Paul Schmitz

Posted August, 2014

lasthombres2The Last Hombres.  You may or may not have heard of them. To many, they’re a “best kept secret” by the most discriminating of music fans.  For those of you who aren’t familiar with them, let me give you a little background on ‘em. In the beginning, the band consisted of Paul Schmitz, Michael Meehan, Russ Seeger and, ultimately (believe it or not), none other than the great Levon Helm on drums. 
Yes! Levon Freakin’ Helm!

The band focused on what is now called “Americana” music and developed quite a loyal following. The band produced their popular album, Redemption, and toured with Helm, playing legendary clubs and appearing on live radio shows that included World Cafe. 

Helm eventually peeled away to focus on his barn party endeavor called “The Midnight Ramble” and, ultimately, the band split up about ten or so years ago – and on amicable terms. Schmitz helped out Helm get things started on his “Ramble” project as well as put out an album, Raised By Wolves, as The Low Rollers. Seeger continued to play, ultimately becoming in-demand guitar slinger as well as put out a solo album, Live In Peace.  They all became friends Chris James, a multi-instrumentalist and vocalist. But, as the band tells it, it would take another force of nature to get all these Hombres back in a room making music together.

That force of nature was drummer Tom Ryan and the “Hurricane Ryan” struck recently – about ten years after the Last Hombres’ last hurrah.  He got the Hombres to reunite for a fundraiser. The set went so well, one thing led to another and the band got back together and cut a brand spankin’ new album, Odd Fellows Rest.

Because of that new album, I was afforded the opportunity to speak with Paul Schmitz – not only about the band’s reunion and the album, but also some poignant stories about the late Levon Helm.
Paul called me from his home on the north shore of Long Island, New York. Warm, gracious and engaging, we made small talk before quickly getting into chatting about Odd Fellows Rest.

I started off by asking him to describe The Last Hombres for the uninitiated.
“The band itself is really – and I don’t want to sound hokey or anything – the Last Hombres, we’re on a journey to see the sites different sites that are around. That’s what we’re in it for: the journey and not the destination. We’re looking at what kind of action can happen; what kind of fun we can create; the experiences of going what we go through. That’s the pay off. We’re all about that.

“It’s music. It’s a very spiritual thing. When we played with Levon (Helm), he was very much into the spiritual aspects of music – the healing part of it and the spiritual part of it and what it meant. I spent hours talking to him about it – days and weeks talking to him about it. That’s how all of the old blues guys felt, too – like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, all of those guys. They did it for the spiritual aspect of it – the raising of the human spirit. That’s kind of what we’re about as a band. And, like I said, that can come off sounding hokey or like bullshit but that’s how we are.

And as for the music? 

“Tom Ryan’s the drummer and the guy who really got us going again. He’s one of the three formers of the band. And we’re all, like, ‘Why? Why are we doing this?’ Because were all playing solo stuff and we had our run – 2003 was our last show. Me, Mike and Russell – we’re all kinda like, ‘The run’s over’. We had a nice run and played with Levon Helm and Rick Danko. We just felt like the run was over. We never thought we’d ever play together again.

“So, Tom Ryan is somewhat of a maniac. He’s a drummer, number one. That’s gotta tell ya something there. He’s got this energy level that I’ve never quite got. I mean, I’m a Type A personality and it blows me away. His brain’s on fire all the time! He’s always got something going in his head. His energy and his life force are very affecting. He’s really the one who brought the band back together. We were here, kicking around, playing a benefit here and there. Then, it was, like, ‘Let’s go record a new album!’ What?!

“One thing led to another and then we just went in (the studio). We all had backlogs of material. We have three writers. I write. Mike Meehan writes and Russ Seeger writes so, we had tons of material. That was actually the hardest was picking out of everybody’s song book. ‘What are we gonna do? What fits the Hombres as an album?’ So we settled on what we were gonna do and we went in and recorded it.

“Tom coined the phrase of what we do. It was the best, short analysis of what we do which is ‘cinematic American’. It puts pictures in your head of what we do. We recorded all this stuff. You’ve got three different writers writing in three different places and we brought all the songs in. Some of them we didn’t even know when we recorded them. They were the third take of a new song we were trying. That’s how we approached recording. We recorded live – just set everything up in a really good studio, turned on the machine and went.

“What I found strange was how the songs related to each other. They’re all along the same lines of different characters in the songs. It all played out like a movie. That was a total accident. I didn’t notice that until we were mastering. I’m sitting in the chair at Scott Hull’s Mastering and I’m listening to it and, first of all, I’m hearing it on million dollar speakers and I’ll never hear it again like that! And, then, I’m thinking, ‘This makes sense! “From beginning to end, this tells a story!’ We didn’t plan on telling a story. It wasn’t a concept album or any of that kind of stuff. It was an accident but it turned out. We’re pretty happy with how it turned out.”

I asked Schmitz what was different about recording Odd Fellows as compared to Redemption - from both a collaboration and technological perspective.

“I would just say that it’s grown as we’ve grown as people - as spiritual beings. We’re just a better band. We’re better writers. We’re, hopefully, better human beings. There’s a definite consciousness in this group of responsibility. Levon was always saying, ‘Look, you have a responsibility as a music maker to – not only to the music – but to the people, to raise their spirits.’ There’s that consciousness in this band as far as the themes that went on. It wasn’t like it was an afterthought. It wasn’t thought out. It was not a conscious effort to do that from a songwriting standpoint. It just happened that way. We’re all on the same path in that aspect. We see the reaction of what music has on people.

“Even science has become hip to what music can do for people. It brings up their spirits. Special Ed kids – they have music programs for these kids. Levon was involved in a lot of that kind of thing that nobody knew about. He used to go to cancer wards and play music for people. It lifts the spirits. There’s a healing thing there. So we’re conscious of that and there’s a responsibility that goes along with that. It’s not like we’re constantly thinking about that. But I think that gets reflected in how the songs were written and they come out. We want people to laugh. Reflect. Think about what we’re talking about. Interpret their own version of what we’re saying. That’s how we think on that respect.

“From a technical point of view, we recorded Redemption in a really good studio in Glen Cove – the rhythm tracks – with Levon. I had a home studio that we did mostly everything else and then we went back to the studios in Glen Cove. That was redemption. For Odd Fellows, we went One East Recording in New York City where we recorded the entire album except for the brass band. Tom went to Payette (Louisiana) and recorded those there.

“This one is a cross between old school and new school – digital and analog. The kid that produced us – Yohei Goto – do you know Steve Jordan – the drummer?  He’s his engineer. The one thing that Yohei knows how to do is record drums. Keith Richards records up in One East and the Stones were in One East. It’s a small, little place and it’s got a lot of good stuff in it and it sounds really good.”

When I mentioned that others like Boston, Joe Walsh and Rick Derringer like to record in analog as The Last Hombres just did, Paul added, “But it all ends up digital at some point. How we recorded Redemption was went to two inch tape on really good machines, transferred it over to Tascam 78’s – digital. Then we brought the machines back to my basement studio, recorded all this other stuff and then went back in. So there’s a lot of back and forth in this day and age. To me, if you’ve got a lot of great analog gear at the front of ProTools, ProTools is really good. Certainly, editing is great on it. I come from the days when we were cutting up and splicing little pieces of two inch tape all over the floor. It’s rare that guys will record to two inch tape any more. We ended up not doing that. We could’ve.

“What we always do is we recorded everything through the Neve Console, through LA2a’s, through Fairchild 660’s, RCA lasthombresbw1Ba6a’s, Neumann mic’s – all that good stuff gets it into ProTools. You can edit things much better. Yohei knows enough or Steve Jordan would kill him if he didn’t make it sound like pristine and he’s worked with a ton of great people. A lot of credit for how it sounds has to go to him. He’s the guy who really knows what he’s doing. It’s a tedious process. We’re in there going, “Yeah, we like that. No, we don’t like that” and he’s the one who putting it all together.

“Then, the big difference between this and a lot of records is we went over to Scott Hull over at Masterdisk. He mastered ‘Nevermind” by Nirvana. He masters all of Steely Dan’s albums. He worked for Bob Ludwig (Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, Clapton, McCartney, and countless others). He was his assistant for fifteen years and took over for Bob Ludwig.

“If you look at any album about the stuff you write about – the seventies – Bob Ludwig mastered more than half of it. So, Scott Hull – Combat Rock by The Clash – I’m looking at his wall and going, ‘Oh my god! Now he’s gotta work on our crap?’ But he liked it! That was a huge, huge difference what a great mastering engineer can do for a record. They can’t put a spirit in it, though, which is what is in that record as far as I’m concerned. There’s a certain spirit in Odd Fellows that, no matter how you record it, it’s gotta be there.” Then, in concluding his answer, he mused, “What we do, unfortunately, is a dying art. We’re trying to keep it alive.”

While preparing for my interview with Schmitz, I hadn’t intended on bringing up the late Levon Helm who passed away two years ago after a heroic fight with cancer.  I assumed that the subject might still be a bit sensitive to those like Paul who knew him. Because Paul mentioned Helm a couple of times in our chat, I felt comfortable in asking how his passing impacted him and the band and how it influenced Odd Fellows.

