By Carol Anne Szel
To merely call Carlos Alomar a guitarist is a gross understatement. With thirty two international Platinum and Gold records to his name playing with artists from David Bowie to James Brown, John Lennon and Paul McCartney to Iggy Pop, and a veritable potpourri of musical icons in between, this R&B/Punk/Pop/Rock musical legend is still a driving force today at age 60.
While his discography page looking more like the trophy wall of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame then a web site, this Puerto Rican born/Bronx raised artist continues to remain a mainstay in contemporary music. Working recently with the likes of Alicia Keys and Jennifer Hudson, Alomar has also taken on residency as the Distinguished Artist in Residence at Stevens Institute of Technology.
Discussing the past, present, and future of music and it’s ever changing chronicles, I had the honor and privilege to sit down and talk with Carlos Alomar recently as we learn of what albums influenced his musical and personal life.
Carlos Alomar: First of all, the issue of taking ten albums is extremely difficult. The issue of having to decide what [has] influenced as opposed to what did you influence. You know what I mean? These components really create this terrible confusion in my brain as to what albums did influence me. And where was it apparent that this influence came to light? You know, to be influenced by something, its like “My Sweet Lord.” Finally you’re playing this song and you never realize you’ve been influenced. You don’t even know the history, but somewhere along the line you’ve heard something and it just popped up.
Also, another factor is, I love certain songs. But it isn’t the song that you’re asking me for, it is the albums that you’re asking me for. And so that creates another sort of complication. It was difficult in that I had to actually put a million songs down and then starting to analyze it in a form of like ‘what influenced my technique’ because I have to acknowledge that. And what influenced my sensibilities. So those two criteria were the ones I used for the choices I made.
Now there are some inherit problems found in this in that sometimes the influences that I felt were when I was younger, and now that I’m approaching 60 it becomes difficult to see what influenced me recently. So I had to look at it and I realized that most of my influences started early, early on. So I have to start there.
I’m going to start with “Revolver” by the Beatles. Now it’s very difficult to speak about the Beatles because to me they were [it], ten years from the ’60s to maybe the ’70s. So basically…all of the Beatles albums as one influence, but “Revolver” was by far the one that made me leaving that nice, nice area they were in. Going into the more psychedelic, and just all of them having an influence. Harrison stepping out more as a guitarist and writing. That album for me was landmark.
Then a friend of mine introduced me to Jimi Hendrix “Are You Experienced.” As a guitarist I went crazy. First of all, it was coupled with the advent of the stereophonic, hi-fi system. Remember, even with some of the Beatles and some of those other tracks, we had kind of the pseudo-mono. It hadn’t really evolved the way it should have. So Jimi Hendrix came out and it was so influential as a guitarist. I’d like to put it this way, during that same ’60s period that I noted to you — with not only the Beatles but you had Herman’s Hermits — you had all these other bands that were playing at that time and I had just gotten influenced by them. But the guitarist wasn’t the main force. He was interesting as some component and every once in a while a guitarist would step out to play a little lead. But the issue of a power trio was unheard of. And when he [Hendrix] stepped in front with a Marshall and a Strat, I couldn’t believe it. First of all I had to listen to the record a few times when I first heard it with the friend that said ‘what’s wrong with you?’ And then I bought the record and that was it, the record got scratched up immediately because I had to learn every note. And I did, I learned that whole album!
I was influenced, too, by the San Francisco Bay area in the early ’60s or late ’60s actually. There was a band called Cold Blood. And remember, we’re going from the psychedelic kind of thing, and now we’re looking at kind of the R&B fuse kind of thing of rock and blues and jazz. They had this amazing horn section with a singer Lydia Pense that was like Janis Joplin. Rough and hard, singing blues and singing hardcore. The horn section rivaled Blood Sweat & Tears, Chicago … They were like ridiculously awesome. As a group, as a band, they were fronted by a horn section. When I heard Cold Blood, they were the ones who made it for me.
