Sunday, February 19, 2017

A Very Candid Conversation with Richie Furay

Richie Furay started his music career as a guitarist and singer with the rock band Buffalo Springfield in 1966. Buffalo Springfield became the launching pad for music legends Stephen Stills and Neil Young. (Buffalo Springfield was Stills and Young’s first major band.) Buffalo Springfield is best known for the song “For What It’s Worth.” They recorded three albums: Buffalo Springfield (1966), Buffalo Springfield Again (1967), and Last Time Around (1968). The band didn’t last long and broke up in 1968 due to many lineup changes (nine members were in and out of Buffalo Springfield), drug-related arrests, and personal tensions. Despite their short run as a band, Buffalo Springfield was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1997.

After Buffalo Springfield’s breakup, Richie and Springfield bandmate Jimmy Messina formed Poco, a country rock band, in 1968. During Richie’s time with Poco (1968–1973), the band released several records. Although Poco was well received by audiences and critics, they weren’t matching the sales and success of Stephen Stills, who had found success with his trio Crosby, Stills and Nash, and Neil Young, who had a successful solo career. In addition, Poco bassist Randy Meisner left after the first album to join the Eagles. (The next Poco bassist, Timothy B. Schmit, replaced Mesiner in the Eagles in 1977.) Likewise, Messina left Poco and formed a successful duo with Kenny Loggins known as Loggins and Messina.

Disheartened by Poco’s inability to attain success, Richie left Poco in 1974 and formed a trio named Souther–Hillman–Furay Band (SHF). J.D. Souther was a songwriter who had co-written songs for the Eagles and Linda Ronstadt, and Chris Hillman was an original member of the Byrds. The band never took off, but a significant change occurred in Richie’s life. While working with Souther and Hillman, Richie met Al Perkins (a guitarist for SHF), who was a Christian. At that time, Richie was having marital problems. Perkins introduced Richie to Christ, and through Christ, Richie repaired his marriage and accepted the fact that his musical career wasn’t as successful as his peers.  

SHF recorded two albums: their self-titled album The Souther–Hillman–Furay Band (1974) and Trouble in Paradise (1974). Despite the talents of the three men, the trio never formed a chemistry, thus SHF fell apart. Richie recorded several solo albums through 1976 and 1982. These albums contained themes of Richie’s newfound faith, and in 1983, Richie became a pastor at Calvary Chapel in Broomfield, Colorado. He still is a pastor today. (The website for Calvary Chapel church can be found here.)

During his time as a pastor, Richie had reunions with his first two bands, Poco and Buffalo Springfield. Poco reunited in 1988 with a gold record Legacy. Although Legacy went gold and had a top 20 hit, “Call It Love,” Richie did not stay long with the band. Richie was unhappy with the video “Call It Love” (directed by future Transformers film director Michael Bay), particularly with the provocative scenes between the men and women actors. He left Poco as a result. He reunited with Stills at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame when Buffalo Springfield was inducted in 1997, and then he reunited with both Stills and Young at a Bridge School benefit tour in 2010.

In this candid conversation, we cover Richie’s time with Buffalo Springfield, Poco, the Souther-Hillman-Furay Band, and his solo career. Richie was referred to me by Santos (my interview with Santos can be read here.) Like my interview with Santos, this interview with Richie is about a great musician who was trying to reach the top but instead found Christ. I want to thank Santos for referring me to Richie, but most of all, I want to thank Richie himself.

Jeff Cramer: So, what prompted your interest in music?

Richie Furay: Oh, my gosh, it's just one of those things that happened in my life. I'm not even sure. I didn't really have a musical family.

My mom sung in the church choir, but my dad wasn't musical. I remember when he gave her a tape recorder one year for Christmas; I confiscated the thing and just sat in front of the radio all the time taping all this music.

As I got a little older, music just began to saturate my heart and my life. It seemed that music was the direction I was going to pursue.

JC: How did you get started with Buffalo Springfield?

RF: [Laughs]. I was in Otterbein College in Ohio. In college, I joined an a cappella [a cappella is singing without instrumental accommodation] choir. At one point, we went on tour, and during the tour, we made a stop in New York City. We had a Saturday night off. One of my friends decided, "Hey, why don’t we go down into Greenwich Village and sing." I laughed and said, “Yeah, right. Okay. Where are we gonna sing, the street corner?" And he said, "Oh, we'll sing in some clubs."

My friend—I'm telling you, man, he could sell anybody anything. My friend talked his way into getting three club managers to let us sing at their club. We sang during the time that they were turning over the audiences. [Laughs]. But we still thought it was a big deal to sing in those clubs.

After performing, a bug really caught me. I said, "Man, I’m coming back here in the summertime, and I'm gonna get into the music business somehow. I'm gonna get into doing folk music." Folk music was happening in Greenwich Village and it was a big thing.

When I went to New York the next summer, I talked my two friends into coming with me. Stephen Stills was working in one of the little clubs that my friends and I played in. That's where I met Stephen and we became really good friends.

A guy named Ed E. Miller put a band together for us, and it was a group like the Serendipity Singers or the New Christy Minstrels [early folk bands of the sixties]. It was a group of nine—there was stand-up bass, the banjo, as many guitars as you could get, and two girls.

The group was together for about six months. We did an off-Broadway play for two weeks, so it was a quick run. [Laughs]. We did a record for Roulette Records, and we did a supper club [a club that provides dinner and entertainment] tour of Texas.

After that, the group broke up. Steve went off to California with part of the band, and I went to work at Pratt & Whitney Aircraft in East Hartford, Connecticut.

A friend of mine, Gram Parsons [Parsons was a pioneer in the country rock field], brought me the Byrds' first record while I was working at Pratt & Whitney. I said, "Man, I've got to get a hold of Steve. I've got to find out what's going on, because I've got to get back into music."

So, I got a hold of Steve, and Steve said, "Hey, come to California. I've got a band together. All I need is another singer and we're ready to go." I said, "I'll be there." So, I quit my job at Pratt & Whitney and went to California sometime in 1966.

Of course, the band was just me and Steve at the time. No one else was there. That was the beginning of the Buffalo Springfield.

JC: Buffalo Springfield’s first album (self-titled album, 1966) contains their most well–known song, "For What It's Worth.” However, the song seems like an anomaly on that album, as all the other songs are folk rock and “For What It’s Worth” isn’t.

RF: Well, actually, "For What It's Worth" wasn't even on the very first record.

JC: Really?

RF: There was a song called "Baby, Don't Scold Me,” but that song got taken off the record and was replaced by “For What It’s Worth.” We were sharing our new songs for our second album with Ahmet Ertegun, who was the president of Atlantic Records. Ertegun and the band were in a little house in Topanga. I think it was Steve's house.

The first album didn't really do what Atlantic Records had wanted it to do or thought that it was gonna do. They thought it was gonna really make a mark right out of the box. So, we played all of our songs—a lot of them appeared on the second record. At the end of the day, Stephen said, "Well, I've got one more: ‘For What It's Worth.’"

JC: Yes.

RF: And that was the song. Ahmet said, "We've got to record that song now." We recorded it, and after recording, Atlantic Records took "Baby, Don't Scold Me" off the record and put "For What It's Worth" on the record. The song went to number seven in the country and left its mark in the world of musical history for sure. [Click here to see a 1967 presentation of “For What It’s Worth.”]

Buffalo Springfield (Richie, bottom left) 1967

JC: The music direction changed dramatically on Buffalo Springfield’s second album Buffalo Springfield Again. One reviewer described Buffalo Springfield’s first album and second album as if you started from the very first Beatles’ album (where all four worked as a group) to an album like Sgt. Pepper’s or The White Album (where everyone was going in their own direction and not cohesive as a group). [Laughs].

RF: Well, Jeff, that was actually what was happening. The only record that we really made as a group was the first one.

JC: Right.

RF: On the second album [1967], there were a few songs that were recorded by everyone, but mostly people were going off in their own way. Neil Young was doing his thing and Stephen Stills was doing his thing. And while we were recording Buffalo Springfield Again, I actually had an opportunity to start my solo recording career as well.

By the third album [1968], it was really every man for himself. [Laughs].

JC: Was there any song on Buffalo Springfield’s third album where all the group members played together?

RF: A couple of songs . . . I can't remember. I would have to go back and look at the album. I'm sorry, but I don't think too much about it. There were a couple of songs that everybody played on. Then there were quite a few more on the third record that [bassist] Jimmy Messina and I put together so that we could at least release the third record. That third record would have never gotten released had Jimmy and I not contributed a few more songs. So, we got the third record out.

The third album was pretty much a lot of individual effort. There's no doubt about it. It was a shame. The band had a lot of potential, but there were nine people in and out of the band in two years. It was just really hard to keep the band together.

Neil, of course, had different aspirations. For me, Buffalo Springfield was Stephen's band. He was the heart and soul of the band. A lot of people think it was Neil's band, but it was Stephen's band all the way. He was definitely the heart and soul.

