“If you like pina coladas, and getting caught in the rain”…Come on, you know how it goes, sing along…“If you’re not into yoga, if you have half a brain…” So goes the song that got Rupert Holmes into the record books as singer/songwriter of the last No. 1 hit of the 1970s and the first of the 1980s. While it may be the most famous song penned by the idiosyncratic artist/composer/producer (and collaborator of artists ranging from Streisand to Sparks!), it’s merely the tip of the iceberg for Rupert Holmes. Over the course of eight albums recorded between 1974 and 1994, Holmes established himself as an intensely creative artist with a unique lyrical perspective, melodic sensibility and knack for the story song. Holmes’ musical journey began as a vocalist and arranger for studio “groups” such as The Cuff Links (whose big hit “Tracy” featured Ron Dante on all voices) and The Street People; he soon became recognized as a songwriter thanks to efforts such as The Partridge Family’s wistful “Echo Valley 2-6809” and perhaps the only hit song about cannibalism, the Buoys’ controversial “Timothy.” Holmes’ ambitions, though, fully bloomed with the 1974 release of his first LP. Read about this quintessential artist and songwriter’s complete solo catalogue, Back Tracks-style, after the jump!
Widescreen (Epic, 1974 – reissued Varese, 1995/Fynsworth Alley, 2001)
Widescreen attracted instant industry attention, quite simply because it didn’t resemble any other album, past or present. The title derived from the album’s leadoff track, which began: “There are songs that sound like movies…” And indeed these 10 songs did. In the liner notes to the deluxe 2001 reissue, Holmes writes that he asked himself, “What if the song itself was the movie?” So Widescreen, produced by his frequent collaborator Jeffrey Lesser, contained songs with sound effects, dialogue and various-sized bands and orchestration, creating what Holmes deemed film-rock. No stranger to cinema, Barbra Streisand would record “Widescreen” and the album’s “Letters That Cross in the Mail,” among other Holmes compositions, on her 1975 LP, Lazy Afternoon, co-produced by Lesser and Holmes. “Letters” is one fine example of the songwriter’s wistful brand of drama, though perhaps the best is “Terminal.” This was the achingly sad story song that secured Holmes a three-LP contract with Epic, a yearning slice-of-life that hit home for many listeners, and should have been released as an A-side. Widescreen’s eclectic nature may have kept it from scoring commercially; other tracks include the big band tribute “Second Saxophone” and the pop single “Talk.” Widescreen’s big showpiece is a 10-minute radio play, “Psycho Drama,” that closed out the original album, while “Phantom of the Opera” beat Andrew Lloyd Webber to the punch by over a decade and foreshadowed Holmes’ Tony Award-winning Broadway musical, The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Varese Sarabande reissued Widescreen in 1995 with 2 bonus tracks, “Brass Knuckles” and “Deco Lady,” off Holmes’ follow-up album. Fynsworth Alley’s 2001 edition replaced “Deco Lady” with “Studio Musician,” another track off Rupert Holmes, and added another 10 bonus tracks to make the most packed Widescreen ever. These bonus tracks brought Holmes’ story up to the then-present day, encompassing TV and movie themes, songs from stage shows and demo recordings. Widescreen still sounds unique today, and the collectible prices both editions now command on eBay and Amazon.com would seem to indicate that the time is right for another reissue.
Rupert Holmes (Epic, 1975)
Rupert Holmes followed up Widescreen with a self-titled LP that utilized a band rather than an orchestra, and was somewhat more accessible in its sound. Yet Holmes still was true to himself in composing its musical vignettes, again produced by Jeffrey Lesser. “Studio Musician” was a powerful Wall of Sound explosion that would be reverentially covered by Barry Manilow on his chart-topping Barry Manilow Live album, while “I Don’t Want to Hold Your Hand” was such a spot-on, deadpan Beatles send-up that George Martin reportedly told Holmes it was superior to the original recording! “Everything Gets Better When You’re Drunk” sounds like a toe-tapping ode to the perennial pleasures of booze, but it has a dark undercurrent of irony. The most enduring song on Rupert Holmes, though, may be its least commercial. “Brass Knuckles” was longtime mystery buff Holmes’ attempt to tell a detective noir story in under four minutes of song. Its songwriter remains proud of this one-of-a-kind song’s lyrics having been published in numerous crime anthologies and even reviewed in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine!
