The term “Yacht Rock” was created by music critics to describe the smooth commercial and in their words, slightly cheesy sound of a litany of successful late ‘70s pop/rock acts.
Both Ambrosia and Player, whose music is often labeled as “Yacht Rock,” racked up huge charts in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s with How Much I Feel, Biggest Part of Me, This Time I’m In It For Love and the number one smash, Baby Come Back.
“Yacht Rock” be damned, these bands have nothing to ashamed of; their exquisitely crafted, picture perfect songs affixed with sublime melodies, soaring harmonies and consummate musicianship and dazzling production will continue to endure for decades to come.
RCM sat down with the architects of two key late ‘70s bands who are still going strong in 2016, founding members, drummer Burleigh Drummond of Ambrosia and guitarist/lead vocalist Peter Beckett of Player for a trip back in time.
Rock Cellar Magazine: Burleigh, is there any truth that Ambrosia was discovered by Los Angeles Philharmonic conductor Zubin Mehta?
Burleigh Drummond: No, we weren’t discovered by Zubin Mehta. We did a sound check at the Hollywood Bowl for a sound company that we had kind of grown up with. They were auditioning to be the sound company for the Hollywood Bowl so we were playing and it turns out that the chief recording engineer for London/Decca Records happened to be there supervising the sound check. He came up to us after we played and he said, “I realize I stopped listening to the sound quality and started listening to the music. I was so entranced!”
That guy’s name was Gordon Perry and he became our spokesman. He hooked us up with Alan Parsons later on. From that we started meeting these people like Zubin Mehta ‘cause he was the big dog in the classical recording world. We hung out with so many famous people. We got to hang out with Leonard Bernstein. I even dated his daughter. So things like that stated to happen so yeah, it was a fun time. All this happened before we had a record deal too. We were going to a concert every night at the Hollywood Bowl because of that.
Was there a collective vision for the band’s sound in terms of songwriting and production?
Burleigh Drummond: Well, we had a Beatles mindset. We enjoyed everything and everybody in the band brought a different slice of the pie. I was into world music and jazz very heavily and Chris was a very strong blues influence and Joe was kind of the singer/songwriter, Jackson Browne-ish guy and Dave was very pop. But we all appreciated everything else as well. We were just stimulated by each other. I think for our first album, we demoed up 50 different songs, full on production and everything. It was everything you could imagine, from blues to country to progressive.
What happened is the head of the first label we were on, which was 20th Century Fox, was a guy named Russ Regan who discovered Neil Diamond and Elton John. Russ came to the studio and sat through 50 songs and out of those 50 songs he picked three, which were Nice, Nice, Very Nice, Holding On To Yesterday and Mama Frog.
He said to us, “I’ve got all the other stuff; I’ve got country, I’ve got R&B. These three songs are something unique and original and I don’t have that. I’d like an album of that.” We were kind of America’s answer to Yes, King Crimson and Genesis on our first two records and that’s because Russ picked that direction.
How did that evolve over time?
Burleigh Drummond: We always kept a little of the prog element in, even with later albums that had bigger hits on them still had some prog tunes on it. This is another interesting development, as we were doing our first two records, we were dirt poor. All our money went into recording so to survive, two blocks from the studio we played a female gay bar at night. Four sets a night.
So were a prog band during the day and then at night we’d go play this female gay bar called The Hileah House and we’d play R&B all night. That’s what they wanted, they wanted to dance to this stone R&B and we’d do that so that kind of crept into our writing because what you play kind of influences you.
So all of a sudden tunes like Dancing By Myself and How Much I Feel, Living On My Own, and Biggest Part Of Me started coming out of the grooves that we were playing at night. It’s not that we stopped being a prog band, we just added on some of these other flavors.
As for Player, it wasn’t long after you formed that you signed a record deal, right?
Peter Beckett: Yeah, reasonably quick. I’d say it was the same as for everyone else but a little shorter. I came over from England and had been in several bands in L.A. Then I went to this party in Hollywood one night and I met J.C. Crowley and we stared talking and decided to get together a couple of days later and we wrote a handful of songs over the next few weeks. We went around trying to sell them playing in people’s offices with acoustic guitars.