Also, the big one. James Brown. And for me, his particular album was “Say it Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud.” Now that was influential to me in a different way. Obviously because of the funk factor. But for me if was mostly influential on a different esoteric because as a Latino man, they did not teach Latin American history at that time. It was 1969, you know, late ’60s. I was 18 years old and the whole issue of pride came up at that point. And so not understanding my own history, I finally find out that the Puerto Rican is actually a combination of the Taino Indian, the African slaves, and the Spaniards. So the consciousness of that song, “I’m Black and I’m Proud” really created a moment in my life where black music was a little bit harder felt for me. Just for the sake of the fact that it had its own identity now. That music influenced me as a character, as a personality, as a person.
The next year, 1970, Santana came out with the album “Abraxas.” Now Santana, being a Latino, once again we’re going toward that influence. Now, I see this Latin, for the first time, a Latin guitar player being fronted by any singer he wanted. And from that album you have “Black Magic Woman.” Oh my God, that album was crazy, that album was amazing. “Black Magic Woman,” “Oye Como Va,” “Incident at Neshabur,” all these songs were really heavy duty.
I’d have to include Django Reinhardt. Now the album is called “Django Reinhardt and the Hot Club Quintet.” This man had an accident in his mid-life where he was in a fire and two of his fingers on his right hand were burned and fused together. Now you’re looking at a man who has a thumb and two fingers on his right hand, what we call his ‘picking hand.’ This man developed a technique for gypsy guitar that is the fastest guitar — forget shredding, forget flamenco, forget all of that. This Jazz guitar player is the most amazing guitar player that I have ever heard in my life. He developed his own technique. Guitar gymnastics that will make a million guitar players stop playing guitar for the rest of their lives.
The Main Ingredient “Afrodisiac” album. That has a different type of explanation. I joined the Main Ingredient and that was the first album that I performed on, and that was because I was a session artist for RCA. So it was the place where I finally got the chance to show the world what I had. In particular, there is a song on that album called “You Can Call Me Rover” which if you listen to it you’ll hear little bits of what would later become (David Bowie’s) “Fame.” So that one has to be noted because that kind of took my whole R&B history and at that point it kind of came to an end — not to an end, but there was a period where that stopped and I joined Bowie and obviously slipped into the rock and roll epoch of my life.
Now I have to list David Bowie of course. And the one I’d have to pick is “Young Americans.” And the reason is, I never really had much confidence in the blue-eyed soul situation. Wait, before that I have to mention another influence.
There were some things that happened when I met Bowie. One of the influences that he introduced me to was a band called Kraftwerk. Kraftwerk was a German instrumental band, and they had an album called “Trans-Europe Express.” And that album for me was influential in that it introduced me to this, for lack of a better term, new-age music. Not psychedelic, but that trance-like melodic theme you get not only in disco music but they also gave me a glimpse early on into the whole, what we call, soundscapes. Yes it is instrumental music, but it isn’t instrumental music like for movies. It had a type of beat to it and it had the pounding kick drum, and, of course, songs that go on for like eight minutes.
Kraftwerk was a major, major influence to me; to allow me to take my mindset away from R&B and away from Rock and Roll and kind of couple it with classical music. It allowed me to understand the development of a song. Because usually in pop music and in different cultures we have to get to it right away. Verse chorus, verse chorus, bridge, out. And yet in classical music, you introduce the scene with anything, there’s a prologue to everything. That was about 1975, 76.
Some of these albums are the fact is it’s an influential albums. But then I have to give commentary about how. And the obvious was David Bowie’s “Trilogy” with Brian Eno that I was a part of. All of that happened around this same time. It’s linear, it’s not verse chorus, verse chorus. You know the verse could be the whole song.
Now remember there was a big conflict in 1977, iIn the ’70s, let’s call it, with disco music. Disco music had a different impact than people think. Let’s understand time of a record. In the pop culture of the ’60s, songs were less than three minutes long. As they approached the ’70s, as they left the ’70s, they started becoming longer and longer and longer, where we had disco music in that period of the late ’70s/early ’80s — these songs, oh my god, six minutes long was not out of the question.
And then the artist found out a little known truth. If your record is longer than four minutes long, you get paid for two songs. So you know what? Everyone had songs that were like six minutes long! Yeah, you got more for the longer songs. They soon stopped that practice, but other than that it was a great influence at that time.
