Fabulous Flip Sides – Interview with Ambrosia’s Burleigh Drummond

We celebrate the 40th anniversary of Ambrosia’s Life Beyond L.A. album, featuring their first Top 10 single “How Much I Feel,” with drummer Burleigh Drummond and talk with him about Russ Regan, Beatles covers and side project, Tin Drum Music.

Burleigh Drummond on the right

By Warren Kurtz

GOLDMINE: Let’s go back to the beginning at 20th Century, with Russ Regan, who passed away this year, as the president of that record company. Maureen McGovern told me that Russ heard in her something that no other record company heard, signed her and she, like you, achieved her initial success on the 20th Century label.

BURLEIGH DRUMMOND: We started in 1970 with David Pack on guitar, Chris North on keyboards, Joe Puerta on bass, and me on drums. We all sang and wrote, too. Herb Alpert first expressed interest with us for A&M and gave us a small budget so that we could record. We had a three song demo, which included a country version of “Holdin’ on to Yesterday.” Producer Freddie Piro heard it. While A&M passed on us, Freddie continued to have strong interest in working with us and we must have recorded close to fifty songs. Rather than the country version of “Holdin’ on to Yesterday,” we had a progressive rock version of that song, “Nice, Nice, Very Nice” and “Mama Frog.” When Russ heard this style, he thought about what he already had at 20th Century with Maureen McGovern, Barry White and others, and said “I don’t have this. Give me an album of this,” and that is how we began with that label.

GM: The second side of that debut album begins with a song which was also the flip side of “Holdin’ on to Yesterday,” one that all four of you wrote together, “Make Us All Aware,” which reminds me of Emerson, Lake and Palmer.

BD: We were blown away by ELP. I was enchanted with the song’s title, dealing with broadening your awareness, and I wrote a bulk of the lyrics. I went to UCLA with a lot of orchestral training. Tympani is on the recording. We had an arsenal of percussion in the studio and for our live shows. Years later we were opening for Rush and their drummer Neil Peart said, “Look at my drum kit. I got that from you!” What an honor it was learning that I inspired Neil, who has inspired so many others.

GM: You inspired me too. In high school we had a choice of books for English class, and I saw Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. was one of the authors on the list with his book Breakfast of Champions. I picked that one due to your next single, “Nice, Nice, Very Nice” being credited as co-written with Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

BD: Originally our song was called “Paradoxical Situations,” a name that certainly sounded like a progressive rock song. Joe was reading Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle book and there was a song, within the book, referred to as “Bokonon.” This is where some of the lyrics came from. We were far along, mixing the album with Alan Parsons, when someone asked, “Did anyone get Kurt’s permission?” We made a mad scramble for permission from Kurt Vonnegut’s lawyers, sharing a copy of the recording with them. Fortunately, Kurt liked the song and said “yes” to the recording. We met him a year later in his townhome in New York. We interrupted him from writing his next book, and it took a few minutes for him to come out of the character he was writing about. Then it was a great time with him and us.

GM: In some of your live shows you are playing an intense version of a popular Beatles flip side, “Eleanor Rigby.” Your drums are prominent. The first time I heard you cover The Beatles was on the soundtrack for All This and World War II. There is a section that I love with Richard Cocciante delivering a powerful version of “Michelle,” The Four Seasons sounding so tight on “We Can Work It Out” and Helen Reddy’s beautiful rendition of “The Fool on the Hill.” Many people are familiar with the hit version of Elton John’s “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” but kicking off the album and in the Top 40 in April of 1977 is Ambrosia with “Magical Mystery Tour.”

BD: Russ wanted to do a Beatles soundtrack and film on 20th Century, with World War II footage as its backdrop. The orchestra opens the track for the first forty seconds before you hear my drums and there is orchestra throughout the recording. With “Eleanor Rigby” we knew it could rock, so we pump it up. We play at several Beatles festivals.

GM: By the time your Life Beyond L.A. album was released in 1978, Chris left the group and you became a trio. Like my fellow northeast Ohio native Maureen McGovern, you left 20th Century for Warner Brothers. I worked at Peaches Records & Tapes in Cleveland and Stuart Morrison from Warner Brothers was always generous with promotional copies of the albums. We often played side one of Life Beyond L.A. and some of us record store kids took the opening number and title tune “Life Beyond L.A.” as a warning for any of us with dreams of leaving Cleveland when we heard, “Sometimes I think about the only way that I’ll ever see life beyond L.A. is dying.”

BD: We took a dramatic license in those lyrics. It was a fragile time for the band. I still live in the L.A. area and it is great.

GM: As side one moved along in our store, your composition “Heaven Could Find Me” would catch our customer’s ears. Steely Dan was at their peak and this one reminds me of their “Don’t Take Me Alive.”

