Interview with George Merrill & Shannon Rubicam of Boy Meets Girl

(This interview was originally published April 12, 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 George Merrill and Shannon Rubicam. They are better known to '80s fans as the songwriting and musical duo Boy Meets Girl. Most will recognize their 1988 hit song “Waiting For A Star To Fall”, but many do not know that they were previously also responsible for two of Whitney Houston’s #1 hit singles which they wrote. The couple were married for many years, but have since divorced though they still work together making music. You will find a little about out how they got started, writing those hits for Whitney, their own hit single and more as we get on to some selections from my interview with both George Merrill and Shannon Rubicam of Boy Meets Girl…

Q: How did you meet each other?

Shannon: George and I met at a major society wedding in Seattle for a member of the Boeing family, of Boeing airplanes, who was marrying in a beautiful cathedral with a choir loft and pipe organ. George and I were hired separately by the musical director to be a part of the singing group in the choir loft, where we got to look down on all the guests as they paraded into the church in their elaborate dresses, hats, and suits. Quite fun. We chatted briefly at the reception, and then met again a year later when I went to a club to hear a group George was in. I was asked if I might like to audition for the group, to which I said an enthusiastic “yes”.

Q: At what point was Boy Meets Girl officially formed? How and why was that name chosen for the group?

Shannon: Boy Meets Girl was formed after George and I moved from Seattle to Los Angeles. At the time, we were writing and recording on our little four-track deck in the living room of a rental house, trying to think of a catchy band name under which to send out our songs to record companies. It’s amazing how many ridiculous band names one can think up, and I’m not even sure Boy Meets Girl was so great, but then think of calling your band The Beatles…oh yeah, that’ll work!! It’s a funny process. After a while you just pick a name and stick with it, hoping the music renders it a non-issue. I guess that was our goal, to make excellent music and to be able to support ourselves with our creativity.

George: I seem to remember seeing Boy Meets Girl referenced in a book…it’s always seemed like a good fit in terms of us and our music.

Q: In 1984, you sang backing vocals on Deniece Williams’ #1 hit “Let’s Hear It For The Boy” from Footloose. How did the opportunity to work with Williams come to you both? Please tell us about working with Deniece Williams and your feelings about that hit song.

George: Shannon and I wrote for Thom Bell’s publishing company, Mighty Three Music. He was writing with Deniece and producing her album, and included me in the studio to record the songs; it was fabulous to see a big-league session like that. Deniece asked Shannon and I to tour with her a year later, and when we got back, she recorded “Let’s Hear It For The Boy” with George Duke. It’s one of my favorite backing vocal recordings that we’ve sung; plus we got to meet Tom Snow and Dean Pitchford, who wrote a great song! Deniece sings it so well, and even though she was well known before that song, it was a bubbly pop song that reached a world audience.

Let’s Hear It For The Boy” was one of the most popular songs of 1984 holding the top spot on the Billboard Hot 100 for two weeks. It was part of the Footloose soundtrack which also held the top spot on the Billboard album chart for over a month. You can find out more about this song in our interview with the songwriter Dean Pitchford.

Q: I don’t think many people know that you are responsible for two of Whitney Houston’s biggest hit songs. First, please tell us the story of “How Will I Know”. What is the back story of how it was conceived and written? Please tell us about how a song originally written for Janet Jackson ended up being on the debut album for Whitney Houston instead. Did you feel you had something special after you had written it?

Shannon: We had signed with Almo Irving Publishing company in L.A. and were requested to write a song for submission to Janet Jackson, who was at the time writing and recording a new album. Unbeknownst to anyone, she was in the process of drastically changing her sound for what would become her groundbreaking Control album. We wrote and submitted “How Will I Know” and it was rejected as not being right for her project – and I agree it would have been woefully out of place with that material.

