In 1965, Cary Grant flew across the Las Vegas desert to dine with a mermaid. It was the opening night for a restaurant named Dome of the Sea, and Grant and his fellow guests were welcomed by a young blonde playing a golden harp as she sailed a seashell boat through a pool of water.
There is indeed magic in the strings of Gayle Levant’s harp, but it has reached far beyond her brief stint as a mermaid and into a 60-year career. Her harp opens every episode of The Simpsons, one of several hundred scores she has worked on including Titanic, Lost and Grease. She has played alongside Judy Garland, spent 22 years in the orchestra for the Academy Awards, and worked on records with Frank Sinatra, Paul McCartney, Joni Mitchell, the Carpenters, Michael Jackson, Lady Gaga and more. When a legend needs a harpist, it is Levant they call.
“She plays what you want in a way you never knew you wanted,” says multi-platinum symphonic pop singer Josh Groban. “She brings a mastery, and outside-the-box creativity, that elevates every session. She’s also an incredible improviser and some songs have been crafted around her playing.”
The woman that Nat King Cole nicknamed “Little Bit” is now 77 and lives in Los Angeles with her husband John Richards, a retired Hollywood sound engineer. “I really am singing through my fingers,” she says, audibly smiling. “If you breathe in love and play from your heart, you feel satisfaction.”
I first contacted Levant when I wondered who was playing the harp in Lana Del Rey’s recent song Doin’ Time – a moment that wakes a sleeping, 50-foot-tall Del Rey in the video. It turns out that Levant has the same Californian heart that beats under Del Rey’s latest record. Brought up in LA, her talent was first spotted when she was three years old and overheard her father – a concertmaster violinist to several LA studios – practising at home. When Levant ran to tell her mother that “Daddy played a wrong note!” her parents quickly arranged her first lessons.
“My aspirations were not to be a symphony harpist, but to be a studio recording harpist,” says Levant, who fell in love with the instrument after mastering the piano. “The wonderful thing about doing studio work is it’s always fresh and new.” She spent her teenage years driving around Hollywood with her six-foot harp on the back seat and recorded her first commercial aged 17. In 1961, she got a phone call that Liberace needed a harpist. “Lee loves beautiful dresses,” said Liberace’s musical director Gordon Robinson. “Do you have any formal gowns?” Levant showed up with half a dozen and bagged the job.
The work started to stack up, including sessions with Ray Charles. “Listening to a playback, he says: ‘Oh mama, let me hear that harp.’ I thought I was gonna pass out.” Pitch-perfect notes are still a must, but Levant has a rarer quality that keeps her phone ringing. “When I go into the studio, it’s all about my heart,” she says. “How can I help? How can I make it better?”
At a 1963 Liberace show in Las Vegas, “he had a protege that he was introducing and this girl came on the stage in a long, very simple grey dress,” says Levant. “She opened up her mouth and sang Happy Days Are Here Again. And that was it.” It was Levant’s first impression of Barbra Streisand. Since 1969, she has worked on all of Streisand’s recording projects. During one session, Levant remembers that “Barbra was trying to get a certain feel from the rhythm section. Everybody took a break because she wasn’t hearing what she wanted. I went over to her and I said: ‘Barb, can I play something for you?’ I went over to play the Fender Rhodes [electric piano] and I said: ‘Is that the feel you’re looking for?’ She looked at me, threw her hands up and said: ‘Why does it take a woman to understand me?’”
Streisand is just one artist who recorded in the studio that Levant opened in 1979 with composer Charles Fox and her former husband, music arranger Artie Butler. Soundtracks recorded within the walls of Evergreen Studios include Beauty and the Beast, Platoon, and perhaps most fittingly for Levant, The Little Mermaid.
In the eyes of Groban, however, Levant isn’t a mermaid, but his orchestra’s very own guardian angel. “Gayle has played on almost every album I’ve ever done because it’s never just a gig to her,” he tells me. “But beyond that, she was one of my first friends in a very intimidating world. I’ll never forget her kindness to me, that smile and hug and welcoming, when I was scared to death in those first orchestra sessions. It never gets less intimidating but if I peer over to the corner and see Gayle sitting there, I know there’s love.”
Levant can’t imagine working any other way. “I try to share my heart with everybody, whether they need me as a friend or they just they want me musically,” she says. “I’m just living in gratitude. I’d love for future generations, when they look back on their lives, to have their hearts so full.”