BISTRO BITS: Songwriters: If You Believe

There are no magic formulas for success in the music business. If you want to make it, you must start by believing in yourself and your talent; develop your own personal vision and stick with it. Every effort you make to discern your motives and clarify your goals is a step in the right direction. This advice is particularly significant for songwriters.

If you are a new songwriter, getting your song into the right hands is essential. And you've a lot to learn about: where to send your songs, how to send demos, what professionals look for in a demo, first contacts, copyrights, contracts, music publishers, marketing, publicity, the Internet, rip-offs-and this is only a sampling.

As a songwriter, you should ask yourself a few questions: Why do you write songs? Is it because you want to be rich, or because you love the process? Is every song you write an attempt to become famous, or a labor of love? The answers are not always easy.

Too much to cover in one column? Right. So I'll attempt to answer some of those queries in the coming months by discussing issues faced by many of today's songwriters.

Try to get your material into the right hands for optimum exposure. Songs heard in cabaret rooms or piano bars often reach a receptive, supportive audience that likes discovering new songs. Ann Hampton Callaway's "At the Same Time," recorded on Streisand's latest album, was first heard in a piano bar. If you are a composer struggling for recognition, few things are as important as having your tunes sung by artists who introduce your material to new audiences.

Many of today's most promising new songwriters achieved their first serious recognition in cabaret. All are very talented; they persevere and believe in themselves and their craft. To be successful as a songwriter, you must believe you have a talent that deserves to be heard, whether by two or 2,000 people. Songwriting is a craft, like woodworking or painting. A lot of talent is involved, of course, but with time and practice, the craft can be improved and eventually mastered.

All this leads me to singer-pianist Eric Comstock and his new series saluting some wonderful composers. The "Great Songwriters Series" is currently at The Blue Room at The Supper Club for several weekends. A different composer and lyricist is saluted each weekend. Last weekend's show devoted itself to three of cabaret's most beloved and most prolific songwriters: Charles DeForest, Murray Grand, and John Wallowitch. In addition to often being heard in today's boites, all of their songs have been recorded by numerous luminaries, including Dixie Carter, Lena Horne, Carmen MacRae, and Tony Bennett.

All three writers toiled away in piano bars and cabaret for years, building large and devoted followings. Singers from cabaret were usually the first to get hold of their songs and make them known. Like those of his predecessors, Comstock's following is large and eager. He intelligently showcased the threesome with amusing anecdotes throughout the hour. The songs were eclectic, sophisticated, and laced with just enough subtle wit to make this Comstock's best cabaret outing to date.

Opening on a quixotic note with DeForest's "Just in Time for Spring," seamlessly fused with Grand's "Not a Moment Too Soon," Comstock created a bit of Manhattan magic that has become all too rare. All three composers are "uncompromising geniuses," he remarked, adding that his show might well have been called "the magic of words." He then showed a deft sensitivity on several contemporary chestnuts, including Wallowitch's tender ode to his late brother, "I See the World Through Your Eyes," Grand's riveting love song "You Will Be Loved," and DeForest's now-classic "When Do the Bells Ring for Me?" On the silly side, Comstock's devilish humor proved to be a riot with the likes of "Smut," Grand's timely "ode to the post-Lewinsky age"; and DeForest's spoof of improbable lovers, "Don't Fight It, It's Chemistry," was Cowardesque fun. The singer showed a great sense of natural whimsy on Wallowitch's classic campy romp, "Bruce," about a disheveled drag queen.

Eric Comstock is one of a handful of torchbearers carrying on a tradition that has almost disappeared. His raspy baritone and fluent keyboard stylings are in a league with more mature singer-pianists. It's easy to compare him to others (or to critique him for not being like others). But I think Comstock has worked hard carving out his own niche and is destined to become a solid force on the night-life scene. With his boyish grin and encyclopedic knowledge of songs, he endears himself to his idolaters. Performing some of the best songs of three Manhattan treasures, to a packed room of cabaret-lovers, he could do no wrong.

There were many great moments in this charmed night of homage to three troubadours whose work will be with us for generations to come. Comstock continues at the Blue Room, April 30 and May 1 (singing Cy Coleman and Carolyn Leigh), May 14 and 15 (Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn), and May 21 and 22 (Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer).

Another intelligent cabaret artist always respectful of songwriters is Anthony Santelmo Jr., whom I caught last week at Judy's Chelsea. For his new show, "In Between Goodbyes," he chose a wide variety of interesting material by some wonderful composers from all walks of life, and wove it into a fine hour of cabaret.

Always vocally impressive, he has a solid legit tenor that often soars. Mostly, he sings in a mid-range that is particularly flattering to his warm phrasing. Thankfully themeless, he glides from song to song, finding a wide variety of subject matter in his selections.

An impressive vocalist capable of tender, soft nuances, Santelmo phrases carefully and exceptionally well, particularly on the ballads. Peter Allen's classic "All the Lives of Me," and Claudia Perry's beauty "Ashes in the Rain," about the plight of the homeless, created moments that were absolutely riveting. Amanda McBroom's "Ship in a Bottle" was another winner for this masterful interpreter of the heart.

And there was plenty of fun stuff, such as several Italian-style ditties like "The Darktown Strutter's Ball" (in Italian) and a campy spoof on the famed aria from "The Barber of Seville" that was sidesplitting. I might suggest some more attention to other moments of comic relief. A Lucy-Desi style rhumba-esque number, replete with maracas for everyone, was too risky. While funny, this stylized buffoonery requires lots of practice. Santelmo is simply too good a singer to go that route. His true comic abilities worked much better on excellent readings of Kander and Ebb's "Boom Ditty Boom" and Porter's "Tale of the Oyster." Both comic pieces were delivered to perfection with a natural, whimsical sensibility that shined.

Observing Santelmo's exceptional vocal gifts, I can say with confidence that he is a significant talent who deserves more exposure and recognition. For sheer potency, one of his encores, "I Leave You There," echoed long after the show ended. Hopefully, he'll be back soon.