Artimus Pyle Remembers Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Fateful Ride in Film

Ian Shultis as Lynyrd Skynyrd drummer Artimus Pyle in Street Survivors: The True Story of the Lynyrd Skynyrd Plane Crash. Screen grab/Courtesy of Cleopatra Entertainment

Sometimes, the sound of impending doom is quiet. And sometimes it is loud. Less often, it is both. That’s how Lynyrd Skynyrd drummer Artimus Pyle recalls what he and 25 other band members, crew, associates, and pilots heard inside of their Convair CV-240 plane over the swamps near Gillsburg, Mississippi on October 20, 1977.

“It was dead silence, everybody was holding their breath. When we first went into the the trees, it was just a brushing sound, the soft parts of the tops. But when we started lowering more, that’s when it sounded like a thousand baseball bats beating the fuselage. It was horrendous,” he recalls. “And then the plane started breaking up. It took us a long time to crash and stop. I was hurt, I was bleeding, I was cut, and all the cartiladge from my throat to my breastplate was ripped. And I cut my legs up getting out of the plane to look for help.”

Pyle’s tale and that of one of rock’s greatest tragedies is told in the film Street Survivors: The True Story of the Lynyrd Skynyrd Plane Crash.

The timeframe is mostly concerned with the day before, day of, and day after the plane crash, which occurred due to a combination of engine mechanical issues and pilot error in miscalculating fuel levels. In fact, the plane’s engines had already had fiery trouble on the previous flight, shaking all aboard as they deplaned at Greenville, South Carolina, where the band would play its final show. A mechanic was set to meet the aircraft after it would have landed in their next destination of Baton Rouge, Louisiana. But that flight would never happen.

There were a total of 26 people on the plane. Killed were Skynyrd lead singer Ronnie Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines, his sister/backup singer Cassie Gaines, assistant road manager Dean Kilpatrick, pilot Walter McCreary, and co-pilot William Gray. Others sustained injuries that would take years to recover from.

And while it’s a talented group of actors playing real-life participants, Pyle himself narrates portions of the film and makes occasional but not disruptive on-screen appearances. “There have been many variations and accounts and contradictions of this story. But I was there,” he offers. “This is something that shouldn’t have happened, but it did.” Pyle and his drummer sons also wrote and performed three new songs – including “Street Survivors” – that are heard.

The movie recreates Lynyrd Skynyrd’s ill-fated plane journey. Taylor Clift (behind bottle) plays lead singer Ronnie Van Zant. Screen grab/Courtesy of Cleopatra Entertainment

Produced on a small budget of $1.5 million, Street Survivors looks a lot more expensive. Hardcore Skynyrd fans will snap to attention at the period-correct detail down to bandmember’s favorite T-shirts and the texture of wigs and facial hair (though Pyle says they could have done even better with more budget and his involvement – more on that later). Ian Shultis stars as Pyle, and gives an affecting performance.

In the film – as in real life Pyle stumbled out of the wreckage to find those around him dead, dying, or screaming in pain. These scenes are incredibly realistic and hard to watch at some points, more horror movie than music biopic.

And despite his own serious injuries, the drummer decided to head out to find help, which he eventually did at a nearby farmhouse. Just prior to that, the film shows Pyle wading waist-deep through dark swamp water and coming upon a water snake and yelling at it “I will bite your fucking head off!”

The real Artimus Pyle greeting fans in 2011. Photo by Carl Lender/WikiCommons

“It really happened, but I didn’t scream like a madman which is what Ian did in the movie. The snake slithered up to me in the dusk and I said calmly ‘I will bite your fucking head off.’ And then I laughed at myself. And in that moment, knowing I was talking to a snake, it made me feel alive. And that’s what drove me to get help back to my friends. And I trudged on with my Marine Corps training.”

The story’s basis comes from 22 hours of videotaped interviews that Pyle did with Director/Writer Jared Cohn. “It was difficult. I cried, I laughed, I screamed, sometimes I’d get up and punch a wall,” Pyle recalls. “I went to the deep tracks with that.”

There’s scenes of ‘70s-era rock star partying involving topless women, drinking, fighting, and the word “SKYNYRD” spelled out in cocaine on a glass table top. But there is also the band working on music, forging bonds, navigating their home lives, and talking about plans for the future.

That the film is being released at all is a story in itself. In August 2017 after the movie was completed, Judy Van Zant Janness (Ronnie’s widow), along with a group including reps and estates of other bandmembers, successfully won a U.S. District Court injunction to stop the film’s release. They cited a consent order members (including Pyle) signed in 1988 concerning usage of the band’s name and story.

That decision was overturned by a U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in October 2018, clearing Street Survivors to be seen –  though Pyle had to disassociate himself from producer Cleopatra Entertainment and business relations during the filming process in order for that decision to come down in Cleopatra’s favor.

Pyle has a lot to say about the lawsuits – and Janess – enough to fill an another entire story. As he does about a number of other players in the Lynyrd Skynyrd story past and present, by name. Suffice to say, they are not complimentary. There’s also Skynyrd-related financial windfalls totaling $15 million that he says have been taken or stolen from him.

“Judy was coming at us the entire time with vicious, nasty lawsuits. But it was a film that needed to be done. And I wanted the Skynyrd fans to know what happened and what we had been through,” he says.

Viewers will notice there is no authentic Lynyrd Skynyrd music in the movie, nor any songs made famous by the band, even in cover versions (the sole number the band performs in the film is the J.J. Cale-penned hit “They Call Me the Breeze.” Pyle says Cleopatra wanted to explore either of those options, but the lawsuits it might generate would just bring additional headaches and delays. Though he actually puts it in more…um…colorful terms.

Taylor Clift (as singer Ronnie Van Zant) and Samuel Kay Forrest (as guitarist Steve Gaines) perform in the film. Attention to detail: Clift’s Neil Young T-shirt is a replica of the one the singer actually wore. Despite the barbs traded in Young’s “Southern Man” and Lynyrd Skynyrd’s response “Sweet Home Alabama,” the musicians actually respected each other. Screen grab/Courtesy of Cleopatra Entertainment

Asked why the band willingly got on an aircraft they saw for themselves had mechanical issues – buoyed by Ronnie Van Zant’s seemingly nonchalance and his philosophy of when it’s your time to go – you go.

“It wasn’t that cut and dried. On the plane before it crashed, we had gotten together and decided to buy two tour buses – one for the girls and one for the crew. And we had decided as a band to get a Lear Jet so our time in the air between shows would be 45 minutes instead of 2 ½ hours,” Pyle says.

“After our [planned landing] in Baton Rouge, they were sending a guy over from Falcon Airways, where we leased the airplane, to fix the engine. And if he couldn’t fix it, we were going to fly commercial. We had a contingency plan. Ronnie wasn’t just like ‘Hey, let’s jump on this airplane and go have a crash.’ It was like ‘Look, we’ve got a gig in Baton Rouge. Let’s get there the best way you can and let’s go.’”

In the end, Pyle says he is “very proud” of Street Survivors, and that the young actors put their “hearts and souls” into the project. He watched it the first time by himself and cried. And he’s screened it seven more times since, including a public premiere at a pre-pandemic Hollywood Reed Independent Film Festival where he walked the red carpet along with much of the cast and filmmakers.

Though he quit performing with Lynyrd Skynyrd in 1991 several years after the band started up again, he and guitarist Gary Rossington are the sole surviving members of the plane crash lineup.

The pandemic has also put a halt on the pandemic-delayed Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Last of the Street Survivors” worldwide farewell tour. Rossington himself has faced frequent health scares in recent years, and Pyle adds the only “silver lining” of the pandemic crisis is that it’s allowing Rossington to rest up.

And though he and other members came together to play a short set at their 2006 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, he’s had no involvement with the band since then. As leader of the Artimus Pyle Band, the drummer and bandmates performer a mostly Skynyrd set to enthusiastic fans.

Still, time and mortality have a way of bringing seemingly bitter musician feuds to some sort of closure, if not a full reconciliation. Robbie Robertson has written about visiting ex Band-mate Levon Helm on his deathbed, and estranged former Allman Brothers Band guitarist Dickey Betts met with Gregg Allman toward the end of the latter’s life.

So, does Pyle see a time when he might have a similar encounter with Gary Rossington – related to either of their health statuses or not?

“Bob, I would give anything to talk to Gary. I would love to talk to Gary. I saw him at [Skynyrd keyboardist] Billy Powell’s funeral. He hugged me and kissed me, and we were surrounded by [current band reps] Vector Management and Gary’s wife Dale,” Pyle says, adding he feels that Rossington is easily manipulated by others and acquiesces to them, and it often involves money.

