May 11, 2015
I was on the road today when I heard a piece on NPR about the sunset on Mars being blue, at 100 degrees below zero. The program host ended his segment by playing that old chestnut by Bobby Vinton, “Blue Velvet.”
1981. I was still a working musician and living in Chicago’s Lincoln Park. I read a notice in my morning newspaper that Bobby Vinton (he was appearing at the Pump Room) was looking for new songs. Show up in the lobby of the Hilton Hotel on Michigan Avenue and be prepared to pitch to Mr. Vinton.
I wrote folk songs in those days and appeared in clubs with my partner, Steve Hagerman (Hagerman and Blue). Hardly Bobby V.’s cup of tea (my hormonal sister would have thrown her underwear at the crooner). But I had written one mellow song, about sitting on my mom’s front porch in Alton and watching the rain, “Rainy Day Blues.”
So I drove down to the Hilton in my work shirt and jeans, my strawberry hair draped over my shoulders, and I saw a group of kids gathered around a man, whom I would learn, was Vinton’s manager. I got in a long line and stood for about an hour, my guitar Betsy in her hard shell case.
The manager was pre-auditioning songs. He gave each person less than twenty seconds. If the tune didn’t click fast, it was on to the next composer. Slowly, the line reversed itself as rejected people walked by me. Then there was just me. No one had been selected. I strummed Betsy and sang the first line: “Raindrops fallin’ on the front porch roof/Cloudy skies are rollin’ by me.”
The manager said, “Let’s go up and meet Bobby V.”
Ten minutes later I was sitting on the smiling Bobby Vinton’s bed, playing and singing. Vinton walked over to a piano and started feeling out my chords. We sat together and he sang harmony.
“Man, you have pipes,” Bobby Vinton said. “And that song. It’s right, but not fully right. Play some more tunes.” So I sang my love songs to girls, notably one about a lass named Erica, and Bobby said man, he would love to meet Erica. We closed our set with me singing high harmony on “Blue Velvet.”
Bobby’s career was slowing then, him singing mostly at state fairs and oldies shows. But he was a great guy. He was hoping to land another hit like “Blue Velvet.” It didn’t happen. We exchanged phone numbers and Bobby said, now that I had his ear, write him a Bobby Vinton song.
And I went home, one of the few people on the planet that could say he was literally a hit song away from fame. And I knew full well there was no Bobby Vinton song in my imagination. But I called my sister and told her the tale and how I told Bobby my little sister got all wet when he sang, and she shrieked like a groupie and berated me for not getting her an autograph.
Bobby would become real famous again and real rich, with the 1986 release of David Lynch’s masterful, creepy film, “Blue Velvet,” in which the song is played over and over again.
I tried calling Bobby to congratulate him, using that phone number on a piece of paper. The phone was no longer in service.