Richard Kerr: Composer

Richard Kerr is a British composer who has written songs recorded by Dionne Warwick (“I’ll Never Love This Way Again”), Helen Reddy, Tom Jones, Kim Carnes, Natalie Cole, Frankie Valli, Rita Coolidge, Bonnie Raitt, John Denver, the Righteous Brothers, Roy Orbison, and Peter Cetera.  He is perhaps best known for writing many songs recorded by Barry Manilow, including “Mandy,” “Looks Like We Made It,” and “Somewhere in the Night.”

What was life like growing up?
Hard question, not a wonderful life for me early on, but I have always… from my very first memories, I remember my Father singing me songs.

What kind of songs?
Probably songs you’ve never heard of Paul.. ‘Little Man You’ve Had A Busy Day,’ ‘Old Faithful,’ songs like that.

You’re absolutely correct, I have not heard of those songs (Paul and Richard laugh)..
What type of songs are they?
Well, ‘Little Man’… well, actually, they are very well known songs, but they’re of my Father’s era, I don’t know how I would describe them, they’re sort of like.. I guess.. Lullabies.

I see.
Old Faithful’ is about a horse that was a firm favorite in the forties, and I think the same applies to ‘Little Man You’ve Had A Busy Day.’ You can imagine what that song is about, a Father singing to a son.

What city were you born in?

Bedford.

What kind of town is that, what’s it like?

Well, it’s a, fjord means river and it’s a town on a river, the Ouse, and I went to Bedford school, which is a privileged school to go to, it was a fee paying school and for the first seven years or so I did very well indeed, and then I realized that I had probably been learning everything parrot-fashion and for the next six years I did terribly.

Mmmm.
We had a school chapel there, and I was in the choir, and we always congregate there every Sunday and of course at holidays, especially at Christmas time where I sang the solo in ‘Once In Royal David City.’

So you had a talent for music from a very early age.

Very early age, yes, I studied the clarinet, which is not much use as a songwriter. (Paul and Richard laugh)

It’s the instrument Woody Allen plays.
Woody Allen certainly does play that, yes, absolutely. My very favorite clarinet of all time, now I’ve forgotten his name, it’s terrible, I can’t think of his name, Art… no, no.. I can’t..

Artie Shaw?
Artie Shaw! Artie Shaw, I never could manage the Concerto for Clarinet in ‘C,’ it was incredibly complicated thing, but Artie Shaw had such a wonderful tone to his clarinet.

In addition to.. you just mentioned Artie Shaw, I was curious specifically about the popular music of the day, that you were especially fond of.

The first vinyl record I ever bought was Eddie Cochran’s ‘Twenty Flight Rock.’ But I would have to say that growing up round about…as a teenager the first influence I ever had although I didn’t know I was ever going to be a songwriter was Buddy Holly.

I see.
I remember going… we used to go to a place called Clacton-On-Sea, which is not that far away from here, but I haven’t been back since my youth and I played ‘All Shook Up’ by Elvis Presley till people.. must have turned people out of the place, I just could not stop playing that record. (Paul laughs)

You mentioned the clarinet, what about the piano, how did that enter your life?

It’s pretty boring little story, but I mean..very briefly there was a piano…. when I left school I went into the wine trade, very briefly and I was living in a sort of a boarding house, where in the main sitting room, which nobody ever went into unbelievably, there was a grand piano and myself and a friend who was also in the boarding house there, we just decided one day that we would sit down and try and write some songs and I’d never had a piano lesson in my life, but we started hawking these little songs around, our version of Tin Pan Alley in Waldorf Street in London and eventually publishers got interested.

Tell us about the interest of the publishers, what was the songs specifically that caught their ear?

Not songs that would mean anything to you. I mean I could plug out a few titles to you, but they wouldn’t mean anything to you because they weren’t hits.

Well just tell us a few so we can look them up.

‘Hard Loving’ was the first.. I think the first single I put out as a recording artist and ‘Concrete Jungle’ which sort of was almost, almost a hit.

