Heart by Heart: Of Magic Men and Barracudas

Heart by Heart: Chad Quist, Lizzy Daymont, Michael Derosier, Somar Macek and Steve Fossen. Photo by Steve Spatafore/Provided by Lappen Enterprises.

Asked to name any members of the band Heart, most casual listeners would be able to mentally cough up sisters Ann and Nancy Wilson. After all, the vocalist and guitarist/vocalist have been the “faces” and most photographed of the group since their 1975 debut Dreamboat Annie, as well as being the main creative songwriting forces.

Steve Fossen today. Photo from Heart by Heart LLC.

Often overlooked is that there was a band who played on all those epochal classic rock Heart tracks like “Crazy on You,” “Barracuda,” “Heartless,” “Magic Man,” “Straight On,” “Even it Up,” “Kick It Out,” and the gentle “Dog & Butterfly.” The rhythm section on all of those cuts was Steve Fossen (bass) and Michael Derosier (drums).

Both men now lead Heart by Heart, which since 2012 have toured playing the band’s catalog including hits, deep cuts, and some material recorded since both parted ways with the group in 1982.

The rest of the lineup includes lead vocalist Somar Macek, guitarist/keyboardist Lizzy Daymont and guitarist Chad Quist. They will make a return appearance to Miller Outdoor Theatre on April 30.

“I love the Miller, it’s a great building and just walking around. It seemed like a nice, mellow area,” Derosier says via Zoom with Fossen and Macek on a sofa.

“Yeah, and it’s by a zoo! That’s cool,” Fossen adds. “And it’s by a lot of medical centers nearby. People need medical attention.”

“It’s good to have them close by. You know, in case something happens to us!” Derosier laughs.

Heart by Heart started in when Fossen, Derosier, and fellow Heart founding member Roger Fisher were playing a party doing Heart songs and were looking for a vocalist. They found Macek, who happened to be the singer for another Heart cover band.

Fossen and Macek became a couple in real-life the next year (and are now married) and started to put a more formal band together with Derosier on board, and Heart by Heart debuted in 2012. “We have some, uh, lively banter about being married onstage. Sort of like George Burns and Gracie Allen!” Fossen laughs. “I’m sure no one remembers that but me since I’m 72 years old!” (Derosier is 70).

Michael Derosier today. Photo from Heart by Heart LLC.

One thing they agreed on: the songs would be played in the same arrangements, keys and format as the hit records. They were not looking to alter people’s sonic memories as the current Heart sometimes does.

Like the Doobie Brothers, Heart had two distinctive sounds in their commercial heyday. The early, rawer material mentioned earlier is continuously spun on classic rock radio. The band later moved into more synth-heavy and polished ‘80s songs (“What About Love?” “Never,” “Alone,” “These Dreams”),” all accompanied by special effects-laden videos that showcased the Wilson sisters’ sex appeal while the band wore elaborate stage costumes.

“We’re really happy that classic rock radio keeps our music alive. And the most popular songs today are those [earlier] ones,” Fossen says.

“We do all the songs that we think people want to hear, and then our favorite deeper cuts like ‘Devil Delight,’ ‘Mistral Wind,’ and ‘Lighter Touch,’” Derosier says. Fossen adds that they keep an eye on the royalty statements they receive to see which songs are the most popular in terms of sales and downloads today, but they do focus on the classic 1975-82 era they were in the band for.

Both Fossen and Derosier were part of Heart’s original lineup, and Fossen goes back even further to the 1967 founding of The Army (with Roger Fisher), which morphed into Hocus Pocus, then White Heart, and finally Heart. He predates Ann Wilson’s joining in 1971, and then Nancy a couple of years later.

Classic Heart: (back) Roger Fisher, Howard Leese, Michael Derosier, Steve Fossen; (front) Nancy and Ann Wilson. 1970s Mushroom Records Publicity Photo.

Heart By Heart is, in effect, a Heart tribute band that features two former members. But the five musicians onstage definitely put their own spin and stamp on the material.

“My favorite song to do is ‘Magic Man,’ but I also like ‘Devil Delight’ because you have to have an attitude to play that,” Macek says. “It would be very difficult to go onstage each night and thinking I have to be exactly like Ann Wilson. It’s not like the Heart tribute bands where they go on in the [‘80s-era] costumes and have to [mimic] the band. But I hope it’s pretty close to what people originally heard when they heard these songs.”

“Most [classic rock] bands nowadays have a fraction of their original lineup. That’s just the way it is for different reasons. But if you don’t represent the songs, you’re not giving people that nostalgia they want,” Derosier says. “You want your audience to go away satisfied.”

Heart by Heart onstage: Macek, Daymont, Derosier (back), Fossen and Quist. Photo by Heart by Heart LLC.

Fossen and Derosier are very glad to finally be playing in front of live people again, unlike some of their more, uh, unusual pandemic gigs.

“We’ve done some shows in front of cardboard cut outs of people and their dogs!” Derosier laughs. “It was a virtual, live broadcast thing. I guess the cut outs were there for our benefit. But I mean, you’d throw a guitar pick out there and it would bounce off some guy’s face!”

Fossen says it actually benefitted them psychologically to see smiling faces—even frozen cardboard ones—in the audience. And it was a way for them, like thousands of other bands, to create some revenue.

The pair have had an often fractious relationship with the Wilson sisters since they were voted out of the band in 1982. Both argue that the band’s songwriting was more collaborative than the Wilsons-only credits on the records. And when the original band (the Wilsons, Fossen, Derosier, Fisher, and Howard Leese) were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2013, the sextet only played together on “Crazy on You.”

The Wilsons then did an acoustic duet of “Dreamboat Annie” before bringing out their then-current version of band for “Barracuda,” even though the originals had rehearsed it together. That rankled Fossen and Derosier and still does. But as we’ve seen with Rock Hall induction performances like Creedence Clearwater Revival and Blondie, it’s the band’s most recognizable names who hold more sway over production aspects like that.

“It was very surreal and a bit uncomfortable as far as I was concerned, but I was very happy to have my son there with me,” Derosier says. “I was backstage with Dave Grohl and Taylor Hawkins of the Foo Fighters, who were there to induct Rush. We were all talking drums when ‘Barracuda’ started, and it sounded weird. Dave and Taylor said it was kind of slow and dragging!”

Today, even “official” Heart is somewhat in flux. The Wilson sisters have a very public falling out in 2016 over a family matter and put the band on hiatus, though reunited for a brief 2019 tour. Since then, Nancy Wilson has put out a solo record, Ann Wilson has one coming out soon, and a new group called “Nancy Wilson’s Heart” will be opening on dates for Styx soon (the sisters reportedly having a falling out over choice of the band’s backing musicians).

As for playing in Texas, Derosier and Fossen remember when Heart played the Texxas Jam at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas 1979 on a bill that also included Van Halen, Boston and Blue Öyster Cult among the acts (they also played the event the year before).

“All day long it was super, super hot and they were even spraying the crowd with hoses. And then they ran out of drinking water, which made it miserable. So, we were already uncomfortable and then they put the lights on, which made it even hotter,” Fossen says.

“About 2/3rds through our set, Nancy started the chords to ‘Mistral Wind’ and this breeze came through the stadium, and the temperature dropped about ten degrees. The crowds went ‘yeeeah!’ And the wind blew through our hair. When we had hair. Now, it just goes ‘whoosh’!”

“Last time I wondered how we were going to survive playing in Houston outdoors because it was so hot,” Macek offers, bringing it back to 2022. “Then they told us there are these air conditioning fans in the bottom of the [Miller Theatre] stage. And we’re like ‘No way! That’s great!’”

Originally appeared in HoustonPress.com

For more on Heart by Heart, visit HeartbyHeart.com

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Kenny Loggins is Still Alright

Kenny Loggins looking very Yachty in an early-1980s photo session. Kenny Loggins personal collection.

Tom Cruise and Kenny Loggins are forever intertwined in pop culture by the 1986 high-flying action flick Top Gun. The actor as the star and driving onscreen force, and the musician for his hard-edged performance of the film’s theme song, “Danger Zone.”

But the pair had never actually met in person until October 2016 when they were coincidentally booked to appear on TV’s Jimmy Kimmel Live! And the singer had one question for the onscreen flyboy.

“I said to him ‘I know you’re working on the Top Gun sequel right now. Is ‘Danger Zone’ a part of it or not?’” Loggins says via Zoom from his home in Santa Barbara. “And he told me ‘Kenny, it wouldn’t be Top Gun without ‘Danger Zone.’ And I’m really glad he felt that way!’”

Now, six years later, the original track (not the version Loggins re-recorded for possible inclusion) is heard near the start of today’s hottest box office ticket, Top Gun: Maverick.

