By Greg Jones
Editors note: Republished from out 2015 Luthier Issue
A recent news story about high school students and their knowledge of US history, or rather the astonishing lack thereof, ended with the old adage about those who do not know history being doomed to repeat it and predicted great troubles ahead for the current generation of the young. This being a music publication, I couldn’t help transferring this train of thought into rock music history. Are we being as ill-served by our music press and institutions such as the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame as high school students are by the schools and media that so tries to shape their minds? And are glaring omissions from that history enough to seriously limit our own experience with music in detrimental long-lasting ways?
I can’t say for certain, but one thing I can say: when I encounter someone who knows music’s history, especially from being part of making it, I get really inspired.
Case in point: Jimmy Vivino may primarily be known to the public as the Music Director and guitarist on Conan O’Brien’s TV show but he’s also an arranger/composer/producer of tremendous accomplishment who gives passionate performances and has played with a veritable who’s who of great artists. In this heartfelt talk, you will find out some tips the legendary session men shared with him, the existence of an as-yet-unreleased album that many would consider the Holy Grail (but that there is currently no record label interest in) and who really invented heavy metal. He also shares countless stories of all the musical giants he’s been blessed to play alongside and what made them each so special, as well as who the great songwriters in rock and popular music are and what you need to do to work as a musician. Listen to the recent live album 13 by his fiery band Jimmy Vivino and The Black Italians or see his unparalleled Beatles tribute band The Fab Faux and you’ll discover that real music, steeped in heart-rending depth, dangerous and unpredictable, is alive and well, burning brightly through him and his friends, played for all the right reasons by this consummate artist.
Guitar Connoisseur: You and I, it turns out, were born in the same year, 1955?
Jimmy Vivino: That’s right. We’re classics now.
GC: (laughs) Certainly we grew up in the shadow of classics.
JV: Well we certainly grew up, if I may, just a little late. (laughs) For me. Just a little bit late. I was a kid looking over the fence, you know, at the big kids, at the greatest time for music as far as I’m concerned.
GC: You mean we were probably both too young to go to Woodstock?
JV: Well, I went to Watkins Glen right afterwards, 2 or 3 years later. I was too young to go to Woodstock but I was going to the Fillmore when I was 13, so, yay! Under supervision of somebody’s older brother who would take us, because we had a band already so, it was like well, this is the place to go. It was a great atmosphere to begin, for me. To be 9 years old watching the Beatles on Ed Sullivan, and seeing the other guitar bands. I didn’t remember Elvis and Buddy Holly – there seemed to be a dry period between Elvis and Buddy Holly of real rock and roll on TV. What we had more was, it turned into The Four Seasons and stuff like that.
GC: Which was, it had –
JV: Oh, it was, it was great…
GC: I know what you mean, it was as if, after Buddy Holly, they re-thought letting us be exposed to the real guitar bands.
JV: We missed it because down South they had The!!!! Beat, the Hoss Allen show, they had a lot of TV shows where they had black r&b artists on. We didn’t see those guys. We didn’t see Little Richard and we didn’t see Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley and Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters. We just didn’t see ‘em, y’know? We were kind of, Ed Sullivan was it for us for a long time until later when Shindig came along. Right after The Beatles, everything got rock and roll on TV.
GC: When I was a kid on the West Coast watching Where The Action Is and American Bandstand, I always felt like there was a blanket of safety over it all.
JV: Oh sure, sure – it was produced, you know?
GC: Whereas the records my older brother was bringing into the house were like, ah, here’s where the real danger is.
JV: Yeah, my older brother, too. He brought mostly soul music in, Motown and Stax and that kind of stuff. He wasn’t really into guitar bands much. But anyway, I don’t want to dominate the conversation with this.
GC: No, no (laughs), that’s fine.
JV: Is this about gear or music or what’s – ?
GC: Well the first question I have for you is: what age did you notice music having a profound effect on you?
JV: Oh okay, the first thing I remember was my father playing his trumpet. He was great. He would come home from work, sit on the couch with his coronet and follow along with Louis Armstrong and Charlie Shavers and Bunny Berigan, just all the cats, the heavy trumpet guys. Trumpet was king when my father was a kid. Harry James, all those guys. He was a trumpet player. But he wasn’t allowed to be because he was a carpenter, from a family of construction workers, so, that’s what he did. They told him music wasn’t a serious thing. So music was around the house all the time. It was mostly jazz and Broadway records until my aunt moved in when she was 16. My mother’s kid sister moved in and that’s when I started hearing what Italian kids listened to which was Dion, the Four Seasons, Bobby Darin, y’know? It was Italian sort-of rock’n’roll, it was rock in suits, you know? With a guy up front that had really good hair…
JV: Now Dion’s really a great pal of mine now, it turns out he’s really a blues man at heart. That’s why the Belmonts were so great, cuz he sang like an r&b cat. So I heard a lot of that and then of course Sinatra and Dean Martin and Louis Armstrong and Judy Garland, everywhere, that kind of music. So my father played trumpet and when I was nine or eight or so, I started to pick it up and he started teaching me. I played trumpet and we had a piano in the house so I picked that up.
GC: Did you actually take up piano before the guitar?
JV: Yes. At 23 I switched to guitar.
GC: 23?! Oh, you’re blowing my mind – that’s incredible!
JV: If a kid picks up a guitar at 15 he’s a genius by 17 today, right?
JV: I have a great friend that’s doing a gig, we’re doing a tribute to our friend Johnny Winter who passed away, Joe Bonamassa, he’s going to do a gig out here this Monday night coming up, and I know Joe from 12. He sang with his father, who used to come to guitar shows in Long Island and had a store in Utica. So this fat little kid used to pick up the guitar at 12 years old and I would bring him up on stage with me when we’d play at night at the shows. He’s remained like a kid brother to me to this day. So I saw you could develop really quickly if you spent a lot of time with it. That’s my point. It doesn’t matter how old or how young you are, if you put the time in, concentrated. Plus I had all this music background before, you know, of having a guitar around the house, knowing the few cowboy chords everybody did. So whatever was around, I would pick it up and play it. Except for saxophone, I left to brother Gary.
