It was a move to Syracuse that saved his life - they drink a lot of beer and have a good time up there, but it's about as far removed from the Miami party/cocaine scene as you can get. Syracuse has always supported their local musicians, and they embraced Benny. As a disc jockey in the area, I saw him play small theaters to adoring crowds, laying his heart on the stage in very intimate performances. Benny was top talent in this mid-size market, but he had tasted fame and spent the rest of his life trying to find it again. He's a sensitive guy left to wonder what would have happened if things had worked out just a little different: if he had stayed off the drugs, if his record company promoted him better, if Jon Bon Jovi had produced his album like he was going to. It's a battle to keep the what-ifs at bay and reflect on a career that produced one of the most popular songs of all time.
These days, Benny lives in California and battles Parkinson's disease. He served in the US Navy, and in 2011 recorded a new version of the song "United We Stand" for the 10th anniversary of the September 11th attacks. The video was edited by his son, who he raised as a single dad.
Benny Mardones: Well, I was living in Spanish Harlem on Riverside Drive in Manhattan. In my building was a family, husband and wife and three kids, 17, 16, and 15. I was sort of the resident rock star from having the first album out, Thank God For Girls, back in '77 on Private Stock Records. Hadn't written "Into the Night" yet, which became, of course, my signature song. We'd see the kids around the building - everything was cool and my son's mother was friends with the family.
So one day I get a knock on my door. I open it up, and all three of the kids were there crying. The 17-year-old girl, she said, "Our father left my mother and ran off with another woman in the chorus line of the show." He was a struggling set designer on Broadway, and he had landed a major show. Instead of coming home to his family and saying, "Our ship has come in, we're going to move out of here, go to Westchester, get a house, have a better life," he decided to run off with some 24-year-old girl in the chorus line and left the family destitute. I put my arms around them, all three, and I said, "Everything's going to be all right. I promise you." Of course, I didn't have any idea how everything was going to be all right, but it just broke my heart.
So I gave them each a job. I told Shawn, who was the boy, "After school every day, you come to my house and you can run an errand for me" and I'd give him a $20-dollar bill every day to go out and get me half a gallon of milk or a pack of cigarettes or something. Just a reason for him to go and when he came home I would always let him keep the change. That way he had about fifty bucks a week in his pocket. This was back in '79, so fifty dollars a week for a kid in school, 15, was pretty good money.
The older daughter, I paid her to come every Saturday and clean my apartment and I'd give her fifty bucks. But the 16-year-old girl was named Heidi and she was the most devastated, because she was daddy's little girl. She was just devastated at what had happened and I felt so bad for her. I said, "Look, Heidi, I'm up all night, I sleep late," because I was sort of living the life of a rock star even though I wasn't a rock star. I was just starting to make records, really. I had a Basset Hound named Zanky, who ended up on two or three albums - sleeve pictures and stuff. He was a famous Basset hound in rock and roll for a while. I said, "Here's my key. Every day before school you take Zanky out for a walk in the morning, let him do his business, come back, feed him, and then go to school, and I'll give you $50 a week for doing that."
So the kids were holding it together; they had money in their pockets so they could buy things for school and just things that teenagers need. I had such disgust with the father that I think if I could have found him, I'd have had somebody from Miami have a sit-down with him. I was that upset. I mean, how can you do that? When "Into the Night" hit for me, first thing I did was pay off my mother's house, take care of my sister and my family so that they were taken care of. And so this guy did just the opposite.
So one night Robert Tepper and I were up writing songs. It was about a week before we were leaving for Miami to cut the first big album, which was Never Run, Never Hide. We thought that we already had the hit song, so did Polydor Records. It was a song called "Might Have Been Love." That's why the album was called Never Run, Never Hide, because the opening line of "Might Have Been Love" is, "I'd never run, I'd never hide, I can't remember the last time I cried. It might have been the day they took Elvis away." But at the last minute we're sitting there one night at my apartment trying to write. Bobby kept playing the chord changes and we tried 18 melodies and 30 kinds of lyrics and all of a sudden the key in the door turned and I said, "Oh my God, it's daylight." Because we liked to keep the blinds down.