Loggins talks about that song, his other giant soundtrack hits (“I’m Alright” from Caddyshack and the theme song from Footloose), life, career, collaborations, and personal journey in and out of music in a memoir written with Jason Turbow, Still Alright (320 pp., $30, Hachette Books)

“About halfway through the process, I realized that writing this book was a cross between a therapy session and a deposition!” Loggins laughs. “I’d be in the middle of a story and Jason would tell me I had contradicted myself earlier. I realized my life is a paradox, and it was a process for me.”

As a young man, Loggins absorbed anything and everything about music, briefly touring as a member of a latter-day version of The Electric Prunes even attending both the Monterey Pop and Altamont Festivals. Both of which went down in music history for very, very different and well-documented reasons.

“Altamont became a metaphor for the end of an era, but it wasn’t consciously that way. It was just a badly-produced show. But Monterey felt like the beginning of something big. Like something was going to happen,” he recalls.

Dedicated to music (he wrote both later Loggins & Messina hits “Danny’s Song” and “House at Pooh Corner” while still in high school), his initial success came as half of that “accidental duo” with Jim Messina (ex-Buffalo Springfield, Poco). They also scored with “Angry Eyes,” “Vahevala,” “My Music” and “Your Mama Don’t Dance.”

But the five-year partnership was complicated and unequal, as Messina-as-producer had final say (and strong, unmovable opinions) about music, songwriting and touring that were not always in line with that of Loggins. They’ve had on-and-off brief reunions since their dissolution but were hardly—as the title of an early greatest hit compilation said—“best of friends.” But he did give his former partner a heads up on the book.

“I sent him the Loggins and Messina chapters. I wrote him a letter that said it’s too late to change it, but if he wanted to talk about it, he could call me and we’d talk it through together,” Loggins says. “It was the perspective of a 22-year-old [who felt] picked on. I didn’t have more chops on how to defend myself to speak up, so I didn’t.”

Nevertheless, Loggins would churn out many hits, often in collaboration with others. His breakthrough “Whenever I Call You Friend” was co-written with Melissa Manchester and performed with Stevie Nicks. Michael McDonald co-wrote and/or sang on “This Is It” (written as a motivational tune to Loggins’ sick father), “What a Fool Believes” (a big hit for McDonald’s Doobie Brothers) and “Heart to Heart” (also written with David Foster). “Don’t Fight It” was a duet with Journey’s Steve Perry, and “Celebrate Me Home” co-written with jazzman Bob James.

“It’s really musically stimulating for me because invariably, your collaborator will go somewhere you hadn’t of thought of,” he offers. “Then I bring my own personality and melodic sensibilities to the party. We come up with something neither of us would have on our own. An in a perfect world, you’ll hear both writers in that song.”

Still Alright seems almost perfect balanced in that includes plenty of words of all three legs of a good Rock Memoir Stool: Creative/recording process, personal revelations/insight, and stories/anecdotes.

Of the last in 1985, we learn that Prince was a no-show for the “We Are the World” recording session, so Loggins convinced Michael Jackson to have his new friend Huey Lewis sing the line. And he and his entire band and crew quickly left a show in Houston to catch a flight to Philadelphia to play Live Aid the next day.

He’s also completely fine with his place as a face on the Mount Rushmore of Yacht Rock. According to the website run by the moniker’s founders, YachtorNyacht.com, Loggins had some hand in four of the genre’s top six songs.

“I think it’s great there’s a whole audience for that era of rock and roll that I didn’t know was there!” he says. “We didn’t know we would be creating another genre at the time. It was just an extension of our version of R&B music.”

But despite all the chart hits, Loggins considers one work of above all in terms of importance and intimacy: 1991’s album Leap of Faith. In fact, he calls some of his diehard fans “Leapers.”

“That music came to me as part of a moment in my life and career that catches emotionally into the dissolution of my marriage to [first wife] Eva and then the creation into a new relationship and ultimately new marriage with [second wife] Julia,” he offers. “And I just happened to be making a record at a very important time in my life. The music captures that experience. It was so fluid and so much like a gift.”

Kenny Loggins is a very Zen and spiritual guy, so even when—as he writes in the book—the master tapes for Leap of Faith went missing when a van was stolen, he didn’t panic.

“The music came to me almost like it was guided, handed to me through my spirit. And I couldn’t believe that this could all happen just so someone could steal it,” he says. “I kept recording, because I knew it was coming back.”

Not coming back later in the decade was Julia, who left him after more than a decade of being together and three children (Loggins also has two with Eva). He’s extremely open about his time with Julia, which involves a nude wedding ceremony, frequent colonics, New Agey-mysticism, and their practice of a “conscious relationship.”

Kenny Loggins onstage in the ’70s at at Loggins and Messina show. Photo by Larry Hulst.

The timing of her announcement couldn’t be worse, though. The pair had just co-written and released the offbeat love guidebook The Unimaginable Life along with a companion record by Loggins.

“She asked me for a divorce. Just after we’d put out a book about how to make love last. Wait a minute! I definitely didn’t see that coming!” Loggins says. “It took 10 years to get past it, but it was an important time for my personal growth. And all that affects the music. We learn more from the heartache stuff than from any other part of our lives.”

As for this summer, Loggins has a lot of publicity to do for Still Alright, has some live dates booked that are part concert/part onstage interview and storytelling experience, and even a couple of gigs with Jim Messina. He remembers recently playing his first post-pandemic show.

“You could just feel the excitement in the audience. They were so happy to be back. There’s an energy thing that happens between an artist and an audience, a connection that can’t be fabricated on Zoom. You have to be in the room,” he says.

“It’s part of a flow. In a great concert, there’s a level of flow and the music brings a focal point to your consciousness. That’s my theory!”

Loggins then gives an avowed rave to the book Stealing Fire: How Silicon Valley, the Navy SEALs, and Maverick Scientists Are Revolutionizing the Way We Live and Work by Steven Kotler and Jamie Wheal and connects it to music. And how we can find a wonderful experience even in the aspects which are not neat and orderly in a performer.

“You have to be yourself. Let the burping and the farting be part of the show! It’s the imperfection that makes the connection,” he laughs. “Hey, I need to write that down—that rhymes!”

This article originally appeared at HoustonPress.com

For more on Kenny Loggins, visit KennyLoggins.com

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A Fab Five Pay Tribute to Beatles on Hits-Laden Tour

Todd Rundgren leads his band of merry men on a second Beatles tribute tour. Photo by and © Lynn Goldsmith.

Note: This article originally appeared in May 2022. This tour is no longer ongoing.

Glancing at his jam-packed concert schedule for 2022, it’s easy to assume that Todd Rundgren is looking to make up for stage time lost to the pandemic.

He’s currently opening shows for friend Daryl Hall on his solo tour. Two days after that ends, he’ll embark on the second U.S. leg of a jaunt celebrating the legacy of the Beatles’ pivotal records Rubber Soul and Revolver. Four days after that, he’ll begin another tour with his own band.

The mathematically questionable It Was Fifty Years Ago Today: A Tribute to the Beatles stops in Houston at Cullen Performance Hall on May 25. The all-star lineup includes Rundgren, Christopher Cross, Jason Scheff [Chicago], Joey Molland [Badfinger] and Denny Laine [Wings, Moody Blues]. With a backing band, they’ll play tunes from those Beatles records alongside some of their own many hits.

In 2019, Rundgren and many of the same artists on this Beatles tour began a similar (and pandemic-shortened) one to celebrate The Beatles (aka The White Album) record. For Rundgren, it was a no-brainer to do it again.

“There was some discussion of doing Let It Be, but I sort of protested and wanted focus on their best material. And the Beatles’ songwriting peak was at Rubber Soul and Revolver,” Rundgren says via Zoom from somewhere on the road.

“They had mastered the art of writing the perfect single already, and now they were stretching out musically. They were using string quartets and were kings of the world at the time. It was a more fecund period in the life of the Beatles, and we [original fans] were younger and more idealistic.”

In a separate talk, Joey Molland was glad to get the band back together. “I had a good time on the last tour, so they called me up again and I said yes immediately! We’ve done about 15 shows so far,” he says.”

Of all the players on this tour, it’s Molland who had the closest personal and professional relationship to the Beatles. Badfinger was signed to the band’s Apple label. George Harrison served as initial producer of their Straight Up album (ironically, it’s Rundgren who finished it) and invited the band to play backing music at The Concert for Bangla Desh.

For his part, Rundgren says that the Beatles really made music part of the overall listening experience. Fans would wait for the next record to come out and devour it whole.

“You sort of got it, went into your room, locked the door, and listened to the whole thing. And then do it again. It was as religious experience in a certain sense,” Rundgren says. “But then they stopped performing live, and then they’d be doing things that couldn’t be reproduced live onstage anyway.”

Asked to name a Beatles album off the top of their heads, most people would blurt out Sgt. Pepper’s, Abbey Road, or even Meet the Beatles. But the sometimes-undervalued Rubber Soul and Revolver were pivotal in the band’s artistic progression.

