The 1965 hit song “It’s My Life,” performed by the Animals, expressed the angst of a generation, inspiring artists like Bruce Springsteen and Jon Bon Jovi. It’s currently on the bestselling soundtrack of Ken Burns’ acclaimed documentary, “The Vietnam War,” underscoring its staying power. But for Carl D’Errico, the song’s composer, “It’s My Life” is a deeply personal statement that reflects a crucial step on his journey from despair to Christian hope.
Now, for the first time, the gifted Catholic songwriter has decided to tell his story.
Born and raised in Philadelphia, Carl’s path to success was as challenging as it was unexpected. Although his parents enjoyed popular music, and encouraged him to play the piano, they never saw it as a means to earn a living. His father—a police officer and practical man—wanted his son to become an engineer, the rising new profession at the time.
Hesitant, but knowing he needed a good job, Carl accepted a scholarship from Philadelphia’s Drexel University to become an engineer; but he had to drop out after the sudden, tragic death of his father, as his mother had no one to support her. In those days, even many police widows didn’t receive their husbands’ pensions, and Carl’s two older sisters were already out of the house, married, with families of their own. Carl worked hard to make sure his mom was provided for—digging ditches and sweeping floors—and then made the biggest decision of his young life: to become a professional songwriter. It had always been his dream, even when he was studying to become an engineer, but he was slow to pursue it, because it was such a risk. “In those days, it just wasn’t considered realistic for someone like myself to pin all my hopes on becoming a composer, since I’d be entering a very unstable profession,” he said.
Once that decision was made, Carl was filled with excitement, though he didn’t know where to begin. “I wound up enrolling at Temple University, which didn’t have a very big musical school, but I reasoned it was better than engineering, so I received a degree in musical education there,” he explained.
After graduating, he continued playing the piano and began doing occasional gigs with local bands in and around Philadelphia. But, “it just wasn’t happening,” and his real love was composing. So, in the early 60s, like so many other songwriters, he set out for New York, hoping to strike gold.
One of his first destinations was the Brill Building, which had become the place for young composers, lyricists, and singers to go. Brill was a kind of wonderland for aspiring young musicians—with every floor filled with musical publishers or music-related businesses. For decades, its agencies had produced chart-topping hits, and they were constantly looking for new talent. The list of famous singer-songwriters who launched their careers there is long. Among them is Carole King, who once described what it was like working at the legendary building:
Every day we squeezed into our respective cubby holes with just enough room for a piano, a bench, and maybe a chair for the lyricist if you were lucky. You’d sit there and write and you could hear someone in the next cubby hole composing a song exactly like yours. The pressure in the Brill Building was terrific—because Donnie [Kirshner] would play one songwriter against another. He’d say, “We need a new smash hit!”—and we’d all go back and write a song, and the next day we’d audition for Bobby Vee’s producer….
The competition was intense, but Carl plunged right into it, setting himself a goal of composing a hit within two years.
His first break came when he submitted his recording of a love song called “Sandy” to a publicity agent at Columbia Records, who forwarded it to the label’s new publishing house, April-Blackwood Music. They liked it enough to hire Carl, albeit on a provisional basis. He was happy to accept the offer, even though it meant sharing a New York City hotel room with a fellow writer and living on an uncertain income.
“They gave me 50 dollars a week, as an advance against royalties, and told me to compose new songs”—which he did, collaborating with lyricist Estelle Levitt on what he thought was a real gem, “The Day Before Yesterday.” Carl also met and began working regularly with another young, talented musician. His name was Neil Diamond.
But just when Carl thought things were about to crest, that he’d score big with one of his collaborators, April-Blackwood refused to release any of his songs. Worse, new management was brought in and fired everybody—including the future superstar, Neil Diamond. Although Carl was filled with anger, he now credits that period as a learning experience, especially his time working with Diamond. In fact, their friendship helped save Carl from despair, and kept his musical dreams intact.
“After April-Blackwood fired us, Neil opened his own little office behind a printing shop, and I used to go there and write songs with him,” Carl recalled. “He put a piano there and a payphone, and we really had something going.”
