Archive for January, 2008

IDOL COMMENT

January 30, 2008

Just wanted to mention how funny I found last night’s “American Idol.” The judges took Angelica Puente to task because her version of “The Power Of Love” was a carbon copy of Celine Dion’s, yet didn’t say word one to Samantha Sidley, who sounded exactly like Norah Jones on “Don’t Know Why.”

Meanwhile, I kind of liked David Cook, who sang Bon Jovi, although Sundance Head last season taught me not to start rooting for anyone too early. And really, did anyone we saw last night have a hope of selling any records if they did become the American Idol? I don’t think so…

Coming up later this week, plenty of junkets to report on, I promise!

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THE TOP TEN WORKING VACATIONS

January 28, 2008

Back in the nineties, I used to fly to New York for junkets once or twice a month. But eventually the major studios decided it wasn’t worth their money to fly radio journalists across the country. It was a big perk while it lasted, especially since I often took the train down to Pennsylvania to visit my folks after a junket weekend.

Since going to New York was such a common occurrence, it wasn’t all that exciting (even if I did enjoy expensive hotel meals on my per diem). But every so often, we were flown to some other exciting destination. Perhaps a star was filming a movie in a certain city and couldn’t take the time to fly to New York or L.A. to do press or the movie we were covering took place in an exotic locale the movie company wanted to show off. It meant that I got to go to some places that I’d never been but had always wanted to visit. So here are my Top Ten Flyaway Junkets (and keep in mind, if I was a TV reporter, I’m sure I would have Jamaica on this list for “Pirates of The Caribbean 2”!):

1. “50 First Dates/”The Big Bounce”: Four nights at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel in Waikiki, complete with a big per diem to pay for meals and many, many pina coladas.

2. “Skeleton Key”: Over the years, I’ve read a lot of books that took place in New Orleans, so many that it became the one place in the world I wanted to see most. Well, Universal made my wish come true, complete with meals at some of the city’s most famous restaurants and a room at the Ritz Carlton just two blocks away from legendary Bourbon Street. As it turned out, we were there just a few weeks before Hurricane Katrina, and I’m thankful I got to see the city in a way it may never be again.

3. “Legally Blonde 2”: MGM took us to Jolly Ol’ England for this junket. The only problem was we had to see the movie right after we landed in London, still dead tired from the trip. But why complain when I found the time to visit such landmarks as Buckingham Palace, Abbey Road, Notting Hill and Harrods, which is truly the most amazing store I have ever seen.

4. “Bad Boys II”: Off to Miami for this Michael Bay/Jerry Bruckheimer spectacular, where we stayed at the beautiful waterfront Mandarin Oriental Hotel ($ 700 a room!) and hit some famous Miami Beach nightclubs. I knew we were at a good club when one of the Bad Boys, Martin Lawrence, showed up…

5. “Brother Bear”: Another trip to Florida, this time to Walt Disney World in Orlando. Spent a day exploring Epcot and the Disney/MGM Studios, plus had a fun night at Pleasure Island. All that and the chance to interview Phil Collins and get him to sign a few of his CD’s!

6. “Marvin’s Room”/”Mother”: I once visited Rush Street when I was in Chicago for the junket for John Travolta’s “Phenomena” and was unimpressed at what was supposed to be a wild place. Well, it turns out 6th Street in Austin, Texas was everything I imagined Rush Street would be. With 10 or more clubs on every block, I was amazed by the quantity and quality of live music that was available. All that and the best barbeque I’ve ever tasted!

7 . “The Alamo”: Speaking of barbeque, San Antonio is no slouch in that department. Oh yes, I’ll remember “The Alamo” since it gave me the chance to explore the amazing River Walk, full of restaurants and cool clubs. Plus it was pretty cool to see the movie and then walk over to the actual Alamo!

8. “Finding Nemo”: Yes, I’d been to San Francisco before (although I certainly hadn’t been staying at the Four Seasons!). But what made this trip memorable wasn’t the time spent in the city, but a tour of Pixar Studios in nearby Emeryville.

9. “Hart’s War”: I love going to Las Vegas, but this trip was special because the junket was on Super Bowl weekend. Plus I went a day early and got to enjoy a performance by Bruce Willis and his band at Studio 54. Honorable mention in this category goes to “Rugrats In Paris,” which was the first time I stayed at Paris Las Vegas…

10. “Sideways”: True, I had a bad cold during this junket, but that didn’t stop me from appreciating the beautiful beachside Bacara resort in Santa Barbara. Wow! So classy I felt like Oprah (or at least her friend Gayle…)!