The song was then sent to Clive Davis who was looking for songs for his brand new protege whose name nobody recognized. Clive loved the song, sent it on to Narada Michael Walden to produce; Narada made some changes to the music, we added more verse lyrics, and Whitney made the whole thing soar with her incredible voice. When a friend who worked with Narada called on the phone one day and played the song over the speakers we freaked out with joy! That voice, that powerful track, the hook…it all aligned with the stars in the heavens so that there was nothing to stop it.

George: Did you know that Randy Jackson of American Idol fame is playing bass? I think I have that right. Very cool, dawg.

How Will I Know” was released in November of 1985 as the third single from Whitney Houston’s self-titled debut album. It reached #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in February of 1986 and held that spot for two weeks. It ended up ranking #6 on the Billboard Year-End chart helping set Whitney on her way to stardom. Here is the video for “How Will I Know” by Whitney Houston…

Q: What were your feelings about the version that Whitney ultimately recorded and released?

Shannon: Happy, happy, happy! And did I say excited?? And grateful??

George: Yes, she was unlike anyone else, and she sang our song better than anyone else could. It was a good match, THANK YOU Clive, and Narada, and all who helped propel it to the top!

Q: How did things change for you each personally after this song’s incredible success? Did this open more doors and opportunities for you?

George: I’d say so. But you know, Shannon and I always wanted to record our own songs, and writing for other people seemed like a sideline to making our own recordings. But the success of the Whitney song started to convince us.

Shannon: Hmmmm. We really started earning a living with our creativity, doors did open. We were already working on our first album for A&M Records, so it didn’t hurt to have a hit song on the charts with Whitney. Also Clive asked for another song when it came time for Whitney to record a second album. Having Whitney record our songs was a great blessing that continues to this day.

Q: Then, on her second album, Whitney had another #1 hit with “I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)”. Again, what is the backstory of how this one was conceived and written? What inspired it? Was this song written specifically for Whitney this time? Again, did you feel you had something special after you had written it?

Shannon: When Clive called requesting a new song for Whitney’s second album, we got straight to work in our little garage studio (upgraded from the aforementioned living room setup, but still in a rental house). “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” more or less wrote itself, coming very easily. Once again, inspiration was drawn from one of those dilemmas single people often experience, that twilight restlessness that washes in when you don’t want to spend another evening alone and are longing for real love. As we were recording our demo to give to Clive, we felt the buzz of a song that works. That is no guarantee a song will meet with success, but at least we were quite pleased with it.

George: I met Mr. Davis at the L.A. airport before his flight back to New York, in the days when you could walk out to the gates. I handed him a cassette of our demo and told him if he didn’t like it we’d like to record it ourselves. I thought I heard him say f— you and get on his plane, and it was all friendly jousting anyhow! He did like it, wanted a few lyric changes, which we made. And once again, Narada got the call and did a fabulous job of interpreting the song for Whitney.

I Wanna Dance With Somebody” was the first single released in May 1987 from her second album, Whitney. The song quickly reached #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 at the end of June and held that spot for two weeks and spent 18 weeks on the chart. It ranked at #4 for the Billboard Year-End chart that year and reached #1 in at least twelve different countries. They made a great combination. This was Houston’s fourth #1 single and Merrill and Rubicam were responsible for two of them. Here is the video for “I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)” by Whitney Houston…

Q: Again, what were your feelings this time about the version that Whitney ultimately recorded and released? Did you ever consider saving this song for yourself, recording and releasing as Boys Meets Girl?

Shannon: I love the playfulness of Whitney’s version and the video was pretty cute too. If she had not chosen to record it, we would probably have included it on our Reel Life album, but that was not necessary as it turned out.

George: I think we considered it. I believe the original demo is on iTunes, the version of Shannon singing the demo- she did a great vocal, really rocked it! It’s also on our website at …just sayin’!

Q: Then in 1988, Boy Meets Girl had a bonafide hit of their own with “Waiting For A Star To Fall.” What inspired this song? How long did it take to write?