During their time together, Carl and Neil wrote several terrific songs, but, as is typical of the mercurial and often heartbreaking music business, they never wound up being produced. Carl still has many of the demo recordings they made, and hopes he and Neil can release them on a record one day, just as Carole King recently did with her own early demos.
Asked if he ever foresaw Diamond’s success, Carl says, “I knew he was very talented, was a great singer, wrote great songs, and was very determined.” After watching Diamond bring down the house at The Bitter End, a famous venue in Greenwich Village, he wasn’t surprised to see his friend’s career soar: “Neil had a fire inside of him, and you just knew he was going to make it.”
Carl had his own fire burning, and once he became a freelancer again, he waited for his next big break. It came much sooner than expected, in the person of Don Kirshner—the rock producer and music evaluator known as “the man with the golden ear.”
As the leader of Screen Gems Music, Kirshner worked with the best in the business, and Carl was honored to be a part of his team. But the pressure he had felt to produce hits while at April-Blackwood only increased at Kirshner’s high-profile agency.
Carl was lucky enough to have a manager who introduced him to one of Screen Gems’ other rising talents, Roger Atkins. Roger excelled at writing lyrics, and Carl at composing, and the two immediately clicked. Not only did they work well together; they soon found themselves swimming in the kind of stardom most songwriters only dream of.
What led to their fortune was a challenge Kirshner had thrown out to his writers: “Create a hit for the Animals!”
The Animals were an English rock band who had created a sensation with their haunting transatlantic hit, “The House of the Rising Sun.” Their manager, Mickie Most, asked Kirshner if his writers could produce new songs for the band. That was a daunting task, for the fivesome, led by Eric Burdon, had a very distinctive sound—gritty, bluesy, and soulful—that was difficult for composers and lyricists to match.
But Kirshner’s writers—including such famous songwriting duos as Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, and Gerry Goffin and Carole King—rose to the challenge. When Most flew into Kirshner’s New York office from London, he was given a stack of new songs, including Mann and Weil’s “We Gotta Get Out of This Place,” Goffin and King’s “Don’t Bring Me Down,” and Atkins and D’Errico’s “It’s My Life.” Within the space of a year, the Animals turned all three into major hits.
Carl and Roger’s turn came in October 1965, when the Animals sang “It’s My Life” on the popular US television show Hullabaloo. Anchored by Burdon’s powerful voice, propelled by an electric guitar riff, and joined by a pulsating organ, the song immediately became a sensation—captivating listeners everywhere, and winning raves from critics. Within days, the song began climbing the US pop charts, and soon repeated that success in Canada and Europe.
It’s not difficult to see why. “It’s My Life” is about following one’s inner convictions, despite what others may think of you, or want you to do. As such, it has universal and lasting appeal. As Roger reflects today, “What teenager hasn’t shouted at their parents, ‘It’s my life and I’ll do what I want!?’”
At the same time, neither Roger nor Carl wanted to write a typical teenage lament, especially for the Animals, who needed something edgier. That’s when Roger came up with the idea of writing
about a guy who was so frustrated in life that he tells his girlfriend that he is willing to do almost anything to get rich…while at the same time asking her to stick with him, through it all. Of course, as the song makes clear, he’s just blowing off steam; he never actually does anything crazy enough to risk the relationship.
But “It’s My Life” expressed the passions and growing pains of many during the Sixties, a fact that hasn’t been lost on historians of the era. Rock critic Dave Marsh cites “It’s My Life” as one of a wave of new songs—including hits by the Beatles, Rolling Stones, and Bob Dylan—that created a new force of social consciousness. Similarly, Craig Werner interprets the song as a declaration of independence—on the part of the Animals and their growing audience. The song’s famous chorus spoke for a new generation:
But baby! (Baby!) Remember! (Remember!)
It’s my life and I’ll do what I want
It’s my mind and I’ll think what I want
Whatever way fans and critics interpreted the song, one thing was clear: “It’s My Life” was an instant classic, and Carl and Roger had made their names in the music business.
