A smiling Corey Hart approaches a couple of music writers waiting to chat with him. “Which one of you is the most acerbic?” he asks, shaking our hands extra firmly. When the record label publicist with him points to the other guy, Hart and that journalist repair to another room for their interview. Alone with the publicist, I mention Hart’s vice-like handshake. “I taught him that,” he says. He’s joking, but then he talks about the time he took Ron Sexsmith across Canada for the singer-songwriter’s first big promotional tour. “I told Ron he needed to tighten his grip,” the veteran flack says. “His limp handshake was weirding everybody out.”
Yes, we’re into Juno season. The stars come out and so do the stories. Hart, the blue-eyed Montrealer who had international hits in the 1980s and who challenged conventional practices when it came to wearing sunglasses, will be on hand at this year’s Juno Awards on March 17 at Budweiser Gardens in London, Ont. There, he’ll take his place in the Canadian Music Hall of Fame and give a live performance.
If you think Hart’s induction into the Hall of Fame in 2019 is random – why now? – your naïveté is adorable. Hart has a new five-song EP, Dreaming Time Again, coming out on May 3. He’ll support his first new music in 20 years with a nationwide Never Surrender tour that begins in St. John’s on May 31 and ends at Vancouver’s Rogers Arena three weeks later. The tour and EP represent a re-emergence for Hart, who has produced records for others but done little in the way of recording and performing himself since retreating from the hit-chasing racket in 1998.
The Hall of Fame induction and Hart’s return to the music wars is no coincidence. But that’s the music business, and nobody worked it harder than Hart, a beautiful brooder who wore his heart on his sleeve and charmed the youngest MTV generation. Starting with Sunglasses at Night and Never Surrender in 1984 and ending with A Little Love in 1990, Hart scored nine top-40 hits in the United States. For him, pop-music success meant American pop-music success – a goal he chased relentlessly.
“I grew up listening to Casey Kasem’s American Top 40,” Hart says, sitting across from me in a hotel ballroom, referring to a popular syndicated radio countdown show from the past. “That was my religion, my church-going on weekends. I’d memorize that list. I’d read Billboard magazine. That was my dream, to sing and write songs and be there on that countdown.”
Outside of Quebec, which had (and has) its own ecosystem, made-in-Canada stars were the exceptions, not the rule. “When a Canadian artist did not have an American deal, it was tough,” says Hart, fit and full of earnest arm tattoos at 56. “My goal was beyond Canada.”
Hart admits some of his earliest songs were “puerile and juvenile.” Raised by a single mother, the songs he wrote by the hundreds as a teen were often emotional reactions to the way a husband had wrongly treated a wife. The song The World Is Fire (off Hart’s debut album First Offense, dedicated to his mother, Mindy) was about the cheating and duplicity he witnessed both at home and within the record industry. With no girlfriend of his own, Hart wrote about young romances he could only envision. The song She Got the Radio is about a breakup that ends with the girl getting custody of the wireless. “Not having a radio was the worst thing I could imagine,” says Hart, now the father of four mostly grown children.
Blessed with natural good looks and a talent for pop hooks, Hart left nothing to chance and left no record-industry contact unturned. As a teen, he worked with Paul Anka. In 1980, as an unsigned artist, he had his manager send a tape of his songs to the World Popular Song Festival in Tokyo. He was chosen to represent Canada at the international competition with Dan Hill, and, wait a minute, how did a nobody with no record deal such as Hart get invited to an event with stars such as Hill, Christopher Cross and the pina colada enthusiast Rupert Holmes? “Well, on my application, we kind of inferred I was signed to a label,” Hart explains, not at all sheepishly.
Hart didn’t win the competition, but he did meet Cross. The Sailing-singing superstar was encouraging, to the point of inviting the complete unknown to his home in Texas only out of politeness, never dreaming Hart would take him up on the offer. The first thing Hart did when he got back to Montreal, though, was to ask his mother for a plane ticket to Austin. Once there, after tracking down Cross’s manager, he managed to hang out with a shocked Cross and his band and even audition his music for the soon-to-be Grammy-winning artist. “I ambushed him, basically,” Hart says.
While playing his songs in the studio, Hart saw Cross in the control room enthusiastically speaking with the recording engineer. “He seemed to be excited about what I was playing,” Hart recalls. After Cross wished the upstart songster well with his career and departed, Hart asked the engineer if Cross had liked what he was hearing. Turns out the sound in the control room was turned down; Cross and the engineer were talking about the football game or something else. “I was devastated,” Hart says.
Devastated but not deterred. A meeting with Billy Joel led to a record deal with Montreal’s Aquarius Records. Hart’s debut album First Offense was released on EMI in the United States in 1983. Two years later, while headlining a show in Austin, Hart received a letter of congratulations and a bottle of Champagne from Cross. “It was a pretty classy thing to do," Hart says. “I couldn’t believe he remembered me.”
It’s the record business. Nobody forgets anything.