Badfinger (Joey Molland on left). “Straight Up” record cover.

The former saw them move into more adult and introspective lyrics and music (and introduce new and classical instruments), while many hardcore fans considered the latter their best effort and a pivot into more of a pure rock sound.

“I agree that they get lost sometimes. A lot of people will talk about the early days of [Beatlemania] and then just jump right to Sgt. Pepper’s,” Molland says. “The songs are all short, so we try to do as many as possible. I think there’s 35 songs in the show!”

For Jason Scheff, he was eager to repeat the experience from The White Album tour, which was ego-free among the marquee classic rock names. “Everybody was just hanging out and there was no pecking order and it was just so much fun,” the singer/bassist says via Zoom from his home.

“I didn’t realize at first how much influence Paul McCartney’s bass has on people like [Elton John bassist] Dee Murray and [original Chicago bassist] Peter Cetera. So lyrical and with great lines. Chicago made no bones about being huge Beatles fans. And the best sources say these two records are the best they ever made. They were the departure from the straight up pop stuff.”

Scheff adds that the divvying up of Beatles songs for that portion of the show didn’t result in any huge disagreements among the players, and he’s happy to be tackling the more John Lennon-created numbers “Girl” and “I’m Only Sleeping.”

He also gets a kick out of his and Rundgren’s simultaneous hair-flipping during Chicago’s “25 or 6 to 4” and has high praise for Rundgren as the de facto leader of the troupe. Rundgren also joins Molland for Badfinger’s “Baby Blue,” which garnered a life of its own after it was used in the last scene in the finale for TV series “Breaking Bad.”

With four songwriters and singers in the group, you’d think that members of Badfinger would be cutthroat about getting their songs on records. However, Molland says that wasn’t the case at all.

“We only recorded the songs we wanted to that we thought as a group were the best ones. Pete, Tommy, Mike, and I all wrote. And the only cover song we ever did was [the Paul McCartney-written] ‘Come and Get it,’” Molland—who tackles Beatles’ tunes “If I Needed Someone,” “Doctor Robert” and “The Word”—says. “It was a very relaxed situation. We weren’t desperate to get our own songs on. It wasn’t a competition.”

However, there was one tune on this tour that Rundgren claimed immediately—and there would be no further discussion.

“I got ‘Tomorrow Never Knows,’ right off the bat. No one else could deliver that with the sincerity I could!” Rundgren laughs. This also coming from a man whose band Utopia (as Classic Rock Brother Jamie pointed out during the talk) put out an entire record that sounds like a lost Beatles effort, Deface the Music.

Jason Scheff

“Maybe we can do some Fake Beatles songs and see if anyone notices!” Rundgren laughs.

Over the course of his life, Rundgren has met and spent time with all four Beatles, including many years on the road in various lineups of Ringo Starr’s All-Star Band. “I met George first, and I met Paul because I knew Linda Eastman before she knew Paul. I met John during his dark years when Yoko kicked him out of the house, so he probably didn’t remember it!”

For his experience, Molland calls George Harrison an “normal person” who was “very generous with his time.” He remembers getting frequent phone calls, and not always about work. That includes one time when Harrison invited Molland and his wife to join he and his on a sort of double date to see The Band.

“It was kind of freaky when he’d just call out of the blue!” Molland laughs.

Amidist all the touring, Todd Rundgren’s fans are awaiting the long-awaited release of his guest star-laden Space Force record. Delayed in production because of (no joke) a vinyl shortage on the manufacturing side triggered by the immense demand for the latest Adele LP on the format.

During the pandemic, Rundgren—always at the forefront of technology—launched the “Clearly Human” tour in which he “visited” different cities with site-specific content while actually performing all shows in Chicago that were then livestreamed.

And while his initial ambitions didn’t quite reach fruition (the only local part of the “Houston” show was a few of Rundgren’s shout-outs to the city and a brief stage slideshow of local landmarks), the experience was educational for him.

“It’s hard to sell something when people have no previous experience of it. So, it was a challenge to promote and get people to spend money on something that was not what they really wanted, which was to go to a live show,” he says. “So, I lost a chunk of change on that! But it revealed a lot about audience dynamic and made me think it could still be done even without a pandemic.”

Still, his constant gigging in 2022 has something in spirit with a famous Revolver song—“Taxman.”

“I’m making up for lost time since disease kept us off the road. But that had no effect on my IRS [filing]. So, I need to get back on the road!”

This article originally appeared at HoustonPress.com

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For Little Feat, It’s Columbus Day Every Day!

Little Feat in 2022 still awaiting Columbus: Sam Clayton, Scott Sharrard, Bill Payne, Tony Leone, Fred Tackett and Kenny Gradney. Photo by Hank Randall.

According to The 1970s Rock Rulebook, every performer or band was required to release a double live record album.

For some acts, it broke them out in terms of popularity and recognition (KISS, Peter Frampton, Cheap Trick). For others, it burnished the studio material and allowed for stretching out (The Band, Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Allman Brothers Band). For the cult favorite and multi-faceted Little Feat, 1978’s Waiting for Columbus is considered by many not only as one of the best live albums of the era, but the band’s apex as well.

Its 17 tracks were culled from seven shows and feature the six-man classic lineup tripping through their catalog with skill, passion and zeal. A bonus was the presence of the Tower of Power horn section, and songs like “Dixie Chicken,” “Time Loves a Hero, “Oh Atlanta,” “Tripe Face Boogie,” and “Fat Man in the Bathtub” received extra oomph (a 2002 double CD added 15 more tracks).

The current edition of Little Feat is celebrating the 45th anniversary of those shows by performing Waiting for Columbus in its entirety. The tour stops in Houston March 26 at the 713 Music Hall.

“The album is what, 75 minutes long? We did a dry run in Jamaica a couple of weeks ago, and the show was two hours. Without an encore!” laughs co-founder/keyboardist Bill Payne.

“I think the original idea to do a live album came from Warner Brothers. They were looking for the best way to present this band that was great live but wasn’t [captured] like that on the records. And they’re just great songs.”

In the liner notes for the 2002 reissue, Payne also noted that perhaps co-founder/singer/guitarist Lowell George saw the project as a way to reassert some creative control that he had abandoned. To this day, some believe that—much like Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys—that Little Feat is the singular vision and creation of Lowell George. But Payne differs.

“Things were attributed to [him] that weren’t solely his doing. When this band started in 1969, the notion of what it would be in the future was kind of a Lego concept: What did we want to add? It was music driven, not personality driven.”

Of the original album’s lineup, Lowell George, drummer Richie Hayward, and singer/guitarist Paul Barrere have passed. Payne, bassist Kenny Gradney, and percussionist Sam Clayton remain. The current version also includes longtime guitarist Fred Tackett, and “new guys” singer/guitarist Scott Sharrad and drummer Tony Leone.

“It’s a great time to catch this group. I’ve been calling this version Act 3!” Payne—who now sings a few numbers onstage—says. “Because of the reality of events, you have to make decisions whether to go on or not. It happened with Lowell and then with Paul.”

A great topic of endless debate among music nerds and journalists, of course, is how authentic any purported “live” record truly is in the end. The not-so-secret-secret is that the vast majority feature post-show overdubbing, re-recording and creative editing.

Payne, Hayward, Clayton, George (seated), Barrere and Gradney. Warner Bros. 1973 publicity photo.

Waiting for Columbus is no exception, although there’s good authority that none of Payne’s original piano or keyboard playing—of which there’s a lot—was redone (though he says a new part was added to “Dixie Chicken”), and only a small portion of Hayward’s drums.

“There were certain things that Lowell wanted to do like get the guitars a little tighter or fix up a vocal. But for the most part, it’s live. And there’s an urgency to it,” he offers. “The tracks were just like a river at springtime. They just carried you down, and you’re hanging on for dear life!”

The sexy Tomato Lady painted by Neon Park on cover of Waiting for Columbus has also become the de facto band trademark. She’s reclining in a hammock and surrounded by foliage native to the Americas.

“I guess that Columbus discovered tomatoes in the West Indies, so she’s waiting to be discovered by him!” Payne says. “Somebody the other day said if the tomato was Little Feat, we were waiting to be discovered by a new audience as well.”

But while the band will be playing the same songs from the record, they’re not looking to replicate them.

“We’ll do the album, but in our fashion. It may be different instrumentation. I want this band to put their stamp on it,” Payne says. “These songs have morphed over a 45-year-period. We may want to do a song like we did then. Or like 20 years ago. Or how we’ll want to do it weeks from now. And that’s Little Feat in a nutshell. Let’s just take this for a ride.”

Adding to that idea of evolution and currentness, Payne says that he doesn’t look across the stage at Gradney or Clayton any differently from the rest of the group, despite their shared decades of music.

“I’m don’t think in those terms. But I remember when Richie was on his last legs before he passed away, there was an immediacy when your past taps you on the shoulder. In general, I just see the joy and Sam and Kenny’s faces when playing this music. And the [new members] have brought a new energy to the band that’s contagious.”

