Dave Getz

Posted May, 2010

DavePortraitAnyone who is a classic rock aficionado is aware of Janis Joplin and the band that propelled her to super-stardom, Big Brother and the Holding Company.  The history of Janis meeting up with BBHC back in the flower days in San Francisco has been more than well documented. Consequently, I won’t rehash the entire history.

However, I would like to briefly focus on the days immediately before, and the weeks after, the release of their historic number one hit album, Cheap Thrills.

In the summer of 1968, shortly before the release of Cheap Thrills, the band was rehearsing in a rehearsal studio in Manhattan. At one point they were jamming to a blues riff that drummer, Dave Getz, had come up with the year before. He originally called it, “C# Razzamatazz”.

Janis heard the bluesy call and response of the tune and promised to write some lyrics for the riff.  According to Dave Getz, sometime between that rehearsal and her announcement a few weeks later that she was leaving the band, Joplin came through.  Written on a party flyer that he still has, were, and are, the lyrics to what became the song and title to his latest album, Can’t Be The Only One.

Recently, Dave Getz and I chatted by phone about Can’t Be The Only One and the story behind the song and the stories behind the album. After discussing the history about the song, I asked him for a run down to getting the song onto this disc.

“Essentially, the song never got played so I had to, in some way, assume a melody to actually do it. And, over the years, I had in my mind – I heard what I thought she would have intended the melody to be, knowing the riff and the music.

“But, it just kind of got away from me.  I think that it was partly because of the nature of Big Brother – the way it’s gone up and down over the years. It’s been very hard for me, in that band, to introduce my music into that band and to get people to play it.  I don’t want to get into the personality thing or being critical.  I just don’t want to do that.  But, it’s just that the chemistry wasn’t right for me to bring my stuff into it. It just didn’t work.

“I tried a couple of other times with some other things and, at some point, I just said that I would just do my music off by myself in some way.  It’s not going to happen here in this situation with these particular players. I love Big Brother and I love what we do.  It’s been more like a vehicle for Sam (Andrew) because he’s in front and he’s playing the guitar and he’s singing a lot.  It works better in some way that he kind of interprets his songs.  But when it comes to my material or when James (Gurley) was in the band, and we would try to get that stuff done by the band, it just didn’t work.  The chemistry just wasn’t right.

“But, then, I’ve been in a few other bands. I have a band with my wife.  She’s a singer . . . sings American Song Book, jazz and things like that.  But she wasn’t the right singer to do it (the ‘Janis’ song).  I’ve worked with a few other people and I’ve done gigs with a few other bands over the years but it was just never right.

“But, then, in 2002, is when I really started to think seriously about doing an album. I went into the studio with some guys that I had been playing with – Tom Finch and a guy named Rob Fordyce – who are both on the CD. Some of the first tracks that we did then – the track that James Gurley is on – that track was originally recorded at that time – 2003. We did a bunch of other tracks which I later discarded.

“But it was somewhere in the last four years that I really, all of a sudden, looked at that song again – the Janis song – and said, ‘You know? I’ve gotta do this one. It’s just got to be part of it.’  It was that realization that motivated me back into recording again because I had done a bunch of stuff and then discarded it and had gotten kind of disillusioned. I put it away for a couple of years where I didn’t record at all and then I went in again and did some other stuff with Peter Albin and David Nelson that were some other tunes that I had written that had gone in sort of a country direction.  All sorts of things happened over a period of about six years.

“But, when I finally got the thing that ‘Can’t Be The Only One’ had to be almost crucial to it – I had to bring that song into reality, then everything else started to fall in place.  It’s just a funny kind of thing.  As I said in the liner notes, for a long time I had those lyrics and I would show them to people and I would lend them to people.  There was a book that came out called ‘The Janis Joplin Performance Diary’.  It was printed, I don’t know, about ten years ago and I had lent them those lyrics to put in that book.  People had been aware of the lyrics for a long time.  I think that Janis’s sister (Laura) knew that they existed and things like that. But putting it (the lyrics) into a song was a key thing for me and then everything else began to fall into place.”

The estate management business is a huge and fiercely guarded business.  Knowing that one of the most ardently protected estates is the Janis Joplin estate, managed by legendary estate manager, Jeff Jampol, I asked Getz if there was any firefight over his use of the lyrics Janis had written.

“You know, that’s a funny thing.  You can put this in the article because it’s kind of interesting. About two years ago, I put together a band - it’s called the Dave Getz Breakaway - and I wanted to perform that song. I put out an e-mail announcement that the band was going to perform locally - in Fairfax (California).

“Laura (Joplin, Janis’ sister) came down to that show and she was in the audience.  I announced from the audience and said, ‘Laura Joplin’s here tonight and we’re going to play a song that Janis wrote the lyrics for’ and we played it.

“A guy named J.J. – who’s not a great singer – was the singer (of that song) that night.  There were other singers sitting in but J.J. was the one who wanted to learn the song and wanted to perform it.  He did an okay job at it.

“Even before that, I had talked to Jeff Jampol about it, when I started thinking about putting this band together. He said, ‘Send me the song!’ I sent it to him and he wrote me back and said, ‘I LOVE it! It’s GREAT! Let me find somebody to record it.’  He called me a couple of times and started throw out names like Alicia Keys and Beyonce and he started to throw out these things and I said to myself, ‘This guy is full of crap.’

“He just doesn’t get it.  He was being nice in a way but I just thought the thing sounded like a lot of jive. But I said to him, ‘Yeah! Great! Fantastic! I’m willing to do anything, Jeff.  If you can get this song recorded by someone – Pink would be fabulous or Joss Stone would be great!’

“He said, ‘Well, let me handle it. Let me do it and I’ll get back to you.’ So, two – two and a half years went by and never heard from him again.  So, anyway, long story short, when I get my CD’s about three weeks ago from Disc Makers . . . I sent one to Michael Joplin (Janis and Laura’s brother) and I sent one to Jeff Jampol. I’m being sincere.  I really think that my album is great – let me just say that. But, I just think, also, that I did as great a job as I possibly could on that song and I thought that Kathi McDonald did a fabulous job.

“So, I send them (Laura, Michael and Jeff) these CD’s and then immediately got on my computer and wrote them an e-mail, telling them that I had sent them the CD with the track on it and that I hoped they really liked it and to call me and we could talk about it and, maybe, promote it together.

“In my mind, the way I look at it, I’m doing them a great favor. I’m creating product that, in some way, they’re going to own part of it that didn’t exist before - something that is more like Janis.  It’s a Dave Getz product but Janis is the songwriter and she’s going to have to be paid and it’s going to bring money into their pockets if they promote it.

“Anyway, four hours after I send this e-mail out, I get an e-mail back from their lawyer who handles their publishing legal stuff.  His name is Randal Wickson. I get this e-mail back and this is what it says: ‘Hi, Dave.  We represent Janis Joplin’s publishing interests, Strong Arm Music. The first use of a song is a very valuable right and constitutes an exclusive right which can only be granted by all copyright owners. The potential first use of this song is a very significant approval and irreparable harm and financial damage would come from a use not authorized by all parties.  You should not, under any circumstance, issue an exclusive first use mechanical or other license for ‘Can’t Be The Only One’. Let’s make this song as valuable as possible for all concerned.  Before you move forward, you should discuss approaches with the Joplin estate. Please contact Jeff Jampol, their manager.  Kathi McDonald, as a first use, would greatly devalue the intrinsic worth of the song because of potential and significant opportunity lost.  Thank you very much for your understanding.’

“So, I never even wrote back. Because, one thing, he’s just completely wrong.  I’m not granting a mechanical license.  I don’t know if you know what these things are but a mechanical license is when someone writes a song and another artist performs the song – like if I want to perform ‘Summertime’ by George Gershwin, I have to get a mechanical license from whoever runs his publishing company or owns the copyright.

“But, I don’t have to get a mechanical license for the Dave Getz Breakaway to do my own song!  And, I don’t have to get a mechanical license for Kathi McDonald to sing it because she’s part of my band on the record.  Anyway, I just felt that it was very insulting and, again, it’s like everything that’s ever happened with the Joplin’s in the last 25 or 35 years with them is that they try to sink any project that anybody else attempts unless they can control it. That’s been my experience with them.

“So, here they were, trying to torpedo me . . . but they’re not going to. Immediately, of course, I had to forward the e-mail to my lawyer and she assured me that there’s nothing there. Just ignore it.  I’ve had several conversations with Jeff Jampol who called me – and I like Jeff.  I like Jeff a lot.  He’s jive.  I said to him, ‘Jeff, I’m seventy years old and I gave you the song two and half years ago and you never called me back.  You never did anything with it.  You had your opportunity and I did something with it and I love what I did with it and I’m going with it. If you can still help me –‘ I told him and we agreed – ‘if you can get somebody like Pink to record the song and Pink calls me up and says, ‘I want to record this song but you have to – don’t sell any more of your CD’s.  Whatever’s out there is out there but let’s stop it and let me record it next month and we’ll put it out.’ Do you think I would say ‘no’? C’mon! That would be my dream but that ain’t going to happen.  He promised me that he would play the thing for people.”