Carl was ecstatic, not only because the song was a hit, but because it happened before his personal two-year deadline.
But fame, as Carl quickly discovered, has as many dangers as benefits, and he experienced both in the heady aftermath of “It’s My Life.”
The perils of success
Looking for more opportunities on the British rock scene, Carl and Roger travelled to England to meet with several producers and bands. When they arrived, they were treated like royalty, thanks to their success back in the States. But for the first time, Carl experienced the industry’s darker side. At the many parties he attended, Carl was constantly offered drugs, which he was smart enough to decline. But on one fateful night, he finally succumbed, agreeing to smoke “something stronger” than cigarettes.
The moment he did, he knew he had made a mistake. “When I inhaled, I became disoriented, and began gasping for air,” Carl remembers. Worse, he “suddenly went blind, and was staggering around in the dark.”
“I didn’t know what was happening to me,” he adds. “I felt like I was going to die.”
As his life flashed before him—“like a million photographs, racing through my mind”—Carl’s vision gradually returned, and he crawled to a safe area where he continued his labored breathing. Finally, Roger Atkins, who had no idea what had been happening to his friend, suddenly appeared and discovered Carl in his desperate state, and remembers his face “turning green.” Carl later found out he’d been given hashish laced with a toxic substance, and he might have died had Roger not been there to rescue him and call for medical care.
It took Carl almost a week to recover but by the time he had, he was a changed man. “I never took recreational drugs again, and became more aware of the quality of the people I hung around with.” He stayed close to his friends, and only worked with those he trusted. It was support he would need, not just for his personal life but professional as well.
After the success of “It’s My Life,” Carl and Roger wrote a follow-up for the Animals called “Don’t Cry to Me, Babe.” Everybody loved it, and thought it would be another sure-fire hit. But just as Animals manager Mickie Most announced the song would be the Animals’ next single, the band broke up. “Don’t Cry to Me, Babe” was never professionally recorded—not by the Animals, or anyone else. The vagaries of the music business had singed Carl once again.
After his disorienting experience in London, Carl returned to the United States, and tried restoring some order to his life. But being young and living in the Sixties made that much harder than he imagined.
A moment of grace
Carl’s biggest problem, which he didn’t immediately realize, was that his life was in spiritual disarray. Having drifted far from his youthful Catholicism, Carl felt “a profound emptiness,” which he couldn’t explain, and even his love for music couldn’t fill. Searching for answers, he immersed himself in eastern mysticism and philosophy, until one night, reading The First and Last Freedom by Indian spiritualist Jiddu Krishnamurti, something inside him awakened. “It was like a light went on, and it touched something deep in me that I knew was there all along,” he recalls.
It was a strong human impulse, but Carl didn’t know exactly what kind. He felt revitalized, with a new sense of purpose. He was bursting at the seams with emotion, and wanted to tell someone—anyone—who would listen.
“I remember running out of my upper West side apartment and into Central Park late at night, down to Fifth Avenue and St. Patrick’s Cathedral,” he said. “I started banging on the door where the priests live, and a nun finally answered, and I said, ‘I have to talk to a priest! Can you help me?’”
The sister led the unlikely penitent to the pastor on call, who patiently heard Carl out, even though he was in a high state of anxiety. Carl doesn’t recall what he told the sympathetic priest—or what the priest told him—but does remember that after their conversation, an unexpected peace overcame him, and Carl felt drawn to the Church and the sacraments again.
Although it’s paradoxical, sometimes people who become Christians, or reclaim their Christianity, do so after encountering a belief system that isn’t close to Christianity, but moves them, slowly and inexorably, toward Christ. This is what Carl believes happened to him, during a moment of profound grace.
That his spiritual re-awakening occurred just before he met Didi—the Catholic woman who was to transform his life—was likewise providential.
Like Carl, Didi was young, creative, energetic, and independent, and already making a name for herself. As an artist, actress, model, and singer, she painted murals, studied with Lee Strasberg and Shelley Winters at the famous Actors Studio, appeared in a Helena Rubinstein commercial, and sang and danced in Milos Forman’s acclaimed film Hair.
