By Mike Greenblatt
If anybody epitomizes the true essence of what rock ’n’ roll music is supposed to be all about, it’s singer-songwriter-guitarist and all-around good guy Ricky Byrd.
His solo album, “Lifer” (Kayos Records) is finally a reality after a dream kind of life playing with the biggest and the best. The CD rocks and rolls with heartfelt sincerity and bops and strolls with the kind of sexy strut learned from a lifetime of listening to sweet soul music and hard-charging rock ’n’ roll.
After Byrd’s first band, Susan, had a great ’70s power pop RCA debut, he played, recorded and toured with no less than Ian Hunter and Roger Daltrey. He came that close to being inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in 2012 as lead guitarist for Joan Jett & The Blackhearts. It was his chunky riffing that made the recording of “I Love Rock ’n’ roll” such a classic. Byrd stayed with Jett for 12 years before becoming the lead guitarist for Southside Johnny & The Asbury Jukes. He now leads the incredible NYC Hit Squad with an all-star assemblage of professionals who turn it up and crank out hard-rock versions of the great classic songs we loved growing up, including those from Motown and Stax. Those gigs are THE place to be in New York City when they happen.
Through all the years, all the albums, all the tours ... most rock ’n’ rollers, most great artists, are said to be hell to live with. Why that is will never quite be known. Most likely, it has something to do with the fact that they give so much of themselves to their music and their fans, there’s not much left at home. Hey, I’ve read enough rock biographies to know a little something about this. Not Ricky Byrd. Byrd’s blessed with two of the most beautiful girls in New York, his wife and daughter, and he’s a family man through and through. Even Hurricane Sandy couldn’t damper his enthusiasm. Despite losing his car, his memorabilia and having to huddle in the attic with his family thinking they would all drown as the water rose up the first two floors of his house, he’s kept his cheeky wit intact as “The Seinfeld Of Rock ’n’ Roll.” Plus, after 20 years clean, he’s now part of Rockers In Recovery, an organization of sober artists that puts on benefits around the country to help others. Is this guy a rock ’n’ roll hero, or what?
On the occasion of the release of “Lifer,” we sat down with the native New Yorker and passionate Yankees fan to get the lowdown.
Goldmine: “Lifer” is a culmination of a lot of years and a lot of influences. They say you are what you eat. Well, you’ve eaten Humble Pie, Faces, Stones, Mott The Hoople and The Who, and you lay your cards on the table in the very first track, “Rock ’n’ Roll Boys.”
Ricky Byrd: I was finished with the record. I had purchased a Mott The Hoople concert DVD, and it made me realize there was a groove missing. That’s when I started fooling around with the riff of “Rock ’n’ Roll Boys,” that Chuck Berry chord pattern. Then the words came flipping out, and it became an autobiographical story of my beginnings in the biz, so to speak.
GM: That and “Let’s Get Gone” really set up the rest of the album so beautifully. They’re like the DNA of rock ’n’ roll itself.
RB: The key line of “Rock ’n’ Roll Boys” is “I’m always going to be one of the rock ’n’ roll boys.” I just tried to get that below-the-waist rock ’n’ roll feeling that made me want to be this guy. That first track is dedicated to Ian Hunter and to all the bands, really, like The Who, who lit the match to my rock ’n’ roll fire. Those years were a great time to be a kid.
GM: That’s what I’ve always said. I was 18 in 1969 at Woodstock!
RB: I was 15 and wasn’t allowed to go. My first festival was at the Pocono Raceway with Rod Stewart and The Faces, The J. Geils Band, Humble Pie, Edgar Winter’s White Trash — all these bands I loved.
GM: [laughs] I wasn’t allowed at 13 to go see The Beatles at Shea Stadium. I was very upset. Anyway, then you go into some power pop on the third track. “Foolish Kind” is almost reminiscent of your first band, Susan. Its frothy organ spills over into an uplifting effervescent kind of joyous feel-good pop. Then it’s two soul songs in a row: “Ways Of A Woman” is like The Temptations and “Wide Open” is in that classic old-school, soul-man style. There’s your basic soul dichotomy right there and you nailed ’em both!
RB: Funny enough, all of the great rock ’n’ roll that I grew up on had at its core blues and soul. Humble Pie, Faces, Stones — they all learned from soul music. These were British kids who would get their soul records mail-ordered from America. They turned that into what they did, and I’m turning what they did into what I do! And that’s the way you keep passing it on. Being a kid in this country back then was amazing, because radio stations played everything on one station. Everything is so separate now. You used to be able to hear, like, the Dave Clark Five, Dean Martin, Al Green and Frank Sinatra on the same station within 10 minutes. That’s where I got my degree in rock ’n’ roll college. And “Wide Open” is a song I wrote ages ago, when I had my Sony deal. It’s been cut by Chris Farlow, some European artists, and I cut it a couple of times but had never quite gotten it the way I wanted. This is exactly how I wanted it. I was going for Otis Redding with a single onstage spotlight on the singer. I visualize everything.
