Carl Wiser (SF): Your first big song as a writer was for the Kalin Twins -- “When.”
Paul Evans: That’s right. I was young… 19 or 20. I would write with two or three writers a day. It was our job to write songs… just sitting around, fooling around playing songs. We wrote a song for the Everly Brothers, but they were almost impossible to get. So we brought the song up to Decca Records. The demo was just my guitar, me singing, and my co-writer singing a harmony line. We got the Kalin Twins to do it because when [Decca] heard a duet on a demo, they thought of a duet, that’s just the way it was in the business at the time. We did not write it as a personal experience. We tried. We wrote it because we wanted to write a song that we could get a record recorded on.
SF: Were you guys considered Tin Pan Alley at the time?
Paul: Yes. I think we were considered the end of the run for Tin Pan Alley. There was the Brill Building, which was really the heart of Tin Pan Alley, 1619 Broadway. Then there was another building, 1650 Broadway, which was a block and a half away… that’s where Kirshner’s crew wrote. They were a group of the most talented kids, all from the same place in Brooklyn.
The Beatles scared the hell out of us. And Paul Anka scared us, because Paul was a superstar who wrote his own songs. So that was a little scary. You can’t compete with Paul Anka for Paul Anka.
SF: The Beatles scared you because they wrote their own songs?
Paul: They were so good, and it was obvious that the English were coming. You turned on a radio and it was “Henry VIII I Am,” and it was The Who. Here came the English, and there was no stopping them. And they wrote their own stuff.
SF: Now, along the line you became a performer and you sing “Seven Little Girls,” which you didn’t write, I understand.
Paul: No, it was a fluke. I was doing demos for people. I could sing songs for writers who couldn’t sing. I think I got $12 a song at the time.
“Seven Little Girls” was written by Lee Pokrus and Bob Hilliard, for Merv Griffin. They took my demo up to Carlton Records for Merv, who was on the label at the time. And the owner of the company, Joe Carlton, said that he had just started a rock and roll label called Guaranteed Records, and he wanted to put the demo out. So that’s how I wound up with my pop hits. Just doing demos for cheap, enough to pay for my lunch and pay for my rides home. I used to cross paths with Jerry Keller, who had “Here Comes Summer” eventually. He got his start doing demos. And actually, I used to cross paths all the time with Paul Simon, who did the same thing. I think he was Jerry Landis at the time.
SF: So now you find yourself as a recording artist, and now they have to promote you, right?
Paul: Yes, absolutely. They would send me out on the road, and I would do record hops. I would lip-synch in front of these crowds of kids, who would then be dancing to the records. I did the Dick Clark Show by lip-synching. Anything that was spent by the record company came out of our royalties. And I made very little money at the time. I was exhausted after three weeks. They were all one-nighters and they were bus tours and stuff like that. And I wasn’t being paid, and I didn’t think this was cool, I’d rather have been home writing with my co-writers.
SF: When you’re on the road, are you just doing this one song and then getting offstage?
Paul: No, I would do probably three or four songs. But I was not prepared for that. I got on the bus the first day, I was traveling with Johnny and the Quests. And the band leader said to me, “What songs are you planning on performing?” I said, “Songs?” I had one song prepared. “Seven Little Girls.” I had a little arrangement written up.
I didn’t expect to go on a bus tour. I was a kid who was doing studio work, and all of a sudden had a hit record, and got sent out on the road.
I had my hits, my three hits, and I was drafted into the army. And that was really the end of my singing career for then.
SF: When you’re performing “Seven Little Girls,” is there anybody else up there performing with you?
Paul: The only live that I ever did was the Arthur Murray Dance Party show. It was a network television show, and it was right before I got drafted. I was so nervous. And finally I sat in the seat, and they had seven girls behind me, and a chimpanzee playing the part of Fred.
Now the first part of the song is “Seven little girls, sitting in the back seat.” I should have known it. I couldn’t think of it. My hair got soaking wet from nervous perspiration. I was so scared because there was no turning back, the curtains were now opened, the overture was over, and I sang, “Seven little girls…” I mean, it just came to me. My wife says that when she sees me on the stage, I walk out on the stage, I do look a little nervous to her – she knows me. But she says the second I open my mouth and start singing, it’s all over for nerves.