“I love Gary and I miss him. I know he’s surrounded by some snakes. I would give anything for us to have a private moment together. Just me and him meet. And it would be totally cool.”

This interview originally appeared at HoustonPress.com

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Blue Öyster Cult Still Recruiting Members with New Music

“On Your Feet or On Your Knees for…Blue Öyster Cult!” – Eric Bloom, Richie Castellano, Donald “Buck Dharma” Roeser, Jules Radino, and Danny Miranda. Photo by Mark Weiss/Courtesy of Frontiers Music

If you were lucky enough to be in Swanzey, New Hampshire at the Cheshire County Fairgrounds back on July 18, 2020, then you got to see two things classic rock fans anywhere else would kill for: a live show, and one by the mighty Blue Öyster Cult. Even if you did have to sit in or near your car in an open field, 25 feet from the stage, and far apart from your neighbors.

For singer/guitarist/keyboardist Eric Bloom, the gig wasn’t as odd as you might think, even if he had to engage with the audience a bit differently. “I think that deserves some high beams!” he said after one tune. And “Let’s hear some cars honking!” after another. The whole concert was filmed and is available on YouTube.

“It was a good show, and I was a little silly. But it was great just to play again, and it was handled with COVID safety. And the audience was…cars. In a field!” the 75-year-old Bloom laughs. “People brought their lawn chairs or stood by and it went off without a hitch. We had fun, and we hadn’t even seen each other since March.”

The setlist included many BÖC classics, but nothing from the group’s great brand new record, The Symbol Remains (Frontiers Music). And while 2020 saw a slew of reissue and live records from the group, this is their first studio release in nearly 20 years.

“Our fans have been asking for new music for a long time. But it takes about a year from when you start writing to when it’s done, and that’s a long time to take off from touring. That’s how we make our living,” Bloom says. “But this offer from Frontiers was good, and the current lineup is playing so well, it was time to get it on tape.”

What set BÖC apart from other heavy rock acts of the ‘70s and ‘80s and whose songs also had science fiction/mythology/sword-and-sorcery/apocalyptic themes was a good dose of wry humor with a bit of social commentary. After all, they wrote a song about golden age Hollywood actress/wooden hanger enthusiast Joan Crawford rising out of her grave to wreak terror upon the land.

That approach is also evident in The Symbol Remains with tracks about internet conspiracy nuts (“Edge of the World”), slavish devotion to smart phones and Alexa (“The Machine”), the weird world of crimes and oddballs in the Sunshine State (“Florida Man”), and a barroom brawl that didn’t quite live up to expectations (“Fight”).

Others address naughty behavior (“That Was Me”), the key to one man’s brain (“Box in My Head”), vampire love (“Tainted Blood”), epic battles (“Stand and Fight”), and…the mental toll of taking a New Jersey commuter train (“Train Tune [Lennie’s Song]”).

For leadoff track and first single “That Was Me,” Bloom and guitarist/singer/keyboardist  Richie Castellano handled the music while cyberpunk author John Shirley (who has collaborated with the band before) wrote the words. But when Bloom rifled through some papers at home and brought them to Castellano’s house as a new discovery, the pair found out it wasn’t so new.

“Richie said to me ‘I think we did this song already.’ I didn’t remember it at all. He said it was because I was an old man,” Bloom says. “So he looked at in on his computer and there it was – we had recorded it a few years ago! It wasn’t finished, but it was there!”

For Bloom, lyrical inspiration can come at any time – seemingly on transportation. He started both “Stand and Fight” and “Tainted Blood” while on an airplane with guitarist/vocalist Donald “Buck Dharma” Roeser. “He gave me a mental nudge. I have a sort of camera bag that I take on planes with a book or a candy bar or odds and ends I might need. And I just took out a pen and paper and started putting down words,” he recalls. For the latter song, Bloom then finished it with Castellano…during a car trip!

To the average audience, Blue Öyster Cult is primarily known for a trio of classic rock radio warhorses: “Godzilla,” “(Don’t Fear) the Reaper,” and “Burnin’ For You” – but there’s a lot more powerful and varied music in their discography.

The band lays down basic tracks for “The Symbol Remains”…pre-COVID, of course: Castellano, Radino, Roeser, Bloom, and Miranda. Photo by Steve Schenck/Courtesy of Frontiers Music

On The Symbol Remains, as usual, Bloom and Roeser share lead vocals and songwriting credits (and Roeser has co-collaborators). But the real revelation is the heavy stepping-up of Castellano, who wrote or co-wrote half of the record’s 14 tracks and sings lead on three. Of those he wrote alone is the record’s most epic track, “The Alchemist,” a tale of Dark Ages royalty and retribution based on a story of cult horror writer H.P. Lovecraft. It’s also the upcoming fourth music video from the record.

“Richie really is the secret sauce on this record, and he was the pivot of getting it made in the studio. Most of it was recorded during lockdown, and his home studio was the master area” Bloom says. To accomplish this took a really futuristic and tech-savvy method. After the five recorded basic tracks while together in the same studio last year (pre-COVID), the rest was done piecemeal.

In Bloom’s case, that means he recorded lead vocals in a booth and on a computer in his home in New York. The live session was relayed to Castellano in his own house to engineer. The session audio files would then be uploaded from Bloom to Castellano’s computer, and he would also receive sound files from Roeser. Then all were then sent to Florida to be mixed, sent back to the band for changes, and by mid-spring the record was completed

The initial group came together in 1967 on the campus of Stony Brook University on Long Island as the Soft White Underbelly. Lineups and names shifted over the next few years (including stints as Oaxaca, the Stalk-Forrest Group, and Santos Sisters) before coalescing as Blue Öyster Cult in 1971, the name inspired by a poem written by then-manager Sandy Pearlman. The current lineup includes original Cult members Bloom and Roeser, longtime members Castellano and Jules Radino (drums), and the recently-returned Danny Miranda (bass).

Among the guys who lived or hung out at the original communal house at Stony Brook were Sandy Pearlman and Richard Metzler – who would be involved in both creative and business matters with the group for decades (Pearlman passed away in 2016). Another friend was budding (and Bloom says, “eccentric”) graphic designer Bill Gawlick.

It was he who came up with the final band symbol featured on the first record cover (and most of the others, taking up most of the cover for The Symbol Remains): a hook-and-cross logo is taken from Greek mythology. It’s the symbol of Kronos (Cronus) the father of Zeus and King of the Titans. Favorably for the band, is also the alchemical symbol for lead…a “heavy metal.”  “The punchline is that Gawlick has disappeared. Nobody knows where he is,” Bloom adds.

For diehard fans of Blue Öyster Cult though, there are two gaping holes in the band’s story. One is that despite their nearly 50-year existence, discography, and huge commercial (if not critical) success, they aren’t in and haven’t even been nominated for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (“That’s not up to us,” Bloom says quickly). The other is that there’s been no substantive band biography or autobiography.

Bloom says he’s not about to put his and the band’s story down on paper – there’s too much he’d want to say that would cause legal or relationship troubles. “Last night, I was fishing around the internet and found this esoteric Blue Öyster Cult history that was very interesting. It was almost like someone’s Ph.D doctoral study!” he says. And that’s not all he looks up.

“The internet is full of this weird shit! I see these new videos of teens and twentysomethings reacting to hearing music for the first time like Led Zeppelin or Black Sabbath. And there was one with a black guy, about 30, and it was ‘Listening to ‘Dominance and Submission’ by Blue Öyster Cult for the First Time,’” Bloom recalls. “He couldn’t even pronounce our name. And he’s just got his headphones on and he’s just popping and rocking out and going ‘Yeah!.’ That really put a smile on my face.”

For more on Blue Öyster Cult and The Symbol Remains, visit BlueOysterCult.com

This interview originally appeared at HoustonPress.com

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Pablo Cruise Takes Time to “Breathe” During the Pandemic

Zoomin’ with Pablo Cruise (clockwise from top right: Robbie Wyckoff, Larry Antonino, Dave Jenkins, Cory Lerios, and…Classic Rock Bob. Screen Shot by Bob Ruggiero

When the members of Pablo Cruise disembarked in Miami after playing on the high seas as part of the Puerto Rico-bound Rock and Romance Cruise, they had no clue that the late February gig was to be their last for 2020.

Since then in quarantine though, the band – Cory Lerios (keyboards/vocals), Dave Jenkins (guitar/vocals), Larry Antonino (bass/vocals), and Robbie Wyckoff have found the chance and the time to polish old skill as well as learn new ones.

“I’ve taken up archery to keep people from my front door,” Jenkins jokes in a Band Zoom Interview. “Actually, I’ve just been playing music. Playing the guitar and trying to write songs. What else are you gonna do?”

