ONE SONGWRITER’S JOURNEY THROUGH THE TRENCHES OF THE MUSIC BUSINESS
Gary is best known for co-writing and singing “Where Everybody Knows Your Name”, the theme from the hit television series “Cheers”. Thanks to that song- as well as the themes to “Punky Brewster” and “Mr. Belvedere” among others- Gary was honored by ASCAP (The American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers) for having composed the most performed television themes for six consecutive years.
Gary is a two time Emmy nominee- for the Cheers theme and for “I Still Believe In Me”, a song he co-wrote for an episode of “Fame”.
His songs have been recorded by many notables including Dolly Parton and Air Supply, and his self-titled album on Columbia Records was recently re-issued on CD by Sony Japan.
Over the years Gary has made occasional television appearances, including one on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno and, most recently, on the 2006 TV LAND Awards.
However, long before any of that….
Gary Portnoy was born in Brooklyn, New York in June of 1956. When he was three, his family moved to “the Promised Land they called Long Island”, where he spent the remainder of his growing up years. Long Island was sunny and green and “new” and may well have been an idyllic locale for most of the kids who grew up there at that time. However, Gary found the atmosphere to be a bit stifling and, perhaps because of that, also somewhat intimidating. From post-adolescence on, he dreamt of the day he would make his great escape to the big city just down the Long Island Railroad tracks.
One day when Gary was four, his Grandpa Harry was singing a Negro spiritual in the living room. (No one was quite sure why.) Gary, with no prior training, and without any warning, went over to the piano and proceeded to play the song note for note. Piano lessons were instantly arranged. But Gary resisted the requisite regimentation and, after he spit at his first instructor and locked himself in the bathroom from the second, it was generally accepted that any musical progress on his part was going to take place on his own -“outside the box”. He would have no further formal training.
At age ten Gary wrote his first song on the grand piano that had been given to the family by his beloved grandparents, Dora and Harry.The title of that song, “The Loner”, pretty much sums up his junior high and high school years in the town of Valley Stream – except for the bands that he and various configurations of his few friends formed and that occasionally played at high school dances and graduation parties.In 1974, during the summer between high school and college, Gary made his first foray into a “real” recording studio – Ultrasonic Studios in Hempstead, New York.
There he produced (with friend and guitarist Irving Berner) demos of two newly written songs, “Saved In Time” & “Wine & Dine”, in a desperate last minute attempt to become a pop star in order to avoid having to go to college. He did, in fact, manage to talk his way into the office of successful songwriter/producer Paul Vance who upon listening to the finished tape declared that Gary, while not quite “there” yet, was “definitely a songwriter”. In that instant – and with that validation – Gary was changed forever. But, alas, this watershed moment had come just a bit too late to spare him from having to keep his date with higher education.
Listen to an excerpt from Gary’s first demo “Wine & Dine”
After a year at Cornell University spent mostly writing song after song and making crude recordings of them on his roommate’s creaky reel-to-reel tape recorder, Gary considered dropping out of school to pursue music full time. Instead, he transferred to New York University for his sophomore year. By doing so he figured he would be where the musical action was and not (yet) break his parents’ hearts.
By the fall of 1975, Gary was back home on Long Island and driving back and forth to classes at NYU. However, it was now crystal clear to him that songwriting had become his raison d’etre.Right at this time he reconnected with a high school classmate who had opted to skip college and, instead, build a recording studio in his family’s basement. His name was Bob Shuster and his passion for things technical, which in high school had made him the object of a fair amount of (gentle) chiding, now met head on with Gary’s need to make competitive, professional song demos. And so virtually every Saturday night for the next few years, Gary would head to Bob’s basement with whatever song or two he had written that week. He and Bob would spend 5-6 hours recording instrumental tracks and Gary’s vocals and then mixing them (usually with the help of a third friend, drummer Len Napolitano.) No money ever exchanged hands.Gary was grateful to have the means by which to properly showcase his material and Bob was thrilled to have a guinea pig on whom to try out his newest microphones, sound boards, and tape decks. It was creative Kismet.That same year Paul Vance sent Gary to play his latest songs for Irv Lichtman at the newly formed New York Times Music publishing company. Irv liked what he heard- especially a song called “Dream Away”- and asked to hear more material. Shortly thereafter he offered Gary his first publishing deal as a staff songwriter.
