Stephen Bishop reflects on 40 years of music
Stephen Bishop earned two Grammy Award nominations after he scored his musically perky 1977 breakthrough hit “Save It for a Rainy Day,” which featured a guitar solo by Eric Clapton and soaring background vocals by Chaka Khan. His next hit, “On and On,” came just six months later, followed by his memorable appearance with John Belushi in the star-making 1977 film comedy “National Lampoon’s Animal House.”
But this San Diego-born troubadour — whose 18th and newest album, “Blueprint,” comes out Friday and can be ordered through his website — was anything but an overnight success story. After Bishop graduated from Crawford High School and moved from La Mesa to Hollywood, he struggled to land a recording contract and find a producer. Then he struggled some more. And some more.
“I started off at 18, living by myself, in Los Angeles, on $50 a week,” he recalled, speaking from his home in Hollywood Hills.
“And, for six years, I tried to get a deal — some kind, any kind, of record deal — and I didn’t get anywhere. I didn’t know what else to do with my life. I knew I’d been a songwriter since I was 14, but it was tough. It’s like everything in business and in life. You’ve got to earn it. And I feel like I earned it.”
But not without paying his dues first, including a job at an L.A. car rental agency that abruptly ended after one month when Bishop accidentally smashed up the rear of a luxury sports car.
“I did about $10,000 worth of damage, and I was fired,” said the bearded singer-songwriter, adding: “I was only used to driving a Volkswagen!”
“I worked at FedMart in San Diego when I was 15 — in the car department! I hadn’t driven a car in my life and I had no idea about anything (automotive). People would come in, and say: ‘I need help picking out a ratchet and socket. Will this one work?’ And I said, not having any idea: ‘Oh, yeah, that works!’ ”
Bishop was rejected by nearly every record company and producer of note in Los Angeles before he finally landed a staff songwriting position with a music publishing company. Five years later, two of his songs, “The Same Old Tears on a New Background” and “Looking for the Right One,” were featured on Art Garfunkel’s million-selling album “Breakaway.”
Barbra Streisand then recorded the Bishop-penned “One More Night,” and he finally signed his elusive record deal in 1976. Songs he wrote or co-wrote were subsequently covered by everyone from Clapton, Kenny Loggins and Johnny Mathis to Phil Collins, jazz drummer Jeff Hamilton and former Abba singer Anni-Frid Lyngstad.
“And Beyoncé sampled a guitar lick from ‘On and On’ for her 2013 song ‘Ring Off,’ on her ‘Beyoncé’ album,” said Bishop, whose high school band, The Weeds, won second place at the Clairemont Battle of the Bands. “I was fortunate. I get a certain amount of money from Beyoncé” (crediting him as a co-songwriter). “You’d think I made a fortune from that, but I didn’t.”
Bishop, 64, chuckled.
“I made my first album 40 years ago, if you can believe that,” he noted, his tone a mixture of pride and disbelief. “I’ve been making albums from the summer of 1976 to the summer of 2016; I can’t believe it. And it’s so great — the music business is flourishing, just like in the old days. Not!”
ABC Records, which released Bishop’s first two albums, went under in 1979. His third album, 1980’s “Red Cab to Manhattan,” was inspired in large part by his romantic breakup with actress Karen Allen, who had made her film debut in “Animal House” and co-starred in 1981’s “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”
Alas, “Red Cab” was a commercial flop.
But Bishop rebounded when he was chosen to sing “It Might Be You,” the romantic theme song to the 1982 Dustin Hoffman film “Tootsie.” He has sung, written music, or done both for a dozen other films, including “White Nights,” “The China Syndrome” and “Unfaithfully Yours.” In addition to “Animal House,” Bishop has appeared in “The Blues Brothers,” “Twilight Zone: The Movie” and “Kentucky Fried Movie.”
But he made his most enduring impact on screen in “Animal House,” in which he had a brief but indelible scene as “Charming Guy With Guitar.” His character’s allure was lost on the movie’s breakout star, John Belushi, whose character, Bluto Blutarsky, takes immediate offense at “I Gave My Love a Cherry,” the wimpy folk ballad performed by “Charming Guy.”
In a near-instant, Blutarsky rips the guitar out of the hapless charmer’s hands, smashes it to pieces against a wall, then hands the remnants back to the stunned troubadour.
“It wasn’t in the script, and it only took two takes to film,” said Bishop, who had the “Animal House” cast sign the broken guitar. It now hangs on a wall near the front door of his Hollywood Hills home.
“I looked scared in that scene because I was scared — Belushi was an imposing force! He was something else. He could be really funny, sweet, just the nicest guy, and make friends with anybody. And he could be really moody, ornery and, well ... .” Bishop let out a near-bloodcurdling scream to illustrate Belushi at his most unhinged.
At one point. his friendship with Belushi intersected — in a manner — with his friendship with Clapton, who has played on several of Bishop’s albums and has cited the San DIegan as one of his favorite contemporary songwriters.
“I hung out with Belushi for a while and I went to his house right around the time I did ‘Saturday Night Live’ (in 1978). He found out I knew Clapton — and he worshipped Clapton. I was going to England the next week to visit Eric and stay at his house. Are John said: ‘Are you going to see him? Tell him what a big fan I am and how much I love him.’
