Carl Sturken

by Carl Wiser

On writing and producing for Rihanna, 'N Sync, Christina Aguilera, Kelly Clarkson, Donny Osmond, Shakira and Karyn White.

16-year-old Rihanna, before her first record came out, with Evan Rogers (L) and Carl Sturken (R)

With his partner Evan Rogers, Carl Sturken has written and produced hits for Rihanna ("Pon De Replay"), 'N Sync ("God Must Have Spent A Little More Time On You"), Donny Osmond ("Soldier Of Love") and many others. Fronting the band Rythm Syndicate, he and Rogers had their own hit with "P.A.S.S.I.O.N," which they used to win over the crowd at the Apollo.

Wanna know how to make a hit and have a career that traverses the trends? Read on.
Carl Wiser (Songfacts): Of the songs you've written for other artists, which is the one that's most significant to you personally?

Carl Sturken: As a professional songwriter, which is really what I was for 30 years, we approached it as a job, a career where we wanted to write songs that other people would relate to, so they were never songs that were personal for me. A lot of singer-songwriters who are artists make it personal. I never wrote that way because if I had to write about my own life in my songs, they would be the most boring songs of all time: "I went to the store to get some milk." It'd be nothing.

So we were always projecting, writing teenage love songs even when we were in our 40s and 50s. So in that sense, I don't look at them as being personal, but in terms of what they did for my life and my career, that's a different story.

If you have a hit song, it changes your life. When we had a hit with Donny Osmond with "Soldier Of Love," that was the first time in my career where I thought, "I'm kind of making it now." Where I might actually be able to pay the rent.

So that was a transitional moment in terms of how I felt about my career. And a lot songs that are hits have different effects on you at different times - it's not an immediate impact. "Soldier Of Love" was a hit, and then every record company called us up and said, "We love that song. Can you write one like that for us?" And we thought, "This is great. This is the next phase of our career, where everybody's calling." And we tried and we miserably failed about five times in a row to write another "Soldier Of Love." So that was a lesson we learned: Just try to write a hit song. Don't try to imitate something you did before.

Me and my partner, Evan Rogers, started making records together in 1980, and we're still a team. He's 30 feet away from me right now - we're in the studio recording an artist.

Songfacts: You've been able to create hit songs through every trend, through all these different decades. Let's start in the '80s when there are drum machines, everybody is trying to sound like Prince, and you've got to produce Donny Osmond's comeback album. So how did you put "Soldier Of Love" together?

Sturken: Well, it's a really funny story. Evan is a great singer and a good-looking guy, and our career started in the early '80s bifurcated between writing and producing songs for artists to make money, and trying to get his career going. He got signed as an artist with RCA records in 1984, and we produced our first record for a major label, which was Evelyn "Champagne" King's "Heartbreaker," that same year - a really good song. So, here we were doing both things.

Evan's first album came out and sold about four copies. It was one of the great lessons in disaster. So we went bumping around trying to get another record deal, which we did. He was on a black division of Capitol, Orpheus Records, which had Freddie Jackson and Melba Moore and Meli'sa Morgan. Evan was like the blue-eyed soul guy.

We had written the song "Soldier Of Love" for Evan's solo album, and right around that same time, Gemma Corfield at Virgin Records called us up and said, "Would you mind terribly meeting with Donny Osmond?" And we were like, "Of course!" Because at the time we were making nothing but R&B records, and we wanted to make pop records. We were two white guys who couldn't get gigs making pop records because everybody thought we just did R&B.

That was the funniest point in our career. We grew up on The Beatles and the Bee Gees, so we knew how to make pop records, but we had not gotten a chance. So if we could make a hit record with Donny Osmond, who's the whitest guy on the planet, we would get entree into the world of pop records.

So we met him and he's a really nice guy. We vibed instantly, so we started writing songs for him and putting records together. This was for a release in the UK, where he had his deal with Virgin. He didn't really have a deal in the States. Evan's album was being finished at the same time, and when we wrote "Soldier Of Love," we knew right away it was one of the better, hit-type records we'd written, especially perfect for the time.

