A Brief Bio
Joe Silva’s earliest recollected memory is receiving a drum on his third Christmas… playing it that evening under the tree, not realizing that the family gathered there had stopped talking and began listening while he somehow felt which notes to play along to the 45-rpm record that one of his four sisters received earlier in the day. That sister knelt beside him and explained how special his playing was. The awareness of life began at that point in time for Joe Silva. Lincoln Logs and pencils were transformed into drum-sticks, while pillows & school desk-tops became drums. Music quickly infused itself into Joe’s life… So much so that his mother couldn’t walk into a Woolworth department store with him and leave before purchasing the latest 45-record that was on the shelf. His kindergarten teacher made him the leader of “the band” in the annual school play out of the 250+ students that were attending grades ranging from Kindergarten – Fourth. Finally, while he was attending fifth grade and eligible to join the real school band, he received his first snare drum and played incessantly along to his older sisters’ LP-records… The Beach Boys, The Beatles, Ringo Starr, Edgar Winter, The Guess Who, and his mother’s Neil Diamond 8-track.
Joe found that music helped fill the void left in the wake of his parents’ divorce… Not that his father wasn’t in the picture. He very much was. They would spend most weekends together, and his father would take him to the music store so Joe could dream about one-day playing the drum sets that were on display. By the second year of Joe performing on the snare drum, he became the lead drummer of the town’s elementary school band, and the band’s music teacher told Joe’s father that “if he plays his cards right, he’ll be writing his own checks through music someday”. His father reacted by buying him an old, green, drum set from the Army’s National Guard Band. It was on its last leg, but for Joe, receiving that old drum kit was a catalytic moment. Inspired by the rock groups Kiss and Cheap Trick, along with drummers Peter Criss, Anton Fig, Aynsley Dunbar and Bun E. Carlos, Joe formed a band with some of his schoolmates within six-months of receiving his first set of drums. Joe’s music teacher recognized the commitment and offered the school’s band room, which the group could utilize for rehearsals for an hour per day prior to anyone arriving for classes. Each of the young musicians’ parents juggled the early-morning transportation duties, as it was well before the time that any school bus would arrive, and years before any of the group’s members would be old enough to drive themselves. The group took advantage of the privilege every day for the next two years, playing their school dances and assemblies in-between classes and rehearsals.
At the age of fourteen, prior to hitting high-school, the ambitious band-members were performing in nightclubs as a cover band. Soon, they recognized that in effort to reach the top of the music industry they would need to write and perform their own original music. The group started to call itself ‘The Threats’, stopped playing the cover-music circuit, and began to break into the extremely territorial original-music circuit.
Before each band member turned 16 years of age, The Threats were invited to add a song onto ‘The Living Room – A Compilation Record’, which was an LP record that highlighted the top thirteen original rock bands from Boston, MA, and Providence, RI. From there, Joe’s band went on to perform as the support group for many well-known international acts, such as Joan Jett, The Hooters, Joe Satriani and Extreme, and were invited to participate in many regional “battle-of-the-bands” by New England’s top rock radio stations, and were being interviewed on multiple national cable television shows and ABC News. Eventually, Hirsh Gardner (record producer & drummer of the 70’s rock group ‘New England’) produced The Threats’ song ‘Dream About You’, which earned consecutive weekly rotation for over two years on many New England radio stations during the late 80’s.
Joe was soon introduced to a prominent California music attorney by a concert promoter he was often working with. The attorney, who had secured record deals for music-performing notables such as Janis Joplin, The Grateful Dead, Aerosmith, and Extreme, decided to take on Joe’s act after hearing his band’s music. He thought that it would make most sense to have the band represented in New York City instead of Los Angeles so it could be easier, logistically, to showcase their talent to labels, considering the band resided in New England. The attorney introduced Joe to a lawyer who was “up-and-coming” in the industry, and was new to the firm, as he would be shopping Joe’s music to the NY record labels. Joe took out a loan, recorded some new songs for the lawyer to shop around, and waited to learn what the labels thought of the music. Joe would contact the lawyer for updates, but always got the same “saw a few guys, but nothing yet”. After a year passed with no results, Joe received a phone call from a music-colleague who had learned that the lawyer was taking the meetings that the lawyer’s boss was arranging at various record labels for the promotion of The Threats, and promoting a band that he was managing instead. Feeling broken hearted, frustrated that a year had been wasted, and that ultimately, all of the blood, sweat & tears that Joe had poured into his dream had been taken advantage of, he confronted the main lawyer in California, who reacted by firing the New York lawyer.
Devoid of the ability to trust others with his musical affairs, Joe decided to try and shop his music on his own, and traveled twice per year to Los Angeles and New York City, sneaking into record-label executives’ offices in effort to distribute promotional packages of his music, only to find them waiting for him in his mailbox when he returned home. Each letter would read “Thank you for your submission, but this label does not accept unsolicited music”… After a few years of rejection letters, and thinking about how he was not spending enough time where the record companies were located to make a real impact, Joe heard a song by The Alarm, his favorite rock band at the time, which solidified his thoughts that a change was needed. The Alarm song was titled ‘Unsafe Building’, which was about tearing down one’s old self and rebuilding that self into something new… something stronger. Joe decided that he would move to the larger music market of Los Angeles, where he could catch the attention of the labels by performing well-attended concerts like he was doing in New England… or so he thought.
