Songwriter Interviews

Rupert Holmes ("Pina Colada Song")

by Carl Wiser

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Rupert Holmes is a playwright, composer, songwriter, and novelist. His works include the Tony Award-winning musical The Mystery of Edwin Drood, the Emmy Award-winning television series Remember WENN, and multiple Edgar Award-winning stage mysteries. His novel Where the Truth Lies was adapted into a major motion picture in 2005.

There, we did it. A full paragraph on Rupert Holmes without mentioning his ubiquitous hit, "Escape," or as it's commonly referred to, "The Piña Colada Song." The one Charles Barkley sings in that commercial with Spike Lee and Samuel L. Jackson. The one Homer sings in The Simpsons and Cameron Diaz grooves to in The Sweetest Thing. The one that makes you smile every time you hear it, even if you are into yoga.

The story of that song is indeed fascinating, but wait till you hear about "Timothy," the first (and to our best recollection, only) hit song about cannibalism. Rupert did that one too.
Carl Wiser (Songfacts): Let's talk about "The Piña Colada Song."

Rupert Holmes: "The Piña Colada Song" is technically called "Escape," although even I have long since given up referring to it as that. It's my most successful song and probably the least typical of my work.

I was recording my fifth album. The album had a lot of ballads on it and I needed an uptempo song. Years ago, I had composed a little ditty for my own amusement. Staring out the window of my office on 5th Avenue in the '50s, I realized that every store I could see was selling Italian fashions of one sort or another. Just to myself I hummed a little tune while playing a vamp, and the lyric that popped into my head was:

Fiorucci baby, with your new Gucci shoes
poochie-poochie baby, Gucci gees, Gucci goos


I realized the tune had kind of a catchy bounce to it, and I started to write a lyric to it. The song was called "People Need Other People," and it had a bridge and several modulations and some very subtle chord shifts. I went to a studio called Plaza Sound Recording Studios which was atop Radio City Music Hall. It used to be an old CBS broadcasting studio. I recorded the song with some people who were serving as my band at the time. The drummer, Leo Adamian, suggested we have two drummers on the session because it was an interesting beat that was hard to pull off with one drummer alone, but he said it would be interesting with two drummers. We got the second drummer in and we did one take of the tune. It had some very interesting chord changes and the bridge and changed key several times, and I'm singing away this lyric, "people need other people." We go in to hear back the first take and we listen to the cut, and I say, "You know, we can definitely do better than this," and I look and I see that the second drummer was unconscious from having too much fun. We were able to wake him up and get him into a taxi, and that was that.

We weren't going to record any more of that track. I figured I'd just put the song away. I wasn't that crazy about the lyric anyway. Then I found that I really desperately needed another uptempo song on the album and the budget was getting low and I wasn't sure what to do. That's when we did something that now is pretty commonplace but was pretty unusual at the time: We did a very primitive version of sampling. I found there were 16 bars of music on that first take that were very tight - everybody was in a very nice groove on it. So we duplicated those 16 bars onto another multi-track master over and over again and edited them all together. I think there were 60 edits to make up a reel that was 5-minutes long of this 16-bar vamp. The trick was writing a song that would be fun to balance some of the more serious ballads on the album.

I went through a million lyrics in my head. I wrote one song that went:

That's the law of the jungle in the school of the street
You get out of the kitchen if you can't take the heat


I thought it sounded too much like a Billy Joel song. I wrote another one:

Everyone needs a victim
I believe you will find
When you're cruel to another
When you're cruel to be kind


Right as I did that, I remembered there was a hit record out called "Cruel To Be Kind," so I couldn't use that.

Now it's the day before the last scheduled day of recording and I have no lyric. Because the song is just this steady vamp, I realized that I've got to make the lyric the focal point of the song because the music is repetitive. I was in my apartment and there was a copy of The Village Voice. Sometimes I look at personal columns to get ideas for songs because people fascinate me. I saw this ad that this woman had placed in which she described herself in such glowing terms that I thought to myself, Why on earth, if you're this wonderful, do you need to place an ad in the personal columns? Trying not to be cynical, I thought, Let's be fair, maybe she's just looking for an adventure. Maybe she is as wonderful as she says, but she likes the idea of meeting a stranger and seeing what fate has in store for them. She wants something out of the ordinary.

