Standing On The Shoulders

Fred Mollin

88+ Ways Music Can Change Your Life, published by Keep Music Alive, is a compilation of  over 150 inspirational stories & quotes from musicians, music educators and music lovers from all over the world. Included are a number of stories from Grammy winning and Platinum selling artists & composers.  The authors have given Music In A Word permission to post contributions to the book and we are thrilled to present one below.

Everyone has their reasons why they got into music.

Before I even began playing guitar at age 12, I was motivated by Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly. I was only 6 when Buddy Holly died, but some of the mythology behind the man, as well as who he was, made a big impact on me. He was easily my first real inspiration as a singer, songwriter and performer. The Beatles hit when I was 11, and with that, I clearly saw the future of being able to write, sing and play my own songs. I'd be lying if I didn't say I also saw it as a way to meet girls. I was a drummer at first, then moved to guitar and started writing songs. Later, when I began writing music for film and TV, the nature of how I was recording led me to the piano and I’ve since become a reasonably good keyboardist.

I know that today there’s a real problem with public schools not funding music programs. As a kid, we had band and orchestra from elementary school through high school. I was definitely helped by these programs and believe music should always be an option for children and young adults. The more chances talented kids have to be among others who are like-minded, and to be mentored by a good teacher, the more valuable their learning experiences will be. No matter what you’re playing, it's a great opportunity as a child to start understanding the power of playing with others. I felt the same joy at 14 years old when I started my own band... it was like a team.

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Fred Mollin and axe.

I grew up in Long Island... about 45 minutes from Manhattan. At that time, it was unheard of in our community for someone to want to become a professional musician. When my parents would tell their friends that I was leaving high school at 16 to make a life as a musician, they would all say “we’re so sorry,” as if I was terminally ill. In that day and age, it would have sounded better if I had gone off to join the circus. After leaving, I soon found some opportunities in Toronto to perform my own songs as well as produce other people. I was like a scientist about records, and found making music in the studio spellbinding. I accidentally fell into producing and arranging at the young age of 19. I felt I had found a calling; not a calling to perform, but something to help make other people sound the best they could be by being the director of the recording.

My older brother Larry, who is still my best friend, was the Mollin son to go to college and was a tremendous support for me during this time. While away at university, his creative mind opened up and he began to better understand me. For my entire career, he has been my constant support and my first real help in turning my music into something professional. My mother, now turning 97 and still sharp as a tack, was also very supportive. She always said “If that's what you want, I believe in you.” My dad was hopeful, but just not as involved, as he worked tirelessly. By 1985, I had become a film and TV series composer (don't ask... I fell into it) and I was slammed with work as I learned while I earned.  My dad was a hard working provider for our family, and when he passed away in 1989 at the age of 76, I had a situation that I hope honored him. He never wanted me to jeopardize a job for anything, but during this tragedy, I was in the middle of a strict deadline, composing scores for a TV series. I had to take time off to fly down to Florida, be there with the family for funeral arrangements and then fly back with the casket to New York for his burial. Altogether, I lost 4 days, but still managed to make my deadline and didn't cause stress with the producers and Paramount Television. Composing for film/TV is very much a craft. I definitely found myself lost in sadness while composing that week, so I’m sure the sentiment was reflected in that episode. I did feel it was OK: It was what my dad taught by example: Get the job done and don't lose the job.

In addition to composing for film and TV, I’ve also been blessed to have worked with some of the greatest songwriters of our time. With Jimmy Webb, in particular, I've been producing and acting as his musical director since I was 22 years old. Jimmy is considered to be America's greatest songwriter, and I agree. Now, 40 years working with Jimmy, he is still my number one client. On many levels, he's truly part of my family and one of my closest friends. His album, "Ten Easy Pieces," is one of the defining projects of both of our lives and probably the greatest experience where I feel I caught lightning in a bottle... but under very stressful circumstances.

