Sedaka and Cody were an odd couple with a lot to offer each other: Neil gave Phil an education in songwriting, and Phil brought Neil into the '70s with contemporary lyrics inspired by his blues background and hippie lifestyle. The partnership also produced the classic song "Solitaire," which has been recorded by over 90 artists and was a hit for The Carpenters.
Phil had more success in the '80s when a red hot Huey Lewis and the News recorded his song "Doing It All For My Baby." These days, he is still excited about songwriting and teaches a class on lyric writing at the Songwriting School of Los Angeles. Our story starts in New York City, where Philip got a job with Don Kirshner.
Philip Cody: My Brill Building experience? I was never in the Brill Building.
Songfacts: You were at Aldon, weren't you?
Philip: No, I came to Kirshner after Donny moved out of the Brill Building. They moved to the corner of 6th Avenue and 56th Street in a high rise. Donny had a big office up there with a big grand piano and windows on two sides, and you could look out into Central Park. It was a brand new building when I signed with him, brand new office.
Songfacts: How did you end up signing with Don Kirshner?
Philip: I was just pounding the pavement as a kid. I was going from publisher to publisher. And somebody - and I don't remember who, exactly - got me an audition with Don Kirshner and Herb Moelis, who was his money guy at the time. I just walked in off the street and started playing the piano, and basically got a recording deal and a publishing deal.
Songfacts: Was this the same working atmosphere as the Brill Building, meaning that there'd be a bunch of publishers and writers and performers in the same place?
Philip: Well, yeah. When I started there a lot of people were starting to make the migration to California. I think Carole had already moved that direction. Neil was more dyed-in-the-wool New Yorker and probably still is. The Tokens were there - I ran into them a lot and we shared stories and demos and stuff like that. It was that kind of a thing. Donny was working on signing Kansas at that time, and he was also spreading deeper into television with Rock Concert. There was music all over the place, and there were people running in and out of offices. It was like a nice kind of controlled bedlam.
Songfacts: Can you talk about how you got started writing songs, and your style?
Philip: I don't think I ever had a style. I'm starting to develop a style now that I'm 66. (laughs) But I came up through singing in church. My dad dragged me into choir school and said, "You're going to sing Gregorian chant." And that's what I did. I started in church and then started singing doo-wop with my friends on the corners, sort of the cliché right out of the movies. And then I met some guys in college and we started a band and we went down to play the Night Owl Café in Greenwich Village, and the owner said he wouldn't hire us unless we had original material. So we woodshedded for a while. I got nominated to be the lyricist, as I was the one with the major in English. And that's basically how I became a lyricist: by default. But I had been playing a lot of music. I'd also played trumpet as a kid, I played fluent piano. But the guys in the band taught me how to play the bass and the guitar. I did a lot of bass work and played in some blues cover bands for a while after my band broke up, and I puttered around doing jingles.
But I was mostly into folk rock and protest music in the '60s and '70s. And a lot of the stuff we did originally as a band was heavily influenced by Bob Dylan and the Lovin' Spoonful, and a little bit the Beatles. That was basically my coming of age laboratory in Greenwich Village.
Songfacts: What was the first song you wrote with Neil?
Philip: The first time we got together, we sat down and wrote three songs, and I want to say "Trying to Say Goodbye" might have been the first song, and then "Don't Let It Mess Your Mind," and then "Solitaire." All in a little trio of songs that we did on a sit-down one afternoon at Donny's piano high above the park.
Songfacts: Tell me about writing "Solitaire." Where did you pull inspiration from that?
Philip: Neil just hit me with a lot of sad music, and that kind of thing for me was a surprise - I didn't know I had that in me. But Neil encouraged me to make him cry. So I went for that particular part of Neil's throat - I was trying to get a reaction out of Neil, and if I got a reaction out of Neil, I knew I'd done good. Because I had no idea what a hit song was. I'd been in the studio and I'd been out and about on the streets for six years at that point. But this was the first time that I ever really hooked up with anyone who actually knew what they were doing.
Songfacts: It's interesting you say you didn't know what a hit song was. I think if you did know what a hit song was, you might not have written "Solitaire."
I was the hippy kid. I lived in a little studio in Greenwich Village and I come up town every day and hung out at the office. And here was this guy who looked like he came in off the tennis court asking me if I wanted to write songs with him. And we clicked. For some reason, what I had to offer to his music was just the right thing at the right time.
Songfacts: Would he have the music composed when you were writing the lyrics to it?
