Sunday morning coming down: Philip Furia, RIP

On Friday we received the sad news that University of North Carolina-Wilmington Professor of English Philip Furia had died at the age of 75. Professor Furia died on April 3 following a fall at his home in Wilmington. The news came to us via Professor Furia’s friend Tony L. Hill, who is aware of the many acknowledgements of my debt to Professor Furia’s work deepening our understanding of American popular music. I asked Dr. Hill if he could provide additional information to color in the details of Professor Furia’s career. Dr. Hill has a Ph.D. in political science from MIT and is currently working on the political history of Minneapolis for publication. He graciously responded to my request to fill in the background on Philip Furia with this personal remembrance, for which I am most grateful:

Phil was a professor of American literature in English. His M.A. was from the University of Chicago and his Ph.D. from the University of Iowa. He specialized in poetry of the early 20th century: Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, etc. In 1983-84, he was a visiting professor in Austria.

As background for his American literature courses, he taught his students about the culture of early 20th century America. They asked him about the popular songs of the day. He said he didn’t know anything about the popular songs of that time. Then he realized that the popular standards he’d enjoyed all his life WERE the popular songs of the early 20th century. So he played for his students tapes (yes, tapes) that he had with him in Austria of Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, and others singing the witty, urbane lyrics of Cole Porter, Ira Gershwin, Lorenz Hart, Irving Berlin, and their contemporaries.

When he returned to Minneapolis, he outlined a book that would analyze the song lyrics of this period. He worked on it for many years. His department colleagues and people who knew something about the music business told him that his book would never be published, because the music publishers still controlled the rights to those songs and they wouldn’t give him permission to quote the lyrics with the intensity he was doing in the drafts of what became The Poets of Tin Pan Alley that they had seen.

Of course, copyright law grants permission for scholars, critics and commentators to use copyrighted material under the Fair Use doctrine. But Fair Use is fuzzily defined, and publishers generally don’t want to take the risk of aggressive Fair Use versus incurring a lawsuit from Irving Berlin, Warner Brothers, or the like. The penalties and legal costs are simply too steep in light of the relatively small profit to be made from a book like Phil’s.

Phil was emboldened when Gerald Mast published Can’t Help Singing. The chapter on Irving Berlin made aggressive Fair Use and no permission was sought from Berlin (who was still alive at 99). Furia contacted Mast and asked how he did it. Mast said he simply decided that he could quote four lines of a typical sixteen line song and that was Fair Use. Berlin brought no lawsuit against Mast (who was soon dead from AIDS). A review of case law under Fair Use will show that many of the decisions made about Fair Use involve relatively trivial uses, e.g. 19 words being quoted without permission from a 2000 word article. This makes a claim of Fair Use to four lines of a 16-line song very aggressive.

I have done extensive research of my own on popular music, particularly that of Irving Berlin. In 1988, in advance of the occasion of Berlin’s 100th birthday, I submitted a manuscript to Billboard detailing the history of Berlin’s songs on the pop music charts. (A compiler of such charts had recently extrapolated them back to 1890, well before Berlin wrote his first song in 1907.)

Billboard said my manuscript was too long. In 1989, after a visit to the Library of Congress, I spoke to a professor in the English department who said I had some material that would be useful to Phil’s research and that I should contact him. Soon Phil and I were good friends. He used material I shared with him to revise the Berlin chapter, and he asked me to critically review it. He thought my review was thorough enough that he asked me to review the rest of the manuscript.

At about this same time, Phil had a proposal for The Poets of Tin Pan Alley in to Oxford University Press, which is perhaps the most prestigious name in academic publishing. Oxford was interested in the book, but they made it clear that they were not interested in aggressive Fair Use as Mast had done. They would only publish it if Phil would obtain permission from the publishers of the hundreds of songs that he analyzed in the book.

This was a monumental undertaking for Phil. Keep in mind that many songs have gotten divided ownership over the years, so it was not a matter of one-stop permission seeking. There were people who had to be tracked down who owned a one-fifth interest in particular songs.

The most momentous part of this was approaching Irving Berlin. Berlin was the most conservative entity in all of popular music when it came to permission for using his works. He did not consign his songs to being reprinted in sheet music collections. He did not allow his songs to be used for advertising jingles. He was wealthy enough that he was able to turn down multi-million dollar offers to use his song titles as movie titles. His policy for quoting lyrics was to allow authors to quote one line from one song.

So in mid-1989, Phil sent his permission request to the Berlin office along with a draft of his chapter. Soon he heard from Berlin’s lawyer, Theodore Jackson. Jackson stated the office’s one line from one song policy. Phil was dumbstruck at learning this. But he didn’t have to say anything. “But what you have written is very good, Professor, and I think we will allow this.”

The piece de resistance is that Berlin didn’t even want any money to give Phil permission. This was unheard of. A lawyer for Oxford who had dealt with the obstreperous Berlin in the past refused to believe that Berlin had granted permission AND FOR FREE until he had seen the contract.

Although there was no evidence that Berlin himself had anything to do with this permission, Phil liked to believe he was in on it. In any event, a few weeks after Phil submitted the final manuscript to Oxford, Berlin died at age 101.

The other publishers were not as generous as Berlin, but they agreed to a small fee for permission as long as no one else got more. Oxford agreed to pay the single largest permission payment, for about 100 songs, as part of the publishing deal.

