Interview with Jerry Buckner from Buckner & Garcia ‘Pac-Man Fever’

(This interview was originally published June 4, 2011 on the now-retired Kickin' it Old School blog. It is one installment in an incredible series of interviews we are republishing on Rediscover the '80s for posterity and your enjoyment. These are more than just interviews in a way; they are more like '80s timelines or oral histories on their respective subject matters. Please keep in mind the original date because some content could be specific to the time of the interview, though the majority should be timeless and totally rad.)

When the opportunity presents itself to ask a few questions to someone who contributed to the awesomeness of the '80s, I will continue to share those answers with you right here. Again, lucky for me (and hopefully you), I do get to share a little more awesomeness with you.

This time that awesomeness is Jerry Buckner. He is best known to '80s fans as one half of the songwriting and musical duo Buckner & Garcia who had a huge hit in 1982 with the song "Pac-Man Fever." After the single’s incredible popularity, their label had them create an entire album of songs based on video games. Nothing else from the album or their work since has yet captured the attention of "Pac-Man Fever." You will find out more about how the duo got their start, their hugely successful hit single, an ill-fated E.T. song and much more as we get on to some selections from my interview with Jerry Buckner…
Q: Did you always know you wanted to be a musician and songwriter? How did you get your start in the music industry? Please discuss your personal musical influences and who molded and inspired your voice and career when you were starting out.

Jerry: As a child, I realized I could play songs on the piano just from hearing them and enjoyed the reaction I got from entertaining my parents and kids in the neighborhood. When my father saw that I could do that he arranged for me to take private lessons. That helped me progress, but it was classical music and I wanted to play Rock and Roll. I wrote my first song around the age of 12. It was a simple instrumental called “Hold Tight”. A neighbor by the name of Harvey Russell heard me and thought I might have some talent. He was known as the “Singing Policeman” and had a lot of success in the music business. He taught me a lot about the business and produced the band I formed in high school, called The Rogues, in the studio on a song I wrote called “I Want To Be Free”. It sounded a lot like the Turtles song “Let Me Be”. In 1970, I formed a band called Wild Butter. Eric Stevens, a well radio program director and record producer in Cleveland, liked us and was responsible for getting us signed to United Artist Records. We released an album called Wild Butter that did okay locally but failed to break out nationally. Interestingly, most critics even today like the album and give us good marks for production and songwriting.

I can’t really pick out particular artists that inspired me. Certain groups like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones stood out but I was inspired by pop music in general. I have always loved a great pop record. I listen to the lyrics and arrangements and especially the hook. I could sit for hours and listen to song after song of great pop hits. I know that helped me to learn how to write and produce my own songs.

In 1973, a musician friend living in Atlanta, Edgel Groves, convinced me to move there. At the time, there were a lot of hit artists and songs coming out of there (Joe South, Billy Joe Royal, Classics 4, Tommy Roe, etc). I moved there and nothing happened right away, but I got an education in writing and production working with some very talented people that would help me down the road.

Q: When and how did you meet Gary Garcia and how did you begin making music together? Did you just click together musically right from the start? When did you officially become Buckner & Garcia?

Jerry: Gary and I met in junior high school, but did not hook up musically until after high school. He had a very successful band called “The Outlaws” who were very popular in high school. After high school, we ended up working together in a few club bands and then as a duo. After I moved to Atlanta, I eventually convinced Gary to come there and that is when things started to click for us. It was natural partnership. We complimented each other musically and found that together we could write some pretty good songs. To make a living we started writing and producing jingles which helped hone our production skills. In 1978, we met Arnie Geller. He was partners with Buddy Buie who produced The Atlanta Rhythm Section. Meeting Arnie would be a turning point in our career and be the missing ingredient we needed to move to the national level.

