December 2nd, 2009 saw the passing of a great songwriter. Despite his many hit songs and internationally successful albums, this loss barely registered amongst the critics and reporters who handle today’s pop music press. That said, this is probably how the songwriter would have wanted it. He achieved massive success without taking on the burden of fame, preferring to let his work do the talking for him. Thankfully, that work was good enough to ensure it will be on the radio for years to come.
This songwriter was Eric Woolfson. The name may not immediately sound familiar, probably because his better-known collaborator had the name billing on their most famous venture — the Alan Parsons Project. By the time he worked with Parsons, Woolfson was already a showbiz vet. He had gotten his start writing pop songs for the likes of Marianne Faithful and the Tremeloes before moving into music management. One of his clients was Parsons, an engineer and producer who wanted his own recording career. Together, this duo would make it happen on an epic scale.
The division of work was simple: Woolfson provided the songs, Parsons provided the arrangements & production know-how. Both developed the concepts for their albums, which included everything from a survey of Edgar Allen Poe’s work (Tales Of Mystery & Imagination) to the dehumanizing aspects of urban life (Stereotomy). However, they really set themselves apart from the album-rock set by their approach to the performance aspect of their music: they chose singers and instrumentalists to suit the material instead of vice versa, utilizing a revolving group of performers on each album.
The result was a faceless “group” that still managed to have a distinctive style all its own. Woolfson’s songs did the talking for the enigmatic creators and he did a brilliant job of translating their grandiose ambitions into lush yet hummable songs that straddled rock and pop in a uniquely grown-up fashion. The lyrics were always intelligent but down to earth, married to thoughtfully crafted melodies that have real staying power. Fittingly, songs like “I Wouldn’t Want To Be Like You” and “Eye In The Sky” have gone on to become AOR evergreens.
Woolfson also played a vital role in the sound of their albums by supplying keyboard work and vocals. His voice had a smooth, mellow quality that was reminiscent of Rick Wright from Pink Floyd. It perfectly suited the material he wrote for the group, lending a soothing, thoughtful quality to the lyrics. A great example of his vocal style is “Time,” the centerpiece from what is perhaps the group’s best album, The Turn Of A Friendly Card. His voice takes the stirring melody from a gentle lullaby to soaring heights against a lavish, orchestrated backdrop. The end result is cinematic yet imbued with a direct, emotional quality… therein lies the appeal of the Alan Parsons Project.
Woolfson parted ways with Parsons as the 1980’s drew to a close, redirecting his songwriting energies toward the creation of musicals. He enjoyed much success in Germany and Korea with his theatrical work, which often included reworked versions of his Alan Parsons Project classics. Sadly, he was enjoying a resurgence as a recording artist around the time of his passing, creating albums of Alan Parsons Project-style material that were connecting with fans new and old.
At the very least, fans can take comfort in the fact that Woolfson left behind a rich legacy. The Alan Parsons Project albums were recently reissued in annotated, expanded editions that are well worth the time for anyone who wants to learn about this press-shy but very talented songwriter. His recent solo albums are also easy to find and more can be found via his official website. His high-quality brand of AOR will always be a standard bearer for the genre, an achievement that is worth more than the fame he avoided. People may not always know his name but they’ll remember those songs.