We were turned down so many times all along the way; I can’t even tell you how many times until we came up with Baby Come Back and that changed everything. Suddenly, we were playing three or four songs and then we’d play Baby Come Back and they’d be like, “Oh my God!” You could see it in their faces. We’d found a little gem and it was a little easier from then on.
But even then we would still go around when Ronn Moss and John Friesen joined, we actually now had a band and worked up the songs and we’d still get turned down. This went on for months and months and months. Then we met Dennis Lambert and Brian Potter who’d had a bunch of hits and they loved us. They said, “Let’s put these songs down on a record and we’ll see what we can do.” They took it to Al Coury at RSO and that was it.
Working at first with J.C. and then later with Ronn and John, did you all agree on the direction?
Peter Beckett: We were pulling from a little bit of everything, to be honest. I’m from Liverpool so I loved the Beatles but then I also loved the Eagles. I loved melody and I loved harmony like Crosby, Stills & Nash. That’s my thing. Crowley was like a country guy but he loved Steely Dan and the Doobie Brothers. So if you listen to our first album, it’s a little bit of everything. It’s definitely got a little bit of everything in it.
Moving on to the second Player album, Danger Zone, had you further honed your direction by that time?
Peter Beckett: Well, the story behind that is we put the first album out and we toured opening for Boz Scaggs on the Silk Degrees tour and we performing in arenas only. I think we played the odd small place but we were flung into the arenas playing in front of 30,000 people.
We did the whole Silk Degrees tour with Boz Scaggs and then RSO said, “We’re gonna put you out with Eric Clapton on the Slowhand tour so you need to beef this album up a little bit” and so we did. The second album was much more beefy than the first one. We went out and were able to go onstage before Eric Clapton and not sound like a bunch of wimps. Even today the band is a lot heavier than people expect. It’s more of a power pop bad than a soft rock band. I don’t know if you heard the album we put out a few years ago but you should check that out.
How does being a band from Southern California figure into your sound?
Burleigh Drummond: Of course, we were greatly influenced by the beach ‘cause we lived here. So the Beach Boys were huge to us and another big influence. I think so much happened here in that time like the Eagles and Jackson Browne and Joni Mitchell that it couldn’t help but be an influence living in that hotbed of activity going on.
What’s the largest crowd the band has ever played in front of?
Burleigh Drummond: We did River Bend Festival and Billy Preston sat in with us and we played for 120,000 people. One of our first gigs was the Iowa State Fair. President Gerald Ford opened for us and gave some speech and then we played and that was in front of that was 40,000 people and then the Beach Boys came on after us.
What is the weirdest concert bill you ever appeared on?
Burleigh Drummond: Well, we played somewhere down in Florida about 15, 20 years ago and we pull up and it says “Ambrosia” and then in bigger letters it says “Puppet Show.” (laughs) That’s true. We didn’t catch the puppet show. (laughs) One of the funniest things we ever did. Before we ever had a deal, we were just a local band getting known and we got a call from Cheech & Chong and they hadn’t even done their first album yet. We played with them at this little storefront on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood and there were maybe six people in the audience. But we played and we saw all their material before they ever recorded it and it was amazing. We were dying laughing; I’ve never laughed so hard in my life. It was all that stuff, “Dave’s Not Here,” all that stuff.
“Yacht Rock” is a relatively new term used to describe bands like Ambrosia, Player, Orleans and Hall & Oates. When is the first time you heard that term and how do you feel about it being used to represent your music?
Burleigh Drummond: I think in the big picture you’ve just got to roll with it. There’s pluses and minuses to it. We’ve done a fair amount of those Yacht Rock review shows with four bands. In fact, we just did one in Houston at the Astrodome and it was a private party. But you do a half hour and you can show enough of the rest of your music so people realize, okay, it’s not just the hits.
It puts you in front of a different audience. Like this band we play with, this Yacht Rock Review, it’s all young guys. It’s all hip 30 year-olds with their sailor caps very drunk and obviously have a lot of money to spend. They wouldn’t necessarily come to an Ambrosia concert because they may not be totally tuned in but under the guise of Yacht Rock Review, they’ll come and all of a sudden it’s like, ‘Oh, Ambrosia, wow!’ I think it’s not bad for exposure for the band to an audience that wouldn’t necessarily get to see us. So I appreciate it for what it is.