A little song called "Pac-Man Fever" would take Buckner & Garcia to the national level and beyond. The single based on the most popular video arcade game at the time became an instant hit after airing on a local morning show. After selling over 10,000 copies in a week they were able to get the attention of previously uninterested record labels and the single would be released nationally in December of 1981. By March of 1982, the single was certified Gold for selling 1 million copies and it would ultimately sell over 2.5 million as well as even make it all the way to #9 on the Billboard Hot 100. It ranked at #98 on VH1’s “Top 100 Greatest One-Hit Wonders of the '80s” list broadcast in 2009. There is no official video for the song that I am aware of, but you can still listen to “Pac-Man Fever” by Buckner & Garcia…

Q: Please take us back to when you conceived and wrote “Pac-Man Fever” and tell us all that you remember. What inspired it? How long did it take to write? Was it intended to be novelty?

Jerry: During the early '80s, Gary and I built up a decent jingle business here in Atlanta. That enabled us to work on original songs on the side. Like so many others, we got caught up in playing Pac-Man in the fall of 1981. We decided it might be a great idea for a song, so we wrote “Pac-Man Fever” and took it to Arnie Geller who liked it. Within days, we recorded it and Arnie started shopping it to the major labels. Unfortunately, none believed it was a hit so Arnie put it out on his independent label, BGO Records and convinced a local DJ to play it. The radio station’s phones lit up like a Christmas tree and the song immediately took off and sold several thousand copies locally within a week. It was at this point that CBS Records got excited and purchased the master and released it on their Columbia label.

It was inspired by playing the game and seeing how much everyone was hooked on it. It was a unique situation where you had something that all ages were into. It took about two hours to write, but we changed the original verses just before going in the studio but kept the chorus.

We approached “Pac Man Fever” and all the songs on the album as individual pop songs first and then we added the special effects. We felt it would give the songs a longer life and sound better. Most critics agree the songs themselves are good pop songs in their own right.

Q: So it sounds like many record companies made the mistake of passing on the single until CBS finally decided to release it. Would I be correct to say that Arnie Geller played a large role in the ultimate success of your song?

Jerry: As I mentioned, all the majors passed on the song but in their defense they really didn’t know what Pac-Man was at the time. Fortunately one of the vice presidents, Mickey Eichner I believe, took a copy home and his kid heard it and went crazy for it. That and the sales from the BGO release helped in securing the deal with CBS.

Arnie worked tirelessly to bring “Pac-Man Fever” home. It took a lot of promotion in the beginning to keep the record alive. During Christmas 1981, we thought the record was over because the music business traditionally shuts down for two weeks, but it turned out to not be the case. Without Arnie the record would never have made it.

Q: Talk about perfect timing, your single, “Pac-Man Fever” was a sensation. When you recorded “Pac Man Fever” did you have a feeling it was going to be something special? Could you have ever anticipated the incredible reaction this song would have?

Jerry: Yes, our timing turned out to be perfect. We were blessed. What really sent the song soaring was when it hit TV. I remember Arnie calling and saying that Entertainment Tonight was going to do a story on the song. After that, it really took off and we did interviews for every major TV news show there was including 60 Minutes. They wrote about us in all the major magazines including People and Time. We were a Daily Double question on Jeopardy and even ended up as an answer in the New York Times crossword puzzle. It got really crazy.

There was an air of electricity in the studio, but no, I can’t say that I believed it was a hit for certain. I did feel we were doing something special but I couldn’t have imagined what was going to happen. As time went on though, you could feel the momentum building and then it just exploded. I honestly could not anticipate the reaction it would have. I was overwhelmed by the success of the song and I am still amazed as to how much people still love the album and love to contact us with personal stories.

Q: What changed for you personally and for Buckner & Garcia after the song huge success?

Jerry: The first thing for me was the validation I felt. Getting a hit record is so difficult to do. You are turned down and rejected for years and finally you get that hit, so it was great sense of accomplishment. You finally feel like you are a part of the business. The money was great too, but that was temporary. It also opened a lot of doors closed to us before but I don’t think it really changed Gary or me much except to feel more confident about our ability to write and produce (and we got to drive nicer cars).

Q: Were you an arcade game fan yourself at the time?

