Songwriting is a multidisciplinary calling. A songsmith is equal parts composer, poet, musician, philosopher and entrepreneur. Many times, it’s an unsung profession: the performer who interprets the song gets the credit and adulation, the songwriter gets a credit set in microscopic type on a CD cover or record label. Sure, there are exceptions. Individuals such as Cole Porter, Irving Berlin and Johnny Mercer come to mind, as do teams like Rodgers and Hammerstein, and the Gershwin brothers. The compositions that Carmel’s own Carroll Coates has produced in a career that stretches back to the 1940s are certainly worthy of the work produced by that list of greats. And while his has not become a household name, the songs he penned are quite familiar to aficionados of the Great American Songbook and lovers of great songs in general.
Carroll Coates wrote his first song, “Walking Around in a Dream,” at age 17. More than seven decades later, he can sing every line for you in his soft London accent—and is willing to do so on any occasion. The tune was recorded and played on the BBC—a huge coup for such a young man—setting the stage for what would be a long and successful songwriting career. His music has been recorded and performed by a pantheon of singing stars that includes Carmen McRae, Sarah Vaughan, Doris Day, Mel Tormé, Nancy Wilson, Shirley Horn, Tony Bennett and the biggest of them all, Old Blue Eyes himself, Frank Sinatra.
“I was the house pianist at The White Room, a private club near Piccadilly Circus,” Coates recalls, “even though I was too young to be admitted.” Cabaret singer Julie Wilson had made the young songwriter’s “London by Night” a staple part of her act, frequently closing her show with the number.
One evening Sinatra came in, heard her sing it and wanted to meet the songwriter.
“He told me, ‘Kid, that’s a good song. I want to take it back to the states and record it.'”
And that’s exactly what he did. The tune appeared on the hugely popular album, “Come Fly with Me,” released in 1958.
“Frank was half hoodlum and part charmer,” Coates says. “If he liked you, you were in. If he didn’t, well, it was ‘take your hand off the suit.'”
Sinatra was charmed and urged the songwriter to come to America where he could help the young man—he called Coates “Kid” for the rest of his life—further his career, an offer he gladly accepted. It was a wise move.
Once in Los Angeles, Coates’s obvious talents brought him to the attention of some powerful music biz players, including film and television composer Lionel Newman. Newman was having difficulty finding appropriate lyrics for the theme song he was writing for a 1956 Robert Wagner film, “A Kiss Before Dying.”
“He gave me a go at it, with a four-day deadline,” Coates recalls. He beat that deadline, opening up a whole new avenue for his work. He eventually contributed to more than a dozen Hollywood films.
As one might imagine, considering the company he’s kept, Coates has many, many interesting tales to tell. One Sinatra story stands out. “I was still new in town, and not having established myself as a full-time songwriter, I was working at a Union 76 gas station to make ends meet,” he says. The phone rang, and on the other end was a member of Sinatra’s crew saying that Frank was going to record “London by Night” and that he would like to have the songwriter present for the event. Now. Protesting that he was still in his gas jockey uniform did no good. He should come anyway.
Upon arriving at the legendary Capitol Records’ Studio A on Vine Street in Hollywood, the young man was given the side-eye by a group of the singer’s posse, all dressed to the nines in suits, just like Frank.
Coates recalls, “As he was getting ready to record, he spotted me and pulled up a chair beside the microphone saying, ‘Sit here kid, and don’t make a sound.’ I was quiet as a church mouse throughout the entire session. The folks on the sidelines were left wondering, ‘Who is this person in the Union 76 uniform?’ since few people there knew I had written one of the songs being recorded.”
An engaging and erudite man at the dawn of his tenth decade, Coates now resides in the cozy, comfortable home he shares with his charming wife Carol, retired director of Community Hospital of the Monterey Peninsula’s ICU, and their Corgi Dylan. His piano stands at the ready for the inspiration that strikes him frequently, just as it has for most of his life. Make no mistake: Coates is by no means retired.
“Carroll wakes up with a new tune every day,” Carol says.
“I’m usually in no hurry to write them down,” her husband says. “If they’re any good, you don’t have to worry about forgetting them. They pull on your sleeve and say, ‘write me.'”
More fascinating stories from Carroll Coates long and illustrious career are on Coates’ website at carrollcoates.com.