Elton John, Whitney Houston, Frank Sinatra & More: Stories From Adult Contemporary's Biggest Stars & Songs

Elton John, Whitney Houston, Frank Sinatra & More: Stories From Adult Contemporary's Biggest Stars & Songs

Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds on Whitney Houston. Bernie Taupin, Elton John's songwriting partner. Kenny Rogers, himself. Plus Many More. Billboard talks to some of the biggest names in adult contemporary. Their perspectives? Crucial.


The Top 50 Adult Contemporary Artists Ever


The Top 100 Adult Contemporary Songs Ever

Elton JohnElton John

Top AC artist of all-time; most AC No. 1s (16); most AC chart hits of any artist (68).

Bernie Taupin, lyricist and John's primary collaborator. They started writing together in 1968, split in 1976 and resumed working together in 1983:

"Elton would call me to tell me a song had hit No. 1. . . I'm not being blasé, but I didn't relate to it that way. Elton has an extraordinary recollection of those figures. We'd write and record something . . . and someone might say, "That sounds like a hit." Then we'd write something else the next day and record it. We weren't purposely writing for a single, but it was the commodity of the '70s.

"In the earlier days we wrote before we went into the studio, and as time went by we'd write in the studio. When we did the albums in France at Château d'Hérouville [Honky Chateau, Don't Shoot Me I'm Only the Piano Player, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road] it was a living and recording situation. Same thing at Caribou Ranch [where Caribou, Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy and Rock of the Westies were recorded].

"It was always up to the record company to pick the singles. The one they never thought of as a single was [1974's] "Bennie and the Jets," which became a single after a DJ started playing it in Detroit [on WJLB]. One of the songs I always loved was "Sacrifice" [No. 3 peak on AC in 1989]. That's a classic song. And I loved "The One" [No. 1 on AC for six weeks in 1992]."

Russ Regan, former president of UNI Records, signed John to his first U.S. record deal and worked with him from 1970 to 1973:

"I was trained by Berry Gordy [at Motown] and I loved Elton's songs and his voice. He'd been given his release from Bell Rec­ords and five record companies had already passed on him. Lennie Hodes worked for Dick James Music. He called and said . . . he thought I would get it. I did get it. Best thing was, we didn't even have to pay an advance. We brought him [to Los Angeles] and on Aug. 25, 1970, he delivered one of the top 10 greatest nights in rock concert history at the Troubadour. I was grateful that I had the opportunity to make a star.

"I look for songs that are what I call anthems. One of my favorites? [1972's] "Tiny Dancer." I was in London, in the studio, at the session. That was magic. Elton John-let's face it-is an incredible singer, an incredible pianist and an incredible philanthropist."

Billy Brill was senior VP of promotion at MCA in the '80s and '90s when John's AC chart No. 1s included "Healing Hands" and "The One." Brill now books entertainment at casinos as CEO of Billy Alan Productions:

"When we made [1983's] "I'm Still Standing" I felt "I Guess That's Why They Call It the Blues" was the hit single [No. 2 on AC] but Geffen wanted to go with "Blue Eyes" [two weeks at No. 1 on AC in 1982].

"When I was with Elton in the '70s at Caribou, we'd sit by the pool all day while Bernie would write. At the end of the day we'd get in the Jeep, go to the studio and they'd knock it out. Then we'd drive over to the Chicken Shack. Elton has always been competitive and he always wanted to make each song a success. He's one of a kind. When he did "The Lion King," I remember when I heard "Can You Feel the Love Tonight" [No. 1 on AC for eight weeks in 1994] I looked at Elton and said, "That's your Academy Award." He just smiled."

Johnny Barbis, who started working with John in the '70s, has been his manager since 1980:

"Elton . . . would go to eight to 10 cities with every release. He signed every autograph . . . one of the most gracious guys I've ever known . . . We traveled all over the country to do listening parties-Los Angeles, San Francisco, Atlanta, Chicago, New York-and in every city he'd talk to the program directors. MCA was his home and when he came back from Geffen there was such a great feeling about it. He'd been off the radio for a few years and people came back-at top 40, on rock, AC-across the board. He always had great, fun records and that was the magic. It was in the records. He could come back tomorrow with a great record and get it on the radio today. Elton is the one who has transcended all these years."

