A songwriter with an uncanny sense of craftsmanship, he could be counted on to provide razor-sharp pop instincts and production acumen no matter the project.

By Marc Hirsh
April 02, 2020 at 12:58 PM EDT
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Adam Schlesinger wasn't a star. Not only was he not the frontperson in any of the three bands he helped form from the mid-1990s on — Fountains Of Wayne, Ivy, and Tinted Windows — his preferred onstage role was as a bassist (a position stereotypically seen as so unobtrusive that the bass player in That Thing You Do! never got a name beyond "The Bass Player"). Despite his crucial harmony vocals adding a streamlined, postmodern Beach Boys dimension to the songs, he ceded focus to Chris Collingwood, Dominique Durand, or Taylor Hanson while he stood happily to the side of the stage.

But Schlesinger wasn't providing the bottom; he served as the not-so-secret weapon at the center. The musician, who died Wednesday of COVID-19 complications at the age of 52, may not have been the face of his many groups, but he was the lifeblood coursing through almost all of them. A songwriter with an uncanny sense of craftsmanship, he could be counted on to provide razor-sharp pop instincts and production acumen no matter the project.

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And he was quietly restless. For well over a decade, Ivy and Fountains Of Wayne were going concerns simultaneously, each of them operating on a four-year album cycle, staggered like the Olympics. (Fountains being summer, Ivy winter.) And still Schlesinger burst with more songs, spitting out material for countless movies and television shows and finding time to compose a Broadway musical (Cry-Baby). Schlesinger was so prolific, in fact, that trying to get a grip on his output can be dizzying. In her Twitter tribute (or "egobituary," as she herself called it), Crazy Ex-Girlfriend co-creator Aline Brosh McKenna claimed that Schlesinger wrote or co-wrote 157 songs for the television show over the course of four seasons.

It helped that he could write in seemingly any genre. The sarcastic, whomping Fountains Of Wayne and lithe and buzzy Tinted Windows were fundamentally power pop, while Ivy combined cool Eurolounge with sad hints of Burt Bacharach. But Schlesinger could also write a pitch-perfect mid-'60s garage-rock throwback ("That Thing You Do!"), a millennial candy-glam doormat snarl (Josie And The Pussycats's "Pretend To Be Nice"), a melodramatically heartbroken mid-'80s saxophone ballad ("Meaningless Kiss" from Music And Lyrics), and big-spectacle musical theatre (the opening numbers for the Neil Patrick Harris-hosted 2011 and 2012 Tony Awards).

Performing with Fountains of Wayne
Paul Drinkwater/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images via Getty Images

And then there was Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. The musical sequences on the Rachel Bloom-starring show ran the stylistic gamut, often parodying not just genres or even specific artists but individual songs that could require microscopically precise musical choices to land properly. As producer for every song that appeared on the show, Schlesinger was responsible for fine-tuning the material to ensure that it fit into the precise contours of Ed Sheeran, or Fifth Harmony, or Billy Joel, or the Four Seasons, or the Weather Girls, or Disney Princess ballads, or klezmer, or whoever. Miss by an inch and the jokes – and sometimes the emotional stakes of the scene in question – don't land with half the impact. Schlesinger rarely missed.

Popular success mostly eluded Schlesinger; Fountains Of Wayne's "Stacy's Mom" was his only song to crack the top 40, though "That Thing You Do!" missed it by a single spot and *NSYNC would perform it on tour, impressive feats for a song by a nonexistent band. But starting with the latter's Oscar nomination for Best Original Song in 1997, he received a fair amount of awards notice, eventually becoming an EGOT nominee (and taking home three Es). His Grammy history proved doubly ironic, with Fountains Of Wayne being nominated in 2004 for Best New Artist courtesy of their third major-label album and the songs Schlesinger wrote for A Colbert Christmas: The Greatest Gift of All! finally nabbing him a win in 2010… for Best Comedy Album.

Rachel Bloom and Adam Schlesinger.

Given Schlesinger's range, his eagerness to work with any number of collaborators, and generosity in letting them command the spotlight and the sheer number of flat-out great songs that poured out of him, the body of work that's been suddenly lost with his death, that will now never be created, is almost unimaginable. Cry-Baby, based on the 1990 John Waters's film, didn't gain nearly the traction that the director's previous Broadway smash Hairspray did, but that was before Schlesinger spent four whirlwind years writing and producing songs for a new 45-minute musical series every week. Perhaps that experience and the theatre connections forged in the process would have helped him bring into existence a beloved future stage production or two that now never gets written.

Or, with Crazy Ex-Girlfriend having come to an end after four years of ludicrous productivity, Schlesinger might have gone the other way and refocused on simply writing another endless stream of perfect pop songs for others to sing while he stood contentedly off to the side. Knowing Schlesinger, it could have been both. Either way, thanks to a life prematurely cut short at a point where his creativity showed zero signs of flagging, there are now albums' upon albums' worth of terrific songs that will never get to see the light of day.

In her egobituary, McKenna included Schlesinger's original pitch demo for Crazy Ex-Girlfriend's "What'll It Be," which he sent with the note "Here's an idea for the piano song. Only one verse/chorus at the moment but will keep going if you dig [it]." The attached recording features a fully-formed, and complex, harmonic progression and melody, a clear stylistic and lyrical thesis and a bunch of solid jokes that nevertheless don't undercut the genuine feelings that the character's trying to express. Or, as Schlesinger himself viewed it, "Here's an idea."

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