Michael Bolton: The Soul of It All

It was a packed Zoom on Friday, October 2, when USC’s Founder of the Contemporary Music Program, Chris Sampson, hosted the first virtual USC Master Session with special guest, songwriter, producer, artist and 1995 Songwriters Hall of Fame Hitmaker Award honoree Michael Bolton.

Sampson introduced SHOF Board Member and West Coast Committee chair Mary Jo Mennella, who said this was the eighth year of the SHOF collaboration with USC and Chris, and that these sessions are “food for the soul.” She mentioned that the first SHOF / USC Thornton School of Music Scholarship had been given out this year, beginning a new annual tradition. She thanked SHOF West Coast Events Director Barbara Cane, who had secured Michael Bolton for this Master Session.

Sampson then introduced guest Michael Bolton, a songwriter, record producer and artist whose career has spanned four decades, garnering two GRAMMYs and six American Music Awards, among many other accolades, with his extensive list of hit songs, the likes of “Time, Love And Tenderness,” "How Am I Supposed to Live Without You," "I Found Someone," "Go the Distance," "Love Is A Wonderful Thing," "Forever Isn't Long Enough," "Now That I've Found You," "We're Not Makin' Love Anymore" and "Steel Bars." His hits have sold 75 million records worldwide, and he has performed with artists like Lucia Aliberti, Patti LaBelle, José Carreras, Tony Cetinski, Ray Charles, Celine Dion, Plácido Domingo, Renée Fleming, Wynonna Judd, BB King, The Lonely Island, Luciano Pavarotti, Percy Sledge, and Zucchero, among many more. He is also known for his Michael Bolton Charities work, assisting at-risk women and children for many years, and in 2013 he penned his biography called The Soul of it All.

Sampson remarked that Bolton grew up in the culturally dynamic era of music making, and Bolton said one of his early influences was the Woodstock experience, and that “every stage was just another stage of learning.” He said there have been exciting beginnings and endings leading to his success, "I freakin' earned it."

He said making money in the early years was based on playing in clubs and throwing in some of his own originals. "It was a rite of passage in making the climb. Success is very rarely overnight...more common now with streaming. You get beaten down to an extent, and it taught me to have guarded optimism. Guard your heart, otherwise you'll have it broken time and time again."

Sampson said, “It's important for students to hear that it doesn't happen overnight."

Bolton was able to expand his opportunities by singing jingles and commercials. When his song "That's What Love Is All About" came on the radio bookended by two jingles he had also sung, he felt his dream was finally being realized. Everything changed when he had his first hit, and it grew exponentially with subsequent hits.

He said, “If you write with great people, you'll become a better writer," and through songwriting, he met his inspirations in the forms of different artists. Being acknowledged by artists was like "little glasses of water out in the desert that you can sip on."

Sampson said, “Your charity work is an incredible example for the students - what is the drive and motivation for you?” Bolton answered, “The power of music for at-risk students is undeniable. They light up when the music starts and they look forward to coming back to school.”

Bolton went on to share many of his experiences writing with other iconic songwriters the likes of Bob Dylan, and said "I’m like the Forest Gump of songwriting,” and “Experience as a songwriter gives you the reverence for the artists. The song is the thing and how it connects to your artistry. Dare to suck. You have to be fearless and brutally honest if your song is to be the best it can be.”

In closing the Session, students Sophia Dion, Eli Bramnick and Dominic Anzalone performed an incredibly heartfelt and soulful rendition of the Otis Redding classic "(Sittin' On) the Dock of the Bay," which was one of Bolton’s first major hits in 1987.

In addition to SHOF Board Member and West Coast Committee Chair Mary Jo Mennella and West Coast SHOF Events Director Barbara Cane, in attendance at the Master Session were Songwriters Hall of Fame Senior Vice President Mike O’Neill, SHOF Board Member Jody Klein, Marketing /Communications Director April Anderson and SHOF West Coast Committee Members Joel Flatow, Michael Pizzuto and Kathy Spanberger.

The SHOF/USC Master Sessions have hosted events featuring David Foster, Billy Steinberg, Benny Blanco, Graham Nash, Donovan and Ralph Peer, Bill Withers, Linda Perry, Desmond Child, Lamont Dozier, Dan Reynolds and Evan Lamberg, Carole Bayer Sager, Irving Burgie, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, Paul Williams, Steve Dorff, Jason Mraz, Allee Willis and Jackie DeShannon.