The Heartbreakers interview: Satan Eats Cheese Whiz (1987)

billdeyoungcom Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers Let Me Up I've Had EnoughTom Petty and the Heartbreakers have come full circle. They began, more than a decade ago, as a ragtag quintet of friends from North Florida playing uncluttered rock ‘n’ roll, and eventually came to experiment with diverse and wide-ranging sounds and ideas. With Let Me Up (I’ve Had Enough), their seventh studio album (to be released Monday by MCA Records), Tom Petty and his group — a little less ragtag, and a little more worldly-wise — have come back to the future. It took them 12 years, but they’ve finally made a great uncluttered rock ‘n’ roll record.

Gainesville natives Benmont Tench and Stan Lynch, keyboards and drums, respectively, both agree that the last two years — much of the time spent touring with Bob Dylan — were positive for the band. Today they feel as sprightly as they did in their salad days. Over a four-week period last spring, sandwiched in between tours of the Far East and the United States with Dylan, the five musicians recorded more than 30 songs. Many of them, they only played two or three times, and were recorded to capture the spontaneity.

“Most of the record is like that,” Tench says. “‘The Damage You’ve Done,’ ‘Think About Me,’ ‘A Self-Made Man,’ ‘Let Me Up,’ most of this record is from that month of doing live tracking. The second side is mainly that stuff, and the first side is mainly stuff that was worked on more.”

Petty and guitarist Mike Campbell produced the 11-track album, and there are no musicians other than the five Heartbreakers present. Overdubbing, even by the band, was kept to a minimum. Bass player Howie Epstein laid on harmony vocals to a few of the completed songs.

Most of the numbers are straightforward rock-type songs (in 1987, “Petty-esque” is probably a good enough way to describe the band’s brand of guitar-based rock) with an ensemble sound, rather than lead guitar or keyboard, prevalent. There are very few solos.

The exceptions: “It’ll All Work Out” is a ballad in waltz time, with an Oriental sheen. Campbell is featured on the koto, a Japanese stringed instrument.

The score to the melancholy “Runaway Trains” is reminiscent of the synthesizer band Tangerine Dream, hypnotic and dreamlike. It’s also one of Petty’s most strikingly poetic lyrics (Campbell wrote the music, and Petty the basic melody. Lynch remembers that the song existed for several years without lyrics).

With its moody synthesizer and sparkling electric guitar fire, “Runaway Trains” recalls “The Boys of Summer,” the song Campbell co-wrote a few years ago with Don Henley. It was a big hit for the former Eagle.

“Everything he writes now sounds a little bit like ‘Boys of Summer,’” Lynch says with a snicker. Tench gives him a questioning look, then they both laugh. “Ah, print it, I don’t care,” Lynch says, on a roll. “Hey, why not? ‘The Boys of Summer’ been berry, berry good to Mike Campbell. Once a hit, always a hit.”

Tench interrupts his stream of humorous observation. “‘My Life/Your World’ is Mike’s, too, and it doesn’t sound like ‘The Boys of Summer.’”

“It does if you play it backwards,” Lynch says.

With “My Life/Your World,” Petty sings wry social commentary over a dance-club beat. The song sounds like the heir to “It Ain’t Nothing to Me,” from 1985’s Southern Accents album. “I think it’s a better song than ‘It Ain’t Nothing to Me,’” Tench says. “It’s the Heartbreakers play ‘Billie Jean.’”

Otherwise, “Let Me Up (I’ve Had Enough)” rocks. It’s not overtly literate (a good sign if one is on the lookout for genuine rock ‘n’ roll), but it’s not without its uplifting emotional moments. For every song like the title track, an all-out screamer (literally), there’s another like “Ain’t Love Strange,” that puts focused lyrics (“It can make you string barbed wire/Around your little piece of ground/For emotional protection/Oh but it’s too late now”) next to an exhilarating, seemingly spontaneous arrangement.

“‘Ain’t Love Strange’ must have meant something to Tom,” Lynch theorizes. “I’m guessing, but I’ve seem that kind of reaction out of him, when we were doing that song ‘Insider’ a few years ago. Good, bad, or indifferent, he made psychic communion with that song. He had made an attachment to ‘Insider.’ He loved it.

“And I think ‘Ain’t Love Strange’ had that same biological reaction. There’s a couple of things Tom is always unwavering on, and that was one of those songs that it didn’t matter if we got a good or a bad version or not, it was going on the record.”

Both Lynch and Tench say this is the first album that all the band members have been completely satisfied with before it’s released. They think it’s an honest record, true to Petty and Campbell’s vision of an all-band effort, circa 1987. “It doesn’t feel overly autobiographical to me,” Lynch says. “This isn’t Tom’s Nebraska. It’s not Okahumpka.”

“It’s not Alachua,” offers Tench.

“No,” Lynch adds. “He said to me, ‘It’s a good rock ‘n’ roll record. We did our best.’”

