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Ray Wylie Hubbard Discusses Ruffian's Misfortune

July, 2015

 

RayWylieHubbard 114smIf one lives – or has ever lived in the state of Texas in the fifteen or twenty years – and you love music, chances are better than even that you just may have heard (or heard of) Ray Wylie Hubbard.  Well, wait a minute. If you were a Jerry Jeff Walker fan back in the early seventies, you may have heard a song that he recorded of Ray’s called, “Up Against The Wall, Redneck Mother”.

As the title of that song surely indicates, Hubbard is not afraid to be a bit, uh, how should we say this?  Controversial? In your face? Shocking? Personally, I prefer to call him raw, gritty, and funnier ‘n, well, Texas in the summer time. And while many of you may not have heard of him until now, it’s only because you missed his appearance on The Late Show With David Letterman or just haven’t caught one of his shows around the country as he becomes increasingly well known. 

In support of Ray’s latest album, “Ruffian’s Misfortune”, I was afforded the opportunity to chat with him by phone while he and his wife were enduring bad weather in Central Texas. Despite the weather causing our call to drop a few times, he was good natured and very gracious during the call and was a hoot to chat with. 

I started out by asking Ray to tell Boomerocity readers who may have not heard of him to tell a little bit about himself in his own words.

“I’m an old funky cat. Still writin’ them old songs, still out there doin’ it. I started off{mprestriction ids="*"} in folk music in high school in Dallas. I went to high school with Michael Murphy, B.W. Stevenson, and Larry Groce. We got involved in folk music. There was a great folk scene around Austin and Houston. I started playing acoustic guitar and got a little folk group. We played our circuits here. The lyrics were very important to me. You discover Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie, and you go back to Lead Belly. I was also very fortunate to have seen Lightnin’ Hopkins, Mance Lipscomb, and Freddy King. So those deep blues have always been there, but I didn’t really get into playing until my forties. I decided I was going to try to be a real songwriter, and I wanted to write songs that didn’t compromise what I wanted to write about. I wasn’t going to writer for other people to record or write for a publishing company. I just wanted to write cool songs. Today, I’m in a very fortunate place where I feel like my lyrics have some depth and weight and humor. I’m moving with a deep groove that has its foundation in country blues. That’s kinda where I’m at and what I’m doin’.”

With the rise in popularity of Americana music, I asked Hubbard if he considers his music to be part of that genre.

“About ten years ago, Americana was Lucinda Williams, Sam Bush, Gillian Welch, and me. That was about it. Now, you’ve got guys like Robert Plant using that as a label, because it has a lot of integrity to it. It’s not mainstream. It’s music that comes from a different place than just trying to fill a pocketbook. 

"I’ve never been a country singer ever, but I’ve been influenced by good country music. I’m not a folk purist or traditionalist, but I got started off in folk music. I really appreciate the integrity of the lyrics. Of course, I’m not a blues cat out there, but I’ve been influenced by it. I’m too old to be a rock ‘n’ roller. I’ve been influenced by all of that- folk, blues, bluegrass, country, roots rock. I’m not one particular genre.”

I love “Ruffian’s Misfortune” (read the Boomerocity review of it here) and asked what had been the receptivity to it, to date.

“It’s been really, really good. Nice reviews, and it’s number two on the Americana charts. It’s done really well, and there’s been a really good response. I’m very happy with it. I had a lot of help. George Reiff and Rick Richards were the rhythm section. They’d been out with Joe Walsh for about a year, so they were just phenomenal. Also, my son, Lucas, and a kid named Gabe Rhodes are my two guitar players. Everybody stepped up. I brought the songs, and these guys took them to a great place. I feel very fortunate. I can’t recommend this for everybody, but I sleep with the president of the record label. I’m not talking about Clive Davis. I’m talking about my wife, Judy. Judy says, ‘Write whatever you want to write, and I’ll try to sell the damn thing’. 

"To a writer, as you know, that’s a really good place to be. I’m not writing for a publishing company or trying to get someone to cut my songs. I’m not thinking about the future of it. I can write songs about Charlie Musselwhite, the drug cartels in Mexico, or even do a gospel thing with ‘Barefoot In Heaven’. I’m very grateful to be able to write not thinking about what’s going to happen to the song. I just try to write the best song I can.”

I knew you readers would want to know so I asked for you: What’s the story behind the title?

“I wanted a title that sounded like if you went into an old used bookstore and found an old American novel. I wanted it to sound like ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ or ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ or ‘The Last of the Mohicans’. ‘The Ruffian’s Misfortune’- it just sounds like an old, dusty book from the 1800’s. I just really liked the way that sounded. I enjoy stuff like that.”

When I asked Ray to tell me a little bit of the album from his perspective, his humor came through loud and clear.

Ray Wylie Hubbard High Res 565 Reduced“It’s not a concept album, of course. There’s kinda this theme, being an old cat, of thinking about your mortality. The idea behind it is that I hope God grades on a curve. A C- minus may not get me into heaven, but maybe it will get me into some kind of celestial vocation school or something. I’m not Mother Teresa, but I’m not Attila the Hun. There are gospel songs on there, ‘Barefoot In Heaven’ and ‘Stone Blind Horses’, that talk about that." 

How was making this album different from making Hubbard’s first album?

“The first album I wasn’t that happy about. We made a record in Austin that got us a bunch of record offers. Back then, if someone from the record label called, you had to say yes. They gave you the money to do it, and they had a lot of control over it. All my early albums came with excuses duct taped to ‘em: ‘We ran out of money’ or ‘they put steel guitars and girls singing on a song while we were gone’ or ‘they put out the wrong cover’. ‘Loco Gringo’s Lament’ was the first record I could hand to somebody, and look them in the eye to say, ‘Here it is’. It came with no excuses. 

"With ‘The Ruffian’s Misfortune’, the idea is that you may not like the singer of the songs, but you’ll like the way it sounds. It sounds really good. We really wanted it to sound like real people really played. We didn’t use Auto-Tune or a lot of pedals. We just plugged it in and played. I think that’s the difference now. I have this incredible freedom to record whatever I think is best for the song. On the earlier albums, there were still conditions. I was under a time limit or whatever. The albums now, I go ‘Here they are. Like it or don’t’.”

When I asked Ray how the songwriting was different on this disc as compared to his previous albums, he said: 

“I think I’ve learned about songwriting- the inspiration and the craft. The inspiration is finding a good idea for a song. The craft is taking that inspiration and having the knowledge on the guitar to know where it’s going to go. Even though I’m an old cat, I keep learning new things. I learned how to finger pick at age 42. Then I learned open tuning, Resonator, and mandolin. By learning new things, it gives the song a door to come through that wasn’t there before. If I hadn’t learned open D tuning, I wouldn’t be able to do all these things right. For me, it’s very important to learn new things and keep expanding my vocabulary in music.”

Artists usually refuse to name a favorite song from their albums because it’s much like asking them to pick one of their kids as their favorites. However, I did ask which song from “Ruffian’s Misfortune” would he offer as a calling card for the album to entice people to want to check out the rest of it.

“I would say ‘Stone Blind Horses’. I’m very happy with that song. It’s kind of a personal thing, and it’s definitive of where I’m at right now.”

Ray is working with his son, Lucas, on the road. I asked what it’s been like for him.

“I have a lot of respect for his playing. I’m very fortunate that he was influenced by guitar players other than me. He’d go see Buddy Miller, Joe Walsh, Charlie Sexton- all these great Austin guitar players. He doesn’t just have my gnarly old stuff. He’s got a lot of taste in what he plays. He doesn’t show off. He just plays the song, and he plays from the place of a true poet guitar player.”

As for what he hopes listeners and fans will take away from “Ruffian’s Misfortune”, Hubbard said:

“Songwriting is a joy and anguish. You anguish over it to make sure it’s right. A song like ‘Snake Farm’- I feel like it’s a well-written song. It’s a joy when it works. I hope that when people listen to it, they appreciate the song writing. Also, I hope they acknowledge that the musicians who played on it are just stand-up musicians. I hope they go, ‘Wow, he’s an old cat, but he’s still writing some damn good songs with great players’.”

As for what current and prospective fans can expect from a Ray Wylie Hubbard show, the songsmith said:

“They can expect to have the time of their life if they eliminate roller coasters, fireworks, and sex. Kyle Schneider lays down a deep groove. My son, Lucas, plays really tasty, cool licks. Every once in awhile, I’ll say something funny in between songs. We’ll have a good time.”

Knowing that Ray had worked with and hung out with Willie Nelson a lot, I asked about that relationship.

“I’ve known Willie since forever. I’ve always played his picnic. One time, Willie kidnapped me, put me on his bus, and took me to Milwaukee with him. A couple of his roadies picked me up and put me on the bus. Next thing I know, I’m in Knoxville on the way to Milwaukee or someplace to play a beer fest. The thing about Willie, man, is he is an icon, of course. But at the base, he’s still a songwriter. No matter how old you get or whatever you do, that’s still in you. That’s very inspirational to me.”

On comparing “Outlaw”/Red Dirt country versus Nashville, Ray had this to say:

“I play Nashville and Tennessee, and I have incredibly nice audiences. But there’s a difference between Austin and Nashville. Nashville songwriting is a livelihood. You make money by writing songs. In Austin, it’s a lifestyle. Songwriters in Texas aren’t writing to get cash or hits. They’re writing songs because they have no choice. 

"People ask me, ‘Who do you listen to?’ Actually, I listen to my friends. Hayes Carll, Sam Baker, James McMurtry- guys like that. I feel very fortunate to know them and consider them friends.”

In sharing what is on his career radar for the foreseeable future, Ray said: RuffiansMisfortune

“I got a book coming out in July. It’s kind of a memoir and instructional book on songwriting. Then I’ve got an instructional video I’m going to be doing for people asking about my ol’ guitar playing. I’m writing songs for the next record. I have about four or five finished, so I’ll record sometime later in the year. With touring, I’m keeping busy.”

Ray Wylie Hubbard undoubtedly has many more years of music and touring left to go but I asked him about, when he steps off the tour bus called life and goes the great gig in the sky, how does he want to be remembered and what does he hope his legacy is. 

“‘He was a cat who preferred spirituality to religious conversion’. I don’t really think about it like that. I enjoy writing these songs to see what I can contribute to other people’s lives. I like to see if I can bring joy to someone’s life. When I play a gig, I like to see people laugh, dance, and sing along.”

Keep up with all things Ray at www.raywylie.com.

Billy Vera Discusses His Career and Little Richard


Posted June, 2015

BillyVeraw Grammy croppedThe name, Billy Vera, may or may not ring a bell with you but you most certainly have heard his music, depending on when you became an avid listener.

If you were glued to the radio in the sixties, you might be familiar with the he wrote “Storybook Children” and “Country Girl, City Man” that he recorded with Judy Clay and later covered by Nancy Sinatra. In the same era, he had a solo hit entitled, “With Pen In Hand”.

He’s arguably most known for his huge hit, “At This Moment”, made famous on a couple of episodes of the hit TV show in the eighties, “Family Ties” and, more recently, enjoyed a resurgence in popularity when Canadian crooner, Michael Buble’, recorded it both in the studio and live.

Still is admired by his fans and peers, alik, his songs have been recorded by such singers as Lou Rawls, Bonnie Raitt, Dolly Parton, Etta James, Fats Domino, Tom Jones, George Benson, and Robert Plant.

Okay, let’s say (just for kicks and grins) that you already knew all that stuff. Did you know that Billy Vera is also a rock music historian?

I didn’t, either. 

Vera has lent his historical prowess to writing annotations for some very important commemorative albums and box sets, most recently being the extensive 3 CD box set of Little Richard’s most prolific work entitled, “Directly From{mprestriction ids="*"} My Heart: The Best of the Specialty & Vee-Jay Years”.

When I received my review copy of the Little Richard box set, I also was given the golden opportunity to chat with Billy Vera – both about the box set as well as about his own career. I couldn’t pass up that chance.

We started off with Billy sharing a brief background as to how he got involved with this project.

“Some years ago, I was working for Specialty Records - the label that Richard recorded for. In fact, I did the first Little directlyfrommyheartcovercopyRichard box set back in 1989. Then I did a couple more single Little Richard Cds for Specialty. I produced and compiled them. I had written the notes for Concord’s Ray Charles box set - the complete ABC Paramount Singles and won a Grammy for that. I guess they came to the same well. I’m hoping for another Grammy. Ha! Ha!”

