Brian's Conversation with Oscar Winning, 6 Time Grammy Nominated JPF Member Dean Pitchford
For the last 17 Years I've been formally and informally interviewing all sorts of musicians from all over the world. Some are famous, some are completely unknown but none have had the diverse career path of my latest and longest interview to date.
Dean Pitchford's career is nearly impossible to summarize. You could start with his accolades: An Oscar win and 3 nominations, A Golden Globe Award, 6 Grammy Nominations, An Album that hit #1 on Billboard for 10 weeks and knocked the biggest selling album in history out of the #1 spot, Oddles of #1 and hit songs recorded by artists as diverse as Whitney Houston, Sammy Hagar, Barbra Streisand, Dolly Parton, Roger Daltrey, Cher, MC Hammer, Merle Haggard, Hugh Jackman, Patti Labelle, Martina McBride, Bette Midler, Smokey Robinson, The Temptations, Ann Wilson, LL Cool J. and the list goes on and on (and I mean that.. on and on and on... Then we could shift to the fact that he was a starring actor on Broadway and that he sang, dance and acted his way through more than 100 major commercials and jingles. But that wouldn't even include the fact that he's a screenwriter with an iconic blockbuster movie under his belt as well as a playwright and TV director. Oh, and did I mention he's also an award winning author of young adult literature? Even that wouldn't cover his career diversity. His latest effort, the audio presentation of his first book has even earned another Grammy nomination for Best Spoken Album for Children.
And if that wasn't enough.. he's a really nice guy. The icing on the cake? He's also a JPF member and he spent an entire evening chatting with me about all of the above and more and how it all happened.
I've done a lot of interviews. But this is clearly the grand daddy of them all to date. We edited it down, but it still runs 24 pages, so we'll just link it here. Give it a read, and if you have any comments or questions, you can reply and I bet we can get Dean to answer.
I'll include both halves of the interview below! Thanks again to Dean for sharing so much of his experiences with us!
First, you might want to learn more about Dean before we start. Here's some great links to get an overview of his career in music and film. http://www.deanpitchford.comhttp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dean_Pitchfordhttp://www.imdb.com/name/nm0685673/http://www.thebigoneoh.com/http://www.boxofficemojo.com/features/?id=1511&p=.htm
And here's a video retrospective of just his film music: http://www.facebook.com/video/video.php?v=29784440046
A Conversation With Dean Pitchford and Brian Austin Whitney
BRIAN: I’ve spoken to a lot of successful creative people with a major hit or success, but you seem to have had many different careers and significant success in each. Where did that diversity come from? You seem to have a creative “Midas Touch” going.
DEAN: (laughs) I think it has to do with 2 things. One is that I was born in Hawaii and raised in Honolulu so my experience with your culture on the mainland was ‘Gosh, what an amazing world it is over there… wouldn’t it be nice to one day be able to ________?’ and I didn’t know what the rest of that sentence was exactly. I didn’t know if I wanted to be in the music business, be on Broadway, be in television, or in film, or acting or singing or dancing.
I think sometimes people might come to a business with an idea of what it is going to be like and when it doesn’t feel like they thought it would, they accept that this is where they have to be for the rest of their life because it was their plan, whereas I just did things until another door opened, and I thought ‘That looks like fun, oh let me follow that…’ Since I didn’t come from a musical family or have a heritage or a name to uphold, that left me free to succeed or fail on my own.
The other part is that I always tried to keep myself amused. I have a short attention span and a very curious mind. For years I went into studios and on film stages and worked with artists and got songs on the charts and once that became a case of ‘God, I don’t want to have to do that again and again; I want to wear a different set of clothes today.’ Fortunately coming up I went to college and to New York and started by performing on Broadway and singing and dancing in commercials, so I always had the feeling that ‘the business’ wasn’t just in Nashville or New York or LA, I always thought that there’d be many parts of the business and my life and travels has more than borne that out.
BRIAN: You were born in Hawaii before it was a US State correct?
DEAN: I was. I was born 10 years and one week before Obama was born in the same hospital. He was born as a citizen of the US, whereas we were citizens of a territory originally and became U.S. residents when statehood was declared in 1959.
BRIAN: So from your perspective then the US must have seemed like a sort of alien country?
