The sole credited additional background vocalist on "Crazy Nights" describes a #1 studded song-writing career and session work that included Mötley Crüe, Alice Cooper, and KISS
KissFAQ: Tom, as way of introduction, let's start with a bit of background since you started out on the performances side of the business before moving into session work and song writing. What was your entry point into performing?
Tom Kelly: I started out playing in bands, playing guitar actually. When I was 14 I was a singer in a band; and I didn't even play an instrument in that band. Then I eventually started playing guitar and as I moved up the ranks I ended up playing bass guitar for many years for a lot of groups.
You worked with several notable bands, including Dan Fogelberg, Fools Gold, and Toto before transitioning into writing and session work.
I worked with Dan Fogelberg when I moved to California in 1974-1975 and toured as his bass player and background singer for a couple of years. I was always writing songs and before the song writing became my paycheck I worked however I could. One thing I broke into was background singing so I sang vocals for many groups and artists and that kind of sustained me until I figured out how to write a hit song.
Let's touch on the band Fools Gold, which included you, Denny Henson (guitar/vocals), Doug Livingston (guitar/piano), Ron Grinel (drums) -- essentially Fogelberg's backing band -- you released a couple of albums with them?
I had a partner from the Midwest that I played in a group with and we were Fools Gold. I put together Dan Fogelberg's back-up group which became Fools Gold eventually and with songs that I wrote. My partner, Denny Henson (who now lives in Nashville), we were the singer/songwriters in the group and we did a couple of tours. You know the record business had a lot of money back then. I mean unlike now, a record company would pay for all kinds of expenses, forward money, and then try to recoup it, but you'd be sent on the road. We had subsidies for tours. We opened for Loggins and Messina. We even opened for Fogelberg, and then later accompanied him [for his set]. But, as 1975, 1976, 1977 kind of were ticking by there were plenty of months of the year that I wasn't on the road. There was usually just a summer tour on and off for six weeks, so I think the first person that hired me as a background singer was John Boylan who was a well-known producer back then.
He produced a lot of hit songs and for Epic Records and it was just a word of mouth thing. Keith Olsen was very instrumental in giving me background work. He produced one of the Fools Gold albums and he knew I sang high. I sang high and I could hit at full voice and do that whole high tenor rock and roll thing so he started hiring me and he hooked me up with other sessions. Then he hired me and Bill Chaplain who was in the group Chicago for a long time. We were kind of a duo for a while. It was just word of mouth. You know, somebody would hear those vocals, and decide, "I want those guys." Over the years I did session work regularly with Bill Chaplin and Bobby Kimball from Toto. I ended up touring with Toto for their first tour for about a year, because they needed a high voice. Richard Paige from Mister Mister and his partner, there were a handful of us that just rotated and we worked a lot.
How did the transition from the performing side to focusing on song writing occur?
I worked, I would say 3 or 4 days a week and I was still writing songs and hoping to break through. I was realizing that I was pushing 30 and making it as an artist was looking more and more difficult. I had two kids at home and a wife, so I kept singing the background vocals, because it paid very well. I kept writing songs and eventually the songs took over and I was too busy writing songs and working with artists to do background vocals. I was making money writing songs, so I kind of phased out of performing.
"Fire and Ice" was the lead single off Pat Benatar's third album, "Precious Time," in 1981, co-written with Pat and Scott Sheets (a member of the New York 70s punk band, the Brats). That was your first song to become a hit reaching #17. More importantly, Pat won the Best Female Rock Performance Grammy award in 1982 for it.
That's correct, it was my first hit record. I had written a song and then she got her hands on it and rewrote the bridge and some lyrics; so we ended up being co-writers on it.
You're particularly well known for your extensive songwriting partnership with Billy Steinberg. You met at Billy at a party hosted by Pat Benatar's producer Keith Olson, right?
Correct, yes. You've done your homework.
Billy has described you as a "far superior musician." Was there any underlying delineation of roles within the partnership?
Yes. Billy Steinberg is primarily the lyricist. He actually was an artist and had kind of come up through the punk ranks. He wasn't a trained musician or perhaps as sophisticated as I am, but when I met him and we worked together, I was just blown away with how cutting edge his lyrics were. So, we got together and it was pretty clear, off the bat, that he was going to write the lyrics and I was going to write the music, although we both dabbled in each. He likes to write a lyric first, almost like a poem, and then I would write the music to it. Not everybody does it that way. I think Elton John and Bernie Taupin start with the lyric. It just really clicked, you know?
