Saturday, November 12, 2016

A Very Candid Conversation with Santos

Santos and myself at Rock Ministries of Philadelphia, 8/12/2017

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 fans 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.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

A Very Candid Conversation With Gary Wilson

The seventies was an era where musicians, such as KISS and Alice Cooper, dressed up in crazy outfits, wore makeup, and performed wild stage shows at their concerts. Yet, no one could match solo artist Gary Wilson when it came to dressing up and putting on a stage show. While KISS and Alice Cooper performed heavy/hard rock, Gary’s music was more avant-garde and experimental. His music mixed lyrics of sexual frustration with Steely Dan-like melodies. At shows, Gary would dress up in cellophane or duct tape, or had paint or flour spilled over him.

Gary also played with his own band, the Blind Dates. The Blind Dates would dress up and sometimes pour flour or paint over Gary mid-song.  While the Blind Dates performed with Gary, they never recorded on any of Gary’s albums. Some of his stage shows were so off the wall that the electricity would be cut off so Gary and the Blind Dates would stop playing.

In addition  to an original look and stage show, Gary had a unique process of recording his 1977 avant-garde rock album You Think You Really Know Me. He played nearly all of the instruments (bass, keyboards, guitar). Gary recorded and edited the album in his parents’ basement. He released the album, pressing 300 copies in 1977 and then another 300 in 1979. Well known songs on the album are “6.4=Make Out,” “Groovy Girls Making Love on the Beach,” “Chromium Bitch,” and “I Want to Lose Control.” He continued playing shows and released a few singles in the 1970s. A native of Endicott, New York, Gary would move to San Diego in 1978 (where he still lives today) to find a record label deal. In the beginning of the eighties, Gary had ended his stage shows and no longer recorded music.

Although Gary was no longer pursuing a solo career, he continued to play professionally for other artists such as Roy Bird and the Coasters. In 1996, Beck mentioned Gary Wilson’s name on his hit song, “Where It’s At,” on the Odelay album. As a result, fans were interested in Gary Wilson again. Motel Records wanted to re-release You Think You Really Know Me, but Gary was difficult to find. Motel Records had even hired a private detective and were unable to find him. Eventually, in 2002, Gary was found in San Diego playing piano for lounge singer Donnie Finnell (whom he still plays with today) part-time and working at an adult film theater at night.

Motel Records re-released the album in 2002, and Gary’s solo career would “resurrect,” as he calls it. In 2005, a film documentary titled You Think You Really Know Me: The Gary Wilson Story, portrayed Gary Wilson’s life and was shown at the Lincoln Center in New York. Gary released more albums and toured during the 2000s. Some of the albums were released by Stone Throw Records, a hip-hop label run by DJ Peanut Butter Wolf. In addition, Gary had quite a few famous fans, such as Beck and the Roots. The Roots invited him to play with them on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon in 2010. Simpsons creator Matt Groening and rapper Earl Sweatshirt were other famous fans as well. Sweatshirt sampled Gary’s song, “You Were Too Good to be True” for his song “Grief.” In 2015, Gary would appear with Sweatshirt and BadBadNotGood on Jimmy Kimmel Live! At the time of this writing, Gary continues to tour with his own outrageous shows.

In this interview, we talk about the beginning of Gary’s music career. We discuss his album You Think You Really Know Me, as well as his shows during that time. In addition, we talk about his solo career ending and being revisited decades later. We also talk about what Gary is currently up to. I want to thank Billy James from Glass Onyon PR for setting up the interview, but mainly I want to thank Gary for his time. 

Jeff Cramer: What inspired you into the world of music?

Gary Wilson: My father was a string bass player. He had a good gig. He played in an old house band with a quartet at a hotel for twenty-five years. All the Wilson family played instruments throughout our school years. My sister played the cello, and I loved cello and bass.

