Yesterday, we spoke to Ron Dante about his early music career and success as the voice of the Archies. In part two of our interview, we pick up with the Cuff Links hit “Tracy,” sung of course by Ron himself. We also
REBEAT: At the same time “Sugar, Sugar” is hitting it big and goes to #1, you made “Tracy” as the Cuff Links, and it rolls into the Top 10. Did you record it before or after “Sugar, Sugar”?
RON DANTE: I recorded it right after. The same guys who had done “Leader of the Laundromat,” who were very fine writers, came up with “Tracy” and told me they want me to do the song. They brought me in, and I heard “Tracy” and thought it was a beautiful song.
It has three key changes in it; it’s very sophisticated for a pop song. I told them I’d do the lead and the background on it and make it sound like a group. I did it right after “Sugar, Sugar,” so I was getting played every hour on the hour at one of the biggest stations in New York City on both records. I wasn’t getting any credit because they weren’t in my name, but I knew my voice was on the airwaves and that could only mean good things.
Were you okay with having these two big hits but no one really knowing it was you?
I was. I was a studio singer at the time recording a lot of commercials, mainly for Madison Avenue doing products like Pepsi, Coke, and Dr. Pepper, so I was used to being anonymous. It was a very good living, and when the Archies and Cuff Links records were done, it was with the understanding that I would be anonymous.
With the Archies, Don Kirshner did guarantee I’d be able to release a solo album a few years later. Don came through on that, and I did one on RCA International, and it got a big push.
In hindsight, I kinda wish I had put my name on those records, but people know who I am, and when they think of the groups, they research it, and my name comes up immediately.
Oh yeah, there’s no mystery about who you are and what you did, especially with people in-the-know about music. I asked you about “Sugar, Sugar” and why it’s been so enduring, but what about “Tracy”? “Sugar, Sugar” probably has legs a little bit longer than “Tracy,” but it’s still pretty well known, too.
I think it having a girl’s name has helped it last. Girls’-name songs endure. There weren’t that many girls named Tracy before the song, but there were a lot after the record came out. I meet them at concerts and signings and things. It’s nice to see that.
I also think by the late ’60s, the technology was in place to capture the sound and make it sound really good. Things were evolving. It was a golden age of songwriting, too.
Out of curiosity, was there any significance to the name “Tracy”? Did they name it for a particular person or anything?
The lyricist who wrote the song was a big fan of Spencer Tracy, the actor, and thought it would be a cute name to put in a song!
Going into the ’70s, you made your own album, but I also wanted to talk about your producing. I know you did a lot of albums with Barry Manilow and that you sang backup on “Mandy” —
Another girl’s name. I was lucky with girls’ names!
That’s true! What I didn’t know until recently was that you worked with Pat Benatar. That doesn’t seem to be on the same trajectory of some of the other things you’ve done. Tell me about that.
Well, it’s really funny because people say, “Look at all the hits you had with Barry Manilow.” That’s true – we had 18 hit singles in a row; for five or six years we never left the charts, and the majority of [the songs] were ballads, middle-of-the-road, beautiful love songs.
But when I met Pat Benatar, the label asked me to go down to this club called Catch a Rising Star and see this girl singer that they were going to sign. They said, “She sings a big ballad in her show, and we’d like you to produce her.” But she also did a few rock ‘n’ roll songs, and one was “You Better Run,” an old Rascals song.
I decided that that was the direction to go with her. Make her a rock ‘n’ roll queen, not a middle-of-the-road balladeer like other people. People forget — and Manilow used to say this — that I don’t use enough guitars. I was a guitar player and liked the guitar, so my roots were in guitar music, and it wasn’t that far to Pat Benatar’s music where the lead instrument was a guitar.
I’d been dying to do something like that, because I couldn’t do it with someone like Barry because his records were all piano based. But it was fun to work with Pat. She was very, very talented, and you could tell she had “it.” She was a dynamo in the studio, a small package of dynamite. The only thing I had to bring out of her was how to perform in a studio as opposed to a live place because she was used to live audiences.
The first session I did with her, we built a stage in the studio, put a mic on the stage, put a spotlight on her, and made it dark all around. I invited some people in to watch her sing, and it became a performance instead of a recording session, and that’s how I brought her out.
We did “Heartbreaker” and “You Better Run,” and those songs were good for her and launched her career. We also did a version of Roy Orbison’s “Crying” which has never been released. It’s a little more of the type of ballad the record company wanted me to do, so I threw that in there, but I really wanted make her a rock and roller.
