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Roger Nichols and “We’ve Only Just Begun”

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Roger Nichols (b. September 17, 1940) is an American composer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist who plays violin, guitar, bass, and piano.  Born on September 17, 1940, in Missoula, MT, Nichols moved with his parents to Santa Monica, CA, when he was a one-year-old. His household brimmed with music when he was growing up. His dad was a journalism graduate and a professional photographer who played sax in local jazz bands. His mother was a music major and a classical pianist. When Nichols started grade school, he picked up the violin, continuing his violin and classical studies throughout grammar and high school. His attention turned to basketball and Nichols forsook violin for the hoops but played guitar on the side.

Recruited to U.C.L.A. on a basketball scholarship, Nichols played on the team for a year or two. Confronted to make a choice between music or basketball by his coach John Wooden, Nichols chose music. While in college, he majored in music and cinematography while still playing the guitar and adding the piano. After a brief hiatus, he returned to U.C.L.A. and began taking songwriting courses. After he left college, Nichols took a variety of jobs, working in a bank for two years, a liquor store for a year and a half, and serving six months in the navy. On weekends, he worked in clubs with his group, Roger Nichols and a Small Circle of Friends, that performed original songs written by Nichols.

Around 1965, the group was signed to a recording contract by Liberty Records. While at the label, the group briefly had the opportunity to work with Tommy Li Puma. Li Puma thought the group had some potential, but left Liberty shortly thereafter. With the label for eight months without having a record released, Nichols called A&M Records expressing interest in playing some demos for label co-owner Herb Alpert. He was switched to Li Puma who had been hired as the A&R man for the new label. Li Puma was still enamored of the group. Nichols then asked for and received a release from Liberty Records.  While Nichols waited for Li Puma to finish producing the Sandpipers and Claudine Longet, he wrote an instrumental for Alpert that he promptly recorded a week after hearing it. Nichols had co-written many songs with Tony Asher and Bill Lane which also appeared on Nichols’ debut album Roger Nichols And The Small Circle Of Friends (1968) which was engineered by Bruce Botnick and featured session contributions from Van Dyke Parks, Randy Newman and Lenny Waronker.  Though Roger Nichols and a Small Circle of Friends wasn’t a big seller, Alpert urged A&M publishing company head Chuck Kaye to sign Nichols as a songwriter to their company.

During his second year with the company, Kaye introduced Nichols to lyricist Paul Williams. The first song that wrote was recorded by Claudine Longet, “It’s Hard to Say Goodbye.” The duo wrote together for four years, resulting in lots of album cuts, B-sides, even A-sides, but no hits.  An advertising executive approached a friend of Nichols asking for help with an under-budget commercial project for Crocker Bank. Nichols’ friend gave him a copy of the Roger Nichols and a Small Circle of Friends album. The ad exec called A&M and made an appointment with Nichols and Williams to discuss the project. The exec said that he only had 300 dollars to make a demo and the rest of the project had to be done on speculation that the project would pan out and become a successful ad campaign, in which case this would lead to more money.

Hoping to capture the youth market by softening the bank’s image, Nichols and Williams were given the slogan, “You’ve got a long way to and go and we’d like to help you get there.” They had just ten days to create a song, essentially a jingle. Waiting until the last day, after they’ve completed other projects, Nichols started playing around on the piano and wrote the basic verse melody in a half hour. Williams joined him later and come up with some lyric lines. On the demo, Nichols overdubbed piano, bass, and guitar while Williams sang. It was approved by the bank who requested that they complete the song, which at that time included two verses and a bridge.  Crocker Bank had the advertising rights to the song, but the duo, along with A&M, retained the recording and publishing rights.

Richard Carpenter of the Carpenters heard the jingle on a TV commercial, and although signed to A&M, didn’t know who wrote the track. He found out and the Carpenters recorded the song in 1970. “We’ve Only Just Begun” was nominated for a Grammy for Song of the Year, was included on BMI’s million performances list, and received an award for selling a million copies of sheet music. . The song was also covered by Curtis Mayfield among many others.  Another Nichols-Williams song, “Out in the Country” by Three Dog Night and later by R.E.M., landed in the Top Ten. Six months later, “Rainy Days and Mondays” was another gold record by the Carpenters and Nichols’ third gold record in a single year. Other hits were the Carpenters’ “I Won’t Last a Day Without You,” Art Garfunkel’s “Travelin’ Boy” (covered by Rumer), and “I Never Had It So Good,” covered by Barbara Streisand.

In 1972, the Nichols-Williams team parted ways.  Nichols returned to his native Montana, bought a house, and relaxed. A few years later, he returned to composing and primarily background scoring. In later years, Nichols’ hits were more associated with the TV shows that he scored like “Love Theme From Hart to Hart” with a lyric by Lane.  “Times of Your Life”, written with Lane and performed by Paul Anka, had reached number one on the Adult Contemporary chart (3–10 January 1976).  Nichols released a Japan-only CD in 1995 called “Roger Nichols and a Circle of Friends — Be Gentle With My Heart”, featuring vocalist Sheila O’Connell-Roussell, on which he recorded some of his best-known tunes, including “We’ve Only Just Begun”, “I Won’t Last a Day Without You”, and “Rainy Days and Mondays” (which features Paul Williams on guest vocal).  He also released a CD in 2007 with the original Small Circle of Friends called Full Circle which brought together the group to cover many of Nichols hits for other bands, including “Out in the Country” and “Let Me Be the One” as well as other tunes penned during Roger’s late-1960s heyday. 2008 saw an upgraded release of “Full Circle” issued by Steve Stanley’s Now Sounds label. This version also contains 5 previously-unreleased, 1960s-era demo recordings.

The following work by Roger Nichols is contained in my collection:

We’ve Only Just Begun (1970).

One thought on “Roger Nichols and “We’ve Only Just Begun”

  1. The person in the photograph is not the Roger Nichols you write about. It’s Roger Nichols the recording engineer (Steely Dan, etc).

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