The Man Who Penned 'The Piña Colada Song' Lives the Good Life in Cold Spring

Forty years later, the Hudson Valley resident reflects on the lasting legacy of 'Escape (The Piña Colada Song).'


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Rupert Holmes — here in the downstairs music studio of his home — with some of his awards, including two New York Festivals TV & Film Awards (for his TV series Remember WENN), two Edgars (from The Mystery Writers of America), two Tonys, and one of his four Drama Desk Awards.

photos by Stefan Radtke

 

How would you feel if, four decades ago, you wrote and sang a song with a catchy tune and some memorable lyrics and in the intervening years went on to have a wildly successful career, including winning solo Tony awards — and yet many people only associate you with that one hit?

Rupert Holmes, the singer and songwriter of “Escape (The Piña Colada Song)” has made his peace with this. Sure, Broadway buffs know Holmes as the talented composer, lyricist, and playwright behind such huge Broadway hits as The Mystery of Edwin Drood, but the average person on the street will mostly connect his name with a song about a tropical drink — and even probably be able to sing a few bars of it.

But should you spot Holmes tucking into a gourmet pizza or eggplant parm at Cold Spring’s Riverview restaurant, located right down the road from his home there, please refrain from sending him over one of the sweet island concoctions. Firstly, they don’t make it there. Secondly, he had his fill of them in 1979 and ’80, when “Escape (The Piña Colada Song)” spent 23 weeks on Billboard’s Hot 100, three weeks at No. 1. He’s really more of a beer guy anyway, his brew of choice being a pint of Climb High-P-A from Beacon’s 2 Way Brewing Company.   

It’s a clear day when I drive up Rupert Holmes’ steep driveway to his Colonial home overlooking the Hudson. The view of the river is what helped to sell Holmes on the house. “I have a seasonally changing diorama outside my window overlooking the river as it winds by Crow’s Nest and Storm King Mountain,” he explains. “In the winter, I can see all the way to West Point from the elevation of our sunroom.”

We chat in the cozy seating area of his downstairs music studio, complete with a baby grand piano and a piano bench from the late Marvin Hamlisch, his collaborator on the show The Nutty Professor. Clad in gray slacks and a black sport jacket, the engaging Holmes catches me up on what he’s been doing since we sat down in his Scarsdale living room a little over 10 years ago for a profile in Westchester Magazine, Hudson Valley’s sister publication.

Holmes and his wife had moved there for a fresh start after the sudden death of their daughter Wendy at age 10 in 1986. A short while after our interview, Holmes moved again, to his house here in Cold Spring, so that his severely autistic son Timothy, now 30, could qualify for an adult residence program in a nearby center for individuals with autism. Holmes and his wife, Liza, a White Plains attorney, also have a 32-year-old filmmaker son, Nicholas, who lives in Brooklyn.

 

Fun Facts About “Escape (The Piña Colada Song)

 

1. The lead single on Holmes’ Partners in Crime album, it was the only pop song to become No. 1 on the Billboard pop charts in two different decades. It became so hot by the end of December 1979 that it became the last U.S. No. 1 song of the 1970s. It then returned to that spot during the second week of 1980. (KC and the Sunshine Band’s “Please Don’t Go” was No. 1 the first week of 1980.)

 

2. Holmes wrote the “If you like Piña Coladas” line we all know and love one minute before he recorded the song. The line was originally supposed to be: “If you like Humphrey Bogart.” “I was on the mike, ready to sing it through, and I thought that that reference was too noir,” he explains. “I wanted something that makes you think of the tropics because when you go on an escape vacation, the first day you’re on the beach you never order a Budweiser, because you want to announce to yourself and to the world that you are officially on a vacation, an escape.”

 

3. Holmes had never had a piña colada when he sang the lyric at the recording session for the song. He wasn’t even sure he was pronouncing it correctly and in fact never tasted the drink until the song went to No. 1. “In that year I probably had more piña coladas than any other human being on earth,” Holmes says. “It didn’t take much imagination to say what will we serve at the press parties, oh yes, piña coladas! No one ever said, ‘Let’s serve bourbon.’”

 

4. Other tropical drinks were considered for the famous line, including the daiquiri and Mai Tai. “I’d never had any of them,” says Holmes.

 

5. Taco Bell used the song — with changed lyrics — in an advertising campaign. At the time, says Holmes, he asked his wife, “Do you know that I’m now the spokesperson for Taco Bell?” And she replied, “Yes, and the one before you was a Chihuahua.”

 

September 2019 marks both the 40th anniversary of the release of “Escape (The Piña Colada Song)” and the 10th anniversary of Holmes’ move to Putnam County. The last decade has been an exceptionally busy one for the prolific musician; indeed, five years ago, the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers awarded him its prestigious George M. Cohan Award for the diversity and depth of his career.

