ROCK ‘N’ ROLL ZELIG Hilly Michaels

Friends?
The pop auteur and cult hero’s had a few – among them, Mick Ronson, Cherry
Vanilla, Dan Hartman, Ellen Foley, Ron Wood and, er, the
Caddyshack filmmakers.

 

BY GREG BEETS

 

What do Ziggy Stardust, Liza Minnelli and
“Escape (The Piña Colada Song)” have in common? Meet Hilly Michaels.

 

Although he never attained mass renown,
Michaels’ musical career is defined by proximity to zeitgeist. His video for
1980’s “Calling All Girls” was one of the first 100 videos to air on MTV. An
instrumental version of his song “Something On Your Mind” enlivens Caddyshack in the scene where Rodney Dangerfield destroys Ted Knight’s boat. And then
there’s his laundry list of friends and collaborators. A game of “Six Degrees
of Hilly Michaels” would easily go into the wee hours.

 

His latest album, Pop This!, compiles
lost demo recordings and unreleased songs spanning 35 years.

 

“It’s basically the story of my life,” Michaels
says.

 

 

 

 

 

Born Michael Hillman, the Connecticut-bred
drummer turned irreverent pop auteur first started performing around New Haven
in mid-Sixties teen garage bands. “You know who Michael Bolton is, right?”
Michaels asks. “Well, we grew up together and we were in bands together. Michael
was writing acid rock at the time.”

 

By the early Seventies, Michaels and the former
Michael Bolotin were playing together in L.A. in a band called Joy. A handful
of Joy songs appear in the 1972 movie, November Children. He also
drummed for Christian rock pioneer Larry Norman. Michaels’ next gig was with
Midwestern proto-power pop combo Peach & Lee. Despite a promising 1973 RCA
single called “Hold On,” they disintegrated without attracting national
attention. By 1975, Michaels was back in Connecticut. He reconnected with
Bolton and played drums on the future adult contemporary titan’s second solo
album.He even co-wrote the title track, “Every Day of My Life,” with Leon
Russell pianist Rev. Patrick Henderson.

 

“It was one of the first songs I ever wrote,”
Michaels says. “Everyone was kind of shocked. They said, ‘Hilly, we didn’t know
you could write songs!'”

 

Henderson also introduced Michaels to
multitalented provocateur Cherry Vanilla. A former member of Andy Warhol’s
retinue, Vanilla was David Bowie’s U.S. publicist during the Ziggy Stardust era. She hired Michaels to play drums in her new proto-punk band for several
months in 1975. And she introduced him to former Bowie guitarist Mick Ronson.

 

“In my entire life, I’ve never played with a
more brilliant guitar player,” Michaels says of Ronson, who died in 1993.

 

Ronson settled in New York after the original
Spiders from Mars ended. Michaels and Ronson quickly developed a musical
kinship, so they decided to put a band together. “We began looking for players
all over New York. We’d go out to Max’s, CBGB and all the cool rock clubs in
the Seventies. For about a year and a half, it was the Mick Ronson/Hilly
Michaels band. We didn’t have any luck finding the perfect band. Mick had a
vision in his head and apparently I was the only one that fit the bill.”

 

In the meantime, Michaels was getting more gigs
as a session drummer. Both Ronson and Michaels played on John Mellencamp’s 1976
debut, Chestnut Street Incident. Michaels also appeared on one of the
first tribute albums, the delightfully twisted Bionic Gold, which featured a slew of downtown NYC artists
performing songs associated with producer Phil Spector (Michaels’ choice was
John Lennon’s “Instant Karma”).

 

Then Ron and Russell Mael from Sparks enlisted
Michaels to play on 1976’s Big Beat, which was co-produced by a
pre-“Piña Colada” Rupert Holmes. He toured the U.S. and Canada, even appearing
with Sparks in the 1977 disaster movie, Rollercoaster. But the album
didn’t sell and the Maels jettisoned the band.

 

“I was really crushed because I really loved
playing with Sparks,” Michaels says. “But you know, those guys are very
unpredictable.”

 

Back in New Haven, Michaels looked up fellow
Connecticut musician Dan Hartman. Hartman, who passed away in 1994, had just
left the Edgar Winter Group. Michaels didn’t actually know Hartman, so he
called information on a whim and got his number. Hartman turned out to be a
Sparks fan, so he invited Michaels over to jam at his mansion in nearby
Westport. Once ensconced in Hartman’s third-floor recording studio, the two
musicians played Sgt. Pepper in its entirety on just bass and drums.