BD: Wow. Thank you. As up tempo as that song was, it was a lonely time for me. We constantly went from the studio, to the road, and then back home in L.A. I reflected on how I felt, which you can hear from the very opening lines, “If heaven could find me somebody, someone to hold me when I sleep.” That finally happened in the next decade. In 1982 the band went on hiatus and that is when I met and married my wife Mary and we have two kids. Our daughter Sierra has finished her studies at USC and is heading to Thailand for the Peace Corps. Our son, also named Burleigh, is also a drummer. He is in a group called The Everly Brothers Experience which is very successful in Europe.

GM: Top 10 success finally came to you with the final song of side one, “How Much I Feel.” This is the moment in the store when we would sell your album. Customers were enjoying the rest of side one, then they heard that hit from the radio, possibly surprised that it was the same group, due to all the variety, and would grab a copy of the album and head to the cash register.

BD: That song was a detour for us. We were a progressive rock band. FM stations loved us. While we were making the album at Mama Jo’s recording studio in North Hollywood, one block away was a bar that we would play at called Hialeah. The people there wanted us to play R&B. We would do four to five sets a night and I guess you become what you play. “How Much I Feel” is an R&B ballad. We were also playing a bit with Michael McDonald at the time. We felt like we could do anything musically.

GM: The flip side of the single was the final song from the album, the powerful and moody “Ready for Camarillo,” named for a city where you and Mary have recently played as part your Tin Drum Music.

BD: “Ready for Camarillo” had no chance of being a single, so it was released as a flip side and is about Chris. Ken at RadioActive Talent came up with this amazing gig, playing at the library in Camarillo.

Ambrosia

Flip side: Ready for Camarillo

A side: How Much I Feel

Top 100 Debut: September 2, 1978

Peak Position: 3

Warner Brothers 8640

GM: Your next Top 10 single came in 1980, “Biggest Part of Me,” which my wife Donna and I heard on Sirius XM’s Yacht Rock Radio this past weekend.

BD: Being on that station is helping us get gigs. That hit was somewhat of a surprise as the producers didn’t initially pick that one. They were leaning toward the edgier “Cryin’ in the Rain.” The beat for the song was inspired by me working with jazz drummer Freddie Gruber, who was also a drum teacher to many professionals including me and Neil Peart. I wouldn’t stop playing that groove. The band was working six hours a day, playing, writing and jamming.

GM: Your work led to two Top 40 singles from the One Eighty album. As “Biggest Part of Me” left the Top 40, one that our Goldmine editor Pat Prince bought growing up in the ‘80s was released, “You’re the Only Woman.”

BD: Many guys bought that one and have thanked us for that great song that David wrote which they have dedicated to their girlfriends and wives.

Burleigh Drummond on the right

GM: Speaking of wives, you and Mary, in addition to playing in Ambrosia, are also in Tin Drum. Brie Howard Darling, of Fanny Walked the Earth, who have an exciting new album, told me “I used to love doing the song ‘Surrender’ when I was in Tin Drum with Burleigh and Mary, plus touring with Mary as part of Jimmy Buffett’s group made the experience even more special. She is one of my favorite people.”

BD: It was great having Brie in our band. “Surrender” was written on a rough day. We are married but we were touring separately. I was touring with Jim Messina and Mary was on the road with Jimmy Buffett and I remember handing off our son in airports. Speaking of children, we also recorded a version of Buffalo Springfield’s “I Am a Child” for a Neil Young contest. Now with Tin Drum and with Ambrosia, I have a wife in the band, like the Paul and Linda days of Wings in the ‘70s, when Ambrosia got our start.

Ambrosia’s current lineup is Burleigh Drummond on drums, Joe Puerta on bass, Christopher North and Mary Harris on keyboards, Doug Jackson on electric guitar, and Ken Stacey on acoustic guitar and lead vocals on many of their songs. Their new song “Hopes and Dreams” features powerful vocal harmonies.

Ambrosia 2018, L to R: Christopher North, Burleigh Drummond, Joe Puerta, Doug Jackson, Mary Harris, Ken Stacey, photo by Holgar Hoetzel, courtesy of ambrosialive.net

Ambrosia will be performing in California and Florida in November and December:

ambrosialive.net

Warren Kurtz is a Contributing Editor at Goldmine, known for “Fabulous Flip Sides” along with giveaways, interviews, CD, DVD and book reviews. “Warren’s Fabulous Flip Sides” can be heard most Saturday mornings, in the 9 a.m. hour, Eastern time, as part of “Moments to Remember” at wvcr.com or iHeart Radio – search WVCR.

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