The LIer who wrote lyrics sung by Elvis, Etta James

Five Towns College adjunct professor and Great Neck resident Mel Glazer has written songs for Elvis Presley, Robert Plant and Etta James. (Credit: Jeremy Bales)

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Lyricist Mel Glazer is showing off the artifacts of a 60-year career spent writing the words for other people's music.

Neatly piled on the dining room table in his Great Neck apartment is a lifetime of memorabilia -- press clippings, LPs (331/3 long-playing records) with his songs recorded by the likes of Etta James and Elvis Presley.

However, Glazer really brightens when he pulls out a letter demonstrating that his lyric-writing skills are still very much in demand.

Bruce A. McDonald, the band director of the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., is planning to perform "You, You're Going Down," a patriotic song Glazer wrote the lyrics to in 2002 in the wake of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The music was later written by Michael Blaymore.

Glazer's lyrics were "based upon anger that I was feeling, as well as sympathy for all the people who lost their lives" on 9/11, Glazer explains. Despite the song's topicality, it took more than 10 years of effort to find a place for it.

Glazer, 83, had hoped, without success, that the creative team behind "Seal Team Six: The Raid on Osama bin Laden," would choose his song for the TV movie, released in 2012.

Doggedly plugging a song he believes in has been Glazer's credo since his very first hit in the early 1950s: "If at First You Don't Succeed, Try, Try Again."


A song for Elvis

Since that auspicious beginning, Glazer has written songs for and with some of the music industry's best-known artists. If you owned a radio in the early 1960s, you likely heard his quirky 1961 hit, "Your Ma Said You Cried in Your Sleep Last Night," recorded by Long Island-based pop singer Kenny Dino (and covered by a number of rockers, including The Turtles, and, in 1990, by Led Zeppelin's Robert Plant). Elvis fans probably recall the title tune to the King's 1968 flick "Speedway" -- Glazer wrote the hard-charging lyrics. His composer-collaborators have included Carole King and Sammy Fain, a two-time Academy Award winner.

Glazer considers lyric writing an "avocation" that he continued while working full time. He started as a pharmacist in the 1950s, working for Gimbel's at the Green Acres Mall in the pharmacy and cosmetics department and was promoted to buyer. Eventually, his knack for sales landed him top vice president positions at Chanel and Godiva chocolates before he retired in the mid 1980s.

"I kept a 'day job' because I never knew when I was going to write another hit song. I never knew when I was going to have another hit recording," he says. "And I was growing in the industry when I was in those vice-presidential slots. I worked my way up. I had my security for my wife and child. All the money that came in from the songs was like icing on the cake, and I was under no pressure then. I could write or not write. I would always put my vocation first."

 

Professor of salesmanship

He's collaborated on hundreds of songs in all genres -- rockabilly, R&B, hard rock and country songs -- most of them still unrecorded. He continues to receive royalties for songs written as far back as the 1950s. He's also a respected music historian, serving as a speaker on Frank Sinatra for the New Jersey Council for the Humanities. For more than eight years, he's been teaching a crop of potential industry executives, as well as younger songwriters, as an adjunct professor of salesmanship at Five Towns College in Dix Hills.

"It's been a wonderful experience to share what I know," Glazer says of teaching. "That's why I'm happier now than I've ever been in my life."

And he continues his avocation.

On Sunday, Talent Journeys, a half-hour program created, written, directed and hosted by Glazer and featuring performances by Five Towns College students and professors, will be simulcast at 8 p.m. on WFTU/AM (1570) in Riverhead and online at FTC.edu.

Glazer wrote his first lyric at age 10, and hasn't stopped since. "If at First You Don't Succeed, Try, Try Again," was written while he was a teenager growing up in late 1940s Long Beach. With music by Stephen Weiss, a composer Glazer met while he was working behind the counter at Kanter's Pharmacy in Long Beach, the bouncy Samba-flavored tune was recorded by Edmundo Ros and His Orchestra in the early 1950s, hitting No. 24 on the charts, Glazer recalls.

Glazer works in the apartment he shares with his wife, researching information for his lyrics at the Great Neck Public Library and writing on a pad or on his home office computer. His shelves are stocked with the tools of the lyricist's trade -- two frayed rhyming dictionaries, and a well-worn copy of The Word Finder, a reference book many lyricists use to find adjectives and adverbs to fill out a line.

Once Glazer has completed a lyric, he sends it to a composer-collaborator. (He also can write lyrics to music.) He's known for his artistry and prolific output, says composer and producer Stephen Schlaks, a collaborator since the early 1960s.

"Mel is fantastic. He's a poet," says Schlaks, 73, formerly of Syosset and currently living in Boca Raton, Fla. "The words would come out of him, and it would just blow my mind."

Glazer and Schlaks originally began working together in the early days of rock and roll, writing "Your Ma Told Me You Cried in Your Sleep Last Night." Recorded in a New York City studio, the single featured an all-Long Island cast with lyrics by Glazer, who was still living in Long Beach, music by Schlaks, lead vocal by Dino and backup vocals by The Bobby Pins -- Jeanette Lendemer, Caren Pilzer and Judy Gould of Syosset. "Cashbox had that song in the Top 10 in 1961," Glazer says.

 

How 'Speedway' was born

Six years later, Schlaks was working on a song for "Speedway" with another lyricist, who was called to military service in Israel during The Six-Day War. Schlaks got the go-ahead from Elvis Presley Music in Manhattan to substitute Glazer, and they sequestered themselves in Glazer's home with a "Speedway" movie script and turned out their song before the weekend was over. They were not just working against time but also competition across the country. Along with dozens of other songwriting teams, each got $50 "just for trying," Glazer says.

Glazer recalls the process of writing lyrics for the song, which would become the movie's title tune, sung by Presley over the credits. Glazer recalls, "I thought about the speedway and I started to feel the rhythm of the racetrack, I started to think about the one in Indianapolis, and I thought about the racing cars and that's where I got 'Take a ton of bolt and steel, a whole lotta sweat, a set of wheels, on the Speedway.'"

"Elvis loved it," recalls Schlaks, who had written previous songs with the entertainer. Glazer never actually met Presley, but Presley called while Glazer and Schlaks were picking up a script for Presley's next movie (they didn't make the cut for that one). "I heard his voice saying 'thank you' over the phone," Glazer recalls. But there are no regrets, Glazer says. "There were only nine Presley movies with title songs, and Steve and I wrote one of them."

Glazer has had other successes since the 1960s. In 1998, for instance, "The Magic Is There," a Glazer lyric recorded by Daniel O'Donnell, was a Top 20 country song in England.

Glazer has been married for 20 years to Sybil Cohen-Glazer, a nutritionist for the Nassau County health department, and has a son, Jeffrey Ross Glaser of Fort Lee, N.J., from a previous marriage, and a granddaughter, Jordan Alexis Glazer, 2.

And after all those years of writing, the lyrics keep coming. "When I'm creating," Glazer says, "boy, that's a thrill. That's where my energy flows." The key, he says, is persistence. "If you believe in the song, you don't ever give up. It only takes one yes."

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