Carl with Donny Osmond in New York City while recording "Soldier Of Love"

So we were pretty excited, but every time we played it for the label, there was no excitement at all because they were R&B-oriented. So I said to Evan, "Rather than put it as #12 on your album, we should give it to Donny. And he said, "Yeah, you're right. It's a hit, somebody should try to do something with it." So that's what we did.

We had already written and recorded it, so we just put his vocal on it. Donny can sing really well, but there's a certain limit to his R&B-ness. Evan was a Stevie Wonder and Prince fanatic and really had that stuff down. So the ends of the lines... it has been so long since this happened, so I can't get in trouble for saying this part, but at the ends of the riffs, there's this little vocal thing. When Donny went in to record, he said, "Evan, would you mind if I just sang along with your track?" And he said, "Not at all. It's a compliment."

So he basically doubled Evan through the whole song, and then we pulled Evan out and there was Donny's vocal. Well, when we went to mix the record, every time the ending of the lines came around, it was not what we were used to hearing. We looked at each other and said, "Why don't we use automation and just swap out the very end of the lines so it's Evan singing there instead of Donny? Then we'll all be happy with it, and nobody will ever know." So that's what we did.

We didn't tell Donny. We just did it and kept it quiet.

The song was released as a single in England, and amazingly enough, we were doing something there at the same time, so we were over there with him and saw how he was getting mistreated. He went on a chat show in England and they're really rude over there on those kind of shows. Donny had on ripped jeans and a leather jacket, so the host says, "Well, Donny, you've got the whole George Michael thing going on with the jacket and all, but it's really not working for you, is it?"

The record didn't do well, and they dropped him.

So, here he was with no label and we're back in the States talking to him because he's our buddy now, and he was like, "I'm going to put it out on my own." In those days, nobody did that, so I was like, "Oh, well. This is the end."

But Donny has this worldwide network of fans. They were all the girls who were 12 and 13 when he was Little Donny Osmond, so at this point, they're in their 30s. They had a fan club and one of the fans in England made a cassette dub of "Soldier Of Love" and sent it to another fan in New Jersey, and this fan sent it to WPLJ with no name on it, just sending the cassette saying, "Check this out." At the time the program director had just been fired and the music director was made the interim program director, and her name was Jessica Ettinger. She put in the cassette and played it, and she flipped out, says, "This is a great record." So she calls the phone number on the envelope and finds out it's Donny Osmond.

She put it on the air as a "mystery artist" and had people call in and guess who it was, and the phones went crazy. People were guessing George Michael, Boy George, anything George. All of a sudden it's in heavy rotation on PLJ, and other stations started adding it. Within two weeks it was a phenomenon on radio and Donny had no record deal.

I spoke to Donny around that time and I have never spoken to a human that was as excited, as happy as he was, because he'd been out in the wilderness for years - he was considered a joke.

All the labels started to court him, and Capitol won the deal. They signed him, made 400 copies over that weekend, and had them in all the DJs' hands that Monday.

Evan's record came out at the same time, completely coincidentally, on the same label, so we were calling the label every week to get our radio reports. Donny was shooting up towards #1 and Evan was shooting down towards oblivion. It just completely tanked.

That was an incredibly long answer to your question, but the short answer would have been that we were writing pop songs for the time that could have been done by anybody. You knew you had a good song if you could imagine almost anybody doing it. That was a key to continuing your career. You had to make a song that a lot of people would be fighting over, male or female, groups or solo artists.

We're not talking about the Foo Fighters, we're talking about New Kids On The Block, Backstreet Boys - those are the kinds of acts that songwriters for hire can write for.

Songfacts: But you have to make a very good song. So what do you do to create a really good song?

