Interviews from the world of music!

Steve Stephens – Rayburn

By:  Michael D. McClellan  |  The story starts like something straight from The Wonder Years, two friends born a week apart, their houses two doors down from each other, their worlds orbiting a cozy, Little Rock cul-de-sac during the tumultuous Sixties, their shared love of music sparked by the early days of the British Invasion.  They are still pre-teens when they go to see the Yardbirds, as transformative an experience for these twelve year-olds as August 15, 1969, is for the 400,000 people who descend on the tiny hamlet of White Lake.  It seems as if damn near everyone in the free world jams itself into Max Yasgur’s 600-acre Catskills dairy farm that weekend, transforming a postage stamp into a city larger than Rochester.  Woodstock conjures romantic visions today, but the crush of humanity creates its own brand of hell on earth:  The sanitation facilities – 600 portable toilets are deployed across the farm – break down and overflow; the water from six wells and parked water tanks can’t meet demand from the long lines that form, and the above-ground water pipes are crushed underfoot; the food concessions sell out, and it’s impossible to ferry in any more through the traffic; the state chief medical officer declares a “medical crisis” from the rampant drug use and subsequent freak-outs; police report a shortage of ambulances, and those that are available have difficulty reaching local hospitals because of the congestion.

The world tilts on its axis during this rain-soaked weekend at Woodstock.  Out of the mud and hunger and thirst, despite the rain and the end-of-the-world traffic jams, a counterculture revolution crystallizes and rock’s future is charted.  Several artists – Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and the Grateful Dead among them – enter the weekend as bankable stars and exit as something more – iconic figures who stir souls and ring cash registers decades after the last fan departs this must-see, get-high, ill-planned zeitgeist music festival.

 

The Woodstock Music and Art Festival was a rock festival held at Max Yasgur’s 600 acre (2.4 km) dairy farm in Bethel, New York

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Steve Stephens’ world tilts at that Yardbirds concert five years earlier, the British band spurring his love of music and touching off a series of events that leads him, along with his friend Jimmy Roberts, to form Rayburn.  Stephens – born Jackson P. Stevens, Jr., the son of a prominent Little Rock businessman – leaves the concert convinced that he’s glimpsed his future, one that’s immediately at odds with his father’s vision.

 

“Music gave me a different identity than the one my father had planned out for me” – Steve Stephens

 

“Music gave me a different identity than the one my father had planned out for me,” says Stephens.  “The first concert we tried going to was the Beach Boys, but my mother refused.  She later agreed to let Jimmy’s older brother take us to that Yardbirds concert, and their performance blew us away.  I remember looking at Jimmy and saying, ‘Let’s do that!’  So that’s what we did, and that’s how we got into music.  Jimmy was a really accomplished musician, even at an early age.  He played guitar, piano, drums and saxophone.  I played keyboards and he played the guitar starting out.”

When the British Invasion crashes ashore with the Beatles, it’s the first in a wave of English acts that dominate the airwaves during the ‘60s.  It’s also a sweet surrender, as millions of kids (and not a few adults) succumb to the sound of guitar-wielding, mop-topped redcoats playing rock & roll that is fresh, exotically foreign, and full of the vitality of a new age in the making.  Stephens is not immune to its power.

 

The British Invasion begins with the Beatles

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“The Zombies were a favorite band of mine and a big influence,” he says.  “They were an English rock band led by Colin Blunstone and Rod Argent.  Blunstone was the front man and lead vocals, while Argent played piano and organ, so Jimmy and I could easily relate to them.  I was a big fan, and they were a tremendous influence on me early on.”

A young Stephens finds other sources of inspiration in the best keyboardists of the day.

“I really liked Billy Preston,” he says.  “I first saw him on a variety show called Shindig!, where he played a white Hammond B3 keyboard.  Preston was recognized as a top session musician in the 1960s – he was a virtuoso with the Hammond organ, and worked with everyone from Little Richard to Sam Cooke to Ray Charles and the Beatles.  I also listened to Jimmy Smith, who was doing his best to marry a B3 sound with the jazz world.  The vibrato and tremolo didn’t quite fit, but he did a great job with it.  I use some of his settings today, I think most B3 players do.

“Another influential group was a band called Touch.  Their keyboardist, Don Gallucci, played the keyboard riff on the Kingsmen’s classic recording of the song Louie Louie.  Touch produced a self-titled album in 1968, which was progressive rock and ahead of its time in a lot of ways.  There was a song on that record called Seventy Five that really hooked me.  I also listened to bands that weren’t as well known, like a group called The Flock.  They had a violinist named Jerry Goodman, who pioneered the use of the electric violin in the rock world.  I was into a group called Seatrain, which was trying to combine country music with a rock sound.  George Martin produced one of their albums, which was the first project he involved himself in after the breakup of the Beatles.

 

The Yardbirds inspired Steve Stephens and Jimmy Roberts to form Rayburn.

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“As far as other keyboardists, I was a big fan of a guy named Lee Michaels. Lee had a two-piece band – a drummer and himself – and he sang and played the B3.  He also played the bass with his feet.  I also liked a phenom named Jan Hammer.  The record he did with Billy Cobham was called Spectrum, and it was sensational.  Jan Hammer would later go one to win Grammys and produce soundtracks for a long list of movies.”

The teenage duo of Stephens and Roberts start playing anywhere they can, picking up gigs all around Little Rock.  It’s at a local dance that they cross paths with jazz great Ramsey Lewis, fresh off the second of three Grammy Awards he will win.

“Our band at the time was called The Living End,” Stephens says.  “We were fourteen years old, and we were playing at something called the Beaux Arts Ball at the Arkansas Arts Center, filling in during the intermission when Ramsey Lewis took his break.  Along about the third set he walked past me as I’m talking to my parents, and he looked at me and he said, ‘Hey kid, you’ve got pretty good chops.  You might want to think about making music your profession.’  Well, that wasn’t what my parents wanted to hear, not from a black musician in 1967 in Little Rock, Arkansas.  Pretty soon I found myself sent away to prep school, which killed the band – at least for the time being.”

Stephens goes grudgingly, and spends the majority of his free time practicing on the school’s pianos.  He When he returns to Little Rock brimming with a newfound confidence, and wastes little time reconnecting with Roberts.  The pair quickly bring the band back to life, rebranding it Rayburn, and adding Mack Price on bass, along with a fourth musician to step in and play drums.  They play the Little Rock club scene.  They open for acts like Three Dog Night.  They back Chuck Berry when he comes to town.  It’s the kind of stuff that has them thinking about the big time, but it’s also a sore spot between father and son.

 

Rayburn ca 1972 – L to R: Steve Stephens, Mack Price, Robbie Carder, Jimmy Roberts

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“My music was always a source of tension between us,” Stephens says.  “I was being groomed to run the family business; I was educated as a cost accountant and economist, and I have degrees in both.  I’m a pretty good number bunny. But I’m also both right and left brained, so there is a creative side that I can’t suppress.  That’s where I kept gravitating, so that was a big reason for the friction.”

Considering his father’s business connections, it’s easy to understand why a music career would lead to arguments.

 

“I played catch with the Dickey brothers, Skeeter and Bill.  Bill Dickey was a Hall of Fame catcher who roomed with Lou Gehrig, and his number is retired by the New York Yankees.  So I had opportunities to know some interesting people because of my father.” – Steve Stephens

 

“My father was a successful businessman and investor,” he says proudly.  “Because of him, I developed relationships with some very successful people.  I bird hunted was Sam Walton.  I ran on the wild side with Don Tyson.  JB Hunt was a good friend of mine.  I played golf with Cliff Roberts at Augusta National, and I also tagged along with Bobby Jones.  I played backgammon against a fellow named Oswald Jacoby, who was one of the great statistical minds of the 20th century – he was an actuary, among other things, and was also voted the greatest bridge player of the 20th century by the New York Times.  I played catch with the Dickey brothers, Skeeter and Bill.  Bill Dickey was a Hall of Fame catcher who roomed with Lou Gehrig, and his number is retired by the New York Yankees.  So I had opportunities to know some interesting people because of my father.”

Despite his father’s resistance, a reconfigured Rayburn made its way to Nashville, cutting a series of demos at Nashville’s Monument Studios and being discovered by a label exec from an RCA subsidiary called Mega Records.

“They were in the market for a rock act,” Stephens recalls.  “He offered us a contract on the spot, which blew us away.  We were young, impressionable, and dreaming big, and we had visions of hit records and sold out shows.  It was a very exciting time for us.”

 

Steve Stephens’ Hammond B3

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Stephens and Roberts eagerly sign with the label, convinced of their imminent stardom, and then…nothing.  Doors don’t open.  Opportunities dry up.  The thrill of signing with a label gives way to the harsh realities of the record business, a line of work notorious for its fickle pursuit of listener tastes.  And then, just when it can’t get any worse, the unthinkable happens:  Jimmy Roberts develops spinal cancer.

“It was devastating,” Stephens says.  “He was my best friend, and he was so young when he was diagnosed with cancer.  He had so much ahead of him.  Needless to say, Rayburn was the farthest thing from my mind.”

When Roberts passes away in 1974, Rayburn disbands and disappears.

“Rayburn dissolved, for all intents and purposes,” he says.  “I didn’t really write anymore, because it just wasn’t in me.  However, I did enjoy listening to great musicians, people like jazz pianists Keith Jarrett, Ahmad Jamal, and Russell Ferrante of the Yellowjackets.  Don Grusin was another one of those guys that I greatly admired – he and his brother Dave are very well known pianists, and have won just about everything there is to win.  They started a record label, and signed a lot of great players to it.  So even though I wasn’t directly involved in music, I followed the careers of these guys through the years and I continued to listen to the classics.”

His music career on what appears to be permanent hiatus, Stephens sets his dreams aside and steps into the family business.  Only later does he learn that his father has gone behind him and bought the band’s contract from the record label.

“That’s why we didn’t hear anything,” he recalls with a chuckle.  “My father decided to buy out the contract.  It was his way of controlling the situation and ensuring that I’d work in the family business.  It was a punch to the gut, and it played a big part in our relationship deteriorating the way that it did.”

Angry and estranged from his father, Stephens presses on with his life.  It’s a dark period, bitter period that ends only when his father falls ill.

 

“The betrayal still hurt, but at least I could forgive.  Family is far more important, and I’m thankful that I was able to be there for my father when he needed me most.” – Steve Stephens

 

“We both realized that life is too short to hold grudges,” he says.  “The betrayal still hurt, but at least I could forgive.  Family is far more important, and I’m thankful that I was able to be there for my father when he needed me most.  Musically, I put everything on the backburner – in fact, I didn’t give music a second thought for a very long time.  It was just a dream that faded away.”

Ironically, it’s Jimmy Roberts’ older brother who rekindles the dream.  He contacts Stephens and suggests that he put together a Rayburn show, reuniting the remaining band members for what becomes a well-received set of songs.  Two years later, in 2011, the band releases its debut LP, Your Mind.

“I suppose it’s better late than never,” he says with a chuckle.  “That period really got my juices flowing, and made me hungry to write more material.  I wanted to push myself artistically.  And as a musician, I had continued to play the both the piano and my B3 through the years, so my dexterity was good.  It was the spark I needed.  My creativity came back.”

 

CD cover – Rayburn – The Living End

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The result is Rayburn’s follow-up LP, The Living End, and eclectic and critically-acclaimed effort that draws praise for Stephen’s songwriting and impressive musical arrangements.  While happy with the record, which generated 2017 pre-Grammy buzz, Stephens makes it clear that there are plenty of hands involved.

“Let me riff on the genesis of The Living End,” he replies.  “It all starts with a really good drummer.  Our engineer/producer was Ben Fowler, and he was the one who said, ‘I’ve got the guy for you.’  The guy that he was talking about is NIR-Z, who played with Genesis in the 1990s.  He was also one John Mayer’s first album.  He had just moved to Nashville, and if you listen to the record, the very first song that we recorded, At the Gate, features NIR.

 

“NIR-Z played with Genesis in the 1990s.  He was also one John Mayer’s first album.  We had to find a professional who knew when to play and when not to play, and someone who was tasteful in his work.  NIR fit the bill.” – Steve Stephens

 

“One listen and I knew we’d found our drummer because NIR is such a virtuoso.  And with our music, the ability to change rhythms is so important.  Drum fills, too.  We had to find somebody who could accomplish all of that, a professional who knew when to play and when not to play, and someone who was tasteful in his work.  NIR fit the bill.”

For Stephens, Rayburn wouldn’t be Rayburn without a connection to its past.

Enter Mark Price.

“Mack Price was there at the very beginning of what we were doing,” Stephens says quickly.  “Jimmy brought him into the band almost as soon as we formed it.  Mack stayed involved in music after we disbanded in the ‘70s – he graduated from North Texas State with a major in composition and a minor in acoustic guitar.  He’s a great bass player and a great writer, so it made sense to gauge his interest.  He was an integral part of getting this effort off the ground.”

With momentum at critical mass, Stephens, NIR and Price decide it’s time to roll the dice and cut a new record.

“We went back to Nashville on my lark,” he says.  “We went there to record the songs that we’d written in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s.  The ability to write new songs started flowing again.  I couldn’t turn it off.  I was inspired, and I felt like I really had something to say.  Mack and NIR joined that effort, and the result is The Living End.”

It doesn’t hurt having a gifted producer in your corner, and Rayburn has exactly that in the aforementioned Ben Fowler, a Grammy Award-winner with a résumé that includes Eric Clapton, Rush, 24 Nights, Michael McDonald, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Meatloaf, George Harrison, and Bad Company.

“Ben is a consummate professional,” says Stephens.  “He is to the point and doesn’t get rattled.  He also has a gift for capturing great performances.  He’s never satisfied with substandard work, so we hit it off right away.  He pushes everyone.  He challenges you to perform at your very best.  With this record, he didn’t care who you were – whether you were a background vocalist or a Tom Bukovac on guitar, he demanded excellence, and you can hear it on every single track.  Without Ben we couldn’t have done the record.  That’s how important he was to this project.”

 

Robbie Carder, Mack Price, Steve Stephens

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Equally important is Stephen’s own considerable talent.  The Living End is a controlled romp, pushing the boundaries of progressive rock while never careening off the rails, going hard or songs like Malachi while pulling in the reins on the moody Jealous Mistress.  It’s a rock record that hearkens back to a different era – it’s if the group has jumped in DeLorean and transported itself back to 1974 – and yet it carries a fresh vibe that doesn’t get lost in the past.  Give it a listen and you’ll understand.  There’s some Kansas in there.  A hint of Journey.  A dash of Jefferson Airplane.

“I wrote about 80 percent of the music, and about 90 percent of the lyrics,” Stephens explains.  “When I write, I let the music speak to me and tell me what the song’s about, so I usually write to music first.  Almost Home is an exception.  I wrote it as a radio tune and used it as sort of an intermission between some of the more meatier tunes.”

On The Living End, it’s crystal clear that everyone involved is on top of their games.  From the radio friendly Almost Home to the funky hooks in I Still Believe, Rayburn goes for it and delivers.

“The background singers on this record are Vicki Hampton, Russell Terrell and Kim Keys.  They’re top notch, and their reputations make them very sought after in the industry.  Our lead singer, Danny Archer, is an incredible talent and a super pro.  He has great range and can really deliver, which I think is apparent when you hear him on this record.  Guitarist Tom Bukovac is a well-known session player who has also gone out on the road some, most recently with Vince Gill.  Eldon Huff and Mack’s son, Mack Price V, play electric guitar.  Paul Franklin plays pedal steel guitar.  Michael Rhodes plays bass on Almost Home.  I couldn’t have asked for a better group of musicians and singers.”

While proud of this record, which landed on the 2017 Grammy Awards preliminary ballot, Stephens is equally excited about the road ahead.  He continues to write new material and plans on returning to the recording studio.  He sees potential for The Living End in film and TV.  More than anything, he’s simply having fun and enjoying the journey.

“This record taught me to trust myself,” he says, “and to be true to me.  It taught me to be focused not on the outer, but on the inner.  It’s something that I can look back on with pride.”

And what would his best friend think if he were looking down from above?

“Well,” Stephens says after several seconds of pin drop silence, “Jimmy would think it was cool.  He would wish he could’ve played on it.  I wish that, too.”

Larry Groce – Mountain Stage

Written by:  Michael D. McClellan

I try my best
To be just like I am
But everybody wants you
To be just like them
They sing while you slave
And I just get bored
  – Bob Dylan.  Maggie’s Farm.

‘Some people feel the rain.  Others just get wet.’ – Bob Dylan

Larry Groce enters the room a quiet and benevolent force, this one-time soi-disant vagabond with roots now firmly planted in Charleston, his love letter to the State of West Virginia – a decades-old, two-hour live performance radio program called Mountain Stage – evidence of a life spent feeling the rain, each musical note an affirmation of Dylan’s poetic maxim, every guest artist a droplet rippling across the surface of our imaginations, connecting people to each other, to music, and to the city he loves.  Kathy Mattea.  Norah Jones.  R.E.M.  Jorma Kaukonen.  Groce has conjured them all, delivering acts both renowned and obscure, blending them using the intuition of a natural-born alchemist.  Dig this:  On Mountain Stage, any given Sunday might feature a country singer’s take on good whiskey and bad women, followed by a South African instrumentalist’s struggle against apartheid, topped with an alt-rock band’s acoustic set of platinum-selling hits.  All of it different, but rest assured, all of it damn good.    Whether it’s the emotional gospel strains of Baptist hymns or the simple, fiddle-driven dance tunes of the dirt-poor, Groce brings his creative genius to Mountain Stage, and it pours right into your ear like water from a tap.

 

Kathy Mattea performs 'Coal Tattoo' live on Mountain Stage.

Kathy Mattea performs ‘Coal Tattoo’ live on Mountain Stage.

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Groce settles onto the couch across from me.  For someone who seems to be in such plain sight, he remains hidden, present but opaque, an open book written in cipher.  I know the highlights but I don’t know the details.  He’s the singer-songwriter with a Top 10 hit and a Grammy nom to his credit.  He’s performed on American Bandstand.  He’s lived all over – New York, Los Angeles – but he considers himself one of us, a real West-by-God-Virginian.  And he’s given us Mountain Stage, locally produced yet nationally respected, a show held in such high regard by those in the biz that A-list performers ask to play there, Michael Stipe, Peter Buck, and Martina McBride among them.

As Groce begins to tell his story, a curious mental image forms and I’m suddenly lifted from my living room sofa into the stars, beyond the outermost reaches of our solar system and into the very fringe of interstellar space, where Voyager 2 continues its lonely, one-way journey away from Earth.  Aboard Voyager is something called the Golden Record, and cut into it are the images, sounds, and music selected to represent the human race should the vessel ever be discovered by extraterrestrial life.  The Golden Record is our ‘bottle in the cosmic ocean’, as Carl Sagan once put it.  There are greetings in 55 languages, the sound a dog barking, an image of the Grand Tetons, a photo of the United Nations at night, the sound of a kiss between mother and child.  There is also 90 minutes of music.  Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart made the cut.  Beethoven, too, his Cavatina performed by the Budapest String Quartet, six-and-a-half minutes of music so hauntingly sweet, the finality of it so unyieldingly endless and absolute, that it seems written with the vast blackness of deep space in mind.

The penultimate song is one recorded and played by a twentieth-century street musician, Blind Willie Johnson.  The song is Dark Was the Night – Cold Was the Ground, a largely wordless hymn built around the yearning cries of Johnson’s slide guitar and the moans and melodies of his voice.  The two elements intertwine, moving around one another, musician and instrument each taking turns carrying the song for short stretches, as if sharing an oxygen mask at the bottom of a swimming pool.  Johnson hums fragments of a diffused melody, the sound on the verge of drifting away forever, and then answers with the fluttering sighs of steel or glass moving over the strings.  Sometimes the guitar jimmies a low, ascending melody that sounds like a man trying to climb out of a thick bog.  Then the guitar goes up high, playing an inquisitive, hopeful line, and the voice goes high too, copying the melody.  It’s just him and his guitar with no rhythm track, a dispirited and broken man standing in front of a microphone singing the blues, his soul laid bare, his pain bubbling to the surface in a tortured lament.

I can’t help but think that, if he were alive today, Blind Willie Johnson would be right at home on Mountain Stage.  Groce’s first album was a collection of hymns, and to this day he’s drawn to the power in them, so it’s easy to imagine these two musicians connecting on a spiritual level.  It’s just as easy to imagine Groce hanging with any number of late, great musical geniuses were they alive today, from rappers like Tupac and Biggie, who used language as a form of asymmetrical warfare, to country music giants like George Jones.  In fact, Groce honors Jones on his latest CD, Live Forever, with an inspired cover of Choices.  The song is at once real and ironic, given that Jones spent much of his life drinking himself into a straightjacket, and Groce ended up settling down in the West Virginia, a state with a history of moonshine bootlegging.

Groce, who grew up in the Oak Cliff section of Dallas during the 1960s, not only loves the stories of how artists such as Blind Willie Johnson came to be, but also what sets them apart.  To describe the sheer electricity James Brown generated on stage in his prime is virtually impossible to anyone who wasn’t there to witness it firsthand.  You might as well try to describe jazz.  He was the most physical singer who ever lived.  The best dancer.  The master of funk.  But there also was something feral and unrestrained, a hint of danger.  To watch James Brown sing was to watch Muhammad Ali fight.  They were each the baddest thing on the block.  But beyond that, they each used their fame to work for social change.  Those are the stories within the stories – the stuff that enriches the music, and the stuff that Groce explores with the brilliant guests who perform on Mountain Stage.

“We’ve had thousands of guests on Mountain Stage,” Groce says, “and one of the most impressive was a man named Pops Staples.  Pops was the leader of a family group called The Staple Singers, which included his son and three daughters, one of whom was Mavis Staples, who later had solo success.  Pops recalled a story about traveling with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and how The Staples Singers would perform before Dr. King’s speeches.  The night before he was assassinated in Memphis, Dr. King told Pops that he wanted him to sing his favorite song.  Pops asked him which song, and Dr. King answered with Staples’ powerful ‘Why? (Am I Treated So Bad)’.  Knowing those lyrics, you can understand why Dr. King would choose it.  Pops’ story was very moving and heartfelt.  That’s the kind of stuff that Mountain Stage is about.”

 

“We’ve had thousands of guests on Mountain Stage, and one of the most impressive was a man named Pops Staples.  Pops recalled a story about traveling with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and how The Staples Singers would perform before Dr. King’s speeches.  The night before he was assassinated in Memphis, Dr. King told Pops that he wanted him to sing his favorite song.  Pops asked him which song, and Dr. King answered with Staples’ powerful ‘Why? (Am I Treated So Bad)’.  Knowing those lyrics, you can understand why Dr. King would choose it.  Pops’ story was very moving and heartfelt.  That’s the kind of stuff that Mountain Stage is about.” – Larry Groce

 

Groce has accumulated a vast wealth of stories like these.

“We had the South African trumpet player Hugh Masekela on Mountain Stage,” he recalls.  “He had some pop instrumental hits in the ‘60s, including Grazing in the Grass.  He later had a song called Bring Him Back Home, which became the anthem for the movement to free Nelson Mandela.  In fact, Hugh had been exiled from his own country for protesting Apartheid in South Africa and hadn’t been home since 1961.  Well, Hugh Masekela was on Mountain Stage the week that Mandela became president, and Mandela had just invited him back to play at the inauguration.  Hugh shared this incredible news with us right there onstage.  That’s powerful stuff.  We’ve been lucky.  We’ve had some landmark people on the show who make you so grateful to be a part of it.  People like the late Ruth Brown, and the late poet Allen Ginsberg, who appeared on Mountain stage twice.  It doesn’t get any better than that.”

The more we talk, the more clearly I understand the significance these stories have played in the sustained success of Mountain Stage.  Listening to Pops Staples sing Down in Mississippi without context is still deeply moving, but when you layer in the stories – the late bluesman was born on a cotton plantation, had an eighth grade education, and played with the likes of the great Robert Johnson – the lyrics about the pain of segregation suddenly rise to a whole other level of anguish and shame.

I remember, I use to walk down that gravel road / Walking with my grandma / Mississippi sun, beaming down / I went to get some water / My grandma said, young ‘un you can’t drink that water / She said, you drink from that fountain over there

“People tend to forget that those things happened not that long ago,” Groce says.  “I remember the segregated water fountains, the white and colored bathrooms – they still existed in Dallas when I was a child.  I once asked my mother why this was, and she had no answer, other than that’s just the way things were.  That explanation didn’t sit well with me.  I was young at the time, but I still knew that segregation was wrong.  I later learned that Bill Russell, who probably deserved much more respect than a whole lot of people who were getting treated differently back then, couldn’t stay in the same hotel with his white Boston Celtics teammates in some cities.  I recently read a Frank Sinatra biography, and learned that the same thing happened to Sammy Davis, Jr., who couldn’t stay in the same Las Vegas hotel where he was performing.  Sinatra demanded that the black members of his band be treated equally.  Musicians were musicians to him.  Music was music.”

Groce grew up with music in his blood.  He came by his passion honestly; his grandfather played the fiddle, and his grandmother played the Hawaiian style slide guitar.  He listened to an oddball mix of records – pop songs by Perry Como, novelty songs, country and western songs, Carl Perkins singing Blue Suede Shoes.  His parents sang around the house and were into Broadway, so he had access to their collection of Broadway cast records, productions like Guys and Dolls, and Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific.  They also liked Vegas music, which meant that Groce was exposed to Sinatra at an early age.  He was also heavily influenced by the beautiful hymns he heard in church.

“It wasn’t just one thing, and I think that’s really made a difference in the way that I see music,” he says.  “To this day I don’t like all of any kind of music, but I like some of all kinds of music.  I think that’s reflected in the diversity on Mountain Stage.

 

“It wasn’t just one thing, and I think that’s really made a difference in the way that I see music.  To this day I don’t like all of any kind of music, but I like some of all kinds of music.  I think that’s reflected in the diversity on Mountain Stage.” – Larry Groce

 

The game changer came when Groce was in seventh grade and his mother gave him a vintage Kay F-hole guitar.  His grandfather showed him a few chords, and from there he began to learn songs like every kid does.  Groce was hooked.

“I learned to play without lessons,” he says, proudly.  “The group I hung around would each learn something, and then we would teach the other guy.  Some of us were more interested in playing music, some were more interested in singing, but all of us were interested in writing songs.  We looked at artists like Bob Dylan, who wrote their own songs, and we wanted to emulate them.  We tried to write songs that were about something other than just ‘I love you’.  There’s nothing wrong with love songs, but we all thought that there were other things to write about.”

A year later, Groce and his friends found their musical universe expanding.

