|Posted by powerpopclassics on June 1, 2018 at 11:00 AM|
“Smile at Me” is another song of mine with a winding history. The melody was finalized in the spring of 1986 in a piano practice room on the Ole Miss campus. There were no lyrics to the original song, as it was intended to be a simple “New Age” piano solo in the style of Windham Hill’s George Winston. A Mizzou friend had given me three Windham Hill albums the summer before as a college graduation gift, and it had taken me several months to absorb and develop my love for this amazingly calm type of music. Inevitably, my newfound appreciation for New Age music inspired me to attempt to create some of it.
As this was one of my first completed New Age songs, I remember being pleased with its melody and structure, once I finally found an unlocked piano room and worked it out. However, as tempted as I might have been to make a real record of it, I knew that months of dedicated work would be required to develop the precision and dynamics of a true New Age solo pianist like George Winston. Another option, studio trickery, would require a huge budget to edit together numerous performances into one pristine master. In those days, I certainly did not have the financial resources to record take after take of my pleasant little melody on a grand piano in one of Memphis’ several world-class studios. Thus, the melody of the song, captured on cassette in 1986, as a piano solo, simply remained dormant until 1994.
One random day in 1994, after Mercury producer Mike Lawler and I had completed some really productive recording sessions in Nashville, Mike called me and said, "Get me another song that sounds just like [the first song of mine that we recorded] ‘The Thought of Your Name.’" Right off the top of my head I told him that I had two songs that, in different ways, both resembled “The Thought of Your Name.” One was a Trend song from 1984 called “Thought It Out.” The other was that forgotten New Age instrumental, which I mentioned because of its chord progression. At that moment, though, it had no title or lyrics. Mike didn’t care. He requested demos of both songs. Accordingly, I booked sessions at Ambience Studios in Poplar Bluff, and went to work.
“Thought It Out” was an easy demo to make, as the song had basically not changed since The Trend cut the first version of it at Kennett Sound Studios. “Smile at Me,” on the other hand, required much more work. Its title and lyrics were finished during a week of constant writing and rewriting. After scratching out a rough arrangement which copied the chiming electric guitars and layered acoustics of “The Thought of Your Name,” I recorded its demo as well, and sent the songs off. Mike immediately got back with me and told me that even though he had specifically requested it, “Smile at Me” sounded TOO much like “The Thought of Your Name” to record for real! He also suggested that I write different lyrics for the final verse of “Thought It Out,” which I tried, but without any success.
After a second listen to the tapes that I sent Mike, “Smile at Me” seemed to me to be a decent song suffering from a lazy arrangement and a hastily recorded demo. I decided to record it again in the style of the old Trend song, “Mama Thought You Were a Nice Girl.” However, I got only part of the way into the new production of “Smile at Me” when some changes were made in Nashville. Suddenly, Mike was no longer affiliated with Mercury Records. Once again, I was in musical limbo. The demos and productions that I was preparing specifically for Mike Lawler's ears were put away, and I placed my primary focus, once again, on practicing law.
About five years later, an Arkansas-based nurse with a teenage daughter was treating a family friend. She mentioned, during the course of the treatment, that her daughter was an aspiring Pop singer, and had a vocal audition before an agent coming up. She also mentioned that they were looking for two decent obscure songs that nobody had ever heard to add to the teen’s demo packet. When our family friend heard the word “obscure” he immediately thought of me, and referred the nurse to me. When she contacted me, I made her a tape of several of my songs for her to review with her daughter. One of the two songs that they selected was “Smile at Me.” Because they were in a hurry, and because I could work quickly, the mother asked me to also produce the teen’s new demos in Memphis. So, in a whirlwind, “Smile at Me” was one of two songs of mine recorded eighteen years ago by a teenager with a fantastic voice, but whose name I do not have the rights to disclose. I heard that she did, in fact, sign with an agent, but was steered to other writers for material that was far more Country than my songs were. Obviously, she never released “Smile at Me.” Again, the song was put away.
Last spring I decided to put aluminum shelving in our garage. In order to clean out the far back corner to start with the shelving, I had to deal with three black trash bags full of cassettes that had been moved there from my attic. Most of the tapes were factory cassettes from the early ‘80’s that had melted. However, after tossing literally hundreds of them into a rented dumpster, I found several tapes that appeared to be playable. As I packed them neatly into two shoeboxes, I saw that one such tape was my own demo to “Smile at Me.”
I played it and was immediately turned off by the copycat production that I had put together back in the 90’s. However, the song stayed in my head after only one play. As I spent several hours putting the shelving together, I continued to hum the song and began to recall my crazy adventures in Nashville with Mike Lawler and shook my head at yet another near miss in the music business. Then I remembered how I had intended to re-record the song. It struck me immediately that it should sound like an early Cars song, because that is how I originally heard “Mama Thought You Were a Nice Girl” in my head when I wrote it. Of course, it never bothered me that The Trend did not sound like The Cars on “Mama,” mainly because I believed that we had improved upon my original intention. But all these years later, with “Smile at Me,” being roughly the same speed, and having a similar eighth note drive on its down beats, it needed what I had originally intended for “Mama.”
At the end of May, Don Smith, Robert Hall, Dawn Hopkins, and I entered Ardent Studios in Memphis to record this old song the right way. As I parked my van full of vintage synthesizers in the Ardent lot, I was greeted by Big Star drummer Jody Stephens, who actually carried one of my Rolands into the studio for me. Once inside, producer Adam Hill joined us as Dawn’s assistant engineer while Don, Robert, and I started playing, adding and subtracting a measure here and there, based on Don’s keen production skills. After I resolved a couple of technical glitches caused by the age of my synths, Robert summoned some of his Zuider Zee magic and locked us into a groove. What a joy it was to finally play the song with my friends! Once the basics were cut, Don and I layered “a zillion” background vocal overdubs to punctuate the homage to The Cars. Dawn used those brilliant ears of hers to make us sound like we were recording in 1978. Regarding my own performance, I am very pleased with the synthesizer solo, which resulted from a diligent combination of hard work and blind luck.
Thanks to Executive Producer David Bash, “Smile at Me” is included on International Pop Overthrow, Volume 20. Of those twenty releases, I am privileged to have appeared as an artist or a writer (or both) on 17 of them. I am especially proud to have been part of the very first volume of International Pop Overthrow many years ago. Coincidentally, the song of mine on that first volume was “Thought It Out,” the other song that I sent to Mike Lawler along with “Smile at Me” back in 1994. One of these days I will chronicle my moderately outrageous Nashville stories and lessons from that period in great detail. As for now, though, I simply hope that this little song that has transformed itself several times over 31 years, makes you smile. Maybe even at me.
John T. McMullan
August 4, 2017