One song. You just need one song (if you’re a songwriter, of course!) to enter legend. One moment of magic, of miracle, of sparkling creativity and your tune turns to be timeless and sung by generations. You may be longing all your life for that moment or it can occur at the most unexpected of times. For Mel Leven (November 11 1914 – December 17 2007), it was just on his way to presenting to Walt Disney his latest demos for One Hundred and One Dalmatians.
But that’s not for us to tell you the story of how Cruella de Vil turned out to become one of the most famous classic Disney tunes ever. William Leven, son of the late songwriter and lyricist, is certain the most able person to do that, and to share with us his memories of his beloved father.
And so follows an homage to both a true master songwriter and a great man.
Animated Views: Can you tell me about your father’s debut?
William Leven: He started playing the piano when he was about eight years old. He wrote his first song when he was a little boy, when he was eight or nine, I think. He was always involved with music. As a little boy, he was an usher in one of the big theaters in Chicago and being that he was a child of the Depression. He had to work like everybody else so, even though he may have written songs, he had to do that for the living. So, what happened is time went on, Dad met my Mom, he was in the Air Force, and then they traveled around the country. Even though they did that he was always writing. One day my Mom said: “why don’t we quit this job, go to Hollywood and see what we can do?” And that’s what happened.
AV: Why did they choose to go to L.A. rather than to New York, which was also a great place for songwriters, especially around Tin Pan Alley?
WL: Oh, very interesting. Well, you know what, he just knew that most the show business was there. And he liked California, he liked the weather. There was a lot of writing going on there and there were quite a few famous composers in L.A. at the time also. If you remember, L.A. was very popular for its contemporary music and a lot of recording studios were on the West Coast. One of the things that Dad did – and I remember this very much – my father, early on, he didn’t have a piano. He couldn’t afford a piano. So, Dad played all his songs and pitched them on a ukulele! Dad went around town and I remember Dad every day leaving early in the morning and out till the afternoon, going to every publisher, pitching songs, writing songs. This went on for many, many years. He had hits. He wrote tremendous songs for Nat King Cole like Tell Me All About Yourself, a great song. At that time, Nat was on Mercury Records. Well, Dad wrote the song which was gonna be their title song and the week after that, Nat King Cole switched to Capital. And Capital didn’t do anything with that song which was an incredible tune! He also wrote for one of Jerry Lewis’ shows. He wrote for a lot of people.
AV: He wrote a lot of songs in the jazz style. Can you tell me about his love for jazz?
WL: Growing up in Chicago, he had a lot of great jazz clubs. I remember him going to all these great clubs seeing all the great jazz players. Dad told me many times that in the 20s, he’d be hanging around a jazz club or whatever it is and he’d see Al Capone coming by. That was back on that time! Dad was very much an aficionado of good musicianship. He had no real formal music education till he went to Los Angeles, when he went to Westlink school of music and he graduated. But before that, everything was just by ear. He learned to play and he wrote songs.
AV: What were his favorite subjects for songs?
WL: Dad, even though he was a great songwriter, he also loved nature very much. He was very much an outdoors person. And not only outdoors, but outdoors with kids, ok? So, he wrote a lot of things for Disney that tended to kids for the Disneyland TV shows like Little Ranger. As a matter of fact, just so you know, here in the United States, there are two holidays that a couple of small towns celebrate. One is Hinckley Ridge. Every year, the buzzard come back to that town and Dad wrote a song about that that became their theme song. Every year, the kids march on the street and sing that! Dad also wrote a song about the monarch butterfly regarding their migration and when they come to another town, the kids also march through town singing my Dad’s song. Many years ago, he did songs for a series called The Big Blue Marble, too.
AV: How did he come to animation?
WL: That was very, very early on. In the 50s, UPA was the avant-garde group of animators in Hollywood. They had a lot of tremendous talented people. Actually, they’d heard of him and they called him in to do some things. Dad wrote two songs for two shorts that UPA did and they both were nominated for Academy Awards. Dad specialized in cute material. He understood the English language and was able to turn a phrase very, very well, so he was a very good lyricist.
