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Michael Hughes Biography

Michael Hughes is an accomplished keyboard player and a seasoned composer and arranger. He received his Bachelor of Composition degree from Berklee College of Music in Boston, Massachusetts, and taught there several years as well. He served as Musical Director for the musical “Hair,” performed with his own original bands, and has composed and recorded for the major film and television studios in Los Angeles, California.

 

How The Birthday CD Came to Be
by Michael Hughes

Birth

As a working musician for the past thirty years, I have had the opportunity to play the "Happy Birthday to You" song at numerous parties and celebrations. People love to sing "Happy Birthday to You" to their friends and relatives, not only at birthday parties, but also at other gatherings where someone might be having a birthday, such as weddings and office parties.

I carried that tradition over into my private life by calling my friends and relatives on their birthdays. With the phone cradled between my ear and my shoulder, I would proceed to play on the piano (with both hands) the "Happy Birthday Song." Sometimes I would sing along, and other times I wouldn’t, but the person on the other end always seemed touched by my effort. I think hearing "Happy Birthday to You" in a musical setting carries a little more emotional weight than the simply spoken greeting of "Happy Birthday."

In 1992, I decided--for my friends' and relatives' sake (and mine, too)--to vary the musical style of the "Happy Birthday" greetings I would play for them. Instead of the previously generic style that I had used in past years, I arranged a boogie-woogie version, a Mozart version, a dreamy Debussy-like version, and a mellow jazz version, all for the piano. Since these were a little more intricate and demanded more concentration while playing, I decided to record them onto my computer’s sequencer. This way, at the press of a button, my computer would play whatever rendition I chose to play, leaving me only to hold the phone next to one of the stereo speakers as the piece was being played. Many times, if the particular birthday celebrant was not at a home, I would leave the rendition on their answering machine. Somehow, they always managed to figure out who the message came from.

These renditions stayed put on my computer for several years until late 1997, when, one day, I had this intriguing idea that I should add a bunch more birthday renditions to the four I already had, and string them together to make a music CD. I added a ragtime version and two different Chopin versions.

I played these seven pieces for my friend Dean Michaels, in order to get some feedback on how "nutty" my idea really was. Dean was extremely excited and enthusiastic. He told me he saw tremendous potential in this idea, and suggested that we put our minds together to develop it fully. As things turned out, "develop it more fully" would mean 18 months of intense, collective effort. In case you never timed it, the "Happy Birthday Song" is a very short song. Even with fancy musical intros, endings, and other inventive arranging techniques, most renditions ended up averaging around a minute in length. We figured that by exhausting our imaginations, we could probably come up with 40 different ways to play our newly found favorite melody, which would make The Birthday CD about forty minutes long. This would be shorter than most music CDs, but we thought that it would be enough for a novelty item. So we decided that The Birthday CD was viable idea, and proceeded to make it a reality.

Growth

The initial seven pieces I wrote were arranged for solo piano. Dean suggested that in order to provide a greater variety of sound and to increase our choices of musical styles (try, for example, emulating a mariachi band on a piano!), we should use a combination of instruments that are characteristic of each of the musical styles we chose to emulate.

As far as compiling a list of styles, our first sources came from popular music (disco, rock, country, swing, etc.) and classical composers (Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, etc.). Then, we thought of different places that have their own characteristic style of music, such as countries (Ireland, Italy, Mexico), continents (Africa, Asia), and even outer space! We examined different times of the year (Christmas, New Year’s, Fourth of July), and considered different stages in one’s life (Beginning -- "Lullaby Birthday," Teenage years -- "College Birthday," and Ending -- "Heavenly Birthday").

As we compiled the list, I realized that another way to make The Birthday CD more musically rich (in addition to having the renditions be played by a wide range of musical instruments) would be to weave a song characteristic of the musical style we were working on, with the melody of "Happy Birthday to You." So, for example, in "College Birthday" I combined the college song "Notre Dame Victory March" with "Happy Birthday to You"; in "Country Birthday" I blended the country song "Tennessee Waltz" with "Happy Birthday to You"; and so on.

There were a few choices that got rejected along the way. No matter how I manipulated the pitch of the notes, or their duration, I could not fit the "Happy Birthday Song" with the melodies of certain songs, and still have it sound musically pleasing. Some rejects were "Presidential Birthday" ("Happy Birthday" melody blended with "Hail to the Chief"), "Graduation Birthday" ("Happy Birthday" melody mixed with "Pomp and Circumstance"), and "Wedding Birthday" ("Happy Birthday" melody married to the "Bridal March" or the "Wedding March").

After six months of arduous yet enjoyably creative work, I reached the magic number of forty versions of "Happy Birthday to You." I spent about a week catching my breath, and then I was able to come up with two more renditions. Dean said that 42 was not a nice, round number. He presented me with the Solomonic choice of either 40 or 50. He said he believed we could both dig deeper and come up with 8 more renditions to make it 50. So we started racking our brains searching for yet more ideas.

