September 18, 2019
Andy Kim Revisits Iconic Pop Hit ‘Sugar Sugar’ on Song’s 50th Anniversary

Andy Kim Revisits Iconic Pop Hit ‘Sugar Sugar’ on Song’s 50th Anniversary

Canadian songwriting legend Andy Kim spoke to Music Life Magazine about the legacy of Sugar Sugar, a Billboard chart topper that he co-wrote five decades ago.

For the latter half of 1969, there were few pop songs as ubiquitous as the upbeat, melodious and joyful track Sugar Sugar. Created to accompany a popular cartoon series called The Archies, which was based on the long running Archie comics series, the song was a seeming throwback to a simpler era in popular music, where Love Me Do, Do Wah Diddy Diddy, and Hound Dogs were as serious as pop tunes got.

Instead, in an era that saw the Beatles issuing songs like Helter Skelter and Revolution, the Lizard King Jim Morrison proclaiming that ‘this is end, my only friend, the end’ and the politically charged songs of Buffalo Springfield and the Woodstock generation of musicians, Sugar Sugar was an anomaly. Written off by tastemakers at the time, and struggling to even get radio airplay initially, it seemed that the general public perhaps was looking for a song that was a momentary distraction, and escape, a tonic for the paradigm shifting and sometimes seismic cultural shifts that we happened around the world and made it a massive hit.

Sugar Sugar was co-written by noted songwriter Jeff Barry, and Canadian Andy Kim, who had migrated to New York City to fulfill his dreams of being a songwriter, alongside the likes of his hero and mentor Barry. Firmly embedded in the public consciousness since those heady days at the end of the 1960s, Kim is humbly marking the 50th anniversary of the song – a song that still gets played (or streamed to use modern parlance) millions of times a year.

Kim was a young man enamoured with music, who grew up in Montreal, listening to his precious transistor radio as often as he could to soak up the sounds of the late 1950s and 1960s, falling in love with not just the songs he was hearing, but developing a passion for possibly creating his own songs.

“That dream was formed by listening to WKBW and WABC out of New York at night. I would do my homework with my transistor radio connected to me, and it was a world that I wanted to be a part of but was a world that was seemingly the furthest that you could think from Montreal,” he said.

“If it wasn’t for my two older brothers who had all these 45s and had the record player and had the music magazines, I might not have been so driven. I was always interested in how things were done on the records and who played what, and I tried to dissect what that sound was that I was listening to. And, to be honest with you, if I was able, I would have crawled into that transistor radio and lived there, that’s where my dream had taken me. And it became kind of confusing to the family and my school chums. You kind of walk around and you’re in an altered state when you’re actually living at home.

“But once you get off that bus on 42nd Street and 8th Avenue, which is the Port Authority, your whole world changes, at least mine did. I just felt the amazing energy of the city. But I was alone and didn’t know anyone. I was headed towards where all the songwriters I loved were, from Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich and Phil Spector to Leiber and Stoller and Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, Carole King and Gerry Goffin, Jerry Ragovoy and Bert Berns. All those amazing songs had come from somewhere and they were housed in this remarkable place. For me it was my dream come true. I didn’t know if I was a songwriter, let alone an artist, but Jeff Barry helped that dream come true by helping me write Sugar Sugar and here I am talking to you so many years later.”

Upsetting his family and throwing his friends for a loop at the time, in the late 1960s, a precociously young Andy Kim (he was barely 16!!) left the cozy confines of familiar Montreal for the hustle and bustle of New York City, seeking not fame and fortune, but the opportunity to create memorable music alongside some of the greatest songwriters of the day such as Jeff Barry, most of who were ensconced in the legendary Brill Building located near Times Square in the heart of New York City.

“The Brill building was filled with iconic songwriters and producers, publishers and anyone who wanted to be part of the music industry. But what was great about it was you were in your little cubicle or a room maybe 10 feet by 12 feet with a guitar and a piano and you might be writing on your own, and then someone would pop in and have an idea for a song, but needed a co-writer. Or you would pop around and help them with their demo. It was just an incredible creative community, all packed into 1619 Broadway Avenue,” he said.

This was in the early 1960s, and by the latter part of the decade, Kim was not only an established songwriter, but had also released a number of singles under his own name. In 1968, released the song How’d We Ever Get This Way? which made it to number 21 on the Billboard Top 20, Later that same year, he and friend/mentor Barry wrote a song for a new cartoon TV show called The Archies. That song would be Sugar Sugar.

