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Lou Gramm: Juke Box Hero (Interview)
Back in the mid ’70s, Rochester, New York native Lou Gramm was the lead singer for Black Sheep, a promising hard rock band whose muscular sound drew favorable comparisons with Free and Bad Company. Signed to Capitol Records, in 1975 the band issued two albums–Black Sheep and Encouraging Words–which failed to make a dent and left his career in ruins. Then a fateful call from ex-Spooky Tooth guitarist Mick Jones changed his life.
A black sheep no more, Gramm aced an audition for a new band in the making and Foreigner was born.
Straight out of the gate, blessed by Gramm’s extraordinary vocal prowess, spectacular musicianship and a bounty of immaculately crafted commercial blockbusters, Foreigner exploded onto the international music scene, buoyed by the success of timeless hits Feels Like the First Time and Cold as Ice. And from there, the hits kept a comin’–their hit streak lasted for many years, counting such signature smashes as Hot Blooded, Double Vision, Waiting for a Girl like You, Urgent, Juke Box Hero and I Want to Know What Love Is to their golden arsenal.
Gramm, who split from Foreigner in 2003, has also enjoyed success as a solo artist recording three albums--Ready or Not, Long Hard Look and most recently, Lou Gramm Band; the first two releases boasted the top 10 hits, Midnight Blue and Just Between You and Me.
In 1997, he was diagnosed with a brain tumor and battled his biggest fight. And while the tumor was thankfully benign, during the almost 19 hour operation damage was done to Gramm’s pituitary gland, which affected his memory, vocal ability and also contributed to him gaining a considerable amount of weight. But years on, emboldened by his faith and a steely determination, Gramm has come out on top.
His new book, Juke Box Hero: My Five Decades in Rock ‘n Roll, co-written by Scott Pitoniak, is a gripping read charting how a wide-eyed teen bitten by The Beatles bug became the lead singer of one of rock’s and roll biggest bands.
Rock Cellar Magazine: When did you first realize that a career in music was your only option?
Lou Gramm: I think it was the first time I saw The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show when I was about 12 years old. I knew then that’s what I wanted to do in life. There was no turning back. Music was what I wanted to do. Obviously, my parents didn’t quite see it that way (laughs).
I had to have a backup plan so I went to college. I was shooting for a degree which would enable me to be a teacher of American history. I’m a real American history buff; I can’t get enough of it.
RCM: You started out as a drummer and became a singer. Did that affect the manner in which you sing and write songs?
LG: I’m sure it did. I’m sure it helped me a lot in regard to my vocal phrasing when I was singing songs and that background as a drummer certainly helped me when I was composing. When I’d start from scratch to compose a song, the first thing I’d work to was a beat. An example from my work in Foreigner would be Juke Box Hero because it starts out very dark and dirge-y on a rhythmic level but it’s very intense. Then the tempo really picks up, it’s almost like double-time.
That’s an example of a song where I came at it with a rhythmic impulse. It’s funny, there are a lot of lead singers who were ex-drummers around now.
RCM: How long was the transition where you realized I’m probably better in front of the drum kit instead of behind it?
LG: I started playing in local rock bands when I was fifteen years old. I think I was 21, 22 before I left the drums to front the band. So it took some time for me to make that transition.
RCM: When did you first realize you had a good voice?
LG: I went to San Francisco with one of my early bands and cut some demos. After they were mixed and we got them back, that’s when I realized that I actually had some potential.
RCM: You’re a huge fan of singers like Steve Marriott, Paul Rodgers and Motown artists ala Marvin Gaye, were there any lessons you gleaned from them that you applied to make you a better singer?
LG: Well, I think Marvin Gaye and Aretha Franklin had this way of going from a soulful voice into this falsetto that still had attitude and power – and that’s something I always admired. I also liked the R&B feel of the Motown songs; they had a certain vibe to them that was undeniable. I think they used the same rhythm section for those cuts–they’re legendary guys.
As for rock singers, I told you that my band Black Sheep put out two albums on Capitol Records and our manager was the Northeast A&M Records rep. He would not only turn us on to all of these bands including all the bands on Island Records who were the European partner to A&M. We’d hear the Traffic albums, the early Free albums, the live Humble Pie album when Frampton was still with them (Rockin’ the Fillmore). It was just great stuff. We’d not only pick two or three songs and play them with our band but I think that helped to mold me as a singer.
I think Paul Rodgers had amazing phrasing and a seriously great rock and roll voice. He was and still is my rock influence more than anybody.
I saw (Steve) Marriott about three or four times over the years and he always had a buzz on, of course, that’s just the way he was. But he was spontaneous and the biggest rabble rouser that I ever saw. He knew how to work the crowd and even when he was not in the best voice he could manage to summon enough to really knock you off your feet as far as his vocal prowess and his energy. Like anyone, I think I was just a product of my environment and these were the things I digested.
