Legendary Hollywood and Broadway composer David Shire was a teenager when his father, Buffalo bandleader Irving Shire, got him a gig he still recalls. It was in a "nameless saloon," he said, somewhere on Buffalo's East Side.
Two other musicians joined him on the bandstand. "They were both around 60 years old," Shire says. "And I was 17. My dad got me the job for $20 for the evening and I thought I was in the big time."
"I said, 'But Dad, I only know 15 songs.' He said, 'Don't worry. By the time you get through all the songs they'll all be drunk and no one will know the difference." Sure enough, Shire adds, that's exactly what happened.
"I played 'Pennies From Heaven' about six times."
Saturday, when Shire visits Buffalo again, he'll play a much more exalted room. He's the focus of a gala pops concert at 8 p.m. in Kleinhans Music Hall, where the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra will be presenting an entire evening of his music. Saxophonist Bobby Militello, song-and-dance diva Mary Kate O'Connell and Broadway singer Lynne Wintersteller are joining in a revue of Shire's songs and film scores -- and even a brand-new jazz piece, "Shades of Blue," which Shire wrote expressly for Militello.
Almost everyone knows something Shire has written.
"It Goes Like It Goes," from the Sally Field movie "Norma Rae," won the Oscar for Best Song. Shire also wrote "There's a New Girl in Town," the theme from the sitcom "Alice." Billy Preston recorded the Shire hit "With You I'm Born Again."
And the Oscar-nominated "I'll Never Say Goodbye," from the 1979 movie "The Promise," struck a chord with many.
Shire wrote soundtracks for dozens of films, including "All the President's Men" and "Saturday Night Fever." He came up with a nostalgic score, reminiscent of ragtime, for "Return to Oz." His latest project is "Zodiac," a new murder movie with Jake Gyllenhaal and Chloe Sevigny.
And on Broadway, his light really shines. With longtime collaborator Richard Maltby Jr., whom he met when both were students at Yale, Shire created two musicals nominated for Tony Awards: "Baby," a zany account of a pregnancy, and "Big," a musical treatment of the Tom Hanks movie. They also had two off-Broadway hits, "Starting Here, Starting Now" and "Closer Than Ever."
"Their songs are actable," says Wintersteller, who starred in "Closer Than Ever." "I'm an actress first, so I approach it that way. These guys write from an acting standpoint."
"A lot of kids in college study 'Starting Here, Starting Now' in conservatories," she says. She laughs. "They treat me like a rock star."
O'Connell and Company, the Amherst-based theater troupe, is currently staging "Starting Here, Starting Now."
"Their songs are like miniplays," says company leader O'Connell. "The emotions that are presented to the actor to work through are some of the best gifts you can get in theater.
"I just regret that more people don't hear them as a household word," she adds. "If I had one wish for them, it would be that you'd ask someone, 'Who's your favorite songwriting team?' 'Well, Maltby and Shire.'
"They remind me in so many ways of the great American songwriters. That's not to say that their music is old-fashioned, but they have that classic style."
Shire, 69, a Nichols School graduate who left Buffalo after high school, has no immediate family left here. His father died in 1990, and his mother seven years earlier. His brother Sanford, who moved to California and was also a musician, has passed on, too.
It's a delightful surprise, then, that Buffalo has recently begun to see more of Shire than we have in years. He came to town last spring for a revue of his music at Nichols School. During a rehearsal break, he sat on a bench in the sunshine and marveled, in his sleepy voice, at changes he had seen, from new Nichols buildings to the Galleria Mall.
In a recent conversation from his home in Sneeden's Landing, an upscale New York City suburb, he readily acknowledges that his creative roots are here.
He grew up going to Philharmonic Pops concerts. One big draw, so to speak, was a cartoonist named Stu Hample, who would sketch on an easel in time to the music. And, Shire adds, "I saw Oscar Levant playing Gershwin. He just scowled, never smiled, all hunched over, but wow, could he play Gershwin.
"This is the orchestra I grew up with, the orchestra I first heard live symphonic music from. It probably helped set the course of my life."
His father, too, was a strong influence.
"He played every venue at the top," Shire says. "The Saturn Club, the Buffalo Club. ... He played for three generations."
As a teenager, David Shire led his own combo, including Buffalo musicians Lou Marino, Frank Collura and Don Menza. He also played a lot of solo piano, mostly at the Stuyvesant Room and the old Park Lane.
The experience served him well when, later, he faced the challenges of scoring certain movies. A good example was "All the President's Men."
" 'All the President's Men' took a long time to get into," Shire mused. "It was so good when I saw it, and so much like a documentary in character. When I first saw it, I said to [director] Alan Pakula, 'I don't think you need music.' He said, 'I wouldn't be talking to you if I didn't.'