I told Stephen one day, "Listen, man, as long as you're here, I'm here," even though there were so many people in and out of the band. But at the end of the day, when Stephen decided it was time to move on and do some other things, that was when I decided, "Okay, well, that's it. It was a fun run."

JC: Immediately you started Poco after the breakup of Buffalo Springfield.

RF: Yep. I had already gotten my feet wet from live concerts and making records, so I didn't want to quit. I was ready to keep on going.

Jimmy Messina was the most recent member of Buffalo Springfield, (Buffalo Springfield went through nine people; Messina was number nine of nine) and we struck up a really nice friendship. Jimmy is a very talented guy. He’s very talented in the technical aspects of recording and he helped me out quite a bit.

So, Jimmy and I started Poco. Jimmy had played bass in Buffalo Springfield, he would now play guitar in Poco. As we were finishing up the last Buffalo Springfield record, we had the idea of the kind of band that we wanted. We wanted to cross over or do a bridge between country music and rock and roll music. There were a few people that were attempting to do that. The Byrds were doing it at that time and we wanted to continue that.

Rusty Young had played steel guitar [a guitar where one hand plucks the strings and the other hand changes the pitch with a steel bar or handle] on my song "Kind Woman" that was on the Buffalo Springfield Last Time Around record [Buffalo Springfield’s third album]. So, Jimmy and I asked Rusty if he would like to join the band because he fit right in the niche of what we wanted to do.

We were looking for singers as well. Rusty said, "Well, I've got a great drummer back in Denver. His name is George Grantham. He’s a wonderful singer and great drummer. Maybe we could see if he would like to join the band." And of course, George joined.

Then we started auditioning bass players. Actually, on the same day, I think we auditioned Randy Meisner and Timothy B. Schmit.

JC: Oh, really? I didn't know they both auditioned from the beginning.

RF: At the very beginning, Randy was our first bass player. He lasted right up through the recording of the first record, Pickin' Up the Pieces, and then he left the band. Then Timothy joined the band after that.

Initially, Poco had Jimmy Messina, Rusty Young, myself, George Grantham, and Randy Meisner. Then it began to take on all the different changes that it went through when Paul Cotton took Jimmy Messina's place [1971] and Timothy took Randy's place [1969].

Poco 1969 (Richie, 2nd to right)

JC: Like your previous band, each album from Poco was different from the next album [laughs]. Pickin' Up the Pieces, Poco’s first album, is very country-like.

RF: Kind of . . . I mean, that was the motivation behind the record. “Pickin' Up the Pieces" (the song), "Consequently So Long," and different songs like that had the steel guitar.

But there were some other elements. We were still trying to maintain and hold onto an original rock-and-roll sound that we were trying to establish at the same time. We were a rock-and-roll band that wanted to cross over into country. "Pickin’ Up the Pieces" was the song that was basically leading the way on that. [To hear “Pickin’ Up the Pieces,” click here.]

JC: On your second album (self-titled 1970), there's a Grateful Dead-like jam of one of the songs from your first album, Pickin’ Up the Pieces.

RF: "Nobody's Fool" was on the first album, and then we redid the song as "Nobody's Fool/El Tonto de Nadie, Regresa" on the second album. That was basically to say, "Hey, listen, we have two great soloists," as far as instrumental soloists go in the band, Rusty Young and Jimmy Messina. It was really very popular during that time to do those extended instrumental jams. We just said, "Yeah, we'll do that. We can do that too." Poco was a very versatile band. When you listen to that jam, it has a lot of jazz flavor on it too.

JC: That’s what I mean. There was a mix of country and rock on the first album. By the second, there was jazz.

RF: Yeah. I think every artist doesn't want to do the same thing over. You want to think that you're progressing. You want to think that you can take the gifts that you've been given and use them or create something that's new and fresh.

I think you have to do something that's fresh with every album. If you just keep doing the same thing, it’s not going to be fresh. And so, that was one of the reasons.

After the second album, we did a live album [1971]. Around the time the live album was released was the time that Paul Cotton was coming into the band to replace Jimmy Messina. As a band, we thought, "Okay, we need to reestablish our rock-and-roll roots." Paul certainly added to that. I can't remember the album after—

JC: That was the one I was about to ask you about, From the Inside.

RF: Oh, From the Inside. Yeah, that was the next one. [Laughs].

JC: I was going to ask you about that album, because I know it's been mentioned that you really did not like the production on that album. [Laughs].

RF: Well, I think it was new for all of us. That was the first record that we did that Jimmy didn't produce as an in-house producer, an in-group producer. Steve Cropper [the record’s producer] came from a little different musical background than we did.

I certainly think that Steve did a good job, but I think maybe there were some things that were going on that he didn't relate to. Steve was just cutting his teeth on a lot of production at the time.

Great guy, man. As a matter of fact, I just put a song on my Facebook page two days ago, called "Starlight," which was on one of my first solo records. Steve played on that, and it was really fun to have him play on it.

Steve was a great guy, but I think there was a little bit of a disconnect. Also, there were a lot of things going on in my life at that time, and I wasn't really connected in the process as much as I would have like to have been.

JC: From what I read, you were starting to have some thoughts about leaving Poco around the time you were making the album A Good Feelin’ to Know [1972]. Although, you would stay on for one more album, Crazy Eyes [1973]. So, what began the change in thinking, "Maybe Poco isn't for me"?

RF: Well, I had seen a lot of my friends having more success. Stephen in Crosby, Stills & Nash. The Eagles were starting to come along at that time. And Randy [who first joined Poco] was in the Eagles and they were starting to make some noise.

With A Good Feelin’ to Know, we were looking for a producer who could help us. We had great FM air play. FM was the underground radio at the time, but there was the AM radio that we didn't have, which was the format that really lifted you or put you into a genre of acceptability.

We were looking for a commercial producer. We didn't want to go back and do another record with Steve. We wanted to find someone who was more in-tune to hit records. My first choice at that time was Richie Podolor. He produced Three Dog Night and Steppenwolf. But Richie didn't work out. We recorded a couple of demos with him and took them to CBS, but CBS said no. I don't know why they said no.

It was suggested that we listen to some of Jack Richardson's production—he produced Canadian rock band the Guess Who. We really liked a lot of what Jack was doing, so we hired him.

Jack came out and listened to us as we were rehearsing at one time. We all just said, "Yep, let's do it. Let's get together. We relate to him. He's a great guy. He's easy to work with."

So, we started Good Feelin' to Know. When we recorded Good Feelin' to Know, everybody  thought, from the production right on down the line, “This is it. The title track is the song that's going to be the AM hit that's going to give us the opportunity to move along.” [A live version of “Good Feelin' to Know” can be heard here.]

And when it didn't happen, it was very discouraging to me. I just thought, "Well, if this record's not gonna do it, then there's not one that's gonna do it." At that time, I decided that I was going to pull out and try to find another avenue to pursue my career.

JC: What did you do right after Poco?

RF: Right after Poco I got together with Chris Hillman (from the Byrds) and J.D. Souther (who was already starting to make a name for himself, as he was co-writing some songs with the Eagles.) With the encouragement of a record executive named David Geffen, we put together the Souther-Hillman-Furay Band [SHF].

On paper, the band looked great. You've got three great songwriters. Well, I won't say ‘great’—I don't want to put myself in the category of great. You have three songwriters. [Laughs]. Chris Hillman, J.D. Souther, and myself.

We had a really tremendous band with Paul Harris (keyboards), Al Perkins (guitarist), and Jim Gordon (drums). On paper, it looked like this band was a can’t-miss. This had to be another Crosby, Stills & Nash. But there's never gonna be another one of those no matter what anybody thinks.

Crosby, Stills & Nash got together because they were close friends, they were working together, and it just evolved. We were put together on paper. Like I say, what always looks good on paper doesn't always translate out into real time. And it didn't.

Richie (far right) on 1974 self-titled album

With Chris and J.D., we didn't necessarily gel as a working unit. They're both dear friends of mine today. I love them both. I've worked with Chris quite a bit. I've had J.D. sing on some of my solo records. There's nothing that would keep us apart other than the fact that it just didn't work for us in that format. [To hear SHF’s “Fallin’ In Love” click here.]

JC: Okay. So, after that band broke up, what did you do next?

RF: [Laughs]. What did I do next? [Laughs]. Well, there was a guy in the band [SHF]. His name was Al Perkins, and I didn't want Al in the band.

JC: Oh.

RF: I thought that Al was gonna be a detriment to the band. Chris Hillman is the one who brought him in because he had worked with him previously, and he was insistent on the fact that Al was the guy that we needed. Al played not only guitar, but he played steel guitar, he played Dobro [a wood-bodied, single-cone resonator guitar], he played banjo—he was a multi-instrumentalist. He was a great player and a great guy.

