Interview with songwriter Franne Golde, co-writer of 'Nightshift' and many others

(This interview was originally published April 13, 2013 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 Franne Golde. She is a musician and an award-winning prolific songwriter. She co-wrote the amazing Commodores’ hit “Nightshift” as well as Jody Watley’s “Don’t You Want Me” among many others. You will find out a little about her, those hit songs from the '80s and more as we get on to some selections from my interview with Franne Golde

Q: When and how did you get your own start in the music industry? Then when and how did you end up moving into a career of writing songs for other artists to perform?

FranneI started out in my home town of Chicago in the early 70s, first by going to any and all open mics, piano bars, and hanging out at music clubs, absorbing everything and anything. Chicago was a melting pot of jazz, blues, R&B, folk and rock and roll and had great FM radio stations that became the soundtrack to my young life.

While working at a piano bar on Rush Street, I met another young aspiring singer-songwriter, Tony Zito. We formed a band aptly named Frannie and Zoey. Tony and I both wrote songs for the band, but also mixed it up with outside material. I liked learning other people’s songs and being inspired by their chords, melodies and lyrics. We spent two years working together and built a huge following that brought us to the attention of many record companies and several high profile producers. Unfortunately the band split up, but it was a great training ground – we played six shows a night, five nights a week, the highlight, performing Tony’s rock opera with the Chicago Chamber Orchestra conducted by Dieter Kober.

After we split, I would start another band, but first I worked as an assistant to my then manager who was working with Albert Grossman and road managing Todd Rundgren on his “A Wizard, a True Star” tour. I loved being on the road, but wanted to be the one touring. It was hard going from lines around the block to being asked to go get sandwiches. When I returned to Chicago I continued performing with Artie Feldman, an R&B wunderkind. During this time, I spent a year at the famed Chess Studios. What I learned from studio manager and producer extraordinaire, Ralph Bass, was invaluable. I finally found the nerve to perform on my own nestled in the arms of my devoted friends and fans at “Man’s Country”, a gay bathhouse, similar to the Continental Baths in New York City where Bette Midler started her career. I felt safe and was able to experiment and try out my songwriting.

Soon I had a 4-piece band with three back-up singers and began to play away from the nest. First stop was New York City where we played for several months at everywhere, from Max’s Kansas City to the Continental Baths. We finally got a lucky break opening for The Manhattan Transfer on their first national tour, and were in front of Atlantic Records nightly. By the end of the tour, we were signed by Ahmet Ertegun. Andrew Sager happened to be in someone’s office at Atlantic when they were playing my demos and asked for a copy to play for his wife, Carole Bayer Sager. I was soon flying from Chicago to New York City to write with Carole, who already had several hits under her belt. She was so encouraging and welcomed me into her world, which was filled with extraordinary songwriters, artists, publishers and producers.

Q: Do you use a certain process every time when writing songs? Does the melody come first or the lyrics? Do you start with a song title or end with a song title? Where does inspiration usually come from?

FranneWow, I don’t know if there is any set process. I like to start with a chord progression or even just one or two chords, so melody comes first. The only time I’ve written to a lyric is when I had the opportunity to write with Bernie Taupin, who gives you a lyric to write music to. That’s how he and Elton have always written. As far as the title, it can come at any time. It’s fortunate if you have a title to start with, but usually you just stumble on it. Inspiration? Hmmmm. Inspiration can come from anywhere, anytime, you just never know. I think it’s really a combination of inspiration commingling with all of the cumulative emotions from your life’s experiences that makes for great songs.

Q: You co-wrote the amazing 1985 hit single “Nightshift” for the Commodores with Clyde Orange and Dennis Lambert. How did you end up working on this particular song with those gentlemen? What is the back-story about how that song was conceived and written?

FranneThe band wanted to pay tribute to Marvin Gaye and Jackie Wilson, who had recently passed. Dennis, who was producing the new Commodores album, played me this haunting progression Clyde (Walter Orange) had started along with the lyric “Marvin, he was a friend of mine”. I remember being moved to tears. Inspired, Dennis and I sat at the piano and “Nightshift” practically wrote itself.

Nightshift” was released as a single on January 31, 1985. It was a tribute to Jackie Wilson and Marvin Gaye who both died in 1984. It went on to reach #3 on the Billboard Hot 100 and became the band’s first and biggest hit after Lionel Richie left to go solo. It also went on to win the Grammy for Best Vocal R&B Performance by a Duo/Group. I feel it is simply a timeless classic. Here is the music video for “Nightshift” by the Commodores

Q: How did the song evolve during the writing process? Whose idea was it to cleverly reference specific songs by Marvin and Jackie within “Nightshift” (like “Higher and Higher” and “What’s Going On”)?

