Interviewed by Doug Minnick

Where did you grow up?

On the road, virtually. I was born in England, went to the west coast of Canada in 1950, worked my way back across the prairies with my mother and ended up in Ontario. When I was eleven when I started my first band. I started playing bars when I was about fourteen. I went to L.A when I was sixteen and played out there. That was 1960 or 1961. I tried going to New York and tried getting into the Brill Building, but that was a closed shop.

I heard the Beatles and went to Liverpool in 1964. I was playing a club called the Birdcage, and Gerry and the Pacemakers came in. My partner and I had finished our set and they said, "Man you guys are good. What are you doing in Liverpool?" We said, "Well this is where it's at." they said, "No it's not. It's all in London. You're in the wrong place." They gave us a ride down in their equipment van and dropped us in the middle of Trafalgar Square in a snow storm.

Four months later we had a record deal with Tony Hatch producing us. A year and a bit later I had my first #1 song, which was "Call My Name" by James Royal. That was the end of 1965, first part of 1966. Back then I was in a bunch of bands. I put out five albums as an artist. The last deal I had was just as Ralph Murphy solo, and that was 1974. My mom has got a whole room full of Ralph Murphy albums, and she seems to be the only one, so it was kind of a pointless exercise.

How did you end up in Nashville?

Long story. I was producing a lot. I produced for CBS, Decca, Phillips—a bunch of labels in England. I was having a lot of hits, but I wasn't making a lot of money. I got an offer out of New York in 1969 to go over there and do a three-act production deal with Capitol and Mercury Records. I worked with a band called April Wine. I produced their first two gold albums, one platinum.

Accidentally, in 1971 I also had a country hit, which went to #2 with Jeanie C. Riley, called "Good Enough To Be the One." It sat under "I Never Promised You A Rose Garden" by Lynn Anderson, which stayed there for fourteen weeks at #1. I sat at #2. I came down and stayed at King of the Road Motel and just partied my brains out. I had a wonderful time here in Nashville. I went back, and I was halfway through the second April Wine album. I said, "We don't know how to rock, man. They're rockin' in Nashville."

Then Roger Cook and I decided we wanted to start a publishing company. He wanted to leave London, and I wanted to get out of New York. We opened a company called Pickalick in Nashville in 1976. In our first year we won "Song of the Year" for "Talking In Your Sleep" with Crystal Gayle that Roger and Bobby Wood had written. Then I went on to write "Half The Way" for Crystal, which was a Top 10 Pop song. We had five #1's with her, we had three #1's with Don Williams—just hit after hit after hit, a couple of dozen of them. We sold that company to EMI about seven or eight years ago and then kind of kicked back for a while.

Two-and-a-half years ago, they offered me the job here at ASCAP, and I turned it down. I said, "No, I don't need the money. I don't need a job. What do you want me to do?" They told me (represent the interests of songwriters), and I said, "That's what I do already for free." I'm a past president of the Nashville Songwriters Association. I designed a lot of the workshop programs. I teach the master camps. I'll do 21 days a year for free where I teach anyone, because I was taught for free by a bunch of great old writers 35 years ago.

It means seven days a week, 16 hours a day but It's fun, because I'm a member. I own ASCAP. See it's the members. I'm a member. It's my money.

Can you give a brief explanation of ASCAP's role and functions on behalf of songwriters?

Publishing income comes from two sources. There is mechanical income, which is derived from the physical sales of a product, be it CD's, cassettes or vinyl. The other is called performance income, which comes from users—broadcasters, TV stations, all forms of radio.

ASCAP's major role is to collect money from users of music, which also include bars, restaurants, clubs—anyone that uses music to make a profit. Music is intellectual property. That is what performing rights are about.

So besides the collection of money, which is ASCAP's chief function, what other kinds of support do you provide for songwriters?