All as told to Phil Gallo.

Faith HillFaith Hill

She has four AC No. 1s-including the 17-week leader "Breathe" in 2000-and 43 weeks total at No. 1-the fifth-most all-time and second among women.

Peter Strickland, senior VP of brand management and sales, Warner Music Nashville:

"'Breathe' came to us in September 2000. The album wasn't totally recorded yet. We heard the track and immediately went to radio with it. It moved so quickly up the country charts, we rushed to get the album together. The video hit closer to the album release-it had kind of an AC feel to it, just the way it was shot. We went to AC after the first of the year. We didn't have to do too much work at first, because a number of AC stations were already on the record.

"Between AC and country, the audience was astronomical. Her star power actually pushed her in that [AC] direction. She became more of a mainstream artist based on appearing in movies, some of her endorsements-she ended up a star across the board. We always go to country radio first with the singles and build our plan toward AC afterward. It plays an important role in Faith's career, and there always has to be a space on that chart for her."

As told to Mitchell Peters.

Herb Alpert

The legendary bandleader and label executive has 46 AC chart hits (with and without his Tijuana Brass), ninth-most among all acts in the chart's history. Plus five No. 1s, including the 1968 10-week leader "This Guy's in Love With You".

Alpert: "The timing was right. I guess I chose the right songs and put it together nicely. It's hard to predict. Radio was cooperating. It was easier to get music heard on different radio stations. You could go to a program director and if they happened to like a record, they'd put it in a meeting or on the air. It was a different time. "This Guy's in Love [With You]," which I sing, I did it just for television. It wasn't really gearing for radio [but] the response was overwhelming, and two weeks after it was released, it went to No. 1. It was the first No. 1 Burt Bacharach and Hal David had­-and it was sung by an instrumentalist."

As told to Leila Cobo.

John DenverJohn Denver

Thirty-four AC chart hits, including 18 top 10s, nine of which reached No. 1. The No. 1s place him in a tie for eighth-most in the chart's history.

Milt Okun, producer (Denver; Peter, Paul & Mary; Placido Domingo); founder, Cherry Lane Music Publishing:

"John was singing out here in L.A. at the Ice House in Pasadena. I was looking for something to replace Chad in the Chad Mitchell Trio. Mike Kirkland of the Brothers Four mentioned John. I invited him to New York to audition with two of the members of the group, Mike Kobluk and Joe Frazier. He did very well. But I did something that turned out to be unkind-I let him go back to California, and saw some other applicants. I kept him waiting a whole week, and then finally called him. He joined the group. But he said it was a very tough week.

"I didn't really pay that much attention to what were the hits. We kept trying to make as good records as we could. And the ones that became hits-great. I had a difficult relationship with RCA at the time. They didn't understand that a new single had to be a new song. I guess [John and I] had about seven or eight in a row that sold very well. I started out as the complete producer and he as the artist. As time went on, gradually but consistently, he became more co-producer. He took over more and more of the decision-making. He was probably more effective than I was at the end.

"I guess my favorite song that he ever did was [1974's] "This Old Guitar." It's just him and his acoustic guitar. And the opposite, [1975's] "Calypso," with a gigantic chorus and orchestra. It's probably the biggest production I ever did. His songs are going to be sung for another 100 years. They're in the bloodstream of America.

"Do I listen to his music to relive memories? No, that would be kind of painful, actually. It was a terrible loss. So I don't dwell on it. John was such an important performer in my career."

As told to Mitchell Peters.

whitney houstonWhitney Houston

She's had 31 AC hits, including 10 No. 1s.

Producer/singer/songwriter Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds:

"Forest Whitaker gave me a call because he was directing [1995's] "Waiting to Exhale" and was interested in me scoring the film, as well as writing songs. Knowing it was a Whitney film, it was kind of expected that she'd sing, but it wasn't a guarantee. But she did have rights to decide who would be a part of the soundtrack. Everyone was chosen or agreed to by Whitney. I can't remember any of the names we crossed off-and I wouldn't say them anyway [laughs]. But I remember she really wanted to do something with CeCe [Winans]. That's how the song "Count on Me" happened.