DEAN: It was sort of this bright shining horizon. My father was a photographer and we got a subscription to Life Magazine. Every week I’d flip through it very reverently and look at all the pictures. At that time my concept of land mass was a small island. And I remember when we’d have visitors, we could take them on a tour of Oahu, and we would drive out of the driveway one way and, after going around the island, we’d return from the opposite direction. And that was my idea of a place you lived on. So when I’d flip through the magazine and I’d see the Golden Gate Bridge and Carlsbad Caverns and the Statue of Liberty and the Delaware Water Gap, I would think ‘Whoa.. that island looks a lot more interesting than mine, which just has sandy beaches and beautiful waterfalls.’ So even at that age I thought, ‘I have to get to that wonderful island.’
It also was key that I was growing up in a very musical culture. The Hawaiian people are very demonstrative and musically inclined, and in grade school little girls took hula and little boys took ukulele and when there would be a gathering for a Mayday celebration or a pageant of the Virgin Mary or a Christmas celebration, there was always singing and dancing. And so I always thought that’s what everybody did. When I got to the mainland I was surprised that, for instance, only certain people took music classes and a separate group were the band members and nobody else was. I was raised where everybody sang and danced and played instruments. And everything was possible. I was able avoid the notion that I needed to go this or that university or become a lawyer or doctor and if I couldn’t then I’d have to throw myself off a cliff. When I went to Yale on a scholarship I found myself SURROUNDED by guys from prep schools who were coming from families with long histories of going to Yale. And they were coming pre-programmed with their families’ expectations. They were going to be a doctor or lawyer or join the family firm and all of that was sort of new to me. That seemed foreign. My world was always about possibilities. It was never about just zeroing in on something. So even when I started to do things that I did well and getting paid to do it, I still didn’t feel that I had struck the bullseye or that I had found a field where I was going to spend the next 45 years of my life.
BRIAN: So you took that musical foundation and said to yourself that anything that branched off of that was fair game, because it would have never occurred to you that there would be limitations?
DEAN: Exactly. I didn’t have any of those labels. I didn’t divide the world into pop or rock or classical music. I grew up not only listening to the radio and keeping track of the Top 10 lists from the radio every Sunday. But I also sang with the Honolulu Boys’ Opera Choir and sang in Italian or German. I performed Broadway songs and learned Hawaiian music. Plus, I was always singing hymns in church. In Latin! So when I got the east coast and found my roommates’ record collections were all of one genre, that was strange to me. I had never been asked to specialize. Many, many things were equally interesting to me.
BRIAN: So that made you sort of fearless in a way?
DEAN: Well it was fearlessness born out of ignorance. If I had truly known what I was up against, I would have frozen in my tracks.
BRIAN: Isn’t that a key to a lot of what you’ve done? I read about your difficulties making “Footloose.” If you’d known in advance how tough that process really was, you may not have tried it in the first place right?
DEAN: Oh yeah! Oh yeah. I didn’t realize how extraordinary it was, getting a film made. I didn’t realize how tough it would be to write a song and get an Academy Award for my first record. I really kind of stumbled and lurched from one thing to another. Now I look back on it and I go ‘Whoa! How in the world did I manage to navigate around all those pitfalls?’
BRIAN: You had all these impulses to go all these different directions, for a lot of people that makes it hard to put them all aside long enough to do one of them. How do you deal with those conflicting impulses?
DEAN: Well, when I decide I want to do something, I focus on that and just that. That’s the only way I can do work. Early on I started to multitask. I was a signed writer to Warner Brothers, so I’d fly to Nashville, to write there, but, in the middle of a writing session, I’d start thinking of a theatre project in New York or a film song I owed somebody in Los Angeles. And I realized that that made me very unhappy, you know, thinking ahead, worrying about things I couldn’t control. The thing that finally helped me was meditation. It calms my mind and it allows me to be here now and just give myself to that.
BRIAN: Some people say ‘I want to get in a Broadway show’ and if they are able to achieve that big goal they realize that it’s not all the things they’d hoped it would be. They’re surprised by how little it changes anything. Have you had that type of experience?
DEAN: I might have if I’d just stopped there and looked down the tunnel and seen just an endless stream of auditions and roles. Instead, I looked at my first two jobs in New York as scholarships to continue my education. I was cast in “Godspell” and did that for a year and a half, and then Bob Fosse put me into “Pippin.” And with the money I was making, I went to dance classes and voice lessons. I went to the New School, where I took a course in recording studio technique. I went to Julliard and studied composition in the extension program. And I basically filled my days with classes and learning. When I went to Yale, I got a basic liberal arts education.
