Few artists in any genre have enjoyed a more multifaceted career than Jim Brickman. As he celebrates his 20th anniversary, the chart-topping pianist continues to juggle several different ventures.
As a self-managed recording artist, he is releasing a new album, “The Magic of Christmas,” and is kicking off a 40-city tour this holiday season. He continues to host his weekly radio show, “Your Weekend With Jim Brickman,” while also steering his Brickhouse label (distributed by Somerset Entertainment) and its marketing and booking divisions, Brickhouse Direct and Brickhouse Network.
Though he has built a diverse portfolio of accomplishments, Brickman’s musical prowess has always provided the foundation for his empire.
He has released 33 albums and has the most appearances (29) on Billboard’s Adult Contemporary chart dating to his arrival in March 1996. He outranks Celine Dion (26), Michael Bublé (23), Rod Stewart (23), Elton John (19), Mariah Carey (18) and Josh Groban (18) in that span. During that time, he also boasts the second-most top 10s, with 14. Bublé leads with 16.
Brickman also has the most No. 1s (18) in the 25-year history of the New Age Albums chart. Destiny (1999) ruled the list for 12 weeks. His 2004 “Greatest Hits” package spent 20 weeks at the top, and 2005’s “Grace” logged 24 weeks at the summit. “Love” (2011) spent 27 weeks at No. 1.
His distinctive piano style and insightful songwriting have earned him six gold albums, two SESAC songwriter of the year awards, Grammy nominations, a Canadian Country Music Award and a Gospel Music Assn. Dove Award.
Brickman, a native of Cleveland suburb Shaker Heights, began his career as a commercial jingle writer working on campaigns for such brands as McDonald’s, Isuzu and Pontiac before signing with Windham Hill Records in 1994. Though he has been a mainstay on the AC and new age charts, Brickman’s presence has been felt beyond those genres. His affinity for multiple styles has led to some interesting collaborations: He recruited country singers Collin Raye and Susan Ashton for “The Gift” and scored a major AC hit with Martina McBride with “Valentine.” He partnered with Christian music icon Michael W. Smith on “Love of My Life,” actress/singer Jane Krakowski on “You” and Lady Antebellum on “Never Alone.”
That spirit of building bridges between genres continues on “The Magic of Christmas,” which features Christian songbird Sandi Patty on “Christmas Time Is Here/O Christmas Tree” and Megan Hilty of NBC comedy “Sean Saves the World” on the Carpenters’ holiday classic “Merry Christmas Darling.” The legendary Johnny Mathis is featured on a remake of Brickman’s 2003 hit “Sending You a Little Christmas.”
In support of the project, Brickman will embark on his 17th annual Christmas tour, which will include stops in San Francisco; Reno, Nev.; New York; Albuquerque, N.M.; and Boston. The enthusiastic road warrior tours relentlessly thanks to his in-house booking agency, Brickhouse Network. In addition to booking Brickman’s regular shows, Brickhouse Network handles the tours “Yesterday Once More: A Musical Tribute to the Carpenters” while the APA Talent & Literary Agency books “Jim Brickman’s Celebration of the ’70s.” Brickman doesn’t perform in the Carpenters tribute, but does appear in the ’70s show with David Cassidy, Yvonne Elliman, Thelma Houston, Ambrosia’s David Pack and Rita Coolidge.
Brickman’s organization also includes Brickhouse Direct, a digital marketing and e-commerce company that has worked with Smith, Patty, Universal Music, Concord Music Group, Carly Simon, Amy Grant, Casey Kasem, Dave Koz, “American Idol” finalist Chris Sligh and others.
As if all that weren’t enough to exhaust any individual, he also devotes time every week to recording “Your Weekend With Jim Brickman,” a four-hour radio show he launched in 1997 that features celebrity interviews, lifestyle tips and entertainment news. The program, distributed by Cumulus Media Networks, airs in 85 markets.
As Brickman celebrates his 20th anniversary, he’s looking forward to his next chapter, including the 2014 album “Soothe” and a book by the same name. After launching his inaugural Brickman Bash fan event in Nashville last summer, he’ll host the second bash next year in Cleveland. He’s also seeking an opportunity to launch a project on Broadway. With a passionate creative streak and a restless entrepreneurial spirit, nothing seems beyond his reach.
You have a reputation as both an artist and entrepreneur. When you started your career, was that duality intentional?
I believed there was a place for this kind of music in the world. I knew people would like it if they heard it. It’s inspirational and instrumental, but it has a lot of the trappings of pop and R&B songs. I believed in it so much that I willed it to work. I was trying to be inventive and creative, so the business part of it was almost like a necessity. It wasn’t out of a desire to be on the business side of it. I had to kick that into gear in order for me to happen.
