For many years, it was customary for those seeking to curry favor with Clive Davis, the legendary hit maker and founder of Arista Records, to be given the “Clive Davis Challenge”: make two CDs (or, depending on the era, a cassette tape)—one of songs you think should have been hits and one of songs you think will be hits. Over the years, other A&R executives also adopted this test of a prospective applicant’s taste in music and resourcefulness in compiling a collection of unreleased songs (the “Songs that Will Be Hits” CD reflected not only the quality of the applicant’s ears, but also the breadth of their relationships within the business: clever). The practice, which enjoyed some popularity during the record business’s waning years, always struck me as very “bring me the broomstick of the Wicked Witch of the West,” especially when the directive came from the imperious Mr. Davis. I am not sure anyone ever actually earned a position this way, though that didn’t stop eager A&R neophytes from lining up to kiss his ring with mix tapes in hand. In a smoke and mirrors profession like A&R, where an executive is attempting to convince various infrastructures why they should mobilize vast resources behind what you believe, what is ultimately a somewhat objective thing your taste—the “Clive Challenge” was a clever litmus test.
“A hit is a hit”: Clive, or “Mr. Davis” as I have always addressed him, has taught me many things over the years that shaped my own thinking about popular music and the record business. One is that a hit song is a hit song. There are many variables that can affect whether a song becomes a hit, but it was still a hit. To site just two examples from Arista’s own storied history, “I Will Always Love You” was recorded by everyone from writer Dolly Parton to Elvis Presley, but never actually became a hit until Whitney Houston immortalized it in The Bodyguard. “That’s What Friends Are For” was recorded by Rod Stewart before recast for Dionne Warwick and her friends.
Though I worked in Arista Records’ sales department in the late-1980s, it was not actually Mr. Davis who asked me to do his eponymous challenge. I was asked in 1999, by some schlub (who shall remain nameless) with Davis-esque aspirations. So here’s how I did: out of 13 songs on my “Will Become Hits” CD, the one where you’re supposed to prognosticate the future, two of my selections did in fact go on to become major hits: Train’s Drops of Jupiter (Tell Me) and Anastacia’s I’m Outta Love. It’s hard to pat myself on the back too much for that accomplishment because, truth be told, anyone could have had a hit with either of those songs, such were the obvious qualities that made them what they became.
But then how to explain the other list—”Songs That Should Have Been Top-Ten Hits?” There’s so many reasons why a song didn’t connect the way it should have: a lack of label support; bad management; an artist who refuses to promote their work; or simply, bad timing at radio. I stand by almost by my choices here. These songs reflect what I thought was worthy back in 1999. As an inveterate song lover and champion of real songwriters—not “track hacks” who demand 50% of publishing for “making beats”—essentially what Hal Blaine was paid a session fee for—I would say that these songs still are big, it’s the playlists that got smaller. Since the “Clive Davis Challenge” is the principal behind this ongoing Stargayzing feature, it gives me special pleasure to present this edition.
Indonesian singer Anggun built a huge audience throughout the 1990s both in her native country and in Europe. I became aware of her when a friend of mind moved to Italy, a territory where Anggun enjoyed much success in the late-1990s. Teaming with French producer Erick Benzi, Anggun’s 2000 album Chrysalis was released internationally on Sony Music and domestically on Columbia. The album’s first single, Still Reminds Me, became the singer’s first number one in Asia and second top-20 hit in Italy, but did nothing in the states. I imagine the explanation most often given would be that the song was incompatible with what U.S. radio sounded like at that time. This can roughly be translated to “it was too sophisticated.”
After years of success fronting Soundgarden throughout the 1990s, lead singer Chris Cornell released his first solo album Euphoria Morning in 1999. Though the album’s first single Can’t Change Me did receive radio play at rock and alternative formats, the single (like the album) underperformed. It’s truly a shame because, as Greg Tate said at the time in Rolling Stone, the song was “as rhapsodically gorgeous as pop gets.” It should have enjoyed the saturated presence of Soundgarden’s hits of the period.