“Levon was huge influence on me, personally. We became very, very good friends. When the Hombres split up in ’03 . . . Levon and I went up to Woodstock to start a rockabilly band that I was going to front and we had a standup bass player. That was what the plan was. By October of that year, I went up to Woodstock and started putting this rockabilly band together – which completely disassembled the second he talked about the Midnight Rambles. I said, ‘That’s a helluva good idea!’ I had a small hand in helping him get that together. He had been so sick but we’d be at a gig and I’d hear another voice and I’d look back and he’d be singing. He could barely speak when I first met him. Then, every once in a while I’d hear a fourth harmony in there and I’d turn around and it would be him!
“So, basically, what happened was he started singing again, which he was never supposed to do. They said there was no way he would ever sing again. Maybe he would whisper through the rest of his life. All of a sudden, he’s singing and then he’s singing good!

“So, he put the Rambles together. I knew that was going to be a piece of cake – a slam dunk. I hung out until 2004 and then went to do other things myself. Then the Rambles became a big thing. He didn’t have a ton of confidence at that point. A lot of work went into making that happen, though.

“The last time I hung out with him, the Hombres had reformed. I went up to Ramble and brought my daughter. He and his wife loved my daughter and was always a great visit so I brought her back. This was a couple of years ago and was the last time I hung out with him. He was just thrilled that she was there. I said, ‘Look, we just put the Hombres back together’ and got this huge grin on his face. He said, ‘Just go for it, man! I love playing with you guys. I love being with you guys.’ So, yeah, there’s always that influence there.”

Then Paul surprised me with a deeply personal story involving Helm.

“My brother – who used to always do road work for us and was with us through all of that early Hombre stuff – he’d gotten colon cancer. This was the kind of guy Levon was, okay? My brother, Bill, was in Chicago. I called Levon because he was getting’ ready to go. It was getting towards the end. I called Levon and said, ‘Bill is on his last legs’ and Levon goes, ‘What can I do? What’s his address?’ and I gave him his address. ‘What can I do?’ and I said, ‘If you want to give him a call, give him a call’ and he said, ‘Okay, I’ll do that’. He called every day for thirty days until he died. He sent him a box of t-shirts and CDs and all kinds of notes. I didn’t even know that he did that but that’s the kind of guy he was. He had such a huge heart and such a huge spirit. That’s the kind of guy he was. That’s a testament to Levon. That’s who he was.”

When asked what pre-release buzz for the album has been like, Schmitz said, “I haven’t heard anything negative. Some people really love it. What surprised me is certain songs that people pick out as their favorite song - one of them being Streetlights, which is the last song on the record. I didn’t want that on the record! But it fits. It’s the end of the story and I didn’t see it that way. We tried it with the band and it didn’t work. We tried it with just the piano and that didn’t work. Then Tom said, ‘Let me take it to New Orleans and see what the horn guys do with it’. He brought it back and I was, like, ‘Oh! Okay, that works!’ So, that’s what it became.

“So, yeah, we’re getting incredibly good reviews and positive feedback. We’re thrilled with that. There’s nothing better than putting something out and having people like it. That’s the payoff. “

Is the band planning a tour to promote the CD?

“We’re going out in September and October – mostly the northeast for the first round. We’re booking dates now. Then we’re going to go south. We’ll probably go to New Orleans at the end of October/first of November. I want to go in warm weather. Ha! Ha! That’s my goal. We’ll probably do that kind of thing through the winter – get out of the northeast as much as we can. That’s the plan right now and what everybody is working towards.”

I asked Paul what fans and the curious can expect from a Last Hombres gig.

“Russ Seeger on the guitar – he’s an amazing guitar player. Russ’s quote is, ‘It’s (the band) is powerful. There’s something about this that’s very powerful.’ I feel that on stage and that goes off into the audience and the audience feeds back. I would say that is the thing: the power and the energy that happens when the Hombres play. We don’t ever really go out and have flat shows. We’re not a hit or miss band. We’re really consistent. We don’t over rehearse the stuff. We’re never going to play a song the same way twice. We leave a lot of room open for stuff to happen but we’re consistent as far as that goes. And fun! People have a lot of fun when we play. It may not sound like party music on the record but it’s party music. People come around and a party breaks out and we get to be in it so it’s cool!”

When I asked Schmitz what was on the band’s radar for the next year or so, he shared, “The next five years? Staying alive. I would say the next six months is going to be spent playing out, playing a lot of shows; getting out as far as we can. I want to go to Europe. What we do in Europe is, supposedly, very popular. I don’t know why but that’s what I’m told is that the American/roots/rock genre is big there so I’d like to go to Europe. Then, go back into the studio and start on another record, which we’re really actually thinking about doing that this month. We have such a backlog of material and none of us ever stop writing.”

As our call wrapped up, I asked Paul how he wished to be remembered and what he hoped his legacy will be when he joins Helm at that great gig in the sky.

“I want to be remembered as a guy who tried something who, as a little kid, I was told that I couldn’t do it and did it. I grew up in an area and a situation where it was not encouraged to be a musician, to be a guitar player. I, essentially, told everybody to **** off and lived my life the way I chose. I want to be remembered as a guy who cared about music so much that I lived for it. That I tried to help people. That I had a big heart. I don’t know what impact any of this has anywhere. I just don’t know how little or how big. I don’t know any of that. I hope people enjoy it. I hope it speaks to people. I hope it raises their spirits. That’s really why I’m doing it.

“Not to harp on Levon but I watched Levon – when I first met him, he was very, very ill. I watched that man be healed by music and the people that loved him to the point to where he could sing again and he won two Grammy’s. That’s how powerful music is. It’s big medicine. If I can do that, if I can help somebody, if somebody hears what we do and it raises their spirits or helps them in any way . . . I think it does for people. And that’s what music is.”

Larry "Fuzzy" Knight

Posted July 27, 2014

fuzzyknight1ddAs I interview many great and notable people for Boomerocity, I am always amazed and the stories that they have to share – almost nonchalantly. The greatness that they’ve attained, been involved with or brushed up against boggles my mind. 

As I interview these people, I typically craft and groom the piece in a give and take narrative. Once in a great while, an interview happens where I pretty much turn on my recorder and listen to what an artist has to say with very little input from me.  My recent interview with former Spirit bassist and current bottom man for Blowin’ Smoke Rhythm and Blues Band as well as for the new group, Sky Kings, is one such interview.

Fuzzy is a wealth of rock and roll history and knowledge with each and every one of his stories absolutely fascinating.

For this interview, I’d like to take the uncharacteristic approach of putting into writing the feel of being on the phone with Fuzzy as I was. With only a very few exceptions, this interview is almost all Fuzzy.

As our conversation began, I asked how things were and what all is going on his Fuzzy’s life.

“Everything is good. It’s all good. I’ve been busy on a bunch of music projects. I have a concert this Saturday with the eleven piece ‘Blowin’ Smoke Rhythm and Blues Band’ that I’ve had for eighteen years – going into our nineteenth year real soon. I also just released another project that I produced, played bass on and wrote half the songs. The band is called ‘Sky King’ and that’s doing very well with regards to our initial exposure and reviews we’ve been getting. They’ve been very, very positive and I’m appreciative of that.”

As if that’s not enough to keep a guy busy, he continued by saying, “I’m getting ready to edit and put out a live ‘Blowin’ Smoke’ album that was recorded very, very late last year out at Harvelle’s. And, then, I have plans of going in also this year and start a studio album with Blowin’ Smoke and we’re going to start laying tracks – again, this year – for new Sky Kings songs.

“So, the plate is full! Ha! Ha! I’ve got my ears open for other creative opportunities. I like to work and I love being in the studio . . . and I like to produce, as well. All of those things are on the table and, for Sky King, I’ve been talking to a friend of mine. He’s a film director and he’s working for a company in the film industry right now. We have never put a video out, yet, on any of the songs for Sky King. My overall project for Sky King was to create a video for every song because the CD itself happens to have a theme even though that’s not real popular in today’s CD music. Kids seem to like to download a song. But when we created the CD, it was a concept CD.”

“I have a long music history. It’s really been my entire life. I have seriously been into music since third grade in school. They fuzzyknight2gave us some music aptitude tests. I remember my teacher contacted my parents and said, ‘Your son should be in a music program in school.’

“So, they gave me a cardboard keyboard to take home. I would bring it back and forth to classes. You can’t hear anything on a cardboard keyboard. So the teacher asked my parents, ‘Would you buy this kid an instrument so that we can teach him some music?’

“In those years, we lived in a small apartment so a piano wouldn’t have even fit in the place that we lived in. So my mom and dad took me down to the local music store. I wound up playing violin. I played violin, believe it or not, all through what was left of grade school, junior high, high school and even into college.

“By learning orchestral music and reading music, and transposing and being a listener and developing my ear, it’s how I got into being a professional musician. I would say that I owe my start to the school system in St. Louis, where I’m from.”

On the heels of those comments, Fuzzy shared what and who his earliest musical influences were.

“When I was fourteen and fifteen years old, I listened at night time to a black radio station in St. Louis called KATZ/Sweet Sixteen. Every night that you would listen, they would broadcast live from some black night club in St. Louis. Nobody listened to this station except black people. I was probably the only white kid in St. Louis at that time that listened to it.

