His Greatest Love of All. Songwriter Michael Masser gave up a successful Wall Street career to be true to his creative spirit
LOS ANGELES — MICHAEL MASSER is a creative artist whose thoughts swirl with hit songs waiting to be written down. ``When I hear music now, it doesn't go away too fast in my mind,'' he says, thrusting a silver spoon into a bowl of hot oatmeal at 2 p.m. ``Sometimes it takes days..., or, if I get in the studio and get intense, the song will stay with me forever....''
Songwriting for Mr. Masser is listening to that internal voice and turning it into words and notes that touch people.
You realize this when you look around the high-ceilinged living room at gold and platinum records: ``Touch Me in the Morning'' and ``Theme from Mahogany'' (Diana Ross); ``Tonite I Celebrate My Love'' (Roberta Flack); ``Didn't We Almost Have It All'' and ``Saving All My Love'' (Whitney Houston); ``The Greatest Love of All'' (George Benson). Perhaps a dozen more.
Question: Where does the inspiration for all these songs come from?
``It can keep you up at night,'' says Masser. ``So I guess I'm reaching that place where I'm pretty vulnerable to it. It's a double-edged sword. At one point, though, I was breaking in, and I wasn't as open, perhaps, emotionally, and as sensitive - like, I became the things I was running from.
``What I've done - I've become more abstract, I think.''
Welcome to the non-linear musical mind of ex-Manhattan stockbroker Michael Masser. If the apparent anarchy of his explanation suggests a bit of eccentricity, remember that song list of more hits than you can shake a Grammy at. How he does it is hard for him to describe, but his more-hits-than-misses musical marksmanship suggests that his risk-taking and unorthodoxy are more than mere creative whimsy.
``Michael is one of the major forces in music today because of his uncanny ability to build melodies and harmonies,'' says David Chackler, the chief executive officer of Sounds of Film, a film-music supervising group. ``His success will continue way into the future, because he pushes at boundaries. He's an iconoclast. He breaks the mold.''
``What's amazing about [Masser] is that he only writes a few songs a year, but he has such a high percentage of hits,'' says Barbara Babchick, a songwriter and executive assistant at Goldcastle Records. ``Others write hundreds and can't come close to that percentage.''
Masser's is the story of a successful career man and family man who used to ride his bike through Manhattan traffic to his office - but not before stopping off at a Juilliard music school practice room to doodle away on the piano. And it is the story of a self-taught musician, who talks less about how to write melodies and harmonies than about how to be honest, original, and true.
``Somehow people get very nervous about leaving the comfortable life of rules behind,'' he says, ``and never take the chance to develop their own internal voice, to listen to their own consciousness.''
Getting Masser to explain the technical side of constructing a song is nearly impossible. He goes to one of the two concert-size Yamaha grands in his mansion and begins pounding out chords. He speaks of stream of consciousness, instincts, dramatics, ``the music passing through me.'' Soon you are aware that creativity - at least this kind of creativity - defies explanation. SUFFICE it to say a thorough grounding in piano theory - self-instructed or otherwise - is requisite, though not the ability to read music. The rest is letting what is inside come out, keeping it honest, and following no one else's rules.
Masser says he prefers to work on an acoustic piano late at night; his method of composing does not include electronic gadgetry. ``People simply learn to process information to the point where it doesn't serve true creativity,'' he says.
Complex chord structures, frequent modulations, and much counterpointing of chorus against verse are signature Masser techniques. ``I'm definitely a romantic,'' he says, ``no doubt about it.''
What is perhaps his most ``romantic'' hit, ``The Greatest Love of All,'' was first recorded by George Benson in 1975, but it had enough staying power to hit the top with Whitney Houston's rendition two years ago.
Breaking the rules imposed on him by society is what set his musical career in motion. ``I left an office at the top of the Pan Am Building, a nine-room apartment, and a farm in Vermont because I was aching inside,'' he recalls. ``It took an analyst to tell me I could write a note of permission to become a musician and sign it.''
In 1971, he moved into the Los Angeles guesthouse of one of the great American songwriters, Johnny Mercer, who recognized his talent and became his mentor. Two years later, after a couple of flops, Masser's career took off, when ``Touch Me in the Morning'' hit the top of the charts. The song began a long-term relationship between Masser and Motown Records. After that, he began to write more and more ballad-style songs with sweeping melodies.
``His last 15 years of writing are affirmative evidence that great old-fashioned standards can still make it in today's market,'' says Paul Zollo, editor of Songtalk, the National Academy of Songwriters (NAS) bimonthly magazine. ``He's done his own thing without paying attention to trends like disco and dance music. That's why his career just keeps going.'' MOST recently Masser has been on the charts with Whitney Houston's ``Didn't We Almost Have It All?'' (co-written with Will Jennings) and Glenn Medeiros's ``Nothing's Gonna Change My Love for You'' (co-written with Gerry Goffin). All along, most of his hits have been with black artists.
``I think growing up in inner-city Chicago had something to do with that,'' says Masser, describing a rough neighborhood with gangs and zip guns. ``I also think there is an edge to the voices of Natalie [Cole], Roberta [Flack], Diana [Ross], and Whitney [Houston] that keeps my songs from not sounding too operatic.''
Masser's latest project was serving as artistic director for the recording of Charles Aznavour's ``For You, Armenia.'' It was performed by 100 Hollywood celebrities, and its proceeds went to the relief effort for that earthquake-torn region.
He has also produced two cuts on Natalie Cole's forthcoming album, ``Good to Be Back.'' His next goal is to assault what is, for him, the Everest of songwriting: Broadway and a film musical.
``Because I've had so many hits, I've got to watch myself that I don't aim for them,'' he says. ``It's got to be what I feel and for the reason of the music itself. Otherwise, I would become a clone, the very antithesis of everything I've worked to be....
``There is too much pressure from agents to turn out lots of songs, when I say: Just give me one good one,'' he says. ``People need to learn how to discipline themselves for great songs and take their time doing it.''
Masser has a special interest in developing young songwriters. Besides appearing on many Songtalk panels sponsored by the NAS, he speaks frequently on songwriting and record producing for extension courses at the University of California, Los Angeles.
Last year he endowed a new ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers) Foundation program. The fund will be used to get handicapped children interested in music and to provide scholarships for music students and a commission program to encourage the writing of high-quality music for children.