I was about five when Mom and I took a little road trip to visit some relatives in Yates Center Kansas. We lived in Kansas City then, where I took piano lessons at the conservatory and loved listening to Mom’s old Sinatra and big band records. That dusty summer day we were on my great-aunt’s front porch when my cousin Marvin roared up in his souped-up hot rod and grabbed a guitar out of the back seat, no case. He sat down on the steps and plunked and sang Marty Robbins’ “A White Sport Coat and a Pink Carnation.” I was mesmerized. So were several neighbor girls who swayed and smiled dreamily at my country cousin’s performance. Even then, the power of the song moved me on more than one level.
Then, when I was about six, a short time before my Mom married my stepfather and we move to Florida, I heard Elvis’ “Love Me” coming from behind the closed door of my teen-age cousin Patty’s room. We sat on her bed and listened over and over. I saved up my allowance and that album was the first I ever bought. I learned every song by heart, moved to my core by this soulful music.
We moved to the Tampa Bay area, following my new Dad’s electrical engineering gigs. We lived in St. Petersburg, Lakeland, and then settled in a Tampa suburb known as Temple Terrace (sign at the edge of town: “A Nice Place to Live”) We didn’t have enough money or space for a piano, so at the age of eleven, my folks got me a razor stringed Silvertone F-hole guitar right out of the sears catalog. An hour after I opened it, I was plunking out “Tom Dooley” and fully in love with the instrument. Then came the Harrmony Electric guitar and amp, lessons with Calvin Conrad (who had taught one of the Ventures to play) and an invitation to join a band, “Frankie and the Premiers.”
Frankie had the look, the slicked back ducktail I was too young for, a nice sounding voice and the moves. One problem: he couldn’t carry a tune. So, as bands so often do, we broke up and two former Premiers and I started our own group, The Paragons. We had a garage, Dad bought me a P.A and before we knew it we were playing rec halls, teen centers, and school dances. We became regulars on the local TV dance party, “Hi –Time,” (innocent world?) and then hooked up with Tampa’s top society dance band leader, a former Spike Jones arranger named Jack Golly. He started booking us and we became the “rock” band, alternating sets at many of the bay area’s higher profile gigs. One weekend Jack loaned us this killer omnidirectional mike and the band made a tape, including some originals I’d written for our Hi-Time appearances on a Wollensak reel-to-reel tape recorder.
My best friend’s dad, John Ceconi, was a traveling businessman who knew the Lucchesi brothers, Memphis recording studio owner. He invited me, at age 16, to go with him on one of his Memphis trips for an introduction, and so I could play the band’s tape around town. (I’d already been to Nashville to play songs for Bob Beckham and knew we had something going, but weren’t quite ready. Beckham encouraged me to keep writing, but Nashville seemed like another planet to me back then.) The Lucchessi meeting never happened, and Mr. Ceconi got called away on business. He left me in the room, paid for for two more days, handed me the keys to his rental car, tossed phone book on the desk and told me to start calling studios, publishers, and record companies. (Simpler times, when a sixteen-year-old kid could drive someone else’s rental car from Memphis to Tampa. Mr. Ceconi was never a stickler for the rules.)
On one of my first calls, Larry Rogers at Bill Black Music’s Lyn-Lou studios picked up the phone and said to come on over. He liked our tape, the originals with the beach boys’ harmonies and wanted the band to come up and cut some demos. Larry was my first real music business mentor and everything good that happened for me in music stems from that first meeting. I had no idea what a great songwriting and recording education I’d get in the next few years in that funky little studio on Chelsea in Memphis.
Larry got The Paragons a record deal with Florence Greenberg’s Scepter Records in New York. We change the band name to a slightly hipper (?) “The Promise.” The band hit the charts and hit the road, but soon broke up and I moved to Memphis.
Larry encouraged me to hang out at the studio. I learned the board and assistant engineered on some cool sessions for artists like Tony Joe White and Mel McDaniel, but the real deal was the chance to write with him and his writers. One of my first cuts was a top 20 hit on a great Goldwax soul artist, James Carr, called “Freedom Train.” The song’s been covered numerous times and is mentioned in several civil rights era histories. I got to know a bunch of great musicians, played on the road with Bill Black’s combo and Charlie Rich and did half a dozen TV shows in Jerry Lee Lewis’s band. It was there I met and got to write with Dan Penn, and feel the influence of Chips Moman’s legendary American studios and Willie Mitchell’s Hi Records.
