Growing up in Brooklyn meant two things, the Dodgers
My parents, Reva and Mal Keller were married on Nov. 28th, 1931, and I was
born on Nov. 11th, 1936. Although my father graduated CCNY with a degree in business administration, he decided
to become a musician and took one lesson on accordion, and began working nights in a dance band in New Jersey, while working
days as an accountant for the New York Transit Authority. My mother wasn’t a typical Jewish mother. Although she graduated
high school at fourteen, and was the valedictorian, she was a show business mom and a devoted wife who helped and encouraged
her husband, and then her sons. I think the greatest gift I got from her was a positive attitude.
My earliest memory is holding
my mother’s hand as she took me downtown at two and a half years old to enroll me in the Greenwich School of Music.
Of course I was too young, but she tried again when I was five years old, and again when I was nine years old,
and again when I was eleven. By
the time I became thirteen, my father had quit his day job and started the most successful wedding and bar mitzvah band in
New York. That’s when he asked his piano player (the same one that gave him one lesson on accordion) to start teaching
me, and that’s when my musical odyssey began.
. Roger Warren taught me everything I needed to know about music,
with one year of accordion and two years of piano. Of course he never charged my father for lessons. The biggest argument
my father and I had was that he wanted me to practice one hour a day, preferably as soon as I came home from school.
I argued that I could practice at night, but I couldn’t play stickball at night. However it became
a mute point when on February 10, 1952 my father suddenly passed away at the
age of forty two; I was fifteen and my brother Norman was six years old. Over night I became the “Man Of The House”.
I was still in high school, taking piano lessons, and got a job after school working for a camera repair service in Manhattan.
The funny thing is that after he died I started practicing six hours a day, as soon as I got home from school.
Me playing the piano (with my mom watching)
My best friend Paul Kaufman and I played stickball everyday after school. I also
taught him how to play the accordion while I played the piano.( Five years later Paul wrote the music to “Poetry In
Motion”, a top ten hit for Johnny Tillotson) I played my first summer gig as a musician in the Catskill Mountains in
1953.It paid $15 a week with room and board and all you can eat. Paul
had a real job lined up for the summer that paid $42 a week. When the drummer in the band dropped out one week before the
beginning of summer, I asked Paul to take a drum lesson from one of my father’s drummers, and take this job instead.
His mother wasn’t thrilled. She used to wake him with “Wake up Irving! Did you write any hit songs today?”
The first day we arrived at the hotel Paul asked me look at a lyric he had
written. Up to that time, the thought of writing a song really never entered my mind. We were in
the Playhouse which is where we would play dance music three hours a night, Monday through Saturday. When I sat down at the
piano and tried to write music to his words, I felt a feeling that took over my whole being. The reason I knew this must have
been a big deal was because I couldn’t make myself stop, even though I knew I was missing lunch.
When we got home in the fall we started writing songs for our girlfriends. That way “Marcia”
could easily be changed to “Rita” when you broke up. The following summer I graduated high school and played my
second summer in the Catskills. Paul took a good paying job as a councilor at a big hotel. When
we got back home that fall, Paul
told me he watched the kids of a major music publisher that summer and we could play our songs for him anytime.
While driving around one night we decided to go all the way out to Long Island to his home,
and play him the songs. We arrived at midnight and rang the bell. His wife answered the door. She
said she expected him any moment, would we like to come in and wait. When he hadn’t shown up by 12:30, we left and started driving away. We saw a car
pass us going the other way so we turned around and went back. Sure enough it was Him. He listened to the songs and said he
wanted to show them to his music people downtown. Since it was Christmas time he said he wouldn’t
have a response until after the first of the year.
While walking down the street the week after Christmas I bumped into Al Kasha, who I’d
met earlier at a Brooklyn College party where he sang and I played the piano for him. (Seventeen years later he received an
Oscar for writing the theme song from The Poseidon Adventure) He asked me if I would accompany him on an audition for a TV show. When he came over to practice with
me, my mother bragged about the music publisher who liked my songs. Al said he knew Frank Sinatra’s music publisher
and I should play him the songs. I felt compelled to call the other publisher and tell him we had a chance to play the songs
for Sinatra, and he said he wouldn’t stand in the way
You can hear that song,"The Power Of Love"written by Paul
Kaufman & Jack Keller by clicking below.
On Jan.3rd 1955, I walked
into the Brill Building for the first time.
Jack Benanti was the general manager
of Barton Music, and lived in Brooklyn near me and Al. He was the first person in the music business that took me under his
wing so to speak. I started hanging around the office soaking up the music publishing business. Believe it or not, back then
songwriters brought their music sheets to the office and I would play and sing the song for Jack (who didn’t read music
and was tone deaf). He would decide weather he would send the song to Frank or not, based on my performance.
Jack introduced me to the first influential
people I met in the business like Don Costa at ABC Paramount Records, and Hugo & Luigi at Roulette
Records. In the early part of 1957, still hanging around the Barton Music office
my big break happened. A Mafioso type said “Hey kid, let’s go to lunch. There’s someone I want you to meet”.
He introduced me to Cathy Lee, who wrote lyrics and lived in Jersey. He said, “I want you to write with her”.
I said “Sure”.
She gave me three lyrics and I went home and wrote my first hit song.
I played the song for Cathy, she asked me if Barton Music would give us an advance?. Up to that point I never even thought
of asking for money up front for writing my songs. When I
told Jack Benanti that I would need an advance for the song that I just wrote with Cathy, he said “Let
me hear the song first”.
When he passed on giving us an advance,
Cathy took me by the hand and introduced me to all the other publishers that were out there.
of them, George Paxton, said he’d give us an advance of $50 each when we signed the contract, and another $50 each
after a recording was released. He then asked me to make a demo for him. I remember
going into Audio Sonic studios in the Brill Building where they cut the 78rpm acetate as you record. I played piano and sang
bass. I found a group from the Bronx called The Velairs, with a great lead singer, and we all did it live together. That hit
song was… “Just Between You and Me”. (Listen to the sound byte of the original demo below)