Danielle Brisebois has had an interesting journey. As a child actress, she had great success playing Stephanie on All in the Family and, later, its spin-off Archie Bunker’s Place. She also played Molly in the Broadway cast of Annie. In the 1990s she was a member of the band the New Radicals, best known for what is indisputably one of the best songs of the decade, the joyful You Get What You Give. (I seem to remember no less a critic than Joni Mitchell saying at the time that You Get What You Give was the only great song she’d heard on the radio in years, or something to that effect.)
Brisebois recorded two solo albums, Arrive All Over You and Portable Life in the 1990s. Both albums fizzled—I’m not even sure if the latter project was even officially released. But Danielle’s story has a happy ending: she went on to have tremendous success as a songwriter, penning songs like Just Missed This Train, recorded by Kelly Clarkson, and Natasha Bedingfield’s Unwritten and Pocket Full of Sunshine, among many others.
“I’ve Had It” was on Portable Life, the album that may or may not have been released. Co-written with New Radicals frontman and Brisebois’ chief songwriting partner Gregg Alexander, “I’ve Had It” should have been a monster. I loved it from the first moment I heard the advance CD in 1999 and always felt that it was a perfect song for Cyndi Lauper. If this was 2000 and say Sony’s David Massey hired me to find songs for Cyndi (this never happened but it could have…should have), “I’ve Had It” would be the first song I would have submitted. As far as whether or not it would be a hit today, all bet’s are off. The world has gone crazy and pop music as a celebratory thing that makes us feel connected has gone to shit but—and I mean this with no discourtesy to Danielle—I’ve Had It always will exist in my mind as a Cyndi Lauper song, irrespective of whether or not she every sings it.
I met English singer/songwriter Conner Reeves in the mid-1990s. At the time he was a Rondor music writer and had travelled to New York on a writing trip and I was managing Billy Porter. I think I met him through Peter Zizzo, who produced Billy’s first record. This association is how Billy came to record the beautiful Reeves/Zizzo ballad “Lullaby.”
From the first moment I met him, I thought Conner was an enchanted spirit and one of the most talented and endearing people I’d ever met. He sang like an angel and wrote the most beautiful blue-eyed soul songs. It was no surprise to me when he got signed to Colin Lester’s UK label Windstar and recorded five Top-40 singles, including “My Father’s Son,” which peaked at number 12 on the UK singles chart and was nominated for a BRIT award (the equivalent of a Grammy). I don’t recall whether or not he ever got a release in the states—I think he didn’t. Isn’t it interesting that English artists from Dusty Springfield to Adele, seem to oftentimes have a greater appreciation for classic American soul music history than American artists?
When I first heard the Pretenders in the late-1970s, they became a sort of bridge that enabled my adolescent AM radio ears to move from the Top-40 and Broadway pop music I’d grown up with toward a broader range of music. At once edgy and completely accessible, the Pretenders melodic rock music was the perfect synthesis of elements: 1960s brit pop, punk, and power pop.
By the time their seventh studio album Viva El Amor! came along in 1999, the band had long become an institution and they’re leader Chrissie Hynde an rock music icon. Human was originally recorded by Divinyls as “Human on the Inside.” Written by Divinyls member (and original member of Air Supply!) Mark McEntee and songwriter extraordinaire Shelly Peiken (Christina Aguilera’s “What a Girl Wants,” Brandy’s “Almost Doesn’t Count”), “Human on the Inside” was the third single from the Divinyls’ 1996 album Underworld but didn’t make any noise. The Pretenders 1999 version, with its title shortened to “Human,” should have been a monster. As close to a perfect pop song as anything released in its day, the song’s relative lack of chart success says more about the fragmented, research-driven state of radio in 1999 and nothing about the merits of “Human.”
