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Singer and Songwriter Bertie Higgins Takes the RSR Readers on a Journey from Key Largo to the World of Boxing


Exclusive Interview by “Bad” Brad Berkwitt (Reposted for Archive purposes)

“Fame got a hold of him (Mike Tyson), some drugs and of course, women! We are only men, so what I can say? He may be a has been now, but at least he has been!”–Bertie Higgins

The 1980s was such an amazing era when it came to music and the videos that would accompany them.  Being able to grow up in that era that was the “Summer of my Youth,” I was blessed in my mind to have this great music that almost 30 years later, is still as loved as when it first came out.   I can remember falling in puppy love or what I thought was at least real love, in the eighth grade. On our local radio station Y100, in North Miami Beach, Florida, a song would come on and was a love song for my crush that I went to school with.  That song had a great line that went, “We had it all, just like Bogey and Bacall.”  The song was “Key Largo” and the artist whose smooth vocal that came out of the speakers was Bertie Higgins.

The track Key Largo was released on the album Just Another Day in Paradise in 1981 and hit the number #8 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, and spent 17 weeks in the Top 40.  It also went to number #1 on the Adult Contempary Charts.  Bertie Higgins became a household name that year and seemed to be on every show in the US and many around the world performing the song he will forever be linked to and in this exclusive interview, he is very proud of that fact.

The hit song Key Largo has allowed Higgins to travel the world and see things that he is still in awe about and with a deep passion, he wants to impart his wisdom onto a younger generation of musicians. In the music world today, there is a lack of great songs in this interviewer’s opinion for the most part, and Higgins is a welcomed voice.

You will hear Bertie in his own words talk about his journey into the musical world,  brush with fame, being a truly a proud Papa, and from there, he breaks out the boxing gloves and talks about boxing, a sport he truly loves….

Ladies and Gentlemen, RSR brings you in his own words, Bertie Higgins…

BB:  You just came back from a gig in Las Vegas this past weekend. How did that go?  Also, let’s catch up the RSR readers on what you have been up to recently.

The gig was at a place called “Texas Station Casino” and went really well.  We are almost finished with a new CD for Toucan Cove and distrubuted by Universal. In addition, we just finished our second feature film called “Poker Run” and we are considering starting another one. We have been playing around the world recently and really enjoying it.  During the last year, we came off the road to finish Poker Run which screened at the Cannes Film Festival back in May. It did well and is being repersented by a company out of Toronto, Canada called “Cinema Vault.”

BB:  Growing up in Tarpon Springs, Florida, do you think that molded the type of music you have done over the years?

Damn if I know!  I actually think all creative things come down through the gene pool.  My Great-Great Grandfather was Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the German poet who penned “Faust” and my Grandfather was a painter, Grandmother was a piano player and my Aunt was a Tin Pan Alley songwriter…so I guess it all kind of came together.

During my time in Tarpon, I was always interested in theatrical things at around twelve years old and started out as a drummer. For a period, I played drums for Tommy Roe (Had hits with the songs Sheila and Dizzy).  From there, I picked up an acoustic guitar and started writing songs.  There were not a lot of opportunities in Tarpon Springs in show business growing up.  Nobody really cared what you did or put pressure on you to go to college.

I really knew that music was going to have to be it for me and there was nothing I could do to get away from it because it was all over me.  It really was a very interesting time in my life after a few years of college and also serving a couple of years in the Army along with getting married at the age of twenty-three.

BB:  What did you do in the Army?

I was in Supply and did about six years between serving on Active Duty and the Reserves.

BB: Doing research for our interview, you have been put in the company of legendary Jimmy Buffett who has also done well for himself over the years. Do you agree with that assessment and where do you see the simlarities between your music?

I don’t agree that Jimmy and I are doing the same type of music, but I guess folks think that because we sing about tropical things in our music.  The only thing we would share is that we are both song writers.

BB:  Watching a lot of your videos of yours on Youtube.com and seeing your fun personality come out, I am surpised you were not offered a Variety Show.  Why do you think you never got the call?

No I was never offered a shot at one. That type of stuff really is right place, right time.  I probably shouldn’t have moved back to Florida when I hit with the first project and should have went to Los Angeles, California.  I look at my career and tell young people trying to break in to to the music business and ask them, where are you at? They may say Topeka, Kansas and I say: “Get the hell out of there.”