I’m not a musician.  I don’t even play one on TV. However, even my simple mind realizes that drumming is quite a bit different artistry than, say, playing piano or guitar.  So, I was curious how a drummer writes and plans a solo album.  Dumb question, huh?

“Yeah, it’s a good question.  It’s not a dumb question because there are drummer jokes! There are whole websites full of drummer jokes and, basically, drummer jokes are like Polack jokes: they’re based on the drummer being a dumb animal type person and no skills.

“I consider myself the best musician in Big Brother and the Holding Company and I’ve been told that many times over the years by other musicians who I respect. Sam knows a lot about music. Sam’s more educated in some ways about certain things. But, I probably have been a professional musician longer than anybody in Big Brother.  I was in the musician’s union in New York when I was 15 and I was playing professionally when Sam and those guys were still in adolescence. I’m older than them.  I’ve been playing longer and I’ve played more different kinds of music, probably, more than any of them.

“I've played a lot of jazz.  I toured Europe when I was 19 with a Dixieland band.  I've played in Latin bands. I've played in country bands. I've played Gumbo, New Age music, Indian music, Polka bands, Klezmer music  I've played in actual orchestras and all kinds of bands. And I play some keyboards.  I'm not a great keyboard player but that's how I compose.  I started taking lessons as a kid but then I gave it up and I got into the drums when I was 15.

“When I was 27, when Big Brother was just starting to come out, I bought a piano – an actual piano.  After that, I had several different keyboards and I always, from the get-go, got back into it and started composing right from the beginning. I didn’t try to take piano lessons or take classical piano, I just used it – it became a voice for me.

“So, I taught myself a lot.  I taught myself chords and scales and how to read music. It’s been a long process and I still don’t know a lot in certain things but I probably know as much as anybody else about harmony.  Maybe I don’t know as much about harmony as Sam.  I don’t know. I probably know more about jazz than anybody else in that band.  I think my musical understanding is pretty sophisticated.

“So, that’s where it comes from.  When I’m recording something like that, the process is like this: I’ve composed all of these pieces and most of these pieces, if it has lyrics to it, it comes about by me giving a track that I’ve written that have, say, keyboards and drums on it that I’ve made – a demo track in my house. Then I give it to somebody and they might write lyrics to it. Then I’ll go into the studio and I’ll start out by laying down some sort of percussion track electronically. I’ll use a drum machine and just play on that.  And, then, I’ll play the keyboard part that I’ve written on that. And, then, from that, I’ll start adding parts, bringing in the bass.  I’ll build the thing one at a time, just as a musician – as any musician would.  When a bass player comes in, I’ll tell them what I want to hear. I’ll play the part on keyboards or something similar to what I want. I’m usually assuming that a good bass player or a good guitar player, of course, is going to embellish it and add to it and make it a little more complicated than I can play it, technically, on keyboards.

“I’m laying out these ideas. In some cases they’re more specific than in others. On the CD, for example, on the first and second tracks,  the bass part is something that I told the bass player to play. I played it for them.  Peter Albin is playing the bass on the second track but what he’s playing is something that I told him exactly, note for note, what to play.  He couldn’t play it, technically, all the way through. So, we take what he played perfectly and we patch it and we create a bass part from it – me and the engineer.  It’s all kinds of experience.  My musical experience, my ability to play something on keyboard, plus what I know can be done on Pro Tools.  I’m not adept, myself, at it but I know what the possibilities are so I can direct an engineer and say, “Okay, take this bar here and put it there” and create these tracks.

“You talk about as a drummer - my position on this particular CD was very limited.  I didn’t want to make it a drumming CD. I had to put just one place on there where I play a solo. But, in general, I’m really subordinating myself as a drummer and just putting in the part that I want to hear a drummer play . . . think more as a producer and as a total musician rather than as a drummer.”

I suggest that this speaks volumes to Getz’s ability to communicate what he wants at various levels and to a variety of musicians. His reply is unashamedly forthright.

“Right, that’s what I was saying before about Big Brother.  With Big Brother, the chemistry is a certain way – there’s a certain inability for me to be that kind of director that I needed to be. When you’re making your own CD and your literally hiring people and paying people to come in, in some cases some people just want to be on it without being paid.  In most cases, I like to hire people because the psychology is different then.  I’m hiring you and I can then direct you – give directions.

“When you are making a CD you have to be able to work people who are willing to take direction. At the same time, if people are only JUST going to take direction, that can be a limitation, too.  You want people who are willing to take direction but are also willing to try bring in something of their own – their own ideas. If the ideas enhance what you’re trying to say, that’s fantastic! It’s a great thing!”

Speaking of the people that Getz brought in to help on the album, I commented on the very long history he has with one of the vocalist on the project, Kathi McDonald. His delves into the history with enthusiasm.

“Yeah, actually, we do! After Big Brother broke up in the late 60’s, I actually was in a band with Kathi that we had together.  It was called Pendergrass. It wasn’t really my band. It was her band.  She had a boyfriend at the time – a guy who played bass. The guitarist in that band, for a very short time, was Ronnie Montrose. Ronnie was playing lead and a guy by the name of Michael Pendergrass – we used his name for the band – he was the lead guitarist.  There was a piano player named Roy Schmall and myself and Kathi and her boyfriend, Howie Schamm, who played bass.  It was a great band and we played mostly rhythm and blues.

“So, what happened was, when Big Brother got back together, which was when Sam was out there on the road with Janis and the Kozmic Blues Band  - this was when in late 1969 – and she fired him. And he came back and that’s when Big Brother got back together with Sam. And then I brought Kathi into Big Brother from Pendergrass.

“Eventually, I brought Michael Pendergrass in, too, and a couple of other people.  That’s when Big Brother got back together with Sam, myself, and James Gurley played bass.  He didn’t want to play guitar anymore. Peter Albin played guitar and we had a guitarist named Dave Schallock that I brought in from another band that I was in at the time called the Nuboogaloo Express. There was also Nick Gravenites who was sometimes in it.

“So that’s how Big Brother got back together in 1970.  But Kathi and I were playing together between the time that Janis and Sam left Big Brother to go with the Kozmic Blues Band, during that period, I had that band with Kathi, Pendergrass.

“There’s a Big Brother CD that I put out in 1995.  I put it out on a French label and it’s called, You Can’t Go Home Again. It’s by Big Brother and the Holding Company and Friends.  The friends really are the tracks that Pendergrass recorded. The first three or four tracks on that CD are really Big Brother.  They’re really Pendergrass with Kathi McDonald, myself playing drums and Ronnie Montrose playing guitar. But three fifths of that band later became part of Big Brother.

“Kathi’s played with Big Brother probably, since 1987 when we got back together, she’s probably done, I’m going to guess, somewhere in the neighborhood of six and twelve gigs with us – just a once in awhile kind of thing. I wish she’d do more, actually, but she’s also a funny kind of person in that she doesn’t really want to learn a lot of the new Big Brother stuff. She wants to come in and do what she knows from the past.  She’s not real willing to learn some of the new material that we’ve done since that time.  It’s a little difficult. She’s great, though.  I love her! I really love her!  She’s thrilled – totally thrilled with this CD.”

The legendary original guitarist for Big Brother, James Gurley, who Dave referenced earlier, passed away last year on December 20, just two days before he was to turn 70 years young.  Getz and Gurley had a falling out thirteen years prior, never to speak to each other that entire time.  However, I noticed that there was a cut on Dave’s CD entitled Trail of Tears that featured James on the guitar.

Obviously, I was very curious what the story was behind this. I also knew that a lot had already been said about Gurley’s passing and didn’t want to ask Dave to belabor his passing.  So, I asked Getz if he wanted to share anything else that about Gurley as well as the story behind Trail of Tears.

Getz matter-of-factly relays a couple of stories.

“I’ll tell you a story. It’s the first thing that comes to mind because it just happened this weekend and it’s fresh in my mind. I just told it to my wife and I’ll share it with you. We were driving in the car from Providence, Rhode Island, to somewhere in New Jersey on Saturday morning. Our singer, Sophia Ramos, is in the front seat.  Sophia, I don’t know if you know who she is, but she’s a monster! She’s a beast!  She’s one of the most incredible singers in terms of her technical ability and what she can do with her voice that we’ve ever sung with. She’s just way beyond!

