Sunday, December 7, 2014

Sarah Dash Feels Her Blessings

All Photos:  Alan Mercer            Lighting:  Eric V.

A founding member of the popular 1960’s female soul group Patti LaBelle & the Blue Belles, Sarah Dash continued to pursue a variety of outlets for her creative talents. In addition to recording four impressive solo albums, Sarah has sung on albums by the Marshall Tucker Band, Laura Nyro, and the Rolling Stones. In addition to recording with Keith Richards' X-Pensive Winos, she twice toured the United States with the all-star band.

The seventh of 13 children, Sarah was born in Trenton, NJ. Her father was Church of Christ father of the state of New Jersey and a bishop, while her mother was a nurse. Although she initially sang gospel music, Sarah turned to secular music as a pre-teen, when she formed a vocal duo, the Del Capris, with schoolmate Nona Hendryx. The two women were soon joined by Cindy Birdsong and Patricia "Patti LaBelle" Holte. Originally named the Blue Bells, the quartet changed their name to Patti LaBelle & the Blue Belles after discovering that the name the Blue Bells was already taken by another group.

Patti LaBelle & the Blue Belles were a success from the onset. Their debut single, "I Sold My Heart to the Junkman," was a hit, and the group was chosen to open shows during the Rolling Stones' first American tour. Although many believed that they were in danger of breaking up after Birdsong left to join the 'Supremes,' the three remaining members moved to England for a year and dramatically changed their image and musical approach. Returning to the United States as LaBelle, the three vocalists began performing in space-age costumes and featuring cutting-edge, sexually oriented, and politically charged tunes. Sarah's four-and-a-half-octave voice and her pension for silver bras, space-age skirts, and flowing feathers continued to draw attention. The revised edition of the group even surpassed the success of the original, with the Number One Pop hit single ‘Lady Marmalade.’  

Signed as a soloist by the Kirschner record label, Sarah Dash released her self-titled debut solo album, which featured the hit disco single, ‘Sinner Man,’ in 1978. Although she continued to record as a soloist, Sarah increasingly worked as a session vocalist. She appeared on the Marshall Tucker Band's 1981 album, ‘Tuckerized,’ and began a long involvement with Keith Richards when she appeared on his 1988 album, ‘Talk Is Cheap,’ singing two duets, ‘Make No Mistake’ and ‘Rock Awhile.’ She continued to work with Richards and his band, the X-Pensive Winos, singing on Richards' 1991 album ‘Live at the Hollywood Palladium’ and his 1992 album ‘Main Offender,’ for which she co-wrote the single ‘Body Works.’ Sarah also appeared on the Rolling Stones' Steel Wheels.’

In 1983, Sarah released two dance singles for Megatone Records in San Francisco, both produced by Patrick Cowley. The first was ‘Low Down Dirty Rhythm’ and the second single ‘Lucky Tonight’ featuring background vocals by Sylvester, was very successful, even rising to the #5 spot on Billboard's Dance Chart, and was even a Billboard "Pick of the Week." Sarah was excited about her career again and went on an extensive tour of major U.S. dance clubs.  In 2008, the long-awaited new album from Labelle, ‘Back to Now,’ was released to rave reviews.  Sarah sings Lead vocals in the group's political song, 'System.'

Sarah released a ballad called ‘I'm Still Here’ in late 2011, and a dance music single ‘Hold On (He'll Be Right There),’ in May 2012. Sarah was honored by her hometown of Trenton, New Jersey, by being the grand marshal in the annual Thanksgiving Day Parade.  Much of Sarah Dash's focus since the early '90's has been on helping to raise money for homeless single women with children in New York.

AM:  Do you ever get tired of being interviewed Sarah?

SD:  No, I can talk forever.  I’ve done three hour interviews.

AM:  You have such a great story being part of an iconic, legendary musical group.

SD:  If we ever stop to think about how blessed we are…to have three career changes and people still know who you are.  We were Patti Labelle and the Blue Belles, where we recorded classic songs like ‘Danny Boy’’ and ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone.’  Then we moved on to LaBelle and had that monstrous hit. 

AM:  That cemented you.

SD:  ‘Lady Marmalade’ did cement us.  That one song took care of us for many years.  Then we all have enjoyed solo careers over the years.  Patti has had the most success because she was the most prepared after the break up.  Nona and myself still got to record many songs.  I had the international hit ‘Sinner Man’ and had international fame before either Patti or Nona.   Patti was big in the States.  Of course touring with Keith Richards and the X-Pensive Winos and singing on the Rolling Stones ‘Steel Wheels’ gig didn’t hurt at all.  I’m not trying to brag.  These are my stats.

AM:  They are your accomplishments.  I bet you’ve been around the world a time or two.

SD:  Oh yes I’ve been to Japan, Australia, Spain, South America, the whole world.  I couldn’t have asked for a better place to be.  Then being able to record jingles was great.  Revlon fed me for a long time.  I just feel the blessings of this life tremendously.

AM:  You’re one of the few lucky ones and deservedly so.

SD:  It’s called being blessed.  Luck runs out. (laughter)

AM:  Sarah your albums are timeless.  I love to listen to your music.

SD:  Thank you, I think my first solo project solidified that.  ‘Sinner Man’ is still played in clubs.  (Album producer) Don Kirschner knew what he was doing.

AM:  The ‘Close Enough’ album is really good too!

SD:  That is my brother’s favorite of my albums too. 

AM:  I’m also loving your newer song ‘I’m Still Here.’

SD:  Thank you, I wrote that one.  I open my show with that song now.

AM:  Is your show a collection of your songs?