Sturken: Professional writers who do this every day have a lot of shortcuts and a lot of techniques they use so they can turn out a lot of songs, and one of them is, you always want to have titles and potential lyrics handy, because you can't walk in with nothing - that's not how it works. So most of the professional writers I've worked with walk in with a notebook, even if they're just lyricists or "topline" people, as they call them nowadays, which we never did back in the day. They'll open up the notebook and start ruffling through it, like, "Ah, how about this?"

I would listen to the radio constantly while I was driving. My drive to the studio was 45 minutes to an hour, both in and out, so that was a lot of time listening to the radio, which was actually super important, one of my most important times of the whole day. And while I'm listening to a song that's new and I'm excited about it, I would get an idea for a kind of song that I would like to write that's kind of like that. I had a little cassette recorder in my hand and I would turn it on and go, "It's a beat kind of like the Toni Braxton song but with happier chords like this..." and I would just work the whole thing into the tape recorder.

Later on, I might have an idea for a melody and I'd sing that into it. I would make these tapes, 15, 30 minutes a side, and when the tape was full, I would sit down and play it back, and in a notebook, I would write down every idea with a little notation, like, "Funky R&B song, like the Whispers." And then when I needed something to start a track with, I would look at that notebook and go, "Oh, look here on page three. I had an idea for a funky R&B song with a minor key. Let me go listen to that again." And I would find that spot on the cassette and listen. Then I would get on the keyboard or to the drum machine and start to make a track.

You've got to start with a hook. We learned the hard way, if you don't have a good hook, don't write the whole song. Feel you have a hit, and then spend all that effort to write it, record it, track it and mix it.

We used to go to used record stores, which don't exist anymore, and go through bins of records nobody's ever heard of. We would flip through the bins on the obscure records and look at the titles of the songs and we would write down anything that looked interesting. We never used the actual title from the song, but we used ideas from it that could end up in a verse in the middle or as part of a title. If you saw a song called "Secret Lovers," you'd write that down, then later on when you're thinking of a song, you might say, "What about 'hidden lovers'?" So we would just use them as jumping off points.

We had notebooks with pages and pages of titles that could also end up in verses or wherever. When I came up with the track for "Soldier Of Love," which was like this big, bangin' track, the track was playing and I started humming the melody, which went along right with the music, and I said, "OK, we need some words." I pulled out a piece of paper from my notebook where I had been in one of these used record stores and written down title after title after title, and I started literally reciting them off the page into the chorus. If you listen to the lyrics of "Soldier Of Love," it's:

Like a thief in the night
Who can't get enough
I am willing to fight
'Cause I'm a soldier of love
Like a shot in the dark
When the going gets rough
It's a state of the heart
When you're a soldier of love


Six of those eight lines are off that one piece of paper. I still have the piece of paper, which made me laugh when I found it.

And I did not even know for several years that The Beatles had done a song called "Soldier Of Love" that was a cover of an old song. So it was just assembling things, but the part that's creative is deciding what's good. It's a lot of throwing stuff at the wall and deciding what's sticking and what's not sticking.

That one wrote itself in about 10 minutes, then we finished it up after that. Once you've got that essential part - the chorus - the verse is easy. They do come out like that sometimes, and other times you have to pound away for days and weeks.

With Clive Davis. Says Sturken: "He taught us a lot... and drove us crazy!"

Songfacts: It seems like where you get to go wild on these is in the bridge. Those can be very unpredictable in your songs.

Sturken: Well, we're always taking our cues from every other record out there, because our goal was never to be blazing frontiers of originality. We wanted to get work. Even with Evan as a solo artist, he was someone who wanted to be popular, wanted to do songs that everybody likes, so we always had our ear on the radio. And when we did something in a song, it was generally because we heard a lot of other people doing the same thing.

The bridge is the place to go somewhere different because you need a break. We would experiment with all kinds of things, and whenever we would change up, we'd listen to something new that somebody else did. Everybody starts to do the same thing and it becomes stylistic. After a year and a half or so, it becomes too prevalent and all of a sudden everyone's tired of it, then someone comes along with something new and that becomes the trend.