“I started singing when I was in the seventh grade,” he says.  “I learned commercial folk songs from groups like the Kingston Trio, which led me to acts like Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, and Bob Dylan.  I bought Dylan’s first record when I was thirteen.  Two years later the Beatles came to the US. The Rolling Stones and the Kinks were some other big groups from the British Invasion that I liked, so these were big influences.  On the other hand, I would listen to country music by Johnny Cash, and bluegrass music by Flatt and Scruggs, so there wasn’t one particular genre that held my attention for very long.”

Groce is years away from his Top 10 hit, the novelty song Junk Food Junkie, but even back then he was comfortable performing in front of crowds.

“My first paying gig came when I was fourteen.  It was me and two other guys singing pop and folk songs at a sock hop.  The rock ‘n roll band would play, and then we would come up and sing during breaks.  We also got paid for singing at other places around town – old folks homes, and places like that.”

If you want to revel in the misery of concrete yard art and sad trees, go to South Dallas.  South Dallas is  the metro area’s redheaded, economically-challenged stepchild, at least when compared to its North Dallas counterparts, with its ridiculous oil money and drill-bit multimillionaires.  Like most who grew up across the Trinity River, Groce didn’t come from great wealth or old money and didn’t go to private school, but he wasn’t exactly George Jones, either, struggling to survive a journey down a rugged road that would have killed lesser men.  What Groce and Jones had in common were Texas roots and a serious love of music, chronic singers who followed completely different paths into the music business, Jones dropping out of high school at sixteen to perform live on a Jasper radio station, Groce staying put through graduation.

“My high school, Adamson High School, was in Oak Cliff,” he says.  “The people of North Dallas always looked down on the people of Oak Cliff and its hardscrabble ways, but that’s where many of the city’s best musicians have come from.  It’s funny, but Adamson had four students in four years who went on to have hit records.  I don’t think any of us were in any music programs, we just played music on our own.  The oldest was a guy named Michael Martin Murphey who had many hits – Wildfire being the biggest.  I used to go watch him play in a Dallas coffeehouse called the Rubaiyat.  That’s where everybody played when they came through town, people like Jerry Jeff Walker. Because the Rubaiyat didn’t serve alcohol, I was able to get in before I was of legal age.

 

Michael Martin Murphey, who went to the same high school as Larry Groce.

Michael Martin Murphey, who went to the same high school as Larry Groce.  A multiple Grammy nominee, Murphey has six gold albums, including Cowboy Songs, the first album of cowboy music to achieve gold status since Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs by Marty Robbins in 1959. He has recorded the hit singles “Wildfire”, “Carolina in the Pines”, “What’s Forever For”, “A Long Line of Love”, “What She Wants”, and “Don’t Count the Rainy Days”.

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“Ray Hubbard was the next one of the four – Ray Wylie Hubbard is what he goes by today, and he’s enjoying a big well deserved renaissance.  Ray had a song that Jerry Jeff Walker sang called Up Against the Wall Redneck Mother, which was a funny, tongue-in-cheek answer to Merle Haggard’s Okie from Muskogee.  Ray and I were in a jug band that played a lot of weird novelty songs.  We also covered the Rolling Stones, Dylan, Flatt and Scruggs.  We ended up with a regular gig at the Rubaiyat, opening for whatever national act was performing that night.  I was still in high school at the time, Ray was in college.  We played there for several months, which was a great experience because I learned what it was like to play for money.  You had to show up, you had to be there six nights a week, and you had to do two or three shows a night.  The last show was after the bars closed, and then all types would come pouring in…strippers, drunks, you name it.  For me, it all started at the Rubaiyat.  That’s where I learned to play for crowds and please people.”

Hubbard, an against-the-grain, touring road warrior, has appeared on Mountain Stage twelve times through the years.  The two have remained friends.

“I still see Ray regularly on the show.  As a matter of fact, Ray stuck around after his most recent performance on Mountain Stage, and we recorded a song by another Texan, Billy Joe Shaver, called Live Forever, which ended up being the title of the CD.  It’s a wonderful song.  We joked about it, because it’s the kind of song you shouldn’t record until you realize that you’re not going to live forever.  As a kid, you sing that song and you believe it.  It’s better when you’re my age, when you know your long years are behind you and you only have a short time left.  It was very moving to sing this song with Ray, because we hadn’t performed together in more than 45 years.”

Groce pauses a beat to reflect, and then, the way house cats do in the middle of a nap, rouses suddenly, expanding on the musical talent pouring out of Adamson during that era.

“I was the third of the four from our high school to have a hit song.  A year below me was a guy named Chuck Stevenson, who went by Buckwheat for a short time, before shortening it to B.W. Stevenson.  Sadly, he died in his late 30s, but he had two hits of his own, the biggest one being My Maria.  Whatever the reason, it was very odd that we all went to the same school at almost the same time.”

~  ~  ~

OPENING ACT:  LARRY GROCE AND THE STRONG POWER OF WEAK CONNECTIONS
(Stories of the obscure and the fantastical)

Kay Kyser:  “Can you please define a weasel?”

Contestant:  “A weasel is a little man.”

Kyser:  “Are you sure?”

Contestant:  “That’s what I heard my mother call my father.”

~  ~  ~

Before Groce gained national attention with the release of Junk Food Junkie, he embarked on a cross-continent odyssey that would ultimately lead him to West Virginia.  The year was 1966.  He had just graduated from Adamson High and set off on his own, convinced that music would be a big part of his future.  The turbulent Sixties was in full swing, with Vietnam on everyone’s mind, Los Angeles fresh off the heels of the 1965 Watts riot, the assassination of JFK in Dallas two years prior, and the Civil Rights Movement continuing the fight for racial equality.

“There was a lot going on in our nation and in the world.  I went away to college, and everybody else I hung around stayed in Texas,” Groce says.  “I enrolled in a small college in Illinois. I kept writing, and I became an English major.  Words were very important to me.”

So was music.

“I was a college senior when I recorded my first album, which was a collection of traditional hymns.  I recorded it in Nashville and it came out in 1970, the year I graduated.  I recorded my first original, secular album in Los Angeles in 1970, and released it the same year.  That was the beginning of my recording career, such as it was.

“The hymn album was an interesting experience, because I had never recorded before and I knew nothing about the process.  The Christian Science Church, which put out the album, hired an experienced Nashville producer. I think eight track recorders had just come into common use, and I don’t know if sixteen track recorders even existed…the Beatles, for example, started out using four track recorders.  It was a mostly acoustic album, although we did use a primitive synthesizer to emulate the harpsichord on one song.  Synthesizers back then weren’t like today; they were boxes that you plugged into, and if you wanted a different sound you had to change the plugs.  I had no idea how to make a record and when we were done the first mix sounded rough to me but I didn’t trust my ears so I was very grateful when the church got Kay Kyser to step in. He quickly agreed that it needed to be remixed and he helped in that process. It was a very fortunate thing for me that Kay decided to help out.”

 

kay-kyser-and-merwyn-bogue

Kay Kyser, an American bandleader and radio personality of the 1930s and 1940s, influenced the path that Larry Groce would take.

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Everybody knows the names Jack Benny, Bob Hope, Red Skelton.  Mention Kay Kyser and you’re likely to get blank stares, but there was a time when Kyser’s name was just as big as the others, his star just as bright.  Kyser, it turns out, was one of the most outrageous, over-the-top performers of the whole swing era.  From the late 1930s to the late 1940s, his orchestra produced eleven number one records and thirty-five top ten hits, while also appearing in seven feature films with such stars as Lucille Ball and John Barrymore.  Kyser, like Benny, Hope and Skelton, was also a major radio personality, with one of the highest rated shows in the country.  Then, at the height of his popularity, and with TV transforming comedians like Bob Hope into show business royalty, Kyser disappeared from public view.

Poof.

Like Dave Chappelle decades later, Kyser simply quit and never came back.

“Kay Kyser had a popular radio show called Kay Kyser’s Kollege of Musical Knowledge, featuring his band, which was in some ways a novelty act like those played on The Dr. Demento Radio Show later on,” Groce recalls.  “Kay was an interesting character.  I believe he was the first radio personality to get a contract that paid $1 million a year, which was an astronomical sum in the 1940s.  Kay was a zany character.  He was also famous for doing a lot of novelty songs, like Three Little Fishes with Ish Kabibble, who was in his band.  That song became a huge hit.  Interestingly enough, Mike Douglas got started as a singer in Kay’s band, years before he had The Mike Douglas Show on TV.  Kay became a religious person later in life and walked away from the entertainment business.  Every now and then he would go on Mike’s show and talk about the old times, but that was it.”

Never known as a shrinking violet, Kyser was head cheerleader and class president at the University of North Carolina before heading north to pursue a career in entertainment.  His audacious personality not only produced big laughs, but was also responsible for his big break in show business.

“Kay told me some great stories, like how he got his national contract with NBC Radio,” Groce says.  “Kay’s band was on WLS in Chicago and was very popular, but at the time he didn’t realize how far the station’s 50,000-watt signal could broadcast.  During one show, he jokingly told his listeners that he’d give a Kollege of Musical Knowledge diploma to anyone who could answer a trivia question, and asked his listeners to mail in their answers.  A couple of weeks later he was shocked to learn that he was getting mail from as far away as Indiana, Arkansas and Missouri.  Well, the station realized it had a marketing opportunity and quickly printed certificates to capitalize on it.  The Kollege of Musical Knowledge became a regular part of the show, with Kay asking a question every week, and it wasn’t before long that he was receiving big loads of mail.  That’s when he told his manager that he wanted to get onto national radio. But they weren’t making any headway so Kay decided and that he needed a stunt to get the attention of national management.

 

Three-time Grammy-winner Keb' Mo' performs live on Mountain Stage.

Three-time Grammy-winner Keb’ Mo’ performs live on Mountain Stage.

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“As luck would have it, the NBC Radio executives were having a board meeting in Chicago.  Kay just pushed his way around the secretary – you have to understand, security back then wasn’t like it is today – and barged in with a big sack of mail.  He walked up to the president of NBC Radio, and, for dramatic effect, poured the letters on his head.  It caused a big commotion, and security was called in.  Kay figured that the police were going to arrest him, but he knew that his stunt was the best way to get board’s attention.  Kay told the president that he’d just dumped one week’s worth of mail on his head, and with that kind of following he should have a national radio show.  The president eventually calmed down and agreed to talk to Kay.  The rest, as they say, is history.”

Kyser had long since receded from public view by the time Groce recorded that first album down in Nashville.  The church knew that it would take a professional’s touch to help save it, and a call was made by someone from there that had a relationship with the retired radio personality.  Fortunately for Groce, Kyser agreed to inject himself into the project.

“Kay looked like someone who might sit around the courthouse in a small town, swapping stories with a bunch of old guys and living in the past,” Groce says, reflecting on that first encounter.  “He wore his pants a little bit too high, and a white shirt with a collar open. He didn’t look hip at all, or like anyone who would be a big fish in the entertainment business, and that fooled a lot of people.  Kay was very sharp.”

 

“Kay looked like someone who might sit around the courthouse in a small town, swapping stories with a bunch of old guys and living in the past,” Groce says, reflecting on that first encounter.  “He wore his pants a little bit too high, and a white shirt with a collar open. He didn’t look hip at all, or like anyone who would be a big fish in the entertainment business, and that fooled a lot of people.  Kay was very sharp.” – Larry Groce

 

Considering that Kyser’s Kollege of Musical Knowledge ran for eleven years, and that he presided over it all dressed in an academic gown complete with mortarboard, it’s easy to get lost in the visuals and underestimate the genius inside the man.  Forget that he couldn’t read a note of music, and that his musical training was limited.  Groce’s album needed help, and bringing in Kyser was the perfect remedy.

“We immediately knew that the mix was a mess.  I just said, ‘Here’s what I think, Mr. Kyser – it sounds bad.’  And he said, ‘You’re right, this is no good.  We’re going to remix it.  Let’s go to the studio.’  And we did.

“We connected immediately.  Kay had a great sense of humor and could deliver a line with a straight face.  We went to the office of a graphic designer who the church was talking to about designing the album cover. I had already been there and told Kay that the head man had a sign above his desk that read ‘We don’t give a damn how they do it in L.A.’, probably because Nashville was just emerging as more than just a center of country music, and a lot of people were coming in from Los Angeles, trying to tell people in Nashville how to run their business.  Well, when Kay met the guy he says with a straight face, ‘Let me tell you how we do it in L.A.’  They guy looked at him, and then looked at me and said, “Who is this guy?”  It was a great moment.  That’s the kind of guy Kay was – he looked like an old country gentleman who didn’t know what was going on, but he was very sharp.  He was a great comedian.”

Kyser would later play a pivotal role in Groce’s decision to live in West Virginia, a testament to the strong power of weak connections, but Kyser was hardly alone in this.

“Ron Krisel was a good friend of mine in college, and he and his brother Gary came from a show business family,” Groce says.  “Their mother’s name was Virginia Weidler.”

Like Kay Kyser, Virginia Weidler’s name isn’t immediately recognizable, her story nearly lost through the years.  Weidler was a child actor who appeared in more than 40 movies before the age of twenty-one.  She played Dinah Lord, the little girl in The Philadelphia Story, alongside Katharine Hepburn and Jimmy Stewart.  She acted with Clark Gable and Myrna Loy in Too Hot to Handle, Bette Davis in All This and Heaven Too, and Judy Garland in Babes on Broadway.

And then, just like Kay Kyser, Virginia Weidler vanished in plain sight.

“Her mother told her that, in order to be happy, she needed to walk away from acting when she was no longer a child star, and that’s what she did,” Groce says.  “Virginia got married and lived a happy life.  Other child actors of that time period struggled in one way or another; Shirley Temple was one exception, but look at Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney.  Sadly, Virginia Weidler passed away at a young age, before I visited Ron’s house in Los Angeles, so I never got to meet her.”

Groce, however, did get to meet the musical side of the Weidler family.

“Virginia Weidler had three saxophone-playing brothers who were also in show business – Warner, Walt, and George Weidler.  Since their last name was a little too German, they ended up changing their stage name to Wilder and became known as the Wilder Brothers.  They were in show business at a young age, working as child extras in the Our Gang comedy series.  They later played in the Dorsey Orchestra and other big bands.  Interestingly, George was married to Doris Day for a few years.

“Ron and Gary had an interesting perspective because their family had been in show business, and it was because of them I was later able to get my foot in the door with Disney.  They introduced me to the Wilder Brothers, who had a little studio on the corner of Beverly Glen and Santa Monica Boulevard.  A lot of people recorded there at the time because it was cheap.  Weirdly enough, even the Manson family had recorded there once.  They knew people, and they helped me get a contract with a new company called Daybreak Records.  The head of Daybreak Records was a guy named Sonny Burke, who was married to Peggy Lee and who produced the last several Sinatra albums.  I did two records with them, one in 1970 and one in ‘71.  They got distributed and got some good reviews, but they didn’t get much airplay or sales.  It was still worthwhile, because I made some good connections and I learned a lot.”

~  ~  ~

Groce settled in New York City as the ‘70s dawned, building his career one gig at a time.  There was no hint that he’d ever have a hit song.  He was just another dude with a guitar trying to find a job, another  songwriter jotting down lyrics in a notebook.  Turns out everyone can’t be Hank Williams, arriving on the music scene like a bolt of lightning, but then again, Hillbilly Shakespeare died in the back of his Cadillac on New Year’s Eve, the drugs and alcohol finally catching up to him, his body laid to rest in a silver casket at age 29.

Groce’s career arc was far less tragic.  He lived in a one studio apartment with his now ex-wife on 93rd and Broadway, playing regularly at an organic restaurant-slash-coffeehouse called Focus, while she pursued her PhD at New York University.

“Focus was owned by two high school teachers who were interested in photography,” Groce says.  “It attracted and eclectic crowd; I met a guy there named Sid Kaplan, who was a developer and printer for several big time, black-and-white photographers, guys like Robert Frank and Henri Cartier-Bresson.

“Playing at Focus was ultimately how I got the idea for Junk Food Junkie.  In 1970, organic food restaurants weren’t so common.  I would eat their brown rice, and then I would sneak and have a hamburger and French fries, and that’s where the lyrics for Junk Food Junkie came from:  ‘Oh yeah, in the daytime I’m Mr. Natural, Just as healthy as I can be, Oh, but at night I’m a junk food junkie, Good Lord have pity on me…’”

Groce performed regularly at Focus, where he continued to meet talented and interesting people, and wherever else he could find work.  He also continued to write songs – reflections of small-town picaresques, studies of drunken ennui, tales of soured romance, whatever moved him at the moment – and although many of them would never see light of day, the exercise kept his creative side sharp.

“There were four of us who played at Focus once or twice a week,” he says.  “One of them was Melissa Manchester.  I became friends with both Melissa and her husband at the time, Larry Brezner, who later became a very successful film producer, with hit movies like Good Morning, Vietnam to his credit.  Melissa took the famous songwriting course from Paul Simon at NYU.  Coincidentally, so did The Roches, who have been on Mountain Stage.  Terre Roche has written about the influence that Paul Simon had on her and her sisters.  As a matter of fact, Paul asked them to sing backup on one of his records.”

After a year in New York, Groce was story rich but pocket poor.

“I didn’t have an agent or a manager until later, so I would have to get my own jobs.  I played wherever I could find work – coffeehouses, college campuses, parks.  It was also a struggle financially.  At Focus, I didn’t get paid a fee to perform; instead, they would pass around a basket.  Some nights I’d make $75 or $100, which wasn’t bad money back then, but a lot of times it was less than that.  Having a record helped, because if you had a record, that meant that you were one step up from somebody who had nothing, even if you weren’t famous.”

 

“I didn’t have an agent or a manager until later, so I would have to get my own jobs.  I played wherever I could find work – coffeehouses, college campuses, parks.  It was also a struggle financially.  At Focus, I didn’t get paid a fee to perform; instead, they would pass around a basket.  Some nights I’d make $75 or $100, which wasn’t bad money back then, but a lot of times it was less than that.  Having a record helped, because if you had a record, that meant that you were one step up from somebody who had nothing, even if you weren’t famous.” – Larry Groce

 

The lack of income expressed a sober arithmetical fact.  He still wanted to pursue his dream, but the bills needed to be paid.

“I moved to Los Angeles sometime in 1971.  I was on the radio a bit out there, thanks to a syndicated show called FolkScene on KPFK, which was a local, left wing, community radio station.  I would go on the show and perform every three or four months.  A mix of artists would come and play – from complete unknowns to national names like Tom Waits.  It was all acoustic.  I played the Troubadour, as well as any other club where I could land jobs.  By 1972, I realized that I wasn’t a very good fit for the commercial music business.  I became convinced that I wasn’t ever going to be commercially successful, and I felt like I just didn’t fit with the people that I met in L.A.  I didn’t particularly like the lifestyle, because I didn’t drink, or smoke, or take drugs – not that everybody did, but that was part of the scene for a lot of musicians.  I wasn’t judging them, because what they did was none of my business, but I knew that it wasn’t for me.  And that’s about the time that I got a phone call from a guy from North Carolina named Loonis McGlohon.”

Like Kay Kyser and Virginia Weidler, Loonis McGlohon comes with a story.  The writer of hundreds of jazz and popular songs, including the cantata A Child’s Christmas, McGlohon also wrote the theme for Charles Kuralt’s On the Road.  He was a well-known songwriter and arranger who worked with Jimmy Dorsey and Judy Garland at various points, and who also co-authored two Sinatra hits.

 

Norah Jones, just one of many great musicians to perform on Mountain Stage through the years.

Norah Jones, just one of many great musicians to perform on Mountain Stage through the years.

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“I can only guess that Loonis learned about me from Kay Kyser, since I think they both were from North Carolina” Groce says.  “One day he called me out of the blue asked if I would like to go to West Virginia as part of a program for the National Endowment for the Arts.  I thought he wanted me to go there for a week and play as an artist in residence, so I said, ‘Sure, I’ll go play anywhere.’  And then he tells me that this isn’t for a week, that it’s for nine months.  The money was good, and we were looking for a chance to go somewhere else anyway, so I talked to my wife about it.  Since we were on the east coast at the time and getting ready to drive cross-country to L.A., we decided to drive down from Connecticut and take a look.  There were a lot of firsts on that trip to Charleston:  It was the first time we’d ever been to West Virginia; it was the first time I’d ever heard the word Kanawha; it was the first time I ever seriously considered doing something so different than what I’d been doing up to that point.”

Certain places, for unknowable reasons, become socio-cultural Petri dishes, but West Virginia has never been one of them.  Groce, who had tried the big city life, felt an instant connection to the Mountain State.  The job itself also had appeal.

“It was both intriguing and challenging, because the State Arts Council was just emerging at the time.  There was no Culture Center yet.  It was very small, maybe three people, and they were the ones who were going to oversee the program, with funding provided by the NEA, the State Arts Council, and some local money.  The job covered Barbour, Tucker, and Randolph counties – I had no idea how big or small an area that was, but I liked the people that I met with, so I immediately had a good feeling about it.  We drove north of Charleston to Philippi, and then to Elkins, so we could explore our potential new home.   I remember sitting and eating in a little restaurant on Main Street in Philippi, and then later crossing a covered bridge and seeing Alderson Broadus College on the hill.”

Smitten, it didn’t take Groce long to make up his mind.

“By the time went got back to Los Angeles I had decided to take the job,” he says.  “I had no idea what I was going to do when I got there, I just knew that I was being hired to serve the community musically.  They gave me a small budget to buy instruments, and some money to bring in people for concerts.  They asked me to visit schools and share my love of music.  The rest was up to me.  I had never done anything like this before, but I loved it.  What I found were two very important things; first, I really liked working with children – playing for them, helping them to write songs, and doing all of those things that you could do musically with children.  Secondly, I found that everybody I met in West Virginia was so friendly, which was unlike where I was before, and I instantly recognized that this is where I fit in – not in Los Angeles, not in New York, but here in West Virginia. Many of the older folks here reminded me of my grandparents”

Feeling really at home for the first time since leaving Oak Cliff, Groce wasted little time establishing roots.

“We decided to live in Philippi, renting a little house from a prominent doctor, and two years later we bought a house on Route 19, just outside of town.  The house was built in 1876 and sat on 19 acres, and the man that built it used oak and poplar cut right there on the property.  The bricks were also made right there.  It was a grand wood frame house, with nine fireplaces – they cut walnut for the mantle pieces, the doors, and the window frames.  The original owner died at 92, after falling off his horse in a fox hunt. I thought, these are the kind of people that I admire.”

While Groce felt connected to the community, there was the small problem of his contract coming to an end.  By then, it was clear that the people of West Virginia loved him back.

“Although the job with the NEA was over in nine months, the people in Randolph County wanted me to stay, and they came up with the money to continue my work.  I traveled all over –  some days I would drive 100 to 120 miles, from Philippi to Hendricks in Tucker County, down to Valley Bend in Randolph County, and then back home.  Those were country miles, two lanes and a lot of curves, and in the winter it could be really difficult.  I visited a couple of one-room elementary schools.  I developed a way to work with kids, and I helped them to write songs.  It was rewarding work.

“That first year, I was one of only three people in the country doing this NEA program…there was an African drummer, a New Orleans jazz player who played clarinet, and me.  Eventually, the program changed; they didn’t pay people to stay in one place for nine months any longer, they paid for shorter stays instead.  I did some of those shorter residencies also because I was on the move and would mix the residency work with regular concerts, even after I had the hit song.  Over a ten year period I ended up doing residencies in 21 states.  I would stay at a school for anywhere from three days to two weeks, work with the kids, and then travel back home or do other gigs. I continued to do it along with clubs and other concert work right up until I started working with Mountain Stage in 1983.”

Groce pauses.  He smiles.

“That’s how I fell in love with West Virginia.  In many ways, I felt like West Virginia was the roots of where I came from.  Even today, there’s a way of life that still seems to carry on here, one that’s gone from a lot of other places.  And that doesn’t mean we are backwards; I think that what people care about here are things that I think are important.  So it fits with me.  I’ve been here since 1972, and I don’t foresee ever leaving West Virginia.”

~  ~  ~

ACT TWO:  FROM JUNK FOOD TO POOH
(Groce blows up)

Oh, folks but lately I have been spotted
With a Big Mac on my breath
Stumbling into a Colonel Sanders
With a face as white as death
I’m afraid someday they’ll find me
Just stretched out on my bed
With a handful of Pringles potato chips
And a Ding Dong by my head
  – Larry Groce.  Junk Food Junkie.

~  ~  ~

Much in the same way that Pulp Fiction resuscitated John Travolta’s acting career, Junk Food Junkie brought Groce’s recording career back from the dead.  Groce had walked away from Los Angeles and turned his back on the music industry.  He was as cold as he could get, but he’d left on good terms and he still had that itch.

“I realized that if I still wanted to be a singer-songwriter I had to make it a priority and get back out into the world,” Groce says, “and some of my LA music friends  encouraged me to get back into circulation.  I went back to L.A. in ‘74 and connected with a guy who would eventually become my manager.  He started finding work, pushing for a record deal, and doing all of the other stuff that people in the business do.  I played in some pretty good coffeehouses and listening clubs around the country during this time.”

One of them, McCabe’s Guitar Shop in Santa Monica, was celebrated for its intimate, acoustic concerts.  A homey hang for L.A. bohemians, it was L.A.’s premier triple threat of musicality: Music store, music school and concert hall.  To enter McCabe’s was to enter a strange world where the ringing of the cash register didn’t seem to matter.  It was a church without the ridiculous theology, a zone where worship of music without commercial baggage was practiced, a retail outlet where humanity prevailed over profit.  It’s still alive and well today, and over the years some big names have walked through the doors.  Jackson Browne, Bruce Springsteen, and Townes Van Zandt have all performed at McCabe’s.  Bob Dylan briefly took lead-guitar lessons there. Joni Mitchell came to hear slack-key guitarists Ledward Ka’apana and Cyril Pahinui.  George Harrison dropped by to shop.

 

McCabe's Guitar Shop, is a musical instrument store and live music venue on Pico Boulevard in Santa Monica, California. Opened in 1958, McCabe's specializes in acoustic and folk instruments, including guitars, banjos, mandolins, dulcimers, fiddles, ukuleles, psaltries, bouzoukis, sitars, ouds, and ethnic percussion. Since 1969, McCabe's has also been a noted forum for folk concerts.

McCabe’s Guitar Shop, is a musical instrument store and live music venue on Pico Boulevard in Santa Monica, California. Opened in 1958, McCabe’s specializes in acoustic and folk instruments, including guitars, banjos, mandolins, dulcimers, fiddles, ukuleles, psaltries, bouzoukis, sitars, ouds, and ethnic percussion. Since 1969, McCabe’s has also been a noted forum for folk concerts.  McCabe’s is where Groce recorded ‘Junk Food Junkie’.

