Bruce Nazarian: Producer, Recording Artist
Part 1 of a 4 part series
This is a four part interview series with the amazing Bruce Nazarian: producer, engineer, composer, recording artist, radio show host, educator and all-around innovator. Part 1 follows - you can listen to the podcast and/or read along.
Interview took place on September 9, 2012.[audio:https://webdmp3s.s3.amazonaws.com/bruce_nazarian_hugh-hitchcock_120904.mp3]
Hugh: Okay, hello and welcome to another episode of the Funkatologist! My name is Hugh Hitchcock, and here at the Funkatologist, we talk to important people in the music industry and try to get out some stories that perhaps you haven’t heard before. Some of them you have, some of them haven’t. But they are all important, and today we are talking with a very important gentleman in the industry -- his name is Bruce Nazarian. Hi Bruce!
Bruce: Hello there, Hugh!
Hugh: Great to have you today, Bruce. You’ve heard of Howard Stern being characterized as the hardest working person in show business, well, I think Bruce Nazarian probably could be called the hardest working person in the music industry. He has just done so much, and he’s never stopped. I mean, this guy is just relentless in doing one thing after another, and we’ll try to cover everything Bruce! But we are just happy to have you with us today.
Bruce: It’s a great pleasure to be here with you Hugh, and thank you very much for those kind words.
Hugh: Well, thanks. It’s only the beginning. Speaking of the beginning, before we get into everything that Bruce is done including being a record producer, a technical producer for TV shows -- you’ve heard his guitar playing and tons of songs on the radio that you probably wouldn’t know but you’ve heard him -- let’s go back to the beginning for a minute Bruce. Why don’t you tell me a little bit about your background and how you came up, and how you got started with all of this?
Bruce: Well, I was born at a very young age. (laughs) Sorry, you just set me up for that one and I couldn’t help it. My roots, as you probably well know, are in the city of Detroit. I was born and grew up there, and music got started very early on in my life. I was fortunate enough to have a mother who understood about show business, believe it or not. I suppose one could argue that in some ways she was a frustrated artist herself, but whatever the motivation was, she encouraged my talents in musical endeavors from a very young age. I found myself getting guitar lessons and piano lessons at a very young age, and being given the opportunity to perform. Starting as early as I can remember -- from about the age of 4 or perhaps 5 years old -- I was involved with the United Service Organization, which most people probably know better as the USO. That was an organization that basically provided refreshments and entertainment for armed service people in various cities around the country and places around the world. Everybody knows the USO shows that Bob Hope took overseas, but what they may not remember is that in most major cities, there was a USO club where service people could feel free to come and relax and sit and enjoy. And it was sort of the nation’s way of giving back to those who took on uniform and served us and protected us. And I was part of a unit, one of many in the city of Detroit that provided entertainment at the USO club in downtown Detroit. Very close, by the way, for those of you who are from Detroit, right across the street from the Lafayette Coney Island, which is a landmark that still stands to this day in the city of Detroit.
Hugh: What is the location of that (the USO club)?
Bruce: Unfortunately, it’s no longer there -- it was on Lafayette Street, but across the street from the Coney Island and right next to the Schubert Theater which no longer exists. But older Detroiters would remember the Schubert Theater. It was quite the bastion of live theater in downtown Detroit. Anyway, the USO Club, which was basically in the basement of the Schubert, was a place where service people would come to relax, and where entertainers would put on variety of shows. Now you’ve got to remember this was back in the early- to mid-50s, when variety was all kinds of things. I mean, it wasn’t about rock and roll shows, it wasn’t about this or that -- it was a wide variety of assorted kinds of entertainment, presented over a period of an hour or so, for the enjoyment of the service people who were at the club. Near as I can remember, I was doing tap dancing, and I was doing a little singing cowboy routine and stuff. Some of this could be considered quite embarrassing, but I’m…
Hugh: Well Bruce I’m trying to visualize you tap dancing and I’m…
Bruce: Yeah, it’s a mind warp, trust me -- even for me. And I was the guy doing it. But the interesting thing was, you see, the guitar touched me at a very young age. And while I didn’t really truly appreciate what it was back then, I did remember enjoying a couple of things. Number one, I enjoyed being an entertainer and being on stage, and that bug kind of burrowed deep inside. And I also enjoyed, believe it or not, the ability to stay out late, which is something most kids found they couldn’t do.