Listen to an excerpt from “Dream Away”
The general response to Gary’s songs from day one had been that his melodies were stronger and more commercially suited than his words. Accordingly, Irv proceeded to pair Gary with another of the Times staff writers, lyricist Carol Bayer Sager, with whom Gary composed his first ever co-written song, “I’ll Be Seeing You Again.”
Listen to an excerpt from “I’ll Be Seeing You Again”.
Gary’s deal with New York Times Music was short lived- as was the company itself. The two parted ways after only eight months, but not before Irv Lichtman had introduced Gary to lyricist Estelle Levitt with whom Gary enjoyed his first ongoing songwriting collaboration beginning in the summer of 1976.
Estelle was an extremely gifted writer but had a reputation for being somewhat… “difficult”. She rented a small office near the old Brill Building in midtown Manhattan and Gary arrived there for their first meeting with a fair amount of trepidation. It turned out to be unwarranted; Estelle never showed.
She did, however, appear for their second appointment at which time she ushered Gary into her two room office “suite”, lit a cigarette while informing him of a recent horrifying tragedy in her family, and offered to help Gary find a good shrink. The urge in Gary to flee was great. But something about Estelle fascinated him and kept him seated and curious as to what could possibly follow such an unorthodox first few minutes.Most often what followed was… nothing.
Gary and Estelle would generally spend their time together talking and listening to records and then talking some more before Gary would retrieve his car from the building’s parking garage and head back to Long Island.Every now and then, however, Estelle would announce at the start of their session, “I think today is a writing day!”-and almost always it was. On those days Estelle’s eyes would widen as she jotted words and phrases in #2 pencil on delicate purple onion skin paper and then handed them to Gary who would take them to the beat up old upright in the next room and try to set them to music. Estelle would visibly relax and “soften” when she wrote and an unexpectedly warm persona would emerge (accompanied by a gentle smile). Gary and Estelle liked each other; they became friends, bonding in the way that a sister and her younger brother might.
Over the course of the next several months a handful of songs resulted, one of which, “Borderline”, would be key in securing Gary his first recording contract.
Listen to an excerpt from Gary’s demo of “Borderline”
In time, Estelle entrusted Gary to work with her on a song for her murdered “Sister”.
Listen to an excerpt from Estelle’s demo of “Sister”
It was towards the end of 1976 that the door to the music business swung wide open for Gary. And once again it was courtesy of mentor Paul Vance, who invited Gary to come work with him full time. Gary would now be writing songs with this highly accomplished lyricist on a regular basis. But there was a lot more to it than that.
For most songwriters, especially beginning ones, the challenge of writing a good song is nothing compared to that of getting someone to record it. Suddenly Gary found himself in the enviable position where, once a song was written, Vance would put on his producer’s hat and cut the song with one of his recording artists. (He generally had three or four signed to him at any given time.)
Working full time with Paul Vance also meant that, for the first time, Gary got to spend days on end in the best recording studios working alongside the “A List” of New York’s studio musicians and recording engineers. From co-writing the songs… to rehearsing the singers…. to working with the players… to singing background vocals… to helping with the final “mixes”… to sitting in on Paul Vance’s meetings with record company executives…. this was a priceless music business “higher education”. It resulted in Gary’s first major label release – a Vance/Portnoy song entitled “When I’m Loving You” as recorded by songstress Gail Winters on RCA Records.
Listen to an excerpt from “When I’m Loving You”.
However, all of this did not come without a price.
Paul Vance, as it turned out, was quite the consummate “character”. He had about him the gruff, surly air of a construction foreman, which he used to great advantage in dealing with anyone foolish enough to underestimate either his considerable talent or his incredible business savvy. However he, too, turned instantly tender when he picked up his pencil to write lyrics. At those times the 46-year-old father of four seemed almost boyish- prone to giggle with glee when he came up with a line that particularly pleased him. He moved back and forth with seeming ease between his music interests and those of his two other great passions (of which racing his horses was one.) He could be lighthearted and playful, but never was there any ambiguity about who ran the show in his world. And when he roared at his sister (and secretary extraordinaire) “Kathryn, get Gary Portnoy on the phone!” it was generally to let Gary know when he was expected where and for what.
Eventually the pressure of writing both songs and term papers – of attending Paul Vance’s recording sessions and NYU economics lectures – left its mark on Gary in the form of fifty new pounds around his middle. And so it came to be that prior to the spring semester of his junior year, Gary took a leave of absence from college to devote himself to music full time – a leave of absence that continues to this day.
