A hit for The Spinners in 1972, the song was the brainchild of Thom Bell, who also wrote and produced for The Delfonics, The Stylistics and The O'Jays. His songwriting partner was Linda Creed, but she was out of town when he needed a lyric for "I'll Be Around," which is where Phil Hurtt enters our story.
With a range of talents that include production, songwriting and singing, Hurtt was an integral part of the '70s Philadelphia sound, a musical milieu of indelible soul that eventually gave in to disco, another genre where Phil found himself at the vanguard, writing songs for (and being asked to front) the Village People.
What's the secret to his lyrical success? Part of it has to do with his military service in Alaska, when he became the Cyrano de Bergerac of his base, ghostwriting love letters for his fellow servicemen. It's a singular talent, and one that paid off when he wrote songs for Bettye Swann, Jackie Moore and Sister Sledge.
In this revealing talk, Hurtt explains how things got done at Philadelphia International Records, and what he did to make the Village People suitable for mass consumption.
Phil Hurtt: We were actually working at the same time on the O'Jays Back Stabbers album. I was writing "Sunshine" and "When the World's at Peace," and Thommy [Bell] came into the office and Linda [Creed] was on her honeymoon. He said, "I need you to write some lyrics. Just follow the melody, I need some lyrics to the tune."
I took it home where I was finishing up lyrics on the Back Stabber album, and I put Thommy's tune on the tape recorder. And when I heard the melody, the lyric popped into my head. It wasn't anything I thought about long.
I always think about titles. Back in the day you had to tell a story in three-and-a-half minutes. You didn't have five or six minutes to tell the story. So it had to be like a soap opera. It had to be a beginning, a middle, and an end. It took a couple of hours before I had the whole thing finished for him. It wasn't anything I had thought about long and hard. It was something spontaneous; it was a great melody, a great sounding track. And of course it was Thommy, so it worked out well.
Songfacts: But you weren't hung up on a girl at the time?
Hurtt: No. No. [Laughing]
Songfacts: It's pretty remarkable that you were able to capture that feeling. But that, I imagine, goes to so much of your talent. You've been able to write songs that really sound authentic when the singer performs them.
Hurtt: I think that's what part of the job requires you to do. I was an early reader, so I read a lot of stories from the age of 3. I'm always on the edge of a new story, so if I hear a rhythm, sometimes I can hear lyrics. It's really funny. I hear lyrics, I hear a song. And at times it's hard for me to keep myself from changing what the producer or the record company - whoever I'm working for - will have me do, because I heard something totally different and I can't do what I feel.
But with Thommy and with most of the things we did at PIR [Philadelphia International Records] and with Atlantic Records, when I came up with something, it worked, and I didn't have anybody telling me, "No, you can't do that." Thommy actually said to me, "Linda's going on her honeymoon and I need this right away, can you get it done?" I knew Thommy from high school, he's from the neighborhood, so it was cool. He had trusted it with me and I was able to do it. And it worked.
Songfacts: Did you hear the track before you wrote the words?
But working from a track is something that I learned to do when I started with my older brother. I was pre-teen. He would put these little songs on a tape, and I would get a hold of his tape and write lyrics to it before he got a chance to write lyrics to it. He would play a song back and I'd start singing it. He'd say, "What are you singing?" "I'm singing your song." So that's how long ago I was experimenting to find out where I was.
Songfacts: You said, "Thommy comes by the office." I'm trying to get a sense for what it was like in this whole Philadelphia International scene.
Hurtt: Well, Bunny Sigler and I, we were in 305. And right next to us was Gamble and Huff's office. Next to them was an office that contained Norman Harris, T. Conway, all the guys that were in there. And around the corner from that office was Thom Bell, Linda Creed. So it was always music up and down the hallways during that time.
We had finished Joe Simon, and it was the O'Jays that came in and we were all working on the material. And when Kenny told us that the O'Jays were coming up for some material, he told us to show them one song and no more. Well, you don't tell a songwriter to show somebody one song. We started showing them a bunch of songs and everything we played, they liked. So Thommy came in during that time and asked for me to write the lyrics for "I'll Be Around." It was in the middle of all that creativity that he brought that in to me. I guess I was in-tune to writing at that particular time, so when I heard that, it just jumped on me. It's just something that happened.
Thommy's great and pulling melodies and things out of the air. A lot of times it sounds sort of lame: "Oh, I picked it out of the air, I hear this tune in my head." But that's literally what happens. Sometimes I can hear music and I come up with the lyrics, there's a story there. So if somebody gives me a story, it makes it even easier. When Thommy said "I'll be around," I started thinking about a scenario and a story. Thommy was telling me, "Whenever you call me, I'll be there." That's one of the things he did give me. And I'm thinking, okay, great. So the guy broke up and he wants her back, whenever you call me I'll be there, whenever you need me, I'll be there. So, okay, great. And then the next thing I know, this is our fork in the road. And that's the way it happens.
