This was originally recorded by Todd Rundgren's late 1960s band The Nazz, and included on their 1968 debut album. This dirge-like version with lead vocals by Stewkey Antoni received little attention, and made just #66 in the US. The Nazz broke up in 1969, and were fondly remembered after the fact. "It turns out now that The Nazz was everybody's favorite undiscovered group," Rundgren said in 1972, the year he released his third solo album Something/Anything?, which contained a new version of this song that eventually caught on and established Rundgren as a solo artist.
Rundgren wrote this song, which takes us through a phone call where the singer breaks up with a girl. It's a remarkably realistic account, devoid of sweeping metaphors typically found in breakup songs. We hear the one side of the phone call, which starts with the familiar greeting, indicating they've been together a while. Then they have "the talk," where he hashes out why they can't be together and lets her know that she should have her freedom. All he can ask in the end is that she think of him every now and then.
Remarkably, it was the first song Rundgren ever wrote. In his teens, Todd was an avid listener to music but it was only when he put The Nazz together at the age of 19 that the young musician realized that now he was fronting a band, and he'd better start penning some material. He attributes the sophistication and success of this song to the vast amount of listening he'd done by the time he wrote it.
This song, and many others Rundgren wrote at the time, was inspired by a high school relationship that didn't work out. He graduated in 1966, wrote the song about a year later, and recorded the original Nazz version in 1968, so that relationship was still fresh in his mind. He realized, however, that he didn't want to keep revisiting this heartbreak, so he made a conscious effort to avoid that theme in his post-Something/Anything? output. "There's more than just relationships to write about," he said when speaking at Red Bull Music Academy. "There's your whole inner life to draw on."
Rundgren recorded a dark, Bossa Nova version of this song on his 1997 compilation album With A Twist. Speaking about the song in Mojo, he explained: "'Hello, It's Me' has become the albatross to me: everyone has attached to me the idea of the amateur singer, the amateur piano player, the funk-free boy doing his little song. But I just can't go there anymore, I can't even think there anymore."
Todd explains that the chord progression for "Hello It's Me" were lifted directly from the intro of jazz organist Jimmy Smith's rendition of "When Johnny Comes Marching Home."
Rundgren expected the album opener "I Saw The Light
," which was the first single from Something/Anything?
, to be his big hit, even going as far as to say so in the liner notes rather tongue-in-cheek. However, his re-recording of "Hello It's Me" eclipsed it on the charts - "I Saw The Light" stalled at #16. Both songs displayed his newfound admiration (and subsequent imitation) of Carole King following her Tapestry
"Hello It's Me" was a very slow-moving hit; the Something/Anything?
album was released in February 1972, and it only became a hit when radio stations started playing it over a year later and the song was subsequently released as a single. It didn't hit the Top 40 until November 1973, and by then, Rundgren's psychedelic album A Wizard, a True Star
had been out for eight months. It was a completely different sound, and Rundgren was in a completely different mindset. The record company didn't put any singles out from Wizard
for fear of alienating Rundgren's fans, and Todd had a hard time performing the sudden hit that was now five years old. One of his more bizarre moments came when he performed the song on The Midnight Special
wearing what looked like something from David Bowie's closet. Rundgren's girlfriend Bebe Buell called it his "Man-Eating Peacock outfit."
This song was used as the ending clip in the first ever episode of That 70's Show
. The gang sings this in the car on the way to a Todd Rundgren concert. This clip also appears on the last episode of the show.
The 1968 version of this song by The Nazz was originally relegated to the B-side of another single, "Open My Eyes." Ron Robin told us how the single got flipped. Says Ron: "How 'Hello It's Me' by Nazz became a 'sort of' hit nationally was quite an accident. I was the music director/DJ at WMEX in Boston when a record promoter came by to tell me about this new group... Nazz. He was promoting 'Open My Eyes,' a terrific hard driving rocker. I loved it. At home I accidentally played the flip side of the record and heard 'Hello It's Me.' It blew me away. I just had to add it to our playlist at the station. After a few weeks it made it to our top 5. We were the only station in the country playing it! Several months later other stations across the country started playing it. Several years later Todd records it in his new style without Nazz and of course without Nazz lead singer Stewkey."
What is it about this song that has such lasting appeal? Kasim Sulton, who played bass in Rundgren's band Utopia, told us that there is something special about Todd's songwriting. "It's so difficult to write a good lyric, a lyric that people turn their heads and say, 'I know what you're talking about, I know how you feel, I know what you mean. I know what he's saying there,'" Kasim told us
. "And then to put it in the context of a melody in a song is equally as hard. But Todd does that better than anybody I'd ever worked with, and I've worked with some great people over the years."
Paul Giamatti performed this song in the movie Duets
In our 2015 interview with Todd Rundgren
, he called this "a selfish song." Said Rundgren, "It's me, me, me – it's all about me. I'm in charge, and all this other stuff."
For this reason, Rundgren didn't play it when he toured with Ringo Starr's All Starr Band, since it didn't fit in with the other songs in the show. Instead, Rundgren played a song he recorded with his band Utopia that was a hit for England Dan & John Ford Coley: "Love Is The Answer
The Isley Brothers released a sultry R&B version running 5:32 on their 1974 album Live It Up. In their version Ron Isley repeats "Hello" several times in the intro.
When Erykah Badu was putting together But You Caint Use My Phone, her 2015 concept mixtape with songs dealing with phone calls, her old flame Andre 3000 (from Outkast), he was looking for song that she could use and came across the Isley Brothers recording. When he suggested it to Badu, she asked him to rap on it, which he did. Using the basic structure from the Isley's version, but was used as the closing track on her mixtape.