Posted July, 2012
Mark Rivera. Perhaps only to the most die-hard music nuts like yours truly will the name immediately be familiar. However, to any fan of rock and roll, you have definitely been touched by the music this incredible talented artist has been inextricably a part of.
First and foremost, you would know Rivera’s work as the sax man for Billy Joel since 1982. Prior to joining the piano man, Rivera worked with a long list of musical dignitaries. In 1975, he worked with John Lennon and Yoko in a tribute to Sir Lew Grade that turned out to be Lennon’s last TV performance. Mark remembers that, for that gig, “Yoko Ono had us put on skull caps and have a replica of our face to show the duality of American society. So, we did that gig and I did a couple of TV shows with him and he produced a Gary U.S. Bonds record that I played on.”
Mark went on to work with Sam and Dave as well as with Mutt Lange (“Mutt’s one of my favorite people in this business. I love him!”) and Foreigner on their groundbreaking Foreigner 4 album. In fact, Mutt, Lou Gramm, and Rivera sang all of the backing vocals on Juke Box Hero and Waiting on a Girl like You.
In 1982, Mark joined Billy Joel’s band and has been with him ever since. While working with Joel, he has shared the stage with the likes of Elton John during the Face 2 Face tour and, during the historic The Last Play at Shea concert, performed with greats like Don Henley, Steven Tyler, Tony Bennett, Roger Daltrey, John Mellencamp, John Mayer and Sir Paul McCartney. When not working with Mr. Joel, Mark has worked with other greats like Hall & Oates, Peter Gabriel, and Simon & Garfunkel.
Oh and there’s his current gig that he’s also held since the mid-nineties as music director for some guy named “Ringo Starr”. Perhaps you’ve heard of him? I didn’t think so.
Mark and I became acquainted by way of our mutual friend, acclaimed rock photographer, Rob Shanahan, whose work Boomerocity features each and every month in our Photo of the Month feature. Rob is Ringo’s official photographer as well as a trusted friend and it’s through this association that Rob and Mark know each other.
I was pleased to learn that Mark has been working on his first solo album ever and has just made the single available. Naturally, my ears perked up like a Doberman on that bit of news and so I knew that an interview with the sax man was certainly in order. E-mails were exchanged and a time set as Mark was more than gracious enough to grant my request.
I called Rivera at his hotel room in New York City in between gigs with Mr. Starr. As he was cleaning up and awaiting the arrival of the lovely Mrs. Rivera, we exchanged small talk about the tour and how it was all going in its early stages – including my question as to why the All-Starr tour wasn’t stopping in Dallas for the second year in a row.
“Ah, I don’t know what’s up with that. We’re not going anywhere near Texas, in fact. I was hoping Austin, at least! I know he (Ringo) loves Billy Bob’s and that’s in Fort Worth. I don’t know. I don’t know. But, what are ya gonna do?”
After discussing the All-Starr tour, we shifted the focus over to Mark’s new single and his plans for supporting its release after the All-Starr tour.
“Absolutely! What I’m going to be doing is pull some gigs together in the city (New York). I’ve got to put some final touches on my CD. I’ve got to do some vocals yet and couple of other things but nothing big but enough to get my happy butt busy, you know what I mean?” But as for the complete album being released, Rivera adds, “It looks like it’s going to be more like October or into November, depending upon what the reality is. I’d rather get it right and spend the time to get it right than to push it and find out that I missed whatever part of it I wanted to get right. I’m going to take my time and get it done.”
The single that Mark was referring to is the rocker, Turn Me Loose (read the Boomerocity review of it here), and, boy does it rock with lots of great sax work (read the Boomerocity review of it here). I asked Mark to tell me a little bit about the song and how it all came to together.
“That particular song – Jimmy Bralower is the producer and co-writer. He and I, we’ve been playing together forever. He kind of pushed me to even think of this project as a viable situation and that I should have a CD out. Because I’ve worked with so many people, it’s been difficult for me to actually spend the time to do it. Jimmy Bralower had a track with the guitar player, Jonny Gale and when I heard it, the first thing that I sang was ‘Turn Me Loose’.
“Anyway, long story short, Jimmy Bralower was the push behind all this. He had a track of guitar and some loops – some percussion loops that he had put together – just a barren track. For some reason, the person he was working with didn’t jump on it. He played it for me down in the basement one night – this is before I even had a thought of really doing a CD. I started singing stuff immediately. In fact, ‘turn me loose’ was the first or second thing out of my mouth and he said, ‘Buddy!’ and he pressed his iPhone and we had a hook. That was the germ of the whole thing.
“Again, everything took a long time because I was either touring with Billy or doing a bunch of corporate dates. But Jimmy said that we’ve got to up the ante and get into a real studio and get players. I wanted to use my very, very dear friend, Charley Drayton, the drummer. At the time, he was working with Simon and Garfunkel and then he was working in Australia with Cold Chisel and now, currently, he’s with Fiona Apple. The guy is obviously very busy.
“So, I kept pushing the date around and, finally, the stars lined up and Charlie was available and my other very dear friend, Steve Conte, the guitar player. He lives in Amsterdam and now he’s touring with Michael Monroe. So, we got in there in the studio and that song was ready to go. We cut eleven tracks, all told, in two days, which is pretty ambitious. But, look, we had the right guys and we had the right studio. We did it at Avatar, which is the old Power Station where I did Sledgehammer (with Peter Gabriel) which had some sentimental value to me – or some vibe to it. Everything else went along well.