SD:  The ‘Sarah Dash: One Woman’ show is not all the songs I’ve recorded.   It’s more a piece about life and my musical journey on a personal level.  I also do my special arrangement of ‘I Only Have Eyes For You.’ I talk about going to Paris.  I went straight to Louis Vitton and bought a hunting bag!  (Laughing)  I thought it was a make-up bag and had room for hairspray but that was where the gun was supposed to go!  My agent told me I couldn’t keep it and I had to take it back.

AM:  You are enjoying social media aren’t you?  You are really good about posting on Facebook.

SD:  I’m good with all media.  Way back in the day before you could fax, you could send a telex.  My father got all his kids one so we could all keep in touch.  After that I was one of the first people into computers. 

AM:  Are you from a large family?

SD:  Thirteen children.  I’m number seven.  I’m the middle child.

AM:  Did you get forgotten?

SD:  No, my presence was very much known. (laughing)  There were a lot of different personalities in the family, much like the world, but we all support each other.  We are happy to be around each other but we know who we are.  There are no surprises as to what is going on.  We’re very respectful of each other.  We can fight amongst ourselves but you can’t come in and fight with us. 

AM:  Was that your parents who instilled this in all of you?

SD:  Of course, it all comes from parenting.  I would say my mother and father did a very good job raising us.  My father was a pastor and my mother was a nurse.  After she had her thirteenth child she decided she wanted to be a nurse.

AM:  You come from a family of over-achievers.

SD:  Yes, we are lawyers, doctors….

AM:  World class stars! (Laughing)

SD:  We’re like any other family.  We’re just aware of who we are and we are respectful.  You tend to move the way your family moves.  Some will go against the grain and all you can do is pray for them. 

AM:  You certainly can’t change a family member!

SD:  You cannot try to change someone in your family as they are not going to be changeable until they’ve made up their mind to be changed.  The prayer is to know the difference.  I thank God.  Some people are offended by that word, but we all have a higher power that we go to and we can name it and call it what we want.  That has been my sustaining power through the years.

AM:  I knew you had strong faith.  It’s never left you has it?

SD:  I always say, “I thank God for sustaining provision.”  All you have to do is sit still and believe it to see it.  Sometimes it’s not the proportion you want but you’re never without.  At the times you are without you have to have faith it will only be for a short time and not all time. 

To learn more about Sarah Dash visit her web site

Monday, November 10, 2014

Mel Tillis Makes People Happy

All Photos:  Alan Mercer   Lighting: Eric V.

Country music legend, Mel Tillis, started performing in the early ‘50’s with a group called The Westerners while serving as a baker in the United States Air Force, stationed in Okinawa. In 1956, Webb Pierce recorded a song written by Mel entitled “I’m Tired”, and it launched Mel’s musical career.

Mel’s stutter developed during his childhood, a result of a bout with malaria.  As a child, Mel learned the drums as well as guitar and at age 16, won a local talent show. He attended the University of Florida but dropped out and joined the Air Force.  While stationed in Okinawa, he formed a band called The Westerners, which played at local nightclubs.

After leaving the military in 1955, Mel returned to Florida where he worked a number of odd jobs, eventually finding employment with the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad in Tampa, Florida. He used his railroad pass to visit Nashville and eventually met and auditioned for Wesley Rose of famed Nashville publishing house Acuff-Rose Music.  Rose encouraged Tillis to return to Florida and continue honing his songwriting skills. Mel eventually moved to Nashville, Tennessee, and began writing songs full-time. Tillis wrote "I'm Tired," a No. 3 country hit for Webb Pierce in 1957. Other Tillis hits include "Honky Tonk Song" and "Tupelo County Jail." Ray Price and Brenda Lee also charted hits with Tillis's material around this time. In the late 1950s, after becoming a hit-making songwriter, he signed his own contract with Columbia Records. In 1958, he had his first Top 40 hit, "The Violet and a Rose," followed by the Top 25 hit "Sawmill."

In 1976, Mel Tillis was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters International Hall of Fame, and that same year, he was named Country Music Association’s (CMA) Entertainer of the Year.  Also, for six years in the 70’s, Mel Tillis won Comedian of the Year.

On September 21, 1999, Broadcast Music, Inc. (BMI) named Mel Tillis the Songwriter of the Decade for two decades.  Mel was the recipient of the Golden Voice Entertainer Award for 2001. He also won the 2001 Golden R.O.P.E. Songwriter Award.  The Grand Ole Opry inducted Mel Tillis as its newest member on June 9, 2007. In October of 2007, Mel Tillis became a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame.

Mel Tillis' home state of Florida honored him on March 25, 2009, inducting him into the Florida Artist Hall of Fame.  In 2012 Mel received the National Medal of Arts from the President of the U.S.

Mel has written well over 1,000 songs, and approximately 600 have been recorded by major artists.  In June 2001, Mel received a Special Citation of Achievement from BMI for 3 Million broadcast performances of “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love To Town”. Songs which have reached this coveted status are in a very select group of world-wide favorites.

Mel has recorded more than 60 albums. He has had thirty-six Top Ten singles, with nine of them going to Number One - “Good Woman Blues,” “Coca Cola Cowboy,” and “Southern Rain” to mention a few.

Mel Tillis has been in the music/entertainment business now for 50 plus years. He and his band, the Statesiders, have worked concerts all over the 50 states, Canada, England, and other countries.  He has appeared on such television shows as 20/20, The Tonight Show, The 700 Club, Prime Time Country, 60 Minutes, Crook & Chase, David Letterman, and he has served as host for Music City News Awards and Music City Tonight.

Mel has appeared in numerous feature films including “Every Which Way But Loose” with Clint Eastwood, “W.W. & The Dixie Dancekings,” “Cannonball Run I and II,” “Smokey and the Bandit II with Burt Reynolds, and the lead role with Roy Clark in “Uphill All The Way.”  He has starred in several television movies as well including “Murder in Music City” and “A Country Christmas Carol.”

Mel Tillis has six children: songwriter Mel "Sonny" Tillis, Jr., singer-songwriter Pam Tillis, Carrie April Tillis, Connie Tillis, Cindy Tillis, and Hannah Tillis. Mel has one brother, Richard, and two sisters, Linda and Imogene. He also has six grandchildren.

AM:  Mel, my friend Larry Ferguson set us up.  He was Dottie Rambo’s manager.  I know you recorded a song with Dottie.  Did you ever hear it?

MT:  I sure did.  It wasn’t in my key but it came off alright.  I couldn’t believe we recorded that song and then she was killed in the bus accident.  What a tragedy.

AM:  Very sad indeed.  I hadn’t heard that song until recently myself but I sure do know all your other music!

MT: I’ve been around for a while.  I’m in the 58th year of my career. 

AM:  You’ve been a superstar all my life.  It must just be the most natural thing for you now.

MT:  Yeah, it’s pretty natural now but in the beginning it was pretty scary.

AM:  What made it so scary?

MT:  I was in unknown waters and I didn’t know what was going to happen.  Music and humor have been a part of my life, all my life!  It seems like everything I did led to music, humor and singing.  Back then I stuttered so bad and I still do a little bit.

AM:  Did you understand that you were different from others when you spoke?

MT:  My daddy stuttered a bit and my brother did too and I stuttered a lot.  I thought that was just the way we talked.  I didn’t know the difference.

AM:  When did you realize you stuttered?

MT:  When I started in elementary school in Florida, I came home the first day and asked my mama if I stuttered.  She said, “Yes, you do son.”  Then I said, “Mama they laughed at me.”  She told me if they were going to laugh at me then give them something to laugh about.  When I went back to school the next day, I consider that my first day in show business.  I learned how to make them laugh and they’ve been laughing ever since.   It’s not on a count of that stutter.  I don’t play off that.  If it’s there, it’s there.

AM:  It certainly never held you back.

MT:  I went to Hollywood and did all those variety shows.  I did them all.  They would write the stutter in the cue cards.  I told them not to do that because I may not stutter on that word.   It will happen where it’s supposed to.

AM:  You are a more natural person.

MT:  Yes I am.  All I know how to do is be me.  What you see is what you get. 

AM:  Did you enjoy making the movies you did?

MT:  Oh yeah, I’m not an actor but when I was a kid we did a lot of play acting. I was Gene Autry.  I always enjoyed playing pretend.

AM:  When did you know you could sing?

MT:  About the time I found out I couldn’t talk. (Laughter) I’ve been singing all my life starting in Sunday school class.  My first grade teacher Miss Clark found out I could sing and took me around to all the other classes and had me sing for them. 

AM:  When did you start writing songs?

MT:  I wrote a couple of songs while I was in Okinawa when I was in the Air Force.

AM:  How did you end up in the Air Force?

MT:  I finished high school and attended the University of Florida for a while.  Then I felt like I was going to get drafted, so I went home where my dad had a little bakery.  My dad told me, “Son, if you’re not going back to school then you’re going to have to work in the bakery shop.”  I told him, “Daddy, I don’t want to be a baker.”  He said he would pay me $20.00 a week and $10.00 of it will be room and board.  Then I told him up until about ten minutes ago room and board was free.  He told me it wouldn’t ever be free no more.  Then he told me to walk across the street and get the mail.  So I did that and there was an Air Force recruiter there with his table set up on the sidewalk.  He had his uniform on and it was sharp.  The Uncle Sam poster was there pointing at me, saying “We want you.”   I thought how nice it felt to be wanted.   So I delivered the mail and told Momma and Daddy I joined up.  The crying started then.  They took me to the train station in West Palm Beach on Christmas day.

AM:  What did you do in the Air Force?

MT:  After I got into the Air Force they gave me an aptitude test.  I waited anxiously to see what I was suited for.  The test let us know whether I should be a mechanic, a clerk or go to officer’s school or what.  I was the second to last guy to get my orders and when they came in I was told to go to the Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio to the 4th Army Baking School.  (much laughter)

AM:  That is too funny!

MT:  Every time I tell that story my Daddy is laughing in his grave.  It was really a blessing.  I had a little radio in the baking area of the kitchen that I’d listen to and they had a band that played every Saturday called the Westerners.   One day the band announced that the singer had done his time and was going home so they would need a new singer.   I couldn’t say one word in those days.  My friends told them even though I couldn’t talk I could sing.  Finally I started singing and the crowd hit the dance floor.  The band asked me to sing another one, so I sang a Hank Williams song and then a Webb Pierce song.  I ended up singing the whole time.  So they hired me and I became one of the Westerners.  Not one of us was from the west! (laughter)  I played with that band for two years.

AM:  Were you finished with the Air Force then?

MT:  After I got out of the Air Force I went back to Florida and my cousin helped me get a job with the railroad as a fireman.  It was a real easy job.  All I did was keep the engineer alert with my singing voice.  So I had a railroad pass and I had a lot of time off.  I’d use that pass to ride right into downtown Nashville.

AM:  Were you trying to get discovered?

MT:  There were only about six or seven publishing companies at the time.   I was told to focus on writing songs since I couldn’t talk yet.  I went back to Florida and wrote about five songs and returned to Nashville with them.  Webb Pierce recorded my first song called, “I’m Tired’ and it went to number two.

AM:  That happened pretty fast.