In the 1980s and up through the late-1990s, film studios and record labels collaborated on soundtrack albums for seemingly every project. Even film and TV shows that were not music-driven released soundtracks, such was the climate (remember the “songs inspired by” trend of the period?) If one soundtrack blew up, they’d aggregate table scraps and issue a volume two. It was a good time to be a music supervisor.
Of course, TV shows also generated soundtracks. Perhaps one of the most successful of the period was Dawson’s Creek, which spawned two huge hits, Sixpence None the Richer’s “Kiss Me” and Paula Cole’s “I Don’t Want to Wait.”
The first time I heard the third single from the album, “Stay You” by the UK pop band Wood, I was driving down Santa Monica Boulevard I remember it was played on Los Angeles’ short-lived Triple A format (Adult Alternative) radio station (can’t remember the call letters) which actually played a lot of new music. I loved the bright mid-tempo song immediately, with its offbeat lyric and incredibly catchy, soaring chorus, and was very disappointed that it didn’t cross over beyond the tiny panel of Triple A stations to become a mainstream pop hit. “Stay you…it’s the toughest thing to do.”
In early 2000, after many years of knocking around Nashville and releasing a handful of terrific albums that failed to connect with a mainstream audience, genre-bending singer/songwriter Shelby Lynne connected with Bill Bottrell (Sheryl Crow’s Tuesday Night Music Club) and created her breakthrough album, the stunning I Am Shelby Lynne. Though the album didn’t generate any radio hits, it sold well, received great reviews, and earned Lynne the Grammy for Best New Artist (this despite the fact that she had literally been recording for 10 years—but that’s NARAS for you).
My favorite song on the album was “Leavin'”. Though many critics spoke at the time about the album’s country, blues, and jazz overtones, I always heard it as a soul song. I was lucky enough to have a chance to illustrate my point when, at my suggestion, Natalie Cole recorded it on the record we executive produced together several years later. Natalie’s version of “Leavin’“, which ended up being the title track of the 2006 release, was profiled in volume one of this Stargayzing series and successfully conveys just how kindred country and R&B actually are. Natalie took Shelby’s amazing song to a different place and found that back-in-the-day soul sound I’d heard in my head. The night in Atlanta that she laid down her vocal on Leavin’ remains one of the most moving of moments of my music career. Here is Shelby’s original version, which I submitted to Clive in 2000 as a song that should have been a hit (two times, so far!)
I remember when I was originally researching this CD back in 2000 I called my friend Cathy Burke who was then working at Atlantic Records in New York. It was she who introduced me to the German band Bell Book & Candle’s single “(Rescue Me) Let You’re Amazement Grow.” If memory serves, the song was a hit in territories around the world but not in the U.S.
Listening again to this song after so many years it really sounds like the period. I wonder if the parenthetical title was used to differentiate the song from the Fontella Bass song “Rescue Me.”
I found then unknown French pop band Phoenix’s debut album Alphabetical in a CD store on LaBrea Boulevard. I have no idea why I bought it, though I seem to remember that it was steeply discounted. In retrospect it seems possible that I heard “Too Young” on KROQ. All I can say is that this was a one listen album for me. I responded immediately to the band’s melodic sensibility and to the energy of the music, which seemed to mirror the way I felt driving around L.A. in my Jeep Wrangler. Music is such a potent sense memory that hearing this song today immediately brings back the smell and feel of the air as I drove up in the hills.
Though the band has yet to have a big hit single in the states, they have grown in stature in the years since I submitted my Clive CD. Now signed to my friend Daniel Glass’ Glassnotes label, they recently enjoyed their highest debut so far with 2013’s Bankrupt!
