In 2010, when I was working on my fourth book, the one which would become Carolina Beach Music: The Classic Years, I came up with what I thought would be a good, though certainly not a unique, idea. It was my first book about music, and I was writing about 100 R&B/soul/garage/frat rock songs from the 1950s and ’60s that were and are still popular in the southeast and known as “beach music” (why it’s so called is a long story that maybe I’ll explain another day). Like countless people before and since, I thought, “Wouldn’t it be fun to get a few words from the artists who did these songs, and get their take on the music?” After a brief internet search, I found three artists I was working on at the time who had public email addresses — Charles Pope of the Tams, Sonny Turner of the Platters, and Brenton Wood. I sent all three an email about what I was doing and asked if they’d send back a few comments. I figured email was the way to go in case there was ever a question regarding what they’d actually said to me, and also, it was easier to cut and paste the comments into my document: the world’s greatest or fastest typist I am not.
To my great surprise, all three emailed back, though I would have been pleased if even one had. Charles Pope and Brenton Wood were all too happy to email their comments and did. Sonny Turner’s agent emailed and very nicely said Sonny was too busy to type out a lot of comments, but if I wanted to do a phone interview, we could set it up. Nervous and apprehensive — remember, I’d never done anything like this before — I agreed, and so I got a little micro-cassette recorder and did my first live interview with an entertainment figure in 2010. Sonny was charming and gracious and made me feel like we’d been friends forever. I was hooked.
From that point on I started trying to track down every person whose music I was writing about and I asked them for interviews. It was exhilarating. Of course some people never answered me, but to be fair, sometimes you’re never sure if they even see your emails. Others were all too happy to talk, while others did it begrudgingly I think, because while they’re still performing and extra publicity always helps, some of them are tired of talking about those old songs again and again. Only once, ever, did someone write back to flat out say, no, they wouldn’t talk to me, and to this day I have never included their work in my books or articles — I guess because I took it personally. Hey, it sounds petty, but I’m trying to be honest here!
Ultimately over the last five years and over the course of two books about music and more than 40 articles, I’ve done a lot of interviews, with people who had multiple #1 records and have Grammys and platinum albums, to people whose never had a record make the Billboard charts. Some are happy to be out of the limelight, others really miss it, and some are convinced that they are just one single away from being on top again. But 90% of the interviews have been pretty interesting for a variety of reasons, some good, and some bad.
Then in June, Allison did a piece on what it’s like to interview Brian Wilson, and I started thinking about some of the situations I’d encountered in my interviews. I decided to run this by Allison to see if she’d publish it in REBEAT, thinking maybe readers might be interested in some of these tidbits, too. Also, if there’s even one reader out there who may end up doing this someday, maybe this will forewarn you that when you do an interview, you’ll see that you can expect a lot of different things. Here, then, is a list of good and bad things I’ve learned and encountered over the last five years. Pardon me if in a few cases I have to be discreet and refuse to mention the artist’s name, but I feel that I must. As I often tell the interviewees, I don’t work for TMZ, and I’m not interested in spreading dirt, so if you say I shouldn’t repeat it, your secret’s safe with me.
1) The good: Sometimes you hear from them long after you’ve given up hope.
The first advice I’d give anyone about interviewing is to be patient. Generally, I’d find the people I wanted to interview through Facebook or their webpages and contact them, tell them what I was doing, and ask for an interview. Some of them are pretty prompt, but for most people it takes a while, especially if they still perform a lot. The frustrating thing is when you get no answer at all. On the other hand, several times I’ve been surprised when I have heard from the person I wanted to interview long after I contacted them.
I emailed Bruce Channel and asked for an interview, didn’t hear back, and so I assumed I never would. Then lo and behold, six months later there’s an email answering all of my questions, as if I’d sent it yesterday. The Rose Colored Glass interview I did for REBEAT this year was the result of a Facebook request I did in 2012! One of the bandmember’s wives happened to be going through old notifications, saw the request that they’d somehow missed originally, and contacted me two years after I reached out to them! They contacted me, and though my book had gone to press the year before, thanks to the advent of REBEAT I had a place for it. Two other people I’d requested interviews from eventually contacted me after a year as well. The moral of the story is that you need to hang in there, because though it might take a while they may get in touch with you after all.
2) The bad: Sometimes you don’t ever hear from them, or they say they will talk but quit answering your emails.
The flip side of the post above is you wait and wait and never hear from them. Far worse though, is when people do respond and say they’ll talk to you, maybe even play around with when they can link up with you, then for whatever reason, quit corresponding and ignore you. This is really, really frustrating. I had this happen with a member of Tavares, a member of Cornelius Brothers and Sister Rose, and a big Motown star you’ve all heard of. It’s hard to understand and wastes a lot of your time. The only way I can keep it all in perspective is to be thankful that the 60 or so people I have interviewed were kind enough to make time for me.
3) The good: Sometimes they sing their songs for you.
Once you get that interview, you expect the usual biographical information and the response to the questions you’ve prepared, but if you’re lucky you’ll get more than that. I think one of the reasons that the Sonny Turner interview hooked me was that he sang part of the Platters’ “Washed Ashore” to illustrate a point. Since then, it’s happened quite a few times, and my favorite was probably when G.C. Cameron, who was lead singer for the Spinners on their hit “It’s a Shame,” sang part of that song for me. He was telling me about how Stevie Wonder had written the song especially for him, and had written it so Cameron, who had a lot of range, could sing double lead. “Double lead?” I asked. He said, “Yeah, you know like this, and started singing: ‘It’s a shame, the way you mess around with your man/ You’re like a child at play, on a sunny day/’Cause you play with love, and then you throw it away” (at about the 1:00 minute mark in the clip below). Then he ripped into the second part — changing his voice so it sounded like he was another person. “Why do you use me, try to confuse me/How can you stand, to be so cruel….” Double lead. I literally got goosebumps. It honestly sounded as good live on the phone as it did on the 1970 recording.