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“McCabe’s was an institution.  It was a guitar shop in the front, but in the back they had a room that held about 150 people.  There was a small stage, and all kinds of people played music there through the years.  You had an interesting mix of performers – famous artists and up-and-coming acts.  I played at McCabe’s several times.  We later learned that they were recording the performances, but we didn’t know that.  Since they should have gotten permission, we asked for access to the recordings.”

Groce’s smile carries a hint of nostalgia.  McCabe’s holds a special place for him still.

“McCabe’s is where we recorded Junk Food Junkie.  It was a song that had always resonated, because whenever I sang it people thought it was funny and went crazy.  My manager wanted to put it out as a single.  I was all for it, although at the time I didn’t realize that I might get labeled as a novelty singer. There have always been performers who’ve done those types of songs – Little Jimmy Dickens years ago, Weird Al today – but I wasn’t thinking about being labeled that way at the time.  I just knew that people liked the song.”

 

“McCabe’s is where we recorded Junk Food Junkie.  It was a song that had always resonated, because whenever I sang it people thought it was funny and went crazy.  My manager wanted to put it out as a single.  I was all for it, although at the time I didn’t realize that I might get labeled as a novelty singer. There have always been performers who’ve done those types of songs – Little Jimmy Dickens years ago, Weird Al today – but I wasn’t thinking about being labeled that way at the time.  I just knew that people liked the song.” – Larry Groce

 

There was work to be done before Junkie could be considered commercially viable.  The record couldn’t be successfully marketed and sold in the mainstream without a more polished sound.

“My producer sweetened the sound by adding bass and drums in the studio, which was difficult because the song didn’t stay in time – it was just me on the stage at McCabe’s when it was recorded, so I would slow down and speed up wherever I felt like it.  I’m sure the studio musicians were cursing me as they tried to follow along, but drums and bass were needed to make it sound like a commercial record.  We even added some applause and laughter in certain places to beef it up a little bit.”

His song complete, Groce quickly realized that there were other obstacles.  They couldn’t break through without a record deal.

“The next challenge was getting a record company to take it,” Groce says.  “The novelty of the song had some appeal, but everyone turned us down.  That’s when my manager formed a record company, put the song out himself, and hired an independent promotion guy to promote it to radio stations in four states – California, Arizona, Colorado, and Nevada.  Nowadays, radio stations are programmed by a select few who generate scientifically sampled playlists.  There was a time when you could work with the jocks at the stations and get them to play your records, and I was one of the last people to do that with this song.  The problem was, we didn’t have any distribution.  The song would climb to as high as 18 or 20 in a certain market, and then the station would call my manager’s record company – which didn’t exist, except for the purpose of getting Junk Food Junkie made – begging to get some of the records so they could sell them.  He would get the names of record stores in the area and send out a small batch for them to sell for free.  We didn’t care if we made money on it or not, we just wanted to keep the song going.”

 

'Junk Food Junkie' would would become a Top 10 hit and land Larry Groce on the music map.

‘Junk Food Junkie’ would would become a Top 10 hit and land Larry Groce on the music map.

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The song was gaining regional altitude, but Groce knew it needed additional thrust if it was going to escape the atmosphere and go national.

“There was a station in Colorado that held a song-versus-song contest, with the listeners voting to decide the outcome, and my record stayed on the air for five straight days, beating out some big name acts.  On Friday it was declared the champion for that week, which meant very little, except that the station made a big deal out of it, and it climbed into the Top 10 on the charts at that station.”

That week proved to be the tipping point.  Groce suddenly knew how Kay Kyser felt when he received that avalanche of mail, and he knew that it was his turn to seize the moment.

“That showed us that the song had something going for it.  My manager went back and negotiated with the record companies, and that’s when Warner/Curb, Mike Curb’s label under Warner Brothers, agreed to take it on.  The contract negotiations dragged on and it took almost six months before we could release the song again on a Warner Brothers label.  We thought the delay might have killed it.  Well, it was re-released in 1976 and it started climbing the charts.  It spent 15 weeks on the Billboard Top 100, reached No. 9, and sold a half million copies.  It gave me national exposure.  Dr. Demento chose it as his song of the year in 1976.”

The hit validated Groce’s decision to return his roots.

“Because it was such an oddball song, I got more mileage out of it than if it had been a love song or a rock song.  It was a little weird, it was recorded live, it was funny, and it was about a clash of cultures – healthy and organic versus fast and greasy.  All of those things together made it a fun song.  Deejays liked it.  Radio stations would have contests where listeners would call in, and they would give away everything that was in the song, things like Twinkies, Cheetos, and Dr. Pepper.”

Junk Food Junkie became a national sensation.  The New York Times wrote about it.  People magazine had an article dedicated to it.  Groce appeared on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson on a night when Joan Rivers was guest-hosting.  He was on The Merv Griffin Show twice.  He was also on The Midnight Special; the guest host that night was Janis Ian, who later appeared as a guest on Mountain Stage.

“I also performed on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand,” he says.  “Dick Clark had a standing policy that every act appearing on the show had to lip-synch.  I explained to him that I couldn’t lip-synch the song all the way through, because I had recorded it live and some of the parts were tricky.  He told me not to worry about it.  He asked me to point out the tricky parts, and that he’d have the cameras cut away to the kids dancing.  That’s what they did.  They showed the kids’ reactions during those parts. So I lip synched a song that was recorded live.”

~  ~  ~

I’m proud to nominate a bear
Who’s been a friend to me
A bear whose name and story is
known by millions sea to sea
And so right now, without more words
Or any more ado
I give you our next president
The honorable Winnie the Pooh
  – Larry Groce.  Winnie the Pooh for President

~  ~  ~

Walt Disney borrowed against his own life insurance to pay for Disneyland’s original design, and according to friends and family, he never seemed happier.  It was his sandbox.  “You will find yourself in the land of yesterday, tomorrow, and fantasy,” he crowed in early brochures for the park.  “Nothing of the present exists.”

Disney, it turns out, is very much a part of Groce’s yesterday, and thanks to the magic of music royalties, a pleasant part of his tomorrow.

“Junk Food Junkie was a hit, and then, almost as suddenly, the song Winnie the Pooh for President was nominated for a Grammy,” Groce says, his next story reaffirming the strong power of weak connections.  “Gary Krisel was working for Disney’s record division by this time, and he went to his boss and said, ‘I’ve got a friend who I think could write some fun stuff for us.’  They were doing this marketing campaign with Sears called Winnie the Pooh for President, and they needed a song.  Nothing they had tried to that point had worked, and Gary’s boss was starting to get desperate.  That’s when Gary says, ‘My friend has a hit song on the radio.’  At that time, Junk Food Junkie was number two on KHJ Radio in Los Angeles.  That helped Gary convince the guy that this wasn’t a nobody, and he agreed to give me a chance.  So, I wrote this song, Winnie the Pooh for President, and they liked it.”

 

'Pooh for President' would generate a prestigious Grammy nomination for Larry Groce.

‘Pooh for President’ would generate a prestigious Grammy nomination for Larry Groce.

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So did the Academy’s voting members, who recognized the song with a Grammy nomination.  Whether you’re talking Pooh or Prince, a Grammy nod is heady stuff.

“It wasn’t a hit song or anything, and it wasn’t played on the radio.  It was part of a fun and educational book- record that helped kids understand the election process.  That was 1976, the year Jimmy Carter was elected, so they decided to do a mock campaign, with Winnie the Pooh running for president.  The idea was that Piglet had nominated Winnie the Pooh, so I wrote the song that way, to be sung by two people:  Sterling Holloway, the man famous for doing Winnie the Pooh’s voice, and the guy who did Piglet’s voice.”

Walt Disney originally considered Holloway for the voice of Sleepy in 1937’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, but passed at the last minute.  Four years later he chose Holloway as the voice of Mr. Stork in Dumbo, which led to several other prominent roles, including the iconic character Winnie the Pooh.  Groce still finds it hard to believe that Holloway sang his song.  Even harder for him to believe is that he ended up on the record with Holloway.

“The song starts out, ‘I’m proud to nominate a bear…’, but what they found out was, the guy who did Piglet’s voice couldn’t sing very well,” Groce says.  “So they turned to me and said, ‘You’ve got to sing Piglet’s part.’  I was able to pull it off.  Sterling Holloway came in later and overdubbed Pooh’s part.  They played it like it was at a convention, with applause and all this other stuff.  It was cute, and I guess the marketing campaign was a really big success for Sears.  The song was nominated for a Best Recording for Children Grammy in 1976.”

Struggling to find gigs just a few years before, Groce now found himself in demand.

“That was the first thing that I did for Disney.  Around this same time, Disney secured the rights to Little Golden Books in a deal with Western Publishing, and they wanted to turn them into book-records.  They asked me to write at least one song on every recording, so I wrote 36 songs.  It was great fun.”

Groce had found a niche at Disney, thanks to the strong power of weak connections.

“By 1978, Gary was climbing higher in the Disney organization, and he said, ‘We’re going to do a record called Disney’s Children’s Favorites, and we’re going to put 25 or 26 songs on it.  I want you to work on this with us.’  Most of the songs were songs that we all knew but weren’t being recorded anymore.  Songs like Red River Valley, Turkey and the Straw, all of the childhood songs that we use to learn but had been forgotten by the recording industry.  He said, ‘I want you to sing them.’  And I did. I went to Nashville, and worked with some really good musicians.  Everyone had a blast working on these old songs.  When does a serious Nashville musician get a chance to play Red River Valley?”

Groce’s relationship with Disney didn’t end there.

“I worked on several other Disney projects, like one called Goin’ Quackers, which was a collection of funny songs, and also Mousercise.  Gary showed me a vintage a cartoon they wanted to use for a national television commercial to sell it. The cartoon had a bunch of bugs in a tree dancing, and one of the bugs looked like Cab Calloway.  They wanted me to watch it and try to write something, and if they liked it they would put it on the record and use it on the commercial.  So I immediately started writing a song that became Bugaboo and they used it.”

 

“I worked on several other Disney projects, like one called Goin’ Quackers, which was a collection of funny songs, and also Mousercise.  Gary showed me a vintage a cartoon they wanted to use for a national television commercial to sell it. The cartoon had a bunch of bugs in a tree dancing, and one of the bugs looked like Cab Calloway.  They wanted me to watch it and try to write something, and if they liked it they would put it on the record and use it on the commercial.  So I immediately started writing a song that became Bugaboo and they used it”

 

Groce continues to enjoy the fruit of all that hard work because many of those albums continue to sell in their original or repackaged forms.

“I didn’t get royalties as a singer on Disney’s Children’s Favorites, just a fee. Even though my name is on the record, Mickey Mouse appears on the cover and he’s somewhat more famous than me. I did get royalties as a writer.  If I had gotten royalties as a singer, I would be living in a different house right now [laughs].  I ended up doing three more Disney’s Children’s Favorites – volumes two, three, and four.

“One time they called me and explained that they were doing a lullaby album with a variety of singers. They asked, ‘Do you have any lullabies?’  To which I said, ‘Of course I do. I’ll send one to you right away.’  That night I wrote a song called Mountain Lullaby and sent it off the next day.  What did I have to lose?  They thought it was great and put it on the record.  Today, the Appalachian Children’s Chorus here in Charleston often sings Mountain Lullaby and it sounds wonderful with the children’s voices.  So I have these things that are still alive today, almost 40 years after I worked on them.”

Eventually, Groce moved on from Disney.  So did Krisel.

“Gary went on to become head of marketing for Disney.  Then he jumped over to DreamWorks, and he worked there for a while.  He became very successful and then retired in his forties I think.  He did very well for himself.  I’m still very grateful that he helped me get my foot in the door at Disney.”

~  ~  ~

ACT THREE:  THE RISE (AND RISE) OF MOUNTAIN STAGE
(If you build it, they will come)

There’s a spring
In the mountain and it flows down to the town
From the river to the ocean it goes the whole world ‘round
That spring of water goes the whole world ‘round
  – Larry Groce.  A Simple Song

~  ~  ~

Despite the national success of Junkie and the multiple projects at Disney, Groce had yet to find his higher calling.  Looking back now, it’s easy to view his career arc as a beautiful triangulation – singer-songwriter, artist-in-residence, host-producer – but as the ‘80s dawned, Groce was trapped in a kind of pre-iconic limbo, having not yet become the face of a revered performance program, and having not quite gotten his fill of performing on the road.

“I went to England and appeared on a BBC show called Get Set for Summer, which was a Saturday morning children’s entertainment show,” he says.  “I was actually on with Tears for Fears, and I sang Disney songs.  I did Prairie Home Companion three times.  I was on Canada Tonight, and several other Canadian TV shows.  I did a special on the Disney Channel when that network first started.  I was on Nashville Now.  I went on Dr. Demento’s radio show couple of times, which, at the time, was recorded in his basement if I remember right.”

Every stop would play a role in helping shape Mountain Stage.

 

Larry Groce

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“In the beginning, Mountain Stage was something of a variety show and had spoken word performance and comedy as well as music.  We were trying to introduce the show to the NPR stations so we took it to a public radio conference in San Diego. We tapped Kathy Mattea, who was just ascending in the world of country music, and asked Dr. Demento come on and do a comedy routine.  We did the same thing with Gordon Jump, the guy that used to play the Maytag repairman and starred in WKRP in Cincinnati.  I knew him through California connections. We did some comedy and poetry and various things back then, but we eventually evolved into music only.”

Groce is happy to cite the influences that he’s borrowed from through the years, giving credit where credit is due.  Mountain Stage is an amalgam of experiences good and bad, of moments big and seemingly insignificant.  Just as Prince borrowed from Jimi Hendrix, James Brown, Muddy Waters and Duke Ellington to name a few, creating his own identity in the process, Groce has built Mountain Stage by using the same philosophy.

“One thing that’s really shaped Mountain Stage is all of the shows that I did leading up to it.  Merv Griffin and Dick Clark were both very nice to me.  These were two huge commercial names in the entertainment business, guys who were millionaires many times over.  Merv Griffin owned the Wheel of Fortune TV show, and nobody was bigger than him in terms of pop television, and yet he was extremely nice to me.  The same was true with Dick Clark.  When I went on Dick’s show in Los Angeles, he had a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken in the guest room, which was straight from the song [laughs].  So we sat and ate, and he just got to know me.  He said that it was great to have me as his guest, that he loved Junk Food Junkie, and that we would have a fun time with it on the show.”

 

“One thing that’s really shaped Mountain Stage is all of the shows that I did leading up to it.  Merv Griffin and Dick Clark were both very nice to me.  These were two huge commercial names in the entertainment business, guys who were millionaires many times over.  Merv Griffin owned the Wheel of Fortune TV show, and nobody was bigger than him in terms of pop television, and yet he was extremely nice to me.  The same was true with Dick Clark.  When I went on Dick’s show in Los Angeles, he had a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken in the guest room, which was straight from the song [laughs].  So we sat and ate, and he just got to know me.  He said that it was great to have me as his guest, that he loved Junk Food Junkie, and that we would have a fun time with it on the show.” – Larry Groce

 

What emerged from those experiences was a philosophy that has not only sustained the Mountain Stage for more than thirty years, but one that has endeared it to some of the most talented and successful musicians in the world.

“Three guiding principles were important to me when we started Mountain Stage,” Groce says quickly.  “One, I didn’t want to ever tell anybody what to sing on the show.  That’s up to the artist.  I didn’t care what they sang.  Two, I wanted to give every guest a chance to sing at least three songs and have about the same amount of time as the other guests onstage and in sound check.  There have been a few times where we’ve bent the rules, a few exceptions where people might have complicated setups but we only push it so far.  And three, I wanted everybody to be treated as equally as possible. I didn’t want the headliner to be treated like a star, and then turn around and tell everyone else to go sleep in the toilet. I wanted to make it as egalitarian as possible.  As a rule, every guest gets the same great food to eat, the same quality hotel accommodations, and so forth.  It’s been that way since the very beginning.  Everybody gets about the same amount of time to rehearse and to do sound check.  They use the same dressing rooms.  It makes no difference whether you come on first, last, or anywhere in-between.  Everyone is treated well on Mountain Stage.

~  ~  ~

When I left my home
And my family,
I was no more than a boy
In the company of strangers
In the quiet of the railway station,
Running scared,
Laying low,
Seeking out the poorer quarters
Where the ragged people go,
Looking for the places
Only they would know.
  – Simon & Garfunkel.  The Boxer

~  ~  ~

Larry Groce didn’t do it alone.

He is quick to point out that Mountain Stage is a team effort, that there are many hands involved – have been for decades – and that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.  Hell, Mountain Stage wasn’t even his idea.  Groce is the face of the show, the Elton John to a small army of Bernie Taupins, but he understands that nothing gets done without the hard work of some incredibly talented and dedicated people.  You don’t land a group like R.E.M. without having your shit together.  A show like this doesn’t survive – nay, thrive – for more than thirty years by relying solely on the talent of one person.

Mountain Stage started with two guys who I already knew – Francis Fisher and Andy Ridenour – they called me,” he says.  “We all brought something different to the show.  Francis was the live radio guy and engineer, while Andy had the business acumen and knowledge of the public radio system.  They needed somebody to be the face and voice of Mountain Stage and decide on the talent, and they knew I’d had a hit song, had been on national radio, and had some valuable connections.  I was immediately interested.”

Groce pauses.

“I only had one condition; I wanted Mountain Stage to be a national show, not just statewide.  I know that sounded naïve at the time because we didn’t have any experience, we didn’t have any money, and we didn’t have any equipment, but I knew that if we didn’t think of it as a national show, it would never become a national show.”

 

“I only had one condition; I wanted Mountain Stage to be a national show, not just statewide.  I know that sounded naïve at the time because we didn’t have any experience, we didn’t have any money, and we didn’t have any equipment, but I knew that if we didn’t think of it as a national show, it would never become a national show.” – Larry Groce

 

The mindset was admirable, but few at the time thought a quirky radio show based in West Virginia could make it onto the national stage, especially on a Sunday afternoon.  Groce, Fisher and Ridenour pressed on, undeterred.

“We did our pilot in 1981, but we didn’t get any money until two years later.  We did one show a month from December 1983 until the end of 1984, experimenting with the format and learning from our mistakes.  The productions in those early days were very crude.  We had mostly local acts on the show – basically, anyone that we could get.  By 1985 we had a little more money, so we did this live show from the Spoleto Festival in Charleston, South Carolina, with a satellite uplink so that anybody in the United States could listen to it.  I believe this was the first time that NPR satellite uplink had ever been used, and it showed that we could appeal to a national audience.”

Spoleto brought Mountain Stage a legitimacy it needed to take the next step.

“We knew that Prairie Home Companion was already doing a live show in this way, which provided a roadmap, so we reached out to National Public Radio and pitched the idea of distributing our show.  After a while they agreed, but predicted that we’d never get more than twenty-five stations to pick us up. They also said that it would be difficult to do what we wanted to do while based in West Virginia. In other words, we couldn’t do a show like this from here. They may have been correct from their point of view, but their tone sounded condescending to us.  That’s when I began to realize, as all West Virginians already know, how many people from the outside see this place – and that was strong motivation.  We wanted to prove them wrong.”

Fueled by the sleights, the trio went about the business of growing their show.  There were moments of doubt, as there are with any startup, but these slowly receded with each passing month, and with every new show they produced.

“A funny thing became very clear to us; the higher-ups at NPR were absolutely wrong.  West Virginia was the perfect place to do the kind of show we wanted to do.  We had a low overhead that you couldn’t find in a big city.   Think about it; it would cost way too much money to do this in New York, and there would be constant pressure on you to please some critic, or to be hip and trendy.  You would be in a market with intense competition, and you would always be trying to come up with the next big thing.  But we didn’t have to do that in Charleston.  We’ve never had to do that.  What we’ve found is that the acts coming in here like that we’re on a lot of stations but it still feels like a small venue. They know we’re off the beaten path.  For some, it’s their first time receiving national exposure, and because we’re smaller and more intimate, it doesn’t feel as intimidating.  Most acts think of West Virginians as nice people, and this helps to make them feel more comfortable.  They forget about all the other stuff and lose their inhibitions.  Of course they get nervous sometimes, but we try to make them feel comfortable.  We’ll spend time with them in the green room before they go on, and help them to relax, tell them that the people out there will love them.  And you know what?  They do.”

While having quality acts and a nationwide audience is important, putting butts in seats is also key to the show’s survival.  Groce is quick to point out that many West Virginians have supported Mountain Stage from Day One.

“People outside the state seldom give West Virginians enough credit.  The audiences here are nice and polite, but they are also very smart.  They don’t fawn over someone just because they’re a musician from elsewhere.  They don’t cheer and scream just for showing up, but if you’re good, they respond.  That’s what I love about it.  It’s an honest thing.  We don’t have somebody stirring up the audience, which is what happens on a lot of other shows.  Everything that you hear on Mountain Stage is organic.  We do edit the show – we take out things and we fix things if we can, but we don’t redo a lot of stuff.  What you hear is pretty much how it happens.”

 

“People outside the state seldom give West Virginians enough credit.  The audiences here are nice and polite, but they are also very smart.  They don’t fawn over someone just because they’re a musician from elsewhere.  They don’t cheer and scream just for showing up, but if you’re good, they respond.  That’s what I love about it.  It’s an honest thing.  We don’t have somebody stirring up the audience, which is what happens on a lot of other shows.  Everything that you hear on Mountain Stage is organic.  We do edit the show – we take out things and we fix things if we can, but we don’t redo a lot of stuff.  What you hear is pretty much how it happens.” – Larry Groce

 

Before adopting taped broadcasts, Mountain Stage was truly an open microphone to anyone able to pick up the signal.

“For the first 12 years, from 1983 to 1995, Mountain Stage was completely live.  Everything you heard went out statewide just the way it went down.  And then we went to a taped broadcast, which gave us many advantages that we didn’t have before.  For example, we can let everybody play a little longer; so, if you come to the show to see your favorite act, we don’t have to cut it off after 20 minutes because we need to get off the air. And performers aren’t afraid to tune up or tell a story that might be too long.

“Another advantage of going to taped broadcasts had to do with the Sunday, 3 o’clock show time when we were live.  Charleston isn’t the easiest or quickest place to get in and out of, especially on airplanes. It was hard to get acts who performed on Saturday night in here Sunday on time. And they sure didn’t want to be doing sound checks at 9am. So taping allowed us to start later in the day. We’ve started at 7pm ever since we went to tape. Live radio had an edge, but the downside was too much. Francis still wishes that we still did it live, but there are plenty of reasons why we don’t.”

~  ~  ~

So how did you get here under my skin
Swore that I’d never let you back in
Should’ve known better
Than trying to let you go
‘Cause we go go go again
– Norah Jones & Ray Charles.  Here We Go Again (Genius Loves Company)

~  ~  ~

Invention has its own algorithm – genius, obsession, serendipity, and epiphany in some unknowable combination – and no two fingerprints are the same.  Whether you’re talking Apple or Mercedes or Mountain Stage, every great success story has a certain DNA that sets it apart from everyone else.  For Larry Groce, Francis Fisher, and Andy Ridenour, Mountain Stage has leveraged six genius moves to creation a show unlike any other:

Genius Move #1:  The decision to mash genres.

Today it barely feels edgy, but back then it was a radical concept, something that many felt would crash Mountain Stage into the ground immediately after takeoff.

Mountain Stage is the first live show to mix genres the way that we do,” Groce says.  “There were radio stations that did something similar with recorded music, but we were the first live show to mix folk, acoustic, country, bluegrass, alt rock, you name it.  We didn’t know of anyone else doing it when we started.  There are others who do it today, but we were alone back then.  We were pioneers.”

Genius Move #2:  The decision to keep it real.

“Mixing genres in the same show means that we have mixed audiences that come to our shows.  In West Virginia, most people just aren’t that concerned about being hip.  That isn’t their first concern, whereas it’s very important in some other places.  That’s not what Mountain Stage is about.  If you like the music, great, if you don’t, great.  But if you think we’re trying to be the hippest thing in the world, think again.  That’s not us.  We’re not ever going to do that, at least not as long as I’m here.  We’re going to look for quality, we’re going to try to give you something that’s interesting, and we’re going to take chances.  Some acts may not work as well as others, or as well as we’d hoped, or you may not like them, but that’s okay.  You found out you didn’t like them, and now you don’t have to mess with them anymore.  We want to give you a wide sample, expose you to as many different artists and genres as possible, and then move on to the next show.

Genius Move #3:  The decision to cast a wide net.

“Opening the show up to a broader spectrum of music has been a key to our success.  We realized very early on the advantage of welcoming all kinds of music to Mountain Stage, from old-time fiddlers to African music, from jazz to singer-songwriters, to Americana, to Cajun, to blues, to bluegrass.  When you do all of these things, then you can aim for the best people in all of them.  If you specialize in just one – bluegrass, for example – you soon start to run out of quality acts.  That’s just the way it is.  You’ve got performers like Dale McCoury, The Earls of Leicester, Ricky Skaggs and some others at the top, but Mountain Stage does 26 shows annually.  The diversity in the music helps to ensure that we have quality performances.  That doesn’t mean we always get the very best, because life doesn’t work that way.

“Casting a wide net means that we don’t have to worry about putting someone on just to fit a certain format.  Our only criteria is that we put people on who we think are talented, and that we think have a chance to stay around.  We’re hoping that you’ll be listening to their music 10 or 20 years later.  We’re not geniuses, and we can’t pick them all right, but you’ll find some artists that have been on Mountain Stage ten times.  Robert Earl Keen was recently on the show.  His first appearance was back in 1989, so he’s been coming to Mountain Stage for 27 years.  Why?  Because he’s a high-quality guy.  He’s a great performer, he’s still good, and people like him.”

Genius Move #4:  The decisions to deliver an eclectic show.

“Another thing you learn about West Virginia, is the respect West Virginians have for older people,
Groce says.  “Is someone like the late, legendary bluegrass player Ralph Stanley bad because he’s old?  People here respect talent no matter what the age, and that’s the way it ought to be.  I love to put somebody who’s seventy-five on the show with somebody who’s twenty-two.  That’s one of my favorite things, because the performer who’s twenty-two has something to learn, and the performer who’s seventy-five has something to give.  We had a show down in Bristol, and on it we had two performers in their seventies – Odetta and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott – and I thought that somebody should be making a documentary of these people talking, because, between them, there’s over a hundred years of things that they’ve done musically, with everyone from Woody Guthrie to Paul Robeson.”