GC: That kind of backs up the definition of the word “instrument” as a tool.
JV: Sure, because they’re all – it’s so much better if you start on a reading instrument if you know what I mean and then apply it to everything else. Going from the trumpet to the piano where the map is so visual on the piano – the note is in one place.
GC: And all the great sheet music, too.
JV: So I just played organ in band, trumpet and organ for a long time. Had a B3 and all of that. Besides guitar influences, Al Kooper and Steve Winwood were huge influences on me because they did both. I loved that they both played guitar and organ equally well. That became a focus for me, of getting the guitar together, for a long time. Finally I just got tired of lugging the damn B3 around you know?
JV: My brother who was the saxophone player in the band, he owned the van, so he would always be “Oh man, the damn B3? I’m going out on a date!” – you had the B3 and the two Leslies in the back of the van. Throw a blanket over them and have a ball, you know?
GC: That’s funny. As a drummer I would watch Jethro Tull and think, that guy with the flute, now he’s got the right idea.
JV: Really, really, man. I’m sure we saw a lot of the same great music. When we grew up, by the time 1964 came around I was 9 and I was playing the trumpet, there was always a seed of “that’s cool – who could teach me that?” And they’re up there and they’re – I remember seeing The Ventures or The Beach Boys – but not a band of four guys, playing and singing and writing, just all self-contained.
GC: I remember, whenever someone put a record out, whether it was The Beatles or The Stones or whoever, it almost seemed like the universe was exploding open even wider with every new album released.
JV: Well that’s because, as you say, the album, we got the album. The singles, for example, I bought singles, they were it for a while, yes; but when it became evident that there was so much more on the album that we weren’t hearing and, you know, that search that kids have for more. Also you could just put it on and let it roll for twenty minutes. (laughing) And then turn it over and let it roll for another twenty minutes.
GC: I remember my father thinking there was something wrong with his 12 year old son who could play baseball but wanted to wile away hours sitting and listening to music.
JV: Yeah that was totally “not right”. But at the same time my brothers and I had training, we had a dance team, we sang and we acted – we had seen the Osmonds on the Andy Williams Summer Special and my parents would say, “well, if you’re going to be in show business, that’s what you need to be doing. Everything. You need to be like Sammy Davis. Play drums, sure; but dance and sing and play the trumpet and do everything. You have to do everything.” They came from that Mickey Rooney and Hollywood musicals, you know, put the show together in the barn, everybody seemed so talented. So the criteria was everything, not just rock and roll. I always had that sensibility about working. When people ask me do you want to come do a college and teach something? Well first of all, most of these kids can play rings around me – but they don’t know how to work. I’ll talk about how to get a job out there. How to make this a living. Or how it worked for me to do that, because the climate’s changed again. There’s no clubs. I worked seven nights a week in lounges playing six sets a day, and that doesn’t exist anymore.
JV: But I think everything you do takes you to the next place. The trumpet and the keyboard and all that was great, but at 23 I switched over to guitar. I took some lessons from some serious jazz cats cuz I thought that, even though I wasn’t going to be a jazz player, I needed to go in over my head.
GC: You knew they knew something that a lot of the more basic guys didn’t know?
JV: Well they knew how to work. These guys were studio musicians. They weren’t just bebop guys. Everybody in the studio in that 50s, 60s, 70s were trained and jazz was sort of their recreation. Jazz, it’s like – it’s funny, the higher the level you get, the less you get paid. In music. (laughs)
GC: (laughing sadly) That is funny, isn’t it?
JV: I know guys that are playing first chair in symphony that have to teach all week long to supplement their income. And that’s a dedication. I said man there must be a way to do all of this, to play and to work at the same time. And that’s why the playing part, to me, it’s never finished anyway; I’m still studying stuff, I’m still going back to my records and listening to things. And I know, I’m glad there are a lot of great, bright players on the horizon, right at the top, Warren Haynes and Derek Trucks and Joe Bonamassa, cats that have been around. Guitar, my whole life is guitar now. I play a lot of piano still and arrange but guitar is really what I focus on.
GC: Hearing you point to Al Kooper and Steve Winwood as role models, I think of the story where Al Kooper shows up to that Bob Dylan session (Like A Rolling Stone) to play guitar, hears another guitar player that he thinks is doing great stuff on it and so he hops on the organ and proceeds to make one of the great organ recordings of that era.
JV: Al was in that work environment of the Brill building, you know, and all the songwriters and he was already doing that stuff. He’d worked before playing, with the Royal Teens, “Short Shorts”, and The Blues Project would start soon after the Dylan session, and him and Harvey Brooks grew up together in Forest Hills. My brothers and I were dancing together at The New Jersey Pavilion, doing our tap dance routine in 1964 and I’m nine years old, Al and Harvey are playing at the Queens Pavilion, three shows a day on top of the carousel.
GC: It’s funny that you’re making connections at 9 years old and you don’t even know it.
JV: We didn’t know it but we’re like best friends now and so we always talk about that, as kids, we were working right down the road. And I’m like, yeah, but I was nine, and you were nineteen, so you weren’t even going to look at me and say hello, and I was too afraid to say hello to you. That’s a funny crossing of the paths. But he was working, too, obviously, so his parents were not gonna allow it unless he was making money and working, and my parents were the same way. I had the option of slinging a hammer on the roof, you know?
GC: (laughing) Right!
JV: Not very good. So I practiced, and when we were kids, because he had musical ability, they would say “play your lesson for me.” If we couldn’t play our lesson, “well, you’re not going, I’m not spending the money on you”.
GC: That takes me back.