When the book came out in September 1990, Phil hired me as his publicist. I arranged for him to appear on The Larry King Show (radio), and for the book to be reviewed on Entertainment Tonight and in the Minneapolis Star Tribune and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. (An unfriendly review appeared in the New York Times, but I’d like to think that would have happened without my publicity efforts.)

At about this same time, Phil began teaching a course in American popular song lyrics in the English department at the University of Minnesota. Next came Ira Gershwin: The Art of the Lyricist, also published by Oxford.

In 1999, Phil was commissioned by Gale Research to edit a volume of the Dictionary of Literary Biography, which would be about song lyricists of the early 20th century. I am proud that Phil hired me to write Irving Berlin (the longest entry in the book) and also Paul Francis Webster (“Love Is a Many Splendored Thing,” “The Shadow of Your Smile”), Ned Washington (“When You Wish Upon a Star,” “High Noon,” “My Foolish Heart”), and Mitchell Parish (“Stardust,” “Deep Purple,” “Volare”).

In the late 1990s and into the 2000s, there was a flurry of writing about Irving Berlin. Phil came out with Irving Berlin: A Life in Song. I was not involved in this book, but Phil cited some of the research I had shared with him when we first met. I read the book and liked it very much.

When Phil asked my opinion of it, I said I would reserve judgment until I read the other Berlin biography that came out about the same time. It had been written by a musicologist who had actually known Berlin, at least a little. This book did not live up to its author’s reputation. It was filled with stories that didn’t go anyplace, anecdotes that didn’t connect to anything, and long tangents into military history which had approximately nothing to do with the life and work of Irving Berlin. I had no problem telling Phil that his was the best of the recent Berlin biographies.

Phil was always an admirer of the straightforward, witty lyrics of Johnny Mercer. Like Irving Berlin, Mercer was an American stalwart who eschewed continental pretentiousness. Phil contrasted Mercer as an “outdoor” writer (who wrote about trains, rivers, walking through parks, etc.) with Cole Porter, the master “indoor” writer (who wrote about rich people, New Yorkers, etc.). As a transplant to the South — Phil grew up in Pittsburgh and relocated from Minneapolis to Wilmington, N.C. — he could relate to the deep imprint the region had left on Mercer and of course made his home not far from Mercer’s native Savannah.

There’s a story that’s never been told about how Phil’s Johnny Mercer biography came to be. I had gotten to be friends with Gene Lees, a well known music journalist. Gene had gone from being a newspaper reporter (beginning at the Louisville Post) to being editor of Down Beat, probably the most important jazz magazine. He was also a successful songwriter (“Waltz for Debby,” “Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars,” “Someone to Light Up My Life,” “Yesterday I Heard the Rain”).

During this time in his life, he had become good friends with Johnny Mercer. Lees went on to start his own music magazine, the Gene Lees Jazzletter, and he wrote many books about jazz and popular music including biographies of Oscar Peterson, Artie Shaw, and Benny Goodman, all of whom were people he knew. He had always wanted to do a Mercer biography, but the subject seemed to be so close to him that he kept putting it off in favor of other subjects with which he had more detachment. Phil’s agent reported that publishers knew about the possibility of a biography of Mercer by Lees, and that it was one reason they were hesitant to consider Phil’s proposal.

Around 1997, I arranged for Phil and Gene (who was based in Ojai, California) to meet on one of Phil’s trips to see his mother in Los Angeles. At this meeting, Lees told Phil that he didn’t think he would ever do a Mercer biography, and he urged Phil to move forward with his. I never asked Gene why he changed his mind, because within a few months of his meeting with Phil, I found out from Gene that he was going ahead with his own Mercer biography.

At this point, there had never been a Mercer biography, and now it looked like there were going to be two! When I happened to come across tidbits about Mercer in my own research and reading, I would e-mail both of them about it. Around 2001, Phil really dug in, because he wanted to beat Gene into print. He didn’t make it. Lees’s book Portrait of Johnny came out in 2003, and Furia’s Skylark in 2004. (Gene died in 2010.)

When I spoke to Phil around his 75th birthday this past November, he was eager to do an expanded edition of The Poets of Tin Pan Alley to treat a few lyricists who were not covered in the first edition and analyze additional songs by the lyricists who were. Phil was excited that after 20 years of no copyrighted works lapsing into the public domain (see the Sonny Bono Copyright Extension Act of 1998), copyrighted works were going to start lapsing again as of January 1, 2019. He was pleased that every year there would be more songs that he could analyze and quote as much of the lyrics as he wanted to without having to bother with permissions.

Sadly, he did not live to carry this out, except perhaps seeing the songs from 1923 go public on January 1 of this year. His widow Laurie Patterson (herself a faculty member at University of North Carolina-Wilmington) will carry out the remainder of this project.

I have greatly benefited from my association with Phil these past 30 years and am certain he felt the same. His passing is a sad occasion for anyone with an enthusiasm for American popular music (particularly of its golden age from 1911 to about 1960). Professor Furia’s work greatly enhanced popular songs being thought of as works of literature and art suitable for study under the aegis of American literature, on the same terms as the poetry and novels that served as his entree to the English discipline.

UPDATE and CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated the cause of death. We regret the error.

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