A Conversation with Smokey Robinson
Mike Ragogna: Smokey, there's so much to go over, but let's begin with your new album for Cracker Barrel, Now And Then. Can you tell us about the project?
Smokey Robinson: Well, it's a combination of six brand new songs and six of my vintage songs, and I made the deal with Cracker Barrel through Time Life. I have my own label now, called Robso Records, and I have teamed up with Time Life's label, Saguaro Records, and the Cracker Barrel deal was actually made through Time Life. Cracker Barrel is a restaurant, really, but it's a store at the same time. You can go there, order your food, and go shop for a while until your food is ready. It's a very, very unique place, and it's a great place. In fact, I just got back from Nashville--I was in Nashville for the last couple of days meeting and greeting with the Cracker Barrel executives, and going around and seeing the restaurants and getting the feel of Cracker Barrel. It was absolutely fabulous--I mean, they rolled out the red carpet--and we had a great meeting and a great time there and I am the first black artist that Cracker Barrel has ever done a deal with in their history. So, it's a groundbreaking event, and I'm very proud of that.
MR: Smokey, half the album has live versions of older hits. Were all the of those tracks recorded in '10?
SR: Yeah, because when I found out that I was going to do the deal with Cracker Barrel, they wanted some vintage material as well as some of my new material because they felt that their clientele would enjoy that and that they would recognize my material to make for a better sales point. So, I recorded three of my concerts this year, live, and those are the songs that I picked from those three concerts to include in the Cracker Barrel album.
MR: Smokey, what were the venues, do you remember?
SR: No, man. I was traveling all over the place. (laughs)
MR: (laughs) I get it. Hey, how did you choose the live material from these concerts?
SR: Well, when you do your songs live, the time changes on them, you know? So, a lot of the other songs that would be some of my more popular songs like "Just To See Her," "Cruisin'," and old songs like that, the time on them is so long when we played them in person because we added stuff to them and we have sing-a-longs and stuff like that. The timing is so different, I just picked the ones I thought that people would recognize, and that had a relative time for a CD.
MR: Yeah, and when the band revs up on "Going To A Go-Go," you know that these concerts were pretty special.
SR: Well, thank you very much man. In fact, "Going To A Go-Go" is our opening number every night.
MR: Nice. You're still touring?
SR: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah man. Yeah, this year, I bit off a whole lot more than I really wanted to chew. When they called me to talk about the dates, my agent always tricks me because they call me a year ahead and say, "Hey man, for next year, we've got so and so...," and I say, "Oh, that's fine," not realizing that when next year comes, it's going to be jammed up against some stuff that was booked that year. This year, a lot of the stuff that I've done was booked last year, so the tour started at the end of February, and just ended two weeks ago.
MR: Oh my.
SR: Yeah. We're in and out, of course. We're not out there constantly, but that's how long the tour was.
MR: I've got a couple more questions about the live tour. It seems like you changed a couple of the songs' basics. For instance, "Ooo Baby Baby" became even more sultry and slowed down further. What gets you to that point where you kind of know where you want to take the song? Is it from wanting to evolve the song or is it just purely by feel?
SR: Well, it's purely feel, but it happens over time, Michael. I want to say this to you, and I mean this from the bottom of my heart, every night--and I've sung "Ooo Baby Baby" thousands and thousands of times, back from the days when I first started singing it with The Miracles--every night, "Ooo Baby Baby" is a new song to me. I've never gotten to the point where I say, "Okay, I've got to hurry up and sing this, slosh over this and hurry up and get this out of the way because I know people want to here this. So, I'll just sing this right quick and get that over with." I've never gotten to that point as an artist. Every night, all those songs are new to me. I have a ball every night, man, it's like I've never sung these songs before, I'm having a great time singing them, and they evolve, man. They change with time, and that's what happened with "Ooh Baby Baby."
MR: Well Smokey, you are considered one of the greatest artists ever, and everybody who will be reading this in The Huffington Post knows that Smokey Robinson is an American pop culture iconic name.
SR: I love you Michael. (laughs)
MR: And you know what? Bob Dylan loved you. I especially love his quote about you: "Smokey Robinson is the greatest poet that ever lived."
SR: Well, I love Bob too. Bob's a friend, man, in fact I saw Bob just recently. We did a show at the White House together, and I hadn't seen Bob in so many years that it was good to see him. Yeah, Bob's a friend, man.
MR: So, you played the White House?
MR: What was that like?
SR: Oh, it was fantastic. In fact, I've played the White House three times this year. We actually played the White House, got caught in a snow blizzard, and we were snowed in there for three days. Nobody could get out of town. It was for Black History Month in February, and the First Lady did a show for Black History Month and I was there. I was there and Bob was there along with Jennifer Hudson, and a lot of people. It was a wonderful show, and we had a great time.
MR: Did you have any private time with the First Lady and President Obama?
SR: Oh yeah, everybody got a chance to spend a few minutes with them privately.
MR: Nice. I imagine he said complimentary things?
SR: Oh yeah, of course. They're both Motown fans, man, and they let it be known, you know? They are wonderful, wonderful people, and it was just like sitting there, talking to old friends that you have known forever. There's no, "I'm the President, and I'm the First Lady," they don't have any of that about them. It was a joy.
MR: Well, a lot of the world, I think, probably feels like they have a personal relationship with you because you've touched so many through your music.
SR: Well, thank you very much, Michael. I hope so, man.
MR: Let's take it back to your early days for the readers. Your first hit with The Miracles was "Shop Around."
SR: Well, that was the first million seller for The Miracles and me, and for Motown, yes it was. We'd had a record that was a hit before that called "Bad Girl," and that was the record that really started our career. But it was with another label, Chess Records out of Chicago, and shortly after that, Berry started his own label and that was incredible.
MR: What was it like in the early days of Motown?
SR: Well, Berry Gordy is my best friend, and the very first day of Motown there were five people there--Berry Gordy and four others of us. He sat us down and said, "I'm getting ready to start my own record label, and we are not going to just make black music, we're going to make music for the world. We're going to make music for everybody, we're going to make music that everybody can enjoy, and we're going to make music with some great beats and some great stories." That's what we set out to do, and thank God, we accomplished that.