"Whitney laughed when I handed her the "Shoop Shoop" song-because it was simple-but she loved it. The soundtrack ended up being a very special project. The more time goes by, the more important it becomes.

"Whitney had a soul about her voice that went beyond being black. It spoke to everyone, no matter what color.

"I wish I could say I produced [1992's] "I Will Always Love You" [produced by David Foster]. The first time I heard it, I was floored. We hadn't experienced anything like that before on the radio. I hate to call it pop music. It was just music that everyone loved."

As told to Gail Mitchell

Johnny MathisJohnny Mathis

He has 49 AC chart hits between 1962 and 2003. It's the fifth-highest sum in the chart's history.

Mathis: "Every time I try to tell people things about my career, I wonder if that's the truth or something I'm fantasizing about. I have no way of knowing why my career has lasted so long other than the fact that people like the sound of my voice and fortunately I've been able to maintain it.
I think of myself as John. Other people call me Johnny and I think it's a sign of affection-I hope [laughs]-when they add the "-ny." I can't think of myself as other than someone who is in transition and constantly changing. I never thought of myself as being anything other than someone who performs other people's compositions. And I never get tired of discovering new music.

"'Single-minded' is a good word when it comes to what my life is like musically. I've never stopped discovering music. My first vocal teacher was adamant about my learning a little bit about classical music. I fell in love with people like Leontyne Price, Beverly Sills and Richard Tucker. Those voices still resound in my head. I still play them constantly, discovering what the human voice can do and how it can persuade people to change their lives.

"People have told me that my music has meant extraordinary things to them. Sometimes you even think there might be a responsibility involved in terms of being given certain gifts. You just don't get over that. That's indelible in your life."

As told to Gail Mitchell


Debby BooneDebby Boone

Her "You Light Up My Life" topped the Billboard Hot 100 for 10 weeks in 1977 and the AC chart for one week that same year. "Life" lived on in the charts, as LeAnn Rimes' cover reached No. 34 on the Hot 100 in 1997 and was the title cut of her second No. 1 Billboard 200 album.

Boone: "It was my first solo record. I went to New York to record this song thinking it was the beginning of the long, hard climb to success. When it got to No. 1, I was just shocked. I've had a nice 30-plus-year career based on the strength of one hit record and a couple of contemporary Christian and country records that did well in their own areas, but nothing, of course, like 'You Light Up My Life.'

"Usually remakes happen a little further after the fact than when LeAnn had her hit with it. Whitney Houston also recorded it, and Patti Smith, believe it or not, recorded it. That was odd. LeAnn and Whitney are huge, big voices, big belters. They both sang it so well.

"There was a time when I thought, 'Is this all anybody wants to hear from me?' But now, with some maturity, I'm grateful to have a song that means something to so many people."

As told to Ray Waddell

Mariah CareyMariah Carey

She's had 29 AC hits-seven of them reached No. 1. She led most recently with "Oh Santa!" last year.

Charlie Walk, VP of promotion and later executive VP of marketing and promotion (1999-2005) at Columbia:

"'Vision of Love' [1990] was the first single. And the beauty of what we were able to do is to take Mariah on the road, set up intimate performances and showcases with amazing talent like Richard Tee on piano. There was a mic. She was lit beautifully and the rooms were gorgeous-with the right tastemakers. These were major-market events, very different than what people were used to. It was about her voice being the star. That set the tone.

"'Vision of Love' was a different-sounding record, one that not everyone played right away. But that was our job: to let the audience make a decision about the music. That first decision was a No. 1 record. [Then Columbia Records Group president] Thomas Mottola and [then Columbia Records president] Don Ienner had incredible foresight in curating the order of the singles that built her brand. We took those singles, one after another, and promoted them feverishly, fearlessly.

"All of her songs had a universally relatable emotion in them. That's the key. Black, white, rich or poor-it's the lyric and song that touches the most people. Working with people like [producers] Walter Afanasieff, Narada Michael Walden and everyone else was great. But I believe she co-wrote every one of those songs, if not wrote most of them. So it was a perfect storm: great team, great artist, great music."