I'm just so proud and happy and blessed that that song has crossed over into that company of being referred to as "classic." You hear a great melody and a great idea for a song, and then all you've got to do is write the story. I mean, wow, what an opportunity.
Thommy would always say, "You know, we've got to write another, it's the only song we ever did together." I said, "I know. I've been knowing you all my life, one song." [Laughing] So we never got a chance to do another one. But that was a magical time for us. There was a lot of music happening. It's one of those times when we had a lot of great musicians beginning to grow, a lot of writers and singers who came together and they all meld at the same time. You had a ton of writers in there, you had a ton of singers. We were singing background parts. It was amazing. There was a lot of talent there at the right time for it to happen.
It brought a lot of other producers from around the world that came into Philly to capture that talent that was in there. There were a lot of people that came in and recorded in Philly using those same musicians, the same writers, those same background singers, so it was not just the Philly people. It was people outside of Philadelphia that came in and benefited by it, also.
A lot of the guys were going to high school together. Bobby Eli and Thommy and I went to high school together. I know Kenny was in West Philly High with I think Thommy's sister went to West Philly. It was one of those things where guys knew each other from back in the day or performed together on different cabarets and things in Philadelphia, and found themselves in one place at the same time. Billy Paul used to perform around Philadelphia with the Blue Notes and a couple of other groups that I was in would perform in different clubs, and we would run into each other all the time, in competition, having good times.
But at this particular time, from the late '60s through the mid '70s, this crew got together and it happened. A lot of great material. It just was magic.
Songfacts: Who was your employer, technically?
Hurtt: I was independent.
Songfacts: But you were in the same building with all these guys?
Hurtt: I was the only one that wasn't signed.
Hurtt: It was very interesting. There's a story behind that, too.
Songfacts: Everybody else was signed to Philadelphia International?
Hurtt: They were signed not to Philadelphia International, but to the publishing company, Assorted Music.
Songfacts: Is the studio in this building?
Songfacts: So the studio's elsewhere. But this is where their office is and the creative types are all working together?
Hurtt: That's what it used to be. Where it first started was 250 South Broad, which was the Schubert Building. Now it's the Merriam Theater. And after I left, I think it was like '76, they moved across the street. They bought the old Cameo-Parkway Studios and they moved to 309, and that's where they built the second Sigma Sound Studio. But originally, the studios we were using were 212 North 12th Street, Sigma Sound. That was the Joe Tarsia studio. When we were working at 250 South Broad, we were using Sigma Sound on 12th Street.
Other writers that came on signed, but I didn't want to lock myself into a deal. I didn't mind sharing, but I didn't want to sell it all. I wasn't trying to sign a contract that would give somebody all of my publishing. My first record was recorded in 1958, when I was 15, and I had seen some things in and around Harlem and in New York that caused me to beware of the music industry in terms of signing away your rights. It stuck with me that the guy behind the desk was the one calling the shots. It wasn't the guys on the stage. So I didn't want to do that.
When I got to the Gamble/Huff situation, I didn't want to sign my rights away, and I think what they expected was for everybody to sign a contract. They came to me, unfortunately for them, after I had "I'll Be Around." Then they showed up and wanted me to sign. I said, "I don't mind, I'll share. But I'm not signing my publishing rights." I was told that they didn't want me to be a part of the organization unless I did, so I went and signed with Atlantic Records as a staff producer when LaBaron Taylor came through and offered me a contract.
Songfacts: Did you work in New York for a time?
Hurtt: I worked for Atlantic Records, but I didn't move to New York. I still cut at Sigma Sound. When I went to Atlantic Records, I took a group called Sister Sledge with me.
Songfacts: When you were talking about how you came up in the business, you were saying you saw things in Harlem and New York.
Hurtt: That was when I used to travel with my older brother Al. We had a group called Sarah and the Dream. This was back in 1955, '56, somewhere in there. I was 13, 14 years old.
Songfacts: And you guys lived in Philly.
Hurtt: Lived in Philly, and we would go to New York on weekends. Leave on a Friday, try to get there Friday night, try to sing in the clubs. And we did sing in a couple of clubs up there. One of the clubs was in the Theresa Hotel. It's called the Gold Room, and we performed in there. Ray Robinson had a club there, also. Sugar Ray Robinson, the boxer.
Those are the times when I would run into people like Sam Cooke and Little Willie John. I met Frankie Lymon - we were the same age - in the club at the Chantelle.
Songfacts: It's remarkable that you had that prescience to understand the publishing business at such a young age. And that sounds like you then owned the publishing to your side of "I'll Be Around," is that correct?
Hurtt: Yes, I did. Yeah.
Songfacts: Did you ever sign it away?
Hurtt: I sold it in 1984.
Songfacts: At which time it was a very valuable song, because it had already been covered.
Hurtt: It had been covered. It wasn't as valuable, believe it or not, as it is now.