Of course get your musical chops up wherever you may be, but you have to move a market where this an opportunity to have someone walk in and take a look at you.  It’s like you can’t be a Sponge Diver and live in Kansas because there are no sponges there.  (Bertie was actually a Sponge Diver in Tarpon Springs many years ago).

My plunge was Atlanta, Georgia, where I had connections from my Tommy Roe days and that kind of helped.  I was in Atlanta about eighteen months and had the number one song in the nation which was an amazing thing to me and the local musicians were like: “Where the hell did this guy come from?”  I was more than ready when I hit and probably should have gone five years early.

Management is so critical to any artist and I am sure you would agree that it’s the same for a boxer.  Without decent management, you really can’t do much.  Finding good management is very hard because there are so many ripoff artists or folks who claim they have this or that going, but have nothing at all. The critical thing in management is who you know.  I think looking back that is maybe what happened to me on the Variety Show thing.  Along with some other factors, but with all that said, I have had a good time and seen a lot of things that I have been able to do because of the opportunities that came from performing my music.

BB:  Who are some of the singers that inspired you when you were growing up?

Johnny Mathis really blew me away. He had a lot of passion when he sang.  I also really like Julio Iglesias who, when he sings, you know he means it from the heart.

BB:  What do you enjoy better the singing or songwriting part of the music business?

I am not sure I enjoy any of it anymore.  I don’t mean that in a detrimental sort of way, but it’s all hard work.  About three years ago, I fell into the film thing with my son Julian who is a film graduate and one of the reasons I came to LA to get him through school and to work with him some.  We kind of teamed up on the first two movies we did and I think did something interesting. That’s from the writing of the screenplay to the production of the movie, directing and everything that follows suit. I even took a role in both of the films.

BB: In 1981, you recorded a smash song that appeared on the album Just Another Day in Paradise and has kept you on the airwaves and in fans hearts for 26 years now. That song was “Key Largo,” which had the great line: “We had it all just like Bogey and Bacall.”  What was your gut feeling when you laid down that track and the story about this great song?

I really had no clue. Well, OK, I had a little clue.  Key Largo was very interestingly recorded.  We were playing in a little bar in Augusta, Georgia, called “Smokeys,” and it truly was a gun and knife club where you had blood on the floor from a fight the night before.  I had written Key Largo, but at that time, it was a combination of two songs from real life that happened to me.  My Producer at the time Sonny Limbo who was working with me, gave me one line, “Here’s looking at you kid” which I didn’t have in the song and we were playing this club which we had to play five times a night.

I thought I had something with this song and went to the club owners and asked them to invest $2000.00 to get it recorded on pure speculation and they wouldn’t do it.  I literally borrowed $700.00 from my Mother and took my road band into the studio in Atlanta and cut Key Largo.  Now funny thing, it was not cut in one session, but over two or three months.  The studio would call and say: “Hey man, we have a cancellation, get your guitar player in here for a couple of hours.”

So with all of that, it really became a serious effort.  Then from there, the Publisher of the song Bill Lowery had us cut it in his studio called Southern Tracks in Atlanta which is a great place. The only thing on the track that was not performed by my road band was the four piece string section from the Atlanta Pops Orchestra.   Then the label Katz Family Records owned by Joel Katz out of Atlanta who had a distribution deal with Sony and they turned it down four times.

They even offered me $10,000 dollars to buy it for I think BJ Thomas to record and I turned them down.  And keep in mind that I was starving to death at that time.  I eventually beat him (Joel) up enough that he put out about five-thousand copies to radio and it exploded.  You really just don’t know man.  You try to dial in and get in front of a live audience and see if they like it which really is my only gauge.

BB:  With you singing Key Largo and your line “We had it all, just like Bogey and Bacall” (Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall who were married) and also the song you did called “Casablanca,” I am going to assume that you like Bogart a lot?

I absolutely loved Bogart and thought he was a tremendous actor.  And to add on, I loved Bogart’s love story with Bacall.

BB:  With Lauren Bacall still being alive, (Humphrey Bogart died of Throat Cancer in 1957 at age 58) has she ever heard you perform the song or have you met her where she talked about it?

I never ran into her in person, but years ago, she was on Broadway appearing in Woman of the Year, I think, and I sent her roses when Key Largo was a top ten hit.

BB:  Have you ever done any covers of a song that was made famous by another artist that you also recorded?

