In 1979, artist Rupert Holmes was recording his album, Partners in Crime, when he realized it was missing something: a more uptempo song to balance out the bevy of ballads. Dusting off an old melody he'd written years earlier, Holmes and his band came up with an easy groove that captured the feeling he wanted. Getting the lyrics right, however, proved to be a much tougher task. Running down to his last day in the studio, Holmes was desperate for inspiration.
"I was in my apartment and there was a copy of The Village Voice. Sometimes I look at personal columns to get ideas for songs because people fascinate me," Holmes told Songfacts. "I saw this ad that a woman had placed in which she described herself in such glowing terms that I thought to myself, 'Why on earth, if you're this wonderful, do you need to place an ad in the personal columns?' Trying not to be cynical, I thought, 'Let's be fair, maybe she's just looking for an adventure. Maybe she is as wonderful as she says, but she likes the idea of meeting a stranger and seeing what fate has in store for them. She wants something out of the ordinary.' Then I thought to myself, 'What would happen if I answered this ad,' and I thought, 'With my stupid luck, I would answer the ad and find out it had been placed by the woman I was living with, never realizing that she was bored with me."
In that moment, a hit record was born. Well, almost. Holmes still had to get one line of the song's chorus just right. A reference to classic movie actor Humphrey Bogart just wasn't working.
"I thought, 'What can I substitute?' Well, this woman wants an escape, like she wants to go on vacation to the islands. When you go on vacation to the islands, when you sit on the beach and someone asks you if you'd like a drink, you never order a Budweiser, you don't have a beer. You're on vacation, you want a drink in a hollowed-out pineapple with the flags of all nations and a long straw. I thought, 'Let's see, there's daiquiri, mai tai, piña colada - I wonder what a piña colada tastes like, I've never even had one.' I thought that instead of singing 'If you like Humphrey Bogart,' with the emphasis on 'like,' I could start it a syllable earlier and go, 'If you like Piñ-a Coladas.'"
When the song started gaining steam on radio, the label noticed something strange was happening.
"The record just took off on its own. People started calling in to the radio station wanting to hear it," Holmes recalled. "They raced up to me and said, 'We've got a problem. You called the song 'Escape,' and everyone is calling in to radio stations asking for that song about piña coladas. They're going to record stores asking for the piña colada song, and the record stores don't know what they're talking about. Can we make it 'Escape (The Piña Colada Song)?' I said, 'And compromise my artistic integrity? How can I do that?' They said, 'If we don't make it 'The Piña Colada Song,' it's not going to sell. I said, 'I guess it's 'The Piña Colada Song.'"
Released in September, 1979, the song would fly up the charts, hitting #1 on December 22, 1979. It would be briefly knocked from the top spot for one week--January 5, 1980--by KC and the Sunshine Band's "Please Don't Go," before returning to #1 on January 12, 1980. It would toppled again the following week by Michael Jackson's "Rock with You."
"If I had ever known that was going to be the song that I'd be most associated with, I might have had second thoughts about a lot of it," Holmes said. "It was never meant to be heard 100 million times; it was meant to be a little short story with a little wink at the end of it, and that was supposed to be it. It was also not supposed to make the piña colada a popular drink in Idaho and other land-locked states where they had never heard of a piña colada. If I had known that in advance, I would have gone to Coco Lopez, which makes the coconut ingredient in the piña colada, and asked for a commission!"
While he never got that Coco Lopez endorsement, the song was used in the best-selling movie soundtrack for Guardians of the Galaxy, among many other film and TV syncs.