When asked if he knew Little Richard, Vera said:

“I met him years ago. When he got his star on Hollywood Boulevard, I was there representing Specialty Records. I think that was 1989 or ’90. The remarkable thing was that I was the only rock and roller who showed up. All the people that Little Richard influenced and all the fans that became musicians, I was the only one that was there!

“I understood it. Guys are working. They’ve got their own jobs, their own gigs they’re playing or they’re on the road or whatever they’re doing.”

I asked Vera what gems and surprises would he point people to in this box set and, in his mind, what is THE compelling reason to pick up this set.

“It’s fairly complete so there’s not a lot of surprises. You’ve got all the hits from his Specialty years; from ‘Tutti Frutti’ right on through ‘Long, Tall Sally’ and ‘Good Golly Miss Molly’ and ‘Lucille’. They’re all there on CD One and CD Two. Then, on CD Three they put the best of his Vee Jay recordings from the early sixties - which his last, big chart hit was on Vee Jay, which was, “I Don’t What You Got But It’s Got Me”. That’s when Jimi Hendrix was in the band. A song written by Don Covay who had worked for Richard both as his chauffeur and as an opening act under the name, ‘Pretty Boy’. In fact, Don Covay recorded on Atlantic with The Upsetters, Richard’s band, as Pretty Boy; a song called, ‘Bip Bop Bip’. Ha! Ha! A very rare recording.”

Circling back around to closing out his answer to my question, Billy concluded: 

“It’s got all this stuff on the set that’s Specialty and some lesser known items - some of the early things he did for Specialty and more obscure items, as well. It’s a pretty good compilation, I would think!”

When he boil it all down to Little Richard’s true core, as an historian as well as a fan, Billy describes him this way:

“I was onto Little Richard early. I was eleven when I bought ‘Tutti Frutti’. The first hit. I heard it on the Alan Freed Show. I was hooked. I loved those horns. I guess that people who came to rock and roll late, they think of it as a guitar based medium. But, for me, between Richard, Fats Domino and so many of those records with those great saxophone players. To me, it’s always been about the saxophone and Richard had those four sax’s honking away, man! 

BillyVera001“My mother took me to see, ‘The Girl Can’t Help It’ at the Roxy Theater in Manhattan, which is no longer there. A huge theater the size of Radio City Music Hall. It was a five thousand seater. We were up there. CinemaScope and TechniColor and there’s Little Richard, man, banging away on that piano with those saxophone players dancing and doing choreography. He puts his leg up on the piano and Jayne Mansfield walks by, shakin’ that thing. To me, that was the iconic visual of rock and roll.”

And what does he think is the least known or underappreciated thing is about Little Richard?

“Well, that’s two different items: least known and under appreciated. How many people know that when he got started, he was working a lot of frat houses in the south? In addition to the usual black theaters and black night clubs, he also had gigs playing for drunken college boys. Part of his act was, he would lift the tables and chairs with his teeth. I never saw him do that but I did see another guy do that out here in L.A. 

“When I first moved here, I used to go to this club that had this good New Orleans band - Eddie Zip. In the middle Eddie Zip’s act, they would bring out a guy called, ‘Iron Jaws Wilson’. Iron Jaws would sing a blues or two and then, for the finale of his little fifteen minute act, he would pick up a chair with his teeth. Then, he would hook another chair onto that chair. The next thing you know, he had five chairs in his teeth! I couldn’t see how a human being could do that! Then I found out some time later that Little Richard did that in his act. 

“You know, drunken college boys like strange things and Richard would often play in drag. He would do ‘dirty’ songs. If you’ve ever played a frat house party, they want dirty songs. In fact, ‘Tutti Frutti’ was a song that he did for those parties with different lyrics. He called it, ‘Tutti Frutti Good Booty’. Actually, that’s what excited the producer, Bumps Blackwell, into thinking that he knew that he had a hit. They had recorded in the morning, their first session in New Orleans. It was pretty disappointing. It was just run of the mill R&B. Nothing special. Bumps was afraid for his job. He said, ‘When I play what we did this morning for Art Rupe, he’s going to be mad at me and think that I wasted his money.’ 

‘So, they take a lunch break and go to the Dew Drop Inn. Richard was always a big ham - an attention whore. He jumps up on the piano and starts singing and entertaining people. He starts sing this dirty song, ‘Tutti Frutti Good Booty’. There was a spark to it that wasn’t in the songs that they had recorded in the morning. Bumps said, ‘Man! If I could get a clean lyric for this, something that they could play on the radio, maybe we could have a hit!’

“He spotted a local New Orleans songwriter named Dorothy LaBosterie over there having a sandwich or some soup or whatever she was eating for lunch. He goes over to Dorothy and says, ‘Do you think you could clean up the lyric to that?’  She said, ‘Yeah, give me about ten minutes and I’ll knock something out.’ She did and they went back into the studio for the afternoon session and they recorded it. Bumps was happy. He knew his job was secure and, of course, that was one of the iconic songs of rock and roll. From the first moment when he says, ‘Wop bop a loo bop a lop bam boom!’, you knew something new was happening.

“You put that, you put ‘Maybelene’, you put ‘Blue Suede Shoes’, and, also, the Do Wop groups - all that was rock and roll. It wouldn’t be rock and roll without any of them. But, certainly, Richard was one of the triumvirate of mad me. I include him, Chuck and Jerry Lee. All psychotics and all great. I often wondered if there’s a connection. Do you have to be that nuts to be that great? That’s probably a question that will probably go unanswered forever.”

As we discussed Jerry Lee Lewis, Billy shared this little tidbit:

“I sang on one of Jerry Lee’s records. Steve Cropper was producing him in 1973. I had flown in because Cropper was going BillyVera002to record me. I had somebody to bring me over to the studio and there he was. He was recording The Killer. He said, ‘You know, this song could use a little harmony with Jerry Lee. Wanna sing it?’ I said, ‘Sure!’ The song is called ‘Jack Daniels Old No. 7’ 

“Jerry Lee was playing the piano and on that piano he had a quart - not a fifth ,not a pint, a quart - of bourbon and the more he drank, the faster he played. He was out of his mind, man, but it was a great thrill to sing a song with The Killer!”

In answering my question as to how Lewis was to work with, Vera said:

“He was just ‘there,’ you know? He’s the kind of guy that he seemed like he was spaced; like he was in his own world. On one hand, when you meet him, he will shake your hand and really hard, like it’s a test and he’ll look you right in the eye like he’s testing you. So you know he knows you’re there. Yet, there’s something about him that he’s almost unaware of anything going on around him. It’s hard to explain. But, yeah, he’s nuts! Richard is nuts. Chuck Berry is . . . NUTS! 

“I worked with Chuck more than any of them. I worked with him when he was a $1,300 a night act. I worked with him when he was a $15,000 a night act. I worked with him when he was a $50,000 a night act. Many times. The man is whacked! 

“The only one of the big ones I think is sane - at least he’s calm; he may be quietly insane - is Fats. I always thought because he’s not crazy like the others, that he gets short shrift. Fats had more hits than all of them put together. The first time I ever walked into a record store with three dollars, one of the three records I bought was ‘Blueberry Hill”. So I love me some Fats!

“He cut one of my songs when he made his comeback album on Reprise so that was a big thrill. Then, to meet him was a big thrill, as well.”

In a ranking of rock and roll icons, where in the hierarchy is Little Richard’s place?

“I think that he’s right up there in the top tier. Certainly with Chuck and Fats and Jerry Lee, you know? Elvis, of course, is off to the side on his own. He’s one of a kind. He’s THE man. Nobody equals Elvis because he had more going for him than the others. He was as handsome as a Greek god so he had that sex thing going with the girls.  

“Then, there was those who were important, regionally. I grew up in New York. You ask any singer of my age group that grew up in New York and Frankie Lymon is right there as a major, major influence . . . even though we didn’t have a high, little voice that he had. He was like a little god to all of us but, yet, you go to Memphis - ‘Frankie who?”.  

“I guess I”m neglecting Buddy Holly but Buddy, I think, was a different animal because of the songwriting and, also, how short his career was. Of course, in New York, Dion is another icon but underrated compared to the Richard’s and the Fats’s and the Chuck’s.”

Obviously, most casual music listeners will know you from your hits, “At This Moment” and “I Can Take Care Of Myself.” You certainly haven’t been sitting still since those hits. What have you been up to since then? I understand that you’ve done some significant acting, voiceover work, producing and, if I’m not mistaken, you’re still a prolific songwriter, no?

BillyVeraw Grammy cropped“I don’t write so much any more. But I also had some hits in the sixties, both as a writer and as a singer. I was on Atlantic Records with a girl named Judy Clay. We had two hits, ‘Storybook Children’ and ‘Country Girl, City Man”. And, then, I had a solo hit on Atlantic called, ‘With Pen In Hand”. Then the seventies came along and I couldn’t get arrested. Everything changed so radically at that point. We played the Apollo Theater a few times. I was the white guy in all these black venues. 

“Then, things kinda changed. All the white guys were trying to be like the black guys. That changed with the advent of the Beatles and the Stones and the British acts. Everybody wanted to be British except those of us who had wanted to be black. Then we said, “well, what do we do now?” and I just couldn’t figure it out. I couldn’t figure where to fit in. I couldn’t go be a heavy metal guy. I couldn’t be a disco guy. I couldn’t be a wimpy singer/songwriter. So I just didn’t know what to do in the seventies. I just did survival gigs. 

“Then, in ’79, Dolly Parton recorded a song of mine called, ‘I Really Got The Feeling”. That went to number one on the country charts. Then I was back in show business, so to speak.’ That’s when I moved out to L.A. I ran into my old bass player who had moved out here a couple of years earlier and he said, ‘why don’t we start a band? We could meet some girls or something.’ That’s why we started the Beaters. 

“Eventually, we became the hottest band in town because nobody was doing what we were doing. There was this band that was called The Knack that had a really great record called, ‘My Sharona’. So all the record labels were trying to sign acts like The Knack. Four guys, two guitars, bass and drums. Here we were, ten guys, fours saxophones, rhythm section, and a steel guitar. The people liked us but the record companies were afraid of us because they’re so short sighted. They only sign things that sound like what’s already on the charts. 

“So it took us a year of sold out Monday nights at midnight at the Troubadour. I’d see all of these A&R guys out there in the audience, snapping their fingers after they’d hit all of the other clubs looking for who to sign. They’d come and have fun with us but they never reached for their wallets or their checkbooks! It wasn’t until after all of those sound alike flopped that they started looking for something different. Then we were as different as it gets. We had, like, three offers in one week after not getting any offers in over a year. 

“We chose this company from Japan - Alpha Records - because I figured we’d get a better shot with them than we would with the major labels. We had, ‘I Can Take Care Of Myself’ and ‘At This Moment’ was the follow up. Their head of promotion had a fight with the boss and quit so we had nobody to promote ‘At This Moment’. The Japanese pulled the plug on the American operation. Soon, the company was out of business and we were without a record deal for another five years. 

“I was making a living doing acting gigs which is unusual in Hollywood. Most actors don’t make a living at it. One day, I get a phone call from this guy. He goes, ‘my name is Michael Whitehorn. I produce and write for a show called, ‘Family Ties’. We were at the club the other night and we saw you sing a song that we think might be right for an episode we have coming up. I said, ‘what’s the name of it?’ He said, ‘I don’t know.’ I figured it had to be ‘At This Moment’ because nobody ever gets the name of it right. 

“I hum him a few bars and he said, ‘Yeah! That’s the one!’ I said, ‘well, call my publisher and we’ll license the song to the show. That would be great!’ I’d had songs on television shows before. You make a few bucks and that’s the end of it. But this time was a little different. I got mail. NBC sent me a bag full of mail ‘Who’s the singer?’ ‘What’s the name of that song?’ ‘Where can we get it?’

“I said, ‘Wow! People really like this song. Maybe I can get a record company to let me record it again.’ Nobody was interested. Yeah, nobody.

