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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This interview originally appeared at HoustonPress.com

For more on Kathy Valentine, visit KathyValentine.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Linda Wolf today. Photo by Heather Wolf.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This interview originally appeared at HoustonPress.com

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Wishbone Ash Paints a New Coat of Arms

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This interview originally appeared at HoustonPress.com

For more on Wishbone Ash, visit WishboneAsh.com

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

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

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

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

Ramblin’ Records cover

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This interview originally appeared at HoustonPress.com

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

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Joe Grushecky: Rock’s Iron Man

The Iron City Houserockers in 1980 (from left, Gil Snyder, Eddie Britt, Joe Grushecky, Art Nardini, Ned E. Rankin and Marc Reisman). Photo by Cleveland International Records/Courtesy of Randex Communications

It hard to fathom in a time when the push of a button can send the music of an album to the entire country at the same time. But from the ‘60s through the early ‘80s, local rock scenes thrived around the country. Midwest and east coast towns like Boston, Detroit, New York City, Cleveland, and a certain Asbury Park could ferment their own bands and clubs with live, original, and regular rock and roll. Some acts stayed local heroes, others exploded nationally, and more fell somewhere in between.

Perhaps no musician is more identifiable with the steel town of Pittsburgh than Joe Grushecky. First as lead singer/guitarist with the Iron City Houserockers, then Joe Grushecky and the Houserockers, and as a solo artist, he’s been putting out music and gigging live for more than 40 years with his gritty, blue collar, and beer sodden party music.

1980 saw the release of the Iron City Houserockers’ well-reviewed Have a Good Time…But Get Out Alive! A new 40th anniversary reissue includes the original album, along with a second bonus disc of demos, alternate versions, and rarities.

And when Grushecky calls from Pittsburgh, he’s actually in his car listening to the reissue for the first time. “My CD player wasn’t working, so I just downloaded it!” he offers. The reissue came about because Steve Popovich, Jr. is reviving his late father’s Cleveland International label on which it originally appeared. It has already released the band’s debut Love So Tough, albeit with no bonus material. That sent Grushecky digging through his archives to find cassette and reel-to-reel tapes that were decades old to add to this one.

“This record was a life changer musically in the national press. We got a lot of hardcore followers that are still with us today from it. It was a real experience in the studio, first class all the way,” he says. “It was our first shot at the big time.”

In addition to Grushecky on lead vocals and guitar, the Iron City Houserockers included Gil Snyder (piano), Ned E. Rankin (drums), Art Nardini (bass), Marc Reisman (harmonica), and Eddie Britt (guitar). But it’s the presence of some high-profile guests that also set this project apart, including Steven Van Zandt. Mott the Hoople leader Ian Hunter, and Mick Ronson (David Bowie, Lou Reed, Mott the Hoople) on various guitar, arranger, and producer credits. It gives the whole record a sort of Pittsburgh/New Jersey/London amalgamation vibe.

“Those were some diverse musical minds. On paper, it should have never worked! But it’s a tribute to [original co-producer] Steve Popovich that it did,” Grushecky recalls. “He had everyone working together. He was an ‘anything goes’ type of guy. He was a character, and he loved his music.”

Music trivia geeks and liner note readers will also note the presence of singer Ellen Foley, most famous for duetting with Meat Loaf on record (but not in the video) for the horny teenage anthem “Paradise by the Dashboard Light.” Grushecky also has a longtime friend and admirer in Bruce Springsteen, who produced a 1995 Grushecky album and has appeared with him on stage many times over the years.

The term “bar band” often gets a dismissive connotation. But it’s descriptive of another time long gone when rock fans in the ‘70s and ‘80s had their favorite groups that they would go see at area clubs time and time again at their go-to watering holes/pick up joints. That communal feeling and culture of locality is pretty much dead in 2020. And in the Age of Coronavirus, the stake has been driven even deeper.

Joe Grushecky onstage in the ’80s.
Photo by Barb Summers/Courtesy of Randex Communications

“So many of the little clubs left, they probably won’t survive this. And live music in general is not what it used to be. People just aren’t into music bars like they used to be,” Grushecky reflects. “It used to be about how many clubs you could hit and how many bands you could hear in one night. We still have local favorites here that the city rallies around. But they’re a bit of an anomaly.”

