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John Waite is a painter at heart. He paints with words. The Englishman who turned a phone conversation into a chart-topping hit aspired to paint in his formative years. He went to school for it long enough to develop something of his own. But, to see others accomplish the same in half the time, he said he felt his true voice was in song.
“I knew I could sing and I liked words,” said Waite. He said he always felt creative with music but compared to the “wizards” of Paul Rodgers, Robert Plant, Rod Stewart, Joe Cocker and Terry Reid, “I couldn’t conceive of being in the same room.” His illustrations, those that would take hours and sometimes days to produce, was not him. “I knew if I went to music, and even [something] more spontaneous, it would have my voice. And, whether it was good or bad, it would be real, and it would be honest.
“So, without getting too carried away, and too serious about it, I just decided to throw myself into that with the belief that it would have some form of authenticity.”
Waite dropped his illustrator’s pen for a bass guitar and took up with The Babys, a power pop band that consisted of keyboardist and guitarist Michael Corby, drummer Tony Brock and guitarist Wally Stocker. The pairing, he said, was the “perfect balance.” Where the band couldn’t write or sing, he could do both. He landed both jobs. To foreshadow events to come, Waite said The Babys landed a record deal by means of a music video.
“We were actually the first band on the planet to do that,” said Waite. “No matter what else you hear.” According to a story documented on Waite’s old website, the band initially struggled with landing a record deal because of their good looks. Record label executives did not believe they played the instruments on their audio demos. A color video was produced with five of their songs. The band later signed with Chrysalis.
Within three years, the band would break into Billboard’s Top 20; first, with the single “Isn’t It Time,” and the second, “Every Time I Think of You.” Both songs peaked at No. 13 on The Billboard Top 100. Neither one of which, however, were written by members of the band.
In December 1980, The Babys were touring the U.S. in support of its fifth studio album. The night after John Lennon was shot and killed, The Babys played a show in Cincinnati. At the encore, Waite was pulled off the stage by a fan. It was a scary moment under the circumstances that unfolded in New York City hours before. Waite seriously injured his knee. The band later played a show in neighboring Akron with Waite on crutches. He collapsed and the rest of the tour was canceled.
The Babys broke up soon after the Cincinnati incident. Through various interviews at the time, members of the band recounted their reasons for the split. They were frustrated. Despite their popularity in the United States, their home country ignored them. Eight of their tracks broke The Billboard Top 100. “Isn’t It Time,” No. 45 on the U.K. Singles Chart, was the only track to chart at home. The band’s name also did not lend much credence in an environment dominated by either disco or punk. In a way, the band couldn’t seem to break away from the pretty boy image it fought against at the start. They felt underrated. Brock and Stocker moved on with Rod Stewart, with Stocker later going to Air Supply. Johnathan Cain, who had replaced Corby after the band’s third album, latched on with Journey just before an upstart cable television station took off.
Waite describes himself as an avid reader. It’s a habit that has enabled him to keep centered throughout 35 years in a hectic, rockstar lifestyle. It’s his everpresent fascination with words. As a writer, he always pays attention to the visual story.
“I’ve always been into movies, screenplays and scripts,” said Waite. “I’ve always loved films. So, when that came into that small videos, they were like stories, I was gung-ho. I knew what I was doing.”
Waite struck out on his own shortly after The Babys were done. He signed with Chrysalis and released “Ignition” in 1982. From that debut album came “Change,” a track that received modest playtime on MTV. His success on MTV would follow a few years later with “Missing You.”
Waite’s biggest hit was something of a mistake. While working on material in a home studio, he said someone loaded up the wrong song to sing over. The first words out of his mouth were something familiar. “Every time I think of you.” What followed next did, in fact, “turn out good.”
“You write those kinds of songs and it’s like cigarette smoke,” said Waite. “You don’t know what it is. You don’t know what it looks like. You can’t describe the shape of it. It’s there… That came out of left field. I knew it when it happened, it was No. 1.”
The first few words off of Waite’s No. 1 hit song “Missing You” are shared by The Babys’ 1978 hit. The music, however, sounds nothing like each other. Unlike the previous hit, the storyline follows a phone conversation between two ex-lovers. Waite’s words are from a man still struggling over the break-up.
“I used the first lines to get me going,” said Waite. “On the back of that, I got the entire first verse and chorus, and I grazed the second verse and I choked up. I was so overwhelmed. It was straight from the heart. I couldn’t even speak. … I was trying to say something I’ve been trying to say for a very long time.”
The song knocked Tina Turner’s “What’s Love Got To Do With It” from off the top of the Billboard chart in June 1984. Its video received heavy playtime on MTV. The cinematic story between the two lovers, including its heartbreaking conclusion, would help make it among the most memorable videos of its time. The song’s legacy continues to be revisited. Turner is among many artists to pay homage to the hit song. She covered it in 1996. Rod Stewart did so as well ten years later. A re-recording of the song by bluegrass artist Alison Krauss, featuring a duet with Waite, peaked at No. 34 on the Hot County Songs chart in 2007.
Waite revisits the song on his latest album, “The Wooden Heart: Acoustic Anthology Volume 2.” Though the song is now more than 30 years removed from its original release, the emotion from that familiar story remains just as raw when played acoustically.
“I don’t like a lot of things to be dressed up,” said Waite. The genesis to most of his songs starts with him picking up an acoustic guitar. “There’s nothing like seeing a pretty girl in a black dress. But, it’s a black dress. I like music that’s just what it is. … At the end of the day, it’s about the song and the performance.”
Michael Hallisey is managing editor of Spotlight Newspapers.