I’m writing this from Australia where I’m on tour playing big beautiful concert halls like the Sydney Opera house and Town Hall in Melbourne. I’ll soon be flying to Japan, New York, Toronto, London, and continuing like this all over the place. Treated like a king. I just came back from a walk around Sydney and heard I guy playing guitar and singing “Mr. Tambourine Man” on the street. I have no idea what his name was or where he comes from, but he sounded so good. He brought me to tears. He was the real deal….an incredible musician. The other night, after midnight I was walking back to my fancy hotel and under a bridge was a guy playing classical guitar. Same thing. Incredible beautiful music. I can’t figure out how this stuff works. Why am I playing in these big extravagant places and these guys are on the street? There are so many amazing unsung musicians all over the place. So many deserve wider recognition. I’ve been so lucky to meet and be encouraged by so many great musicians along the way. My first guitar teacher was Bob Marcus who taught at the Denver Folklore Center. This was an amazing place where I could just hang out and check out all kinds of music. When I got into jazz, I studied with Dale Bruning, a great great musician, teacher, human, living in Denver. I don’t know what or even if I’d be playing if it weren’t for him. I wish more people knew about him. Johnny Smith is another great guitarist I was lucky to meet who not enough people seem to remember. Other guitarists who have inspired me big time and that I don’t mention enough are Dennis Budimer, Jerry Hahn, Bruce Langhorn, Mike Miller, Michael Gregory Jackson, Sam Brown, Billy Bean, Tonk Edwards, Jon Damian, ……and so many many more. To be continued.
Greg Gwardiak – (changed his name to Greg Richards)
If it wasn’t for Greg, I wouldn’t be making music today. Here’s the story:
When I was in high school, Greg was the lead guitarist for one of the only country bands in New York’s Westchester County area. Like me, he lived and breathed country music. And through that connection, we became friends.
Greg wasn’t a schooled player and he wasn’t about flash of any sort. He played up-tempo songs so understatedly cool & warm and the ballads so soulfully sad. Unexpectedly, the lead singer of his group quit. Greg said I could take over his job if I learned to play guitar in three days. Up until then I played only ukulele.
So Greg taught me three chords, gave me a capo & let me borrow his “second” guitar. The show went on as scheduled. I started writing songs for the band and we made some rockabilly demos. When all the major labels turned us down with a form letter, Greg walked the streets of New York trying to get us a deal -which he did! It was with KING RECORDS, a New York all black label run by legendary A&R man/producer, Henry Glover (from Hank Ballard & The Midnighters and James Brown fame). Henry was personally involved in all our King recordings.
In the 70s and 80s Greg often played with Tammy Wynette on her East Coast tours.
Greg passed away in the late 1996 – Here’s a big toast to my old friend. THANKS GREG!
Paul Griffin – session piano player in New York in the ‘60s
I was a huge fan of the soulful blues/ country playing of Nashville’s Floyd Cramer. When I was first getting my songs published in the early 60s, I searched for somebody in New York who could play from the heart like that to play on my demos. Paul was a huge find for me. He had that same sweet touch as Floyd and could play warm R&B sounds with the best of them.
Although we only saw each other at sessions, I considered Paul a true friend. His wife at the time, Valerie (Simpson), sang background vocals on many of my productions. She later became half of the pop/R&B duo Ashford & Simpson. It was a sad day for me when I found out that Paul & Valerie were divorcing (she would marry Nick Ashford).
Another not well known fact – told to me by Rock & Roll Joe, John Platania – Don McLean tried many times to record “American Pie”. He never hooked it until he hired Paul Griffin. For me, the magic of that track is all about PAUL GRIFFIN’S PIANO PLAYING! It’s time this guy got some of the credit he deserves.
At the age of 62, Paul Griffin died of a heart attack at his New York home on June 26, 2000
In the early 1960s, I wrote a song called “Springtime”. I was living and working in New York. I needed a guitar player that sounded like he was from West Virginia or Tennessee. Someone suggested Al Gorgoni. What a great day that was for me. Not only was he perfect for that demo, but he was perfect for all my country flavored stuff.
Al & I became great friends. We recorded a duet hit together. Billed as Just Us, “I Can’t Grow Peaches On A Cherry Tree” sold over a half million copies in 1964. We produced James Taylor, Evie Sands and one track (Brooklyn Roads) for Neil Diamond. And we wrote a bunch of songs together, including “I Can’t Let Go” for The Hollies and Linda Rondstadt, “Pretty Colors” for Frank Sinatra and “Sweet Dream Woman” for Waylon Jennings.
Al was lead guitarist on hundreds of hit records in the 60s. And how about this for a R&R Joe hero – he played that amazing signature guitar lick on Brown Eyed Girl! Whether he was playing acoustic or electric guitars or arranging parts for an orchestra (he did that brilliantly as well), this was/is one soulful guy.
Mickey was a leading session player in the late 50s for Atlantic, Savoy & King Records. When I was signed to King Records, he played lead guitar on all my recordings. (I think we recorded eight single sides). Mickey was amazing! I remember listening to the playbacks and getting so moved when his solo would come up. He had a sound that could make you shiver.
I remember Mickey as a very cordial, heartfelt guy… and he wasn’t a clock-watcher. Back in those days you had three hours to record four songs. If you went overtime the union overtime rule would kick in and the musicians were supposed to be paid more money. But Mickey & Panama Francis (legendary drummer, also on my sessions for the King singles) and the rest waved that rule – they cared more about getting it right And they loved hanging around and listening to the playbacks when the session was over.
In 1956, with a girl named Sylvia Vanderpool, Mickey had a huge duet hit. Billed as Mickey & Sylvia, their record, “Love Is Strange”, went to the top of the charts.
Because great session musicians, particularly in the U.S., seldom get the respect they deserve from the general public, Mickey is most remembered for that hit. But when I told jazz great Bill Frisell that Mickey had played on my early sessions, he just about fell on the floor. He’s on Bill’s high pedestal.. just maybe his rock & roll guitar hero of all time.
For Bill and the rest of us, Mickey is certainly a deserving Rock & Roll Joe.