Songwriter popular with top artists

Times Staff Writer

Lew Spence, a songwriter who composed the Grammy-nominated Frank Sinatra song “Nice ‘n’ Easy” and “That Face,” a standard recorded by Fred Astaire, has died. He was 87.

Spence died in his sleep Jan. 9 at his home in Los Angeles, said his niece, Toni M. Schulman.

A onetime singer-pianist, Spence began turning his songwriting hobby into a career in the late 1940s when he was nearly 30.


He worked with a number of lyricists over the years, including Alan and Marilyn Bergman. Much later in his career -- at 60 -- he began writing lyrics to some of his songs, and he continued songwriting until his death.

Among his best-known works are “Half as Lovely (Twice as True),” “If I Had Three Wishes,” “Love Looks So Well on You,” “Sleep Warm” and “So Long My Love.”

In addition to Sinatra and Astaire, other artists who sang Spence’s songs included Dean Martin, Tony Bennett, Bobby Short, Peggy Lee, Nat King Cole, Johnny Mathis, Bing Crosby, Billy Eckstine and Dinah Shore.

“I think he was an excellent songwriter, and his work had a lot of charm,” said Hugh Martin, a theater and film composer best known for his songs in the 1944 MGM musical “Meet Me in St. Louis.”

Martin, who had gotten to know Spence in recent years, said his favorite Spence song was “What’s Your Name (And Will You Marry Me?)”

“It’s just delightful, and he was a delightful person,” Martin told the Los Angeles Times on Friday. “I enjoyed being with him. He loved life, and every day was exciting to him.”


Marilyn Bergman said Friday that Spence “was a very talented songwriter. He should have had a bigger career than he did.”

In 1956, Spence played a significant role in the life of the Bergmans, with whom he collaborated for several years.

“Alan was working with Lew in the morning, and I was working with him in the afternoon,” Bergman recalled. “One day, he introduced his morning lyric writer to his afternoon lyric writer. Then the three of us started working together.”

Collaborating with the Bergmans, Spence most notably co-wrote “Nice ‘n’ Easy,” which was nominated for three Grammys in 1960 -- for record, album and song of the year. And with Alan Bergman, he wrote “That Face.”

Spence later said he was inspired to write “That Face” the morning after meeting actress Phyllis Kirk in a Beverly Hills restaurant.

For Alan Bergman, “That Face” had another meaning.

“Alan was planning to give the song to me as an engagement present,” said Marilyn Bergman, whose favorite singer was Astaire.


Although the movie legend told Spence and Alan Bergman that he didn’t record songs that weren’t in his movies, he said he would listen to it.

When they played and sang the song for Astaire, Marilyn Bergman recalled, “He said, ‘I like that, and I’ll record it next week,’ and he did.”

Singer-pianist Michael Feinstein said “That Face,” which Astaire sang on his multi-Emmy Award-winning 1958 NBC special “An Evening With Fred Astaire,” has become “one of a small group of songs from that era that has become a standard.”

“He was a very talented man who was a real melodic craftsman,” Feinstein said of Spence, whom he first met in the 1980s.

Like Marilyn Bergman, Feinstein believes Spence “deserved more success than he ultimately attained.”

“He was very gentle and kind and perhaps didn’t have the killer instinct needed to really get out there and flog his songs,” Feinstein said. “I think he lived comfortably from the royalties of what he had written, because he wrote a lot, and he was always gently offering his songs to singers.”


Just last year, Feinstein said, “Lew called me and said, ‘I’ve written a song I’d like you to hear.’ He said, ‘I’d just like to play it for you.’ He was as gentle a song plugger as there was.”

Spence went over to Feinstein’s house in Los Feliz and played it on his piano.

Feinstein didn’t remember the title but said that “it was a beautiful song for which I think he also wrote the lyrics.”

When Spence finished, Feinstein recalled, “He said, ‘OK, now I’m happy,’ and off he went.”

Spence, who was born June 29, 1920, in Cedarhurst, N.Y., is survived by two sisters, Ruth Mindling and Evelyn Dilloff.

A private memorial service was held Saturday.