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The Three B's
By Doug Konecky
Sometime after Toni Tenille but before Nirvana, I left Pennsylvania and moved to Los Angeles with my wife Barbara and infant son Danny. I was determined to become a professional songwriter. The first thing I did was enroll in a lyric workshop. It was taught by an old-time Tin Pan Alley lyricist named Buddy Kaye, who had written the words to a smash hit for Perry Como in the early '50s called "Till the End of Time." Title notwithstanding, the workshop lasted just four weeks.
Buddy taught us The Three R's of Songwriting: 'Ritin', Re-Writin', and Royalties. But he never mentioned The Three B's, which are far more important. It took me several years to learn them on my own.
The first is Blind Luck. In Buddy Kaye's workshop I met Irene. Irene was tiny and ditzy, and very involved with ecology. None of us were very good songwriters yet, but Irene's tunes were unique. They all had titles like "Flyin' Low on the Food Chain" and "Sprouts, Sprouts, Sprouts." Irene knew a lyricist named Justin. When Justin decided to form his own writers' workshop he asked Irene to join, and Irene invited me.
Justin and I immediately began collaborating, Justin writing lyrics and I the music. One of our first collaborations was a romantic Christmas song called "It Must Have Been the Mistletoe." Justin found three groups of artists who were recording Christmas projects that year: Barbara Mandrell, Kenny Rogers/Dolly Parton, and Ronnie Milsap. We finished the song, recorded it, and sent it to all three of them.
Barbara Mandrell returned our tape without listening to it because she had already chosen all the songs for her project. Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton decided to record only Christmas standards and songs they had written themselves.
That left Ronnie Milsap. At the time, Ronnie Milsap was one of the most successful country singers in the business, with a gorgeous, sensitive voice. To our amazement, Ronnie's manager called us right back and said they loved "Mistletoe" and wanted to record it right away.
But just because the artist's manager promises he will record a song doesn't mean it will actually happen. The arc that passes through "Yes, definitely" on the way to "Son, I'm really sorry" is a convoluted and often incomprehensible one.
A songwriter needs the second B: Blissful Ignorance. But Justin and I didn't know that. We kept calling them every day to say hi. Soon they stopped returning our calls. So we wrote letters. They didn't answer those either. We figured Ronnie Milsap would like to know that his people weren't answering our calls and letters. So we sent him a telegram. And we sent it in Braille.
Did I mention Ronnie Milsap is blind? We paid a lot of money to get that telegram translated into Braille, informing Ronnie Milsap in some detail about the failings of the Milsap organization. Ronnie Milsap read the telegram and called his manager, who called his producer, who called his label, who called his publisher, who called us with the message that Mr. Milsap had changed his mind and please don't ever send them anything again.
Disheartened, but with nothing to lose, we again sent the song to Barbara Mandrell in Nashville. It just so happened that one of the songs they had previously chosen for Barbara turned out to be too rangy for her to sing. So at the exact moment they were desperate to find one more song, "Mistletoe" arrived in the mail. Blind Luck! Only a few weeks earlier they had tossed our tape in the pile with the hundreds of other spitbacks, but they didn't remember that. All they knew was our names sounded familiar. Blissful Ignorance! They opened our envelope and played our song. They loved it!
Barbara Mandrell recorded "It Must Have Been the Mistletoe" for her 1984 Christmas album entitled From My House to Your House. She was the first major artist to record any of Justin's or my songs. We were ecstatic.
Then the ball started rolling. Country stars Glen Campbell and Tanya Tucker, who were having a fling that was melting gravy off biscuits all over Nashville, also heard "It Must Have Been the Mistletoe." They wanted to perform it on their nationwide Christmas TV special. "It Must Have Been the Mistletoe" is a love song that happens to take place at Christmas. It was Yuletide perfect for two young lovers, at least in October. By November, Glen and Tanya were at each other's throats, but that comes later.
