My tribute to Hal Schaefer, the jazz pianist who died recently. This article can also be read at Immortal Marilyn.
Hal Schaefer 1925-2012
Harold Herman Schaefer was born in Queens, New York City, on July 22, 1925. His father, Louie, was a house-painter and lover of jazz. He had taught himself to play ragtime by slowing down the mechanism on the family’s piano, and memorising where to place his fingers.
Inspired by the great jazz pianist, Art Tatum, Hal studied at the High School of Art and Music in Manhattan, and then worked as a piano player at hotels in the Catskills. At 18, Hal joined Benny Carter’s group, working alongside top musicians like Max Roach and J.J. Johnson.
Before his twenty-first birthday, Hal had joined a trio that performed during the intermission of Duke Ellington’s concerts, and the jazz legend became his lifelong mentor (often introducing him with the epithet, ‘Now you’re going to hear a real piano player!’)
Hal also performed with Harry James’ band, and accompanied Peggy Lee, Vic Damone and other singers.
Much of his early work in Hollywood was uncredited. He appeared in With a Song in My Heart, the 1952 biopic of singer Jane Froman, starring Susan Hayward, who won a Golden Globe for her performance.
He also coached Betty Grable, wife of Harry James and star of a string of hit musicals at Twentieth Century Fox; and Judy Garland, in her much-praised ‘comeback’ movie, A Star is Born (1954).
The Blonde Hal Preferred
On June 1st, 1952 – Marilyn Monroe’s twenty-sixth birthday – she won the coveted role of Lorelei Lee in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, the upcoming, big-screen adaptation of the Broadway musical based on the 1925 comic novel by Anita Loos.
At the time, Marilyn was being touted as ‘the new Betty Grable’. But she had sung at length in just one film, the low-budget Ladies of the Chorus (1948.) Even then, her vocal coach and boyfriend, Fred Karger, had enough confidence in her talents to suggest she try out for Benny Goodman’s band.
The audition – and her affair with Karger – came to nothing. But Marilyn continued to study singing with the jazz pianist and arranger, Phil Moore.
Her sensuous performance of George Gershwin’s racy standard ‘Do it Again’, for soldiers at Camp Pendleton, Los Angeles, in April 1952, nearly started a riot – and made industry figures take notice.
‘Jack Cole [choreographer] was working with her and I had worked with him on other productions, and he introduced us during the movie Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,’ Hal recalled, adding, ‘I don’t know if it was Ken Darby, who was head of the vocal department at Fox at the time, or Cole who actually got me the [vocal coach] job, or if Marilyn herself did.’
Hal coached Marilyn for her solo number, ‘Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend’, which would become one of the defining moments of her career. He also coached Marilyn and co-star Jane Russell for three duets: ‘Two Little Girls from Little Rock’, ‘Bye Bye Baby’, and ‘When Love Goes Wrong (Nothing Goes Right)’.
In January 1953, Marilyn recorded ‘Do it Again’ under Hal’s guidance. Biographer Donald Spoto describes it as ‘one of the most amusingly erotic songs ever recorded’, noting that ‘Marilyn left no doubt to what the title pronoun referred.’
‘Do it Again’ was not released commercially for years to come, although pirated versions were reputedly sold for high prices.
While Marilyn’s habitual lateness was already posing problems for her directors and co-stars, it was not an issue for Schaefer. ‘The first thing I told her was that she better not be late or I wouldn’t teach her, so she showed up on time after that,’ Hal told biographer Michelle Morgan.
He advised Marilyn to study the music of Ella Fitzgerald. ‘The most important influence on Marilyn’s vocal art was in fact a recording I gave her called Ella Sings Gershwin, for which there was only Ellis Larkin’s piano accompaniment,’ Hal told Spoto.
‘Marilyn had a problem with singing in tune, but everything else she did was wonderful,’ he explained to Morgan. ‘I told her to listen to this album because never had there been a singer more in tune than Ella.’
Hal worked with Marilyn again later in 1953, on River of No Return. Filming on location in Canada’s Rocky Mountains was physically demanding. Marilyn disliked both the script, and director Otto Preminger. Recording music under Hal’s wing afforded her a brief respite.
In contrast to the sumptuous Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Marilyn’s four songs for River of No Return had a folksy, homespun flavour. Her vocals on ‘One Silver Dollar’, ‘Down in the Meadow’ and ‘River of No Return’ were strikingly soulful, while the bold, brassy ‘I’m Gonna File My Claim’ sold more than 75,000 copies in three weeks during the summer of 1954.
A Fine Romance
In late 1953, Marilyn was suspended by Fox after refusing her next assignment, The Girl in Pink Tights. She went into seclusion, but made headlines in January 1954 by marrying her longtime beau, Joe DiMaggio. While on honeymoon in Japan, Marilyn accepted an offer to entertain US troops in Korea.