“It gave us the chance to really focus on writing,” Antonino adds, even if that meant they had to do it over the phone and calling from locations as offbeat as a store parking lot. “It opened up a window for us to finish this song.”

That song is the single “Breathe,” and it’s the first new music that Pablo Cruise has put out in 37 years. Formed in 1973 with Lerios and Jenkins as founding members, they released a string of albums in the late ‘70s to mid-‘80s with hits like “Whatcha Gonna Do?” “Love Will Find a Way,” “A Place in the Sun,” “Don’t Want to Live Without It,” and “I Want You Tonight.”

“Breathe” has an upbeat, danceable rhythm, whistle hook, and the classic Pablo Cruise sound. The lyric video shows a beach with blue water, white sand, and palm trees moving in the breeze – which looks like a damn good place to be now or at any time. And the lyrics – while seemingly universal on the surface – really apply to what people should do in the shit show that has been 2020 so far with pandemics, protests, and politics.

In a world that’s going crazy/I say maybe we take a time out/And break away from all the madness, the sadness/Someway, somehow/Just breathe, take it slow/Wherever you go, just breathe/Don’t worry about tomorrow/Live for today, don’t let it slip away.

“Breathe” started off with a bass riff from Antonino, and the four worked on the music and lyrics together (the fifth member, new drummer Sergio Gonzalez, just recently replaced founding/original drummer Steve Price, who’s been suffering from some health issues). Each recorded their part individually, and it was all put together through the magic of mixing.

Pablo Cruise 2020, ready to play again in…2021?: Sergio Gonzalez, Cory Lerios, Robbie Wyckoff, David Jenkins, Larry Antonino. PabloCruise.com screen shot

“We’re just tired of everybody bickering at each other. The climate with COVID and the political stuff…what happened to human beings?” Antonino offers. “I stopped watching the news just to get my own brain back. We just need to take time to get to know each other as human beings again. The lyrics just came out.”

There was a potential bump in the road when, during the final mixing, the murder of George Floyd by forced asphyxiation in Minneapolis broke on the news, and band members were leery that some might take the title “Breathe” the wrong way.

“You know how fickle the population is with news and stuff. People move on. We’re all still reeling from George Floyd and taking away some lessons from that and hopefully will grow. But it’s not as pressing right now as the California fires,” Jenkins says. “The song is timely in a lot of respects. The world has gotten fucking nuts and it’s time to step back and breathe and try to find some peace.”

The original lineup: Cory Lerios, David Jenkins, Bud Cockrell, and Steve Price. A&M/Universal Record Cover

“There’s a lot of hateful stuff out there. And this song has a good, positive message. Just spreading a little love among the madness that is happening right now,” Wyckoff – who sings lead – says. The band has also been bemused to hear some of their lyrics coincidentally echoed out of the mouths of politicians. They mention that Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti recently recommended that people just “breathe,” while President Donald Trump said something about “taking a time out.”

Lerios says the band has gotten a good response on the single from their fans, and it has been added to a handful of radio stations. But a lot has changed in the past 37 years when it comes to releasing music. Pablo Cruise fans – typically older – aren’t rushing out to record stores (or the ones that are still around) to pick up a 45 or CD. And almost no classic rock radio stations are going to play anything new by classic rock band. Why play “Breathe” when a casual audiences just want to hear “Whatcha Gonna Do?” or “Love Will Find a Way” for the gazillionth time? It’s the Classic Rock Conundrum.

“You never know what’s going to happen when you put something out, especially today. But I have a feeling this song is going to get heard,” Jenkins says hopefully. “I’ve had a lot of people write to me about it. People feel like ‘It’s a breath of fresh air, it’s fun, and fuck it, I’m just going to enjoy life for three minutes!’ It’s going to be a riot when we can play this live.”

Lerios says the band has other songs in various stages of completion, and they do get together in person occasionally (but social distancing) to work on them. “Putting out this song is a kind of Hail Mary for the band, because we can’t play live,” he notes. “I know bands are doing a lot of these live Zoom things, but I don’t know, measuring the [response] to that is kind of tough. There’s so much of it, and it’s not really our demographic. It might not break until next spring or even summer.”

Antonino offers another take. “That’s why we need to get their kids! Maybe they’ll yell out ‘Breathe!’ like their parents do ‘Love Will Find a Way! This song is our ‘Kokomo!’” He’s referring to the insanely earwormy 1988 Beach Boys tune from the soundtrack to the Tom Cruise film Cocktail. It was a big hit that introduced the band to an entire new generation.

Still, music has never been so easily available to so many people as it is now. One of the reasons that Gen Z has embraced Classic Rock is that with a few swipes of a finger on Spotify, any 16-year-old could pull up the entire Pablo Cruise catalog as well as “Breathe” in an instant.

On other music fronts, Lerios – who has had a very successful side gig doing soundtracks for film and TV – is working on music for a Demi Lovato project on Quibi. Wyckoff has a song on in the recent Disney animated film Phineas & Ferb The Movie: Candace Against the Universe. The band is also working on more new Pablo Cruise music – if they could just locate where the digital files are.

“How are those guitars going, Dave?” Lerios asks at the end of the Zoom interview.

“I sent them to you last night!” Jenkins protests.

“You sent them to me? I don’t see them!” Lerios counters.

“Just look in your junk mail,” Antonino offers. “It all diverts there, right Cory?”

“Breathe” is available on most streaming and purchase platforms. For more on it and Pablo Cruise, visit PabloCruise.com

This interview originally appeared at HoustonPress.com

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Liberty Devitto: Life with the Big Beat (and Billy Joel)

Liberty DeVitto, Mark Rivera (sax), and Billy Joel on 1980’s “The Nylon Curtain” tour. Photo provided by Liberty DeVitto/Hudson Music

For nearly 30 years, he provided the big backbeat behind Billy Joel as a core member of his band for hundreds of concerts around the world and on a string of hugely successful records. The two also formed a deep personal relationship, enjoying good times and the vast fruits of their success. Not too bad for a guy whose sixth grade music teacher once told him “Put down the sticks – you’ll never do anything with them!”

But it all came to an abrupt halt when Liberty DeVitto discovered that he wasn’t invited to Joel’s (third) wedding in 2004. And when the Piano Man went back on the road, DeVitto’s phone remained silent. Lawsuits were filed about royalties and song credits, and the two only communicated through lawyers. But a surprise late turn makes a nice ending to DeVitto’s new memoir, Liberty: Life, Billy and the Pursuit of Happiness (290 pp., $24.99, Hudson Music).

While his relationship with Joel and the music they made provides the crux and the heart of the book, there’s plenty more to his story. Born to a large, boisterous Italian family in New York, DeVitto’s musical “a-ha” moment came like so many others of his generation: On the evening of February 9, 1964 when the Beatles played for the first time on the Ed Sullivan Show.

Liberty DeVitto performing at his Seaford High School, 1965. Photo provided by Liberty DeVitto/Hudson Music

“I was 13 and I didn’t really like Elvis. I liked the black R&B music and Dion. And when the Beatles came on, they could have come from Mars. Nobody knew where Liverpool was, they had these amazing accents, and nobody looked like them!” he laughs. “And they were recycling [American] black music. But nobody had seen anything like it!”

DeVitto began playing with several bands and, despite being underage, found work in clubs in and around Long Island. Occasionally, he’d run into another gigging teen musician – one Billy Joel – along with Russell Javors (guitar), Doug Stegmeyer (bass). The drummer later spent time playing with Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels and a group called Topper while trying to get his career kickstarted.

Meanwhile, Joel had recorded one flop album (Cold Spring Harbor), left the biz, moved to LA, then returned with two that barely did any better (Piano Man, Streetlife Serenade). So it was make-or-break for 1976’s Turnstiles, by which time Joel had returned to New York and coalesced his core concert and studio band that included DeVitto, Javors, Stegmeyer, and Richie Cannata (sax).

The next album was originally slated to be helmed by George Martin…the Beatles’ George Martin! But when the Englishman insisted on using studio musicians instead of Joel’s own band, Joel turned him down. Nevertheless, The Stranger became their huge breakthrough. And with the addition of David Brown on second guitar, Billy Joel and his band went on to worldwide success for more than two decades.

“Billy said ‘Love me, love my band.’ He wanted the same guys on the record and touring,” DeVitto says. “Luckily, the next guy in line to produce was Phil Ramone, and he was fantastic. And an even better fit for us.”

Liberty breezily takes the reader through those glory years, and DeVitto provides an album-by-album breakdown of some of the songs, including his contributions to them. “If he [Billy] was the father of those songs, and the songs were his children, then I was the uncle. I taught them how to walk,” he writes.