Hugh: Right. I’ve got that bug too, believe me.
Bruce: Yeah, it’s funny how it hits us in different times in different ways, but the entertaining bug caught me at a very young age and especially being a musician – that was also something that caught at a very young age. And now we would have to fast forward a number of years until I get through grade school and land at high school, and once I landed in high school, it turns out that I gravitated simultaneously to both playing an instrument and being in the choir. I was quite well encouraged, I should say, by the choir director, who saw that I could sing, and encouraged me to take an active part in the choir. So simultaneously, sort of the singing thing and the playing thing were being encouraged and happening at the same time. But what was really weird was in high school, I played tenor saxophone, not guitar.
Hugh: I was reading that in your Wikipedia page, and I didn’t remember you playing sax, so that was a surprise to me too. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bruce_Nazarian
Bruce: Well, imagine my surprise when a few years ago I reconnected with my old band director on Facebook, of all places -- Craig Strain, who was quite instrumental in keeping my interest in instrumental music moving forward. But again let’s move forward just a little bit, past high school, get into college, a couple of major things happened in college. First and foremost being, I got into glee club which eventually got me…
Hugh: The glee club?
Bruce: Yeah, the Wayne State University Men’s Glee Club, I was a student at Wayne State University in Detroit. And the glee club (under the direction of Professor Harry Langsford) was quite famous because during the time that I was there, we actually toured Europe and Scandinavia, and we participated in and won something called the Eisteddfod -- which is a really obscure Welsh singing competition. But trust me when I tell you, it’s a very prestigious world class singing competition, and the American men’s glee club from Wayne State University won in 1960 -- which was a very unprecedented thing!
Hugh: In 1968.
Bruce: 1968, exactly. And so in the men’s glee club I was also starting to participate in more and more commercial music activities, professional music activities actually. And I picked up guitar at a very early age -- I was actually playing guitar with a folk trio, or it was our folk quartet I should say -- that was part of the glee club, and I started playing professionally on guitar and on organ and on piano. And the first real professional gig took place while I was in college, and believe I or not, it was playing bass -- electric bass. And this is one of those weird moments…
Hugh: Upright Bass?
Bruce: No, it was 4 string electric bass. And it was one of those weird moments where I had never ever played bass guitar in my life. But I took a look at the doggone thing, and I just knew instinctively, if I picked up this instrument, I could play it and play it well. And that’s exactly what came to pass. I got…
Hugh: You were shredding on guitar already.
Bruce: I was working on guitar, I was a guitar player, so the instrument wasn’t unfamiliar to me, but I had never actually picked up a bass and played it. And what was different about bass -- I’m sure most players as you, yourself, Hugh, will acknowledge -- is that when you are playing guitar, you are primarily concerned with the harmony and the structure of the melody and keeping in time. But with bass, you are really right down in the depth of the rhythm section, and you have to be equally adept at the harmonic of what’s going on, the harmony and the foundation of the chords that are being played -- and also the rhythm, because you have to be locked in with the drummer -- tighter than tight. It’s a very interesting challenge of an instrument to play, and very different from guitar or keyboards, where you can kind of float over the drummer and the bass player (who often are holding the rhythm down for you while you are soloing). Well, if you are playing bass, you’ve got to hold the rhythm down. And I really enjoyed that -- that was a lot of fun, and I continued playing bass for a number of years beyond that. Not only live in bands, but also, as we will eventually touch on, in studio work.
Hugh: I really enjoyed your description of that just now. That was very interesting.
Bruce: Well, it’s a very interesting instrument, electric bass. I suppose if I had to actually pick a favorite, I would probably pick that as being the favorite instrument that really involves both the technical side of what you are doing and the artistic side of what you are doing, at the same time.
Hugh: It is absolutely vital.
Bruce: Yes. If you have a bad bass player in the band, you have a bad band. There’s just no two ways about it. And if the bass player and the drummer don’t see eye to eye and hear ear to ear, you are going to have a faulty rhythm section -- and you really can’t build anything on top of that.
Hugh: It’s like a dysfunctional family.
