Not many people know this, but after leaving Occidental College to attend the University of Hawaii at Manoa in 1982, I almost ended up staying to live and work in my home state. One of the reasons I returned to Oxy was because I realized I wanted to do something in music. Eventually, my main goal was to become a hit songwriter.
But after helping to form the media watchdog organization, MANAA, in 1992, I suppose my drive to “get the bastards” became stronger than my need to hear one of my songs on the radio.
There have been other confusing elements kicking around in my brain, though. Fear of rejection? Fear of success? In the late ‘80s, I was working on a new composition in the piano room at Oxy. It was an average piece of music until I came up with an arpeggiation that could run throughout the entire song. That raised the work to a higher level, and I got excited. Yet driving home, I thought, “Oh no. What if it’s too good?!”
What. Did. You. Just. Say?
Perhaps a part of me feels it’s “not my place”—a Japanese American from a small town in Hawaii—to try to impose my personal songs on the white masses. It didn’t help that not one full-blooded Asian American has ever written a Top 40 hit by himself. In any case, I’ve never been able to overcome my mental blocks enough to get my songs recorded by artists. However, what helped was getting feedback from a record producer who told me I had talent: Larry Cox.
In 1972, he produced the classic “Precious and Few” for Climax, which went gold and peaked at #3 on the singles chart. Record company politics prevented subsequent releases from succeeding: “Life and Breath,” a sure-fire Top 10 hit, stopped at #52, and the original 1973 version of “Rock ‘n’ Roll Heaven” flopped, even though the Righteous Brothers launched a comeback with it the following year, taking it to #3. Larry went on to produce five consecutive gold/platinum albums for Jefferson Starship and was responsible for all of their ‘70s hits (“Miracles,” “With Your Love,” “Count On Me,” “Runaway”). In 1986, I interviewed Sonny Geraci, the lead singer of Climax, for a “Whatever happened to?” story for “American Top 40 with Casey Kasem” and got the idea to try to reunite Larry and Sonny. After hitting it off on the phone, Larry invited me to meet him at his home in Studio City for a longer interview.
Despite his track record, the transplanted Texan had been unceremoniously fired from both the Climax and Starship projects, the latter in 1978—the same year his best friend, grandfather, longtime lawyer, and first marriage all died. “I went into a depression,” he told me, in an article that was later published in Music Connection Magazine. “I basically resigned from life for about two years. Sometimes you don’t bounce back. I sort of crawled my way back from all those losses.”
His last record was for the rock band Head East in 1982. By the time I met Larry, he believed he’d lost all of his contacts in the music industry and had almost given up recording. And he still didn’t seem to have emerged from his dark period. But he agreed to hear some of the songs I’d written.
I must’ve played him six or seven of them on his piano. None of them stood out as being worthy. Larry told me he only had the attention for a couple more. He leaned over to see my sheet music for the last one: “’Every Now and Then She Cries,’” he read. “Great title!”
The story was told by a guy who observed a popular college girl go through her day. She got all the attention in the world, yet in the end, often cried and didn’t know why. In class, she saw the one person who really understood her and could help her find happiness, but she avoided him because he wouldn’t fit in with her clique; she didn’t want to hurt him. In the end, we learned that the person narrating the song was that guy (yes, the song was autobiographical—something leftover from my Manoa days).
Larry flipped out. “That’s it! That’s the one you record!” He was practically jumping up and down. “What a song! ‘Every Now and Then She Cries!’ Everyone can relate to that song!” He explained that he had just been up all night with his daughter who’d returned from her first term of college in San Diego and was crying because she didn’t feel that she fit in.
I sheepishly asked if he’d record it, but he said he was retired and no longer in the recording business.
It’s still somewhere in one of my old manuscript books. No one’s ever recorded it.
Around 1990, I got Larry to be one of the judges for an album the Association of Asian Pacific American Artists (AAPAA) was trying to compile. I didn’t recognize him when I saw him near the elevator of the old “American Top 40” headquarters-he was completely bald. He seemed a lot more energetic and upbeat, though. He’d been going through Lifespring training and listened intensely to a stranger’s story. I never saw him again.
A few months later, he seemed to be back to his rather downbeat self. Apparently, his second marriage had ended, and we never got together to talk about why. In 1992, I recorded a demo of a song I’d written about a young woman in a sheet music store who’d been going through health and family problems—“A Song to See You Through.” I mailed it to Larry for feedback. He called to say the music was fine. “Do the lyrics need a re-write? No, the lyrics are fine [as they are.]It’s a good song, Guy,” he said authoritatively in his Texas twang. “I’m proud of you.”
“Larry! You don’t know what that means to me!”
“It’s a good song.”
Though Larry took up photography, it apparently wasn’t enough to keep him afloat. He filed for bankruptcy and returned to Texas to care for his parents.
