After rising to become the accompanist of Carmen McRae, Sarah Vaughan, Lena Horne and Nancy Wilson in the 1950s and early 1960s, pianist Ronnell Bright became a favorite of Johnny Hartman, Lou Rawls, Al Hibbler, Lorez Alexandria, Anita O'Day and other vocalists. Ronnell's songwriting stints with legends Johnny Mercer, Paul Francis Webster and Sammy Cahn in the mid-to-late-1960s encouraged him to branch out as a composer and lyricist. Ronnell's songs have been recorded by Stanley Turrentine, Blue Mitchell, Warren Vache, Freda Payne, Irene Reid and others.
Ronnell's achievements as a jazz pianist, accompanist and composer are extraordinary. But with enormous accomplishment comes deep disappointment, especially if you were part of the competitive West Coast popular music scene in the 1960s and 1970s.
Today in the fifth and final installment of my weeklong conversation with Ronnell, he talks candidly about golden opportunities that never materialized with Barbra Streisand and Doris Day, and why he ultimately decided to take Louis Armstrong's advice:
JazzWax: Based on your stories, it sounds like the West Coast music scene in the 1960s was a lot tougher than it seemed to average listeners.
Ronnell Bright: Look, the West Coast has always been a place that attracts large numbers of incredibly talented people. Back then, you didn't come to California to work a few days a week in the music business. It was a seven-day operation, especially as rock music ate into record company budgets. The stakes were higher. If you slowed up, someone else would get the gig. So you learned to take on opportunities and pursue them whenever they came up, if only so you didn't later regret not doing so.
JW: For example?
RB: Sometime back in the early 1970s, my wife, Dianne, and I went to a restaurant in Los Angeles. Dianne noticed that Barbra Streisand and Jon Peters, who was her hairdresser at the time, were just a few tables away.
JW: What were they doing?
RB: Peters was saying something to her and it looked like Barbra was crying. Dianne said that we had to get Sea Mist to her. This is before I took it to Ella [see Part 4].
JW: How were you going to get Barbra to hear the song?
RB: Well there wasn't a piano in the place and we didn't have the music with us. Dianne [pictured with Ronnell] came up with an idea. She told me to keep them busy and said she would rush back to our place to get a cassette of the song.
JW: How were you supposed to keep them busy?
RB: I have no idea. That's what I told Dianne. She told me to do what I could before she raced out the door. Eventually the waitress came over to their table. Peters got up but Barbra looked out the window, I guess to hide her tears. Peters reached into his pocket for his wallet and paid. A minute or two went by and they got up to leave. I had no idea what to do. What could I say? I didn't have the music or anything.
JW: What happened next?
RB: Just as they neared the door with me behind them, Dianne came through. She walked right up to Barbra and said, “Miss Streisand, my husband there wrote a beautiful song that’s just right for you. I have a cassette and the music here.”
JW: What did Barbra say?
RB: Oh, man, Barbra wasn’t in the mood. She snapped at Dianne, “What’s this? What do you do—you write your own songs and hand them out and keep them with you all the time?” I was dumbstruck. But before Dianne could answer, Barbra said, “Give it here,” and she took the manila envelope Dianne had for her. Then Barbra and Jon Peters left and got their car.
JW: Dianne sounds pretty amazing.
RB: Oh, she is. She's my No. 1 fan. I said to myself at the time, if Barbra Streisand hears Sea Mist in her car, it has to get to her. She has such a beautiful voice, I figured the song had to touch her.
JW: Did Barbra tell you she was going to record it?
RB: A day or so later, we got the envelope back in the mail. Dianne had managed to put our return address on the outside while racing back to the restaurant. The envelope hadn’t even been opened. Someone had just written “Return to Sender” on the outside.
JW: That must have been tough to take.
RB: It was, it was. But look, in those years in California, when you took big risks, the payoff was either huge or you were disappointed for days or weeks. That's why you had to take those kinds of shots. You never knew what could happen.
JW: Sometimes breaks disappear due to misunderstandings.
RB: That's right. Someone you know says they're going to speak to so-and-so on your behalf. If the opportunity doesn't work out, it could have been because it wasn't put the right way.
JW: For example?
RB: Back in 1967, I got a call from Sid Feller, the arranger [pictured with Ray Charles]. We had worked together with Nancy Wilson. Sid asked if I was available to do a date with Doris Day. I said, sure, absolutely. I had always loved Doris Day’s voice. I thought, and still think, her tone and interpretations are so pure and lovely. She is truly exceptional.
JW: Was it a big date?
RB: Oh yes. When I got to the studio, there were a lot of West Coast heavyweights there: Barney Kessel, Irv Cottler and others. We did the recording over several days. When released, the record was called The Love Album. On the final day of recording, Sid came over and said Doris wanted to know if I could stick around afterward.
JW: What was the problem?
RB: Hang on, hang on. After everyone cleared out, Sid came back and said Doris wanted to meet me. I asked if I had done something wrong. Sid said, “No, no, it’s a good thing.” When I walked over with Sid, Marty Melcher, Doris' husband was there, not Doris. Marty [pictured with Doris] said that he and Doris were aware of my talents and that they enjoyed my recordings with Sarah and Nancy.
