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  • Bernard Fowler

    Posted February, 2013

     

    Photo by Jonnie Miles

    If you think you haven’t heard the name Bernard Fowler, think again. If I point out to you that if you’ve listened to any kind of popular music over the last, oh, say, nearly thirty years, you’ve absolutely heardBernard’s voice, trust me, you have. Remember the early eighties tunes Don’t Make Me Waitor Life Is Something Special by the New York Citi Peech Boys? Bernard was an integral part of that band. Oh, and remember Herbie Hancock’s albums, Future Shock and Sound-System? Yeah, Fowler fronted those. Then there’s Philip Glass’s Songs From The Liquid Days and Bootsy Collins’ album, What’s Bootsy Doin’?Bernard’s voice comes through on those, too.

    In 1986, Fowler was hired for vocal andvocal arrangement work for some guy named Mick Jagger on his solo album, She’s The Boss. Maybe you heard of him? That project lead to Bernard’s twenty-seven year long (and counting) gig with Mr. Jagger’s struggling little band called The Rolling Stones.

    You get the picture.

    Over his many years of excellence-making work, Fowler has earned the respect of the upper echelon of music makers and shakers around the globe. When I asked guitar great Steve Lukather for his thoughts on Bernard’s craft, he said that Bernard’s one of the greatest voices I have ever worked with and also one of the coolest people. We have done a bunch of stuff together - writing, jammin', hangin'. He sang on some of my solo records. I played on his and I am a fan. And he plays with the Stones! It don’t get much cooler than that!”

    Stones band mate and legendary sax player Bobby Keys said,“I was thinking back to when I first saw Bernard – I can’t remember which Stones tour it was but it’s been several tours back – over twenty years ago, I think – when Bernard first started singing with the Stones. When I heard that the Stones were gonna have singers, I thought, ‘Well, that’ll be good. Let’s see what they sound like.’ And, Bernard, man, the first time I ever heard him sing – I think Keith told me about Bernard before I actually heard him sing. The first time I ever heard Bernard sing, man, I really thought I was listening to Sam Cooke and Otis Redding tied together! I was, like, ‘Damn! This guy’s too good to sing with this band!’ I really did.”

    Continuing on, Keys said, “Then came Bernard’s work with Charlie (Watts). You know, the big band albums? He handled those ballads, man, just like he was born to it. I remember Bernard never hitting a bad lick. He’s one of the gifted people, man, who just has an inbred instinct and feel for music and expresses it vocally. As a musician, I really respect him. He’s not just a vocalist, as such. He’s a musician, man. His voice is an instrument. I find it to have been a great pleasure to work with him and hear him sing. Gettin’ ready to do that again in a month or so.”

    It was to that point about Bernard’s voice – and even his stage presence – that caused me to lead off with an admittedly unusual – if not unusually placed – question. I’ve grown up in church circles where southern gospel was prevalent. Knowing that Fowler was NYC born and raised gave me pause, however, some of his mannerisms might lead some to conclude that his musical background might involve church music of some sort. I asked Bernard if this was the case. And he answered.

    “That’s a funny question you’ve asked. It’s a “yes” and it’s a “no” - only because I’m from New York City – specifically the Queensbridge Projects. I was born and raised in New York City. But both my mother and father are from North Carolina. My father was from Zebulon. My mom is from Raleigh. So, yes, both of my parents are from the south and church was a big part of our lives.

    “As a kid growing up in New York City, my mom sent me away to North Carolina every summer. Every summer until I was about sixteen years old, mom sent me to Big Mamma’s house. Big Mamma was my grandmother and Big Mamma was a Christian woman. And let me tell you, you weren’t walking in or out of Big Momma’s house without her praying for you.

    “So I was pretty much introduced to the church at a very young age. I heard gospel music when it was gospel music. What I mean by that is that there weren’t no drummers. Wasn’t no bass players. Wasn’t no guitar players. It was straight-up choir, organ and piano. So, there’s a yes and no answer to that question.”

    As it was, Bernard and his family’s religious life was within Baptist circles. Bernard remembers, “It’s funny, I just left North Carolina. I went down to see my mom for Christmas. I hadn’t seen her in a while. My mother’s sister – my Aunt Nell - lives nearby in my grandmother’s house. As I was driving down for a visit, I was thinking about going down there when I was growing up, including this one time Aunt Nell set off for church on what turned out to be anything but a normal Sunday. This time Aunt Nell and I went church hoppin’!’ We spent the entire Sunday visiting different churches in North Carolina. And this was all day long! ALL DAY LONG! When I say ‘all day,’ I mean all day! We’d go to one service and then scoot off to the next.

    “I remember there was this one church in particular – it was different. It was different. I can’t explain how different it was but it was different. Trust me. We were deep in North Carolina. I remember my Aunt Nell saying ‘Baby, you like this church?’ I replied, ‘No, Aunt Nell, I don’t like this church.’ She said, ‘Me, either. Let’s go!’ And off we went!” After laughing an infectious laugh as only Fowler can, he added, “That just explains how much time we spent at church from a very young age.”

    Concluding his thoughts on that early part of his life, Bernard said, “So, yeah, although that’s not where my singing career started, it’s very much a part of me.” Then, with a smile that came clearly over the telephone line, said, “Very perceptive, Randy.”

    In pre-interview communications with Fowler, I became aware that he was working on a new solo album. I asked him to tell me a little bit about it.

    “I’m working on my second solo record. I’m excited about what’s going on and what’s happening with the music thus far. Right now I’m about eight songs in, and I plan to record five or so more. Out of those, I’ll pick ten to make the album. Of the songs that don’t make the album, we’re working on a way to give them to people – a little something extra. People don’t buy albums like they did when I was a kid. People buy songs. So, yeah, that’s what I’m doing. I’m trying to get this record done by at least the end of the month or half way into March. I want it done. I want it finished. I’m hoping that there could be some Stones shows coming up. You never know until you know, but regardless, I want to get it done.”

    That comment prompted me to ask Fowler what drives his solo sales: his own solo reputation, his association with The Rolling Stones, or his work with other people?

    “Um, I think it’s a combination of everything that I’ve done in my career which, you know, has been pretty varied. Some know me before the Stones, and some only with the Stones. And some both. But yes, there are lots of people that have become aware of me through my work with the Stones, which is great, but I’ve always had such a diverse career. Ultimately I think it’s a combination, which is good.”

    Bernard is enjoying an amazing career – working first with Mick Jagger and then with the rest of the band. I asked, when looking back, is there was one pivotal part of his career where he can say that, if it wasn’t for that instant or experience, he would’ve never gotten the Jagger or Stones gig.

    “Absolutely. The New York Citi Peech Boys. That, along with Herbie Hancock. Those two projects – they’re what brought me to the Stones because I would say that before the New York Citi Peech Boys, nobody really knew who I was. At that time I was just a young vocalist trying to make waves. I had my first hit record with the Peech Boys. It was a club record and the Peech Boys were also the first to have a DJ as part of the band. Before that – before the Peech Boys – that did not exist. That was Larry Levan. He was the premier star DJ. There was nobody bigger than Larry at that time, DJ wise. Now, DJs are as popular as the artists that they sample! It’s totallyamazing. I don’t get it! People will fill a hall and watch a guy spin records. Where’s the entertainment factor? I’m still trying to get that. Maybe it’s the big room – the congregation of everybody – I don’t know.”

    And, then, bringing the conversation back around to the DJs who play the Peech Boys and other work that Bernard has been involved with, he added, “My hat is off to them. And I’d like to say thank you. Thank you for help keeping my voice in people’s ears.”

    While the focus of my interview with Bernard was on his own work and career, I couldn’t resist asking him one Stones related question. I was curious what he thinks is the biggest misconception that people have when it comes to The Rolling Stones.

    “I think it’s the hype about ‘sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll’ that people think about the band. That’s probably the biggest misconception people have. When I talk to people and they’re, like, ‘Oh, man, you must be doing this and you must be doing that’ – it’s just wrong. Sure, everybody knows that, yes, there was a point in their lives that they may have done a lot of that – they talk about it honestly. But it’s like every other job, there were occupational hazards and sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll are occupational hazards for rock and rollers. But I have to say this. It’s all bullshit now. When I’m on stage with the Stones night after night – and I’ve been there. I’ve been there about 27 years now, and I’m here to tell you that the experience is incredible. Sometimes, I get mesmerized when I’m on stage with the Stones. I’ll be singing, and watching them do their thing. Mick, without a doubt, is the hardestworking man in show business. James Brown had that title but he’s gone now so that’s Mick’s. Hands-down, Jagger has that title. I watch him – all of them – and listen to them.”

    “I think the biggest misconception of them is that drugs play such a big part of who and what they are. That’s the biggest misconception. Maybe at one time in their careers it was but since I’ve been there, it’s not. We’ve had some fun times. I’ve been fortunate enough to be there and grow along with them. There are things that I did and we did when I first hooked up with them – we don’t do anymore. The one thing that has not left the band is the passion for the music. That has not left one bit. And I’m telling ya, that passion shows!

    “I’m sorry to go off on this but, real quickly, through the years, I see things and hear things that people write about The Rolling Stones and I want to take a moment to agree with all the accolades that Keith and Ronnie have gotten over the years and say that, without a doubt, those accolades are well deserved. Those cats arethey areour blues men now. Muddy’s not here anymore. Howlin’ Wolf ain’t here no more. But Keith and Ronnie learned from them. We did a show, I guess it was in London and Eric Clapton was there and we were playing and Eric did his thing. He’s a beautiful player, no question about it. He did his thing and it was great. But, when Keith did his thing, the hair on the back of my neck stood up and I’ve got thick hair! It was like, ‘Oh, my God!’ And Ronnie…wow. The two of them.  Amazing. All that stuff they had listened to coming through, you could hear it – like a direct connection to the old blues cats. A direct connection! 

    “I grew up listening to that music. Going back to my folks, all those records that they (the Stones) listened to over in England were also in my house. My mom and dad listened to those records. It’s funny because, when I met the Stones, I remember spending some nights with Keith and I was listening to what he was playing and I’m like, ‘I know that song!’ And he’s kind of looking at me. One night, I’m with Keith and my mother just happened to call me. I’m talking to her and she could hear the blues in the background and she said, ‘Bernard, where are you?’ I said that I was at Keith’s and she said, ‘Is that him playing that music?’ I said, ‘Yeah, Mom’ and she said, ‘Let me talk to him!’ So, there you go.”

    Much later in our conversation, I found myself gushing over the lovely and ever so talented singing mate of Bernard’s, Lisa Fischer. He jumped right on my comment.

    “That’s my baby! I can’t imagine doing The Rolling Stones without her.” When I commented about her always stunning performances on the solo on Gimme Shelter, Fowler gave me some of his thoughts on that, too. “Randy, I’m with you, man, I’m with you. Mick knows I am such a fan of what Lisa does with that song that anytime they have any guest artist sing the song, I’m always walking around with a frown” he said with a laugh and then added, “I try in my way to talk him out of it because I’m just a fan of what she does with that song. It’s either Lisa Fischer or Mary Clayton, who sang the original and who nailed that tune. I’ve not heard anybody else – anybody else sing it like that.”

    When asked what have been the biggest challenges to his career, Bernard said, “The biggest challenge has been building my career. That’s been the biggest challenge because I’m a soul singer from birth. It’s in me. I am that. Growing up I listened to everything – everything. I listened to everything my mom and dad had at home like Muddy Waters and Little Richard and all of that. Mom would put me down for a nap and that music was playing. That is definitely part of me – and Motown and Atlantic and Stax – that’s all a part of me. I always had this thing for rock and roll. I remember when I was in junior high school and we would play hooky. I had a friend that had kind of the same musical tastes as I did – which were a bit off. I grew up in Queensbridge. If you’re familiar with the rapper, Nas, he’s from Queensbridge. We grew up in the same area. We grew up in the same projects. My musical tastes were a lot wider than the people that I was growing up with. Carole King, Three Dog Night, Santana, Buddy Miles, Hendrix. Some people in the hood might have listened to some of it but not like I did. I always thought that I was born a little late because I was supposed to be at Woodstock. I was born but I was too young to go. Something about seeing that film is like, ‘I was supposed to be there!’

    “I was a different cat when I was growing up. You know, the hood has its style of dress. I could’ve gone with the crowd and dressed like that but I had my own thing. I wore bell bottoms and a dashiki or a shirt that I had made or a hat that I had made. I walked around with a question mark on the back of my head. My head was bald except for the question mark. I was a different kid. A lot of kids in the hood said, ‘Damn! Bernard’s kinda strange!’ And I was super athletic as a young kid. People couldn’t quite figure out me. And neither could I. I just knew that I was different. I felt different.”

    Fowler concludes the thought with story filled with irony.

    “The first record my father ever gave me was 12 x 5 by The Rolling Stones. That was the first album I owned. For me to be where I am now – it’s crazy! And my father left my house when I was eight years old. I didn’t see my father again for thirty-something years. The next time he saw me, I was singing with The Rolling Stones. Very strange. Very strange.”

    Bernard Fowler has been referred to in other interviews as a sort of Renaissance man, musically speaking – very diverse in his musical talents. I asked him what he attributes that to.

    “I love music and I’ve loved all kinds of music. I don’t know. Maybe my mom had something to do with that because, like I said, when she put me down for a nap, the radio was playing. I’d hear this radio and there would be a lot of different stuff that would be playing. I don’t know. Maybe that’s where I got my appreciation for a lot of different music. I’ve been that way for as long as I can remember. If I listened to something and it touches me, that’s it. I just need to hear it. I don’t know what it is about a particular piece of music – I don’t know. I’d like to think that it’s ‘song’. I’ve always loved ‘song’ and I love voice. I don’t know. Maybe that has something to do with it.

    “It’s a compliment to hear somebody describe me as such. I really appreciate that because I always try to go out of the box – out of my comfort zone. Some people will like something but they won’t go for it. They will listen to this thing they like from afar but are afraid of being ridiculed. I was never afraid of anybody talking about me – even when I went to school with Beatle boots on. I didn’t care. To me, it was the sharpest thing in the world and I begged my mother for those Beatle boots and I still wear that type of shoe to this day!

    “Once I started doing sessions and stuff, someone who had a really, really big influence on me was Bill Laswell. I spent a lot of years and a lot of time with Bill, making music, listening to music. It was music that no one that I knew had ever heard before. So that’s probably where that all came from.”

    With over thirty years in the music business, Fowler has witnessed a lot of changes. I asked him what, from his perspective, have been the biggest changes in the music business – both positive and negative.

    “I’ve never been a fan of record companies. My first experience was with the Peech Boys and then, with a lot of things after, I did not have good experiences. I think the way things are now with technology kind of empowers a lot of independent musicians. They can record the music that they like. They don’t have executives telling saying, ‘No, you have to do this or you have to do that.’ From that standpoint, musicians now can really be independent. And, with a lot of hard work, they can sell records. The downside of the music business is that promising artists who do their own thing might not have access to that industry machine, you know, to stand behind and circulate that music as it should be circulated. Those are just two changes.”

    Still chatting along that same vein, I asked Fowler to imagine President Obama calling him up and offering him a new cabinet position, Music Czar and that he’s been tasked with fixing the music business. What would he do?

    “You know what I’d do? I’d get a lot of musicians in those seats (occupied by suits at record companies) because something that I’ve never liked was that a lot of the people sitting behind the desks (at record companies) aren’t actual musicians, but number crunchers who are forcing what they think is cool, trying to tell actual musicians what they should or shouldn’t play. Those guys – those “executives” - are not musicians. A musician wouldn’t have the heart enough to play that game. Those executives don’t know what it takes and are not in the game yet they’re going to try to control a musical vision. So, let’s get rid of all of them first.

    “The second thing is: killauto-tune. Kill it right now! Kill it dead! Kill that damn auto-tune! I don’t mind someone in the studio working – singing over and over until you get it right. That’s what a studio is for. I’m going to say it but I don’t really mean this: Auto-tune has made great singers out of non-singers. You know what I’m sayin’. Let’s kill that auto-tune dead! I’m from the school, hey! You know what? You go into the studio and you’re going to record a song, sing the song from the top to the bottom. Before you start overdubbing, sing it from top to bottom. That’s when you know you know your craft! You know your craft! There’s such a thing as one take. It’s a magical thing when that kind of thing happens. Auto-tune is probably the worst thing that could have ever happened. I wasn’t a fan of home studios but, you know, not everybody can afford to go to a recording studio. But, recording studios are there for a reason, people! They’re there for a reason! All of my favorite stuff was recorded where? In a recording studio. I’m just sayin’. I may be a bit of a snob and someone younger than us will say, ‘He’s old!’ but I tell you what, I’ll take that old quality any day! Anyday!”

    I asked Fowler if he had heard Joe Walsh’s comments and feelings about the new recording technology versus the old.

    “I was talking with someone yesterday - I don’t know if you know but I did a tour with Joe Walsh. I sang for Joe Walsh. The DeLeo brothers (founding members of the Stone Temple Pilots) were the rhythm section. Anyway, someone yesterday was telling me something about Joe Walsh. I guess he was talking along the same lines as I have been. Good for him. Good for him! Yeah, Joe!”

    Despite reportedly having worked on over thirty albums, I knew there had to be some projects on Fowler’s musical bucket list that he would still like to do so I asked him about them.

    “That’s kind of a difficult question because there’s my heroes that I grew up with and then there’s some of the young cats that are doing stuff now. Marvin (Gaye) is no longer here. I’d have loved to sit and sing with him. That’s a hard question because, I’m not a big fan of what they call R&B these days. I’m not a big fan of that. I’d rather listen to the other stuff. I’d rather listen to Marvin and Jimmy Castor; some old George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic. I’d rather listen to that stuff than to listen to a lot of (the new) R&B. I tell you what: I’d love to work with Bill Laswell again! It has been years since we’ve worked together so I’d like to do that again. Wow! That’s a real heavy question! I’d like to do Herbie (Hancock) again. I’d like to do Dave Grohl. I’m definitely a fan! I like his energy. Oh! I’ve got one for you! David Bowie! A couple of others that would be on my bucket list are Ryuichi Sakamoto and Philip Glass. I’ve worked with them both before but I would loveit if I could work with them again. They would definitely be on my bucket list.”

    Segueing into a heart-felt assessment of another great, Bernard said, “I tell you what: Bruce Springsteen? Ah! The heart in that man, sir, I’d sing for him in a heartbeat. In a heartbeat! I’ve had the chance to meet him and, I can tell you, what a class, class act!” 