Shannon: George and I were sitting in the Greek Theater in Los Angeles enjoying the fact that we were at a Whitney Houston concert and she was singing our song “How Will I Know”. I glanced up in the open-air venue and just as I did so, a star flew across the entire arc of sky above my head. I quickly reached into my purse, pulled out a small notebook and jotted down the line “waiting for a star to fall”. As I recall, we wrote the song shortly thereafter. It was not a difficult song to write. Seems to be a theme here, and you might surmise that hit songs are easy to compose but that’s not necessarily true. Once in a while a song comes through whole. More often than not though, in my experience anyway, a song requires careful crafting after the initial creative burst.

Waiting For A Star To Fall” was released in November of 1988 and would be included on the Boy Meets Girl album titled Reel Life. The song was originally intended for Whitney Houston, but never recorded. Then it was actually recorded by Belinda Carlisle for her 1987 Heaven On Earth album, but did not make the final cut. So Boy Meets Girl recorded it and earned mainstream success of their own when the single reached #5 on the Billboard Hot 100 and #1 on the Billboard Adult Contemporary chart. It would later be included on the soundtrack for the 1990 sequel Three Men and a Little Lady. Here is the video for “Waiting For A Star To Fall” by Boy Meets Girl…

Q: Please tell us about the road this song took before you decided to record and release it yourself. At what point did you decide that you would take your song and release it yourself? What role did producer Arif Mardin play in this process?

George: Well, after the Greek theater star-in-the-sky-at-a Whitney-concert night, we felt it was destined for Whitney. But as it goes, Babyface produced her next record, and he helped create a new sound for her, writing most of the songs himself, I believe. We were choosing songs for our next record for RCA, and our wonderful A&R guide Paul Atkinson liked “Waiting For A Star To Fall”; so did Arif Mardin, who wanted to produce it along with three others he liked.

Q: You really showed them that they made a mistake. After your previous successful songs, did you have a feeling this time that you had a hit song on your hands? Could you have ever anticipated that the song would’ve received the reaction it did?

Shannon: I’m sure it wasn’t a mistake for Belinda and Whitney to pass on “Waiting For A Star To Fall”. In Belinda’s case, I don’t think the song suited her vocal style. As for Whitney, she was interested in making a more R&B album at the time, so it would not have worked for her either. Luckily for us, George sang the holy **!!## out of it, making it a natural for us to record. When we first met with Arif Mardin to ask if he would be interested in producing our Reel Life album, the first song he heard was our “Waiting For A Star To Fall” demo. He loved it, smiled broadly as he announced it was a hit song, and we proceeded to record four songs with him. What a lovely, talented man he was! It surprises me that “Waiting For A Star To Fall” continues to thrive on the airwaves and internet in its original form and also as reuses, remakes, remixes, you name it. Never would I have guessed at the life it would take on, or that multiple generations would find resonance in the song.

Q: When you have a mega hit song like that, do you (or did you) ever get sick of playing it? What are your feelings about the song today over 20 years later?

Shannon: We didn’t tour for years and years like many bands do, so we didn’t experience “Waiting For A Star To Fall” fatigue. I love “Waiting For A Star to Fall”. The first few bars of sparkle sounds lift my spirits, and the saxophone is perfect.

George: I’m proud, and when I sing it I usually drop the pitch about a minor third… honey, that was stratospheric, someone might get hurt!

Q: Your follow-up single “Bring Down the Moon” made the charts, but Boys Meets Girl was not able to capture the magic that “Waiting For a Star to Fall” had. Were you surprised or frustrated that you have not had another major hit song up to this point?

Shannon: Frustration lingered for a long time. Of course we hoped our success would continue, but sometimes the music landscape changes in a way that you can’t adjust to because you don’t really feel it in your bones. As we were working on our 'New Dream' album, Hip Hop was taking over, but it wasn’t a sound we were able to soulfully incorporate, so we fell out of the business. Life cruises on and you have to make new choices. This many years later, I’m involved in other things and I love my life.

