During the mid '80s, John Waite was one of the kings of the pop world. With the mammoth single Missing You a monster hit and an earlier tenure with the chart-topping British band The Babys behind him, he sat down to iron out the next phase of his star career with Epic Records.
The label was ecstatic to have Waite on board. They loved his voice. They loved his appeal. Then they told him he couldn't write.
Seriously? Missing You, which Waite co-penned, became a No. 1 smash in 1984, was covered by everyone from Tina Turner to Brooks & Dunn and was eventually recut by Waite in 2007 as a country duet with Alison Krauss. One might assume all that would cement Waite's credentials as a songwriter for life.
"It was an interesting meeting," Waite says with a laugh, recalling his sit-down with Epic. "It was real record company stuff. They were like, 'We love you. We love The Babys. By the way, the bad news...' The A&R (artists and repertoire) guy said I couldn't write and that he was going to find all these great songs for me. I just looked at him and thought, 'Well, that's a shame.'"
But, as Waite has done repeatedly through a four-decade career, he discovered a golden detour within a bump in the road. Instead of balking for Epic, he recruited one of his Babys bandmates (bassist Ricky Phillips), a pair of heavy hitters from Journey (guitarist Neil Schon and keyboardist Jonathan Cain) and formed the 1980s supergroup Bad English.
"I thought, 'If I put a really great group together, we would just come out swinging,'" Waite says. "So hence, Bad English. I mean, David Bowie had done that with Tin Machine, so it worked as a way to sidestep the record company."
Though the band splintered after two albums, its 1987 self-titled debut record scored a string of major hits that included Diane Warren's When I See You Smile and the Waite and Cain-composed Price of Love. The album also became a platinum seller.
Of course, The Babys, Missing You and Bad English are all but chapters in a pop adventure that continues to this day. While those career milestones were all heavily pop driven, the roots of this Lancaster, England-born performer reach back to folk, rock and even country inspirations from both sides of the Atlantic.
"My brother and I went in half on buying the (1961) Shadows EP called The Shadows to the Fore," Waite says. "And I remember my cousin Cal playing me Everybody Loves Me But You by Brenda Lee and that just killed me. Lonnie Donegan and all the great skiffle guys were important, too. The Shadows, though, were pretty heavy.
"But it all came from cowboy music for me. That's why I always have some sort of country element in the writing. I remember looking at Marty Robbins' Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs (1959) album through the window of a shop when I was about 5 or 6 years old. There he was on the front, going for his gun. I was transfixed. It was this whole myth of America and the cowboy. That just led completely and seamlessly into rock 'n' roll for me. I didn't even know I was making any choices. I was just listening to music constantly."
More recent projects for Waite include the 2011 studio album Rough & Tumble, (the title tune of which became a No. 1 single on Classic Radio radio), a re-release of the 2010 concert recording In Real Time and a 2014 indie acoustic EP titled Wooden Heart.
"It's a joy to be in the studio writing songs," Waite says. "But the real sustenance of the career is still playing live, as it should be. You're recording what's happening when you're making a record. But it's what's happening onstage that really matters."