The early 1980s were a special time for original local music in the Philadelphia area. The club scene was enjoying a renaissance, and Philadelphia became the launching point for a growing list of new and exciting artists that included Robert Hazard, the A's, Beru Revue, Tommy Conwell, and many others.
In the minds of many fans, the best and most notable band to emerge from the Philadelphia music scene in the '80s was The Hooters. With a unique sound that blended rock, folk, and a bit of reggae, the band was soon packing clubs throughout the tri-state area.
One of those early clubs was the 23 East Cabaret, located at 23 East Lancaster Avenue in Ardmore. The building that once housed the 23 East Cabaret recently underwent a major renovation, and will re-open as the Ardmore Music Hall on Friday, September 20. On Saturday, September 21, The Hooters will celebrate over 30 years of musical history by performing a special concert there. Tickets for the 9:30 p.m. show are priced at $45 and $100. For more information, call (610) 649-8389.
“I won't be divulging any specifics, but I will tell you that there will be some surprises,” vocalist, keyboardist, and founding member Rob Hyman said in a recent telephone interview. “We're billing it as ‘An Evening with The Hooters.’ We’re planning to play two sets – back in the old, old days, we used to play four sets a night – but rather than one long show, we're going to break it up into two sets and really play as much material as people can take. We’re going to dig deep into the songbook, so it will be a test of the hard-core fans to see who remembers what, including us.”
Hyman formed The Hooters with Eric Bazilian (guitar and vocals) after the breakup of their former band, Baby Grand. They called themselves The Hooters after a studio technician referred to Hyman’s melodica (a type of keyboard harmonica) as a “hooter.” Today the band also includes original drummer David Uosikkinen, guitarist John Lilley, and bassist Fran Smith, Jr.
After the success of their independently released 1983 album, “Amore” (featuring the original versions of songs like "All You Zombies," "Hanging On A Heartbeat," "Fightin' On The Same Side," and "Blood From A Stone"), The Hooters were signed to Columbia records. The band released its major-label debut, “Nervous Night” in 1985. The album was a worldwide smash. It sold over two million copies and included the Top-40 hits "Day By Day," "And We Danced," and "Where Do The Children Go."
Following “Nervous Night,” The Hooters released “One Way Home” (1987) and “Zig Zag” (1989) on Columbia records before signing with MCA for “Out of Body” (1993). All three albums went gold. The band's most recent albums include the independently released “Both Sides Live” (2008) and the EP “Five By Five” (2010). Their body of work includes the hits “Karla with a K,” “Satellite,” “Johnnie B,” “Brother, Don't You Walk Away” and a popular version of “500 Miles.”
Hyman and Bazilian are the primary songwriters for The Hooters, but they are also known, together and individually, for writing for and recording with artists like Cyndi Lauper, Joan Osborne, Dar Williams and Jonatha Brooke. As owner of the recording facility Elm Street Studios, Hyman says he's always working on a variety of new projects with a wide range of artists.
“Elm Street Studios has become the home of The Hooters over the years,” he says. “We record here; we store most of our equipment here, so it's our home base. But we have a lot of other projects that come in. Sometimes I'm involved and sometimes it's just a rental of the studio.”
These days, with group members busy with families and numerous individual projects, The Hooters are less likely to embark on full-fledged tours, usually preferring to perform “one-off” dates up and down the East Coast. An exception to that practice is the group’s annual summer performances in Europe.
“Every summer for the past few years we've been going overseas,” Hyman says. “Our main market is Germany, but this summer we also went to parts of Norway and Switzerland. Over the years Germany has become our home away from home.”
Hyman says he’s not exactly sure why, like David Hasselhoff before them, The Hooters have struck a chord particularly with German music fans.
“The obvious answer is that they get the music,” he says. “They like the show. Germany is very populated and a big music market. I think it's just been our efforts, sort of, ‘If you play, they will come.’ I think they really appreciate American acts in particular. They're intrigued by people from the States. They like to meet us, talk with us, and certainly hear the music.
“We were fortunate enough to start going there in the late ’80s with our second album, ‘One Way Home.’ When we go to Germany now, we’re not fluent in the language, but we’re very comfortable there. We have friends and crew there that work with us. We even store some equipment over there, so it's just become very natural.”
In acknowledgment and honor of their large German fan base, Hyman and Bazilian wrote “Pissing In The Rhine” a song performed in German which is included on the “Five By Five” EP.
