Paul Levinson interview
You’ve been a musician for your whole life and thanks to South Korea’s Big Pink/Beatball and Whiplash/Sound of Salvation labels we can listen to your music, that was originally issued on a private label you named HappySad Records back when initial release of Twice Upon A Rhyme came out. Paul Major mentioned your album in a book Enjoy the Experience saying that “Forever Friday” is so amazing and real lo-fi he still gets chills when he hears it, and also the long track “The Lama Will Be Late This Year” sweeps whatever floor is left in this department.
What can you tell us about preparing and getting ideas together to record your album back in 1972?
Twice Upon a Rhyme began in Ed Fox’s little apartment on East 85th Street in New York City in the Fall of 1968. We wrote at least 10 songs from October of that year through the Spring of the next year. I mostly wrote the lyrics and Ed wrote the music, and we put the two together in every conceivable way. I had an idea for a song, “Looking for Sunsets – in the Early Morning,” I said it to Ed, he started playing the piano, and we wrote the whole song in about ten minutes. One time we were looking at a newspaper, and saw a headline, “The Lama Will Be Late This Year,” and the rest of the song practically wrote itself. One day Ed said he saw a sign about a “rain check policy” at a local supermarket, and that’s how we got the idea for “Raincheck”. Another day, Ed was playing a mournful melody at the piano, and “Forever Friday” just came to me.
We knew after we had written a few songs that we wanted to record an album. Our original plan was to record a couple of demos and take them to record companies. Ed and I already had a contract with Buddah Records for a bubblegum group, Protozoa, that we had recorded. We also had worked with Jimmy “Wiz” Wisner, on another bubblegum music project. But the songs Ed and I had come to write were not bubblegum, and we didn’t have the patience to shop the album around before recording it, so we talked to Herb Abramson, one of the founders of Atlantic Records, but now owner of A-1 Recording Studios on the West 70s in New York City, about recording some of our songs at his studio. We had recorded the Protozoa songs there, and Herb was amenable. He’s let us record our new songs, at no charge, and we agreed to give him a cut of profits from the album.
We assembled our musicians. Pete Rosenthal was a guitarist. We had first met a few years earlier, when Stu Nitekman (one of the members of an earlier folk-rock group I had been in, The New Outlook) and I had produced a demo of one of the songs Stu and I had written, “If Leaves Fall Tomorrow”. The group singing our song was Monday’s Children, and Pete was their guitarist. Donnie Frankel, Jay Sacket, and Alan Fuhr came from another group Ed and I had briefly been producing – in fact, they did the first recorded version of “Looking for Sunsets”. I had written a bunch of songs with Boris Midney, a Russian jazz musician, and got him to play saxophone and clarinet on the album. We brought in other musicians, such as Mitch Greenberg on keyboard – Mitch went on to have a career as an actor (as has Donnie, in commercials). In fact, Mitch is currently on Broadway in a new production of Fiddler on the Roof. We brought in Jesse Stiller and Mike Dorfman on drums – I can’t even recall how we met them. (Donnie and Robbie Rist of the Brady Bunch and Ninja Turtles fame formed a new group, Sundial Symphony, and made new recordings in just the past few years of “Looking for Sunsets” and “Today Is Just Like You,” released digitally on HappySad Records.)
The New Outlook – Ira Margolis, Stu Nitekman, and Paul Levinson (1966).
In the end, Ed and I wound up recording the album at a half a dozen recording studios, all on the same terms as our arrangement with A-1. Because we were getting the studio time free of charge, we usually were obliged to record in the middle of the night – and we loved it. Ed and I wrote the charts for violins for several of our songs. I clinked ice in a glass for the beginning of “Today is Just Like You”. That song was written entirely by me, as was “The Soft of Your Eyes” (a song I wrote for Tina, who became my wife). I wrote “Not Yet Ready to Say Goodbye” with Linda Kaplan, who decades later wrote the world-famous “Toys R Us” jingle, and has become a best-selling author. “Antique Shop” was written by Pete and me, and “You Are Everywhere” by Danny Kaley (I had written a couple of songs with him in the late 1960s) and me.
What’s your musical background? Take us back to your home town and explain what influenced you to become a musician?