FranneDennis thought it would be great to reference some of their songs within the lyric. I remember looking in the Billboard top singles 1955-1990 and writing a list of several of Marvin and Jackie’s hit songs to have as inspiration as we were writing. If you look/listen through the lyrics to “Nightshift”, you’ll find those references from several of their songs. As far as the title, I had seen the movie Nightshift with Henry Winkler. Dennis and I were mulling over titles for an updated version of “Rock and Roll Heaven” (produced by Dennis with his then partner Brian Potter in1974 for the Righteous Brothers). I immediately thought of “Nightshift”. Dennis started singing within minutes: “Gonna be some sweet sounds comin’ down on the Nightshift.” True Genius, my friend and collaborator! And the rest is history.

Q: Did you have any feeling that this song was going to be something special when you wrote it? What were your feelings when you heard the final recording of your song by the Commodores?

FranneI think all writers feel something good will happen to whatever song they’re working on, but there was something different about “Nightshift”. I was in the studio as it was being recorded and there was definitely something special going on. All the overdubs were magical and the energy was palpable. Hearing the final mix on the huge overheads, brought tears and instant joy, it sounded amazing and everyone knew it.

I was really excited when the year-end Rolling Stone magazine came out and Billy Joel had named “Nightshift” as one of his top 5 favorites of the year!

Q: What are your feelings about “Nightshift” now 27 years later?

FranneI think it speaks for itself! It’s one of those songs you can’t really take credit for. It comes through you. I just feel fortunate to have been present for the birth and continue to love it every time I hear it on the radio. Sometimes it still brings tears to my eyes.

Q: You co-wrote the song “Bit By Bit” with Harold Faltermeyer which was performed by Stephanie Mills as the theme song for the 1985 film Fletch. How did you end up working on this song? Were you writing a specific song to be used in Fletch right from the start?

FranneI had worked with Harold on a few things and he specifically called me in to write for Fletch. He told me what he wanted the lyric to convey. He put me in a dimly lit studio with great speakers, put me in control of the playback, sent in unlimited sushi and I was off and running.

Bit By Bit” is a song that I’ve always liked because it immediately reminds me of Fletch after even hearing just the first few bars. The song reached #15 on the Dance chart, but surprisingly only peaked at #78 on the Billboard Hot 100. Here is the music video for “Bit By Bit” by Stephanie Mills

Q: What can you tell us about Harold Faltermeyer and your experience working with him? His distinctive sound became a standard in '80s movies.

FranneExtremely talented, big, big heart and a perfectionist!

Q: Any other interesting memories or details about writing “Bit By Bit”? What are your feelings regarding how the song turned out and Mills’ recording of it? Did you like the film Fletch?

FranneWe had a blast doing the demo. He embellished the track I wrote to which became the actual record. I loved how Harold made my voice sound in the studio. His track was so inspiring to sing to. Stephanie Mills did a fantastic job on the recording and, of course, I liked Fletch, I had a song in it! Ha, ha! I also loved going to the gym and being anonymous in an aerobics class with everyone exercising and grooving to my song.

Q: How did you end up teaming with Jody Watley to write “Don’t You Want Me” which was a 1987 hit for her? What can you tell us about Jody Watley and your experiences working with her?

FranneI don’t remember exactly how we met, but we have remained friends to this day. She is one of the most talented, dedicated artists I’ve ever worked with. I love her natural instincts as a musician and lyricist and she performs with total confidence. She is simply elegant!

Don’t You Want Me” really helped establish Jody Watley as a solo artist. It was co-written by Golde, D.P. Bryant and Watley herself. It was released in August of 1987 as the third single from her debut album which had been released six months earlier. It went on to reach #1 on the Dance chart in October, peaked at #6 on the Billboard Hot 100 in December that year and helped her win the Grammy for Best New Artist the following year. Here is the music video for “Don’t You Want Me” by Jody Watley

Q: What is the back story about how that song was conceived and written? Any interesting stories or details about how “Don’t You Want Me” came together?

FranneWe were at the infamous Summa Studios on Sunset and La Cienega, my home away from home. Jody, David Bryant and I were in the main studio, standing around my new Juno 106 [synthesizer] with all of us taking turns. I recall David playing a bass line and me playing some chords on top of it and Jody singing out a melody. After an afternoon of creating, laughing and having a general blast, we had the bones of “Don’t You Want Me”. By the next day, Jody finished the lyric and we began our demo. The minute she sang over the track it was magic.

Q: Were there any songs that you wrote during your career (and maybe more so in the 80s) that never became hits that you felt should have or could have? If so, which songs and why? Of all the songs you’ve written, is there one that is your personal favorite? If so, which ones and why?

