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Interview: Curtis Hudson & Lisa Stevens, Songwriters of Madonna’s “Holiday” (Part 2)

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Continued from Part One

Madonna’s pop classic, “Holiday,” is an institution. It’s a worldwide anthem bearing a message that resonates with people of all ages, cultural backgrounds, and faiths. The song, penned by Curtis Hudson and Lisa Stevens, is responsible for jump-starting a massive, 30-years-strong career of proportions which few artists experience. Upon the single’s 1983 release, Madonna was a struggling New York performer who had created some buzz in the club world with the dancefloor hits “Everybody” and “Burning Up.” In Part Two, the duo shares with Justin Kantor their thoughts on the Queen of Pop’s cultural impact; reflections on their recording career as Pure Energy; and how their son, Eric Hudson, came to be an in-demand producer.

Curt, you were involved in writing another song for Madonna—”Spotlight,” which came out as a new tune on her 1987 You Can Dance remix album.

Madonna Spotlight cover

CH: During the time right after “Holiday,” when we’d go to her place and write, I presented “Spotlight.” I gave her a complete song, “Spotlight.” I had actually written it in case Warner Bros. asked her for another “Holiday.” She said she loved it and felt spiritual about it. But she didn’t use it or contact me again about it. It sort of popped up out of nowhere when she was getting ready to do You Can Dance. Her lawyer contacted our manager and said we needed to talk. We went over and met with him. She and Stephen Bray had already done the song; but I hadn’t even heard the version they had done.They took the demo I had given her and worked it into a different song. They gave me credit since I had the original song copyrighted. I would’ve collaborated and made changes. But I was told, “Well, she’s too busy. She’s overseas doing a movie.” I was okay with it, though, because they gave me credit. But the original song had a certain magic, and the changes took that essence away. The original “Spotlight” was another “Holiday”—the rhythm, the basic groove. I think they were trying to get away from that sound. Sometimes artists don’t want their sound to be identified with specific writers.

What memories do you have of working with Madonna? Any thoughts on her impact on the music industry?

CH: She definitely knows what she wants—what works for her, what doesn’t work for her. I’ve heard a lot of people criticize her vocals; but she knows what works for her range and how to get the best out of her sound.

LS: You know it’s Madonna when you hear her. She’s got her own sound, her own look. She’s a great businesswoman and very talented individually.

CH: We felt she was going to be a big artist. I remember when she came into the studio: her style of dress was so different. She had these rags and pieces of material attached to her clothes. There was something about her. I remember telling her, “I think you’re going to be a big star next year at this time,” and she said, “You really think so?” At the time, it seemed like she was going through a whole lot of stuff with her management and career.

She knew how the business worked early on. Some people complained that she uses you up; but I never felt that way. I felt that she, being a woman in the industry, knew how difficult it would be. And she wasn’t in a group; she was by herself. She knew the games people play; so she said, “I’m gonna play this game for me to come out on top.” I respected that about her. She wasn’t going in like some artists, who let people take total control of them—what to do, when to do it, how to do it. They don’t know anything about the business; and once their time is up, they’re thrown aside for another artist.

She’s a very hands-on person. I remember when I was cutting the guitar track for “Holiday,” there was a little something I do in the rhythm where she was, like, “Do you have to do that?” I told her that it was part of the funk in the rhythm. She said, “Are you sure you have to do that?” She picked up just that little part in the guitar rhythm and really wanted me to play it another way. I assured her that it was best the way I was doing it. But I was impressed; a lot of times singers don’t notice stuff like that.

Nowadays, we’re missing that element of everybody going in there and doing it. Many times, artists don’t do anything but go in and learn the song from the songwriter’s demo. They then cut it phrase by phrase to the track. That’s in. They have no input. It’s whatever the writer hears. That’s why most writers now are very good singers. Most of the top ones are artists who didn’t get signed. But the artists don’t have any real work to do. They just copy everything, even the ad-libs.

LS: Being a songwriter and producer, she handles things. She was there from beginning to end of the recording session. She’s an on-point performer. A lot of singers can’t get up there and dance and sing at the same time—they go flat. But she stays strong.

