NEW YORK – Jake Holmes perhaps has had as much influence on American music as any other singer songwriter, but unless you are a devotee of early 1970s rock or advertising, you probably don’t know his name.
But you certainly know his music, which includes Gillette’s “Best a Man Can Get,” Amtrak’s “America’s Getting Into Training”, Pan Am’s “We Fly the World”, Dr. Pepper’s “Be a Pepper”, Lego’s “Zack, Lego Maniac” and countless others. (The YouTube video here has a reel of his work, from songs to some of his best known commercials.) Below, a YouTube reel of his greatest hits of advertising.
Holmes’ work is so omnipresent that you can’t get it out of your head; by design his commercials are full of “melody you can’t get rid of.” At worst, like Schaeffer’s “Hop, Hop, Sittin’ Pretty,” they cheer you up. At best, his work on the Army’s “Be All That You Can Be” helped to elevate great American institutions in an era of the great post-Vietnam invention, the all-volunteer Army.
He is much more than his commercials; he’s currently working on compiling world music with partner, Amanda Homi, and plays small clubs, where his humorous poetry and biting social satire make his performances something beyond just a folk-rock singer songwriter. Perhaps that has something to do with his eclectic influences, as he has worked with everyone from Harry Belafonte to Joan Rivers. (A great interview on his music is here.)
We sent him some questions and he was kind enough to indulge us.
BrandlandUSA: What was the first commercial you wrote? How did you get your first break?
Holmes: I was asked by a jingle house to write a spot for an anti-drug campaign, “What Do You Do When the Music Stops.” They liked what I wrote and gave me another job that I did with Carly Simon. I can’t remember the product but I remember Carly sang the “s” out of it. It snowballed from there.
BrandlandUSA: It seems rare that a jingle writer would write the music and then sing it. How did you end up doing both?
Holmes: I was asked to write and sing the new Chevrolet campaign which I did. I turned down the lead singing part because I thought it might jeopardize my recording career. I had a pretty active recording career at the time. I had a top 10 record “So Close” and so I stayed off the vocal contract. That year the singers made about $10,000 and I made $1,500 for writing. I realized then where the real money was, and I sang everything I possibly could from then on.
BrandlandUSA: You came of age in a generation that was anti-establishment and anti-war; yet “Be All You Can Be” arguably changed the perception of the Army, very much for the positive. My guess is that you either considered “Be All You Can Be” your rallying cry for a better army, or were you just able to separate your professional work from your politics?
Holmes: I didn’t do any army work until after Vietnam. After that I felt, like you say, that with an all volunteer army it behooved us to try to get the best and the brightest. In retrospect with recent events I think the Army turns out to be the one bright spot in this miasma of suspect conflicts.
BrandlandUSA: Do you get requests to sing your commercial work when you perform, or are you done with the commercial work when you record the commercial?
Holmes: Pretty much done. I’ll occasionally do a little medley of some of the hits.
BrandlandUSA: How quickly can you write a jingle? And do you write them in your head for products that you aren’t working on but see?
Holmes: I like to let an idea simmer and when I jump in to the actual writing it is usually three hours or so of actual writing. Sometimes I write anti jingle jingles in my head. Virgin Airlines “We Don’t Go Down on You” Was one of my never-used favorites.
BrandlandUSA: Commercials like Pan Am “Fly the World” and DeBeers Anniversary (I think those were your work) stick in my head and bring back specific moments in time in late 70s and early 80s. Do other people tell you this about other commercials when they find out what you do? Or did I watch way too much TV as a kid?
Holmes: You watch way too much TV.
BrandlandUSA: Your body of work, arguably, is known by as many people as any American songwriter or musical group, and the amount of airplay is as frequent as anyone in the business. Yet you are not a household name. Does it ever surprise you that your work, to borrow that phrase, might arguably be more famous than the Beatles?
Holmes: I think fame is over-rated. I would rather be respected by a hundred people than known by millions.
Q: Are the publishing rights owned by you, just as in traditional music publishing or do companies and agencies own it?
Holmes: Sometimes yes, sometimes no. For years clients didn’t care about the publishing. It was a miniscule part of what anybody made. Most of our money was in studio mark up costs and singing. These days every penny counts.
Q: What are you working on now, commercial or not, that you enjoy the most?
Holmes: I’m writing a musical about Boomers and making films and writing songs. Life is good.
Below, a television interview about the song Dazed & Confused.