How did you make the transition from having a successful jingle business to being a recording artist?
When I got to Chicago and started doing some of the bigger things it was like I had a pit in my stomach all the time, and part of the reason was I didn’t feel like I was being authentic to what came naturally to me.
Before I signed with Windham Hill, I used to speak at organizations about creativity in music and advertising, and I would go visit radio stations. I would introduce myself and say, “I’m not pushing a single. I play the piano and I’ve written all these commercials. Maybe I could go on the morning drive and play ‘Name That Tune’ with the commercials and that would be fun?”
I have always had a fascination with radio. I felt like even if it’s not a song with lyrics or a big hit, if they see I’m really passionate then maybe when I have a record deal and they get my album they will say, “I should give this a listen.”
To what do you attribute your successful run on the AC chart?
I believe in the craft of songwriting. I write or co-write everything I do. It starts with the song. The song has to be great and then the execution has to be greater. The most important thing about songwriting is that it really is honest and authentic, that I’m not trying to be something I’m not. If you ask me, I don’t say that I’m a pianist first. I always say I’m a songwriter first.
How do you decide who you enlist to sing guest vocals?
I believe in the authenticity of that as well. I never want it to be like I’m casting a movie. I feel it should come from a natural place like Lady Antebellum. [Singer] Hillary [Scott] had been doing demos for Victoria Shaw, and I write a lot with Victoria. She met [Lady A’s Dave Haywood and Charles Kelley] before they had been signed, so Victoria said, “Let’s have Lady Antebellum sing it.” It grew out of a natural thing, and that is important because in every [past] collaboration, whether it was Michael Bolton or Olivia Newton-John or Donny Osmond or Wayne Brady, they all grew out of some sort of relationship. It’s real and organic.
What is it like to have Johnny Mathis on “The Magic of Christmas”?
I’m still pinching myself. I always, always wanted to do a song with him. When I was working on this Christmas album I wanted it to feel classic, and so I specifically went to people who I felt represented that and, to me, Johnny Mathis is one of those people. He just could not have been sweeter. He loved the song so much that he titled his Christmas album after the song that I wrote, “Sending You a Little Christmas.” When things like that happen, you have a renewed confidence that you are meant to do this and that you are on the right path.
You spent more than 20 years in Los Angeles and now you are back in Cleveland. Why?
Home is home and when you start to get older you start to think about all that. My parents are getting older. They live in Chicago and I wanted to spend more time with them, and a lot of the stuff I was doing was all happening in Nashville, Toronto or New York. Every time I went somewhere, I was flying for a day to get there. It was for a variety of reasons, but it really feels like completely the right thing for me.
People say, “Cleveland? What in the hell are you doing there?,” but even when I was in L.A., I always had my business management here. I like the idea of bringing some part of the entertainment business to a town that doesn’t have a ton of it. My staff is incredibly hardworking and appreciative of getting a chance to do business on a national level from our hometown. It may not be forever, but for right now, it just feels like the best place to do my laundry.
You’ve done four PBS TV specials and most recently did the “Celebration of the ’70s” TV special on Comcast. What’s it like taking that show on the road?
I wanted to do a special that celebrated the music that I grew up listening to and the reason why I wanted to become a songwriter in the first place, so I had David Cassidy and David Pack from Ambrosia, Thelma Houston, Stephen Bishop, all these people that I loved growing up. I’m doing “I Think I Love You” with David Cassidy, the “Saturday Night Fever” soundtrack with Yvonne Elliman and “We’re All Alone” with Rita Coolidge. This is like my life is flashing before my eyes.
What’s your deal like with Somerset?
It’s a nonexclusive deal. They are amazing people and a huge advocate. They are completely responsible for the Target relationship and they revitalized that part of my career. The positioning at Target they have is just incredible. It’s unbelievable for an artist that does what I do to have that kind of presence in a retailer. I’m very thankful to them — and they also do Walmart, Bed Bath & Beyond and a lot of nontraditional retail, which is really exciting.
As you reflect on 20 years in the business, what are some of the most gratifying moments?
There are the quintessential moments, like working with people that you admire. As a songwriter, to have some amazing singer love the song and want to bring it to life is such an incredible honor. Also one of the most satisfying things for me is to see young people who bring their sheet music and say, “I want to play the piano because I saw you in concert and you looked like you were having so much fun doing it. I want to do that.” Sometimes a young person will send me a video of them playing my sheet music and I’m just mind-boggled because that’s part of what I set out to accomplish: to find a place for this type of music.