If you’re an attentive radio listener, you probably know BJ Leiderman’s name. And even if you’re not, it’s a lead-pipe cinch you’ve heard his compositions if you’ve been within earshot of a public radio station any time in the last four decades.
A jack-of-all-trades musician, Bernard Jay Leiderman is only now releasing his very first album at age 61. But the countless themes and jingles he has composed over the years precede him – including some of National Public Radio’s most enduring theme music.
Leiderman is who you hear on the lead-ins and fade-outs for NPR’s “Morning Edition,” “Weekend Edition,” “Marketplace” and “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me!” And on each show, there is a contractually mandated announcement in the credits: “Our theme music was composed by BJ Leiderman.”
It’s been rewarding, though not really in a way you could put in the bank. While his ubiquity might put you in mind of nickels adding up to millions of dollars, Leiderman did these themes for a flat fee of about $5,000 – a tidy sum, especially for 40 years ago, but not enough to retire on, either.
“I got paid good NPR money,” Leiderman cracked recently, relaxing in the studios of Asheville’s Blue Ridge Public Radio. “Any money is good from them. They’ve treated me very well through the years, and I quickly found out how valuable an on-air radio credit is, especially with a quirky name. I still get, ‘Are you the BJ Leiderman?’ Like there’s a lot of us. Has it been rewarding? Certainly not in the way Mick Jagger would say his stardom has paid off, starting with the obvious one!”
The real Leiderman?
Ask Leiderman a question and you’ll get an answer, just not necessarily to whatever it was you asked. For example, “How old are you?” elicited the following spiel.
“How old am I? 139,” he said. “That’s how old I feel, anyway. I quit smoking and can’t stand another minute on this Earth. When did I quit? Yesterday. No, quite a while ago, but talk about a lover gone by – don’t know what you got till it’s gone, you know. But sadly, these days I got nothing to lose anymore. The album’s out and I’ve got nothing to live for…”
Pausing to draw a breath, Leiderman threw back his head, laughed and then gasped a bit before continuing.
“OK, I’m 61. I hit 60 and all my (expletive) starting falling apart. It could be the opening graph of my obit, which you will write: ‘I was sitting with him the other day and he said he was feeling funky, which the ensuing interview proved. Then he slumped out of his chair and fell on the floor, at which time I pronounced Mr. L “DOA” at approximately 1:02 p.m. ...’ ”
Leiderman continued on in a similarly manic vein for a while, darting from thought to thought. Then a sudden calm seemed to descend.
“Is all this banter all right?” he asked plaintively. “That’s the real me. But which is the real BJ? Which one is him?”
Milk and bacon jingles
Leiderman has called Asheville home for about five years and lives alone, except for his dog. He’s been divorced for nearly a decade, although he gets along well enough with his ex-wife Denise Forehand for her to have sung backup vocals on his record.
Born in the Hampton Roads area of Virginia, Leiderman grew up an only child in “the usual functional dysfunctional family.” Before becoming a jeweler, his father was an actor, while his mother worked as a secretary at an advertising agency. Mom played piano and dad played trumpet, so their son’s musical inclinations were encouraged.
Leiderman did collegiate stints at Virginia Tech and American University, but he was more interested in playing keyboards in a cover band. Thanks to his mom working in advertising, Leiderman had connections to get into commercial jingles.
“If you lived in Delaware or Maryland or Virginia back in the day, then you heard me,” Leiderman said. “I did jingles for Gwaltney bacon – even won a Cleo for one of those – Marva Maid dairy, featuring a singing cow; the Christian Broadcasting Network, Pat Robertson’s little hustle; Chris Rock on HBO. I did them all.”
By the late 1970s, Leiderman’s reputation was such that a lot of clients came to him – including an engineer for NPR, which was then less than a decade old. Leiderman was enlisted to compose themes that would work as transitions from public stations’ overnight classical programming to the morning news.
What he came up with was similar in tone to the late jazz pianist Vincent Guaraldi’s “Charlie Brown” cartoon themes. Electronic pop steeped in jazz, they’re sonic comfort food.
“They turned out OK,” Leiderman deadpanned.
Making the album
It can be difficult to tell when Leiderman is being serious versus indulging in elaborate put-ons. But between waves of one-liners, he’s quite serious about the health issues he faces. A long-ago tick bite gave Leiderman Lyme disease, which went undiagnosed for years and left him with cognitive impairments.
“The brain is a processor, and my brain is not processing signals correctly right now,” he said. “If you were to pop inside my head for 20 seconds, you’d defenestrate. You know, I used to pay good money back in college for this! Now it’s free, all the time, the trip that never ends. I’m stupid all the time now.”
That presented extra challenges when Leiderman was making “BJ” (Llama Music), an album that’s been decades in the making with numerous false starts (including a completed version that he scrapped). Finally, Leiderman hooked up with the Randall Bramblett Band from Athens, Ga., and producer Eric “Mixerman” Sarafin – who is also an Asheville transplant, and knew the same thing about Leiderman the rest of the world did.
“I grew up listening to NPR as I was being driven to trumpet lessons,” Sarafin said. “It’s what my mom listened to.”
That said, Sarafin was impressed at the range of songs Leiderman had composed, from piano-driven arena-pop along the lines of Billy Joel to an actual gospel tune (“Praise One Another”). Banjo deity Bela Fleck is on a few tracks, too.
But of course, it’s the mischievous songs that really stand out. Of particular note is the album-closing “Weekend Perdition,” a 40-second riff on Leiderman’s “Weekend Edition” theme that features him hollering, “Show me the money!”
“He didn’t tell the band what that was because he wanted to take them by surprise,” Sarafin said. “So he just taught them the lick, counted it off and had them play it a few times. It was kind of falling apart because the band didn’t really know it.”
Sarafin was also instrumental in putting together “Mom’s Phone Messages,” a funk instrumental overlaid with voicemail recordings from Leiderman’s late mother (who died in 2010). Leiderman couldn’t even listen to the messages without tearing up, so he got Sarafin to make the selections.
“I never considered using those on the record until the last minute,” Leiderman said. “But Eric said, ‘We’ve gotta do that.’ So we made up a funk jam and Eric picked out the messages from the zillions I have.”
The result is both hilarious and poignant, especially where the edit has Mrs. Leiderman repeating, “Do it, make a change.” Leiderman figures his mom would appreciate it, if not necessarily approve. Slowing himself down, he began speaking in an utterly dead-on impression of his mother’s voice.
“BJ,” he said, addressing himself in character as his mother, “don’t ever get rid of my voice. But don’t put it on that record of yours, either!”