Here is an account of that experience, in Joe’s own words…
To the City of Angels & Back…Written & Experienced by: Joe Silva
The story that I am about to tell you is a true story. If total enlightenment is something that you seek, I wish you a similar experience in your lifetime.
You see… some time ago, living in Providence, Rhode Island, and performing for many years with my rock band, The Threats, I felt that I was a contender for national success if I moved to a larger music-business market, such as Los Angeles. After all, my band and I had performed on tour dates throughout New England with dozens of the best known artists in the world at the time (Joan Jett, Sam Kinison, Missing Persons, etc.), and I was convinced that if we played similar shows in the L.A. market, a record deal would surely be obtainable. Unfortunately, the other members of the band decided that moving to the West Coast was not an option. As the resident song-writer, lead singer and drummer for the band, I decided to head to California anyway and re-assemble a band out there. So, I packed my drums, a futon, a television, and a few boxes that contained sentimental objects and memories… you know… old love letters from an ex-girlfriend, memorabilia of my band, and sentimental childhood junk-draw articles… weird stuff… like an Evel Kneivel action figure, an old box of Mexican jumping beans that hadn’t even so much as twitched in a decade, a KISS belt-buckle… I sold my car for little money, and headed west to Los Angeles with a friend who was also moving to L.A.
I was sure that I would get a job out there, as for ten years prior, I would travel to L.A. at least a few times each year and had made numerous friends and contacts. I would fly out and stay with my high-school friend who showed me the city, and gave me backstage access to the Hollywood studio lots where many of the most popular television shows were being filmed. He was working for a TV show called ‘Get A Life’, which starred Chris Elliot. A TV show titled ‘Married… with Children’ was being filmed in the next building. Christina Applegate, who acted on the show, caught my eye and I began to spend a lot of time on their set and eventually became friends with the cast and crew. A few folks from the show would insistently say “Move out here… We’ll get you working on the studio lot”. Although the offer was enticing, I felt that I would do better in a music-related occupation and planned on the opportunity that another friend had offered. She worked for a prominent management agency that handled some of the biggest names in the music industry, and said that she could put me to work in one of the artists’ studios if I would move out there. Yet, another friend of mine offered to give me one of his older cars for free if I made the commitment to live on the West Coast, carrying not much more from Rhode Island than my dream.
Within a few days of pulling into town, I moved into an apartment in Studio City, California. Not long after I carried my last box into my new dwelling, and had obtained phone service, I called my friend who had offered the music studio job. She picked me up a few days later, and we went out to see a singer that her management company was contemplating managing. It was a new artist called Sheryl Crow, whose record label signing was being celebrated that night in a small but trendy Hollywood restaurant. After listening to Sheryl’s acoustic set, we continued on to some nightspots on the Sunset Strip. As the night went on, I began to get the feeling that she wanted to be more than friends. When I explained that it wasn’t what I was thinking, there was no job to be had.
I spent the better part of the next few months hitting the pavement, looking for work… any kind of work. I filled out applications in music stores, book stores, restaurants… but it appeared that I was competing for those jobs against workers coming over the border from Mexico, who required much less money than I would need to earn in order for ends to meet, not to mention that, as a rocker, my hair was longer than most in those days, which I am sure did not help with securing employment.
Finally, when I was down to my last thousand dollars, with rent due, I turned to my friends at ‘Married…with Children’, and landed an interview with the studio’s hiring manager. He asked all of the standard interview questions, then looked a little deeper into my eyes and said “You haven’t been in town very long. How is it that I can be sure you are staying?”
I told him how I had been traveling out to L.A. for the better part of a decade, so it was already like a second home. I continued by saying “I want to live here now, and this job will give me the chance to maintain my life here.” He stood up, shook my hand, and said to call him when I had a car, registered and insured in my name, because it would be necessary for my new job.
I recalled my friend’s promise of the free car if I moved to L.A., and decided to call him on the favor. He told me that he had sold it to somebody else, but that they had not picked it up yet, and he was willing to sell it to me for four-hundred dollars. I didn’t bring up his original free offering of the car, and agreed to his price, even after he informed me that I would need to get the car towed to an auto-electronics specialist before the car would even start… Also, the tires would need to be changed in order for the car to pass inspection.
I arranged for a tow that afternoon, as I needed to move quickly to get that job with ‘Married… with Children”. I rode with the tow-truck driver to the garage, deep into the San Fernando Valley. I watched with intent while the mechanics combed through the cars electrical system. A few hours, and a few hundred dollars later, the car started.
I asked for a recommendation of where I could buy tires for little money, and I was directed to a garage a few miles down the road. Driving there, a loud banging noise coming from under the car made me realize that I was in for more than just tires. When I got to the garage, I picked out four of the least expensive ones, and once they were installed, I asked one of the mechanics if he’d be willing to take a ride to hear the banging under the car so a diagnosis could be made. Right away, he informed me that I would need a universal joint, and pointed me to another garage, yet deeper into the Valley. Within two days, I had all of the issues with the car taken care of… or so I thought…
I was down to my last few hundred dollars, and I still needed to get the car registered and insured, and in the state of California, it would need to pass an inspection before it could be registered. As I pulled out of my parking space, I noticed a puddle of transmission fluid on the ground. I shook my head in disgust, and headed to a car wash before taking my car for its inspection.
