My parents put a guitar in my crib when I was about a year old. It had my father’s old set list taped to the side. In the mid 1960’s my father was on the board of the Newport Folk Festival, and I was exposed to wonderful performances and musicians, many of who passed through our home from time to time. And oddly enough I ended up playing and becoming friends with some of my childhood music heroes many years later.
Music has always been a good friend to me, and I’ve been playing in bands on and off since I was child. It’s always there, perhaps in the closet or under the bed, but the guitars forgive my neglect each time I go back, and I can get lost in the journey all over again with the same sense of thrill and excitement I had at the beginning.
I had my first music lesson at the age of ten, and it was on piano. The woman threw me out and said I had no musical talent whatsoever and that my fingers were fat. My mother said something to the effect of “never mind her, let’s get you some ice cream and a guitar…” and I haven’t looked back. My determination was boosted a couple years later when jamming with a guy who said to me, “You should play bass, your fingers are fat…” That was decades before I stumbled in to the Continental Club in Austin, Texas, one Sunday afternoon and watched Redd Volkeart shred up a Telecaster with fingers way fatter than mine.
A few years later, I called Redd and asked him to play on a couple songs for a record I was making with Ian Gillan called Gillan’s Inn, and he responded “Ian Gillan from Deep Purple? Hell, yes. I was nearly killed at a Purple show long ago when Ritchie Blackmore smashed his Strat and I caught it when he threw it into the audience. A bunch of folks tried to rip that guitar away from me…” I don’t remember whether or not he was able to keep it.
But, back to the old days: I kept at it, played with some guys in high school and got into my first real band that actually played out and got paid in 1981 or so. We were called the Employeez. We got around a bit for a bunch of young kids who were finding their way. A local concert promoter named Eddie Tice saw us in a bar one night and was kind enough to book us with Scandal, INXS on their first tour, Culture Club in the Memorial Auditorium, and others. Eddie was and is a star. Back in the day, he was partners with Corky Berger and Harvey Weinstein in a company called Harvey Corky and Tice, and for a long time they brought amazing and, for me, formative shows to Buffalo, New York.
The Employeez called it quits after a while. After that, I played with bands called Radio Art, Urban Sturgeon, Primal Scream a/k/a Rhythm Method, and after a while I formed Animal Planet. AP started as a three piece group, but quickly had some lineup changes and became a huge band, with a horn section, backup singers – several of whom had toured with James Brown: Rodney Appleby – a monster talent on bass and background vocals, Percy Jones on keys and background vocals for a while, Paul Zablotski on keys and also on background vocals for a while. Geno McManus was with us for a tour or twol Tommy Z was with us for one tour; and a host of other great players and friends passed through the revolving door over the years.
I got lucky with Animal Planet. Not only was I a Jewish kid from the suburbs fronting a killer mostly-black band playing a ridiculously fun hybrid of funk and rock music, but Armand Petri who’d produced our second record, Dawn (when we went from a three-piece to a nine-piece or so) introduced me to Nick Blagona when it came time to master the record. I knew who Nick was and was in awe of the records he’d engineered, mixed and produced over the years for Deep Purple, Rainbow, and, as I soon learned, many others including, Cat Stevens, Peter Sellers, the Moody Blues, Free, and Chaka Kahn. Since then. the only time I’ve made records has been when Nick said it was time.
Somewhere along the way, John Lombardo, from 10,000 Maniacs, another band from Western New York, asked me in bar one night if I could fill in for a few shows as their guitar player, Rob Buck, had gone missing. I was happy to try out and see if it’d be a good fit, but recommended another Buffalo guitar player, George Puleo, who I’d been going to see since I was old enough to play in bars. I figured, given George’s staggering talent and quick ear, he’d do a better job for them. I can’t remember if George tried out with them or not, but regardless I ended up with the gig. And the week after that gig, I got a fax from their manager at the time, Blair Woods, that had some dates around the U.S. on it, and possibly Panama if memory serves. I called and asked if that was an invitation and he said it was.
Off we went. I was along for the ride for a bunch of 10,000 Maniacs U.S. shows, and we played the U.S. base closing in Panama at which I met Major Denise Hollywood, the USO coordinator (though I can’t remember her official title). We called her Major Woody because she was so beautiful. High school, I know…But thanks to Denise, 10,000 Maniacs also went overseas and played shows for troops in Kuwait and Bahrain.
This was all during the first Bush’s Gulf war. I don’t know if it’s improved, but avoid the sushi in Kuwait city. It was quite eye-opening to play some of those shows in makeshift locations where bomb-laden planes were taking off and returning empty, and it was a little unsettling to play for audiences holding M16 rifles. We also had a blast playing a festival in Oporto, Portuga,l that year.