Another influential album for me, although I played on it, I have to acknowledge it. It was “Lust for Life“by Iggy Pop. At the same time in 1977 I was introduced to Iggy Pop by David Bowie. And the difference in that influence was that it changed my sensibility in my performance and to revisit punk music as a driving force of what made me feel good and what I needed in order to be a guitarist.
The influence of the pop culture in the ’60s and the rock and roll culture in the ’70s created this nuance that gave me a more sophisticated, not only technique, but my own feeling of comfort. The minute I joined Iggy Pop in his albums, and then later on touring, that whole sensibility took a big change. As there is no back line in punk music, everybody is in the front line with the singer. I wasn’t looking at myself as a rhythm guitar player anymore, now I was a lead guitar player that will kick you in your face if he feels like it! So Iggy gave me a force that I would take into my later life.
The Supremes had a greatest hits album that I used to listen to with my wife Robin. It was “The Best of the Supremes,” and of course it had “Baby Love,” “Where Did Your Love Go,” “Stone Love,” “Reflections.” As you can see, none of the albums I listed are girl trios or girl singers in particular. But there was something about that music. When I was very, very young I heard “Baby Love” through a rolled-down car window. And that influenced me so much. I was a minister’s son and so I was only allowed to play church music. So for me to hear R&B music: The Supremes, The Temptations, I was like ‘oh my god, what are those chords? ‘Oh my god, what are those progressions?’ ‘Oh my god, how amazing!’ They had a bridge, I never knew what a bridge was. A bridge by definition is a totally different song that you just take and put inside of a song. But the reason is, when you think of a song, usually the highlight of a song is the chorus. Now when you think the song can not get any higher, when you think it can’t get any better than it is, you take it to the bridge and that other song kicks in there for about two seconds, your brain just explodes and then you go into super overdrive!
James Brown would take it to the bridge, and [once] I got fined. I was in working with his band as a pick-up musician and I didn’t hit when he said ‘take it to the bridge’ and they docked me fifty dollars. Oh, it’s a serious business if you don’t hit the bridge when it comes around. He wasn’t tough to work with, he was James Brown. He was a task master. And, true to word, he could pick up in the very next stop. Anybody was dying to play with James Brown, so for me to play with James Brown was like ‘oh my god.”
James Brown, Wilson Pickett, Chuck Berry. And these were all people that I performed with or toured with or worked with in the ’60s and yet they were so part of my culture that the influence wasn’t crazy, crazy. It was just there.
So it becomes very difficult when you have to think about what influenced you. Because you have to come from a place that you already were. And influence means to be taken from where you are and influenced to go somewhere else.
Oh wait, I have to put one more band in there. Sly and the Family Stone were the first interracial band to perform at the Apollo Theater. And this was I guess ’68, myself, my wife, and my best friend Luther Vandross were at a small workshop at the basement of the Apollo Theater. We were part of a workshop called “Listen My Brother.” We rehearsed, rehearsed, and rehearsed and our big thing was that we were going to be the opening act for Sly and the Family Stone, in the Apollo Theater, to open up. When we entered into that world, Sly and the Family Stone changed us very quickly. Remember, we were going from the R&B, classic R&B rhythm session/band where you’re sitting down, you are in a sense a band. You don’t stand up, only the lead singer gets in front of the microphone. Suddenly, Sly and the Family Stone comes to the Apollo Theater and the back line gets Fender amplifiers from the floor over three or four stories high to the top of the curtain. From the stage, all you saw was the gray material of the amplifiers. They destroyed that theater so bad it was never the same! And they destroyed me as well!
When we went backstage and to the hotel with them, that was it. I had just finished coming from the chitlin’ circuit of R&B music where the managers would have to take their guns and get their guns ready while everybody waited by the bus when they had to go in to get their money. Where you would take the bus and the bus would stop somewhere in the woods and there would be this speakeasy or whatever it would be called. You’re coming from that into the light of rock and roll, come on. I was like ‘oh my god, I want to do this.’
And a few years later when I had the chance to meet Bowie, that was it. I left R&B and never looked back.