But Al had a little . . . what do I want to say? He had . . . not a stigma, but he was a Christian. At that time, I didn't want to have a Christian in the band.

JC: Wow.

RF: I thought Al was going to stop SHF from the success that I was looking for at that time.

Why would that make a difference? You know what, looking back on it, I know now that Jesus draws a dividing line. I thought having Al in the band was going to cause us to flounder and flop. He had a little fish sticker on his guitar that said "Jesus is Lord." And I just said, "No, I don't want this guy in the band."

Jeff, Al could have been anything. He could have been a womanizer. He could have been a drunk. He could have been a drug addict. He could have been anything. But he was a Christian.

And that's the reason that I didn't want him in the band, because Jesus does draw a line. Back in the day, it wasn't necessarily very popular to make a bold stand for Christianity. But Al ended up leading me to the Lord and became [laughs] a very dear friend of mine. But in the beginning, I didn't want him in the band.

Then things started to change in my life. My wife and I started to have some marital problems, and it really threw me for a loop. And I just decided, "You know what? I have to decide what's the most important thing in my life right now. Do I really want to be this rock-and-roll star?"

Yes, I've seen Stephen's name up in lights. I've seen Neil's name up in lights. I've seen Randy Meisner's name up in lights with the Eagles. Jimmy Messina had taken off with Kenny Loggins and became a big star. I was thinking, "What about me? I'm just as talented as these guys are." I don't have an ego or nothing like that, but [laughs] I was kind of feeling sorry for myself.

I decided SHF was going to be the way to go, but then we had this other thing going on with a Christian in the band who wasn’t ashamed of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and was very out front with his little sticker on his guitar and unashamed of his faith. And I was thinking, "Oh man, this just isn't gonna work out."

Then the rug was pulled out from under me, and my wife [Nancy] said, "You know, I'm out of the marriage. I don't want to be married any longer." I thought, "Good lord, man, what's going on? Everything's falling apart in my life."

I had to reassess what was important to me. Did I want to put my family back together, or did I want to keep on continuing this rat race of trying to put together a rock-and-roll band that was gonna be a star that would burn out in time?

JC: Obviously, you decided to reassess your life at that point. What happened from there?

RF: Well, I did reassess and there was a series of circumstances. Nancy and I separated for seven months after being married for seven years. There was a lot of deep soul-searching in those seven months while the Lord was working in both my life and Nancy's life.

 Nancy and I did begin to talk. I thought at one point in time when she came up to visit that we were just gonna get together again and try to make it work, but she was not ready at that time.

Through time and through circumstances, Nancy and I began to talk, and we said, "Hey, we can give this another try." This happened between the second SHF record and I've Got a Reason [Richie’s first solo record] that we started working on our marriage and came back together. We will be married fifty years on March 4th.

JC: In addition, Al Perkins would introduce you to Calvary Chapel. The chapel would become a big part of your life as well.

RF: Right. Al took me to a church in southern California called Calvary Chapel. Al just took me down there, and all of a sudden I started meeting all these young guys. I guess they were familiar with my music and they probably thought more highly of me than they [laughs] should have at the time. But I was looking up to them because they had this walk with the Lord. I was just trying to get my life back together.

I made a lot of good friends out there at Calvary, and I made changes in my life as to the direction that I wanted to go and what I was gonna do. The fact is, Jeff, I thought I was gonna put together the rock-and-roll band for God. That was really what I thought after Nancy and I got back together. I thought that was my purpose in life. I was gonna make Christian rock records.

JC: Yes.

RF: First of all, I had to get everything else together. I had to get my family together first, because if that wasn't gonna work, then it didn't matter. It no longer mattered if I saw my name or my group's name at the Hollywood Bowl or Carnegie Hall. That didn't matter anymore. What really mattered was my family. I had this gift. When God gives you a gift, it's something that he doesn't want you to bury. He wants you to use it.

At that time, I was trying to figure out how all this was gonna fit together. First of all, I had to get my family back together, so when that happened, I met a friend at Calvary Chapel. His name was Tom Stipe. Tom and I started writing music together. We actually wrote quite a few songs on my first solo record, I've Got a Reason, the first album that I did apart from a band.

I’ve Got a Reason (1976) album cover

That record kind of tells a lot of story of the struggles that I was going through—trying to work out my relationship with Nancy, how our life was gonna evolve . . . I've Got a Reason were the struggles I was having at that time, and trusting in the Lord to put together my marriage, which everybody said was pretty much over and done with.  David Geffen came to me and said, "You're not gonna give me one of those Jesus records, are you?" And I said, " I think you're gonna enjoy this music, man." [To hear “Look at the Sun” from Richie’s first record, click here.]

It was interesting. On that record, the name of Jesus isn't mentioned one time. Yet, when it came out, the Christian community rejected it because of that fact.

JC: Oh.

RF: It wasn't because of music. It was because of the fact that the I never said Jesus’ name. So, it wasn't Jesus enough for them, or it wasn't quote-Christian-unquote for them.

But the secular world caught on right away and they rejected it too. Even though it came on the charts at good numbers and was getting support, I couldn't get the support of the record company to go for it because they were afraid. "What are we gonna do with this guy, a man who is now an outspoken person for Jesus Christ?"

So, the secular world rejected it as well. There I was, caught between a rock and a hard place, not knowing which way to go and what to do. But there was the record out there.

That was the beginning of the solo career and the beginning of some other things. Nancy and me starting to get our life back together and our marriage back together. It was an interesting time in 1976. [Laughs].

JC: Did you do any more solo albums after that?

RF: I followed that up with an album called Dance a Little Light, which was another record that was on Asylum [David Geffen’s record label.] At that time, I was kind of required to give Asylum more products after leaving SHF, so I did Dance a Little Light.

I thought really a very fine record. It was not as directly faith-based as I've Got a Reason was. David Geffen had left Asylum at the time, and another guy had taken over, and we did not have a rapport.

I played a concert in Los Angeles, in support of Dance a Little Light, at a place called the Roxy. The record company was coming down and I was hoping they were gonna say, "Well, you know what, it's been a good run, but we're gonna cut you loose. We're gonna let you go."

Well, that was not the fact.  I blew them away, because I had a great band. I've always had great live bands. I blew them away at the Roxy, and they said, "When are you gonna do the next record?"

JC: [Laughs].

RF: And it's like, "Oh man, I've given you two, and you've done nothing at all with them." I was so disheartened, but I went back at the encouragement of another friend and recorded another solo record called I Still Have Dreams. We had a top 40 record with that, but Asylum still neglected to get behind it. At that time, I was throwing up my hands, saying, "What in the world do I do now?"

 Then I thought about doing a record for a Christian record company called Myrrh. I gave them a record called Seasons of Change. They re-released my first record, I've Got a Reason, while I put together the songs and the recording for Seasons of Change.

But for some reason, I just couldn't get it going with anybody, so that's when I began to really throw up my hands. After I gave them Seasons of Change, nothing happened with that as far as in the Christian community.

I was still striving, man. I was still trying to get that recognition record, that recognition in a group setting somewhere, whether it be a secular setting or a Christian setting. It was like I was out in no-man’s-land. I’d created a lot of good music that nobody had even heard of because the record companies at first didn't know what to do with me. First Asylum and now Myrrh.

Basically, that was when I stopped making music for a while. I said, "Lord, what will you have me to do?" I started a little Calvary Chapel affiliate church in Boulder, Colorado. [Laughs.]

JC: Is that when you also became a pastor?

RF: Yep. That’s another interesting little [laughs] sideline, because a lot of people think, "Well, if you haven't gone to seminary, then you can't really be an official pastor." But that's not how it worked with Calvary Chapel.

I would go out and do some things with some friends of mine who were Calvary Chapel pastors and were on the radio. I would sing a few songs before they came out and preached their message to the radio audience. We started a little home Bible study in Boulder, and then we started an affiliation of Calvary Chapel church.

After about eight years, music came back around. What goes around comes around.

JC: Right.

RF: In 1988, Rusty Young had gotten in touch with me and wanted to know if I would like to do a Poco reunion. I said, "Sure, that would be fun. But who's gonna be the bass player?" Was it going to be Randy? Was it going to be Timothy?

Then I thought, “Who’s going to be the guitar player?” I thought the way to do that project would have been to bring both of them into it.

I think Timothy had just been asked to rejoin the Eagles at that time, so he opted out of it. I don't remember what happened with Jimmy and Paul, but I really wanted to see both of them because they both contributed so much to the band that it would have been nice. It got whittled down to where it was gonna be Randy and Jimmy.

Poco, 1989 (Richie, 2nd to right)

That became a struggle. Quite frankly, I had just become a pastor and there were some struggles. There were some songs that I really did not relate to or believe in and thought that if I was a part of those songs that I was endorsing them. And I didn't want to endorse them.

One thing led to another, and I finally agreed to do a six-week tour, I believe. After that six-week tour, I abandoned the whole thing.

