Author Interviews
2:47 pm
Tue November 5, 2013

Sales Take Center Stage: To Boost Morale, Companies Burst Into Song

Originally published on Fri November 8, 2013 8:47 am

Why would someone write a sentimental ballad about a bathroom? For the same reason someone would write a rousing song about tractors: So the song could be used in what's called an industrial musical.

These musicals were like Broadway shows, but they were written and performed for corporate sales meetings and conventions from the 1950s to the 1980s. The lyrics were all about the products being sold and how to sell them. Some of them were lavish and costly, even though they'd be performed only once.

And as ridiculous as the songs were, they were often written and performed by really talented people: John Kander and Fred Ebb, who wrote the songs for the musical Cabaret, did an industrial. And a few had lyrics by a young Sheldon Harnick, who co-wrote the songs for the Broadway hits Fiddler on the Roof, Fiorello! and She Loves Me.

Harnick and actor-singer John Russell performed in dozens of these musicals, and Steve Young has co-written a new book about the genre, called Everything's Coming Up Profits: The Golden Age of Industrial Musicals.

Young is also a writer for The Late Show With David Letterman, where for a while he was the writer in charge of the regular feature "Dave's Record Collection."

Harnick, Russell and Young joined Fresh Air's Terry Gross to talk about the genre's history.


Interview Highlights

On the history of industrial musicals

Young: These are musicals — often full, Broadway-style musicals — that were written for company conventions and sales meetings. They were never for the public to hear; they were only to educate and entertain and motivate the sales force so they would leave the business meeting going out revved up to sell more bathtubs or typewriters or tractors or insurance plans, or what have you. ...

We've never had a full picture of how many shows were done. The souvenir records that I've been collecting are clearly the tiny minority of shows that were done, but I would say hundreds of companies were doing them over a period of decades.

On how each of them got involved or interested in industrial musicals, or "industrials"

Young: I've been a writer for The Letterman Show since the early '90s, and when I got to the show I was asked if I could head up the old "Dave's Record Collection" segment in which, on the show, Dave would hold up strange, unintentionally funny records, we'd hear a little clip, Dave would have a joke, we'd all go home heroes.

I was the one finding the strange records. And in these days, when there were still used record stores in the city, I would come home with William Shatner singing, or Hear How To Touch Type. I also started finding these very odd corporate artifacts that I didn't really understand at first, but I would find myself singing these songs to myself days or weeks later and thinking, "Why is this song about diesel engines so catchy? Why am I still wandering around singing about my insurance man?"

And it was because they were fabulously well done, in many cases. It was a hidden part of the entertainment world, but with huge budgets [and] professionals doing their best work, oftentimes. And I just decided I had to find out about this myself, and I began collecting and going to record shows [and] calling record dealers.

Harnick: I started writing lyrics out of desperation. I was broke and wondering where my next job, my next meal was coming from, although I had had several successful revue songs on Broadway. And then I got a phone call from an advertising agency. They did industrials: They helped write them; they produced them. And they had an in-house writer, and it turned out that they were doing a new industrial, I think it was for the Shell gasoline company, and whoever the executive was did not like what he had read, so they decided to get somebody else. They knew my revue songs, so I got a call to do an industrial, and I had no idea what that was.

Russell: I came to New York to be an actor, and the first industrial I did was for Bell Telephone. And it was choreographed by a lovely man named Frank Wagner, who was my dance teacher. I auditioned and I got the job, and that's what started me. That was in 1970, and over the next 25 years, I did 82 different industrial shows.

On the song "My Bathroom"

Young: This is from a 1969 American Standard convention show in Las Vegas, and it was for the distributors of all of the American Standard bathroom fixtures. Many of the songs on the record are filled with details about the new line of shower stalls and tubs, but this was really more of an anthem, an ode to the business as a whole — why they do what they do.

And it's a remarkable piece of work that I've been humming around the house for 20 years. And everybody who hears it is just floored by it, so I think it has some enduring value well beyond 1969 and the convention.

Harnick: It's a very professional, romantic ballad about a bathroom. ... It's extremely well done.

On the difficulty of writing lyrics for the Ford Tractor Company

Harnick: I remember my heart sank when the company gave me the information that I was supposed to put in the song. I thought, "Oh, good gracious, how am I going to do this and make it a singable song?" But I managed, and I managed particularly because [composer] Jerry Bock was so clever at taking all of these words, and some unmusical words, and finding ways to put them into singable songs.

On the purpose of these musicals

Young: There was the belief for quite a long time, I don't know if there was ever hard data to back it up, but if you bring everyone together for this thrilling theatrical experience — and it often actually was thrilling to the audience — then they'd have a sense of purpose, they would get out there, they would charge ahead and have a renewed energy for selling.

Many of the songs were packed with information about details of the new products, or the marketing strategies that were being presented. So you'd go home, ideally, all fired up, with a new sense of your pride in working for the company and a way forward for what you were going to do as a sales person.