Every couple of years, I’d get a call from Mike Mucci, a friend of Sonny Geraci, who had another idea of how to reunite Sonny with Larry. Larry was always game as long as all the right elements were lined up, but nothing ever came together.
In 1997, I made three more demos, which I sent to a talent scout at Arista Records (Whitney Houston, Kenny G, Barry Manilow). She called me back in early 1998 and said she liked my tape and one song in particular—“And I Don’t Even Know Why.” She didn’t have any artist in mind for it yet, but wanted to put it on hold. Of course, I agreed. Although nothing came of it, another professional had verified I had something to offer the music world.
Larry liked one of the other tracks and suggested I send it to Sonny.
Tellingly, I don’t remember if I did.
In the end, though, even when executives at different companies agreed to listen to my songs and give me feedback, almost none of them would return my calls. I got frustrated. What was the point?
I couldn’t figure out who to represent me, and although one music publisher wanted to hear more of my material, she never offered a deal. So around 2002, I stopped writing.
A couple years after that, I called Larry, and the toll his smoking had taken on his voice was obvious. In the past, I’d had no problem being assertive with media executives (I once followed then-CBS President Leslie Moonves to the elevator so I could finish making a point; I asked the President of ABC why he had been the last of the four top network heads to come to the table regarding diversity). Yet with Larry, because of the way he carried himself and the respect I had for him, it felt like it “wasn’t my place” to push anything on him. As difficult as it was, though, I did: “I want you to live a long life, Larry. I wish you would stop smoking.”
“I’ve tried, Guy. I can’t.”
One October morning in 2008, Larry left a message on my recording machine. I could barely recognize his voice. It was scratchy, and he sounded barely able to talk. When I returned the call, he told me he had throat cancer which had spread to his stomach and lungs. The doctors gave him a year-and-a-half to live.
In the past, I’d dealt with news of people’s impending death in strange ways.
In denial, I acted as if there was always going to be more time to resolve things.
With Larry, I realized it didn’t matter if I knew what he’d meant to me unless I told him. So I wrote a nice two page letter thanking him for the great music he made and for inspiring me.
“I think that’s probably something you and I shared—a mental block, self-doubt about our own talents– me in songwriting, and you in getting back up on the horse to produce records again.”
I gave him a CD of a radio show pilot I had created and produced with David Cassidy as host—“That Guilty Pleasures ‘70s Show”—which I was unable to sell to satellite or syndicated radio.
“The show ended not with a #1 hit but the feature ‘It Should’ve Been A Hit’—a song which failed to reach the Top 40 but should’ve. Of the 100 singles I could’ve chosen to feature in this pilot, I went with ‘Life and Breath.’
“Although the demo was scoped— meaning we faded in and out of the records in five to eight seconds, ‘Life and Breath’ was the only song I played in its entirety so the programming executives could familiarize themselves with It…
“In closing, Larry, I want to thank you for being a supportive friend and for the wonderful contributions you’ve made to music. I hope you take the time to reflect on a life that mattered, one which gave so much joy to so many people, you’ll never get to meet them all. If there’s anything I can do for you, please don’t hesitate to call.”
We never discussed the letter. I found it difficult to get him on the phone, so I spent most of my time talking to his childhood friend and now-girlfriend Marilyn Parker. She recalled hearing “Life and Breath” coming through his room, so I assume he listened to the CD.
By December of last year, I decided to write a proposal for a book on ‘70s music which would incorporate interviews I’d conducted with many of the artists and producers from that decade. I found those old 1986 cassettes of Larry Cox and began listening to them again for ideas and inspiration. Chillingly, I kept hearing Larry opening a new package of cigarettes every so often. At one point, I told him, “Those things are gonna kill ya, you know?”
“Yeah, I know,” Larry responded, as if being nagged by a parent. “Sooner or later. Hopefully later,” he concluded, laughing.
The following day, on December 14th, Parker called to tell me that Larry had taken a turn for the worse. The doctors had recommended his immediate family gather, and Larry’s two daughters were flying in. I asked Parker to please tell him again how much he’s meant to me and that I’ll always write about him and let people know about his work. She tried to get him on the phone, but he was in an agitated state.
On December 16th, Marilyn called again. Larry had passed away.
Maybe the dream I had for Larry Cox to make records again was mine and not his. Maybe he had moved on and reconciled himself with his past. But my own dream of writing hit songs still lives. And if I ever get past those damn mental blocks enough to make a difference, it’ll be with the help of memories of the man who knew hits when he heard them—and who told me I had potentially written a few of them.
Thank you, Larry. Never goodbye.
Till next time, keep your eyes and ears open.
Guy Aoki, co-founder of the Media Action Network for Asian Americans, writes from Glendale. He can be reached by e-mail. Opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.