Classic Tracks: Stephen Bishop's "On and On"

Mar 30, 2010 7:19 PM, By Gary Eskow


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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!’”


"On and On" MP3

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.”

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