Interview with Jake Holmes: "Jingle Land: Be All That You Can Be," by Jon Young. Musician no. 137 (March 1990): pp. 66, 97.

Ever longed to be a pepper? Or smiled at the antics of Zack the Legomaniac? Or considered going "Skippy-dippin'"? Blame Jake Holmes, one of the top jingle writers on the advertising scene today. the man behind insidiously catchy ditties for everything from deodorant ("Raise your hand if you're Sure") to the military ("Be all that you can be..."), this New York-based composer has probably authored more "hits" than Elton John, in the process becoming the only jingle writer ever elected to the Songwriter's Hall of Fame.

The graying, fortysomething tunesmith didn't grow up wanting to be the king of tunes that drive folks crazy, of course. As a Long Island teen, John Greer [Grier] Holmes, Jr. grooved to the sounds of West Coast bebop and early rock 'n' roll while waiting for direction from the muse. "I couldn't get into being a serious musician," the low-key Holmes recalls. "I wasn't sure what I wanted to do--I just had to be a star."

By the early '60s, with the folk boom in full swing, he was singing and strumming guitar in a folk-comedy duo called Allan & Greer [Allen & Grier], which shared management with the Serendipity Singers. "We did very well at the time. Then they drafted me."

Following his discharge, Holmes resurfaced in another humor-minded music group, Jim, Jake & Joan, the Joan being Rivers. "She couldn't carry a tune, so we had trouble," he laughs. "But we played the club circuit and ended up total enemies because we'd been put together by our manager."

Holmes finally started to hit his stride as a solo artist. One of the early singer/songwriters, he cut two albums for Tower Records, then two more for Polydor. Although Jimmy Page "borrowed" his "Dazed and Confused" for the first Led Zeppelin album, Holmes had his own taste of success in 1970 when "So Close" became a minor hit single.

It turned out to be the worst twist of fate imaginable. Expecting a future Top 10 star, Clive Davis lured Holmes to Columbia with more money. But when his label debut (How Much Time) flopped, Holmes found himself out in the cold.

Pop's loss was advertising's gain. Starting with an anti-drug spot, followed by work for Dr. Pepper and Chevrolet, Holmes soon found himself a hot property instead of a failure.

If he could write a hit for Dr. Pepper, why couldn't Holmes do the same for Clive Davis? "That a good question," he says slowly. "Maybe because I took commercials less seriously. I looked upon them as a way to make money while my career was on hold."

At any rate, Holmes' knack for snappy words--he considers himself a lyricist first--and memorable melodies turned a last resort into a lucrative occupation. First with the jingle house HEA Productions, and now as a partner in his own company, Four/Four Productions, Holmes has worked steadily for nearly 20 years as a musical short-order cook, devising tunes at the behest of ad agencies and their clients.

Although the goal remains the same, he says the methods have changed. "It used to be you'd have a meeting at the piano, like on Tin Pan Alley. There'd be comments on the spot, you'd fight and yell, and then go into the studio. Nowadays competition is a lot more fierce. Because of machines, you have to do a full demo.

"The business has gotten a lot harder, a lot leaner. Everybody's running a lot more scared." Which, he might have added, can make a proven writer like Holmes pretty valuable. Laughing, he recalls composing different songs for two agencies competing for the same Pro Keds account. It's perfectly kosher, Holmes hastens to add. "There's no conflict of interest in the jingle business for writers. Besides, you have to put money down on all the numbers if you want to win." He got the job, by the way.

"If things are going good, you end up working real hard, at the expense of everything else you want to do. We call it the 'velvet trap.' But I've always kept up the other side of my music," explains Holmes. Indeed, over the years he's compiled an impressive resume. Before his recording career wound down, Holmes collaborated with veteran Bob Gaudio on two projects, contributing lyrics to the 1969 Four Seasons LP Genuine Imitation Life Gazette ("Their Sgt. Pepper") and the 1970 Frank Sinatra album Watertown ("We almost killed his career"). Since then, he's composed for a number of stage productions, including the off-Broadway musical Sidewalkin', and worked with Harry Belafonte on his Paradise in Gazankula LP.

"I've been thinking with the part of my brain that does commercials so long that I've had to go back and write in a different way to get into what really matters to me. It's the difference between painting a portrait and doing whatever you do art for. Your own parameters are very different from somebody else's." Constantly soaking up influences, Holmes says he's been drawing inspiration from all sorts of third-world music, including rai and South African, as well as (believe it or not) rap. "I love Ice-T. He's got the best rhymes. And Robbie Robertson opened my eyes to something more Faulkneresque when he did 'Crazy River,' almost a folk rap or a country rap. that's what I'm trying to find now as a writer."

Expanding extracurricular activities doesn't mean goodbye to jingles, however. Noting the need to stay one step ahead of the pack, Holmes says he's incorporating third-world strains into his commercials, including a new song for Pepsi.

"If you go into the jingle business, think of it as just one part of the musical whole. Get the widest range of education you can. Jingle writers have to be very adaptable. Billy Joel would be a great jingle writer because he can do anything. Paul McCartney would be a major jingle writer, and so would Elton John and Bernie Taupin."

He grins: "But I wouldn't want to compete with those guys, that's for sure."

Chances are they wouldn't want to compete with Jake Holmes, either.