As a pre-teen kid growing up in the Phoenix area, one of my usual Saturday morning routines was watching “The Archies” cartoon show. It was good, clean entertainment and had me hooked for a year or two. I also developed a crush on Veronica but that’s a whole ‘nother story and one that will be kept between me and my therapist, thank you.
As a teen, I began buying as many record albums as my meager, minimum wage funds would permit. Among my pristine vinyl discs were some Barry Manilow albums. There just wasn’t a better love song writer in the 70’s than Manilow. Oh, and the girls I wanted to date seemed to like him a lot so that helped my record buying decisions significantly.
I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, “Great stories, Randy, but what the heck do The Archies and Barry Manilow have to do with each other anyway?”
I’m glad that you asked.
It just so happens that one man, Ron Dante, had everything to do with both The Archies and those Barry Manilow albums. Dante sang all of the male parts on the Archies’ records. He was also the singing voice of many commercials including the famous “You Deserve A Break Today” by McDonald’s. A few years later, he produced the first six albums that Barry Manilow recorded and which sold multiple millions of copies around the world. He has also produced albums for countless other artists including Cher and Pat Benatar.
As if all of that isn’t enough, Ron Dante is also well known by theater goers for his production of “Ain’t Misbehavin’ (which earned him a Tony) and “Children of a Lesser God” which won the Tony for best drama. He’s also invested in the stage versions of “Crimes Of The Heart”, “Whose Life Is It Anyway”, and “Duet For One”. For two years, Ron also held the position of publisher for Paris Review.
Do you think the label, Over Achiever, could be slapped on this guy’s forehead?
When I was planning the launch of Boomerocity, I made a very long list of people who I wanted to interview. Ron Dante was on that list but I hadn’t approached him. During a conversation with a dear, mutual friend of ours, Rob Parissi, Rob encouraged me to contact Dante for an interview. Introductions were made and, soon, I had the privilege of talking with this musical icon.
As I just mentioned, Dante has his hands in a lot of different projects that include live shows and producing other acts and shows. I first asked Ron about his live work.
“I go out about once a month – in between session dates and things that I do here with my music in Los Angeles. I do go out and perform. I just got back from New York City where I did a gig at B.B. King’s on Broadway. That was fun. I play Jackson, Tennessee, every year for a charity benefit. I play Boston regularly. I get around and really enjoy it. The last couple of years have been a little leaner than others because of the economy. The first things to go are the live shows – they usually get impacted. I have a group of guys that I perform with – legendary lead singers from different groups from the sixties and seventies – we go out. I have the lead singer of The Buckinghams, Dennis Tufano, who does Kind of A Drag, one of the big hits of the 60’s, as well as Susan.
“Also part of the group is Sonny Geraci, who did who did the hit Precious and Few with the band, Climax, and Time Won’t Let Me with The Outsiders. I also go out with Gary Lewis and The Playboys. I’m working with them here in town this month, actually. So, I get around. I like the live stuff. It keeps me fresh because you can’t hide in the studio. You’ve got to go out and perform. I do enjoy that.”
As if his schedule of live performances aren’t enough to keep him busy, Ron is neck deep in other creative work.
“I’m doing that and I’m working on a brand new company in Vegas that I can’t say much about right now but it will be debuting in a few months. I’m in the studio with a legendary guy by the name of Steve Lawrence. Guys like Tony Bennett and Steve Lawrence have a following and they’re not forgotten.”
I thought that avalanche of work was all there was but, like the old Ronco commercials of the 70’s used to say, “But, wait! There’s more!”
“I just did a children’s project for PBS. I supplied the voices for a bunch of songs. I brought in Tommy James to sing one song. I brought in Davy Jones from the Monkee’s. I brought in both of those guys to sing for this kid’s show called Shush-A-Bye which will be on in April. I always have something to do. I keep myself active, I must say.”
Of all the variety of accomplishments that Ron Dante can proudly point to, I wondered which area of work he enjoys doing most.
“I’m basically a singer who, by necessity, has become a producer. So, singing is my first love. Producing is my second love. I have found magical moments in both of those endeavors over the years. They have brought me great happiness, I must say - especially in producing with Barry Manilow. We had three or four number one records. We had ten hit albums. I did some vocal work with him on his latest album, recently. It’s a 35 – 36 year relationship of knowing him and producing with him. Both of those things do give me pleasure but I do love performing live. That’s a great kick – to get out on stage and interact with the audience with my hits and with songs that I like. That’s a lot of fun. “
“If I had to put it in order of preference, on a scale of 1 to 10, 10 would be performing; 9 would be producing. Producing is so much fun. Orson Welles once said, ‘Producing movies is like having the biggest train set in the world to play with.’ It’s the same thing with making a record – producing an artist like Manilow or Cher or Benatar or my own records. You get to play with every aspect of it, from the inception to the rhythm section to the strings to the mixing, then, to get it out and even help promote it. It’s a full event for anyone like me. I always enjoy it. I never get bored with the music. Anything to do with music, I have the most fun – whether it’s a live show, recording or producing. Thank goodness, it still inspires me because the music keeps changing and evolving and I have the energy and imagination to keep it going.”
