Gary James' Interview With
Rupert Holmes

He was the recording artist who had the last Number One record of the '70s and the first Number One record of the '80s. A Number One record we should say, in not only the United States but Canada, Europe, Australia and Japan. That song, that record, was "Escape (The Pina Colada Song)" The singer / songwriter of that song was Rupert Holmes. Rupert Holmes talked to us about that song, his success in the music business and his days in Syracuse, N.Y. as a college student at Syracuse University.

Q - Rupert, have you left Pop music for Swing music?

A - No, no, not at all. The Pop music that I created was in a certain era of Pop music. How can I best explain this to you? When you write for contemporary radio, if there even is such a thing at this point, you are limited to the language of the now or the language you invent. In other words, you can't write a lyric like "I'm wild again, I'm beguiled again, a whimpering, simpering child again, bewitched, bothered and bewildered am I." That's standard Rodgers and Hart classic lyric. You're not allowed to write that. But, if you write for a period work such as a Broadway show where the action takes place in 1895, or 1940 or 1970, or for a novel that's set in the Big Band era, or set in the 70s, or set in the 50s, you can write the music for that era and you can draw upon a vocabulary and certain musical styles that you might not be able to get away with if you were making a contemporary record. I think there is a time when artists need to find a way to create and yet grow up at the same time. I'm not going to be comfortable when Mick Jagger is 73, watching him. If he came out with a new album with all new tunes, I don't know how I would feel about that. I'm trying to find a way to be creative. I'm trying to find a way that if I write music, it's not me trying to compete with some twenty-three year old or some nineteen year old who has a lot of talent and deserves their day in the sun. On my very first album, "Widescreen" in 1974, one cut was essentially about a saxophone player who never gets to take a solo. I set it in the Big Band era and I re-assembled the Glen Miller Orchestra just for that one cut. I wrote the chart in an exact Big Band style. That was in 1974. So, it's a style in which I feel very comfortable. In telling a story about a Swing Band musician, a mystery story set in 1940, I felt very comfortable in trying to write music of that period that was referenced to the novel. But, it doesn't mean that's where I'm now going to do all my work. The next thing I write may be set in the 50s or 1820 and if I write music for it, I'll try to write what's somewhat appropriate for that period.

Q - You're actually in sync with what's going on. Rock 'n Roll has seemingly gone about as far as it can go. Everything that can be done, has been done. The only thing people can do is go back to the day when a singer just stood there singing in a suit, like Frank Sinatra. Do you agree with that?

A - I couldn't be more with you. The thrill of my life is that I wrote a song called "The People That You Never Get To Love", which I have a recording of Sinatra Jr. singing. He does two of my songs in his nightclub act. One charts by Billy May and one is by Nelson Riddle. That's not too bad, you know, in one's life to have your music arranged by Nelson Riddle. And he has said in a number of interviews, Sinatra Jr. did, that his father had been intending to record the song "The People That You Never Get To Love". Unfortunately, medical things took a turn for the worse for him and he never got to do it. I would've been the happiest guy on the face of the earth. I could've just gone home with that. But, it's kind of amazing to hear Sinatra Jr. sing it, 'cause there are times when you would never know that it's not him.

Q - Besides being a singer / songwriter, you're also a mystery writer?

A - I always loved mysteries and was a mystery reader all of my life, from nine on and always knew that I wanted to write mysteries. When I wrote for theatre, most of the things I wrote took on a mystery format. So, it was more a matter of not to write a mystery, but, it was new to write a novel. I had written in almost every other form...TV, series, several stage musicals, several stage plays and obviously Pop songs. A novel was new terrain for me when I set out to write one, but very comfortable. When I first started writing the script for "The Mystery Of Edwin Drood" as opposed to the lyrics, I wrote the score, the music and the lyrics. Joe Papp, the producer of The Mystery Of Edwin Drood said to me "Who's gonna write the book?" I said "I thought I was" and he said "Well, can you do that?" I said "I've been telling stories in three minutes, in rhyme for twenty years. To write a story that doesn't have to rhyme and I have more than three minutes to tell it, that's got to be a breeze! That's got to be the easiest thing ever!" You know what? In point of fact, it was a very comfortable transition for me. When you write a story song, you have three verses and two choruses to tell your entire story. You have four lines in which to give the back story to your character, whereas in a novel, you may have as much as forty pages before you have to get down to business. So, it was a very comfortable transition.

