You may not know him by name, but chances are you’ve heard Jeff Pescetto‘s work — not only has he written, produced, and performed on songs for a long list of artists, but he’s also popped up in some unusual places, like the DuckTales theme song (that’s his voice you hear) or on stage with actor/’80s teen idol Jack Wagner (not to mention Wagner’s current Bold & the Beautiful castmate, Scott Clifton).
These days, Pescetto is promoting his new solo release, In My Shoes, and he took time out to talk about the album — as well as his upcoming January 22 concert in Baltimore, and a long career whose under-the-radar success proves that making it big in the record biz isn’t all about stage lights and screaming fans.
This is kind of a homecoming show for you and your old band, Royale Five, right?
Well, it’s our third reunion. We did two last year, and we changed the location for this one. We’ll be playing in an old movie theater turned into a nightclub, called the Recher Theatre.
This is a band I played with in Baltimore before I moved to L.A. We were together for 16 years, and we were pretty popular and had a nice following, but for 25 years after I went to L.A., we just never played. I’m just enjoying coming home now and playing. It’s a cover band, although we do perform a couple of songs from my albums, but it’s not really the band I’m promoting the new record with. It’s really not about promoting the new album so much.
Let’s talk about the new album, In My Shoes. How long did it take for these songs to come together?
I worked on the recordings between September and December of last year, and the songwriting started a little earlier, but not much. I had a couple songs I’d started, but I decided to do the record in that period because I had done a show in Baltimore, and I just decided, you know, I’ve been doing a lot of producing and writing for other people, and I got kinda sidetracked. I forgot about myself as an artist. I love singing and I love playing, but this is my first album in 25 years.
You know, on Amazon, you have an album called Soul Reason that’s listed as coming out in 2005, and I think used copies are going for like $90.
You know what that is? A Japanese company asked me if I wanted to put out an album. I said, “Well, I don’t really have an album’s worth of material,” and they said, “No, we love your songs that you have on other people’s albums. Could you just give us the demos?” Because, you know, when you’re pitching a song to someone, you’ve got to demo it up pretty close to what it’ll sound like on the finished product. So they just used my demos to put out that CD in Japan. Over there, they pay attention to the liner notes, so they knew who I was through my work with Al Jarreau and Johnny Mathis and Gladys Knight — those kinds of artists — so I used several of those and added some new songs that I was pitching. It really wasn’t meant to be an album for me, but they paid me to do it, so I said okay. You know, it didn’t hurt me. But did you say they’re selling for $90 used? That’s crazy.
Crazy, but not uncommon for out-of-print albums by West Coast pop artists. And even though you aren’t a household name, you’re definitely a member of that latter-day group of L.A. session guys…
Yeah, I’ve played on a lot of albums by a lot of different artists. I play, I come in as a background singer…everyone from those artists I mentioned a few minutes ago to younger performers like Britney Spears and Aaron Carter. I’ve enjoyed being behind the scenes during my time in Los Angeles, and I’ve been fortunate to do a lot of work along the way, but I miss singing my own stuff. I had to make the new album.
Having never heard any of your solo material, I was surprised by the lack of polish in the production. It’s obviously a studio creation, but it has a certain rawness that I wouldn’t have expected from someone with ties to the David Foster pop axis. You know, even a guy like Bill Champlin, who obviously has plenty of soul, often doesn’t know when to quit when he’s producing his own music. He just can’t help himself when it comes to ironing out the wrinkles in his sound, whereas In My Shoes — even though it’s obvious that some of this stuff is programmed, there’s a warmth that I wasn’t expecting to hear.
Well, thank you. I wish I could tell you my secret. (Laughs) Well, you know, I play a lot of instruments. The only thing that’s programmed is drums, and in the last few years, I’ve realized that if I quantize the drums as I’m programming them, they always sound like a machine — but if I take drum samples from other recordings and mess around with them, I can move them until they feel good to me. Maybe that adds a little live element to the sound — and I wanted to have that. I come from the two-inch tape era, so I want that warmth in my own music. Just because electronics have made it possible to do things doesn’t mean we need to.
