Mr. Big’s calling card To Be With You was something of an afterthought. It was the second single lifted off their second album, 1991’s Lean Into It, and the lack of success of its first single, Green-Tinted Sixties Mind – which failed to chart anywhere except the UK, where it reached No.72 – hardly augured well for the follow-up.
In fact, according to bassist Billy Sheehan, the band’s label, Atlantic, weren’t keen on releasing To Be With You, refusing to believe it would provide the band with their first hit, and agreed to do so only after radio started playing it.
“We didn’t find out until later that they didn’t like the record, they didn’t like our songs and they didn’t like band,” he says. “They had all but given up on us. We battled them from the beginning over it.”
Having accrued an audience largely through showcases for pyrotechnic shredding such as Addicted To That Rush and Daddy, Brother, Lover, Little Boy (The Electric Drill Song), To Be With You was an anomaly for Mr. Big, their lighters-aloft soft rock/power ballad occupying a similar position in their catalogue to More Than Words in Extreme’s.
The song’s principal writer, frontman Eric Martin, came across the song on an old cassette.
“He didn’t really give it much mind – he was kind of: ‘Meh, this old thing,’” Sheehan remembers. Martin wrote it while still in his mid-teens, trying to impress his sister’s friends.
“I was sixteen/seventeen years old, and I was sitting in our front yard under an old oak tree, playing the guitar – it was my first gig,” he recalls, laughing.
More specifically, he had in mind Patricia Reynolds, a local girl he had fallen head over heels for, even though she was too busy with other boys to notice. To her, Martin was just the cheeky kid next door.
“She called me an imp of Satan. I was her confidant and knight in shining armour. A shoulder to cry on. I was totally enamoured with this woman.”
Inspired, Martin recorded an acoustic demo of To Be With You, which was “very Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young”.
Years later, after he had established himself on the hard rock circuit and signed a publishing deal with Columbia Records, he was put together with a songwriter, David Grahame. It was then that the song took on its final, spartan, singalong shape, a deliberate evocation of John Lennon’s Give Peace A Chance.
Martin was living in San Francisco while the rest of the band were in LA, and he would drive back and forth, occasionally sofa-surfing at Mr. Big guitarist Paul Gilbert’s home in Hollywood. One day, he told the guitarist about his song, adding the magic word: “It’s kind of like The Beatles.” Gilbert added the “really pretty solo” and fell under the song’s thrall, as did the rest of the band.
“Paul, Pat [Torpey, drums] and I heard it and went: ‘Wow, we’ve got to do that song!’” Sheehan says. “Eric was kind of surprised that we liked it. But we immediately pushed for it to be on Lean Into It. ”
“There was all this meat, and then we had Yesterday,” Martin ventures, drawing comparisons with the Paul McCartney/ Beatles standard. “I’m not saying To Be With You is like Yesterday, but it was kind of like our Yesterday.”
“We didn’t expect much from it,” Sheehan adds. “We didn’t think: ‘Oh, man, this is gonna be a hit!’ We had no clue. It was just a sweet little song.”
Mr. Big’s members had spent years toiling away: Gilbert with Racer X, Sheehan with Talas and David Lee Roth’s band, Martin solo. Now, thanks to radio stations – “and people calling the stations to say they liked it,” Sheehan says – and with a little help from MTV (the video for the track was by Nancy Bennett, director of Led Zeppelin tribute Encomium), the band had their “very own, one hundred per cent organic” hit.
The track began with some earnestly strummed, rasping entreaties (‘Hold on, little girl’), proceeded with unison harmonies and handclaps, and built towards a good old campfire singalong, a veritable Hey Jude for the hair-metal generation. Rousing stuff.
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It certainly roused the record-buying hordes, who sent it to No.1 in more than a dozen countries. Sheehan remembers To Be With You as “the song that changed our lives completely”, although Martin was still sleeping on his dad’s couch as it swept the globe.
After two further hits – another balled, Just Take My Heart, and a cover of Cat Stevens’s Wild World – in ’92 and ’93 respectively, Mr. Big lived up to their name and became big in Japan, South America and south-east Asia, to name just few places. “As soon as we go past our borders, all hell breaks loose,” Sheehan jokes.
Mr. Big are still out there touring and recording, and they acknowledge that to a large degree it was To Be With You that put them on the map – and, for more than a quarter of a century, has kept them there.
“I’ve had thirty or forty instances of people writing to me, telling me they were extremely sick, even cases of suicidal thoughts, and they managed to turn it around because of that song,” Sheehan says. “It’s quite awesome.”
As for Martin, he’s just glad it earned him some kudos at last.
“I was just ‘the singer dude’,” he says, wryly. “I’d be hanging by the bus and all the fans would come up to me and go: ‘You’re the singer dude – go get Billy, go get Paul,’ right? They knew Pat Torpey cos he played with The Knack. People would knock me over to get to the guys, and I was always a little intimidated. With To Be With You I got some confidence. Finally I was in the league of gentlemen.”