4) The bad: They mis-remember things that ultimately you as the writer will have to correct — and they may not be happy about that.
What happens most often is that a record’s chart position and sales are mis-remembered. This has always been puzzling to me, because I think if I had a Top 40 record, I would remember the highest chart position and the very day and hour I discovered it had reached that position. Now, you may be thinking that it’s understandable that an artist with a lot of hits might not remember where they all charted, but in fact it’s just the opposite: it seems to be a pattern that the artists with fewer hits, some of the “one hit wonders,” who don’t remember things so clearly. For example, the last four people I interviewed this year for REBEAT — Mark Farner of Grand Funk, Tommy Roe, KC (of the Sunshine Band), and Dennis Tufano of the Buckinghams — all knew exactly what had charted and when and where, and every one of them had multiple Billboard Top 40 and #1 hits, too. But you have no idea how often I’ve been told a record was a “Top Ten hit” or a “#1 record” when I’ve known it wasn’t close to that. I’ve never corrected an artist, but when you write it up, it has to be correct at that point.
I’ve had a few get a little upset when they read the correction in the final publication, and I think this is because they’ve lived with a different idea for so long. Here’s what I think happens: let’s say a song reaches #17 on the national pop charts, but hits #1 on the local charts in Kalamazoo, Michigan, or on the jukebox-operators charts. That becomes, “We had a #1 record.” Technically, yes, in Kalamazoo or on the jukebox charts, but that’s not the standard we all use: the Billboard pop charts are generally the standard. Ultimately, I think it’s worse to quote the artist and leave the wrong information in there, so I change it. Otherwise, I think it makes them look bad.
5) The good: They tell you things that change the way you hear and think about the music.
Remember what I wrote above about the double lead in “It’s a Shame”? I will never again be able to listen to that song and not hear that, and sometimes artists give you details about songs that probably go unnoticed by the average listener. For example, Jerry Butler told me the greatness of “Western Union Man” is due to “the way Leon Huff plays piano,” and so I hear that every time I listen to the song now. Harry Elston of the Friends of Distinction said that Charlene Gibson “flat out tore it up” singing lead on “Love or Let Me Be Lonely,” Jay Proctor of Jay and the Techniques pointed out Melba Moore, Nick Ashford, and Valerie Simpson’s excellent backing vocals on “Apples, Peaches, Pumpkin Pie,” and Robert Knight explained how he added a “steady step” to “Everlasting Love” to make it a hit (“hearts-go-a-stray…”). I never listen to these songs without hearing those things, and that’s been a great benefit to interviewing these artists. It makes me feel like I’m a part of their secret world — though I know I’m really not.
6) The bad: They tell you the same old information, like a press release.
Not long after I started interviewing, an acquaintance who’s in the music business and knows some of the people I’ve interviewed told me, “You’re going to find that a lot of these people tell everybody the exact same thing, almost like they’re reading from a script.” Over time, I’ve learned there’s a lot of truth to that, and honestly, there have been times I’ve done an interview and could go on the web and find an interview very close to the same thing, almost verbatim, already out there. I’ve done enough of them now that I read what’s available and try to come up with different questions and steer them away from the same old, same old, but it isn’t always easy. Don’t get me wrong, I’m thankful to get any interview or I wouldn’t have requested it, but I guess you sometimes feel like you will get something different, and in the end unless you ask different and new questions, you won’t get anything groundbreaking. Even then, it can be a challenge, because some of them drift into that same old tried-and-true list of responses. But still — it’s better than no interview at all.
7) The good: You hear them on the radio and think, “Wow, I actually talked to that guy!” and maybe even realize it’s important that you did.
It’s always the coolest thing, listening to XM or something and a song comes on, and you just talked to the artist — or even if you talked to them a while back. Of course it can also be a little sad, too. Some of the people I interviewed — Bobbie Smith of the Spinners (singing lead on the clip below), Charles Pope of the Tams, Gene McDaniels — have died since I interviewed them, and that’s always a little tragic. But I also know those interviews I recorded are artifacts now, and a valuable part of our musical heritage. To date, two different university libraries have asked to be allowed to archive my taped interviews in their collections, and that makes me feel like what I’m doing will be really important when these artists are gone.
8) The bad: You realize life isn’t all that glamorous for a lot of them now.
One thing I’ve come to realize that I’d never considered before I started doing this is that their stardom, no matter how brief, pretty much wrecked any chance for most of them to lead a normal life. What I mean is that, let’s say you’re 18 to 20 years old and have a Top 40 hit. You tour, you cut more records, and if you’re lucky, you might have a few more hits. Unfortunately, that means that after high school, that window where you might have gone to college is probably going to close, and in your late-20s you may find yourself with no skills other than the ability to sing, and no opportunities if you aren’t churning out hits.
Sure, if you wrote your own songs, or owned the publishing rights, even a few hits might allow you to live comfortably for life. But if you were “just” a performer, you may find yourself with nothing to do to earn money other than perform in oldies shows again and again, all while you pursue that elusive next hit. Like one person told me, “Sure, you get $10,000 to a do a weekend gig, say. But there’s eight guys in the band, and everybody gets a cut. There’s the agent, expenses, travel costs, food, and hotel. And unfortunately, that doesn’t happen every weekend. You sometimes go a long time between shows, and the pay varies.” Consequently, some of them have a very unstable income.
All in all…
I consider myself extremely lucky to have had the opportunity to interview these artists, and for the most part, it’s been a real pleasure. I hope I will have the opportunity to bring REBEAT readers more of these interviews for years to come.