PART ONE: INTERVIEW WITH STEVE POPOVICH, JR.
GOLDMINE: Steve, I was so happy when your dad moved back from New York City to the Cleveland area and set up Cleveland International Records in your Willoughby home in 1977, which was less than ten minutes from my apartment in Euclid.
STEVE POPOVICH, JR.: Then after that, in 1986, he, my grandmother and I moved to Nashville in 1986, and my dad took over Mercury/Polygram Records. That was at the time when Columbia dropped Johnny Cash and my dad signed him immediately. My dad was personally offended by the attitude that an executive felt that Johnny Cash was an act of the past. My dad said that if Johnny Cash is over then country music is over.
GM: A couple years before that, the Cleveland International imprint shifted from Epic to Columbia and in mid-May of 1983, your dad released “Whatever Happened to Old Fashioned Love” by B.J. Thomas, on that red label. That became B.J.’s first charting pop song since 1978, when I last saw your dad. I loved the support he always gave to artists, often rejected by others. Three more of B.J.’s singles on Cleveland International reached the country Top 40 in the next couple of years. I had learned from your dad about his love of country music in the 1970s and in the 1980s it showed.
SP: He even produced four country albums by Tom Jones that decade, which was a perfect segue for us to move to Nashville.
GM: I have Tom Jones’ Darlin’ and Don’t Let Our Dreams Die Young from that series, and they sound great.
SP: Those are some of the most underrated albums that people need to discover. With Cleveland International now, we are balancing reissues of our undiscovered recordings with new items. We just re-released The Iron City Houserockers’ second album Have a Good Time But… Get Out Alive, Joe Grushecky’s group. Joe and I were talking about his song “That’s What Makes Us Great,” which he did with Bruce Springsteen a couple of years ago and didn’t get the attention it deserved. With all the hate and anger in 2020, I felt it was time to reissue that song to hopefully a broader audience and promote it with his album More Yesterdays Than Tomorrows featuring the song. “That’s What Makes Us Great” is about bringing people together with unity, love conquering hate, and the fact that we are all Americans and need to be united, not divided.
GM: In the video for the song you see the lyrics prominently displayed, too. It is another great anthem that fans of Bruce Springsteen will enjoy along with Joe’s fans.
SP: We will have more from Joe in 2021, too. We are remastering a 1990s album of his that Bruce produced and will include some bonus material, too.
GM: Joe, with The Iron City Houserockers, is one of the artists on the Cleveland Rocks compilation, too. We were just talking about Bruce, let’s move on to another E Street Band musician, Steven Van Zandt and a flip side that he wrote for Ronnie Spector.
SP: That was the first Cleveland International single. My dad and Steven were best friends for forty something years. Before the single came out, Steven called my dad and told him that the E Street Band were having some financial difficulties, going through some legal issues at that time and wanted to know if there was something that he could do. The next day my dad called Steven and said, “I’ve got this song written by Billy Joel with a Phil Spector girl group sound that would be perfect for a combination of Ronnie Spector and The E Street Band.” Steven had already produced Ronnie as a guest on Southside Johnny & The Asbury Jukes’ first album. My dad gave the band double or triple scale, which at the time was like a month or two’s salary which kept them going in a very important and crucial time in their career. The flip side, “Baby Please Don’t Go,” which Steven wrote, is absolutely beautiful. We are very proud of the Cleveland Rocks compilation, which begins with Ronnie Spector and The E Street Band, and we have now reissued it on vinyl.
Ronnie Spector and The E Street Band
Flip side: Baby Please Don’t Go
A side: Say Goodbye to Hollywood
Cleveland International 8-50374
GM: On Saturday nights in 1978, your dad would visit me in our Peaches Records & Tapes store in Willowick, the closest big record store to your home. One night he loaned me a cassette of artists he was signing to the label, asking for my opinion and rankings of the songs. I met him in your driveway the next day and told him that Ellen Foley’s “We Belong to the Night” was my favorite. With all the attention of her work on Meat Loaf’s “Paradise by the Dashboard Light,” I thought this song would have been a hit. The composition sounded like a Jim Steinman song.
SP: Yes. That was produced by Ian Hunter and Mick Ronson and is one that Ellen wrote with Fred Goodman and I absolutely agree with your comparison to Jim Steinman. That is heartland rock at its finest and a great debut album from Ellen for the label too.