    As for up-and-coming talent is on his radar, Fowler said, “I love – what’s that cat’s name? Gary Clark, Jr.! He’s on my radar!” Then, when Joe Bonamassa’s name was brought up, Bernard shared a great story.

    “Well, you know, Joe gets a extra star because, you know, the bass player in his band (Carmine Rojas) – he’s probably the reason why I’m with the Stones. Here’s a really cool, real quick story.

    “When I met Jagger, I did his first solo record. I didn’t just go and sing, I did the vocal arrangements for his first solo record. It doesn’t say it on the record but that was all mine. I had a Fostex four track machine. When I met him, we sat on the floor, sang a bit and he gave me a cassette. I went back to the hotel, put it in my four track recorder and did all my background stuff. The next day, when I went to the studio, that’s what we did.

    “After I did that, a few years had passed and I was living in New York. Someone called me and said, ‘Bernard, I hear Mick Jagger is looking for a male vocalist to do some dates. No one called you?’ And, I’m, like, ‘Nope. No one called me.’ So, I was preparing and rehearsing at S.I.R. to go to Avignon which the bass player, Carmine Rojas – the bass player for Joe Bonamassa – a lot of us guys who are side guys for the big boys. So, I walked out of the room and who do I run into? Mick Jagger! I said, ‘Hey, Mick! How ya doin’?’ And he’s, like, ‘Hi’ and kept walking. Five minutes later a chick comes into the room where I’m rehearsing and said, ‘Oh, I don’t know if you know but Mick is looking for a male vocalist.’

    “I was insulted. ‘He would like to know if you would like to audition.’ And I’m like, ‘Wait a minute. I did his solo record. Audition?’ She left the room and, when she left the room I said, ‘I’m not going to audition. I did his first solo record and now he wants me to audition?’ 

    “Right then, when I finished saying that, Carmine Rojas grabbed me by the arm and took me to the corner and said, ‘Bernard, you go do that audition. Whether you take the gig or not, you go and do that audition. This guy’s got so much stuff in his head he don’t know half the time if he’s coming or going. But you’ve gotta go and do that audition.’ 

    “Carmine’s a lot older than I am. He’s like my big brother so he gave me a good talkin’ to. So, I took the tape that the girl left – a tape of four Rolling Stones songs that I had to sing. The band that he had was red hot. Simon Phillips on drums,Doug Wimbish on bass,Jimmy Rip on guitar,Joe Satriani on guitar. So I walk into this room and all these cats are lookin’ at me and one of them looks at me with his arms folded like, ‘Here we go again. We got another guy.’ Made me feel like a chump and I didn’t like feelin’ that way. I remember saying in my head, ‘You know what? I’m gonna give them a dose!’ I remember there were all these chairs lined up with all these people and I said, ‘You know what? I’m gonna give ‘em a dose and I’m gonna show my ass!’ 

    “With a band like that, they started playing and I was spittin’ fire. Did the last song, looked at the band and said, ‘End it now!’ Boom! Ended the song, gave them the tape, and went back to my rehearsal room. This chick came and said, ‘Uh, we would like to know when you can start.’ I’ve been there ever since.”

    With our scheduled 30-minute chat running thirty minutes over time, I asked Bernard what was on his career radar for the next year, five years and the rest of your life.

    “Next year, well, I’m hoping to spend some of that year with the Stones. The rumor is that this could be the last time. I hope not but if it is, I want to be there. Hopefully, I will get to make a record with Luke (Steve Lukather).” And, then stressing it again as if anticipating that Luke will read this interview (and I sure hope that he does!), “I will make-a-record-with-LUKE. Hopefully, we can go and do some dates together, writing and singing great songs. I’m looking for that. That’s what I’m looking forward to do. I’ve got some other stuff. This past year I’ve been doing a lot of jazz things. I’d like to stick more than one toe in that water because Lord knows that we are not getting any younger, But after that, there’s still more rockin’ to do and I might need to soften up a bit. That’s what I’m lookin’ forward to. I’m looking forward to seeing my girls grow up. I was going to say ‘spend more time with them’ but they know what their daddy is like. ‘Dad’s gotta go. If Dad’s not singin’, Dad ain’t so happy.’ So I’m looking forward to doing a lotof singing. God willing, I’ll have a few more solo records.”

    My final question to Mr. Fowler before we both had to get on with our day was: When your life is over, how do you want to be remembered and what do you hope your legacy will be?

    “All I ever wanted to do was sing. That’s it. All this cat ever wanted to do was sing. That’s it.”

    And, man, can that cat sing.

    Follow Bernard Fowler onFacebook andTwitter for information about upcoming shows, and news about his upcoming album.

  • Bernard Fowler Chats About "The Bura"

    July, 2015

     

    Photo Courtesy of JamesPattersonsGallery.com

         

    As I started this piece covering my second interview with Bernard Fowler, I found myself forming it in a way that somehow felt familiar. As I wrote, I kept feeling that I’ve been down this path before so I stopped, thought, and then looked up my first interview with Mr. Fowler (here). 

    Dang it! I saw that I was writing something very similar.

    I share this – not because I have this masochistic need to publicly humiliate myself – but to show the steady, solid, classicness (I just made that word up) of Bernard Fowler.

    When I first interviewed Bernard, he was in the midst of working on his second solo album. That album was recently released (the Boomerocity review is here) and the opportunity presented itself for me to chat with the vocal giant once again. 

    We met in a private section of the lounge in the luxurious Ritz-Carlton hotel in the tony Buckhead section of Atlanta the day before he and the Rolling Stones hit the stage at Georgia Tech’s Bobby Dodd Stadium. The purpose was to discuss that album I was just talking about, “The Bura”. 

    The setting and environment in the lounge was comfortable and staff at the hotel was gracious and accommodating, making for an easy and quiet place for Bernard and I to chat while my business partner/cousin, James Patterson, photographed the conversation.

    Prior to the interview, I exchanged notes with our mutual friend, Steve Lukather, who was on tour with Toto and Yes in Europe. Luke said, “Send my best to Bernard from Norway ! Love the cat! Great singer even a nicer man! I miss him and tell him to say ‘hi’ to Daryl and Woody for me!” Sharing that message put the first of many warm smiles on Bernard’s face.

    As we got comfortable and sipped on water on that hot, June day, I asked Fowler for his “elevator speech” about his new project and why he chose that title for the disc.

    “The bura is like hurricane force winds that blow off of the Adriatic Sea, between Italy and Croatia. I was touring around that area and a friend of mine was taking me to some small town – I think it was called ‘Rabac’ in Croatia. We were going through a tunnel and some lights started flashing. We got out of the tunnel and he pulled over. I said, ‘what are you pulling over for?’ and he said, ‘The bura!’ I said, “what is a ‘bura’?’ Then this wind came and hit the van and the van started to rock and it shocked me. I said, ‘holy s***!’ He said, ‘this is small bura!’ He said, ‘if we don’t pull over, it will lift the truck and turn it over.’ I’d never felt anything like that.

    “The term stuck with me and I liked the way the words sound. I love the way they pronounce that word. I thought it would be a great title for a record.”

    As I mentioned earlier, Fowler was working on the album when I first interviewed him so I asked how long the project took him to create and what made “The Bura” different from other projects he worked on, including his first album, “Friends With Privileges”.

    “I would say it took about two years to make but I think the total work time would probably be eight months . . . nine months. I didn’t work on it all the way through. I had to go to the studio, do some work there then I would have to leave. I would go and do dates and come back. It was a back and forth kind of thing.

    “The only other one that I could compare it to would be ‘Friends With Privileges’. The process was very similar except that with ‘Friends With Privileges’, I did a lot of it by myself. This time, I made a conscious decision that I would have somebody sitting in the chair next to me and that person was Robert Davis – a guitar player. He co-wrote and produced the record with me so the process was pretty similar.

    “The other thing that was different was I would go to the studio and work but I wouldn’t take the work home with me to study while I was on the road doing things. I didn’t do that. I might’ve listened to something (but) after I listened to it, I left it. I never listened to it again until I got back to the studio. That was the first time I ever worked that way.” 

    I found that method of work interesting so I asked Bernard why he worked that way and why did he feel that it was important.

    “I needed it to be fresh all the time. I didn’t want to get stuck. I didn’t want to get used to works in progress. I didn’t want to get used to it. Too many times, I think people – and I’m one of those people – you work in the studio and at the end of the day, you make a rough mix and you’re listening to the rough mix until you get back into the studio the next time. You think something on it is really good and you can’t get past it. You go to the studio and if it’s not sounding that way then people may tend to freak out or, ‘no, I want it to sound more like it did the first day.’ 

    “It’s a work in progress so it’s going to change. When you do that, you kinda limit yourself to possibilities. I didn’t want to be limited so I just approached it that way. Every time I went back into the studio, it was fresh. If I had been gone for a while, I’d call the studio and say, ‘Hey, what days can you give me to work?’ and they would give me the days, I would go back in and I would familiarize myself with it. Then the next day I would start to work.”

    Fowler mentioned Robert Davis so I asked how he linked up with the guitarist and what made him decide to work with him as closely as he did.

    “I got a call from an engineer friend of mine – an engineer out of Los Angeles that I had known for long time and he called me one day. He said he was working with a band; that they

         

    Photo Courtesy of JamesPattersonsGallery.com

    had a really cool vocalist, a great guitar player. They need some vocal help. ‘Would you, if you can, do me a favor and come by and help them out a bit.’ 

    “So, I went to the studio and met the band. I did some stuff for them. Robert was there, obviously. I heard what they were doing and I got to hear them play and I think the first thing I said was, ‘This kid is good.’ I had some solo dates that I would do and I would put together a band and I called him and asked him to be part of the unit. We just got along really well. I enjoyed his playing, his enthusiasm and his fire when he plays. 

    “When I thought I needed somebody to work with – we’ve known each other for a few years but the relationship was still fresh so I thought, ‘Let me call Robert. He’s the guy I’m gonna work with.’ I just made that decision. It turned out to be a really good decision.”

    I have three favorite tunes that Fowler wrote on “The Bura”. They are, “See You Again”, “Will You Miss Me”, and 

    “My Friend Sin”.  I asked him for the back stories on these songs. He began answering with another one of those warm smiles and an easy laugh that I’d grown to expect out of him when he’s happy. 

    “Okay, ‘See You Again’, that’s probably one of my favorites – if not THE favorite of mine on the CD. When I was looking to write and compile material for the record, I would go and spend some time with Robert early in the afternoon. I went to his house. Most of the pre-production stuff was at Robert’s house. I went to his house and he goes, ‘B, I got something I want to show you.’ He started playing this thing that he put together – just a drum machine and a kind of keyboard. It felt really good and I kinda recognized it. It was a song that he played for me a while ago . . . but it was really fast – a rocker type thing.  

    “So he took that same thing and slowed it down – way down.  I’m listening to it and I’m, like, ‘I like that. Set up a microphone and let me try to put some ideas on it.’ Usually, that’s the way it works. I’ll hear something and I’ll just sing melody without words. But this time I started to sing words. I pretty much ripped myself off of a song I had written before for Ronnie Wood years ago. I just started to sing those lyrics but altered them a bit. I had a face on it. We listened back to it and I said, ‘Hmmm. There’s something there. It’s really minimal. A drum machine, some keyboard and voice, at that time.  

    “As things progressed, then I had ideas about certain people doing certain things on that. I think that’s probably the first song that we worked on when we went into the Steakhouse recording studio. Everybody on the record was hand picked for their specialties. 

    “My daughter’s school teacher called me up and needed a studio. I sent him to the Steakhouse. I went there to check on him to see how he was making out. He said, ‘Hey, there’s somebody in the control room that you know that you probably haven’t seen in a long time.’ I said, ‘Who is it?’ He said, ‘Well, go in there and see.’ I walked in and it was L. Shankar. I hadn’t seen L. in more than twenty-five years. We used to do recordings together with Bill Laswell years ago. I was so happy to see him. 

    “He had to go on the road and when I started working on ‘See You Again’, I thought, ‘Oo! L. would be perfect for this track!’ So I called him. He said, ‘Send it to me.’ So I sent it to him and he was gracious enough to send it back with great violin and some great vocal things on there. It just grew from there. 

    “Will Calhoun came into town. Will was the first one to overdub on this record. Waddy Wachtel is on there. Jeff Bova who I spent a lot of years with when I was singing for Herbie Hancock. Jeff was the second keyboard player. He did a great string arrangement for it. I love listening to it. It’s so good. Everybody did great. We were stuck. We needed a bass player but we needed the right bass player so I called this cat. He teaches at a local university. I said, ‘I need a bass player. Can you send me one of your students there?’ He sent me over this guy. A young cat. Emilio Teranova. He came in with an upright. We had a little trouble with the sound. Robert or myself put a t-shirt behind the strings. That stopped the buzz of the bass but it created another thing to that bass. We had it! Then it was just a matter of me doing the rest of the vocals.

    “That vocal is the vocal I sang when he played it for me. I didn’t go back in and re-record it. There was something about that vocal. I’m a fan of male falsetto. I loved Eddie Kendricks from the Temptations. I don’t have that range, really. I only use that vocal range when I’m doing a lot of background. I’ll use that part of my voice. But for a lead, I never did that before. I remember being really sick when I sang that, also. As it went on and I kept listening to it, I had a vibe. So I thought, ‘I’m not going to re-record it. I’m going to leave it just the way it is.’ 

    “’My Friend Sin’ also was when Robert and I were writing. I went to his house, again, early one afternoon. ‘I got a call from a friend of mine. He’s a movie director. He’s doing a movie and he’s asked if we would write something for the movie.’ I’m, like, ‘Okay, what is the movie?’ ‘The movie is about a kind of preacher. A holy roller during the day but when the sun goes down, he’s a bad man.’ I said, ‘Okay, well, do you got anything?’ and he said, ‘I got a little something”. I listened to it and I said, ‘Give me the mic and let’s try it right now.’ He said, ‘What about lyrics?’ I said, ‘I got it!’ I wrote a few things on a piece of paper. I just had it in my head. It was an easy one. We had a click track. He started to strum. I started to hum. That was it. It was done that fast. It was done really, really fast. 

    “That was just the beginning. I thought of how was I going to complete it. I wanted it to sound as authentic as possible. I wanted it to fit. If you were going to listen to Eddie Taylor or Robert Johnson or or Son House, it would be able to fit in there. So I kept the instruments to a minimum. I tapped my foot. I recorded that and Robert. I called Chicago and asked Sugar Blue if he would put some harp on it and I played a Jew’s Harp. I called Slash and asked Slash if he was in town and he was and I said, ‘I’m working on a record. I’d love for you to come by and play’ and he said, ‘Sure! Where are you at? What time?’”

    Then, with that infectious smile, Bernard shook his head and said:   

    “I love that!” 

    Then continuing his story about Slash, he quotes the guitarist: 

    “’Where are you at, Bernard? What time?’ He came with his guitar tech. He didn’t come with an entourage. Just the two of them. He walked into the studio with his guitar. ‘Lemme hear what you’re doin’.’ I played it. He plugged in, tuned up and went to work . . . and kicked some ass. I think that day he did three songs and ‘My Friend Sin’ was one of them. I’m very pleased with ‘My Friend Sin’. 

    “I did most of the vocals but I needed another texture so my girl, Lisa Fischer, happened to be in town and I got her by the studio and she added that texture that I needed, then it was complete.” 

    With Fowler mentioning the lovely Lisa Fischer, I just had to ask the question: When are you going to record a whole album together of just the two of you? Shaking his head slowly for emphasis, he said: 

    “Everybody asks that! I’d love to! It’s gotta be the right things, the right songs and probably even the right producer. I don’t know if I would want to produce that. Maybe! But I’m not sure. I think we could do a really killer thing and I think it would be not so traditional between the two of us. We both like kinda different things. It would be good.”

    One thing that is a bit different on “The Bura” is that Bernard has three “flavors,” if you will, of the legendary hit by the Box Tops, “The Letter.” I asked him why he chose to do that. He answered with a laugh.

    “I did that because – okay, making the record wasn’t easy. I was in my own pocket (paying for the recording costs himself). There was no record company. There was no budget. Reluctantly, I called Pledge Music – no, I didn’t call Pledge Music. Pledge Music called me. ‘We can help you raise money’ blah, blah, blah. I thought about it a lot. I was swinging back and forth. I have a problem asking people for things.  

    “So, by the third meeting, I agreed to do it. The pledge started happening. People started to donate money to the cause and we surpassed our goal. As we were recording, we got to the point where it couldn’t keep coming out of my pocket so I called pledge. ‘Call ‘em and tell ‘em that I need that money!’ My manager calls me and says, ‘you’re not going to be too happy’.  ‘Why? What’s wrong?’  ‘Pledge won’t hand you the money until you hand them the record.’” 

    When I suggested that that might be a tad backward, Bernard responded: 

    “That’s what I thought.” 

    He then continued by sharing:

    “I was forced to by any means necessary. Because of that, things started to take long. I wanted to get it done quickly and get it out but time! I would have to go on the road to do gigs. There were people who had donated money and they were getting impatient. ‘What’s happening? Why is it taking so long? I sent my money and I still don’t have a record.’ I apologized! I sent two or three apologies on Facebook. ‘I’m sorry it’s taking so long!’ But, for some people, that’s just not good enough and I understand. 

    “So, because they waited so long – there was only supposed to be ten tracks on the CD. Ten is always my magic number. Because it had taken so long, I just thought, ‘you know what? Let me just try and give a bonus track or two.’   

    “It was towards the end. I knew the Stones thing was getting ready to start up and I had some other things to do so I just thought, ‘you know what?’ 

    He then he interrupts himself by sharing a related story:

    “Early in my career when I was singing with the New York City Peach Boys, we were the first band to actually put out an a cappella. We put out a twelve-inch a cappella. The DJs – they were able to mix the a cappella with other songs. So I thought, ‘You know what? Let me just do that again.’ 

    “So, I just put up the track. The only thing I forgot to do was turn up some delays and stuff. I didn’t have a whole lot of time. The studio had other clients coming in so I put in a kind of dub mix and then the a cappella. It was just to give the fans something extra. That was it.” 

    Fowler covered “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” and “Helter Skelter” on “The Bura” – the latter being the best cover of that Beatles tune I’d ever heard . . . including U2’s version of it. I asked him if this was his answer to the perpetual “Beatles/Stones” debate.  