On how audiences received industrial ballads

Young: Some of the composers I've spoken to over the years have told me they've seen audiences full of hardened sales executives and middle managers brought to tears by these beautifully crafted and performed songs that tell them, "What you're doing is important for you, for your family, for the company, for America, for the world." This was stuff that hit them right where they lived.

And yes, it was to promote sales, but it was also to tell them, "We understand what you do out there when you go into the field of battle, and we appreciate it, and you're not forgotten."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Singing) My bathroom, my bathroom is a private kind of place, very special kind of place.

GROSS: Why would someone write a sentimental ballad about a bathroom? For the same reason someone would write a rousing song about tractors: so the song could be used in an industrial musical. These musicals were like Broadway shows, but they were written and performed for corporate sales meetings and conventions, and the lyrics were all about the products being sold and how to sell them.

Some of these industrial musicals were lavish and costly, even though they'd be performed only once. And as ridiculous as the songs were, they were often written and performed by really talented people. A few had lyrics by the young Sheldon Harnick, who later became famous for writing the lyrics for the Broadway hits "Fiddler on the Roof," "She Loves Me" and "Fiorello."

With me to pay tribute to these industrials are Sheldon Harnick; John Russell(ph), who performed in dozens of them; and Steve Young, the author of the new book "Everything's Coming Up Profits: The Golden Age of Industrial Musicals." Young is a writer for "The Late Show With David Letterman" and used to be the writer in charge of the feature "Dave's Record Collection."

But before we talk, let's hear more of "My Bathroom."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY BATHROOM")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Singing) My bathroom, my bathroom is my very special room where I prim and fuss and groom, where I can get away from all and really feel in bloom. I'm free, I'm free, I've closed out the world, I'm free. I'm free, I'm free, now at last I can really be me. My bathroom, my bathroom is much more than it may seem, where I wash and where I cream, a special place where I can stay and cream and dream and dream and dream, dream.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: OK, I love that song. Steve Young, Sheldon Harnick, John Russell, welcome to FRESH AIR. Thank you so much for coming. Steve, you wrote the book "Everything's Coming Up Profits." Where is this song from?

STEVE YOUNG: This is from a 1969 American Standard convention show in Las Vegas, and it was for the distributors of all the American Standard bathroom fixtures. Many of the songs on the record are filled with details about the new line of shower stalls and tubs, but this was really more of an anthem, an ode to the business as a whole, why they do what they do, and it's a remarkable piece of work that I've been humming around the house for 20 years.

(LAUGHTER)

YOUNG: And everybody who hears it is just floored by it. So I think it has some enduring value well beyond 1969 and the convention.

GROSS: I love the subtext of this is - because the subtext is like this poor woman has no privacy at home, her family's driving her crazy, so she has to lock herself in the bathroom to find any peace.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Sheldon Harnick, you are such a brilliant lyricist. Thank you for coming. What do you think of the lyric to "My Bathroom"?

SHELDON HARNICK: Oh, it's a very professional, romantic ballad about a bathroom so I that couldn't help but chuckle all the way through it. But it's extremely well-done. I would quibble with one rhyme. I think it was - the writer was a little stuck for rhymes for room, so he said I'm in bloom or something like that, which I thought was a rather weakly - but aside from that it's a very professional job.

GROSS: And well-sung. John Russell, you're the singer in this group. How would you grade her singing?

JOHN RUSSELL: Well beautiful, it was terrific. I just thought it was spot-on.

GROSS: Yeah, well, before we talk with John Russell and Sheldon Harnick about their roles in writing industrial musicals, Steve Young, what's the history of these musicals? Where did they start? Like what are they, and where did they start?

YOUNG: These are musicals, often full Broadway-style musicals, that were written for company conventions and sales meetings. They were never for the public to hear. They were only to educate and entertain and motivate the sales force. So they would leave the business meeting going out revved-up to sell more bathtubs or typewriters or tractors or insurance plans or what have you.

GROSS: And so did a lot of companies do these?

YOUNG: Yes, I don't know the exact number because we've never really had a full picture of how many shows were done. The souvenir records that I've been collecting are clearly the tiny minority of shows that were done, but I would say of hundreds of companies were doing them over a period of decades.

GROSS: How did you even get interested in these?

YOUNG: It goes back about 20 years. I've been a writer for the Letterman show since the early '90s, and when I got to the show, I was asked if I could head up the old "Dave's Record Collection" segment, in which on the show Dave would hold up strange, unintentionally funny records, we'd hear a little clip, Dave would have a joke, we'd all go home heroes. I was the one finding the strange records.

And in these days when there were still used record stores in the city, I would come home with, you know, William Shatner is singing or hear how to touch-type. I also started finding these very odd corporate artifacts that I didn't really understand at first, but I would find myself singing these songs to myself days or weeks later and thinking why is this song about diesel engines so catchy. Why am I still wandering around singing around about my insurance man?

And it was because they were fabulous well-done in many cases, and it was a hidden part of the entertainment world, but huge budgets, professionals doing their best work oftentimes, and I just decided I had to find out about this for myself. I began collecting and going to record shows, calling record dealers, and I was off and running.