When I was eight or nine years old, my father would go to a store on the weekends and buy me some singles. At that point in time—it was 1960 or 1961, I believe—I became a big fan of Dion and the Belmonts. I was a big fan of him and his song:  “Runaround Sue” and “Lovers Who Wander.” Anyway, I was in fourth grade and that’s when I wrote my first song, which was very much influenced by Dion. My mother would curl my hair to look like Dion.

The Beatles came out when I was in sixth grade. I saw them on The Ed Sullivan Show. I was still a Dion fan at the time, but I quickly changed by the seventh grade. I was twelve years old and played with a band. At that point, my dad bought us a Farfisa organ, a piano with an electro-amplifier. We had a Lowrey organ in the house as well. The Wilson family had a few instruments: string bass, cellos, a tuba, and a big old Lowrey organ. In the beginning, we used to transport the big old Lowrey organ, but that was a pain in the neck.

By the time I hit the eighth grade—I was thirteen—I joined a rock band called Lourde Fuzz, and they played a lot of gigs. They were good. They were a bunch of Italian kids who lived within a four-block radius of Endicott. They needed an organ player, and in the late-sixties, there was some of the best rock music. Our mothers or parents would take us to the gigs. We worked all the time. Lourde Fuzz actually had a good chemistry. You know, bands can sometimes look good, but if they don't have a good chemistry, you can sometimes hear it or see it.

In the late-sixties, there were a lot of places for kids to play with bands, with psychedelic lights, for example. I remember playing the Hullabaloo Club. I think we played there with 1910 Fruitgum Company, which had a single, “Simon Says,” a bubblegum song [1967].

I was in a rock band and we were playing all the big stuff—some Stones, some Jimi Hendrix, Grass Roots, the Turtles, you know, all those bands back then, and we did them well. Plus, I was playing in our school orchestra.

Then all of a sudden I became interested in more weirder stuff, weirder music. I gravitated toward bands like the Mothers of Invention and Captain Beefheart. That was fun, because when I was in high school— I was fifteen or sixteen—I got a chance to meet Captain Beefheart and give him a demo tape. He came to Ithaca, New York.

Then I became interested in painting—Robert Rauschenberg and Pollack—all those avant-garde artists. I was interested in anything avant-garde, so it could be jazz, it could be theater. Back in those days, they used to have cultural shows with hosts and my dad would wake me up on a Sunday morning to see Allen Ginsberg or Robert Rauschenberg. It kind of fascinated me (we had cable in a very small town in upstate New York, but a lot of people didn’t). That inspired me to be interested in Varèse and Schoenberg, so I started writing classical music and eventually I became interested in John Cage. [Note: John Cage is one of the most influential avant-garde composers of the twentieth century.]

JC: Obviously, John Cage would be a huge influence.

GW: That became a real turning point, you know. My brother was going to SUNY [State University in New York] Binghamton. They had a good music library, so I went there and listened to music on headphones. I put on a piece from John Cage called “Concert for Piano and Orchestra with David Tudor on piano.

It was recorded in 1958 at Alice Tully Hall, and I’d never heard anything like that. So, when I heard Cage and that particular song with David Tudor, who was my favorite piano player, it was just . . . wow. I brought my tape recorder and taped it. They allowed you to do that—tape off a library recording.

I would listen to that all the time, in the shower or other places I used to hang out at home. That got me into the stranger music. I was in a rock band, but Cage just kind of drifted into my direction, incorporating influence into my rock band.

JC:  You would meet John Cage.

GW: I met John Cage when I was fifteen. I was in the tenth grade. I had been writing music for our high school’s chamber orchestra at that time. My violin teacher said, “Well, why don't you try to get ahold of him [Cage]?” I got ahold of a New York City telephone book because I was from upstate New York in Ithaca. And lo and behold, Cage’s number was listed in the phone book, so I gave him a call and he gave me a post office box to send some scores to him. I followed up the conversation two weeks later by calling him and he invited me to his house. My mother drove me up there. He lived in Haverstraw, New York, at the time, outside of New York City.