Campbell co-wrote half the LP’s songs with Petty. Bob Dylan contributed some of the lyrics to “Jammin’ Me,” the album’s first single, which decries the media’s “information overload,” according to Tench.

“I don’t have any idea which parts of it Bob wrote,” he adds, “but I think you can take a wild guess… ‘Take back Pasadena….’ The blatantly cynical and sarcastic stuff is probably Bob’s.”

Typical of a Heartbreakers album, there’s 20-second snatch of gibberish between two songs on the second side. It’s the band engaged in a brief tribal chant, complete with hand claps, ending in laughter and a quick joke. Listen closely, Lynch laughs, and it says “Satan Eats Cheeze Whiz.”

“I like that stuff,” Tench comments. “I think it’s funny. There isn’t anybody who’s any good who’s funny any more. Bruce is great; he’s not funny. U2’s a good band; they aren’t funny. The hell with ’em.”

(The LP’s cover, a favorite among the band members, is a composite face — screaming — made up of pieces of each of their own mugs. On the inner sleeve is a Los Angeles Herald-Examiner news photo, showing a small plane that actually went nose-down into a woman’s backyard swimming pool. near the studio where the Heartbreakers were recording. Petty wrote a verse in “My Life/Your World” about it. They all think that it’s a great picture, too.)

Following last summer’s American tour with Dylan, while Petty and Campbell were cooking up additional songs for “Let Me Up,” Tench went to England for a month-long tour with Elvis Costello. He played piano in Costello’s Confederates. The high point, for him, was a concert at the Royal Albert Hall in London, where Van Morrison sang a few numbers with them. A fanatic for popular music, Tench had long admired the reclusive singer.

Recently, Tench has been recording with the band X, Rosanne Cash, and Ferghal Sharkey. The latter two have recorded new Tench compositions.

The Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers tour, in support of Let Me Up, begins in late May in Arizona. Rehearsals start in two weeks.

“There’s no band,” Lynch says. “It’s a figment of everyone’s imagination unless they’re together. We don’t all live in the same house — it’s not like we’re young kids, we’ve all got lives, we’ve all got creative projects, so it (a tour) re-confirms to us that indeed, there really is a band. That’s what a band does — they play live. So the question of ‘Are we gonna tour?’ is really ‘Are we pro-band this year?’ They’ve decided that they are.

After seven weeks of touring (with no stops scheduled for Florida), the Heartbreakers will take a month off and then connect once again with Dylan, with whom they’ll tour Canada, the southern United States, and Europe. They’ll also play Israel, Egypt, and several other countries in eastern Europe. Dates in the Soviet Union are still being mulled over. There’s prestige in playing there, Lynch and Tench admit, but no money. And that’s something to be considered.

“Nobody knows any specifics, because it changes daily,” Lynch says. “Egypt and Israel are going to pay for the whole thing, so they’re critical in working the tour around. The Israeli dates will pay to bring a 747 full of equipment to that continent.

“Those dates are going to coordinate with the start of the Jewish New Year, so they’re critical…the other stuff is being discussed. It changes all the time.” A southern American swing will reportedly bring Dylan and the Heartbreakers to two, or three, Florida cities.

A Dylan/Petty show is never the same on any two nights. Lynch says that while any one member of the Heartbreakers can be the “backbone” of a song in concert, driving it from start to finish, with Dylan “he’s the backbone, the frontbone, and the whole skeleton. All we can do is embellish. He throws in all the curves.”

Tench says it’s a unique experience. They just hold on tight and ride wherever it goes. “Bob will reel it in and it’ll be under control. It’ll go in whatever direction he feels like taking it in. That’s what you’re doing, the guy’s up there singing what he feels like singing that night, that minute, and you follow it. And this band’s been together long enough that we’re good at that.”

That attitude of Dylan’s made them remember the joy of spontaneous combustion, and its practical application to rock ‘n’ roll, and they were full of that joy when they went into the studio for Let Me Up during a lull in their tenure as his touring partners.

“Any record, whether it’s good or bad, turns out to be a document of the time when it was recorded,” Tench says, “of ‘Here’s what it was then.”

‘The wire is life’: A conversation with Phil Lesh (2006)

‘The Wire is Life’: A conversation with Phil Lesh

By Bill DeYoung

billdeyoungcom Phil LeshMore than a decade after Jerry Garcia’s death, the mythology of the Grateful Dead remains, perhaps more potent and insinuating than ever as the jam band universe — virtually created by the Dead — continues to expand, absorb and excite.

Phil Lesh, by all accounts, had a good year. His memoir, Searching For the Sound, was a runaway best–seller and actually made the leap into a second–printing paperback edition (quite the feat for a rock ‘n’ roll autobiography).

The master of the six–string bass is feeling great, feeling delightfully sober and feeling no lasting ill effects from his 1998 liver transplant, the result of a nasty tangle with the dread Hepatitis C.

