Thoughts on Ervin Drake – The Man, The Music, Life and Loves

 


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by: Sandi Durell

 

January 18th, marked the day that songwriter Ervin Drake (1919-2015) was put to rest after passing away on January 15th. The rains came down in what seemed like endless torrents all day, but the Riverside Funeral Chapel in Great Neck was filled to capacity.  Friends, fans and, of course, family gathered for a final goodbye to the man who gave the world his musical talents (“Good Morning Heartache,” “I Believe,” “It Was a Very Good Year” – Broadway’s “What Makes Sammy Run” “Her First Roman” and so much more), his joy, and oh, yes, those off color little jokes that he’d become known for that made so many laugh. Whether you were sitting with him at the Dutch Treat Club luncheons, at a party, a cabaret, the monthly New York Sheet Music Society meetings (or on his email list)  . . .  he always had a joke, a twinkle in his eye, dressed dapper with gorgeous Edith, his wife, at his side. They were inseparable.

Funerals are sad, teary-eyed events but, somehow, this funeral transcended into a joyous celebration of the man, his music and filled with lots of love. Good friend Joe Sirola spoke with heartfelt words, Ervin’s daughters Linda and Betsy uttered loving thoughts about their dad, along with Jed Berman, Edith’s son, whom Ervin adopted, his lovely niece Lorna Drake Giles (unprepared but filled with loving stories and secrets) and beautiful wife Edith offering thanks to everyone, filled with great touching sadness.

Jon Weber was on hand playing background music and then accompanying Mark Nadler singing “Just For Today” from “Her First Roman.” Nina Berman, Ervin’s granddaughter, sang a most beautiful and tender “I Believe.”

10929158_10152958106707527_1100349854103832065_nThere were flowers sent by Tina, Frank Jr. and Nancy Sinatra, a representative from the Songwriters Hall of Fame (who flew in from Hollywood to attend), and so many theater and cabaret folks who have been part of the Drakes’ life, as well as new friends. After, many went back to Edith and Ervin’s home to talk, reflect and, of course, eat and drink at the Shiva (mourning).

get-attachment-4.aspx copy 5It is my privilege to be a part of Ervin and Edith’s life, to have the honor of producing his 95th Birthday Tribute last April 25, 2014 at the Landmark Theatre, with so many distinguished cabaret and theater performers, and to my continuing friendship with Edith (who keeps me young) and is an inspiration to so many.

(Photos at the house post funeral by Russ Weatherford, with permission of Edith Drake – Video Tribute Russ Weatherford/Eric Rudy – Additional photos Maryann Lopinto)

I was reminded of an interview that Linda Amiel Burns and myself did with Ervin and Edith in 2008 and the special photos Edith found to show us, saying we could look, but not use in the article being published. (Yes, many of you know, especially as it was mentioned by the Rabbi at the funeral, about that nude beach they enjoyed!)

 

ERVIN DRAKE – THE MAN, THE MUSIC AND LOVES

By Linda Amiel Burns and Sandi Durell

(printed in Cabaret Scenes Magazine, June 2008)

 

Cabaret aficionados are aware of the continued presence of Ervin Drake and his beautiful wife, Edith, and their on-going support of the American popular song. They are devoted, inseparable and enjoy a relationship as long and uninterrupted as Ervin’s successful career. But there’s so much more to the story.

When I was seventeen, it was a very good year…….” And it was because that’s when Ervin Drake met his soul mate, Edith Bein. She was 17, he was 20. However, it was an ill-fated time for love. Ervin, a young man with dreams of becoming a great songwriter; Edith a gorgeous model and show girl, with dreams of pursuing a career and higher lifestyle which, at the time didn’t seem to be with Ervin! Although they had a steamy affair, by the time Ervin was 23 the beautiful and sexy showgirl left him. Ah, the torturous pangs of love lost. How Ervin suffered! The loss so great that in 1946 he wrote (with Irene Higginbotham) one of his most famous songs, “Good Morning Heartache” recorded by singing legend Billie Holiday and many, many others.

And so it began – a long, auspicious career for the man who turned 89 on April 3rd, 2008.