I still look back at that incident. I was just talking to somebody last night about that story. I can't figure out how that all came about. There I was, a kid from upstate New York, one hundred fifty miles away from New York City. The finest music colleges would love to have a one-on-one with John Cage—

JC:  Yes.

GW: —let alone to be invited to his freaking house.

JC: Yes.

GW:   My mom drove me up there, and we got lost in the woods. There was a general store in that area, and I called John Cage from the store and said, “Hey, Mr. Cage, I can't find your house.” So, he came down in his car. I think he had a Thunderbird—a big Thunderbird, not the sporty one. He picked me up at the general store, and my mom followed behind in her car.

I was making small talk with John Cage as we’re driving to his house, and then for hours we went over my scores and he would correct me. He'd say, “Okay, how do you think a trumpet is going to interpret that?” Or, he would scribble something out of my score and tell me to do it a certain way. That was probably one of the more magical moments of my life. He had a big influence on me.

JC:  How did the ideas come up for You Think You Really Know Me?

GW: Well, that took a few steps. I was still searching for who I was—Gary Wilson. I would even go sometimes to a John Cage show in New York or at the local university wherever he was showing. I thought, “Wouldn't it be nice to see somebody in front of this John Cage show with a bucket of flour on him and wailing about some chicks?” Or, “Wouldn't it be nice to see Tony Bennett come out in front of the John Cage show with a sack of milk over his head or something?”

Everything was kind of developing in my brain. When I got out of high school, I recorded my first album, Another Galaxy [1974], which was  just re-released on Feeding Tube Records [2016], where I was playing acoustic bass. It was an instrumental album. At that time, I wrote a lot of fusion music. At that time, you only had to be eighteen to get into bars, so I could go to New York City to see Don Cherry or Pharaoh Sanders in these small clubs in the Bowery. I would go see all these guys and then the fusion thing was happening, so that led to the first album. I did a single called “Dreams.” The B-side of “Dreams” was “Soul Travel.” Both “Dreams” and “Soul Travel” were a fusion-oriented instrumental. [To hear the single for “Dreams,” click here.] I still wasn't quite famous.

At the same time, I joined a band led by Peggy Lee's piano player playing bass. Peggy’s piano player was a real good jazz guy. I joined his lounge group which had a girl front singer. I learned a lot from the piano player. Like my dad, I’m a professional musician and a bass player.

We played the better places around the area. I had a lot of things going on. There were some moments where I wondered if the band would do a total avant-garde show even though they weren’t an avant-garde band.

So, on my own time, I would do these shows, very John Cage. I would dress up in duct tape and paint straw and hay—it was total avant-garde.  I'm thinking, “Okay, I got to put a little more musicality into this somehow.”

All of a sudden, I made these demos and tapes of songs like “Chrome Lover” and “I Wanna Take You on a Sea Cruise.” I still wasn't ready to make You Think You Really Know Me, but my solo stuff had taken a turn, and I focused on my solo stuff more than my professional gig.

I had submitted a couple of demos to Bearsville Studios, which was near Woodstock. Robbie Dupree, a singer-songwriter from the seventies, had a few hits like “Steal Away,” “Brooklyn Girls,” and some other songs. He was the producer who produced me because he liked the demos. He brought me up to Woodstock. Bearsville Studios was the best studio I'd ever been in. I always tell people about it. I don't use studios that much, but that was just insane the sound of it.  I was around twenty-three at the time and we ended up recording the “Groovy Girls Make Love at the Beach,” “6.4,” “I Wanna Lose Control,” and “Chromium Bitch,” but we had the drummer from the band Orleans [Orleans is best known for the hits “Still the One” and “Dance With Me”]. He was on drums, and we had a vibe player [the vibes are a percussion in the mold of xylophone or glockenspiel]  and the most beautiful piano.

