How did ‘Pac-Man Fever’ become a hit? Atlanta’s Jerry Buckner tells all

The top 40 charts in the early 1980s were packed with oddball pop hits such as Stars on 45’s Beatles medley; “Hooked on Classics,” a mixture of classical songs set to a disco beat; and a top 10 novelty called “Pac-Man Fever,” created at the time by Atlanta jingle writers Jerry Bucker and Gary Garcia.

Buckner and Garcia at the time were leveraging a hot craze, a game that landed in thousands of arcades, pizza places and bars nationwide. Millions of kids and adults dropped quarters into the machine, obsessed with the chomping yellow character running around a maze, eating pills and avoiding colorful bad guys Shadow, Pokey, Bashful and Speedy.

To celebrate the game's 40th anniversary, several living members from the original band got together last week for a livestream and released a special 2020 "Pac-Man Fever" version synced to an old video of the late Garcia performing the vocals. Buckner also recently came out with an online book called "Pac-Man Fever: The Story Behind the Unlikely '80s Hit That Defined a Word-Wide Craze." (Buy it here)

In 1981, Buckner and Garcia were childhood musician buddies making a living writing jingles and creating commercials. Clients included Stone Mountain Ford and Italian restaurant Rigatoni’s.

In an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Buckner recalled working at a studio in Marietta with Garcia and going to dinner at Shillings on the Square. While playing a table-top version of Pac-Man, they became addicted like many others. Garcia had an idea: create a silly song, and if it does well, it might boost their jingle career.

Buckner fiddled with the melody, and Garcia massaged the lyrics. They presented the idea to Arnie Geller, producer for such acts as rock band Atlanta Rhythm Section and disco queen Alicia Bridges. Geller liked it and allowed them to record the song in his studio. This is when Garcia came up with the opening line, “I got a pocket full of quarters, and I’m headed to the arcade.”

“That really captured the time,” Buckner said.

Geller, who passed away recently, pitched the song to major labels in New York but was roundly rejected. But he knew the folks at 94Q, the popular Atlanta pop station. A copy landed on the desk of program director Jim Morrison, who decided to spin it one morning when regular host Gary McKee was on vacation, according to Buckner. (Neither Morrison nor McKee, when reached for comment, recall the details with any clarity.)

The station got a surprisingly huge response from its listeners. Soon, Columbia Records — home to the likes of Bruce Springsteen and Billy Joel — got wind of the song and signed Buckner and Garcia to a record deal.

But Columbia didn’t just want a one-off song: they needed an entire album full of songs about hit arcade games. And they needed it quickly. Over two weeks, Buckner and Garcia visited arcades to get inspiration, asking regular players what was hot. They ended up conjuring up songs such as “Ode to the Centipede” and “Do the Donkey Kong.”

At first, when Columbia released the single, it didn’t get much airplay. But in Florida, a few stations picked it up over the Christmas season, and folks vacationing there heard it and requested the song in cities up north. Atlanta’s WAGA-TV did a piece on the duo that the national TV show “Entertainment Tonight” picked up.

As the song climbed the charts, Columbia sent them to California to promote the song on “Solid Gold,” a hit syndicated music show hosted at the time by Marilyn McCoo. Buckner had a crazy idea to dress up in a lab coat and wear a silly mustache like his childhood hero Groucho Marx. He instantly regretted it when his partner Garcia chose to just dress normally. But it was too late. The video is now enshrined on YouTube. “I still hate seeing myself looking like that,” Buckner said.

They were also interviewed by People magazine, “Good Morning America” and a then-new cable channel called MTV. The highlight? Appearing on Dick Clark’s “American Bandstand.”

“We grew up watching Dick Clark,” Buckner said. “He was a legend, a huge personality. We were in our dressing room, and all of a sudden we hear that voice. He comes in, and I remember thinking, ‘I can’t believe I’m in the same room as this guy.’ Dick is in a sweatshirt, jeans. He starts talking, and we’re just staring.”

For awhile, they’d make appearances at arcades to promote the record and naturally be forced to play Pac-Man versus teenagers. Garcia, Buckner said, was better at the game, but neither were that proficient. “I prefer pinball,” Buckner said.

After “Pac-Man Fever” peaked at No. 9 on the Billboard charts in March of 1982, Columbia released “Do the Donkey Kong,” which bombed. Quickly, Buckner and Garcia disappeared from the pop culture scene.

Over the years, they continued to work as jingle writers. Garcia died in 2011 of heart issues at age 61.

Buckner, now 71, is healthy and until the COVID-19 pandemic happened, had spent recent years performing the song at various video-game conventions. Soon after Garcia passed, Disney called to ask if Buckner and Garcia could perform a retro-sounding song for its film “Wreck-It Ralph,” about a fictional fictional 1980s video game.

Buckner’s business partner, Mike Stewart, who performed on the original “Pac-Man Fever,” got his friend Danny Jones to sing the vocals to “Wreck It, Wreck It Ralph,” but they inserted a bit of Garcia into the song as a tribute to him. (Jones, Buckner and Stewart for years have also created novelty songs for Waffle House.)

Stewart has run website for the past 22 years and helped them re-record a new version of all their video-game songs in 1998 so they could pocket the proceeds since they couldn't afford to buy the originals from Sony Music.

The song and Pac-Man itself never quite went away. “Pac-Man Fever” has been featured on “South Park,” “The Simpsons” and “Family Guy.”

And at a 35th-anniversary gathering for the game five years ago in Chicago, Buckner got to meet the creator of Pac-Man himself: Toru Iwatani.

“He was there with a film crew from Japan walking around,” Buckner said. “We were introduced and talked through interpreters. At one point, he leans over to my ear and softly sings, ‘I got Pac-Man fever!’ That was incredible!”

Credit: Jerry Buckner and MIke Stewart performing at the 35th anniversary party in Chicago for Pac-Man in 2015. CR: Special/Mike Stewart

icon to expand image

Credit: Jerry Buckner and MIke Stewart performing at the 35th anniversary party in Chicago for Pac-Man in 2015. CR: Special/Mike Stewart