GROSS: Well, Sheldon Harnick, you are so well-known and loved for your musicals, including "Fiddler On the Roof" and "She Loves Me" and "Fiorello." How did you end up writing lyrics with your partner, your late partner Jerry Bock, for industrial musicals?

HARNICK: Well, I only did one industrial with Jerry. That was for the Ford Motor Company. The other - I started writing lyrics out of desperation. I was broke and wondering where my next job, my next meal was coming from, although I had had several successful review songs on Broadway. And then I got a phone call from an advertising agency. They did industrials. They helped write them, they produced them, and they had an in-house writer.

And it turned out that they were doing a new industrial, I think it was for the Shell gasoline company, and whoever the executive was did not like what he'd read. So they decided to get somebody else. And they knew my review songs. So I got a call to do an industrial. I had no idea what that was, and I said how do I find out what I'm doing.

And they referred me to their musical director, a wonderful musical director named John Morris, who later wrote several scores for the Mel Brooks movies. Anyway, I went over to John's. He gave me a tutorial and told me how to write an industrial, and so I did, the first one for Shell Gas, which was, thank God, successful.

We had - at that time they did not use original music, or at least not the ones that I worked for. The theory was that the salesmen who were attending these conferences, they'd have enough work just to hear the lyric and absorb that without having to absorb new music, too. So I was told I could use whatever music I wanted to, which was great fun.

I used my favorite show tunes, and then a couple years later I found out somebody had done an industrial and used Meredith Wilson's "Trouble" from...

GROSS: "The Music Man."

HARNICK: "The Music Man." And somebody in the show was a friend of Meredith Wilson's and wrote to him, saying Meredith, you would've been delighted to hear this new lyric to "Trouble." Well, Meredith was not delighted.

(LAUGHTER)

HARNICK: He sued, and after that, any industrial I did, the music had to be original because they were just breaking the law by setting new lyrics to all these tunes. So at any rate I did write about, I don't know, four or five industrials, and then Jerry and I got the chance to do this huge industrial for the Ford tractor company.

GROSS: I want to play a song from it, and this is called "Golden Harvest." And what was the goal of this song?

HARNICK: I no longer remember, probably it sounds like it must have been profit. "Golden Harvest" suggests that whatever we were doing was going to make money selling tractors.

YOUNG: Well, the whole theme of all these shows, beyond entertainment, was to boost sales and profits. The title of the book "Everything's Coming Up Profits" actually lifted from an industrial show in my collection for GAF Floor Tile.

(LAUGHTER)

YOUNG: It's a miserable show, but the title does really kind of set the scene for the whole industry and genre.

GROSS: OK, so Sheldon Harnick, do you actually remember this song? Because if not, hearing it will perhaps bring back memories.

HARNICK: I don't remember, and I'm looking forward to hearing it.

GROSS: Oh, I can't wait to hear what you think of it.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: OK, so this is "Golden Harvest," a song from an industrial musical for the Ford tractor company.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOLDEN HARVEST")

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing) There'll be a golden harvest in 1959. There'll be a lot more buyers to sign the dotted line. With the new Ford tractors, the future's looking fine. Now's the time to roll your sleeves up because if you rise and shine it'll be a golden harvest in 1959. Going to be a lot more business, oh yes, oh yes indeed. Wait'll everybody hears you, got exactly what they need. Just like Jack and the beanstalk, you've got a magic seed. Now's the time to roll your sleeves up, go out and take the lead, going to be a golden harvest with (unintelligible).

(Singing) Turn your tractors and implements to a bumper crop of dollars and cents. Turn your tractors and implements to a bumper crop of dollars and cents. Gonna be a golden harvest in 1959, gonna be a lot more buyers...

GROSS: OK, Sheldon Harnick, now that you've heard your 1959 song "Golden Harvest" from an industrial for Ford tractors, what do you think?

HARNICK: I miss Jerry Bock. I think the music was exciting and just right. And I just remembered, at least in the shows I did, I did not have a totally free hand to create lyrics. They gave me things to say. They gave me slogans. They gave me information that they wanted in the song, and listening to that song I was thinking gee, I did a nice, professional job.

And in the first section, there's - there must be about five or six rhymes for shine, and that's well done. And I love what Jerry did, some of those (makes noises), those rhythms. They're very catchy. It's a good song.

YOUNG: Sheldon, I have to congratulate you on the rhyme of implements and dollars and cents. It's one of the examples of the kind of rhyme that really appealed to me when I started collecting this.

GROSS: Can we pay tribute with a whole line, turn your tractors and implements to a bumper crop of dollars and cents? That is so great.

(LAUGHTER)

YOUNG: That's right. That's what you don't get anywhere else but in these shows is that sort of unexpected combination.

GROSS: And Steve Young, what was the point of spending so much money on these industrial shows?

