04/29/2013 05:56 pm ET | Updated Jun 29, 2013

The Hidden Hitmakers: We Only Know Their Songs

Chances are that most of us have never heard of Patty and Mildred Hill. The Kentucky-born sisters lived during the turn of the 19th century. But the song they penned more than a century ago continues to be sung by hundreds of millions each year ranging in age from four to 104. In fact, according to Guinness World Records, the Hill tune is one of the world's most frequently sung dittys. You hear it in movies. Marilyn Monroe famously serenaded President John F. Kennedy with it. Even the orbiting Apollo 9 crew crooned the tune while in space. 

So why don't most of us know the Hill sisters, the "Happy Birthday to You" composers? Why is it that for most of us, "My Heart Will Go On" belongs to Celine Dion? (Although it was actually written by  James Horner and Will Jennings.) I started thinking about the people who actually write these hit songs. Who are they? Who is the person behind the hit?

Case in point, when Hannah Montana sensation Emily Osment came out with the song, "I Don't Think About It" in 2007, the song became a sensation too. It quickly hit number one on Radio Disney, was downloaded by hundreds of thousands and the video received more than 695,000 views on Youtube. Osment got the glory, but the song was actually written by Ilene Angel (and Sue Fabisch). 

Angel is a 40-something-year-old woman and performer in her own right. And while she continues to write for others, she decided it was time to place herself and her song writing compatriots front and center. So on May 1st at Stage 72 in New York City, Angel is spearheading a special night of music of song writers playing their own tunes. In addition to Angel, the lineup includes Tanya Leah who wrote Wynonna Judd's hit, "I Will Be" along with other bestselling song writers. I talked with Angel about the joys and challenges of people knowing your songs but not your name.

Why don't songwriters get more recognition?
People always identify the song with the artist. And frankly, that's kind of the goal. As a professional songwriter, if I'm writing for a particular artist, the idea is to write something that they'd want to say if they were able to write it for themselves. I suppose the same could be said for actors. People always identify the actor with their iconic role, but if there hadn't been words on a page first... But that's why this is such a treat, to get to sing the songs that are near and dear to us and that represent who we are

How did you pick the other songwriters who are performing with you at Stage 72?
As I've worked with different people over the years, I became friends with a lot of them, and as time progressed, I realized that I was fortunate enough to have a circle of friends whom I considered to be some of the greatest talents anywhere. And I thought it would be a fun thing for us to sit around playing and singing on each other's songs like we'd do if we were in my living room -- only with an audience. 

How is each one unique and special?
Each of us has this thing we do that's uniquely our own, especially when we're wearing the hat of singer/songwriter as opposed to writer for hire. For instance, Garry Novikoff has written some of the most quirky, funny and fun songs that never cease to delight me. Tanya Leah's songs transport and inspire me and compel me to reach for something more in every way. Lorraine Ferro, well, first, she's got one of the all time best voices ever. But her songs run the gamut from straight ahead pop/rock to more artistic and out of the box. And BethAnne Clayton has a bluesy vibe that I just love. And she's also one of those amazing singers who can sing the phone book and make it sound like a masterpiece. 

What was the hardest song to write?
I was asked to write a song for a show to be sung by a character that had a child her mother didn't live to see. Because I lost my mother, I was really able to tap into the emotion of that. And the song came out great, but it was gut-wrenching to write and it ultimately didn't wind up in the show.

What was the first song you wrote?
Let me assure you, I will not be singing even a few bars of it. (Laughing) I was nine-years-old and I vividly remember that "Someone To Talk To" was an extension of my diary. That's how I started writing songs. They were my safe place to express myself. 

What do you adore about writing?
I love creating something out of thin air, especially that moment when you have the germ of an idea and you see the potential for where it could go, but you don't exactly know yet. You're open and willing to follow the inspiration wherever it leads. And when you're done, you've created something that wasn't there before, didn't exist before in this world. It is both exciting and often humbling at the same time.

What's your favorite song that you've written?
I think every writer will tell you that it's the song they wrote today. Whenever I finish a new song that I really love, I feel like a kid who's been given a shiny new toy to play with. It's fun! So right now my favorite song is the one I wrote last night. And just to prove the point, I'll be singing it in my show this week because I can't wait for people to hear it.

What song do you wish you had written?

There are soooo many, which is why I've invited my friends to play with me, because honestly, they've written some of them! But of the songs we all haven't written, I'll go with "You've Got a Friend."

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The hitmakers
(Photo used with permission.)

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