There are plenty of new nuggets for fans, as well as amplifications on stories. It’s been long known that early versions of The Stranger’s “Only the Good Die Young” featured a reggae beat. But DeVitto says studio visitor Paul Simon’s suggestion that a song with such heavy lyrics should have lighthearted groove altered that (the Catholic Church’s subsequent “banning” of the song only helped its sales). Oh, and DeVitto was so hung over, he passed out in a broom closet right after recording it.

Likewise, they were going to leave the ballad “Just the Way You Are” (written for Billy’s then-wife Elizabeth Weber), off because Joel and the band felt it was too mushy. But pleas from singers Linda Ronstadt and Phoebe Snow that women would love it made them change their minds. It became one of Joel’s most famous songs, winning Grammys for Record of the Year and Song of the Year. And gave them a new fanbase.

“When we went on the road, we were playing a hall in Washington, D.C. And when we walked out, Billy just got mobbed by these girls. That’s when I knew things had changed,” DeVitto recalls. “I was on the outside of the circle and he was on the inside. He’s short, so he’s kind of on his tip toes looking over the girls’ heads, looking at me like ‘Wow, this is really cool!’.”

Of all the albums, DeVitto says that his favorite to record was 1984’s An Innocent Man, a smash whose entire sound harkened back to a previous era of rock and roll. “When we started recording, Billy only had ‘Tell Her About It’ and ‘Easy Money.’ The rest were all created in the studio,” DeVitto recalls. “He had some ideas and the band had some ideas. If we played it and it really swung, he’d go home and finish the song. I tried some different drums sounds on that as well.”

The Billy Joel Band in 1978: Richie Cannata, Russell Javors, Doug Stegmeyer, Liberty DeVitto, Billy Joel, and David Brown. Photo provided by Liberty DeVitto/Hudson Music

He notes that the band would be in the control room and put on the Drifters and the Four Seasons, and Joel would say he wanted to write a songs like that. That’s how he came up with the “An Innocent Man” and “Uptown Girl.”

There’s also sections about the highs (and lows) of life on the road, DeVitto’s own struggles with fame, drugs, and alcohol. And the band’s eye-opening 1987 trip to play a six huge shows in the Cold War thawing-out Russia. DeVitto once offered peanut butter to one of his government “minders” who, having never tasted it before, spit it out in disgust.

The book doesn’t really go into the animosity and estrangement between DeVitto and Joel went through post-2004. And maybe that’s for good reason, because the book ends with quite a surprise.

DeVitto had knee surgery in 2019, and recuperation gave him time to think. He had also started performing with former bandmates Russell Javors and Richie Cannata in the band The Lords of 52nd Street, whose set list is largely from the Billy Joel catalog.

“When I was relearning the songs, I started to fall in love with them again, and all I could remember was all the good times we had together,” he says. “I had the music, but not the guy whose eyes I looked into for 30 years. That was the only piece that was missing.”

So he offhandedly emailed Joel in February of 2020 year with caveat “it’s time for the piano and drum feud to be over,” and proposed a meeting over coffee or breakfast. Less than 24 hours later, Joel responded he’d like to do just that, as both were disappointed in how their relationship had ended. So they met one morning in a Florida diner where DeVitto had just played with the Lords and snowbird Joel was living.

“It was like it was at the beginning. We’re in a diner, I’m eating pancakes, and he’s eating bacon and eggs,” DeVitto laughs. “And we didn’t talk about business or the bad stuff that happened between us. It was mostly about our children and our wives, people we had knew and lost, and what we had planned for the future.”

DeVitto’s book was already written, but in a surprise development, Joel agreed to write the forward. And the drummer added an epilogue, which includes a picture of the old friends smiling together in the diner. DeVitto won’t divulge more specifics on their conversation, but he did tell Rolling Stone that it’s possible that all the bad blood was due to a simple misunderstanding.

As of now, Liberty DeVitto is happy to have his life story out and to talk to people about it. But his latest interest might take a more, um, scientific turn.

“I’m building a lab in my mother-in-law’s basement and I’m going to cure this virus so the Lords can get out and play again!” he laughs. “We’ve already done one of those parking lot gigs and we’ve got another one planned. You do what you have to!’

This interview originally appeared at HoustonPress.com

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Suzi Quatro: The Wild One Looks Back

Suzi Quatro onstage in 2019. Photo by Liam Firmager/Courtesy of Sicily Publicity.

In the mid 1970’s, she was a pioneering female rocker at a time when that term was nearly nonexistent, a hugely popular record and concert attraction, and a style icon. That is…in much of the non-U.S. world.

Here in her own home country, the singer/bassist born and bred in tough Detroit, Michigan is best known for her collaborations with two men: Chris Norman on the 1979 #4 soft rock “Stumblin’ In,” and with one Arthur Fonzarelli on seven episodes of the TV show “Happy Days” around the same time.

But the story of Suzi Quatro encompasses a whole lot of music – and much outside of it as well: gender, family, the music biz, success, dreams achieved and expectations dashed. She and her 55-year career are the subject of the documentary Suzie Q, available on home video and DVD.

An aborted previous documentary on Quatro has remained unreleased due to the second thoughts of a prominent interview subject. So Quatro had been through the process before meeting with Suzie Q director Liam Firmager in 2015. She says she wanted a “warts and all” depiction, and would only edit out anything that “didn’t happen” – though anybody’s opinions were fine.

Poster art

“He told me right away that he wasn’t a fan, which was an interesting way to break the ice!” Quatro laughs from her home in England. “But he said he loved the music. And he saw me on a talk show and I fascinated him. So I knew he would be objective, not a kiss ass, and honest with me. There’s a lot of lovely things said about me, but there’s also plenty of cringe-worthy moments left in there. There’s a rawness, a vulnerability and a realness to it.”

The documentary unfolds Quatro’s story from her teen years in bands with her sisters, to her move to England and musical collaborations with songwriters/producers Nicky Chinn and Mike Chapman, the debut of her trademark onstage black leather cat suit (inspired by the ‘60s sci-fi film Barbarella) and the mania of her ‘70s commercial peak and diverse tales of later decades. Her hitsincluded “Can the Can,” “48 Crash,” “Daytona Demon,” “Devil Gate Drive,” “The Wild One,” and “Cat Size.”

Throughout are extensive videos and concert clips, photos, contemporary and archival interviews with Quatro. And an A-list of talking head admirers including Joan Jett, Kathy Valentine of the Go-Go’s, Donita Sparks of L7, Cherie Currie and Lita Ford of the Runaways, Blondie’s Debby Harry and Clem Burke, the Talking Heads’ Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth. There’s early supporter Alice Cooper, who chose Quatro as the opening act to his massive “Welcome to My Nightmare” tour. Even the Fonz himself, Henry Winkler, makes a surprising and welcome cameo.

The film is not without its personal drama and pathos. The drama comes in the vessels of Quatro’s sisters Patti and Nancy who are interviewed. And when Suzi is cross-interviewed, decades of jealousy and resentment and passive-aggressiveness come charging forward.

After playing together in the 1960’s garage punk band the Pleasure Seekers with Patti and Arlene, and later the harder rocking Cradle with Patti and Nancy, successful English producer Mickie Most offered a contract and a chance to move to London – for Suzi only. Patty and Nancy resented that Suzi didn’t fight or insist for them to be included. And it still chaps them nearly 50 years later as they make passive-aggressive comments while citing Suzi’s need for fan worship.

On her end, Suzi maintains any sort of validation, praise, or “atta girls” from her sisters or father were never forthcoming, which hurt. In the film, Suzi plays a cassette tape that her family made for her at Thanksgiving dinner one year when she couldn’t make it home to Detroit – complete with the family denigrating her musicianship. Suzi remembers she was 36 years old and starring in the musical Annie Get Your Gun before receiving her father’s first – and possibly only – verbal stamp of approval.

Suzi Quatro (vocals/bass) and her band (clockwise from left): Dave Neal (drums), Len Tuckey (guitar), and Alastair MacKenzie (keyboads). She and Tuckey were married from 1976-1992 and have two children together. Photo by Roger Gould/Courtesy of Sicily Publicity.

As the documentary clarifies (and Quatro reiterates on the phone), she was not aware for more than three months that she was offered a solo deal twice in one week – from Elektra Records Jac Holzman and producer Mickie Most. Both were interested in the then-teenaged Quatro only as a solo act. She says only after Cradle started to break up – and on the advice of oldest sister Arlene – did she found out about and pursue the solo offer.

“I almost missed the chance. And it was morally incorrect not to tell me. Mickie told my brother Michael that he didn’t want to break up a family band. If the [situation was reversed] I would have applauded and said ‘Go!’ I would have found another route for myself.”

