Remember Steve Martin's first movie, "The Jerk"? For those of you who haven't seen the 1979 hit, it's about a man, Navin Johnson, who is being raised by an African-American family who thinks he'll turn black as he gets older. One of the scenes early in the movie shows Navin trying to dance with the same grace and rhythm as his family. The out of rhythm, staccato-like, spasmodic moves that he called dancing fell woefully short of the mark.
Have that image indelibly burned into your mind and you'll have a pretty good idea of how I would've looked like on the high school dance floor as a teen. Well, okay, I dance the same way today but that's not the point of the story.
The point of the story is that there was a HUGE hit on the airwaves in 1976 that fooled us ungifted white-boy dancers into thinking we could actually dance. The song? Wild Cherry's, "Play That Funky Music".
Now, admit it. When I told you the name of the song, didn't you feel a little spasm in your butt and a tingle in your feet, making you almost want to jump up and dance? I know that you did so don't deny it.
Well, do I ever have a treat for you! The voice behind that smash hit, as well as the founding member of, and guitarist for, Wild Cherry, Rob Parissi, was gracious enough to take the time to answer some questions for Boomerocity.com. Imagine my excitement that the man who played the mean guitar solo in the middle of "Funky" (and gave me many pleasurable hours playing air guitar along with) was going to take the time to chat with me from his home in the beautiful state of Florida. It was a laugh-filled blast.
Since the fun filled, funky days of the seventies, Parissi has made the move over into the genre of Smooth Jazz/Adult Contemporary. I asked him what influenced him to take the leap from Funk/Rock to Smooth Jazz. Reflectively, he says, "I knew music was going to be my life before I was 5 years old. However, when I was 10 or 11, and taking a serious interest in being a musician, it was the initial influence of Mozart, Henry Mancini, Cal Tjader, Jimmy Smith, Wes Montgomery, artists like that who inspired me to learn. I think I was fascinated by the sophisticated chord changes, which I could hear and play by ear, but I didn't understand.
"Looking back, what was so interesting to me was the mathematics involved. It wasn't until several years after I started in a rock band after being influenced by the California instrumental surf bands, Bo Diddley, Beatles, AND GIRLS, that I learned my way around key, string, and percussion instruments and started to realize it was all about the math in the arrangements that brings it all together.
"That's what compelled me to also be an arranger and producer later on. These days, I also engineer all my work here in the studio, so it never ends, which is good in that it keeps me interested and always learning. Besides, robbing liquor stores always kept me on the run."
Since he mentioned the instruments he plays, I asked him about the kind of gear he's using these days.
"I've been playing a Fender Strat for over 30 years, primarily, but about 5 . . . . years ago, Gibson started to make a single cutaway model ES-137 Custom in Memphis that I bought without even playing or hearing because I could just see that it was going to be good, and it is. Before the Strat, I used a Les Paul. This ES-137 is a cross between a Les Paul, and a 335. When I'm recording, it's good to have a few different guitars lying around to layer parts with that complement each other. As for amp, in the studio, I play through an old Digitech 2112 rack mount straight into the console that pretty much gives me any sound I'm looking for. When I play out, we have a back line rider that requires rented gear, and I usually can deal with any name brand like Fender, Ampeg, Crate, and Mesa Boogie. As long as it has an overdrive two volume control and footswitch so that I can go between clean rhythm to crank it out mode. I'm also fabulous at playing the radio, and I do it loud and often.
His new disc, "Late Bloomer", has just been released so I asked Rob how sales have been for the disc.
"We've only released that CD with word of mouth thus far, and we're just starting to go after radio play at this point, so sales are what anyone would expect from just word of mouth. Ask me that again in about a year. I can tell you that my mom bought one."
When you listen to "Late Bloomer", you'll be caught off guard by the couple of funk tunes on the disc. I asked Parissi how his new audience takes his funky streak. He answers with a story that gives some background to his answer.
"Around 1996, I came to St. Petersburg from Ohio and bought a condo on the Gulf of Mexico to spend the winters. As I was driving around one day down here, I found a Smooth Jazz radio station and it was like I was 11 years old again. There was one particular instrumental band from England (Down To The Bone) that I loved, and they were doing jazz changes and riffs to funk beats with the drums and bass mixed way up heavy like dance records. I instantly got it and thought to myself, ‘that's the next place I'm going to pursue' (I always think to myself with quotation marks).
