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In the Spotlight

By Edwin Miller, taken from Seventeen magazine, May 1986

When Richard Page was a teenager in Phoenix, Arizona, having the time of his life in a hometown band, he thought he had it made. That was light-years before he became Mr. Mister’s lead vocalist and bassist. At the urging of a friend of Page’s who ran a local music store, an arranger from the west coast flew in to hear the group. Even though fourteen years have passed, the arranger’s words remain etched in Page’s memory. “He said, ‘I’m going to pay your way to Los Angeles!’ I’m eighteen, I think, ‘Great! I’ll have my first record deal. Next year, I’ll be making a hundred million dollars!’” There’s an ironic look in his bright blue eyes as he pauses to swallow a forkful of eggs between sips of orange juice in a New York hotel’s coffee shop. “He paid our rent for two months—and then we never heard from him again. That was the first slap in the face as to the reality of the business.”

 

Mr. Mister is soaring high in rock heaven, thanks to Welcome to the Real World, the band’s triumphant RCA album. But not long before the album took deejays by the ears, Page found himself only a tweeter note away from that black hole of music—sudden oblivion. In the music biz, it’s fearfully know as Being Dropped From The Charts—the result of record sales too low to be listed in trade papers.

 

“We had four albums that really flopped,” says Page, who with keyboard player and vocalist Steve George formed both Mr. Mister and its predecessor, Pages. Referring to their first RCA album, I Wear The Face, he says, “We were desperate for a hit song [by ‘we’ he means himself and George, lyrics writer John Lang, guitarist Steve Farris and drummer Pat Mastelotto]. We tried to write one—‘Hunters of the Night’—but of course, it didn’t work. You can’t premeditate these things.”

 

Then came a flash of intuition that changed the band’s impending obit to a note of rebirth. “We asked ourselves,” Page says, “’Exactly what are we doing? Why did we start writing music when we were fifteen years old? Let’s forget about the mortgage payments and the cars and the kids [both Page and George are husbands and fathers; lyrics writer John Lang is divorced], all the things we have to take care of as functioning adults, and go back to our teens!’ And we managed to find that innocence again. That exhilaration!”

 

Mr. Mister takes its music seriously. “I’m not saying we don’t have fun,” Page continues, “but we’re not out to trash hotel rooms. We have social consciousness. There’s more going on today than there was in the seventies. There’s more intelligence and more depth to bands like Tears For Fears and Depeche Mode and someone like Sting. They are really thinking, not just being self-indulgent artists. That’s what we hope to be apart of.”

 

As when he sings, Page reveals his feelings when he talks. He’s not afraid to expose his vulnerability, the stuff of which his songs are made. “Welcome to the Real World [the album’s title song] came from the birth of my daughter, Alisha, in August ’84,” he says. “She was born three weeks early—fragile, skinny, like a bird that had fallen out of its nest. Mixed with the joy I felt, there was the pain of worrying about what could happen to her in this big, awful, ugly world. The song describes me crying tears of joy, tears of pain, tears winding down my face into her life. It was the first time I had really gotten away from myself and concentrated so much love on somebody else.”

 

Of the album’s urgent plea ‘Broken Wings’ he says: “It’s about personal reconciliation. Our songs deal with intangibles; it’s hard to describe what we’re doing. But we don’t been to be repetitive or too obvious. We want something with meat—but orchestrated in an attractive package.”

 

Most unusual, with its exalted vocal harmonies, is ‘Kyrie’ (Kyrie eleison, a Greek phrase meaning ‘Lord have mercy’, is used in tradition at Roman Catholic mass). “It’s a very positive statement,” Page says. “A lyric with an upbeat outlook on the future, rather than anything subscribing to a particular religious dogma. When I think of sacred music, I think of Bach, Handel, Haydn—the guys who are really into it.”

 

He doesn’t include himself in that number, of course, but he was born into the world of classical music. His dad, now retired, was a voice teacher and choir director; his mother is an associate director of Phoenix’s renowned boy’s choir. Among Page’s four siblings, one is a struggling songwriter, and another is into contemporary gospel music. Page began vocal training at the age of two. Later, when he veered toward rock, his shocked parents saw it as a rock upon which he would flounder.

 

“My mother asked, ‘Do you really think you’re doing the right thing?’” he recalls. “She wanted me to be respected, even thought I’d make a better actor than rock musician.” Page does have an actor’s traditional good looks and a compelling personality that makes you feel as if you know him after a very short time. “My father doesn’t care about pop music,” he continues, “but he was always positive. ‘Do what you want to do,’ he said. Now it’s different. My mother called me up and said, ‘I love ‘Broken Wings’. That was thrilling. She’s really behind me now. And,” he adds, laughing, “they think ‘Kyrie’ is my redemption for going into rock and roll!”