The people who come up with the new stylistic trends are the trailblazers, and a lot of times they're young producers who are doing their thing when it catches on. And then all of a sudden it shifts and if they can't change and come up with something new, they get left behind.

We were always jealous of the hot guys in the moment because we never were, and after about 10 years I realized, "Wait a minute, all those 'hot' guys had three-year careers and then they were yesterday's news."

We're still here because we are just following the trends, we're not leading the trend. We've never been the flavor of the month, but we're always on the menu, and that's a much better place to be. I'd rather be #2 and have a 40-year career than #1 and then gone.1

Think of these guys like Teddy Riley and Dallas Austin. They burned incredibly brightly and then they didn't change up. L.A. Reid and Babyface had a real distinctive sound when they came out with that first Karyn White record, "Secret Rendezvous," and the ones they did for Babyface and also The Deele. They had a real sound, and then that sound went away for about a year. And all of a sudden they came back with different sounds and different production and they just went to an even higher level.

So we were trying to learn our lessons from all these people. It's not the same career that someone has as an artist where you want to express your deepest inner emotions. We were craftsmen, and our goal was to feed our families.

Songfacts: But sometimes you're in a room with an artist who wants to express their deepest emotions. Let's take for instance, Shakira, who has a lot of personality, a lot of songwriting acumen, and you put this song "Gypsy" together with her. Tell me how that happens.

Sturken: Well, we wrote the song with Amanda Ghost, who's this really funny, fascinating, very sharp British lady who's done a lot of really interesting different things. At that time she had a couple of huge hits2 and was known as a writer that everybody was talking about. We got together and just knocked out the song.

We wrote it targeting a young singer named Jessie James, who tried to be pop and R&B, and then she went country. She was kind of an internet model too. David Massey signed her to Mercury and he was all excited about her, so we wrote the song and we were pretty excited about it when we wrote it, and David rejected it right away.

Amanda was really upset, and then it was about two months later that she called us up and said, "Yeah, I've got it on Shakira. How do you like that?" So we were just super excited.

Amanda was very well connected. She ended up running one of the big labels in England for several years [Epic].

The only time I met Shakira was at the album release party in New York and she was super nice. She's beautiful, apparently she has a genius IQ, she speaks four languages, she dances, writes songs, and she's super nice.

Songfacts: Did the song change from the Jessie James version to the Shakira version?

Sturken: Some of the production elements changed. They got a little more dancey. It definitely got more produced.

We were actually copying "Walk On The Wild Side" by Lou Reed when we started writing it, that two-chord progression. It started with that and immediately drifted away.

We're not scared of starting with another song as inspiration because we know that as we write and we reconfigure things, within a day or two you can't tell where it came from. It's a different thing than in today's world where they either sample songs or interpolate them. The common method of writing nowadays is the beat people put together basically four bars, and then topline people write over that, so it's easy to tell where something came from. But back in the day we wrote chords. We sat there and played the piano and guitar, and then we could change it anytime. We've worked with some writers who are more modern where they're just doing beats, and then they want to collaborate with us and I'll take the track they did, put a bridge in it, and send it back to them. They're like, "How did you do that?" Well, I actually play an instrument, which means I don't have to be constricted to just those chords that you sampled. They find that to be mystifying. So we're old school for sure.

Songfacts: When you're writing for somebody like Christina Aguilera, who has this monster voice, what do you have to do to make the song fit?

Sturken: In a very basic way, you've got to know that your artist has to sound good in that song. You would not give a song that's ideal for Christina Aguilera to Sade. But if you write too specifically for an artist, you tend to limit your creativity. We've had some bad experiences in trying to write for artists very specifically, which would happen because they would call us in for a meeting and go, "We want you to write for so-and-so, now go do it." And then we would write just terrible songs.

I remember once they asked us to do that for El DeBarge, and we just wrote the worst bunch of songs we could ever write, because he's not much of a singer. We kept toning down what we were doing and it was just terrible. So instead we learned the lesson, which was: Just write hits, and they'll find a home.

