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 Cassidy to today’s young teens – the Disney group of teens like the Jonas Brothers, Hannah Montanah and that beautiful country girl, Taylor Swift, she seems to be the Shelly Fabre of this generation. She’s very talented, very pretty and a great singer/songwriter. I love her success! But, there’s a connection between the girl groups and the girl singers of the sixties. That’s a similarity that seems to go on forever and I love that: that the teens want their own idols and their own music.
“Even the pre-teens want their own music. The Archie’s was a pre-teen group, really. Even though we crossed all generations and it became an adult hit all over the world, it was mainly aimed at pre-teens and young teens and succeeded beautifully on that front.
“The dissimilarities are that more people were exposed on TV and radio – Shindig, The Ed Sullivan Show and the Dick Clark shows – a lot of acts got on those shows and got to show who they were. Today, there’s a narrower focus so not too many acts can get their shot nationally. Not everybody can be a Lady Gaga in terms of publicity – getting all of that media attention. Unfortunately, it’s become narrowed so much that they’ve become a sound bite. There was a broad exposure in the 60’s and 70’s of the artists and now there’s a very narrow exposure of artists. Thank goodness for the internet because it’ll open it up to new and upcoming people.”
As I mentioned at the beginning of this piece, I watched “The Archie’s” cartoon as a kid. I also had the Sugar, Sugar 45 rpm. Even in those pre-teen years, certain musical hooks caught my attention. One of those hooks was the soulful voice on the line, “I’m going to make your life so sweet . . .” on Sugar, Sugar. While conducting my research on Dante, I got the impression that he overdubbed his voice on all of the parts of that song, singing falsetto on the ‘Betty and Veronica’ parts. I asked Ron about that.
“No. On Sugar, Sugar, there’s a female voice singing for both ‘Betty’ and ‘Veronica’ and that’s Miss Toni Wine. She’s the voice of ‘I’m going to make your life so sweet’. She sang the lower part and the higher part. So, she was both ‘Betty’ and ‘Veronica’. She’s a fabulous singer and a fabulous Nashville songwriter. She wrote Tony Orlando’s biggest hit, Candida. She also wrote the Mind Benders/Phil Collins hit, Groovy Kind of Love and another song called Black Pearl (recorded by Sonny Charles and the Checkmates). She was married to a legendary Nashville producer, Chips Moman for many, many years. She was also the voice on Gene Pitney on his song, It Hurts To Be In Love – a very cool song. In the middle of it, there’s a little female ‘answer’. That’s her doubling her voice. She was ‘Dawn’ for Tony Orlando and Dawn. She was the background group on that Candida record, Knock Three Times and a whole bunch of other songs. She has a very beautiful voice. She still sings and is on the road today with Tony Orlando, in his band. Everywhere he goes – there’s Toni on the keyboards, singing background.
“No, I did a lot of voices on all of those records but, especially that first album, that’s all Toni Wine and myself.”
Our conversation migrated to the subject of his musical relationship with Barry Manilow. I was bragging about Manilow’s body of work – especially in the 70’s and in which Ron played a key role. From the first album through Even Now and the various compilations and greatest hits albums that the first albums fed, Dante’s skilled production was instrumental in helping drive multiple millions of album sales around the world.
Ron shared his thoughts and feelings about that music.
“Those songs hold up. Mandy stopped traffic. We knew we had it the night in the studio when it was recorded. We knew that lightning had struck. That was a live vocal. That’s Barry playing the piano. We just did it with a few instruments. The third take was the final, magic take. Later, I overdubbed strings and backgrounds, horns – you know, beefed up the track. But that’s the live vocal. We just knew that we had some very special – a special song and the voice that was meant to sing it sang it. It launched his career.
“Then, six months later, we put out a song that we recorded before that called Could It Be Magic. That solidified his hold on that part of the music industry. Those were very wonderful sessions. It’s amazing, the strength of the music and the records we made that, to this day, get used in movies and they get played constantly. I’m very proud of all that work. It was the best years in the studio. It was just so smooth. The musicians were the top guys in New York City and L.A. The top people were arranging for us. It was a labor of love. I just had to make it perfect.
“Each album was a little gem – especially the Even Now album. I’m very proud of that one. That was the first one we did in Los Angeles. We had done two or three albums in New York City and then he moved out here to do some work so I came out here to produce him. We worked at the A&M studios on Even Now. The magic of that studio got into our music, too. It’s the same place that Carole King recorded, the Carpenter’s, Sergio Mendez, and Herb Albert. It was a great studio.
Ron concludes his thoughts about Manilow by sharing some news about his soon-to-be-released album.
