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Fabulous Flip Sides – Interview with Joe Cerisano of Silver Condor, the Trans-Siberian Orchestra and recently the Band in the Basement

Goldmine spoke with Joe Cerisano, lead vocalist and composer for the ‘80s group Silver Condor and recently part of the Band in the Basement. He also shared how the Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s Paul O’Neill, who passed away this year, saved him.

By Warren Kurtz

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Claude Pepper, Joe Cerisano, Earl Slick, John Corey, and Jay Davis

SILVER CONDOR released their self-titled debut album on Columbia in 1981, a year when the label had $3.99 vinyl and cassette sale price promotions in their first few weeks of release for new artists including this quintet, the Hawks, and others. Nine out of ten of the debut album’s songs were written or co-written by vocalist Joe Cerisano, except for their softer Top 40 single, “You Could Take My Heart Away,” which was written by keyboardist John Corey. Promotion for the album highlighted guitarist Earl Slick, who recorded with David Bowie in his mid-‘70s period and John Lennon for his final two albums.

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GOLDMINE: We were living in Dallas as young adults in the early ‘80s during the oil boom. A new radio station, Eagle 97, went on the air, targeting our market, playing both hit singles and album cuts. In the summer of 1981, your album was on their chart for fifteen weeks and your single was in their Top 10. Where did these great songs come from and how did you connect with Earl Slick?

Joe Cerisano: I had written many of the songs back in New Jersey in the late ‘70s through 1980, with a goal to compose hits from the Beatles mold, with the title early on like “Help!” Ian Hunter connected me with Earl Slick, who he worked with on the 1977 album Overnight Angels. We sent reel to reel demo tapes to Columbia including “For the Sake of Survival,” “Carolina,” “Sayin’ Goodbye,” and “It’s Over” to get the deal. They thought we had four to five hit singles on our debut album.

GM: Columbia indicated that to us record buyers too, with a sticker on the cellophane, stating, “Includes the hits…” and listed four songs. Let’s start with these including the opening number that my wife Donna says has Meat Loaf-like power, “For the Sake of Survival.”

JC: In New Jersey, I was asked “How can you do these club shows five nights a week?” I quickly responded, “For the sake of survival.” Drummer Tico Torres, who went on to Bon Jovi, and I were in a band called the R-Men and each Tuesday through Saturday we had 300 to 500 people at the clubs. In our 3rd set, we did about 90% originals, but didn’t tell anyone they were ours as the clubs didn’t want originals. Instead, I would fib, “Here’s a new one from Bob Seger” to squeeze them in and test out the songs. The audience loved them.

GM: You packed a lot of emotion into “Carolina (Nobody’s Right, Nobody’s Wrong).”

JC: After a break-up, you see the reality of what has happened. I tried for a Teddy Pendergrass vocal delivery with a call and response style. It still holds up.

GM: Donna and I saw you on the TV show “Solid Gold,” sometime in 1981 during your four week run in Billboard’s Top 40 with “You Could Take My Heart Away.”

JC: Ten days before “For the Sake of Survival” was to be the single, it was pulled and changed to this song, the only one on the album I didn’t write. Our keyboardist John Corey wrote it. I provided the arrangement and tried to sing it like the Beach Boys’ Carl Wilson.

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Silver Condor

Flip side: Goin’ For Broke

A side: You Could Take My Heart Away

Top 100 debut: July 25, 1981

Peak position: 32

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GM: The single’s flip side and album closer, “Goin’ For Broke,” certainly is powerful.

JC: It is a true story about driving out to the west coast. Earl was married to Jean Millington from the quartet Fanny. They lived in L.A. and I slept on their floor. Earl and I co-wrote this with Steve Plunkett from the group Autograph.

GM: Let’s cover one more favorite from the album, that wasn’t on the promotion sticker, the tight power-pop “Angel Eyes.” I love the line, “It’s where the danger lies,” at the very end.

JC: I wrote the words on the beach. You know, at a music store, you can buy guitars and amps, but one thing you can’t buy there are lyrics, which became my focus.

