The hit-making singer-songwriter discusses his latest ventures, including the “Frosty the Snowman” CD and picture book and the Blue Sky Riders band.
Singer-songwriter Kenny Loggins
Tavis: Two-time Grammy winner Kenny Loggins has spent the last 40 years recording and performing, including defining songs from major movies like “Footloose” and “Top Gun.” Twelve of his albums have gone platinum.
He’s also made his mark, of course, recording for children, and his latest venture is a CD and picture book called “Frosty the Snowman.” Four decades after his debut, he’s still exploring musical styles and he’s now formed a new band called Blue Sky Riders, which takes its cue from Nashville. We have a clip of Kenny’s latest band singing “Dream.”
[Video clip of studio performance]
Tavis: I mean it’s clear you still got it – you still got it, but who starts a band at this age in life?
Kenny Loggins: (Laughter) Yeah, that was the big issue. A friend of mine told me that I was being ridiculous and that I should think about retiring. He made a lot of sense at first. It was like, well, that’s kind of the rational thing to do.
But I discovered years ago that if I don’t stay creative and if I don’t stay in the studio and keep writing and recording, I get kind of depressed. I can’t quite remember what I’m supposed to be doing with myself.
Tavis: Does that mean that there really was never a choice in your life to do anything else, other than be a songwriter-performer?
Loggins: Well at 50, I was dropped from Sony, and so I had to start thinking well, maybe it’s time to think about being a teacher, or some kind of segue into the next phase of my life.
But nothing fit, and it took me a year to figure out that I had to stay creative and keep at it, and it’s really been fun. Blue Sky Riders are a great band. Gary Burr is in the Nashville Songwriter Hall of Fame with 14 number one songs to his credit, George has written three. They’re great writers, great singers, and it’s really fun to start a new band.
Tavis: I got a whole show with you, thank God. I’ve been waiting. All my staff knows I’ve been waiting 20 years for this conversation. (Laughter)
Loggins: Well it better be good then, come on.
Tavis: Yeah, yeah. (Laughter) Yeah, that’s on you.
Loggins: Yeah. (Laughter)
Tavis: But I’ve been waiting a long time to talk to Kenny Loggins. I love this guy, and because we have a whole show I can take some time to dig into this. So I’m curious as to what it feels like to be 50.
I’m approaching 50, and PBS could drop me at 50, we will see. But what’s it feel like at 50 to be summarily dropped by a record label after all the hits, the millions of records sold, the soundtracks, all the stuff I laid out a moment ago.
Tavis: At 50 you get summarily dropped. How do you navigate past that?
Loggins: That’s a great question, and I can tell that it’s because you’re coming up against it that you would think about that. For me, it wasn’t so much that I was dropped.
Because if you think about it rationally, in the rock and roll world, 50 is long past your invitation.
Tavis: Somebody tell the Stones that.
Loggins: Yeah, right? Well, yeah, but it’s sort of like if your record sales aren’t what they used to be, it’s – it would be good to have somebody say, “Kenny, I’ve got to talk to you. Come on in.”
But I heard from the secretary of an underling VP, and she said, “Oh, by the way, they’re dropping you from the label.” I didn’t get any personal notes, I didn’t get anybody calling saying, “Thanks for 20 great years.” No gold watch. (Laughter)
So there was that kind of being dismissed quality to it that felt kind of crappy. But mostly the difficult part is well, what do I do next? So many of us go through that. I’ve done this my whole life.
I’m not really qualified to do anything else. What am I supposed to do now? The process of reinventing yourself is what – each one of us has got to go through that.
Tavis: It’s one thing for a particular label to no longer want you on its roster. It is another thing, I suspect, Kenny, at that age or any age, but certainly at that age, to start questioning your gift. Did you ever question your gift or your purpose at that age, whether or not you still had it?
Loggins: Absolutely, and I think that’s part of the natural thing too, because in my career I defined myself by my music, and then the danger is that you can, that one defines oneself based on popularity.
As you know, that goes up and down, and you can’t say, you can’t judge how you feel about yourself based on what your sales is. So that had to be reinvented. I had to take a look at it and go okay, well, what if I couldn’t sell any records? What do I do?