I recently watched an interview with you where you talked about getting the rock ‘n’ roll bug while watching the Beatles on Ed Sullivan…
But a large chunk of your career has been spent in the studio. We talk a lot on the site about the different forms that careers, and success, can take in the music business, and I think this is a pretty great example — but was that evolution difficult for you? To go from those Ed Sullivan dreams to doing all that work behind the scenes?
When I started playing, I was nine. I started writing songs after seeing the Beatles. I don’t know what gave me the confidence to do it, but I just started writing, and I got a band together. My dad managed us — it’s the same band I’ll be playing with in a few days. We got ourselves a record deal with RCA when I was 16, and then later, I signed as a solo artist with Phil Spector on Spector Records.
That must have been interesting.
Well, I never got paid. (Laughs) I actually had a Top 40 R&B hit called “Love Touch.” Boy, was I excited. It wasn’t my song — they found it for me — and then they turned it into a duet and promoted us as Jeff and Aleta. It was on the radio, but I couldn’t even buy it myself!
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Later, I was doing a lot of promotion in Baltimore, and I’d go to radio stations and — do you remember Teddy Pendergrass? His drummer, James Carter, asked me, “Do you want to get your record played?” I said, “Absolutely!” So we’d go around to radio stations and I actually would hand the program directors $250 in cash. It went right on the air — they’d play it eight times a day. I thought, “Wow, I can’t afford to do this all the time, but I’ll spend a couple thousand dollars.” So I did! I spent $2,000 and they were playing the record in Baltimore like crazy. I started going around and offering myself to radio stations for promotional events at places like roller skating rinks, things like that.
But, you know, even though the record was selling, I wasn’t making money on it. After that, I decided to cut an EP on my own. It was only four songs, because studio time was a lot more expensive back then, and I didn’t play as many instruments, so I had to hire a band. Anyway, with those songs, I entered the American Song Festival, which was a competition way before American Idol, and I won two years in a row. That was 1982 and ’83.
Part of the prize was that I got to go to L.A., where they presented me with a check, and there was a little party. That’s where I started meeting publishers, and I signed with Quincy Jones’ Qwest publishing company in 1984. Part of the deal was that he wanted me to move to California, which I did in 1985, and during that first year I placed 39 songs.
You can imagine why I said “Wow, maybe I shouldn’t worry about being a recording artist.” I mean, it had been a struggle — but now that I was writing for other people, the money was starting to come in. Because of Quincy’s popularity — you know, he’d done Thriller with Michael Jackson, and he had a lot of clout, so I had access to a lot of artists. I produced the O’Jays, and Gladys Knight, and Al Jarreau, and met Johnny Mathis. I met Mel Brooks and wrote the theme for Spaceballs. I was thinking about being an artist, but I didn’t have the time!
But, you know, recently the music has changed so much. It’s been more of a struggle for the type of artist I mentioned. I mean, Al Jarreau is still great and he still performs, but he isn’t selling as many records. Same with Gladys Knight. I’ve had more time to think about what I want to do now, and more time to perform for myself, and that’s what really inspired me to go back on stage. I really want to be an artist again. It’s what I love.
Trends have changed, but unlike a lot of the session musicians who found a lot of success in L.A. during the ’80s, you’ve managed to stick around — and diversify — while others were either migrating to Nashville or just hanging it up completely.
I try to be as versatile as I can. I’ve even been hired to rap on a couple of things, if you can believe it. I’ve been able to be a chameleon — I get hired as an instrumentalist, singer, producer, or sometimes even just an engineer, so I get to wear a lot of hats. But what brings me the most joy is performing. I mean, I love having money too, but the older I get, the more I realize it isn’t everything. I really enjoy singing, and no matter what, I’m going to keep doing this. If I’m not successful, I’ll still fall back on other things, but I’m not going to stop making albums. I wish I’d been doing it for the last 25 years, but that’s okay. That’s my fault. And I’ve worked with so many people along the way. Everyone from Donny Osmond and Englebert Humperdinck to Mick Jagger and Rod Stewart. You read my bio and ask, “Who is this guy?” No one even knows! I pinch myself all the time.