He’s kicking off the Phil Lesh & Friends summer tour with a stop at Bonaroo, followed by a two–month trek across the country. This year’s band includes jazz guitar great John Scofield, former Bob Dylan Band member Larry Campbell on guitar, mandolin, pedal steel and everything else with strings, vocalist Joan Osborne, keyboard player Rob Barraco, and drummer John Molo.

We spoke with Lesh just before the tour started. It had been just a week since the tragic death of Dead keyboard man Vince Welnick, and the stench was still hanging in the air from the Dead’s first major P.R. disaster — the removal of free vintage concert downloads at

Naturally, both subjects had to be addressed, along with everything else.

Q. Do you still think about Jerry?

A. Sure. Not every day, but frequently. It’s not like he’s looking over my shoulder or anything, but he’s in a good space and he’s watching. In a sense, he’s looking in and he’s aware of what we’re doing, the rest of us down here. The sense that I get is that it doesn’t really matter that much to him, because he’s in another place now. At the same time, I get the sense that he’s pleased that we’re continuing.

Q. I’d like to ask you about Vince Welnick.

A. We worked together early on, when I started Phil Lesh & Friends, and it was a gas. We tried to put it together again, Vinnie had other commitments, and I think we just sort of both moved on. He had his band, Missing Man Formation, and I had mine. It just happened that we didn’t have a lot of contact.

But I was just tremendously heartsick and dismayed when I heard that he had passed away.

Q. Were you aware of the fingers being pointed after Vince died, that some members of the Dead never treated him as part of the “family” after he’d left the band?

A. I had a great time playing with him, every chance I got. As far as “who’s family and who isn’t,” that’s not something you can lay down — you can’t just say “OK, this person’s family” or “This person’s not family.” That’s a concept that doesn’t really have a lot of resonance with me. Because if the crew is family, why isn’t the musician family? I frankly never felt that Vince wasn’t family.

Q. You’re actually turning up at blood drives throughout the tour. Why?

A. Well, there’s never enough blood. I’ve been through it — I’ve used up a lot of blood in my illnesses. Luckily, there was plenty for me; I have the most common blood type. But there’s always a shortage, and you never know how much you’re gonna need.

So I encourage people to give blood, and I also encourage everyone to become an organ donor because it’s the simplest thing in the world. All you have to do is tell your family: Hey, if anything happens to me, I want to be an organ donor. That’s how simple it is.

Q. In your book, you very successfully described the telepathy that’s necessary for groups of musicians to improvise together. Not too many people have captured that on paper.

A. I’m glad you got it, man, because that was what I was trying to convey. First of all, kind of the experience of that, and also the nature of what it really was: A group mind.

Q. Is it easier now to do, now that you’re older, maybe not healthier, but wiser?

A. Even if you’re playing with people you have history with, and that have demonstrated that they get the deal, it depends on the context. And it depends on how everybody feels that day. It depends on a lot of variables, but what it mostly depends on is everybody’s desire to let themselves go and not have to play “their stuff,” and not have to show off. And not have to be the lead voice, so that a dialogue, or a conversation, or a colloquy or a symposium can evolve.

Q. So the idea is: We’re not going to worry about how we get there, or who gets there first. We will get there.

A. If we listen to one another, if we respond to one another’s thinking.

Q. OK, but is this still fun for you, after so many years of doing it?

A. It’s one of those things that, when it’s happening, it can’t be anything but fun. And it’s the most fun that you can have as a musician, because you’re making up polyphonic music on the spot. It’s not just one voice that’s being improvised, it’s everything. The whole musical texture, the whole thrust of it, the whole direction of it, how fast it moves, what kind of twists and turns it goes through, which directions it’s going in. Those are all things that are happening as a kind of consensus.

In a way, that’s a metaphor for a way that together, we can make the world better.

Q. I like the fact that with jam bands, there’s really no pre–set formula Obviously the Dead were out there doing it first. Isn’t it like walking the high wire?

A. Oh, yeah. Wasn’t it Karl Wallenda who said “The wire is life, and everything else is just waiting around”? It’s that risk that gives you the sense of “Wow, I’m really alive right now. It’s not like I’m going to be alive if this comes off,” or “I’m going to be alive looking back on this,” it’s “I’m really alive right now, right in the middle of all this risk.”

Q. It works with the younger guys, too, right? Guys you haven’t been playing with for 40 years?

A. Oh yeah. The thing is that a lot of these guys are really open to that. Larry Campbell is a really good example. He played with Bob Dylan’s band for so many years, and he was like a pillar of that band, playing great stuff. And yet he really wanted more. He wanted to play more. And so he left Bob’s band, and I kinda snagged him.

So now he’s just flowering. He’s playing this amazing stuff that’s almost like, I don’t know, Electro–Celt or something. He’s like some warrior out of ancient history, standing up there playing these laments and heroic tales.

Q. Do you use a set list?

A. Oh sure. We kinda have to, but how we go through it is completely open. Essentially, I just say “We’re going to do these songs in this order,” but how we find our way between them is gonna be up to us at the time.

