there were certain things you can't write about in a bathroom. Then all of a sudden the radiator started clanging and hissing and I got the idea for "Steam Heat." I wrote out a full chorus of it, got out of the bathroom, called Jerry, sang it to him over the phone, we got together the next day and elaborated on it. That's one way that we wrote.
GROSS: After the success of "Pajama Game" you very quickly got involved in writing the words and music for "Damn Yankees." How did "Damn Yankees" happen so quickly on the heels of "Pajama Game?"
ADLER: Well, "Pajama Game" was a big hit and Mr. Abbott wanted to get the same team together and write another show. And he, the boys - that is Hal Prince and Bobby Griffith, came up with a book called "The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant." Now, we knew that baseball was singularly unsuccessful in the theater, motion pictures, etc. It had never been a hit. It was taboo. But we tackled it anyway. We all like the property. And we wrote "Damn Yankees" following on the heels of "Pajama Game."
GROSS: One of the best known songs from "Damn Yankees" is "You've Gotta Have Heart."
ADLER: "You Gotta Have Heart" is the best known song I think probably I've ever written. And it became this really tremendous hit in the show. It stopped the show from the first performance.
(SOUNDBITE OF SHOW, "DAMN YANKEES")
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as Van Buren) Now listen to me, you guys. This game of baseball is only one-half skill. The other half is something else, something bigger. (Singing) You gotta have heart. All you really need is heart. When the odds are saying you'll never win, that's when the grin should start. You've got hope...
GROSS: Your songwriting partner, Jerry Ross, died after "Damn Yankees" at the age of 29. You were devastated by that.
ADLER: I certainly was. I was devastated and that was 35 years ago and I'm still devastated by it. You know, he was like my brother. He was my beloved friend, my younger brother, my collaborator. He was everything to me at the time.
GROSS: Cole Porter gave you the advice of, you know, just write by yourself now. You know, your partner's gone. Write by yourself. Why was it so difficult for you to write by yourself?
ADLER: Well, you know, if you're married and you lose your spouse it's difficult to adjust to single life. If you're writing as a team successfully, very successfully, after a lot of hard work and suddenly half of the team is nevermore, it's difficult. It's hard to adjust. It's hard to explain. So I took Mr. Porter's advice and it took many years of struggle before I was able to succeed once again. I really literally had to start all over.
GROSS: What did the new success come with?
ADLER: Well, it came with songs like "Everybody Loves a Lover" which came about two and a half years later. It came with the writing of probably the most successful jingles. At the prices I got to be charging I call them advertising musicals.
ADLER: It came later on with the writing of - with the commissioning of classical pieces like "Wilderness Suite," the Statue of Liberty's centennial piece, "The Lady Remembers," the sesquicentennial of Chicago piece and other things like that.
GROSS: Thank you very much for talking with us.
ADLER: Thank you very much for allowing me to.
DAVIES: Broadway composer Richard Adler speaking with Terry Gross in 1990. He died last Thursday at the age of 90. Here's Richard Adler singing with his songwriting partner Jerry Ross at the piano recorded in 1954. It's a bonus track on the reissue of the original cast recording of "The Pajama Game."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HERNANDO'S HIDEAWAY")
ADLER: (singing) I know a dark secluded place, a place where no one knows your face. A glass of wine, a fast embrace. It's called Hernando's Hideaway. Ole.
JERRY ROSS: (singing) All you see are silhouettes and all are you hear are castanets. And no one cares how late it gets. Not at Hernando's Hideaway. Ole.
ADLER: (singing) At the Golden Fingerbowl or any place you go...
(singing) ...you will your Uncle Max and everyone you know.
(singing) But if we go to the spot that I am thinking of you will be free to gaze at me and talk of love. Oh, just knock three times and whisper low that you and I were sent by Joe. Then strike a match and you will know you're in Hernando's Hideaway. Ole.
DAVIES: Coming up, Geoff Nunberg on what he calls a new reticence to mention anything sexual in public discourse, even in the most clinical terms. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)