Bill, you come from a musical family. Your maternal grandmother and her sisters were professional piano players. Could one say that the women in your family brought you to music?
There is a long line of musicians on my mom’s side of the family. My strongest memories of music come from around four years old, sitting on the laps of my grandmother and aunts with my small arms covering their’s while they played ragtime piano songs. It was a ‘stride’ piano move. Left hand moving from bass note to chord or triad while the right hand plays a melody. I never really learned to do this. But I did learn to copy the movement and rhythm. The memory is indelible and inspired me to get my hands on the piano at an early age and as often as possible.
When did you decide to become a professional musician?
I don’t think I ever made a conscious decision to be a professional musician until I had a child. Before that it wasn’t as important for me to reliably generate income as it was to reliably create and compose music and songs. Money was never the main motivation or inspiration. As long as I did the bare minimum to achieve the freedom to perform that was enough. Getting married and having a daughter changed this. Life was no longer about just me and my love and passion for music. I now had another love and passion. So I decided to use one to serve the other.
You made your first steps in the music business as a member of the rock band “Fat Chance” together with Steve Eaton, among others. At the age of 19 you were signed to RCA Records with the band. Your first album was released in 1972. How do you remember that time?
Free-wheeling, chaotic, young and naive. Hollywood at that time seemed like a care-free summer camp or amusement park for unchaperoned teenagers. Which essentially is what we were. Steve Eaton and I arrived with a quarter inch reel to reel tape recording of our home-made album. We walked up and down Sunset and Hollywood Boulevard visiting every major label we could find. At that time a young recording artist could walk right up to the receptionist and say, “We have created a great music album, does anybody want to hear it?” More often than not, yes, someone wanted to hear it. Particularly if you were young, coifed like a British rock star or Haight-Ashbury flower-child. Eventually we elicited some real enthusiasm from a record producer who got us showcased at The Troubadour where our band impressed two or three labels enough to offer us record deals on the spot.
Already in 1968 you came to L.A. for the first time. What fascinated you about the city and the music scene at the end of the 60s?
From the mid-sixties into the early seventies, from a music standpoint, the Western seaboard of the US from Seattle to San Francisco to L.A. was a long string of rock joint taverns, festivals, and venues for performing music. My bands made early trips to L.A. to record singles. Back then at certain studios, Gold-Star, SunWest, Paramount you could independently record two to four sides at forty to sixty dollars an hour. Get the four sides recorded, take them home, Oregon or Idaho for me at the time, press the recordings into 45rpm discs, and visit the regional radio stations and beg the program directors to play them as singles. It was a different business then. Giant corporations and media companies hadn’t yet commandeered virtually every broadcaster and dictated tastes for the whole nation.
We played towns and cities throughout the West. We travelled in a 1946 black Cadillac Hearse. Before setting up to play the ‘gig’ we’d visit the local radio station with our single records and try to get airtime and attention. This was done independently without the help of a record company. The record companies hadn’t yet weaved their branches into every nook and cranny of the US. There were still untouched hinterlands, ‘mom and pop’ owned broadcasters. We cruised the main boulevard in our hearse with “BIG STOMP TONIGHT!” written in white shoe polish along the sides, radio blasting. Music was still regional. Not yet national. This was ‘64 and ‘65. Each part of the country reflected different styles and tastes. It was a very different time and ‘music business’. I’m not sure it was considered a music business at all yet. It was recognized more as a possible record business. For me it was just an incredibly exciting and musically inspiring time.
Bill, you recorded your first solo album “Promised Love” in 1975. Has it always been your long-term ambition to become a solo artist?
No. As a matter of fact in the beginning I just wanted to be a great Jazz keyboard player like Nat Cole, Dave Brubeck, or later, Jimmy Smith on Hammond. I didn’t sing a note in any band until the lead singer got sick one day and I had to sing his repertoire for the next three or four nights till he recovered. The guys in the band liked it and I started sharing lead vocals. Eventually I became a band songwriter after realizing you can’t really be very original without writing original songs. Particularly if you aspire to record.
