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Grammys: The Good, the Bad, the Forgettable : * Pop music: Songwriter Irving Gordon is pleased to be recognized for his 41-year-old composition and sees respect returning for traditional melody and lyrics.

February 27, 1992|ANDY MARX | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

As far as the majority of this year's Grammy voters were concerned, veteran songwriter Irving Gordon and his classic "Unforgettable" were, obviously, just that--unforgettable.

More than four decades after writing the song that Nat (King) Cole turned into a hit record in 1952, the 77-year-old Gordon picked up the song of the year Grammy on Tuesday night in New York. This time it was for a duet version of "Unforgettable," sung by Cole's daughter, Natalie, and--with the help of tape splicing, overdubbing and electronics--the late Nat Cole himself. Ironically, Gordon beat out a number of well-known pop songwriters, most of whom weren't even born when Gordon penned the original back in 1951.

Gordon, who lives in Malibu, said his winning was a victory for the art of old-fashioned songwriting, the kind found when Tin Pan Alley tunesmiths were cranking out 32-bars of words and music. "There's a revolution going on in the music business," said Gordon from his hotel room in New York, the morning after picking up his Grammy. "The tip of the iceberg is 'Unforgettable.' People are getting fed up with all the noise. They want a melody. They want to be able to sing a song."

Gordon created somewhat of a stir at Tuesday night's ceremonies when he received his award and told the audience "It's nice to have a song come out that doesn't scream, yell and have a nervous breakdown while it talks about tenderness," referring to pop star Michael Bolton's earlier spirited rendition of "When a Man Loves a Woman." Gordon went on to say, "It's nice to have a song accepted where you don't get a hernia when you sing it."

Bolton, who, along with Vanessa Williams, presented the award to Gordon, was standing only a few feet from the songwriter when he made the remarks. "He took a little offense at what I said," Gordon said. "I realized after I said it, what I had gotten myself into." As they walked offstage, Gordon tried to explain his comments to Bolton. "I told him I'm of a different generation, into a different kind of music and he said, 'No, no, no. I voted for you.' "

According to Associated Press reports, Bolton told reporters backstage, "I happen to be very happy for him that he won. But as to how in touch Mr. Gordon is with today's music, I can't speak for him. I can say I don't get a hernia when I sing."

Gordon said he also wasn't too impressed with other nominees in his category and was fairly confident he would win. "They're nice songs," he says, "but I didn't think any of them were the type that would win a Grammy. A lot of the voting members of the academy are schooled musicians and arrangers and I just felt that I had a better chance."

Gordon also said that he felt he would win because "Unforgettable" was a crossover hit--it scored big on the pop, rhythm and blues and jazz record charts, something none of the other nominated songs did. "That really helped my chances," he says. "It was obviously a very popular record."

Gordon's 41-year road to this year's Grammy victory began way back in 1951, when he wrote "Unforgettable," a song he admits, at the time, he didn't think was very good. "I didn't even bother to make a demonstration record," said Gordon, who began his songwriting career in the early '30s, collaborating on such songs including "Prelude to a Kiss" with jazz great Duke Ellington. "I just put the music on the piano and Nat came into the room and sat down and played it. He loved it and decided to record it." The rest, as they say, is musical history: "Unforgettable" became one of Cole's biggest hits. It was a hit again in 1959 when Dinah Washington recorded it.

Long since considered a "standard," "Unforgettable" got its latest boost when Natalie Cole decided to record a collection of songs made famous by her father. The album, which won a total of six awards, including the Album of the Year Grammy, was an instant smash when it was released last year and has sold more than 4 million copies. Gordon is still amazed at how the record's producer David Foster and his team of arrangers and engineers were able to combine the two voices. "It was eerie when I first heard it," he recalls. "They were absolute geniuses to pull that off. It gave the song a whole new life."

And what does Gordon think about the current state of pop music? "Unfortunately, the drums have taken over," he says. "It's become the principal instrument in most songs instead of being in the background where it belongs. I don't understand it."

He thinks even less of much of today's lyrics. "There's no technique, no technical skill," he says. "The great songs had technique with rhymes and internal rhymes. It's very easy to write a song without rhymes, which a lot of today's pop songs have. Nobody seems to care about the lyrics today."

He thinks his win might help change that. "I think many of the popular rock singers are going to start looking for more traditional stuff."

Gordon said he's never stopped writing songs. For the past several years, he's been developing a musical for which he wrote the book and 20 songs, which he hopes will go to Broadway. And Natalie Cole isn't the only contemporary artist to discover his songs. "What Will I Tell My Heart?" another standard Gordon wrote in the 1940s, was featured on Vanessa Williams' album, "The Comfort Zone."

His "Prelude to a Kiss" was used extensively in the hit play of the same name and will be featured in the film version starring Alec Baldwin and Meg Ryan.

So in the youth-oriented world of pop music where overnight sensations and "one-hit wonders" come and go faster than you can say "Top 40," Irving Gordon and his Grammy has proven that good things may come to those who wait. "Songwriters don't fade away," he says. "They just keep writing songs."

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