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Regal Songsmith : Ben Weisman is the man behind 57 tunes that are part of Elvis' repertoire; he was once called 'a virtual assembly line of hit songs'

April 25, 1993|DON HECKMAN | Don Heckman writes regularly about music for The Times.

Ben Weisman could easily pass as an accountant. Or maybe a Little League coach or a friendly uncle. But as the composer of 57 Elvis Presley songs? Not this mild-mannered gentleman.

Believe it.

The graying, soft-spoken, bespectacled songwriting veteran may appear to be as far from the glittering show-biz orbit of the King of Rock 'n' Roll as the craters of the moon are from the rings of Saturn, but facts are facts. And Weisman owns the record on Presley material with 57 songs. They range from his debut effort, "First in Line" to "It Feels So Right" from the 1965 film "Tickle Me."

And that's just the beginning. Weisman songs also have been recorded by the Beatles ("Lend Me Your Comb"), Sarah Vaughan, Johnny Mathis, Frankie Laine, Patti Page, Nat King Cole, Conway Twitty ("Lonely Blue Boy"), Barbra Streisand, Herman's Hermits (five songs), Bobby Vee ("The Night Has a Thousand Eyes") and the Carpenters.

His biggest pre-Presley hit, "Let Me Go Lover," was in the Top 20 four times in 1955 with four different artists and became the first song to be popularized via the new medium. More recently, Bruce Springsteen has been singing Weisman's "Follow That Dream" in concert, and Reba McEntire's No. 1 country album, "Reba McEntire," featured Weisman's "Silly Me."

The National Academy of Songwriters' magazine has described him as "a virtual assembly line of hit songs."

It's quite a track record for a man who lives quietly in a Marina del Rey townhouse and still does most of his work at a beat-up old upright in his garage studio. But Weisman has no thoughts of resting on his laurels.

Actively involved with a number of projects, he took a long look back recently when he arranged for the publication of "Elvis Presley--The Hollywood Years" (Warner)--a songbook collection of 27 pieces he composed for Presley. The anthology includes lead sheets, illustrations of many of the original sheet music covers, as well as reminiscences of composing and recording.

"It seems like a long time ago that it all got started," Weisman said. "But I can remember it like it was yesterday. It was 1956, and I was writing songs for Hill & Dale Publishing in the Brill Building in New York City. At the time, even though my background had been in jazz, pop and classical music, I was writing a lot of country songs--sometimes two a day--for people like Lefty Frizzell, Hank Snow, Ernest Tubb and Red Foley.

"One day, my publisher, Jean Aberbach, called me into his office, told me that we had a new artist named Elvis Presley, and asked me to write some songs for him.

"So I watched Elvis on 'The Tommy Dorsey Show.' I didn't think it was anything special, at first. I approached it the way I would any songwriting assignment, trying to figure out his range, and tried to get a feeling for his style. Then I sat down to write something for him."

His studious method worked. Presley recorded "First in Line" (written by Weisman and Aaron Schroeder) on his initial RCA Victor album.

But Weisman hit his stride with tunes for Presley's movie musicals. He estimates that "about 95% of the songs of mine that Elvis recorded were written for films." Among the best known are "Wooden Heart" from "G.I. Blues"; "Rock-a-Hula Baby" from "Blue Hawaii"; "Follow That Dream" from the picture of the same name, and "Don't Ask Me Why" from "King Creole," among dozens of others.

Writing songs for Elvis movies was not an easy process, however. Almost from the start, Presley was encircled by layers of support personnel. One of the hottest properties in entertainment, he could generate instant income for any songwriter fortunate enough to have a number included in one of his albums or, better yet, featured in one of his films.

"Here's the way it worked," Weisman recalled. "A guy like producer Hal Wallis would come into town. They'd bring him into the Brill Building, and he'd go from one cubicle to the next, listening to what the songwriters had to offer. He'd say, 'I like this one, that one's OK, make a demo of that one.'

"Then we'd make the demos, and they'd be sent off to Hollywood for Presley and Col. Tom Parker to check out. A little later, somebody would come in and say, 'Ben, you lucky son of a gun, you've got two songs in Presley's new movie.' But what he didn't say was that there were other songs lined up to fill in if my song didn't work out right with Elvis.

"No one said, 'Ben, here's your spot in the movie,' " Weisman continued. "For every record I got--all 57 of them--I had to fight. There would be maybe 10 or 12 teams--Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, guys like that--writing for the same spots in the same movies."

In 1957, Weisman flew out to Hollywood. He had composed another song with Schroeder--"Got a Lot o' Livin' to Do"--which was scheduled to be sung in a film titled "Love Me." Well aware of Presley's growing popularity, Weisman decided to experience the gifted young performer's recording session firsthand.

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