"When I got the call to do a song for the sound track for this little movie that I was told was called 'Dancing Dirty,' I wasn't that wild about the idea," recalled pop-rock singer Eric Carmen. "Probably no one would ever see it. What good would it do? But I said: 'What the hell. . . , I've got nothing better to do.' "
Earlier this year, Carmen, 38, might have been considered a has-been. Though he had been a star in the '70s--first with a group of teen idols called the Raspberries and then as a solo artist--he'd been floundering throughout the '80s. Deciding, he said, to sing and produce the song "Hungry Eyes" for that "little movie"--later retitled "Dirty Dancing"--was one of the smartest moves he's ever made.
The movie is one of the sleeper smashes of the year, grossing more than $50 million. The sound track, which includes several oldies, has been on top of the Billboard magazine pop album chart for seven weeks, partly thanks to two singles--the Bill Medley-Jennifer Warnes duet "(I've Had) the Time of My Life," which went to No. 1 on the pop chart, and Carmen's "Hungry Eyes," No. 25 this week and climbing.
One recent afternoon, the elegantly dressed singer was sitting in a dark corner of a Sunset Strip restaurant. "I love this business," he said icily. "Here today, gone, gone tomorrow. I was real gone for a while. But now I'm back. Up and down. I love it. What a stable way to make a living."
Despite his hit single, Carmen doesn't have a record deal, although he's sifting through offers.
"Doing that song ("Hungry Eyes") didn't seem like the opportunity of a lifetime," Carmen noted about the offer from sound track coordinator Jimmy Ienner. Ienner, as producer of the Raspberries' albums, was familiar with Carmen's work.
"Sound tracks are made all the time that die horrible deaths--even sound tracks for popular movies. But it turned out to be a great opportunity for me. People hadn't exactly been banging down my door to get me to do stuff. I was ice cold."
Carmen had four Top 40 hits, including "Go All the Way," with the Raspberries in the early '70s, followed by six hits, including "All By Myself," as a solo artist on Arista Records. He then moved to Geffen Records, but his album for the label was a flop. It failed to crack the Top 100 in 1984.
"Someone at the label told me they wanted the album to be a white Lionel Richie album," Carmen said. "I was trying to do what they wanted and some of what I wanted. I was known as a ballad singer who sang melodramatic, heavily produced ballads. I'm not known as a mid-tempo singer who does fun songs. I'm not going to do a song like 'Dancing on the Ceiling' (an up-tempo Richie hit single).
"So where did that leave me? Compromising, that's where--doing an album that no one wanted to hear--that was good but not quite right for me. When you're not having hits, you'll try anything , hoping it works. I was so confused by then. . . , so I just went back home to Beechwood, Ohio. I'd probably still be there writing songs for whoever if Jimmy (Ienner) hadn't called."
"Hungry Eyes" is one of those irresistible songs you might be humming in spite of yourself: pop-rock puffery teeming with hooks.
But when Carmen first heard it on the rough demonstration tape, there was a lot he wanted to change. "There was stuff on it I wanted to fix up," he said, "but I had to do it their way to a large extent. I couldn't change it and make it sound like a different record. I changed what I could--to give the song some guts."
The first thing he wanted to do was alter the tempo. "It was too slow," he said. But speeding it up was impossible because a dance sequence had already been filmed.
"Unfortunately, I was locked into that tempo," he said. But he was able to make some adjustments, including adding a heavy guitar touch "to juice it up."
Reminiscing about the old days, Carmen recalled how wild he used to be: "You know all those fantasies about sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll? I was living those fantasies. I was the crazy, obnoxious rock star. The drugs, the drinking, the wildness--to some degree that's what I got into this business for."
Like many young artists, he was lured into a music career partly for a chance to savor fame and glory.
"When I was getting started in this business, I had serious complexes from being this short, skinny, serious guy in high school," he said. "The girls went for the jocks, not guys like me. I needed girls to scream over me."
But after years of adulation, of playing the reckless rock star, Carmen says he has finally calmed down. "How many drugs can you abuse? How much can you drink? You stop after a while because you get tired of it and you know your body can't take much more abuse."
Carmen said he's now more serious and practical. To him, the music business really is just a business. He's looking for a record deal that will allow him to compose and sing for a nice profit.
"Forget the fame and glory," he said. "That's kid stuff. Fools fall into that trap. You get your fill of it and get beyond it. Now I want the money. That's what really important now."