MT:  Now my name was all over Nashville as the boy who couldn’t talk but could write songs and sing.  Then Columbia Records invited me to come by and bring my guitar.  I got there and Lefty Frizzell was there along with Little Jimmy Dickins, Johnny Horton and about 5 more Columbia artists.

AM:  That must have been exciting and nerve wracking.

MT:  I started singing my songs and they all wanted them.   Before I left the room that day I was signed to a five year deal with Columbia Records.  I also got signed to the publishing company.  I left the railroad at that time.

AM:  You were ready to be a full time writer by this time.

MT:  I wrote Charley Pride’s first two singles.  There was also a booking agency and they booked a bunch of people including Minnie Pearl.  Minnie had a bunch of bookings and she needed a guitar player and singer.  She also needed a fiddle player and asked if I knew anyone.  I told her I just met one today, so I went down and asked him if he wanted a job paying $18.00 a day for one show or $36.00 for two shows.  His name was Roger Miller.

AM:  Did Minnie Pearl give you good advice?

MT:  About a week out, Miss Minnie was watching from beside the stage and she noticed that I never said anything.  Roger Miller would do all the talking for me.  She told me if I was going to be in this business I had to learn to introduce my own songs and thank the people for coming and then sign autographs after the show.   I told her I worried they would all laugh at me and she told me no they would laugh with me.  Not too long after that I began to be on TV shows.

AM:  Do you remember the first TV show you were on?

MT:  The first show I did was the Mike Douglas Show out of Philadelphia.  Jimmy Dean was the co-host and he told the Mike Douglas people that I stuttered and they didn’t want me on the show so Jimmy said if you don’t want him then you don’t want me, so they agreed to see my act.  I ended up being on the Mike Douglas Show 48 times!  From there it was movies and hit records.   That’s the way my life has been.  I love to entertain.  I’m 82 years old.  People ask me when I’m going to quit and I say, “I ain’t quitting.  This is what I do.  I make people happy and that’s a blessing.”

To learn more about Mel Tillis visit his web site

Monday, October 20, 2014

The World Music of Strunz & Farah

All Photos:  Alan Mercer

Strunz & Farah’s music is perhaps best described as original multi-cultural acoustic instrumental improvisational guitar music, or world jazz. Their music emphasizes and luxuriates in sensuous melody and rhythm with a colorful and passionate expression, and is saturated with their cultural roots. Afro-Caribbean, Latin American folk, flamenco and Middle Eastern music all converge in an essentially jazz context, especially in the sense of improvisation, and is a unique contribution to the diversity of contemporary guitar music.

Renowned world, jazz, popular, and classical artists they have recorded collectively or individually with include Stanley Clarke, Sting, Hubert Laws, Dr. L. Subramaniam, Hayadeh, Gerardo Nuñez, Manoochehr Sadeghi, Jihad Racy, Edwin Colón Zayas, Liona Boyd, and Ashish Khan. They have also recorded with Joan Baez, and have recorded with and performed often with Jackson Browne.

Strunz & Farah are the innovators of an entirely new expression for the acoustic guitar. Well ahead of their time they created an original style that now is widely influential. They have each brought the musical influences of their native lands into their highly virtuosic, rhythmic, and improvisation-rich original instrumental compositions, inspiring fans and many guitarists worldwide. Their meeting in 1979 in Los Angeles, where they are still based, marked the first time that Latin American and Middle Eastern music, along with other important elements, came together on the guitar. They remain the undisputed masters of the style they created.

Jorge Strunz was born in Costa Rica. Given his first (three-quarter size) guitar at age 6, he grew up also in Colombia, Mexico, Spain, England, Canada, and the United States, studying and playing flamenco and classical guitar. He performed flamenco guitar professionally as a teenager, accompanying Spanish dancers and singers. He later also played electric guitar in numerous rock bands. He then turned to jazz and jazz fusion, and then focused on his own Latin American roots, Caribbean and Latin folk music. Strunz developed an original, lyrical style, and a way of playing guitar that is his own synthesis of hand techniques from flamenco, Latin folk and classical guitar combined with state-of-the art virtuoso linear plectrum playing. In 1994 and in 1998, Strunz received two Presidential awards from the government of Costa Rica for his cultural contributions.

Ardeshir Farah was born in Tehran, Iran. While still a teenager, he moved to England for schooling. He played guitar since childhood, focusing on popular music and improvisation. He has performed and recorded extensively with many of the top expatriate Persian singers and musicians in the US who fled Iran after the Revolution. Farah was the first to use Middle Eastern inflections in a contemporary guitar setting. His distinctive touch has a unique exoticism.

They prepared a repertoire, began performing, and recorded their first project, Mosaico in 1980.  Although record companies at that time were not ready for this new music, Los Angeles jazz radio embraced it and world/jazz industry pioneer Richard Bock got the duo signed to the prestigious jazz label Milestone for whom they recorded their revolutionary albums ‘Frontera’ in 1983 and ‘Guitarras’ 1984. These records defined world music on guitar years before the “world music” category existed.

Since 1980, they have made 20 albums, 15 of which are studio recordings, including their very popular titles Primal Magic (1990), which topped the Billboard World Music charts, and the Grammy-nominated Américas (1992), and Heat of the Sun (1994; top 10 Billboard World Music chart).  Their latest recording is Moods and Visions (April 2014), celebrating 35 years of highly successful collaboration, continuing and evolving the duo’s original synthesis of multi-cultural elements into a flowing, melodic and rhythmic acoustic guitar style of the highest virtuosity.

In their performances and recordings, which have sold about a million and a half, one can savor the fruits of one of the most unique yet enduring and harmonious musical collaborations in the world of the guitar.

AM:  Did either of you envision lifelong music careers when you were children?

Strunz:  I did.  Definitely, I wanted to be a musician ever since I can remember.  I decided I wanted to be a musician by the time I was fourteen.

AM:  So you never wanted anything else?

Strunz:   I went to school and studied other things, but it was to please family.  Both of us did.  I went to Georgetown University for five years.  Ardeshir graduated with a degree in architecture from USC, but we were always musicians the whole time. 

Farah:  That part of the story is very similar for the both of us.  I also loved playing music from a very early age, but from the part of the world that I’m from, it was about do your studying first and then you can play your guitar.  I come from a family that has seven architects and Engineers. 

AM:  So that’s why you studied architecture.  Did you enjoy it?

Farah:  In some ways, yes.  My family is all into buildings.  I used to practice guitar three hours a night when I went to USC.  Then I would look at my school books for twenty minutes. 

AM:  Can you talk about your background?

Strunz:  My dad was a foreign services officer so he was a diplomat so we did travel around a lot and lived in a lot of different places.  I did get to go to a lot of schools and live in different countries.  I had an enriching childhood, certainly rich in different cultures.  It can also be a bit confusing but I sorted that out later. 

AM:  You speak English with no discernible accent.

Strunz:  My native language is Spanish but my father spoke English to me and my mother only spoke to me in Spanish so the kids in the family all grew up perfectly bilingual.

Farah:  My mother’s two brothers both married Germans.  My stepfather is American.  My mother’s sister’s husband is also American.  From childhood we always spoke English and German.  We did a lot of traveling to Europe.  Iran is so close that it’s very common for Iranians to drive through Turkey, Greece and France.

AM:  I love a worldly upbringing! (laughter from all)   Which reminds me that you are considered the leaders in the category of World Music. 

Strunz:  That may a bit of a stretch, but there were some people involved in doing collaborations with international musicians at the time that Ardeshir and I got together, but it was very few.   There were bands like Weather Report who had international groupings.  We weren’t the first but we were in the vanguard.  We were the first to use third word culture exclusively and melding it with international and American influences. 

Farah:  World music became a category in 1987.  That’s when Billboard magazine coined the name. 

AM:  Was that a plus for you to have a category?

Stunz:  It helped a lot because we would fall through the cracks all the time. 

Farah:  In this country everything is categorized.  You have to be rock or jazz or something.

AM:  Do you relate to jazz music?

Strunz:  Very much so.  I was very much into John Coltrane in the late 60’s while I was living in New York City.  Later on I was into Miles Davis.  I liked the playing of Pat Martino and spent a lot of time studying him.  I definitely have a love for certain types of jazz.

AM:  When you were developing your sense of style did you realize it would be so unique?

Farah:  We were very unique.  We just followed our instincts and drew from our backgrounds and influences.  We created the music that came to us naturally.  We were not trying to fit into any particular category.  I would say we are very unique.

AM:  I love how you get the credit for it as well.

Farah:  In the beginning it was hard because record companies thought we were too unique.

Strunz:  They weren’t sure what our music was.

AM:  So then you started your own record label.

Strunz:  We did. 

AM:  Was it natural for you to be business men?

Strunz:  No it wasn’t.  It was a hat we had to learn how to wear.  My wife helped out a lot with that.  She is our third team member in a sense.  We had to learn how to manufacture records.  This is back in 1980.

AM:  Did downloading change anything for you?

Strunz:  Well, illegal downloading has made a difference for all musicians.  We’re an endangered species.  There are only 30,000 musicians globally who earn a living from playing music.  It’s hurting music a great deal and we are affected. 

AM:  Is there any style of music that you haven’t recorded yet that you want too?

Strunz:  Our style is already a conglomerate of styles and we specialize in it.  We don’t want to specialize in other styles of music so much.  We love flamenco for example, and sometime people call us flamenco, but we go out of our way to tell them no.  We do not play flamenco.  It’s an influence but that’s all.

Farah:  It’s a completely different style of guitar music.  What they do is completely different. 

AM:  Is there a spiritual aspect to your music?

Strunz:  All music has a spiritual component to it.  I say spiritual and do not mean religion.  Music comes from the spirit.  It deals with feelings and emotions that can’t really be put into language.

Farah:  It certainly has a spiritual element to it.  It also has a strong political statement.  We have the coming together of different cultures and brotherhood. 

Strunz:  These kinds of collaborations tend to be global collaborations.

AM:  You have unity of all mankind.

Strunz:  We are all in the same boat and we have to deal with global issues together. 

Farah:  We are fortunate to live in Los Angeles which is a very cosmopolitan city.  

To learn more about Strunz & Farah visit their web site

Monday, October 6, 2014

May Pang Designs Jewelry

All Photos:  Alan Mercer   Lighting:  Eric V.

May Pang worked for ABKCO, the Beatles’ management company, in the early 1970’s, and from there was hired as John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s personal assistant.  After her relationship with John Lennon ended, May worked for Island Records and United Artists.

May was born in Manhattan. She is the daughter of Chinese immigrants and grew up in New York's Spanish Harlem with an elder sister and an adopted brother, both of whom were born in China. 

After graduating from Saint Michael Academy, May attended New York City Community College. She wanted to be a model, but was told she was too "ethnic" by the modeling agencies.  May's early jobs included being a song-plugger, which meant encouraging artists to record them.  In 1970, she began work in New York as a receptionist at ABKCO Records, Allen Klein's management office, which at that time represented Apple Records and three former Beatles: John Lennon, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr.

May was asked to help Lennon and Ono with their avant-garde film projects, ‘Up Your Legs Forever’ and ‘Fly,’ in December 1970. May was then asked to be Lennon and Ono's secretary and factotum/gofer in New York and England, which led to a permanent position as their personal assistant when the Lennons moved from London to New York in 1971. May coordinated an art exhibition in Syracuse, New York, on October 9, 1971, for Ono's ‘This Is Not Here’ art show at the Everson Museum.  Yoko  Ono's show coincided with Lennon's 31st birthday.

In summer 1973, May was working on the recording of Lennon's ‘Mind Games’ album.  Lennon and Ono were having marital problems and decided to separate, and Ono suggested to Pang that she become Lennon's companion.  Ono explained that she and Lennon were not getting along, had been arguing and were growing apart, and said that Lennon would start seeing other women. She pointed out that Lennon had said he found Pang sexually attractive. May replied that she could never start a relationship with John as he was her employer and married. Ono ignored May's protests and said that she would arrange everything.  Ono later confirmed this conversation in an interview.  In October 1973, John Lennon and May Pang left New York for Los Angeles to promote ‘Mind Games,’ and decided to stay for a while, living at the homes of friends.

In March 1974, Lennon began producing Harry Nilsson's ‘Pussy Cats’ album.  May rented a beach house in Santa Monica, for her, Lennon, Harry Nilsson, Ringo Starr and Keith Moon to live in. At this time, May encouraged Lennon to reach out to family and friends. He and Paul McCartney mended fences and played together for the first and only time after the breakup of The Beatles.  May also arranged for Julian Lennon to visit his father for the first time in four years.

Julian began to see his father more regularly. Lennon bought Julian a Gibson Les Paul guitar and a drum machine for Christmas in 1973, and encouraged Julian's interest in music by showing him some chords. "Dad and I got on a great deal better then," recalls Julian. "We had a lot of fun, laughed a lot and had a great time in general when he was with May Pang. My memories of that time with Dad and May are very clear—they were the happiest time I can remember with them."

In June 1974, Lennon and Pang returned to live in New York City. Lennon stopped drinking and concentrated on recording.  While visiting Mick Jagger in Montauk, New York, John and May saw a Scottish-style cottage for sale close to the Montauk Point Lighthouse. Lennon asked a real estate broker to put in an offer for it in February 1975.  Lennon and Pang were also planning on visiting Paul and Linda McCartney in New Orleans in February 1975, where Wings were recording the ‘Venus and Mars’ album, but Lennon reconciled with Ono the day before the planned visit, after Ono said she had a new cure for Lennon's smoking habit.

After Lennon returned to Ono, May Pang started working for United Artists Records and Island Records as a PR manager, working on albums by Bob Marley and Robert Palmer.
May published her memoir, ‘Loving John,’ in 1983. It was later updated and renamed ‘John Lennon: The Lost Weekend.’ The original 500-page ‘Loving John’ book focused mainly on Pang's role on Lennon's albums and sessions.  It was edited down to 300 pages, concentrating mostly on the sensational aspects of their relationship. It also included postcards that Lennon had written to Pang during his travels throughout the world in the late '70s.’ May claims that she and Lennon remained lovers until 1977, and stayed in contact until his death.

May's book of photographs, ‘Instamatic Karma,’ was published in 2008. Besides the candid personal portraits, the book contains some historically important photographs, such as Lennon signing the official dissolution of The Beatles' partnership, and the last known photograph of Lennon and Paul McCartney together. Cynthia Lennon also provided a back cover endorsement, acknowledging May Pang's role in reuniting Lennon with his estranged first son, Julian.

May Pang married record producer Tony Visconti in 1989, but the couple divorced in 2000.  They had two children, Sebastian and Lara. She remains in touch with some of the people from her time with Lennon, and Paul McCartney invited her to Linda McCartney's memorial service.  She was an invited guest at The Concert for George in 2002 and remains close to Cynthia Lennon and Lennon's first son, Julian Lennon.

May Pang lives with her children in upstate New York and produces a line of stainless steel Feng Shui jewelry.  She volunteers with an animal shelter called Animal Haven in New York and owns a dog rescued after Hurricane Katrina.  She also co-hosts an Internet talk radio show, "Dinner Specials with Cynthia and May Pang", at, with on-air partner Cynthia Neilson.

AM:  May, what is an average day like for you?

MP:  I’ve only recently started coming out and doing events and autograph shows.  Right now I like to design jewelry. 

AM:  How did you get interested in designing jewelry?

MP:  My mother, who was a little old lady from China, passed away a few years ago at the age of 97, liked to make jewelry.  I took all her supplies and started making my own jewelry as a way to honor her.  She had an amazing eye for these things.  I inherited her vintage Swarovski beads.  I am updating all her work to fit into the 2000’s.  I’m sure she can see it all from heaven.   I’m also working on some limited edition photos from my book, ‘Instamatic Karma.’ 

AM:  You really are a photographer aren’t you?

MP: Yeah, I loved it as a hobby and John loved it.  He loved the eye I had for him.

AM:  Did you intentionally take publicity photos of him?

MP:  I never thought when I was taking photos of him that they would be published.  There are a few photographs in the book that he absolutely loved.  He used one for a 45 single release sleeve.  The kids today don’t know what those are.  One of my photos was used as a sleeve for ‘Imagine,’ even though it had come out earlier in the United States, it hadn’t come out as a single in England so they used it over there. 

AM:  Do you still enjoy the attention you get from that time period?

MP:  I’m enjoying all of it.  I have an Internet Radio Show and I would love to do more.  In the past I even did some acting. 

AM:  I sure didn’t know that.

MP:  I’m actually a SAG and AFTRA Actor.  I’m in the Mike Nichols film, ‘Heartburn.’  I ran into Mike Nichols at a restaurant a few years later and I told him how much I loved all his films and then told him I was in ‘Heart Burn’ and he told me that was a good movie to be in.  So we said good-bye and he walked out of the restaurant.  A few moments later he came back in and said, “I remember you in the party scene.”  I said, “That’s right.”  He told me he never forgets a face. 