The ensuing months brought Gary more invaluable hands on experience- and more recordings of his songs. However, his road was about to lead elsewhere. And even though he and Paul Vance never saw each other again, Gary will forever be grateful to the man with the huge heart and the robust laugh who answered his own phone one day and said “come on up”.
In the spring of 1977 Richard Landis, a young newly hired A&R executive with Capitol Records in New York, heard a demo of “Only My Woman Knows”, one of Gary’s (by that time) few solo written songs. He requested a meeting with Gary and asked to hear virtually every song that Gary had written up to that point. Within a couple of weeks – and after Landis had conferred with his bosses on the West Coast – Gary signed on as the newest of the 70 or so artists on Capitol Records (this just after his 21st birthday.)
Listen to an excerpt from Gary’s demo of “Only My Woman Knows”.
Shortly thereafter, arrangements were made to begin cutting the tracks for Gary’s debut LP. Richard Landis, himself a singer/songwriter and a gifted arranger, would be the in-studio producer. Thus was set in motion the beginnings of a most turbulent roller coaster ride that no one could possibly have foreseen. On the surface, two talented creative souls were working diligently together to try and seize the opportunity of their young lifetimes. What unfolded, however, was a Machiavellian soap opera whose characters included an artist with psychosomatic laryngitis, a producer with a silver spoon, and legions of horrified onlookers. (Even Son of Sam, the infamous .44 caliber killer who held the entire city of New York paralyzed with fear that summer, made his presence felt in the Portnoy/Landis sessions at The Record Plant on West 44th Street – a story for another day.)
An entire tracking session had already been scrapped (at great expense) and tempers were already short when word came in that legendary “Jersey Boy” Frankie Valli wanted to immediately record Gary’s song “Only My Woman Knows”. It seemed that Mr. Valli and his record label were searching for a single to help launch his upcoming album and believed they had found one in Gary’s song.
The glee that Gary Portnoy (the songwriter) felt was short-lived as Richard Landis proceeded to summarily quash the Frankie Valli recording, insisting instead that the song be saved for Gary Portnoy (the recording artist). Or, more accurately, Gary Portland the recording artist as, by that time, Landis had insisted that Gary change his last name in an effort to de-ethnicize it.
Gary, a huge fan of Frankie Valli, was disconsolate and, in short order, what few support beams remained in the relationship between producer and artist completely gave way. Chaos ensued as Landis and Portnoy descended into a creative hell that several times threatened to turn violent and ended with Landis flying off alone to London to record the strings for Gary’s album at the Beatles’ famed Abbey Road Studios. What resulted was a finished master that reflected the turmoil and disconnect between two talented entities.
In the end, the album was never released, though a single from it, “The Door To Your Room”, which Gary had co-written with his friend Ruth Rosen, was put out in the U.K.
Listen to an excerpt from Gary’s Capitol Records recording of “The Door To Your Room”
Shortly thereafter, Richard Landis transferred briefly to the LA office of Capitol Records before going on to great success as an independent record producer in Nashville. The album that he and Gary created together resides to this day on a shelf somewhere deep in the bowels of Capitol Records.
Shee Moe Foe
In the autumn of 1977, anxious to put the Capitol nightmare behind him, Gary wholeheartedly welcomed an invitation to work with lyricist Irwin Levine (who was fresh off having co-written what would go on to become one of the most performed songs in the entire American songbook, “Tie A Yellow Ribbon ‘Round The Old Oak Tree.”) At Levine’s side, Gary learned much about the craft of songwriting. And when their song “Shee Moe Foe” was recorded by Mac Davis on Columbia Records, it became Gary’s first “name” cover record.
Listen to an excerpt from Gary’s demo of “Shee Moe Foe”.
The Mac Davis recording had been produced under the auspices of The Entertainment Company. TEC was a red hot publishing/production entity, headed by Charles Koppelman and Martin Bandier. Charles Koppelman in particular was known to have an amazing “ear”. He was a shrewd businessman, to be sure, but unlike so many of the young Turks (pronounced j-e-r-k-s) who had begun to take the executive reins of the record business, Koppelman had a genuine and passionate love for music. At a time when every young (and not so young) songwriter was trying to get their foot in The Entertainment Company door, it was already ajar for Gary.
It was in the spring of 1978 that Gary received a call from Charles Koppelman’s secretary asking him to come to a meeting with a potential new collaborator named Jeanne Napoli.