MR: You did. Also, it isn't just your material from The Miracles that everybody is familiar with. Your songwriting has also been the backbone for other groups, with "My Girl," "Get Ready," My Guy," and you wrote "Ain't That Peculiar" and "I'll Be Doggone" for Marvin Gaye.
SR: Yeah, I enjoyed that part of my life too, Michael, because all those people were my brothers and sisters--we were growing up there at Motown, and we were very close. And we still are. For those of us that are still alive, we're very close. It doesn't matter how long it's been since we've seen each other because when we see each other, it's just like we saw each other yesterday. We have that kind of bond, and I'm very proud to have had any kind of positive influence on any of their careers.
MR: I imagine that Smokey Robinson & The Miracles was a closely knit group.
MR: Was it a difficult decision to go solo?
SR: Not for me because I had no plans to go solo--that was not in my plans at all. When I left The Miracles, I had no plans of ever being on the outer edges of show business again ever in life. I was never going to make any records, I was never going to be on stage, I was never going to do any of that because we were moving from Detroit to Los Angeles, and I was just going to be Vice President. Maybe I would record some other people, write some songs for some other people, but not for myself because I'd been on the road and doing it since I was sixteen years old and I had had it. I said, "That's it for me." So, I was going to retire two years earlier than that, but The Miracles were guys that I'd grown up with--I'd known them since I was ten years old, and we had a group in elementary school. I told them I was going to retire, and then "Tears Of A Clown" came out, and that pushed us to a whole other level in our career. So, I waited for two more years after that, and then I retired. I had no intentions of being a solo artists, but then after about three years or so of not doing it, I guess my misery was showing because Berry Gordy, who I told you is my best friend, came into my office one day and said to me, "Hey man, I want you to do me a favor." I said, "What?" because I thought he wanted me to go do something corporate--make a deal with somebody or something. He said, "I want you to get a band, and I want you to make a record, and I want you to get the hell out of here." I said, "What did you say man?" He said, "I want you to get a band, I want you to make a record, and I want you to get the hell out of here." I said, "What are you talking about man?" and he said, "Because you are miserable. When I see you miserable, it makes me miserable, and I don't want to be miserable. So, I want you to get out of here. That's why I came back to be a solo artist--I was miserable not being in show business.
MR: And you again released incredible music. I mean, "Being With You"...
SR: Alright, well, when I came back, my debut album for coming back to show business was an album called A Quiet Storm. I always considered myself to be a quiet singer, and I said that if I go back, I wanted to take show business by storm. So, that's where A Quiet Storm came from. I always want to make quality music, man, because that's how I was raised by Berry Gordy, and I always want to make quality music, always.
MR: Of course, Barry Gordy is equated with Motown. On the other hand, in the '80s and on, it seems like you've been more of the "face" of classic Motown. Is that because you were also on the corporate side of things, in addition to being an artist, so you had a fuller breadth and depth of knowledge?
SR: Well, I don't know. Perhaps that could have a great deal to do with it because he was teaching me the business as I was growing up there. I was an intricate part of it--I was there on the very first day. And when we first started, everybody was involved in everything, you know? So, he was teaching my the business aspect of it, so that may have something to do with what you're saying here. We also were aware that this is show business, you know what I mean?
SR: It's not just show, it's show "business." So, you have to learn to take care of your business if you want to survive.
MR: Now, speaking of show business, in season eight of American Idol they performed a classic Motown night. That wasn't your first appearance on the show. What was it like being around something like that, where two huge entities that have affected music are now merging to create this "happening" and you're looking at this from the middle?
SR: It was fantastic. You know, I've been on American Idol every season since they started. The first season I was a guest judge because they were doing celebrity guest judges when they first came out. But every season, I've been on there doing something. It was wonderful that they decided to do the Motown music because that season Berry Gordy and I took the kids to Detroit and showed them the Motown museum, the paraphernalia and all that, and then I was a mentor. I really enjoyed that, that was awesome because American Idol, as far as I'm concerned, is the greatest visual platform that any artist could ever have in the history of show business. Right away, even those that don't make the show, when they're doing auditions, those people are seen by millions and millions of people all over the world. So, that's a fantastic platform for artists.
MR: You've also done some other fun venues. You were on Daryl's House, with Daryl Hall.
SR: Yeah, Daryl is my brother, man. So, we had a ball that day. You go up to Daryl's House, eat, sit around and play some music--play some of his, play some of mine--and we just had a ball that day, man. It was great fun, absolutely.
MR: Daryl Hall, to me, is synonymous not only with Hall & Oates, but also with the Philly sound.
SR: Yeah, like I said, Daryl is my brother. He's a good dude, man.
MR: Yeah, he's great. Hey, what is your process for creating a song?
SR: There is no process for me, Michael, it just happens. I write part of a song almost every day of my life--a melody or something comes to me, or an idea for a song. I have so many unfinished songs around my house here, I can't even tell you. It just happens for me. I'm not one of those temperamental writers. I don't need to go away to the mountains for two months and isolate myself so I can write or rent a hut down by the beach and...I don't write like that. I write on the plane, the bus, in the bathroom, on the golf course, and wherever it strikes me, man. So, it just happens.
MR: Nice. Do you have any favorite covers? Because, let's face it, everybody who breathes oxygen and records has recorded a Smokey Robinson song, including this guy right here that you're talking to.
SR: I love you more, Michael.
MR: (laughs) I don't know, if you hear my version of "The Way You Do The Things You Do"...
SR: No, no, I would love it, man because I was about to answer your question with that statement. I don't critique them. There are millions and millions of songs, Michael. There are millions of songs all over the world, okay? Most of the people or a lot of the people who have recorded my songs are songwriters themselves. So, when somebody picks one of my songs to record, I am so flattered by that because as a songwriter, that's my dream.
MR: It's so easy to want to record your material because it's so emotional and smart.
SR: I want to write songs that people want to sing. I want to write songs that, if I had written them fifty years before then, they would have meant something to people, they would mean something now, and they will mean something fifty years from now. So, that's the kind of song I want to write. When that happens, man, I love it.
