Robert Hazard, who appears at Triumph Brewing Company on Friday, January 7, is one lucky songwriter. For the last 20 years, he’s been living every musician’s dream. You see, back in 1983, he gave a song he’d written to Cyndi Lauper. It was a three-minute pop song called "Girls Just Want to Have Fun." You’ve heard it. Everyone has heard it. The song became an international mega-hit throughout the 1980s and continued to receive lots of airplay into the 1990s. As recently as last summer, three movies used "Girls Just Want to Have Fun" in their soundtracks, and it also can be heard on a current cruise ship ad.
Most rock ‘n’ roll fans know Hazard from the national success of his new wave band, Robert Hazard and the Heroes. Their hits, "Escalator of Life," "Hang Around With You," and "Change Reaction," were staples of early 1980s FM rock radio.
"My father was an opera singer and he was always playing Vic Damone and Frank Sinatra records around the house," Hazard, 55, recalls from his home in Vero Beach, Florida.
Hazard, who was raised in suburban Philadelphia and moved into that city after graduating from high school, says he owes much of his early musical education to his older sister, Gloria, "because when I was a kid, she was a teenager, so I got to listen to all these great records from Gene Vincent and Carl Perkins and Fats Domino."
Like Pittsburgh roots rocker Joe Grushecky and countless others who grew up in the 1960s, inspired in part by the Beatles, Hazard started writing his own songs when he first picked up the guitar as a 10-year-old.
"I didn’t really learn to play guitar until much later, when I started hanging out in coffee houses with guys like (Philadelphia blues and folk singer) Jerry Ricks," he says. As a 12-year-old, I was just beating on the strings, but in the early 1960s folk music was happening everywhere, so I started listening to that. That’s the stuff that really got me started: Bob Dylan, Jim Kweskin, Tom Rush, and Phil Ochs. I thought all the songs by these people were the songs that really mattered."
To finely hone his skills, Hazard took lessons from Ricks until he was in his early 20s. "I didn’t seriously get into rock ‘n’ roll until I was 27," he says, "and I got a record deal as a 31-year old."
After receiving a $12,000 loan from his uncle, Hazard and his band entered Sigma Sound Studios in Philadelphia in 1982 to record a demo. Meantime, they were drawing ever-growing crowds to big clubs in the city. One day Kurt Loder happened upon Hazard’s band while he was in the city covering something else for Rolling Stone magazine. Impressed with the band’s energy, he wrote about them for Rolling Stone, and within a matter of weeks, Robert Hazard and the Heroes were signed to RCA Records.
The band played everywhere, from clubs to concert arenas, and after some national airplay and distribution of their first record, they toured with the Motels and U2, then a fledgling, up-and-coming rock band from Ireland.
Videos for "Escalator of Life" and "Change Reaction" were featured on MTV. Just as RCA was getting ready to drop the band after the release of its second album, which wasn’t nearly as commercially successful as the debut, Lauper was beginning to have chart success with "Girls Just Want to Have Fun." The songwriting publishing royalties were starting to stream in. By the mid-1990s, Hazard realized the song had earned him more than $1 million in royalties. Enough so that he could afford two homes, which he still maintains, one in the Adirondack mountains in New York State and the other in Florida. He also ran antiques shops in both locations for a time.
He has been away from the stage for a long time, but is eager to return. "Sometimes, you just need time to make the music you really want to make," he says.
At Triumph Brew Pub on January 7, Hazard will be accompanied by the touring band he’s put together to support his recent roots and folk-oriented recording, "Seventh Lake." Hazard’s new touring band, which made its debut in August at the Philadelphia Folk Festival, includes Ken Bernard on drums, Fred DiTomasso on bass, Michael Vernaccio on keyboards, and John Lilley on guitar. The songs on "Seventh Lake" are bluesy and introspective, about love, life and relationships. The album was recorded in Vermont with T-Bone Wolk, who has also produced albums by Hall & Oates, Carly Simon, and Elvis Costello.
Expect Hazard and his band to be doing his newer material from "Seventh Lake," as well as another recent release, "Blue Mountain." At the Philadelphia Folk Festival in August, to an audience packed in front of the camp stage, Hazard jokingly asked: "What the hell is Robert Hazard doin’ at the Philly Folk Festival, anyway?" His band launched into a well-rehearsed set that combined sounds from contemporary and traditional folk music, blues, and alternative country.
Hazard’s big 1980s hit, "Escalator of Life," with his old band, the Heroes, "was all about the coke-sniffing, greed-driven, 1980s, and the malling and commercialization of America," he says. By contrast, the songs on "Seventh Lake" are stories about people he has met.
"Back in the early 1990s, I got a call from a guy in Atlantic City, at one of the big casinos, and he wanted me to do a show, every night, for as long as it would last, and it would be a Robert Hazard and the Heroes show," he says. "He wanted me to bring back the 1980s, exactly the way we did those shows then, with smoke machines and all that. I said, ‘of course not.’ And maybe, if I didn’t have the hit with Cyndi Lauper, things would have been different, but writing that song gave me the room to be myself and change and grow. It’s still incredible to me that one song can do that much. The success of that song gave me time to explore different areas of the country and a different style of life without having to be worried about where every dollar is coming in from."
But now Hazard is back. He knows what he wants to write – and sing – about, and he eager to showcase his new material at shows like the one he is preparing to put on at Triumph. It’s what he wants to do now, and, hey, boys want to have fun too.
The Robert Hazard Band., Triumph Brewing Company, Nassau Street, 10 p.m., Friday, January 7; Cover: $5. Call 609-924-7855.