The mechanic conducting the inspection walked up to me while the car was hooked up to various evaluation machines, and informed me that there would be no way that the car would pass, due to the fact that the exhaust emissions that it was putting out was many times over what The State of California allowed. I numbly drove the car back to my apartment and reacted by throwing out bags of old memories… the love letters, and the memorabilia of my band… A few days later, and a week before Christmas, I sat, thought, and stared at my apartment walls for hours, trying to figure out what my options were, considering I had less than ten dollars in my pocket, and no job – due to no car.
Once I realized that I could find no clear cut answers on my own, I began to think of a small church that was one block away that I had noticed on prior trips to L.A. It had a sign out in front that read “The Little Brown Church – Any Denomination – All Are Welcome – Come in and Pray”. It was no bigger than a small bungalow. I decided to give it a chance and headed down the street toward the Little Brown Church.
On the way, a chorus made up of a few families began singing in front of an apartment complex… “For we need a little Christmas… Right this very minute… Candles in the window… Carols at the spinet, and we need a little Christmas… Right this very minute… We need a little Christmas now!”
“No kidding”, I thought to myself. “I could use a little… no… make that a LOT of Christmas.”
After a dozen steps more, I passed its candle-lit window, and walked through the door of The Little Brown Church. I was a bit surprised by the inviting warmth of the chapel. It didn’t take long for me to survey the room, and considering that I was the only person there, it was not hard for me to find room for myself, and slipped into one of the few rows of pews. As I knelt down, I was taken back by the energy that the tiny space emitted… Like a densely concentrated cathedral. I gazed at the painting of Jesus that hung on the wall behind the alter, then hung my head and began praying with all my might… “Dear God… please… I need you to hear me tonight. Please give me direction. Please give me a sign so I can definitively know what it is that I need to do. I’m running out of time because I am running out of money… Should that come between a person and his dream? Please God… Our Father, Who art in Heaven…”, then injected into my prayer some of the lyrics of the Christmas carol I had heard being sung on my way to the chapel “For I’ve grown a little leaner… I’ve grown a little colder… I’ve grown a little sadder… and I’ve grown a little older… and I need a little angel… Sitting on my shoulder… I need a little Christmas now”.
After thirty minutes or so, I stood up and purposely looked at the picture of Jesus in effort to give a confident nod of acknowledgement that my prayer was heard. I couldn’t help but notice that Jesus’ eyes appeared to be following me as I exited the pew. The chill on my spine made the hair on my neck take notice as I exited The Little Brown Church. It was similar to the feeling that New England’s northern wind in December can have on a person’s senses, but it was Los Angeles, and the breeze was warm.
I walked the block, crossed the street, and decided to stop at the gas-station market at the corner of Moorpark & Coldwater Canyon. My apartment was right next door, but I knew that I would find no food there. I stepped into the market, passing the homeless man that stood outside with a sign that read “Homeless, But Not Hopeless – Willing to Work for Food or Money”. From my apartment window, I had seen him standing there many nights. I decided to purchase a microwave burrito, and then counted the money that I had left to my name…
“Two dollars and change... hmm…” I thought to myself, as I slid the change into my pocket, but held onto the two dollars while I contemplated giving them to the homeless man. “This is it… This is all I have…” I continued thinking, “but what will two dollars buy me… another burrito?”
I pushed the market door open and handed the homeless man the two dollars. As I turned toward my apartment, I heard the man say “Thanks a lot, Joe”.
I stopped in my tracks and turned to see if it was me that he was speaking to. As he looked straight at me, I noticed that one of his eyes was completely white, and much smaller than the other. “How do you know my name?” I asked.
He reached into the shopping cart that held his possessions, and pulled out a copy of a Rhode Island newspaper that I had thrown away a few days earlier. It had an article about my band in the paper, and he had recognized me from the photo that accompanied the story. As I gave him a puzzling stare, he explained that he had pulled it out of my trash, and kept it because he grew up in Bellingham, MA, just over the border from Rhode Island. He said that finding the newspaper was a poignant reminder of where he came from, and was a significant find for a number of reasons.
I asked what brought him out to L.A., and he told me that his mother died when he was only four years old, and by the time he was seven, he was placed in an orphanage because his father had punished him one day by splashing acid at one of his eyes. He ran away from the orphanage when he was sixteen and ended up in California, where he went to work as a roofer. He eventually saved enough money to buy his own truck and equipment, and began to work for himself. One day, his truck and equipment were stolen. With no insurance, not much money saved, and no family to lean on, he inevitably became homeless.
He continued on by saying that people, generally, are nicer to him now that he is homeless, as opposed to when he wasn’t. He said that if everyone was as nice then, he probably wouldn’t be homeless. While I began to contemplate that, he gave me more insight about his life by adding that he slept in an abandoned house with his girlfriend, and he would pan-handle so he could feed her, then himself when possible, and whenever there was any money left over, it would go into a savings so he could one day buy another truck and equipment in effort to get back to work. The sincerity in his eye was more than I had ever experienced, forcing me to believe him.