An important encounter for you was with the legendary music producer and songwriter Russ Titelman, who had already worked with stars such as Randy Newman and James Taylor. You once said that before you had the chance to work with him, the production of your albums never really began to reflect your taste in music. What distinguished his work? And how was the collaboration with him?
I would have described Russ in the time of our project together as an already iconic, thoroughly professional, passionately and creatively driven record producer. Much of his passion has always been driven by his status as a songwriter. Adding I believe an unusual literary approach to much of his production. His tastes and resources were already very wide and covered the full lexicon of popular music and beyond. Today he can only be described as a legend. Urbane, knowledgeable, and still carrying the same creative passion he’s always had. He always invests himself completely in every artist he works with. His trust in me from this standpoint was something I’d never experienced before working with him. I’ve always been grateful for the experience.
Your fourth self-titled solo album for Warner Brothers is one of the essential West Coast albums of the early 80s. Russ Titelman produced the album and you’ve worked with many of the big names in the L.A. session scene on this record – including Greg Phillinganes, David Sanborn, Jeff Porcaro and Steve Lukather, to name a few. How do you remember working with these guys in the studio?
When I came to Russ I’d already gotten to make music with many of the L.A. session greats over the years. Porcaro, Jim Gordon, Dean Parks, Lee Sklar, Steve Lukather, Ray Parker and lots more. But Russ introduced my music to the likes of Steve Gadd, Andy Newmark, and David Sanborn. Titelman’s creative resources spanned not just the session world but went into the world of his peers and great artists. He offered me introductions here that were very generous and plentiful. Enhancing my music in ways that were priceless. At the time I’m sure I didn’t appreciate the scope. But it didn’t take long for me to do so. In many ways Russ’s contributions to my project were a gift at the time. Although I know now he only perceived it as part of his ongoing creative process.
Are there any special anecdotes you like to remember?
Anecdotes? One event I remember took place while I was working on overdubs late into the night with Russ and David Sanborn at Amigo Studios in Burbank. Probably after midnight there was a sudden, “BANG! BANG!” Gunshots. It came from the direction of Studio B. Russ thought we should check it out. After creeping down the hall and peeking around a corner we witnessed a group of men taking a door off its hinges and carefully placing it on the floor. Titelman said, “It’s Waylon Jennings.” Apparently they’d gone out to get a bite during a mixing session and a janitor had locked them out while they were gone. So they blew the lock off to get back in. Sanborn said, “They’re outlaws!” And we crept back to our overdubbing.
Bill, in retrospect, what does this album mean to you as an artist?
I believe certainly it was a climactic milestone for me as an artist. Something to be proud of on many levels. And for many years.
Working as a songwriter would become your main focus in the coming years. Shortly after your album “Bill LaBounty” was released you were unceremoniously dropped from Warner Bros. along with artists like Bonnie Raitt, JD Souther, and Christopher Cross. How did this happen?
I now refer to this period as “The Great Disco Wars”. It was the beginning of lots of high profit-based, if short term corporate policy, refined demographic research, and the narrowing of the ‘bottom line’. I’m sure everybody made a lot of money and are happy with the way things progressed. But I know it left many performers unsatisfied and frustrated with their new status changed from struggling recording artist to hard-to-move “product”. (Today we’re just “content”.) I remember hearing a story of Bonnie Raitt telling a bunch of commiserating artists and friends after being asked what she was going to do at the end of her contract, “I’m gonna play the Blues! That’s what I do. I play the f***ing Blues!” And aren’t we happy she did?
1983 you got to know and love the songwriter Beckie Foster. I especially like the anecdote that you were enthusiastic about the fact that she owned all Steely Dan’s albums. How did you meet?
