Skip to main content

Fabulous Flip Sides – “Pac-Man Fever” 40th Anniversary with Jerry Buckner plus Anne Murray

Jerry Buckner discusses “Pac-Man Fever,” written and performed with his best friend Gary Garcia, early bands, and compositions for Anne Murray, Bertie Higgins and his Disney music connection
Buckner main

GOLDMINE: Welcome to Goldmine where I am fortunate to sometimes highlight music people from the Northeast Ohio region, including those of us who have moved from the area where we grew up.

JERRY BUCKNER: Thank you. Yes, I grew up in Akron, the rubber capital of the world.

GM: I was north of you in Cleveland where I heard Wild Butter’s Roxana on WIXY 1260 AM in 1970. I bought the single, which is sitting next to me. It is a great recording, produced by Eric Stevens, with your nice piano backdrop. When I interviewed Jim Quinn, he told me that he thought you were a good arranger.

JB: I appreciate Jim saying that. He is a good man. I got to know him working on that Wild Butter album, along with guitarist Bob Kalamasz, who I got to know really well. Bob stayed at my house and is such a nice guy. The story of Wild Butter begins with a demo for a song called “Little Man.” A friend of mine, Rick Garen, played drums and was a real good singer. He was in a band with my best friend Gary Garcia. Rick played me a demo of “Little Man,” which I thought was good, like an Association song, but they didn’t do anything with it. I knew Eric Stevens. He had been at WIXY and Eric had been managing The Damnation of Adam Blessing and a couple of other acts. I arranged a meeting, played the demo, he loved it, and said, “Let me go to New York and see if I can get a deal.” He went to New York and a couple of weeks later he called me and said, “I got a deal with us for United Artists. We’re going to do an album.” I am sitting there thinking, OK, but there is no band. We hadn’t bothered to tell Eric that. I called Rick and said, “We’ve got a deal with United Artists and we have to put a band together.” We did. We had John Senne playing guitar, Steve Price on bass, Rick on drums and vocals, and me on keyboards, and we started working on songs. We decided to do some covers like The Bee Gees’ “New York Mining Disaster 1941” and a couple of other songs. We started writing original songs too, with John doing most of the writing at that time including “Roxanna (Thank You for Getting Me High).” We discovered early on that we had really good harmonies. We concentrated on that and wrote songs with harmonies in mind. “Roxanna” was the first single and it did well regionally, but it wasn’t a national hit. That was the beginning of Wild Butter. At the time, Joe Walsh said that he thought John Senne was the best 12-string guitar player he had heard, which was one heck of a compliment. John was a great rhythm guitarist, but when it came time to do the album Eric felt we needed some lead guitar help and that is where Bob Kalamasz on lead and Jim Quinn on rhythm came in from The Damnation of Adam Blessing to do a fantastic job on the album. We began working on songs for a second album while we were playing on the road together for a year and writing. I think that if we had done a second album, it would have been good. I liked the new songs, but it just didn’t happen. Now we have a cult following online, which is neat. Prior to Wild Butter I was in a band called The Rogues and Joe Walsh was in a group called The Measles in Kent, Ohio. When our guitarist left our band I called Joe to see if he would like to join our band. He invited me to his place in Kent, a loft over a barn, which I couldn’t find in the snow, so I ended hiring another guitarist, but wouldn’t that have been something to have Joe in our band? As you know, we had so much talent in Northeast Ohio.

Buckner Roxanna

GM: A decade after Wild Butter disbanded, my wife Donna and I moved to Dallas where “Pac-Man Fever” was on the radio in 1982, which reached No. 9 nationally, which, by the way, is ten positions higher than another arcade game song reached, 1969’s “Pinball Wizard.” Congratulations on your Top 10 success and the album that you and Gary Garcia put together.

JB: Thank you for that. “Pac-Man Fever” is a very unique record, in that it is attached to the video game, which is still a phenomenon worldwide. Gary Garcia, my musical partner and I went to school together. I moved down to Atlanta in 1972 and he decided to move down here a couple of years after that. We started doing some jingle work here in town to make a few bucks besides playing in bands. If we had extra time in the studio we would try to record some of our songs, trying to make it. We were working in the studio one night and stopped in this restaurant in Marietta, Georgia. There was a Pac-Man game in there. We didn’t know what it was, decided to play it, and got hooked like everybody else. We thought if we could do a song about this, it might help our jingle business and get some Atlanta radio airplay. Once we got into it, we decided to address it like a regular song. Gary and I wrote pop songs together for other projects and we wanted to create a pop song that could stand on its own two feet. We connected with the Buie/Geller Organization, who had The Atlanta Rhythm Section and some other acts, and they shopped our song “Pac-Man Fever” to the labels, who had no interest and didn’t know what Pac-Man was, as it was new in the fall of 1981. Buie/Geller believed in it though, pressed some records locally, and secured regional airplay. The first day it was played on the radio the phones blew up. They even played it twice in the same hour which was unheard of. Eventually the people at CBS saw the light and took the single, to be released on their main Columbia label. Over the 1981 holiday season the song received a lot of regional airplay. People from the north came down south to Florida for the holidays, heard the song, and went back north to Cleveland, Detroit and elsewhere and were calling radio stations requesting it. The team at CBS caught wind of that and went into their promotion push. A television station did a story on us here in Atlanta and it gained national attention. A representative from Entertainment Tonight called. We did an interview with them and after it aired the single took off nationally. Other television shows and magazines wanted to talk with us. The people at CBS wanted an album. We would go to a game room somewhere and try to find someone who knew how to play the different games. We would stay up all night, work on a song and start recording the next day.

