By Jeb Wright
Bill Leverty may be known as the hard rockin’ guitar player for the hair-band group FireHouse, but his skills, and tastes run much deeper than that of his day job. Leverty has released a new solo CD, “Drive,” that sees him looking back at songs he loved before he was such a talented rock and roll guitarist. The album is diverse, as Leverty loves it all — The Ohio Players, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Three Dog Night, Rare Earth, Stevie Wonder … and he does it oh so well.
In the interview that follows, Leverty tells us about the first time he heard the songs that he put on “Drive,” how they influenced as a youth and how he made these songs his own.
Goldmine: Tell me why you decided to do a covers album at this point of your career?
Bill Leverty: I’ve wanted to do a cover tunes album for over 20 years. To me, it’s a great education to learn from my mentors and then add my style to their masterpiece songs. It’s a very liberating process in so many ways, especially since the songs are already written.
Many of the songs that I chose were No. 1 hits, so my aim was to stay true to the originals while adding my style where I felt I could. I wanted to improve my voice, and what better way than to record some of your favorite songs? I also wanted to improve my skills as a mix engineer. This was a great exercise for me to not only stretch as an artist, but also get schooled by some of the greatest.
GM: Let’s go through each song. Tell me about the first time you heard that song, or a great memory of that song in your life. Then, tell me how you approached it in the studio and put your own stamp on it. The first song is “Fortunate Son” by CCR.
BL: “Willie and The Poor Boys” was the first album I ever owned. I remember playing “Down on the Corner” over and over. I just couldn’t get enough of that song. Then one day, the album stuck. I must’ve scratched it. I decided to turn it, over and then I heard “Fortunate Son” for the first time. It was so powerful. I ran around the house screaming “It ain’t me” for months.
In my recording, I tried to draw from my influence of Ozzy Osbourne songs, especially with the rhythm guitars. Randy Rhodes is one of my biggest influences. He was one of the greatest rock guitarists of all time, and I tried to channel a little bit of him in the rhythm tracks and a little bit of Micheal Schenker in the solos.
GM: “Spanish Moon” by Little Feat.
BL: I heard Little Feat for the first time when I was in grade school. A friend of mine, who was a year older and one of the “cool” guys, knew that I was really into music. He always had his battery powered, portable cassette player and a pair of headphones and, one day, let me hear “Spanish Moon.”
I immediately felt like I was listening to the ultimate band, unlike anything I had ever heard. The percussion, horns, B3 (organ) and guitars all created such a mood. Lowell’s (singer Lowell George) voice and guitar playing were magic.
In my recording, I tried to learn the horn parts as best I could, then play them on guitar. In the first half of the solo, I tried to cop Lowell’s vibe with a Leslie effect. In the second half of the solo, I tried to go spooky and take the listener into that creepy bar that Lowell wrote about. I really love how Keith Horne and Andre LaBelle play on my entire album, but their performances on this song are exceptional.
GM: “Free Ride” by Edger Winter.
BL: I had heard “Free Ride” when I was going to the dentist to get my teeth pulled. I think that what hit me over the head was the combination of this being a pop song, but also being a hard rock/heavy metal song at the same time. Rick Derringer’s guitar playing is just phenomenal. His production on this album is, as well.
I wanted to record this song and let the song tell me where I could add my flavor to it. My style creeps in by osmosis. I didn’t consciously try to change this masterpiece at all. In the solo, I didn’t go back and try to figure out Derringer’s solo note for note. Instead, I played the phrases of his that I remember as signature phrases, and then added my own. By the way, I love Dan Hartman’s voice.
GM: “One” by Three Dog Night.
BL: This song came on the radio one summer on my way to the neighborhood pool. The song had so much emotion and really hit me in the gut. I wanted to record this one and make it a little bit harder edged. I tried to still have the song build like they did, but I wanted the choruses to have more guitar power and heavier drums. This song has such a great ascending chord progression to solo over, so I really enjoyed playing over that in the outro.
GM: “I Shot the Sheriff,” the Eric Clapton version.
BL: I heard this one summer on my way up to hockey camp. I was really lucky, because I had really cool parents who would blast the radio, and they listened to the rock station. This song came on, and it immediately captured my interest. I was drawn in by the lyrics. The whole story unfolded for me and I actually found it a bit disturbing.