GM: While we were going to the new Dallas Agora club, back in our hometown at the Cleveland Agora, you performed that August.

JC: The tour was costing $10,000 a week out of my $100,000 advance. When I found that out, I ended the tour in progress instead of adding more dates with Peter Frampton. The band broke up shortly after the tour. I have since released a live CD of our work from the tour, which I am proud of, and is available online.

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GM: In 1983, the second Silver Condor album, “Trouble at Home” was released.

JC: I had to write a second album for Columbia. I was the only guy remaining from Silver Condor. Columbia didn’t want it as a solo record, so I gathered musicians for the record.

GM: The opening number and title tune, “Trouble at Home” has Mott the Hoople, Rod Stewart, and Bob Seger’s “Katmandu” power. Clarence Clemons’ sax is incredible in the instrumental break.

JC: That is one of my favorites with Clarence. We recorded it at Electric Lady in New York. I was using a hand-held Shure mic and captured what I wanted on the first take.

GM: There is “Goin’ Out on the Town,” with a melody that takes me back to Donovan’s “Lalena.” What a great background sound.

JC: I got keyboardist Steve Goldstein and drummer Craig Kampf through producer Val Garay. They had done Kim Carnes’ “Mistaken Identity” album with the hit “Bette Davis Eyes.”

GM: The album dramatically concludes with “Holdin’ On (Barely).”

JC: I wrote it on piano in Van Nuys and Steve took it from here. With the double-time guitar ending, I was thinking of “Free Bird.” Financially, I was “holdin’ on, barely,” but next, commercials saved my life. I didn’t even know this type of work existed. I became the most famous anonymous singer in America with over 50 commercials. I sang, “GE’s light, we’ll be there.” I sang about both Coke and Pepsi. My big financial break came when my Miller beer ad aired on Super Bowl Sunday. I was the top session singer for eight years and worked with Sandy Farina from New Jersey. We met the year before we recorded “Hands Across America.”

GM: For the 50th anniversary of the Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields Forever” single this year, I also listened to Sandy Farina’s cover version, from the “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” film soundtrack, is my favorite cover, and has been since its late ‘70s release. Congratulations and thank you and Sandy for $15 million directly to needy families during that tough time in many parts of the country.

JC: Thank you. We were recording commercial duos for AT&T, Oldsmobile, and others. Ken Kragen, who was behind “We Are the World,” wanted a song where the message was focused on, versus focusing on a star filled collection of singers. A Washington Post article, stated “sung by Joe Cerisano and Sandy Farina,” but all other coverage just listed the performers as the generic studio name, Voices of America.

GM: In the late ‘80s, we moved to “the terminal point of the cul-de-sac,” just like you sang on “The Siege and Investiture of Baron von Frankenstein’s Castle at Weisseria” with Blue Oyster Cult on the “Imaginos” album in 1988.

JC: Drummer Albert Bouchard quit Blue Oyster Cult. It was supposed to be a solo album, but Columbia, again, refused to release it as a solo record, so it became a Blue Oyster Cult album with guests like me and Joe Satriani on that song, which had the power of a nitro fuel car.

GM: Reminding me a bit now of “Evita,” there is the “Goya: A Life in Song” album with the song “Picture It” that you recorded with Gloria Estefan, who is a Kennedy Center Honors recipient this month.

JC: Phil Ramone, who produced Frank Sinatra, Billy Joel and others, had me sing Placido Domingo’s part, filling in for him, on a demo. I was so surprised and pleased when the concept album, about Spanish painter Francisco Goya was released in ’89 that my vocals lasted and the song was released as “Picture It” by “Gloria Estefan and Joseph Cerisano.”

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GM: Our family offers our condolences to the double loss in the Trans-Siberian Orchestra family. When we heard that bassist David Zablidowsky died on July 14 in a highway accident, we were still stunned by the loss of TSO founder and composer Paul O’Neill on April 5. We had just seen him, here in Florida, at the TSO show last December, and fans will certainly miss him at this month’s show. When “The Christmas Attic” CD was released in 1998, which features “Christmas Canon,” we read along with the lyrics in the booklet. After the line “All that night the snow came down, to heal the scars our lives had found” you changed the next line on “Dream Child (A Christmas Dream).” Rather than “the dreams that lay broken,” you seemed to add a personal touch with “the years that lay broken.”