Q - The very thing that is missing in today's music is the story telling. You don't hear those kinds of songs on the radio.

A - My theory for that is video did not kill the radio star, but it killed the story song because the video is supplying the story now. And very often the story the video is supplying, isn't even the story in the song.

Q - And worse, people don't care!

A - Yeah. What I loved about story songwriting was the same thing I loved about the golden age of radio, which I miss by the way. I'm old, but not that old. I was not around for the radio of the forties. The Golden Age of Radio as it was known in the thirties and forties, was dying out in the fifties when I was growing up. But, I loved the last remnants that I heard of half-hour dramas, suspense plays, mysteries, comedies on radio, because it invited the listener to be a collaborator, in that you became a cinematographer for the story you were hearing. The hero looked like you if you were a guy and the heroine looked like what you ever hoped every girl would look like. No one could censor. As a kid, I could put Lois Lane in whatever outfit I wanted. (laughs) And no one could tell me "you shouldn't be thinking those things." Story songs used to do that too. Look at "Ode To Billy Joe". Who knows what the heck that was about. But, whatever you thought it was about, you pictured it and you pictured that swampy setting, those everglades or wherever it was. I know what it looks like in my mind and what it looks like in my mind is different than what it looks like in yours. So, you had your own image to go with the record. Nowadays if you see "Sledgehammer", you're gonna see that clay motion stuff. If you hear "Material Girl", you're gonna picture Madonna in that red dress doing the take-off on "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes". You don't make up your own story any more. I don't think my story songs would work in today's market because what would they film? They'd film the story. So, what would we do? We'd go out and hire actors to mime the story. There's no obligation to tell a story in a lyric anymore. You describe a state of euphoria or depression and then some cinematographer or director or you're sitting down with the movie people and saying "Here's what would be a good story to go with." I mean a cute thing with plot twists and comedy that has nothing to do with the original record. So, the record becomes the underscore and that's a shame. Look, there's nothing saying that everything is forever, but I think music videos have sort of made story songs sadly redundant to some degree.

Q - Since you performed at Rodney Dangerfield's nightclub, does that mean you were singing and telling jokes in between songs?

A - (laughs) That's exactly what I was doing. You hit upon a very good point. These were the days when Rodney Dangerfield still appeared at Dangerfield's. For the last twenty years, tourists from out of town came to Dangerfield's somehow thinking they were gonna see Rodney. He was never there and of course now he'll never be there. But, back in 1983, when I performed there, I was told by the house management that I was the first music act to headline at Dangerfield's. They had singers, but they always opened for a comedian. But, they had found in me, somebody who was essentially doing comedy in between doing songs, many of which were comic in nature. Martin Mull used to do something pretty similar to that, in the days when I caught him at The Troubadour in 1975. He had a record deal. He was singing songs. He was playing guitar. But it was a comedy act. It was funny. It was very funny. I was doing sort of like, a kind of what I hoped was a Lenny Bruce stand-up act, where whatever I was saying led into a song. The reason for that was part survival. I was being booked as a guy who was supposed to sing songs for an hour and ten minutes. As a singer goes, I am a singer / songwriter. You would never want to hear me sing a story song I didn't write. I had a bad manager who only booked me based on the money he could make. He booked me into inappropriate venues. And so I would go into a venue where they were used to someone like a Tony Bennett. They were used to hearing songs they knew. I was being booked in these venues having two and a half songs they knew. I had "Escape". I had "Him". In 1983 I did not have the song "You Got It All Over Him" by The Jets, cause that wasn't 'til 1987. I had a couple of tunes from "A Star I Born" that if they saw that movie they would know and that was pretty much it. I was supposed to fill seventy minutes of entertaining with all new material. Audiences got kind of restless. I couldn't go into the "Impossible Dream" and I wasn't about to do cover songs. I wasn't going to sing "Margaritaville" because people got me confused with Jimmy Buffett all the time. Now, when you go to a small club and you hear a singer or a rock band, and I did a gig with Three Dog Night and this is fairly recently in the 1990s, I did a gig where I was the next to the last act on a bill of fifteen performers. And then they came on. They came out and did forty-five minutes of original material. Well, the audience didn't want to hear that. And, I don't blame the audience. You're doing a seventies rock group revival, don't play all new material. So here I am, booked into a gig doing all new material. If you go into a club and you hear a singer doing all new songs, you get restless. You say he didn't do any of his hits. He didn't do any of his old songs. He didn't do anything I knew. But, it hit me one day, if you go to a comedy club to hear a stand-up comic you like, you would be very upset if he only did material you knew. You say he didn't do any new material. I heard that bit a million times. You don't complain about that with a do about a comedian. So, I thought, great, if I'm doing comedy, no one is going to get upset with me and then I would use the comedy to shoe horn the audience into a song about the very thing I'm talking about, so that it doesn't feel it's a song they never heard, but rather they're hearing new comedy material from me. And that seemed to work, so if I did a song like "Answering Machine", which was a marginal hit at best, it was Top 40 nationally, but it was either a hit where you lived or not heard at all. But, if I shoe horned it into a bit about the devices of everyday life that plaque us, it didn't feel like I was singing a song they didn't know, but rather that I was suddenly telling them some jokes that were set to music. So, that worked better. It was because I did that gig that Joe Papp, who knew my albums, came to see me 'cause I got a good review in the New York Times at Dangerfields and said "What you're doing up there is theatre. Have you ever thought of writing a musical? You're writing the music. You're writing the book. You're writing the funny stuff." I said "Well, I do have an idea for it. Let me tell you about it." And that was the beginning of writing The Mystery Of Edwin Drood specifically for the producer and then opening on Broadway. It was a very important gig for me.