 

In highschool, persuaded by his winning combination of confidence and humility, his fellow students voted Page most likely to succeed. “My grades were terrible,” he remarks, “but I was acting in shows and running all over the place.” Even then, with his cousin John Lang, he was writing songs. “I used to rush over to the church where my father worked, right across the alley from our house, to play the piano and sing a tune in a kind of mumble. John would say, ‘You should really have some words for that,’ and he’d jot things down that seemed to fit the melody nicely. If you heard some of that stuff now, you’d laugh.”

 

Page grew up a great admirer of soul music. “I wore out Stevie Wonder’s records. His rhythms appealed to me more than straight-ahead rock, and his music was more than just pop. He was able to talk about God and make it hip, and I thought that was great. There was also an undercurrent of tension about the struggle black people encountered.” Even as a child living in Montgomery, Alabama, Page recoiled from racism. “I remember being whisked away from a drinking fountain before I could read words like ‘Colored’ and ‘White’,” he says. “I couldn’t understand that. My mother’s from the north, and she couldn’t, either. My father had his tires slashed because he went to a black man’s funeral.”

 

After a year at a junior college in Phoenix, he spent one at a performing arts school in San Diego, where he wrote and scored a three-act ballet. Without money to continue his schooling, he moved on to the music world in Los Angeles. “That,” he says laconically, “is where the struggle really began.”

 

For years, he barely scraped by, picking up a gig here and there, occasionally asking his folks for money. He even spent six months playing country and western music. Steve George was also floating around the scene, and eventually, they found themselves in the same band.

 

Brown-haired and blue-eyed, George has a sweet smile that makes him look much younger than his thirty years. He’s also from Phoenix, where his mother taught music. The piano was all he cared for. “I was committed at a very early age,” he recalls. “Only a small percentage of my friends stayed with music. Persistence and perseverance!” By the time he was nineteen, he was playing in Los Angeles with a group called Andy Hardy. “I was addicted to the old Andy Hardy movies with Mickey Rooney,” he explains. “So were the other guys in the band.” If Andy Hardy had ever been seen as a rock musician, the character could easily have been modeled after George.

 

Then came the time when the to Arizonans teamed up to play rhythm and blues. “An all-white band playing funk in the Red Onion, a black club in Los Angeles,” Page says, laughing. “They were too cool to say they actually liked us, but we knew they did because they’d show up every night and dance. That was a real proving ground for Steve and me.”

 

In the late seventies, Page, George and Lang began writing songs in earnest. “My cousin John is really a part of this group,” declares Page. “He’s frustrated because he’s not a playing member, but he’s the man behind the scenes. He’s a year older than me and has had an incredibly turbulent life. He was adopted, his father ditched him when he was a kid, his mother died of cancer, and he was raised by his grandparents. His grandfather was a military man, on of the first settlers of Arizona back in the early 1900s, before it became a state. A land baron, multimillionaire type of guy who ruled with an iron hand. The first time John made a mistake as a kid, he was sent off to a Mexican military institute, where he spent three years in hell. That’s where he started to write. He’d send me poems that contained caustic lines about things like mailmen biting dogs. In a sense, he’s the only true member of the group—the rest if us are just a bunch of flakes—but music wasn’t his calling. He was ‘tone-deaf’ as a kid. I’ve carried that part of the burden, and it has just worked out nicely.”

 

A demonstration tape of several songs earned them a recording contract. They were called Pages then— “The bass player named the group, not me,” Page hastens to add modestly—and released three albums, two on Epic, one on Capitol. “Pages was a jazz fusion band,” George recalls. “People liked our sound, and we gained a lot of respect in the music community.” Requests came in for Page and George to be session men, playing and singing on studio recording dates for other artists. “Originally, we just wanted to write and perform for ourselves,” Page says, “but we were sidetracked.”

 

Part of the problem was that their own albums didn’t sell. “Steve, John and I went through the rock wringer,” Page says. “When we were Pages, disco was the big thing and then generic rock. Record people didn’t know what to do with our sound because it didn’t fit anywhere.” They decided to go for a different musician identity with a new band ion a new label and began auditioning for members. “We didn’t have a specific idea of the sound we were after,” George says, “but when we heard Steve Farris and Pat Mastelotto, we wanted them.”

 

Their new name was a last-minute decision. “We were always calling each other Mr. this or Mr. that,” George recalls. “When RCA called us up and said, ‘Well, guys, the album’s done; we’ve almost got the package finished, but we don’t have a name,’ we just thought Mr. Mister sounded good.”

 

Page laughs as he tells of a Japanese interviewer from Tokyo. “She spoke to us in very broken English. Convinced she was going to take a hot scoop back to Japan, she asked us, ‘Mr. Mister, that’s homosexual, right?’”

 

Wrong.

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