How Meat Loaf Became Music’s Most Unlikely Megaseller

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How Meat Loaf Became Music’s Most Unlikely Megaseller
© Provided by Slate Photo by: Margaret C. Norton/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images via Getty Images

A little over 50 years ago, in the early summer of 1971, a pair of singers who’d gotten their big break in the roadshow version of the musical Hair made their debut on the Billboard charts. The duo’s breakthrough hit, “What You See Is What You Get,” was a groovy kind of electric soul—very on-trend for a year of classic chart-toppers by the likes of Isaac Hayes, Marvin Gaye, and Sly Stone. The single was on a Motown subsidiary label called Rare Earth, and it made its debut on the Hot 100 and Soul Singles charts virtually simultaneously. It didn’t do much on the pop side, peaking at No. 71 in June. But it did considerably better at R&B, cracking the Soul chart’s Top 40 at No. 36. Which is remarkable, because both singers were white. (In its heyday, Motown’s promotional team really could get anything on the charts.) Even more remarkable, one of the two singers was the Dallas-born Marvin Lee Aday, who already went by the moniker Meat Loaf. His short-lived duo, with the woman singer Shaun “Stoney” Murphy, was called Stoney and Meatloaf.

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The fact that Meat Loaf once charted R&B is only one of the many improbabilities of his decades-long career, which came to an end with his death on Thursday night at age 74. Of course, Meat (who preferred that his friends call him that, and not, as the New York Times is wrongly alleged to have described him, Mr. Loaf) would soon become better known for a different professional pairing: his partnership with the brilliantly bombastic songwriter Jim Steinman. That pairing generated the Meat Loaf–branded, Steinman-powered and Todd Rundgren–produced 1977 sleeper blockbuster Bat Out of Hell, which by some measures is the fourth-biggest-selling album of all time worldwide at 44 million copies. Global sales stats are notoriously fudgable—in the U.S., the Recording Industry Association of America has Bat certified for sales of 14 million—but what is inarguable is that Steinman’s and Meat Loaf’s passion project wildly exceeded everybody’s expectations, including theirs. Not bad for two guys told by industry legend Clive Davis that Jim couldn’t write and Meat couldn’t sing.

Specifically, Davis sniffed that Meat Loaf wasn’t a singer because “actors don’t make records.” To be fair, it is easy to picture a path whereby Meat Loaf became a character actor, but it’s hard to imagine that he wouldn’t try his hand at singing eventually, given his arena-ready voice. Always plus-sized—he reportedly weighed 240 pounds by seventh grade—Marvin Aday tried a little of everything as an adolescent, including serving as an extra in the film State Fair and fronting a hippie-era band called Popcorn Blizzard. After he left Dallas, he spent several years in L.A. trying to make it both in music and on the stage. In addition to his small role in Hair, Meat Loaf would originate the role of Eddie in the L.A. production of The Rocky Horror Show, one he would later reprise in the cinematic adaptation, The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

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The turning point came in 1972, when, after the breakup of Stoney and Meatloaf, he moved to New York. There he auditioned for More Than You Deserve, an off-Broadway musical produced by Joseph Papp’s Public Theater and written by Jim Steinman, an overconfident newcomer playwright with an operatic streak who’d been hyped as a theatrical wunderkind since his days producing musicals at Amherst College. As I chronicled in an episode about Steinman for my Slate podcast Hit Parade, he was laying the groundwork for a wave of future ’70s and ’80s hits in the late ’60s, penning and recycling melodies that would later show up in songs like “Total Eclipse of the Heart.” But to that point, after graduating from Amherst and moving to New York on Papp’s dime, not much had come to fruition for Steinman until he met Meat Loaf, his muse. “Meat was the most mesmerizing thing I’d ever seen. He was much bigger than he is now,” Steinman later told Classic Rock magazine. “And since I grew up [loving] Wagner, all my heroes were larger than life. [Meat’s] eyes went into his head, like he was transfixed … I can seem arrogant at times, because I’m certain of things—and I was certain of him.”

Virtually from the moment they met, Meat and Jim began collaborating on songs, written by Steinman and brought to lung-busting life by the singer. At one point, Steinman saw these songs fitting into a musical retelling of the Peter Pan story that he called Neverland. But by 1975, Jim and Meat had begun conceiving of it as a seven-song cycle that could play not as a show but as an album. After catching Bruce Springsteen’s now-legendary multi-night stand at the Bottom Line in the summer of ’75, Steinman and Meat Loaf realized the moment had come for their grand spectacle, which was packed with the same shivery rock-will-save-your-soul drama Springsteen conveyed on Born to Run. They would later borrow two members of Springsteen’s E Street Band, keyboardist Roy Bittan and drummer Max Weinberg, for the album they were envisioning.

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But first they had to get signed. In addition to their storied rejection by Clive Davis, the duo—auditioning the songs for a slew of record labels, accompanied by Meat’s then-girlfriend Ellen Foley—were turned down everywhere. That is, until they performed for Todd Rundgren, the quirky, wizardly and eclectic artist-turned-producer who’d just helmed albums by the New York Dolls, Grand Funk Railroad, and Daryl Hall and John Oates. Rundgren found Steinman’s songs amusing, almost comical in their grandiosity, and he agreed to record Meat Loaf’s debut at his Bearsville studios near Woodstock, New York. This turned out to be an expensive and risky decision—Rundgren had to bankroll the album himself when, as late as 1976, labels still weren’t interested. They recorded the material fairly quickly, reimagining both Springsteen’s grandiosity and Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound on songs like “Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad,” “You Took the Words Right Out of My Mouth,” and “Paradise by the Dashboard Light,” on which Steinman and Meat Loaf had the brainstorm to record former Yankee shortstop-turned-announcer Phil Rizzuto calling the play-by-play between Meat’s horny teen boy and Foley’s hesitant girlfriend.

