Michael McDonald and the Sound of His Voice

Michael McDonald today. Photo by Timothy White/Courtesy of Sacks and Co.

Note: This interview was conducted some months prior to the recent announcements of the Doobie Brothers being inducted into the 2020 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and their upcoming 50th anniversary tour and reunion with Michael McDonald.

On “Hail Mary” – the opening track of Wide Open – Michael McDonald plaintively asks this question of the woman who he is desperately trying to win back: “Does the sound of my voice still carry?”

And on 70+ minutes of the 2017 record of all-original material (his first in nearly 20 years), the answers is a resounding yes. Then again, Michael McDonald has had “That Voice” for his entire career. It’s one of rock and R&B’s most distinctive set of pipes. A smooth, warm, and buttery vocal cloak that somehow manages a simultaneous soft and gritty feel, akin to the beard that McDonald has sported in some version for decades.

It’s the kind of voice that a former bandmate once said “makes women melt” when they hear it. It has given life to a thousand impressions, including a “Tonight Show” skit where host Jimmy Fallon and Justin Timberlake – joined by a good-natured McDonald himself – sang “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” as “The Three Michael McDonalds.” All were dressed (and coiffed) identically.

Michael McDonald, Justin Timberlake, and Jimmy Fallon sing “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” as The Three Michael McDonalds on “The Tonight Show.”

“This record kind of came out in a different way,” he says of Wide Open. “Of course, all records start with the demos as you try to flush out the arrangements. But a lot of the tracks here were the original demos just spruced up. Most of those vocals are the original demos.”

Wide Open also lives up to his name in that of the dozen tracks, the shortest is 4 ½ minutes long and most run in the 5-and-6 minute range, allowing a lot of breathing room as the songs unfurl. Many of the songs are in familiar territory of romantic difficulties, but McDonald gets social/political on “Free a Man.” About the struggles of African-Americans and equal rights in today’s society. It almost comes off as spiritual sequel to the Doobie’s “Takin’ In to the Streets.”

“That was written by a friend of mine, Richard Sheckle, who I think is one of the best American songwriters ever. I put him in a class of Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan,” McDonald says. “I think he’s unheralded as an American treasure composer wise. And what I love about the song is that is just seems like a conversation that we’re having in our society right now. We’re trying to reevaluate ourselves more than ever, even than in the ‘60s.”

Going back to that era, McDonald remembers his parents watching Martin Luther King, Jr. give speeches on TV or the coverage of the racial unrest in Selma, Alabama during the Civil Rights era. He says they had a “call of consciousness” about how the U.S. was not living up to its promises made in the Constitution for all. “Things have to evolve toward the truth or you miss an opportunity. And it’s sometimes it’s never comfortable when you raise the ugly head of bigotry,” he offers.

Last year, McDonald embarked on a summer tour with R&B legend Chaka Khan opening. That might seem odd on paper at first – many would expect he’d be paired with another classic rock band. But upon further reflection, it makes sense.

McDonald has just as much of a footprint in R&B as rock (including three very successful records of all-Motown covers) and has long been a presence on that record chart. And when he does occasional tours with Boz Scaggs and Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen as “The Dukes of September,” all three cover choice ‘50s and ‘60s R&B/soul songs that inspired them early in their careers.

McDonald’s career in the national eye began in the mid-‘70s with his vocal and keyboard contributor to Steely Dan in the studio and on the road (most noticeably on “Peg”). Then becoming lead vocalist for the Doobie Brothers and churning out massive hits like “What a Fool Believes,” “Minute by Minute,” “It Keeps You Runnin’” “Real Love,” and “Takin’ It To the Streets.”

A thriving solo career produced “I Keep Forgettin’ (Every Time You’re Near)” and “Sweet Freedom.” And if that weren’t enough, his slew of duets and backing vocals have paired him with Patti LaBelle (“On My Own”), Christopher Cross (“Ride Like the Wind”), James Ingram (“Yah Mo B There”) and Kenny Loggins (“This Is It”).

More recently, he and Loggins collaborated with cutting edge singer/bassist Thundercat on the single “Show You The Way,” which they also performed on CBS Saturday Morning. McDonald also shared the stage with Thundercat at Coachella.

Finally, he is also very cognizant of his place as the #1 captain in the Yacht Rock universe. “Yacht Rock” started as the title of a comedy web series (that included actors playing real-life musicians, including a “Michael McDonald”) that both celebrated and gently skewered the soft and smooth sounds of the mid-‘70s to early ‘80s. The sort of songs you’d imagine being played on a yacht during the summer where the wind is brisk and the champagne flows.

“I’m usually introduced to all this stuff like Yacht Rock and ‘The Family Guy’ skits by my kids. And they can’t wait to Tivo it and make me watch it!” McDonald laughs. “But I thought the Yacht Rock series was hysterical the first time I saw it. It was such a great laugh! And the fact that it’s become a musical genre since then is kind of amazing. But I’m glad to be part of anything at my age!”

A version of this interview originally appeared at HoustonPress.com

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Tom Johnston & His Brothers Doobie Revisit Their Classics

HOU_MUS_Doobies1

The Doobie Brothers main trio at the Beacon Theatre: Patrick Simmons, Tom Johnston, and John McFee.Photo by Mark Weiss/Courtesy of the Richlynn Group

Note: This interview was conducted some months prior to the recent announcements of the Doobies making the ballot for the 2020 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and their upcooming 50th anniversary tour and reunion with Michael McDonald.

When most people think of PBS programming, shows featuring 18th century English castles and tea rooms, home improvement, quilting, and cooking programs, or Ken Burns documentary rotoscope fiestas come to mind. But this month, good viewers of public television will see something a bit different as an enticement during Pledge Drive – a full on rock and roll concert by the Doobie Brothers.

The network will screen Live from the Beacon Theatre, which features first-to-last-track performances of the band’s two breakthrough albums, 1972’s Toulouse Street and 1973’s The Captain and Me along with selected hits. When asked if he ever thought he’d see the partnership that pairs PBS with the Doobies, founding singer/guitarist Tom Johnston is succinct.

“Ah….no!” he laughs. “We’ve played a lot of fundraiser shows, but not been part of something like this. We’re still working away!”

A 2CD/1 DVD set from Rhino came out this past summer, and the Doobies will trekked out on a  tour opening for Santana.

As to why the band chose to play their second and third albums in full – something that’s become increasingly popular for classic rock bands, but the Doobies had never attempted before – it’s because they were pivotal releases. First in establishing the band on a national scale, and then catapulting them higher. Not that Johnston and co-founding singer/guitarist Patrick Simmons were feeling any sophomore pressure at the time.

“We were just trying to make the best album we could. Nobody really thought about that ‘make or break’ situations in those days,” he says. “We’d already done one album that didn’t get anywhere [the 1971 debut The Doobie Brothers], but it took Toulouse Street and the song ‘Listen to the Music’ to do something for us.”

