It’s just a perfect combination of great people and the right location with a storybook feel.” That’s how Dean Kay sums up his love for Toluca Lake, his home for nearly 55 years. But it’s also an apt description of his incredible career as an entertainer, songwriter, music publisher and advocate, working with some of the top artists and hit songs of all time. It’s clear his road to success was paved with talent, timing and plenty of hard work, but as Kay tells us, it never would have been possible if not for a certain lucky break — thanks, coincidentally, to one of Toluca Lake’s most famous past residents, Frank Sinatra.
Growing up in San Leandro in Northern California, Kay had no interest in the music business until he heard “Heartbreak Hotel” at the age of 14. “When Elvis blasted onto the scene, that changed my life,” he remembers. He and his friend Hank Jones began playing music together, first in a high school band and then as a folk duo called Hank and Dean. When they heard that singer and television host Tennessee Ernie Ford (who, in fact, had previously lived in Toluca Lake, next door to Bob Hope) was looking for talent for a new daytime variety show filming across the Bay in San Francisco, Hank and Dean were among the 1,500 hopefuls who auditioned. They got the gig and performed as regulars five days a week on The Tennessee Ernie Ford Show, while also recording music for RCA Victor, making personal appearances and finishing college. “As a 21-year-old kid, it was a nice place to be, on national television and living in San Francisco,” Kay says. Then he was drafted into the Army, which brought his music career to a screeching halt.
UP AND DOWN AND OVER AND OUT
Although the sudden change felt like an ending for Kay, it turned out to be the beginning of something even greater. “One day when I was home on leave at my folks’ house, I sat down at the piano and was trying to think of how I was going to address having to basically start all over again,” he recalls. “I was just kind of playing with the keyboard and looking for melodies, and all of a sudden ‘That’s Life’ started to come out, like it was in my brain and wanted to get out of there.” In about 20 minutes, he wrote most of the now-classic song about coping with the ups and downs of life. But he had no idea he had a potential hit on his hands.
“I was so young, and I really had not experienced a lot of real life, so I just considered it my expression of the way I felt at the time,” he explains. “I never thought the song would make any sense to anyone else. In fact, I refused to perform it for a long time, because I didn’t think anybody would get it.” After he finished his stint in the Army, however, he moved to Los Angeles to attempt to restart his music career. After making demos of some of his songs to show around town, with a little time left at the end of the recording session, he took one pass at “That’s Life.” Although he viewed it as “kind of a throwaway,” he was surprised by the immediate positive reactions he received. One of the publishing executives who heard and loved it, Kelly Gordon, suggested a few minor changes (becoming credited as the co-writer) and started promoting it.
“That’s Life” was recorded a few times by different artists, but it only found its way to its most famous singer by pure chance. “It’s a blues song. It was written with Ray Charles in mind,” Kay explains. “Nobody ever showed it to Frank Sinatra, because why would you show a Ray Charles song to Frank Sinatra?” One day, however, Sinatra happened to hear O.C. Smith’s rendition on the radio while he was driving. “He stopped the car, called his daughter Nancy, and said, ‘Find the publisher; I want to cut that song,’” Kay says. “I got a call the next day from Kelly, and he said, ‘You’re not going to believe this: Frank Sinatra wants to record your song.’ And of course I didn’t believe it. Why would Frank Sinatra want to record my song?”
While it wasn’t clear to Kay at the time, he now recognizes why “That’s Life” must have appealed to the superstar crooner: “Remember, Sinatra had been through a lot of problems. He was huge in the ’40s and then went through situations where he was really living the life described in the lyrics — puppet, pauper, poet, pirate, pawn and king. From what I understand, that’s what hooked him.” Fittingly for its message of overcoming adversity, the song was a global smash hit for Sinatra, propelling Kay to new heights along with it. Not only was he able to witness the 1966 recording session in Hollywood, but when Sinatra performed “That’s Life” in concert for the first time at the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas, he flew Kay in to see the show and introduced him on stage. “Frank Sinatra absolutely changed my life completely with that recording,” Kay marvels. “In my travels around the world, to have people come up to me and say how important that song has been to their lives, saving their lives, finding direction out of problems they’re having — it’s stunning. I’m still taken aback.”
CHANGING THE TUNE
Having his song sung by Sinatra wasn’t the only Toluca Lake–related serendipity Kay experienced. While living in North Hollywood a few years earlier, he was invited to a backyard party at his songwriting partner’s home in Toluca Lake and fell in love with the woman who lived two doors down. “My future wife, Michelle, worked as a cashier at the Kings Arms and moved here because it was closer to work,” Kay explains. “She bought this house in the early ’60s and I moved in after we married in ’67, so we’ve been here a long time. It’s such a lovely place, a wonderful location.” He recalls the area at that time as a dining destination, with restaurants such as Sorrentino’s, the China Trader and the Yankee Pedlar, as well as Bob’s Big Boy and Patys. “I spent a lot of time at Patys during my songwriting years,” he notes. In addition to being close to the studios and offering convenient access to the rest of the city, the neighborhood was an ideal place for him and Michelle to raise their daughter, Lisa, with good schools and the close-knit Village atmosphere. “This whole area is so laid-back and warm and inviting,” he says. “It’s kind of a hidden oasis nestled in the heart of chaos here in Los Angeles.”
