Fran Landesman, songwriter, poet and performer, was born in New York City in 1927. She grew up on the Upper West Side with Central Park as her front garden, went to art school in New York and hung out in the bars and on the fire escapes of Greenwich village, looking for love, danger and excitement. Around 1949 this appeared in the shape of a young writer, magazine editor and bon vivant Jay Landesman.
They married in 1950 and shortly afterwards and initially, much to Fran’s chagrin, moved to Jay’s home town of St Louis. Once in St Louis, with the help of Jay’s elder brother, painter and art collector Fred Landesman, they opened what was to become one of the hippest night spots in the Midwest, the legendary Crystal Palace. The piano player at the Crystal Palace was a young St Louis musician called Tommy Wolf. In 1956 he wrote about his first encounter with the Landesmans…
“…I was playing background piano music at the Jefferson Hotel in St Louis one cold October evening in 1952 when a group of people wearing European imitations of American clothing entered the Rendezvous to listen to a speech by Adlai Stevenson on the giant-size 7 inch TV screen. I took them to my heart immediately because although they also weren’t paying any attention to me, at least they had a different reason: and when, during one of the Democratic commercials, they requested a few tunes that I not only despised but hadn’t even heard of they became my friends for life, and invited me to become Musical Director of a bar they were about to open …of course I still had to play the piano but the TITLE was costing me only $100 a week so I thought….what the hell. That was the beginning of the Crystal Palace and my association with a fabulous family…… the Landesmans.”
Fran and Tommy soon began writing songs which he would sing nightly to the drinking masses at The Crystal Palace. One night the British born piano player George Shearing came into the club and was particularly taken with a song whose title Fran had come up with while speculating on how a hip jazz musician might express the T.S. Elliot line “April Is The Cruelest Month….”. The song was called ‘Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most’. Shearing left St. Louis with a tape of a number of Landesman/Wolf songs which he enthusiastically played to singers and musicians he knew. Amongst of the first to take the bait was the bebop vocal duo Jackie and Roy. Jackie Cain and Roy Krall were to become life-long friends and fans of both Fran and Tommy, enthusiastically championing their songs throughout their long career. When Shearing first played them the songs, Jackie and Roy were preparing for a stint at Max Gordon’s New York cabaret spot The Blue Angel and were looking for new hip material…they seized on songs like “Season In The Sun” and “You Inspire Me” which soon became part of their set and subsiquently Landesman/Wolf song cropped up with increasing frequency on their regular album releases. Around the same time singer Jerry Winter got the ball rolling for the Landesman/Wolf song “Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most” which she recorded on her album ‘Winter’s Here’.
Tommy and Fran were now writing together at what was to become Fran’s modus operandi…a furious pace. In 1956 Tommy went to Chicago to record an album of their songs ‘A Wolf At Your Door’ and soon after a musical began to emerge. The Nervous Set began life at the now flourishing Crystal Palace cabaret theatre. Fran Landesman wrote the lyrics, Tommy Wolf wrote the music and Jay Landesman wrote the book based on his experiences as publisher of Neurotica magazine. A wicked satire on the Beat Generation, the show included an embarassment of riches in the song department: “Spring Can Really Hang you Up The Most”, “The Ballad of the Sad Young Men”, “Night People”, “How Do You Like Your Love” and many more. The show’s success with St Louis audiences soon attracted the attention of New York producers and the ‘The Nervous Set’ opened on broadway in 1959. Tommy Wolf lead the on-stage band and the cast included Del Close and a young Larry Hagman playing a character based on Jay’s old friend and associate Jack Kerouac. The critics acknowledged the emergence of a powerful new songwriting team but on the whole remained luke warm and in some cases downright hostile to the show. However audiences including some of New York showbiz alumni (Richard Rogers for one) gave their blessing to what everyone assumed to be the first flowering of a great new partnership in the history of American music theatre.
Tommy Wolf had by this time left St Louis to begin establishing a career on the West Coast. When ‘The Nervous Set’ closed on Broadway Tommy, Fran and Jay set to work on what they were to regard as their greatest show , a collaboration with Neson Algren on a musical adaptation of his novel ‘ A Walk On The Wild Side’. Tommy Wolf had met actor /singer /musician Bob Dorough in Chicago and brought him to St Louis to play the lead in the show which was set in a whorehouse and involved sex, death and suicide…unfortunately St. Louis audiences in 1960 were not quite ready for such a radical departure from the showbiz norm and Fran and Jay reluctantly closed the show so that the actors wouldn’t have to suffer the nightly indignity of leaving the stage to the sound of their own footsteps.
