May 18, 2015

Q&A with the Songwriter Behind Mad Men’s Closing Song

Roger Greenaway (l) and Roger Cook

Roger Greenaway (l) and Roger Cook in 2009 at their induction into the Songwriters Hall of Fame

The closing scene of Mad Men’s much-anticipated series finale was brilliant. It featured one of the greatest ads in TV history – the groundbreaking Coca-Cola commercial featuring the song “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing,” written by former ASCAP EVP, International, Roger Greenaway, and his longtime songwriting partner Roger Cook. In the wake of the buzz surrounding the end to the acclaimed series and speculation on what the closing scene meant to main character Don Draper’s future, we asked Greenaway to talk about how he and Cook came together with McCann-Erickson ad exec Bill Backer and the commercial’s producer Billy Davis to create such a historic cultural touchstone.

********

How did you and Billy Davis come to know and work with McCann-Erickson ad exec Bill Backer?

Billy Davis was headhunted by Bill Backer after Arnold Brown, who worked with Backer on the Coke account, decided to leave to go to another agency. Cook and I had been working with Arnold and Bill Baker since 1966 when we wrote Coke commercials for acts like The Fortunes, The Tremeloes, White Plains, Ray Charles, Lesley Gore, Bobby Goldsboro and many others.

What was the origin of the song?

Cook and I were on holiday in Portugal and wrote the melody but did not finish a lyric. It was only later that Billy Davis and I decided to put a lyric to that melody for a coke commercial calling it “True Love and Apple Pie.” Then a day or so later, when Bill Backer was in town, we played him the song but he thought the lyric was not right for Coke. But he loved the melody, and the song was finished with a new lyric and titled “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing.” 

Why do you think the song connected so perfectly with the spirit of the times and the Coke brand?

I think it was the flower power era, and most of America was tiring of the Vietnam war. The lyric, although not overtly anti-war, delivered a message of peace and camaraderie. The truth is the commercial first aired on radio as a two-minute song but with little public response. It wasn’t until Harvey Gabor, a TV account exec at McCann-Erickson, came up with the idea of young men and women standing on a hill with a Coke bottle in hand and used “Teach the World” as the anthem in the TV commercial that the song immediately struck a chord with the American audience…and the rest is history.

As a songwriter who has written many hits, what does having written this particular song mean to you?

When you meet people for the first time, and you’re introduced as a songwriter, and inevitably you get the question “Might you have written something I might know?” And you say “I was one of the writers on ‘I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing’” - the reaction is nearly always heartwarming.

The Coke ad is considered one of the greatest TV ads in history. What does that say about the power and longevity of great lyrics and melody when married with the right moving image?

The public decides on what is a great song and it is they who decide what lasts. I’m proud to have been lucky enough to have been part of the team that wrote and made “Teach the World” such a successful song. Great music and lyrics can rekindle wonderful memories and feelings and in my opinion make the world a better place to live in. If our song and that iconic TV ad have achieved that status, what more can a songwriter ask for - apart from being paid for our labor?

********

Click here to watch an interview with ad man Bill Backer about the original Coke commercial.

Click here to find out how ASCAP pays for music in commercials.