“I was having lunch one day. Richard Foos - the guy that ran Rhino Records; owned it - he and I would have a periodic lunch. We’d have mock arguments over whose version of ‘Mustang Sally’ was the best one. So, I mentioned at lunch, ‘you know, Richard, this is what happened. How many records do you need to sell to break even?’ He said, ‘oh, we have low overhead here at Rhino. I could break even on about two thousand albums. I said, ‘what if I guaranteed you two thousand. I could sell them in the clubs, if necessary. I had my lawyer help him license the songs from Alpha. I compiled an album of from the songs I did for Alpha that the fans liked best, including ‘At This Moment’. They put out a single of it, too.

“Rhino never put out singles. They certainly didn’t know anything about payola or getting records on the radio. By the time we got the album out, we missed the reruns of ‘Family Ties’. 

“So, as luck would have it, they used the song again in the following season - in September in an episode when a girl breaks up with Michael J. Fox. This time, the story in the song, boy loses girl, is the same as the story of the episode. America went berserk! NBC called us up and they said they had more phone calls than at any time in the history of the network. This time, they had answers for them. They knew who the singer was. They knew the title of the song. People started calling radio stations; and people started calling record stores. 

“This time, Rhino had records out. People started buying it. A total grass roots phenomenon! There certainly was no promotion. They hired a promotion guy. I’d go over to Rhino every morning and I’d work the phones, calling up radio stations. ‘Hi! This is Billy Vera. When I’m in town, I listen to KRAP and the good guys at 9 a.m.’ Doing promos and doing interviews. I’d do these all morning long until lunch time. That was the little bit we could do to promote the record. That was about it!

“The next thing you know, we’re jumping over Madonna. We’re jumping over Bon Jovi. We’re jumping over all these big stars. The next thing you know, we have the number one recordin the country! A dead record!

“The next thing you know, I’m on Johnny Carson. The next thing you know, I’m on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand. Forty-two years old and fifteen year old girls screaming for this bald headed guy! Ha! Ha!”

One of my friends asked if “At This Moment” was written about anyone in particular. Vera shared that it was partially autobiographical. He had met a girl who had just broken up with her boyfriend and described to Billy what the boyfriend directlyfrommyheartcovercopywent through when they broke up. The story inspired Billy to go home and write the portion of the song based on his own imagination of what that guy must have gone through when the girl dumped him. However, he couldn’t come up with a good ending to the song. 

Billy started dating the girl and a few months later, she dumped him, as well. The experience gave him the fodder to write the ending of the song – especially the line he says everyone remembers: “I’d subtract twenty years from my life . . .”

Sometimes, the pain and challenges of life have a way of providing gold in our pockets while putting holes in our hearts. Billy’s signature song is a great example of how that sometimes can be.

Billy Vera is still actively performing and recording. He performs both his historic hits as well as turning his fans on to his love of jazz and big band music. You can keep up with him and his career at www.billyvera.com. You can order the Little Richard box set by clicking on the widget, below.


Jack Tempchin Talks About "Room To Run"

Posted June, 2015

JackTempchin4b creditJoelPiperPhoto by Joel PiperEvery songwriter dreams of writing just one song – that song – that everyone knows and can sing – or, at the very least, hum. To be able to write two, well, that would be the rarified air segment of the songwriter hierarchy. More than that and you know that you’ve accomplished more than most songwriting mortals. You’re in an exclusive club that few belong to.
Such is the case with Jack Tempchin.

You may not have heard his name, but you have most certainly heard many of the songs he’s written or co-written. Songs like

“Peaceful Easy Feeling,” “Already Gone,” “The Girl From Yesterday,” “Somebody,” and “It’s Your World Now” by the Eagles. Of course, you’ve had to have heard, “Swayin’ To The Music (Slow Dancin’) by Johnny Rivers.
Perhaps you’re familiar with Glenn Frey’s hits, “The One You Love,” “You Belong to the City,” “Smuggler’s Blues,” “True Love” or “I Found Somebody”? If so, you now know that those, too, were co-written by Mr. Tempchin.
And those are the biggies. Jack has also written songs recorded by George Jones, Glen Campbell, Emmylou Harris and Randy Meisner, Sammy Kershaw, Patty Loveless, Tanya Tucker and many, many others.

If it were me who had a hand in all of those great songs, I’d be tempted to rest on my laurels and feel that I have nothing left to write or give. But not Jack Tempchin.

Tempchin recently released a four{mprestriction ids="*"} song EP entitled, “Room to Run”. Not only does it show that he has lots of great music still inside of him, it’s also musical foretaste of more great music to come.

I recently had the privilege of chatting with Jack by phone about “Room to Run” at his Southern California home. He started off sharing about the EP and how it was different to record than his previous albums.

“I have put five or six of my own albums out. Since the Eagles got back together in ’94, and I stopped doing the Glenn Frey albums, I put my own albums out. But I haven’t had a record deal. This is my first record deal since I was signed with Clive Davis and Arista Records. The last album was about three years ago.

“It’s so tremendously different. My new album is a completely different way of making a record for me. Of course, I’ve been using a combination of the traditional recording and Pro Tools. I partnered with Joel Piper, my producer. Joel is more of an EDM producer. He’s twenty-eight years old and was also in a band called Confide who played the Warped Tour. His whole experience of music in this world is completely different from mine because of his age. He’s been working with Pro Tools since he was nine years old, you know what I mean? He’s got the skills where he can do just about anything. He can hear any type of record from any era and duplicate it. Once I started working with him, I come to find that he actually plays every instrument really well and sings all the backgrounds. I thought, ‘Well, this is weird’. The song is mine, but he would put all this other stuff I would have never thought of putting in there.

“He’s such a great producer, because everything he does, to me, amplifies the song. It’s not his skill set; it’s the fact that he can use it to further the song. It’s been a real different experience of making a record. There are only two or three people on the record except for me and Joel. I play the guitar and sing, and he plays most everything else. I started thinking about it, and it’s not that much different than when I worked with Glenn Frey. We’d write the song, arrange it, and have a bunch of players come in. That’s the traditional way of making a record. I was still partnering with the guy who was doing all that. The only difference is Joel is playing all the stuff himself then doing all the engineering. Still, somebody has to do the thinking. It’s not that different except for the technology change that allows one guy to do all the stuff when it used to take fifteen guys. The bottom line is I would sing the song and get a great vocal with Joel. He would go away and come back with a track. I would go, ‘Gee, is this me?’ Like with ‘Room To Run’, it’s got this great pedal steel. I feel like I’m stepping into the future here. I’m making this record with the newest methodology and technology, but somehow it still feels really good for me. I like what’s coming out. That’s the bottom line.”

Sharing more about the album itself, Tempchin said:

“I was thinking about doing a record for a couple years. A lot of times you do a record, and nothing happens. I’m paying for it myself. Then I got a record deal like a thunderbolt out of the blue. My manager saw an advertisement that said they were looking for something. I went in, and the guy offered me a huge, fabulous record deal. It just exploded my brain in terms of creativity. I thought, ‘Wow, someone else wants to hear what I do’. I collected all these songs I had, and I wrote a bunch of new songs. I was really inspired by getting a record deal. Somebody else is going to be trying to push it besides me. I’m not very good at that.

JackTempchinb creditJoelPiperPhoto by Joel Piper“With ‘Room To Run’, I go to Nashville every year and write with people. My friend, Carey Ott, is a computer genius and great songwriter. We were thinking about that subject when we wrote that, so I pulled that out of my catalog. I really like it.
If I hadn’t had a record deal, I might not have made another record. These songs would just languish away in a drawer, and no one would ever hear them. I had been talking to a bunch of super successful people about their sad tales concerning going through divorces and losing all their money. My friend, Glenn Frey, said, ‘Divorce is a fraternity with a really difficult initiation’. It’s not my story; I’m happily married. But I was so moved by talking to these people, and I sat down at the kitchen table one day to write ‘The High Cost of Hate’. I thought to myself, ‘I’m never going to be able to play this song anywhere’, but I just had to get it out. About eight months later, I had a gig that happened to be for the top divorce lawyers in the country. They were having a convention in San Diego, and on the last night of the convention, they have a special dinner with the top 100 (out of a couple thousand). I just couldn’t resist singing that song for them. They gave me a standing ovation halfway through the song. The song says, ‘Let’s call it quits/And make some lawyers rich’. I’m nice to the lawyers in the song, so they really liked it. My label president is actually an attorney, so he got excited. That’s why they put the EP out. He just wanted to spread that song to other attorneys. I’m just delighted it’s getting out there somehow.

“And then I have ‘Jesus and Mohammed’. That was something I wrote with a friend of mine. He came up with the thought, and we wrote that. I put it on different projects, but I could never record it the way I wanted to. This is a good version of that, and I’m glad to have that out there.”

As for what the buzz has been like so far for the EP, Jack’s answer was matter of fact and without hype.

“It’s a little early. I played the Troubadour on May 7, and I did all the new songs from the album. That went really well, so that was cool. I’m not hearing any other feedback yet, and I’m very curious. I would like one person to go, ‘Hey, I like that!’”
I shared with Tempchin that I felt that if the fourth song on the EP, “Summertime Bum”, doesn’t get picked up for commercial use and/or in TV and movies, there’s definitely something wrong.

“Wow, that’s so cool! Many years ago, I had a house by the beach. It was summer. I was out on the hammock and wrote that song. I made a horrible little demo of it. I reviewed, and I’m going, ‘I still like this!’ That’s just great to hear.”
Jack shared his hopes as to what listeners will get from “Room to Run”:

“I’m fortunate that I’m a legacy artist that’s had a bunch of hits. That’s wonderful, and I’ve had a great life in music. I feel like I’m on fire with songs. I’m still there, and I still love this whole thing. Like everybody in my position, I would like people to enjoy what I’m doing now. I’m a new artist to most people, because everything I’ve done is in songwriting. I’d like people to enjoy my records of my songs and go, ‘Oh, this guy has a lot of cool songs I like to hear’. I don’t want to make a record of my hits, because I didn’t make those original records anyway. I’m not going to be able to beat them, and I love them the way they are. I’m trying to still be an artist, I guess. I go in my backyard with my producer, and I dig old songs out of my catalog. Or I get a song I started a few years ago, and I finish it. Or I write a brand-new song. Then I get to record it and put it out. Man, that’s all I care about. I’m just looking for people to start going, ‘Hey, I’m enjoying what you’re doing’. That’ll complete the circle for me.

“The album is called ‘Learning To Dance’. The four songs on the EP are the songs I left off the album. The record label decided they liked them, and they put them out as a four song EP. The reason I left them out is because ‘Learning To Dance’ is sort of a theme. It’s all love songs. It moves through the early, euphoric stages of love to the more confusing parts to looking back on love. It all fell into a theme, like love through the years. I picked those songs and left the others off, because they didn’t fit the theme.”

Continuing, Tempchin said:

“I love country. The whole thing about country is the song base. Like Tom T. Hall- the guy in the hospital is dying and wondering who’s going to the feed the hogs. I got all these hogs back home, and nobody’s feeding them. My wife can’t do it. The third day in the hospital, they think he’s a goner. But he gets up, walks out of the hospital, and goes back to the farm to feed the hogs. Stories, you know what I mean? You can’t be halfway through that song and turn it off. They basically put those stories into rock and roll with country rock. I guess I do come from all that.”

When I asked what he attributed the rising interest and popularity to music like his to, Jack was philosophical with his answer.

“I’m not sure. I’ll go to The Hotel Café in L.A., and I’ll see a couple girls play the old kind of music. They know all the stories about Lead Belly and all the folk tales. These people are twenty-one years old! How do they know all this? It used to be, with you and me, we just had the radio and the record store. That was the only place you could find music. Now days, the young people can look at all the music that was ever there and pick what they like. They can go, ‘Well, actually I’m a Sixties hippie’ or ‘I’m a grunge person’. When they go back and find this stuff, our music seems a little more real to them than the stuff that came after such as disco and hip hop. They see that you can do this music without machines. They can look back, drill into what interests them, and become experts on it. For some people, our music appeals to them, and they’re bringing it back. That’s the only thing I can think of.”

As I said at the beginning of this interview, Jack Tempchin has written the kind of songs that people dream about writing. I asked him what his biggest challenges as a songwriter are and what advice would he give songwriters today.

