Bruce Sudano has had his hand in some of the 20th century’s biggest hits, sung by megatalents from Michael and Jermaine Jackson to Dolly Parton and Donna Summer, his late wife. At this point, he could easily rest on his musical laurels. Instead, he recorded an album about life right here, right now, in this 21st Century World. And he filled it with hard questions, some well-aimed finger pointing and poignant observations about the human experience — for better and worse.
“I’ve always been somebody who writes about what I’m going through,” Sudano says, “because I believe that if this is something I’m feeling, other people are going to be able to relate to it as well. With this record, I’m trying to provoke people to think. I want to start a dialogue about what’s going on in our culture and our society.”
In the very first song, “Your World Now,” he wonders whether younger generations will step up to cure the world’s ills, while encouraging them to try. With “It Ain’t Cool,” he chastises “a selfish society,” and in “Common Sense,” he pleads for understanding, sacrifice and compromise. In a voice that conjures comparisons to a less-psychedelic, less British Donovan, he also implores, Come on people use your heads/We need common, common sense.
“People seem to have forgotten middle ground,” says Sudano, who also trains his pen on issues such as our self(ie)-obsessed social media culture, religion and hypocrisy, homelessness and other subjects that need addressing.
In one particularly powerful song, “When Cinderella Dies,” he examines single motherhood and the challenges women who find themselves in that situation face. When Summer passed away in 2012, they’d been together 35 years — 32 as husband and wife. Eventually, he started dating again — and found himself listening to too many stories that sounded distressingly similar.
“I started running into all these middle-aged women with kids, abandoned by their husbands, feeling discarded, left carrying the load and just struggling, trying to figure out who they were now that the fairytale had died, asking ‘How do I carry on with my life and who am I now? What is my dream? Do I even have one?’ That got me thinking about the state of marriage and what a mess it is; about the breakdown of marriage in our culture and the lack of commitment.”
But even though he dissects society’s ills, Sudano still delivers notes of hope, one of which comes in the form of the first cover song he’s ever recorded: Tracy Chapman’s “Talkin’ Bout a Revolution.”
“I’ve always had this philosophy that I’m a songwriter, not a singer. A singer can cover somebody else’s songs. But a songwriter should sing their own songs,” he explains. But his producer, Mike Montali of the rock band Hollis Brown, talked him into it. Montali was asked to produce after he and Sudano “developed a musical simpatico” during a European tour.
“I wanted somebody with a different perspective than me to produce this record, because I’ve been doing it for a long time, and you develop habits,” Sudano says. “I also wanted it to be more under-produced than produced. As I have evolved as this solo guy, it’s more and more coming down to me and my guitar and my point of view. I want the message to be clearer, with fewer frills. I just really want to communicate.”
When he speaks, the longtime Los Angeles resident’s accent still conveys his strong New York roots; in fact, his first child is named Brooklyn. (He and Summer had two daughters; Brooklyn stars in the new NBC series Taken, and Amanda co-founded the band Johnnyswim. Sudano also raised stepdaughter Mimi.)
Sudano was 4 when he began making music, first on accordion, then on guitar and piano. He started getting paid for it at 12. By the time he was 20, he had a hit, “Ball of Fire,” co-written with his mentor, Tommy James (“Hanky Panky,” “Mony, Mony,” “I Think We’re Alone Now”), who recorded it with his band, the Shondells.
“He was the first person to take me under his wing, to take me into a recording studio, write with me and basically show me how it was done, in the real world,” Sudano recalls. “He took me out of the neighborhood and put me in the music business. We’re friends to this day.”
Sudano had co-founded the band Alive N Kickin’ in 1968; in 1970, James wrote and produced their top-10 hit, “Tighter, Tighter.” Five years after leaving that band, Sudano co-founded Brooklyn Dreams. That same year, 1977, he met Summer, who began writing with the band. They penned “Take It to the Zoo” for the Thank God It’s Friday film soundtrack, then the band appeared as the Planotones in the film, American Hot Wax. They hit No. 4 with Summer duetting on “Heaven Knows,” and in 1979, Summer and the band wrote the No. 1 pop and R&B hit “Bad Girls.” It became the title song to the most popular album of her career.
In 1980, Sudano released his first solo album, which contained “Starting Over Again,” written with Summer about his parents’ divorce. Dolly Parton turned it into a No. 1 country hit. Fifteen years later, Reba McEntire took it to No. 19. In 1985, Sudano co-wrote the Grammy-nominated Michael and Jermaine Jackson duet, “Tell Me I'm Not Dreaming (Too Good to Be True).” After years spent managing Summer’s career, as well as playing and singing in her band, Sudano released another solo album, Rainy Day Soul. That 2004 release gave him three top 10 adult contemporary hits, and New Music Weekly’s Adult Contemporary Artist of the Year award. “It's Her Wedding Day,” a track from his third solo album, earned him the 2009 New Music Weekly Adult Contemporary Song of the Year award.
Bruce has returned to touring as well. These days you can find him performing alongside an eclectic group of musicians. From the wildly successful band Johnnyswim to the iconic British band The Zombies, or jamming with young rockers Hollis Brown, Sudano is back on the road re-engaging with audiences. In addition to recording and touring, he is also working alongside the team behind the monster theatrical hit, Jersey Boys to produce a Broadway musical about Summer set for 2018.
Sudano says he’s glad to have new chapters in life. “There’s a song on my last album called ‘Never Too Late to Dream.’ That is exactly my philosophy,” he notes. “I feel very vibrant at this point. Going through losing my wife [to lung cancer] was the one bad thing that ever happened in my life. But I was like, ‘OK, Bruce, you have this other chapter to write, so get on it.’”
And he has. Though the album’s final track, “Coney Island Days,” is a wistful song about missed opportunities and unfulfilled potential, it also references dreams that never die. And Sudano’s dreams are still very much alive.
“I’m engaged in life, I’m inspired and I’m on fire,” he says. In a 21st Century World, that’s a good place to be.
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