Skilled Hit Writer Bruce Sudano Talks Brooklyn Dreams, Disco Era & Musical Idols (INTERVIEW)

Bruce Sudano has written plenty of hits; from suave R&B flavored songs with his band Brooklyn Dreams during the age of disco to sassy tunes for his late wife Donna Summer. A song about his parents’ divorce, “Starting Over Again,” became a #1 country hit for Dolly Parton while several of his compositions ended up on movie soundtracks. But there was a part of him that he’d never really focused on and that was the singer-songwriter. It ended up, that side had been calling to him all along.

With the release of two EPs, Spirals Volume 1 & 2, Sudano continues to pursue the deeper part of his soul. He has touched on heartbreak and new love, spiritual exploration, and political awareness over the years and he continues along that path on his new recordings. A positive person by nature, Sudano tells awakening stories of life going forward, of living balanced and open to new ideas, of family and home. For the descendant of Italian-Americans who began his music career playing the accordion brought over from the motherland, Sudano played his first gig at twelve, became a protégé of pop artist Tommy James and finally found his niche in the 1970’s. 

Releasing four albums between 1977 and 1980, Brooklyn Dreams scored a few charting singles; most notably the Top 5 “Heaven Knows” featuring the band’s singer Joe Esposito dueting with Donna Summer in 1979. As Sudano and Summer’s personal and professional relationship flowered, they wrote and performed together up until her passing in 2012. Although he had released his debut solo album, The Fugitive Kind, in 1981, it wouldn’t be until 2003 before he followed that up, with a reflective Rainy Day Soul. 2015’s The Burbank Sessions capture his near brilliance in mood and texture as showcased by songs such as “These Shoes,” “Alone” and “One Beautiful Life.”

With the Spirals duo, Sudano again takes us on a spiritually moving musical journey via “The Mountain,” “Walking Down The Road” and “American Sunset,” songs he talked with me about recently while he was at his part-time home in Milan, Italy. 

Not really because my Italian roots are in southern Italy and Milan is northern Italy. But I’ve made pilgrimages to the hometown of my grandparents. I’ve met the people there and heard great stories, and the house where my grandparents lived before they left Italy was still there and there were old pictures on the wall of me and my brothers and my cousins as kids so when I walked into this house, I just saw all these pictures of myself as a kid and it was a very different but warm and complete kind of feeling. I was lucky to be able to do that. And I met cousins I never knew I had and I heard so many great stories. The mayor of the town took me to see the book where all the people of the town are logged in and there were so many family members. Then he took me to the cemetery and all the headstones were Sudano and Gallo, and Gallo was my grandmother’s maiden name. There was just so much of my family there. I always say it was one of the happiest days of my life the first time I went there because it was just such an eye-opening and heart-filling experience.

You have two very lovely EPs that weave together so beautiful and so well. So to you, what is the predominant emotion flowing through them connecting them?

Well, you know, I always look to the song from Spirals Volume 1, which is called “The Garden Of November,” as kind of the transition song for both EPs. In that song, I’m kind of sitting in one place and I’m looking over one shoulder at the past and over the other shoulder ahead to the future. I’m sitting in a spot stationary and there’s a line in that song that goes, “Memories and dreams colliding in midair.” So you have your past and you have all the memories that you take with you. But you carry them forward because you still are dreaming and you still have more to go and more dreams to accomplish and more things to fulfill. So I always kind of look at that as the transitionary song. 

I lost my wife in 2012 and it was really 2012 when I really began this incarnation of Bruce Sudano singer-songwriter solo artist. Although I have a long history in the music world, I was always in bands or writing songs for other people and I was never the one solo guy that was out there. It wasn’t until my wife passed away that I said, okay, now it’s on me to do this. So the initial records I had been making from that time forward dealt a lot about loss and loneliness and dealing with loss and understanding loneliness; all those kind of topics. Of course there were mixed-in things of social consciousness and things like that but emotionally that was kind of the weight that I was bearing and shedding in those earlier records. 

With Spirals Volume 1, I feel like with “The Garden Of November” and “See You When I Get There,” I got to the end of that road and it led me into Spirals Volume 2 and new love and a new relationship and getting to be a guy that is the age that I am but to be able to experience new love. So I got to write some love songs and lighten things up a bit and also include some social consciousness awareness. 

How long did it take you to be comfortable being singer-songwriter Bruce?

It’s been an interesting and ongoing evolution. I think in all stages of your life it’s important to challenge yourself and I recognized that I’m doing something I feel I’m called to do. So I continue to refine what I do, I continue to get better at what I do and it’s challenging and fun at the same time.

You have a song called “American Sunset,” which is political in nature but it seems to also showcase hope.