How did partnering with Billy change your writing?
It was just, all of a sudden writing a song was easy. I used to be able to write a melody and a chord progression really quickly and then it would take me ten times as long to try to write a lyric to it. And then my lyrics weren't that good! Mine is more musical than it is lyrical, so we were a good complement together. I sang the demos and did harmonies and produced the productions of demos when we wrote a song. I always had a recording studio at my house.
One of those songs was the original demo of "Like a Virgin," which became Madonna's first Billboard Hot 100 #1 -- could you describe that song's creation and the transformation it underwent for her?
Good question. Billy wrote the lyric and we literally worked Monday through Friday and we'd get together. If we had phone calls in the morning we'd take care of that, but he'd usually drive to my house at noon and we worked until dinnertime and call it off. But he would come over --and this was before word processing and computers -- and he would type out his lyrics on a typewriter. He was really structured about it. So, he'd come in and present me with his latest lyrics and "Like a Virgin" really stood out. I mean actually, you know the first, the opening lines of "Like a Virgin" say, " I made it through the wilderness / Somehow I made it through / Didn't know how lost I was until I found you." It was about kind of getting through a relationship and starting a new love and he was going through that. That's why he wrote it, and I had certainly related to it. I had just gone through a divorce when I met Billy and had met somebody new around that time. I was so moved by it that I tried writing a ballad to it and, you know, it just didn't work.
I just couldn't get it and then I tried writing something that was almost a ballad, like a medium tempo thing, but beautiful? Unlike other lyrics of his, which we usually wrote fairly quickly, we kept putting that one down and coming back to it and coming back to it. We knew that in 1983-1984, when that was written, the word "virgin" was like saying "fuck." It was really nasty and so we knew it was going to raise eyebrows. After trying to write it at least three times and then giving up [until] I was just clowning around out of frustration. I had just purchased a Jupiter 8 synthesizer and was getting into that world of synth. We'd always been pretty organic with guitars, acoustic guitars and acoustic piano, but there was a patch on the Jupiter 8 where the left hand was a bass and the right was kind of an orchestra. It's the same sound that's on Madonna's record, and if you heard my demo, I just started playing in all the Motown R&B bass line and just started singing it in falsetto and just being really playful with it. I probably sang the first three or four lines, and we looked at each other and started laughing and just said, "This is it!" It was fun and playful and sexy. Billy immediately altered some lyrics to make it more playful and finished it that same day and started demoing it the next. I'm sure I did the demo in one afternoon. It was on a 4-track tape recorder.
You and Billy were working on the i-Ten album at the same time, right?
There was a gentleman in A&R at Warner Bros. Records, Michael Ostin the son of Mo Ostin, who was the President of Warner Bros. Michael was a young guy looking for new songs and artists. Up to that point, Billy and I had not written a big hit. Sure, I had written "Fire and Ice" and he wrote a song for Linda Ronstadt called "How Do I Make You" [Ed. #10, Billboard Hot 100, 1980] and they were hits. But they weren't Top 5 hits or No. 1's, so we'd been working together for maybe a good 2 years or so, and started getting the idea of making a record. I mean I was the primary singer and musician again, but just as a team and as songwriters, we thought, "You know, why not make a record?" Everybody else was making records. So, we had a meeting with Michael Ostin. In fact, he came to my home studio, which at that time I believe was in North Hollywood, and we actually played them a bunch of songs that were of the style, kind of like Foreigner and Journey -- you know, kind of high singer rock and roll, which I could sing. We even debated whether to play him "Like a Virgin," because we knew if we made a record of our songs as artists that "Like a Virgin" wasn't going to fit in there. Nothing else was in falsetto, nothing else was R&B, so we were looking to get a record deal with Warner Bros. through Michael, and we didn't want to confuse him by throwing this other thing in. We played him all of our songs and he was impressed and he started talking about Madonna. I hadn't even heard of her.
So out of shopping for your own deal Madonna expectedly got one of your songs?
Her first album had just come out and had her first hits was. Billy knew who she was. He pays attention to that stuff more than I do and we just kind of looked at each other and said, "Oh, let's play him 'Like a Virgin.' Maybe it would be good for Madonna." So, we played him the demo and he just flipped. He said, "This is perfect for her. You know, she's got this, she wants to do this sexy image." So he took it and within days we heard that she'd loved it and was recording it. And a little time went by and the MTV Video Music Awards had just been on for a few years back then, and I remember coming home from dinner and I'd recorded it on the VCR because I knew Madonna was going to be on the show. Nobody goes on those shows and sings a song no one's heard before. They all go on and they sing their hit song, right? So, everyone knows it and loves it...