And while Little Feat is from Los Angeles, their sonic gumbo of rock, blues, and jazz also has a distinctly New Orleans feel, especially beginning with the Dixie Chicken record. Payne to this day takes issue with writers like Elizabeth Nelson who he says questioned their fitness to play that style of music.

“I’ve told people over the years, and I’d love to tell her—I guess I can do it through you, Bob!” Payne says. “Is that I was earlier today playing some Mozart, but I’m not from Vienna, Austria. And some Beethoven, but I’m not from Hamburg, Germany. Is that OK with you? Why are you segregating music? It’s ridiculous. Would you tell a musician from New Orleans that they can’t play anything else?”

Outside of Little Feat, Bill Payne has written songs with collaborators ranging Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Paul Muldoon to Blackberry Smoke singer Charlie Starr (some of which he hopes appear on future Little Feat records). He is also a creative writer and photographer, working on a memoir and teases an in-progress Little Feat documentary. And he’s contributed keyboards to scores of records by artists like Toto, Linda Ronstadt, Emmylou Harris, Stevie Nicks, Bonnie Raitt and Pink Floyd.

The 72-year-old Payne has also for years been the touring keyboardist for the Doobie Brothers, a relationship that goes as far back to their 1971 debut record. And there he was on stage left at the Woodlands Pavilion last October for the COVID-postponed tour celebrating the 50th anniversary of their founding.

“Michael McDonald is a friend and so are Pat [Simmons] and Tom [Johnston]. We have a camaraderie, and tour was fun and amazing, and I was proud to be a part of it,” he says. “With so many [instruments], we just tried to say out of each other’s way! Michael could have handled all the keyboards himself!”

Finally, the native of Moody, Texas (near Waco) says that the city of Houston plays a big part in Little Feat history. He notes that audiences here were among the most supportive and fervent, especially early in their career.

And that goes especially for, um, female admirers of the group, who are name-checked in both “Tripe Face Boogie” (“I was entertained in Houston”) and “Roll ‘Um Easy” (“And I never met girls who could sing so sweet/Like the angels that live in Houston”).

When The Houston Press last spoke with Payne in 2002 before a show that was part of the Houston Press Concert series, he waxed nostalgic about “The Houston Welcoming Committee.”

“They were some very lovely, lovely girls. Before that, I was thinking that I never wanted to tour again. But in Houston, I changed my mind. It didn’t seem so bad!” he said in 2002. Reminded of the HWC two decades later, he lets out a laugh.

Hellloo! I think a few of them are still around. And we’ve seen them over the years—though not in the fashion we did when we were younger!” he chuckles. “I was born in Waco. So once a Texan, always a Texan!”

This interview originally appeared at HoustonPress.com

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Classic Rockers Nazareth Keep Surviving on 25th Album

Nazareth in 2022: Jimmy Murrison, Pete Agnew, Carl Sentance and Lee Agnew. Photo by Lewis Milne/Courtesy of Freeman Promotions.

Ah, COVID, you bastard! You have not been a friend to so, so many Classic Rock bands who had ambitious and wonderful plans to celebrate a 50th anniversary of their founding or first album in 2020…or 2021…or 2022.

That includes Scottish hard rockers Nazareth, whose self-titled debut dropped in 1971. But 75-year-old bassist Pete Agnew—the sole remaining original member—sees the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel.

“It’s hurt a lot of bands’ 50th anniversaries. And us, we’ve had to put dates up on the website and then take them down all because of the COVID. It will be the summer before we get kickstarted,” he says via Zoom from his home in Scotland.

“I know that there in America it’s almost back to normal. But it’s not like that here in Europe, where they still restrict audience sizes. We’ve still got the masks in Scotland and promoters are nervous about putting any shows on. But we’ll make up for it!”

Not that the band didn’t just sit on their arses the past two years. The proof is in their new 25th studio record, Surviving the Law (Frontiers Music). The current lineup of Agnew, son Lee Agnew (drums), Jimmy Murrison (guitar) and new vocalist Carl Sentance lay down not just the bombastic rockers they’re known for (“Hair of the Dog,” “Expect No Mercy,” “Bad Boy,” “Razmanaz,” “Holy Roller”), but several tunes that take on a decidedly contemporary slant.

Like “Strange Days” and “Mind Bomb” which will bring to mind respectively—at least to many—Donald Trump (“Go ahead and act like a martyr/But you can’t handle the sting”) or organizations like QAnon (“Generate another lie/Consume the disenfranchised/Every day brings a new fear/And let them hear what they want to hear).” Both were written by Lee Agnew.

“Lee’s a bit like that – he doesn’t trust anybody!” his father laughingly offers. “His lyrics are always great. But he’s left it obtuse enough to mean something to one person and something else to another. Even when I’m talking to him, I’m not sure who he means! And his ‘Let the Whisky Flow’ is about Scottish nationalism and not trusting the government. He’s a very, very angry man!”

There are also songs about good times, romance gone bad and the pandemic (“Waiting for the World to End”). But the elder Agnew has the last word on Surviving the Law with the “You Made Me,” which he wrote and sings himself.

“I always wanted to do a bluesy, jazzy, R&B type thing,” he says. “This was album number 25 and I sang a song on our first album, “I Had a Dream,” when I was 25. So, 50 years later, I thought it was time to do it again! And I did the vocal on my 75th birthday!”

In terms of anniversaries, though, Nazareth has always pegged their origin as 1968. That’s when the original quartet of Agnew, Dan McCafferty (vocals), Darrell Sweet (drums) and Manny Charlton (guitar) and were all first in the same band together.

In 1961, Agnew started a show band called the Shadettes, taking lead guitar and vocal duties. He was later joined by Sweet, and then McCafferty. They mostly played covers of other people’s hits in local and nearby clubs. Not exactly helping their touring prospects was the fact that they hailed from the tiny town of Dunfermline in Fife. Members came and went, until just the quartet with Charlton was left.

By that time, Agnew had switched to bass—mainly because their earlier bassist always failed to show up for rehearsals. “The other guys said ‘Well, it’s only got four strings and you can manage that.’ And I thought I’d give it a go,” he says. “But it wasn’t like I woke up and said, ‘I’m going to be a bass player!’”

Knowing they needed a new name, group members were sitting in a hotel bar in 1970 when the Band’s “The Weight” came over the sound system. Its first line was “I pulled in to Nazareth/Was feeling ’bout half past dead.” Agnew thought “Nazareth” would be a great name, and thus it was.

Ready to get out of the house and play: Jimmy Murrison, Pete Agnew, Carl Sentance and Lee Agnew. Photo by Lewis Milne.

The band soon scored a record deal. Which back then was a much bigger achievement than it is today, according to Agnew. Especially for a band so far removed geographically from the big city of Glasgow, much less London where the UK music biz was really centered.

“In the clubs, you didn’t make records, you played everybody else’s. We were human juke boxes! So having an actual contract was a big, big deal. And making our own record was incredible,” Agnew says. “Today, kids can make a record on their phone. I was at a club awhile back and the band said they wanted to do a song from their third album. I thought ‘Third album? They’re playing in a bar!’”

A steady stream of albums and tours upped Nazareth’s profile through their ‘70s and early ‘80s hard rock heyday. So it’s something of an irony that their biggest hit—“Love Hurts”—is actually a ballad.

A cover of a tune originally done by the Everly Brothers and written by Boudleaux Bryant, Nazareth gives it an epic sound with McCafferty’s gravelly, pleading vocals sending it over the top. In early 1976, it hit #8 in the U.S. More recently, its soundtracked commercials for products ranging from Gatorade and Nissan to Aspercreme.

One huge fan of the song and the band was a certain singer born William Bruce Rose, Jr., who later changed his first name to Axl. His band, Guns ‘n’ Roses, did some early gigs with Nazareth, and the vocal similarities between him and McCafferty did not go unnoticed.

So when Rose wed girlfriend Erin Everly in 1990, he really wanted one thing at his wedding. And while it’s been widely reported that Nazareth “turned down” his request, Agnew says the real story is much different.

“That’s a story that’s keeps growing legs!” he laughs. “Axl was getting married to Don Everly’s daughter. He loved Dan’s voice and ‘Love Hurts’ and wanted him to sing it at the wedding. He didn’t want to [book] Nazareth – we weren’t going to be the wedding band! But we were in Russia or Poland at the time and Dan just couldn’t do it. But it would have been nice!”

McCafferty retired from playing live with Nazareth in 2013 due to a diagnosis of COPD which often left him gasping for air. Agnew still keeps in touch with him—they live about five minutes apart in different Scottish villages—but they haven’t visited in person during the pandemic in order to keep the singer’s health protected.

