For Radio Host Jonathan Schwartz, the Melody Lingers On

By Mervyn Rothstein
11 Apr 2011

His show these days has the same kind of handcrafted quality his childhood dee-jaying must have contained — he seems to be popping CDs in the player for us. Indeed, he lists as his prime radio influences Jean Shepherd and Bob and Ray, past masters of the ad lib, and in fact, he says, his “The Saturday Show” on WNYC-FM and “The Sunday Show” on Sirius XM and WNYC-FM are spur-of-the-moment.

During the week, he has a list. “But on Saturdays and Sundays, when I come into the station, I make it up as I go along. I think about it driving downtown. There might be a particular occasion, something that happened during the week, that I want to address — someone has died, or it’s someone’s birthday, a composer I might want to start with, and then I go from there.” On Sundays, “we have something called a Dalet,” a radio automation system, “that has 16,000 titles and performances, and I have that in front of me.”

Schwartz is a renowned expert on Sinatra — he seems to know every note of every recording, the changes, large or small, in different recorded versions of the same song. There’s even a separate section of Schwartz’s programs devoted to the master. It has also been noted that Sinatra felt that Schwartz knew more about his music than even Ol’ Blue Eyes did.

“He said so himself,” Schwartz recalls. “On the stage of Carnegie Hall. I was there.” 

Why Sinatra? “He was the best I ever heard. Easily the most honest I ever heard. The most rhythmic I’ve ever heard. He sang what I thought.”

 Schwartz still feels this way, he says, even though he once got into a big dispute with his idol. In 1980, Schwartz called one of Sinatra’s records — the third disk of the “Trilogy” album — a “shambles of self regard.” A furious — and powerful and influential — Sinatra called the owner of the station and arranged for Schwartz to be put on “sabbatical,” temporarily separated from his microphone, for a couple of months. (A listening-public uproar on Schwartz’s behalf helped limit the exile.)

“His way of apologizing for that,” Schwartz says, “was introducing me at Carnegie Hall seven years later, saying that this man knows more about me than I do myself, and asking me to stand up and turn around — ‘let ’em see you.’ I was in the third row. It was my constituency, and I got a huge ovation. When I sat down, he said, and I quote, ‘Don’t mess with Jonno, I’m tellin’ ya.’ “

Arthur Schwartz composed with many other famous songwriters — Dietz, Fields, Mercer, Frank Loesser, Cahn, Harburg, Hammerstein. His Broadway shows include The Gay Life, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and Jennie, among others, and his and Dietz’s songbook were the basis of the classic 1953 M-G-M musical “The Band Wagon,” which starred Fred Astaire and drew from Dietz & Schwartz plotless revues including The Band Wagon, Three’s a Crowd, Flying Colors, Between the Devil and Revenge With Music. The Arthur Schwartz songbook includes “By Myself,” “Louisiana Hayride,” “Something to Remember You By,” “Alone Together,” “If There Is Someone Lovelier Than You,” “Haunted Heart,” “Rhode Island Is Famous for You,” “Triplets,” “New Sun in the Sky,” “A Shine On Your Shoes,” “Make the Man Love Me,” “Before I Kiss the World Goodbye,” “Something You Never Had Before” and more.

Jonathan and his half-brother, Paul Schwartz, a conductor and composer, control their father’s creative estate, “but primarily I let Paul do it,” Jonathan says. If they get a request from a producer to use the catalog for a musical, he says, “I just send it off to Paul.” Some years ago there were two long-forgotten Off-Broadway revues of his father’s music, he says, “but they were lousy; they closed quickly.” There was also a San Diego tryout of a new theatrical version of the M-G-M-inspired The Band Wagon — “I knew it was there, but I don’t really follow this stuff.”

On his radio shows, Schwartz doesn’t avoid more modern pop — the Beatles, Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon, Neil Young and others. In part, this is a heritage of his beginnings at WNEW-FM in 1967, in the turbulent 1960s, when his radio focus was on those stars as well as the Rolling Stones, the Doors, the Mamas and Papas, Bob Dylan and Judy Collins, the cutting edge of those years.

But it’s also that he thinks some of these performers “have been able to gain entry into the American Songbook.” He says, “Simon’s ‘Still Crazy After All These Years’ comes to mind. A lot of Joni Mitchell. They expand the American Songbook. And if you don’t expand it, it won’t breathe. There are tremendously gifted musicians who write songs and perform them. Pizzarelli and Molaskey are just remarkable.”

Schwartz was also a cabaret performer, singing and playing the piano in nightclubs like Michael’s Pub for 11 years. But he gave that up in 1988. “My audience ran out,” he says. “I only played in this area. I don’t like the word Ramada.” He stills sings around the house. “My wife” — the actress Zohra Lampert — “thinks I’m quite the singer, but at age 72 I know I’m not quite the singer.”

He ends his radio shows with a song by the superb popular singer Nancy LaMott, who died of cancer at age 44 in 1995 before attaining the popularity she deserved. Why does he do that? “Because,” he says, “I told her I would.”

There’s one crucial topic in his life that Schwartz hasn’t touched on: His love for the Red Sox. The obvious question is, why would a boy growing up in Beverly Hills and Manhattan latch onto the Sox? Well, the answer has to do in part with the theatre.

“My father had a show called Park Avenue (it was a major flop), that he wrote with Ira Gershwin. The show played Boston, and I was brought there. The 1946 World Series was between the Cardinals and the Red Sox, and I was taken to see a game. When I walked into Fenway Park, I thought I had walked into heaven.”

In addition, he says, the Red Sox had the only player who didn’t have a roommate on the road — the legendary Ted Williams. “I didn’t have a roommate. I had no brother or sister at the time. So I identified with Ted Williams.”

With the new baseball season in swing, how does he think the Red Sox will do? “They acquired two major all-stars over the winter, Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford,” he says. In his voice, there is at least as much excitement about the American League race — maybe a touch more — as he has displayed discussing the American Songbook. At this moment, Gonzalez and Crawford might possibly be as important to him as Rodgers and Hammerstein.

“The Red Sox have the best pitching staff,” he says. So if they don’t have too many injuries, “they have a significant chance of winning the World Series.”

Whatever happens to the Red Sox, it’s clear that if there were a World Series for radio announcers, Jonathan Schwartz would be a perennial champion.

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