'What Did You Think?' When Family Ties And Sad Michael J. Fox Made 'At This Moment' A #1 Hit
The first kiss between Alex P. Keaton and Ellen (played by Michael J. Fox and Tracy Pollan) was a big deal on Family Ties, and it made "At This Moment" a big hit for Billy Vera. The scene, from the season four premiere, plays in the background at a fraternity party, the lyric "What did you think / I would do at this moment" can be heard clearly several times. Alex pulls Ellen out onto the dance floor, then kisses her, and she runs off. A heartbreaking case of unrequited sitcom love.
Audiences said "Yeah, but that song playing in the background -- what was that song?"
Few things in life age as well as wine but Billy Vera’s 1981 heartstring-tugging “At This Moment” gave old vino a run for its money. In the ’80s Billy Vera snagged some success as a songwriter, scribing “I Got The Feeling” for Dolly Parton. Despite creating a number #1 country hit, Vera struggled to break through, posting some modest successes for a Japanese-owned Alfa label. Vera’s path to recognition followed an unusual path. For example, his greatest hit, “At This Moment,” climbed to #1 in the country 5 years after it initially debuted. Vera owes his success to his serious work ethic, luck, and a little show called “Family Ties.”
'At This Moment's Slow Burn
Amazingly, it took Vera a full year to complete the delayed hit. Like most writers, he needed the proper motivation. The genesis of “At This Moment” came when Vera started dating a rather vain girl in New York. During their courtship, the young lady told Vera about her most recent break-up and how her ex-boyfriend took it. Vera was so touched by the reaction of her ex that he went home and wrote. “The first two-thirds of the song is based on my (Vera’s) imagination of what this guy was feeling.“
However, Vera couldn’t figure out how to finish the song. It wasn’t until almost a year of dating when the other shoe dropped and the same self-obsessed girl dumped Vera. Like a lightswitch, the lovesick Vera knew the ending of the song. “When she broke up with me, I had gotten very emotionally involved with her, and then I knew how the song ended. And that was the famous line that everybody remembers: I'd subtract 20 years of my life.”
Debuted To Little Fanfare
Billy Vera And The Beaters released the song in ‘81 and it peaked at number #79. Respectable but certainly not worth a blog post. Vera blamed the song’s lackluster reception on a failed PR man.
“You know, everybody had high hopes for that song. They had a very good promotion man, Bernie was his name. And he wasn't getting along with the boss. So he quit just as 'At This Moment' came out. The guy they hired to take his place, he couldn't have promoted the Beatles. He was this terrible promotion man. So that's why 'At This Moment' didn't do what it should have done.” Blaming the PR man lands third on the most commonly used excuses for failed art. However, Vera just happened to be onto something.
Billy Vera’s Hustle
After his masterpiece sputtered, Vera started acting and continued playing small venues with his band to make a living. He did that for five years. Then, out of the blue, he received a phone call from a producer of a little program called Family Ties -- at that time the #2 show on TV according to Nielsen ratings. The man said, “I produce a show called Family Ties, and some of us were at your show the other night, and we heard you do this song that we thought would be perfect for an episode that we have coming up.”
On To The Big Time
Vera made the deal. "At This Moment" played on Family Ties on September 26, 1985, as Alex P. Keaton had his heart broken by Ellen, and next thing you know a giant bag of mail arrived on Vera’s doorstep. Previously, Vera was lucky enough to get a song or two on the air but he never got any interest regarding them.
All the mail read, “'Who's the singer? What's the name of the song? Where can we buy it?'” Since the song was no longer out, Vera went around to record companies trying to record it again. No takers. If it wasn’t for a small label named Rhino Records and a man named Richard Foos, “At This Moment” might have remained anonymous. Thankfully, Vera was a grinder.
“I said, 'Hey Richard, how many records do you need to sell to break even?' He had low overhead at the time, because it was a small company. He said, 'Oh, about 2,000 copies.' I said, 'Well, I'll tell you what, I'll guarantee 2,000 albums. I can sell them in the clubs if need be. Will you put it out?' He said, 'Sure.'”
Almost Missed The Boat
Unfortunately, Vera and Rhino records couldn’t get things together in time to coordinate with the airing of the premiere episode, nor the one that followed, in which the song was again used. But "At This Moment" wasn’t dead yet -- the next season, the song played again, on the October 2, 1986 episode.
Again, audiences wanted to know about it.
“The response was immediate, NBC called us (Vera) up, they said, 'My God, we've never had any response like this in the history of the network for a song. The switchboards are lighting up, we're getting letters, telegrams, where can we find this record?' Well, luckily, Rhino had the record out. So people started calling radio stations, which never happens. I mean, it was a total organic hit. You know, Rhino wasn't in the business of contemporary music, so they didn't have any promotion, they didn't do any payola, it was just that the people demanded the record, and thank goodness, radio listened and played it.”
“And it just kept shooting up the charts week after week after week. Next thing you know the phone's ringing off the hook, word got out that I was a free agent, I didn't have a record deal, so all these record companies started wanting me to sign with them, and we were on all these television shows. Dick Clark was wonderful to us. He put me on every single one of his shows; American Bandstand and all the rest of them. He was just great to us."
"At This Moment" reached #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and Adult Contemporary charts in January 1987. Better late than never.