I had no musical training, other than taking clarinet lessons for a few years when I was a kid. I did always have a good sense of harmony, and began singing doo-wop a capella when I was about 12 years old. My first group was Little Levi and the Emeralds. Later, I formed a group called The Transits, which is where I met Stu Nitekman and Ira Margolis. The three of us began The New Outlook after the lead singer of The Transits – Dave – disappeared. You can hear a few Transit cuts on my Paul Levinson page on Soundcloud. About a dozen New Outlook recordings are on Spun Dreams – an album I released at the end of 2010, consisting of studio and home demos. We were signed by Ellie Greenwich and Mike Rashkow to Atlantic Records, where we released two singles, which sold a negative number of copies (see below for more). Meanwhile, around this time I also wrote a song, “Unbelievable (Inconceivable You),” recorded but never released by the Vogues (who had hit records with “You’re the One” and “Five O’Clock World”).
What influenced me to make music was my love of music, the way it’s always lit up my brain, ever since I can remember. Every time I heard a Beatles song – every time I hear a Beatles song, or any great music, to this very day – my brain starts making music of its own. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been singing harmonies, out loud in the car, to myself in crowds, when I hear a good song.
Your first recording was made in the ’60s where as part of The New Outlook aka The Other Voices you recorded for Atlantic Records. The single May My Heart Be Cast Into Stone / Hung Up On Love came out in 1968 and it was produced by Ellie Greenwich and Mike Rashkow. What’s the story behind The New Outlook and who were members of this group?
Here’s more of The New Outlook’s story: Stu, Ira, and I first met in Krum’s, an ice-cream parlor. After singing in The Transits, a five-man doo-wop group, we formed The New Outlook, with the three of us singing and Stu playing guitar (I came up with all of those names – as well as the name Twice Upon a Rhyme). One Sunday afternoon, The New Outlook was singing in Central Park. Ellie Greenwich and Mike Rashkow were strolling by, liked they heard – we were singing a song Stu and I wrote, “Yesterday’s Rain” – and Ellie and Mike signed us to their production company.
One of our disappointments, though, and a source of friction in our relationship, is that Ellie and Mike didn’t go on to produce any of our songs. “May My Heart Be Cast Into Stone” was written by songwriters who wrote for the Four Seasons. “No Olympian Height” was written by Brute Force. So not only was our name changed to “The Other Voices,” but our music was, too. I did write the lyrics to “Hung Up On Love,” and Mikie Harris, then Mike’s wife, wrote the music. That recording was the B-side of both our single releases on Atlantic Records. But even on that recording, there was aggravation – Mike didn’t like Stu’s lead, so he sang the lead himself. I was happy, though, that “Hung Up on Love” was re-released on the Come to the Sunshine compilation put together by Andrew Sandoval for Rhino Records a few years ago.
Would it be possible for you as an author of songs to share your insight on the albums’ tracks?
Here’s a brief run-down – of some of the songs I didn’t mention in my first answer in this interview. “Today Is Just Like You” was one of a bunch of songs for which I wrote the words and music – bright, sunny tunes, including “Sunshine Mind” (recorded by Donna Marie of the Archies), and “Waking Up to Love,” a demo recorded by no one. “Gentle Blue Cherry Bell” is one of my favorite lyrics, and I guess inspired in some way by “Crystal Blue Persuasion”. “I’m Seeing You in a Different Light” is also one of my favorite lyrics (written before “I Saw the Light” by Todd Rundgren). “Forever Friday” was probably influenced by the Moody Blues’ “Tuesday Afternoon”. “Learn to Learn” was just a clever play on words, but I always liked my line, “my world is cardboard when it rains”.
How many copies were originally made and what’s the story behind HappySad Records?
500 copies, and I still have plenty in my attic. When the tracks were mostly finished, we began shopping the album around. Al Gallico, a big music publisher, was interested for a new label he was starting up, and we got some other interest, but this was taking months and months, so we decided to release the album ourselves, on our own label. I came up with the name HappySad Records. We scrounged up the money needed for the mastering and pressings. We decided not to go for a stereo mix and keep it mono (again, before Phil Specter came out in favor or mono). Tina’s friend’s boyfriend designed the cover photo, and I got a guy at Bard College to layout the lyrics on the cover. But I guess the pressure of doing all of this was too much for Ed and me – he decided to leave HappySad Records, which I took over entirely. The very last thing we did together was pick up the boxes of Twice Upon a Rhyme records in New Jersey and take them to our apartment on the Grand Concourse in the Bronx, where Ed and I were living. He shortly after moved out, and we didn’t’ write any more songs together after that.