    “You know what? It’s always the Beatles and the Stones, the Beatles and the Stones. I said, ‘**** it, I’m doin’ one of each! I’m doin’ both on the same record!’ I decided that any solo project that I do I will always do a Rolling Stones song. I’ve been with them close to thirty years now. It will be kind of my ‘thank you’ to them for keeping me around.”

    I sensed that, all seriousness, “Helter Skelter” has a strong personal meaning to Bernard so I asked him if it did. 

    “Well, yeah, I had been reading about – it was online that I was reading something about the Sharon Tate murders and that stuff. Long story short, the article said how that they did all these murders and they wrote the s*** on the wall. What they were, basically, trying to do – because of the climate at the time – the race relations climate at the time in America; the Black Panther Movement, the Watts riots and all of that stuff – so they killed all of these people and then they would try to shift the blame to the Black Panther Movement to try and start a race war! 

    “When I read that, I thought, ‘you gotta be kidding me! Like we didn’t have enough problems!’ Like they didn’t have enough problems! The black folk didn’t have enough problems without this guy trying to stir up more s***. I got a little heated and said that I’m going to cut that.

    “I went on YouTube and found a speech by Eldridge Cleaver. That’s the speech that you hear in the middle. Someone pointed out to me a couple of weeks ago, ‘do you realize that that speech that you picked for that is relevant right now?’  I went back and I listened to it and I go, ‘Shit! That’s exactly what’s happening right now!’ It was a beautiful coincidence!”

    I had mentioned to Bernard that I felt his cover of “Helter Skelter” was the best treatment of it (besides the Beatles, of course) that I had ever heard and had worn it out listening to it. He said:

    “That was the only song on the record that was recorded all at once. Me singing and the band playing all at one time. It is live. It’s live . . . all the way.”

    Since we had just discussed his cover of “Can’t You Hear Me Knockin’”, I shared with Bernard a recording I had from the first time I interviewed him. It was a conversation between Bobby Keys and myself about Bernard. Bobby was the Stones’ sax player for most of their iconic hits that included a sax. He passed away in December of last year. I played the audio and listened as Mr. Fowler made comments back to Bobby as if he were sitting there with us and then he would look off as if he was glancing back into the past at his dear friend.

    I asked Bernard for comments about his late band mate.

    “I miss him. I miss him. We miss him. It’s really weird, now, everything kicking up and him not being here, man. Me, (Stones bassist) Darryl Jones, Lisa (Fischer), Keith (Richards), his wife, his manager, and some other friends - we all saw him off.”

    Photo Courtesy of JamesPattersonsGallery.com

         

    With the shock and disbelief clearly written all over his anguished face, Bernard said:

    “We all thought we’d see him again. I thought we’d see him again and I thought that he would play on this record. He didn’t stick around long enough to do it so I said, ‘you know what? I’ll just leave it off. Nobody’s gonna play saxophone on it. No Bobby, no nobody!” 

    To brighten the mood up a bit, I asked Fowler for his favorite memory of Keys.

    “There’s a lot! I’ll give you a ‘light’ one. One memory is we were in Toronto during a tour. I walk in the elevator and (sniffing), ‘I smell weed!’ I’m on the elevator . . . first floor . . . in the lobby! I get up to the floor. I walk out and I hear this vrrrrroooooommmmmm!!!! There were two HUGE air filters outside his door to filter the f***ing weed!

    “That’s one of my fondest memories of Bobby Keys. If we wanted weed and we didn’t have any weed to smoke, Bobby was happy to help us!” 

    I then asked Mr. Fowler my only question regarding the current tour with the Stones and that was how it was going for him.

    “The tour is doing absolutely amazing! I keep telling people – especially if it’s people who’ve seen them before – ‘you know what? Forget what you’ve seen. You’re seeing it at its best right now! I’m telling you! They are playing so good! Mick is killing ‘em! It’s incredible! It’s incredible to watch. They are playing so good right now. I’ve been there twenty-something years and, for me, it’s the best I’ve ever heard them.”

    Bernard then shared his post-tour plans. 

    “I got a couple. One is to try to do some dates to support ‘The Bura’. Another is to get back into the studio. I started a project a few months ago that I’d like to complete but I’d like to get into the studio and start work on the next solo record. Hopefully, it won’t be six years before next one. The last one was six years ago – something like that – so I don’t want to take too long. I think I would like to spend more time in the studio doing stuff for myself as well as with other people." 

    You can purchase “The Bura” on the Amazon or iTunes widgest, below and follow all things Bernard here on Facebook and Twitter. He really is a blast to follow and he’s always posting great, personal photos from his exciting and eventful life.

     

     

     

     

     

     

  • Between Rock And A Home Place

    rockandhomeplacecoverBetween Rock And A Home Place
    Author: Chuck Leavell With J. Marshall Craig
    Publisher: Mercer University Press
    Reviewed: January, 2010

    If you love music; if you love the stories behind some of the greatest artists and their recordings; if you love learning about the personal lives of artists, then Chuck Leavell’s Between Rock And A Home Place is a must read for you.

    Leavell, keyboardist for The Rolling Stones for twenty-eight years and counting, has performed and recorded with some of the most iconic names in music – especially rock and roll. From his days with The Allman Brothers (that’s his ivory work on the classic, Jessica) to some of his more current contributions, this piano prodigy has seen and done it all.

    And while all the music history in this tome is fascinating, what I found particularly intriguing is Chuck’s extensive knowledge and work in the area of forestry and conservation. It blew my mind and piqued my interest in the subject. What you’ve got to understand is that I am not what one would commonly think of as one who would normally be interested in those subjects. However, Leavell’s telling of his work to build his family home and business, Charlane Plantation (his wife, Rose Lane, being the third generation to own the property), into a thriving tree farm and retreat is just downright fascinating.

    While many celebrities merely pay lip service to the idea of the environment and the earth’s resources, Chuck Leavell has literally put his money where his mouth is. Not only that, it’s obvious that he puts real world intelligence into his philosophy of conservation. Being the realist that he is, Leavell recognizes the economic reality of responsible harvesting of trees and their replenishment. He knows that mankind relies on products that come from trees as well as the jobs directly to the forest and lumber industries.

    While the book was published in 2004 and lots has happened in all aspects of Chuck Leavell’s life, career and business, Between Rock And A Home Place is still very much of an entertaining and informative read. You’ll definitely want this book in your personal library.

  • Bill German

    Posted April, 2009

    Keith Richards and Bill German - Courtesy of Bill German

    Imagine that you’re sixteen years old.  Do you remember which famous person, or persons, that you idolized and fantasized about meeting or hanging out with?  Admit it!  You’ve done it and so have I.  The closest that most of us have ever come to realizing those dreams were paying to see our idols in concert or hanging out at the hotel that where they stayed.  If we were real lucky, we managed to buy excellent seats or catch a glimpse of the objects of our affections before they disappeared into a limo or the hotel.

    For most of us, if we achieved that level of “success”, we’d talk about it for a lifetime, driving everyone within earshot absolutely crazy.  However, there are those who have refused to accept a mere glimpse at the rich and famous.  Some pursue actually knowing them on a personal basis.  Bill German is just such a person.

    As a teenager in the late ‘70’s, Mr. German started a newsletter dedicated to news about the Stones.  It was named after what is arguably the best album ever recorded by the Stones entitled, “Beggar’s Banquet”.  Bill parlayed his labor of love into not only meeting the boys in the band but managed to become personal friends with the band’s legendary guitarist, Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood. 

    Having been a Stones fan since I was the same age as German and being incredibly envious of his achievements in this area, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that he has a book coming out that details his life with the bad boys of rock and roll.  The tome is entitled, “Under Their Thumb”.  It’s a warts and all, open kimono recounting of German’s life and times with Mick and the boys.

    I tracked Bill down in New York City to ask him about his relationship with the Rolling Stones as well as his future plans.  He was kind enough to oblige despite his incredibly busy schedule promoting his book and preliminary ground work on future books.

    German’s story is very similar to Cameron Crowe and “Almost Famous”.  The big difference is that Bill witnessed the inner workings and battles within the World’s Greatest Rock and Roll Band.  While newspapers and magazines all over the world could only speculate and rely on second and third hand information about the perceived demise of the band, German was a first hand observer of what actually took place.  And, often to the chagrin of Sir Mick, reported the events in “Beggar’s Banquet”.

    In summarizing how it all started, German relates that “I was an aspiring journalist (my idol was Tom Snyder) and a rabid Rolling Stones fan.  In 1978, as I was turning 16, I decided to marry the two by launching my "Beggars Banquet" newsletter. I printed the first year of issues in the mimeo room of my high school.  I tried selling copies to my classmates, but found no takers.  Ironically, it was the Stones who took notice and welcomed me into their circle.  (Every time I published a new issue, I'd make sure they received copies, by either leaving it with their doormen, or by presenting it to them in person at New York City's nightclubs.)

    Eventually, the band put German on the Stones payroll but found dealing with their business associates “a frustrating experience, and, in the end, I preferred maintaining my independence.  Eventually, my business relationship with the Stones returned to a ‘I make my own money and pay my own way’ policy.”

    “Under Their Thumb” isn’t the first book Bill German has been involved with the writing of.  In the mid-eighties, he co-wrote, “The Works” with Ronnie Wood.  While German didn’t make much money from his efforts, he undertook the task because he “was the only person who could write it.”

    German’s “Beggar’s Banquet” opened doors to other Stones-related gigs such as an article covering the band’s 1990 tour was published in Rolling Stone Magazine; a print interview with Keith Richards for Spin Magazine as well as for ABC Radio.  He was also asked to do a lot of “Stones reporting” for various other radio stations.

    When I asked Bill to name his best and worst experiences during his “Beggar’s Banquet” years, he good naturedly says, “Hey, Randy, I can write a book about it!  Oh, wait, I have!  In short, I'd say the best part was the mid-'80s, spending quality time with Keith and Ronnie; watching Stones jams at the recording studio or in Ronnie's kitchen and basement.  Feeling like there was no other place on earth I wanted to be.

    The lousy parts were dealing with the Stones' ‘machinery,’ as they became over-corporatized and a little too focused on the bottom line.  It left me pretty disenchanted.”

    Beggar's Banquet ceased publication in 1996.  However, German is offering the archives for sale at his website, BeggarsBanquetonline.com, for diehard fans.  I asked Bill why he stopped his labor of love.

    “There's the Stones-related reason, which I discuss in the previous answer.  The over-corporatization sucked the fun out of it and made it more difficult to find the man-bites-dog stories, which is a journalist's job) - too many people running interference.  But there were also financial, personal, and technological reasons: Making very little money, working 24-7 (feeling like I was always on call), and dealing with snail mail, postage stamps, printers, etc.  If the Web were around, it'd have saved me tons of time and energy.”

    When asked  if he’s still in contact with Keith or Ronnie, he offers, “Not in a while.  I did send Keith & Patti (Keith’s wife of 25 years) an advance copy of the book about a month ago, but wasn't expecting to hear back.”    Why?  “Keith ain't the type to send e-mail or grab the horn and call anybody.”  Continuing on, he adds, “I tried to reach Ronnie a few months back, but he was in rehab.  And now that he's out, he's moved in with his mistress/girlfriend, and I don't have his current contact info.”

    I asked Bill if, with the release of his book, he assumes that any relationship with the Stones is all but over.  He concedes that it’s highly unlikely that he will receive any congratulatory messages from the band’s Prince of Darkness.  One reason is that Bill gives his unvarnished view and interpretation of various events.  Some of those do not portray Jagger in the most flattering of ways.  The most nefarious of stories was recently splashed all over the New York Post.

    German says, “As hard as it may be for Stones fans to understand, I'd already detached myself from the Stones quite a bit in order to write this book (so that I could reflect on my memories.) That's combined with the fact that it's just not as easy as it used to be to hang out with them.  They've got families now, as well as more layers of intermediaries.  (Not to mention ever-changing phone numbers and hotel pseudonyms.) The book -- unintentionally -- comes off as a love letter to Keith and Ronnie, so we'll see what I hear from them.  As for Mick, I'm probably off his Christmas list.”

    I mentioned that I noticed in the Stones’s “Four Flicks” DVD collection, there are scenes that seem to strain at portraying the band as relatively clean family guys.  I asked German if this was an accurate image.  “I can't really comment, since I haven't hung out with them in a while.  Ron's obviously been in and out of rehab lately.  The only time I ever witnessed Mick do drugs was during that one night in Ron's basement (which of course is what the New York Post zoned in on).”

    Speaking of Ron Wood, I asked German to give his prediction as to whether or not Woody would come to his senses and live his grandchild-aged girlfriend and return to his lovely wife, Jo.  “Your guess is as good as mine, but I hope it's the former.  He wouldn't be alive today if it were not for her love, support, and vigilance.”

    After the promotional work for “Thumb” is complete, German has more literary work on his radar.  He says, “I've been approached to ghost-write the memoir of a famous rock photographer, but, whether or not I take on that project, I'd like to continue writing memoirs about other facets of my life.  As big a presence as the Stones had, they represent only a fraction of the unique people I've known in my life.”

    An engrossing page turner for Rolling Stones fans, “Under Their Thumb” is currently available at large bookstores everywhere.

  • Bob Gruen

    Posted March, 2010

     

    Bob Gruen @ MoMA Collage Exhibit © Mandi Newall

    Elvis. Aerosmith. Elton John. The Stones. Alice Cooper. Zeppelin. Lennon/Yoko. Dylan. Frampton.

    These artists and icons dominated my mind (besides girls) in my youth. Photo’s torn from my favorite rock magazines and posters purchased in the store (for the astronomical price of $1!) hung on my bedroom walls.

    The images are burned into the firmware of my mind. Their poses, grimaces and smiles frozen forever in their youth. The close that they were in the shots influenced how I dressed and looked. Jeans and jackets were purchased because of something similar Bob Dylan wore in a photo. Platform shoes? Thank you, Elton John. Hair? Thanks to a still shot of Mick Jagger in concert at Madison Square Garden, I started parting my longish hair in the middle, trying to feather it back just like Mick.

    What single thread runs through these memories? Many of the photos that hung on my walls, influenced my “look” and burned into my memory banks were taken by famous rock photographer, Bob Gruen.

    Gruen was destined for rock and roll. An avid fan of The Who in the sixties, they were the band that compelled him to join a crowd a half a million strong at a place called Yasgur’s Farm. There, he witnessed not only the band that he braved the crowds and eliments to see, but many other historic performances that made the Woodstock festival the stuff of legends.

    After Woodstock, Gruen eventually worked his way to the position of chief photographer for Rock Scene Magazine. This afforded him the coveted vantage point of creating candid photos of bands and artist on and off the stage. 

    Bob Gruen didn’t allow himself to be stuck in the seventies. His interest in the music scene allowed him to effortlessly go with the flow of changes in the sights and sounds of musical tastes. Gruen has covered almost every major act and artist the 70’s to today.

    I recently caught up with Bob Gruen, by phone, at his gallery in New York City. For some reason, I decided to start off the interview by asking Bob what career path he would’ve chosen had he not gone down the rock photographer path. As with his answer during the rest of our conversation, his answers are open, honest and transparent.

    “I have no idea. Well, the 60’s were a different time from now. Now, people really plan their future and their career. In the 60’s it was turn on, tune in and drop out. And that’s basically what I did. I wasn’t really thinking about a career. I didn’t really do very well in school and I didn’t have a major in college.

    “I had an older brother who was an overachiever who always got straight A’s and it kind of left me with not much will to succeed on that level – to compete on that level. So, I was living with a rock and roll band and having a good time. “

    So, the obvious question in your mind would be, why photography, so I asked.

    “Photography was always my hobby and I got pretty good at it. When the band got signed, they used my pictures for the publicity. I started meeting publicists for record companies and they started hiring me to take more and more pictures. It just worked out that way. 

    “I didn’t really have a plan to be a photographer in any specific sense – to be anything. A policeman, fireman, anything like that. I really didn’t have a plan. I was aimless.”

    Boy, weren’t we all!

    Having read his thoughts about attending Woodstock, I asked if he took any pictures while he was there.

    “I did, actually. I went as a fan of The Who and I like camping out. Me and a couple of friends went up there to have a good time. It’s funny, the pictures I took. I did take pictures of my friends inside our tent so I have some ‘head shots’ with a green tent behind them but they don’t show much of the festival. 

    “I did find a couple of dozen pictures of the festival that I took - a couple around my tent and a couple of the stage area. I didn’t take any of the acts. I wasn’t there to work in that sense. I hadn’t yet started getting into the music business yet.

    Last summer, a French magazine asked me to put down my memories from Woodstock. He (the editor) liked the idea that I was there as a fan and not working so I put together a story and put it up on my website (here.).

    I asked Bob if he attended the 40th anniversary festivities back in August of last year.

    “Not the 40th. No, we didn’t go – or the 30th. We went to, I think, the 25th. Not the one that turned into an overblown riot but the first reunion which turned into a drunken mess.  We left half way through it.

    “Actually, I went up the hill into Woodstock to see a real show. We saw The Fugs, with Alan Ginsberg, who were playing on the Saturday night of the festival. 

    All of us have stories of regrets and missed opportunities. I asked Gruen if there were any shots or gigs that got away from him that he regretted missing.

    “Oh, well, there are a lot of things I missed. I wish that I could have photographed Otis Redding but I started a little too late to connect with him. I met Jimi Hendrix once. He said, ‘We’ll meet again’ but he was wrong” he adds with a sad chuckle before concluding by saying, “But, other than that, I’ve pretty much met or photographed everybody that I wanted to.

    Lots of changes have happened both in the music business and in the world of photography in general. I asked Bob what he viewed as the most positive changes in his line of work.

    “Oh, well, the ease of delivery. We don’t have to rush to dupe slides and hire messengers and ship things to England overnight. The idea of making multiple prints and rush and having to get them out to all the different magazines . . . now we just e-mail scans. It’s a lot easier.”

    And the biggest negative change in his line of work?

    “Photography has gotten so easy that there’s tens of millions of people doing it!

    “It used to be that a photographer had to be somewhat nerdy – to be a bit of a tech guy. You had to focus and know what F stops and speeds meant. You had to be able to develop and print film. All of those things have been automated. Now, you just pick up your phone and push one more button and whatever you’re looking at can be seen around the world. That’s quite an advance.”

    Gruen had voiced his displeasure with websites like Flikr. I wanted to know, though, if he saw the internet as more of a positive or a negative in his industry.