JV: And there were times when you weren’t learning, and I’d go in the room and cry, I felt so bad, money was tight anyway, so it would have been worse if they’d spent the money on me and I’d gotten away with not having my lesson together. And it was all good. Everything today, people would say, “Oh your father’s passive-aggressive”, or “Oh you were ADHD” “You’re obsessive-compulsive” – all the things that make us musicians are all the things they give kids drugs for today.
GC: Right. And the thing our parents were afraid of about us becoming musicians was that we were going to get into drugs.
JV: (laughing) Right! So here’s a way to stop them from being musicians: give ‘em the drugs first!
GC: Yeah! It’s crazy.
JV: I mean, all of us kids, we had a lot of nervous energy, we had to put bands together, and we got together in basements and we played and we played and we played and we were given praise for it so we weren’t looked at as weird kids. We loved it, man; it seemed like a possibility, we weren’t discouraged. In the town we lived in, they had dances, they had all kinds of activities, kids could play, there were 3 or 4 bands every Saturday night playing. We were all borrowing equipment from each other, it was very healthy. “Who’s got the PA? I have a Shure Vocal Master. Wow.” It was all about music. It wasn’t about a computer game, it wasn’t about sampling, and it wasn’t about rapping, it was about singing and playing and all that.
GC: Or being marooned on an island with Pro Tools.
JV: Yeah, an island in your bedroom and you never come out of it. Not to say that a lot of talent doesn’t come out of this modern technology – a lot does – but I’d love to see kids getting together and playing music a lot. And I do. On my show I see them all the time. Kids come over from Ireland, they’re 17, I can’t remember the name of the band but they’re unbelievable. They’re like a cross between The Kinks and The Who. So I was like, wow! Maybe it does – maybe it skips a generation or something and then it comes back again.
GC: Listening to you talk about how you were focused on learning music in a way that you’d be able to work as a musician, I can almost imagine that maybe for you there wasn’t a big line in the sand you crossed where you said “Here’s my first serious break into the industry.”
JV: You don’t even know when it happens. You just keep working, you keep your head down and you work. An opportunity can knock, and then you’d better answer the door, or, you can’t make it happen. There is a, I hate to say that there’s luck and there’s circumstance, it’s not coincidence. I worked and worked and worked, played with my brothers, my older brother had a TV show called The Uncle Floyd Show that he did in New York.
GC: I saw it on U68.
JV: Yeah! He was a rogue in the cable business because he started on UHF but then he started buying his own time around town. He would go around town to the pet stores, to the barber shops, and say “Give me money, I’ll put an ad for you on TV”. The FCC doesn’t allow this anymore but at the time, you could gather, he would gather $10,000 a week doing that, for advertising, and spend $2,000 a week making 5 shows.
GC: That’s really –
JV: Those are his numbers. I don’t know if they’re real numbers, but I have a feeling – it was much cheaper in those days. He’d rent the studio out, pay the cameramen – yeah! And they’d put 5 together in one day. And then all of a sudden, it became punk TV. David Bowie showing up, David Johansen of the New York Dolls showing up, The Ramones are showing up, Cyndi Lauper showing up, everybody that I met along the way was through my brother. And then we went and played shows opening for The Ramones and we played at The Bottom Line. Alan Pepper owned this club The Bottom Line which was the showcase of New York. I got to be very close with him and he started hiring me to put shows together.
GC: Wow, that’s great.
JV: Ben E. King came and needed a band, he called me. We worked together, I met Paul Schaeffer through him, learned a lot about band leading and arranging. We did a couple of shows there, Leader Of The Pack and a couple other big shows we put on down there. That got me to Broadway, that got me to film scoring, through all the people I met there. And always learned from Paul that if you respect the record when you’re backing somebody up, build it and they will come. Because a lot of acts in those days were – say you were going to, I don’t know – say Peter Noone was coming in.
GC: Right; post-Herman’s Hermits.
JV: He’s got his charts, but they’re like, you know, over-written Vegas charts. And he just hands them out to a band and they play what’s on the paper, like, with no heart at all, and he phones in the performance and goes home. Now, if me or Paul was backing him up, we’d say “don’t bring the charts, just give us a song list”. And we would go to the records and learn those records like Gospel, like religion. And all of a sudden, when the singer starts hearing that, they come to life, man. They’re back in that record, too. So it was always respect the record. That was the main thing. These records were our Bibles. So we respected them and we learned an awful lot about arranging and playing. Because the way these records were made, even The Monkees, if I play with Micky Dolenz like last year and we play it like the record, he just comes to life.
GC: It makes total sense; it never would have occurred to me as a listener to even imagine that these guys could be coming around handing out charts that were written badly for them.
JV: Well, they’re just written in a way, in a show fashion. And in the case of The Temptations you can’t help it, it’s like hiring a big band, but everything got to be, it’s like Copa Cabana time. So that only works for Barry Manilow.
JV: Play his charts ‘cuz Barry’s charts are the record.
GC: It sounds like Paul taught you “hey, let’s not forget what excited us about these records in the first place.”
JV: Exactly. Exactly. And Paul also told me if the bass and drums are right, everything else will be easy to put on top of that. The bass and drums have to be absolutely correct.
GC: That raises a question. When you look at some of the seminal jazz records like Miles Davis albums, or the 70s British prog rock stuff or even the great pop records of the 60s, it seems like the role of the rhythm section is at least partially spelled out somewhat by whoever had written the piece. Whereas in the bluesier realms, to me anyway, it seems like there’s an expected set of approaches to the rhythm but as long as you’re within them, you’re sort of free to improvise.
JV: Well if we’re talking about making records, as opposed to recording blues or jazz – making a record, to us, was always a song and it’s pop music. You know making a record, like an Aretha Franklin record, if you got Purdie and Rainey in the rhythm section, and Aretha on piano, you’re done, man, that’s the whole record right there. It’s about hiring the right people. It’s not all written out. This is the way guys played. James Jamerson and Ben Benjamin up in Motown played that way. Every note wasn’t written for them. Yes there were sessions where every note was written and players would play them. But they had a sense of how to make it swing and work beyond what the arranger wrote.