One night at Lyn-Lou, Henry Hurt from Dot Records, (later to be my publisher at Chappell Music,) was recording a Texas band, Tommy Latham and the Traveling Magic. They were cutting a single and only had one song. I talked my co-writer, session musician Mike Utley (now a Jimmy Buffet Coral Reefer and producer,) into staying up all night to write a song with the work “magic” in it. We did, they cut it for the B-side and eleven years later it became a top ten hit for Marty Robbins and was an important part of why I moved to Nashville.
I had a little college under my belt from high school accelerated classes and a few semesters at the University of South Florida. I had turned down several full academic scholarships, including an English scholarship to the University of Chicago to do music. When Larry got me a solo record deal on Happy Tiger (yes, Flying Tiger Air owned it,) he encouraged me to use the small advance to go back to school at what was then Memphis State – but not for long.
My good friends Mike Utley and Sammy Creason were the heart of a Memphis studio rhythm section known as “The Dixie Flyers.” While so many of our friend and contemporaries like Allen Reynolds, Bob McDill and Dickie Lee were making the move to the booming music scene in Nashville, Atlantic Records’ Jerry Wexler and Tom Dowd offered the Flyers (and two writers) a steady studio gig at Criteria Studios in Miami. I jumped at the chance to be one of the writers. Who wouldn’t? I made a hundred a week draw and got to hang and work with some of Atlantic’s best musicians and artists in one of the best studios in the country. Because he knew I was a good friend and had been on the road with Charlie Rich, Jerry Wexler and I spent quite a bit of time going through Charlie’s Sun catalog and assessing what might work for some of his R&B artists. What an education!
Though the Miami gig only lasted a year or so, I got cuts by Delaney and Bonnie and Friends, Rita Coolidge, and Dee Dee Warwicke. I also got the greatest advice a frustrated nineteen year old songwriter could ever get from the legendary Tom Dowd, after he listened to a couple of my new demos. “Steve,” he said, “You know HOW to write, you just haven’t figured out WHAT to write.” Brilliantly simple advice I never forgot. Tom and I stayed in touch and were friends through all the years until he passed.
Writing for Atlantic in Miami let me be a fly on the wall as Aretha worked up “Spirit In The Dark” on piano, helping out on Jerry Jeff Walker and Betty LaVette albums, and working and gofer-ing just to hang during the entire recording process of Derek and The Dominos classic “Layla” album with Eric Clapton and Duane Allman.
The Atlantic Criteria experience disappeared as quickly as it came and the Dixie Flyers moved back to Memphis. I was contemplating my next move, when one day I was driving down S.W. 8th Street in Miami and heard a radio spot advertising the Pieces of Eight Lounge, a college bar in Coral Gables. They were looking for a single singer / guitarist to play six nights a week. I looked up and the club was right on the corner, so I pulled in, auditioned and got the gig. The place had a friendly “Cheers” vibe and I played that gig six nights a week for a couple of years.
It was there I met my wife, best friend and partner in life, Beverly. A dear friend of hers introduced us, and in three weeks we were engaged, and in three months we were married. She was 19 and I was 21. Then came twelve years of playing gigs, writing and producing tracks for TV, radio and advertising, a record deal and album for Decca in Canada and the UK, and best of all, two beautiful children, Jessica and Zachary.
We had just remodeled our home in Cutler Ridge, a Miami suburb, had a son, four and a daughter, seven, when Beverly made the big challenge. We’d gotten in invitation to the BMI awards in Nashville that year. She was adamant we go, but money was tight and I thought I was being “practical” and said it was too expensive a trip for a dinner. I didn’t realize I would have gone on stage to accept my BMI award for “Touch Me With Magic.” Her instincts were right on; it would have given me a chance to get to Nashville with some real cred. So, after the award came rolled up in a tube in the mail, and then the royalty checks!! (Adding up to more than a year’s work for me at the time,) she made her proclamation.
“You’re not a real songwriter”
(Yes I am, blah blah, cuts in Canada, blah blah record in UK, blah)
“We don’t live where songwriters live.”