Didi was drawn toward Carl even before speaking with him. She first caught sight of him at a mutual friend’s party. “All I kept thinking was, ‘Oh, wow! I think I’m in love … . I hope he’s not married!’” she recalls.
He wasn’t, and the two began dating. That began a rewarding, if often rocky, relationship, that had its share of break-ups and reconciliations. “We were suffering when we were apart, and suffering when we were together,” Didi says. But what kept them together was their mutual love of music; for even when they were apart, they wrote songs for and to each other—creating a safety zone of communication that ultimately brought them together for good.
Carl and Didi married in 1974. Didi continued her promising acting career, eventually appearing on Saturday Night Live and David Letterman’s show, while Carl’s fortunes not only rebounded, but flourished. By the 1970s, he had worked with no fewer than five performers now in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame: Neil Diamond, the Animals, the Yardbirds, Gene Pitney, and the young Bruce Springsteen.
Springsteen had become friends with Carl and Didi, and had dinner with them at their home one night after Bruce began performing “It’s My Life” with his E Street Band. He would often introduce the song with an affecting monologue, about striking out on his own—against resistance from his family—and then sing it with his inimitable power and feeling. In 1976, during a performance at the Palladium in New York, Springsteen delivered a riveting 15-minute version of “It’s My Life”—but not before paying a special tribute to his two friends in the audience: “The man who wrote this next song is an artist by the name of Carl D’Errico. I was listening to this song when I came here in the Sixties. This is for you Carl, and your wife.”
Earning such attention from one of the world’s leading performers was a high point for Carl and Didi; but greater still was their spiritual development. While Carl had reconnected with the Church that night at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, he hadn’t yet fully committed to becoming Catholic again. That changed after his marriage to Didi and their mutual attraction to the Catholic charismatic movement, which was just then emerging in the Church. Its Pentecostal flavor and openness to new forms of worship was initially met with caution by the hierarchy, but was eventually endorsed by St. John Paul II, Pope Benedict, and Pope Francis, who recently celebrated the charismatic renewal as “a current of grace.”
That is how it was received by Carl and Didi, for it re-ignited their faith, and strengthened their art.
“We believe our creativity comes from God, and we were just trying to find out where that core was,” says Didi.
A kind New York priest named Msgr. James Wilders, who was active in the charismatic renewal, invited Didi and Carl to join it. They did, and under his leadership, took part in many charismatic sessions of praise and worship. In addition, every weekend, Msgr. Wilders would celebrate Mass uptown for his parishioners—including 30 children who travelled from Harlem. Afterwards, everyone would move to the church basement, where Carl played the piano, and the youngsters would gather around him, singing and improvising classic Gospel songs, with a healthy dose of soul and blues mixed in. “Those were lovely days,” Didi recalls now. “I only wish we could have recorded them.”
Having been blessed by God, in so many ways, Carl and Didi have tried to return Heaven’s favor, engaging in corporal works of mercy. The couple now run a non-profit volunteer artists’ organization, DidiArt Angels, named after Carl’s wife, which creates free murals and paintings for pediatric hospitals, schools, and senior homes, to replace drab walls with healing and joyous environments. At the same time, Carl continues to compose, with long-time as well as new friends, and is still in demand as a songwriter.
Carl’s latest musical effort, written with Didi, is “Ti Voglio Bene Nonna,” a beautiful tribute to his Italian grandmother—and to grandmothers everywhere. The couple’s dream is to have the song recorded and performed before Pope Francis—who has spoken movingly about his own Italian grandmother, and about the vital importance of grandparents and the family to the Church and society.
It’s difficult for Carl and Didi to sum up their eventful lives in one word, but if they had to, it would be gratitude.
“We thank God every day for each other, and the many blessings he has brought into our lives,” they said together. “We don’t know how it all happened, but we remain very grateful.”
So, too, do Carl and Didi’s many fans, who have cherished their talents, and resounding faith, which has produced such a long, beautiful, and inspiring marriage.