JV: A lot of times they’d just put it away and say “I think I know what you meant.” And the smart general is not the guy on the front line, it’s the people he sends out on the front line, you know? The producer hires the right rhythm section and that’s why rhythm sections became like tough gangs you didn’t break into. So every town had a sound that was a rhythm section. The Meters were the most ignored, disrespected rhythm section in rock and roll and need to be in the Hall Of Fame. It’s a shame what they’re doing. Booker T and the MGs in Memphis, right? The Funk Bros. up in Detroit, in Chicago there was Morris Jennings and Louis Satterfield, the guys that backed up, made all those Impressions records with Curtis Mayfield. That band was the Chicago sound. In L.A. there was The Wrecking Crew, right? And in New York, Purdie and Rainey and those guys up at Atlantic – the Atlantic sound was unbelievable. And some of the Atlantic sound came from Muscle Shoals as we know. If you want, you go to this town and get it to sound like that. Detroit had cats too, man, and Detroit, that’s another great rock & roll town. But the point is we found all this stuff out, we talked about it; the way people talked about baseball cards, we’d talk about records. Who’s on that record and who arranged it – me and Paul would be “who did the strings for that? Who’s the rhythm section on that? Oh there was this other guy -” Stuff like that. “And there was this other drummer besides Benny Benjamin ” – we’d sit for hours, blah blah blah, it’s – archeology, you know?
GC: Well some of these guys were still people you could call if you were producing, right?
JV: Oh yeah, yeah. I played with some of, I still play with some of these guys. Purdie gave me the best advice. He said “if your rhythm is louder than my hihat, you’re too loud. If you want to solo, you can play as loud as you want; but when you’re playing rhythm guitar you’d better key into my hihat.” And he told the bass player to key into his bass drum. Cuz he knew more about, and he’ll tell you about it, yeah. He knew more about what made a rhythm section happen organically. And could tell the young kids, he would always tell us. He’d give us advice. And I loved that about all those old cats. They were always willing to tell us what it was and we asked a lot. They didn’t get a lot of money for what they did either, they had to do a lot of sessions to make money. They had to do like four a day and maybe they’d be taking home two hundred dollars at the end of the day.
GC: And making timeless, historical magic.
JV: Yeah and just creating a sound, so, this was the climate I was in, studio musicians, and I was wow, I want to be a part of it, be one of them. I never wanted to be the guy in front, the artist; I wanted to be the guy in the band, and the arranger, and what made it happen. To me it seemed more attractive than having to go through trying to have a career up front performing for other people and do all that. So there was this great option, of playing music and not even having to be the artist, that I loved.
GC: Yet still being able to infuse it with, either the instinctive approaches that made it so great or perhaps, in some cases, your own approach because you understood the vibe of the music?
JV: Yeah. And you know, you were talking about blues before? And how the guys could just play? That wasn’t necessarily true because Muddy Waters really created modern electric Chicago blues with his band. My friend Bob Margolin played with Muddy till the end, he played with him for a long time. He was a white kid that Muddy took in. And for the first year or two he had to play the pattern, there was an alternate bass line – (sings “duh-doom, duh-doom, duh-doom, duh-doom”_ – a pattern – they didn’t get off the pattern. Muddy’d give him the pattern. That’s it. He didn’t get to pick a beat, he didn’t play rhythm guitar, cuz there was no rhythm guitar like Chuck Berry style rhythm guitar in Muddy’s situation. It was based on Otis Spann’s piano playing, the pattern, the two bass patterns and maybe a lead, another guitar playing a ride, sort of a Robert Lockwood sort of ride behind the singer or harmonica. But there wasn’t, it was never like a guitar trio type of thing. It was constructed and arranged. Those records were arranged, Muddy was a brilliant arranger in that. And Willie Dixon being there, it was just – we think oh these guys just went in and cut; well, they took forty takes sometimes.
JV: To get that record. And there was the sound of Wolf’s band, Chicago was deep, man; the Stones knew it, the Stones had to go there. And Fleetwood Mac, the English guys knew, something’s going on at Chess, when you look at it. Besides Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf you had Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, it was just this amazing, amazing place for rock and roll. And then, what we know as blues rock comes from Chess Records. The English, they got that right away. I was into Paul Butterfield’s Band, I loved Bloomfield, to no end, that’s my favorite guitar player ever. I wasn’t so much a Page/Plant/Beck guy, or Clapton; I was more of a Bloomfield, Johnny Winter and Leslie West was my guy.
GC: Oh, Leslie West, I mean, he invented a sound and nobody else can catch it.
JV: No, he invented heavy metal. He did. More than Page and those guys. He did.
GC: I saw Mountain once in Hawaii at The Waikiki Shell – an outdoor ampitheater under the stars in Hawaii – seated in the second row. And they started playing “Never In My Life” and Leslie smacks a chord and he knocked the power out in Honolulu! For ten minutes!
GC: The whole city was dark. It took something like fifteen minutes to sort things out and get power back so they could have the show. And nobody was upset, we all just couldn’t wait because we had gotten that little taste of what was to come. To this day I can’t find words to communicate the excitement that was generated by Mountain.
JV: And I saw them in a high school gym one town away from me. Someone would give them a high school gig, and then they’d play The Fillmore, or the Capitol Theater in Portchester, then run up to Boston and they’d make the East Coast – they’d stop in your town sometimes on a Wednesday night and you’d have a concert. And Mountain, sitting on the floor in front of those guys, this was when I guess Steve Knight had just joined, they had organ too, they had a B3 now too, with Felix and Leslie. And the sound of that guitar was – I’d never heard anything like that before in my life. Still! (laughs) And the size of the guy and the sound of his voice – and they’re an unknown band today.
GC: That, to me, is so crazy.