    “Well, it negatively affects the work because people tend to think that everything they see on the internet is ‘free’. Content is what I’ve sold all my life. Everybody think it’s free. It’s similar to the downloading of music files, people just take pictures and move them from one site to another and use them any way they want without even thinking that they have to pay for it. So, this tremendously cuts into the income when people aren’t paying for your work.

    I thought for sure that the proliferation of music videos and concert DVD’s over the years would have hurt the photography trade. Bob’s insights into this area set me straight on that perception.

    “People tend to watch videos on YouTube or whatever. You can’t put YouTube on your wall unless you have a big screen on your wall. It recently came up in an article. There was an exhibit recently at the Brooklyn Museum of Art called ‘Who Shot Rock’. It’s about Rock Photography. The reviewer wrote that he felt that video was the better way to review it. We all could’ve been up in arms about that. 

    “Video hardly captured the excitement of rock and roll at all. To capture one peak moment in a still photograph that says so much about the energy and excitement, the mood of an artist - you can only do that in a photograph – a photograph that you can put on a wall and it’s just there. You feel the inspiration. Not like having to turn on a TV or to operate the machinery or video. I don’t think that video cuts into the still. The appreciation is still photo. “

    As stated earlier, Bob Gruen isn’t stuck in the past. I was curious, however, what his thoughts of the past are. His answer is both philosophical and reflective.

    “I respect the past and I think people should learn from the past but I don’t dwell in the past. I don’t wish that I could go back to Max’s. It’s like we shouldn’t even go back to high school. Some people do but I certainly don’t. I look forward , looking for new experiences.

    Fast-forwarding to the present, I asked Bob what bands and artists command his attention today. His response is instant.

    “Greenday. There are a few others that I enjoy. I’ve seen Courtney Love. She’s a riveting performer. You can’t take your eyes off of her. But Greenday is certainly the top band of the land. They’re the most powerful and meaningful band around. And the most fun, especially if you’ve ever seen them live. They’re the most fun band around today.

    “There’s a group here in New York that I like called The Sex Slaves. They’re very blunt and also a lot of fun. But there’s not a lot. I was never somebody who ever sought to follow every single group that ever existed and have an encyclopedic knowledge of it. I just follow what I like. I’m a fan. I mostly follow my friends or people friends recommend. I’m not out every night on the prowl looking for a new band.

    “I’m a bit older now. Thirty years ago it was fun for me to sit on a bus with 22 year olds who are getting drunk but it’s not really the same any more for me.” With a laugh, he adds, “I’m a grandfather nowadays, I prefer to spend time with my family.

    With the mention of his family, I commented on the fact that his son, Khris, is pursuing a little bit different route in the music business than his.

    “Yeah, he’s just finishing up his third CD, which should be out soon. He’s got his fans and he’s getting more and more popular.  He started kind of late – somewhat intimidated by my reputation. Also, my ex-wife married Joe Beck, the jazz guitar player, who is a world famous musician. And I think that, rather than encouraging Khris, it kind of held him back a bit because he felt he couldn’t on that kind of level. And I’m very happy to see that he’s doing very well on his own and enjoying it a lot.

    In the course of the conversation, I mention the use of his photo of John Lennon that graces the cover of Philip Norman’s biography of the man. It brought to mind the many others Bob Gruen had known because of his line of work. I asked him who are some of the people that he misses either due to their death or retirement from active life and what is it that you miss about them?

    “I miss Joe Strummer – being able to hang out with him and spend time with him. His shows were great. He was great. It was great fun. Whenever my wife and I would go out to dinner with Joe Strummer, we would have to remind each other to bring our sunglasses because we knew we weren’t coming back until after the sun was up. When you walk out of a bar at eight in the morning you NEED your sunglasses” he finishes with a laugh.

    “Of course, I miss John Lennon – hanging out with him. He was great. Every time I saw him, I felt that I learned something.   I miss a lot of people. I miss Johnny Thunders. Joey Ramone. But I make new friends. The Sex Slaves, Green Day. You move on. That’s the down side to living longer than your friends, missing them” he says with a chuckle.

    With so many accomplishments that he can point to, I asked Bob what he would like to achieve that he hasn’t already. His deadpan answer floored me.

    “Make a lot of money.”

    Say WHAT?! I thought rock photographers made a lot of money?

    “No, this is a VERY low budget operation! I don’t know if there was more than two or three times in my life when I started the month with enough money to finish it. I mean, I never had a cushion where I knew my bills were paid. I’ve always had to work every week to insure that I would have an income.

    “I think that people tend to think that if you hang out with Led Zeppelin or John Lennon that you have that kind of money – that you live on that kind of level rather than just visit. I visit. But then I come home to a small apartment in the Village. I don’t have a yacht. For many years I never even had a new car. Only recently, because my wife has an income and she shares with me am I able to lease a new car.

    “I’m doing much better than I used to. I’m at least leasing a new car rather than driving my old beaters. It’s a misconception that you live the high life and travel around and make a lot of money. Some photographers do. A few. Not many. 

    “Certain photographers working with a ‘boy band’ who sells dozens and dozens of pictures to every magazine around the world - if you have good access to them then you can make some good money. But, for most people shooting most bands, especially nowadays there are so many magazines and so many online so-called magazines that pay practically nothing because there are tens of thousands of people interested in photography since it got so easy. And many of them will just give away a picture for the credit.

    “So, though prices have increased ten-fold, payment for photographs haven’t increased much at all since the 70’s. If anything, it’s going down because of so many more people willing to just put it out there for credit.

    “And then other things like Corbis and Getty – the major photo agencies that are buying up the other smaller photo agencies in the world – they’re trying to own the content and so they’re purposely setting out to put photo agencies and photographers out of business by licensing photos at tremendously discounted rates. I mean, photos that we license for four or five hundred dollars, they license for five or ten dollars, literally that kind of difference. And to have to try and compete with those kinds of prices, we can’t. That’s the point: those kinds of companies want to put all of the other people out of business. They want to own all of the content for the future because content is king on the internet.”

    Wow! Who woulda thunk it?

    How about touring exhibits? I wanted to find out where I could see exhibitions featuring his art and if books were available featuring him.

    “I don’t really have a world-wide agent organizing that. I’m still pretty independent here. So, I only do a few exhibitions a year. I do have a some planned in June for London and, possibly, in the fall in Paris. My John Lennon book is going to come out in French next October in France. 

    “I just had a big collage piece of my work that was in the Museum of Modern Art over the last summer, but that’s over now. ‘Who Shot Rock’ is going to travel to five other museums. It may actually be down south there.

    “We’re also excited about getting the show together for the opening here in NY – I don’t even have the list of where it’s going. It closed here January 31st. But then I know that it’s going to travel to a few other places.

    “My website, BobGruen.com, directs people to most of the available things. My photos are available from several different galleries here in the states. There’s one in particular that does a lot of business online. My books, Clash is still in print but hard to get. John Lennon is still available. The New York Dolls book is available on Amazon or BarnesandNoble.com or whatever website people want to go to. 

    “The best collection of my work, called Rockers. Currently it’s only published in Brazil but it’s available on my website but it’s a little pricey because it’s heavy and we have to ship it. I think its $60 or $70 with the shipping. But that’s the biggest collection of my work.

    “I’m currently just beginning to work on a book that will be out in the fall 2011 that will be an American published collection of my work.”

    My time with Bob Gruen was quickly coming to a close and I had a couple of more questions that I just had to ask. One had to do with his thoughts about the artists’ he knew (other than Lennon) who are no longer with us.

    “Joe Strummer comes to mind first. I spent a lot of time with him. Joey Ramone. He was a wonderfully sweet guy. Johnny Thunders was a good friend.”

    What about the other artist who he wasn’t quite as close to?

    “Quite a lot of my photos were just done as jobs. They were friendly but not necessarily friends. You’re pleased to see each other but you don’t go out to dinner with each other. Some of them you develop friendships with. As in any business where you work with a lot of people there’s certain people that you hit it off with and wind up being friends with.

    “I was lucky in that way to have a number of good friends.”

    I thought I was wrapping up the interview by commenting as to how I thought it said a lot about him with the fact that he was able to develop the relationship and friendship with John Lennon and Yoko and that he still has the relationship with Yoko. Only expecting a “thank you” for the compliment, Gruen, instead, takes the opportunity to defend his good friend, Yoko Ono.

    “You know, Yoko’s been very maligned in the newspapers and in the press. With her new album in the past year, she’s got quite a bit of positive press. But, when people ask me what kind of women Yoko is, I always say that she’s the kind of women that John Lennon could marry.”

    Since he opened the door to discussing Yoko Ono, I asked Bob what he thought the biggest misconception about her was.

    “The biggest misconception? That she doesn’t have a sense of humor. John said that she’s the most famous unknown artist in the world. Everybody knows who she is but nobody knows what she does. And I think with her new album out, she’s getting a lot of press, she’s getting a lot of attention. More people are getting to see her perform and starting to get an idea of what a wonderfully open and how much humor her work has.

    “She’s quite prolific. On her website,Imagine Peace, she answers 10 to 15 questions every week from people all over the world. They just write in questions and she comes up with almost zen-like answers. She’s got a Twitter feed that she updates every few hours with, again, zen-like conceptual art ideas. She’s just fascinating.”

    Soon after, we wrapped up our chat. While going through the rest of my hectic schedule on that January day, I reflected on the gems that Bob Gruen gave me in the way of stories and quotes. I also realized that Bob still influences us today. Long gone is our ability to squeeze into hip-hugging bell-bottom jeans and whose feet can handle wearing platform shoes? And I don’t even want to go down the path of discussing my hair. 

    No, those are pains we can do without. However, while Bob’s work from the past brings us smiles and memories, his work today is creating new impressions that will stay with us for the rest of our days.

    Thank you, Bob Gruen, for all that you’ve done and are doing.

  • Bobby Keys

    Posted April, 2012

     

    Bobby Keys With the Stones in 2003. Courtesy of Jane Rose/BobbyKeys.net

    I’ve been a Rolling Stones fan since my teen years in the seventies. Tunes like Brown Sugar and Can’t You Hear Me Knockin’ (along with many other Stones tunes) commanded my attention on so many levels – especially the sax solos.

    Since those days, the sax figured prominently in other favorite Stones tunes like Miss You, the live version of Going To A Go-Go, to name a couple. Because of my appreciation of those solos, I became very aware of the man behind that sax: Bobby Keys

    What I wasn’t aware of until recent years – and especially until I read Keys’ autobiography, Every Night’s A Saturday Night, was the long list of other rock and roll royalty and their iconic tunes that he’s played on. Musical monsters like B.B. King, Carly Simon, Delaney & Bonnie, Eric Clapton, George Harrison, John Lennon, Joe Cocker and many, many, many others. Saturday Night is a wonderful read and you can catch the Boomerocity review of it here. But it bears repeating that the tone and feel of the book is very conversational. You get the feeling that you’re chillin’ in Bobby’s TV room, shootin’ the breeze and listening to him share a ton of stories of his life in the business.

    I recently called up Bobby at his Nashville area home. It was my first time to have the privilege of chatting with him. His warm, Texas/Southern drawl told me that he’s the kind of person that I can immediately connect with. He’s as country as cornbread and never meets a stranger – my kind of people.

    As we got down to starting our chat, I asked Keys how he liked Nashville.

    “Ah, man, I love the town! It’s just a rotten place for saxophone players – but I LOVEthe town, I really do! I like the people that live here and I have a lot friends that live here. There’s just not a lot of sax biz that goes on here. That’s nothing personal against me. Ha! Ha!”

    As we set the stage for what the chat would cover, I mentioned that I would not ask if his main gig, The Rolling Stones, were going to tour or not. I was startled that he gave me a comment about it anyway.

    “Boy, I hope they do! I tell ya what, I really hope they do! I honestly don’t know. I found that it’s best for me not to speculate – especially publicly. Every time I think that they’re gonna jump left, they jump right. I just had one little brief line from Keith. He just said that he’ll let me know. That’s the extent of it. I’ve learned after all these years – you know, I’ve been playing with the band since, I don’t know, ’69 – forty-three years – and in that time I’ve learned that speculation about what those guys are gonna do is no way, really, to base your future on what you think they’re gonna do. I think there’s a good possibility of it, are my own thoughts on it. I hope so!”

    We shifted our attention to Bobby’s book. Since the book is a tales-from-the-road kind of tome – sharing all sorts of funny stories, I asked him what the reaction has been to it.

    “Well, so far, it’s been really good. I went to New York about ten days ago and did a gig there with my band and also did a lot of media – some radio, interviews and stuff. It’s all been really, really good! When I finished speaking into a microphone – I didn’t do I any writing – you always wonder, ‘Well, I wonder what is gonna come of this – how are people going to receive it?’

    “It’s been very rewarding to me because I’ve had nobody come back at me – except one guy said that there wasn’t enough sex and drugs in it. The thing of it is is that scene has been pounded into the ground for years and years and years by everybody that’s ever written a book about the Rolling Stones. But most of them knew very little about the Rolling Stones. The thing that I like about the Stones is playin’ with them! I love their music and that’s what I wanted to talk more about in the book than anything else was the music.”

    When I commented about all the people he’s worked with over the years such as Buddy Holly, Bonnie Bramlett and a whole bunch of others, I told him that he struck me as the friggin’ Forrest Gump of rock and roll. He cackled out laughing and said, “Now there’s a hell of an analogy! That’s funnier ‘n hell!” Then, obviously turning to his wife who was in the room with him, he said, “He just called me the Forrest Gump of rock and roll! Ha! Ha! Ha!”

    After having a good laugh, I asked Forrest – er – Bobby who hasn’t he worked with that either he wishes he had before they passed away or, if they’re still alive, want to work with?

    “Well, you know, that’s a very good question. I’d like to work with Stevie Wonder – LOVEhis music, you know? I’d love to work with more of the Motown acts, too. But, you know, I’m really pretty happy with what’s happened and what’s happened has really been kinda the left hand of God puttin’ me through a lot of this stuff. I never really planned out any master scheme to achieve what I’ve achieved. I’ve just been in the right place at the right time with a saxophone and was able to do pretty much what needed to be done. It’s just the feel of the music and the way rock and roll had an impact on me.

    “When I heard Buddy Holly playing that guitar on the back of that flatbed wagon and Joe B. up there playin’ bass and J.I. playin’ drums, man! That had an impact on me. I fell into the saxophone by accident. It didn’t start out that way. I got hurt playing baseball and I couldn’t play football so I went into the band and all that jazz. Somebody else has been pullin’ the strings – I’ve just been dancin’! Ha! Ha!”

    Since I’m real partial to the great Bonnie Bramlett, I was stunned to read in Saturday Night that she was one of those originally considered for the female solo on Gimme Shelter. I told Keys that I would have spent his last tour check to have heard her sing that – not that Merry Clayton was any slouch on her solo, of course. That revelation prompted to ask, Bobby if, from where he sits, there any one thing that he feels should have been done majorly different on a Stones song and, if it had, would’ve changed rock history as we know it?

    “Huh! Well, I’ve never considered it but, personally, I’ve agreed pretty much what the Stones have done – at least during the times I’ve been recording with them and the tracks that I’ve played on - and, of course, with Jim Price. He was a big part of that, too! But, as for the Stones, one of the things I’ve always tried to get them to do is I’ve always wanted them to do an instrumental and put it on one of their albums. It was never seriously considered. I seriously considered it but the minute it got it out of my mouth the laughter didn’t die down for about two hours!

    “But, nah, I don’t think there’s anything that I would go back and change, particularly. But I tell ya, the way I play, I play a lot off of the other musicians. I listen to other elements – what the guitar is doing rhythmically. I’ll play along with that. I’ll pick something out of that strata or that level. I’m very much a rhythmic saxophone player so playing with the Rolling Stones is really fun for me!”

    Keys says in his book that he always viewed Keith Richards as a kindred spirit – that, if he wasn’t born in England, he would’ve had to be a Texan. I asked him to expound on that just a bit. He was laughing his genuine, infectious laugh as he said, “Well, I had him made an honorary Texan. I had the Texas flag flown over the Alamo on the day of his and mine birthday (they both have the same birth day). I knew some people in Texas who were associated with the Texas Historical Society so I had them fly the Texas flag over the Alamo on December the 18th, got it documented and sent it to Keith, hoping it would finally induce him to take into consideration about coming down to Dallas and joining the team! Ha! Ha!”

    Since we were on the subject of Keef, I asked Bobby what the least understood thing is about the Stones guitarist. Without even a nanosecond of hesitation Bobby said, “His temperament. This is a guy, man, that goes out of his way to save the life of a little stray dawg in Russia. Keith is portrayed as a dark person, more or less and he’s anythingbut that! He’s one of the funniest sumbitches I’ve ever known in my life, man! 

    “Some people look at him as having his blood changed at some Transylvanian medieval castle, you know? Those people are not going to believe anything I say. I mean, I’ve met people in bars in hotels we’ve stayed and they’ll go, ‘How about that Keith Richards thang? Were you with him when he had his blood changed?’ and I’d go, “No, man, the guy didn’t have his blood changed!’ They’d say, ‘Ah, man, you can’t say anything about it, huh?’ It doesn’t make any difference how many times I say somethin’ ain’t right, they ain’t gonna believe me anyway. But the guys a sweetheart and chicks dig him for some reason! They really like him - chicks and critters! Ha! Ha!”

    A Boomerocity reader wondered how it worked out that Keith just let Bobby write his own side of the stories in Keith’s book - like maybe, Keith, "Hey Bobby, man I don't remember any of that, here why don't you write the story?"  Here’s Keys’ take on how that all happened.

    “He’s got a hideaway sort of place down in Turks and Caicos Islands and the writer, James Fox, was going down there to talk to Keith. I was asked to go down there. I spent five days down there. Keith would be in the same room. I’m not bashful, man. James Fox just asked me questions and I gave him answers. Keith didn’t say anything like, ‘No, I’d rather you not say this. Maybe not touch on that.’ He didn’t say anything about what I said. He said, ‘Just talk to James Fox and tell him whatever he wants to know.’ And that’s exactlywhat I did! I answered James Fox’s questions and we spent a lot of time talking over a period of a couple of days.

    “But it’s easy to talk about Keith. He’s a pretty memorable fella! I’ve been around him sometimes when it got verymemorable but the thing I remember about him and the most important thing is that he’s the most honest sumbitch and the best damn guitar player. I love playing music with Keith! He’s just got a feel for it that I can really relate to.”