JC: Yes, in 1993 we lost our eldest son, Joseph Cerisano IV, in a car accident. For years I could do nothing. Paul O’Neill and the Trans-Siberian Orchestra rescued me. I knew Paul as a Los Angeles booking agent. It took a week to record the song, like a grid with forty takes. Then Paul would take this line or this word to piece it together. What a great, kind, generous genius he was. He truly saved me. I toured with TSO for four years, but missed being with Marie and the kids at Christmas. Since then, my son Michael is now a videographer and Matthew is finishing his environmental and philosophy studies at Rutgers, but I’ll always be a member of the Trans-Siberian Orchestra family.

GM: Speaking of family, you have quite a tribute to your West Virginia coal miner father in your composition “Carbon Copy.”

JC: Inspiration comes in little pieces. I was at a gas station in the ‘90s and asked to have my carbon copy receipts. I thought of my dad and being a carbon copy of him, sharing the same name. For my songwriting, I was encouraged by Nashville songwriter Chuck Cannon and his wife, the country singer Lari White. I have so many songs to share. Retired producer Jimmy Ienner thinks they would fit in great in movie soundtracks.

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GM: I have been enjoying the three songs you wrote and sang lead on for the new “Process of Illumination” album by the Band in the Basement. “If It Ain’t One Thing” is an up-tempo Americana romp and Kinny Landrum’s keyboard playing certainly gives the song fullness. “Ghost Town” should please fans of the Bruce Springsteen sound and your work with TSO. With its country rock sound, the title “Everybody’s Having Fun,” certainly sums up the album.

JC: Kinny Landrum found out that “Big Pink” was available for rent in West Saugerties, New York, where the Woodstock festival was held. This is where Bob Dylan and the Band had recorded in the basement recording studio. It was the 50th anniversary of them making “The Basement Tapes” which included “You Ain’t Going Nowhere.” Next summer is the 50th anniversary of the Band’s album “Music from Big Pink” which included “The Weight.” We spent a week there making the album and did have a lot of fun.

GM: Thank you for all your music over the years.

JC: You are very welcome. I have never had a day gig that wasn’t music related. I have met so many wonderful musical heroes. I worked on a commercial with Bo Diddley. I spent about thirty minutes with Les Paul. He was so sweet. He gave me a kiss goodbye. I look back on this crazy music life and I get tired just thinking about all the hard work, dreams, twists and turns, and ups and downs, then I take a deep breath and realize life truly does have a life of its own. Mix in a little luck and fate and there you have it. One thing I know though, thank God for my family. I don’t know where I’d be without them. I continue to push for my compositions to be recorded and I am now also a Goldmine subscriber. I loved your Blues Magoos article, interviewing my friend Peppy Castro, in your new Goldmine Psychedelic Issue. Thank you so much for letting me share my story with you and the readers.

What happened to the other members of Silver Condor?

Earl Slick brought his guitar to two-thirds of the Stray Cats to form Phantom, Rocker & Slick. He also played on four more David Bowie albums.

Bassist Jay Davis joined Rod Stewart for several albums, including the Top 20 hit he co-wrote with Rod Stewart, 1983’s “Baby Jane” from the “Body Wishes” album.

John Corey provided keyboards to tours and albums by the Eagles and the Who.

Drummer Claude Pepper went on to form the group Jack Mack & the Heart Attack in 1982. After a long battle with cancer, he passed away in 2003.

Warren Kurtz is a Contributing Editor at Goldmine, known for “Fabulous Flip Sides” along with interviews, CD, DVD and book reviews. “Warren’s Fabulous Flip Sides” can be heard most Saturday mornings, in the 9 a.m. hour, Eastern time, on WVCR radio as part of “Moments to Remember.”