The Crystal Palace had, by this time, expanded from a bar into a full- scale cabaret theatre. Apart from ‘The Nervous Set’ and ‘A Walk On The Wild Side’ Jay presented many ground breaking theatre shows including the first production in the Midwest of ‘Waiting For Godot’. However it was as a cabaret venue that The Crystal Palace is best remembered. Acts that got an early airing on the club’s stage include Barbra Streisand, Woody Allen, Nichols and May, the Smothers Brothers andPhillis Diller. Lenny Bruce was a regular performer and became quite close to Fran: “Jay’s a bit in-bred,” he is purported to have said “Let’s you and me go on the road and send him a little money every month.”
As the ’60s got going so Gaslight Square, the area that The Crystal Palace had rejuvenated, began to go down hill. Strip joints opened and worse still bars began presenting Dixieland jazz. Jay decided it was time to move on and that the only answer was for them to move to a remote Greek island. Fran didn’t quite see it this way…she was making headway in New York City writing songs with the great composer and academic Alec Wilder “Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most” had become a jazz standard (without ever being a hit) and was being covered by, amongst others, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn, Carmen McCrae, Mabel Mercer and Barbra Streisand. Fran had started writing songs with Bob Dorough and in 1964 Miles Davis and Gil Evans recorded’Nothing Like You’ with Dorough singing…a cut that was to appear years later at the end of the classic 1967 Miles Davis album ‘Sorcerer’.
Jay persisted in his attempts to persuade Fran to move to some mythical island …she finally conceded defeat but said it would have to include a large English speaking city. So it was that in 1964 the Landemans (Fran, Jay and their two sons Cosmo and Miles) moved to Duncan Terrace in Islington, North London, a street which was to remain their home for the rest of the 20th century.
The Landesmans arrived in Britain knowing only one Londoner, Peter Cook, who they had met in New York after his triumphant Broadway version of ‘Beyond The Fringe’. He quickly introduced them to many of his friends (including the Beatles) and Fran remembers a moment, soon after they arrived, when she realised they had made the right decision in moving to London: it was during a dinner party where she was sandwiched between Bernard Levin and Malcolm Muggerige who were discussing whether Shakespeare was an atheist. In 1964 London was in full swing, Jay was in his mid 40s and Fran in her late 30s….not too old in their books to join in with the decade of love and peace. Years later their eldest son Cosmo wrote this description of life in the Landesman household circa 1969…
“…Getting married, having children was their one attempt to live conventionally…it didn’t last. They soon abandoned the straight and narrow for the crooked and the carefree. By the time Flower Power came around, they were in the twilight world of middle-age. Their hair became longer, their dress became wilder, the drugs got stronger and marriage became more experimental. I tried to get them to stay at home more instead of rushing round to pop festivals….and I warned them about the friends they ran around with. The thing that upset me most was their dress and appearance. I can remember when I first thought of having them committed to the Institute for the Criminally Dressed. It was Parents’ Day at school. They arrived looking like two hippies who had failed the audition for the musical ‘Hair’. Mother wore a purple Afghan coat, that from a distance looked like a seasick piece of mutton. She was wearing enough bits of glass beads and jewellery to resemble Brighton beach after a bank holiday rumble. Dad came with his long hair, mirror-lens sun glasses: the piece de resistance of this visual cacophony was not the orange rudiments of a shirt, but the black plastic trousers. In those days the only people who wore them were industrial workers and the insane. My classmates stared in disbelief as I shrivelled in horror” – Cosmo Landesman. In his 2008 book ‘Starstruck: Fame, Fortune, Failure and My Family’ he looks at their bohemian life in more detail.
Somehow or other Fran, Jay and even Cosmo managed to survive the swinging 60s, possibly helped by Jay’s evangelical commitment to macrobiotics. In the 70s, initially at the suggestion of legendary New York bar owner Bradley Cunningham, Fran started publishing her work in the form of books of verse which Jay published. She met performance poet Michael Horowitz and began to develop her skills as a performer. Fran also continued to write songs with composers on both sides of the Atlantic including Dudley Moore, Tom Springfield, Pat Smythe and Georgie Fame in the UK, and John Simon, Bob Dorough,Steve Allen, Roy Krall and Jason Mculiffe in the USA.
Her reputation grew, helped by continued recordings of her work withTommy Wolf. Roberta Flack, Ricki Lee Jones, Gil Evans and Keith Jarrettall recorded “The Ballad of the Sad Young Men” while “Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most” continued to be a much sung, much recorded and much requested jazz standard. Tommy Wolf had gone on to a very successful career in Hollywood where he had been musical director for TV shows like The Mary Tyler Moore Show, piano player to the stars (including Marilyn Monroe) and had continued to write songs with Fran,Fred Astaire and others. Sadly in 1978 he died aged only 54.