I view “American Sunset” kind of as a warning, to say, hey look, this is what we have and what we’re at risk of losing if we don’t take heed and realize that we have to come together and we have to be able to compromise. We shouldn’t be demonizing everybody. So there is definitely hope cause there is always hope. We have to have hope. America is a great country and we stand for great things and we don’t want those things to be lost so we have to pay attention.

You have some serious songs yet you’ve made a few of them into really funny videos. Why did you take them that route?

I did a trilogy of these kind of funny, what I call Super Bruce videos, and it started with the song “The Mountain.” I call it a philosophy song, in that it’s basically if you look at the mountain you have to climb, it’s going to be so ominous that you’re just not going to move and you’re going to talk yourself out of taking a step and that’s not what you want to do. It’s one step at a time, that’s how you get anywhere. So here I am giving some philosophical message and I thought that a good way to present it in video form was instead of having a serious philosophical video, I would just turn it into a little bit of lightheartedness and reinforce the message that way; make it a little bit more palatable to go down. 

You know, when I was starting out as a songwriter, I always had this inclination to write about how I felt philosophically about different issues and my publicists would always tell me, “Bruce, stop preaching.” And I would say, “I’m not preaching.” At that time I was in a world of trying to write or I was in a world of them wanting me to write pop hit songs, and I was fortunate enough to fall into a few of those, but much of what I do and what I write about are spiritual, philosophical, emotional things that I experience. These are the things that really drive me as a songwriter. When I got to this stage in my life and career and this incarnation of who I was, I feel like I have full permission to be who I am and to speak about the things that I feel are important to me. So these videos are a lighthearted way to sometimes bring some more difficult or philosophical aspects to the public.

Back when you were in Brooklyn Dreams, did that fulfill your aspirations as a musician at that time? 

I think right at that point, I was exactly where I was supposed to be, doing what I was supposed to be doing. I feel comfortable with the fact that throughout my career and throughout my life I feel like I’ve been where I was supposed to be when I was supposed to be there. We broke up Brooklyn Dreams in 1980. We did four albums in four years. We had a modicum of success. But in 1980, I did the first Bruce Sudano album and it was called The Fugitive Kind. Shortly after I did that album and it came out, I got married to my wife, who was Donna Summer, and she was at the height of her career and we were having children. So I just realized that at that point I needed to put the Bruce Sudano solo guy down, that my heart and original calling was to be a songwriter and I could still be a songwriter and function within the world of Donna and her career and family. We were married for thirty-two years, we raised three kids and then unfortunately she got sick and passed away. So a new door was opened and a new book was set up to be written. But all along the way, I’ve always felt I’ve been where I was supposed to be when I was supposed to be there.

You started playing music when you were really young. Whose influence was that to put musical instruments in your hands?

This goes back to my Italian ancestry a little bit because when I was four years old my grandfather went back to Italy to visit family and returned with an accordion that he had bought for me. So I was obliged to learn the accordion and to take music lessons because my grandfather had come back with this accordion and given it to me (laughs). So from the age of four to eight, I took accordion lessons. Then when I was twelve, I got a phone call from somebody, a musician in my neighborhood in Brooklyn, who had a gig and asked me if I wanted to play with him on this gig as an accordion player. And that was how I started in the music business and I quickly transitioned from accordion player to rock & roll Hammond B3 organ player in my first band Alive N Kickin’. 

Who were your musical idols?

Well, I grew up in the late fifties and early sixties and in Brooklyn that was a transitionary time from out of a genre of music, which was called Doo Wop, and Doo Wop was very prominent in Brooklyn back in those days. I was just coming into it right at the tail end of it so I was exposed to all this male vocal harmonizing and R&B singing. Then at the same time there was the Brill Building and all these great songwriters – Leiber & Stoller, Doc Pomus, Mort Shuman, and Carole King, and Neil Diamond. These were the people that I really aspired to, those Brill Building songwriters. I really wanted to be one of them. So that combination of coming out of that whole Doo Wop era and the desire to be a songwriter and then the appearance of The Beatles and the Rolling Stones just all came together; all those elements came together into who Bruce Sudano wanted to be.

Do you remember the first song that you heard where the lyrics really meant something to you?

That’s a good question and nobody has ever asked me that question. I’m going to say, and this is really off the top of my head, and I may call you back tomorrow and tell you something different, but I want to say “Abraham Martin & John” by Dion. Then of course there’s “Blowin’ In The Wind,” which I think is the greatest song ever written. That had a big effect on me. I was never a person that really liked to write love songs. Then there were songs like “It Was A Very Good Year” and that song had an impact on me. Chuck Berry, there are great lyrics in Chuck Berry’s songs. “You Make Me Feel Like A Natural Woman.” Now I’m going to give you a hundred songs (laughs). Pick one! (laughs)

Your daughter Amanda is also a singer [alongside her husband Abner in Johnnyswim]. When did you notice her talent?