MR: You have a body of work that includes The Miracles, Smokey Robinson, and all the people who have recorded your songs. Is there a song or two that charm you more than the others?
SR: Yeah, there are many of those, Michael. Like I said, I write all the time, and I do not have a favorite song. I'm a song lover. If I could tell you what my favorite song was, it would perhaps not even be a song that I had written. I love music, and I love songs--I've been hearing songs since I was two years old. So, I love songs. I have no idea what my favorite song is.
MR: Alright. Getting back to Now And Then, which you're doing exclusively for Cracker Barrel. It takes tracks from your Time Flies When You're Having Fun album, and it adds some live tracks to it. How did you decide which tracks to take from that album for this new record? Was it hard to choosing them?
SR: It was a hard choice, yes, but I just picked some songs that I felt would fit in with the ones that I picked for the live thing.
MR: For that album and for Now and Then, your new album, you have the song "Don't Know Why," which was the Norah Jones song.
SR: Yeah man, that was written by Jesse Harris, and that's a wonderful song. I love that song--I loved that song the first time I heard it--and I started to record my Time Flies When You're Having Fun CD about four years ago when that record was out. I heard it and I loved it, so I wanted to record it. See, I recorded all those songs in the studio, live, and we had a great time. I just loved that song, and it's a familiar song, so that's why I included that one on the Cracker Barrel album.
MR: Also, didn't you co-write something with Brian Ray, Paul McCartney's guitarist?
SR: Yeah, we did a song called "One Heartbeat." Brian had "One Heartbeat" done, basically, when he brought that song to me. He's a hell of a guitarist and a great songwriter. That particular song was practically done.
MR: Hey Smokey, do you have any advice for new artists and new songwriters?
SR: Yeah man--love it. That's my first advice to them because it's hard. Everybody wants to do it, so the competition is fierce. So, you've got to be able to withstand the knockdowns that you're going to receive and the doors slammed in your face. If you love it enough to withstand that, then go for it.
1. Time Flies
2. Don't Know Why
4. One Time
5. That Place
6. Love Bath
7. Going to a Go-Go - Live
8. I Second That Emotion - Live
9. Ooo Baby Baby - Live
10. The Tears of a Clown - Live
11. Being with You - Live
12. The Tracks of My Tears - Live
(transcribed by Ryan Gaffney)
A Conversation with Jimmy Ryan
Mike Ragogna: Good day, Mr. Jimmy Ryan, how the heck are you today?
Jimmy Ryan: I'm doing good--or, I'm sorry, I'm doing well.
MR: (laughs) Would you please tell the readers your history in the music business?
JR: Do we have hours and hours?
MR: (laughs) Yes. Yes, we do.
JR: I started off with The Critters. There was a precursor to The Critters called The Vibratones, but that was, like, a high school band. I started off with The Critters, who were, basically, local Jersey guys, and we got lucky in that the first time out, we had a minor hit called "Children And Flowers," and then a big hit with "Younger Girl." Then, we had another big hit with" Mr. Dieingly Sad," and then a moderately big hit with "Don't Let The Rain Fall Down On Me." Then, we had legions of bombs. What happened was, literally fifty percent of the band got drafted, and the other fifty percent just couldn't carry the load without the guys who got drafted. One of the guys who got drafted was Don Ciccone, our lead singer, which really kind of threw a wet blanket on the whole thing. I did not get drafted, I stayed in college, and when I came out of college, I just toured with The Critters for a little while.
When The Critters really couldn't do it anymore, I briefly took a job in a guitar store called Dan Armstrong Guitars--Dan manufactures those really cool, clear plastic guitars that you ended up seeing The Stones use, and a bunch of other rock stars. Anyway, Dan's girlfriend was Carly Simon. Carly was a close friend of mine. We used to all go out and double date together, and at one point, about a year after Dan and I parted ways, Carly and Dan parted ways, and about six months later, Carly called me up and said, "Hey, I got a record deal, do you want to play on my record?" I went, "What?" I had no idea that she had the talent to do that--I'd heard her sing occasionally, but it wasn't really the central focus of what she was doing at that time--she was just Carly, Dan's girlfriend. When I went into the studio and heard what she was doing, I was absolutely blown away. It was a totally new person and that started a twenty-one year career.
I played on her very first record, and I worked with her right through '92, when my second son was born and going out on the road wasn't really an option anymore. At that point, I started scoring jingles, radio commercials, TV commercials, and stuff like that, and I did that for a bunch of years and had some good hits. I did McDonalds, Ford, Chevy--things like that. I got tired of doing that and I really wanted to do film scoring and TV scoring, so then I delved into that and I had really good success on the first try with a movie called My Sergei, which aired on CBS. It was the story of Ekaterina Gordeeva and Sergei Grinkov, two multi-gold, medal-winning skaters. Sergei, in the middle of practice, had a massive heart attack at twenty-six years old, and this was the story of their life and their love and the whole thing. It was a beautiful movie. I've done bunches of stuff since then, and that's, basically, what I'm doing now--still scoring films for TV, promos, and some news themes. Most of the music on CNBC during the financial programs is mine.
MR: So, you got into news programs.
JR: A lot of the CBS, NBC, and ABC local networks across the country have had me do their music via the Gannett Corporation. Gannett owns and broadcasts a bunch of those stations. That's it in a nutshell, and I occasionally play live like I'm going to do tonight.
MR: Now, people also will remember your guitar lead on "You're So Vain." All these years later, that's one of the most memorable guitar solos ever. How do you feel about having contributed to music culture like that?
JR: It's one of those things where when you really try to do something like that, I don't know how successful you are. That solo was...I wouldn't call it a mistake, but it was kind of a mistake. I was just fooling around, grabbed a bottle neck, and I noticed faces in the control room after I had run off kind of a sketch of what I thought I might do--just the first thing off the top of my head. I went inside and said, "Yeah, something like that. I don't know." They're looking at each other, "Something like that?" I said, "Yeah." They said, "You're done." So, I said, "No, that's just a sketch. I want to perfect it," and they said, "You are done, sir. It's brilliant. Get out of here." That was it--it was a one shot deal off the top of my head. And if I had sat there to try and create that solo, it would have taken a week and been horrible. It's just one of those lucky moments where everything lined up, and you just threw something out and it worked.