Like “Listen to the Music” – their signature tune – tracks from those two albums have likely figured into most shows the band has played since their original release: “Rockin’ Down the Highway,” “Jesus is Just Alright” “Long Train Runnin’,” “China Grove,” and even “South City Midnight Lady.”

But other songs like “Mamaloi,” “The Captain and Me,” “Cotton Mouth,” “Ukiah” and a few others, the band has never played on stage before. So Johnston, Simmons, and the rest of the current band including multi-instrumentalist John McFee (the other principal member, a Doobie since 1979), Bill Payne (keyboards), Marc Russo (sax), Ed Toth (drums), John Cowan (bass/vocals), and Marc Quinones (percussion) had to reconsider the material from scratch.

“Yes! We had to completely relearn them!” Johnston laughs. “Some of them are more complex songs with a lot of lyrics and a lot of picking. We spent seven days in Nashville just working to get it all together. And then doing them in order on the albums, that was the first time we’d done that. It’s not how you’d sequence songs for a normal set, so we’d go up and down in the intensity of the songs from rock and roll to laid back. That was an interesting thing to do.”

For the Beacon show, the Doobies also added a couple of extra horn players (Roger Rosenberg on sax and Michael Leonhart on trumpet) to beef up the sound, which Johnston says really added a lot to tunes like “Cotton Mouth” and “Dark Eyed Cajun Lady.” (“it really sounds sweet with those guys playing!” he enthuses). And while the Doobies had used the Memphis Horns on a couple of ‘70s tours, and recorded with a horn section for a 2004 DVD at Wolf Trap, it was still a rare move.

Live from the Beacon Theatre – like their live shows – also showcases a lot of what can be called the “Tom Johnston Air Punch,” something he does onstage when he’s especially pleased. It’s an extension of the genuine enthusiasm and affection he has for live performances, but says it’s not possible without one crucial ingredient.

“The biggest thing is the crowd. For us, it always has been that since we started, to try and get the crowd up and moving with us,” he says. “The interaction between the crowd and the band is really paramount. And also the pleasure of playing a song really well, not matter how many times you’ve played it.”

Increasingly, that crowd he sees has younger faces as older fans bring their kids and even grandkids out to shows. Johnston says it’s hard to make them out in the audience from the stage, but he sees a lot of them at meet and greets and doesn’t take them for granted.

And while rock (and general music) history has long promoted the line of thought that you’re not supposed to like your parent’s music, classic rock has disintegrated that idea (my own 15-year-old son, Vincent “The Classic Rock Kid” Ruggiero’s two favorite two bands are the Eagles the Doobie Brothers).

The Doobie Brothers are working on new music as well – Johnston says the songs are completed and in the mixing stages, and this will be their first new material since 2014’s Southbound. It’s coming out as an EP, though, and there’s a reason for that.

HOU_MUS_Doobies2

John McFee, Tom Johnston, and Patrick Simmons Photo by Andrew Macpherson/Courtesy of the Richlynn Group

“It’s not a full album because people don’t buy albums anymore. Say you do 10 or 11 songs, you’re throwing away 5 or 6 of them. People are downloading just the songs they want to hear, and they may not all even make it to streaming,” he says. “Things have changed drastically. I’m sure Taylor Swift and Ed Sheeran could sell CDs and go gold, but that’s about it. Most people can’t do that because today people would rather listen to playlists.”

Finally, what many, many fans would also like to hear is the Doobie Brothers playing live…at their induction ceremony for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Though they’ve been eligible since 1996, have a double CD worth of hits and big selling records, and still tour extensively, the Doobie Brothers have shockingly never even been on the ballot for potential induction (and are #1 on this writer’s list of unconscionable snubs – don’t get me started).

Recent times have seen more classic rock-era acts like Chicago, Yes, the Moody Blues, Journey, and others enshrined. A few years ago, the Doobies switched management to the storied and super powerful Irving Azoff, who either personally or through his company also handles the Eagles, Fleetwood Mac, Steely Dan, and others. Azoff himself ranked #4 last year on Billboard’s “Power 100” list for the music industry.

For his part, Johnston is biding his time. Still.

“We’ve talked about [the Hall of Fame], but not a lot because it’s kind of pointless. And it’s political thing and one of the reasons….nah, I’m not gonna go there!” he says. “When it’s supposed to happen, it will happen, that’s how I look at it. There’s other people that are shocking who aren’t in there. It is who you know, and I think you’re right, having changed management to Azoff and Company might help. But I don’t want to jinx it!”

Much of this article originally appeared at HoustonPress.com

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Nils Lofgren Talks Solo Record and Time with Lou, Bruce, and Neil

Nils Lofgren’s songwriting collaboration with Lou Reed was unexpected, but fruitful. Photo by Carl Shultz/Courtesy of Conqueroo PR

Even in terms of rock and roll pairings, they seemed like a truly odd couple of musical collaborators. But more than 40 years ago, singer/guitarists Lou Reed and Nils Lofgren worked on a baker’s dozen of tunes, and nearly half of those are making their public debut on Lofgren’s latest solo release, Blue with Lou (Cattle Track Road Records).

It was 1978 and Lofgren was working with fabled producer Bob Ezrin on some solo material. Lofgren had the music, but wasn’t really confident with the lyrics. Ezrin suggested that he get together with someone he had also produced: Lou Reed. Lou Reed? The famously gruff rock Prince of Darkness, who didn’t suffer fools – or other musicians – gladly?

“I take public reputation with a grain of salt, and I was always a fan of Lou’s so I didn’t have any issues there. But he’s…Lou Reed! Wonderful artist. Doesn’t do much co-writing,” Lofgren says today. “I thought the idea was beautiful, but I was surprised and grateful that Lou was up for it, and it worked in grand fashion.”

Interestingly, Lofgren and Reed found some non-musical bonding over…sports. Both were avid NFL fans, and when they watched a 1978 match at Reed’s apartment between his favorite Dallas Cowboys and Lofgren’s beloved Washington Redskins, a friendship was sealed. There was also whiskey involved. Long story short, Lofgren sent Reed a cassette with some of the song embryos in rough form. He heard nothing for weeks. Then the phone rang.

“He woke me up at 4:30 in the morning raving about the cassette – though in his understated Lou Reed way,” Lofgren recalls. “He had completed 13 sets of lyrics and wanted to dictate them all to me over the phone right then! So not to lose it, I put on a pot of coffee and spent the next two hours taking very careful dictation.”

After some further tweaking, the songs started to appear. Three each in 1979 on Reed’s The Bells and Lofgren’s Nils records, and two more trickled out on Lofgren efforts over the ensuing years. That left five unheard, unrecorded tracks left: “Attitude City” (inspired by the strutting Brooklynites of Saturday Night Fever), “Give,” “Talk Thru Tears,” “Don’t Let Your Guard Down,” and “Cut Him Up.” Reed died in 2013.

“Once we lost Lou, I knew it was time for me to share the rest of the songs,” Lofgren says.