Then I thought to myself, What would happen if I answered this ad, and I thought, With my stupid luck, I would answer the ad and find out it had been placed by the woman I was living with, never realizing that she was bored with me. The story sort of took hold of my mind.

People always ask me if it was based on something true, and I know they would love to know it was based on a true incident, but it wasn't. It was based on the "what if" scenario that I conjured up in my mind that evening.

The original lyrics said, "If you like Humphrey Bogart and getting caught in the rain." On the way to the session the next morning I read the lyrics to a cab driver and asked him if he got the twist ending before I got to it. He said no, and he thought the story was good. When I got to the session, I turned to my guitarist, Dean Bailin, and said, "I've just written a lyric. It's a story song. I don't want you to get ahead of it, so I'm going go on mic and sing the song without stopping. If I don't sing a line perfectly I'm not going to stop because I want you to hear this song in one listening. Pay attention to the lyric because I want to see if it catches you by surprise."

As I was getting on mic I thought to myself, I've done so many movie references to Bogart and wide-screen cinema on my earlier albums, maybe I shouldn't do one here.

I thought, What can I substitute? Well, this woman wants an escape, like she wants to go on vacation to the islands. When you go on vacation to the islands, when you sit on the beach and someone asks you if you'd like a drink, you never order a Budweiser, you don't have a beer. You're on vacation, you want a drink in a hollowed-out pineapple with the flags of all nations and a parasol. If the drink is blue you'd be very happy. And a long straw. I thought, What are those escape drinks? Let's see, there's daiquiri, mai tai, piña colada... I wonder what a piña colada tastes like? I've never even had one.

I thought that instead of singing, "If you like Humphrey Bogart," with the emphasis on like, I could start it a syllable earlier and go, "If you like piña-a coladas."

I had them roll the tape that we created and I sang this story that I concocted the night before. I get to the chorus and sing, "If you like Piña Coladas," and I sing it all the way through, never stopping to fix a line. I run into the control room and ask Dean if he anticipated the surprise ending, and he said, 'No, it caught me by surprise. I like the ending - I'm not crazy about piña colada." I said, "Let me pop on a little harmony track and see how it sounds."

I raced back out and ad-libbed a little harmony track a third above myself on the chorus, and that was the last I thought about it because I knew I would do the proper vocal in a day or two because we had other things to overdub. I would never release a scratch vocal - you want to get it perfect.

The next day I went to do the perfect vocal, and I could not get the energy, excitement and enthusiasm I had singing it that one time straight through for my lead guitarist. I said, "These other vocals are more correct, but they're not as much fun. I was having fun when I sang that through. I was kind of making up the phrasing as I sang it and it had more spontaneity, more energy.' Jim Boyer, who was producing the album with me, agreed, and that became the vocal.

When you hear "The Piña Colada Song," the story was written the night before. The line, "If you like Piña Coladas," was invented about five minutes before I started actually singing, and the vocal you hear is the first time I ever sang the song, and that became the vocal you hear on the record. I didn't think that was the single from the album, I thought the single was a song called "Him."

In overdubbing I tried to improve some of the color by putting in an instrumental break which I overlaid on those same 16 bars. It's still that vamp, but you hear surf, I put in some flutes playing whole-tone patterns and Dean's now trademark double-tracked soaring guitar line, and a couple synthesizer things from a mini-Moog that was supposed to sound a little bit like coconuts to give it some color in those sections.

Had I known that this would be a #1 record I probably never would have made it because it's too simple musically and harmonically. It's not like what I write, but I didn't know that - it was just supposed to balance out the album.

The record label at that time, Infinity Records, was a small, boutique label on the East Coast which was a division of a big label, MCA Records, on the West Coast. They said, "We don't think the single is 'Him,' we think it's 'Escape.'" I said, 'I'm not going to argue if you're enthusiastic about it."

