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NPR composer BJ Leiderman shares stories behind the tunes

BJ Leiderman in the WUWF Studio A
Jennie McKeon
WUWF Public Media
BJ Leiderman in the WUWF Studio A

BJ Leiderman doesn’t need an introduction to hardcore public radio fans. He’s composed tunes for popular NPR shows including “Morning Edition,” “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me,” “Weekend Edition,” “Science Friday,” and “Car Talk.” As WUWF Executive Director said, Leiderman is “probably the most well-known celebrity that no one's ever seen much.” He’s the man who Scott Simon calls “the John Williams of public radio.” While in Pensacola to visit family, he stopped by WUWF to play our finely tuned piano and share his NPR story.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

RELATED: BJ Leiderman: 'I'm The Luckiest Composer On The Planet'

Here are a few highlights from the interview:

On getting the Morning Edition gig:

Leiderman: It’s exactly what they tell you, as they say. It's a bit of talent and a great big bit of luck. I had a good friend named Skip Pizzi who was the chief engineer at NPR. And he called me up one day — in fact he woke me up and he said, ‘BJ, they're doing a new morning show over at NPR. Would you like to do a demo? And I said, ‘Of course I would.’ I was studying broadcast journalism. Imagine that. I could have been a news guy under Ed Bliss at American University. And, it was time for spring break. So I came home. I was also playing in a rock band called Smee — Captain Hook's first mate. Anyway, we were a great cover band. And they had bought me a piano and this little, synthesizer, which really wasn't a real synth because real synths had not been born yet. But this was one of those cheesy crosses between an electric piano and an organ. It was called a crumar orchestrator. And I went to (our guitar player’s) house. He had a four-track tape recorder, a reel-to-reel four-track tape recorder. Anyway, I did the demo there. I wrote the thing on my mom's piano. It came out immediately. And, I had a meeting with Jim Russell, who was the original producer of Morning Edition. I mixed that down to a cassette tape. Gave the tape to Skip. He gave the tape to Jim Russell. And Skip called me and said, you did it, and they want to meet with you. So Jim Russell left NPR to form his own consulting company. And this was a few months or so before the show was supposed to go. Jay Curnis took the helm when Jim left. And before Jim left, he took the tape over to a creative meeting and put it on the table, and said, 'This is Leiderman's demo. We like it, use it,” and Jay liked it. So that's why I'm sitting here. If not for Jim, they could have gone in a totally different direction.

On the new Morning Edition tune:

Leiderman: I mean, as everybody probably knows, a few years ago, there was a small shock to your system when Morning Edition came on the air with what they called a new electronic whatever. I actually phoned up those guys. They're a bunch of nice guys, great composers called, Man Made Music in New York. And they told me a funny story, which I can tell. I tried to be a good boy because everybody else was yelling and screaming. I have to pat myself on the back because everybody was telling me to go medieval on NPR. They've done me well, so I wasn't about to do that. But the guys at Man Made Music said, “BJ, you know, we tried. The edict from NPR was to get rid of your melody for Morning Edition.” They said, “We tried every way we could. We could not come up with a version that did not have your melody in it, that did not totally shock the listener.” Anyway, the melody is still in there.

BJ Leiderman is the composer of the theme music heard on NPR's <em>Morning Edition</em>, <em>Weekend Edition</em> and <em>Wait Wait...Don't Tell Me!</em>
Courtesy of Cole Rian: Jen Haynes & Mel Wils
BJ Leiderman is the composer of the theme music heard on NPR's Morning Edition, Weekend Edition and Wait Wait...Don't Tell Me!

On his NPR credits:

Leiderman: It was a bunch of young kids creating something out of nothing. It was before the corporate idea took over and sort of started running things. And back then, everybody was kind of had each other's back. So Jim and or Jay, I can't remember. It was probably Jay. By the time the contract, he turned to the head of legal and said, “Look, excuse me, we're not paying him all that much.” So back in the day, what I got paid was pretty good. It looked good to me for a creative fee. Its public radio, what do you know? I don't know if I was a member of ASCAP yet and whether I was getting royalties yet. I eventually signed up, but, Jay said, why don't we give him a credit, an on-air credit? And back then it was at the end of every show, and NPR was famous for honoring all of their staff on all of their shows. So the last couple of minutes of every show, it may have alternated as a daily show, but they got everybody in, including me. So it's in my contract a few years ago, I don't know how many, five or so, they, unilaterally stopped giving credits. And I know why. You don't have to focus group test this type of thing. When people hear credits, they figure it feels like the show is over and a good number of them maybe switch the channel or do something else. That's why they have the whip around. And one show, just one second of silence, and boom, you're into the other show. And they stopped saying mine as well. And I waited a few weeks. I was going, do I need to hire a lawyer for that? No, I just wrote her a letter. The same person who was the head of legal, Denise Leary, bless her heart, was still there. And she wrote back a couple of days later, she said, “BJ, I'm so sorry.” And she called me, and, they put mine back on. And some people like that. Other people just don't understand it and don't like it. And I'm sorry, but I'm not going to ask NPR to stop.

On his self-titled album:

Leiderman: Well,the album, which is titled ‘BJ,’ and it's got a photo on the front of me when I had hair down on my shoulders and actually run through a filter that looks like I'm on all kinds of psychedelics. I had been talking about doing this stupid album for three decades or so, and my friends in Virginia Beach, my old pals, and bands got on me. One guitar player said, when I moved to Asheville, he said, ‘BJ, if you don't do your album while you're in Asheville, I'm going to come up and beat your ass.’ He ended up being on the album in Asheville. It was a labor of love. Some of the songs I had written years and years before, some I'd written just a few months before for the album. But the backup band on this album is the Randall Bramblett Band, hailing from the Athens area of Georgia. Unbelievably wonderful band. The bass player was in one of my earlier cover bands. But Randall and the boys came down to Asheville in a wonderful studio called, Echo Mountain. It's a beautiful studio with fabulous staff, and I also was very lucky to have an introduction to Bela Fleck, incomparable, banjoist, (who) plays every string instrument. But he was at a festival called the Leaf Festival, and my assistant at the time took me backstage, she introduced me to Bela (Fleck). And, she'd already told him I had an album and I had some instrumentals. So he just looked at me and said, ‘Yeah, man, send me five or so of your instrumentals and I'll pick a few.’ He called me up, he said, ‘I'll play on these three and you can come to Nashville and produce me.’ And so Barbie and I drove to Nashville and in his home studio he had already written the parts that he wanted to play. But these are just short, like one-and-a-half to two-minute pieces. Three of these things and he just killed it. And the producer is a guy named Eric Seraphin. He goes by the name of Mixerman. He just arrived in Asheville from LA, where he had produced and engineered some of the biggest albums on the charts. I had been afraid to pull the trigger because I already had public radio success and this stuff, the music. And I have to mention here, Jim Pugh, who was an A-list trombonist in the recording studio scene in New York, and he's also an arranger. And I guess that's why it took all those years for me to start because I was just scared. I was afraid, but I realized, man, I read it often enough and I'd heard it often enough. And the saying is, surround yourself with people better than you and get out of the way. And I finally did that. Mixerman said, ‘Hey, here's how much it's going to cost. This is the money. I'll book the studio, I'll make the arrangements with the band, and in 90 days you'll have an album.’ And by God, he was true to his word. And I'm extremely proud of it.