As I walked into Tiny's Tavern one evening, I saw, halfway down the bar, the gleaming dome of Al Royal, the songwriter. I slipped in beside him, leaned an elbow on the curve of the bar's raised edge, hooked a foot on the brass rail and had Tiny draw us a round.
Al was an entertaining drinking partner. He always had a story or two. He hustled a living writing songs, and spent a lot of time over at the Brill Building, where all the publishers had their offices. A lot of fight promoters had their offices in the same building, which might give you an idea about song publishers. Al knew all the ins and outs of the songwriting game, and could wring an advance on one of his tunes out of even the most skeptical publisher's rep. In fact, he'd been known to get several advances on the same tune, just changing the title for each publisher.
Al told me a couple of the latest jokes that were going around. I'd heard them already, but I didn't let on. His delivery was good, and he always added a few original embellishments that were worth hearing. Then the conversation turned to the music business.
"I see you got a little action on Deedle-ee, Al. Wynonie's record of it is getting a lot of play."
"I may be able to pay a few bills with that one," said Al. "Good thing I was hanging out at Birdland that night. I swiped the tune from a riff Pres was playing behind Jesse Drakes. All I had to do was cook up a bridge, and some lyrics. Piece of cake."
I said, "I was surprised to hear it on the network stations, with that bit of double entendre at the end. I hear they're very fussy about that sort of thing over there."
Al laughed. "It went right over their heads. It's funny, they'll object to the most innocuous phrases, and then completely miss "playin' the boogie on my old pump organ."
He sipped his beer and chuckled, and I knew he was getting ready to tell me a story. Al liked to take his time, getting the shape of things set in his mind before he started.
"You know that old biddy over at the network who has to approve all the song lyrics before they'll put them on the air?"
"You mean Miss Stockler?"
"The same. I got a note one day from my publisher, saying that one of my songs had been rejected by the network for air play. It was a cornball tune I cooked up one day when I was driving out in Jersey. I saw a big billboard advertising milk, and there was this picture of a kid in overalls and a straw hat, lying up against a haystack, chewing on a straw. The picture of health. Well, it hits me that I might be able to sell a song about a country boy. You know, nostalgia, innocence, all that jazz. I had it roughed out in my head by the time I got home. It only took me half an hour at the piano to finish it.
"I was sure I had a winner when Laurie Lee recorded Country Boy. So when I heard that Miss Pauline Stockler has nixed it for broadcast, I was completely baffled. There wasn't a damned thing in that lyric that could possibly bother anyone. You know, a rejection by that network is serious stuff. They're the only ones willing to pay a smut-cop, and the other stations just go along with anything she says. If Stockler doesn't like your song, nobody's going to hear it on any station on the radio."
I asked, "How come she's so fussy?"
"They pay her to be fussy. They hunted around until they found somebody who could find something dirty in Come To Jesus. They figure, if she passes a tune, nobody is ever going to object to it."
"Did you find out why she nixed your tune?"
Al laughed. "Did I! I was so hot about it that I hot-footed right over to her office. When I got in to see her, I demanded to know what she found wrong with Country Boy. She gave me a prissy leer and said, 'Oh, come now, Mr. Royal. Don't act so innocent. That lyric reeks with suggestion.'
"'Where?' I said. 'Show me where!' I threw a lead sheet in front of her. She gave me one of those looks that said, 'what kind of fool do you think I am,' and pointed to the release. The lyric there goes, 'I long to lay out in the hay, and while away the day.' I know 'lie out in the hay' is better English, but I wanted that internal rhyme.
"Miss Stockler gives me this knowing look and says, 'I think we both know what "lay" means, Mr. Royal. And we also know what goes on in the hay, don't we?'
"I was flabbergasted. I grabbed back my lead sheet and headed for the door, but I just couldn't leave it at that. I turned around and said, 'If this song is salacious, then I guess you're going to have to put a ban on Stephen Foster, aren't you?' She looked confused, and asked, 'What do you mean?'
"I pounced on the old biddy: 'What about Old Black Joe? "I'm coming, I'm coming, for my head is bending low!'"
Al shook his head and laughed with great satisfaction.
"You should have seen her face!" he wheezed. "Her eyes got about this big, and she nearly turned purple. I walked out, fast, while I still had the last word."
"But, Al, won't she nix all your songs now?"
Al gave me a conspiratorial wink.
"Even that one didn't stay nixed. She can't hurt me any more. I got an ace in the hole."
"Her boss, Joe Piper, is a big Sinatra fan, and I know Frank back from the Paramount Theater. We're like this." Al held up two fingers, side by side. "Last time Frank was in town, he and I went to the races, and I arranged for Joe Piper to join us in Frank's private box. For that, Joe owes me. Also, when I was talking to him that day, I found out he can't stand Miss Stockler. He's happy to reverse any of her decisions about my songs. So now, all I have to do is think them up."
He looked at his watch, threw some money on the bar and slid off his stool.
"I think I'll drop by Birdland," he said, putting on his hat. "Pres is there again tonight. Maybe I can pick up another hit."