What ifs & near misses: Paul Hillery speaks to Richard Pass about a career that almost was
I first became aware of Richard Pass’ music when I purchased ‘We’ll Find Love’, the 45 he had released on Cherry Records.
Sometime later and out of the blue Richard reached out to me via social media. This is most unusual as I’m the one usually hunting down lost musicians and not the other way around.
We started a dialogue, and he began to share some of his back story. Richard told me he had written and recorded many demos and was offered contracts and deals that had never worked out.
His musical career is a heartbreaking mix of what ifs and near misses, label problems, broken promises, unpaid gigs, mafia run-ins, New York coffee bars, Tin Pan Alley and a retrospective back catalogue of beautiful songs.
I knew ‘We’ll Find Love’ would be a perfect fit for an upcoming project, a compilation called Folk Funk & Trippy Troubadours – Volume One, which I was curating for the UK label RE:WARM. So with the help of Micky Brown at WARM we finally got Richard a licensing deal and the track will be heard by a new generation of listeners. We are also looking at Richard’s demos and acetates with the hope that these lost songs will be heard too.
Following the release of the compilation, I spoke to Richard – who lives with his wife Catherine and their little dog, Peanut, in Charlton, Massachusetts, a small rural town outside of Worcester – about his pathway into music, his memories of living in Chicago and NYC and near musical successes.
So Richard, when did you first get the bug for music?
I was born in 1946, Worcester, Massachusetts. As a small child, it turned out that I could sing! I was called upon to sing at school assemblies and taken to other schools to sing as well. As we were a lower working-class family, I had no access to musical instruments or training.
A little older then, I fabricated a piano keyboard out of wood and would practice playing notes and songs on that. As a teenager, I worked odd jobs to earn money to purchase a guitar. I was blessed with a good ear for music and pretty much taught myself to play the guitar. When I was able to afford it, I took some classes in music theory and composition and piano lessons. I still lacked a real piano to practice what I had learned.
When did you begin performing music in front of people?
While I attended college in Worcester, MA, I had become proficient enough to perform in coffee houses, universities in the area as a solo, and with a band as well for parties, dances and weddings. As far as I know, I was the first person to perform in a planetarium!
So when did you think music might be more of a career option than just doing it for fun?
I continued on to teach biology as well as my beloved music, hoping to share with others my love of music.
In the summer of 1968 I was performing at ‘Your Father’s Mustache’ in Cape Cod, MA and ‘The Improper Bostonian in Boston’, MA. It was my habit to bring my guitar to the beach on summer days, and play and have impromptu sing-a-longs with other beach goers. One particular afternoon, I met a fellow from a famous entertainment family who really liked an original song I was playing. The next thing I knew I was on a plane headed to Chicago, IL to record a song at Cherry Records.
You must have been really excited about being in Chicago. Have you any memories of your time there?
I played at various clubs in Chicago to showcase that song and a few others I had written.
One night in Chicago, while playing atop a rotating restaurant, I had an interesting experience. The gig was going great, and so I played on well into the night. When I finally quit playing for the night, a kind bartender brought me a pizza. I was starving as I hadn’t eaten all day. As I was about to start eating, a very large man, dressed meticulously in a suit and tie, approached my table. He proceeded to take my pizza, place it on his table and sat down to enjoy it! When I attempted to get up to reclaim my food, I was held back by my acquaintances from Cherry Records who told me he was a hit man for The Mob! They explained to me that it was his way of showing his appreciation of the music and an invitation to join him, which we did. It turned out to be a fun night all together, sharing lots of food, stories and laughter. I was later offered a contract with the Syndicate, offering me all sorts of support in the music industry to ensure my success. The only catch was they would own 51% of anything I wrote for the rest of my life. I turned it down.
It was also the era of the singer/songwriter. I was offered a chance to write for other successful artists. The catch with that was I would give up all rights to these songs, never being able to claim them as my writing. I turned that down as well. I wanted a career of my own.
What happened with the Cherry Records recording?
I wrote ‘We’ll Find Love’ during a quick burst of creativity while I was finishing my fourth year of teacher training college and embarking on 9 weeks of student teaching. When the 45 was released I gave copies to many of my 9th and 10th-grade students. They were very surprised that their teacher had released a record and excited as it was getting a lot of local radio airplay at the time.
You moved to New York didn’t you?
While back in Cape Cod playing at ‘Your Father’s Mustache’ I was approached by a man who was vacationing. He told me that he had ‘connections’ and asked if he could be my agent and manager. The deal was sealed when he told me that he could get me gigs in New York City.
Moving to the Big Apple I started a residency at ‘Adam’s Rib Pub’. A group of jingle writers had started to come regularly to hear my music. They took me under their wing and shared my dream of landing a recording contract and finding success. I was encouraged to stay in New York and not to return to teaching at the end of the summer but decided to move back home.
So what did you do next?
I worked as a teacher but would return to New York on vacation weeks. I would knock on the doors of music publishers and A&R people to ask if they would give my songs a listen. When interested a standard publishing agreement was drawn up and acetates would be produced, which were then distributed in an attempt to generate interest. But unfortunately it just wasn’t to be. I still have many cassettes and acetates from this time and always hoped they would be heard.
Paul Hillery is a hugely respected collector of private press obscurities, lost loner folk, strange musical fauna and intricately played floral powered wonders. Known in collectors’ circles for his deep digging adventures and his immersive mix series on the Folk Funk and Trippy Troubadours blog, Paul has gained a reputation as the go-to man for compilers and labels seeking information pretty much unavailable anywhere on the net. As a selector he’s played alongside The Polyphonic Spree, Arthur Lee and Love, Bonnie Dobson, Spiritualized, 4 Hero, Happy Mondays, Simian, The Bees and many more.