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The last-minute tweak that made 'The Pina Colada Song' a monster hit

“In those ten seconds, I changed the course of my life,” Rupert Holmes, singer and writer, said.

PORTLAND, Maine — Talent, drive, hard work, practice, and preparation all play a role in success. But so does random chance — in a word, luck.

Rupert Holmes has taken advantage of all the virtues in that first sentence. Still, he wouldn’t have become a singer, songwriter, arranger, composer, novelist, screenwriter, and Tony Award winner if he hadn’t gotten a few good breaks along the way.

One bit of good fortune came when he was about 20-years-old and had his first hit song, “Jennifer Tomkins,” with a pop group called Street People. 

“I actually sang that song accidentally,” Holmes said. “I was the arranger and writer on it, and the singer didn’t show up for the recording session. I was the only other person who knew the tune so they said, ‘Well, you go out and sing it.’ It went to number 38 on the charts.”

An even bigger break came when he was about to record what would become by far his best-known work, “Escape (The Pina Colada Song).” 

“I was ten seconds away from recording the vocal to this song [with] the lyric: ‘If you like Humphrey Bogart and getting caught in the rain,’” Holmes explained.

Holmes had jotted down the line the night before but had never sung it. Everything was set to go at the studio recording session when something in his head told him the Bogart reference was off — too black and white, too noir, not the right image for a musical story about a couple on a tropical getaway.

“When you go to the islands and you’re out on a beach, you never order on your first day of vacation a Budweiser," Holmes said. "You order some tropical drink that announces you’re [away]. So, I thought, what are the escape drinks? What would be the metaphor for that? I thought [about a] Mai Tai, daiquiri, pina colada. I’d never had a pina colada in my life.”

Holmes rewrote the line to: “If you like pina coladas and getting caught in the rain.” The song hit number one on the charts in December of 1979 and has endured as a pop culture classic ever since.

“In those ten seconds,” Holmes reflects, “I changed the course of my entire life.”

Part 1

Part 2

We talked with Rupert Holmes while he was at the Ogunquit Playhouse, making last-minute changes to his latest project, “The Nutty Professor,” a musical-based on the 1963 film starring and directed by Jerry Lewis. He wrote the book and lyrics for the show, and Marvin Hamlisch composed the music shortly before his death.

Holmes is a delightful conversationalist with a wealth of great stories, which is why our 207 interview with him runs in two parts. (Part two will be posted on July 21). Sit back and watch — and don’t be afraid to enjoy them with a pina colada.

More stories from 207:

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