30 Years Ago: Mr. Big’s Life-Changing ‘To Be With You’ Hits No. 1
When a band gets its first No. 1 single, it’s a moment to celebrate. But for Mr. Big, the chart-topping success of “To Be With You,” which landed at the top on Feb. 29, 1992, represented reaching the peak of a mountain they knew they’d never scale again.
In some ways, that was OK. Much like Extreme’s “More than Words,” the Mr. Big song showed a side of the group that wasn't its usual side. The band tended to embrace a variety of influences, both heavy and melodic, that drew from the vast palette of music it had been exposed to. But acoustic-based songs weren't all that common on their two albums.
For singer Eric Martin, the “melting pot of music” San Francisco offered was a big part of this. His first concert was a formative experience: Queen at Winterland with Y&T opening. Seeing Y&T frontman Dave Meniketti was a revelation. “He was singing his ass off and playing guitar, and he definitely looked a little weird in his pink Spandex pants,” Martin told this writer in 2013. “I went ‘God if this guy can do it, I can do it!’”
Opening for AC/DC at the Waldorf bolstered Martin’s desire to make music full-time. “It seemed like simple, cool rock. But they almost sounded punk to me when they first came out,” he recalled. “My band was called Kid Courage and we were like the Tubes-meet-the-Rolling-Stones — I didn’t know what I was doing, you know? I think we were wearing suits onstage, and AC/DC comes out and just blew us away in jeans and a T-shirt, just bashing out A chords and screaming at the audience, and the chicks were lining up at the door.”
Mr. Big’s hard rock blended elements of funk, blues and even jazz. Martin, guitarist Paul Gilbert, bassist Billy Sheehan and drummer Pat Torpey were well-versed in various styles. Though it may have confused some fans who picked up the album, the acoustic “To Be With You” demonstrated a side of the band that wasn't too far removed from their working method of sitting around and showing each other songs.
Martin had written the song years earlier when he was a teen. He often stayed at Gilbert’s house in Hollywood during the week to avoid making the long drive in from the Bay Area. One day, they were sitting around with Gilbert playing through some favorite Beatles songs. Martin was reminded of the “little campfire Beatles kind of song” he had written years ago. Gilbert was floored when he heard it. But Martin was nervous to show the song to Sheehan and Torpey. But they were into it, too.
“At the time, there was a little bit of fakery going on in music, and a lot of bands, what was going on in the studio was not what they could do onstage,” Sheehan recalled in a conversation from 2013. “When we did Mr. Big, one of the prime points of that was to be able to do everything live that we do in the studio. That again was the lesson I learned from David Lee Roth on Eat ‘Em & Smile. [With] Dave and Ted Templeman, [there] was that ‘Oh, let’s just get in a room and play’ [mentality], and that’s what we did for the first Mr. Big record and most subsequent records. I saw the band start to fall apart when we didn’t do it that way.”
Released in late 1991 as the second single from their sophomore album Lean Into It, “To Be With You” had a slow and steady climb to the top, finally peaking at No. 1 and displacing Right Said Fred's "I'm Too Sexy" in late February 1993. It held the top position for three straight weeks. The reverberations would stick with the band for years.
Watch Mr. Big's 'To Be With You' Video
They later channeled their memories of the experience into the song “1992” from 2017’s Defying Gravity album. “It was a pretty cool thing, and it changed all of our lives forever. We’re still hearing the echoes of it and basking in some of the long-term aftereffects of having a hit record,” Sheehan told UCR at that time. “It was a pretty amazing thing. I recommend to everyone if you ever have the opportunity to have a hit record, do it because it will change your life forever.
“When you get in an airplane and they know you’re a band, the flight attendants go, ‘What band are you guys?’ 'Mr. Big.' 'Never heard of you. Do you have any songs that I’d know?’ [Starts singing ‘To Be With You’] 'Oh, my God.' They’d recognize the song right away. We got a lot of free drinks and first-class upgrades as a result.”
But band manager Herbie Herbert, known for his tough approach with Journey that helped engineer their success, was blunter. “Guys, this is amazing. This is wonderful. Let’s celebrate. By the way, this is never, ever, going to happen to you again,” Gilbert recalled to UCR during a 2021 interview. “He said, ‘The industry is changing. The problem is that you guys don’t dance and you’re not women and that’s the future. None of you are Janet Jackson. You’re screwed.’”
Grunge was another problem. "To Be With You” arrived just as the genre was making its way into the mainstream, which proved to be an advantage of sorts. “No offense to any of the bands, but there was about 15 Poisons coming around, you know? There was just a lot of stuff,” he explained. “Look, there’s only room for Poison and Danger Danger and Bullet Boys – there’s tons of them, and you like those bands, but there’s 15 or 20 copy ones just like that, and everybody’s trying to vie for Friday or Saturday night in the clubs.”
Herbert did his best to help the band focus priorities when the calls stopped coming in. “They don’t want a bunch of guitar-playing skinny guys,” the manager told them, Gilbert recalled. “So go play in Japan. They’ll still like you there in a couple of years, probably. Make the most of it.”
It was smart advice. The band's Japanese tours featuring the four original members were huge hits, even after the glow of "To Be With You" faded. (Torpey died in 2018.) "We were at No. 1 on Billboard for three weeks, No. 1 in 14 countries and we were on The Tonight Show, and I got to sit in chair number one, so that was pretty cool,” Sheehan told UCR in 2017. “We were all pretty smart about our money and we were careful with it. You know that it’s never going to go on forever, so you get smart with it right up front, and sure enough, it never does.”