Songfacts: Yeah, because it keeps getting sampled - there was no way you could have seen that coming.
Hurtt: No, you couldn't. Those were the times when I had two daughters who were about to enter college. My thing was: educate the kids, but don't give it all away. I didn't mind sharing stuff. And at some point, you do what you have to do. But the other remaining pieces that I had, I held onto those. No problems. You do what you have to do until you can do what you want to do.
Songfacts: You were talking about how after "I'll Be Around" they tried to force you to sign the contract. You wouldn't, and you took yourself to Atlantic Records with Sister Sledge. Sister Sledge is a Philly act, but you took them to New York, which is where Atlantic was located?
Hurtt: Right. That was LeBaron Taylor who had just signed as vice president of A&R at Atlantic. He offered myself, Bunny Sigler, Thommy Bell and Thommy's brother positions as staff producers at Atlantic. We shared a publishing deal with Cotillion. I took that deal and I had a group that I had known for a few years. They were very young kids - my former wife worked with their mother, and we all became very good friends. When I signed with Atlantic, I told my friend and mentor, LeBaron Taylor, about them, and I took him to see them perform. When I signed with Atlantic, he signed the girls, also.
Songfacts: Where did you record the Sister Sledge stuff?
Hurtt: We did it in Philadelphia.
Hurtt: I was actually living in New Jersey. Tried to cross the bridge from Philly, where I was. Not a problem. I tried a couple of things in the Atlantic New York studio, but I didn't have the access to the musicians that I wanted to use, and I certainly didn't have the sounds that I was trying to produce. So the best thing for me to do was to do it where I was comfortable.
At that time, also, MFSB was in hot demand. Everybody was coming to the city to record and use the group, some using musicians and producers and singers and so forth. So I had to augment the nucleus of the guys I was using by bringing in some heavyweights from Motown. I brought in Bob Babbitt on bass and Andrew Smith on drums. And then used Bobby Eli and some of the other guys from MFSB to augment that, because I couldn't get Earl Young on certain sessions. They were busy, which was understandable during that time.
Songfacts: Were you at Sigma doing the recordings?
Songfacts: So this is where we're talking about the Sister Sledge songs "The Weatherman" and "Mama Never Told Me."
Hurtt: Right. "Mama Never Told Me," "Weatherman," "Have You Met My Friend," that's where they came from. Actually, when I met Kathy, Kathy walked into the room on her hands - she was 13 years old. Somebody said, "These are my daughters," and I'm like, "Oh, hi, kids." And here comes Kathy on her hands. They were funny.
Songfacts: Tell me about writing "Mama Never Told Me."
Hurtt: Interesting. Thommy Bell had a hit on the Spinners called "One of a Kind." Tony [Thommy's brother] was playing guitar. He started playing the riff that reminded me of that: "One of a kind..." I started humming the melody to it, and I started thinking about a story. The mom is Flo with these five daughters. And there had to be some instruction to her daughters, had to be some communication about life. I started thinking about that, and "Mama Never Told Me" popped off. So basically it was just imagining a mother's conversation to her daughter, then I had to flip the script, because her mama couldn't tell her too much, because she fell for the same thing: a quiet man. That's basically how that got written.
Songfacts: All the shooby-doos in that, were you planning to put some lyrics in there later or was that always envisioned as a scat-type thing?
Hurtt: It was always envisioned that way. And that probably came from my roots. But also, the way she sounded, it sounded like a little girl. Shooby dooby dooby doo bop bop, you know.
I thought it was also catchy. I thought it was something that if the public got a chance to really hear it, that they would sing along with. She actually says, "Sing along with shooby dooby dooby doo bop bop," and I thought it was just a cute thing for her to do, especially as a 13, 14-year-old at that time. Today, a 14-year-old would sing a different kind of song, but during that time, it was appropriate for them to do, especially with Kathy's voice.
Songfacts: You had written for female artists before. I think you had Jackie Moore even before Sister Sledge.
Hurtt: Jackie Moore around the same time. Jackie Moore and Vivian Reed and Bettye Swann. I had done Honey and the Bees before that. And right after that started doing The Ritchie Family. Lot of females.
Songfacts: What's it like writing for women? Do you have to get in a different mindset?
Hurtt: Yeah, it's a different sensibility. I was reading a lot when I was a child and trying to understand what you would call the soft side; the romantic side, I think which is missing today in music. It used to be romantic. I listened to the music of some of the great writers like Cole Porter and Johnny Mercer. They had such great romantic songs. Happy songs with good story lines and great melodies. I think that is why I was able to communicate so well with a lot of the female singers and write things that they would be comfortable singing about: love, relationships.
You're making me think about it. I hadn't really thought about that. But I've always had a good relationship with artists, and specifically female artists, when it comes to working with them. I was trying to bring something to them that would bring the best out of them. Give them a story they could really relate to.
