From the Corporate World to the Billboard Charts, a Songwriter Moves on Up
by Brad Balfour
When a tune’s words and music merge into a signature song, it seems so natural that it’s like everyday conversation. That’s true for classic rock songs such as Queen’s “We Will Rock You” or “We Are the Champions.” And it’s just as true for a basic Beatles’ love song like “Something” or “Yesterday,” their song of regret.
Seasoned songwriter/lyricist Mike Greenly gets that. One of his sources for inspiration has been ordinary talk.
“I’ll hear a phrase from everyday conversation and jot it into a notebook or email it to myself from my iPhone,” Greenly explains. “When I heard myself saying ‘You’re Good for Me’ to someone special in my life – right away, I made note of the phrase. That became the title of my #1 hit on the Billboard Dance Club chart for an amazing talent, pop/R&B singer Kimberly Davis.”
Discovering that his wordsmithing skills could be applied to song construction was a life-changing revelation for this former corporate executive.
“All I’ve got is words,” Greenly says. “I’d be dangerous if I could sing or compose, but I know I’ve got a great idea when a collaborator gets as excited about a song idea as I am. It’s glorious when I hear my words turned into music by an accomplished composer or vocalist.”
Remarkably, Greenly’s successful song-making comes from having followed an unlikely life path — as a veteran marketing executive for several major corporations over a 30-year period.
“In my corporate work – including being in charge of creating 300 new products a year for Avon – I long believed that it doesn’t matter where a good idea comes from,” he says. “Back when I was there, a poster on the executive floor proclaimed that message. I’ve always kept it in mind. Bottom line: I don’t care how I get ideas for a song. I just love to write.”
After becoming the youngest VP in Avon Products’ history, Greenly changed his life. He dropped out of the daily corporate toil and now uses his knowledge and experience to help executives rise and succeed in their own careers writing their speeches, videos and PowerPoint presentations. Then he coaches them and their teams on their on-stage delivery. He also serves as a motivational speaker for audiences that range from Roche Pharmaceutical’s sales leaders, ExxonMobil women in management to New York’s Irish Business Organization members.
“It was a great experience, being a Fortune 500 sales and marketing exec,” Greenly continues. “Having had my own first-hand experience on the client’s side of the desk helps me be useful to my clients today. But I don’t stop writing when my workday is done.”
Greenly added, “I realized I was meant to be a writer. Being an executive taught me many valuable lessons, including the fact that I’d live longer not being one. But having achieved the success I did, it’s satisfying now to help today’s execs and their teams be more successful in their pursuits. That ‘day job’ work, in turn, gives me the freedom to revel in my passion for writing lyrics and collaborating with the talents who embrace my words.”
Now, when he’s not doing his corporate consulting, the tall former Southerner lends his words to music. A current example is the recently released song Greenly wrote with composer Gil Polk – “Common Ground.” As the lyrics express it, “Everyone is different/All of us are equal/Can’t we find a common ground?/Think about our future /Everything affects us/It’s time we found our common ground/Common ground.”
This inspired writing reflects Greenly’s experience of growing up in Beaufort, SC, in the Deep South long ago. He recalled knowing as a boy that Catholics were looked down on in what was a largely Southern Baptist island community. He also understood that he was even lower in social status as the “Dirty Jew Boy.” And he recalled feeling bad for black people at a time when they were even further down in social ranking and had to sit in the segregated upstairs section of the town’s only movie theater.
The origins and inspiration for the lyricist’s sonic erudition came from this different place and time. “Where I grew up, I was bullied by some with swastikas carved into my school locker. An outcast as a child, I’d also skipped the second grade, so I was ‘different’ in that way, too – a strange geek.”
Even more so, as he realized later, because he was gay. In fact, his coming out led him to his ultimate liberation from daily corporate life. Not wanting to live a lie, his act not only meant he acknowledged his inherent sexuality but also that he longer felt comfortably covered by the cloak of conventionality – even dating women through high school and college without fully acknowledging his real preferences.
As he reflected, “It was painful to feel discrimination [for being Jewish] and the lack of acceptance. But as a result, I learned to be a more caring, respectful and empathetic person. That early pain was worth it.”