Jerry: Yes, we weren’t fanatics but we enjoyed playing. When we appeared at an arcade they always had us play the best player who would of course beat us. Everyone thought they were the first to think that promotion up, but it happened everywhere.

Q: When you have a mega hit song like that, do you (or did you) ever get sick of playing it?

Jerry: I never got sick of playing or hearing it. I only wish I had another just like it now.

Q: What are your feelings regarding “Pac-Man Fever” today almost 30 years later?

Jerry: Well, when you write and produce a record and in our case are the artists too, you spend a great deal of time working on it hearing it over and over again so you never really get to hear the finished product like a listener does for the first time. I remember a couple years ago, I had not heard any of the album for some time and I decided to play it one day. I could honestly enjoy it much more than when it was originally out. A friend, Bruce Blackman who wrote “Moonlight Feels Right” said to me one time, “Did you ever notice how better somebody else’s record sounds than yours?” I laughed, but it’s true. You are so close to your record it’s hard to enjoy it like other records.

Q: CBS ordered an entire album of video game themed songs. Please tell us what you remember about how those additional 7 songs were written and recorded. Did you have fun with it or did you just get it done as quickly as you could?

Jerry: CBS wanted the album very quickly, so we ended up going out to arcades every night and finding a new game and then watching the best players. We would then go home and write the music and lyrics and record it the next day in the studio. It was a tough project but a labor of love. "Mousetrap" and "Goin Berzek" were actually two other songs recorded for the album that we ended up converting to game songs for the album at the label’s request. We still have copies of the original songs and may release them one day.

We didn’t have much time for fun but we were really energized so we enjoyed the excitement of it all. We did get a little squirrelly at times from lack of sleep but by then we had a national hit and knew we needed to get the album done.

The album which was also titled Pac-Man Fever had songs based on arcade video games like Donkey Kong, Frogger, Centipede, Asteroids, Defender, Mouse Trap and Berzerk. Like the title song, the album itself went on to receive a Gold certification from the RIAA, with over a million records sold.

Q: I know you don’t pass up an opportunity when it presents itself, but were you concerned about being pegged as a novelty act and not taken seriously as musicians?

Jerry: Yes, we absolutely were concerned about that. In fact, it was an issue for a few days when the CBS VP came here to monitor the album’s progress. We had already cut the two non-novelty songs I already mentioned and he told us they wanted all game songs. We resisted as long as we could, but CBS wouldn’t budge and we didn’t want to lose the opportunity. They promised us they would be open to new material on the next album, so we gave in but that next album never came about mainly because we opted to get out of the contract after what happened with the “E.T. I Love You” track.

Q: Please tell us how you ended up writing and recording the song "E.T. I Love You."

Jerry: I saw the movie and was touched by it. I had just lost my dog, a beautiful Irish Setter that I adored, and the emotion of movie with the boy losing his best friend felt similar and really got to me. I had written some music to help deal with my grief and it seemed to suit the feelings the lead character in the movie had for E.T., so Gary added lyrics and we stayed up all night cutting it. Everyone thought it was smash but the problems began after the Neil Diamond record surfaced.

Q: Did Spielberg commission the song or give his permission? Did you have contact directly with Spielberg or ever receive his specific feedback on the song?

Jerry: No, he did not commission it and ultimately denied us permission to release it. Arnie flew out to California and had a meeting with Spielberg’s people. He said Spielberg played it over and over several times in his office was heard to say… “Why couldn’t John Williams (who scored the E.T. film) write a song for the movie like this?”

Q: Please tell us about how the label decided to go with Neil Diamond’s “Heartlight” instead and the legal issues that resulted.

Jerry: Neil was still a very big star for CBS and had tremendous clout there. They wanted their song released instead of ours and that’s what happened. They eventually released our song in the fall but by then the E.T. movie and “Heartlight” had run its course. There were no legal issues for us but Neil ended up settling out of court with Spielberg for $25,000. We would have given him five times that amount for the rights.

Q: I know Michael Jackson also had a song inspired by E.T. which went unreleased for a long time.