Then again, each one of those females are individuals. So you got to approach Jackie Moore differently than you would approach Vivian Reed, differently than you would approach Diane Steinberg or Bettye Swann. They're all different individual ladies, they sing about different things. So you have to be cognizant of that, also.
Songfacts: How did you come up with the Jackie Moore song "Sweet Charlie Babe"?
Hurtt: "Sweet Charlie Babe" was written based on two people. My cousin Butch and another writer whose name I will not mention. [Laughing] But these guys, especially my cousin Charlie, he used to call himself Sweet Charlie, because all the girls love him. So it was basically about Sweet Charlie. And this other fella.
Songfacts: Is Charlie and Butch the same person?
Hurtt: Yeah. We called him Butch, his name was Charlie. Charles Roberts. He's passed on since then. But he used to always have this thing about, "The girls call me Sweet Charlie."
Songfacts: That's funny. But then I thought it was interesting how you wrote another side of the player story with "Both Ends Against The Middle," where the guy's getting called out.
Hurtt: Yeah. That's what I'm saying. It's Jackie Moore, and Jackie's good at that. She's good at those broken relationships. She's a soulful singer. She can do those kind of things.
I did a similar thing with Betty Swan and I tried it with her. A song called "When A Game is Played on You." You've got to check that one out, because it gave her an opportunity to get a little more gritty than she usually is. Usually she'd sing a little bit forlorn, a little bit soulful. But I gave her a chance to get a little bit gritty on this one.
"When the World's at Peace" (the first song on the album, it's also credited to Kenneth Gamble)
"Who Am I"
"Sunshine" (a live version charted at #48 when it was released in 1975)
Hurtt: That was on the Back Stabbers album. It wound up on the chart and it really helped sales of the album, because "Sunshine" was also on the R&B charts. The song "Back Stabbers" was climbing the pop charts. We had two other songs on the album, also. One song, "When the World's at Peace," it was called something else, a different lyric altogether. And we were trying to get another song in. We were showing The O'Jays everything. They wanted us to record everything that we played for them, but Kenny came and said, "No, don't show them any more songs. Two songs." We were like, "Well, they want this one and these other three." And he said, "No, don't do that. I'm looking for a song like, 'When the World's at Peace.'" And then he left the office. When he walked out, I changed the title to the song we were working on to "When the World's at Peace" and rewrote the lyric. And they recorded it anyway. [Laughing] Kenny put his name on it.
Songfacts: So he wins in the end. How did you come up with the whole idea and the lyrics of "Sunshine"?
Hurtt: A lot of times when I'm trying to come up with a lyric or a feel, I write something that I would like to say, something I'm looking for. I can go into my imagination and imagine this person, this woman in my own life, and what I would say to her. When I was in the service in Alaska I would write letters for my friends to their girls, and these guys would always receive these tremendous accolades for their letters I had written: "Oh, my wife was so happy that I said that."
So carrying that forward, when I started writing lyrics, I did the same thing. I'd go back into myself, my inner self, and imagine what I would say. So when I say, "You're the sweetest thing I know, you dim the rainbow's glow. There's no power on this earth that would separate us," that's where I am. Fortunately, at last, over the past 26 years, I have found that person. So it worked.
Songfacts: That's fantastic. Were you in the Air Force?
Hurtt: I was in the Air Force, yes. I was stationed in Shemya, on an island very close to Russia.
Hurtt: I was the head of ground communications. We were part of an early warning system. And the closest I came to combat was the Bay of Pigs, when the Russian planes were flying over our island, and we knew we were expendable.
Songfacts: They had to fly over your island in order to get to Cuba?
Hurtt: They flew over because they were taking pictures of us like we were taking pictures of them. It was a tough time, because we were a remote site. The island was a mile by a mile long. We were vulnerable, totally. We were right there on the Bering Sea, so we were very close. So like Sarah Palin, "I could see Russia from my house." [Laughing]
Songfacts: One thing I notice, a lot of really talented lyricists, they have had very rich experiences in their lives that they then draw from in their songs. Does that come up in cases for you?
Hurtt: All the time. I always was fascinated by Linda Creed. She read a lot of poetry, and you can tell her sensitivity. When she would write songs - "Stop, Look, Listen," "You Are Everything" [both by The Stylistics] - songs like that and others that really amaze me, you could tell how sensitive they were. I listen to "I'll Be Around," and I'm saying, you know, it has the same kind of sensitivity that her work did. And I think it's because of what you just said, that there are some experiences in our lives and things that we read or have seen or whatever the case may be, that allow us to communicate it in a different way.
I got a call from a friend of mine who re-released some stuff that Tony Bell and I did on Anthony and the Imperials, and he thought a song that I had written with Tony was a Linda Creed/Thom Bell song. I had actually forgotten the song until I went to Youtube and listened to it. And I understood what he was saying, it was a compliment to me to think that he thought Linda Creed wrote those lyrics.
Lyricists may have a little deeper understanding of feelings, I guess, to communicate that feeling.
Songfacts: Do you remember what song that was?