JC: Why did you abandon the whole thing?

RF: There wasn’t a mutual respect. I will admit that I was feeling like, “I’m out here in no-man’s-land with these guys." I had talked with them about the mutual respect that I felt, and they needed to show me the same respect that I showed them. It was hard for me to continue. The fact is, I had seen the video for “Call It Love” and did not like it. I was very, very, very specific about what I did not like about the video to the band, the management, and the record company. I was told by the record company and by my manager at that time, who was Allen Kovac, that they would not release that video until it had been approved by the band.

Poco was going down to Nashville to play at the RCA national convention. I was told that the video had already been released. I basically pulled a Neil Young. I went up to my room, got my bags packed, rescheduled to play, and I was on my way to the airport and out of town.

JC: Okay.

RF: I mean, if words don't mean anything, then actions will definitely speak. It was a sad situation. It was something that could have been avoided in so many different ways if there would have just been mutual respect. But there wasn't mutual respect. They thought I was being too—what do you want to call it— “stuffy Christian” or whatever. I really wasn't. But there were things that just didn't sit with me that I felt I could condone and stand up there and feel good about.

Back at Calvary Chapel, the people at Calvary Chapel were looking for some songs for what they call a worship album. I was asked if I had any songs. I said, "Sure, man, we've got some songs." I had been writing some songs with my friend Scott Sellen. Scott and I started playing the songs for Calvary. The people in charge of the record said, "Well, you've got enough songs for your own record. Why don't you just make your own Christian record?" So, we thought, "Okay, we'll make our own worship record."

That actually got me back into making music again. I recorded the album, In My Father's House [1997], and that one led to another one called I Am Sure [2005]. Those are what I like to call “devotional records.” I don't want to say, "Okay, these are Christian rock records," or whatever. They're just devotional. They're not all worship records.

There are some songs on there that you wouldn't think of doing at a worship service, but there are songs on there that you would do at a worship service. They’re just devotional. They're for people who love the Lord and want to draw close to him.

JC: You would later reunite with Buffalo Springfield at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1997. I think I read that you did a Bridge School benefit with Stills and Young as well.

RF: Yeah. That was probably about five years ago.

Richie (center, singing) at Bridge School Benefit, 2010

Neil called and asked what I would think about doing a little reunion. So, we did. You know what? It was fun. It was the second time that we had tried to do a reunion.

We tried to do a reunion in the eighties, prior to the Poco reunion. It was a nightmare. It was a train wreck. It was really bad. I was a little hesitant in committing to doing this project with Stephen and Neil. But, boy, when we got together, it was no work at all. It was just easy. It was just fun. We did the music, and it was great. We were actually supposed to do a tour.

JC: Really?

RF: A thirty-day tour. After we did the Bridge School, we did seven other shows, and the next year we were gonna do a thirty-day tour. But Neil, once again, decided that he wasn't into it anymore.

JC: Yeah.

RF: And that was it for that. But it was fun. I think everybody who participated in it had a fun time. Now, we've lost Rick Rosas (our bass player at reunion). Joe Vitale (reunion drummer) and Rick did such a wonderful job.

That was a good fun time. I would have liked to have done the tour. It was fun.  

JC: What about getting into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with Buffalo?

RF: Yeah, that was quite an honor. It was certainly a humbling experience to be inducted. But I tell you what . . .  it is a . . . [laughs]. How do I want to say it?

JC: Yeah.

RF: It's kind of like a bittersweet thing, because I think it's very political how one gets in there. Yes, I do think Buffalo Springfield was deserving, but they got in there because Neil is very close to Jann Wenner [owner of Rolling Stone magazine]. Obviously, Springfield has made a mark, Neil has made a mark, Stephen's made a mark, and so they are very deserving. In my estimation, Poco doesn’t get any recognition for the pioneering job that we did, and I think that's a shame.

JC: Well, bands such as Chicago (who was inducted in 2016) and Journey (who is being inducted in 2017) were ignored by Rolling Stone and the critics, but they were successful with fans and the mass public. Eventually, both bands had to be put in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. [Laughs].

RF: Yeah.

JC: You’re still at Calvary Chapel as a pastor. Talk about what goes on daily for you as a pastor.

RF: Well, Chuck Smith, who started Calvary Chapel, really taught us to do book by book, verse by verse. That’s what we've continued to do in Colorado.

We have a small Calvary. There are big Calvaries, there are small Calvaries, there's medium-sized Calvaries. We're a small Calvary. As to why, the Lord knows what we can handle, so that's what he gives us. We’ve been a church since 1982 in Colorado.

We aren't really a traditional church, but we have our worship. We have a message. We pick a book that we're gonna go through from chapter one through the last chapter of the book.

We have outreaches as far as some missionary outreaches. It's just like . . . we're a church, man, just like [laughs] every church would be.

JC: Any plans to get back into music?

RF: I've never planned anything. I think it's best that way. As far as a musical career, I'm writing songs again right now. We'll just see what happens with those.

I'm gonna be seventy-three in May. It's not like I'm looking to build a career of any kind. I mean, the fact that we're even talking, there must be some significance to my life that you would even want to talk to me about what I'm doing. So, I'm not trying to become anything or do anything. I just watch it go and just enjoy life as it comes my way, man. I have four daughters. As I’ve said before, Nancy and I have been married for fifty years come March 4th. I have twelve grandchildren.

I've been blessed. I have been blessed more than any one guy should be blessed. I'm just very grateful for the way the Lord has worked in my life. The Bible says, "If you delight yourself in the Lord, he'll give you the desires of your heart” [Psalm 37:4].   I have the desires of my heart and can't even imagine anything else that I could desire.  

Richie at Calvary Chapel, 2011

Saturday, November 12, 2016

A Very Candid Conversation with Santos

Walter J. Santos (professionally known as Santos) started his music career as a jazz percussionist who had a successful music career. In the seventies, Santos played at the renowned Carnegie Hall with jazz organist Charles Earland, who was the opening act for jazz legend George Benson. Santos played with various jazz artists, and in 1978, he played with New Jersey pop rock band Fandango. Fandango was hoping to reach the same level of fame as other fellow Jersey rockers such as Bruce Springsteen and Bon Jovi. Fandango opened for many big league performers such as Billy Joel and Chicago. They had talent, musicianship, and stage presence, but they weren’t able to catch the break they needed to succeed, which led to Fandango disbanding in 1980.

Side note: One person who had listened to Fandango was legendary guitarist Ritchie Blackmore (best known as the guitarist of Deep Purple and responsible for the famous guitar riff of “Smoke in The Water.”) In 1981, Fandango’s lead singer, Joe Lynn Turner, joined Blackmore’s band Rainbow (1981–1984). In the early nineties, Turner would reteam with Blackmore in Deep Purple. I had a chance to interview Turner on my blog (that interview can be read here). I follow Turner on Facebook. Recently on Facebook, Turner was going through his entire discography and he brought up his Fandango records. I wondered what had happened to the other guys in Fandango besides Turner, and that’s where I came across Santos.

After Fandango disbanded in 1980, Santos played with fifties doo-wop legend Dion (two of his most known songs are “Runaround Sue” and “The Wanderer”). He played with Dion for twelve years, and Santos went on to marry Dion’s sister and became Dion’s brother-in-law. Dion would be another major factor in Santos’s life besides marriage. Santos had drug problems. Dion, a rocker who had his own drug problems, had found religion as a way to stay clean. Santos found religion to be helpful with his drug addiction.

In the nineties, Santos’s marriage ended and he struggled once again with drug addiction. However, he picked himself up again and never fell down. Today, Santos runs his own ministries. (The Santos Ministries website can be found here.) Santos Ministries is a mobile ministry that tours churches across the US. Like most ministries, it spreads the word of Christ. Unlike most ministries, Santos brings a unique style of music to church: doo-wop gospel music that contains Christian themes. Santos plays percussion, but now he composes the songs and sings them. (An example of Santos’s doo-wop gospel music can be found here.) In addition to finding Christ and staying off drugs, Santos has also kicked his addiction to food. He is a much slimmer person these days.

In this candid conversation, I share Santos’s unique story. We discussed his early days as a successful percussionist, his days with Fandango, his days with Dion, and his remarkable road to recovery. I want to thank Santos for taking the time out to do this interview with me.

Jeff Cramer:   What got you interested in music and playing percussion?

Santos: That started in my neighborhood growing up in New York. I was in a neighborhood in the Bronx in Westchester County just a little outside of New York City. It started in grade school when I joined the drum corps. I started playing parade drums and going to music class, and that quickly escalated to playing Latin percussion.

Once I started with the Latin percussion congas and timbales, that launched me out into a whole realm playing with R&B bands, and it escalated pretty quickly. One of my first jobs was at Carnegie Hall. Usually you work all your life to get to Carnegie Hall, but I start out at Carnegie Hall. [Laughs]. I was on stage with Charlie Earland, who was a pretty well-known jazz artist who played the B-3 organ. We were on the same bill with George Benson and the Jazz Crusaders.

