Working in the music business, getting to meet an artist is usually a matter of timing. Are you around at the beginning of the career, when they’re most available? Or around the time of a comeback, when they’re ccessible again? Some of my most fondly remembered conversations with artists—Billy Ocean, Natalie Cole, Vern Gosdin—came when they were switching labels after a decade or more. By that time, there was a catalog to ask them about, but they still appreciated the attention.
Meeting veteran artists happens less consistently. You may not have a reason to cross paths with them. Programming an R&B oldies station in Chicago was great for meeting a long list of soul legends (mostly with local connections, but sometimes touring acts): Jerry Butler, Lou Rawls, Barry White, Marshall Thompson of the Chi-Lites, Chuck Barksdale of the Dells, Tyrone Davis, Barbara Acklin, Phyllis Hyman. Only a few are still among us, but all were gracious.
A few artists were unlikely convention presences. I got to gush to Allen Toussaint, who died this year, in the late ‘80s when he made a semi-unlikely appearance at the NAB convention thanks to syndicator MJI. If Mel Tillis hadn’t been a friend of the MusicMaster family, he probably wouldn’t have been at Country Radio Seminar a few years ago, and he wouldn’t have had to hear about how his rocking ‘70s hits were among the ones that made me like Country music, back when few teenagers did.
Tillis is, fortunately, still among us. But there are a lot of other artists who I regret not having met, such as Jerry Reed or Bob Welch. I didn’t tell Gerry Rafferty that “Right Down the Line” and the less-played “Home and Dry” are the two love songs that most resonate for me in my marriage. Or ask Errol Brown of Hot Chocolate about the cathartic scream at the end of “Emma.” (Fortunately, an interviewer did, so I know that he was really singing about the loss of his mom, and not about the girlfriend of the lyric who was despondent over not getting acting roles.)
A few weeks ago, when Bruno Mars’ “24K Magic” came out, I wondered if the R&B artist Kashif had heard the song, which was essentially an homage to the percolating early-‘80s sound that made him a hot producer for several years. It was only by searching the two names that I realized Kashif had died two weeks earlier. In a year when the clock seemed to tick even faster—beginning with the announcement of Cole’s death and the loss of so many artists—now there were artists that I admired whose passing I wasn’t even hearing about. The worst part was that Kashif was somebody who had been relatively accessible in the business. But I didn’t have a reason to reach out until it was too late.
Now I’m thinking a lot about the other artists I want to meet, or at least publicly thank, while it’s still humanly possible. It’s not because I think the demise of any given party is imminent—although a few are known to have had health issues recently. But I always figured I’d run into Bob Welch around Nashville, where he was a regular presence in music circles, at some point. Or get a chance to thank the recently deceased Wayne Jackson of Booker T & the M.G.’s for “Time Is Tight.” Because time is tight.
It came down to a short and decidedly quirky list. Not every artist I admire is on here. That’s a really long list. But some have been interviewed extensively elsewhere. And there are some where I wouldn’t manage to say much more than the typical “I love your music.” And knowing that they’ve heard that plenty, I don’t feel the need to say it to the members of Abba. Or to Diana Ross (but maybe to other Supremes from various eras). It’s easier when there’s a lesser-known record of theirs to bond over. I’m glad indie-rock attention finally gave soul legend Bettye Lavette a viable career in the ‘00s. But if I gush over her version of “Heart of Gold” now, she’ll already have heard that from somebody.
I realized that I’ve been lucky to meet so many of my heroes already. There are many I admire and have never met, but some of them have been extensively interviewed and a lot of my questions have been answered. Or, like Nile Rodgers, they’ve written detailed autobiographies. Often, it’s the artists who came at a time when there was less coverage for mainstream hitmakers, and who left the business relatively soon after their radio careers.
So Peter Brown might seem like a random choice to you. But “Do Ya Wanna Get Funky With Me” was a huge record when I was growing up in Washington, DC — a rock/funk/disco opus that left a massive footprint on the summer and fall of 1977 in that town especially. Then he had an even bigger hit with “Dance With Me.” Then he negotiated the disco backlash and label changes for a few years. Then he co-wrote “Material Girl” for Madonna and soon thereafter left the business. By now, you’ve figured out that’s the kind of person I want to talk to and thank, particularly because he left with questions that aren’t entirely answered by Wikipedia.
And then there are three that loom particularly large for me:
Bill Withers – He’s broken his media silence (or was it benign neglect) over the last 6-7 years. There’s been a documentary and a Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction. There have been more interviews. And he’ll always be represented on the radio by “Lean on Me” and, to a lesser extent, by his two other crossover smashes. But Withers has a body of work that goes well beyond those hits, and makes him the equal of any early ‘70s acoustic singer/songwriter. He doesn’t need to hear it from me; Withers has said that it was lack of ego that allowed him to retire early in the first place. But I still need to praise him to somebody.
Terry Jacks – I’ve occasionally campaigned on Jacks’ behalf in this column, but if he’s only “Seasons in the Sun” to you, or if “Seasons in the Sun” is only a totem for the soft/goofy ‘70s, then I can’t rest. Jacks has a valid claim that pieces of “Seasons” and the Poppy Family’s “Where Evil Grows” show up in Nirvana’s “Come as You Are” and “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” He made consistently offbeat and interesting singles in the early ‘70s, including the definitive version of Buddy Holly’s “I’m Gonna Love You Too.” And before Fleetwood Mac’s “Rumours,” he wrote a series of hits for the Poppy Family and then ex-wife Susan Jacks that sure sounded like a real couple’s dialogue brought to life. I’ve wanted to interview either of the Jacks Family (both of whom have had recent health issues) for years if only to ask who said “You Don’t Know What Love Is” to who.
Bob Gaudio – He became a semi-public figure when “Jersey Boys” brought the Four Seasons story to public attention, but he deserves acclaim for a long string of Seasons hits that help the group define the years before the British Invasion and negotiate the changes after it. He was also behind many of Neil Diamond’s best ‘70s moments, and I was always a little indignant on his behalf over all the press fawning when Diamond turned to producer Rick Rubin in the ‘00s (which turned out not to produce a Johnny Cash moment anyway). He’s also an exception to the “left early” pattern here — compiling an extensive discography that continues through the just-released Frankie Valli holiday album. And, I’ve been reminded in the course of writing this story, he produced Peter Brown.
Some other thoughts, from earlier this year, on appreciating artists while we can, here. And who are the artists you’d most like to meet or talk to? Please leave a comment.