Songwriter Interviews

Denny Randell

by Dan MacIntosh

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Denny Randell is a successful pop songwriter, most famous for the hits he's written for The Four Seasons, such as "Let's Hang On!" and "Working My Way Back to You." However, The Four Seasons are just one piece of Randell's success story: The Toys recorded his unique single "A Lover's Concerto," and his song "Can't Get Enough of You Baby" ended up being a '90s hit for Smash Mouth.

In the '70s during the disco era, Denny co-wrote and arranged music for Disco Tex and the Sex-O-lettes, and also did some work with Frank Zappa. Some of his other projects include songs for the An American Werewolf In London soundtrack and a Star Wars Christmas album.

These days, Denny is busy with his GI Jams project, which helps both active and retired military personnel with musical talent develop their skills and navigate the industry.
Dan MacIntosh (Songfacts): We're all about songs and songwriting, which is right up your alley, since you've written so many wonderful songs. So I'd like to just dig in and start talking about some of your songs, if that's okay.

Denny Randell: Oh, absolutely. Sure.

Songfacts: The first song that I think is really interesting, and how many different artists have recorded it, is "Can't Get Enough of You, Baby." At the risk of sounding like somebody who's going to ask a father who his favorite children are, do you have a favorite version of that song?

Denny: Yeah. Maybe it's the current times, because things move along, but I do think that the Smash Mouth version was a great record, and they're a great group. And the interesting thing, Dan, is that before Smash Mouth, there was another group that had recorded it: Colourfield, in the '80s.

It was written for The Toys, who recorded it in the first session with "A Lover's Concerto," and it was an R&B bag at that point. The next thing that happened was the Four Seasons recorded it, and that threw it into a whole different bag. Both of those records I felt were exciting for the styles they were in. But then, after "96 Tears," we were asked by the president of Cameo-Parkway at that time if we had a song for ? and the Mysterians. And I felt it would be very, very interesting to put this song into a rock bag. I felt, as with many songs, they could be performed in more than one way, and it was the first time that the song had been done in a rock bag. I think that was really the basis for it moving on from there, because what Colourfield did in the '80s, they performed it similarly, although the sound of the group was different - they were a great group. And the same thing with Smash Mouth. They're a phenomenal group and really hit it out of the park with our record. But it's interesting the way song just kept growing and getting into different bags.

Songfacts: Do you remember when you wrote that song and what inspired it?

Denny: Well, I do remember. It's funny, I kind of get a picture in my mind of writing various songs. It was a great title that we had come up with. And it just seemed like something that would be right for the direction we were going with The Toys. And it just felt real good, so we put it together and just went ahead with it. At that time, I had a number of titles, and it just felt right. I loved the idea and fortunately it started out to be something that has resonated.

Songfacts: Certainly. You mentioned the Toys and "A Lover's Concerto" was the big hit that they had. And that has classical roots. Where did you get the idea that it could be a pop song?

Denny: Well, you know, it's really interesting. The first time I played that, I was pretty young. Must have been about 5, 6, I don't recall exactly. I was taking lessons at a very early age, and I loved that piece. It stuck with me. Over the years, I grew up and got more into music from a creative point of view. It's really interesting, throughout all my later teen years and when I first got into the business, I always had it on my mind that it would make wonderful grounds for a pop song if done in the right way.

And it was just amazing, it was on my mind for years. And at some point, finally, I just decided to write the song; it was time to put it together. It's in a different groove and it's a different time signature than the original piece; it was put into a form that could work for a pop record at that time.

And I had this feeling, as well, about the title. Particularly in those days, I used to see a lot young girls, and they would like to write poetry of sorts. So I wanted this to be basically a romantic poem, and I came up with the title, which also reflected the classical background of "A Lover's Concerto." And one of the interesting things is that the title is never mentioned in the lyric. I just felt that it could work, I just had this feeling about it, even though it is not generally the way you write songs and hooks. It's not that I wasn't aware of it, I just had a feeling that this whole idea could work. The title was the combination of the feeling of both the lyric and the music. And it worked.