As told to Gail Mitchell.

Lionel richieLionel Richie

He's had 27 solo AC hits, including 11 No. 1s. He's spent 47 weeks at No. 1 as a soloist, second only to Elton John for most weeks by a male artist.

Miller London, VP of marketing, sales and distribution/GM (1969-90) at Motown:

"Lionel is a unique artist, much like Michael Jackson. In the beginning, Lionel wasn't even the lead singer for the Commodores. It was the drummer, Walter Orange. But as Lionel started writing more songs, more attention was given to him. There was a little tension between him and the group, so he started recording more solo than group material. As he had success writing songs for Kenny Rogers [the 1980 No. 1 "Lady"], and other songs like [1979's] "Sail On" that made country history for the Commodores as well as for Lionel, it gave him more opportunity.

"Lionel came from the South and had a lot of country in the way he sang. He was more accepted at first in the country community because of his relationship with Rogers. Basically, every act we had at Motown whether it was the Supremes, Four Tops or Stevie Wonder, every record that came out-even though well-accepted at pop-pretty much had to had have an R&B base. And with Lionel, particularly as a solo artist, we knew he'd have pop success.

"And Lionel himself is just a charmer. When we were working together, he always made it a point to remember radio programmers, retail store owners. When people look back and think about Lionel, they'll think about what a great songwriter he was-much the same way people think of Smokey Robinson. You remember the songs Smokey wrote whether he, or someone else, sang them. There are teams of great songwriters-Gamble & Huff, Holland-Dozier-Holland, Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis. What sets Lionel apart from them is that usually one guy did the track and another wrote the lyric. Lionel did both-like Smokey. It was about Smokey's ability to write great songs and record great music. Same situation with Lionel."

As told to Gail Mitchell


Kenny RogersKenny Rogers

Kenny Rogers' feats on the AC chart include 47 hits, tying him with Barry Manilow for seventh-most in the chart's history. No core country artist has crossed over more titles to AC. Rogers' 28 AC top 10s are sixth-best, and fourth-best among men, trailing only Elton John, Neil Diamond and Elvis Presley. Rogers has scored eight AC No. 1s.

Rogers: "I remember when [the AC charts] were established, I thought it was so cool. I've always been a believer in the strength of the song. My problem is I'm a country singer who's had a lot of other musical influences, so my stuff is going to tend to be more AC.
That's always been my slam in country music, that I was never a true country artist, even though "Coward of the County," "Daytime Friends," "Buy Me a Rose," "The Gambler," those kinds of things, were truly country records. When you add to that "Through the Years," "You Believe in Me," "You Decorated My Life," those were not country, but because I had power at country music, they sold country.

"Country always wanted to really be country, and I don't blame them-be what you want to be. I spoke at a country seminar one year, and I told them, "Guys, what you're trying to do is protect a type of music, and those of us who are out there doing it are trying to protect careers. We're trying to last longer, touch more people with our music. I guarantee you in three years you won't be playing Garth Brooks or Shania Twain." This was in the peak of their careers-and they all laughed at me. Sure enough, three years later, they weren't playing them. So what are [these artists] supposed to do if they don't have some other source of income [or] airplay other than country? When that's over, our careers are over.

"[My crossover hits] turned a lot of people toward country music that wouldn't have come to it otherwise. When they realized I was singing country sentiment with a little more accessible tonality, then I think they came in. And the great thing about country is once you come in, you don't leave. It's such a pure music.

"I never set out to be on the AC charts; I set out to do good songs. When I was on the charts I paid a lot of attention to them. I used to love to pick up the charts and see where songs were, where they were going, how they were doing. I've always tried to find songs that say what every man would like to say and every woman would like to hear. When you think of "Through the Years," "You Decorated My Life," "Lady," that's what those are. What man wouldn't want to say, "Lady, I'm your night in shining armor and I love you," and what lady wouldn't want to hear that?"

As told to Ray Waddell.


Frank SinatraFrank Sinatra

With 48 songs, Sinatra has the sixth-most AC chart hits.