(We’re doing okay, the kids, blah blah blah)
“Songwriters live in New York, L.A. or Nashville. Let’s move.”
Within a few months we packed the dog, the kids, eight rooms of furniture into a U-Haul truck with a big wheel that wouldn’t fit inside bungeed to the back door. We’d rented out the Miami house and borrowed five grand from a former boss, which we paid back when the house finally sold. (When I left the Pieces of Eight, I spent several years playing high-end clubs and piano bars on Miami Beach, including lots of private parties for Sammy Davis Jr. and other celebrities.) As we left, I still remember our friends standing on our front porch, shaking their heads. “Have fun on “Hicks” road,” someone joked, referring to our first address in Nashville.
Larry Rogers had already told me when I called him to say I was moving to Nashville, that it was incredibly difficult to make a living as a songwriter there and that it usually took at least five years to get rolling. But he had a co-venture with Hall-Clement / Welk Music and soon after I got there I signed an exclusive publishing deal for fifty dollars a month and the chance to walk the halls of The Welk Music Group with the likes of Bob McDill, Rory Bourke and Charlie Black. I drove the three hours to Memphis to cut those first demos, sang and played everything but drums. I engineered, mixed and slept on the floors, but the key to my old studio hangout was worth everything to me. Soon my friend Herb McCullough offered to share his office at Welk and in a week my name was even on the door. Herb and I wrote some good songs together, and his selfless act of generosity in giving me a real place to hang my hat is something I’ve never forgotten. Over the years I’ve always tried pay that forward.
Fifty a month didn’t go too far for a family of four and doing cover or original singer / songwriter gigs in Nashville at the time (and to this day) was a financial shock. One day I came home from Welk and there stood Beverly in a crisp orange polyester Red Lobster server uniform, with a big smile on her face. She said the restaurant was training and we needed the money and we could work out the schedules for childcare and schools. She saved the family during those first years. Later, when money got thin, she also blessed some lucky parents by taking care of their kids at our house and she always made it seem like we just had a bigger family.
I got a few cuts pretty quickly at Welk with Rory and Charlie and Tommy Rocco and Rory introduced me to Rick Giles. Rick came to town from the DC area at about the same time as I did and was getting his start in Nashville as well. Rory said we should write because we were “the same guy.” A Warner Brothers group called Bandana cut our second song, “It’s Just Another Heartache.” It was a decent chart single and things finally started to roll. Rick and I became friends, produced Canadian Hall of Famer Michelle Wright together and wrote pretty much once a week for more than twenty years
After two years at Welk, Rory Bourke introduced me to Irwin Robinson, who ran Chappell Music, one of the oldest and largest publishers in the country at the time. Chappell in Nashville had just ten or twelve writers but ran a tight ship and was often publisher of the year. I met with Irwin and he gave me a contract starting at $300 a week. We had twelve dollars in the bank, rent due and a $200 tuition bill due at the time. I’ll never forget the thrill of that handshake. Later I learned that Rory had told him that if Chappell didn’t sign me, he’d do it personally. Rory’s belief in me was inspiring.
I was at Chappell for three years, and wrote my first country #1, Lee Greenwood’s “Mornin’ Ride” and Etta James’ “Damn Your Eyes.” During those years I worked with groundbreaking female song-pluggers Celia Hill and Pat Rolfe, who got me cuts on lots of big acts including Reba, who recorded #1 song, “New Fool at an Old Game” and two other songs I wrote with Rick Giles on one of her albums (getting the phone call that says you just got three Reba cuts is quite the experience.)
On the last day of my Chappell contract, the announcement came that the pending Warner Brothers / Chappell merger had fallen to the Warner side. So I was out of a deal, even though Henry Hurt and I had worked out a verbal agreement for my next deal. I was in the office when the word came and was crushed. I didn’t know Tim Wipperman, who ran WB Nashville, and Warner Brothers was a much different kind of operation than Chappell. Henry Hurt was losing HIS job, but when he went in to talk to Tim and the WB bosses, he told them he and I had a deal on the table and that they should sign me. I’ll never forget Wipperman coming through the inner office door and shaking my hand, asking me to just write out the deal points, he’d do a contract, and if I needed some money in the meantime, he’d get the office to cut me a check on the spot. I spent over twenty years writing at Warner Chappell and always considered Tim one of the toughest, fairest, most honest men in publishing.