Actually on the new album, I did some covers “Stir it Up” by Bob Marley, “Brown Eyed Girl” by Van Morrison and “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” by Roberta Flack, who I did a concert up in Montreal with her a few months back.

We also did a new version of Key Largo to celebrate the 26th year anniversary of its release and I thought it was really interesting that the girl who just did it with me as a duet which we just finished man, was the original girl who sang the answer part on the original recording of the song.  Her name is Cheryl Wilson and she is one of the top jingle singers in the world today.  We paid her fifty dollars to do the little answer thing and at that time…it was her very first time in a studio. I called her and asked her to do the duet with me for the new version of Key Largo and it really turned out terrific.

BB: Since you just covered Key Largo again, how would you compare your voice from the 1981 version to the new one in 2008?

I think it has gotten a little lower and I can’t hit some of those screamingly high notes I hit 15 years ago. But you know what?  I think in some ways, it’s mellower and I sing with more confidence today. I can recall singing Key Largo at least 50 times in the studio before I would accept a take.  Today, if I don’t nail it in three of four takes, I will just walk out.

When you sing in the studio, it’s a combination of musical accuracy and emotion.  You must emote behind the words and live these lyrics as you do in the studio.  If you do it too many times in the studio, you lose the feeling in my opinion.

BB: I recently did an interview with another gentleman in your business named Gregory Abbott who had a hit song with “Shake You Down.”  During that interview, I asked him about the affect of MTV had on his music which you even more so than him, came at the very start of.  Do you think that really helped you achieve the success for Key Largo and how fun was it making your video?

I actually have an interesting story about that.  VH1 actually launched Key Largo.  MTV was more of the rock wing videos and VH1 was more of the adult contemporary videos. Scott Shannon who was becoming a major player in radio in Secaucus, New Jersey and New York was in Tampa Bay at a station that would not play Key Largo. These P1 stations as they call them are afraid to go out of the box and play something that is say built up from the secondary markets and brought into the big city. Today, a lot of radio consultants are doing programming now, but back then, a lot of independent or groups of radio stations owned corporately had their own Program Director within the confines of their local station as it was in Tampa. Scott wouldn’t play it, but here is what happened.

Andy Warhol’s (American artist and a central figure in the movement known as Pop Art and coined the pharse “15 minutes of fame”) director came down to Tarpon Springs and directed the video for Key Largo. We shot it on 35 MM film against an advance on the royalties of the song and I think it cost us about $35,000 which was fronted by CBS Records.

At that time, VH1 didn’t even exist and I couldn’t figure out at the time, why we were doing a video?  We shot it as I said in Tarpon Springs and till this day, I get a lot of questions about the girl in the video.  The director actually went over to Tarpon Springs High School and pulled her out of the Senior Class.

So we shot the video.  Scott Shannon and I actually became friends.  I had a boat at the time and Scott, another DJ and I went out and had a few boat drinks and had a party.  When we came back to my house, I gave Scott a three –quarter copy of the Key Largo video as a gift.

About three months later, to my surprise, Shannon is now a VJ at VH1 and one of the very first ones there.  They had no programming to speak of and he actually rolled the video of Key Largo at least eight times a day which really drove it home to become a hit.

It really did make the song become a bigger hit and today, it is well into the eight to ten million range in airplays.

BB:  How do you feel the music industry has changed since you first came into it?

Same old shit…  What’s really changed is the retail market place which really has hit record companies down low.  Record companies for years feasted, but now it kind of like a famine for them because they cannot sell product like they used to, with a lot of illegal downloads and you can’t stop them.  I think that it’s going to hurt a lot of artists financially. It may deter folks from wanting to get into the business because the money isn’t what it once was.  I really think it all relies on the song man because I am a song guy.  You just cannot put out a bunch of crap and think it will get airplay and then sell even though I think we both agree, there is a lot of crap out there today.  Honestly, throughout the many years music has been around, you will always have crap out there along with the great stuff.

I think personally that the American Song Book is dead!  You just don’t have those monster hit songs around today, but occasionally you have a song like John Mayer did called “Daughters” which is just great.  It stands above the crowd and will cross all genres of people.  Twenty years ago or more, you had a lot of these songs which I call the American Song Book. But today, you have less and less radio programming that cater to that adult contemporary music.

I think the future of the music industry is in downloading and live performances if you can get them.

BB: Do you have funny stories during your musical career that you can share with the RSR readers?

