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Marty Panzer: An Interview with a Master Lyricist

By Virginia Emrick

Those who can, do...and if we're very lucky, they also teach.

In a throw-away world, finding something that's built to last takes effort. Learning to build such a thing takes skill, perseverance, and a bit of guidance.

Since 1994, master lyricist Marty Panzer has provided songwriting guidance to all levels of writers, encouraging them to write lyrics that succeed and endure. Something Marty knows a lot about.

In his 30-plus years in the music industry, Marty has garnered 35 gold and platinum albums, four BMI million-play awards, a 3-million play award, and record sales in excess of 70 million units. Pretty impressive.

But, he didn’t start out as a lyricist, or even to BE a lyricist.

After high school, Marty began working in the mailroom at CBS, where he met Barry Manilow, another mailroom employee. Though they grew up in the same neighborhood and went to the same schools, they were unknown to each other, until they stood face-to-face at CBS.

At that moment, Marty’s life took an unexpected, and magical, turn.

Fueled by their passion for music, and Barry’s desire to break into the music business, the two started writing commercial jingles and songs. Frequent visitors to the CBS rehearsal rooms, they developed a collaboration, and friendship, that continues to this day.

Eventually, Barry Manilow left CBS to pursue a music career full time – becoming an arranger and accompanist for up-and-coming singers, a music director for Bette Midler, and a performer in his own right.

Though Marty remained at CBS, moving from the mailroom to become Manager of CBS Air Control, he and Barry continued to write together. They turned out hit after hit – standards such as “Even Now,” “This One’s for You,” “It’s a Miracle,” and “All the Time.”

They were in sync, and it showed in their successes.

“Barry and I both hear, and love, the same things. Because of that…we always know how to please each other…and we always complement each other, perfectly. We both have the same vision. That’s not easy to find, in a collaboration,” Marty states.

Sixteen years after entering the mailroom at CBS, Marty left CBS, and a job he loved, to focus fully on his lyrics. He began writing with other composers, but discovered it wasn’t always easy finding that perfect blend of work ethic and collaborative chemistry, that right mix of heart and focus, that “unimaginable bond” he had found with Barry Manilow.

“For some people…writing is a ‘job.’ It’s producing a ‘product,’ not a creation. Those people are more impressed, by volume, than quality. More focused on dance beats, than heartbeats.”

“In a bizarre, but very profound way…for me…collaborating on a song is like co-parenting. It takes an enormous amount of commitment, and comes with an enormous amount of responsibility. I want my lyrics to succeed, and endure… and that takes a greater commitment than many collaborators are able to give.”

Fortunately, the right people existed in the world, and Marty found them. They go by the names Steve Dorff and Don Grady.

With Steve Dorff, Marty wrote “Through the Years,” a Kenny Rogers’ classic; “I Want a Son,” also sung by Kenny Rogers; “Something Bigger than Me,” recorded by Dolly Parton for the animated film “Annabelle’s Wish;” and “I’ll Love You Back to Life,” recorded by Davis Gaines.

Of all the lyrics he’s ever written, “I’ll Love You Back to Life” remains Marty’s all-time favorite. “If you put me in a Cuisinart…that’s what would come out.”

Following his successful collaboration with Steve Dorff, Marty began writing with Don Grady, of “My Three Sons” fame.

It all started in 1995 when Don needed a collaborator for the MGM Grand Hotel’s production “EFX.” Don was introduced to Marty, by Doreen Ringer Ross at BMI, and a lasting relationship was born.

Marty wrote dialogue for the “Houdini” segment of the show, and also the lyric to “Tonight,” which was set to music by Don. A year later, Marty wrote an additional eight songs for the revamped show, which ran for more than seven years, in Las Vegas.

Together, they’ve written over one hundred songs for Disney, including a new theme for “Winnie the Pooh,” the first eight volumes of the DVD series “Magic English,” and songs for the first-ever live-action interactive featurette for the DVD Masterpiece Edition of “Alice in Wonderland.”

They’ve also written and produced three CDs of new songs for the legendary Disney Princesses, a complete song-score for “The Chronicles of Narnia,” and two episodes of the direct-to-DVD series “History’s Heroes,” for American Animation Studios.