CH: A lot of people compare Lady Gaga to her. But there was no Madonna before Madonna. She had no blueprint to go by when she came out. So you really can’t compare the two. Madonna created so many different things that young people can draw from now.

Prior to the success of “Holiday,” as you mentioned, the two of you, along with Curt’s brother, Raymond Hudson, recorded for Prism Records as Pure Energy. Let’s talk about the group’s beginnings.

Pure Energy LP Cover

LS: When I met Curt and the guys, they had been playing in a band called The Professionals. One of my girlfriends knew the drummer. She had heard me sing around the house. I was about 17 at this time. She took me to a club called The Time and Place in Orange, New Jersey, to see them play, and they asked if I could sing. I got up and sang—mostly to the wall!

CH: She sang “Keep Your Head to the Sky” by Earth, Wind & Fire, and hit all the notes. I said, “Wow!” At that point, we were a cover band. I had just met the guys a few days before Lisa came down. My brother told me they needed a guitarist. So, I took my guitar down and just started playing. Lisa came in, and from there we evolved into Pure Energy.

LS: We played the chitlin circuit. We got really tight, and one year were voted the best band in New Jersey.

CH: We went through so many stages. Most of the members didn’t continue to do music.

At what point did you guys decide to look for a record deal? How did you make that transition?

CH: We all wanted to record. But when you’re in a band, you’ve got so many heads to deal with—so many directions everybody wants to go in. Sometimes it’s hard to focus on that collective goal. We went through a lot of years trying to figure that out.

LS: We were writing songs together, knocking around, trying to get something that we thought people would buy. In trying to get that record that would interest a label, we bumped heads a lot. That’s how it ended up being just the three of us.

CH: A few people came to hear us. We ended up going with an independent label that was just starting out. We figured we had a good shot without a lot of internal competition. So, we went with Prism. Lenny Fisherberg was the president.

Tell me about the experience.

CH: We went along with the program in a lot of ways. We did most of the album as far as producing, writing, and arrangements. A lot of time other people got credit because they had the credentials. We had a full orchestra on our album [1980’s Pure Energy]. It was done in a big way at RCA Studios. Prism had a lot of faith in the group initially and invested a lot. But they weren’t big enough to break us. We were an R&B group at heart, but we ended up being a dance group. That was the only level they could break us on. They couldn’t break us nationally.

LS: We were really a funky band. But when it came down to the production of our records, it would always end up being more disco-ish. That would happen in the mixing process all the time at the end of a project. A lot of that didn’t capture the true Pure Energy.

CH: Club DJ’s were very popular at that time. They had the control because they could get your song played. A lot of them not only worked in the club circuit, but also at the major radio stations. That’s how we became affiliated with Jellybean. He was at The Funhouse. He pretty much ran it. So, if you wanted a song played there, you had to get his approval. Labels would bring in different DJ’s to mix songs, and they would flavor them the way they thought they would work in different regions. So, you could end up with a New York-sounding record when it was intended to be a national-sounding record.

Pure Energy 45

LS: After all this, we got disillusioned with Prism Records. Lenny was a great guy; but he was new to the business. We weren’t getting exactly what we wanted as far as our sound. We got kind of lost in the shuffle, as far as the distribution and all that. For instance, after we had written “Holiday” and recorded it ourselves, Prism told us that it wasn’t a hit. A lot of songs we had, they wouldn’t go along with, ’cause it didn’t have that disco sound. But that’s why “Holiday” crossed over for Madonna, because it had that funk—that mixture.

Did the success of “Holiday” change how you were perceived as artists at Prism Records?

CH: I think it had the opposite effect. Once they realized how big this song was that they had refused, it seemed like they got angry at us, like, “Why didn’t you make us record it?” Well, “We can’t make you.” From that point on, we didn’t put a lot of efforts into our projects. We felt like we had proven ourselves capable of making major hits, but they still always brought in someone from outside to change things about our records. We might present them with 10 or 15 songs to choose from. Still, it was always, “We don’t like this. Give us something like that.”

