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VALLEY WEEKEND | SOUNDS

Steve Allen Has 10 Fingers and 6,000 Songs

When he sits down at the piano, the music flows. The veteran showman and prolific composer will bring his big band to CSUN.

May 02, 1996|ZAN STEWART | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Steve Allen leans back in a leather chair and relates matter-of-factly--almost as if he were talking about mowing the lawn--how he wrote several tunes that morning.

"I was up composing and just playing piano from 2:30 to 5 in the morning. I guess I got about five or six songs," he says. "It's not a regimen, just some weird, compulsive thing that draws me to the piano."

More of us know Allen better as a comedian and founder of "The Tonight Show" than as a writer of music. But the spry 74-year-old says his main gift is for composing. He's got the numbers to prove it.

"The number of songs is getting close to 6,000," says the pianist, who never studied composition. Among his best-known songs are "This Could Be the Start of Something Big," "Picnic," "Impossible" and "Gravy Waltz," which have been recorded by the likes of Frank Sinatra, Sarah Vaughan and Oscar Peterson.

Allen appears with his big band Saturday at Cal State Northridge, offering 15 of his tunes, arranged by such acclaimed writers as Bill Holman and Tom Kubis. He admits that he can't understand his ability to come up with tuneful numbers at the drop of a hat.

"Along with the Big Three--What is God? What is time? What is space?--is the other: What is creativity?" he says, sitting in a Burbank office overflowing with books, including several of the 46 he has written. "I'm a musical illiterate: I don't read music. I record the tunes on my tape recorder and I have a fellow who transcribes them. And the songs are damn good. Now that sounds conceited, but I've never said my comedy is damn good or my books. Still, I was born 30 years too late to get rich from them. I write the way Marvin Hamlisch does, as if it were still 1947, when the songs were mostly good. Now they're mostly crap."

Allen says his biggest song, "This Could Be the Start," is a wonderful example of the mysteriousness of creativity. He'd been asked to write the score for "The Bachelor," an NBC-TV musical in the late 1950s starring Jayne Mansfield and Hal March.

"So my brain started working on it, and I dreamed the song just before I awakened one morning. I got the 16 bars of melody and the first seven or eight lines of lyric," he says. "Apparently, I'm more talented asleep than awake."

At CSUN, Allen will mostly be a front man for his band, which includes Paul Smith (piano), Kubis (tenor sax), Ron Stout (trumpet) and Dave Carpenter (bass).

He'll play his swing-to-bop-style piano only occasionally--"like with Duke Ellington, people aren't there to hear me play"--and sing a few tunes.

"I was a professional vocalist before I was a comedian," says Allen, whose latest album--he's made more than 40--is "Steve Allen Plays Jazz Tonight" on Concord Jazz Records. "One of my first jobs in radio was in Phoenix in the late '40s and I had a show called 'The Melody Man' where I played the piano and sang a la Bobby Troup. So I've always done that."

* Steve Allen appears at 8 p.m. Saturday at the Performing Arts Center, University Student Union, Cal State Northridge, 18111 Nordhoff St., Northridge. Park in Lot C off Zelzah Avenue. $12-$22. Call (818) 885-2488.

*

Apple Is Sweet to Edwards: New York is starting to seem like saxophonist Teddy Edwards' second home. The longtime Angeleno's gotten great responses there, but nothing like April 12, when he received rave reviews as one of the stars of a concert at Lincoln Center's Avery Fisher Hall.

"It might have been the apex of my career," says Edwards. "I practiced every day for a month to get ready. I haven't done that for years and years."

He says his "chops" are still up and he plans to employ his newfound vitality on "several things in my book that I haven't played." Among them: "It's All Right," which, he says, "has a rocky-socky, R & B feel, a dance song with a strong bottom."

* Teddy Edwards and his BrassString Ensemble play Tuesday at 7:30 and 9:30 p.m. at the Moonlight Tango Cafe, 13730 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks; $13 admission for 7:30 show, $9 admission for 9:30 show. Both have a $9.95 food and drink minimum. Call (818) 788-2000.

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