Forty years ago, Tom Scholz saw his life and career path get turned upside down – in the best way – when he got a record deal, released his first album as the musical genius behind the band Boston and watched that album turn the group into instant superstars.
“I was an engineer working full time (at Polaroid) and I saw what my sort of career path and my life was going to shape up to be, and I was perfectly happy with it,” Scholz recalled in a mid-June phone interview. “Boston was a pipe dream and I never, never expected, even after I got the record deal, which was totally unexpected, even after I got that and made the (first) record, I went back to work at Polaroid. (I didn’t expect) it to succeed.”
Scholz had good reason to keep his expectations in check.
For more than five years, he had been making demos of his songs, shopping them to record companies, radio stations and other music business contacts and getting nothing but rejections.
Finally, he decided to take one last run at making a new demo, and if it didn’t get him a record deal, he would do the responsible thing as a husband approaching his 30th birthday by selling his studio equipment and continuing his career at Polaroid.
But then Scholz got interest from three record labels with that final demo and a deal from Epic Records. He recalled one particular moment that captures how he felt about that turn of events.
“I sent the first four songs out. I got calls from three major labels saying they were very interested,” Scholz said. “I remember the third call came in while I was working at Polaroid one afternoon. It got routed to my desk, and somebody introduced himself as the vice president of A&R from A&M Records, and he said he had somebody else, the vice president from somewhere else in the company, and they were both on the phone. He said ‘We’re really excited about this demo you sent. We want to hear more music. And do you want to come down?’
“So I got off the phone and I’m in a room full of engineers and draftsmen, probably about 20 people in a technical wing of Polaroid,” he continued. “And I’m jumping up and down on top of a desk. And of course, that got some attention from a few different people, including a draftsman that I had handed the demo tape to about two months earlier to give to a cousin of his at, I think it was ABC Records. So he sees me on top of the desk and he says ‘What are you doing?’ I said ‘I just got a call from A&M Records’ vice president. I’m going to go to A&M Records.’ And the guy goes ‘Oh crap,’ and he reaches in his desk and he pulls out the cassette and said ‘I should have given this to my cousin.’”
That draftsman may still wonder if he blew a chance to have been part of one or rock’s most unique success stories. Let’s at least hope he and his cousin are still on speaking terms.
Guitarist/keyboardist Scholz, of course, is still going strong, touring and recording with the latest Boston lineup, which includes Gary Pihl (guitar), Tommy DeCarlo (vocals/keys), Tracy Ferrie (bass), Beth Cohen (keys/guitar) and either Jeff Neal or Curly Smith on drums. And this year’s 40th anniversary of the debut album is being celebrated with a summer-long U.S. tour – although Scholz noted that the tour isn’t so much about the first album as it is about 40 years of Boston as a band – a career that has seen the group sell 75 million copies of its six studio albums, including 17 million copies of the first album, one of the best selling debut records in history.
Where many acts mark a major anniversary of a popular album by playing it front to back on a special tour, Scholz quickly rejected any idea of doing that with the first Boston album on this summer’s tour. The band, though, is playing six of the eight songs from the debut during the evening.
“My most important goal is always, it is to provide our audience with an experience that will both excite and delight them, be the most fun possible for that evening,” Scholz said. “And that is not playing through an album, any album. You have to pace the set in a way that makes sense with the energy level that you want from the audience, and let them calm down and be thoughtful or insightful at certain spots and bring them back. That kind of thing has to be done.”
Scholz did, though, add more songs to the set for this summer, eventually settling on a two-hour set that has worked well from the opening note on opening night.
“Everything just clicked. It clicked in rehearsal like right away,” he said. “And we also added some exciting new visuals to go along with the music, including a very electrifying experience, which I won’t spoil the surprise, but a lot of people jump when it happens.”
Jumping for joy was what Scholz did that day 40-plus years ago when A&M Records called. And understandably so.
For six years, he had used up all of his savings and available funds – money originally earmarked to be a downpayment on a first house – to pay for recording sessions at professional studios to make a series of demos.
But after five years and a pile of rejection letters, Scholz had nothing to show for his efforts. He decided his final demo would be made his way. Instead of recording with other musicians, as he had done on the earlier demos, he would use his own basement studio that he had assembled over that period and record everything himself but the drums and vocals, handled by his singer and right-hand man, Brad Delp.
“There were no egos to deal with, there was no second guessing about what somebody thought about what I was doing,” Scholz said. “It was just wherever I felt I could go with the ideas that I had.
“That was the missing ingredient, what finally enabled me to do something with those six songs that I hadn’t been able to do before,” he said.
After signing with Epic Records, Scholz, in fact, wanted to release the demo as the finished album. But the label wanted him to re-record the songs in a professional studio with producer John Boylan.
Scholz refused, knowing he couldn’t duplicate his performances in a regular studio. That’s when Boylan came up with a plan. Scholz would re-record his six songs in his basement studio, while Delp and other members of the original Boston lineup went to Los Angeles to cut two additional songs. Epic for years didn’t know Scholz had recorded the vast majority of the guitar, bass and keyboard parts in his studio – creating Boston’s unique liquid guitar tones in the process – and released the album Boylan and Scholz turned in.
And oh yes, that story of going from a struggling bar band to overnight stardom in “Rock & Roll Band,” one of the enduring songs on the first album, that’s not Boston’s story. They never slept in their cars or played all the bars around Boston.
“Not a word of that (is true),” Scholz said. “That was the fantasy of so many musicians who actually believed that was what would happen. And I felt that is not, that’s not a healthy outlook. But that was a fantasy, and ironically, it came true for me.”
Alan Sculley is a freelance music writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.