The funny thing is, while we were with Michael Ostin and he heard the song over at my house, Billy had this image that he said, you know, "I could see Madonna on top of a wedding cake," he said, "coming down singing this song." That was Billy's image of this song for her, and obviously Michael mentioned that to her because, now here I am waiting for Madonna to come on and I assume she's going to sing "Lucky Star" or whatever her first or second hit records were, and then they introduced Madonna and there's this fricking wedding cake that she's standing on top of in a wedding dress with all this cleavage and she starts coming down the steps singing. It was awful. I mean you've probably heard this story, but she comes down and when she gets halfway through the song she drops to her knees and starts rolling around on the floor. The microphone is slamming into the stage floor making all this noise, and she's not singing in the microphone. When she is, she's singing out of tune and her voice is trembling. She's rolling around on the stage and the camera angles are terrible because they didn't know she was going to do this. When it ended, it was kind of like about four people clapped and it was just like, "What happened there?" My first reaction was, "Oh my, God, I'll never work in this town again." I'm humiliated, you know? But, of course, you know, as she went on to discover any publicity is good publicity for her, and it turned into a story. When they released the song, it jumped to No. 1. I think it was there for 7 weeks so it was like a dream come true for us.
So, you released the i-Ten album, which included your original version of "Alone," later covered by Heart.
That was, that was the album we were trying to do with Warner Bros. with Michael Ostin. Billy and I were trying to do was take a bunch of the songs that we recorded and make an album out of it, and that ultimately became I-Ten and Epic Records signed us.
You've worked with seemingly everyone, from Dionne Warwick to Streisand, to Arlo Guthrie. By 1986, you're doing work with Alice Cooper co-writing "He's Back (The Man Behind the Mask)" for the "Constrictor" album and singing backing vocals on the song. How did that collaboration come about?
I worked with Arlo Guthrie? I did so many sessions over the course of several years, I don't even remember them all! That's funny! I can't remember how I met Alice. It might have been on the golf course because we're both avid golfers. At that stage I'd written a bunch of hit songs. What year was that?
It was on his "Constrictor" album released in October 1986.
Yeah, 1986. We had probably written three No. 1 songs by that time, and when you've done that people come to you and people start noticing who's writing the hit songs. I don't know if that's why Alice's people maybe said, "Why don't you write with Tom Kelly?" Maybe he was comfortable with me, because we'd played golf before at Calabasas. Anyway, we spent several days wood-shedding at my house. I think we probably played golf too. We'd play golf and then go back into the house and work on the song with his guitar player, Kane Roberts. He was a big, strong, muscular guy and that's how it comes about. Once you've written a few hit songs, you know, people will come to you. There was a time when we couldn't get anybody to listen to our demos, but eventually it comes around the other way if you've been successful.
In 1987 you have two songs, the #1 hit "Alone" and "I Want You So Bad" on the Heart album "Bad Animals" produced by Ron Nevison. "Alone" had originally dated from the i-Ten project. How did those songs placement come around?
I did know Ron. Did he work with Survivor?
Yes, he produced their debut album released in 1979, "Vital Signs" and "When Seconds Count" in 1986 on which you contributed vocals.
Okay, so I met Ron as a session singer. One of the great blessings I had, and advantages I have as a songwriter, I'd been doing session work for so long that I knew everybody. I mean, it's a very intimate process, the creative process and performing in the studio with the producer and the artist. Everybody gets really close, because you're essentially making a baby together. You're making and creating a song and arranging it, so I was pretty close with an enormous amount of successful record producers and artists. Even by the time I started seriously writing songs with Steinberg, I'd been doing session work for 4 or 5 years. If I wrote a song, and I thought I want to get this to Tina Turner, I could go to the producer and call him on the phone. In the case of Ron Nevison, I was working on a project with him -- I can't exactly remember who it was, Patty Smyth or Survivor, but I'm not sure -- but Ron mentioned to me that he was looking for a song for Heart.
The original version of "Alone" provides a striking contrast to the power-pop of Heart's version. How do you feel when a song of yours is transformed away from your original vision? Is there an emotional detachment?
