Say What? The Word is Oscar
LIONEL AND STEVIE GIVE JAY LASKER TSURIS
It’s time to go to the movies.
Next week, voting members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences will begin casting their final ballots for the 2018 Oscars. With two music-related contenders (A Star Is Born, Bohemian Rhapsody) among the best picture candidates, it’ll be interesting to learn the result on Feb. 24. And, of course, there’s the original song category, pitting the work of Kendrick Lamar against that of Lady Gaga, among others.
Imagine the feelings of anxiety and hope within those current nominees, just as there was during the ’80s when Lionel Richie and Stevie Wonder competed against others for the original song Oscar. When Wonder won for “I Just Called To Say I Love You,” he admitted in his acceptance speech that he’d been fretting about it while in Europe. “I had dreams – and I would always wake up – that I was at an awards show and the nominees were coming up, and they’d say this song and this song, and the winner is…! And I would wake up.”
There was even greater anxiety at Motown when Diana Ross was a favourite to win in the actress category for 1972’s Lady Sings The Blues – the outcome of which is well-known and well-chronicled. Also at the ’72 Oscars, Michael Jackson’s “Ben” was in the running, although it was composers Don Black and Walter Scharf who stood to secure the statuette for original song, rather than the singer. For him, for Motown Records and its publishing wing, Jobete, “Ben” had already been a No. 1 hit single, as well as the title track of Jackson’s highly successful second solo album.
There was the occasion, too, when Berry Gordy was said to have intervened in the nominations process on behalf of 1975’s “Theme From Mahogany (Do You Know Where You’re Going To),” from Diana’s second screen vehicle. And obviously everyone at the record company had hopes that her “Endless Love” duet with Lionel – which he wrote for the 1981 film of the same name – would yield an Oscar.
Then there were the non-contenders: those Motown recordings featured in Hollywood movies, but which evidently underwhelmed the Oscar nominating committees. They include the Supremes’ “The Happening” and Diana’s “It’s My Turn” from films of the same name; DeBarge’s “Rhythm Of The Night” from Berry Gordy’s The Last Dragon; and Stevie’s “Gotta Have You” from Jungle Fever.
WHERE’S THE ‘CIRCLE’?
Here, the focus is on Motown’s Oscar song triumphs, namely, “I Just Called To Say I Love You” and “Say You, Say Me.” Both were made and marketed during the six (or so) years that Jay Lasker ran Motown Records. He remembered getting a call in 1984 from Wonder’s attorney, Johanan Vigoda, who said his client’s next album was to be the soundtrack of The Woman in Red, a movie project with which Dionne Warwick was involved. The Motown president was far from thrilled, particularly as he had been anticipating a new Stevie studio album, In Square Circle, to boost the firm’s bottom line. Indeed, the star had already played Lasker several songs from this.
Upon hearing material from The Woman in Red, he made clear his disappointment and his reluctance to release it. Later, Wonder returned to play “I Just Called To Say I Love You” for Lasker – and the soundtrack suddenly became commercially viable. When released in August 1984, The Woman in Red album comprised four Wonder tracks, two Wonder/Warwick duets, one Warwick solo cut, and an instrumental by guitarist Ben Bridges.
The album went on to sell approximately 1.5 million copies – far short of Stevie’s customary count – and the film reportedly netted a mediocre $25 million. But “I Just Called To Say I Love You”? It became Wonder’s biggest-ever hit single worldwide, topping 4 million in sales, and then taking the Oscar. On the Academy Awards telecast – where the song was performed by Diana Ross – Stevie said, “I cannot believe it.” Given the difficulties that he had to contend with, Jay Lasker probably couldn’t, either.
The Motown official enjoyed no smoother an experience with “Say You, Say Me,” featured in the soundtrack of White Knights. Lionel Richie had sought a favour, asking Lasker for the song to be released as a single in 1985 – before the movie’s release, in fact – to boost its Oscar chances. Awkward for Lasker was the fact that Motown only had rights to “Say You, Say Me” as a single; the soundtrack album belonged to Atlantic Records.
In the 1980s, major record companies seldom made money from singles: the profit came from an accompanying album. According to Lasker, he agreed to the release of “Say You, Say Me” in late ’85 on the basis that Lionel’s third solo LP would swiftly follow. (Also, Lasker would not allow the song to be included in Atlantic’s soundtrack release, according to Fred Bronson’s The Billboard Book Of Number 1 Hits.)
DANCING, NOT SAYING
In the event, Richie’s album did not materialise until the following August, by which time the song was too tired to be its title track. The choice, instead, was “Dancing On The Ceiling.”
Still, everyone – Motown included – basked in the glow of the four weeks which “Say You, Say Me” spent at No. 1 at the end of 1985 and into ’86, then again when Lionel accepted the Oscar for original song on March 24 at Los Angeles’ Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. To that end, the record company had hired Happy Goday, who successfully promoted film music for many top Hollywood studios, and also bought trade press advertising on behalf of its ambitious star. Nonetheless, Lasker had to be careful; there was a risk of alienating Academy voters by over-hyping, as Berry Gordy had been accused of doing for Lady Sings The Blues.
Incidentally, Richie competed with himself for that 1985 song prize. “Say You, Say Me” was nominated alongside “Miss Celie’s Blues (Sister)” from The Color Purple. He was one of the latter tune’s lyricists, with Quincy Jones and Rod Temperton. Another contender was “The Power Of Love” by Huey Lewis & the News, from Back To The Future.
Awards-and-charts authority Paul Grein, a former Billboard colleague, has a theory: that “The Power Of Love” probably would have prevailed, “but Richie was in the midst of a tremendous hit streak. I don’t think he won so much for ‘Say You, Say Me,’ as for being the man who had given us ‘Easy,’ ‘Three Times A Lady,’ ‘All Night Long (All Night)’ and, most of all, ‘We Are The World.’ ” Grein offers that the Oscar “was the film world’s chance to say ‘Thank you for that song you wrote to raise all that money for starving people.’ ”
For his part, Richie – predictably – told the Chandler Pavilion audience and those watching the telecast that his Oscar represented a dream come true. “Many, many years of believing and dreaming and a lot of friends and a lot of family that said, ‘You can do it, just keep on trying hard.’ I want to say to all of them and to all the people that have supported me over the years, thank you very much for keeping up with my foolishness.” (That foolishness surely included the outfit which he and his fellow Commodores wore in the 1978 disco movie Thank God It’s Friday, a Motown co-production.)
These days, Motown’s Oscar stars are more likely to be making news on your HDTV at home than in cinemas, whether judging (Richie on American Idol) or joking (Stevie in Carpool Karaoke). But if Bohemian Rhapsody can capture the public imagination as it has – and perhaps even the winning votes of motion picture academy members later this month – then isn’t it time for, say, the Marvin Gaye biopic to be more than endless reports in the trade press?
Can’t Dr. Dre or Jamie Foxx or Berry Gordy finally get it made? If nothing else, there would be one hell of a movie soundtrack.
Music notes: the simplicity of “I Just Called To Say I Love You” has led to dozens of covers, including those flavoured with cheap cheese (Britain’s Des O’Connor, for one) and note-bending drama (hey, Diane Schuur). Also, a variety of instrumentals, such as those by Acker (“Stranger On The Shore”) Bilk, Roger Williams and Richard Clayderman. Foreign-language renderings are in abundance, too: French, Swedish, Turkish, Dutch, German and more. “Say You, Say Me” isn’t quite as ubiquitous, but Lionel himself has recorded it several times: the original, and twice for his Tuskegee album (the American version with Jason Aldean, the European edition with Denmark’s Rasmus Seebach). Say you, say three?