John Waite, formerly of The Babys, plays the Kate

John Waite performs at the Katharine Hepburn Cultural Arts Center in Old Saybrook on Thursday.
Submitted photo John Waite performs at the Katharine Hepburn Cultural Arts Center in Old Saybrook on Thursday.

John Waite's rock 'n' roll legacy is assured - whether through "Missing You," his days with The Babys and Bad English, or last year's #1 Classic Rock hit, "Rough & Tumble."

All those are impressive, but, most important, Waite was the lead vocalist on the greatest song ever written about going to the dentist.

The tune in question is called "White Lightning" from The Babys' 1978 "Head First" album, and it includes the following lines:

"When I was young, they took me to the dentist /

I had a toothache, but that's okay ..."

" ... the same little boy in a dentist's chair /

Heard a million angels flying past / What a gas!"

When a journalist says he believes Waite is responsible, then, for the artistic high point in melodic orthodontics, the singer laughs.

"Ha! Actually, (outside songwriter) Billy Nichols wrote that, and it's a song about getting high - but you probably knew that," says Waite by phone last week from California. "We decided to put it on the album because most of our material was very serious and 'White Lightning' had a charming, humorous quality, sort of like a Small Faces song. We wrote the title track, 'Head First,' and it was sort of ironic, as well, so those two songs were the tongue-in-cheek moments."

Waite and his band perform at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at the Katharine Hepburn Cultural Arts Center in Old Saybrook.

Though Waite is far more familiar for his multi-platinum hit "Missing You" and for Bad English's "When I See You Smile," it's true The Babys was a wonderful band with the potential to be one of the greatest power-pop acts of all time - at least until record company shenanigans caused the band to disintigrate.

"You know, that's a very bittersweet situation. I got left with the debt when we broke up, and (record label) Chrysalis got my publishing rights," Waite says, speaking softly. "I think back on it now and say, 'You bastards!' What they did was ferocious and I didn't know any better."

There's a moment of silence on the phone line and one can imagine Waite shaking his head. Then his tone brightens. "But you know what? I was 23 and we toured and got to see the world. Keith Richards calls it the price of a rock 'n' roll education. You get over it and start the process again."

Indeed. Starting in 1982, Waite has released 10 solo albums and scored chart hits with "Missing You," "Tears," "Restless Heart," "Every Step of the Way" and "Hard Time For Lovers," just to name a few. His latest CDs, "Downtown: Journey of a Heart" (2007) and last year's "Rough & Tumble," released on smaller independent labels, continue to boast solid rock chops and his typically melodic choruses. And with the success of the "Rought & Tumble" single in the Classic Rock radio format, Waite seems perfectly content to ply his trade and enjoy a loyal fanbase.

"I don't worry about the business of music so much anymore," he says. "I make records and license them so they get out there, but it's a relief not to have the (major label) money folks giving me creative input that I don't really need or want. I just basically go my own way and it works out. We sell enough and we tour and do well, and it's a good life. At heart, I'm a street level musician and my job is to just play."

Who's that girl?

A lot of rock 'n' roll is based around the ol' girl/boy dynamic. It is, after all, a form of music forged in the heat of teen angst, when Life's hormonal sun-flares are at their most intense.

It was very cool and surprising to learn the story, then, behind "Going to the Top," one of my favorite John Waite songs from his "Ignition" album. For years, I wanted to know about the presumed woman in the tune. On the phone with Waite, I tell him I always wanted to ask her, "Who are you and what the hell did you do to John?!?"

Waite says he thinks that's amusing and touching. "But ... there's no girl. The song's about (former Humble Pie vocalist) Steve Mariott!"

Waite explains. "I got to know him a bit over the years and he was just one of the greatest vocalists of all time. He'd been on top of the world twice - but the record business took everything from him. Even so, he was so pragmatic and had such spirit and a sense of humor about life, and he wouldn't let the business ruin his love of music.

"That's what it's about - that love of your art."

IF YOU GO

Who: John Waite

When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday

Where: Katharine Hepburn Cultural Arts Center, 300 Main St., Old Saybrook

How much: $35 and $40

For more information: (860) 510-0473, thekate.org.

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