Ms. Napoli turned out to be quite the larger than life figure – unlike anyone Gary had ever known. A nightclub singer/dancer turned recent songwriter, she seemed almost to have been plucked from another time and place – a 50’s gal transported to the 70s. (Make that a 50’s movie star transported to the 70’s – half Marilyn Monroe; half, say… Debbie Reynolds.) When she invited Gary over for their first writing appointment, her “apartment” turned out to be a five story townhouse in midtown Manhattan. That meeting produced their first song, “Just To Know You Love Me”.
Listen to an excerpt from Gary’s demo of “Just To Know You Love Me”.
It was not long before the new writing team began going into the studio and recording “demos” of their songs at Blank Tape on West 20th St. Initially, Jeanne was footing the bill for the sessions and hiring the best musicians to play on them- players who generally did not work on songwriter demos. Gary played the keyboards and did all the singing- usually a lead vocal bathed in lots of background harmonies.
Spurred on by an early success (Charles Koppelman had placed their song “On The Run” with pop icon of the day Cheryl Ladd on Capitol Records), a close and jovial working friendship began to develop between these two most unlikely partners.
Listen to an excerpt from Gary’s demo of “On The Run”.
Before long, they were spending several days a week side by side writing at the piano in Jeanne’s townhouse and countless additional hours recording deep into the night at Blank Tape and Media Sound.
It was not unusual for them to leave the recording studio at three in the morning and head over to the Empire Diner on 10th Avenue for pork burgers on a bun and brownies “all the way”. There were also countless dinner parties at Jeanne’s home and memorable meals at the best Italian restaurants all over the city.
In retrospect, it would appear that there was a logical “symmetry” to this pairing of complete opposites- the blond bombshell from Wilkes Barre and the disheveled kid from Long Island.
Gary had never before been the “lead” writer in an ongoing songwriting relationship – the one guiding a less experienced partner. Now, both at the piano and in the recording studio, he was very much a teacher and a mentor to his talented, but relatively green, co-writer.
Jeanne, on the other hand, was the far more experienced of the two in virtually every other aspect of life. Her lyrics drew upon experiences that Gary at age 23 had never known (included among them many that he never would!) With Jeanne, Gary was really seeing New York and LIVING it for the first time. He found himself continually amazed at how she resided in and traveled comfortably through the toughest, most sophisticated city in the world and yet, somehow, never for one second shed the aura of vulnerability and innocence that enveloped her like a child’s blanket. Once her own children were safely tucked into bed, she became a denizen of the New York night.From the seediest bars to the trendiest clubs and from the plainest diners to the finest restaurants, Jeanne Napoli was seemingly at home anywhere and everywhere in the Big Apple. After a long day of writing, Gary would often accompany her as she mingled after hours with friends- and strangers- from all walks of life and all levels of the socio-economic spectrum. People were naturally drawn to Jeanne – to her beauty, to her effervescence, to her notoriety. (Her husband was incarcerated at the time and she had had to testify before several high profile Grand Juries.)
Jeanne became a friend to many souls who were new to and/or lost in the big city.
As Portnoy and Napoli began accruing cover records of their songs (and after none other than Clive Davis himself had snatched up a copy of their song “I’ll Never Get Enough Of You”, co-written with Judy Quay, which he would later record with Air Supply on Arista Records),
songwriting contracts for Gary and Jeanne were drawn up and, with great fanfare, the two were soon officially welcomed into The Entertainment Company fold.
In addition, Gary signed a recording contract with the company.Career changes were bringing about life changes, as well.
No sooner was the ink dry on his new publishing and recording contracts than Gary – at Jeanne’s urging and much to his parents’ chagrin – was meeting with realtors and checking out potential apartments in the city. Within a month he had signed a lease and two weeks later, in September of 1979, he moved into his first apartment on East 64th St.
He was now a 23-year-old college dropout with his own place in the greatest city in the world and a songwriting deal that was paying him almost 20 times what his first one had.
When a publisher signs a songwriter the writer becomes, to a large degree, an “employee” in the traditional sense of the word. In exchange for accepting a salary (which is actually an advance against future royalties) the writer surrenders a great deal of his creative autonomy. The publisher’s primary motivation, understandably, is to get the biggest bang for their buck.
And so it was that The Entertainment Company came to ask Gary and Jeanne to individually collaborate with others of their staff writers. This was business as usual- Publishing 101. To Gary and Jeanne, however, it was something quite else.
While their relationship would always be a platonic one, there had developed between them a creative intimacy that, while hard to define or explain, was undeniable and, at times, unbearable. With it had come a mutual possessiveness and a sense of entitlement in regard to each other’s time and talent. This had led them to make the fatal mistake of committing to write songs only with each other.