I said that I think "Alone" is perfect for Heart, but i-Ten version is different. The opening line and the chorus have different phrasing and different lyrics. I knew it wasn't right, that it didn't kick in properly for a hit chorus. I mean I always loved the verse in "Alone," and I thought it was perfect for Ann Wilson. It's a very rangy song, which is exactly what she kicks ass on, so the bottom line is Steinberg didn't think it was a hit song. He didn't think it was good for Heart, but I insisted on it and got him to write a new lyric for the first line of the chorus and I rewrote the melody of the first line of the chorus so that it just came in a little bit more in your face. We demoed it, I think even without guitars. It was just orchestral; there was acoustic piano in it and a synthesizer. It was a very simple demo, just a handful of tracks and I sang the vocal and did the high harmony and we threw that together in several days and with the new opening line for the chorus. I took it in to Ron and he and Heart loved it and they recorded. It was the first single from their "Bad Animals" album, and just boom, went to No. 1. So, we were just on a roll.
Nancy has commented that Heart loved performing "Alone," but without what she called "wedding cake" production that she felt in hindsight represented the album version. What do you make of that in relation to the production Ron Nevison did on the album?
He pretty much took the same structure that our demo had and did the same dropouts. The verses were very tender and sparse. He improved some of the sounds with keyboards -- maybe made it a bit little more sparkly -- and maybe that's what Nancy's talking about. But it was also still bombastic, had the big power chords and the thrashing drums so it was timely. It seemed to be the right sound for the right time, and it was a very melodic and an acrobatic vocal for Ann. You know, she copied almost everything I did on the demo, even ad-libbed some stuff, so that's always flattering.
You also sang backing vocals on the album? Is it this connection with Ron that leads to you working with KISS on the "Crazy Nights" album?
I did backgrounds without vocals on "Alone" and on a number of songs on "Bad Animals" with Ron and Ann and Nancy. I was on mic with both those girls. They liked the way my voice blended in with theirs, to make sure it just didn't sound like all girls. So I did a bunch of strong background vocals for that album. Nevison had hired me before that, so he brought me into the Heart thing because he was happy with what I had done with him before. They were singing my songs, so I was just pretty cozy with everybody. My guess is, my ticket to KISS was probably Ron. He was their producer too.
Particularly with Heart, what was Ron's guidance for backing vocals, or as the song-writer were you pretty much given free rein?
I was hired by so many people to do the same thing, to hit the high notes and hit them full voice and kind of kick ass. It was just kind of a razor blade kind of a voice that just cut through. It really cut through. I sang the high part on "Jessie's Girl" for Rick Springfield. When I first started with Keith Olsen he never stopped hiring me because apparently my voice could blend with just about anybody. It just has a texture to it that kind of cuts through. It doesn't sound weak up there. It sounds really pushed and intense. So, I pretty much knew what my job was going in there. It was to sing the high harmonies and to kick them hard and make them really cut through with energy and intensity. That was my job. I did many sessions where I sang soft falsetto things and even lower parts, but if I was hired by a rock and roll band, that's what they wanted.
In general, how would you prepare for a session? Would you listen to the band's material or their demos, or go in with a clean palette?
Just go in. It's better that way. It's fresh. Everybody woodsheds around the console and listens by the speakers and tries parts and suggests things. It's just the creative process in the studio. You just go through it, and a lot of times it was obvious what needed to be done. If it was, for example, on "Jessie's Girl," Rick had already sung a melody and put a harmony on it, so I just put all the high parts on top of that. They wanted to just stack it up, because he couldn't quite hit the really high notes. Maybe a few times somebody sent me some material ahead of time and said, "Here, listen to this and come up with something," but that was very rare. You usually just walk in cold, you know? Show up at 1:00 at Cherokee Studios and shake hands and start listening to the song and start arranging something and putting it together.
After Heart's "Bad Animals," Ron works with KISS on their "Crazy Nights" album. You're the sole non-band member backing vocalist credited on the album. Why?
I had already written three No. 1 songs by then, so I wasn't doing that many background sessions, but you know if KISS asks you to do something you do it.
(Laughs). What about the members of KISS? Had you known any prior, and how was the experience working with that band compared with say Alice, Heart, or REO Speedwagon?
That was the first time I'd met them, I'm pretty sure. It's possible I had done something before for them. You know, a lot of the power glam bands, like Mötley Crüe and Poison, were produced by a friend of mine, Tom Werman. Tom often hired me to come in and belt out the high parts for those records. KISS was more unique, but still working in a similar genre, so it's logical that I sang with them. I'm pretty sure I just met them [for the first time] when I came in to sing with them.