Interesting.
It was played like a hit, but it didn’t really sell that great and I never dreamt that I could possibly ever make a living out of being a songwriter, but, as I say I was in the wine trade at the time at a very posh store which is still very much in existence now in London called Fortnum & Mason, and Fortnum & Mason heard about the fact that I was recording – as they put it ‘a rock n roll singer’, and they did not like the association of their store with rock n roll, now we’re going back a long time now, because today it would probably be a plus but in those days they sure as hell didn’t like the association, so they asked me to stop having their name associated with my record and I had the greatest publicist, man named Les Perrin, who was also the publicist for a slightly well known group called the Rolling Stones (Paul laughs, Richard continues) and David Bowie and he said “it’s too late Richard, I can’t.. you know, all the stuff has gone out to all the various people, I can’t suddenly pull it back” and then in the end the Fortnum & Mason fired me.

I see.
And I was absolutely scared to death, cause I’d been, you know, I had a steady job and I didn’t dream I could be a song writer or a recording artist or anything like that, but it was the one thing that pushed me into the music business.

Well, tell us about the song ‘Blue Eyes.’

(Richard laughs)  Ohhh, ‘Blue Eyes,’ ‘Blue Eyes’ is…you don’t know the term ‘busker’ do you over there?

One who plays on the street for…?
Yeah.

Yeah.
Yeah, yeah a one man band Don Partridge was the man’s name and myself and my Manager Don Paul, we were queuing up to see the latest James Bond film in Leicester Square and this guy Don Partridge was busking outside of the cinema and he had the most incredible co-ordination and he was really good and Don Paul said to me “I think I’m going to take that guy if he’s.. if he’ll let me and I want to take that guy into the recording studio” and in those days it was all mono, not even stereo and he took Don into the recording studio and it cost him eight pounds to make a record called ‘Rosie,’ which went to number three in the British charts, and Don Partridge could not write or couldn’t find a follow up that he liked and he asked me if I would like to have a go and ‘Blue Eyes’ was the result of that, and I wrote that with Joan Maitland and that went to number two in the charts for twelve pounds it cost him because we put an upright bass on it for a half session.

So, twenty pounds the total cost, a number three and a number two, not bad.

We had an interview recently with Scott English, he’s a man you wrote with, what was your first impression of Scott English?

The entire, exact opposite from me. (Paul laughs).

Well, explain what that means.
Very loud, from the Bronx, I believe it’s the Bronx and extremely loud man, I’ve always been a very quiet person, and…which is not very well suited to the music business, but there you go, but I can’t absolutely remember howwe got together, I think it was probably… I think it was actually at some sort of music business function and we… I think we were just talking to one another and we just decided that we would try and write something together, as simple as that.

One of the songs that you wrote was entitled ‘Brandy.’

Yep.

Tell us about composing ‘Brandy.’
I know that Scott put out a whole load of his own explanations to the title of ‘Brandy’, but I never paid much attention to things like that when I was presented with the lyric because I think I was actually presented with the lyric of ‘Brandy’ first. I think that the lyric came before the music, and I wrote to it almost in a sort of James Taylor style, I mean I wasn’t aware that I was writing in the James Taylor style but almost in a James Taylor style, and we sat and we wrote that, I remember exactly what it was, it was in Curzon Street in Mayfair, we couldn’t… Scott’s electric piano wasn’t working properly and we had to go next door to his neighbor who had a sort of out of tune piano and the song just came musically very, very quickly for me, because I just related to the lyrics so clearly.

The song later became entitled ‘Mandy’ as recorded by Barry Manilow. What did you think of Manilow’s interpretation?

Interesting. It’s one of the first memories that I had of going to Los Angeles. I was asked to go over by my publisher and Rondor, Rondor which is A&M’s Publishing company, and I was waiting to see a man named Jeff Benjamin who worked at Rondor and outside the…while sitting outside of his office door, I heard this song being played, and it genuinely took me Paul about a minute into it to realize it was my song that was being played.

Interesting.
I couldn’t actually tell, I mean, being behind closed doors as it were, I couldn’t actually pick out the fact straight away that it was ‘Mandy’ as opposed to ‘Brandy’ that was being sung, but when I did find that out, I was absolutely livid that someone had changed the title without asking us. Until I saw it zooming up the charts. (Paul laughs) When you think about it I think ‘Mandy’ is probably a much more accessible title than ‘Brandy’.