“Ways of A Woman” I wrote with Southside [Johnny Lyon] when I was playing [lead guitar in the Asbury Jukes]. I would come to him with these riffs, ideas and titles. He came out to where I live and we sat and wrote a couple of songs together.
GM: Yeah, that Jukes party-soul atmosphere totally infests that song!
RB: And I have the Jukes horns on there. Everything flows. It’s all coming from the same heart.
GM: It’s a helluva mix! This album has been long awaited for so damn long by your fans, your friends, your family, everybody.
RB: And by me, too!
GM: I’d been warned by your wife this was coming for years!
RB: Funny, but the Reader’s Digest version is that I started it in 2001 in Nashville with Steve Earle’s producer, Ray Kennedy. It was right after 9/11. We did six tracks. I’d come back to New York, go back to Nashville for some overdubs, come back to New York and go back down south again. It was getting costly. Time went on, and all these things happened, and life just kind of took over while I was busy making other plans. I wound up not going back down there again when I joined the Asbury Jukes, but I kept writing. Then I reconnected with [producer] Bob Stander, and we started recording together at my house. That’s when I realized I could do this up here. So I called Ray and asked him if he minded if I finish it at home, and then he could master it. He said, “No man, send me something.” So I sent him the first song I wrote for this album, “Foolish Kind,” the pop song, the song where I wanted an “Ooh La La” [Faces] feel. Listen, I’m wearing my influences on my sleeve. I don’t really give a rat’s ass. It’s who I am. I had no rules on this record except for the fact that I wasn’t going to edit. If something had a little vibe on it from yet another band that I grew up on, who cares? That’s what my favorite bands did anyway. They took from Muddy Waters. I was just borrowing vibes. My guitar playing is like a buffet of all of these people who I grew up on. So I did “Foolish Kind” up here with Bob Stander, and I sent it to Ray, and he gave me his blessing calling it “unbelievable.” “Go ahead and do the rest in New York,” he said. So we did. The only song from the 2001 sessions is the closer, “Turnstile ’01.” The other songs will wind up on the next record. So we sent the mixes to Ray, and he mastered the whole thing in Nashville.
GM: I love the line “One kiss only, I’m a married man.” That song epitomizes the lifestyle and says so much in just seven words.
RB: That’s the justification if you really want to break that down … like blow jobs don’t count. In “Married Man,” I wanted a Stax feel, but it had to be a rock ’n’ roll song. There was a period of time where there were a lot of movie star and politician indiscretions. It was all over the news. New York Gov. Spitzer, this one, that one — there were like five of ’em within a year. I was going for the mass take on married life and trying to be funny.
GM: In going for humor, you wound up being so profound.
RB: Boys will be boys.
GM: “Turnstile ’01” gives me goosebumps. It’s a love song, sure, but to the city itself.
RB: The sound of people talking at the beginning is actually me in Union Square Park in New York three weeks after the 9/11 attacks. I had my little Sony cassette player, and I just turned it on. That’s actual audio of sirens rushing back down there and the whole bit. If you remember there were about 10 songs written about that day, including Alan Jackson’s. I think it’s easier to write a patriotic country song. Everything I tried to write sounded trite, so I decided to write about my experience of growing up in the Bronx. I’ve lived here my whole life, always will. I’m sure I’ll pass away in New York City. I went to Nashville with only the chords and a few lines. That was when I broke down over it all. It happened when I got out of New York City. Because we were all so in shock but also sort of stoic, when I hit Nashville, and it was so peaceful, I lost it. I remember Ray took me to the farmhouse of a friend, and we were all sitting out back, and all you could see was fields. It was the juxtaposition of what I just came from compared to the quiet of where I was, with all those people asking me, “What happened?” I started to tell the story, and that’s when I fell apart. I remember being in the recording studio trying to sing the song and the microphone broke. Ray, who’s like a mad scientist, starts to fix it. I go into another room with my acoustic guitar and sit on the floor coming up with more lyrics. I go back in and say, “Dude, listen to this.” And we finished the song together. The song doesn’t pinpoint the attacks. I don’t think I would have been able to do that. But it’s still very visual. I love this city. The song mentions the checkered cabs, the subway turnstiles and asks “Where else can the skyline look so pretty?”
GM: You’ve played, performed, recorded, wrote and got to know so many great musicians in your career. Tell me what you were able to take away from some of them. Let’s start with Ian Hunter.
RB: I was a big fan from the time I hung out in bars at 14 with a phony I.D. I’ll never forget when Mott The Hoople played The Uris Theater on Broadway. After the shows, all the famous rock stars would hang out at Max’s Kansas City. There was this famous big round table in the back room. And I remember standing behind Ian and Mott as a little kid, wearing my faux-British clothing that I created by looking at Circus magazine to see what they wore. Twenty years later, I’m on stage with Ian, playing “All The Young Dudes” in London. Figure that one out! What I learned from Ian is that you can be a rock ’n’ roll animal and still be a gentleman. Also how to write intelligent lyrics. It’s the same thing with Chuck Berry. To me, Chuck Berry is one of the greatest rock ’n’ roll poets there ever was. Not a lot of people realize that. Listen to any of the songs, “Memphis” or “Brown-Eyed Handsome Man;” nobody writes like that! The chords are easy as pie, but the lyrics are totally poetic and profound. And that’s what Ian does, as well. The base of it is this great music, but the lyrics — listen to “Saturday Gigs,” “Rock ’n’ roll Queen” or “Hymn For The Dudes,” where he goes:
“’Cause if you think you are a star/for so long they’ll come from near and far/
But you’ll forget just who you are/
You ain’t The Nazz/
You’re just a buzz/
Some kinda temporary.”
