Without Breaking Stride, Matthew Wilder Marches Toward the Top of the Charts

updated 02/06/1984 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/06/1984 AT 01:00 AM EST

How often do you suppose an unknown singer fails to exploit two of the most powerful forces in American culture—MTV and the Los Angeles Raiders—and lives to see the top of the charts? Well, gather round and hear the unlikely but heartwarming tale of Matthew Wilder.

Eschewing the videotape-and-boob-tube route favored by nouveau mega-howlers and relying solely on that old standby, radio play, Wilder has broken from the pack of rock hopefuls with his hit single, Break My Stride. Combining a reggae-pop rhythm and defiantly upbeat lyrics—"Ain't nothin' gonna break my stride/ Nobody gonna slow me down/ Oh, no/ I got to keep on movin' "—the tune is No. 5 on Billboard's Hot 100 and still charging.

Perhaps it was the indomitable quality of the lyrics that first suggested to Wilder's record company that a reworded Break My Stride could provide the renegade Raiders with a perfect Super Bowl theme song. But the Gospel according to Matthew cameth down: Nobody gonna break up my lyrics—at least not on such short notice.

Notwithstanding the loss of publicity, Break My Stride—No. 1 in such cities as Baltimore, Chicago, Cleveland, St. Louis, Portland and Miami—has prospered. (On the other hand, so have the Raiders.) Trying to explain the wide appeal of the tune, Wilder says, "It's a feel-good song. It comes from the same place as Howard Beale in Network saying, 'I'm mad as hell and not going to take it anymore.' "

A year ago Wilder, 30, was just as frustrated as Beale. Though he was making a modest living as a singer of jingles (for Maxwell House, Honda, Dr Pepper, Pepsi) and a backup singer and writer (for Rickie Lee Jones, Bette Midler, Robbie Dupree), his higher aspirations suffered when an album deal with Clive Davis' Arista Records fizzled after two years of work. Soon afterward he made a demo tape of Break My Stride, co-written with Greg Prestopino. "It was a time when I was just trying to dig up as much perseverance as I could," Wilder recalls. "The song was a gift to myself. I didn't have the support of anyone in the business."

However, the song caught the ear of Joe Isgro, who was looking to launch a new label, Private I, with a hit. Within three months Wilder wrote and recorded the album I Don't Speak the Language, currently No. 66 on the charts and climbing steadily.

The son of a theater-advertising man and an opera-singing Juilliard graduate mother, Wilder began his performing career as a teenager on the sidewalks of Greenwich Village, playing soft-rock songs à la James Taylor and Donovan on his 12-string guitar. After a semester at the Pratt Institute, where he studied drawing and met Susan Wagor, an artist and his wife-to-be, he dropped out to cut an LP for Playboy Records in L.A. with a flute-playing partner. The world wasn't ready for that.

Now rehearsing his band for a three-month summer tour and preparing for a quick trip to Europe to promote the singles, Wilder is watching his musical offspring grow while he waits for his first real baby, due in May. He also continues to ponder "the rude business I'm in" and hints that he may have to keep striding for a while before he gets to the top of the rock pile. Consider, for example, this recent letter from a young fan: "I hope your song goes to No. 1. By the way, if you know Duran Duran or Culture Club, say hi."

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