She finally came to terms with the studio, agreeing to appear in another musical, There’s No Business Like Show Business. Once again, the storyline was weak, and Marilyn felt intimidated by her co-stars, including Broadway veteran Ethel Merman. However, she relished the chance to sing again, and when filming began in June 1954, she rehearsed with Hal long into the night.
One observer commented to author Lawrence Crown that Hal ‘stylised her – her phrasing, her whole approach to a song…how to phrase it, the right way to breathe.’
‘They were all Irving Berlin tunes,’ Lionel Newman, who produced Marilyn’s four numbers (‘After You Get What You Want’, ‘Heat Wave’, ‘Lazy’, and ‘A Man Chases a Girl’), told Crown. ‘And when Irving Berlin came to L.A., he was on our recording stage and he wanted to hear the numbers. He was ecstatic about them…He couldn’t believe that Marilyn did her own singing, which she did; there wasn’t one note ever that was looped or dubbed for her.’
‘Well, we had a boy…who was our pianist…and he was wonderful,’ Newman said of Hal. ‘And Marilyn was very devoted to him, because he was her vocal coach. So she was incensed that I didn’t call (him) over. So she chewed my tail out and said unless Irving went over to his bungalow and apologised and told him personally how good it was, she wouldn’t come back to record with us. And I stormed out of my own office, and she was left there. Anyway, Irving did go the next day to tell him how much he thought of his vocal coaching and vocal arrangements for Marilyn. And the next day she came in very sheepishly and apologised to me.’
After less than six months, the DiMaggio marriage was in trouble. Joe spent much of his time working in New York, or socialising with his macho buddies. He distrusted most of Marilyn’s Hollywood friends, including Hal Schaefer.
Rather foolishly, Hal made a statement to the press about his friendship with Marilyn. ‘It’s ridiculous that Mr DiMaggio could be any more jealous of me than he is of other people working with Marilyn,’ he said. ‘She’s a wonderful girl and kind to us all. I’m embarrassed about the whole thing.’
In addition to the songs she performed onscreen, Marilyn recorded several other tracks, including ‘You’d Be Surprised’, also by Berlin; ‘She Acts Like a Woman Should’; and Jerome Kern’s ‘A Fine Romance’. These songs were acquired by RCA, though the latter was not released for some years after Marilyn’s death.
‘I won’t be satisfied until people want to hear me sing without looking at me,’ Marilyn told Collier’s magazine in 1954, adding wryly, ‘Of course, that doesn’t mean I want them to stop looking.’
‘She had very little self-esteem,’ Hal admitted to Donald Spoto. ‘But at the same time she was quite a complicated woman with a sure grasp of what she wanted to accomplish. I was with her in the recording studio, and there was very little intercutting, editing or overdubbing. She trusted me, and we became quite close.’
After You Get What You Want (You Don’t Want It)
It was at this time that – perhaps inevitably, given the strain they were both under – Marilyn’s relationship with Hal became more intimate. ‘Marilyn seemed to feel that I was the kindest, most gentle man she’d been involved with,’ he told biographer Anthony Summers. ‘And she loved the way I played the piano, thought I ought to be world-famous. I wasn’t the world’s greatest lover, I wasn’t Tyrone Power, but I did give what she needed most – help.’
She confided to Hal that Joe was fiercely possessive, and claimed that he had physically abused her. Before long, the lovers were certain that they were being followed, or bugged. ‘The whole thing became a nightmare,’ Hal told Summers. ‘She was terrified, and furious, because she felt that she couldn’t live her life.’
He decided to confront Joe and set up a meeting, but Marilyn, fearing violence, persuaded him not go. On July 17th, a desperate Hal took a massive overdose of alcohol, pills and cleaning fluid. Fortunately, he was found in his apartment by friends and rushed to hospital.
‘I just didn’t want to go on anymore,’ Hal told Summers. ‘A great deal of the focus was on Marilyn, but it wasn’t totally that. It was the way I was in my life. I was despondent, depressed, drinking too much.’
Hal narrowly survived his suicide attempt. His liver and kidneys were seriously damaged, and he suffered several relapses. Marilyn was at his bedside constantly, and insisted that recording be halted until he had recovered.
Once released from hospital he hired two male nurses and took a house on the coast north of Los Angeles. When Marilyn joined him there, the harassment resumed.
‘I can’t remember it well because I was so sick,’ Hal said. ‘I can only remember them screaming through the window, and the threatening.’