JV: Deep Purple can’t get into the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame. So… with all due respect to everybody else, that got in before them, and Procol Harum, and Yes, these important bands – and King Crimson. We’re in a – there’s a weird void that a lot of really influential people have fallen into. That people are forgetting about. I guess that’s, I don’t want to be bitter about it, it’s sad.
GC: On the one hand, you look at the general – and it’s not even intentional – ignorance of people about these bands. And on the other hand, because of the internet, for anyone that wants to go looking, they couldn’t be in a better time to find some of this music.
GC: I love hearing that Leslie West invented heavy metal.
JV: Oh yeah, well, cats know, they all respect Leslie. Leslie’s a really good friend of mine now and the fact that I got Johnny Winter and him and Al Kooper and all these cats stepped out of my record collection? That’s all I need. That’s the measure of my success, I think, that I can call these guys friends or walk into a room and we say hello to each other. And on some level appear, cuz I’ve played with most of these cats, and I can never, you know, get over that. I’m always gonna be a fan and I remember looking over the fence and thinking, I’ve got to get in this thing. Pick me last, but pick me.
GC: If I scan down a list of some of your high profile collaborations or people that you got to play with, one of the traits that leaps out at me is that, even for the ones that are in pretty established musical forms, there’s an outside-the-box thinking, this wild unpredictable side; that’s what I see when I see all of their names. I see Al Kooper, Jules Shear, Johnny Winter. I mean, Johnny Winter, to my ears, somehow his approach to the blues is simultaneously traditional and yet, in what comes out his fingers, unpredictable as all get out.
JV: Well, he’s from Texas, Beaumont, Texas, he’s a depressed Albino kid that’s got this guitar and just lives in a room with it. And him and his brother both are musical geniuses, both of them, unbelievable – that their parents would have two Albino kids is incredibly strange anyway, and then for them to be just, alien geniuses, I’m not even sure they’re from this planet.
GC: (Laughs) In the late eighties a friend of mine who needed a ride had tickets to see George Thorogood at an arena and I asked “is there an opening act?” and he said Johnny Winter – and I flipped! I knew he wasn’t so much doing the rock and roll thing anymore – and I wondered what is he going to do with his more purist blues approach in front of this big arena crowd? And he had a rhythm section on this tour that was like a blues version of Rush. The bass player was scat singing and playing harmonica while he was playing bass –
JV: That’s Jon Farris.
GC: And Johnny held that – however many thousand people Nassau Colliseum holds – crowd in the palm of his hand. They were enthralled.
JV: They always loved Johnny in Long Island. The cats, everybody that I’ve run into has just been around. If I’m playing a club – I had a band with Harvey Brooks and we were playing a club called Hades on the upper East side, with a little big band, and Donald Fagen would come in and play with us. And we started working together and then Walter started coming around and then they got back together. So, to me, it’s like – I would say, why are you guys wasting time not playing together? Now I say that touring is better – so they start touring together and to me, that’s great music. That was late in the Seventies, Zappa, Steely Dan – this was stuff that caused punk to happen. (laughing) The knee-jerk reaction when kids say “I can’t play that!” That’s when punk came. And it happened again. After Van Halen. It happened again where grunge started. “We can’t do that; let’s do this”.
GC: And the funny thing is, some of those grunge guys got pretty good themselves.
JV: Oh yeah. Dave Grohl is a great songwriter; maybe a better songwriter, dare I say it –
GC: I totally agree. And that’s no disrespect to Kurt Cobain.
JV: Oh no disrespect to Kurt. But there is some mystique to dying. That makes you, it elevates you, unfortunately, because of what you could have done, maybe not because of what you have done in some cases.
GC: Going back to the artists you’ve worked with, the guy I really want to ask you about is Levon Helm.
JV: Oh well, you know, that’s America. That music. Let me just say this about The Band. They made everybody that was at the top of their game in the UK doubt what they were doing. Clapton? Cream had to break up. He heard that record, Big Pink, and was like, I gotta be doing this. That’s when he started hanging out with Americans like Delaney and Bonnie. Elton John? Tumbleweed Connection comes out after he hears Big Pink. It’s obvious that he’s writing his own American Civil War record. I think George Harrison – if you hear early demos of The Beatles playing All Things Must Pass songs in rehearsal, they’re playing and singing like they’re The Band.
JV: Paul McCartney in that movie, when he walks into frame in that movie for the first time in Let It Be, I swear to God I think it’s Garth Hudson. The coat he has on, the hair it’s been slicked back and the beard, I think it’s Garth Hudson. But it’s McCartney. So I think that they changed everything. Bob Dylan, who knows, uh, more than anybody (laughs) but only tells us a little bit of it, knew that was the band. That’s why they’re The Band. And Levon is so the character you see in movies when he, you know, Coal Miner’s Daughter, he plays the father? Or in The Right Stuff? That’s just Levon; he’s not acting. And you can see it in The Last Waltz. I feel like Robbie Robertson is scripted in that movie by Scorcese. But I see Levon talking and all of a sudden he’s grabbing me from behind the camera. He’s grabbing me by, he’s looking at me, talking to me, and when Levon sings, and when Rick Danko and Richard Manuel sang, they made those stories come to life on those records. I mean it’s, it’s, it’s – there’s nothing like it. It’s the greatest band. I just think it’s the greatest band. They really are sincere in every word they sing. It’s the greatest, man, what more can I say? Knowing him, I moved up to Woodstock and I lived like half a mile away. I went over there with Sebastian who I’d been doing stuff with already for years and I had met Levon a few times before then, he was always nice, always called me Jimmy V, always welcomed, a gentleman. I’ll never get over Levon Helm. I can’t get over it. It’s – when you’re on stage playing with him and you look over and it’s Levon Helm. So what can I say? It’s Beatle big, alright? (laughs) He didn’t even love The Beatles. I even think his drum sound, Ringo’s drum sound was influenced by his drum sound, you know?