Larry loves to do these elaborate guitar symphonies as a prelude to a song, so I like to have him do that. Then we just kick the band in at the right moment, and away we go.

Q. What about the Dead downloading controversy?

A. In all honesty, I had nothing to do with that decision. I was as shocked as anybody when everything was pulled. I thought it was a very bad idea to pull everything — eventually, of course, the audience tapes were put back up.

To me, it was kinda like closing the door after the horse had left the barn, because all of those soundboards are already out there — they’ve been out there for years — and they’re out there in digital pristine copies. It’s not like you can stop them from being distributed.

So I think the other guys in the band had some bad advice on that.

Q. There was some awkward backlash from longtime fans who said the Dead had sold out, after giving the stuff away for years.

A. I know, I know, but what can I say? Personally, I get a lot of good things from When I was writing the book, I would be writing about a particular period, and I would go on there and listen to music from the period. And it was really helpful. It put me right back into that mindspace.

Personally, I love, and I would be perfectly OK with the soundboards being up there — but I’m just one guy.

Q. Will the Phil Lesh & Friends shows be made available?

A. We’re going to do instant live CDs available at the shows, and of course by mail order after the show. And there’ll also be downloads of each show available online. We are going to put up one show out of the tour for free, but the rest will be available for purchase.

Q. Here’s a thought: What happens if you play a bad show? Not that you probably play too many bad ones any more, but would you send somebody out there to say “We’re not going to be doing a CD tonight, folks …”?

A. If it’s a bad show, if people don’t like it, they won’t buy the CD, that’s tough. It doesn’t really matter. I think the point is that’s how we are. We go out there and we take risks. And sometimes we don’t pull it off as well as we do other times.

I don’t think there’s going to be a really bad show, but some might be less spectacular than others. That’s just how it works. And some people would want those shows anyway! You never know what people are going to want.

The Man From APPLE: A few words with Peter Asher

The world remembers two Peter Ashers. One, of course, was the bespectacled, slightly nerdy-looking redheaded half of ’60s pop duo Peter and Gordon, hitmaking crooners of A World Without Love, I Go to Pieces and Lady Godiva.

(Beatle fans of course know that Peter and Gordon cut the Lennon/McCartney tunes Nobody I Know, I Don’t Want to See You Again and A World Without Love because Paul was dating Peter’s sister Jane, and actually lived in the Asher family home in the first few Beatlemaniacal years. Then, of course, there’s the song Woman, written for P&G by Paul under the nom de tune Bernard Webb.)

In the 1970s, Peter Asher was the bespectacled, slightly nerdy-looking redhead who both managed and produced James Taylor and Linda Ronstadt, two of the Me Decade’s most successful recording and concert artists.

In between these two prestige gigs, Asher was the head of Artists & Repertoire for the Fabs’ utopian record company, Apple. Asher was only at Apple for a year, but he produced two quintessential LPs: James Taylor and the Modern Jazz Quartet’s Under the Jasmin Tree.

We managed to snag Asher recently, at the tail end of an interview about Linda Ronstadt (for another magazine), and ask him about his time at the Longest Cocktail Party.

What specifically was your entry into Apple?

Paul and I were very close friends. Prior to that he’d been living in my house. So we knew each other very well, and he told me all about his plans. This was after he moved out. He was at Cavendish Avenue. But I would hang out there a lot while he was formulating his Apple plans.

He had liked some of the records I’d been producing at that time. Initially our first conversation was, would I produce some things for Apple? I said I’d love to, and then later on it grew into, would I be head of A&R for the label, and I said yes. So the job offer came from Paul.

Have you found that the things written about Apple have been accurate?

In general, people got it. I mean, there’s mistakes in all the books. They get stupid stuff wrong all the time. You realize how little people do actually check their facts. I’ve just been reading this new Barry Miles one, about the ’60s, and there’s bits in it that are really good and interesting and bits that just have mistakes in them. But that’s kind of the way they are.

It was a bit disorganized in some respects. People tend to write about what was going on in Derek Taylor’s office, for example. But at the same time, there was an awful lot of good stuff getting done. We did put out some good records.

As head of A&R, did you have input with all the artists on Apple?

We had A&R meetings once a week, at which some kind of quorum of Beatles would turn up. We talked about works in progress, and who to sign. I had some overall influence, but none for example on John’s projects – on Two Virgins, there was no input. And when George was off producing Jackie Lomax, he pretty much knew what he wanted to do. I didn’t really have anything to do with it.

But with some of them, I certainly helped. Paul with the Mary Hopkin album, I was very much hands-on. Paul was producing it, but I was certainly there and doing stuff.

And obviously James was very much my baby, and I produced it myself.

For the record, how did you get involved with James?

I’d been in a band with Danny Kortchmar – he played guitar in a backup band for Peter and Gordon. And after that, he was in a band called the Flying Machine, with James. It broke up, Danny gave James my phone number.