BRIAN: You weren’t a theater student at Yale?
DEAN: When I went there, undergraduates could not major in theater. You could graduate with a bachelor of arts, and the famous Yale Drama School was a graduate school. So while I was an undergraduate there, Sigourney Weaver and Meryl Streep and Henry Winkler and all these famous people were in grad school.
BRIAN: So you were already writing poetry, but you still went the direction of acting and dancing and singing which you had a talent for as well. How did your career develop so that you left behind acting and singing? How were you able to step away from that?
DEAN: I did a bunch of shows, but what were really my bread and butter were commercials. I did over 100 commercials acting, singing, dancing and doing voice-over work. When I finally stopped performing and separated from the agent who represented me, I had this incredible revelation that I hated to audition. I HATED to audition. I loved performing, but I hated to go and stand in front of people and be judged. I had kept that realization at bay for as many years as I needed to in order to get the jobs. But when I finally stopped doing it, I was so happy.
BRIAN: So do you miss that part of your life? Do you think about what could have been? That you could have acted alongside of Meryl Streep in a movie?
DEAN: No, I don’t. I say that with great respect for lots of the people who do it, but I have to confess I’m happy that I don’t have to. I realized that I was not made for that.
BRIAN: You were able to jump into a lot of things as an outsider. You weren’t in the ‘in’ crowd, but you sort of came in and had success right away. How were you able to break into the ‘good old boy network’ in these different career paths and go in for a surgical strike and have success right away?
DEAN: I wasn’t aware that there was a ‘good old boy network.’ I never had any idea that my writing would pay. Even when I began writing songs in New York and working with the likes of Stephen Schwartz and Alan Menken and Rupert Holmes, I had no idea what kind of a living one could make doing any of this. I was just loving what I was doing. I think that rather than using a laser beam and thinking that ‘Ah, that’s the job I want,’ I used a buckshot approach. I just went ‘kablooey’ and went off in many different directions. I worked with a lot of people on a lot of different projects rather than putting all my eggs in one basket.
BRIAN: You’re confirming something I’ve been teaching starting writers and artists: it’s not who you know, it’s who knows you. The fact was that, by doing all these projects everybody knew you. So when they needed somebody to do something and they know you’re a competent guy, why wouldn’t they ask for you?
DEAN: That’s it. At the start of my career I thought maybe I shouldn’t have spent those years at Yale. Maybe I really should have been in New York writing pop songs. But the fact of the matter is that the time I spent in college is invaluable, because I learned about literature, about history, about art. I learned about so many, many things on so many many levels. And that made me a citizen of the world.
You have to understand: the fear I always lived with was ‘My god, what if this doesn’t pan out or if this dries up? I need to be ready for the next thing and the next thing.’ My parents were both children of the Depression. Growing up, we did not have money, and my father left the family when I was 11. We were raised watching every dime and always preparing for the possibility that everything we’re enjoying right now might all go away. And then the question you ask is, ‘If this all disappears, and I can no longer do what I’m trained to do, would I be happy doing… blah blah blah?’ So I created a career path along those lines. I’d be really happy doing what I was doing for the moment, but if a record executive wouldn’t listen to one of my songs, I’d find myself thinking, “Could I be happy writing for television? Could I be happy writing novels? Would I be happy going back to work in the theater?’ All of which I could answer ‘yes’ to. Every time something nice happened, I just went ‘Whoa! How cool is that?’ And then I just went on.
BRIAN: You’ve got all these highlights and I’ve always believed that life isn’t a highlight reel; it’s everything that doesn’t make the highlight reel.
DEAN: (laughs) Yes… yes…
BRIAN: So people are looking at all these highlights, but there had to be a lot of times when things didn’t work out, and everything wasn’t a hit.
DEAN: Oh no no no no no! I think if you look at everything I have done, for example for every song I have written that has been recorded, there were 15 that were not.
When I was doing commercials in New York, there was a very buckshot approach. In a day I could audition for 3 to 6 commercials. If I booked a commercial once a month I was doing GREAT. So out of 100 auditions I would book 1. But if I booked the right one, like Dr. Pepper or Burger King or Odor Eaters or M&M’s -- when I did those commercials, they paid very nicely. And then I could spend the next month once again not getting the commercial for another 99 tries.