 

“We got through every single song and we’re
laughing our asses off while we’re playing, because it sounded really, really
great,” says Michaels. “He knew he had found his drummer and I felt like I had
a new best friend.”

 

As the Hartman band emerged, Michaels started
playing drums with Roger C. Reale, a high-energy pop-punk performer from
Wallingford, Conn. “It was kind of a combination of the Sweet and Slade,”
Michaels says.

 

Roger C. Reale & Rue Morgue released one
killer album, 1978’s Radioactive, before Michaels absconded to Westport
with the guitar player – a young man named G.E. Smith. Meanwhile, Hartman
recruited guitarist Vinnie Cusano – the future Vinnie Vincent.

 

At the outset, Hartman and company intended to
form a pop band. Then something strange happened.

 

“We were all living there in this enormous
house,” Michaels recalls. “And Dan says, ‘Hey, you want to hear something funny
I just did? I woke up this morning and laid down these tracks.’ And he plays
‘Instant Replay.'”

 

Much to everyone’s surprise, “Instant Replay”
was a international disco smash in late 1978. The band toured Europe for months
without playing a note – it was all lip-synch shows. They appeared on American
Bandstand
, The Midnight Special and even Soul Train.

 

 

 

 

“That’s when Mick [Ronson] called me up and
said, ‘Hey, I’m producing Ellen Foley with Ian Hunter. Do you want to play
drums?’ So I had a talk with Dan. I said, ‘Disco ain’t my bag, man. I love you,
you’re my friend, but I want to play pop, I want to play rock.'”

 

Michaels and Ronson played on Foley’s 1979
debut, Night Out. But just as Meat Loaf’s onetime female vocal
antagonist was about to hit the road, Ian Hunter hired the Foley band for the You’re
Never Alone with a Schizophrenic
tour.

 

Before Michaels went out with Hunter, he met
musician/manager Jake Hooker. “He wanted a drummer to lip-synch on the Jerry
Lewis Telethon,” Michaels says. From 1974 to 1977, Hooker was in Arrows, a
British pop-rock trio with a weekly ITV series. In 1975, he’d co-written “I
Love Rock N Roll.” Now in New York, Hooker was married to Judy Garland’s
daughter, singer/actress Lorna Luft.

 

Knowing Hooker had an ear for pop music,
Michaels played him some songs he’d recorded with Dan Hartman. One of them was
“Calling All Girls.” Michaels pushed play and Hooker immediately started paying
attention. As Michaels recalls, “He [Hooker] said, ‘You want a worldwide record
deal? I could get you one tomorrow.'”

 

Yet Michaels was reluctant about the prospect of
rock stardom.

 

“I said, ‘Well, you know, I’m having fun playing
drums and I’m really not the Bruce Springsteen kind of performer,'” he recalls.

 

Three days later, Hooker called to tell Michaels
he had a deal with Warner Brothers. Michaels told Hooker he didn’t want it.

 

“He said, ‘Are you crazy?'” Michaels laughs. “I
said, ‘Yeah, but that’s beside the point!'” Hooker ultimately convinced Michaels to take the
deal. “Suddenly, I’m depositing several hundred thousand dollars of advances
into my bank account. I go, oh, this isn’t too bad, actually!”

 

Michaels wanted someone like Dan Hartman or Mike
Chapman to produce his debut, but Warners was dead set on Roy Thomas Baker.
From the start, Michaels didn’t think the Queen/Cars producer was a good fit.
When Michaels suggested bringing in Ronson and Hunter, Baker forbade it.

 

As Michaels recalls, “He (Baker) said, ‘You’ve
transcended Mick Ronson and Ian Hunter. You’re the new golden boy at Warner
Brothers and you don’t want to be associated with drumming anymore.'”

 

Baker did, however, permit Liza Minnelli to do
backing vocals. Minnelli did the session as a favor to Hooker, her
brother-in-law at the time. She can be heard loud and clear on the bridge of
“U.S. Male.”

 

“She came down and there’s, like, 25
photographers there, snapping away,” Michaels says. “We shooed ‘em all out and
then we started doing song after song after song with Liza Minnelli singing
background.”

 

(below:
Michaels promotional photo circa 1980. Note the fake eyelashes – he borrowed
them from Minnelli)

 

 

 

 

In addition to Minnelli, 1980’s Calling All
Girls
featured input from Dan Hartman, G.E. Smith, Elton John guitarist
Davey Johnstone and Cars keyboardist Greg Hawkes. As recording wound down,
Michaels got a call from movie producer Jon Peters, who asked him to write
songs for a forthcoming comedy called Caddyshack.