James came to London, played me a tape and I loved it. I told him I had just started working for this new label and I’d like to produce his record. He said OK.

Did you have to get approval from the Beatles before signing James?

As a courtesy, of course, I wasn’t going to sign him without telling anybody. I brought it to the A&R meeting. Paul loved it, John didn’t really care that much one way or the other. I said ‘Look, I’m signing this.’ I think I probably would’ve quit if they’d said no. But that wasn’t even an issue. You make me the head of A&R and I find an act I love, I’m signing it. And they all went ‘Oh yeah.’

To be honest, those meetings were always kind of woolly, so if you came in and said ‘I’m the head of A&R and I’m signing this act’ everyone would go ‘Right!’ You could get away with a lot just by being decisive.

To your thinking, were the Beatles actively involved will Apple?

I had contact with all of them. They all had different degrees of interest at different times in different things. It wasn’t consistent.

Was there a sense around Apple that the Beatles were really in trouble?

I think there was a sense that Apple might be in trouble. They closed the clothing shop, there was a lot of chaos, and the record company was existing with some difficulty. So there was a sense that things were in a muddle.

The Beatles were having big rows, but they were always having rows. They were always yelling at each other. But bands always do. I wasn’t out there at Twickenham, I was working, doing other stuff. I wasn’t at the Let it Be sessions. So I didn’t have that sense, no. You did get the sense that they didn’t get on that great, but I don’t know a band that does.

Is that you on the roof in Let it Be, holding a clipboard in front of John with the song lyrics?

No, it’s not. I wasn’t there that day.

Were you involved with Mortimer, the band that almost came out on Apple?

Yes. I can’t remember who first heard them or liked them, but we thought they were pretty good. I think it was two guys and a conga player. We were looking for songs, and Paul let them record  “Two of Us.” I can’t remember if I produced a whole album, or just some tracks for an album.

I do know that Paul, at the time, thought the Beatles weren’t going to cut “Two of Us,” and then they did. And obviously, there’s no point in trying to compete.

And I remember, before the Beatles had it out, a conversation I had with Phil Everly, telling him that they should cut it. That the Beatles would probably let them have it first, because they were such Everlys fans. And that never happened.

Could you say that it was in the air that Apple wasn’t going to last much longer?

Apple as it was originally conceived, it was very clear it wasn’t going to last. Because at the beginning everyone had believed in Magic Alex, and believed in the shop and all that stuff, and that had all been shattered. The question was what Apple would become. And I knew that whatever it would become, under the leadership of Allen Klein, I probably wouldn’t like.

Did you get the sack when Klein came in?

No, I left. I quit. I would have been fired anyway. He fired Ron Kass.

I knew a lot about Allen anyway. I knew people who’d worked with him, with the Rolling Stones, and knew him well. And I thought he was bad news.

Klein was brought in for the big business overhaul.

It did all change. Maybe it wasn’t viable as it was. It probably did need some business organization, but Klein wasn’t the right man for the job.

Did you have to negotiate James’ contract away from Klein?

I didn’t negotiate anything. I just left and took the tapes with me. The rumor is that they were gonna sue, and that Allen wanted to sue. One story is that George talked him out of it, but I don’t know any of that for a fact. But I also know that no one could find any of the contracts, anyway.

Allen Klein certainly said he was suing us. He did a Playboy interview and said that he had sued James and me each for $50 million. When in fact nothing had happened.

I went to Warners and made a deal, but I had to make them indemnify us against any possible lawsuits. Which record companies wouldn’t do now, but they did then.

In the early days, how did Peter and Gordon wind up with those Lennon/McCartney songs? Did Paul play them for you, or give you a demo?

The first one, World Without Love, he played it to us before we had a record deal. He’d just been playing us some songs, and I liked that one. I think he’d written it for Billy J. Kramer, and he didn’t do it, and the Beatles didn’t want to do it. It didn’t have a bridge – it was just two verses. After we got a record deal, we asked him for that song, and he wrote a bridge and gave it to us.

He and I shared the top floor; we had adjoining bedrooms. He would play me a song on the guitar one day, and say ‘What do you think of this?’

Did you feel like you were in a lucky position, with first shot at those songs?

It wasn’t like that. They didn’t write that much for other people. It was after the success of the first one, which had come around by accident – a song he’d written which basically had no home – we’d established a successful relationship, and then he wrote a couple more songs for us.

So of course we felt fortunate. But it wasn’t as if we got first shot at something that was otherwise gonna go out to the song-pluggers or something, because it wasn’t.

Do you still have some of his demos sitting around?

I think somewhere I’ve got a tape of “World Without Love” without the bridge, and “Ill Follow the Sun” or some other song as well.

At what stage did Paul’s song “Woman” get credited to a pseudonym?