Yeah.
But Scott had had chart success in England himself as an artist as ‘Brandy’, but anyhow, you know, Clive Davis had decided to change the title of the song, in my mind probably has the greatest ears.. had the greatest ears of any record Chief in the States and he had that record ‘Brandy You’re A Fine Girl’ by Looking Glass, which had been a recent number one for him on CBS and he just started up this new label Arista and ‘Mandy’ was in fact I think the very first release on Arista.

A lot of the songs you’ve written have been with Will Jennings, in my humble opinion a brilliant lyricist. How did you meet Will Jennings?

On that same trip over I had been asked to sit down and write with a man named John Bettis.

Yes John Bettis.
John Bettis that time of Carpenters fame, I’d travelled all the way over there and I hate flying, I’ve got a tremendous fear of flying, always have done, still do, I pushed aside my fear and go on the big bird in the sky and come over to write with John Bettis and he said “I’m awfully sorry, but I’ve got some re-writes to do for this new Carpenters album.” So I thought ‘aaah well that’s okay, I can get some really good melodic things together on my own and wait for him’, and my publisher over there said to me “I really would like you to look at some of these lyrics by a man named Will Jennings,” and I said, his name was Lance Free and I said to Lance, “you know, Lance, I really… I understand what you’re saying but I really don’t want to sit down with a lot of different people, I came over here to write with John and I’d rather…” and he said “now please just look at a few of Will’s lyrics”, when I looked at a few of Wills lyrics, he never had a hit at this stage, he’d just come over from Nashville himself and I looked at some of these lyrics and I just thought ‘this is my sort of lyric, you know what he writes it’s from the heart, I can write with this guy’ and so we decided to sit down and write together whilst I was waiting for John Bettis.

Is that how most of your songs have come about, is the lyric usually done first and then you compose the melody?

No, in fact the first song that Will and I wrote was a song called ‘Somewhere In The Night,’ we were very fortunate enough to have several chart records on that but never one I would call huge hit. Manilow recorded it and Helen Reddy and Yvonne Elliman, Kim Carnes and various other people,but I remember presenting the melody to him first on that one, the first song we wrote, I was staying at a place, a very infamous place called the Sunset Marquis, which is on Sunset Boulevard and it was… I rented this electric piano which had three notes missing on it, but it didn’t matter because it was such a great atmosphere at A&M Records where my publisher was the old Charlie Chaplin Studios and if you couldn’t write a hit song there, you couldn’t write one anywhere.

Well, what’s your opinion of that song ‘Somewhere In The Night’?

I love the song, in my mind it was about a particular lady and it was one of those melodies that came very quickly and although it’s entered the charts on several occasions with Manilow and with Helen Reddy, I’ve never felt it quite… the closest that it came to in terms of feel was an act that Clive Davis produced himself, and act called Back Door From Rodney who never set the world on fire, but one of these days, I still think that it’s going to get a definitive version.

Hmmmm, it is absolutely, in my humble opinion anyways one of the most beautiful songs ever.
Oh well thank you, that’ s very kind of you.

There’s another one that you wrote with Will Jennings, ‘Looks Like We Made It,’ that is a favorite with a lot of people, tell us about composing that song.

Well, we were.. I was back… we would come over to England, this was back in England and I remember so clearly it was one of those rare beautiful days where there wasn’t a cloud in the sky and Will was… had been put up in some small hotel and he had all the curtains closed and I came in and said “Will, it’s beautiful outside there” and he said “I can’t concentrate when all the curtains are open,” we sat down, we wrote ‘Looks Like We Made It’ that afternoon, Will and I used to write, always used to write in my favorite way of writing and that is we both sit together with nothing and I would be fooling around on the keyboard, Will would be just thinking about lyrics and we might be in the same room, we might not, but we’d be in the same house or hotel and he’d hear what I was doing and I would hear what he was doing and he’d say, nine times out of ten he’d say “I love what you’re doing there” and I wouldn’t even be aware of what I was doing and I’d just go over and over and over it again and he’d say “yeah” and we’d write really, really , really write together as it were as opposed to so many songs of late, where someone will send me a lyric or I will send a melody, we’d actually write and compose the song together in the same room.