Songfacts: I want to talk a little bit about your relationship with Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. You've had a number of successful hits with them. What is it that has made that relationship so successful in your mind?

Denny: Well, first of all, I have to say that from the very first time that I ever heard their first record, "Sherry," they were one of my favorite acts. I didn't know that I would end up working with them as closely as I did, but somehow the chemistry was great, and we hit it off. I had been a staff writer with another New York firm, who also had me arranging and producing the demo records for all the other writers. And during that process, various people from the A&R departments at different labels would come up and listen to songs. In those days, it was all about songs. The A&R people at all the labels, until they found a song, they would not record anyone. It was always the song first. At one point, one of the A&R people over at CBS who had a close relationship with the Four Seasons - even though they were not on that label - would be listening to a lot of the demos that I made and arrangements I had done and productions. He came up to me and said, "Hey, the Four Seasons are looking to find someone new to do their recordings. Would you be interested in being their arranger and conductor?" And of course, that was a sensational idea to me. So of course I said yes.

And about two weeks later, Bob Gaudio and I met, and we started working together in that capacity and we just really hit it off. And then through that I met Bob Crewe, who was their producer. So I actually started off arranging and conducting for them, including several of their hits. I arranged "Save It for Me" and "Big Man in Town" and quite a lot of the Rag Doll album, and also "On Broadway Tonight," which was the theme song for a TV show that was on at that time. Which, by the way, I think still stands to this day, it's really the only big band arrangement they'd ever done in that form. And then later on I arranged "And That Reminds Me," which was one of their later hits.

So that's the way I met them, even before I started writing for them.

Songfacts: Your music has ranged across quite a few different eras. You even had some big successes during the disco era. And I'm curious what your thoughts were about disco when you first started working in it, and then you had the hit "I Want To Dance With You." So tell me a little bit about your experiences and what your memories are of working during that era.

Denny: Well, first, let me say that in the real heart of the disco era - and obviously, there's still dance music going strong today, as well - but in the heart of the disco era there was a point where pop music and dance music were really one and the same. There was a period of time where the hottest records in the clubs were also the hottest records on the air.

But one of the neat things about this period, and it's something that really worked for me, was that it was a great union of big band and horns and strings and rhythms. My background is very broad-based in music; I've written and performed in so many different bags that there was something about that music at that time that I really loved. It was musically great. You could have great horn sections and string sections and have great melodies and great hooks going on, and very exciting rhythms happening at the same time.

So for me, on the one hand, it just felt like great music that I had always been involved with. But on the other hand, it was current and popular at that time. And it was actually very easy for me to try and get excited and work in that bag.

Songfacts: I read that you had worked with Frank Zappa, and I'm hoping that you might have a great Frank Zappa story you can share.

Denny: I had been called by someone who was involved with Frank's manager's brother, who had called me and asked me for some advice. I didn't believe he just called me, asked me for some advice on a production he was doing. He said he was a fan of mine and wanted to know if I would help him. I actually was between projects, so I went down to the studio and helped him out. And through that, Frank's manager, who was this fella's brother, got me working with them.

It's really amazing, because I got a call from Frank one day. We had never met. He called me and said, "Hey, I'd love to talk to you, would you be interested in coming on down to see me?" And I did. At that time, he had his Warner DiscReet Records. And, of course, Frank being as hot as he was, I'm sure they were giving him that label just for himself.

He said to me, "The reason why I called you down is because I'm very excited to have other artists on my label. And although it's not what I do, I love pop music." He said, "You are my favorite writer and producer of pop music," which really was a great compliment. And he said to me, "would you please do me the honor of setting up my pop A&R?" I was pretty surprised. I had always appreciated Frank and the music that he did, but we had never crossed paths and weren't actually working in exactly the same bag, so it was a great surprise. I said to him, "Frank, I'm just honored and appreciate that you feel that way. I've got my own things going and my own production and songwriting and everything." I said, "If we can do this in such a way where it's not going to get in the way of other things that I may want to do, it'll be my pleasure. Let's get together and make some hits."