"Actually, it was like going back to what inspired me in the beginning, only now, I have enough education and experience to know why I'm doing what I am. Even back when Wild Cherry was active and had records on the charts, I spent my down time listening to people like George Benson, Lee Ritenour, and Larry Carlton. So, the jazz thing really never left me. It's just that I realized I couldn't make a living as easy as I could in a rock dance band with top 40 hits on the charts appealing to the masses out there. At this point, I can afford to do what I want and not have to worry about being a starving artist. Basically, I'm just trying to raise enough money to take the family to Dairy Queen."
With hopes of being able to catch him in a live show, I asked Rob if he was going to go on tour to promote the CD. With no mercy whatsoever, he cruelly dashes my hopes and dreams.
"I love people and the time in front of an audience on stage to death, and just starting the intro to ‘Play That Funky Music' is a rush to feel and hear the crowd go nuts. But I absolutely hate everything that goes along with it. There's nothing about putting a band together, hiring a road crew, worrying about the gear working, packing 6 suit cases, airports, limos, traveling, or hotels that appeals to me.
"If I sign with a major label again, one stipulation is that I will not be obligated to tour. I get more done right here writing and recording in my Tampa home studio. If I did decide to tour, it would be by bus, and I'd have it gutted and loaded with a few beds and a ton of recording gear (and 10 cases of wine). I'd probably be recording from the time I woke up till sound check at the next hall. Besides, we spend every weekend at my beach home over on the gulf, so I'm always busy from Fridays to Tuesdays."
As many of you Boomerocity readers know, there are a lot of people out there who claim to be a certain celebrity or band. You may have even shown up at a venue to see who you thought was going to be your favorite band or artist from the past, only to find out that they aren't who they've been promoted to be. Many of these incidences are the brainchild of unscrupulous promoters trying to make a fast, dishonest buck. Wild Cherry has been "counterfeited" like this and Parissi, who owns the rights to the Wild Cherry name, is vigorously protecting his copyright.
"In every business, unfortunately, there are always a few slime bags. They don't always wear name tags identifying themselves as "Sammy Slime Bag", so they can be hard to spot. There are a few booking agents that realize that bands who've had major hits, but little visibility, can make a buck for them. Most times, we're talking very small potatoes for all their effort. So, they put together 5 bands, call them Wild Cherry, and send them to little clubs around the country for $750 a pop, which wouldn't even pay for the sound system rental had they actually hired me.
"One of these genius weasels just happened to try to book one of his bogus Wild Cherry groups in my home town at a friend's night club telling him that I would be there in the band. This kind of person would also dress up and try to go Halloweening at his own home. Anyway, my friend contacted me and we busted him red handed. Since then, the word has spread and it's not so easy for him these days. It's almost like you have to hope club owners approached by these bogus agents would just Google my name and they'd immediately learn that they're about to be burned."
Call me stupid, but I have to ask Rob, again, (this time, from a slightly different angle), about going on tour. So, I ask him, "Don't hate me for asking this, but, with Adam Lambert doing a tweaked up version of ‘Funky Music', and the song winding up o Guitar Hero 5 (congrats to that, by the way!), are you EVER going to take Wild Cherry on the road again?"
"I don't hate you, no matter what anyone else says about you, so get that out of your head. It seems that someone on American Idol does that song at some point, almost every other year, and ‘Play That Funky Music' is used in Hallmark cards, mechanical toys, movies, on and on, and a few kinky sex toys. (Okay, I made that last one up) No one could ever imagine how much I appreciate the 'legs' that song still has after all this time, but nothing ever urges me to pull a Jake and Elwood and get the band back together. Besides, it's like I told the guys years ago when they approached me about it: 'Just think about it... we only have one hit, so unless you want to go up on stage and play an hour and a half version of 'Play That Funky Music', forget it".
Darn! Oh well. I tried.
