Trust, Money, & Guts, 1975: Recording The 2nd Stephen Michael Schwartz Album-EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW PT. 4
Grammy-winner Paul Williams, a bold career decision, and a TV-movie singing gig enter Stephen's universe. His follow-up album should be a breeze......
In Part 3 of the Stephen Michael Schwartz Exclusive Interview with Front Row & Backstage, Stephen was auditioning musicians for a proposed tour following the release of his debut, self-titled RCA album. Songwriting and direction for a follow-up album had begun, as well:
Lesson #1: Trust takes years to build, seconds to break, and a lifetime to repair.
Stephen sets the scene: “I mentioned in an earlier segment that I was given a substantial advance when I signed with RCA in 1974. This was more money than I had ever had before, and it allowed me to move into my own apartment in Hollywood and concentrate on my music full time.
“It was suggested that I might want to get a financial manager to protect and control my funds, and make sure my money was being properly managed, and bills were being paid. This made sense given the work I needed to be doing, musically.
“So, I met with Gregory Thomas, ESQ, who was a highly recommended business manager handling the finances of Ringo Starr, David and Cheryl Ladd (of Charlie’s Angels TV fame), and the husband and wife songwriting team, Brian and Brenda Russell (a respected recording artist in her own right).
“Greg was charming, personable, and smooth with a great sense of humor; not the image I had of your typical conservative, serious money manager. So, I signed with Greg, and turned over my account to him. I really felt like the pieces were all falling into place for me: Record deal, business manager, career path firmly in place. ‘Falling’ is the operative word!
“Skip to the punch line: Within six months, I was getting notices from a number of companies saying I was overdue on various bills, car payment, utilities, rent. It turned out Gregory Thomas absconded with millions of dollars of his clients’ monies, (a pittance of which was mine), and hightailed it to Mexico where he was later extradited and brought back to the US on charges of embezzlement.
“He was found guilty and served time in federal prison. No money, to my knowledge, was ever retrieved. Certainly none of mine.”
Lesson #2: “Never spend your money before you have it.” – Thomas Jefferson
“My manager called me to tell me he got an offer for me to open the show for Paul Williams in Bellingham, Washington on Sunday, March 9, 1975. Paul [now 81], at the time, was a popular singer/songwriter and television personality.”
For some startling pop culture perspective, Microsoft was founded fewer than four weeks later (April 4, 1975) by Bill Gates and Paul Allen.
“[Williams] is best known for writing such mega-hits for the Carpenters as ‘We’ve Only Just Begun,’ ‘Rainy Days and Mondays,’ and the beautiful ‘Rainbow Connection’ (Kermit and Sesame Street), among others.”
Fans of David Bowie may not know that the late rock legend actually covered a Paul Williams song on his Hunky Dory album in 1971: “Fill Your Heart” (co-written with Paul by “Biff” Rose, an American comedian and singer/songwriter).
For context, Williams was just four months removed from having written the score for the Brian De Palma theatrical release, Phantom of the Paradise (released Halloween ‘74), in which he also starred as Swan, record producer and owner of Death Records, as seen below, in character:
Stephen: “This was my first live performance after the release of my album, and I was very excited. With the help of David Foster (about whom more can be read here in Part 3), I got the band ready and informed them of the date.
“I was told to put all our plane tickets and hotel charges on my credit card, and I would be reimbursed upon payment after the show.
“Skip to the punch line: We flew in and did the concert. As I recall, Paul Williams was very kind, and introduced himself to me as we were doing sound check. He had a large Winnebago he stayed in rather then using the dressing rooms in the Bellingham Arena, so I got the place all to myself, as well as dressing rooms for my band.
“Turns out the promoter never paid me or my management for the gig! I was told even Paul Williams got stiffed on that gig. I don’t know about that. All I know is I was left with a $2,500 MasterCard bill to pay. My manager was of little help with recovery of funds or my deficit. That’s showbiz.”
EXCLUSIVE: Stephen’s touring band, after many rehearsals, and just the one Bellingham show opening for Paul Williams. All went on to have lengthy (and some, quite notable) careers as session players, and beyond:
“Me on guitar and vocals
Robbie Buchanan on keyboards
Richie Zito on electric guitar
Jeff Eyrich on bass
Willie Ornelas, drums
Carmen Twillie, background vocals” (A gal named Afrika joined Carmen on back-up vocals, but Stephen couldn’t recall her last name)
Lesson #3 “Changing horses in the middle of the stream gets you wet and sometimes cold.” -Dan Fogelberg
“After the Paul Williams experience, I was gun-shy about doing any more touring with a group. Most of my performing after that was just me and my guitar: I traveled light, cheap and in control. I did lots of clubs and the college circuit using the RCA album as my entrée.
“I set up a meeting with Don Berkheimer, west coast head of RCA, to discuss when to start my next album. At this meeting, I also planned to tell Don I have decided not to use David Kershenbaum to produce me. That, in retrospect, was a bad idea.
“I fumbled through an explanation to Don that, although I liked David, and thought him a wonderful guy, he had surrounded me with great musicians, but lost me in the process. I needed to find my sound and voice. I had to find the right producer to help me discover this.
“I should have realized that David was Don Berkheimer’s friend, protégé, and a successful hit producer for RCA, and here is this 21-year-old upstart coming in to tell the west coast head of the company why he feels he needs a producer!
“Again, if I had had good management to guide me, I’m sure I would have been talked out of such a bombastic business move.
“But Don, to his credit, listened to my ideas, and even asked if I had any thoughts about who I might want to produce. I mentioned Mickie Most [Animals, Herman’s Hermits, Lulu, Jeff Beck], who got some lovely sounds on Donovan’s records.”
“Don asked me to submit some names to him, so I began to set up meetings with prospective producers.”
A Well-Timed Diversion
“Around this time I got a call, through my so-called manager, asking me if I would like to sing the title song for an ABC-TV movie called Sweet Hostage [which aired on October 10, 1975]. It starred Linda Blair [two years and three film projects removed from The Exorcist], and a 35-year-old Martin Sheen.”
“I thought the movie was wonderful and the song ‘Strangers On A Carousel’ was well-crafted so I went for it. What’s that wonderful adage…‘Say yes until you have to say no’?
“People on social media still talk about that movie, and even the song that reiterated the story in musical form.”
Stephen’s performance of “Strangers on a Carousel” plays over a scene montage:
Next, in Part 5: Stephen meets prospective producers for the next album, and is this the beginning of the end with RCA? Read it here:
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