Ed Fox and Paul Levinson (1970, Grand Concourse).
Did the whole ‘band’ ever make an appearance to promote album?
Never. After the album was recorded, Pete, Donny, Jay, and Alan made some appearances in the Catskill hotels in New York. And just this past August, Pete and I did a little concert at a science fiction convention in Ronkonkoma, NY – here’s the video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OTCYlNnQpEs And a guy in England has been talking to me for about a year about setting up a concert there. In retrospect, I’m sure Twice Upon a Rhyme would have done better if we had gone around and performed and promoted the album. But after Ed and I split, I became more of a record executive, running HappySad Records, and less a performer. It was an interesting progression, because the Transits did lots of live performances, and so did The New Outlook.
Alan Fuhr standing, seated left to right: Jay Sacket, Bruce Kanter (not on Twice Upon a Rhyme) Donnie Frankel, Pete Rosenthal (1970, Catskill hotel).
I don’t have all the information about your discography. The only release that caught my eye is an archival release titled Spun Dreams…
The Park at Night (Levinson – Gorman) Paul Levinson (lead) & Paul Gorman, studio demo
Once Upon a Summer (Levinson-Nitekman) New Outlook, studio demo, Stu lead
Please Don’t Cry Little Dove (Levinson-Nitekman) New Outlook, studio demo, Stu lead
Sunshine’s Mine (Levinson-Nitekman) New Outlook, studio demo, Paul lead
Precious (and Golden) (Levinson-Nitekman) New Outlook, home demo, Stu lead
The Flavor of Spring (Levinson) New Outlook, home demo, Stu lead
Water Proof (Levinson) New Outlook, home demo, Paul lead
Two Minus One (Levinson-Nitekman) New Outlook, home demo, Stu lead
Time On My Hands (Nitekman) New Outlook, home demo, Stu lead
Late Afternoon (Levinson-Nitekman) New Outlook, home demo, Stu lead
Keep Off the Grass (Levinson-Nitekman) New Outlook, home demo, Stu lead
Happy Goodbye Baby (Levinson-Nitekman) New Outlook, home demo, Stu lead
Don’t Blame It On Love (Levinson-Nitekman) New Outlook, home demo, Stu lead
The Outcast (Mark Goodman) New Outlook, studio demo, Stu lead
Down by the Magical Sea (Mark Goodman) New Outlook, studio demo, Stu lead
If Leaves Fall Tomorrow (Levinson-Nitekman) New Outlook, studio demo, Stu lead
Just That Kind (Levinson-Nitekman) New Outlook, studio demo, Stu lead
Yesterday’s Rain (Levinson-Nitekman) New Outlook, studio demo, Stu lead
Sunny Side of the Street (classic: Fields & McHugh) New Outlook, studio demo, Stu lead
The Winds of Change (Levinson-J.Krondes) Good News, Murbo Records, L. Carabalo lead
May My Heart Be Cast Into Stone (Randell-Linzer) Other Voices, Atlantic Records, Stu lead
No Olympian Height (Brute Force) Other Voices, Atlantic Records, Stu lead
Hung Up On Love (Levinson- Mikie Harris) Other Voices, Alantic Records, Rashkow lead
Evening’s Evergreen Morning (Levinson-Nitekman) New Outlook, unreleased master, Stu lead
Picture Postcard World (Levinson) Definitive Rock Chorale, Decca Records
Lemons and Limes (Levinson) Fuzzy Bunnies, Decca Records
Love Colored Glasses (Levinson – Harris) Mikie Harris, studio demo
Mr. Kringle (Levinson – Harris) studio demo
Teardrops Make No Sound (Levinson – Jimmy Krondes) studio demo
Waking Up to Love (Levinson) studio demo
Skyscraper (Levinson – Kaplan) Linda Kaplan, studio demo
Cloudy Sunday (Levinson – Peter Rosenthal) Linda Kaplan, studio demo
A Piece of the Rainbow (Levinson – Kaplan) Linda Kaplan, studio demo
Sunshine Mind (Levinson) Donna Marie, Columbia Records
Teacups and Tapestry (Levinson – Boris Midney) studio demo
Snow Flurries (Levinson – Jimmy Krondes) Good News, Paul harmony, Murbo Records
Sunday Princess (Levinson – Ed Fox) Joey Ward & Paul Levinson, studio demo
Unbelievable (Inconceivable You) (Levinson) The Vogues, Reprise Records (unreleased)
