Today we remember a “one hit wonder” who was well on his way to becoming a rare EGOT Winner – that’s Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony, an accomplishment only about 20 people, like Barbra Streisand and Cher, have ever pulled off. But perhaps Adam Schlesinger might have too had he lived longer – he was already halfway there and had nominations for all four categories. The guy from Fountains of Wayne died two years ago today, one of the first high-profile deaths from Covid.
Although most music fans only knew Schlesinger from the early-2000s alt rock group Fountains of Wayne, if they knew him at all, there was a lot more to his multi-faceted career than that. He was a producer, songwriter and a major player in creating music for movies and TV.
Adam grew up in a musical but fairly strict Jewish family near New York City. Although he learned to play a wide range of instruments, including guitar, piano and drums, he went to college and got a philosophy degree. Around that time he formed a band called Ivy, which didn’t achieve a great deal of recognition, then Fountains of Wayne. They took their name from a lawn ornament store they saw in New Jersey. That band started with just him and school friend Chris Collingwood, but after they put out a demo and got signed to Atlantic Records, they added Pixies drummer Brian Young and a second guitarist, Jody Ponder; Schlesinger typically played bass and keyboards and was the lead vocalist as well as producer and writer, sometimes sharing those jobs with Collingwood. Allmusic describe them as “one of America’s strongest power pop acts” putting out “British-influenced pop songs, lo-fi production and wry lyrics.” Be that as it may, their first two albums did next to nothing and Atlantic dropped them around the millennium. Their third album, 2003’s Welcome Interstate Managers, on the new and small S-Curve label would have likely met the same fate were it not for one song…and the fact that Sports Illustrated swimsuit model Rachel Hunter was, well let’s be honest, pretty good-looking. The song was the Cars-like “Stacy’s Mom”, a fun ditty about a teenage lad being rather, umm, attracted to his buddy’s mother. Ms. Hunter got the role of Stacy’s mom in the video which helped the song take off. It hit #21 at home and was all over alt rock radio that year, and earned them both a gold single and a Grammy nomination in the pop category. Brits liked it even more, with it going platinum there and peaking at #11. The Fountains kept going for another decade but never had anything resembling that level of success again and broke up in 2013.
But Schlesinger’s never been one to do nothing, with or without a band. In the pop or rock field, he was friends with James Iha of Smashing Pumpkins (who helped out on Welcome Interstate Managers) and formed a short-lived band with him called Tinted Windows. An interesting lineup it had, those two plus former Cheap Trick drummer Bun E. Carlos and one of the Hanson brothers! He’s written songs for artists ranging from the Monkees in their reunion phase to Bowling For Soup, and Katy Perry covered one of his songs (“Hackensack”). In the studio, he produced records for the Monkees, Verve Pipe, Fastball and others. But his greatest success, and it would seem, career love, was making music for screens and stages.
Schlesinger got into movie work in the ’90s and carried on with that for most of the rest of his life, creating music for films including Shallow Hal, Because of Winn Dixie (he and Iha did one song themselves from that, “Splish Splash”), Ice Age and most significantly, the Tom Hanks movie That Thing That You Do. He wrote and produced the title track for that one, being nominated for an Academy Award as a result.
He wrote for the Stage as well, co-writing the music for the Broadway musical Cry Baby (which got him Tony nominations) and was in the middle of writing a musical adaptation of the old TV sitcom The Nanny when he passed away. His Broadway connections got him the opportunity to create music for the 65th and 66th Tony Awards, and ironically that won him an Emmy Awards for Outstanding Music both years. Besides those he did music for TV shows as varied as Sesame Street to Stephen King’s Kingdom Hospital. He eventually won a Grammy for doing the music and subsequent album for a Stephen Colbert TV special.
Schlesinger was divorced but left behind two daughters when he passed away at just 52 years of age, after spending a week on a ventilator only weeks after Covid first showed up in North America. There was an outpouring of love and grief upon his death, as much from the acting community as the music one. Hugh Grant called him “a bona fide genius and a lovely person,” while Fran Drescher noted how he’d been working on a stage adaptation of her old TV show and said she was “devastated. My prayers are for you.” Stephen Colbert remembered Adam as “a great and patient and talented artist with whom it was my good luck to work.” Meanwhile, Jon Bon Jovi noted “you’re never just a kid from somewhere when you’re a kid from New Jersey. The music world lost a good one.” As did the movie, theater and TV ones … and apparently the rest of it as well.