“Listen to this – these are the people they were broadcasting live every night: Albert King, Ike Turner, Chuck Berry, Little Milton and a couple of other guitar players that were popular in the St. Louis area that never became famous like these guys. By the time I was sixteen, I had already talked my mom into taking me to another music store – because I didn’t have enough money saved up – and she bought me a 1963 Fender Stratocaster guitar and a 1963 Fender Jazz bass, which is the same bass that I play to this very day. It’s been around the world umpteen times with me.

“So, being the kid that I was, I started sneaking into the black clubs with my friends so that I could see these people play. By the time I was seventeen years old, I was already playing with all of them. I would get gigs playing either guitar or bass. They were blown away. I was, like, the only white person in the night club except any friends that I brought with me and we always played in black clubs.

“In those years – I was born in 1944 – I’ll be seventy October 21st. The Blowin’ Smoke Band is nothing more than the music that inspired me when I was a teenager in St. Louis. By playing with all the black groups, I used to be invited and taken to Masonic halls and places where people like Ray Charles and Wilson Pickett and Otis Redding and James Brown – I could go on and on – they used to come into the city to play, they would play in black venues only. The bands that they brought with them always had horn sections and there were back-up singers and dancers, an emcee and a lot of people would also perform before the star hit the stage.

fuzzyknight3b“The Blowin’ Smoke Rhythm and Blues Review is a similar style show. I have four horn players in that band. I have three black female lead singers. I sing lead. My guitar player sings lead, also. There’s a four piece rhythm section to the band. We are an eleven piece band. I gotta tell you, Randy, it’s not easy – especially in today’s music market – for an eleven piece band to survive. But the fact of the matter is, we’ve been together almost nineteen years now and we play all the time. I’m very proud of the format because I know that there are a lot of young kids that really have never seen anything like what we do. I get a chance to talk to them when we perform – after we’re done – and they always come up to me and they’re, like, flabbergasted. They go, ‘Damn! I’ve never seen anything like this before!’

“As the icons pass away – we lose James Brown and we lose Ray Charles and that style – there are a few people that are kinda getting into it. I like Sharon Jones and the Gap Band. They’re actually doing old R&B and blues and doing it well and selling records. That’s the way of the music world. Everything comes around sooner or later.

“Anyway, that’s how I started. I started playing the blues and R&B in St. Louis. I had my own groups there. My very first group, believe it or not, was called, ‘The Galaxies’. Then I had another group called, ‘Larry Knight and the Upsetters’. When I had that band, I recorded a record – in those days there were no vinyl albums. There were only 45’s that were being put out. I was signed to Golden World Records up in Detroit which is now a subsidiary of Motown. A producer came down to St. Louis and into a studio and I recorded a record called ‘Hurt Me’ that I wrote. The flip side I also wrote called ‘Everything’s Gone Wrong’. It actually became a hit record in St. Louis, Chicago, and Detroit. I had a regional breakout. It was late 1965. It was up on WLS in Chicago and KXLK Radio in St. Louis. It got into the top ten and things were going really fantastic. I thought, ‘Wow! This is it! I might make it!’

“At that time, another record came out of St. Louis that was very popular, which was a band called Bob Kuban and the Inmen and the name of the song was called ‘The Cheater’ and it actually got up on the big charts. He came out to California and was on the Dick Clark Show and the shows that were like that at that time. I was right behind them and I got this fateful letter in the mail that ‘You are drafted and you will be going to Vietnam’.

“I did and I served fourteen months in the Vietnam War, unfortunately. I lost two years of my life and two years of almost the most influential period in music. I was away from 1966 through 1968 and that’s when the Beatles were really ripping it up. Music was changing into rock and roll and English rock. And it’s funny. It was all rooted in the blues and the old blues guys!

“So, when I got out of the service, I immediately went on the road with a band – within two weeks. I tried to get my head straight and tried to catch up on what was happening and what was going on in the business. I put another band together called ‘Pax’. That’s the Latin word for peace. I had a three piece blues/psychedelic/rock band with a gal by the name of Gracie Dumas – a singer who used to sing with Ike Turner – as my lead vocalist.

“We were doing a lot of gigs around the Missouri and Illinois are at the time. Barry Goldberg from the Electric Flag came into St. Louis and one of the black DJ’s took him out to a gig to see us perform. Barry was blown away and took us into a studio in Chicago. To this very day, I’ve got those five recordings. We did five songs that he produced. He gave me his address and phone number in California. He lived in Topanga Canyon out here. He said, ‘You bring me your band to California. I’ll guarantee you a record deal, I’ll be the producer and we’ll see what happens.’

“So, four months later I poured everybody into a van and we drove across the country and I got all the way out here and went to Barry’s address in Topanga Canyon to see him. Unfortunately, when I got to his house and knocked on his door, somebody else answered and said, ‘Barry’s not going to be back for at least six months’. I asked, ‘Well, is he on tour?’ and the guy said, ‘No. He’s in rehab for heroin addiction.’ He and Buddy Miles – there was a whole bunch of guys in Electric Flag that were pretty wasted back in those days.

“There I was in California. I had no one. I had not one contact other than him and I didn’t know what to do, where to go, fuzzyknightewhere to play, how to make a penny. Believe it or not, it launched me on the second part of my professional career which became phenomenal.

“The band that I brought to California, of course, we were playing gigs and we had a booking agency and we were surviving. But this is very interesting: One day, as I was driving in the valley – San Fernando Valley here in L.A. – I saw a marquee and it said, ‘Delaney, Bonnie and Friends’.

“I grew up in St. Louis with Bonnie Bramlett. What was even more interesting is that they had just come back from their UK tour. That was when Eric Clapton was playing with them, and George Harrison, Leon Russell – they had the greatest band in the world. Eric Clapton took the Delaney and Bonnie rhythm section – he took the band away from them, basically – and he started Derek and the Dominos.

“So, when they came back to L.A., they had picked up some local musicians and were playing this club that was only a few blocks from their home where they lived. I thought, ‘I grew up with Bonnie! I gotta go see her!’

“I went into the club before they started playing and I wrote a note on a napkin and I asked the waitress to take it backstage. She did and Bonnie came screaming out from the back room, jumped on my table, knocked the drinks over and we hugged. She said, ‘You better get up on the stage and sit in with this band!’ I did. I had my guitar with me that night and I played the blues.

“When the night was over, Delaney asked me if I would like to go out on tour. He said that they were leaving in ten days and he gave me two reel-to-reel tapes and said, ‘This is our show. Learn it.’ I never even got to rehearse with the whole band. I just went over to his house a couple of times. I was with Delaney and Bonnie as their lead guitar player until the band broke up. They divorced and that was the end of Delaney and Bonnie.”

Later in our conversation, Fuzzy had more to say about Bonnie Bramlett.

“Bonnie and I are two months apart in age – actually, one month apart. Her birthday is less than thirty days after mine. She has always – from the very, very beginning back in our high school days – always has been a phenomenal singer. Before Tina Turner was popular, we played in an area in St. Louis called Gaslight Square where they had places like how the Peppermint lounge was big in New York City? They had the Butterscotch Lounge and all of these various night clubs on this one strip of about two blocks. It had all of the old gas lamps that were in St. Louis back in the old cobblestone/gas lamp time. I played in every club on that street and so did Bonnie. There were times when we played with each other and with different people. We were always friends and new each other well.”

Picking back up on Fuzzy’s early days on the California music scene, he said, “During that period – even before that – I was very lucky out here in L.A. At that time, you could walk into a record label like Capitol Records or A&M and you could put your name up on a board there and say, ‘I do session work’. I was very lucky in that I met a drummer whose sister was the secretary of the president of Capitol Records. So we got hooked up with a lot of artists who were recording for Capitol and we became studio musicians. I did a lot of demos for them and albums for them. I played with guys like Jim Rose, Chi Coltrane – the list goes on and on.  I was buzzing about L.A., playing recording sessions and doing gigs with everybody. Then I was with Delaney and Bonnie.

“I met Randy California and Ed Cassidy from Spirit in those days. The music community in back in the late sixties/early seventies was a beautiful thing. People from all different kinds of bands could get together and play and jam; get kinda stoned, high, trip out and all that kind of stuff. But it was really a great time!  It was through us playing together with Randy California and Ed Cassidy, the same thing happened. After we played a couple of times, Randy said, ‘I want you to join my band. We’ve got some gigs that we’re gonna do as Spirit but I’m also working on my first solo album called ‘Kapt. Kopter’. I got to record tracks with him on that. We went to Europe as Spirit. I stayed with him from 1970 when we first met all the way through 1980-81 – about ten or eleven years. I guess I have about eight or nine different album releases under the name, ‘Spirit’, with Randy California and Ed Cassidy. We toured Europe and lived in London for about a year and a half. Went to every country, every city in every country in Europe.

“Miles Copeland actually produced an album for us, ‘Live at the Rainbow Theater’, during that period. The Police were opening shows for us for six months. They hadn’t even recorded ‘Roxanne’ yet. They were doing punk rock and people were booing them off the stage. As soon as they got into that reggae feel and incorporated it into their songs, they took off. It wasn’t long before we had to open shows for them! That’s the way it works in the business. It was great and I even got a chance to work for Jefferson Airplane’s organization.

fuzzyknightskyking1Sky King: Garth Farkas, Fuzzy Knight and Walter Morosko“A friend of mine – a drummer – was already up there in San Francisco. The Airplane, at that time, was putting their own record label out called ‘Grunt Records’, to be distributed through RCA - their original label.  They had signed all these people and they had signed the Kaukonen’s solo albums – Jorma and Peter Kaukonen.