And in she walks, 16 years old, dressed for school in a miniskirt, little stacked heels, adorable, 16-going-on-21. She said, "You've been up all night?" and of course it was obvious. I said, "Yeah, we have." She says, "Okay, come on, Zanky," and she walks the dog out. When she leaves and goes out the door, my partner goes, "Oh, my God." I said, "Hey, Bob. She's just 16 years old, leave her alone." And literally five minutes later I said, "Play that lick again, Bobby." So he played the lick and I went (singing), "she's just 16 years old, leave her alone, they say." Then I thought about her dad and what he had done, and that's where I got (singing), "Separated by fools who don't know what love is yet." The chorus was, "you're too young for me, but if I could fly, I'd pick you up and take you into the night and show you love like you've never seen." Then the verse "It's like having it all and letting it show. It's like having a dream where nobody has a heart. It's like having it all and watching it fall apart." Because his success was not the family's success; it was just his. "I can't measure my love there's nothing compared to it" - it was all about the abandonment of this family and this 16-year-old girl.
When it first was released, R&B stations all over America thought I was black. Then they found out I was white and they dropped the record. White radio was afraid to touch it because they thought it was about me dating a 16-year-old girl at my age. So Polydor Records sent out like 3,000 letters to radio stations across the country explaining what the song was really about. And the song got added and almost instantly started playing all over America. People like Tommy Nash in New York at 94 Rock, Kid Leo at WMMS in Cleveland, major, major program directors and DJs started playing the song. That's what really started the magic of "Into the Night."
I was invited to New York to play the Bottom Line Live on WNEW-FM with the legendary Scott Muni. He called me up one day and said, "Benny, this is Scott Muni, WNEW-FM. How are you?" I said, "Hey, Scott, how you doing? I listen to you all the time." He says, "Listen, just between you and me, does this girl really exist?" I said, "She not only really exists, she lives in my apartment building." He said, "Could you bring her to the Bottom Line?" I said, "Absolutely." So her and her sister and brother and a bunch of young people showed up at the Bottom Line, and Scott Muni put her on the air for a minute. And she backed up what the story was about, that "Benny gave my sister and brother and I each jobs so we could have some money, because we were going through some tough times." She didn't say "my father abandoned us." But she said, "We were going through some tough times."
She became so popular that she started getting invited to all the A-list parties in New York City. When she was 18 she met and fell in love with the son of a hotel builder from San Juan, Puerto Rico. She married him and moved into a mansion in San Juan, took her mother with her and her mother lived with them. The brother went to work for her husband's company and her older sister got married to a really nice fellow.
And so "Into the Night" just blew up the charts. As you know, it sold millions of records and it was like the song of the summer of 1980. So this song had a happy ending for both of us. Me and Robert Tepper went from poverty - I'm talking about, "Hey, Bobby, how much money you got in your pocket?" "Oh, a dollar and a half." "I got two dollars. Let's put some gas in the car so we can drive." That's how broke we were.
So I ended up making a lot of money, and Heidi became popular and she met and fell in love with this guy. And so every Christmas, I get a Christmas card from her and it just says, "You changed my life." But actually everybody's life changed that was connected with "Into the Night." That's the story behind the song.
Songfacts: You're talking about how everybody's lives changed and you came into all this money. But what happened after you became this star?
Benny: Well, we cut the second album, Never Run, Never Hide, and by this point me and the guys in the band were falling victim to drugs and alcohol. We never had that kind of money in our lives, and we didn't really use our heads on what we should and shouldn't do. Before we knew it, we were addicted to cocaine and drinking a bottle of whiskey a night. I fell victim to the excesses of success in rock and roll at a young age. During (1981 album) Too Much To Lose, I had split up with the girl that I had been with for seven years. We went to Miami to do preproduction and before long I was freebasing cocaine. Came back, finished the album in Manhattan, and when it was time to go on tour I was nowhere to be found. I holed up in a warehouse down in Miami for about seven months. They were looking for me at all the hotels and stuff trying to find me, because I just blew it. I mean, I blew my own career at that point.
Freddy Hine, who was the Chairman of Polydor and also the president of the label, said, "We didn't live up to our responsibility for an artist of that stature. We made mistakes with Benny Mardones. He should have been way up there, but we just didn't live up to our responsibility." So they sort of learned what not to do, and unfortunately, I was the artist they learned on. Right after that, they signed John Cougar before he was John Cougar Mellencamp, and they did everything right.