One person he keeps most in touch with is Mick Box, guitarist and founding member of UK rockers Uriah Heep, whose history with Nazareth has often intertwined. When Box spoke to the Houston Press for that band’s 50th anniversary, he had clear memories of McCafferty’s meticulous clothes ironing system on the road.

Agnew roars with laughter when he’s told that. “Yeah, yeah! I remember that and getting a few ironing lessons from him! Dan was always very tidy!” he remembers. “Mick is like me—he’s the last original guy left in his band. But we’re on the internet with a bunch of other [older classic rock musicians] like us. And we send each other stupid stuff and jokes all the time.”

Finally, asked if there’s any pressure or extra weight he feels about the band’s now 50+ year legacy and being the “last man standing” on stage, Agnew says there’s only one reason he hasn’t hung up that bass just yet.

“I simply refuse to go!” he laughs. “There have been many different lineups of the band. And I’ve got to tell you, I’ve enjoyed every one and had really good fun. And I really believe that last two albums that we’ve done are two of the best Nazareth albums of all time! I’m not just going off and away.”

For more on Nazareth, visit NazarethDirect.co.uk

This article originally appeared at TheHoustonPress.com

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American History: Dewey Bunnell on 50 Years (Give or Take) of Music

America at the London Palladium in 2018: Rich Campbell, Dewey Bunnell, Ryland Steen, Gerry Beckley and Steve Fekete. Photo by Christie Goodwin.

Among Beatlemaniacs, there’s a famous 1963 interview clip with the Fab Four in which they’re asked what the future might hold when the bubble inevitably bursts on their showbiz career. Ringo Starr—apparently serious—said that he fancied opening a string of ladies’ hairdressing salons.

The idea that a pop or rock group could have a healthy career lasting even five years was thought of even by the bands themselves as an impossibility. Flash forward to 2022 and so many groups are out there (in some form) on the road having celebrated their 5-0 anniversary.

And while the pandemic put a stop to a lot of those plans, some groups are utilizing, uh, creative math. And that includes America, continuing the “50th anniversary tour” of their 1970 birth.

“We had no idea we’d still be out here playing these songs!” says founding member Dewey Bunnell from his home. “The parameters were making it last five years, and that was the total lifespan for a group. In our cases, we didn’t have other careers to look toward or fall back on. We came straight from high school! We had no mindset other than playing music and following our noses.”

As for being on the road, America logged 39 dates last year with 54 planned in 2021. Though some are still being shifted around the calendar for COVID-related reasons. “It’s good news to play live again. The band just wanted to be together and play together. I didn’t like spinning our wheels the past couple of years,” he says.

America was started by three singer/guitarists friends in their late teens – Bunnell, Gerry Beckley and Dan Peek. They took the name as a tribute to their home country while living with their military families, all stationed in England.

The first album in 1971 began a considerable string of hits including “Ventura Highway,” “Lonely People,” “I Need You,” “Sandman,” “Tin Man,” “Don’t Cross the River,” “Sister Golden Hair,” “You Can Do Magic,” “Don’t Cross the River,” and their first hit and signature tune “A Horse with No Name,” written and sung by Bunnell. Peek left the band in 1977 for a career as a solo Christian music artist and passed away in 2011.

Bunnell and Beckley have carried the flag on the road and in the studio for decades, and now see three generations of families in the audience. With the youngest of those now able to listen to the entire catalog of America at the touch of a screen on their phone.

“Isn’t that incredible? Spotify and the whole streaming situation had made access to music—all music—incredibly instantaneous. I love that concept to immediately bring a song to your head that you’re thinking about,” Bunnell says.

He himself has used streaming and YouTube to not only investigate deeper cuts by bands and performers he already knows and likes, but really “introduce himself” to other performers for the first time. He brings up English singer/songwriter/guitarist John Martyn.

“There’s no excuse to not hear an artist you’re interested in. And you don’t have to try and sift through piles of records in a store. If they even had a John Martyn record!”

Bunnell and Beckley participated in the writing of a recent authorized biography of the group by journalist Jude Warne, who in 2020 spoke with the Houston Press about the project.

“I don’t think an autobiography is a concept that we could have done ourselves. But it was about time for a [book] on us,” Bunnell says. “We talked to several people, but Jude just had this outline to approach the book [concentrating] on the music itself. It was really well done. And she left no stone unturned!”

Dewey Bunnell and Gerry Beckley. Photo by Christine Goodwin.

Because they have so many recognizable songs, about 2/3rd of the average America set list are set in stone “must play” tunes that the audience knows and wants to hear—otherwise, the pitchforks will come out. Bunnell knows this, but still likes to toss in a deeper cut for the hardcore fans, especially from the first few albums like “Moon Song” and “Rainbow Song.” The current band also includes Rich Campbell (bass), Steve Fekete (guitar) and Ryland Steen (drums).

“Some of the songs we’d like to do just won’t [adapt] from the recorded version to a live setting. You can’t capture the moment as well,” he says. Though they are including some material from 2015’s Lost & Found compilation of older and unreleased material.

Bunnell says this just as some whirring noises commence in the background. “Our printer is in this office and my wife is printing some recipe,” Bunnell laughs. Which begs the question: What is Penny Bunnell whipping up to eat tonight?

“It’s maple balsamic glazed carrots!” he says. “Though it may not be for tonight. My wife is a really good cook!”

Over the course of America’s career, bandmate Gerry Beckley has put out several solo efforts, with the latest, Aurora (Blue Élan Records) dropping soon. But Dewey Bunnell has never gone out on his own. Why?

“Well…that guy Gerry Beckley…he’s just a fountain of prolific works!” Bunnell laughs. “But I kind of made a conscious decision that I was never going to do that myself, though I never slammed the door on it. But you have to be driven, and Gerry definitely is. That’s his creative bent and I support that 100%. He’s got so many songs in his archives and on his hard drive. I’m even on one song on his new record!”

One thing both men are excited about and are working to see come out is a rare 1975 live recording of the band at the Hollywood Bowl. A show at which the “opening act” was legendary Beatles producer George Martin conducting an orchestra of classical and pop tunes with a program titled Beatles to Bond and Bach. Martin had a close relationship with America as producer of their records Holiday, Hearts, Hideaway, Harbor (they apparently loved the letter “H”) and then Silent Letter.

Bunnell says it’s something he especially wants to see released as it would be the band’s first live record release to feature Peek and are working out licensing and permission issues.

Speaking of Peek, Bunnell says questions about what happened to him when he gives interviews are almost as prevalent as “How did you get the name America?” and “What’s the meaning of ‘A Horse with No Name.’” So…which question is he most tired of?

“No that’s a great question, Bob!” he laughs. “I don’t know!”

He’s glad to hear that the Houston outdoor show will happen after sundown, because there’s “a lot of really great video components” that go with certain songs they plan on projecting behind the band.

Finally, while his most famous song was written about a horse, he himself did not own any or even ride. That changed about five years ago when he and his wife purchased a mustang that they named (wait for it…) “Nonami.” Get it? The animal even made a cameo appearance during a profile on the band that ran on CBS Sunday Morning in 2019.

“Yes, we still have her!” he laughs. “I’m a very novice horse owner and actually have been very wary of horses, even afraid of them. But she’s doing great and has had more training. Of course, she’s still begging for crumbs. And you have to be careful she doesn’t step on your foot!”

Which Nonami just might do later—if there’s maple balsamic glazed carrots in the offering.

For more on America, visit VenturaHighway.com

This article originally appeared at HoustonPress.com

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Gilbert O’ Sullivan is Not Alone Anymore

Gilbert O’Sullivan today. Photo by Andy Fallon/Courtesy of BMG/

In the spring of 2020, the UK-based Gilbert O’Sullivan was excited about coming to the U.S. in April for his first tour of these shores in a while. Then, of course, the world (and the entire concert business) shut down. And while that was devastating for most bands and performers, it had some positive effects on the Ireland-born singer/songwriter/pianist.

“I’m very lucky in the sense that I’m not an artist performing 50 weeks a year. I’m mostly writing songs, quilt solitarily. So, the lockdown kind of suited me. But I know it affected a lot of others badly,” O’Sullivan says via Zoom from his home on the island of Jersey in the Channel Islands.

Gilbert O’Sullivan Zooms with me!

“It was uncharted territory. I hope it’s not back again in a few months’ time. The omicron seems mild, and there’s more herd immunity. So, I hope we’re heading for a good year.” O’Sullivan opened his U.S. tour this past March 4 at Main Street Crossing in Tomball, Texas.

Amazingly, this is his first American series of dates in more than four decades, since an aborted tour with the Carpenters in the late 1970s.

Born in Waterford, Ireland and raised in Swindon, England (fun fact: the city is also the setting for Ricky Gervais’ original version of The Office), Raymond Sullivan was one of six children in a working-class family. He began playing the family’s piano but eschewed formal lessons.

Gilbert early in his career. Courtesy of BMG.