Philip: A lot of the time it was that way, but basically, we'd just do it a line at a time. But there was a lot of music written. I don't recall ever writing anything with Neil out of a verse of lyrics that were already existing. We'd get together, he'd play me a bunch of things, and I'd say, "I like that, let's write lyrics to that one." And then he would almost machine-like, play - keep repeating line after line until I got what that line was. And then we'd move on to the next line and he'd just keep repeating. He was very patient and very accommodating in that way, and he gave me a lot of time. I'm saying gave me a lot of time, I mean, we sat down and wrote three songs, one of which was "Solitaire," in an afternoon. It wasn't difficult.
Songfacts: With "Solitaire," was Neil the first to record that song?
Philip: It might have been Andy Williams, although Neil may have recorded it in Europe before Andy did his version. But I know that we were looking to get it cut, and there was a request made for me to re-write the lyrics for Andy. Richard Perry called up and asked that I accommodate them and re-write some of the lyrics. I sort of balked for a moment, and then Wally Gold at Kirshner said to me, "You should do this. This will assure that you get a record on this, and we'd like to get a record on it." So this might have been prior to Neil's record of "Solitaire" coming out in England.
Songfacts: What was it about Andy Williams that he didn't want to record the original lyrics?
Philip: I think it was certain words that he had trouble saying. But Richard asked me to make some of the word choices a little softer, sonically. And it was okay once I let go of the idea that my lyrics were inviolate. It went rather smoothly. Over the course of time, as the Carpenters did the song, they basically did a mash-up of the old lyric and the new lyric, which actually was better than either of the two, the Andy Williams or Neil's original. I think the Carpenters' version was the one that I like best.
Songfacts: Did you ever imagine that song sung by a female voice?
Philip: Yeah. I did, actually. But when I heard Karen Carpenter, I had chills down my spine. As a lyricist, you want that thing where an artist owns your lyric. You can measure success by the amount of money you make off a song, but I measure the success of that song by that particular moment, when she made it totally her own. And it's still great. I sat down one day and I listened to all 90 versions of "Solitaire" that people have done, and of all the ones that are out there, Karen Carpenter's is still the one that is the benchmark for all the covers on that song.
Songfacts: What about the Elvis version?
Philip: It's kind of a funny version. It's sort of weirdly histrionic. I mean, I'm happy about it. It's a wonderful way to sit down and start a conversation. I had an ASCAP country award with Elvis doing "Solitaire." That's always nice on my resumé. But as far as the performance was concerned - I hate to be condescending, but it was like from the fat Elvis days and not the skinny Elvis days. But still, it was Elvis. So the other thing you'd want is maybe Sinatra. But it was interesting. It was a song that nobody at the publisher believed in. And I think it was through Neil's efforts that that song started to generate attention.
Songfacts: Another song you wrote with Neil was "Laughter in the Rain." Can you tell me about that song?
So we got together on a morning and Neil sat down and played me the changes and the melody to "Laughter in the Rain." I just sat there with a blank stare on my face. I had nothing. I had totally nothing. I excused myself, and I went out and took a walk. We were up in the country so I just took a walk and I sat down in a field near a golf course, smoked a joint, and watched some deer frolicking. I spent about an hour and a half, two hours out in the sun just kind of nodding off under a tree. I got myself up a couple of hours later and walked my way back, and Neil was there. I sat down, picked up a yellow pad of paper and in five minutes I had most of the song done.
The interesting part for me about "Laughter in the Rain" is that there's a section in the song where it goes, "I feel the warmth of her hand in mine." And the way that Neil had originally written it was with that line repeated twice before every chorus. I said to Neil, "No, let's just take that line and cut it in half and only do it one time." And to my surprise, he agreed. That was a great elevation in status for me, going from the punk kid to someone who Neil Sedaka actually listened to and took advice from musically.
Songfacts: That's interesting, because you weren't just a lyricist. You were also somebody who knew the music side, as well, at that point.
Philip: Yeah. And it was very fulfilling for him to recognize that and to concur. At that point we still hadn't had a hit, so I was still basically a nobody, and he gave me some props and made me feel really good about my being a professional songwriter.
Songfacts: And then how did the song "Bad Blood" come about?
