Bobby Hart is an Academy Award, Golden Globe, and Grammy Award-nominated songwriter who helped sell nearly 100 million recordings. Well known for his association with musician Tommy Boyce, the pair wrote, produced, and performed on recordings by The Monkees, the made-for-TV music group which in 1967 and 1968 outsold both The Beatles and Rolling Stones combined.
Spotlight Central recently caught up with Bobby Hart and talked with him about his musical childhood, his rise to fame with Tommy Boyce, his time working with The Monkees, in addition to what he’s currently doing these days.
You were born in Phoenix, Arizona. Did you come from a musical family?
Kind of. My dad played the banjo. That was my first instrument, because he taught me on his banjo. He played in church, basically — not professionally. And then, for Christmas, my parents bought me a tenor guitar, which is a four-string guitar that uses the same fingerings I’d learned on the banjo, so I already knew how to play it.
What kind of music did you listen to as a kid?
I listened to country and western because what they called popular music in the ’40s and ’50s seemed a little soulless to me. I really enjoyed country music, which had some emotion to it that I could identify with.
Is it true that as a kid you created your own make-believe radio station?
Yeah, I knew I wanted to make my living in the music business. At the time, I couldn’t visualize myself as an entertainer or being out in front of the public, but I figured if I could be a DJ, then nobody would see me so I could still be in the music business.
And that’s exactly what I thought I would be when I moved out to California in around 1957 to go to the Don Martin School of Radio to be a DJ. But it wasn’t long before I succumbed to this sign that I used to see going to work every morning which said, “Come in and see what your voice sounds like.” So on a Saturday I went in, made a demo, and from then on I was hooked. I dropped out of disc jockey school and started promoting myself as a singer.
In addition to playing the tenor banjo and the guitar, didn’t you also learn to play some other instruments including the piano when you were young?
Yeah, I had piano lessons as a kid, but I had violin lessons first, which I really didn’t relate to. Maybe if I had learned how to play country fiddle that would have suited me better, but I didn’t. Playing it was very boring to me, so I didn’t learn that much from it, but I did learn a few things from playing the violin — an instrument which, as you know, has no frets, so you have to go by your ear to find the right pitch. It was helpful for learning pitch and some other fundamentals of music.
Also, as a teenager, didn’t you get into playing what is now your current instrument of choice, the Hammond B-3 organ?
Yeah. One summer, I went with my mother and father to Texas. A revival meeting or something was going on, and this lady came out and started playing the B-3 and so impressed me that I talked my folks into letting me take a few lessons from her while we were in Texas that week. And since then, that’s kind of been my instrument. I still play it at the church I go to and then, sometimes, on records.
You mentioned that you went to California to learn to become a disc jockey, but that goal got sidetracked because you decided to record your voice at a studio. We’ve heard that the first song you recorded there was “You Are My Sunshine.”
Yes, I think that’s correct.
And you ended up playing that song for a producer named Jesse Hodges, who thought you were good, but told you he was really in the market for singers who wrote their own material. Is that what inspired you to write your first song?
Yeah, because Jesse knew the value of publishing, and he was more interested in being a music publisher than placing me with a label. But it worked out both ways for me because I went home and wrote some songs just because he said to, and he liked them.
Do you still remember any of those songs?
No, I couldn’t tell you the names of any of those songs now. That was awhile back.
But Jesse signed you to a recording contract and in 1959 sold your version of “Love Whatcha’ Doin’ To Me” to Radio Records. After that, you sort of became a star in Texas where, we’re told, you had a very noteworthy opening act.
[Laughs] Yeah, I was kind of doing rockabilly when Jesse booked me on these three shows in three different cities in Texas. I found that when I got to Midland-Odessa, there was a guy who came out and he was really good. He was my opening act. His name was Roy Orbison.
Unbelievable! And after recording your second single, “Girl of My Dreams,” Jesse introduced you to another young singer/songwriter, Tommy Boyce, who already had one of his songs recorded by Fats Domino.
That’s right. It was called “Be My Guest.”
What made you two decide to collaborate with one another?
Well, at first, we just became friends. We were both just starting out. I was away from home and he was still living at home with his parents in a suburb of L.A. So we just hung out and we were, I guess what you would call “hang-out friends.”
Then Tommy got the courage to go back to New York and write songs for a publisher there — called Dunes Records, actually. And not too long after that, I got signed by Don Costa to write and record for his label, and so we both ended up in New York at the same time, and that’s when we started to write together.