    Success and failure are often determined by the opportunities grabbed or passed on and Bobby has certainly jumped at lots of great opportunities that have brought him to where he is today. Is there a particular song or album that he had a chance to work on and, for whatever reason, didn’t or couldn’t and now looks back and says, “Crap!”

    “Well, shoot! Let’s see. Well, of course, during the recording of Exile on Main Street, George Harrison did his Concert for Bangladesh gig. Jim Price and I had played on the All Things Must Passalbum from which he (Harrison) took most of the material to play at that concert. Anyway, he invited Jim and I to go play at the concert. I thought it was for a real good cause and I wanted to go do it and Jim wanted to go do it but we had already obligated ourselves to work there in the South of France. I would’ve always liked to have been there for that. It’s not like a great big, huge hole in my life because I wasn’t. I was having a pretty good time down in the South of France.

    “Also, not that it ever would’ve happened, I would’ve liked to have played some live stuff with John Lennon. I really loved him - and Harry Nilsson! I tried and tried and tried to get Harry to do a live gig but he was dead-set against it. He never did do a live gig. He did one video.”

    Bringing a little levity to the conversation (as if we needed any more), I interjected that, according to his book, he did manage to provide a frog sound on one of Yoko Ono’s albums to which he chuckled, “Oh, yeah, man, that was indeed a red letter day! There, again, man, some hand of Providence touched me there because I had no idea what I was gonna do. I was looking at John like, ‘Hey, man, give me some feedback here, son! Help me!’ He just looked at me and rolled his eyes like, ‘You got this one all by yourself, Bobby!’

    During my recent interview with Keys’ fellow Stones band mate,Chuck Leavell, I told him that I was working on an interview with Keys. He had this to say about Bobby and his book: “Bobby is a great friend of mine. We are ‘Southern Brothers’ - he from Texas and me from Alabama. We talk a lot about both on tour and off.  I'm so glad he is getting his story out there. It is a remarkable story. He has played with so many icons . . . John Lennon, Bonnie and Delaney, The Stones, the Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour and so much more. He has so many great experiences to tell about. I can't wait to get my copy!”

    At the time of my chat with Keys, I hadn’t yet these comments with him. However, I asked him what his thoughts were of the Stones keyboardist.

    “Oh, yeah, I’ve got lots of good thoughts about Chuck! One thing is he’s a brother from the south! So, we’re both brothers of the Confederacy. Heh! Heh! I believe that the earth is a southern planet! Ha! Ha!

    “Before I met Chuck I knew his name and was aware of his work, man! He stepped into some pretty big shoes and just by virtue of the fact that was, more or less, recommended by Ian Stewart – whose opinion really resonates with all the members of the Stones, I can tell you that – or it did before Stu died. Chuck stepped into a situation, man, where he had a lot of bases to cover that hadn’t been covered before. All of a sudden he was actually the musical director on the stage. He was the one that was in charge of going in and making sure that the songs were the correct tempo and that everybody started and ended at the same place which, generally, didn’t take a whole lot. But he brought together a lot of people. It’s a big band. I think there’s 13 or 14 of us counting the singers and horn players. Chuck has to walk a pretty tight line, sometimes, between the camps of Keith and Mick. He’s very much a southern diplomat to be able to do that because many have tried and few were successful.”

    With a well received book now under his belt and waiting to hear if the bad boys of rock and roll are going to tour, I asked Bobby if he was going to come out with a solo CD.

    “Yeah, well, actually, the guys I play with here in town – we call ourselves The Suffering Bastards – we’ve been into the studio. We’ve got four tracks that we’ve recorded and we’re probably going to be doing some more future gigs we’ll be having a CD available pretty soon online and at the gigs we play.”

    And when Keys boards that great tour plane to heaven, what does he hope his legacy will be and how does he want to be remembered?

    “A guy who loved rock n’ roll music.”

    It’s Bobby Keys’ love of rock and roll music that has allowed him to be a lively part of the soundtrack of our youth that continues to play to this very day. Somehow, I have this sneakin’ hunch – I just know it in my knower – that Bobby is going to be on many more great rock tunes to come. 

  • Chuck Leavell Discusses Back To The Woods

    Posted March, 2012

    If you’ve been following Boomerocity at all, you know that we’re absolutely nuts over Rose Lane and Chuck Leavell.  We have them placed on a very high pedestal for a lot of reasons – reasons such as their strong marriage (38 years and counting), their devotion to family as well as the incredible work in forestry and conservation.

    Of course, in the world of music, Chuck Leavell is one of THE class acts in rock and roll.  As noted in our interview with Chuck just slightly over a year ago (here), this man has tickled the ivories with the biggest names in rock and roll, R&B, country and other genres.  When you add to all of that his autobiography (Between Rock and a Home Place) and his books on forestry and conservation, I’d say that all of these accomplishments pretty much put Mr. Leavell in line for nomination into the Renaissance Man Hall of Fame.

    Leavell is now carving out yet another niche of excellence with his homage to the early greats of the blues piano via his latest album, Back To The Woods. If you love blues – and if you love piano – then you’re going to absolutely love this album and can read the Boomerocity review of it here.

    Chuck was kind enough to send me a review copy of Woods and before I could even finish my first pass at the disc, I fired off a note to him asking if we could chat about the album.  Ever the gentleman, he obliged.

    Before we hunkered down to chatting about Back To The Woods, I asked Leavell how things were going at the beautiful Charlane Plantation (which is on my bucket to visit). Not surprisingly, his response exhibited his love for not only the property but also the work associated with it.

    “We're doing great here. We had the best quail hunting season we've ever had, and in spite of the drought of 2011 (we were about 12 inches under for rainfall for the year), our forest and wildlife habitat are in fine shape. We have also started to experiment with retreats from time to time, which amounts to offering a few days here for folks to relax, take a forestry tour, walk our nature trail, paint (my wife, Rose Lane, is an artist), do photography, whatever…and be well fed in the process. We post the offerings on our site: www.charlane.com. We love what we do here and are very passionate about it.”

    When I asked him if he was happy with how his conservation work was going, with a healthy, balanced pride he said, “Very much so. The US Forest Service recently gave me an Honorary Ranger Award, which is as good - or better - than the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award we just got for the Allman Brothers Band. Chief Tom Tidwell came down to Atlanta to present it to me, along with about 100 uniformed Rangers in attendance. It was a very special day for me.

    “Also, we continue to grow at our environmental website, The Mother Nature Network (www.mnn.com). We are getting over 4 million visits a month, and recently passed the EPA in visits per month. MNN gives me a wonderful platform to keep folks in tune with environmental issues of all kinds - whether it's recycling, energy use, community and/or personal responsibility issues, we cover it all.

    “My recent book, Growing A Better America, is doing well and can now be found in over 20 airports across the country as well as online on my site, www.chuckleavell.com, Amazon, Barnes and Nobel, etc. So I continue to get my messages out there as best and as often as possible.”

    As we shifted gears to discuss Back To the Woods, I unashamedly gushed that my two favorites from the album are Loosing Hand and Boots and Shoes. I asked Chuck what drove him to tackle such a project.

    “It came at the suggestion of my son-in-law, Steve Bransford. Steve is a wonderful guy, and oh so smart. He is a PhD graduate from Emory University in Atlanta. His discipline is American History with an emphasis on visual arts and roots music. How cool is that? So Steve comes to me a little over a year ago and says, 'You know, there has been a lot of projects that celebrate folks like blues guitar players, blues songwriters and singers, jazz figures and such, but to my knowledge, no one has paid tribute to the early blues piano players . . . and I think you are the guy to do it’ and he hands me 3 CDs of some 150 early recordings to listen to. Much of it I was already aware of, but quite a lot of it was new to me.

    “So I began listening and eventually selected about 50 songs that I thought would be appropriate for me to interpret. From there, we culled it down to 15 for the project. These are mostly unknown or little known names - Leroy Carr, Little Brother Montgomery, Skip James - although we did cover an Otis Spann song and a very early Ray Charles song, both of which you mentioned. Losing Hand was recorded by Ray in 1953, I believe, and Boots and Shoes, the Spann track, was the most recent song in terms of the project - somewhere around 1963. Most of the other recordings we covered were pre-war era.”

    In explaining how working on Woods was different to work on than any of the previous albums - solo or otherwise – Chuck said, “It has this particular focus of paying homage to these blues pianists. We have a 16 page booklet in the package that gives some history of these artists, and explain the role of the piano during this period in American history. In terms of the music itself, my intention was to interpret them in a more modern setting, more modern arrangements…but keeping the essence of the songs intact. In doing that, it shows how these players have influenced my own style. It was a very targeted project.”

    Knowing that Leavell’s musical education is both broad and deep, I asked him how much of the music on Woods inspired him early in his career and how much of it he’s discovered later on in life.

    “Most of this music I discovered later in my career but I started listening to Ray Charles quite early on. My parents had some of his records and I just loved them. When I was about 13 I went with my sister, Judy, to a Ray Charles concert in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, where we grew up. It totally changed my life. I was already playing piano and guitar and that night I decided that I wanted to be a musician for the rest of my life.

    “Ray is still my true musical hero. The other artists came later for me.  Otis Spann played quite a lot with Muddy Waters and other Chicago blues artists. I probably started listening to that stuff when I was 17 or so. The more obscure artists on our project I probably became aware of around the early 70's and beyond. Hey! I'm still a student!”

    Like many of you, I can’t just listen to an album and enjoy the music.  I have to know not only who played on an album but who engineered it, where all it was recorded and, if the songs aren’t written by the recording artists, how did they come about selecting other peoples songs to record.  In the case of Back To The Woods, I was also curious as to how Chuck decided who would play on which songs.  For instance, did John Mayer say, "Hey!  I want to play on Wish Me Well and Boots and Shoes!"?

    “We were so fortunate to get them. Starting with Keith, I contacted him and he agreed to play on it, but I would have to do it in NY. As I was calling around to try and find a studio, I contacted John's right hand guy, Ken Helie. I had already been working with John on his record at Electric Lady Studios up there. I asked Ken if he had a contact at ELS for me to book some time. He came back to me to say that John would be happy for me to use some of his time that he had blocked out.

    “So that begged the question would John come and play, too? He agreed, and we got them both in the same day. It was so great. But before I got them, we had recorded most of the tracks in my friend Jim Hawkins' studio in Athens, Georgia, with a core band of me, Chris Enghauser on stand up bass and Louis Romonos on drums. Steve, my son-in-law and co-producer with me, suggested we invite Danny Barnes to come in. Danny is amazing, and I love his solo work. If you don't know him, you gotta check him out. His latest is called Rocket. Danny is multi-instrumental - plays guitar, banjo, tuba and more. He plays all of that on the record and also sings a duet with me on the Leroy Carr tune Memphis Town and does the lead vocal on Naptown Blues, a Carr song about the city of Indianapolis.

    “Steve also suggested getting Col. Bruce Hampton on Got To Go Blues and Candi Staton on a duet with me on Mean Mistreater. Candi does lead vocal on The Blues Is All Wrong. Then I got my old pals Randall Bramblett and Davis Causey on some tracks to round it out. We had so much fun!”

    >


    With Chuck’s mention of Candi Staton, I was reminded of her great gospel work in the 80’s so I asked him to expound on her inclusion on the album.

    “We were looking for a ‘female foil’ for me on a couple of songs. We tried to get Susan Tedeschi, but she was busy. Then we tried to get Grace Potter she showed interested, but she was also too busy to get to it. So Steve told me ‘do you remember Candi Staton? She lives near here’. I loved that idea. She had some great R & B hits in the late 60's and early 70's before she turned to mostly gospel, as you note. She came in and just nailed it. I'm booked for the New Orleans Jazz Fest on April 27th, and have secured Bonnie Bramlett to sing with me on the gig. She is great and I can't wait to do that gig. I'm bringing in Danny Barnes as well, and Randall's band will be the core.

    Concluding his comments about the actual recording of the album, Leavell adds, “Danny, Candi, Col Bruce, Randall and Davis were all done in Athens . . . but Keith and John were done in NY as noted previously.”

    Do any of these tunes generate special memories or have special meaning for Chuck?

    “Well, they all throw you back in time. I love the Ray tune, Losing Hand. Classic Ray when he was focusing more on blues than jazz, pop or country as he did later in his career. Pure blues, and he was a master.  I love the Little Brother Montgomery stuff, too, especially Vicksburg Blues, which I do on my own, piano and vocal. It is such a plaintive song and you can just feel the pain he's going through. I've been a Memphis Slim fan for a long time and getting John to play on Wish Me Well was perfect. He killed it. It was all a wonderful journey for me.”

    Piggy-backing on this same vein of thought, I asked Leavell if he knew if any of the tunes on the album had special meaning to any of his guest artists.

    Sure. Danny and Keith are both very well aware of most of this stuff - especially the Leroy Carr and Scrapper Blackwell (guitar) recordings. Danny and I actually talked about doing some Carr/Blackwell stuff a while back, but it didn't happen until I put this together.  A lot of what we unearthed was not known to the players and the guests - even me - until Steve turned me on to them. I'd never heard of Barrel House Buck McFarland, Leona Manning, Jesse James and some of the others.

    As I’ve said in other interviews, I quit asking an artist if they had a favorite song on their album – especially if they wrote the tunes themselves.  However, many artists feel that there’s a particular song that serves as a calling card, if you will, for the rest of the album.  When I asked Chuck if he felt there’s such a song on Woods, he replied, “Ouch! That is a tough one, and a bit unfair to ask. It's like picking a favorite child. I guess if you push me to the wall, since Ray Charles is still my hero, I'd point to Losing Hand, but they are all about equal to me.

    As to the question of whether he will be supporting the disc with any public performances or touring, in answering it Leavell shared some insight into the recent announcement by John Mayer that he was cancelling his scheduled tour and how that impacted him.

    “Well, at present we all know that I was supposed to tour with John Mayer this year. We had put together a fantastic band, and I had worked on his new release, Born and Raised, over the course of the last year. I think it's a wonderful piece of work, and we were all (including John) so looking forward to the tour.

    “But then his throat problem, a thing called a granuloma which is kind of like a blister growth in between his vocal chords, returned after his surgery and 4 months of treatment and recovery. We were in LA just in our fourth day of rehearsals - all going so great when he began to struggle. He saw his Dr. that evening and we all got the bad news:  the tour had to be cancelled.

    “It was a big blow to all of us, but especially for John. We'll all be fine, and I'm grateful that I got to play on Born and Raised, which is now out and that I got to do Back To The Woods. So yes, I'll be focusing on that now. We're still reeling from the cancellation now and I'm starting to sort out ‘Plan B’. But life goes on, and things will take their natural course. I know we all send love to John and hopes for a full recovery down the road. He's a very special man and a very special talent.

    As we wrapped up our chat, I asked Chuck if it was too soon to ask what's next from him in the way of books, CDs (like, maybe, a follow up to Woods?) and/or DVDs.

    “I'll do some dates of my own to promote Back, I'll spend some time on MNN business, and I'll be able to do work on Charlane Plantation. I'm also in discussions with a writing partner to do a book about musicians that have played a significant role with a band or artist, but that are little known names. I had the pleasure recently to be in Billy Bob Thornton's next film, Jayne Mansfield's Car. I have two short cameos in it - one where I'm playing in a band at a street party and another in a barber shop where I deliver a line to Robert Duval. It was a real hoot, and I'm grateful to Billy for including me. He's a good friend and a great guy. The film will probably come out in the fall of this year, but no solid release date yet. It's a great script with some fine actors. Billy is in it as well as having co-witten and directed it. Kevin Bacon, John Hurt and others. I'll also start thinking about my next musical project - maybe a country record . . . not sure yet.”

    Then, closing with just a bit of a tease, Chuck adds, “And of course there are those Brits that might decide to come out of hiding one of these days. We'll see. One day at a time.”

    Now, who do you suppose Chuck would be referring to?

  • Chuck Leavell Interview 2011

    Posted January/February, 2011

    Photo Courtesy of Chuck Leavell

    The Allman Brothers. Don McLean. Bonnie Bramlett. Marshall Tucker Band. Charlie Daniels. Sea Level. Aretha Franklin. Chuck Berry. Dion. Gov't Mule. The Black Crowes.  Eric Clapton. Larry Carlton. George Harrison. Rolling Stones.

    How would you feel if those names were on your resume in some form or fashion?  I can tell you that if my resume had those names, my head would swell to twice the size of Texas.

    Chuck Leavell’s resume includes those names and many, many more. When you add to that the credentials of an expert forester, conservationist, author, husband, father, and grandfather and you get an idea of who the man really is.  All of that and, yet, his head retains its normal size and shape.

    How does he do it?  I don’t know but my head did swell just a little bit when I had the good fortune of posing a few questions to the legendary keyboardist.  I pursued an interview with Leavell after reading his 2004 book, Between Rock and a Home Place. As a huge Rolling Stones fan, I, of course, knew about of Chuck’s monumental work with the band and with his own band, Sea Level.  I just wasn’t aware of the huge volume of other work he’s associated with.

    I was also aware of his conservation work – especially at his beautiful home, the family tree farm known as Charlane Plantation. The plantation, in the family since 1932, was inherited by Chuck’s lovely wife of 37 year, Rose Lane, after the passing of her grandmother.   After working their way out of onerous inheritance taxes, Rose Lane and Chuck have developed a thriving, successful tree farm that also hosts hunting and other kinds of retreats.

    It was about Charlane Plantation that I opened the discussion with Leavell, asking about what were the latest developments at the farm.

    “We are always working on our place. My wife, Rose Lane, says it means ‘job security’ for me as I will never get done! Currently we have a good bit of maintenance going on. We’ve just started renovating the exterior of our horse barn, the upstairs of which serves as Rose Lane’s art studio. We built the barn some 18 years ago using lumber that was taken from our own trees . . . mostly ones that were dead or dying… and it’s time to polish it up some.

    “We also just finished renovating an old tenant house into a nice guesthouse. We’ve built most all of our structures out of our own wood, and most of the renovations we’ve done to our existing structures as well. It’s quite a good and special feeling to look at them, walk through them and say… ‘yeah, that came

    Chuck Leavell With Grandson, Miles - Courtesy of Chuck Leavell

    from our own grounds’ . . . and to think that our grandchildren and future generations will be saying ‘our grandparents (or great-grandparents) built that back in 1990’, or whenever we built or renovated any particular structure on our place.