We finished four songs and I stayed in Woodstock for about four nights. I remember that it rained every night. Then I came back home and Robbie Dupree’s career took off. He didn't have any more time to devote to this project. To make a long story short, I said, “Well, I'll just go back to my cellar, and since I did the demo, I'll just do the whole record.” So, I started the process and returned to You Really Think You Know Me. There was a lot of editing, scissors, you know . . . just cutting the tape.

Gary making You Think You Really Know Me (1976 or 1977)

I was finally liking it and actually wanting to put my name on something. [To watch the official video for“6.4=Make Out,” click here.]

You Think You Really Know Me album cover (1977)

It was always, “Where's Gary Wilson?” I did all these funk instrumentals, but I needed to find who Gary was, and that was the turning point of growing up. I finally reached a point where I felt happy to have my name on the album. When I put that out in 1977, I pressed it myself, tried to promote it myself, sent it out to radio stations, and then I got my first gig at CBGB.

JC: That was in 1977, at the time when punk bands, such as the Ramones, were often playing at CBGB.

GW: Yeah.

JC: And you mentioned writing jazz fusions on the first album. There was a lot of jazz fusion music on You Think You Really Know Me. A place like CBGB expected straight-ahead punk music, rock like the Ramones, but they weren’t getting that kind of music with you.

Gary Wilson at CBGB (sometime during the ’70s)

GW: Well, it's funny, because a lot of the New York City audience would yell at me. I don't like to use words like “punk” and all that, but a lot of the audience members would actually get mad at me because I'd drag up a Fender Rhodes piano or something like that. They'd start yelling at me. Back then, a lot of guys didn't like Woodstock. Things change, but I have to say New York City was always pretty good to me.

JC: One thing I want to say about the album is that you played a majority of the instruments on You Think You Really Know Me.

GW: A few of the tracks have a drummer named Gary Iacovelli. He played the more technical parts of some of the stuff. I used him on my first album, Another Galaxy. He was a real jazz funk drummer. He could play anything. We basically grew up together. I tried to play everything. That's kind of the way it always seems to work best for me. I don't know why, but I can concentrate better when it's mostly me and my vision. I kind of picked up some instruments along the way, so that's the way it works.

JC: Okay. But you would tour with the band, the Blind Dates. With the whole stage show, how did the idea of being covered in flour or covered with plastic wrap start?

Gary covered in plastic wrap

GW: Well, when I got interested in weird music, classical and all that other stuff, one of my favorite painters was Robert Rauschenberg. As a teenager, I got into a lot of painting shows—these big shows where I would take six-foot-by-six-foot plaques of wood and chairs and tires and hay and red paint. I remember a few of these art shows where I'd be in these arenas and I'd have these huge six-foot three-dimensional things. I would stand in the distance and watch. There was a lot of fine art there and potential art buyers would walk by everybody's art. The buyers would always stop at mine. I'd have titles like, She Kissed Me Last Night, and I'd have an eighty-thousand-dollar price tag on it. Nobody ever bought them, but I was learning how I could make myself into one of these messy paintings that I used to make. 

The Blind Dates, with Frank Roma and Vince Rossi, was a band I played in, and we all grew up together. Because we lived in a small town, it wasn’t easy to find outlets. Luckily, we were close to New York later, but as a young kid, I was looking for any outlet I could get into and I tried places where we shouldn’t have been in. The Blind Dates and I were looking for kicks. So, I'd go into a place where they were expecting a polka band and I'd bring in the Blind Dates. Frank Roma liked to put contact mics on chalkboards screeching with fingernails and do that for forty minutes. I guess we were having a good time.

Gary Wilson (2nd from left) and the Blind Dates

JC: Obviously, you had a good time, and I'm sure the Blind Dates did too, but I was reading that at times during these shows, people were pulling the electricity to try to get you to stop.

GW: Yeah. Well, that happened quite a few times. I remember we'd need a police escort. We'd go into these small towns in upstate New York where they didn’t even want us, and crowds would just want to kill us or something. We encouraged it in a sense that we would irritate the audience while they wanted to nail us. Our guy would pick up his mike stand and try to get out. It was dangerous in some ways.