“So, I had a call while I was down here in L.A. and they invited to come up to San Francisco. They just wanted to hear me play. They sent me a ticket and I flew up there. They offered me – I remember this because, to me, this was the most money in the world – they gave me a twenty-five thousand dollar advance to move up to San Francisco and record for Peter Kaukonen. I did his ‘Black Kangaroo’ album.

“I did a whole bunch of artists that they had signed. I even did one with Marty Balin – one of his first solo albums. Jack Bonus and some other people. I was like a studio bass player and we were opening shows with Peter’s band for Hot Tuna which his brother, Jorma Kaukonen, was the guitar player in. It was pretty wild and things were going great. I loved it up there. I had a house in Mill Valley in the Redwood Forest. Everything was a dream, almost.

“And then Randy (California) called me from L.A. and said, ‘You gotta come back. We’re gonna go to Europe again. There’s TV shows we’re gonna do and a whole bunch of stuff’ and I said, ‘I’ll be right back. I’ll see you as soon as I give them my notice and pack up my stuff’. I moved back to L.A. and rejoined Spirit again. That went on all the way through until 1980/1981. Then I got involved in many more projects from that point on.

“Eventually, I got to the point where I was missing my roots. I wanted my roots back. I plaid rock and blues. I’d done a little bit of everything, so far. I felt that it was time to do this R&B review band. So, eighteen or nineteen years ago, I started Blowin’ Smoke. It did phenomenal. We played all the big blues festivals out here. We did the Monterey Blues Festival a couple of years in a row. The San Diego Blues Festival. The Doheny and the Long Beach – all the great blues shows and we’re still together. It’s almost a miracle to be able to hold an eleven piece group together. If you can make it two years your lucky, let alone nineteen. I feel sort of like John Mayall. He had some great guitar players and great singers over the course of the years but the legacy just goes on – to continue. I’m gonna keep it going for as long as I can.

“Sky King is different – all original music, only. It has influences of R&B, blues, folk, jazz and rock and roll all mixed together. It’s none of any of those. It’s just a hybrid. I call it alternative rock/R&B/blues. Ha! Ha! Whatever that means!  All I know is that it confuses everybody. They don’t what category to put it into. But the music and the performances of all the players is phenomenal – a work of art!  I’m very proud of the CD and very proud to be the producer of the music. I worked on it a long time and I feel real good about it.”

Everybody has seen the news about the lawsuit that Randy California’s estate has filed that alleges that Jimmy Page and Robert Plant used Spirit’s “Taurus” as the foundation in writing “Stairway to Heaven”.  I asked Fuzzy if he had any thoughts or insight into the matter.

“This is also very interesting because in 1971 I was playing with Randy. That’s when we were recording the tracks for the Kapt. Kopter album – his first solo album. I remember when he first heard a Led Zeppelin album when it first came out – the Stairway to Heaven album – I think it was in ’71. I remember him saying to me – he said, ‘Did you hear this album by Led Zeppelin?’ I said, ‘Not yet’, and he said, ‘Oh, when you do, listen to this track. It sounds like a sound I’ve already written. Not the whole song but the introduction to it sounds exactly like the song, ‘Taurus’.’ 

“He used to do that every once in a while on tour. He would bring out his acoustic guitar. Sometimes it would segue into ‘Nature’s Way’ or whatever. He never, at that time, accused them of stealing it. He just said that it sounded really similar to his song. But, if you think about the music business itself and how artists influence other artists – especially old blues people – a lot of rock and roll players have used blues formats or blues licks to write songs. If you do a descending scale – a lot of people have used descending scales. When I listen to the Black Keys’ new CD, the very first song reminded me of Pink Floyd. I was thinking more of the Pink Floyd than I was the Black Keys.

“To be honest, I don’t know if there’s any validity in a law suit like that. I think that if Randy really believed that he had been ripped off – the people that I know who knew his financial status have said that he never had enough money to sue them. I don’t know if that’s true or not but he never went after them. I think he would have been happy if they had actually it and had used it, if they had used it and said, ‘Well, we were influenced by Randy California of Spirit.

“Now, according to Mark Andes – the original bass player – in 1968 while I was still in Vietnam, he said that Led Zeppelin came to the United States and had opened shows for Spirit and that they had heard their music and liked the music of Spirit and they probably heard Taurus. Maybe it was in the back of their mind from what they heard. Maybe they heard it on stage and liked what they were doing and just decided, ‘Oh, we can do something similar’, you know? I don’t know if they’re willing to say, ‘Yeah, Randy influenced us so we’ll give him a little credit.’ 

“As far as the money and all of that is concerned, I don’t know. But, if it was me, I probably would not sue them. What I would do is I would have a legal person contact them and ask them was Randy California an influence for this song – just to see what they would say. To see if they were honest thirty or forty years later.

“From what I was told, there’s a statute of limitations – they would only be qualified to receive three years’ worth of current royalty. The only reason that all of this shit came up to begin with is because Jimmy Page has been re-mastering or re-digitizing all of the original recordings and they’re all going to be coming out again in a new updated sound format. If he decided not to do that then none of this would have come up.

“It’s been said over the years a bunch of times – I’ve heard this story many times – and the fact of the matter is if that’s what his family wants to do – that’s what his sister wants to do – more power to her. I don’t want to enjoin any suits. I wasn’t the writer of the song. There’s only one guy in the band that matters. It’s not Spirit, it’s Randy California. He was the writer. He actually wrote the song, Taurus, for his step-dad, Ed, whose birthday – he was a Taurus. That’s why the song came to be to begin with.”

As we discussed the overlap of musical influences by way of style and structure, Fuzzy said, “Well listen to this: Okay, Randy – at the age of fifteen and a half – played with Jimmy James and the Blue Flames in Café Wha? in New York City. Now, over the years the style that Randy played live in concert, you would almost think that you were listening to Jimi Hendrix.

“This is a very interesting story. I’m going to tell you something that I think may blow your mind. Ed Pearl in L.A. – way back in mid-sixties/late sixties – had a night club called The Ash Grove. It was very popular out here. It was like The Troubadour but even more popular at the time. He would bring in all these old delta blues men. I mean the original delta blues men. He would feature them at the Ash Grove. These people, when he brought them in, did not live in hotels when they were brought out here. They stayed at Ed Pearl’s home. Randy, at that time he was already playing guitar, would go and hang out at his uncle’s house while these blues men lived there while they were doing these shows in L.A.  Almost every single one of them would sit down with Randy and show him their acoustic blues style of playing. He incorporated all of that into his style.

“When Jimi met Randy, it was by accident in what I think was Manny’s Music in New York, and Randy was sitting in the music store playing his acoustic guitar and Jimi heard him and was astounded by this young white kid playing this authentic style acoustic blues. That was how he got invited to join Jimi’s band in the village at that time.

“Jimi Hendrix could probably – if he were alive today – say, ‘Well, Randy’s playing in his songs, they sound a whole lot like my stuff.’  That’s what artists do. You should be more flattered. There’s a rip-off somewhere. Like, when George Harrison did ‘My Sweet Lord’. Remember that law suit that developed? That was chord for chord of a whole song! It wasn’t just like a twelve bar intro or an eight bar intro. There was a big difference. You take the entire chord progression of the song and write different words over it, I would say, yeah, you’re sort of treading on dangerous ground when you do something like that.

“By the way, you know, it was Jimi Hendrix who gave Randy his name, ‘California’. When he was in Jimmy James and the Blue Flames, there were two Randy’s in the band. One was from Texas and the other one was from California. You can guess which one was which. To distinguish between the two, he decided that Randy Wolfe would be Randy California so that the right guy would answer when he had something to say.

“But as far as Randy is concerned – and Led Zeppelin – I think that it would just be a matter of if they want to be gracious and either say, ‘We didn’t do’ or ‘Yeah, we were influenced by what we heard’. Who knows?

“Like I said, I know Randy for years and years and  years and he’d heard, ‘Why don’t you sue them?’ and he never did. I would think that if it was that important to him – and believe me, he could’ve used the money, I know that because he used to spend every dime he ever made to go back into the studio and record. That’s all he liked to do was write songs and record in the studio. But he never did (sue) so I guess, maybe, it didn’t matter that much to him. If it did, he would’ve done it. 

My last question for Fuzzy is one that I usually ask veterans of the music industry: When you’ve stepped off the tour bus for the final time and you go to that great gig in the sky, how do you want to be remembered and what do you wish your legacy to be?

“The main thing is that it’s the music that counts, the messages in the songs that you write and that you record, those things do positive and happy and healing things to humanity. It’s not for one person; it’s for every single human being. It’s the same when you go and play a gig. I do not care if you play in front of a half a million people if you’re playing for twenty people in a night club. The whole idea of being there and doing what you’re doing is that when you’re done at the end of the night, you know that you’ve given a hundred and ten percent of what’s inside of your soul – your spirit – up there on that stage; that you’ve played the best that you can play and that you hope that, when the people that experienced that moment with you, that they go home feeling better than when they got there to begin with. That’s all there is to it.

There’s nothing else that I can add. I want it to be positive. I want it to be happy and, hopefully, if they’re having a bad time, maybe even healing. I would say that’s what I want people to remember.”