As for growing up in his home city of Pittsburgh, Grushecky credits the thriving AM radio stations with big-personality disc jockeys for influencing him, as well as the music they chose to play (yes, children – there was a time when DJs actually got to pick and play their own choices). For instance, while most radio stations across the country might play the hit “Gimme Some Lovin’” by the Spencer Davis Group, Grushecky says Pittsburgh stations would spin “High Time Baby” instead – which would then find exposure in the dance clubs.

“And you’d see playing in those little clubs on the circuit acts like Junior Walker and the All Stars and Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs, all this gritty rock and R&B. We had a complete different spin on things,” he offers. “Even me, I used to play four or five nights a week!”

Despite his impeccable rock and roll credentials, people might be surprised to find out that music is actually not Joe Grushecky’s main gig. He’s been a special education teacher in Pittsburgh-area high schools for decades, and still holds that position today. That means if Joe the Rocker stepped offstage at some bar at 1 or 2 am during school nights…Joe the Teacher had to be in class and ready to go just a few hours later.

“You never get used to it. And it wasn’t the late nights that killed me – it was the early mornings!” he laughs. “I had to support my family. Health issues have always been a big thing in our family, and I needed the insurance. And my dad – he dropped out of school at 12 to go work in the coal mines – always guided me to go to school. He was a musician too. And he told me ‘I don’t care what you do after you go to college…but you’re going to college.’ He was very big on education.”

Grushecky had planned to celebrate the reissue of Have a Good Time…But Get Out Alive! with some live shows, playing the record in its entirety. The Age of Coronavirus has scuttled those plans, they have afforded a new opportunity: doing solo acoustic shows via his Facebook page. He and the current version of the Houserockers (which includes Joffo Simmons on drums, Danny Gochnour on guitar, Jeff Garrison on bass, and his son Johnny Grushecky on guitar and drums), were actually in the midst of recording a new album when everything shut down.

“We can’t do anything now,” he sums up. “But I can’t wait to get back out there and play.”

For more information on the reissue and Joe Grushecky visit JoeGrushecky.com

This article originally appeared at HoustonPress.com

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Who is He? The Silent, Stoic Bassist’s Story is Finally Told

The Who in 1965: John Entwistle, Roger Daltrey, Pete Townshend, and Keith Moon.
KRLA Beat/Beat Publications, Inc./WikiCommons

The Ox: The Authorized Biography of John Entwistle by Paul Rees

384 pp., $30, Hatchette Books

Every member of the Who has been the subject of a number of biographies and autobiographies save one: bassist John Entwistle. Known as “The Quiet One” for his stoic, anchoring stage presence and unflappable demeanor, it’s no wonder he’s often overlooked amidst the madcap, attention seeking, wild and drunk antics of Keith Moon, the preening, microphone-tossing of Roger Daltrey, or the windmilling, media winding-up of Pete Townshend. “I ain’t quiet,” he sang on a self-deprecating ‘70s Who track, “everybody else is too loud.”

With this book, “The Ox” gets his own due, with a tome Rees has written based on Entwistle’s own writings, his deep dig researching, and interviews with family, friends, and fellow musicians who have rarely talked about him before. It should also stand as the definitive work on the bassist.

And as a bassist, John Entwistle never saw his four-stringed instrument as inferior to the guitar or meant to play a merely supporting role. “Thunderfingers” (yet another nickname) played the bass as a lead instrument, and his on-stage battles with the rest of his band over the volume of his speakers is legendary.

Entwistle was also a prolific songwriter (for the Who he penned “My Wife,” “Boris the Spider,” and “Heaven and Hell” among others). The former trumpet player often worked as the band’s arranger, and even cover artist – that’s his caricature on the cover of The Who By Numbers. He also held a decent level solo career.

Offstage, with Keith Moon, he found a demented partner in crime – often instigating the combustible drummer into a prank or frenzy at his own instructions. And not even the band’s infamous infighting touched him.

A PR manager recalls hearing a cacophony of shouts, screams, and smashing objects coming from the band’s dressing room one night. He entered to find a disaster area with Daltrey holding Moon by the throat and choking him, Moon trying to fight back, and Townshend screaming at Daltrey to stop. Entwistle? He was in the corner, calmly cleaning his fingernails and paying no attention to the chaos.

