There are some songs out there that can’t be grouped in with ballads or Dance or straight up Rock ’n’ Roll songs because they don’t fit in any of those categories. But, you know, just because you can’t shake your booty to them or you prolly can’t slow dance to them at a wedding reception doesn’t mean they aren’t good; it just means they don’t really fit into any particular category you’re used to. Case in point, at least for me, is today’s “song of the day” – “The Way It Is” by Bruce Hornsby And The Range.
Bruce Hornsby, a native of Williamsburg, Virginia, first got his music “start” in 1974 in a band put together by his older brother, Bobby (then a student at the University of Virginia), called Bobby Hi-Test And The Octane Kids, playing covers of songs by The Band, Grateful Dead and Allman Brothers at frat parties.
That gig didn’t last long, but Bruce’s association with music continued. He studied music at the University of Richmond, Boston’s Berklee School Of Music, and the University of Miami, where he graduated from in 1977. After college, he went back to Williamsburg for a short time and played piano in clubs and bars before meeting up with his younger brother, John, in Los Angeles in 1980.
QUIRKY FUN FACT(S): You can find Bruce Hornsby at the ol’ 88’s and hamming it up for the camera in Sheena Easton’s late 1984 hit, “Strut,” a song that was co-written by Charlie Dore, one of the (real) one-hit wonders of the 80s with her own 1980 hit, “Pilot Of The Airwaves.” Bruce Hornsby was a member of Sheena’s touring band, and he also appeared in the video for Sheena’s Prince-penned and PMRC target practice favorite, “Sugar Walls.”
In between his time in L.A. and touring with Sheena Easton, he formed a five-man Rock band called Bruce Hornsby And The Range, and they were signed to RCA Records in 1985. Their debut album, THE WAY IT IS, was released on April 1, 1986, and seven of the nine songs on the album were written by Bruce Hornsby and his younger brother, John. Bruce wrote the songs “Every Little Kiss” and the album’s title track.
The first incarnation of the album, was, oddly enough, targeted to New Age listeners (which I’m still trying to figure out). The album even had a different cover that prolly most people who are familiar with the album haven’t seen, with an impressionistic shot of Bruce Hornsby playing the accordion.
A couple of months following the release of THE WAY IT IS, the first single released from the album was “Every Little Kiss,” which took two months to debut on the BILLBOARD Hot 100 and stopped at No. 72 in August 1986, but which still managed to stay on the chart for a couple months.
Well, once “Every Little Kiss” started getting airplay, THE WAY IT IS album got remixed, and a new cover was commissioned, this time with a darker, sepia-toned color, with a simple shot of the band in the foreground, and a shot of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge in the background. The change must have worked.
The last week “Every Little Kiss” was on the Hot 100, the album’s title track debuted at No. 86. By the following week, it had already surpassed the peak of “Every Little Kiss.” “The Way It Is” reached the Top 40 in mid-October and the Top 10 a month later.
I think what latched me onto “The Way It Is” at first was the impressive way Bruce Hornsby knew his way around a piano. You don’t normally hear piano solos in Pop songs, let alone two of them in the same song. Still impresses me to this day. It didn’t sound like anything else, and it certainly didn’t sound like a Pop song, popular at the same time as songs by Bon Jovi, The Bangles, Peter Cetera and Amy Grant, Huey Lewis And The News, Duran Duran and Wang Chung.
This is a song which brings up homelessness, the welfare divide of the rich and the poor, the Civil Rights movement and racism: “Well they passed a law in ’64 / To give those who ain’t got a little more / But it only goes so far / ‘Cause the law don’t change another’s mind / When all it sees at the hiring time / Is the line on the color bar, no…”
Well, it may not have fit in at wedding receptions or night clubs, but “The Way It Is” was a big hit with record buyers and radio listeners, and it spent a week at No. 1 on the BILLBOARD Hot 100 in mid-December 1986, and finished at No. 8 for all of 1987.
Around the globe, “The Way It Is” reached No. 1 in Holland, No. 3 in Belgium, No. 4 in Canada, No. 8 in Ireland, and the Top 20 in the U.K., Germany, South Africa and Switzerland.
After the success of “The Way It Is,” Bruce and his band picked up the Best New Artist Grammy Award and would release two more studio albums together, going on to have hits with “Mandolin Rain” (No. 4, 1987), a re-issue of “Every Little Kiss” (No. 14, 1987), “The Valley Road” (No. 5, 1988), “Look Out Any Window” (No. 35, 1988) and “Across The River” (No. 18, 1990).
Bruce Hornsby would also have a songwriting credit (with his brother, John) on a No. 1 song by Huey Lewis And The News – “Jacob’s Ladder,” which spent a week at No. 1 on the BILLBOARD Hot 100 in mid-March 1987, and which Bruce and The Range would record for their second album, 1988’s SCENES FROM THE SOUTHSIDE. Incidentally, Huey Lewis co-produced THE WAY IT IS album, and played harmonica and provided backing vocals on the album track, “Down The Road Tonight.”
In a 2015 interview with Kate Mossman of the NEW STATESMAN, a political and cultural U.K. magazine, Bruce Hornsby was asked why “The Way It Is” was so successful, which he couldn’t do. But, he did say, “I see it as a novelty record. There are things that set it apart. I feel the same way about ‘Sultans of Swing’ by Dire Straits. It goes down easy and isn’t that what a lot of pop is about? But at the same time, it’s a completely different sound than you’d heard. Even the big piano guys like Elton and Billy Joel, they didn’t really solo like that. A pleasing sound with solos. Like Mark Knopfler on ‘Sultans of Swing.’ That’s how I explain it. But that’s complete crap, too, probably.”
That same year, Elton John had said when Bruce Hornsby played piano on Bonnie Raitt’s 1991 beautiful heartbreaking gem, “I Can’t Make You Love Me,” it made him “seek perfection. It is sublime. He is one of the best pianists – if not THE best – out there.”
Bruce has long since left Pop music and has gone his own way, playing music from a plethora of genres, like Jazz, Blues, Bluegrass, Jam Band, Gospel and most recently, performing with his Rock / Folk touring band, The Noisemakers. Interestingly enough, on their fourth studio album, REHAB REUNION (released in June 2016), Bruce Hornsby does NOT play the instrument for which is world-renowned, but instead plays the dulcimer, an instrument that the incomparable Cyndi Lauper has embraced on her albums and tours for many years. There’s even a sweet, almost unrecognizable seven-minute folk version of his 1988 hit, “The Valley Road,” on the album. It’s actually quite lovely.
Bruce Hornsby sure has come a long way from appearing in Sheena Easton videos and picking up a No. 1 hit of his own. And, for more than 30 years, he had some success, and has performed with some of his music heroes, like Sting, Elton John, Eric Clapton, Grateful Dead, Don Henley, Ricky Scaggs and Bonnie Raitt, to name a few. Now, Bruce is 62, married with twin adult sons, plays basketball when he’s not playing music (he’s 6’ 4”), and plays music for the absolute love of it. You gotta respect that. I know I do.
“That’s just the way it is / Some things will never change…” Or, in the case of Bruce Hornsby, maybe they do…