Billy Vera told Eric Greenberg on the Just My Show
podcast: "I was living still in New York, and I met a young college girl, about 20 years old. We started dating – she told me she had just broken up with her boyfriend, and she described what he went through when she gave him the bad news. And she was very descriptive. So I went home and I was impressed by what he must have been feeling. So I wrote the first two-thirds of the song based on my imagination of what this guy was feeling. And I couldn't finish it, I just couldn't figure out how it ended. And then about 9-10 months later, when she broke up with me, I had gotten very emotionally involved with her, and then I knew how the song ended. And that was the famous line that everybody remembers: 'I'd subtract 20 years of my life.'
We stayed in touch for a long time. She was one of these sort of narcissistic girls that like the idea of somebody mooning over her for years, and I did."
Billy Vera was born William McCord Jr. He had some success as a songwriter with the #1 Country hit "I Really Got the Feeling," which Dolly Parton recorded. He wrote "At This Moment" in 1977, but no one wanted to record it, although Dionne Warwick and Olivia Newton-John came close to doing so. Billy Vera And The Beaters finally released it in 1981 as the followup to their first single, "I Can Take Care of Myself" (#39 in the US) on the Japanese-owned Alfa label, and it stalled at #79 on the charts. The song was revived when it was used in three episodes of the hit TV show Family Ties in 1985 and 1986, as a backdrop for romantic interludes between Alex P. Keaton (played by Michael J. Fox) and Ellen Reed (played by Tracy Pollan, who became Fox's wife in real life). Vera told Just My Show: "I thought that was gonna be it. You know, everybody had high hopes for that song. But they wanted to put out an up-tempo song to start off the album, and they did. They had a very good promotion man, Bernie was his name. And he wasn't getting along with the boss. So he quit just as 'At This Moment' came out. The guy they hired to take his place, he couldn't have promoted the Beatles. He was this terrible promotion man. So that's why 'At This Moment' didn't do what it should have done. And as it turns out, very often, it was better that it happened five years later."
The first Billy Vera & The Beaters album was recorded live, so when this was used in Family Ties, only the live version existed. Vera explains: "We re-recorded pieces of the song. In other words, they'd need 12 seconds here, or 20 seconds there in the show. So we went in and recorded just those pieces in the studio without the audience, because the audience would have been annoying, to the TV viewer. The thing that made it work better the second time was that the story of the song, boy-loses-girl, was the story of the episode, "Boy Loses Girl." The first time they used the song, it was when he met the girl."
Billy Vera & the Beaters' second album was issued in 1982, and three weeks later, Alfa pulled out of the US and stopped distribution. Said Vera, "The Japanese owners were unhappy with the way the Americans were running the company, and they pulled the plug on the financing, and the company went out of business. So I was without a record deal. Luckily my acting started to pick up, and I was making a living mostly as an actor at that point (Vera appeared on Knots Landing, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai and Alice), and then playing weekends with the band and making a few bucks here and there, and then that combined with some royalties from my old songs, I was able to make a living. And so that went on for about 5 years. And then one afternoon I got a phone call, and this guy said, 'Hey I produce a show called Family Ties, and some of us were at your show the other night, and we heard you do this song that we thought would be perfect for an episode that we have coming up. I got my publisher to make a deal for that with them. And I got a bag full of mail. Now, I had had other songs on TV shows before, and never gotten any mail from it. But I got a bag full of mail from NBC, you know, "Who's the singer? What's the name of the song? Where can we buy it?" Well, it was no longer out, so you couldn't buy it. So I got the idea, Well, maybe somebody will let me record it again. And I went to all the record companies where I still had some contacts, and nobody was interested at all. And then I was talking to a fellow by the name of Richard Foos who owned a company called Rhino Records, which was in the business of re-issuing oldies. And I told him what had happened. I said, 'Hey Richard, how many records do you need to sell to break even?' And he had low overhead at the time, because it was a small company. He said, 'Oh, about 2,000 copies.' I said, 'Well, I'll tell you what, I'll guarantee 2,000 albums. I can sell them in the clubs if need be. Will you put it out?' He said, 'Sure.' So they licensed the recordings, the whole album, from Alfa. And by the time they got it out, we missed the re-runs. And so that was bad. But at least I had records to sell in the clubs. And then the following season, they used the song again, only this time the girl broke up with Michael J. Fox, and Michael J. Fox played the song on the jukebox and started crying, and America responded like crazy. NBC called us up, they said, 'My God, we've never had any response like this in the history of the network for a song. The switchboards are lighting up, we're getting letters, telegrams, where can we find this record?" Well, luckily, Rhino had the record out. So people started calling radio stations, which never happens. I mean, it was a total organic hit. You know, Rhino wasn't in the business of contemporary music, so they didn't have any promotion, they didn't do any payola, it was just – the people demanded the record, and thank goodness, radio listened and played it. And it just kept shooting up the charts week after week after week. Next thing you know the phone's ringing off the hook, word got out that I was a free agent, I didn't have a record deal, so all these record companies started wanting me to sign with them, and we were on all these television shows. Dick Clark was wonderful to us. He put me on every single one of his shows; American Bandstand and all the rest of them. He was just great to us."
Family Ties writer Michael Whitehorn told Just My Show: In 1985 I had written an episode of Family Ties to start the fourth season, and we needed a sort of a sad romantic song. I just happened to go into a bar in Los Angeles called At My Place and saw Billy and the Beaters. That was the perfect song, and the rest was history."
Vera played the unsavory character Duke Weatherill on 4 episodes of Beverly Hills, 90210 in the early '90s. In addition to occasional acting and voiceover work, Vera continued to perform with The Beaters into the '00s. He told Greenberg: "I'm an old-school performer. I came up at the tail end of the old days. I played the Apollo Theater, where you had to compete, and people wanted to know who you were. They wanted to connect with you as a person, not just a voice that sings a song. That changed in the late '60s. You know, when we say the '60s, we mean after 1967. The '60s didn't really start 'til '67. But before that, you had to entertain. You had to talk to people. You had to make 'em like you. So I always tell stories, not with every song, but with most of the songs. Every song has a story – and I don't mean that every song has to be autobiographical, because I say autobiography is for amateurs. You know, a professional songwriter invents stories. Maybe I'll see something on a TV show or read something in a book or something you tell me about your girlfriend, and I'll stir all of those parts together in a gumbo and out comes a whole new story, and that's the song. And that's how a professional writes. You know, these amateur songwriters, they think that their angst-ridden lives are so interesting, when it's just a bunch of crappy drama."
Barry Williams, who played Greg Brady on The Brady Bunch, covered this on his 1999 album Return Of Johnny Bravo. Freda Payne covered it for her 2001 album Come See About Me. (thanks, Jerro - New Alexandria, PA)