At first Portnoy and Napoli stood their ground with TEC and refused to write with other writers. The company’s requests then turned to pointed requests and, eventually, to demands.
Perhaps it was inevitable that, when the two writers finally relented and began to collaborate with others, they were each beset with feelings of hurt, jealousy and betrayal. Suddenly there was an “edge” to a relationship whose greatest asset had been its lightness of being.
For months, Gary and Jeanne retreated into separate worlds – each bewildered and plagued by a profound sense of loss. When they finally reconnected at a piano some months later, the songs that resulted were achingly autobiographical – as raw as open wounds. This was the beginning of the end.
In September of 1979, Gary flew out to Los Angeles to work with another company writer named Susan Sheridan.
Their very first effort was an unapologetic declaration of independence, “Goodbye Never Felt This Good”.
Listen to an excerpt from Gary’s demo of “Goodbye Never Felt This Good”.
That was followed by “Say Goodnight” which they quickly demoed and eagerly ran to play for Charles Koppelman at his bungalow at the Beverly Hills Hotel – his home away from home. Charles declared the song to be a hit and, before too long, Dolly Parton was in the studio recording it.
Gary’s stay in LA was extended to three weeks and he was given the company Cadillac with which to negotiate the twists and turns between his room at the Chateau Marmont and Sue’s apartment in the Valley. What had started out as a nerve wracking assignment – to fly cross country at company expense and write songs with a total stranger – had ended up becoming a much needed vacation of sorts – physically, mentally, and spiritually. Gary returned to New York feeling fresh and newly liberated.
Gary Portnoy and Jeanne Napoli would write again only sporadically over the next couple of years. One of the songs that resulted, “So Far Away From You”, was, in many ways, an expression of the distance that now existed between them.
Listen to an excerpt from Gary’s demo of “So Far Away From You”
Another would prove to be their final collaboration. That song was “Manhattan Heartache”.
Listen to Gary’s recording of “Manhattan Heartache” from his “Destiny” CD
Say Goodnight, Gary
In October of 1979, Charles Koppelman met with Bruce Lundvall at Columbia Records and the two of them laid the groundwork for Gary Portnoy to record an LP for that label. Within weeks a producer (David Wolfert) was chosen, studio time (at Electric Lady) was booked, and all that remained was to select the songs that would be included on the album.
In what would become – and sooner rather than later – one of those “if I could only go back and change it” decisions Gary, fueled by the euphoria of his LA trip, chose to record for his album almost exclusively the songs that he had only recently co-written (all fine and wonderful songs- as attested to by the fact that many of them were eventually snatched up and “covered” by some of the top recording artists of the day.) His work with Jeanne Napoli that had led to his Entertainment Company deal – and that had consumed him for the past year and a half as he and Jeanne had alternately inspired and tormented one another– was nowhere to be heard. (Charles Koppelman was the “executive producer”, in charge of overseeing all aspects of the project; somehow he, too, signed off on this ill-charted course.)
Right from the get-go the stars that shone over what would be Gary’s Columbia Records debut seemed sadly out of alignment. Producer David Wolfert was a world class guitarist, a talented songwriter in his own right- and an all-around nice guy. But the fact that Gary’s music was nothing if not piano-centric was arguably overlooked. And Electric Lady- an iconic recording studio that had hosted the likes of Jimmy Hendrix and the Rolling Stones- was a cold, steely environment more suited for mainstream rock artists- not a young singer/songwriter with a proclivity for MOR ballads.
The album that resulted was, for Gary, pleasant enough to listen to, but rather lacking in passion and intensity- more reflective of co-writer Susan Sheridan’s gifted mind and musical sensibilities than those of the person whose name it bore. With the exception of only a few tracks, Gary felt little in the way of emotional connection to his self-titled LP. One of those songs was “When The Night Ends”, co-written with Ruth Rosen.
Listen to an excerpt from Gary’s Columbia Records recording of “When The Night Ends”.
Another was the only single off the album, “It’s Gonna Be A Long Night”, which was actually a songwriting demo co-written with Estelle Levitt and added to the LP months after its original completion date.
Listen to an excerpt from Gary’s Columbia Records recording of “It’s Gonna Be A Long Night”.
That single never charted and the album itself, entitled simply “Gary Portnoy”, was quietly relegated to the discount bin.
To be fair (and much to Gary’s surprise) his Columbia Records LP has attracted quite a legion of fans in the years since its release. It is a staple on various websites devoted to “1980’s West Coast Music”. And when it was re-issued on CD by Sony Japan in 2002, it immediately sold out its entire pressing.
