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Let me tell you about ...
Grammy Award Winner Whose Family and Friends are "Most Important"
By Jean Metcalfe
When Johnny Cash's television show came on her television set, the young mother of two children turned off the vacuum cleaner to listen.
"I remember thinking to myself that I could do that," Debbie Hupp recalls twenty-one years later. She was referring to her belief that she could write a song such as "A Boy Named Sue," that Cash was singing and which he took to No. 1 on the country charts and to No. 2 on the pop charts that year -- 1969.
The Grammy-winning songwriter and I sat unnoticed in a franchised burger restaurant in Louisville's East End, and she was patiently retelling a story that she has been asked to tell many times before.
"It really inspired me," Debbie continued. "I had always written things -- short stories and poems and things like that for myself personally." And she has always loved music, although she says she was not musically inclined. (She did admit that she played "a little piano, a little clarinet, a little guitar, at that time.") She had never performed, however. "Still don't," she laughed.
Debbie's youngest child was about nine months old at the time, which explains why she wasn't working outside the home. (She held down five jobs during one period of time.)
Debbie got busy immediately after listening to the Cash performance. She called a friend (a guitar player) and asked him to come over. She sang the songs, he learned them, and in a couple of weekends they recorded five songs in Debbie's coal bin.
"I put an old Wollensak reel-to-reel tape recorder in there and set up a mike stand, and we put five songs down on tape. I was serious from day one, let's put it that way," Debbie said. Within three or four weeks she had lined up an appointment with Johnny Cash's House of Cash publishing company in Hendersonville, Tenn. "Getting the appointment wasn't as difficult as it should have been, due to the fact that it was a brand new company.
"Looking back, all these things just happened to work right for me. One of the things that worked right was that they were very open at that time, and probably anybody could have gotten an appointment if they were persistent, which I was."
She took her five songs to House of Cash, where, after an anxious wait, she played them for Larry Lee (now an independent song plugger).
Debbie described the listening session as though it had taken place just the day before. Lee sat in a high-back Mediterranean-style chair with his back to her while listening to the tape. She couldn't see his reaction to her songs. He played the entire tape not once, but twice. (It is not unusual for a publisher to listen to only a small part of one song.)
"My mind started racing like crazy at this point, because I knew if he didn't like it, why would he do that? So I was really excited and my heart was really pumping fast because I thought 'I can't believe this; this is a dream.'"
Lee told Debbie that two of the songs were too pop for him, which left the obvious implication that there were three that he did like. "I was really excited and I said 'Well, that's fine, I didn't expect you to like all of them,' and I was really out of it," Debbie said with such realism that I almost felt as if we were both there in Lee's office. She signed the three songs with Lee that day.
Lee had a friend -- Johnny MacRae at Screen Gems/Columbia-- who he thought might like the two songs. Debbie drove immediately to see MacRae, who said that he couldn't use the two songs, but that she should send him other songs. Debbie and MacRae had an immediate rapport. "He wasn't just a person, he was a character, and I really related to him."
She decided that if she were to write more songs, this was the person she wanted to guide her through her career. "And that's what he's done," Debbie said.
For the next several years, she wrote sporadically, and although she was serious when she was writing, she didn't consider it a profession.
Personal circumstances kept her from writing very much until her situation changed in about 1975 or 1976. Through the years, Debbie had kept in touch with MacRae, and on a trip to the Smoky Mountains she stopped off in Nashville and had lunch with him. MacRae encouraged Debbie to resume her songwriting. After that lunch she knew she wanted to get back in the business.
Debbie was working the graveyard shift, guarding the Jeffersonville, Ind. properties of a well-known distilling company at the time. "I was there by myself. It was the most boring job in the world, unless a water main broke or something and I had to go fix it. And so I had all this time to write and it all worked out, because I started writing again and I built quite a collection of songs before I left there. It wasn't until after I won a Grammy (in 1979) that I walked off that job."
The song that won her the Grammy, "You Deco-rated My Life," was inspired by her children. Debbie was feeling sad that she would have to work on Christmas Day and wouldn't be with them. Thoughts of Christmas and decora-tions appa-rently led to thoughts of how her children had decorated her life. Although the song took a different turn and was not about children, her "kids" had indeed been Debbie's inspiration for "You Decorated My Life."
