Beck, Byron, Maria
Most people bring a bottle of wine when they drop by to visit friends. This week I have been left speechless, not once but twice, by the astonishing generosity of callers who made gruelling treks to bring wonderful and unique gifts.
Gary Cooper’s daughter, Maria, is one of my oldest and closest friends. She and her husband, the concert pianist Byron Janis, helped me handle my first big rush of fame in the early Seventies, and taught me to love New York.
So I was delighted earlier this month when they called to say Maria was flying to Los Angeles for a prestigious ceremony to unveil a postage stamp in honour of her father.
Byron is 82, with an undimmed energy for music that would astound many pianists 50 years his junior. He was thrilled for Maria, because her father was a real-life hero to her. When she starts talking about the hunting trips Gary used to take with Ernest Hemingway, I listen in disbelief — she’s talking about two of the ultimate macho icons like they were just regular guys. Which of course they were, to her.
“Hemingway had my Dad acting right there in his imagination when he was writing For Whom The Bell Tolls,” she told me. “That’s why he was so perefect in the role.”
My daughter Natalie joined Maria at the stamp ceremony, updating me live with photos from her phone. Maria used the occasion to publicise the Gary Cooper Scholarship which she has set up to help Native American students studying film and television at the University of Southern California. Her father would be proud.
We first met in the New York director’s office of CBS, the TV station, in 1972. She invited me to meet her husband Byron at their Park Avenue apartment. Byron and I became soul friends, and we spent many hours playing piano duets, either side-by-side at the keyboard or facing each other across the pair of grand pianos that dominated his flat.
He taught me to play Chopin, and I reminded him of the tunes to many Hebrew songs. It doesn’t take a lot of talent to play duets with one of the 20th century’s greatest musicians, by the way — but it does require a wide streak of what Israelis call chutzpah.
So when I was invited to record an album of songs, I naturally insisted I would do it only if Byron wrote the music.
The idea came from German promoter Werner Schmidt. He was the man who invented TV’s Golden Shot, which was hosted in the UK by Bob Monkhouse. Werner originally wanted to do a musical about my life, and brushed off my claims that I couldn’t sing… until I opened my mouth to demonstrate.
Horrified, he sent me to a voice coach in Zurich, Switzerland. She was an 80-year-old woman named Lu, reputed to be able to teach anyone to sing like a lark. The best I could manage, though, was a cross between a raven and a frog.
Lu advised me to talk my way through songs. She played me Lee Marvin’s hit, Wanderin’ Star: “His voice is much more tuneful than yours,” she told me, “but you can copy his style.”
Lee Marvin was my inspiration. By talking over Byron’s beautiful music, putting all the passion and meaning I could into the lyrics which I had seemed to channel from above, I recorded an album that became a sensation.
The arranger was Del Newman, who had worked with Paul McCartney, Cat Stevens, Elton John and Paul Simon. I truly believe nothing like it has ever been made, and it was so popular that I returned to the studio four times, to re-record it in French, German, Italian and even Japanese.
The Japanese version is still available, and when we were in Tokyo last month, a couple of fans asked how I was able to deliver the lyrics so fluently. The answer is that we painstakingly wrote every line out phonetically, using the Western alphabet — I thought it was hilarious that the translators didn’t know whether to write ‘R’ or ‘L’, so that my name came out as Uli Gellel.
I still have the original lyric sheets. The music was spacey, and sometimes sad, with the gorgeous voice of Maxine Nightingale floating above two tracks. Professor John Taylor of Kings College, University College London, who had conducted exhaustive tests into metal-bending, wrote the sleeve notes: he stated that what he had witnessed in the lab could not be fraud, and was so powerful that it might destroy the basis of much modern science.
I have always been deeply proud of that album, so I was thrilled to learn this week that the Grammy award winning artist Beck has included samples of the songs, and my voice, as part of his Planned Obsolescence series of tracks, released exclusively on his website at beck.com
He nominated “Uri Geller” as Number One in his collection of unexpected discoveries: “The combination of surging romantic music and mind over matter (and forks) poetry is a potent one,” he writes. “I picked this up on vinyl in the early ‘90s and it was a favourite to listen to while we were recording Odelay.”
That’s a massive complement from one of the world’s most creative musicians, because Odelay was the album which made him a superstar.
He’s welcome to use all the samples he wants. But I don’t think he’d be wise to make me a guest vocalist on his next CD.
Maria made me a gift of the beautiful folder her father used for his scripts when he was learning a part. It was made in the Fifties, a gorgeous piece of workmanship with a 22 carat gold plaque. We also exchanged paintings over the years: she inherited her gifts as an artist from Gary.
My favourite work of her is called The Cellist.
Gary’s style was very like my own — when I look at his drawing of an eagle, and compare it to my art, I ask myself whether we are in touch by telepathy, across the divide.
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