Q - How long did it take you to write "Escape" (The Pina Colada Song)?

A - It took me several one hour installments. It took me an hour and change to write the lyric. I wrote the music over the course of several significant events. I once was in my office on 5th Avenue and noticed looking out my window, that every shop on 56th and 5th was an Italian designer store. I sat a the piano and I played a little vamp and sang "Fiarucci baby with your new Gucci shoes. Hoochie, poochie baby Gucci, Gucci goos." And that was it. The vamp stuck in my head. A year or so later, I was looking for an up-tempo number for my fifth album. And the melody line that I had written came back to me. I extended it into a full song. The title of it was "People Need Other People" and the song was complicated. It had several modulations, a different bridge, all kinds of interesting little segments to it. So, the initial little riff took me a minute to write, 'cause I wrote it as I played it. The song took me a couple of hours to write, the song "People Need Other People". I went to record it. I had two drummers on the session, 'cause the drum part was a little complicated. We did one take just to hear what it would sound like. We went into the control room. I listened to the playback. It was sloppy. I turned to the musicians and said "I know we can do one better than that." I looked and saw one of the two drummers was unconscious on the floor. His life wasn't in danger, but he obviously wasn't going to be playing anything anymore for the rest of the evening. I was stuck now with this one take I had of this song I had, "People Need Other People", and I had to find an up-tempo number for this album. The album was coming out ballad heavy and I needed to make sure there was something light, frothy, almost calypso kind of vein to help balance some of the slow numbers. This was the last cut I had. That would've been the last day we were recording with the musicians. So, I did what is now common place in Rap, but was unusual then...I found sixteen bars of usable music in the a take, where the track was tight. The drumming was tight. The guitar playing was tight. And I duplicated those sixteen bars from a twenty-four track master machine to another twenty-four track master machine. And then we edited it together with those sixteen bars, over and over again with tape...two inch tape, until I had a four minute track of just those sixteen bars, looping over and over again. Now they do it electronically and it's a breeze. Back then it was an afternoon's work. Now I had a track of sixteen bars of music that repeated itself over and over again. The song that I had written originally no longer fit that track. And so I had to come up with a new song to go over this track, using a bit of the melody. I tried many, many attempts to write a song for it. Some of the titles for it were "The Law Of The Jungle", "Everyone Needs A Victim"...I forget the others. Full lyrics. None of them were right. So, I spent hours writing those songs as well. Then, the night before my last day of recording vocals for this fifth album of mine, I sat in my apartment and saw the Village Voice sitting on a table and saw the personal ads, and started to construct a story song about somebody who answers one of them. I wrote that lyric in about an hour to an hour and a half. I remember how the room looked with the lighting in the room. It was around one A.M. I wasn't looking at the clock so I don't know if it took me forty-five minutes or an hour and a half. The next day, I took a taxi in to the session. I read the lyric to the cab driver and asked him if he guess the ending before I got to it. He said "No" and he liked the story. I originally wrote "If you like Humphrey Bogart and getting caught in the rain." As I got to the studio, it was recorded atop Radio City Music Hall at a studio called Plaza Sound. It was on the seventh floor of Radio City Music Hall. It was an old NBC broadcast studio converted to a recording studio. I got there and my guitarist was there, Dean Balen. I said "Look, I've got this lyric. I want to see if you get ahead of me in terms of where the story goes. So, I'm going to sing the song all the way through from start to finish. I'm not gonna stop. If I make a mistake, hit a less than wonderful note, I'm not gonna stop. I'm just gonna keep going all the way through. See, in real time, if you get the ending before I get to it. He said "OK." He went into the control room. I got on mic. Just before I sang, I thought to myself, you know, I've done a lot of songs with movie references. Maybe I don't want to reference Humphrey Bogart again. It would be a bit of a cliché. I thought, OK, the guy's looking for an Escape, looking for an adventure. What are the escape drinks when you go on vacation? I ran down the name of drinks. Pina Colada came to mind. I had never had a pina colada in my life. I didn't even know what was in one. But it seemed to fit if I flipped out another beat's note. It seemed to sit alright. I sang the song all the way through. I ran in and said did you get the ending? and he said no, I didn't. I said great. That'll be our reference vocal. I'll do the proper vocal later. I threw in a little harmony with myself on top of the chorus. I sang in thirds on top of my own voice. That again was a reference vocal just so I could hear it. So, as we added all the other components, we would have a vocal to work with. Dean added a lead guitar line that we worked on together. I added some flutes and some surf noise. Things like that. When it came time to do the proper vocal, I couldn't get the energy and excitement that I had singing it back the first time. I kept the scratch vocal. So, what you're hearing on the final record is a reference vocal sung once through from start to finish, no stops, no punch-ins, warts and all. So, that's how the song came to be. You ask me how long it took to write, well, it took me an hour and a half to write the lyric that you hear and it took me a second to change the phrase from Bogart to pina colada. It took me a couple of hours to write the riff you hear and a couple of hours to write the tune you don't hear. And a wasted bunch of hours to write other lyrics that never went on that record. That's the most detailed answer I've ever given.