JW: What did he want?
RB: Marty says, “How would you like to write the theme song to Doris’ next picture?” I said, “You’ve got to be kidding.” Marty said, “No, seriously.” I said absolutely. I had just finished writing a song with Paul Francis Webster, who wrote The Shadow of Your Smile. I asked if they wanted me to call Paul. “No, no, Ronnell, we know Paul,” Marty said. “We want you to write the words and music yourself.”
JW: Did you take on the assignment?
RB: Oh yes. They delivered the script the next day. It was about the New York City blackout of 1966. It was called, Where Were You When the Lights Went Out? So I wrote and wrote and wrote the whole week. I figured that if Doris didn’t like one song, I could always show her another.
JW: So you scored the movie?
RB: About two days before I was to meet Doris at her office on Cannon Drive, Don Genson, her record producer, calls. He says, “Ronnell, I’m so sorry. Marty is unpredictable. He’s already made an agreement with someone else who’s going to do the score. We told him we already had someone to do the title song. But he complained that if he’s going to do the score, he also wanted to write the title song. So Marty made an agreement to let him do it.”
JW: What a lousy break. Who wound up writing the title song?
RB: That was the funny thing. When the movie came out in 1968, it didn’t have a title song.
JW: So they tied you up for weeks and that was it?
RB: No. Don Genson said, “Doris is very upset about this and wants to meet you at her office to make it up to you. She wants to do another project.” Man, my spirit was so down at that point. But I went anyway.
JW: What was Doris like?
RB: Doris was sweet, just like she is in the movies. You looked into her face saw that her eyes were soft and she smiled so easily. She was timid but pompous in a protective sort of way. She sat on a tall stool, and I sat at the piano playing. She said, “You know, Ronnell, how would you like to do an album with me—just the two of us?" I said I’d love to.
JW: Who else was in the room?
RB: Don Genson and her rehearsal pianist. Doris says, “I’ve got a book of sheet music from different Broadway shows. I'd like you to pick a selection of songs from these shows and arrange them in my keys." Doris is a beautiful singer, and I was honored. She said, “If you can come back in a week’s time, we’ll meet and try them out.”
JW: What did you think?
RB: I had just finished staying up night and day writing music for the movie job that was taken away. Now I had to do more homework. But that was fine. I arranged about half the music in her key by the time we met the next time.
JW: How did it go?
RB: Back at her office, her rehearsal pianist was there again. He was throwing me dirty looks the entire time. He didn’t appreciate my being there, and I could understand completely how he felt. And I felt bad for him. Doris and I worked for about an hour. Then I took a break in the hall. I felt awful and couldn't really concentrate with the guy hovering around me.
JW: Did Genson get the picture?
RB: When Don Genson came out, I said, “Don, I appreciate this opportunity. But why is her piano player here? He’s shooting me dirty looks and coming up to the piano and checking out my hands. I can’t work like that. I have to be free. Is there any way to tell Doris not to bring him next time? I want to check out her singing and phrasing on these songs. I also want to communicate with her musically. But this guy is making me nervous.”
JW: So Don took care of it with Doris?
RB: About 15 minutes later, Doris came out with a powder puff, took it out and started powdering her face. “Alright Ronnell, you played for Sarah and Carmen but you don’t want to play for me?” Just as I opened my mouth to explain, she turned and left with Don.
JW: What do you think happened?
RB: I have no idea what Genson said to her. He must have gone inside and said “Well, Ronnell's all steamed up and doesn’t want to play with you under these conditions” or something like that. Whatever he said must have hurt her feelings to produce that kind of reaction.
JW: Why didn't Doris ask you directly for an explanation?
RB: In those days, I think Doris was insulated by the people around her. Maybe there was an insecurity. I have no idea why she didn't jump in and find out the truth for herself.
JW: If you could tell Doris Day something right now, what would it be?
RB: I'd tell her what I didn't have a chance to say that day. To me, Doris was on the same level as Sarah, Carmen, Ella and Nancy. When she sang, she had the love coming right through her. I so enjoyed her singing, and it was a joy to play behind her on The Love Album. I think had we been able to record an album with just the two of us, it would still be considered a jazz and pop classic. But you know how things go—they often happen or don't happen for a reason. If she wanted to record an album with me today, I'd be only too glad to do it.
JW: How did you handle disappointments like that?
RB: Louis Armstrong once sat next to me on the piano bench. I said to Louis, “Do you have a line of advice for a young feller trying to come up in the business?” He said, “Just remember this, Fingers: Your health comes first.” That has always remained with me and has helped me shrug off many tough breaks.
JazzWax tracks: Here's a sampling of Ronnell's compositions recorded by a wide range of jazz artists:
Carmen McRae recorded Sweet Pumpkin on Live at Century Plaza (1968), while Johnny Hartman recorded Ronnell's Don't Call It Love on I Just Dropped By to Say Hello (1963). Stanley Turrentine recorded And Satisfy on Rough 'n' Tumble (1966). Blue Mitchell recorded two of Ronnell's songs—Missing You on Out of the Blue (1959) and Sweet Pumpkin on Blue's Mood (1960). And Nancy Wilson recorded Ronnell's Funnier Than Funny on Gentle Is My Love (1965).