Everyone knows this song. That looping ‘70s riff. That Magic FM playlist. The singer’s cheerful, breezy delivery. And then, of course, that catchy hook: “If you like piña coladas, and getting caught in the rain. If you’re not into yoga, and you have half a brain…”
This song, whether you like it or not, has a way of embedding itself in your brain and playing on repeat for days on end. Some people claim Escape (The Piña Colada Song) is a ‘70s hit, while others say it’s an ‘80s classic. But no matter what decade people say this hit belongs in, there’s no denying that this song is amazing. And the story of how Rupert Holmes created it is pretty cool too.
Rupert Holmes is a talented guy. Not only is he a Tony Award-winning playwright, but he’s also a writer for television and a novelist! He released his fifth studio album, Partners in Crime, in 1979. From that breakthrough album came his mega-smash hit, Escape (The Piña Colada Song).
It was the last song to make number one on the Billboard hot 100 in the ‘70s, and it could have been the first in the ‘80s if it hadn’t been for one song. KC and The Sunshine Band knocked Holmes off his throne during the first week of the ‘80s with their song Please Don’t Go. Many people have made the mistake that Escape was the number one song on January 1, 1980.
Holmes says that this is a misconception, mainly brought on by the magazines of the time. There were three major music magazines when the song came out: Cashbox, Record World, and Billboard. In Billboard and Record World, Escape remained number one as everyone rang in the new decade. So, what happened?
Why was Escape kicked out of the number one spot in Cashbox, only for it to go back to number one by the second week of January? Well, many people believe that there was “foul play” involved. See, KC and The Sunshine Band was signed by TK Records, an independent label known for their association with the rise of disco music in the ‘70s.
TK Records released Rock Your Baby by George McCrae in 1974, which was the second bonafide disco song (after Rock the Boat by The Hues Corporation). Just a year later, the record company struck gold when they signed KC and The Sunshine Band. But by 1980, TK Records was on the rocks.
They were having financial problems and would soon be acquired by Roulette Records. Everyone knew that Roulette had ties to the mob and ran their company with an iron fist. It was very possible that TK Records saw this acquisition coming. So, what does this have to do with Holmes’ Escape and being the number one song for the first week of the ‘80s?
Well, at the time, Holmes was on a label that had just gone out of business: Infinity Records. While Escape was later taken up by MCA Records, during that period of time, it was owned by Infinity.
“There are some people—God forbid I say that Billboard was suspect in any way— but there was a rumor going around that someone got to the right person and paid the right amount of money and got them, for that one week, to flip the charts,” Holmes said on the Professor of Rock in 2021. Side Note: In the interview with Adam Reader of Professor of Rock, Holmes incorrectly claims that KC and The Sunshine Band was signed by Atlantic, not TK Records.
Holmes jokingly says that he still likes to tell people that he was “top of the charts with no interruption.” Besides this minor bump in the road, Escape received ample amounts of radio play, and, for many people, it was the first song they ever heard.
Holmes acknowledges that and understands how important music is when you are a child. “You’re saying, ‘What is happening to me? I’m hearing notes, and words, and it’s engraving itself in my brain. Every time I hear it, I feel good, or I feel blue,” Holmes said in 2021.
One of the first songs that Holmes remembers as a child was “the saddest Christmas song ever written.” The singer, who was born in England, remembers hearing the song The Little Boy That Santa Claus Forgot when he was a child.
“[The song] made such an impression on me that every time I heard it, I almost wanted to run to my room and hide from the song,” Holmes recalled during the interview. For Reader, and many other people who were born in the late ‘70s, Escape molded their ears and their brain for pop music.
Reader adds that Escape is such a “cinematic” piece of music. “As a kid, when I heard it, and the first drum part, and it goes in—it’s exotic. It takes you away,” Reader told Holmes. The song sure does live up to its name.
And not only was Escape number one in the U.S., but it was also number one in Canada, Australia, and Japan, according to Reading. So how did Holmes write this song that went on to become a pop culture phenomenon all over the world? According to Holmes, it’s a complicated story.