I think it was later on, after we liked the song and decided we’d love to do it. Because everyone was starting to say oh, anything they do is automatically a hit because of their names. So he said ‘Would you mind if we said that someone else had written it?’ We said of course not. So then we invented this story that it was a friend of his from school or something, Bernard Webb. Who’d written it – and because Paul had found the song, that’s why it was published by Northern Songs.

Last question: Do you still see Paul?

We’re not as close as we were, but when we see each other, it’s all very friendly.

Who you gonna call? Ray Parker Jr.

No one has ever combined funk and pop with the cool finesse of Ray Parker Jr. A multi-talented writer, singer, guitarist and record producer, Parker shone a particularly spirited creative light on the late ’70s and early ’80s with a handful of unforgettable hits: “Jack and Jill,” “You Can’t Change That,” “A Woman Needs Love,” “The Other Woman” and “Ghostbusters.”

The Detroit native’s forte was catchy songs delivered with good-natured humor, impeccable radio-friendly production and plenty of wink-winking sexual double entendre.

“People have enough problems,” Parker said. “They’re coming to be entertained and have fun. That’s always just been my theory on music, anyway. Somebody’s got to make those songs about politicians and all that stuff; I just don’t feel that.”

He began taking clarinet and saxophone lessons as a young child, and by age 11 was considered one of Detroit’s brightest child prodigies. Ray Parker Sr., who worked at a Ford steel mill for 47 years, recognized his son’s potential and allowed him to play guitar with the likes of Marvin Gaye and the Temptations in city nightclubs. Dad went to every show to keep an eye on things.

At 12, Parker toured with the Spinners, and he was still a teenager when he started doing sessions at Motown – he was in the second-unit band, playing when the famous Funk Brothers were otherwise engaged.

Stevie Wonder, then living in California, invited the young guitarist west to join his band, Wonderlove.”I had an 8-track in my car,” Parker said. “I was 17 years old, going to college, and the only piece of music I had for the whole car was Music of My Mind. I didn’t need anything else. I had a great sound system, and with that album in the car, I was happy.”

With Wonder, Parker opened stadium shows for the Rolling Stones. “I thought that they were opening for Stevie Wonder,” he said. “I was really shocked to see that they were the headliners.

“In my world, in Detroit, the closed world of the ghetto, Stevie Wonder was a superstar. He had all the hit records.'”

Parker worked on Wonder’s Talking Book and Innervisions. He was also making demos of his own songs, which Wonder encouraged. “And I thought gosh, if Stevie Wonder thinks it’s good enough for him to waste his time on, there must be something happening here.” Parker co-wrote “You Got the Love,” the 1974 hit for Rufus and Chaka Khan.

He also found plenty of work as a session guitarist, primarily with Invictus Records, the label started by Holland-Dozier-Holland after they’d left Motown.

Freda Payne’s “Band of Gold”? Parker on guitar. “Want Ads” by the Honeycombs? Parker again.

Next he met his mentor, Barry White, who saw the young songwriter’s potential.

White and Parker co-wrote several hits, including the No. 1 “You See the Trouble With Me,” and that’s Parker’s wah-wah on “Can’t Get Enough of Your Love,” “Love’s Theme” and several other Love Unlimited Orchestra classics.

“He was a real kind person,” Parker recalled. “And very, very super-talented. We’d go into the studio and he’d know exactly what he wanted, right away. I can’t say enough nice stuff about him. He was just a big, big deal in my career.”

Arista Records president Clive Davis signed Parker. The 1977 Raydio album, written and produced entirely by Parker, featured him on nearly all the instruments.” ray-parker-ghost-busters (2)At the time, anyone who was a famous musician that made a record, it was considered a jazz record,” Parker said. “No matter who you were, didn’t matter what it sounded like. It was only a jazz record because you were a musician.

“Musicians didn’t have hit records; they just didn’t allow it. Especially black. If you were black and you were a musician, the first thing they’d do is draw a picture of a guitar and you holding it, and there’s your album cover. And then you go to the jazz stations.

“When they designed my first album cover, that’s just what they did. So I went to Clive and said ‘For some reason, the company has an image of me as a jazz guitar player, and I’m trying to cut Top 40 records.'”

Presto! Raydio became the name of a band, with Parker out front in the cover photos. “Jack and Jill” hit the Top 10 single early in 1978. Although Parker’s silky tenor is featured on the chorus, the leads were sung by a friend of his, Arnell Carmichael.

“I couldn’t sing,” Parker said. “In the early days, I couldn’t even hold a pitch. The problem with being a good musician is you know what pitch is. I know what out of tune is. I don’t need anybody to tell me ‘I was just bad and out of tune.'”

Carmichael shared the lead with Parker on 1979’s “You Can’t Change That,” but by “A Woman Needs Love (Just Like You Do)” two years later, Parker was handling all the vocals. “I wasn’t so sure about that,” he said, “but all my friends said ‘It sounds all right now, you’re not an idiot no more. You might be able to pull this one off.'”

