- - Tuesday, January 10, 2017

If all Billy Vera ever did was write and sing the hit ballad “At This Moment,” he would have secured his place in the history of popular music. While the song hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart in 1987, Mr. Vera is no one-hit wonder, having also penned songs for Bonnie Raitt and Nona Hendryx, produced albums for Lou Rawls and written TV show theme songs for several sitcoms including “Empty Nest” and “King of Queens.”

Away from the mic, Mr. Vera is a well-respected music historian, and he also has had time to squeeze in an acting career in films like “The Doors” and “The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai.”

I sat down with Mr. Vera at The Hollywood Show “Buckaroo Banzai” cast reunion to talk about the power of that massive hit, his time as an actor and what he is up to today — at this moment.

Question: Is this the first time the cast of “The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai” has been together in years?

Answer: It’s the first time we have all been together since we made the film. Thirty years. I have run into Peter [Weller] before. They did a screening a couple of years ago at [the Los Angeles theater] New Beverly [owned by Quentin Tarantino]. They asked Peter and I to both speak at it.

Q: Why do you think the movie has become a cult classic?

A: I haven’t got the slightest idea. It took on cult status immediately even though it was a flop in the theaters a year later when they released the videotape. That is when it went to No. 1 in both video sales and rentals.

I think it was because they had edited out a half-hour of the film for the theatrical release. The editing made the jokes too close together. They didn’t have room to breathe. People watching it on video could stop the video and say, “What did he say? Let’s roll it back.” That allowed people to get the jokes.

Q: As a singer, everyone knows you for the 1980s hit “At This Moment,” but you had a career long before that.

A: In my early twenties I began peddling my songs. The first person to record one was Ricky Nelson. He recorded “Mean Old World.” Chip Taylor and I wrote a song called “Storybook Children.” We thought it would be a good duet for some Atlantic artist. We brought it in to Jerry Wexler, who declared, “It’s a … smash!” He told us, “Get rid of the girl on the demo, and I’ll record you on Atlantic Records.” I recorded it with Nona Hendrix from Labelle. Her manager nixed that deal. He was afraid she would quit Labelle.

We got Judy Clay, who was a cousin of Dionne Warwick. We loved her voice. And we recorded it. “Storybook Children” broke in New York. We got an offer to play The Apollo.

Q: What was the inspiration for “At This Moment”?

A: I hadn’t had a hit in about nine years at the time. I was living at my mother’s house like any other loser musician. I played a lot of “survival gigs” with my little band at night. I would write songs in the daytime. Hoping against hope.

[Then I was] over 30. Too old to be a rock star. I met a young 20-year-old girl in a club. A little hottie. We started dating. And like any 20-year-old narcissist, she told me about breaking up with her previous boyfriend and how that guy suffered for her. I wrote the first two thirds of the song from what I perceived was his point of view. But I couldn’t finish it until a year later, when she dumped me. Then I knew how it ended.

Q: Why do you think people reacted to it the way they did?

A: The emotion of it. It really touched a lot of people’s hearts. In fact, it got me a publishing deal in L.A. on the strength of that song. I was flown to L.A. by the top music business professional. He had me play the song at Warner Bros. for his staff, and when I turned around, the guy was crying over this song. That made me think, “Gee, maybe there is something to it.”

Q:The song wasn’t a hit at first, yes?

A: My band, Billy & The Beaters, finally get a record deal. We had a hit record called “I Can Take Care of Myself,” and “At This Moment” was the follow-up. But the head of promotions had a fight with the boss of the record company and quit. There wasn’t anybody to promote the record. It only went to number 79.

That record company went out of business. Five years later I got a call.

Q: How did the song get a second shot and hit No. 1?

A: I get a phone call one day from a guy called Michael Whitehorn. He says, “I produce a show called ‘Family Ties,’ and we were at the club the other night. We heard you sing this song, and we think it would be good for an episode.” So we did it.

At that point the record was out of print. You couldn’t buy it anywhere. I had a friend who owned a company called Rhino Records, and he put it out. They used the song on “Family Ties” the following season in an episode where the girl breaks up with Michael J. Fox. America went nuts. People started calling radio stations, and it flew up the charts — went No. 1.

Q: What are you up to these days?

A: Michael Buble recorded his version of “At This Moment” and sold 10 million records. I used one of the checks from that to finance my dream album: an album of big band music.

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