Peter, tell us the back story behind the band’s biggest hit, Baby Come Back.
Peter Beckett: That particular chord that opens up Baby Come Back, it’s a G with an A bass and it was a chord that I learned. It’s a very very common R&B chord. Hall & Oates used it a lot and a lot of the ‘70s bands used it. In truth, if you type in “The Lick” there’s a thing on the web, there’s all these artists from the ‘20s right up through playing the lick that’s on the opening of Baby Come Back. It goes through about 50 artists, sax players, and piano players from the ‘40s and goes through all these people and I’m the last guy in the film and I’m playing Baby Come Back.
So anyhow, I told you how I met J.C. at a party in Hollywood and he was a bit more left field than me; his lyrics were kind of odd. Mine were pretty much more straightahead. We sat together over a period of three days and the first day we got the verses for Baby Come Back, the second day we got the chorus and the third day we did the bridge.
Let me tell you a funny story. We did up in San Francisco opening up for Hall & Oates when I was in LRB, Little River Band and I was talking to Daryl (Hall) outside of the dressing room and he said to me, “Do you know what our most requested song is?” I said, “What?” And he said, Baby Come Back.
I always felt that song had a Hall & Oates vibe.
Peter Beckett: Well, I love Hall & Oates. They were definitely an influence on that song. J.C. and I both loved Hall & Oates. Their influence on that song came more in the writing than in the production. I produced most of the Player albums since the first two. Denis Lambert and Brian Potter produced our first two albums.
They’d had a slew of hits starting with The Four Tops, they produced Rhinestone Cowboy by Glen Campbell, We Built This City by Jefferson Starship; just 20 years of hits. They knew what they were doing and they went for a real clean, strong sound with not too much reverb, not too many effects.
If you listen to the first Player album, it’s very dry and that’s why the songs still stand up today. I did a solo album in the ‘90s and I thought it was my best effort and the songs were fantastic. But in the ‘90s production-wise everyone was just smothering everything with echo and reverb. I can’t listen to my solo album now because of that. The songs are fantastic if I say so myself but it’s too echoey but the drier songs from the early albums still sound great on the radio.
Were the arrangements for Baby Come Back pretty much in place before you entered the studio with Lambert and Potter?
Peter Beckett: Yeah, J.C. and I wrote it the way it is.
And the guitar solo is picture perfect as well.
Peter Beckett: I had never really been a lead guitarist; I mean, I had but I was no good. I was a bass player. I came over from England in ’74 and I was a bass player in a band called Paladin, a pretty well-known band in progressive rock in England. So I was flung into this band and somebody handed me the guitar and said “You’re the lead guitar player.”
As for the solo in Baby Come Back, so many people, tell me that it’s a classic solo (laughing) but literally it was just off the top of my head. Honestly, I’m still not a great guitar player after all these years; that’s why we have another guitarist in the band but I do play the solos still on Baby Come Back and This Time I’m In It For Love. They’re both good solos but I don’t know where they came from actually. I was probably drunk. (laughs)
Did everyone in the band and your producers know the song was a sure fire hit or was it a case of crossing your fingers and hoping for the best?
Peter Beckett: No, we all knew it was a hit. We did a little 15-minute show of four or five songs at SIR, a rehearsal place down in Hollywood. We did this before the album came out. All the industry people were there and they wanted to see what was going on. We did about four songs and then I walked to the front of the stage and I said, ‘Now we’d like to do our first number one record for you, it’s called Baby Come Back.’
Swear to God! I just felt it as I played it; I just knew. There was this big buzz going on and sure enough, a few months later, bam! It went to number one.
Where were you when you first heard Baby Come Back on the radio?
Peter Beckett: In those days, our band used to hang out together. We’d do out to lunch and drink wine. We were on the Sunset Strip in a place called Butterfield’s across from the Hyatt and we were having lunch and a couple of glasses of wine and I think we were gonna drive towards Beverly Hills to meet somebody and Baby Come Back came on in the car and it was absolutely amazing.