The song was recorded by two other artists (Debbie's co-writer Bob Morrison, and female vocalist Charly McClain) before Kenny Rogers recorded it in 1979. Rogers' version went to No. 1 on the country charts and to No. 7 on the pop charts.
Fortunately for Debbie, in the meantime Billy Larkin recorded one of her songs, "My Side Of Town," and it made an appearance on the country charts.
The story of how Kenny Rogers happened to record "You Decorated My Life" is an exciting one to her, Debbie said. Seems Larry Butler, at that time "the hottest producer in Nashville," had chosen the song for Dottie West to record. Kenny and Dottie and Larry were good friends who hung out together. Kenny was in Nashville, listening to material to record.
"I think Dottie was recording. She may have been in the studio that night, as a matter of fact," Debbie said. "I don't know exactly how that happened. I just know that Larry played 'You Decorated My Life' for Kenny as one of the songs he had chosen for Dottie, and Kenny asked if he couldn't do it instead."
(I asked if that was a touchy thing for artists to do, relating how Michael Martin Murphy had recorded "What's Forever For" after hearing Gary Morris' version on the radio. Murphy's version subsequently hit No. 1 and Morris' didn't. In a concert at the Derby Dinner Playhouse in Clarksville, Ind. in June of this year, Morris joked that he took out a contract on Murphey and "he's afraid to fly yet.")
McClain didn't have a single out on "Decorated," it was just on an album, Debbie related.
"I don't think that Dottie ever knew that the song had been chosen for her to do . . . Larry said to Kenny, 'Sure, if you want to do it, fine, that would be great,' and I'm not sure that Dottie even knows that she was going to do it."
"You Decorated My Life" was a hit single for Rogers in '79, following "Coward Of the County." As a matter of fact, after "The Gambler" was released in late 1978, every single Rogers released through the Fall of 1981 made it to the Top 10.
According to Debbie, it is usually known what songs are going to be singles from an album when it is made. Unusual circumstances can change things, however, she said.
Debbie related another interesting fact about "Decorated." The song was completed in October of '77, "but that happened to be the year that 'You Light Up My Life' came out (by Debby Boone, who took it to No. 4 on the country charts and to No. 1 on the pop charts), and so when 'You Light Up My Life' came out we couldn't even pitch (try to get an artist to record it) my song. It had to wait. And it was such a big song that we had to wait two years. So it was in 1979, then, that we finally got it cut on Kenny, and it was a hit, I mean, immediately. That was the year it won the Grammy."
"What does a Grammy award mean to a songwriter, other than the obvious honor of it," I asked.
"It means a lot," Debbie answered. "It means, well . . ." (She gave this some thought, and as she did, I suggested, "Maybe more doors are open?"). Debbie said, "It should mean that but it doesn't necessarily. At that point in my career I was worried about it seeming to be a fluke. That worried me. So I was extremely glad that I had a No. 1 record that followed that up." She referred to the Debby Boone recording of "Are You On the Road to Loving Me Again?" which came out the following year.
It also means more money to the writer. "Whenever a song wins an award like that, it seems as though programmers' attitude . . . there's a lot more airplay when you win an award, because, for example, if you've ever noticed on the radio the weeks following the CMA (Country Music Association) awards or whatever, you'll hear those songs that won. Now they may have been over for several months . . . but then they come back and are played again for a period of time after the awards. So it means a lot."
"Everybody asks me what a Grammy means to somebody. A Grammy means exactly what I told you. It means more airplay for a while. But what really means a lot to a writer is when a song is considered a 'standard.' When a song reaches that status that means everything, and of course 'You Decorated My Life' is a standard and has been for, I think, three years now. So that means that it's somewhere on some program in the world almost all the time and probably always will be. It also increases the chances for it being 'covered' (done by another artist) years down the road by different people. So that's sorta the ultimate goal for a popular songwriter is for their song to become standard. That's it."
In response to my question, Debbie said that a "standard" is "determined by the amount of exposure and airplay and activ-ity and perfor-mance."