As we chatted, our conversation drifted to the current state of music. Ron shared that, “It’s tough. The pop music field has gone to pot. Unfortunately, singing and songwriting has gone out the window and what you hear is a new form of entertainment but it’s not music. A lot of it is in between music and live performance. There’s a lot of very strange stuff out there and I’m not very impressed. I love country and Christian music. All of the good songwriters and singers have gone into those fields. Country music is the pop music of the late seventies. To me, it’s unbelievably good. There are some great, heart-felt songs out there and great lyrics. People are still writing songs and good singers are singing them. That’s why I was so placed pleased to see Lady Antebellum win their five Grammy’s this year.”
While talking about the current strength of country music, I asked Dante if he thought the strength was due, in part, to the fact that there are two strong cable channels that drive interest in the music.
“Thank god! The boom in the music industry came when MTV debuted in the early 80’s. All of a sudden, there was a visual medium that helped promote the music. Now, MTV has gotten completely away from that. So, who has picked up the slack? The country networks. You get to see a visual of your favorite song. The thing is, they get played in a regular rotation and people get to catch it. I’m a big fan of that and I’m so sorry that MTV became the ‘reality show network’ because it absolutely ruined music television and pop music.
“I remember that Epic Records almost had to sue MTV to get Michael Jackson on there. They weren’t playing R&B or black music. They had to say, ‘Listen, Michael Jackson is bigger than all of that.’ That’s when Beat It and Thriller got all of its exposure. That was a great time but, unfortunately, it’s not happening today. Thank god for YouTube where you can pick up your favorite artists and listen to everything that they’ve ever done, almost, and see it. It’s an amazing medium.”
Having witnessed several paradigm shifts in the industry, I asked Ron what he thought, from his unique vantage point, were the biggest positive and negative changes in the music business that have taken place during his career.
“Wow! The positive change has been access. That has been the overwhelming positive change for me. It has to be the internet and places like YouTube and iTunes. iTunes, especially, revolutionized the music business. Until iTunes came out, nobody had a handle on this internet thing. It was all thievery. The record companies – the MAJOR record companies – who knew what to do, didn’t do it. They lagged behind and got caught in the switch between how they (the record companies) delivered music and the way people access it. That’s been the revolutionary change – the way people can listen to their favorite song, their favorite album, their favorite artists, anytime, 24 hours a day; buy it and have it instantaneously. That’s unbelievable! And, thank goodness for Steve Jobs who, ten years ago, was on the cover of Newsweek with Sheryl Crow and said, ‘I’m opening up a company called iTunes and everything is going to be 99 cents.’
“Some scoffers said, ‘He’s not a music guy. He doesn’t know what he’s doing.’ Now, everybody has taken his model and run with it. That’s a very good development. And people can see you. The technology allows you to make a video of your music – doing whatever you want – because the cameras are so inexpensive and so high def. You can put it on YouTube and start a fan base and you can interact with millions of people who are like-minded and who like this kind of music. The opportunities have grown so much. That’s the very good thing that has happened in the music industry, in my opinion.”
And what does Ron feel is the biggest negative change in the business?
“The negative change is the lack of songwriting credentials. The good songwriters in popular music and the top 40 area, they can’t seem to find a niche and they get pushed out by the new ‘beats’ and by the new types of entertainment that are intruding into it. That’s been the biggest negative, is the rise and the preference of the radio stations around the country that only play hip-hop or rap or the latest novelty record. That has hurt.
“The demise of the songwriter has been a terrible thing. They have to look for other avenues for their songs nowadays. If Paul McCartney and John Lennon were starting out and writing today, they couldn’t get anybody to record their songs. It would be very difficult. They would have to go into the Christian market or country music because popular music stations wouldn’t play them. It’s a tough time and that’s been the biggest negative – the demise of the songwriter.”
With an added touch of melancholy, Ron adds, “I’m looking for the resurgence of the independent songwriter/singer, people who can touch you in many ways through a melody and a lyric and not get too angry. A lot of the stuff today makes you angry! It’s venting and raging against things. I understand that there’s an area for that but there should be room and balance. That’s what I miss.”
I often ask the following question of many people I interview. I was especially interested in what Dante would do to fix the music business and it’s business model if he were made Czar of the music industry.
“Well, it’s a question of talent rising to the top. You must find the best talent. Not the derivative talent. The best talents, the new Bruce Springsteen, the new U2, the new Garth Brooks in different areas. These people who are coming up who have incredible talent and expose them on a platform that people can access and listen to and watch. I’m actually working with a new company – a press release will be coming out in the next few weeks – that will allow new bands and new artists to show their wares and rise to the top and to be seen by professionals in the music industry – songwriters, producers, musicians who have succeeded in the music business over the years – and they will help and mentor these young artists and new artists coming up. It will give access to millions of people. That’s the kind of thing that I would do and, in fact, am doing now with a good friend of mine from Las Vegas.”
“If I was running the world of music right now, I would start new radio stations that would come to you through Sirius, through local distributors that give you the opportunity to listen to a collection of different music instead of bombarding you with just one type. That would be the second thing I would do – revamp radio a bit.”
What about the societal and cultural similarities and differences he sees today from when he first started out in the business?
“One of the similarities that I’m seeing is that teen pop is still prevalent and making in-roads and is a huge influence on America. Look at the teen idols of the 60’s – the Monkee’s to Bobby Sherman to David Cassi