So I had a huge hit record and the follow-up was almost non-existent. Yet, if you ask aficionados about my album, they'll say that Never Run, Never Hide and Too Much to Lose are two of the best albums I ever cut. They, coupled with the blue album from 1990 on Curb Records, are probably my three greatest albums as far as material. I kept writing, but struggled until I got myself straight, which was in 1985 when my son Michael was born. He came home from the hospital, he was home for about a week, and I was sitting him in a car seat on the couch in my living room. I broke out a rock and started to chop it up and he looked at it with his eyes - he had huge, blue eyes - and he looked up at me and he looked back down there and he looked up at me, and when he looked up the third time, I felt like a diamond-tipped bullet hit me right between the eyes. I picked up the mirror, the cocaine, the torch, the pipe, everything, and I threw it out my window from the penthouse suite I was living in. Which was now completely empty from drugs and bills and stuff like that. And I literally went into the bathroom and looked in the mirror and said, "Look what you've become. You had it all, and now look what you've become."
And to be quite honest with you, I fell on my knees and I prayed to God, and I said, "I know it's been a long time since I've talked to you. But if you're up there, and you can hear me now, give me the strength to never do this again, never do another line of cocaine, just stop drugs now, and I'll be the best father this little boy ever had." Because I didn't have a dad growing up. So I know how hard it is.
My son was born April 3rd, and the first of May, 1985, that happened, and that was the last time I ever did a line of cocaine or drugs, other than smoking a joint. That was the end of my drug use. I've never done a line of cocaine since that day.
So my best friend in the world, who lives in Miami, he flew up, handed me an envelope filled with cash and said, "You're getting out of this city now." He says, "Where do you want to go?" And I said, "I'd like to go to Atlanta." He said, "No, you know too many people down there." He said, "You're going to Syracuse." I said, "Syracuse? What the hell am I doing up there? All it is is snow." He goes, "You're going to shovel some snow, pal." He says, "I want you out of here in 24 hours." It saved my life. I called my road manager and I said, "Pick me up. If I'm here another day, I'm gonna die." He said, "I'm on my way." So 5 o'clock in the morning, the great Benny Mardones was standing on Riverside Drive with five garbage bags, because I was so out of it I couldn't even go down to storage and get out my luggage. He picked me and my little boy up, because his mother was a lost soul and unfortunately still is a lost soul. I help her out financially when I can and stuff like that, but she just never could shake the demons.
So I always say, you know, a lot of people go to Betty Ford Clinic, a lot of people go to Hazelden, Wisconsin, I went to Syracuse. I shoveled snow for three months and slept for 24 hours at a time. Fortunately, I had people there, mostly women, that took care of Michael, changed him and took care of him and made his formula and everything. For three months every time I woke up and had a craving, I'd go out and start shoveling snow. So I shoveled a lot of snow. After about three months it was out of my system, and that's when the real recovery began. Unfortunately, I had squandered a very enviable position of coming off a huge album like Never Run, Never Hide. And Too Much To Lose was a great album, but it never saw the light of day because I never went on tour for it.
Ahmet Ertegun once said to me at the House of Blues out here before he passed away, he said, "Don't blame yourself. If Simon and Garfunkel would have written 'Bridge Over Troubled Water' first, that's what everybody would have been expecting from every song. You wrote one of the greatest rock and roll love songs of all time, 'Into the Night,' and that's what they wanted from you. That's all they wanted. They didn't realize that you rocked. They didn't understand anything. They just wanted another 'Into the Night.' And you were just chasing the wrong things." He says, "The people around you just didn't know what the hell they were doing. And he put his hand on my cheek and he says, "I should have signed you when I first heard you sing," and he gave me a hug. About four weeks later he passed away. So I'll never forget that moment with Ahmet Ertegun.