Ervin was born Ervin Maurice Druckman, attended the Townsend Harris School on Lexington Avenue in New York City, ( where an Ervin Drake Music Scholarship is presented annually) then entered City College where he studied graphic arts and social sciences. He studied music formally, first with Tibor Serley, a great classicist, and later at Julliard, by which time he had already written several hits. At Julliard, his instructor was Jacob Druckman, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his full orchestral work, “Windows.” As a young man, Ervin worked as a salesman for his father, Max Druckman, a pioneer in the furniture business. His mother was a lyric soprano. His older brother, Milton, also a songwriter, was famous in his own right for his novelty songs such as “Mairzy Doats”, “Fuzzy Wuzzy”, “Java Jive” and “I’m a Big Girl Now”. His younger brother Arnold, who Ervin adored, wrote text for “Batman”, “Superman”, “Deadman”, “Doom Patrol” and “Jerry Lewis” comic books.

Although songwriting was Ervin’s first love, (he wrote his first song when he was 12) he needed money to support his family. It was the early days of television and Ervin was practical; he realized television was the vehicle that would afford him the opportunity to earn a very good living. And so Ervin spent a good portion of his life as a television producer, producing over 700 primetime network programs and forty specials. Some of the star-studded shows he produced/wrote included “ Yves Montand on Broadway” (Polly Bergen, Bobby Van, Helen Gallagher), “Accent on Love” (Mike Nichols, Elaine May, Gower Champion, Louis Jourdan, Ginger Rogers, co-written with Mel Brooks), “Ethel Merman Special”, “To Our First Lady With music” (Birthday tribute to Mrs. Dwight D. Eisenhower”) and “The Bachelor” (original book musical for NBC/TV with Jayne Mansfield, Julie Wilson, Carol Haney, won the Sylvania Award). His songs have appeared in such films as Spike Lee’s “Jungle Fever”, Woody Allen’s “Radio Days”, “The Fabulous Baker Boys”, “Lady Sings the Blues”, “The Sopranos”, “Sex and the City”, “The Mortal Goddess”(Marilyn Monroe), “Seven Years in Tibet”(Brad Pitt) and “The Matador”(Pierce Brosnan).

Ervin conquered Broadway in the 1964/65 season with “What Makes Sammy Run”, adapted from Budd Shulberg’s novel and starring Steve Lawrence, Robert Alda and Sally Ann Howes. The show included hit songs “A Room Without Windows” and “The Friendliest Thing”. When asked on whom he based the character Sammy Glick he said, “my brother, Milton.” This was followed by “Her First Roman” adapted from George Bernard Shaw’s “Caesar and Cleopatra”, starring Richard Kiley and Leslie Uggams, for which he wrote music, lyrics and book.

People sometimes say “Ervin Drake? What did he write? Here’s a short synopsis. His reputation was established in 1953 when he wrote “I Believe” with Irvin Graham, Jimmy Shirl and Al Stillman. Songstress Jane Froman, troubled by the uprising of the Korean conflict in 1952, asked Ervin to compose a song that would offer hope and faith to the American people. This classic has been recorded by many including Frankie Lane, Perry Como, Barbra Streisand and Elvis Presley. Ervin has a large catalog of songs, some translated from another language such as “Tico Tico”, “Perdido”, “Al Di La” and “Quando, Quando, Quando” and he supplied lyrics for hundreds of other songs. He had his first real financial success when Eddy Howard’s band recorded “The Rickety Rickshaw Man” (words/music by Ervin Drake). Although it was the B side, it took off and sold over a million copies. His most famous song, however, was not an immediate hit. “It Was A Very Good Year” was written in 1961 (music and lyrics) and originally recorded as a folk song by the Kingston Trio. One day Frank Sinatra was driving along, listening to the radio and heard the song. He called Gordon Jenkins, his arranger, and said “I want to record this song on my ‘September of My Years’ album (1965)”. Although Sinatra was not musically educated, his instincts were impeccable and he would invariably tell the arranger what instruments he wanted in any recording. For this one he asked for reeds and strings to predominate. Ervin, knowing nothing about this, was more than pleasantly surprised when he heard Sinatra’s recording on the radio for the first time. Gordon Jenkins won a Grammy Award for Best Instrumental Arrangement Accompanying Vocalist(s) and Sinatra a Best Vocal Performance, Male in 1966.