ODDS & ENDS

January 26, 2008

I think I’m going to do an Odds & Ends segment once a week for my ideas on things that just aren’t long enough to be their own entry (like what I wrote about “Hairspray” yesterday).

For instance, a month ago I was at a gas station and saw a box of Reese’s  Peanut Butter And Banana Creme Cups, decorated with a picture of Elvis Presley on it. At the time, I wasn’t in the mood for candy, but I’ve been on the lookout for the product ever since. After all, I love peanut butter and banana shakes, so I had to try this.

Well, I was at the grocery store yesterday and there it was in the candy display at the cash register, so I bought one (at three for a dollar, how could I resist?). And yes, they were excellent! Just like a chocolate banana shake at Mel’s Diner! Truly food fit for The King!

I also want to point out that Fred Bronson, who is often mentioned here, has returned the favor in his weekly “Chart Beat Chat” column at Billboard.com. A reader wrote Fred an e-mail full of praise for his new book, the fourth edition of “Billboard’s Hottest Hot 100 Hits.” The reader complimented Fred and his team, which of course is Fred and me! You can read what Fred wrote at Billboard.com’s “Chart Beat Chat.” The letter is headed “Hottest” Stuff. Google that together with Billboard.com and you should be able to go right to it!

CHEMISTRY LESSON

January 26, 2008

Due to the rain in L.A. this morning, it took me an hour and ten minutes to make it to Santa Monica for the “Fool’s Gold” junket. In fact, I almost turned around, thinking I wouldn’t get there in time. Fortunately, the traffic thinned out the closer I got to my destination and I arrived in plenty of time to not only set up my taping gear but grab some breakfast.

Held at the beautiful beachfront hotel Casa Del Mar, our room had a view of the ocean right outside. Our first interview was the star team of Kate Hudson and Matthew McConaughey and I was worried staring out at the waves might make Matt tear his shirt off, but that never happened. In reality, Matt was pretty laid back, smiling at Kate’s lively, laughing demeanor. The pair are obviously good friends and say whatever chemistry they show on screen was there from the moment they met.

Of course, we couldn’t let the interview end without touching on Matthew’s big news, his impending fatherhood. Matt admitted that he always wanted to be a dad and that he was just waiting for the right woman to come along. He did promise that he wouldn’t be changing his athletic ways, continuing to scuba dive and doing his own movie stunts whenever possible. That led Kate to reveal that motherhood has made her more of a daredevil because she wouldn’t want to teach her son to be fearful of trying new things.

But the highlight of the day was talking to Donald Sutherland, a classy and contemplative guy who plays a rich yacht owner in the film. Naturally someone asked him how his son Kiefer was doing. It turns out Donald had dinner with Kiefer just last night and told us Kiefer came out of jail focused on making the new season of “24” the best ever (once the WGA strike is over, of course). That’s music to the ears of this “24” fan.

Donald is also rooting for Julie Christie, his co-star in 1973’s “Don’t Look Now,” to win this year’s Best Actress Oscar. He also insisted he’s a klutz and that while he often plays wealthy people, doesn’t feel like he’s one of them. He says the rich never have to look at a bill and he certainly does.

CAN’T STOP THE BEAT

January 25, 2008

Just watched “Hairspray” on DVD. I highly recommend it. Every song is catchy and stands on it’s own. I also commend director Adam Shankman for his recreation of the streets of Baltimore. Although the movie filmed in Los Angeles and Toronto, it certainly looked like the city I visit twice a year!

HEATH LEDGER

January 22, 2008

I interviewed Heath Ledger four times from 2000 to 2005 and he never seemed like he changed. He always talked about how close he was to his friends from before he was a successful actor and how he liked to drive around the backroads of Australia when he wanted to get away from it all.

We don’t know enough about his death yet to psychoanalyze what happened. I will say I look forward to his appearance as The Joker in “The Dark Knight” this summer. Heath played many dark, troubled characters over the years and hopefully this will be one of his best performances, helping to remind us what we’ve lost today.

OSCAR PICKS

January 22, 2008

I’ve been seeing possible Oscar contenders for two months now, and it turned out I did pretty well. I’ve seen four of the five Best Picture and Best Actor nominees, although only one of the Best Actress performances. Now I can really focus on seeing what’s left.