Carl with Christina Aguilera, celebrating her 18th birthday in the studio while recording "Love For All Seasons." There is a cake hidden on that table!

Songfacts: You have one song that is a little unusual in your catalog, and that is "(God Must Have Spent) A Little More Time On You," which could be a contemporary Christian song. Can you talk about that?

Sturken: We never thought of it as a contemporary Christian song when we wrote it. It does have "God" in the title, but beyond that, it doesn't talk very much about those kinds of issues.

But that's a really funny story about writing and how you don't know where the songs are coming from. We were writing that song for Ricky Martin, because we were writing again on assignment and the songs never go to the people that you're writing them for. But they asked us to write for him, so we were sitting there and the television was on in the background and there was an artist performing on a special of some kind. We turned up the TV to listen for a minute and as the guy on TV sang the song, I turned to Evan and said, "That's a pretty cool lyric he sang, 'God must have spent a little more time on you.' It kept going and we realized that's not it at all. He was singing, "Got to spend a little more time on you." Oh, wait a minute. We said, "Let's write a song called 'God Must Have Spent A Little More Time On You.'" And it was so funny because I thought that's what he'd said, but it wasn't.

With very long titles, the record companies insist that you take part of the title and put it in parentheses, so sometimes it's the beginning of the title and sometimes it's the end. This one, they decided to put as parentheses "God must have spent," not "a little more time on you." Bad, bad, bad move.

So I remember hearing it on Casey Kasem, driving along in the car and he says, "And now coming up into the Top 10, here's the second hit by the new group 'N Sync. 'A Little More Time On You.'"

That's not right.

But in any event, the skill involved is to recognize something good when you stumble on it. Sometimes we'll spit out a line in the middle of writing verses and realize it's better than the title of our song, and we'll change the whole thing around.

You can't be too hidebound in your ways, and when you're writing a song, you have to know at what point do you pull the plug on it if it's not working. That's a toughie. But every time we write a song is another opportunity to get better at it, to learn from it.

So many lessons. One song that you think is so good after writing it, you go into the record company office the next day and the minute it comes on you want to get out the door as soon as possible. Then we will go back to the studio and go, "How did we make that mistake? Let's learn what we did wrong and let's try to do better."

That's why we've been around for so long: We keep doing that all the time. We're still trying to learn.

With 'N Sync at Trans Con studios in Orlando during the recording of "(God Must Have Spent) A Little More Time On You"

Songfacts: What are the hallmarks of a boy band song?

Sturken: Well, you have to imagine their audience. You have to think the way that audience thinks and you have to know what they're all about. But here's the funny part: We wrote "God Must Have Spent" for Ricky Martin. He had young fans, but not really the way 'N Sync did. But RCA heard the song and loved it.

Bands adapt. I remember back in the mid-'90s, Jive Records brought us down for a meeting and they played us this young bunch of guys that were touring around America on a bus. They were 15 and 16 years old and had some guy bankrolling them. I listened and thought, This sounds like warmed-over New Kids On The Block. This is just not happening right now. That's over. New Kids On The Block had their run, so why would anyone want to go back to that?

We turned it down and didn't work with them, then I was in England and on the radio came this song that I said, "This is really good." It turned out to be the same guys. It was Backstreet Boys with "Quit Playing Games (With My Heart)," produced by Max Martin.

It was funny because the other record that was hot in England at the time that no one in the States heard was "Wannabe" by the Spice Girls. So Evan and I came back to the States and told everyone that we heard these two records over there, and that if they put them out over here, one of two things would happen: Either they're going to bomb and people are going to laugh at it, or they're going to be huge. And they were huge, both of them.

That was the beginning of the pop comeback. In the mid-'90s, it was that sort of singing hip-hop like Mary J. Blige, or Nirvana kind of rock, or the megas like Whitney and Celine. We were really struggling in that era because Mary J. Blige wasn't looking for our songs and neither was Nirvana. And Whitney was hard to get to.