Then there’s the fact that while she sold millions of records and sold out large concert venues in Europe, Australia, and Japan, appeared on ever TV show, and showed up in scores of magazines and newspapers, she never come close to that level of success here.

Reasons abound as to why Suzi Quatro never broke big in the U.S. As a female rocker, she was just a few years ahead of the curve, but definitely kicked the door open for others. She didn’t have the radio airplay and hit singles she did in the non-U.S. world. And she was unfairly lobbed in with an English glam rock scene with bands like Sweet and T. Rex and Slade that never really translated to these shores.

Quatro readily admits it was her appearances acting and singing as Leather Tuscadero on “Happy Days” that really upped her profile in the U.S. As the doc explains, producer Garry Marshall even offered Quatro her own spin off series for the character, but she declined due to fears of typecasting. And while her music and interviews never really made mention of gender or feminism, it’s clear from her long list of admirers they felt differently.

Suzi Quatro steps out of her trademark black leather catsuit for a golden one in 1974. This live shot is from 1975. Photo by Roger Gould/Courtesy of Sicily Publicity.

“I don’t open the door on purpose, but I did. And I didn’t realize until this film was made that what I did inadvertently was give these women who didn’t fit in anywhere some place to survive,” Quatro offers. “I’m happy about that. And I’ll take that wonderful legacy to my grave.”

Joan Jett was such an avowed Quatro fan and such a slavish imitator in look and stage manner that her Runaways bandmates asked her to tone it down. The fact that she went on to huge success had to sting Quatro more than a bit, and Quatro says onscreen that many people have come up to her, mistaking Jett and/or her music for her own.

In recent decades and up to today, the now 70-year-old Suzi Quatro continues to perform for original and new fans around the world. She’s also got side hustles as a memoirist (Unzipped), poet (Through My Eyes), DJ, TV guest star, and headliner in musical theater (Annie Get Your Gun and Tallulah – the latter of which she co-wrote).

Even in quarantine, she’s pretty damn busy: making new music with her son for an upcoming album in her home studio, preparing a coffee table illustrated lyric book, uploading 50 of her bass lines to YouTube, and performing online “Sunday Specials” playing the piano. And then there’s the movie script of her life expected to be finished by mid-July.

“I am unashamedly an artiste. I love creation. And even though the rock and roll stage is my most natural habitat, I knew I would branch out. And I do what I love,” she says. “It’s all the same thing. It’s all communicating and entertaining. And with this documentary, I know America will rediscover me. I still sing, I still play bass, and at 70 years old, I still kick ass ”

For more in Suzi Quatro, visit SuziQuatro.com

For information on the documentary, visit SuziQMovie.com

This interview originally appeared at HoustonPress.com

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CCR’s Doug Clifford Keeps On Chooglin’ with Solo Record

Doug Clifford, at home behind the skins.
Photo by Brent Clifford/Courtesy of Hello Wendy PR

It’s common record company hype to claim that an album has been “years in the making” upon its release. But in the case of Doug “Cosmo” Clifford’s new record, it’s more like decades. Three and a half, to be exact.

The former drummer for Creedence Clearwater Revival and Rock and Roll Hall of Famer was cleaning out the garage in his Reno, Nevada home in 2019. That’s when he he came across the “lost” tapes for a complete album recorded in 1985 at his former residence in Lake Tahoe. And now, he’s finally releasing Magic Window.

“I’ve always recorded my songs once they’re completed, in master quality, for publishing purposes. I just didn’t want bare demos,” Clifford says. “It was actually going to come out after a [well-known producer] was about to sign me to his label the next week after he heard it. But instead, he had a nervous breakdown, went into rehab, and sold the company!”

As for launching a new album in the Age of Coronavirus while on quarantine with his wife of 52 years, Clifford has been working the phones. “I’m doing a lot of interviews and podcasts and radio. I’m not trying to get airplay, I just want people to be aware of it,” he says. “And it’s very different from my first solo record [1972’s Cosmo]. This one is more of an artistic endeavor, and probably the most complete music project of my career.”

The 10 tracks range from chugging rockers and psychedelic swirlers to a surprising number of love songs. Assisting Clifford were Russell DaShiell (guitar), Chris Solberg (bass/keyboards), and Rob Polomsky (guitar). And while the semi-autobiographical “Born on the South Side” sounds most like his former group, it’s not the dominant sound on Magic Window.

“It’s to show I’m the guy who played the beat on all the Creedence stuff, but that’s the only song that resembles my past,” he offers. “The rest is what I was doing then in 1985, so there’s a lot of love songs. Creedence never did any of those, and I think that’s the biggest impetus to write a song! Good love or bad!”

And while there were some tweaks done to the original recording, must of the sound is intact 1985 vintage. And that means some big rock choruses and lots of synthesizers. The drum sounds are a combination of programmed bits as well as Clifford playing both synth toms and a more traditional kit live. Somewhat surprisingly, Clifford was – and is – a fan of the electronic percussion.

“It was a new, banner thing at the time, and I thought they were really cool. It was a nice difference,” he says. “Drums don’t change much, but this was completely new and had its own unique sound and tone. And I’m hearing songs on the radio out today that are a product of that sound, so it’s come full circle. Everything does. Hold onto those bell bottom pants and you can eventually wear them again – if you can fit into them!”

Clifford says his own songwriting has grown “so much” since his initial effort as writer or co-writer of three tracks on the last Creedence Clearwater Revival record, 1972’s Mardi Gras. Tom Fogerty had left the band by that point, leaving lead singer/guitarist (and Tom’s brother) John Fogerty, bassist Stu Cook, and Clifford.

Rock lore notes that Cook and Clifford pushed for more involvement in band decisions and musical direction but Fogerty – who had written almost all of the band’s material and deep catalog of hits to date – was less enthusiastic. Throwing down a gauntlet, Fogerty basically told Clifford and Cook “If you can do something better…go ahead.”

Relations between the three and Fogerty never healed after the eventual breakup, and there was no brotherly reconciliation when Tom died in 1990. When CCR was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1993, Clifford and Cook were forced to watch from the audience as John Fogerty played the band’s songs without them.

“It was an ultimatum that John gave us,” Clifford says about Mardi Gras. “Tom had left the band and [Stu and I] were always on his side because he wanted to sing more. We did a lot of covers, and Tom has a sweet tenor voice like Richie Valens. We could have done ‘La Bamba.’”

Clifford also has a thought about another aspect of the Fogerty’s relationship. “I don’t know this—I’m trying to find logic in this—but John thought if [Tom] has success with [singing], he’d be begging him to do more. But John didn’t want to give up any of the vocals, and he really should have. But you’d have to ask him about that.”

Of better news for CCR fans was the somewhat surprise release in 2019 of Live at Woodstock, the band’s complete 50-minute set at the fabled rock festival, which saw a bunch of 50th anniversary-related events and releases. John Fogerty has long dismissed the band’s performance as inferior, blocking any of their performances from appearing on the soundtrack records or footage from inclusion in the hugely successful movie.

“Stu and I have been trying to get that to happen for 40+ years now. Finally, John has gone 180 degrees on it, and now Woodstock is cool and he wanted it out there,” he says. “After the Woodstock adventure, he went home and wrote “Who’ll Stop the Rain.” And from what I heard about it, it was about the reign of Richard Nixon not [the rain] at Woodstock [Fogerty confirms this theory in his book]. He’s jumped on the bandwagon of Woodstock, and I’m glad. It should have always been that way. But I was disappointed they didn’t put any new video out since we weren’t in the movie.”

Even better for fans, coming out sometime this year will be a DVD and CD of the band’s 1970 performance at the Royal Albert Hall in London. Clifford says it is hands down the best performance of the band ever caught on film, and remembers that several Beatles were in the audience.

Of course, the current pandemic situation prevents Clifford from doing any live performances to support Magic Window. Last year, he and Cook brought an end to the 25-year run of their Creedence Clearwater Revisited group.

“I was just talking to my buddy Steve Miller, and he had a 50-date tour with Marty Stuart that was cancelled. He thinks [concerts] won’t get back to normal until 2022. And he said ‘That’s two years I’ll miss. I’ll be 78 when I come back!’” Clifford notes. “As for me, I’m 75 right now, and who knows what’s going to happen?”

But that doesn’t mean he’s taking it easy. In fact, Clifford is still writing timely tunes – even if it costs him sleep.

“I woke up at five o’clock this morning and there was a song idea in my head. And when that happens, you have to do it then or you’ll forget it,” he says. “So about 85% of it is already done, and I’ll get on the keyboard and give it a melody and have it done tonight. It’s about what’s going on right now, and about the first responders.”

This article originally appeared at HoustonPress.com

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Kathy Valentine Keeps Go-Go-ing with Music, Book, Doc, & More!