You know what's funny about that too? The Blind Dates and I did a show with Arial Pink at the Echo a few years back and they pulled the plug on me. That's funny because I got to play the Echo on Sunday, but all I could remember was that I was on the ground and the bass player had some kind of waterproof paint that he was pouring on me. The feedback was going off as that was happening. One of the bouncers was screaming in my ears and I couldn’t see him because I was covered in paint. There was stuff in my eyes and he was yelling at me to shut up, and he was screaming at the bass player. Of course the Blind Dates were enjoying it. Now we were really fucking aggravating the guy. Next thing they yanked the plug on us.

That's what John Cage told me in one of the small talks: “If you don't irritate the audience, you're not doing your job.” Somehow, that stuck in my brain.

JC:  While you and the Blind Dates were having fun, the fun ended in the eighties.

GW: I started playing and people weren't interested anymore. I never really quit even though people say I did. Funny enough, I never really listened to blues much growing up, but I ended up being in a blues band in 1980 because they had the gigs and they needed a bass player. That led me to play bass for the Coasters and Roy Brown and Big Jay McNeely, and all these real legends of blues. One of the real gigs we did at the Whiskey a Go Go was with Roy Brown. I don’t know if you’re familiar with him. He had “Good Rockin’ Tonight.”

JC:  Oh, yeah. Elvis did a cover.

GW: Yeah, Ricky Nelson did a remake. A lot of guys did remakes, but he had hits like in ’49 to ’51, so I had the privilege of playing with him. He was trying to make a comeback. So I ended up playing bass with him for a while and that was real interesting. People talk about Chuck Berry. I thought Roy Brown was doing rock and blues before Chuck.

Roy Brown was headlining at the Whiskey a Go Go and it was a good one. I think we had Sir Douglas Quintet opening for us. It was electrifying. It was wild. It was the real thing. The original sax player from all of Roy’s old albums was playing with us.

During the 80s, I met my long-time girlfriend for a while and she was a student at UCSD. She was into the visual arts. She and I would do a lot of performance art. She lived in California and she made two films. I was in the center of the film wearing a wedding gown. We were just a real avant-garde show. We kept doing that. We did public access and once in a while the Blind Dates would play a reunion show, but that was pretty much it. In 1997, Beck came out with the Odelay album. Then people got a bit of interested in Gary Wilson all of a sudden.

JC: When were you aware about Beck’s interest in you?

GW: Well, that's what was funny—the whole thing. At the time, I was getting into my depressing years where I was working the midnight shift, and I was duct-taping my goddamn sneakers together—that's how bad it was sometimes. I would get on the bus at midnight and head up to my old job at the theater.

Gary sometime during the 90s or 2000s 

I was watching the MTV Music Awards when all of a sudden Beck comes out and starts quoting “6.4” and “I Want to Lose Control.” I'm like, “What the . . . ?” That was before I even heard that he knew about any of my work. I didn't even know my name was on the album because I didn't have the album, but I knew he was talking about me.

So around that time in the 90s, some record company from Olympia, Washington, came down because they went to some Beck shows and he was playing “6.4” or something, and they wanted to re-release You Think You Really Know Me. But nothing came of it. All of a sudden, they all disappeared and that's another story in itself.

It’s 2002, I was still working the midnight shift at the old store and I didn't have a phone. I was at work when my guitar player from the original Blind Dates, Vince Rossi, contacted me from Endicott. He still lives in Endicott. He said, “Yeah, some guy from a record label in New York is trying to get ahold of you. They can't find you. Can I give them your number at work?” And I said, “Yeah, yeah, yeah.” So Motel, the New York record label, gave me a call. I didn't know how serious they were or anything, but they promised me a little bit of money, so I said, “Yeah, sure. It’s fine if you want to re-release You Think You Really Know Me.” They said, “You know, you were name-checked on [Beck’s song] ‘Where it's At.’” I was surprised to hear that.

