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People Top 5
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- October 27, 1980
- Vol. 14
- No. 17
They Call Steve Karmen 'the Beethoven of Spot Sonatas'—Meaning He's King of TV Jingles
Sooner or later, you'll own General (another Karmen)—if you don't go out of your gourd first. "Talk with respect!" Steve defensively tells detractors of his art form. "Jingles move the world." Indeed, Karmen's proudest accomplishment in jingledom has moved his part of the world. In 1977 he wrote the contagious four-note I Love New York ditty to help the Empire State boost tourism and strike back from its negative image. "When the commercials first aired," Karmen recalls, "everybody complained about the state spending $3 million-plus on advertising. But New Yorkers are bitching all the time, and it turned out to be the most successful campaign ever by a local government," he claims. "We found that for every dollar, $5 was returned to the state. If General Motors could have that kind of return, we would not be in the recession we're in."
In fact, this summer Gov. Hugh Carey declared the song the state anthem. "It was the biggest thrill of my life," exults Karmen, who was so moved he gave the song to the state—gratis. "I Love New York transcended being an advertising campaign for me because it was part of my background."
His parents were Russian immigrants. His late father, Hyman Karmen, worked 44 years for the city as an engineer, and his mother was an accountant. Steve, younger of two boys, attended the brainy Bronx High School of Science, but quit pre-med at New York University after six months to become a calypso singer. He lost on an Arthur Godfrey talent show, but was good enough to get a concert at Carnegie Hall, where he was introduced as "the most authentic non authentic calypso singer." When the trade winds died, he tried folk. "But everyone was trying to sing like Bobby Darin and Pat Boone," he remembers ruefully. So, to emulate them, he says, "I sang in suits and ties. By the time I got that act together, folk music came into its own. I missed every trend."
Except one: He finally found steady work in the mid '60s scoring some 30 pornographic films. But Karmen moans, "No one listens to the music in a nudie movie." Finally he was offered a chance to write a TV spot—implausibly a public service campaign for the Girl Scouts. His first Madison Avenue hit was his 1969 tune about taking Salem out of the country. As in many of his compositions, it started with the ad agency providing the lyrics.
The one pitch Karmen won't throw is for politicians, and he has turned down lucrative offers from Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford and George Bush. "Imagine packaging the man who guides the country and selling him in 30 seconds," frowns Karmen. "That's irresponsible. You wind up with President Toothpaste and Senator Cola."
Karmen can well afford to say no. He retains copyrights on all his songs, thus collecting lucrative residuals for network air play. Industry sources figure that he has to earn close to a million dollars a year. The trade press doesn't call him "the king of the jingle jungle" for nothing.
Karmen's weekends are made mostly for time with his three teenage daughters. His wife died of cancer in 1974, and Karmen does most of his writing at home in suburban Bedford, N.Y. He usually starts at 5:30 a.m. Though Karmen can bang out a song in two or three hours, he points out that it can take weeks to "digest the input" for a campaign, match target audience with a sound and then connect them with the irresistible "hook." He has also released an LP of easy-listening tunes and is now making time to work on a musical. Sooner or later, Karmen hopes, he'll own Broadway.
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