Al-though she herself once asked the question, Debbie is not real clear on who decides at what point a song becomes a standard. "I'm not real sure, I just know it has to do with performance."
"Just as long as it is (a standard)?" I suggested. "As long as it is, I don't care how it got that way," Debbie said with a chuckle.
"Decorated" was a cross-over (a hit in more than one field of music; in this case, country and pop).
"Kenny Rogers was a pop artist also, but he just . . . sorta fit the country niche, and still does. He was originally a pop artist, of course, and then when he came back with his second career he sorta marketed a little more toward country but crossed over anyway. He just kinda does what he wants to do at this point."
A cross-over, I suggested, means a lot also. "It means I may never have a song that makes that much money again in my life, that's what it means. But you never know," Debbie said optimis-tically.
Another of Debbie's co-writing efforts, "Don't Call Him A Cowboy," was the title cut on a Conway Twitty album, and the song became Twitty's 50th No. 1 hit.
Other artists who have recorded songs written by Debbie include Andy Williams, Perry Como, Dottie West, John Denver, Mac Davis, Billy "Crash" Craddock, Sammy Davis Jr., Ed Bruce, John Conlee and the Oak Ridge Boys.
Debbie was one of the first group of persons inducted into the National Academy Of Recording Arts & Sciences' Star Walk in Nashville. When she put her handprints in the cement she also wrote "Thanks kids," to show her appreciation for their inspiration that brought about her Grammy-winning song.
What is Debbie Hupp doing today? Besides continuing to write songs, she has a publishing company (she's been in the publishing business for over two years). She started Debbie Hupp Music in affiliation with Southern Writers Group in Nashville, her first publishing venture. Although there were many advantages to being in the group (access to a recording studio, etc.), differences in business practices caused her to decide to go it alone and she started Huptown Music. "It's costing me a lot of money since I don't have any earnings except my royalties -- that's what I'm living on -- and so everything that goes into this company, everything I publish, everything I demo, everything comes out of my pocket."
I sensed that she preferred it that way, and asked if that were the case. "Well, if I can hold out, if I don't go to the poor house before I get rich," she said only half jokingly, and laughed.
Debbie divides her time between Nashville and Louisville. She is able to spend more time in Nashville now than previously since her children are older and she is divorced. Of her children, Debbie says, "Whenever they need me to be here (in Louisville), I'm here." She has five children -- four sons and a daughter. Three of them, includinga 22-year-old son, are still at home. "That's an excellent arrangement for me, because he's real responsible and really helps out with the other kids."
Debbie has two grandsons, Nicholas and Joseph, the sons of her oldest son Brian Tegarden, who live in Washington state.
It was Nicholas who, before the birth of his younger brother, inspired Debbie to write "Just Like Me," a cut by Lee Greenwood on his current album Holding A Good Hand. It is rumored that "Just Like Me" will be released as a single.
The inspiration came about whenBrian and his wife were both in the military and expecting their second child. Both were about to get out of the service, but Brian was scheduled to be discharged about six months sooner than his wife. They planned to make their home in the state of Washington, where her parents lived. Brian and Nicholas would go to Washington to get established there and get ready for her arrival. Debbie was worried about eighteen-month-old Nicholas being without his mother for six months. That worry inspired her to write "Just Like Me."
As it turned out, Brian and Nicholas were involved in a serious wreck after about a month in Washington. Nicholas was not hurt, but his father was. Brian's injury prompted his wife's early release from the Army, and the family was reunited.
We discussed Debbie Hupp, Grammy Award winner, and Debbie Hupp, mother, and how, even though it is a special thing to have received a Grammy, she is still just Debbie Hupp.
"Especially to my kids. I'm still the person that yells at them when they need to be yelled at and nags them to wear a jacket when they don't really want to, and all that kind of stuff. . . . I don't think that they think what I do is any more special than if I worked in a factory like I used to. I don't think they think about it. And I don't think about it at all until somebody like you comes along and asks for an interview. Then I think about it because I have to answer the questions, but otherwise I'm thinking about the price of canned goods at the Kroger store just like everybody else."
Tammy Wynette's current album, Heart Over Mind, which was due to be shipped in mid-August, includes a Hupp song, called "If You Were the Friend And I Was the Fool," which she co-wrote with CBS recording artist Tim Mensy.