It’s also a story about Holmes making some life-changing decisions in the span of ten seconds. The singer was in the middle of recording his fifth album, Partners in Crime. Before then, no one had really heard of Rupert Holmes.
His previous record, Pursuit of Happiness, started to climb the charts, but that record label went out of business before Holmes could get a real, genuine hit. He was good enough for different labels to repeatedly sign him, so Holmes knew he had it in him to create a great song.
While recording his fifth album, Holmes noticed that he had way too many ballads. He needed something upbeat if he wanted Partners in Crime to have any chance of making it onto the charts. “I had a song that I’d always kind of liked. I liked the groove of it,” Holmes said.
“It had started being a song that I made up in my head.” It all started one day while Holmes was sitting in his office on 5th Avenue in New York. One day while looking out at the window, he noticed that there were only Italian designer stores on this street.
So, he began humming a song that went like, “Ferrucci baby, with your new Gucci shoes. Poochy baby, Gucci gees, Gucci goos.” Holmes liked the song, and he liked the melody. The little jingle, which has the same melody as Escape, stayed with him over the years.
After a while, Holmes realized that he could make this into a song. So, he changed the lyrics to “People need other people, I believe you will find…” Holmes liked this new version of the song and decided to record it for his fifth studio album.
When recording began, Holmes’ drummer, Leo Adamian, suggested that Holmes add another drummer to the track. He wanted someone to keep “the basic groove” so that he could do some more playing around on his own drum.
“It has a sort of upside-down reggae feel to it,” Holmes said of the song. So, the singer decided to hire another drummer so they could record Escape. But the story doesn’t stop there. Holmes says that when you record a track, you usually do a take and then go into the control room to hear how it sounds.
From there, musicians will decide where they can tighten up the tempo or maybe slow down the melody. So, Holmes and his band did one take of this song at Plaza Studio at the top of Radio City Music Hall before going into the control room to hear how it sounded.
“We did the take and listened to it, and I said, ‘Well, that was pretty sloppy. I know we can do better than that,’” Holmes told Reader. But when he turned around to look at his drummers, he noticed that the second drummer had passed out on the couch.
Holmes had no idea why he passed out, but he knew that the drummer needed to be taken home. They loaded the drummer into the taxi and Holmes went back inside to listen to the one and only take they had of the song.
Luckily for Holmes, he found 16 bars from the first take that were actually tight and good. Not wanting to waste these good parts, Holmes and the sound engineer decided to do something that was very uncommon, mainly because it was nearly impossible to do at that time. Remember, this was the analog era.
Holmes and the band had recorded on a two-inch tape. So, the sound engineer decided to take those 16 bars that were good and then edit the tape (with a razor and tape) until they had a four-minute loop of those same 16 bars.
Nowadays, this is called looping, and it is actually very common and easy to do. But, back then, Holmes and his team did this manually—something that people just didn’t have the patience to do. So now, Holmes had a track that had a good rhythm to it. However, the song that he recorded didn’t fit this new rhythm.
The original song, People Need Other People, had a chorus that didn’t fit with this new beat. So, Holmes was forced to write an entirely new song. “I thought, ‘It better be a really intriguing story because the music is going to have a kind of repetitive quality to it,’” the singer-songwriter shared.
Luckily, writing is his specialty. But even still, the pressure was on. All of this took place the night before his last day at the recording studio. “I have to sing this song, that I have not yet written, the next day at 10 a.m.”
Sitting at his kitchen table, Holmes begins to look around his house for inspiration. That’s when he spotted a copy of the Village Voice, which just so happened to have a bunch of dating ads on the back.
Holmes began to think that if all of these people are so great, then why do they need to advertise it? “But then I thought, be fair. Maybe they want this adventure of meeting someone who they don’t know,” the singer told Reader. “Not knowing who to expect, and not being something prosaic and humdrum.”
Holmes tried to put himself in that position. If he was someone looking for a romantic adventure, then what would happen next? And what was the reason behind it all? And what would happen to someone who answered one of those ads? With all those questions in mind, Holmes began to write.
