Career Chord Change: Stephen Michael Schwartz, From Pop-Rocker to Titan of Tot Tunes-EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW PT. 1
In 1970, he rolled into L.A., wide-eyed at 17, armed with a guitar, songs, and a dream. So did thousands of others. He broke through...once. But, in a surprising career turn he didn't see coming.
He certainly had the look: Tall, dark, and teen-mag-ready handsome. His soft crown of relentless curls was rife for not only coveting by teenage girls, but once photographed, became the beckoning, furry forest through which to run their mood-rung fingers.
At least, that was the hope of RCA Records in 1974, as they were eager to drive the 20-year-old Stephen Michael Schwartz onto the record biz on-ramp, and steer him directly into the pop-idol lane, and ideally, head-long into teenage traffic.
His voice was (and still is) a clear, warm tenor, with the ability to slide into an easy falsetto. His diction and easy-to-understand pronunciation is rarely heard in the many marble-mouthed rock singers heard since mid-century.
But, it’s these particular and rare vocal gifts that make him the perfect presenter of music for children. He even took theater and early childhood education in college!
Could it be that this early stab at pop stardom was simply a piddling speed-bump in his personal career plan to become an award-winning, wildly popular performer, entertaining kids and their parents worldwide?
“STEPHEN MICHAEL SCHWARTZ!” A 25-year-old David Cassidy asked a simple question to the half-dozen media types assembled in his Houston penthouse. I was happy to oblige him by reminding him of the “guy with three names who recorded the same song” included on his album.
That Cassidy post-Partridge Family RCA Records promotional press event that I attended was in mid-1975. The year before, the rookie pop singer whose name I blurted out released his own album on RCA, a self-titled debut, Stephen Michael Schwartz, then 20.
Who Woulda Guessed?
The similarities between the late David Cassidy and Stephen Michael Schwartz are surprising, and likely never fully explored, much less even considered. The two guitar-playing singer/songwriters (about five years apart in age) were RCA labelmates in the mid-’70s.
They each recorded Ned Doheny’s “Get it Up For Love” a few months apart (and released as singles), and the two also had their own half-hour TV sitcoms: Cassidy with the wildly popular The Partridge Family for four years in the early ‘70s; Schwartz co-starred in the NBC syndicated sitcom, Please Stand By, in 1978, a role he got after responding to an astoundingly coincidental network casting call for “a David Cassidy type”!
It’s there where the similarities between a world-renowned teen idol and a gifted, multi-talented singer/songwriter come to an ear-splittingly screeching halt. David was bright and shiny, with sparkling teeth in a perpetual smile, and a dark, feathery mane blowing in the breeze.
Stephen looked moody, sultry, even a little “dangerous,” as those smoky bedroom eyes were accentuated by a fluffy halo of carob curls, with not even a hint of a smile, even appearing shirtless in photos.
David was cautious: “I Think I Love You,” while maybe holding your hand. Stephen was insistent: “Get it Up For Love,” pressing in maybe just a little too close. Stephen might’ve been the Stones that parents lifted their eyebrows at, while David was the “welcome to our home, and please stay for dinner” squeaky-clean Beatles.
But, record company PR departments aside, Stephen Michael Schwartz has spent nearly five decades maximizing his singing, songwriting, and guitar-playing talents, and has carved out an impressive niche in the entertainment world, particularly in the worldwide children’s records and performing lanes.
His is a story worth hearing (and being inspired by), especially when the man himself tells it:
How Do You Sell An Artist With 22 Letters?
“RCA played on the length of my name on all the promo posters and ads.” Stephen caught wind of the David Cassidy article on Front Row & Backstage, and was gracious and generous enough to give us his personal backstory, as well as reveal an exclusive behind-the-scenes peek at the making of his self-titled debut album.
Stephen explained that RCA took a page out of the old Smucker’s jam TV commercial campaign, and ran print ads that proclaimed, “With a name like that, he's gotta be good!”
The 411 On SMS, In His Own Words
Stephen was born on June 29, 1953 in Victorville, California, a little desert town between Los Angeles and Las Vegas.
“There were five in my family: Mom, Dad, and my two younger sisters,” Stephen shared, while also disclosing the family’s many moves: “One day, in our later years, my sisters and I sat around and counted how many times we had moved. Me being the oldest, I counted 19 times from Victorville to Canoga Park (L.A. County), all in California.”
“Can't say why we moved so much, but between my Dad having trouble keeping a job and my mother's wanderlust, it kept us on our toes.”
