Melody and Mischief: How Adam Schlesinger Built a Career Like No Other Songwriter

From Fountains of Wayne to ‘Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,’ Schlesinger, who died of coronavirus complications at 52, wrote songs with wry humor and lots of heart

When Adam Schlesinger developed symptoms of the coronavirus in mid-March, his friends thought he would pull through. A healthy 52-year-old, he’d been blessed all his life with both talent and luck. He was the most boundlessly energetic person any of them knew, with a career unlike any other indie songwriter’s — playing in multiple acclaimed bands and writing songs for movies, TV shows, and Broadway, among countless other projects.

“Like a lot of workaholics, he kept a million different things going at once, and was incredibly restless just sitting around,” says Chris Collingwood, the lead singer of Schlesinger’s best-known band, Fountains of Wayne. “He couldn’t really sit in the sun doing nothing, or read a book, or go to a movie theater, because it felt like wasted time.”

In the rare moments when he wasn’t working, Schlesinger was the funniest person at any party he walked into. “He was a best friend to everybody,” says Steven M. Gold, who helped produce the more than 150 songs that Schlesinger wrote for the CW’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, in styles from show tunes to hip-hop. “People felt flattered when they got a text from Adam saying, ‘Let’s go to dinner.'”

But on April 1st, the songwriter, producer, and musician behind some of the most heartfelt, hilarious songs of the past 25 years died of complications from COVID-19 at a hospital in Poughkeepsie, New York. “He was a One-der,” Tom Hanks wrote, referencing the fictional band that Schlesinger’s songwriting made so real in 1996’s That Thing You Do! “Terribly sad today.”

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Days later, Schlesinger’s friends are still reeling from the loss of this one-of-a-kind talent, gone far too soon. “He had so many more hits in him,” Gold says. “He loved music, and he loved people, and he had so much more to do. That’s what makes this so devastating.”

Adam Lyons Schlesinger was born on Halloween 1967 into a family of classical music and jazz lovers on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. His mother, Bobbi Schlesinger, who worked in public relations, recalls learning about the Beatles from her young son: “He used to walk around our apartment when he was three, singing ‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammer.’ That was Adam. He knew those albums by heart.”

When he was five, the family moved to Montclair, New Jersey, an up-and-coming, diverse suburb about 15 miles west of the city. Adam thrived there as he entered adolescence, taking a class on the Poetry of Rock at his local middle school and soaking up everything from Billy Joel and the Police to Frank Zappa and Run-DMC with his friends. One of his first bands was called Prufrock, after T.S. Eliot. They made their debut on the lawn outside the Montclair Public Library. “There was always some kind of garage band in our cellar,” his mother says. “And they were good!”

In the fall of 1985, Schlesinger arrived in western Massachusetts to start his freshman year at Williams College. He found his place in campus life quickly, pursuing a double major in English and philosophy while also playing pop covers from Prince to A-ha in a party band called the Rhythm Method. Playwright David Bar Katz, a classmate who bonded with Schlesinger as a fellow Jew in a sea of New England WASPs, remembers one winter break in particular: “Someone bet Adam he couldn’t learn Bach’s Goldberg Variations in three weeks,” Katz recalls. “He of course did, and played them at a piano recital at the end of the month.”

In his first year at Williams, Schlesinger found Collingwood, who would become his greatest creative foil. They were inseparable almost immediately, with Collingwood accompanying Schlesinger back to Montclair for most of their school breaks. Back in the dorms, they debated the Top 40 (Schlesinger loved Taylor Dayne; Collingwood didn’t) and improved their guitar skills by playing along to R.E.M. and the Replacements.

“A lot of our time was spent listening to records and saying to each other, ‘This band made it, how hard could it be?”” Collingwood recalls. “Neither one of us had written a good song, and I remember we were both going about it all wrong in so many ways. But he was always so confident, even then.”

After graduating from Williams in 1989, Schlesinger spent a summer playing piano at a seafood restaurant on Martha’s Vineyard for tips. “He loved that summer,” says his mother. “He thought surely there could be no better job.” For a few months afterward, he bounced between odd jobs and briefly considered becoming a lawyer.