Same thing was true for every 15 songs I wrote, 1 might get cut. I would say that for every 10 screenplays I wrote, 1 was made. I wrote spec screenplays, I wrote screenplays on order, I wrote for executives who were fired. I’d be in the process of writing a film, and the studio executives would all change. Then the new administration at the studio would have no interest in the project that a previous executive had ordered. It’s the same thing at a record label. You can be signed by one A&R executive, and then your A&R guy goes bye-bye, and all the artists who were signed by him go bye-bye, too. For every success I have, I have an ‘Oh, my god! I can’t believe that blew up or ended the way that it did.’
BRIAN: Can you tell me about some of the mentors you’ve had in your life that made a huge difference?
DEAN: The first was Peter Allen. We took voice lessons from the same teacher in New York, and that’s when I first got to know and began writing with him. Peter was a performing songwriter and so everything we wrote was for him. I was writing for a character that I knew. I would bring him lyrics and rhythms and melodies and he would say ‘That’s me,’ or ‘That’s not me.’ That was a very valuable lesson. I was always having to step out of my skin and step into his and ask ‘If I were Peter Allen on stage, would I sing this?’
Then I began working with Michael Gore on “Fame.” He saw my work in Peter Allen’s show, and he called me and said, ‘I’m working on this new film that’s shooting in New York, do you want to write songs and see whether any of them will make the movie?’ Michael is the brother of Leslie Gore (‘It’s My Party’), the largest selling female artist of the 1960’s. Michael was this wunderkind. From an early age he was an amazing piano player, and when he was 12, 13, 14 years old, he was writing songs with Carol Bayer Sager, and those songs were going on his sister’s records. Then he went on to studying classical music and producing and working with Leonard Bernstein. He produced classical records for Columbia in London, but he had this solid grounding in pop. So he asked me to work with him on ‘Fame.’ We wrote 13 songs, and 3 of them made the cut.
BRIAN: Did you know you were writing for Irene Cara (who recorded ‘Fame,’) or did that come later?
DEAN: No. We knew that, in the plot of the movie, Irene Cara’s character had been recording songs written by Bruno, the keyboard artist. And Bruno’s father had taken a tape that they had made and stuck it in his cab’s stereo and played it out of big-ass speakers he mounted on the top of his cab. That plot point was in the movie, but what was going to be heard coming out of the speakers on top of the cab was not decided before the movie started shooting. We just knew that it would something that Irene Cara’s character would have done the vocal for.
BRIAN: It had to be a showstopper.
DEAN: It had to be a showstopper. It had to be infectious, ‘dancey,’ but the imagery had to be very ‘streety.’ ‘I can catch the moon in my hand/Don’t you know who I am?’ Things like that. Then at the other end of the spectrum, when we wrote the finale ‘I Sing the Body Electric,’ I lifted that line out Walt Whitman’s ‘Leaves of Grass.’
BRIAN: That you learned at Yale?
DEAN: Yes, I remembered the phrase, ‘I sing the body electric,’ and then I went on from there. “Fame” was set in the High School of Performing Arts, and I figured that the kids there are not only studying dance, but they’re studying English and history and art, so at one point they would have crossed paths with Walt Whitman and Hemingway and so forth. So I was writing ‘streety’ for Irene Cara, and when we did the finale, Michael and I wrote a pop, classic, rock, anthemic piece for soloist, orchestra, rock ensemble, dancers and a gospel choir.
BRIAN: And you knew all that going in?
DEAN: We knew the director wanted to utilize as much of the student body as he could. So we built this number is such a way that we got to see everybody.
BRIAN: So when did you think of the word “Fame?”
DEAN: Actually when I went to work on this movie it was called “Hot Lunch.” When it started shooting, Michael Gore was on the set advising Alan Parker, the director, as to what pieces of music should be used in a ballet class, and what the cellist can be playing in the hallway, that sort of thing. So he would come home at the end of the day and call me and say ‘Alan wants to do a girl group number, Alan wants to do this or that,’ and I would run over to his apartment and we’d try to write something to meet Alan’s expectations. And sometimes, before he’d even hear our song, Alan would say ‘Nah… forget it… I don’t have the budget for that!’ and that song would go on the scrap heap. So, one day Michael came home and said the movie is no longer called ‘Hot Lunch;’ Alan had decided he wanted it to be called ‘Fame.’