Stephen attended Canoga Park High School in LA’s San Fernando Valley, graduating in 1971. Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston attended the school, but graduated three years later. “Ironically, he was in the Chemistry Club!” Stephen added, wryly.
“I was a really good basketball player, but too small to make the CPHS Hunters team,” Stephen continued. “I ended up on the swim team and lettered as a diver. I couldn't afford the leather jacket so I simply carried my letter around in my guitar case!
“Theater and music were where I put all of my attention, and my report cards bear witness to that fact!”
The Beatles Change Another Life
Stephen’s motivation to pick up a guitar is one shared by millions: “February 9th, 1964 is a date that launched millions of future musicians like myself to want to play an instrument. That was the night The Beatles first appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show.
“The Fab Four spoke a language that my parents' generation could not interpret, but went right to my little 11-year-old heart and soul. Lennon and McCartney are at the top of the list for pure and total musical inspiration.”
“After that show I asked for and received my first guitar,” Stephen reflected. “I was 11 years old. I took a few guitar lessons but didn’t take well to the structure. It felt too much like school work.
“I was better off on my own with a Beatles Easy Guitar book. I was never without a guitar from that day forward.” It was later on when he took up the piano.
“I started discovering my voice and singing right about the same time that I picked up the guitar. How do you know you can really sing unless you start to sing?”
“This was the foundation for what would be a long, joyous career as a songwriter.”
When asked about his early songwriting attempts, and what convinced him he was talented enough to pursue that gift, Stephen was especially candid, going so far as to share his very first composition:
“After learning all the Beatles songs in the book, I ventured out trying to write my own songs. With very little life experience to pull from, I created false narratives like being a wandering, homeless, lost soul, and I’d write my early songs from that perspective.
“Oh, yeah, ‘Did You Ever’.” Stephen bravely volunteered his first songwriting attempt: “First line: ‘Did you ever have to live in such pain? Build your house from a beat-up old train?’ Very embarrassing, of course, when I listen back to it now, but you gotta start somewhere! This was the foundation for what would be a long, joyous career as a songwriter.”
Always in awe of the songwriting process, I couldn’t help but ask Stephen how he gained the confidence to keep plugging away at such an elusive, mysterious art.
“My parents were very supportive of my musical interests,” he replied. “Perhaps they were simply going in the direction the horse was running. It meant a lot to me that they would always stop to listen to my latest song or encourage me moving forward as long as it didn’t impede on my school work and education. That always came first.”
“My very first professional singing job was at age 12,” he continued, proudly, making sure I knew he wasn’t kidding. “I sang at an English Fish and Chips pub in Santa Monica called The Mucky Duck. Got paid $25.00!”
Beyond The Fab Four
“We had a record player in our house, and my father was in charge (at least until the 60’s) of what got played. So I was introduced early on to the sounds of Miles Davis, Antonio Carlos Jobim, Dave Brubeck, Billy Eckstine, Tony Bennett, and a host of great Jewish cantorial works by Moish Oisher, Jan Pierce and others.
“Of course there were the Broadway soundtracks like The Sound Of Music, The King and I, West Side Story, Fiddler On The Roof; these were my favorites.”
Now would be a good time to mention that Stephen attended LA’s Pierce College in the early ‘70s, studying theater, and in a hint to his eventual children’s music success with his Parachute Express trio and solo work, Early Childhood Education. Coincidentally, an eventual Pierce College student a few years after Schwartz, would be another The Partridge Family alumnus, Danny Bonaduce.
Growing up in the ‘60s, Stephen’s favorite TV shows include some of the decade’s most iconic: Wild, Wild West, The Monkees, and I Spy (on which he’d later earn a role in an episode)!
Into Hollywood in the Era of the Singer/Songwriter
He had to know he wasn’t alone. He couldn’t have known, of course, that rock history would look back on the early ‘70s as the era of the singer/songwriter. Hundreds, if not thousands of newly-baptized hippies, washed in the mud and music of 1969’s Woodstock, hitched a ride, westward, to Hollywood.
Technically, Stephen was already there. Realistically, though, he lived in the San Fernando Valley, a quick hop, skip, and a 45-minute station wagon ride with your buds to West Hollywood.
“At age 17, I was becoming very serious about how to get heard and signed to a major record company. I lived in Los Angeles, one of the best cities for such a dream.”
Sure enough, many of his newly-adopted musical heroes were already crowding the legendary Hollywood clubs in 1970, pounding the Santa Monica Boulevard pavement while deftly sidestepping the ubiquitous male hustlers.
