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September 26, 2003
Book Review
A Cup O' Joe
Musical Journeyman Joe Harnell's sober autobiography makes its point in Counterpoint
by Bruce Babcock

Composer/arranger Joe Harnell offers (with co-author Ira Skutch) an honest and candid portrayal of his life and works in the autobiography Counterpoint: The Journey of a Music Man.

The "Counterpoint" of the title refers to the contrast between Harnell's professional life and his personal life. In a brief prelude, he writes that while "music brought harmony and comfort, my relationships brought dissonance and chaos." Significantly, the book is dedicated to his fourth wife, Alice, whom he credits with changing his life.

The term "Music Man" is also well chosen. Harnell has excelled at piano performance and music direction, as well as composing music for advertising, recordings, film and television. Many musicians would be content with Harnell's success in any one of these fields.

With chapter titles such as "Drinking," "My Sponsor" and "Psychiatry," Harnell is upfront about the nature of problems dealt with in the book. It becomes clear from the first page that alcohol and a negative attitude were the two self-described destructive elements in his life.

Early in the book, Harnell describes his difficult relationship with his alcoholic father Philip, who had been in Vaudeville briefly before becoming a baker. By the time the Bronx-born Joe was 13, he had learned the Jewish, Italian and society repertoire by playing with in father in a Klezmer band, an experience that would prepare him for his career years later as a musical director.

Harnell's recount of his school days reads like a Who's Who In Music. Some of high school band mates included Shorty Rogers on trumpet and Hugo Montenegro on drums. He studied composition with such greats as William Walton, Aaron Copland and Nadia Boulanger. He attended Tanglewood from 1947 through 1951, where his roommate was Lukas Foss. Other classmates included Ned Rorem, Jacob Druckman, Irving Fine and John Corigliano, all major figures in 20th-century American concert music. Harnell alludes to himself as a "pot smoking jazzer" trying to learn and find acceptance from these classical musicians. Yet following Harnell's first acceptance at Tanglewood, he writes of feeling "in my heart of hearts that I wasn't truly qualified, and that I fooled them yet again." Clearly there was a severe dissonance between the talent recognized by other professionals and Harnell's harsh self-appraisal. This theme runs throughout the book.

By frequenting the jazz clubs of Manhattan and Harlem, Harnell became enamored of musicians such as Art Tatum, Count Basis, Miles Davis and Charlie Parker. And he worked with Dizzy Gillespie and Mugsy Spanier, among others. (One interesting fact that Harnell reveals: legendary trumpeter Wingy Manone occasionally smuggled marijuana across the Mexican border inside his prosthetic arm.) It was while playing freelance sessions, Broadway shows and gigs with society band leader Lester Lanin in the 1950s that Harnell became more and more aware of the difference between music and the music business. Still, Harnell not only survived (while some of his peers did not) but actually thrived. It was not long until Harnell became music director for Robert Goulet, Carol Lawrence and Julius LaRosa. Dietrich, Lee and Chevalier followed.

In 1963, Harnell's bossa nova arrangement and recording of "Fly Me to the Moon" led to a Grammy and his biggest commercial success. The record became one of the best-selling instrumental hits of all time. Would the record have been as successful if Harnell had not changed the original title of the tune, which was "In Other Words?" And would an arranger who was not a licensed pilot, as Harnell had been since the 1940s, have changed the title?

Following a few years working at an ad agency on some of the biggest ad campaigns of the '60s, Harnell took a job with The Mike Douglas Show from 1967 to 1973. In some ways this chapter is the most interesting of the book. Acts from Judy Garland to John Lennon and Yoko Ono appeared as guests on the show. Barry Goldwater once performed on the trombone. Of the Lennon-Ono week as guest hosts, Harnell reflects, "It was a week everyone was very relieved to see end." Guest hosts who proved to be a sincere pleasure included Louis Armstrong and Tony Bennett.

It was in April of 1973, while still music director of the Douglas show, that Harnell's troubles with alcoholism came to a head. A concerned fellow musician, referred to only as "Eddie," took Harnell to his first meeting. Harnell discusses the slow process of recovery very candidly.

It was also in 1973 that Harnell left the East Coast and came to California to pursue a career in film scoring. Shortly after arriving in town Harnell got a meeting at Universal, set up by John Cacavas, with the music department head, the late Harry Garfield. Harry told John, "Harnell makes records. He plays the piano. he is not a composer."

Undismayed, Harnell sought an opportunity to attend the legendary Earle Hagen's film scoring workshop, taught in his home to small groups of industry pros. Normally the tuition was a dozen Titleist golf balls but Earle waived the "fee" in Harnell's case. As Earle said, "Harnell, you bought me my first Rolls Royce," through the royalties earned by the appearance of Hagen's "Harlem Nocturne" as the B side of "Fly Me to the Moon."

Eventually, through producer Ken Johnson, whom Harnell knew from The Mike Douglas Show, Harnell got a shot a scoring for television. The series for which Harnell wrote dramatic underscore included The Bionic Woman and The Incredible Hulk. Again, Harnell thrived in yet another facet of the music business, despite not getting a real opportunity until the age of 50. And then there are the other gigs and relationships detailed in the book – Frank Sinatra, Anthony Newley, Shirley MacLaine, Quincy Jones, Dave Brubeck, Name That Tune, teaching at USC, and much more. Enough careers for several musicians, yet all accomplished by one man. Chapter titles include "Peggy Lee," "Marlene Dietrich," "Maurice Chevalier" and "Pearl Bailey." Harnell has worked with some of the greats of the music world.

This is not merely another "and then I wrote..." glossy show business book. The "counterpoint" of personal problems and subsequent recovery runs throughout. Harnell candidly talks about the difficulty of slowly learning to be comfortable inside his own skin. He credits his AA sponsor of 27 years and his marriage to Alice as being primary positive forces in his later life. Both helped lead him to the realization that the road to the goal is more important than the goal itself.

While parts of Counterpoint are brutally honest and revealing, it is certainly not without humor. Included are many often hilarious anecdotes, frequently having to do with the absurdities of show-biz. An active participant in the highest levels of the music business for more than 50 years, he certainly qualifies as an expert observer of the musical scene. Yet, if he had confined himself to music-business anecdotes we wouldn't get a true picture of the man. Thanks to a commitment to rigorous honesty, we do.

The book is published by Xlibris Corporation (ISBN 0-7388-4990-1), and is available in hard cover, soft cover and E-book through Xlibris.com or amazon.com

© 2003 Bruce Babcock

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