Singles (Epic, 1976)
After a second album with disappointing sales, Holmes was summoned by the Epic brass. “Just give me singles,” they told him. So, he gave them Singles. He consciously wrote the album with the Top 40 in mind, and if the songs lacked some of the specificity of his work on the previous two LPs, they were no less clever and memorable. “Who, What, When, Where, Why” would become one of his most-recorded songs, with Dionne Warwick, The Tymes and Manhattan Transfer all having a crack at it. “I Don’t Want to Get Over You” was intended to be a Four Seasons tribute, and if that doesn’t quite come across except in the streetwise lyrics, it’s still pure Holmes-style seventies pop/rock with its insistent chorus (“I don’t want to get over you/Don’t want to no happy endin’/I feel better pretendin’ we ain’t through”) and airy, reflective verses. Mac Davis, no slouch in the songwriting department himself, would cover the song in 1978. “The Last of the Romantics” lacked a story per se, but was closest to Holmes’ Widescreen sound and would be covered by big-voiced Engelbert Humperdinck. “You Make Me Real” was a Philly soul-style ballad; Holmes had previously referenced the city and the sound in the 1973 B-side to “Talk,” simply entitled “Philly” and perfectly pastiching the Philadelphia International flavor. One outtake from Singles, “Magic Trick,” surfaced on Hip-o Select’s 2005 box set, Cast of Characters: The Rupert Holmes Songbook.
Pursuit of Happiness (Private Stock, 1978)
Holmes signed with Private Stock Records for this 1978 album, retooling a concept album he called Town Square into this resultant, pop-oriented LP which he produced himself. The hook-laden “Let’s Get Crazy Tonight” (“No time to worry if we’re wrong or we’re right…”) was the big attempt at a hit single. It only made it as far as No. 72 on the Billboard chart before Private Stock went under, so Holmes would have to wait for his moment in the sun. The album’s other tracks were no less worthy. “Speechless” would become a fan favorite. Ever a creative arranger, “Guitars” featured a guitar orchestra comprising studio vets like Al Caiola, Vincent Bell and Jay Berliner, while the Brecker Brothers, Michael and Randy, lent their talents to “So Beautiful It Hurts.” Holmes referenced his concept-album-that-wasn’t with the song “Town Square,” and another called “The Old School,” which he says sums himself and his feelings about the pop-songwriting tradition up: “And if there is any purpose to my life and to this rhyme/It’s to keep alive the old school/For a brief but blessed time…/I belong to the old school.” Pursuit of Happiness features that hallowed old school craft in abundance, even if it doesn’t contain as many memorable songs as Holmes’ other LPs. Two tracks intended for Pursuit, “I Knew You When” and “Walkaway,” finally appeared in 2005 on Cast of Characters.
Partners in Crime (1979, Infinity/MCA – reissued MCA, 1993)
After a declaration like that of “The Old School,” there’s a touch of irony in the fact that Holmes would finally have his big smash hit on his very next album. “Escape (The Pina Colada Song)” began life with the refrain: “If you like Humphrey Bogart and getting caught in the rain…” Never one to repeat himself, Holmes decided that he’d already recorded enough songs with movie references. What else would signify escape for the song’s protagonist, stuck in a tedious marriage? The now-and-forever “Pina Colada Song” was born. Holmes told interviewer Gary James, “It took me an hour and a half to write the lyric that you hear, and it took me a second to change the phrase from Bogart to pina colada.” Well, what a difference a second makes! Never mind that “Escape” was still quintessential Rupert Holmes, a sophisticated story song taking place in the big city with a twist ending. The parenthetical “The Pina Colada Song” was actually added by the record label after the single’s release! Little did Holmes know that listeners would soon be confusing him with Jimmy Buffett, mesmerized purely by the song’s melody and tropical arrangement. But Partners in Crime was more than just that monumental single. “Him” is one of this author’s favorite songs by Holmes or anybody else, a pure pop record that reached No. 6 after the colossal success of “Escape.” “Him” featured Holmes’ usual attention to quirky detail and singular lyrical voice (“Over by the window/There’s a pack of cigarettes/Not my brand, you understand/Sometimes the girl forgets to hide them/I know who left those smokes behind!”) combined with a killer chorus. The now-dated “Answering Machine” is as good as the novelty song genre gets, and scored Holmes his third hit single. “Nearsighted” again proved his mastery of the dramatic power ballad. “The People That You Never Get to Love,” on the other hand, is a drop-dead gorgeous song of love that never can be, gently echoing “Terminal.” It has the usual smart and surprising lyrics as well as a big dose of heart, and Frank Sinatra is said to have hoped to record it. While the Chairman never did record the tune, Frank Sinatra Jr. utilized Nelson Riddle’s arrangement penned for the elder Sinatra on his own album That Face (Rhino, 2006); Sinatra Jr.’s version may be the song’s overall finest. That said, it’s become somewhat of a cabaret standard, recorded by artists such as Margaret Whiting, Suzannah McCorkle and Nancy LaMott. Unfortunately, the 1993 MCA CD issue of Partners was bare-bones. There is released material, however, that could be appended to a future reissue. The original single mix of “Escape” can be found on the 1998 Universal UK/Spectrum CD The Best of Rupert Holmes (HMNCD 037). The song “The Law of the Jungle,” released in 1995 on Cast of Characters (see below), is the demo from which Holmes extracted the sixteen bars that would eventually become the familiar melody to “Escape.” Post-Widescreen, none of Holmes’ albums have had a deluxe reissue; wouldn’t Partners in Crime be a great place to start? More material might still be residing in the vault.