“I’m putting up a website called Go Write One on www.patreon.com where I’ve done a whole bunch of one minute or two-minute videos about songwriting. What I don’t do is tell anybody how to write a song. I don’t tell them any of the details. I just talk about getting in the mood, getting excited, and getting yourself to do it. That’s coming up in about a week, and I’m going to put up the videos I’ve already shot. I can’t advise anybody about writing a hit, getting it on the radio, or anything like that. I just talk about why it’s cool to write songs and what you can get out of it. I’m in love with it, and I’m just trying to pass that along.

RoomToRunCover“It’s like the food we have is not as nourishing anymore. I’m looking for a song with some nourishment that I want to hear over and over, and it’s going to give me something. My friend, John Brannen, wrote a song called ‘I’m Still In The Game’. It’s great, and I love it. It inspires me. Unless I go back and listen to Mississippi Fred McDowell, who is somebody that everything they do is totally real and great. Sometimes I think it’s just me. I don’t look hard enough. When I was younger, I looked and looked and found things that were great.

“There are rock ‘n’ roll schools right around my neighborhood in San Diego where you send your kid, and they put together a band. I’m going, ‘Man, we never had that!’ Kids today go, ‘Oh, I want to be a rock star’, and we keep seeing Mick Jagger and Jimi Hendrix done over and over.”

With such a long and successful career in the rough and tumble world of rock and roll, Jack has seen lots of changes in the business. I asked him what the best and worst changes he’s are seen in the music business.

“In the late fifties and sixties, it went from pop music to the folk music era. Then it went from singer/songwriter to country rock to the huge rock tradition we had. That was a huge change. The Beatles were on TV. Elvis came along. That was just my generation taking a left turn from where music had gone before.

“I did learn along the way that there are several kinds of music for different purposes. Along with songs that move people, there is also dance music. In every era, the dance music suddenly predominates for a while and pushes the other music off the charts. It started with Chubby Checker’s ‘The Twist’. It was a huge craze, and they came out with all the twist records. It was the same for disco, hip hop, and rap. It’s all essentially big beat dance music. When those things are going, you can’t get the other music in for a while. I wouldn’t look at that as a bad change. It’s just part of the way it is. Dance music is just as valid as any other kind of music.

“The new technologies are kinda sad as far as the fact that some really creative people are not getting paid for their work. That’s not a good change. However, everyone’s work is now available to anyone who wants it. In a way, as far as spreading music through the planet, that’s a fabulous thing. You can hear something on the internet or radio, and Shazam that thing. You’ll know all about that person and other things they’ve done and buy a couple songs. You could never do that before.

When I heard Mississippi Fred McDowell, I had to go get the record or find someone who even knew he existed. There was no internet. Everybody can just gorge themselves on all the music they like, and I think that’s a positive change.”

If he were named music czar, what would Jack Tempchin do to fix the business?

“I would encourage the Boomers to spend more money, so that there will be a little more balance in the pop music. From many eras, fourteen-year-old girls were the ones who were buying the singles, so all the songs were directed toward what they liked. I think it’s an improvement if you bring everyone in. They should have their music, but so should older folks. It should still be on the radio. People should be listening to the music that you and I liked before, new music from the same people. They should be finding really great songs that are new and presenting them to those of us who’d like to hear them. That’s not really happening as much as it could. Radio concentrates on the big, huge money hits. It kinda leaves us off.

"I’ll wake up and think, ‘Kris Kristofferson- he used to do some great songs. What has he done lately?’ I dig around and find that he did do an album. It’s real funky sounding, but sure enough, he’s got a couple killer songs on there. Nobody’s going to hear them.

“With my album, I’ll think, “Yea, I love it. Sounds great!’ But then, I’ll think, ‘What radio stations are we going to pitch it to?’ There’s nothing out there where people are listening to this stuff.”

As our conversation wrapped up, I asked Jack one final question: When you’ve gone to that great gig in the sky, how do you want to be remembered and what do you hope your legacy will be?

“The song ‘Somewhere Over The Rainbow’- I used to sing to my kid to sing him to sleep. If some of my songs can get worked into the fabric of the culture where people can enjoy them for a long time, that’s great. As a writer and an artist who makes records, I guess I’m not tremendously concerned about that. Just the joy of having been able to write a song everybody knows, and when I sing it, they like it. It’s kind of an unbelievable gift in life very few people get. I don’t really need or want much beyond that which has already happened. Of course, I’m sitting here as an artist going, ‘I want people to hear this new great song I wrote!’ I guess I don’t think about the legacy that much in terms of which way it’s going to go. I’m just happy to be doing it.”

You can keep up with the latest in Jack Tempchin’s career and news about another upcoming album at www.jacktempchin.com. While you're there. order "Room To Run" or click on one of the widgets, below to order your copy of this great EP.

 

Dennis Dunaway Discusses "Snakes! Guillotines! Electric Chairs!"

Posted June, 2015

dennisdunaway003I grew up in Phoenix after being transplanted there in the sixties from Alabama while I was in fourth grade. As my interest in music began to develop beyond Elvis, I was soon exposed – and I do mean, “exposed” – to Phoenix homeboys, Alice Cooper (at that time, the name of the entire band and not just the front man). 

Me being the perpetual late bloomer boomer that I am, the exposure didn’t happen until six albums in when one of my friends had the “Billion Dollar Babies” cassette playing on his portable player. Quite frankly, I didn’t “Love It To Death” (fans, please pardon the pun) because it scared me to death.

I mean, c’mon!  If your buddy had you listening to the uber creepy “I Love The Dead” or “Sick Things” during the night, wouldn’t you tinkle your Super Man underwear, too?  Maybe not but that’s beside the point. The point is this: The Alice Cooper Group was like nothing I had ever seen or heard before and it scared the whiz right out of me and had me linking for sick things under my bed.

Of course, I became an immediate fan.

That original band consisted of lead singer (and Cortez High School alum), Vince Furnier, the late Glenn Buxton on lead guitar, Michael Bruce on rhythm guitar, Neal Smith on drums and Dennis Dunaway on bass. Together, they invented what quickly became known as “shock rock”. Guillotines, swords, electric chairs, toy babies, and even the mother of all boa constrictors were used as stage props and to bring over the top drama and theatrics to the stage.

As the band’s popularity and record sales grew, so did their notoriety and associated rumors and{mprestriction ids="*"} urban legends that could grow out of control in those days. Sordid tales of devil worshipping, sadistic sex, drugs, chicken mangling and various stories involving stomach pumping all became rampant – especially in the band’s hometown of Phoenix. 

Speaking of Phoenix, the town seemed to have its own cluster of favorite legends to tell about the band and it seemed (and still does seem) that everyone has a “personal” story about running into one of the band, getting in a fight with one or all of them, dating the one of the band, a sister dating one of the band, went to school with the band (even if the band had already graduated from Cortez while said pontificator was still in diapers), and other such musings.

Over the years, the original band was replaced by a series of other musicians and Vincent officially changed his name to that of his stage character, Alice Cooper.  Glenn Buxton passed away in 1997. Bruce, Smith and Dunaway stayed involved in music over the years.  In 2011, the band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the remaining members rejoined Alice on three songs (“A Runaway Train”, “I’ll Bite Your Face Off” and “When Hell Comes Home”) on his “Welcome 2 My Nightmare” album.

To chronicle a small part of the legendary band’s history, Dennis Dunaway has just come out with a book entitled, “Snakes! snakesguillotineselectricchairscoverGuillotines! Electric Chairs! My Adventures In The Alice Cooper Group.” I had the distinct honor of chatting with Dennis about his book and his views on the music industry as a whole. He was generous with his time in chatting with me and very gracious in his answers. I must admit that I had so many things I wanted to talk to him about that it was hard to whittle my long list of questions down to a smaller, more relevant grouping. 

Dunaway answered my question about what the initial buzz over the book had been like by saying:

“This has been an overwhelmingly busy year. Everybody in the world is messaging me. In the old days, they would have had to put some coins in the phone. Now, with social media, even if it’s just ‘congratulations on the book’ or something, it’s just way more than I can read. It’s a tsunami of mail. I was surprised at how many people expect to have a running conversation with me while they read the book. I don’t have time to even read them all! I talked to another author who does books. He’s from Phoenix. I said, ‘Wow, my mail is getting overwhelming. I don’t think I’ll be able to keep up with it’. He said, ‘I’m looking at 4,100 unread e-mails right now’. I guess that’s par for the course. 

“It’s very, very exciting. There’s been so much work going into it. There’s some of these things coming together now that I’ve been working on for years. I thought the book would be finished before it was. In fact, I thought it would be done a decade before it was finished. I held out, because I wanted to get a real publisher with a real shot at a being a published author. I held out, and I finally got it. It was starting to bleak there. I had to turn down a few deals where the people weren’t saying the right thing. The most common thing that turned me off was people saying that it had to be more about Alice, not the other guys. Well, go buy those books. They’re out there. 

“I got kinda desperate, so I started just posting on Facebook, ‘I’m looking for a publishing deal’. I got a fan, Dereck Walton, who said, ‘I’m a big fan!’ And he is. I’ve gotten to know him, and he knows more about me than I do. He said, ‘My girlfriend, Sharyn Rosenblum, is a publicist for Harper Collins in New York City. How about if you show her your manuscript and see if she has any suggestions?’ Oh man, she loved the concept. She found my agent, and we landed a deal. I’m surrounded by the most professional people. It really reminds me of the good ‘ol days in the record industry when people were actually buying the product- all the experts that surrounded us back in those days. Now, it’s a similar deal, and I get to stick my toe in the exciting literary world of New York City. I walk around saying, ‘I’m not worthy!’ with all these people who have put out books about Abraham Lincoln and stuff like that. I’m like, ‘Well, we dropped panties on Hollywood Bowl’. 

“I have this expert team of publicists. They really know what they’re doing, but they also keep an open mind as to what I like. This I even tested everybody on. We had the first meeting with me and my co-writer, Chris Hodenfield, who worked for Rolling Stone for a dozen years. In fact, he wrote the cover story of the Alice Cooper group in 1972 for Rolling Stone magazine- the Annie Leibovitz picture where Alice has a snake wrapped around his contorted face. We’ve known him since those days. We brought him in, because I knew I wouldn’t be spending my time explaining things to him as much. He was the same era and all. That was a perfect call. 

“Anyway, I have my literary agent, Jim Fitzgerald, who is this guy who has seen it all. His voice, if you don’t look at him, sounds like Glen Buxton. He’s a salty guy, and he’s definitely worked on a lot of books with a lot of people. John Lydon, Dennis Hopper, mostly edgy people. He’s there with my publisher, Rob Kirkpatrick. I thought, ‘I know exactly what I want in my book’. I would say things to each of them during this lunch that I knew was wrong for the book. All of them passed the test. They all said, ‘Well, wait a minute. I think it should be….’ And I’m thinking, ‘Alright, you passed’. I walked out of there thinking, ‘Man, do I have the right people!’ They’re all on the right wavelength. We had a lot of fun doing it, which is appropriate. That’s really what I wanted to portray in the book. People always tend to focus on the break-up. They tend to look at the traffic accident rather than how cool the car is that somebody built. The first draft of the book had a lot of my deep resentment. When I started reading back, I said, ‘you know what? This isn’t what it was about.’ It was about a bunch of teenagers that got this goofy idea to incorporate art into music, and we talked other guys who were very unlikely personalities to get on board with us. We faced a lot of threats and danger, but we stuck with it because we all believed in it that much. We had fun doing it. That’s what the book is about, really.” 

As I said at the beginning of this piece, there were tons of rumors and misconceptions about the band so I asked Dennis what was the biggest misconception about the band that he had heard.

bluecoupe001“There have been several. That we murdered chickens was probably the most notorious. A chicken did get hurt at the Toronto festival, but we had no intention of hurting it. It was our pet. We were kids taking our favorite horror films, and adding them to a rock show for the fun of it. Even though we did deliver it with a sinister attitude, it was all in fun. That’s the biggest misconception overall. People took us more seriously than we intended.”

Writing a book is never easy and, when one writes about their own experiences, surprises often arise during the process. Dunaway shared what those surprises were.