The Wrong Door Raid
In October, Marilyn filed for divorce. Columnist Louella Parsons believed that jealousy was behind the split, and she wrote in her syndicated column that Joe ‘was very unhappy when Marilyn went many times to the hospital to see Hal Schaefer when he was critically ill.’
‘I was not the cause of the breakup with DiMaggio,’ Hal told Anthony Summers, years later. ‘It was already broken up, and not because of me. She would have left him no matter what. It had nothing to do with me. It was not to do with anyone else. But DiMaggio couldn’t believe that. His ego was such that he couldn’t believe that.’
On the night of November 5th, Marilyn and Hal drove to a friend’s apartment, unaware that they were being followed by DiMaggio, his buddy Frank Sinatra, and two private detectives. The men broke into the building, and raided a neighbouring apartment. Their victim sued and the ‘Wrong Door Raid’ was later exposed in Confidential magazine.
‘I don’t believe I’d be here today if they’d found me,’ Hal told Michelle Morgan. ‘Shortly after the Wrong Door Raid (Marilyn) went to New York to begin her new life, and that was the last time I ever saw her. She phoned me and said she didn’t know how long she’d be there, but I never saw her again.’
Hal was not bitter about how their affair ended. ‘Marilyn was an unsettled soul,’ he reflected. ‘She could never come to rest anyplace. So her falling in love with somebody I don’t think would ever have any long-range stability to it.’
Blues for Marilyn
‘I always felt she never really achieved her potential as a singer,’ Schaefer concluded. ‘She had great potential but never realised it.’ Marilyn would never find another musical collaborator of such finesse as Hal, but her ability to inflect emotion into her vocals was evident.
She went on to sing in Some Like it Hot (1959) and Let’s Make Love (1960), and her swansong performance of ‘Happy Birthday, Mister President’ has become part of her starry legend.
After his success in Hollywood, Hal began a recording career. His albums included Just Too Much(1955); The RCA Victor Jazz Workshopand Showcase(1956); 8 to the Bar(1958); Ten Shades of Blue(1959); How Do You Like This Piano Playing?,and Can-Can & Anything Goes, with Benny Carter; and Music That Reminds Me of You(1961.)
In 1955, Hal composed music for a prestigious gala celebrating the tenth anniversary of the United Nations. He returned to New York in 1960, and wrote scores for plays and movies, including The Money Trap (1965) and The Amsterdam Kill (1977). His first marriage, to Leah Cahan, ended in divorce. They had a daughter, Katie.
In 1973, Hal met his second wife, Brenda Goodman, when she came to him for voice lessons. She died in 2000. A year later, Hal recorded a tribute album, June 1st: A Date to Remember. His beloved Brenda shared a birthday with Monroe, and one of the tracks was called ‘Blues for Marilyn’.
Among Schaefer’s later albums are The Extraordinary Jazz Pianist(1976) and Solo, Duo, Trio(1991). In the last decade of his life, he recorded four live albums with the Hal Schaefer Trio, and another solo performance. His own favourite pieces are collected in Brilliant!(2011.)
Romantic with a Rhythmic Soul
Hal died at his home in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, on December 8th, 2012, after a short illness. He was 87.
‘A romantic with a rhythmic soul,’ is how John S. Wilson of the New York Times described Hal in 1982. ‘Mr. Schaefer is very much a mainstream pianist, but he has his own way of looking at the mainstream, enlivening the relatively standard repertory that he played with fresh and entertaining ideas.’
He ‘never compromised his artistic vision,’ singer-pianist Michael Feinstein told the Los Angeles Times, speculating as to why Schaefer’s name was not better-known. ‘He had a piano style and a musical palette that was possibly a little advanced for the average listener.’
‘He had a brilliant way of incorporating … very modern musical language into his playing that was masterful, yet he also could instantly switch to creating a dance arrangement for Judy Garland or Marilyn Monroe,’ Feinstein remarked.
‘Hal was a lovely man; a true gentleman,’ author Michelle Morgan wrote on her blog. ‘When we spoke, I could really tell immediately just why Marilyn was so fond of him. He was softly spoken, very intelligent, calm and just a really beautiful soul…I am very, very sad to hear he passed, but his life was very much one of value.’
Goddess: The Secret Lives of Marilyn Monroe by Anthony Summers, 1985
The Unabridged Marilyn by Randall Riese & Neal Hitchens, 1987
Marilyn at Twentieth Century Fox by Lawrence Crown, 1987
Marilyn Monroe: The Biography by Donald Spoto, 1992
Marilyn Monroe: Private and Undisclosed by Michelle Morgan, 2012
‘RIP Hal Schaefer’ by Michelle Morgan
‘Marilyn Monroe: Vocalist’, Collier’s, 1954
New York Times obituary
Los Angeles Times obituary
BWW Music World obituary