One of your first successes was “Lazy Elsie Molly,” a song you wrote for Chubby Checker?
Yeah, we did the Chubby Checker record, but it only went up into the Top 40 or something like that. Then we followed that right up with “Come A Little Bit Closer” for Jay and the Americans, which went to #3.
That’s such a great song, which so many young people today enjoy because it’s in Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol 2.
[Laughs] That’s right!
Was it a fun process for you writing with Tommy in those days?
Yeah, with Tommy and with Wes Farrell, in this case. Wes had also had his name on some earlier hits like “Hang On Sloopy” with Burt Berns, who was his co-writer on some of those other early songs. So when we got a chance to write with Wes — especially “Come a Little Bit Closer” — it was really fun because of the story of it.
We’ve heard the word “vamoose” was one of your contributions to the lyric.
[Laughs] Yeah, “vamoose” — which is something I’d heard growing up in Arizona.
You also co-wrote “Hurt So Bad,” which went on to become one of the only songs to break into the Top 10 three times by three different artists in three different decades — by Little Anthony and the Imperials in the ’60s, The Lettermen in the ’70s, and Linda Rondstadt in the ’80s. They’re all great versions, but as one of the co-creators of the song, do you have a favorite?
Well, you know, I’ve been friends with one of the members of The Lettermen for many decades. I was happy to see them record it, and they did a really nice version in their Lettermen style. But if you made me pick one, I might have to pick the original version by Little Anthony and the Imperials. Anthony Gourdine just really nailed it, as he always does. And Linda Ronstadt recorded it a couple of decades later, and that’s a wonderful version, too, but they’re all great.
Boyce & Hart started writing in Hollywood — where you came out with songs for artists like Eric Burdon and the Animals and Gary Lewis and the Playboys — but then you ended up composing the theme song for a soap opera? How did that happen?
That’s when we moved back to California from New York. We got signed to Screen Gems/Columbia Music by Donny Kirshner, who was the president of the company, but who lived in New York. We got signed back in New York, but immediately were sent out to the newly-formed West Coast offices where we were dealing with the head of the company there who was Lester Sill.
All the big songwriters of the day who were signed to that label — and they had most of them, like Carole King and Gerry Goffin, and Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil — were all on the East Coast. We were some of the very few first writers who were on the West Coast, so we got some opportunities that were great, of course, with Hollywood being the capital of movies and TV. So Days of Our Lives was the first one — and, of course, you know the second one, [laughs] which ended up being even bigger.
When writing the Days of our Lives theme, didn’t you first have a couple of unsuccessful tries before achieving success thanks to your expertise with the Hammond B-3?
That’s true. The Cordays — Betty and her husband, Ted — had produced a whole bunch of soap operas. This was their new one coming out, so we sent them something that sounded like what they said they wanted. They hated it so we said we’d give it another try, and they hated that, too. So Tommy said, “Forget about these people. They don’t know what they want. Let’s go write hits instead.”
And I said, “Well, before we do that, let me try one more thing. There’s an organ right there in the studio. I’ll go over there and play live on to tape something that sounds like the kind of music I used to hear on the soap operas my mother used to listen to on the radio,” and they liked it.
As you mentioned, you wrote another theme song, which is one of the most iconic TV themes of all time — the theme song for The Monkees. Where did you get the idea for that — the feel, the lyric, and so forth?
Tommy and I were sharing a house at the time and we did some writing there, but mainly we would go out to a park or to the beach or someplace outside to write because we loved being in Southern California with the sunshine and so on. So we decided to walk down to this little park, and as we were walking our way down there Tommy started singing the obvious — [laughs] talk about Captain Obvious — “Here we come, walking down the street,” which is exactly what we were doing. By the time we got to the little park, we had most of the lyrics finished.
One of the greatest hits you guys wrote for The Monkees was “Last Train to Clarksville.” Did that one have a bit of a Beatles influence to it?
It was kind of Beatles-esque. We had a great little recording band called The Candy Store Prophets — the same guys I was moonlighting in clubs with at night while Tommy and I were writing songs in the daytime. So I would play these clubs around L.A. with The Candy Store Prophets, and then we added Louie Shelton on guitar, who was a great inspirational musician — of course, this was long before he had all of that success as a producer.
Tommy and I would take the guys into a little recording studio — actually, it was a little dance rehearsal studio, because it was cheap — where we would rehearse these things before we went into the actual studio. And we said, “This sounds good” — meaning the groove we had for “Last Train to Clarksville” — “but what we need now is this kind of instrumental signature lick that we could use as an intro.” And Louie just said, “How about this one?” — [laughs] like he’d already had it ready for us — and it went, [sings opening guitar lick to “Last Train to Clarksville”] “Bum-dant, dant dant dant.” He just did it, just like that.