“Two come to mind. I thought that, with the Internet, I could reach out to all these people throughout our career to get these stories from them. That didn’t work out at all. It kinda backfired, actually. I’d get twelve pages about a spaghetti dinner that somebody made for the band. I said, ‘Uh-oh. I’m going to have to rely entirely on my memory here’. I should have known that in the first place. I thought I could get these enhancements, but it didn’t quite work out. Even with Neal, I couldn’t get anything out of him. I did toward the end, but not early on. 

“The other thing that I didn’t anticipate was, since I knew the story so well and how certain things happened, I had revelations. You know that Neal did this or that. You start writing them down, and you start realizing, ‘Wait a minute. He did that a lot more than I realized’. Like going onstage stoned in the early days, and he was on top of the gigantic PA speakers again. You put two and two together. At one point, Michael, Neal, and I buckled down and went on stage in a business frame of mind. We saved the partying until after the show. When I look back to the early days, it’s amazing we were able to survive. Neal jumping off the top of the PA that’s twelve feet tall, but it was the audience we got all the injuries from. Neal had a dart in his back one night. All of the M-80s and full beer cans- people would buy the beer cans just to throw at the stage. When it’d hit the stage, it burst open. We’d walk out, and there would be so many, you didn’t know which way to duck. Like the Blues Brothers in the chicken wire cage… we actually did a gig with the chicken wire in the early days. Just like the movie.” 

I mentioned that there were all sorts of conflicting stories as to which high schools the band members attended. While not an interesting bit of trivia to all you readers, it is interesting to me and my former classmates and neighbors so I asked him to set the story straight.  

“In ’68, the band was still coming through. At that point, we lived in L.A. and were on the road a lot. We still came back through Phoenix fairly often. My parents were there.

“Michael Bruce, I think, went to North High School. Neal went to Camelback. The rest of us were Cortez all the way. Sunnyslope was our rival. Alice and I did cross country, and they were kinda tough to beat. We were undefeated, so we managed to do it. We always had to rise to the occasion with them. Alice and I did art class, cross country, and journalism together.”

Dennis went on to share where he lives these days and why.

“I’m like an hour from New York City. Originally, the band moved to Greenwich, Connecticut, to be closer to our manager’sbluecoupe002 offices in New York City. In my opinion, it was kinda silly. We moved, because when we lived in Michigan, we thought we were chalking up an awful lot of long distance phone calls. Greenwich, Connecticut, is a much more affluent and expensive area. Also, it didn’t change the amount of phone calls, because we were never at home anyway.”

He then shared some funny stories from those days.

“The roadie had pockets full of change for the pay phone at the airports and everything. Back then, you could page people at the airport. Glen Buxton always had this running gag where you would all of the sudden hear over the PA system in the airport: ‘Mr. Beach. Mr. Sonny Beach, please report to the service counter.’

“Glen was a natural. Alice was a natural. We were all humorous. I was probably the bottom rung of the ladder. I think Glen was the head funny guy. Alice was second. Neal is very funny. His type of humor is more like doing these goofy characters. He and Glen were both born in Akron, so they have that Ohio sense of humor. A lot of great American comics came out of Ohio: Jonathan Winters, Bob Hope, Red Skelton. Since I married into Neal’s family- I married his sister- I’ve been to Ohio a lot. I’ve witnessed that humor directly. Also, our day job was to think of clever things- ideas for songs, lyrics, clever album covers. It was always just tossing something into the pool and letting the piranhas go at it.”

I didn’t want him to give away big nuggets that might hurt book sales, but I did ask what Dunaway thought was the biggest revelation he provides in the book.

“You have to divide it. The band doesn’t feel this way, but there seems to be a line in the sand as far as Alice Cooper group fans and the Alice solo fans. I think there would be two different things they would take away. 

“The original fans will get some insights to the new versions of the stories they’ve heard. They’ll get more details about the writing of the songs, the recording and chemistry of the group. The younger fans will find out that it was actually a group. A lot of them don’t even know that. I’ve opened for Alice about ten times in recent years. At some of those gigs, people had no clue who I was. Did you see the hanging? Did you see the guillotine? Did you see the snake? That’s me. The snake was actually Neal. The guillotine actually goes all the way back to our very first gig at Cortez High School. The very first time we played a whole show was Halloween in 1964, and we had a guillotine. 

“The other thing that may surprise people is that we’re not all mad at each other. We never have been. That’s why the line in the sand with fans is ridiculous, because the band is still all friends. That might be a refreshing feel to the book.”

Dennis squares up the “dead chicken” story in the book. One that wasn’t in the book but was the source of an urban legend amongst those in my church circle involves a line in “No More Mister Nice Guy.” The story in that line involves Alice getting punched in the nose by the pastor of a church he visits. All of the lyric sheets I’ve read show the line as either, “ . . . the Reverend Smith, he recognized me . . .” or, “ . . . the Reverend Smithy recognized me . . .”  

bluecoupe003Well, A pastor of one of the churches in the denomination I grew up in was the late Herschel Diffie (you know where I’m going with this). It became the subject of many sermons that the band was saying his name towards the end of the song. Those who attended the good reverend’s funeral tell me that the story was even shared there. I’ve always said that the story was total bull spew. I asked Dunaway to settle the dispute once and for all.

“That one’s totally fictitious. Isn’t that funny? We were brought up in the school of The Beatles. They had all of that ‘Paul is dead’ and that kind of stuff. Starting rumors was something that we did all the back at Cortez High School. Alice loved to do that. He always wanted to come up with a catchphrase that he would start, and it would spread across the country. ‘Love it to death’ was one of them. It didn’t gain that much traction. People did start saying it after it became the title of the album. If someone said, ‘Did you see that new James Bond movie?’ he wanted people to say, ‘Love it to death!’ Rumors that add to the legend were part of it, so that fits in that respect. 

“Alice’s personality is kinda like what you see in live interviews. Alice never swore. In fact, he turned down an offer to be in a Quentin Tarantino movie, From Dusk Till Dawn. I think Cheech Marin ended up doing the part. Alice turned it down, because it had swearing. He wouldn’t swear. In the book, I talk about Alice flipping the bird. That’s the only time I ever saw him do that. Ever. There’s definitely some hypocrisy in that. You’re very religious and read the Bible before going to sleep, but it’s okay to simulate a murder on stage. For some reason, people take it more threateningly, because it’s a rock band out there doing that. They’re thinking, ‘They are working the minds of our children’. Yet the kids can come home and watch an old horror film that’s a lot worse than that. Or wrestling, boxing, whatever- that’s ok. The kids can sit there and watch a boxing match with you, but they can’t go to an Alice Cooper concert.”

Back in 1979 or 1980, I met and chatted a while with Reggie Vincent. He played out the church I was attending at the time and I emceed his appearance. He later became a minister for a few years. I asked Dennis how significant was Reggie’s contributions to the band.

“Again, they whittled the book down. There’s a lot of elaboration on many characters. Some of them didn’t even make it in the book. Rockin’ Reggie was a good friend. There are certain people who showed up, and if Glen’s sarcasm didn’t drive them out the door, they were okay. Especially if you fired back- that’s just how it was. It was very funny, but anybody who walked out of the room knew they were being verbally cut to ribbons the whole time they were gone. We were all in on it. If a newcomer came into the situation and couldn’t deal with it, good- we weeded that person out. It’s like separating the mice from the men. 

“Rockin’ was always in a good mood. He loved music, and he was always around. We would jam with him, and we’d ask him to join in singing background on songs in the studio. He stayed up all night with Glen Buxton, and they came down with the idea for the song ‘Billion Dollar Baby’. We knew that it would be the title of the album at that point, and we said, ‘Hey, let’s write a song to be the title song’. Next morning, he and Glen had stayed up all night, and they came down. They had this beautiful ballad. Rockin’ Reggie is an amazing songwriter. A lot of his songs are very Roy Orbison- the writing and even his voice. Lots of great hooks and stuff. He showed up with this beautiful ballad, and we kicked it around all afternoon. I decided, ‘We gotta light a fire under this song’. We beat the song up, spit it back out, and it was a much different song.”

Dunaway and the remaining members of the band worked with Alice on “Welcome 2 My Nightmare.” I thought it was bluecoupewithalicecooperpoignant since its predecessor, “Welcome To My Nightmare” was the album that benchmarked Alice and the band parting ways. I asked the bassist about his thoughts on “2” and if he and the guys are going to be working on more music together.

“It was just great to all get back together. I was concerned that we wouldn’t still have our same sound. I was afraid that the chemistry and dynamics had changed. In the old days, the band was all equally involved in every bit of the music. Bob Ezrin, as well- if the five band members or Bob threw out an idea, we tried it. I thought, ‘Maybe that’ll be different’. As soon as we got in the studio, it was just like the old days. We had a blast. We knocked out three songs in two days. I think with some of the other songs on the album, we had a lot more time to do it. We were so excited that we could have recorded a whole album in a week, I think. It was fun. It was great to work with Bob again. He always gets these great sounds. Michael, Neal, and I were firing the same kind of sarcastic remarks at each other. When you’re friends to the point that you’re pretty much family, you don’t have to fill in time. You’re together, and it’s the same. We did sound like ourselves even without Glen Buxton. That is still a noticeable difference, but we had fun. There was no weirdness at all. We’re all friends, like I said. The friendship is why it started, and the friendship is why we never sued over the name. Some people would say, ‘Well, that was stupid’, but my conscience is good.”

After reading his book, I came away thinking that Dennis Dunaway showed tremendous class in how he matter-of-factly presented the parting of the ways with Alice. There’s been a lot more venom between people for a heck of a lot less. When I asked what he attributed the reason for his attitude in handling this the way did – and does –he said:

“I think it’s as simple as we started as friends, and we didn’t want to end it otherwise. We’re all still friends. Being friends was the number one thing through it. We had a driven vision that we were all obsessed with. Losing that was a big blow in my life. I spent a few years rocking in a rocking chair, pouting, and being bitter. Then, I’m like, ‘you know, why am I so bitter about music? That’s what I love. Forget this. Forget the music industry. I’m going to just start writing songs’. I wrote a couple hundred songs. I was a reclusive. I didn’t go out and play much. If somebody asked me, I’d go out. If I went to a club in New York City, I’d hide in the back corner and not want to get up and play. 

dennisdunaway001“Then my health- I have Crohn’s disease. That was a long, hard road down. I ended up in critical condition in the hospital. The doctor’s didn’t think they’d be able to build up my health enough to survive the surgery. I got all of this snail mail from all over the world from fans. I’m like, ‘Wow! They do remember me’. At that point, with all of the press and stuff, everyone had reassigned credit for everything. It looked like we were just thoroughly swept under the carpet. Here comes all this mail from people all over the world, and I’m like, ‘Wow, people really are out there’. My daughters had been telling me, ‘Dad, stop correcting all of the interviews you read. Just write a book’. At that point, I decided I am going to write a book. If I make it through this, I’m going to get back out there and bury the hatchet. And that’s what I did. It was a very tough part of our lives. Cindy and I stuck together. Thank God, I had her and my daughters. Even through the worst of times, I was still friends with Alice.

“When I first started writing the book, it was before Super Duper Alice Cooper came out that revealed Alice finally talking about his addictions. I’m thinking that all I’m doing is telling the truth, but everybody is going to look at this as a challenge. There was a lot of that, because almost any story that anybody has heard, I have a bit of a different story. Some of them, I’m alone in my memory. Everybody in the band seems to remember that when we went over to Frank Zappa’s house to audition, he was asleep. That’s true. Everybody agrees to that. We showed up at nine o’clock in the morning. I think Alice moved it earlier, but he always exaggerates. Everybody remembers that we went down in his basement, set up our equipment, and started playing. Then he came down. That’s not true. We set up right outside his bedroom door in the hallway. We had the amps plugged in, and we were cranked. We were playing so loud that the picture on the wall went crooked. His bedroom door opened, and his hand came out motioning for us to stop. We stopped, then he stuck his head out and said, ‘Let me have some coffee, and I’ll listen’. Everybody else remembers that we were downstairs, but we came the next day and went downstairs for a meeting. Downstairs was full of The Mothers’ equipment. There was no room for us to set up our equipment. Little things like that- do they make a difference? Like Robby Krieger told me, ‘It doesn’t make any difference’. I’m like, ‘I know, but it’s just annoying’. I think being outside the bedroom door is a heck of a lot bolder. If somebody did that in my house, I’d probably shoot them. Frank was a real sport about it. His wife, Gail, was in the bedroom. He had gotten home late from the road. I think that’s how we got the deal. Straight Records had already stretched the budget. They weren’t looking for any more groups. We came in late after they had found all the groups. I think that he just liked how crazy we were to go to that much trouble. The GTOs all lived downstairs in the log cabin in Laurel Canyon. Miss Christine was baby-sitting Moon Unit. When we knocked on the door, she answered and freaked out. The look on her face… like, ‘What are you doing here?!’ We’re like, ‘We’re here to audition’, and she said, ‘No! I didn’t even ask him yet’. She runs down the hall to keep us from going down the hall, so we knew that’s where to go. She was freaking out, because it was her fault that we got into the house. We set up, and Zappa asked for coffee. She ran and got coffee for him. When he liked us, she was so relieved. So were we, really.”