DEAN: On the one hand it’s a fabulous title. On the other hand, it was a fabulous title a year earlier when David Bowie had an international hit song with his ‘Fame.’ So Alan Parker, being British, I think was influenced by a love of David Bowie and the possibilities that word conjured up. But it put me in the very difficult position of trying to bring another identity to a word that has so significantly been branded.
BRIAN: I think you did it. I don’t recall any cries that it was a rip off of David Bowie’s song?
DEAN: Oh no, they couldn’t be more different musically. I can take credit for the title “Footloose,” but Alan Parker named ‘Fame.’
BRIAN: But the lines that come after that are the key and those were your words right?
BRIAN: “I’m gonna live forever!”
DEAN: Actually those words came to me while Michael played at the piano. He played it to me in stages. First he played the vamp for me one afternoon (hums the intro to Fame) and I said ‘Oh... that’s awesome!’ And he said ‘Leave me alone! Let me go back to work!’ So I left, and about 9:30 that night he called me and said, ‘I think I’ve got something!’ We lived about 5 blocks from each other in New York, so I ran over, and he played (hums the build up to the chorus) the entire verse. And I said ‘Oh, this is great! I should go to work on this!’ And he said ‘No, don’t, because now I have to find a chorus.’ And, like, 24 hours later -- the next night -- I got a late night phone call. And again I ran over to his place. And he played (hums the crescendo to the word ‘Fame’) FAME! He knew where to put the word ‘Fame’ (hums the chorus melody that follows) and I said ‘You mean something like I’M GONNA LIVE FOREVER?’ And he lifted his hands off the keyboard -- I’m still getting chills as I say this -- he lifted his hands off the keyboard, and his eyes bugged out, and he went ‘Oh…! Oh…! WRITE THAT DOWN, WRITE THAT DOWN!’ And I was equally stunned at what had come out of me. And I went, ‘Michael, I’m not going to forget that.’ And that was when we knew we had a song. He had sung ‘FAME,’ and I had just sung ‘I’m gonna live forever’ after hearing the melody for only the second time.
BRIAN: That’s awesome! It’s pleasing to me to hear that it still gets you fired up.
DEAN: Can I also tell you that -- before we made the decision that Michael was going to come at it melodically -- we had tried for almost 4 weeks for me to come at it lyrically. So it’s not like Michael sat down and played this thing and I walked in and just nailed it. I had spent every day, 6 or 7 days a week, for 4 weeks, writing page after page of lyrics. I would distill them down sometimes to just 2 decent lines, or to something I thought might open a chorus. I would take it over to Michael, and he would put his hands on the keyboard and I’d tiptoe out. Then he’d call me later and tell me it wasn’t working, and I’d go back to work. I only tell you that because, although ‘I Sing the Body Electric’ came to me on a walk from 72nd Street to 78th Street, ‘Fame’ took weeks and weeks and notebooks full of prep. My challenge was how to approach that word without sounding so full of oneself that the singer was off-putting to the listener.
BRIAN: That line today is now ingrained in the DNA of every creative someone who wants to have big success. So it gives ME chills to talk to the guy who created such a seminal line and song in the world of pop culture. I asked Steve Seskin (Hit Country Writer with 7 #1 songs and a JPF Mentor) if it had gotten any easier for him since he’s had all those hits, and he told me that aside from name recognition, it really hadn’t gotten any easier for him because at any given time you’re still competing with the world’s best who also want that opportunity.
DEAN: All it really means is that you can get your song listened to. It doesn’t mean your song gets recorded.
BRIAN: So there’s no easy pathway, even with your track record? You don’t get the benefit of the doubt based on your previous success?
DEAN: No. No. Especially not now. The business has changed significantly since I first got into it, and there’s more consolidation going on. There are fewer record labels signing fewer acts. Plus, there are little mini-empires that are built around an artist and the producer who’s tied to that artist.
BRIAN: Yes, it’s a producers game now isn’t it?
DEAN: It really is.
BRIAN: You did 22 drafts of the screenplay for “Footloose.” Are you someone who does happy to do rewrites?
DEAN: I might defend the status quo for a moment or two, but while I am defending what’s on the page, my mind is racing in another direction and I’m thinking how can I solve the problem that my creative partners are suggesting -- either with a song or with a script. I don’t cling to things and stomp my foot and say, ‘No! You film the movie or record the song the way I wrote it!’
