The unlikely hit 867-5309 was his biggest songwriting success, but there's much more to Alex Call. In the first part of this interview, Alex talks about the famous phone number.
Carl Wiser SF: The song 867-5309 (Jenny), could you clear up the origins of that?
Alex Call: Despite all the mythology to the contrary, I actually just came up with the 'Jenny,' and the telephone number and the music and all that just sitting in my backyard. There was no Jenny. I don't know where the number came from, I was just trying to write a 4-chord Rock song and it just kind of came out. This was back in 1981 when I wrote it, and I had at the time a little squirrel-powered 4-track in this industrial yard in California, and I went up there and made a tape of it. I had the guitar lick, I had the name and number, but I didn't know what the song was about. This buddy of mine, Jim Keller, who's the co-writer, was the lead guitar player in Tommy Tutone. He stopped by that afternoon and he said, 'Al, it's a girl's number on a bathroom wall,' and we had a good laugh. I said, 'That's exactly right, that's exactly what it is.'
Tommy Tutone's been using the story for years that there was a Jenny and she ran a recording studio and so forth. It makes a better story but it's not true. That sounds a lot better than I made it up under a plum tree in my backyard.
SF: So the number just came out of your head?
Alex: It came out of my head. It's one of those songwriting things. That's kind of my method, I play and sing and stuff comes out, then I hone it, I work on it. It came from somewhere, I don't know, but it was good.
I had the thing recorded. I had the name and number, and they were in the same spots, 'Jenny... 867-5309.' I had all that going, but I had a blind spot in the creative process, I didn't realize it would be a girl's number on a bathroom wall. When Jim showed up, we wrote the verses in 15 or 20 minutes, they were just obvious. It was just a fun thing, we never thought it would get cut. In fact, even after Tommy Tutone made the record and '867-5309' got on the air, it really didn't have a lot of promotion to begin with, but it was one of those songs that got a lot of requests and stayed on the charts. It was on the charts for 40 weeks.
SF: Were you in a band at that time?
Alex: I had been in a band previous to that, a San Francisco band called Clover. I was the lead singer, Huey Lewis was the harmonica player, and John McFee, who's now with The Doobie Brothers, was the guitar player. It was a really good band, we made 4 albums, 2 for Fantasy, 2 for Mercury. We did the last 2 with Mutt Lange, who's produced Shania and AC/DC and Foreigner and Def Leppard. We were the band on Elvis Costello's first album, My Aim Is True.
SF: You did some work with Nick Lowe on that.
Alex: Yes. Nick Lowe was one of our mentors, he brought us to England in the '70s. Clover broke up in 1978, but shortly after 'Jenny' got on the radio, I had a Pat Benatar song called "Little Too Late" that was a minor hit, then I got signed to Arista.
SF: I'm trying to figure out how Tommy Tutone ended up recording it.
Alex: Jim Keller, the co-writer, was the lead guitar player in Tommy Tutone. They cut it. It's pretty similar to the original demo, which I've lost, unfortunately. They changed a few things, but not too much.
SF: Was there concern about using a real phone number?
Alex: I think there might be now, based on what happened to the poor people who had that phone number. I have a lot of clippings in my old files. I think a high school in Peduca or Louisville, or somewhere in Kentucky had the number, and they had 50,000 calls in a week - 'Is Jenny there?' I've heard a lot of stories about people who've had the number over the years. The guy that got the 212 area code in Manhattan put it on Ebay. It went to $200,000 in one day before Verizon said he couldn't sell it.
SF: With the number portability that's a huge thing. That phone number, if you think about it, might be the most famous phone number in the US.
Alex: Amazing, isn't it.
SF: I ran it by a mathematician, and it's also a prime number. What are the chances?
Alex: What a genius I am.
SF: It's almost like a divine number or something. There's something weird about it. Have you heard any other stories about strange things that have happened with this phone number?
Alex: I have a lot of stories. A lot of women have told me they use the name and number as a brush off, which I think is really great. A guy wakes up with a hangover, he's been obnoxious to some girl in a bar last night, he opens up a folded piece of paper and it's 'Jenny - 867-5309.'
