I have a mansion forget the price
Ain’t never been there they tell me it’s nice
I live in hotels tear out the walls
I have accountants pay for it all
— Joe Walsh, The Eagles (1981)
CONSHOHOCKEN, PA.Back in the long-ago 80s, a decade known for The Gilded Rock Star, there was once a platinum-selling band called The Hooters.
Products of the hard-scrabble streets of Philadelphia, the five band members were known more as intellectual balladeers than boorish rock musicians. The Hooters would have none of the latter. Eric Bazilian, the lead vocalist and guitarist, majored in Physics at the University of Pennsylvania, and his classmate, Rob Hyman, also lead vocalist and keyboardist, was a Biology major.
After playing a few gigs together at UPenn, in 1979 Bazilian and Hyman teamed up with David Uosikkinen on drums, John Lilley on mandolin and John Kuzma on guitar, determined to prove their parents wrong about forging a successful career in music.
Armed with their clean-cut looks, college degrees and perhaps looking a little out of place on a rock n’ roll trail strewn with drugs and other excesses, a band was born. “We kind of said let’s give it a shot,” Hyman recalled. “Let’s do it like the indy bands.”
So they piled into an old van and hit the road, playing any college bar or saloon that would book them, often for free. “We played a lot of bars in working class neighborhoods,” Hyman said. “We would play any place that would have us. Every night we tried out new stuff and would sleep wherever we could, sometimes in the van. We slowly built a fan base, whether it was the rednednecked bikers or dreadlocked ska fans, who began lining up to see us…It was like boot camp, with free beer.”
In 1982, Bazilian and Hyman were asked to write, arrange and play on the debut album of a relatively unknown singer named Cyndi Lauper, then playing in a band called The Hazads. The album, She’s So Unusual was being produced by their former bandmate, Rick Chertoff.
After a long day in the recording studio, Lauper needed one more song to make the album complete, and hastily scrawled out the words to “Time After Time” in the studio. “We finished the last verse over the telephone,” Hyman recalled, thinking not much would come of the B-side tune.
Bazilian disagreed. “They played the first version of it and I said we’d be hearing that song for the rest of our lives,” he recalled. “The good ones tend to come like that.”
Lauper nailed the song on the first take, and the demo of it sent to her record company would go on to hit Number 1 and was subsequently nominated for a Grammy for Song of the Year. “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” did even better, catapaulting Lauper to pop icon status.
“Cyndi was hanging out here for months…In fact, we were the ones who introduced her to cheesesteaks,” Hyman recalled. “She’s family. She’s like our crazy cousin from Queens.”
But rock stardom was still elusive to the band, which changed its name from Baby Grand in 1980. “We needed a plural name which was not a household name,” Hyman said. “We didn’t want to be ‘The Shoes’ or ‘The Chairs,’ and ‘The Stones’ was already taken. So one day in the studio our technician said, ‘Give me a level on that hooter, which is a German musical instrument formerly known as a melodica….And the seed just planted itself.”
Unfortunately, Steve Martin’s coinage of the hooter as an off-color joke representing a part of the female anatomy also planted itself. Though much later, spawning a coast-to-coast chain of politically incorrect chicken-and-wings restaurants filled with top-heavy servers. “We actually found it amusing,” Bazilian said. “It was a transient humor remark, but we have learned to co-exist happily with the girls.”
In 1983, The Hooters released their first independent album, Amore, which sold a respectable 100,000 copies and introduced the original versions of songs like “All You Zombies” and “Hanging On A Heartbeat,” all of which would reappear in different versions on later albums.
Then in 1984, their hard work and talent was properly recognized when Columbia Records signed them to their first major recording contract. With that came validation. And after about six years touring the country in a van came the hits, the mega hits which put the band on the road to rock stardom and which are now etched in Billboard 100 history. “Every night we tried new stuff, and one night a radio station [Philadelphia’s WMMR] played ‘All you Zombies,’ and it kind of took off from there,” Hyman said.
By combining a mix of rock, ska and folk music, The Hooters gained major commercial success in the mid 80s due to heavy radioplay and MTV rotation of several of their songs, including “Day By Day,” “And We Danced” and “Where Do The Children Go.” The 1985 album “Nervous Night” went double platinum, selling two million albums. Their hits successfully crossed over to bubble gum Top 40 territory and helped them eventually sell more than five million albums or CDs on the Arista, RCA and Columbia labels.
“We intersected at a good time with MTV and the music video revolution,” said John Lilley, their longtime guitarist. “We connected at a time when music was such a powerful force.”
Subsequent albums, including One Way Home (1987), Zig Zag (1987) and Out of Body (1993) were less successful domestically, but by the late ’80s and early ’90s, the band had found significant commercial success overseas, especially in Europe, where they played at The Wall Concert in Berlin in 1990.
“We took my parents on the European tour, and they rode on the tour bus and saw me perform in front of 10,000 people,” Hyman said. “My dad’s a dentist so he’s very practical. One day on the tour he said, ‘Oh yeah, now I get it…’ It was a vicarious moment.”
Each of their eight albums seemed to have found its own audience, Lilley said, whether it be in Finland, Sweden, France, Norway, Japan, Germany or the ultra-discerning market of Great Britain’s “Beatleheads,” where he joked that “they loved us for 15 minutes.”
“There appears to be no logical thread,” Lilley added.
The band went on hiatus in 1995 and only recently re-emerged with their first CD since 1993, Time Stand Still. “It feels like a continuation,” Lilley said. “We did not record for 14 years and what we’re doing is grabbing chunks of musical territory and molding it together. Everyone in the band brings something special to the table.”