Presenting our First "GVAC Song Clinic" Podcast Guest: Tommy Sims
It would not be hyperbolic to say Tommy Sims has “changed the world” with his songwriting. In addition to famously co-penning that iconic 1997 Grammy-winning Song of the Year by Eric Clapton, Sims has written dozens of other brilliant tracks for the likes of Bonnie Raitt, Kelly Clarkson, Garth Brooks, Cher, Toni Braxton, and many others.
Born in the 60s, Sims’ childhood home was brimming with a uniquely eclectic range of musical influences, from his mother’s religious gospel music, to his father’s rock & roll and R&B records (Led Zeppelin, Smokey Robinson & the Miracles, etc.). From a young age, Sims says he had that “wild” mix of music constantly permeating his mind and consciousness. By the time he was 16, he fully understood that music could not be simply boiled down to a dichotomy of sacred versus non-sacred. “Music has to just be music.”
Through his own experiences, Sims saw that music could be a catalyst for positive things to happen. “Music leads to thinking good thoughts, [and] doing good deeds” he explained. “Both philosophically and spiritually, as well as economically, music could be a way out of ‘the hood’, a route to a better life.”
He recalls writing his first “song” at the age of thirteen, when he simply removed the lyrics from “Sweet Love” by the Commodores, and replaced them with his own words. “I thought I had written a song, but really that was just plagiarism,” he quipped.
While he lacked any personal connections in the music industry, he always trusted that as long as he improved at writing songs, he could ‘make it’ as a songwriter. “I remember this euphoric feeling of picking up a guitar, playing my own chords, and singing my own lyrics. There was nothing like that feeling. That was the feeling of, ‘I can really do this if I just keep working at it.”
“Change the World”
The fascinating story behind “Change the World” is a testament to the collaborative and unpredictable nature of songwriting. Though undoubtedly his most notable songwriting credit, the song’s massive success was what both Sims and our host, then president of Interscope Music, Ronny Vance, termed “bittersweet,” as the final cut recorded by Clapton and produced by Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds was a significant deviation from the original meaning of Sims’ lyrics.
The earliest version of “Change the World,” written by Sims as a teenager, was about “tikkun olam,” explained Vance, “the Jewish concept for repairing the world.” Over the years, the song evolved through two more versions. The most updated rendition sent to Clapton was deeply rooted in Beatles/Paul McCartney influences, to reflect what Sims’ then-studio-session-mates, Gordon Kennedy, Wayne Kirkpatrick and Chris Rodriguez, were looking for when they asked him to fill in on bass for the recordings they were making for a potential deal with RCA.
Ultimately, ”the rewrite/re-record with Clapton was clearly a love song,” said Vance, “and we were both underwhelmed.” Recalling the day in Nashville when he and Vance received Clapton’s final copy that they had been anticipating for many months, Sims shared his mixed emotions: “Going back to that moment, I do remember feeling like it had turned into quite a different record from the original demo. The whole McCartney-esque feel was gone. The funny thing is, I saw later interviews with Clapton where he literally mentions feeling the need to “de-McCartney” the song. I think the term he used was, ‘to put some “black” into it’, which was hilarious to me. The irony, that I had apparently done the reverse thing, by taking some of the “black” out of it and putting in the McCartney feel, as the [2nd] version I did with my band had a Prince/funk feel that didn't have a lot of McCartney in it either.
After Clapton’s song was released, Sims began playing the song out on songwriting nights. One evening, an audience member who was somehow aware of the original version from Sims’ teenage years, asked him to play that rendition, featuring his original, inspirational lyrics:
State of the world before you
Knowing we ain't got much time
To do some of the things that we must do
If you listen you can hear the change
I still believe we can make it there,
We might change the world
Who’s got a dream you can give away....
As a dreamer first, I think we might change the world
“Peace and Love”
Sims released his solo project, entitled “Peace and Love” in August 2000. It was filled with great songs he had written for a number of renowned artists, including Al Green, Stevie Wonder, and Earth Wind and Fire. However, stepping out from behind the scenes represents a serious challenge for many songwriters, and for Sims, the record marked a difficult transition into the spotlight as a solo artist.
“The album for me was a very strange thing. I was very hesitant, as I didn't consider myself a singer. I still don’t, although over the years, I do feel like I finally found my voice as an artist. But back in those days I wasn’t at all comfortable being in front of the mic. I was too big of a fan of all the great singers to even try [to sing] most of the time, except for the purpose of my demos. When I couldn't get a demo singer I’d sing it in my own pseudo- strange falsetto-y voice just to ‘eek’ out the melody. Peace and love began out of that.”
It was with Vance’s encouragement that Sims ultimately gained the confidence to release his own material. “I knew the world needed this record,” said Vance.
Despite his impressive career achievements, Sims clearly remains humble and appreciative of those that helped him along the way. “You are one pivotal guy in my life,” he says to Vance. “You were a great catalyst in saving my life, and you had a lot, if not everything to do with me turning into a so-called ‘songwriter.’ My love and affection for you is eternal.”
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