AV: Indeed, some times, like on Babes In Toyland, he’s just credited as a lyricist, not as a songwriter.
WL: That is correct. On Babes In Toyland, Dad did the libretto. Whereas on One Hundred and One Dalmatians, all the songs were his.
AV: How did you Dad come to Disney?
WL: By word of mouth. They’d heard of him. Some of the animators that he had working with at UPA were working at Disney, now, and so they suggested to Walt to get this guy!
AV: During his time at Disney, Mel Leven worked a lot with George Bruns.
WL: George Bruns mostly did the orchestrations of my Dad’s songs and I don’t think that Dad disliked him! He had a good working relationship with everybody.
AV: He also did a few things with Disney Legend Ward Kimball.
WL: Yes, he did, and I met Ward Kimball quite a few times. Actually, I was at his house. He was very much a miniature train collector and he had a lot of antiques and things like this. I’ll tell you a story. One of the things that Disney did and Dad was very upset about was that they put Ward Kimball’s name on one of my Dad’s songs when he had nothing to do with it. Walt Disney didn’t like one person working alone and getting full credit. My father, even though he like Ward Kimball, was very upset about that.
AV: How old were you when you father came to Disney?
WL: I think I was at Junior High. I was maybe twelve years old, if I remember correctly.
AV: So, what was it like to have your father working at Disney?
WL: Well, I was very, very proud of that! Dad was a pretty low-key guy. He was a very normal kind of guy but we were all very proud of him. You know, besides being a great songwriter, one of the things that Dad did at Disney was teaching kids about the outdoors and natural life. That’s why Dad’s song are very much connected to nature. That was a big part of my father. He was world-class fisherman and when he retired, he spent most of his time fishing. But he always kept writing. As a matter of fact, a few weeks before he passed away, he had submitted five songs to Disney. He was writing till the very end, just sitting down at his piano and writing!
AV: Did he play his songs for Disney at home?
WL: Oh absolutely. As a matter of fact, Dad, a lot of times, when I was a little kid, I was hearing him playing and he said: “come here for a second. What do you think of this?” And he played songs that would later become hits on the radio!
AV: What do you remember from that time when your father was working on One Hundred and One Dalmatians?
WL: Actually, one of the songs Dad was very proud of was the Kanine Krunchies commercial that the dogs sing. He loved that little tune. It only took him a few minutes to write it down and take to Walt, who said that was a great idea. And that came to be that adorable little tune you can hear as the dogs are watching TV.
AV: Can you tell me about the song he’s the most famous for, Cruella de Vil?
WL: One very interesting story is that dad wrote two versions of Cruella de Vil that he was going to sing to Walt. Their was a slight delay the day of his meeting with Walt of about 15 minutes and dad had not been happy with the two versions he was going to sing, he should have another version. In that 15 minutes (in the meeting room and on the meeting room piano) he wrote a blues version, and it was that blues version that Walt liked, and that was the version that became world famous!
AV: Your Dad wasn’t just working in the field of music, was he?
WL: For a long time, a lot of people don’t know this, Dad did voiceshops. He was the voice of the Folgers coffee bean and the voice of Crackle for Kellogg’s Rice Crispies.
AV: What is your favorite song that your father wrote?
WL: I’ll tell you what, that was a song that was never published. It’s one of the most beautiful songs I’ve ever heard in my life. The lyrics were by my father and the song was written by someone he teamed up with and the name of the song was Met You Once Before. It’s an absolutely gorgeous melody.
AV: If there was just one thing you’d like to be remember about your father, what would that be?
WL: Actually, the best way to sum up Dad is that my father loved people. He gave very much of himself on that regard. He loved kids, he taught kids how to behave. My father was an environmentalist long before that became a popular thing. There is no way to just sum up my Dad. He was someone who loved life, loved kids and enjoyed the beauty of life.
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Our special appreciation to Bill Leven for this interview and for sharing with us some photos of his father from his personal collection.