Dexter Gordon: "Ernie's Tune"


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In the late '50s, Jack Gelber wrote a play called The Connection, which dramatized the lure of narcotics and the stark perils of addiction. The play—which opened in New York at the Living Theatre on July 15, 1959—featured jazz musicians who were initially going to improvise music on stage.

But when pianist Freddie Redd wrote a score, he persuaded Gelber to use it and Redd, alto saxophonist Jackie McLean, bassist Michael Mattos and drummer Larry Ritchie performed it during the run. The theater was located on the second floor of the former Hecht's department store on Sixth Ave. at 14th St.

The play's raw theme and incorporation of live jazz attracted sufficient acclaim in New York that Gelber launched a West Coast production in 1960. For the Los Angeles version, Dexter Gordon composed music and performed. Among the songs he wrote was Ernie's Tune, a ballad. 

What most people don't know is that in 1960, Los Angeles songwriter Morgan Ames was asked to write lyrics to Gordon's song.

Last week, I spoke with Morgan about Ernie's Tune...

JazzWax: When did Dexter Gordon write Ernie's Tune?

Morgan Ames: It was written during the run of the play in Hollywood in 1960, because that's the date on my original leadsheet. Dexter was probably hanging out somewhere and he did what musicians do—he wrote several tunes for the play. As we know, Dexter turned out to be a really good actor. I'd love to know who figured that out. Later, of course, he was beautifully cast in movies like 'Round Midnight and Awakenings.  

JW: Who was Ernie?

MA: Ernie was the play's junkie musician—soft-spoken, talented, lost, attractive. Dexter was perfectly cast, and this may have been his first play. I don't know.  

JW: Who played the characters on the West Coast?

MA: Robert Blake and Gavin MacLeod, who was notoriously square in life but playing this hope-to-die drug addict. He was really good in it but his career didn't take off until The Love Boat and The Mary Tyler Moore Show, both of which suited him way better.

JW: Who asked you to write lyrics for the song?

MA: I think it was Robert Blake's idea. He liked my writing. I was excited about the idea of writing a lyric around a character.   JW: Why that specific song? What is it about the song that intrigued you?

MA: It's a purely beautiful melody, not just a jazz tune.  At that time, jazz guys were writing changes to tunes and this was one of them—but Dexter's had a real melody. I was a keyboard player who was enthralled with chords. Dexter was a jazz star to me. I was 20 at the time—thrilled to be around these guys. Here was this young girl eager to write a lyric to his tune.

JW: What did Gordon think?

MA: I think he was amused, and then he liked it. It suited the character and the life pretty well. I remember Dexter was very tall—courtly but distant. I'm a little hazy but I'm pretty sure I was the one who made sure the song was registered with BMI. He must have been in the process of recording it because otherwise you can't get a song registered.

JW: Did you work with Gordon on the lyrics?

MA:  No, I didn't work with him. He wrote the song and I got my hands on it somehow.  I never saw Dexter again after that.

JW: What was your expectation—that a specific singer would take it on?

MA: Yes. It was a disappointment that the song was never recorded with my lyric. But this is a very familiar occurrence in the music business, and every writer knows it. These rejections happen, and your confidence flags.  You bury it and move on to the next song, the next chance. I was not good with follow-through.

JW: Tough to needle singers to try singing it?

MA: I was more attracted to musicians than songwriters.  Sometimes a songwriter makes a profound hookup with an artist—Fred Ebb, John Kander and Liza Minnelli [pictured above], or Barbra Streisand and Alan and Marilyn Bergman. They have a whole different kind of career as a result.  They are better oriented and have a container for their work. And of course these are all great songwriters.

JW: So to date, no one has recorded the lyrics? A song waiting to happen.  

MA: That's right. Shirley Horn would have killed it. I'd say it hasn't been recorded because no one knows it exists. I lost track of it over time, and Dexter was a player, not a singer. Also if anyone did look it up, I was listed as Vicki Arnold—a name I changed in my early 20s. It was registered with BMI, and I've always been an ASCAP writer.

JW: What are the lyrics?

MA: Here they are...

Don't cry if you see him reach for a star that's high

High up in the sky, much too far.

'Cause that's how it is, how it really is, for Ernie's always alone.

Once I saw a tear in his eye that shone, bright as any star in his sky.

But tears are a fake, asleep or awake, for Ernie.

He won't ever change, although he knows with every nod he's older. 

“He's strange," that's what they say about him

There's a way about him, but they're wrong,

He's not strange, he's just dreaming of a song

Or just something pretty to love. 

But that's how it is, how it really is for Ernie. 

Never cry for Ernie.  

JW: Have you written lyrics for other jazz songs that have not been recorded?

MA: Yes, and I've decided to put together a book of lost songs, now that I've found some of them. I'm assembling leadsheets, demos, some keyboard parts as well. I'd like people—especially singers—to know that these great musicians wrote songs and that there are lyrics. Some were recorded, some not.  

JazzWax note: For more information on Morgan Ames, go here. She has written lyrics to songs by Johnny Mandel, Dave Grusin, Bill Evans and many others.

JazzWax tracks: Dexter Gordon's Ernie's Tune has been recorded just six times—twice by Gordon on Dexter Calling (1961) and More Than You Know (1975).

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
Copyright © 2019. All rights reserved.


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