I mean, that’s classic, dude! That’s the whole rock business in a nutshell. Don’t take yourself so seriously, mate. He’s just a great guy. I just did a benefit that I helped put on for Hurricane Sandy victims. I hadn’t played with him since I played with him in ’94, but I called him anyway and he said, “Just tell me where and when.” And it felt like yesterday doing “Once Bitten (Twice Shy)” and “All The Young Dudes.”
GM: Roger Daltrey?
RB: I’ve always been a Who fan. Of course. Saw ’em so many times. I guess my greatest realization was co-writing with him on his solo album, “Rocks In The Head.” And me being in one booth with my guitar and him being in the singer’s booth recording, it was pretty mind-blowing, also. And when they were doing overdubs, I remember we were both watching soccer in the studio lounge of Abbey Road in England. I’ll never forget it. What a moment. And it was one of those moments that I knew was a moment when I looked over at him relaxing on the couch. Then I got to play live with him. We did a radio tour, a couple of really cool benefits, some TV shows. What can I say? It’s freakin’ Roger Daltrey.
GM: Joan Jett?
RB: Joan was my partner for 12 years. That’ll be on my gravestone.
GM: It was your ballsy lead guitar that made “I Love Rock ’n’ Roll” so great. That song was nothin’ when originally recorded by a band called Arrows in 1975. Six years later, you and Joan put your stamp on it, and now it’s a classic.
RB: I think it was all four of us. Lee Crystal’s drumming, Gary Ryan’s bass and, of course, Joan’s guitar playing and singing. I cannot tell you how many times we recorded the guitars on that song. I know mine were done at least three times. It’s just big sonic power chords. And we played good together. We were a good match. We had a helluva run, recorded a buncha records, had two phases, the original phase and then with Kasim Sultan and Thommy Price for “I Hate Myself For Loving You” and “Little Liar.” The last thing I did with her was with Paul Westerberg of The Replacements. We did a video for “Backlash” [from 1991’s “Notorious” album] on the top of the Wonder Bread building. I actually played bass in that video. Hung it down around my knees like Sid Vicious.
GM: Southside Johnny Lyon?
RB: Oh, man! I’ll tell you what, dude. Southside was the one who taught me not to take it so seriously. He taught me about life, playing and learning to relax. Besides being a legend of the Jersey scene, he’s a hell of a band leader. It wasn’t the easiest gig in the world, I’ve got to admit. That’s because of his looseness on stage. He never did the same set twice. I never knew what he was going to play. I had to be on my toes constantly. But I learned. In my band, The NYC Hit Squad, with Liberty DeVito and Christine Ohlman and the Juke horn section, Southside’s lessons has everything to do with my stage thing now. The first three songs in our sets are off the page but after that I just call ’em as I feel ’em.
GM: You’ve backed up some of the all-time all timers, like Mavis Staples, Ronnie Spector and Darlene Love. You’ve shared stages with Mitch Ryder, Elvis Costello and Bruce Springsteen!
RB: This is a great period for me right now. I’ll soon be putting together a very cool band and going out to promote this record, because I wrote this record to be played live.
But the other stuff I do, rather than being in a recording and touring band, is to perform at a lot of benefits and play with a lot of great people. I’m in the Rock ’n’ Roll Hall Of Fame band with Jeff Carlisi of .38 Special, Liberty DeVito [ex-Billy Joel drummer], Rob Arthur from Peter Frampton’s band and Jeff Adams from Jefferson Starship. Paul Shaffer and Will Lee did it with us once or twice. They head the other band that does the TV show. The one that I’m in does a huge annual benefit in Cleveland. I’ve been doing it about seven years. Each year they have about eight artists, and we’re the house band for, like, Sheila E, Billy Squier, Rascal Flatts, Russell Thompkins of The Stylistics and so many others.
GM: You also do a rock ’n’ roll boot camp.
RB: That’s Jeff Carlisi’s company, Camp Jam. People sign up to perform with us. We do it all over the country and in Mexico. We spend five days with people and jam out!
GM: So, you’re like the Dream Weaver! These people have dreams of playing with rock stars on stages and getting to watch it on video for the rest of their lives. How cool is that? You’re making their dream come true for a price. That’s a great business.
RB: Yeah, like these people might have played in rock bands in high school or college, and now they’re CEOs of companies who never got it out of their system. We get together with them, teach them a song, tell some good stories and they get to perform for their friends and family. We have no time, dude; it goes so quick! Some of them don’t hardly play instruments. We kinda rig the guitars for those folks. I mean, some do play. But some of ’em are air-guitar people so the guitars are all tricked out and, man, they have a ball.