Al Kasha likes to tell his songwriting classes that the successful common denominator in today’s popular music is “positive masochism.” He illustrates by explaining how he and collaborator Joel Hirschhorn won their first Academy Award in 1973, for the song from The Poseidon Adventure: “The only thing we knew about the film was that a ship turns over. Our first line was ‘There’ll never be a morning after,’ but we decided to change it to something more positive—’There’s got to be a morning after.’ ” (The song, The Morning After, has already become a favorite high school graduation number.)
That kind of practical lesson is the basis of the unusual course Kasha teaches at UCLA and at Sherwood Oaks Experimental College in Los Angeles. This summer he is lecturing about songwriting on a college tour. “Most people teach when they haven’t been successful, when they’re mad at the world and cynical,” he says. “I’m an example for my students of someone who’s made it.”
Kasha, 38, may be blowing his own horn but he isn’t whistling Dixie. He has been writing songs for more than 20 years, turning out 13 which became gold records, including My Empty Arms (Jackie Wilson) and Will You Be Staying after Sunday? (the Peppermint Rainbow). He has written special material for such diverse performers as Elvis Presley, Charles Aznavour and Helen Reddy. This April he and Hirschhorn won their second Oscar for another song “to endure a movie disaster by”—We May Never Love Like This Again from The Towering Inferno.
Kasha’s background is the stuff old movie musicals were made of. The Brooklyn-born son of a barber and a beautician, he began singing for customers in his father’s shop and made it to Broadway by age 7 as Ethel Merman’s little brother in Annie Get Your Gun. At 15, he wrote his first pop song, which he intended to sell to his idol, Eddie Fisher. Kasha abandoned it after analyzing the other hits of the day. (“They were all begging forgiveness,” he recalls. “Mine was just about a boy’s innocent flirtations.”)
Persuaded by his parents to major in engineering at New York University, Kasha minored in music and kept scribbling tunes. After graduation he worked six weeks at a stove factory, switched to a music publisher for a year, then knocked on the door of Columbia Records with one hit song already behind him—Irresistible You, recorded by Bobby Darin. At 22, he was a full-fledged producer for the company. Not long after, he turned down Hirschhorn’s first song as “too intellectual—it would have taken Freud to figure it out.” But the two men became friends and soon partners, with Kasha concentrating on the lyrics and Hirschhorn on the music, although each is skilled at both. “Whenever Al saw my personal indulgences creeping into our music,” recalls Hirschhorn, “he would slam the piano lid on my hands.”
In 1968 the team moved West for the movies, and in 1971 Kasha was invited to teach at UCLA. He also conducts workshops at his home for especially talented students. Not all are complete believers. “Al is master of the craft all right,” grouses one. “But what does he win his Oscar with? A big cliché,” Still, some Kasha students are scoring already. Alan O’Day’s Angel Baby became a Helen Reddy hit.
Kasha stresses proven techniques: introduce the theme quickly and repeat it often, match the mood of the words and music, use conflict in the lyrics and keep up with current mores. “This is serious stuff,” he admonishes. “One hit could support you for five years.”