Tom Snow and I wrote a song for Barbra Streisand’s Christmas album, ‘Christmas Memories,’ about 4 years ago. The album was made composed of traditional songs. I think she only cut one new song -- ours. The song is called ‘Closer.’ It’s a song about missing somebody at Christmastime and wishing that maybe next year we could be closer. But it was closer, too, in a universal sense. Spiritually, physically, intellectually closer. She loved what we sent her; Tom’s melody was just so gorgeous. But then Barbra asked for a number of lyric revisions. So I would do the rewrites, trying to accommodate her. And her producer Jay Landers would call and say, ‘Barbra is having a problem with these two lines.’ Or, ‘Can you strengthen this or that.’ And this went on for a long time, and I worried that I wasn’t any closer to giving Barbra what she needed to feel truly invested in the song. Then suddenly, just as we were getting ready to hit the drop dead date where they were going to have to record this, Barbra suddenly hit on an idea. Barbra has a dear friend named Donna Karan, the famous clothes designer, and Donna’s husband, with whom Barbra was very close, had died that year. So Barbra suddenly had this idea that the song should be for Donna about her husband, and Barbra dedicated the album to him. So when she found this unifying concept, I was able to give her the lyric that brought the whole thing together. See, Barbra records songs the way she makes movies: she needs the screenplay in her mind. I didn’t understand that she was still struggling to find that very clean storyline between what she was trying to figure out to say and what the song could be. And when she said that it has to be for Donna’s husband, I went ‘Ahhhh…I get it now.’
Then right after Barbra recorded the song, 9/11 happened, and the song became a touchstone for many people. Me, included. Because I lost my own sister in the World Trade Center attack.
BRIAN: I read about that. Was she working there?
DEAN: Patricia was working for a firm called Marsh McClennon. That day -- September 11 -- when my friend Jay Landers (Barbra’s producer) walked into the studio to tell Barbra what had happened to my sister, she was in the middle of mixing ‘Closer.’ Barbra was so moved that she went on her blog and wrote about my sister and posted the lyric to ‘Closer’ on her website. And the site got a huge number of hits, and suddenly the story was on Entertainment Tonight and mentioned on The Today Show, and on and on. But, really, what had happened was Barbra and I had gone on this long journey to find the universality in that song. And, in doing so, we created something that -- two weeks before, had spoken to one woman who had lost her husband -- and now was suddenly, a month later, relevant to the lives of thousands of people.
(I then shared a personal story with Dean about my co-writing partner and band mate who died as a result of the 9-11 attacks as well as our member Tim Laborie who lost his daughter in-law who was a stewardess on one of the planes. Tim wrote a song about it called “Who Killed Katherine Laborie” which later won an award in the JPF Music Awards).
DEAN: Well, bringing it all back around to our original premise, my path to songwriting has been that I became someone who wrote for other people. There are the singer-songwriters like Tim Laborie, and if one is himself the writer and performer, then a different kind of discipline goes into that. I strive for universality in my songs, a shared sentiment. That may be why my songs end up getting cut over and over.
BRIAN: It might be valuable for a writer/artist to try and write for others just for that universality that you talk about, even if it was just as an exercise to broaden their own work. On a related topic, I noted your work with Jim Steinman, (well known for his work with Meatloaf), and I always thought of him first as a lyricist. When I saw that you wrote the lyrics and he wrote the music (to “Holding Out for a Hero” in the film “Footloose”) I thought that was strange because that song sounds like Jim Steinman wrote the lyrics. How were you able to go in and write in his style?
DEAN: We sort of ba-a-a-a-cked into that. And the way we ba-a-a-a-cked into that was I working with a sensational music supervisor on “Footloose” whose name is Becky Mancuso. I was trying to cast the singers in the soundtrack so that they were the alter egos of the kids that we saw on screen. I knew that we needed a female voice that would be the voice of Lori Singer in that movie.
A producer friend of Becky’s had turned her on to a record that was happening in Australia by this singer named Bonnie Tyler. It had not broken in the States yet. And it was called ‘Total Eclipse Of The Heart.’ Becky played me this record, and I said ‘Oh my god, I remember that girl’s voice! Didn’t she do (he sings) ‘It’s a Heartache, nothing but a Heartache?’ So we got very very excited about this singer, and we set about trying to find Bonnie Tyler. We learned was that she was signed to Columbia Records, so we started by calling Columbia Records in California. They said ‘Ummm… she wasn’t signed out of this office. ‘It’s a Heartache’ was a country hit. Maybe she was signed out of Nashville.’ So we called Nashville, and they said ‘No no no. I thinks she’s European or something. She must have been signed out of New York or maybe London.’ Then we tracked down someone at Sony in London who was part of her A&R team. I think the story was that she’d actually been found in London, but she’s from Wales, and here she was having a hit in Australia. So we finally get hold of Bonnie’s people, made a deal with her to sing a song in “Footloose,” and, because Jim Steinman was her writer and producer, he came along as part of the package.
