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Writing Hit Songs, Part 1
(Left to right) Jason Blume, Michael Laskow, Richard Harris, Allan Rich, Marlin "Hookman" Bonds, and Ralph Murphy grab a quick pose after the Writing Hit Songs panel at TAXI's Road Rally 2015. Collectively, their songs are on over 300 million records sold!

Hit Songwriters: Jason Blume, Richard Harris, Allan Rich, Ralph Murphy, and Marlin "Hookman" Bonds

Moderated by Michael Laskow

Songs from these writers have been cut by and been on records with artists like: Britney Spears, Barbra Streisand, Jordin Sparks, Oak Ridge Boys, Randy Travis, Shania Twain, Whitney Houston, Rod Stewart, Jason Derulo, Katharine McPhee, Tyler Shaw, Leila Broussard, New Kids on the Block, Koko LaRoo, Crystal Gayle, Ronnie Milsap, Greg Holden, and many, many more chart-topping artists. Our conservative estimate is that their songs have been on more than 300 million records sold!

What did it feel like the first time you heard your song on the radio? Jason, I know you won't be at a loss for words. How did that feel? Was it in a car on the radio?
Jason: Was it in a car? Should I tell you the block I was driving on? It was on Ventura Boulevard, and I was crying, driving, listening to my song on the radio for the first time. It was everything I had worked for, everything I had dreamed of. At that point I had been doing it for about eight years, at least. It did not wind up being a big hit song, by the way, but it did change my life. I will never forget that. I hope you all get to experience it, because it's unbelievable.

How many years before you had that cut?
Jason: About eight. But then, it was actually 11 years total before I earned a living as a staff writer, and 16½ years before I earned a good living.

How many times did you want to quit?
Jason: Never. Now this is maybe a sickness, I'm serious-maybe this is some weird personality quirk, but I can sit here and swear to you that I never had one day when I did not know I would be successful. And that was not reality-based, believe me, but I'm glad that I didn't know. I'm glad I didn't know that it was "impossible," like my father told me. I'm not going to say I wasn't depressed and miserable being poor and not getting what I wanted. Of course I was, but I never stopped believing it was going to happen.

How about you, Richard? How long did it take, and where were you when you heard your first song on the radio?
Richard: Well, I had two different experiences actually. I was in a band back in the U.K., and I remember when we were lucky enough in the days when an independent could actually get your music played on the radio. We were a band and we were unsigned, but we were touring a lot around London and kind of making a noise-not enough, because we never did actually get signed. I remember finding out that we were going to get played on this radio station in London. I was in the car with the rest of the band and we were driving past Heathrow Airport. You can always remember where you are with these moments, and I heard our song and I was the singer in the band, and it just freaked me out, to be honest with you. I just could not believe we'd actually made it on to the radio-it was just such an amazing feeling. I moved here-to the U.S., 13 years ago and most of my songs have been cut in countries that I don't live in, so I never really get to hear them on the radio. But I did hear the Cole Plante song, which is actually a dance tune, and that would have been two years ago. So it took me a long time before I actually heard something on the radio in the country that I lived.

Allan, your story?

"I’m surprised when I meet a lot of young writers how little music they listen to. They listen to a lot of the music they grew up with, but they then stop listening to music that’s coming out now."
Richard Harris

Allan: I remember where I was too. I was driving up Laurel Canyon in front of the Canyon Country Store and I had on KIIS "Hit Bound," I hear this song and I go, "How do I know this song? It sounds familiar to me. Oh my God, it's my song!" Then I pulled over to the side and was hysterically crying.

What was the song?
Allan: "I Live for Your Love" by Natalie Cole, which was #1 Adult Contemporary, and I think #10 or 11 Pop. But that had a good run. That was the first one. It was an incredible experience that I've never forgotten.

Ralph has been doing this so long that they didn't have radio… or cars. You've all heard of roving minstrels, right, that go see the king in his court? Ralph was the mandolin player in the band and…
Ralph: Thank you, Michael.

When was your first, and do you remember the moment?
Ralph: Actually, no. My first #1 record I never heard. It was #1 in France, Belgium and Germany, and I was living in England. As a matter of fact, Richard's dad was the arranger. Spring of 1966; we were the Slade Brothers; we were signed to Pye Records. But my first #1 I never really heard it until I went to Paris about two years later.

What was the first thing that you did hear on the radio?
Ralph: Oh… Actually, it was probably many years later: "Don't Take Me Half the Way," by Crystal Gayle.