Adventure (MCA, 1980)
As the success of “Escape” led to a busy touring schedule, it made sense for Rupert Holmes to record his follow-up album with his touring band. While spawning three charting singles, Adventure failed to make the same mark as its predecessor. Its two best songs, “Morning Man” and “I Don’t Need You,” were indeed two of the three singles. The former is a stylistic cousin to “Him,” while the latter is a deliciously funny character song, looking at how self-delusional some people can be. Its singer fails in his attempts to convince himself that he doesn’t need his significant other any longer: “Will I call you up?/I won’t/I forgot your number (636-4831) and I don’t/need you…” The album’s third single, “Blackjack,” conjures up Las Vegas in which Holmes now calls a “brazen attempt” at a radio hit. (It only reached No. 103 on the Billboard chart.) Adventure followed the pattern Holmes had established by now, varying his musical styles; “You’ll Love Me Again” filled the obligatory power ballad slot. Unfortunately, the pop charts didn’t show Holmes much love for Adventure, and he decamped for Elektra Records.
Full Circle (Elektra, 1981)
His fans didn’t know it at the time, but Holmes did indeed come full circle with 1981’s Elektra LP, and it would turn out to be his last word in pop/rock songwriting for over a decade. Holmes tells of being encouraged to return to an orchestrated style for this offering, and so “The End” (reaching No. 31 on the AC chart) does just that. “Loved by the One You Love,” like the previous album’s “Blackjack,” stalled at No. 103 on the pop chart, despite having the same infectious pop quality as “Him” or “Escape.” A theme of romance permeated the album, and the open-hearted “One Born Every Minute” (one love, not one sucker, contrary to P.T. Barnum’s belief) remains a favorite of its songwriter. “The End” concludes with “Happily ever after the story’s done/We’ve begun/And we start/At the end.” And so, after Full Circle, Rupert Holmes turned his attention first to the Broadway stage, where he picked up 1986 Tony Awards for both Best Book and Best Score of a Musical for his first effort, The Mystery of Edwin Drood. (The original cast recording of Drood, issued on CD twice, is a highly-prized and hard-to-find collectible in need of a new reissue, preferably as a two-disc set. Both the original Polydor CD and Varese reissue have different track listings as a result of Holmes’ innovative idea of having the audience decide the musical’s ending, necessitating a number of unique song endings!) Drood led to a career as a Broadway playwright, a television screenwriter and a mystery novelist. Holmes didn’t abandon music altogether; his second (and highly recommended) novel, Swing!, initially came with a delicious CD of songs that doubled as clues to solving the mystery.