MR: I love it, spontaneity
JR: Well, spontaneity works when you've practiced and your fingers work. Sometimes, you're spontaneous, but you're not warmed-up, so there are a lot of mistakes, but I happened to have been playing all afternoon, so I was warmed up. Luckily, it got executed pretty much the way I wanted it to--at least for the sketch. I wouldn't have picked those notes again because I wanted to change some things and take the slide out for some things, and they said, "Oh, no, no, no." What I find more fun than doing that was that I got replaced for a while by David Spinoza in her touring band because I was working with another band and couldn't do it, so she replaced me with David and made him do my solo. David is this incredible guitar player and he does not need me for coaching, I can assure you. But all the same, she made him do my solo, and every muzak version of that song does my solo note for note as well as they can.
MR: And Carly recently revisited the song on her rerecord album, Never Been Gone.
JR: I didn't have any involvement in that, but I think she did "You're So Vain."
MR: I actually interviewed her for that record a while back, though I can't remember for sure it copped your lead.
JR: I don't know, I'd have to go back and listen. I haven't had much contact with her or her music since '92, really. I briefly run into her now and then, but I haven't been following her career very closely. I occasionally hear something or see a video on YouTube, but I don't remember.
MR: By the way, she sent her love to you in the interview I did with her for The Huffington Post. She thinks you're the bees' knees.
JR: Oh, that's great, she's a sweetheart.
MR: There are a number of other artists that you've worked with over the years such as Paul McCartney, right?
JR: Well, yes and no. It's actually a very funny story. Because of my connection with Richard Perry--who was Carly's producer--and, at the time, was connected to everybody in the world, when we were doing the No Secrets album, we were in the studio where I was doing an overdub, and I look into the control room because somebody had just walked in. I'm looking and I'm going, "Oh no, I am not seeing what I think I'm seeing." Paul and Linda McCartney walked into the control room. We were working at George Martin's studio, AIR, and Paul was there--nobody had any idea he was working there. So, I was like, "Oh my God." One of my greatest heroes was like twenty feet away. So, he came out into the studio area where everybody was chatting and he said, "So, I got called to do a movie score and I've never done one before. I don't know what I'm doing really, but could I play the song for you, and maybe you can give me some critique on it or something." Then, he sits down and plays "Live And Let Die" at the piano.
We're all looking at each other--we're going to critique Paul McCartney on this song, which is absolutely freaking amazing? No, I think we're going to tell him it's absolutely freaking amazing. So, the next day he recorded it, but that evening we were doing vocals for--I can't remember what it was--and he was still hanging around because they were just prepping, he was going over the charts with George Martin, and he was just hanging out and having fun. So, he saw we were having trouble trying to work it out--the singers were Doris Troy, Bonnie Bramlett, myself, and Carly, and Paul just came out and said, "You know, I think if you do this, you can..." Now, we're all singing backups with Paul McCartney. So, worked with Paul McCartney? Yes, but not exactly in his band, he just came out and did vocals on our album. It was phenomenal. There is one other story, and you can edit this out because I drink lots of coffee and talk way too much. (laughs)
MR: (laughs) I think the song you were talking about was her cover of James Taylor's "Night Owl."
JR: I don't remember because that was like thirty-nine years ago, I guess.
MR: Right, but you go back further. Didn't you first appear on the Anticipation album?
MR: For the Anticipation, Carly recorded one of your songs, didn't she?
JR: Yes she did. Actually, we wrote it together. I came in with an instrumental and a melody and said, "Why don't you write some lyrics to this?" She did, and we all liked it, so we recorded it.
MR: Nice. Now fork over the other Paul McCartney story.
JR: I was talking about the Richard Perry connection--Richard calls me up and says, "Hey, McCartney is auditioning his new band at the Hard Rock. The Hard Rock in London would actually do that, they'd have bands in there, unlike the commercial Hark Rocks we know here, they really were connected with the rock stars, and the guitars on the wall really were the rock star's guitars, not faux guitars. Anyway, McCartney chose Hard Rock to debut Wings. His guitar player was Henry McCullough from Stone The Crows--Henry and I knew each other from England, and we used to hang out. Anyway, I go to it, it was kind of good, and Henry looks over to me--I'm very close to him--and he goes, "Jimmy, come take the guitar, mate. I'm f**ked-up and I can't play." He was so freakin' drunk, he could barely stand up. So, he tosses me his Les Paul, I put the thing on, and they were playing a song that was easy enough to pick up, so I started playing...obviously it took a second for me to figure out what I was doing. Then, Paul turned around, looked at me, and goes, "What the...?" and I go, "Hi." I just started playing and he shrugged his shoulders, "Oh well," and there I was in Wings for fifteen minutes or whatever it was.
MR: Can you imagine if that had become a more permanent gig?
JR: Yeah, that would have been fun. I actually am friends with one of the guys who did do the permanent gig, Steve Holley, and he said it was fun. They used to hang out a lot, Linda would cook them nice vegetarian meals, and it was a real nice little family.
MR: How do you go back to a normal life after being in that sphere?
JR: I have no idea. I know people still love him. He played Radio City Music Hall a few months ago and brought the house down. He actually did it for the David Lynch Foundation--it was a charity deal, and, apparently, everybody loved it. He ended up pulling about half his songs from the video and only picked the best of the best to show, which is fine. Believe me, he has earned the right to do whatever he wants.
MR: For a time, you were going from session to session in New York, had your own production company, and worn many hats in your career. Now, you're getting some of your ol' studio buddies for a band called The Hitmen.
JR: Yes, yes.
MR: What's the story behind The Hitmen?