I enjoyed playing with 10,000 Maniacs for a while. I loved the travel and playing in a band that actually had fans outside of Buffalo, which I’d never done. I relished what I was learning as I tried nightly to help them keep their continuity as a supporting musician. It wasn’t about me, it was about them and helping them sound like their records. It wasn’t easy, as Rob Buck was a very idiosyncratic player, but I did my best and the gang seemed happy. I learned some great lessons with them, and I’m grateful. Some of my best times, musically speaking, on the 10,000 Maniacs tours were sound checks, jamming Zeppelin tunes with Jerry Augustyniak, their drummer.
After a gig in a gorgeous theater in Seattle one night, I decided it was time to get back to my own music, and I went back to Animal Planet with renewed determination. The irony for me was that I was staying in a hotel I used to stay in on an endless litigation I worked on years hence that had me there for depositions over and over again – and as I wrote my resignation letter that night, I remember how much I badly wanted not to be doing the law work I was doing the last time I’d had those same views from the same building. Older and maybe a little wiser, I didn’t blink that time.
After I resigned, I phoned Denise Hollywood. Armand Petri had given her a copy of Dawn somewhere along the way. When I called, she said her office loved my record and wondered if we’d be willing to tour for them. I said “Hell, yes” and she said “When and where?” I replied, “Now and everywhere…”
And so it went for a few years. Animal Planet went through the South Pacific three or four times, sometimes staring in Hawaii, always followed by Kwajalein (and one very memorable day trip to Roi Namur), then Guam (one of few places I’ve been that I found difficult to love), Japan, South Korea, Singapore, and Diego Garcia. I used to joke that we were huge in Kwajalein, and we were. They actually knew the words to our songs, and it was always wonderful to get back there – especially when Steve Snyder was our host. He used to pick us up at the plane in a big golf cart with hot pizza and cold beer. It was game on, when we got there. And what a beautiful place. We toured the Balkans, Egypt, a base in northern Greenland called Thule, and in Ecuador. It was a great run, but not without its challenges.
Bruce Pilato, who was helping manage us in those days, got in contact with me while we were in Diego Garcia and asked if we’d consider backing Greg Lake for a record of ELP & King Crimson remakes. I said we’d love to. In those days, I’d always route my trip back to Buffalo through Lyme Regis, England, for a drink with Ian Gillan. Ian would pick me up at Heathrow and we’d start our pub crawl somewhere around Stonehenge. We used to joke that all roads to Buffalo go through Lyme Regis. Greg and I eventually met on that trip and hit it off. He said he loved the rhythm and blues of Animal Planet and wanted to hear what we’d do with the ELP & Crimson material. We ended up making that record with him in Rochester, New York. Challenging as it was musically and otherwise for us, it was a fabulous experience for me. After Rochester, I ended up going back to London a few times to dub guitar solos, and even got Greg and Ian together one night in a pub, which was quite memorable. Greg never finished his vocals on the record so it wasn’t released, much to our disappointment, but I remain quite proud of what we accomplished and what I learned.
At some point not too long after the Greg Lake non-record, I tired of all the lineup changes in Animal Planet, and Rodney Appleby grew very tired of having to teach the harmonies over and over again, sometimes to the same singers. The quality of the band wasn’t getting better. It was getting worse. Hard as I tried to get them to be my partners, I failed in that regard. I had a dream one night that I was in a rowboat, rowing up stream with all my might with sweat pouring down my face. I looked back and the entire band was there, oars in their laps and hands extended for money. I knew it was time to move on.
Next was recording my first solo record, In a Heartbeat, which was recorded, engineered and produced by Nick Blagona. I was very insecure about my vocals, even after those years fronting Animal Planet, but Nick said “jump” so I did. We made In a Heartbeat relatively quickly as is Nick’s style. Basic tracks, except for a few songs, were recorded live on the floor at Metalworks in Toronto with Rodney Appleby on bass and Howard Wilson on drums. We did some other tracks in Buffalo with Jerry Augustyniak and Jim Lindsner on drums. I played the rough mixes for Ian one night and he particularly loved “Texas State of Mind” and “Have Love Will Travel.”
One day when I was in southern France, Ian phoned and asked how the record was coming along. I said, “great except for the singer…” He kindly offered to sing on a few tracks, and said he’d have offered sooner but didn’t want to encroach on my project. I said I’d have asked, but didn’t want to encroach on our friendship. So, gem that he is, Ian flew into Toronto ahead of a Deep Purple tour that was starting in Montreal, I believe, and he sang backup on “Texas State of Mind” and “Clean and Dirty,” and we shared the vocals on “Have Love Will Travel.” What a treat that was for me. As we were finishing up, he was fiddling with my dobro, and I said “That’s yours now, matey.”
