Ask Michael Bolton at what point in his career he finally felt he could exhale and relax and he immediately answers, “Not yet.” He follows with a laugh, but given that it was 18 years between the time he signed to his first record deal at 16 and had his first hit, it’s understandable that the lean years are never that far from his mind.
However, those hard times have been followed by 32 years as a superstar, who’s sold more than 65 million records worldwide and nine Top 10 studio albums, including 1991’s Time, Love & Tenderness, which has been certified 8x Platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America.
To commemorate his 50th year in the music business—unbelievable as it may seem— Bolton, 65, revisited several of his smashes, including “Soul Provider,” “How Can We Be Lovers,” “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” and “How Am I Supposed To Live Without You” with a 65-piece orchestra on A Symphony of Hits, out today (Feb. 8) through Entertainment One.
To celebrate the album, Bolton is performing with a number of symphonies across the country and in England. Alongside the new album, Bolton is entering the perfume business with Time Love & Tenderness, a three piece fragrance collection.
Tucked in a corner table at the Sunset Marquis in West Hollywood, Calif., Bolton took Billboard through some key moments of his career. The hotel hold magic for Bolton: It’s where he and Diane Warren wrote many of his hits and he and Paul Stanley wrote “Forever,” a Top 10 hit for Kiss in 1990.
The beginning: “I got a record deal with Epic when I was 16. My mother had to actually sign my contract. I was not legally old enough,” Bolton says. “It was a band called Joy. I was the singer/songwriter. I got a $400 advance for signing my publishing deal with April Blackwood. I was so excited I went and bought a red Rickenbacker guitar and it was the nicest thing I’d owned in my life. Within a year we got a letter [from Epic] that we were now free to sign with anyone you would like to, which is like getting a message from your girlfriend to feel free to whomever you want to date, anyone but me. But in that year I’d been bitten.”
The struggle: “I remember sitting at the kitchen table in depression about the food money that we needed and the rent check that was probably going to bounce,” Bolton says. “If a gig got snowed out in Connecticut that was my food and rent money. By the time I was 27, I had three daughters. I know that I couldn’t let the kids know how bad it was. My wife knew. The hardest of times never leaves you and it’s amazing how close to the surface it is. I was watching TV and seeing a woman interviewed [during the government shutdown] trying to decide between gas or food and no way to perceive how the rent was going to get paid and it immediately took me back to my life with my family in Connecticut.”
Breaking through: “The first significant royalty check was the BMI payment for airplay for the  Laura Branigan single, “How Am I Supposed To Live Without You,” says Bolton, who wrote the song with Doug James, with his own Grammy-winning version hitting No. 1 in 1990. “I’d never seen anything like that, it was over $78,000. It was in the directions where I knew the song was going to be worth $200,000. I called my accountant to see whether I could buy a car.”
Turning Point: “I was writing R&B songs that went to different artists and I was keeping the rock songs for my solo career. I’d done two rock albums for Columbia in ’83 and ’85 and when everyone was excited about this possibly rock anthem, “Everybody’s Crazy,” the one person who clearly wasn’t excited about it was Al Teller, who was president of my label,” Bolton says. “He wanted to have a meeting about the direction of my next album. It felt like being called to the principal’s office and I know that feeling. He said, ‘These [R&B] demos that you’re giving away to other artists, the secretaries are taking those demos home. They love just hearing you and the song, not this big wall of music. They want to hear your voice telling a story.’ Afterward, I asked my [then] manager, Louis Levin, ‘Did he say he wants us to do another record?’ And Louis said, ‘Yes, if do one with the type of material you’re giving away with your voice being the primary element.’ There was this recognition and wisdom put in front of me by the top guy who could have so easily said, ‘It really has been good, but it hasn’t worked out here.’”
His pal, Diane Warren: She and I will always be our sister and brother from hell because we tortured each other to finish songs,” Bolton says. “We wrote about 30 songs together. I don’t know anyone else who has done that many with her. We contributed a lot to each other’s careers. She’s just a genius. I would call her from my apartment in New York and would say, ‘I’ve got an idea’ and I would sing her a melody and the basic chords and if she liked it, she would chime in and sing the following line. Lyrically match it, lyrically rhyme it. I do use the word savant quite a bit with her. True gift. [With] ‘Time, Love and Tenderness,’ she called me out of the blue— it was always out of the blue— and I told her there was a part that I thought needed some attention, but that I loved it and I would love to consider cutting it for the next album. She was excited about it and I played it for [producer] Walter [Afanasieff] and we started cutting it.”
Thanks Pavarotti!: “I got [invited to play] Luciano Pavarotti’s annual show in his hometown in Modena [Italy] in 1995, Pavarotti and Friends. Bono and The Edge were performing on the show as well,” Bolton says. Pavarotti called and said ‘Michael, I’m so glad you’re going to join us. I was thinking we could do’ and then he names these two arias I’ve never heard of. That was my only chance. I said how would you feel about ‘Nessun dorma’ and ‘Vesti la Giubbi’ and he said “Brilliant. We shall do them.’ And I could breathe again. I worked with a teacher in Europe, I worked with one in New York. I arrived in Modena and I was such a wreck. They said ‘the maestro is not ready, he wants you to start with the orchestra.’ I’m alone at a microphone. There are 15,000 seats outdoors, we’re doing ‘Nessun dorma.’ Pavarotti walks towards me and says, ‘I see you’ve been studying the tenors’ and I said, ‘Actually, I’ve been studying you.’ And that was the beginning. I got thrown into the deep end. I learned to vibrate notes when you hold them. So I learned from studying him how I most enjoyed singing. I was standing next to the most powerful voice I’ve ever heard. That is what hooked me on bigger, sweeping, powerful beautiful melodies. That’s when I fell in love with singing with an orchestra as compared to just having fun with it.
Reimagining the hits…slightly: “For A Symphony of Hits, we recorded the giant orchestra in Perth,’’ Bolton says, with work also done at Capitol Studios in Los Angeles and Bolton’s studio in Connecticut. “I was trusting Chris Walden implicitly with these huge arrangements and I was able to sit with him at Capitol Studios. Every day, he was able to play me one or two arrangements that he’d been working on and I’d say, ‘That’s beautiful, but it’s very much like the record and I want to just shift a little bit more. Maybe it’s like four bars or each time the chorus happens we can do it differently.” I wanted to make sure people listening to the greatest hits were not wondering when something familiar would happen again. They should know the song from the first couple of notes or the first bar and when the chorus happens, no matter what other instruments we introduce, they should feel like, ‘Oh yeah, I love this song’… hopefully.”
Next Stop: The Great White Way?: “I am thinking about and touching base with people about a musical,” Bolton says. “It would be funny, kind of my story. I want there to be a lot of laughs and depth and to convey [my relationship] with my daughters. There would definitely be some new songs. There’s a source of motivation for writing a new body of work.”
Michael Bolton’s Symphonic Tour Dates
Feb 8 – Kravis Center, West Palm Beach, FL
Feb 10 – Florida Theatre, Jacksonville, FL
Feb 13 – Van Wezel PAC, Sarasota, FL
Feb 15 – Capitol Theater, Clearwater, FL
Feb 17 – Artis Naples, Naples, FL
Feb 21 – Paradise Cove Margaritaville, Tulsa, OK
Feb 23 – Horseshoe Bossier City, Bossier City, LA
March 4 – London Palladium, London, England