Songfacts: Did you remember writing it?
Hurtt: I did after I went and listened. I said, "Oh, yes!" And they re-released that album, by the way. The album was called Hold On.
Songfacts: Yeah. And you wrote the title track on that. What did you draw from when you were writing some of these songs? "Hold On" is one of these very intimate relationship songs.
Hurtt: Exactly. Well, "Hold on just a little bit longer," it's just one of those ideas. It's a thing that pops into your head. I hate to use that for you, but it pops into your head.
What are you holding onto? Hold on a little bit longer. And then the story popped into my head. I'm going to leave my girl here at home, and I trust her, but I don't trust people around her. So I don't mind you going out, but you have limits. Know when to say no, know when to come back, and hold on just a little bit longer. Be strong. Ideas like that just pop up. I can't put a finger on it, but it pops into your head. And once you get a title, then you get the first line, and then you get a story. You have two or three different ways you can go with the story, and then decide on which way to go. Sometimes it just takes you there.
Songfacts: You were talking earlier about how your roots inspired the shooby-doos in "Mama Never Told Me." What were your roots?
Hurtt: I was raised in a church where there were no musical instruments. That same church spawned a group called The Flamingos. You ever hear of the Flamingos?
Songfacts: Yeah. So when you're saying no musical instruments, voices are permitted?
Hurtt: Right. It was totally a cappella, and it's beautiful music. So my roots are always in the vocal, the voice, which would lend itself to me being a decent background singer and singer, and good with vocal arrangements. I have a piano that I bang on to write, but I don't consider myself a musician. I started learning later in life, because everything I did was without an instrument.
But if you listen to the harmonies of The Flamingos, you can hear one of the things that separated them from a lot of the doo-wop groups was their sound. Flamingos' sound was a smoother, accurate harmony. Their blend was awesome.
So my roots were all vocals, and it afforded me an opportunity later on in life to earn additional income because of my background work, and then arranging work.
I'll tell you a story. I did some work with the Duke Ellington Orchestra. I had a friend who was one of the lead singers in the Sacred Concert Series that he did, and I used to go to all the rehearsals. And the nucleus of the people in the choir knew that I knew all of the music from memory, because I would help them with their parts. One day, the conductor of the choir quit on the spot, and we were out of town. We were in Connecticut. The theatre in the round in Connecticut. Somebody in the choir said, "Well, put Phillip there, because he knows the entire piece of work." So Mr. Ellington asked me if I would do it. We had a rehearsal and he gave me the sheet music, but I didn't need the music. I had memorized it.
So I'm standing there in the theatre in the round with the Duke Ellington Orchestra conducting a hundred-voice choir. He's on one side he's got the orchestra on the other side. I'm turning pages like I'm reading music, and I did the whole thing. I did it there, and I did three other concerts. I did one for the Archbishop of Canterbury in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Stuff like that was all because of my roots, because of my ears, and my ability to sing. As a young child I was a soprano, and I kept that ability for a very long time to sing the soprano parts. It afforded me an opportunity to do a lot.
Songfacts: What was the name of this church?
Hurtt: It was called the Church of God and Saints of Christ. It's still there right on the corner of Broad and South in Philadelphia.
Songfacts: It sounds like your different talents came in handy. When you would show up for work back in the '70s, would you some days go to the studio and do some backup vocals, do some arrangements, write? What was the typical day like?
Hurtt: It depends. I'd be called for background sessions, and I also had my own sessions, because I had to book studios to record artists that I was assigned to. And there were times where I would go in and help write. So one thing kind of led to the other.
Before Gamble and Huff got together, I used Huff for sessions. He was doing session work. He had written a song called "Mixed Up, Shook Up Girl" under a different name. This is the mid '60s, and I had just come out of the Air Force. He said, "I like your lyrics, I'd like to work together." Well, I was in shock, because I'm like, "Okay, I'm just trying to get started here." I said, "Okay, I'll get back to you." And I never did, because I was intimidated. And he hooked up with Kenny.
But that was the kind of thing that was happening. And what grew out of that is the guys who played, played, the guys who sang, sang, the guy who could write wrote. And if you could do both, you could do one or the other. For example, Bunny Sigler and I are singing on the material we wrote for the O'Jays, singing background. Because when the O'Jays came in, they came in with just two of them. They had another guy, but he couldn't handle it, so we did some background on our own.
This has been kept quiet for a long time, it's just starting to come out, but Blue Magic and the Stylistics was actually us.
Songfacts: When you say us, you mean you and Bunny?
Hurtt: And Carl Helm. And The Sweeties.
The Sweeties were the three female backing singers that appeared on many of these recordings. They were Barbara Ingram, Carla Benson and Evette L. Benton. It was Thom Bell who brought them to Sigma, so for a while they were known as "Thommy's Girls." Their other monikers include The Sweethearts Of Sigma and The Philadelphia Angels. In the mid-'80s, they toured behind Patti LaBelle.