For the 12-track Blue with Lou, Lofgren also included his version of their “City Lights” (the Charlie Chaplin-inspired number previously released by Reed). The passing of Reed also inspired the title track, a Lofgren original. As did the deaths of Tom Petty (“Dear Heartbreaker”), and his and wife Amy’s dog, Groucho (“Remember You” – the Lofgrens are big dog advocates).

“We always saw Tom and the band when they had a Phoenix date, and they didn’t have one on that tour. So Amy and I treated ourselves on a trip to Denver to see him at Red Rocks, and I’m so glad we did,” Lofgren says. “I think the last time they were an opening band was for me in 1977! I go way back with them, and Benmont [Tench, Heartbreaker keyboardist] and I have become great friends and he arranged for us to have a quick visit with Tom. Amy and I spoke with a lot of rage and sadness after he died, and we still do. I had no intention of writing as song about him, but the music kept coming. And it’s the music [of Petty’s] that we still have to remember him with.”

Blue with Lou was recorded with just Lofgren (vocals/guitar), Kevin McCormick (bass), and Andy Newmark (drums) in Lofgren’s home studio. Joining the trio for the tour (which stops in Houston May 31 at the Heights Theater) will be Lofgren’s brother and former Grin bandmate Tom on guitar and keyboards, along with backup singer Cindy Mizelle, a familiar face at Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band shows.

“It’s a remarkable thing. I’m so used to playing alone or with my friend Greg Varlotta on acoustic songs – we did that the last time we came through Houston. But this is a beautiful, overwhelming cast of characters,” he says, adding that it’s been about 15 years since he hit the road with his own band who also played on the record.

Photo by Carl Shultz/Courtesy of Conqueroo PR

Nils Lofgren, of course, has another pretty high profile gig – as guitarist with Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band. The unit has been on sabbatical since the Boss did his run of solo dates on his hugely successful Springsteen on Broadway and then put out a solo effort with Western Stars (though he also said in a recent interviews he’s already written the next E Street record). The breather has given Lofgren as well as fellow E Streeters like Little Steven Van Zandt a chance to pursue their own recording and tours, including Van Zandt’s Summer of Sorcery.

Lofgren and Van Zandt are also both active on social media. Earlier this year, they got into a Twitter back-and-forthing with a disgruntled Springsteen fan, upset that the band wasn’t touring (as if that were up to Lofgren and Van Zandt), throwing in a crack about how no one was “getting any younger.” When it’s suggested the guy was…well…an idiot, Lofgren took a surprising turn.

“I don’t see them as idiots. I’m a big fan of dozens and dozens of people – Bruce included. So I don’t begrudge anyone feeling disappointed that we aren’t playing. But if it gets over the top once in awhile, [I’ll try to] respond with a bit of humor. I just don’t get wrapped up in it,” he says.

“Music is there to entertain. There are some bands that I wish would play more. But I know how hard it is to hit the road. I’ve been doing this professionally for 50 years, and music has been my sacred weapon my entire life. I think it’s the greatest gift on the planet. And billions of people look to it as their sacred weapon as well to deal with this mad world we live in. But I get that people are that way about Bruce – ‘When is he touring? What is he doing?’”

But it was an unexpected call from another collaborator has sent Lofgren back into the studio this past spring – Neil Young. Lofgren has played on Young’s classic After the Gold Rush and Tonight’s the Night albums, as well as on the Young-affiliated Crazy Horse group on their 1971 self-titled debut for which he was a full member. He was also with Young on his 1982 Trans tour.

Last year, Young called Lofgren out of the blue from to ask if he would play a handful of already-scheduled dates with Crazy Horse in Canada last year (there’s been no definitive word about what happened with regular Horse guitarist Frank “Poncho” Sampedro). Those shows (with no set setlist) went so well, Young called the trio in to work on a new album. The resulting effort, Colorado, recently came out.

“I’ve hooked up and played with Neil a few times over the years, and playing with [Crazy Horse] again is beautiful,” he says. “To prepare for the shows, we went to Billy’s home in South Dakota in the middle of nowhere on the prairie during the polar vortex, and the three of us just played together for four days. We’re never rusty when we see each other. I mean, it’s been almost 50 years since I walked in on them playing at the Cellar Door!”

A version of this interview originally appeared at HoustonPress.com

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Boz Scaggs’s Got the Blues…But That’s Good!

Photo by Chris Phelps/Courtesy of Michael J. Media

On the surface, actor Matthew McConaughey, writer Stephen Harrigan, photographer Mark Seliger, actress Jennifer Holliday, and musician Boz Scaggs may not have a lot in common. But as of this year, they’ve all got the same thing to display in their homes: A Texas Medal of Arts award.

Bestowed biennially upon Texans for a lifetime body of work, Scaggs – who grew up in Plano and later attended school in Dallas – was among 11 recipients who received the award this past February in a ceremony in Austin with Gov. Greg Abbott. The evening also had a performance aspect, which Scaggs happily participated in.

“It was like a full blown concert! I did a couple of songs that people know me for like ‘Lowdown.’ And I had some Texas guests with me. Jimmie Vaughan sat in and also Ray Benson from Asleep at the Wheel, along with some friends from L.A. and Chicago.”

For now, Boz Scaggs is back on the eternal road, this time in support of his record, Out of the Blues (Concord Recordings). But despite the title of his new record, it’s not the one most steeped in the blues, according to its creator.

“Well, I also think about my album Come On Home from the late ‘90s. That was the closest I’ve gotten to pure blues material,” he says. “What I wanted to express with this one was that a lot of things I’ve done came out of the blues idiom. Some of the songs could be classified as rock, and it has had a lot of play in the Americana market, believe it or not. I wanted to expand on what the blues is and what I’ve done with it. The Grammy nomination it received was for Best Contemporary Blues Album. Whatever that means!”

Growing up in Texas,  Scaggs says blues music was “all around” – though he also absorbed the New Orleans-based style of the genre. Out of the Blues includes both originals and covers, including two versions of songs originally performed by Bobby “Blue” Bland on the Houston-based Duke-Peacock label.

And while notorious record executive, producer, and Duke-Peacock owner Don Robey is the credited as the sole writer on both “I’ve Just Got to Forget You” and “The Feeling is Gone,” many music historians have arched their eyebrows (and pens) at that, uh, assignation.

“Well, let’s just talk about Bobby’s material, because that’s what I know more about [on Duke-Peacock],” Scaggs says. “We were coming up and learning to play the music that was around us – let’s call it the indigenous music of Texas – like Lightnin’ Hopkins and Freddie King and Jimmy Reed. Bobby and those productions of his were more sophisticated and the arrangements more complex and progressive. So while we were learning from a lot of artists, his music was sort of a step above.”

Photo by Chris Phelps/Courtesy of Michael J. Media

Scaggs also notes that Bland’s music borrowed more from jazzy roots and American traditional music, with more complex chord changes, voices, and harmonics than that of traditional blues. “You had to go to school a little bit to learn how to play that stuff!” he laughs. “They didn’t spare anything to support Bobby and that enormous voice.”