YOUNG: There was the belief for quite a long time, I don't know if there was ever hard data to back it up, but if you bring everyone together for this thrilling, theatrical experience, and it often actually was thrilling to the audience, then they would have a renewed sense of purpose, they would get out there, they would charge ahead and have renewed energy for selling, and many of the songs were packed with information about details of the new products or the marketing strategies that were being presented.

So you'd go home, ideally, all fired up with a new sense of your pride in working for the company and a way forward for what you were going to do as a salesperson.

GROSS: And how was the money for you, Sheldon Harnick, do you remember?

HARNICK: Oh boy, I was so broke. It was very important for me. One of the shows that I did was legendary in New York. It was called the Milliken show, and it was selling fabrics, and it had the best casts. They were all of the best dancers in New York who were working in shows. But the Milliken shows were breakfast shows. They occurred like 6:30 or 7 o'clock in the morning. So all of these young ladies, they could get out of their shows and do them in the morning.

And when I was doing them, they didn't yet have big stars, so I didn't get the kind of money that the writers got later, but later they had people like Chita Rivera, they had wonderful performers and literally stars. I would - but I was, as I say, I was so broke that whatever I got paid was very important and very impressive to me.

GROSS: We'll talk more about industrial musicals with author Steve Young, singer John Russell and the great lyricist Sheldon Harnick after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: We're talking about the golden age of industrial musicals, when musical shows were written and performed for corporate sales conventions, with lyrics about new products and how to sell them. My guests are Steve Young, the author of the book "Everything's Coming Up Profits"; John Russell, who sang in dozens of industrials; and lyricist Sheldon Harnick, who wrote songs for a few industrials, including one he collaborated on with Jerry Bock before they became famous for "Fiddler On the Roof" and "Fiorello."

Let's hear another Sheldon Harnick-Jerry Bock collaboration, and this is also for Ford, and it's called "More Power to You." Steve, what can you tell us about this before we hear it?

YOUNG: This one is talking about the new range of tractors and their extreme competence in all the bewildering and constant tasks that bedevil the farmer. And it was actually so popular, I believe, within the Ford tractor division it was brought back for the next year's show, even though Sheldon and Jerry were not on the next year's show. The reprised the song on the record I have from the 1960 show.

HARNICK: Oh my, nor were we paid for it.

(LAUGHTER)

YOUNG: Oh yes, sorry to be the bearer of bad news here.

GROSS: Well, the good news is that the year that this was performed for the Ford tractor company, the Bock-Harnick musical "Fiorello" was staged on Broadway and went on to win a Pulitzer Prize. So things, things worked out good...

HARNICK: And we had no tractors in that show at all.

GROSS: No tractors at all, OK.

YOUNG: They were cut in rehearsal.

GROSS: So this one's called "More Power to You," and after we hear it, and it refreshes your memory, Sheldon Harnick, we'll ask you about writing it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MORE POWER TO YOU")

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing) The work of the world is never done. It never lessens, shrinks or diminishes. There's always mowing, towing, bailing, nailing, seeding, breeding, spreading, shredding, clipping, stripping, shaking, raking. It never finishes.

(Singing) But the work of the world is getting done with more efficiency and economy as Ford helps lighten each chore and this year more than ever before. More power to you with the Powermaster, the Workmaster and the Powermajor, too. More power to you, you provide the tractors that do more than any other tractors do. Endurance and mobility, power and versatility, safety, dependability, that's Ford.

(Singing) More power to you with the Powermaster, the Workmaster and the Powermajor, too. Now let's hit the sunny trail to Yuma, let's jump the gun on the consumer and see what's really new. More power to you.

GROSS: Stirring.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: That song by my guest, Sheldon Harnick, which was co-written with his late music partner Jerry Bock. They also wrote - they also wrote "Fiddler on the Roof" and "Fiorello" and "She Loves Me." This is a song from a Ford tractor industrial musical. And also with us is Steve Young, who has a whole new book about industrial musicals called everything's coming up profits. John Russell is with us, too. He sang in some of these musicals, not in the one we just heard.

So Sheldon Harnick, now that your memory is refreshed about this song that you wrote for the Ford tractor industrial musical, what do you remember about writing it?

HARNICK: I remember my heart sank when the company gave me the information that I was supposed to put into the song. I thought oh, good gracious, how am I going to do this and make it a singable(ph) song. But I managed, and I managed particularly because Jerry Bock was so clever at taking all these words and some unmusical words and finding ways to put them into singable songs.

So as I was listening to the song, I was very impressed, especially what Jerry Had done. I was also listening to that long string of rhymed words at the beginning - shaking, baking, whatever that was - and I don't remember, I wish I could, whether all of those words were words that I had been asked to put into the song or something that my thesaurus provided me along the way. And of course the consumer rhyme is thanks to Yip Harburg.

(LAUGHTER)

YOUNG: Was it?

HARNICK: Well, I didn't take it from him, but the style that - Yip Harburg had a style, and Ira Gershwin. That was very influential.

GROSS: You mean in making it consuma(ph) instead of consumer, so it can rhyme with Yuma?

