Composing a life

Composing a life

Meet music man Murray Weinstock

Murray Weinstock, composer and dog lover, with one of his friends.
Murray Weinstock, composer and dog lover, with one of his friends.

As a young man, growing up in Paterson, Murray Weinstock loved walking around the streets of his hometown. Now living in Manhattan, the pianist/songwriter/arranger still finds reasons to visit his old neighborhood, whether to visit friends, sing with an oldies band, or enjoy the beauty of the town’s Great Falls.

A 1965 graduate of East Side High School, Weinstock later attended the Mannes School of Music in Manhattan. By 1966 he had his own apartment. “I was just happy to get into New York,” he said. “But I remember — especially during the first few months — thinking, ‘How do you meet people here?’”

Mannes turned out to be good choice. “I met a couple of musicians and started a band,” Mr. Weinstock said, describing the genesis of the Fifth Avenue Band. He also made important connections, ultimately leading him to Bob Cavallo, the manager of singer/songwriter John Sebastian, a founder of the Lovin’ Spoonful.

Mr. Cavallo “helped us get a place to rehearse,” Mr. Weinstock said. “After many months of rehearsing and changing our lineup, we got signed to Warner Brothers to make a record that got released everywhere in the country.”

The record was released in 1969. Among the band’s fans was Burton Cummings, a Canadian musician, singer, and songwriter who was the lead singer and keyboardist for the Guess Who. “Today he still touts the musical success of the Fifth Avenue album,” Mr. Weinstock said.

In 1988, The Fifth Avenue Band recorded a reunion record called “Really,” which included “Heaven Made Love,” one of the songs Mr. Weinstock co-wrote for the Off Broadway hit “Tony & Tina’s Wedding.” When the song was released in Japan, it became a hit on Japan’s J-Wave station. “I asked if they could understand the words,” the songwriter said. They couldn’t. Still, “they could understand the emotions.”

Mr. Weinstock said he’s always been interested in “good time music,” especially the intersection of soul and jazz. “I’m very much into vocal harmonies,” he said, pointing out that his classical musical training has been very helpful in this regard. You can tell which performers have been classically trained, he said. “With certain rock and roll performers, you can hear their classical roots in harmonies.”

Mr. Weinstock met his wife, classical pianist Elena Belli, in 1994, and the couple married in 2000. “We had the best music at our wedding,” he said. Not only did one of Elena’s friends play classical pieces for them, but the guests included singer Phoebe Snow.

Mr. Weinstock likes to say that he enjoys the music of the 50s — both the 1550s and the 1950s. He has been interested in choral music since childhood and performed with the New Jersey All-State Chorus during high school. Over the years, he has participated in other classical choruses as well.

In the mid 1980s, Murray Weinstock works on a commercial with cabaret legend Bobby Short.
In the mid 1980s, Murray Weinstock works on a commercial with cabaret legend Bobby Short.

A chance meeting with Matthew Lazar — who is, among other things, the founder of the Zamir Choral Foundation, the director of the Zamir Chorale, and the creator of Shirah: The Community Chorus of the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly —– led to Mr. Weinstock’s joining the choir at New York’s Park East Synagogue, where he sang for several years. “We were backing up the world-acclaimed cantor Yitzchak Meir Helfgot,” he said. “It was a spectacular experience. It was astounding both to hear him and to be so close to him.”

The musician’s love for 1950s music is equally strong, and he now plays with two oldies groups.

Mr. Weinstock also spent time touring and recording with Manhattan Transfer, Esther Phillips, Richie Havens, and the Planotones, a group he co-produced. While out touring with the Transfer, he got a call from John Sebastian. “I was out in California with them, and I invited John Sebastian to the show,” he said. “I told him I had nothing to do during the day, and we should do a session. He called later and said, ‘I’ve got this theme song I’ve got to do. You can help me.’”

Chances are, many of our readers still remember that song — “Welcome Back Kotter” — and some even may remember some of the lyrics. Mr. Weinstock played piano, helped arrange it, and sang the bass and some of the backup parts. “I sing the first and last parts,” he said, adding that he still smiles every time he hears it.

According to Mr. Weinstock, he is particularly good at writing and arranging both instrumental and vocal music. Among the groups he works with now is Memories Music, a Paterson-based band that performs music from the 1950s through the 1970s and Motown. “It’s just starting to catch on,” he said, adding that he met band member Jim Durkin, a Paterson police officer, through the Planotones.

In the 1980s, Mr. Weinstock built up a company to produce commercials. His first one was for Kix breakfast cereal. He later composed the CBS network theme. “That put me on the map,” he said. “We used Richie Havens. He had never done a commercial but we got him to sing that. The demo of Richie, with me on piano, has all the energy of the commercial.”

The first client at his recording studio, opened in 1986, was musician Paul Shaffer of “Late Night with David Letterman,” who was working on a solo album with songwriters Don Covay (“Chain of Fools”) and Steve Cropper (“Dock of the Bay”). People brought in to sing guest spots on Mr. Shaffer’s album included Wilson Pickett, Mavis Staples, Ben E. King, Bobby Womack, and Darlene Love. As if that wasn’t exciting enough, Mr. Shaffer complimented Mr. Weinstock on his ability to work with singers. At the time, Mr. Shaffer was working on a movie called “The Lemon Sisters,” starring Diane Keaton, Carol Kane, and Kathryn Grody (the former wife of Mandy Patinkin). As it happened, Ms. Grody needed some coaching. Also, Mr. Weinstock was told, “If the director likes you, she will put you in a scene.” She did. He appears on camera “playing piano and singing harmony to Carol Kane’s stellar performance of the classic ‘Rawhide.’”

Mr. Weinstock’s career took an unexpected, turn in the 1990s. “Sometime in the 1980s I got a dachshund and went to dachshund parties,” he said. “One guy who was a big aficionado started a dachshund parade in Washington Square Park. He said, ‘Murray. We have a big problem. There’s no theme song. You write one.’ So I wrote a song for the dachshund parade. It’s still sung today. I made a recording of it, and WQXR’s Jeff Spurgeon is one of the background singers.”

Dachshund lovers gather in the park twice a year, in April and October. “The first time we did it, Melissa Block of ‘All Things Considered’ interviewed us. At a certain point, I got involved in writing a whole album of songs about dogs.” Songs on the album, “Tails of the City,” include such ditties as “Popcorn Paws,” “Big Dogs Need More Food, “and “Dixie Dogs.” (Mr. Weinstock said he wrote the last one with musician Dr. John in mind.) He now is working on a second album. “I’ve got songs rolling around in my head,” he said, including “Bow Wow Polka” and a cat song, “Jazz Cat.”

Reflecting on his career, Mr. Weinstock said he would be remiss not to pay tribute to his first music teacher at Camp Veritans — who then became music director at Eastside High School — Irving Weinberg, “who still lives in New Jersey and who encouraged me tremendously as a budding musician.” Now an accomplished musician, Mr. Weinberg would tell those starting out in the music business to “do the musical homework and really work at learning. Some people do it on the fly, do what they like, but it really helps to learn the skills of harmony and rhythm.

“Go further if you love it enough either on a professional level or just for yourself. There’s nothing like music.”

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