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Despite its optimistic name, Shooting Star never could catch a break

Bad timing. Bad luck. Bad management. Van McLain of Shooting Star never had it easy, but he never gave up on his dream, either.

By Jeb Wright

If ever there was a great band that just couldn’t seem to catch a break, it would be Shooting Star. From broken record deals to busted finances, the band has just about been through it all.

But it takes a lot to keep a good band down, and Shooting Star hasn’t called it quits yet. The band continues to perform several dates a year, and it will appear this summer at the aptly named Moondance Jam in Walker, Minn.

“We still love playing, and there is still a market for the band, but I don’t foresee us making another album,” guitarist Van McLain admits.

However, McLain hasn’t thrown in the towel altogether on studio recording. In 2012, he released his first solo album, “New Blue.”

Van McLain New Blue

“I still have the fire to write music,” he says. “I have always had a few songs that didn’t fit Shooting Star, so I decided to put them out.”

Well, that, and the fact that Shooting Star had gone through yet another lead singer. We’re not sure if there’s a trap door or a revolving one under the lead singer’s mic stand. Our unofficial tally is that the spot has changed hands about a half-dozen times. Of course, Keith Mitchell has done more than one tour of duty fronting the band.

“I just don’t want to replace another singer. I feel like we are starting to be like Spinal Tap. Gary [West] was the original singer, and we had a lot of success with him. When he left, we replaced him with Keith, and we had a pretty big hit with ‘Touch Me Tonight.’ That song ended up being the No. 1 song on MTV at the time. Keith left after several years, and we got Kevin Chalfant, and he wouldn’t tour. We replaced him with Ronnie [Platt], and he has touring issues, as well. I am just done with it. We will still play some gigs, but Janet [Jameson, current violinist and background vocalist] and I will handle all of the vocals.”
On June 18, 2013, the band announced that lead vocalist Todd Pettygrove had joined the lineup. He replaced Mitchell, who was having some minor health issues, according to a news release.

“Todd is a great guy and can sing his ass off! I am more excited about the band than I have been in 20 years,” McLain said in an e-mail.

Shooting Star Van McLain

Shooting Star has had quite a few tough breaks, including thieving managers, squabbles between its label and distributors and a lack of promotion. Yet the band has persevered and scored a few hits, including "Last Chance" and "Touch Me Tonight." Photo courtesy Van McLain.

McLain’s rock and roll journey began at age 18, when he moved to England and began shopping a demo tape. McLain was signed by Clive Davis on the strength of a song he had written titled “Take the Money and Run.”

“Two months after we went in the studio, Steve Miller came out with a different song named ‘Take the Money and Run.’ There was no way my song was going to get released, so the record deal fell apart, and I moved back to Kansas City. In the interim, Gary’s band he had in New York fell apart and he came back. We decided to start from scratch and put a band together. We took my stuff and his stuff and we started writing some new songs. We took the entire band to New York and spent four or five months up there, and we got signed. All of the guys were from Kansas City, but it is interesting how we had to go to England and New York to form the band.”

In a move that would come back to haunt Shooting Star, the band’s members asked violinist Charles Waltz to join the band. Only 60 miles west of Kansas City, the band Kansas had come to prominence using the same instrument. While some believe that the Shooting Star added the classical instrument to ride on Kansas’ coattails, it simply isn’t true.

“We didn’t pattern ourselves after Kansas,” McLain says. “The violin only works in certain kinds of rock music; however, I think we did it differently than Kansas. Charles played parts that were more rock-oriented. Kansas were progressive, but if you were a journalist in Toledo, Ohio, and you came and saw us and wanted to describe us, then the easy thing to say was that we were a Midwestern band with a violin player, just like Kansas, so we became Mini-Kansas.”

This was just the beginning in a long line of bad breaks that plagued Shooting Star.
“Our first managers were stealing us blind, so we fired them,” explains McLain. “They were record promotion guys, and I think they blackballed us to a lot of radio stations. Later, we signed to Virgin and they had absolutely no money at the time. We did not know that when we signed with them.”

The band was flown to England and had the legendary Gus Dudgeon at the producer’s helm. Despite a strong start, including the hit “Last Chance,” the band still couldn’t break through.

“We had the No. 1, most-played AOR song in the country with ‘Last Chance,’ and our record company, Virgin, had gotten into a fight with Atlantic Records, who did their distribution. We ended up not being able to get our album in the stores for six months. We should have sold a ton of albums from having that popular of a song on radio, but when people went to the stores, they couldn’t buy the album because it was not in the stores. We got labeled as a call-out research band. At the time, radio would call out to people and play them songs and ask them what songs they liked. We tested off the charts, but when they looked, they didn’t see any sales. They didn’t realize that the reason they didn’t see any sales was because there weren’t any f**king records in the stores.”
After releasing three more albums and having minor hits with “Hollywood” and “Flesh and Blood,” Shooting Star left Virgin for a new record label and teamed up the hottest producer of the day, John Kalodner. But this was still not enough to bring the band the success it deserved.

Shooting Star Silent Scream

Shooting Star's 1985 LP, "Silent Scream" (Geffen GHS24056) is one of its more collectible releases. Its Near-Mint value is $10.

“We signed with Geffen and we put out ‘Silent Scream,’” McLain explains, “Geffen got into a fight with all the radio promo guys, and they fired them the week our album came out. We had 200 ads on radio, out of 300 reporting stations the first week. ‘Summer Sun’ was being added everywhere, and it looked like the album would be a smash. After the fight with the promo guys, it dropped to 40 stations. What do you do? We really worked hard on that record, and it was the one. It just crushed Gary when it all fell apart over something that ridiculous; it literally drove him out of the music business. You put your heart and soul into this stuff, and you expect these business guys to come through for you. We got hosed four or five times.”

Shooting Star replaced West with Mitchell, and the band had one more hit with “Touch Me Tonight” before setting into its niche as one of the best bands that never made it.

A cancer scare put things into perspective for McLain, who realizes that there is more to life than just selling records.

“We are only here for a short time. It can happen to any of us on any given day. I am still walking around, and I got to do a lot of great things and go to a lot of great places. I did better than anybody else around these parts, other than the Kansas guys. Maybe I’m not playing stadiums, but I’m playing for a lot of people who really like my music. For me, it is still great fun, and I still can’t believe how many people still like us.”

And while McLain loves what he’s done with Shooting Star, he has found a new love of music with his solo effort.

“I am excited about writing music and playing live again. When you keep switching singers it gets really hard. I love the style of music we play in Shooting Star, but for years I have been writing without knowing what singer I am writing for. The new album, I know who I am writing for, because I am writing for me. I have never written parts that I knew were just for me.” GM