So we were struggling, but we were doing well in England because pop never dies there. It never goes out of fashion like it does in America. So we were working in England all the time.

Backstreet Boys came out with "Quit Playing Games" and then they came out with "Backstreet's Back," which was in the same vein. It sounds like old Teddy Riley. I laughed because I said, "Now you're coming out with that same crap I told you three years ago was outdated." But it's like the broken clock that's right every 12 hours. The young kids who were into Backstreet Boys did not remember New Kids On The Block.

And New Kids On The Block were just doing retreads of New Edition, because they were the white New Edition and managed by the same people. So here they were coming with this lame retread stuff that now sounded new to people. That was another really good lesson to learn.

They used to have a theory that a new generation of these bands comes up every seven years, and it definitely comes in waves. The main thing is to get your mind set around what the young ladies are reacting to. They're reacting to the guys more than the music, so it's a question of what the guys in the band want to come off like. One Direction just strolls around on stage singing ballads, but BTS, dancing is their main thing.

I really don't follow that world anymore. I bailed out of the rat race of following pop trends every week about five years ago. I haven't followed BTS close enough to understand their appeal, but if I had to I would. It's a science, and you have to analyze it. You have to understand it. If you think some music is crap and then you see 20,000 kids going crazy for that music at a concert, you're wrong and they're right.

"Shut Up And Drive" was the follow-up to Rihanna's rainmaker "Umbrella." Around the time Carl and Evan were writing it, Fergie had a #1 hit with "Glamorous," which seeped into the songwriting. Important piece of information for this next part: Robert Clivillés and David Cole of C+C Music Factory put together the track for Mariah Carey's song "Emotions."
Songfacts: Tell me about putting together "Shut Up And Drive."

Sturken: We'd been working very closely with Rihanna and were in the process of recording songs for her third album. I was literally sitting on the front step of my house, getting ready to drive to the studio, and the title just came to me. I thought, "That's pretty cool. OK, what do we do with that?"

So I came down to the studio and told Evan I had an idea. I started putting together a little sort of beat, and I knew that at a certain part of the chorus he'd want to sing that title. And that's really all I had.

The music, when we first started out, was sort of like "The Glamorous Life" by Sheila E. That's sort of where the beat was coming from. I was imagining doing something along those lines, and also, Fergie had a song called "Glamorous" with a similar vibe. You know, people do that. They kind of rip off another person's song and end up stealing part of the subject matter too, because it's just on their minds. The most famous example being "Emotions" by Mariah Carey. The music is completely taken from "Best Of My Love" by... The Emotions.

C+C Music Factory, Clivillés and Cole, the way they worked was to cop something.3 And I know because I do it all the time too. Then when you come up with a groove that's based on some other records that you really like, and before anyone's written lyrics for it, you have to label it so you can remember what it is. And I am absolutely one thousand percent certain that when they wrote that groove, they labeled it "Emotions" because it's The Emotions' groove. Then when Mariah Carey comes in to write over it, she sees "Emotions" written as the name of the groove, so she writes a song called "You've Got Me Feeling Emotions."

In this case, it was the Fergie song I was sort of thinking about, but Evan said, "No, we should rock it out, man." Because he knew from talking to Rihanna that she wanted to do a rock song, or something more rockish. So I started putting the chords together, and the lyrics were really easy to write because the minute we started thinking of the car metaphors, we could just go to town. You know, the Lamborghinis and the Ferraris, there's no end to things you can write, so that was like shooting fish in a barrel.