“Little Miss Night and Day,” is Scaggs’ sole original on the album (co-written with multi-instrumentalist Jack “Applejack” Walroth, who also contributes other songs). In liner notes for the album, Scaggs calls the scatted vocals over layered guitars “one of the happiest, most joyous things I’ve ever recorded…and the band gave me everything that I’ve ever wanted out of a Texas shuffle.”

Historically, Boz Scaggs is best known for a run of hits in the late ‘70s/early ‘80s including “It’s Over,” “Lido Shuffle,” “Lowdown, (all from his breakthrough 1976 album Silk Degrees), “Jojo,” “Breakdown Dead Ahead,” and “Look What You’ve Done to Me” – the last off the Urban Cowboy soundtrack.

A 5x Platinum seller, Silk Degrees remains the one Boz Scaggs album most likely be in his concert audience’s collection. The work was nominated for a slew of Grammys in 1977, and Scaggs took home “Best R&B Song” for “Lowdown,” which he co-wrote with Toto’s David Paich (in fact, much of the rest of Toto were also involved with the recording and touring at the time). Audiences on this current tour can expect to hear material from the album, along with other tunes spanning a long career over a variety of genres from rock and blues to jazz, ballads, and R&B.

Silk Degrees is of course…it was of the time itself. It has legs and the songs were good and the arrangements were good. It was the culmination of a lot of things I’d done to that point,” Scaggs reflects today. “And by working with the studio musicians I landed with in L.A., I gained a new freedom of expression. It was the right [album] at the right time in the right place, combining black music and popular music traditions of the time. It was a serendipitous landing, at a time where music was a very important part of people’s lives.”

A version of this story originally appeared at HoustonPress.com

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Robin Wilson of the Gin Blossoms Talks His “Miserable” Legacy

The Gin Blossoms today: Bill Leen, Scott Hessel, Robin Wilson, Jesse Valenzeula, and Scotty Johnson.Photo by Shervin Lainez/Courtesy of MSO PR

 To certain musically-inclined Gen Xers, one of the most formative and beloved albums of the early ‘90s was New Miserable Experience, the second studio effort that became the breakthrough album for the Gin Blossoms. The Tempe, Arizona-based alt-pop-rockers spawned four hit singles off it in “Hey Jealousy,” “Found Out About You,” “Until I Fall Away,” and “Alison Road.”

It was such a benchmark that the band extended the tour celebrating the record’s silver anniversary by playing the entire work all the way through, along with a career-spanning other set list.

“I see it now for what a solid record it was, and I take a great deal of pride in that it’s become part of the soundtrack for a generation,” says vocalist Robin Wilson. “It was always the soundtrack for my life, and I lived through it, and it was a difficult process to make it. So for it to succeed and for us to build a life and career on it, it means a lot. And I’m proud that people still really care about it. I mean, how many bands can do a record and have enough interest to tour on it 25 years later?”

But as Wilson alludes to – and rock history has noted – the process of making and releasing the record was sometimes difficult and ultimately tinged with tragedy, especially for one key member whose songwriting gifts got the ball rolling in the first place.

The Gin Blossoms formed in 1987, taking their name from a cutline in a photo of actor W.C. Field’s booze-ravaged nose in a Hollywood history book. At the time the nucleus was Doug Hopkins (lead guitar), Bill Leen (bass), and Jesse Valenzuela (rhythm guitar). After adding Wilson (first as guitarist, then as lead vocalist) and Philip Rhodes on drums, they released debut Dusted in 1987, and then the first edition of New Miserable Experience in 1992.

But near the end of recording, main songwriter Hopkins – who suffered from severe depression – had become a full-blown alcoholic who couldn’t function musically and was fired from the group. Initially, New Miserable Experience was not successful. But a year later it was re-released with better record label support, and the Hopkins-penned “Hey Jealousy” and “Found Out About You” – both tales of romantic desperation and anger – became the first two singles and were smashes.

But Hopkins was not listed in the credits on the re-release, and it was his replacement, Scotty Johnson, whose photo record buyers saw. Mounting personal issues sent Hopkins into a tailspin, and he committed suicide near the end of 1993 – shortly after receiving a gold record for “Hey Jealousy.”

On the current tour, Wilson and the band pay tribute to Hopkins right before playing two of the record’s lesser-known tracks. “’Hold Me Down’ is a really special song for me, because that’s the only one that Doug and I officially wrote together, so it means a lot,” Wilson says.

“And ‘Pieces of the Night.’ I was there when Doug was writing that and I wrote the lyrics for the bridge. Onstage, I don’t say a whole lot during the show, but I do get the audience to raise a glass and toast Doug before those two songs and I tell a little bit about the background. Those songs are big moments. I also like to hear Jesse sing on ‘Cheatin’ because we don’t normally play that.”

And the impact of New Miserable Experience goes further. Wilson says he’s constantly told stories from fans about it. “I never get tired of hearing it. People are sort of sheepish when they start to talk to me and maybe they expect me to roll my eyes and run away,” he says. “But when they say ‘I want to tell you a story,’ I know it’s usually going to be something meaningful about our music that has connected to their lives.”

The Gin Blossoms have broken up, reunited, and released other records since New Miserable Experience, notching up other hits including “Follow You Down,” ‘’Til I Hear It From You,” and “As Long as it Matters.” The current lineup – which includes Wilson, Leen, Valenzuela, Johnson, and drummer Scott Hessel, released last year’s Mixed Reality, which shows that the group has a power and presence today and not just existing on ‘90s nostalgia.

“It stands out. I think it’s the most consistent batch of songs we’ve ever turned in and it represents all of the writers in the band,” Wilson says. “We also worked with a producer [Don Dixon] and engineer we’ve never worked with before in a studio we’ve never recorded in. I really think it’s one of the better records we’ve ever made.”

He’s particularly proud of the album’s lead-off, track, “Break.” It includes the deep lyrics “We don’t always want what is easy/Never is enough/Not what I’d set out to be/But more than I was.”

“That one came to me pretty easily. The whole concept was laid out to me in just a few moments. And lyrically, this is my mission statement to my son,” Wilson says. “As a father, this is what I have to say to him. It’s me telling him I’m doing the best that I can as a dad and as a person and as a man.”

And while aware that nothing will get their current live audience as excited as the classic hits, Wilson says that the new material is going over really well. And he says that Mixed Reality is hands-down their best album since New Miserable Experience.

He adds that when this tour is over, he’s got a few gigs filling in as the lead singer for one of his musical heroes, the Smithereens (their vocalist Pat DiNizio died in 2017), and is plotting a summer co-headlining tour with one of their ‘90s contemporaries whose identity he can’t yet reveal.

“It’s so cool and rewarding to suddenly be in one of my all-time favorite bands. It’s a reason we wanted to work with [Smithereens producer] Don Dixon on the new record,” Wilson offers. “I would warm up my vocals singing Smithereens songs so he would know how much the music meant to me. I think of my 20, 21 year old self listening to the Smithereens and R.E.M. records and wanting to be in a band. And here I am at 53 doing that. And now our music means something to people.”