What do I do with myself? How do I feel with myself? Where do I go in my life and my career? That was the big question, and I came out the other side. I used my own money to finish that record that I’d started, and that got me back on track.
I could see that I felt great as long as I was in the studio, as long as I was working and writing. So everything I’ve done has been how do I stay busy, how do I stay active.
“Frosty the Snowman,” which we’re going to talk about, is one of the answers to that. When Peter called me and said, “Do you want to do this,” I thought yeah, this sounds like fun.
The beauty of this point in my career is that fun becomes a big factor. If something feels like it’s going to be creative and be fun and it’s – follow your bliss. Is this where the juice is? Then I go there.
Tavis: Do you feel at this age now that you have more license and more liberty than you’ve ever had before?
Loggins: Well truth be told, I always felt I had license and liberty. That was what drove the record company crazy.
Tavis: That’s why you got dropped at 50.
Loggins: Well –
Tavis: No, I’m just being funny. (Laughter)
Loggins: In a way it is, because I made “Return to Pooh Corner,” which was a so-called children’s album. I always thought of it as a parents’ album. But it was against the better judgment of my record company, and I said, “If you just stick with me, I think I know what I’m doing here.”
It sold two million units and really pissed them off, because they thought it would be the end of my career. But I just had this sense that there was somewhere I needed to go. I had that quality of like let’s check out this direction.
Tavis: How’d you navigate 20 years of trying to go your own way and having to have those fights from time to time, as any artist typically does, with the label? Whatever the – and I’m not bashing Sony. I’m just saying most artists have to deal with this at any label.
Loggins: Well anyway, yeah, at any label, especially the more accountants that get in there. I’ll tell you, when I started on Columbia Records, it was Clive Davis’ label, and Clive was always open for something interesting and where are we going from here.
He was very creative leadership. As the accountants come in and start to say well, we want a record like that guy’s record, and you should sound like him – there was one point where they actually wanted me to have other people write all my songs, and to bring in other artists to sing them with me.
It’s like that’s the desperation move. I had to get to where that’s just not me. That isn’t going to work. I started on an album that would become “Leap of Faith.” It was a major – talk about a metaphorical title. It was a major shift for me.
I wrote everything, I produced the whole record, and I had to fight my way through it. I had one great A&R man at the company, Bobby Columbi, who was the drummer in Blood, Sweat, and Tears, and Bobby fought for me every step of the way.
That became the only record in my career with five hit singles. But at one point they were ready to drop me because they couldn’t hear any hits.
Tavis: We’re going to get to “Frosty the Snowman,” I promise, and I’m working my way there. (Laughter) One of the reasons why I have so loved you over the years unabashedly and unapologetically is because I have this list, and again, my staff knows this. They’ve heard this a thousand times over all the years of doing this show.
I have this list of the most soulful white guys who ever lived, and you are on that list.
Loggins: Well, thank you.
Tavis: You talked early about your rock hits, and indeed you’ve had those, but where did this soulful thing come from? Was that – how did that happen?
Loggins: Well, I had two big brothers, and one big brother was deep into folk music and sort of countrified, Merle Haggard, sort of touching into the folk thing. So he inundated me with the folk music.
The other big brother was deep into R&B. So here I am, four, five, six years old, and he’s turning me on to the Platters and the Coasters and Little Richard, and all the music that, the do-wop stuff, and all the things that really hit him.
So I like to say I had two cradle languages, because as a little guy, I don’t see any difference. It’s all just music to me. So I think that’s why I can get away with it.
Tavis: It’s the holiday season and we’re going to talk about “Frosty the Snowman,” the book, in just a second. But I was saying something to Kenny when he walked on the set.
He told me that he hasn’t seen it in years, so I’m going to encourage Mr. Loggins to go see this as I will encourage you to see it, and you’ll see the numbers jump in a couple of days.
But I want you to go google “Celebrate Me Home,” one of the greatest songs ever sung by Kenny Loggins. But just go to Google or whatever your choice is and look up “Celebrate Me Home at the Grand Canyon” by Kenny Loggins.
I have never in my life – and when it comes on the radio it sounds great all the time. But this live version you did with Mark Russo on horn –
Tavis: – at the Grand Canyon –
Tavis: I would have – I don’t know where I was at that point in my life, but I would have done anything to be at that concert, just to watch you do “Celebrate Me Home” on that particular night at the Grand Canyon. Do you remember this?