Another vocalist who appeared on many of these tracks was Ron Tyson, who later joined The Temptations.
The vocals were sometimes doubled to create the sound of 10-12 voices.
Listen to the background vocals on the clip above to hear an example. As you can see, the backing performers in Blue Magic were needed to execute the choreography, but not to sing.
Hurtt: Yeah. They don't talk about it. They don't advertise it. But that's what it was. We used to be Jay and the Techniques. We were a lot of people.
Songfacts: Did you ever have to perform as one of these acts?
Hurtt: No. They did their live stuff.
Songfacts: Gotcha. So you guys would perform on the albums, but there were actual groups that would make live appearances.
Hurtt: Yeah. They ran into a jam one time when they asked Blue Magic to sing background for the Rolling Stones. They couldn't send us up there, because they would have said, "Who are these guys?"
They recorded on the same label, Atlantic Records, so they called Blue Magic to come and sing. They were trying to think how they can get the voices up there without Blue Magic actually going up there. They wound up not doing it.
But we did a lot of background. Grace Jones, Loleatta Holloway, and a bunch of people.
Songfacts: Well, I can see how it helps out if you are signed to a contract, because then you don't have to piece out the work. As an independent contractor, you go to do a session, that's a separate contract.
Hurtt: Yeah. I was able to do it, because I was independent. And then we did Anthony and the Imperials, I got permission to do that from Atlantic as an outside deal. We had to fulfill an obligation for Atlantic Records, so it was not a big deal for them to do that. It was a courtesy.
But I could do sessions sometimes that would fill in with the girls - I could sing some of the higher parts that one of the girls were missing. A lot of the times they would call me in. It was funny.
One time there was an article in Billboard Magazine, had me listed as one of the Sweethearts of Sigma. [Laughing] One of The Sweeties. I was like, "Right, okay."
Songfacts: So then the disco era comes, and I believe one of your first disco hits was the Ritchie Family tune, "The Best Disco in Town."
Hurtt: Those are the things that gave me a problem. I loved the music, because the music was always great. Musicianship was fantastic. These guys came in from France and they hired guys that knew what they were doing. And for me, it was less of a challenge because it was supposed to be fun and camp. Those things are easier to do. What I have to do is pull back a bit and allow what the producer is asking for, which is not as as serious or meaningful as the material I would like to write. It's a little bit different.
"The Best Disco in Town" was the first one I did, and it was a mess putting together those compilation songs we had in there and then building some links between them. That was basically it. It was the first time they came in to do anything.
Songfacts: You're talking about the Ritchie Family here?
Hurtt: Yeah. It was the first time the producers came in. They were from France - Jacques Morali and Henri Belolo. And the Ritchie Family, that particular group used to be Honey and the Bees. I'd produced them before as Honey and the Bees, so I knew them already and it was easier to work with them. The song wasn't that difficult.
So that first song, it was me in the background with them and Buddy Turner from the Corner Boys. You know who Buddy Turner is?
Hurtt: The song "Don't Let the Green Grass Fool You," he was one of the writers on that. He was part of a group called The Corner Boys. So that was the first thing I did with them.
It was funny, because I actually had refused the work initially. I was getting disillusioned with the industry, and I considered not doing any more writing. But I did, and that got me back in the groove again, just getting back in the studio.
After that we did an album called Arabian Nights, then we did Life is Music and African Queens. Then they switched the group, and right after that was the Village People. That's another story.
There are just four songs on that first Village People album. The other three are "Hollywood (Everybody Is A Star)," "Fire Island," and the eponymous "Village People."
Hurtt: That first album that went gold, that was very interesting. While we were doing the African Queen album, Jacques was telling me about this gay concept that he had for a group. He said, "I want you to work with me." I said, "Fine, not a problem." He said, "I know you're not gay, darling." I said, "I can write, just give me what you want me to write, I can write anything."
This was challenging, but it was more fun for me because I had no idea what it was. He gave me titles that were kind of open-ended. I could do what I wanted with them. He had cut the tracks with this group, Gypsy Lane, a bunch of young guys that I met when they were teenagers. And all those tracks you hear on the Village People were cut by these guys from Philly called Gypsy Lane.
Jacques played these tracks for me, and he had some lyrics written by Peter Whitehead that he did not like and he couldn't accept - they would not have been played on the radio because they were full of sexual innuendo and a gay concept. So he asked me to rewrite them, and that's what I did.
I thought he was doing a song called "San Francisco" and a song called "Liberation," and I prepared myself to do that. Now, keep in mind there's only four songs on the album. So when I get there he tells me that he's going to cut all four songs. I hadn't written "Hollywood" yet.
And also when I got there, there was myself and three other background singers. I had put down my own vocal as a lead to put the background parts on, so my own reference vocal was on. I got on the microphone with the background guys and I taught them the background parts, taught them the song, gave them the harmony parts - the whole thing, the arrangement.
