Behind The Song: “(I’ve Had) The Time Of My Life”

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“(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life” from the 1987 smash hit movie Dirty Dancing, starring Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey, is what every songwriter aspires to achieve- an evergreen song. A universal hit filled with dramatic moments and inspired performances that all people, regardless of language, can understand. Evergreen songs become guilty pleasures even among the most jaded and cynical music purists. You can’t deny their greatness.

Songwriters also have an inside slang for it- ‘mailbox money’ – the gift that keeps on giving, with repeated uses on commercials, films, TV shows and radio.

“(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life,” sung by Bill Medley and Jennifer Warnes, has received numerous accolades, including an Academy Award for Best Original Song, ASCAP Song of The Year (for one million plays), a Golden Globe award and a Grammy nomination. It’s played at weddings and graduations, appeared in countless television commercials, a Glee cast rendition, cover versions and an interpolation from the Black Eyed Peas in 2010’s “The Time (Dirty Bit).”

Songwriter Franke Previte, one of three co-writers of the song, gave us a detailed account of the writing process behind the song. As lead singer of Franke and the Knockouts, the Jersey bandleader had his share of Top 10 success in 1981 with “Sweetheart,” a catchy, middle of the road pop number featuring his soaring vocals. But by 1986, the band (which at one point included future Bon Jovi drummer Tico Torres) was without a record deal. Previte stayed in the game, writing and networking with label heads, other musicians and anyone who would listen. One day he picked up the telephone and it was his friend and record label head Jimmy Ienner with an offer he couldn’t refuse.

“I got a call out of the blue from Jimmy Ienner in late 1986/early 1987,” Previte told American Songwriter. “He said, ‘I’ve got this movie called Dirty Dancing and I need you to write me a song for it.’ I told him ‘I don’t have time for it, I’m trying to get another deal.’ He said ‘make time. This is good. It’ll change your life. I said, ‘you already told me that once and it wasn’t good!’

“But he had a good feeling about it. He gave me a short description of the movie and said ‘the good news is you can write the song. The bad news is it’s gotta be seven minutes long!’ So I’m thinking “MacArthur Park” and songs like that. My songwriting partner John DeNicola and I were writing and making demos, trying to get a record deal. I was introduced to John by David Prater, who had a studio in his basement in Montclair, NJ, where I would record demos for $35 an hour.”

Previte suggested the song begin with a slow, dramatic opening. “I said, ‘Let’s start the song in half-time, with the chorus up front and then double-time the verses.’ The first thing I thought of was Donna Summer’s ‘Last Dance.’”

Realizing the potential of the song and the need for a better production studio to work on the demo, DeNicola suggested moving the session to a friend’s studio.

“Don Markowitz was a friend of John’s. He had an eight-track recorder at his house and John only had four. So, John went to Don’s and then changes were made to the music. Don said, ‘how about this change, or this bass line and then you can go to this chord?’ So they formulated the music and then sent me the track. From that, I made further edits and we sent it to Jimmy, who said ‘I like it. Make it a song!’”

At this point, the trio had a song without words. As many songwriters do, Previte was driving in his car, humming melody ideas when the epiphany moment hit.

“One day, I was driving down the Garden State Parkway on my way to meet John to finish another song. Now, how I write is through phonetic melody jamming. A G chord will make a certain sound in my mind and an A chord a vowel sound. So I’m listening to the (instrumental) track on cassette and grunting nonsense and started scribbling ‘time of my life.’ It was all just jamming and grunting to the cassette.”

“The man upstairs wrote that song. I had no idea what the movie was really about, other than the brief description Jimmy gave me.”

The finished demo featured Previte on vocals and singer Rachele Cappelli on vocals. Previte took the completed song to Ienner who sent it to the movie production company. Filming had just begun and the climactic ending, now an iconic movie moment, still didn’t have the right wow factor.

Ienner had been pitching Jennifer Warnes to record the song with legendary vocalist Bill Medley, a duet master with his group The Righteous Brothers (“Unchained Melody,” “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling”). “Kenny Ortega (choreographer) brought it to Bill, who said ‘I don’t want to do any more duets.’ But Kenny begged him, saying ‘please, make this your last one.’ And the rest is history. His voice is iconic.”

“When I met Patrick at the Oscars, he told me ‘you have no idea what this song did for this movie. We filmed the movie out of sequence, so the last scene was the first one filmed. We listened to 149 songs and hated them. We rehearsed every day to a Lionel Richie track. Good song but it wasn’t our song. We all felt the ending wasn’t happening and the movie was going to bomb. Then your cassette with you and Rachele Cappelli singing “Time of My Life” came in. We filmed to that and at the end of the day we all looked at each other and said ‘wow, what just happened? This ending is awesome! Let’s go make this movie!’’ It changed everything for them for the better. The camaraderie that wasn’t there was now there. Without Patrick, Jennifer and the song, you wouldn’t have the phenomenon that it became. Now, because of what this song has done for me and to honor Patrick, I sell my demos on my Facebook page and donate all the money to pancreatic cancer research.”

“(I’ve Had) The Time Of My Life” is that evergreen song with legs and is used repeatedly in commercials and TV. The Black Eyed Peas re-interpolated the song with “The Time (Dirty Bit)” in 2010.

“I got a call from my business administrator who told me Will I. Am had called and wanted to use the chorus. They had four titles they were going to use and wanted me to pick one. So I picked the Dirty Bit, since it had ‘Dirty’ in the title. But the ‘dirty bit’ is a bunch of information when you’re programming that doesn’t work so you cut it out. I thought he was referencing Dirty Dancing but it had nothing to do with it!”

Previte learned the ropes during his time with Franke and the Knockouts and, since then, has held on to his publishing. “Thank God. It’s mailbox money that comes to me. It’s all predicated on usage in the song and whether you own your publishing and sync rights.”

“As a songwriter you earn money if you keep your publishing. If you look in the songwriter’s bible, it says ‘always keep your publishing.’ Some of us can’t, but when I was called upon to write the song, Vestron Pictures didn’t think much of the movie. I was offered $1000 each for “Time Of My Life” and “Hungry Eyes.” But, being from the school of hard knocks and being beaten many times, I told them “give me $3500 a song and let me keep my publishing. And they said ‘done!’ Now I had $100 to my name at that point. Dee Anthony (legendary manager of Peter Frampton and more) was managing me at the time. He was away when I cut the deal. When he got home I told him about the deal and he said ‘You f’in a@hole! We could have sold that publishing and gotten 25 grand each song. Do you realize what you did?’ I told him, guess what, you’re fired!”

Previte’s life itself has been a series of second and third acts, reinventions, an evolution from singer to songwriter, and being in the right place at the right time, but most of all, talent and dedication to his craft.

While it may be hard to top the moment of winning an Oscar for Best Original Song, the amiable and affable New Jersey native continues to move forward and leverage his good fortune onto others who may not have had the series of serendipitous and happenstance life-changing moments he’s experienced.

He’s currently working on new music and a theatrical musical show, “The Un4gettables,” featuring singer Lisa Sherman and choreographed with world-renowned live show specialist Michael LaFleur (Disney, Universal, Celine Dion, etc.). “The Un4gettables” celebrates the greatest female singers of our time and covers multiple genres – including pop, rock, country, and soul. Within the show, a story is woven around a young, aspiring songwriter who is tasked with finding the “next greatest female singing sensation” to save his boss’ iconic nightclub.

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