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Dave Frishberg, songwriter with a gimlet eye and a tender heart, has died at 88

A publicity photo of singer-songwriter Dave Frishberg, who died on Nov. 17 at 88.
A publicity photo of singer-songwriter Dave Frishberg, who died on Nov. 17 at 88.

“The older I get, the more I’m convinced that everything really used to be better.” So declared songwriter and pianist Dave Frishberg, , who died on Nov. 17 at his home in Portland, Ore. He was 88.

In dozens of much-covered songs released on more than 20 albums, Frishberg — slight, balding, and professorial — aired his bemused sense of a world in which materialism reigned and authenticity had crumbled. “Seems like all the dreamers ran out of dreams and nothing feels the same / It’s such a pity, it’s such a shame,” he sang in “Wheelers and Dealers.” His nasal voice had skepticism built in; his blunt, stabbing piano was the sound of discontent.

Yet most of the time, he kept the laughs coming. “I’m Hip” lampoons a cliché hipster: “I’m deep into Zen, meditation, and macrobiotics / And as soon as I can, I intend to get into narcotics.” In “Do You Miss New York?” he ponders the mixed emotions of those who, like himself, had traded Manhattan for the Los Angeles good life: “Do you miss the thrill, the subways, the schlepping? / Is it second nature still to watch where you are stepping?”

Do You Miss New York? (Vocal)

It was in New York that Frishberg — a boogie-woogie and swing fanatic and a journalism major from St. Paul, Minn. — had plunged into the fast lane of modern jazz. So well did he play piano that he found himself accompanying one marquee name after another: Carmen McRae, Anita O’Day, Ben Webster, Al Cohn, Zoot Sims. In 1962, while conducting for crooner Dick Haymes and his bombshell wife, Fran Jeffries, he wrote her a song, “Peel Me a Grape,” based on a Mae West wisecrack. Though Jeffries never sang it, Blossom Dearie and Cleo Laine did, and with Dearie’s encouragement he pressed on as a songwriter.

By the '70s he had shyly begun a career as a singer-songwriter; for him it meant upholding a level of sophistication that seemed far out of step with the times. The elite jazz-cabaret singers — Jackie & Roy, Sue Raney, Susannah McCorkle, his frequent cowriter Bob Dorough, Irene Kral — became his champions. Kral recorded “The Underdog,” a song that crystalized Frishberg’s view of all of them; in it he promised, “Sooner or later, you know every underdog will have his day.”

Pessimistic as he was, he had plenty of them. His albums earned him four Grammy nominations and a spot on the Tonight show. Mary Tyler Moore introduced a song he had written for her, “Listen Here,” on one of her TV specials. He opened for Bing Crosby in what turned out to be the star’s last concert. Frishberg wrote for the hit TV series Schoolhouse Rock — for a generation or two, his signature achievement is a tuneful civics lesson titled “I’m Just a Bill,” sung by Jack Sheldon — and he played top-flight clubs. In 1997, Diana Krall included “Peel Me a Grape” on Love Scenes, a No. 1 jazz album that yielded him a hefty payoff.

I'm Just a Bill - Schoolhouse Rock

From underneath his deftly voiced cynicism, a heart peeped through. “You Are There,” with music by the jazz arranger and film composer Johnny Mandel, found Frishberg haunted by the ghost of a loved one who reappears “in a garden, when I stop to touch a rose and feel the petal soft and sweet against my nose.”

Toward the end of his career, he braved a few boos as he performed his ultimate elegy:

My country used to be / Land of productivity / We stocked the store / Now we make paper trails / And profits from secret sales / And then when all else fails / We concoct a war