Nominated in 1977 for two Grammy Awards (Best New Artist of the Year and Best Pop Vocal Performance, Male) and an Academy Award nomination for “Separate Lives” (Theme from “White Nights”) in 1985, guitarist, singer, songwriter and actor, Stephen Bishop, has left significant thumbprints in both the music and film industries.
Born on the left coast, not far north of the nation’s border with Mexico, the San Diego native began his expedition into music with a woodwind in his hands and a moist reed pressed against his lips.
The hysteria that began in October and November of 1963 in the United Kingdom, ignited by a “Royal Variety Performance” in front of the Queen Mother, Elizabeth, travelled across thousands of miles of North Atlantic water to reach the states…and turned young American attentions away from a disturbing Cold War and towards four mop-topped boys from Liverpool.
Bishop, 12 years of age, was engulfed by the movement…by the passion and creativity…and by that six-stringed instrument he saw front-and-center when “The Beatles” made their three appearances on “The Ed Sullivan Show” in February of 1964.
Stephen Bishop utilized those six strings, over the span of one-half century, to become one of music’s most prodigious songwriters and performers.
Like so many others who have wandered onto the music industry’s unrelenting and unforgiving walkway, Bishop struggled mightily working for as little as $50 per week for a Hollywood publishing company.
For the select few, the aforementioned unrelenting and unforgiving road offers a wondrous off-ramp and, with the help of a friend, Leah Kunkle, the younger sister of Cass Elliot of “The Mamas & the Papas,” Bishop was brought to the attention of Art Garfunkel who recorded two Stephen Bishop songs on his 1975 album, “Breakaway.” “Looking for the Right One” and “The Same Old Tears on a New Background” appeared on side two of Garfunkel’s second studio album since his separation from Paul Simon.
The year following, Bishop released his very first album, “Careless,” and ignited an unsurpassed career that continues to delight audiences to date.
That career enlarged and expanded into movie appearances and the composition of numerous songs recorded for the film industry. An iconic scene, alongside a toga-draped John Belushi in the 1978 National Lampoon’s “Animal House,” keeps Bishop laughing perpetually.
Pleasantly comedic and cheerful, an absolute delight to banter with, Bishop was kind enough to take time out of his busy day to chat with the Herald prior to his March tour through Delray Beach (March 13), Melbourne (March 15), Bonita Springs (March 16) and Clearwater (March 17).
Gary Levine: If we could go back to your early adolescence, I’ve read that you, like so many other young musicians, were deeply inspired by “The Beatles” and the British Invasion. In a conversation that I had with Dennis DeYoung, from “Styx,” he told me that his parents had him playing the accordion when “The Beatles” came along and changed everything. You were 12-years-old in February of 1964 when “The Beatles” (appeared in front of 73 million viewers) played on three consecutive Sundays on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” Can you recall these performances and how they ultimately paved your career path into the music industry?
Stephen Bishop: “It really did change things. I think for myself and for a lot of other musicians and struggling songwriters, it created this ambiance of magic or something. I don’t understand why The Beatles were so incredible, but it was so different! We had never seen anything like that…like two guys sharing one mike and singing harmony. And their voices were so incredible. The songs, of course, were great. I remember I had to promise my stepfather that I’d clean up the backyard for the rest of my life.”
Stephen and I laughed. I inquired, “Is that where the name of your 2002 album, “Yardwork,” came from?”
“That’s right,” Stephen replied.
“They kind of set the landscape…’The Beatles’…for other people to do their own thing and make their own ideas. It was a great time for being creative. ‘The Beatles’…every time they’d release an album, it would be this big thing. ‘Sergeant Pepper,’ what’s this going to be? Or the ‘White Album’ and ‘Abbey Road’ were such a thrill. I’m such a Beatle-holic.”
Gary Levine: As is the case with most musicians, the earliest years are a struggle and thoughts of giving up the dream begin to come to mind. How close would you say you came to packing up the guitar and heading home? What advice would you give to young musicians in their difficult, early years?
Stephen Bishop: “Well, the advice that I would give would be to have fun with it. You know? Form a group or do something creative. I can only relate to myself…back in the olden days…I had a little apartment and I was trying to make it…trying to get a record deal. I was really doing badly. I remember my dad sent me a telegram saying ‘Well, maybe this business isn’t right for you’ and ‘You should try something else, like the insurance business,’ which you don’t get much magic in the insurance business…not a lot of magic there. So, I was like ‘Oh, God, I guess I’m going to have to go back down to San Diego and do my thing with my dad and be in insurance.'”
Fortuitously, that disheartening journey, from Los Angeles to San Diego, was averted.
“I had break come along. I got an advance on some projects that I was doing. It came along in the ‘nick of time.’ To really give credit where credit is due, I had a lot of tough years there, being almost completely broke, and I leaned on unemployment insurance to stay around. Thirty-six dollars a week. I was living on that…if you can believe that.”
Bishop’s friend, Leah Kunkel, as mentioned earlier, brought Stephen to the attention of Art Garfunkel. Bishop’s future shifted from underwriting to songwriting.