A version of this interview originally appeared at HoustonPress.com

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German Heavy Metal Barons Accept Get “Classy”

Accept guitarist Wolf Hoffmann is triumphant with his “Headbanger’s Symphony” at Wacken Open Air. Photo by Olga Poponina/Courtesy of Nuclear Blast Records

While he thinks the word “crazy” might be stretching it a bit, guitarist Wolf Hoffman does understand that what he did at Germany’s 2017 Wacken Open Air Festival (the world’s largest annual gathering of heavy metal fans) might have some questioning his sanity.

That’s where his band Accept staged an ambitious show divided into three parts: A short set with just the group, a middle section with different musicians where Hoffman debuted his instrumental work “Headbanger’s Symphony” with a full orchestra, and a final segment where his bandmates returned for lengthy set of more Accept songs, retaining the orchestra. It’s all documented on the 2CD/1DVD set Symphonic Terror: Live at Wacken 2017 (Nuclear Blast Records).

“Well, I wouldn’t go as far as to say ‘crazy,’ but I initially thought the idea was a bit ambitious! Bordering on crazy, of course!” Hoffman laughs. “it turned out to be pretty stressful, but it worked super, super well. We could not have asked for a better reception or a better audience. And the whole thing went down without a glitch. Though it was nerve-wracking at first!”

In addition to the show being the first time Accept had ever played with an orchestra – an increasingly common practice for hard rock, heavy metal, and prog bands – he was a bit worried how the beered-up, rowdy Wacken crowd would accept “Headbanger’s Symphony.”

“I always thought my solo stuff was sort of predestined to be played with an orchestra because it is classical music. Then when we got the invitation from Wacken to do it, I thought it was my chance!” Hoffman says

“And I metaled it up enough for a festival audience, which has a certain party atmosphere. You don’t want to bore them, so I stayed away from the slower stuff and long intros,” he continues. “Then we figured well, why don’t we play some Accept songs with an orchestra since it’s there. So it evolved!”

What Hoffman says he didn’t want to do with the Accept/orchestra portion, was simply tack on some strings and brass instruments to their material as an afterthought. He recalls hearing an orchestra’s take on Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water” where the musicians simply played the famous guitar riff and he found it wanting. He started sifting through the Accept catalog to see what would work more organically. So mostly guitar-based songs like “Restless and Wild” and “London Leatherboys” were out of consideration, but “Fast as a Shark” and “Balls to the Wall” were in.

“I tried to pick the songs where I thought the melodies would sound good when played by an orchestra. And I was pleasantly surprised at how they sounded!” he offers, while giving full credit to collaborator Melo Mafali for his orchestral arrangements.

The Germany-bred Accept formed in 1976, but came to worldwide attention and U.S. heavy metal popularity on the strength of a triumvirate of albums from 1982-85: Restless and Wild, Balls to the Wall, and Metal Heart.

The single “Balls to the Wall” became their signature song. New records and tours, lineup changes, breakups, and reunions have happened over the years. That includes the comings and goings of the bulldog-like vocalist Udo Dirkschneider (who also fronted his own group, U.D.O.). But original members Hoffmann and bassist Peter Baltes remained constants.

Accept returned in a big way in 2009 with the addition of the powerful vocal gravel of Mark Tornillo (ex-T.T. Quick) as front man, and the next year released Blood of the Nations. Their last studio record was 2017’s Lords of Chaos, though Hoffmann says they hope to finish in new one in the studio by the end of this year.

Wolf Hoffmann in 2018. Photo by Frank C. Duennhaupt/Courtesy of Nuclear Blast Records

As for his musical relationship with Tornillo, something that was fairly new when I spoke with Hoffmann in 2010, he says it’s only been great.

“I think we’re just growing together more and more, and we’ve done hundreds of shows together,” the guitarist says. “He came right out of the gate and was a perfect fit for us from the first day on. It was a great match, and when a great match works, you don’t question it!”

Another in addition to Hoffmann, Tornillo, Uwe Lulis (guitar), and Christopher Williams (drums), the band will use a new bassist for the upcoming short “Symphonic Terror” tour with the Orchestra of Death throughout Europe and Russia this spring. After more than four decades, Baltes abruptly quit Accept of his own accord last November. And while Hoffmann says it left him “heartbroken,” he admits to feeling some pressure as the sole original or classic lineup member now left.

“Yeah, there is a little bit. But I don’t let it get to me. We are just going to continue full force,” he says. “It’s a sad event, but you have to roll with the punches and move forward. And as long as I have the fire and energy with me, I’ll continue.”

Though (along with wife/band manager Gaby) will also have to keep an eye on expenses for the “Symphonic Terror” jaunt. Which – as pointed out to him – will surely not be small while lugging a full orchestra across many borders.

“That’s very true! I think I’ll have to treat them as cargo and just drop them off at the shows!” he laughs. “No per diems!”

This article originally appeared on HoustonPress.com

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Funk Brother Dennis Coffey’s Scorpio Rises Again

At 78, former Funk Brother Dennis Coffey still gigs weekly in his beloved city of Detroit. Photo by Doug Coombe/Courtesy of Omnivore Records

It sounded like the greatest theme song to a gritty ‘70s cops-and-drugs movie that never came out. But in 1971, guitarist Dennis Coffey’s funky, rocking, slashing instrumental “Scorpio” was a million seller, hitting #6 on the Top 40. And it’s one of the few tunes by a white act deemed hip enough to be played for gyrating bodies on TV’s “Soul Train.” Credited to Dennis Coffey and the Detroit Guitar Band, it was a solo smash for a man who was best known for his work as a session player.

“Scorpio” appears – albeit in a much different sounding version – on Coffey’s most recent record, Live at Baker’s (Omnivore Recordings). It also features altered covers  from jazz players Freddie Hubbard, David Sanborn, Jimmy Smith, Miles Davis, Wilton Felder, and Brother Jack McDuff, along with the standard “Moonlight in Vermont.” And there’s the Temptations’ “Just My Imagination,” which pays tribute to both Coffey’s time at Motown as part of the Funk Brothers house band and his own distinctive work on the original track.

Just don’t think that the rest of his Live at Baker’s band – Demetrius Nabors (keyboards), Gaelynn McKinney (drums) and Damon Warmack (bass), knew exactly where would take them and the material.

“That recording was a moment in time. What I would do is get a chord sheet and give it to the musicians and we’d just count it off and see where it went!” the 78-year-old Coffey offers. “It was just organic. I never play a song the same way twice, and it’s a different feel every time we play it.”

And while he’s played on stage and in studio in Memphis and New York and Miami as well as lived in Los Angeles, Detroit is and was his unshakeable home base. “Every city has its own vibe, but [Motown founder] Berry Gordy told me a few years ago that he could have never founded the label in any city but Detroit,” Coffey says. “Music is in the DNA of this city. You can still go out and hear live music every night of the week.”