And I don't blame record companies or anybody else. I blame myself, because I had it all. But until you've had it all and then lost it, you can't explain what I went through. I went through hell and back. I went from having it all to literally having nothing. But I did have my health, because I stopped doing drugs. And that's really the story behind "Into the Night" and the turmoil of what happened afterwards. I just couldn't match "Into the Night," but if you ever listen to Never Run, Never Hide, or Too Much To Lose or American Dreams, Unauthorized, the Blue album, Bless A Brand New Angel album, Journey Through Time, Let's Hear It For Love, all the albums I've done, consequently a live album with WMMS with Kid Leo, you'll hear great songs that I've written that should have been on the radio, that should have been out there. But I was considered a volatile artist, difficult to manage. And as Doc McGhee said in the documentary, they're not the Red Cross. They do what they can and then they move on. I was a volatile, angry young man at the time because I felt I had been cheated out of a great album called Too Much To Lose. And it just sort of got the best of me.
And then 1989, when it came out, again, I signed with Curb Records, and the day after I signed with Curb Records, Jon Bon Jovi called me. I've known Jon since he was 16 years old. He said, "Benny, I've got great news. The guys at Polydor want to sign you." Because it was climbing up the charts, but it didn't have a record deal. And then Mike Curb offered me a deal instantly. So I took it, because it was the first real money that came my way, substantial money. And Jon Bon Jovi said, "Irwin Steinberg wants you back and he's going to let me produce your album." Jon Bon Jovi was hotter than a pistol worldwide, and he was going to produce my next album. Unfortunately, I'd already signed with Curb. And they just didn't do the job, because they were a country label when I signed. That was it. Just a series of bad judgment calls, mostly on my part, but not all on my part, trust me. There's enough for everyone to go around.
Songfacts: Did you retain the publishing rights to that song?
Benny: Yeah. But I sold them ten years ago to Spirit Music. I have writer's royalties, which still earn me money every quarter and I'll never give that away, because I'll leave that for my son as well as my catalogue.
Songfacts: So when Usher does this remake of your song, you get a bigger check in the mailbox?
Benny: Well, it doesn't work that way. ASCAP sends me royalties for my "Into the Night" on the radio, because it's still the 25th most played song on American radio statistically. But when Usher did this, I get enough of a percentage, but yeah, I'm owed $45,000 so far. I haven't received a penny. It's been a year since the album's been out. And legendary producer Jim Johnson, who did part of the Usher album and did "Into the Night," is now getting ready to try with one of the Idol kids on American Idol, because he's on there with Jimmy Iovine every week. And he just feels that "Into the Night" has yet to see its zenith.
But I have a feeling that things are going to brighten up in my career. That, coupled with the "United We Stand" video and song, that in one week got 26,000 hits and new comments that are coming in on Youtube and everything are just unbelievable. Yesterday the mayor of New York's advisory board guy sat down and watched the video with a legendary guy in the music business named Ron Alexenburg and Joel Diamond, who produced "United We Stand," was on the conference call with him. They said, "One way or another, Benny Mardones will be standing on stage at Ground Zero September 11." So hopefully I'll be there with a 50-piece choir getting ready to do "United We Stand," because it's time people start talking about the greatness of America instead of the Bill Mahers and the Michael Moores. I tell 'em pack a suitcase, you're living in the wrong place. To hear them week after week bash America.
When I had an opportunity to do "United We Stand" with Joel Diamond, who's one of the great record producers in the business, I took it. My son Michael, who's 25 now, did the video because he's brilliant at it, making videos and stuff.
Songfacts: I take it your time in the Navy must have had some impact on that song?
Songfacts: Benny, do you still write songs?
Benny: Yeah, I've got a bunch of songs sitting on CDs that have never been heard and songs that are still on paper I'm still writing. I haven't written a song in a couple of months because I've been really crazy busy with the "United We Stand" project.
Songfacts: I'm trying to get a sense for what your songwriting is like.
Benny: I write what's going on in my life. To me, there are songwriters and there are composers. Songwriters write songs. It doesn't have to be the truth, you can make up a story. But composers allow the song to write them. So I consider myself more of a composer than a songwriter, because I used to tell people, "If you look at the lyrics on my new record, it's like reading my diary. You'll know what's going on in my life."
