You may love it, you may hate it, but you’ve definitely heard it: The Piña Colada Song is one of the most recognizable and enduring hits of the last fifty years – the only song ever to hit No. 1 in America in two different decades. But it almost sank without trace, and it’s near-failure can teach us a lot about book marketing.
The artist behind it is Rupert Holmes, who is primarily known to many for penning this one tune, but he has led an interesting and varied life. While he currently lives in New York, Holmes was born in Cheshire in 1947 as David Goldstein – a US Army brat, with an American father and an English mother, the wonderfully named Gwendolen.
His was a very musical upbringing, and when the family were uprooted and moved to Nanuet, New York in the 1950s, he ended up attending the prestigious Manhattan School of Music and majored in the clarinet, although he didn’t follow his brother into the world of opera and “serious” music.
Instead, he became a session musician and did side-gigs like writing jingles for shampoo commercials. Holmes was delighted to be working in the music business at any level, but it also enabled him to support himself while working on his own music. In the early 1970s, he had a couple of minor hits under his own name, while also wrote songs for big stars like Dolly Parton, the Drifters, Gene Pitney, and the Partridge Family.
He broke out himself in 1974 with the album Widescreen which really nailed down his soon-to-be-signature style of witty but romantic story songs. And when Barbara Streisand asked to cover some of the songs from that album for her movie A Star Is Born, he’d hit the big time.
It was the release of his fifth solo album – and particularly the single Escape (The Piña Colada Song) – which made him truly famous. At least among those who didn’t mistake the singer for Barry Manilow, a surprisingly persistent error over time.
While that case of mistaken identity didn’t dampen the song’s initial reception, another form did. It was originally released as Escape – with no mention of those famous piña coladas in the song title.
People would call up radio stations and ask for the song about piña coladas, only to be met with bafflement. And when they went to their local record store to order The Piña Colada Song, they were told the store didn’t have it. They did, of course, but it was titled something else: Escape.
Word-of-mouth was hitting an impenetrable wall and sales remained tepid throughout October 1979. The record label begged Rupert Holmes to change the title to The Piña Colada Song, but he resisted the pressure. The theme of escape is central to the whole meaning of the song, he clearly felt, which is all about the protagonist wanted to escape his boring life, and the prospective love interest taking out a personal ad to escape hers.
Rupert Holmes dug his heels in and refused to change the title… right up until December of that year when he finally agreed to a compromise and renamed the song Escape (The Piña Colada Song).
It went straight to No. 1.
Marketing Lesson #1: a title is part of the commercial packaging – ignore your Inner Artist when it comes to business decisions.
There was another reason for Holmes’ reticence to change the song title. The original version never mentioned piña coladas at all. It’s hard to imagine now, with that chorus tattooed into your brain over decades of radio airplay, but the original line of the chorus was “If you like Humphrey Bogart…” rather than any kind of drink.
Holmes only changed it at the last minute when he thought it didn’t feel right. The piña colada didn’t have any special significance to him, it just happened to be the first cocktail which popped into his head. He later confessed that he didn’t even drink piña coladas.
Marketing Lesson #2: don’t associate your brand with creamy drinks if you are lactose intolerant.
I kid. I have no idea if Rupert Holmes is sensitive to dairy; I think he just doesn’t like piña coladas. Fans buy them for him all the time, assuming he is as fond of them as his characters are. But at the time of writing the song, he had never even tasted one.
The real reason he changed the line is because of feedback he got when he was running the song by various people. For reasons we’ll get to in a moment, he only had a day or so to nail down the lyrics and when he was on the way to the studio, he read them out for his taxi driver.
What he was specifically seeking opinions on was the infamous twist at the close of the song.
If you’re not familiar with the narrative behind this most famous of story songs, it goes a little like this: a guy in a long-term relationship – presumably married, but that’s not made explicit – is a little… bored with his “woman” and starts perusing the personals. For the millennials in the audience, this was an old-school form of Tinder which took place in a newspaper, where people could take 24 hours or more to swipe right.
Anyway, one of the personal ads catches his eye, one particular lady’s declaration of love for piña coladas and beachy trysts, as well as antipathy for the yoga craze that was also flourishing at the time. Our wannabe cheater responds with similar affectation for piña coladas, expanding this boozy smorgasbord to include champagne, but dismissing the comparative merits of health food. (His views on sandy shagging are unstated but can be safely inferred.)