And though he went to college to study graphic design, music was calling louder as he played in several bands. A collaborator and friend was Rick Davies, who would go on to co-found classic rockers Supertramp.

He moved to London in 1967 to pursue a music career and—looking for something to set him apart—developed a sort of costume that made him look like a street urchin: bowl haircut, newsboy cap, suspenders and short pants. It was purportedly inspired by his love of silent films, though some questioned his sartorial choice. It didn’t last.

What did was a name change: a manager thought that “Gilbert O’Sullivan” might recall the songwriting team of Gilbert and Sullivan. The manager, Gordon Mills, has similarly altered the birth names of Tommy Scott and Arnold Dorsey to Tom Jones and Engelbert Humperdinck, respectively.

Sullivan had his first European hit in 1970 with “Nothing Rhymed,” but it was two year later he achieved international fame with still his best-known number, “Alone Again (Naturally).”

Though its depressive (but non-autobiographical) lyrics covered romantic jilting, suicidal thoughts, and the death of both of the narrator’s parents, Sullivan’s pumping piano and upbeat singing gave it an unexpected sonic lift. In the U.S., it stayed on the top of the Billboard charts for four weeks in 1972. Not that he had any precognition of its rise.

“I think it’s important not to know that if you’re writing something, it’s going to be successful,” he says. “The more important thing is are you happy with it? Does it have the lyrics and melody you want?”

In fact, it was originally going to be the B-side behind the more commercial “Out of the Question,” but manager Mills pushed for the switch. “When we were recording it, nobody said ‘Wow, this is something special!’ I had no idea it would be as successful as it was. And it was a [bigger hit] in the U.S. than a lot of other countries,” he offers.

The song has had several covers, including a 2010 version by Neil Diamond, who O’Sullivan says sent him a nice note about it. “Ultimately, it’s a compliment to you as a songwriter. You don’t have to like the cover versions necessarily, but the fact that somebody wants to do it means something.”

He also notes not a week goes by where someone doesn’t tell him how much the song means to them or how they can relate to it from experiences in their own lives. Interestingly, when he’s rehearsing for a tour, it’s the only song he does not practice, on purpose.

“I don’t sing that because when I sing it onstage, I put my heart and soul into it. It’s that important,” he says. “I just keep it until we’re actually performing. And it’s amazing the reaction that I get from people.”

The song—and O’Sullivan—also have a unique place in the history of the confluence of music and legal issues. In 1991, he successfully sued rapper Biz Markie for sampling the song’s distinctive piano riff on his own release “Alone Again” (in which the Biz also sings the song’s hook “alone again…naturally” in its original melody). O’Sullivan was eventually awarded a judgement of $250,000, and the song was prevented from being further sold on single or album.

Gilbert in the 1970s. Courtesy of BMG.

Coming on the heels of the ‘60s group the Turtles challenging something similar against rappers De La Soul, the cases set a precedent for unauthorized use of copyrighted material in rap songs. Biz Markie’s next record was tongue-in-cheekly titled All Samples Cleared!, with a cover of him as an English bewigged judged in court as well as the defendant.

O’Sullivan says that Biz Markie’s team had actually reached out for permission to sample the sing, but he denied the request. The rapper—who passed away last year—used it anyway.

“All I can say is that I never wanted to take anybody to court. They asked and my [initial thought] was to hear who wanted to do it. Then I realized that he was a comic rapper, and I said no way. Not that song,” O’Sullivan says.

“I had to take some action and go to New York and get lawyers and spend hundreds of thousands of dollars and it was time consuming. And who was the first person to have to answer questions? Me, not him. He wasn’t even there! But it did set a precedent, and that’s a good thing.”

He had more minor hits with “Clair,” “Get Down” and “Out of the Question. But his later commercial successes were mostly in the UK, Holland, New Zealand and especially Japan. He’s consistently toured and released records, often with lyrics of wordplay, and spanning the genres of rock, balladry, piano-based, and even dance.

“It’s always been the same writer since I don’t collaborate with anyone. I like the diversity, and I like going into different areas,” he says. “I can even listen to Jay-Z and like it. Not necessarily because of the songs, but because of the production. And I can learn from it.”

His most recent record was 2018’s Gilbert O’Sullivan, produced by Ethan Johns. It was recorded in O’Sullivan’s 48-track home studio, the building visible behind him in the Zoom call. “Ethan is all about analog and very anti-digital. And his approach made people feel it had the same approach as my very first album with a lot of warmth. So, we just titled it [plainly],” he says.

He has a new record coming out in July called Driven, produced by Andy Wright (Simply Red, Simple Minds). “I’m 75 and I still have an enthusiasm for this, so that’s why we used that title!” he says.

“I like using different producers to bring out things that maybe haven’t been done before. Andy met up with me, I played him 15 or 16 songs, he picked out the 12 he liked, then he picked out the musicians. It’s not rocket science. I sit at the piano and play it for the band, they go back to their chairs, and we hit the record button.”

For the upcoming short U.S. tour (which will be followed by European dates), O’Sullivan will be surrounded by family—literally. His wife Aase, daughters Tara and Anna Marie, and “even the babies” will accompany him Across the Pond. Looking at the itinerary, most of the stops are at City Winery in various locales. Which begs the question: Is Gilbert a fan of the grape?

“Well, in moderation!” he laughs. “And it’s usually just on weekends. Fridays are for whites and Saturdays are for reds!”

This interview originally appeared at HoustonPress.com

For more information on Gilbert O’Sullivan visit GilbertOSullivan.co.uk

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Groundbreaking Band Fanny Reserves the Right to Rock—Again!

Jean Millington, Brie Darling, and June Millington of Fanny in 2018. Photo by Linda Wolf.

In the last issue of Rolling Stone produced in the 20th century, a bevy of musicians were asked what musical issues they’d like to see remedied or addressed in the 21st. In a quote that was pulled out to feature, David Bowie was very much to the point.

“One of the most important female bands in American rock has been buried without a trace. And that is Fanny,” part of his comments ran. “They were one of the finest fucking rock bands of their time. They were extraordinary, and nobody’s ever mentioned them. They’re as important as anybody else who’s ever been, ever. Revivify Fanny. And I will feel that my work is done.”

Unfortunately, Bowie’s vision had not come to fruition by the time of his death in 2016. But he’d likely be thrilled to see the band’s story, music and legacy given the full documentary treatment in last year’s Fanny: The Right to Rock.

Written and directed by Bobbi Jo Hart, it sheds light and appreciation on the group the way that other recent female-driven rock docs have done for the Runaways, Suzi Quatro and the Go-Go’s. Fanny: The Right to Rock will screen at Houston’s Museum of Fine Arts on March 18 and 19.

“We get pitched a lot of films—and I’m happy that we’re back to actually showing films!” says Marian Luntz, MFAH Film and Video Curator. “I thought this would be a good for Women’s History Month in March. And while I was confident that I would like it, I did not know the whole backstory of Fanny and the sexism, homophobia and racism they faced.”

For local punk rock legend Dianna Ray, co-founding member/bassist/vocalist of Mydolls (formed in 1978 and still active today), she remembers hearing Fanny on FM radio in Port Huron, Michigan as a teen. But she really discovered it through her love of the music of fellow female trailblazer and Detroit native Suzi Quatro. Suzi’s sister Patti was in later lineup of Fanny.

“I remember seeing Fanny on The Midnight Special and I was just thrilled to see a female rock band. I never thought it was possible!” Ray laughs.

The documentary includes contemporary interviews with almost all band members, those who worked with them, and an A-list of musician admirers including Bonnie Raitt, Joe Elliott of Def Leppard, Kathy Valentine of the Go-Go’s, Kate Pierson of the B-52’s, Cherie Currie of the Runaways, Jeff “Skunk” Baxter of Steely Dan/Doobie Brothers and Todd Rundgren, who produced on of Fanny’s records.

As the doc details early on, Fanny’s lineup had its roots in a ‘60s all-girl California-based group called the Svelts. It featured Half-Filipino/Half-American sisters June (vocals/guitar) and Jean (vocals/bass) Millington, Addie Clement (guitar), and Brie Berry (drums), the last also of Filipino ancestry. Brandt left to get married and have a child and was replaced by Alice de Buhr.

Now known as Wild Honey, the group caught the eyes and ears of producer Richard Perry, who convinced Warner Brother’s Reprise Records to sign them. After Lee departed and keyboardist Nickey Barclay was brought on, they became Fanny.

Jean Millington, Nickey Barclay, Brie Brandt, and June Millington rehearse at Fanny Hill, c. 1969-70. Photo by Linda Wolf.

The group set up their living and rehearsal space near L.A. in a house dubbed “Fanny Hill,” which served as equal parts rehearsal space and party pad. It was not uncommon to wake up and find rockers like Joe Cocker or Mick Jagger sitting at the dining room table.

