© 2020 WFAE
90.7 Charlotte 93.7 Southern Pines 90.3 Hickory 106.1 Laurinburg
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations
NPR Arts & Life

Encore: Jingle Writer Explores Decline Of Original Music In Advertising

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing) Mr. Clean gets rid of dirt and grime and grease in just a minute.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (Singing) Mr. Clean will clean your whole house and everything's that in it.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Decades ago, products had jingles - songs or fragments of songs whose music and lyrics were composed to sell just one thing.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS #1: (Singing) Rice-A-Roni, the San Francisco treat.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DINAH SHORE: (Singing) See the USA in your Chevrolet. America's asking you to call. Drive your Chevrolet...

SIEGEL: You used to hear jingles over and over on radio and television. For better or worse, they were as unforgettable as Mr. Clean's bald head. The last few decades have seen the decline of the jingle in favor of popular music that's repurposed and licensed by the advertiser.

That shift left some people in the ad business behind. We talked with one of them last year and we thought his story should be heard again. Steve Karmen lives outside New York City. He's a past master of jingle composition.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

STEVE KARMEN: Unfortunately, jingle is an unacceptable word today. Jingle implies old. Jingle implies stodgy. Jingle implies not with it.

SIEGEL: Or jingle implies frivolous, not as weighty as a song, not real music.

KARMEN: Jingle is something that's memorable. And nobody wants anything memorable today. They don't care.

SIEGEL: (Laughter).

Eighty-year-old Steve Karmen left the jingle game behind, but he's proud of his contribution. Tunes that he wrote and recorded sold cars, chewing gum, beer. And they were memorable.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (Singing) You can take Salem out of the country, but you can't take the country out of Salem.

SIEGEL: Karmen created that one to flog Salem cigarettes.

KARMEN: In that case, I just wrote the music. (Imitating melody) - and then the ping was my idea. I remember the man who presented it to me, one of the guys at the agency. His name was Gordon Bushell (ph). I don't know if he's still around. But he always used to say, you can take Salem out of the country, but - and he would have this big exclamation point after but. So that gave me the idea to put a space in there.

SIEGEL: Yeah. There's an extra rest in there.

KARMEN: Absolutely.

SIEGEL: There's an extra pause - your idea.

KARMEN: Hey, I know musical terms too, you know?

SIEGEL: Yeah (laughter).

KARMEN: Rest - I know rest.

SIEGEL: No, I wasn't doing that for your benefit (laughter).

KARMEN: Staff is a good one.

SIEGEL: Yeah.

KARMEN: Note.

SIEGEL: Steve Karmen was once called the king of jingles. Although, there are some other pretenders to that throne. He was a childhood pal of singer Bobby Darin. In the 1950s, he played with Darin in a band. Both attended The Bronx High School of Science. Karmen played saxophone and guitar. And then he was lured into the jingle business. And he had some very big clients.

KARMEN: The advertising agency in St. Louis that represented Budweiser had a line. When you say Budweiser, you've said it all. And here's $1,500. And come back with a song.

SIEGEL: Which he did - heavy on the drums.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

VALERIE SIMPSON: (Singing) When you say Bud, you've said a lot of things nobody else can say. When you say Bud, you've gone as far as you can go to get to the very best. When you say Bud, you've said the word that means you like to do it all.

KARMEN: The lead singer is Valerie Simpson of Ashford & Simpson.

SIEGEL: Really?

KARMEN: Valerie wrote "Ain't No Mountain High Enough," "Let's Go Get Stoned," "Solid As A Rock." I mean, Valerie is a most prolific songwriter. But this was - you know, this is how she made a living before she did that.

SIEGEL: And all the music and the whole lyric?

KARMEN: Everything. I wrote the entire lyric. I did the orchestration. I'm, you know, a composer. I do my own productions, my own orchestrations. And that went on the air. And it ran for eight years with that lyric. (Singing) When you say Budweiser, you've said it all. And then the agency rewrote the lyric. (Singing) For all you do, this Bud's for you. And that has been on the air, basically, ever since in various different forms.

SIEGEL: How do you feel about that? I mean, this is your creation. This is your song. It's also a beer commercial. Do you feel as protective of it as if it were an aria in an opera that you did?

KARMEN: I do. I do. You know, the difference between a symphony and a jingle is symphony writers use more paper.

SIEGEL: (Laughter).

KARMEN: It's just hard to write a jingle.

SIEGEL: You wrote a jingle - I'd like to play this for people now - that I recently heard a version of. I saw it on television.

KARMEN: OK.

SIEGEL: Newly orchestrated, I think. I hadn't seen this in a long time. You wrote it years ago. Let's listen. This is for an insurance company.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RON DANTE: (Singing) Who can you call on for better insurance? Who can you call - Nationwide. Who can you count on for blanket protection and know that you'll find peace of mind? Call Nationwide 'cause Nationwide is on your side.

KARMEN: Yes.

SIEGEL: When we hear that music...

KARMEN: Right.

SIEGEL: When we see a commercial on television with that music, every time, you make how much money?

KARMEN: I make zip, otherwise known as zero, otherwise known as zilch, otherwise known as gornisht - nothing. I was just starting in business then. And they give me a contract, their, quote, "standard form contract." Six pages of, we own, and you have nothing.

And I signed it. And what that meant was they have the right to do anything in the world with that piece of music. I am not entitled to any payment whatsoever - not for the uses of the song, not for ASCAP performance rights, not for anything. They own it. But I say to you in all sincerity, I learned a lot of lessons from Nationwide.

SIEGEL: Steve Karmen says he learned not to sign a standard contract but a different kind of contract. He kept the copyright, and he licensed his jingles. He kept composing them, including one little spot to generate tourism to his home state.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I LOVE NEW YORK")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS #2: (Singing) And to say, I love New York. You can climb a mountain. I love New York. And there's such great sailing. I love New York. We can all go camping.

KARMEN: What happened was Governor Hugh Carey knew somebody at an agency called Wells, Rich and Greene. And he said, will you develop a campaign? And they called me and asked me to write a song. And they had, I love New York. That was their line. And I wrote the rest of the lyric. Two years later, it became the state song of New York. You don't have to stand up.

SIEGEL: I had no idea until I was at your...

KARMEN: I know. I would like to be treated with a bit more respect, please.

SIEGEL: (Laughter). Well you didn't set out, at first, dreaming to be a great writer of jingles.

KARMEN: No.

SIEGEL: But you did awfully well at it. Any regrets?

KARMEN: No. You know why? Because it felt that I had the opportunity - you know, I used to tell my clients, I want an unlimited budget. And I expect to exceed it. I would go into a studio. And I say, you know, I need - I want 16 strings over here on this. And I need a special whatever, whatever. I used to fly singers in from Chicago or from wherever to sing it. And I had the opportunity to hear my music played by the best possible people you could imagine. People say, well, it was only advertising. Wasn't to me.

SIEGEL: Well, Steve Karmen, thanks for talking with us.

KARMEN: Thank you. It's a pleasure.

SIEGEL: Steve Karmen wrote a book about his life and litigation in the advertising business. It's called "Who Killed The Jungle? How A Unique American Art Form Disappeared."

(SOUNDBITE OF SKANATRA SONG, "BUD THEME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.