By Joel Warner
By Michael Roberts
By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
It went like this: Everyone knows that Cole Porter dropped out of Harvard Law when his first play was about to be produced in New York. Titled See America First, it featured music by Porter and some lyrics by a fellow student named T. Laurison Riggs. In Thom's (imaginary) plot, Riggs comes back from an obscure bank job to sue Cole Porter for copyright infringement, claiming that all of Porter's alleged lyrics were actually his.
"We called it Trial by Music," Thom says proudly. "It was an interesting musical and a very interesting way to get the musical back into the courtroom." Which is precisely where it belongs, he adds. "W.S. Gilbert was a lawyer, a barrister. He sued Sullivan, you know. They couldn't stand each other."
Even those musicians who didn't practice law had their celebrated brushes with it, both during and after their lifetimes. "I do a sort of musical copyright talk as a road show," Thom says. "I bring along my synthesizer and explain the whole thing on the premise that there are only 88 notes and only a certain number of combinations. Is it infringement or fair use? Beethoven was one of the biggest musical snitches of all time. So is Dan Fogelberg."
Unconsciously "borrowing" a musical phrase is second nature to most composers, he explains. Part of the natural order of things. As predictable as the fact that if you ask thirty lawyers (or law students) to participate--pro bono, of course--in a musical revue complete with skits and singing, thirty lawyers will report for duty. "I've only been in Colorado a few years," Thom observes, "but you have some real talent here. Or that's what I've noticed at the bar association conventions--really excellent singers and actors."
"We do have a talented bunch," agrees Jen Williams of the Colorado Bar Association. "They're always willing to put on a show. Luckily, most of them are very good."
"I did stand-up while I was in law school," explains attorney Cliff Eley, who still does comedy at lawyerly events around town. "It was a great way to make fifty bucks in twenty minutes. I went to law school in Provo, Utah, and the big change I noticed afterward was how much it helped to have a little alcohol in the audience."
For material, Eley seldom has to look further than his own career as a workers' comp attorney. One of his finest courtroom moments came when he wanted to show a video of a client fishing. The opposing attorney said: "Your honor, this is a fishing expedition," Eley recalls. "And I got to stand up and say, 'Stipulated!' which is like saying, 'Boy, is it ever!' More recently, I wrote this song, to the tune of 'Candle in the Wind,' which no one will understand if they don't know a whole lot of workers' comp law. It's too bad. It was the best thing I ever wrote."
"I begged him not to do that song," counters Craig Eley, Cliff's brother. "It was devastatingly accurate, almost cruel. Not his best work, although everyone thought it was hilarious." A fellow workers' comp lawyer, Craig performs with his brother at conventions and Denver Law Club shows. To prepare, the brothers riff into a tape recorder for hours on end, looking for material. "Although on election years, our routine practically writes itself," Craig adds. "It's gotten to the point where we've noticed that writing and performing is more fun than practicing law."
Sound incongruous? "No," Craig says. "Congruous. Some of the most dignified, staid lawyers--the guys who never leave their desks--are really, really gifted. There is no dearth of lawyers willing to make fools out of themselves. The thing is, though, they have to have something funny to say, or sing, or whatever."
Bill Thom has an unimpeachable suggestion for such show-biz barristers. "Dust off Of Thee I Sing," he says. "The time is right.