We provide showcases. We have "The #1 Club" for when writers actually get a song to #1. We do a lot of stuff with print media, television and radio. Our showcases are very well attended in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, London, Nashville, Austin. Wherever there is an opportunity for creators to have their works aired, we try to represent them there.

We also have a six-week songwriters course, and it's offered for free every March. Writers simply submit a tape, and the person who is running the workshop—the writer who we bring in to run it—chooses those people he thinks can be most impacted by it. We usually get a lot of tapes, and they cull it down to 40 people. We have the same thing out in Los Angeles for film and television composers and we have theater workshops in New York.

What would you say are the key elements of writing hit country songs?

Story, story and story. I recently did a survey of 14 hot publishers, ranging from the biggest like BMG, all the way down to the newer ones, the AMRs. But all of them had to have one thing in common. They all had to have had a hit within the last 12 months and signed a new writer in the last 12 months. I asked 24 different questions on every aspect, from gender and age, to the ability to write alone, the ability to co-write, potential to be an artist, amount of the advance, living in Nashville, a producer working with a hot act, writing with a hit act, demo quality, persistence, and some others. Two out of the four most important things that a writer had to have to get a publishing deal in Nashville were very surprising. Number one, of course, was the lyric.

Number two, was personality—whether or not they like you. And that's quite logical if you think about it. You're going to give this person 30 grand a year for three years to come and sit and look at your face everyday. You're going to want to like them.

Number three, logically, is melody—the ability to write a great melody. Number four, was the ability to write alone. Not your co-writing skills, not any of that. Ability to be an artist was way down the list. All this other stuff was down on the list. Number four was the ability to write alone. The rationale was that if this person can write both words and music, no matter who we send him off to co-write with, we'll come back with a great song. If somebody just writes melody, you've got to weed out about half of the songwriting population you can't have them write with.

So the fact that they write alone doesn't necessarily mean that the publisher wants them to always write alone, it just means that they are more versatile as a collaborator.

Exactly. Suddenly there are more arrows in their quiver as they're climbing up the castle wall. It was fascinating.

But personality, whew. I've got people passing through my office who are just so negative. Like, "Oh well, I guess no one's going to want my songs." And I think to myself, you're probably right! [laughter] No matter how good they are, no one is going to want to put up with someone as negative and depressing as this human being who is bitching at me.

How important is demo quality when pitching songs here in Nashville?

Well, remember that your demo quality is very important. You'll probably be pitching to someone who generally gets paid about $50,000 a year to stop a tape if he or she hears someone singing out of tune, or a guitar being flat. Their job is to stop the tape when that happens. So if you are playing a tape that has the guitar out of tune, or the vocalist is ahead of the beat, you are begging that person to shut your tape off.

You are interfering with their ability to hear the song.

Totally.

Does that mean that you've got to have 24-track production and master quality stuff?

No. You can have a guitar/vocal demo, but that guitar better be in tune and sound good. The quality of the tape should be clean, no pops or hisses. The vocal better be in tune. It doesn't have to be incredible, but it better be in tune, right in tempo, expressive—it's got to be good.

Let's talk about the role of a publisher in Nashville. In the pop world these days, publishers are largely signing self-contained artists. They are either signing bands that already have record deals, or signing an artist that they're going to help to develop to get a record deal. There are very few staff writers around anymore. What's it like here?

I would say the opposite. It's the last bastion of the true publisher and the true songwriter—where you don't need to be an act in order to earn a living. Chances are you will not get rich, but you will be able to live comfortably as a successful writer in this town. Publishers are still nurturing here. They are still looking after people. They are still pitching. They are actively involved with their writers' lives. It's still a bit like it used to be many, many years ago.

Do you have to have some action going already before a big publisher will look at signing you? Do you have to have cuts going in?