During those years I also met and worked with my great friend and co-writer Jeff Stevens. We hit it off instantly, and during one two year period, got over thirty cuts together, including George Strait’s “Carried Away” and “Carrying Your Love With Me.” Jeff and I still write together to this day.
During those years I continued producing Michelle Wright, Deric Ruttan, Jerry Kilgore and Brad Cotter. I also co-wrote Rascal Flatts’ breakthrough hit, “Prayin’ for Daylight.’ I was fortunate to hit my songwriter stride during the halcyon days of CD sales for country music. When I left Warner Chappell in ’04 it was on a very friendly note.
’04 to ’07 were spent at Famous Music, where I once again signed with Irwin Robinson. (musical chairs.) We got some cuts, though the business was slowing because of file sharing and piracy on the Internet. I continued writing with Dierks Bentley and, along with Brett Beavers we wrote two songs, which were nominated for Grammys in consecutive years for country song of the yea: “Every Mile A Memory” and “Long Trip Alone.” During that time I also had Big Machine Records and Jack Ingram’s first #1, “Wherever You Are.” Famous was purchased by Sony Publishing, and once again the closing was on the last day of my contract. After a lot of thought, I decided to start my own company, One Music Group.
In 20/20 hindsight, I can clearly say that just because you CAN do something, doesn’t mean you should. My partner and I signed a very talented duo. I negotiated, and got them a deal with the hottest label in town. We even took a stab at management. I continued to write, but obviously the distractions of wearing all those hats and my growing time commitment to songwriter advocacy at NSAI were too great. I lost some songwriting momentum and some money during those years, but learned a lot about the music business and myself.
In 1996, I had sold my co-publishing share of my catalog back to Warner Chappell music. Even though I had already paid ordinary income taxes on the money I’d earned from my songs, because of a very old glitch in the tax code, I (and all songwriters with corporate publishing partners) had to pay it AGAIN on my proceeds for the future earnings. Warner’s paid the 15% business rate when they later sold the same songs (and MANY more,) to AOL.
I had begun to take an interest in the Nashville Songwriters Association International and by the early 2000’s was on the Board. Then in 2006 I was elected to the first of six terms as President of the Board, the longest in the organization’s forty-one year history. Songwriter advocacy, protecting our craft became a consuming passion for me. During my term, we permanently changed the US tax code for songwriters, a long battle no high-powered lobbyist could have won. During my term, NSAI also insisted that songwriters carry the ball as lead witnesses in the 2006 Copyright Royalty Board trial. I testified at the trial, and in a dramatic close to my testimony, the RIAA attorney fainted. We set some important precedents for songwriters during that proceeding, and most of them stood at the next CRB negotiations five years later.
All of my tax returns and royalty statements from the time I was sixteen years old, along with my personal emails were subpoenaed in the proceedings. I learned a lot about playing rough and about just where the songwriter stands in the pecking order of the music business and in the priorities of Washington lawmakers. During my term NSAI also acquired the legendary Bluebird Café and committed to preserving it as America’s premiere acoustic music venue.
There’s no way I could explain the satisfaction this advocacy work has brought me. The relationships I enjoy and the deep understanding of the legislative, marketplace, and political nuances of copyright and the music industry are now an important part of my life. So in 2011, with Belmont University and NSAI’s help, I started The Copyright Forum. “Creating balanced conversation about the cultural and commercial value of copyright.” The Copyright Forum lets me use all my passion for great music and my years of experience getting a broad understanding of where America’s creative class has been and where it’s going. We’ve already done some great events and are creating a “think tank” which will influence the future of music for both creators and consumers in a positive way.
In late 2011, I signed a co-publishing deal with Magic Mustang Music, a division of Broken Bow Records. It was like coming home to a family and we’re already seeing success with artists like Dustin Lynch, Charlie Worsham, Trace Adkins, Lee Brice and George Strait. These days I’m lucky and blessed to be invited to writer retreats, on bus trips to write with artists on the road, and to collaborate with some of Nashville’s finest artists and writer.