Motel Records re-released my album You Think You Really Know Me in 2002 and it just overwhelmed me. All of a sudden, everything exploded. The New York Times ran a story with Neil Strauss writing. People from the LA Times, the Boston Globe, and all these papers were coming over to my apartment and interviewing me. Then all of a sudden, I made my first trip back to New York. [Documentary film maker] Michael Wolk  shot a documentary about Gary going back to New York in 2002.  The documentary would be released three years later.

You know, I'm real thankful that everything kind of worked out that way. It's persistence in some ways, you know?

JC: Right.

GW: I always call it my “resurrection” in 2002.

JC:  Having the 2005 documentary, You Think You Really Know Me: The Gary Wilson Story, play at Lincoln Center is a tremendous thing.

You Think You Really Know Me: The Gary Wilson Story documentary film poster

GW:  And, like you say, the Lincoln Center thing. That's watching your story on a state-of-the-art screen. One of the film screenings was  sold out, and Lincoln Center Film Society threw a big shindig for me at the Lincoln Center. I was hanging out with these ninety-year-old Russian ladies and all kinds of people. It was really neat. I've had some pretty good moments in my life.

JC:  One of them had to be going on the Jimmy Fallon show and playing with the Roots.

GW: That was really a marvelous time, for sure.

JC:  How did all of that take place where you got to be on the Jimmy Fallon show?

GW: Well, that was because of Questlove [drummer of the Roots] who has been a big supporter of mine for a while. I released one album, Electric Endicott, [2010] and then the label told Questlove I had a new album out. Next thing, I’m on Jimmy Fallon. Yeah, that was really neat. I still remember Questlove walking into the dressing room, and right before we went on he said, “Gary, you know, I've played with a lot of different people, but you're the one I'm most excited about,” or something to that effect.

 JC:  Yeah.

GW:  Rehearsing with the Roots was a real kick. You know, it’s hard to tell these musicians how to play your music, because they do it real well. They would put my record on the computer and each track would be each musician within the band, so they would try to match up as close to the original track when you're playing. So, I felt a little intimidated trying to correct the Roots. [To watch Gary play with the Roots in 2010, click here.]

I just thank God all the time, you know? It's great. As a matter of fact, I did the Jimmy Kimmel show, too. Remember the one with Earl Sweatshirt? [To watch Gary play with Earl Sweatshirt in 2015, click here.]

Gary (2nd from left) on Jimmy Kimmel Live!

JC: Yeah.

GW: That association with Sweatshirt came from Stone Throws Records. They’re a big part of my being resurrected. Actually, Stone Throws Records, or shall I say Peanut Butter Wolf [Peanut Butter Wolf is a DJ who runs the hip-hop label Stone Throws Records] wanted to re-release You Think You Really Know Me.

JC:  Really?

GW: That kind of blew my mind as well. In 2004, I read an interview with Peanut Butter Wolf, and he was saying, “I wanted to do that album and then Motels Records beat me out of it," and then we hooked up and he ended up releasing Mary Had Brown Hair. He’s a good friend of mine, actually. I've done some shows for a Stone Throws Records party. Some of the crowd didn't like me or something.

JC: Really?

GW:  Peanut Butter Wolf jumped on the stage and scolded the audience [laughs]. A few times, Stone Throw Records threw a shindig at an LA club. I would come in with a sheet on my head or something and they wouldn’t let me in. I remember one time the band was vamping. They were playing my intro and the doorman wasn’t letting me in. All of a sudden, I had to make an emergency call to Peanut Butter Wolf to help me [laughs]. [To watch Gary and the Blind Dates perform “Linda Wants to be Alone” for a Stone Throw Records party, click here.]

JC: But in general, how's it going on the stage now? For the most part, the audience must be expecting a wild performance from you this time around.

