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The days of Joe Walsh's 'Barnstorm'

A discussion with Joe Walsh’s Rocky Mountain ‘Barnstorm Boys’: drummer Joe Vitale and bassist Kenny Passarelli.
 JOE WALSH AND BARNSTORM: (L-R): Kenny Passarelli, Joe Walsh and Joe Vitale in concert on September 20, 1973.

JOE WALSH AND BARNSTORM: (L-R): Kenny Passarelli, Joe Walsh and Joe Vitale in concert on September 20, 1973.

By Warren Kurtz

BARNSTORM were Joe Walsh’s early ‘70s Colorado-based trio after his time with Ohio’s James Gang and before relocating to Los Angeles where he joined the Eagles. Barnstorm were inducted into the Colorado Music Hall of Fame in August and the celebration included a special reunion concert. Goldmine spoke with Barnstorm drummer Joe Vitale and bassist Kenny Passarelli before the August event on their past experience with Joe Walsh, Elton John, Hall & Oates, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, John Entwistle and others. Right before the interview with Joe Vitale began, news broke of the death of film director Jonathan Demme, whom he worked with on the 2015 movie “Ricki and the Flash.” He shared kind memories of that experience along with a humorous tale of Led Zeppelin members in Kent, Ohio.

Goldmine: Congratulations on Barnstorm’s induction, on the 45th anniversary of the first album. When did you first meet Joe Walsh?

JOE VITALE: In 1968 at Meyers Lake Park in Canton.

GM: We certainly had great bands in Ohio at the time. Your group The Chylds was on the radio station WIXY 1260 with “I Want More (Lovin’)” and on the Upbeat TV show with “Psychedelic Soul.”

JV: At first we were on local labels and then in high school were on Warner Brothers. We opened for another Ohio band, The McCoys with Rick Derringer. They were in high school, too, and were successful enough to have tutors on the road. We were jealous of them, in a good and inspiring way. I later worked with Rick Derringer on his “All American Boy” album which featured the singles “Rock and Roll Hoochie Koo” and “Teenage Love Affair” and also “Uncomplicated,” another cool tune. After high school I moved to Kent, where my local band was at the Cove and the James Gang were at JB’s.

GM: In your book “Backstage Pass,” after reading about the tragedy at Kent State in 1970, I was pleasantly surprised to learn of a humorous Kent event at Joe Bujack’s JB’s club that year.

JV: As you know, Kent is in driving distance from Cleveland, so after the James Gang opened for Led Zeppelin in Cleveland, Robert Plant and Jimmy Page came down to JB’s. They hopped on stage and jammed with the band I was playing with, Voo Doo. After the word got out, there were so many people coming to the club that they had to be turned away. It was the biggest crowd ever there. Joe Bujack was so impressed. He didn’t know who Robert Plant and Jimmy Page were, but asked them if they were available for Thursdays.

GM: The following year Joe Walsh left the James Gang and moved to Colorado. Then you followed. Was it hard to leave Ohio?

JV: Not at all. I was on a Ted Nugent tour for three months, opening for the James Gang. Joe told me of his Colorado plan. He felt the James Gang had run its course and asked if I would come and be part of a new trio. Ted was so sweet and gracious to let me go. Barnstorm began in January of 1972 with the two of us and Kenny on bass, who was a Colorado local.

GM: In addition to drums, you played keyboards and flute on the album, including an instrumental you co-wrote, “Giant Bohemoth.”

JV: I was a big Ian Anderson fan which inspired me to learn to play the flute. This was the first of our instrumentals. Joe wanted to do one per album.

GM: Back in Cleveland, “Turn to Stone” was receiving radio play, but when the second album, “The Smoker You Drink, The Player You Get,” was released, you reached the national Top 40 with “Rocky Mountain Way.”

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JV: That hit allowed us to perform on television’s “Midnight Special,” with Richard Pryor hosting that night, and “Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert.”

GM: In addition to enjoying the next single from the album, “Meadows,” I also like its flip side which you wrote, “Bookends” with great lyrics about good times and memories, and also your composition “Days Gone By.”

JV: That last song is one of my favorites to play on flute, due to the key.