Beckie was introduced to me by my old friend, Charlie Feldman, now a VP of creative at BMI in New York. At the time we met, around 1982 in L.A. Charlie and I were just two bachelors out on the town. We shared friends and parties. Charlie began running Screen Gems Music and telling me I should check out Nashville as a possible creative community. Not long after I flew out there to see him he began working on me to sign as a writer. And as part of his enticement he introduced me to one of the very few successful female, #1 scoring, Nashville songwriters of that time, Beckie Foster. I think he played a romance match-maker, hoping we’d immediately start pumping out Screen Gems songs and hits together. The only thing that immediately happened is I was immediately smitten and eventually so was Beckie. It took us awhile to start actually creating hit songs but we finally did for a very impatient Charlie.
Bill, your focus shifted from L.A. to Nashville in the coming years. Together with your wife you became a successful Country songwriter. Did you perceive this turning away from jazz-oriented West Coast pop to Country as a break or as another creative playing field for your talent?
Looking back now it seems like it was a very natural and smooth thing to do. For anyone who has ever been in love imagine how sublime it would be to find a soulmate in both love and creative profession. That’s essentially what I found. My creative musical desires were kept happy as a songwriter with the person I most care for as a true, writing collaborator. I only deserted the musical forms I like most, R&B and Jazz, in my immediate livelihood. But never really as my true form of expression. Beckie and I spent seven years living in L.A. as well as Nashville. We rented a little place in Malibu and spent an equal amount of time in both places. Writing and producing songs for Patti LaBelle, Patti Austin, Peter Cetera, Bobby Caldwell, David Foster and contributed to many film soundtracks.
What’s the difference between the music scene in L.A. and Nashville?
First let me try simply to describe on a very basic, technical level the difference between West Coast music itself and the music of the South, Country, and Soul as it existed back then…
In L.A. as I once knew it, the session drummer and bass player were the leaders of any ensemble for an artist’s composition. With guitar and keyboard virtuosity following closely behind. The band as a train interpreting the music and emotion of the artist. Musicians as race-engines in the service of beautiful composition. To a degree I believe this dynamic remains the same. Though not as much so because of the nature corporatization has assumed.
The music style of the South is different, the priorities are opposite but no less beautiful to me. In Country and Soul Music the drummer, or rhythm and bass players follow the lead instruments, stringed instruments, guitar, steel, keys. All of whom listen carefully to the artist who takes very first precedence in the ensemble and shape of the sound. The artist leads the way for the band. Again, corporatization has changed this dynamic greatly. Today many, if not most tracks are manufactured on ProTools with performances by musicians and the artist added separately at various stages. This can create a pleasing overall sound but inevitably loses the sense of ensemble performance that comes from a real group of performers in a room, playing together. The live performance remains my favorite approach.
But your real question concerns the music ‘scene’ differences between L.A. and Nashville. I believe the two business styles have probably grown more similar over the years. But my early experience of L.A. and certainly NYC in the 70’s and early 80’s was a business of high competition and rugged and tough individualism. Derivative styles and imitation were pretty much shunned at a record company level. Individuality in music artistry was highly prized. There were small pockets of creative community in L.A. but people mostly were fighting to get to the top, sometimes cold-bloodedly, as performers and recording artists. This made for a tough playing field but I believe it also made for a more exciting variety of sounds and styles.
The community of Nashville, Country, and Country Soul and R&B was a much more friendly, community-oriented place. A sort of all for one and one for all attitude existed when I got there. The safety net of a sort of creative village. Sweet but more traditional. People were excited about the success of not just themselves but for their friends and peers. Sadly, my favorite genre of Southern music, mixed race Country Soul, was on its way out in the mid-seventies and early 80’s (for reasons too complex to list here). The great newer generations of black R&B and Hip Hop gravitated to New York and L.A. Finding incredible popularity and success in a more pure, urban form of Soul Music. Rap and Hip Hop. It left many of the white, Memphis and Muscle Shoals counterparts of Southern Soul to survive within the confines of the Country Music of Nashville. And survive it did with hundreds of Soul veterans, musicians, producers, and record execs creating some very R&B sounding Country hits. And achieving a higher strata of universal success. This was about the time I arrived.
