Q&A: Rudy Norman

All Rudy Norman wanted was to be on the radio.

He had fallen in love with music as a young boy as he shopped around 45s with his older brother. It was his first love and and a joyous constant while the rest of the world churned around him in uncertainty. His dad was a a career U.S. Army sergeant and took his family around the world as he worked his way through the ranks. When Norman was 10 he contracted polio and was told he would never walk again. Years worth of hospitalizations and a determined rehabilitation saw the adolescent beat the odds, though he’d have to walk in stilted shoes and a cane for the rest of his life.

Photo Credit: Rudy Norman

In the late 70’s Norman was a man on the scene in Harmans, Maryland, a small suburban enclave you pass through without realizing it on your way to Baltimore Washington International Airport or the relatively bright lights of Charm City. Unfortunately for him, Harmans wasn’t much of a scene and while he sang in a handful of cover bands and played a small circuit of local clubs, nothing really materialized beyond a couple good crowds and free beers after the show.

In February 1980 Norman was sick of playing other people’s music and wanted to be known for his own music. The best way back then to be noticed was to cut a single and have it played on the radio. He found Sheffield Recording Studio in Phoenix, Maryland and went through its back catalog of records to find a producer he liked, D.H. Arthur. A colleague named Rusty Steele had his band City Stars come and back the singer up. The A-side was a straight cover of Elton John’s “Harmony,” the B-side a moody banger from Steele’s demo tapes called “Back to the Streets.” He pressed 500 copies of the single, went door to door to record shops and radio stations but, again, never really got anywhere.

Photo Credit: Rudy Norman

Not until 30 years later in 2010 when he gets a call out of the blue from a record store in Austin, Texas. They had somehow gotten their hands on the single and loved it, but it was the B-side “Back to the Streets.” Norman was happy to sell them a portion of his collection and was intrigued by this crate-digging culture that had brought a renewed interest to his work.

He started doing his research on DJ sites like AOR Disco and shopped out the single to producers and DJs who might want to remix the track or add it to their compilations. Influential U.K. label Late Night Tales put “Back to the Streets” on a compilation, hip-hop torchbearers People Under The Stairs sampled it for their song “Talkin’ Back to the Streets” for their 2011 album Highlighter, and recently U.K. dance bandeleros Flying Mojito Bros remixed it for one of their famed refritos, licensed from Ubiquity Records.

Where it was once hard for Norman to find one DJ in his Maryland suburb that would play his music, he can now find plenty of DJs in America, the U.K. and Europe that will happily throw “Back to the Streets” on at a request. While Norman initially pushed a cover to get his recognition, it was actually his original music that the scene actually found and validated, a gratifying irony that is not lost on the singer. It was decades in the making but Rudy Norman is finally part of a scene (a global one at that) and his music is played on something far more consequential than the radio these days: the internet.

The following is a conversation with Rudy Norman. It has been edited for length and clarity.

Where did the will come to get this art out there while you were balancing everything that goes into life outside of music? 

I wanted to do something that would get me closer to being a recording artist. I was just in a part-time band, working full-time with a graphics and printing business. I wanted to do something that was more just playing cover songs. The other step was having my own business and doing it yourself. The other part-time bands I knew didn’t do something professional like that, trying to promote a record. “Harmony” was only played on WFDR and Johnny Walker was the DJ. The only reason it was played was because I went to the studio and recognized the DJ outside and showed him my record. 

The important thing about the recording was I didn’t have an agent telling me what to do. I picked the song and I went to the studio and went through some old records they had to find a producer. I fond and paid the band, I had to find the place to press the records. I did about 500 records and passed them out to record stores. I did it all myself and didn’t have someone lay out the plan for me. It was fun and after you do it the gratification, oh man! I worked at an appliance store that would put on these big shows. They played my record one time and everyone was asking me about it.

What did you want this song to be? What did you want to create? 

Funny thing is the more I listen to “Back To The Streets” the less I listen to “Harmony,” which was the whole point from the beginning. I wanted the song to be part of the FM stations, strong enough to be in the rotation. The more I hear it was on AOR Disco and DJs were using it in compilations, the stronger I feel about what I’ve done. I’ve always wanted to be a part of music scene that was beyond being played in a basement at someone’s party. I’ve heard it’s being played in dance clubs in Europe (laughs). 

I actually had mixed feelings about the track, though I loved it. It sounded different than most things I was hearing but I had a great feeling about it. The intro to that song came from the producer, that slow vibe wasn’t really how Russ originally wrote the song. We used the chorus and Fender Rhodes and put that upfront as the intro. Sometimes you have your doubts but when you find your fan base it validates how you feel about the song. It didn’t happen until years later but it validates that it was a pearl that was waiting to be discovered. 

That cover is fantastic. Who was the hero in the story you were telling yourself and who was this character that showed up on the cover of “Back to The Streets”? You look fantastic. 

I had polio when I was 10. I wore a brace on my left leg and it’s a little bit shorter than the other. I have a lift in my shoe and I use a cane. I wanted people to know that’s who I am, there’s no hero. This is me front and center. I guess I wanted to be the hero (chuckles). I asked the guy who did it, Gary Yealdhall, to put a star on it.

I know Bill Brewster from Late Night Tales was a big influence on its spread. Did you ever find out how he came upon your record in the first place?

I really don’t remember. There was another EDM duo Dagfest that put my song on there. Actually, the original remix was People Under The Stairs, who I found out about after the fact. I didn’t know anything about it until my wife’s nephew out in Colorado told me. I needed him to look over some licensing agreements and he was researching “Back to the Streets” online and found out they had a song with it on their album Highlighter. We found their information, we got to them and it was all good. They found me through this record store Friends of Sound, they used to be in Austin, Texas. I had signed something with Friends of Sound because they were going to market it. People Under The Stairs told them they wanted to use the song and he never got back to them, so they just went and used it on their album. 

What’s your hope for this song now?

It’s really great the Flying Mojito Brothers released this song. They brought “Back to the Streets” to the future and it’s such a great mix and version. I love that they used all of the lyrics and verses. I didn’t know what to expect. I want to see this stuff in a movie soundtrack. The right mainstream movie with “Back to the Streets” would be beyond the moon. I can see the Flying Mojito Brothers’ version doing a car scene with Tarantino (laughs). 

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