(LAUGHTER)

HARNICK: Yes, absolutely.

GROSS: We'll all be back to talk more about industrial musicals in the second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED MEN: (Singing) ...but hard. Its freshly lines are never too severe or too stark. The high fashion styling is so perfect. What's more...

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. We're talking about the golden age of industrial musicals. These were musical shows written and performed for corporate sales conventions with lyrics all about new products and how to sell them. My guests are Steve Young, the author of the new book about industrials, "Everything's Coming Up Profits"; John Russell, who sang in dozens of industrials; and Sheldon Harnick, who wrote the lyrics for a few of them before becoming famous for co-writing the songs for the Broadway hits, "Fiddler on the Roof," "She Loves Me" and "Fiorello."

John Russell, as a singer in these musicals, how did you get into the business?

RUSSELL: I had - I'm originally from Los Angeles and after I got out of the Army, I came to New York to be an actor. And the first industrial I did was for Bell Telephone. And it was choreographed by a lovely man named Frank Wagner who was my dance teacher. And I auditioned and I got the job. And that's what started me doing - and that was in 1970. And over the next 25 years, I did 82 different industrial shows.

GROSS: Whoa.

(LAUGHTER)

RUSSELL: Yeah. First of all, I must also say that any of my fellow performers who are listening to this interview know me as Peter Shaun(ph). That was my stage name.

GROSS: Why did you need a stage name? Why didn't you go with John Russell?

RUSSELL: Well, when you join the unions you can't have the same name as another actor. And John Russell was an actor; he had a television series called "Law Man."

GROSS: Oh, I remember that.

RUSSELL: Yeah. So I had to completely change my name.

GROSS: OK.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: So let's...

RUSSELL: Oh. I...

GROSS: Yeah.

RUSSELL: I just wanted to, while it's on my mind, you were asking Sheldon about parody lyrics in shows. And I did the most awful show I ever did was for Maidenform Bra.

(LAUGHTER)

RUSSELL: And to show you how tacky it was, the producer/director came to the rehearsal studio one day with a trunk full of costumes that he had accumulated over the years. And he dumped them out on the floor and said to me, find something that fits.

(LAUGHTER)

RUSSELL: And the only thing that fit was a ringmaster's outfit.

(LAUGHTER)

RUSSELL: So, and we did the show in a resort in the Catskills. And it was, I was the only man; there were eight beautiful young women who were brassiere models. And one of the songs that I had to sing was a parody of "I Feel Pretty" from "West Side Story." And instead of it being (Singing) see that pretty girl in that mirror there. I sang (Singing) see that pretty bra in that window there. Whose can that attracted bra be?

(LAUGHTER)

RUSSELL: (Singing) Such a pretty strap. Such a pretty cup. Such a pretty - and the girls would say, (Singing) such a pretty me. Maidenform. Maidenform.

(LAUGHTER)

RUSSELL: It was just humiliating.

YOUNG: Well, that one never made it onto a record album.

GROSS: Right now I want to play a song that John Russell - aka, Peter Shaun - is on. And this is a song called "Up Came Oil" from a 1976 Exxon show called "The Spirit of Achievement." John, Steve, you want to fill us in on a little background of this musical before we hear the song?

RUSSELL: It was written by a wonderful composer and lyricist name Claiborne Richardson. And we did the show in about I think it was eight different cities around the country. And there were two casts; and one cast did the West and I was in the cast in the East. And when we recorded the album, they took the people that they felt were the best from both casts and put them together on the record.

YOUNG: You're an All-Star is what you're saying.

RUSSELL: Yes. Exactly.

(LAUGHTER)

YOUNG: That's right. So this is another song that sort of a big picture anthem. This is the history of the petroleum industry in song. This is not about specific Exxon sales programs. They do have that as well, but this is a very stirring bit of infotainment about the petroleum industry.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: And the part where John Russell sings starts with the words spindle up because there's more than one lead singer on this.

RUSSELL: Exactly. Yes.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: OK. So let's hear this stirring song...

YOUNG: Spindle top.

GROSS: ... "Up Came Oil."

RUSSELL: Spindle, yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "UP CAME OIL")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Singing) Oil has been around for centuries sure. Loading in springs in lakes and streams. The Indians used it for a medicine cure. But never in the wildest of dreams did anyone think that black sticky stuff, always in short supply, would ever have power enough to gush its way to the sky.

UNIDENTIFIED MEN: (Singing) When up came oil. Up came oil.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Singing) Once the ebb would break through, struck the bubbling crude as his drill cut through the soil.

UNIDENTIFIED MEN: (Singing) Up came oil.

(SOUNDBITE OF HARP)

UNIDENTIFIED MEN: (Singing) Up came oil.

RUSSELL: (Singing) Spindle top, turned it around. The world soon saw just what oil could be. (Unintelligible) gold flowing out of the ground. It was finding the crude to pure kerosene.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Singing) Well, we really started cracking process refine when a guy named (unintelligible) appeared. The history of oil has us all supplied 'cause it's only been 100 years...

