Ervin Drake, a prolific songwriter who wrote the words and music of “It Was a Very Good Year,” an introspective ballad that helped define the autumn of Frank Sinatra’s career, and the lyrics for “Good Morning Heartache,” a song that Billie Holiday made a mournful jazz standard, died Jan. 15 at his home in Great Neck, N.Y. He was 95.
The cause was complications from bladder cancer, said a stepson, Jed Berman.
Mr. Drake’s name did not carry the instant recognition of the Gershwin brothers, Irving Berlin or Cole Porter, and his lyrics did not always sparkle with sophisticated wit or polish. Nevertheless, he showed versatility and a workmanlike skill that was widely admired by music publishers and many of the last century’s biggest pop singers and bandleaders.
Those who interpreted his songs included Diana Ross, Barbra Streisand, Tony Bennett, Duke Ellington, Joe Williams, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan and Sam Cooke. His music popped up in movies as varied as Woody Allen’s “Radio Days” (1987) and Spike Lee’s “Jungle Fever” (1991).
The son of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe — he had changed his surname from Druckman — Mr. Drake began composing music at 12. While attending the City College of New York, he hung out at the offices of music publishers.
He told music scholar Will Friedwald that his breakthrough came in the early 1940s, when he accepted a job that more-experienced tunesmiths turned down: supplying English words to Latin American melodies.
His “Tico-Tico” proved a hit for the Andrews Sisters, followed by “(Yo Te Amo Mucho) And That’s That” for Xavier Cugat. He also had a commercial smash with the boogie-woogie flavored “The Rickety Rickshaw Man,” a venture into a Chinese theme.
If these were not exactly songs for the ages, Mr. Drake soon showed his ability to craft far more enduring lyrics. An early example was his collaboration with Irene Higginbotham on “Good Morning Heartache,” a song about persistent romantic gloom that features the lyrics:
Good morning, heartache, here we go again
Good morning, heartache, you’re the one who knew me when.
Might as well get used to you hangin’ around
Good morning, heartache, sit down
Mr. Drake wrote the words in 20 minutes to Higginbotham’s melancholy melody, inspired what why he called his own “true despondency” over a lost love.
Music publisher Dan Fisher also received a credit on “Good Morning Heartache,” which was recorded by Holiday in 1946 and dozens of singers in subsequent years.
In the early 1950s, Mr. Drake worked with other writers, including Jimmy Shirl on “I Believe,” an inspirational song commissioned by singer Jane Froman for her popular TV show.
It went in part:
I believe for every drop of rain that falls, a flower grows,
I believe that somewhere in the darkest night, a candle glows,
I believe for everyone who goes astray, someone will come to show the way.
Singer Frankie Laine’s version stayed near the top of the U.S. and British pop charts for weeks. It sold millions of copies and helped propel Mr. Drake’s career pouring out songs for dozens of TV shows and specials, including a CBS birthday salute to first lady Mamie Eisenhower in 1956.
He also worked on Broadway, writing words and lyrics for “What Makes Sammy Run?,” which starred Steve Lawrence as the amoral Hollywood climber from Budd Schulberg’s best-selling novel. Mr. Drake’s other shows included “Her First Roman,” a short-lived 1968 musical comedy based on George Bernard Shaw’s “Caesar and Cleopatra” and starring Leslie Uggams and Richard Kiley.
As a conjurer of pop music in a hurry, Mr. Drake had far better luck. He had written “It Was a Very Good Year” in less then an hour at the behest of a publisher friend who needed a new song for the Kingston Trio’s 1961 album “Goin’ Places.”
But it was Sinatra who enshrined it in the public consciousness with “September of My Years,” a 1965 album to commemorate his 50th birthday. Sinatra’s performance, with masterful string and woodwind arrangements by Gordon Jenkins, won the Grammy Award for best male vocal performance, heralded a massive comeback and became one of his most requested songs.
“It Was a Very Good Year” was a rarity among the era’s profusion of pop songs of teenage love. It was a wistful, retrospective look at a man’s past and the women he knew at different stages.
At 17, he remembers “small-town girls” and “soft summer nights” on the village green. At 21, he recalls “city girls who lived up the stairs, with all that perfumed hair.” At 35, he would “ride in limousines” with “blue-blooded girls of independent means.” He concludes that he’s now in the “autumn of his years” and thinks of his life “as vintage wine from fine old kegs, from the brim to the dregs.”
Ervin Maurice Druckman was born in Manhattan on April 3, 1919. His father was a wholesale furniture dealer. His mother liked to sing, and he began writing songs for her.
He grew up with two brothers who achieved a degree of renown. Milton Drake was a lyricist of “Mairzy Doats” and other popular songs in the 1940s, and Arnold Drake became a noted comic book illustrator.
Ervin Drake graduated in 1940 from City College of New York and majored in art, hoping to pursue illustration if music fell through. A bad heart kept him from military service in World War II.
Among his output from that era was adding lyrics to “Perdido,” a jazz song composed by Ellington trombonist Juan Tizol. He later wrote English lyrics to the Italian song “Quando Quando Quando,” and wrote words and music for “The Father of Girls,” memorably sung by Perry Como and based on Mr. Drake’s own raising of two daughters.
His first wife, Ada Sax, died in 1975. He later wed the former Edith Bein, a childhood love and onetime showgirl who broke his heart and inspired parts of “Good Morning Heartache” and “It Was a Very Good Year.”
Besides his wife, survivors include two daughters from his first marriage; his stepson; six grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.
He was a past president of what became the Songwriters Guild of America and helped champion copyright protections and more lucrative contracts for songwriters. He was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1983.
“My father said to me that he did not want to aid and abet me on the road to hell, and he insisted I come into his business,” Mr. Drake told the New York Times upon his induction. He lasted 14 months before he sold a song to a publisher for $300 and was on his way.
“That was my declaration of independence,” he said. “I left the furniture business. I had a feeling I never would have been in the furniture man’s hall of fame.’’