By TRILBY BERESFORD | Reporter
Early on in my interview with composer (and Palisadian) Philip Springer, I announced that I was not going to ask him any questions about “Santa Baby,” the hit song he wrote with Joan Javits in 1953 that propelled his career into super stardom and shocked the world into realizing that Christmas songs could be sexy. He was visibly thrilled; I think he gets tired of talking about it.
Having warmed to my presence, Springer shared that his introduction to music came from his mother Sylvia, a trained concert pianist, and his father Mordecai, who had a “great ear” for music. “Nobody loved music the way my parents did,” Springer recalled.
He began piano lessons in 1933 when he was 7 years old, later studying with musician and instructor Clarence Adler in New York City.
A prolific career followed, one that includes original music for television dramas and westerns, songs licensed to numerous theatrical productions and recordings popularized by generations of stars from Frank Sinatra to Madonna.
Talking energetically about his most recent composition,“Turn, Turn to Him,” Springer declared it a “devotional song that encourages people to be comforted by God,” adding that many of his tracks have been about the love between a man and a woman, but this one is different as it introduces the idea of a higher power. In fact, that higher power is how the song originated. “I went to the piano, and this song was given to me by a power above,” Springer said.
Reverend Kenneth Davis from Palisades Lutheran Church likened the song to the words of David in Psalm 61:1: “When my heart is overwhelmed, lead me to the rock that is higher than I!”
On the subject of devotional tunes, Springer mentioned two that have impacted him emotionally: “You’ll Never Walk Alone” by Rodgers and Hammerstein, and “I Believe” by Ervin Drake, Irvin Graham, Jimmy Shirl and Al Stillman (four writers was unusual in those days, according to Springer). Frankie Laine made the latter famous.
Springer has written 75 songs over the last five years, generally tackling one a week. The most recent is called “Promise Me You’ll Never Change,” a collaboration with poet Megan Gardner. “I’ve worked with about 50 lyricists, and only three or four have been poets,” he said, hinting that those few have had a special quality.
Summoning the most useful advice he’s received over the years, Springer mentioned wise words from two great friends, songwriters Jay Gorney and E.Y “Yip” Harburg, both whom have now passed. “Jay suggested that I write compositions away from the piano—in the bathtub, on a walk, doing something, anything,” Springer recalled. “And Yip told me to finish melodies before the lyrics are added.”
Although there’s no doubt that Springer will be remembered most for “Santa Baby,” (which I mention in haste) he expressed the song that has been the most meaningful to him is “Eternal Love.” It was written for an off-Broadway musical (of the same name) in 1981, with lyrics by Michael Lombardi. Springer rediscovered it recently and is adding some new instrumentation.
He also highlighted “Time You Old Gypsy Man,” a lesser-known collaboration with Harburg that portrays time as an active character: a thieving gypsy.
In 1995, Springer wrote “Requiem for an Artist: An American Requiem” as a tribute to his late brother Anthony, a painter. “That is my greatest work,” he said with clarity.
Many musicians are quick to share the ways in which music has positively impacted their lives and in many cases, “saved” them, but Springer explained, matter-of-factly, that music “is” his life. It exists, with heart, in every moment: both waking and dreamlike.
Listen to Springer’s new song “Turn, Turn to Him” on YouTube and visit composerofsantababy.com to learn more about his portfolio.