UNIDENTIFIED MEN: (Singing) Since up came oil. Up came...

GROSS: So...

HARNICK: I'd love to know who the orchestrator was on that, because whoever it was, to use a harp to suggest the bubbling of oil...

GROSS: Oh.

HARNICK: ...up out of the ground, that was brilliant.

RUSSELL: It was Bruce Pomahac.

GROSS: Oh, yes...

HARNICK: Oh my goodness. I now he's in charge of music at Rodgers and Hammerstein.

RUSSELL: Mm-hmm.

HARNICK: Yeah.

GROSS: So that's Sheldon Harnick, talking about the harp. The great lyricist, Sheldon Harnick who wrote one of the industrial musicals. We heard my guest, John Russell, singing one of the vocals on that. Also with us is Steve Young, who wrote the new book, "Everything's Coming Up Profits: The Golden Age of Industrial Musicals."

Yeah. So I love the harp, which is also just adds such like swirling drama to it. Is this such a sort of kind of post-rock musical musical?

YOUNG: Yeah. My co-author in the book Sport Murphy, has a wonderful piece about the song in which he notes that it's really a collision of old-style Broadway with this newer 1970s semi-rock style, which the corporations were always trying to pick up on what's the trend in music and what's the latest sound and try to follow it as closely as they could. They're always a couple steps behind and sometimes their attempts fall a little flat and their what they think is rock 'n' roll might not qualify to most of us. But "Up Came Oil," very, very satisfying piece of work.

GROSS: We'll talk more about industrial musicals after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guests are lyricist Sheldon Harnick, singer John Russell and writer Steve Young. And we're talking about industrial musicals. Sheldon Harnick used to write for them before he became a famous Broadway composer. These industrial musicals are musical with songs about the company...

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: ...that sponsors the musical. And they're performed at conventions and sales meetings to inspire the workers to go out and sell.

Let's hear another song. This is one of my personal favorites. It's called "Ballad of the Plant Food Man." And it's from...

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: It's from the Big Sell, Big World industrial musical from 1965. And I think it's for fertilizer salesmen. Steve, you want to fill us in?

YOUNG: Yes. IMC, they were a fertilizer and chemical company. I believe they're gone now. Many of these companies are mysterious to modern listeners. But they had this marvelous show. It had a James Bond theme running through it -although, that's not apparent in this song. This is more of an ersatz Renaissance piece and really quite striking, nothing else like it that I've ever heard on any of these records. A wonderful composer named Bob Wedyke. And I think it was just a cast of three. I think they were out of Chicago. "The Battle of the Plant Food Man."

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Oh, and this is - I think of this is like a stirring folk ballad.

YOUNG: That's about right. Yes.

GROSS: All right. So let's hear "The Battle of the Plant Food Man" for fertilizer salesmen.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE BATTLE OF THE PLANT FOOD MAN")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Singing) Let's sing about new programs and every brand new plan. Let's sing about the legend of food man.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Sing, ho, the farmer. Sing, ho, the farmer.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Singing) Sing, ho, the farmer and how his needs have grown. Sometimes he wonders, is he going it alone. Sometimes he asks himself, are my needs ever known? I work and love this mighty land. These times I need a helping hand. Today its surface I demand, sings out the farmer.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Sings out the farmer.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Singing) Pray, who can conquer the problem for this man? Who has the answer, the program and the plan? When others can't accomplish them, we know a man who can. A man...

GROSS: OK. So that's a song from an industrial musical from 1965, and for a fertilizer company. And my guests are Steve Young, who just wrote a book about these industrial musicals called "Everything's Coming Up Profits," John Russell, who sang in 82 of them - but not on that song, because very few of these are actually recorded, and Sheldon Harnick, the great lyricist who wrote the lyrics for "Fiddler on the Roof," "She Loves Me" and "Fiorello who actually wrote one of these musicals. Not the one we just heard.

I love the way it really like kind of glorifies. Like selling fertilizers isn't like the sexy his job in the world, but this so kind of glorifies it, you know, like - sing Ho, the farmer. Sometimes he wonders is he going it alone. Sometimes he asks himself are my needs ever known. I work and love this mighty land, but there's times I need a helping hand. And to give a helping hand, like, what a great and ambitious that would be, and that salesman can give that helping hand.

HARNICK: Right. It's...

YOUNG: Some of the composers I've spoken to over the years have told me that they have seen audiences full of hardened sales executives and middle managers brought to tears by these beautifully-crafted and performed songs that tell them what you're doing is important for you, for your family, for the company, for America, for the world. This was stuff that hit them right where they lived. And, yes, it was to promote sales, but it was also to tell them, we understand what you do out there when you go into the field of battle and we appreciate and you're not forgotten.

GROSS: There's a song that you write about in your book. When I hear this one, honestly, it almost brings me to tears. It's like a woman singing about her husband, about how her one man is no longer a one-man operation anymore.

YOUNG: Oh, yes. From "Diesel Dazzle." First of all.

