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Life Stories in Song


By Hugh Hart

Published Oct 1, 2017 9:00 AM

David Leaf gives students an inside glimpse into the lives of a songwriters.

Photo by Juan Tallo.

In 1977, as David Leaf watched Frank Sinatra rehearse for a television special, he thought, “Sinatra’s like a great piece of art. The producer’s going to put a frame around him and present it to the public. I can do that.”

Writer-producer-director Leaf proves the point every spring when he teaches “Songwriters on Songwriting: Killer Hooks, Essential Songs and Songwriters of the Rock Era.”

Drawing on his award-winning career in documentary film, biography and television, Leaf hatched the course concept in 2011 while talking to Tim Rice, then-director of the Herb Alpert School of Music. “I said, ‘I want to do this class like Inside the Actors Studio, with the greatest songwriters on stage with me. I’ll interview them, they’ll play; it’ll be their life in song.’”

Hosting classes at the Alpert School’s Popper Theater, Leaf initially focused on master songwriters, including Burt Bacharach, Randy Newman, Mike Stoller (who co-wrote Elvis Presley’s hit “Hound Dog”), Motown legend Lamont Dozier (“Stop! In the Name of Love”), Jimmy Webb (“MacArthur Park”) and the Cynthia Weil/Barry Mann writing team (“You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling”). Leaf filmed the sessions for posterity. “I brought in a camera crew,” he says, “working with 10 to 15 student volunteers to essentially produce a weekly TV show.”

Key interviews can be accessed only by taking either the physical course each spring or the summer online course “Music Industry 105.” In addition to the veteran songsmiths, Leaf’s guests have included contemporary artists like Justin Bieber collaborator Poo Bear, Mike Posner (Grammy-nominated for “I Took a Pill in Ibiza”), and UCLA grad Naomi Robin ’14, who took Leaf’s class five years ago and signed a deal this spring with Republic Records.

“I use songwriting to teach students how to succeed in life,” Leaf muses. “Hearing the struggles these great songwriters went through before they had a hit, you get a sense of what it takes to make it in the music business. Our students learn this from remarkable artists who sit at a piano and come up with melodies that millions of people dance to, make love to, get married to. Every songwriter has a different story.”