LS: Too many cooks spoil the soup. Lenny was a nice guy, but he was hearing from too many people. We were the last people that he trusted. So we were really frustrated at the end—especially me as a vocalist. I’m all over the place. I’m truly a soul singer, but that never came across. We’d get to the mixing stage and I’d get lost. My voice always sounded thinned out.

What about the single “Too Hot,” which you released in 1982?

That was one instance in which Prism said, “Go ahead.” We told them we needed an R&B song. People who heard us perform loved the group; but the records up to that point didn’t reflect our energy on stage. Aretha had that problem when she started recording. They put her through all different kinds of stages, but could never capture her real essence. When they finally decided to put her at the piano and let her do her thing, that’s when she came to be the Aretha that we know.

Your son, Eric Hudson, has become an in-demand songwriter and producer, working on hit records with the likes of Mary J. Blige. Trey Songz, and Jamie Foxx. Based on your experiences in the business, were you hesitant about him getting involved?

LS He started playing drums at two years of age. At six months old, when he was still in a walker, I remember him walking up to his dad playing the guitar. He started strumming it in perfect 4/4 time. So, he came out musically inclined. God blessed him with a tremendous talent.

Eric Hudson

CH: I never tried to hide anything about the business from him. I always knew he was going to be a musician. So, I talked to him about the business—told him the good and bad experiences; that it’s a business first. No one really cares about you as a person. You have to understand that first if you’re going to get into it. When he graduated from high school and was ready to do his music, he said, “Give me a shot. If I don’t do it within a year, I’ll go right into college.” I said, “If you’re gonna do it right, set your companies up and make sure you line up your lawyers.” So, he was able to benefit from the knowledge I had and the mistakes we made over the years. I was not going to allow anybody to come in and take over his publishing.

You have to be a part of the whole mechanism and decide what you want out of your career—what you’re willing to do and not do. If you practice and develop your career as a musician, there’s a certain amount of integrity that comes with that. How much do you want to sell out to make money? Once you get those boundaries set, you can deal with it without all that other stress that’s gonna come up on top of that. A lot of artists, once they get out there and get the fame, find out that it’s not really the world they thought it was, and they can’t deal with that pressure.

LS: There was a time when Polydor Records wanted to sign me as a solo artist, but they weren’t interested in the whole group. I didn’t feel comfortable with that. It was a major label, but Pure Energy was a package. I wanted the group to have that level of success. We had come a long way, if we could only get the right promotion and the creative control to present our true sound.

CH: There are more options in one sense. But in another sense, it is more difficult because of the way the industry is structured. With only three major labels now and no independent radio stations, there’s just one big market, and you get the same sound coming out on so many artists. Everybody has to go through the same mechanism, no matter who you’re signed to—you’re pretty much working for the same people. If you don’t fall into a certain sound, you don’t get signed. If you don’t write a particular type of song, you don’t get work as a writers. There are more opportunities, but it breaks down to be less when looking at the big picture.

How do you think the Internet has affected the quality of music?

CH: Well, the music we’re directed to these days is still the music that the record labels are putting commercials out on. But a few years down the line, companies will come up with a slicker way of marketing songs on the Internet, instead of just putting them up there. That’s going to change the face of everything. Right now, you don’t know who’s who.

File sharing has hurt the industry as a whole. In an era when you could buy the whole album, you knew you were getting a full album of material you could put on and listen to. Now it’s, “Just give me that one record.” But it’s hard for a group to develop an identity off of a single alone. You can put a commercial thought or idea out there to give you a sample; but you have to get into the depth of a group on a full CD. It’s never going to be the same again; but when someone comes up with a way to do what we were able to do back in the day—marketing with full long-play digital—that’s going to bring people back to music.

Music is something special. It’s more than a commercial vehicle. It’s meant for us to be able to communicate and relate to each other. There’s a deeper meaning behind it. The Internet is trivializing the artist and writer with the “Let me download this” mentality. Everyone’s a critic. When we had records out, we wanted and appreciated getting responsible reviews. We knew the writers studied what they were doing on a professional level. They weren’t just saying something to be negative. The reviews would help you to make sure the next is better.