FranneAs one of my writer friends said, “99% of the time the ones you love never get heard.” One that I loved and thought should have been cut was a song I wrote with Allee Willis with hopes of a Tina Turner cut called “Learn to Love”. A personal favorite is usually what I’m currently working on. That said, “Nightshift” is definitely up there.

Q: Is it difficult as a song-writer to relinquish your song to another artist who will undoubtedly take artistic liberties and/or put their own spin on you work?

FranneWhen I was a recording artist, yes. Now, no. It’s always fantastic when you love what the artist and producer have done with your song. I was lucky to work with Dennis Lambert and get my songs recorded shortly after we wrote them and they always sounded amazing!

Q: What do you remember best about the decade of '80s music? What lasting impact do you feel music from the '80s has made?

FranneWhat I remember most is peeling off the plastic from a new album, laying on the floor of my office with the cover, holding it in my hands and staring at it, reading every last bit, pulling out the sleeve, sliding the LP out, putting it on the turntable, slipping on my headphones and reading every lyric as I listened and was transported to my own heaven. Michael Jackson was a favorite, but there are so many I loved, Steely Dan, Rickie Lee Jones, Michael McDonald, Hall & Oates, The Police, Prince, Kool & the Gang, Tears for Fears, Donald Fagen, Earth Wind & Fire, Whitney Houston, Culture Club, Tina Turner, Janet Jackson, Jam & Lewis, Luther Vandross, Sade, Paul McCartney & Wings, Anita Baker, REM, Human League, Thomas Dolby, Eurythmics, U2 and a slew of great singles. Really, there are too many to count and way too many that I loved and still do. What lasts is all the great music that lives on forever.

Q: Please tell us a little about where your music career has taken you since the '80s. What are some of your proudest professional accomplishments?

FranneThe '90s brought me one of my biggest successes. I was fortunate to be on one of the biggest selling soundtracks of all time, The Bodyguard [1992], and another album by Kenny G, one his biggest, Breathless, with the same song, “Even If My Heart Would Break” written with Adrian Gurvitz. Originally on hold by Clive [Davis] for Jeff Healey, for two years, it ultimately landed in Kenny G’s hands. Clive wanted Kenny on the soundtrack album and thought this would be a good song. It took a lot of maneuvering, as Kenny wanted just the right vocalist on the song and didn’t want to record it until he found that magic voice. After lots of behind-the-scenes maneuvering it landed in the hands of Aaron Neville. I got a call to come down to the studio where David Foster and Walter Afanasieff were producing the track, which would then go to New York City where Aaron would record the vocals. The producers and Kenny were wonderful about letting me be present for all the recording and mixing. Who knew that, as of today, that one song would be on close to 60 million records sold!

Even though it is a '90s song, I have always really enjoyed the song “Even If My Heart Would Break“. The Whitney Houston songs get most of the attention on The Bodyguard soundtrack, but this beautiful song by Aaron Neville and Kenny G deserves its share of consideration. That soundtrack has gone to become one of the best-selling albums of all time. When Kenny G also included it on his own Breathless album which was multi-platinum itself, it would become only the third time in Billboard chart history that the same song appeared on both the #1 and #2 album on the chart at the same time. As she mentioned, those two albums have gone to sell over 60 million copies now!

Q: How have your priorities or goals changed over the years? Are you still writing songs today?

FranneAs far as priorities and goals, not much has changed. I’ve always and still want to write great songs that touch people and become part of their lives. Yes, I am still writing to this day. Music is like a drug and I admit I’m addicted!

Golde has co-written many other hit songs including “Don’t Look Any Further” by former Temptations singer Dennis Edwards featuring Siedah Garrett, Selena’s “Dreaming of You”, Whitney Houston’s “I Belong to You”, the Kinleys’ country hit “Somebody’s Out There Watching” and Pussycat Dolls’ “Stickwitu” (which was Grammy nominated) among many others.

Q: What else is Franne Golde up to nowadays? Musically and otherwise? What can we expect in the future?

FranneI have many new projects that I’m working on and very excited about including a musical, a film project, a memoir and I’ve recently signed a deal with Carlin West Agency to represent my clothing line, SMAPs [Skinny Magic Amazing Pants]! I will be updating my website with news about everything I’m working on as it unfolds.

I am honored that Franne was able to take some time to answer some questions so I could share them with you here. You can find her clothing line and find out more about that on her website. I want to take this occasion to again thank Franne Gold for her contributions to '80s pop culture especially through her songwriting on such classics as “Nightshift” and, even more, for going back to the '80s with us here for a little while as well.

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