    “Of course, we’re always working in the woods, too. We did some light thinning of a few areas last year that had yet to be thinned - sort of like weeding the garden. We probably touched on 150 acres or so, opening the stands up to a slightly wider spacing, which will help the trees left standing grow much better and faster. It also helps encourage natural grasses, weeds and legumes to grow better underneath the stands, making it more attractive for wildlife.

    “We are in the middle of our hunting season, and January and February are booked pretty solid with our traditional southern quail hunts. I’ve been working some new dogs, which I love doing…so there has been quite a lot going on.”

    When I asked if he was the Ted Nugent of Georgia, Chuck’s response polite but direct.

    “With all due respect to Nugent, he’s an ethical and expert outdoorsman, but he’s a bit radical for me. I try to take a more gentle and gentlemanly approach to our hunting. As far as what we offer the public, it’s again, the traditional southern quail hunts, from November through the end of February. We have the jeeps, dogs, excellent guides and have a top notch and top class operation. We have several comfortable accommodations. Our lodge was built about 8 years ago, again, with our own resources and we renovated a historic 1830’s home back in the early 90’s that we use as well.

    “Rose Lane directs our staff in terms of the food, etc. and we have lots of repeat clients year after year. During the off season, we offer ‘retreats’ from time to time. Since Rose Lane is an excellent artist, some of these are centered around art. But some folks like to come just to be in the country, take a tour, walk our nature trail and such. We enjoy sharing our place and meeting new people, helping them to understand and appreciate nature and conservation issues. It makes for a good balance with our ‘other life’ of rock and roll.”

    Leavell wrote in his book, Between Rock and a Home Place, that, because of the predatory nature of our rich Uncle Sam’s inheritance tax code, he and Rose Lane had to sell off a big chunk of the original plantation.  In the seven years since that book was published, I asked if they were able to re-purchase the property.

    “No, that property was in another county, about 50 miles from us. It was about 300 acres of land that Rose Lane’s grandfather had passed on down. It was heartbreaking and really hurt to have to sell it, but we didn’t see any other way out at the time. While we’ve never recovered that tract, the good news is that through the years we have been able to acquire more land, much of which was adjacent to us. Rose Lane inherited about 1100 acres back in 1981 and we now have about 2500 acres, 1800 that is contiguous to her inheritance.”

    Before shifting my questioning to his other conservation endeavors, I asked Leavell what their long term plans for Charlane were.

    “We will continue to manage it as best we know how, and to share it with others through our hunts and retreats. Of course, I would love to continue to expand it, but it’s getting really hard to do because of how expensive land is. While the housing market across America has been hit hard as we all know - and prices for normal housing has dipped - that has not been the case for most timberlands, agricultural lands and recreational lands. It takes a lot of resources to purchase these kinds of lands and to maintain them. But I’m always hopeful that we can find select opportunities. We all know that old phrase, ‘land rich and cash poor’. That applies to a lot of landowners I know. I don’t think anyone would be impressed with our bank account but I’d rather have the land than bits of paper.”

    Chuck is a self-taught forestry expert, having begun his studies while touring with The Fabulous Thunderbirds.  Since then, he’s gained much respect and notoriety as an expert in forestry and conservation, having been award many awards and acknowledgements.  He’s also written two books on the subject with a third on the way.

    Before venturing into the finer points of this field of his expertise, I swallowed my pride and asked Leavell what the difference was between a conservationist and an environmentalist.

    “It’s a good question. I like to think that we are both. The definition of conservation is, in part, ‘The action of conserving something, in particular protection, or restoration of the natural environment, natural ecosystems, vegetation, and wildlife; the preservation, repair, and prevention of deterioration of archaeological, historical, and cultural sites and artifacts; and the prevention of excessive or wasteful use of a resource.

    “In a nutshell, I think it means to be wise and careful with the resources that you have - to practice a sort of sustainability. I tell people that trees are an organic, natural and renewable resource. We all use things that come from trees every day of our lives - wood furniture, our homes, musical instruments, books, and so many other things. As a conservationist, I want to use this resource for these many fine things but I want to make sure that I am doing it in a way that is conserving the resource - that is, in a way that will assure me it will always be there.

    “As for the word ‘environmentalist’, the definition in part is: A person who is concerned with or advocates the protection of the environment . . . who considers that environment, as opposed to heredity, has the primary influence on the development of a person or group.

    “This can get a bit complicated, and the ‘catch’ is how far you take the second part of the above definition. I certainly care deeply about our environment and want to keep it healthy and vibrant. But when it comes to making certain decisions about what to do with our lands and how that affects us as humans, hard choices have to be made from time to time. We all have to have places to live, to work, for our kids to go to school, etc. So, while it might not be the best thing for our environment to build such structures, or to build more highways, rail systems, expand airports and such, it’s inevitable that we are going to do it. We have to make compromises.

    “Actually, this is the subject of my new book, Growing A Better America, that will be out in mid March of this year. It’s about making careful and thoughtful choices about how we are going to grow. We have 310 million people in our country now, and predictions are that we’ll have 400 million around 2040. There are about 6.8 billion on the planet, and predictions are to have 9 billion by 2045. We are going to have to make some critical choices about accommodating that kind of growth, and how that will affect our environment.

    “My book talks about ‘smart growth’, and looks at positive models of community design, community expansion and such. I get in to energy issues; transportation issues; keeping our carbon footprint as low as possible; preserving natural areas when possible; the importance of green spaces in our metropolitan areas and much, much more.

    “I know that’s a long answer, but I think it’s important that people have an understanding of these things.”

    Chuck Leavell With The Rolling Stones - Courtesy of Chuck Leavell

    As a direct result of Chuck’s incredible accomplishments in conservation and forestry, he co-founded The Mother Nature Network and serves as its the Director of Environmental Affairs.  When I asked what the latest developments are at MNN, he answers with the same kind of pride as he does when speaking of Charlane or his musical work.

    “MNN has been a phenomenal journey for me. My partner, Joel Babbit, had the idea to build the site and asked me to participate. He has had a life long successful career in public relations and advertising, serving really big clients like Coca-Cola, Dell Computer and others. We’ve been friends for a while, and he came to me one day saying that his clients wanted to get out to the public over the Internet all the things they were doing to “green” their businesses. And by the way, these companies and all the companies that are sponsors with MNN are doing some great things in that regard.

    “Anyway, Joel did not feel comfortable with any of the existing environmental sites in terms of placing ads and getting messages out on behalf of his clients. After discussing it in depth and doing a lot of research, we looked at each other and sort of said at the same time: ‘should we build it?’ So, we did.

    “Through Joel’s connections, we raised commitments of up to ten million dollars to get started. He resigned his position as CEO of GCI, a huge firm he was heading up, and we went to work. We hired really talented and dedicated enviro-journalists, website developers and other staff and opened our offices in Atlanta. We launched in January of 2008 on a wing and a prayer. Since then we have grown from a ranking of something like number 7,200 on the list of environmental websites to be the number one most visited independent environmental site in the world.

    “I have to give credit to our incredible staff.  We have really great folks - about 25 at present - working for us. Joel and I are elated with the progress. The last numbers I had are that we are getting over 2 million unique visits a month, and about 12 million page views per month and still climbing each month. We actually became profitable towards the end of last year, which is quite amazing for any website in 2 years time. We thought it would take at least 5 years to get into the black, so we’re thrilled.”

    With public discourse often dominated by subjects to protecting and preserving the environment, I asked if there is anything that keeps him awake at night from a conservation perspective.

    “There are a lot of things that I’m concerned about. I described some of that in talking about my new book, but in terms of forestry alone, I have many worries. One is that we have seen a great deal of our industry move offshore in the past 10 years or so. This is for many reasons. Like so many other industries, companies find that labor is cheaper in other countries; there is less regulation in other countries; less cost for construction, cheaper land and so forth.

    “I’m not suggesting that we should do the same thing some of these countries are doing, because some of their practices are not good for the environment and somewhat suppressive on their labor force. But any way you look at it, it has caused a huge drop in US forestry markets. What people have to understand about this is that to a degree, it’s ‘use it or lose it’. In other words, if folks like me and so many other family forest landowners don’t have a decent market, there is no good reason for us to keep our lands in trees. So when that happens, families begin to sell their lands. They can’t afford to pay the taxes, the upkeep, etc. and they are backed up against a wall. I’m not saying it’s that bad at the moment, but if the markets for wood keep going down it will definitely get that bad.

    “Other concerns include that tax structure for forest lands, the uncertainty of biomass and carbon markets, the pressures of growth and development, outbreak of diseases and insects, severe weather events and more.”

    Before moving my questions to music related subjects, I asked Leavell what homeowners, or those who don’t even own a home, can do to green up America and the world from a forestry perspective.

    “Anyone can plant a tree. There are many programs around the country where they give out trees to people. Plant a tree in your yard, your neighborhood, your school, your church. I also encourage people to conserve. Turn out the lights when not in use, set the thermostat at a reasonable temperature, drive less when you can and walk or bike to work. Talk to your neighbors about keeping your parks in good shape. Consider buying Energy Star appliances when you need to replace your refrigerator, washing machine, dryer, whatever. I give a lot of these and much, much more in Growing A Better America.

    Chuck Leavell has played keyboard for the Rolling Stones for almost 30 years. As I said at the beginning of this interview, he has also played with other of the biggest names in rock. What many people may not know is that he has also produced several solo albums and is working on a new solo project. I asked Chuck about the album.

    “The working title is Back To The Woods and it is a tribute to pioneering blues piano players from the 30s/40s/50s era. Most of the songs come from artists that are little known: Little Brother Montgomery, Skip James, Leroy Carr, Jesse James and others. I did do a very early Ray Charles track called Losing Hand, and an Otis Spann tune called Boots and Shoes, but those would be the two best-known names.

    “I’ve been recording it up in Athens, Georgia, at Jim Hawkins’ studio. Jim was a principal engineer at Capricorn Studios back in the 70’s and actually built Capricorn in part. He has a nice, comfortable space in Athens now. I used Chris Enghauser on stand up bass and Louis Romanos on drums - both live in Athens and are great players. So far I have Danny Barnes (renown banjo player and guitarist), (guitarist) Bruce Hampton and Randall Bramblett (Sea Level, Traffic, Steve Winwood, Levon Helm and Bonnie Raitt, among others) as guest artists, and have some commitments from others, including Keith Richards. I’m about 80% done with it and hope to finish it by March. No release date yet, but probably May or June.


    In describing his solo work, Leavell says, “Well, I am first and foremost a piano player. That’s what most of my own CDs center around. I might throw in a bit of Hammond B-3 or Wurlitzer now and again, but it’s mostly piano. In terms of style, I’ve been influenced by a wide range of great players, and I think my style reflects that. You’ll hear tinges of blues, rock, jazz, and country, but hopefully you’ll say ‘that sounds like Chuck’.

    “It takes a long time to develop your own sound and style as a player, and hopefully I’ve done that. I don’t think of myself as some ‘master’ player - just an honest one. I do my best to paint pictures with the notes I play - to project emotion, color, and feeling. That’s about the best I can do to describe myself. Perhaps descriptions are best left to others.

    Early in his book, Between Rock and a Home Place, Chuck shared how his late mom talked to him about how he played his music, leading him towards how to inject various feelings into the sounds he produced on the piano. When I asked Leavell if he still feels that she still “speaks” to him today in how he plays today, his reply was short, sweet and from the depths of his heart.

    "Every day, in every note I play."

    From a fan’s perspective, it’s hard for me to think that, with the musical resume that Chuck has, there would be anything left that he hasn’t done musically. However, I had to ask him what he hasn’t done that he would still like to do.

    “Fortunately, I’m still getting calls to work with other artists. I still love working with those I’ve worked with in the past, but also like the challenge of working with those I haven’t. Recently I recorded with John Mayer in NY for a week. Fantastic session, fantastic artist. I hope I get another round with John some time this year. Next week I record for about 10 days with Martina McBride. So, I just take it one day at a time and hope the phone keeps ringing! Of course I’ll continue to do my own stuff as well. I know the Stones have been contemplating their options, but they have not come to any final decisions, so we’ll all have to wait on that. I can tell you that I’m ready when they are.”

    Photo Courtesy of Chuck Leavell

    Later, Chuck said about his contribution to the Mayer disc, “It was mostly Hammond B-3, but I did play a bit of Whurly and a pump organ on a couple of things. John is an amazing talent. He wrote three of the songs we did right on the spot. He’s got tremendous and infectious energy.”

    I don’t know what on earth possessed me to do this, but I dropped some names from Chuck’s musical past and asked him to share what comes to mind regarding his thoughts about the following musical greats:

     Ray Charles: “The MASTER. Probably my main influence.”

     George Harrison: “One of the sweetest guys on the planet. Truly as great a humanitarian as he was a singer/songwriter/performer.”

     Duane Allman: “Changed the direction of the electric guitar with his slide playing. Never got to know him personally, but always admired him and heard him play many times. Unquestioned and unbridled passion in his playing.”

     Eric Clapton: “Well, he’s Eric Clapton, isn’t he?! Eric likes exploring, changing, experimenting and I have always appreciated him for that. He doesn’t rest on his laurels and isn’t afraid to try things.”

     Gregg Allman: “In the top five of the greatest blues singers ever. A good friend. A survivor.”

     Ronnie Wood: “Effervescent, fun, diversely and multi-talented. Made me feel at home when I came into the Stones, for which I’m forever grateful.”

     When asked if there is any talent that is commanding his attention, Leavell shares that, “I’ve been listening a bit to Grace Potter (and the Nocturnals) and like her stuff. Not complicated, but with deep soul.  I like that. I honestly haven’t been to many concerts in the last couple of years, so can’t say much about live performances I’ve heard. I played with Keith Urban on the Jimmy Fallon show, and have come to really admire his artistry. I’m trying to learn a bit of mandolin, and have been listening to some bluegrass players. Love Chris Thele, Doyle Lawson, Sam Bush. I don’t listen too much to contemporary radio much these days, so I’m not the best person to ask about hits on radio.”

    Since he’s seen a lot of changes in the music business, I asked Chuck what he thought it was going to take to save the business.

    “Man, that’s too deep for me to get into, but I will say that if something isn’t done to improve how musicians and artists are paid for downloads and preventing illegal downloads, it’s going to be a tough future. The genie is out of the bottle, and I don’t know if it will ever be back in. We’ve lost a lot of control over how our recorded music is sold.”

    Wrapping up my time with Chuck, I asked if we were going to see him on the road with anyone any time soon.  While I wasn’t hinting for some advanced info about a Rolling Stones tour, he does comment about it at the end of his answer: “I have very few select solo shows booked - playing Macon at the Cox Capitol Theater Jan 22nd with the Randall Bramblett Band, and a gig at the Wheeler Opera House on March 12th. Other than that, I’ll be promoting my book and finishing my CD as well as doing the sessions I have booked. Nothing to report at present on Stones activity.”

    After the interview was over, I reflected on the vast, rich body of work that Chuck has.  From his iconic keyboard work on the landmark Allman Brothers tune, Jessica, to the Stones, Clapton and many others, I just ran the music through my mind and smiled.  Like the beautiful trees of Charlane Plantation, Chuck Leavell’s work shades our entire musical landscape with the beauty of his work.

    You can find out more about Chuck, his music, his books, and his conservation work at the following websites:



    www.chuckleavell.com      www.charlane.com      www.mnn.com

     

  • Crosseyed Heart

         

    Crosseyed Heart
    Keith Richards
    Label: Mindless Records, LLC
    Release Date: September 18, 2015
    Review Date: September 20, 2015

     

    Keith Richards repeatedly and notoriously says in Rolling Stones concerts that, “It’s good to be here. It’s good to be anywhere!”

    It’s certainly good to have him back with a new solo album, Crosseyed Heart, after twenty-three years. Richards worked with friend and legendary drummer/producer, Steve Jordan, to slowly but surely put together this sixteen song treasure chest of listening pleasure. All but three of the songs Keith either wrote or co-wrote. 

    Many from Keith’s last album came back to help him with this project. Waddy Wachtel, Ivan Neville, Sarah Dash, Boomerocity friend, Bernard Fowler, and Blondie Chaplin all rolled up their collective sleeves and hit the recording studio. Before his passing, late Stones sax man, Bobby Keys, played sax on a couple of track (“Amnesia”, and “Blues In The Morning”). Heck! Even Norah Jones chipped in to help with a song (“Illusion”). 

    Interestingly, Richards to made the decision to put two versions of the one reggae tune (and you know he loves reggae).  Both true to the genre, yet with different instrumental treatments, you’ll just have to listen to them both to fully enjoy and appreciate what he’s done with the song.

    Love the record and love Keith. May he be around for many more years doing what he enjoys and does best: make memorable music.

  • Crossfire Hurricane

    crossfirehurricanecoverCrossfire Hurricane
    The Rolling Stones
    Studio: Eagle Rock Entertainment
    Released: May 21, 2013
    Reviewed: May 19, 2013

    My earliest memories of anything to do with the Rolling Stones is just a tad bit on the macabre side. Two of my college age cousins, Jim and Kenny (both on my dad’s side of the family) were HUGE Rolling Stones fans. And I mean HUGE. It was July, 1969. I wasn’t even ten years old yet and was just about to enter into the fourth grade in Huntsville, Alabama, but was at my paternal grandparent’s house for a visit, enjoying the sights, sounds and smells of rural life on the family farm.

    This visit was different though (if my memory serves me correctly). My two uber-cool cousins seemed upset about something. I learned later that they were devastated by the news of the death of Rolling Stones co-founder, Brian Jones. They were so upset, in fact, that they built a rather large stone monument to Jones back in the woods of Jim’s maternal grandparent’s property down the road a piece from where I was staying.

    Just what the heck does that have to do with a review of Crossfire Hurricane? Quite simply, the DVD rockumentary brings back all sorts of memories, small and large, for Stones fans regardless of when they began following the band.

    Available on May 21, 2013, Crossfire Hurricane is the kaleidoscopic new film that documents the key periods of the Rolling Stones’ career and their incredible journey.

    Directed by Brett Morgen, Crossfire Hurricane provides a remarkable new perspective on the Stones’ unparalleled journey from blues-obsessed teenagers in the early 60’s to rock royalty. It’s all here in panoramic candor, from the Marquee Club to Hyde Park, from Altamont to Exile, from club gigs to stadium extravaganzas.

    With never-before-seen footage and fresh insights from the band themselves, the film will delight, shock and amaze longtime devotees, as well as a new generation of fans, with its uniquely immersive style and tone. Crossfire Hurricane places the viewer right on the frontline of the band’s most legendary escapades.