Scenario (JVC Japan, 1994)
In 1986, Rupert Holmes faced unimaginable tragedy when his ten-year old daughter, Wendy Isobel, died of a brain tumor. He found himself unable to compose as freely as he had in the past. His first album since Full Circle didn’t arrive until 1994, and in an unlikely place: Japan. The Japanese JVC label had commissioned an album from Holmes, who quickly realized that for most listeners, English would be a second language. So he adapted his lyrical style to a somewhat simpler one; the album also sounded different, too. Due to a grueling schedule and lack of time, Holmes played all of the album’s instruments himself, most via synthesizer. Recently, Holmes wrote of Scenario: “How do I feel about these songs? I am totally comfortable with some of them.” It’s a fair description. On one track, Holmes asserts “The Eighties Never Happened” but nicely concluding as a result, “And we’re back in love again.” On “Information Superhighway,” he tackles downloading, modems and megabytes on a track that now seems a bit quaint! “The Hurting Part” is another Holmes look at picking up the pieces of a troubled relationship, and was intended to be the album’s single. While Holmes has contributed music and lyrics in various places (from the aforementioned novel, Swing!, to his additional lyrics to John Kander and Fred Ebb’s score to the 2007 Broadway musical Curtains, for which he also wrote the book), no new Rupert Holmes album has appeared in the past 16 years.
Greatest Hits (Hip-O, 2000)
Holmes contributed liner notes to this 2000 collection, which collects 18 of his most recognizable songs in one handy place. It offered one track previously unreleased at the time, Holmes’ theme to the AMC television series Remember WENN. This compilation remains the perfect introduction to Holmes’ work for those fans only familiar with “Escape (The Pina Colada Song).”
Foundation of Love (Hallmark UK, 2002)
This one is for Holmes diehards and completists only. On his own “semi-official” (and sadly out-of-date) website, Holmes refers to the songs that comprise this UK-only budget release as “apocryphal.” This CD collects work performed, written and/or arranged by Holmes in the period between his late teenage years and early twenties. His voice is recognizable on many tracks, and a number of the songs are co-writes with tunesmiths such as Lee Pockriss and Paul Vance of “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini” and “Tracy” (for The Cuff Links) fame. This being an unauthorized release, there are no liner notes and the sound quality is poor, nor does this CD collect all of Holmes’ early work. Perhaps one day an authorized volume will round this work up and place it in a proper context; Ace, for instance, could have a field day with a Holmes volume in their Songwriters & Producers series. In the meantime, some of the tracks on this disc (“How Do You Like Them Apples,” “Thank You, Pretty Baby,” to name just two) can be enjoyed as very early attempts at Rupert Holmes finding his voice while working in a lightweight 1960s pop style.
Cast of Characters: The Rupert Holmes Songbook (Hip-o Select, 2005)
This 5-disc box set produced by Mike Ragogna in 2005 is surely one of Hip-o Select’s finest ever collections. Cast of Characters contains all eight of Rupert Holmes’ studio albums over four discs (many never before on CD), with the fifth rounding up a number of the artist’s assorted odds and ends. Its 70-page book begins with testimonials from luminaries including Alan Menken, Barry Manilow, Richard Carpenter, Melissa Manchester, Barbra Streisand, Paul Williams, Rita Coolidge and even morning radio jocks Scott Shannon and Todd Pettengill. From that point, Holmes takes the listener on a tour of his collected works, offering detailed introductions to each disc and full lyrics and discographical information for every song. The fifth disc is, no surprise, a treasure trove. Especially for this set, Holmes recorded a number of his hits for other artists; hence, we finally get his versions of “Timothy,” “Echo Valley 2-6809” and “You Got It All (Over Him),” which he penned for the teenaged Jets and was also recorded by, of all people, Britney Spears! (The Jets’ 1987 original hit No. 3 on the Top 40, No. 2 on the R&B chart and No. 1 on the AOR chart, quite a feat!) A whopping seven songs are present from Holmes’ score to Streisand’s 1976 film remake of A Star is Born, only two of which actually made it into the finished movie. Outtakes and demos are present (“Magic Trick” from Singles, “I Knew You When” and “Walkaway” from Pursuit of Happiness) and both sides of a duet single with Rita Coolidge containing Drood’s beautiful “Perfect Strangers” b/w “Touch and Go.” The disc concludes with “My Son,” from Holmes’ long-gestating stage musical adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, clearly a long way from his 1970s pop sound. But in any genre, Holmes remains an astute chronicler of life, love and loss, gifted with a singular wit and prodigious musicality as both melodist and arranger. Hopefully he will soon return to the piano whether with a new pop album or a completed Broadway score; until then, the unfortunately-out-of-print Cast of Characters remains the best one-stop shopping to fully explore the breadth of The Rupert Holmes Songbook.