Philip: Oh, dear, my least favorite song. I went to visit my family and I spent some time with my grandmother, who is an old Sicilian lady. She was telling stories about the lady up the street who used to be a witch, a Strega. And the whole idea of people being good or evil because of what goes on in their blood was just part of the superstitious nature of my Sicilian upbringing that I tried to stay as far away from as I could. (laughing) I just thought it would be an interesting way to approach a lyric: rather than from a place of enlightenment the idea is that love makes us stupid. And that's where I went. It wasn't (heavy sigh - pause)... I did it, and I didn't think I did a very good job on it, and before I had a chance to do a re-write Neil was in the studio with Elton doing the song, and that was it. So I guess the best things are left undone.
We passed around acetates after we did a record, and I got an acetate with Neil and Elton's version on it. I didn't like it, and I thought, Okay, what are we doing next? And I just moved on. I thought, That's probably going nowhere. And I was absolutely wrong.
Songfacts: Did you know that Elton was going to come in and sing on one of those songs?
Philip: No. My relationship with Neil was sort of two different worlds meeting and then going our own separate ways. We would get together to write, we occasionally socialized, but usually it was something that Neil would invite me to. But we didn't maintain a friendship, we didn't really party together that much. He and his other partner, Howie (Greenfield), fought so much in the studio that Neil was hesitant to have any other writers in the studio with him, and to control that, he never invited me into the studio. So I had no idea. I would just go home, go about my business, play my little club gigs or hang out at Kirshner's and do whatever it was I was doing. I would get these little packages in the mail of "this is what our song sounds like." It was an incredible rush when it was "Laughter in the Rain." I heard that sax solo and just loved it. The object for us in working together was to get Neil into the 1970s, and that record came out sounding so 1970s it was perfect.
Songfacts: Were there any other times that you opened up the acetate and you were just thrilled with the results?
But "Should've Never Let You Go," the thing he did with Dara (Neil's daughter), was one that took my breath away. Dara's an even better singer than he is. And that just impressed the fuck out of me. It was just amazing.
Songfacts: Did you know that he was going to record that with Dara?
Philip: No. Again, nobody told me anything. I was always the happy recipient of the good news, and that was fine. I liked working that way because I had other interests.
Songfacts: In "Should've Never Let You Go," was there some inspiration behind writing that lyric for you?
Philip: Well, yeah, but I don't want to talk about it. (laughing)
Songfacts: (laughs) Was it written as "Never Let Her Go"?
Philip: Yeah. It was a private moment.
Songfacts: I'm getting the sense that a lot of your writing comes from personal experience. You're not just making up characters.
Philip: It does, but it depends on what day of the week you catch me on. It's funny, because I'm teaching a lyric-writing course at the Songwriting School of Los Angeles, and I'm trying to get my students to let go of the personal experience and start writing songs from a different persona. But that's just an exercise.
I think part of me was trying to be Neil. If I were writing solely for myself, I would not have used some of the phrasings that I used for Neil, because I have a much more bluesy background and hippie kind of background, and I probably would have felt uncool writing some of that for myself. And back then coolness was very important, you know. It was like the hipsters. It was very strange for me, because I was two steps out of a commune and I was writing with Neil Sedaka. How weird was that?
Songfacts: What did you learn from working with Neil?
Philip: I learned how to be a pop writer, and that was invaluable. As far as being a songwriter, I went to the University of Trial and Error and my professor was Neil Sedaka. I got a real close-up chance to listen to how he works. We would sit down and I would watch him deconstruct the top ten of that particular week and write songs backwards to look for stuff.
Songfacts: You mentioned that you were really happy when you heard "The Immigrant." How did that one come about?
Philip: I wanted to write a song for my dad. My dad came to this country; he wanted to be a singing star. He worked in the chorus of the Metropolitan Opera before he got married, and then put down his singing career to become a tradesman. My dad and I, up until I was about 28, were constantly at each other's throats. He wasn't real happy with the direction I'd taken. He thought I was destined to be a bum for the entirety of my life. And then he actually went into a recording studio in Sicily and did a version of "Solitaire" in Italian. And then I said, Wow, I've scored with my dad. My dad thinks I'm cool now. So I thought as payback I would try to write about my dad's point of view of coming to this country and how much promise there was.
And, of course, at that time we were starting to see immigration problems. I think I was watching a news report, and I remember thinking, That's not the way Americans treat people who come to our country. And I wanted to write about that.
I don't think it was a successful song. I think it got a little bit too cabaret-ish to really make the message get through. But there are people who write me and tell me how much they appreciate that song.
Songfacts: Was that your dad's attitude, that he had turned negative towards the experience?