Bruce: Yeah, kind of. In terms of the musical family, exactly right -- because the foundation of the band really comes from solid rhythm that’s put down by the bass and guitar. No, bass and the drums, excuse me. And by the way, that gets drilled into you very early in your life, if you grow up in Detroit. Detroit was a musical kind of city and had music in its residents, and we were very inclined to do so at a very young age. Because when we were growing up, there was music everywhere in Detroit. There were clubs, there were umpteen radio stations playing all different kinds of music, there were live performances, there were theater bands – in terms of the rest of the nation, there was far more music far much more of the time than unfortunately there seems to be today. But the beauty of that was that you could grow up in a very rich musical environment, with lots of different influences. And that is what kind of made me the ‘freak of nature’ that I became in the music business, because, especially in Detroit, there was a very strong black music component with R&B and soul music and a very strong white music component with Rock & Roll, Pop and everything else. If you were so inclined, you could drink from both of those musical streams and be a product of both of those musical influences and that was what I found myself to be early on.
Hugh: Yeah, let me just state for our listeners, I mean, these days, that whole dynamic is epitomized by people like Eminem and Kid Rock who came directly from Detroit and Eminem definitely in the black music business is really big for a white guy, and Kid Rock is also crossing over but he’s real heavy in the white music genre. Anyway, go ahead.
Bruce: Yeah, you are exactly right. In those characterizations, there are 2 contemporary examples of how those influences in Detroit still exist today. There’s still a huge black music component in Detroit, still a huge rock and roll presence in the state of Michigan, and very much in Detroit. And if you are a musician who is open minded, you can be influenced by both of those -- and what winds up happening, Hugh, as you well know (since you are a product of that) is that we tend to grow musicians who are kind of different from musicians in other cities, where there might be more of a one-sided influence than the other. So that was part of the fun. And because of that -- because I was grounded from a very early age in both white music and black music -- I started on this somewhat bizarre path of career development. While I was playing professionally with a white folk singer, I was also working professionally with back band called The Eighth Day in the early 70s. And believe it or not, little old pink me was singing on the single from one of the very successful R&B bands that came out of the whole Holland-Dozier-Holland camp - the Invictus records camp.
Hugh: The Eighth Day?
Bruce: The Eighth Day.
Hugh: And was that an all black group?
Bruce: It was one of the very few overtly mixed bands. We were half white, half black and very interesting kind of R&B/pop singers.
Hugh: It seems like the number 8 comes up in these Detroit bands a lot, Chapter 8, The Eighth Day …
Bruce: I’m not sure there was any particular plan to that, it just, it always rhymes nicely. So with The Eighth Day I had very interesting opportunity to work again in the mixed R&B / rock & roll opportunity. I was working with Tony Newton who was a very well known bass player in the Detroit market, but not really given the credit he should have been given. He was James Jamerson’s protégé at Motown, and kind of got passed over, unfortunately, for acknowledgement as one of the original Funk Brothers, which he truly was -- as was Dennis Coffey, who, for some mysterious reason, didn’t get his propers and didn’t get acknowledged as one of the original Funk Brothers. They officially recognized 13 individuals -- and please don’t ask me their names, because I’m not looking at the Wikipedia page. Famous guys like Benny Benjamin on drums, James Jamerson on bass, and Earl Van Dyke were included, and I had the pleasure of working sessions with him [Earl Van Dyke] for many, many years and he was truly delightful a human being and a monster musician.
But for some reason when the powers that be came down, the Funk Brothers did not officially acknowledge the contributions of Dennis Coffey and Tony Newton, and they should have. I learned a lot from Tony. He was an excellent band leader, and was also musical director on the road for some famous Motown acts.
Hugh: You are talking about Earl Van Dyke?
Bruce: Earl Van Dyke was also a very famous band director in Motown era, he of course ran Earl Van Dyke and The Soul Brothers which was the backing band for the Motor Town Review, which was the famous Motown live show review, when they put all the Motown artists out on the road in the early days on a bus touring all over the place, including the “chitlin’ circuit” in the American south, promoting the early Motown records. And Earl was the band leader for many of those shows, and I know that Tony went on the road with some of those acts. Tony took the Eighth Day on the road to support not only the first and second single, but also the third one that I sang on. And believe it or not, little old me wound up on stage at the Apollo Theater - which was a mind warp for a white kid in the mid 70s!
Hugh: That’s really amazing.
Bruce: And what I found even more amazing was they liked us. Not only did they like us but what was socially monumental about it was it didn’t matter what color you were -- if you could play, you were in. It’s like you were an accepted part of the society. It has troubled me for 40 years why that attitude just can’t be shared by the rest of society who aren’t musicians -- like, we are all just people! But it seems like musicians kind of “cut to the chase”. It’s a great power that evens out all the status of everybody. And so that was great fun. It was culturally quite a marked moment for me. I literally can close my eyes and still remember what it feels like to be on stage at the Apollo and to not have tomatoes thrown, or the hook brought out and Sandman Sims yanking you off stage.
