Introduction: In this article, Billy explores the unsung hereos of the pop music industry, the songwriter.
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Article by: Billy Parker
In the early 70's Three Dog Night, fresh off a number 1 hit in "Momma Told Me Not To Come," found themselves in the studio working on the follow up album. Unannounced, Hoyt Axton, a singer/songwriter/actor, who had opened for them in the past, walked into the booth. Barely noticing his presence, the band continued on with their creative tasks. Best described as a "good old boy," Hoyt told them about a song he'd wrote and without any encouragement proceeded to play it. Only Chuck Negron, TDN's lead singer, remotely paid attention. He started singing about drinking wine, a bullfrog, and feeling happy, when Chuck jumped up and yelled "I'll do it!" The rest of his band turned around and replied, "Do what, what are you talking about?" Nobody noticed.
Number 1 for 6 straight weeks "Joy to the World" was the biggest selling single of the year. Propelling Three Dog Night into superstar status, the song was played adnauseam in jukeboxes across the country.
Writers! The offensive linemen of the entertainment industry. The people that make Stars look sooooo good. Some by choice, others by chance, songwriters so often remain in oblivion. Everyone knows the lyrics but nobody asks for their autograph. Many use writing as simply a step into their own quest for superstardom. Others grow more reclusive.
Quick quiz-How many songs by Elvis can you sing a few bars from? Kinda like "100 bottles of beer on the wall," eh? Just go on forever. Can you name one writer for his music? Just one? O.K. here's one, Mae Axton, yes, Hoyt's Mom, she CO-wrote Heartbreak Hotel. They are the only mother-son combination in history to pen separate #1 songs.
Do we have any ex hippies in the house? Remember those grand old days of peace, love, and Nixon's coming. Denouncing all materialism (except your stereo of course). The Age of Aquarius with The Fifth Dimension. Fifth were great vocal eh! Remember "Stoned Soul Picnic" and "Wedding Bell Blues" (won't you marry me Bill)! And don't forget Blood Sweat and Tears with "And When I Die, " the infamous line-"swear there ain't no Heaven and pray there ain't no Hell, but I'll never know by living---." Three Dog Night before Joy to the World, "Eli's Coming." Even Barbra Streisand rocked with "Stoney End" (going down to Stoney End, I never wanted to go). Classics weren't they? We're talking all top ten hits still played on oldie stations till this day.
So where'ya going with this Billy? The same individual wrote all of the above songs. Laura Nyro (pronounced Nero). These are just a few of the many she'd written over the years. The list of musicians covering her songs would look like the yellow pages. Forever unpretentious, she loathed the business end of music and lived most of her life in relative obscurity. Sadly, she died of ovarian cancer six years ago at the age of 49.
Moving ahead a decade, do you honestly know anyone who doesn't dig Clapton? Gotta turn up the volume when songs like, "Cocaine" and "After Midnight" come across the radio. Songs wrote by J. J. Cale. J. J. Who? The same guy who wrote, "Call Me the Breeze," made famous by Skynyrd. Another singer/songwriter who shrugged his shoulders at the prospect of major fame.
We all know Clapton wrote much of his famous music. But someone we've all heard of, Bob Marley wrote, "I Shot the Sheriff" the song that recharged his career.
Songwriting, like other entertainment avenues, is certainly a common way to break into and eventually reach star status. Neil Diamond wrote "I'm a Believer," and "A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You" for the Monkeys. Springsteens first #1? "Blinded By The Light" by Manfred Mann's Earth Band. "Mighty Quinn (Quinn The Eskimo) another big hit for Manfred Mann was written by Bob Dylan. Dylan also wrote Jimi Hendrix only top 40 hit, "All Along The Watchtower." Needless to say Diamond, Dylan and Springsteen have all enjoyed stellar careers beyond artists covering their music.
Only writing your own songs is generally more respected but it does have its downside. When The Monkeys began imploding over writing their own material they passed on a song written for them. The Archies picked it up and "Sugar Sugar" became a smash #1 hit.
Needless to say who deserves the credit and money can get pretty ugly and drawn out in litigation. "Whole Lotta Love," Zeppelins only top 10 hit was settled with Willie Dixon in 1987, seven years after the band broke up. George Harrison's "My Sweet Lord" went on for two decades before a final verdict. Harry Nilsson monster hit "Without You" was actually written by members of Badfinger. A cornerstone in the many financial problems that plagued the band which eventually resulted in the suicide of it's two main members, Peter Ham and Tommy Evans.
So just how big is the spread of money between writing and performing? On television it's incredible. Many stars get over 1 Million dollars per episode. But what if you wrote the entire script as an entry-level screenwriter? You'd receive a check for a little over 18K. Of course this is a little more if the program is an hour long.
In Rock & Roll there are lots of examples and anecdotes. When "Joy To the World" was at its zenith, Chuck Negron decided it was time to upgrade from his VW bug. He entered a Mercedes dealership, and in his own words was, "higher than a kite with no shirt, just a bathing suite on, sandals and his long hair flying all over."
Suspecting a vagrant, the entire staff plotted on how to handle the situation. Finally a young salesman gave him the benefit of the doubt and politely asked "Can I help you sir?" Spinning around in a 360, Chuck cocked his elbow and started pointing, "Brown one, burgundy one, fancy chocolate one." Three Benz in one deal. The money was there in an hour. (This nonjudgmental salesman would later be partnered in several luxury automotive dealerships all over Hollywood in part because of the vast number of Rock Star referrals Chuck would give him.)
So how did Hoyt make out? Well, he had his ups and downs. He also wrote Three Dog Nights "Never Been to Spain." And Ringo Starr's "No No Song." Earlier in his career he was really broke. He went to the mailbox one day and inside was a check for 14K for use of another one of his songs, Steppenwolf's "The Pusher" to be used in the film "Easy Rider." He used it to solve his own Mercedes problems; the bank had repossessed his.
Who wrote what is an article that, just scratching the surface, would strain the latest Acrobat Abode. That infamous CIA spy (is that an oxymoron?) sometimes game show host, Chuck Barris wrote "Palisades Park," by Freddy "Boom Boom" Cannon.
Trivia in this category is extensive. Who else do our readers know has their name next to the soundtrack credits at the end of a movie? Let us know!
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The next article is: "Jacko the Wacko!"
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