When the tracks were all done, Jacques says to me, "Okay, darling, you're the singer for the Village People." I said, "No, I'm not." There was no group, by the way. There was no group at all.
I had some other engagements and was on my way out of town, but he says, "Well, I need you to do that." I said, "I can't do that, but there's a guy in the background who has a heavier voice, like a husky voice." I said, "He probably could do it for you." I'm trying to get out of there.
He says, "Okay, I'm going to lunch. You try him and let me hear what he sounds like." So I took this kid in the other studio in New York, and taught him the song "San Francisco," and wrote "Hollywood" while I was in the studio. Taught it to him. Brought him back out, put him on the microphone. And when they came back and heard him, they said, "Oh, he sounds fine." That was Victor Willis.
Songfacts: And he became the frontman for the Village People.
Hurtt: He became the Village People, right.
Songfacts: And if you had decided to run with this and be the Village People, you could have been Victor Willis.
Hurtt: Really, I still have no regrets, to be honest.
Songfacts: Talk about a life turn. My goodness.
Hurtt: That would have put me somewhere I didn't want to be.
Songfacts: Was Village People on Atlantic?
Hurtt: No. My contract ran out. Actually, I got my contract in '74. LeBaron went to CBS Records and my cover was gone.
Songfacts: So where did you record the Village People?
Hurtt: That was done in New York Sigma.
Songfacts: Sigma had a New York studio?
Hurtt: Uh huh.
Songfacts: You got the assignment to write a song called "San Francisco." Had you been there?
Hurtt: I had been to San Francisco before. But you do your research. I talked to Peter Whitehead - he lived the lifestyle. He was the one who originally tried to write the lyric. I kept some of his lines. Talked to him about the whole thing. Same thing with "Fire Island." I've never been to Fire Island in my life. I had to find out what that was about, and I wrote about that, too. So it's just a matter of listening to his story and trying to create in my own mind what I think it's about and what's happening and try and be respectful of the whole thing without being totally gross. Write it that way so it's palatable for radio and people can enjoy it.
"Hollywood" I wrote out of experience. I actually experienced Hollywood. There's a line in the song that says something about acting like you're a star, get yourself paged. On the phone, act and scream like you're in a rave, like you're talking to your agent or something. Those are things I used to see happening. Guys renting cars and trying to look like they're somebody they're not.
When I would say "cruising," "cruising" means something different when you're talking to a gay person as it does to a straight person, so it's a double entendre. I was able to use a lot of that in writing "Hollywood" and "San Francisco." My own experiences seeing what I saw and from what Peter was telling me, and what I was able to glean from just being in that environment, that's how I was able to write it.
Songfacts: Yes. The Village People worked because their songs weren't so outrageously gay that radio stations wouldn't play them. It didn't raise the red flags.
Hurtt: Exactly. And if I hadn't done that, if they had gone with what was there, they would have never gotten airplay. Because it was really openly gay. I think they recognized that it wouldn't happen, so they called me.
It was interesting, because they tried to do some things without me, and they'd always wind up calling me. And actually what happened that week, I went out of town because I had gotten married. I'd gotten married three weeks after we did the session. I was in New York, and I decided to move to LA because I was about to sign a deal with Fantasy Records out there as an artist. Jacques called me and said, "You've got to come back to New York, because the album's gold and we've sold 800,000 copies and we need you to get back." I said, "I can't get right back." Because I was doing Bloodstone with Richie Rome. I said, "As soon as I finish this project, I'll be back." And when I called them, and this is the truth, I called them, I said, "I'm on my way back." Jacques said, "Well, we don't want you to come back, because Victor says if he sees you come back, he's going to quit the group." Victor was the only straight guy at that point in the group, and I found he was intimidating the producer, who was gay, and anybody else. So I didn't wind up with "Y.M.C.A.," But the blueprint was there already.
Songfacts: What was Victor's problem with you?
Hurtt: He wanted to write the songs.
Songfacts: That's the royalties. I see what you mean.
Hurtt: Right. So they went with that and they had some success. And okay, fine, that's what happens, you know. But they kept me doing some other stuff for them from time to time. Then they fired Victor, and they called me for the movie Can't Stop the Music. Same situation. They tried to write lyrics and Jacques said, "We've got to call Phil Hurtt, because this ain't working."
I told them, "No." [Laughs] They begged me to come out, so I went out and did the movie. They said, "We also have an obligation for another album, Live and Sleazy, so we've got to fly back to New York." I just got to LA, and had to fly back to New York to do Live and Sleazy. Then we went back to LA and finished up the Can't Stop project and finished the film.
Songfacts: When you said you were in Hollywood and you were part of that scene, does that mean you were trying to make it in Hollywood, or were you just a tourist?