Then, while we were starting to work on our record, a station in Cleveland broke ‘Total Eclipse Of The Heart’ and it took off all over the U.S. and went to #1. Suddenly Becky and I looked like the smartest people on the block. As for Jim, Jim Steinman’s a fiercely good musician. He’s a mad hot piano player and a phenomenal orchestrator. He also does most of his lyrics, but in this case I was writing all the lyrics for my film, and Jim agreed to collaborate, bless his heart.
BRIAN: So he was okay with all that.
DEAN: Yes. So I ‘went to school’ on Jim Steinman on all the (he scat sings a familiar Jim Steinman melodic Meatloff-esque riff) type stuff he’s known for and I wrote that lyric in Jim’s style.
The same thing with Sammy Hagar. I sent Sammy Hagar the “Footloose” script, and, when we got to meet, I told Sammy the scene I wanted him to do a song for. He played me some riffs on his guitar, he played me some melodies, he played me some licks and I picked and chose. I said, ‘Oh, two bars of that… no.. can you join that up to blah blah blah’ and he’s looking at me like I’m a crazy person. I said, ‘Okay put those all together, that’s the verse. Now, as for the chorus… I know I want this song to be called ‘The Girl Gets Around.’ He was not used to being pushed around like that. And at any moment I was so afraid that he was going to throw down his guitar pick and say this is all over. But at the end of our work session he gave me a cassette of the song’s general shape, and I went home and worked through the weekend. Then I sent him a fax with my lyric and he called me immediately, ECSTATIC. He was over the moon!
BRIAN: Let me ask you about compensation. How does it work for you? Most of the time when I see a credit for the hits that you have it doesn’t say song written by you and somebody else, it says Lyrics by Dean Pitchford, Music by Sammy Hagar or whatever. Do you only get paid when the lyrics are used, or do you get a 50-50 split on all of it whether it’s an instrumental version or a full version with lyric?
DEAN: When music and words are joined together they are copyrighted and they become -- oh, there’s some legal term -- they become an ‘indivisible entity’ or something like that. The music and the lyrics go forward as one organism.
BRIAN: But there can be some scenarios where those two rights are separated correct?
DEAN: I’ll tell you when that happens. You get something like the “Theme from the Godfather.” (hums the famous Godfather theme). That was written for the motion picture. The motion picture comes along and someone thinks ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we could get Al Martino to sing (whatever those lyrics turned out to be).’ So a separate deal is made in a case like that because someone’s jumping on a bandwagon that’s already rolling. In cases like that, there are separate deals made so that the lyricist only gets paid on the sung version of the song. But no, when I go in the room with a composer and we come out with a song, I’m a big believer in 50-50.
BRIAN: But your work still often has a separation of ‘Lyrics by Dean Pitchford, Music by whomever,’ even though you often add to the music and sometimes your partner offers some of the lyric.
DEAN: That terminology stuff happens usually because of the publisher. For instance, if it is published in the Kenny Loggins songbook, you’ll find ‘Music by Kenny Loggins’ throughout the book. And then on other sheet music it will say ‘Music and Lyric by Kenny Loggins and Dean Pitchford.’ I’ve seen my songs identified both ways. It doesn’t really make any difference.
BRIAN: So you’re friends with Kenny Loggins? His son Crosby performed at one of our JPF events in Santa Barbara a few years ago.
DEAN: Oh, yeah. We still correspond as a matter of fact.
BRIAN: On to your movie “Footloose.” Aside from writing the songs and the screenplay, what else was your involvement? We sometimes hear screenwriters say once they finish a script they have no further input, and at other times they’re directly involved throughout. What about you?
DEAN: I was very present throughout. For the most part when a screenplay goes into production, the studio can generally say goodbye to the scriptwriter. They may bring the screenwriter to the set and say, ‘We’re running a little long could you trim 4 or 5 pages?’ and THEN they say goodbye. That was the case with me. Paramount flew me up to Utah where we were shooting, the script was overlong, and I spent 4 or 5 days up there making cuts, hearing the script read through and then they said, ‘Okay, we no longer need to pay for a hotel room for you, we’re putting you on next flight back to LA.’ And if I had been only the screenwriter, I would come home and sit and twiddle my thumbs until I got an invitation to the opening night.