Brandt came back into the fold as a lead singer/percussionist, but Perry and manager Roy Silver envisioned Fanny as a “female Beatles”—of which there were only four. She was dismissed amidst hurt feelings by all. The hard-rocking quartet released their self-titled debut in 1970.

Soon, they were opening for acts like Humble Pie, Jethro Tull and Deep Purple, and churned out three more studio albums, one per year, with June Millington and Barclay providing the bulk of the songwriting. Oddly, they (like Suzi Quatro) found more success in the UK, where somewhat humorously the term “fanny” is slang for…vagina.

Yet, they still had to field questions in every interview like “What’s a like to be a girl in a band?” and “Can you compete with male rockers?” Some skeptics didn’t believe they actually played their own instruments or wrote their own songs.

But they face the usual, gender-free suspects of constant touring/recording grind and personality/musical conflicts. Though tacked on was the added fight for acceptance and respect because of their gender, ethnicity and some members’ sexuality. It led June Billington and then de Muhr to leave.

Brandt (now Brie Darling) came back into the fold, and Patti Quatro (sister of Suzi) was added on guitar. Cam Davis has a brief stint on drums. A move into a more glam-and-glitter sound (and forced “sexier” stage costumes) from their hard rock beginnings did not move the needle on Fanny’s record sales. Their highest-charting single was the sexually-charged “Butter Boy” (inspired by Jean’s then-boyfriend…David Bowie) at #29.

Lyrics for that included “He was hard as a rock but I was ready to roll/What a shock to find out I was in control.” Presented with a vintage 45 in the documentary, Jean lets out a laugh. However, by the time it hit the charts, Fanny had already broken up, burnt out and frustrated.

The last part of the documentary showcases the Millington sisters and Darling as they reunite to make new music with 2018’s Fanny Walked the Earth (which for some reason, also became the band’s new name). Patti Quatro and de Muhr guested, but not Barclay, who “just disappeared” and purportedly does not want to be contacted or have anything to do with the band anymore.

It would be churlish and spoiling to denote what happens next but suffice to say it puts the documentary—and the band—on a jarring and complete other path.

Writer/Director Hart also shows recent footage of June Millington instructing and mentoring a group of teen and pre-teen girls who want to rock at her Institute for the Musical Arts. In fact, the film’s very title comes from a young female punk performer who tells the camera “Fanny gave us the right to rock.”

One fortunate outcome of the film is that many who watch it will want to hear more of Fanny’s ‘70s music. But unfortunately, none of their studio albums (or a 2002 anthology) are currently in print, so they can go for collector’s prices online.

For Dianna Ray, Fanny’s legacy goes well beyond the music, as she says that the group made other lasting and meaningful impacts.

“So, I’m a lesbian and thinking of people who aren’t aware of [Mydolls’] GLBT history for the young people who come to a show, but it’s no big deal. And it’s no big deal because of a band like Fanny,” Ray adds.

“I mean, I love the Runaways and they added a great deal, but they were sold like a novelty. Their musical talents weren’t the first thing that came to mind. Fanny wasn’t created for the male gaze. It was meant for everyone.”

Ray herself got to meet and spend some time with both June Millington and Patti Quatro as part of 2013’s MEOW Con in Austin, a conference/performance of female musicians at which Suzi Quatro was an honoree and Mydolls performed.

“What a powerhouse that June was! And she was a real visionary for that band. And there were a lot of freaking amazing female musicians there. It was an amazing experience,” Ray recalls. “To me, it was a mind-blowing moment to have this full circle thing for me. To be involved in the same event with these women I had admired for a long time.”

Luntz says it checks off a lot of boxes for the MFAH in terms of programming and her mission.

“I think overall that this film is very empowering, and the band definitely has prevailed through the challenges,” Luntz offers. “We’ve booked a lot of music films, and it’s just great to be able to turn up the volume and really hear the music and see it performed on a big screen. I think people will be rocking in their seats!”

This article originally appeared in TheHoustonPress.com

For more on Fanny, visit FannyRocks.com or FannyWalkedtheEarth.com

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The Two Tastes of Ambrosia

Ambrosia in 2022: Kipp Lennon, Joe Puerta (seated), Christopher North, Mary Harris, Burleigh Drummond and Doug Jackson. Photo by Ed Clark.

Sometimes, bands can have two entirely separate musical lives. There’s the group that casual listeners “know” from their successful, Top 40 hits. Then there’s a different side understood by more hardcore fans and deep cut listeners. Such is the case with Ambrosia.

Ambrosia’s place in music culture is cemented by a troika of massively successful romantic hits from the late ‘70s/early ’80s. All are still in constant rotation on plenty of Soft Rock and Yacht Rock channels and playlists: “How Much I Feel,” “Biggest Part of Me,” and “You’re the Only Woman (You and I).”

But the truth is that Ambrosia started out as much more of a Prog Rock band. Closer to Yes, Genesis and King Crimson than Bread, Firefall or Orleans. And according to drummer Burleigh Drummond, they’re not alone.

Joe Puerta onstage Photo by Chris Schmitt.

“Look at Phil Collins and Todd Rundgren!” he laughs. “But yes, the Yacht Rock [association] has brought in a younger audience for us. We’re still able to slip in a couple of our more musically elaborate tunes. It’s important that we put that out there. And with those songs, we get [better] royalty checks!”

“It’s given us a platform, especially with our hits,” adds bassist/vocalist Joe Puerta on the same phone call. “But we need a new term, like Yacht Prog!” In fact, only days after this interview, Ambrosia will be playing on the high seas as part of the revivalist group Yacht Rock Revue’s Steal Away cruise to Jamaica.

The current lineup includes original members Puerta, Drummond and keyboardist Christopher North. Along with Doug Jackson (guitars), Mary Harris (keyboards/vocals) and Kipp Lennon (lead vocals).

 “When ‘How Much I Feel’ came down the pike, the FM stations who had been playing Ambrosia said ‘You deserted us!” Drummond continues. “But the Beatles did both ‘Yesterday’ and ‘I Am the Walrus.’ Radio was more codified then. But those [three songs] gave us a whole new audience, which was young girls. Nowadays when we play live, it all works together.”

The quartet who would form Ambrosia did so in 1970. Along with Puerta, Drummond and North, the band included lead vocalist/guitarist David Pack. They had previously gigged under the very-Proggy name of Ambergris Mite.

But—shockingly—they discovered another band was already using the name Ambergris. Puerta opened a dictionary in the same general area, and they came upon “Ambrosia,” the word meaning “nectar of the Gods” in Greek Mythology. It stuck.

Their self-titled debut appeared in 1975, and band scored five Top 40 singles over the next years including first charter “Holdin’ On to Yesterday,” and the Pack-penned trio of hits “How Much I Feel,” “Biggest Part of Me,” and “You’re the Only Woman (You and I).” There was also a cover of the Beatles’ “Magical Mystery Tour,” their contribution to one of the ‘70s more offbeat projects film/music projects, All This and World War II.

Their Proggier side came out in tracks like “Nice, Nice, Very Nice”—set to a poem by Kurt Vonnegut, “Time Waits for No One,” “And…Somewhere I’ve Never Travelled” and “Cowboy Star”. Members also collaborated with Alan Parsons on Alan Parsons Project records and were avowed fans of King Crimson and the vocal harmonies of CSNY.

Ambrosia broke up in 1982, the same year they released their fifth and to date last studio album. The original quartet reunited in 1989 while continuing to use touring members and recorded three new tunes for a 1997 anthology. Pack left for good in 2000.

Puerta says hardly a day goes by when someone doesn’t tell him how an Ambrosia song played an important part of their lives. People courted, married, and perhaps even had, um, intimate relations to their music.

“For me it’s gratifying. And some of the fan mail goes even deeper. Some of it says that [our music] actually helped save people’s lives,” he says. “Anything that is confirmation you’ve affected people is wonderful.”

Joe Puerta is a different kind of bassist in that he approaches the instrument as more of a lead than simply playing second fiddle (bass?) to the guitar. It’s something he learned on record from some of his own favorite players.

“I started off as a guitarist and had to transition to the mentality of a bassist. I have always favored bass players who do something interesting and add another element to the songs,” he says.

Burleigh Drummond onstage Photo by Chris Schmitt.

“Players like John Entwistle, who had the first bass solo in a [rock] record with ‘My Generation.’ And of course, Paul McCartney took it to another level—there’s a whole bass solo under ‘Something.” But I also love jazz guys like Jaco Pastorius and Charles Mingus. They’re creating melodic interest with the bass.”

So, given that Ambrosia in 2022 features 75% of the original lineup with some extensive history, is there any extra comfort or camaraderie that other ‘70s/’80s bands with one or no classic current members doesn’t have?

“We have a communication musically that has developed over 50 years,” Drummond offers. “I don’t consider myself the greatest drummer in the world, but our rhythm section is great.”

Puerta adds “We’re just trying to hang on for dear life, actually!”