In my version, I wanted to retain the chord progression, but change the feel from strumming chords to a heavy, octave riff. The riff I came up with might be Zeppelin influenced. For the outro solo, I again tried to go for a darker tone and note selection to bring out the creepy vibe of the song’s sentiment.
GM: “Fire” by the Ohio Players.
BL: When I was a young guy, I had a lot of paper routes: morning and afternoon. One summer morning, my district manager offered me an opportunity to help him deliver some routes that no one else wanted. He said that we could use his car and split the money 50/50. I thought this was the greatest thing ever, because I didn’t have to ride my bike! When we delivered these papers at 4 a.m., he would listen to the funk station (WANT – FM 99). I was exposed to so much music that I otherwise would’ve never heard. My favorite was “Fire” by The Ohio Players. I think it’s the greatest funk song of all time.
In my recording, I tried to keep all of the elements of the original, but I tried to bring forward the guitars and make the song a little bit heavier. I also tried to play all of the horn parts on guitar. I love the original guitar solo, and I just built up as many harmonies on that melody as I could. This was a very challenging vocal performance for me because the original was recorded by two singers, so I tried to change the tone of my voice to emulate them.
GM: “No Time” by the Guess Who.
BL: This song grabbed me the first time I heard it. That ominous guitar melody with the fuzz tone set such a dark mood. Burt Cummings’ vocals were so tough and strong. My aim was to bring out the hard-rock side of this song, especially in the chorus. I experimented with some echoey guitar sounds in the bridges, and drew from my Skynyrd influences in the outro solos.
GM: “Jesus Children of America” by Stevie Wonder.
BL: This might be my favorite song of all time. I had Stevie’s “Innervisions” album and played it constantly. This song had a huge impact on me when I listened to it and read the lyrics. I tried to stay as true to the original, but replace the keys with guitars. I played my single-coil Strat on this song. This one was the most vocally challenging, especially with the background parts and when the song modulates.
GM: “Rikki Don’t Lose that Number” by Steely Dan.
BL: Steely Dan wrote so many great songs. This is my favorite. I originally thought I’d do it acoustically, but then I started overdubbing, and the added layers of electric guitars just seemed to work. This is another one where I essentially “replaced” the keys with guitars. I tried to cop all of Fagen’s piano licks on guitar. I also tried to nail the guitar solo, but with a thicker tone than the original. Recording this song was a GREAT lesson for me.
GM: “I Just Want to Celebrate” by Rare Earth.
BL: Rare Earth got a lot of airplay in my bedroom as a kid. This song had such a great rhythm to it, the guitars were rockin’, and the vocals sounded huge. Again, turning up the guitars in my version seemed like the right thing to do. I worked on my vocal tracks on this one to try to capture Peter Rivera’s style. Again, I learned so much from him about vocal tone. That guy’s voice is STUNNING. I added some a cappella vocals at the end as an homage to ’70s funk.
GM: You have a C.R. Alsip guitar on the cover of the album. What is a C.R. Alsip? BL: C.R. Alsip is a custom guitar company out of Kansas that makes world-class instruments. They take the best elements of the classic designs and add modern components that make their guitars, in my opinion, the best in the world. Check them out at http://www.cralsipguitars.com.
GM: How proud are you of this album? What is the plan? Will you play it live?
BL: I think of this album as a tribute to my influences that make me unique as an artist. I am very happy with the way that it turned out. I think that if people give it a listen, they’ll get a kick out of it. I hope that this album will enable people to hear a side of me as an artist that they might not have known.
I don’t really have a plan. If I ever do play a solo gig, I know I’ll have some really cool songs to add to the set. It really was only intended to be a time machine for myself, to re-live my youth and learn more about what it was about these songs that made me want to be a musician. If other people like it, too, then I’m grateful.
GM: What is up with FireHouse?
BL: We are the kind of band that is always “on call” for a gig, so we tour year round. Things tend to slow down in the winter and pick up in the summer. I’ve tried to time my recording projects with the seasonal touring that’s evolved. This year, FireHouse will probably play about 50 shows.
GM: Where can people get “Drive?” I hear there are some special package deals, as well.
BL: It’s available at iTunes and Amazon, and I have physical copies that I’ll be happy to sign for you at my website: www.leverty.com. Just tell me who to sign it to! This is my fourth solo album, so I do have a bunch of different packages up there that you can get with T-shirts, photos, guitar picks, etc. Thanks so much for your support.