After "It’s Impossible," songwriter Sid Wayne charts the long course back to the top

SID WAYNE’S lyrics crackled through the tin speakers of plastic transistor radios and stoked a generation of summer love. His music reached America through the snow-specked screens of the black-and-white television age and left him with a fever that won’t break. In the era of MTV and laser discs he remains a songwriter in search of gold.

On one of those stifling Dallas days when the weather types were predicting a high of 102 degrees, Sid Wayne had been battling the heat with a cache of Dr. Brown’s Cel-Ray, a delicatessen-style tonic that acts as a sort of mood elevator for Wayne; its caramel-celery taste brings on pungent memories of his Brooklyn upbringing. Wayne offered his guest a cool one, and within minutes the adrenalin began to flow.

Wayne wrote the lyrics to 41 hit songs recorded by Elvis Presley, 40 of which wound up in cult movies that are guaranteed late show immortality. He wrote the words to “See You In September,” a two-time, No. 1 teen anthem (1961 and 1966) that has been recorded by more than 50 artists. He helped resurrect the singing career of former barber Perry Como with a worldwide smash entitled “It’s Impossible.”

But like many who recorded his songs, Sid Wayne knows that the fickle entertainment empire, with its instant trends, needs to be constantly attended to or it will forget who you are. As the years pass, the man who was named one of America’s top 100 all-time songwriters by the American Society of Composers and Publishers sees himself living in a house of platinum, a house of glass.

Wayne headed toward the den in his upper-middle-class, three-bedroom home. He opened a closet door, ventured inside and flipped the switch to a tape machine. Power snapped into twin speakers and the room reverberated with the husky laughter of the man whom the rock music world knew as The King. It’s Elvis Presley, cracking up during a recording session over a line Wayne had written for him. They were laying down the soundtrack for Paradise Hawaiian Style.

“Listen,” said Wayne. “Did you hear that? Books written about Elvis claim that he didn’t enjoy acting in movies or singing the songs written for him. Well, he must have enjoyed that one.”

Wayne took a seat in an easy chair, his right leg cocked over the left. He was wearing a blue guayabera, fashionable slacks and loafers.

“Someone once asked me, ’Aren’t you impressed with yourself?’ I said, ’No. I’m impressed with my wall.’”

It’s hard not to be. On Wayne’s den wall are Grammy Award nomination plaques, ASCAP songwriting awards, a picture of Wayne with a young, pre-obese Presley, two gold records (“Two Different Worlds” and “See You In September”), a platinum Presley album given in gratitude by RCA and dozens of publishing house song sheets with Presley’s picture on them. Atop each Elvis song sheet is the byline: “Lyrics by Sid Wayne.”

Wayne’s works have also been put on wax by Nat King Cole, The Supremes, Robert Goulet, Glen Campbell, Herman’s Hermits, Dean Martin, Andy Williams, The Temptations, The Impressions, The Happenings, Billy “Crash” Craddock, Mel Tillis and a legion of others including somebody named Don Rondo, whom Wayne affectionately remembers as “a plumber [by trade] with a good set of pipes.”

Sid Wayne has made a comfortable living from his songwriting, but the mind of a creative man is made uneasy by an easy chair. “Yes, I’m impressed by what I’ve done. But I’m not impressed with myself. Maybe that’s the other side of the coin. Maybe that’s what keeps me level. I don’t know. I mean, what have I done lately? That bothers me.”

It’s not as if Wayne’s career died with Elvis. He’s had continued success. He co-wrote “Dallas In Wonderland” last year with Steve Arnold, a former member of the pop group Harper’s Bazaar and now a Garland musician, composer and recording studio owner. The Wayne-Arnold collaboration produced what radio station KLUV selected in a contest as “the No. 1 Dallas theme song.” Working with composer Roger Howell, Wayne has also had songs accepted by country music stars.

But no major smash, no national hit, for more than a decade. Wayne is not content to sit on his royalties-or, as he lightheartedly puts it-“my ASCAP”-but his worries go deeper than money. He doesn’t want his creativity to grow stale in the Dallas sun.

He speaks about seeking a job as a disc jockey. He has a warm vocal delivery that might go well over the airwaves and did, in fact, in California during the late Sixties. “I mean, what the heck, I could not only play the songs-I know most of the writers.”

But Wayne also knows his specialty: He’s got a way with a line, a simple line that strikes a human chord:

I’ll be alone each and every night, While you’re away don’t forget to write.