There was no Raydio. Carmichael and the other guys pictured on the jackets were put on retainer, for personal appearances. Eventually the act was called billed as Ray Parker Jr. & Raydio.

By the time of 1982’s The Other Woman, the credits read simply Ray Parker Jr. “That happened automatically,” said Parker. “The band got a little crazy, and everybody thought they were the stars. Everybody wanted more money.”

A pulsating mix of rock guitars and soulful vocals, “The Other Woman” was a huge single, reaching No. 4 in April. The ballad “Let Me Go” was a minor hit, but Parker didn’t score big again until ’84.

He was approached by Columbia Pictures’ music division to write a song for their upcoming comedy Ghostbusters.

“It was a 50 grand deal, to write a song in two days whether they like it or not,” Parker recalled. “A key point – whether they like it or not, I get my money. I loved that deal.

“So therefore, you gotta come up with something. The only problem was, the something became a little harder than I thought it was gonna be. Because what the heck do you write to the words ‘Ghost Busters’? They want the word in the song.”

He watched roughs of the film-in-progress. “I remember they had the Ghostbusters packs on, and they looked real similar to a Roto-Rooter thing I saw. They had backpacks on when they come and clean your drain. I said ‘That’s it – it should be a commercial, and I should never sing it. I should never say the words ‘Ghost Busters’ myself, I should let the background scream it.’

“And that’s exactly what I did. That was the best, smartest thing I’d ever done in my life. That one decision.”

“Ghostbusters” spent three weeks on top of the Billboard chart in June and became the biggest record – by far – of Parker’s career.

Parker was subsequently sued by Huey Lewis, who claimed that “Ghostbusters” was a virtual rip-off of his “I Want a New Drug.” Parker, who says he counted 12 songs that use “the same bassline” (including Stevie Wonder’s “You Haven’t Done Nothing” and M’s “Pop Musik”) settled out of court.

Still prevented by gag order from saying too much about the case, Parker nevertheless brushes it off. “What I can tell you is that I’ve written a lot of songs in my life, and every time it’s really, really successful there’s a lot of lawsuits. So far, in my lifetime, nobody’s collected a dime and it all still belongs to me. You look at the credits and it still says Ray Parker Jr.

“I remember Lionel Richie told me a long time ago, ‘You’re not successful until somebody’s suing you.'”

A label switch, first to Geffen and then to MCA, didn’t produce any more major pop hits (although Parker did write New Edition’s smash “Mr. Telephone Man”). Parker returned to Detroit in the late ’80s to care for his ailing parents, who, sadly, died with in a year of one another.

Today, he’s working on his first album in 13 years, writing songs for kids’ cartoon shows, and hitting the road (he’s been playing guitar with his old friends the Crusaders).

Parker has no regrets about bowing out for a while. “I had an unbelievably lucrative career, I made entirely too much money, I was never going to live long enough to spend it anyway,” he said. “And I didn’t want to be one of these guys trying to figure out how am I gonna get my parents back.”

Taking the 5th: Jimmy Webb

One of the most respected songwriters of the modern era, Jimmy Webb was just 18 years old when he struck up a friendship with Marc Gordon, of Motown Records’ Los Angeles office, in 1966.

Webb had been hired as a contract writer for Jobete, the label’s publishing company, where he provided made-to-order songs for the likes of Brenda Holloway. He left after a short while to pursue his own dreams, and pop singer Johnny Rivers, a budding mogul, snapped him up. When Gordon and the singing group he managed, then called The Versatiles, came to record for Rivers’ Soul City label, they were put together, serendipitously, with Webb.

The young songwriter already knew The Versatiles. “The first two I’d met were Lamonte McLemore, who was a photographer at Motown,” Webb said, “and Marilyn McCoo, who was being photographed by him for some reason. I remember them talking about their group; they were very nice kids.”
Before too long, you became integral to The 5th Dimension.

Jimmy Webb: Rivers went over to this San Remo Song Festival and was gonna be away for a month or so. He left me in charge of this group, running their rehearsals, playing the piano for them, doing a little vocal arranging for them. Somewhere along the way there, the name The Versatiles just sort of disappeared. It wasn’t anything dramatic – they weren’t The Versatiles any more, they were The 5th Dimension. And they had this kind of oddball way of dressing – like the Mamas & The Papas or The Rolling Stones. They dressed very individually. There was no sense of “band uniform” like most of the Motown acts had. Most black groups did dress all the same, or similarly. Here was this black group that had thrown all that away and were dressing very individually. They had a kind of a new look – something, frankly, I wish they would’ve stayed with.

And here was this beautiful sound of a blend of girls’ and boys’ voices. We had five people, so sometime we could do five-part harmony. We could do very rich, close harmony, from a more traditional era.

“I was struggling. I had holes clean through my tennis shoes. Sometimes I’d cross my legs on the piano bench, and Billy Davis would see these holes in my tennis shoes. He would tease me mercelessly about them and stick his finger through the holes and tickle the bottoms of my feet.

