More about John DeNicola
The term tunesmith can be bandied about rather indiscriminately. But when your best known work is beloved by billions and your lesser known stuff is as indie as it gets, the title is earned, your name is John DeNicola—and your retrospective record has arrived. Interestingly in DeNicola’s case, that retrospective record is also his solo debut. “I always wrote for bands I was in, even sang some lead vocals here and there, but I never aspired to be a singular artist,” says the industry icon, an award-winning songwriter and producer. “Until this unfolded…”
This is The Why Because, a collection comprised largely of DeNicola originals—including a little number called “(I’ve Had) the Time of My Life.” A subtle yet deceptively complex album of simply beautiful songs, The Why Because has been brought to fruition by DeNicola’s exacting ears, light touch, superb musicianship and gently endearing voice. There’s the bouncy pop gem “Everything You;” “All in the Hands of Grace,” a remembrance rendered in delicate guitar and pattered percussion; and the dark, driven “Brand New Day.” There’s also that aforementioned “little number,” “TOML” as you’ve never heard it before, stripped down and pure as possible, the true test of a great song.
Why? Because great songs are DeNicola’s bottom line. The Long Island, New York, native started playing in bands as a kid in the 1970s; by 1980, as bassist in jazz-fusion quintet Flight, he’d signed to Motown, which released the acclaimed album Excursion Beyond. Yet as time went on, he was drawn more to a creative life behind the scenes. “As I moved increasingly into producing and building tracks, I found myself writing with other vocalists in mind,” he explains.
Then a friend introduced DeNicola to fellow artist-turned-songwriter Franke Previte, and musical magic happened. Together they wrote “Hungry Eyes” and “TOML,” both selected for the 1987 movie Dirty Dancing and its soundtrack, which held the #1 spot on the Billboard 200 albums chart for 18 weeks and ultimately sold more than 60 million copies worldwide. “TOML” netted DeNicola both an Oscar and a Golden Globe, as well as a Grammy nomination; in 1988 he was named the ASCAP Songwriter of the Year. “It was obviously a turning point in my career as a songwriter,” he says of “TOML.” “It helped build relationships with people from all aspects of the music world and allowed me the opportunity to continue in the business.”
Yet that continuation was by no means a straight and narrow path. On one hand, DeNicola was discovering and producing new bands, like Kara’s Flowers—who later changed their name to Maroon 5. On the other, he was composing for an annual Shakespeare program at the West Kortright Centre (an arts and community center in the Catskills). He wrote radio-ready tunes for chart-toppers and founded Omad Records, his decidedly “alternative” boutique label, producing the likes of Fovea (his son Jake’s genre-defying band), power popsters The Sighs and legendary Moby Grape founding member Peter Lewis.
With that kind of career, it’s understandable that it took awhile for DeNicola to even consider making a record of his own. In fact, that it happened at all is kind of a fluke. Having recently built a recording studio in an upstate New York barn, he wanted to test out the “big room” acoustics in regard to drums. “So we mic’ed up the kit a la early Beatles, laid down the tracks for the Moby Grape song ‘I Am Not Willing,’ and just for fun I gave it a shot singing,” he recalls.
Next, he decided to demo his own composition, “You’re The Only One,” which Steve Holy recorded for the Avenging Angelo soundtrack. “I heard it in my head like a Glen Campbell/Jimmy Webb song and wondered, ‘Who can I get to sing it?’” DeNicola says. When the answer was “me…?” he finally got the notion to be the voice of other songs he’d written.
And so The Why Because includes the folk-inflected “In God’s Shadow” (which John Waite gave a slick shine to on his 1995 album Temple Bar), the winsome “Wait” and “Butterfly,” an offbeat instrumental on which DeNicola explores some favorite Eastern instruments. There’s his synth-tinged version of “Hungry Eyes” (Eric Carmen’s Dirty Dancing hit) and his bare-bones “TOML,” with jazzy acoustic guitar and beautiful, nuanced brass. Plus, a dreamy cover of the R&B classic “People Make the World Go Round,” its horns and strings period perfect, and a soaring rendition of that Peter Lewis piece, as close to flawless as a rock song can get.
No surprise, the record features a remarkable roster: Waite, Lewis as well as his singer-songwriter daughter Arwen Lewis, Mickey Madden (Maroon 5), Glen Burtnick (Styx), bluesman Zonder Kennedy and Brian Delaney (drummer with everyone from the New York Dolls to the Wu Tang Clan). “I enjoyed recording and producing this record more than anything I’ve ever done,” DeNicola says. “It started as a whim but as it took shape it became clear that I do have a perspective that’s different from others who’ve done my songs. I was lucky enough to enlist some incredibly talented friends yet also play most of the instruments—which was a ton of fun, locking myself in my studio with guitars, keyboards, drums, sitar, marimba. Most of all it was great to ‘find my voice’ as an artist after years of getting into other artists’ heads.”
Now, with The Why Because, it’s your turn to find the voice of the man whose music you already know so well…or think you do.
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