Still, I think I’ve seen enough to put out some guesses as to the winners. I’m rooting for “No Country For Old Men” to win Best Picture and I think it has a good chance, considering another violent epic, “The Departed,” won last year. I’d go with Daniel Day-Lewis for Best Actor (while watching the film, I thought Daniel’s character wasn’t overly emotional enough to win, but in the last half hour, he really turns on the fireworks). Of course, it’s always possible Hollywood will want to award George Clooney just for being George Clooney…

As for Best Actress, Julie Christie has won many awards for her work in “Away From Her” and seems on track to take home her second Best Actress award (she won back in 1965 for “Darling”). The Supporting awards might as well have been given out already, with Javier Bardem and Cate Blanchett seeming like sure things. Best Director is a tossup between the Coen Brothers and Paul Thomas Anderson, while I’d go with Diablo Cody’s “Juno” for Best Original Screenplay and the Coens for Best Adapted Screenplay for “No Country For Old Men.”

And finally, I haven’t heard any of the Best Song nominees. I would think one of the “Enchanted” songs will win, if they don’t split the votes between themselves, allowing the song “Falling Slowly from “Once” to sneak in.

IDOL FUN FACTS

January 22, 2008

I can’t say I was a fan of “American Idol” right from the beginning. I saw a few episodes during Season 1 and caught a bit more of Season 2, cheering on Ruben after his superb version of “Kiss And Say Goodbye” and then switching my loyalties after Clay blew me away with his take on “Bridge Over Troubled Water” (of course, if I had seen Clay’s “Build Me Up Buttercup,” one of my favorite songs, I might have rooted for him earlier).

Season 3 was good, although there wasn’t a lot of suspense as Fantasia was the clear front runner all season long. But it was really Season 4 that made me a true fan, as I rooted for Bo in his battle against Carrie.

Of course, by that time I felt like an Idol insider, thanks to my work with writer Fred Bronson, who has reported on “Idol” in such venues as Billboard and American Idol Magazine.  Often Fred was the first journalist to do an in-depth interview with the former contestants each year after the “Idol” finale, and he became friends with many of them. Thanks to Fred, I got to go backstage at three of the Idol concerts when they stopped in the L.A. area, and also got to attend Kim Locke’s Halloween party one year, interview Clay Aiken at a movie premiere and have breakfast with Blake Lewis. Of course, Fred has me beat when it comes to Idol close encounters, as he helped Kim secure a recording contract, gave Clay a tour of Las Vegas and visited Walt Disney World with Diana DeGarmo, in addition to making two appearances on the show itself!

Since I participated in so many interview with the Idols and also had the job of typing them up, I thought I would go through the transcripts and pull out some fun facts about the top two finalists each year in order of their appearance on the show…

KELLY CLARKSON:

1. Kelly’s mother was an English teacher who taught her to keep a journal, so she’s always been writing.

2. The first song Kelly ever wrote was called “Never.”

3. Kelly wrote the lyric for “Because Of You” when she was in high school about friends of hers that came from broken homes

4. When Kelly heard the demo of “Since U Been Gone,” she thought the singer sounded like Avril Lavigne… and it was!

5. If Kelly could model her career on anyone’s, she would choose Annie Lennox.

JUSTIN GUARINI:

1. Justin’s mother was an anchorwoman for CNN when the network was first getting started.

2. Before he cut it, Justin considered his hair “an unruly two year old on top of your head that won’t listen to you and decides to act up at the worse moment.”

3. Justin’s mother was ironing when she saw an ad for Idol tryouts and insisted he audition.

4. Justin says making the movie “From Justin To Kelly” was like getting paid to be on vacation.

5. If he couldn’t live in Los Angeles, Justin would live in Colorado because he loves the mountains.

RUBEN STUDDARD:

1. Ruben was born in Frankfurt, Germany (his father was in the U.S. Army).

2. When Ruben was a young child, he was part of the Cherub Choir at his church.

3. Ruben played football in high school (as an offensive tackle) but music always came first.

4. Ruben quit college early to sing in the gospel group God’s Gift.

5. A background singer in Ruben’s band, Just a Few Cats, wanted to try out for “American Idol.” Ruben went to the auditions to support her. He made it to Hollywood, but she didn’t.

CLAY AIKEN:

1. Clay shares his birthday with Winston Churchill and Dick Clark.

2. In the twelfth grade, Clay was cut from the school musical, “Guys And Dolls.”

3. Clay grew up planning to be an elementary school principal.

4. At his first Idol audition, Clay sang the theme from the TV show, “Perfect Strangers” (he has no idea why… it just came out). He followed it up with “Always And Forever” and was put through.

5. Clay’s favorite reality show is “The Amazing Race.”

FANTASIA:

1. Fantasia’s aunt was the one who first told her to go on “American Idol,” but the aunt didn’t know the name of the show. Fantasia finally saw the show at the end of Season 2.

2. Fantasia never felt pressure while on “Idol” and always thought she would win.

3. Season 1 contestant Tamyra Gray co-wrote Fantasia’s single “I Believe.” When Fantasia sang it on the finale, she saw Tamyra crying in the audience.

