John Batdorf has worn many musical hats over his career. In the 1970’s, he was part of the acoustic rock duo Batdorf & Rodney, which released three albums and toured with some of the era’s biggest names. He went on to write commercials and music for television shows, and has in the last few years has returned to releasing material under his own name, most recently the album Soundtrax 2 Recovery with Michael McLean.
This interview was for a preview article for Batdorf’s concert in Goleta, California on 2/8/14. It was done by email, with answers received on 1/20/14.
Jeff Moehlis: What can we look forward to at the upcoming show?
John Batdorf: You can look forward to hearing forty years of original songs from the early 70’s Batdorf and Rodney days all the way up to the more recent records I have done. Since 2004, I have recorded and released 4 solo projects, 2 All Wood And Stones CDs with James Lee Stanley, and “Live At XM Radio” CD with Mark Rodney and my newest project with Michael McLean, Soundtrax 2 Recovery.
JM: Going way back, can you tell us about your audition for Ahmet Ertegun, which broke you and Mark Rodney into the music business?
JB: I met Ahmet Ertegun when I first auditioned with a band I came to California with in 1967 when I was 15. We signed a deal with Atlantic but the album never got made. I kept in touch with Ahmet through the years and he would listen to my various bands but was encouraging but we never got a deal. I moved to Las Vegas the spring of 1970 and met Mark Rodney at a coffee house on the UNLV campus. We really clicked and decided to take our act back to LA and give it a shot. When we got to LA, I picked up the phone and called the Beverly Hills Hotel where Ahmet stayed when he was in LA and he picked up. I excitedly told him about our act and he invited us over to play for him. We started with “Oh My Surprise” and Ahmet stood up and said. “I want to sign you”. Two days later in December of 1970, we were signed to Atlantic Records and that spring, we went to Muscle Shoals Sound and recorded “Off The Shelf”. Pretty storybook like stuff!!
JM: It’s great that you re-released the old Batdorf & Rodney material late last year, which has held up very well. For you, what were some of the highlights from the original run of Batdorf & Rodney?
JB: Making the record in Muscle Shoals with that rhythm section was awesome. Working with the legendary Bill Halverson on the second album was killer. He got the best acoustic guitar sound on the planet. Playing Carnegie Hall with the Youngbloods in 1972 was a great memory. Ahmet was in the audience and we got an encore!! We loved playing the East Coast and the Midwest. Those two markets plus Hawaii were our biggest markets. We were fortunate enough to tour with some of the big acts of our era including, Bread, Chicago, Dave Mason, Hall and Oates, Doobie Brothers, James Gang, Canned Heat, America, Poco, Carly Simon and on and on. Fabulous memories for a kid barely in his 20’s.
JM: Your career arc moved into writing and singing music for commercials. Are there any that we might still remember?
JB: I did so many commercials and records in the 80’s up through the mid 90’s. The commercial that bought my house was for Nissan. “We make you feel like drivin'”. Datsun was changing their name and I sang on a demo that eventually went to air as-is. They cut commercial after commercial using that jingle and it was fantastic! There were Budweiser spots, GMC and on and on. I sang on some great records from Motley Crue to Rod Stewart’s the “Rhythm of My Heart” smash that made it into the movie, “The Perfect Storm”. I was the lead singer on the cartoon theme songs for Tom and Jerry Kids, Garfield and Friends, Doctor Doctor and the original voice on the Disney Darkwing Duck cartoon. I was also one of the voices in Disney’s Newsies musical. Everyday was a new adventure.
JM: You also wrote songs for other artists and music for television shows. What inspired the return to recording material under your own name?
JB: Even though my “record career” pretty much was over in the early 80’s, I never stopped writing. I was a staff songwriter for two years and continued writing songs as I continued to sing on sessions. I got a chance to try out for a “Touched By And Angel” spinoff “Promised Land”. They were looking for a composer so I worked all summer in 1997 and eventually, although I had no experience, got the gig because they liked my work. Go figure! That gig lasted three seasons but the producers liked me so much, they asked me to stay on and supply the majority of the “source music” for Angel. So for the next four years I wrote country songs, rock songs, lounge music, elevator music, grunge, jazz and an occasional acoustic song. I really loved that gig and was hoping it would last forever!
JM: One thing that jumped out at me from your musical resume is that you sang background vocals for Motley Crue on their album Theatre of Pain, which included their hit “Home Sweet Home”. What was that experience like?
JB: Again, another cool gig. I had met producer Tom Werman singing background vocals for “Boy Meets Girl”. He liked my voice and was producing Motley Crue’s new album. They didn’t want their fans to know, but Max Gronenthal and myself sang background vocals on all the songs. They put us in the “Special Thanks” section of the credits. That was us singing, “Smokin’ In The Boys Room” and every other BG vocal. They were fun to hang around with and Tom Werman was a really great producer to work with.
JM: More recently, you and James Lee Stanley have recorded two albums of re-invented Rolling Stones songs. Any plans to do a similar treatment for another bands’ songs? And more broadly, what are your plans, musical or otherwise, for the near future?
JB: Those were fun CDs to make but I have no plans to do anything like that again. Two cover albums are enough. I love writing new songs. My focus this year will be mainly promoting the Soundtrax 2 Recovery CD. I just got a great review yesterday which really hits it on the head. See the link. At this point in my life, it is very rewarding to do a project that deals with such an important issue. Music is a very powerful thing.
JM: What advice would you give to an aspiring musician?
JB: Believe in yourself and stay true to yourself. Don’t chase trends. Be the best you possible. Listen to great musicians you admire and try to develop the passion in your music like you feel from the great ones. Passion can’t be faked. Get lost and don’t be afraid to go far beyond your comfort zone. That is where is where greatness can be found.
JM: Do you want to set the record straight on anything about your career?
JB: Not really. It kind of is what it is. The opening cut on Soundtrax 2 Recovery sums it up pretty well. [Check out the lyrics to "Ain't Dead Yet" here].
JM: Where are you responding from?
JB: I live in West Hills, California, in the LA area. I have lived here since 1967.