AM:  Do people still associate you with John Lennon?

MP:  Oh absolutely! 

AM:  That must be like a tattoo on your face.

MP:  It is a tattoo.  A lot of people don’t realize that John’s biggest solo work came from the time we were together.  I was with him when he was working with Harry Nilsson and Ringo Starr.  I got him and Paul McCartney back together again and got him reconnected with his son Julian.  To this day I am very close with Julian and his mother, Cynthia. 

AM:  Were you star struck when you first met?

MP:  I worked in their office and the first thing I thought about was being 13 and in love with the Beatles, but after you work in the office for a while, it starts to change and it becomes a job.

AM:  Did you enjoy the job?

MP:  Yes, but just like any other job, if you don’t do it well, you are out.  A lot of people think it was Yoko who set up the whole job and that she pulled the plug when it was over but it wasn’t that way.  She suggested that John and I get together and I told her I didn’t want him. I had been with him for three years already.

AM:  What was Yoko trying to do?

MP:  She was pushing him on me because she was trying to date somebody else.  John and I had a good employer/employee relationship.  It was never Yoko who called.  It was John who did the calling.  He pursued me.  That’s the only reason we ended up together.  It wasn’t because of Yoko.  Also when it ended it was a surprise to John.  We were just about to buy a house.

AM:  Was that rough on you at the time?

MP: Absolutely!  It was devastating.  I learned it was the same way for John.  Even though he was back at the house with Yoko, he was still calling me.  He just wanted to make sure I was alright.  If anyone knew John, they knew he was not the type of person to do that.  Once you were gone that was it, but that’s not how it was with us.

AM:  Was John Lennon a love of your life?

MP:  Looking back I feel love for each person I was involved with, but John was the first person I ever lived with.  He definitely made an impression.  Even though we were not together in the last five years, he stayed in touch with me.  Not many people realize that.  He called me a lot.  Our relationship really did not end, even though there was a forced ending to it.  He would still call me.  He even called me from South Africa the year he died, just to talk.  

To learn more about May Pang visit her web site

Sunday, September 28, 2014

The Inner Reaches of Gino Vannelli

All Photos:  Alan Mercer

Born in Montreal, Quebec, Gino Vannelli is one of three sons, including Joe and Ross, born to Russ and Delia Vannelli. Russ, his father, was a big band musician. As a child, Gino's greatest passion was music, and he began playing percussion at an early age. By the age of 15, Gino began writing songs. Just out of high school, he signed his first recording contract with RCA under the pseudonym Vann Elli, but went on to study music at McGill University.

After a stint in New York City, Gino and his brothers went to Los Angeles in a financially distraught and desperate state to wait outside trumpeter Herb Alpert's locked gate for an audition. Alpert was Vannelli's last hope prior to heading back to Montreal the next day. Alpert liked what he heard and two days later signed Vannelli with A&M Records, releasing his first album, ‘Crazy Life’ in 1973. Gino's brother, Joe, served as arranger and keyboardist for most of his recording career. At a time when polyphonic synthesizers were non-existent, Joe overdubbed multiple parts to create a texture of sound that was progressive for the early 1970’s.

In 1974, "People Gotta Move" made it to No. 22 on the Billboard Top 100.  On February 15, 1975, Gino Vannelli became the second Caucasian performer to appear on Soul Train.  This was his television debut. With his records climbing the charts, Gino toured as the opening act for Stevie Wonder. In 1978, the song "I Just Wanna Stop" earned Gino an American Grammy Award nomination and was a number No. 1 single in Canada and #4 in United States.  Gino's album ‘Brother to Brother’ was certified platinum in early 1979. Gino won Canada's Juno Award for Best Male Artist. He also won Juno Awards in 1976 and 1979. His additional recordings of the 1970s include: "Crazy Life," "Powerful People," "Storm at Sunup," "The Gist of the Gemini," and "A Pauper in Paradise".

In April 1981, "Living Inside Myself" was on Billboard's Top 100 at number 6. The Vannelli brothers shared the Juno Award for Recording Engineer of the Year in 1986 for ‘Black Cars.’ The Juno Award for Recording Engineer of the Year was again shared by the Vannelli brothers in 1987 for ‘Wild Horses’ and ‘Young Lover.’  Gino's additional recordings of the 1980s era include ‘Nightwalker’ and ‘Big Dreamers Never Sleep.’ During this time, he married Patricia, with whom he would have a son, Anton.

In 1990, the album ‘Inconsolable Man’ delivered new releases by Gino Vannelli to excellent reviews. In 1991, the Vannelli brothers shared the Juno Award once again, for ‘The Time of Day’ and ‘Sunset on L.A.,’ both from the ‘Inconsolable Man’ CD.  On Gino's next CD release, ‘Yonder Tree,’ he pays homage to his roots in jazz, apparent on his earlier albums.  ‘On Yonder Tree,’ Gino sings a musical tribute to the renowned poet, author and humanitarian Walt Whitman, in ‘Walter Whitman, Where Are You?

The latest recordings released by Gino Vannelli are ‘Canto’ and ‘These Are the Days.’ He surprised the music world by revealing his operatic license in ‘Canto,’ which heralds his superlative vocals in Italian, French, Spanish and English.  Gino was commissioned by the Vatican to perform for Pope John Paul II. On the ‘Canto’ recording is a loving tribute to Gino's father titled, ‘Parole Per Mio Padre,’ which was also a favorite of Pope John Paul II.  Gino Vannelli's electrifying vocals and music garnered rave reviews for ‘Canto.’