GM: My daughter Brianna is a big Meat Loaf and Jim Steinman fan, and in her birth year of 1983, Jim had some non-Meat Loaf hits with Barry Manilow and Air Supply on Arista, Bonnie Tyler on Columbia, and his own version of “Rock and Roll Dreams Come Through” on Cleveland International, all in the Top 40.
SP: That song was from his Bad for Good album and Rory Dodd did the lead vocals, who had done all the background vocals on Bat Out of Hell. I love the name “Rock and Roll Dreams Come Through.” I am working on my father’s documentary. As I was going through all of father’s stuff, I came across the eulogy that Karla DeVito read at my father’s funeral, written by Jim Steinman, and he said that my dad was basically the essence of “Rock and Roll Dreams Come Through” and I decided that this has to be the title of the documentary, Rock and Roll Dreams Come Through: The Story of Steve Popovich.
GM: I look forward to it. Your dad was my musical mentor. My friends were in The Euclid Beach Band. I went to college with Dan Hrdlicka. I worked with Don Kriss. Jonah Koslen, from that live entourage, The Michael Stanley Band plus Breathless, and I became friends after the release of “There’s No Surf in Cleveland,” on Scene Records. Then your dad took that local single, including the surf guitar instrumental flip side “Laugh in the Dark” and picked it up on Cleveland International. We were thrilled. I’ll be interviewing Jonah next for part two of this article, talking about The Euclid Beach Band.
SP: You know, that is such a great record. If there is a song, other than “Cleveland Rocks,” that the city should embrace, “There’s No Surf in Cleveland” needs to be right behind it. It is such an upbeat Beach Boys-esque song, and the album was produced by Eric Carmen. Maybe it is time that we figure out a way to resurrect Euclid Beach Park.
GM: My wife Donna used to go there as a kid each summer on the annual GE employee day. I went there a couple of times, but Donna went many times and has wonderful memories of the park.
SP: My parents certainly talked about the park and loved how The Euclid Beach Band paid tribute to the park and those days with their name.
GM: Eric Carmen wrote the group’s next single, “I Need You,” at the time when the Epic record label changed to dark blue. You could see Epic at the top in color but could hardly read the rest in silver, including the Cleveland International Records imprint.
SP: That Cleveland International Records logo was my dad’s calling card for life and Sony, ultimately as the record company owner, departed from that when Meat Loaf’s CDs were later released without the Cleveland International Records logo. My dad’s legal battles with Sony began and consumed the better part of twenty something years of his life. He won financially but felt he didn’t win due to the absence of the Cleveland International Records logo on those CDs. People don’t know about all the times he went broke fighting this battle. I was there. I remember all the sleepless nights he went through. I remember Steven Van Zandt giving him money when he needed it to keep the fight going. It is very personal for me, which is why we are getting the label going again.
GM: I understand. I was there with your dad and shared his enthusiasm for the label, the city’s music scene, and all he did for the artists. We spent quite a few Saturday nights talking about music as the label was beginning and watching Meat Loaf’s Bat Out of Hell album sell more and more copies each week.
SP: There is so much that people don’t know about him. Before Cleveland International, when he was with CBS Records in New York, he was able to help get The Jacksons signed to Epic. Imagine had they not done that, would there have been a Thriller? Who knows?
GM: We talked about Ian Hunter and his song “Cleveland Rocks.” One Saturday night your dad came into Peaches in a coat and like a proud father, under his coat, he was carrying an 8 x 10 glossy photo to show me. He said, “Look who I signed!” It was Ian Hunter. Your dad had just set up Cleveland Entertainment as another business.
SP: Yes, they were managing Ian and that led to Ian’s You’re Never Alone with a Schizophrenic album.
GM: Yes, which began with the single “Just Another Night” and contained it’s flip side “Cleveland Rocks” along with “Ships,” which Barry Manilow covered. What an incredible album.
SP: Ian co-wrote “Just Another Night” with Mick Ronson and my dad continued to work with Mick for years, including here in Nashville. When my dad signed David Lynn Jones, he brought Mick down to Nashville to co-produce David’s album Hard Times on Easy Street on Mercury and turned it into a rocking album, like a country Bruce Springsteen. My dad was ahead of his time bringing in rock guys to produce country guys.