Genius Move #5:  The decision to treat all acts equally.

“What we do is give the artists time, and all we ask in return is their help in honoring that time commitment.  We tell them that we’re looking for about twenty minutes if they’re slotted in the first hour; the second half of the show is a little longer, so we’re looking for about twenty-five minutes, unless it’s an act that we know is drawing a lot of people, and then we ask if they can do a little bit more.  Most acts are happy to play longer, but we also understand that we’re not paying them their regular fee, so if they only want to do the standard twenty-five minutes, that’s fine with us.  That’s all we are asking for contractually.”

Genius Move #6:  The decision to forge a public-private business relationship.

“Most of these acts wouldn’t come to West Virginia, because there’s no format for them to perform here, there’s not a suitable venue for a lot of them to play.  Charleston doesn’t have the clubs or smaller concert halls like you have in bigger cities or big college towns.  There are plenty of places for them to play in places like Charlottesville and Chicago.  If it weren’t for Mountain Stage, we wouldn’t get to see a lot of these acts here.  The state has been very supportive; having a permanent venue like the West Virginia Cultural Center has helped to keep it affordable.”

~  ~  ~

Keeping costs low while bringing in incredible talent can present a challenge.  It’s a tightrope that Groce & Co. walk daily, but everyone knows their role and trusts the process.

“We pay the acts who come to Mountain Stage.  We don’t pay them as much as they get for concerts elsewhere, but we pay them more than union scale.  You have to, otherwise it costs them to come on.  We give them free rooms and we feed them, so that stuff helps.  That’s why we do the show on Sunday.  Hopefully these acts have good paying jobs on Friday and Saturday.

“Andy Ridenour (who has now retired) and Adam Harris, who is the executive producer – were and are the bosses of the budget.  If I want a certain act and they say that we can’t afford it, we don’t go after that act.  It’s their world to figure out if it’s financially doable.  Paul Flaherty is our technical director, and he assesses the technical aspects of the shows.  If an act has twelve people, and he doesn’t think we can do it right, then we won’t put them on.  If I explain that it’s important for the mission of Mountain Stage he’ll probably find a way to do it, but otherwise I’m not going to tell him how to do his job.  I’m not the technical director.  When it comes to deciding who goes on the show, that’s my job.  I have to give credit to the State of West Virginia, and to every sponsor and every underwriter that we’ve ever had, because no one has ever forced an act on us or told us not to put someone on.”

Before you paint a mental picture of Larry Groce as a tyrannical control freak, think again.

“I have final approval of every act that goes on,” he says, “but I can’t know everything.  I get suggestions from many, many people – from within our organization, and from people on the outside.  There are a lot of ways we hear about new music.  If a stagehand has a suggestion about an act, I’ll listen to it.  We listen to stuff that people call or email in.  We hear about it through the normal channels, like agents, managers, publicists, record companies, and the artists themselves.

 

“I have final approval of every act that goes on, but I can’t know everything.  I get suggestions from many, many people – from within our organization, and from people on the outside.  There are a lot of ways we hear about new music.  If a stagehand has a suggestion about an act, I’ll listen to it.  We listen to stuff that people call or email in.  We hear about it through the normal channels, like agents, managers, publicists, record companies, and the artists themselves.” – Larry Groce

 

“Every day we get many requests to be on the show, or suggestions of acts that should be on the show.  Someone says, ‘I heard this great band, it should be on Mountain Stage.’  And you say, ‘Oh, really?  Tell me about it.’  And the response usually starts out with something like, ‘Well, I was at the Empty Glass (a local bar) last night, and it was about 1 o’clock the morning…’”

Groce smiles at the thought.

“What you find out is that they were drinking a little bit, and they were there with their girlfriend, and it sounded great because of the situation.  But I have to listen to that band in the harsh light of day and hear what it sounds like without the benefit of all the other influences.  Most times, it just doesn’t translate.  You’re not going to have that atmospheric experience on the radio.  With Mountain Stage, you’ve got to have somebody who can sing, who can play, and who has good songs.  That’s not always there when you wring out the clouded experience.  They may be beautiful, they may dance great, their costumes may be cool, and they may be very hip looking.  They can be sexy, fun, funny, whatever, but you can’t see most of that stuff on radio.  But most people never think about it in those terms, nor should they, because it’s not their job.  But that’s the way we have to do it.”

Larry Groce understands that there are no guarantees – whether that’s the next act he chooses, or the next season being planned.  He knows that it could all disappear tomorrow, and that Mountain Stage – a show that has hosted thousands of acts – could simply drift away.

And he’s okay with that.

 

Larry Groce performs live on Mountain Stage.

Larry Groce performs live on Mountain Stage.

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“We’ve never had a guarantee that we would be here the next year, and if we’re no longer relevant, then it’s time to move on to something else.  I’m very grateful, because one thing that I understand very well, is that God didn’t declare that Mountain Stage had to be here.  We’re fortunate that we’re able to do this.  I’m thankful every time we do a show, because there’s no guarantee that this is something that will continue to be done.  This isn’t pop music – pop music pays for itself because it has a massive audience.  We don’t aim at that same audience, obviously.  We do have to connect with people, we do have to be popular, and we do have to be successful with the public, but we don’t have to be totally concentrated on the numbers.  We don’t have to worry about being cancelled because we’ve dropped one percent.  Commercial music has that pressure everywhere – on the radio, at concerts, with record sales, and everything else.  Our pressure is different.  We do understand that we could go away.  We are so fortunate to have the sponsors that we do, and to have major national underwriters like the Bailey & Glasser law firm, West Virginia Tourism and the local Charleston Convention and Visitors Bureau.  And there are other large statewide supporters. They are all very generous, and thank goodness they think that what we do is worthwhile. While the show does generate interest in tourism and helps create a positive image of the state, a law firm is unlikely to pick up additional business by supporting Mountain Stage.  They know that.  But they want to support it because they believe in it, and they think it’s a good thing for the city and the state.”

Ticket prices to a Mountain Stage performance remain incredibly low, given the entertainment value. Groce remains committed to the idea of keeping it this way, so that all West Virginians can enjoy a live performance if they so choose.

“We face constant pressure to raise ticket prices.  It’s a bargain at $20 in advance, especially for what you’re getting.  Most people can’t believe how affordable the tickets are, but we want to keep it so that it’s accessible to most people.  We’re able to do that partly because the Educational Broadcasting Authority of West Virginia owns Mountain Stage and helps support our mission.  The state owns the Mountain Stage trademark.  Every governor has supported it, and the legislatures have supported it.  It’s a public-private partnership; we get some from the state, and that helps us keep the shows reasonably priced.”

~  ~  ~

ACT FOUR:  AUTOMATIC FOR THE PEOPLE
(Truth can be stranger than fiction)

Oh life, it’s bigger
It’s bigger than you
And you are not me
The lengths that I will go to
The distance in your eyes
Oh no, I’ve said too much
I set it up
  – R.E.M.  Losing My Religion

~  ~  ~

If you’re looking for the seminal moment in the distinguished history of Mountain Stage, that 1991 R.E.M. performance is easily it, and by a country mile.  It grabbed headlines, heightened the show’s mystique, and transformed it in ways that reverberate today.  Consider:  Like Michael Jackson’s moonwalk on Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever, R.E.M. playing in Charleston was in locally iconic moment, indelible, and something that fans of the show still talk about all these years later.  R.E.M could have played anywhere.  In front of anyone.  It chose Charleston.  In West-by-God-Virginia.

How does a show like Mountain Stage land a world renowned, gazillion-record selling alt-rock band at the height of its powers?  How is that possible?  Whose soul do you have to sell?

“R.E.M. called us,” Groce says with a laugh.  “When you see big stars on the show, headline acts that are already established, you can be 99% sure that they have contacted us.  A good example of that is Martina McBride, who has been on the show twice.  There’s no reason for us to go after Martina McBride.  She doesn’t need to be on Mountain Stage.  I remember vividly when former executive director Andy Ridenour called me and said that Martina McBride wanted to perform on Mountain Stage.  I couldn’t understand why she sought us out.  She could buy Mountain Stage.  Why does she want to be on Mountain Stage?  Well, she wanted to be on Mountain Stage because she had released a record that she knew would not get played on country radio.  It didn’t fit the modern format – it was a collection old-style country songs.  The material spanned from Lefty Frizzell to Hank Williams to Kris Kristofferson.  She loved that music and she wanted to make a record – and she knew it wouldn’t get played on the radio. So her people called Mountain Stage and said, ‘You know, she would really like to be on your show.’  The same thing was true with R.E.M.”

 

“R.E.M. called us.  When you see big stars on the show, headline acts that are already established, you can be 99% sure that they have contacted us.  A good example of that is Martina McBride, who has been on the show twice.  There’s no reason for us to go after Martina McBride.  She doesn’t need to be on Mountain Stage.”

 

Pump the brakes.

R.E.M., arguably the greatest alt-rock band in history, and one of the most popular bands on the planet at the time, calls and asks to perform on Mountain Stage?

“Peter Buck, was on the show with a guy named Kevin Kinney as a duo back in 1989, when we did the show in the downtown Capitol Theatre.  It was a terrific performance.  Everyone knew he was the Peter Buck who was in R.E.M., and yet he acted like a regular guy, very nice and unpretentious, even though R.E.M., at that time, were about as famous as you could get, arguably on the same level as U2 is now.  When he left, he said that he was going to tell the band that R.E.M. needed to play Mountain Stage.  I said that we’d love to have them come and play, but all I could think was:  Yeah, right.  But then one day Andy called me, just like he did later with Martina.  He said that we’d gotten a call from R.E.M., and he wanted to know if we’d like to have them on the show.  Of course I did – I wanted them on the show anytime day or night, on any day of the week.  We’ll make the show happen however they want it to happen.  So Andy makes the call, and then he calls me back.  He says, ‘No, they don’t want any special treatment.  They want to do it at the regular time.  But they have one request – they want to do it in the old location that Peter Buck played in.’”

 

Watershed moment: R.E.M. performs live on Mountain Stage, October 24, 2016.

Watershed moment: R.E.M. performs live on Mountain Stage, October 24, 2016.

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“By then we had already moved to our new home at the Cultural Center, so we rented the Capitol Theatre for that one performance.  It turned out great.  I asked them what they wanted – we offered them the whole last hour, and they said, ‘No, we’ll do just what you always do.’  We did seek their input on the acts that performed with them, and we ended up only having four acts instead of the usual five.  They wanted to have Billy Bragg and Robyn Hitchcock, two English singers, and for us it was a resounding, ‘Hell, yeah!’ because wanted to have them on the show anyway.  The other act was Gregson & Collister – R.E.M. had never heard of them, but they ended up loving their music.”

Charleston was buzzing.

R.E.M. had come to play here, on its locally-produced, state-owned, semi-underground performance show, at a time when the band was powerful enough to speed dial the Pope.

“R.E.M. had just put out a record titled Out of Time, which was a big, big record for them.  The hit song on it was Losing My Religion, and there was all of this excitement about the band.  They didn’t tour and Warner Bros. went crazy, which is understandable, because that’s how you sell records.  I think the band had recently signed a big contract with them, and they knew the band could go on the road and easily sell out large stadiums, but that was R.E.M..  It wasn’t totally about the money.  Instead, they said, ‘We’re going to do three shows.  We’re going to do Saturday Night Live, we’re going to do MTV Unplugged, and we’re going to do Mountain Stage.’  We couldn’t believe our luck.  R.E.M.’s decision to play in Charleston put us on a world stage.  It’s still surreal to think about, because Charleston is so small compared to New York and Los Angeles, and yet we had the biggest audience of any of those three shows.  SNL probably held 250 maybe less in studio, and Unplugged was even smaller, and we had probably 1,000 or so people in our audience.  It was a big deal; there were about 50 reporters from all over the world who came to Charleston, just to cover R.E.M.’s performance on Mountain Stage.   The Today Show even came and did a story about it.  It was crazy.  People lined up around the block just to try to get the good seats, because it was still general admission and there were no reserved seats.  Robyn Hitchcock surprised everyone by going out on the street with his guitar and busking for the people waiting to get inside.”

Surreal is right:  The band with the hit Radio Free Europe was available, free for the listening, on West Virginia airwaves.

 

R.E.M. performs live on Mountain Stage.

R.E.M. performs live on Mountain Stage.

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“Back then the show was live on the radio.  There was no chance to screen or filter anything – whatever was said or done went out to the immediate listening area.  We would always wait a week before we put it on satellite for the national audience, but in West Virginia it was live.  R.E.M. played a little bit more than normal, and then at the end of the two hour show they offered to play some more.  We kept the radio feed on, because we knew people were going to love this.  R.E.M. asked Billy and Robyn to get up on the stage with them, and they did stuff I don’t think they’d never done before.  It was great fun.”

Even 25 years later, the significance of that R.E.M. Mountain Stage performance is not lost on Groce.  He remains keenly aware – and deeply appreciative – of the strong power of loose connections.

“That one show was a game-changer for us, and we’ve been able to keep in touch with them through the years.  We’ve had Robyn Hitchcock back on Mountain Stage five times, and would really like to have him back again because he’s such a smart and very talented performer.  Billy Bragg has also continued to do the show and will be back again this year. Michael Stipe wrote to me regularly for a while after that performance, offering suggestions of people to put on the show.  As a matter fact, that’s how I found out about Vic Chesnutt, the great singer-songwriter from Athens, Georgia.  Vic had been in a terrible car accident that left him mostly paralyzed, and he used a wheelchair and only had partial use of his hands.  Such an interesting person, I really liked talking to him when he came to perform on Mountain Stage.  Sadly, he ended his own life about six or seven years ago.  He was a sweet man, and very talented.  I loved his music and his songs.  Stipe produced at least one of his records, and he thought Vic would be great for the show.  That’s how we found him.”

~  ~  ~

Mountain Stage continues to evolve.  Has it really been 33 years?  Groce was 35-years-old when the show started way back in 1983.  He’s 68 today.

“We’ve brought in some young people over the past five years or so, which will hopefully help Mountain Stage to carry on,” he says.  “Francis is still there, and he’s older than me.   Andy retired a few years ago.  Before he did, he trained a young man from Greenbrier County who came to Mountain Stage after going to Radford College, where he studied music business.  He interned at Mountain Stage, and he never left, even after his internship ended and we didn’t have any money to pay him.  He just kept working for nothing, so we found a way to pay him a little something, and then we found a way to pay him a little more.  Finally, we were able to bring him on with a state job.  He’s been here ten years.  Andy took him under his wing and trained him, and in those ten years he’s gone from intern to executive director.  He’s talented, he’s a native West Virginian, he’s smart, he’s responsible, he’s got the values that we want.”

Evolving as the times change, while maintaining the culture that makes Mountain Stage such a beloved show, can be a tricky proposition.  Integrating fresh faces and entertaining new ideas without straying too far from the mission is something that the core group has navigated with aplomb.

“When we bring someone onboard, we try to install our vision and our values about Mountain Stage.  We have one young woman who works for us – Joni Deutsch – who is 24 and who is bringing a lot of acts to my attention now.  She’s grown up with music I’m less familiar with. She has a world of music that she likes, and she has a show of her own called A Change of Tune so she’s always on the lookout for new, young, talent.  That’s what we need, because as soon as you stop evolving then it’s over.  You’re done.

“It’s fun to work with people of all ages on Mountain Stage.  We all get along, and we have a lot of fun together.  The people in the band tend to be closer to my age.  In the office, they are much younger than me.  The tech people are of varying ages.  We all respect each other.  There’s a lot of trust.  We don’t question each other’s judgment, we’re not afraid to ask each other for help, and we’re not afraid to make suggestions.  It’s a true team environment.”

With all of the incredible moments over the past 30-plus years, Groce recognizes the civic duty to preserve these amazing performances.  Archiving it all promises to be a daunting task.

“We are trying to do that, although we haven’t gotten as far as we’d hoped by now.  We’ve been working on dubbing all of the shows into a digital database.  It’s going to be a process, because we’ve got more than 860 shows to archive, and each show is at least two hours long.  Our ultimate goal is to allow anyone to go online and listen to anything that’s ever been on Mountain Stage, and to be able to sort and filter by show, artist, set, and song.  That’s going to take money we don’t currently have, but we hope to someday to be able to do it.

“It’s an important part of our mission to make that accessible, because the Mountain Stage archives are a gold mine.  There is wonderful music from a lot of wonderful, talented people.  You have everything from Malian singer and multi-instrumentalist Ali Farka Touré to Melvin Wine, the old fiddler from Braxton County, to singer-songwriters like Randy Newman and Warren Zevon.  We’ve had Counting Crows on Mountain Stage.  We’ve had Indigo Girls, Bruce Hornsby, Sarah McLachlan, Norah Jones, Crash Test Dummies, Barenaked Ladies, and a lot of these acts were on Mountain Stage before anybody knew about them.  Most people don’t know that Phish has been on the show.  As a matter fact, they told us one time that they wanted to come back, but that they wanted to do the whole two hours.  We told them that we don’t do that.  That’s just not us.”

There was also a stretch when Mountain Stage appeared on television.  Today, the push has been into the digital space.

“We’ve done television in a couple of different ways – Mountain Stage itself got some outside people to film some shows, because WV Public Broadcasting didn’t want to do it for TV because of the costs.  We did three years worth of shows back in the early 2000s working with the private company.  Lately, we’ve been streaming shows online.  It costs a lot of money to do television, a whole lot more than radio, so it’s tough for the State of West Virginia to take on that additional burden.  Nowadays, there aren’t many music-related shows on TV.  Austin City Limits is still around, but I’m not sure how many new shows they make each year, and MTV doesn’t have much music on it anymore.  The new frontier is podcasting, streaming, and things like that, which is what we’re doing more of.”

~  ~  ~

CLOSING ACT:  WHEN THE MIST CLEARS AWAY
(A purpose driven life)

Larry Groce is home.

“I like this place.  Charleston continues to grow and evolve – there’s art, music, theater, dance.  My two girls love it here.  Both of them are in the Charleston Ballet’s school, and they recently performed in The Hunchback of Notre Dame.  They’re also both in the Charleston Youth Symphony Orchestra.  I was one of the originators of FestivAll, of which I’m very proud, because my kids are growing up here and I want them to look at their city and say, ‘There’s some good stuff here.’

“My girls go to public school in the city because we believe in public education.  I don’t know where they’re going to college, but it’s still early for those decisions.  They may live here the rest of their lives or they may move away, but that’s their business, that’s their lives.  But wherever they go, I think they will always love Charleston, West Virginia.  Even if they are living on the other side of the world, they will say that it’s a great place.

Turns out, Groce isn’t the only musician in the family.

“My wife is a member of the West Virginia Symphony.  She was the principal viola player for several years, but it was a demanding job, especially with children, so she resigned as principal because she didn’t have time to do all of the things that the first chair has to do.  She is now a member of the section and she still plays.  It’s also great for our girls, because it gives them something else that they can experience.  They get to go to Mountain Stage, they can see the Symphony, they can experience the Charleston Light Opera Guild, they can go to FestivAll.”

Family plays a big part in Groce’s latest project, Live Forever.  The CD packs a punch, with a combination of inspired song choices and self-written material that cut to the essence of the man – a gifted singer-songwriter who possesses a keen sense of what makes a great record, and an artist who is still comfortable in front of a microphone with a guitar in his hands.  When you live life, really live it and breathe it in, what comes out is as authentic and as easily identifiable as a fingerprint.

Surprisingly, Live Forever almost didn’t get made, but the drumbeat to make another record had gotten steadily louder in recent years, and harder to ignore.

“I enjoyed being a singer-songwriter, but there was a transition period for me,” he says.  “Somewhere between 1985 and 1990 I transformed from singer-songwriter to producer-host.  More than 25 years later, several of my friends, including close friend Michael Lipton, who is one of the lead guitarists on Mountain Stage and has a band called the Carpenter Ants, started urging me to make a record.  I initially resisted, telling Michael that nobody wants to hear a record from me, and that I didn’t want to waste everybody’s time and my money.

“The next person who approached me about the project was Don Dixon.  Don is also a friend and a producer.  He produced the first two R.E.M. records.  He’s very talented – he’s a great songwriter, plays bass for Mary Chapin Carpenter, and he knows everybody in the business.  He’s produced 100 records or so, everyone from R.E.M. to James McMurtry to the Smithereens to Red Clay Ramblers.  He’s done old-time music, pop rock, alt rock, you name it.  He’s very smart, and a wonderful man and great friend.  So he approached me and said, ‘Why don’t you make a record?’  And my immediate reaction was, ‘Now you’re starting in on me too?’”

By this point, Groce was on the fence and giving a new record serious thought.

“My wife was really the turning point in my decision to record again.  She had always played in the symphony, and had never really had a chance to play pop music.  She’s not the kind of person who does anything by ear – she has to make it up, write it down, and then read it, which is very structured and very different from just going on stage and jamming.  Well, she wanted to try to play some pop music, so we started playing together, and the next thing you know we were going out and playing some gigs.  She had never done that before.  It was fun for her to play this kind of music.  And that’s when she suggested making a record together.  That’s when it became a little bit more convincing, because it was her wanting to do it, and then she commented on how our girls really needed a record of their mom and dad playing together.  That’s what changed my mind.

“My first thought was to just go in the studio, open the microphone, and play some songs for the girls to have.  And then I thought about Michael and Don, and their willingness to get involved, and suddenly I felt like I could not only make a record that sounds professionally produced, that I could do it without a big fuss and huge cost.  We know people who can lay it out and do all of the stuff that needs done, we have access to some great musicians who would lend their talents to a record like this.  And if it doesn’t sell a lot of copies, so what?

“The thought of taking the next step and marketing it like a commercial release did cross my mind, but I quickly thought better of it.  I know publicists, and I know people who push records to radio stations, and some thought they could get me airplay, but it was going to cost time and money and I was really not looking for a new career as a singer.  That’s when I decided that I’m just going to make the record and perform some locally. I got a nice interview in the Charleston Gazette, and we’re selling a few copies here and there, and I’m happy with the quality of the work.  The girls have their picture on the CD, and this is really about them and for them, so I’m happy with how it’s worked out.”

 

Larry Groce poses for his latest CD, 'Live Forever'.

Larry Groce poses for his latest CD, ‘Live Forever’.

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The record itself is full of gems.  Pancho and Lefty, a Townes Van Zandt song that became widely known when Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard rode it to the top of the country charts in 1983, is a brilliant selection and splendidly done.

“There are twelve songs on Live Forever, and four of them are my songs.  It’s always tough when you put your own songs in with classic songs, because those songs are so much better than yours.  However, they fit the theme.  I worked with Don to pick out the songs, and I picked out songs that I think are strong songs, and songs that I want my girls to know.  I’ve always believed that the best songs are like hymns, and the best hymns are something wonderful.  It doesn’t matter if you’re religious or not.  I always joke that, if you are on your deathbed, nobody wants to hear a sermon, but they’ll hear a hymn.  And there’s a reason for that.  Hymns are powerful.  Songs are very powerful.  You listen to the Townes Van Zandt song Pancho and Lefty, which I chose for this record…man, what a song.  What an experience that song is.  You can like my version, or you can not like my version, but if you don’t like the song then you are just wrong because it’s a great song.  Townes Van Zandt was on Mountain Stage three times.  Just to meet Townes was very moving, because he was a man who had serious problems. He was an alcoholic and helpless in some ways…but man, what a visionary, and what a poet.”

There are plenty of tips of the cap when it comes to Mountain Stage, culminating with the closing track Simple Song (Mountain Stage Theme), the uplifting signature song performed by Groce at the kickoff of each show.  Unsurprisingly, Live Forever consistently strikes the right chords.

“One of the songs that I perform on the record, In the Wilderness, is a song that I wrote and then sang on Mountain Stage back in the ‘90s.  Bette Midler called the show, because she heard it in New York, and she wanted to know who wrote it.  I told her that I did, and it was exciting to know that she liked my music.  I talked to Bette about it for awhile, and she asked me to send a copy to her, which I did.  She never did record it, but it was nice to know that she liked it.

“There are other songs on the record that I’ve heard on the show, like Live Forever, the one that I sing with Ray Wylie Hubbard.  It was co-written by the great Billy Joe Shaver and his son, Eddy.  Billy Joe and Eddy sang it on Mountain Stage, and the next year his son died tragically from a heroin overdose. The song lives on and is so powerful that I had to include it on the record.

“Lyle Lovett came on the show in 1987, and he sang If I Had A Boat.  I like that song.  It’s funny, but it has a lot to it.  And then there’s the George Jones song, Choices.  What powerful lyrics.  ‘I’ve had choices since the day that I was born…’  All of the songs on Live Forever are songs about life, about the choices we make, and how sometimes we don’t have a choice, like the lines at the end of Pancho and Lefty: ‘Pancho needs your prayers, it’s true, but save a few for Lefty too, he only did what he had to do, and now he’s growin’ old.’

~  ~  ~

As we prepare to close, I ask Larry Groce about the legacy of Mountain Stage, and my mind again turns to the late Blind Willie Johnson.  I wonder what Blind Willie would make of his record being one of those chosen to represent all of humanity, and how he would feel about his song exiting our solar system, headed for points unknown, along with legendary composers like Beethoven and Mozart.  Would he be proud?  Astounded?  Happy? Humbled?

Probably.

But something tells me that, if Blind Willie had his druthers, he would rather have his music performed live, on Mountain Stage, by a down and dirty bluesman handpicked by Larry Groce, the audience held rapt.

That’s where my song belongs, I can hear Blind Willie say.

And he would be absolutely right.

“Mountain Stage has always been about a vision of songs and their power.  A song is a very special and powerful entity.  It’s a work of art unlike any other, and it has an effect that nothing else does.  In four minutes or less it can literally stop people in their tracks.  It can inspire people when they are desperate.   It can change someone’s mood, and sometimes even change their mind.  It can change feelings.  That’s unbelievable.  Having that effect on people is just astounding.”

I ask Groce if he’s contemplated that moment when it comes time to let go.  I can’t fathom Mountain Stage without him, and I’m sure thousands of others feel the same, some of them some of the biggest names in the music business.

“I don’t know what it’s going to feel like when I finally step aside,” he says thoughtfully.  “The people that are there now, they understand what it’s all about.  They will change the show over time if it continues, as they have to, and it will become theirs, but I think they will hold on to the true spirit of Mountain Stage.

“I hope that Mountain Stage continues long after I leave.  I don’t know if it will or not, but I’ve not known that it will keep going each year for the past thirty-three.  Nothing is guaranteed.  And really and truly, I don’t want a guarantee.  I’d rather have it that way.  If it doesn’t work, let’s get rid of it.  I just pray that’s not the case.  There have been a lot of special moments on Mountain Stage and I’m grateful to have been a part of that. I hope they’ve reflected what’s good about West Virginia.”