But a good chunk of the book also focuses on Entwistle’s non-musical pursuits. He had enormous appetites for (in no particular order): sex, brandy, red meat, more sex, cigarettes, cocaine, still more sex, and shopping. Yes, shopping. He bought dozens of luxury cars – despite never driving them. He could drink and drug in amounts that dwarfed others, yet rarely seem out of it or sloppy – thus, the nickname “The Ox” for his seemingly invincible constitution.

John Entwistle practicing his bass. Personal photo from the Entwistle Archive/Courtesy of Hachette Books

And his English Quarwood estate would be filled with tons of offbeat knick knacks crammed in every corner and reflecting his dark sense of  humor, Visitors might see full suits of medieval armor, a human skeleton posed and relaxing on a divan, an effigy of the Hunchback of Notre Dame swinging from a high dining room ceiling, and many, many plaster casts of fish he’d caught. Plus millions of pounds worth of model trains, clothing, and guitars. And he had his own pub in the basement that would be the envy of any town in England.

But he was also a huge spendthrift, and his often self-inflicted, dire financial situation was directly responsible for the Who getting back on the road more than once.

Entwistle also loved being Rich Rock Star/Lord of the Manor…and wanted people to know it. An frequent customer of high-end English department store Harrod’s, a shady acquaintance worked a deal where Entwistle could get the same goods for 60% off, though they would have to be delivered in an unmarked van. After a short while, Entwistle went back to his regular deliveries at full price: He wanted neighbors to see the van with “Harrod’s” on the side making the multiple trips up his driveway.

John Entwistle in Quarwood’s fully-stocked basement bar with his rotweiler, Marlene. Personal photo from the Entwistle Archive/Courtesy of Hachette Books

Toward the end of his life, Entwistle finally began showing the cumulative results of his decades long debauchery. And he had a “rock and roll” demise, passing away at the age of 57 from a heart attack in a hotel room which contained booze, cocaine, and female accompaniment, on the evening of the Who’s 2002 tour. And though he passed a simple and (given the test subject) pretty lax physical for tour insurance purposes, a simple CT scan would have showed that three of his four heart arteries were compromised, with one being blocked completely.

If The Ox has one weak point, its perhaps one that couldn’t be avoided – we read what Entwistle did, but rarely what he thought, or what deeper mental and emotional motivations and decision-making processes were. It’s not surprising, given the subject, but this book is a must for any Who fan, and a highly entertaining read.

A version of this review originally appeared at HoustonPress.com

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Ted Templeman’s Tales: Doobies, Van Halen, and…Frank Sinatra??

Ted Templeman listening to a playback at Wally Heider Studios in San Francisco, most likely while working on the Montrose debut album, summer 1973. Photo by Donn Landee/Courtesy of ECW

Ted Templeman: A Platinum Producer’s Life in Music by Ted Templeman as told to Greg Renoff

450 pp., $19.95, ECW

As an introduction to the often misunderstood art of record production, young Ted Templeman could not have found a better session to observe. Through friends in the music biz, the young singer/drummer found himself in a Capitol Records  studio behind the soundboard. 

On the other side of the glass, Frank Sinatra was recording the song “That’s Life”…and running roughshod over the session’s nominal producer, Jimmy Bowen. Here, the artist was making his own decisions and giving the band directives asking no second opinion. But I mean, hey, it’s Frank Sinatra.

Book cover

Templeman’s main gig was as member of the sunshine pop group Harper’s Bizarre (they had a hit with a 1967 cover version of Simon and Garfunkel’s “The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy”). But as his desire to perform waned he kept focused on the thought: I could be the Man Behind the Glass. And one that would work with an artist, not let them call the shots.

And he did, forging a successful career for over two decades while he working with Van Morrison (on his #1 hit “Wild Night”), Little Feat, Eric Clapton, Sammy Hager, Aerosmith, Carly Simon, and Nicolette Larson (he admit to nicking the chords for her smash “Lotta Love” from Ace’s “How Long,” while adding a sax solo and disco beat for radio). But readers will likely be most interested in Templeman’s two most successful and longest-lasting collaborations: the Doobie Brothers and Van Halen. 