At any given time Debbie might be getting "nibbles" on roughly ten of her songs. It's hard to keep track of what's happening with each one, and she must consult her notes to check the status of a particular song at a particular time. Sitting and waiting and hoping for good news about a specific song is perhaps something a songwriter does when he or she is new at the game, Debbie said, but at this point in her career, she doesn't sit and watch out the window for the mailman, or wait by the phone for it to ring with news about a song.
I asked Debbie about lack of anonymity, suggesting that she is probably not recognized in Louisville although she is well-known in Nashville. "Fewer people know who I am in this town than in Nashville. In Nashville I have a very difficult time going anywhere without seeing somebody I know. In this town I rarely see anybody I know or that knows me. It's kinda weird. It's almost like I'm visiting when I'm here."
Even though she likes to help aspiring songwriters, Debbie is reluctant to listen to original songs submitted to her by them, lest she be accused of using someone's idea. There have been occasions when she has listened to a song that is written around an idea that she has already written a song about. That, she said, is the reason that many publishers are reluctant to listen to songs by "outside" writers, choosing instead to rely on their staff writers or other established writers with whom they are familiar.
Debbie's advice to songwriters? "Persistence and writing constantly, one thing after another. Don't be satisfied that you have ten (songs). Go ahead and write twenty. That kind of thing, that's a given. You must do that. The other thing is not to put so much credence in advice from people who love you. People who really care about you are not going to be as honest as you need. Songwriters are very sensitive, because creative people are just that way. And so they tend to only ask the people that they know they're going to get the "right" answer from for advice. Consequently they don't get any better. Songwriters have to develop a tough skin and not take their criticism personally, particularly after the song is pretty much finished. For example, in my case, if I took it personally . . . I mean I feel like certainly that I'm a qualified songwriter, I'm a veteran of many years, and I feel like that when I'm through with a song that it's finished, but just because it's finished doesn't mean it's right for every occasion. And I may pitch it to somebody that I know it's not right for -- just an off-the-wall idea -- in case they want to do something different. So if they turn it down I can't be offended by that, or I can't be offended if they just purely don't like it for them. I feel like it'll be cut by somebody somewhere down the road, so just don't be offended by that kind of thing."
I asked Debbie if she has ever run into a situation that I had heard of where an artist likes her song and wants to cut it, but wants to make some changes and become a co-writer of the song.
"There's so much happening today in that area. So far, I've not had that happen to me, but I do know people that it has happened to.
"The biggest thing that's happening these days is that at least one major label that I know of is making these deals for less than statutory rate on a song. If you want your song recorded by this particular artist, then they're asking you to give them a better rate. . . . and I know that that's happening and it's catching on like measles or something. And I don't like it. And unless songwriters and publishers stand up against the labels, it's going to continue to happen. . . . Once you start letting them quote to you what you're going to accept, it's just like gasoline; if you pay the price they're gonna charge the price."
Debbie is currently doing songwriter seminars all over. She will be doing one soon in Minneapolis, Minn.
She has also come up with the idea of a "Seminarty and Guitar Pull" and will conduct several of them in Florida. They will be "four-hour crash courses of how to get in the business. But it's going to be like a wine-and-cheese party in combination with them, and I'm hoping that if the weather works right the program will take place as a walk up the beach. It's going to be real inspirational, and I'll say all the things that I have to say, rather than in a formal setting like I usually do at a podium, you know, and I'm hoping that everybody will bring their guitar and we can just sort of have a real inspirational sort of thing -- inspirational and informational."
The courses will begin the week of October 13, and will continue for the next two weeks in Ormond Beach, Fla.
What would Debbie like for our readers to know about Debbie Hupp? I wondered. "Is this my epitaph?" she asked with a laugh, then answered:
"Other than my family, the most important thing to me is friends. And that's the truth. Friends are invaluable to me. I feel like every time I make a new friend, I've made a new million dollars. That's exactly how I feel. And I think that making and keeping friends is very important to me and I would like to be thought of as a friend by as many people as possible. That's a real important thing to me."
Sounds like a nice epitaph. And there was no mention of a Grammy.