You know, I come from a very artistic family so it’s been really fun for me to watch my kids develop and choose which road that they’re going to go down. Donna and I made a point of never really putting any pressure on our kids to be anything other than what they felt they were called to be. And all my kids are talented and I recognize talent in all of them. But as far as it applies to Amanda, she was about nine or ten when she came home from school one day with a saxophone and she started blowing into the saxophone, just a very few notes, but I immediately recognized the tone quality that she was able to get out of this saxophone. She played it for a very short time and put it down but along the way I would always say to her, “Amanda, you know you have a really special voice.” And she was like, “Yeah, that’s okay, Dad, I really don’t want to sing.” And I’d say, “That’s okay, you don’t have to but I’m just letting you know you have a really special voice.” 

So every now and then along the way, I would just remind her but never really putting any pressure on her because she had to come to it herself in a way that she would come to it. It really wasn’t until she met Abner that she fully embraced it and found a way and a place where I think she was comfortable and felt safe and secure enough and confident enough to be able to step out and sing. I think Abner was instrumental in also bringing her along in a way that allowed her to come to it on her own. So I would say I recognized it early but it was an interesting evolution for me to watch how it unfolded as a parent.

For your song “The Mountain,” what lyric came to you first for that song?

When I got to the line, “But you can’t look at the mountain when you’re reaching for the sky, you can’t look at the mountain it’s always up too high, it casts a mighty shadow.” When I got “It casts a mighty shadow,” I knew I had the song. That was a line that tied it all up for me and gave it the weight that I felt it needed.

What about “Walking Down The Road”

“Walking Down The Road” is a three-generational song, because the concept of the song is all of us in our lives, no matter where we are in our lives, regardless of what point we are in our lives, we’re walking down the road, we’re facing challenges and there are issues to deal with and we’re going to walk through them and we’re going to get through them. So the first verse talks about Sweet Savannah and that is one of my grandchildren. I was having a conversation with her one day and she was like, you know, “My boyfriend is moving to New York.” And later on I was at Abner and Amanda’s house and two friends of theirs, Chase and Tessa, had just had their second kid and I was talking to Chase and he was like, “Man, I got no time to do anything, I can’t get any sleep, I don’t know how long I can pull this off.” (laughs) So they became the second verse. So I had the teenager in the first verse and the young married couple with young kids dealing with their issues and they’re walking down the road for the second verse. Then the third verse, I ran into a friend of mine and he was talking about the bills are almost paid and I was like, okay, you’re going to be my third verse (laughs). So that is literally how the song came together. But it’s like no matter where you are in life, you’re walking down the road.

 “These Shoes” from The Burbank Sessions has such an atmosphere in that song.

“These Shoes” is a song about not making judgments of other people and other situations. I thought I had gotten to a place in my life where I had learned that lesson of not making a judgment and I caught myself being in a situation where I realized I was making a judgment, that I had made a judgment on a certain person in a certain situation. I didn’t understand what it was like to be in this situation so once I was in that same situation I fully understood how and why that person had made that decision they had made. And again, it’s not a new concept, it’s an age-old philosophy. You can’t make a judgment cause you’re not walking in that person’s shoes. You don’t know what experience they’ve had in their life, you don’t know what they’ve come through, you don’t know their circumstances. You haven’t lived their life to take them to the place where they have made that choice so don’t judge, just love. It costs you nothing to be nice. Life isn’t easy, life is tricky. There’s challenges all the time so let’s bring some light; that’s really the mission, let’s bring light.

In these chaotic times that we are living through, where do you find hope?

You know, I have been blessed with the gift of faith and I’m very grateful for that gift. But I’ll be honest with you, my wife jokes with me sometimes, she says, “You’re just so optimistic.” And I’m like, well, I’m not putting it on, I really am. I think it’s going to work out. I think that there is grace. I’ll put you in the situation that I am in now. Here I am an American in Italy, we’re in the middle of a pandemic and there’s a part of me that would feel more comfortable being home in LA; but that’s not my situation right now and I understand and I believe that for this particular moment being right here is where I’m supposed to be. So if I’m supposed to be here right now, I am covered in grace and I’m given grace to be in this position. I have the faith to believe that it’s going to work out and I’m going to be okay. That’s kind of how I have lived my life. Faith is a gift and by having the faith that I have, I’m hopeful.

 

Portrait by Amy Waters; live photo by Leslie Michele Derrough

 

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