Wow! We understand that when Micky Dolenz did the lead vocal on “Last Train to Clarksville,” he had some difficulty singing what you’ve called the “machine gun-paced bridge” and asked you if, instead, he could just sing “Deh-deh-deh-deh-deh…” Do you remember what the actual lyrics were for that bridge?
Well, each one of those notes had a syllable to an actual word that went with it, and we let him off the hook by just doing the “deh-deh...” But, no, I don’t remember the actual words — and I do know they would have been too fast to sing them for you anyway.
With rap not being invented yet, maybe you were just a little bit ahead of your time?
[Laughs] Yeah, maybe that’s true!
In 1966, “Last Train to Clarksville” climbed the charts to #1 and by May of 1967, seven of the top 32 albums on the charts had songs written or produced by Boyce & Hart. One of our favorite Monkees’ songs from that time period is “(I’m Not Your) Stepping Stone,” which you had originally written for Paul Revere and the Raiders. What was the inspiration for writing that song?
Paul Revere and the Raiders. We wanted to write something for the group — they were hot. And they did record it, but they never released it as a single, so when we got the job to produce The Monkees’ records, we just said, “Let’s have The Monkees do this one, too.”
Another great Monkees song you guys wrote was “Valleri,” with its cool chord progression and vocal harmonies, not to mention the flamenco guitar licks.
That was Louie Shelton on guitar, again.
Isn’t there some kind of funny story about putting that song together at the last minute?
[Laughs] Yeah. Like I said, I was playing clubs at night and getting home late. And I got awakened one morning by Tommy at around 8 a.m. and I said, “What did you wake me up for?” And Tommy says, “I talked to Donny Kirshner last night and he said, ‘I think the next single by The Monkees should have a title which is a girl’s name.’” So typical Tommy says, “I can’t believe you said that, Donny! Bobby and I just wrote this great song with a girl’s name!” And then Tommy says, “Get up, Bobby! Donny said that sounds great, and to come right over and play it for him!”
So I had an hour to get up, get a shower, and jump in the car. As Tommy is driving, I’m trying to throw out names of girls in the back seat. And as we arrive to play Donny something at his home which he was renting out here on the West Coast, [laughs] all we had was the word, “Valleri.”
So we get there and Tommy jumps up on Donny’s coffee table and he goes [sings] “‘Va-a-a-a-al-leri’ — and says, “Then there’s a little verse that goes in here, and then it goes [sings] ‘Va-a-a-a-al-leri’” And Donny said, “It’s a smash! You gotta go book the studio and cut this right now!”
That’s really funny! You ended up going out on tour with The Monkees, but eventually decided that Boyce and Hart could make it on their own as performing artists. You signed with A&M Records and your song, “Out and About,” started climbing the charts. How did it feel to finally start having your first big success as recording artists?
It was a dream for both of us. We had both wanted to be recording artists and we got sidetracked into writing songs for other people. Of course, the success of The Monkees gave us a little platform and so when we decided we would really go for it, there were several labels we could have signed with, but we chose A&M Records because it was owned — at least 50% — by a performing artist.
Meaning Herb Albert?
It must have been a whirlwind for you guys from that point on. Starting in 1967, you were on a non-stop schedule of recording, TV, promotion, etc. for several years. “I Wonder What She’s Doing Tonight” became a big hit and you were nominated for a Grammy, but we wanted to ask you about something that happened in Alabama — where they honored you by proclaiming it “Boyce and Hart Day” and you got to bring your dad to the celebration. How cool was it to share that experience with your dad?
What was cool about it was my folks kind of knew what I did for a living, but they really weren’t picturing it. They knew I was in the music business somehow, but that was it. So I had my dad there — and Tommy brought his dad, as well — and when my dad saw the reaction of these crowds of kids and how they surrounded us in the park when we were walking through it before the show, and there were hundreds of them and they were tearing pieces of our clothing off — [laughs] my dad just couldn’t believe it. And, at that moment, he became our greatest publicity manager. From then on, he told everybody he ever came in contact with about us.
As you mentioned earlier, you were a big country music fan growing up, and you guys were actually invited to perform at the Grand Old Opry. You also made numerous television appearances on talk and variety shows like The Hollywood Palace, Johnny Carson, Merv Griffin, and Joey Bishop, in addition to several television comedies including I Dream of Jeannie, The Flying Nun, and Bewitched. Do you have a favorite memory of any of those experiences?