Ingrid Chavez – Spirit Child

By:  Michael D. McClellan | Ingrid Chavez vanished into rumor in the 1990s, disappearing before our very eyes, her story climaxing with a high-profile Prince collaboration and punctuated by a public battle over writing credit for Madonna’s sultry number one single, Justify My Love.  What followed wasn’t years of hermit-like isolation, nor was the vacuum filled with a trail of shattered friendships, missed concerts, rioting crowds, irritated promoters, drug problems, band tensions, or burned bridges.  Sure, Chavez may have gone MIA, but she didn’t go the route of music’s great recluses, likened in the press to J. D. Salinger and Howard Hughes.  There was no car accident, like, say, D’Angelo’s Hummer-flipping wake up call that ejected the Black Messiah from his vehicle, hurtling him through pitch-blackness and breaking all the ribs on his left side.  Instead, the one-time Prince muse simply assessed the prevailing musical landscape and decided to pour her creative ambition into something infinitely more rewarding.

Motherhood.

Some in the business might question the timing of Chavez’s self-imposed hiatus, especially with her career on the verge of liftoff, but the decision was an easy one to make.  By then she’d grown weary of the closed door scheming and the backroom legal histrionics – the ugly, emotionally draining side of the music business that everyone with talent, ambition and the dream of making it is ultimately forced to confront.  It was here, at this crossroads, that the hypnotically alluring Ingrid Chavez decided that enough was enough.  She could have chosen to wallow in the muck, bartering her soul for a shot at splashing down in the mainstream, but she had the courage to walk away – no small feat when you’re in your twenties and The Purple One is hyping you to the world.

Chavez released her debut solo album, May 19, 1992, on Prince’s Paisley Park Records, and then disappeared into the ether.  The pop music landscape, as fickle as ever, simply rolled on:  Prince changed his name to a symbol, Madonna kept pushing buttons, and a new wave of hip-hop artists started dominating the charts, Eminem, Dr. Dre, and Jay-Z among them.  Meanwhile, Chavez retreated into relative obscurity, getting married, starting a family, and living vicariously through her husband’s work, English singer-songwriter David Sylvian.  She was forgotten about almost as quickly as she’d come.

 

Ingrid Chavez's debut album, May 19, 1992, released on Prince's Paisley Park Records.

Ingrid Chavez’s debut album, May 19, 1992, released on Prince’s Paisley Park Records.

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“I left when I fell in love with David and had my daughters,” she says.  “That was my focus.  After everything that had happened with Virgin Records, and with the litigation around Justify My Love, it was time to turn the page to something else.”

Content, Chavez happily raised her family and poured her creativity into her children’s lives, but the funny thing about kids is that they eventually grow up.  They find their own identities and move on to pursue their own interests.  That Chavez would find her way back to the music business should come as no surprise, yet Chavez herself never imagined making music again, much less with the freedom of shunning traditional channels.

“The Internet happened while I was away,” Chavez says with a laugh.  Unencumbered by the dollar-driven record companies that churn out formulaic acts to the masses, she released A Flutter and Some Words as an independent artist on January 25, 2010.  The record features Chavez’s brilliant poetry set to the dreamy instrumentation of Lorenzo Scopelliti.  “I felt a newfound sense of creative freedom in making that record with Lorenzo.  He brought a beauty to my life that was pure poetry.  He sees the potential for beauty in all things and I learned a lot from him.  What came out of that collaboration is a body of work that captured the warmth and golden light of Liguria and the snowy landscapes and back roads of New England.”

Prince’s one-time ‘Spirit Child’ has no regrets for her time spent on the sidelines.  She’s simply happy to be making music again, refusing to view her decision to step away as an opportunity lost.  It’s all part of her journey.  She willingly traded big moments for small and would do it all over again, proud of her part in helping set the tone and direction of Prince’s Lovesexy, but thankful for those walks in the woods with her daughters, exploring nature and answering all of the questions that wide-eyed children ask.

 

Ingrid Chavez

Prince’s Spirit Child, Chavez would be hand-picked by The Purple One to play opposite him in Graffiti Bridge

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“Beautiful moments,” she says.  “Being a mother has been a beautiful adventure, one that has changed my life in so many ways.”

Clearly, Ingrid Chavez loved making motherhood her main gig, and while the urge to make music may have been repressed by the desire to be there for her children, it’s hard to imagine that urge ever really going away.  We’re talking about the same Ingrid Chavez who arrived at Paisley Park during one of the darkest, angriest periods in Prince’s life, her positivity prompting him to table The Black Album and embrace a new spiritual awakening.

“I’m happy to be back,” Chavez says, smiling.  “Songwriting is something that I enjoy a great deal.  I didn’t realize how much I missed it until I started doing it again, and it brought back so many memories of my time together with Prince.  We hung out together, played pool, talked about everything from sex to God, and worked on our records together.”

 

“I’m happy to be back.  Songwriting is something that I enjoy a great deal.  I didn’t realize how much I missed it until I started doing it again, and it brought back so many memories of my time together with Prince.  We hung out together, played pool, talked about everything from sex to God, and worked on our records together.” – Ingrid Chavez

 

Prince would later generate headlines by sparring with his record company, writing ‘slave’ on his face and refusing to be called by his name, ultimately returning to Warner Bros. on his own terms.

Now Chavez is back, and, like her former muse, she’s doing things her way.

Soul restored, spirit freed, the musical side of Ingrid Chavez ready to make up for lost time.

~  ~  ~

The chain reaction that produced Lovesexy starts with a robbery.

Today, downtown Atlanta contains very little brick and mortar.  A westward view of the city’s skyline – the same image used in the opening credits of AMC’s The Walking Dead – reveals the Georgia capital’s history at a glance:  It burned to the ground in the Civil War and was rebuilt as a transportation hub filled with pulsating veins of highways and eager Fortune 500 companies.  A construction boom during the Reagan years gave the city shiny buildings buttressed by tons of cement, creating an ocean of concrete and glass in a landscape practically devoid of the past.  Now, Atlanta is crawling with movie producers looking for backdrops for their science-fiction thrillers, attracted by buildings that resemble dystopian fortresses, further bolstering its growing reputation as futuristic cinema’s go-to city.

Atlanta today also isn’t much different from Atlanta for the mid-80s, when Ingrid Chavez lived there and dreamed of making it big as a singer.  There were places you didn’t go at night, and places you didn’t go anytime – like the infamous Bluff neighborhood, known for its gangs and its open air heroin market, where dealers swarmed unfamiliar cars looking for new customers.  To locals, Bluff has become the ultimate cautionary acronym – Better Leave U Fucking Fool – and a symbol of a blight that even architect John Portman’s clean lines and neo-futuristic designs couldn’t erase.

Chavez didn’t come from the Bluff.  Didn’t live there, either.  She and her boyfriend moved into an old candy factory on the outskirts of the city, which was big enough for them to live, record, and rehearse in.  It wasn’t exactly Buckhead, but it wasn’t the Bluff, either.  Still, it was in a sketchy enough part of town that someone looking for drug money might target it.

“Steve Snow was a musician and my boyfriend at the time,” Chavez says.  “We had formed a band called China Dance, and the candy factory was the perfect place for us to rehearse – until one day we drove a friend of ours to the airport and returned to find all of our equipment was gone.  The thought of someone breaking in and stealing our stuff was so scary.  We were really young, and I’d just given birth to my son Tinondre.  Steve and I just looked at each other and said, ‘What are we going to do?’  I was afraid to stay in the warehouse after that, because it was in a really bad part of Atlanta.  Someone had just burglarized our place and all I could think was that it would happen again, so we went and stayed with a friend.”

Snow, who was from Minneapolis, had a straightforward idea:  Save up enough money for plane tickets and move back to his hometown.

“I didn’t have a compelling reason to stay in Atlanta,” says Chavez, who was born near Albuquerque and sent by her mother to live with family in Georgia when she was 10.  “I wasn’t leaving anyone behind that I was going to miss terribly, so moving to Minneapolis was like an exciting journey to somewhere new.  It was scary when we first got there, because we moved in with Steve’s uncle on the north side of Minneapolis, which was totally gang infested at the time.  You would hear gunshots in the night.  We were finally able to rent an apartment and start our new life there.”

 

“I didn’t have a compelling reason to stay in Atlanta. I wasn’t leaving anyone behind that I was going to miss terribly, so moving to Minneapolis was like an exciting journey to somewhere new.  It was scary when we first got there, because we moved in with Steve’s uncle on the north side of Minneapolis, which was totally gang infested at the time.  You would hear gunshots in the night.  We were finally able to rent an apartment and start our new life there.” – Ingrid Chavez

 

Musically, Chavez and Snow were polar opposites.  As an adolescent, Chavez was into David Bowie, listening to songs like Fame and Golden Years.  She was also a fan of Fleetwood Mac, whose music seemed like something that came from outer space.  And she loved Gary Numan, who had a hit with Cars.  Her tastes took on a funkier vibe in high school.

“Before I met Steve, I was listening to Prince, The Time, a lot of music like that.  And then I met Steve, and he was into The Cure, David Sylvian, and Kyu Sakamoto…acts that really opened up my world musically.  Steve was a beautiful person.  He was a child prodigy, way beyond his years.  He asked me to start writing with him, which is how we ended up forming China Dance.”

 

Chavez and musician David Sylvian

Chavez and musician David Sylvian

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Songwriting turned out to be a revelation.  It was right in her wheelhouse, something that unlocked the inner poet that she didn’t know existed.

“In high school I was doing a lot of singing, just making up songs, nothing too serious,” Chavez continues.  “Just a young girl making up melodies.  I wasn’t writing a lot of poetry, and I never really considered myself a poet.  I didn’t get into writing until I was 18 or 19.  That’s when I started to seriously think about music being something that I might really pursue.  It was also around the time that I had Tinondre and became a mother, which really changed how I viewed the world.  It was just me and my son.  I had a little keyboard, and a little four-track recorder, and that’s when I started writing in earnest.”

Chavez and Snow slowly grew apart, breaking up after that first year together in Minneapolis and triggering the next step in that Lovesexy chain reaction.

“Artistically, Steve and I did find some common ground,” she says, “but I think there were times when we didn’t share the same creative vision.  The ride got a little bumpy.”

Although her relationship with Snow had soured, Chavez kept writing poetry and staying connected to the Minneapolis music scene.  She also worked part-time in a coffee shop to pay the bills.  It was a gritty, uncertain period in her life, and someone with less moxie might have packed up and moved on.  Not Chavez.  She didn’t have much, but she had confidence in her talent and a belief that a higher power was at work in her life.

Across town, a far more well-known artist was going through trials and tribulations of his own.

~  ~  ~

By the time Prince released 1987’s Sign O’ the Times, he was one of the biggest-selling artists in the world, his reputation growing in lockstep with his popularity, from his debut album For You to his mainstream breakthrough 1999 to the global smash Purple Rain.  To say that Michael Jackson owned 1980s pop music would be only partly true.  Jackson dominated the charts, but Prince was right there with him, matching MJ hit-for-hit, stadium-for-stadium, heart-for-heart.  Artistically, their work couldn’t have been more different.  Sign O’ the Times was as eclectic as Jackson’s Bad was polished, which cut to the very core of the artists themselves:  Jackson made music that appealed to everyone, chained to formula, with an insatiable need to feel loved.  Prince made whatever the hell he wanted, without constraint, which freed him to create brilliant music.

“Prince was always pushing himself artistically, and always challenging those around him,” says Chavez of his music-making.  “The first time I saw Prince was at the club First Avenue.  We passed each other and made eye contact, but on that night we didn’t speak.  When I finally met Prince I was instantly comfortable around him.  He had this ability to see creative potential in a person before they saw it in themselves.”

On September 11, 1987, Paisley Park officially opened.  Prince was between albums, with Sign O’ the Times winding down and something called The Funk Bible in the works.  He had also released the Sign O’ the Times concert movie, which was praised critically and attended en masse by the most hardcore Prince fans.  The movie, with live clips re-shot at Paisley Park, was a svelte jolt of everything that captured Prince at his most dazzling:  The singing, the dancing, the multi-instrumental talent, the rapport with his band, and those bolero-chic outfits that only The Purple One could carry off.

There was something else about Prince that stood out during this era; his music had taken on a decidedly darker edge, matching his mood.  On Cindy C., Prince sang about feeling rejected by a high-class model in Paris.  Rockhard in a Funky Place was about a guy on the prowl for sex in a whorehouse.  Superfunkycalifragisexy urged people to drink blood and dance.  All of these tracks were being readied for inclusion in the 1988 release of The Funk Bible, an album that Prince insisted be produced without printed title, artist name, liner notes, production credits, or photography.  Everybody – family, friends, employees, musicians – was on edge around Paisley Park.  Prince ratcheted up the tension at every turn, demanding more from everyone and pressing forward with a project that was certain to alienate segments of his fan base.  Warner Bros, meanwhile, continued to publicly support The Funk Bible, prepping 400,000 copies for distribution while privately bracing for a commercial failure.  Looking back, it’s hard to imagine a more toxic time than those early days at Paisley Park.

All of that changed on a bitter cold December night, when Prince ventured into a Minneapolis bar with his entourage.  Chavez was also there.  She wasn’t supposed to be – if not for a friend’s incessant coaxing, she would have spent the evening at home, comfortably out of the weather.  But fate has a funny way of working.  Turns out, her decision to go out that night was the final reaction in Lovesexy’s self-amplifying chain of events.

“I wasn’t going to go to the bar,” Chavez says.  “Prince strolled in soon after I got there, and he kept staring at me.  I thought he looked very puzzled, and I was very curious as to why I would puzzle him.  So I sent him a note.  It read, ‘Hi, remember me?  Probably not, but that’s okay, because we’ve never met.  Smile…I love it when you smile.’ I didn’t sign it or anything.  I just gave it to Gilbert Davison, who was Prince’s manager at the time, and who was with him that night.  Prince took the note and read it, and then he had Gilbert come and get me.  So I walked over and sat with him.”

 

“I wasn’t going to go to the bar.  Prince strolled in soon after I got there, and he kept staring at me.  I thought he looked very puzzled, and I was very curious as to why I would puzzle him.  So I sent him a note.  It read, ‘Hi, remember me?  Probably not, but that’s okay, because we’ve never met.  Smile…I love it when you smile.’ I didn’t sign it or anything.  I just gave it to Gilbert Davison, who was Prince’s manager at the time, and who was with him that night.  Prince took the note and read it, and then he had Gilbert come and get me.  So I walked over and sat with him.” – Ingrid Chavez

 

The connection between poet and recluse was immediate.

“This was during the Sign O’ the Times period, when he used to wear those mirror heart bracelets.  He took the one that he had on his wrist and put it on my wrist.  It was so surreal.  It felt like a strange dream that couldn’t possibly be true; one minute I’m sitting at home alone, the next I’m sitting in a bar with Prince, one of the most famous singers in the world, and I’m wearing his mirror heart bracelet on my wrist.”

 

Back at home after promoting his critically-acclaimed Sign 'O the Times, Prince would meet Chavez in a Minneapolis bar, changing the course of history for both artists.

Back at home after promoting his critically-acclaimed Sign ‘O the Times, Prince would meet Chavez in a Minneapolis bar, changing the course of history for both artists.

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Long known for his playful side, Prince quickly warmed to what came next.

“We started talking, and he asked my name because I hadn’t signed my note,” Chavez says.  “I introduced myself as Gertrude and he immediately said that he was Dexter [laughs].  From that moment on, that’s who we were to each other.  When I look back on some of my journal writing from that period, I never referred to him as Prince.  I referred to him as Dexter in all of the passages.”

As they talked, Chavez had no idea of the inner struggle taking place within her new friend.  Warner had grudgingly started sending out advance copies of The Funk Album to dance club deejays in England, with mixed results.  Prince’s latest movie project, Graffiti Bridge, had hit some speed bumps and was on temporary hiatus.  A new form of music – rap – was starting to gain mainstream popularity, and yet Prince had responded with Dead on It, in which he trashed the new art from and incorrectly predicted its demise.

Little could anyone have known that everything would change the night Prince met Ingrid Chavez.

“Prince asked me if I wanted to take a drive,” she says.  “I sat in the front seat next to Gilbert, and he sat in the backseat.  It was nighttime.  Prince had Gilbert put the mirror down so that we could see each other’s eyes.  The next thing you know, we’re on our way to Paisley Park.”

 

“Prince asked me if I wanted to take a drive.  I sat in the front seat next to Gilbert, and he sat in the backseat.  It was nighttime.  Prince had Gilbert put the mirror down so that we could see each other’s eyes.  The next thing you know, we’re on our way to Paisley Park.” – Ingrid Chavez

 

Paisley Park, conceived in 1983 during the filming of Purple Rain, was Prince’s Abbey Road. Two years later, a 23-year-old neophyte architect named Bret Thoeny was asked to build something he had never constructed before:  An all-inclusive artist’s compound.  Thoeny jumped at the chance to work with the reclusive rocker.

“Back then, this type of thing wasn’t done,” Thoeny said when reached by telephone at his California office.  “Artists weren’t building their own compounds, only large companies or record labels were.  But Prince had this vision to have everything under one roof.  And this was decades before it was common for any individual to do that.”

 

The mysterious Paisley Park, where urban legend has it that Chavez's Spirit Child was born and Prince's Black Album was shelved in favor of Lovesexy.

The mysterious Paisley Park, where urban legend has it that Chavez’s Spirit Child was born and Prince’s Black Album was shelved in favor of Lovesexy.

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Paisley Park was Prince’s private palace, a music factory as mysterious as the enigmatic artist himself. Adjacent to Highway 5 in Chanhassen, the 65,000-square-foot compound cost $10 million to construct, a white aluminum-and-metal mansion with a nondescript, prison-like façade, few windows, retail-style parking lots, and encircling grassy knolls.  The complex’s geometric exterior carries all the charm of an Amazon warehouse.  The inside, however, is rumored to be another story, but the landmark’s interior has barely seen the light of day, virtually visible only by word-of-mouth.  Through the years, only professional musicians, privileged friends, special-invite fans, and journalists have seen and felt its ambiance.  Prince forbade virtually all visitors from photographing or recording the inside, demanding that journalists abandon their cell phones, recorders, and notebooks before entering his purple palace.

Which makes it even more surprising that an unknown like Ingrid Chavez would be welcomed so quickly into Prince’s private sanctuary.

“He put me in a room and told me that he’d be back,” she says, “and then he disappeared.  I was just hanging by myself for what seemed like an eternity.  I was left with time on my hands, and I didn’t have anyone in the room with me, so I just did what I do whenever I’m alone, which is write.  He came back eventually [laughs].”

What happened next remains shrouded in mystery and baked into legend, but the end result would prove to be a crossroads moment in Prince’s personal and professional life.  The story goes something like this:  Prince calls Susan Rogers, who was working as his sound engineer at the time, and asks her to come to Paisley Park.  Rogers shows up to find Chavez alone, in a candlelit rehearsal room.  Prince joins them a short time later, and after a brief conversation, Rogers decides to leave.  In the hours that follow, legend has it that Prince experiences an awakening and sees God – not in physical form, but in everything around him.  The legend continues that Prince now sees The Funk Bible for what it is – an evil force full of rage, the lyrics poisoned with guns and violence – and that a voice tells him not to release the record.

This much we know to be true:  Prince moved quickly to convince Warner Bros. to scrap the project.  The company agreed to destroy all of its copies of The Funk Bible, which would famously come to be known by another name:  The Black Album.

“Prince did tell her that she had to meet me,” Chavez says, conceding part of the story.  “She came to Paisley Park later that night, and Prince and I talked about a lot of things after she left.  He did end up cancelling The Black Album, but I didn’t know anything about that record at the time.  All I knew was that it got cancelled.”

 

“Prince did tell her that she had to meet me.  She came to Paisley Park later that night, and Prince and I talked about a lot of things after she left.  He did end up cancelling The Black Album, but I didn’t know anything about that record at the time.  All I knew was that it got cancelled.” – Ingrid Chavez

 

Whatever happened, Prince emerged from the experience a changed man.  Gone was the moody artist prone to tempestuous outbursts.  In his place was an enlightened, spiritual being whose approach to songwriting would be forever altered.

And whether she knew it then or not, Ingrid Chavez’s own world was about to tilt dramatically on its musical axis.

~  ~  ~

The cloud lifted, Prince began work on another record.  Unlike The Black Album, its vibe was fueled by his newfound positivity.  Lovesexy arrived on May 10, 1988, with a naked Prince on the cover, sitting atop an orchid.  It was his most spiritual album to date, recorded in just seven weeks, from mid-December 1987 to late January 1988, its theme rooted in the struggle between good and evil.  Alphabet St. was the first single to hit the airwaves, and immediately become a Top 10 hit.  Lovesexy’s opening track is a song called Eye No, and the spoken lyrics at the beginning of the song belonged to a female that Prince referred to as his ‘Spirit Child’:

Rain is wet and sugar is sweet / Clap your hands and stomp your feet / Everybody, everybody knows / When love calls you gotta go

The voice belongs to Chavez.

“After meeting Prince, we started spending more and more time together,” she says.  “It was a period of great creativity for both of us, and we were inspired by each other.  For me, stepping into his world was like a fairy tale.  Just being exposed to his creativity was unreal.  Lovesexy is like a snapshot of our time together.”

What many don’t realize is that, while Prince was hard at work on Lovesexy, he was simultaneously working with Chavez on material for her debut album.

“It started when he put me in the studio at Paisley Park, just to see what I could do,” Chavez explains.  “It was just me by myself, which was a little intimidating, and I honestly had no idea what I was going to do once I go there.  I was nervous and recorded some very strange pieces, but Prince was great at making me feel comfortable.  It was magical.  He seemed so relaxed during that period when we were together.

“Some of the music that I produced during those sessions was open word.  I wasn’t sure what his reaction would be, but he really liked my speaking voice, so I think that’s where he got this idea for a poetry album.  He said, ‘If you write 21 poems, we’ll do a poetry record.’  Of course I agreed.  I wrote feverishly for the next two weeks to get them done.”

The music that emerged would ultimately be called May 19, 1992.

Lovesexy and May 19, 1992 are two records that almost mirror each other,” she says.  “We were having some very deep, spiritual conversations during that period.  I was writing poems at the same time that he was writing Lovesexy, and we spent a lot of time talking.  Because of that, the two records have the same themes.  Lovesexy has I Wish U Heaven, and my record has Heaven Must Be Near, and they are very similar because we were talking about the same things, challenging each other, sharing our thoughts and emotions.  We talked a lot about God, love, and sex…how we felt about those things.  I don’t remember the specifics of the conversations, but the whole process was more like an experience or a journey – a discovery – rather than two people sitting down and writing lyrics.”

 

Prince's Lovesexy, and Chavez's May 19, 1992 were written when the two artists were together, inspiring each other.

Prince’s Lovesexy, and Chavez’s May 19, 1992 were written when the two artists were together, inspiring each other.

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A nude Prince on the Lovesexy cover was met with commercial resistance; Wal-Mart refused to carry the record, and there were other chains that carried it but wouldn’t put it out on the floor.  By then, Chavez’s run-time with her new friend had run its course.

“The amount of time that we spent with each other was relatively short,” Chavez offers.  “It was maybe three months in total, but in those three months we spent a lot of time together, and we wrote two records – he wrote his, and I wrote mine.  Mine didn’t come out until a few years later, but they were written at the same time.”

Their recordings finished, Prince turned his attention to touring.

“Our work just took us in different directions,” Chavez says.  “That was an intense period of time; it was like being in a winter bunker with him for three months.  We were just together for that whole season.  A year later, I got a call from him, and he said he’d been working on Heaven Must Be Near, so then we started working on it again.”

~  ~  ~

It wasn’t long before Ingrid Chavez connected with another musician, Richard Werbowenko, to form Skyfish.  The duo played acoustic guitar and fretless bass as Chavez sang her poems.  Skyfish would prove to be a short-lived chapter in her life, as Chavez and Werbowenko broke up almost as quickly as they had formed – but not before playing a key role in bringing recluse and muse back together.

“I ran into Prince’s brother one day and gave him a copy of the Skyfish record to give to Prince,” Chavez says.  “I came home a few days later and my little apartment was completely filled with white flowers. Prince called and said that he just finished recording Heaven Must Be Near and that it sounded like springtime in Paris.  He asked me if I would like to finish the Poetry album.”

By then, Prince was riding a new high, scoring a Billboard Number 1 hit with Batdance and restarting his next album / movie project, Graffiti Bridge.  The film, about a magical bridge, was a hard sell to execs at Warner Bros., who were spooked by the incoherent script and the disappointing results of Under the Cherry Moon.  It didn’t help that Madonna had dissed the screenplay after reading it, and that both Kim Basinger and Patti LaBelle had both backed out of the project.  It was then that Prince asked Chavez to play the lead role.  She didn’t blink.

“I guess the only thing that can be said about me is that I’m pretty fearless,” she says.  “I said ‘yes’ a lot back then.  The first time I met him I told him that I was a singer-songwriter, and the next thing I knew, he’s got a session booked for me at Paisley Park and I’ve got two hours to go do something.  I had no idea what I might do in there, but I was up for the challenge. I recorded some very strange pieces [laughs].  I’ve always loved experimenting with flipping tracks so I had backwards guitar and pitched vocals with layers of harmony, a lot of pretty weird stuff.  I had the engineer help me record some percussion.  The vocals were a mix of spoken word and singing.  I recorded two tracks that day, and both were very strange…the look on his face was priceless [laughs].  Prince thought I was crazy, but in a good kind of way.  He could see that I was serious and that I was different…I think that intrigued him.  I think that’s why he wanted me to play Aura in Graffiti Bridge.”

 

Prince and Chavez onscreen in Graffiti Bridge

Prince and Chavez onscreen in Graffiti Bridge

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The movie, shot almost exclusively at Paisley Park, was the ultimate Prince-obsessed project – with Prince credited as screenwriter, director, composer, and star.  Rumors began circulating that the project was not only in trouble, but that it was destined to be a cinematic disaster on every conceivable scale.  With principal photography complete in the spring, the film went through intense editing right up to its national release on November 1, 1990.  His refusal to heed the advice of those around him led to an incoherent storyline, and a movie that failed to connect with audiences.  Graffiti Bridge flopped on both fronts; the album reached No. 6 but quickly fizzled, while the movie was derided by some as an amateurish vanity project gone bad.  For her part, Chavez, who had never acted, handled the criticism with dignity.