“Anyway, she’s sitting in the front seat.  Peter Albin is driving and I’m sitting in the backseat and I hand Sophia one of my CD’s and I say, ‘Hey, Sophia, here’s a present for you.’ She says, ‘Oh, yeah! Great! Thank you!  Is this some of the stuff you played for me a few months back?’ And I say, ‘Yeah, some of it’s on there but there’s some new things on there, too, that you haven’t heard.’ Then Peter says, ‘Well, let’s play it!’ Peter’s already heard it and he really likes it. He’s been very complimentary and has said that it’s really great.

“I’m a little reticent so I say to Peter, ‘Oh, just play the first three songs. I don’t want to toot my own horn and play this album.’ They said, ‘No, play the whole thing!’ So, I say, ‘Well, play it up to the third or fourth track because then it starts getting weird.’  Sophia then said, ‘What’s wrong with that?’ So, I say, ‘Okay, okay, play it!  I’ll just sit back and I won’t say anything.’

“So, we’re playing it through and they’re digging it and we get to Trail of Tears. Peter’s talking to Sophia, saying, ‘This has got a track with James Gurley on it.’ I interrupt and say, ‘Yeah, you’re not going to like this’ because a lot of people say that his playing just isn’t ‘musical’ and I know what they mean by it. I understand completely.  It’s not ‘musical’ in the sense that it’s not melodic. It’s not your classic kind of blues playing or anything like that. And, in some ways, it’s almost like modern music. It has a certain noise factor that James was always in to.

“One of the first things that I remember about James is, when I wasn’t even in the band, watching him pick up his amplifier and slam it down on the stage to create sound and noise like explosions.  James was always into the sound factor and not so much the melodic, lyrical kind of player at all. Some people just can’t go there. So I thought to myself that Sophia might have trouble with this because she’s such a magnificent musician.

“Anyway, she listens to the track and she says, ‘Play that again!’ He (Peter) puts it back on and she listens to it again.  She then said, ‘That is HUGE balls! Huge balls! That is fantastic!’

“I thought that was great. There was somebody who got it – who could go there. A lot of people cannot go there.  They’ll listen to James and just say, ‘Turn that off.’ He was really willing to go there – willing to go to places like that and I wanted to have that on that track.”

Continuing his thoughts about James Gurley, Dave shares a little more insight to the riff that developed between Gurley and the rest of Big Brother. He then shares how it came about that James contributed to Can’t Be The Only One without actually speaking with him.

“One of the reasons why James left the band was that James and I had a big falling out together. Then it wound up that James and Sam having a big falling out then James and Peter.  But it started out with me and the reason that it started with me is that I had a lot of doubts about James’ guitar playing. I loved what he did in the past with the psychedelic stuff that we did in the sixties. But when we got back together in the 80’s, I felt that we had to do some new material and wanted to go to other places – more lyrical places with songs – more pop stuff.  I felt that he was unwilling – that he was stuck just doing what he was and that’s the kind of player he was. He just didn’t fit in in a lot of places and he knew that I felt that way.

“There was a passive-aggressive resentment built up between and eventually, when he left the band in ’97, it freed us up.  We couldn’t record anything when he was in the band because none of the music that we were trying to record provided the proper context for his style of playing. It was Sam’s material and Sam’s songs - more like soul. Sam doesn’t really write psychedelic stuff like James could play on.

“Anyway, I wrote Trail of Tears somewhere in the late 90’s – just a riff – something that I was playing on the keyboards. When I originally went in to record the track, it was with Tom Finch and Rob Fordyce and myself playing the drums. After we recorded the track, I thought, ‘This is a context in which James’ guitar playing would work.’ But, at the time – this is in 2003 – we’re not talking to each other at all – no relationship at all but I loved this guy. I felt for him and I appreciated his playing in some way that he didn’t really understand.  I think I also have an overview of it that he didn’t understand, either.

“Long story short, I called up a friend that knows James and saw James often.  I said to him, ‘I’ve recorded this track and I think that James would be great on it but I know that I can’t call him up – he won’t talk to me. So, would you call him up and ask if he would be willing to play on this track – see if he would be willing?’

“The guy called me back and said that James said to make him a CD of the track and he would listen to it and he’ll tell you.’ And that’s what happened. I made him a CD. I sent it to Richard. He sent it to James. James called Richard and said, ‘I’ll do it.’ Richard called me and said, ‘James will do it.’ I said to Richard, ‘Okay, this is the date that I’ll leave a check in the studio with the engineer. James can show up at one o’clock.  I won’t be there. No vibes. Nothing. We’ll see if he can do it.  Do several takes until he’s satisfied that he’s got what he wants and then he can take the check and go home.’

“And that’s exactly what happened. The next day, after he had recorded it in the studio, I went to the engineer and said, ‘Okay, what have we got?’ He played it for me and I was just thrilled. I thought, ‘This is it!’”

I knew that it was a sensitive area but I had to ask Getz, “So, you guys never spoke after that, huh?”

“Uh, no. We never spoke again. I saw him once at a party and I tried to talk to him and he turned away. And, it’s funny. After he died, I spoke to his wife and she said that he really felt the same way towards me but that he just couldn’t get past what had happened but that he also had love and warm feelings toward me. It’s very sad.”

I mentioned to Dave that my favorite songs on the CD are More and House on Fire. Kathi does a phenomenal job on the tunes, knocking them both out of the park but my favorite tune being House on Fire.

“Well, she sang on the original. The original version is on the Big Brother How Hard It Is album that came out in ’71. I wrote that song in ’71 and the version that we did then wasn’t right for me. It’s a different rhythm. The band sort of changed the rhythm, which was okay. But I always wanted to go back and do the song again with just Kathi singing and not Sam and do it in the original rhythm which was kind of a slow shuffle rhythm that I originally wrote the song in.  I was real pleased with it. I really felt that was the way I wanted it to sound.”

Getz has worked on countless recordings so I asked him what was different about working on this disc compared to other projects.

“Oh, it’s totally different!  I’m a pretty good side man. I’ve worked on other peoples records and I try to just be neutral and add what I add to give someone what they want and be willing to take direction. That’s really important.  I’m always in a situation where I’m either playing in the studio with a band, which is the way Big Brother has always recorded.  Big Brother has always tried to record, essentially, live in the studio – bass, drums, guitar – two guitars - and then do the vocals after that. Very traditional.

“With this situation, I pretty much, except for two or three tracks where we recorded bass, drums and guitar at one time, almost everything else was done the way I described before – with me starting with keyboards and an electronic drum track which acts like a click track because it’s perfect .  Eventually, I take those out and record live drums over it. So it’s pieced together to create the effect of real music.

“In some cases it sounds more live than in other cases. I think the first track, Can’t Be The Only One, that track was remixed by a friend of mine, Johnny Thompson. Johnny came to me and said, ‘You know, I’ve listened to your original track of Can’t Be The Only One.  Would you give me a chance – I want to make a mix of it. If you’ll let me do it, we’ll make a radio playable type of mix.’ I said ‘okay’.  We’ve been friends for a long time, Johnny and I, and I totally respect his ears and his ideas. He’s a great guitar player, a great drummer.  He’s one of these multi-talented guys.

“So, we went in, Johnny and his son, Mike, who was my engineer all through it, and myself, and I just said, ‘Go for it. I’ll be passive.  You do what you want.’ He took everything, cut it up and put it back together the way he wanted to hear it.  He took out all of the drum fills. He didn’t like the Chris Collins’ guitar.  He re-recorded his guitar, which was fine.

“You know, I loved what he did.  It’s a whole other thing than what I would’ve heard.  I thought it was great! It’s great to have two different ways of doing the same song with the same material, basically, with the same voice and taking these parts. It’s what you can do with Pro Tools these days. It’s like an art form in and of itself and Johnny is good at it. I have to give him credit on that one for his mix.  I mean, I was the guy who created all the parts but he took all the parts and really re-assembled them in a way that was beyond what I would’ve heard in some way and made it very listenable and very simplified. He took it down to his essentials and brought Kathi’s voice really up and emphasized the lyrics and the song and not so much about guitar playing and drumming or the bad.  He just got the essence of the song.”

Earlier, Dave commented that Kathi McDonald was kicking his butt about touring so I asked him if he had any plans to do so.

“If the album gets some play – it starts to get some attention and something really happens to where it was really possible for me to put my band back together – put the Breakaway together – it’s like everybody is on go with that.

“(But) we have to be able to make some money.  We can’t afford to go on the road any more if can’t we make any money.  Tom Finch and Chris Collins, they’re both great guitar players. They both make a very nice living staying in Marin County and teaching. They both have, like, 25 or 30 students. John Evans, the bass player, is playing with Tori Amos. I’d have to be able to offer up something substantial in order to make it worth our while.

“Big Brother’s busy through the summer but if something’s happening (with the disc) late in the year, I would definitely consider going out and performing with this stuff. I’d love to. That would be my dream!”

To find out if Dave Getz’s dream comes true, you’ll want to regularly visit the Big Brother and the Holding Company’s website, www.bbhc.com.