GM: I also enjoyed your flute on the song from another Clevelander who went to Colorado, Michael Stanley, on “Moving Right Along” from his solo debut. This was the first of his songs I heard on the radio. Michael told me that Barnstorm is one of his all-time favorite bands.

JV: That is so nice to hear. We have had fun together.

GM: After Barnstorm, in the mid-‘70s you were involved with Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young in a couple of different lineups on the “Long May You Run” and “CSN” albums.

JV: “Long May You Run” was supposed to be a CSNY album but Crosby & Nash had just done an album together and they were out of songs, so it became the Stills-Young Band. Then I continued with Stephen for the “CSN” album, I think one of the best ever with “Dark Star,” “Fair Game,” “Just a Song Before I Go” and more. On the ’77 tour we played those songs along with standards “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes,” “Long Time Gone,” and others and sold a lot of records.

GM: That year, “Pretty Maids All in a Row” was on a lot of jukeboxes as the flip side of “Hotel California.”

JV: Joe was in the studio and called me to help on it. I met him at his new home in California and wrote the chorus for it, and that helped Joe to finish it. I feel the album “Hotel California” is the Eagles’ “Sgt. Pepper” or “Pet Sounds” and I am so pleased to be part of it.

GM: The following year I heard another of your instrumentals, “Theme from Boat Weirdos” as the flip side of Joe Walsh’s “Life’s Been Good.”

JV: We recorded the “But Seriously, Folks…” album as a project on the ocean in Florida. Each day we would dock the boat when we were done and the town people would say, “Here come those boat weirdos.” They were nice about it. We had a 4-track tape deck on the boat, but there were generators. We were concerned about a hum or buzz but fortunately it was as quiet as a mouse. We docked, went to the studio with the tapes, listened to them, and they had such a good vibe.

GM: In 1979 I wrote a review of Jay Ferguson’s album “Real Life Ain’t This Way.” On side one, after the single “Shakedown Cruise,” I highly praised the lively second song “No Secrets.”

JV: That is a killer song. The whole project was so great. Jay is so talented and the album is a really good record, so easy to record, so well written, and Jay just hit it. It was a low stress project.

GM: What a surprise it was to see you and Joe Walsh in 1981 as part of another trio with John Entwistle.

JV: What a surprise it was for me, too. My band Madman, named after a song on my “Roller Coaster Weekend” album, did shows with his band Ox. John wanted a three piece power trio album, different from his work with Ox or The Who. I think the album “Too Late the Hero” is a masterpiece. I still listen to it all the time. The ballads on the album are neat. He came to America and then we finished it in London where we had great music and laughs. John was an amazing musician. So sad that he is gone.

GM: In addition to your “Roller Coaster Weekend” album, there is your “Plantation Harbor” album with Jimmie Haskell’s strings.

JV: Bill Szymczyk wrote great charts and always had Jimmie as his strings go-to-guy. There was a budget with Asylum, but Bill said, “Don’t worry about it.” It is the greatest experience as a songwriter watching forty musicians playing your song, so humbling and inspirational. It just gives you goosebumps.

GM: While you often worked with Bill Szymczyk, another producer you worked with was Bob Gaudio on Eric Carmen’s 1984 self-titled album with “I Wanna Hear It From Your Lips” and the high school reunion song, “She Remembered.”

JV: Eric wanted a different bunch of musicians for the album. I first saw him with Cyrus Erie and the Raspberries at Fifth Quarter in Kent when they were starting out, many years prior. Northeast Ohio was so alive with music. So much talent. A great environment with excitement and inspiration.

GM: A recent surprise for me was seeing you in the film “Ricki and the Flash.” We enjoyed the film and I learned the song “My Love Will Not Let You Down” from it.

JV: Sad news from earlier today, Jonathan Demme passed away. He was the director of that film along with “Silence of the Lambs,” “Philadelphia,” and “Talking Heads: Stop Making Sense.” He made each day so enjoyable. He was so kind, positive and supportive. Since that film we have also lost keyboardist Bernie Worrell and bassist Rick Rosas. Meryl Streep is a great actress. Rick Springfield has acting experience from television. For me, Rick and Bernie, Jonathan said, “Just be musicians in the movie.” That made it easier, calming our nerves. We had heard that Bruce Springsteen track, “My Love Will Not Let You Down” and thought it was a great song.

