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Legendary songwriter Dave Frishberg dies at 88

The jazz pianist and writer of such wry and well-loved songs as "My Attorney Bernie" and "I'm Hip" had lived in Portland since 1986.

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A Portland legend is gone. Dave Frishberg, the jazz pianist and wryly clever songwriter of such tongue-in-cheek hits as My Attorney BernieI’m Hip, and Peel Me a Grape, died in Portland on Wednesday, Nov. 17, 2021. He was 88. The New York Times reported that Frishberg’s wife, April Magnusson, confirmed his death.

Portland jazz legend David Frishberg. Photo: davefrishberg.net

Frishberg was born in 1933 in St. Paul, Minnesota, and grew up in the Midwest. He moved to New York in 1957 and played with blues and jazz greats ranging from Jay McShann and Pete Johnson to Ben Webster, Gene Krupa, Al Cohn, and Zoot Sims. As a songwriter he could have the wit of a Broadway or Tin Pan Alley lyricist like Hoagy Carmichael or Stephen Sondheim and the dry reserve of a jazz iconoclast like Mose Allison. For all the sophistication of his songwriting style – his songs tickled the mind at least as much as the ears – he may be best known by the broader public for writing the music and lyrics to I’m Just a Bill, a song explaining the tortured path that legislation takes through Congress, for the kids’ television show Schoolhouse Rock!

Frishberg moved to Los Angeles in 1971 to be a studio musician and write his songs, and moved north to Portland in 1986. For several years one of the deep pleasures of Portland night life was to drop into the bar at the Heathman Hotel on one of the many nights that Frishberg was playing piano and the fine jazz stylist Rebecca Kilgore was singing. Frishberg would rarely if ever sing or play his own songs at these gigs: He left the singing to Kilgore, and played the piano, and they developed an enviable musical rapport, one well worth ordering another brandy so you could stick around for another set. 

Great singers ranging from Carmen McRae to Anita O’Day, Blossom Dearie, Rosemary Clooney, Michael Feinstein, Diana Krall, and Mel Tormé loved singing his songs. The New York Times obituary is here, and in 1998 Francis Davis wrote a lengthy profile of Frishberg for The Atlantic that’s well worth reading.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Bob Hicks has been covering arts and culture in the Pacific Northwest since 1978, including 25 years at The Oregonian. Among his art books are Kazuyuki Ohtsu; James B. Thompson: Fragments in Time; and Beth Van Hoesen: Fauna and Flora. His work has appeared in American Theatre, Biblio, Professional Artist, Northwest Passage, Art Scatter, and elsewhere. He also writes the daily art-history series "Today I Am."

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2 Responses

  1. What a treasure to be able to drop in at Heathman and if there was a table to enjoy Dave and Rebecca.
    Was also able to see him in other venues – thank you for sharing your talent Mr. Frishberg and rest in peace.

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