This happy home life led Kay to another major turning point in his career. With income from “That’s Life” eventually dwindling and none of his other songs taking off, he accepted an opportunity to earn a steady income to support his family by working at Lawrence Welk’s music publishing company. Welk had started buying the rights to classic songs to play on his TV show, and soon realized how valuable owning copyrights could be. He built a publishing empire with a catalog of treasures — including the works of Jerome Kern, often called the father of American musical theater. In 1970, Kay was offered the chance to become the company’s chief operating officer. “That was a huge decision,” he says. He felt that if he committed to music publishing, it wouldn’t be fair to continue as a songwriter, since he’d essentially be competing against his own clients. As much as they both loved the creative side of the music world, he and Michelle decided publishing was the way to go. “I determined never to write another song,” he says, though he admits he did pen one more with friend Ron Kramer: “The Ballad of Evel Knievel,” released to promote the famous daredevil’s attempt to jump the Snake River Canyon in 1974. “The song started to climb the charts and was played when Evel was lowered into the ‘Skycycle,’ but when the jump failed and Evel parachuted to safety as the Skycycle fell into the Snake River, our song fell off the charts right along with it,” he laughs.
During Kay’s 18-year tenure as COO, the Welk company’s holdings expanded to encompass more than 100,000 copyrights and 300 major hits. “It was a lovely job with lovely people, just a dream to work for that man and that company and those songs,” he says. With his experience as a performer, songwriter and publisher giving him a unique understanding of all sides of the music business, throughout his career he’s worked as a staunch advocate for the rights of creators, serving on the board of directors for the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) for more than 30 years, as well as on the boards of many other industry associations, including the National Music Publishers Association (NMPA), the Harry Fox Agency, the Country Music Association (CMA) and the Academy of Country Music (ACM).
THE MOST WONDERFUL TIME
Through it all, and now as president and CEO of his own publishing venture, Demi Music Corp., Kay has been responsible for some of the most important music copyrights of all time, protecting and furthering the legacies of great songwriters and their estates. Interestingly, many of Demi’s most popular songs are holiday tunes. “When I started thinking about where would I like to be and what would make sense in my career, I thought about the operation of songwriter Johnny Marks, who was probably the most successful creator of Christmas songs ever,” Kay says. Marks was strategic about promoting his songs, including “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and “A Holly Jolly Christmas,” getting them featured on TV programs and even creating entire shows around them. “Watching what he did throughout his career impressed on me how valuable Christmas songs can be and how wonderful they can be to people,” Kay explains. “Having a Christmas standard is like having a hit every year guaranteed, because it comes back and back and back.” Now, his company represents beloved favorites like “Blue Christmas” (returning full circle to Kay’s childhood inspiration, Elvis Presley, its most famous performer), the Hawaiian-style “Mele Kalikimaka” (which was the B-side of Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” — yet another brush with Toluca Lake history — and only grows more popular over time) and the biggest hit of them all, “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” which came under Kay’s control thanks to an association with Andy Williams and has consistently been listed among the top 10 Christmas songs ever since Williams made it a hit.
In addition to preserving the classics, Kay keeps up to speed with contemporary industry issues such as digital rights and permissions by compiling a daily newsletter called “The Dean’s List,” which has about 150,000 subscribers. And although he’s teaching his daughter — who retired from a career as a respected commercial interior designer and lives just two doors down from her father in Toluca Lake — about the music publishing business in case she wants to continue the company if he ever chooses to retire, he shows no signs of slowing down. “I just love what I’m doing; I’m having a great old time, and now that I’m getting to work with Lisa, that’s even better,” Kay declares. “You know, I look in the mirror once in a while and say, ‘Why me? Why has this been such an amazing life?’ I wrote a little song when I was a kid that allowed it to happen. And it’s just progressed to a lovely life in a lovely location.”
That “little song” has continued to grow in popularity through the years, taking on a life of its own through TV shows, movies and commercials as well as countless versions by famous singers — most recently Willie Nelson, who made it the title track for his 71st solo studio album, a Sinatra-themed collection released in February 2021. “The song is doing much better today than when it was a hit,” Kay exclaims. Although Demi Music is now its co-publisher, he says, “I feel like I’m totally disassociated with it at this point; it just goes out and finds ways to get itself in trouble all the time, and it works over and over again! It shows up in the weirdest places, and I love it.” Among those was the 2019 film The Joker, in which “That’s Life” appeared three times, netting Kay enough royalties to fulfill his lifelong dream of buying a brand-new Corvette. “I’m rolling around Toluca Lake in a bright red 2020 Corvette thanks to The Joker, and more thanks to Frank Sinatra,” he says.
Besides Ol’ Blue Eyes, Kay attributes his success in life mainly to his wife, who passed away three years ago. “Michelle was just the greatest team partner anybody could ever want,” he says. “It was a magical match that worked for us for 49 years.” But he also credits the lessons embodied in the lyrics of “That’s Life,” the “note to myself” that became an ode to resilience for people around the world — a message that’s more inspiring than ever in these troubled times. “When I was back at ground zero, that song told me what to do: Just get back up and get back in the race and see what you can do,” he reflects. “If something gets in your way or you’re knocked down, get up and go after it again and never stop. That’s been my mantra for my entire life.”