I like to deal with matters of the heart, things that have to do with love lost and love found and things like that. Occasionally I'll get rebellious and write something crazy, like "Innocent Girl" and things like that. Every song doesn't have an exact story, but the vibe of everything that I write, the songs, are usually true. They just happen to me and I put them out there, because you don't have to make things up if you just look at your own life. Including you. I'm sure you have an interesting story to tell with your life. If you were a composer and sat down and could write lyrics, you'd write about what you know, and what do you know better than your life and what you're going through.
I've had it all, I've lost it all, I've lived in the gutter, slept on rooftops, I've lived in mansions. And I'm just working hard to try to get back to a level of financial security and acceptance out there in radio again. I have a lot of radio guys that are behind me.
Songfacts: What is life like for you now? I'm wondering are you struggling financially, where do you live and what's it like?
Benny: Well, I'm struggling financially. But I live in Southern California right by the beach. I have a little place that I live in. I was alone for six years and a year ago I met a woman from Denmark named Jane, and she sort of changed my life. I now have a personal life and a woman who loves me and a woman that I'm deeply in love with. And that means so much after being alone for six years.
Songfacts: How's your health?
Benny: Well, the Parkinson's is as under control as it can be. It's been ten years now. Fortunately, I'm with Dr. Mark Lew, who's the head of neurology for the USC Parkinson's Research Center. Because of him giving me cutting edge drugs, I'm still able to sing, still able to move around good, walk - I do have a tremor in my hands, but I can keep control pretty much. When I sing it doesn't come out so much. But recently the disease of Parkinson's has migrated, started to migrate to my right side, which is really, really going to be a tough battle, because before it was on my left side. So you think about your immortality, it makes you really think about what's important in life, and it's like a clock on the wall and it only has the few years that I have left. I just want to write and sing and touch people's hearts and make a difference. If I didn't have that, I would have nothing.
Songfacts: Have you ever been married?
Benny: I was married, but I never had a wedding. I've never been in a church wedding or anything. But when I was first out of the military, I was 21 years old, I got married to a girl for about six months. Mostly out of fear, because she slept overnight at my apartment and said, "My dad will kill you for this. We're in trouble." I said, "Whoo, we'd better go get married." (laughs) So we went to Upper Marlboro Courthouse in Maryland and got married. Six months later I was divorced. The second time I got married was when my son Michael was born. But my son's mother and I knew that we weren't going to be married - we were friends. We were friends with benefits, sort of. When my son was born, I wanted him to have my name, of course. So we went down to lower Manhattan and got married at the courthouse, and a year later we got divorced, and are still friends to this day.
But if I have a wedding in my life, it'll be with Jane. Right now we're scheduling a wedding for the 24th of September, but that's still six months away. So we're hoping that works out. If I ever get married again, it'll be to her. If it isn't her, it'll be no one.
Songfacts: It sounds like you raised Michael as a single dad.
Songfacts: What was that like?
Benny: The greatest time of my life. Sometimes it was the worst time. He became 15 and 16 and I was no longer allowed in his room. I tried to explain to him, "Actually, it's not your room. It's my house, you're in the room." But that didn't seem to make a difference to him. But as a little boy raised with me and my friends who were around me, Michael had a big family of people who loved him. And his mother loves him, but she just couldn't be there for him. She was lost. My son lives 10 minutes away from me sharing a house with some friends of his. He does videos and highlight songs for the MMA and UFC. He took that talent and did that video for me on "United We Stand" and Joel Diamond was so blown away by it he said, "I'm going to go to Michael's and we're going to finish it." And Joel went there and spent 12 hours at my son's house finishing that video.
So we have a lot of hopes for "United We Stand." I've let a couple of radio people hear it discreetly, and they love it. So now somebody at Good Morning America saw the video and sent Joel an incredible personal message that this brought tears to everyone's eyes.
So I think the song is going to get the right people's attention. I'd like to go on some talk shows and state my position and let them hear the song, sing the song for them, and I think I've got a real shot with it. Other than that, we're planning to add that to an album that we're planning to put out in June on either Universal or Warner Brothers. They've been in discussions with Joel, so I'm waiting to see what label it's going to be. But I have another album coming out that my fans really don't know about yet.
And that's what I've been doing, man, just trying to stay healthy. I go jogging every morning and I'm in good shape. I've got to stay in good shape if I want to keep doing what I do, because with the Parkinson's, sometimes every bone in my body hurts so bad I can't move, I've got to get in bed. But all in all I'm a lucky man. God's been good to me and I play the hand that's dealt.