"He said, 'This is a documentary in much of its character, but in the heart of it are these two reporters, and they're very human. I want the music to reflect that their beating hearts are in the center of that movie.' That broke it open to me," Shire recalls. "Then I had the handle.
"I've done shows where friends of mine say, 'Where was the music?' But that's the challenge sometimes, to be discreet."
The music Shire wrote for "Zodiac" also had to be discreet.
"I don't think anyone's going to whistle it," Shire says. "It's more like texture. But the movie's director, David Fincher, didn't want music that attracted attention to itself. He wanted it to be more integrated into the fabric of the film."
Shire and Fincher worked together at Skywalker Sound, George Lucas' studio, using a big orchestra and state-of-the-art computers. "As a matter of fact, there are a couple of cues that have to be redone, so I'm leaving Saturday afternoon, flying out there, recording Sunday, and coming back," Shire said a few weeks ago.
>A generous musician
Such efficiency is a far cry from the way the business used to be.
"In the old days, you had to play the music on the piano, and they would never hear it orchestrated until you were at the session with the big orchestra sitting there," Shire says. "If anything was miscalculated, it got very costly. You'd have to hire the whole orchestra again."
In his Broadway work as well as his movie scores, Shire's own creative process has become more streamlined.
"I used to rush in sometimes with the first dribblings off my fingers. Sometimes I hit it, sometimes I didn't. One of the things as years progressed that I've gotten better at is criticizing my own stuff, putting it aside, coming back to it. I try to hear it as if I never heard it, give it honest evaluation."
Shire has learned a lot about his craft from working with various artists. Serving as Barbra Streisand's accompanist, for instance, taught him to do his homework.
"You learned to come in prepared, or else she'd chop your head off," he says. "You really had to pay attention to everything she said.
"But the great thing about accompanying her is, she's so musical, and she gives so much. It's inspiring. It's always easier to play for a great artist than an artist who's not."
He worked as Stephen Sondheim's rehearsal pianist for the show "Anyone Can Whistle."
"All young writers who come to him for help know that he's the most generous person around," he says. "Oscar Hammerstein mentored him, and he gives it back to everyone else. We used to take every show and play it for him, get his input. He's tremendously useful, and right on the money."
Another person whose opinion came to be invaluable is his own wife, Didi Conn.
"I try out a lot of things on her. She has musical bulls--- detectors," Shire says. "She knows what I'm hoping for. Even if it's kind of good, she'll say. 'That's good, but you've got something better.' "
>'It's me, Didi'
A note of affection slips into Shire's voice when he begins to discuss Conn, whom he wed in 1982.
"Friends had been trying to fix us up for years. "But I said, 'I don't want actresses anymore.' I had just divorced an actress," he says, alluding to Talia Shire, famous as Sylvester Stallone's love interest in the "Rocky" movies. "I was getting my bearings, and Didi was half in, half out of a relationship she had been in, so we kept postponing it."
Finally Conn, who was making "Grease 2" at the time, happened to catch a radio interview with Shire. "They were playing my music," Shire says, "and she thought, 'That's the guy they're trying to fix me up with. He sounds nice.' "
The radio played the love theme from "Hello, My Lovely," and Shire joked on the air about having a crush on Charlotte Rampling, who had starred in the movie but whom he hadn't been able to meet. Conn couldn't resist a joke.
She got Shire's number, called and made her voice deep, accented and sultry. "Hello, David, this is Charlotte," she said.
"I said, WHO?" Shire exclaims.
"She said, 'Just kidding. It's me, Didi.' " The rest is history.
"I thought I was going to swear off actresses," Shire says now, looking back. "But she's a human being first. Acting is what she does. She's the most wonderful mother, the most wonderful wife, the most humble person."
Conn and Shire's adopted son, Daniel, is 14 and a high-functioning autistic. "He was just bar mitzvahed," Shire says. "There are certain things he can do, and certain things he can't."
Shire also has a 31-year-old son, Matthew, from his marriage to Talia Shire. Matthew Shire is a screenwriter in California.
Listening to Shire talk, it's clear that his life is full, both personally and professionally.
"Take Flight," a musical he and Maltby wrote in 2001 about aviation, is due to be performed in London this year -- and in Tokyo, in Japanese.
"A Time For Love," a new song cycle he wrote with Maltby, will receive its premiere in February in the Rubicon Theatre in Ventura, Ca.
He is working on a one-act children's opera for the Colorado Children's Chorale. "It's about pollution," Shire says. Wryly, he adds: "It's a 'Lysistrata' for children."
"And I'm working on another musical with playwright Lee Kalcheim. 'My History of Marriage.' "
Is he ever frustrated by how someone interprets his songs? Shire considers the question.
"Yeah, sometimes when they've changed harmonies, missed something, didn't hear the melody right, and I could have changed the harmony in a second," he says.
"But that's tempered by the fact that they did it," he adds, a smile in his voice. "You're always grateful."