Philip: No. Not my dad so much. It was more me. I was much more put off by the Vietnam War and how our stance in the world just didn't seem friendly and welcoming. And I wanted to write nostalgically about my father's period when he came, feeling such promise and hope.
Songfacts: Do you know how old your dad was when he came over?
Philip: Yeah. Let me see - he was 17.
Songfacts: And he came from Sicily?
Songfacts: You had another hit with Neil called "Love in the Shadows," which is a pretty interesting lyric. Can you tell me what's going on there?
Philip: Yeah. I was trying to do sexual innuendo with him. I think if I had gone more for the love song, we would have been more successful with it. But it was a weird song. It was like Neil doing R&B. It was sort of like the New York club scene in my mind. I had a girlfriend for a while and we would go to a club and we'd make out in a dark corner of the club, almost to the point where we were having sex right there. That's the kind of feeling that I wanted to get over, and I don't think I succeeded very well. I don't feel like I did a very good job on that song.
Songfacts: I think it's a pretty interesting lyric, because there's a lot of ways to interpret that, and it draws you in to try and figure out what's going on.
Philip: Yeah. I think I left it too open to interpretation, although as I've grown as a writer, I've begun to realize that sometimes the best thing to do is to not give it all away. So there's a lot of ambiguity in that song. There was a crowd of people around us who I wasn't comfortable with sexually, you know, they were making me nervous, and I sort of looked at them as the shadow people. And the mishmash of the whole pick-up scene and the make-out scene on the streets of New York and in the clubs - stuff that I was sort of outgrowing.
It's just a weird song. The line that keeps coming up, "In the shadows, you've got to know you love her mostly by feel," it's almost like, well, now that I say that, I know where that impetus comes from. I had a girlfriend who complained about being groped on the subway, and it's those moments in New York City - you're like a whisker away at all times from rape and pillage of each other. It's the things that keep those passions from exploding, but that you can get away with if you're consenting and you do them off to the side. You would grope your girlfriend on the subway and maybe she wouldn't complain, but as soon as it's not you, then there's something else going on.
I was trying to put all that in a song, and in 3 minutes you really can't do a philosophical treatise about stuff like that. I should probably have tackled that differently and tried to take a more simple kernel to work with rather than be so inclusive in it. But it was a hit, marginally, so I guess it was okay.
Songfacts: ABBA had that song in the '70s that you put the lyrics to.
Songfacts: Tell me what direction you were given when you were instructed to write those English lyrics.
Philip: It would have been Donny Kirshner or Wally Gold who would have come to me with the project. I was given the title: "Ring, Ring," and they said, "See what you can do with it. Do your magic." And I think at that point people were thinking I was the savior (laughing) and to tell you the truth that had nothing to do with anything. It went by so fast, it was just one of those things I did as a favor to Donny.
Songfacts: But you're the one that came up with the storyline of the girl waiting by the phone?
Philip: Yeah. But that's just the turnaround of me. I mean, you just change gender roles and the song becomes about a girl waiting for a phone to ring, or it could be about a guy - whatever. It's who's singing the song. It wasn't any earth shattering idea. It was just something kind of simplistic. But it was easy to do and I wanted to write something poppy. And for me, poppy was always to stay as simple as you possibly can get.
Mike was great, he could sing the shit out of it and he played great. And they (the Lawrence Welk Group) didn't know what to do with it, they had no idea. Mike went on tour with Delbert McClinton and at some point was doing club gigs in Mississippi. Some guys from Huey's band came in to see the gig and he was playing "Doing It All For My Baby." The guys in the band said, "Wow, we love this song. We're going to bring it to Huey." And they brought it in, and three years after we wrote the song, Huey Lewis and the News recorded the song and put it on their biggest selling album ever.
I'm going to be playing locally in town for the first time in about a year, and going through my set I found a new way to do "Doing It All For My Baby" that I really love, because after 25 years of playing the song over and over, you kind of look for new ways to present stuff.
Songfacts: The last thing I wanted to ask you about, Phil, you said you majored in English. Where did you go to school?
Philip: I went to the University of Bridgeport in Connecticut for about a year and a half. And I went right from there to the streets of Greenwich Village and I was with a band, and we got a recording contract. Just blew me away. I mean, one of those things where you just go along for the ride and not expect much to happen, but having too much fun to stop. And somebody says, "Oh, yeah, we'll sign you to a recording contract." The band was a success within the borders of Manhattan, and we were produced by Richard Perry - I think we were the first band that Richard Perry ever produced. And I got bit. I just wanted to stay. When the band broke up and everybody went back to school, I just hung out and said, "Hey, I want to do this. This is my life now."