GM: I have enjoyed your newer material including your Beach Boys inspired tribute to your wife “Oh Oh Susie” and your son Joe Vitale Jr.’s catchy “Beautiful Girl.” You continue to stay busy.

JV: Yes, I am part of tour with Joe Walsh, opening for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. What great guys and an awesome band with millions of fans. It is a nice match.

GM: Tell us more about the Barnstorm reunion show?

KENNY PASSARELLI: ....At the Fiddler’s Green Amphitheater in Denver... the induction of Barnstorm, Dan Fogelberg and the Caribou Ranch recording studio into the Colorado Music Hall of Fame... (Barnstorm) reuniting on stage for the first time in a decade. This has been three years in the making.

GM: Kenny, let me go back to the beginning of Barnstorm with you as well, and how you and Joe Walsh met.

KP: When Joe Walsh moved to Colorado and he was looking for a bassist, my friend Tommy Bolin, who would go on to the James Gang and Deep Purple, recommended me. I spent time with Joe and a 24 track recorder he had in his basement. I learned that Jim Guercio was moving to the area and building the Caribou Ranch recording studio. He had been behind the sound of the Buckinghams and Chicago. At the same time producer Bill Szymczyk, after a California earthquake, moved to Denver. It all came together. I owe a lot to Joe Walsh.

GM: I certainly enjoy what you brought to Barnstorm, including the rocker “Mother Says” from the first album. On the second album, when I heard Joe Walsh sing, “Rocky Mountain way is better than the way we had,” I knew that this was true for everyone but you as the sole Colorado native, as you already knew how great it was living there. Michael Stanley was pleased to have the entire Colorado entourage on his second album, featuring “Let’s Get the Show on the Road.”

KP: The group Widespread Panic has played this song as the opening number in some of their live shows. It was a great group of musicians we had on Michael’s “Friends and Legends” album including David Sanborn on sax. What a great album and Michael is such a cool cat.

GM: You not only were on Joe Walsh’s Top 40 debut single but also on Dan Fogelberg’s Top 40 single debut in 1975 with the bouncy “Part of the Plan.”

KP: Irving Azoff was our agent and his first client was Dan Fogelberg. Joe was hired to produce Dan’s “Souvenirs” album with that hit.

GM: Within a year after that, I saw you on stage in Cleveland with Elton John. You are also part of one of my favorite Elton John flip sides, “Chameleon” with Toni Tennille and others on background vocals.

KP: I did 83 concerts with Elton. A lot of stadiums. By ’76, after the tour, Elton was really tired. I can’t believe you mentioned “Chameleon.” That is my favorite track on the “Blue Moves” album. I heard Elton’s demo before we recorded our full versions and said “Wow!” That is one of my favorite bass accompaniments and such an amazing arrangement. At the show in Cleveland I met Eric Carmen back stage. He was alone, after “All by Myself” was a hit and I joked, “Are you all by yourself?” In spite of that dumb joke we became friends. When Elton got off the road, most of us became Hall & Oates’ touring band and Eric Carmen was the opener. The Hall & Oates live album “Livetime” does a great job of capturing the show. In 1980 I played on Eric’s “Tonight You’re Mine” album which includes “It Hurts Too Much” and “All for Love.”

GM: After that, you were back with Joe Walsh co-writing “A Life of Illusion.”

KP: I had this instrumental track that I had written in the Barnstorm days, but had no lyrics. I had shared it with Bernie Taupin and Elton for possible use. I also shared it with Daryl Hall’s muse Sara Allen for a possible Hall & Oates song and she tried to use it unsuccessfully. Joe remembered it and asked if I still play trumpet, which was my first instrument at the age of seven. I said “yes” and it became the hit single from his “There Goes the Neighborhood” album and was later used as the opening song in the film “The 40-Year-Old Virgin.”

GM: Most recently with Joe Walsh, you were a key part of his 2012 album “Analog Man.” My favorite song is “Band Played On.”

KP: That is also a big favorite of mine and I am looking forward to us as a band playing again as Barnstorm.