Loggins: Oh, yeah. That was the show that we put together, specifically built the stage and everything.
Loggins: It was a show we did for Disney called “Coming Home,” I think was their series. That was a great band.
Tavis: This song, since we’re in the holiday season, this song “Celebrate Me Home” gets played on radio throughout the year, but it finds a particular audience at holiday season. Tell me about this song, “Celebrate Me Home.”
Loggins: Well when I first came up with that line, I was writing the song in my mind. It was in 4/4, it ends up in 3/4/6/8. But the line “celebrate me home,” I always thought of it as a nonsense line that I would replace.
Like McCartney wrote “Yesterday,” the original title was “Scrambled Eggs.” I thought that was my “Scrambled Eggs.” Then I took it to New York and I was working with Bob James and Phil Ramone.
Phil goes, “No, man, that’s a great line, ‘celebrate me home.'” He says, “Go upstairs and finish that lyric.” So I was in New York, it was the beginning of the Christmas season, top of December. I wished I was home.
So I wrote “Home for the holidays” as my opening line, and that’s what’s been picked up, and it’s become a Christmas song. Lady Antebellum just covered it, and it’s on some TV special.
So I love that. That’s the dream of all songwriters, is to get a Christmas copyright that’s going to last forever.
Tavis: I assume at this point when you’re out performing there are a handful of songs that you can’t get off the stage without doing unless – there’s going to be a riot in this auditorium. Is that on the list?
Loggins: Oh yeah, “Celebrate Me Home” (unintelligible).
Tavis: What else is on this – stuff you have to do? Give me, like, five things you have to do.
Loggins: It’s interesting that most of the songs I have to do were never hits for me. “Danny’s Song,” “House at Pooh Corner,” “Celebrate Me Home,” “Conviction of the Heart.” But of course “Footloose.” That’s the one that the younger audience is waiting for.
“Danger Zone” now is back in the window, thanks to “Archer.” So there’s a few that are up there, I’m happy to say.
Tavis: Your voice lends itself well to up-tempo and down-tempo, and the melody in your stuff, which doesn’t exist anymore in music; melody’s like a thing of the past these days.
Tavis: (Audio dropout) over the years that your voice is better suited for, up-tempo or –
Loggins: Or ballads?
Tavis: Yeah, yeah.
Loggins: That’s an interesting question. I go back and forth on it. I love the up-tempo stuff for a concert, because if an audience will get up and dance, it makes it so much more fun.
Tavis: A certain energy there.
Loggins: Yeah. It’s the fun of that. “Footloose” is always a blast. It’s like doing an old Chuck Berry tune. But I have some ballads that I love to do too. “Danny’s Song” has been around forever.
Tavis: You mentioned Peter Yarrow, and Peter’s been a guest on this program a number of times. Of course, for those who don’t recognize the name Peter, Paul, and Mary Peter Yarrow, and Peter’s written a number of books himself, some wonderful stuff.
So tell me how Peter ended up calling you and asking you to consider doing “Frosty the Snowman.”
Loggins: Well, I don’t know why he did, but I’m glad he did. (Laughter) I’d never met Peter Yarrow before that, and I was a big fan of Peter, Paul, and Mary.
Tavis: You’d never met before?
Loggins: I’ve never met him before.
Loggins: So I got what they call a “cold call.” It just came out of nowhere. “Hi, this is Peter Yarrow.” So we had this project. He has a publishing imprint of his own.
Peter, Paul, and Mary has done, of course, “Puff, the Magic Dragon;” Judy Collins did I think it was “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” and a few other acts have done kids’ stories, where they sing the song, put the CD you’ll see in the back of the book, a couple other songs, and they put the music in with the book, and it becomes this great Christmas package, a gift package.
I love the idea that parents can sit, read the story, sit on the floor, read the story, and listen to the music at the same time.
Tavis: The idea for the music that matches the story, how do you come up with that? How does that work?
Loggins: Well, “Frosty the Snowman” is a classic.
Loggins: It was written by – let’s see, right there – Steve – can you see –
Tavis: Steve Nelson and Jack Rollins.