With the LP recorded but Meat still unsigned, the Steinman team threw a Hail Mary, pitching Steve Popovitch, president of the independent Cleveland International label (which was distributed by Epic Records, one of the many major labels that had already rejected Meat and Jim). Popovich loved the album and signed Meat Loaf and team after hearing half a song, and Bat Out of Hell would finally see release in the fall of 1977. It was a slow grower, debuting at No. 185 and knocking around the lower reaches of the Billboard LP chart for half a year.

It took television to finally capture Meat’s theatrical flair and break him on both sides of the Atlantic: a March 1978 performance on Saturday Night Live and, in England, a contemporaneous showcase on the BBC show The Old Grey Whistle Test. In both appearances, Meat Loaf was a vision in long hair and an open tuxedo shirt, sweat pouring off him as he sang. A month after the SNL performance, “Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad” cracked the Top 40 on the Hot 100, on its way to a No. 11 peak. It was followed by “Paradise by the Dashboard Light” and “You Took the Words Right Out of My Mouth,” both of which reached No. 39. (Given the songs’ length, it was remarkable they scraped the Top 40 at all. Even edited down for radio, “Paradise by the Dashboard Light” was over five and a half minutes.) Bat Out of Hell finally broke into the Top 40 and would ride the U.S. album chart for nearly two years, never rising higher than No. 14. In the U.K., after the Old Grey performance, Bat Out of Hell entered the British album chart and essentially never left. At more than 500 weeks, it’s one of the longest-charting albums in British history; among studio albums, Bat trails only Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours and Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon for U.K. chart longevity.

Having already achieved the improbable—embodying Steinman’s delightfully ridiculous mini-operettas, getting past years of rejection and turning out a multiplatinum album on a tiny label—Meat Loaf would go on to one of the most unpredictable comebacks in rock history. It came after an ’80s that was one long wilderness period. He and Steinman took four years to follow up Bat, and despite an MTV-ready duet with Cher, 1981’s overcooked  Dead Ringer bellyflopped on the charts (a No. 45 peak in only 11 weeks on Top LPs). The album’s failure sent Meat Loaf into a tailspin, as he split from Steinman, wound up suing him over royalties, and watched the songwriter score smashes with Bonnie Tyler, Air Supply, and even Barry Manilow that either were originally, or would have been, Meat Loaf songs. The singer tried to recreate the Steinman sound with everyone from film-music producer Alan Shacklock to “St. Elmo’s Fire” singer John Parr, all of which blanked on the charts. Meat Loaf kept his career afloat in the late ’80s by touring extensively, before he and Steinman finally buried the hatchet in the early ’90s to devise a proper followup to Bat Out of Hell.

Built out of a quippy lyric Steinman had previously slipped into a 1983 Bonnie Tyler album cut, “I’d Do Anything for Love (But I Won’t Do That)” was, commercially, the opposite of everything he and Meat Loaf had done in the ’70s: an instant success. As huge-selling as 1977’s Bat Out of Hell turned out to be, it grew slowly and never generated a Top 10 hit. Which is why, in October 1993, the music business was stunned when Meat Loaf’s Bat Out of Hell II: Back into Hell debuted on the Billboard 200 album chart all the way up at No. 3, right behind albums by Garth Brooks and Mariah Carey. Fans greeted Bat II as if 1981’s Dead Ringer had never existed. (As rapper Lil Wayne would teach us in the 21st century with his best-selling Tha Carter series, album titles matter.) Four weeks later, Bat II reached No. 1, leaping over CDs by Brooks and Nirvana. One week after that, “I’d Do Anything for Love (But I Won’t Do That)” did the even more improbable, rising to No. 1 on the Hot 100. The song stayed on top five weeks, one week longer than Steinman’s 1983 No. 1 with Bonnie Tyler, “Total Eclipse of the Heart.” The album even generated a followup hit, “Rock and Roll Dreams Come Through” (No. 13, 1994), that Steinman had originally written and recorded in 1981, intending to give it to Meat.

Theirs was a symbiotic relationship, and Meat Loaf didn’t seem to mind that his greatest musical successes came via Jim Steinman’s flowery quill. In addition to acting in more than 50 movies, including 1999’s acclaimed Fight Club and … ahem, a 2011 season of The Apprentice, Mr. Loaf continued to dabble in the Steinman songbook. In 2006, he finally got to wrap his pipes around “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now,” the Steinman song Celine Dion made famous in 1996, for Bat Out of Hell III: The Monster Is Loose. Though Meat couldn’t persuade Steinman to join him for that sequel—the songwriter was recovering from a reported heart attack—the singer managed to complete the album with producer Desmond Child, and even in Steinman’s absence, Bat III did reasonably well, reaching the Top 10 and going gold. As late as 2016, just shy of his 70th birthday, Meat Loaf was still taking on Steinman’s challenging and quippy compositions, including one Steinman originally wrote for Bonnie Tyler in the ’80s, “Loving You’s a Dirty Job but Somebody’s Gotta Do It.”

Like an old married couple, wherein one half of the pair dies and the heartbroken widow(er) follows just months later, Meat Loaf died nine months to the day after Jim Steinman. If there is a heaven where rock and roll dreams come true, it just got a lot more thunderous.

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