Growing up Armenian in Detroit wasn’t something Dan Yessian, founder of Yessian Music, thought much about. Hardly at all, in fact.
“The only thing that was Armenian was the food,” jokes Dan. “And going occasionally to an Armenian dance, where we were encouraged to date Armenian girls.”
Instead, Dan’s focus was keenly absorbed in Detroit’s phenomenal music scene, where he would eventually carve out a healthy niche as one of Motown’s top commercial composers.
His musical future nearly floundered, however, back when he first started learning to play clarinet as a kid: he couldn’t read sheet music. Cue Dan’s amazing ear:
“The music teacher would come in, and we’d go down through the lesson,” Dan says. “I would memorize everything he was playing. I regurgitated the following week what we’d done because I’d practiced by memory.”
With his trusty clarinet and perfect ear, Dan was crashing Motor City venues in no time (his dad would drive him). At one show, 16-year-old Dan approached a local rock-n-roll band asking if he could jam with them on stage. He was an instant hit: “They were like, “Hey man, that’s cool! Wail, baby! Wail! WAIL!”
Next band up was Ardziv (“Eagle” in Armenian). They played both Armenian and American music, and invited Dan to jam with them, too. By the end of the set, Ardziv offered Dan a seat in the band, including for some upcoming wedding gigs.
Dan’s first question: “What would I get paid?” Answer: $10 a night.
“‘Oh my God! That’s was a windfall!’ I was packing groceries for 75 cents an hour.”
Thus began Dan’s career in creating perfect music for any given moment. He opened Yessian Music in 1971, and eventually crafting thousands of tunes and jingles for everyone from Sesame Street and The Electric Company to Ford (“Think Ford First”), Dodge (“Dodge Boys have More Fun”), and Whirlpool (“Making Your World a Little Easier”).
Times weren’t always smooth sailing, though, such as when ad agencies started having composers bid against each other for a single job.
“I was getting beaten down all the time in these competes, and I thought, ‘God, how do you get around that one? All this music is coming from me. What if it was coming out of my house, with a couple other people doing the same thing – would I have a better shot at this?’ We’re talking numbers here.”
Then he had a dream: he was in an airplane full of composers: “In every seat, there was a composer, and they were at computers, writing music,” Dan says. “If I could do that, could I corner the market?”
So he created one of the industry’s first commercial music houses in the most perfect of musical hives: Detroit.
Sometimes Dan wonders, however, if initiating the music house movement also helped ignited an unnerving trend toward “music by the pound.”
“I see a lack of respect for creativity these days, and that bothers me. Not just with music – it’s with everything. It’s with text, it’s with the spoken word, it’s with art, it’s with poetry. It’s like, what the f@ck? Is this where we’re at now; is it music by the pound?
“When you think of the composers up until 4 o’clock in the morning, working their asses off doing a piece of music. Whether it’s good, bad or indifferent, they’re still working at it very hard and very deliberately.
“It’s the nature of our business, and projects can move very quickly, but at the same time there’s got to be some amount of respect for those guys.
“That’s what I’m talking about: respect. A genuine feeling for other people. It’s about putting yourself in another person’s shoes.”
He foresaw this cold horizon back in the mid-1990s when he begged his sons, Brian and Michael, not to join the music business after college.
“I was kind of adamant about the boys not coming into the business, knowing what it is. It’s so elusive and flighty, and often ridiculous.
“Brian was relentless in wanting to come in, so I didn’t fight him too much. Michael I did fight … because I thought, ‘How is this business going to be able to handle three families to feed?’”
Michael wrote his dad a four-page letter listing reasons why he should join the family business.
“He was very, very much a litigator about the whole thing,” laughs Dan, who still has the letter in the top drawer of his desk. “When Michael bitches about something, all I do is reach for the drawer and he knows what I’m going to do: ‘Stop. That’s enough. I know what you’re doing.’”
The irony isn’t lost on Dan, whose sons have since built Yessian into one of the most successful commercial music houses in the world, with award-winning offices in New York, Hamburg, Los Angeles and yes, still in Detroit. (FYI: Yessian now ‘feeds’ over 30 employees/families.)
“I don’t even like going on trips, or traveling period.” Dan marvels. “It’s a place I never dreamed of.”
“I would call myself more of a creative guy than a business guy. Maybe that’s where I didn’t have the same vision as the boys have had with business expansion. My boys have done phenomenal work.”
That said, travel is soon in the cards for the entire Yessian family.
They’ll be traveling to Armenia for Dan’s orchestral premiere of “An Armenian Trilogy”, his musical homage commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide.
To create his three-movement masterpiece, Dan went back to his roots as the son of Armenian refugees, as a former school teacher, and as a musician – the first movement’s theme of “Freedom” is based on a traditional Armenian tune he often played with Ardziv.
“‘Freedom’ was my cinematic vision of what I visualize of the time before [the genocide] initiated in 1915,” says Dan. “Before that, Armenia was a normal place with a normal life – family, stopping at the cafe, going to the market.”
The following movements are “Fear” (evoking the Turkish atrocities against the Armenians) and “Faith” (a musical cacophony expressing the existential struggle of the genocide’s victims and survivors). The concert’s finale will include Dan’s song “I See Wings,” co-written with David Barrett.
“The [genocide’s] cruelty was unimaginable. I took this event and asked, ‘What happens to people, how do you feel these things, what goes through you when these experiences are experienced by you personally?’ It’s not just Armenians. It’s Jews, it’s American Indians, it’s about African Americans – it’s about anybody who is in the wrong place in the wrong time, given what history has revealed.
“You’ve experienced everything from peace to the endangerment of a community or nationality, and what questions do you have after? If you believe in God, one could say, ‘Where was He in the lineup?’ On what reliance would you have? It’s for those questions I did the music.”
Though Dan grew up speaking Western Armenian and Turkish, there was little talk of why his family left Armenia, especially around his grandfather. The grief was still too fresh.
Dan would later learn that throughout World War I, the imploding Turkish-Ottoman Empire killed 1.5 million of his Armenian ancestors through a horrifically thoroughprogram of nationalist-motivated death marches, massacres, starvation, torture, and execution. (It would prove Hitler’s inspiration for condemning Jews to the Holocaust: “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?”)
“An Armenian Trilogy” is Dan’s personal contribution to help ensure the world continues to speak of the near-annihilation of the Armenians, as well as help support the continued restoration of Armenia as a country.
“It’s certainly not going to bring an apology from the Turkish government,” Dan says. “But it may bring some additional awareness for educational purposes. As a former school teacher, I’m always about that. Otherwise we’re going to keep doing the same sh!t to each other.”
Details about the October 14th concert in Yerevan, Armenia, are available at armeniantrilogy.com. Dan and his team (including “Magic Man” Ohad Wilner) encourage supporters of the trilogy project to consider donating to the Armenian EyeCare Project.