In the Spotlight with Bruce Sudano
Courtesy of Klaas Guchelaar
During his first solo tour performance of the month, Bruce Sudano sits in the northern New Jersey living room of Drew Eckmen, strumming his acoustic guitar and crooning into the microphone to an audience no more than twenty feet away. Most of the attendees watch the unplugged performance from metal fold-up chairs positioned closely enough to be able to count Sudano’s breaths between the verses. Others have opted to stand behind the chairs, some even lining the staircase for an elevated view. The only added perks to this otherwise modest venue include a disco ball suspended directly above Sudano and his Candyman Band, the yellow Christmas lights strung along the windows, and perhaps the view overlooking Cupsaw Lake.
As he eases through a mellow rendition of Dolly Parton’s “Starting Over Again” and addresses its origins with the audience, it becomes evident that Sudano’s low-key gig at the Live At Drew’s concert series is in stark contrast to the illustrious career he’s led behind-the-scenes as songwriter to some of music’s biggest icons.
“‘Starting Over Again’ was a song I co-wrote with Donna about the divorce of my parents in 1979,” he explains, referencing his longtime partnership in business and in marriage with the late Donna Summer. “I was already a grown person, but divorce is something that affects a family no matter what age the kids are. I was basically sitting at the piano and writing the song and she popped her head in the room and said, ‘You know, you should put a line in there about ‘all the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put them back together again’’. As with Donna, I always joke that that’s the most popular line in the song.”
Sudano lets out a chuckle as he thinks back.
“So Donna was going on The Tonight Show and she had a new record coming out, but she comes to me and says, ‘I’m going to sing ‘Starting Over Again.’’ I said, ‘Donna, you have a new album coming out. You have to do a song from the new album.’ She said, ‘No—maybe if your parents hear the song, they’ll stay together.’ So she goes on The Tonight Show and sings it. Now you have to realize her record company was upset because she wasn’t promoting her new album. But literally the next day, Dolly Parton’s manager calls. Dolly had heard the song and wanted to know if she could record it.”
Upon approval from the co-writers, Parton recorded and released the single in March of 1980. By May of the same year, the song had reached No. 1 on the US country charts, prompting widespread recognition.
By then, industry acclaim was hardly new territory for Sudano, who had previously struck big with Summer’s most widely-recognized hits through the 1970s—among them, the multi-platinum-certified dancefloor favorite, “Bad Girls,” now heralded as a classic of its time.
“Back in those days, I had a friend from Brooklyn named Inky who was out in Los Angeles,” comments Sudano. “Frequently, we would go into his recording studio in Burbank which was called Magic Wand. Inky would start the tape recorder and we would go in the studio with the mics and guitars set up. We just wrote on the spot and recorded everything that we would imagine—one idea after another after another, stream-of-consciousness writing. ‘Bad Girls’ came out of one of these sessions.”
Despite it being a product of a quick and spontaneous writing session, it would be a while longer before the final version of the song materialized. Sudano recollects, “It kind of sat in a box for a while. When [Donna] started to record the Bad Girls record, the engineer at the recording studio was going through all these tapes, heard the song, and said, ‘I really like this. Why don’t you do this one?’ We really liked it too, so she brought it up to Neil Bogart who was the President of Casablanca Records. He didn’t like it for Donna. He had just signed Cher and suggested Donna give it to her. But instead she went in and did another demo of it and ultimately it became the title of the album.”
Success on the charts for Sudano came as easily as it could have for someone involved in a personal relationship with his greatest collaborator.
Sudano met Summer on March 13, 1977 while visiting a friend who just so happened to be the Vice President of Publicity at Casablanca Records—the very label Summer had been signed to since 1975 and from which she had catapulted into success by introducing worldwide audiences to “Love to Love You Baby” the same year she was signed. Sudano, then only known for his involvement in co-founding the late 1960’s band, Alive N Kickin’ and writing a few well-received songs for Tommy James and the Shondells aside from his own band, was in the midst of forming a new group with Joe Esposito and Eddie Hokenson—a group later to be named Brooklyn Dreams after the members’ hometown. It was there that Summer and Sudano crossed paths, and where the artist claims the four of them immediately began collaborating.
“Basically Donna and I spent the next week together just writing,” he recollects. “It was an instantaneous connection. It started as songwriters and evolved from there. As artists when you connect on that level, it’s an interesting foundation for a relationship. The trick is, in that kind of situation, not to be competitive. We were really able to avoid a competitive place with each other but always be supportive of one another. For a long time, I played on stage with Donna and sang background with her. When we got married and started having kids, I realized that it would be too difficult to maintain my career as a solo artist, her career as a solo artist, and maintain a relationship in the family. So it was very easy for me to slide in the role of writing for other people and to continue performing live on stage with her.”
Courtesy of Klaas Guchelaar
Following the couple’s marriage in 1980, Sudano continued chiseling his songwriting prowess and,
in 1984, added yet another musical giant to his growing roster of artists: the King of Pop himself. “Tell Me I’m Not Dreamin’ (Too Good to Be True),” initially presented only to Jermaine Jackson, ended up featuring both Jermaine and Michael Jackson. It received significant hype, though not reaching the same stratospheric position in the charts that Sudano had hoped for.