Considering the fact that my issues paled in comparison to his, I decided not to offer up too much information about myself, but the man must have read the desperation in my face, and asked “What’s your story?”
I told him about my family, and band back East… About how I was chasing a dream… About the job that fell through… The car that ate the rest of my money and could not be registered… About not being able to play music because I couldn’t afford a space where I could set up my drums and put a new group together. I told him how I would consider myself a failure if I returned to Rhode Island too soon. What my friends and family might think, especially after all of the going away parties.
The man listened intently, and once I had finished speaking, he said “It’s quite simple, Joe. You have family and friends back home that you can lean on. Go back there and re-group. You can always come back… but if you stay, you will surely become homeless like me. You need to go back.”
He stated it so boldly that I was taken back. There was the answer I was looking for. Praying for. Who would have thought that direction home would come from a homeless man? “What is your name?” I asked, while extending my hand.
He firmly shook it, and said “You can call me One Eye Don”.
“Thanks, One Eye Don” I replied. “I’m going to think about what you said.”
I started toward my apartment as tears welled in my eyes. Once inside, I sat on the floor and thought about what had just happened. I then realized that Don saw more with his one eye than I ever hope to see with my two. I spent the balance of the night writing a letter about the experience to mail to my family back home. Then I thought out every possible solution until the sun came up. Later that night, at the ‘Married with Children’ holiday party, I was sitting at a table with Nancy Priddy, Christina Applegate’s mother, telling her that I had decided to head back to Rhode Island, explaining all of the variables that had led to my decision. Nancy, being a songwriter herself, told me to concentrate on recording my own record when I got there, and not wait for anybody else to offer me the opportunity to do so, insisting that I had the power to navigate my own destiny toward success. The next day, I telephoned one of my sisters, and discussed my return to Rhode Island. She offered to pay for my flight home, and suggested that if I could pack and ship all of my belongings in time, it would be nice to surprise Mom at the family Christmas Eve gathering.
Remembering that a guy who worked at the car wash offered to buy my car when I brought it there before the inspection, I returned there and explained to him what was wrong with the car, and received a few hundred dollars as I handed him the key. I used the money to ship my drums back home. I decided that my futon, TV, and some other items would make good Christmas presents for One Eye Don. An arrangement was made with a person who owned a pick-up truck to meet One Eye Don and me at the apartment so Don could take the items to the abandoned house where he was living. I told him that he could sell them and put the money toward another truck. We hugged, and then agreed that we would see each other again.
I flew home the next day, and showed up at the holiday celebration that my mother was hosting… dressed in a Santa Claus outfit… complete with the white beard.
“Ho-Ho-Ho!!” I exclaimed as I busted through the front door. My mother looked surprised that a person would storm into the house like that. She began to guess who it would be… then burst into tears as I removed the beard. We all began celebrating for different… and the same… reasons.
Once I reconnected with everyone at the party and noticed there was holiday music playing, I heard the last verse of the song that the carolers were singing before I entered The Little Brown Church… “For we need a little music… We need a little laughter… We need a little singing… Ringing through the rafter… And we need a little snappy… Happy ever after… We need a little Christmas now.” I looked up, closed one eye, and thanked God.
About nine months later, I was back in L.A. for a one-week stay. I pulled into the market near the old apartment, where I had met One Eye Don on that fateful night. Don was there, and he ran across the parking lot when he saw me. He gave a hug, asked about people, by name, that I had mentioned during our conversation that special evening many months earlier, and informed me that he was still saving for a truck, and that he would be back to work in no time. Again, I believed him.
Another ten months passed before I was in California again, and I returned to the market. Not seeing Don outside, I went into the store and asked the clerk working there if he had seen One Eye Don. He informed me that I had just missed him, and that he was filling up his pick-up truck’s gas tank about twenty minutes ago. He added that Don was most-likely working that day. I looked at the clerk with a big smile on my face, as it was the first time in my life that I was happy to NOT see an old friend…
When Joe Silva returned from living in Los Angeles, he entered the recording studio with his original band members and produced his own compact disc, which helped to propel him and his band onto bigger stages and larger venues. Additionally, Joe went back to school and earned a Bachelor’s degree in Marketing, while continuing to perform along the East Coast. Eventually, The Alarm, the rock group that influenced Joe as much as The Beatles, Kiss, and Cheap Trick, invited Joe and his band to be the opening act on three of their tours in the United States. Often times during Alarm concerts, lead-singer, Mike Peters, would dedicate a song to Joe’s band. The song was always ‘Unsafe Building’, the one that Joe Silva heard and influenced his decision to move to Los Angeles. One sad irony is that the first night that Mike Peters made the dedication of ‘Unsafe Building’ to Joe and his band was at the concert venue in Rhode Island called ‘The Station’, which burned to the ground during a ‘Great White’ concert, eventually killing 100 people. To this day, Joe has never informed Mike Peters of the significance of that song to him.