But even more so than that, we were rehearsing to go out on our first tour which was opening for Gino Vannelli. It was a very short tour, about three gigs. We were supposed to go to Buffalo so we were rehearsing a half hour set in this little joint called “Rats” in Studio City, which fir the place perfectly. Strangely enough Air Supply, who hadn’t had a hit yet, were in the next room. We were just playing and our manager comes running in and he said, “You’re not gonna believe it!” and he’s holding Billboard magazine. He said “Baby Come Back is number 80 on the Hot 100!” None of us had ever had a hit in our lives and number 80 was more remarkable to me than when I was old it was number one’ cause you kind of got used to it as the song went up the charts and went up the charts and went up. But number 80 on the charts, wow! That was a magic moment.
Ambrosia played on the first Alan Parsons Project album, Tales of Mystery and Imagination What was that experience like?
Burleigh Drummond: It was great. It was all done very mysteriously. We had no idea what we were doing and didn’t know the name of the song. They made up another name. I’m amazed we got what we got because they were so non-descriptive of what we were supposed to be doing. They wanted to keep it a big secret that we had no idea what we were doing. We kind of just jammed on some stuff and they made a song out of it called The Raven.
Thinking back to the band’s ’70s heyday, what are the moments that stand out in your memory?
Burleigh Drummond: Just some of the appreciation we got from the crowds and to be able to reach some of the people with our music and also some of the accolades we received from other musicians. We were opening for Rush and about the second night we were walking off the stage and Neil Peart was standing there and he said, ‘Hey man, what do you think of my set up?”
He had a fair amount of drums and a gong. I said, “Oh man, I love that stuff.” And he said, “Well man, I got that from you.” On our first album, I was one of the few drummers using mallets and gongs. So he was somebody that appreciated what I did. He’s a wonderful drummer. I saw him again five years ago and he remembered our entire set that we played. He remembered every song that we played. It blew me away how much he remembered.
Peter Beckett: When Baby Come Back hit number one it was pretty amazing. Suddenly we were on every freakin’ TV show in the country and we were hosting Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert with ABBA and Queen, all these huge bands we were introducing while doing our own thing and talking in the show. It seemed that suddenly we were on literally a TV show every couple of days and you couldn’t flick your radio on without hearing Baby Come Back as it was being played on most of the stations. That was pretty amazing and that was the moment where we felt, Oh my god, this is real!
On a different tangent, Peter, you were one of the fortunate ones to have seen the Beatles play at the Cavern in Liverpool, bring us back and share that experience.
Peter Beckett: I was about five years younger than the Beatles but I had a brother who was their age. The Cavern was a cellar in a warehouse in a seedy area of downtown Liverpool. It was under the ground on this cobbled street. I was too young to go but my brother knew people; he was an office guy and he’d go down and watch the Beatles and he was always telling me about this band.
I started to pick up the guitar and was getting into music. One time he asked a bouncer if he could sneak his little brother in. I went down the first time and I remember walking up Mathew Street, this cobbled street, and they were already playing and the whole street was shaking under my feet ‘cause they were underground. I think I was about 15 years-old and too young to be in there ‘cause they sold beer.
I went down and they were playing and they had the Beatle haircuts and the leather pants and it was so freakin’ loud! I’d never seen anything like it. It was so loud and exciting and the girls were going crazy! That was it for me, I went (laughs) “I want to do this for a living!” I went down a couple more times after that to see them play there. In the years that followed with Liverpool bands I played there a whole bunch of times.
Ambrosia recently played a benefit for Darcie Pena at the Canyon Club in Agoura Hills, California. Tell us about her and how people can still contribute to assist her.
Burleigh Drummond: Darcie is my 26 year-old niece and she’s also my goddaughter. She developed lung cancer when she was 23, 24 and she had 60% of her right lung taken out. She got through two rounds of lung cancer and has been through it twice with the chemo and radiation. So now it’s come back again but they can’t radiate and go back in the same spot so they’re doing this new immuno therapy.
It’s a relatively new treatment and the insurance companies are very slow to approve it and of course, she can’t wait. What blew my mind is the minute we found out about it, Ambrosia was the one who said, “We have to do a benefit for her.” Everybody in the band stepped up. Then Player and Stephen Bishop all said “Hey, we want to be a part of it too.” I’m very touched they would feel that way and want to help. Those wishing to help can donate by visiting our website for more information.
I appreciate everybody that would consider helping out Darcie.