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Bruce Hornsby: The Master of Levitation

By Published: October 27, 2009
Going from being relatively unknown to overnight stardom has both its advantages and disadvantages as Hornsby reflects on "The Way It Is," the breakout hit song that dealt with real-life social themes of classicism and racism, but also the possibility for change.

"I wasn't prepared for it at all. It broke in England out of the blue," he said. "A DJ on BBC radio heard it, and put it on the air and off it went. So it broke in England, then in Holland, the rest of the world and then in the United States. So we went from doing fine in America; selling about 100,000 records, before this happened. Our record had been out for about four months in the U.S. when this occurred in the U.K. and then it exploded and we had to become headliners on nine songs. So that was the full adult way of learning how to become a celebrity, or a well known music person. As I've always said, it was the least enjoyable year I've had because we became the new cash cow at RCA and they were milking the crap out of us. Well, mostly me. So I was new to it. I didn't know how to say no, so they just ran me into the ground. By the time we won the Grammy, my skin tone was green. It was kind of a drag, in fact a complete drag, but also an amazing phenomenon to occur on your first record."

More than just a top singles phenomenon, the song's influence (in many ways) still reverberates.

"Well, I didn't realize the impact it would have, positive or negative," Hornsby said. "I got some nasty letters from people saying, 'You rich rock stars don't know what its like to live next to these people who don't clean up their yard and leave crap everywhere, and lower our property value.' I've become really involved through the years with the National Fair Housing Alliance that deals with these problems, so I know firsthand how prejudice can pervade.

"But on a positive note, a lot of people were moved by the song," he added. "I especially loved the rap and hip hop versions, such as E-40's, and Tupac Shakur's rendition entitled 'Changes,' which many people know. Wyclef Jean also did a version a year or two ago, so that's been enjoyable and fulfilling for me also."

It seems the song is now more prophetic with the election of President Barack Obama, Hornsby agrees.

"Well, right, and in Tupac's version (recorded in the 1990s) he talked about being ready for a black president and now that it has come to pass, I find it to be a beautiful situation," he said.

With a tentative debut in the fall of 2010, Hornsby delves into theater with SCKBSTD, his first musical score with original music and story based on the troubles created when a stranger arrives in a small Virginia town.

"Yeah, it's really called Sick Bastard," Hornsby laughs. Eight of the twelve songs on Levitate are based from the musical. One of the songs is "Paperboy," and gives a hint into the production's curious personality.

"The paperboy is recounting to his friends all the rumors about this mysterious crazy person in the town that everyone's really fearful of," Hornsby said. "So that's really it, he's just spouting off all these rumors he's heard. Of course, it ends up that not all, if any, of them are true, but this is a song about the rumor mill running rampant."

Another one of Bruce Hornsby attributes—other than his talent as a songwriter and performer—is his omnivorous appetite for music. To the chagrin of some, there's no pigeonholing his music, because his multi-informed influences and inquisitive nature may find him playing folksy melodies, bluesy riverboat-like tunes, urban tempos, or sneaking classical music into newer material. With credits on recordings too numerous too count, on a who's who list from expansive backgrounds, touring with the Noisemakers, or his involvement in the Creative American Music Program at the Frost School of Music/University of Miami, a curriculum that is developing aspiring songwriters; he doesn't seem to be slowing down.

Selected Discography

Bruce Hornsby, Levitate (Verve Forecast, 2009)

Bruce Hornsby, Camp Meeting (Legacy, 2007)

Ricky Skaggs / Bruce Hornsby, Ricky Skaggs & Bruce Hornsby (Legacy, 2007)

Bruce Hornsby, Intersections [1985- 2005] (Legacy, 2006)

Bruce Hornsby, Halcyon Days (Sony, 2004)

Bruce Hornsby, Here Come the Noise Makers (RCA, 2000)

Bruce Hornsby, The Way It Is (RCA, 1986)

Photo credits

Courtesy of Bruce Hornsby

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