The most funny to me and embarrassing story is this one… I was on cruise ship with Jerry Lewis shooting a remote for the MDA Telethon a few years back.  We did a show that I think is on a clip somewhere on the internet. I was sleeping in my cabin with my wife and two children.  I started sleepwalking (Laughs) in just a T-shirt and underwear, opened my door, and started down the hall.  Keep in mind, all of the cabins had doors that had card locks on them.  There was one door that was ajar and I went it in it.  Of course, I am sleepwalking and have no clue this is going on, and proceed to get into bed.  The next thing I know, I wake up the next morning and there is an older African American man and his wife who sees me in bed with them and they start screaming at me.  I wake up and start screaming at them.

Security wound up coming up and I am standing in the hall in my underwear.  The old man says to me, you know it’s about two in the morning I am laying in my bed asleep and hear someone open the bathroom door and I check to find my wife beside me while I hear someone pee in the bathroom, then come and get in bed with me which I found really interesting!

For the rest of the cruise, we became the best of friends….. (Big laugh)

BB:  Recently along with your son Julian, you have written and also acted in two movies called “The Wrath” and “Poker Run.” Talk about how it was working with him.

Actually, if I could, let me talk about all my children.  My oldest son Damian is a DJ who goes by the name “Diesel Boy” who is one of the top three rave DJ’s in the world today.  He is doing extremely well traveling all around the world doing his stuff.  He was a graduate of the University of Pittsburgh and went right into music. Julian is my next oldest, and my daughter Kim works for Southwest Airlines, thank God!

Julian is a very talented Writer/Director for someone who is just 24. I have watched him direct these films and of course, we butt heads a lot.  I am pretty hard headed about the creative process just like he is.  Then my youngest Aaron just turned 21, and he is a drummer who has been in and out of bands who I am trying now to encourage him to stay with it, so I can get him a deal going while I still can.  Those are my children.  Julian and I are finishing up work on Poker Run as we speak and have a deadline coming up very soon to get all the extra stuff done.  One other note about my son Aaron, he designs all my CD jackets in my studio.

BB:  What are your words of wisdom to the young man or woman who is aspiring to be a singer or a songwriter?

First off, never accept the word “NO” from anyone…the hell with them! If this is something you really want and are willing to sacrifice and you must for this profession, then you must go for it. If it’s something you are just given, you will piss it away. The other thing you must know in your heart and soul is that you have talent and are really able to sing with something different to offer.

Songwriting is a craft that you have to work on. You must listen to what is out there and the structure of the song to include the time and stuff like that.  Environment is very important as well.  Young singers or bands, with guys or gals around twenty-two, get comfortable in a local band when they get a little following, but unless you are in a town that can break it for you, then you have to move to somewhere that will break it for you and that takes a big set of balls sometimes to do it. When you make the move, surround yourself with people of the same feather that are struggling like you and you can feed off creatively.  I really feel like in boxing, you must have good people around you.

BB:  Do you get into politics at all? If so, what do you think of the Presidential race this year?

Let’s put it this way….  I have done a lot of charitable events over the years as freebies, but it seems when politics got involved in them, things got a little crazy.

Where did all the money go?  Currently, I am a little bit disappointed in Barack Obama’s choice for Vice President when he picked Joe Biden.

I thought Hillary Clinton would be more of an electable team with him and I really believe that. Now, I think Obama’s win is in question.  I think John McCain could make it in and it worries me because he seems to want to perpetuate the war in Iraq.  He appears to have a lot of the same goals as George W. Bush has had which worries me because it’s killing us financially and emotionally.  And you know what?  We talk about the 4000 plus military members who are dying over there and that is horrible in itself, but how about Mothers and Fathers over in Iraq who have lost children who have just been blown up. I think about them as well because they are people too.

In my mind, I think good politicians enter into the world of politics with the best of intentions, but then get into the circle of it. From there they say: “Oh my God, this is going to really be hard to do.” Every turn they make to pass a bill or legislation, they are opposed at every single turn.  My hat is off to them for getting into a very hard profession.

BB: What are some things you can share with the RSR readers that the public doesn’t really know about you?

I really believe in positive thinking and have always felt, if you can see it, you can be it.  Never accept no because that means maybe and maybe means you’re dam right!

BB: Let’s now talk about boxing.  How long have you followed the sport?