Eric Johnson Talks About Europe Live

Posted July, 2014


Eric Johnson02aPhoto by Max CraceEric Johnson.  Serious music buffs and guitar aficionados are well aware of this guitar legend.  For those of you who haven’theard of him, I’ll give you the “Reader’s Digest” version of his story:

Raised in a musical family, Eric began picking up the guitar at the tender age of eleven. By the time he turned fifteen, he was playing professionally in a psychedelic rock band called “Mariani”.  In the following years, Johnson made a name for himself as a solo artist as well as an in-demand session guitarist for such huge names as Carole King, Cat Stevens and Christopher Cross. Aspiring guitarists would kill to just be able to play his mistakes. Others will wind up selling their gear and buy his records.

The Texas and current Austin-area native and current resident is probably best known for his songs “Cliffs of Dover,” “Manhattan,” and “Trademark”.  A musician’s musician, Eric has commanded the respect of fellow guitar masters from Johnny Winter to Steve Vai.  He has just released his eleventh solo album – a live disc (his third) entitled, “Europe Live” – arguably his best yet.

I was recently given the golden opportunity to chat with Eric.  When the guitar phenom called me, he was in the middle of ordering a drink from a local smoothie joint near his home.  Warm, friendly, and engaging, I knew that I was in for a great chat with this guitar great.

I started off with small talk, mentioning that I saw him at the Dallas International Guitar Festival in 2011 or 2012 where he treated an enthusiastic crowd to a show full of Hendrix covers performed to perfection. I then mentioned a mutual friend of ours,Andy Timmons, to which Johnson exclaimed, “Sure! Mike Stern and I are doing a record together and just finished the record. We’re mixing it right now but we played a show in Dallas about three weeks ago and Andy came out and sat in with us.”

I focused my first questions to Eric around, “Europe Live,” asking him why he chose Europe to record live this time.Eric Johnson01 Photograph by Max Crace 2013 All rights reserved reducedPhoto by Max Crace

“When we did that tour out there, it was kind of an afterthought to record it. We were already in Europe working with Mascot Records and they said, ‘Hey, do you want to record some of these shows?’ And we thought, ‘Sure! Why not?’ So we just recorded them on the cuff – didn’t really know what we were going to do with tapes. On the live record, I don’t really talk that much. I just kinda go, ‘Thank you! Here’s our next song we’re gonna do . . . ‘ I wasn’t really thinking, ‘Oh! I’m doing a live record!’ That wasn’t even the plan. When I got home and listened to the tapes, I go, ‘You know? We oughta make something of this.’”

When I asked Johnson how the European crowds compare to fans in other parts of the world, his answer was enthusiastic.

“I think they’re wonderful! I think they’re very attentive. They might be a little quieter but they’re definitely appreciative! I think, maybe, the German crowds are a little bit more subdued sometimes but, at the end of the night when you finish the set, if you do a decent job, they seem to like it. I think the French people are a little more courteous, I guess. You don’t get a lot of riff raff or as much craziness. They’re a little bit more considerate.”

“Europe Live” spans Eric Johnson’s entire career as an artist.  Of the fourteen songs on this album, only four have been on the other two live albums.  I asked him what drove the set list and what does he hope fans will derive from this album as compared to the other two live albums.

“When I did the ‘Alien Love Child’ record, it was all music written for that record live so it was kinda proprietary music for that. This was, essentially, an afterthought. We were just doing a collage of music from over the years. We just picked most of the stuff out of the set. There was a couple of songs that I didn’t play well or there was something wrong with the microphones or something so we didn’t include them. That’s pretty much the whole thing we did. I think it just happened to be what we were playing at the time and so we just put it out.”

A seasoned artist like Johnson have a deep and rich catalog of music to draw from, with fans often demanding that certain songs to be performed each and every time. It’s often a challenge for artists to keep their earlier work fresh while repeatedly performing them. I asked Eric if the early songs have a different feel and meaning for him now as he performs them today than they did in the beginning.

“I think it happens naturally because you’ve played it so many times. The one saving grace, though, is that there’s so much room for improvisation in the songs we do – there’s a fast section where we can just kinda make up stuff in the moment so it changes all the time. So that part of it’s gonna be different even though I’ve played it for many years. But, other than that, yeah, I pretty much hafta play it as I have been playin’ it. You have to work at it to make it work for you but it’s doable.”

I asked Johnson to pick a “calling card” song that he feels would be the best “advertisement” for the album. 

“Well, you know, I liked the way ‘Manhattan’ turned out on it. That one turned out pretty good. I enjoy that one a whole lot. I like playing ‘Mr. PC’. That one’s fun.”

I complimented Johnson on how he fuses jazz with rock. He laughed and said, “Yeah, it’s my identity crisis!"

With so many years of touring under his belt, I wondered how has touring changed for the guitarist these days as compared to the beginning of his career?

“I love being home but I love touring. I’m good for a month out there before I start getting ready to go home. But I love it! It’s a lot of fun for me. I think having the opportunity to play for people – it’s a blessing to be able to do that, so I enjoy it.”

As I mentioned at the beginning of this piece, Eric Johnson has worked for or with a wide range of top talent.  I asked if there was anyone he hasn’t worked with that he would like to.

“I’d love to work with Jeff Beck someday . . . Stevie Wonder. There are a million people I’d love to maybe work with. Yeah! Those two I’d love to work with! I’m getting to work with Mike Stern now. That’s a real dream come true.”

Eric Johnson03 Photograph by Max Crace 2013 All rights reserved reducedPhoto by Max CraceTo the question as to how many guitars he owns and what he considers to be the “holy grail” of guitars, Johnson responded, “You know, I own about half as many as I used to. I used to have a bunch of guitars. I only have about seventeen or eighteen now.  I’ve kind of thinned it all out and just kept the ones that I enjoy playing. I don’t really collect stuff that I don’t play anymore so I’ve kinda gotten rid of those. I just like the old Strats and the old Gibsons and the old Martins – just like any other person on the planet – the good stuff! Ha! Ha!

“But, a holy grail?  I have an old ‘50’s Strat - which I like that a lot. That’s kind of one of the nice ones to have today.”

When he mentioned that Strat, I mentioned that James Burton told me when I interviewed him that he still had the first Fender he ever owned that his mom had bought for him. Dropping that name got us off on a little lovefest about Burton with me concluding that I would love to see Burton and Johnson play together.

“Well, you know, I’ve played at his festival that he does. In fact, I just got a text from a friend of mine who was talking to him and he wanted me to come out there in August so might be doing that again this August. I’m not sure.”

What does the next year and five years look like for Eric Johnson?

“Well, we’ve got the tour in August and we’ve got the (Experience) Hendrix tour in September again. That actually starts in Eric Johnson02 Photograph by Max Crace 2013 All rights reserved reducedPhoto by Max CraceFlorida and goes all the way to San Francisco. In November, Mike (Stern) and I are gonna do the Mike Stern/E.J. tour for a few weeks. That’s the East Coast. Then Mike and I are doing the West Coast in January and February. Between now and then, I’m working on an acoustic record. It’s something that I’ve wanted to do for years and have just been busy and never got around to it. I want to try to finish it up.”

My final question to this guitar great was: After you’ve played your last gig and gone on to the great gig in the sky, what do you hope your legacy is and how do you want to be remembered?

“Good question! I just hope that I made people smile a little bit – just made people feel good. You know, life’s tough. We all have to get whittled down and go through challenges – ups and downs. I’d like to be in the camp of just trying to make somebody happy for a second or two. That’s my philosophy. That’s why I like to see movies that I can lose myself in and they make me wider or bigger or taller instead of going to a movie that stresses me out or depresses me. I’m like, ‘That can happen in normal life!’”

Keep up with the latest in Eric Johnson’s career at the following two websites:        Facebook        Experience Hendrix 

Stu Cook

Posted July 20, 2014

StuCook1Creedence Clearwater Revival is THE American band who has made a permanent mark – strike that – brand (as in branding cattle) on the musical landscape of these United States and even the world.  Their songs still enjoy regular, heavy radio airplay and are often featured on movies, commercials and TV programs. Cover bands relish the songs and the first song this wannabe guitar player ever learned was “Proud Mary”.  Their music has even been played at a presidential inauguration or two. 

How cool is that?

Sadly, the band broke up in the fall of 1972. Each of the band members pursued their own endeavors as either solo artists or working on other projects.  Tom Fogerty passed away in September of 1990 after having released five solo albums.  The entire band (Tom, posthumously) were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1993.

Living in the same small Nevada town of Incline Village, CCR bassist, Stu Cook and drummer Doug “Cosmo” Clifford realized they had too much free time on their hands, so they put together a band to perform a couple of concerts.  Thus, the Creedence Clearwater Revisited project was created in 1995 to perform once again the classic Creedence Clearwater Revival hits live.  The guys had originally only planned to play private parties but Revisited now performs up to 100 shows a year and released the album “Recollection” – a platinum selling live album of CCR hits. As I told Stu early in our conversation, their music is a gift to mankind that can never be repaid.

Cook said in another interview, “We never really had any intention of playing in public. But a friend wanted to promote a couple of concerts. We got talked into it, but didn’t know how it would go over.”  Over the following nearly twenty years, the reaction to Creedence Clearwater Revisited’s concerts has been astounding, and driven in part by a generation of kids who, as Cosmo says, “weren’t even born when the music came out.”

