Terry Teachout's loving blog post in tribute to his friend, the lyricist and jazz historian Gene Lees, alerted me to Mr. Lees' recent death--and also made me realize that Lees has had a major influence on the way that I think about lyrics and songwriting. Indeed, if you asked me to list some books that permanently altered my outlook on life, I might have to include Lees' The Modern Rhyming Dictionary: How to Write Lyrics.
I have always written songs, though never in any organized fashion (I can go years without writing any and then crank out two in a month; it all depends on whether I feel inspired). And when I was in high school, I went through a phase of wanting to be a musical-theater songwriter, and asked my parents to give me a rhyming dictionary for Christmas. (Doesn't that seem almost quaint--though this happened less than ten years ago? Nowadays, teens will just rely on online rhyming dictionaries, and not desire a physical book!)
And, fortuitously, my mom bought me not just any old rhyming dictionary, but the one compiled by Gene Lees circa 1970. Not only did it have extensive and easy-to-consult pages of rhymes, it also contained an essay by Mr. Lees, about 40 pages long, about the basic tricks of writing lyrics and the pitfalls to avoid.
I read the essay several times over Christmas vacation that year and can still quote parts of it by heart: "Ee is an easy syllable to sing on sustained notes; that's why there are so many songs with lyrics about 'you and me / by the sea.'" Or "The hardest thing about being a songwriter in English is that there are only five words that rhyme with 'love,' while in French there are over 40 words that rhyme with 'amour.'" Lees had strong opinions and high standards, and was determined to impart them to all of his readers. He's the person who convinced me that any songwriter who rhymes "pen" with "gem," or "another" with "lover," ought to be shot on sight.
In short, Lees turned me into a total snob about lyrics for several years there, and while my standards have relaxed a bit (I like listening to a good mindless pop song sometimes, OK?), he also inspired me to pay more attention to craft in my own lyric-writing, and also to have fun with it. Have fun with sounds, alliteration, onomatopoeia and other echoes. To look for unexpected turns of phrase, or twists on old clichés.
I didn't know that Lees was also a respected writer about jazz, but his essay in The Modern Rhyming Dictionary was so clear and persuasive, and had such an impact on me, that I'd be curious to see some of his other nonfiction writing. May he rest in peace.