That includes music by Coffey himself. In addition to show at Baker’s Keyboard Lounge, he has a standing Tuesday night gig of more than a dozen years at the city’s Northern Lights Lounge. And as Live at Baker’s can attest, Coffey is equally at comfort playing blues, jazz, R&B, rock, and funk.

Dennis Coffey in the 1970’s. Photo courtesy of Clarence Avant – Interior Music Corp.

Coffey says that his versatility comes from his 25 years as a session musician. “Every day at Motown our job was to read a master rhythm chart and arrangement correctly, and then add something to it. And we had to do one song an hour and make them a hit,” he recalls.

And while the identities of the Funk Brothers were largely unknown (and uncredited on liner notes), more recent times have given them the long-overdue accolades they deserve, including as the subject of the well-received 2002 documentary Standing in the Shadows of Motown. Coffey will to this day occasionally give talks at the Motown Museum in the studio’s original location.

Picking up the guitar in his early teens, Dennis Coffey played on sessions before joining the Royaltones, who had a couple of minor hits. But his real rise came after joining the Funk Brothers in 1967 during a time of transition at Motown.

That’s his guitar heard on scores of hit songs, including “Cloud Nine” and “Just My Imagination” (with Coffey’s famous intros to both), “Psychedelic Shack,” and “Ball of Confusion” (the Temptations), “Someday We’ll Be Together (Diana Ross and the Supremes), “War” (Edwin Starr). At other labels he’s heard on “Band of Gold” (Freda Payne), and “In the Rain” (the Dramatics)—the latter with another famous, shimmering guitar intro.

His use of echo effects and a wah-wah pedal brought a contemporary, very ‘60s sound to Motown, working with producer Norman Whitfield who also wanted to shake up the label’s formula and sound.

“Norman Whitfield was a master at dynamics. The first session I ever did there was for ‘Cloud Nine’ and he wanted to experiment, so I put the wah-wah pedal on the intro, and he said ‘that’s what I want!’” Coffey says. “Two weeks later, I was recording it with the Temptations. I was his go-to guy to get where he needed to go. I had the effects, and I could play both the R&B stuff and the psychedelic rock.”

But solo hit “Scorpio” remains his calling card, and Coffey recalls the song’s origin. “I had a Sony tape recorder in my basement that was kind of new where you could overdub on tracks. Producer Mike Theodore and I were writing pieces for 50 instruments including strings. And then I said ‘I’m gonna sit down and write and have this concept of a guitar band. I played the 10 [demos] for Mike and he said ‘let’s record an album.’

He adds that he wrote the parts out for three guitars in three sections, so he and the band put fuzz on the guitars and sound like horns. “We overdubbed each section of three guitars to produce nine guitars,” Coffey says. “I also played a Fender bass through a wah wah pedal to sound like a trombone. That was me, Joe Podorsek, and Ray Monette. If you count my bass part it was nine guitars and one bass.” Bob Babbitt (bass) and Jack Ashford (drums) rounded out the Detroit Guitar Band.

Westbound Records album cover

Of Coffey’s 10 solo albums from 1969-1978, one does stand out a bit – albeit not for the music. The cover for 1975’s Finger Lickin’ Good might make even the Ohio Players blush, and would be impossible to put out in today’s society.

“That wasn’t my choice!” Coffey laughs of the, uh, artwork. “It was kind of suspicious. I didn’t design it or anything. But I learned in the past don’t mess with covers because the art director will screw you over and make sure that album doesn’t come out for a year!”

Finally, while Coffey has not had extensive touring in Texas, he did spend time in the state from 1960-61 while in the U.S. Army in the 101st Airborne Division. Coffey says had his basic training at Fort Hood before being transferred to Fort Sam Houston to train as a…medic??

“I was the best shot in the company, and they said I needed to be a medic!” Coffey laughs. “But I remember you had that River Walk there down in San Antonio. That was impressive. And I was driving over this hill in the early morning and you could see the Alamo. That was pretty hep!”

This interview originally appeared on HoustonPress.com

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Dave Mason’s Rock ‘n Soul Revue

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Dave Mason today. Photo by and copyright Stuart Walls-Woodstock Photography/Courtesy of Albright Entertainment

In his decades-long career, Dave Mason has been a lot of things. Founding member of the seminal band Traffic (which punched his ticket into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame), hit-producing solo artist in the ‘70s, and collaborator and friend to a who’s who of rock royalty including Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, and George Harrison.

But his most recent tour found him in a buddy act with another Rock Hall of Fame member, Mason gets to be something he’s always wanted to be: Wicked. As in just like Wilson Pickett.

“I get to sing ‘In the Midnight Hour’ with the original guitar player!” Mason laughs. That six string virtuosos is none other than Steve Cropper, founding member of Booker T and the MG’s and member of the Stax Records house band who played on scores of massive soul hits. When you hear Sam and Dave or John Belushi of the Blues Brothers yell “Play It, Steve!” on either hit version of “Soul Man,” it’s Cropper they’re talking to.

So in addition to that and other Cropper-penned and/or played Stax gems like “(Sittin’) On the Dock of the Bay,” “Green Onions,” “Knock On Wood,” and “Try a Little Tenderness,” the set list will include Mason staples like “We Just Disagree,” “Dear Mr. Fantasy,” “Every Woman,” and his two signature songs: “We Just Disagree” and “Feelin’ Alright.”

In a bit of irony, “We Just Disagree” was Mason’s biggest solo hit, but was written by singer/guitarist and Mason collaborator Jim Krueger. The soft rock standard reached #12 in 1977. Conversely, “Feelin’ Alright” – which Mason penned when he was all of 18 and wasvoriginally released by Traffic – had its biggest success in Joe Cocker’s 1969 version. And that hit even higher on the charts when it was re-released three years later. In concert, Mason calls “Feelin’ Alright” his “Energizer Bunny of a song,” and artists as diverse as Three Dog Night, Lou Rawls, the Jackson 5, and Paul Weller have also covered it.

Mason says that he and Cropper first met in Los Angeles in the late ‘70s, but reconnected three years ago when they had lunch together in Nashville. Cropper later performed at a New Year’s Eve benefit show which Mason puts on annually in Hawaii with fellow musicians including Mick Fleetwood and Steven Tyler.

“After that show, I said to Steve ‘How do you feel about getting your tired old ass on the road with my tired old ass!” Mason laughs. “I mean, I was listening to him when I was 16 and 17 years old. It’s the music that all of us Brits learned from and made our own version of. It’s a great honor to stand up on stage with that man every night.”

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Steve Cropper and Dave Mason on tour. Photo by and copyright Rich Saputo Photography/Courtesy of Albright Entertainment

Indeed, Mason is quick to note that much of the success of many of the British Invasion bands and performers stemmed from their own takes on American music. The early set lists and albums of just about every band that made the trek across the Atlantic were riddled with covers of this material.