The Light Bulb
It was during the waning days of the Columbia LP that Gary Portnoy came to recognize and understand a core truth about himself, one that he had been “dancing around” throughout the course of his young career. As much as he loved the act of singing that brought his songs to life, it was now clear to him that he had no real feel for being a “performer”. His childhood fantasies of pop stardom had come face to face with the reality of what it entails to actually try to become one. While others could debate whether or not he had the talent to be a successful recording artist, Gary now knew that he lacked the temperament for it. Not only did he not hunger for the spotlight, he shied away from it at every turn. Henceforth, he would be content to be a songwriter whose greatest pleasure as a singer was to stand alone before a microphone in the solitude of a dimly lit recording studio harmonizing with himself and doing as many takes as necessary to capture the essence of a song. In the years that followed, whenever anyone would ask Gary how it felt to have co-written and sung the Cheers theme with hardly anybody knowing his name, he would smile inwardly and think to himself, “It feels quite OK.”
I Still Believe In Me
The music business is the ultimate “buyer’s market”.
One of its basic (though rarely spoken) tenets is that talent is a dime a dozen; there will always be another young songwriter…. another new singer… etc.
With the breakup of the Portnoy / Napoli collaboration and the stillbirth of the Columbia album, Gary’s star at The Entertainment Company was decidedly on the decline. Eventually there came a day when he was offered the chance to make a graceful (early) exit from the company. In response Gary, mindful of the high rent on his new Lincoln Center apartment, made it clear that he intended to fulfill his contractual obligations to TEC and expected them to do the same (namely, to continue paying him.)
Several days later, Gary was visiting overnight at his parent’s house on Long Island when he received a call from a secretary at The Entertainment Company. It seemed that TEC had recently signed on to provide original music for a new television series “FAME” (based on the hit movie of the same name.) The purpose of the call was to tell Gary that he had just 24 hours – overnight! – to submit a song for an episode of “Fame” that was being filmed that week out in LA.
The episode in question, entitled “Passing Grade”, was one in which the school dance instructor and one of her pupils audition for the same role in a Broadway musical. The two women would dance to this song after learning that neither of them had won the part. The song needed to express both disappointment and optimism. (And it had to be a waltz.)
Gary was pleased to learn that Susan Sheridan had been given the same assignment and had already written a potential lyric for the song – and gladder still when he heard her brilliant words for the first time. Unfortunately, Sue was 3,000 miles away and this was a good fifteen years before the world went digital.
Gary and Sue, operating under their severe time constraint, had no choice but to try to write the song over the telephone – she in her LA living room and he at his grandparent’s old piano in his parents’ basement. (Years of constant high humidity had taken their toll on the instrument, the exterior of which had by now acquired a thin coat of white mildew. Of more pertinence: it was grossly out of tune.) With the odds stacked firmly against them, they set out to tackle the waltz duet.
Improbably, and much to their delight, word by word and note by note a meaningful (and, for Gary, prophetic) song emerged from the two writers holding phones to their ears on separate coasts. Once it was complete there was no time to consider making any revisions – or even to evaluate it at all. Instead, Gary hooked up his old EICO reel-to-reel tape recorder. His friend Palma Pascale lent him a microphone which, in the absence of a mike stand, his father held in front of him as he made the roughest of home recordings.
The next morning Gary raced to the local post office and put the song in the overnight mail to LA. Two days later, word came that “I Still Believe In Me” had been selected for the spot on “Fame”. Several weeks after that a tape of the song arrived – sung by Debbie Allen and Erica Gimpel and fully (and magnificently) orchestrated by Barry Fasman. The finished recording was a revelation to Gary. The song had been created and handed over in a flash, and its potential lost on him – until now. The thrill of hearing it for the first time was surpassed only by the joy Gary felt when the episode aired on NBC in early 1982. Against the backdrop of their own vocal performances, Allen and Gimpel performed a beautiful and intensely expressive dance that left Gary nearly speechless.
“I Still Believe In Me” went on to receive an Emmy Nomination for best original song of the year.
In addition, it and another song from Gary’s Columbia album, “It’s Gonna Be A Long Night”, were included on a soundtrack album, “The Kids From Fame”, that sold many millions of copies worldwide.
By the time the “Passing Grade” episode of Fame aired in early 1982, Gary had already been formally fired by The Entertainment Company.
