One of the most influential events in American pop music was the British Invasion of the early 1960s. Dozens of bands, lead by the Beatles, came across the Atlantic armed with catchy guitar hooks and tight vocal harmonies that in turn inspired hundreds of Yank musicians.
It was this period that actor Tom Hanks wanted to recapture in his 1996 directorial debut That Thing You Do. The film tells the story of an Erie, PA rock band and their rapid rise to fame on the power of one catchy pop song. To find that catchy pop song and other songs that sounded as if they were written three decades earlier, Hanks and the film’s producers sent out a call to musicians who were still carrying on that British pop tradition. The producers were soon flooded with demo tapes, with more than 300 entries vying to be the film’s title track. While a majority of the songs that eventually appeared in the film were written by Hanks, film producer Gary Goetzman and musician Mike Piccirillo, a few submitted songs did make it through the selection process, including rocker Adam Schlesinger’s own try.
“I assumed that it was a big cattle call and I kind of figured I would never hear about it again,” admitted Schlesinger in a 1997 interview. “It was the kind of thing that I felt obligated to take a shot at just because it was so up my alley, musically. I would have felt guilty for not having tried. It was more a personal exercise rather than an attempt at getting it.”
For the demo, Schlesinger recruited his friend Mike Viola of the pop band The Candy Butchers to sing lead vocals, with Schlesinger singing backup. Schlesinger recruited Ivy bandmate Andy Chase to engineer the track. The producers not only liked the track so much that they choose it for the film, they retained Viola to provide the vocals for the lead singer of the film’s fictitious band The Wonders. Schlesinger was also asked to pen two more songs that appeared in the movie- “Sad Sad Boy” and “Back Together.”
For his trouble, Schlesinger was well rewarded. “That Thing You Do” went on to become a bona fide hit, peaking at #41 on Billboard magazine’s Hot 100 chart, #24 on the Top 40 Mainstream chart, #22 on their Adult Contemporary chart and #18 on the Adult Top 40 chart. The soundtrack album also became a best seller, reaching #21 on Billboard’s Top 200 and was certified gold by the RIAA. Schlesinger was also nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Song, though lost out to the Andrew Lloyd Webber-Tim Rice composition “You Must Love Me” for the musical Evita.
The Boston-based Gigolo Aunts contribution to the film, “Little Wild One,” was written at the request of the group’s publishing company, PolyGram International.
“They told us about the movie and asked would we want to try to write a song,” recalled bassist Steve Hurley. “They described to us what Tom Hanks wanted which was songs that sounded like faux-Beatles tunes.”
According to Hurley, the group’s leader singer Dave Gibbs worked up the basic structure of the song which the rest of the group – Hurley’s guitarist brother Phil and drummer Fred Eltringham – polished. The result was picked to be one of the songs that the The Wonders plays in an early scene in the film.
“If you hear our demo, it’s remarkably the same,” stated Hurley. “They played the exact guitar solo and bass lines. The guy who sings [Viola] sounds kind of like Dave, too. Ours sounds a little more authentically 60s to me because we did it in a more low-end studio.”
At the time, Schlesinger was a member of the indie band Ivy and was just forming a second band Fountains of Wayne. The success of the film and its title song helped raise the profile of both these projects. Schlesinger has also continued to work in the film industry, with songs from his various bands appearing in numerous movies. Most recently he composed and produced several original songs for Music And Lyrics (2007).
Schlesinger and Hurley would cross paths again in 2001 while working on the soundtrack for the comedy Josie And The Pussycats. Schlesinger wrote as well as played guitar on several of the songs in the film, with Hurley serving as the recordings’ producer.