From there, I went on the road playing with Charlie for four or five years. We were playing all the black jazz clubs from here [New York] all the way out to Detroit and St. Louis. I was playing with some pretty good artists. At the same time, I was working as a session player for all types of music. I mainly worked on jazz and a lot of film scores. I worked on a lot of stuff in New York as a union musician. I got to play at some of the best studios, including Electric Ladyland, the studio that Jimi Hendrix launched in Greenwich Village.

JC:  What were some of the jazz sessions or film scores you played on?

S:  Well, there were a lot of avant-garde stuff . . . I’m trying to remember. I have a lot of drug damage over the years [laughing] in my head. So, there’s a lot of stuff I don’t remember. But I remember going in and doing sessions. There was a guy named Sonny Sharrock who died. He was pretty well known. Sonny was a jazz guitarist, but he was a jazz guitarist in his own right, and he was a phenomenal guitarist. Even Jimi Hendrix mentioned Sonny’s playing in an article.

Santos at Electric Ladyland Studios (1974)

We did some stuff for James Baldwin who was a black author. We did a couple of movies for him. I did a lot of commercials over the years and stuff like that.

JC:  How did the gig with Fandango happen?

S:  I forget how it happened—I think it was through my good friend Abe Speller. He is still playing drums today. He had this gig with Fandango, and before I knew it, I was on the road with Fandango. Fandango was a whole another realm and it was great.

Fandango sometime during the late ’70s (Santos is on far right)

JC: Fandango was opening for a lot of big-name artists like Billy Joel and Chicago.

S:  Yeah. It was Billy Joel, Charlie Daniels, Marshall Tucker, Pure Prairie League, New Riders of the Purple Sage, the Allman Brothers . . . we did a lot of southern rock: Wet Willie, Grinderswitch, etc. The list is endless. We were hooked up with a booking agency out of Macon, Georgia: Paradigm. And so Paradigm would put us on the road with all these southern rock bands. It was phenomenal. We had great times on the road opening for these southern rockers.

JC:   From hearing the music, you could see that Fandango, this Jersey band, had a mission to reach the top. You were definitely trying to be another Bon Jovi or Springsteen.

S:  Oh yeah, we had a great sound. We had double lead guitars and two drummers. We were into it. I listen to that stuff now and it still sounds great. [This is a must hear live video of Fandango’s “Headliner” at the Capitol Theatre (1978). It begins with Santos playing an amazing percussion opening before breaking into song. For all the Ritchie Blackmore/Joe Lynn Turner reading this interview, you know Turner just sings and doesn’t play any instrument. This is a rare chance to see Turner on lead guitar. Click here to hear it all.]

JC:  Now Joe Lynn Turner has said in interviews that what started to break up Fandango was that the band’s equipment got stolen. That started to really unravel the band.

S:  Oh man, yeah. That was incredible. We used to pack it all in a truck—you know, one of those Ryder moving trucks—and a guy named Kenny Newman would take it on the road. He was our sound guy; he was a hard-working guy. In fact, Kenny Newman is still mixing sound today. He works with Barry Manilow these days.

Kenny and I were driving one night. I used to ride in the truck with him just to keep him company because I liked riding in the truck. We were parked on Lake Short Drive in Chicago and locked it up. We went into the Holiday Inn. When we came out in the morning, the truck was gone with about $90,000 worth of equipment in it.

The band was left without anything—not even a drumstick. We got some temporary equipment and continued the tour, but a few weeks later, the police department in Chicago called me and said, “Hey, we found your name on some cases on the side of the street.” There were my cases on the side of the street with no equipment in it. So, that was all I got back from that—the cases. But I wound up getting better equipment. I lost some priceless percussion from South America that was hard to replace.

JC:  There were other factors to the break up, like Fandango hadn’t quite become a success yet and there were tensions among band members. But in Joe Lynn Turner’s interviews, it seems to imply that the stolen equipment was the final blow for the band.

S:  Yeah, well if you get a hit with something like having your equipment stolen, it can really shake ya or break ya. It started to unravel and everybody in Fandango started to go separate ways. That’s what happens. Even with bands that are successful, they start to split up after a while.

Countless musician friends of mine, from the Rascals on down to other people, have a difference of opinion, and before you know it, you’re all split up.

JC:  As you know, Joe Lynn Turner’s career took off like a rocket when Ritchie Blackmore hired him to front Rainbow and later Deep Purple. Did you ever see Joe again after Fandango?

S:  Did I ever see Joe? Yeah, I’ve seen him one time, I believe. I was passing through Jersey and I went to a house. I got to say, “Hello, how you doing?” and converse for a little bit. I was hoping to see him again. We’re like ships that pass in the night. I get to talk to him once in a while, but I hadn’t really seen him. I hope he’s doing well.

JC:  After Fandango, one of the next people you met was Dion. He was obviously going to be a very influential person in your life.

S:  He’s incredible. In the latter years of Fandango, I started using drugs. The members of Fandango had a little clue. One time when I was on the tour bus, I was in one of the bunks and I started having a seizure—foaming at the mouth, flopping like a fish out of water on the bunk. They knew I kind of had a little of a drug problem. I forget which guy in Fandango suggested to me, “You better get some help, Santos, you’re pretty messed up.”

They didn’t know how messed up I really was. But that was my life. I was on some kind of therapy to try to get me off the heroin. I was on methadone and finally got arrested in New York under Nelson Rockefeller who was the governor at the time. I was facing twenty-five years to life in prison.

JC: For what?

S:  For selling three bags of heroin to undercover detectives. Under the law, Governor Nelson Rockefeller said that if you get caught selling any amount of hard drugs, you’re going away for twenty-five years to life. And he wasn’t playing. I went before a judge on that charge. The judge looked at my rap sheet and realized that I wasn’t a violent offender; I was just dumb. He hit me with a five-year probation sentence and said, “I never want to see you in my courtroom again. Go get some help.”

I left that court, left New York, went down to Miami, Florida, and started playing in the clubs down in Coconut Grove. I worked with different studio musicians, like Miami Sound Machine and Allen Blazek, who produced one of the Fandango albums. Blazek was a session producer at Coconut Grove Studios. I also played with musicians at Criteria Studios, a pretty well-known studio.

While working at the studio in 1981, I got asked to play on a recording session for Dion. I remembered Dion from New York City. He had a reputation for being a drug addict, even in his later years. He had the gold records and was in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but he couldn’t stop using heroin. So when I got hired to play on his session in Coconut Grove, he had a transition where he started doing born-again gospel music.

Dion was doing a session for Word Records and they hired me to come in. I saw Dion and he just looked so peaceful. I said, “Hey, D, how did you get off drugs?” He looked at me and said, “I got born again.” I didn’t know what that was. I thought he was out of his mind.

Dion explained to me how he came to the end of himself and he just reached out and went to a twelve-step support group for help. At that time, they said, “You have to come to know a power greater than yourself.” At that point, he was going to a little Bible study and he professed Christ as his savior. That was a transition for him.

And there he was, explaining this to me. In 1981, I was at the end of my rope. I had ran drugs to the end of the line. I was suicidal. After that session—I guess it was about three weeks later—I tried to commit suicide in Hollywood, Florida. The police found me in my car and they put me in South Florida State Hospital. That was where I hit the bottom. That was where I said, “I’m done. I want what Dion has. What do I gotta do?”

So when I got out of that state hospital, I reached out to Dion and he invited me to a little church service north of Miami. I made a commitment that night to God and to myself that I was going to try a different avenue, and I was going to try the spiritual. And you know what? It really worked for me. At the same time, I was going to twelve-step support groups. That whole wrap-up set me on the course that I am still on today.

Today, I’m a certified drug and alcohol counselor and I get to help so many people. I’m affiliated with a rehab in California and I direct people, especially a lot of musicians that I run into. I tell them, “Hey, there’s a better way. You don’t have to self-destruct.” That was the beginning. That was 1981 when I ran into Dion in that recording session in Miami. That’s what happened, man. It just was the best thing that ever happened to me.

JC:  Right.

S:  Otherwise, I would have died.

JC:  Also, it changed your music direction where you became a doo-wop gospel singer.

S:  Well, after getting clean, I wound up getting married to Dion’s sister. I was on the road with Dion for about twelve years, traveling all over the world as his brother-in-law and as a road manager, and he would bring me up on stage to sing. He kind of influenced me that I could use that old music that everybody loved. I have an interesting story when touring with Dion.

JC:  I’d love to hear it.

S:   It was years ago when I was touring with Dion, and we had to do The Today Show. We showed up at Rockefeller Plaza early in the morning, like 5:30. We went upstairs and did the show. We were coming down around 9:30 in the morning and there were these guys in the lobby. I mean, there was about fifty of ’em. They were wearing thick glasses and pens were sticking in their pockets. Their arms were full of albums with Dion’s picture on it, and they were lined up to get an autograph from Dion. These guys were like geeky record aficionados. That was their whole world. I just wanted to look at ’em and say, “Man, you guys need to get a life.”