4. “I Believe” was the best selling single of 2004.

5. Fantasia’s favorite group is Aerosmith. She loves their song, “I Don’t Want To Miss A Thing.”

DIANA DEGARMO:

1. Diana appeared as a regular performer in shows at both Opryland and Dollywood before her “Idol” success.

2. Diana also performed three shows a day as a “Coca Cola Kid” during the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta.

3. Diana didn’t watch the early seasons of “Idol” because she thought it was unfair that she was too young to try out for the show.

4. “Idol” producers asked her to sing a song by Britney Spears at her audition. She refused and sang something by Christina Aguilera instead.

5. Melissa Manchester came to the recording studio to coach Diana when she recorded Melissa’s hit, “Don’t Cry Out Loud.”

CARRIE UNDERWOOD:

1. Although she grew up in Checotah, Oklahoma, Carrie was born in the nearby town of Muskogee. Yes, she really is an Okie From Muskogee!

2. Although she grew up on a farm, she has never milked a cow.

3. As a child, whenever Carrie heard Mel McDaniel’s song, “Baby Got Her Blue Jeans On,” she always ran to her room and put on her jeans.

4. At age 15, Carrie went to Nashville and recorded some demos but never got a record deal until “Idol.”

5. When she first sang for “Idol” producer Nigel Lythgoe, he told her, “You know Simon hates country music, right?”

BO BICE:

1. Bo’s mother was in a group called the Singing Jays.

2. Bo got his first guitar, a Squire Telecaster, for his ninth birthday.

3. Bo’s first band was called Spinning Jenny.

4. Bo lived in England during his high school years.

5. Bo was the manager of a guitar store when he tried out for “Idol.”

TAYLOR HICKS:

1. Taylor started going gray at age 14.

2. Taylor’s favorite song is “Soul Serenade” by King Curtis.

3. In college, Taylor was in a band called Passing Through.

4. Taylor spent $ 4000 recording his 2005 independent album, “Under the Radar.”

5. “Do I Make You Proud” was originally given to Elliott Yamin to sing, but when Elliott didn’t make it to the final, Taylor sang it instead.

KATHARINE MCPHEE:

1. Katharine appeared in her first talent show in middle school. She sang Mariah Carey’s “Hero.”

2. Growing up, Katharine took dance lessons up to four times a week.

3. Katharine recorded Christina Aguilera’s song “Reflection” at age 16, but it didn’t get her a record deal.

4. Katharine sang Whitney Houston’s “Run To You” at her first “Idol” audition and followed it up with “I Can’t Make You Love Me” and “Come Rain Or Come Shine.”

5. Katharine thinks her best performances on “Idol” were “Since I Fell For You,” “Until You Come Back To Me” and “Somewhere Over The Rainbow.”

SORRY JORDIN SPARKS FANS, WE NEVER GOT TO INTERVIEW HER!

BLAKE LEWIS:

1. Blake worked painting houses with his father at age 5.

2. Blake’s favorite album is Michael Jackson’s “Bad.”

3. Blake was once the top audio salesman at his local Circuit City.

4. Bono of U-2 signed Blake’s vinyl copy of “The Unforgettable Fire” during “Idol Gives Back” week by crossing out the title and writing “Unforgettable Blake.”

5. Blake picked Jordin Sparks to win Season 6 during Hollywood week.

There you have it. Now who will we be talking to after Season 7?

CRYING TIME

January 19, 2008

I’m no Barbara Walters. Its never my goal to get the people I interview to turn on the tear ducts. But it has happened…

The first one of my interview subjects to get emotional was a  songwriter named B.A. Robertson, who I was interviewing for an entry in “The Billboard Book of Number One Hits.” B.A. wrote the lyric for Mike + The Mechanics’ 1989 hit, “The Living Years.” Although B.A. had already written the first verse of the song, it was only after the death of his father that the song truly came together. B.A. gave a great interview, leading me through the entire step by step process of the writing and recording of “The Living Years,” but I guess I asked one question too many because eventually his voice cracked and he said, “I have to go now.” Then he hung up on me.

The same thing happened when I talked to Chynna Phillips of the trio Wilson Phillips. In 1990, when I was a writer for Casey Kasem’s “American Top 40” radio show, I did a phone interview with Chynna about Wilson Phillips’ big success with songs like “Hold On” and “Release Me.” I was determined to get some good stories for the show, and knowing Casey, that meant stories about how Chynna triumphed over adversity. Well, it turns out “Hold On” and “Release Me” relate the problems Chynna and the other members of Wilson Phillips were having with their boyfriends at the time, going through a cycle of breaking up, getting back together and then breaking up again. Perfect! I wanted to get all the details I could, but I guess the wounds were still close to the surface because Chynna broke down and cut short the interview.

