Last week I happened to be listening to a Jimmy Rowles album he recorded with his daughter Stacy in 1988. One of the most interesting tracks on the CD is the moody waltz-time ballad Looking Back, a tune Rowles wrote in the 1960s. Over time, Rowles recorded Looking Back five times—once as an instrumental duet with Ray Brown and three other times with vocalists Carol Sloane, Stacy Rowles and Jeri Brown. Jimmy also recorded it while singing and accompanying himself. Curious about the folk-tinged lyrics written by Cheryl Ernst [pictured], I reached out to her in Britain for the full story.
Here's how Cheryl says the song's lyrics came to be:
"In 1968 I was a staff songwriter in California for Hello There Music, Bones Howe's publishing company. Bones and Jimmy knew each other from days gone by, and Jimmy asked Bones to recommend a lyricist. When I showed up at Jimmy's house in Burbank, he was visibly shocked by my appearance: Bones had sent him this young hippie in love beads and sandals.
"Jimmy played several tunes for me on the piano. The one that stood out made me think of Wuthering Heights, full of mists and moors. I asked Jimmy if I could have a shot at it. He said yes. So I took the song and went home. The following day I called Jimmy and told him that the lyric was finished.
"When I brought the song back, Jimmy played down the tune, and I sang the lyric. When we were done he sat silent at the piano for a moment. Then he turned to me and said, 'You just described the house where I grew up.'
"I still believe the marriage of the words to Jimmy's beautiful melody is some of my best work as a lyricist. We wrote a couple of other tunes together, but Looking Back was the best.
"We were the most unlikely of collaborators: Gruff Jimmy, the 'Velvet Frog' as he called himself, and me, a fresh-faced Hollywood hippie kid. But that melody transcended age and inexperience. I'm very proud of the song and having been able to work with Jimmy.
"In 1970, on my 21st birthday, I went to see Jimmy at a club in Hermosa Beach. Who should be sitting at the piano bar but Sarah Vaughan. Jimmy bought me my first legal drink and introduced me to one of my life-long idols. Sarah was a gracious lady, and they were good friends.
"Years later when Jimmy and I spoke after Sarah died, he was livid because none of her old friends had come to see her in the hospital when she was so ill.
"In 1997 I received a call from Bennie Wallace, the jazz saxophonist. Jimmy had recommended me as a lyricist for an MGM animated film project that Bennie was doing. Bones Howe was the producer, and the three of us were briefly reunited. Jimmy by then was very ill with emphysema and went everywhere with an oxygen tank.
"During a break in a recording session he sat down at the piano and began to play some stride pieces that were very demanding. Even though he could barely walk without assistance, he could still play his ass off.
"Jimmy and I would speak on the telephone during the gaps in time. I had moved to San Francisco but we kept in touch. He had so many funny stories about Billie Holiday and other greats with whom he had worked. We also shared a love of the vocal group Take Six.
"One day Bones called me and told me Jimmy had passed away. The next day I composed a song for him titled I've Been Meaning to Call.
"If you want to hear the definitive version of Looking Back (in my opinion) check out Stacy Rowles singing it and her dad playing."
—Cheryl Ernst Wells
JazzWax tracks: Jimmy Rowles accompanying his daughter Stacy on Looking Back is available as a download at iTunes on the album of the same name. Just be sure to type "Jimmy and Stacy Rowles" into the search engine at iTunes. Or you can download the song at Amazon or buy the CD here.