Hugh: And how old were you at that time?
Bruce: Well, early 70s, so I would have been early 20s.
Hugh: Hmmm, a young man.
Bruce: Yeah, young enough to be full of enthusiasm about the industry, naïve in some regards about social equality or inequality, and impressionable enough to be impressed by the treatment by the Apollo audience, which was quite an affirmative experience. But what was most fun about it was that the band rocked. I mean, the Eighth Day was this R&B, Rock and Roll crossover powerhouse with Melvin Davis on drums and Tony Newton on bass providing just rock solid bottom foundation, and Jerry Paul on percussion (who unfortunately passed away a while ago). Jerry was a fixture of the session scene for many years in the city of Detroit, as were Tony and myself and several of the other members of the band. But it was a very unique experience.
Hugh: Have you got any recordings or videos of that?
Bruce: There are no videos that I’m aware of. The single that I sang on, the 3rd single from the Eighth Day is still around and can be found, I’ve actually even played it once or twice on my radio show.
Hugh: And it’s called what?
Bruce: If I Could Just See The Light In The Window.
Hugh: Okay.[I couldn't find that particular track, but I did find this one - I remember hearing this on the radio regularly back in the day... AWESOME bass playing on this!]
Bruce: It’s sort of a story of backdoor love kind of thing. But it was fun, and what was interesting about it at a very young and impressionable age was that I got to go into legendary Holland-Dozier-Holland recording studios on Grand River, and record with two of their very best producers: General Johnson from the Chairmen of the Board (who sadly passed away a while back), and Greg Perry, who is still around. It was a learning experience beyond belief. As was the experience of working with Brownsville Station, which I joined in 1975, and the rock side of the split personality of Bruce Nazarian.
Hugh: Was this kind of your next formative stage after the Eighth Day?
Bruce: Kind of. I mean I was in the Eighth Day in the early 70s 72, 73, still working around town, I don’t remember the exact year that I first got asked to do a recording session, but it certainly was a mind-opening experience, because you very quickly realized that it’s a very special circumstance being in the recording studio with other talented musicians, and it’s a really unique skill set. I mean, you have to literally be able to read and improvise and make it come together in just a few minutes -- something that had never happened before. You are literally creating from whole cloth, from a chart that’s in front of you with 3 or 4 other equally talented musicians, and trying to bring to life this vision that only exists in the mind of the writer and in the mind’s ear if you will, of the arranger or producer.
Hugh: Okay, awesome, well so we are getting to the Brownsville Station point here. I was reading in the Wikipedia that it was a chance meeting between you and Al Nalli Junior that got you into that group.
Bruce: As I remember it, that was in fact the case. I certainly was aware of the band.
Hugh: Just so you know, I don’t want to interrupt, I wanted to go on and just tell you that I grew up in Ann Arbor, and my mother used to take me to Al Nalli Music when I was a kid to buy violins and stuff for school and try and whittle the price down a good deal.
Bruce: I have to tell you, after joining the band, I was sort of grandfathered in as part of the Nalli family, and 2 of the nicest people that you could ever know was Al Junior’s father, who was lovingly referred to as Senior.
Hugh: That’s the one that my mother knew when we used to go there.
Bruce: Al Nalli Senior was just an unbelievably wonderful gentleman and his wife Barb was the matriarch of the clan. And between them, I think they opened up the musical dreams of a lot of kids in Ann Arbor just like you. Because Al Nalli Music was the place where a lot of that stuff was happening. In its early days, remember, Al Nalli Music was about pianos and organs and trumpets and all that stuff. And then later on, the annex took over and that was where all the rock & roll started to happen.
Hugh: And that used to be Grinnell’s across the street from Al Nalli’s.
Bruce: It might have well been. I’m talking about 312 South Ashley.
Hugh: Oh, okay. [Grinnell’s was a Detroit-based music store franchise that also had a store on Ann Arbor’s Main Street and yes it was across from the original Al Nalli Music].
