It’s Wednesday, which means time to take a closer look at another tune I’ve only mentioned in passing or not covered at all to date. My pick for today is Hello It’s Me by Todd Rundgren. I was reminded of this song when my friend Mike Caputo recommended the first album of the Nazz to me.
Hello It’s Me is the first song Rundgren ever wrote, in 1967 when he was 19 years old. The best-known version of the tune was included on his third solo album Something/Anything?, which came out in February 1972. It also became the double LP’s third single in December 1972. The studio banter gives the recording a spontaneous live feel. Notably, Rundgren played all instruments and sang all vocals on the first three sides of this sprawling album.
Hello It’s Me is among the tunes on the fourth side of the album, which included other musicians – in this case Mark Klingman (organ), who would become a member of Utopia, another band Rundgren formed in 1973, and prominent saxophonist Michael Brecker, among others. The song became Rundgren’s biggest hit, climbing to no. 5 in the U.S. on the Billboard Hot 100. Elsewhere, it reached no. 17 in Canada and no. 68 in Australia.
Fueled by this tune and another single, I Saw the Light, Something/Anything? also ended up as Rundgren’s most successful solo album. In the U.S., it climbed to no. 29 on the Billboard 200 and reached Gold certification (500,000 unit sales). In Canada, the album became his first to enter the charts there, peaking at no. 34.
Rundgren first recorded Hello It’s Me as a slow ballad with Nazz, a short-lived rock band he founded together with bassist Carson Van Osten in Philadelphia in 1967. Thom Mooney (drums) and Robert “Stewkey” Antoni (vocals, keyboards) joined soon thereafter. Hello It’s Me appeared as the B-side of the group’s first single Open My Eyes in July 1968 and was included on their eponymous debut album that followed in October 1968.
The song’s initial version made it to no. 66 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 and reached no. 41 in Canada. The album peaked at a meager no. 118 on the Billboard 200. During the recording of the band’s sophomore album Nazz Nazz tensions emerged, which led to the breakup of the band prior to the album’s release in May 1969.
Rundgren subsequently launched a solo career. Since his September 1970 debut he has released 25 additional solo albums to date, mostly recently Space Force in October 2022. His discography with Utopia includes 10 studio, four live and four compilation albums, recorded between 1974 and 1985. Rundgren has also done lots of production work for a broad range of bands and solo artists, such as Badfinger, New York Dolls, Grand Funk Railroad, Hall & Oates, Meatloaf and XTC.
Following are additional tidbits about Hello It’s Me from Songfacts:
Rundgren wrote this song, which takes us through a phone call where the singer breaks up with a girl. It’s a remarkably realistic account, devoid of sweeping metaphors typically found in breakup songs. We hear the one side of the phone call, which starts with the familiar greeting, indicating they’ve been together a while. Then they have “the talk,” where he hashes out why they can’t be together and lets her know that she should have her freedom. All he can ask in the end is that she think of him every now and then.
Remarkably, it was the first song Rundgren ever wrote. In his teens, Todd was an avid listener to music but it was only when he put The Nazz together at the age of 19 that the young musician realized he’d better start penning some material. He attributes the sophistication and success of this song to the vast amount of listening he’d done by the time he wrote it.
A specific musical inspiration was the Dionne Warwick song “Walk On By,” written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David. ” I hadn’t thought much about the songwriter’s role previous to listening to that record and realizing how different it was, how it had all the qualities of music that I admired, and yet it also was a song,” Rundgren said in his 2018 Songfacts interview. “That was the first time I really started to, in my own head, deconstruct what a songwriter was doing. That song had a lot of influence in ‘Hello It’s Me.'”…
…This song, and many others Rundgren wrote at the time, was inspired by a high school relationship that didn’t work out. He graduated in 1966, wrote the song about a year later, and recorded the original Nazz version in 1968, so that relationship was still fresh in his mind. He realized, however, that he didn’t want to keep revisiting this heartbreak, so he made a conscious effort to avoid that theme in his post-Something/Anything? output. “There’s more than just relationships to write about,” he said when speaking at Red Bull Music Academy. “There’s your whole inner life to draw on.”
In real life, Rundgren was the one getting dumped, but he flipped the story so he was breaking up with the girl. Speaking with Marc Myers in 2018, Rundgren explained that the girl was named Linda, and she was his high school girlfriend. He had long hair, and one day when he walked her home, Linda’s dad saw him for the first time and turned the hose on him – no hippie kid was going to date his daughter. A few days later, Linda acceded to her father’s wishes and broke up with him. She did it rather casually, which Todd didn’t appreciate.