Going into the studio, how did you find the KISS band members on a personal level? What direction were you given?
I was impressed that they were really warm guys. You know, Gene does his shtick about making money. He was always joking about making money. Paul was very warm and they were just regular guys. I was impressed that they were relaxed. I guess they knew who I was; that I was a songwriter and had had some success. There was mutual respect and it was just guys making music and having fun. It was a lot of laughs. I remember being on mic with Paul. His lead vocal would be down, and then he and I would harmonize together on some of the songs. I couldn't sit here and rattle off all the song titles for you, but I just remember having a good time. You know, we were young and in a creative part of our lives. There was a lot of energy. They were hard workers. It wasn't like working with Mötley Crüe, the KISS guys knew what they wanted. They had the image that they created and they seemed to really have their vision and be really disciplined about how to do it. It was a genius to hide yourself behind a mask that's allowed them to continue working well into their senior years! It was enjoyable, and I just thought they were great guys.
"Crazy Nights" was very much Paul's baby, and he was driving the artistic direction of the band. When listening back during a woodshedding session, did you mind the sort of feedback that might require take after take after take, to reach the point where the artist's vision was realized?
No. If it was my own song, like singing with the Wilson Sisters on "Alone" or "I Want You So Bad," then of course, that's more my baby. But, otherwise, I'm just going in there to make them happy and do a job. Like you said, it was Paul's baby. Ron Nevison is a perfectionist, and if it took five or six times to get it in tune -- or to get the right timber in my voice or something else -- it was going to be done until it was right. So, I wouldn't listen to a KISS or any album and say, "Oh, I wish I had done this," or "I wish I had done that." It was simple, I was there to do my job, and I feel confident that I did it well. They wouldn't have let me leave if it wasn't right and everybody was happy!
With working with so many different artists across several genres, were there ever any acts that you simply didn't want to work with -- and I'm not looking for names, just whether the situation ever arose for you professionally?
Yeah, there were artists that that I declined, I just said, "No thanks" to and some that I worked with that I regretted working with. It's part of the creative process. You've just got to wade through that stuff sometimes and keep going.
You bowed out of active work in the 1990s. What led to that?
I've had three families with three different wives. I've still got kids, 12 and 9-year-old boys I spend a lot of time with. I play a lot of golf. You know, maybe I'm a burnout. I worked so many years doing this, and truthfully it's hard work and it takes a lot of energy. As the 1990s went forward, I was still working with Billy Steinberg, but you could just feel that things were changing. Where we came from and what inspired us -- I think was probably 1960s music from the Beatles to Motown, the British invasion, a lot of Roy Orbison -- were our big influences and I can hear it in the songs we wrote. "Like a Virgin" was my Smoky Robinson song. It was like a Motown Smoky Robinson song to me, I sang it in falsetto. I could feel things were changing and rap music was really becoming popular. The best of it, I like, but I don't like terribly dark, ugly, violent, negative, angry lyrics.
It was becoming harder for us to write a hit song, so I just slowly started phasing out of it because it just didn't feel comfortable and I was tired of it. When you do something for a long time you sometimes just get tired of doing it. I had proven to myself. I was a No. 1 songwriter, had five No. 1 hit songs, and I had really achieved all my goals. I was getting older and so I started picking and choosing more what I wanted to do, unlike Steinberg. He was really a workaholic and I say that with admiration, because a lot of his drive pushed me to go for more and more. It was good for me, being kind of laid back and not particularly ambitious. So we balanced each other out really well and it was a good chemistry. I'm not saying I couldn't write a song right now if somebody had a gun to my head. I think will write songs again at some point in my life, probably not a lot but I've just been on a long break enjoying life, enjoying the outdoors, and enjoying my family.
When you look back at your career and accomplishments, where does the KISS work figure in?
It's right up there with my achievements as a singer. They're legendary and it was fun knowing them and seeing that they're really just nice guys doing their job too and following their dreams. Singing with KISS is something I'll never forget and it's up there with some of my greatest accomplishments. I admire those guys. I knew their manager, Doc McGhee, really well and played a lot of golf with him. Doc had his 50th birthday party at Pebble Beach, and Gene and Paul came to that, and as soon as they saw me we all reconnected and reminisced. People reach "legendary" status, but when you get down to it we're just people and had mutual respect for each other. It's a good bond and something I won't forget.
The KissFAQ thanks Tom for participating in the Danger Zone, celebrating the 30th anniversary of KISS' "Crazy Nights" album.
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