“He was so smart that he would have breezed through law school and spent the rest of his life regretting that he hadn’t given his music a real shot,” recalls his father, Stephen Schlesinger, who worked as a charitable foundation administrator. “I kept my mouth shut.”

By the early Nineties, Schlesinger was living in New York, taking any gigs he could. Jody Porter, who would later become Fountains of Wayne’s lead guitarist, hired Schlesinger to play bass in a shoegaze band after he responded to an ad in The Village Voice. “That guy was fucking good,” Porter says. “He cut through those songs with some vitality that your average Guitar Center musician ain’t gonna know how to do.”

Another bassist-wanted ad in the Voice led Schlesinger to a Parisian singer named Dominique Durand and her boyfriend, Andy Chase, who became his bandmates in the cool, sophisticated indie-pop trio Ivy, which released six albums between 1995 and 2011. “He was a total charmer,” Durand remembers. “Very witty, very worldly. And he had an absolutely insatiable passion for music. We would talk all night, just the three of us, about lyrics and melodies and guitar licks.”

Most importantly, he reconnected with Collingwood, who’d been writing new songs on his own. One of their recordings from this era made its way to the desk of Michael Krumper, who became their manager. “I was immediately blown away,” he says. “It reminded me of a lot of British bands that I loved that weren’t particularly fashionable. Aztec Camera, Prefab Sprout — jangly sad-boy music. Even on a poor-quality cassette, you could hear the songs were that good.”

Not everyone shared his enthusiasm for the two musicians, who were calling themselves the Wallflowers at the time. Some time later, after they’d changed their name to Pinwheel (and sold the rights to their old band name to Jakob Dylan), Krumper helped them book a showcase at CBGB. “I used every relationship that I had and got a bunch of label people down,” he says. “I sat there and I thought they were great. And no one got it.”

Undeterred, Schlesinger and Collingwood kept recording, taking their music closer to the reigning alt-rock sounds of the day. “The songs were still sweet,” Krumper recalls of their next round of demos. “It’s just that there was a bit more cynicism and an edge. They turned up their guitars and became Fountains of Wayne.”

The two songwriters spent about a week bashing out the first Fountains of Wayne album, with Collingwood on lead vocals, Schlesinger on drums, and both of them playing guitars and keys. “The way he played drums was perfect — bouncy and sloppy and full of spirit,” Collingwood says. “We didn’t really think about it being a band until the album was done and we had to tour, which was a point we weren’t even sure we’d get to.”

Years of dreaming and striving began to pay off with Fountains of Wayne‘s release in 1996 on Atlantic Records, where Krumper had taken a job in marketing. “Radiation Vibe,” written by Collingwood, became one of the catchiest hits of the post-Nirvana era; Schlesinger’s “Sink to the Bottom” wasn’t far behind. In malls across the country, it was possible to buy a CD or tape of their debut before walking into a multiplex to watch Schlesinger’s note-perfect early-Sixties rock song steal half the scenes in That Thing You Do!

“Adam was just a guy that was playing in clubs like any other musician, and all of a sudden he was on MTV,” says podcast host Jonathan Small, one of his oldest friends. “Nobody was surprised, because if anybody was going to be successful it was going to be Adam Schlesinger.”

Schlesinger and Collingwood could hardly believe their good fortune. “Who wouldn’t want to be in a band with their best friend?” Collingwood says. “We had both had the same dream since we were teenagers, and the idea that some giant company was going to give us more money than we’d ever seen to go around the world playing music seemed too good to be true.”

By now Schlesinger was a fixture on the New York rock scene, friends with seemingly everyone. In 1998, he opened a recording studio in the Meatpacking District with James Iha and Ivy’s Andy Chase. He rang in 1999 by marrying Katie Michel, an art-book designer whom he’d met at a downtown bar.

A few months later, Fountains of Wayne returned with their second album, Utopia Parkway, whose wry, novelistic songs about the long-suffering losers and hopeless romantics of the Tri-State area rivaled the best of the Kinks. Critics loved it, and so did some of rock’s greatest songwriters. “I was so impressed by their unique style and sound, something that’s very difficult to pull off,” says Elton John, who called Schlesinger at the time to say how much he admired Utopia Parkway. “Uniquely American, and conjuring up vivid images of suburbia.”