See you in September… Or lose you to a summer love.

(c)1961, lyrics by Sid Wayne, music by Sherman Edwards

“I remember the day we wrote that song. It was June in New York City. I was in the habit of going from my home on Long Island every day to the Brill Building, on Tin Pan Alley. I would meet with different songwriters there. We’d eat at Jack Dempsey’s or The Turf Restaurant and then we’d go up to one of the publishers’ offices and work in the piano room.

“We’d sit around saying to each other, ’What do you want to write today? A hit or a standard?’ That was our opening line. I remember I had an idea going through my mind. I met with Sherman Edwards, rest in peace, about 11 a.m. and he said, ’What do you want to write?’ ’I’d like to write a song called, “See You In September,”’ I said.

“We talked it back and forth and I think I may have contributed part of the opening music, but with Sherman it didn’t matter, because he could throw me back half the lyric-that’s how he worked. I think probably by two in the afternoon we got the song finished. It needed to be written; it was like boiling inside of us.”

By 4:30 that day, a Friday afternoon, Wayne and Edwards had refined the song, taken out some sophisticated chords, brought it down to what he calls the “Five & Ten” level where the kids could buy it and were off to sell the song to a publisher. “We lived by advances-let’s face it. You got stuck in between. You needed your rent. You had to come up with a check.”

After one lukewarm reception, Wayne and Edwards stumbled upon Jack Gold, owner of Paris Records, a small record label. By 8 p.m., Gold had telephoned Pittsburgh, to the home of a member of an unknown recording group called The Tempos. They were practicing in the basement.

By Saturday, the group had been flown to New York. “By Monday the record was cut, test pressings were Thursday, and by Friday the song was played on WNEW in New York,” Wayne said. “The thing took off like wildfire. We were running around taking bows.

“Five hundred dollars to split between the two of us. That was a damn good week’s pay in 1961. Then again, you don’t write a hit song every week.”

Wayne is understandably grateful toward his craft. But he likes to dispel the popular myth that successful songwriters are wallowing in money.

“Royalties-if you’re lucky enough to receive them-are a half-penny to one cent per air play, and sometimes less than that, if you can imagine less. With a smash hit, if you’re working with a partner, you might make $5,000. And hey, I didn’t start out that way. When I started out, ASCAP said, ’Here’s your royalty check.’”

What motivates Sid Wayne? He never had a piano or voice lesson. He dropped out of high school six months before graduation. “I always knocked myself out trying to make it,” he said. “When I went out on the road to make a living at this business I couldn’t sing well enough and I couldn’t play well enough-if I had to play a song from one end to the other my fingers would freeze. But between the two of them, the gift of gab and a lot of guts, I went out amongst them. And I faced them. And I made a living at it until I literally wrote my way out of the smoke and the booze of the clubs.”

By 1956, Wayne had written “Two Different Worlds,” earning him his first gold record and a respectable rung on the popular television show, “Your Hit Parade.” And then came Elvis. Or, rather, Sid Wayne came to those guardians of the inner sanctum who had the ability to come to Elvis.

“He was,” said Wayne, “like the untouchable. He was The King. Everybody was trying to submit songs to Elvis. It almost seemed like, what’s the sense?”

In order to submit songs to the King’s men, writers had to sit in the waiting room of a clearinghouse at Hill & Range Publishing in New York. On any given day, 20 teams of writers shook, rattled and rolled in the waiting room, hoping for an audience with Hill & Range’s manager, Freddie Bienstock, and a chance to spin their words and music into big money.

If Bienstock liked a writer’s work, he gave permission to make a demo tape, which the writer paid for himself. This was still no guarantee that the song would be selected for Elvis’ perusal. If it was chosen, Elvis’ people paid for the demo-and deducted the cost from the writer’s first royalty statements.

Wayne remains modest about his first break with Elvis, citing a combination of good timing and “a master quality demo tape. I had written the lyrics to ’I Need Your Love Tonight,’ and Bix Reichner wrote the music. The Elvis people needed one more song for a movie. They accepted it after we spent $150-today it costs ten times more than that-to put out a master quality demo.” Wayne teamed with Reichner, Weisman and a number of writers on Elvis’ songs. Once they became known for their work (which soon included “Follow That Dream,” “Flaming Star,” “Ridin’ The Rainbow” and “Tonight’s So Right For Love”), the publishers supplied them with scripts for upcoming Elvis movies. Only a handful of writers were so favored. Wayne’s talent and persistence had paid off.