JR: The Four Seasons were originally Frankie Valli, Tommy DeVito, Nick Massi, and Bob Gaudio, who wrote all the songs. Nick Massi passed away, Tommy DeVito embezzled, I think three million dollars--it's all in Jersey Boys, the play. Anyway, he gracefully bowed out and turned over The Four Seasons to Frankie Valli and Bob Gaudio. Bob didn't want to tour anymore--Bob's the writer--so, now it was Frankie, and Frankie put this new band together called Frankie Valli And The Four Seasons, and that was Don Ciccone from The Critters, Lee Shapiro, Gerry Polci the drummer, and I forget the guitar player's name--I've never met him and I don't know him. They toured for a while, Frankie got a lot older, and from what I understand, he had an ear operation that caused some problems with his singing, but I don't know the whole story.
Anyway, these guys all kind of went their separate ways. Fast forward, they all thought, "Wouldn't it be fun to put a band together that is a combination of all the people we played with?" So, Don, Lee, and Gerry started to play with the idea, and then they pulled in a guy named Larry Gates, who had played with Carole King and a bunch of stars. But they needed a fifth guy, somebody to fill it out. So, they had somebody, and he didn't work out because he hadn't played with anybody and was a pain in the butt, so they dumped him. Lee said, "Why don't you call Ryan?" Don said, "He's never going to want to do that. I've been trying to get him to put The Critters together since they fell apart, and he's always said no." Lee said, "Just give it a shot, you never know." So, they called me and I said, "Are you kidding me? I'd do it in a heartbeat." So, we did a rehearsal, everybody got assigned their parts, and I am Frankie Valli in this particular production--I get to sing all of those screeching high parts. Don just does himself because he's the one who actually sang, "Who Loves You?" Gerry plays himself, he's the one who sang, "Oh, What A Night." So, we got the original guys doing their original songs, we will do The Critter songs, Don will do his, and I will do mine.
I worked on Jim Croce's first album, so I'm going to do a couple of Jim Croce songs. I also did Cat Stevens' Buddha And The Chocolate Box album, so I'm going to be performing "Peace Train" and "Bitter Blue." All of them were part of Tommy James And The Shondells for a while--they were all touring with him--so, we're going to do "Mony Mony," and I think we might do "Hanky Panky," although I'm trying to vote against that--not my favorite song. So, the band is going to do a series of the songs that we played on. It's kind of like the East Coast version of The Wrecking Crew. The Wrecking Crew were all studio musicians, but we actually toured with all these people, and went out on the road to perform with them. So, that's who they are. We've had a couple of rehearsals and it's really fun. The singing is very strong--that's the part that usually makes or breaks a band, can they really carry the tunes? Well, these guys can sing, you know? On top of that, they're great players, every one of them.
MR: So, where will The Hitmen be playing?
JR: We are playing at Mexicali, which is in Teaneck, New Jersey, on November 11th, so if you're within earshot of this thing please come out and join us. It's a big place, I think it holds about two-hundred ten people or something like that, and that's our debut and our test. We all decided that we've been doing this for a long time, and the only reason we would do something like this is if it was really good, really fun, and was making a little money. So, we're going to take it for a test drive on the 11th, and if we like it and people like it, we'll keep going. If it sucks, we're out of there.
MR: But it's official, David Spinoza is not a part of this?
JR: (laughs) David Spinoza is not a part of this. I saw David about a year ago, and he told me he had retired. He's living up in New England and skis a lot. He was the music director for a couple of Letterman-type shows, and he had a phenomenal career, so I think he's probably enjoying retirement right now. I know he's playing every now and then, but nobody is doing much these days--there's no music business. (laughs)
MR: Let's talk about that. Having been in the music business, being associated with so many great artists, from your perspective, what does it look like these days?
JR: Well, I've had many, many careers in the music business, and I would not say it had so much to do with talent, but had much more to do with survival. (laughs) As things disappear, I quickly morph into whatever I can to stay in the music business, and continue to play, write, and have fun in music. So, it depends on which area you're talking about, but I think most areas of the music business are suffering, and I'll talk briefly about the areas I know.
I don't know too much about the record business at this point because I'm not really in it--I'm doing live performing and TV scoring. The actual making of records has changed a lot because most people make their records at home. The price of equipment has dropped to the point where everybody has Pro Tools and a decent console, and you can really do a phenomenal job with a project in the home studio. But marketing it is another story. I subscribe to an email list of, basically, the movers and shakers in the industry, and to hear them talk about it, the record companies are having such a hard time. They really want to sell hardware and nobody is buying hardware--they don't want CDs, they want downloads and they don't want to pay for it. Once something is given away, it's so difficult to sell it; when the original Napster came out, you could get all your music for free. ITunes has done phenomenally, and I make my kids buy their songs, and I will not let anyone in my family download for free. But you have vast numbers of people who download for free, and it's very difficult to find a business model that makes it profitable to make records. Playing live--you can't steal a live performance. So, any bands that have any reputation are doing fine playing live. There are exceptions like Lady Gaga, who will not want for a means ever in her life. But most of the other bands are having trouble.
Like I said, I'm not the expert on that, and I know a lot more about the business that I was in, which was TV promos. Those would be movie previews, shows coming up on Showtime, HBO, Lifetime, ESPN, and things like that, but that business has virtually gone away. What has happened is, the library business--which is just composers writing any kind of music for any reason giving it to one of these big libraries--hope that the library will put it on a massive bunch of CDs and somebody will use it. So, for the music libraries, this is a really good business because they have completely and totally taken over all but the big TV themes. Most of the advertising music--except for big, gigantic clients like McDonalds--is all library music. The reason is library music costs less than ten percent of what it costs to hire somebody like me. So, even if it's not good, economically, it's almost impossible for the producers to justify to the stockholders why they're spending money on original music when this music is okay. It's not a good fit, but it's okay and it's just dirt cheap. So, that business is gone forever, and it will probably never come back because now everybody is trying to write library music, so library music is getting better. News music is the next in line.
Now, companies are coming up with syndicated news packages. I've been called twice in the last month and asked if I have a syndicated news package, and I say, "No, I custom make them for you." I argue, "Do you want to sound like every other station? Do you want something that was written ten years ago to represent you?" and most of them say, "No, but the price is right, so that's what we're going to do." And they wonder why nobody is listening to broadcast news. That business is going away, and that really is what has been financing my boat here. So, who knows where it's going to go next? Maybe retirement.