    As befits the first rock band to reach the 50-year milestone with their global stature now greater than ever, the film combines extensive historical footage, much of it widely unseen, with contemporary commentaries by Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Charlie Watts, Ronnie Wood and former Stones Bill Wyman and Mick Taylor. Period interviews, extensive live performance material and news archives give the production a truly kinetic aura and no-holds-barred approach.

    Bonus features on the DVD and Blu-Ray include previously unreleased concert footage - “Live in Germany ‘65”, NME Poll Winners concert footage from 1964 and 1965, a new interview with director Brett Morgen, “The Sound and Music of Crossfire Hurricane”, footage from The Arthur Haynes Show (1964), and the theatrical trailer Crossfire Hurricane received its worldwide premiere at the London Film Festival in October, where Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Charlie Watts and Ronnie Wood all hit the red carpet to the delight of fans and media from all around the world. The film received a similar premiere in the U.S. the following month, hosted by HBO at the Ziegfeld Theatre.

    Asked in a formative interview in the film what it is that sets them apart from other groups, Jagger says with quiet understatement: “A chemical reaction seems to have happened.” Keith Richards added, “You can't really stop the Rolling Stones, you know when that sort of avalanche is facing you, you just get out of the way.” It’s been happening ever since, and the life and times of the Rolling Stones have never been as electrifyingly portrayed as they are in Crossfire Hurricane.

  • Every Night’s A Saturday Night

    everynightscoverEvery Night’s A Saturday Night
    Author: Bobby Keys with Bill Ditenhafer
    Forward by: Keith Richards
    Publisher: Counterpoint Press
    Release Date: February 28, 2012
    Review Date: April 8, 2012

    I’ve got to interview lots of artists. As of this writing, I’ve conducted close to ninety interviews. The most fun are the kinds of interviews are the ones where the person is just rattling off story after story about their life and the people they’ve associated with over their careers. What is even more enjoyable is when those conversations are relaxed and folksy – without pretense or an uppity attitude.

    One such person that I’ve recently interviewed is Bobby Keys, saxophonist for the Rolling Stones. To paraphrase what I wrote in that interview, he’s folksy and as country as cornbread – my kind of people! Bobby’s a great guy to chat with and one of the most fun guys I’ve had the privilege of interviewing.

    You might not be able to interview Bobby Keys yourself but I can offer you the next best thing: His autobiography, Every Night’s A Saturday Night. Easy to read and very natural, you get the feel that you’re sitting in Keys’ family room, sipping on iced tea as he regales you with tales of his life as one of the go-to sax players in rock and roll. Because of who all he’s worked with, I refer to him as the Forest Gump of Rock and Roll. When you read Saturday Night, you’ll see what I’m talking about.

    You’ll read about the whole, complete story about his fabled bath in a tub of Dom Perignon. You read some very interesting stories about his friendship with John Lennon and his work with George Harrison and hanging with Harry Nilsson. You’ll read about his tours with Joe Cocker as well as Delaney and Bonnie. He tells of his meetings with Buddy Holly and Elvis Presley.

    Of course, there are lots and lots of stories about some band called the Rolling Stones and some guys by the names of Keith Richards, Ron Wood, Mick Jagger and their keyboardist, Chuck Leavell. No, he really doesn’t dish any dirt on the lads. As he said in my interview with him, that’s all be said and done already. To Keys, it’s all about the music and the friendships and that’s what makes Every Night’s A Saturday Night such a fun and enjoyable read.

    It goes without saying that avid Stones fans will want this book. However, if you love true – and often hilarious – stories about some of the greatest names in rock music (as well as some of the songs and albums associated with them), you’re going to want this book.

  • GRRR!

    grrrcoverGRRR!
    The Rolling Stones
    Studio: ABKCO/Interscope
    Released: November 13, 2012
    Reviewed: November 25, 2012

    GRRR! isn’t only the name of the new release by The Rolling Stones, it’s also the sound all of us avid fans are making when we learn that it’s not a collection of all new tunes by the greatest rock and roll band in the world. There would be two more r’s in our “grrr” if the Mick, Keith, and the boys didn’t slip in two new tunes in their greatest hits collection.

    More about those songs in a moment.

    GRR! is a three CD/50 song collection are derived from many – but not all – of the Stones’ albums they’ve recorded in their fifty-year history (For instance, their last album, Bigger Bang, isn’t represented on this compilation). When one considers the cost of downloading individual songs, the twenty-something or so dollar price tag makes the 3 CD collection quite a bargain. And, if you’re a Stones fan (and you must be if you’re taking the time to read this review), you don’t need me to pontificate on the virtues of the songs included (or not) on the discs.

    As for the two new songs, I find that they, in and of themselves, represent both the band’s historic span of musical prowess as well as their newer angle on music. For instance, Doom and Gloom’s flavor sounds like it may have been written during the Bigger Bang or even the Dirty Work era. One More Shot, on the other hand, conjures up memories of Street Fighting Man as well as Mixed Emotions. Both tunes are great and both are worth owning. It’s up to you to determine if you prefer to download just the two or to buy GRRR! so that you can complete your Stones library. Either way, you win.

  • Life

    lifecoverLife
    Author: Keith Richards with James Fox
    Publisher: Little, Brown, and Company
    Reviewed: November, 2010

    The long awaited autobiography by legendary Rolling Stone guitarist, Keith Richards, is now in stores and being devoured by fans the world over. Weighing in at 544 very readable, informative, historical pages, I was pleasantly surprised at lucidity with which “Keef” tells his story.

    I know some of you will credit James Fox for making Richards easily comprehendible and that may very well be the case. However, Fox still needed a lot to work with. That said, my bet is that this is Keith “thru and thru” (Stones fans will get the pun.

    The book opens with Richards’ perspective of the famous 1975 bust in Fordyce, Arkansas, cluing the reader in to the negotiations and shenanigans that took place to get him and Ronnie Wood sprung from jail. I was particularly interested in this story since Keith alluded to the event when my daughter and I caught the Stones during their tour stop in Little Rock in 2007.

    The rest of the book is equally as unvarnished in telling known and unknown stories about the Stones. Stories behind the songs? Absolutely. Stories about the women in his life? Yep. How ‘bout Brian Jones’ death. A little bit. What about the legendary drug use? C’mon! We’re talking about Keef! Of course he spills the beaker on it all.

    Also shared in his own way with words are war stories from the road, the studio and a myriad of places from around the world. The gossip-monger that resides in each and every one of us will especially relish the digs and barbs he reserves especially for Mick Jagger. How much of it is for show or for real, I don’t know. But it does make for some very fascinating reading.

    What will be of special interest to musicians – especially guitarists – will be the various secrets to much of Richards’ guitar playing. This, along with the stories behind the songs, is where you see the world in which Keith Richards lives and breathes, deservedly giving him the reputation as being a true rock troubadour.

    The tome closes with a heart touching story of some of the last moments with his mom as she lay dying. To me, the story shows me that Keef isn’t as out of it as he likes to come across. He allows the reader a peek into a very special and personal moment in his life without sharing everything. One is left with the feeling that there other things that took place between a mother and her son before she passed away.

    The book left me with the impression that Keith wanted to tell everything from his perspective while, at the same time, say some things that he felt needed to be said. He clearly is seeing that there’s less of life’s road ahead of him than there is behind him. Perhaps that’s why he’s obviously no longer as concerned about his rock and roll pirate image as he places more importance on family and relationships.

    Such is Life.

  • Rick Hall Discusses The Man From Muscle Shoals

    Posted June, 2015

    Photo Courtesy of Rick Hall

         

    Unless you’re a music geek like me - and neck deep into the history and minutia of all things music - the name, Rick Hall, may not mean anything to you. To heavy music buffs and geeks, though, Rick Hall is a giant in the music business and it’s history.

    Founder of the now legendary FAME (“Florence Alabama Music Enterprises”) Studios (and FAME Publishing), Rick Hall first taste of success in the record business came in 1961. It was then that he produced Muscle Shoals’ first hit record with Arthur Alexander. The song, “You Better Move On”, was later covered by the Rolling Stones. That hit was followed by Jimmy Hughes’ hit, “Steal Away.” And, as they say, the rest is history.

    Talent such as The Tams, Buddy Killen, Etta James, Clarence Carter, Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, The Osmonds (including Donnie and Marie for some of their solo work), Mac Davis, Jerry Reed, The Gatlin Brothers (as well as Larry Gatlin), and many, many other biggies in music, all recorded at FAME Studios. 

    Oh, and if you think FAME’s big name days are all in the past, they are still quite productive and finding their work on new albums every year – both big names and up-and-comers.

    These accomplishments made Rich Hall the poster child of rags to riches stories in America. In fact, it seems that many rags to riches stories – or stories of great accomplishments-have as their foundation the fact that the champions had poor or hard lives when they were young. 

    In his recent book, “The Man From Muscle Shoals: My Journey From Shame To Fame,” details Hall’s amazing story of his literally dirt-poor upbringing in the deep South to becoming a music mogul, thus supporting the theory of adversity breeding success.

    I recently called Rick at his home to discuss his book and started out by asking him why he thought this theory works as it does.

    “That’s a great question, Randy. It’s tough to say exactly, but I believe strongly that kids today just don’t have the work ethics that we had. When I was growing up, we had it so much tougher- farming with mules, plows, that kind of thing. Mine’s uniquely different than today’s kids who think, ‘Well, you get to college, get out of school, and get a job making $50,000 starting pay’. That’s just not the way it is. I tell people the difference. I don’t let them just go on thinking that, because it’s not true. 

    “Secondly, I think that my generation, our generation… if you were the oldest child, you had it a little tougher than the middle one or the others. In my case, I had three boys. With each one, I let up a little bit. I thought, ‘Well, dad wouldn’t have done that. He wouldn’t let them get by with that kind of thing’. I don’t know if it works better, because mamas are always there saying, ‘Well, he’s your child. You should give him the money he wants and let him do what he wants to do’. So you fight that battle. In my case, I’ve been married all my life almost. Well, I hope not all of it yet. 

    “I have been through the rough and tumbles. I really do believe that if you go through the rough and tumbles like I have with tragedies in the family… My first wife was killed in an automobile, and I was driving the car. It was a guilt trip I had for four or five years. I lost my dad a week later and buried him right beside. A lot of it was tragedy in my years. Of course, my dad meant everything to me, because my mother had left us and went to work in a red light district when I was five years old. My dad raised me and taught me how to work. Like all fathers, he preached at me constantly: ‘Do this. Don’t do that. Move when you move. Get the job over with, look back at it, and move on to something else’… that kind of thing. He was constantly criticizing and condemning me. He was right, and I was wrong. He was a stern dad, and he made me toe the mark. I’m not sure I did that so much with my kids as he did with me. I let up, because my kids had a mother. Me and my wife have lived together for almost fifty years now. They always had a good mother. 

    “Kids today say, ‘Well, dad had fun all of his life, and he was in the music business. He played the fiddle, had a lot of fun, had a lot of girls. I’m going to follow in his footsteps’.  I’m not sure they’re thinking, ‘When Dad passes on, I’ll get the ranch, 1600 acres of land, the recording studio, and publishing company. I’ll have it made!’ That is the down side with Rick Hall. I have fought to make that not true. I believe that God gives you a talent, but you have to work at it. You really have to work hard at it. You can’t take the attitude that the old man made it without working hard. He didn’t do common labor and dig ditches and that kind of thing. I’m going to do what he’s doing and reap the benefits. I think that’s part of the problem, but I could be wrong about that. I guess time will tell.”

    In reading Hall’s book, there are a series of events that lead to the launching of FAME. I asked him if there was one main, core event in his life that he felt that if it hadn’t have happened, FAME Studios would have never started.

    “Growing up was a tough gig for me. I had no mother. My father raised me and my little sister who was one year younger than me. My mother left us and left my dad to raise us. We never saw her again until we were fourteen or fifteen years old. Times were tough. 

    “My book is titled ‘The Man From Muscle Shoals: My Journey From Shame to Fame’. People ask me, ‘we know about the fame part. What about the shame? Where did that come from?’ And I

         

    Rick Hall With Clarence Carter

    Photo Courtesy of Rick Hall

    say, ‘Well, if your mother went to work for a red light district and left your father to raise you, it was kinda shameful in my book’. Going to school with long, uncut hair and living in a sawmill shack with your dad making thirty-five cents an hour was also shameful. I was intimidated to ask a girl from the right side of the tracks for a date. I just wouldn’t do it, because I was afraid I’d get turned down. I had somewhat of an inferiority complex when I was growing up, so I always made sure my boys had as good an education as I could afford. One is a lawyer. One is working here with me and has his Master’s degree. I wanted to make sure my kids had their education. I had a high school education, so it was tough for me. Not particularly with the songwriters, singers, and guitar players, but it was tough for me to compete with the New York society and people I had to butt heads with in the music business.

    “Looking back on that, I was partners with Billy Sherrill who grew up in Nashville, Tennessee. Wound up finding the Silver Fox (the late Charlie Rich), George Jones, Tammy Wynette, all those people. He ran CBS Records. He was my partner and a band member with me. For several years, we were known as The Fairlanes. We were a country band of sorts. Of course, we were songwriters, and we wanted to write “that big song” like everybody else who wrote songs. We didn’t want to write just any number one record. We wanted to write a classic. 

    “Our philosophy was that anybody could be a millionaire by the time they’re forty years old. We wanted to be a millionaire by the time we were thirty. That drove us, and we always kept that in mind. He played saxophone and the piano as well as Floyd Cramer could play a piano. I played the fiddle, mandolin, and guitar as well as doing background singing with some groups I was with. When all was said and done, By the way, he was a Bible carrier. I was the town drunk. In the end, he turned out to be a heavy drinker, and I turned out to be a Christian boy. Well, I tried to be. With his upbringing, he played the saxophone and played tenor sax in our band. He was a great piano player and a great songwriter. He was a genius, I thought. He wound up producing some of the biggest country records in the business, and I wound up producing some of the biggest pop records in the business. Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Clarence Carter- all the people I was producing were black acts, and I was in Muscle Shoals. 

    “The point I’m trying to make was that I completely turned around and became a black record producer in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, when George Wallace was standing in the schoolhouse door at the University of Alabama saying, ‘Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever’. While he was making those speeches, we were in the FAME recording studio in Muscle Shoals cutting ‘Land of a Thousand Dances’, ‘Mustang Sally’, and ‘Funky Broadway’ with Wilson Pickett. We were doing Aretha Franklin’s first hit record. We were going against the grain.”

    Because Rick is white, I asked if he found that, in working with those great black acts, they had distrust towards him as a white man in Alabama.

    “No, no, no. They trusted me to the umpth degree. All the black people I worked with- Etta James, Aretha Franklin, Candi Staton, Jimmy Hughes, all of them- put their complete trust in me and believed that I could perform miracles. I was able to do that with their lives. By the way, on every record I’ve ever produced, I was also engineer. I picked the songs. I was an independent record producer. I didn’t have any record label to go to, so I just played the field. 

    “It did break my heart when I went to Nashville, Tennessee, and took a record I’d made called ‘You Better Move On’ by Arthur Alexander. I played it to everybody I could play it to up there- Owen Bradley, Chet Atkins, Shelby Singleton. In fact, I played it to all the publishing companies, and they said, ‘Rick, it’s too white for black and too black for white’. I was stuck in the middle. Anyhow, I wound up getting a record out, because of a man by the name of Noel Ball. Noel was a disc jockey at WMAK in Nashville. He sent it to his boss, Randy Wood, who was just promoted and sent to Los Angeles. Randy called him back and said, ‘I want to pick this record up, because I think it’s a big hit’. That’s how it came to be. Of course, it was hit record, and I was suddenly the king of Muscle Shoals. 

    “Then I looked around and found Jimmy Hughes who was working for Robbins Rubber Company here in Muscle Shoals. I cut a record on him called ‘Steal Away’, and it became a smash hit, also. I was batting a thousand and feeling good about myself. I couldn’t have done that if I went to Nashville and tried to compete with the boys up there who were cutting all the great records. Nobody could cut better country records than Nashville, Tennessee, never. But I felt like I had to do something a little more unique, so I started producing black acts. That was my shtick.”

    Rick Hall and Gregg Allman

    Photo Courtesy of Rick Hall

         

    In book, Hall tells of his mom leaving her family and living a bit of a scandalous life. Being a church going boy, I asked if he found that church people were especially tough on him as a result of what she did, even though it had nothing to do with him, his sister, and dad.

    “They were in some cases. But I found more people receptive to us and our upbringing, because they felt sorry for us. They looked at our lives and how my dad struggled to raise us, and they would bring cakes and pies and things like that. They’d give us milk to drink. We didn’t have cows, livestock, hogs or anything like that. They were usually really nice to us, so we didn’t have that cross to bear. We had some great neighbors. They were church-goin’ people, and they loved us and felt sorry for us. They gave us whatever they could. For birthdays, they’d bring us birthday cakes. 

    “I never will forget the first birthday cake I ever got was from a lady who lived next door to us. She brought it over, and it was a banana cake. I’d never saw a banana cake before. It was a weird thing for me to see a banana cake with the little slices of bananas all over the top of it, you know? I thought, ‘my gosh, that looks great!’ I feasted on that.”

    The term, “Muscle Shoals sound” is thrown around a lot, so I asked Mr. Hall his definition of it and what he would point to as the best examples of it.

    “I believe that the Muscle Shoals sound came about when I started close-micing a kick drum during recording sessions. I coerced the bass player into playing the bass with the kick drum. A lot of other things entered into it. The piano had a lot to do with it, because I don’t recall any number one record that I produced where I didn’t use a Wurlitzer electric piano. It started with The Osmonds’ ‘One Bad Apple’, ‘Go Away Little Girl’ with Donny, Mac Davis’ ‘Baby Don’t Get Hooked On Me’, and Aretha Franklin’s ‘I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You’. I became such a schizophrenic guy that I wanted a Wurlitzer electric piano on everything I recorded, or I wouldn’t record. I became so mindful of the fact that everything I’d cut had been with a Wurlitzer electric piano. My first taste of it was in the band. We tried to copy Ray Charles’ version of ‘What’d I Say’. That was the kind he used- the Wurlitzer piano. We fell in love with that. 

