He sold over 65 million records while dominating the pop and adult contemporary charts.
Next Tuesday May 21, two-time Grammy winner Michael Bolton performs with the National Symphony Orchestra Pops for a special one-night-only concert at the Kennedy Center.
“This is my first one with the NSO and I’m really excited about it,” Bolton told WTOP. “I’ve been performing the greatest hits for over 30 years and fans come to hear the hits, but there’s something that happens when you put a huge orchestra on stage or in studio. You bring an entirely different dimension to all of the hits. You’re still going to know every song as soon as you hear the beginning of each song, but there’s a depth and emotion and type of power that comes with a symphony orchestra performing those songs that elevates the entire room.”
Born Michael Bolotin in New Haven, Connecticut in 1953, he started off in the blues genre, as well as cover bands at local restaurants and clubs in his home state. In 1978, he became the frontman for the hard rock band Blackjack, which released two albums for Polydor Records.
In 1983, he changed his name to Michael Bolton to record two solo rock albums for Columbia Records, while writing pop songs for other artists that got more traction than his rock efforts.
“The president of Columbia Records said, ‘Michael, I know you love this whole rock thing, you love the Wall of Sound, I get it, I really do, but the songs you’re writing for other artists and giving away, the R&B songs, the ballads, those are your hits! I’d like you to do an album with those songs,'” Bolton said. “So basically, after two albums that didn’t hit, instead of the [record] president telling us, ‘It’s been nice working with you, good luck in the industry,’ he said, ‘I want to make another record with you and I want you to keep your hits for yourself.'”
That next album “The Hunger” (1987) went double platinum, featuring the original song “That’s What Love is All About” and a cover of Otis Redding’s “(Sittin’ On) the Dock of the Bay.”
His sixth album “Soul Provider” (1989) was even bigger, going six-times platinum in the U.S. on the strength of “How Am I Supposed to Live Without You.” He had originally written the song for Laura Branigan, who topped the adult contemporary chart with it in 1982. As the years went by, word spread around the offices of Columbia Records about Bolton’s initial demo.
“Secretaries at the record company were taking those demo tapes home and one of the things they loved was my demo of ‘How Am I Supposed to Live Without You,'” Bolton said. “I thought, ‘Why don’t I record it? Maybe it won’t be a single because it’s too soon after Laura Branigan.’ It was like eight years later. We released it and it went to No. 1 very quickly for six weeks, won me my first Grammy for Best Male Vocal, I’m just so glad I felt like recording it.”
Now a Grammy winner, Bolton was suddenly in demand, along with colleague Diane Warren.
“Diane Warren and I became friends because we were both songwriters that no one was calling,” Bolton said. “We both had our first hits on the Laura Branigan album: my song was ‘How Am I Supposed to Live Without You’ and Diane’s song was ‘Solitaire.’ We both high-fived at the fact that now everyone was returning our calls. It’s like you chase the music industry all your life and when you have a major hit, the whole music industry starts chasing you.”
Together, they teamed with Desmond Child, who had written hits for Kiss and Bon Jovi, to co-write the follow-up smash “How Can We Be Lovers?,” reaching No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100.
“The three of us got together in my apartment in New York City and wrote ‘How Can We Be Lovers’ in two days,” Bolton said. “There are theories for songwriters that if you can find a way to pose the truth, there’s a lot of power in truth. Logic and life experience teaches you how you can’t be lovers if you can’t be friends. What people miss the most when relationships are ending is that you lose your best friend when you lose your relationship. There’s a lot of logic and a lot of truth in that very simple question: How can we be lovers if we can’t be friends?”
He reunited with Warren to pen another No. 1 hit with “Time, Love and Tenderness,” the title track of his seventh album, which topped the Billboard 200 chart in 1993. It also featured his cover of Percy Sledge’s “When a Man Loves a Woman,” reaching No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and winning Bolton his second Grammy Award for Best Male Pop Vocal Performance.
Over a dozen more albums followed, including “The One Thing” (1993), featuring “I Said I Loved You…But I Lied,” and his “Greatest Hits” (1995), featuring “Can I Touch You…There?” Today, his late ’80s and early ’90s hits are constantly covered on reality singing competitions.
“Now, 20-30 years later [my songs are] being performed all the time on ‘American Idol,’ ‘The Voice’ and ‘The X-Factor,'” Bolton said. “‘How Am I Supposed to Live Without You’ is one of the popular songs that keeps being performed and I’d love to see it go to No. 1 for a third time.”
Most recently, he’s found new life making comedic viral videos with “SNL” jokesters Akiva Schaffer, Andy Samberg and Jorma Taccone of The Lonely Island. Their video “Jack Sparrow” saw Bolton spoof “Pirates of the Caribbean,” “Forrest Gump,” “Erin Brockovich” and “Scarface.”
“‘Capt. Jack Sparrow’ is the gift that keeps on giving,” Bolton said. “I was in Los Angeles and I got a message that The Lonely Island — who had written all those genius, hysterical videos for ‘Saturday Night Live’ — wanted to meet with me. I was a huge fan of pretty much everything they’d done so that was a no brainer. They sent me a copy of what the concept was for the video. I read it and laughed but it was really gross. It thought a segment of my audience would get what was funny about it, but others would say this is not funny. … So I said, ‘Can you tweak it a little? Clean it up just a little so I don’t feel like I’m offending half my audience?'”
As a result, The Lonely Island came back with another attempt.
“Every two or three weeks my phone would light up with Samberg saying, ‘We worked on it, take a look at this version.’ In some cases, it got worse; more disgusting. Of course I would laugh out loud, but I said, ‘You guys are going the wrong way.’ Finally I got to Atlanta on tour and I got a version that I said, ‘Yes, I can do this. How do we do this?’ They found a recording studio in Atlanta [and] said, ‘We’ll show up on Skype and produce the session. We want you to stack all these harmonies on the chorus and just have fun with it.’ I went into the studio about six hours [and] the hook started to get so big that it became this really catchy, sexy hook.”
After recording the audio track, they filmed the video over two 14-hour days in New York.
“When you’re laughing your butt off filming, it always finds its way onto the screen,” Bolton said. “I had a good feeling about it, but I was still a nervous wreck. We filmed it on Wednesday and Friday and it aired Saturday night. I was hiding in a corner just in case people didn’t like it. It aired and people were laughing out loud in the audience and it went over really well. The next morning it did a million views and it started doing a million views a day for weeks and weeks. We just celebrated the 100 millionth view and it’s now approaching 200 million views.”
Since then, he’s been asked to do other spoof videos, reinterpreting the “Game of Thrones” theme as an ’80s power ballad and taping the “Big Sexy Valentine’s Day” special on Netflix.
“Self-deprecation is fun, but the only rule is it’s gotta be funny,” Bolton said. “I started getting calls from television writers and producers about doing comedy, so I started developing some shows, I was a guest on ‘Two and a Half Men’ three times and ‘Fresh Off the Boat.’ I started thinking I could have a lot of fun, as long as I could still do music and connect my music through television. … I guess I’m at the point in my life where I have permission to have fun.”
Find more details on the Kennedy Center website. Hear our full chat with Michael Bolton below: