As in Ray Liotta’s opening line in the movie, Goodfellas, Ever since I can remember, I wanted to be a gangster. Well, ever since I can remember, I wanted to be a musician.
My first introduction to music was my Dad playing his trumpet and then when I saw people so happy at his gigs, I knew I wanted to do that. Not only seeing the people in the audience dancing and smiling but the band was having a great time too.
One of my biggest influences besides my Dad was my teacher, Jerome Stowell, the clarinetist in the Chicago Symphony. I started taking clarinet lessons in my sophomore year in high school. Thought that was where my life would lead – but in between I was playing sax in rock bands on the weekends. Early on, I saw that saxophone players got girls, so I took up the sax.
Never did I think my dream of being a musician would lead me to starting a legendary rock band and enjoy a phenomenal career.
The city of Chicago in the late sixties was a plethora of great bands, all of them talented and making a living. I was fortunate to find some of the best musicians and formed the band. Terry, Robert, Jimmy, Lee, Danny, Peter and myself... we all clicked and starting making music.
We played top 40 tunes, wore flashy suits, told jokes, had short styled hair and did dance steps. We couldn’t get any gigs in Chicago so we had to work out of town. Rockford, Illinois. Madison, Wisconsin, Sioux Falls, South Dakota. The only thing that was good was the music. When we started to do our original tunes, we got fired a lot.
We all decided to get rid of the suits and ditched the dance steps... I remember Terry actually tore his suit off one night on stage and I think we helped him. He really hated that suit. That was the beginning of our funky clothes and growing our hair long.
We ended up getting a gig at Barnaby’s on State in Chicago. On Sunday they would serve fried chicken and the people would throw the bones at us up on the balcony stage. It wasn’t the coolest thing but we tolerated it because we were playing our original music and it was great. While it was good we had work, it was obvious the only way to keep the band together and get a record deal was to move to Southern California where is was all happening. So that is what we did.
California was a great place to be in the late sixties. There was music everywhere and groups with lots of original songs. We were in the right place but still it took awhile to get work so we had our share of struggles... still they were great times. We would rehearse every day and work on what came to be the first album. When we started getting small gigs they paid us about $15 a night but we ate for free. We thought it was a great deal.
Our first road trip was a little tour on the west coast all the way to Seattle in my 65 Plymouth and a van with all our equipment. Six guys in the band rode in my Plymouth and one member rode in the van. When our road manager, Jack Goudie, wasn’t driving the van, he was laying on top of the equipment in the back of the van because there wasn’t any room elsewhere. It was hilarious! We played the Fillmore West and that’s where we met Janis Joplin, another great performer and icon of the San Francisco music scene. Later on, we also toured with her, and it was a terrific break.
Finally got work at the Whisky A Go Go in L.A. to play on the off nights. It was a really big deal working at such a landmark club. We really felt like we made it.
One night I was packing up my sax after a show and someone tapped me on the shoulder. I turned around and I was face to face with Jimi Hendrix. I thought at any moment, he could raise his hand and make me disappear. We were playing some of his stuff and to all of us, he was a God. He heard our last set and was very impressed with our music. He told me the horns were like one set of lungs and your guitar player is better than me and I would like to take you guys on my next tour and then do an album with the horns. Obviously, I was speechless and I was trying to hold my composure because I was really freaking out. I wrote down our manager’s number and handed it to him saying if you don’t call, I’ll know you were bullshitting me. As the story goes, he did call and we opened for him playing for 20,000 people a night. This was probably one of the greatest breaks we got in our career and a far cry from playing in bars and being a house band. He taught us a lot about performing and the experience was invaluable. We went to school on his performance every night and it was another great break.
Going on the road with Jimi and Janis gave us such exposure and we developed a fan base without even having a record contract yet. Once we did release a record, it was a double album because we had so many original songs by that time. It was a big hit and the start of a 50 year career.
In 1970, we got our first grammy nomination as Best New Artist of the year. The ceremony was held at the Century Plaza Hotel in Los Angeles. My wife and I put on our finest and drove to the awards in our car, which if you remember, was the band car, my 65 Plymouth with a door of another color on the driver’s side. We pulled up to the awards in the limousine line with all the celebrities. Here we were in our beat up Plymouth right behind Andy Williams in a Mercedes 600 Stretch. We were so elated to be nominated we hadn’t given a thought as to how it would look. As we stepped out of the car and the valet took the keys, we saw our manager who shook his head and said, You guys have to buy a new car. We can’t have this. I guess I was afraid the success wouldn’t last but as it turned out, it was only the beginning. P.S. We lost the Grammy that night to another best new artist, Crosby Stills and Nash. Oh well.
Other than this band, one of the most gratifying things I have done is mentor young musicians. To see their eagerness and talent inspires me to impart as much wisdom as I can and give them as much of my experience as possible. I also am still connected to my alma mater, Depaul University and serve as their Honorary Chairman of the Performing Arts Campaign of the Music School.
But, there is one project still left to do and that is writing a book with my wife of 50 years. Giving our perspective on living a life of rock and roll with all the ups and downs, sadness and happiness. Even if it is never published, it will be for our daughters and for posterity.