During its amazing run, the song would hit number one on the Billboard Hot 100 charts and would eventually be named the RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America) Record of the Year, and in subsequent years be covered by a veritable who’s who of the music business. But that success was far from a sure thing, as Kim reports that the song barely got any mainstream airplay early on because The Archies were not a real band, but cartoon characters. The Monkees has similar issues, but at least they played shows, and recorded some of their parts on record, although only later in their career did they actually write their own material.

The Archies were a band created by the comic character Archie Andrews, and featured his pals Betty, Veronica, Reggie and Jughead. The actual performance captured on record was done by session musicians with Ron Dante doing lead vocals (he would later go on to produce Barry Manilow’s first nine albums) with vocalist/producer Toni Wine doing the female vocals on the track.

“Basically, there was a call out to every single songwriter asking if they had any songs that would be good for The Archies. So, the genius Jeff Barry and I came up with Sugar Sugar, and we made a brilliant record. Someone told me this story recently: on May 24, 1969 my own song Baby I Love You hit the US charts for the first time. May 24, 1969 was also the date that Sugar Sugar was released, but Sugar Sugar didn’t hit the charts until the middle of July. What happened was that radio was inundated with underground music. They wanted to play The Doors and stuff like that,” Kim said.

“There was a real cultural shift happening. I was not one who perceived that shift, but it was definitely happening. It was the year of Woodstock, the Viet Nam war was still raging, it was a year of political unrest in the U.S. and around the world, it was the year of the moon landing. There were all these serious things going on. And now you get comic book characters singing a song? With no human being connected to it, I guess radio didn’t know what to do with it. You couldn’t hire The Archies to show up and play your hop as many of the top disc jockeys did at the time.

“I was on tour at the time with Baby I Love You and I always loved Sugar Sugar and was always humming it in my head, and I was at a loss as to why people weren’t playing it. I didn’t see it from the big picture perspective. But radio kind of wanted it to be a live person. It took an independent promotion man to convince a radio station in San Francisco to play it one time. And that was it. That one play caused a reaction where all the lights on the switchboard lit up because people wanted to hear it again and again. And even though it ended up dislodging the Rolling StonesHonky Tonk  Woman from number one and stayed there for four weeks, it was still called a fluff song, and seen as a novelty, an accident.”

The aspect of it not being a ‘serious’ song ended abruptly once it began to be covered and sold even more copies and garnered even more airplay, giving it a huge boost in credibility and helping it achieve the iconic status that it continues to have today.

“It was seen as a novelty until Wilson Pickett recorded the song, and that version sold a million copies and went to number four on the Billboard R&B Chart. Ike and Tina Turner recorded the song, and if you ever hear that version, you will be blown away by Tina’s performance. And then Bob Marley records the song, and then Tom Jones and Gladys Night and other people. But it took someone as respected as Wilson Pickett to really break the ice and really wrap himself around the song. Although I think it’s still The Archies version that is the one most people recognize and want to hear.”

Nostalgia is one thing, but the hard facts are that Sugar Sugar is still enjoyed by millions of people today, and it’s not just people slapping their old 45s on a turntable. Streaming services including Spotify have concluded that the song has been streamed at least 300 million times. That number is more than just old timers trying to relive their youth. It means that new generations and people from throughout the globe are still enjoying the simple, upbeat song. It’s a song that was perhaps a tonic for the tough times that were happening back in the tumultuous late 1960s and could be seen as a welcome tonic for the tumultuous times of today.

“I have spoken to a lot of people over the last few weeks since I started doing press for the 50th anniversary and people accepted this song not only in the U.S. and Canada but all over the world. I get notes from friends of mine who had just visited South Africa and there was a band in some café, and they were playing the song. I have been in a grocery store in L.A. picking up some stuff and some guy comes up to me and recognizes me for some reason after all these years, and he is from Ghana in west Africa. And not only does he know Sugar Sugar, but Rock Me Gently too. And you have no idea of how the purity of Sugar Sugar is such wonderful medicine for anyone. When I perform it, it doesn’t matter what the age is, five or 95, you’re getting a crowd that is just joyous. It’s the awesome power of music, and not only Sugar Sugar, but all music that has transcended time,” Kim said.