There’s been so many songs that you’ve composed that Barry Manilow has recorded. Why do you think that Barry Manilow has recorded so many of your songs?

I know why Paul, because Clive Davis wanted him to. I think you know I was a Clive Davis favorite at the time, it’s strange, I didn’t really want to get into writing all those ballads, I didn’t want to get known for writing all those ballads, although they’d been very kind to me, you know and of course having started off with ‘Mandy’, which was when Manilow was totally unknown, you know, I know that Barry I think it’s quite right and honest to say Barry never wanted to record other people’s songs, he only wanted to record his own songs, which is fair enough, he’s.. you know, he’s a fine songwriter. It was Clive that said “no, you know, you haven’t got a single here, this is a song you’re going to record” and I… I’m not privy to exactly what went on with Clive with Barry in their times together, but I do know that he never wanted to record ‘Mandy’ in the first place, he never wanted to record ‘Somewhere In The Night’ or ‘Looks Like We Made It’ or all the other ones at all, it’s down to Clive.
Interesting.

Well, one of Manilow’s long time collaborators, the lyricist Marty Panzer…

Yep.

You wrote a song with him, how did you meet Marty Panzer?
(Richard laughs).. I was lying back, exhausted after having written quite a lot with Will and needed to just take a little break, and I was in Palm Springs, I was lying back on one of those sun loungers soaking up the sun and I heard this man “are you Richard Kerr?” and I thought ‘who the hell is this’. My eyes were closed, I’d been ……. I got up and I said “yes, I am” and he said “I recognized your photograph and my name is Marty Panzer,” I said “hello Marty,” really wishing that he’d go away and he said “I’m a great friend of Barry Manilow’s” and I said “ohh well, very nice to meet you” and he said “do you think that there’s a chance that you and I could write something together one day,?” and I said “yeah, I mean let me know, or show me one or two lyrics that you’ve written, I’d love to see whether we can”  and I like Marty’s style very much indeed, very, very much from the heart and we sat down, I think we’ve written maybe six or seven songs, a long time ago now.

He has actually two questions that he asked for us to to ask you.

Oh.

So these two questions are from Marty Panzer.
Right.

As not only one of the most successful songwriters of your generation, but also one of the most well respected songwriters of your generation..
Writers..

He’s speaking of you, yes.
Oh.

Which writers today are writing at the quality level you respect?
Oh boy, there are a lot. But you know, I.. it’s funny, I haven’t… Paul I have never… and probably to my detriment, but I have never really studied the music business, or, not the music business, but I’ve never really been one of those who sort of goes out and buys lots of albums when they come out and stuff, but I’d have to say the first person that comes to my mind today is Adele and I can’t remember the name of the guy that she writes mostly with, but she’s a great talent. A lot of my other choices are people who are not really current, but, I mean I always have loved Don Henley’s writing from the Eagles..

Yeah.
And there are so many people that I love, I think that if I sat in front of a chart right now with a lot of records in front of me, I should probably be prepared for this, but there are so many bands who I don’t know the names of the writers to. I heard again recently a new album by Randy Newman, Newman’s always been one of my real favorites, but these are all old.. I mean, you know, Paul Simon is a great writer,  Jimmy Webb who I spent a wonderful evening and night with many years ago, he’s a great writer, but today, as you probably are too aware, with the exception of a few, the music business has changed, you know, a hundred and eighty degrees and it’s not really songs today, it’s more image, it’s more production, it’s like the film industry in a way, that they sort of parallel one another in that special effects are so important today in music and in film and I think to the detriment of the story andr the meat of the song or the film.

Yeah. Well, the second question of the two that Marty wanted me to ask he says, who is best at carrying the torch for well written, important songs that will last beyond the moment. You just mentioned Adele, what about perhaps singers that are singing other people’s songs, who do you think is doing a good job?

There are just so few, I have lost touch with those singers who.. they’re tough questions Marty. (Paul laughs).. I don’t know whether the British chart echoes the American chart any longer. I guess I’d have to say that Michael Bublé does a pretty darn good job of other people’s songs but you’ve really stumped me, it’s hard to pick out.. I can’t just pick out a lot of names that come to mind.