Jimmy began to phone me, at one point, in 1996. He was living in Montclair, New Jersey and I was in Toronto. Musically, it was probably my most successful time and I was also busy helping to raise my kids. I was still very close to Jimmy, but hadn’t produced a record for him in a few years. The last few he did were great records, but didn’t do very well in the market. Jimmy was iconic as a writer, but was never well known as an artist. The calls I was getting from Jimmy were very distressing; I could tell he was getting too deep into paths to help numb the pain of depression. He was so down over the end of his marriage as he was going through one of the world's worst divorces. To make matters worse, the IRS was coming at him for millions of dollars in back taxes. I really felt that Jimmy was dramatically nearing the bottom and, as his friend, I wanted to do something to help. I made a call to Jay Landers at EMI Records and said “What do you think of me doing an album with Jimmy... an intimate album... piano and voice mostly, 10-12 of his most iconic songs”? Jay loved the idea and said “If you can do it for $25K, I can green light it.” Back then, $25K was a budgetary joke, but I had my own studio and had access to great talent. So, without batting an eye, I just said “That's great, I’ll do it”!

Getting the deal was easy. The hard part was calling Jimmy to tell him what we were gonna do. He said "Freddy, those songs ruined me.” He was trying to make a point.

The songs he had become so famous for as a songwriter, were not considered hip (but, of course, now they are bonafide classics). Because of this, Jimmy felt that he never got a real shot; that he was tagged as being square. He really believed those songs pigeonholed him and had an impact on him as a credible singer-songwriter. I could tell he was just feeling emotionally beaten, self-medicated and spiraling out of control. He kept saying “Freddy, there is no way I'm doing this record.” While he’s saying that, I'm thinking “I have to save this guy's life.” Jimmy was my dear friend and co-conspirator, as well as one of the world's greatest creative forces. I had to get him out of there. I finally found a way to convince him: I told him, “Look, Jimmy, you have six kids. Just do this record for the archives. These 10 songs are so famous. No one has a version with just you singing and playing them on the piano, timelessly. We'll do it at my studio in Toronto and get you out of the frying pan. Do it for your kids, your legacy. Make this one record and you'll never have to do it again.”

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Fred Mollin with his close friend and client, Jimmy Webb (right).

So, Jimmy came to Toronto and I put him up in a hotel close to my home. The end result was one of the greatest experiences of our lives. The amount of pain he was going through became so cathartic when it came to putting music down on tape. It was just this incredibly powerful re-imaging by the artist and songwriter of these 10 iconic songs. It became an EMI Records release entitled “10 Easy Pieces,” a record that Tim White at Billboard Magazine called the Record of the Year. Most people who have this record, consider it one of the greatest albums of all time. Honestly, the CD's title couldn't have been further from the truth; it could just as easily been called “10 Tormented Pieces,” between Jimmy’s hurt and the countless hours I spent working to put together the best moments we had. When it was released, there was no promotion for the album, so as a result, it didn't sell very much. But, every great songwriter has a copy and it's considered one of the greatest moments in recorded history. When you listen, it truly sounds as if Jimmy is sitting there in the room with you, pouring his soul and heart into his interpretation of these fantastic songs. The result became much larger than life, and that record alone would serve us well to be on both of our tombstones.

This experience absolutely changed Jimmy's life. Within 2 years, he was sober and ever since, has been performing at least 80 gigs a year for the last 15 years. He also went from being terribly uncomfortable on stage to the total opposite. Now, when you see Jimmy perform, he comes alive on stage and he's a real ham. It's lovely. Doing that record changed his life, got him through the toughest time he could imagine and got his credibility back at the same time. Through it all, I felt blessed to be Jimmy’s guy. He really needed a lifeline and I was lucky enough to be there when he needed it.

Through it all, I have an immense gratitude for this wonderful musical life I've lived. I worked very hard and have had such an incredible run, but please know that I am blessed to have the gifts to do what I do.

To all the young people who want to make a musical life for themselves; Please promise me that you’ll listen to all the greats in musical history. We all become better artists and songwriters when we stand on the shoulders of those who came before us. Whether you are writing instrumentals or songs, it all starts with the composition. The worst thing you can do, is to not believe that the song is the first and most important thing you start with. If you’re going to be a songwriter or composer, please make it so your work will stand the test of time. Try to write something that will be considered a major work, as opposed to a throw-away. Lead, don’t follow: You accomplish this by challenging yourself and working hard to be the best you can be. If tomorrow's musicians can find the time to do that, if they can find friends in school to make music together, to spend time getting better and not wasting valuable music writing and playing time on the internet and on social media, then I think we’ll be okay.

Kids: Work hard and dedicate your attention and time to your music.

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Fred Mollin is a Nashville, TN based TV/film composer & record producer who has produced recordings for dozens of well-known artists.  He is also a session guitarist and performer. www.FredMollin.com

 

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88+ Ways Music Can Change Your Life

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