I was recently afforded the opportunity to both catch the band at an Atlanta area concert and to interview Stu Cook by phone the following week.  After having the privilege of meeting the band backstage before the show, I smiled as I watched the crowd of about 2,000 strong that consisted of all demographics: male and female, from young to old and from Timexes to Rolexes. The diversity of the crowd reflected those who were either instantly flashing back in time to some great memories of their youth or today’s youth discovering music that is new to them.

The following week, I called Stu Cook at his home as he enjoyed a short break in touring.  When I called, I sensed that he was understandably on guard since he’s had to suffer through countless interviews to answer the same questions over and over again. At first, his answers were short and to the point. In time, though, he opened up and we enjoyed a great conversation. The result was one of the most insightful, intriguing and informative interviews I’ve ever had the privilege of conducting.

To give readers a foundational understanding of “Revisited”, I started off by asking Stu what the band is up to these days and what a typical year is like for them.

“Well, every year is different but also similar. We do the same thing every year – that is, as the weather gets warmer, we’re touring more intensely and as the weather cools down, we slow down. The difference is that we’re in different cities. So, it’s the same and it’s different. We play at different venues for different audiences, so while the drill is familiar, there is little else that is the same.We are a performance project so everybody stays healthy and we can get out and do our thing.”

I knew what I had observed of the Atlanta crowd the previous week but I wanted to know what Cook observes as the demographic of the crowds CCR plays to nationally and internationally as a whole.

“Well, it’s loosely divided into thirds. That would be one third (from) each generation since the band came on the scene – the original band, ‘Revival’.  So, we’re looking at a third of the people being my age, a third of the people are their kids and a third of the people are their grandkids.”

When I told Cook that is what I had observed, he said, “Well, that confirms it! When we first saw that some twenty years ago, we were a little shocked. We had no idea that we had such a young following.”

As he spoke those words, a question popped into my feeble brain that I hadn’t planned on asking: Did you have any idea as you guys were writing all of those great songs that they would stand as strong as they have?

After taking a few moments to ponder his answer, Stu replied, “They’re good songs, you know? They can’t be faulted for theirStuCook2 quality. People have formed their own personal connections with all this music – not just our music but everybody’s music. Once it’s turned over by the artists to the public, who knows what happens? We started out with great songs and the records have an energy that draws people in. The rest? I couldn’t speak to. I never listen to the music. Ha! Ha!”

When I asked Cook what kind of feedback he and the band is getting from crowds these days, regarding what the music has meant to them, he said, “I have a great story for ya! When we were playing some years ago in Europe – the big rock festival in Sweden – the comment was made by someone in our entourage after the concert was over – I’ll paraphrase it – the crowd was leaving and they were all happy and singing and talking exuberantly and the person said, ‘It almost seems like they’ve been to some spiritual event – some kind of Church of Rock and Roll or something – that had lifted them emotionally, if you will, into some kind of really good, high place’. I had never thought about it like that. I guess that is the ultimate goal – the end game – of music is to raise people’s consciousness and their happiness.”

I told Cook that if I had written even one song all those years ago that made people feel that way today, I would feel as if I conquered the world. He responded by saying, “When you see an audience like the one in Atlanta – see how they receive and give back over the course of 90 to 100 minutes of the show – that’s what we get out of it. That’s our satisfaction.”

Woodstock took place 45 years ago this summer and CCR was part of that historic event. Figuratively speaking, while standing on that stage, what did Stu and the band think they and the world would be like 45 years later?

“Of course, we weren’t thinking of any of that! Ha! Ha! We were thinking about will we get electrocuted? Will more of the audio equipment on stage fail before our show is finished? I mean, there were more pressing issues at hand than what would be going on forty five years later but, of course, forty five years later we’re totally amazed at how the Creedence story has been embraced by people all over the world and across the age groups and also across socio-economic groups. There doesn’t seem to be any barriers to becoming a Creedence fan – of any kind, anywhere in the world. We have an audience that is somewhere between the Rolling Stones and Herb Albert and the Tijuana Brass. Eight to eighty is our age group.”

As I mentioned earlier, I met the band before the Atlanta show.  I heard the show and was struck by how great the sound of the band is, both musically and vocally.  A Boomerocity reader wanted to know something I was thinking about, too, and that was how difficult was it to find such great vocals in the person of John Tristao vocals to replicate original sound of the band?

“Well, you know, we did sort of a networking search pattern – called all of our friends in the music business – both on the business side and on the artists side just to see who they would recommend. I think that we went through, maybe, a half a dozen people – maybe three separate audition cycles with people. When we got to John, he had a tape and some of the stuff on the tape was journeyman readings.

“But the one song that knocked me out was not a real likely Creedence vocal: ‘Looking Out My Back Door’. A country tune. More laid back. Not a screamer. Not a rocker. That one just struck me that he really understood the song. There’s a process that a singer goes through to learn a song and own it. He had done that with that song, for me.  I thought it was exactly the reading that was necessary if we were going to make our fans believe that this was a good alternative to the original band.

“Then we met him and he had such a crazy personality – a knock out funny guy! Once he got to know us, he opened up.  Then he started owning all the songs! He was, by far, the best choice. The other guys were good but it would’ve taken a lot more work. John thinks like a singer. When he approaches material, he gets inside of it and lets it get inside of him. This is his twentieth year with us. I don’t think he’s missed more than six shows due to illness in all that time.  We gotta be pushing two thousand shows by now.”

Whenever I mention to readers and friends about certain bands who are touring with something other than the original line up, I always hear that they’re just not the same without the missing original people in the band. In all the discussions I’ve had about CCR, I can truthfully say that I’ve never heard such complaints or criticisms.

When I mentioned that to Stu, he said, “There are some people who take exception to what we’re doing. It’s amazing to me that anybody would care that much.  It’s really about the results. If we weren’t doing a good job, there might be some validity with some of the people who have come after us. Some of them have launched some pretty vicious attacks but we know what we’re doing. We’re together enough that we can judge our own performance. We see how well received we are and have been for many, many years. 

But, it’s about the music. It’s not about the line-up. Doug and I are from the original band and we bring with us something that is kind of hard to translate. We’re part of the feel. It feels like and sounds a little like Creedence and then you get a singer who can sing it like people remember it. We’ve got a guitar player and a keyboard player that do their parts and faithfully recreate the idea. We don’t always strive for ‘note-for-note’. We capture the intent, really.

“We have to be able to, as a group – as a unit, we have to be able to pitch that and sell it to the audience. In their minds, it’s not a matter of ‘Should they be allowed to do this?’  Heaven forbid!  It’s like you said: How many groups have changed personnel? Practically every one of them! They’ve either added or just outright swapped critical components of their formula or their lineup.  I just urge people to close their eyes and have a listen.”
I posed a theoretical question to Cook: You get a call from the President and, based on your years of experience in the music business, he wants to appoint you as Music Business Czar and tasks you with fixing the business. First, do you think there are problems in the business and, if there are, what would you do to fix them?

“There’s definitely a problem in the music business. Simply, I think that the business model has broken for quite some time. That’s because the business failed to get on board early with the internet and that whole transformation in using the internet to sell - to monetize their investment in their intellectual property. They’ve done a very poor job in educating their customers and potential customers as to why it’s important to pay for intellectual property – music, television shows, movies, books – any kind of intellectual property. That’s the growing marketplace for these kinds of transactions. Brick and mortar stuff is having a tough time competing when you’ve got Costco, Wal-Mart and Target, these are not what I would call traditional places people would go to acquire music or books. They all sell – they’re all in competition against the original brick and mortar.

“I think education would’ve been the first place. It’s still not too late. I think that they’re starting to figure out how to show people that there is value and that the whole system depends on people appreciating that there is value and that these works of art don’t just materialize out of thin air. People have to be able to make a living – for obvious reasons – to enable them to continue to create. Let’s just leave the greedy corporation out of it for a second. The actual work of art – the inspiration – came from a human and so if that person can’t get compensated - if piracy is a problem, it’s a problem for everybody, not just corporations. It’s a problem for the creator, as well.

“What has happened over the years – the evolution of this – is there’s been a mixed bag of ‘we’re going to sue them out of existence’, ‘we’re going to give them free things and see if they’re going to come along and pay for it’, on and on and on. So what’s happened, I believe, is that there’s a generation of people who don’t think they need to pay for music or any other kind of entertainment. We’re well down the wrong road here because it’s unsustainable. It takes you back to the 17th and 18th century when artists needed patrons instead of fans, right? Rich people would pay Mozart and Beethoven to compose and to name stuff after them. They would hire an orchestra and rent a hall and they would present it. I’m not sure of the actual concert model back in those days. Ha! Ha! But artists needed patrons in order to live, to eat, to be housed, clothed, take care of their families. I mean, do we want to go back to that? I think the rich people control enough of the world. Do you want them to be the determining musical tastes, as well? I think not! I think it’s up to the consumer to vote with their money – with their wallet as to what is successful and what isn’t.  Then you put the corporation back into the picture and you’re going to get a lot of marketing. Regardless, the costs of music because of downloads – although it’s not the same quality as a CD – downloads are sixty percent of the price of a CD.

