Listening in some cabaret or other to a parade of new songs by new songwriters, back before the turn of the century, I heard someone or other start singing a song about a Playbill, called "Playbill." This turned out not to be a comedic song about bad musicals, as it might well have been; rather, it was a tender and incisive song about the human heart, instigated by a prop which happened to be a Playbill from Sondheim's Passion. I noted the name of the songwriter — John Bucchino — and moved on. Some years later I heard Barbara Cook somewhere sing a hauntingly effective song called "Sweet Dreams," immediately following which she credited it to that same Bucchino. After which I no longer had to ask, who wrote that incredible song?
The songwriter gained increased exposure in 2000, when a collection of his songs — under the title of what might be considered his theme song, "Grateful" — was issued as a star-studded CD as well as a printed songbook. Another important step came in 2006, when an American Songbook concert at Lincoln Center brought forth another fine Bucchino recording, "It's Only Life." In the meanwhile, he has made a couple of incursions into musical theatre, with 3hree — the Hal Prince evening of one-act musicals, including Bucchino's "Lavender Girl" — in 2000 and A Catered Affair in 2008. But the composer thus far has specialized in song miniatures — short stories, if you will, rather than full-length novels — but exquisite short stories. Bucchino as a songwriter is akin to that character in a song by one our most accomplished musical theatre writers who sings of finishing the hat. "Look, I made a hat — where there never was a hat." That's what Bucchino does, again and again. There is no pre-existing character upon which to peg the song; Bucchino creates the characters and their world within the lyric, and he moves us again and again.
We now have a third Bucchino collection, "David Campbell Sings John Bucchino" [Social Family Records]. This is a simple affair, just Campbell singing eleven Bucchino songs with the composer at the piano. But what songs, and how wonderfully well the singer is suited to the material. Campbell is the popular Australian singer and actor who caused a certain amount of excitement in New York in the late 1990s, with two standout cabaret engagements at Rainbow and Stars and a leading role in the 1999 Encores! production of Rodgers and Hart's Babes in Arms. He has a long-standing connection to the composer; he sang three Bucchino songs on his 1997 solo album, "Taking the Wheel" (which is itself a Bucchino song).
The new recording is simply wonderful. Many of the eleven songs have been heard previously, but no matter; they come out fresh and alive. One suspects that Campbell sounds close to what Bucchino would sound like if he was a strong singer, and the musical accompaniment from the composer is as expressive as the words. While the CD is available here as an import from Australia (with a correspondingly high price), the tracks are downloadable from Amazon and iTunes at normal rates. The booklet — while handsome — is incidental, including lyrics, credits and a handful of session photos but no information about the songs themselves. The lack of information, as it happens, drove me to the publicist with questions; basically, were any of the songs new or receiving their first recordings? I quickly received what could be considered a full set of liner notes from Bucchino himself. While I had intended to only plug a few quotes into this column, the notes are so informative — and so well reflect the voice of the lyricist — that I have decided to include them here, intact.
John Bucchino on David Campbell Sings John Bucchino:
. "Sweet Dreams": I was living in LA, and was walking down Hollywood Boulevard. A bus pulled up and a young man and woman got off, each carrying a backpack with a metal frame, as if they had their whole lives on their backs. The image of them stuck in my mind, and I went home, imagined what their story might be, and wrote this song. Judy Collins sings it on the "Grateful" CD, and it's also been recorded twice by Barbara Cook.
2. "Something Spontaneous": A song about the complexities of a relationship between two bright, articulate types. There has only been one prior recording of this, on a self-produced CD by Bill Wright called "Always Love" (the title is also a song of mine, sung by Wright in a duet with the late great Nancy LaMott.)
3. "Unexpressed": I wrote this song and put it aside thinking, "Naah, that's not very good..." About a year later, I happened to come across it and, luckily, remembered how it went. I started playing it over and over and now it's my favorite song of mine. Years after writing it, I heard a Braham's "Intermezzo" ("Opus 118 in A major") and realized that I'd sub-consciously stolen a snippet of both chords and melody for the lines "... something clear, something true..." If you're going to steal, steal from the best! This song is on both the "Grateful" CD, sung by Adam Guettel, and the CD of my revue It's Only Life, sung by Gavin Creel. It has also been performed by Audra McDonald. 4. "Puddle of Love": This song has only been recorded on a CD of mine called "Solitude Lessons," a homemade CD on which I sing all the songs and play all the instruments (available for sale and download through my website.) It's one of the few songs of mine with a jazz feel, and it's great fun to play. The piano solo is different every single time.