“Without that American music, that blues and R&B and country, there would be no Eric Clapton and no Rolling Stones. And no me,” Mason offers. “That was our basis to learn from. You did have to go out of your way a little bit to find the music, but in England, we didn’t have radio that was segregated by [genres]. So we heard it all.”

In addition to Mason and Cropper, the other players in the “Rock and Soul Revue” included Mason’s touring band of Johnne Sambataro (guitar), Alvino Bennett (drums), Tony Patler (keyboards), and backup singer Gretchen Rhodes. She opened the show with her own set, and sang lead on some of the Stax material while Mason exited the stage.

“Steve’s guitar style is such an integral part of those songs, I don’t want to get in the way!” Mason laughs. “But he then also sits in on parts of my songs that he feels will work for him.”

Dave Mason is also creating new music. But like so many other classic rock-era artists, finds it nearly impossible to release or promote, even if they have a current recording contract. And radio – both terrestrial and satellite – aren’t interested in playing a new Dave Mason song when they can spin “Only You Know and I Know” or one of his other hits for the millionth time.

“There is no putting out anything anymore, so I make CDs to basically sell at shows,” he sums up. “Making new music is an exercise in futility and the biggest problem is radio. It’s just wallpaper for selling products, regurgitating the same shit over and over again. And then with [new music], people can just go on the internet and steal it. But this our livelihood. It’s what we do to make a living.”

A version of this article originally appeared at HoustonPress.com

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Another Sip of the Lovin’ Spoonful with Steve Boone

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The Lovin’ Spoonful today: (front row) Joe Butler, Steve Boone; (back row) Murray Weinstock, Mike Arturi and Phil Smith. Photo by Leon Volskis, courtesy of Steve Boone

It was the evening of August 26, 1966.  In the bowels of New York’s Shea Stadium – though only they knew it – the Beatles were preparing for what would likely be one of their final concerts in front of a paid audience. But instead of pacing the floor, the biggest band in the world were amiably visiting and chatting it up with one of their own favorite groups, the Lovin’ Spoonful.

The Spoonful themselves hadn’t planned on being backstage at all, but were taken there by security after fans spotted them in the general admission seats and began to cause a ruckus. And why not? At that very moment, the Lovin’ Spoonful had the #1 hit in the country with “Summer in the City.”

“That was probably the most complex of all the writing we did, and it started as a song by John’s teenage brother Mark,” Spoonful bassist and one of the song’s co-writer Steve Boone recalls. “They created a workable song and we went into the studio and worked on the arrangement from scratch.”

While most “summer” songs to date had extolled the virtues of the season, this one was a bit rougher. Its narrator with the grit on the back of his neck complaining about high temps as construction noises and car horns blared around him. Complaining that is, until he knows he can go up on a building roof with his girl where it’s a little cooler. And Boone’s distinctive piano riff is the song’s most recognizable musical part.

“John said we needed a middle section and he had heard me doodling on this piano part I couldn’t get out of my head, and we put it in,” he continues. “It ended up being the glue that held the song together. And our producer, Erik Jacobsen, doesn’t get the credit he’s due for working on our songs. He made them sound great on the radio.”

Those radio hits – including “Do You Believe in Magic?” “Daydream,” “Did You Ever Have to Make Up Your Mind?” “You Didn’t Have to Be So Nice,” “Darling Be Home Soon,” and “Nashville Cats” – will likely be on the set list when Boone and the current edition of the Lovin’ Spoonful play as part of a ‘60s package show  Feb. 16 at the Stafford Centre. And no one is more shocked that he’s still playing these songs 50+ years later than Boone himself. And to so many age groups.

“At the shows today, there’s definitely a multi-generational audience. And I mention to them that none of us ever thought it would last!” he laughs. “The contemporary opinion back in the day was once you turn 30, you got another job in the music business or a completely different career. You were done as a performer. But things like the Monterey Pop and Woodstock Festivals broadened the audience, and the rules went out the window. There was no longer a timeline to being a rock star.”

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The Lovin’ Spoonful’s 1966 debut record; (clockwise from bottom left): Zal Yanovsky, Joe Butler, Steve Boone, and John Sebastian. Kama Sutra album cover

The Lovin’ Spoonful were also rock stars at a time that they weren’t so much, uh, accepted by all tiers of society. In his entertaining memoir Hotter Than a Match Head (written with Tony Moss), Boone recalls a 1965 tour that paired his band with the Supremes on a tour of the deep south. One night after playing a college in Waxahachie, Texas, he got a lesson in how things were a bit different than up in New York. Beginning with the fact that at the segregated late night restaurant they went to, the Supremes and their backing band weren’t allowed inside. They had to order from the take-out window. And then things got worse.

“It was still pretty rare to wear your hair longer than your collar, especially in Texas,” Boone says today. “Some rednecks who had way too much to drink decided to pick on John, who was so blissed out in his pink striped shirt didn’t know what was going on!”

Sebastian’s bandmates and some college kids who had been to the show tried to diffuse the situation, but it took the imposing entrance of the dozen-plus members of the tour’s all-black orchestra – led by a guy named “Big John” – to avert possible tragedy and whisk the Spoonful away before things got…hairy

The genesis of the Lovin’ Spoonful began with singer/guitarist/harmonica player John Sebastian and guitarist Zal Yanovsky. The pair were veterans of the New York/Greenwich Village folk rock scene, and had been in a group called the Mugwumps with singer Cass Elliott. She would later go on to join the Mamas and Papas, and their song “Creeque Alley” mentions the group and her former bandmates.

In 1965, Sebastian and Yanovsky decided to form a new band, calling it the Lovin’ Spoonful after a line in a blues song from Mississippi John Hurt—which actually refers to coffee, and not heroin or even semen as urban legend has dictated. Steve Boone (bass) and eventually Joe Butler (drums) rounded out the working lineup. They honed their act the Night Owl café and scored a record deal largely based on the strength of the demo for “Do You Believe in Magic?”

The Lovin’ Spoonful were even considered by two TV producers for the roles of a wacky rock group for series they were developing. Though they’d have to change their name to…the Monkees. They did not pursue the gig.

After a couple of years, the familiar tale of creative, personal, and business differences began to fracture the group. Yanovsky was fired by his bandmates in 1967 for a variety of reasons and replaced with Jerry Yester. Boone was closest to Yanovsky of any member, and it hit him hard. Though he knows the highly-extroverted and often maniacally funny guitarist could rub people the wrong way.

“Zally was certainly the clown prince of our band, and that’s a very positive description from me. He was also the pure lightning rod in our stage show, who brought the excitement and entertainment,” Boone says. “But yes, his image sometimes got in the way of how people took him as a musician. He was very intuitive and really explored depths of guitar playing in making it sound like other instruments. He had fans in guys like Eric Clapton and George Harrison. In fact, Eric and Zally hung out a lot after Zally left.”

