Bill Flanagan has chronicled the music scene in print, on television, in film and on radio so comprehensively, so passionately and so deftly that in 2013 he became the first non-musician to be inducted into the Rhode Island Music Hall of Fame, honored in the same way actual musicians/bands including James Montgomery, Roomful of Blues, Tavares, John Cafferty, Throwing Muses and George Wein have been.
For over four decades, the Warwick native has been combining his encyclopedic knowledge of pop-music history, musicologist-level attention to detail and lifelong curiosity for everything related to music to provide millions with invaluable insights into the songwriters, musicians, bands and behind-the-scenes players that drive the music business through countless newspaper and magazine articles, seven books, dozens of documentaries and regular radio broadcasts.
Born January 14, 1955, Flanagan has been a voracious music consumer and ardent record collector since his years at Toll Gate High School in Warwick in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s then at Brown University, when he worked part time at the Beacon Shops record store on North Main Street in Providence. Always fully up to speed on the latest releases, he devoured information the back of the LP covers and within liner notes nearly as hungrily as the songs themselves, becoming the go-to source for customers and non-customers searching for the hottest, coolest, most worthwhile new albums.
After graduating in 1977 from Brown, where he wrote for the Brown Daily Herald, Flanagan spent the next several years contributing stories on a wide range of topics including concert, album and film reviews to both the mainstream and alternative press including The Warwick Beacon, The Providence Journal, The Boston Globe and the Providence-based underground weekly The NewPaper. By the early ‘80s, Flanagan was writing almost entirely about songwriters, musicians and the music industry and by the mid-‘80s his interviews, profiles and features had been published in Rolling Stone, The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, The New York Times, GQ, Esquire and The Village Voice, among others.
When asked in a 2021 interview why he chose to concentrate on music, Flanagan said it was “a kind of natural selection process” based on public interest and basic economics. “My music writing got recognized, and my political writing and my movie reviews, all the other kinds of things I wrote, sort of fell by the wayside,” he said. “By the time I was pushing 30, the choices were you could cover the New Hampshire primary for $75 for an underground paper or you could go to Paris with Mick Jagger and get paid $1,000 by a New York magazine.”
In 1985, Flanagan joined Musician, Player & Listener magazine, headquartered in Gloucester, Massachusetts, first as executive editor then as editor-in-chief before his departure in 1995. In those 10 years he wrote three books: Written in My Soul (Contemporary Books,1986), a collection interviews with 28 songwriters including Chuck Berry, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Lou Reed, Van Morrison and James Taylor; Last of the Moe Haircut (Contemporary Books,1986), a review and analysis of The Three Stooges’ influence on pop culture and the entertainment industry; and U2: At the End of the World (Delta, 1995), an elbow-to-elbow account of when he tagged along with the Irish band on their Zoo TV world tour in 1991.
In 1995, Flanagan moved from a full-time job in print media to one in television when he became editorial director and executive producer at MTV Networks, then senior vice president of VH1 and executive vice president of Viacom Music Group before leaving in 2015. During that time, he produced the series VH1 Storytellers (including episodes starring James Taylor and Bonnie Raitt), CMT Crossroads (on which Taylor, Raitt and Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler appeared) and Stop/Watch in addition to VH1 specials with Garth Brooks, Paul McCartney, Bruce Springsteen and Prince and co-produced VH1 Save the Music’s “Concert of the Century,” held at the White House in 1999. He also worked on VH1’s Legends, VH1 Archives and Hotel MTV.
In addition to MTV and VH1 projects, in 2000 Flanagan produced the documentary The Beatles Revolution for ABC, then the movie Elvis Lives for NBC in 2016. In 2001, he became a regular essayist on CBS News Sunday Morning, and in October that year he co-produced The Concert for New York City, a star-studded benefit held at Madison Square Garden after the September 11 attacks.
During his 20 years at MTV/VH1, Flanagan wrote three novels: A&R (Random House, 2000), a story revolving around debauchery and double-dealing in the recording industry; New Bedlam (Penguin Press, 2007), about a fictional family-owned cable television company in Rhode Island; and Evening’s Empire (Simon & Schuster, 2010), a look at the rather dark underbelly of the music business from the perspective a once-successful rock band. Since then, he has had one more published, Fifty in Reverse (S&S/Simon Element, 2020), about a 65-year-old man who wakes up in 1970 as a 15-year old boy in Rhode Island and which includes a wide range of nostalgic local musical references such as “WPRO, the station that reaches the beaches.”
In 2020, Flanagan wrote the screenplay for the documentary Jimmy Carter: Rock & Roll President, a chronicle of Carter’s 1976 presidential campaign, presidency and beyond featuring Bob Dylan, The Allman Brothers, Linda Ronstadt, Roseanne Cash and others, and he produced Audible’s best-seller Breakshot: My First 21 Years by James Taylor, recorded at the singer-songwriter’s studio in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, and on which Taylor recounts stories about his first two decades in the music business and plays songs. He’s also produced Audible projects featuring singer-songwriter-actor St. Vincent (née Annie Clark), who discusses her years attending Berklee College of Music, and Smokey Robinson, who talks about his upbringing in Detroit and his storied, nearly seven-decade career.
Flanagan currently hosts four radio programs broadcast on SiriusXM: Flanagan’s Wake on Tom Petty Radio; The Fab Fourum and Northern Songs on The Beatles Channel; and Written In My Soul on VOLUME, where he interviews an extensive range of tunesmiths – “career-spanning conversations about creativity, influences, accomplishments and challenges,” as he describes them – while taking phone calls from listeners.
Asked in 2021 about how he was able to gain access to some of the world’s most influential songwriters and musicians for interviews as a budding rock journalist in the early ‘80s, Flanagan credits his fundamental fascination with and excitement about music itself. “The main thing is that I’m genuinely interested in the music,” he said. “I mean, that’s really what I care about. It wasn’t a strategy. It’s just that I cared about it, so I just kinda hit it off with a lot of musicians, I suppose. There was no plan to it.”
(by D.S. Monahan)