GW: Well, when I was resurrected, I wasn't sure how far I could take it. What I find now is the wilder the better in some ways. But when I played at the Bottom of the Hill in San Francisco, the owners got mad at me. I don't know if you're familiar with that club, but—

JC:  No.

GW: That club docked me because of the mess we made up there on the stage, so the Bottom of the Hill still hates me [laughter], but that's the owner. With the audience, I can do what I want now and totally know it’s acceptable. The people want it and that's kind of neat.

I always try to think, "Well, what do I want to see Gary Wilson do? What do I wanna see him play?" And I kind of throw that into the context of what I'm doing with usually an enthusiastic audience. It’s been great. I mean, it's been what, thirty years since I started?

Recent picture of Gary (center) and the Blind Dates

JC:  Do you also play with other musicians besides your own shows?

GW:  Yeah, I play with Donnie Finnell. I’ve been with him since ’85. He's a little older than me. I would just play piano and bass behind him. Sometimes left-hand bass, on a separate keyboard of a piano, or another keyboard. And we got a trio with a drummer, and then he sings. We do music like Johnny Mathis and Nat King Cole and Mel Torme, you know, all of the standards. We play lots of stuff. He likes jazz. He’s a jazz pop singer.

I always did keep my music persona with Donnie separate from my persona for my solo stuff. I play with these real conservative bands that are playing real straight music. And that’s an audience that doesn't even know anything about Gary Wilson. [You can hear Gary play with Donnie Finnell by clicking here.]

JC:  Yeah.

GW: They're just thinking about their Johnny Mathis song [laughs]. Then, I will do my other thing with my original music and the two music personas would keep my sanity, one way or another.
I appreciate good musicality—my love for Debussy and the well-organized song. Some of my favorite music is impressionistic classical music. That can bring a tear to your eye. I'm just fascinated with how it can make emotion happen within the chord structures. It's such pretty music. I guess you could say that’s how Gary Wilson happens.

JC:  What was the wildest gig? Can you recall the one that had the most volatile reaction?

GW: Well, one of the top three wildest performances was actually a conservative gig. I was playing a New Year’s gig for the president of a top timeshare country in the world. It was situated in San Diego, so we played at their New Year's Eve party. I was at the president's house, you know, this mansion. He and his wife had the whole place decked out beautifully. The men were wearing tuxedos. The women wore gowns.

Also, my band was finishing the night and it was nearing midnight. Suddenly, we hear all this crashing going on in the other room. I look up and all of these women wearing gowns—and they’ve got blood on them—are running down the hallway. It’s getting noisier and noisier. Then there’s the sound of breaking and raging, and all of a sudden there's a fight between the son and the owner or something, and one the guys goes flying through this huge picture window. Boom!

JC:  Oh my goodness.

GW:  They go through the glass and are rolling along the glass outside. Some people are trying to break it up, getting cut by the broken glass. The band is like, "Holy Jesus. Let's get out of here."

JC:  Wow!

GW: But as far as my own show, I'm not sure which one sticks out. In one Blind Dates’ show, one of the Blind Dates was smashing his keyboard right next to me. I was on the ground and I had to move out of the way or I was gonna get hurt. I did fall off the stage in Seattle not too long ago. That was an injury, actually. The shows all have their own characteristics, I guess. I can't think of which one was the wildest.

JC:  What’s next on the agenda for Gary Wilson?

GW:  I've got a Christmas album coming out.

JC:  Oh, really?

GW: That’s my newest one. I think it’s coming out in October on Cleopatra Records, but it's composed, new Christmas-themed songs, Gary Wilson-style, so that'll be fun [laughter].

I’m doing these shows in New York and Brooklyn. I got an eleven-piece band back with me. There are strings and horns, and an opera singer and kind of like a chamber ensemble with a band, so that's kind of neat to hear. As for me, I just grab a goddamn bedsheet or something, throw it on me, and I feel comfortable with what I'm doing, how far I can go with it, and what I should do with it.

Recent picture of Gary in costume