They lived for that. It’s just amazing that there’s this culture out there that just lives and breathes that. That’s everything to them. And every artist or personality has those people stalking them and following them. It’s amazing. I didn’t even know there was that side of life.

JC:  What led you into starting Santos Ministries?

S:   Well, like I said, Dion led me to the Lord and I wound up traveling with him. I married his sister. Then twelve years into it, me and his sister got divorced, and instead of running for help and getting help, I went back to drugs. In 1993, I crashed and burned. I wound up overdosing in the Bronx. I was dying of an overdose when the guy I was using with beat me in the chest and got my heart going.

Afterwards, I didn’t know where to turn. I reached out to this little ranch in California called Calvary Ranch. It’s been there for forty-something years. It’s a drug rehab. The pastor who started it was from Jersey City. I went all the way out to California and I started over again in 1995.

Santos singing in his ministries (Santos Ministries)

Since then I’ve gotten better. I’m remarried now. My life has gotten better and now I help people. I haven’t looked back since that time. I learned a valuable lesson about staying plugged in and being accountable, because when you’re out there on your own, you can crash and burn real easy.

Today, I’m still a gospel doo-wop singer. I wound up recording some songs and just going on the road. That’s how the ministry started. My ministry today is all over the country and I’m always running. Today, I go from prisons, to jails, to churches, to nursing homes, and to drug programs all over the country. I drive my own tour bus. It’s a motorhome. It’s called the “Taxi for Jesus.” I’m always on the road singing somewhere. It’s great. I love doing that. [Hear Santos lead a church in a rousing rendition of the Isley Brothers’ “Shout” by clicking here.]
JC:   Congratulations for kicking the drugs. I also noticed that you’ve lost a lot of weight. I’ve lost weight too and that’s hard enough, so I can’t imagine what it’s like to quit both food and drugs.

Santos (before and after) losing weight

S:    Food’s the hardest addiction to kick.

JC:   Really?

S:   Well, you can’t abstain with food. With drugs or alcohol, you can just stop using it. With food, you’ve got to use it. I’m on a program called “Take Shape for Life.” I became a health coach and I get to help others. It dovetails right in with the drug and alcohol recovery, which I’m certified as a drug and alcohol counselor. It all works together, and food fits right in there.

I’m on my diet daily because I could gain that weight back in a heartbeat. I have to eat a certain way, and I’ve learned how to discipline myself to eat-to-live, not live-to-eat. That’s what it’s all boiled down to today. I could go hit the neighborhood pizzeria tonight and really backslide, especially if you’re a drug addict or a person who had a problem. It’s the same thing with food. Before you know it, I could be five hundred pounds.

JC:   For me to drop weight, I’d hit two hundred pounds. What got you to drop weight?

S:   What happened to me with the food?

JC:  Yeah, what happened?

S:    I had a heart attack. I realized that I had warning signs over the years, but I just wouldn’t take it seriously. I tried all the diets, the quick fixes. Nothing worked until I decided to make this commitment last year [2015]. A friend of mine called me and said, “Hey, I’m a health coach. You wanna do a program? I lost fifty pounds five years ago and kept it off.” I said, “I’m ready. What do I gotta do?”

He put me on this program and I signed up for Take Shape for Life. They taught me how to eat. With this particular program, they send you the food. I bought my food—it was Medifast—and they have seventy varieties of meal replacements. I do six meals a day. I have five meal replacements and a lean-and-green meal. I’ve been doing that since last year [2015].

And I can travel with it. I don’t have to worry about buying food or counting calories. I follow the program, and when you get to your goal weight, they help you transition to just to eat healthy. Low glycemic, easy on the carbs, etc. Everything is nutritionally balanced on the program with vitamins and everything. They give you a book called The Habit to Health and they teach you how to drink, sleep, eat, and live that whole lifestyle.

It’s a daily thing, and as you do it, you start to feel better and motivated. I’ll tell you that nothing tastes as good as fit feels. That’s my motto today. I even have a website called Inch by Inch. It might help other people. People are constantly asking me, “How do I do it? What do I gotta do?” Some people want to do it and some people don’t want to spend the $12 a day that it costs to buy the food.

But if they’re serious enough and they’re sick and tired of being sick and tired, they come on board. I have a bunch of clients that I work with and coach. I’m a health coach, so I talk to them about making right decisions. That’s how it works.

JC:  So what’s next for the ministries?

S:   I’m going to take a look. I haven’t had time because I’ve been busy. I had surgery. I had bladder cancer last year. I had surgeries done for that. Now, this year, I’m working off the skin cancer. I’ve been in surgery this week.

JC:   Oh my goodness. Well, you have a lot of tremendous energy for having gone through all that.

S:   Yeah, and I still drive my own tour bus now. It’s a motorhome. I’m getting ready to leave for Florida in December. I’ll be down there most of the winter working that whole state and then I go to different parts of the United States. I just came from San Diego, drove across country, stopping in cities along the way. I’m in different venues around here.

Lot of times I’m in Philadelphia. On Kensington Avenue, a friend of mine has a ministry called Rock Ministries. His name is Buddy Osborne. He was in that original Rocky movie and Sylvester Stallone is a good friend to him. He’s working with street kids from Kensington. You ought to see that place. He uses boxing to transform these kids’ lives. It’s incredible.

 I’m always trying to pump hope into people, especially these days when people are just having their cages rattled by so many things. It’s a cool thing to have a solid faith in God, especially in the Christian faith. There’s an old hymn called “Rock of Ages.” What that hymn talks about is that God is a rock. God is a rock and you can put your faith in Him.

God is the same yesterday, today, and forever. That never changes, and that was something that I needed. I needed that kind of anchor to hold me in place when the wind is blowing and all of this stuff goes on around you. My center point is my relationship with God, and that’s what Dion passed on to me. And here I am doing that today.

A couple weeks ago, I was at a church in Colorado. I was with my good friend rock legend Richie Furay. Richie’s in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

JC:  Oh, really? How do you know Richie, and how did you come into contact with Richie recently?

S:  Yeah, Richie was with a band called Poco, and Fandango used to tour with Poco. Before Richie was with Poco, he was with Buffalo Springfield. Because Richie was in Buffalo Springfield, he’s in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Today, Richie pastors at the Calvary Chapel of Broomfield, Colorado. But Richie’s still singing too. That’s the cool thing.

Richie does the same thing as I do—we help people, especially musicians, because you know they’re trying to get their success and they’re willing to go to any length. When you be the right person, you get the right person. You may want that career, but first you gotta take care of yourself.

Make sure that you’re not going to be blowing all over the place, especially in the entertainment business. So many people crash and burn. I mean, the list is endless: Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Michael Jackson, etc. They get in the spotlight and they burn up. They’re like shooting stars. I don’t wanna do that anymore. I just want to be a blessing.

Today I’ve come full circle. I’m doing my music. I love what I do. I love being a positive influence to so many people around me. But I have to have that grounding in my own life.

Santos doing a sound check before performing at church

Friday, November 4, 2016

A Very Candid Conversation with Chris Rhyne

Chris Rhyne got his professional start playing keyboards with Canadian R&B/jazz fusion artist Gino Vannelli. He played on Vannelli’s album, A Pauper in Paradise (1977), and toured with him as well. Chris also played keyboards with Carlos Santana on the albums Inner Secrets (1978) and Oneness: Silver Dreams—Golden Reality (1979). When Chris toured with Santana, he played in two bands: the main Santana band that played hits such as “Black Magic Woman” and songs from the Inner Secrets album, and the Devadip Orchestra. At the time, Santana was a follower of Indian spiritual leader Sri Chimnoy and he was into jazz, so he created music that had a mix of jazz and spiritual themes. At Santana shows, the Devadip Orchestra would play the spiritual jazz first followed by the main Santana band. In 1979, Chris played keyboards with the famed jazz violinist Jean-Luc Ponty. He toured with Ponty and played on two of his albums, Civilized Evil (1980) and Mystical Adventures (1982). (Randy Jackson, a judge on American Idol, was also member of Ponty’s band.) By the early eighties, Chris would leave Ponty to became part of the house band on The Merv Griffin Show.

Chris already had an impressive career as a keyboardist by the time The Merv Griffin Show came to an end in 1986. Yet, he would add something else to his résumé: producing. While producing records for other artists, Chris continued playing music, mainly for commercials, TV shows, etc.

Chris briefly retoured with Ponty in the nineties, and he continued producing music. Additionally, in the early 2000s, Chris toured with one of India’s most famous violinist, L. Subramaniam. (To this day, Chris continues to tour on and off with L. Subramaniam.) In 2010, his nephew, Tyler Glaiel, developed the video game Closure. Chris composed the score for the game, which won awards and was critically acclaimed. This year (2016), Chris produced renowned children’s music artist Stephen Michael Schwartz’s latest album Bucket of Wow!