They got it played on a station in Washington and it was like out of a movie: The record just took off on its own. People started calling in to the radio station wanting to hear it. They raced up to me and said, "We've got a problem. You called the song 'Escape' and everyone is calling in to radio stations asking for 'that song about piña coladas.' They're going to record stores asking for 'the piña colada song' and the record stores don't know what they're talking about. Can we make it 'Escape (The Piña Colada Song)?'" I said, "And compromise my artistic integrity? How can I do that?" They said, "If we don't make it 'The Piña Colada Song,' it's not going to sell. I said, "I guess it's 'The Piña Colada Song.'"

The record vaulted up the charts. WABC-AM, which never played anything until it was Top 5 everywhere else in the nation, went on the record when it was #60 in Billboard with a bullet. It was jumping sometimes 15, 20 points a week and by December of 1979 it was a #1 record, and it was also a #1 record in January of 1980, so I can honestly say that it was at the top of the Billboard charts for two decades without interruption.

If I had ever known that was going to be the song that I'd be most associated with, I might have had second thoughts about a lot of it. It was never meant to be heard 100 million times; it was meant to be a little short story with a little wink at the end of it, and that was supposed to be it. It was also not supposed to make the piña colada a popular drink in Idaho and other land-locked states where they had never heard of a piña colada. If I had known that in advance, I would have gone to Coco Lopez, which makes the coconut ingredient in the piña colada, and asked for a commission.

Every songwriter wants to have a hit that everyone remembers, and I can't complain for getting what I wished for. It just would have been nice if it was one of the more profound songs I've written.

It was in Shrek. Cameron Diaz sings it in The Sweetest Thing along with my voice on the radio. That's probably the closest I'll come to a duet with Cameron Diaz. It's in American Splendor. It's quoted in The General's Daughter and Will And Grace. It's sung in Six Feet Under, Simpsons. Sometimes I think it's more popular now than it was 15 years ago.

I was put under a lot of pressure to write "The Scotch And Soda Song" or whatever. I said to the label, "No, that's it," so I don't think there's a sequel in store.

People forget that I'm not the guy telling the story. This is a character for whom I'm writing. It's the woman who's really the inventive person: She places the ad, he merely responds to the ad. He starts with this attitude of, "I was tired of my lady, we've been together too long." He's kind of callow in that he hasn't picked up on the fact that the woman he's with is bored with him, perhaps even more so.

Songfacts: So what becomes of this couple?

Rupert: I like to think that they looked at each other with chagrin and realized that before either one of them runs off to find some fantasy that probably doesn't exist in reality, they might reinvestigate their own relationship because there's a lot there they haven't yet explored. I think it's a happy ending with a footnote: They both are a little shocked, but neither can point the finger too hard at the other because they both were willing to try a new relationship, and happily their possible indiscretion led them to each other again.

Songfacts: Where did the "bar called O'Mally's" come from?

Rupert: Everyone has in their mind what a bar called O'Mally's looks like. I have one in my mind and that's where it came from. There's an O'Mally's bar near where I live, but I didn't discover there was such a bar until after I'd written the song. It could have been O'Grady's. Everyone knows an Irish bar where people might meet each other, and I'd like to think that the one you envision is different than the one I envision. There was no specific O'Mally's.

Songfacts: What's it like being so associated with that song and having it in some ways supercede your other accomplishments?

Rupert: It used to be a source of some discomfort for me in that I was the first person in broadway history to solely win Tony awards for Best Book and Best Score of a musical that also won Best Musical. I created an Emmy Award-winning television series - Remember WENN. I've got a novel out called Where The Truth Lies. Despite all this, people still have a tendency to say, "You're the guy that sang 'The Piña Colada Song.'"

I have a feeling that if I saved an entire orphanage from a fire and carried the last child out on my shoulders, as I stood there charred and smoking, they'd say, "Aren't you the guy who wrote 'The Piña Colada Song?'"

It's tough when you have this one thing that pulls focus from all these other things that you've done, yet every songwriter lives to have a song that most everybody knows. One time I had no ID and I was taking a flight. I stood there and sang the song and they let me on the flight.

Songfacts: Tell me about writing the song "Timothy."