Bobby Hart: They were all great. The professional actors we worked with on the comedies were all very kind to us. We were these, sort of, really “green” guys who hadn’t been actors before. We were basically playing ourselves on a couple of these shows, but when we got to — I believe it was The Flying Nun — we had to play somebody else and so we became actors, [laughs] in spite of ourselves.
Following an appearance at the Flamingo in Las Vegas with Zsa Zsa Gabor, Tommy decided he wanted to quit the business. Soon after, though, you got a call from Leon Russell who asked you to be a part the Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour he was putting together for Joe Cocker — a job you didn’t take.
I have mixed feelings about that. Sometimes, I think I should have just jumped at it. But at the time, it felt like it would be going backwards to be a part of a back-up band. I mean, we had just come off this period of being headliners, so that was one of the reasons I hesitated. But it became a big deal. It got videoed and it became a special, so from that point of view, it probably would have been good for my career to have joined that group, but I didn’t, and I never really felt bad about it.
We understand that at a Jimmy Webb concert you attended not long after that, you received some high praise from him. In addition to the many hits he created himself, at that concert, he performed a medley of two numbers he didn’t write but called “two of the greatest songs of all-time. One of them was “Let It Be Me” by The Everly Brothers and the other was “I Wanna Be Free” by Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart — which must have been very gratifying for you. Where did the idea for that song come from originally?
That was one of the songs that we had in our repertoire before we started working with The Monkees, and it was great that we got such good performances from Davy Jones and Micky Dolenz on the recordings — they just seemed to fit. Also, that was a nice tribute from Jimmy Webb; it’s something I wasn’t expecting.
After that, you started writing with Danny Janssen, working on the Josie and the Pussycats cartoon series, and you had at least one Janssen and Hart song on every Partridge Family and David Cassidy solo album. Later in the ’70s, however, you and Tommy Boyce re-teamed with Micky Dolenz and Davy Jones as Dolenz, Jones, Boyce and Hart. Was it a fun experience for you being a part of that group?
It was — [laughs] especially because we didn’t have to learn anything; we all knew the songs! I don’t recall the exact numbers, but for the first show that we did, thousands of kids showed up.
Meaning the one in St. Louis?
Yeah, in St. Louis — thousands of kids showed up there for that concert.
And then in 1982, you co-wrote “Over You” for the motion picture, Tender Mercies.
Yes. Austin Roberts was a guy who Danny Janssen and I wrote a Top 10 hit for called “Something’s Wrong With Me,” so Austin and I were friends and we wrote “Over You” together.
Even after all of the success you had experienced up to that point, was it still a thrill to be nominated for an Academy Award and a Golden Globe?
Oh, it was great just to get to go to the Academy Awards and the Golden Globes, you know? The Golden Globes was more of a casual situation where you had a table of people who were nominated from the show you were associated with, so that was fun sitting at a table with the members of your crew, and others — like Johnny Cash and his wife were also at our table — so that was great.
In 2015, you wrote your memoir, Psychedelic Bubble Gum, which is a fascinating look at your life and career. Some people might consider “bubble gum” as tunes which are mainly designed to appeal to young kids, but so much of your music has stood the test of time where your songs are popular with multiple generations. Is that something you’ve noticed yourself over the years at concerts and so forth?
Yeah, exactly — especially when you show up at a Monkees’ concert and you see the grandparents and the parents and the kids — and the young kids are all sitting there mouthing the songs. So, yeah, it does make that transition.
Since there are really few concerts happening these days, what have you been up to?
Not much musically, but Glen Ballantyne — my co-writer on Psychedelic Bubble Gum — and I are doing a second book, and it’s coming along very nicely.
Do you have a title yet?
Yeah, it’s called Soul Power, and it’s based on yoga and how your life can improve while using the concepts of yoga we both practice.
That sounds great! In the meantime, is there anything else you would like to add, or anything you’d like to say to all of the folks who have enjoyed your music for so many years?
Well, we appreciate you — all the people who still remember us, and who listen to our music — and the fact that we can still make an impact with our music makes us feel really good!
To learn more about Bobby Hart, please go to bobbyhart.com. For more information on Boyce & Hart, please click on officialboyceandhart.com, and to connect on Facebook, please navigate to facebook.com/boyceandhart.
Photos by Mona Bagatelle Shenker
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