In one instance I was sitting at the piano trying to search all time and space for a new idea, when a song from my early childhood entered my mind. As I played it, I immediately knew that with a few small harmonic and tempo variations, I could fit it to the "Happy Birthday" melody. That piece was "Chopsticks," which became "Chopsticks Birthday." Two months later, and seven new renditions, and fifty versions had been completed. These fifty versions, however, were not all done in one take. After each of the 50 versions was completed, I would give Dean a recording, and he would come back with suggestions. Between those suggestions and my continued refinement of the pieces, each version was slowly becoming more polished, until we felt each was just right.

We then started playing them for family and friends in order to get some feedback. We consistently got huge "thumbs up" for all renditions, with the exception of one! This piece was called "Round of Birthdays." A "round" is a piece in which the melody begins, and a few seconds later that same exact melody begins in another voice as a counterpoint to it. An example of a round would be "Row, Row, Row your Boat." In this "Round of Birthdays" piece, the "Happy Birthday" melody was played a record twenty-four times as a round, in less than a minute! Each birthday melody was played by a different instrument, and the piece was written in a dissonant, twentieth-century style, a la Russian composer Igor Stravinski. This cacophony of sound must have been what turned off the average listener, so we pulled it from The Birthday CD, never to be heard again (unless we post it on our website, if there is a public outcry as a result of this omission).

I now had to come up with a new piece to replace the "Round of Birthdays." Rather than searching for a new style, I combined two old styles (classical and jazz) and came up with a piece called "Elegant Birthday." I managed to fit a familiar and beautiful Bach melody ("Air") with the "Happy Birthday" melody. I then added some swing bass and drums and the last piece was complete. As it turns out, many people rank this rendition as one of their most favorite on The Birthday CD.

Completion

Once the last piece was completed, and we received overwhelmingly positive feedback from family and friends, the second phase of the project began--turning 50 musical pieces into a marketable product. Little did we know that it would take us another ten months to bring it to market.

Our first step was to find a music attorney. We had to make sure that all the numerous songs I had combined with the "Happy Birthday" melody, as well as the "Happy Birthday" melody itself, would be licensed to us for use on The Birthday CD. Some songs turned out to be public domain (meaning they were written so long ago that we could use them for free), while others were still copyright-protected, meaning they had to be licensed and paid for. This process, which involved our attorney communicating back and forth with numerous music publishers, took over six months. During that time it appeared as though we were not going to get permission to use one of the copyright-protected songs. As a result, I wrote another version of "Happy Birthday to You." It was called "Andes Birthday." It is a musically eclectic version that contains sounds of the rain forest, and features wind flutes reminiscent of the instruments played by tribes in the Andes. The copyright issue, however, was in the end resolved. Since we wanted to keep the number of pieces to a nice round number like fifty, "Andes Birthday" was not added to the CD, and will never be heard again (unless there is a large public outcry demanding we post it on our web site.)

We did not sit back idly while our attorney was conducting his negotiations. Our next priority was to create a cover for The Birthday CD. We wanted the cover to represent the thoughts and emotions that the fifty versions conveyed to the listener. We sought out the talents of the artist Faith, of Dean Michaels' The Wonderful Card & Poster Company. She came up with a beautiful image that faithfully reproduces the energetic, cheerful, and playful nature of the music on The Birthday CD.

Meanwhile, Dean and I were busy organizing the text and layout of the CD insert. We wanted to be as informative and entertaining as possible in the small amount of space a CD insert provides. The back of the CD was a particular challenge. We wanted to include all fifty titles, as well as a short paragraph describing the CD. This short description had to make the consumer intrigued and excited enough about the product to buy it as a gift for himself or someone else. We also spent several weeks coming up with entertaining comments for the CD insert about each of the fifty renditions.

The final few months of this endeavor included digitally mastering the CD, designing the final CD insert layout, creating our web site, duplicating the CD, and setting up numerous aspects of the business (licenses, permits, etc.). We also had to design marketing materials, counter displays for gift stores, as well as arrange for various distribution methods. Were it not for all these steps, The Birthday CD would have remained a product only our friends and relatives got to enjoy. Our sheer determination and faith in this product propelled us forward. We were also encouraged by noticing that, all along the way, every person who heard The Birthday CD placed an advance order, often for multiple copies. Our printing house, for example, which prints for Dreamworks, Paramount, Warner Bros., and other major studios and record labels, ordered 20 advance copies even before the CD was manufactured! Such recurring events reinforced our belief in this uniquely wonderful product.

On March 22, 1999, The Birthday CD was finally released. Everyone who has heard it thinks it is one of the very best birthday gifts one can give or receive. We are confident that every person who orders it will enjoy it and recommend it for its great music and good fun!

***Click here to buy The Birthday CD for only $9.95***

(you can also listen to 30-second audio samples of ALL 50 tracks on The Birthday CD MP3 Edition here)

 

 

Learn how The Birthday CD can be used as a music education tool


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