I asked one of two hypothetical questions: Can a group of guys get together in this day and age and be trailblazers like you guys were or has everything been said and done and the only thing left is just more of the same?  I mean, c’mon, Marilyn Manson had shock value but he really didn’t do anything all that compelling like you guys did, no?

“I think so. Blue Coupe just did a show in New York City for the Joey Ramone Birthday Bash, which is a benefit for lymphoma. It had, of course, all these great punk, iconic New York City musicians from that great era. Glen Matlock from the Sex Pistols was there. David Beal…. But there was a fairly young band there called the Barb Wire Dolls. I wouldn’t say necessarily that they’re doing something that hasn’t been done before. I will say that band has that look in their eyes that we had back then. You can tell. They are driven toward their artistic goal. That’s what it takes. When people ask me, ‘What does it take to make it?’, I’m like, ‘First of all, if you have what it takes, it doesn’t matter what I say or what anybody says’. They told Elvis to go back to driving trucks. Or I could say, ‘you’re great. You’re going to make it’, but it’s still only going to happen if you have that drive that is relentless enough to overcome everything. 

“The bad part is people aren’t buying the product, so how do you support the art? The Alice Cooper group lived on tuna noodle casserole for way too many years, and that was even luxury in those days. We could all afford to get a house. It wouldn’t necessarily be a very nice one, but we could afford to get a house and keep the dream going. Now, everything is so expensive. It’s really hard for a band to keep banging their head against the wall. Especially when they make a record, and try to let people know it exists, then people just take it for free. That’s the bad part. 

“The good part is it basically forces you to do it for the right reasons to begin with which is because you love doing it.”dennisdunaway002

I also wanted to know what have been the biggest changes he’s seen in the music business.

“When I was younger, especially in Phoenix, the television went off the air at ten o’clock at night. You were lucky to see two decent TV shows in a week. Music was the all-powerful, most

     
important thing in a teenager’s life. Movies were second. Television was third. Books weren’t in my picture back then. A book meant homework. Now, people have so many other things to do- games, even your phone. It’s like a cartoon I just saw. An angel’s in heaven, and St. Peter’s saying, ‘you actually did have a good life. You were just looking at your phone and missed it’. In entertainment and what teenagers find important, music isn’t number one anymore. Back in our day, when you got that vinyl album with the gatefold cover, you open that gatefold cover up and set it on your table. You played the record over and over, and it was your shrine. You worshipped it. Now kids go, ‘Oh, listen to this song!’, and they won’t even play the whole song. They don’t have time to listen to a whole song, let alone a whole album. What’s broken is something I don’t know needs to be fixed. People have just moved on to other forms of entertainment. Their time is consumed by gadgets.  

“The other thing is vinyl just sounds better. There’s this warm tone to it. Compare that ear pods. Even with the best ones, the music sounds more sterile. I’m not sure people have the best quality of music to draw them back. My back room is walls full of vinyl records. All kinds of records- I’ve got rare Elvis Presley stuff. My kids ask, ‘Dad, why do you have all that stuff? We have more music than that on our phone’. I’m like, ‘Yeah, but let’s compare the quality’. It is kind of a pain to have to walk into the other room and flip the record after five songs. 

“In another respect, the digital capabilities in the studio allow you to fix any note. You can take somebody who can’t sing on pitch sound like they can. The Beatles didn’t have that. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard those isolated Beatles vocal tracks, but when you listen to that, you go, ‘They didn’t need a pitch correction machine’. The problem is you have unlimited tracks. Back then, The Beatles had four tracks! If you put something on that track, you had to do it with feel. When I recorded bass parts and had a bad note in the middle of the bass track, I would have to redo the entire bass track if we decided everything else was fine. I did that a lot of times. Bob Ezrin would drop in a note every once in a while, but when Jack Richardson was there, he’d say, ‘be a man. Record the whole things again. You’re going to be playing this song a million times anyway’. On ‘School’s Out’, I’d just redone the bass track, and a roadie walked in with Rotosound strings. I’d never had a set, so we put them on of my bass guitars. I thought, ‘Wow, these have a nice growl to them. You know what? Let’s rerecord the bass track!’ That’s what I did on the spot. 

“You have to put a lot of thought into the songs. We did pre-production, and that’s the difference between ‘Love It To Death’ and our previous albums. With our previous albums, we didn’t have the proper focus on getting the song ready for the studio. We hadn’t been in the studio. We hadn’t become masters of that part of the art. Playing live is one thing. Writing is one thing. In the studio is one thing. All three of those take three different kinds of expertise. We were surrounded by experts and soaked it all in. But you had to play the song with the feel, and if the bass drum was a little bit early on that downbeat, now you can just go in and move it. If you move that one, then you go, ‘That next one is a little off’. Then another one- next thing you know, you’ve perfected the life out of the song. It becomes sterile. It loses all of its feel. Same with photography- people look at a photograph, and it could be the most bizarre photograph in the world that’s actually taken with no enhancements at all. People will just go, ‘Ok, that’s cool’, and move on. They don’t appreciate that anymore, because the ability to make gigantic armies of futuristic soldiers get blown away in a movie has desensitized us to the point where we don’t appreciate real art like we used to. In the old days, they had their own ways to doctor up a photograph in the darkroom, so I’m not saying that. Same with recording in the old days, but it gets to the point where you can just do anything. You can say, ‘I want a picture of me on mars’. No problem! The next day you’ve got it. 

dennisdunaway003“It’s all changing, but it still boils down to making a record that is so good that people want to listen to it over and over. I think it was Jerry Wexler who once said as a record executive or A&R guy, it’s really easy to find somebody who is really good at something that’s already been done. He said it’s really hard to find somebody who is doing something new that’s going to be the next popular thing. That’s always been the case. As soon as somebody does something new, they are usually the ones who have to break through all of the resistance. The Alice Cooper group certainly did. They hated us! Theatrics, oh God- Bill Graham hated us. ‘You can’t do theatrics’, and we’re like, ‘well, we do’. Once we were finally able to make that acceptable, all of sudden everybody jumps on the bandwagon.”

A couple of years ago, Dennis approached Fender Guitar about producing a signature series bass that replicates his “Billion Dollar Bass.”  In response to my query about how sales have been and what future plans are for the series, the legendary bassist said:

“I think it’s been good on that. I get the royalty checks, so I’m not sure what the numbers break down to. I’ve kinda not been able to keep up with anything but this book for the last few years. It’s been all consuming. I play one of my replicas that the Fender Custom Shop made- Billion Dollar jazz bass. That’s what I play onstage and take on airplanes, because it’s more replaceable than the original. It’s so much like the original. I can tell the difference, but Joe Bouchard who played bass with Blue Oyster Cult has been around my original jazz bass since ’72. So far, he’s guessed about five times whether it’s the replica or the real one, and he’s never gotten it right. You set them side-by-side, and the closer you look, the more you realize this is insane how detailed this is- down to every scratch, rust. It’s unbelievable. Out on the road in the old days, the strap got a lot of wear and tear with the way I jump around on stage. The screw would pull out of the body of the bass. I’d be like, ‘Hey, we’ve got a gig. Grab a screw’. It wouldn’t be an original Fender screw. They even went out and found two different screws to match those. It growls really nice. I love it. Fender has been so good to me. 

“I talked to Richard McDonald, the vice president. To get this to happen, I thought, ‘I’d really like to have a Billion Dollar replica bass’, but I thought there’s no way. The e-mail will end up deleted right away unless I make it crazy. That’s part of the Alice Cooper way of doing things. We did the press release, and instead of five guys came from Phoenix, we were reincarnated. Alice’s sister was a witch that was burned at the stake and all that. We thought, hey, somebody will at least get an entertaining read out of it and hopefully remember us instead of filing it in the wastebasket. 

“So I had that mentality when I wrote this e-mail. I said, ‘I want the Billion Dollar Bass to play at our induction to the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame. I want it to have real diamonds, and I want it to be insured for a billion dollars’. I got a response right away: ‘Great idea!’ Next thing I know, they flew me out to Scottsdale, Arizona, to the headquarters, and they flew all of the top Custom Shop guys in from California. Now, I’m by myself in the main office with a conference table with all these guys showing up, and I’m like, ‘I should have prepared something’. Everybody is sitting at the conference table and waiting for me to sit down. I took the bass out of the case. I just laid it in the middle of this big conference table, sat down, folded my arms, and stared at it. I didn’t say anything; I just kept looking at the bass. Then I stood up dramatically, and I said, ‘Gentlemen, the Billion Dollar Bass’. 

“They loved it. I told them I wanted to change it so it’d be easier to make and less expensive. They said, ‘We’ve got to make it exactly like this’ which is what they do really. So that’s how that came about, and they’ve been so nice to me ever since. I told the vice president, ‘I spent all those struggling years, and Fender wouldn’t give me the time of day’. He said, ‘Dennis, that’s all changed. Anything you want, no matter what time of day, just call me’. It’s been like that. I say, ‘Hey, I’ve got a rehearsal’, and these Fender amps show up. I feel very privileged. 

He added:

“I have these new bass picks that have the title of my new book on them, ‘Snakes! Guillotines! Electric Chairs!’. You flip it over, and it’s got a Fender logo, of course. We’re doing these swag bags for my book signings. You’ll get a big pink bag with the title of the book on it. It’ll have a barf bag, a pencil, a pick, and panties. 

“Clayton picks also sponsors my Blue Coupe picks. Rotosound sends me strings. It’s funny. Now I have all of this stuff for free that I used to have to pay for every inch of the way, but I’m writing a book so I don’t have much time to play like I used to. I do play a lot, though. Blue Coupe has a lot of fun. It’s a fun band. In fact, we will be doing a show at the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame on June 20. Michael Bruce is going to come. Blue Coupe is going to perform an acoustic set at the Hall with Tish and Snooky. They own Manic Panic, the hair dye company in New York City. They’ve been going for like thirty-seven years or something. Rihanna, Katy Perry, Cyndi Lauper- everybody wears Manic Panic. They also sing for a group called Sic F*cks. They call it the Sic Folks for newspapers. They’re iconic from the CBGB stage. They were there with the Barb Wire Dolls at the Joey Ramone thing. They sing with us. They sing on Blue Coupe’s two records, ‘Tornado On The Tracks’ and ‘Million Miles More’. They’ll be there at Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame, and we’ll do a Blue Oyster Cult/Blue Coupe set. Then we’ll bring Michael out for an Alice Cooper set. We’re going to do that at Pittsburgh on June 19, and an acoustic version at the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame on June 20. On June 21, we’ll be at the Beachland Ballroom in Cleveland to do the full shebang. 

“There’s been a lid on this for awhile, but Alice was talking about it on his radio show. I said, ‘Hey, wait, I thought we weren’t supposed to be talking about this yet’, but he said, ‘No, it’s out’. Neal and I recorded ‘School’s Out’ with ‘Another Brick In The Wall’ for Alice’s next album, ‘The Hollywood Vampires’. It’s me and Neal with a couple of people you might recognize- Brian Johnson from AC/DC, Joe Perry, Slash, Johnny Depp. Neal and I went in to kick ass, and that’s what we did.”

As for what’s on Dennis’ radar for the future, he shared:

“There are a lot of things on the radar for my book, but I’m definitely committed to it deeply. This has been really extremely busy. It’s even busier than the glory days, because I’m doing so much of it myself. I do have this team of experts that are doing a lot of the organizing. In the old days, it was basically, ‘Dennis, sit over there until I point to where you go next’. All I did was walk around in a daydream of trying to imagine the next big thing for the Alice Cooper group. It’s different now. It’s like I’m my own paparazzi. I take a selfie, and I put my hand between me and the camera so it looks like I don’t want the picture taken. 