Rundgren wrote the lyric thinking about how he would have liked Linda to break up with him: in a sensitive phone call where she tells him it’s important that he’s free.
Many years later, Rundgren was in Tulsa for a concert (this was likely March 31, 2003) when Linda called his hotel asking for tickets to the show. He put her on the guestlist, but never told her she inspired his most famous song. “Our lives had gone in different directions,” he said. “We had nothing to say. I also wanted to hold on to the image I have of her in high school.”
According to Rundgren, the chord progression for “Hello It’s Me” were lifted directly from the intro of jazz organist Jimmy Smith’s rendition of “When Johnny Comes Marching Home.”
Rundgren expected the album opener “I Saw The Light,” which was the first single from Something/Anything?, to be his big hit, even going as far as to say so in the liner notes rather tongue-in-cheek. However, his re-recording of “Hello It’s Me” eclipsed it on the charts – “I Saw The Light” stalled at #16. Both songs displayed his newfound admiration (and subsequent imitation) of Carole King following her Tapestry album.
“Hello It’s Me” was a very slow-moving hit; the Something/Anything? album was released in February 1972, and it only became a hit when radio stations started playing it over a year later and the song was subsequently released as a single. It didn’t hit the Top 40 until November 1973, and by then, Rundgren’s psychedelic album A Wizard, a True Star had been out for eight months. That album was a completely different sound, and Rundgren was in a completely different mindset. The record company didn’t put any singles out from Wizard for fear of alienating Rundgren’s fans, and Todd had a hard time performing the sudden hit that was now five years old. One of his more bizarre moments came when he performed the song on The Midnight Special wearing what looked like something from David Bowie’s closet. Rundgren’s girlfriend Bebe Buell called it his “Man-Eating Peacock outfit.”…
…The 1968 version of this song by The Nazz was originally relegated to the B-side of another single, “Open My Eyes.” Ron Robin told Songfacts how the single got flipped. Says Ron: “How ‘Hello It’s Me’ by Nazz became a ‘sort of’ hit nationally was quite an accident. I was the music director/DJ at WMEX in Boston when a record promoter came by to tell me about this new group… Nazz. He was promoting ‘Open My Eyes,’ a terrific hard driving rocker. I loved it. At home I accidentally played the flip side of the record and heard ‘Hello It’s Me.’ It blew me away. I just had to add it to our playlist at the station. After a few weeks it made it to our top 5. We were the only station in the country playing it! Several months later other stations across the country started playing it. Several years later Todd records it in his new style without Nazz and of course without Nazz lead singer Stewkey.”…
…In our 2015 interview with Todd Rundgren, he called this “a selfish song.” Said Rundgren, “It’s me, me, me – it’s all about me. I’m in charge, and all this other stuff.”
For this reason, Rundgren didn’t play it when he toured with Ringo Starr’s All-Starr Band, as it didn’t fit in with the other songs in the show. Instead, Rundgren played a song he recorded with his band Utopia that was a hit for England Dan & John Ford Coley: “Love Is The Answer.”
Rundgren recorded a dark, Bossa Nova version of this song on his 1997 compilation album With A Twist. Speaking about the song in Mojo, he explained: “‘Hello It’s Me’ has become the albatross to me: everyone has attached to me the idea of the amateur singer, the amateur piano player, the funk-free boy doing his little song. But I just can’t go there anymore, I can’t even think there anymore.”…
…The 1972 single opens with three distinct notes on the bass, a part Stu Woods came up with in the studio. The album version features a few false starts due to the confusion over which musicians were supposed to play first. “When we were in the studio, a lot of people had a hard time hearing where they were supposed to come in,” Rundgren recalled to Mix magazine in 2019. “The only person who was supposed to come in on four was the bass, and everyone else was supposed to come in on one, but everyone kept coming in on four. So if you listen to the album version, you can hear all these false starts.”
Rundgren didn’t have any concrete ideas for the new arrangement and came up with it on the fly in the studio. “I hadn’t written out the arrangements,” he explained. “I had something stewing in my head and said, ‘Here are the changes to the song,’ then taught them the changes, found the feel I liked. If somebody played something I didn’t like, I’d say, ‘No, don’t play that, change it to something else.’ I wanted it to be less dirge-y than the original and have a little more energy to it. Music had evolved a little, so I wanted something that sounded a bit more contemporary, as opposed to the original stripped-down band.”
Sources: Wikipedia; Songfacts; YouTube