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Interview by Jeff Rivera with Alex Call of “867-5309 Jenny: The song that saved me”

Interview : Alex Call, hit songwriter and author of 867-5309/Jenny: the song that saved me.

Q: Your new book is called 867-5309/jenny: the song that saved me. How did you come up with that song and how did it save you?

Alex Call: I wrote 867-5309 in 1981. Tommy Tutone, the band who recorded the hit record, had a story about a girl named Jenny who broke up with their lead guitarist, who then wrote her number on a bathroom wall to take vengeance. It was something like that- a funny story. The truth is I just came up with the name, number, the famous guitar lick, and the music while sitting under a plum tree in my back yard in Mill Valley California. I was trying to write something that reminded me of the Kinks and the Stones: four chords, a guitar lick, and a cloud of dust. It just popped out. I went and recorded it on my four track tape deck. Jim Keller from Tommy Tutone came by my little funky studio and said it was a girl’s number on a bathroom wall. We had good laugh and figured that was that. Then the song became a hit.
As for the song saving me, what it really saved was my posterior! I was flat broke and working construction in the dead of winter when the song became a hit and got me out of the cold mud and into a big, shiny record deal and more hit songs for other artists.

Q: You were in the San Francisco country-rock band Clover with Huey Lewis before that?

Alex: I grew up in the 50’s and ‘60’s just north of San Francisco. It was an era of Elvis-hair bands that played Be-Bop-A-Loo-La, She’s My baby. I was afraid of hard guys and H-bombs and found a refuge in listening to the radio all night under the covers while I was supposed to be sleeping: Ray Charles, Roy Orbison, and The Ventures. Every Saturday night was a big-dance-and-fight. I hated the hard guy stuff. I saw that the bands didn’t get beat up and did get girls, so I decided that was the life for me. The Beatles and Stones came along and psychedelicized all that hard guy crud into hippieness. I graduated from high school in 1966, grew my hair long, and started Clover.
Clover was together for eleven years, from 1967 to ’78. I call us The Band That Almost Was. We made four albums: two for Fantasy Records, Credence’s label, and two for Phonogram/Mercury, with Mutt Lange producing. I was the lead singer and main songwriter, Huey played harmonica and sang, and our lead guitarist was John McFee, who joined the Doobie Brothers after Clover broke up. We had a great band, but no hit singles. We spent the last couple of years in England, where the core band-not me and Huey- played on Elvis Costello’s famed first album, My Aim Is True.
We were an extremely eclectic band; we played everything from pure country- McFee is a great steel player- to James Brown- that was the Huey influence. Everyone in the band was very good. I think that unfortunately the sum proved to be less than the parts in our case. We all did better after we broke up. We had a blast while we were together though, playing with bands like Thin Lizzy, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Big Brother& the Holding Company, Elvis Costello, Steve Miller, The Doobie Brothers, Graham Parker, and too many other great bands to name. We did a lot of crazy, funny stuff. We also got our butts kicked a few times; it’s in the book.

Q; What happened after Clover?

Alex: Huey went on to start The News with Sean Hopper, Clover’s keyboard man, John McFee joined the Doobie Brothers, and our bass player, the late Johnny Ciambotti, played with Carlene Carter and Lucinda Williams and managed a few bands. Though I continued to write songs, I personally sank like a stone until I was pulled from the bottom of the pond of depression by the unlooked-for success of 867-5309 in 1982. I immediately got a record deal with Clive Davis’ Arista Records and wrote another a hit song, Little Too Late, recorded by Pat Benatar. But the rock’n’rollercoaster wasn’t done with me yet.
My Arista album didn’t sell and then I lost my publishing deal. I found myself down and out in Los Angeles by 1985. L.A. is not a good place to be a nobody. I kept writing and came up with a song called The Power of Love. Huey called one day and I told him about it. A couple of months later, his own Power of Love came out and I got to participate in the earnings of his first big number one song. That enabled me to move back to San Francisco and get back on my feet. Two years later, I wrote Perfect World for Huey, which went to number two. I had a great band that played around the bay Area for a number of years before I moved to Nashville and new life.

Q: It seems that everyone still knows 867-5309. Why is the song so well known?

Alex: It’s a bit of a mystery. Some songs, movies, books, TV shows, and even ads connect with an era, you know, the zeitgeist- the spirit of the moment. The song is very catchy; countless people have told they get it stuck in their heads. That’s the songwriter’s job: to write hooks. I think for many people Jenny brings them back to a time when life seemed a little simpler than it does now, though that’s not really true. Believe me, when I wrote the song, life was tough for me: only music and my little family sustained me through some very hard times. But for whatever reason, 867-5309 takes folks back to high school, first dates, summer parties, the early 80’s MTV, lots of fun stuff. The book takes you back there, too.
It seems that everyone has a story about the song. My favorite is that over a hundred women have told me that they used 867-5309/Jenny as the brush-off name and number, so there’s tiny bit of a socially redeeming factor in the song about a girl’s number on bathroom wall!

Q: Are you still writing and playing music?

Alex: Well, I have written several book manuscripts in the last few years- I have a novel called Second Childhood that will be out on the heels of this book. It’s about an aging rock band; It’s quite funny. I’ve also written quasi-historic epics, fantasy/adventures, and baseball stories. I love to write both stories and songs. Books take a lot longer!
A couple of years ago I wrote, sang, and produced a record with my wife Lisa Carrie and some fellow singers –The Firestarters. The album is called Passion & Purpose; it’s for people who work in healthcare. It’s about making a difference with the work you do. It’s a great record. We travel around the country singing at healthcare conferences, including events for Susan G Komen for the Cure and other cancer-related organizations.
I constantly write songs, which I video and post on YouTube: thealex8675309.The songwriting biz is tough and getting tougher. More books for me these days, but I’ll never quit playing and writing songs. I really enjoy sharing the memories with people as I travel around. On my Book Concert tour I’m reading from the book, playing my hits, and talking about what it was like to ride what I call the rock’n’rollercoaster.

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This entry was posted on Thursday, August 4th, 2011 at 4:08 am and is filed under Clients, Friends and Colleagues, Industry News. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

8 Responses to “Interview by Jeff Rivera with Alex Call of “867-5309 Jenny: The song that saved me””

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