From his home high over the river, Holmes has created or polished several shows, including three — Curtains (for which he earned a Drama Desk Award); Say Goodnight, Gracie; A Time to Kill, plus a revival of Drood — for Broadway. A number of others have appeared at prominent theaters around the country, including Sweet Potato Queens, with songwriters Melissa Manchester and Sharon Vaughn; First Wives Club; Secondhand Lions; and Hamlisch’s last musical The Nutty Professor; the Hamlisch and Holmes team also contributed to the score of the Liberace biopic, Behind the Candelabra.

And, of course, “Escape” continues to live an active life, being sung or mentioned on numerous TV shows, like It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia and Better Call Saul, and in films such as Deadpool 2, Guardians of the Galaxy, and Shrek, all of which has helped renew its popularity. “The song is actually bigger now than it was 10 years ago,” says Holmes. “For those who knew it the first time around, it brings back memories of summer, vacation, or even romance when life was full of endless possibilities,” he continues. “And for newer generations, it is apparently as catchy on a first-listen as it was some 40 years ago.”

 

 

So does Holmes get paid every time the song airs? “I receive a royalty, both because I wrote and sang the song,” says Holmes. “And I get paid every time it’s used on TV or in a movie, depending on the kind of project and budget.

“I couldn’t live in luxury based on just that one song,” he continues, “but I could survive just on that one song. Luckily I have many other projects — but you’d just think that was the only thing I ever did with my time.”

Does that bother Holmes? “I’ve actually come to terms with it, I really have,” he says. “I find that even though I’ve had eight shows on Broadway, it’s still, ‘You’re the guy that wrote that song,’” he continues. “But I’ve come to actually greatly enjoy the fact that I have this kind of passport with any person that I meet. If they say, ‘What do you do?’ and I say, ‘I’m a songwriter,’ and they ask, ‘Anything I might know?’ and I tell them, I know they’ll say, ‘You did that?’”

Indeed, sometimes it’s hard to get someone to believe that he’s the guy that sang it, adds Holmes. “I was getting a haircut in town and this fellow went to YouTube because he didn’t quite believe it.”

When he’s not working in his home studio, you’ll often find Holmes walking around his adopted hometown, which he loves for its river views and sense of tranquility.

“Cold Spring is this bucolic, idyllic town where time seems to have stopped,” says Holmes. “I walk into town and everywhere you go there is something interesting to look at.”

 

You Can't Escape It!

Here are just some of the places you may have heard Escape (The Pina Colada Song).

Compiled by Linda Arce

 

Motion Pictures

What Men Want 

Like Father 

Deadpool 2

The Nice Guys 

Guardians of the Galaxy 

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty  

Shrek the Musical

Argo 

The Sitter

Dinner for Schmucks 

Grown Ups  

Wanted 

Bewitched 

American Splendor  

The Sweetest Thing 

Shrek 

Detroit Rock City    

The General's Daughter 

How Stella Got Her Groove Back 

Dirty Work

Mars Attacks!

 

Television

It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia

High & Dry

Splitting Up Together

The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon

Bloodline

Mystery Science Theater: The Return

The Nice Guys

Better Call Saul

Brooklyn Nine-Nine

True Blood

Atop the Fourth Wall

American Dad!

The Sitter

Fringe 

Remarkable Power

Veronica Mars 

Las Vegas

Saturday Night Live

Six Feet Under

ER

The Simpsons

 

Partial list as of March 2019

 

He enjoys stopping in at such favorite local stores as Kismet at Caryn’s, a gift shop, and Flowercup Wines. And in addition to his favorite — the aforementioned Riverview — Holmes has a whole list of favorite Cold Spring eateries: Cathryn’s Tuscan Grill; Foundry Café; Hudson Hil's; Whistling Willie’s for burgers; Hudson House on special occasions; and Moo Moo’s Creamery for homemade ice cream. Elsewhere in town he enjoys visiting the Putnam History Museum and Boscobel House & Gardens. “The gardens are fascinating, and the views of the Hudson Highlands are breathtaking. But all of this area is like a park,” he notes. “There’s always someplace to walk; just strolling around the town is like a walk in the park.”

So, what’s keeping Holmes busy these days? Not surprisingly, plenty. Not only is he working on several shows with his fellow leading lights of The Great White Way — including The Boys of Summer, about the 1955 Dodgers, with music by Urinetown Tony winner Mark Holman; a show about Andy Warhol, with Wicked composer Stephen Schwartz and director Sir Trevor Nunn; and a Chinese musical, Flowers of War, slated to premiere there. His new novel for Simon & Schuster, The McMasters Guide to Homicide: Murder Your Employer, the first in a series, will be released in 2020.

What are not keeping him busy are hobbies of the more traditional sort. “My work is my hobby,” says Holmes. “I am the damnably lucky guy who does for a living what I would do if no one paid me. I get my energy from the enthusiasm for the work I’m doing and the people I am working with,” he continues. “I’m working with some of the most interesting people you could ever work with, and every story is a story to dine out on.” If only the walls of the Riverview could talk.


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