“He’s got a new album coming out. It’s called 15 Minutes. He’s written all the songs. It’s great. It’s about 15 minutes of fame – what fame does to an artist in this world. It’s very deep and, yet, very entertaining. It’s a very entertaining album. It should be out this summer.”
What advice does Dante have for anyone wishing to enter the music business?
“I would say to really concentrate on the songs. Really find or write the very best melodies and lyrics out there. Record it on your own dime. Do a little video and put it on YouTube. Develop a really hot live act and get it out there in some cities. Develop your fan base that way because the internet is the new star making vehicle. Look at what it’s done for Justin Bieber. He might have never gotten a shot if it wasn’t for the internet. Look at what it’s done for him. There are stars being developed on the internet.
“More and more, artists are going directly to their fans. Every artist I know are selling their CD’s at their live shows. Everybody has a CD at the show. That would be what I would be doing but I would start with great material - something that is a little different – something that catches people’s hearts and minds. That’s very important. That would be the first order of business. You can’t go out and make a great movie without a great screenplay and it’s the same thing with a new artist. You can’t make a great, new artist without a cool song that breaks down the barriers.
“This is all off the top of my head – that’s what I would be doing if I were starting out today or advising new people. You also have to concentrate on the look. Not everybody can be an instant star on American Idol. Some people have to work long, hard years to develop their style, their look and their songs. It’s, like 0.1 percent of the population gets a chance on American Idol. The rest of the population has to really get out there and work the clubs and bring what they bring. Also, have a good PR person if you can find one. It’s very important to have a good PR person when you do perform to let people know about it.”
As for the style of music that he would gravitate to if he were just starting out, Dante says, “There are great bands out there with lead singers that are writing great songs – really cool songs and are accompanying themselves really well with their bands. I would be doing a band type of thing. Also, as a producer, I would be doing exactly what I am doing now and that’s working with younger people and older people – everybody! That’s because there’s a market out there for everyone. I would work with teens on Disney projects, which I have. I would also work with the classics of the 60’s and 70’s who want to make new records. I would honor the music.”
I’m always curious what people have on their iPod’s that they’re listening to and I’m never afraid to ask. I asked Dante that question, expecting to hear some cool, eclectic range of music. His answer surprised me.
“You know, I’m not listening to much lately. I’m trying to my input to a minimum since I’m producing an album. I try to keep music in my head. I haven’t been listening to a lot of music. When I do, I listen KOST (103.5 FM) which plays the greatest songs in the world. It’s a big radio station here in Los Angeles. It’s a middle of the road station. And, of course, I listen to 101 FM out here.
“When I’m at home, I’m listening to new songs from songwriters. I’m producing this incredible girl from Australia this summer and I’m now looking for songs for her. She’s kind of a Katie Perry type of artist. I’m listening to people submitting songs for her by MP3. I spend most of my day listening to those. When I have to relax, I listen to a little bit of classical music once in awhile. That’s it. I try to keep the input a little low when I’m making an album because you don’t want to be influenced by too much. You want to go by your instincts and create a combination of things and you don’t want to be influenced by one genre or another.”
Bringing the conversation back around to our own generations, Ron adds, “When you look at the biggest tours of the last two or three years have been Paul McCartney, Simon and Garfunkel with the Everly Brothers was a huge tour. Or Carole King and James Taylor together was a huge tour. Bon Jovi, which had their biggest tour ever. And my friend, Davy Jones and the Monkee’s are regrouping and they’re doing a tour in Europe, as you know. That’s going to be a huge tour when they hit the states.”
“I just produced a single with Davy called Amoré and it’s on iTunes. It’s a really cool dance number that I did with him. He sent me a video of him at a concert with U2. Bono brings Davy up on stage a couple of years ago at Dodger Stadium, I think. Eighty thousand people were there and the entire audience was singing Daydream Believer. I said, ‘Look at that! Bono brings Davy up and the entire audience sings the choruses!’ The music stops and all 80,000 people were singing the chorus! Think about that! That audience wasn’t full of people in their 60’s. It was a cross-section of people of all ages. I find that inspiring that music can still bring a crowd to its feet.”
As our schedules pressured us to draw our conversation to a close, I asked the legendary singer/songwriter/producer what haven’t he done yet that he would like to do, career wise?
“I’ve been very blessed and fortunate. Every dream I had as a kid came true. So, right now, I’m just doing what I love to do. There’s nothing that I haven’t done. At one point, I’d love to produce Aerosmith or the Rolling Stones. I’d love to do a couple of records with those people or Elton John. Faith Hill – I’d love to produce her. Those are the kind of people that I would like to work with. I’ve gotten to do a lot of what I dreamed of as a teen and young man.”