By Richie Unterberger

To listeners in the United States and most of the world, Rick Springfield's name was not familiar until he rocketed to pop music and television stardom almost simultaneously in 1981. "Jessie's Girl" soared to #1 the same year he landed a role as Dr. Noah Drake in General Hospital, and Rick reeled off more than a dozen hit singles in the next four years. Yet Springfield had nearly become a star almost a decade earlier, even scoring a Top Twenty single and Top Forty album before circumstances derailed what seemed like a sure path to pop stardom. That album was 1972's Beginnings, containing Springfield's first US hit, "Speak to the Sky."

    Still in his early twenties when Beginnings was released, Springfield already had several years of experience in the recording industry, although few outside of his native Australia knew about his previous history. In late 1969 he joined Aussie band Zoot, playing guitar, handling some of the vocals, and writing much of their material for the next year and a half or so. Their heavy rock arrangement of "Eleanor Rigby" was a big Australian hit, but they made no international impact before breaking up in early 1971.

    Numerous Australian rockers had moved to the UK in the 1960s as a gateway to international success, such as the Bee Gees and the Easybeats. Springfield would take a bolder and more unusual strategy, trying his luck as a solo artist in the United States. He moved to Los Angeles with the help of an unusual team of co-managers. One, Robie Porter, had a few Australian pop hits as a singer in the early-to-mid-1960s before moving into the business end of the music industry. The other, Steve Binder, was most famed as director of the great 1964 rock concert movie The T.A.M.I. Show and Elvis Presley's 1968 comeback television special.

    Porter and Binder met, recalls Steve, when Robie "had come to my office on several occasions to see if he could become an artist for T-A Records," the label Binder ran for a time (most noted for issuing Seals & Crofts' first two LPs). "He said, 'I know all the Australian acts.' His pitch to me was, 'Every artist had to go to England before they could become successful in the United States. I think with the artists that I have and know and we can sign, we can bring them directly into the United States.'"

    The first Australian act the pair tried to break in the US was Daddy Cool, big stars in their native country after topping the charts with 1971's "Eagle Rock." Continues Binder, "The next act we brought over was an act that was in this boy band. According to Robie, they all wore pink. Rick Springfield wasn't one of the original members, but he was added on as a guitar player. Robie said, 'I think this kid has real star potential because I'm noticing all the girls are not paying attention to anybody but Rick. He's in back of the band when he's performing, and he's drawing all the attention.'"

    After Binder picked up Springfield when Rick arrived at the L.A. airport, in fact, "we stopped off at a park in Los Angeles where they were shooting fireworks. I noticed, as we brought Rick into the park, that young girls didn't have a clue who he was, and yet they were really turning their heads to see him, because he was just so great looking. I felt he definitely had the charisma." He recognized Rick's musical merits as well, finding him "very Paul McCartneyish in the early days, even in a way too much."

    "Speak to the Sky," a #5 single for Springfield in Australia in 1971, was according to Binder overdubbed with some new background vocals for US release, helping him get a deal for Rick with Capitol through executive Artie Mogull. When Mogull left the label, Binder was told by his attorney that "they would double our money if I would release them from the contract." Steve then asked for a meeting with Capitol Records executive Maury Lathower, declaring, "if he really doesn't want to sign Springfield, he doesn't have to pay us a dime." In that meeting, "I convinced him that  Springfield had the potential to replace the David Cassidy marketplace. David had just given an interview with Rolling Stone and posed nude. I said, 'Every mother in America is gonna tell their teenage daughter you can't buy David Cassidy records anymore.'"

    With the help of exposure in 16 magazine, "Speak to the Sky" became a hit, rising to #14 in Billboard. It was naturally included on the Beginnings album, recorded, according to the LP's inner gatefold, in London's Trident Studios in February 1972. Produced by Robie Porter, it also benefited from string arrangements by Del Newman, who'd recently performed the same duties for some Cat Stevens albums. Engineering was Robin Geoffrey Cable, who had just worked on early Elton John LPs during that singer-songwriter's rise to stardom. Springfield even told Melody Maker that "we wanted to come to London to make the album because of the engineer, Robin Cable, who I wanted to work with."

    Some vocals and guitar solos were finished at Crystal Sound Studios in Hollywood, where a serious problem had to be ironed out. "I had talked to and met Robin Geoffrey Cable at an earlier date, and I thought, well, this guy is the cat's meow for engineers," remembers Keith Olsen, later to produce hit albums for Fleetwood Mac, the Grateful Dead, Foreigner, and numerous others. "This guy is kind of responsible for the Elton John drum sound. So of course I wanted to talk to this guy, meet him, shake his hand, take him out to dinner. So I kind of was hanging around Crystal a little bit. And they had all these pops and clicks, because every time you hit the record button as you were punching in, it would go 'tch tch tch,' and someone had not gone through and erased all these. If you were using weird multi-track machines, you could easily get these pops, and there were thousands of them. I said, 'Well, I can get rid of those.'"

    Any comparisons with David Cassidy began and ended with how Springfield looked and how the teen press covered him, however. Springfield wrote all the songs and played guitar, banjo, organ, and harpsichord on an album that was rather Beatlesque and serious in mood. As Chris Charlesworth pointed out in Melody Maker, "Rick has produced a very listenable album in Capitol, but the tracks are hardly heartthrob material. There's none of the lonesome/lonely boy/searching for genuine true love stuff on this. Instead we've a song about middle class bourgeois families ('What Would the Children Think'), suicide ('The Unhappy Ending'), war ('Hooky Joe'), and a tramp ('Come on Everybody')." Added Springfield in the same publication, "I try to make my songs into stories, but mainly about real things observed from life."

    The combination of the album's quality and his teen appeal seemed to guarantee a hit, yet the LP rose no higher than #35 on Billboard.  According to Binder, while he, Porter, and Springfield were doing promotion in Europe, Steve was told somebody was "spreading the word that Capitol [was] paying busloads of teenagers to go into record stores and buy his records. I didn't take it seriously. By the time we got back, Capitol had evidently told all the disc jockeys in America, and all the distributors in America, 'If you think Springfield is doing something illegal, then pull his record.' And everybody, like in one day, pulled his record off American radio. Until all this behind-the-scenes stuff was going on, he was on his way to becoming a major, major star. He was dead as a doornail after he left Capitol. I'm real happy for Rick's success, because it reinforces our initial belief in him."

    Springfield's association with Capitol ended soon afterward, and while he released three more albums between 1973 and 1976, only the last of those even made the lower reaches of the Top 200 on the US album charts. It took "Jessie's Girl" in 1981 to restore him to commercial favor and kick his career into true overdrive. That hit was produced by none other than Keith Olsen, who'd help rescue Beginnings back in the beginning.

    Olsen also blames the controversy surrounding the LP's sales for putting Springfield's career in limbo. "He never was able to get out from under that," Keith reflects. "He had that stigma attached to him. He was the artist that wasn't very good, and so they just bought all the records." But Olsen had faith in Springfield's talents from the start. "I loved 'Speak to the Sky,'" he says. "I loved how they recorded and arranged that whole album. It was brilliant, the players that they had on that album. It was brilliant, the approach. I loved that record." – Richie Unterberger

contents copyright Richie Unterberger , 2000-2012
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