It seems that Greenly has always had an affinity for words. He still remembers the first poem he composed at the age of four and – unusual, in his hometown congregation – he wrote his own Bar Mitzvah speech instead of having the Rabbi do it for him. Born on October 2, 1944, he came up during a time rich in division and prejudice.
“I am a real Southerner by birth and upbringing but being Jewish made me ‘different’ – especially back then. I had classmates ask, in all seriousness, if I had been born with a Devil’s tail. My own family pharmacist once asked a customer, right in front of me, if the man had ‘Jewed someone down’ to get a lower price. Those disparagements and the prejudice hurt but … what could I do?”
That Jewish experience in the South helped shape Greenly and who he became. Being an outsider – the kid who didn’t quite fit – motivated him to learn how to fit in, almost too much so.
“When I went to high school, I was determined to become popular and, indeed, was voted ‘Most Popular’ as a senior,” Greenly says. “The problem was, that persona was not the real me … just the identity I had invented to hide behind. “In college on a scholarship at Duke University, I was called into Dean Strobel’s office. I was told I could lose my scholarship because my grades were just average instead of meeting the dean’s List requirement. The dean said, ‘You’re a smart guy, so why aren’t you getting better grades?’ They helped me discover that my inherent childhood anxiety was getting in the way of my studies. Thanks to their help, I got into psychotherapy, was able to keep my scholarship and graduated Phi Beta Kappa. That therapy was the best gift I ever gave myself!”
From that point on, Greenly developed the knowledge that has led him to the career and creativity he so enjoys today.
“I can remember being at a sock hop with my classmates, where my job was to change the old 45 RPM records. Even just walking across the stage in front of my peers freaked me out. Now I can easily give a speech to 5,000 people. I transformed myself and eventually found a way to share that knowledge with both the execs I coach and the musicians I write for.”
That sense of respect for others was Mike’s “Common Ground” inspiration.
“Gil’s wonderful music is in a folk-Americana style,” Greenly explains. “In fact, the song – in his original version – is now being pitched in Nashville by Chris Keaton, a friend and ‘song plugger.’ Maybe someday, Tim McGraw will record it. But what a blessing it turned out to be; I began to collaborate on other songs with a phenomenal English vocalist, Sam Stevens who loved ‘Common Ground’ too, and created his own spin on it. Sam became a co-author with Gil and me of a ‘romantic pop’ version.”
A recording performed by Stevens with a few of his own lyrical touches has recently been remixed for dance floors by three global DJs — in the USA, Tony Moran as well Israeli Tommer Mizrahi and Brazilian Mauro Mozart. These club-oriented productions are being released this summer by TRAX Records. Given the song’s universal message and relevance, it’s also being considered by a number of artists in other genres.
Greenly also found musical “common ground” with clubbers around the world having had eight of his songs charting as Billboard dance club hits. Four made it to #1, including another by Kimberly Davis – “My Fire.” Legendary producer/songwriter/guitarist Nile Rodgers — the CHIC band founder who is often cited as having created disco’s greatest dance band — played pulsing guitar on “My Fire.” Greenly wrote the song with producer and former Latin Rascal, Tony Moran, another artist the trade journal cited as a dance music legend.
“Kimberly even gave me another #1 hit, ‘You’re Good for Me’ which I wrote with Jim Papoulis, Jason Walker and another leader his field, DJ Tony Smith. Tony was once named as one of the Top 10 DJ’s in the country by Billboard. Today he’s a living legend, hosting his own ‘Classic Beats and Rhythms’ show on Sirius XM radio’s Studio 54 channel.”
Alongside Davis, Greenly cited Jason Walker, who recorded his other two Billboard #1 Dance hits. One was “Say Yes”, written with Tony Moran. Here, too, Tony Smith lent his talents to creating a house music version of the song.
A new song just released by Walker is a track called “Perfect Bitch”. It follows “I’m In Love with You” which was Greenly’s other #1 with Walker, written with Moran and singer-songwriter, Ryan Shaw.
These successes further illustrate the lyricist’s collaborative skills. Noted Greenly, “Working with artists like Kimberly and Jason is a treat. Beyond their astonishing vocal talents, they each have the ability to inject ‘heart’ into what they sing making the listener go beyond just hearing the songs to feeling them.”
