16 October 1929
17 July 2015 85) (aged|
Studio City, California
He received a degree in music from the University of Wales and moved to Canada in 1955, where he started a career as an orchestrator and composer for CBC Radio and CBC Television. He and his songwriting partner, Marian Grudeff, wrote their first Broadway musical, Baker Street, in 1964. He later moved to Hollywood, where he wrote musicals and sketches for The Dean Martin Show, The Carol Burnett Show, The Smothers Brothers Show, The Bob Newhart Show and others. In the 1970s and 1980s he was a writer and editor for numerous episodes of The Love Boat and Head of the Class, among other series, and co-wrote lyrics for I Remember Mama in 1979.
In the 1990s, Jessel began to perform comedy songs at parties and wrote songs for recordings with Michael Feinstein and others. His first stage performance was at age 72, and he developed his own cabaret act, which he continued to perform until shortly before his death. He was a recipient of five MAC Awards for "Original Song" and the 2004 Bistro Award. At age 84, in 2014, his audition for America's Got Talent drew media attention.
Jessel was born and raised in Cardiff, where his family ran a clothing shop. He received a degree in music from the University of Wales. With a one-year scholarship for studying musical composition, he went to Paris and studied under Arthur Honegger. He moved to Canada with his family in 1955 at the age of 26. He started his career as an orchestrator and composer for CBC Radio and CBC Television. There he met his lifelong songwriting partner, Marian Grudeff, a Canadian pianist. Together they played active roles in orchestral and theatrical compositions.
Their major breakthrough came when producer Alexander H. Cohen signed them to write the songs for the 1964 Broadway musical Baker Street, about Sherlock Holmes. Their next score was for a new version of Hellzapoppin, based on the 1938 hit musical revue of the same name. This new musical was not a success, but its title song was recorded by Jimmy Durante and Louis Armstrong. He moved to Hollywood and made a successful career with musicals and sketches for The Dean Martin Show, The Carol Burnett Show, The Smothers Brothers Show, The Bob Newhart Show, Comedy Factory, and various John Denver specials. He was a story editor of the ABC comedy The Love Boat from 1977 to 1980, and writer and consultant of Head of the Class from 1986 to 1991. He wrote and produced the CBS TV series The Jacksons. He also co-wrote, with Martin Charnin, lyrics for I Remember Mama in 1979.
In the 1990s, Jessel began to perform comedy songs at parties. He was persuaded by Michael Feinstein and Shelly Goldstein to perform his original song, Wanna Sing a Show Tune, with Feinstein. The song was recorded on Feinstein's album Live at the Algonquin. His first stage performance was at age 72. He performed at the Hollywood’s Gardenia Room in 2002 and developed his own cabaret act. He continued to perform cabaret until shortly before his death, appearing in June 2015 at the Adelaide Cabaret Festival in Australia.
He married Cynthia Thompson in 1980, with whom he wrote a number of songs. The most successful are Whatever Happened to Melody?, which was recorded by Michael Feinstein (in Forever), David Campbell (in Yesterday Is Now), and by Masters of Harmony (in California Gold Rush); and I'm All Right Now on John Pizzarelli's CD New Standards. They wrote scripts and songs for the Shari Lewis' PBS show The Charlie Horse Music Pizza. He was a recipient of five MAC Awards for "Original Song", and the 2004 Bistro Award.
At age 84, he auditioned for America's Got Talent in 2014. He performed an original comic song, What She's Got, about a man who discovers that his girlfriend whom "I just adore ... has much more than I had bargained for" ... a penis. The judges, the public and some publications loved it, and he qualified for the next round of the competition. The audition was viewed more than 100,000 times on YouTube overnight following his performance. It soon received criticism from the LGBT community. After GLAAD released a statement calling the song "outright mockery" of transgender women, NBC removed the video of Jessel's audition from its website and social media outlets. Jessel did not perform on the show a second time, but the video was eventually restored to the America's Got Talent YouTube channel, where it has been viewed more than 7 million times.
On July 17, 2015, Jessel died "of natural causes" at his home in Studio City, California.