Songfacts: Well, I hope you have at least heard it from this perspective, because I lived in Syracuse and I've seen you perform. I can tell you that even when you're not on the national stage, on Good Morning America with millions of people in your audience, there may be a few hundred people at your shows, but to those people watching you, it is a very intense and very personal performance. So at that time, for the people who you're with, you have a tremendous impact, Benny.
Benny: I appreciate that. I'm aware of that. And that's why I take time to give them more than what they paid for. I try to touch their hearts because I love the people in central New York. I consider that my home, because those fans and the friends I've made in central New York are really why I'm alive today. That and the refusal to give up because of my son. But the central New York area is sacred to me, because they wanted me when everyone else seemed to have forgotten me.
Roy Orbison once commented to me, he said, "You have the greatest circle of friends of anybody I've ever met." And I took that as a compliment for central New York. That's why if there's a hundred people or five, ten thousand people, I do the same - I put out the same amount of energy and the same amount of love. As I've impacted their lives, they've impacted mine. Trust me, Carl, they've impacted my life, too.
Songfacts: I just hope you understand that. Because you do write your own songs, and you can tell when you're up there doing what you do that there is a piece of you coming out of it. Of course the talent is just undeniable and living in central New York, having you not be a superstar, I think made it more appealing to us, because you were kind of our little gem.
Benny: I hear you. (laughing)
Songfacts: Really, Benny. Other people didn't know about you so much, but we did and that's the way central New York was. People thought we were crazy to live in this place where you might get 36 inches of snow in the course of a couple of days.
Benny: Well, you know, I did the Tony Bruno show, the sports show, Into The Night. The first thing he said was, "Okay, what's the story with central New York? What's going on?" He says, "You need security to walk around up there. Yet you walk down the street in L.A. and nobody knows who you are. What's going on in New York?" I said, "It's a long story, Tony." (laughs)
Songfacts: Well, you were talking about how you've affected people's lives, like Heidi, and all these other people you came across. But then in the '80s, when you were going into this depth, and you talked about the drug use, when you were doing the drugs and you became this other person, were you just doing bad things to yourself, or were you the kind of addict that was taking it out on others, as well?
Benny: I've never been a bad drunk. That's the same with drugs. I've been crazy - I mean, I watch this Charlie Sheen stuff, I know exactly what he's doing. Because there were times that I was like that. But I had the good sense to try to keep it confined to my house. The insanity. But I empathize with Charlie Sheen, because I've been there, done that, and got the t-shirt. A lot of people watching it are horrified. I'm sitting there thinking, That's what I looked like in 1983, are you kidding me?
I tried to keep up an image out front that I was still the same guy, but inside I was volatile. Part of me was bitter, because of the lack of expertise of Polydor Records at the time, when I come out with something like "Into the Night," which, by the way, was the first Top Ten record that Polydor ever had with an artist in the past - it was like the past 7 years, other than Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive." I was the first white artist in over ten years that had gone Top Ten for Polydor. So I was their boy, and yet when I got fucked up on drugs and threw some tantrums at the label, they turned their back on me and went through the motions. So I was bitter about that, because I knew that my music was great and that it deserved to be out on a national stage. And another time any of that could have happened, I was lost myself. Thank God for my son Michael, because he helped me find myself. Because I had to be there for him, and I was, and I still am. But no, my insanity, I tried to keep inside of the institution.
Songfacts: Yeah, that's the sense I was getting. I think all that comes from the sensitivity that you have towards other people that you're going to take out the problems on yourself.
Benny: Sometimes people say to me, "I met you in 198-such and such," I say, "Do I owe you an apology?" I always say, because if you caught me in the '80s, I was two different people.
Songfacts: Well, if nothing else, I hope that you take away that your impact is tremendous. Even if you're not the Benny Mardones of 1980 and 1981, you've still written and performed one of the greatest songs ever, and you've had a huge impact on a lot of people, including your son.
Benny: That's very, very sweet, and very kind of you. God bless you. God bless America, pal. I love you for doing this. I'll be seeing you down the road.
We spoke with Benny on March 29, 2011.
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