But the most surprising star to get emotional on me was Curtis Jackson, better known as the bulletproof rapper 50 Cent. At least I think he was getting choked up, but it can be hard to tell during a phone call…

Now as I said, I try not to bring up emotional topics, which is why I didn’t ask 50 to talk about the night in 2000 when he was shot nine times. I did want to know if the shooting affected his rapping style and what gave him the toughness to come back better than ever. He told me that after the shooting, he had a swollen tongue, so the doctors wanted to cut his throat open to ensure he could breathe. Fortunately, his grandmother refused her permission for the operation, knowing that if her grandson didn’t have the chance to rap, he wouldn’t have any hope for a better life. So the doctors waited a day for the swelling to go down and only then did the surgery. Afterwards, because he also lost a tooth, there was now a hiss in his voice, which ended up making him a more distinctive rapper. “Everything happens for a reason. I believe that,” 50 said, just before he asked me to hold on for a moment. Did he get teary eyed, or did he just want to grab a drink? I wasn’t there to see, but I know what I’d like to think. After all, his access to his emotions helps make 50 Cent one of the most interesting rappers around.

Part of that 50 Cent interview was published in Billboard, giving me a by-line in a magazine I’d been reading faithfully since high school. Why, remembering that achievement is making me get a little emotional. You’ll have to excuse me…

THE MAGIC OF MR. CLARK

January 18, 2008

The comic character Wolverine often says, “I’m the best at what I do.” Well, whenever I hear that quote, I think of the one man I’ve known who’s always been the best at what he does, and that’s Dick Clark.

I remember once when I attended the taping of a pilot for a new talk show Dick was producing. Before the show got underway, Dick came out into the audience and asked everyone to be quiet for a moment. Suddenly you could hear a buzzing noise coming from one of the lights. Dick was the only one who noticed it, but you know it would have shown up on the tape if he hadn’t.

I’ve worked for dick clark productions on and off for the past twenty years. The first thing you learned about Dick was that his most precious commodity was his time. He was always involved in so many projects as a host, producer and businessman that he was literally scheduled for every single minute of the day.

One of his rules was never to offend any segment of the public by giving his opinions on politics or even music. He didn’t want anyone to have an excuse not to want to watch his shows. Dick played to the broadest possible audience, which is why when he did a show full of clips of say famous teen idols, he never showed the stars in chronological order but mixed them up instead to make sure whether you were young or old, you didn’t get bored.

He also never praised one star over another because you never knew who you might want to ask to guest on a show in the future. While some might say it made him bland as a personality, I think it helped add to his longevity as a performer.

So did his sense of humor about himself. He certainly didn’t take himself seriously on camera. You can see that in the promotional photos he took for shows like “Bloopers And Practical Jokes” with his eyes popping out of his head and a goofy grin on his face.

Dick was also a great interviewer. He always listened carefully to whoever he pointed that famous microphone at, whether it was a teen in the bleachers at “Bandstand” or one of the hottest stars in music. Many interviewers put the spotlight on themselves, but that was never Dick’s way.

None of this is to say Dick was the perfect boss. He certainly had a temper, although I was fortunate enough never to see it. Once when I was working as a researcher for “American Bandstand’s 50th Anniversary” TV special, I was supposed to fax Dick (who was in New York at the time) some research on what happened to the various Bandstand dancers over the years. About an hour later, one of the producers on the show called me into his office and said Dick had just yelled at him because he didn’t receive what he had expected. I asked why Dick hadn’t called me himself and the producer said Dick had to yell at somebody and didn’t want it to me (as it turned out, the fax machine didn’t print out all the pages I sent. I re-sent them and this time Dick got them all).

I got to spend some quality time with Dick when my friend Fred Bronson got the job of co-authoring with Dick a book on “American Bandstand.” Dick agreed to give us three interview sessions of two hours each, which was a huge allotment of time in his busy schedule. It was very special to hear Dick reminisce about his career and the many music stars he crossed paths with over the years. He even finally admitted what his favorite music was: disco!

The last thing Dick ever said to me was at the backstage offices of The American Music Awards a few years ago. He asked me to close a window. Even though I had known him for years, I still marveled that he actually remembered my name.

Not long after that, Dick had his stroke and pulled back from his on-camera duties. But he’s still there every New Year’s Eve, and as long as he is, I’ll still tune in and silently thank him for all the chances in life I’ve had because of him.