LeAnn Womack’s cover of Nashville writers Mark Sanders’ and Tia Sillers’ “I Hope You Dance” was a career moment for all involved. The uplifting record topped Billboard’s country and AC chart, won the ASCAP and BMI Song of the Year award and was nominated for a Grammy for Song of the Year. So why would a song that accomplished all this and effectively became an anthem for positive thinking ever be considered for a list of songs that should have been hits? Easy: because mainstream pop radio refused to play this record and it peaked at a depressing number 14 on the Hot 100. In any reasonable analysis, “I Hope You Dance” would have been number one for weeks. No matter what the song achieved and despite the pop remix that removed the Sons of the Deserts’ background part and banished any remotely twangy instrumentation, pop radio turned their back. LeAnn sang it on every TV show that existed and Top 40 wouldn’t play it. A best selling book based on the song’s lyrics came out and Top 40 wouldn’t play it. Though pop radio played Faith Hill and LeAnn Rimes that year, they wouldn’t play “I Hope You Dance.”
I included this song because I was gobsmacked at the time that a song that connected so profoundly with people if they actually heard it was rejected by so many mainstream pop stations. It’s still confounding.
Rufus Wainwright is extremely conflicting for me. While I have tremendous respect for his decision to be forthright about his sexuality from the start, (a decision which very few artists signed to major labels would have made at the time), I have to admit that I find his nasal, whiny voice incredibly annoying. Wait—that’s not entirely true! It’s more like when you take a piece of gum and it tastes really good for like five minutes and then suddenly it turns on you and you can’t spit it out fast enough? That’s how I feel about Rufus Wainwright’s voice—I like it for a minute and then I want to spit it out.
Now putting all that aside, at the beginning—like a million compliments ago—Rufus seemed sort of down to earth and likable. And his eponymous debut album was patiently created with producers Jon Brion (Fiona Apple) and Pierre Marchand (Sarah McLachlan) under the loving stewardship of A&R man Lenny Waronker, who historically made commitments to artists irrespective of whether they sold records (Randy Newman, to name just one). How patient was Lenny Waronker? He let Rufus record 56 songs over two years to create the 12-song album, which was released in May, 1998 and by March, 1999 had only sold 35,000 units.
For me the highlight of Rufus and company’s precious debut is “April Fools,” a joyful romp that actually makes an asset out of the unmistakable Wainwright whine. I’m not sure why it wasn’t a hit—it’s certainly catchy enough.
At the turn of the last century you couldn’t walk a block in the UK without hearing Craig David. The album Born To Do It and its first single “Fill Me In” were massively successful all over the world except in the U.S, natch. Touted as the next big thing, David, who was a major artist in the emerging 2 step dance movement of the period. When Fill Me In was finally released as a single in 2001, it peaked at number 15 on the Billboard Hot 100, without, apparently, making much of an impression on American radio programmers who were busy with Destiny’s Child and Matchbox 20 and not in the mood to be filled in.
To be sure, any list of most exhilarating female R&B voices would be incomplete without the inclusion of the inimitable Chaka Khan. A true vocal original, there are few sounds as astonishing and joyful as Khan’s voice when it soars, its illusion of effortlessness the very essence of her gift. Equally at home singing R&B or jazz, no matter what she chooses to sing, there is never a question as to whom we are listening. From her first Top-10 hit, Rufus’ awesome cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Tell Me Something Good,” through her incredible recent work, like the flawless 2007 collection Funk This, Chaka Khan has proven over and over why she is the gold standard of R&B. Though she can be wildly inconsistent live—I’ve seen her hold an audience in her thrall with thrilling intensity or dispassionately walk through a performance—there is nothing quite like Chaka when she’s putting a little somethin’ somethin’ into it.
“Love Me Still” was written by Chaka and piano man Bruce Hornsby (“The Way it Is”) for the 1995 Spike Lee film Clockers. Though it was released as a single (and included a few years later on Chaka’s Greatest Hits CD Epiphany), the poignant ballad received little airplay and is nearly forgotten today. Even more disappointing was that the song failed to get an Oscar nomination for Best Song, a bit surprising since it is the sort of ballad the Academy favors. I’m including both the original single version, and a live performance from the period in which Chaka Khan shows us all how she can!