Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music


DRAKE, Ervin

(b Ervin Maurice Druckman, 3 April 1919, New York City; d 15 January 2015, Great Neck NY) Songwriter who sometimes wrote both words and music. His older brother Milton was also a songwriter ('Mairzy Doats', 'Java Jive', 'Nina Never Knew'); a younger brother was a successful writer of comic books. Pressed by his father to enter the family furniture business, but hanging around the offices of song publishers, Ervin fell into writing English lyrics for Latin-American songs and instrumentals, for the publishers knew that sheet music sold better with words. But some of the songs were hits: 'Tico Tico' charted by the Andrews Sisters; others were recorded by Xavier Cugat. After Drake received a royalty check for $300 in 1941 he left the store and never looked back.

He collaborated with Juan Tizol on the words for Duke Ellington's hit 'Perdido'; and Ellington recorded 'Hayfoot, Strawfoot', a delightful piece of WWII jive about marching, for a no. 10 hit in Billboard's new black chart in 1942, with Drake's words. (It was sung by Ivie Anderson, her last record with Ellington.) His words for Al Sears' R&B hit 'Castle Rock' were recorded by Harry James and Frank Sinatra. He wrote both words and music for 'The Rickety Rickshaw Man', a 1946 hit by Eddy Howard; though this only reached no. 6 on the Billboard retail chart, it was the sort of novelty that would have been played incessantly on the radio and on jukeboxes, and was said to have sold a million copies. As with most of the prolific Tin Pan Alley songwriters, most of the songs came and went without making too many ripples; one of the more irritating, after you'd heard it a hundred times on the radio, was 'I Believe' in 1953. It was written by Drake, Irvin Graham, Jimmy Shirl and Al Stillman, for Jane Froman's TV show; she had a hit record with it, but Frankie Laine's was the record that was heard incessantly.

But Drake had some special successes. Broken-hearted over a failed romance, he heard a melody by Irene Higginbotham, niece of the great jazz trombonist J.C. Higginbotham, and in 20 minutes wrote 'Good Morning Heartache'. He attended the recording session in January 1946 where Billie Holiday recorded the song in one take with a string orchestra; it became a jazz standard, recorded by Ella Fitzgerald, Joe Williams, Billy Eckstine and many others. In 1961 a friend offered to show a song to Bob Shane of the Kingston Trio if Drake wanted to write one. He already had an idea in mind for a song treating the years of a life like wine vintages, and he wrote 'It Was A Very Good Year' in ten minutes. The Kingston Trio recorded it, and Drake forgot about it until, on vacation in England a few years later, a publisher called to congratulate him: Frank Sinatra had recorded it. It was a hit single from a hit album (September Of My Years), and it won two Grammys in 1966, for best male vocal and for the arrangement (by Gordon Jenkins). Interviewed by Will Friedwald, Drake remembered hearing a test pressing: 'I was just amazed by this thing! I couldn't imagine that kind of a reading.' He gave credit to Sinatra's ability not only as a singer but as an actor, but there must have been something in the song for Sinatra and Jenkins to find.

He wrote protest songs about discrimination: 'No Restricted Signs In Heaven' was written in 1944, turned down by publishers, but finally recorded by the Golden Gate Quartet; more recently, 'Who Are These Strangers?' was about discrimination against gay people, recorded by Michael Feinstein. Drake wrote words and music for What Makes Sammy Run?, a musical show adapted from Budd Shulberg's 23-year-old novel about Hollywood; the big songs were 'A Room Without Windows' and 'My Hometown'. The show ran for 540 performances on Broadway in 1964-5 but still lost money; you can't beat the accounting procedures on The Great White Way. 

Drake has over 450 songs registered with ASCAP; some of them were heard in movies, e.g. by Woody Allen and Spike Lee, and 'It Was A Very Good Year' opened the second season of HBO's the The Sopranos. Drake also produced TV shows and was president of the American Guild of Authors and Composers. There was a happy ending to 'Good Morning Heartache': in 1975, after both their spouses had died, he was reunited with the girl who had broken his heart 30 years earlier, and they had very good years together after all. His 90th birthday was celebrated at the National Arts Club in 2009.