Change is scary, but sometimes the bigger the risk, the bigger the reward. Join Joe and Toby as they explore the history of artists that have changed musical genres and found equal — or sometimes greater — success. They'll look at pop artists like Katy Perry and Amy Grant that began their careers in Christian music, and metalheads like Michael Bolton (!) who then switched to pop. All good things must come around again, so they’ll finish up with Darius Rucker, his detour from pop into country, and his return to all things Hootie.
Joe: Welcome to Riffs on Riffs, where we explore the surprising connections between songs past and present and share the fascinating stories that make music a universal language. I’m Joe Watson and I’m here with my co-host Toby Brazwell. What’s up my friend?
Toby: I’m well man. I’m getting all settled with the new digs. Life is all about experiencing new things. Change is hard, but I’ve found that in life that sometimes change offers a chance for greater success.
Joe: So true, and that change often requires taking a chance. Sometimes the greater the risk the greater the reward. In that vein, today’s episode we will focus on a few artists that have changed their musical genre and found greater success with it.
Toby: Yeah. I can already tell that this is going to be fun episode to do and I’m sure that you have a list just like me. Let’s start with one of my favorites on our list of genre jumpers. Miss Katy Perry. or Miss should I say Katy Hudson if you’re nasty. Turns out that the pop artist we know and love started off as a Christian singer and used her birth name.
Joe: Katie Hudson, not to be confused with actress Kate Hudson, was born in Santa Barbara, California. From the age of 3 to 11, Katy’s parents took her from city to city to set up churches and do the good work. Money was tight back in those days, but young Katie definitely showed an affinity for the arts.
Toby: Religion was obviously an important aspect of her life as a young woman. She sang at her parent’s church from the age of 9 to 17. While I was reading a little bit of her history I found that we shared similar experiences with sneaking secular music CDs into the house.
Joe: Hold on, are your parents aware of this now? I don’t want you coming clean to them for the first time on our podcast.
Toby: No worries, that confession happened long ago. And regardless of what music Katy was listening to, she always maintained an interest in creating it. She took guitar lessons and worked hard to improve her writing skills.
Joe: Her hard work paid off because she was signed to Red Hill Records and released an eponymously titled christian album on March 6, 2001. Unfortunately, the album wasn’t successful and only sold about 200 copies before Red Hill Records ceased to operate. You can find a track called Faith Won’t Fail on Youtube, but unfortunately nothing is available to put on the playlist for this episode. Obviously, she changed her mind as to what type of music she wanted to pursue and the rest is history. Going from Christian to Pop is quite a change.
Toby: Well I can speak from experience. I too have kissed a girl and liked it. It can certainly change things. Seriously, it’s not hard to believe that an artist changed from Christian to Pop. Music is the universal language and songs are like sonic photographs. They just tell one aspect of what a person is about at one point in time. A collection of songs is like a collection of photos. There was another Christian artist that turned pop and found success.
Joe: You must be referring to the Queen of Christian Pop, Amy Grant. She has sold more than 30 million records worldwide and won 6 Grammy's.
Toby: The one and only. I used to LOVE her back in the day. But i felt the world got to know her better when she strayed away from Christian Pop and released her secular Pop album Heart In Motion in 1991. That was her most successful record with 5 million copies sold. Her singles “Heart In Motion” and “Baby, Baby” were played heavily on Pop record stations. I distinctly remember hearing them on my bus ride home.
Joe: Crank up the Walkman my friend! For those that were surprised of her switching lanes to Pop. I say… FOR SHAME. This is a switch we should’ve seen coming, especially since she was the other half of the duet “The Next time I Fall in love” with Chicago frontman Peter Cetera.
Toby: I know we discussed Cetera and Chicago on a past episode, but man… I had to listen to this song again. It’s just that good. Grant returned to Christian music and released an album in 2002 called Legacy… “Hymms and Faith” followed by another release in 2003 entitled “Simple Things” which didn’t do very well commercially.
Joe: Simple Things is a great album! Oh wait, I’m thinking of the Zero 7 album, the one that introduced the world to Sia. Listeners, go check that one out, we’ll put a song from that album on this episode’s playlist.
Toby: Amy Grant’s more than 25 years in the industry and the catalog of songs that it created was good enough to be inducted in the Gospel Music Hall of Fame.
Joe: With anyone that has achieved a level of success, there’s always the haters. They come in all shapes and sizes and Grant’s haters criticized her for the genre change and claimed that she was too sexual. She filed for a divorce in 1999 and married Vince Gill a year later. Of course this only added fuel to the fire.