Buckner Pac 45

GM: Your Pac-Man Fever album was released with eight songs based on eight games: Pac-Man, Frogger, Centipede, Donkey Kong, Asteroids, Defender, Mouse Trap, and Berzerk, now considered historic games which would later be celebrated in my cousin Bill Kurtz’s 2004 book The Encyclopedia of Arcade Video Games. “Do the Donkey Kong” became the next single, which you performed on American Bandstand along with “Pac-Man Fever.”

JB: It was incredible for a couple of guys originally from Akron, Ohio to meet Dick Clark, talk with him, and spend time with him. It was beyond belief. He was so nice to us on his television show and promoted our album on his radio show.

Buckner Pac lp

GM: “Do the Donkey Kong” is such a fun song, hit worthy, even though it peaked nationally at No. 103. I love the instrumental break and the keyboard ending. The recording is Archies-like with harmonies, a catchy chorus and a fun surprise ending.

JB: The fade out and fade in ending on the record was inspired by The Contours’ “Do You Love Me.”

GM: In Wayne Jancik’s One-Hit Wonders book, you are on one page and Bertie Higgins is on the next page chronologically with “Key Largo.”

JB: It was a pretty neat time. On Billboard’s Top 10 there were three artists from the Atlanta music scene at the same time, Paul Davis with “’65 Love Affair,” Bertie Higgins and us.

GM: After that Bertie recorded your tribute song for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

JB: Yes. We all knew each other in the Atlanta music scene. He traveled in and out of Florida to Atlanta. Our management team contacted his people about doing the song. The song was originally recorded by Bobby Vinton. An attorney played our demo for Bobby Vinton, Bobby was interested, and we got on a conference call with him. We went to California and recorded a version but after that there was strong desire to get someone who had been more current on the charts and that led us to Bertie, who I love.

Buckner Bertie

GM: In Anne Murray’s book All of Me, my all-time favorite music biography, she wrote that she was trying to do something more pop than country in the mid-1980s with her album Something to Talk About. Interestingly, the song “Something to Talk About” ended up getting cut from the album and went to another artist on Capitol, Bonnie Raitt, but your song “On an On” survived. It reminds me a bit of Whitney Houston’s “All at Once,” which I enjoy and bought. Your lyrics are interesting from a post-break up point of view, but still being in love. I love that song.

JB: Thank you. It was written about somebody. The song received great radio station phone request activity and did really well, reaching No. 23 on the country chart. The demo that I did was with Cheryl Wilson, a vocalist here in Atlanta who went on to Chicago and did huge commercial jingles for years. You can hear that version online too.

Buckner Anne 45

Anne Murray

Flip side: Gotcha

A side: On and On (written by Jerry Buckner)

Billboard Hot Country Singles debut: December 27, 1986

Peak position: No. 23

Capitol 5655

GM: The flip side of “On and On” was the finale from the album, “Gotcha,” with a synthesizer sound, ironically not too far from what you did on the Pac-Man Fever album, even though this wasn’t the song you wrote on the album. It was a dance number in line with what Whitney Houston was doing at the time, and the same year that Tina Turner’s early version of “Don’t Turn Around” was released as flip side on Capitol, which we featured in our Goldmine “Rock Hall Women” article last year, coinciding with the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductions in Cleveland.

JB: I was very fortunate to be included on Anne Murray’s album with “On and On” and so happy that she recorded my song.

Anne Murray and Tina Turner, mid-1980s,

Anne Murray and Tina Turner, mid-1980s,

GM: We also celebrate the 10th anniversary of “Wreck-It, Wreck-It Ralph,” which is bouncy fun like Toni Basil’s “Mickey” on Disney’s Wreck-It Ralph soundtrack.

JB: As you know, on November 17, 2011 we lost Gary. He had some health issues for quite a while. Heart trouble ran in his family. Eventually it caught up with him and we lost him. A few months after that I received a call from Walt Disney Music President Tom MacDougall. He said they had a movie called Wreck-It Ralph and there was a song that they would like Buckner & Garcia to record and if I would be interested. Of course, I was. They had done a basic track and sent a producer from L.A., who had worked with American Idol to talk with me. They wanted the new song in the same style as songs from our Pac-Man Fever album because Wreck-It Ralph had a 1980s video arcade theme. Our Buckner & Garcia group recorded our parts and Tom and the people at Disney loved it. I wish Gary would have lived long enough to hear it in the movie. A friend of ours, Danny Jones, sang lead on it. There is a segment of Gary’s voice that we took off the Pac-Man Fever album to have him included in the recording.

Buckner Wreck

GM: Is that the final song to at least include a bit of Gary?

JB: Almost. In 2011, Gary and I recorded the song “Them Angry Birds,” but due to his passing it was never completed. Over time the few people who have heard the song encouraged me to finish it for release. Last summer I decided to do that. It is the last song we recorded together, so I dedicate it to Gary. Thank you for your promotion of Ohio related acts and thanks to you and Goldmine for recognizing the 40th anniversary of “Pac-Man Fever.” There is also more “Pac-Man Fever” information and photos on our website.

Jerry Buckner, courtesy of Jerry Buckner, Facebook

Jerry Buckner, courtesy of Jerry Buckner, Facebook

Related Links:

Goldmine 2020 Interview with Jim Quinn of Wild Butter and The Damnation of Adam Blessing