Robert Ellis Orrall
Interview by George LightRobert Ellis Orrall was born in Winthrop, MA in 1955, He signed to RCA records as both an artist and a songwriter in 1980 and had early chart success and a Top 40 hit with "I Couldn't Say No," a duet with Carlene Carter, then married to Nick Lowe. He eventually moved to Nashville and had a series of hits (some written for other artists like Clay Walker and Shenandoah) and some performed by himself. He made a cameo appearance in David Remnick's New Yorker profile about Al Gore's post-candidate life in Brentwood, "The Wilderness Campaign".
This interview was conducted August 3, 1984 by G.E. with Indy photographer Kim in tow at Orrall's Back Bay digs somewhere off Newberry, MA. A much-abstracted version originally ran in The Harvard Independent. This transcript represents the Director's full cut.
PSF: Your press clippings said that you've been interested in Top 40 for quite a long time ago. You formed your first band when you were nine. Could you tell us something about that?
REO: The first band was formed in the back of a school bus [note dear reader, This is Spinal Tap had yet to be released when this interview was conducted] with a couple other little nine year olds. We used to beat on the back of beat on lunch boxes and sing Beatles songs. And then we actually did move that into a situation where we had a drum set and someone playing the piano and had a band called the JB4 except there was only 2 of us in the band. We were always looking for two more people to come along but they didn't...
I did have like bands when I was in like, fifth grade, sixth grade. I had a band a band called the 2 + 2 s. I thought that was a great name for a band 'cuz there were two guys who were kinda square and two guys who were really hip in the band.
PSF: Which were you?
REO: I was one of the square ones. My friend Doug and I were square and these two other guys really liked girls and everything. So we were called the 2+2's. Thinking back on it, it was really amazing that we delineated ourselves. They're hip and we're not, so the two... plus... twos.
PSF: Where did all this take place?.
REO: I live in Winfield [MA], which is like 20 miles north of here. Matter of fact, my [current] bass player and my guitar player also live in Winfield. But they were a year older so we didn't get to see them very much back then.
PSF: When did you start getting more serious and thinking maybe that music would be a career?
REO: Well, I actually I've always kind of been (interested) when I was in high school and stuff I used to play songs on the piano. And I used to dreamily say, "Wouldn't that be a great thing to do. Be like into rock and roll and stuff." But it was really a dream at that point. I thought that it was certainly a real long shot to get a record contract. And it IS a long shot to get a record contract. So I thought I'd do something a little bit more like normal and safe except that I couldn't think of anything. So I had jobs, you know... I think I was working for Tech Hi-Fi.
PSF: In Boston?
REO: I worked in about five of their stores. I managed one of their stores once. I worked all over the place. Then I said I really should make a stab at this, and take another shot. So I put together another band. They were called this and that, you know, just different things And then I finally kinda said this is THE BAND I want to put together. It was Kook and Donnie and I named it Robert Ellis Orrall since it was gonna be THE BAND THAT WAS GONNA MAKE IT. I put my name on it and could be proud of it. I gave myself like 5 years to do it.
PSF: This was starting in '77.
REO: Yeah it was after I made that record. I made that record Sweet Nothing. Do you know it?
PSF: No, I don't
REO: Don't worry, nobody does. It's quite a collector's item... [goes to shelf and pulls vinyl]. This record is very, very hard to find. I saw it in one of those auctions, like in Goldmine for like $20 [which is about $40 adjusted in 2009]. I said, 'oh that's pretty cool.' I have some of those. Then this was the next one called 'Robert Ellis Orrall's Big 12 inch single.' Special limited edition on rare black vinyl.
PSF: What year was this? RE): This was... oh 1979, I think. It was this record that we used to start attracting attention of the majors. As a matter of fact, these two songs that are on here were on the first record for RCA.
REO: This one with the terrible cover. I liked it at the time but I don't like I much any more. But that's OK. It's very tough to find- it's out of print. And then came this record here [Special Pain], which has "Couldn't Say No" on it
PSF: Right "Couldn't Say No" that was your breakthrough. Did that go Top 40?
REO: Yeah, on Casey Kasem.
PSF: I was just interested because I heard it a lot here (Boston), obviously at Harvard on (radio station) BCN and some other stations played it a lot. But then last summer, I was home working in Tallahassee, Florida, of all places, and it was played there relatively frequently.
REO: Yeah, it was some kind of... There were many parts of the country where it actually did better than it did in the Boston area. I know they sold more records out of Atlanta [probably the Carlene Carter angle?] than they did out of Boston. You know it was like # 3 in Seattle and #6 in... You get all of the radio stations as you're tracking the record and watching it; it gets very exciting you get all the radio stations where they're putting it on their playlist. But that was in the Top 100 for like 3 months and sold 150,000 copies.