“Thierry Raynaud from Strasbourg, France, is this amazing artist who lives on a boat in a canal in France. He makes the billiondollarbassmost amazing miniature guitars you’ve ever seen from scratch. He makes the strings, everything. He’ll only make two. His house is full of these. He’ll make one for Ace Frehley, and he’ll make one for himself. He doesn’t make more than that; he doesn’t sell them. He just finished the Billion Dollar Bass. It’s not as long as a pencil, hundreds of tiny rhinestones, all of the inlays on the neck, all of the scratches and stuff I talked about that’s on the actual size replica. It’s mind-boggling. You can hold it in the palm of your hand. I met this guy. Cindy and I were in France, and we get this message from friends that we could go to this guy’s house and not worried about being bothered. He met us out in the rain, and we went to his houseboat. He starts showing us these guitars, and you couldn’t believe it. It’s so well made. Every tiny knob is recreated perfectly. He showed me that he had just the beginning of the Billion Dollar Bass. It didn’t have the jewels on it or anything. He said, ‘This is going to be exactly like your bass’. Well, here we are. He finished it today- the Baby Billion Dollar Bass.”

My final question to Dennis Dunaway is one I always ask to those who have been in the business for quite a while: When you’ve stepped off the tour bus for the final time and you’ve gone to that great gig in the sky, how do you want to be remembered and what do you hope your legacy will be?

“I’ve always seen myself as a conceptual artist who just happens to play bass. I would like to be remembered as that and for my music. That’s pretty much it. Conceptual ideas- a lot of it is just stage theatrics like Broadway shows and stuff, but they weren’t doing that when the Alice Cooper group came along. Now you go to Madison Square Garden, and you know you’re going to see some kind of production. Nobody did that before us. I think that’s really what got us into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame. ‘School’s Out’ was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame this year, and right now, they’re playing it across the country like crazy. I think we’ll always be remembered for snakesguillotineselectricchairscover‘School’s Out’ and the attitude the band had. We never really played metal. The closest we came was ‘Black Juju’ which I wrote, but we had the look. We had the safety pins on the pants, which was picked up by punk. We had the attitude and stuff that a lot of metal bands adopted.”

After my conversation with Mr. Dunaway, I sat back and reflected on all I had just heard and compared it to the memories and feelings of my youth. The rumors. The feelings I had when I heard all of those great Alice Cooper songs like “School’s Out”, “Billion Dollar Babies”, “School’s Out” and so many others. I smiled as the thoughts flooded my mind. Then, I looked for sick things under my desk.

Keep up with Dennis Dunaway and his band at www.dennisdunaway.com.com and his band, Blue Coupe, at www.bluecoupeband.com

Rick Hall Discusses The Man From Muscle Shoals

Posted June, 2015

RickHallGrammyRich Hall With His Grammy

Unless you’re a music geek like me - and neck deep into the history and minutia of all things music - the name, Rick Hall, may not mean anything to you. To heavy music buffs and geeks, though, Rick Hall is a giant in the music business and it’s history.

Founder of the now legendary FAME (“Florence Alabama Music Enterprises”) Studios (and FAME Publishing), Rick Hall first taste of success in the record business came in 1961. It was then that he produced Muscle Shoals’ first hit record with Arthur Alexander. The song, “You Better Move On”, was later covered by the Rolling Stones. That hit was followed by Jimmy Hughes’ hit, “Steal Away.” And, as they say, the rest is history.

Talent such as The Tams, Buddy Killen, Etta James, Clarence Carter, Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, The Osmonds (including Donnie and Marie for some of their solo work), Mac Davis, Jerry Reed, The Gatlin Brothers (as well as Larry Gatlin), and many, many other biggies in music, all recorded at FAME Studios. 

Oh, and if you think FAME’s big{mprestriction ids="*"} name days are all in the past, they are still quite productive and finding their work on new albums every year – both big names and up-and-comers.

These accomplishments made Rich Hall the poster child of rags to riches stories in America. In fact, it seems that many rags to riches stories – or stories of great accomplishments-have as their foundation the fact that the champions had poor or hard lives when they were young. 

In his recent book, “The Man From Muscle Shoals: My Journey From Shame To Fame,” details Hall’s amazing story of his literally dirt-poor upbringing in the deep South to becoming a music mogul, thus supporting the theory of adversity breeding success.

I recently called Rick at his home to discuss his book and started out by asking him why he thought this theory works as it does.

“That’s a great question, Randy. It’s tough to say exactly, but I believe strongly that kids today just don’t have the work ethics that we had. When I was growing up, we had it so much tougher- farming with mules, plows, that kind of thing. Mine’s uniquely different than today’s kids who think, ‘Well, you get to college, get out of school, and get a job making $50,000 starting pay’. That’s just not the way it is. I tell people the difference. I don’t let them just go on thinking that, because it’s not true. 

“Secondly, I think that my generation, our generation… if you were the oldest child, you had it a little tougher than the middle one or the others. In my case, I had three boys. With each one, I let up a little bit. I thought, ‘Well, dad wouldn’t have done that. He wouldn’t let them get by with that kind of thing’. I don’t know if it works better, because mamas are always there saying, ‘Well, he’s your child. You should give him the money he wants and let him do what he wants to do’. So you fight that battle. In my case, I’ve been married all my life almost. Well, I hope not all of it yet. 

“I have been through the rough and tumbles. I really do believe that if you go through the rough and tumbles like I have with tragedies in the family… My first wife was killed in an automobile, and I was driving the car. It was a guilt trip I had for four or five years. I lost my dad a week later and buried him right beside. A lot of it was tragedy in my years. Of course, my dad meant everything to me, because my mother had left us and went to work in a red light district when I was five years old. My dad raised me and taught me how to work. Like all fathers, he preached at me constantly: ‘Do this. Don’t do that. Move when you move. Get the job over with, look back at it, and move on to something else’… that kind of thing. He was constantly criticizing and condemning me. He was right, and I was wrong. He was a stern dad, and he made me toe the mark. I’m not sure I did that so much with my kids as he did with me. I let up, because my kids had a mother. Me and my wife have lived together for almost fifty years now. They always had a good mother. 

“Kids today say, ‘Well, dad had fun all of his life, and he was in the music business. He played the fiddle, had a lot of fun, hadRichHallClarenceCarterRick Hall With Clarence Carter

Photo Courtesy of Rick Hall a lot of girls. I’m going to follow in his footsteps’.  I’m not sure they’re thinking, ‘When Dad passes on, I’ll get the ranch, 1600 acres of land, the recording studio, and publishing company. I’ll have it made!’ That is the down side with Rick Hall. I have fought to make that not true. I believe that God gives you a talent, but you have to work at it. You really have to work hard at it. You can’t take the attitude that the old man made it without working hard. He didn’t do common labor and dig ditches and that kind of thing. I’m going to do what he’s doing and reap the benefits. I think that’s part of the problem, but I could be wrong about that. I guess time will tell.”

In reading Hall’s book, there are a series of events that lead to the launching of FAME. I asked him if there was one main, core event in his life that he felt that if it hadn’t have happened, FAME Studios would have never started.

“Growing up was a tough gig for me. I had no mother. My father raised me and my little sister who was one year younger than me. My mother left us and left my dad to raise us. We never saw her again until we were fourteen or fifteen years old. Times were tough. 

“My book is titled ‘The Man From Muscle Shoals: My Journey From Shame to Fame’. People ask me, ‘we know about the fame part. What about the shame? Where did that come from?’ And I say, ‘Well, if your mother went to work for a red light district and left your father to raise you, it was kinda shameful in my book’. Going to school with long, uncut hair and living in a sawmill shack with your dad making thirty-five cents an hour was also shameful. I was intimidated to ask a girl from the right side of the tracks for a date. I just wouldn’t do it, because I was afraid I’d get turned down. I had somewhat of an inferiority complex when I was growing up, so I always made sure my boys had as good an education as I could afford. One is a lawyer. One is working here with me and has his Master’s degree. I wanted to make sure my kids had their education. I had a high school education, so it was tough for me. Not particularly with the songwriters, singers, and guitar players, but it was tough for me to compete with the New York society and people I had to butt heads with in the music business.

“Looking back on that, I was partners with Billy Sherrill who grew up in Nashville, Tennessee. Wound up finding the Silver Fox (the late Charlie Rich), George Jones, Tammy Wynette, all those people. He ran CBS Records. He was my partner and a band member with me. For several years, we were known as The Fairlanes. We were a country band of sorts. Of course, we were songwriters, and we wanted to write “that big song” like everybody else who wrote songs. We didn’t want to write just any number one record. We wanted to write a classic. 

RichHallGregAllmanRick Hall and Gregg Allman

Photo Courtesy of Rick Hall“Our philosophy was that anybody could be a millionaire by the time they’re forty years old. We wanted to be a millionaire by the time we were thirty. That drove us, and we always kept that in mind. He played saxophone and the piano as well as Floyd Cramer could play a piano. I played the fiddle, mandolin, and guitar as well as doing background singing with some groups I was with. When all was said and done, By the way, he was a Bible carrier. I was the town drunk. In the end, he turned out to be a heavy drinker, and I turned out to be a Christian boy. Well, I tried to be. With his upbringing, he played the saxophone and played tenor sax in our band. He was a great piano player and a great songwriter. He was a genius, I thought. He wound up producing some of the biggest country records in the business, and I wound up producing some of the biggest pop records in the business. Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Clarence Carter- all the people I was producing were black acts, and I was in Muscle Shoals. 

“The point I’m trying to make was that I completely turned around and became a black record producer in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, when George Wallace was standing in the schoolhouse door at the University of Alabama saying, ‘Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever’. While he was making those speeches, we were in the FAME recording studio in Muscle Shoals cutting ‘Land of a Thousand Dances’, ‘Mustang Sally’, and ‘Funky Broadway’ with Wilson Pickett. We were doing Aretha Franklin’s first hit record. We were going against the grain.”

Because Rick is white, I asked if he found that, in working with those great black acts, they had distrust towards him as a white man in Alabama.

“No, no, no. They trusted me to the umpth degree. All the black people I worked with- Etta James, Aretha Franklin, Candi Staton, Jimmy Hughes, all of them- put their complete trust in me and believed that I could perform miracles. I was able to do that with their lives. By the way, on every record I’ve ever produced, I was also engineer. I picked the songs. I was an independent record producer. I didn’t have any record label to go to, so I just played the field. 

“It did break my heart when I went to Nashville, Tennessee, and took a record I’d made called ‘You Better Move On’ by Arthur Alexander. I played it to everybody I could play it to up there- Owen Bradley, Chet Atkins, Shelby Singleton. In fact, I played it to all the publishing companies, and they said, ‘Rick, it’s too white for black and too black for white’. I was stuck in the middle. Anyhow, I wound up getting a record out, because of a man by the name of Noel Ball. Noel was a disc jockey at WMAK in Nashville. He sent it to his boss, Randy Wood, who was just promoted and sent to Los Angeles. Randy called him back and said, ‘I want to pick this record up, because I think it’s a big hit’. That’s how it came to be. Of course, it was hit record, and I was suddenly the king of Muscle Shoals. 

“Then I looked around and found Jimmy Hughes who was working for Robbins Rubber Company here in Muscle Shoals. I cut a record on him called ‘Steal Away’, and it became a smash hit, also. I was batting a thousand and feeling good about myself. I couldn’t have done that if I went to Nashville and tried to compete with the boys up there who were cutting all the great records. Nobody could cut better country records than Nashville, Tennessee, never. But I felt like I had to do something a little more unique, so I started producing black acts. That was my shtick.”

In book, Hall tells of his mom leaving her family and living a bit of a scandalous life. Being a church going boy, I asked if he found that church people were especially tough on him as a result of what she did, even though it had nothing to do with him, his sister, and dad.