Bruce: Where the Annex moved to, and eventually became the big sort of rock & roll music store in town, is where I spent more of my time than over on Main Street. But certainly, Senior and Barb were a big fixture in the whole Ann Arbor scene at the time. And yeah, so a chance meeting with Allan Junior and a conversation about this and that and the other thing, and then next thing you know, I’m meeting with boys in the band, and especially the rocker himself, Cub Koda. Basically not meaning any disrespect to Henry Weck the drummer, or Michael Lutz co-founder and bass player and guitar player…
Hugh: I knew both of those guys too.
Bruce: Yeah, it doesn’t surprise me -- they were very popular denizens of that part of town, that part of the state. And when I met them, something just clicked, and Cub became very close friend for a number of years. It’s actually kind of spooky in a sense -- after quitting Brownsville in 1979 (and I won’t go into that it’s a long story) I left the band in May of 1979 -- and for many, many years after that, I did not see Cub, and it got more difficult because I moved to New York in 1986 and then L.A in 1990. But somewhere along the line, something brought me back to Michigan in the summer of 2000, and I actually wound up at Cub and Jeannie’s house to hang out with them for a while -- and that was like literally 2 weeks before Cub passed away. I was very sad when he passed, but I was grateful that I had an opportunity to spend some time with some very close friends. Cub’s wife Jeannie is still a very close friend and always has been.
Hugh: That’s wonderful.
Bruce: Yeah, what most people don’t know about Cub is that he wasn’t just a funny face with a pair of round glasses and a jokester on the stage -- Cub was a very serious musician who knew his musical blues history like the back of his hand.
Hugh: Was this the guy who was responsible for “Smokin’ in the Boys Room”?
Bruce: He was one of them -- Michael Lutz and Cub together did Smokin’ In The Boys Room in the early 70s. While I was off doing my R&B thing with the Eighth Day in ‘72, Brownsville was having a huge hit record with Smokin’ In The Boys Room. And that sort of set the stage for eventually our paths crossing in 1975, and in May of 1975 I joined the band and I immediately was sent to New York and played on the last few tracks from the Motor City Connection album that was currently being completed. I had an opportunity to record at Media Sound which is now closed, a beautiful recording studio in an old church in New York City. And then the next thing we did was we immediately went on the road and did shows! Next came the Red Album, and that was recorded in Mount Kisco, New York, in this beautiful mansion that used to belong to Billy Rose, the band leader and had been taken over, over the years, by the Cenacle order of nuns (it has since closed). We moved in there for a month or more -- I don’t remember exactly how long anymore, but we moved in there and literally set up house in the place. We rolled up the Record Plant remote truck from New York City, parked it in front and we recorded the Red Album there for weeks.
Hugh: Sounds awesome.
Bruce: And that’s where Martian Boogie was created and a lot of other fun stuff. It was very cool.
Hugh: I saw a couple of videos on youtube of you with Brownville station and it was quite spectacular.
Bruce: I wish you would send me those links because every time I find a video of Brownsville, I don’t see anything of the band, vintage 1975 to 1979 actually in action but if you found something, tell me what it is because I’d love to see it.
Hugh: Okay, well I’m not only will I do that, I will definitely post it on this article…
Bruce: Uh, oh, you better let me see it first. It might be embarrassing.
Hugh: Okay, we’ll get that together.
Bruce: So that was the pendulum swinging to the rock & roll side between 1975 and 1979. While I was with Brownsville, I had moved out to Ann Arbor, but I would still come back to Detroit to do recording sessions. I got into the studio scene early on, and I honestly don’t remember to this day what year it was. My memory cells tell me it was somewhere in the late 60s and very early 70s. But I was introduced to the recording scene by Jim Bruzzese, who owned Pampa Recording Studios, which was, believe it or not, in the back of Pampa Lanes bowling alley up in Warren if you remember…
Hugh: I’ve been there, I have been there.
Bruce: Yeah, it’s a very, it was a great studio, it was well ahead of its time. Jim was a very visionary kind of guy. He had a 3M multi track at that time -- 16 tracks if I remember, and that was state of the art back then. 24-track had not yet been really caught on. We take a lot for granted today course, if you’ve got Pro Tools today, you’ve got a zillion tracks, and it just it doesn’t matter. But that’s how I got into the studio thing and the first couple of sessions really, really hooked me. It was like that bug that caught me when I started entertaining. The first time I was in the studio I went, “this is really cool. And I get paid for this too?”
Hugh: Well, you know you had the talent and the dynamic energy to make that work.