“Life is a Dancefloor” is a new cut by Davis that Greenly wrote with Audrey Martells, Shaw and Moran. Produced by an English house producer, Simon Marlin (“The Shapeshifters”) – the song was recently released by Glitterbox recordings. It quickly became a Top 20 Dance Club hit and still climbing the charts.
Greenly also revealed a new collaborator. “Another new artist I’ll be working with soon is Dub Shine [Delon Williamson] who is known for blending the house and EDM genres into a cool new sound that’s chill and hot at once. His new works are being released by Quark Music Group.”
Beyond his dance club hits, the dignified, mustachioed writer crafts lyrics for a wide range of musical genres – choral, country, pop and more. For example, he authored “Our Great Virginia” which in 2015 officially became the Traditional State Song of the Commonwealth. That new state anthem replaced one that had been retired in the ’80s for being embarrassingly racist — expressing a nostalgia for slavery. “My parents would be so proud to know that their son wrote the words to an actual state anthem. I believe my mother’s influence is the number one reason I became a writer.” He added with a chuckle, “If my dad were still here, he’d be bragging to all his buddies – as if they didn’t know – that there are only 50 states.”
The state anthem is just the tip of the iceberg. As Greenly explained, “My lack of other talents means that every song has to be a collaboration with composers, musicians, artists and producers – which I very much enjoy. I have zero mechanical aptitude. I can’t safely change a tire and I’m clueless about what’s under the hood of a car. But words seem to be my friends. I’m glad I finally figured that out. All I’ve got are my words but there are several ways I turn them into a song.
“Starting with a single idea is what I did with famous choral composer Jim Papoulis on a song that has recently come out in sheet music. I’d been writing speeches for Dr. Richard Jadick, a genuine war hero, and I was inspired by the true story in his book, ‘On Call in Hell.’ Because of this man’s courage and creative thinking, 30 of our American military fighters came home alive from Iraq. Some didn’t make it, however, and I wrote the lyrics for ‘To Those Who Came Before Us’ as a way to honor their sacrifices as well as the losses we all mourn in our lives – like my own parents. Jim created a beautifully poignant melody to my words.
“This particular song promotes The Independence Fund, a non-profit which supports America’s wounded warriors. If a vet returns home disabled, the group’s volunteers find ways to help by buying wheelchairs for those who’ve lost their legs and assisting in their re-adaption to American society. The song is already being performed by choirs on occasions like the Fourth of July and Veteran’s Day. My fantasy is to have every military choir in the country perform it someday on Memorial Day.”
Papoulis has turned to the lyricist with specific requests including “Always My Angel,” another choral song. Explained the energetic septuagenarian, “The name ‘Jim Papoulis’ is globally known in the choral music world. People turn to him all the time. So, I wasn’t surprised when Jim was asked by the Sandy Hook Elementary School music department to create a song honoring the lives of the innocent children and faculty members killed by a deranged gunman in 2012. Jim called me and asked for lyrics to convey that, even though those tragic victims are no longer here on earth, they are still with us as angels. This song, too, will be released in sheet music for choirs.”
Greenly concluded, “At other times, though, when a composer has no starting concept and simply sends me a melody, my lyrics reflect whatever thoughts the music creates in my head. We talk together or I do an interview to understand what they had in mind. Sometimes, I’ll just start with words and have the composer bring them to life. I’ll also interview artists and will create songs based on their own life stories and perspectives. It’s similar to the way I’ll interview an executive for a speech except in this case the result is a song that has a personal connection to the artist.
“It’s important to me always to keep growing. I wrote and performed my first Spoken Word piece only a few years ago. I did it as part of an entire spoken word album, ‘Action Moves People United.’ It included established artists like Janis Ian, Julian Lennon, Patrick Moraz, Kathy Sledge and Lilias White.
“We were more than 300 artists and specialists combined, all contributing our work to benefit UNESCO-USFUCA which is affiliated with the United Nations to further the goal of world peace. I’m excited at the thought of continuing to grow by doing what I love and making a positive difference in the world, whether to executives or artists or the audiences who enjoy the result.”
Copyright ©2019 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: July 5, 2019.
Photos courtesy of Mike Greenly.