“I had already taken on scary challenges with Prince, embracing things that were outside of my comfort zone,” she says.  “Saying ‘yes’ to acting in Graffiti Bridge was scary, but I wanted to do it.  I screen tested, I was offered the part and they went with it.  What am I going to say?  No?”

Despite virtually everything aspect of the movie being panned by critics and moviegoers alike, Chavez walked away from the project changed for the better.

“Am I a good actress?  No.  Would I do it again?  No.  But I did it, and I enjoyed it.  It was part of my journey and it helped me to grow in ways I couldn’t have imagined just a few years before.  There were times when I was pushed and I wanted to cry on the set, because I thought, ‘I can’t do this.’  For me, it was my own personal insecurities that got in the way sometimes.  But most of the time, Prince would be so gentle.  He was always so encouraging.  He would say, ‘You’re doing great.’  He was just so genuine with his encouragement.”

~  ~  ~

Less than a week after the release of Graffiti Bridge, Madonna released Justify My Love.  The trip hop song was the lead single from The Immaculate Collection, and would quickly become Madonna’s ninth Billboard Number 1 hit, dominating the airwaves and generating a frenzy of controversy along the way.  Sadomasochism.  Voyeurism.  Bisexuality.  Justify My Love had it all.  What was designed as an erotic dream turned out to be a nightmare for MTV when execs screened the video on November 26, but the controversy turned out to be another PR genius move by Madonna, as 260,000 copies of the video hit stores at $9.98 a pop.

 

Ingrid Chavez

Madonna scored a monster hit with the provocative Justify My Love, which was fueled in large part by Chavez’s sultry lyrics.

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While the uproar may have cooled by early February, 1991, the spotlight was just about to heat up for Chavez, who, it turned out, had written the lyrics for the song and who claimed that it was practically a heavy-breath-for-heavy-breath copy of a demo tape that she had shared with rocker Lenny Kravitz.  Kravitz, who ultimately produced the single, co-wrote the song with Chavez and Andre Betts, and immediately pitched the concept as a sexually-charged vehicle for Madonna’s upcoming greatest hits album.  Virgin Records pounced on the idea of a Kravitz-Madonna collaboration.  It appeared to be a win-win for all involved, as Justify My Love seemed like the big break that Chavez had been waiting for, a career-boosting writing credit for one of the biggest singers on the planet.  Consider:  If her material was good enough for the Material Girl, then how many others out there would be lining up to work with a songwriter like Ingrid Chavez?  Instead, the excitement of being attached to such a big hit would quickly digress into a publicly litigious battle with Kravitz.

It all started with a chance meeting at a landmark Minneapolis nightclub.

“I had gone to a concert with Prince,” Chavez recalls.  “We went to see Lenny Kravitz play at First Avenue, which was located in downtown Minneapolis.  This was during the filming of Graffiti Bridge, and we decided to see Lenny’s concert after wrapping for the day.  It was a really great show, but Prince wanted to leave the club before Lenny had finished playing.  I remember getting in the car with Prince and driving all the way to Chanhassen, only to have him instruct the driver to take me back to Minneapolis.  I thought, why did he bring me to Chanhassen just to have the driver take me right back home?  It was still early, so I asked the driver to take me back to First Avenue.

 

Forgiven; Chavez has long since let go of her lyric riff with rocker Lenny Kravitz.

Forgiven; Chavez has long since let go of her lyric riff with rocker Lenny Kravitz.

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“After the show, I went backstage and met Lenny.  There was an immediate connection between the two of us.  We hung out and talked for a long time, talking about all kinds of things, and then he asked me if I wanted to go watch him play another show.  So I hopped on the bus and went to Chicago.  It was impulsive but it was also a lot of fun – I remember having to stay the night in the city because it was so late when the show ended, and then going back home the next day.”

Chavez and Kravitz continued to talk.  He was also photographed hanging with Madonna, which fueled the tabloid’s speculation of a high-profile affair.  Kravitz, married to Lisa Bonet at the time, insisted the relationship with Madonna was strictly professional.  True or not, one thing today remains clear:  Justify My Love could not have happened without Ingrid Chavez’s involvement.

“We stayed in touch,” she says.  “Whenever I was in Los Angeles or New York we’d make it a point to connect and hang out if he happened to be in town.  One time we were in L.A. together, and the two of us were in the studio with Andre Betts, who created an interesting loop from a Public Enemy song.  Lenny asked me if I had anything to add.  I had a letter which I had written for him, which was written like my poems, so I pulled it out and pretty much spoke the letter.

“Shortly after that, we took the song to Virgin Records, because Lenny wanted to let an executive he knew at Virgin to hear it. The guy said it was great, that he really loved it, and that he thought we had something hot.  He then asked if he could hold onto the copy we’d just played for him.  I was very naïve, and I didn’t suspect that anything was wrong.  I was like, ‘Yeah, sure.’  And that was the last time that I ever had a copy of that song.”

 

“Shortly after that, we took the song to Virgin Records, because Lenny wanted to let an executive he knew at Virgin to hear it. The guy said it was great, that he really loved it, and that he thought we had something hot.  He then asked if he could hold onto the copy we’d just played for him.  I was very naïve, and I didn’t suspect that anything was wrong.  I was like, ‘Yeah, sure.’  And that was the last time that I ever had a copy of that song.” – Ingrid Chavez

 

Elated by confused, Chavez quickly learned that there was more to the story; if she wanted to be part of the project, she would have to agree to remain invisible.

“Everything just kind of spiraled out of control from there,” she says.  “The next thing I know, Lenny is telling me that Madonna is going to do the song.  I was initially very excited because she was such a big star and she wanted to record something that I’d worked on, but then I was being told that nobody can know that I wrote it.  It was an extremely emotional and stressful time.  I was torn on what to do, because I really wanted writing credit, but I ultimately signed off on their terms.  I know I should have insisted that my name be included, but there was a tremendous amount of pressure on me to make a decision in a very short period of time.  I felt powerless, because I didn’t have management representing me, but it all happened so fast…I just happened to be in the studio with Lenny Kravitz at the time that he was recording, and suddenly there is this track, with my words on it, that Madonna now wants to do.  I had no one advising me.”

 

No credit;

No credit; Madonna and Lenny Kravitz, but no Ingrid Chavez.  Chavez would receive writing credit only after taking her complaint to court.

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The fallout would reach Paisley Park.

“Prince called to me one day after the song came out, and he said, ‘Ingrid, what’s up with that Justify My Love song?  I just heard it on the radio and I know that’s you.’  I was shocked that he knew immediately, even though I hadn’t told anyone.  I had kept my word.  Only filmmaker Craig Laurence Rice, who happened to be in L.A. at the same time that I recorded it, knew about my involvement in the song.  I admitted to Prince that Justify My Love was me.  He was pretty upset about it, because my record hadn’t come out yet.  He said that people were going to think that I was copying Madonna.”

The controversy couldn’t have happened at worse time, as Prince was focusing his energy on Chavez’s May 19, 1992, and brilliant songs like Candledance and Elephant Box were being created around her spoken word poetry.  Chavez, torn between two paths, had a decision to make.

“That was the first time that I actually went out and hired a lawyer,” she says.  “I fought to at least get my name on the song, which I ultimately did, but it was a long, ugly, drawn out fight.  In terms of money, I could have gotten twice as much as I ended up with, as far as the percentage, but I just couldn’t do it anymore.  The settlement was already double what I had been offered originally.  It should have been doubled one more time out of fairness, but I just couldn’t keep fighting.  It was ugly and I just wanted it over with.”

Chavez was vindicated by the settlement, but the experience left her disillusioned.

“I would like to think that Lenny Kravitz just had so much pressure placed on him from both Virgin Records and his own management, and that’s why he behaved the way that he did.  I am going to choose to believe that.  I just can’t believe that he’s the kind of person who was intentionally trying to take something from me and not give me something back, you know?  I just don’t believe that that’s who he really is.  I think that Virgin just came down on him really hard, because they wanted this song for Madonna and they wanted me out of the picture.  As a result, I think he had a lot of pressure on him. That’s what I want to believe.  I spent quite a bit of time with Lenny, and I never felt like he was that kind of person, but the whole experience really turned me off of the music business.”

~  ~  ~

With Justify My Love in the rear view mirror, the focus turned to May 19, 1992.  While Prince was still engaged in the project, putting the finishing touches on the wildly infectious Elephant Box, he turned much of the production over to Paisley Park’s Michael Koppelman, who immediately worked with Chavez on Winter Song.  Prince liked the result, and Koppelman was hungry for more.  He produced Candledance next, which included Prince on guitar, and followed that up with work on Hippy Blood.  Warner Bros., keenly aware of Madonna’s success with Justify My Love, enthusiastically supported the tracks and felt good about the album’s upcoming release.  The record, released on September 21, 1991, featured promotion around three key songs; Hippy Blood, Heaven Must Be Near, and Elephant Box.

“There was a lot of excitement about it, but when it came out it fizzled for some reason and didn’t do so well,” Koppelman said years later.

For Chavez, the lukewarm reception given to her record was another sign that everything going on in her life needed reevaluation.

“I stuck with my music career for a while,” she says.  “My record had just come out, and Graffiti Bridge and Justify My Love were still relatively fresh, so all of this was happening pretty much at the same time.  I just didn’t realize then how much I really wanted out.”

 

“I stuck with my music career for a while.  My record had just come out, and Graffiti Bridge and Justify My Love were still relatively fresh, so all of this was happening pretty much at the same time.  I just didn’t realize then how much I really wanted out.” – Ingrid Chavez

 

It’s been said that the moments of happiness we enjoy the most take us by surprise.  It’s not that we seize them, but that they seize us.  Chavez was about to learn this beautiful truth firsthand.

“My manager at the time talked Warner Bros. into financing a tour all over Europe to promote my new record,” Chavez says, smiling.  “The first place that I stopped was in Paris.  A journalist was conducting an interview and wanted to know who had influenced me, and who I would most like to work with.  Well, on my trip to Europe, I had listened to Rain Tree Crow, which was the new name for the music group Japan, and David Sylvian was the singer-songwriter for both.  I listened to him all the way to Europe, so when the journalist asked me, that’s the name that came.  He said, ‘Well, I can actually get you in touch with him…if you’re going to London, I can let them know that you would like to stop by and meet David.’  The offer was a total surprise, but I let him know that it sounded good.”

David Sylvian, the one-time ‘most beautiful man in pop’, got his start when he and some friends formed Japan in 1974.  The Brits morphed into a glam rock band in the spirit of David Bowie, until Sylvian began to employ the richer, deeper voice that soon became his trademark.  For Chavez, the prospect of actually meeting Sylvian seemed intriguing, but also unrealistic due to their hectic schedules.  The interview over, she continued to focus on promoting her new album.

 

After getting burned by the Justify My Love experience, Chavez would fall in love with - and marry - English singer-songwriter and musician David Sylvian

After getting burned by the Justify My Love experience, Chavez would fall in love with – and marry – English singer-songwriter and musician David Sylvian

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“When I arrived in Spain, my manager made contact with David’s manager,” she says.  “David was leaving the next day for Paris, the same day that I was coming into London, so there was no way that our paths could cross on this trip.  Even though I didn’t get to meet him, I did stop by his London office and left him a CD and a letter…just a small gift package for when he came back.”

The promotional tour over, Ingrid Chavez returned to the States to decompress.

“I went back home to Minneapolis,” she says.  “About nine days later my manager called me and said, ‘Ingrid, you have a fax here from David Sylvian.’  I threw everything down and ran out the door.  I drove straight to his house and picked up my fax, and then I ran to the store and picked up my own fax machine [laughs].  It’s funny when you look back at it today, but that’s how we first communicated, through faxes.  It was exciting; I would hear the fax machine and I would be like (makes fax sound)…David’s message is coming in!  There were so many faxes sent between us.  I still have them, but they’re faded and you can hardly read them anymore, which is sad.”

The chemistry between the two was obvious to everyone around them, and it wasn’t long before Sylvian was spending a significant amount of time in the States.  Spiritually, mentally, and physically, the connection was simpatico.

“Working with David was so refreshing, it freed me from the ugliness that came with the Justify My Love litigation.  I recorded with David and Ryuichi Sakamoto on the songs Cloud #9 and Tainai Kaiki, and the attraction between us was immediate. David and I fell deeply in love and it wasn’t long before he proposed.  I knew this was it for me.  I decided that I would rather live vicariously through David’s music.  I’d rather get married, make a life together and have babies.  I was ready to start a family.”

 

“Working with David was so refreshing, it freed me from the ugliness that came with the Justify My Love litigation.  I recorded with David and Ryuichi Sakamoto on the songs Cloud #9 and Tainai Kaiki, and the attraction between us was immediate. David and I fell deeply in love and it wasn’t long before he proposed.  I knew this was it for me.  I decided that I would rather live vicariously through David’s music.  I’d rather get married, make a life together and have babies.  I was ready to start a family.” – Ingrid Chavez

 

This is the point in the story where Ingrid Chavez goes MIA.  Drops off the grid.  Leaves the music biz to re-calibrate and refocus.  This is also the point in the story where you absolutely shouldn’t feel sorry for Ingrid Chavez.  Starting a family unlocked a happiness that Chavez had been longing for but couldn’t find musically.  The couple had two girls together, Ameera and Isobel.

“Because I so admired David before I met him, I was able to get my creative fix through him after we were married,” Chavez says.  “In the beginning when the children were young, we were traveling with David a lot.  We would go on tour with him, so I was satisfied to a certain degree with just that.  It was a creative outlet for me in some ways.  And then I took up photography, which was something new and very exciting.  A lot of my energy was going there.”

Chavez would occasionally get the urge to make music, but it wasn’t like the early days when it was the center of her life.  Still, between ’93-’95 Chavez and Sylvian collaborated on a record that Sylvian pitched to Virgin Records.

“Creatively, David and I tried to make a record together, but the musical relationship between us wasn’t flowing naturally.  We recorded Little Girls With 99 Lives, which was a collection of five songs.  But David didn’t seem to be interested in what we were doing at the time, and my heart was only partially in it, so it didn’t really do anything.  David did eventually share it with Virgin, who rejected it.  At that point we didn’t really push it because we felt that nobody really liked the record.

“Musically, I didn’t have management anymore, so that part of my life just kind of fell away.  I stopped making music altogether, and I didn’t do a whole lot of writing during that period of my life, either.  I put all of my creative energy into my children.  We also had a guru at the time – we were following Amma Chi around, and that was a big part of my life…we were on the road with her constantly during the summer.  That was in the 1994 timeframe.  Eventually, we moved to New Hampshire, so I just continued living through David’s music.”

Chavez and Sylvian would divorce after 12 years of marriage.  This created another pivot point in her life, one that would, surprisingly, bring her music career full circle.

“When David and I finally decided that this wasn’t going to work, and that we were both growing apart from each other, that’s when I had to look at my life and say, what am I going to do now?”  She pauses to reflect, part of her heart still clearly tied to the father of her children.  “Making music again was so far from even the realm of possibility for me, at least it seemed that way at the time.  That wasn’t what I was thinking about whatsoever.  My next interest was photography, so I decided to focus on that.  I started taking some classes, I bought some different equipment, and I started to really take it much more seriously.”

What happened next was another of those beautifully unexpected moments.

“Some of my photos appeared in a women’s photography exhibition, and that’s when I received a call from my lawyer at the time.  He said that there was this designer out of Sacramento who would like to have me come and perform live, in San Francisco, during the premiere of his new collection.  I was shocked.  I couldn’t believe that somebody would even remember my record after all of these years.  I liked the concept, so I agreed to do it.  I wanted to see where the journey would take me.”

The designer was Richard Hallmarq, who specialized in bold women’s fashions, and who jumped into the fashion business in 2003, after finding an anonymous note on his car displaying a Thomas Edison quotation:  Many of life’s failures are experienced by people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.

 

Artist, Interrupted: Chavez dropped off the music map for her children, but is back in focus today, working on multiple projects.

Artist, Interrupted: Chavez dropped off the music map for her children, but is back in focus today, working on multiple projects.

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“Richard asked me if I had a MySpace account,” Chavez says, laughing at how old school that statement sounds today.  “I didn’t have one, so when I tried registering, I quickly discovered that there was an Ingrid Chavez out there already.  After logging on, I was surprised to learn that my record had taken on a life of its own.  I was stunned – there was an online community out there dedicated to my work.  So I joined, and people were writing to me, and asking me where I’d been.  They would tell their stories about my record, things like getting married to it, or going to college with it, or getting through a depressing time with it.  I had no idea.

“When I flew to Sacramento to work with Richard, he explained that he wanted me to perform a couple of the songs from May 19, 1992.  The only way to do that would be to remove my voice from the original recordings, so he introduced me to a guy named Dan Walker, who specializes in that type of audio editing.  It was Dan who asked me if I would be interested in writing songs again, and I was like, I don’t know, I haven’t even thought about this.  My focus was on working with Richard and being part of his fashion show.

“We kept talking, and he told me to go to his MySpace site, where he had a bunch of songs from the various people that he was working with.  So I listened to the music and selected three songs that I really liked, which all happened to be by someone named Marco Valentin.  I wrote the lyrics immediately, and I adjusted my schedule so that I would spend the first part of the week recording these tracks…but when I landed in Sacramento I lost my voice, so we cancelled the recording sessions.  We lost touch, and then I started working with Lorenzo Scopelliti instead, spending the next three years making A Flutter and Some Words.”

~  ~  ~

On January 25, 2010, A Flutter and Some Words was released to the world on Ten Windows Records, Ingrid Chavez’s own independent label.  It was her second record, and first since working with Prince.  It represented a rebirth of sorts for Chavez.

“When I met Lorenzo, I didn’t think that I was going to write another record.  But once I came back, there were people who wanted to work with me, and then I began to wonder if this was something that I could do again.  Over time I began writing songs with different people, and that’s when I came across Lorenzo.  We were just writing back and forth; we weren’t trying to write a record.  He sent me a piece of music, which turned out to be Isobel, which was the seed for A Flutter and Some Words.  That started everything.  We went back and forth until the whole record was done.”

Chavez has only fond memories of this project.

By The Water is one of my favorite tracks, and was inspired by the first time that Lorenzo came to America,” she says.  “He came to New Hampshire where I lived, and we would take walks in the woods.  That song just talks about letting someone into your world and trusting them…letting them into your life, your heart, your head…so, that song was about the beginning…about meeting Lorenzo for the first time.   It was about spending time with him and realizing that we had this really strong connection, and along with it, the realization that something beautiful was going to come out of it.  By The Water reflects that initial feeling when you first meet someone and let them in.”

The video for By The Water is beautifully made.  In it, Chavez looks as gorgeous as she did when she made the Elephant Box video way back in the early ‘90s, her timeless beauty bringing to mind one of her idols, Marlena Dietrich.

“I have loved Marlena Dietrich since I was a kid,” she says, smiling.  “I’d watch her in those old, black-and-white movies, and she just seemed so strong, and yet also so dreamy and beautiful.  I loved her voice, and I loved the characters that she played.  I can watch her movies all day long because I love to look at her.”

~  ~  ~

Chavez’s musical journey includes her role as part of Black Eskimo, a collaboration with instrumentalist and indie hip-hop producer Marco Valentin – the same Marco Valentin that Chavez had nearly connected with on her trip to Sacramento.  The duo’s work is an extension of their online radio show that focuses on neo-soul, trip hop, and ambient music.  They recently released their debut EPs, Deep & Heady, which are now available for digital download.  Deep released on June 18, 2013; Heady was released on October 22, 2013.  Deep & Heady are also available on CD at www.10windows.com, as is the My Sky Poetry & Music Journal, a collection of handwritten poems signed by Chavez.  The infectious My Sky, from the Deep EP, recently won Song of the Year (Spoken Word Category) at the 14th Annual Independent Music Awards.

“Even though I never thought I’d make another record, I’d wanted to make a record like this for many years,” Chavez says.  “A Flutter and Some Words is a beautiful set of songs, and it really marks that space and time in my life, but I wanted to put out a record that paints an honest portrait of who I am, in all of my darkness and light.  I wanted to dive a bit deeper into my heart and mind lyrically.  I really wanted to write to something more edgy.  Marco sent over some tracks and I was immediately attracted to his beats and sense of melody.  We started sending recorded ideas back and forth via the Internet and that was how most of this album was conceived.  He finally relocated to New Hampshire where we spent the next two years recording and mixing this album.”

Chavez may have lost touch with Valentin after returning from Richard Hallmarq’s fashion show, but Valentin continued to keep Chavez on his radar.

“We had a phone conversation at one point immediately after Richard’s show,” she says, “but Marco was so quiet and shy on the phone that it really wasn’t much of a conversation.  He said hello and told me that he really liked my music.  I thanked him and said goodbye.  That was basically it.”

The shy and mysterious Valentin would try again.

“I received an anonymous MySpace message that said, ‘Hey, I’d like to write some music for you.’  He then he ended it with, ‘What kind of cereal do you like?’  It was so weird, because he didn’t even sign his name.  I asked him for some music, which he emailed to me, and then I burned his songs to CD and promptly forgot all about them [laughs].”

Little did Ingrid Chavez know that the Marco Valentin tracks she’d selected four years earlier, including the dreamy Beautiful, were all on that disc, waiting to be rediscovered.

“One day I’m taking a long drive, thinking about working on a record with a heavier beat.  I wanted my voice doing more than just floating over the top of stuff.  I want to become a bit more rhythmic with my spoken word.  And then I was like, what about the kid that sent me that music?  I drove straight home and started listening.”

Valentin’s edgy vibe fit the blueprint that she envisioned for her next musical incantation, the blending of gritty urban beats with the ethereal poetry that is uniquely Ingrid Chavez.  She wasted little time in reaching out.

“I let him know that I liked a few of his songs, and that I might try writing lyrics for one of them,” she says.  “When he wrote back, he signed his name – Marco Valentin.  The name sounded so familiar, and then I remembered listening to his tracks in Sacramento four years earlier.  I asked him why he didn’t tell me who he was, and he said that he didn’t think I’d remember him.  My response was, ‘I wrote three songs to your music, and it was the first time that I’d written in a very long time.  Why would I forget that name?’”

From that moment, the two artists clicked, creating the catchy, hypnotic grooves that fuel both Deep and Heady.

“We immediately started writing together,” she says, recalling the early days of their virtual collaboration.  “He would send me songs from Chicago.  I would write that day, record that evening, and send the finished track back to him that night.  He was on fire – there were days when he’d send me two or three songs at a time.  The whole process was conducted over the Internet, but it felt as if space didn’t exist between us.  That was in February; by August he made his first trip to New Hampshire, so we could work in real time with each other.  He liked it so much he moved here a month later.”

With the first Black Eskimo record on the fast track, disaster strikes.

 

Ingrid Chavez as part of Black Eskimo

Ingrid Chavez’s return includes being part of Black Eskimo

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“We lost the music for almost a whole year,” Chavez says.  “Marco’s laptop computer became infected with a virus, and it not only attacked all of the files on the hard drive, it also attacked the files on his backup drive.  So, for about eight months we were mourning the loss of those songs and all of this work that we had done.  When Marco went home to visit his family for Christmas, and he found some early versions of the songs on his family’s computer.  The tracks weren’t anything the finished versions, but we had our foundation again.  We worked off of that.”

Deep & Heady represents an interesting new chapter in the musical career of Ingrid Chavez.

“Black Eskimo has been really good for me because it’s a new way of writing, and also a new way of singing in spoken word.  It’s different than my Skyfish music, and different than the Little Girls With 99 Lives that I recorded with David.  Deep & Heady is also completely different than A Flutter and Some Words or anything that I made with Prince.  I don’t know if I’m losing people along the way, but I don’t ever want to make the same record twice.”

 

“Black Eskimo has been really good for me because it’s a new way of writing, and also a new way of singing in spoken word.  It’s different than my Skyfish music, and different than the Little Girls With 99 Lives that I recorded with David.  Deep & Heady is also completely different than A Flutter and Some Words or anything that I made with Prince.  I don’t know if I’m losing people along the way, but I don’t ever want to make the same record twice.” – Ingrid Chavez

 

Black Eskimo is currently on hiatus, but Chavez is hard at work on a new solo album.  She’s also prepping a new single with Deep Dive Corp., and will be promoting its release with live shows in Germany and Denmark.  For Chavez, every new project is all about rediscovery – finding the person within her that had the courage and confidence to dream big.  Her message is simple:  She wants everyone to know that they can tap into their own reservoirs to achieve success.

“I tell people to imagine what it is that they want, and then believe that it’s theirs already,” Chavez says.  “It’s a form of manifesting.  That’s pretty much what I did when I was 19 and decided that I wanted to be a singer or a songwriter.  When I was starting out and people would ask what I did, I would tell them that I was a singer-songwriter, even though I hadn’t really done much of either up to that point.  It was no different with Prince.  He asked me what I did, and I didn’t hesitate.  The next thing I know, Prince is scheduling studio time for me at Paisley Park.”

~  ~  ~

On April 21, 2016, the world lost a musical icon when Prince was found dead in an elevator at Paisley Park.  The shocking news affected millions, many who continue to mourn his passing.  The outpouring of love in the days following his death was befitting his status as one of this generation’s greatest talents.  From Jennifer Hudson and the cast of The Color Purple, to Bruce Springsteen onstage in Brooklyn, to a socially-connected world mourning as one, Prince’s death prompted tributes that reached all corners of the globe.  For those who knew him personally, Prince’s passing was especially hard to take, a body blow that only the passage of time will ease.  Ingrid Chavez knows.  She was as close to Prince as anyone during his Lovesexy / Graffiti Bridge period.

“It was so sad and so surreal,” she says of learning the news.  “Whenever I’m working on a new song for the first time, or listening to the music and trying to figure out what I might write, or what the melody might be, I will jump in my car and take a drive.  I had met my daughter for lunch at an organic grocery store with a café in it.  We had lunch, and then I got in my car and I said to myself, ‘Okay, I’m going to take my drive now.’

“As soon as I got in the car, there was a text message from my friend Katherine Copeland, who is like my sister and who was my very best friend in Minneapolis during those early days.  Katherine is married to Andre Cymone, who is Prince’s ex-bassist, and her text said for me to call her immediately.  She knows that I don’t like to talk on the telephone, so I knew that something was wrong.  When I called, she said, ‘Did you hear the news?’  I was like, ‘What news?’  She said that TMZ was reporting that Prince had died.  And so, within five minutes my phone started blowing up.  It was flooded with text messages and phone calls, and that’s when I started to believe that it might actually be true.

 

Ingrid Chavez has her sights set on more music in the future.

Ingrid Chavez has her sights set on more music in the future.