From the clubs of Austin to the music biz in LA, with Stevie Ray Vaughan. Photo by Robert Matheu. Courtesy of the University of Texas Press.

For Kathy Valentine, it was a Christmas gift that not only kept on giving, but in many ways came to define her life and music.

On the festive yuletide evening of December 25, 1980. The singer/guitarist was catching a show at L.A.’s Whisky a Go Go when she ran into Charlotte Caffey, lead guitarist for the rising local all-female band the Go-Go’s, in the bathroom. Caffey explained that their bass player was ill and not able to play a strings of shows there beginning in just a few days. Could Valentine fill in?

The 20-year-old native of Austin, Texas said “Sure!”, even though she had never played the instrument. A few days of serious woodshedding later, Valentine guested with the band – and never left the lineup.

In a few short years, the Go-Go’s would find worldwide success and MTV fame with songs like “We Got the Beat,” “Our Lips Are Sealed,” “Vacation,” “Head Over Heels,” “Get Up and Go,” and “Turn to You.” Cue the rest of the story with breakups, reunions, side projects, and more breakups and reunions.

But the Go-Go’s days only make up part of the tale in Valentine’s frank and open autobiography All I Ever Wanted: A Rock ‘n’ Roll Memoir (304 pp., $26.95, University of Texas Press). There’s also the story of her very unorthodox childhood and parents, struggles with drugs, alcohol, fast living, near-death experiences, other musical and romantic endeavors, and the turning point that final led to her still solid sobriety.

Compellingly, Valentine is also releasing a 15-track companion record with all original music and each song inspired by a specific chapter. They’re more experimental, spoke-sung, and even techno than either the frenetic punk of the early Go-Go’s or their later more commercial new wave pop.

And the Go-Go’s were also the subjects of a great documentary directed by Alison Ellwood, released wide earlier last year. It’s given the band, their music, and story enough momentum to where fans hope to see their name on the ballot for this year’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction.

“I was missing creating in that realm of music when I finished writing the book. I panicked and thought ‘Why would anyone want to read this?’ So I thought ‘What could I do that a lot of other writers couldn’t?’ And that was make music,” Valentine explains from her home in Austin, which she have lived again for nearly 15 years.

“When I was done writing, I didn’t feel it was finished, even though I had gone deep. So making music and pulling out phrases and ideas from the book for the lyrics helped me process it. I thought of it like I was scoring the book.”

One of the chapters and songs is called “Just Do It.” It’s the story of when a young teenage Valentine and a girlfriend decided to hitchhike from Austin to Houston to see a show and check out the city’s nightlife. When they were denied entry to the club because of their age, they ended up meeting and partying with two male college students, ending up back at an apartment. While her friend disappeared in the bedroom with one of them, the other sexually assaulted Valentine despite her tearful protestations. Resigned and tired of fighting him off, she finally gave up and told him to “just do it.”

The Go-Go’s on “American Bandstand.” Photo by Robert Matheu. Courtesy of the University of Texas Press.

“It was a hard thing, and I kept it buried for a long time,” she says. “But when I wrote the music, it opened up the feelings, and I grieved and mourned what happened to me for days, just crying and crying. And I thought ‘Well, this is interesting.’”

Valentine recounts that her Beatles-on-Ed-Sullivan rock moment was seeing singer/guitarist Suzi Quatro perform on English TV while visiting relatives, and it made her immediately want to play. “When I first put on a guitar, I thought I was just me and Suzi Quatro, we were the only girls playing!” she says. “And I don’t know if the Leather Tuscadero bit [Quatro’s guest character on the TV show “Happy Days”] was a good thing. I get mad when I mention her name and that’s all people know! She was a trailblazer.”

Of course, despite the music they made as a wholly self-contained unit, the Go-Go’s faced plenty of sexism and discrimination, and were dismissed and often belittled. Surprisingly, Valentine explains that it wasn’t male musicians that did this but, record executives, journalists, DJs, and even their own audiences.

In All I Ever Wanted, she says that while on a tour opening for the Police, their debut album Beauty and the Beat actually overtook the blonde male trio’s Ghost in the Machine for the top spot on the Billboard album chart. A congratulatory Sting came into their dressing room and not only happily delivered this news, but arrived clutching a bottle of champagne in each hand for the new chart queens.

Given the far greater role and visibility of women in rock today, along with more gender acceptance, does Valentine think the Go-Go’s would face a similar reaction if they debuted in 2020?

“And a lot more bands today have women in them, and there’s a lot of [festivals] with women. But I think the patriarchy is still alive and well,” she says “And if the Go-Go’s came out today, we’d still get dismissed a lot. We still do today! But now, I don’t even understand what the music business is. You could just have a YouTube channel.”

It sounds like a cliché, but to say the Go-Go’s partied as “hard as any male band” is an understatement, with Valentine and singer Belinda Carlisle (who wrote her own memoir) as the tightest partners in crime, spending days in a haze of cocaine and alcohol. Caffey had her own secret heroin habit, and guitar Jane Wiedlin and drummer Gina Schock were no angels either. After the band broke up the first time, Valentine kept the party going. Until she faced a reckoning.

“Fun was the phantom that had shaded my entire adult life. But increasingly, I would wake up in a hungover hellhole with specters of shame slinking through the fog of my brain,” she writes in the book. “An all-nighter might end up as a one-night stand once there was nothing left to say or do. I lived in a cycle, trying to find relief from myself but only intensifying and compounding the problem of being me.”

After – and in between – stints with the Go-Go’s, Valentine did more singing and returned to guitar playing, issuing the solo record Light Years in 2005. She also currently performs solo, with her group the BlueBonnets, and on-and-off with the Go-Go’s.

Kathy Valentine today. Photo by Ruby Matheu/Courtesy of MAD Ink PR.

“The intensity of our camaraderie kept growing, a creation of its own force,” she writes of their early days together. “Just breathing the air around each other changed the band chemistry. We were like newlyweds on a honeymoon, determined to inhale life together, filled with desire and euphoria. And drugs and alcohol.”

And while members have gone in and out of the Go-Go’s lineup over the years – either by purpose or just temporarily – Valentine says the Classic Five are like the recipe for a really good cake: take out even just one ingredient, and it doesn’t taste the same.

Finally, if you stick a microphone into the face of an average Gen Xer and asked them to immediately name a Go-Go’s song, the most popular answer would arguably be “Vacation.” Written mostly by Valentine before she joined the band, with a chorus tweaked by Caffey and Wiedlin, it became one of their biggest hits and most recognizable videos.

The clips shows them “waterskiing” (with professionals in the water and the band in close-ups) while wearing  sparkly crowns, pink leotards, and tutus. Valentine says the band got pretty drunk during the filming of their parts…not that some viewers needed to be told that.

But since its 1982 release, the song has taken on a life of its own, resonating with listeners in a heftier way than the frothy video might imply. After all, who doesn’t constantly think about jettisoning their daily work and personal problems to get out to reinvent themselves on a vacation?

“In my opinion, a song that has that kind of longevity wouldn’t have it if it didn’t resonate with people on some deeper level. It was genuine and from the heart and based on my real experience. And that puts an energy and a mojo on it,” she sums up. “It wasn’t taken from some sort of songwriter bank where you’re trying to come up with some sort of hook. But if you had told me when I was scribbling the lyrics that I would still be licensing that song and making money off it today, I would have definitely not believed you!”

This interview originally appeared at HoustonPress.com

For more on Kathy Valentine, visit KathyValentine.com

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Meet the Woman Who Shot the Mad Dogs (and Englishmen)

Joe Cocker, lost in the moment on the “Mad Dogs & Englshmen” tour, 1970. Photo by Linda Wolf

There once was a glorious age of Music Journalism Past, an era when the magical could happen. A time when interviews with rock stars weren’t 15-minute phoners with a publicist listening in, or concert pictures limited to first-three-songs-only-no-flash.

For back then talent, luck, and moxie could combine to give a budding writer or photographer an Almost Famous-like experience on the road with a real live rock and roll band and all its attendant wonderful, inspiring, fun, and decadent circus trappings.

That’s what happened in 1970 for 19-year-old Linda Wolf. She had been working in the music industry in Los Angeles and cultivated personal relationships with a number of performers and producers. When a musician friend asked for a ride to a studio to rehearse for a massive tour that was starting in just six days, Wolf went along, found tour producer Denny Cordell, and boldly asked to come along.

Linda Wolf, self-portrait, 1970. Photo by Linda Wolf

When Cordell asked what she could do, Wolf answered she could be the documentary photographer. Borrowing a camera, she quickly took some test shots, had them developed, and showed them to Cordell a few hours later. The verdict? “Yes, you can come.”

