IN composing a song, which comes first -- the words or the music? ``The phone call,'' quips lyricist Sammy Cahn, with an impish smile that makes him look like a well-tailored leprechaun in a natty blue blazer and light-brown trousers.
``The phone rings, and maybe Frank Sinatra will say, `I'm doing a film called ``The Tender Trap,'' and we need a title song.' I'm not walking around thinking of songs about `The Tender Trap.' What am I going to do with a song called `The Tender Trap' unless someone asks for it?''
That crucial phone call has come many times to this legendary wordsmith, whose verses ring down the decades of America's popular culture in songs like ``High Hopes,'' ``All the Way,'' ``My Kind of Town,'' and ``Teach Me Tonight'' -- to pick a random few from a staggering list that includes those two anthems to GI homesickness in World War II, ``I'll Walk Alone'' and ``It's Been a Long, Long Time.'' When Sammy's autobiographical show, ``Words and Music'' -- which had been a hit on Broadway -- opened in London in the '70s, one British writer found himself coming to ``the astonishing realization that I had more of the words of Sammy Cahn in my head than of Shakespeare's.''
Along the way, Sammy has picked up four (not a misprint) Oscars and is the only person ever awarded an Emmy for a song (``Love and Marriage''). As recently as this month, the Tony Awards on TV featured songs from the 1947 Broadway show ``High Button Shoes,'' with lyrics by Cahn and music by Jule Styne.
Although Sammy may wait for phone calls, his motives are not purely commercial. ``I write for the sheer joy of writing,'' he explains, as we chat in his hotel suite. He has come to Boston to receive an award from the Anti-Defamation League's New England region.
``Music speaks to me. I don't write a song as much as the song writes me. I can play you a melody, and you can think of a thousand -- not a thousand, a million -- word combinations to that string of notes. It's limitless.''
But his gift -- one of many that lie with unnoticed grace behind the deceptively plain idiom of his lyrics -- is finding words that combine so naturally with the tune that you can't think of one without the other.
``It has to sing,'' Sammy stresses about lyrics. ``How does it sing out of the mouth? A poem reads; a lyric sings. And it doesn't matter how intelligent it is, how grammatical it is.''
Cahn almost always goes over to the composer's place and works on a typewriter made for him by IBM with a special upper-case level. The composer sits at the piano.
``First of all, I have to listen,'' Sammy says. ``I never fight a lyric. If it doesn't come with ease, I don't write it.'' The whole process usually takes about three hours. Sammy scorns the idea of poetic inspiration, or of verses coming to him in the middle of the night. ``The fellow who pays me doesn't have to be inspired to pay me,'' he points out, ``so I don't have to be inspired to write.''
Nowadays Sammy applies his creative techniques to what he calls ``special lyrics for special occasions,'' which means he'll adapt one of his classics -- if the money's right -- for a client. For top AT&T executives at an important company function, for instance, Sammy had the audacity to turn his familiar ``Time After Time'' lyrics into ``Time after time, I take the normal dime/ And try to make a normal call./ I hear the coin drop, the tone begin and stop./ Then a lonely silence and that's all.'' The corporate brass loved it.
Such reworked verses pop up during the many special appearances he makes these days, in which audiences experience the shock of delighted recognition as he sings song after song from his list of ``credentials,'' as he calls them in his act.
The penchant for reworking lyrics began a long time ago for Sammy. When he was a 14-year-old, he used to amuse himself by parodying popular songs of the day while working in a meatpacking plant. His parents had immigrated to New York's Lower East Side from Poland, but he entertains no romantic notions about what motivates the residents of that impoverished cradle of creative talent: ``I think it's the need to get out of there.''
For some 15 years he played violin in a small touring orchestra, and, as he arrived one evening for an engagement near Atlantic City, he noticed a sign reading ``Restricted clientele.'' ``What's that mean?'' he asked his fellow musicians. ``That means,'' they said, ``that we're going to paint a mustache on you, and for tonight your name is Clementi.''
The fact he had to pretend he was Italian -- that merely having a Jewish name would have barred him from the job -- has stuck with Sammy all his life and accounts for his willingness to aid causes like the Anti-Defamation League. ``Even today,'' he says of those attitudes, ``it isn't fun. So I've always been ready whenever the chance comes to stand up and be counted.''
He's equally outspoken about today's pop-music scene, in which he sees great creative advances and also some unpleasant -- even dangerous -- signs. ``The word imagery is very, very exciting compared to what it used to be in the `Moon-June' days,'' he feels. ``Take the Lionel Richie or Stevie Wonder songs. If you listen hard, there's music and meaning. I call them `M & Ms.' Wherever there's both music and meaning, you listen.''
But some of today's harder rock -- which he calls ``the noise'' -- is emphatically not in that category, in Sammy's opinion. There's no reason, he says, a point cannot be expressed with delicacy instead of the heavy-handedness of some current lyrics.
``I remember when I was a very, very young man we had what they called the `novelty songs' -- but there was always the ballad. And even in these times there is the ballad. Nothing replaces words and music. Noise subsides, music lingers.''
The same inescapable principle applies to the theater, Sammy feels. ``On Broadway the big hit has been `The King and I,' by Rodgers and Hammerstein. Before that `My One and Only,' by the Gershwins.'' This indicates that when you come to a theater, you come to hear the sounds of the theater. The sounds of the theater are very special. The great waltz song, for instance, or the great polka sound.
``People go to the theater to hear that sound, and if you don't give it to them they feel they've been cheated. If they want to hear any other sound they can go to discos, ballrooms, or wherever. But when they go to the theater and you ask them to pay upwards of $90 for a pair of tickets, you'd better give them what they've come for.''
As so often in the past, Sammy Cahn is ready to prove his words -- he's in the middle of writing the lyrics for a prospective Broadway show with composer Charles Strauss, who also did ``Annie.'' It's about the life of the great black dancer Bill Robinson, better known as Bojangles. Remarks Sammy, ``As I keep saying to Strauss, who's my junior -- I don't know who isn't actually my junior -- let's write theater songs.''
He has also recently turned his hand to TV commercials, and he plays a tape for me of some skillfully contrived lyrics he's hoping American Airlines will buy for a new campaign.
And lots of his already familiar lines can be heard on the tube plugging other products to which he's sold the rights to certain songs. Meanwhile, Sammy is the current president of the Song Writers Hall of Fame and serves on the board of ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers).
With all this -- not to mention his role as father and grandfather -- he finds little time for leisure. ``I've got the greatest hobby in the world,'' he asserts. ``I write songs. One critic said of me, `It's a pleasure to see a man doing something he likes to do so much and making a living at it.' ''