“So, the next week, I tell Clapton. And he goes...” (Bishop affects a spot-on English accent) “:... ‘Oh, that John Belushi who makes fun of Joe Cocker? I don’t like him!’
“When I came back to New York, I got on a pay phone and I called Belushi. And he said (excitedly): ‘Did you tell him? Did you tell him?’ I said: ‘Um, yeah. He wasn’t a big fan of that Cocker thing.’ John went (in crestfallen tone): ‘Really?’ And he got so upset.
“I didn’t know he was on an acid trip at the time — his wife, Judy, told me later — and he went into a big meltdown. It was a weird thing.”
“Blueprint,” Bishop’s new album, was expertly produced by Jon Gilutin. It’s the fourth album on General Records, the label Bishop launched in 2002 to release his own music.
“There’s General Electric and General Foods,” he replied. “So I thought, ‘Why not General Records?’”
An understated work that is often performed at a near hush, the 13-song “Blueprint” finds Bishop revisiting and revamping songs from his back catalog.
They include “It Might Be You,” the stirring lament “Blue Window” and the gently inspirational “Holy Mother,” which he co-wrote with longtime pal Clapton in 1986. Among the highlights are the wry Steely Dan homage “I’ll Sleep on the Plane,” and the tender “She’s Not Mine,” which may qualify as one of the finest Paul McCartney ballads not actually written by McCartney.
“I’m fortunate, in that — as you can hear on the album — my voice hasn’t changed much,” Bishop said. “I’m not a drinker. And I don’t really smoke pot anymore.”
Has his impetus for songwriting changed much over the decades?
“Well, it’s totally different,” he said. “Because I was writing all the time back then. I don’t write as much now, and I have to get with the program; it’s about discipline.”
The album’s title is literal for Bishop, who used his home-recorded demonstration tapes — or “demos,” to use the term long favored by musicians — as templates.
“I have tons of demos from all the years of being a songwriter,” he said. “I decided to take the songs from the demos and use them as a blueprint, and then go on from there.”
The album does not include the first Bishop song ever recorded by another artist. But he has no problem remembering who has that distinction.
“It would have been by Jerry Cole, a session guitar player who used to be a member of Them, on Happy Tiger Records,” Bishop said. “The publishing company I worked for was all excited that he recorded my song ‘Daisy Hawkins.’
“How did it do? It went straight to the bottom!”
Stephen Bishop on...
His early role models: “The one vocal I really was affected by was Bobby Vinton. When I was about 11 or 12 I heard his record ‘There I’ve Said It Again.’ I loved it; I still do.” (Bishop sings the title, then the first verse, minus some words, which he hums.) “It was The Beatles who really steered me in my direction — the British Invasion and The Beatles. I didn’t have enough money to buy Beatles’ albums when they first came out. So I had to go to a discount record store and I got (a record by the British Invasion-styled Massachusetts garage-rock band) The Bugs instead! I listened to that a lot.”
His first band in San Diego: “We had a lot of names — The Classics, Stave and The Marquis. I would tell my mom: ‘Mom, in front of the guys, call me Stave!’ She said: ‘Honey, I’ll call you by your name.’ ‘No, mom! Stave, I tell you!’
Trying to sound like a Brit: “I would imitate English people, like, in typing class. Then, when I was 15, I got a job selling magazine subscriptions, door to door, for three months. They’d drop us in Oceanside to sell them. I had a routine, where I’d act like I just came from England. This one time, I knocked and said” (in overstated English accent): ‘Hello, mum, I just got over from Liverpool, and I’m selling subscriptions to Life Magazine, mum.’ And this woman said: ‘Come in! We’re entertaining some people from England!’ I went in, and they were all like:” (in authentic English accent) ‘Oh, hello, how are you? Good to meet you! What part of Liverpool are you from?’ And I heard my English accent, just disintegrating!”
The Grammy that Debby Boone gave him: “That’s a funny question. I haven’t seen her in a while. You know the story? In 1989, I did my album, ‘Bowling in Paris.’ I used a producer, Michael Omartian, who was friends with Debby, and he suggested she come and sing background. She came with two other girls and sang on a song called ‘My Heartbreak.’ And she brought her (1977 Best New Artist) Grammy. She said: ‘I think you deserve this. I think you should have won.’ And I thought: ‘I should have won!’ Everyone thought I was going to win. They sat me in the first row (at the Grammys telecast). I was nervous. I didn’t win. But who care about winning?”
Having dinner with Ted Nugent: “I palled around with Gene Simmons from Kiss for a while. This was probably in 1980. I was living in New York. He’s a crazy guy and was very musical back then. We both got turned down from going backstage to meet Billy Joel! Gene invited me to have dinner in New York with him and Ted Nugent. Ted asked me if I hunt. And I said: ‘No. I like to follow a duck and then choke it with my bare hands.’ It was obviously not true. When I was 10, I shot a robin with my BB gun. I was so excited. I went over and it was choking and blood was coming out of its beak. I went: ‘Oh, my god! What did I do?’ I went into a three-day cry fest. I’m a peace-and-love guy.”