So you did “Heartbreaker” and “You Better Run,” but didn’t those come out on two different albums? You were producing her on these recordings but didn’t seem to work with her afterward. What happened?
What happened was the record company wanted to go with English producers because it was an English-based company. Once I gave them the direction, they turned it over to somebody else in England. That’s the way the music business works. Loyalty is not something that you hear about in general. I’m not saying it’s a bad business, but it’s about the money.
Pat actually wanted to continue to work with me and was crying on the phone saying, “They want to give me to these guys in England, and I want to work with you. You got me the sound and direction.” I said, “Listen, go with the record company, because if you don’t they’ll bury your career. I’ll take the hit on this. I want what’s best for you as an artist. Go with the money guys at this point. They have the right to your music for the next few years.”
There’s an old saying that, “The music business is full of crooks, and thieves, and people who’d stab their mothers for a dollar. And then there’s the downside!”
[Author’s note: For clarification, Dante produced and recorded demos of Benatar doing several songs at Media Sound Studios in New York using Letterman Show keyboardist Paul Shaffer, Elliott Randall (guitars), Allan Schwartzberg (drums), and Neil Jason (bass); the songs were engineered by Harvey Goldberg. The original demo of “Heartbreaker” can be heard here https://soundcloud.com/elliottrandall/heartbreaker. The version that was released for radio was rerecorded later with her new producers.]
Talking to you, it’s very apparent that you have a good attitude. I’ve talked to a lot of people over the years who were in similar situations – especially when they wrote or co-wrote songs and didn’t get credit – and many are very bitter.
Most of the singers and musicians who feel the music, and for whom it’s the drive in their lives, don’t do it for the money. Especially in the beginning, they’re just happy to get their music out there; they don’t look at the second part of the phrase – music business. They just think about the music.
I recommend anyone getting into this up their game on the second part – learn the business, so you’re not hurt by the corporations and the people in it just for the money.
Let’s talk about Ain’t Misbehavin’. You’d worked on Broadway in the mid-’60s, but how’d you come back around to that?
It really fell into my lap at a cocktail party. A friend of mine named James Lipton, who has a program called Inside the Actors Studio, said, “You’re doing so well with Manilow, and I have a script. We’re looking for financing, would you like to come in on it?”
I read the script, and it was a black street-drama called The Mighty Gents, and one of the stars was an unknown guy named Morgan Freeman. I loved it, did it, and it got pretty good reviews although it didn’t run a long time. Jim said, “I’m sorry we failed on this,” and I said, “No, I’m glad we did it. I loved the experience of doing it again.”
He said, “The Shuberts are working on another show. Are you interested?” I met with them, saw a run through of Ain’t Misbehavin, and that night, I signed on to become a producer.
Five people and a piano onstage, and you could tell it was something people would line up to see for years. It ran three years on Broadway to rave reviews and won three Tonys — one for best musical of the year — an honor people try for but don’t often see. It was a great experience.
You have to be happy about the things you’ve accomplished in your career. You’ve done many things and have to feel good about that.
I do and don’t take it for granted, and though those things are wonderful, I keep it in perspective. Instead of living in the past, I say the past is living in me. It’s part of who am today. I’ve been around very talented people and been around winners and tried to bring my game as high up as possible.
I’m always looking for the next something. I’ve got a new Broadway show in the works, and we’re making the announcement soon. It’s based on a television show called “Name that Tune,” and there will be an interactive theater piece where the audience gets to participate. It’ll probably take about a year and a half to get it to the theater.
We just brought on Tony Award-winning writer Rupert Holmes, who wrote the “Pina Colada” song. He’s part of it. So I’m proud of what I’ve done but excited about what I can do.
Tell me about the anthology you have coming out later this month.
This is a Fuel 2000 release, and they’ll release some cuts and songs and things I’d like to have released in an anthology. It will be 20 to 24 songs that I have done over the years especially from my early years. It will be available on iTunes and Amazon and other platforms and feature some of my “ghost groups” that I was the lead singer for — groups that most people don’t even know about, cuts from my solo album, from my disco album, Dante’s Inferno, and a great version I did with Barry Manilow of “Sugar, Sugar” that was a dance-version remix. There will be some very special tidbits that come out on this anthology.
You still perform a fair amount don’t you?
Oh yeah. I play shows and cruises. Some friends and I are putting together two shows for next summer called the Summer of Love show with the Lovin’ Spoonful, Vanilla Fudge, maybe the Strawberry Alarm Clock. The 50th anniversary of the Summer of Love will be next year. What could be better? As long as God grants me good health and happiness, I’m fine.
Ron Dante’s Anthology is out November 28. Pre-order it on Amazon now.