GM: Your dad in the 1980s did for Mercury what Mutt Lange achieved in the following decade with Shania Twain for the label.
SP: Yes, absolutely.
GM: Jim Peterik told me about writing the song “Sweet Fools” for Chicago’s Essence, the Top 100 soul song included on the Cleveland Rocks compilation. He said, “This is in the Top 10 of the best songs I’ve written, with ‘rat a tat’ lines for good measure. I was 25 at the time and thrilled when Essence was signed by Steve Popovich, who was great. Marzette Griffith took the amazing lead vocal and Fred Smith and Butchie backed him up with attitude and smooth soul. The record channeled the doo wop groups of the 1950s.” So, how about that, “Vehicle,” “Eye of the Tiger,” “Hold on Loosely” and “Sweet Fools” all written by Jim.
SP: That is probably my favorite song on that compilation. I would put that record up against a lot of the big R&B/soul records. I think the group was working at a car wash in Chicago. Jim co-produced it with another dear friend of ours Frank Rand. I remember wearing that song out, playing it for my kids when they were little, and they just loved it. I still call Frank “Rat-a-Tat” as his nickname. I could see Disney doing something with that song. It just shows you the diversity of my dad’s involvement with pop, country and soul.
Flip side: For Crying Out Load
A side: Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad
Top 100 debut: March 18, 1978
Peak position: No. 11
Cleveland International 8-50513
GM: On September 6, 1978, Meat Loaf received the platinum award on stage at Blossom Music Center for Bat Out of Hell. What a show. Wet Willie opened for them, who I interviewed earlier in the day. We talked about Karla DeVito earlier. Karla was there performing the female parts with Meat Loaf, including “Paradise by the Dashboard Light.” I wrote the concert review. Meat Loaf sat on the edge of the stage for “Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad” and the group did exciting covers too, including a family favorite, “River Deep, Mountain High.” The seven tracks on the Bat Out of Hell album are a wonderful mix of exciting songs and tender ballads like “Heaven Can Wait” and “For Crying Out Loud.” I saw Meat Loaf again at The Agora for the Cleveland International Records showcase of artists.
SP: I wish I could have been at both shows but I was just an infant at that time. I came across eighty color sides from the Blossom show and bought the rights to the photos. We are selling images now as canvas art. This was a key point in Meat Loaf’s career. At The Agora, it was for the annual food drive with Meat Loaf, The Boyzz, Ellen Foley, Ian Hunter and Mick Ronson.
GM: Yes, we sat on the floor. Dan Buck from The Boyzz came on stage barefoot to sing “Too Wild to Tame” and somehow did a flip in the air, kicked the ceiling, and all this debris came down on him, sticking to his sweaty body. He was a mess. He looked surprised, as we all were, but he kept on going.
SP: I miss Henry LoConti from The Agora. We moved back to Cleveland in 1995 and I went to Lake Catholic High School in Mentor. We had our offices at The Agora. When I got out of high school, I began working for Cleveland International and it was a great time and among my best memories, hanging out with my dad and Henry and listening to their stories. The world needs more people like those two.
GM: I feel the same. I was twenty when I was spending time with your father and hanging out at The Agora with Donna, for many concerts.
SP: What was so unique about my dad is that he could relate to anybody and everybody. It didn’t matter if he was talking to Clive Davis or a clerk at a gas station down the road at Murfreesboro, Tennessee. He always treated everybody the same way and it was never about him. He was the most unpretentious person you would ever meet, walking around in sweatpants, a t-shirt, and a ball cap. You would not have believed that this guy was one of the most beloved music executives that ever was. You always knew when Pop was driving around the corner, playing music with CDs all over the dashboard. I miss him. Thank you for all the years of support with my family’s music. There is more coming.
Cleveland International Records’ Cleveland Rocks compilation includes “Say Goodbye to Hollywood” – Ronnie Spector and The E Street Band, “I Don’t Want to Go Home” – Southside Johnny & The Asbury Jukes, “Have a Good Time But (Get Out Alive)” – The Iron City Houserockers, “There’s No Surf in Cleveland” – The Euclid Beach Band, “Too Wild to Tame” – The Boyzz, “Rock and Roll Dreams Come Through” – Jim Steinman, “We Belong to the Night” – Ellen Foley, “Paradise by the Dashboard Light” – Meat Loaf, “Sweet Fools” – Essence, “Cleveland Rocks” – Ian Hunter, and more.