PSF: The album? Or the single?
REO: The single itself. The album didn't sell as many copies as the single did. But it did well.
PSF: In general, how do singles sell as compared to albums? Do they sell as much?
REO: I think very often they can sell more and sometimes they can sell less. But this kind of single, "I Couldn't Say No," is the kind that usually sells less than the album and the reason is it was a duet.
And it was tough I think for people to make the connection between this duet on the radio that they heard and this record that was in the stores. There was no sticker that said "CONTAINS THE HIT 'I Couldn't Say No.'" And also Carlene sang first. You know, it sounded like it was probably a woman and a man. And the reason RCA couldn't figure that out... They said, "Robert we're going to splice this and put YOU first." And I said, "No! Then it won't make sense." They said "Well, you can't have her sing first" and I said "Why Not?"
PSF: From my understanding, with Carlene Carter, her background is in country music...
REO: Well, her family's in country music but she's kinda like the black sheep of the family. She left the fold and went to England and married Nick Lowe. Nick has always kind of had country influences. And lots of rockabilly.
PSF: Right. "Cowboy Alpha."
REO: Yeah. So she didn't want to play country music. She wanted to play rock and roll. So when I called her up to do the duet I had three of her albums. I was really a big fan of hers. Her records are more like pop-rock than they are country. There are some country influences on them and she does have a country sound to her voice for some reason. I think she'd be a great country singer.
Orrall and band
live at the Rat in Boston, 1980
PSF: Speaking of Nick Lowe, I noticed on your most recent album you worked with Roger Bechirian, who also from what I know about him has worked with Squeeze and did some of the earlier Elvis Costello albums. Was it your choice to work with him? Did RCA push him on you?
REO: What happened was I finished this record, Fixation, and it was produced, "so to speak," by my management at the time. They were kind of green at it. We were the band was in the studio, feeling kind of frustrated because the demos that we had done for the record we felt were a bit more adventurous and exciting. And these had gotten kind of safe. And we didn't want to have that happen again. So I went through my record collection. That was for this record actually Special Pain. I went through my record collection and pulled out some records that really impressed me as far as production is concerned. For one thing, Elvis Costello... I was a big fan of his. And I saw the engineer was Roger Bechirian. You know, Roger Bechirian Roger Bechirian Roger Bechirian [miming reading liner notes of multiple albums] right up through Trust. Certainly on Trust, it said "Nick Lowe in association..." produced it, so obviously, his role had been getting stronger and stronger. And then I pulled out an album that I love by The Undertones, this great record and I was shocked to see Roger Bechirian had produced it. I knew the Squeeze record he produced.
He had (also) done Lene Lovich's "Lucky Number" song. So I said 'well, this guy certainly seems to be able to get a number of different kinds of sounds, especially on Elvis' records.' So I said 'this is the man for me.' So at the same time, I was going through this split with my management, which was very long and very painful. And lawyers and blah blah blah... And I needed to get out of the country anyways and record. I just didn't want to be here making a record with all that on my mind. So I said I'm gonna go to England. And I called up the record company in England (RCA) and said 'this is the guy I want to work with, can you arrange it?' And they said 'we'll see' and they arranged a meeting with him and we got along really well and he liked my music and that was it. Piece of cake. And then, he also happened to produce Carlene's record before mine. So when it came time to find someone to do this duet with he said "How about Carlene Carter?" And I flipped out because I liked her and I had met her before. We had done a show with her at The Paradise in Boston.
PSF: Moving on to the (then) new album (Contain Yourself), is "Alibi" going to be the first single?
PSF: And how is that doing so far?
REO: Well it's not doing as well as Bruce Springsteen's record ("Dancing in the Dark").
PSF: Or Prince, for that matter.
REO: [laughs] Or Prince! It's doing well as far as its geographic spread around the country. It's getting a lot of airplay well spread. When this record came out, it took a long, long time for us to get sections of the country to start playing the record. Whereas this time because of the success of "I Couldn't Say No," everybody decided to play the record all at once. It is a slow process. It's much slower than I'd like it to be. The record company I think probably has just has been having some problems with all our acts as far as knowing what to do. The company has been kind of in disarray for the past year or so. And the only acts that are doing well for them are The Eurythmics, who were already huge over in England. All the American acts that they've signed in the last few years have been have been really struggling. And it's been a struggle for me too. You can only go so far. You work on the music and make the record. And you do this and that and then you give them the record and it's their job.
