Rupert Holmes has written several Broadway plays, including Say Goodnight, Gracie and The Mystery Of Edwin Drood. He has written songs that have been performed by Barbra Streisand, Judy Collins, and Britney Spears. He created a television series called Remember WENN and wrote a novel called Where The Truth Lies. His works have won Tonys, Emmys, and Edgars. Despite all this, he is best known for this song. Says Rupert, "I have a feeling that if I saved an entire orphanage from a fire and carried the last child out on my shoulders, as I stood there charred and smoking, they'd say, 'Aren't you the guy who wrote The Pina Colada Song?' It's tough when you have this one thing that pulls focus from all these other things that you've done, yet every songwriter lives to have a song that most everybody knows."
This began as a song called "People Need Other People," which Rupert wrote years earlier for his own amusement. For his 5th album, he needed an uptempo song to balance out the ballads, so he decided to record this. Rupert describes how they recorded it:
"The drummer, Leo Adamian, suggested we have 2 drummers on the session because it was an interesting beat that was hard to pull off with one drummer alone. We got the second drummer and we did one take of the tune. It had some very interesting chord changes and changed key several times, and I'm singing away this lyric, 'people need other people.' We go in to hear back the first take and we listen to the cut, and I say 'you know, we can definitely do better than this,' and I look and I see that the second drummer was unconscious from having too much fun. We were able to wake him up and get him into a taxi, and that was that, we weren't going to record any more of that track. I figured I'd just put the song away - I wasn't that crazy about the lyric anyway. Then I found that I really desperately needed another uptempo song on the album and the budget was getting low and I wasn't sure what to do. That's when we did something that now is pretty commonplace but was pretty unusual at the time - we did a very primitive version of sampling. I found there were 16 bars of music on that first take that were very tight, everybody was in a very nice groove on it. So we duplicated those 16 bars onto another multitrack master over and over again and edited them all together. I think there were 60 edits to make up a reel that was 5 minutes long of this 16 bar vamp. I went through a million lyrics in my head. I wrote one song that went 'that's the law of the jungle in the school of the street, you get out of the kitchen if you can't take the heat.' I thought it sounded too much like a Billy Joel song. I wrote another one: 'everyone needs a victim, I believe you will find, when you're cruel to another, when you're cruel to be kind.' Right as I did that, I remembered there was a hit record out called 'Cruel To Be Kind,' so I couldn't use that. Now it's the day before the last scheduled day of recording and I have no lyrics. Because the song is just this steady vamp, I realized that I've got to make the lyrics the focal point of the song because the music is repetitive. I was in my apartment and there was a copy of The Village Voice. Sometimes I look at personal columns to get ideas for songs because people fascinate me. I saw this ad that a woman had placed in which she described herself in such glowing terms that I thought to myself, 'why on earth, if you're this wonderful, do you need to place an ad in the personal columns?' Trying not to be cynical, I thought, 'Let's be fair, maybe she's just looking for an adventure. Maybe she is as wonderful as she says, but she likes the idea of meeting a stranger and seeing what fate has in store for them. She wants something out of the ordinary.' Then I thought to myself, 'what would happen if I answered this ad,' and I thought 'With my stupid luck, I would answer the ad and find out it had been placed by the woman I was living with, never realizing that she was bored with me. The story sort of took hold of my mind. People always ask me if it was based on something true, and I know they would love to know it was based on a true incident, but it wasn't, it was based on the 'What If' scenario that I conjured up in my mind that evening."
The original lyrics said: "If you like Humphrey Bogart and getting caught in the rain." Rupert used a lot of movie references on his previous albums, so he decided to try something else: "I thought, 'What can I substitute?' Well, this woman wants an escape, like she wants to go on vacation to the islands. When you go on vacation to the islands, when you sit on the beach and someone asks you if you'd like a drink, you never order a Budweiser, you don't have a beer. You're on vacation, you want a drink in a hollowed out pineapple with the flags of all nations and a long straw. I thought, 'Let's see, there's Daiquiri, Mai Tai, Pina Colada - I wonder what a Pina Colada tastes like, I've never even had one.' I thought that instead of singing 'If you like Humphrey Bogart,' with the emphasis on 'like,' I could start it a syllable earlier and go 'if you like Pina Coladas.'