That was later followed by the departure of Sebastian, also the band’s primary songwriter. The Spoonful’s hippie credentials (at least on the West Coast) suffered after it was revealed that Boone and Yanovsky, after being busted for drug possession, briefly and against their will became police informants. The Spoonful were also seen as a singles band in a time of burgeoning album rock, their “good time music” no longer in vogue. The band limped into 1969, then dissolved.

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Steve Boone’s 2014 memoir. ECW Press book cover.

The core four reunited for a concert segment in Paul Simon’s 1980 film One Trick Pony, and also for their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000. In 1991, Boone and Butler resuscitated the band with Yester and have been touring ever since. In a postscript, Boone fell in love with and married Yester’s daughter. Yester himself was ousted from the band in 2017 after being arrested on and pleading guilty to charges stemming from possessing images of underaged girls on his computer.

The current lineup of the band includes Boone, Butler, Phil Smith (guitar), Mike Arturi (drums), and Murray Weinstock (keyboards).  And while purists will grumble that frontman Sebastian is no longer with them – or say it’s akin to seeing the current lineups of Grand Funk without Mark Farner or Styx without Dennis DeYoung – it’s ultimately the power and attraction of the songs that supersedes the individuals who happen to be onstage playing them.

“John and I stay very close. He is the best rhythm guitar player I’ve ever worked with. In fact, I’m calling him right after I get off the phone with you!” Boone says. “He didn’t want to be touring with the whole band again. But yes, it is the power of the songs that really [carries], and that’s what the audience tunes in to. We were fortunate to have nine top 20 hits, and that’s a tribute to John’s writing. They’ve clever and it’s good time music, which is our motto!”

This article originally appeared on HoustonPress.com

 

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Gary Lewis is the Real King of the Playboys

Count Them In: Gary Lewis and the Playboys in 2018. (L-R) Michael Gladstone (guitar), Nick Rather (bass), Gary Lewis (vocals, guitar), Willy o’Riley (keyboards), and Bobby Bond (drums). Photo courtesy of Donna Lewis.

It’s fairly unusual for a band to hit #1 on the charts with their very first single – and especially considering they had never even gone on a tour before. But that’s exactly what happened in February 1965 when the debut by Gary Lewis and the Playboys, the tale of wobegotten love “This Diamond Ring” topped the Billboard listing. It ranked higher that week than both “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” by the Righteous Brothers and “My Girl” by the Temptations.

Six other AM gold top ten singles would quickly follow including “Count Me In,” “Save Your Heart for Me,”  “She’s Just My Style,” “Green Grass,” “Sure Gonna Miss Her,” and “Everybody Loves a Clown” – the last song inspired by Gary’s father, stage and screen comedian Jerry Lewis. Gary’s 1967 draft into the U.S. Army and changing musical tastes when he returned stalled the band’s career, but Lewis has been a staple on package shows since then.

His most recent tour was with a fellow ‘60s hitmaking Gary (Puckett, and the Union Gap) for a dual bill. A longer set time allowed him to dig deeper into his catalog for an audience that now spans his original fans, their kids, and their kids.

“Whoever thought that I would be playing to three generations? The younger people say their grandmothers or mothers used to play our songs and then they check us out,” he says adding that any can access his music from decade ago with the touch of a computer keyboard. “It’s such a technical world and I believe it’s [kept the music] around. I am amazed at how many younger people will come up to me and know not just the hits, but B-sides and album cuts.”

Lewis says he and the current version of the Playboys use the extra time to play covers by people that influenced him like ‘Runaway’ by Del Shannon and ‘Love Potion NO. 9’ by the Clovers. And also some of his other songs that made the top 40 like ‘My Heart’s Symphony’ and ‘(You Don’t Have to) Paint a Picture.”

The band in 1966: Dave Walker, Tommy Tripplehorn, Gary Lewis, Carl Radle, and John West Photo from garylewisandtheplayboys.com

But back in 1965, Lewis and his group were in the fresh flush of fame, so much that he had to move from his original instrument (the drums), to guitar. As the group’s singer, audiences wanted to see him up front and not in the back behind cymbals.

And in those days – before iTunes, YouTube, and MTV – every band was eager to appear on a nationally-televised TV variety program like “The Ed Sullivan Show,” “American Bandstand,” and “Hullabaloo” as the quickest way to reach the most people (and record buying teens) as possible at the same time with their music. After all, it worked out OK for those four longhairs from Liverpool. Lewis and the band did them all, but had relatively laid back approach.

“I never felt pressure being on those shows or competition with other acts, but the TV shows were important. We got on the ‘Ed Sullivan’ show with ‘This Diamond Ring’ and we got asked back five more times and that broke all those singles to the country,” he recalls. “People would have to work 20 years to get one shot on Sullivan! And ‘Hulabaloo’ was the first network rock show going to the entire country. They were the internet of today.”

More time consuming and grueling were the package tours that crammed multiple acts on buses for one-nighters across the country, with just enough time for each singer or group to do a few numbers and get off the stage. Gary Lewis and the Playboys were part of that in 1966 on “Dick Clark’s Caravan of Stars,” and returned the next year as well.

Gary Lewis today. Photo courtesy of Donna Lewis.

“It was funny because the people that were on that first tour were people that I enjoyed listening to before I even got into rock and roll. Gene Pitney, Bobby Goldsboro, Brian Hyland, the Yardbirds, the Crystals, Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs, I could believe I was on tour with those guys!” Lewis says.

He adds that on today’s package tours, he’s become friend with ‘60s contemporaries that he didn’t know back then like Peter Noone of Herman’s Hermits, the Buckinghams, Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman of the Turtles, and current tour mate Gary Puckett. In fact, the two Garys drove together to each gig on the 2013 Happy Together tour.

As for their recorded output, it features the playing of not just the group, but also the fabled L.A. session musicians the Wrecking Crew – who did similar services for the Byrds, the Beach Boys, the Monkees, and dozens of other hit acts. Producer Snuff Garrett and Gary Lewis have had sometimes differing opinions over the years on the topic about who is playing what on the final vinyl, but Lewis is steadfast in his recollection.

“The Wrecking Crew didn’t play on the tracks, they did the overdubs. I wasn’t upset about that because these players were seasoned and very good. We were too young to have any experience,” he says. “Plus, having Leon Russell for our arranger, he took care of all that stuff and tastefully add things. It was a great team, Snuffy Garrett, Leon Russell, and myself.”

Today, Gary Lewis says he’s both happy to still be on the road playing his songs for audiences. A few years ago he released a new single on iTunes, “You Can’t Go Back.” Though that seems exactly what his 2018 audiences want to do.

“No matter where I go, I have fun doing it, because I’m grateful for what I have. I realize that the fans have put me wherever I am. It’s not hard to feel blessed,” Lewis sums up. “I have plans to never stop! That’s my plan. I’m 73, but I don’t feel old, my body doesn’t feel old, and I just want to continue as long as I can.”

This article originally appeared on HoustonPress.com

For more on Gary Lewis and the Playboys, visit their website.

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