There’s a lot for fans of the Doobies here. How “Black Water,” a throwaway B-side that no one thought much of, became a #1 nationwide hit after one radio station in Roanoke, Virginia started playing it. Or how an unconfident Michael McDonald – still unsure of his place in the band while supposedly “subbing” for original lead singer Tom Johnston –  thought “Takin’ It To the Streets” would be a flop. Templeman would even dust off his own skin thumping skills, playing on “What a Fool Believes.”

And there’s even more Van Halen stories, right from the beginning when Templeman became their champion after seeing them in a near-empty Hollywood club (“It was like they were shot out of a cannon,” he recalls). He was wildly impressed with the energy and skill of guitarist Eddie Van Halen (“I’d never been as much impressed with a musician as I was with him that night”).

In fact, the world likely would have never had Eddie Van Halen’s signature guitar workout “Eruption” had Templeman not happened to overhear Eddie simply warming up with finger exercise in the studio, then demanding the guitar virtuoso actually record it. 

He was less enthused with singer David Lee Roth’s limited vocal abilities, even going so far as to suggest to some before recording VH’s debut album that the flamboyant front man be replaced with the singer from another band he’s worked with, Montrose. A man by the name of…Sammy Hagar (though it would be years before Templeman saw that switch actually come about). 

A fascinating bit of VH history is how Templeman relays the solo EP he made with Roth while Eddie Van Halen hemmed and hawed on their next record – the smash Crazy from the Heat (with “California Girls” and “Just a Gigolo/I Ain’t Got Nobody”)– inadvertently exacerbated tensions within the band, which directly led to Roth’s exit. 

Though his professed naivete about at shock at that outcome seems disingenuous. As his rejection to producing the band’s next record – now fronted by Sammy Hagar – because “it wasn’t really Van Halen” without Roth. Templeman writes that he’d only take the job of the band renamed themselves Van Hagar or something similar. The band declined. And in the words of Larry David, they did pretty, pretty good with Hagar. Better than some of Templeman’s relationships with various Morrisons and Doobies and Van Halens ended up.

Throughout, Templeman also gives a lot of credit to his engineer for many of his records, Don Landee (though that relationship would fray as well). Nevertheless, Templeman (via Renoff) comes off as an engaging and friendly narrator and tour guide behind the making of some of classic rock’s biggest records. 

This review originally appeared at HoustonPress.com

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Dennis DeYoung Goes Back to Where It All Began

Dennis DeYoung onstage.EXPAND
Dennis DeYoung onstage. Photo by Rebecca Wolf Photography/Courtesy of Freeman Promotions

Like all musicians of varying ages, genres, and stages in their career during the Age of Coronavirus, Dennis DeYoung is stuck at home. He’s got a new solo record coming out, but has had to put a planned tour on ice. So he finds himself at walking the floors with his wife of 50+ years, Suzanne, and thinking about…laundry.

“This morning, my sweatpants stormed into my bedroom…and demanded that I wash them! My wife has insisted on six foot distancing with just the two of us in our house. Including the lovemaking. She said it’s never been better! Does that sum it up? Make sure you tip your waitresses!” he spits out rat-a-tat with the impeccable timing of an old Catskills comic, before turning more serious.

“This pandemic, it’s the great leveler of the human race. And that’s sobering. It’s making everyone on the world consider our fallibility, and think about things we try our best not to think about” he says. “But when rich people and celebrities say we’re all in this together…not exactly. Very few of us are worried about our next meal or mortgage payment. I would never be so arrogant to even think I’m in the same boat as most of my fans are. I make that clear, and I thank them for placing me in this position. But it still feels trivial to even talk about a new record.”

That record – 26 East: Vol. 1 (Frontiers Music SRL) was 2 ½ years in the making for the former Styx singer/songwriter/keyboardist. Its ten tracks manage to veer easily between wistful nostalgia, tentative future, and very, very current events.

The title comes from the real-life address (in Roseland on the southside of Chicago, Illinois) that DeYoung grew up in. It had a basement where in 1962 DeYoung and two twin brothers from across the street – Chuck and John Panozzo – would form the nucleus of the band that would eventually evolve into Styx. The three trains on the cover represent the three teens leaving the station to chase their dreams, with the name of their first group, the Trade Winds, emblazoned on one.

