Wednesday, September 3, 2014

“Greatest American Hero” theme singer interview: Joey Scarbury

Look at what’s happened to me.

You’d think by now the Internet would have provided us an interview with the singer of the 14th most popular pop song of 1981, but you’d be wrong…until now.

I love superheroes and I love music so it was only a matter of time before I arrived at this topic: Joey Scarbury, distinctive voice of “Believe It or Not,” theme of the memorable TV show The Greatest American Hero (a reboot was recently announced). Despite what seems like a fairly uncommon last name, he was not easy to find, and then it took a while to hear back from him, but once we connected, it was worth it.

The Greatest American Interview? I rarely use superlatives and try not to play favorites, but this is a fun one. (Conducted June 2014.)

How old were you when you sang the Greatest American Hero theme?


What else were you doing professionally at the time?

I was touring, singing backgrounds with Loretta Lynn.

How did you get started doing that?

When I was young, my mom took me to talent contests. She was working at a furniture store in Thousand Oaks, CA and she met Bob Webb. She asked if he was related to [musician] Jimmy Webb, and it turned out that Jimmy was Bob’s son. Jimmy wrote many songs including “Macarthur Park.” I went to their house and sang for Jimmy. This was when I was 13. That started my singing career.

Where were you living at the time?

Thousand Oaks.

How were you hired to sing “Believe It or Not”?

Mike Post was my producer at the time. He and Stephen Geyer wrote the song with me in mind to sing it. Worked out great.

Still in touch with Mike?


Any funny stories from the recording?

Not really. Pretty cut-and-dried. I was touring and had to fly home from Fort Worth, TX to record it.

What did you think of the song?

I thought it was a really cool song. I had no idea it was going to become iconic. It’s almost a staple by now. There aren’t a lot of songs that are really happy (like the one by Pharrell) and that song is.

Musically did you like it?

I loved it musically. It was acrobatic vocally. It’s not an easy song to sing.

Had you seen any footage of the show at the time of the recording?

No. They’d shot some but I hadn’t seen it. There were also songs inside of the show. For the pilot I think we did “Rocket Man” and a David Bowie song but most after that were originals. Every week there was a song written for the show and I would perform it.

Were those songs released?

One was on the album [America
s Greatest Hero]. But they were snippets, only 30-45 seconds long.

What did you think of the show?

I thought it was fun. I was 26 years old. I was making money doing what I loved.

Did you meet any of the show’s stars?

Yes. At wrap parties.

Multiple times?

Three or four times.

Any photos from those parties?

No, not really.

What were highlights of being in the spotlight when the song was a hit (shows you appeared on, celebrities you met, honors you received, etc.)? I saw you on Solid Gold.

It was weird because when the song was released I was still on the road. A bunch of letters going to Stephen J. Cannell Productions asking where to buy the record, but I didn’t even have a record deal at the time so we had to do that very fast. It wasn’t drawn out and long. I had to quit working with Loretta.

How did Loretta take that?

She was happy as a lark. She was phenomenal.

Still in touch with her?

No, not in quite some time.

What were you paid to record the song?

I was paid union scale to record the actual record. I don't remember the amount. But I made the money back a hundredfold in residuals and royalties. And I did get paid for doing the songs for the show every week.

Do you still earn royalties on the song?

Oh yeah. They’ve used it in so many different things—commercials, TV shows, movies.

Do you have any idea how much you’ll make in any given royalty period?

I’ll go a year and make $3,000 and the next year tens of thousands.

Where did your career go after that?

We took a while to release the album because there were some legal issues. Warner Bros. was suing Cannell for rights infringement for Superman and couldn’t release it till that was handled. By then the [song’s peak] was pretty much over.

I kept singing themes for TV, commercials. Went to Nashville and started writing. I wrote a song with Even Stevens, “No Matter How High,” which went to #1 for the Oak Ridge Boys in 1989.

At that point I decided to stay home with my children, coach baseball. I did that for about 15 years.

Have you had any fun Greatest American Hero moments since (i.e. a reaction when someone you meet discovers you sang the theme)?

Happens all the time. People are blown away. The song is not obscure and I don’t say that to toot my own horn. It’s still relevant. When my kids were in high school (20 years after the song was a hit), their friends knew the song. They were so impressed that I was the dad. (laughs) Things don’t usually last that long.

Did you see how Seinfeld referenced the song?

It’s funny, I wasn’t a big fan of the show so I didn’t see it. I went into the recording studio the day after it and everyone was talking about it. I didn’t make any money on that because they didn’t use my voice. I was surprised to hear it in The 40-Year-Old Virgin, and did get paid for that.

Have you kept in touch with anyone connected to the show or the song?