PART TWO: INTERVIEW WITH JONAH KOSLEN
GM: The first time I saw you was at a weekday afternoon concert in 1975. My best friend John and I finished our day at Euclid Senior High School and I drove us to Beachwood High to see The Michael Stanley Band. John and I loved your song “Step the Way” from the group’s debut album on Epic, after Michael returned from Colorado to Cleveland. It was great seeing you, Michael, Daniel and Tom, just a few feet from us on the gymnasium floor.
JONAH KOSLEN: I was living in Denver, just a street away from the Tumbleweed Records, the label for Michael’s first solo album in 1973. After graduating from high school, I had been traveling around the country, couch surfing, staying with friends. It was the early 1970s and people hitchhiked safely. Michael’s second album in 1973, Friends & Legends, had just been released on MCA when I arrived there. He had performed with Joe Walsh, Joe Vitale, and others on the album, and did a live show on television with them. Then he decided to put together a band. He started working with David Spero as his manager. I had known David from school, 6th grade through 12th grade at Beachwood High, when he lived pretty much across the street from me. I had been in a band with his brother Harry. David saw me perform at John Carroll University, opening for Tom Rush, when I was seventeen. He watched me progress after that too, when I was in a band called Snake Eyes, and brought up my name to Michael, when he was looking for a guitar player. My manager at the time was Marty Mooney, who was a CBS Records promotion man. I auditioned for Michael with my acoustic guitar, at his suburban Cleveland home near Chagrin Falls. We played songs back and forth and hit it off right away. At the end of the session, he asked if I wanted to be in the band and I said that I would love to do that. I went back to Denver, got my stuff together, moved back to Cleveland, and we started the band. He had a bass player in mind, Daniel Pecchio, and he joined the band and we started singing three part harmonies. Michael was working with the producer Bill Szymczyk, which led to the three of us opening for The Eagles with an acoustic set. We were getting songs together to make an album and looked at several drummers. Then we saw Tom Dobeck playing with Circus and he was excellent. We hired him and did two albums on Epic with the four of us, then we added Bob Pelander on keyboards. We toured with Cheap Trick, Rush, Foreigner, Ted Nugent and other good acts.
GM: That five person lineup was on the third album, Stage Pass, with “Nothing’s Gonna Change My Mind,” which was certainly popular on Cleveland radio and the 45 was on jukeboxes around town.
JK: In addition to Cleveland we had some other strong markets like St. Louis, Miami, Phoenix, and a bunch of places throughout the country. We headlined at the Akron Civic Center and Billy Joel was actually the opening act for us and it was a great show.
GM: After that you were a part of The Euclid Beach Band and you came and visited us at Peaches.
JK: I remember when we came in and you were playing my Back Tracks solo album over the speakers. I thought it was so cool to enter the store with you playing it and hosting us. Thank you again for that.
GM: Oh Jonah, you are certainly welcome. Donna and I love “Just Want You Around” and “Matters Concerning the Heart” from that album.
JK: Those two were songs that I wrote either at the end of my time in The Michael Stanley Band or immediately afterward. Being part of The Euclid Beach Band was a fun way to get together with people, like a summer music project. Other than “There’s No Surf in Cleveland,” we sang cover material in the live show at The Agora. I sang “Sea Cruise.”
GM: I remember that well. Donna and I were there that August night, and you were in your blue and white striped shirt on stage in front of us. The show also included the surf guitar instrumental flip side “Laugh in the Dark” back to back with “Wipe Out.” What a fun show.
JK: Yes, the summer of 1978 was so much fun.
The Euclid Beach Band
Flip side: Laugh in the Dark
A side: There’s No Surf in Cleveland
Cleveland International 8-50584
GM: That year also had The Cleveland Music Convention at the IX Center. Donna and I went to see you in your new band Breathless and The Cars played too, due to their Cleveland connection with Benjamin Orr. Their debut album was maybe a month or two old at that point and Goldmine just did a podcast with an author who has written a book about him. You had so many wonderful original songs. When Breathless’ debut album was released the following year, I listened to it, and asked myself, “Where did all those concert songs go?”