“In Chicago, everybody has a basement, but there was always the danger of flooding. So we always had to have our equipment up high when the rain got bad. The floor was forest green and the walls were white,” DeYoung remembers. “My grandfather Charlie lived right above where we rehearsed. He would always bang on the floor with his cane for us to keep it down. So we struck a deal. We told him when we were going to practice, and he got in his ’54 Chevy and drove to the tavern. If it could have been less glamorous, I don’t know how!”

This being the early ‘60s, though, the music the trio learned to play (Chuck on guitar, John on drums, and DeYoung on vocals and…accordion?) wasn’t exactly emanating from a teenage wasteland.

“There were no Beatles or rock bands then. We were trying to play our parents’ music that they loved out of fake books and please them. We were a wedding band with a small dream,” he says. “That all changed on 2/9/64 when the Beatles appeared on Ed Sullivan. Then we knew what we wanted to be. That’s when the big dream started.”

In the lead-off track, “East of Midnight” DeYoung recalls the rush of those early days hearing the latest music in his bedroom on a transistor radio – something today’s teens who can stream any song every recorded in history can’t fathom.

“We had to hear songs on the radio or in the car or a crappy record player with a nickel on the arm so it wouldn’t skip. So music was the focal point that connected us to the greater world,” he says. “Now, 16-year-old males can just look at porn on the internet, and music doesn’t seem so important anymore!”

There are also ballads (“You My Love”), reflections of life (“Damn That Dream,” “Run for the Roses”), and songs that somehow manage to take both a dim and promising view of the world and where it’s headed (“A Kingdom Ablaze,” “Unbroken,” “Promise of the Land”).

Dennis DeYoung and Jim Peterik during the recording of “26: East: Vol. 1.” Photo by Kristie Schram/Courtesy of Freeman Promotions

But that song that makes the most noise is “With All Due Respect,” a blistering, flamethrower of a rocker that takes to task the talking heads of TV and radio news, with the chorus: “With all due respect/You are an asshole/With all due respect/You make me sick/With all due respect/Plug up your pie holes/With all due respect/You don’t deserve no damn respect!” It makes Don Henley’s “Dirty Laundry” look downright innocent by comparison.

“We need as a country, as a democracy, as a functioning society, the ability to see news that isn’t so completely biased. We don’t have that. This song is about the destruction of democracy for cash, and when news organization functions as entertainment. And that’s for cable news, national news, and radio,” DeYoung – whose personal politics stand center right – offers. “It’s all partisan. It’s not just the left or the right, but it’s both of them. People don’t like it when I say this, but the left should shut up about the fixation with Fox, because 80% of [the media] leans left.”

“With All Due Respect” was co-written by Jim Peterik (Ides of March, Survivor) who also plays multiple instruments and pushed DeYoung to work on the album when he wasn’t so sure about it. As did Frontier Records President Sefarino Perugino.

“Jim and I have two similar personalities in the same room with the same life experience and the same sense of humor…and we just cruised through it all. It was a joyous experience. And I’m indebted to him for that,” DeYoung says. That’s somewhat of a switch from his former group. “I was the possessed guy in Styx, always. The guy with the biggest ambition, the cheerleader, the guy at the center of it all telling everyone – probably wrongly – that we were better than we were!”

The fissure of Styx between DeYoung (who was fired from the band in 1999) and members Tommy Shaw and James “JY” Young is one of classic rock’s most bitter tales. Shaw and Young continue to record and perform under the band’s moniker, with guest appearances from Chuck Panozzo (John Panozzo died in 1996). While DeYoung has done the same, billed under his name. Their omission from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is one of that institution’s greatest snubs.

And while DeYoung recently told Andy Greene Rolling Stone he feels they should reunite and do one last tour for the fans, both Shaw and Young have told me – and other music journalists – it’s not a partnership they are looking to revive in any format.

For the new record, despite the open-ended nature of its title – and the fact that there are plenty of other songs in the can – DeYoung certainly talks about 26 East: Vol. 1 as if it’s his last studio record and a farewell to fans. The last full song on the record – “To the Good Old Days,” features Julian Lennon on vocals and seems like a last look back to that Chicago basement and all the places it took DeYoung and the Panozzo brothers.