“They were in some cases. But I found more people receptive to us and our upbringing, because they felt sorry for us. They looked at our lives and how my dad struggled to raise us, and they would bring cakes and pies and things like that. They’d give us milk to drink. We didn’t have cows, livestock, hogs or anything like that. They were usually really nice to us, so we didn’t have that cross to bear. We had some great neighbors. They were church-goin’ people, and they loved us and felt sorry for us. They gave us whatever they could. For birthdays, they’d bring us birthday cakes. 

“I never will forget the first birthday cake I ever got was from a lady who lived next door to us. She brought it over, and it RichHallWIlsonPickettWilson Pickett and Rick Hall

Photo Courtesy of Rick Hallwas a banana cake. I’d never saw a banana cake before. It was a weird thing for me to see a banana cake with the little slices of bananas all over the top of it, you know? I thought, ‘my gosh, that looks great!’ I feasted on that.”

The term, “Muscle Shoals sound” is thrown around a lot, so I asked Mr. Hall his definition of it and what he would point to as the best examples of it.

“I believe that the Muscle Shoals sound came about when I started close-micing a kick drum during recording sessions. I coerced the bass player into playing the bass with the kick drum. A lot of other things entered into it. The piano had a lot to do with it, because I don’t recall any number one record that I produced where I didn’t use a Wurlitzer electric piano. It started with The Osmonds’ ‘One Bad Apple’, ‘Go Away Little Girl’ with Donny, Mac Davis’ ‘Baby Don’t Get Hooked On Me’, and Aretha Franklin’s ‘I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You’. I became such a schizophrenic guy that I wanted a Wurlitzer electric piano on everything I recorded, or I wouldn’t record. I became so mindful of the fact that everything I’d cut had been with a Wurlitzer electric piano. My first taste of it was in the band. We tried to copy Ray Charles’ version of ‘What’d I Say’. That was the kind he used- the Wurlitzer piano. We fell in love with that. 

“So many records I had that were hits, I credit to the Wurlitzer electric piano. That, to me, is part of the Muscle Shoals sound along with close-micing, which means that you put a mic on the kick drum. You put a mic on the snare drum and the cymbal. In my mind, you don’t need but three or four mics on a drum set. If you look back at records by The Everly Brothers and Don Gibson, most of them had maybe two or three mics. To me, it’s a waste of microphones to put more than four on a set of drums. I’d say save those microphones for the lead singer, because drums aren’t normally a musical instrument. All they do is keep time.”

To the question of if her were to point to one song or one artist that symbolizes all that he’s done in the music business, what would it be, he replied:

“That’s a tough question. I have a lot of favorite records: ‘(You’re) Having My Baby’ with Paul Anka, Aretha’s version of ‘I’ve Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You’, ‘Do Right Woman, Do Right Man’, Clarence Carter’s version of ‘Patches’. I always thought ‘Patches’ was a song about me, my father, and our livelihood. Bobbie Gentry was a classic, I thought. We did a record called ‘Fancy’ which was a follow-up to ‘Ode to Billie Joe’. It was one of my favorite records, but ‘Mustang Sally’ has given me probably the most mileage as a record producer of maybe any record I’ve ever produced. I never liked it when I was doing it. I thought ‘Mustang Sally’ is about a girl driving down the street in a convertible Mustang with the radio on and having a good time on Saturday night. I don’t hear anything more than that in the song. It’s not a great love song. It’s not a great heartbreaker or a funny song. The reason I think it had such a long life is because every little bar band in the world can play it. It’s so simple. Everybody can sing it, and everybody can play it.”

Of all of the accomplishments that he’s known for, what is the one Rick Hall is most proud of?

“I never rolled over and died. I’m a workaholic, and I believed with all my heart I could do it with God’s help. I’ve never been a quitter. Through all the tragedies and heartbreak, I never gave up. If you have a musical talent God gave you, and you don’t work at it, you can’t expect to be the best. In 1972 and 1973, according to Billboard magazine’s terminology, I was the number one record producer in the whole world. To be the best producer in the world, you’ve got to be more than just a good ‘ol boy who produces records in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, and that’s as far as you go. That can only take you so far. I’m proud of the fact that my father taught me how to work hard. To be the best at anything I wanted to do, I should give it my best. If I have to cut a record fourteen times and reproduce it for three different artists, I am going to do that if I like the song. I believe I know what people like, because I’m one of those people. 

“I grew up hard and tough. I think we have the tendency to say, ‘Well, nobody ever made it in my business, so I’m not going to even try’. It’s called a ‘cop out’. We don’t have that kind of attitude in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. We aren’t in it for the money. We are in it for the long term, and we want to be number one in the world. We’ve developed that attitude, and I’ve taught it to my people. They’ve passed it on to their people, and everybody in Muscle Shoals has worked for me at one time or another.”

Hall has worked with a lot of great artists and bands and had a lot to do with some of the biggest recordings in music. Are there any musical fish that got away that he’s still kicking himself in the butt over?

“Not an awful lot, because I’ve won a lot of them. I’ve had my part of the number one records. We’ve had over two hundred chart records and over one hundred gold or platinum records. I’m producer of all those hit records. There are others in Muscle Shoals who started out with me as musicians. They went on to own their own studios, and God bless them. They’ve had a lot of success, too. There was Percy Sledge, the Rolling Stones, and a lot of people who didn’t record with me but went on to have big hit records. It makes me feel pretty good to think that they started out with me and became bigger than me and bigger than themselves. Lo and behold, they had hit records, and maybe I had something to do with it.”

Can a young Rick Hall start a FAME Studio today and meet with the same kind of success as you did back then?

“I believe the answer is yes. I think today would be a perfect time for a young man or woman to start out and say, ‘I want to do what Rick Hall has done for Muscle Shoals. I want to be big worldwide rather than just to be big in Alabama or wherever’. I think they could, but they must be prepared to have a lot of losses. You’ve really got to believe with all your heart and soul that you can make it. If you believe that, you have to be willing to put your money where your mouth is. You have to be willing to go to the bank to borrow $20,000 and pay it back over time. You can do that. Anybody can build a FAME Recording Studio. I had nothing. I had no money, no guitar players, no engineers, no people qualified to build recording studios. I had to do it all myself. Everything in Muscle Shoals today started with Rick Hall. 

“Later on, it began to spread, and now there are twelve or fourteen recording studios in Muscle Shoals. We’ve been an intricate part of the best music in the world. Now, I guess I can claim credit for having the Muscle Shoals sound. It’s a world-renowned thing now. We have people coming by the busloads that pay ten dollars to visit FAME Recording Studios. It’s the oldest studio in the world owned by the same group of people, which is me and my family, of course. It’s here to stay. This is the first time it’s happened in a million years, and it will probably never happen again in the next million years. That’s a pretty drastic statement to make, and it kinda turns people off to think, ‘Rick said it couldn’t be done, so I’ll never bother to try’. I’m reluctant to make that statement. It can be done, but you’ve got to make a lot of sacrifices. Be true to yourself, God, and the people around you. Always be good to people and pay them what they’re due.” 

If Rick Hall was made Music Czar, what would he do to fix the music business or does he even think it needs fixing?

RickHallBookCover“It is absolutely broken. I don’t know if I have all the answers, but I have a few. What’s broken is downloading from computers and not paying the musicians, studios, and people who write the songs. If something doesn’t take place in the next ten years, there will be no more music. Trust me. I’m speaking from the heart. I think something has to be done. I’ll tell you from experience that record producers don’t die; they just fade away. When I go in, I pick six or seven musicians for the rhythm tracks, then I go back and redo the vocal so I can spend adequate time getting the best vocal I can possibly get. I still believe that the vocalist in the song is where it all starts. If you don’t have the song, you will not cut a record. I don’t care how well you can produce it or which musicians you use. If you don’t have a hit song, you will not have a hit record. I can go in and produce a bad production on a great song and still have a number one record. It’s the song that captures the imagination. It tells people what they want to hear or what they want to be or what they decide to become one day. It has to be fun or danceable or one of those factors. 

“Songwriters are the people who are quitting the business. They are walking away, because there’s no money for them. You can’t sell a million records anymore. I’ve worked with artists like the group Alabama that was selling five million albums, not five million singles, per release. That’s how big they were. Now, I think that’s gone forever. People have been forced out of the business, because they can’t make a living in the business. Thievery is the reason for that. Record companies can’t exist anymore, because the production of a record has become so costly that they have to sell a million records to break even. When you have to sell a million records, desperation sets in, and you start thinking, ‘Maybe if I put out ten different artists, I can make it’. You spend your money putting those ten acts out, and you never make it. 

“Another factor is the fact that you have to pay musicians on the union scale. You think, ‘These guys are making too much money’. But let me tell you something, a musician has spent his life learning how to play his licks on the guitar, mandolin, or whatever. You pay him double scale on a record. You may think, ‘I don’t have the budget to hire so and so, because I can’t afford what they’re used to making’. He may make a lot of money in the studio today cutting Wilson Pickett, but he may not get another call for a recording session for four months. How are you going to feed your family when you don’t get a call for a recording session but every three months? I don’t care how good you are. You can’t make it on that. When you’re a songwriter, and you have one hit record in a lifetime, you get paid pretty good on the front. At the end, they quit paying you. They cut you off, and you don’t get your money. 

“Thievery, Pro Tools, and computers have completely annihilated our business. If something is done about it in the next four to five years, there will be no music except old music. If you go into a record session as one man and say, ‘I want to sell my records out of the trunk of my car. I will put my records out on my own label, and I will sell them cheaper than RCA Victor can sell them’. If you play all the instruments, and go on Pro Tools to tune your voice and make a 5-string banjo sound like a harmonica- you can do that. But it ain’t like getting Rick Hall as producer and engineer, Chips Moman and Jimmy Johnson on guitar, Clayton Ivey on keyboards, etc. When you have eight people in the studio, it’s like a basketball game. You’ve got a team of players who know what to eliminate. It ain’t about the guitar lick or hot player. It’s about simple knowledge of what you play, don’t play, and deciding that you’re getting in the way of the piano lick here.”

Hall then drilled into his book a bit more.

“You’ll find most all of this in my book, and you’ll find things that I’m not talking about, obviously. I could go on for two weeks giving you all kinds of advice and telling you all the things that worked for me. What I want to tell you is the artist I recorded the first number one record on was Aretha Franklin, and I’m proud of that. Clarence Carter, Paul Anka’s ‘(You’re) Having My Baby’, Mac Davis’ ‘Stop And Smell The Roses’, Wilson Pickett’s ‘Hey Jude’, Etta James, The Osmonds- I had a whole string of hit records. All these things are in my book: my philosophy about life in general, my hits and misses, and why the music business is on its knees. The way to do it is the old-fashioned way. Forget about computerization, and go back to classics. A 24-track recorder with a two inch piece of tape will pick up any signal from 30 or 40 cycles to 30,000 cycles. Digital may go from 100 cycles to 10,000 cycles. The range you lose will be the warmth and depth of the record. It won’t be funky and hard to listen to. It’s like you’re sitting in the room. Going into the studio with seven musicians- all of them the best players in the world- you will always do better than doing it by yourself. Each one of them will contribute something. The guitar player will play a different lick for you; the piano player will find his best lick. They will play off of each other. It’s like a basketball team. If they never practice together, even though they’re all superstars, they will not accomplish the mission of winning the game. If you are a musician and want to be part of the big guys, you have to go into the studio and cut your records live. You can’t put them together six months apart then in five years, you have a hit record. That don’t make it. You’ve gotta walk out of there with you tape or disc in your hand. 

“Buy the book. It’s called ‘The Man From Muscle Shoals: My Journey From Shame To Fame’. It will tell you all these secrets. I spent ten years writing the book when we only spent three hours on a recording session. Things that happened over a fifty-year period that I can recall, I put in the book. Oh man, I had a ball. It was one of the most fun things I’ve ever done in my life. Number one records, you get one, oh man. But you get one hundred… multiply that. When you read the book, you find out who Rick Hall is, what made him tick, and what he’s all about. You get the DVD inside the back cover of the book- two for the price of one. Watch the DVD first then read the book. You’ll watch the DVD five more times, I promise you.

“I’ve had incredible feedback. Flying off the shelves like hotcakes- sales are phenomenal.”

“The Man From Muscle Shoals: My Journey From Shame To Fame” is a must have/must read book for anyone who is even mildly interested in the back stories of some of the biggest hits in music. The DVD that’s included ain’t too shabby either.  You can order from the links below.