Songwriter Sid Tepper wrote 45 songs for Elvis, and hundreds more for other artists
By Ben Torter
Unless you’re talking about Irving Berlin or Rodgers and Hammerstein, songwriters generally don’t have household names.
Take Sid Tepper, who wrote more than 300 songs recorded by some of the greatest artists of all time, including 45 hits for Elvis Presley. Only the most obsessive fans have ever heard of the guy. Now, he’s getting some of his due.
The town of Surfside recognized Tepper, a resident there from 1970 until 2004, for his extraordinary songwriting career on Tuesday evening and proclaimed June 25 — his 90th birthday — Sid Tepper Day. Town officials also plan to create Surfside’s version of the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and award Tepper a star.
“Maybe in the downtown business district along the sidewalk, or in the new community center,” said Vice Mayor Marc Imberman. Nobel Prize-winning author Isaac Bashevis Singer, author Syd Hoff and Channel 7 anchor Belkys Nerey could also have their names inscribed on the sidewalk.
Miami Beach Commissioner Ed Tobin also showed up at the meeting Tuesday to make a declaration of his own: The Miami Beach City Commission designated June 11 as Sid Tepper Day.
Sitting in the office of his Williams Island condominium last week, surrounded by CDs, awards and music memorabilia from his distinguished career, Tepper’s mind was sharp and his style carefully put together, with manicured fingernails and a neatly worn sweater, shirt and pants. Except for the trouble he has walking because of terrible arthritis, one would never guess his age.
Born in New York in 1918, Tepper described his songwriting genius as something that came naturally.
“It’s nothing that can be taught,” he said. “You’re born with it.”
Tepper’s success began during World War II. While in the Army, he often fooled around singing and writing songs. Eventually, others recognized his talent and he made it into the Special Services Entertainment Division.
“I wrote a show and we toured it around to all the army camps,” Tepper said.
Sydney Mills of Mills Music was at one of those shows and liked what he heard. “‘After this mess [war] is over, come see me and we’ll see what we can do,’” Mills told him.
Tepper took him up on the offer, and in 1946, he and writing partner Roy C. Bennett became staff song writers for Mills at $100 per week. It was a great deal of money at the time, Tepper said, and life was great.
Their first big hit came in 1948 with “Red Roses for a Blue Lady.” The song was performed by many different artists, and three versions reached the Billboard charts. Originally recorded by Vaughn Monroe, it lasted 19 weeks and reached No. 4 on the charts. Guy Lombardo also recorded it.
After three years with Mills, Tepper and Bennett went off on their own.
“We decided to go freelance so we could spread the joy around,” Tepper said.
The competition was fierce, but the duo’s earlier successes eventually caught the attention of Elvis Presley’s people. After that, the two were in for the ride of their lives.
“You knew when you wrote a song for an Elvis Presley movie it was guaranteed to sell a million copies,” Tepper said.
In January 2002, record company BMG International released a compilation of 52 songs that Tepper wrote and Elvis sang. The double CD, Elvis Sings Sid Tepper & Roy Bennett, quickly became a collector’s item with only 250,000 printed.
“I was lucky to get a copy,” Tepper said.
That same month, Lisa Marie Presley and the staff of Elvis Presley Enterprises, Inc., recognized him for his contributions to Elvis’ career at a ceremony in Memphis.
Tears welled in the corners of his eyes last week as Tepper sang along with his CD player.
“I used to be a wannabe singer, so sometimes I’d do the demos we sent to Elvis,” Tepper said.
He sounded like a professional, snapping his fingers and singing along in perfect tempo and harmony to such classics as “Lonesome Cowboy,” “New Orleans,” “G.I. Blues,” “Hawaiian Sunset,” “Song of the Shrimp” and “Just for Old Time Sake,” a ballad he said Elvis loved even though it never became a big hit.
Tepper smiled, reminiscing about Elvis’ unbelievable singing ability that ran the gamut from blues to ballads. Something many people don’t know, Tepper said, is that Elvis couldn’t read music or play an instrument. But he didn’t need to.
“We’d send him the demo and he’d listen to it twice and be ready to go like he’d sung it his whole life,” Tepper said. “My favorite singer was Frank Sinatra, but he wasn’t nearly as multifaceted as Elvis.”
Sinatra was difficult to work with — a professional stickler, Tepper recalled.
Though they didn’t do much work together, they did score a hit with “A Long Way From Your House to My House.”
During most of his career, Tepper lived on Long Island and had an office in Manhattan, though he usually worked at home. Then, at age 47, Tepper experienced a few hardships that led to his retirement and his move to Surfside.
First, he suffered a heart attack, which he attributes to stress.
“People think the songwriting business is easy, but you’ve got to deal with deadlines,” Tepper said.
Then, just as Elvis decided to quit making movies, Tepper began to see changes in the music industry he didn’t like. He didn’t believe the songs were as meaningful as they had been. And don’t get him started on some of the music being churned out today — none of which he believes will have any lasting meaning 50 years from now.
Rap, he said, “as far as I’m concerned you can put a C in front of it.”
So, when his doctor recommended he slow down and move to Florida, he listened.
He moved his family — his wife Lillian, five children and a cat — to a waterfront house near the corner of Irving Avenue and Bay Drive in Surfside.
Surfside was an even sleepier town back then, and Tepper loved it.
These days, Tepper stays busy keeping after his publishers and copyrights and collecting royalty checks. And when you look at the list of stars who have sung his songs, the job is mind-boggling.
There’s Carl Perkins, Jeff Beck, Herman’s Hermits, the Dave Clark Five, the Beatles, Perry Como, Andy Williams, Ray Charles, Louie Armstrong, Cliff Richard, Eddie Arnold, Marty Robbins, Slim Whitman, Bert Kaempfert, Wayne Newton, Robert Goulet, Dean Martin, Dinah Shore, Nancy Wilson, Connie Francis, Sarah Vaughn, Guy Lombardo, Eartha Kitt, the Ames Brothers, the Ink Spots, Louis Prima, Arthur Godfrey, Tommy Dorsey, Lawrence Welk — and those are just the legendary performers.
And though Tepper’s name might not ring familiar with everyone, among fanatics of the singers for whom he wrote, Tepper is a god. He still receives and answers fan mail from all over the world almost daily.
“Mr. Tepper, we were thinking it would be something special if you were willing to sign the enclosed bookplate stickers which we can paste into our G.I. Blues book, and into a book about songwriters for which you are profiled,” wrote Mrs. I. Kadaner of Flushing, N.Y.
The Teppers moved from Surfside to Williams Island in 2004.
“We were empty-nesters, and the house was too much for us to handle,” Tepper said of himself and his wife of 58 years, Lillian. “We figured we needed the help with the valet service and everything. Otherwise, we’d have never moved out of Surfside.”
He was devastated when Lillian died three years ago, though he still has his five children — Jackie, Susan, Michelle, Brian and Warren — seven grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. Despite the loss of his wife and painful arthritis that keeps him in a wheelchair when he leaves home, Tepper still receives great joy from life.
“They deal you the hand,” Tepper said, “and you’ve got to play it.”