Lennon’s involvement stemmed from a straight-up Beatles homage DeYoung wrote called (in a nod to the Fabs’ own song with the same title) “Hello Goodbye.” “I did the demo and got the idea of involving Julian, but I realized that it wasn’t his story. Then I went to the piano and wrote ‘To the Good Old Days,’” DeYoung says. “I didn’t know him. I just sent a demo to his business manager and thought I’d never hear back. But Julian said he’d be honored to be on it. I mean, it was his dad’s band that gave me this great life I have. I’m trying not to tear up talking about it right now.”

Julian Lennon and Dennis DeYoung during the recording of “To The Good Old Days.” Photo by Tim Orchard/Courtesy of Freeman Promotions

The record actually ends with “A.D. 2020.” At less than a minute, it shares a melody with two other song snippets (“A.D. 1925” and “A.D. 1958”) and the smash hit “The Best of Times” from the 1981 Styx album Paradise Theater.

The now 73-year-old DeYoung’s words leave little room for interpretation: “And so my friends/I’ll say goodbye/For time has claimed it’s prize/But the music never dies/Just listen and close your eyes/And welcome to paradise.” And the last sound you hear are fading notes from DeYoung’s accordion. A sentimental video that combines both songs features video footage of DeYoung’s family, and includes the Panozzos.

“I wanted this album to be listening experience, from start to finish. And I wanted to end it with those two songs. It’s one thought process,” he sums up. “It’s the metaphor of what music – over all other art forms – does for human beings. It’s an organic, physical experience. No one can define it or explain it. But what is does so valuable. At my age today, when I hear from people what my music – and any music – has done for them…that’s magical.”

For more information on 26 East, Vol. 1 or Dennis DeYoung, visit Dennis DeYoung.com

This interview originally appeared at HoustonPress.com

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DVD Review: ZZ Top – That Little Ol’ Band from Texas

ZZ Top at the Crossroads Guitar Festival, June 26, 2010. Photo by Steve Proctor CC BY-SA via WikiCommons.

ZZ Top: That Little Ol’ Band From Texas

125 mins./DVD + Blu-Ray, $29.98, Eagle Rock Entertainment

Last year, the three members of ZZ Top  – singer/guitarist Billy Gibbons, singer/bassist Dusty Hill, and drummer Frank Beard – celebrated 50 years together, the longest of any major rock band without any lineup change. This documentary recounts the Houston-born group’s career, musical styles, and influence.

The story of ZZ Top is told mostly on-camera by the three men themselves in recently-conducted interviews, aided by a treasure trove of vintage photographs and live footage. All three prove able raconteurs, even if they’ve told these stories over and over. Musicians like Steve Miller, Dan Auerbach (the Black Keys), and Josh Homme (Queens of the Stone Age), and several producers and engineers add their talking head thoughts.

DVD cover

As to how they got their name, Gibbons recalls after leaving his Houston band the Moving Sidewalks (who made the garage rock classic “99th Floor”), he was aware of a number of artists with double consonants in their names like B.B. King and Z.Z. Hill. After considering dubbing the group ZZ King, he noticed that the revered bluesman’s name was at the top of a concert hand bill. Thus, ZZ Top was born – though briefly with two other players before Hill and Beard joined.

While their early music was blues-based, they weren’t a blues band by any means. Their first producer, Robin Hood Brians, offers that “they turned blues into party music.” And when a producer of an early ‘70s Memphis Blues Festival booked them based simply on the music, he was shocked to find out they were white. Nevertheless, the band shared the stage with Muddy Waters, Freddie King, and fellow Houstonian Lightnin’ Hopkins.

Much is made of how promoters, disc jockeys, executives, and even audiences didn’t quite know what to make of the group that looked like a country band and were stubbornly “Texas.” To drive home the point, ZZ Top toured the infamous 1976/77 “World Wide Texas Tour,” which found the band sharing their stage with Lone Star State décor and all sorts of live animals including a buffalo, longhorn steer, rattlesnakes, and a buzzard.

