Van Dyke Parks by Van Dyke Parks
Established on January 3, 1943,
in Hattiesburg, Mississippi.
I'm the fourth son of a neurologist/psychiatrist, nurtured musically from the get-go.
My first instrument, the clarinet (using the Albert system). With that, I always sat first chair. My brothers played trumpet, French horn, and doublebarrel euphonium. Each Advent season, we hit the neighborhood with Noels.
I peaked in the '50s.
At age nine, I boarded at the Columbus Boychoir School (now the American Boychoir) near Princeton, New Jersey, ushering in an intense musical immersion that lasted from 1952 to 1957. Princeton and surrounding woodlands were a rapture. In town, I sang 'Stille Nacht' for Einstein, who returned to the porch and played a lilting obligato.
I'm amazed that a boychoir classmate I met in Holland almost sixty years later, corroborated that chance encounter, reminding me about the added hour of music in the Einstein kitchen. Corroborative witness dissolves with the decades.
Of course, seeing the doctor sitting behind me in 3-D glasses (during a movie screening of Vincent Price's House of Wax, 1953) was no less astonishing. Although I'd met a real genius, simply bright and gifted people (like Brian Wilson, for whom I wrote lyrics for Smile) are given equal civility.
Acting in over eighty live television shows (The Honeymooners, Studio One, Philco Playhouse, Mr Peepers, Kraft Theater), it all helped pay my tuition at music school. The first of these, a one-season Bonino. I was hired for four episodes, but invited to stay for fourteen more.
In theater, I acted (with Maureen Stapleton and Eli Wallach) in The Cold Wind and the Warm, by S. N. Behrman (director Harold Clurman; lights, Joe Melziner). That production, about a Jewish immigrant boy growing up in a Massachusetts ghetto, also enjoyed Sanford Meisner and Maurice Karnovsky (finest exponent of Yiddish Theater). Newcomer Suzanne Pleshette had a cameo role.
Legit theater was amazing then, in musical theater as well.
In 1952, I'd gotten my Social Security card, while playing a street urchin in La Boheme at the Met (with Victoria de las Ángeles and Sir Thomas Beecham). In 1954, as the shortest soprano among the Cherubim, I was conducted by Arturo Toscanini. The piece was Boito's 'Mefistofele Prologue', at Carnegie Hall. In those days — with possible exception of singer Florence Foster Jenkins — Carnegie Hall couldn't be bought. It took talent. Backstage after the show, a few of us were invited to the maestro's dressing room. He was watching a prize fight on black-and-white television, drinking beer.
In 1954, I took up piano studies in earnest at age eleven. Amahl made its TV debut that year, and schoolmate Chet Allen played the title role (I succeeded him at the New York City Opera, directed by Thomas Schippers). In 1955, I was featured in MGM's The Swan, with Grace Kelly and Alec Guinness. I had my first lunch with them at Musso-Frank, near the Chateau Marmont, where I roomed directly accross the hall from Eartha Kitt. She had a butterfly screen and opened her door in a peignoir. Those glorious 1950s!
In 1957, I returned to California, to appear in Fanny, at LA's Civic Light Opera. That year, I also went to Germany to act in a film called Heidi.
Early admission to Carnegie Tech to study composition was short lived, for in 1962, seeking a hiatus, I came to California to sing up and down the coast in coffee houses with my brother Carson. (It's said that Carson wrote 'Something Stupid'. Actually, he wrote smart. I wrote songs that deserve a bailout of their own. We'll avoid them tonight.)
In 1963, I got my first arranging job ('The Bare Necessities' for Disney's Jungle Book movie). It was through the compassionate regard of songwriter Terry Gilkyson. He knew that my brother and I needed to buy air fare and two black suits, to attend our brother's funeral. This town has produced heroes. Terry was one of 'em.
The 1960s were tough on all of us.
Surviving the Beach Boys, I plunged ahead in 1968 with my own album, soon producing debut albums by Ry Cooder and Randy Newman, etc. In the 1970s, I started the first audio/visual department at a record company, seeking a new income stream for artists.
Studio dates, productions and arrangements followed with diligent pursuit. All of that, a Google away (if this doesn't get me validated exiting the lot). Yet, I maintain my best work is ahead of me. Lest I get ahead of you, my heart will be in the work.
Van Dyke Parks, November 2011