Sturken and Rogers didn't just produce Rihanna, they discovered her. Both had been traveling to Barbados for a while, and when Evan held auditions there in 2003, 15-year-old Rihanna showed up. He and Carl made her a demo and got her an audition with Jay-Z, who signed her to his Def Jam Records. When she moved to America, she lived with Rogers and his wife.
But an interesting key point - and again, this comes down to experience as a writer and sort of knowing when to make certain decisions - I started playing the chords, and then I thought, "I want to go to the next chord that goes up. And the reason I wanted to do that was because I was thinking of another particular record, which was "Blue Monday" by the group Orgy, but that was the cover of the original "Blue Monday" by New Order. So I said to Evan, "I really want to cop the way they played it." Even the bigness of the chords reminded me of the Orgy version, and I said, "I know we'll give up some writing [credits] for that, but it's worth it." Because to me it makes it a better, catchier song.

That's what we did, so we knew from the time we wrote the song that we were going to give up some writing for that part, and I had another learning experience on that. It's very complicated, the whole interpolation, sampling thing, and we've had some crazy experiences and learned a lot.

New Order were the guys who wrote it, but when I went back and listened to their version, I realized what we had taken from Orgy's version was not in New Order's original, but they're the only writers listed on the Orgy song. Well, they didn't write this part, so I thought we might be home free.

There's this woman, Deborah Mannis-Gardner, that everybody in this industry calls for clearance stuff. She is like the oracle, she knows everything. I called her up and explained what I was thinking. She said, "You wish."

Here's the way it works. When another person covers the original writers' song, if they change anything or add anything, the original writers acquire writership to all the new elements. So although the guys in New Order did not write the things that I used, they own the copyright on them.

So we called them up and we were really nice to them because it was a key element of the song. And sometimes when people know that you really don't want to change it or can't change it, they can charge you the moon. So 40%, I was happy with that. They could have asked for 60, which would have been unfair because we wrote the whole song other than that part, which I added almost after we wrote it. But it makes it a better song. I'd rather have 60% of a million dollars than a 100% of $100,000. Every time I've made that decision, I've never regretted it.

Songfacts: That's the "Bitter Sweet Symphony" thing where The Verve had to pay The Rolling Stones, even though The Rolling Stones had nothing to do with the part they used.

Sturken: Except it was an orchestra played over their composition. The one recently that twisted everybody's heads around was Lizzo. She had that line in her song, "100% that bitch." I read that the guy who wrote that line said it in a writing session for a completely different song, and then she took that and put it in the other song. So what do you do? All I know is, a lot of lawyers are making a lot of money on that kind of stuff.

We've had some terrible things happen. We used a chord progression in the song "Willing To Wait" on Rhianna's first album that was very common back in the early days of R&B. It's kind of climbing up a scale and you think it's going to a minor chord and the last chord is major. A lot of songs back in my early learning days in the '70s would do this thing, so we did it in the song for her. Def Jam Records [Rihanna's label] had a guy in charge of clearances who was a lawyer and he didn't know anything about music, so he would just say the most boneheaded things all day long. We had a reggae song and he said, "Are you going to have to pay Bob Marley for that?" That was the level of idiocy this guy was at. So he thought that our chord progression reminded him of "Free" by Deniece Williams, which it sort of does, but it reminds me of about five other songs as well.

But the thing to remember is that the record company doesn't own any of the publishing, so they don't really care who gets it, but they do care about being sued. So without even telling me, he sent a copy of the record to Deniece Williams' publisher saying, "Hey, listen to this song and tell me whether or not you think it bears resemblance to yours."

What do you think they're going to say? They gave away 40% of our song, which was just so wrong.

But in any case, "Shut Up And Drive" was great because we recorded it in Barbados over the holidays because there was just no time to record in those days - she was running around the world. And when she heard it, she got super excited. Like, "Oh my God, I can't believe you guys wrote this for me." Because no one else was doing anything like that for her. So we had a great time doing it, and then the record company resisted putting it on the record because Def Jam was all about hip-hop and R&B.

The song did come out, but the story of how it almost didn't come out and almost wasn't a single is a book - more drama than Game Of Thrones.

Songfacts: When you were talking about how Donny Osmond was the first pop artist you worked with, I was thinking about how you worked with Karyn White, who I always thought of as a pop artist.