A guy came up to me at one of my gigs - his family is from Florida and they had the number. They loved it, and as they've all grown up - it's a big extended family, they all have on their cell phones 5309, no matter what the prefix is, so all you need to know is what cousin Bob's prefix is.
There's a number here in town, it's a used car lot - he's got a big sign.
It's funny that that song has such legs and keep going.
A lot of people who had it were really pissed off about it. I've met a few Jennys who've said, "Oh, you're the guy who ruined my high school years." But for the most part, Jennys are happy to have the song.
SF: It's pretty rare that somebody doesn't fake a number like that - usually it's 555 something, but I guess there's no law that says you can't.
Alex: I did an interview the other day and the interview said that you have to use 555-1212 these days. You got me on that one.
Alex worked with both Mutt Lange and Nick Lowe. He was also on hand when Elvis Costello recorded his first album, and he wrote what became a female empowerment anthem for Pat Benatar.
SF: I think it's fascinating that you guys were in Clover and somehow you end up on Elvis Costello's first record. What's the story?
Alex: Clover got together in the late '60s. It was 4 of us, we made 2 albums on Fantasy - we were buddies with Creedence Clearwater Revival. We got dropped, and then Huey Lewis and our keyboard player, Shawn Hopper, joined the band and we kind of made another run at it. In the mid-'70s, we were going down to Los Angeles a lot and playing a club called The Palamino. The Palamino was this great Country and Western place. We were more of a Rock band really, but we kind of were Country. At one gig, Nick Lowe was there with Paul Carrack. Nick had been in the band Brinsley Schwartz, and The Brinsleys were big fans of the early Clover albums. So one thing led to another, and Jake Riviera, who was Elvis' manager, signed us to come to England, and we signed with Phonogram over there, which is Mercury here. Elvis Costello was at that time Dec McManus, he was using his real name. He was just this mild-mannered, meek little songwriter who would hang out around Stiff Records, which was our management office. Elvis once said, "Man, I wish I could sing like you." He went to cut some demos, and they used Clover. Huey and I did not participate in those recordings because they had no need for us, but I remember they went and cut at this little place called Pathways - a little 8-track studio so small that all you had just enough space to play your instrument. They went in that first session, and in one session they cut "Alison" and "Red Shoes" and "Less Than Zero," these classic songs. I remember hearing them at this Rock 'n' Roll house we lived in outside of Headley, South of London called the Headley Grange House. John McFee brought back a reel-to-reel tape on one of those old Wollensak tape recorders. He played this stuff, and I mean, I was ready to quit after hearing that - it was so astounding. They did like three 8-12 hour sessions, and that was My Aim Is True, that album. That is a classic record, just unbelievable. So that was our band, and we were managed by the same guys and we hung out a lot with Nick. Nick produced a lot of our early sessions there. We made 2 albums with Mutt Lange, and nothing happened with the band. We came close in England to breaking a single, but it didn't work and we ended up breaking up.
SF: So you and Huey didn't play on the album but the rest of the band did?
Alex: Yes, it was John McFee, John Ciambotti, Shawn Hopper and Micky Shine, who was our drummer at the time. Shawn Hopper is Huey's keyboard player. Elvis was the singer-songwriter, so he played rhythm guitar and sang, which was my job, and they didn't need a harmonica player. Huey didn't sing in those days. He sang a little, but primarily he played harmonica. We had long hair and we wore lots of leather gear.
SF: Can you tell me a little about the production style of Mutt Lange?