When Rupert recorded the vocal, he did it just once as a scratch track for his lead guitarist, Dean Bailen. He also ad-libbed a harmony track a third above himself on the chorus, then left the song and came back the next day to record the proper vocal. When he came back to do the perfect vocal, he could not get the energy, excitement and enthusiasm he had singing it that one time straight through. Rupert: "I said, 'These other vocals are more correct, but they're not as much fun. I was having fun when I sang that through. I was kind of making up the phrasing as I sang it and it had more spontaneity, more energy.' Jim Boyer, who was doing the album with me, agreed, and that became the vocal. When you hear The Pina Colada song, the story was written the night before, the line 'If you like Pina Coladas' was invented about 5 minutes before I started actually singing, and the vocal you hear is the first time I ever sang the song, and that became the vocal you hear on the record."
Rupert thought a song called "Him" should be the first single from the album, but the record label liked this and convinced Rupert that they should release it first. They got it played on a radio station in Washington, and people started calling in to the station asking for it. The problem was that they were asking for "The Pina Colada Song" and the official title was "Escape." This hurt sales because people would ask for "That song about Pina Coladas" at record stores and the stores had no idea what they were talking about. The record label wanted to change the title to "Escape (The Pina Colada Song)" and told Rupert it wouldn't sell if they didn't. Rupert replied, "I guess it's The Pina Colada Song."
Holmes: "The record vaulted up the charts. WABC-AM, which never played anything until it was top 5 everywhere else in the nation, played the record when it was #60 in Billboard with a bullet (meaning the song is rising in the chart). It was jumping sometimes 15, 20 points a week and by December of 1979 it was a #1 record, and it was also a #1 record in January of 1980, so I can honestly say that it was at the top of the Billboard charts for 2 decades without interruption."
Before this became a hit, there weren't many places you could get a Pina Colada in the US. After this came out, you could get Pina Coladas just about anywhere.
"If I had ever known that was going to be the song that I'd be most associated with, I might have had second thoughts about a lot of it. It was never meant to be heard 100 million times, it was meant to be a little short story with a little wink at the end of it."
This has been used or referred to in many movies and TV shows, including Shrek, The Sweetest Thing (Cameron Diaz sings it), American Splendor, The General's Daughter, Will And Grace, Six Feet Under and The Simpsons.
Holmes: "Everyone has in their mind what a bar called O'Mally's looks like. I have one in my mind and that's where it came from. There's an O'Mally's bar near where I live, but I didn't discover there was such a bar until after I'd written the song. It could have been O'Grady's. Everyone knows an Irish bar where people might meet each other, and I'd like to think that the one you envision is different than the one I envision. There was no specific O'Mally's."
At the end of this song, the man answers the personal ad and discovers it was placed by his wife. When asked what happens to the couple, Rupert said, "I like to think that they looked at each other with chagrin and realized that before either one of them runs off to find some fantasy that probably doesn't exist in reality, they might reinvestigate their own relationship because there's a lot there they haven't yet explored. I think it's a happy ending with a footnote. They both are a little shocked, but neither can point the finger too hard at the other because they both were willing to try a new relationship and happily, their possible indiscretion led them to each other again." (Thanks to Rupert Holmes for speaking with us about this song. To learn more about Rupert, check out rupertholmes.com.)
The details of this song came true for a couple in Jordan who began trolling chatrooms independently, met and fell in love online, and when they finally met in real life, realized they were married to each other. Unlike in Rupert Holmes' scenario, this couple's experience ended in an acrimonious divorce.
This was featured in a commercial for the US TV show American Idol which aired during the Super Bowl in 2008. In the ad, Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is in a locker room, and dreams of singing this song. His dream is interrupted by a custodian, who tells him: "I loved that song, until you ruined it."
It featured in another celebrity-filled spot in 2016 when Spike Lee, Charles Barkley and Samuel L. Jackson sing it in a car as part of the Capitol One "The Road To The Final Four" campaign.