Q - Let's talk about your old stomping grounds, Syracuse, N.Y.

A - Yeah. It is my old stomping grounds. I liked that place. I didn't like it for the first couple months I was up there, 'cause I missed New York City. I remember standing in Syracuse asking someone "Can you direct me to the city proper?" And they said "this is it." But, that movie theatre (Loew's in Rupert Holmes time - now known as the Landmark Theatre) - I saw a double bill there...two Roger Corman films, Mask Of Red Death and The Tomb of Lugia, starring Vincent Price. I had 101 fever. It was like I was on another planet. It was great. That theatre was just amazing. Still is. I snuck in there last time I was up there. I always stop when I'm going by. I go to Coleman's. There was a place with a German name that made the thickest roast beef sandwiches in the world. They were great. I can't remember...

Q - Danzer's.

A - That's exactly it, my friend. Thank you. You saved my life. Drinking age was eighteen when I was at Syracuse (University). I went out and I had draft Beck's and these thick roast beef sandwiches. It was unbelievably good. I loved it there. And the Hotel Syracuse was a great place because in those days, hotels were not crazy about people who were not married, sleeping together in rooms. And the way Hotel Syracuse was laid out, you walked in the front door and walked up a flight of stairs to this lobby. The lobby was not on the ground level. It was on the first floor. Well, to the right and left of these stairs were elevators that went straight up to your room. So, what you could do as a freshman at Syracuse is you could go up the stairs, go to the lobby, go to the desk, check in as a single individual, go up to your room, then come down the elevator and go all the way down to the ground floor where they'd never see you and say to the girl you were with...and you'd go up and the only thing you'd worry about is the elevator would stop in the lobby and you just kind of hid your face a little bit. They could never follow you. It was great. And there was a restaurant called The Butterfly, a coffee shop. I thought what a great name. I had a TV series that I wrote called "Remember When". I wrote fifty-six episodes of it. It was about the Golden Age of Radio. It was like a sit-com without a laugh track. I wrote that for American Movie Classics. The place they all went was called The Butterfly. I named it after that place in Syracuse. I loved the name.