Rupert: I was 20 years old. I had been in the record business for about a year. The record business probably wasn't going to find out about this for another six months. I was struggling and I would do anything that anyone wanted me to do in the music business. I was so thrilled to be in the record business on any level - I arranged the Charlie Pride song folio; I wrote lead sheets for The Blind Boys Of Alabama; I wrote the marching band arrangement for "Jingle Bell Rock" and the high school arrangement of "Oye Como Va" by Santana. I would be the voice of studio groups. I wrote short and sassy shampoo commercials for Dorothy Hamill. I would do anything in the business I was asked to do.

I had a friend who was a junior engineer. His name was Michael Wright at Scepter Records recording studio, which was at 254 W. 54th, in the same building that Studio 54 was later in. He had the keys to a recording studio on the weekend when it wasn't in use. We'd go in every weekend and make any kind of record we could. He found a group out of Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania named The Buoys, and somehow Scepter Records, which was the label of Dionne Warwick and B.J. Thomas, agreed to release one 45 that they would record, one single. They may not have even agreed to a B-side. Michael came to me and said, "I don't know what I'm going to do. I've got this group, The Buoys, and they only have a deal to make one single, and I know the label doesn't know about them or care about them. They're not going to promote it. It doesn't matter what I record - it's never going to get heard. What do I do with this kind of fake opportunity?"

I said, "I would have them record a song that gets banned." He said, "What's the logic in that?" I said, "Well, it's not going to do anything anyway. If it gets banned there will at least be controversy about the group. You can go to other labels and say, 'This is that record that got banned. It's that group that's so controversial, and if it hadn't been banned it would have been a smash hit.' And maybe then they'll give you a proper record contract, sign the group and promote them." He said, "Will you write me a song that gets banned?" I said, "I'm not sure what I would write, but I'll think about it."

At the time, I was working on an arrangement of "Sixteen Tons," the Tennessee Ernie Ford hit from the '50s, for an artist named Andy Kim ["Rock Me Gently"]. While I was working on the arrangement, there was a cooking show on the TV in the kitchen. It was called The Galloping Gourmet with Graham Kerr. It's on in the background and I'm singing the lyrics to "Sixteen Tons," playing it to a kind of vamp sort of like "Proud Mary," and I sing:

Some people say a man is made out of mud
a coal man's made out of muscle and blood
Muscle and blood and skin and bones
a mind that's weak and a back that's...


And I think, "You know, that almost sounds like a recipe: muscle and blood and skin and bones, bake in a moderate oven for two hours, top with Miracle Whip. I had seen the movie Suddenly Last Summer about a week earlier on TV, and it had a revelation about cannibalism in it, and I thought, If it's good enough for Tennessee Williams, it's good enough for The Buoys. So I thought, Cannibalism during a mining disaster, that'll get banned.

It's not like I'm really telling people to go out and eat someone. This is just this dark, horrible thing that happened in this story. So I write this lyric, "Timothy, Timothy, where on earth did you go?"

Three boys with water but no food are trapped in a mine for maybe a week. When they're pulled free, they don't remember what happened, but they know they're not hungry. One of them is missing, and that's Timothy.

We record this record on the weekend and I don't think about it again. Bill Kelly was the lead singer of The Buoys, and he sang a nice Irish tenor.

I don't think about this record again. Scepter Records puts it out and a little radio station somewhere would play it. The kids would hear it and they'd figure out what it was about. They'd start calling the radio station saying, "You've got to play that song again." The radio stations, surprised by the phone response, would then listen to the song to find out what it was about. They played the song originally because it had a nice rhythm, kind of like a Creedence Clearwater Revival feel. It was catchy enough, but then they'd hear what the song was about and say, "We can't be playing this. It's about cannibalism!" and they'd pull the song off the air. The kids would call in and say, "Why'd you pull the song off the air," and they'd say, "Because it's disgusting. You shouldn't be listening to stuff like that."

Well, all you have to do is tell a teenage kid that he shouldn't be listening to something because it's disgusting and vile and loathsome, and he'll demand it. So the record, unlike "Piña Colada," which vaulted up the charts, went up like one or two digits every week. It was on the charts forever. It would go from 80 to 78 to 77. It would lose its bullet but go up to 76. Then it would go up to 74 and get its bullet back. What was happening was, stations were playing it, kids were clamoring for it, it would move up the charts, then the station would pull it, the kids would clamor more and some other station would go on it to satisfy that demand. It just kept going up the charts.