One of the songs that you wrote is a very well known song ‘I’ll Never Love This Way Again,’ what inspired that?

That was Will and I, Will Jennings and I, at my little ranch style place in Nichols Canyon, I love the names Los Angeles gives to its roads, I started off in Wonderland Park Avenue, I moved to Astral Drive, and in Astral Drive we wrote that song and it was one of those songs that had a bitter after taste to it, simply because some guy out of New Jersey put a claim that we ripped him off, we’d never heard his song, we’d never met him, what happened was that they froze all the… because they had to legally, BMI and the record company Arista froze all the royalties, so we didn’t see the royalties from that record for over a year, or a year and a half I think, but the actual writing of the song was another one with Will that came very quickly indeed and I believe that was a verse lyric first.

There’s another one that you wrote, recorded by the late Roy Orbison, ‘In The Real World’…

Ahhh yeah.

Tell us about that song.
What a lovely man, I just have to say one thing about Roy, which probably all his closest friends have said and know for themselves, but of all the stars, so called stars that I have met during the years, I would have to say that Roy was the one with the least glitter about him, he was such a humble man, you’d never known that he had had the sort of career he had. That was written in Will’s house in West Lake Village in an afternoon I remember ‘In the Real World,’ it came really quickly, and I believe that was partly lyric first, yet again it’s the sort of lyric you see for me anyhow that writes itself, and when Roy heard it, I don’t know how Will got to know Roy, but it was Will got to know Roy rather than myself, but Roy came round one afternoon, we played him that and we played him another song ‘You May Feel Me Crying,’ he loved both ofthem and actually recorded both of them, the second one ‘You May Feel Me Crying’ was in a film, it wasn’t a hit, neither was ‘In The Real World,’ but it was on the last album he did.

What about the song John Denver recorded ‘Don’t Close Your Eyes’?

Oh yeah.. funny you should say that, I was watching a special, you know, on John Denver just the other day, my wife is a huge fan of John Denver. Yeah, It was delightful to have a John Denver record, again, it wasn’t a big hit, but he was one of a kind in his style of writing and it’s always especially lovely from my point of view when a writer, a artist, someone who writes their own songs records one of your songs, that’s a special privilege I think, because it means that they really, really do value the song and they want to record it for themselves.

What about the song ‘In Another World,’ that Manilow recorded, what inspired that?

He didn’t get it at all, he didn’t… I wish I could play you the demo. I wrote that with a lady named Charlie Dore and it’s one of our favorite songs but I wasn’t happy with Barry Manilow’s version of that, it’s all I can say about that one.

Have you had any interactions with Manilow through the years?

Very little. Very little indeed, I think we probably only met on three occasions and all three at functions, you know, at music business functions, I do remember (Richard laughs)..  he suggested to me many years ago that we’d try and write together and I said “what, you mean just you and me?” and he said “yeah,”, and I said “what’s it going to be like,” I don’t know if you’ve heard of Ferrante & Teicher have you?

I haven’t heard of that no.
Oh, okay, well they were two guys who sat facing one another both at their own pianos and I said “I can’t imagine how we could do that Barry,” so nothing came of our writing… sitting down and writing together, it might have been interesting but we’d have probably had to get separate lyricists in.
Yeah.

Well, speaking of lyricists, you’ve written with the lyricist John Bettis who you’ve mentioned earlier.

Yes.

What was it like to write with him?
I think John and I had, bad luck is the wrong word, I just don’t think we were lucky, we’ve written a lot of songs together and we’ve had a lot of recordings and a lot of cuts of songs, we’ve never had a big hit together and we should have done, we started writing I think it’s fair to say, he was…the Carpenters were on the wane as it were, he had a lot of time on his hands, I, again loved his lyrics, I loved the way his mind works lyrically and he’s had so much success, just like Will has had, way apart from me I mean, you know the sort of hits that Will has had and John the same, I mean I don’t know if John’s won an Oscar, but Will’s won two, John has had tremendous success writing apart from me, but we’ve written some very fine songs, a lot of the songs I’ve put on my very unsuccessful own albums, and a nice man and someone that I think of very fondly.