One month later the pilot script to Cheers arrived. (see “Cheers Story”)
The success of “Where Everybody Knows Your Name” (which included a 1983 Emmy nomination) led to more TV theme opportunities for Gary and Judy Hart Angelo which they gratefully and wholeheartedly welcomed… at first.
As Cheers gained in popularity with each passing year, so it seemed did the number of scripts that came their way during “pilot season” – those several months in the spring when the networks traditionally produce sample episodes of shows that are vying to be picked up as new series on the fall TV schedules.
For Gary who, like most young songwriters, was used to having to self-promote both himself and his music, it was new and quite gratifying to now be actively pursued by various major Hollywood production entities. And, as an unabashedly proud child of 1960’s television shows – and their themes – he was thrilled to have the opportunity to potentially add to the musical songbook of the small screen.
Early on it was always with great anticipation that Gary and Judy awaited the arrival of a new sitcom script.
All too often, however, they found their enthusiasm waning after reading just the first few pages. Time and again they were forced to acknowledge the sweet irony that, with Cheers, they had hit the proverbial jackpot. For in almost every tangible way – and nowhere more so than in the writing of the pilot script by Glen and Les Charles – Cheers surpassed virtually every show that would ever come their way.
Still, the two songwriters strove to unearth the positive as they waded through the forced plotlines and trite dialogue that characterized so many of the sitcom pilot scripts of the day. Almost always, if only through sheer and dogged determination, they managed to find a “hook” to hang a song upon and wound up writing at least one (and usually two) potential themes for every sitcom that was presented to them. As a result, they began to compile quite a backlog of material that had been written for shows that never saw the light of day (as well as for those that ultimately declined to use their work.)
As the number of scripts submitted to them increased – and as the novelty of the whole process gradually wore off – Gary and Judy found it impossible to resist the temptation to make it easy on themselves by submitting some of those already written and recorded theme songs to the unsuspecting producers of the latest pilots. The two collaborators would sometimes chuckle over how, at their core, so many of the scripts’ plotlines were interchangeable – so much so that the mere switching of a “he” to a “she” or an “us” to a “them” could take a discarded theme song and bring it back to life – sometimes in a big way.
Such was the case in the early summer of 1984 when Portnoy and Hart Angelo, already knee deep in pilot season and swamped with work, were presented the script for a show about a young orphan girl and her dog who were adopted by a gruff elderly widower.
They thought of a pilot they had worked on two years earlier in which the ghost of a dead movie star reappears to help out the awkward teenage boy whose family now occupies her former home. On the surface those two plots sounded like night and day. Yet they both dealt with an unlikely new presence in an established household and, with just a few minor lyric tweaks, the rejected theme to “Jennifer Slept Here” (Every Time I Turn Around) became the theme to “Punky Brewster ” (Every Time I Turn Around).
Listen to Gary’s recording of “Every Time I Turn Around”.
Listen to Gary’s full-length version of “Every Time I Turn Around”
Also in 1984, the two songwriters composed a theme for a rejected pilot named “Help”. It starred a pre-Seinfeld Michael Richards as one member of an eccentric couple’s undisciplined and incompetent household staff who were perpetually conniving to pull the wool over the eyes of the mansion’s newly hired head butler. A year later, when a script arrived about a displaced British butler who unexpectedly drops into the lives of a loving but highly disorganized Middle American family, with just a minor lyric rewrite the theme for “Help” (According To Our New Arrival) became the theme for the long running ABC series “Mr. Belvedere”.
Listen to Gary’s original demo recording of the Mr. Belvedere theme.
Listen to Leon Redbone’s TV version of the Mr. Belvedere theme.
Listen to Gary’s full-length record of the Mr. Belvedere theme.
In 1987, when “Help” was resurrected as the series “Marblehead Manor”, it opened with Gary and Judy’s theme “It’s A Grand Life”.
Listen to Gary and Judy performing “It’s A Grand Life”.
It had never been Gary’s intention to build a career around composing television themes.
The unexpected “detour” that was Cheers had led to several very exciting years working alongside and supplying music for some of television’s most talented creative entities.
There had been myriad trips to Hollywood for meetings, recording sessions in some of the best studios in the world, and opportunities that brought with them the potential for Gary to get his music out to millions of people on a weekly and, eventually, daily basis. (Gary and Judy Hart Angelo were honored by ASCAP – the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers – for having composed the most performed television themes for six consecutive years.)
More than anything it had been great fun.