Bruce: Well, I’m not sure that Jim knew that, but he took a chance on a young musician that he saw some promise in. So that’s why it’s important that I mention him along with other folks who’ve been really prominent in kind of guiding me on to the path I eventually wound up on. Jim Bruzzese was the guy that got me into the studio scene, and I guess what happened was that word started to get around. “Hey there’s this kid that plays pretty good guitar,” and the next thing you know I get another phone call, and another phone call and another phone call and then next thing you know, I’m in the studios all over town, doing sessions on a weekly or daily basis. These were the times in Detroit when there was a lot of that going on. I mean -- there was money, people had budgets, there were record labels, there was a lot of activity, there were a lot of artists, a lot of songs, a lot of productions, a lot of recording studios -- you know the drill.
Hugh: Well, there was so much culture flying at that time that it was such a big part embroidered into society -- so much that there was money for, that and there were just records being released all the time. It was just such a big deal.
Bruce: Right and this was back in the day when record labels actually did spend money. I mean -- they had budgets, they had money -- this was the old “traditional record business”, if you want to call it that. It’s not that weird stuff that we find ourselves in today.
Hugh: Right, which is basically the big companies exploiting every little artist for the least amount of money that they can possibly put out.
Bruce: Well, look, I’m not going to go down the political path.
Hugh: It’s not for you, I’m just saying that for my listeners so they understand what we are talking about.
Bruce: Yeah, let me just say this -- it’s very different today, and not necessarily better. Although what is better about it is the technology, which was sort of what I’d migrated into in the mid-1980s. Because of the way the technology came about, it has enabled many creative people to be able to actually put out creative musical endeavors. I think that is the really good thing about what’s happening in the last 20+ years, from technological stand point.
Hugh: So, power to the artists completely?
Bruce: Yeah, and I was one of those guys. I mean, after I left Brownsville station in 1979 I moved back to Detroit and put together a recording studio, because I put together a band called ‘the Automatix’. I think you heard of them maybe.
Hugh: Yes so I was actually in that band in the beginning and it was a great experience.
Bruce: Yeah, you were the original bass player in that band -- you should wear that badge with pride, as I am proud to say that to people. It was a very interesting confluence of musicians, and what’s weird about it, looking back after all these years, is that I never really realized that basically what I was trying to do, in a sense, was recreate a mixed-bag band, like the Eighth Day.
Hugh: Well, that’s exactly what it was, because we were taking soul tunes, soul music and combining it with Rock & Roll. That’s what the Automatix was all about. And my problem, I will say was I think I got a little bit too involved with my ideals of music and stuff instead of pulling with my group. And I’ve learned that so much over the years man. And I wish I had been a little bit more willing to pull with the whole group rather than be very idealistic about my own ideas but whatever the case man, I’m just really thankful to have been in that group with you and [drummer] Jerry [Jones] and [singer] Shaun [Murphy]. It was wonderful I really…
Bruce: We are talking about Jerry Jones the original and only drummer of the Automatix. Shaun Murphy who was selected as our original vocalist because we are not stupid -- and not only could the girl sing, but she was fine as frog’s fur!
Hugh: Yes, with purple hair -- and Shaun -- for our listeners, just to identify for our listeners -- she was Bob Seger’s lead female background vocalist for all time. She worked with Little Feat, she worked with Eric Clapton, she’s a big star.
Bruce: Well, let’s give Shaun her props. She not only worked with Little Feat, she took over as the lead singer in Little Feat, which was pretty amazing, considering that Shaun in her early days wasn’t particularly enamored at being out front. She really enjoyed the role of being the background singer, and she did that for Eric Clapton for a number of years, along with Marcy Levy -- and she did that with Bob Seger, in a number of incarnations. We put her out front and center, and I think she got uncomfortable being out front -- and that was basically why she left the band.
Hugh: Oh really?
Bruce: Yeah, but that’s a long story. Anyway the Automatix were formed by me and by Jerry out of frustration of wanting to perform live, not just in the studio. I mean, picture this -- we were working in the studio, working out butts off all the time doing sessions, but sessions are this very esoteric behind the scenes kind of thing.
Hugh: Nameless, faceless.
Bruce: Yeah -- I mean even Motown, up until Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On album -- Motown never told anybody who was playing on those records, and if you were on the scene, you knew who the Funk Brothers were. And you kind of chuckled under your breath when they showed up on other people’s recording sessions and not on Motown, but you sort of knew what it was -- but most people were like oh, it’s a great Marvin Gaye record, that’s a great Tammi Terrell record -- and they had no clue that it was the Funk Brothers on the record.