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“I was already going to take a drive, because I’m was working on a song that, ironically, speaks about the 1988 period when I was so close to Prince.  I drove a little farther that day, and played the song pretty much the entire hour and a half.  When I got home I just remember sitting in the car for a long time.  I was in shock.”

The thought of Chavez releasing a Prince tribute is music to the ears of Prince fans everywhere.  And what better way to honor him than releasing it on her own independent label?  Especially after Prince devoted so much time and energy freeing himself from his relationship with Warner Bros.?

“The song is called You Gave Me Wings,” she says. “It represents our time together.  For a brief time, it was just me and Prince, sharing a season together, that’s how we started out 1988.  We wrote songs that really designed the next year of his future, which was Lovesexy.  He had the album and the tour, and that was his life for that year.  That was the same year that the poems were written, so it’s really a song about all of that.”

You Gave Me Wings is now available on Chavez’s 10Windows.com website.  The lyrics capture the essence of their special relationship, from that initial meeting in a Minneapolis bar to the release of May 19, 1992.

The lyrics are hauntingly beautiful.

I love it when you smile…
Our love was a winter love to remember…Poetry and laughter in deep, deep December…
You gave me wings to fly so high…I gave you songs to sing…I gave you my words…
You brought them to life…time stood still for a little while…

Ingrid Chavez pauses, reflecting on this intensely personal period in her life and the person who not only helped launch her career, but who also changed her life profoundly.

“Prince is gone, but I have so many great memories of him, and these have helped me to get through this terrible tragedy.  My favorite all-time record is Dirty Mind.  The movie Purple Rain was playing when I decided to get into music.  Vanity 6 and The Time were Prince acts and a huge part of that Minneapolis sound that I loved so much.  So many memories…”

Her voice trails away, and then returns with a dreaminess that is uniquely Ingrid Chavez.

“If I hadn’t met Prince I wouldn’t have met David.  And if I hadn’t met David, I wouldn’t have the two beautiful daughters that I have today.  Either directly or indirectly, I owe so much to Prince.  It was a privilege to share part of my journey with him.”

Craig Chaquico – String Theory

By:  Michael D. McClellan | Rock & roll is full of clichéd stories that begin this way, stories that start with the obligatory, alcohol-fueled car crash, followed immediately by those long, tense, white knuckle moments where life, in all its frailty, hangs suspended in the balance.  There are broken bones and there is blood, the result of the violent, head-on collision, and there is chaos – the engine hissing its last breath, urgent voices in the darkness, the smell of smoke that could be mistaken for a gunshot.  The ambulance ride to the hospital is like drinking a sadistic cocktail – a double shot of roiling pain garnished with choppy bouts of lucidity – followed by a cliff dive into the abyss.  All the good rock stories start out this way:  Jim Morrison found dead in a Paris apartment bathtub.  Amy Winehouse, dead from alcohol poisoning.  Michael Hutchence, suicide.  Tupac cut down on the Vegas strip.  Stardom amplified by tragedy, the resulting narrative transforming mere flesh and bone into something more than mortal – a deity in leather pants, a Christ in cornrows.

Craig Chaquico’s story starts out this way.

Except that it doesn’t.

Chaquico knows all about rescuers attempting to extricate his broken body from the mangled, twisted hunk of metal that was an automobile only seconds earlier, but before you seize on the image of Chaquico – the longtime Starship lead guitarist – as the poster child for tragic rock stars, think again; Chaquico walks among us intact, reveling in the platinum albums, the number one records, the Rolling Stone cover shoot, and the Grammy and Oscar nominations that come with being a part of rock music royalty.  Spend any time with him at all and you quickly learn that Chaquico is the antithesis of a coked-up, Armani-sheathed, rapidly self-destructing rocker.  Bright and articulate, Chaquico projects unnerving vitality – words tumble from his mouth at a rapid clip, and his voice carries the youthful exuberance of someone half his age.  That Chaquico is even here at all is something of a miracle, given the car crash that nearly claimed his life when a drunk driver struck his father’s vehicle head on, resulting in two broken arms, a broken rib, broken wrist, broken thumb, broken ankle and broken foot.  He was twelve at the time.

“I didn’t see the crash coming,” Chaquico says, “but I remember sitting in the front seat and the inside of our car lit up, which I can only imagine was the guy’s headlights, because he literally hit us head on.  The next thing I remember was being pulled out of the wreck by a cop.”

 

“I didn’t see the crash coming, but I remember sitting in the front seat and the inside of our car lit up, which I can only imagine was the guy’s headlights, because he literally hit us head on.  The next thing I remember was being pulled out of the wreck by a cop.” – Craig Chaquico

 

Nothing about that horrific scene presaged what was to come.  His life in jeopardy, he was at once light years away from the clattering, delirious tumult that is multi-platinum stadium rock, while only a few short biological years from jamming with the likes of Carlos Santana and Jerry Garcia.  No, none of this was imaginable back then, because on this night, and in the days and weeks that followed, Craig Chaquico’s young mind was focused on more immediate challenges; enduring the next operation, coping with the pain, and suffering through the grueling physical therapy that often brought him to tears.

It’s a story that he has told often, yet it is jarring to hear Chaquico talk about that life-altering crash with such unencumbered sentiment.  Sure, it damn near killed him.  But it also transformed his life in ways that reverberate all these years later.  Consider the irony:  Chaquico is world famous today largely due to the drunk driver who crossed the center line like a Kamikaze pilot bearing down on its target, the resulting impact breaking him into pieces.  He speaks about the crash – being careful not to categorize it as an accident – with the easy superfluity of someone who knows how lucky he is to be alive, and as someone who understands that this near-death experience triggered his career as a professional musician.

 

Craig Chaquico at age 12 - broken, but unbowed

Craig Chaquico at age 12 – broken, but unbowed

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“Music became the thing that helped me get through my injuries,” Chaquico says.  “I remember waking up and everything was in a cast, except for one leg, which seemed to be relatively unscathed.  Physically I couldn’t do much.  The rehab was torturous and included wheelchair therapy, physical therapy, crutches, and corrective shoes, but my doctor also encouraged me to play this little acoustic guitar that my mom had bought me.  The problem was that I could only reach one string, because of the way my hands were set in the casts [laughs].  I think the doctor knew it would be good for me medically – it helped improve my coordination, dexterity, and circulation – but, more than that, I think she knew that it would be good for my soul.  She was right; magically, somewhere between the science and the spirit and the soul is this thing called music, which she encouraged me to play for all of those reasons.”

It was a love of music that buffeted the young Chaquico during those dark days in that Sacramento hospital, his life interrupted by the a string of surgeries and the rehab that came along with it – ball games and bike rides replaced by those itchy casts and god-awful wheelchairs – and yet Chaquico was able to find the silver lining in his predicament.  It didn’t hurt that he had a kindred spirit in Les Paul, the pioneer of the solid-body electric guitar – the instrument which made the sound of rock & roll possible.

“My dad told me that if I stuck with my wheelchair therapy, he would buy me a Les Paul guitar,” Chaquico says.  “He told me the story about how Les Paul was also in a bad crash, and how he got through it and became one of the greatest guitar players ever.  Dad said, ‘Les Paul not only made it, now they have a guitar with his name on it.’  The story motivated me.  Even though I could only reach one string on that little acoustic guitar – the E string – I decided to write a song for my doctor, whose name was ‘Elizabeth’.  I called it E-Lizabeth’s Song, and it ended up on my Grammy-nominated album thirty years later.”

~  ~  ~

Formed by Jimmy Page in 1968 after his previous band, the Yardbirds, imploded, Led Zeppelin was a winner from the very beginning. The band’s debut, Led Zeppelin, was purchased by Atlantic Records via the most lucrative record contract for a new group in rock history at that point.  For fourteen-year-old Craig Chaquico, Zeppelin was a roadmap to the future, while his new Les Paul served as the compass.

“I was already playing all kinds of songs – Jimi Hendrix, Cream, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, and Eric Clapton,” Chaquico says quickly.  Prodigious, he often played until his fingers cracked and bled.  “Back then I played everything by ear, and I practiced because I wanted to; I wasn’t looking at my watch, and my parents weren’t forcing me to practice.  Anything I could do to get my hands on the guitar, I did it.”

 

Craig Chaquico and the late Paul Kantner - friends for life

Craig Chaquico and the late Paul Kantner – friends for life

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Even today, Chaquico isn’t an expert reader of music, but it isn’t the technical aspects of the guitar that sets him apart.  He’s a gifted player who improvises in whatever direction the music takes him.  In 1968, that direction led him to form his own cover group.

“I had formed a power trio,” he recalls with a laugh.  “We decided to set up and play on the senior lawn one afternoon, and afterwards my English teacher said he wanted to see me after school.  I thought I was in trouble – freshmen weren’t supposed to be on the senior lawn – and I thought he was going to make me push an egg across the lawn with a screw in my mouth as punishment.  Instead he pulled a guitar out and he said, ‘Hey, I heard you play.  I’d like you to join my band.’”

The English teacher was Jack Traylor, a well-known folk singer, acoustic guitarist, and lyricist who used his lyrics as political commentary.  He also taught a class called ‘Music is Literature’, and in it he only played songs that told stories.  Chaquico soaked it up, studiously memorizing lyrics written by everyone from Bob Dylan to Jefferson Airplane.

“Jack Traylor’s band was called Steelwind, and it had some modest success in Sacramento and San Francisco,” Chaquico says.  “I talked it over with my parents – okay, I begged them nonstop until they eventually let me play [laughs].  What I didn’t know at the time was that Grace Slick, Paul Kantner, and some of the Jefferson Airplane members were fans of his before they were famous.”

Slick and Kantner.

For the uninitiated, we’re talking about the founding members and driving forces behind Jefferson Airplane, future stars who had yet to break through on the world stage.  Chaquico didn’t realize it then, but their impact on his life would be as equally profound as that car crash.

“It all happened so fast,” he says.  “Jack Traylor was in a band with guys that were all fifteen, twenty years older than me.  The age difference in itself was an interesting dynamic, and then you had to be twenty-one to play in the bars and nightclubs.  Well, our flute player was a barber by day and had access to some very realistic fake mustaches.  He got me one, and somehow we pulled it off; I played in nightclubs and bars all around town wearing that thing.”

Chaquico pauses, and then laughs at what’s about to come next.

“One night we were on a break, and I looked down and the mustache was floating around the ice cubes of my non-alcoholic beverage.  I thought it was a caterpillar or something.  I screamed, ‘It’s in my drink!’ and I spilled my glass right then and there.  A few minutes later we glued the disguise back onto my face.  Well, this particular glue fluoresced a really bright green under a black light.  We didn’t find that out until we were back onstage and they turned on the black light.  I’d say it was pretty obvious that the guitar player who was supposed to be twenty-one was actually a fourteen year-old kid with a fake facial hair and gobs of glue glowing on his face.”

 

“One night we were on a break, and I looked down and the mustache was floating around the ice cubes of my non-alcoholic beverage.  I thought it was a caterpillar or something.  I screamed, ‘It’s in my drink!’ and I spilled my glass right then and there.  A few minutes later we glued the disguise back onto my face.  Well, this particular glue fluoresced a really bright green under a black light.  We didn’t find that out until we were back onstage and they turned on the black light.  I’d say it was pretty obvious that the guitar player who was supposed to be twenty-one was actually a fourteen year-old kid with a fake facial hair and gobs of glue glowing on his face.” – Craig Chaquico

 

Disaster averted, the mustachioed Chaquico continued playing gigs with his new band mates.  He was eventually introduced to Slick and Kantner, who were busy recording an Airplane album and needed someone on lead guitar.  Traylor suggested Chaquico.  He jumped at the chance, joining Airplane in the studio and eventually playing with the band during a series of concerts.  He was sixteen.

“I wasn’t as big a deal as you might think,” he says, when asked how recording with Jefferson Airplane changed his profile in high school.  “The album was very esoteric – it was an underground record that wasn’t that popular in the mainstream.  My high school was kind of on the rural side, so it wasn’t as forward-thinking as the Bay Area yet.  It fact, it was counter to that.  You had the jocks on one side, and the musicians and artists on the other.  It was a reflection of our country’s culture.  The sixties polarized people – you had the Nixon generation and the military pitted against the counter-culture – people who listened to Jefferson Airplane, people who were talking about what had happened at Kent State.  I was in the middle of all of that.  I came from a military family and grew up on a farm, and yet I was listening to my older brother’s record collection, which had everything from The Doors to Crosby, Stills and Nash.  So when I got to high school and got a chance to record, I don’t think a lot of people were really paying attention – except for my music teacher, who was the reason I met Paul Kantner and Grace Slick.”

The album – Sunfighter – was released in November, 1971, on Airplane’s own Grunt label, which was backed by RCA.

“They wanted to use some of Jack’s songs on the album, and someone said, ‘Well, you know the kid already knows the guitar parts, so why don’t you use him?  That’s how I ended up getting involved.  The album didn’t have a hit song on it, and it wasn’t like you heard any of those songs on the radio, like you did with Cream’s Sunshine of Your Love.  But it was still cool to have my name on a record – although they misspelled it [laughs].”

Sunfighter was recorded at Wally Heider Studios in San Francisco.  It was met with modest commercial success, peaking at No. 89 on the Billboard Pop Album chart.  For Chaquico, it might as well landed at #1.

 

Promotional studio portrait of American rock group Jefferson Starship, 1970s. L-R: Aynsley Dunbar, Pete Sears, David Freiberg, Mickey Thomas, Craig Chaquico and Paul Kantner. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Promotional studio portrait of American rock group Jefferson Starship, 1970s. L-R: Aynsley Dunbar, Pete Sears, David Freiberg, Mickey Thomas, Craig Chaquico and Paul Kantner. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

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“It was a very surreal point in my life; I was riding my bicycle to school every day, just like any kid, and then on the weekend I’d be playing nightclubs, lying about my age, wearing a fake mustache, and jamming onstage with my English teacher.  And every now and then, I was driving to San Francisco to record with Grace, Paul Kantner, and the other Jefferson Airplane members.”

Chaquico’s world, circa 1969, might not have been the same as Taylor Swift’s, whose security detail rivaled a presidential motorcade at a comparable age, but how many teenagers get to make records?

“That was pretty cool,” he says with a laugh.  “I learned a lot from the guys in Steelwind, and from doing sessions with Grace and Paul Kantner and that group of musicians.  There were a couple of songs where I was playing rhythm guitar and Jerry Garcia was going to come in and do the guitar solos later.  I played a solo over the basic track on one song just for fun.  I figured we could just erase it when Jerry came in.  Jerry showed the next day to do his solos for several songs.  When he heard the track with the solo I did he said. ‘That’s a great solo. Why don’t you let the kid have the solo?’”

If the thought of an acne-faced Craig Chaquico bumping Jerry Garcia out of a guitar solo sounds preposterous, then you haven’t heard him play.  Listen to those old records.  His gifts are on full display, a glimpse of things to come.

“It was a strange, dual existence,” Chaquico says.  “By the time I graduated from high school, I’d already been on three studio albums as a guest musician.  Plus, Steelwind got its own recording deal on a Jefferson Airplane label, and the band was opening for Jefferson Starship – which was basically Jefferson Airplane minus the guitar player and bass player – Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady, who had left to form Hot Tuna.  And on top of that, Paul offered me a chance to play guitar on that tour.  I jumped at it.  So did Peter Kaukonen, who was Jorma Kaukonen’s younger brother, who joined the group to play bass.  It was a crazy time; Steelwind would open, and then Jefferson Starship would play, and I played in both bands.”

~  ~  ~

Tucked snugly between the violence of the car crash and the thrill of joining Jefferson Starship is a gifted musician on the precipice.  Craig Chaquico couldn’t read music, but he was drawn to it just the same.  A guitar in his hands was a natural act, as natural as lungs drawing air.

“I remember mom and dad both being musicians,” he reflects.  “My dad originally played saxophone and accordion.  My mom was an organist and a keyboard player.  But both of them reached a point in their lives where they needed reliable sources of income.  It’s hard to start a family when you don’t know when the next gig is going to come.”

His parents owned a farm back then, and Chaquico grew up loving the outdoors.  He was around horses constantly.  Both of his parents were good with their hands – his father owned a furniture shop, while his mother was a stenographer for a string of California governors.  Ironically, his father lied about his age in order to box, often coming home with his face swollen, and on another occasion he ran away to play saxophone in a band.

“Somewhere in there I must have inherited my parents’ creative DNA,” Chaquico says.  “They both played music.  My dad made furniture with his hands.  My mom was one of the fastest typists in the state.  So I guess I came by my talent honestly.”

The family eventually moved off of the farm.  By then, his older brother was building hot rods and riding motorcycles and listening to rock & roll.  Chaquico remembers being ten or eleven and babysitting for his brother, who was thirteen years older, and sneaking on his headphones and listening to Third Stone from the Sun by Jimmy Hendrix for the first time.  Just hearing in stereo what somebody could do with a guitar, and then listening to Hendrix’s All Along the Watchtower, was more than enough to hook Chaquico for life.

Mind, blown.

“My brother and his wife went to a movie but decided to come back home because the line was too long,” he says.  “And there I was, listening to his record collection with headphones on, while their kids were having pillow fights or jumping up and down on the bed.  He wasn’t too happy about that, but what could I say?  I wasn’t old enough to babysit – besides, I was a little bit distracted by Jimi Hendrix and the way he could make a guitar talk.

“I owe a lot to my brother for how I ended up.  He was a Vietnam veteran who served on a submarine and spent time in Germany and Japan.  He would come home with all of these really cool reel-to-reel tape recorders and things that most kids never saw.  So, when he would deploy on those submarine missions that were taking place, he’d take off for months at a time doing secret military things, and we wouldn’t know where he was, but he would always let me use his stuff while he was gone.  I would tape episodes of Star Trek so I could listen back later with his headphones – I was a big science fiction fan, which tied in nicely with my Jefferson Starship career – and I would record myself playing guitar.  Funny how life works.  Little did I know then that it would all come together the way that it did.”

~  ~  ~

Excess.

Every good rock & roll story has it, and Chaquico remembers vividly his early days with Grace Slick and Paul Kantner, like the time he went to a Porsche dealership in San Francisco and bought the newest model off the showroom floor.  The salesmen sized up Chaquico and Kantner dismissively, stereotyping the two long-haired rockers as a couple of grungy hippies without a dollar between them.  Chaquico drove off with his Porsche that day.  He wasn’t even old enough to drink.

Grace Slick bought an Aston-Martin the same way.  Paid cash.  Drove it for a short time, only to suffer a concussion when she piled it into a wall near the Golden Gate Bridge.

 

The Acid Queen - Grace Slick

The Acid Queen in a sober moment – Grace Slick

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The Acid Queen of the ‘60s rock scene, Slick’s heavy partying was legendary.  Pedal to the metal, full throttle to the grave, that was the modus operandi for rockers like Slick, Janis Joplin, and Jim Morrison.  Somehow, Slick survived and sobered up, but not before hitting rock bottom when the fractious Airplane broke up in 1973.

“I was drinking from the moment I got up until I collapsed at night,” she was quoted a few years later, admitting to having no memory of this period in her life.

Jefferson Airplane’s disintegration had the feel of an ugly church split, with Hot Tuna and Jefferson Starship each claiming members of the original congregation.  Slick and Kantner were on board as charter members of Jefferson Starship, as was keyboardist David Freiberg.  They were joined by legendary violinist Papa John Creach, John Barbata on drums, Peter Sears on bass, and Chaquico on lead guitar.

“I was asked to play on the first Jefferson Starship album – Dragon Fly – and that ended up being my higher education for the next eighteen years,” he says.  His presence would be the one constant in the on again, off again, revolving door lineup that frustrated so many of the group’s fans.  Even the most die-hard devotees needed a cheat sheet to keep up with who was in the band.  “I ended up being the only person on every album, every single, every hit, and every recording, from the first album to the last.”

 

“I was asked to play on the first Jefferson Starship album – Dragon Fly – and that ended up being my higher education for the next eighteen years.  I ended up being the only person on every album, every single, every hit, and every recording, from the first album to the last.” – Craig Chaquico

 

Dragon Fly just missed the Top 10, but went gold within six months.  Fans loved the record.  Critics’ reviews were mixed; Rolling Stone had mostly good things to say, commenting that ‘guitarist Craig Chaquico makes up in ebullience what he lacks in subtlety’.

The group’s second album, Red Octopus, was released on June 13, 1975, and promptly landed at #1.  There was also a hit single, Miracles, which reached #3 on the Billboard chart, making it the highest-charting single the band had until that point.  Miracles was written by Marty Balin, a founding member of Jefferson Airplane who would join Jefferson Starship as a guest singer on Dragon Fly and then as a permanent member on Red Octopus.  The album version of the song had two hurdles to clear on the way to becoming a hit:  Miracles was 6 minutes, 52 seconds long, and the lyrics – I had a taste of the real world when I went down on you, girl – were too provocative for 1975 commercial airplay.

“No one was more surprised than us when it made the radio,” Chaquico says.  “The lyrics were a bit X-rated.  Just the whole idea of how that song went from Point A to Point B – from it starting as a weird idea to becoming big hit – is still mind-boggling to me.

“In the early days we used to brainstorm by showing up with our instruments and playing ideas for each other.  One time Marty brought in a bunch of great songs, and one of them was Miracles.  We were all in Paul’s living room – there were amps everywhere, and a drum kit – and Marty sits down on the couch and starts playing Miracles, all seven minutes of it, on his acoustic guitar.  We didn’t know what it was all about but we knew it had potential to be a hit, so we started learning it.  Thank God he brought a chord sheet, because there were so many different musical changes.

“When we went into the studio, the recording session was done live, just the five of us – Marty on his acoustic guitar in a vocal booth, singing behind the glass; John on drums; Pete Sears on base; and Paul and me on guitar.  I remember doing a few takes to get it right, because it’s a seven minute song.  I’m trying to play the guitar licks to illustrate what he saying with the lyrics, so when he says something about butterflies, or rainbows, or waterfalls, I try to do a guitar lick that sounds like the lyric.  Thank God he didn’t find it annoying – he literally let me play licks after everything he said [laughs].

 

Craig Chaquico and Jefferson Starship, recording Red Octopus - 1975

Craig Chaquico and Jefferson Starship, recording Red Octopus – 1975

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“The whole band played that song organically.  There was no orchestration and no sheet music, other than the chord sheet.  Everything was improvised, which meant that each take was a little different.  When we finally got a take that everybody liked, I remember thinking that everybody sounded so great in it, but I wasn’t very happy with how my guitar part turned out.  I had to get away from it for a few days before listening to it again and not being so critical of it.”

Red Octopus was one of the year’s best, most bracing albums.  It remains the best-selling album by any incarnation of Jefferson Airplane and its spin-off groups.

“We recorded Red Octopus in the course of about three months.  There was plenty of post-production work involved, especially on Miracles.  There was a lot of percussion overdubbing, and we had tons of background vocals come in and go out.  It’s hard to believe we pulled it off on the technology we had at the time; we were only using a 24-track recorder – there were no computers with unlimited numbers of tracks.  We took advantage of every square centimeter of tape.  If there was an open track we would put a vocal on it, or guitars on it, or we would add percussion. We even added a whole string section – all of the strings were recorded in Los Angeles.

 

“We recorded Red Octopus in the course of about three months.  There was plenty of post-production work involved, especially on Miracles.  There was a lot of percussion overdubbing, and we had tons of background vocals come in and go out.  It’s hard to believe we pulled it off on the technology we had at the time; we were only using a 24-track recorder – there were no computers with unlimited numbers of tracks.  We took advantage of every square centimeter of tape.  If there was an open track we would put a vocal on it, or guitars on it, or we would add percussion. We even added a whole string section – all of the strings were recorded in Los Angeles.” – Craig Chaquico

 

“The finished product was astounding.  What started as an acoustic song with only a guitar had evolved into this whole beautiful tapestry based on Marty’s brilliant lyrics.  It’s a timeless song.  It has a universal theme, kind of like Bon Jovi’s Livin’ On A Prayer.  ‘If only you believe in miracles…’  It touched people in so many personal ways.  Everything clicked.  Larry Cox, who mixed it and put it all together, deserves a lot of the credit.  He was like the painter, and we were colors on his pallet; he decided how much guitar color to use here, how much a vocal color to use there, that sort of thing.  That song was a big reason the album went to number one.”

~  ~  ~

For Chaquico, there was a positive side to Jefferson Starship’s constant state of flux:  He was able to play with a wide range of talented artists.  Papa John Creach, the legendary American blues violinist, was a part of that first lineup.  So was a little-known guitar player named Kevin Moore, who would later rise to fame as Keb’ Mo’, the multi-Grammy-winning blues guitarist.

“I actually crossed paths with those guys when we were teenagers,” Chaquico says.  “We shared a stage together when I was playing with Steelwind.  We were playing nightclubs around San Francisco, and Papa John and Kevin Moore were playing with a band called Zulu at the time.  I still have the poster of a concert that we did with Zulu and Papa John.  It was a concert in support of Proposition 13, which was a proposition to legalize marijuana [laughs].

 

Craig Chaquico jamming onstage with Jefferson Starship, 1976

Craig Chaquico jamming onstage with Jefferson Starship, 1976

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“Kevin was this really cool guitar player.  The band was so funky, and the beats were infectious. I was a Sly and the Family Stone fan, and these guys play with that same groove.  Papa John could do anything with that violin, and he was such a character.  I really looked up to Kevin – he was maybe a year older than me, and he was already playing those nightclubs with a legend like Papa John.  That was the big leagues.  I was just getting my feet wet with Steelwind.  I did realize he’d changed his stage name to Keb’ Mo’ until years later.  He’s still an inspiration to me.”

Chaquico also got to collaborate with one of the most volatile rockers on the planet.

“I wrote the music for Fast Buck Freddie, and Grace wrote the lyrics,” he says quickly.  “She had her demons, but she was an incredibly talented lady.”

~  ~  ~

Jefferson Starship released Spitfire in 1976, the platinum-selling follow-up to Red Octopus.  It spent six weeks at #3.  With Your Love was the album’s lead single, peaking at #12 on the Billboard Hot 100, and #6 on the Billboard Adult Contemporary chart.  The band didn’t tour in 1977, partly due to Marty Balin’s reluctance to commit fully to the band.  A year later Earth was released, and along with it the single Count on Me, which became a Top 10  hit.  The album quickly went platinum, like the previous two, and Runaway was a solid follow-up single, but this would be the last Jefferson-anything record to feature Balin.

A US and European tour followed, and while Jefferson Starship seemed to succeed in spite of itself, Grace Slick’s alcohol and drug use conspired to wreck the band’s ethereal flow.  She’d swore off liquor for a year in 1976 and gotten married, but promiscuity and sobriety were the yin and yang failings of a woman desperately in need of help.  She once bragged of giving only five percent of herself to any one man, and her quotes on drug use were a tabloid journalist’s wet dream:

Marijuana?  “I use it when I’m doing music.”