RCM: In your book, you speak about loving the song All Right Now by Free. Thinking about it now, I can hear the stylistic connection with the Foreigner hit Hot Blooded being its second cousin.
LG: To me, All Right Now is one of the great rock and roll songs. I definitely hear the connection of Hot Blooded to All Right Now. While for sure it’s not anything we gleaned, Mick (Jones) knew all those guys too from his years playing in Spooky Tooth and other bands he played with in Europe. So Mick certainly knew what I was talking about when we were writing Hot Blooded. In terms of the sound and structure, I inferred to him that it should be open and with air in between like All Right Now. I think we definitely got the picture there.
RCM: There’s a chapter in your book titled “Less Is More”. Like some of your favorite bands Free and Humble Pie, that “less is more” ethos typifies Foreigner’s music, from Hot Blooded to Dirty White Boy to Luanne.
LG: Yes, the “less is more” approach certainly defined much of our material in Foreigner. I think the “no air” approach was prevalent for quite a while in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s and I think were influenced by the groups that did leave air in their music like The Beatles or Free. Groups like that excelled at that kind of style. For no other reason than how it enhanced the songs, as our writing style developed we kind of embodied a lot of that in our songs. It was always a turn on for me.
What’s most important is to play for the song, not to show off your chops.
RCM: Earlier in our conversation, you spoke about how seeing The Beatles perform on the Ed Sullivan Show made you want to be a musician. Little did you know that a little over ten years later you’d meet John Lennon.
LG: Had someone told me then that I’d meet a member of the Beatles less than ten years later I think they’d have to sedate me. (laughs) The experience of meeting John Lennon was very cool. My band Black Sheep was recording in The Hit Factory in New York City. We were on Capitol Records and were recording our second album. John was working with Phil Spector working in the next studio over from ours. There was Studio A, B and C. We were working in studio A and I think he was working in B.
They had a little break room where they had a pool table, a couch and TV. After I had been singing for a while I took a break and went in there and John was there. I knew he was working in the studio but I didn’t know he’d be in the break room when I went into there. He asked me if I wanted to shoot a quick game of pool, which I did and we talked a little bit. He asked me how things were going. I told him our band was working on our second album; I asked him about the work he was doing as well. He wasn’t real friendly—he kind of kept you at arm’s length. But we had a conversation and even shot a game of pool and that’s something I’ll never forget.
RCM: How did you first come to the attention of Mick Jones?
LG: Mick was in Rochester playing a show with Spooky Tooth. They were on Island/A&M. Black Sheep’s manager, a guy named Jim Taylor was the Northeastern A&M rep so whenever any of these bands would come into town he would always set up the guys in Black Sheep with tickets. We saw Spooky Tooth in Rochester and the show was great. He brought us backstage to meet them and we thanked them for letting us come back and hang around.
I told Mick that we had our own band Black Sheep and that we’d just finished our second album on Capitol. I gave Mick both Black Sheep albums. He thanked me and we said goodbye and that was it. It wasn’t until about a year later that my parents gave me a call and said this guy named Mick Jones was looking for me. They gave me his number and I called him back. He said he wasn’t in Spooky Tooth any longer and was forming his own band. He heard the Black Sheep albums and wondered if I’d consider coming to New York and auditioning. I told him no at first because Black Sheep was set to tour with KISS. After our first show opening for them in Boston, we got a standing ovation and the guys from KISS allowed us to come out and play an encore. This was in late December.
After the show, we drove home to Rochester to be with our families for the holidays. After we got home, we got a call from our road crew that they’d hit a patch of ice on the New York State throughway. It turned out that the truck had slid off the road and flipped over. So we lost our truck and lost about 80-85% of our equipment and couldn’t make the next show.
We asked Capitol Records for help and they wouldn’t help, which really shocked the heck out of me. We begged our parents for money but this was in ’75 and we were in kind of a recession and they couldn’t help us so we basically had to bow out of the tour and we were dropped from the label. I was determined to put Black Sheep back together somehow but the rest of the guys in the band said, “Hey, I don’t think this is going to happen, why don’t you go see what you can do in New York?” If they hadn’t given me that advice I don’t think I would have gone.
RCM: Was the band already called Foreigner?
LG: No, there was no name for the band at that point. The audition was in a small studio. They had the demo tracks cut already for Feels Like the First Time and At War With the World. So I went in and met the guys and sat down and they played the music tracks back and Mick sang the melody and lyrics in my ear as we were listening to the music through the speakers. Then he wrote the lyrics down and sent me into the vocal booth. My audition was not with the band live; my audition was me singing to the tracks they had already recorded.
RCM: Any idea why it took a while for them to decide you were right for the band?
LG: Well, I found out later that they were equally interested in my ability to co-write, especially with Mick, He was looking for a partner to write with. Mick wanted to see how I was to work with and if I was a competent writer.