And, they’re not done yet.

“My collaboration with Don Grady works…because of Don Grady. He inspires me, with his enthusiasm. When I think I’ve taken my last breath…I just have to hear his voice…and I’m renewed. Writing with Don is exciting…and joyful. Because, he is.”

It’s this shared passion, for music and for excellence, that feeds Marty’s mentoring of other songwriters.

After Glenn Frey (of the Eagles) left his teaching position at UCLA, Marty began his own Master Class: Writing Lyrics That Succeed and Endure. Each winter, Marty offers writers a glimpse into the craft of writing successful lyrics. Lyrics that will last through time. Songs where the most important element “…is that it touches you. That it makes you smile…or laugh…or cry. ‘To change the complexion of the day…That is the highest art.’”

The year 2011 finds Marty bringing his Master Class to his hometown, New York City, for the first time. There he hopes to share not only his passion, but also the experiences he’s had, as a master lyricist.

When asked which one songwriting experience he wishes he could share with every beginning writer, Marty replied:

“The moment I realized the importance of developing your own voice. When I began to hear words and phrases that sounded uniquely like me. When I heard the real Marty Panzer, in my lyrics…I happily realized that that was my greatest strength. Sounding…in a song…as I do in real life. It’s something every songwriter should aspire to. It’s a quality that no one else has. You eliminate all competition. No one else is you. Just find your own voice.”

What other suggestions, or imperatives, does Marty have for songwriters?

“To realize your maximum creative potential…you must LIVE the fullest life you can. READ…I read voraciously. Be AWARE. Listen to the world around you. What people are thinking…what people are feeling. And… always write something that is unique. Do your homework…check your idea against the universe of music that’s available to everyone today. When you think everything’s been said already…Remember…the Eagles thought of ‘Desperado.’ Bruce Johnston thought of ‘I Write the Songs.’ Michael Jackson thought of ‘Billy Jean.’ And…oh…yes…Yip Harburg thought of ‘Over the Rainbow.’”

“And, also remember…quality still matters.

“No matter what anyone tells you… and no matter what you may hear on the radio, online, or anywhere live…quality still matters. It matters to everyone who will ever listen to your songs. They might not even know it…but if you give them something important, something beautiful…something profound…something that touches them…they will respond to it. You will have changed the complexion of the day.

“It’s like falling in love. No matter how cynical, or oblivious we are…it’s an irresistible force.”

As far as rules go, “there’s only one rule in songwriting….The same rule that’s in glassblowing…Make it the very best it can be. If I’ve heard it before…or heard it done better…you’ve lost me. It must be rich…it must be real…it must be heartfelt. Use the language, and all its rhymes and rhythms… Don’t disparage the great templates of songwriting… Honor them. Use them, as all great writers have…to tell your own story. In your own voice.”

“Rules are not impediments. Rules are support.”

When analyzing a song, “I look for the heart of the writer. I look for an eternal truth, told in an original way.”

“Is it clear?…Is it unique?…Does it move me?…Does it surprise me?…Can I hear the writer’s voice, in the lyric?

“When you hear a second verse, repeating the same idea you just heard in the first verse…it’s over. The writer had one idea, and after the first verse…had said all they had to say.”

“Be sure, when choosing a subject, that it has enough depth, to explore and develop, so that you can create an interesting, and evolving lyric. An idea that can’t all be said in the first verse.”

Truth, heart, and depth. In your own voice. That’s how you write lyrics that succeed and endure. That’s how you become…the next Marty Panzer.

To learn more about Marty, his master classes in Los Angeles or New York, and all his projects, visit

Virginia Emrick is an award-winning writer whose work crosses multiple genres. Industry honors include the 2011 NJ Communications, Advertising & Marketing Association (NJ CAMA) award for website redesign; Song of the Year’s 2011 Collective Works award; Honorable Mention in the Billboard World Song Competition; selection into the 2009 Lawrence Playfest (Lawrence, NJ); and winner of Marty Panzer’s “Barry Manilow Scholarship for Writing Lyrics that Succeed and Endure.”

She can be contacted through her website at

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