GROSS: Yeah, tell us about the show.

YOUNG: A fabulous title which really does combine the two worlds colliding in one phrase - heavy industry of the diesel engines in the dazzle of show business. Detroit Diesel Engine Division of General Motors, 1966, composed by Hank Beebe, a wonderful composer, still up in Portland, Maine. Hard at work on new music. His late partner, Bill Heier(ph), was the lyricist. Have a fabulous orchestra and a wonderful cast that included a young Hal Linden and a young David Hartman before he became a newsman. Played in Detroit at an auditorium for the Detroit Diesel sales force in the spring of '66, and just a knockout piece of work.

GROSS: So this is about the importance of expanding your shop? Is that it?

YOUNG: Yeah. It was about understanding the trials and tribulations of the guy who is running the franchise to rebuild and sell diesel engines, but through the perspective of the put-upon wife. You see this quite often in shows. Sometimes wise came to these shows and it was nice if you could put in a song about we know what you go through with your husband working very hard. So it was the overworked husband as seen through the wife's perspective.

GROSS: And a song that just fits so oddly into the genre of songs about women singing about their man.

YOUNG: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: OK. So this is "One Man Operation" from the 1966 show "Diesel Dazzle."

(LAUGHTER)

YOUNG: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: Here we go.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ONE MAN OPERATION")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (Singing) He's coming home again just like other men. At supper he'll walk through that door, for the one that in my life is no one man operation anymore, anymore. He knows what hard work is. And its rewards were his till work became a weary chore. But now the one man in my life is no one man operation anymore, anymore.

(Singing) Once he thought he could do it but as more business came, rebuilding, selling, taking orders too. Work days, holidays, they all became the same and it was night when his day was through. He did it all alone. People (unintelligible) 18 hours every 24, but now the one man in my life is no one man operation anymore, anymore.

(Singing) Now he has two mechanics, a parts and service man, a girl to take the calls and keep the books. He spends weekends giving the children all he can and telling me how young his wife looks.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: I have to say, you know, I listen to that song and I kind of laugh and cry at the same time because it's really hysterical but it's actually so well written. It's very moving.

YOUNG: Absolutely.

GROSS: I kind of tear up when...

HARNICK: And beautifully sung.

GROSS: Yes. And beautifully sung.

YOUNG: (Unintelligible) about a parts and service man or rebuilding that collides with that kind of music and that kind of performance. That's what really knocked me out when I first started these - finding these records, was the crazy juxtaposition of the subject matter and the execution. I just could not believe it was real. And it is real.

GROSS: We'll talk more about industrial musicals with author Steve Young, singer John Russell, and the great lyricist Sheldon Harnick, after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: We're talking about the golden age of industrial musicals, when musical shows were written and performed for corporate sales conventions with lyrics about new products and how to sell them. My guests are Steve Young, the author of the book "Everything's Coming Up Profits," John Russell, who sang in dozens of industrials, and lyricist Sheldon Harnick, who wrote songs for a few industrials before he became famous for "Fiddler on the Roof" and "Fiorello."

Can we play one of the sillier ones from these industrials? And...

YOUNG: And that's saying something.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Well, yes. I mean this does not have a beautiful melody. It's to the tune of "Old MacDonald." Steve, you know the one I'm talking about. You want to introduce it?

YOUNG: Oh, boy. That's right. Straps yourselves in, folks.

(LAUGHTER)

YOUNG: This is from a 1971 Keds sales meeting. Fred Tobias and Stan Lebowsky, respected composers, but boy, were they put to the test on this. Somebody handed them a pile of information about children's sneakers and said, oh, you've got to put this into a song. Do your best. Good luck. And it's wonderful and horrible at the same time, but even something so awful I love it so much because it's so far beyond what you think a show tune should be about.

GROSS: OK. So here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: We all know about Old MacDonald who had a farm. Well, today we're going to learn about Old Don Hadley who has a line. (singing) Old Don Hadley has a line E-I-E-I-O. A children's casual footwear line, E-I-E-I-O. With a grasshopper here and a grasshopper there, here a sneaker, there a sneaker, everywhere a kid's Ked. Old Don Hadley has a line, E-I-E-I-O.

(singing) Now, five new sneakers join his line, E-I-E-I-O. The first is called the New Regatta. The New Regatta, you'll sell a lotta. A molded rub of boat shoe with a two-color sole and boxing too, a round-toe last and a wedge heel, the first children's wedge heel, four colors, endurable duck, a natural to make a buck. Children's retail $6.45.

(singing) For missus it'll be $6.95. Very attractive at that price. The dealer markup's very nice. Old Don Hadley line's gets hotta with a New Regatta.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN AND WOMAN: (Singing) Old Don Hadley has a line, E-I-E-I-O. And the second new sneaker in that line, E-I-E-I-O is the javelin...

GROSS: Sheldon...

YOUNG: I'll just point out, we only got through one of the five sneakers.