One of the first lines he wrote was for the chorus, which read, “If you like Humphrey Bogart and getting caught in the rain.” You know, the actor from Casablanca? After a few hours of writing, Holmes thought he had a good enough song and headed off to bed.
But even with these new lyrics, Holmes had another fear. “This is a story song with a twist ending, and what I was nervous about was that you could see the twist coming too soon,” he revealed in 2021.
So, the next morning at the recording studio, Holmes told the guitarist and the sound engineer that he was going to sing the entire song all the way through. He also instructed them not to stop him if he made any mistakes. “I wanted to see if [guitarist] Dean [Bailin], listening in real-time, can guess the ending of the song before I get there.”
Holmes had his lyrics typed out, but he had never sung this song before. And right before he was about to record, he looked at the lyric, “If you like Humphrey Bogart,” and thought to himself, “Humphrey Bogart is a black and white image—that’s noir.”
“But this couple in the story, they’re not noir. They want escape. They want to go to the islands.” So what’s the first thing you do when you’re on vacation in the Caribbean? According to Holmes, it’s to order a fruity drink on the beach.
Holmes began listing a bunch of fruity, vacation drinks in his head: Mai Thai, daiquiri, and, of course, piña colada. “I had never had a piña colada in my entire life,” Holmes confessed during the interview. “I didn’t even bother to change the lyric.”
“I just knew that every time I said ‘Humphrey Bogart’ I would just replace it with ‘piña colada.’” So, Holmes sang the song all the way through. Holmes also notes that the version that everyone knows and loves today is from that first time that he ever sang the song.
“That record is the first time I ever sang the song, and you hear me having the fun of discovering the song,” Holmes laughed. “And because I had never checked the song against the track, I had a couple of moments, some bumpy moments where I thought, ‘I’ve got too many syllables here.’”
So, with lines like “I’ve got to meet you by tomorrow noon,” Holmes had to speed up his singing in order to fit it with the beat. With other lines like “I am into champagne,” Holmes realized that he had too few, so he needed to stretch it out.
When Holmes finished the vocals, he asked Bailin if he saw the twist of the story coming. He didn’t, so Holmes said, “That’s just a scratch vocal, a reference vocal. It’s sloppy. I didn’t do a good job with it.” Thinking that he would go back to the vocals later that day, Homes decided that he wanted to work on the guitar bits.
Now, this part is something that Holmes didn’t really think about until a couple of years ago. Had he stayed with the Humphrey Bogart line, then he most likely would have added a sad, moody saxophone during the instrumental break.
But now that he had replaced the actor’s name with a tropical drink, Holmes needed the song to sound like a vacation in the islands. Holmes had Bailin add a sliding guitar that sounded like a Hawaiian luau, while he added some flutes on a synthesizer to make it sound more dreamy and vacation-like.
And for the cherry on top, Holmes decided to add the sound of waves crashing. “Pretty soon, we had this very lustrous and kind of Martin Denny, paradise, Hawaiian style.” The singer realized that had he kept Humphrey Bogart, he would have never made the instrumental break the way he did.
“That break was inspired by that decision I made in ten seconds before I sang the song,” Holmes revealed to Reader. “It sends terror down my spine to think, ‘If you hadn’t made a piña colada impulsively, you wouldn’t have made that break, the record wouldn’t have been as entertaining.’”
Fascinating! But there’s more to the story. Even though Escape is a lighthearted song, it has a deeper meaning, or rather a suggestion: People dispose of relationships too easily. For those who don’t remember the twist, the narrator answers a relationship ad, only to find out that it was put out by his wife.
“Unfortunately, sometimes we’re too quick to think that there’s something better in store for us, rather than investigating and investing in the relationship that you’re already in,” the singer explains. That’s really what the song is about.
It’s about two people who are looking for an adventure only to find out that they can have it in their current relationship. So, now that Holmes had the instrumental break, all that was left to do was re-record his vocals. However, with each take, the singer realized that he just couldn’t get the same energy that he had had in the first take.