In this candid conversation, we cover Chris’s impressive career with Gino Vannelli, Santana, Jean-Luc Ponty, L. Subramaniam, and The Merv Griffin Show. In addition, we look at his time producing and scoring the video game Closure and his recent work with Stephen Michael Schwartz. I want to thank Chris for his time for this interview.

Jeff Cramer:   How did you get started playing keyboards or piano?

Chris Rhyne:  Well, it was mandatory piano lessons for me and all of my brothers and sisters. We lived in Massachusetts just outside of Boston. For some reason, parents in the fifties were told that music helped develop you scholastically, so it helped you be better at math and other subjects. So, my parents decided we would all take mandatory lessons.

JC:  When did piano become a passion rather than something your parents forced you to do?

CR:  My parents forced me and my siblings to take piano lessons for disciplinary rules, but they didn't really want us to be professional musicians. I started getting very involved in it.

By the time the Beatles came out, instead of practicing my classical music, I was working out Beatle arrangements on piano and also playing clarinet in the school orchestra and accompanying all the school productions. I also started my own band called Reindeer Army. Actually, the band had a record deal on Laurie Records while I was still in high school, which was kind of big in New England.

It was kind of a Doors-type group. I played organ and bass—my left hand was playing the bass notes on the organ—and we had a guitar player and a drummer. We actually played all over New England at colleges and everything. I was already making money, and it seemed like, "This is fun. I want to do it for a living." [To hear Reindeer Army’s 1970 single, “Walk On,” click here.]

I had been playing in Reindeer Army through high school as a way to make money, and it just seemed logical to go to the next level and go to Berklee College of Music. I wanted to increase my knowledge.

JC:  So you went to Berklee College of Music. Gino Vannelli would be the first major artist you played with.

CR:  Let me think back . . . I played with quite a few bands around New England, but I hooked up with Gino while I was still living in Boston and flew up to Montreal to audition with him and got the gig. I really hadn't heard of Gino. I didn't know what a stir he was making in certain parts of the US and Canada, but I heard his record and thought it was fantastic.

I believe it was the first all synthesizer‑based music. It was around the same time as Gary Wright, but there weren't too many people doing it back then. I ended up playing left‑handed bass and synthesizer with Gino, just like I used to do in my high school band. I flew out to California. It was a fantastic gig—very well-rehearsed, very meticulous. And Gino's quite a talent. [You can hear Chris play on Vannelli’s “The Surest Things Can Change” by clicking here.]

Chris playing with Gino Vannelli in 1977

JC:   How did you go from playing with Gino to Santana?

CR:  Let me retrace my steps . . . I toured with Gino and recorded A Pauper in Paradise with him in London at AIR Studios in 1977. I had moved out to LA but didn't have a whole lot of connections yet, and Gino cancelled a tour that was supposed to take place. At that point, I was out of work and in LA and didn’t know anybody, so I needed a gig.

I was having many musicians come by my garage in Encino—a little house that I was sharing—and we would have jam sessions. A lot of really top studio musicians came by. I overheard someone saying that Tom Coster [the previous Santana keyboardist] had just left Santana.

Ironically, I had just seen Santana a week before at the Forum in Los Angeles and thought, "Wow, I love this band. I just loved the spiritual attitude and the sound of the music, and I could picture myself playing with it."

A week later, I heard that Santana needed a keyboard player. Being very bold and unrealistic at the time, I just cold‑called the manager. Before I knew it, I was on a plane to San Francisco to audition 
with them.

Chris (far right) in Santana (1978)

JC:  Graham Lear, who was Santana’s drummer at the time, had also played with Gino Vannelli before. Did you know Graham from your Gino days?

CR:  Graham had been with Gino right before I started playing with Gino. Casey Scheuerell was the drummer when I played with Gino.

JC:   Right.

CR:   So, I hadn't met Graham, and now he was with Santana. That was the first time I met Graham.

JC:  Okay, so you got the gig. Looking at the songwriting credits of Inner Secrets, you were involved in creating “Move On.”

CR:  Yeah, Carlos would run things by me, and we worked together on a few tunes. I did get songwriting credit on one tune, “Move On.” [To hear “Move On” by Santana, click here.]
JC:  During your time with Carlos Santana, you had two gigs with him. One was the band Santana, which played the new album Inner Secrets and the older stuff, such as "Black Magic Woman." The other gig was with the Devadip Orchestra. Can you talk a little about it?

CR:  Devadip was Carlos’s spiritual name. At the time, he was a student of Sri Chinmoy, who was a very popular guru in musical circles back then. John McLaughlin [a renowned jazz guitarist] was also one of his devotees.

Carlos was always exploring jazz aside from the Latin rock he played with the Santana band. It was music that wasn't quite as commercial. As a matter of fact, Carlos was working on something along those lines on the first recording that I did with him. He called me over to the studio across the street before I was even officially in the band. I did some overdubs in one of his records under that name. Oneness: Silver Dreams—Golden Reality was the title.

When we toured, interestingly enough, Carlos asked me if I would help musically direct and put together a jazz group of Santana band members. This group became known as the Devadip Orchestra. The Devadip Orchestra actually opened up for Santana in Europe. We did a whole opening act. The Devadip Orchestra was a smaller, broken‑down group that included a sax player named Premik Russell Tubbs, and we would open up for Santana playing the more jazz‑oriented stuff. Then we would take a break and come out and do the Santana show. [Laughs].

I have to say, doing Santana occasionally was a trip. I didn't write "Black Magic Woman," but sometimes we would be playing a concert—for example, us and the Stones on the same billing—and we would be playing a stadium with seventy thousand people. I would have to come up with that ubiquitous well‑known organ riff. I would be playing this little riff, and I would see seventy thousand people lighting their matches or lighting their lighters and freaking out just because I was playing a very simple, little well‑known organ riff. It was kind of fun, I have to admit. [Laughs]. And that band was very brilliant. I mean, Carlos, the percussion section, and all that. There was plenty of playing, but I was having fun. [To hear “Oneness” by the Devadip Orchestra, click here.]

JC:   It sounds like you were having a blast and you had some creative freedom, writing a song, musically directing the Devadip Orchestra, etc., so why did the Santana thing come to an end?

CR:  Oh, boy, it's hard to say. Let me think back . . . how did it come to an end? I don't want to divulge too much here.

JC:   That's okay.

CR:  I don't want to say anything bad about it, but there was just some disagreements in the musical direction at one point.

At one point, the road manager didn’t think me and Greg Walker [the vocalist for Santana] were fitting in well with the band, so  we were asked to leave the band. Later, Carlos wanted me to join the band again, but I had already gotten a gig with Jean-Luc Ponty.

The primary thing wasn't with Carlos; it was with the management. It started with the Devadip thing, because I had to put whole that project together [laughs] and they didn't want to pay me any extra money for it.

And then Jean‑Luc offered me more money than I was making with Santana, so the decision was primarily financial. I’ve always loved Jean‑Luc's music as well. I just decided it was time to go with Jean‑Luc and play a little bit more fusion.

JC:  With Jean‑Luc, you were also playing with Randy Jackson of American Idol. Randy was playing bass in Jean-Luc’s band.

CR:  Yeah, Randy was a blast on the road, very fun—pretty much the same personality you saw on American Idol is how he was. [Laughs]. He’s a great player, an awesome player. He was the bass player on some of the tours I did with Jean‑Luc.

I've played with Jean‑Luc a number of times over the years, starting in the seventies. I was doing more studio work in the eighties. Eventually, I went back with him in the nineties when he put the Western and African musicians together, and I toured again quite a lot with him. [To hear Chris and Randy on Jean-Luc’s “Egocentric Molecules,” click here.]

JC:   Now, from Jean‑Luc, you eventually moved onto The Merv Griffin Show.

CR:  Yeah. That had nothing to do with Jean‑Luc, of course. It just happened that I had been touring pretty much straight since the seventies, and I’d gotten a chance to audition for a spot with The Merv Griffin Show sometime in the eighties, which was nothing I ever thought I would do.

I thought it might be good to stay in LA for a while and just explore doing more studio work and see what it was like to not tour. So, I took that job for awhile. [You can hear Chris playing with jazz legend Benny Goodman on The Merv Griffin Show by clicking here.]

It was an interesting job. I got to play with countless legends, from Buddy Rich to Mel Torme, Lionel Hampton, etc. I mean, I could go on and on. Many of the people I played with, who were legends, are no longer with us. I got to play multiple styles, so it really helped my arranging and my ability to play in multiple styles. I have a great Buddy Rich story.

JC:  Okay, go ahead.

CR:   I was the young guy in the band at the time with Mel Gibson hair, and most of the guys were twenty or thirty years older than me. They were excellent players.