PSF: It seems that recently, CBS has been a master of promotion.
REO: Absolutely! Sure.
PSF: With this whole Michael Jackson thing. And then this job on Bruce Springsteen. But getting back just for a second to the single "I Couldn't Say No." Were you on MTV with that single? Do you have a video?
REO: Yes. It was one of the worst videos ever made. RCA came up with this typical of them but not typical of any other record company no one would do this but they tried to save money and they wanted to shoot ten videos. I'm sorry, eight videos, four bands, two videos apiece in twenty four hours. Now with videos, you don't do them in four hours. You do them in like three days or four days, OK. And the first thing they did was they flew Carlene over from England. And they had us standing in the room with a piano. I played the piano and she stood next to me and sang. And we went like "I Couldn’t Say No" back and forth to each other. It was boring! It was horrible.
PSF: So it's just kind of a live band video then.
REO: No band. Just the two of us! I mean, we're talking down to the basics. So we were so mad at the outcome and so was Robert Hazzard and Rod Way and the Rockcats, these other bands that made their videos. Everybody said 'no, can't use it.' There were 8 videos and I was the only one they picked on and said 'look, we have to use this video, you've got a Top 40 hit here we need to help push it along.' And my manager and I disagreed so strongly that he actually wrote letters to...
PSF: This is your new manager?
REO: Yeah my great NEW manager. He wrote letters to MTV saying that airing these videos would be injurious to my career and everything else and RCA said 'what are you doing?' We said 'hey look, we don't agree with you we think this is terrible' and they said 'well, we're going to get it aired anyway.' So they pushed it on to MTV. And it got played in light rotation for about a month and thank God that not too many people saw it. And then we actually got them to do what they never do, and that is that put money up front for a video for the next single, which was "Tell Me If It Hurts." And they did that and we made this fabulous video. I could show it to you. I won't show you "Couldn't Say No" though. But they didn't deliver it to MTV and they didn't work the single. They just kind of lost interest. They had other acts at the same time that were doing well: JoBoxers, Eurythmics, Rick Springfield, you know. And they said 'we got three hits now, that's enough.' Again, the frustration sets in.
PSF: But it seems to me at least when I was growing up that getting a single was the kind of status symbol. You knew that your record company was pushing you say in the middle of the '70's. Would you say now that getting a video and getting it on MTV, is that really key to selling a record?
REO: I think it is and the funny thing is that RCA has like a corporate credo that is this is what I was told quote, MTV is not all it's cracked up to be. unquote. OK... That's why you look at MTV's playlist and you don't se any videos on it from RCA, because they don't believe in videos. You do see Rick Springfield ["Jessie's Girl'] .
PSF: You see a lot of him.
REO: You see the big acts but as far as basically their acts on MTV, they're all English acts like Eurythmics because they bring their video over from England. And RCA doesn't have to put the money out for it. Actually needless to say obviously I have some problems with my record company. It's been like three years three records and I think that for the next record, there's a good chance it will be for a different record company.
PSF: I was going to ask you that. You seem to be a little annoyed with RCA. Are you in the process...?
REO: We've made it clear to them that we'd like to leave but it's up to them to let us go.
PSF: But how does your contract work? Are you contracted for X number of albums?
REO: Yeah, for like, four or five records or something but the thing is that the... I should know, shouldn't I? But I don't. It's some number. But the thing is that they always get to make the choice and all you can do is say 'look, please release me.' That's all you can say to them. And if they do, you go 'alright now, let's go someplace else.' Because there are other record companies that were interested me in four years ago. Those same people have been friends of mine in the industry for the past few years. They've been following my career and they all say the same thing to me- you're not getting a fair shake over there. So I want to go some place where I can get a fair shake.
PSF: It may be too early but have you thought which record company would be the one.
REO: I have but I don't want to say. I haven't even told we've been actually kind of casually discussing things with some and I haven't even told my band who they are. Because it kind of puts a jinx on it.
PSF: Are you considering videos for "Contain Yourself"?
REO: Well, they're very expensive and you can't do them on your own. Unless the record says 'let's do this,' you can't do it. If I do change record companies in the next month or so. They're certainly not going to do a video as a parting gesture. If things go the way I'd like 'em to go, it looks grim for another video for this record. [photographer Kim from the Harvard Independent leaves now]: I have to leave; it was nice to meet you. I enjoyed the show last night; we had a good time.
REO: It was nice to meet you. Still a little rough around the edges. We're getting the energy back.
See the part 2 of the Orrall interview
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