MR: (laughs) Uh-huh. I doubt you'd ever give them digits of yours a rest.
JR: No, I will always play, and that's what I'm doing now. I have several little groups that I play with just for fun, and a little cash. It's fine--I'm a good saver, and I'm not going to starve. In the good years, I put money away, so it's not the end of the world. But it is a new business, and I feel bad for young musicians coming up because where there used to be many, many outlets, that business has thinned. Writing for libraries...there are a million writers writing for libraries, and with any business in a situation like that, accurate accounting is just unheard of. All they can keep track of is that money is coming in, and they don't care from where. When you have three or four-hundred writers and you distribute maybe two-hundred unique CDs to every TV and radio station in the world, some station in London says, "We like cut twelve on CD twenty-seven. Here's three-hundred dollars for it." The money goes in and they say, "What did they say? What cut did they want? Ah, who cares? The check cleared." So, the writer doesn't get paid, but the library does.
Does it get registered with ASCAP? If you're lucky. You're lucky if somebody remembers and keeps a cue sheet, but it's just a lot of detail that nobody cares about. There are no laws governing it. ASCAP says, "You have to pay us if you play it," but ASCAP receives the blanket license from one of these stations and there's no information about what was played, so nobody gets paid.
MR: Having served your country well all these years in the music business, what advice might you have for new artists that want to get started?
JR: Boy, it's tough. I've got two very talented kids, and I'm telling them that a law degree would be really good. (laughs) I don't know. It's a new business and it hasn't formed yet. We're in a morphing state right now, where it's not clear where it's going. I would be the last person to say that if music is your passion, forget about it--I would never say that. If you love music, play music, but be prepared to be hungry. Truthfully, that's always been the case--a few bad artists make it to the top, but for the most part, the people who really make it to the top had all the stars line up. They had the right connections, the talent, or if they don't have the talent, they have the looks. Some combination takes them up there, but it's a number of things, not just the talent. You have to have a look, you have to have the charisma, you have to have a business savvy about you--although in the '50s, that wasn't necessary. But in the '50s, nobody made any money. There are a number of things that are very, very important. You have to be good with people, you have to be a good negotiator, and there are so many things involved that it's kind of like winning the lottery. Do it, by all means, but have something in your back pocket to feed yourself because it can be a long, hard haul, and you have to be realistic about it.
I actually didn't go to college for music, I went for electrical engineering. Even not knowing what was coming, I still went to college for a different career. While I was in college I had a hit, so that's what changed the tide for me, but I wasn't counting on it. I wanted it to be that way, I wanted to have a hit, and from the time I picked up a guitar, which was eight years old, I wanted to be Elvis Presley. I loved music and I loved performing, but around age seventeen or eighteen, all my friends were going to college and nothing was happening. I wasn't going to play bars for the rest of my life, so I went to college. I went to Villanova, Don Ciccone was my roommate, and, luckily, in my sophomore year, "Younger Girl" came out, and that was kind of the end of it. I made it through about two months of my junior year; coming home at four o'clock in the morning from being on tour on a Sunday night, and then going to an eight o'clock calculus class didn't work. So, I dropped out and that was the end of college for me. But I did go to college fully intending to graduate and be an electrical engineer had the music thing not worked out. I would say do that--keep your bases covered--and if it works out for you, it works out, but don't cut off all your resources to do it. I just don't think that makes any sense.
(transcribed by Ryan Gaffney)
A Conversation with Sarah Sample
Mike Ragogna: Sarah, let's catch everyone up on your new album.
Sarah Sample: So, I had released my third album, which was called Born To Fly, and that actually was just an EP that we put out with just five songs. Since then, I have gotten busy writing, touring, and other things, and I decided that I was feeling the urge to write a new album. So, we wrote all new songs for this album called Someday, Someday, which was released on Oct. 12th, and I'm really excited about it. It feels like a first album--I don't know how to explain how a fourth album can be a first album--but it feels like a first in a lot of ways for some reason. I don't know if that's just the progression that my career has had or the saturation time I've had making music that has allowed me, for some reason or another, to be able to meet this group of songs at a different level than I have before.
MR: Many artists seem to have a similar experience.
SS: Yeah, it's interesting because I go to a song school every year. I've been going for about nine years, and the community is amazing. It's held in Colorado, it's part of the Folks Festival, and you get to hear classes on songwriting from songwriter greats like Darryl Scott, Mary Gauthier, Jonathan Brooke, and kind of on and on. This year, Darryl Scott was talking about finding your true writer's voice and how important it is to really listen to what the song wants. He talked about how when we're writing songs and the inspiration comes, that song has its own idea of what it wants to be, and we kind of have to throw the rules out the window and let the song be the judge of what it wants to do. So, I think what I mean by saying "this feels like a first album," is that it feels like I've found my writer's voice more so than I ever have before. With this album, I feel like I've really held true to the integrity of that inspiration. So, I think it's been a really interesting process to go through this time around.
MR: In the past, labels understood that it takes a little while before an artist comes into their own, that it took a nurturing, maturing process. Also, you've gone through more experiences, you've got more tools in your kit, and it's great that you pass through Iowa every few months.
SS: Well, it's not too often. I generally tour in the West, but with this album release, I started touring more in the Midwest and East Coast in the last two years or so.
MR: Can you go into what you've been doing as a creative artist over the last few years?
SS: I feel like the term "wanderlust" kind of encompasses my life. I've probably moved twenty-five times, and that really hasn't slowed down in the last ten years. I've lived mostly in the West, but I've lived in Austin, Wyoming, Texas, Oregon, Utah, and I've been in Seattle for the last three years, then just this Summer, my family moved to Boise, Idaho, for my husband's job. The great thing about moving around so much is that I tour so much anyway, it doesn't really matter to me too much where I live. It also allows me to get a taste of different artist communities and seek out the artists wherever I'm at. Seattle was an amazing place to be for music and arts, and I loved living there for the last three years or so. With this new album, Someday, Someday, we hired a filmmaker to document the making of the album and also a little bit of touring. I do a lot of house concerts--about half of my touring is to house concerts or concert series'. I don't know, I'm trying do things a little differently or up the ante with every album I release, maybe to try to get the word out more about what I'm doing.