Hugh: I’ve even heard stories that Bernard Purdy and Chuck Rainey played on the Beatles ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’ and ‘I Saw Her Standing There’, did you ever hear of that?
Bruce: Nope. But I bet that’s one of those urban legends, maybe we need to go to snopes.com and check it down.
Hugh: Yeah. It will be good to verify.
Bruce: Check out discogs.com - The home of all the music credits you’ve been looking for but could never find anywhere else - that’s where they are. So in 1979, when I leave Brownsville and come back to Detroit, Jerry Jones and I say: “we want to put a band together.” And what we interestingly did, was we went out and started playing around town a little bit as a group called the A Band -- which is sort of the unofficial studio joke name for all of the first call players -- by that point in time, I was lucky enough to have become one of those first call players in the R&B record scene.
Hugh: You are an endless guy.
Bruce: So we were born as The A band. It’s like who will you call? Well, the first side guys that you call were known as the A band, and it was usually me and Jerry and Earl Van Dyke or Rudy Robinson on keyboards -- I should say the late Rudy Robinson, who unfortunately passed away. He was a fixture of so many records that came out, that people never really knew. This is an interesting obscure bit but let’s go through this, just for the benefit of your readers. There was unquestionably the Funk Brothers -- the 13, or as I call them the 15 Kingpins of the R&B studio scenes -- but there’s a whole bunch of funk cousins that did not necessarily work at Motown. We worked all the rest of the session scene in the city of Detroit. And those guys are unheralded, unfortunately, but well remembered - and if you go trolling through some of your favorite R&B records on discogs.com you’ll see a lot of those names showing up. Jerry Jones is one of them. Roderick Chandler -- “Peanut” -- I’m sure you remember him on bass. Also a lot of other guys from Motown, but a lot of other guys that never really made it to Motown, because it was a very tightly knit clique over there. And you didn’t get in the Funk Brothers very easily, but Ray Monette got in -- and of course, Joe Messina, another early white guitar player who was part of the scene. Joe and Ray and Dennis Coffey were like the “token honkies” -- and I can say that because I’m a honkie okay?
Hugh: Aha. Well, do you consider yourself a funk cousin?
Bruce: I do. Yeah, I went through a moment of great sadness when I went down the list of Funk Brothers who have since passed on -- and you know we just lost Bob Babbit a couple of months back, and that was a great loss to the music community. Bob was sort of like the number two or number 3 bass player in the Motown scene, but by no means were there only 2 or 3 bass players - there were these funk cousins, and I considered myself to be a funk cousin.
My moment of sadness from a while ago was looking at the list of the 13 official Funk Brothers, and realizing that I played with 11 of those guys pretty regularly – and what’s sad is that many of them have passed on to the big rhythm section in the sky. But I’m privileged to have been able to apprentice with all of those guys, because they were such bad mo-fos. And I mean bad in a good way. They were monster musicians, really, really great at what they did. And I learned a lot.
Hugh: Oh yes.
Bruce: So the Automatix came together in 1980-1981, and one thing leads to another, and to another , and to another -- and the next thing you know, we’ve made a connection with a manager on the West coast, who happens to know the president of MCA records. And Joe Wissert, who, at that point -- Joe Wissert was, by the way, the Boz Scagg’s producer, and happened to be an A&R guy (artist and repertoire for you young-uns out there) who was working at MCA. At the same time, Bob Siner was president of the label. One thing leads to another and our manger Lindy Goetz went to MCA, talked to Joe Wissert, Joe talked to Bob Siner, and the next thing you know, we got offered a deal on MCA records for the Automatix and we took it. And we recorded our debut album very differently. We didn’t take the money and go into the studio. We took the money and bought a studio and put it in my house. (By the way, if you read the back of Red Hot Chili Peppers records from back then, you will realize Lindy was their manager for a long time.)
Hugh: Awesome. In Detroit, or in California by then?
Bruce: No, no, no. I’m still in Detroit. This is 1981-ish.
Hugh: You had a studio in your house when I was there which was like a few months before that. You must have really upgraded a lot.