Q - What year did you go to Syracuse University?

A - My one year at Syracuse was '65-'66. We were class of '69 and there was a big controversy the year I was there, because they were selling buttons for the class of '69. They had been made in a way that "class" and "of" were inside the loops of the 6 and the 9, so that if you wanted the button to be read properly, you had to hold the button where 6 and 9 were on their sides, horizontally, which of course was a sexual reference. And, the buttons got banned from the campus, to show you how times have changed.

Q - What else do you remember?

A - The first time I ever had mustard and ketchup on a hamburger at the same time, before the McDonald's experience had taken over was at The Red Barn up on the hill. They were sort of on campus at Syracuse. I want to Crouse College Of Music. One of the main reasons I went to it, and you'll understand this, is because the building looked so cool. I loved that building. It looks like a Gothic Cathedral. I thought it was something out of The Hunchback Of Notre Dame, and I really liked it.

Q - As long as we're talking about famous Syracuse landmarks, did you ever get to some of the bars around town, like Wanda's?

A - No. My adventures in the town proper were limited to Loew's State. I went there a lot. That's where Thunderball was playing that Fall, one of the worst of the Bond films. So, I would go there. There was some kind of store where you could buy paperback books for a nickel or a dime.

Q - Economy Book Store.

A - That's it. It was a great place and I bought half the books I read that year there. Yeah, 'cause I had no money. I had no money in Syracuse. My folks sent me to school with five dollars in my pocket and I had no money. Sunday evenings on campus you would not get a meal. You had a little card for the month that they'd punch holes in. That would get you breakfast, lunch and dinner in the cafeteria. But there was no dinner on Sunday nights. My room mate and I had no money. We would have as big of a lunch as we could manage at noon. But we were growing guys. Around five we would start to starve and we had no money. So I would usually go under the vending machine in Delplane. I lived in Delplane, which was the dorm. All guys. There was no such thing as a co-ed dorm in that time. When no one was looking, I'd reach under the vending machine and if I was lucky, I could find a dime or two nickels. I would get peanut butter cheese cracker sandwiches. We'd split them apart and try to spread them apart over the course of the evening. Sometimes we would try stealing something from lunch and keeping it in our room by wedging it in the window in the winter so it would kind of freeze. But, it didn't work. So, an expenditure at that bookstore was a big commitment on my part. I would buy an Ellery Queen novel for like twenty cents. That was like a major, major commitment. If you asked me what memories I have of bars in Syracuse, the only one I think I ever went to was The Orange, which was near The Red Barn. What was interesting was the law on campus was, you couldn't drink on campus at all. I almost got thrown out of Syracuse the first day, because I was walking around with a can of beer in my hand. A guy said to me "What are you doing?" I said "I'm having a beer." "You can't do that. You'll get kicked out of school" I threw it away and that was it. But what was hypocritical of the University is, they had a bar on campus and there you could drink. As long as it was their bar and the money was coming in. That was The Orange. The very first time I drank cognac was there. I was wearing a Humphrey Bogart trench coat that I bought at home. I was feeling very, very Casablancan. I went into The Orange. It was raining and misty. I thought, what would Bogart drink right now? I said he'd have a cognac. I had no idea what cognac was. I had no idea it was just brandy...fancy brandy. I ordered cognac and it came in a little thimble glass and it was the first time I ever had cognac. So, The Orange was where you drank if you were on campus.

Q - Do you remember the blizzard of '66?

A - You're calling it the blizzard of '66. I think of it as '65, because it was a blessing to me. That blizzard is responsible for me having the world's longest intercession break of all time. I went home for Christmas. The day before I was supposed to go back, I called up there. I was down in the suburbs of New York City, down in Rockland County, Nyack actually was the town. I had heard about this blizzard you guys had had up there.

Q - It was the worst.

A - The official word was, do not attempt to come back to the campus. What I remember was Buffalo had been hit first and Syracuse had loaned Buffalo its snow plows. They had been driven to Buffalo to try and help dig out Buffalo and then while the snowplows were in Buffalo, it hit Syracuse. A second wave hit Syracuse.

