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.
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 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.
“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.
“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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”