Can’t Be The Only One is an excellent CD to add to your CD library.  It can be purchased by clicking on the album cover picture at the upper right of this page.

Bill German

Posted April, 2009

billkeith.2Keith Richards and Bill German - Courtesy of Bill GermanImagine that you’re sixteen years old.  Do you remember which famous person, or persons, that you idolized and fantasized about meeting or hanging out with?  Admit it!  You’ve done it and so have I.  The closest that most of us have ever come to realizing those dreams were paying to see our idols in concert or hanging out at the hotel that where they stayed.  If we were real lucky, we managed to buy excellent seats or catch a glimpse of the objects of our affections before they disappeared into a limo or the hotel.

For most of us, if we achieved that level of “success”, we’d talk about it for a lifetime, driving everyone within earshot absolutely crazy.  However, there are those who have refused to accept a mere glimpse at the rich and famous.  Some pursue actually knowing them on a personal basis.  Bill German is just such a person.

As a teenager in the late ‘70’s, Mr. German started a newsletter dedicated to news about the Stones.  It was named after what is arguably the best album ever recorded by the Stones entitled, “Beggar’s Banquet”.  Bill parlayed his labor of love into not only meeting the boys in the band but managed to become personal friends with the band’s legendary guitarist, Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood. 

Having been a Stones fan since I was the same age as German and being incredibly envious of his achievements in this area, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that he has a book coming out that details his life with the bad boys of rock and roll.  The tome is entitled, “Under Their Thumb”.  It’s a warts and all, open kimono recounting of German’s life and times with Mick and the boys.

I tracked Bill down in New York City to ask him about his relationship with the Rolling Stones as well as his future plans.  He was kind enough to oblige despite his incredibly busy schedule promoting his book and preliminary ground work on future books.

German’s story is very similar to Cameron Crowe and “Almost Famous”.  The big difference is that Bill witnessed the inner workings and battles within the World’s Greatest Rock and Roll Band.  While newspapers and magazines all over the world could only speculate and rely on second and third hand information about the perceived demise of the band, German was a first hand observer of what actually took place.  And, often to the chagrin of Sir Mick, reported the events in “Beggar’s Banquet”.

In summarizing how it all started, German relates that “I was an aspiring journalist (my idol was Tom Snyder) and a rabid Rolling Stones fan.  In 1978, as I was turning 16, I decided to marry the two by launching my "Beggars Banquet" newsletter. I printed the first year of issues in the mimeo room of my high school.  I tried selling copies to my classmates, but found no takers.  Ironically, it was the Stones who took notice and welcomed me into their circle.  (Every time I published a new issue, I'd make sure they received copies, by either leaving it with their doormen, or by presenting it to them in person at New York City's nightclubs.)

Eventually, the band put German on the Stones payroll but found dealing with their business associates “a frustrating experience, and, in the end, I preferred maintaining my independence.  Eventually, my business relationship with the Stones returned to a ‘I make my own money and pay my own way’ policy.”

“Under Their Thumb” isn’t the first book Bill German has been involved with the writing of.  In the mid-eighties, he co-wrote, “The Works” with Ronnie Wood.  While German didn’t make much money from his efforts, he undertook the task because he “was the only person who could write it.”

German’s “Beggar’s Banquet” opened doors to other Stones-related gigs such as an article covering the band’s 1990 tour was published in Rolling Stone Magazine; a print interview with Keith Richards for Spin Magazine as well as for ABC Radio.  He was also asked to do a lot of “Stones reporting” for various other radio stations.

When I asked Bill to name his best and worst experiences during his “Beggar’s Banquet” years, he good naturedly says, “Hey, Randy, I can write a book about it!  Oh, wait, I have!  In short, I'd say the best part was the mid-'80s, spending quality time with Keith and Ronnie; watching Stones jams at the recording studio or in Ronnie's kitchen and basement.  Feeling like there was no other place on earth I wanted to be.

The lousy parts were dealing with the Stones' ‘machinery,’ as they became over-corporatized and a little too focused on the bottom line.  It left me pretty disenchanted.”
Beggar's Banquet ceased publication in 1996.  However, German is offering the archives for sale at his website, BeggarsBanquetonline.com, for diehard fans.  I asked Bill why he stopped his labor of love.

“There's the Stones-related reason, which I discuss in the previous answer.  The over-corporatization sucked the fun out of it and made it more difficult to find the man-bites-dog stories, which is a journalist's job) - too many people running interference.  But there were also financial, personal, and technological reasons: Making very little money, working 24-7 (feeling like I was always on call), and dealing with snail mail, postage stamps, printers, etc.  If the Web were around, it'd have saved me tons of time and energy.”

When asked  if he’s still in contact with Keith or Ronnie, he offers, “Not in a while.  I did send Keith & Patti (Keith’s wife of 25 years) an advance copy of the book about a month ago, but wasn't expecting to hear back.”    Why?  “Keith ain't the type to send e-mail or grab the horn and call anybody.”  Continuing on, he adds, “I tried to reach Ronnie a few months back, but he was in rehab.  And now that he's out, he's moved in with his mistress/girlfriend, and I don't have his current contact info.”

I asked Bill if, with the release of his book, he assumes that any relationship with the Stones is all but over.  He concedes that it’s highly unlikely that he will receive any congratulatory messages from the band’s Prince of Darkness.  One reason is that Bill gives his unvarnished view and interpretation of various events.  Some of those do not portray Jagger in the most flattering of ways.  The most nefarious of stories was recently splashed all over the New York Post.

German says, “As hard as it may be for Stones fans to understand, I'd already detached myself from the Stones quite a bit in order to write this book (so that I could reflect on my memories.) That's combined with the fact that it's just not as easy as it used to be to hang out with them.  They've got families now, as well as more layers of intermediaries.  (Not to mention ever-changing phone numbers and hotel pseudonyms.) The book -- unintentionally -- comes off as a love letter to Keith and Ronnie, so we'll see what I hear from them.  As for Mick, I'm probably off his Christmas list.”

I mentioned that I noticed in the Stones’s “Four Flicks” DVD collection, there are scenes that seem to strain at portraying the band as relatively clean family guys.  I asked German if this was an accurate image.  “I can't really comment, since I haven't hung out with them in a while.  Ron's obviously been in and out of rehab lately.  The only time I ever witnessed Mick do drugs was during that one night in Ron's basement (which of course is what the New York Post zoned in on).”

Speaking of Ron Wood, I asked German to give his prediction as to whether or not Woody would come to his senses and live his grandchild-aged girlfriend and return to his lovely wife, Jo.  “Your guess is as good as mine, but I hope it's the former.  He wouldn't be alive today if it were not for her love, support, and vigilance.”

After the promotional work for “Thumb” is complete, German has more literary work on his radar.  He says, “I've been approached to ghost-write the memoir of a famous rock photographer, but, whether or not I take on that project, I'd like to continue writing memoirs about other facets of my life.  As big a presence as the Stones had, they represent only a fraction of the unique people I've known in my life.”

An engrossing page turner for Rolling Stones fans, “Under Their Thumb” is currently available at large bookstores everywhere.

Ace Frehley

Posted October, 2009

acefrehley1Photo by Kevin BrittonIt’s the summer of 1974.  I was 14 years old and spending the summer in the beautiful,  rolling hills of Eastern Tennessee.  Like all teenage boys in those days, I was rocking out and playing air guitar to many of the great, straight-forward rock and roll being produced at that time.

It was during those days that I heard a brand new band that was taking the country by a storm with their bone-jarring, thunderous music.  But what was also commanding the world’s attention was the mystique they created by only being seen in public with their uniquely applied kabuki stage make-up.  Their fan base was legion almost instantaneously and they quickly were referred to as the “KISS Army”.

Each of the band members had their own distinct “mask” that was painted on for each performance.  Commanding the bulk of the limelight was the blood-spewing “demon” bass player, Gene Simmons.  Next in command was Paul Stanley, the “Star Child” who often shared the spotlight with Gene while playing rhythm guitar.  The foundation for that rhythm was provided by drummer, Peter Criss, whose character was the “Cat Man”.

However, the opinion of most guitarists who know these things, the person who was providing the prolific guitar work in almost every technical sense of the word was Ace “Spaceman” Frehley.  While Gene and Paul commanded most of the visual attention, musicians and musician wannabe’s were captivated by Frehley’s blistering licks and pyrotechnics emanating from his guitar.

Of course, we all know that KISS went on to accomplish international fame for their music and antics on, and off, the stage.  Eventually, the make-up went away but the band continues as a wildly successful musical and marketing sensation.

Well, members of the KISS Army, you’re going to be absolutely jumping with joy to learn that Ace Frehley has come out with his first album in twenty years!  It’s titled, “Anomaly”, and it’s about this project that my interview with Ace Frehley begins.

