San Pedro high grad John Bettis inducted into Songwriters Hall of Fame

John Bettis may not be a household name in the South Bay.

But catch a few lines of some of the hundreds of songs he's written through the years - among them, the Carpenters' "Top of the World," the Pointer Sisters' "Slow Hand" and themes from "Growing Pains" and "Godfather III" - and listeners will be singing right along.

The man behind those and so many other familiar tunes, old and new alike, lives on a farm in Nashville with his wife and two children these days.

But he got his start in the Harbor Area, learning to play the trumpet at Vine's Music on Pacific Avenue and graduating from San Pedro High in 1964. He wrote his first song, "Lonely," for a girlfriend at Harbor College in Wilmington, and fell in love with the cultural diversity of music styles rolled out every year at San Pedro's old Fishermen's Fiestas.

On June 16, Bettis, 64 - who says he learned to write music on the wharfs "at Ports O' Call before there was a Ports O' Call" - will be inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in New York along with Garth Brooks, Leon Russell, the team of Billy Steinberg & Tom Kelly and Allen Tousaint.

"It's very overwhelming," Bettis said of the rare honor. "Alphabetically, my name will go right under Chuck Berry."

Established in 1969 to celebrate songwriting and encourage new talent, the Songwriters Hall of Fame now has some 400 members, including Bob Dylan, James Taylor, Paul Simon, Sir Elton John, Loretta Lynn, James Brown, Isaac Hayes and Bruce Springsteen.

While his name might not be well known, Bettis has written songs that have sold more than 250 million records worldwide, performed by such luminaries as Michael Jackson, Celine Dion, Madonna, Diana Ross and Whitney Houston.

The lyrics to "Just One Dream" that you hear every time you walk into Disneyland's California Adventure Park?

Bettis.

The inspirational "One Moment in Time," the Emmy-winning theme for the 1988 Olympics?

That's one of his, too.

Bettis began studying music at age 8 when his mother signed him up for trumpet lessons at Vine's in downtown San Pedro.

"For some reason, I just understood the instrument," he said.

In a few years, he was playing competitively, later learning to play guitar at San Pedro High School, where he was class president and played the lead role in the school musical "Carousel."

It was during rehearsals for that production that he fell in love with the idea of writing music.

"I looked down at the score I had to learn - written by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein - and saw how the words and music went together," he said. "Something was triggered in me, it's mysterious to this day. But I wanted to do that."

A friendship and collaboration with brother-and-sister Richard and Karen Carpenter - the three met while students at California State University, Long Beach - proved providential.

Wanting to start a band, they needed money to buy amplifiers.

So Richard Carpenter, on piano, and Bettis, playing banjo, landed a summer job in 1967 playing turn-of-the-century tunes at Coke Corner on Disneyland's Main Street U.S.A.

"We were 20 years old, maybe, and full of ourselves," Bettis said. "Disneyland had all these rules, you had to act a certain way, and Richard and I broke all the rules. When we were supposed to be playing `Ain't She Sweet,' we were playing `Penny Lane' and `Light My Fire.' So they rightfully, and deservedly, fired us."

The band formed by the Carpenter siblings from Downey and Bettis went under several names, including Spectrum.

"It was all the same people and we performed together for about two years," Bettis said.

It was during that time that Richard Carpenter (music) and Bettis (lyrics) wrote the original material that later was used on the Carpenters' first three records.

But before the brother-sister team formed as a duo, Bettis said they "literally got laughed out of offices and had tapes thrown at us" while trying to break into the business professionally.

"I learned a long time ago, thanks to Richard, that the gift I have is putting music and lyrics together," Bettis said.

Among the hits Bettis helped write for the Carpenters were "Top of the World," "Only Yesterday" and "Goodbye to Love."

Karen Carpenter died in 1983 from complications related to anorexia, but Richard Carpenter remains a good friend of Bettis.

His acceptance into the Songwriters Hall of Fame isn't his first honor.

Through the years, Bettis has been nominated for an Academy Award, a Golden Globe, three Grammys and three Emmys.

His song "Human Nature" was included in the historic album of the year in 1982: "Thriller," by Michael Jackson.

The album was almost finished when Jackson and producer Quincy Jones decided it needed one more song, a ballad.

Three songs were submitted and rejected.

Taking a melody written by Steve Porcaro - a member of the 1970s rock band Toto - that had caught the album producer's ear, Bettis wrote the lyrics virtually overnight. The two composers then took the song to the studio the next day, meeting with Jones and Jackson.

"We just literally sang the song for them and gave them the lyric sheets," Bettis said, calling Jackson an "immense" spirit. "Luckily, they embraced it immediately."

Jackson, he said, told him in an aside that the song was "perfect" for him.

In other awards, Bettis also received an Emmy for "One Moment in Time" in 1988 and for "Where There is Hope" in 2003.

His film work includes "Twilight Zone: The Movie," "Vision Quest," "Pure Country," "Cocktail" and "Star Trek V." TV themes include those for "Murphy Brown" and "Nurses."

Many of the most gratifying moments in his career, Bettis said, have come when compositions are unexpectedly linked to inspirational historic events, including the launch of the space shuttle Endeavour and the fall in 1989 of the Berlin Wall.

"Songs wind up being part of the culture, and they end up being expressed in some of the most unusual and uncanny ways," he said.

Even something as simple as the theme for "Growing Pains" became tied to a story of a medical recovery, he said.

In the show's fifth year, someone came on the set waving a news report about a young girl who had been in a monthlong coma following an auto accident, Bettis said.

Her favorite show was "Growing Pains" and, when she was moved from intensive care to a private room, she awakened as the song for the show began playing from the hospital television set.

Bettis' current project is writing music for the Broadway musical "Josephine," scheduled tentatively to open in early May.

He's also rehearsing for the Songwriters Hall of Fame star-studded ceremony June 16 at the Marriott Marquis hotel in New York City.

He's set to perform one of his songs, most likely "Top of the World," Bettis said.

As for San Pedro, Bettis returns to his hometown every summer (he and his wife maintain a vacation home in Santa Monica) to get together with family at Royal Palms State Beach or some other location.

His brother, Wayne, still sells insurance in the port town - and, yes, his brother is a client.

One of their first stops when coming to town, he said, is the Fish Market in Ports O' Call Village, his wife's favorite restaurant in all of Los Angeles.

The town has changed "not a lot, and a whole bunch," Bettis said. "The houses and neighborhoods are still the same, but the port has changed radically" with its towering cranes and container ships, he said.

"I still say that one of the forgotten destinations in Los Angeles is Pedro," he said.

And there's this: "There is a San Pedro character, a way people are," he said. "There's a certain civilized roughness to the place and it's always been that way. One of the good things about being raised in Pedro was it made me pretty street smart."

donna.littlejohn@dailybreeze.com