As it was, I had to come back and immediately start the work of building the soundtrack. We only had 2 songs of the original soundtrack in place before we started shooting. One was “Footloose,” although we had not properly demoed it because Kenny had to go off on a tour of the Far East. So we did not use “Footloose” as a playback; we used “Johnny B Good” as the playback in the movie.
BRIAN: You recorded a lot of those scenes and then wrote songs to fit exactly with the already filmed scene?
DEAN: We certainly had to write and match the same tempo. But that was exactly the case with the movie “Fame.” Except for ‘I Sing the Body Electric,’ which was shot with actors singing on screen, the songs ‘Fame’ and ‘Redlight’ we both laid in in place of two Donna Summer tracks. “Fame” has the same click as “Hot Stuff,” for instance
So as I was saying, I came back from the set of “Footloose” in Utah and was working with Becky Mancuso in a trailer at Paramount every single day, trying to get people to write with me and sing these songs and fill out this soundtrack. The whole album was delivered for 300,000 dollars. That means that every track got 30,000 dollars and that was for songwriters fees, artists fees, and studio costs.
BRIAN: How much box office did Footloose end up doing?
DEAN: Domestically it made 85 Million dollars. If you adjust it for inflation today it made, like, over 240 million dollars in the US alone.
BRIAN: Which is a major blockbuster...
DEAN: MAJOR blockbuster. And you turn on the television any weekend and there’s Footloose playing somewhere. And the album, the last time I got any kind of a tally, has sold in excess of 17 million copies.
BRIAN: And you wrote how many songs on that?
DEAN: I wrote 9. And then, as you pointed out on the message boards, we are actually on a Trivial Pursuit game card as the answer to ‘What album bumped Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’ off the #1 Billboard album chart?’
BRIAN: Bumping the #1-selling album of all time off the top spot on the album chart. What a cool little factoid!
DEAN: It was COOL!
BRIAN: And at the time, with the monster that ‘Thriller’ was, what was your reaction when you knocked him out of #1?
DEAN: You know what, I hadn’t put it all in perspective. There was no Soundscan then. These days, if Britney Spears releases an album today, next week it will be #1. At the time of “Footloose,” you’d release an album and it might enter at 68, then jump to 32, then 18, then 11, and 5 and then # 1. So from the time that the movie opened to the time that we went to #1, we worked our way up the chart. For weeks. And even when we got to #1, there was no guarantee that Michael Jackson wouldn’t re-take the top spot. But after two, three, four weeks, it became clearer and clearer that Michael Jackson wasn’t coming back. We just didn’t realize that we’d be on top for two and a half months.
BRIAN: Where did the “Footloose” single go on the charts?
DEAN: Footloose went to #1 for three weeks. Then three weeks later ‘Let’s Hear It For The Boy’ went to #1 for two weeks. But that song went to #1 across the boards. It was #1 Dance, A/C, R&B, and Pop. Then the album went worldwide. It was the #1 album of the year in Japan, Israel, South Africa, Germany, and on and on.
BRIAN: Did they dub the movie in those languages?
DEAN: I don’t know what they did. They probably dubbed it; it’s much more accessible that way. In Japan because the soundtrack was so enormous, Sony in Japan did a companion album where they re-cut all the songs with Japanese artists and they sent me a copy of it. It’s in my basement someplace, and the interesting this is that they translated all the lyrics except the title so every song is still called what it’s called in English and every other word in the song is Japanese.
BRIAN: (Laughing) Now, see, not too many people get to have that sort of experience to hear their stuff done like that. Do you just sit back sometimes and appreciate the uniqueness of your life?
DEAN: Oh, I appreciate it a lot. Speaking of which, my first novel ‘The Big One Oh,’ has been sold to sub-publishers in South Korea, Israel and Italy, and three weeks ago I got the South Korean edition! It’s so amazing. They added more artwork, so there’re 12 colored plates throughout the book. It’s on fantastic quality paper, and it’s in Korean. The writing on the page is just so beautiful, and I just flip through the book and marvel that this is what my words look like in another language. I have the same experience when I hear my songs translated.