Toby: She seemed to take it all in stride and had this to say:
"I didn't get a divorce because I had a great marriage and then along came Vince Gill. My husband and I had a rocky road from day one. I think what was so hard -- and this is [what] one of our counselors said -- sometimes an innocent party can come into a situation, and they're like a big spotlight. What they do is reveal, by comparison, the painful dynamics that are already in existence.
Joe: Now that we’ve talked about a couple of artists that have gone from religious to secular pop music, let’s turn our attention to someone that came from the dark side to become famous for his pop sensibilities.
Toby: I was not aware that Ozzy was making pop records now. That’s interesting, is there a new release I should check out?
Joe: I am not referring to the actual prince of darkness, but rather the devil’s music that is rock n’ roll. Especially hard rock, or worse, heavy metal! And we all know that when you think of heavy metal, you can’t help but think of Michael Bolton.
Toby: Michael Bolton. As in “How Am I Supposed to Live Without You?” Michael Bolton?
Joe: That’s the one! And to answer your question, I don’t know how I’m supposed to live without you buddy. The miles between us makes it very difficult to grab a pint before we record.
Toby: Now a days its all about pints over a Zoom call my friend! But back to Michael Bolton. Bolton is a pop icon, and before that, legend has it he auditioned to be the lead singer of Black Sabbath, Ozzy’s former band. It’s a rumor he flatly denies, saying he’s not sure how that even became a thing.
Joe: It could be in part because his early band, Blackjack, did indeed open for Ozzy Osbourne back in the day. At the time he had not yet altered his real name, Michael Bolotin, and his instantly recognizable raspy voice was in full effect as the frontman for this hard rock outfit.
Toby: Blackjack boasted a pretty impressive lineup for a band that didn’t have any mainstream success. Besides Bolton on vocals, you had Bruce Kulick on guitar, Sandy Gennaro on drums and Jimmy Haslip on bass.
Joe: That is a stacked lineup. Bruce Kulick of course went on to a long standing stint with Kiss, Gennaro played with acts ranging from Pat Travers to Cyndi Lauper, and Haslip went on to form the fusion outfit Yellowjackets, who won a couple of Grammys in the mid-80s. Side note, Yellowjackets also featured one of my all-time favorite guitarists, Robben Ford. You know how we have talked about who’s voice we’d like to have to sing with for a day? Well, Robben Ford’s guitar tone would be in the top ten of any list for me.
Toby: So while Blackjack didn’t reach the top of the charts, they had moderate success with their self-titled debut album in 1979. It sold around 100,000 copies and the single “Love Me Tonight” reached #62 on the Hot 100. We’ll put that track on the playlist for this episode.
Joe: In both sound and popularity, Blackjack reminds me a little bit of another band that is a Cleveland treasure and has had moderate national success — the Michael Stanley Band. Let’s add some MSB to the playlist, too.
Toby: Michael Bolton would give a hint of his career to come on Blackjack’s second and final album, World’s Apart, with a cover of the Supreme’s song “My World Is Empty Without You”. And since we mentioned the Supreme’s, it seems an appropriate time to shout out some remarkable musicians in their own right, The Funk Brothers. Without their work Motown would not have been what it was.
Joe: Without a doubt, and in particular on that “My World is Empty” track, Mike Terry. That baritone sax work that pumps throughout that song is epic. Let’s put that one on the playlist, too.
Toby: Blackjack did find new life when they were sampled by a couple of prominent rappers in the early 2000s, but before we tell you about that, we’re going to take a little break.
Joe: Before the break, you were telling us about how Michael Bolton’s band Blackjack was sampled by a couple of big names. Tell us more.
Toby: In 2002, Jay Z sampled the Blackjack song “Stay” for his song “A Dream”. And in 2004, Kanye interpolated part of the Blackjack song “Maybe It’s the Power of Love” for his song “Never Let Me Down” from The College Dropout album. So I guess Blackjack did eventually make it big.
Joe: Certainly its individual members did. Michael Bolton got his first major hit with the song we previously mentioned, “How Am I Supposed to Live Without You”, and that song marked his official transition from hard rock to easy listening.
Toby: It’s always interesting to hear how some hits take a winding road to success, and in this case “How Am I Supposed to Live” was originally offered to the duo Air Supply to be recorded, but Arista Records President Clive Davis wanted to change the lyrics of the chorus, and Bolton refused.
Joe: So Clive cut off the Air Supply? How am I supposed to live?
Toby: That is low hanging fruit. I’m not giving you any credit for a pun that bad. Let’s move on.