“I said, ‘This is never going to be a single or anything like that. This is just a song I need to keep some up-tempo material on the album.” So, instead of re-recording the track, Holmes just decided to keep it as is, “warts and all.”
But what he did do was add some harmony in the chorus by adding his own voice on top of the original recording. All those problems—like having to make a loop out of a recording because his drummer passed out, to writing a new song, and then a last-minute change to the chorus—really added together.
With the final product finally recorded, Holmes decided to call the song Escape. Then, one day, the singer received a call from his record label—they were planning on releasing the track as a single. “I said, ‘No, no, no! The single is Him,’” Holmes said, referring to another track on the album.
The record company then told him that Escape was getting great reviews, and they had a good feeling about the track, but there was just one problem. “You call the song Escape, and everyone is asking for the song about piña coladas.”
Holmes’ record company asked if they could call the track Escape (The Piña Colada Song). They told him that they were getting a lot of airplay, but the track would lose its momentum if they didn’t change the name.
As a writer, Holmes says that he still doesn’t know if he made the right decision by agreeing with the record company (The Piña Colada Song isn’t exactly a poetic title). But thanks to all of these little changes, Holmes’ record is now one of the most well-known songs in the world.
Escape (The Piña Colada Song) completely changed the trajectory of Holmes’ life. “It’s miraculous to me that I meet kids whose parents weren’t born when the song was a hit, and they know the song,” the singer said in 2021.
The reason why the song has lived on for over forty years is thanks to the number of times it’s been referenced in pop culture. The catchy tune has been featured in countless films and TV shows, including Guardians of the Galaxy, Shrek, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Better Call Saul, and Deadpool 2 to name a few.
For Holmes, there’s one celeb, in particular, that seems to love the song. “Jimmy Fallon seems to be very taken with, ‘So I wrote to the paper,’” Holmes laughed. “When he sings The Piña Colada Song, I think that’s the line he most enjoys singing. He’s sung it a couple of times now.”
The singer admits that even 40 years later, he’s still surprised by just how many films and TV shows have references to the hit single. As Reader puts it, Escape is just one of those songs that immediately takes you back to a specific moment in time.
As for Holmes, his favorite moment with this song comes from recent years. Every time he gets up on stage to perform Escape, “the audience’s faces transform. They suddenly slip 10, 20, 30 years of their age and they kind of get like a silly smile on their face,” the singer said.
“What I love is that I get the same reaction from people in their mid-20s as people in their mid-50s.” As for Holmes, his life completely changed since the release of his mega-hit (that has no sign of going away anytime soon).
Barbara Streisand discovered Holmes’ first album, Widescreen, in 1974—five years before Escape became a smashing hit. She even recorded some of his songs for the original A Star Is Born.
In fact, Streisand liked Holmes so much that she hired him to write, conduct, and arrange tracks on her 1975 album, Lazy Afternoon. But even with Streisand’s approval, Holmes did not catch his big break until Escape came out in 1979. And while many people think of Holmes as a one-hit-wonder, that is not the case.
In fact, the singer had another hit song from his fifth studio album. The song Him peaked at number six on the Billboard Hot 100. The singer also had another Top 40 hit in 1986 with his song Answering Machine.
For most of the ‘80s and ‘90s, Holmes performed in comedy clubs and cabarets in New York City. One night director Joseph Papp and his wife saw one of Holmes’ shows and encouraged him to start writing plays. He made his debut in 1985 with the musical The Mystery of Edwin Drood (later known as Drood).
The play was such a hit that Holmes won a Tony Award, as well as several other awards and honors. The musical was revived by Broadway and London, and the success led Homes to write several other plays.
But when his 10-year-old daughter suddenly passed away from an undiagnosed brain tumor in 1986, Holmes took a step back from musicals for a few years. He returned in the early 2000s and has been involved with Broadway ever since. Today, Holmes is married to his childhood sweetheart and the two have two adult sons, Nick and Timothy.