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

Steve Young learned about industrial musicals when he started coming across compilations, like this one, in used record stores. (You definitely want to click to enlarge this.) (Courtesy of Blast Books)

This interview was originally broadcast on Nov. 05, 2013.

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.

Click here for more industrial musical gems.

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 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."

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Transcript

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, editor of the website TV Worth Watching, filling in for Terry Gross, who's out today with a cold. We're continuing our holiday week series of some of our favorite interviews of the year.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

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

BIANCULLI: 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."

In October, Terry talked about these industrials with Sheldon Harnick; with John Russell, who performed in dozens of them; and with Steve Young, the author of the new book "Everything's Coming Up Profits: The Golden Age of Industrial Musicals," which had just been published. 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." Here's a little 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)

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

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 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?

SHELDON 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.

YOUNG: 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.

HARNICK: 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.

(Singing) 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.

GROSS: Oh yeah.

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

JOHN RUSSELL: 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)

GROSS: Let's - 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.

BIANCULLI: Steve Young Sheldon Harnick and John Russell, speaking to Terry Gross in October. More after a break; this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, in for Terry Gross, back with Terry's interview from October with some of the people involved with the creation or the study of the industrial musical. Sheldon Harnick wrote lyrics for some of them. John Russell performed in them. And Steve Young wrote a book about them. It's called "Everything's Coming Up Profits: The Golden Age of Industrial Musicals."

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

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Here we go.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ONE MAN OPERATION")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (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: Anything 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: 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 PEOPLE: (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"?

BIANCULLI: Steve Young, Sheldon Harnick and John Russell, speaking to Terry Gross in October. Their conversation was one of our favorites of the year. Young's book on the golden age of industrial musicals is titled "Everything's Coming Up Profits." I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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