I started our chat by commenting that I get the impression that he was having a lot of fun while recording “Anomaly”.  Ace agrees.  “I feel the same way I felt 31 years ago when I finished my 1978 solo record. I'm very proud of both records.  From the great reviews I've read about ‘Anomaly’, I think the fans agree too!”

When I first listened to “Anomaly”, I immediately recognized the classic tune, “Fox On The Run”, originally recorded by Sweet.  When I asked Frehley what was behind his decision to cover that song, he says, “My make-up artist for photo shoots, Pam, suggested that song.  And after discussing it with everyone in the studio, they all thought that song was suited to my voice.  It's funny but I'm reading a lot of fans saying that they thought that was me singing the original version from the 70s.”

Hoping to get a little inside scoop from Ace, I asked if the song, “Pain In The Neck” is about anyone in particular.  Laughing, he shoots back, “What do you want to do?  Get me in trouble or something?”  Hoping for at least a little be of juicy gossip, he chooses to leave me hanging on that one.

It’s honestly hard for me to pick a favorite cuts off of “Anomaly” but one that would have to be on my short list of top picks is “Space Bear” and the iTunes bonus track, “The Return of the Space Bear”.  I asked Ace what was the story behind those tunes.

He enthusiastically says that, “Space Bear was originally called "Skels".  The associate producer of ‘Anomaly’, Frank Munoz, was the one who came up with the idea of leaving it as an instrumental. And then (he) came up with the concept of adding my lines from Tom Snyder's Tomorrow Show where the somewhat ‘drunk’ me tried to capture Tom's teddy bear.  We had a blast recording it.”

Another great cut from the disc is an acoustical instrumental number entitled “Fractured Quantum”.  Ace fans will immediately notice that, as in the case of “Fractured Mirror” (from “Ace Frehley”) and “Fractured Too” (from “Frehley’s Comet”), 12-string guitars form a catalyst to the tunes.  I asked Ace about the significance of the 12-strings and what gear he used to play the tunes.  His answer was interesting.

“If you listen to the end of ‘Quantum’, it finishes where the original (‘Fractured Mirror’) begins.  I use the same 12 string & the effects.  It’s come full circle and this song completes the series.  I'm thinking of maybe piecing them all together in a row.  Maybe I'll throw it up on iTunes or something.  Who knows?”

Remember, Ace fans, you hear it here first!

Jo-Ann Geffen

Posted March, 2010

JoAnnGeffen3When one hears the words “publicity” or “public relations”, one normally doesn’t think of the people behind the scenes who craft and guide the activities that fall under those two umbrellas.  One such person who is a legendary veteran of the crafts of publicity and PR is Jo-Ann Geffen, President of JAG Entertainment.

Since moving to the Los Angeles area from New York to open an office for the Commodores back in 1978, Jo-Ann’s finesse in the booking and PR field led her to represent such artists of interest to the Baby Boomer generation as:  David Cassidy, Diahann Carroll, the Commodores, Smokey Robinson, The Temptations, Robin Gibb, Barbara Walters and Nancy Cartwright, to name just a few.

However, Ms. Geffen is more than a leader in the entertainment industry.  She has recently become an author of note, writing a fascinating and captivating book in the Chicken Soup for the Soul series subtitled The Story Behind the Song.  It provides the personal stories behind 101 songs such as My Way, She’s Gone, Cruisin’, The Heart of Rock n’ Roll, and many, many more (97 more, to be exact).

I recently spoke with Jo-Ann by phone about her book and her insights into the music industry.  Speaking from her home in lovely Southern California, she graciously shared her time as well as her insights to her book and into the ever changing world of the entertainment business.

In telling me about the 90+ artists covered in the book, she explains that, “There are only a hand full who have multiple songs in the book.  Lamont Dozier has two; Diane Warren has two; Richie Sambora has two; Melissa Manchester has two because they were so different.  Other than those people, they were individual songwriters but mostly singer/songwriters”.

How did the book come about?

“I was invited to a meeting for publicity in Las Vegas.  I was sitting in a room with a host of people and amongst them was one of the creators of the Chicken Soup for the Soul brand – he wrote the original books – and the gentleman who bought the publishing arm of the company.

“I was listening to them describe and discuss the Chicken Soup brand and all of the various titles they have.  I was, frankly, shocked.  I had no idea.  I mean, I was familiar, certainly, with the brand.  You would have to be under a rock not to be.  Beyond that, I had no conception that they had touched so many different areas.

“They’ve got books for the golfer, the teenager, dog lover, whatever.  They’ve got everything.  But they had nothing that dealt with entertainment, specifically, celebrities or music.  So, as I was sitting there, I was remembering some of the fabulous stories that I had heard – be it personally or on the radio or whatever – and thinking, ‘Wow!  These are great inspirational stories! Why haven’t they done this?’

“So, when the meeting was over, I got to chat with the publisher, I asked, ‘Do you ever take outside ideas?’ He said, ‘Yeah, all the time!’  I said, ‘What do you think about Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Story Behind the Songs?’  He said, ‘Oh, my god!  Let’s do it!’  It was really that simple!

“He said, ‘Get a list to me of the people you think you can get and I’ll put together a deal memo.’ That’s exactly how it happened.”

As a celebrity interviewer, I know that it can sometime be difficult to persuade people to chat about their work.  They’ve been asked the same question a million times.  I asked Jo-Ann if she encountered any difficulty in getting any of the artists to tell her their stories.

“Actually, it wasn’t.  There were some people that I would’ve like to have had that I don’t but, you know, I’m very satisfied with everyone in it. I really like the fact that it does not align with any specific genre of music.  It’s a fairly eclectic mix so it makes it, I think, more interesting.  It also shows the commonalities between people.

“Just because one song is set to country music and one is set to rap or one is set to hard rock, it doesn’t mean that the sensibility is any different, that the emotions are any different or that the experiences are any different.  The specific experience may be but, basically, human experience is human experience.  We have love, we lose love.  There are traumatic things that happen to a lot of these people just as they happen to each of us.

“We think that their lives are all rosy but the fact is that a lot of these people have overcome horrific, horrific experiences and very tough lives.  We tend to forget that and expect them to be these iconic human beings who don’t have any baggage or don’t have any bad memories and they should be tolerant and patient and all loving.  It’s a tall order.”

I wondered if, conversely, what the differences she views between the genres.

“I think you see a lot of different cultural history.  In other words, some of the country artists describe lifestyles or homes that are very different than what I grew up in, for instance.  I think it was Billy Bob Thornton or Tracy Lawrence who talks about a ‘shotgun house’. He simply describes what that is which is, simply, a one room house with a front door and back door that were parallel and, if the doors were open, you could shoot a shotgun straight through the house!  That’s how it got its name. I never heard of that.  I grew up in New York City.

“Things like that I found intriguing, interesting and informative.  There were different experiences like that.  There were a lot of Pop Culture references.  There was Ray Stevens’, The Streak, so that kids, who weren’t around in the 70’s this ridiculous fad, would know what we’re talking about.  It’s kind of fun that that’s the way it’s introduced to them.

“Of course, there’s very serious topics. You have Jewel talking about her homelessness and how, because she didn’t have health insurance, she almost died.  It was only by the grace of a young doctor, who was caring, treated her laying in the street.

“Then you have Christina Aguilera, who was abused as a kid and escaped her house and managed to still become successful. Therein lies the inspiration.  What you see is not always what is.  You have to explore peoples pasts, their nature and their experiences in order to understand them.  And, also, that we can all, if we try hard enough and if we work towards it, can all overcome tragedy and horrific experiences. We just have to learn how to rise above it.  Not IF we can, but HOW we can, and these are great examples because no one gave these celebrities anything.  They pulled themselves up by the bootstraps and worked for their success. 

“These are self-made people who have turned out to be happily married, with kids and successful. But the business success is almost secondary to the fact that they’ve even been able to succeed at life. These are very personal insights and the fact that they shared them, I thought, was very special.”

One of the more poignant chapters in The Story Behind the Song is the story behind the Commodores’ hit, Zoom, written by group member, Ronald LaPread.  I won’t tell you the whole story here (you must buy the book!), but I will say that it is a real tear-jerker.

“I’d worked with the Commodores . . . since their first audition in life!  I’ve known them all since we were all kids.  I knew Ronald during this whole thing (the experience that lead to the writing of Zoom), and have remained friends with him, and I was actually shocked by some of the details.  I was not aware of a lot of it.

“I knew that it was during the time that Cathy (LaPread’s late wife) was sick.  I knew that she had passed away.  I knew the song was a kind of tribute to her.  I didn’t know how involved she was.  I didn’t know what all he went through.  I didn’t know about the kind of paranormal experiences he had.  It was quite enlightening for me and I wound up saying to him, ‘I feel terrible! I wish that I had known.  I would have been there for you more.’  He said, ‘Well, you’re here now’ and he just sort of laughed it off.