Fran began performing her own material in theatre shows at venues such as Islington’s Kings Head and Red Lion pub theatres and in the West End at the Arts Theatre and for two seasons at Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club. With the birth of her grandson Jack in 1988 she began devoting herself to the role of ‘Granny Franny’, however as Jack began to grow up so Fran’s urge to write started to return. In 1994 she met British pianist and composer Simon Wallace and immediately launched into a burst of creative activity that has produced (so far) a catalogue of more than 350 new songs, three new collections of poetry and a full blown musical. The first volume of their songs is now available direct from Simon at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Simon Wallace was born in Wales in 1957. He studied music at University College Oxford before embarking on a diverse career as a jazz pianist and a composer in many parts of the world. When he first met Fran Landesman he was recovering from three years touring with the Lindsay Kemp Company and was writing music for TV comedy shows including Absolutely Fabulous, Ruby Wax, Alexie Sayle, Murder Most Horrid (Dawn French) and Tracey Ullman. As well as composing for TV, film and theatre he has written two large scale symphonies for theBangkok Symphony Orchestra. Fran and Simon’s songs are now attracting attention on both sides of the Atlantic thanks to recordings and performances by singers such as Sarah Moule, Nicki Leighton-Thomas, Ian Shaw, Susannah McCorkle and Imelda Staunton.
There have been productions of their musical Forbidden Games at the Young Vic (RSC) , the Theatre Royal Bath, the Pleasance (1998 Edinburgh Festival) and in Poland at the 1999 Gdansk Shakespeare Festival. Their songs have been included in shows and revues on both sides of the Atlantic…. 6 songs in The Decline of the Middle West (a retrospective of Fran’s work) at The Supper Club off Broadway , two songs in Susannah McCorkle‘s 1999 show at The Algonquin Hotel, NYC, ‘From Broken Hearts To Blue Skies’, one in Imelda Staunton’s 1999 New York Cabaret debut at The Firebird, one in a show by ENO opera star Sally Burgess and another in a review at the Lyric Theatre Hammersmith sung by Shelia Hanncock. In ? Fran, Bob Dorough, Simon Wallace and Jackie Cain performed at Joe’s Pub, NYC. In 2008 Fran had 4 sell out shows in a St. Louis theatre. On 26th May 2010 the Southbank Centre London is presenting A NIGHT OUT WITH FRAN LANDESMAN, introduced by poet Lemn Sissay, with Simon Wallace, singers Sarah Moule and Gwyneth Herbert, and actors Imelda Staunton and Phil Daniels.
Their songs make up a large part of Howard Samuel’s cabaret show and feature in the set and recordings of singer Johnathan Cairny (1999 Perrier Young Jazz Musician). Sarah Moule has recorded three critically acclaimed CDs featuring their songs; A Lazy Kind Of Love (Red Ram Records, 2008), Something’s Gotta Give (Linn Records 2004) and It’s A Nice Thought (Linn Records 2002). Nicki Leighton -Thomas‘ CD of their songs Forbidden Games received rave reviews in 1998 and was re-released on Candid Records as Damned if I do. The title track of the highly acclaimed Ian Shaw /Cedar Walton CD on Fantasy Records) is a Landesman/Wallace song “In A New York Minute”. In February 2000, four of their songs were included in the annual Songbook concert at the Wigmore Hall and in March 2000 12 of their songs were presented at The National Theatre, London in a cabaret show directed by Henry Goodman. Later that year a studio production at the NT directed by Richard Eyre also featured one of their songs. Grammy nominated American jazz singer Susannah McCorkle recorded three of their songs on her last CD ‘Hearts and Minds’ (Concord Records).
In the last 10 years of her life she performed more frequently, reciting her poetry, singing her songs and occasionally talking about her life and work. In 2003 she appeared in New York at Joe’s Pub with Jackie Cain and Bob Dorough and in October 2008 returned to St Louis to do a one woman show at the Gaslight Theatre. Throughout 2010 and 2011 she made bi-monthly appearances at RADA for Farrago poetry and every six months hosted a lunchtime concert at The 606 Club in London. In May 2010 the South Bank Centre presented ‘A Night Out with Fran Landesman’ at the Purcell Room and in April 2011 the Leicester Square Theatrepresented ‘An Evening with Fran Landesman’ as part of the Art of Song Festival. Her last appearance was at RADA on July 21, 2011, two days before her death at the age of 83.