Over the next two months, Wolf was part of the free-form circus known as Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs & Englishmen tour, which become one of rock’s most legendary jaunts. The ragtag troupe of up to 50 people included bandmembers, managers, a film crew, wives/girlfriends/friends, three children, and a dog that no one knew was pregnant at the time. They played 54 shows in 48 cities, and it spawned a sucessful double album and documentary film.

All the while, Wolf was clicking away, taking more than 8,000 images onstage, backstage, on buses, and in hotel rooms and restaurants. Sometimes, she’d even get to dance while Cocker, bandleader/singer/keyboardist Leon Russell, and nearly two dozen other performers stood on the cramped proscenium. It was a long way from just a decade before when as a child, Wolf started experimenting with her father’s Kodak Brownie camera.

The celebrate the 50th anniversary of the tour, Wolf has collected hundreds of those images in the gorgeous coffee table book Tribute: Cocker Power (338 pp., $75, Insight Editions). “Cocker Power” was the name emblazoned on the side of the tour’s dedicated airplane. She’ll also host a special online livestream event on April 26 with veterans from that tour, as well as the 2015 tribute/reunion concert.

Joe Cocker, Leon Russell (in hat) and the full band onstage. Photo by Linda Wolf.

The project originally began as a souvenir photo booklet that Wolf gave away to those involved with the 2015 show. But with interest and financial backing through a patron, the scope grew. And thankfully, Wolf’s parents held on to much of her original work in the form of her original negatives.

“They threw away my Rolling Stones autographs, but they kept the negatives!” Wolf laughs. The rise of digital photography and restoration also were a huge benefit in sifting through the material and putting together the book. She even discovered images that she didn’t know existed, all shot with essentially unlimited access to the people and events.

Wolf feels that musicians, their audience, and journalists have lost a lot by not keeping some of those practices. “It’s so much about money and the star-making machinery, and that’s a wrong paradigm. This book [showcases] not just the musicians, but the audience, the truck drivers, the staff…this idea of putting stars on pedestals, it’s painful for me to see that and it’s harmful for art,” she offers. “And Joe didn’t like that whole part about rock and roll, the bullshit. He hated it.”

One of the interesting aspects about the tour is, while Joe Cocker was the headliner, it was Leon Russell who actually put things together and grabbed his own share of the spotlight. Tired from his previous tour and in a general malaise about the business, Cocker was happy to turn that power over to Russell…at least at the beginning.

“Joe was told by his manager he had to go on the tour or he’d get kicked out [of the country]. According to Denny, he was in a real bind when he got to Leon’s house. And Leon, in his brilliance, just started putting it out there and people started arriving,” Wolf says. “It just grew and grew, but I think Joe began to feel diminished. Not on stage, but feeling overshadowed by Leon. But Leon had no choice but to be the conductor.”

Linda Wolf today. Photo by Heather Wolf.

As the tour went on, Wolf says that Cocker began to withdraw into his insecurities, was the end of a romantic relationship, and indulged in drugs and alcohol, which adversely affected his life and career.

“Joe had these real human feelings as a man and not as an artist, and he had kind of lost himself by the end of the tour,” Wolf says. And when Mad Dogs & Englishmen played their final note, Russell began a white-hot solo career and high-profile collaborations, while Cocker floundered for years until an eventual comeback.

Amazingly, Wolf had a second time around in the same assignment when she was asked to be the official photographer for the 2015 tribute to Mad Dogs & Englishmen at the 2015 Lockn’ Festival. Spearheaded by guitarist Derek Trucks and his wife, singer/guitarist Susan Tedeschi (whose own Tedeschi Trucks Band today takes a lot of inspiration from the MD&E model), it was originally supposed to feature Cocker himself, until he passed away in 2014.

The couple then turned to Leon Russell to play and serve as a living link to the tour, and soon organizers were trying to locate every veteran of the 1970 tour alive and able to take part. Eventually, vocalists including Rita Coolidge Claudia Linnear, Pamela Polland, and Matthew Moore, and drummers Chuck Blackwell and Bobby Torres joined Dave Mason and disciples the Tedeschi Tucks Band, Warren Haynes, and Chris Robinson for a special show. Tribute: Cocker Power features many photos from that show. Wolf also got to bring her daughters along.

“Derek and Susan are two of the kindest, most generous, sweet-hearted, non-egotistical that I’ve ever met. So down to earth, real, brilliant, and talented,” Wolf offers. “Susan just wrote me a text the other day about how important this book and art is in today’s era of confusion and grief and fear about not knowing the future. And how we need to bring art and compassion to each other.”

Leon Russell, Derek Trucks, and Susan Tedeschi at the 2015 Mad Dogs & Englishmen Tribute Show at the Lock’n Festival. Photo by Linda Wolf

Outside of her rock photography, Wolf has a long-lasting and still-thriving career in photography, specializing in global portraiture of women and indigenous peoples. She is also the co-founder of the Daughters Sisters Project, and founder of the nonprofit advocacy and educational organization Teen Talking Circles.

Earlier this year, Wolf hosted a livestream of talk and music and a Q&A, but she circles back to the idea of art and music and what it means in the Age of Coronavirus and our isolation.

“It’s hard for so many people right now who have lost their family members, their jobs, they’ve been sick, they’re worried about the future. I have a daughter who’s a nurse and a mother who’s 93 and I worry. We don’t know what’s going to happen,” she says.

“And I wonder if this book is even that important right now. But I came to the conclusion that our souls and spirit need this. We need to put on music and dance, and rock and roll gets the spirit through the body. It helps us to know we can keep on keeping on. It gives us a real understanding of the human collective and the values that made the 1960’s so extraordinary.”

For more on Tribute: Cocker Power and Linda Wolf, visit CockerPowerBook.com

This interview originally appeared at HoustonPress.com

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Wishbone Ash Paints a New Coat of Arms

Wishbone Ash today: Joe Crabtree, Mark Abrahams, Bob Skeat, and Andy Powell. Photo by Mannie Grove

Though not as well known among classic rock aficionados in the U.S. as their home base in England or even Europe, for more than 50 years prog rockers Wishbone Ash have carved out their own place in rock history and attracted some very, very rabid fans. Known as pioneers of the “twin guitar” sound that would later influence groups like Thin Lizzy and Iron Maiden, their best known album is 1972’s history and war-themed Argus.

A military connection also features – at least visually – on their latest record, Coat of Arms (Steamhammer/SPV). The current Wishbone Ash lineup includes original member Andy Powell (lead vocals/guitar), Bob Skeat (bass), Joe Crabtree (drums), and new guitarist Mark Abrahams.

“Primarily, we are introducing on record Mark as our new guitar player,” Powell says. “And we did prepare it in a different way. We went to a place in France and worked in a band room and recorded demos, which we don’t normally do. My son [Aynsley] was involved with the writing and arranging, and I did a number of lyrics with my wife [Pauline]. Then we took it to England and introduced the material to the full band.”

When it’s suggested that Coat of Arms has a lot of Powells on it, the 69-year-old Head Powell laughs. “Ha! Yes, it’s a family affair – but not quite the Partridge Family! A lot of rockers this age, your family becomes involved in the music by default whether they like it or not!”

But if the highly complex twin guitar sound both in the studio and on stage has to be practiced and meticulous, Abraham’s seems like a perfect fit. He began playing guitar at the age of 9, and had a huge admiration for and decades of practice playing the music of Wishbone Ash. Powell first met him when Abrahams ran a music store in north London that would sometimes supply the band with equipment.

“Getting him was very fortuitous. It made for a lot of shortcuts and easier on me because he already knew the music,” Powell says. “He could tell me ‘Well, this is how you did it back in 1983…’ and he’d be right! It’s a joy to rediscover that through him.”

Of the 11 tracks on Coat of Arms, the one that will garner the most attention is its lead-off single, “We Stand as One.” Originally written as a humanistic call to arms of world brotherhood and positivity in the wake of the massive fires in the Amazon rainforests, it has since taken on more meaning than Powell would probably have liked it to.

“You always hope with a song it can bounce into different areas, so it’s always prudent to keep things in that regard,” he says. “We’re in an interesting time right now when democracy is under fire – literally. It is kind of a call to arms, a rallying song. But since the [Amazon fires], we had the fires in California and then Australia! So it actually became more prescient and urgent.”

And for Powell, that sentiment also touches contemporary geopolitical issues. “I’m surprised that more singers and bands aren’t screaming from the rooftops about some of the things they see going on in the world. There are those who say ‘Oh, just shut up about politics and play the music.’ But I think you write songs and you…art is really a reflection of the times. And that’s our duty in a way.”

