Dave Frishberg

The legendary songwriter, pianist, and singer Dave Frishberg died on Wednesday here in his adopted hometown of Portland. He was 88.

Frishberg was one of the greatest songwriters that ever lived. He wrote in the style of jazz, cabaret, or American standard, and he did so masterfully. The melodies are complex but catchy, and the lyrics, which range from quirky to profound, are of the highest caliber. His heroes included Frank Loesser, and Frishberg was in the same league. He had a way with words that rivaled any journalist, and his clever songs bring a laugh, a smile, or a tear as effectively as those of Dorothy Fields, Yip Harburg, or Johnny Mercer.

Many great singers knew right away, as soon as thy heard them, that they wanted to perform Frishberg's songs. And interestingly, a lot of them are women: Rosemary Clooney, Diana Krall, Blossom Dearie, Stacy Kent, Jessica Molaskey.

As the obituaries are all saying, Dave's tunes are often hysterically funny, and if you were lucky enough to catch him performing them live, which he didn't do often enough, you found yourself laughing, out loud and frequently, throughout the show. "I'm Hip," "Z's," "My Attorney Bernie," "Blizzard of Lies," the list goes on quite a ways. His rejected theme for "Jaws" is one of the most hilarious songs you will ever hear.

A second category of Frishberg songs, which is just as appealing, finds Frishberg reflecting thoughtfully on some subject or other that he loved. "Zoot Walked In," "Another Song About Paris," "Swan Song," "Quality Time," and the baseball doubleheader "Van Lingle Mungo" and "Dodger Blue" – you won't laugh from too deep down in your belly, but you'll chuckle here and there while you're thinking along with Dave.

But for me the best of the Frishberg catalog are the ballads, which stop me in my tracks now and then, even after I have listened to them hundreds of times. Songs like "Heart's Desire," "Listen Here," "Sweet Kentucky Ham" – they stir up the emotions like few others can. The soul of this extremely witty person had a lot going on in it.

Dave's songs speak for themselves, and they will for many decades, but if you want to examine some of them more closely, seek out his live albums, where he presents them on solo piano. At least a couple of such records are easy to locate on the streaming services. His spoken introductions to each number reveal a lot about the tunes, and about the man who wrote them.

The obituaries all include mention of the numbers Frishberg wrote for the television series "Schoolhouse Rock." A generation grew up learning about the world through songs like "I'm Just a Bill" and "Walking on Wall Street." Those came a little after my time as a kid, but listening to them now, I can't help but admire, on top of everything else, what a good teacher Dave was.

I met him a couple of times. The first time, I sought him out on some ordinary weeknight when he was playing solo piano in the bar at Pazzo's restaurant downtown. Dave used to do weeknight gigs, where he would just play, not sing, with the goal of his keeping his piano skills, which were formidable though self-taught, in shape. I had read about him in the New York Times. At the first break, I approached him and said hello. I actually didn't know much about his music at that point, and I'm sure I appeared quite the idiot, but he was kind and gentle as we chatted for a couple of minutes.

A while later, I caught wind that he was actually going to sing his songs at the Heathman Hotel, which he did once a year. The Mrs. and I got down there for an amazing show, and an autograph afterward. Once again, Dave was most gracious. It was a special night.

Not being a music critic, and being a huge fan, make it hard for me to put down in words here how sure I am that you should give Frishberg an audition. His songs are not everyone's cup of tea, and they might not be yours. But if you're like me, you may never stop listening to them once you start.

Dave's passing, while not unexpected, has left many of us staring into a big hole. It's less of a world without his being around to share his keen observations about it. But we have the recordings, and the songs, and thank heavens, those can't be taken away. 

Listen here, old friend. 

Listen here, dummy.

Listen here.


  1. You have a talent for the eulogies. Beautiful, thank you.

  2. Thanks for the fond remembrance. I had never run across him, and went to listen. What a fertile, original, creative voice. I knew one song, 'Van Lingle Mungo,' which is old-time ballplayers' names set to music. When I was growing up in Chicago, Ray Rayner was the local tv kid entertainer par excellence, playing Bozo, and doing a wonderful manic morning show with his friend Chelveston the duck. He loved that song, and would sing it a capella on the show from time to time.


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