GC: That’s incredible. I was just a kid, such a huge Beatles fan, that when I first heard The Band I was like, why is this music so gripping, compelling? It didn’t have any of the elements that usually appealed to me. But it was – it seemed almost haunted, with a depth of beauty and timeless –
JV: Yes. Haunted is the word. Haunted is the word. Yes. And it brings to mind everything, all of the magic of the South, comes to mind. They’re a bunch of guys from Canada, by the way, except for Levon. Because they romanticized, again, like the Stones did, about Memphis and Chicago and Muddy Waters? It came out in their music as an original thing. Really, the Stones don’t sound like black guys in Chicago playing, to me it’s totally a different thing. We know where it came from. These guys come from mostly – Rick Danko was a country music fan. Garth Hudson played funeral homes and the Anglican Church, played sea shanties. And it’s not blues based, his playing; it sounds more like it came off a pirate ship. And Robbie just oddly grabbed onto everything Roy Buchanan showed him, because Roy was playing with Ronnie Hawkins, Dale Hawkins, playing Suzie Q. So he learned from Burton and mostly from Roy, that squawky sound he got, you know? The harmonics and all that stuff and that go for it? And Rick Manuel was the greatest singer, the greatest white singer I heard. I always put Ray Charles as (number) one (laughs) and then there’s after that. And then Robbie’s collaboration or whatever you want to call it with the rest of those guys in making those stories come to life. As an observer more, Robbie was more of an observer of these characters. The stories came from the guys in the band. There’s a lot of controversy about where collaboration ends and songwriting starts – I can’t even get into that. But I know that it was guys living in a house or living in a van or living in a club and the stories came from their lives. If the credit wasn’t done right, that’s a tragedy; we have the music.
GC: Did I hear you correctly that you moved up to Woodstock to be near Levon?
JV: Not to be near him, no; but that’s where John lives and I was working with Sebastian a lot and Jules lived up there at that time and it’s a weekend place up there. I didn’t live twenty-four hours. But the climate, there was still a little bit of the magic left in the air of the community. A lot of great people up there. Eric Weissberg still lives up there, Happy and Artie Traum still live there.
GC: I know Tony Levin lived there for some time as well.
JV: Tony and Pete Levin, and also Jerry Marotta lived there. Everybody was up there that, people I really loved, Marshall Crenshaw moved up in that direction. It seemed like a really good place to make music so I was working with John a lot at that time. With Levon, I – the thing that happened with him – I guess you can read this, you’ve probably read this, I was working with Johnnie Johnson and Happy Traum was doing an instructional video. Johnnie was showing his piano style. Levon had just gotten out of the hospital that day for his first radiation treatment. And he actually came over and said “Jimmy V, we oughtta get Johnnie over the house and record him while you got him up here.” I thought that’s a wacky fucking idea, I’m going to rent a piano and I’m going to bring Chris Anderson’s truck – Chris Anderson has a studio that I work at a lot up there – and we did. We recorded, like, 16 tracks in one day. Levon and Mike Merritt and James Warwick and myself and Jim Wieder on guitar. Danko came over, he played some, Garth played some. And I did a second session where I said Lee, what if we get all the guys together and finish this record off? Would it be cool to bring Rick Danko and Richard Bell and Wieder and Randy and you and Garth and everybody in? And he said “Well, you know I, nobody can get ALL of us in one room, maybe you can.” So – we did. And there’s another 15, 16 tracks, there was like 30 tracks altogether when I was done. Now I’ve got it and I’m sitting on it. And I didn’t ever put it out cuz guys were dying out from under the project. And I felt like, I don’t want to be one of those, you know, buzzards.
JV: Saying “Oh, I got this work by them and they’re all gone now”. So I just recently have been mixing it again and I can’t get anybody, no one’s interested in it, you know?
GC: See, that’s mind-blowing to me.
JV: Nobody’s interested in it, it’s got some of their last work and they’re really playing great. It’s my record clearly, but, I got a pretty good band, between Johnnie Johnson and The Band, you know? Sebastian’s on it and just the Woodstock community. And it’s pre-Ramble. Right after that, I started working with Levon. I don’t want to dwell on that record, it’s kind of dead in the water. We tried to send it out to people and nobody really cares, they’re like “whoa, the record business is hard now, and you can’t tour – everybody’s gone” And I said what about a historical document? Does anybody give a shit anymore?
GC: I just want to say that any of your peers that know you, nobody would think you were trying to exploit this. It’s like finding an unheard Mozart or something.
JV: I’m just sitting on it again now. I think I’ll finish it off and then I’LL listen to it. (laughs) Play it for my friends at a Christmas party. The next generation thinks music is free any way, and so why should anybody put any money into anything?
GC: Yeah, yeah (sighs).
JV: Luckily I don’t have to make a living on this record. It’s sad in a way. But the good news was Levon and I, we started writing songs, this actually pre-dated those sessions. We wrote a couple of songs together while he was convalescing. Then he started playing drums again and I said let’s put this band The Barn Burners together. Because he wanted to play. I think it was the best therapy for him to keep playing. One night we started these rambles, you know? We started doing the Midnight Rambles and that was a great thing. He talks about it in The Last Waltz. His idea was let’s not go out and play, let’s bring the people to my house. (laughs) It’s a great idea.
GC: That was way ahead of it’s time. People in England started doing this stuff with a webcam and the press were like “it’s a new thing!”
JV: It’s such an old idea that it’s new. We’ll have a barn raising and we’ll have a hoedown afterwards. People will play, bring your food. People brought food and it was almost like this anachronistic behavior and it caught on. That was a wonderful thing. It might have been, I can’t remember, I want to say a writer that said Levon Helm had the best encore in the music business. Because he got three Grammys in that ten year period. And he got none with The Band. So… it was bittersweet but he lived for that. He lived another ten years for that. For the Ramble. So there’s no one – people always become family to me, Johnnie Johnson and Sebastian, and Levon was just – one of my favorite people ever. I miss him to this day, every day.