Hurtt: When I was in Hollywood or in LA, usually I would go out to meet a group or to a convention or some event. And I would see guys do things at these events. The song "Hollywood" came about from me being there from time to time and watching people's reaction if we were in a convention or an event. They would try to draw attention to themselves by doing certain things, like having themselves paged. I wasn't there trying to be an actor or anything like that. I was there because that's where the work was. They would call me out to do this or do that, sign a deal or whatever. I was going back and forth.
Actually, I was going to stay there for a while, until I found out that every check that was written was written in New York. I was trying to figure out why the checks were taking too long to get to me. I said, you know, the money's in New York, on the East Coast. Let me go back to the East Coast, I'll get paid faster.
Songfacts: It's true.
Hurtt: So I came back. I had signed a deal with April/Blackwood music publishing, a split publishing deal with them at the same time. It was magical, it was busy, and a lot of good things would happen. But that whole Village People thing, I wasn't interested in being a lead singer for the Village People.
Songfacts: Were you involved in the disco scene as anything more than an observer going to the clubs and stuff?
Hurtt: Involved? How do you mean involved?
Songfacts: I mean, was that part of your lifestyle, getting dressed up on a Saturday night and going out to a disco club?
Hurtt: No. My disco was the studio. I would only wind up in a disco if I was going there to listen to an act or got an invitation by a company for some event. I didn't, as a rule, go to the disco. From time to time, yes. I wouldn't be there night after night after night.
Hurtt: You know what, actually, when I was writing "Discomania," I really hadn't been to a disco. [Laughing] I really hadn't done any disco. I didn't start going in to observe what was happening in disco until my album. That was the same label with Sylvester. I remember Sylvester, we were going around New York in a limo together, because his album came out the same time as mine, blew mine away. We would go to all the gay clubs. He was literally the queen. I remember opening the door one day and he said, "Honey, get your hand off that door, let that man do his job." Meaning the chauffeur, the driver. So that's when I had a chance to go to some clubs.
Then right after that, Henri Belolo and I would go to clubs, and we were usually one of three or four straight guys that were in these clubs. It was just experience that. Studio 54 I went to a couple of times, but I wasn't one who would be found in the disco. I would go to a club now and again.
Songfacts: So you wrote "Best Disco in Town" having never been to one?
Hurtt: Oh, absolutely.
Songfacts: And just imagining what the best disco in town would be like?
Hurtt: Exactly. And it made it easy, because of the music that was involved. You had all these great songs that were involved. "I Love Music" and all those songs from KC and the Sunshine Band that were included in that little medley that they did. So it gave me some idea of what to write about. It wasn't that difficult to do.
Songfacts: Had that been done before, just throw in a medley of hits in the middle of a song?
Hurtt: Oh, sure. That had been done in the early '60s.
Songfacts: Seems like it would be hard to get the clearance for those.
Hurtt: It wasn't then, and it may not be now. I really couldn't tell you. What Jacques did in "The Best Disco in Town" was they recut those - Gypsy Lane played those lines. They played that rhythm.
Songfacts: So they didn't need to get the actual songs, they were recreating the songs?
Hurtt: Right. And those guys could do it. They had the talent to do it.
Songfacts: So it's not really sampling, it's interpreting.
Songfacts: The last thing I have for you, Phil, what do you do with yourself these days?
Hurtt: Actually, it's sort of funny, because I've been trying to take care of business. There's a lot of things I left hanging that I should have taken care of. My two girls, who are also recording, I'm trying to get their heritage - as you might say - straightened out. Because I'm now 71 years old, and I have to make sure things are straight.
I'm still writing. The last production thing I did was called A Soulful Tale of Two Cities. The idea popped into my head one day. It was like a dream, I jumped up and I started writing things down. It was for the Funk Brothers to record Philly and for MFSB to record Motown. And I did that. I had The Temptations and Lamont Dozier and Barbara Mason and The Three Degrees and Bunny Sigler... I had dozens of people. And we did it. We cut 47 tracks, and I have 30 of them on a double-pocket CD. I've got a bunch of folks. Kathy Sledge, George Clinton. He's singing "Love Won't Let Me Wait," believe it or not.
We did it, and a lot of things have changed in the business, as you well know. We did this in 2006, and CD sales were not happening for us. We had difficulty getting play and difficulty, without giving things away, which I wasn't about to do, with distribution. We had a couple of things fall through at the last minute. But the work is incredible.
Then we started losing people. Bob Babbitt just passed recently - he was on there. And Joe Hunter was the first one, Papa Joe. Then we lost Uriel Jones, the drummer from Motown. These people started dying. It was something I was trying to preserve.
Songfacts: When you're talking about taking care of business, what do you mean by that?
Hurtt: Getting organized and getting paid. It's just making sure my business is straightened out. And I'm writing again. I think I'm going to be doing some things with the Ritchie Family, because they're back out again. They reformed a group and I got a call, and they're sweethearts. I love them dearly. They asked me if I'd write some material for them, so I told them I would. So I've got to get that back together. I'm doing some mentoring at my church - we have a choir.
October 25, 2013
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