Cocaine?  “Edison and Freud snorted, so I’m following in a great tradition.”

Pills?  “If most people could take one, I could handle two or three.”

LSD?  “I stopped dropping acid for a while after my daughter was born. It’s hard to keep an eye on the kid while you’re hallucinating.”

Alcohol?  “Alcohol goes better with my body chemistry.  I started drinking heavily at 16 – anything I could get my hands on.  My headmistress thought I was drinking orange juice –actually I was getting smashed on screwdrivers.”

Suffice it to say that Grace Slick’s substance abuse was the stuff of legend by the time a case of ‘flu’ forced Starship to cancel a show in Germany at the last minute.  Twelve thousand fans rioted – trashing $200,000 of the septet’s equipment – and the shock waves, the urban legend goes, sent Grace back to the bottle.  The next night she turned the concert into a shambles, blowing cues, harassing the rest of the band onstage and putting her finger up the nose of a young German spectator.  After playing one more concert with rented gear – and without Grace – Starship canceled its remaining 15 summer dates.

“At that point we knew it was over,” says Chaquico.  “After the riot in Germany we never played together again.  We were in flux.  We lost Grace.  John Barbata was in a bad car crash and dropped out.  Marty Balin decided to do one more performance with us on the Star Wars Christmas Special and then he took off, and then it was a whole new band and a whole new producer.  We were forced to regroup.  We added Mickey Thomas on vocals and Aynsley Dunbar on drums, and we went off in new direction.”

~  ~  ~

As the 1970s drew to a close, uncertainty hung in the air.  Fans wondered openly if this would be the end of the always bumpy, ever-changing Jefferson Airplane-Starship ride, or whether the group would reinvent itself again, renascent once more.  Through it all, Chaquico continued to weather the storm and provide a steadying influence.  He was no longer a pimply-faced kid.  He was now one of the most tenured members of the band.  But in some ways, little had changed for him.

 

29 Jun 1981, New York State, USA --- Craig Chaquico and David Freiberg perform on stage with Jefferson Starship in New York. --- Image by © Roger Ressmeyer/CORBIS

29 Jun 1981, New York State, USA — Craig Chaquico and David Freiberg perform on stage with Jefferson Starship in New York. — Image by © Roger Ressmeyer/CORBIS

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“After that first tour with Jefferson Starship – and right before we recorded Dragon Fly – I bought a ’57 Gold Top Les Paul with my own money,” he says.  “And then a couple of years after Dragon Fly, I bought a ’59 Standard Sunburst Les Paul.  I used those two guitars almost exclusively on all of those first four albums – Dragon Fly, Red Octopus, Spitfire and Earth.  Those albums had all of those big hits before the lineup changed in 1978.  So, all of those hits like Miracles, Fast Buck Freddie, Ride the Tiger, Play on Love – all of those songs were done on those two Les Pauls.  And it all started with my dad telling me about the real Les Paul, and with him buying me my first Les Paul after that car crash.”

About that 1959 Standard Sunburst:  The last time Chaquico had it in his possession was that night the fans rioted in  Lorelei, Germany.  Forced to flee the stage and leave his equipment behind, Chaquico returned the next day to find only the charred remains of his Fender Bassman amplifiers.

“It was pretty devastating,” he says.  “When I went to the scene of the riot, the aftermath looked like a plane had crashed.  There was debris everywhere.  The guitar could be replaced, but the sentimental value was irreplaceable.  It’s not the same, but at least I can listen to it whenever I put on one of those old Jefferson Starship records.”

~  ~  ~

Freedom at Point Zero was made sans Slick and Balin, who had both gone solo.  The 1979 album featured the monster hit Jane, which remains a classic and is still played widely today.  Mickey Thomas was drafted to provide the voice for the group, and British session drummer Aynsley Dunbar (John Mayall, Frank Zappa, David Bowie, you name it) was added to the core of Kantner, Chaquico, and Peter Sears.  It was a respectable effort.  Thomas’ outrageous falsetto fully compensated for Slick’s absence, and the band had indeed found another lease on life.

“We went back to our roots and found some of the old Jefferson Airplane DNA,” Chaquico says.  “While we had gone into some soft rock in the mid-70s, this record brought back some of the harder edge.  It was a welcome change.

 

“We went back to our roots and found some of the old Jefferson Airplane DNA.  While we had gone into some soft rock in the mid-70s, this record brought back some of the harder edge.  It was a welcome change.” – Craig Chaquico

 

“When I was originally asked to join the band, I was encouraged to add that rocking side to it, so I felt that our first producer really held that balance well.  But over time, our style evolved along with all of the changing faces.  It happened again with this album.  We lost Grace, Marty, and John, and then we add someone like Aynsley Dunbar on drums, who was considered to be more of a powerhouse rocking drummer, whereas John Barbata’s  forte was in that hit making, studio style.  That was completely awesome, because that kind of drumming is so rare.  Everything worked out.  To go from one great drummer to another was terrific, and to go from one great producer like Ron Nevison was icing on the cake.  Ron was very much into the guitar arrangement style of producing.  He had produced some of my favorite guitar bands, groups like Bad Company, Heart, UFO, and Zeppelin, so his taste leaned toward featuring the kind of guitar rocking style that I had liked.”

 

Craig Chaquico and Starship - Tampa Stadium 1987

Craig Chaquico and Starship – Tampa Stadium 1987

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Nevis would produce the next two Jefferson Starship albums – 1981’s Modern Times and 1982’s Winds of Change.  Grace Slick reemerged on Modern Times after a three-year absence. She returned near the end of the recording sessions, providing background vocals on some tracks as well as lead vocals on the single Stranger as a duet with lead singer Mickey Thomas.

“The one constant is that we’ve always had these terrific producers producing our music,” Chaquico says.  “So even though our lineup was a revolving door – like Grace leaving and then coming back – we had great production in the background, which was a stabilizing influence.  That’s why I like to say that the band members – and the instruments they play – are really like colors on a painter’s pallet.  The producer is the painter who decides how much of each color to use, and  where to use it.  We have some say in that too, but the producers are the ones who put their magic hands on what we do.  We were lucky to have Larry Cox working on our first four albums, who helped us produce hits like Miracles, Runaway, and Count on Me, and even the rocking tunes like Ride the Tiger, and Fast Buck Freddie.  Ron’s engineer was a guy named Mike Clink, who later went on to produce the first Guns N’ Roses album – one of the greatest rock albums of all time.  So I was again in a lucky position to have two awesome producing talents in the same studio, working on the songs that I was writing – like Jane, and Find Your Way Back.”

On May, 30, 1984, Nuclear Furniture was released, again with Nevis at the helm.  It produced a pair of hits – Layin’ It on the Line and No Way Out, the latter of which landed at #1 on Billboard Magazine’s Mainstream Rock Tracks chart.  The record’s success masked the groups inner turmoil, as it struggled to bridge a rich past with an uncertain future.

“While Freedom at Point Zero was a rock record, our sound was evolving into something closer to pop, which was another new direction for the band.  So, within three or four years from the release of Freedom we had songs on the radio like No Way Out and We Built This City, which were diametrically opposed to the kind of style that was Jane, or even Miracles.  There was a lot of inner turmoil.  It wasn’t an easy adjustment for any of us.”

 

“While Freedom at Point Zero was a rock record, our sound was evolving into something closer to pop, which was another new direction for the band.  So, within three or four years from the release of Freedom we had songs on the radio like No Way Out and We Built This City, which were diametrically opposed to the kind of style that was Jane, or even Miracles.  There was a lot of inner turmoil.  It wasn’t an easy adjustment for any of us.” – Craig Chaquico

 

Disillusioned by the band’s softening pop-rock approach, Kantner bailed out of Jefferson Starship in 1984, taking legal action to keep the band from using the Jefferson Starship name.  The band continued as Starship.  It’s debut album, Knee Deep in the Hoopla, went platinum, but history has not treated it well; Hoopla has become, in many ways, symbolic of what went wrong with ‘80s rock, and no song has received as much scorn as it’s mega hit – the band’s first single to reach #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.

To this day, We Built This City is derided as an irksome ear worm, as self-aggrandizing anthem by a shell of a shell of a once-great band.  The critics contend that while Jefferson Airplane was a vital countercultural force, Jefferson Starship was nowhere near as good, and that by 1985, it had devolved into horrible, horrible Starship, with Grace Slick surrounded by tacky keyboards singing that cloying chorus in rock music’s worst-ever abomination.

We built this city…

We built this city on rock and roll…

While many have piled on the song through the years, labeling it everything from obnoxious to lousy to the most appalling song ever, it’s easy to forget that it received…wait for it…a Grammy nomination.

“The ‘80s was an interesting time for the music industry in general,” Chaquico says.  “MTV launched, bringing videos with it.  I was still trying to add to reincorporate the guitar element into our sound when things started taking on more of that ‘80s flavor.  It didn’t happen overnight, but at some point there was a real obvious shift as different members of the band left.  The productions became more programmed, more sampled, and our sound took on more of a technopop kind of feel.  The guitar was de-emphasized.  We Built This City is a classic example of how the ‘80s morphed into this pop-ish thing for us.  It was a flagship song that still kind of represents that era.  It has definitely taken its hits through the years, but it reached number one and earned a Grammy nomination, so I’m proud to be part of the song.  It didn’t have much guitar in it, except for at the end.  And you know what?  If it had more guitar, it probably wouldn’t have been such a big hit.  So it’s probably a good thing that it didn’t have more guitar.”

Irony is another aspect of the song that is lost on the populace.

 

Flying High - Chaquico Blue Angels Photo Op - USA Today

Flying High – Chaquico Blue Angels Photo Op – USA Today

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“Very few people get that,” he says quickly.  “We Built This City was a protest against technopop, and yet the song was very much technopop.  The lyrics were written by the legendary lyricist Bernie Taupin, who wrote all of those huge hits for Elton John – songs like Your Song, Bennie and the Jets, and Candle in the WindWe Built This City was really about the disappearance of the great music venues where artists learned how to play their music and hone their craft.  It was written during a time when these places were either turning into discos, or becoming nightclubs with deejays spinning records.  So the lyrics are really a protest – where did all the great places go to play?  ‘…don’t you remember?  We built this city…we built this city on rock an’ roll.’  It’s kind of like if you cut out all of the comedy clubs that comedians like Robin Williams and Jerry Seinfeld went to before they became famous, then there wouldn’t be places for them to develop their talent.”

Sara also reached #1.  It was written by Peter and Ina Wolf.  Desperate Heart was written by Michael Bolton.

“It wasn’t so much a band anymore,” Chaquico says.  “At least not in the sense of us doing our own thing.  The band wasn’t writing many of the songs – just take a look at everyone who contributed lyrics to Knee Deep in the Hoopla.  We weren’t writing the songs.  But it was hard to argue with success, because we were getting really big hits.  And if the lyricist is a great lyricist like Bernie Taupin, then you’re doing something right.  The only thing that would have made it better is if we had Elton John playing piano on the song with us.

“I was very familiar with Bernie Taupin.  I remember when we had all of that success with Red Octopus – one week we’d be number one, and the next week Elton John was number one.  Then we’d knock him off the next week, and he’d knock us off the week after that.  It happened four times that summer, and the lyricist for both Elton records was Bernie Taupin.”

 

“I was very familiar with Bernie Taupin.  I remember when we had all of that success with Red Octopus – one week we’d be number one, and the next week Elton John was number one.  Then we’d knock him off the next week, and he’d knock us off the week after that.  It happened four times that summer, and the lyricist for both Elton records was Bernie Taupin.” – Craig Chaquico

 

Does the criticism bother Chaquico?  Does it grind his gears that the group reemerged as a sleek, corporate band named Starship with some guy named Mickey Thomas as one of the lead singers?

“In some respects I really can’t complain,” he says.  “It felt like there was some sort of divine intervention at work.  We Built This City was a huge hit, and then came Sara, which was a beautiful love ballad.  I had a little guitar solo in it, but the video didn’t feature the band at all.  The technopop songs in the ’80s leaned toward featuring the lead singer, so we were following a formula.  That’s how we got those number one songs.”

“And then comes Nothing’s Going to Stop Us Now,” he says, referring to the band’s 1987 album No Protection.  “That song was featured in the movie Mannequin and it was a monster hit for us – and another number one song.  It was written by the incredible Diane Warren, who went on to write number one songs for acts like Bon Jovi, Cher, and Aerosmith.  And then we followed that up with another Top 10 hit, It’s Not Over (‘Til It’s Over).  So that part of it was nice.  The other part, not so much.”

The other part?

 

Chaquico with Slash, 1996

Chaquico with Slash, 1996

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“Nothing lasts forever.  By the end of that run, everybody in the band that I enjoyed playing with had come and gone, and the guitar was even less an element in the productions.  I felt marginalized and constrained.  The straw that broke the camel’s back was a meeting that I had with Mickey Thomas and our manager at the time, Bill Thompson.  The gist of the conversation was sort of like, ‘You’ve been here the whole time, and you can still be in the band, but you’ve seen all of the success that we’re having with these songs.  So we’re not going to do any more guitar-based songs, so don’t even bother writing.’  And I’m thinking to myself, why do you even need me?  You don’t need a guitar player, and you don’t need me to write songs.  So that was it for me.  I took a scary leap of faith.  I quit my day job with Starship.”

Jettisoning from the Starship franchise was a risky career move for the talented guitar player.  He was suddenly on his own, no longer tethered to the group that had helped make him a household name in the industry.

“I didn’t know what I was going to do, actually. I didn’t know what was going to happen next.  I thought that starting a rock band with Mike Clink would work, so I did that, and we worked on a really fun project called Big Bad Wolf.  The record was eventually released in Japan and Europe, because that style of music was still in favor over there, but the grunge movement hit the US right as we were about to release it in the States.  Curt Cobain and Nirvana were the antithesis of anything that sounded like Starship.  Grunge was in, and the stadium rock thing was out.”

~  ~  ~

Of all the twists and turns, what happened next may be the most reward of Chaquico’s career – and he didn’t even see it coming.

“In 1990, my wife got  pregnant – it’s funny, you’re not in a band anymore, and you’re not traveling, somebody is going to get pregnant [laughs] – so it seemed like the acoustic guitar would be more welcome around the house.  That’s when I started playing acoustic, little realizing that it would lead to an epiphany and a whole new direction – a number one smooth jazz instrumental record that would be Grammy-nominated and sell a million copies.  It was completely divine intervention of a stylistic change that happened at the right time.”

The first record, 1993’s Acoustic Highway, was a creative shot in the arm for Chaquico, who made plenty of money during the ‘80s but had stagnated as an artist.  A year later he released Acoustic Planet, which validated his decision to follow his heart.  The record earned him a Grammy nomination for Best New Age Album.

“One of the biggest thrills of my career,” Chaquico says.  “My acoustic records gave me the confidence to try something different.  There wasn’t a master plan, it was more a case of me stumbling into the new age format.  I knew that I wanted to play the blues because without blues music, there would be no rock & roll.  And then that led to experimenting with acoustic jazz.  The transition from one to the other was natural for me, because I’d learned to play the guitar by listening to blues players like Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix.  When I melded the three together – acoustic blues meets acoustic jazz meets rock & roll – everything just clicked.”

 

Chaquico goes solo - a career rebirth that has earned him a Grammy nomination.

Chaquico goes solo – a career rebirth that has earned him a Grammy nomination.

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In 1995, one of his songs off of that album –Just One World – became a part of NASA’s Ark Project, which now permanently remains in orbit above the Earth.  None of this would have been possible had the rock guitarist opted to play it safe.

“My acoustic records are still rock & roll, just done acoustically,” he says.  “It was an exciting new direction because it was a different voice.  I was able to produce a distinctive sound that helped me to establish myself in the new age genre, and it helped me to become known as more than just a rock guitarist.  I think it’s easier to carve out an identity if you’re a singer.  There’s very few instrumentalists who have a distinctive style that you can recognize immediately.  Kenny G is one.  When I decided to play rock acoustically, that set me apart from the crowd.

“It all started when I reached out to Ozzie Ahlers, who was the keyboard player for Jerry Garcia, and we immediately went to work on creating my signature new age style.  It’s very gratifying to sell a million copies of Acoustic Planet and earn a Grammy nomination, and then to have one of my songs included in the NASA Ark Project.  How cool is that?  It sounds like I’m bragging, but the point is that we had so much rejection at the beginning.  I think that’s a good lesson for any artist – writer, singer, musician, anybody – you have to be believe and you have to be persistent.  Trust me, it wasn’t easy.”

Chaquico has done it all in a career spanning six decades, but it’s easy to hear the joy in his voice when discussing his solo career.  To build something from the ground up, and to do it when so many in the industry were reluctant to take a chance on him, he understands more than anyone the fortunate circumstances that led to a career rebirth.

“I remember playing it for the new age label, and they said, ‘We hear new age, but we also hear some rock, and jazz, and blues.  If you sounded more new age, like George Winston or Ottmar Liebert, we would sign you.  Why don’t you take it to a blues, rock, or jazz label?’  So, rejection. We take it to a jazz label, and they say, ‘Well, we do hear some jazz, but your kind and not really playing the right kind of guitar for jazz.  If you sounded more like Larry Carlton we’d sign you.  Why don’t you take it to a new age label or a blues label?’  Well, we were down to rock and blues.  We went to the rock label, but they wanted me to sound more like Joe Satriani or Steve Vai.  We went to the blues label, but they wanted me to sound more like Robert Cray, or Eric Clapton, or Stevie Ray Vaughn.

“Basically, we struck out.  It was very discouraging, and it was also very humbling – I quit my day job to run away and join the circus, only to learn the circus doesn’t exist.  There were no opportunities.  And just when things seemed the darkest, the publicist from the early Jefferson Starship days played my cassette for the new age label that had Ottmar Liebert.  They loved it.  They called me up and said they wanted to do it exactly the way that it was.

 

“Basically, we struck out.  It was very discouraging, and it was also very humbling – I quit my day job to run away and join the circus, only to learn the circus doesn’t exist.  There were no opportunities.  And just when things seemed the darkest, the publicist from the early Jefferson Starship days played my cassette for the new age label that had Ottmar Liebert.  They loved it.  They called me up and said they wanted to do it exactly the way that it was.” – Craig Chaquico

 

“After they released the first record, it became Billboard Magazine’s top-selling independent new age album of the year.  Then we release Acoustic Planet and it goes straight to number one, gets the Grammy nomination, and I win a Guitar Player Magazine reader’s poll for best instrumental guitarist.  All of that stuff would never have happened if we had believed all of those people who said we needed to sound different.  And if not for a little luck or divine intervention, we would have been the tree that fell in the forest that no one would have ever heard.  But because of this one little connection with this publicist, who in turn played it for the label, we were able to get the record made and go on to produce ten others.  We were one of the lucky ones.  Ironically, I’ve heard from other artists who are trying to get their music made, and the labels are now saying, ‘Well, if you only sounded more like Craig Chaquico we’d sign you.’  Well, there was a time when I sounded exactly like Craig  Chaquico and they wouldn’t sign me [laughs].”

Emboldened by his solo success, Chaquico has reinvented himself again, this time as a blues guitarist.  Keb’ Mo’ would be proud.

“Keb’s great,” he says quickly.  “What a fabulous career – he didn’t start out playing the blues, but look at what a career change has done for him.  You never know what a little luck with the record sales and the chart positions can do for you.  Looking back the career choices all seem so obvious, but at the time those decisions can create frightening, scary moments, kind of like when I woke up with two broken arms and a whole lot of other things broken, too.

“So I rolled the dice and said, ‘Heck, why not do a blues album?’  As it turned out, the best blues label on the planet, Blind Pig, was at my gig and we had a chance to talk afterwards.  At one point the conversation we started talking about doing a blues record, but I was apprehensive.  I said, ‘Man, I love your label but I’m not a traditional blues guy.’  I had to confess that I thought Cream wrote Crossroads until I got older [laughs], and that I didn’t know that Born Under a Bad Sign wasn’t written by Eric Clapton.  I explained that my blues roots were going to be more like ZZ Top, Clapton, Hendrix, Pink Floyd, Zeppelin. I said that I’m not a traditional blues player, but they actually liked the idea of doing something from a different point of view.  They liked that I was influenced by people like Neal Schon and Stevie Ray Vaughn, who in turn were influenced the original blues legends – people like the great Robert Johnson.  So I went for it and made a blues record.  It was a blast.  For me, it’s a bucket list set of all of my favorite songs that I ever wanted to do.”

Speaking of bucket lists, does Chaquico have a bucket list of musicians he would like to play with?

“I would love to do something with Jimi Hendrix, but I might have to wait until the next world [laughs].  Clapton is someone I’ve always wanted to play guitar with, and Jeff Beck.  I’ve rubbed shoulders with them.  My bass player just got through mixing the new Santana album, and he works with Jeff Beck and Santana.  That’s how close I’ve been able to get to some of my heroes, but aside from Carlos Santana, I haven’t jammed with guys like Clapton and Beck yet.  I would absolutely love to do more stuff with Carlos.”

~  ~  ~

Remember Chaquico’s ’59 Les Paul Standard Sunburst?  Now one of the rarest and most valuable guitars in the world – only 1,600 were produced – it had long been assumed destroyed, along with the rest of the Starship’s equipment in the notorious Lorelei concert riot in 1978.  Then, in 2013, Pete Sears was miraculously reunited with his one-of-a-kind “Dragon” bass guitar, 35 years after it was lost in the riot.  Sears got lucky; after seeing a photograph of it online, a German musician, who said he’d bought it from a private party in 1991, came forward, selling it back to Sears and giving Chaquico a glimmer of hope that maybe his guitar had survived as well.

 

Craig Chaquico and his idol, the late, great, legendary Les Paul.

Craig Chaquico and his idol, the late, great, legendary Les Paul.

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And then, like something out of an episode of Dateline, a Vermont collector called him out of the blue with a stunning revelation – Chaquico’s treasured Sunburst hadn’t been destroyed after all.  Using a serial number he’d seen in a German newspaper, the fan traced it to a collector in Southern California.

“My jaw hit the floor,” Chaquico recalls, noting that because the collector used aliases, he had to hire a private detective to find him. “The guy was stunned.  He said, ‘I can’t believe this, but it’s obviously your guitar and I want to give it back.’”

But before the collector would agree to part with it, he wanted to be reimbursed the $180,000 that he originally paid for it ten years earlier.  He allowed Chaquico, his lawyer, and Norman Harris – the dealer who originally sold him the Sunburst for about $4,000 – to take a look at the guitar close up.

“It’s exactly the same as the last time I saw it, right down to the little belt buckle scratches in the back that I put on it,” Chaquico says.  “Even after all these years, the guitar looks just like it did on the night of the riot.”

Attorneys for Chaquico and the collector agreed on mediation, but the negotiations quickly fell apart.

“After a year of time and energy, and tens of thousands of dollars spent on my part – paying a lawyer and a private investigator – the guy with the guitar said he didn’t want to give it up, that he didn’t want to give it back to me,” Chaquico says.  “Since we’re working through attorneys now, I have no idea why he changed his mind, but I suspect that he feels that the value of the guitar is far greater because I played it on all those hits.”

The case is now headed to federal court.

“I had no choice,” Chaquico says. “Part of me understands why the guy changed his mind.  He took great care of the guitar and paid a lot of money for it.  But the bottom line is it’s stolen property.  It’s my baby.  It has great sentimental value to me.  This quest isn’t only for me.  It’s for all the musicians who have ever had their instruments lost or stolen over the years, then eventually found, and just want to get them back.”

~  ~  ~

Chaquico knows how lucky he is – lucky to be alive, first and foremost.  He’s never taken anything for granted, and he’s spent a lifetime giving back.  He’s involved with the American Music Therapy Association, an organization that uses music in connection with other healing modalities to help people heal.  He plays for a wide range of patients – Alzheimer’s, geriatric, pediatric, and Down’s Syndrome among them.  He gives freely of his time and energy in a variety of other philanthropic endeavors.  He grants interviews and cheerfully answers the same questions that he’s surely answered a million times before.

And he never forgets.

The crash that nearly claimed his life is never far from view, even after all of these years and the millions of records sold.  He knows he could have easily died that night.

“Divine intervention,” he says without hesitation. “I say thanks every day that I was able to make it through that crash and all of the rehab, and everything else that came after is just a bonus.  I love the way my life worked out and I wouldn’t change anything.  I love playing music.  And I guess if I was going to say anything about my musical experience, I would say that you never believe the first ‘no’, and it doesn’t matter how many ‘no’s’ there are, all you need is the right ‘yes’.  I think that if there is anything that’s common in people who’ve found success in what they do, I think it’s that they would be doing it regardless of the money or the notoriety.  For me, it all goes back to surviving that crash.  Nothing would have been possible if that night had turned out differently.”

 

Charting a new course - Craig Chaquico has reinvented himself with a unique, acoustic new age sound.

Charting a new course – Craig Chaquico has reinvented himself with a unique, acoustic new age sound.

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Chaquico never forgets.

“That was a frightening time, those days and weeks after that crash,” he says.  “Years later, I went back to the same hospital that took such good care of me, and I played some songs off of my first acoustic album, Acoustic Highway.  By then I’d already done all of the multi-platinum, million-selling Jefferson Starship / Starship tours around the world, with Grace Slick and all of that, but I just thought it would be a neat way to give back.  It was a great experience, but I had hoped to get in touch with the doctor, Elizabeth, who had helped me get through the darkest period of my life.  Unfortunately she had retired.  I was so disappointed.  I wanted to give her a high-five and thank her for doing such a great job.  And I wanted to play guitar for her.”

Chaquico is a lucky man.

It’s only fitting – poetic – that luck played a part in closing the loop on the story that started out the way all of those tragic rock stories end.

“I never did get a chance to give my doctor a high five,” he says, pausing.  “It was something I thought about often, because I couldn’t imagine how I would have ended up without her care and encouragement.  I wouldn’t have been able to play that guitar solo that was intended for Jerry Garcia.  I wouldn’t have played on all of those great records.

“Well, I was playing an outdoor concert in Sedona, Arizona, and there was a woman was in the audience who knew my story.  She happened to work as a private investigator, and she had found a way to contact Elizabeth.  I was floored.  In a complete act of spontaneity, I reached out to her from the concert, right then and there, and we were able to hold my iPhone up so that she could see me play.  It was a surreal, beautiful, moving experience for us both.  To me, it’s another case of divine intervention.  That’s only a theory, but it’s beyond coincidence when something comes full circle like that.”