GC: I heard the song that you wrote for him and what reminded me of him wasn’t so much the lyrics as this thing you do when you’re turning around the chorus (sings). I said this is magic.
JV: It had that drag. Levon would say “that was Richard’s thing, to just twist it around a little bit, make it a little different”. That was The Band, man; there’ll never be anything like that again. Same with The Beatles. When you look at both those bands, in that short period of time, the amount of output.
GC: It’s like the musical equivalent to the atomic age or the industrial revolution. An explosion of progress that’s so fast you almost can’t track it. Like a musical Big Bang or something.
JV: Is it called The Knick, this HBO show about medicine at the turn of the century about a hospital? There’s a great line one guy says: “The medical field has advanced more in five years than it has in the last 500.” It’s almost like rock and roll in that period was just boom, you know? Johnny Winter used to say “Chuck Berry was my Jimi Hendrix.” He was a peer of Jimi Hendrix. And I think that Bob Dylan was to Jimi Hendrix what Jimi Hendrix was to Stevie Ray Vaughan. It’s amazing how all of these people co-existed within the era at the same time in a very short period of time. Bob for songwriting? Bob changed songwriting quicker than – the idea of what lyrics in a song were, when “Like A Rolling Stone” hit, it was like what is this? Frank Zappa had to pull over, he was going to crash his car.
GC: Joni Mitchell said it had a similar effect on her; she thought Oh my God, I can do anything now.
JV: That’s what I said earlier. It allowed us, as kids, to say “I can do this!” Even if you get a little bit of it, you could be a genius.
GC: If I don’t ask you a couple of the questions I have about your own work –
JV: Please do, please do.
GC: Although this is going to be, historically anyway, the best article that’s ever appeared in Guitar Connoisseur, I’ll tell you that right now.
JV: It’s like a book! It’s a book we’re working on! But go ahead.
GC: (laughing) If I scan your discography, I see that the blues is huge for you. At the same time, there’s almost this other side to you, with The Fab Faux, all the stuff you grew up with, that I think – and I’m just guessing – informs even your blues solos with a melodic sense.
JV: That’s because the blues is supposed to be the way you feel as a player. Not the way you do B.B. King or you do Albert King or you do Stevie Ray Vaughan. It’s not meant to be a mimicking art form or style of playing. It’s meant to be your blues. You shouldn’t be playing somebody else’s blues. You have to learn doing that, yes; but it’s kind of – you can take a lot of it but you have to have yourself in it. Sometimes it’s hard, I’ll say, man, that’s too much like Muddy. And I’ll hear guys that I can hear where their influences come from. When I listen to Warren Haynes and Derek Trucks, who I just think are the best two guitar players on the planet right now, for me, for what I like. And Sonny Landreth. And I’ll keep naming guys. And those three guys all cut their teeth on Duane Allman and on Elmore James. But when they play, they sound like them. Derek has incorporated all kinds of Arabic scales, Asian things into his playing; Warren is just like a hodgepodge of everything he’s ever learned. And I strive for that. I heard that in John Scofield, who is, you know, on another planet from where we live. There’s guys in the galaxy who are so far away from where I’ll ever be but I can at least appreciate them. And Scofield will occasionally fall into a B.B. King lick. I’m the opposite. I’ll play like B.B. King and occasionally fall into a Scofield lick.
JV: (laughs) The beauty is you have to weave in and out of everything you’ve ever played. Yeah. George Harrison has become a bigger influence to me now than he ever was. His slide playing is beautiful, right up to the very end. He found his voice on the slide guitar. I’m still looking for my voice. If you say you hear it, that’s great; it’s just news to me.
GC: Well, when I hear The Black Italians version of Light Up Or Leave Me Alone, the original is classic, but it also has a laid back vibe. I don’t know if it was the powdered velvet jackets in the cover photo or… (laughs)
JV: They were laid back.
GC: Whereas your band playing this, your guitar solo is fiery and biting, like you’re wide awake, on top of your game and really in the moment; and your entire band sounds like they’re having the time of their lives.
JV: We’re playing live, that was the idea, to be in front of people. Cuz if we were in a studio it might have gotten laid back. But I always thought Waiting For Columbus by Little Feat was their greatest album because it was a live album. And I never thought their studio albums came even close to what they felt like live. And I always wanted to make a record that was like that to me. That’s why that treatment of that song Fat Man is very Little Feat-like, the very first song. My influences, I wear ‘em on my sleeve, I don’t give a shit. Johnny Winter? I put him out there. Steve Winwood and Capaldi and James Brown? They’re all in the room. They’re in my head.
GC: On the song Fool’s Gold, I noticed you phrased the chords differently in the second verse than the first. It took me into a completely different emotion. The vocal on that is incredible, of course, and the buildup of passion by the whole band, by the end of the tune, it feels like a rocket’s taking off.
JV: That’s something I wrote way back and Catherine Russell recorded with me way back on one of the first Vivino Brothers records. We never really got it like the way we got it that night, because it matured. You know that happens a lot? You write a song and record it right away and then years later, it’s really ready to be recorded. That whole 12/8, 6/8 vibe is such a gospel thing, it’s so rooted in gospel. And Catherine just nails it. She can sing that stuff better than anyone. I love her. She just gets it. She’s one of the greatest singers, I can’t say enough. Her history, her father was Luis Russell, who was Louis Armstrong’s piano player and arranger for years. And her mother Carlene Raye was Etta James’ bass player.
JV: Yeah and played with Ray Charles also. She’s just got music, music, music coming out of her. So anyway, that record was a long time coming and I’m glad it’s out there. It got us to headline the King Biscuit festival in Arkansas, which is seriously, since Levon’s not around, I have a lot of family there because of him, extended family now.