Those influences? “Bob Dylan with his unique stream-of-consciousness writing style, Donovan with his flowery, poetic, transcendental imagery; later, Cat Stevens, James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, Harry Nilsson, Elvis Costello. These are some of my heroes and songwriting teachers.”
How Stephen Broke Through the Crowd of Musicians
“There was a wonderful organization called ‘The L.A. Songwriter's Showcase,’ run by two wonderful advocates for new talent, former’60s Columbia Records folk singer/songwriter, Len Chandler [now 86], and the late John Braheny, a songwriter and performer in the 1960s, as well.
“This was a safe place to hone your craft, get advice, and make important music industry contacts,” Stephen explained. “If John or Len liked you, they would make an effort to see that you got seen by the right people. The rest was up to you and luck.
“The ‘Showcase’ was held at Capitol Records in the main recording room where Sinatra, The Beach Boys, and so many others had recorded. There was a palpable magic in that room and all in attendance hoped to grab a bit of it for themselves.
“I made a great, simple demo of four of my songs, (just my guitar and my voice) in that space and used it as my calling card. Thank you to John and Len for that!!”
Hitting the Stage
“The other way to be seen and heard was playing clubs,” Stephen explained. “That's where the A&R guys [a record label’s Artists & Repertoire execs] found their newest artists. So I played wherever I could get a spot.
“Sometimes you even had to pay to play, which was a weird concept that mitigated the club owner's losses if you didn't bring in a good paying crowd. Many times we hungry artists had no choice!
“Some of the clubs I played were: Pasadena’s Ice House [once a folk club, but a comedy room since 1978], Santa Monica’s McCabe’s [now a guitar shop], The Bla Bla Cafe in Studio City, The Ash Grove on Melrose, and The Palomino in N. Hollywood [closed in 1995].
“But, the most important place to be seen and heard was The Troubadour in the heart of West Hollywood.
“The Troubadour had what they called ‘Hoot Night’ on Mondays. It was an open mic night where you signed up in the afternoon for a spot to perform ten minutes of your best material. The Troubadour house band,” Stephen added, “went on to become Linda Ronstadt's backing band, and then later The Eagles.”
Stephen found a revealing quote from iconic singer/songwriter, Tom Waits, a ‘Hoot Night’ regular in the ‘70s:
“It was frightening to hoot, to be rushed through like cattle. And at the Troubadour it's like the last resort. You see old vaudeville cats, bands that have hocked everything to come out here from the East Coast just to play the Troub one night.
You also meet a lot of carnival barkers in polyester, smoking Roi-Tans and giving you some long Texas routine. They say, 'Hello sucker.' And I was a sucker. But you're desperate, you're broke.”--Tom Waits, 1974
Stephen continued his Troubadour recollections: “I played there as often as I could. It was a major commitment. In my case I had to skip out of school early, drive into Hollywood from The Valley, get in line by 3:00pm with all the other hopefuls, and get my time or my ‘spot’ [to go on].
“If you were late you were out of luck. I remember standing on line once with [singer/songwriter, now 70] Stephen Bishop” [“On and On,” “Save it For a Rainy Day”].
“My recollection is this: First, the main act/acts came on about 8:00 pm and played until 10:00. Then the ‘Hoot’ started and went until 1:00 am. Sometimes you played that 1:00 am slot, and you knew the record company men were long gone. So you played to your friends, peers and tired waitresses.”
And, One Night, The Break…
Stephen fondly recalls: “One night after a really solid performance, I was approached by a ‘rep’ from RCA Records who gave me his card and asked me to contact him to have a meeting.
“I called him the next day. I went in and met with the West Coast head of RCA, Don Berkheimer. I came in with my guitar. I didn't even play my demo; I just did what I did on the Troubadour stage. Me, my guitar, my voice and some really good songs. And soon thereafter, at the age of 20, I signed an exclusive recording contract with RCA.
“There were people who saw my talent, and gave me guidance toward getting a record deal. In particular, Scott Anderson (who went on to manage The Knack, and all-girl rock band, The Runaways), was an early advocate and helped guide me, listening to my songs, giving me performing advice and spending time with me in those early days. Thank you, Scott!
“After signing my record deal,” Stephen explains, “I was given a nice advance which allowed me to get an apartment in Hollywood close to RCA. The record took about a month to make, and in that time I met, rubbed shoulders with, and hung out with some fabulous people!”
In Part 2 of Stephen’s EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW, he’ll all but give you a tour of the studio!
He’ll give you the scoop on the art direction, song selection, promotion, production, and what it was like to be 20 and positioned to be the next RCA teen pop idol! Find it here:
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