No, basically you need to get the attention of one of the people who goes out to clubs, because that's who they pay attention to. If a clubber comes in and says, "Man, this is great. I can get this stuff cut," chances are whoever is running the company will go, "Okay. If you can get it cut, let's sign them." You have to get the clubber's attention. There are a variety of ways to do that. You can do it by getting up and playing at venues where publishers attend on a regular basis. You can do it through submitting tapes. Actually in this town, your best friend is generally your fellow songwriter. I know if I run into songwriters I'll ask, "What have you seen that's hot lately?" They'll go, "Oh man, you've got to see so-and-so." I find out from other songwriters who is hot. There is still that strong network here in town.

Do publishers routinely accept unsolicited tapes?

No, but you've got to remember, it's a people business. Ultimately, if you get to know someone inside—if you turn up enough times, and you're polite and you're cool, there will be a way you can get in the door. It requires persistence, and it requires personality. It requires someone liking you enough to let you in.

Most people who work in the tape room here end up running labels. People who are receptionists, five years from now will be running the company. So always remember, you're in it for the long haul. Being a songwriter is a terminal condition. You write until you die. You might as well groom some allies as you go along the way.

What is the best advice you can offer an aspiring country writer in Tuscaloosa, Oklahoma?

Write what you think are your best songs. Then pick two or three of them. Spend a little bit of money, not a lot, on getting a really high quality demo done and using a really good singer. Don't sing your own demos. I've been having hits for 30 years, and I have never ever sung one of my own demos. First of all, it makes it easier to handle the rejection if you can say, "That's not really me singing. They're not turning me down. They just didn't like the singer." Get yourself someone else to blame when they don't cut your song. [laughter]

Do a really good demo, and then find out something about the company you're pitching to—who their players are, what they do, how you could fit in there. You're making a business decision. I mean, you choose a bank with more thought than most people choose a publisher to go to. If you were going to a bank, you would want to find out what their check-cashing policy was, who their loan officer was and all that stuff. But people just go to publishers and knock on doors and say, "Hi I'm here," like publishers are all the same. They're not. They are all different. They all have different needs. They have different expectations from their writers. Find out about who you're going to.

What are some good ways to find out about that kind of thing?

Well, first of all, your fellow writer. The Nashville Songwriters Association is a really good organization. They have a lot of time for new writers coming into town. They also have regional workshop programs. They have different chapters all over America. There is generally a chapter in every town where you are. There are just a bunch of really excellent books out there. I was over at Tower last night buying a book for a friend on the music business, and I was just amazed at the proliferation of good books. When I started out, there was no way to learn. You simply had to get in your car and travel somewhere. Then you waited for three to six months to get an appointment, or to get to see a writer you admired, and get some advice from them. But now it's a different world.

Let's say we're talking about a hit songwriter—a current signed writer who's having hits. What is the ratio of songs they write to cuts they get? Does everything they write get cut instantly?

No. But then again, every writer is totally different. Some writers write two songs a day. They're turning in 150 songs a year, and they get six cut. Some people write twelve songs a year and get six cut. Everyone is different. There is no constant.

But even the one who writes twelve and gets six cut is only getting half of his stuff cut. That's still 50% rejection.

You know, the amazing thing is you're absolutely stunned when someone says yes. You're so unused to hearing the word yes. "What did you say? What was that?" It's like they're speaking another language. "You don't mean yes do you?" "Yes!?"

What is your favorite success story?

You'd have to be looking at Mark D. Saunders at the moment. He has the #1 and #2 records. He has like six in the Top 20. He languished around here for ten years before he finally cracked it. He was just writing everyday and pushing and kicking. It's quite astonishing to look at the charts and see him stacked up there.

What are the songs that are happening now?

"Don't Get Me Started," #1. "Daddy's Money," #2. "My Heart Has a History," #18. "Blue Clear Sky" by George Strait which was #1 about three weeks ago. He had a couple more up there recently that have since dropped off.

Well that's not too bad. Four songs in the Top-20!

Yeah, he's doing real well.

And it took him ten years to do it. Well, that's the reality.

Sure. What can I say?


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