I guess that's the best Frank Zappa story I have, because it really goes right to the heart of the relationship there.

Songfacts: I want to talk about one more song and then I'll let you go. "Working My Way Back To You" I didn't realize had been recorded by both Frankie Valli and the Spinners. What are your memories of that song?

Denny: Well, after I had been arranging and conducting with The Four Seasons for a while, they knew that I was a writer. The first song I brought them was called "Betrayed," which actually was my first chart record with them, although it was not one of the biggies. They loved the song, put it on the back. In those days, we actually had B-sides, so they put it on the back of what became their current single, which was "Toy Soldier." And "Toy Soldier," unlike most of the records, was not really jumping up the charts really quickly, so they flipped it over, and "Betrayed" also got on the charts.

That was the first song that I wrote for them, and then a period of time later, Frankie called me and asked me if I had a song for them. He said, "I really want something fresh. I feel it's one of these times that we need to do something a little fresh." The song we came up with was "Let's Hang On!" One thing that I always respected greatly about Frankie is that he always said to me, "I don't care how great the singer is, you've got to have a great song." And I always respected that about him very much.

And so after "Let's Hang On" was a hit, they had come back and asked if I had another song for them. And "Working My Way Back To You" was the song that came out as the record that followed "Let's Hang On!" And although the tempo was different and the song was a totally different song, it was part of that same element of staying in that horns, R&B bag sort of thing. The interesting bass lines and so on and so forth. And they had a big hit with it, it went Top Ten.

And then years later, yeah, the Spinners came out with their version. You know, a song can be done in so many different ways. They came out with a fantastic version of the song, and it became a big smash again. I had three big hits in a row with them, following "Working My Way Back To You" with "Opus 17." And there was another case, although the melody I wrote there was totally original, I purposely gave it a classical feel. And again, the title for "Opus 17" does not actually appear in the song. It's more of the way they titled classical pieces. But in this case, because I wanted to play up the hook, you know, "don't worry about me," I also put that in as a secondary title, so it's "Opus 17, Don't Worry About Me."

I've written other songs for them, but those three, "Let's Hang On," "Working My Way Back To You," and "Opus 17," were the biggest - "Betrayed" was the first, then years later, I had another big hit with Frankie with "Swearin' To God."

Songfacts: Tell me about this G.I. Jams project.

Denny: Yeah, and I appreciate that. Because the whole point of the project is that we're doing it for our military people. Biddy Schippers and I - my partner and I - and by the way, I'll just say very quickly, I know you're on your break. Biddy and I over the years have had three national dance hits together. Well, we've actually produced the numbers, and the three that we also sang on as Randell and Schippers. And our last one several years back also - our video went Top Ten on Yahoo! and a lot of other sites. And from our last record, Alice in Wonderland it was called.

But for a number of years, we had felt like what could we do to support our troops? And one day, it's funny, you know how things can be right under your nose. So one day we said, "Hey, why not do something with music?" So we started G.I. Jams, started it as a Web site for military artists to put up their original songs and performances, and it's getting really big and it's getting very exciting. Our military people join from all over the world - from Iraq, Afghanistan, Germany, Japan, everywhere. It's really incredible. They write us all the time and say, "Denny and Biddy, this is incredible, this is the greatest thing anybody's ever done for us, thank you so much."

Last May 20th, Mayor Goodman in Las Vegas declared G.I. Jams Day. And we did a Veterans Day concert last year at the Cannery, a major casino in Las Vegas, and our troops came from all over the country. Those that were active, their commanders gave them special leave. And NPR just did a feature on one of our artists. It does come back to music, obviously. We have a current album out which is a compilation album, The Original Music of our Military, Volume I. Biddy and I were very, very glad that we were able to arrange a deal with EMI to get some of these folks a real opportunity to get some of their songs out, because they're all trying to get songs in movies, commercials, TV, things like that. And through our contacts, we can help. It's been a pleasure for us to do something like this for these people that have served us, and open some doors for them.

We spoke with Denny Randell on November 7, 2011. Get more at dennyrandell.com.
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