As for new music, Puerta says they’ve been “sitting on” a lot of material that he vows to get out somehow. And Drummond says it’s “some of the best things” the band has ever written. But they are also acutely aware of commercial and publicity realities of legacy bands putting out new music in 2022.

Cut off from their main source of incoming gigging live during the pandemic, members of the group collected government unemployment—and were grateful for it. Drummond, who is married to bandmate Mary Harris, formed a family group with their singing/instrument playing son and daughter. They also perform on their own and with others, though it wasn’t their original career path.

“My son went to school to become a doctor, and he came back his junior year and said wanted to be a musician. What were we supposed to say!” Drummond laughs. “And my daughter started out in the Peace Corps. Now, she’ll go out and busk or play in a restaurant table to table and come home with $700!”

Finally, when asked about any special memories of Houston, there’s a silence on the phone. And then a conspiratorial exchange.

“Burleigh, can I tell this story?” Puerta asks.

“Is it about my state of consciousness at the time?” Drummond responds.

“OK!” Puerta starts. “It was I think 1976. Burleigh had gotten wasted and went through some crazy thing and had gotten married just before we got on a plane to Houston. So we said we’d have a bachelor party and went to a strip club in Houston,” he says.

“We’re sitting in the front row and this girl comes out. And what does she play for her song to strip to? ‘Holdin’ On to Yesterday!’ We all jumped up and went ‘Hey, that’s us!’ And the bouncer told us to sit down.”

The band talked to the woman (named “Candy Kane”) after the show. And the next night—dressed “rather provocatively”—she introduced Ambrosia at the packed Summit before their set opening for Styx.

“OK, but I need to add to the story with what happened before!” Drummond jumps in.

“We were about to go on the road, and I realized I didn’t have anyone to take care of my cat. He was a huge cat I named Barry White. I panicked. I kind of had a girlfriend at the time and asked her to take care of the cat. And she said, ‘I’ll do it if you marry me.’” Drummond recalls. “It was two hours before the flight took off. We ran down, got married. And that’s that. It was a different time, but it didn’t last.”

For more on Ambrosia, visit AmbrosiaLive.net

This article originally appeared at HoustonPress.com

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The Gin Blossoms Get Miserable Again

The Gin Blossoms in 2022: Scotty Johnson, Jesse Valenzuela, Robin Wilson, Bill Leen and Scott Hessel. 
Photo by Shervin Lainez

Note: Since this article was originally published, the Gin Blossoms postponed their anniversary tour when bassist Bill Leen broke his arm. It has since resumed.

It was March 2019 and the last chords of “Cheatin’” rang out over the audience at Houston’s House of Blues. It’s the last track on the Gin Blossoms’ New Miserable Experience, and the band was performing their 1992 breakthrough record in its entirety on this tour.

Houston was the last stop, and lead singer Robin Wilson looked almost wistful. “This is probably the last time we’ll ever do this,” he said. “It’s been great!”

Flash forward to almost exactly three years later. The Gin Blossoms are touring and will perform the whole record again (along with other career-spanning numbers) for its 30th anniversary.

“Well, honestly, it was pressure from the fans and our booking agent and manager to do it again. We sell more tickets with New Miserable Experience!” Wilson laughs. “But the anniversary is worth noting. And it’s really not asking much from us as a band. I’m already thinking how to incorporate our other material into the show.”

New Miserable Experience featured three considerable radio and MTV hits (“Hey Jealousy,” “Until I Fall Away,” “Found Out About You”), smaller ones (“Mrs. Rita,” “Allison Road”), caustic tales of romantic despair and drinking (“Lost Horizon,” “Pieces of the Night,”) and some genre-hopping (“Cajun Song,” “Cheatin’”).

However, it was not a success upon its initial release. That took nearly another year, a heavy promotional push and a complete reissue with new artwork. And for the band, that was a very long year waiting.

“There were moments that [worried] us for sure,” Wilson says. “In early 1993 we were opening for the Neville Brothers and hanging out with a record company VP. We had only sold about 76,000 copies of the record. One night in our van, I asked what was going to happen after the tour, and he said they might be moving on. And I thought ‘Fuck!’”

A month later, management decided to send them on a tour of college campuses across the country, which would also generate publicity. It was then that “Hey Jealousy” started to pick up steam.

“It was grueling. Every morning we’d hear ourselves on the radio, and then in the afternoon play a college cafeteria or student union, and then a nightclub gig in town,” Wilson offers. “And we’d get sick all the time. It would work its way around the van. At one point, I felt hopeless.”

Wilson says that a conversation between a VP at MTV and VP at their A&M Records label led to a decision: If the band would shoot a new, better video for “Hey Jealousy” (which would actually be their third version), the channel would play it and break the band. That’s when A&M relaunched New Miserable Experience.

No discussion of the record can leave out one aspect forever tied to it, the tragic fate of original guitarist Doug Hopkins, who wrote “Hey Jealousy” and “Found Out About You.”

A troubled man with as severe, uncontrollable drinking problem, Hopkins was fired by the group toward the end of the album’s creation. Adding a sting was for the 1993 reissue while his name (and guitar) remained on the liner notes and actual music, the cover photo now included his replacement, Scotty Johnson.

It devastated Hopkins. And when the record became a huge smash, Hopkins committed suicide by gun in December. The band’s next effort carried the solemn title Congratulations, I’m Sorry.

Wilson takes a moment at each show to pay tribute to his late friend, and he especially likes performing the New Miserable Experience deep cut “Hold Me Down.” It’s the only recorded song that the pair is crediting with writing together, an upbeat-sounding tune with dark lyrics about excessive partying, lack of self-control and substance abuse.

He says that he shared with Hopkins a vision for an “edgy, upbeat, Cheap Trick kind of song with some darkness in the lyrics.” A couple of days later, Hopkins came back with most of “Hold Me Down” while Wilson added more musical and lyrical aspects.

“There were a few other things we collaborated on that Doug never wanted to give me credit for, but that one’s special,” he says. “And with the perspective of time, that means a lot to me.”

As for the entirety of New Miserable Experience, it holds a place in Wilson’s heart and mind outside of it just being their commercial breakthrough.

“So many memories. The first time we went to Ardent Studios to work with [co-producer and engineer] John Hampton. And Doug’s melting down and that relationship falling apart while we were trying to make the record. There’s a lot of heartbreak,” he says.

“And the hours and hours in that fucking van! Sometimes 15-20 hours a day. It was an experience. But we pulled it off and built a career making music that’s really connected with people. Music that we still play today. It’s a rare thing to have that opportunity, and we are humbled by it.”

The Gin Blossoms have released a handful of other studio records, with their most recent being 2019’s very good Mixed Reality. However, the realities of the music business have changed drastically over the decades, and there’s practically no consistent outlet to hear new music from bands who got their start in the ‘70s, ‘80s or ‘90s.

Surprisingly, Wilson doesn’t betray extreme frustration. Though he says that creating new music is just as important to the group as playing the hits like those mentioned along with “Follow You Down,” “’Til I Hear it From You” and “As Long As It Matters.”

“It’s not something we think about too much. We take the new material and put it into the set. Honestly, a good portion of the people in the audience if they hear a newer song, they don’t recognize it like that,” Wilson says.

“They might think it’s a B-side from the 2000s or something they don’t remember from the ‘90s. As long as the show doesn’t lose momentum and we play engaging material, the show keeps going. But of course, you break out one of the hits, and everybody’s phones come out.”

The current band includes 4/5s of the classic lineup—Wilson, Bill Leen (bass), and Jesse Valenzuela and Scotty Johnson (guitars). Drummer Scott Hessel has been in for more than a decade and is actually the longest-serving skin thumper. Phillip Rhodes drummed on the original record.

“It’s a brotherhood. And after 33 years, the [four classic members] are pretty much through all the bullshit and are in tune with each other and know what to expect,” Wilson offers. “It’s a complex brew. But we’re a family that’s dedicated to making sure that all our kids get through college!”

Finally, the Gin Blossoms are blessed with not one but two recognizable band logos that spell out the band’s name: the original swirly, cursive script-looking one, and a later with a block font and lightning bolts.

They’ve alternated on record covers, and both are available on band merchandise. Wilson says he favors the lightning-bolt one but admits he’s in the minority vote of his bandmates as the original is more familiar and sells better.

But that didn’t stop the man who says in another life he would be a graphic designer, photographer or art director (all roles he already fills in the Gin Blossoms) from creating one logo that the public will never see.

“A couple of years ago, I tried to design a heavy metal-style T-shirt for the band, and the logo had a flaming pentagram and ‘Gin Blossoms’ was written in blood like a Slayer T-shirt. I thought it was so fucking awesome and so fucking funny and ironic!” Wilson remembers. “But it got voted down among my partners. They didn’t think it was funny. But I tried!”

A longer version of this interview originally appeared at HoustonPress.com

For more on the Gin Blossoms, visit GinBlossoms.net

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