Pure Energy also wrote and produced records for several other artists. In particular, you guys scored big New York dance hits with sides for Hot Streak, Lauriece Hudson and Maxine Singleton.

LS: Yes, I wrote “You Can’t Run from Love” for Maxine. We also did one on her called “Don’t You Love It.” The radio stations got hold of it and put it in regular rotation; but the record company wasn’t behind it.

CH: A lot goes into making an actual single happen. You’ve got to have money behind it. Frankie Crocker of WBLS was a big fan of the group. He played that song out of the box.

LS: Then KISS picked it up and told us they were behind the record, but that people were calling and asking for the song and there was no product in the stores. They can’t play something if there’s nothing behind it. So, he got off the record after a couple of weeks.

CH: The major labels like Warner Bros. and Columbia had a whole network in which they’d work on building up songs in clubs for months before taking it to radio.

LS: Some of the independent labels, on the other hand, would give money to promoters to push the records in another state. But we’d hear from people we knew around the country that the promoters were taking that money to go on vacation. There was a lot of that craziness.

CH: With the Hot Streak record, “Body Work,” we had some extra time in the studio and decided to put up a track. I programmed the drum machine, put a bassline down, and did some vocals with Lisa, my sister Lauriece, and Raymond. Bashiri Johnson, who also played on “Holiday,” did percussion. Our manager took the song to Easy Street Records and got a 12″ single deal; but we were still signed to Prism Records and didn’t have a group behind it. So, we found a group in New Jersey to front the song. Derek Dupree was the lead singer of the group, so he added some ad-libs to the song. Jellybean mixed it and Fred Zarr added a synth solo.

LS: The song ended up on the Breakin’ soundtrack album, which sold 10 million copies worldwide. But we never got a dime from it.

CH: Missy Elliott sampled the song in “Lose Control,” so we got paid from that. It was nominated for a Grammy. Because of the sample, they sent me a notification, but I couldn’t get an actual Grammy. At that point, they weren’t identifying the writers of sampled parts as actual writers.

Curtis Hudson with RIAA Award

Any chance the public we’ll ever hear the original Pure Energy recording of “Holiday”?

CH: I’ve been trying to find it. I had a copy on cassette, which got destroyed.

LS: We cut it at Mix-O-Lydian Studios in New Jersey. A lot of our two-track masters were stored there.

CH: I contacted [the owner] a few months ago to get a copy, but he hasn’t gotten back to me yet.

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About Justin Kantor

Justin Kantor is a music journalist with a passion for in-depth artist interviews and reviews. Most of his interviews for Blogcritics can be heard on his Blog Talk Radio program, "Rhythmic Talk." Justin's work has been published in Wax Poetics, The All-Music Guide, and SoulMusic.com. A graduate of Berklee College of Music's Music Business and Management program, he honed his writing chops as a teenager—publishing "The Hip Key" magazine from 1992-1996. The publication, which was created out of his childhood home in Virginia Beach, reached a circulation of 10,000 by the time he was 16. At Berklee, Justin continued to perfect his craft with a series of 'Underrated Soul' features for The Groove from 1997-2003. This led to a companion TV show on Manhattan Neighborhood Network in 2002, as well as writing for the national Dance Music Authority (DMA). A self-described "obscure pop, dance, and R&B junkie," Justin also has penned liner notes for reissue labels such as Edsel Records and FunkyTownGrooves. He's excited to be a part of the BlogCritics team and indulge his musical fancies even further. Connect with him at his Facebook page, or via krystolfan@gmail.com.
  • http://OldSchool.tblog.com/ OldSchool80s

    Just came across this interview. Very well done! Answered all of the questions I would’ve asked myself. Thanks!

  • http://OldSchool.tblog.com/ OldSchool80s

    By the way, you may enjoy many of the interview I have had the honor of doing with contributors to 80s awesomeness. You can find them (over 60 published so far) at http://OldSchool.tblog.com