(LAUGHTER)

YOUNG: This song goes on for over five minutes. And you can just imagine the guys sitting in the audience at this starting to look at their watches in alarm, just thinking oh my god, are they really going to go through five sneakers to the tune of "Old MacDonald"?

GROSS: Sheldon...

YOUNG: And they did it.

GROSS: Sheldon Harnick, your take on the lyric. Are you glad you didn't have to write this?

HARNICK: I am. But I was impressed by regatta and lotta.

(LAUGHTER)

YOUNG: Desperation often inspires interesting escape routes.

RUSSELL: And once again I was impressed by - I don't know who that pianist was, but that's a terrific pianist back there. You know, just adding humor, adding jazz, and making the whole thing work even better.

GROSS: It's been such a pleasure to share this time with the three of you. I've just enjoyed myself so much. And Steve Young, thank you...

YOUNG: You're welcome.

GROSS: ...for gathering all this, this just like fascinating music. They're such interesting artifacts. And Sheldon Harnick, I want to kind of pre-congratulate you on the 50th anniversary of "Fiddler on the Roof," which is coming up in 2014. You're turning 90 next year, so pre-Happy Birthday.

HARNICK: Thank you. I can't wait to get home. I've got the book at home and I now want to plunge into it.

YOUNG: Sheldon, I want to congratulate you on the 54th anniversary of the Ford Tractor Show.

(LAUGHTER)

HARNICK: I understand there's going to be a revival of it.

YOUNG: It might not be a bad idea. Ford sold their tractor division in the early '90s, unfortunately, so you're going to have to change some lyrics if you want to sell that one again.

HARNICK: I'm willing.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Well, thank you, Sheldon Harnick, John Russell, Steve Young. It's just been great to talk with you all. I really appreciate your time. And - just thanks.

YOUNG: Very welcome. My pleasure.

HARNICK: Thank you, Terry.

RUSSELL: Thank you.

GROSS: And Steve, do you have another favorite you'd like us to end the show with?

YOUNG: Oh, my goodness. What's a good juicy one full of hardcore selling? Do you have "A York Air Conditioner Song"?

GROSS: Oh, I like that one. Yes. Excuse me.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: So these are just so much fun. I like that one because it's like a lesson in, you know, when you're selling to a woman who doesn't understand air conditioning.

YOUNG: That's right. How to go door to door.

GROSS: These are the things you need to tell her.

YOUNG: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: But there's kind of like feminist thing happening too because (unintelligible) women chime into the song and start singing...

YOUNG: That's right. You start seeing that.

GROSS: ...about the more technical aspects of it.

YOUNG: And listen for the Hall of Fame rhyme: compressor and yes, sir.

GROSS: Oh, great. But we will hear it. This has been great fun. Thank you all so much.

YOUNG: You're welcome. Thank you.

RUSSELL: Sure.

YOUNG: Bye-bye.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE LESSON")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (Singing) How to sell an air conditioner, that's the lesson for today.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: (Singing) Mrs. Housewife's coming to the door. Now tell us what you're going to say.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (Singing) Howdy do.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: (Singing) Nice day we're having, ma'am.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (Singing) No, it's hot. What you go to sell?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: (Singing) By chance, it's air conditioning.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (singing) So far he's doing pretty well.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (singing) Aren't they noisy as can be? Do they help humidity? I hear they cost an awful lot.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: (singing) Well, I would think I would guess I ought to know exactly what's what.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (singing) Windows closed, the room is quieter. We remove humidity.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: (singing) Sell your house, you get a better price. It's paying for itself, you see.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (singing) Would you recommend one model that will do what it ought to do?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: (singing) Let's see. How about the York Champion II?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (singing) Oh, that's a pretty name. Tell me about it.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: (singing) I know all about it. It's got an external reset button. No non-profit service call to pay. You simply push, push, give a little push and everything's OK.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (singing) Oh, there's a horizontal coil, don't you know? A horizontal coil keeps aglow. Just 18 inches high, no great big ugly ones to greet the eye.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: (singing) Vertical air discharge fan, hot air (unintelligible) began. Hit the shrubs, hit the neighbors, but today it's up, up, up and away.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (singing) Slow speed fan and closed compressor makes the customer say yes, sir. Sealed off and slow speed we found means a quiet whisper sound.

UNIDENTIFIED MEN AND WOMEN: (singing) (unintelligible)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (singing) ...and slow speed we've found means a quiet whisper sound.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (singing) Quiet whisper sound.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: (singing) Quiet whisper sound.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (singing) Quiet whisper sound. Shh!

GROSS: We have some great stuff on our website. You can hear two of the recordings we've played - the song we just heard, "The Lesson," and the song we opened with, "My Bathroom," from the industrial musical "The Bathrooms Are Coming." And you can read excerpts from Steve Young's book "Everything's Coming Up Profits," including parts about "The Bathrooms Are Coming" and the industrial musical Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock wrote for Ford, "Fortify Your Future."

You'll also find a link to Steve Young's website with lots more recordings. That's at freshair.npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.