Not Yet Ready to Say Goodbye (Levinson – Kaplan), Tony DeSanto, studio demo
Merri-Goes-Round (Levinson – Ed Fox) Trousers, Paul harmony, Wizdom Records
Ring Around My Rosie (David Fox) Protozoa, Paul harmony, Buddah Records
Murray the K’s Back in Town (Levinson) Paul Levinson, studio demo
Twice Upon A Rhyme (LP)
with Ed Fox and Peter Rosenthal
1. Today Is Just Like You (Levinson) Paul
2. Looking for Sunsets (in the Early Morning) (Levinson & Fox) Paul
3. Gentle Blue Cherry Bell (Levinson & Fox) Paul
4. I’m Seeing You in a Different Light (Levinson & E. Fox) Paul
5. Learn to Learn (Levinson & Fox) Paul
6. Looks Like a Night (I Won’t Catch Much Sleep In) (Levinson & Fox) Ed and Paul
7. Raincheck (Levinson & Fox) Paul
8. You Are Everywhere (Levinson & Danny Kaley) Paul
9. Forever Friday (Levinson & Fox) Ed & Paul
10. The Soft of Your Eyes Levinson) Paul
11. Antique Shop (The Coming of Winter) (Levinson & Rosenthal) Paul
12. Not Yet Ready to Say Goodbye (Levinson & Linda Kaplan) Paul
13. The Lama Will Be Late This Year (Levinson & Fox) Ed
Originally released in 1972 by Happysad Records; re-issued on mini-CD by Beatball/Big Pink Records in 2008 and on Vivid Records in 2009; re-issued on re-mastered vinyl by Whiplash/Sound of Salvation Records in 2010 and 2012
PAUL LEVINSON: vocals, keyboard, percussion
ED FOX: vocals, keyboard
PETER ROSENTHAL: guitars
Jay Sackett: bass; Cyril Penn: recorders; Mitch Greenberg, Jesse Stiller: drums;
Donny Frankel: organ; Joe Szalacsi: trumpet; Israel Esquenazi, Sasha Humek: violins;
Boris Midney: saxophone, drums
Produced & Arranged by
Paul Levinson & Ed Fox
I Knew You By Heart (Levinson – Rosenthal) Peter Rosenthal, studio demo
Alpha Centauri (Levinson – Rosenthal) Peter Rosenthal, home demo
Lime Streets (Levinson) Paul, demo
Tau Ceti (Levinson – Anealo) John Anealo, Paul harmony, home demo
If I Traveled to the Past (Levinson – Anealo) John Anealo, Paul harmony, home demo
Mitch Lewis (cousin of daughter-in-law Sarah) and Paul Levinson singing “The Soft of Your Eyes” at Simon and Sarah’s wedding, 2010.
Is there any unreleased material?
Lots – ranging from the dozen or more songs that Ed and I wrote, to lots of songs I wrote with Stu that are not on the Spun Dreams album, to songs such as “Lime Streets,” “Tau Ceti,” “If I Traveled to the Past,” etc. Pete has also written dozens of new songs. We performed two of them at our Ronkonkoma concert in August, and are going to keep performing them in our concerts.
Paul and daughter Molly, 1988.
What currently occupies your life?
Music was my first love and creative endeavor. I added writing – both science fiction and scholarly writing. When I was writing my doctoral dissertation in the mid-late 1970s, I was also writing a science fiction novel, and had the idea that I could write both, at the same time. But I soon discovered I wasn’t making much progress on the dissertation, because writing science fiction was more fun. So I put the fiction aside – for 10 years, it turned out – and wrote only nonfiction. But then I got back to the science fiction, and now happily write both. People who read my scholarly nonfiction about the evolution of media sometimes say it reads like science fiction. People who read my science fiction sometimes say it reads like philosophy. I take them both as compliments. Both kinds of writing have won awards for me, and both sell pretty well. Lately, I’ve taken some of my books brought out by traditional publishers, and put them up myself on Kindle, under my own company, Connected Editions. Sort of a replay of HappySad Records. And my music continues to percolate. I’m a Professor of Communication and Media Studies at Fordham University in New York City, and I sometimes sing a song to my class.
Paul Levinson and Pete Rosenthal in concert, Ronkonkoma, NY, 2015.
Interview by Klemen Breznikar/2016
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