“Sometimes, you just have no idea.  He (LaPread) is a very private person and really didn’t feel it necessary to discuss what was going on.  The guys knew because they were right in the thick of it with him.”

Geffen went on to say that this story was one of the more personally enlightening pieces in the book.  “I knew it but I didn’t know the details – quite how intense of an experience it was in the writing of that song in relation to her being sick.”

What were some of the more surprising tales in the book?         

“Several were surprising to me.  Jerry Cantrell’s (from Alice in Chains) was pretty amazing.  His song, Rooster, is really about his dad who went off to Vietnam – obviously, not of his own volition.  Jerry was a young guy at the time and really resented his dad for going.  Also, when he came back, he was such a different human being that it was hard to comprehend. There was no communication between them.

“I guess that his dad didn’t have it within him to explain himself and Jerry never turned to him and said, ‘You know, I’m in pain.  Help me.  Talk to me.’  It took writing this song and playing it for his dad – his dad hugging him and began opening up and telling him what he went through and Jerry doing the same.  It (the song) was the bridge that gapped their relationship.  They’re now the best of friends and business partners.

Everything is great but it took this form of communication, this venting through music, to be able to actually open the door to that relationship again. You would never know any of this by listening to the song. ‘Rooster’ was his dad’s nickname – that’s where the name of the song came from.

“Art Alexakis, of Everclear, wrote Father of Mine.  He came from a family where his father was a dead-beat dad.  When he (Art) had his first child, he realized what an honor it was to be a parent – what a terrific experience he was having with it.  He couldn’t understand how his dad could not have gotten that – how he could have walked away from that opportunity and not take any responsibility for it.

“Art has become an active spokesperson on behalf of people with deadbeat dads.  He’s appeared before Congress and has done a whole lot to help in this area.  The song is about both sides of his experience – being the victim of a deadbeat dad and being fortunate to be a father of young children.”

One of the stories behind the songs that I got a big kick out of, though it wasn’t a surprise to me at all, was Iron Butterfly’s In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida, written by band member, Doug Ingle.  Jo-Ann shares the story:

“There have rumors about the song but I don’t think they were ever definitive.  When he (Ingle) was writing it, he and his pals were drinking up a storm, as many did in those days, and having a good ol’ time partying with some girls.  He was on deadline to finish a song for the album because the album was almost finished.

“Interestingly, a lot of these songs were the last song on an album.  Several were written under pressure.  But in this case, Doug had told his band mates that he would get it done that night. He wrote a good part of the song and was intent on finishing it but as he was singing it, he was slurring his words so badly that they were almost indistinguishable.

“What he wanted to say was, ‘In The Garden of Eden’.  Instead, it came out as ‘In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida’.  It became so catchy that they stuck with it! Night Ranger – the same thing.  Sister Christian was supposed to be Sister Christy, Kelly Keagy’s sister’s name, but it came out sounding like Sister Christian and it sounded so much better and they stuck with it.”

In the course of our conversation, I asked Ms. Geffen if there were any songs covered in the book that were typically misunderstood.  Her reply was interesting and insightful.

“I don’t think that there are any songs in the book that are misunderstood – just not understood but I don’t think that there are any that are so ‘polar’ from perception.  I think that a lot of the ones we’ve mentioned were not understood.  What the writers do is give more insight into the songs.

“For instance, Melissa Etheridge, Come To My Window.  That’s quite interesting, too.  Although, superficially, it was what it was, in that she was writing it about a bad relationship, as time passed, it took on whole other meanings.  One was that it became an anthem of the Gay Rights movement.

“Then, secondarily, after she had her cancer surgery, she and some friends were at home and they were trying to entertain her.  And one of the friends said, ‘Have you ever listened to all of your recordings back to back chronologically?’  She said, ‘No, why would I?’

“So, they did and it took three days because they talked about the songs. When Come To My Window came on, there’s a phrase in there that refers to removing the blackness from her chest.  She, of course, was talking about her heart, her soul, her third eye kind of thing, in terms of removing the emotional pain.  But, she just had the ‘blackness’ in her chest removed and it was prophetic in that sense and took on a whole new meaning for her.  I had not thought of that part of it before but it was quite enlightening and special.”

As we wrapped up talking about Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Story Behind the Song and move on to other industry related questions, I asked Jo-Ann if there was a sequel planned for the book.

“I don’t know.  Hopefully.  I guess it’s a matter of how well it sells and if they want to do another one. But, yeah, it would be fun! There are certainly a lot more people to talk to!”

As we turned to discussing the music business in general, I asked Ms. Geffen some of the same questions that I have asked others in the business, starting with if she thought that the music today was lacking the same “meat” and substance that “our” music did in the 60’s and 70’s.

“Well, as I was saying with Art Alexakis and Father of Mine, maybe not as lyrically articulate, should we say?  Maybe not Paul Williams’ style of being that lyrical but certainly I think that the essence is there. I think that a lot of it has to do with the music because we don’t hear the lyrics as clearly now – or, at least I don’t. I can only speak subjectively.

“But, when I’m listening to songs, I just kind of hear the beat more than the words.  But when we heard ballads or even Ray Stevens type of songs – country songs you can still pretty much hear the words.  But a lot of the Pop and Rock, you just don’t.  You never did but you really don’t now.  Some of these songs are really impactful but you have to get past the drums and the guitars!  You have to try that much harder to get the words. Before, the melody line was the key.  That was the first thing you heard but now it’s not, at least as far as I’m concerned.”

The second standard question I asked Jo-Ann was what did she see as the biggest positive change in the music business?

“I guess the ability to say almost anything you want to say.  I mean, I don’t approve of everything being said. I think that a lot of the offensive and murderous language could be curtailed.  I don’t think they should be provocative in the sense that it incites people to do something that they might not ordinarily do in terms of violence or things that can provoke people to that point.

“Having said that, we do have freedom of speech and it does allow us to say, ‘Oh, my god, I’m not the only one who thinks that!’ It doesn’t mean I have to act on it.  I think that, as much as society is open with our feelings, the music is reflecting that.  So, it’s become more insightful and more personal and more open, I think.

“I do prefer the days, for instance, when the Commodores were in the studio with six guys who just played their instruments and that was it . . . and played them simultaneously!  I think there’s a synergy that’s reflected in the music itself when people work together, literally in concert. They can make changes as they go.  It makes the groups more cohesive, too, because they’re on the same page.”

I wrapped up our conversation with asking Jo-Ann Geffen a question that I’ve never had the privilege of asking others I’ve interviewed: If there was one thing from her perspective as a PR guru, what would she like to tell Boomerocity readers about celebrities?  Before I could even finish the question, she answered with point blank precision.

“That they’re human.  They are human!  Our expectations of them can only be what we expect of ourselves. You have to think about the responsibilities that they have and the work load they have.  Yes, they have a lot of money and, yes, they have fame.  But there is a price that’s attached to that and I think that we have to respect that.

“I think that too many people think that they can run up to a celebrity while they’re in the middle of changing a diaper or having dinner with their wife or husband or exhausted after a show where they’ve put everything into it and they’ve been on the road for weeks.  They expect them to stop everything and pay attention to them, take a picture, kiss their babies.  Sometimes that will happen if they’re able to pull it off but sometimes they’re just too bloody tired.  Or, they’ve been through a traumatic experience that they try to cover up on stage but they can’t cover up one-on-one.

“I think we really need to think about people – not just as objects and not just as our personal entertainment but they’re human beings!  Yes, we’re paying for it and, yes, we deserve to have a great show.  But, that doesn’t mean that we have to be personally entertained on their time.  I think there’s a fine line that has to be drawn and respected.

“There’s nothing wrong with going up, politely, and saying to someone, ‘I just want to tell you that I’m an admirer.’  That’s always appreciated but you also can’t get angry if they say, ‘Would you mind?  I’ve really got to go.’  I think that, if that is the response, that people should respect that and understand it.”

Well put.

After our conversation, I couldn’t help but think of the music this legendary woman witnessed, promoted and influenced in her life and career.  Yet, rather than draw attention to herself in her first book, she, being the consummate professional, promotes others and their work.  A lot can be said about putting others first and Jo-Ann Geffen does so in a classy and intriguing way in her book, Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Story Behind the Song.

Why don’t you pick up a copy for yourself? While you’re at it, why not pick up extra copies to give to family and friends who might enjoy the incredible stories behind their favorite songs?

Bernard Fowler

Posted February, 2013

bernardfowlerfinal cropPhoto by Jonnie MilesIf you think you haven’t heard the name Bernard Fowler, think again. If I point out to you that if you’ve listened to any kind of popular music over the last, oh, say, nearly thirty years, you’ve absolutely heard Bernard’s voice, trust me, you have.  Remember the early eighties tunes Don’t Make Me Wait or Life Is Something Special by the New York Citi Peech Boys?  Bernard was an integral part of that band.  Oh, and remember Herbie Hancock’s albums, Future Shock and Sound-System?  Yeah, Fowler fronted those.  Then there’s Philip Glass’s Songs From The Liquid Days and Bootsy Collins’ album, What’s Bootsy Doin’? Bernard’s voice comes through on those, too.

