By Ken Sharp
Baby boomers owe a debt of gratitude to Grammy and Emmy-winning songwriter Charles Fox, who has been responsible for penning a batch of tunes that have been the soundtrack of our lives. Composing monster hits “Killing Me Softly With His Song” (Roberta Flack) and “I Got A Name” (Jim Croce) and theme songs for ‘70s perennials Love, American Style, Happy Days and The Love Boat, among others, Fox, along with partner Norman Gimbel, is also responsible for crafting Davy Jones’ most beloved post-Monkees track, “Girl.” Originally appearing as the title track for the 1971 film, “The Star-Spangled Girl,” the song is better known for its use in a classic Brady Bunch episode “Getting Davy Jones,” which showcases the former Monkee performing the song in the recording studio. Fox shares the back story behind this enduring classic.
Goldmine: Run us through the writing of “Girl.”
Charles Fox: I did the score for a film called “The Star-Spangled Girl,” a Neil Simon film. As part of it, we wanted to put a main title song in so I asked my partner, Norman Gimbel, to do it with me and we wrote a song called “Girl.” We wrote an easier version than the one that Davy Jones did. It was a little more romantic and slower tempo and an easier sound, more strings. That’s really the kind of song we expected it to be. It is that kind of a song anyway. Davy Jones was our choice to sing the song. He had a very positive, upbeat and youthful sound; we wanted to get the youthful quality, and he delivered that. The record he made with his producer (Jackie Mills) and arranger (Al Capps) was more of an upbeat brassy pop sound with trumpets. Davy did a little faster and brighter version, adding a more positive kind of quality to it but the song is a positive song anyway. As with all things, when you write a song for the film, you’re trying to capture the essence of the film and the essence of the character you’re writing about. This started off with Sandy Duncan coming to town on a bus in the main title and you saw that. It was a romantic song about the effect a girl had on a fellow. It was a premonition of what would happen in the film and yet it was very generalized so it doesn’t tell you anything about the movie itself except for letting it known this was going to be a very upbeat, fun film with romance and a nice warm feeling and aura emerging from the film.
GM: What inspired the music?
Fox: I always believe with every song that I wrote that a melody has its own form or its own message. Very often melodies accompany the lyrics and it’s the lyric that tells you the story, and properly so, but at the same time, I believe that the melody when constructed well is fun to sing and that it’s interesting to sing and challenging to sing. I believe that a melody itself independent of the lyric has to tell a story of what it’s doing there.
GM: With your long-time partnership with lyricist Norman Gimbel, in the case of “Girl,” would the process revolve around him supplying a lyric and then you crafting the music?
Fox: Usually that is the case. We had a real collaboration and partnership, but that’s true with anyone I wrote with. We start off talking about what we’re aiming for and trying to achieve and throw around ideas. In the case of working with Norman, which I did so many times, he might say, “What do you think of this as an idea?” And if we agreed it was a good idea he’d go home and write it and sometimes he’d give me just a verse and a chorus or sometimes just the title and I’d write the music. “Girl” came together pretty quickly. There’s a fluidity to the melodic character of the song and a fluidity to the lyric. It flows together very easily and very naturally.
GM: When speaking to others about this song, many have spoken about its emotional tug. The chord changes are pure magic.
FOX: One of the interesting things about “Girl” is the contrapuntal bass lines against the melody; I do that often in my songs. I never let a song go until I feel there’s something special about it, and “Girl” is no exception. That song connects emotionally and there’s a flow to the melody and the chord progression that has its own message. To me that message is about what the words say. I feel that the melody itself with the chord progression and the contrapuntal bass line creates its own world. Davy’s vocal really enhances the song. You always get lucky if you find the person who gives it the right performance like Davy did with “Girl.” I mean, look at Roberta Flack singing “Killing Me Softly,” and yet so many people love the Fugees version more than her version. Roberta Flack herself loved Lauryn (Hill) singing that song. Construction of a song is always interesting. Last year I spoke to a few classes at the Berklee College of Music, including a songwriting class. When I came into the room, the songwriting teacher had one of my songs on the blackboard and he was breaking it down and analyzing it. Sometimes a song can be analyzed too much; a lot of it is intuitive. But intuition comes from a lot of years of background and experience. It’s all the work that you put into it over the years that leads to the intuition that can bypass a lot of things. No. 1, you never want to rewrite yourself and you certainly don’t want to rewrite anyone else.
GM: The recording was produced by Jackie Mills. In terms of the recording itself, did you have any input?
FOX: No. Many of the song I’ve written for movies I’ve actually produced but I didn’t do that for “Girl.” I was pleased with Davy’s recording of “Girl.” It was a fun, upbeat, energetic performance. It grows on you over time, too, because it’s been heard so many times. When they made the Brady Bunch movie, they not only redid the song and did a grunge version but they redid the whole story around Davy Jones coming to town and taking the girl to the prom. That’s the one Brady Bunch storyline they repeated for the movie. When they did it again, Steve Tyrell, the producer of the track, called me one day and said, “Hey, Charlie, I just did your song ‘Girl’ for The Brady Bunch movie.” And I said, “Great Steve!” And he said, “Yeah, you’re gonna hate it.” (laughs) And he was right, I didn’t care for the grunge rock version; I like the original.
GM: “Girl” was released as a single in 1971, and while it was never a hit, 44 years since its initial release it is as beloved as a big hit record. Does the fact that the song endures and reaps such acclaim a validation for you?
FOX: Absolutely. It’s wonderful. A lot of people don’t connect me to “Girl” but yet they carry it with them because of The Brady Bunch TV show and because of Davy’s record. For me, that song has performed very well because the TV show continued in syndication. When I sing that song at my shows, people go, “Oh my God, you wrote that? I love that song!” It brings back memories because people grew up with it. The measure or value of how well a song was received is not necessarily judged by how many records it sells the first time around; it’s whether it’s enduring. “Girl” wasn’t a hit record but a lot of people know it and love it and that’s really gratifying to me. When I do the song in person, I always sing it for my wife. (recites lyrics) “Girl, look what you’ve done to me, me, and my whole world… Girl, you brought the sun to me, with your smile, you did it girl…”
GM: Having written countless hits and acclaimed TV themes, does it surprise you that this song endures?
FOX: When you write a song that touches someone, it has a life of its own. I’ve had the good fortune of traveling to many countries around the world to hear people sing my songs in different languages. It’s interesting how songs connect with people. To hear that people still love “Girl” touches me very much, and it’s something that I really appreciate very much.
For more info about Charles Fox’s canon of work, check out www.charlesfoxmusic.com.