When a musician has been touring as long as John Waite has, individual shows and cities have a way of blurring together.
The solo artist and former lead singer of The Babys and Bad English had no trouble remembering one of his first appearances in the Mahoning Valley, playing Dec. 8, 1980, at the Youngstown Agora. Not only was it the night John Lennon was murdered, it was one of The Babys’ last performances.
“We’d just finished. The last song was probably ‘Back on My Feet Again’ or it could have been ‘Midnight Rendezvous,’” Waite said during a telephone interview in advance of his show tonight at the Robins Theatre. “I came off and one of the roadies said, ‘John Lennon’s been shot dead.’ It was one of those moments that was just completely surreal. ‘You’re kidding. I don’t believe you.’
“The audience was going bananas and wanted an encore. Anybody who was there at that point, it was disbelief, although I did believe the roadie when he said, ‘I’m not kidding.’ So we went back out and did ‘Drive My Car.’ I don’t know why we knew that song. We hadn’t rehearsed it, but we did the Beatles song and that was that … It was devastating to me. It really moved me.”
The next night in Cincinnati, an overzealous fan grabbed at Waite and he injured his knee. He tried to perform the following night in Akron, but the show was cut short and the rest of the tour was canceled.
During that break, keyboard player Jonathan Cain left the group to join Journey, and Waite decided to go solo.
That solo career spawned the No. 1 single “Missing You” along with radio hits like “Change” and “Every Step of the Way.” He had another chart-topping single with Bad English (“When I See You Smile”).
The Babys’ “Isn’t It Time” and “Every Time I Think of You” both peaked at 13 on the Billboard Hot 100, giving him radio hits with three different acts.
Those peaks and valleys between them are chronicled in the documentary “John Waite: The Hard Way,” which was released last year.
Waite said the documentary came about after talking to Scott Wright, who had worked for Epic Records and now is in the winemaking business.
He’d reached out to Wright because he knew Wright lived in Portland, Oregon, which had been in the news because of Black Lives Matter protests there.
As they caught each other up on their lives and careers, Wright told him, “Wow, what a life. That would make a great movie.” It didn’t take long for Wright, who co-wrote and co-produced the film, to line up financing.
The film was co-written and directed by Mike J. Nichols, who also directed the documentaries “Zappa,” about Frank Zappa, and “Echo in the Canyon,” which focused on the music history of California’s Laurel Canyon neighborhood.
Development started before the pandemic, but the interviews were filmed during the lockdown.
“It added some darkness to it, because it was a weird time,” Waite said.
But there was plenty of darkness in the story that had nothing to do with a virus.
The Babys had radio hits and made multiple television appearances, but the musicians saw little financial return for their efforts.
The band never got out of debt from its label, Chrysalis Records, and Waite also signed away his publishing rights to the songs he wrote in order to get more tour support for the band.
“That’s how the business was run,” Waite said. “Most of the bands that were out there touring in the ’70s, they’re working at the A&P now. Make no mistake about it, it’s a glorious couple of months and then back in the fold,” he said.
“I learned the hard way about how the business was run. I was tossed on the scrap heap, but I just got up and walked off it. When I finally got to EMI, I had ‘Missing You’ and everything changed. From that point on, there was money coming in, but the first 12 years were pretty rough,” he said.
One benefit of the documentary is that it’s increased interest in the live show.
“On the back of the documentary, we seem to be in serious demand,” Waite said.
“We have a new agency. We did a major tour last year, and we’re doing a major tour next year. We’re playing just about every place we can … I suppose when you get older, you have one eye on the clock and one eye on what you can do. The idea now is to keep playing and don’t ask questions, just enjoy it, because life is brief.”
If you go …
WHO: John Waite and Pat McGee Duo
WHEN: 8 p.m. today
WHERE: Robins Theatre, 160 E. Market St., Warren
HOW MUCH: Tickets range from $40 to $50 and are available at the Robins box office and online at robinstheatre.com.