Loggins: Yeah, that goes back to 19 what, ’51 or ’52, I think, and they wrote it for Gene Autry, who’d had “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer” as his first big hit. They went, “Oh, we’ve got to give him another seasonal hit.
Loggins: And they did. “Frosty the Snowman” became a huge song for him and many people that followed him. So I just basically took my cue from the ’40s versions, or the 1950s versions, and did my own version in that style.
Tavis: There are two other songs on here, though – “Cindy.”
Loggins: “Cindy,” which is a cover of “Get Along Home, Cindy, Cindy.” It’s another version – I found an Appalachian Mountain version, and I sort of synthesized that and the Ricky Nelson version together to make my own.
Tavis: And “Fishing Blues.”
Loggins: “Fishing Blues” is an old – well, it goes way back, but Taj Mahal did the version I know. So I did that, crossed into that genre and did a sort of blues version of “Fishing Blues.”
Tavis: Take me back to the early days of your writing. I’m thinking how Loggins and Messina, and even prior to that. But how did – it’s one thing to be – the performance is one thing, the songwriting is another.
I don’t know what the question here is, but just talk to me about songwriting from your vantage point.
Loggins: Well, I started writing when I was in guitar lessons. I was working with a folk singer named Rod Ruggles, who had, writing was a part of his reality. So I remember I learned “Blowing in the Wind” from a songbook.
I’d never heard Bob Dylan sing it, and I learned to play it from a songbook that Rod had, and that got me writing. I hadn’t even caught the Dylan bug yet. So I wrote “House at Pooh Corner” and “Danny’s Song” when I was a senior in high school, while I was still taking guitar lessons. So that it just sort of poured out of me.
Tavis: These days, the inspiration for the stuff you write comes from where? Everywhere?
Loggins: Good question. If I knew, I’d hang out there. (Laughter) It comes from life. It comes from – well, what I really love right now is writing with Gary Burr and Georgia Middleman, my parents from Blue Sky Riders.
Loggins: They’re great songwriters. The three of us sit down; we always get a song a day, which is fast for me. For them it’s normal, because they’re Tin Pan Alley writers.
But for me, I can take a week to write a song. So it’s really a blast to write with gifted writers who have tons of ideas. We never get stuck. The ideas are bouncing off the walls all the time.
We wrote our first record together as a trio. We’re writing a second record now. We’ve got a Christmas EP, which I hope we’ll talk about.
Tavis: Let’s talk about it.
Loggins: Okay. Well, a record – our album came out in February, and it’s called “Finally Home.” It’s that one there.
Tavis: This one (unintelligible). Yup. That’s the one I have here.
Loggins: So we came up with a Christmas EP of four songs, four standards that is called “Finally Home for Christmas,” and it’s only available online. So Amazon is the primary – I think iTunes and Amazon.
Tavis: What do you make, over the course of this 40-plus-year career, the way that technology, to your point now, has changed the music business? This whole story recently of Beyoncé putting out her new record on iTunes and just surprised everybody, and it’s been selling like crazy.
Tavis: But she just bypassed everything and everybody. Straight to iTunes, and she’s sold more copies of this record than she did the last one released through traditional means.
Tavis: So the technology age that we are in is changing the business (audio dropout) DVD – you’re seeing CDs and cassettes and eight-tracks. What do you make of the way technology is changing the business?
Loggins: Well, it’s obvious that we’re into a whole new ballgame here, and she has the clout to be able to get away with self-releasing anything she wants. The beauty of the Internet we’re discovering with Blue Sky Riders is that we can reach the audience directly.
There’s no filtration system between us and the audience. But it’s tougher with an older audience. The I’d say 40-something up, still not as friendly with the Internet and with commerce on the Internet as my kids are.
My oldest is 33, and he’s in IT, and his whole generation, they’re totally comfortable. It’s like second nature to them to just go to iTunes or go to whatever distribution system, and just go directly and get their music, download exactly what they want, and pay for it.
Tavis: Yeah, that’s the key. (Laughter) As the artist, that’s the key. What have you preferred over the years, because you’ve done so much live performance, and you’ve done so much studio work, obviously? You still love, at this point, getting out in front of live audiences?
