Rolling Stone #278: Stephen Bishop

Stephen Bishop: king of the middle of the road

Los Angeles – “There’s a thin line,” explains songwriter-performer Stephen Bishop, “between what’s hip and what’s unhip. I like to walk that line.”

Now riding the success of his third pop hit, “Everybody Needs Love,” Bishop, 26, is proud of his decidedly aboveground following. “I’d rather listen to middle-of-the-road music than a bland rock & roll song any day,” he declares. “Just look at Midnight Special. Hard rock is all traditional bullshit now….It’s like Muzak.”

Bishop is sitting in the living room of his $250,000 Los Angeles home, the payoff of two distinctly easy-listening Top Ten hits – “Save It for a Rainy Day” and “On and On” – and a gold album, Careless (Bishop’s recently released second album, Bish, has already nearly surpassed that in sales).

Before making Careless for ABC in 1976, Bishop spent eight lean years around Hollywood, existing on his own determination and persistence. He was turned down by nearly every label and producer in Los Angeles, and his rejection stories could consume days. He continues telling them, for example, even inside his bathroom. (The victim of a “weak bladder,” he visits the bathroom often during our interview. I would later learn that is where he’d kept an outline of points he wanted to hit. “I’ve been preparing for this interview for years,” he explained.)

The night Bishop was voted Best New Male Vocalist in the 1977 Rock Music Awards, he sat down and made a list of all his turndowns in the music business. The list is a virtual who’s who of the industry, from Clive Davis to the Beatles’ Apple Records. And there are marks to signify double and triple rejections. Yet, listening to the same oft-dismissed demo tape, one hears the exact arrangements, though performed only by Bishop’s voice and guitar, that later became Careless.

But getting the shaft was nothing new for Bishop. “I had a terrible rejection complex for the longest time,” he says. “In school, I was a real dipshit. I looked like an accountant. I was the guy girls wanted to be ‘just friends’ with. I was always on the wrong side of zany. Music was the only outlet I had.”

Raised in San Diego, at seventeen Bishop traveled to Los Angeles as the singer-writer in a British Invasion copy band called the Weeds. The Weeds went nowhere, but Bishop continued to write. “When I started writing,” he says, “I didn’t know chords, so I made them up. I still do in a lot of songs. You wouldn’t believe how many songs I wrote back then.” He finds and shows me an old scrapbook cataloging some 500 early compositions.

“Mind you,” he says, “most of them are terrible, but I wrote for quantity. I know what I wanted to do at a young age, I set out to do it, and a lot of people tried to change my mind about it.” Despite the voluminous rejections, Bishop kept at it. “Some reason, some weird guidance told me to keep trying.”

But there did come a point when his failure got to be too much, and Bishop found himself yelling for a contract outside the house of a prominent producer. The word went out that Bishop had indeed lost the thread. It turned out, however, that he was suffering from acute hypoglycemia and was “paranoid and insecure all because I was the Twinkie king of Silverlake.”

Placed on a sugar-free diet, Bishop had resumed working as a freelance songwriter when singer Leah Kunkel, wife of drummer Russell Kunkel, gave Art Garfunkel one of Bishop’s cassettes. The well-known singer was looking for tunes and picked two, “Looking for the Right One” and “The Same Old Tears on a New Background,” to record on his platinum album, Breakaway. “I owe a lot to Art,” says Bishop. “He was the first to go out on a limb. He could have said, ‘I’ll do your songs if you give me the publishing,’ and I would have given it to him. Instead, he loaned me money to start my own publishing company.” Today, his songs having been covered by Helen Reddy, Barbra Streisand and many others, Stephen Bishop is a rich man.

(Responds Garfunkel: “My first reaction was, “Here’s a real good songwriter who’s real commercial…a great combination.’ I thought, ‘I’m going to be watching this guy go through an interesting transition to success. Maybe I can even play a part in this.” It was a kick reliving my own early experiences…most self-indulgent, of course.”)

Bishop soon acquired a manager, Bob Ellis, who signed him with ABC in early ’76. (Ellis later left the business, and Bishop is now managed by Ellis’ former associate, Trudy Green.) Released later that same year, Careless initially made no impression on anyone other than a few critics who took the time to point out that a) Bishop was a wimp and b) he sounded like Paul Simon. (Bishop insists: “I don’t hear the similarities. Neither does Simon – I asked him. I’ve ripped off McCartney more, anyway.”) But two months later, a single, “Save It for a Rainy Day,” began to move up the charts. The followup did even better. “On and On” went Top Five and stayed on the charts for most of last year. Bishop toured with his longtime backing unit, the Staton Brothers. Eighteen months after the release of Careless, Bishop finally headlined in Los Angeles for two triumphant sold-out nights at the Roxy Theater.

Suddenly Earl Stephen Bishop – “Early the Girl” in school because he once drank out of the girls’ drinking fountain – was no longer answering his own telephone, but leaving such duties to his automatic phone-mate. I once witnessed him coping with messages from eight different women, all pleading for him to return their calls.

“Stephen,” said one particularly insistent voice, “It’s Joyce. I’d like to speak to you real soon.”

Dream on,” Bishop told the recording.

Bishop is working doubly hard to keep his perspective, he says. “I’m pretty lucky. Most people make it on their third or fourth album. Once you get there, you have this thing to maintain, though.” Bishop smiles broadly. “You’re not supposed to take chances. I did anyway.”

Bish took over a year to make and is lusher and more elaborately arranged than Careless. It sounds as if the artist were throwing down the gauntlet from the very first strains of “If I Only Had a Brain” (from The Wizard of Oz), and Bishop enjoys that image. “Call me a wimp,” he challenges. “I’m just trying for a little innocence in my songs. Easy Rider looks dumb these many years later. The Wizard of Oz still says something. What other movie can keep you watching? And with the rock groups, all this fucking darkness and night and negativity…that’s what’s safe in 1978.”

It is a uniquely combative stance in mainstream pop, to be sure. “I know,” Stephen Bishop agrees. “I was saying it for Newsweek, but you can leave in the ‘fucks’ and ‘shits.’ Make me the Angry Young Man of MOR.”

Courtesy of Rolling Stone #278 – Cameron Crowe – November 16, 1978