He offers to meet the mysterious lady tomorrow, at noon, in O’Malley’s Bar, where he says they can plan their escape, and presumably their new life together. The twist – and this is where it gets really weird – is that he walks into the bar and the lady behind the personal ad is… his wife. (Or girlfriend. We never got that fully established. Let’s go with “partner.”)
Either way, they have been together for a while – that’s clear from the start – and neither of them seemed remotely perturbed by the fact they are respectively taking out, and responding to, personal ads looking for extra-curricular activities. They both seem quite blasé and enjoy discovering they have more in common than previously assumed.
The seventies, man; it was a different time.
Holmes wasn’t worried if that twist was bizarre or even palatable – but whether it was too obvious. He sang the song to several people to see if they could see it coming, but obviously they couldn’t because it’s completely crackers.
Another problem emerged during this process though: the line about Humphrey Bogart just didn’t scan well.
It was only in the studio, just before laying down the vocal, that Rupert Holmes decided to change it to the first exotic cocktail he could recall. Time was tight, he was just about to get on the mic, and he didn’t have the luxury of dawdling. Perhaps we should all be glad it wasn’t a Harvey Wallbanger.
Marketing Lesson #3: Loop in feedback, and bake it right into the product.
If all this wasn’t random enough, Escape wasn’t even originally planned to be single from that album. It was nothing more than a filler track – Holmes needed something up tempo to offset all the ballads and went through a variety of half written songs and melodies, desperately trying to find something that would fit before they ran out of studio time.
The drummer had over-indulged during this lull and had to be put in a taxi home, forcing Holmes to use a primitive form of sampling to lay down the backing track. But it didn’t matter so much, this was just filler, he thought. Even the vocal was done in just one take, as they were running out of time on the final day of recording. Holmes couldn’t summon the energy or enthusiasm for a second attempt.
He was worn out from recording this album, and particularly this final song. As I mentioned previously, he only had a day or so to write the lyrics. He had the melody already, but no words to go with it, and pulled his usual trick of scanning the personal ads in the Village Voice to see if any interesting characters jumped out at him.
One ad did: a woman describing herself in such glowing terms that he sardonically wondered to himself why such a putative catch would need to place a personal ad to get some action. Then he thought he was perhaps being unfair. She might just be looking for adventure, for an escape. He wondered what would happen if he replied…
Boom, the song was born.
Marketing Lesson #4: hunger is the best sauce and necessity is the mother of invention.
Even after the crazy recording session and the track came together, Holmes didn’t view it as a standout track on the album at all. He considered it “too simple musically and harmonically … it was just supposed to balance out the album.”
And he was surprised when the studio expressed interest in releasing it as the main single, but decided not to fight them on it, if they were so convinced – and they most certainly were.
Marketing Lesson #5: seek opinions from those with more emotional distance.
Rupert Holmes is sometimes described as a one-hit wonder, which is both unjust and inaccurate – he had several hits before and after the monster success which overshadowed the rest of his pop career, just not to the same crazy level.
And that professional career was just as varied afterwards too. Aside from continuing to write and record music, he was a playwright and novelist and composer. He wrote a TV show and worked on several movies. He won the Tony Awards – twice – for a couple of the many musicals he penned. And he even won the Edgar award for one of the mysteries he wrote, a book called Where The Truth Lies, which was published by Random House and subsequently turned into a movie starring – naturally – Kevin Bacon.
The song was anomalous in some fairly key ways though. As Rupert Holmes said himself, “It’s my most successful song and probably the least typical of my work.” It was an interview in 2003 he gave just after he won the Tony award for his musical The Mystery of Edwin Drood and just before he won the Edgar for his mystery Where the Truth Lies, so he was hardly in a creative rut or sour about it all. He seemed bemused more than anything.
It was never meant to be heard 100 million times; it was meant to be a little short story with a little wink at the end of it, and that was supposed to be it. It was also not supposed to make the piña colada a popular drink in Idaho.Rupert Holmes
I guess that’s the final marketing lesson here, although it’s more of a life-lesson: you don’t get to decide how people feel about your work. All we can do is keep putting it out there. It becomes its own thing then. In a way, it’s not ours anymore.
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