JK: Yes, other than “Nothing’s Gonna Change My Mind,” by the time the album came out, we had a totally different batch of songs. None of the songs that we got the record deal with EMI America are on the album. We were working really hard, rehearsing five or six days a week. We were full time musicians. We were loving it. The band was great. I would come in with a new song almost every other day. I probably have demo tapes of forty songs, enough to have more than the two albums that we recorded. When we got the record deal we were so fired up that I wrote a whole other batch of songs, feeling that I had jumped up another level in songwriting, which is what happened with The Michael Stanley Band too after our first two albums and doing a lot of touring. When I wrote “Nothing’s Gonna Change My Mind” for the third MSB album, I knew we had jumped up another level for music professionalism. With Breathless, we brought in Mark Avsec on keyboards and that helped take us to another level with the band members coming up with their parts to each song. We worked off of Kevin Valentine’s cassette recorder as we were creating the songs. When we were working on “Walk Right In,” Mark came up with that keyboard solo which ended up on the album. We told him, “That was great Mark. We want to keep that.” He asked, “What did I play?” because he was in the moment. Fortunately we had Kevin’s cassette. I played it back and said, “This is what you did, man!” That cassette recorder caught a lot of magic.
GM: The first single “Takin’ it Back” was so catchy. How did you write “Alibis,” which served as its flip side?
JK: I wrote “Alibis” in one sitting. I pulled out my acoustic guitar and song notebook and it just poured out of me. We played double guitar solos on that song and still get requests for it. It begins with an acoustic guitar, as we did with our version of “Nothing’s Gonna Change My Mind,” and also did that on “Dead of the Night,” which was the next single from the album. Even the edgier rock numbers were written on acoustic guitar first, as my main instrument, whether it was a ballad or a rocker, the songs were always written on an acoustic guitar.
Flip side: Alibis
A side: Takin’ it Back
Top 100 debut: January 12, 1980
Peak position: No. 92
EMI America 8020
GM: Who sings the amazing high notes on “Ends of the Earth?”
JK: That was Rodney and he still has it too.
GM: I wrote about Rodney earlier this year in an interview article with Neil Giraldo, who also debuted in the Top 100 with Pat Benatar around the same time as “Takin’ it Back” as Donna and I moved to Dallas, Texas. Later that year I heard “Ah! Leah!” on the radio and immediately knew that had to be Kevin on drums. Nobody else plays like that. By that time, when Mark and Kevin were with Donnie Iris and The Cruisers, was Breathless over?
JK: Yes. We had done the second Breathless album and it was very rushed, over six weeks. I like the album and it has a totally different feel from the first album, but I didn’t exactly get what I wanted out of it. We had so much time to spend on the first album with so many songs to pick from. With the second album, we started with just twelve songs which we narrowed down to ten, and one that we didn’t finish would have been such a good song for the album. The energy from the management company for us was going down. Michael was doing well, so their focus went with The Michael Stanley Band, which led to them finally breaking through nationally, which was great for them, but too disappointing to me, so I broke up Breathless, and Mark and Kevin joined Donnie Iris’ group, which was great for them.
GM: On the second album, Nobody Leaves This Song Alive, I think that “Hearts in Hiding” is a great opener and “Wild Weekend” is so catchy.
JK: “Happy Ending” is really the centerpiece of the album, being such a big concept piece with a great arrangement. The single, “Hardest Part of Loving You,” unfortunately didn’t do anything. The whole album was recorded at Sound City in Los Angeles where Fleetwood Mac and others recorded. It just had such a magic analog sound to it. Dave Grohl did a documentary about the studio.
GM: More recently, I enjoy “Scattered to the Wind” from your Nusic album and from your album Partially Light, the song “Believe” is a beautifully reflective song with personal storytelling.
JK: Ricky Bell plays sax on “Scattered to the Wind.” Nusic is my classic rock-style album. Regarding “Believe,” my daughter Chloe, who I sing about in the song, now lives in New York City and is an art director and a project manager at Google. She is doing really well and is about to be married soon to a wonderful guy. I’m encouraging her to also go back to playing piano, which she plays beautifully.
GM: Thank you also for the advance copy of “You and Me and the Rain.” It has a nice, steady sound to it.
JK: You are welcome. It will be part of my next album. Thank you for all the years of supporting my music, my friend.
Cleveland International Records
Steve Popovich, Jr.
The Euclid Beach Band
Fabulous Flip Sides, flip sides, b-sides