Scepter Records in the beginning did not even know it was on their label. The promotion men for Scepter Records, who were trying to break a Beverly Bremers single, would say, "We couldn't get it on that station. They went with this stupid song called 'Timothy.'" Finally, someone said, "You idiot, it's on our label."

Now they have a problem, because now they're getting up towards the top 20, and they know there are some big stations that are simply not going to play this record. WABC-AM, the biggest station at the time, they never played it.

Whenever people talk about "Timothy," I always say, "Where did you come from?" Because that always lets me know. If they were from Florida, it was big there. If they were from Pennsylvania, very big. Texas, they know it. But if you're from New York you've never heard of it.

Scepter Records started a rumor that Timothy was a mule to try to get the taint of cannibalism out of the picture and try to make it a Top 10 record. Someone called me and said, "Was Timothy a mule? You wrote it." And I said, "No. What can I tell you - they ate him."

It peaked at #17 on the Billboard charts. "Timothy" inched its way to #17.

I wrote a song that got banned. It did better than we intended it to do. It was supposed to just start the controversy, instead it actually was a hit.

Did I have deep, personal feelings about sharing the joys of cannibalism with the listening public? No, of course not. I was a 20-year-old kid hungry not for human flesh, but hungry to do something successful in the music business. I think I diagnosed a dilemma that a friend of mine had and found an effective way of solving his problem.

This group did get an LP deal from Scepter Records out of it. They had a couple of other records that placed in the Top 100, and one of them ended up being a hit in Europe, so "Timothy" did the job for which it was artificially created.

My sole purpose was to help out a friend in need who had a one single deal.

Songfacts: You also wrote "You Got It All," which was a big hit for The Jets.

Rupert: I was busy on Broadway with The Mystery Of Edwin Drood, that just won all the Tony awards. My manager knew a fellow who had this act, this family group from the isle of Tonga. I said, "Is there really an isle of Tonga? I thought that was a made up thing from King Kong movies." He said, "There really is a place called Tonga, and they're from there. They do this sweet act: They sing and do Hawaiian fire dances, things like that, and they're really nice kids." I said, "Kids? How old?" He said, "Oh, 14, 15, 16." He said, "You've been Mr. Theater for the last year. Would you do me a favor and write them a song? They've got some good dance stuff, but they need a ballad, a love song.' I said, "Who's going to sing it?" And he said, "The one with the nicest voice is the girl singer, she's 14."

I thought writing a love song for a 14-year-old girl would be tough because some of my lyrics used to be about some pretty strange characters. I thought it would be a challenge: see if I can write a love song that sounds appropriate sung by a 14-year-old girl. This was before we had all the Britneys, Mandy Moores, and all these teen stars. I purposely tried to write a very clear, simple, unaffected lyric that would have a little lilt to it, that would be a positive song for a young girl getting over her first heartbreak. Letting her know that this boy she just lost, or who didn't treat her appreciatively, was not going to be the only boy she'd ever have as a boyfriend.

I also wrote it thinking of my daughter who was at that time 10 years old. I thought maybe it would be a song she would enjoy and be fun to hear with her friends and say, "My father wrote that."

So I wrote it that way, and they recorded it. They had a big hit with a song called "Crush On You," then they brought out "You Got It All." It went to #3 on the Pop chart, #2 on the R&B chart and #1 on the Adult Contemporary chart.

Songfacts: Where do you typically find inspiration for your songs?

Rupert: For me, the greatest source of inspiration for songs is watching and listening to people. In airports, in bus terminals, in restaurants. Couples that sometimes don't make sense, you look at them and you say, "I wonder what brought them together? I wonder what they see in each other? I wonder why she's with him? I wonder why he's with her?" In trying to imagine what brings couples together and what tears them apart, you'll find a lot of material for songs.

There's a lot to be said for having characters in your songs. Not every song has to be spoken by you, and not every song has to be an anthem of devotion.

This interview took place on September 19, 2003 and was used for the Songfacts entries. This version was published on January 13, 2017
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Comments: 1

  • Robin Vosbury from LouisianaWonder if RH knows this was the last Billboard #1 of the 70's! December, 1979.
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