Buddy came out one day and he was gonna play drums with our band. It was a fast, complex, upbeat jazz tune that called for a saxophone solo. We had one of the best sax players in the world, Plas Johnson, playing in the band. The guy is a monster player, but he also played on The Pink Panther theme and all the Henry Mancini stuff. That's the sound you hear when you hear The Pink Panther theme. [Laughs].

JC:   Cool.

CR:   So Buddy kept looking at me and checking me out. I was thinking, "What's up with this?" Because I was just gonna play—you know, supplement the horn section. We only had three horns, so a lot of times I would be doubling the horns with the synthesizer sound or whatever.

We were going through the arrangement and Plas started playing an amazing sax solo during the rehearsal. All of a sudden, Buddy stopped and said, "No. I want this kid—meaning meto play the solo." Mort Lindsey, the musical director, said, "But, Buddy, this is a sax solo." Buddy said, "I want him," and he looked at me.

Buddy looked right at me, as if it was kind of like a challenge. He was known for doing that kind of thing. [Laughs]. Buddy was probably thinking, “Who's this young guy in his band,” you know? He wanted to put me on the spot.

Luckily, I had been practicing and reading a lot at the time, and my chops were really good. So I played the solo, and then it came down and we were filming it on the air live, and I pretty much let it rip. Buddy was staring at me and I was staring at him, and there was no other word about it.

JC:    [Chuckles].

CR:   But it happened. Supposedly, I met the challenge because Buddy didn't yell at me or anything. [Laughs].

JC:  Yeah. I mean, I’ve never met him, but he sounds like a guy who wouldn't mince words, you know?

CR:  Yeah, yeah, yeah.

JC:  Before you went on the road with Jean-Luc in the nineties, you also mentioned that you were in the studio.

CR:   I was producing people’s records.

JC:   How did you get into producing?

CR:  Well, that probably goes back to when I was thirteen or fourteen. I bought my first used Wurlitzer electric piano and started opening it up and trying to plug it into the hi‑fi system. I had an old tape recorder that could change speeds after recording stuff on two tracks, and I was overdubbing as many times as I could.

I always wanted to experiment with sounds and recording, so that is kind of natural. When I moved to LA, I started buying tape recorders and putting them in my apartment until the whole thing looked like a music store eventually. I've always been interested in arranging, recording, putting things together, writing songs, and getting the best performances out of musicians and singers.

JC:  Were you doing anything else in the studio besides producing?

CR:  I just got into being a studio-session player. You do three or four sessions a day, just running around doing sessions for whatever music comes up. Some of the studio music was playing behind films. Some of it was playing behind TV commercials. It was commercial studio work for the most part. Some of it was fun and creative, and some of it was just reading the music and doing what they want, you know? [Laughs].

Chris (left, in white shirt) in the studio (1987)

JC:  Eventually you would come back to play with Jean-Luc in the nineties.
CR:  Well, I didn't decide to play with Jean-Luc after the Griffin show went off. I was still in LA producing and just doing various sessions with different people, and then Jean‑Luc called me—I'm trying to remember what year it was—and asked me if I would come back and play with him. And at that point, I hadn't been on the road in a long time and I wanted the experience again.

That was when Jean-Luc had the African group, and that was really interesting. It just had all kinds of odd meters and different feels. It was very challenging. I decided to go back to him. I went back with him for a few years. It was on and off at that point.

JC:   What happened after you went on tour with Jean‑Luc? What happened next?

CR:  You mean after touring with Jean-Luc?

JC:   Yes.

CR: Since 2000, I've been touring on and off with Indian violin legend, L. Subramaniam. His nickname is Mani. He's the biggest violin star in India. Americans might not have heard him, but there's 1.2 billion people in India, and most of them have heard of him.

Mani’s wife is a Bollywood vocal star and a legend, Kavita Krishnamurthy. Mani's an amazing violin player. Nobody bends notes more expressively than Mani, and his wife, Kavita, is an amazing vocalist. He's kind of a master virtuoso Indian classical music player, but he also puts together a global music fusion festival, global fusion, and he invites top musicians from all over the world to perform together on the same stage. I played one tour and we had a Russian bass player and Norwegian sax player. A percussionist from the Ivory Coast. It’s a pretty big deal in India. It's all about promoting the idea that there's only one human race and cultural diversity is a strength. We need to pull together as one planet at some point, and Mani promotes that, so it's a really positive thing.

JC: How did you first get involved with Subramaniam?

CR: A friend of mine, who's a great guitar player, Thom Rotella. Thom had worked with Mani before, and Thom recommended me when Mani needed a keyboard player. The first job I did with him was a concert in Austin, Texas. I showed up and had to sight read [reading sheet music] the music I was about to perform because I didn't really have the music in advance, so it was quite challenging. After the first concert in Texas, he invited me to tour India with him right away. I think the next tour I did with him was in India in the early 2000s. I worked on some film score with Mani on an Indian film—I don't even know what the film was and I haven't seen it. I just happened to be in the studio working with them.

JC: Has there been anything else besides playing with Subramaniam in Texas and India?

CR: We’ve played quite a few different gigs around America. [To hear Chris playing with Mani, click here.]

JC: Are you still playing with Subramaniam to this day?

CR: You never know. I mean, the next time he calls me, I will.

JC:  When you weren’t touring with Subramaniam, what did you do?

CR:  Well, I still had my connections in LA, and so I was doing studio work, producing people.

You know, sometimes you have to do what you have to do to survive in this business. Sometimes I would be producing demos for people. Sometimes I would be playing a club gig. Sometimes I would be doing arrangements. I produced lots of children's records. I was writing stuff for Disney, NBC, a lot of TV shows, songs, game-show themes, all kinds of stuff like that. We actually get royalties and stuff.

There's a lot more you have to do as a musician, especially now. You have to be even more versatile now than you had to be back then. You have to wear a lot of different hats to stay busy because the money is pretty much dried up in records. The budgets are nowhere near what they used to be.

Records are almost a vanity project now. It's like, "Here, I made a record," and musicians get it out at their concerts practically for free. You can't sell anything. A lot of people I used to work with can no longer afford to have records produced the old way. You have to be quite creative in how you make a living these days.

JC:  You have been indeed creative. You scored a video game, the Closure game.

CR:  Yeah, that was quite fun. That came about as a fluke. My nephew, Tyler Glaiel, had been producing video games since he was a little kid. He was only eighteen at the time when he came up with the idea for Closure and got me in on the ground floor of doing the score for that.

The game ended up doing really well when it came out. It won lots of awards and highly acclaimed reviews. The score got a lot of good reviews as well—it ended up being on Sony.

That was a lot of fun, very creative writing inspired by the visuals. I ended up coming up with the kind of music I never would have written otherwise just because of the strange sci‑fi vibe of the video and the graphics. It was very fun. I love scoring.

JC:  You also won an award for Closure.

CR:  Well, the score for Closure actually won the 2010 Independent Games Festival for Excellence in Audio. It won that award, and I was quite surprised. It was my first video game I had scored, and I was up against a lot of people—350 games I think. It came out on top for the audio, so I was proud of that.

Chris (left)  winning the 2010 Independent Games Festival for Excellence in Audio Award 

I mean, I've been working on my engineering and mixing skills since the eighties, so it was kind of nice to be acknowledged for that, aside from the playing thing. That's a whole other art form—mixing and producing and knowing how to use compression and eq[eq is music terminology for frequency equalization] and all that to get a great mix. [To hear samples or buy the soundtrack for Closure, click here.]

I've won lots of awards for the children's music that I've produced. Children’s music is fun because you really get to do every style. You get to do orchestral stuff. You get to do rock ’n’ roll. You get to do some jazz. You get to do Cajun or anything all on one record, which is fun. I like variety. It's really varied. I just produced another children's record a few months ago for probably the top children's artist in the world right now, Stephen Michael Schwartz, who, incredibly enough, is a huge star in China.

As a matter of fact, Stephen will be touring China for a couple of months in a couple of weeks. He just did a big tour for two months this summer in China. He is an excellent songwriter.

We just finished a new record called Bucket of Wow!. It just got out and it came out wonderfully. That’s what's going on with that situation. [To hear the title track of “Bucket of Wow!”, click here.]

JC:  Do you have any other current projects besides producing?

CR:  Oh, I do gigs around. I played last weekend at the Sacramento Blues Festival. There's a band that's quite popular called Cafe R&B. I’ve actually been to Europe with them a couple of times. It’s a pretty kickass band with a killer singer. The singer, Roach, is amazing. She puts on an amazing show. It's a blues-oriented band. I still gig with them quite frequently, at least once a week.

Chris (right) playing with Café R&B

JC: You have had quite a career: keyboardist, producer, video game composer . . . what would you say has been the highlight of your musical career?

CR:  Well, I'm trying to think of any highlights . . . I take every job seriously. Every time you work with music with people who care about it, it can be a highlight.