    “So many records I had that were hits, I credit to the Wurlitzer electric piano. That, to me, is part of the Muscle Shoals sound along with close-micing, which means that you put a mic on the kick drum. You put a mic on the snare drum and the cymbal. In my mind, you don’t need but three or four mics on a drum set. If you look back at records by The Everly Brothers and Don Gibson, most of them had maybe two or three mics. To me, it’s a waste of microphones to put more than four on a set of drums. I’d say save those microphones for the lead singer, because drums aren’t normally a musical instrument. All they do is keep time.”

    To the question of if her were to point to one song or one artist that symbolizes all that he’s done in the music business, what would it be, he replied:

    “That’s a tough question. I have a lot of favorite records: ‘(You’re) Having My Baby’ with Paul Anka, Aretha’s version of ‘I’ve Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You’, ‘Do Right Woman, Do Right Man’, Clarence Carter’s version of ‘Patches’. I always thought ‘Patches’ was a song about me, my father, and our livelihood. Bobbie Gentry was a classic, I thought. We did a record called ‘Fancy’ which was a follow-up to ‘Ode to Billie Joe’. It was one of my favorite records, but ‘Mustang Sally’ has given me probably the most mileage as a record producer of maybe any record I’ve ever produced. I never liked it when I was doing it. I thought ‘Mustang Sally’ is about a girl driving down the street in a convertible Mustang with the radio on and having a good time on Saturday night. I don’t hear anything more than that in the song. It’s not a great love song. It’s not a great heartbreaker or a funny song. The reason I think it had such a long life is because every little bar band in the world can play it. It’s so simple. Everybody can sing it, and everybody can play it.”

    Of all of the accomplishments that he’s known for, what is the one Rick Hall is most proud of?

    “I never rolled over and died. I’m a workaholic, and I believed with all my heart I could do it with God’s help. I’ve never been a quitter. Through all the tragedies and heartbreak, I never gave up. If you have a musical talent God gave you, and you don’t work at it, you can’t expect to be the best. In 1972 and 1973, according to Billboard magazine’s terminology, I was the number one record producer in the whole world. To be the best producer in the world, you’ve got to be more than just a good ‘ol boy who produces records in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, and that’s as far as you go. That can only take you so far. I’m proud of the fact that my father taught me how to work hard. To be the best at anything I wanted to do, I should give it my best. If I have to cut a record fourteen times and reproduce it for three different artists, I am going to do that if I like the song. I believe I know what people like, because I’m one of those people. 

    “I grew up hard and tough. I think we have the tendency to say, ‘Well, nobody ever made it in my business, so I’m not going to even try’. It’s called a ‘cop out’. We don’t have that kind of attitude in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. We aren’t in it for the money. We are in it for the long term, and we want to be number one in the world. We’ve developed that attitude, and I’ve taught it to my people. They’ve passed it on to their people, and everybody in Muscle Shoals has worked for me at one time or another.”

    Hall has worked with a lot of great artists and bands and had a lot to do with some of the biggest recordings in music. Are there any musical fish that got away that he’s

         

    Wilson Pickett and Rick Hall

    Photo Courtesy of Rick Hall

    still kicking himself in the butt over?

    “Not an awful lot, because I’ve won a lot of them. I’ve had my part of the number one records. We’ve had over two hundred chart records and over one hundred gold or platinum records. I’m producer of all those hit records. There are others in Muscle Shoals who started out with me as musicians. They went on to own their own studios, and God bless them. They’ve had a lot of success, too. There was Percy Sledge, the Rolling Stones, and a lot of people who didn’t record with me but went on to have big hit records. It makes me feel pretty good to think that they started out with me and became bigger than me and bigger than themselves. Lo and behold, they had hit records, and maybe I had something to do with it.”

    Can a young Rick Hall start a FAME Studio today and meet with the same kind of success as you did back then?

    “I believe the answer is yes. I think today would be a perfect time for a young man or woman to start out and say, ‘I want to do what Rick Hall has done for Muscle Shoals. I want to be big worldwide rather than just to be big in Alabama or wherever’. I think they could, but they must be prepared to have a lot of losses. You’ve really got to believe with all your heart and soul that you can make it. If you believe that, you have to be willing to put your money where your mouth is. You have to be willing to go to the bank to borrow $20,000 and pay it back over time. You can do that. Anybody can build a FAME Recording Studio. I had nothing. I had no money, no guitar players, no engineers, no people qualified to build recording studios. I had to do it all myself. Everything in Muscle Shoals today started with Rick Hall. 

    “Later on, it began to spread, and now there are twelve or fourteen recording studios in Muscle Shoals. We’ve been an intricate part of the best music in the world. Now, I guess I can claim credit for having the Muscle Shoals sound. It’s a world-renowned thing now. We have people coming by the busloads that pay ten dollars to visit FAME Recording Studios. It’s the oldest studio in the world owned by the same group of people, which is me and my family, of course. It’s here to stay. This is the first time it’s happened in a million years, and it will probably never happen again in the next million years. That’s a pretty drastic statement to make, and it kinda turns people off to think, ‘Rick said it couldn’t be done, so I’ll never bother to try’. I’m reluctant to make that statement. It can be done, but you’ve got to make a lot of sacrifices. Be true to yourself, God, and the people around you. Always be good to people and pay them what they’re due.” 

    If Rick Hall was made Music Czar, what would he do to fix the music business or does he even think it needs fixing?

    “It is absolutely broken. I don’t know if I have all the answers, but I have a few. What’s broken is downloading from computers and not paying the musicians, studios, and people who write the songs. If something doesn’t take place in the next ten years, there will be no more music. Trust me. I’m speaking from the heart. I think something has to be done. I’ll tell you from experience that record producers don’t die; they just fade away. When I go in, I pick six or seven musicians for the rhythm tracks, then I go back and redo the vocal so I can spend adequate time getting the best vocal I can possibly get. I still believe that the vocalist in the song is where it all starts. If you don’t have the song, you will not cut a record. I don’t care how well you can produce it or which musicians you use. If you don’t have a hit song, you will not have a hit record. I can go in and produce a bad production on a great song and still have a number one record. It’s the song that captures the imagination. It tells people what they want to hear or what they want to be or what they decide to become one day. It has to be fun or danceable or one of those factors. 

    “Songwriters are the people who are quitting the business. They are walking away, because there’s no money for them. You can’t sell a million records anymore. I’ve worked with artists like the group Alabama that was selling five million albums, not five million singles, per release. That’s how big they were. Now, I think that’s gone forever. People have been forced out of the business, because they can’t make a living in the business. Thievery is the reason for that. Record companies can’t exist anymore, because the production of a record has become so costly that they have to sell a million records to break even. When you have to sell a million records, desperation sets in, and you start thinking, ‘Maybe if I put out ten different artists, I can make it’. You spend your money putting those ten acts out, and you never make it. 

    “Another factor is the fact that you have to pay musicians on the union scale. You think, ‘These guys are making too much money’. But let me tell you something, a musician has spent his life learning how to play his licks on the guitar, mandolin, or whatever. You pay him double scale on a record. You may think, ‘I don’t have the budget to hire so and so, because I can’t afford what they’re used to making’. He may make a lot of money in the studio today cutting Wilson Pickett, but he may not get another call for a recording session for four months. How are you going to feed your family when you don’t get a call for a recording session but every three months? I don’t care how good you are. You can’t make it on that. When you’re a songwriter, and you have one hit record in a lifetime, you get paid pretty good on the front. At the end, they quit paying you. They cut you off, and you don’t get your money. 

     

         

    “Thievery, Pro Tools, and computers have completely annihilated our business. If something is done about it in the next four to five years, there will be no music except old music. If you go into a record session as one man and say, ‘I want to sell my records out of the trunk of my car. I will put my records out on my own label, and I will sell them cheaper than RCA Victor can sell them’. If you play all the instruments, and go on Pro Tools to tune your voice and make a 5-string banjo sound like a harmonica- you can do that. But it ain’t like getting Rick Hall as producer and engineer, Chips Moman and Jimmy Johnson on guitar, Clayton Ivey on keyboards, etc. When you have eight people in the studio, it’s like a basketball game. You’ve got a team of players who know what to eliminate. It ain’t about the guitar lick or hot player. It’s about simple knowledge of what you play, don’t play, and deciding that you’re getting in the way of the piano lick here.”

    Hall then drilled into his book a bit more.

    “You’ll find most all of this in my book, and you’ll find things that I’m not talking about, obviously. I could go on for two weeks giving you all kinds of advice and telling you all the things that worked for me. What I want to tell you is the artist I recorded the first number one record on was Aretha Franklin, and I’m proud of that. Clarence Carter, Paul Anka’s ‘(You’re) Having My Baby’, Mac Davis’ ‘Stop And Smell The Roses’, Wilson Pickett’s ‘Hey Jude’, Etta James, The Osmonds- I had a whole string of hit records. All these things are in my book: my philosophy about life in general, my hits and misses, and why the music business is on its knees. The way to do it is the old-fashioned way. Forget about computerization, and go back to classics. A 24-track recorder with a two inch piece of tape will pick up any signal from 30 or 40 cycles to 30,000 cycles. Digital may go from 100 cycles to 10,000 cycles. The range you lose will be the warmth and depth of the record. It won’t be funky and hard to listen to. It’s like you’re sitting in the room. Going into the studio with seven musicians- all of them the best players in the world- you will always do better than doing it by yourself. Each one of them will contribute something. The guitar player will play a different lick for you; the piano player will find his best lick. They will play off of each other. It’s like a basketball team. If they never practice together, even though they’re all superstars, they will not accomplish the mission of winning the game. If you are a musician and want to be part of the big guys, you have to go into the studio and cut your records live. You can’t put them together six months apart then in five years, you have a hit record. That don’t make it. You’ve gotta walk out of there with you tape or disc in your hand. 

    “Buy the book. It’s called ‘The Man From Muscle Shoals: My Journey From Shame To Fame’. It will tell you all these secrets. I spent ten years writing the book when we only spent three hours on a recording session. Things that happened over a fifty-year period that I can recall, I put in the book. Oh man, I had a ball. It was one of the most fun things I’ve ever done in my life. Number one records, you get one, oh man. But you get one hundred… multiply that. When you read the book, you find out who Rick Hall is, what made him tick, and what he’s all about. You get the DVD inside the back cover of the book- two for the price of one. Watch the DVD first then read the book. You’ll watch the DVD five more times, I promise you.

    “I’ve had incredible feedback. Flying off the shelves like hotcakes- sales are phenomenal.”

    “The Man From Muscle Shoals: My Journey From Shame To Fame” is a must have/must read book for anyone who is even mildly interested in the back stories of some of the biggest hits in music. The DVD that’s included ain’t too shabby either.  You can order from the links below. 

  • The Bura

         

    The Bura
    Bernard Fowler
    Label: MRI
    Review Date: July 12, 2015

     

    “The Bura” is the second solo project by the legendary Bernard Fowler and what an incredible CD it is!  It’s been six years since his last album but – while I hope we don’t have to wait another six years until his next CD – this has been well worth the wait.

    Named after the hurricane force winds that blow off of the Adriatic Sea, between Italy and Croatia, Bernard just as strongly blows the listener’s ears and mind with that incredible voice of his. That voice executes to perfection great original songs as well as his treatment of some classics.

    Boomerocity will highlight three of the originals:

    Shake It: Fowler blasts right out of the gate with this driving, danceable rocker. Against the backdrop of Robert Davis’ killer guitar work, this tune will burn itself into your psyche and DNA.

    See You Again: Boomerocity doesn’t usually pick a favorite tune from CDs but, in this case, we’re making an exception. THIS is, by far, one of the best original songs we’ve heard in 2015 and is worth the price of “The Bura”, alone. Yeah, it’s that great.

    My Friend Sin: This song gives the listener the sense of being taken down to the Mississippi delta and the dusty crossroads, waiting for Robert Johnson to show up to make his pact with the devil. Oh, did I mention that Slash does some guitar work on this tune?  Yeah . . . 

    Of the covers (The Letter, Helter Skelter, Can’t You Hear Me Knockin’, Dragon Attack), Bernard’s treatment of “Helter Skelter” is the absolute best that I’ve ever heard . . . and, yes, I’m including U2’s version of it. Yeah, seriously.

    In Boomerocity’s opinion, “The Bura” is one on a very short list of CDs to purchase in 2015. Yeah, it’s that great.

     

  • The Rolling Stones - Atlanta, Georgia 2015

    The Rolling Stones
    Bobby Dodd Stadium
    Atlanta, Georgia
    June 9, 2015


    Photo By Lisa Nally-Patterson

         

    Last night’s performance by the Rolling Stones at Atlanta’s Bobby Dodd Stadium was one for the record books. From the opening chords of “Start Me Up” to the final fireworks marking the end of the show, the band put on a show that pleased the sold out show of forty thousand of the Stones’ closest and dearest Atlanta friends.

    When I interviewed Stones backup singer, Bernard Fowler, the day prior, he told me that the band was the best that they’ve ever been . . . and I have to agree. I do so not because it was error free, because it wasn’t. I agree because there was a sense of realness, of genuine fun and even whimsicalness amongst the band . . . especially from Mick.

    Yeah, way.

    This was my third time seeing the Stones perform. I own and have repeatedly watched their performance DVDs. Until last night, I have never seen Jagger joke, smile, laugh and compliment as much as he did last night. Nothing has been shared with me by anyone in the band or its organization but I have to wonder that there’s a greater appreciation of the lighter things of life. Perhaps since Mick suffered the losses last year of his long time girlfriend, L’Wren Scott, and his long time sax man, Bobby Keys, life has taken on new meaning. It’s his business and none of ours but I do like seeing a jovial Jagger after all these years.

    Back to the show.

    It’s virtually impossible for the Stones to play every song that every fan would want to hear during an approximately two hour show. That said, the boys from Britain served up great treatments of their classics. I got what I wanted with “Start Me Up,” “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking,” “Miss You,” “Midnight Rambler,” and “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” (with help from Emory University’s concert choir) as one of the two songs during the encore.

    I hope that the Rolling Stones are around to perform for many more years to come. Judging from last night’s show, I think they will be.

  • Under Their Thumb

    undertheirthumbcoverUnder Their Thumb: How A Nice Boy From Brooklyn Got Mixed Up With The Rolling Stones (And Lived To Tell About It)

    Author: Bill German

    Publisher: Villard

    Reviewed: August, 2009

    I will start off by saying that “Under Their Thumb” is a must read for two categories of people. The first, obviously, are the vast legions of Rolling Stone fans. The second group is those of us who get inspiration from those who pursue their dreams and accomplish them. 

    As I stated in my interview with Bill German, he has accomplished what few have and in a Cameron Crowe like way.  His book covers everyday scenarios that involve the Stones. They take place in hotels, basements, kitchens, living rooms, offices, backstage, on stage, and night clubs. You name, Bill was there. 

    You sense while reading “Thumb” that German felt, and still feels, tremendous respect and awe for the boys in the band – even when they and their massive machinery apparently treated him the exact opposite. This reflects the kind of stuff people are made of and Bill German is made up of great character and superior upbringing. I seriously doubt most of us would have put up with what he did, for as long as he did, and still treat these people as kindly as Bill does. He closes the book by saying that Keith and Ronnie “feel like long lost uncles to me.”

    Being a behind-the-scenes/how-the-watch-is-made kind of guy, I was intrigued by the details of the Stones machinery. Yet, I was disappointed at how it commoditized human beings. As German says in the book, “They’ve (the Stones) had plenty of people depart on them, and they’ve always just stepped over the bodies. That’s what makes the Stones the Stones.”

    I won’t reveal much about this book because I believe that it’s worth buying and reading so I don’t want to detract in any way from it. I will say, though, that I believe chapter 40 should be required reading by every human being on the planet. It speaks volumes about values, priorities, the preciousness of life, and the things that really matter in life. It’s very sobering and is my favorite part of the whole book.

    I started this review by mentioning that the book will be an inspiration. Bill German’s story is one of passion, tenacity, pureness of heart, and a child-like wonder in his pursuit of a story and of his relationship with the Rolling Stones. As I stated earlier, it is also a lesson in how strong character will help one persevere and, when it’s all said and done, shows those around you what a class act you really are. That is the measure of this book and the measure of the man, Bill German.

    You can buy “Under Their Thumb” at your favorite bookstore or here at Amazon, Borders, or Barnes and Noble. 

  • You Can’t Always Get What You Want

    you cant always get what you want cover final.bYou Can’t Always Get What You Want
    By Sam Cutler
    Publisher: ECW Press
    Released: February, 2010
    Reviewed: May, 2010

    The sixties were both an idyllic and turbulent time. For Sam Cutler, the last year of that decade certainly seemed to have started out as idyllic with him landing what appeared to be the uber sweet gig as road manager for the Rolling Stones’ U.S. tour. However, as with society, Cutler’s decade ended with a turbulence that would haunt him to this day.

    This curse – this albatross, as it were, was a disaster called “Altamont”.

    Much has been written and speculated about the horrific concert. A film, Gimme Shelter, was even made of the tragic events on December 6, 1969. And, while lawsuits and trials resulted, a full official investigation into what happened at the northern California festival has never been conducted.

    For the first time, Sam Cutler tells what he knows, and what he suspects, surrounding the events leading up to, through and after that fateful day. If what he says is even half accurate, the implications can be quite frightening.

    I’m not going to tell you the story otherwise why bother to purchase the book?

    As incredible and compelling of a story the whole Altamont event, and Cutler’s insight into it, are, Sam has much, much more to share. The book reads like a who’s who of rock and roll royalty. You’ll also gain incredible insight into the unique world of the Grateful Dead, whom Cutler went to work for after the Stones literally abandoned him immediately after Altamont.

    For business geeks like me, you’ll be mesmerized by the multiple stories of the rough and tumble world of road management in a rock and roll circus. It’s tough, it’s scary and it’s not for the faint of heart.

    Sam Cutler tells it like it is. The sex. The drugs. The rock and roll. It’s all there in all of its glory. So are the stories of our favorite rock icons. Did you know that they’re actually human?

    Who woulda thunk it?

    If you love classic rock and have a fond appreciation of the sixties and seventies, the Sam Cutler’s You Can’t Always Get What You Want is a must have for your library. Seriously.

    You can also track Sam via his website. He’s quite a guy who still has a lot to say.

Featured Photo

 

 

george lynch

Our Featured Photo by Boomerocity friend and famed rock photographer, Rob Shanahan (robshanahan.com), is of Dokken's George Lynch! Check out more of Rob's work at RobShanahan.com!

 

 

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