Gino Vannelli lives and works in Amersfoort, Netherlands and in the United States.  His music is also heard on popular European television and radio commercials. When not in concert, Gino is actively working on various projects and teaching Master classes.

In March 2007, Gino performed in Las Vegas to sold-out shows.  By request, encore performances were given two months later at the Flamingo Showroom.  In November 2007, Gino  gave three sold out performances in New Orleans, Louisiana. The concerts were a humanitarian effort with proceeds benefiting local charities. By popular demand, Gino Vannelli continues to tour globally.

On May 13, 2014, Gino Vannelli's the "Live in LA" CD/DVD compilation was released by the Sono Recording Group.  The presentation was recorded live onstage at the historic Saban Theater in Los Angeles, California on November 8, 2013, which represented Gino’s first performance in Los Angeles in more than 15 years.  The recording also marks the first on-stage collaboration in many years between the three Vannelli brothers.

AM:  Gino, what a GREAT show you did in Dallas!

GV:  Oh thanks, it was really fun.

AM:  How do you keep spiritually centered while traveling around the world?

GV:  To me spirituality is communing with the part of you that is not typically a common place, known to you on an everyday basis.

AM:  Is it a feeling you have?

GV:   It’s a sense, but not a sixth sense, because it’s relegated to this plane.  It’s something called potential and you commune with that potential.

AM:  Can you give me an example?

GV: It’s like an empty canvas and that canvas can be anything.  The spiritual act can be in the form of a prayer.  You can humble yourself and get on your knees.  Physically speaking when you do get on your knees you are praying.  You can pray to a cloud, or a star or the moon or the sun.  It really is simple.  The truth is what you are really doing is communing with the inner reaches of yourself.

AM:  I believe the same way.

GV:  When you tap into that, you find the power, the direction, the patience, the faith and the determination, to get where you want to get.  Anybody who is being truthful in any way, whether it be an artist, a contractor, an architect, a painter or whatever, they know how to commune with that part of themselves that brings the best out in themselves, in their own way.  Some may consider it spiritual and others may even consider it barbaric or crass, but they do it.

AM:  It seems one needs a high intelligence just to understand the simplicity.

GV:   That’s because the simplicity is in ‘how you do it.’  There is no simplicity in the inner reaches of space.  Given a blank canvas, most people wouldn’t know where to start.  The simplicity is saying this is what I will do and I will do it every day.  This is all Eastern philosophy.

AM:  Those lessons have been around forever.

GV:   There is a reason why that tradition has been passed down for centuries.  It’s all about repeat, repeat, repeat.  There are beats to it.  They say, “May I be healthy in mind and body.’ Then another beat, then repeat, “May I be healthy in mind and body.”  The act of repetition is like the juggler who is practicing and saying ,”I’ll get it next time.” The act of repetition makes it sink in a little bit deeper each time.  This simple act of repetition will create the reality you are looking for.

AM:  That is brilliant.  Do you meditate?

GV:  Everyone does some form of meditation.  When I’m out playing with my puppies, that is a form of meditation because we commune.  I anticipate what they will do next and they anticipate what I will do next and then when we finish playing I hold them in my arms and we just look at each other.  They are also children of the great mind.  What can you say about joy?

AM:  How do you keep the dark side of the music business from affecting you?

GV:  You don’t open the floodgates and say this is daunting.  You know it’s going to be a long, tough haul so you look at it in steps.  Lau Tzu wrote this book 2500 years ago that is a small companion book of Chinese philosophy.  It’s very prophetic.

AM:  Yes, I am familiar with Lau Tzu.

GV:  He says to think of the small as big and the big as small.  So I look at big tasks as small baby steps.  Step one would be to have my piano tuned and ready to go and then what songs I want to perform.  It’s a step by step approach.  When you look at things that way, you tend to want to do them.  You don’t want to open up iTunes and see ten thousand new albums, what chance do I have?  Don’t look at it that way.  So I forget the other people and I ask myself what do I have that’s worth hearing.  

AM:  Are you singing your favorite songs in concert these days?

GV:  I do have favorites but you can’t get them all in one show.  I have over 200 songs. 

AM:  I really like your ‘Canto’ album.

GV:  It’s a nice album.  I’m very proud of it. 

AM:  Are you touring around the world right now?

GV:  I am constantly on tour.  I make sure we don’t over tour.  We don’t want any boredom or dullness in the audience or the musicians.  It’s always a bit of a honeymoon when you don’t see each other for two or three weeks and then you do a show and it’s nice to be with everyone again.   October is a busy month.

AM:  So you are still working and have no intention of retiring anytime soon. 

GV:  No not for a few more years.  I’m working on another record.  Hopefully it will be ready in the next six months.  I spend a lot of time writing poetry.  I want to write a poetry book.  I have a lot on my mind as far as that’s concerned.  I’ve always been a fan of poetry and I try to turn them into songs.  Most of the ‘A Good Thing’ album was poetry turned into songs. 

AM:  You are certainly a deep thinker.

GV:  Well I am a man who is in the last part of his days and I know everything is inside us.  It’s not out in the eithers.  We get the ball rolling with what we think we are.  Those who are hopeful in a positive way tend to do better because they draw that energy to themselves.

AM:  I agree with that!

GV:  My son is a deep thinker too.  He has a degree in philosophy.   He asked me what was the difference between karma and a random act?  I told him some things are random because the wind can blow and you get a brick in the head, but if you react in a certain way, you will create a pattern.  If you react in another way, the pattern will be stopped and it will just be a random event.   The artists who survive create a pattern of who they think they are.  It ends up being a little bit of a spiritual quest because you start with what is not known and you create a reality from it.

To learn more about Gino Vannelli visit his web site