By Bruce Pollock
Shortly before he became Michael Bolton and released six multi-platinum albums in a row between 1987 and 1995, but after he was Michael Bolotin, going nowhere as a generic heavy rocker, Michael Bolton was following the career path of the songwriter, collaborating with everyone and stalking his contacts at the labels if there was a chance he had a shot at a single. His crowning moment was scripting the #12 hit for Laura Branigan "How Am I Supposed to Live Without You" in 1983. It was at this heady juncture that I caught up with him to glean his hard-won insights.
Anybody who says they're not trying to write hits is either in the wrong business or lying, because once you realize what you're up against - the odds of even getting a song on a record - then you'd better write a hit, or it's not gonna be on the record. Hit songs are the life blood of the industry. Every company is screaming for songs; the hit song is what keeps the industry alive, because that's all that radio wants to play. I didn't realize that until all of a sudden I started writing for other people. I've got a list right here of about 70 artists and producers who are looking for songs. Right now I've got songs on about 12 or 13 albums. I have no idea whether they're gonna be sung well, whether they'll be produced well, whether any of them will even be singles. But I'm hoping for hits.
Letting the Songs Go
I didn't know anything about the publishing world until about three years ago. I was between record deals, between managements. A friend of mine, Patrick Henderson, had written "Real Love," with Michael McDonald, so I asked him if he had any more things like that hanging around. I flew out to California and we wrote three songs, with the attempt being to put together a record deal for me. The next thing I knew was that his publishing company said they could place those songs instantly. I needed the money, so I said, let the songs go, and all the songs were gone in a matter of weeks. One of those songs - the very first one I wrote, has been recorded seven times. It's called "Still Thinking of You." Larry Graham did it, Fran Jolie, Rachel Sweet. Through Larry, George Duke became a big fan of the song, and I suddenly realized how it's great to have producers really hot on a song. They're just gonna keep cutting it until they have a hit.
Words and Music
I write everything - music, lyrics, melody - and I don't like writing just one of those things. I have been offered assignments to sit down with a piano player and write lyrics, but I won't do that. I like to be there during the conception of the song. I like to sit down and start fumbling around with a melody, or some idea, until the song starts revealing itself, where the lyrics and music are creating each other at the same time. I don't go anywhere without a pen and paper and my tape deck. If I get an idea I write it down.
About 60% of the time somebody has an idea and they say, 'Michael will be real good with this one.' Once you've had a hit record, people start calling you up. I don't care if a guy's involved with a hit. What I'm interested in is knowing what he contributed to the song. Is he a melody person? Does he come up with a theme? There are a lot of writers who can come up with a song that sounds just like their last hit only sideways. The writers I enjoy working with want to write songs that will be around ten years from now. I just started writing with Randy Goodrum
("You Needed Me"). I felt a little intimidated by his success. But he's the kind of guy who writes forever songs.
First you hear they're gonna cut your song. Then you find out they never did cut it. The next level is that they cut it, but never put a vocal on it. Then they cut it, put a vocal on it, but it didn't make the record. Usually when I'm told the song is on hold it winds up on the record. But I don't believe it until I hear it. Then they tell you it might be a single. When they tell you it's going to be a single, that's the only time I feel really comfortable that the song is going to be on the record. I don't believe it's really going to be a single until I hear the version of it. Once I hear the version of it, I can start making noise myself and have whatever friends I have at that label go to see them every other day and say, did you hear that track yet? I don't hype my work actively, but if I think there's a single there, I don't want to lose it. If it's not good enough to be a single, then I hope it's bad enough to be the b-side of a single. If it looks like it may be a single, they'll never put it on the b-side.
Then, if it does get released as a single and it makes the charts, that's like going to the races. And they're off....
Bruce Pollock has written ten books on music, including By the Time We Got to Woodstock: The Great Rock Revolution of 1969. In his column "They're Playing My Song," Susanna Hoffs, Jules Shear and many other songwriters tell the stories behind the one song that most impacted their careers. Visit Bruce at brucepollockthewriter.com.