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Classic Tracks: Stephen Bishop’s “On and On”

If you happened to take a course on the art of songwriting given recently at the Songwriting Institute of Los Angeles and were not aware that the middle-aged fellow sitting in your midst was in fact a highly decorated recording artist who had a string of hits in the late 1970s

If you happened to take a course on the art of songwriting given recently at the Songwriting Institute of Los Angeles and were not aware that the middle-aged fellow sitting in your midst was in fact a highly decorated recording artist who had a string of hits in the late 1970s, your oversight is understandable and excused. Stephen Bishop simply felt the desire to brush up his technique, and hits like “Separate Lives,” “Save It for a Rainy Day” and this month’s “Classic Track,” “On and On,” haven’t separated him from the desire to develop as an artist.

“It was funny, being with the other people in the class,” says Bishop. “I wanted to blend in, and I asked the instructor, Rob Seals, to keep my identity a secret. On the last day of class, Rob—who is a very good teacher—was talking about the importance of titles, and he asked us to name a song we’d written. When I mentioned ‘On and On,’ one of the other guys said, ‘That’s a Stephen Bishop song.’ I said, ‘Well, I’m kinda Steven Bishop!’”

This wry, Everyman demeanor—obvious even when his star was at its brightest—infused Bishop’s writing and helped define his public persona. Growing up in San Diego in the late 1950s and early ’60s, Bishop’s early musical influences included the Kingston Trio, The Limelighters and the Smothers Brothers. “I loved the way the Smothers Brothers combined music and humor, and I’ve always incorporated humor in my own shows. The Smothers Brothers Live at the Purple Onion was one of my favorite albums.” (Bishop’s funny side can be seen on film, too, most notably in National Lampoon’s Animal House.)

After high school, Bishop headed to L.A. in search of fame and fortune. “I came up with my band, The Weeds. We stayed on Sunset Boulevard in some old hotel. During the days, I’d take my $12 guitar, walk up and down the street, and knock on the door of every music publisher I could find.” At the age of 18, Bishop was hired as a staff writer by the Edwin H. Morris Publishing house, whose catalog included the scores to a host of Broadway hits, including Bye Bye Birdie and Mame, but Morris knew they had to attract a younger audience to remain viable. “What an education,” says Bishop. “I remember this old guy, Sidney Goldstein, yelling, ‘We need a song for Cher!’”

But Bishop was aiming at a higher target. “James Taylor’s Sweet Baby James album came out during that time, and I was envious of him,” he says. “I had an incredible amount of drive—which, by the way, is all gone now—and all I could think about was writing a hit for myself.”

Down in Jamaica they’ve got lots of pretty women
Steal your money then they break your heart.
Lonely Sue she’s in love with old Sam.
Take him from the fire into the frying pan.

So begins “On and On.” Had Bishop been to Jamaica? “No, I was imagining that scene from my humble apartment, which by that time was a flat in Silver Lake [L.A.]. I wrote the song in a couple of hours, after stumbling across a chord voicing on my guitar that I was unfamiliar with. It’s a Cadd9 [chord], or something like that. At the time I was into putting names into songs.”

On the strength of a hatful of songs, including “On and On”—and his obvious performing talent—Bishop signed with ABC Dunhill. His first album, Careless, was recorded mostly at A&M Studios on Le Brea Avenue, with some work also taking place at ABC. Bishop co-produced this venture with engineer/producer Henry Lewy, who is best known for his sterling work with Joni Mitchell.

“Henry, who died several years ago, was a big part of the success of that album,” Bishop relates. “I wasn’t into the technical side of things; that was Henry’s domain. I do have some great memories from those sessions, though. I used to imitate a trombone with my mouth and hands, and one day we were listening to the playback of one of my ‘tromblown’ solos when Quincy Jones stuck his head in the studio. He said something like, ‘What a great trombone player, who is it?’ I took that as a high compliment! Chaka [Kahn] sang on three songs, and Art Garfunkel—who had recorded a song of mine on his Breakaway album—also sang on a track.” Eric Clapton contributed the solo to “Save It for a Rainy Day,” which entered the Billboard singles chart in the late fall of 1976 and eventually made it as high as Number 22, greasing the wheels for Bishop’s next single, “On and On.”

The guitar-and-voice demo of “On and On,” recorded more than a year earlier, was followed closely when it came time to track the final at A&M. The way that Lewy—a German-born L.A. studio pro who cut his teeth working with Bones Howe at United Western in the early and mid-’60s—liked to work with Joni Mitchell, Bishop and singer/songwriters in general was to get a good vocal and guitar performance to serve as the basis of the “basic” track, and then fit other players around that, often playing as a band to that guitar-vocal basic (through headphones) and overdubbing as needed. In this case, we have few details about how the tracks were constructed, but we do know that there was considerable overdubbing.

“We had under-harmonies in the verses and choruses, all of which I sang,” says Bishop, who also played acoustic guitars. “We were looking to put together an unusual set of instruments. Victor Feldman played the bass vibes [along with marimba and other percussion], and we brought in Mike Staton to play steel guitar. We recorded three or four tracks of Mike’s playing, and during the mix my job was to ride his parts. I can’t remember the board or tape machine we were using, but we definitely used a 24-track deck.”

The recorder was a 3M-79 24-track, while the console was a custom 32-in, 8-out HAECO (Holzer Audio Engineering) model; monitors were Altec 604s. Unfortunately, there is no specific documentation about mics or processing, but certainly A&M was a very well-equipped studio, with a large complement of UREI, Pultec, Lang and API EQs; UREI and Fairchild limiters; and mics by the major players of the day, including Neumann, Shure, Sennheiser, Beyer, Sony and RCA. (Lewy always liked to use a U87 on Joni Mitchell’s lead vocal; whether he also favored that for Bishop is unknown.) The other musicians who played on “On and On” are guitarist Andrew Gold (who was also part of Linda Ronstadt’s band), bassist Mac Cridlin, electric pianist Barlow Jarvis and drummer Larry Brown.

Upon its release, “On and On” made a rapid ascent, cresting at Number 11 on the Hot 100 chart. Did Bishop believe it would all happen so quickly? “No, I certainly didn’t think that ‘On and On’ was going to be a hit at all. That surprised me.”

The zenith of his career might have come with the release of “It Might Be You,” the theme to the 1982 film Tootsie. Although Bishop didn’t write this song (Dave Grusin set a lyric penned by Alan and Marilyn Bergman), it cemented his image as a sensitive Everyman. Did he mind? “That doesn’t sound so bad! When you’re a singer, the whole idea is to be sincere; I don’t mind that at all! A lot of people think of me as the guy who sings the Tootsie song. But I’ve worn a lot of hats; in fact, I’m wearing one right now!”

Bishop, who continues to tour, recently produced his own EP, Work, Home, Dinner, TV, Bed. “I wrote the material over a period of several months. An excellent female singer from Canada, Nat J, appears on the track ‘Loveless,’ and I worked with a very talented producer/engineer named Vivek Maddala, who has a project studio in Venice, California, on a song called ‘Love Is You.’ I met Vivek through another singer, Wendy Starland, who was cutting her own version of ‘On and On.’ I sang a duet with her—not the first time I’ve done that.”

And so the career of Bishop goes on and on. He writes when he will and tours when it’s time, having stamped his signature style on an in-between era in the history of American popular music—a time when the tempo of pop music was a bit slower, the volume level somewhat attenuated. It was a time when performers like Stephen Bishop could sing about rainy days and make us feel that they were far away.