Wow. And how many years do you think from the day you decided you wanted to be a songwriter, how many years did it take you to get to the point?
Oh, well, it took me… It was 1966 when I had the first #1, and I started when I was 11. And back then, you were supposed to have a hit by the time you were 21, and I turned 21 and I was a failure, a complete and utter failure. I'd been writing for 10 years, and there wasn't another year, and I'd given up. You know when you kinda go, "Well, OK, I'm just a writer, that's it." And you kind of let go, and then suddenly you keep working, and it's there. It's like, "Oh, shit, I didn't realize that." It's really, really cool.

And then, hearing the first one, again, "Don't Take Me Half the Way," I was driving in a car. So it was good fun. The first hit I had on the country charts was "Good Enough to Be Your Wife," which went to #2 and squatted under "Rose Garden," and I hated it. I hate #2 records. I hate 'em, cause they're so close, but…

Nobody remembers the #2s, but they remember the #1s.
Four years ago in England with Cliff Richard; went to #2 and just sat there.

Someone: I'll take it! [laughter]

So Marlin and I were both out at the Hawaii Songwriters Festival in June or July this past summer. I had never met him before, and we were both standing there… There was this little place for like candy, cigarettes, donuts, deodorant, whatever. It was like a little 7-Eleven in the hotel. Marlin said something to me that touched me really deeply. At the time I was almost so stunned that you said it. I don't want to misquote you, but you said something to the effect of, "Hey man, I want to thank you. TAXI was like my first jumping-off point. TAXI was the first thing I joined when I got in the industry, and I want to thank you." I don't remember exactly what you said, but it made me feel so good. Not that I think we made you into a hit songwriter, but we were one of the steps on the way. And that's why I've got all these people in this room. I want them to know it is possible. Richard has done it; you've done it. So figuratively speaking in your case-unless you've been to a Road Rally that I didn't know about-you've gone from the audience to the stage, and from anonymity to the radio. When was your first time that you heard one of your songs on the radio?
Marlin: Well, first I want just clear up the TAXI thing. Why it was such an amazing thing to have is that when you feel talented and you have some ideas for some songs, there's really no blueprint or anywhere that you can get feedback or, just figuratively speaking, have a hoop to shoot at. Like, "Oh, I can put my song here, maybe something will happen aside from TAXI," especially at that time, which was I think probably 2002 or 2003. So I was just happy. But about four years after that, I was teaching music at a school-instrumental music-and I heard my song on the radio…and I quit the job. [laughter]

"The number one most important component was getting professional feedback. I needed somebody to say to me, 'No, this isn't working.'"
Jason Blume

A songwriter move right there.
Marlin: I had no idea how much income was gonna come from that song, but I was like, "This is enough evidence for me…" Then I got really, really poor after that. [laughter] Then I got even poorer, and then I got happy. And I'm gonna borrow from Jason's story that he told me a few years ago in Hawaii. He said when he moved to L.A. and he was writing, he was poor-super-poor-but he was happy. And I think once I reached that point, a lot started to happen.

So everybody in the room obviously wants to be a hit songwriter or they wouldn't be here. How do you learn? What's the path? Is the path reading books? Is the path listening to radio? Is the path writing eight or ten hours a day? Is the path going to seminars? Going to the Road Rally? What are the most productive things that you guys have done that can help these guys [in the audience] stay on the path and speed up the journey? Anybody?
Richard: All of the above I think really, you know. When I moved here 13 years ago on a bit of a wing and a prayer, TAXI was my first port of call. I knew about TAXI back in the U.K., and just for me it was an opportunity to meet people. I just knew that I couldn't do it by myself. I had to connect to the industry and to other writers and producers, and this is where it started for me. It was the first place I could come and actually get handshake time with people and meet people. I think you just have to have an incredible thirst and tenacity, and I think TAXI is part of it. I think reading books is part of it; writing with as many people as you can write with-especially people that have been in the industry for a while or havehad some success that you can hang with and write with and learn from; and just never, ever settling-ever. As soon as you think you've kind of figured it out, I think you're dead. You have just got to continually try and find new ways of writing and being inspired. So listening to the radio… I'm surprised when I meet a lot of young writers how little music they listen to. They listen to a lot of the music they grew up with, but they then stop listening to music that's coming out now.