Songfacts: Do you remember what year it was when you dropped out of school?
Songfacts: You had some English courses, only one and a half years worth of college. But still, you were studying the art of the written word.
Philip: But I was a natural. I was really teachers' pet in everything that had to do with creative writing. I was working on the paper, I was writing poetry, I was writing short stories. I was singing with a dance band in high school, but I hadn't thought about making the transition to taking my creative writing and putting music to it until I got to college and it was just out of sheer need for somebody to write lyrics for the band.
Songfacts: You're a lyric writing teacher, so you may have an opinion on this - can you get better at some point by learning the craft, or is it all natural talent?
Philip: Well, the one thing that I keep trying to tell my students is that unless you are working to keep your ass fed and clothed and housed, unless you're writing with that goal in mind, you're not a writer. I'm sort of adamant about the commitment that it takes, the discipline that it takes to write song lyrics for money and for sustenance. It hones your skills in a way that wouldn't necessarily happen if you were just doing it on the dilettante basis. You learn how to do things when it's on the line, when having to eat is at stake.
And learning from the compromises you make by time constraints and choice of words - because of the singer you're working with - it all enters into the mix. It takes you out of your own head, which is where you really need to be to learn about audiences. And audiences are important to a songwriter, simply because who is going to hear the song dictates how you present the song.
Songfacts: You've got to write to your audience.
Philip: Yeah, and the hardest part for young people is getting out of their own heads. What they write may make sense to them and their parents, but it's a communications skill and art. And then having it on the line all the time is where you really get to learn how to fine tune it. Unfortunately, we don't have that kind of world any more for writers. I hate to think that we're heading toward a time where maybe there won't be a need for songwriters.
Songfacts: That'd be a sad day.
Philip: That would.
Songfacts: Can you write a sheet of lyrics without any music in mind or anybody in mind to sing it?
Philip: I have a friend, Joe Delia, who lives in New York, and Joe is a keyboardist and he's also been quite successful at scoring for movies. He and I worked together back in the '70s - he was my piano player for a while. We hadn't seen each other in 40 years and I got a hold of him on Facebook . We started writing on the phone together after not seeing each other for 40 years, because he's got a rock and roll band called Thieves out in Long Island. He said, "Let's write something, send me a lyric." And I hadn't written a lyric cold in maybe 10 years. So I sat down and I wrote something that sounded in my mind like a Brit pop song. Joe took it and made it into an actual rock and roll song, and he cut out about 50 percent of the lyrics that I wrote. And it was great, the song was just perfect. I thought, this is such a great teaching moment that I would have loved to have been able to record and encapsulate for people. Because it really shows how the process works and how that, if you spend enough time writing, you don't get pissed off when people throw your lines in the garbage can for the sake of the song.
From where I come from, you work for the sake of the song. I may have a message, but if I've got a project, I've got a band, or if I've got a singer that I'm working for, he's got a particular song need that he needs from me, and I have to get on his message. And there's a discipline to that. Now that I'm older, I'm getting away from it, because I'm going to start writing my own songs for my own sensibilities. The moment I started to do that I experienced this maybe 3-month period where I was like a deer in the headlights. I didn't know how to write lyrics for Phil Cody. It took me a while. I bought a bunch of fake books and I started playing old songs from the '40s and '50s. And I thought, well, I want to write like that for a while. Then I started finding my own groove. It's been fun, because I'm writing with a sense of enjoyment and passion that I haven't had in about 20 years, and it's really nice to have that rekindled for me. So you've come along asking your questions at a very cool time for me to be answering.
Songfacts: I'm getting the sense that you make yourself develop the passion by getting a songbook and forcing yourself to do this. That's wonderful that you could do that after you've already accomplished so much.
Philip: I don't want to stop. There's a lot to do. If nothing else, teaching has shown me how much can be done. As someone in my 60s I have not only a world of experience to teach people, but as a songwriter I have material that I want to present, if I am lucky enough to find that niche audience that will listen to what I have to say. I have something important to impart as a songwriter, still. And that's what I'm going for. I don't know if I'll succeed. But I'm sure having a lot of fun trying to get there.
We spoke with Philip on September 13, 2011. Get more at philipcody.com.
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