Once the last tour with his idol-group The Alarm ended, Joe, feeling satisfied but looking for a new direction, played one last show with The Threats at The Strand Theater in his home city of Providence, Rhode Island, sharing the bill with Gary Cherone, vocalist of Boston rock group ‘Extreme’. He then set his sights on the songs that he wrote but could never bring to The Threats due to style differences, and began recording his first solo CD at the famous Sun Studio in Memphis, Tennessee, where Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, U2, Roy Orbison, B.B. King, and countless others, recorded so many classic records. If you read on, you will learn why Joe Silva’s Sun Studio recordings are bound for the same glory…
Recording the Solo Record…In Joe Silva’s own words
It was a January day, driving under a steel-grey cloud-cover from Nashville to Memphis. The sky began to snow before I pulled my rental into the parking lot of Loretta Lynn’s restaurant, in a town somewhere between the two music-stature-competing cities. With my boots initially slipping as I navigated onto the slick blanket that barely-covered the pavement, I walked into the eatery that was all-a-buzz about the “winter storm”.
“Really?”, I thought to myself, while accepting the menu being handed to me by the waitress. “This is Nothing compared to the weather we experience in Rhode Island”, I silently added.
“Did you see the steak-eggs-&-grits platter on the next table over? Well, that’s the special of the day”, quipped the waitress, and without taking a breath, “and this snow storm… ever see anything like it?”
“Well, actually…”, I tried…
“I Know… NOBODY has… CRAzy, right?!”, she continued…
“Yeah…, crazy… but have you ever seen Loretta here?”, I needed to ask…, “cause I saw Loretta recently”.
“What?” she exclaimed in surprise. “Been here over two years and NEVER seen Loretta! Where d’ya see her?”
“Backstage, at ‘The Late Show w/David Letterman’”. I explained to her… “I used to sell custom guitar picks to Will Lee, who plays bass guitar on the show each night, and I was hand-delivering an order. Loretta was the musical guest that night, playing along with Jack White who produced her Grammy-winning record.”
Passing on the grits, I opted for the chicken & mashed before heading back into the perilous mixture of snow and warm-climate drivers, miraculously making it to Memphis. My goal… to tour the sacred ground where rock-and-roll truly was born all those years ago…
I stepped into the door at 706 Union Avenue and had to catch my breath at the awe I felt when stepping into Sun Studio’s main recording room. Instantly, I knew that I needed to give birth to some of my most intimate songs in that studio, and painfully waited for the tour guide to finish his narration while middle aged women kissed the microphone that Elvis had sung into.
“Really?”… again… I thought to myself, “How many people must have kissed that?”
I excused myself, once I realized I had interrupted a person asking the tour guide where Elvis actually stood in the room when he sang, and insisted that I needed to speak with the person who books the studio. The guide showed the tourist an “X” on the floor in effort to satisfy her question, then turned to me and suggested that I call the main number the next day and channel my question in that manner. I extracted the phone number from him, along with the person’s name that I should ask for when I call, as us tourists were shuffled into the gift-shop area.
Standing among the Sun Studio memorabilia, I dialed the number, not paying any attention to the phone that began to ring in the next room.
“Hello, Sun Studio” said the voice through the phone’s earpiece, AND from the next room.
Instantly, I knew I needed to talk in a low volume so that the employees there, especially my tour guide, wouldn’t know that it was me trying to instantly book myself in the studio. Over a number of conversations, and sharing some of my song ideas, James Lott booked me for a 3-day block-out recording session beginning on June 21… ironically, summer solstice… first day of summer, longest duration of sunlight for the entire year… the day of the Sun.
On June 20th, I left my house in Rhode Island, my kids, and a crumbling marriage, and headed to Memphis for a week to record my first-ever solo record at Sun Studio. It was bitter-sweet for me, as I had been looking forward to recording seventeen of my most intimate songs in such a historic studio, but knew that my marriage was heading into divorce due to the many directions my family was being pulled into in relation to each of our demanding business schedules, my music career that burned the last of every candle, and two kids enrolled in a private French school (with my ex-wife being a citizen of France)… the pressures became inherent, but the personal songs that I penned about
love-lost serendipitously oozed honestly onto my Sun Studio recordings…
Prior to entering the studio for the first time as a Sun recording artist, I took a Memphis trolley to Lansky’s, the well-known, high-end clothing store in the Peabody Hotel. Ultimately, I wanted to purchase a unique shirt for one of my Sun sessions from the eighty-something-year-old Bernard Lansky, who was known as ‘The Clothier to the King’, as he would supply the clothes that Elvis Presley would wear on ‘The Ed Sullivan Show’ and on many tours.
I picked his brain about some of the dealings that he had with Elvis. He told me stories like how he would drop clothes off at Elvis’ house, Graceland, after leaving his store for the day. It would be 5:30pm, or so, and Elvis and some of his family/entourage would just then be sitting down for breakfast, often inviting Mr. Lansky to join them at the table. Bernard told me that he would always tell Elvis that it was not breakfast time, and that he was heading home to his wife for dinner. He said that, looking back, he should have joined them at least once, and added that never thought that Elvis would have been gone so soon… Of all the stories and insight that Mr. Lansky shared with me about Elvis, the words that I came away with were about how generous Elvis was with his fortune, and how he made sure that everyone around him was well taken care of… About how Elvis was dirt poor when he stepped foot through the door at Sun Studio for the first time… I thought about my own financial situation and thought about how I could relate, which made me want to visit the run-down project-housing that Elvis was living in before the King of Rock-and-Roll became successful.
After Mr. Lansky helped me pick out a distinctive shirt deserving of being worn during a recording session at such a sacred location, I asked if he would point me in the direction of Elvis’ dwellings when the not-yet music legend was less fortunate. He commented on how inquisitive I was, and said that Graceland would be more interesting. I told him how I wouldn’t go to Graceland until after I record at Sun Studio…
“When would that ever happen?” he asked.
“Tonight” I answered. “I am recording my first solo CD there, beginning tonight.”
“Well then, hang on…” he said, while reaching for a photo of himself and Elvis. He looked up at me, then back at the photo while taking the cap off of the Sharpie marker, and began writing… “Best of luck at Sun Studio. Why not? Nobody Else.” Handing me the photo, he said “Make a hit record because I need a new King to dress.”
I began to feel uneasy as I remembered once reading that Elvis, at times, would get quite jealous of other singers. Then, I thought of my brother-in-law Don, who would always turn to me while we were heading to another city on a concert tour date, or at a party with rock stars or Hollywood TV actors, and say “who else is doing this??” Mr. Lansky put it in writing – “nobody else”, then handed me the address of the humble dwelling that Elvis called home when he first recorded at Sun, telling me that tours are given daily to those that go to the main office. We shook hands while I thanked him for the experience, then I hoofed it many blocks through the thick and oppressive 98-degree Memphis air.
Arriving at the apartment community, I realized that I should have hydrated myself during my journey, as my head became light and dizzy when I opened the door of the apartment office.
“Hello… … …Hello?” I hesitantly inquired.
A woman came from around the corner, asking if she could help me. I explained that I wished to tour the apartment in which Elvis used to live.
“No tours today.” she exclaimed in an irritated voice, as she turned to walk back to where she came from.
“Wait… Please…” I begged. “I came a long way to see this. I was told that tours were given every day.”
“Well, not today. The apartment is being cleaned.” The woman uttered.
“I’ll help to clean it.” I offered, then turned and exited the office, as she looked at me like she would have me arrested if I tried any harder to gain access to that particular piece of Elvis’ history.
Back at the hotel, I nervously collected my thoughts while slipping on my new shirt from Lansky’s… What would my engineer at Sun be like to work with? Would he like the 17 songs that I will be recording? Would I successfully record all of my tracks in my allotted time over the next three days and actually like my own performances? Is the ghost of Elvis pissed-off??
I made my way to Sun Studio, arriving almost an hour early. I acclimated myself to the musical hallowed ground by reading the national-historical marker about Sun Studio that was mounted on a pole on the sidewalk just outside the door that Elvis had stepped through for the first time five decades earlier. Somehow realizing that I was about to experience a life-changing experience, I picked up my Gibson acoustic guitar and entered the studio with confidence and awe.
James Lott, head studio engineer at Sun, greeted me with a warm timbre voice as he showed me around the studio. He began explaining to me that I have nothing to worry about, and told me that his first assignment at the studio was recording U2’s ‘Rattle and Hum’ record, and countless others since. I explained that I had been there before, but that I would never refuse a tour of the historic facility. It allowed us time to bond, while I explained the stark approach that I was seeking for my record. I added that I was ultimately looking for a recording approach similar to the way Johnny Cash’s (yet another Sun Studio legend) last record was produced. Through his words, both reactionary & pro-active, I knew that he understood where I was coming from, instantly putting some of my fears to rest. We would end up bonding before my Sun sessions were complete.
Beginning with piano parts, I sat at a keyboard in the control room next to James, under a life-size photo of Sun Studio luminary, Jerry Lee Lewis, and began the process of taking it song-by-song, recording track-by-track… By the second song, it was apparent that something was not right. For some reason, the recording console’s computer repeatedly froze, making it necessary for James to consistently re-boot the system, and for me to re-record my parts. Once the computer issue seemed to go away, the sustain pedal for the keyboard began to have intermittent problems, making it almost impossible to record the piano pieces. James contacted a keyboard player that he knew lived nearby, and requested that he bring in another keyboard & sustain pedal for us to utilize during the session. Eventually, that keyboard began to breakdown also. After a few frustrating hours, James banged his fist on the console while profanely expressing that in the twenty years that he had worked at the studio, this never happened to him. He said it was as if Elvis’ ghost was not allowing our session to move forward. I was thinking the same thing, but did not want to say so. Finally, James began to turn off the equipment stating that he was going to let the ghost clear out of the studio, and that we would try again the next day.
Considering my goal was to record 17 songs in the three-day session, I was nervous that nothing much had been accomplished during the first of my three days at Sun Studio. In effort to make sure that things moved ahead, I told James that I would purchase a new sustain pedal for the studio in the morning, and asked where the nearest music store was located. James read the concern on my face, instructed me where I could find such a pedal, and insisted that we would work day and night over the next two days to complete the recordings, if necessary. While James finished wrapping things up, I walked to the “X” that marked the spot where Elvis would typically stand in the studio when recording his vocals, and began having a silent one-way conversation with his spirit, assuring him that even if I were to become successful as a result of my Sun recordings, I would make sure that mention of Elvis is given whenever conversing about my recording experience at Sun Studio, and then asked that he please release whatever curse he may have placed on my session, and rather send to me some positive energy toward musical success.
As I parked my car outside the music store the next morning, my cell phone rang. It was the band The Alarm, inquiring if my rock group would again have interest in touring the US as the opening act for the Welsh group. I explained that I was in the middle of recording my first solo record, and that I would have interest in doing so as a solo artist, but that I would need to get back to them when I returned home from Memphis. Hanging up, my phone rang again. It was James, who suggested that I head to the studio as soon as I picked up the pedal for the keyboard as he wanted to get a full day of recording in, and added that there was someone who would be stopping by the studio that he thought I would like to meet.
The session ran incredibly smooth as I played the keyboard, James ran the recording equipment, and groups of tourists gazed with wonder through the glass into the control room, curious of the fact that someone was making a record in Sun Studio at that very moment in time. A few hours into the session, a knock came from the back door and James asked me to get it. I opened the door, breathed in a gulp of heavy summer Memphis air, and said “Can I help you?”
“I am Billy Swan… Is James here?” he asked.
“Wow… Nice to meet you, Mr. Swan” I responded, while realizing that Billy was a Sun Studio veteran, and former band-leader of Kris Kristofferson’s band.
After hugging and catching up with James, he asked if the music playing out of the monitor speakers was mine. I nodded yes, and he nodded back in approval. Billy then talked about “mailbox money” that occurs when a person writes a great song, successfully releases it, and retains publishing rights. “Very important to hold onto your songs” he affirmed.
James Lott chimed in and explained how Billy was eating steak again because his song ‘I Can Help’ was being utilized in a national muffler shop chain’s advertizing campaign, as well as being a well-known movie-rental chain’s slogan song, and how every time his song got played, money was applied to his account. I quickly understood the lesson that they were conveying.
The phone rang inside the control room, and James, looking puzzled as to why a phone call would be forwarded to him while in the middle of a session, picked up the receiver. “FERGIE!” exclaimed James, while reaching for his calendar “Absolutely, the studio is yours…” James looked at me and gave me a wink while continuing his conversation into the telephone. Once he got off, he explained that David Ferguson, the person who recorded Johnny Cash’s very last record, the record that I cited as to how I wanted my record to be recorded and sound like, was going to record a new Nashville artist at Sun the day after my sessions would end. James suggested that I stop by to say hello. Billy Swan said that if he weren’t going to be back in Nashville on that day, that he would have enjoyed the opportunity to catch up with him as well.
James and I continued to record until 2:00 the next morning, wrapping up all of the piano parts, along with many of the acoustic guitar performances, sharing stories of music, and life in general, as we went along. Beginning at 9:30 the next morning, James and I entered the studio, and remained there, again, until 2:00 the next morning. As I laid out the vocal tracks, I would enter the control room and listen to the playbacks in-between each song. By the time we reached the 5th song, James inquired if I had management, as he suggested hearing more that one song so far that had the potential of being a hit. By the time all 17 songs had lyrics printed onto them, James insisted that I shop the songs to major record labels. I informed him that taking the project as far as I could was my intent. We mixed the project the next day, and agreed that I would return the following evening to meet David Ferguson.
After wrapping up my 17-song recording experience at Sun Studio, feeling like I deserved to finally go there, I drove my rental-car to Graceland to pay homage to Elvis Presley, and to thank him for releasing the curse that he may have initially placed on my recording sessions at Sun. While I meandered through the house, I was taken back by the way a snapshot in time was apparently frozen on the property. Things were as they were in 1977 when Elvis passed away on the premises… the furniture, Lisa Marie’s toys (many of which jogged my own memory of childhood), and the latest “technologies” of the day… All of it reminding me how quickly time passes and things change.
Walking past the swing-set still erected on the lawn between the main house and the structure that held Elvis’ office, I swore that mine as a child was identical as I took a mental note of how beautiful the day was. I entered the halls that held his many gold and platinum records, outfits that he wore in movies and on television, and a case that displayed examples of cashed checks that Elvis so generously handed out to various charities annually. I began to think about Mr. Lansky suggesting that Elvis was the most giving person that he knew, as I ironically glanced over at an outfit on the wall that Elvis had worn during a special event that had an accompanied plaque which read “Donated to Graceland by Bernard Lansky”. I began to think to myself that, although I had played many a concert to benefit all kinds of charities over the years, I would never be able to give any money away when my record is released, considering the amount that I had invested already in the project while never catching up on my daily bills. As I finished the thought, and determined that it was time to reflect over the grave of Elvis, I all-of-a-sudden heard what sounded like a locomotive outside the building. I opened the door and couldn’t believe what I was seeing…
Sheets of water fell from the sky with a fervent ferocity that I had never witnessed by nature prior to that moment. By the look of those around me, I was not alone in my thought. All were paralyzed under whichever structure that they had happened to be near at the time. No one so much as dared step foot under that rain. The intensity seemed to gain even more momentum with each passing second, leaving all of those experiencing it in disbelief. While water gushed like rapids over the edges of Graceland’s gutters, white curtains of rain hid the visibility of anything beyond, and tourists stood with rising concern, I realized that the moment was beyond normal. While I waited for the freak storm to subside while I reviewed the thought that I had regarding not giving away any money that may result from my Sun Studio recordings. When fifteen minutes had passed and there was no let-up of the intense rain, I again began conversing with the spirit of Elvis…
“Elvis…” I began, “Thanks for helping me get through my sessions at Sun Studio. Please help the songs that I recorded find success in the music industry. If you help me to achieve success, I promise to give a certain percentage of my profits to many of your favorite charities, as displayed in the case. If you are willing to help, please show me by stopping this incredible rain.”
