If there were any justice in the pop music world, radio programmers would still be pulling hits off Marshall Crenshaw's self-titled 1982 debut album. With three albums bursting with enchanting melodies to his name, you also might expect rock stars to be lining up outside this pop wizard's New York City apartment hoping he might come out and just hum them something new.
The fact is, though, that none of the single releases from Crenshaw's three albums -- including his latest, "Little Wild One" -- has torn up the charts. As for cover versions, Robert Gordon and Bette Midler have lent their voices to Crenshaw compositions, but more recently only two country acts, the Dirt Band and the Bellamy Brothers, have done the same.
While this state of affairs may dismay Crenshaw's fans and record companies, the 32-year-old singer/songwriter/guitarist doesn't sound too frustrated. "I think it would be unfair to the people who like my music for me to pick it apart as if something's wrong with it because I haven't hit No. 1," Crenshaw says. "As long as I feel my music's good and I'm able to enjoy it, I'd rather just avoid the whole issue of hit-making."
Crenshaw may not be chasing hits, but that doesn't mean his music isn't evolving. While his latest album, "Downtown," still magically evokes the classic sounds of Buddy Holly, the Beatles and the "girl groups," it features a lusher, more expansive sound than his past work. This is partly due to coproducer T-Bone Burnett and the use of a wide variety of musicians from other bands.
"Every time I set out to make an album," Crenshaw explains, "I have the feeling that if I do the same thing I did before, something terrible will happen. I want every album to be a learning experience so I'll probably work with a different producer on each one."
Crenshaw, who appears at the Warner Theatre Saturday, has also expanded his live band from a trio to a quintet by adding two singer-guitarists. "When I started," he admits, "my ambition was just to play in clubs where all you have to do is stand up there, perspire, beat on your guitar and yell. We were a good three-piece band, but I wanted to get more involved in having good vocals on stage and I was also getting pretty dissatisfied with my own guitar playing."
Crenshaw grew up in the suburbs of Detroit, and like many pop artists his earliest musical experiences involved Top 40 radio, a cheap guitar and high school rock bands. The late '60s brought psychedelic music and a change in Crenshaw's listening habits.
"When I was a kid," Crenshaw recalls, "all I ever did was listen to the radio, constantly. As time went on, I got disenchanted with pop radio and I started listening to music on headphones in the dead of night. I graduated to a more nocturnal, intimate type of music. I was also doing psychedelic drugs at that time. My music tries to blend those things -- the immediacy of Top 40 and the sensuality of psychedelic music. It tries to provoke both kinds of feelings."
The '70s brought a stint in a hard-rock band and then in an oldies band. Interestingly, Crenshaw and his group appear as an oldies band called the International Ramrods in Francis Coppola's new film "Peggy Sue Got Married." While in Los Angeles in 1976, Crenshaw spotted an ad in Rolling Stone magazine seeking Beatle lookalikes for the "Beatlemania" stage production. He sent in an exact re-creation of the Beatles' "I Should Have Known Better," won an audition and then a role as John Lennon.
After 18 months as a Lennon impersonator, Crenshaw finally quit the show in Boston and decided to plunge into original songwriting and performance. "I was 26," Crenshaw explains, "and I read a book once, Frank Capra's autobiography, that said when men reach 26 they summon up everything and say, 'Here goes, I'm ready to make my move.' I felt I had reached that turning point."
After playing around New York City for a while, Crenshaw released a single on the independent Shake label that led to a contract with Warner Bros. For his first album, he was teamed with producer Richard Gottherer, and the result was a fresh and melodically rich collection of romantic tunes that drew critical raves and is still considered one of this decade's landmarks.
Two albums later and still without the big pop breakthrough, Crenshaw remains modest in ambition. "About the only goal I have now," he confesses, "is to travel more. If I don't at least get to see the world as part of this music thing, I'll feel cheated. Of course, I also want to keep playing in a band. I don't think I could live without it."