As mentioned, the passion of Wishbone Ash fans run high, enough to support two dedicated annual conventions. Many of those attendees didn’t blink at forking over the equivalent of around $350 in 2018 massive 2,500 limited edition box set The Vintage Years 1970-1991.

The hallmark sound of Wishbone Ash is twin guitars: Mark Abrahams and Andy Powell. Photo by Steve Koontz

It featured 16 studio albums, three live albums, eight unreleased live albums, books, posters, rarities, promotional items, and even signed photos of the four original members who formed the band in 1969: Andy Powell (guitar/vocals), Martin Turner (lead vocals/bass/keyboards), Steve Upton (drums), Ted Turner (guitar), and later member Laurie Wisefield (guitar). It has sold out.

Powell gives credit to the team from Snapper Music, who produced it over three years – though it also included navigations and negotiations amongst the five players. “To do something like that, you’ve got to be a statesman, a politician, an archivist, and a music lover. And the [bandmembers] might not even be talking to each other…some ex-members didn’t want to be so cooperative, some did. But in the end, it was a real labor of love.”

It’s a matter of public record that Powell has varying degrees of relationships among the other four ex-Ashers, much of it stemming from the animosity over years of court cases between himself and Martin Turner over use of and billing rights to the name “Wishbone Ash” in their separate careers. A final ruling was handed down in Powell’s favor some years back.

“I see the whole picture because I’ve never stopped playing in the band, I never quit. It’s complex,” Powell offers. And while he’s not against any sort of project that would involve any combination of the ex-members, he’s not pursuing it either.

The original Wishbone Ash: Steve Upton, Andy Powell, Martin Turner, Ted Turner. Record cover/Spectrum Audio UK

“If you put the four original guys together in a room, it would probably be ‘Yeah, that’s cool.’ But there are outside influences,” he says. “But this [current] band is really busy. We played in 18 countries last year!” Powell also released his autobiography written with Colin Harper, Eyes Wide Open: True Tales of a Wishbone Ash Warrior in 2015.

Finally, Andy Powell realizes that the odds of a vintage classic rock band releasing a full album of original new music in 2020 is something of an anomaly, but he’s not ready for the band to stop being a contemporary creative force, regardless of how the majority of music is bought and/or consumed today.

“Some people may not know we’re still around!” he laughs. “I liked that we’ve signed with a small, independent label. We’re not on a huge label on a global scale now. Even established acts are finding it hard to get the word about new music. And we would not be able today to go to make a third album like Argus. It’s all one-shot deals now.”

This interview originally appeared at HoustonPress.com

For more on Wishbone Ash, visit WishboneAsh.com

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Doug Gray of Marshall Tucker Band Still Has the Fire in His Belly (and on the Mountain)

The Marshall Tucker Band today: B.B. Borden, Rick Willis, Doug Gray, Marcus James Henderson, Tony Black, and Chris Hicks. Photo by Mariah Gray/Courtesy of Absolute Publicity

For many people, remembering where they were and what they were doing on any given New Year’s Eve is an effort hampered by time, memory, or alcohol. But Doug Gray recalls exactly where he was more than four decades ago when the year 1978 rolled into 1979: Onstage at the Warehouse in New Orleans, fronting the Marshall Tucker Band through a lengthy and fiery set.

There were over 2,000 people in the audience, but tens of thousands more heard the concert simulcast nationwide on more than 150 radio stations. This show is also the latest archival release on the band’s own Ramblin’ Records imprint: New Year’s in New Orleans: Roll Up ’78 and Light Up 79!

Ramblin’ Records cover

“That show was something! And it sounds really, really good. Everybody was having a good time, and you could tell. I remember a lot because I brought my mother and father down there. And I had been hanging out with Gregg [Allman] – the best Southern Rock singer there is,” Gray says today from his home of Spartanburg, South Carolina. The city not coincidentally also give birth to the original band in 1972. Gray also has a non-musical memory that involves…fast food?

“It was the first time my dad ever ate Popeye’s chicken – and during [that day], he wanted to get more of it!” Gray laughs. “So about four hours later I was busy with something, and just told him go down the street himself to get more.”

The record includes MTB standards like “Long Hard Ride,” “Fire on the Mountain” “Searchin’ for a Rainbow,” “Heard It In a Love Song,” and “This Ol’ Cowboy.” There’s also deeper cuts “I’ll Be Loving You,” “Desert Skies,” and “Fly Like an Eagle” (not the Steve Miller version). It boasts the most Southern Rock-sounding-ever take on the appropriate holiday standard “Auld Lang Syne,” and the band brought out members of opener Firefall for a jam on the country standard “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.”

Taken from the original 24-track soundboard recording tapes and worked on by longtime MTB producer Paul Hornby, it’s not doctored or sweetened up. There’s bum chords, notes, and feedback, which lends an authenticity that Gray insisted upon. And the band’s leader/guitarist, Toy Caldwell, apologizes for his very hoarse voice before launching into perhaps the MTB’s best known hit, “Can’t You See.” It’s a rare tune not sung by Gray, but the latter wouldn’t have it any other way, even today.

“I wouldn’t be talking to you now if it wasn’t for Toy,” Gray says of the group’s primary songwriter. “With ‘Can’t You See,’ he wrote it for me to sing, and I told him I couldn’t do it. First, it was about his wife – so that was out! But he wanted me to sing it hard, and I asked him to show me. He went out there, nailed it, and we recorded it. It’s just better for his voice than it ever was for mine, and it would not have been as big a hit as it was if I did it.”

The record features the original/classic lineup of the group: Gray, Caldwell, brother Tommy Caldwell (bass), George McCorkle (guitar), Paul Riddle (drums), and Jerry Eubanks (keyboards/sax/flute).

Of course, fans know there is no Marshall Tucker in the Marshall Tucker Band – the group took their moniker from the real-life blind piano tuner from Spartanburg whose name the band found on a keychain that led to a rehearsal place the band rented when they were just starting out. Unbeknownst to them at the time, Tucker was the space’s previous renter (the group would form a friendship with him…and his equally-blind wife!).

The classic lineup of the Marshall Tucker Band: Doug Gray, Paul Riddle, George McCorkle, Tommy Caldwell, Toy Caldwell, and Jerry Eurbanks. Record company PR photo.

But Gray has lost track of how many thousands of times over the decades people have called him “Mr. Tucker” or queried about the origin of the name. “In the beginning it was funny. We made up a joke – I can’t tell you it! – but we were doing so many interviews and it got asked,” he laughs. “And we’d count it how many times we’d have to tell it. We’d go ‘This is number 34! This is number 35!’”

In 1980, Tommy Caldwell died from head injuries sustained in an auto accident, and the group disbanded three years later. Gary and Eubanks revived the group in 1988. Toy Caldwell died in 1993 from a drug-related heart attack, McCorkle in 2007 from cancer, and Eubanks and Riddle have largely retired form performing.

The band’s current lineup includes Gray, B.B. Borden (drums), Tony Black (bass/vocals), Marcus James Henderson (keyboards/sax/flute), and Chris Hicks and Rick Willis (guitars/vocals).

And they’re very, very busy on the road. This year will find them sharing stages with fellow Southern Rock Royalty Lynyrd Skynyrd on that band’s farewell tour, playing with longtime friends the Charlie Daniels Band on the Fire on the Mountain tour (the titled shared by an MTB song and Daniels album), and finally their own headlining Southern Rockin’ Roundup run of dates in which Gray is seeing his audiences actually grow younger.

The Marshall Tucker Band onstage at New Orleans’ The Warehouse in the 1970’s (though not at the 1978 New Year’s Eve show). Photo by Sidney Smith/Courtesy of Reckoning PR

“It’s all about the music. And kids who weren’t even born when the songs came out are responding to the music,” he says. Gray also recently spoke with Dan Rather for the latter’s music-themed series “The Big Interview.” A conversation that was supposed to last less than an hour went for more than three as the two men reminisced about their time in Vietnam during the war – Rather covering it and Gray fighting it, as did several other members of the original band. There’s even a second part coming out.

“But I haven’t watched it! don’t like looking at myself!” Gray says. “I have a hard enough time looking in the mirror at myself at four o’clock in the morning. I want it covered up. My girlfriend says I’m crazy!”

If Southern Rock is a three-legged stool, then Lynyrd Skynyrd is one, the Allman Brothers Band the second, and the Marshall Tucker Band the third. Today, Gray is more concerned with his actual legs and getting enough exercise.

“I’m almost 72. You have to take care of yourself,” he says. “We didn’t take care of ourselves early on, or we embalmed ourselves with some of the things we were doing. But I don’t think people relate age to the way the music makes them feel.”

This interview originally appeared at HoustonPress.com

For more on the Marshall Tucker Band, visit MarshallTucker.com

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