I’m not really in the music business per se anymore. I sing a few demos for people every once in a while but unfortunately it kind of outgrew me.

What are you doing these days?

I am the manager at a Lexus dealership in Santa Monica.

with his wife (and a lion cub, natch), 2013

How did you end up in that business?

That’s a long story. I was bored and sitting around doing nothing and a buddy of mine said come down and work for me and I did it.

When was that?

About 20 years ago.

Between colleagues and customers, how often does it come up that you sang—

Every day.

How would it come up with a customer?

If they’re older and see my name. Where I work there are a lot of people in the industry.

How often do they ask if you can you sing a bit of the song?

All the time but I don’t.

When was the last time you sang it?

In its entirety? About six years ago a New York radio station called me because they were doing a revival of theme songs at the China Club. Singers of three or four other songs were there. Can’t remember who or the name of radio station, but it was an ABC affiliate that played oldies [WPLJ, in 2005]. That was live with an audience.

How did that feel?

It was a kick. I’m pretty reclusive. Not the easiest guy to get ahold of.

I noticed.

I prefer it that way. The radio station called me in California and flew my wife and me out.

Have you done the song at private events, like the wedding of a family member?

No. I’ve sung at funerals, but songs like the Lord’s Prayer. I used to do the national anthem at local sporting events. Three times at Dodgers games.

Are you still singing/recording?

I still sing—very rarely—but don’t record.

Do you miss it?

A little bit. I like singing. I still sing recreationally. Performing I don’t miss a whole lot. I was mostly a studio singer who became a performer.

What performance was the most memorable?

The thing we did at the Universal Amphitheater about 1982. It was a charity event but I can’t remember what it was for. Kenny Rogers, Dolly Parton, Glen Campbell were there. Everyone sang individually.

Where do you live?

I live in Acton, CA. It’s very rural.

Did you marry before or after the song?

I was already married. I met my wife at Sears; we both worked in the catalog department. I hadn’t started touring with Loretta yet.

How many kids do you have? What do they think of your connection to this song?

Three: Cody 31, Jeremy 27, Katelyn 23. I don’t know—they think it’s cool. They’re proud of me. They weren’t there when it happened.

When was the last time you watched an episode of the show?

Someone contacted me about year ago because he had made a compilation on DVD of every song written for the show. He sent it to me—66 songs! Kind of cool. He was doing it just for fun.

What did you think when you first heard from me?

Again, I stay to myself and was apprehensive at first, but you were persistent so I agreed.

Has anyone else ever interviewed about this? If so, when and for what publication?

Mostly back in the day.

Do you have any of those clippings?

I’m not a big memorabilia guy. I have my gold record and only a few magazines hanging on the wall.

Have you appeared at any fan conventions to sign autographs?


Would you?


How do you look back on the experience?

Once in a lifetime. How many people can say they have a beautiful family and had a number one record and a gold record and made a living doing what they love? I didn’t let it get to my head. Luckiest guy in the world.

Look at what’s happened to you.


Bob/Sally said...

It is such an iconic song - one of the staples of my youth. :)

Unknown said...

Thamks for this piece. The song is one of my all time favorites and I still do listen to it even up to now. Glad to hear Joey Scarbury is doing fine even though he is not recording anymore. More power to all.

Unknown said...

Wow. Never knew he sang for Loretta.
(One of my friends sing backup for Loretta -- small world)
Joey Scarbury is SUCH an inspiration as a singer.
Even the B-Side Little Bit of Us is one of my favorites.
Wish he was still recording, but understand.
Where can I get a hold of those 66 tunes?

Daniel Gewehr said...

I am now listening to his entire album in Spotify and happily surprised that the whole album is made of good songs, very well made and his voice makes justice to them. It is a pity that he is known as a one single singer, because the rest of the album is as good as the famous hit.

Windshear214 said...

Does anyone, ANYONE AT ALL, know if "The Game Goes On", as sung by Mr. Scarbury, is available for purchase?

Unknown said...

This is a really great interview! The song just popped into my head..believe it or not! So I googled and ended up here.

Steve Fuji said...

Amazing how humble he is, considering his accomplishments. How many people get major label recording contracts, and records produced by one of the hottest songwriters of the day, at age 13. I'm around the same age, and very envious of the talent he had at that young age.

Harley's Mom said...

I knew Joey in junior high and high school. He was always and still is a humble, kind, down to earth person. I haven't seen or spoken to him in decades, so it's nice to see that he is happy and has a wonderful family and life.

Richard Oberlin said...

Richard Oberlin: I heard it on Sirius XM the other day. I loved the song (I was a professional entertainer, myself), and I enjoyed the show tremendously. I am surprised that you didn't get an opportunity to do more. I know it is a tough business. Cheers!