We were all just a bunch of kids, having fun. And when Johnny Rivers got back, I had kind of taught the group this song ‘Up, Up And Away’. I was a little nervous about that ’cause he could be very volatile. It could have been a scene, but he liked the song. He said it was not only a great song, it was a great album title.

‘Up, Up And Away’ was very much like a show tune.

Jimmy Webb: That’s how it sounded to me. I expected nothing from it, and it took off like a rocket.

You and Rivers had a falling out not long after. So how did you end up writing and arranging the entire second album?

Jimmy Webb: I don’t want to paint a portrait here of total anarchy, but he was having problems with this group. That had nothing to do with me. I had my own agenda with him.

Bones Howe brought me in to do arrangements. He wanted Magic Garden to be “The Jimmy Webb Album.” I did the first orchestral arranging I’d ever done in my life – I’d been watching people like Marty Paich and paying very close attention. It was fantastic for me. It was really a step up. It was really another level of education. And we didn’t see much of Johnny Rivers while we were making that album.

Those are thematic songs, ‘Carpet Man’ and ‘The Worst That Could Happen’, about a love gone bad.

Jimmy Webb: Yeah, sort of. A lot of the music I was writing in those days I was writing for Susie Horton. To some degree, it was a conceptual thing. It was a take onPet Sounds or a take on Sgt. Pepper. It was that kind of a market that we were in. People were making those kinds of records.

And they were interesting records, because they harkened back to proper song cycles, so that the album had more of a through line. It had somehow more integrity as an album, which I liked and which I kind of miss. I think that was a very valid art form, the album as something more than a record.

Florence said you wrote ‘The Girls Song’ especially for them.

Jimmy Webb: Yes, definitely. We needed a song for the girls. It’s Jimmy Webb ripping off Burt Bacharach.

And Billy has a lot of solos on that album.

Jimmy Webb: In my world, Billy was the lead singer in the group. Now, the group didn’t like that very much. Everybody in the group wanted their share of the spotlight. From my point of view it was like, “That’s OK, that’s fine, if we’re so successful that we can afford for everybody to do what they want to do, fine.” But Billy’s the guy, in my view as a producer, he was the guy who could deliver a big hit record. And I was kind of outspoken on that subject.

Let me ask your opinion on them individually as singers.

Jimmy Webb: I thought they were very easy to work with, particularly in the beginning when they would just sort of stand there and let me spoon-feed the parts to them. When they got along into their career and they began playing Vegas and stuff, everybody’s ego blossomed, which is not necessarily a bad thing, and now Ron wanted to do his sort of operatic thing…. Lamonte was always a bit more self-effacing. Florence definitely wanted to be a lead singer. Marilyn wanted to be a lead singer. Billy was kind of easygoing, because he was so supremely confident in his talent. He knew he was a lead singer.

But I would say that little problems began to surface, little resentments. Sometimes there would be tears in the recording session. Perhaps Florence might not feel she was being given her proper due and that she should have her own song on the album. Perhaps she would go to Marc [Gordon, her husband and the group’s manager] and say, “I think I should have my own song on this album.” I would hear about that.

Florence did your song, ‘This Is Your Life’ in 1970. Did you write it for her?

Jimmy Webb: I don’t remember – I think it came off the Thelma Houston album. I believe I did it with Thelma Houston first. I’m not 100 percent sure, to tell you the truth, it’s been a little while. It was a good song for her (Florence).

Several years went by, and you produced the original quintet’s final album, Earthbound. How did that come about?

Jimmy Webb: It was supposed to be a kind of reunion record for us, even though not that much time had really passed.

I really feel like I sort of lost control of that record. I don’t know exactly how I did. I thought I had a pretty good concept going in, and somehow or other the songs just didn’t seem to come together right. There’s certain parts of it that sound OK, that sound really pretty.

It seems like an attempt at a more R&B sound.

Jimmy Webb: That’s because Billy really wanted to go that way. Billy really wanted to go the R&B direction. I was still thinking Magic Garden. That’s where my head was at.

To put it delicately, there was a lot of in-fighting going on in the group while that album was being made. I remember Ron was bringing his gun to the studio – he used to carry a gun because he had a badge, and he was a security guard (laughing)…. So he’d actually come into the studio wearing a gun, with this real kind of down expression on his face. And I’d go, “Whoa, what’s with Ron tonight? Fasten your seatbelts, this is gonna be a bumpy ride.” He was showin’ attitude, you know what I’m saying?

I think Billy and Marilyn, rightfully, laid claim to being the lead singers in the group.

Jimmy Webb: I wasn’t as clear-headed as I could’ve been. I was kind of into some substance experimentation. I have a lot of regrets about that record. I would love to go back and remake it and make a simpler, more clear-headed record where everybody was trying to at least go in generally the same direction. Because in that case, everybody was just at all points of the compass, pulling for all they were worth.