“Eric is very fluent with languages,” Hyman says. “It was like a burst of inspiration, it came quickly. It's very tricky to write in another language. Once we had a lyric assembled, we got in touch with three or four of our close friends over there and asked them to make sure we weren't mangling the language.”
It’s been three years since the release of “Five By Five” and Hyman says he’d like to see The Hooters record an album of new material in the near future.
“There are no definite plans at the moment, but we always come off the road thinking that we need new material,” he says. “We retool the show every time we go out. We have to keep it fresh. I think we're ready to get back into the studio. But everyone is also very busy. We all have home studios and projects, and families and kids. Our lives have certainly gotten more complicated than they were in 1980 and this was all we did 24/7. So finding the time for me and Eric to sit down in a room and really get inspired and write and record is difficult. But the desire is there, so I think more music will come – hopefully sooner rather than later.”
A lot has changed in the music business since Hyman and Bazilian started writing songs together in the late 1970s, but Hyman says one thing that hasn’t changed is the way the two of them approach the process.
“I don’t think the writing process has changed at all,” he says. “You sit in a room together and you say, ‘Have you got any ideas?’ You really need to be inspired, and it just starts with an idea. It could be a guitar riff. It could be a song title. It could be a keyboard riff. It could be something that you heard earlier in the day. The process is the same. We get in a room. He'll put on a guitar. I'll sit at a keyboard. We roll what used to be a Walkman – now we use our iPhones – to document the music and the riffs. Some songs come faster than others, but I think it's the same old process – just singing and playing and trying to come up with something original.”
Hyman says that the process hasn’t gotten any easier over time. In fact, because they don’t want to duplicate or repeat anything they’ve written in the past, it’s even more of a challenge to create something original. Over the years, there have been songs that were written in a few days, while others literally took months.
“‘All You Zombies’ came really fast,” Hyman says. “We wrote that back in 1980. We had a rehearsal place in Manayunk, and late one night in a crazed state of mind it popped into our heads. My recollection is that in a day or two we had that song written. We were singing and playing words that we didn't really know where they came from. People have asked about that one in particular, because it’s got kind of a mysterious and unusual lyric.
“One song that didn't come so quickly was ‘And We Danced,’” he adds. “We wrote the chorus very quickly, but it took us months to finish it. We had this chorus that we loved, but we just couldn't find the right verses or the right bridge. We kept singing, ‘and we danced’ over and over.”
Ideally, no matter how long it actually takes, Hyman says a good rock ‘n’ roll song should sound “like it was written in 10 minutes.”
The band has always taken pride in its live performances. This past summer tour was dubbed the “33 1/3 Tour” in honor of the vinyl LP, and the group’s 33rd anniversary. Although it might seem a bit cliché, Hyman feels that as a band, The Hooters have never sounded better.
“In all modesty, I think the band is better than ever,” he says. “This past summer we played 15 or 16 shows with almost no days off. We were really on a grinding schedule, playing long concerts, then hitting the road to the next city. I think they were some of the best shows that we've ever done. I think we take a lot of pride in doing that. We’re singing and playing the songs in the original keys, hitting the notes that we hit 30 years ago.”
Hyman credits the addition of a sixth touring member, Tommy Williams, with both enhancing the group’s live sound and inspiring the other members of the band musically.
“A few years ago, Eric had a skiing accident and broke his shoulder right before a tour,” Hyman says. “He could sing and play a little bit of mandolin, but he couldn't really play guitar. So we had Tommy come in. He was a friend of Eric's and he knew all of our material. He's a fantastic player. He plays and sings everything you can throw at him on every instrument. He really fit the band.
"After that, we decided that it was actually fun having another set of hands on stage. He allows us to incorporate some of the additional parts that are on the records, and he also adds some harmony power. Tommy makes us turn our game up a bit. He's a perfect fit and I really think he is a spark. He's the new kid on the block. He's younger and energetic, and it's kind of like, ‘Okay, we have to keep up with him.’”
Hyman says that the Ardmore Music Hall show will not only be a celebration of the band, but given the history of the venue and the many long-time fans expected to be in attendance, also a celebration of an unforgettable time in local music history.
“The club scene was vibrant and live music really, really mattered,” Hyman says. “It’s not that it doesn't matter today, but it was all that we had back then. There weren't any of the Internet options that exist today. People went out to shows and supported the bands by buying their albums. It was mostly independent recordings. It was a special time in Philly. We were thrilled to be part of it, and we're excited that we’re still a part of it.”