I have followed it for at least 30 years. Going back to Muhammad Ali of course and to be honest, I loved his show business side even more so than the boxing.  I thought he was a cute guy who just gave boxing a great look.  Just this last week, I was with Bob Halloran who is the Head of sports for all MGM properties.  That means all the big boxing matches you see on HBO or other places are his doing.  We always talk boxing when we are together in Las Vegas. I always loved Roberto Duran!  In fact, with my beard, they used to call me “Elberto Duran.”

BB:  Who are top three favorite fighters of all-time and why?

As I said in the last question, Roberto Duran is number one. He was a monster in the ring.  He could box and really take a punch. He reminds me of the actor Benico Del Toro, whose always so damn serious in his acting roles like Duran was in the ring.  He was just a tough guy.

Muhammad Ali is another. I loved as I said his showman side, but he could box and make a fight a true event.

Finally, John L. Sullivan from everything I read on him sounded really tough and, just think, he fought bare fisted.  He was a bad man.

BB:  If you had to pick one fighter since the day you started following boxing who you feel moved the sport ahead the most, who would that be and why?

It would have to be Muhammad Ali.  He came out of the 1960 Olympics as a Gold Medal winner and had a really nice clean attitude.  I don’t feel that is a huge secret. He brought it into the limelight where it should have been.  He made some young men want to become boxers based on what they saw him achieve and do.

BB: Is there one boxing match in all your years of following in that you would say that was the single most exciting fight I have ever watched?

I would go with the “Rumble in the Jungle” back in October of 1974 when Muhammad Ali faced then Heavyweight Champion George Foreman. It was a great fight with Ali doing what so many thought was impossible when he won by knocking out Foreman.

BB: Who are some of the fighters you follow today?

I follow Oscar De La Hoya today and kind of drifted away from boxing the last four or five years, but really want to get back into it. My cousin Edward who passed away about three years ago and played congos with me on Key Largo was my inspiration to hang in there with boxing because there was no bigger fan then he was.  We both loved Roberto Duran.

BB:  Do you feel the sport of boxing has moved ahead or backwards since you first started following it?

Unfortunately right now, I think it’s kind of at a stand still. I have watched it surge up and down for many years.  It’s really is a great sport and an athletic sport for what these guys go through taking punishment up to twelve rounds is just amazing.  We really need a new star to carry the sport as Muhammad Ali or more recently, Mike Tyson did.  Who is it going to be is the big question?

BB: It seems when I do these types of interviews Mike Tyson always comes up.  What do you think of him and what do you think happened to him?

When Mike came into the sport, he was a humble man who came in the ring with no shirt or socks on just like fighters from the old days.  He had every opportunity to become “that guy” and for a moment he was.  Fame got a hold of him, some drugs and of course, women!  We are only men, so what I can say?  He may be a has been now, but at least he has been!

BB:  What is your favorite boxing movie of all-time and why?

I really dug Cinderella Man with Russell Crowe. It ended great and was just a great story.

BB: If you could change one thing in boxing today, what would you change and why?

Honestly, there is nothing about the sport I would change, but what is bothering me is we used to have this monster boxing matches which garnered a lot of attention even with people who didn’t follow the sport.  There were so many big boxing matches in Vegas over the years that I saw and loved.  We need better promotion in boxing, so there is the thing I would change.

BB:  Do you favor a mandatory retirement fund for all boxers and if so, how would you like to see it accomplished?

The problem with boxing is it’s an individual sport and the other sports that have a retirement fund, are team sports.  I think the boxing commission should put the boxing fund into place.  It’s sad to see many fighters we both loved and watched in such bad shape both financially and physically today.  So yes, I would fully support a retirement fund.  How do you make it work? What do you think? Do you feel it will ever come to pass?

I think the commissions are corrupt so it would have to be an outside organization that monitors the money going into it.   Many people say it needs to be regulated by the Government, but I think a reputable outside group that manages retirement funds could do it.  All boxers would pay into it and of course the bigger fighters would have to pay more based on the large amounts of money they are making.  I can tell you that for ten years now, I have been vocal about it and asked anyone I have interviewed and I have brought it up on TV along with radio I have done as well.  In my heart, I want it to finally be implemented, but the boxers have to also realize how important it really is and get behind it.

BB:  Finally, what is the saying you live your life by?

Wow, these are questions I have never been asked before… The saying would be: “Never Quit.”  When I die, I will slide 50 feet because I will be running.

Bertie welcomes all of the RSR readers to visit his site

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