As the buzzard was placed on a perch behind Beard’s drum kit, he remembers the animal getting agitated when he’d play a slow blues and barely moved. Beard would make sure to make big swirls with his arms every so often—so as not to give his feathered friend the impression that he was dead and ripe for picking. Actor/musician Billy Bob Thornton calls the tour equal parts “rodeo, circus, and rock show.”

ZZ Top took a break of several years after that – instigated by Beard’s successful rehab stint to kick a massive cocaine and heroin habit (upon receiving his first big check for $72,000 – about $327,000 today – he says he blew the whole thing on drugs).

But when the band reconvened with a new record company, they discovered two things: None of them had bothered to shave for a very, very long time (though ironically, it would be Beard who would soon shear his off), and that this new channel called MTV had appeared.

ZZ top prom

That’s some high school prom band for 1970!

Thus began ZZ Top’s renaissance and road to massive sales and concert crowds, buoyed by a string of clever videos in which they appeared in supportive roles as otherworldly angels sent to help out young lovebirds amidst a flurry of hot girls and a distinctive red hot rod. With their hats, ever-present sunglasses, and long beards, ZZ Top became almost cartoonish. But their more pop-based songs like “Gimme All You Lovin’” “Legs,” and “Sharp Dressed Man” found a massive audience, and their 1984 album Eliminator sold 15 million copies.

There are a few weaknesses in the documentary. The story strangely ends with the worldwide success of Eliminator, with no mention of the past nearly 35 years of the band’s career. Their Super Bowl performance and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction are represented by one still photograph each.

Also conspicuously missing is any video of longtime manager Bill Ham, though anecdotes about him are brought to life in pretty funny animation. This includes a tale Hill tells when, while in Hawaii opening for the Rolling Stones, he and Beard ran up a huge hotel bar tab. Ham limits them to “two drinks a night.” The pair abide by that rule, but order a special drink whose container is several feet tall.

ZZ Top: That Little Ol’ Band From Texas is available now on Netflix, but fans will want to spring for the DVD as the bonus footage includes 35 minutes of live material both filmed recently at Gruene Hall and vintage 1976 & 1981 footage from Ham’s archive.

This review originally appeared at HoustonPress.com

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How Kansas Returned to “The Point of Know Return”

Kansas in 2019: Tom Brislin, David Ragsdale, Zak Rizvi, Rich Williams (standing), Phil Ehart, Billy Greer, and Ronnie Platt. Photo by Emily Butler.

Kansas guitarist Rich Williams vividly remembers a certain day in 1977 that still has an impact on his life and career in 2019.

His band had just finished playing a show in Chicago when they headed for a studio which had been set up for them to be filmed miming to two tracks from their upcoming record, Point of Know Return. On deck was the title track, along with a little ballad called “Dust in the Wind.” Though they weren’t quite sure what to call what they were doing.

“That was long before MTV, and the term ‘music video’ didn’t exist. I didn’t know what we were doing it for!” Williams laughs today. “But in Australia and Europe, the way they market music is to show these videos on television. I said ‘Aw, that’s not gonna last!’ We went in there, shot it, then went to bed. And that was it! Those videos come back and haunt me to this day!”

Maybe it was Williams’ disco-meets-country-gentleman white suit that makes him cringe today, because the two tracks certainly stand up. The band had high hopes for Point of Know Return as their previous album, Leftoverture, had given the band its breakthrough hit with the now-staple of classic rock “Carry on Wayward Son.”

But if asked to name one Kansas song, most people would cite “Dust in the Wind.” Penned by original guitarist Kerry Livgren, it hit #6 in 1978 and is the band’s only Top 10 hit. The gentle ballad with heavy lyrics about life’s legacy and its somewhat fatalistic view has run the gamut of use in the ensuing 40+ years, from being played seriously at funerals to being quoted by Bill & Ted in their first Excellent Adventure and as Will Ferrell’s eulogy  for a friend (“You’re My Boy, Blue!”) in Old School.

“’Dust in the Wind’ is not a dated lyric or even dated sounding,” Williams says of its continued appeal. “There was nothing else like it at the time, unless you go back to the folk era. It stood on its own. Country stations even played it!”

