George David Weiss: Songwriter who worked with Elvis Presley and wrote ‘What A Wonderful World’
Tuesday 23 November 2010
Following his Las Vegas comeback in 1969, Elvis Presley made hundreds of concert appearances during the last eight years of his life. He had a wide repertoire but every concert ended the same way. With every ounce of energy and often with his cape outstretched, he would belt out "Can't Help Falling In Love", written by George David Weiss with the production team, Hugo Peretti and Luigi Creatore (known as Hugo and Luigi).
George David Weiss was born into a Jewish family in Manhattan in 1921. His mother wanted him to be a lawyer, but he set his mind on becoming a musician, attending the Juilliard School of Music and becoming proficient on woodwind and viola. During the war, he served as a military bandleader.
Weiss became a songwriter in the Brill Building, at first working with Bennie Benjamin. They had success with "Surrender" (1946), recorded by Perry Como and Woody Herman, and "Confess" (1948), recorded by Doris Day, Patti Page and Tony Martin. One of their compositions, "I Don't See Me In Your Eyes Anymore", initially for Perry Como, was a US country hit for Charlie Rich in 1974.
In 1952, Weiss added words to George Shearing's "Lullaby of Birdland", which was then recorded by Ella Fitzgerald, Mel Tormé and Sarah Vaughan. The lyric is credited to BY Forster, a ruse which enabled Weiss to be affiliated to both American songwriting organisations, ASCAP and BMI.
Weiss wrote two early 1950s successes for Kay Starr, "I'll Never Be Free" and "Wheel Of Fortune", but he sethis sights on Broadway, contributing to Mr Wonderful (1956), where Sammy Davis Jr introduced his song, "TooClose For Comfort". Peggy Lee won a gold disc for her recording of the title song. Although Weiss was involved with three other Broadway musicals,his commercial success lay in individual compositions.
In 1961, he wrote an English lyric, "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" for an African chant, "Wimoweh" and it became a multi-million selling single for the Tokens. Weiss probably didn't think he was doing anything controversial, but the original tune had been written by Solomon Linda in 1939 who had received nothing for his work. The song was a UK No 1 for Tight Fit in 1982 and was used in the Disney stage-show of The Lion King. During a TV documentary in the 1990s, Weiss was elusive on this matter, which was not resolved until 2004 with annual payments to Linda's two daughters.
Many Brill Building writers were asked to submit songs for Elvis Presley's films. With Hugo and Luigi, Weiss had success with the title song for Wild in the Country (1961). Weiss was intrigued by the music box that Presley gave to an old lady in Blue Hawaii. Taking the folk song, "Plasir d'Amour" as the starting point, they wrote the delightfully low-key "Can't Help Falling In Love".
Although a highlight of the film, it was released as the B-side to the much inferior "Rock-A-Hula Baby". Early in 1962, both sides were listed when it topped the charts. Presley upped the tempo when he performed the song in concert and it was a hit again for Andy Williams (1970) and the Stylistics (1976).
The Stylistics were produced by Hugo and Luigi, and Weiss was a co-writer on many of their hit records including "Let's Put It All Together" (1974), "Can't Give You Anything (But My Love)" (1975) and "Na-Na Is The Saddest Word" (1975).
Weiss wrote "Apron Strings" (Cliff Richard, 1959), "Hey Little Lucy" (Conway Twitty, 1959) and "A Walkin' Miracle" (The Essex, 1963). In 1968, Louis Armstrong had an international hit with his gooey but well-intentioned "What a Wonderful World", which was also featured to stunning effect in Good Morning, Vietnam (1987). By way of contrast, he wrote the intense soul ballad "Stay With Me Baby" with Jerry Ragovoy. It was first recorded by Lorraine Ellison in 1966 and was successful for the Walker Brothers, David Essex, Ruby Turner and, last year, Duffy.
As president of the Songwriters Guild of America, Weiss testified to Congress on copyright law. It was ironic in view of his ongoing problems with "The Lion Sleeps Tonight", but it was also fulfilling what his mother wanted for him.
George David Weiss, songwriter: born New York City 9 April 1921; married three times (three sons, one daughter); died Oldwich, New Jersey 23 August 2010.
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