Sometimes a song needs a little bit of luck. (Actually, much of the time.) And maybe a helping hand. A well-connected hand.
Nick Richards always wanted to be a pop star, but after a number of failed singles in the UK in the late 70s and early 80s, Nick instead bought himself a recording studio in London and helped encourage others to lay down their musical dreams, including Duran Duran, Stray Cats, and Wham. He named the studio’s house band Boys Don’t Cry (a nod to the 10cc weeper “I’m Not In Love” — nothing to do with the song by The Cure) and it consisted of Richards and whoever else he asked to play. This loose collective didn’t release records — they were just around to back other artists.
Jump to a quiet Sunday in 1985. A big fan of spaghetti westerns, Richards was moving around the studio one day, doing his thing, while repeatedly uttering the phrase “I want to be a cowboy.” Someone suggested it would make a good song title. (Challenge accepted!) Filled with a spirit of silliness and improvisation, the entire track was started and finished in a mere five hours.
So here’s where the luck comes in. After pressing up a small number of white label promos (these were records with no credits on them — simply a blank, white label) to distribute to dance clubs, Richards went back to his studio work and didn’t think much more about his crazy novelty dance number.
Unbeknownst to him, the song started getting play at a club in New York City. A record exec for a small label showed up one night, liked what he heard, and then spent months trying to trace the unknown artist. When Richards got the call from America asking to release “I Wanna Be A Cowboy” as a single, he laughingly gave consent and again thought no more of it, not even talking about compensation, figuring nobody would buy it outside of a few club-goers. A few months later, he received another surprising phone call informing him the song had hit the Hot 100 and was steadily climbing higher.
And here’s where the Mafia comes in. Record companies and the mob have been linked since the first customer traded coins for a grooved disc of shellac with a scratchy tune on it. Labels paid for protection, increased sales, union cooperation, radio play, and whatever else the wise guys might dream up. Once a single got into the Top 40, it required actual sales in the millions to climb further, but influence could be wielded on the lower tiers, and it was, firmly and as a matter of course. The FBI occasionally investigated but finally got right up in everybody’s business during the early 80s. The major labels quickly dropped their shady ties to organized crime, and organized crime was not happy. Not happy at all. Enter Profile Records, a tiny indie label who had recently acquired the rights to a weird song about cowboys.
The major labels felt threatened by this unknown, upstart label and their sudden success so they started telling distributors, in effect, “You keep stocking this indie and you don’t get the next Michael Jackson record.” Sales began to stall. So Profile contacted a guy who knew a guy and asked for help. Normally they couldn’t afford such services but the mob guys said not to worry about it. It would be their pleasure. “I Wanna Be A Cowboy” proceeded to hit #12 in 1986, becoming one of the biggest indie hits of the decade.
So let’s get that hitch out of your giddyup. And rock your spurs off.
Note: My apologies to any of the principles mentioned above if I’m mistaken in any detail — I gathered information from multiple sources, some of which were incomplete or open to interpretation. This goes for any of my posts, actually.
You can’t make this stuff up! Music and the Mafia… That would make an interesting documentary.