Alex: Mutt is a real studio rat. He is Mr. Endurance in the studio. When we were making the records with him, he'd start working at 10:30, 11 in the morning and go until 3 at night, night after night. He is one of the guys that really developed that whole multi-multi-multi track recording. We'd do 8 tracks of background vocals going, "Oooooh" and bounce those down to one track and then do another 8, he was doing a lot of that. A lot of the things you hear on Def Leppard and that kind of stuff, he was developing that when he worked with us. We were the last record he did that wasn't enormous, and that's not his fault, he did a really good job with us. The problem with us was our focus was too scattered. Huey Lewis was kind of the R&B guy, I was kind of the Country guy, it just didn't quite work. We used to do horn lines with pedal steel and harmonica - it was just truly weird. Mutt is famous for working long hours. The story I heard about one of the Shania sessions, he had Rob Hajakos, who's one of the famous fiddle session men down here. Rob was playing violin parts for like 7 or 8 hours and finally he said, 'Can I take a break,' and Mutt says, 'What do you mean take a break?' Rob goes, 'Have you ever held one of these for 8 hours under your chin?' Mutt really loves to record, he loves music and he's a real perfectionist and an innovator. An unbelievable commercial hook writer. I just wish that Shania had done one of my songs. Mutt writes everything. Mutt doesn't need anybody else.
SF: How about Nick Lowe, what was it like with him?
Alex: I haven't talked to Nick in a long time. The last time I saw him was several years ago in San Francisco, he came through and played a club called Slim's, which was Boz Scaggs' club.
Nick's nickname was "Basher" - "Basher Lowe," because he's just bash it up there - just play it, get it done. He's not a perfectionist, more like 'Let's get the great feeling.' He gets really good results doing that, but Nick is the opposite kind of personality than Mutt in that way, Mutt's a real perfectionist, everything has to be exactly right. With Nick, it's just bash it up there, and that's how he got the nickname Basher.
SF: The tune you did with Pat Benetar, "Little Too Late," can you tell me how that came about?
Alex: I wrote that around the same time I wrote '867-5309.' From a production standpoint, it was kind of funny. There used to be these vinyl LPs called "Drum Drops." And "Drum Drops" were just drum tracks recorded by some drummer in a studio. They're like 3 1/2 minute long things. There'd be a fill every 8 bars and a little something every 4 bars. I was going through and went, "Oh, I kind of like this,' and started playing around. I was really angry at a guy who had been playing lead guitar with me who had split to go play with somebody else, so that's what the song is about. It wasn't actually a boy-girl thing, it was more like a bandleader-lead guitarist thing. You know, "You want to come back and play with me, I don't think so Bud."
SF: You wrote it about your lead guitarist who left you.
Alex: You're the only one who knows that, but she [Benatar] did the song and it helped. I liked that.
SF: So Drum Drops, they didn't have drum machines back then that could do this for you?
Alex: We had the very first drum machines, which were these little cocktail things, they looked like a little suitcase. They had "Rock 1," "Rock 2," "Conga," "Jazz" and "Waltz." One output, a mono output. I used that a lot, I ran it through a little spring reverb, but we're talking about the early days of multi-track home recording. I had a big 15 inch reel 4-track as my recording thing. The way you multi-track on that, you have to flip these sync switches, so when you actually overdub, you're hearing it off the first head, so it was really murky-sounding, like you're playing underwater. When you get done recording, you flip the sync switches back and all of the sudden it sounds great, it sounds clear again. What you do then is, you record 3 tracks of stuff and pong it down to one. Then you record 2 tracks, and pong it down to another 2, so by continuing to pong tracks around, you could record 16 or 24 tracks of stuff, but with each generation, the sound got worse and smaller. That's how it was done back then, the spring reverbs, the old cocktail drum machines. The drum drops were much better than the drum machines.
SF: So they made life easier for you?
Alex: They worked. I think I only used them on that one song, for everything else, I used "Rock 1" on my old drum machine.
SF: In your travels down there (Nashville) you may have run into Eddie Schwartz, who wrote "Hit Me With Your Best Shot" for Pat.
Alex: I don't know him, but I know he's here and people write with him.
SF: He was doing stuff with Rascal Flatts and a bunch of other guys, but it's really interesting that 2 of Pat Benatar's most powerful female empowerment anthems are written by men. These songs have very surprising origins.
Alex: Somebody said, it's not necessarily THE truth, it's somebody's truth. For a song to connect, it has to have some reality to it, but it may be the reality's slightly skewed from what people think.
SF: What about the tune "Perfect World" that you wrote for Huey Lewis?