Fountains of Wayne on the road circa 1997: Jody Porter, Adam Schlesinger, Brian Young and Chris Collingwood (from left).
(photo: Kimberly Butler/The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images)

Porter and the Posies’ drummer Brian Young had joined the band as full-time members in the months after Fountains of Wayne was recorded. Now, on stage and in the studio, Fountains of Wayne took their place as a great power-pop quartet, lifting high a torch they’d picked up from Big Star and Squeeze. “All four of us could play pretty much any song just by hearing it,” Collingwood says. “We would play whole songs we hated just because we could and it was funny.”

Still, some in the music industry had never quite figured out Fountains of Wayne. Krumper recalls frequent comparisons to Matchbox 20, who had signed to Atlantic at about the same time and followed through with two multi-platinum smash albums. Tensions peaked when Fountains’ cheeky modern-rock cover of Britney Spears’ “….Baby One More Time” began to get some airplay in Los Angeles.

“The promotion department at the time went, ‘Oh my God, we have a single!’ And the guys in Fountains were just like, ‘No fucking way,'” Krumper says. “Matchbox 20 said yes to everything.”

By 2001, they’d been dropped by Atlantic. But Schlesinger wasn’t done with the band he loved most. Fountains of Wayne resurfaced two years later with the slick, ultracatchy homage to hot moms and the Cars that became their biggest hit.

According to Collingwood, it almost didn’t happen. “I tried to talk him out of ‘Stacy’s Mom,'” the singer says. “I was reluctant to do it at all, but you don’t want to kill the session by not being a good sport. When it was done, I didn’t think it belonged on the album. I knew it would be a single, and I knew it would be a hit, and everyone else knew it, too. But I was the only one who didn’t think a novelty hit was a good thing.”

The album Fountains of Wayne released in 2003, Welcome Interstate Managers, featured some of their most vividly written songs, presented in a poppy, polished shell. But its success was dwarfed by that of its lead single, a fact that still pains Collingwood years later. “He was too good a writer to have that be his calling card,” he says. “He deserves to be remembered for more than a punchline. It’s sad to me that people reading his obituary will all know that song, and only a very tiny percentage of them will ever hear ‘I-95’ or ‘The Girl I Can’t Forget.’”

In the end, “Stacy’s Mom” netted Fountains of Wayne a pair of Grammy nominations (including, absurdly, one for Best New Artist), nonstop MTV rotation, and a transformed career.

Performing with Fountains of Wayne in Atlantic City, June 2004. New Jersey. (Photo by William Thomas Cain/Getty Images)

“‘Stacy’s Mom’ took the whole audience and made it younger and screamier,” says Gold, who’d been making TV and film music with Schlesinger since the early Nineties and joined Fountains as a touring keyboardist around this time. “Adam never wanted to be the frontman, but did he get more confident? For sure.”

Life on the road got wild at times, in a fashion not typically associated with Fountains of Wayne. “Bigger tours and venues meant more time to act like idiots,” Collingwood says. “Throwing deli trays out the bus window, smashing shit just for kicks. We drank a lot.”

Porter, for his part, recalls destroying a hotel room in Tokyo and dismantling a strip club urinal in Pittsburgh, only to be saved both times by Schlesinger. “He’s the kind of guy that’ll bail you out of jail,” the guitarist says, laughing. “At least two or three times.”

As the 2000s went on, tensions grew between the two friends who had founded Fountains of Wayne a decade earlier. “We fought a lot,” Collingwood says. “Sometimes about music, sometimes about art direction, set lists, musical keys, often about the different ways we thought the band should be perceived. I loved him, and people you love can piss you off more than anyone else.”

Collingwood played a less active role in the making of Fountains’ next album, 2007’s Traffic and Weather; Schlesinger continued to refine his songcraft, turning in a set of sweetly detailed narratives about everyday people, accented by Porter’s bright, Beatlesque guitar. “Me and Adam made that record, simple as that,” Porter says. “That was a real pleasant album, because there were so few chefs in the kitchen.”

