Norman Gimbel, whose Oscar-and-Grammy-winning lyrics graced everything from the theme songs to Happy Days and Laverne & Shirley to the English version of inescapable ear-worm “The Girl From Ipanema,” has died. According to Variety, Gimbel was 91.
Born in Brooklyn, Gimbel started out as a contract songwriter for Edwin H. Morris Music, penning minor novelty hits and writing the English lyrics for eventual jazz standard “Sway,” first made famous thanks to a cover by Dean Martin. A few years later, pop star Andy Williams delivered the young songwriter his first major hit, in the form of the nostalgic ballad “Canadian Sunset.”
Although he occasionally dabbled in Broadway—penning lyrics for the short-lived Native American reservation-themed musical Whoop-Up, and the even more dismal The Conquering Hero—Gimbel found a more profitable niche devising English lyrics for popular international tunes, and specifically the work of young up-and-coming Brazilian bossa nova composers. Tracks from this period include “Summer Samba,” “Meditation,” and, of course, the ubiquitous “Girl From Ipanema”—tall, tan, young, lovely—a major hit for singer Astrud Gilberto.
Gimbel hopped coasts in the late ’60s, throwing himself into penning the words for a wide variety of TV and film themes—often in association with his long-time writing and composing partner, Charles Fox. The duo wrote for a number of films, scoring Oscar nominations for their work on The Other Side Of The Mountain and Foul Play; meanwhile, one of their non-filmed works, “Killing Me Softly With His Song,” ended up winning a Grammy for Song Of The Year in the hands of singer Roberta Flack.
The pair’s most enduring contribution to the pop culture pantheon, though, will probably remain the nostalgic, kind of annoying, undeniably irresistible “Theme From Happy Days”. Indeed, the pair’s names are immortalized within the show itself, printed on the label of the record that spins in the show’s opening sequence. Other Gimbel-Fox compositions from that same era include the themes from Laverne & Shirley, Wonder Woman, Angie, and more.
There’s a decent chance that Norman Gimbel holds some kind of record for “lyrics that have driven the most people to distraction over the years”; even ignoring accomplishments like his induction into the Songwriters Hall Of Fame in 1984, or his Oscar for his work on Norma Rae’s “It Goes Like It Goes”, the man has a pretty good claim on a considerable chunk of America’s mental real estate over the last 60 years. Every time you can’t stop muttering about how these days are ours, happy and free—or, again, that goddamn tan and lovely girl—it’s thanks in part to his craft; we can’t think of a better tribute to a life devoted to helping other people figure out the words.