“I made an album with Kevin Drew [2015’s It’s Decided] of Broken Social Scene. We did it at the same time as he was recording his album and I opened for him at The Bowery in New York City. And I am not good with crowds and the place was jammed and people were lined up wanting to come in. I am the opener, so basically, it’s all Kevin and Broken Social Scene’s crowd, and you can see that and feel that. So I go on and introduce myself and tell the audience I was raised in Montreal, Quebec but my life really started when I came to New York and I talked about the Brill Building, and you could see on their faces it was like, ‘just get on with your stuff. We want to see Kevin.’ At least that’s how it looked to me.

“I was only doing four or five songs. Baby I Love You was huge in New York back in the day and Rock Me Gently went to number one and Sugar Sugar was number one too. I am doing those songs before I get to Sugar Sugar and there is a bit of recognition. Now I am down to my last song and I turn to the audience and say, ‘well for this song, if any of you know this song that I wrote, sing along.’ I didn’t say anything about the title. When I get to the first chorus and I sing Sugar Sugar the whole crowd sings Honey Honey back to me, and then they sing the rest of the song. I walk away from that show thinking; wow life is teaching me a lesson. It’s jumped generations and I have no idea why. It’s just one of those gifts that the songwriter angels in the sky bring you. And if you’re lucky enough you rejoice and live long enough to see 50 years of that.”

Kim truly does prefer to deflect effusive praise from his success in general and more specifically for Sugar Sugar, and always has. His humility and genuine appreciation not only for success it has afforded him, but also the continuing admiration is authentic and heartfelt.

“I’ve never thought of any of my songs, or anything that I have done as anything other than being able to thank everybody for helping me get a great life. Fifty is a big number. If you know me well, you know that I never go back in time, I am always looking at what I am doing today and tomorrow. I never go back to rewrite a song or rethink a song, or rethink my life wondering if I should have turned left instead of turning right. I have no regrets,” he said.

“But I do remember that certain things have happening in my life that travel with me. And Sugar Sugar is one of them. It was a moment of inspiration that took 10 minutes to finish. And when people come to me and say, ‘you deserve this, or you deserve that’ I say I deserve nothing. I wrote this song, and my other songs for me. I get excited about an idea and then I start working on it, and it’s just a joy to be a songwriter. And to actually have people go out and buy what you are excited about, that’s another trip in itself, because you can’t force people to buy anything.”

Over his career, Kim has released 10 albums and countless singles, was inducted into the Hit Parade Hall of Fame in 2009 and was named to Canada’s Walk of Fame in 2018, among many other accolades. Since 2005, he has also hosted a star-studded show before Christmas each year in Toronto, with proceeds going to a different children’s charity each year. The esteem in which Kim is held by the Toronto music elite, and the importance of the charity is evidenced by the artists who come out to show their support and join Kim on stage. This group has included the likes of Ron Sexsmith, Alex Lifeson, Tom Cochrane, Kim Mitchell, Bif Naked, Broken Social Scene, Billy Talent, Jacksoul, Hayden and more.

“What I was missing all those years in L.A. {where he spends the bulk of his time] was the community of songwriters and artists that we have here. I didn’t have that; with all the success that I had, I didn’t really have that because down there, everyone kind of goes their own way. You come in and do certain things and then go home. For me, I missed the community of artists and I realized that when I got back home to Toronto, the there is this community here. Everybody kind of knows each other. So, all I did was make a few phone calls and they all said yes,” he said, adding that heading into its 15th year in 2019, he starts working on the show in October, because he wants to try and top the previous year’s show if he can.

“I have been very blessed all my life, and when you can call a big artist and they say yes without question, it blows me away every time. Alex Lifeson of Rush has done it three times already, and this past year came up with something great for when we all did Sugar Sugar. There is so much love and so much caring in this music community that is here in Toronto and surrounding area. I am always blown away.”

For more information on 50th anniversary activities related to Sugar Sugar, the forthcoming Christmas show as well as possible new music in the future, visit http://www.andykimmusic.com.

  • Jim Barber is a veteran award-winning journalist and author based in Napanee, ON, who has been writing about music and musicians for a quarter of a century. Besides his journalistic endeavours, he now works as a communications and marketing specialist. Contact him at jimbarberwritingservices@gmail.com.

 

The post Andy Kim Revisits Iconic Pop Hit ‘Sugar Sugar’ on Song’s 50th Anniversary appeared first on Music Life Magazine.

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