In 1986, Fowler was hired for vocal and vocal arrangement work for some guy named Mick Jagger on his solo album, She’s The Boss.  Maybe you heard of him?  That project lead to Bernard’s twenty-seven year long (and counting) gig with Mr. Jagger’s struggling little band called The Rolling Stones.

You get the picture.

Over his many years of excellence-making work, Fowler has earned the respect of the upper echelon of music makers and shakers around the globe.  When I asked guitar great Steve Lukather for his thoughts on Bernard’s craft, he said that Bernard’s “one of the greatest voices I have ever worked with and also one of the coolest people.  We have done a bunch of stuff together - writing, jammin', hangin'. He sang on some of my solo records. I played on his and I am a fan. And he plays with the Stones! It don’t get much cooler than that!”

Stones band mate and legendary sax player Bobby Keys said, “I was thinking back to when I first saw Bernard – I can’t remember which Stones tour it was but it’s been several tours back – over twenty years ago, I think – when Bernard first started singing with the Stones. When I heard that the Stones were gonna have singers, I thought, ‘Well, that’ll be good. Let’s see what they sound like.’  And, Bernard, man, the first time I ever heard him sing – I think Keith told me about Bernard before I actually heard him sing. The first time I ever heard Bernard sing, man, I really thought I was listening to Sam Cooke and Otis Redding tied together!  I was, like, ‘Damn! This guy’s too good to sing with this band!’  I really did.”

Continuing on, Keys said, “Then came Bernard’s work with Charlie (Watts). You know, the big band albums?  He handled those ballads, man, just like he was born to it. I remember Bernard never hitting a bad lick. He’s one of the gifted people, man, who just has an inbred instinct and feel for music and expresses it vocally. As a musician, I really respect him. He’s not just a vocalist, as such. He’s a musician, man. His voice is an instrument. I find it to have been a great pleasure to work with him and hear him sing. Gettin’ ready to do that again in a month or so.”

It was to that point about Bernard’s voice – and even his stage presence – that caused me to lead off with an admittedly unusual – if not unusually placed – question.  I’ve grown up in church circles where southern gospel was prevalent.  Knowing that Fowler was NYC born and raised gave me pause, however, some of his mannerisms might lead some to conclude that his musical background might involve church music of some sort.  I asked Bernard if this was the case.  And he answered.

“That’s a funny question you’ve asked. It’s a “yes” and it’s a “no” -  only because I’m from New York City – specifically the Queensbridge Projects.  I was born and raised in New York City. But both my mother and father are from North Carolina. My father was from Zebulon. My mom is from Raleigh. So, yes, both of my parents are from the south and church was a big part of our lives.

“As a kid growing up in New York City, my mom sent me away to North Carolina every summer.  Every summer until I was about sixteen years old, mom sent me to Big Mamma’s house. Big Mamma was my grandmother and Big Mamma was a Christian woman. And let me tell you, you weren’t walking in or out of Big Momma’s house without her praying for you.

“So I was pretty much introduced to the church at a very young age.  I heard gospel music when it was gospel music. What I mean by that is that there weren’t no drummers. Wasn’t no bass players. Wasn’t no guitar players. It was straight-up choir, organ and piano. So, there’s a yes and no answer to that question.”

bernardfowler2As it was, Bernard and his family’s religious life was within Baptist circles.  Bernard remembers, “It’s funny, I just left North Carolina. I went down to see my mom for Christmas. I hadn’t seen her in a while. My mother’s sister – my Aunt Nell - lives nearby in my grandmother’s house.  As I was driving down for a visit, I was thinking about going down there when I was growing up, including this one time Aunt Nell set off for church on what turned out to be anything but a normal Sunday. This time Aunt Nell and I went church hoppin’!’ We spent the entire Sunday visiting different churches in North Carolina. And this was all day long! ALL DAY LONG!  When I say ‘all day,’ I mean all day!  We’d go to one service and then scoot off to the next.

“I remember there was this one church in particular – it was different. It was different. I can’t explain how different it was but it was different. Trust me. We were deep in North Carolina. I remember my Aunt Nell saying ‘Baby, you like this church?’  I replied, ‘No, Aunt Nell, I don’t like this church.’ She said, ‘Me, either. Let’s go!’  And off we went!” After laughing an infectious laugh as only Fowler can, he added, “That just explains how much time we spent at church from a very young age.”

Concluding his thoughts on that early part of his life, Bernard said, “So, yeah, although that’s not where my singing career started, it’s very much a part of me.”  Then, with a smile that came clearly over the telephone line, said, “Very perceptive, Randy.”

In pre-interview communications with Fowler, I became aware that he was working on a new solo album. I asked him to tell me a little bit about it.

“I’m working on my second solo record. I’m excited about what’s going on and what’s happening with the music thus far. Right now I’m about eight songs in, and I plan to record five or so more. Out of those, I’ll pick ten to make the album. Of the songs that don’t make the album, we’re working on a way to give them to people – a little something extra. People don’t buy albums like they did when I was a kid. People buy songs. So, yeah, that’s what I’m doing. I’m trying to get this record done by at least the end of the month or half way into March. I want it done. I want it finished.  I’m hoping that there could be some Stones shows coming up.  You never know until you know, but regardless, I want to get it done.”

That comment prompted me to ask Fowler what drives his solo sales: his own solo reputation, his association with The Rolling Stones, or his work with other people?

“Um, I think it’s a combination of everything that I’ve done in my career which, you know, has been pretty varied. Some know me before the Stones, and some only with the Stones.  And some both.  But yes, there are lots of people that have become aware of me through my work with the Stones, which is great, but I’ve always had such a diverse career. Ultimately I think it’s a combination, which is good.”

Bernard is enjoying an amazing career – working first with Mick Jagger and then with the rest of the band.  I asked, when looking back, is there was one pivotal part of his career where he can say that, if it wasn’t for that instant or experience, he would’ve never gotten the Jagger or Stones gig.

“Absolutely. The New York Citi Peech Boys. That, along with Herbie Hancock.  Those two projects – they’re what brought me to the Stones because I would say that before the New York Citi Peech Boys, nobody really knew who I was. At that time I was just a young vocalist trying to make waves. I had my first hit record with the Peech Boys. It was a club record and the Peech Boys were also the first to have a DJ as part of the band. Before that – before the Peech Boys – that did not exist.  That was Larry Levan. He was the premier star DJ. There was nobody bigger than Larry at that time, DJ wise. Now, DJs are as popular as the artists that they sample!  It’s totally amazing. I don’t get it!  People will fill a hall and watch a guy spin records. Where’s the entertainment factor?  I’m still trying to get that. Maybe it’s the big room – the congregation of everybody – I don’t know.”

And, then, bringing the conversation back around to the DJs who play the Peech Boys and other work that Bernard has been involved with, he added, “My hat is off to them.  And I’d like to say thank you.  Thank you for help keeping my voice in people’s ears.”

While the focus of my interview with Bernard was on his own work and career, I couldn’t resist asking him one Stones related question.  I was curious what he thinks is the biggest misconception that people have when it comes to The Rolling Stones.

“I think it’s the hype about ‘sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll’ that people think about the band. That’s probably the biggest misconception people have. When I talk to people and they’re, like, ‘Oh, man, you must be doing this and you must be doing that’ – it’s just wrong.  Sure, everybody knows that, yes, there was a point in their lives that they may have done a lot of that – they talk about it honestly. But it’s like every other job, there were occupational hazards and sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll are occupational hazards for rock and rollers. But I have to say this.  It’s all bullshit now. When I’m on stage with the Stones night after night – and I’ve been there. I’ve been there about 27 years now, and I’m here to tell you that the experience is incredible. Sometimes, I get mesmerized when I’m on stage with the Stones.  I’ll be singing, and watching them do their thing. Mick, without a doubt, is the hardest working man in show business. James Brown had that title but he’s gone now so that’s Mick’s. Hands-down, Jagger has that title. I watch him – all of them – and listen to them.”

“I think the biggest misconception of them is that drugs play such a big part of who and what they are. That’s the biggest misconception.  Maybe at one time in their careers it was but since I’ve been there, it’s not. We’ve had some fun times. I’ve been fortunate enough to be there and grow along with them. There are things that I did and we did when I first hooked up with them – we don’t do anymore. The one thing that has not left the band is the passion for the music. That has not left one bit. And I’m telling ya, that passion shows!