“So, do you want to support the artists or not? The idea that the record companies are doing this and that and therefore we’re entitled to have it for free is absolute nonsense. To me, it’s a gigantic hole in the ethical landscape.  So, yeah, education. The young people have to be educated.  I used to save milk money – everybody I knew used to have to save their allowance money or their milk money, their paper route money to go buy music. We didn’t trade files. We had record clubs where we’d pool our money and we’d all decide amongst ourselves which albums we were going to buy and then listen to them together. There wasn’t any copying or sharing other than being in a room or maybe after we all listened to it for a while one of us would take it home and listen to it then give it to the next person like a library book.

“So, the broken model exists on several levels – the price, by taking the distribution out because you don’t have a physical product anymore for the most part – it still exists but the trend is away from CDs, the same as it was for tapes and vinyl. Although, vinyl is coming back some, it’s certainly more of an audiophile thing.“

Then, sounding as though he was literally answering the president’s call, Stu said, “I don’t know .You just have to try a lot of things, Mr. President. First of all, people have to be educated to the fact that, as in the rest of life, there’s no free lunch. You cannot have free music and expect there continue to be people willing to create for free. Mark Twain would’ve probably had something great to say about it. I can only say that they ignored it. They tried to fight it instead of examining it and looking at every possible way to get people back into supporting the artists because that’s what it’s really about.

“The do-it-yourself model is not successful. Very, very, very rarely – very rarely – is there a successful artist who’s done it all by his or herself on the internet. There are some huge ones with YouTube videos and there’s been a couple of huge ones where live performances have driven a large fan base and that . . . can be monetized because they have a large fan base – people who support the artists! That’s what a fan base is.  They’re willing to pay for the artists work.

“I don’t know. We’re still in this gigantic, technological changeover. Right now, the music business has probably taken the hardest hit. I think TV and movies are getting a little smarter. They’re looking at the streaming models and subscription models. Once that gets big enough, then the advertisers will start to put back in the revenue that was missing from the physical sale. That’s the idea. If you don’t want to see or hear the ads, you’ll pay a higher subscription rate.”

Showing more passion about this subject that he has obviously given a lot of intelligent thought to, Stu continued by saying, “What’s wrong with that? Now that music is portable – I mean, how much does it cost, really? It’s certainly cheap! So why spend all your time at Pirate Bay or something like that, ripping us off? You really should support the arts. The government doesn’t.”

The legendary bassist continued by saying, “Actually, it’s slowly, slowly improving. When this whole thing first started, the only thing to do was start suing people who downloaded. That was their best solution – the industry’s. You’re just trying to intimidate, bully, scare the people you’re trying to court, ultimately. It didn’t seem like it was going to do anything but they really hadn’t thought about the options. The RIAA pursued these lawsuits on behalf of the record companies, really, not the artists. There was very limited success with any of that stuff.

“I think people need to be educated and enticed away from that sort of behavior. What good does it do to try to criminalize people? You just haven’t made it easy or enticing enough to do it the more honorable or ethical way. Once they see what works and doesn’t work, I think they’ll make some rapid corrections. I know the downturn has stopped and that we have turned the corner. I sure hope so because what’s happened is that it’s made life tough for the artists.
I subscribe to a newsletter called ‘Digital Music News’. It’s a free subscription. It comes out daily and is sponsored by and Zoo Labs and so on. They go through and make a lot of reports and bust a lot of myths. They talk a lot about capital raises for all of these music start-ups, executive shuffles, what’s going on, etc. It’s a very interesting take on the new music industry. If you’re at all interested in the health of the business and the way it seems to be going – it’s got a lot of one-step-forward-two-steps-back kind of reporting. Apple buying Beats. Mergers. People looting their start-up companies – getting all of that capital in and then selling all of their stock.  It’s a pretty good report on what people are doing in the new music industry.“

One of you readers wanted me to ask Stu if there are any project ideas for new music under a different name that he is pursuing.

“No. Ha! Ha! I’ll flesh that out a little bit. When Doug and I were retired, we put this project together just so we could go out and play and have some fun. Now it’s become a full time job. This is our twentieth year.  Twenty years has gone by and I still want to live some other parts of my life.  I’ve got a lot of places to go, things to do and I’m really not interested in a music business career. I had one. I just like playin’ and that’s the way Cosmo feels, too. As long as our health holds up – so far, so good/knock on wood – we will continue to play concerts for Creedence fans all around the world. To get back into the meat grinder, it just doesn’t make any sense to me. I don’t want to spend the rest of my life doing that – ANY time of my life doing it! We’ve got a great catalog of songs that we’ve discussed and we all can still play to a pretty high level – if we get enough sleep. So, what the heck! Why make it more complicated? I’d rather vacation. I’d rather travel. I’d rather lay around, go play golf, go for a bike ride – whatever. Go scuba dive.”

CCRbyJeffDowPhoto by JeffDowWhat’s on CCR’s radar for the next year? The next five years?

“Just more of the same, you know? We have a team. We have a booking agency. We have a manager. We have our own company team. Once the booking agent and the manager come up with the work that’s routable – where we can get from A to B without too much heroic effort – then we go play the shows. It doesn’t matter to us where they are as long as we can comfortably get there without too much difficulty. That’s this year, which we’re about half way through, and next year. The following year, who knows? It just depends on how everybody feels. At the end of that year, how do we feel about doing it again? If so, we will. If not, we won’t.

“We have the incredible luxury of being able to do whatever we want, right now. We continue to refine our business model. We usually let things come down to this or that.  We try to let it be as organic as possible. There’s no over attempt to market this band. It’s largely word of mouth and that’s based on shows like Atlanta. When we really connect with an audience, they share it! Half of our Facebook page fans don’t live in the United States. But we’ve played in most of their countries. We’ve been to Europe. We’ve been to South America many times with the Revisited project. We’ve been to Australia. We’ve played three times in New Zealand! We’ve been to Asia. We’ve been to Central America. We go to Mexico all the time.  We have many, many, many foreign fans and they know all about that concert in Atlanta because of that picture that was posted on the Facebook page and they all comment about it. They’re as involved as the people who were there, practically. The whole success of this project is organic based on us doing high level, quality shows. It’s kind of amazing to see something like this. We could’ve marketed it. But we thought that, if this was going to catch on, we’re going to have to do all of the work every night. And we were right. Nothing good comes easy.”

My final question to Stu Cook is one that I ask many of the legends and veterans of the music business and that was:  When you’ve stepped off the tour bus for the final time and you go to that great gig in the sky (to swipe a Pink Floyd line), how do you want to be remembered and what do you wish your legacy to be?

“I just wanna be remembered as a regular guy that was fortunate enough to be able to do something he loved and support his family doing it. Try not to hurt anybody. My epitaph? ‘There’s still a lot of meat on the bone, baby! It’s all good!’.”

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Wally Stocker

Posted June, 2014

WallyStockerBWIf you were a teen in the seventies or early eighties, music from The Babys most definitely occupied significant real estate on the soundtrack from those days.  The band unleashed five albums between 1977-1980 (The Babys, Broken Heart, Head First, Union Jacks and On the Edge) and toured with huge acts such as Alice Cooper, Journey, and Cheap Trick, building a loyal following based on their spectacular songs and explosive live performances.

The band broke up in December, 1980, but their music still lives on through regular air play and CD sales to still-loyal fans. Now, after a three-decade absence, The Babys have reformed with original lead guitarist Wally Stocker and drummer Tony Brock to release a new album, I’ll Have Some of That, which is available now on iTunes (read the Boomerocity review of it here). With a sound that is both familiar as well as new, Babys fans are going to be thrilled with what they hear and are going to want to hear more.

I recently had the privilege of chatting with founding member of (and guitarist for) The Babys, Wally Stocker. He called me from his home in southern California and was very excited to talk about the new album (he and I, both, refer to new CDs as albums and records. Gotta love it!). Right off the bat, we discussed what the pre-release buzz was like for the album.

“A lot of people like the new record and like the fact that we’re back and like the new lineup. We’re excited, too. We’re pumped and ready to go! We released a single recently –‘I See You There’ - which is really the second single we released because we had ‘Not Ready To Say Good-bye’ late last year but this is kind of the official from the new album, if you like, and so far it’s been tremendous. Great feedback. A lot of people like the song. Just all around good things are happening right now.”

If you don’t count the anthology, demo and live albums that were released after the band broke up, this album is the first album – especially of new material – in almost thirty-five years.  I asked Stocker how has making this record been different from both the first and last Babys albums.

“Wow! That’s a good question! It was just as enjoyable. Less frantic, I would say. As the years went on with those earlier albums, we went through some line-up changes and a different approach, somewhat in the songwriting once Jonathan (Cain) came in. I wanted to get back to basics with this album. Obviously, we wanted to make sure that we captured the sound that we’re known for. That was high on the priority list as far as not losing the sound that people identify us with. You know, the big drums, guitars but lots of melody – mixing it up a bit between lighter songs and moving on to more rock type tunes.

“But we had a lot of fun making this one – probably the most fun I’ve ever had making a record in a long time. There was no tension there. I got to record with Tony (Brock) again, who did a wonderful job producing this record at his Silver Stream Studios. We’ve got two new members on board. They’ve been really inspiring. John Bisaha showed us what he could do. He’s really a first class singer. It took us a while to find him but out of the dozens of people we auditioned but I think we made the right choice with John Bisaha.