I hear this all the time: "I hate what's on radio today." But that's where you want to be, right?
Richard: You at least need to acknowledge it and understand what's going on. I mean, there's an amazing amount of… People who say there's nothing good on the radio, I just don't think they're listening to the radio. There is an amazing wealth of music-and not all of it makes it through to Top 40. And thank God-whether you thank God or not-but we have Spotify and Apple Music and all these resources to dip in and find music that's not maybe making it on the radio. But there is just an absolutely huge amount of fantastic music available to listen to right now, and I absorb as much of it as I possibly can. I make a point of listening to new music every single day before I start writing, because I want to be inspired. That's what inspired me to become a writer and want to be a musician is by listening to people's music, and I still want to be inspired by other people's music.

Jason: I want to respond to that as well, because I think all of the things that we discussed are really important and all affected me. I did every single one of them. I told people who were at the opening this morning in terms of being in a class-Allan Rich and I sat next to each other in a songwriting class when we were both learning. So I did all of that, but I think for me the number one most important component was getting professional feedback. I needed somebody to say to me, "No, this isn't working." And every single time, including a couple of weeks ago, that somebody says that to me, I feel like I've been kicked in the stomach, and my instant reaction is, "F***." It's like, no, that's how I really became a better songwriter. I had a publisher for 12 years who was such a sonofabitch. The man did not have one…

Who was he?
Jason: I'm not saying. But I dedicated one of my books to him, because he made me a songwriter. It was tough love. He would take a song, he would throw it across his desk and say to me, "If I want a piece of shit like this, I'd go stop somebody out on the street. Bring me something I can pitch."

All right, we need some clues. Did he live in L.A. or Nashville?
Jason: No, no. He was a Nashville guy. But the thing is, seriously, that wasn't enough. Then he told me how to build it back. He wouldn't just say, "You suck"; he would say, "This second verse isn't working and here's why. Go back and rewrite it." And I think I had to have that. I didn't know what was wrong with my songs. By myself I knew what they meant; made perfect sense to me; I could sing the melodies. I needed somebody…not my mother or my friend. Unless your mother is a music publisher, she's not qualified. So for me, all of those things work, but I have to have feedback.

Ralph: And it never stops.

"Unless your mother is a music publisher, she's not qualified [to give you feedback]."
Jason Blume

Allan: That's what I wanted to say. I've been in the business as very long time, and I'll just tell you about the last three days. Yesterday I was at two private screenings and two private lunches at the same time. The first one was Diane Warren lunch for her movie that she has a song in that's probably going to get nominated for an Oscar, but then there was a lunch. So I went to the lunch because Diane is a very good friend of mine, but also I wanted to go to do some networking. Then there was the Spectre movie that came out, and there was a lunch for Sam Smith, who was going to be there. So I had my salad and I had my salmon and I got up and then I went to the next one and I met Sam Smith. And David Foster was there, and all these great people were there.

The night before that I was at… I'll just say I went to a screening, and Lee Daniels was sitting a few seats away from me. This was just like a week or two ago. And I was on the phone saying, "Lee Daniels is sitting…" My friend said, "Get up and say hello to him and introduce yourself. You have the credentials." I said, "Oh, I feel a little embarrassed." And my other friend said, "I'm not sitting down until you go and say hello to that guy." So I went over and I said, "Well, you know, I wrote 'Run to You' by Whitney Houston from The Bodyguard," da-da-da. So he said, "Take my email address down; I want you to email me, I'm doing a new show." Now… So I did that, I emailed him; I sent him my bio; he didn't get back to me; I sent him another email; he didn't get back to me. So he was hosting a screening the day before yesterday, and I decided… I already saw the movie. But I went to the screening and spent three minutes so Lee Daniels could see me. And I went over and I said hello to him and I said, "Remember I sent you an email…"

I mean this is after being in the business for over 30 years, and I'm exhausted, I get tired, I think why should I be doing this at this stage in my life? Because you have to. It never ends.

The people you're sitting with in this room… someone's gonna have a big fat hit record… maybe more than one person. Someone's going to be a recording artist and sell a lot of records. You have an incredible opportunity sitting here, and I hope you take advantage of it, and will continue to take advantage of it. You have to meet as many people [as you can], and you have to let everybody know what you do. I just want to let you know that it never ends and you have to do your…that's part of your homework. But by the way, you have to also deliver. When the moment comes when you meet somebody, you better have the shit. [applause]

Don't miss Part Two in next month's TAXI Transmitter!