“I’m sorry to go off on this but, real quickly, through the years, I see things and hear things that people write about The Rolling Stones and I want to take a moment to agree with all the accolades that Keith and Ronnie have gotten over the years and say that, without a doubt, those accolades are well deserved. Those cats are – they are our blues men now. Muddy’s not here anymore. Howlin’ Wolf ain’t here no more. But Keith and Ronnie learned from them. We did a show, I guess it was in London and Eric Clapton was there and we were playing and Eric did his thing. He’s a beautiful player, no question about it. He did his thing and it was great. But, when Keith did his thing, the hair on the back of my neck stood up and I’ve got thick hair! It was like, ‘Oh, my God!’ And Ronnie…wow. The two of them.   Amazing.  All that stuff they had listened to coming through, you could hear it – like a direct connection to the old blues cats. A direct connection! 

“I grew up listening to that music. Going back to my folks, all those records that they (the Stones) listened to over in England were also in my house. My mom and dad listened to those records. It’s funny because, when I met the Stones, I remember spending some nights with Keith and I was listening to what he was playing and I’m like, ‘I know that song!’ And he’s kind of looking at me. One night, I’m with Keith and my mother just happened to call me. I’m talking to her and she could hear the blues in the background and she said, ‘Bernard, where are you?’ I said that I was at Keith’s and she said, ‘Is that him playing that music?’ I said, ‘Yeah, Mom’ and she said, ‘Let me talk to him!’ So, there you go.”

Much later in our conversation, I found myself gushing over the lovely and ever so talented singing mate of Bernard’s, Lisa Fischer. He jumped right on my comment.

“That’s my baby! I can’t imagine doing The Rolling Stones without her.”  When I commented about her always stunning performances on the solo on Gimme Shelter, Fowler gave me some of his thoughts on that, too. “Randy, I’m with you, man, I’m with you. Mick knows I am such a fan of what Lisa does with that song that anytime they have any guest artist sing the song, I’m always walking around with a frown” he said with a laugh and then added, “I try in my way to talk him out of it because I’m just a fan of what she does with that song. It’s either Lisa Fischer or Mary Clayton, who sang the original and who nailed that tune. I’ve not heard anybody else – anybody else sing it like that.”

When asked what have been the biggest challenges to his career, Bernard said, “The biggest challenge has been building my career. That’s been the biggest challenge because I’m a soul singer from birth. It’s in me. I am that. Growing up I listened to everything – everything. I listened to everything my mom and dad had at home like Muddy Waters and Little Richard and all of that. Mom would put me down for a nap and that music was playing. That is definitely part of me – and Motown and Atlantic and Stax – that’s all a part of me. I always had this thing for rock and roll. I remember when I was in junior high school and we would play hooky. I had a friend that had kind of the same musical tastes as I did – which were a bit off.  I grew up in Queensbridge. If you’re familiar with the rapper, Nas, he’s from Queensbridge. We grew up in the same area. We grew up in the same projects. My musical tastes were a lot wider than the people that I was growing up with. Carole King, Three Dog Night, Santana, Buddy Miles, Hendrix. Some people in the hood might have listened to some of it but not like I did. I always thought that I was born a little late because I was supposed to be at Woodstock.  I was born but I was too young to go. Something about seeing that film is like, ‘I was supposed to be there!’

“I was a different cat when I was growing up. You know, the hood has its style of dress. I could’ve gone with the crowd and dressed like that but I had my own thing. I wore bell bottoms and a dashiki or a shirt that I had made or a hat that I had made.  I walked around with a question mark on the back of my head. My head was bald except for the question mark.  I was a different kid.  A lot of kids in the hood said, ‘Damn! Bernard’s kinda strange!’ And I was super athletic as a young kid. People couldn’t quite figure out me. And neither could I. I just knew that I was different. I felt different.”

Fowler concludes the thought with story filled with irony.

Bernard Fowler has been referred to in other interviews as a sort of Renaissance man, musically speaking – very diverse in his musical talents.  I asked him what he attributes that to.

“It’s a compliment to hear somebody describe me as such. I really appreciate that because I always try to go out of the box – out of my comfort zone. Some people will like something but they won’t go for it. They will listen to this thing they like from afar but are afraid of being ridiculed. I was never afraid of anybody talking about me – even when I went to school with Beatle boots on. I didn’t care. To me, it was the sharpest thing in the world and I begged my mother for those Beatle boots and I still wear that type of shoe to this day!

With over thirty years in the music business, Fowler has witnessed a lot of changes.  I asked him what, from his perspective, have been the biggest changes in the music business – both positive and negative.

Still chatting along that same vein, I asked Fowler to imagine President Obama calling him up and offering him a new cabinet position, Music Czar and that he’s been tasked with fixing the music business. What would he do?

“The second thing is: kill auto-tune. Kill it right now!  Kill it dead!  Kill that damn auto-tune!  I don’t mind someone in the studio working – singing over and over until you get it right. That’s what a studio is for. I’m going to say it but I don’t really mean this: Auto-tune has made great singers out of non-singers. You know what I’m sayin’. Let’s kill that auto-tune dead!  I’m from the school, hey!  You know what?  You go into the studio and you’re going to record a song, sing the song from the top to the bottom.  Before you start overdubbing, sing it from top to bottom. That’s when you know you know your craft!  You know your craft! There’s such a thing as one take.  It’s a magical thing when that kind of thing happens. Auto-tune is probably the worst thing that could have ever happened. I wasn’t a fan of home studios but, you know, not everybody can afford to go to a recording studio. But, recording studios are there for a reason, people!  They’re there for a reason!  All of my favorite stuff was recorded where?  In a recording studio.  I’m just sayin’.  I may be a bit of a snob and someone younger than us will say, ‘He’s old!’ but I tell you what, I’ll take that old quality any day! Any day!”

“I was talking with someone yesterday - I don’t know if you know but I did a tour with Joe Walsh. I sang for Joe Walsh. The DeLeo brothers (founding members of the Stone Temple Pilots) were the rhythm section. Anyway, someone yesterday was telling me something about Joe Walsh. I guess he was talking along the same lines as I have been. Good for him. Good for him!  Yeah, Joe!”

“That’s kind of a difficult question because there’s my heroes that I grew up with and then there’s some of the young cats that are doing stuff now. Marvin (Gaye) is no longer here. I’d have loved to sit and sing with him. That’s a hard question because, I’m not a big fan of what they call R&B these days. I’m not a big fan of that. I’d rather listen to the other stuff. I’d rather listen to Marvin and Jimmy Castor; some old George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic. I’d rather listen to that stuff than to listen to a lot of (the new) R&B.  I tell you what: I’d love to work with Bill Laswell again!  It has been years since we’ve worked together so I’d like to do that again. Wow! That’s a real heavy question!  I’d like to do Herbie (Hancock) again.  I’d like to do Dave Grohl. I’m definitely a fan!  I like his energy. Oh! I’ve got one for you!  David Bowie! A couple of others that would be on my bucket list are Ryuichi Sakamoto and Philip Glass. I’ve worked with them both before but I would love it if I could work with them again. They would definitely be on my bucket list.”

As for up-and-coming talent is on his radar, Fowler said, “I love – what’s that cat’s name? Gary Clark, Jr.!  He’s on my radar!”  Then, when Joe Bonamassa’s name was brought up, Bernard shared a great story.

“When I met Jagger, I did his first solo record. I didn’t just go and sing, I did the vocal arrangements for his first solo record. It doesn’t say it on the record but that was all mine. I had a Fostex four track machine. When I met him, we sat on the floor, sang a bit and he gave me a cassette. I went back to the hotel, put it in my four track recorder and did all my background stuff. The next day, when I went to the studio, that’s what we did.

“I was insulted. ‘He would like to know if you would like to audition.’ And I’m like, ‘Wait a minute. I did his solo record.  Audition?’ She left the room and, when she left the room I said, ‘I’m not going to audition. I did his first solo record and now he wants me to audition?’ 

“Carmine’s a lot older than I am.  He’s like my big brother so he gave me a good talkin’ to. So, I took the tape that the girl left – a tape of four Rolling Stones songs that I had to sing. The band that he had was red hot.  Simon Phillips on drums, Doug Wimbish on bass, Jimmy Rip on guitar, Joe Satriani on guitar. So I walk into this room and all these cats are lookin’ at me and one of them looks at me with his arms folded like, ‘Here we go again. We got another guy.’ Made me feel like a chump and I didn’t like feelin’ that way. I remember saying in my head, ‘You know what? I’m gonna give them a dose!’ I remember there were all these chairs lined up with all these people and I said, ‘You know what? I’m gonna give ‘em a dose and I’m gonna show my ass!’ 

With our scheduled 30-minute chat running thirty minutes over time, I asked Bernard what was on his career radar for the next year, five years and the rest of your life.

My final question to Mr. Fowler before we both had to get on with our day was: When your life is over, how do you want to be remembered and what do you hope your legacy will be?

And, man, can that cat sing.