Charlie Pignone, senior VP, Frank Sinatra Enterprises. Pignone has worked with the Sinatra family for more than 25 years and traveled with the singer during his last 10 years on the road (1985-1995).

"The first session I attended with Frank was "L.A. Is My Lady" and, of course, the 1993 "Duets" project. We were in Las Vegas at the Convention Center and he came in with the first mix from the album, the Frank and Luther Vandross track ["The Lady Is a Tramp"]. During rehearsal they played it for everyone and Frank was pretty thrilled. He was astonished that [the albums] did so well. The one partner he asked for was Ella Fitzgerald, and when he was working on the project we had to tell him she was not well enough to record.

"'Strangers in the Night' [No. 1 for seven weeks on the AC chart in 1966] was a song he didn't like. From the conversations I had with him, he saw the success [producer/executive] Jimmy Bowen was having with Dean Martin ["You're Nobody Till Somebody Loves You"] and he wound up cutting ["Strangers"], getting dubs made and out to DJs before Jack Jones' version of the song was released a couple of weeks later. He got it to key DJs and it became such a hit that they did an album really quick that sounds nothing like the title song. Frank did not like to sing the song but he did it because the audience liked it so much.

"With "New York, New York," to him and everybody else, it was a personal connection. He was very happy when "New York" became a hit. His friend in music publishing, Frank Military [of Warner/Chappell] had been pushing him to record the song ever since the movie ["New York, New York"] had come out. The first time he played it was at a benefit for the New York governor, Hugh Carey.

"'L.A. Is My Lady' [his 48th and final AC hit in 1984] was done because of the Los Angeles Olympics. The project was developed in 1982 and '83 as a duets album with Lena Horne. One side had Frank doing her songs, the second side was her doing his songs, the third side was duets of new songs, and the fourth side was duets of old songs. "Stormy Weather" was the one song that made it to the record, and "Mack the Knife," which he started doing in 1984, stayed in his concert up until the end.

"'It Was a Very Good Year' and 'That's Life' (both No. 1 AC hits) stayed in the book for a long time, though "That's Life" was not played as often and not in the last five years [of his performing career]. "Very Good Year," he always said, he heard on the car radio as a folk song, probably by the Kingston Trio. He called [arranger] Gordon Jenkins and had him put together a pop version that he decided to put on his next album."

As told to Phil Gallo.

The 5th DimensionThe 5th Dimension

The five member group has had 22 AC hits, including 15 top 10s--five of which reached No. 1.

5th Dimension member Florence LaRue: "Marc Gordon, who became our manager, guided the 5th Dimension so we weren't just another black R&B group. He was a genius, had been a producer at Motown and was managing a young, unknown songwriter named Jimmy Webb. Marc thought the 5th Dimension and Webb would be a good marriage. He was right.

"The group had five very different voices. That accounted for some of our success-although our recordings were pop, our show was diverse: from almost light opera to R&B to pop. The original group was only together for 10 wonderful years. I'm the only original left, celebrating 45 years. Ron Townson passed away [in 2001], but I'm still in contact with the three other original members: Billy Davis Jr., Marilyn McCoo and Lamonte [McLemore].

"'Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In'? We were in New York City and one of the members lost his wallet. It was returned by a gentleman who was a producer of the play "Hair." We invited him to our show; he invited us to his show. We were in the audience and heard Ronnie Dyson sing "Aquarius." We took the idea to Bones. He said, "It's a good song but the cast album is not selling much." But he came back with the idea of putting "Aquarius" with "Let the Sunshine In." They're actually two songs. That song took us the least time to record and it was one of our biggest hits. They're still playing it."

As told to Gail Mitchell


Michael BoltonMichael Bolton

He has nine AC No. 1s, placing him in a tie for eighth-most in the chart's history.

Bolton: "My secret? Remaining open to recording great songs whether written by my friend and genius songwriter Diane Warren, or a classic delivered by legends like Otis Redding, Steve Cropper, Percy Sledge . . . I'm grateful that AC radio has delivered my music for so long around the world."

As told to Leila Cobo.

The Top 50 Adult Contemporary Artists Ever


The Top 100 Adult Contemporary Songs Ever