“And, of course, with Joey Sykes in the mix, as well, I get to bounce guitar ideas with him. This all made it exciting and a pleasure to actually go in and cut songs. Some of them we had for a while – just some musical ideas, if you like – but it took the whole band to really to put all the pieces in place. I’m very pleased with the result with this new record.”

When asked what has been the best improvements in recording and did The Babys utilize those improvements, Wally’s answer revealed an approach that other great artists such as Joe Walsh, Boston and Rick Derringer used in recent recordings.
“As far as improvements in recording, everything’s gone digital now with ProTools. We decided to try and recapture some of the sound that we had back then. We actually moved in an analog twenty-four track mixing board into Tony’s studio so that we could get that warmth of the analog sound that we used to get, you know? Although he’s all set up with ProTools, we tried to stay away from that with this record so that we could get more of a natural sound on instruments. Tony was looking for that analog sound from his drums and we managed to capture that. Rather than going too high tech, we wanted to take it back to the way it was and get that warmth out of an analog recording.
“Of course, the music business has changed so much since we made ‘On The Edge’ and those five albums. It’s a whole different thing now. Record companies aren’t the way they used to be. In fact, we have our own record label with this album simply because that’s the way to go now with the lack of record stores and CD outlets. People are either downloading an entire album or a favorite song. That’s the way things have shaped up through the years. I, alone, can’t change the way it’s going. I just have to try and fit in somehow.”

Continuing on the subject, Stocker added, “Yeah, it’s all too easy now with ProTools. You can record a part and just cut and paste and put it in there and, if there’s a wrong note here or there, you can just go into the computer and fix it. That’s all well and good but there’s nothing better than the band standing there in the studio and just going for it and just playing as a band – cutting a track together. And, if somebody messes up, well, you start it again as opposed to, ‘We’ll fix that later on the computer. Don’t worry about it.’ You kind of lose the vibe a little bit.”
“I’ll Have Some Of That!” is an outstanding album with every cut a favorite of mine.  I asked Wally if he were to point to just one song from the disc to use as a calling card to entice people to buy the album, which song would it be.

“Wow! Well, there’s quite a mixture of songs on there. Hopefully, they all incorporate our sound and playing styles. I don’t know. If I could pick one favorite, I do like the title cut, ‘I’ll Have Some Of That’. That’s kind of exciting to listen to and a little bit different for us but still stands within that boundary of The Babys. I love the new single, ‘I See You There’. I also love, ‘After Midnight’. It’s the fourth track on the album. If I were to describe the feel of that, it’s kind of bluesy, mysterious. I like that song a lot. Tony and I have  had that track for a while. We dusted off the cassette, gave it a listen and we cut it with this record.”

Wally continues, “But, then there’s, “Grass Is Greener”, which I really enjoy. I don’t know that I could pick one favorite. Those are examples of a few that I get off on. Then you have tracks like, ‘All I Wanna Do’, which is kind of a softer, ballad type of thing – kind of an R&B - sort of soul love song. We tried to mix it up and, hopefully, there’s enough there for everybody’s taste, you know?”

When I mentioned that I thought there was also a bit of a Black Crowes sound to the album in addition to the classic Babys sound, the Babys guitarist said, “We were going for more of a vibe or a feel on the songs rather than technically getting it perfect. I know my favorite artists when I was young and growing up – The Who, the Stones and even the Beatles – you would hear mistakes all over their records. It’s the feel and the vibe of the song that you really look at and listening to. That’s how we tried to record this record – ‘Just get it to feel right. Let’s not worry about the technical side of things’. Like you said, just down and dirty. The Black Crowes are like that. They’re a very loose band but they capture that vibe and that feel in their songs. Just like the Stones and just like the Faces used to be. A little untidy but you can forgive them for that because they had such great songs.”

On the subject of a tour to promote the record, Wally replied, “Yes, we are. We don’t have anything solid right now. That’s all being worked on and arranged right now. We’re just looking forward to getting this record out. In the meantime, this is the time for the people who work for us to do their stuff and start getting things arranged. I’m hoping that we can get some festivals under our belt before the summer’s over. If it were down to me, I’d love to get out on a decent tour with somebody and get back to the way we used to do things where we had a chance of going out and open up for a bigger act and bigger venues. Then, when that tour was over, we’d go off and do smaller venues and form our own tour around that. That would be ideal for us right now.

“We did a handful of shows late last year just to re-introduce the band and get our feet wet. The response was overwhelming. Itbabysgroupphotoreduced was so humbling to see all the fans singing along to every lyric and just having a good time. It really sort of hit home at that point that we haven’t been forgotten and that our fans are so loyal after all this time. They still came back in droves and enjoyed every minute of it. I think that’s what inspired us even more – to make sure that we’re organized as a band.

“We’re enjoying it because and you project that off the stage. Of course if your fans see you enjoying it, they enjoy it even more as opposed to being up there and going through the motions of playing the old songs. There’s much more than that. That’s why we decided before we go out and do the circuit again that we really wanted to get something new out there in the way of a new record to promote rather than going out and doing the old catalog. Plus, with a new record to promote, hopefully, we can find ourselves on a decent tour and get to play to a lot of people each night as opposed to playing in smaller places and trying to promote it that way.

“So, yeah, nothing in stone, yet, but certainly in the next two to three weeks I think we’re going to have some sort of idea of what the next step is.”
Prior to my call with Wally Stocker, I solicited question suggestions from you, the fans. A fan who lives in Breckenridge, Colorado, and is from Chicago asked if Wally remembered opening for Molly Hatchet in Chicago at the Rosemont Horizon around 1979 where everyone attending was given a 45rpm record of “Every Time I Think of You”.

“You know, I DO remember that show. I think we had to leave the stage early. Not only was Molly Hatchet there, we were sandwiched in between Molly Hatchet and .38 Special. That really wasn’t the right sort of crowd for us. I’m not sure who opened the show. I know we were in the middle. Maybe Molly Hatchet opened the show and then it was it was us and then it was .38 Special. I really don’t remember but I do remember that, after about four songs, we literally had to leave the stage. I mean, they just didn’t want to know about us. It was such a bad ‘fill in’ – mashed in between Molly Hatchet and .38 Special and here we are giving out 45’s and there I am, ducking Jack Daniels bottles being thrown at me. If it wasn’t nailed down, they would throw it at us. I think after about four songs, I was ankle deep in debris. We looked at each other and said, ‘Maybe we should get off the stage now before somebody gets hurt’.

“Yeah, if that was the show, then I do remember that. Fortunately, that’s the only time that really happened to me. It was a strange bill with .38 Special and Molly Hatchet with The Babys stuck in the middle of it.”

Another reader wanted to know how many guitars Stocker owns and is there one he considers to be the “holy grail”.

“I have a small collection now. Through the years, I’ve had anywhere from twenty-five to thirty guitars – all either Gibson’s or Fender’s, mainly Gibson’s. My favorite has always been the Les Paul. I’ve had that since the very beginning. But I’ve had Strat’s and Telecasters and 335’s. I’ve never really gone past that as far as other guitars. In some cases, guitar companies will offer me their guitars but I really didn’t want to endorse them because my heart was really with Gibson, you know? I knew that I could get the sound I wanted from a Les Paul so I just stuck with that.

“As far as a holy grail, well, Gibson did release limited Paul Kossoff Les Paul model I would love to get my hands on one those but, I like I said, it was a limited run and I think only collectors own those now. But right now I’ve got a nice Gary Moore Les Paul and I’m enjoying that. But, yeah, I usually stick to the Fender’s and Gibson’s. Like I said, my collection isn’t as large as it used to be for various reasons. It’s starting to build up again now and, hopefully, there’s more to come but, yeah, I would say that my favorite is the Gibson Les Paul.”

Another reader asked, “Thinking back, what would you do differently in and with the Babys back in the seventies?”

“Oh, wow! I don’t know. Obviously, we had our ups and downs through the years. I’m sure most bands do. At the time you think you’re doing the right thing, giving a hundred percent. I don’t know what I would’ve changed. Some days were better than others. What was keeping us going, I think, was just the music itself and the enjoyment of being a band and pursuing onward.

“Sometimes, you get left in the hands of the record company and management and sometimes you can get led astray. Maybe things like that may have happened to us along the way but you try to pull out of the nosedive and keep it level and do as much as you can do, personally. Sometimes, you’re not really in the position to change things around you because, being a group, it’s not like you’re an individual solo artist where you can say, ‘No, I don’t want to do that’ or, ‘I’m not doing that’. It has to be a group decision or a management decision or a record company decision. Sometimes you feel like you’re under the thumb of the record company. If you don’t stay in line with them, there’s always this fear of them saying, ‘Well, you know, if you’re not going to do it our way then you can be on your way’ kind of thing.

“So, I don’t know that I would’ve done differently. Every day was a learning experience. Of course, nowadays, the experiences from being younger carryover to where we are now. I know there are certain things that we wouldn’t do again but, at the time, I was really in no position to really change anything like that.”
After our call ended, I thought back over the hour long conversation and my perceptions of this legendary guitarist. Wally Stocker struck me as a man who still gets it: It’s all about the music and the fans who buy it and still has an experienced but enthusiasm about both.

Visit to keep up with the latest with The Babys and when they’ll be appearing in your town.