“That vocal in the room – as a scratch vocal – with the band and it ended up being the one on the record. If I remember right, Jimmy was upset with me because my favorite headphones are from another very dear friend of mine, John Grado, makes headphones. Are you familiar with Grado Headphones? They’re, like, state-of-the-art! I love those phones and I had them on but they’re not meant for isolation. So, you have some drum leakage because I had the drums blasting in my ears. But I can’t sing his (Bralower’s) praises enough. Without him, this dream would’ve laid dormant forever. I guess that’s a long answer but that’s what got this thing going. I’m very, very proud of it and very pleased with the response I’ve been getting.”
In another part of our conversation, Mark indicated that the album has been in the works since August of last year. However, songs that wound up on the album were written long before then. Rivera explained, “There’s one song called Hard to Let Go – which Jimmy and I wrote together and Nils Lofgren’s played on that one – that was written, believe it or not – man, this will frighten you – back in 1991. I’ve always written songs. In fact, I have two more that I’m ready to go back into the studio with. Jimmy always says that, before the actual CD comes out, the last thing you put on is sometimes the best thing you do because you’re not always ready to do it in the beginning. So, I still think some of the best stuff is still there to go!”
Then, almost as an afterthought, Mark added, “I’m 59 now and it’s pretty crazy to think that this is where I am now. I’ve done a lot of work with a lot of different people but this is my first solo album. This is the one!”
With Rivera mentioning the fact that he’s worked with so many different people, I mentioned that he should write a book like one of his other sax-playing peers, Bobby Keys, recently did.
“I have to tell ya, Bobby is in a position because of the people he’s worked with – this is really a compliment – he can say, ‘Hey, man, I can say it just like it was’ because he and Keith (Richards) were born on the same day – the same day, the same year. Pretty incredible. He can tell what it was like because he was in the thick of it all.
“I really believe that – I don’t know if it’s karma or whatever – I really don’t want to say anything that would put anyone in a bad light. Unfortunately, people want to read about the dirt about who was messing with who and who was doing drugs. Look, there’s no halo over my head. I’m not proud of everything that I’ve done but I will say that I don’t feel the need to cash in on that. SO, if I was to write a book it would be a nice book and nice books don’t sell! I love talking about things I’ve done and sharing stories but it’s a crazy world out there with all of the reality TV and stuff. People drive by an accident, they can’t help but keep looking. I just say, ‘Keep driving and be grateful that you’re not hurt.’ That’s how I feel.”
In Mark’s forty year career, he has obviously worked on a ton of albums that had to have prepared him for his work on Common Bond. I asked the sax man if, still, there were any surprises that he didn’t anticipate while working on the album.
“Yeah, the amount of work that goes into it – the amount of effort to get things right. That’s why I’m so amazed when I hear or see the level of how prolific the Beatles were – how much they did in such a short span of time. It always blows my mind. I think what’s really surprising is the result because it’s really a double-edged sword. I mean, I’m shocked, first of all, that anybody cares and then I’m even more shocked when I hear the stuff.
“I’ve got to keep referring to Jimmy Bralower. He said, ‘When we mix these songs and work on these songs – and they’re like our children – you listen to them and until they’re at the stage that you feel so comfortable – you’re kind of holding your breath that something’s going to go wrong or that you’re going to hear something that you hate. When I finally heard the tracks in their final mix, I was then able to actually breathe! I’m not saying that my pitch is perfect or anything like that but there’s a great vibe, I think, and what’s being done with the song – it far surpasses anything – it exceeds my expectations far and away.”
Then, drilling down to what really surprised him, Mark added, “The surprising part is that I actually did it! That’s probably the biggest surprise. And, not to sound corny, but the fact that I took the time. I mean, I’m a working guy. I work for my family. I take care of my family. The time that Jimmy allotted for me – he’s running around. He’s got his own record company – Dynotone Records. Hopefully, I’ll put this CD out on that. He’s everything! So, the fact that he would take the time out – he’s like, ‘Buddy, we’ve got work to do!’ So, by the grace of God – and Jimmy Bralower – I got this thing done!”
Rivera often lends his more than capable talents to very worthy causes and to help out friends in need. A personal high point for him took place in January, 2007. Aninha Capaldi, the wife of the late Traffic co-founder, Jim Capaldi, tapped Mark as music director for the Jim Capaldi Tribute Concert at Roundhouse in London. In that event, he worked with rock royalty such as the late Gary Moore, Steve Winwood, Joe Walsh, Jon Lord, Paul Weller, Bill Wyman, Yusuf Islam, Steve Lange, Ray Cooper, the Storys, Dennis Locorrieree. Many of those performances were captured on the DVD, Dear Mr. Fantasy Featuring the Music of Jim Capaldi and Traffic: A Celebration for Jim Capaldi.
These days, Rivera works with such worthy charities as the Red Cross, Cure Autism Now Foundation, The Miami Children’s Hospital and Michael J. Fox’s Foundation For Parkinson’s Research. The passion that Mark has for his music is brought full-force to help these groups raise money for their causes. As if that’s not enough, he, along with some of his musician friends, is developing a program designed to educate and motivate young people in inner city school systems to develop their musical talents.
As we wrapped up our chat, Mark Rivera shared some introspective closing thoughts.
“The main thing is, just like my having been blessed by playing with bands like Foreigner on Foreigner 4, in particular; the work I did with Peter Gabriel on Sledgehammer and the work I’ve done with Billy, and one of my favorite bands ever which people don’t realize until they hear Start Over, is a band like Traffic. It’s going back to those times and this is a collection of all my records and all the songs that are in my head. Remembering, I guess; not allowing myself to forget that I’ve had an incredible ride so far and to, hopefully, let it continue.”
The ride continues with the release of Common Bond this fall. Until then, you can see Mark perform in Ringo’s All-Starr Band this summer and who knows what other friends he may be helping in the meantime?