MR: Can you go into the venues a bit more?
SS: House concerts, I think, are THE singer-songwriter friendly venue because there are established house concert series', and then I also do a lot of fan-hosted concerts. I'll send an email out to my fan list and say, "I'm looking for a show in Iowa--or wherever--on these dates. Does anybody want to host me in their living room?" It's been a great way to meet people, and I think there's something really special about hearing music in a home, or in an intimate environment. It also means playing in less noisy bars, the more house concerts I play. So, I play everything from solo shows to full band shows, and as far as the venues that we play, we play everything from house concerts to festivals, so we kind of play it all. I was really lucky to be able to have been an artist on the Cayamo Cruise last February, which is a music cruise that leaves from Florida and it has pretty much every hero I've ever imagined on it like Darryl Scott, Patty Griffin, Lyle Lovett, Buddy Miller, Brandy Carlile, Indigo Girls, and on and on. That was pretty amazing, so that was one of my favorite show weeks of the year.
MR: Sarah, Someday, Someday is a fan-funded album which is becoming more popular for DIY artists. Can you go into the details?
SS: Yeah, I have a lot of singer-songwriter peers who I've noticed over the last couple of years have done fan-funded albums. It is a lot of work to put together a campaign, and a lot of trust that you're putting into your fans to put yourself out there and say, "I need to raise this much money, can you help me do it?" At the same time, it became a really fun way for me to get my community and my fans involved for this album because they were involved before I even started recording. I came up with five or six different levels of sponsorship, each level was a different amount of money, and each came with different incentives--from certain numbers of signed copies of the album, all the way up to me flying wherever in the country to play a house concert for however many people you wanted to invite. So, I really liked the idea of involving fans, and there are a lot of websites out there that are kind of already set up to create a campaign to do such a thing. I had a lot of fun with it, I thought it was really great, and I was humbled by the turnout of people who showed up and said, "I want to help you make this album."
MR: Personally, I think it's really important for both artists and fans to recognize alternate ways of recording and releasing projects.
SS: I was talking to my producer, and he was saying that recording studios are going under by the dozens because there isn't enough business. I think that's because a lot of people are forced to make their own albums because to make a high quality studio album as an independent artist costs anywhere from ten to thirty grand easily. I was in Nashville a week ago talking to a girl who is a manager at a recording studio, and they don't make an album for less than thirty-thousand dollars. Thirty-thousand dollars is a ton of money for someone who is getting paid in coffee to play coffee houses across America. It's a really interesting dilemma we're facing--how do we continue to make a good product and still have it be competitive. The old tradition was, you took out a big fat loan, recorded an album, and then you spent two years paying off that loan, so when you're ready to record a new album, you have nothing. I think the fan-funded album is a great way to jumpstart the process and not fall so far behind.
MR: Everything is so cost prohibitive. Seriously, how does an artist make money now.
SS: That's so true. I was reading an article about this local record store and they were just saying at the end of the day that digital music has ruined a lot of the industry because so many people copy or burn things, and they're not buying physical albums like they used to. Although I'm getting paid to perform, where I really make my money is selling CDs, and the only place I really sell CDs is at live shows. I do sell physical CDs off my website, but in general, I think most people have turned over to this digital age of music, where they're buying an album for ten bucks on iTunes, and the artist is seeing six or seven dollars of that, compared to the fifteen dollars they would have gotten from the sale of a physical version of it. I'm not against digital music at all, but it does raise an interesting question of how does an artist make money
MR: Nice. Now, with the new album, did you take a different artistic approach than you had with your previous albums? You said earlier that this feels like your first album, so in what ways do you listen to it now and feel that way?
SS: I think, for me, the songwriting is most important. When I listen to a piece of music, I want the song to hold its own weight and be able to stand on its own feet. So, I'm mostly concerned with the quality of the song without any production. I wanted every song on this album to be able to be played with just me and a guitar, or to be able to be played with a full band and still have it be a meaningful interaction. I felt like I did that, and I felt like I was true to that inspiration that the songs were asking for. We recorded this album as a live album, so we had about ten players--some who play with me regularly and some that have played with my on other albums--and we all got into this great, big studio called June Audio with our producer Scott Wiley. We literally just sat down with the songs and spent some time getting to know them, just playing them over and over, and we literally just kind of pressed the record. The caliber and the quality of the musicians that were there was at such a level that we could do that. I know that that's not an option for some people, or even that some people would want that, but there's something that feels really dreamy about "what you hear is what you get." When you listen to my album, that actually happened right there in that moment. I think that's how a lot of albums used to be recorded in the '60s and '70s, and there's something about a live take that is really appealing to me. Not all of my albums have been like that, and I'm sure in the future they won't always be like that. But for these songs, I think it really fit the bill.
MR: Would you go into the story behind "I'm Ready"?
SS: "I'm Ready" is just an anthem-y song that I wrote in response to a question from a friend who said, "Are you ready to step into your greatness?" The question kind of made me smile because it sounds a little bit like a hokey question, but I think there is a lot of truth in embracing whatever strength that we've been given as an artist and owning that. So, that was an answer to that.
MR: Another song I'd like to hear more about is "Calling Your Name." You're calling Elijah in this--would you explain the nuances of that?
SS: (laughs) Yeah, it's funny because songwriting to me never feels super easy, it generally feels like a lot of work. But that song, I felt, was kind of handed to me--it happened really fast, it came all in one sitting, and I loved singing that song. It's basically just a song from general humanity's ability to be lonely, suffer, or have heartache. The first verse says, "Calling, calling, calling his name. I need a friend in a really bad way." That kind of structure of that verse follows through the whole song to, "Calling a mother, calling a lover." I feel like I am a really spiritual person, and I've always loved any sort of spiritual or Biblical references because even if people don't believe it, they know the stories. I love the story of Elijah, and when they're surrounded by the army and someone says to him, "We're surrounded, we're never going to escape," he asked God to open his eyes, and he sees the whole mountainside is filled with chariots of fire. So, that was kind of the call of someone who needs a friend, and what better friend than to have someone who can show you you're not alone, you know?