Justin and I were both dead broke, and a network TV airplay could be worth several thousand dollars. To two hungry songwriters, that money sounded like the jackpot at the casino at the end of the rainbow. They scheduled the TV special for December 3, just one month away.
But Second B now started giving us trouble. You could not be blissfully ignorant of Glen and Tanya's new romance. Their randy, smiling faces were constantly on the cover of tabloids like the Star and the National Enquirer and True Romance, with heart-encased headlines like "So Much in Love," "In Love Forever," and "Oh, Lovey Lovey Love."
I would go to the supermarket every day to read the tabloids and see how my song was doing. Then, on November 20 my heart sank. The headline in the National Enquirer blared: "GLEN AND TANYA CALL IT QUITS!!" Two exclamation points.
"No! No!" I shouted, and leafed madly through the other tabloids. Spacemen eating Jackie Onassis. People who had lost 900 pounds and still weighed 900 pounds. But no further stories about Glen and Tanya. It might be a false alarm.
On November 23 a story ran in the Los Angeles Times saying that Tanya had gotten violent and tried to shoot Glen, or was it Glen trying to shoot Tanya?
On November 30 the headline in the Star was: "TUCKER TO CAMPBELL: GET LOST, YOU BIG JERK!!!" Three exclamation points. Three days to go.
I prayed they had taped the TV show already. If they had, they would have sunk so much money into it that they wouldn't dare cancel it. And, to continue a songwriter's truly warped logic stream, if they didn't cancel the show, since everyone in the country now knew Glen and Tanya were fighting, maybe millions of extra people would be watching. Those millions might all want to buy the song when they saw it on Barbara Mandrell's album. It could happen.
I was now way too nervous to go to the supermarket. We ate tuna for three days. On the morning of December 3, I grabbed the paper off the front porch and hurriedly flipped to the TV section. There it was! The show was listed for 9 p.m. Yes! Only 14 hours to go.
The Slowest Tuesday in History now passed by in lengthy, viscous segments of three or four seconds each. I tripped over things, picked them up, tripped over them again, sat down, stood up, lost my keys, found my keys, lost my car, found my car, but lost my keys again.
At 2 o'clock I got cancer. I had a piece of toast and felt better. By 3 o'clock I had convinced myself the show was about to be cancelled and a Charlie Brown Special put in its place. By 5 p.m., I was having invisible, crippling strokes every five minutes.
Then, at a few minutes shy of 7 o'clock, when I thought I couldn't possibly take it another moment, the phone rang. It was Irene. She was at an edible algae conference in Washington, D.C., where it was three hours later than in California. She had just watched the Glen Campbell and Tanya Tucker Christmas special, and she said, "Doug, didn't you and Justin write a song called 'It Must Have Been the Mistletoe?' Glen Campbell and Tanya Tucker just sang it on TV! I cried when I saw how much in love they were!"
The cancer, Snoopy, and the strokes went into remission. Then, three hours later, at exactly 10 minutes before 10 o'clock, Pacific Standard Time, with Barb and Danny lying on the floor and me hyperventilating on the edge of my bed, a previously taped Glen Campbell and Tanya Tucker, who in real life now despised each other, walked onto the stage, stared deeply into each other's eyes, and sang Justin's and my ballad, "It Must Have Been the Mistletoe," to a TV audience of 20 million people.
"Our first Christmas," Glen sang in the chorus, "more than I'd been dreaming of!"
"Old St. Nicholas," Tanya answered, "had his fingers crossed -- that we would fall in love."
I was as high as humans get without wires.
The phone started ringing. My mom called. My brother called. Then people I didn't know started calling. I knew I was on my way, and I recognized it for what it was: the third B, the last and most important one of all, my Big Break.
Barbra Streisand's 2001 CD Christmas Memories, featuring Doug Konecky's "It Must Have Been the Mistletoe," is available at Streetlight Records and other music stores around the country.