Sturken: She was a crossover R&B artist. She grew up singing gospel and R&B, and in those days, you were signed by the black division of a record company. It's still kind of hard to imagine that this is the way the music industry worked. People today who are younger would be shocked at the way the music business looked in the '60s and '70s. If you walked in as a black artist to a label, they sent you down the hall to the black division. The crazy part was, Evan, my partner, got signed to the black music division at RCA because he sounded completely black. When he sang on these early records, nobody knew he was white until they met him. And the same thing with us on our [Rythm Syndicate] records. We would walk in and have meetings with people that were set up by our publisher and they would do a double-take when we walked in. We knew right away we were off on the wrong foot. So almost as we're shaking hands, I'd hand them the cassette, like, "just play the music." And we cut the mustard.

With someone like Karyn White, that music is crossing over, definitely starting on the R&B charts. And then there's certain R&B hits that cross over, and that's of course what everybody wanted. L.A. and Babyface were really good at doing those crossover records. The ones that were more pure R&B were Roger Troutman and Zapp, Slave and Steve Arrington, and all that stuff that stayed mostly in the R&B music world. But we went to England and there were no black and white divisions.

It's divided musically now, but half of hip-hop today is white guys like Post Malone and Machine Gun Kelly, so the blend is pretty well complete. And rock is pretty much gone from big radio stations. Their playlists are mostly hip-hop and Billie Eilish.

In those days when we worked with people like Jeff Lorber, Karyn White, Siedah Garrett and Jennifer Holliday, those were R&B artists who would cross over. We did not work with a white artist at the time because white artists weren't singing R&B. The only guy that did in the '90s was Jon B., who had a lot of hits in the R&B world. He was authentic in his singing and that was what mattered, but he never crossed over because his music was too R&B.

In the late '90s, we were in the studio with Wild Orchid - Fergie of Black Eyed Peas was the Stacy Ferguson of Wild Orchid.4 We recorded a bunch of stuff with them and Jon B. dropped by. He looks across the room and points at Evan and says, "You're him. You're that guy from Showtime At The Apollo. I saw you on television in 1990, it was a huge influence on me."

Rythm Syndicate was on Showtime At The Apollo, and Jon B. was probably 15.

Songfacts: How'd you guys go over at the Apollo?

Sturken: Well, I was just thrilled to be there because I'm a huge music history fan. I love R&B, jazz, blues, you name it. I have a huge record collection. So I was like, "This is the greatest moment of my life right here at the Apollo." And amazingly, as we're walking in, out was walking Bo Diddley.

But they filmed five shows in a day, and the audience stays there through all the shows and they get progressively more bored and more drunk. We were the fourth show and we're like, "Oh, this could be bad." Because they'll boo.

We were a mixed band - we had two black guys and three white guys, with me on guitar and Evan singing. We were nervous. It was to a track, but it was a TV track, so Evan was singing live. So I said, "Evan, when we walk out on stage, you've got to start by singing the most bad-ass R&B riff you can do." He says, "Yeah, that's exactly what I'm going to do."

So when the intro music starts and we start running out on stage, he just grabbed the mic almost from the wing. He did this crazy gospel rip and the place went crazy. It was a good moment.

We cut our teeth in an R&B band [Too Much Too Soon] in England for three years before we came to New York, and these guys were some of the best R&B musicians I've still ever heard. We were playing real hard-core R&B: Earth, Wind & Fire, Stevie Wonder, Parliament-Funkadelic, Tower Of Power. So we really knew that stuff, and when we came to New York, the only people we knew were because of that band, so we got offered gigs in R&B.

But if someone can do the music right, they should be accepted, and that's what we always found: We got acceptance because we were good. If we were lame, we would have been bounced out the door.

December 3, 2020

One of the artists Sturken and Rogers are working with these days is Kandace Springs, who is signed to Blue Note and sings jazz.

Further reading:
Glen Ballard
Phil Thornalley
Ellen Shipley

Footnotes:


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