MR: Who is singing with you?
SS: That's my really good friend Paul Jacobson, who sings that duet with me. I really love the idea of duets that aren't just harmony on the choruses but the whole song. That holds true for this one, "Calling Your Name," and also there's another on the album called "Shadows Of A Song." Paul Jacobson is an amazing songwriter, and he has a great band based out of Salt Lake. He is one of the best writers that I know of, and we co-write quite a bit. There are actually about three or four songs that I got started or got stuck on, and whether he added a lot or a little, he helped me co-write the songs on the album. I hope you guys will check him out because he's really great.
MR: Continuing the "first album" theme, even the front cover looks like an "Introducing Sarah Sample" concept. Was that intentional?
SS: You know, I have a really talented friend named Ryan Tanner, and he not only plays and sings all over this new album, but he's a band member of mine, a great songwriter in his own right, and a great film photographer and graphic designer. He's designed all of my albums, and he took the photos for this album. There was something about that photo--he showed me about five different options for the cover--and I hadn't really noticed that photo on its own, yet there was something that was just so intimate and revealing about it. It kind of just said, "Here I am." So, I love the cover of this album, I've gotten a lot of compliments on it. I think it's kind of a brave move to plaster your face on your cover that largely, but at the same time I loved that it was just saying, "Here I am."
MR: It is a lovely picture of you.
SS: Oh, thank you.
MR: Of course. Another one of the songs that hit me on the album is "Don't Bury Me." Can you go into its storyline?
SS: That song took a while to complete, but it started when I was thinking about my grandfather. He was a farmer, he owned a cattle ranch and grew alfalfa, and he worked incredibly hard. I noticed, growing up, spending time in the Summers on this farm, that he never got a day off--there was never a day where he was like, "Well, someone else can do the work" or "Someone else can move the wheel line." I saw this figure or character come into my head--someone who was a farmer, but it wasn't the life that they had wanted. So, the premise of the song "Don't Bury Me" is based on the thought of someone who is kind of tied to the land, but their heart really wants to be a fisherman or be on the sea. Also, I finished that song when I visited Great Britain this Summer. I was up in this area of Scotland called Galway that was right on the ocean. It was amazingly gorgeous, and I was sitting in my hotel room, looking out over this bay, and I literally just started weeping when I played this song because there was something so touching to me about the thought that our lives aren't always what we want them to be or imagined them to be. The chorus of the song says, "When they lay me down in a box, please sail me out to sea. I've spent all my time being tied to this land, please don't bury me." This man knows that he can't really escape whatever his life has led him to, but in the end, he wants at least to know that he's not going to be forever in the ground, basically.
MR: Yet another touching song is "Texas."
SS: My family on my father's side is all from Texas, and my grandparents live in this little town called Ingram, which is kind of near Kerrville, where they hold the Kerrville Folk Festival. I spent my Summers there growing up, going to the Guadalupe River, and there was something so romantic about it, especially during the ages of being a young adult--falling for cowboys and two-stepping on the country swing dance floor. There was something that just felt a little bit like a dream. It wasn't something that was anything like what I was used to--I grew up in Santa Barbara, California, and there wasn't really any part of that there. There was something that was so charming about visiting Texas in the Summertime. There's kind of a joke in the song about how my grandmother, who grew up in Longview, Texas, used to travel with her family in the Summers up to Colorado Springs because they didn't have air conditioning and it just got way too hot to stay. There's something in the chorus that says, "Texas in the Summertime, it's the biggest secret that I know because everybody leaves Texas in the Summertime, leaving Lone Star all to my own." Even though I didn't grow up in Texas, it does feel like, when I would spend time there, that there was something about it--you know, first love and being able to experience Texas on a really intimate level. The song starts out, "The first kiss is the one you've waited for the longest." I think a lot of my cousins and their siblings had their first kisses on the Guadalupe River.
MR: Sweet. Where is your tour heading?
SS: From October through December, I'll be touring through Utah, Colorado, Nebraska, Iowa, up to Chicago, and then I have a whole week of shows in Nebraska, and then I go to California. Then, in January, we head up to Oregon and Washington. Next Spring, it will probably head more East Coast. That's kind of the news for now.
MR: Since you're a recording vet now with four albums under your belt, what advice do you have for new artists?
SS: Hmm. Well, I think we live in a time and day, right now, where there are so many tools out there to help young artists and to help new artists make an album, make a show, build a website on their own, or a million things that really weren't accessible maybe ten or fifteen years ago. So, I feel like, if you have an inclination to try being a songwriter or if you are a songwriter, there are a lot of things--social networking and such--that can help. I would just say to let it say something that is something sweet in your life. It is an art, and I think it should be valued and treated as such, so I would just say be true to that artist's voice. Keep writing, keep playing, and always make your decisions from the standpoint of whether it's bringing more joy into your life or not.
MR: Very Beautiful. As you know, we're also going to broadcast this interview on Solar-Powered KRUU-FM. Got anything you want to add about good old solar power?
SS: I love it. (laughs) I really feel like I've seen a lot more people make an effort to be more environmentally conscious, and I think having solar-powered radio is a huge step in that direction. I applaud it.
MR Thank you. Currently, we're the only solar-powered radio station in the Midwest, and what's bizarre about that is that it seems like other places with even more extreme exposure to the sun should logically be running on it. So, would the protagonist of your song "Texas" want to use solar power? Then again, considering its oil industry history, that state probably would be the last state to come on board, all things considered.
SS: Maybe not. Maybe you should plug it to Austin because they're a pretty forward-thinking group over there,
MR: Yeah, I have a feeling that once people start seeing their electric bills, or lack thereof, it will change a lot of people's minds.
SS: Yeah, of course.
1. I'm Ready
2. Calling Your Name
3. Every Time I Go
4. Shadows of a Song
5. One Mistake
6. Be My Middle Ground
7. Don't Bury Me
8. Staying Behind
(transcribed by Ryan Gaffney)
Follow Mike Ragogna on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ragz2008