There’s an early Christmas present for any and every one this year that’s the “gift that will keep on giving” on a daily basis. Jo-Ann Geffen, a seasoned professional in the PR business, has created a gift for all of us by writing the definitive book of Chicken Soup for the Soul. In this case, “soul” refers to our musicals souls – those heartstrings that are indelibly touched every time we hear a certain song. Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Story Behind the Song is one of those books that you can open to any page and find a great story about a song you’ll remember. Ms. Geffen chats with many of the music industry’s most well-known songwriters (many of them singer/songwriters) from over the years about their inspirations for the 101 eternal songs they created. Her personal relationship with these writers creates a book that is not only factual but is the story behind the story, with each one being unique and more than that — a picture into the writer’s soul. Upon speaking with Ms. Geffen, her open and intelligent take on the subject is what makes this a book that is not only readable but re-readable, and how did she do it?!
Melissa Berry: What a great idea! We all have our favorite secret and not-so-secret songs that will always be with us, but to know how they came about — it must be very special to have entrée to all these great songwriters. How did you actually get the idea, and then how did you approach these music greats? More than that, how ever do you know them all?
Jo-Ann Geffen: The idea came to me very spontaneously by pure happenstance. I was invited to a meeting with the marketing people from all over the world for a major hotel chain, and it turned out they were scheduled to meet Robert Jacobs, the president of Chicken Soup’s publishing company, and Mark Victor Hansen, one of the creators of the brand. I was an afterthought invitee as a potential publicist for the hotels. The meeting was entirely about the Chicken Soup franchise and the huge number of subjects covered. It was all news to me – I’m one of the very few people who had never read one. It was wonderfully educational, and it was as Bob was speaking that I thought of the idea. I had to keep drilling it into my mind so I wouldn’t forget – then I had to find the right time to bring it up. It was after lunch, when Bob and I sat next to each other and had an opportunity to speak a bit, that I asked if they accepted outside ideas. He said yes, I proposed my idea, and he immediately said, “Let’s do it!”
MB: It’s a long way from “let’s do it!” to getting a project up and actually completed. How did you get the project up and in development?
JG: It was an incredibly seamless segue. Bob asked that I get him a list of writers/performers I’d like to include. I started as soon as I sat down on the plane on the way home from Vegas, where we met. I immediately came up with 60 right off the top of my head. Then, as with most projects, it was time for some serious thinking with the easy part out of the way. Someone sitting near me must have peeked at the manila folder I was madly scribbling names on and asked what I was doing. I told him and asked who his favorite(s) were. Once he started coming up with names, another person got involved until about eight people within three or four rows of me were shouting out names. It was really quite funny.
MB: When did you realize the broad spectrum of people you were going to touch?
JG: It was when it came to the reality of asking people to participate. I called friends first, like David Cassidy, The Commodores, Lamont Dozier, Stephen Bishop, Smokey Robinson and others, and they agreed to come on board. My lawyer, Danny Hayes, was an amazing asset. Then, between my son – who has been very successful managing major music acts — myself and an old friend — who is a great talent-booker, Eileen Bradley — we were able to get the ball rolling. There were a few amazing songwriters/performers who said “yes” after the book was finished, whom I would have loved to include, but hopefully they’ll agree to be in another book. The list of those in the book even impresses me! We have everyone from Christina Aguilera and Kanye West to John Legend, Paul Anka, Richie Sambora, Lamont Dozier, Hal David, Melissa Etheridge, Tracy Lawrence, Slipknot, Chicago, Boyz II Men – the list is really unbelievable! I’m so flattered that they all agreed to talk to me and tell me their stories.
MB: There had to be some real surprises, especially in the music industry. Tell me a couple of the most memorable or unusual stories you got as part of your collection.
JG: Some of the songs are not the ones one would expect, but they’re meaningful to the respective songwriters, and to each of us! For instance, David Cassidy and his wife, Sue Shifrin Cassidy, wrote “Stand and Be Proud” immediately following the infamous LA Riots. He did not even perform on it – the public, mostly from the AME Church and the area, became the “Voices of the City” and recorded it. It was important to David and Sue to try to help to make a difference through the experience and the fund-raising potential. Perhaps the most poignant story was from someone I have known since I was 21 or so, Ronald LaPread, who was one of the six original founding members of The Commodores and the man responsible for “Zoom,” an R&B classic. I knew, in a broad sense, that he had written the song as a tribute to his wife who tragically passed away very, very young. I represented The Commodores since their first audition in life, so I’ve known them for 40 years and I never knew the details of this poignant, sad and very special song that means so many different things to many people. What was truly fortunate was speaking with people like Carly Simon, legendary Hal David, Melissa Etheridge — whose story hit a chord I never expected — learning Carole Bayer Sager’s catalyst for offering the profits of “That’s What Friends Are For” to AMFAR… I hope readers find the people and the stories as special as I do.
MB: I know one of my personal favorites is the Carly Simon song “Let the River Run” from Working Girl. It just fit so well, yet it didn’t have a “city tempo” behind it. It captured the movie with its attitude and the atmosphere it created.
JG: Carly is very philosophical about her music. I found her to be thoughtful and inspired in all things. She was my first interview and truly set a beautiful stage for the entire book.
MB: How many of the people you interviewed have gotten Grammys or are inductees into the Hall of Fame – Oscars, Tonys – all those awards for the recognition of hard work and immense talent?
JG: The number of combined awards for which the songwriters in the book have been nominated or won is astonishing! There are everything from Grammys and Oscars to British Music Awards, MTV Awards, American Music Awards, BMI and ASCAP Awards, Songwriters and Rock and Roll Hall of Famers, and both Hal David and Lamont Dozier have received the highest songwriting award given – the Johnny Mercer Award bestowed by the Songwriters Hall of Fame. This is truly a history of music and pop culture in 400 pages, thanks to the extraordinary group of contributors who were so forthcoming.
MB: Is there any chance that the songs in this book could be made into a CD anthology? It would be really nice to hear the songs as they were presented to the public after reading the stories behind them, although 101 songs could be a very daunting task!
JG: Anything is possible. The songs are here forever, so there’s no rush to do anything but focus on the book right now. Certainly nothing is out of the question.
You can meet Jo-Ann Geffen along with Lamont Dozier, who also wrote the foreword, Carol Connors and Stephen Bishop, and get a personally autographed copy of Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Story Behind the Song at the release/book signing of this definitive book on contemporary songwriting on Thursday, November 12th at The Grove here in Los Angeles at Barnes and Noble at 7:00 p.m.
Trust me — after meeting Jo-Ann, I can guarantee you that she’ll be more than happy to answer any questions you have. She’s got her finger on the pulse of all our favorite songwriters.