Jerry: Yes, it was scheduled to be released on MCA Records which was part of Universal/MCA which distributed the E.T. movie. Jackson was a CBS artist, so supposedly CBS tried to use that as a bargaining chip to get Spielberg to give up the rights for our record to get Jackson on their E.T. project but that didn’t happen. The whole thing to this day is a very bad memory that none of us like to talk about.

Q: What are your feelings about your own "E.T. I Love You" then and now? What are your feelings about Diamond’s song?

Jerry: I believed it was great song then and I still do. I also believe it would have made a difference for helping move Gary and I closer to acceptance as regular pop songwriters and producers.

As a record, I thought “Heartlight” was good. Well written and well produced as always, but of course it interfered with our record so I wasn’t happy about it.

Q: Some '80s musicians run away from the '80s and some embrace the success and fans from that decade. (If at all) How do you personally deal with and keep the '80s alive and in perspective? What are your thoughts on music in the '80s and its place in pop culture history?

Jerry: I loved the '80s. It was a great time for us and I have fond memories, but honestly I don’t dwell on it. I do feel that the '80s get more negative press then it deserves. People talk about cheesy music and all, but I think there was some great music in the '80s (Huey Lewis, Bruce Hornsby, Bryan Adams, Duran Duran and on and on). I think '80s music will be appreciated more as time goes on.

Q: After 30 years in the business, from your perspective, how has the music industry changed over that time? And how do you see the future?

Jerry: The music business has changed dramatically, but the record companies have been slow to change with it. The internet changed everything and in some ways set the music business back 40 years. In the '50s and '60s, the single was king. If you heard a song on the radio you went out and bought the 45rpm for 99 cents. Then in the '70s, record companies started pushing the album sales over singles for greater profits which over time got very expensive. Now with iTunes, you can go buy a single song for 99 cents again like back in the '50s and '60s. Many people believe record companies won’t survive, but I disagree. You still have to spend a lot of money promoting a new act and the record companies have the money. You might be able to put your own record out on the internet but you still need radio play and promotion to make it happen and that takes a lot of money. Most independent artists do not have the money to do that themselves.

Q: Please bring us up to date with what you have been up to since your big hit in the early '80s. Have you continued to maintain a close friendship and work directly with Garcia regularly over this time?

Jerry: Gary and I have continued to work together producing various projects and have no plans for slowing down until they put us in a home. We have been friends since junior high and have only gotten closer through the years. We love writing and performing and may start playing live again. I did get into radio for a while and now do voice-overs, but my true love is still in writing songs, recording in the studio and playing in front of a live audience.

On November 17, 2011, sadly just several months after this interview, Gary Garcia died unexpectedly.

Q: Can we expect new original music from Buckner & Garcia? What inspires you to continue writing new music after all these years?

Jerry: We both enjoy writing songs and performing and will continue to do that. Years ago, when we were still living in Akron, Ohio, our hometown, we used to go out to local malls and restaurants and play for free just because we loved performing, so yes, we will keep writing new music.

Q: What else is Jerry Buckner up to nowadays? Musically and otherwise? Any remaining ambitions or regrets?

Jerry: I continue to write songs and I am thinking about writing a book about the whole Pac-Man phenomenon and our role in all of that. I also love collecting records and Civil War letters. Gary enjoys his boat and sitting in with various bands singing the blues.

I would love to have another hit record. As far as regrets go, on a business level, Gary and I both feel in retrospect we should have moved to California right after “Pac-Man Fever”. There was just too much opportunity there that we could have capitalized on, but you do what you do at the time and we made decisions based on the moment so I don’t dwell on it. We have been blessed in many ways, so we have no complaints.

I am very pleased that Jerry took some time to answer my questions so I could share them with you here. Please be sure to visit the official Buckner & Garcia website. I want to take this opportunity to again thank Jerry Buckner for his contributions to '80s pop culture especially with “Pac-Man Fever” and, even more, for going back to the '80s for a little while with us here as well.

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