Dave Frishberg, a songwriter, singer, and pianist who achieved immortality writing the song “I’m Just a Bill” for TV’s Schoolhouse Rock!, died November 17 in Portland, Oregon. He was 88.
His death was announced by his wife of 21 years, April Magnusson, on a GoFundMe page that had been set up for Frishberg in 2019. He had been afflicted with unnamed health problems for several years.
“I’m Just a Bill” was merely the most famous song in Frishberg’s corpus. He was a prolific writer for Schoolhouse Rock!, with his contributions including “Walkin’ on Wall Street,” “Dollars and Sense,” and “The Number Cruncher.” Nor was he limited to the Saturday-morning cartoon show. Frishberg was known within the jazz world for his literate, witty songs, including “My Attorney Bernie,” “Peel Me a Grape,” “Van Lingle Mungo,” and “I’m Hip,” the last written with his friend and fellow Schoolhouse Rock! contributor Bob Dorough.
In addition, Frishberg was an accomplished piano player, whose résumé included work with the likes of Gene Krupa, Jimmy Rushing, Zoot Sims and Al Cohn, and Ernestine Anderson. In the mid-’70s he moved to Los Angeles where he became an in-demand session player, appearing on records by Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, Manhattan Transfer, and Snooky Young.
He recorded his own songs in the two-volume album The Dave Frishberg Songbook, each volume earning him Grammy nods in 1981 and 1983, respectively. “No one quite sang a Dave Frishberg song like Dave Frishberg, with his thin, reedy voice and compellingly constricted vocal range,” writes Barry Singer in the New York Times’ obituary.
Frishberg agreed with that sentiment, despite having his songs covered by artists ranging from Blossom Dearie to John Pizzarelli. “A lot of my songs sound so much better if they’re sung conversationally,” he told NPR’s Terry Gross in 1991. “Like, I hear singers sing ballads of mine. And they hold those notes up because I know singers. They like to hear the sound of their voice…. I’m not complaining, but a lot of times when I hear singers do my songs, I wish they wouldn’t sing so much.”
David Lee Frishberg was born March 23, 1933 in St. Paul, Minnesota to Harry B. Frishberg, a Polish immigrant and clothier, and the former Sarah Cohen, a housewife. The youngest of four children, Frishberg was seven years younger than his closest-aged brother, Morton. Nevertheless, the brothers were close. It was Morton Frishberg, a self-taught blues piano player, who first played David (then an aspiring illustrator) the blues and boogie-woogie records that became his musical passion. By the time he was 13, he was playing by ear the records he’d heard by Meade “Lux” Lewis and Pete Johnson.
Although he became a regular presence on the Twin Cities jazz scene, Frishberg opted for a degree in journalism from the University of Minnesota. In 1957, after two years’ service in the U.S. Air Force, he moved to New York, where he worked as continuity writer for radio station WNEW—then became a copywriter for RCA Victor Records’ catalogues. At the same time, he broke into the performance side of the music business, booking a solo piano gig at the Duplex in Greenwich Village. Before long he was a favorite accompanist for jazz vocalists, and freelancing with Krupa and Ben Webster.
He began writing songs about 1960, initially with the hope of luring pop singers into covering them. This, however, was unsuccessful. “I wrote terrible stuff. It wasn’t very good because I didn’t mean it,” he related to Gross. “It was obvious that I wasn’t really that kind of a writer, and I was just trying to write amateurishly. And so I stopped. And I began to just write what came naturally to me and ended up being probably the only one who sings it.”
His first success was 1962’s “Peel Me a Grape,” which was published by his idol, Frank Loesser—and quickly incorporated into singer Blossom Dearie’s repertoire. Dearie also embraced another of Frishberg’s songs, 1966’s satirical “I’m Hip,” giving Frishberg a foundation on which to build an impressive songbook and, thus, songwriting career.
In 1970, after several years working behind Rushing, Sims, and Cohn, he recorded his first album, Oklahoma Toad. The album featured what became a beloved Frishberg song, “Van Lingle Mungo”—whose lyrics comprised the names of mostly pre-war, largely obscure Major League Baseball players.
Frishberg was hired in 1971 as a staff musician for an NBC-TV variety show, moving to Los Angeles—only to see the show canceled after less than two months on the air. Instead, he paid the bills doing session work. Then, in 1975, his friend and collaborator Dorough, the musical director on ABC’s Schoolhouse Rock!, recruited Frishberg to write songs for the show. “I’m Just a Bill,” his first submission, would become the centerpiece of the cartoon’s most popular episode and most durable pop-culture contribution. Although he expressed some bemusement that a Saturday-morning cartoon had spawned his most famous work, its residuals and royalties provided him with an income for the rest of his life.
While he remained a successful musician in L.A., Frishberg and his family decamped for Portland in 1986, where he remained until the end of his life. He continued freelance work in New York and Los Angeles—and earned two more Grammy nominations—but also built a career in his new home, particularly in collaboration with vocalist Rebecca Kilgore. He remained active for 30 years following his move, writing a memoir, My Dear Departed Past, in 2017. At about the same time, his illness forced him to retire from performance.
In addition to Magnusson—his third wife—Frishberg is survived by two sons, the filmmaking duo Harry and Max Frishberg, from a previous marriage.