Alex: I wrote that by myself. By then I had more of a recording thing, I had an 8-track. It was 1985 when I wrote that song. I had a band that was like Huey Lewis And The News by then. I had a 9-piece band, I had 3 horns, a couple girl singers, me and the band. People told me it was a Ska sort of feel, but I was just goofing around, just trying to come up with stuff. The lyric is very unconscious, I just skatted it out and used it. Later on, I looked at it and tried to figure out what it meant. I love the song because I wrote it by myself and it got to #2, and also the horn lines that I wrote, Tower Of Power had to play my horn lines, which I thought was better than having a hit single. They did a whole horn arrangement. I remember when they were cutting the song and Huey said they were coming in with all these horn parts and one by one they eliminated them and kept pretty much all my horn parts. There's some little stuff in there that's definitely not me, that they did, but I was very proud of that song and I loved the recording they did of it, I think it's fantastic. Johnny Colla, Huey's guitar player/horn player, his vocal arrangements are just fantastic on that thing.
SF: Can you give a little insight on the meaning of the lyrics, what you were thinking when you wrote it?
Alex: It's the thing about The Quest, what are we really looking for in life? We know that life isn't perfect, but we keep on looking for it anyway because there's something inside us maybe that is perfect. That's what it's really about for me. The inner being is pretty simple and straitforward, and the outer being is quite neurotic and screwed up, and I think that's what the song is really about. It's a hopeful song.
SF: Did you have anything to do with "Power Of Love"?
Alex: I actually supplied the title for that song. I get paid on it, which is very nice, because it's Huey's biggest song by far.
I had written another song called Power Of Love after I'd been dropped by Arista and Warner Chappel. I was hanging out in L.A. and writing, and I had kind of a big power ballad thing called Power Of Love. Huey called me up one day and said, 'What are you writing,' and I said, 'I've got this song called Power Of Love.' A few months later, they cut me in the deal. It's a lot like a song I would write. Huey and I go back a ways together, and we used to room together - we had a house together and stuff and listened to a lot of music together. That song really could be one of my songs, which sounds crazy because they wrote it, and I think they're brilliant - Johnny Colla and Chris Hayes are the guys who really did that music. That modulation and all that kind of stuff, that's the same kind of stuff I do - going to the odd key for the bridge. That might be why I'm having a hard time getting cuts here in Nashville, because I still do that kind of stuff.
SF: You must have written that before Celine Dion had the big hit with the Laura Branigan song, but there's been a lot of songs with that title that were big hits.
Alex: If a title is floating around, a lot of songwriters get it. There's no doubt about it, I've heard that so many times over the years, so I know it's true. You have thousands of qualified songwriters working every day trying to come up with titles for songs. There's how many songs called "I Will."
SF: I was talking to a guy from Grand Funk who wrote their song "Walk Like A Man," and I couldn't figure out how he could write that and not have the Frankie Valli song on a continuous loop in his head.
Alex: It would be tough to do "Walk Like A Man" for me.
SF: Any other Huey stuff we should know about?
Alex: He and I are still writing songs together. We've just written a Country song that doesn't seem to be going anywhere, but we have another one that might go. He's doing great, they sound as good as they ever did.
SF: I'd like to ask him about "Power Of Love."
Alex (laughing): It'd be interesting to see if he gives me credit for it.
SF: If you're getting checks, then somebody's giving you credit for it.
Alex: My name's not on the copyright.
SF: I always wondered how they did that.
Alex: That's a Rock band thing. I'll tell you about Rock bands - not that Huey's a prime example, but I've known lots of other prime examples - they frequently piece stuff out and then don't put everybody on the copyright. I think in that case, they didn't want my name on the copyright. I think they knew it was going to be a huge breakout hit and they didn't want to confuse the issue with somebody outside the circle - that's my guess. I was happy to get paid. I was a little miffed at the time - if I had my name on that I could have turned it into a publishing deal, but then I'd probably be living in L.A. and I hated L.A., so it's just as well that it worked out the way it did.
SF: Have you done any other versions of "Jenny"?
Alex: I've got a live acoustic version, live at the Bluebird Cafe. The Bluebird is kind of the prime songwriting venue here in Nashville. It's just me on guitar.
We spoke with Alex on June 6, 2004