5. "Better Than I": David was in NYC when I wrote this (for the DreamWorks animated movie "Joseph, King of Dreams") so I asked him if he'd sing on a demo of it I was making to send to the producers for approval. I had an ulterior motive: I wanted them to hire him to sing the part of Joseph (spoken by Ben Affleck.) But, sadly, they hired a singer from California to avoid the cost of flying David in from Australia. A few months later, I was in a screening room watching a rough cut of the "Better Than I" scene. Jeffrey Katzenberg, the head of DreamWorks Animation, was sitting behind me and I was thrilled to hear him say "I like the other guy": David! So he got the gig after all.
6. "Learn How To Say Goodbye": This has never been released before. It's also the newest song on the CD, and I'm so happy to have it included. Since many of the songs are older, it's good to have this one represent my more recent writing. My favorite musical component is the chords: I love how a progression of chords can emotionally elevate a lyric.
7. "It Feels Like Home": I moved to NYC with a partner way back in the 80s. Sitting in our tiny new apartment, surrounded by boxes and not much else, I wrote this song. The first demo of it was sung by Lois Sage. Daisy Prince sings it on the "Grateful" CD, and Jessica Molaskey sings it on the "It's Only Life" CD. One great thrill was to hear Audra McDonald sing it, a cappella, at the opening of Carnegie's Zankel Hall.
8. "What You Need": This song was written during the same time, and the same relationship, as "It Feels Like Home." We lived on the Bowery, a pretty rough place back then, but also a haven for all kinds of artists. A sax player lived across the hall and I would play along with him through the walls. Panhandlers would wash car windows at stop lights in hope of spare change. My relationship was foundering, and I incorporated these environmental specifics into a song about that. The only other recording of it is sung by Billy Porter on the "It's Only Life" CD.
9. "If I Ever Say I'm Over You": Written at the end of a 7-year relationship. This is songwriter Jimmy Webb's favorite song of mine. He even mentions it in his book, "Tunesmith." He asked me to accompany Art Garfunkel on a demo of it he was pitching to get a new record deal, which is how I met Art. Art sings it on the "Grateful" CD, and Brooks Ashmanskas sings it on the "It's Only Life" CD.
0. "Taking The Wheel": I was living in LA, and no one was paying any attention to my songs. I felt I needed to do more to make something happen, and this was written as a pep talk to myself. Brian Lane Green sings it on the "Grateful" CD, and Gavin Creel sings it on the "It's Only Life" CD, backed by the cast in a spectacular vocal arrangement by Jason Robert Brown. David also recorded it previously and it was the title of one of his CDs.
. "Grateful": I was cleaning house one Saturday, vacuuming, when I found myself at the piano singing the chorus and weeping. The most "lightning bolt of inspiration" songwriting moment I've ever had. But all I had was the chorus, which I played over and over for weeks, not knowing how to write the rest. One day I just forced myself to sit at the piano until I finished the song. I was having dinner with Art Garfunkel that night and, instead of meeting at the restaurant, I asked him to come over first to hear my new song. When I finished playing it, he said: "Don't give that to anyone else... IT'S MINE!" He began closing his shows with it, and recorded it on his own CD, "Across America." It's subsequently been recorded by David Campbell on his early CD, "Taking The Wheel;" by Michael Feinstein on the "Grateful" CD; by Brian Lane Green on his self-titled CD; by Brian Stokes Mitchell with the Mormon Tabernacle choir; by Billy Porter on "It's Only Life;" and by various other artists. The lyric was also illustrated and turned into a Harper Collins children's book by Julie Andrews and her daughter, Emma Walton Hamilton. My dream is to have it be the national Thanksgiving song, which is slowly happening. It's being performed in more and more churches and at events all over the country during the Thanksgiving holiday season.
Let me only add that "Sweet Dreams" and "Grateful" remain favorite Bucchino songs for me, now joined by "Unexpressed," "It Feels Like Home" and the new "Learn How to Say Goodbye." And "Something Spontaneous," "If I Ever Say I'm Over You" and — oh, hell, the rest of 'em. I thank John for his set of notes — yes, I am truly and duly grateful — and suggest that you print them out and read them while you download and listen to "David Campbell Sings John Bucchino."
(Steven Suskin is author of "Show Tunes", “The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations,” “Second Act Trouble,” the "Broadway Yearbook" series and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He also writes the Aisle View blog at The Huffington Post. He can be reached at [email protected].)