However, by the mid 1980’s the adrenaline rush that had accompanied prior pilot seasons had been replaced by an air of “been there, done that. ” Now absent was any sense of purpose in trying to eke out yet one more theme for yet one more (usually) poorly written sitcom script. What had started out as gleeful play was now increasingly becoming tedious and repetitive work.
But there was something larger going on in the world of TV themes that would not only accelerate Gary’s exit from it, but also signal what many consider to have been the death knell of the genre itself.
Coming from a background as a pop songwriter, Gary had often found it very difficult to adhere to the strict sixty second time frame of the standard TV theme. (The stopwatch, a regular tool in the arsenal of traditional film scorers and commercial “jingle” writers, was never allowed to enter into Gary and Judy Hart Angelo’s creative process.) With very few exceptions, the two of them generally wrote whatever they felt inspired to without any concern for time constraints. Only when they had come up with a song that they valued did they set about the often daunting task of editing it down to exactly one minute. (This was made all the more challenging by the fact that all of their themes had lyrics that needed to remain cohesive at all times.)
One can only imagine their reaction the first time they were requested to supply a forty-five second theme for a new sitcom. (It seemed that the networks were interested in selling fifteen seconds more advertising time per half hour show.) This request turned out to be not the aberration that they had hoped it was but, rather, an ominous harbinger of things to come.
Before long the two songwriters were being asked to compose thirty second themes with possible fifteen second edits. From there it was only a matter of time before what many baby boomers and post-boomers consider to be the Golden Age of TV Themes gave way to the ten seconds of slap bass guitar that ushered in the Seinfeld-ian Era of TV Themes (thus allowing the networks 50 extra seconds of advertising time per half hour show.)
Believing that it was no longer possible to write the kind of television themes that had graced his childhood and whose tradition he had tried to continue, Gary Portnoy decided to put away his stopwatch and call it a day.
Before long he and Judy Hart Angelo were well on their way to “Moving On” (from “Preppies”)
Between 1985 and 1995 Gary engaged in only extremely sporadic songwriting. For the first time since he recorded his first demo the writing, playing, and singing of music ceased to be basic needs in his day to day life; what had always been as essential as air and water became more and more a passing thought. When he attempted to write only because he felt he “should” be writing, it felt like a crime against nature. As a result, at one point, several years went by without Gary ever so much as touching a piano. This sudden abundance of free time allowed Gary to reconnect with his love for tennis- both as a player and spectator- and the creative void in his days was partially offset by a newly acquired passion for collecting mid-Century American and British studio pottery (which continues to interest and inspire him to this day.) Likewise, the pain of tending to both his parents through their deaths to cancer was soothed by the joy of finding true love in his life.
When Gary Portnoy met Gloria Nissenson in the spring of 1995, it did not take long for his creative juices to once again flow. Gloria was wonderfully quirky and unpredictable and these qualities were reflected in her writing;
Gary never knew what to expect from the pen of this gifted – and most versatile – lyricist. And now, freed from both the dictates of music publishers and the constraints of sixty second time limits, he eagerly awaited Gloria’s latest words and followed them to wherever they led. One of their first collaborations was “Their World, Too”.
Listen to Gary’s recording of “Their World, Too”
Another of their early songs, “I Hold You Tighter”, was named the best country song in the 1999 John Lennon International Songwriting Contest.
Listen to Butch Baker’s recording of “I Hold You Tighter”.
That led Gary and Gloria to embark on what turned out to be a life altering journey that, for the next five years, took them back and forth between New York and Nashville – usually by car (by choice.) It was an amazing escapade that way transcended songwriting (and, whenever possible, passed through the Hotel Roanoke.)
Gary and Gloria’s work together is represented on this website on the Keeper CD, which they co-wrote and co-produced (see Gary’s CDs) and on the 2008 debut CD of Sarah Gayle Taylor which includes eight of their songs, among them her Top 20 recording of “I Miss Us” and her follow-up single, “Well Built Bridges.”
Listen to Sarah Gayle Taylor’s recordings of “I Miss Us” & “Well Built Bridges”
In 2007 Gary wrote and recorded a CD, “Destiny”, that he has described as a 50th birthday present “from me to myself with love.”
The intervening years have seen Gary enjoying a semi-retired life in the country just outside New York City. In addition to traveling and collecting studio pottery (and traveling to collect studio pottery), he has acquired an appreciation for planting species Japanese Maple Trees which more and more grace the hillsides around his house. Gary continues to write the occasional song and, as these have begun to accumulate, 2015 finds him giving some thought to getting back into a recording studio one of these days.