 

One of those songs was “Something On Your Mind.”
The other was simply called “Caddyshack.” It was intended to be the movie’s
theme song until Kenny Loggins showed up with “I’m Alright.”

 

“They said, ‘Write us a Bob Hope/Bing Crosby Road
to Rio
kind of thing,'” Michaels says. “‘We want Chevy Chase and Billy
Murray to sing it together.'” 

 

(“Caddyshack” was never released, but Michaels
vows to put it out if he finds the tape.)

 

Warners gave Michaels a lofty $100,000 budget to
shoot a video. Gary Gutierrez, an animator whose credits included Sesame
Street
and The Grateful Dead Movie, signed on as director.

 

“I wanted my persona to be half-cartoon,
half-real,” Michaels says. “I wanted the video to come out so animated that I
looked like a cartoon figure.” Although it didn’t resemble Michaels’ initial
Ralph Bakshi vision, the painstakingly created video went far beyond the static
performance clips that dominated MTV’s early playlists. Unfortunately, it was
already a year old by the time MTV debuted in August 1981.

 

In the meantime, Michaels and Warner Brothers
were locked in what he calls a “Mexican standoff.”

 

“They said, ‘Now go out and tour!'” recalls
Michaels. “I said, ‘Now get me a hit record!'”

So Michaels didn’t tour and Calling All Girls didn’t sell.

 

Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley complicated
matters further when they asked Michaels to join Kiss as Peter Criss’
replacement shortly after the album came out. Michaels wanted to do it, but his
label, manager and producer were united in their opposition.

 

“I should’ve joined Kiss,” Michaels says. “I’m
sure they would’ve played a couple of tunes from my record and I would’ve sung
a few from behind the kit. At least do ‘Calling All Girls’ and a few others.
One of the biggest mistakes in my life was letting the record company and my
manager and Roy talk me out of it.”

 

In 1981, Michaels released his second album, Lumia.
The idea, Michaels says, was to “give them four or five totally loony tunes
like I did on Calling All Girls, but the rest were going to be serious
pop tunes.”

 

But he wasn’t the golden boy at WB anymore.
Despite some compelling songs, Lumia came and went without leaving a
mark. The deal was done.

 

“I kept
my head above water,” Michaels says. “I was producing and I met Marianne
Faithfull. I ended up living with her in New York for two years. We were
engaged. That was 1985 to 1986.”

 

In 1989, Michaels played Ron Wood’s birthday
party in Florida, sharing the stage with Wood, Don Covay and Bobby Keys. In
1995, he got a tourism marketing job in Orlando. He continued producing largely
unknown artists. And just as before, he stockpiled songs.

 

From 2003 through 2007, Michaels managed
fundraising call centers for fine arts entities across the country, including
Lincoln Center, the Detroit Symphony and the Oregon Ballet. “I was hailed a
hero because I had some really interesting ideas for how to call up Mr. and
Mrs. Smith without them getting mad at you,” he laughs. But by 2008, he’d had
enough. Now back in Connecticut, Michaels left fundraising behind and started
sifting through recordings dating back to the Seventies. Two years later, Pop
This!
emerged.

 

Released in the wake of Michaels’ 2009
appearance at the International Pop Overthrow festival, Pop This! is an
unvarnished extension of his two out-of-print albums. Of particular interest is
the raw demo recording of “Calling All Girls” featuring Mick Ronson on guitar
and backing vocals and Rupert Holmes on piano.

 

Other highlights include a zany Dallas Cowboys
Cheerleaders paean (“Dixie Dolls”), a Slade-style stomper that Wendy O.
Williams once performed (“You’ll Succeed”) and a melancholy, John Lennon/Cars
smash-up (“Someone’s Waiting for You”).

 

With his keen ability to tap the nexus of glam,
power pop and new wave intact, Michaels’ next act is an album of new material.

 

“Despite my age, I’m in great health,” says
Michaels. “I look pretty much exactly like I used to. I don’t need eye wrinkle
cream!”

 

For the past several months, Michaels has been
recording songs for the new album at Danny Maggiore’s home studio in
Connecticut. One of the new songs, “Billy Balloon,” is co-written by Cherry
Vanilla. He swears this will be his best batch yet.

 

“You haven’t heard the last of me.” Michaels
says. “I guarantee when you hear these songs, you’re going to laugh your ass
off and dance.”

 

 

Leave a Reply