Later that year, sometime in 2004 or so, late one night after a Deep Purple show in Dallas, Ian asked me if I’d be his creative manager for his solo work. I said “of course I would, but what do you want to do?” He said, “Let’s make records and go on the road,” words every childhood rock fan would want to hear from one of their heroes. So we did, and our first record, Gillan’s Inn, came out in 2006. It featured remakes of songs spanning Ian’s career from early days with the Javelins, Deep Purple, solo work and his days with Black Sabbath. And along the way we had the great pleasure of working with Jon Lord, Don Airey, Ian Paice, Roger Glover, Jeff Healey, Tony Iommi, Ronnie James Dio, Joe Elliott, Redd Volkeart, Uli Jon Roth, Michael Lee and many others. I arranged the songs with Nick Blagona in the main room at the then abandoned and derelict Trackmaster studios in Buffalo with Rodney Appleby and Howard Wilson, and then we recorded the basic tracks up in Toronto at Metal Works with Nick at the helm. After that we went back to the old Trackmaster for overdubs, followed by replacing many of the guide tracks with our special guests, Joe Satriani in San Francisco, Ronnie James Dio in LA, Tony Iommi recorded his own parts from England and sent them to us to mix, and we had a week in an old English manor studio called Jacobs in Farnham UK, where many of the guests came down to record their parts.
I was so excited about Ian’s record, I fully neglected my own, In a Heartbeat, though eventually it came out on the same label, Immergent. In 2006 we toured the U.S. and Canada with a ferociously good band featuring Ian, of course, and Rodney Appleby, Randy Cooke, Joe Mennonna, and Dean Howard. Those shows were the best musical time I’ve ever had and I never wanted the tour to end. But all things do…There’s a live DVD and CD of this tour called Live in Anaheim, which captures the performances on that tour pretty well, though the previous night at House of Blues in Hollywood when Ronnie James Dio came out and sang with us was a better show.
In 2008 or so, Ian decided it was time to make another record so we recorded the much mellower One Eye to Morocco in Toronto. It was much more song than fury oriented, with minimal soloing and really just featuring Ian’s gorgeous and soulful voice and some great songs. On OETM, Ian covered “Texas State of Mind” from my In a Heartbeat record, and also recorded “Better Days,” a song I’d played him on acoustic late one night at his house in Lyme Regis years earlier, and to which he said “Would you save that one for me please?” We also did a remake of Animal Planet’s “Ultimate Groove.” I remain very proud of that record, its textures, performances, and restraint.
In 2009, I came out to California for a two-month gig helping Immergent set up a digital division, and I’ve had a hard time tearing myself away as of this writing in 2020. I set up a little studio in my apartment here, and learned how to use the gear. In 2009 or 2010 I scored the movie Bad Penny with director Todd Belanca & Scott Miller in my apartment. I had little knowledge or ability to use my recording gear at that time, but there’s no teacher like experience. Todd would ask me if I could do this or that with a particular cue, and I’d say “probably” and have it for him the next day. When I told Todd I’d do it, I assumed he’d have an engineer and a studio, but so it goes. That was an amazing experience for me.
I started writing and recording beds for a lot of songs, and eventually, when Nick Blagona said it was time to get back to work, I already had a solid foundation for what became my newest record, Death by Sunshine, which was mostly recorded in my home studio, except for the drums, which Randy Cooke recorded at his studio, some of the background vocals and keyboards which Percy Jones recorded in Tokyo and Jesse O’Brien in Hamilton, background vocals by Geno McManus in Buffalo, and the horns, which were recorded at GCR audio in Buffalo by Justin Rose and Armand Petri with the Jim’s (Bohm and Runfola) on trumpet and sax respectively. Nick mixed the record at his home studio in Caledonia, Canada.
In June 2017, I had a call from my old drummer from the Animal Planet days, Gordie Rogers, and that call and the resultant nostalgia ended up with most of the band (unfortunately without Gordie who had to bow out) getting back together to make a record in Buffalo, NY later that year. Rodney came up from Georgia, Percy flew in from Japan, and I drove to Buffalo from LA with an SUV full of guitars and amps. That record, "Satisfaction Garage," was released in August 2020.
I keep swearing each record will be the last, and then I get excited about the next.
How did I get where I am today? I digressed. A lot. And there you have it.
Photo by Carrie Smith
Photo by Bruce Jackson, 2017