GC: At the end of that performance, with me and every other listener wanting more, I thought to myself this band could do anything they want. And bands like Mad Dogs and Englishmen come to mind, or Edgar Winter’s White Trash. But your band has this total versatility where I could see you doing a record that was two thirds covers but your own arrangements of everything from King’s X to James Taylor and all points in between.
JV: Oh there’s so much good music, I think the good music’s all been written. But then occasionally I’ll hear something man, and go wow, that’s really good! Sure, covers? I learned that from Al Kooper. He’d play some amazing song and I’d say did you write that and he’d say no, that was so and so, that was Ashford and Simpson. But these are songwriters. A good song is going to stand up to a good band, it’s going to really work. There’s stuff we recorded that we didn’t use, it happens. The more standard blues stuff wasn’t what we want when we have all this percussion going, you know? And this wild Felix Cabrera, this Cuban harp player, one of my oldest friends. It was more like let’s get together in a barn and put a show on, have people there and record it, cuz this was a band that was only together, once a week we play live at down time.
GC: Jumping to another band entirely, has The Fab Faux done some of the Yellow Submarine stuff like Only A Northern Song, It’s All Too Much or Hey Bulldog?
JV: I think there’s only about five songs that we haven’t done.
GC: (laughing) From the entire Beatles catalog? That’s great!
JV: We’ve even done You Know My Name (Look Up The Number) and we do Revolution 9. You should see us when we come up to Boston. Are you up there still?
GC: No, actually I live in Jersey, I’m hoping to see you at The White Album show in November.
JV: Oh you’ve gotta come to that!
GC: You’re doing another one where it’s sort of like a boxing match, who’s the better songwriter –
JV: At the Beacon Theater! Paul versus John, it’s the age old question, right? I hope people understand what we’re getting at. They should understand, right? It goes back to my friends and I and the old fan magazines, “Who’s better, Beatles or Stones?” Remember that?
JV: The John-Paul thing has always been an argument, the cute one versus the sour one. And the fact is they both have more going on, songwriting-wise, than just about anyone, so together? It was the best.
GC: My editor will hang me (laughs) if I don’t ask you something about the Conan show, so how much say do you get in choice of tunes to play in the breaks?
JV: Since we are not on network anymore and don’t have a huge budget, we play whatever we want in the middle. Going out? I write bumpers. I write ins and outs. But then we go into whatever we want. That’s a lot of the stuff, some Delaney and Bonnie stuff, some Otis Redding in there, even some Lou Reed tunes are there. (laughs) It’s everything and anything. And Conan is a good guitar player. For his last birthday, myself and the producer and the head of TBS bought him a 55 Strat. It looks just like Buddy Holly’s, worn out and everything. A real one. He wears it around his neck all day and he plays all day. So much of our show is about guitar and music, it’s always been that way. We’ve had a connection, I’ve been fortunate enough to be there for 21 years and to have been arranging for this band and leading this band for a long time. Also, to be playing with people I love. It’s the same band for the most part, minus one guy who replaced the original guy anyway. When he called me and said “I need a band”, our drummer James Wormworth who was working with The Vivino Brothers and Johnnie Johnson was put out of a gig. So we came back to him and the only thing I can say about that situation is everybody is doing exactly what they should be doing and playing with exactly who they should. Because that situation, with Bruce? Nobody’s better for that situation than the guy he’s been using for years. Like The Rolling Stones, all the guys in it are the right guys.
GC: Where that’s the band. You can do one experimental record where you use all these different guys, but…
JV: Yeah. He’s got Porcaro and Gary Mallaber on drums, who are great players, but it’s like replacing Levon in The Band with a studio musician. The floppy jalopy comes from bad springs, you know? (laughing) It comes from everybody pulling together to make the thing go down the road.
GC: (laughing) That’s a great analogy. I’m going to end with a really silly question. When I was looking at your discography, I noticed one glaring ommission. I did not see Triumph The Insult Comic Dog’s Come Poop With Me and I wondered is there any way that Jimmy is not on this record somewhere?
JV: I’m totally on it, totally. I produced a lot of it with Robert. And wrote a lot of it with him, yeah. A lot of the songs were co-written with me and him. But I don’t think the Uncle Floyd album’s on there either. So I’m short on Comedy. But you know, I’ve only really ever worked with one artiste and that was Laura Nyro, who was a genius from another planet; I’ve worked with a lot of great musicians, I’ve been lucky; I’m not done, but like I said to someone else that asked me recently what’s the crowning achievement? And I said, knowing the people that stepped out of my records, into my life, as flesh and blood. All of them, every one of them, lives up to every expectation I’ve ever had, including Chuck Berry. Playing with Chuck, it’s like being insulted by Rickles, you want to be.
JV: At the end of the day, pre-Bob Dylan, who was the greatest songwriter of our day? Chuck Berry. I think so.
GC: I saw him in Hawaii during that brief period of time when FM radio decided to play “Reeling And Rocking” and “My Ding-a-ling” and he looked out at the audience of 8,000 people and said “You’re all my children, whether you know it or not.”
JV: Exactly. And he was not treated right, you know? He mellowed now, he’s very old, God bless him; but he wasn’t treated right. He was set up, The Mann Act, all that crap? A brown-eyed handsome man that your daughters are going to see play? (laughs) Forget it, you know? But boy, look at the poetry, and you, as a writer, if you read, if you listen to those songs, My God! The poetry, the alliteration, all the things in literature that he just naturally did.
GC: Well I don’t think any of the English guitarists would have been playing double stops in The British Invasion if they hadn’t heard him doing it.
JV: He invented, I mean, yes, he got that from T-Bone Walker, there were guys doing it, but nobody combined it with country guitar like him. The records are great. They’re made up there at Chess, they sound great, they’re alive. They’re funky at the same time. There’s a real, raucous, speaking to all youth, black, white, Latino, anybody would dig what Chuck Berry’s saying, any kid has the same angst that Chuck Berry was writing about.