Loggins: Oh yeah.
Tavis: I know the travel’s crazy, but –
Loggins: Yeah, the travel will get you down, but we’re in a different town every day, and I still travel a lot. Especially now it’s crazy, because I have this new act and I’m also traveling and touring as Kenny Loggins, of course.
So Blue Sky Riders, I decided we’d integrate the two, and Blue Sky Riders is my opening act. So I’ll go out and do 40, 45 minutes as my own opening act, and then go sell t-shirts and come back on as –
Tavis: So you’re getting paid twice.
Loggins: I’m getting paid –
Tavis: I like that. (Laughter) That’s how you do it.
Loggins: Yeah, if only, if only.
Tavis: That’s how you work that out.
Tavis: Kenny Loggins, two for the price – but that must be a joy, though, a treat for your fans to hear you do the stuff that they want to hear, and then for you to be able to introduce them to the stuff that you want them to hear.
Loggins: I’m especially happy about the fact that my audience is very open to new music. They’re dying for new music. So all I got to do is get up there and show them what I’m doing, and they go oh yeah, I like that. That’s the kind of thing I can – it’s got melody, it’s got words.
Tavis: That may be the answer. What’s your sense, though, for why they want new stuff? I ask that because when you get to be an artist of your caliber, sometimes you get boxed in because your fans only want to hear the old stuff.
Loggins: Only want the old stuff. It is difficult. It’s difficult to get an audience to want to keep up with you, stay present tense. But I think that because there’s never been a big lag in my career between product, so to speak, I’ve constantly tried to pull my audience up into what I’m doing present tense, and they’ve been usually happy to go there with me.
Loggins: So that the new music is – I also think that the audience, an older audience; and I’m saying “older,” probably 40 and up – they’re dying for something that they can relate to.
I love the music of my kids. My 16-year-old daughter turns me on to stuff all the time. But I’m always also looking for something that I can resonate with – where’s my music here? That’s what I hope Blue Sky Riders is doing.
Tavis: Speaking of stuff that people can relate to, is there any song in your discography, any song in your corpus, that is more relatable than “This Is It?”
Loggins: That’s an interesting question.
Tavis: That song, that song, you have to know that that song has meant more to more people at various – I mean for me and others – at the various stages of their life. You put that song on and it’ll get you ready.
Loggins: Yeah, yeah, and I have Mike McDonald to thank for that. That was – he and I wrote a couple of really great songs together during that peak period of his career. He was so in the zone.
But we had “This Is It,” the story of that was that was the second song we wrote together, and we had the melody, that came pretty quick, but we weren’t sure about the lyric, and we were kicking around all these boy-girl lyrics.
At the same time that we were working on that song, my dad went in the hospital for major surgery. When I visited him, he told me that he was prepared to die on the operating table.
I figured, no, that doesn’t feel right to me. Where are we going to go with this? I went to write with Michael that day, and we got to the – and we had – “There have been times in my life I’ve been wondering why” was the only lyric.
Then a line in the middle, “You think that maybe it’s over; only if you want it to be.” I went it’s got to be about what happened today. So I told him about my visit with my dad, and “This Is It” just poured out.
The lyric came immediately. So we knew that it was – and it got used in college basketball finals that year.
Tavis: That’s what I’m saying – it’s been used.
Loggins: So people got it right away.
Tavis: That’s my point. It’s been used in so many ways. It’s a great song, but there is so much greatness in your library, and I’m honored to have had you on this program.
Loggins: Thank you.
Tavis: The new book from Kenny Loggins is called “Frosty the Snowman.” Performed by Kenny Loggins, a CD with three beautiful songs in the back, so it’s a book and a CD.
His latest band is called Blue Sky Riders. The latest release from them earlier this year is “Finally Home,” and now there’s an EP out you can get online Amazon, everywhere, called “Finally Home for Christmas.”
Loggins: Yeah, thank you.
Tavis: So there’s all the – Kenny Loggins got product, y’all. (Laughter) Kenny Loggins got product. Good to see you, man.
Loggins: All right.
Tavis: Honored to have you on the program.
Loggins: Thank you.
Tavis: Happy holidays to you.
Loggins: You too.
Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching. As always, keep the faith.
“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.
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