Westport’s rock history includes some notable homes.
REO Speedwagon lived at 157 Riverside Avenue — and wrote a song about that now-demolished house.
Producer/musician Dan Hartman had a studio in an old sea captain’s home on Edgehill Road. He recorded Johnny and Edgar Winter there, and many others.
Now add another: Jeff Franzel’s house on Saugatuck Island.
It may soon be even more famous than the others. A couple of weekends ago, the beach house was filled with that music — plus pop, folk, country, reggae, even gospel.
None of the songs had ever been heard before. Hey — they’d only been written an hour or 2 earlier.
But some — or all — of them may one day top the charts.
Franzel’s Saugatuck Shores home (once owned by former 1st selectman Marty Hauhuth) was the site of America’s 1st-ever Songwriting Academy.
The brainchild of Martin Sutton — a British songwriter/producer who has worked with Backstreet Boys, LeAnn Rimes, Celine Dion, Olivia Newton-John, Lulu, Mike & The Mechanics and Idol winners worldwide — it’s a “boot camp” for musicians and lyricists looking to take their work to the next level.
In addition to songwriting, they learn about producing, publishing, marketing and contracts. It’s a collaborative but intense process — hence the nickname “songwriting boot camp.”
Sutton opened his academy in England a few years ago. Franzel — a Westport native who played piano for the Hues Corporation (“Rock the Boat”), Les Brown, Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., Mel Torme and Bob Hope, then wrote hits like “Don’t Rush Me” for Taylor Dayne, and others for the Temptations, NSYNC, Shawn Colvin, Josh Groban, Placido Domingo and Clay Aiken — partnered with Sutton to bring the academy to the US.
“We give them everything I wish I’d had when I started out as a busker,” Sutton says.
Which is how 15 already accomplished men and women, ages 20 through 68, came from across the country to Westport earlier this month. They spent Friday through Sunday learning about structure, form, hooks and arcs.
In the process, the group — some professional musicians, one an accountant, another a dentist; black, white and Hispanic — formed a tight, cohesive community.
From the moment they arrived, Franzel and Sutton coached them on how to create great songs. They teased out personal stories — the better to inspire their work. They critiqued them, pushed them, prodded them.
On Friday night, they shared music they’d already composed. On Saturday — just 24 hours later — they performed songs they’d written that day.
It was remarkable. The music was catchy. The lyrics were clever (one song was titled “Twice Upon a Time” — you won’t forget that). The performers were on fire.
Some had already achieved musical success. Michael Read has played with the Turtles, Mitch Ryder and Three Dog Night. Still, he says, “I want to get better. I start songs, but I don’t always finish them.”
Ykesha Milbourne belted out a spectacular gospel tune, “Can You See the Light in Me?” Sutton told her, ” I can see 50 women in robes holding candles swaying behind you.”
Before the song was finished, the other 14 academy students joined in the chorus. They’d never heard it before — but clearly, it was a song that could endure.
“We give you tools, not rules,” Sutton told the group. “This is like giving a sculptor the best hammer, chisel and marble. Then it’s up to him to put his imagination to work.”
The Songwriting Academy is expanding. There will be other locations in the US, and Europe.
But in the months and years ahead, when you hear a hit song, it might have been born by the beach on Saugatuck Island.
Which may or may not be a catchy enough line for a hook of its own.