Gary Levine: Stephen, it seems as if it takes most musicians and most bands an album or two to begin to gain traction. In ’76 you released “Careless,” one of my all-time personal favorite albums and just hit the ground running. And, the listed personnel on that album is like a line-up card from an All-Star game…beside Art (Garfunkel) and Leah (Kunkle), there’s Lee Ritenour, Eric Clapton, Andrew Gold, Jay Graydon (two-time Grammy Award winner), Jim Gordon (drummer Derek and the Dominos), Chaka Khan…just a remarkable collection of talent! How does a first album have such success?
Stephen Bishop: “Au contraire, Gary. When they first released ‘Careless,’ they only printed 3,000 albums and they thought it wouldn’t sell! Then it sold. It became a college favorite…you know, like for college students to ‘get it on!’
We chuckled as Stephen said, “Let’s get it on” while doing his best Marvin Gaye impersonation.
“They were playing it in the background while they threw each other around!”
“But we did have some serious talent on that album. Art Garfunkel, he did the backgrounds. Chaka Khan sang on three songs. Lee Ritenour played great guitar. I had Jim Gordon on drums. I had Eric Clapton. He just came by the studio one day.”
Bishop then offered his finest British accent as he imitated Clapton.
“Hey…what’s going on? Well, I was just walking by the studio and thought I’d drop in!”
Gary Levine: Your work as a songwriter is exceptional. You have had your material recorded by Barbra Streisand, Phil Collins and Marilyn Martin, Johnny Mathis, David Crosby, Stephanie Mills, “The Four Tops,” Eric Clapton, Art Garfunkel…even Pavarotti. While this may be like asking a parent to select a favorite child, do you have a favorite…a performance of one of your songs that you find especially moving?
Stephen Bishop: “Yes, maybe that song I wrote years ago called ‘She took all my Kumquats.'”
Bishop began chuckling. “I actually went for a period where I was writing very silly songs! Songs like ‘There’s a Hair in Your Enchilada.’ Really dumb songs.”
Bishop changed gears and continued.
“I’m also doing an autobiography…a book all about my crazy life and a documentary. The book is called ‘On and Off.’ The documentary is called, ‘We’ll Talk About it Later in the Car.’ And, an album called, ‘We’ll Talk About it Later in the Car.’ The album is coming out pretty soon. I have an album with all new songs on it, just about. It’s coming out in May.”
“But was there a favorite performance of a song that you wrote for someone else?” I attempted to redirect Stephen.
“Well, I can make a hell of a quesadilla.” Attempt failed.
Bishop paused, then answered.
“Well, that would have to be ‘Separate Lives.'”
Released in 1985, featured on the soundtrack for the motion picture, “White Knights,” Bishop’s song was recorded by Phil Collins and Marilyn Martin. The song resulted in an Oscar nomination for Bishop and, interestingly, lost to “Say You, Say Me,” by Lionel Richie, which appeared on the same “White Knights” soundtrack.
“Separate Lives” reached number one on the “U.S. Billboard Hot 100” chart, number one on the “U.S. Billboard Hot Adult Contemporary” chart, number one in Canada and Ireland and number four in the United Kingdom.
“But, you know, I’ve written a lot of songs…about 650 or 700…and they’re all my children.”
Gary Levine: You have written an incredible collection of material used by the film industry and have personally appeared in a number of films. You wrote two of the tracks for “Animal House” and had your guitar obliterated by John Belushi. I would guess that you have a humorous story or two from your participation in that film. Anything special that you care to share?
Stephen Bishop: “I have all of those stories, in my book. You know, the guitar, that was broken in ‘Animal House,’ I had the whole cast sign it. I framed it and put it up on the wall. John Belushi signed it. It was a fun movie. I talk about ‘Animal House’ in the show and we do the song.”
“I didn’t think that there was enough left of the guitar to frame,” I remarked.
Stephen broke into an a cappella version of the “Animal House,” in falsetto. Classic…absolute classic.
By the way, please click here to view Stephen’s “Animal House” scene with John Belushi.
Gary Levine: Last question, Stephen. If you were asked to place an album into a time capsule…not a “collections” album and not necessarily one based on sales, but an album that you feel best illustrates both the songwriting and performance of Stephen Bishop, which album would you select?
Stephen Bishop: “That’s a tough one. Probably the new one. The new one has a lot of different sides to it. It’s a really heavy album. And, then, it’s also a real fun album. It’s got a lot of different qualities to it. But, other than that, I’d probably say my first album, I guess.”
The “Careless” album was meaningful, to many, for a multitude of reasons. Gentle, passionate, a gathering of well-composed pieces, “Careless” was a gathering of noteworthy talent performing outstanding songs.
“The album had an effect on people. You know, there’s some trivia on it. On the cover, I’m wearing a button…a picture of me. And, in the picture, I’m making a duck with my hands. Also, the top of my head, in the picture, is drawn in, because the picture wasn’t big enough.”
Stephen’s new album, “We’ll Talk About it Later in the Car,” will be available in stores and online in May of this year. His upcoming autobiography, “On and Off,” should be available soon, as well.
Bishop will be appearing in Delray Beach at the Old School Square on Wednesday, March 13 at 8:00 pm (click here for tickets), in Melbourne at The Maxwell C. King Center Studio Theater on Friday, March 15 at 7:30 pm (click here for tickets) and on Sunday, March 17 at 8:00 pm at Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater (click here for tickets).