“In the ‘80s,” he says, “I did a lot of songs where people would send me a track and I would write a melody and a lyric, and this was the case with ‘Tell Me I’m Not Dreaming.’ Michael had heard it and loved it, and he asked Jermaine to do a duet. Then Jermaine’s record company released it and it was flying up the charts, but Michael was on a different record company. The song became a big R&B record, but it never quite reached the heights that it could have as a pop record because Michael’s company jumped in and said ‘No, you can’t do this.’”
Nevertheless, Sudano kept pushing the envelope far beyond the standards expected of most songwriters. When asked what he attributes his finely tuned creative ear to, he responds without hesitation:
“As a pop songwriter, I have a big belief in that you write a song and pretty much how you dress it in production can really dictate what genre you’re heading towards. I typically always write a story song. ‘Bad Girls,’ ‘Starting Over Again,’ ‘One Beautiful Life’ on my new record and most of the songs on The Burbank Sessions are story songs. When Donna and I would write songs, we’d have this habit of— even if we were writing an up-tempo song—slowing it down and doing it as a ballad, because when you slow things down, you can really put them under a microscope and examine your melody and your lyric. The root of my songs are always bluesy/folky, and tell a story. And that’s always been the way it is.”
Despite the ongoing success of his work, the crooner chooses not to pride himself even on moments of reflection. Instead, he pauses and follows up with a witty afterthought. “In the ‘70s,” he says, “songs just got dressed in a party dress.”
By the time the 1990s rolled around, Sudano had achieved more recognition than the average songwriter could ever imagine. His vast experience encouraged him to undertake creative risks in a way that most major labels frowned upon.
“It was really a matter of control,” he explains, “of being able to create what you want to create. It got to a place where everything was really being dictated by the record company, the A&R department, and it was not a comfortable place for me as an artist. I always created from within myself and it got to this place where every little thing that I was doing was being manipulated.”
The tug-of-war between Sudano’s vision and those of the major companies resulted in the founding of his own independent record label, Purple Heart Recording Company.
Of this venture, he claims, “I started it to be a place where I could create independently and freely. It obviously has the downside of not having the backing and the support and the power of the majors, but that’s the tradeoff. I was just really uncomfortable in trying to fit into the style of shoe that they wanted me to create in. I was willing to sacrifice the major label benefits that they brought to have my artistic freedom.”
That tradeoff would prove to be a rewarding one over time. Shortly before Summers’ untimely passing in 2012, Sudano picked up where he left off with his solo endeavors, this time molding from his own vision without the pushback.
“My first solo record was in 1980,” he points out, “and I didn’t do another one until 2004. It was a long break in between but it was the natural progression for me to slide back into being a solo act again. It’s been challenging and fun, but I’m inspired and having a great time.”
The singer/songwriter has since assembled a new group called The Candyman Band and released four solo albums, each displaying a diverse side of Sudano’s mastery. His latest release, The Burbank Sessions, boasts the same spontaneity with which some of his earlier work was created. The album presents a collection of songs all penned while on the road for an earlier tour and recorded live in one or two takes each. The singer toured in support of The Burbank Sessions in March and extended the stints to additional US cities throughout the month of May.
“I’m always excited to be on stage and to perform,” he speaks about the experience. “It’s really the place that I started from my earliest teenage years. The hardest work for me is songwriting because that’s really where you have to dig in and emotionally find that place. Performing live is a joy, because the song is written. You know the chords, you know the words, you just have to get up there and do it.”
Much like the fans reveling at the Live At Drew’s performance, audiences can expect to hear what Sudano refers to as a “potpourri” of music in his setlists, with material ranging from his earliest days at Alive N Kickin’ and his most well-known hits from the ‘70s and ‘80s, to more current and subdued solo tracks.
“It’s interesting even to me because I go in with no preconceived notions,” he says. “Frequently I’ll get off the stage and my manager will say, ‘Why didn’t you do this song?’ and I’d say, ‘I don’t know. It didn’t come into my mind.’ The shows will be up-tempo and there will be ballads, but the one thing that’s consistent is that it will be honest and it will be raw and it will be real.”
The tour is set to take him through a handful of cities along the East Coast before the end of the month, including several dates joining The Zombies on their own US leg.
“I did a few shows with them the summer before last,” Sudano recalls. “Their audience is very receptive to me. There’s a nice symbiotic kind of thing that happens there, and although it’s different, musically it’s appealing to the same kind of crowd. As a kid, I was a big admirer of their songs and their music, so to be on the bill with them is like playing with rock ‘n roll royalty.”
By way of collaborating with what some have described as the heartbeat of a generation, Sudano has etched a supreme legacy rivaled by few in his field. From making waves in the world of rhythm & blues to playing a central role in the evolution of pop/rock, he continues to evolve as both an artist and a human being. And still with all the bonds he has forged along the way, he seeks to continue developing his craft through new experiences.
“I guess what I’m most looking forward to is the new people that I will meet out there and the new stories that I will hear. That’s always the most fun,” he says with a definitive tone. “The thing is, I never take it as a point of pride, because songwriting is still a surprise to me. I don’t know how that happened, I don’t know where it came from, I don’t know that I’ll ever be able to do it again. It’s the life experience that inspires you. So you have to keep living and keep listening and keep feeling. The form of expression will happen, and my way of doing that is by writing a song.”
Credits: Bruce Sudano, Fiona Bloom, Klaas Guchelaar
© Veronika Tacheva, 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. All rights reserved. Do not reprint without permission.