The “Point of Know Return” cover was painted by Peter Lloyd. Album cover

In 2019, Kansas performed Point of Know Return in its entirely – along with a selection of hits, deep cuts, and newer material – on tour. Williams says the record was crucial to the band’s career.

Leftoverture was a platinum record, so we knew we had something special. It just exploded and we went from small headlining shows and opening act slots to playing Madison Square Garden,” he says.

“Every album to that point was getting more cohesive and selling more. So our expectations for Point of Know Return were for it to be even better. And it did outsell it – though I think Leftoverture has sold more as of today. But those two albums back to back were career makers for us.”

Of the deeper cuts on the sextuple-platinum record – some of which Kansas had never even played live before this tour – Williams says “Hopelessly Human” is his favorite to play. Even if it finds him frantically switching between acoustic and electric guitars and changing settings and pickups. All accomplished amid flashing stage lights.

The current lineup of Kansas includes original members Williams (lead guitar) and Phil Ehart (drums), along with longtime bassist Billy Greer and violinist/guitarist David Ragsdale. There’s also Ronnie Platt (lead vocals/keyboards), Zak Risvi (guitar), and new addition Tom Brislin (keyboards).

Williams says that he and Ehart have a special bond as the two remaining original/classic lineup members, having played together consistently since 1967 when both were in their junior high band, the Pets.

“It’s kind of like my other marriage. Whatever difference of opinion or philosophies we’ve had have long been talked out. There’s no surprises, and we’ve always known we can count on each other. We’ve never wavered in our commitment to what we do,” Williams says.

He notes that the original six man lineup – Williams, Ehart, Steve Walsh (lead vocals/keyboards), Kerry Livgren (lead guitar), Robbie Steinhardt (violin), and Dave Hope (bass) was like a “mighty pirate ship on the sea” (sort of like the iconic cover to Point of Know Return). And all six participated in the 2015 band documentary Miracles Out of Nowhere.

Williams says that all six remain friendly and business partners, and the former members will often come see the current band or sit in with them at shows. But what he admits gets under his skin is when purported “fans” simply won’t accept anything but the original lineup, no matter what the current reality is.

“Not everybody has the will or the inclination, desire, or ability to stick with something for 47 years. Nothing against the [former members], they’ve moved on and wanted to do something else. And we’re all fine with each other,” he says. “But you can’t remain frozen in time.” If you want the original lineup, Williams suggests to stay home and listen to the records – or call the former members and gripe at them.

In fact, Kansas is about to release a new record, The Absence of Presence this month, their first since 2016’s The Prelude Implicit. Though unlike during the band’s heyday, commercial success is not a goal.

The classic lineup of Kansas: Kerry Livgren, Phil Ehart, Rich Williams, Robbie Steinhardt, Steve Walsh, and Dave Hope.

“Business is a fraction of what it once was. There’s no money in putting out a new record. But we still want to be relevant and be creative and experiment,” he says. The band was also looking forward to hitting the road in 2020 with Foreigner (which has since been cancelled due to the pandemic). He was hoping that it would allow them to change up their set list even more. “They’ve had like 20 hits and have to play all of them. We’ve had a couple of big ones and a few minor ones, so we have more freedom!” Williams laughs.

Finally, Kansas – along with Foreigner, Styx, REO Speedwagon, Boston, Bad Company, and Supertramp – are examples of worthy classic rock bands not yet in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Williams has some thoughts on the matter, and ultimately why he hopes that Kansas will be enshrined in that glass pyramid in Cleveland.

“I don’t know who it’s for – I don’t know that anybody does!” he says. “I know what we’ve accomplished. I would be appreciative of it, and it would be great for my personal legacy for my grandchildren after I’ve gone, so it has an importance to me for my family. But personally, it’s not something I need or [obsess] about.”

He jokes about starting a “Not in the Hall of Fame Hall of Fame” for similar rock bands as-yet not enshrined. And he isn’t so sure that the term “Rock and Roll” should even be part of the Hall’s moniker.

“I don’t know at what point it became so politically correct to represent genres that aren’t rock and roll,” he sums up. “Not to take anything away from those [inductees], but it’s not their arena. It’s like taking the person who won the Bassmaster Classic and putting them in the Baseball Hall of Fame!”

This interview originally appeared at HoustonPress.com

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