As Fountains of Wayne fractured, Schlesinger kept busy in his usual way. He teamed up with comedy writer David Javerbaum to write the music for a Tony-nominated 2007 Broadway show based on John Waters’ Cry-Baby and for Stephen Colbert’s 2008 Christmas special. In 2009, he put out an album with Tinted Windows, an unlikely power-pop supergroup whose other members were Iha, Cheap Trick’s Bun E. Carlos, and Taylor Hanson. “Adam had the vision for Tinted Windows,” says the Oklahoma singer, who’d met Schlesinger years earlier during the making of Hanson’s first LP. “The tone of generosity that he set was what made it feel like it could be a band, not just a project.”

Fountains of Wayne reunited for one final album, 2011’s melancholy, acoustic-leaning Sky Full of Holes, before going their separate ways. “We kind of knew it was our Abbey Road,” Porter says. “It wasn’t like 1997, when we still thought the tour bus was cool. It was over.”

Hollywood had always loved Schlesinger. “A lot of producers and executive producers wanted to work with him,” Gold says. “They would say, ‘I can’t believe we got the guy from Fountains of Wayne.'”

After the band ended, he took on his biggest show-business assignment yet, working with the comedy team of Rachel Bloom and Jack Dolgen for four seasons of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. Some might have found it daunting to write songs on demand for sitcom characters in a broad range of styles, but for Schlesinger, each song was an exciting challenge. “He’d say, ‘Hey, what genre haven’t we done?'” Gold says. “‘Let’s do something punk-rock. Let’s do Huey Lewis!'”

Rachel Bloom and Schlesinger at a ‘Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’ live show in 2016.
(Photo by Walter McBride/Getty Images)

Gold remembers a moment after the show’s second season when he felt tired of the demanding workload. “Adam said, ‘What are you talking about? This is the greatest job in music.'”

Even at his busiest, Schlesinger never stopped making other music, producing a pair of Monkees albums in 2016 and 2018. “I really liked him, as soon as I met him,” says Mickey Dolenz. “Of course, I knew who he was because of ‘That Thing You Do!’ When it came out, people would say to me, ‘Is that you?'”

One of the last major projects Schlesinger completed was an off-Broadway adaptation of Sarah Silverman’s memoir, The Bedwetter, which was set to premiere this spring before the coronavirus shut down all New York theater. He was looking forward to working again with Bloom on a stage musical based on The Nanny, and he’d told friends about a new TV show he was pitching, a behind-the-scenes parody of a Seventies variety show along the lines of The Captain and Tennille or The Sonny & Cher Show.

He’d found happiness with life partner Alexis Morley after his marriage to Michel ended, and he was a devoted father to his teenage daughters, Sadie and Claire Schlesinger. “He always said the best production he ever did was those two girls,” their grandmother Bobbi says.

In late February, Schlesinger, Durand, and Chase all found themselves in Los Angeles, visiting colleges with their high-schoolers. The former Ivy bandmates and their kids met for dinner at a restaurant in Silver Lake, and the wine, oysters, and laughter flowed for hours. “Adam was cracking jokes the whole time,” Durand says. “Sadie loved her dad’s humor, and he was teasing her in a very loving way. He was in top form.”

Back in New York, Schlesinger and Morley headed upstate to Hyde Park as coronavirus fears intensified in March. Around the 15th, he developed a fever and a dry cough; about a week later, when his symptoms hadn’t gone away, he went to a hospital. Days went by, and it seemed like his condition was improving. “Then the night of the 31st of March, it went to hell in a handbasket,” Bobbi Schlesinger says.

The next morning, Gold was feeling optimistic. “I was playing Fountains of Wayne really loud,” Gold recalls. “I was saying, ‘This is Adam. He can fucking get through anything.'” That’s when the awful news came.

In the days since his death, Schlesinger’s friends have all been thinking about how lucky they were to know him. “Think of freaking Stephen Sondheim. How old is he?” Krumper says. “That is who Adam was meant to be. It’s a fucking tragedy.”

Durand will remember Schlesinger as a loyal friend with hidden depths the world didn’t always get to see. “One thing about Adam, he thought that expressing feelings was not very cool, but behind that he was extremely sensitive and highly romantic,” she says. “He was very free, as a person. He chose his life in a way that was free of compromise and boredom. Sometimes that made it difficult for people who worked with him. But it’s also why we loved him so much.”

Additional reporting by Angie Martoccio