Dirty Dancing's Eric Carmen: "I Wanted to Find Where the Magic Was"

Eric Carmen fronting the Raspberries in 1973
Eric Carmen fronting the Raspberries in 1973
Photo by Bob Gruen/Courtesy of Sony Legacy

Very few articles about Eric Carmen (including, sadly, this one) do not include the term "power pop" somewhere to describe the music he's made with the Raspberries and in his lengthy solo career. But according to the singer/guitarist, if you gotta have a musical label, you could do much worse.

"'Power pop' was the term Pete Townshend created to describe the music of the Who," Carmen says today. "The Beatles played power pop. It comes from 'popular,' and nobody sits down to write unpopular music. It was never a dirty word to me.

"But once 1970 rolled around, the people who made that kind of music just weren't taken seriously," he continues. "The Raspberries, I mean, who loved us? Sixteen-year-old girls and rock critics. It just wasn't cool for an 18-year-old guy to like the same band that his sister did."

Listeners new and old can get the full Eric Carmen experience, though, on the new anthology The Essential Eric Carmen (Sony/Legacy). Its hits, deep cuts and live material chart his journey from teenage garage rocker with The Cyrus Erie, the Raspberries ("Go All the Way," "I Wanna Be With You"), and both early ("All By Myself," "Never Gonna Fall in Love Again") and later ("Boats Against the Current," "Hey Deanie") solo efforts.

There's also his hit from the Dirty Dancing soundtrack ("Hungry Eyes") and late comeback single ("Make Me Lose Control"). It finishes up with a 2005 live Raspberries reunion effort ("Ecstasy") and his first new song in 18 years, "Brand New Year."

Carmen says he is "wowed" by the remastering on the material, which he and engineer Mark Wilder were able to do, making the songs finally sound in reality like he says they did in his head decades ago. The single-CD project quickly mushroomed into two CDs and 30 total tracks.

And while Carmen certainly had more familiar musical influences in the '60s, his earliest included two people firmly set in the classical world -- his Aunt Muriel, who played with the Cleveland Symphony for 43 years, and piano teacher William Kurzban. He began taking music lessons at age two and a half, originally on the violin before switching to piano.

"Violin to me is like golf...I don't know how anybody gets through it to where it becomes fun!" he laughs.

Not surprisingly, Carmen says in the liner notes that some of his rock and pop melodies were inspired by, influenced by, adapted from or downright nicked off some of his favorite composers like Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky and Mozart. But as he matured into a teenager -- and thanks to his parents' nice hi-fi system -- he began to investigate not just how a song made him feel but how it was actually made. And that involved a lot of knob twiddling and needle placement, over and over and over again.

Carmen calls himself a "singles guy" wholeheartedly, preferring the playlist he heard on WIXY 1260 AM on his transistor radio over more album-oriented material from the same groups.

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"I mean, it was songwriters like Holland-Dozier-Holland, Goffin and King, Burt Bacharach," he offers. "It didn't get any better.

"I wanted to find out what made 'Ticket to Ride' great," he says. "Was it the Rickenbacker guitar? John and Paul's voices? The EQ levels? What about 'Mr. Tambourine Man' by the Byrds? What made me smile about that music. I wanted to deconstruct those songs, to find where the magic was."

And while Carmen's solo career in the '70s and '80s was steady if not spectacular, no one was more surprised than him when the soundtrack to a 1987 dance movie set in the '60s that he had a tune on blew up big-time, leading to new interest in Carmen, his participation in a film-inspired concert/dancing tour and a video in heavy rotation on MTV.

"Let's face it, Dirty Dancing was not Gone with the Wind, but it obviously struck a nerve with people," he says. "I was reading a list that ranked the Top 20 best selling albums of all time, and it was No. 7 with 42 million copies. I mean, Sgt. Pepper was No. 14!"

Also on the list was Celine Dion's Falling Into You, featuring the French-Canadian chanteuse's cover of Carmen's most recognizable hit, "All By Myself." And the soundtrack to Footloose features Carmen again as co-writer of the film's love theme, "Almost Paradise," performed by Loverboy's Mike Reno and Heart's Ann Wilson.

But as our interview winds to a close, there is one question to Eric Carmen that begs and needs to be asked (and queried last, just in case we get hung up on it). Eric, what the hell were you thinking with the cover to 1980's Tonight You're Mine?

"HA!" Carmen laughs heartily. "Let me just tell you one thing. That girl and I were not in the same picture. We were never even in the same room! Some art director spliced us together to make that photo! I got so much flack for it. And I can tell you...we probably fired someone as a result!"


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