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Take a sneak peek into a legendary songwriter's creative process

 The Library of Congress acquired the papers of Leslie Bricusse an Academy Award-winning songwriter, earlier this year.
The Library of Congress
The Library of Congress acquired the papers of Leslie Bricusse an Academy Award-winning songwriter, earlier this year.

You may not know the name Leslie Bricusse (pronounced Brick’-us), but you very likely hum some of the songs he’s written: “Pure Imagination,” “What Kind of Fool Am I?,” "Talk to the Animals,” Superman’s theme “Can You Read My Mind,” “Goldfinger.

And remarkably, some 60 years after his heyday, the composer-lyricist is having a moment.

In A Quiet Place: Day One, a woman who may be the last human survivor on a Manhattan infested with aliens checks her iPod and pulls up Nina Simone singing “Feeling Good.” She needs a song to express defiance and how, as her world lies in ruins, she exults in being alive. Sentiments Bricusse put to music six decades ago seem perfect.

That same song popped up on the premiere of the Netflix series Obliterated to help a bomb defuser steady his hand. And family audiences spent last Christmas singing along with “Pure Imagination,” crooned by Timothée Chalamet’s Willy Wonka to tie him firmly with the Gene Wilder original.

Bricusse often wrote lyrics for other composers’ music. He wrote “Pure Imagination” and “Feeling Good” with Anthony Newley. At other times, he wrote both music and lyrics. He was a master of many styles, all of them entertaining, and it turns out that’s every bit as true of the papers his widow, actress Yvonne “Evie” Romain Bricusse, best known for co-starring with Elvis Presley in Double Trouble, donated recently to the Library of Congress.

Mark Eden Horowitz, a senior music specialist at the Library of Congress, where the Bricusse papers join those of Leonard Bernstein, Richard Rodgers, the Gershwins and others, says that in addition to the scripts, musical scores, notes for ideas on shows that never came together, recordings and other items, what’s remarkable about this particular collection is Bricusse’s notebooks.

“Just sort of drugstore notebooks,” he says, holding one out, “but he lived his life in these things.

“They’re beautifully calligraphed, most pages are numbered and often dated and indicate where he was in the world at the time, Acapulco on November third, 1986.” And then he does these amazing calendars.”

Calendars rendered in five or six colors, and necessary because “he’s constantly working on 10 or 12 projects at a time.”

 Leslie Bricusse's multicolored "Doctor Dolittle" calendar.
/ Library of Congress
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The Library of Congress
Leslie Bricusse's multicolored "Doctor Dolittle" calendar.

Some of those, no one’s heard of. “For a long time, chuckles Horowitz, “he was working on a musical version of Henry VIII. I swear he considered 30 different titles, one of which was The King & I & I & I & I & I.”

There are lots of fun discoveries. Bricusse’s lyrics sound so natural that it’s hard to imagine they didn’t just spring from him that way, but the notebooks are where he polished them. Take page 58 in the one where he’s working on "Goldfinger." He has heart of gold/this heart is cold….web of sin but don’t come in. But he has too many “golden"s, so in the notebook, he’s slashed through golden, in "the man with the golden touch" and replaced it with "Midas."

 A sneak peek into Bricusse's creative process as he worked on "Goldfinger."
/ Library of Congress
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Library of Congress
A sneak peek into Bricusse's creative process as he worked on "Goldfinger."

That turned an OK line into a classic and goes much better with the next line that he already had: "A spider’s touch."

That’ll be a fun find for somebody’s dissertation. Mixed in with that sort of thing is marginalia about theater, movies, budgets, life … seemingly whatever was on his mind.

“He asks himself questions,” says Horowitz, “he puts down what he’s thinking, asks himself should he be thinking that? Why is he thinking this? What should he do about it?" It’s his thoughts about everything that is ideal for researchers.

Asked whether George Gershwin did something similar, Horowitz almost laughs. “No. I’ve never seen a collection with this much-organized detail.”

 A page from Leslie Bricusse's notebooks.
/ Library of Congress
/
The Library of Congress
A page from Leslie Bricusse's notebooks.

So, it is a treasure trove, but also one in which those details are sometimes puzzling — blocks of letters, say, in some of the margins. It turns out that’s how Bricusse wrote out the melodies — not with musical notes on sheet music as most composers do, but using the alphabetical letters that represented the notes. C, A, B-flat, and so on. Horowitz figured out how to read them and how to play the melodies if asked.

These pop songs were Leslie Bricusse’s life work. The notebooks, decorated, colorized, wildly ornate, feel — perhaps inadvertently — like art, themselves.

Horowitz, noting that Bricusse’s widow is an artist and that they collaborated on some things together, agrees. “Clearly, yes, he has a sense of design, and color, and he seems to want to keep things lively and interesting and attractive.

“I think he’s an entertainer in every sense. He wants people to be bubbling joyous; I think he’s always looking for the rainbow, for the magic.”

Judging from the notebooks that have found a new home in the Leslie Bricusse Collection at the Library of Congress, he found it.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.
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