In 2008, Rob performed at a benefit for the educational program for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Here's what he had to say about the Hall and his feelings about performing at the benefit:
"God Bless Terry Stewart, president of the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame. He honestly believes Play That Funky Music should be the theme song of the Hall of Fame, Cleveland, Ohio, and probably the rest of the United States. He really is the best thing that ever happened to that place, and not just because he's a fan, but he's a great person who's done more to make the R&RHOF a success than anyone before, and when he leaves, he'll be a tough act to follow. He phoned me a few years ago and asked me to come to Cleveland to do that show, and he also asked me to close the event that night, which was an honor that brought me to tears, as everyone on that show had more hits than my little ‘one hit wonder'."
I later contacted Terry Stewart and asked him for his opinion of Parissi's work and legacy. His input was glowingly complimentary.
"Rob's song ‘Play that Funky Music White Boy' is certainly one of the great anthems of music in the past 40 years as evidenced by how often it's played and sampled. Plus, it came right out of Cleveland.
"We were thrilled to have Rob as a part of our all-star lineup for the 2008 It's Only Rock and Roll Annual Benefit for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum. Artists and bands come together each year to show support for the Rock Hall's work and to raise money for our educational programs. In fact, our programs have become the most celebrated and award-winning emanating from any fine arts museum in the nation. We greatly appreciated Rob's support and talent. It was a fantastic show that raised nearly $250,000 for the Museum's acclaimed education programs that reach all ages, from toddlers to adults."
Still in a serious vein, I asked Parissi what the one thing that he feels has been least covered and understood about him and his work.
"That I'm really a woman named Martha. No, really, I'm not one who feels misunderstood. I'm white, I'm a boy, I sang a song about playing funky music, that's pretty much the whole enchilada. Now, for example, had I written a song with a line like, "someone left the cake out in the rain", I'd probably be in therapy."
Sorry, folks. I tried to be serious. Honest.
We later talked about music of the 60's and 70's and what the similarities and differences are, culturally. When I asked him for his thoughts on the subject, he waxes philosophical.
"Well, one decade contained a "6", and the other one a "7", but they both were followed by a "0". So, you see, there are differences between the two, but the "0" definitely made them similar. Of course, now, we're in a whole new millennium, which is no longer preceded by 19, but 20.
"So, your question gives me great anxiety and I don't think I'm qualified to answer. In fact, I just took a Valium. Culturally, you had your Beatle hair cut and troll hanging on the car rear view mirror in the 60's, soon followed by the Afro, white Saturday Night Fever suit, and disco ball in those fabulous 70's. I still stop dead and do a split every time I hear "Stayin Alive", even if I'm visiting someone in the hospital. But now days, I have a hard time getting in and out of my new Corvette, so, you tell me. BTW, the Valium's starting to work."
Okay. So, my take-aways from his comments are: If you hear "Stayin' Alive" start to play while hangin' with Rob, have your camera ready. It's going to get fun.
Continuing in this same line of thinking, he comments about the positive and negative changes that he's seen in the music industry since the 70's. "The biggest positive change is, that white people no longer suffer from peer pressure to get perms to create the ‘fro' look. The biggest negative change is Kanye West and his tourettes-syndrome-style outbursts at awards shows. Okay, maybe also that Michael Jackson started out black, but then somehow managed to turn himself white. Things like this confuse me, because I knew him when he was black. The farther I go along in this interview, the more I realize that I really do need to get into therapy."
Since I've lost all hope of control over this interview, I ask him for one of his Valium. He's so cool, he gave me one of his more powerful prescriptions called "Placebo". It seemed to call me down almost immediately.
Having regained my composure, I asked Mr. Parissi if there is any new talent that has captured his attention. With the Placebo kicking in to full force, I don't mind his answer one bit. "There was this seal I saw at Sea World last week, but that's another story. Actually, I'm still a huge fan of it all, and anybody good gets my attention, which brings me back to that seal."
As I'm peaking from the gift from Rob, I asked him what was next, CD-wise, from him or the band (still trying to wrangle a Wild Cherry Reunion Tour commitment out of him). "The band's dead, get over it. As for me, I'm gonna keep doing the smooth jazz/adult contemporary thing until people hold a telethon and raise enough money to convince me to stop and get out of the business."
In all seriousness (no, really), Rob Parissi was a lot of fun to interview. His talent and his sense of humor are very engaging and, while he has instructed me to "get over it" about the band, I still can't help but hope that I'll get to catch Rob and the guys "Play That Funky Music" just one more time.
Thank you, Rob Parissi, for giving our generation such a fun song to, uh, well, to TRY and dance to!