Joe: Laura Branigan would instead record the song as it was originally written, and it spent 3 weeks at #1 on the adult contemporary charts in 1983. Not a bad follow up to her breakthrough hit, a cover of Umberto Tozzi’s “Gloria” that sold 2 million copies in the US alone. It was around this time that Branigan lost all semblance of Self Control.
Toby: Now that’s a little better. “Self Control” was another of Branigan’s big hits, and also one where she covered an Italian artist. The Italian singer Raf did the original version, and believe it or not it was released around the same time that Laura Branigan’s cover, and both versions charted.
Joe: Kind of a crazy story. Raf’s version hit #1 in Italy on June 15th, 1984, and Branigan’s version hit #1 in Germany on June 15th, 1984. They were both huge hits in Europe at the same time, and Branigan’s version peaked at #4 on the US Hot 100. I can’t think of a contemporary song that has had multiple versions on the chart at the same time, can you?
Toby: Not off the top of my head, but I’m sure there’s got to be something. Listeners, hit us up on social and let us know if you can think of any recent examples. Find us on Instagram and Facebook, @riffsonriffs, or tweet us @riffsonriffsyo.
Joe: Michael Bolton co-wrote Branigan’s hit, “How Am I Supposed to Live Without You”, but then he decided to take it big time himself. He recorded his own version in 1988, and it went straight to #1 on the Hot 100 and adult contemporary charts, and won him a Grammy for Best Male Pop Vocal Performance.
Toby: At the casino, we’d call that Blackjack!
Joe: Really? And you’re giving me grief for my puns?
Toby: In another interesting bit of song shuffling, Bolton wrote another song for Laura Branigan, “I Found Someone”. It was only a minor hit for her, but it became a major smash for a woman who is such a big star that she only needs her first name. And don’t you forget it, Sonny.
Joe: Oh boy. That’s enough outta you. You are referring, of course, to Cher, and her recording of “I Found Someone” marked her own return to the charts in 1987. It was actually produced by Bolton, and I’d also like to point out that Steve Lukather from Toto played guitar on the track. I think we should start keeping track of how many times one of the members of Toto did session work with other artists, because it’s a very large number.
Toby: That reminds me of a joke. What did Steve Lukather say to Kerry Livgren in 1984?
Joe: I have no idea, what?
Toby: You’re not in Kansas anymore.
Joe: Wow. That is digging deep. For those that might not be as steeped in music knowledge as my co-host, Kerry Livgren was a founding member of the band Kansas. But enough about that. Please Carry On Wayward Son.
Toby: Michael Bolton would go on to international stardom, more accolades and awards, and over 75 million records sold. So I’d say his lane change was the right move, and clearly the man has talent. Are you a fan?
Joe: I agree, he’s obviously talented, but whether or not you like someone’s voice is purely subjective. I appreciate his voice, but there’s something about it for me, personally, that I don’t enjoy. And that’s all it is, just not my preference. It’s like how my daughter is a huge James Arthur fan right now, and loves his voice. I appreciate Arthur’s talent, but don’t quite enjoy his voice. I don’t dislike it, it just doesn’t move me. What about you? Do you like Michael Bolton?
Toby: He has a great voice, that can’t be denied. I’m not a fan of his music as a whole. To me it was the genre. Easy listening just has a way of making it easy for me to tune out. Maybe it was th fact that I was younger and was more in tune with other artists. I would’ve loved to have seen Michael Bolton work more with Babyface or Teddy Riley. That production + that great voice is guaranteed a hit!
Joe: I will say this, Bolton had a hit with his cover of Otis Redding’s “Sittin on the Dock of a Bay” back in 1987. Redding’s widow, Zelma, said that Bolton’s version “brought tears to my eyes. It reminded me so much of my husband that I know if he heard it, he would feel the same.” If it’s good enough for them, it’s good enough for me!
Toby: We’ve looked at an artist that went from hard rock to pop, what do you say now we move on to an artist that went from the heights of pop success to making a big splash on the country charts?
Joe: If you reversed that, I’d guess you were talking about T Swift, but since we are going from pop to country, I’m going to guess we are talking about Darius Rucker. Though I guess with the recent tour and new album from Hootie and the Blowfish, he’s back to pop. But it’s listed as country. This is all very confusing.
Toby: Maybe we should start at the beginning. Darius Carlos Rucker was born and raised in Charleston, SC and attended the University of South Carolina. He was singing in the shower one day when his buddy Mark Bryan heard him and said, “hey, let’s form a band.”
