Wherefore Art Thou?
He might not be Shakespeare, but Steve Forbert's song about fading away from the world in the company of your lover was worthy of the title "Romeo's Tune," which does not appear in the lyrics. Forbert had most of the song written when he recorded his debut album Alive On Arrival, which was released in 1978. He didn't include it on that album because it didn't fit the theme, which turned out to be a good thing because he was able to refine the song.
The first attempt at recording it was with producer Steve Bergh, and the results were underwhelming. Forbert went on tour and started playing it in clubs, where it got a great reaction. A breakthrough came when his manager suggested that the song needed another verse, so he wrote the part at the end that begins, "Let me see you smiling back at me."
Forbert's next attempt to record the song was in Nashville with producer John Simon, whose credits include "Red Rubber Ball" by the Cyrkle and The Band album Music From Big Pink. They liked the results but weren't thrilled with it, so they tried again to record it in New York at CBS Studios (the record company thought the song had hit potential so they were willing to indulge Forbert). This recording wasn't much better than their original demo, so they went back to Nashville and recorded the song yet again, where they finally got the sound they were looking for and had their hit. It took a year and four recording sessions, but Forbert knew that if he didn't capture the right mood on record he wouldn't sound like a modern day Romeo. He told us, "We got it right away. I mean, the first day was like, Right, this is the right band, and this is all happening. When all the musicians came into the room and listened to the playback, everybody said, That's it, that's the version we've been looking for. I think it was the third take that day."
You can hear the beauty of a rough mix on this track. Forbert had engineer Gene Eichelberger roll tape to record the full mix, which ended up being what they released. Producer John Simon tried to improve the mix by working with the individual tracks, but couldn't come close to what they put to tape all at once. Forbert explained: "I said to John Simon, 'You won't be able to top Gene's rough mix.' You know, he was playing the song as an engineer; he had all the levels up like it was a live show. It had a lot of apparent volume and a certain magic about it. I still like hearing it."
Forbert was a folk-rock singer, which wasn't a hot genre in 1979. This song caught on, however, and made a great showing on the US Hot 100, peaking at #11. Steve found himself touring with Kenny Loggins and traveling the world. He attracted a loyal following, but never had another hit - the closest he came was the follow-up single "Say Goodbye To Little Jo," which made #85.
Said Steve: "After the second album, I had a lot of things I wanted to try. A lot of things were changing at that time and records were getting a little more crafted. It was the beginning of the MTV era. Records were being more manufactured rather than recorded live. So I was having to respond to that. I was trying to take some of the changes in the air into account. But it didn't produce another 'Romeo's Tune.' It just didn't."
Things worked out well for Forbert, since he earned a living making music, thanks in no small part to his one hit, which he always plays as an encore. By 2012, he had released 15 studio albums. Said Steve: "Maybe I didn't turn into the kind of monster hitmaker that Stevie Wonder is, but I was able to go my own way, and if it didn't turn out to be superstar status, well, I did it myself. I was allowed to make my own mistakes, my own choices, my own good ideas."
According to the Jackrabbit Slim album sleeve, the song was dedicated to the memory of the late Supreme, Florence Ballard, who died in 1976. However, Forbert actually wrote the song about a girl from his hometown of Meridian, Mississippi, rather than the Supremes singer. The reference to Ballard was because, as Forbert explained, "that seemed like such bad news to me and such sad news. She wasn't really taken care of by the music business, which is not a new story."
When The Supremes started, Ballard was the strongest vocalist and their de facto leader. When Diana Ross became the focal point of the group, Ballard became frustrated and was eventually replaced by Cindy Birdsong. Plagued by addiction and bad relationships, her health deteriorated and she died in 1976 at age 32.
Forbert has never disclosed publicly the identity of the girl he wrote about in this song, although he tells us "She was real pretty." He says she knows who she is, and they have been in contact from time to time over the years.