Ervin was President of the Songwriters Guild of America from 1973 to 1982 and is a current Executive Board member. As President of the Songwriters Guild of America, he led the successful campaign for the passage of the US Copyright Act of 1976 which, among other things, extended the life of copyrighted works giving songwriters a larger share in earnings, resulting in millions of dollars for songwriters over the years. Just recently, Ervin received correspondence from a young woman, politically active, who discovered that Ervin was a leader in the fight for a new copyright law in 1976. Ervin responded by saying that when he went to congress to fight for these rights, “ the most effective composer was Eubie Blake, then 91 years old. When this slender black man stood up and said,’I Have performed for presidents, kings and queens all over this world but this is the first time I’ve ever had stage-fright’, he ‘killed’ them and added ‘the song that feeds and shelters me is “I’m Just Wild About Harry“ which goes into the public domain…unless you representatives see fit to grant an extension to the copyright law. If it goes into the Public Domain, I will have to go back, at my age, to playing piano in sporting houses and bordellos!” Eubie clinched it! Ervin was inducted into the Songwriter Hall of Fame in 1983.

Ervin and Edith have been devoted members of The New York Sheet Music Society, attending monthly meetings, and where Ervin has presented several musical programs receiving honors and many ovations. In 2006, entertainment phenomenon Mark Nadler performed a tribute evening to and with Ervin as part of Flushing Town Hall’s ‘Broadway Café Series’ in which Ervin, accompanied by Mark on piano, had the opportunity to perform his own songs solo and some with Mark, talk about his life, as only he can, and regale the audience in his usual witty and articulate style. Mark Nadler says, “Ervin Drake has given us a treasure trove of songs over his long career. What’s equally astounding about him is his ability to never age. Decade after decade he continues to show up with wit and style!”

Ervin’s awards include an ASCAP Award, American Eagle Award from the National Music Council 2006, and the most recent tribute in February 2008 by Musical Mondays Theatre Lab when he was honored at a benefit (co-chaired by Sandi Durell & Pat Addiss) at a sold out luncheon at Sardi’s Restaurant in New York City and presented with the Songwriters Guild Foundation Award. The plaque read ‘ Presented to Ervin Drake for his bountiful gifts of song, his lifelong fight for songwriter rights, and his unflagging social conscience’ Honoring him in song (Ervin Drake songs!) were Broadway and Cabaret talents Marc Kudisch, Ron Raines, KT Sullivan, Christine Pedi, Karen Saunders, Richard Skipper…hosted by WOR’s Joey Reynolds. Karen Saunders was quick to say “When I think of Ervin, a smile comes to my face…as I see swirls of energy…(he’s)always on the move and blessed with an ageless spirit.” Edith and Ervin were also presented with the well-deserved “Love Couple” Award for their inspiring love and devotion to each other and the entertainment community. Ervin is most proud of a recent song he has written “Who Are These Strangers” recorded by Michael Feinstein that speaks to and about the gay community. Ervin says, “this is the most important song of my career.”

And what about love and romance? After Edith left, life continued to happen and Ervin met and married Ada Sax, five years his senior. They adopted two infants. Edith says that by the time she got married she had already lived a full life. She went on to have three children and was eventually widowed in 1974. Each have grandchildren. Edith was, and still is, a successful business woman running a cosmetics and wig business under the name of Bermaine. Reading the papers one day in 1975, she spotted the obit for Ada Drake. She was reluctant to contact him but her friends insisted that she call Ervin to offer her condolences. When Ervin picked up the phone and heard ‘hello’, he immediately answered ‘Hello, Edith’. They hadn’t spoken to, or seen, each other in about 35 years. Ironically, they also lived very close to each other in the same town! The years melted away as their love affair revived, didn’t skip a beat and time stood still. And so, the beautiful showgirl and handsome songwriter picked up where they left off. Their ‘first date’ was at Elaine’s. They lived together several years and, at Ervin’s insistence in 1982, he married ‘the greatest person I’ve ever known’.

This is truly a romance to rival all romances! Move over Nora Roberts!

They are true soul mates in every sense of the word! They are everywhere – every opening and event, always dressed to the nines. At 89, he’s still writing, she’s still actively glamorizing not only herself but others in makeup and hair. If you’re lucky enough to be part of their ‘inner circle’, you receive weekly, if not daily, emails that are funny and informative from Ervin.

To what do they attribute their longevity? Good genes, a healthy lifestyle, trips to the Pritikin Center, stoic attentiveness to their food regimen and intake, use of the treadmill in their home and a full partnership in life! We should all be so fortunate…………

 

 

 

 

 

 

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