Story of a Song: “Goin’ to the Top”

50songs50stories_book_coverFirst in a series of entries that will eventually be gathered into a book with the working title, “50 Songs, 50 Stories”.

This entry tells the story of “Goin’ to the Top” — originally written for Aaron Neville, at the request of a New Orleans’ business leader. But the road to that song went via Sydney, Australia, with many twists and turns along the way …  – Alan

I became a musician in no small part because I was awarded a scholarship to attend Tulane University in New Orleans. The scholarship was not in music — I was a science and math nerd — but I had sung in a couple of bands in high school and performed in the school talent show with an Elton John medley on piano. I grew up singing in my mother’s church choir. I loved music. So one of the first things I did on arrival at Tulane University was to audition for the university’s jazz and pop music ensemble, the “Tulanians.”

This band of a dozen singers and a dozen instrumentalists was (fortunately) far more than a glee club. Under the direction of the late Leland Bennett, who also directed one of New Orleans’ best professional show bands (“Jubilation”), it was an excellent training ground in both musicianship and showmanship. We learned a challenging, ultra-modern repertoire. We learned to sing and dance and hold a large crowd. The Tulanians were serious business, and experience gained there nurtured the careers of numerous future professionals who went on to careers in New York, Las Vegas, and Los Angeles.

I spent less than two years with the Tulanians, but it was a formative time. I sang a few of the big solo numbers in our shows (if you want to hear a funny story about “Serpentine Fire” sometime, just ask me). Leland invited me to sub for his lead male singer in Jubilation as well, and that first paycheck turned me into a “professional”. The Tulanians went on tour, and sang in Washington, DC and at Disney World, Florida. It was at a Tulanians show that I first debuted as a guitarist and singer-songwriter, with my friend and roommate Mark Beatty. (Mark had composed a lovely little guitar lick, and needed lyrics, so I wrote some words. Our joint composition became my, and our, first publicly performed song, “Dancer.”)

Thanks to Leland Bennet and the Tulanians, and the wonderful culture of New Orleans, I gained the confidence to call myself a musician.

Twenty years and several careers later, I was invited back to Tulane to give a lecture at a conference on environmental law. My former philosophy professor, Michael Zimmerman, was now a good friend. He in turn had an old friend named Pres Kabacoff, a business leader in New Orleans. Pres, who was a bit left-leaning in his politics, had recruited his old friend (and competitor in the real estate sector) Quentin Dastugue to co-chair a new economic development initiative under the aegis of a regional business group. And that group invited me to give them a presentation.

So I found myself talking to a group of 30 business leaders about what a regional program of sustainability indicators could do for them: how it could help them knit that fractious region together and contribute to a common vision for the ten counties (or “parishes”) around New Orleans. I finished and sat down. Then the chairman said, “That was a very good presentation, Mr. AtKisson, but I am a little disappointed, because we heard that you also sing.”

This remark came as a shock. I had assumed that the last thing that a group of button-down New Orleans business leaders would want from me was a song — but here it was, a put-you-on-the-spot request that could not be refused. So I duly stood back up and delivered an á capella version of my song “The Parachuting Cats.” (You can see a version of this at the end of my TEDx talk on YouTube.) The song brought smiles and warm applause — and it helped me win a large contract for my consulting firm.

About a year into our regional project, Quentin Dastugue — a somewhat larger-than-life business figure also known for his very conservative politics — took me to lunch. This lunch was of the two-martini variety. The second martini made it hard to say no when Quentin presented me with another musical request: he believed that our regional initiative, which was called “Top 10 by 2010,” was in need of a theme song. You, he said, are just the man to write it.

I was hesitant, but Quentin upped the ante. He could probably get Aaron Neville — the undisputed king of New Orleans’ jazz-rock — to sing the song.

How could I not say yes?

A few months later, with the final celebration of our initiative just weeks away, I was still struggling to compose an appropriate theme song. “Top 10 by 2010” was an enormously ambitious initiative. The regional goal was to move up into the top 10 of the Forbes Magazine list of “Best Places to Live and Work in the United States” within ten years. At the time, New Orleans was down around number 200.

On a jet-laggy morning in Sydney, Australia, I woke before sunrise and walked to the Sydney Opera House, seeking inspiration. I thought about my friends and clients back in New Orleans. In our interviews and surveys, we had learned that one of the missing ingredients in the region was not just a clear future vision, but even the capacity to imagine a better future. Many people seemed to lack the willingness to imagine positive change. “Life in our region has always been this way,” they would say. “Why should we believe things will ever change?”

The New Orleans region, in those years before Hurricane Katrina came and destroyed so much of that great city, was already in need of serious encouragement.

I pulled out my notebook, sitting there by the Opera House, looking out over waters half a planet away from New Orleans, and the lyrics to “Goin’ to the Top” — built around the image of flying swiftly up a mountain — flowed easily out of my pen. Later, so did the music: all I had to do was imagine Aaron Neville’s beautiful tenor-falsetto, and all the wonderful nuances he would bring to those words.

But as the time approached for the Big Event — a one-day forum, followed by an evening dance party, celebrating the success of the first stages of Top 10 by 2010 — it became clear that Aaron Neville was not going to be available to sing “Goin’ to the Top.” It became equally clear, from both Pres and Quention, that I was expected to step into that gap, and perform the song myself. So I quickly wrote a chord sheet, and worked quickly with the band that had been hired for the event to teach them the song. Their lead guitarist was watching my fingers like a hawk as I played it on my acoustic guitar; the rhythm section quickly figured out the simple pop-song structure. The performance itself was rough … but it worked.

Then a dozen years passed.

Prior to being recorded in 2013 for my album American Troubadour, “Goin’ to the Top” was only performed that one time, and it was not sung by Aaron Neville, but by me, the “singing sustainability consultant,” stepping back on stage in the Crescent City of New Orleans for the first time since I had left that extraordinary musical training ground, twenty years earlier.

These days, I dedicate “Goin’ to the Top” to the people who have been working, for many years now, to rebuild New Orleans after the Hurricane Katrina disaster … and also to the people working for sustainability everywhere who need to hold on to the vision that we will, in fact, “be there.”

Listen to this song on iTunes:

(Also available on Spotify, YouTube and other streaming sites.)


Goin’ to the Top

Words and music © 2001 by Alan AtKisson

The sky is bright
Streaks of light
And we know this isn’t any ordinary night
You know it’s true
‘Cause me and you
And everybody here can see
     Goin’ to the top
     We’ve got know that we’re goin’
     Nothing can stand in your way
     When you make your own road
     Goin’ to the top
     We’ve got to feel that it’s comin’
     I believe it’s our time to stand
     In the promised land
Don’t look down
We’re off the ground
And we’re never ever going to stop or turn around
Gaining speed
Guess we’ll need
To get ready for a very fast climb

     Goin’ to the top
     We’ve got know that we’re going
     Nothing can stand in your way
     When you make your own road
     Goin’ to the top
     We’ve got to know that we’ll be there
     I believe it’s our time to stand
     In the promised land

We used to think we’d never be here
We used to think we’d couldn’t fly
But now we know that we belong here
And all we had to do was try
Can you see
What I see
We’re coming closer to a new reality
So take my hand
‘Cause when we land
We’ll be standin’ on the top of the world
     Goin’ to the top …

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