“Once I got the Elvis scripts I understood how to get rid of six pages of drivel and put a song in there that would move it,” Wayne said. As he grew more comfortable with Presley movies, he began to look for places in scripts where there weren’t indications for songs. “There was a scene in an Elvis movie where he was waiting to be audited by the IRS,” Wayne recalled. “Everybody was biting their nails and falling all over each other. I thought it was a great place for a song.” Giving musical life to Elvis’ anxiety, Wayne wrote “He’s Your Uncle, Not Your Dad,” patterned after a slogan on a World War I poster. “The scripts people went nuts when they saw it. ’Where is it going to fit?’ they asked. I told them pages 63 to 72.”

The song was accepted.

Wayne grew to know Presley, although he defines it as more of a business relationship. “I didn’t abuse my association with Elvis. Maybe that’s why I had success with him. We met on projects and recordings. In the interim, I never went to his house, he never gave me a Cadillac or bought me a present. But he recorded my songs-and that, to me, was all the present I ever needed.

“Elvis was a gentleman, a great respecter of talent,” Wayne said. “You finally get a chance to be around him and he puts his arms around you. You feel like you’re going to melt. Each time we met on a session, he called me ’Mr. Wayne.’ That was the way he was brought up. I would answer, ’Oh, Mr. Presley,’ and he would laugh.”

Although he idolized Presley, Wayne was not part of the coterie that followed the troubled King in his later years. He does, however, remember a scene that continues to trouble him: “We were on the set of Frankie and Johnny. I was admiring one of Elvis’ jumpsuits, and I asked him where he got it. He told me that Sy Devore, a clothier to the stars, had brought it to his house in a panel truck. Elvis couldn’t go to him. That, I suppose, is the story of a prisoner of his own success.”

SID WAYNE has been successful, lucky and married to the same woman since 1949. He describes her as “vivacious, a stunning blonde and a great lady.” He says Rhea (pronounced Ray) Wayne is a rare exception. “In this business, you have to have a strong woman who is willing to put up with the late night calls, the missed suppers, the weekend work, and not everybody can do that. With all due respect, she is the backbone to everything that made my life what it is.”

Says Rhea: “I could never let Sid go out in this crazy world all alone. What would he do?” Rhea was there in 1950, when Sid sold sewing machines by day and worked lounges by night. She was there in 1953, when Sid had a hit with “The Anything Can Happen Mambo.” She was there when Sid had a bomb with part of the lyrics to a Broadway show entitled, “Thirteen Daughters.”

Rhea was also there in 1970 when Sid wrote “It’s Impossible,” a song Perry Como was unsure about at first and waited months to record. When he did, the record sold more than five million copies and was covered by more than 300 artists. Fifteen years later, Wayne still reels from the aftereffects of that huge success.

THE AFTERNOON WAS growing late. Outside, Central Expressway had struck up its own slow rhythm and blues.

Wayne spoke about how he had moved to Dallas to be near his three children. He said he was growing “fat and lazy,” because “a songwriter is only as good as his last work.” He does not accept calls at home from songwriters seeking to turn his advice into success, though he has, in answer to a number of requests, compiled a tape entitled, “Sid Wayne’s Winning Formula of Hit Song Writing.” The tape is available through LUV Sound Studios in Addison, but Wayne knows that the mysteries of his craft can never be reduced to a set of rules.

“You go for a line that contains a message,” Wayne said. “Sometimes it’s an inspiration. I’ll walk around and hear something in the air. A phrase. If I were going to sit down today and write a song, I would write one called, ’Go For It.’ I hear everybody saying, ’go for it.’ I could have one done in two hours if I needed to do it, or I could write one and it might take a year.

“It depends on whether you’re working on assignment or for yourself. And if you’re going to work at songwriting as a craft, there’s a point where the craft has to give up a little bit and you’ve got to write from your heart. You’ve got to touch nerves. And if you touch nerves and it happens to fall into place and the rhyme is right, that’s where the craft takes over again.”

Will there be another major hit?

There are times when even Sid Wayne begins to agree with his own lyrics. Maybe it’s impossible. Still, he’s hearing inspiration in the air and chasing the gold records at the end of the rainbow.

“I’ve pounded the streets, paid my dues,taken all the abuse. But hell no, I’m not readyto give up. Not by a long shot.”


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