SF: So how did “Happy-Go-Lucky Me” come about?
Paul: The big thing that made it a hit was there’s a laugh in it. “A ha ha-ppy go…” and then I laugh like an idiot in the bridge. I just laugh and laugh and laugh. That was what made that song. And it was the fourth song on a four-song session. We did four songs in three hours. I mean, you don’t do anything in three hours anymore. It was the fourth song, we did two takes, and it was a hit.
SF: And “Roses Are Red (My Love),” can you tell me about that one?
Paul: Al Byron, the lyricist, came into [a recording session] and said he’d like to show me a lyric. And so as a total joke, I said to the musicians, “Okay, guys, take a five, I’m going to write a hit song now, ha ha ha ha ha.” Al handed me the lyric and I put it on the piano, and it was the lyric as you hear it on the Bobby Vinton record, word for word. I wrote [the melody] in three minutes. I turned around laughing, and Al looked at me and said, “That’s very good. It’s exactly what I had in mind.” So I tried for weeks after that to make changes, because I didn’t believe it. I mean, you can’t write a hit song in three minutes. But that’s what happened. My biggest song – three minutes. The music business is a strange business. I think the people who do the best just have a feel for the music.
Once you get something in your head and you think it’s right, it’s very hard to turn that off and to go back again. I find that the hardest thing in writing. And the other thing I find very difficult is after you get the idea for a song… once you write that first verse and tell the story, it’s very hard to come up with stuff to complete the song … because you try to say so much in the first verse. Doesn’t really leave me many places to go for the second and third verse of the song.
SF: Can you tell me anything about “Midnight Special?”
Paul: Real, real folk singers always did that song. I cut it ‘cause I loved it, that’s it. [John Fogerty] told an interviewer why he eventually cut the song. “I once heard a record made by a Paul Evans, and I liked it a lot. And I did it his way, except we just rocked it up a little more.” You know, these are little joys you get as you travel through life, to have a star of that magnitude say that on that song he heard my record and liked it enough to want to record it himself.
I had a comeback record in 1979, it was Number Four on the British charts, and it hit Billboard 40s here on the pop charts. That was exciting, too.
SF: What song was that?
Paul: It was a song called, “Hello, This Is Joanie.” It was on every major city country station. And it was a pretty big hit. It was fun for me. After 20 years, I had a hit on the charts again.
I did a trick on the guitar, and I was writing to that trick. It's a way I play chords way up on the neck of the guitar. I couldn't write a lyric to it - my cowriter's the one that came up with the lyrics, and that was Fred Tobias. It was a death song, for sure.
The funny thing about the song, it was a bigger hit in England than it was here. Here it was a country hit, big city country stations. There it was a pop hit. And the funny thing was that answering machines were not very popular in England at the time. I can’t explain that. They liked the record more than we did.
SF: You also wrote songs for Elvis Presley. When you’re writing a song like “I Gotta Know,” are you trying to put yourself in Elvis’s place?
Paul: Yes, I would imagine how he sang, because Elvis had a specific style. He would mumble a little bit, he wasn’t clear, necessarily, on his lyrics. And so I would sing it like he would sing it. You know, the kind of gutteral and sexy thing that he always did. And what does he say in his songs? We were writing for Elvis, we knew what he liked, and we wanted to give him something he liked, of course.
I would do the demo, and I would do the singing. You had to be very careful with your demos, because generally speaking, you would get the final from Elvis back with basically the arrangement of the demo. Of course, instead of me singing four-part harmonies, you’d get the Jordanaires; and instead of my five-piece orchestra, you’d have whatever he wanted on his session, or his producer wanted. They had to like the package. It wasn’t just a song anymore. It had to put them in a mood. And so we would have to do our best to give them our interpretation of what they would do, with a smaller group of people.
SF: Lyrically I think it’s interesting how the song seemed almost lovelorn for Elvis, like there’s some girl breaking his heart or something. You don’t think of Elvis, he’s got all the swagger, but many of his songs, that’s what he sings about.
Paul: “Love Me Tender,” please, love me. I mean, that was the essence of pop music – or it used to be… We didn’t do angry music in the ‘50s and ‘60s.
Thanks to Paul for speaking with us. Learn more at http://www.paulevans.com.