Joe: For all of you that say, “I only sing in the shower”, just be sure you’re doing it in a public enough place where others can hear you. It might lead to fame and fortune.
Toby: Rucker and Bryan formed a duo called The Wolf Brothers and started doing local shows on campus. They’d later add friends Dean Felber and Jim Sonefeld and form the group Hootie and Blowfish.
Joe: Consistently listed in surveys as one of the worst band names ever, and no, Darius Rucker is not actually Hootie, and as far as I can tell the rest of the band members are not actually blowfish.
Toby: The band name is a mashup of a couple of friend’s nicknames. Darius had a friend who had big eyes and glasses and resembled an owl, so he nicknamed him Hootie. He had another friend that could puff out his cheeks like Dizzy Gillespie, so he started calling him Blowfish. Rucker has this to say about the band name:
“They walked in to a party and I went, ‘Hootie and the Blowfish’, and I thought to myself, ‘what a great name for a band.’ I lied to myself. That’s not a great name for a band.”
Joe: Maybe not a great name for a band, but certainly a band that achieved monumental success. Their debut album, Cracked Rear View, was the best selling album of 1995 and has gone 21x platinum. Hits like Hold My Hand, Let Her Cry, and Only Wanna Be With You became radio staples.
Toby: The band would win Best New Artist at the 1996 Grammys, and they would continue to release albums and tour through 2006. It’s around that time that we see Darius Rucker make his lane change.
Joe: He’s actually made a couple of those. In 2002 he rebased an R&B album titled Back to Then, and he had this to say about it.
"That was just a minute in my life. I was listening to a lot of Notorious B.I.G. and Lauryn Hill at that time, and I wanted to make a neo soul record."
Toby: In 2008, Rucker announced that he was going on hiatus from the band in order to make country music. His goal was to record 3 or 4 country albums, and he had this to say about that process:
"You see a lot of people doing a one-off, saying, 'This is my country record.' But this is a career I'm trying to build. The people that say that they don't get it, I'll let the music speak for itself. I plan to do a lot of country records."
Joe: There were a lot of people that did get it, as evidenced by the success of his debut country album, Learn to Live. It went platinum and had three #1 singles on the country charts, "Don't Think I Don't Think About It", "It Won't Be Like This for Long", and "Alright".
Toby: Rucker went on to win the 2009 CMA for New Artist of the Year, becoming the first African American to win the award since its introduction in 1981.
Joe: True to his word, Rucker released four more country albums, all of which have blazed the country charts. True to his crossover appeal, his last country album, 2017’s When Was the Last Time, reached #8 on the Billboard 200 and debuted at #2 on the Top Country Albums charts.
Toby: Also true to his word, Hootie and the Blowfish never broke up, and in 2018 they decided it was long overdue to create new music and head out on tour.
Joe: They figured that it would have been weird to release a new album without any context, so they decided that a tour made the most sense. Even then, there was some trepidation about what the response would be after so long. When they were winding down tours a decade earlier, they had already gone from selling out arenas to playing much smaller venues.
Toby: Turns out those fears were unfounded. Their “Group Therapy Tour” grossed $42 million in the US alone, and the reception has been overwhelmingly positive. But what’s really interesting is that Hootie and the Blowfish are now categorized as a country act.
Joe: It is an interesting classification. Band member Mark Bryan puts it this way:
“It’s like, we’re doing the same thing we always were, We’re just songwriters writing our songs and playing them, and then all of a sudden they’re calling it country? That’s fine. It’s just semantics.”
Toby: Darius Rucker puts it this way:
“People love guitars, and country’s the only place you can hear guitar. I really never thought rock’n’roll would be where it is right now, to be honest. Hip-hop’s the new rock’n’roll.”
Joe: Maybe we can expect Darius Rucker to make another lane change and put out a hip hop album. I feel like there’s a Hootie joke in there somewhere, but it’s not coming to me.
Joe: Well my friend, it’s time for us to make one final lane change and exit off the Riffs superhighway. Can you tell the good people all we covered today?
Toby: We discussed a few artists that changed musical genres to find mainstream success, including Katy Perry, Amy Grant, Michael Bolton and Darius Rucker.
Joe: Thanks again for joining us on this crazy journey, and be sure to check out the playlist for this episode on Spotify and Apple Music. Just do a search for Riffs on Riffs. While you're at it, please leave us a review on whatever platform you listen — it just might help someone else stumble upon our witty banter and bad puns. Be sure to connect and dialog with us on social, @riffsonriffs. As always, thanks for listening. We’ll catch you next time for Riffs on Riffs.
Toby: Keep listening. Huzzah.