Bruce: Well, the studio went through a number of upgrades along the way, but certainly, we started with what was then new at the time, and a unique concept -- an affordable console and an affordable 24 track machine. Now this was back in the day when if you wanted to buy a 24 track studio, it was fifty to sixty thousand dollars - or an Otari MTR90 was fifty, sixty or seventy thousand dollars -- and these were not the days of democratized, cheap access to the tools of professional recording. So we considered ourselves very lucky that we had been able to get a budget, and we parlayed that into a little studio in my second floor of my mom’s house in Detroit. And we hung out there for a number of months and we built the Automatix debut record, Night Rider, and took it to the United Sound Studios [Detroit’s home of Motown] where all of us had worked many times doing sessions.
Hugh: And that’s in Detroit?
Bruce: Yes it is, the very famous studio on Second Avenue in Detroit just around the corner from Wayne State University.
Hugh: Is that where the Parliament-Funkadelics did a lot of stuff?
Bruce: Oh yeah. Home of the Funkadelics and of by then, producer Don Davis had bought it and turned it into his Groovesville Productions base of operations - two beautiful studios. One gigantic live room with a classic Flickinger console, and one mixing studio with a NEVE console on it. And we took our record to United because all the engineers were friends of ours, and we knew this studio and we got a fairly good deal from Willie Davis, Don’s brother who ran the place, and we put a small part of our budget into United Sound’s revenue stream for that year by mixing the record there. We were smart enough about the studio thing to know that the enemy of the creative process was the pressure of time being paid for by the hour. So we eliminated that.
Hugh: By buying your own studio?
Bruce: Yeah -- we bought the studio gear, set it up in the house, and now we could record when we wanted to, as often as we wanted to, for as long as we wanted to -- until the record was right.
Hugh: That really is the way to do it Bruce, isn’t it?
Bruce: Absolutely. I’d like to think we were one of the very first to really embrace the whole concept of project studios. We kind of embraced it at a higher level than a Porta-Studio -- that’s for sure. And it was a lot of fun. We made a great record, took it to United, mixed it and it came out, and it got released on MCA, and the first single was just starting to heat the album oriented rock chart. There was a format back then called AOR [Album Oriented Rock], now since dead and gone for many, many years -- but AOR was the big thing in the mid 70s, late 70s early 80s.
Hugh: Sure, I mean everyone from Jethro Tull to Iggy Pop -- it was almost like concept album in a way.
Bruce: Well, yeah -- and this was the whole heyday of the Rock and Roll scene, where you would make a full length album as your musical statement of creativity, and then radio would find some singles within there -- some tracks that they thought would be commercially acceptable, and it was their traditional sort of record industry thing. So we released a single. The single started going up the charts, and we were getting good reviews from Album Network which was a radio trade tip sheet at the time.
Hugh: And what was the name of the single?
Bruce: I don’t even remember. [“When The Feeling Is Gone”]
Hugh: Okay, we’ll look it up. We’ll get that.
Bruce: Yeah, because I think it was bubbling under the charts for a while, I don’t know if it ever actually hit the charts. It might have been “When The Feeling is Gone”, which is this slow kind of Journey-ish shuffle. Anyways, one thing leads to another, the record starts to go up the charts and along comes Irving Azoff. Irving gets hired by MCA records to turn around the fortunes of the record label. So they toss out Bob Siner, the President, and they toss out Joe Wissert who was our A&R.[Irving Azoff was the Eagle’s manager who made them famous, by the way. – Funkatologist]
Hugh: Joe was the Boz Scaggs producer?
Bruce: Correct. Joe was our A&R guy, the guy that signed us. And back then, your A&R guy was your angel. He looked after you at your record label. So Irving comes in, takes a look at the 42 acts that are on the roster and by the end of the week there were only 7 of them left. And we weren’t one of them.
Hugh: That was kind of stupid then wasn’t it?
Bruce: Yeah, in hindsight yeah, we were pretty blown away that he would take a band that was finding its legs and going up the charts, and on the verge of being commercialy successful and yank the rug out from under. But he didn’t care, Irving never cared about that, he just cared about the money.
Hugh: It sounds like something that’s happened a million times in the business too.
Bruce: Yeah, it has. I mean the Automatix are not the only act that’s ever been dropped by the label - unfortunately it happened a lot, but it happened right at the formative time when our first record was coming out and we had the potential for a nice long career and it kind of got sabotaged.
Hugh: And so that was it? Finished? Finito?
Bruce: Yeah, that was it.
Hugh: Did you get to keep the studio?
Bruce: I did.
== end of part 1 ==