I know this might be a difficult question to answer, with all the lyricists that you’ve worked with, and all of the songwriters you’ve written with, from Will Jennings to Scott English, Marty Panzer, John Bettis, I believe you told me you’ve written with Paul Williams.

Yes, but Paul, I love dearly, we’ve written maybe half a dozen songs together but we were both at difficult times in each of our lives, not songs that I think… I can only speak for myself, not songs that I’m really proud of, I would have thought that knowing his sort of writing and my sort of writing we would have been a match made in heaven, not something that I can actually say “yes, this song should have been a hit,” so we just had our writing times together, but other parts of life took over from our creativity I think when we sat down together.

 Well, on that note, of all of the co-writers you worked with, could you pick a favorite?
No. No. Absolutely not. (Richard laughs)

What about a favorite song of yours, is that possible?

Well, funny you should say that I think probably ‘Somewhere In The Night.’
Yeah.
I think so, although the one that’s been the best and the kindest to me is ‘Mandy.’ Some, I mean it changes so much that I think I know probably that most writers would say this about themselves, but I generally think I’m writing better right at this moment in time, this very moment in time and I have a half… whether the songs I’m writing and have written in the last five years we’ll become hits is something else, but I have a new lease on life, maybe one of those will be my favorite of all time.

What was it like to have Frank Sinatra record one of your songs?

Amazing, strangest thing is the song was ‘Blue Eyes’ which Don Partridge recorded, the busker.

Interesting.
And this shows you how much I don’t collect gold records, and things like that and hang them up on my walls,  like so many people do, I don’t have much interest in that side of it, but I’ve only ever heard it a couple of times, it was on a Sinatra album and therefore I felt quite justified to use it in my press handouts, but, I don’t even have a copy of it.

When somebody hears your music, wherever they are, on an elevator, if they’re listening to it on an album, however they’re listening to it, what do you want the listener to get out of that experience?

Don’t want to sound too self important here, but I would like them to be moved in some way or another by it.

I don’t think that’s self important.
I’m not very good, I’m not very good at writing songs that are just rhythmic and just bubble gum, the sort of thing that is here today, gone tomorrow, it’s hard to explain, there was one time I remember when I was signed to Screen Jenson which is now EMI publishing, where my publisher said “sit down and try and write like so and so”, only because he asked me to, I thought I would listen to a few things that ‘so and so’ had written, and it didn’t work for me, I have to come from the heart, even whether it be up tempo, slow ballad or mid tempo, it still has to come from the heart and I would just like someone to be… to say “yeah, that song really means something to me,” cause I could put myself in that person’s position, or in that piece of music, that means something to me at that particular time in my life.

What is the best thing about being Richard Kerr?

Well, I’m still alive, I’m still writing songs and I’m happily married with a wonderful Welsh Terrier who just this afternoon dug through the rabbit-proof fencing and caused me no end of strife chasing after him over the fields, I came back this afternoon Paul, after having finally captured him and it took me five to ten minutes to actually get my breath back. It’s a pretty good life I’ve got, I’ll always love music, it will always be my first love above anything I think, as long as I still have that desire to write, I’m happy.

For anyone who’s listening to this interview, wherever they are in the world or if they’re reading it, however they experience it, what would you like to say to those people?

They’re not writers or anything, just the general public yeah?

All kinds of people.
All kinds of people. Do it rather than say it.

Sound advice.
(Richard laughs)

For my last question.

Yep.

Who is Richard Kerr?
Richard Kerr is a… I think a fairly humble songwriter and someone who’s always trying… this sounds so hammy but is someone who’s always trying to be just a little better person each day if he can.

Well, just imagine if everyone had that mind set how much further along we’d be.

(Paul and Richard laugh)

A part of me would like to say ‘Thank You Mr. Kerr,’ but you like to be called Richard.

Yes please.

Thank You Richard, it’s been a great pleasure to have this conversation.

Well Thank You Paul, we tried to get together so many times on the phone and at last we’ve made it and Thank You very much indeed. I hope I’ve sort of… it’s been semi interesting.

It has been very interesting, it has been a real honor. Thank You.
Oh Thank You very much Paul. It’s been a pleasure.

TRANSCRIBED BY ROSALIND WINTON

 

 

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