Your songs have been sung by countless artists including Peter Cetera, Brenda Russell, Patti LaBelle, Bobby Caldwell, Robbie Dupree, Don Johnson, The Temptations and Bill Medley. How can we imagine your songwriting process? Do you have the respective artist in mind when you write?
In the beginning of my songwriting career I approached every song uncompromisingly, as if I were creating a Bill LaBounty album. This served me well for a little while. But times and styles change and eventually a professional must submit to the rules of the game. We become a little more cognizant of what other artists might like or want or need. Songwriters who reject this prospect don’t get to remain ‘hit’ songwriters very long. Which of course isn’t always a necessarily desirable thing to be. I’ve always enjoyed the process of writing for a market, though never as much as writing just for me.
What distinguishes a good song for you?
A good song for me would be very hard to describe. I think my taste is eclectic. It’s also very broad. What I end up creating for myself is one thing. But what really knocks me out could be anything. Obviously something must be conveyed. But what that thing might be remains undefined. I don’t think my personal tastes in music are guided by traditional literary or harmonic beauty. But I think my limitations too often are.
In retrospect, is there one favourite song or an artist with whom you particularly enjoyed working?
I love the writing and performing of Keb Mo and recently wrote a song with him for his new album, “Oklahoma”.
Bill, while you were working successfully as a songwriter in the 80s and 90s, your solo albums had a loyal following especially in Europe and Japan. Were you aware of this at the time?
No. I used to get my performance statements from BMI and see lots of activity on my songs and think it must be generated by Randy Crawford who was recording lots of my stuff then with Tommy LiPuma and doing well with her own hit albums and singles in Europe. I attributed the activity to other artists who had recorded my songs. Sometime later I got a phone call from a promoter-producer in Paris who said something like…”Did you know you are a hit here?” No. I didn’t.
What do you think is the reason for your continued popularity since the 80s especially in these parts of the world?
I’m flattered. Whatever popularity I maintain internationally is very meaningful for me. I do believe that Europe and Japan have been particularly copacetic comrades in music and art over the years. I think there is an appreciation for the basic emotional, impressionistic qualities of popular music product that bypasses fashion and glitz. A refusal to be dictated to in matters of art or of the heart. I’m not saying this bitterly or from any personal place regarding my own career but sadly Americans are much more susceptible, and today even desperate consumers of mass media.
You celebrated your comeback as a solo artist in 1991 with your 5th solo album “Right Direction”, which seamlessly followed the quality of your old recordings. What role did your old friend Robbie Dupree play?
Robbie was instrumental both literally and spiritually. His taste, humor, business acumen, singing and playing ability made the experience beautiful. Robbie is a brother.
Your last album “Into Something Blue” was released five years ago. Can we expect new material soon? Are you currently working on a new album?
I’ve got material written for a little over three quarters of a new album. I’m hoping, if I can get all the production pieces put together by 2020 I’ll be able to put something out by the middle of that year. The music lives in a place of Jazz R&B with words reflecting the heart and the future more than the past I think. Working title “I’m Still Here”.
One last question, Bill: I know that you are not only a very musical but also a political person. Do you think music has to reflect more strongly the developments in society again, should become more political in view of the challenges we are facing at the moment.
It would be lovely to see that happen. I think of the era of Folk Rock, Bob Dylan, The Beatles and songs of protest and peace. It was a time when popular music reflected a generation, a movement, a zeitgeist. A collective experience of the time. I’m not sure we have the same opportunity to grasp that again. At least through popular music. I do think it’s worth going for though. Music always renders great dividends and beauty.
By the way I’ve been here in a beautiful spot in New Mexico near Georgia O’Keefe’s Ghost Ranch. It’s been really nice to have the time to sit and relax and answer your great questions more expansively than I might ordinarily have been able to.
Bill, thank you very much for the interview.
Photo: Bill LaBounty
This interview was published for the first time on May 30, 2019