Q: Please discuss the circumstances surrounding RCA in 1990 and why your third album was not released at that time.

George: Oh, it depends on where you stand; as it was happening, I saw it as a record company firing its president, and we and about 80 other RCA acts got thrown out with him. A few years later though, I saw it as the end of an era of music similar to what Shannon alluded to, as grunge and the backlash to '80s synth/electronic pop music gave way to live, raw performances. I’m really enjoying revisiting that record, New Dream – there are some gems!

Q: Some '80s pop stars “run away” from the '80s and some embrace the success and fans from that decade. How do you personally deal with and keep the '80s alive and in perspective?

Shannon: Thankfully it isn’t my job or my inclination to keep the 80s alive! I laugh because that strikes me as funny. Music cycles around though, as the 80s have a way of doing; so really, songs from that era swirl our way again on that magical force of renewal. Perspective? The very handy built-in lookback feature of life allows for a mellowed perspective on all events of the past. One thing I do know is that I would not wish to be stuck in a time machine regarding our songs. My gratitude over our good fortune is immense, but life is about the present, looking forward with anticipation and awe.

George: Agreed… there is still nothing that thrills me more in my music life than to create a new song. Corny as that may sound, it has always been the drug of choice from the beginning.

Q: It is pretty unusual and also pretty impressive that you can continue to work together closely on your music even after deciding to get divorced in 2000. How has this changed your working relationship? If you don’t mind me asking, what is the secret to maintaining your professional affiliation despite the change in your personal situation?

Shannon: Friendship and respect are and always have been at the heart of our relationship. We have leaned on that through difficult times. Still do, as needed. In fact, it’s deeply gratifying to be able to act with maturity and generosity as you get older, a saving grace.

George: Ours is an enduring relationship. We remain friends, and being able to include Shannon and our writing in my life moving forward is wonderful, can’t imagine it another way. We’re lucky that our spouses are so understanding!

Shannon: Here, here!

Q: After nearly three decades in the business, from your perspective, how has the music industry changed over that time? How do you see the future?

Shannon: I’m channeling Bullwinkle… “eenie weenie chili beanie, the spirit is about to speak!!”…the future of the music industry is the million dollar question with the multi-billion dollar answer. Yet the future shows up every day in answer. Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber, Bruno Mars, and countless other hopefuls in the days beyond, taking chances, writing it, morphing it as they go. What has changed? I’m more inclined to say what hasn’t changed. A good song is a good song. As far as production values, we humans are suckers for ear candy, the definition of which is constantly on the move to the new cutting edge sound. That’s what keeps things exciting.

Q: Why was the decision made to start calling the group Boy Meets Girl Music (adding Music to the end) now?

Shannon: Google “Boy Meets Girl” and you’ll know why we added Music to our name…heh heh!

George: Er, internet porn sites. You’ll get no music, and a lot more- but not us! Well, unless they put our HEADS on the bodies…

Q: What else is Boy Meets Girl up to now? Musically and otherwise?

George: I live in Northern California- this month I’m writing with a local guy named Larry Kenneth Potts, a great storyteller. I co-wrote most of the songs with him on his record last year, Close To Home. Writing this week with Merrill (not a misprint), two guys from Portland, and I have a backlog of cool projects for the Spring/Summer 2011. Oh, and Shannon and I have new songs half recorded that we’d like to have for Summer as well. Thanks for asking!

I am so pleased that George and Shannon took some time to answer my questions so I could share them with you here. To find out more and keep up with everything they are doing, please visit the official website. I want to take this opportunity to again thank George Merrill and Shannon Rubicam for their contributions to '80s pop culture whether by writing hit songs for Whitney Houston or by recording their own hit with “Waiting For A Star To Fall” and, even more, for taking a moment to go back to the '80s with us here as well.

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