Q - I don't remember that story.

A - Yup. That's what I recall. I remember that I could not go back to school and then by the time I could go back to school, it was time for Winter break. I feel like I came home in December and did not go back 'til the end of January, something like that. I was home forever...and loved it by the way. Loved being home. I cherish the blizzard of '66. I remember the aftermath of that. The Beatles had put out "We Can Work It Out" as a single. The forty-five came in a photo sleeve. This is after I came back to campus. I remember walking through drifts eight feet tall of snow on campus. For some reason, I was in my carpet slippers. That's all I had. I remember that stuff with great affection.

Q - Do you remember listening to the radio at that time...WNDR and WOLF radio?

A - Yeah. Both of them.

Q - Do you remember (disc jockey) Bud Ballou?

A - Bud Ballou was a major guy. Here's the lesson I learned about Syracuse; any record that I heard in Syracuse, if I went back to New York City, it would be two months before I heard it. In those days, you had tertiary stations and secondary stations. The last place anyone ever heard a single in America generally speaking, was New York City. People in New York City would say I can pick a hit anytime. I hear it on the radio. I would say, "You idiot. If you hear it on the radio in New York City, it's already been a hit everywhere else! You're not picking hits." I remember hearing "Solitary Man" by Neil Diamond, which was a big hit in Syracuse and was a nice hit down in New York City. "Walkin' A Cat Named Dog" by Norman Tanega was a big hit in Syracuse. The (big) local group was Otis and the Elevators.

Q - Do you remember the Syracuse group, Sam and the Twisters? They were popular.

A - Yup.

Q - Do you remember the local guy, Baron Daemon and his hit record "Transylvanian Twist"?

A - Absolutely.

Q - What else do you remember?

A - I worked with a singer / songwriter named Debra Barsha. Her father was like the Ted Baxter of Syracuse. I produced a rock band out of Syracuse, that no one ever knew about. They didn't end up making it. They were quite amazing. I got into a strange mind set with them. They had a bunch of names. The album came out with the name Ole Paint. The lead singer looked just like Paul McCartney and ended up being in Beatlemania playing Paul McCartney. Does that ring any bell to you what-so-ever?

Q - The name Ole Paint sounds vaguely familiar.

A - I actually came back to Syracuse in maybe '71, '72, 73 and worked with this group. Someone had sold them to a label based on the idea...this was when the "Paul Is Dead" stuff was circulating, that they wrote and sang and sounded like The Beatles. It's just a natural fact that people were easily influenced by being The Beatles. So, they happened to be this way. This kid looked a lot like McCartney and sounded just like him. I ended up producing them for this label down in New York, GWP / Crescendo. The people that made the deal re-named them Reincarnation. The idea was they were going to market them without actually claiming it was Paul reincarnated. In working with them, they sounded so much like The Beatles, I started getting really humble and shy around them, like I was working with the greatest people ever known and they were a nice garage band out of Syracuse. I was going, "Well, it's just such a thrill to work with you guys. It's such a dream." It wasn't The Beatles. I kind of lost sight of that for awhile. (laughs)

Q - Continue on with your Syracuse memories.

A - That Newhouse is a great school. They had an FM station there. I used to get to hang out and read spots for them. I learned a lot from the theatre department, which is a superb department. I just didn't hang out at the music school that much because it meant playing clarinet and I didn't like playing clarinet. I spent all my time in the practice rooms, teaching myself piano, which I've never had a lesson on. I'm self-taught. Look, the negatives (about Syracuse) were: there were seven thousand kids in the freshman class. That's tough. That just means you're losing your sense of self-identity. But, there were only thirty kids in the freshman class of Crouse College. But, if you were a Business Ed. major at Syracuse in those years, forget it man. And there were curfews. Women had to be in earlier than men. Talk about your inequality at that point. Guys had to be in at eleven on weeknights, maybe one A.M. on either Friday or Saturday. Women had to be in an hour before that. There was a rule that you were allowed to be in a girl's room as long as both of your feet were on the floor, which led to some of the more unusual positions since the Kama Sutra. (laughs)

Q - Try telling that story to today's college kids! They'd look at you kind of strange.

A - You know what? I don't think I could make it in today's world.

© Gary James. All rights reserved.