Instantly… and I mean instantly, the rain completely stopped. It was as if someone simply turned a faucet off… no winding down from monsoon, to steady rain, to a drizzle… Just a dead stop of precipitation.
“Whoa” I thought to myself, as all of the other tourists commented on the strangeness of the experience. I made my way to Elvis’ grave and reflected on my many thoughts. Finally, I felt as if I had somehow connected with ‘The King’, and jumped onto a shuttle bus that escorted Graceland visitors across the street to various gift shops and Elvis-themed museums.
As I slowly made my way back to the parking lot where my rental was parked, gazing at all of the Elvis memorabilia, my introverted thoughts were pierced by a voice saying “Hey There… How’s it going?”
“Things are good.” I replied, while looking at him and gauging the surroundings and situation. He was smoking a cigarette as he stood outside of a structure that housed a small radio station, visible through the large window pane that exposed one to the “Disc Jockey’s” studio. It was the Elvis Satellite Radio Station that broadcasts worldwide on Sirius/XM Radio.
I decided to stop and talk in effort to learn something about satellite radio, and he inquired as to where I was from, and why I was visiting Memphis. When I told him that I was recording at Sun Studio, he instantly snuffed out his cigarette, pulled me into the studio, and said that he wanted to put me over the air, worldwide, in an interview. I agreed, and began to realize that what I did at Sun was extremely special, and that something bigger than myself was assisting with my destiny and consistently opening doors, or at least positioning them in front of me.
After speaking into the microphone for several minutes about my experience of recording at Sun Studio, Jim Sykes, who conducted the interview, handed me his business card and instructed me to contact him when the record was complete so we could promote the record through another interview on Elvis Radio.
From there, I headed back to Sun to meet David Ferguson. As James Lott opened the back door of the studio to let me in, I noticed an intense light radiating through the glass that divided the main studio room from the control room. I asked James what was happening, and he told me that a video was being made during the recording session. Eventually, David Ferguson made his way into the control room where I was introduced to him by James as a Sun Recording Artist. I told him how I appreciated his approach to recording, and he told me to stick around for the entire session. Eventually, he introduced me to the person playing bass during the session. It was Jimmy Tittle, who was Johnny Cash’s son-in-law and Johnny’s bassist for many years. We instantly bonded, and I began to pick his brain about Johnny Cash, songwriting & promotion, and the overall state of the music industry. He informed me that, because of the video being filmed, all of the clothes that each of the musicians in Sun Studio were wearing that night were clothes that belonged to Johnny Cash. I thought about how priceless that evening was… being inside Sun Studio with Johnny Cash’s son-in-law/bassist, who was wearing Johnny’s clothes while recording a version of ‘John Henry’ that Johnny had recorded in the very same room many years earlier. The session lasted until 11:00pm, but nobody wanted to leave Sun, so a jam session broke out, and we all played until 2:00 the next morning. I walked away with a message from Jimmy & David that success in the industry ultimately comes down to great songwriting along with the persistence to get the right person to hear them. I excitingly thought to myself that I could, will, and may have already partially achieved those two variables.
I took one last stroll through the studio while James locked things up. We chatted for an additional hour before I departed the incredibly special building. James and I talked of how strong and quickly our genuine friendship was formed over the past several days. Although I needed to decline the invitation to his wedding the following week, we agreed that we would be seeing each other again. He reminded me that I could take the work that we magically performed inside the walls of the Sun that week as far as I desired, as long as I played my cards right. I instantly thought of my elementary-school music teacher who said the same thing about me to my father, and insured James that I would take it as far as God and the Universe would possibly allow. We hugged, and then I grabbed the discs that held all of the tracks that I gave birth to inside Sun Studio, and I headed into the world with a new purpose of giving all 17 songs that I recorded there a good & full life. My plan was to have the record mastered when I returned home, while at the same time thinking about how to orchestrate its release.
Upon my return, reality reminded me that it was time for me to leave the home that I had established with a wife and my two kids. The recording project was quickly put on hold as the little money I had was needed to secure a dwelling for myself. Considering that I would have my children as much as possible, I searched for a small house to rent, as opposed to an apartment. The only one listed in the newspaper that I could actually afford (barely) was only one town away from the house that the kids were living in. Thinking that it was a perfect fit and opportunity, I called the landlord, who informed me that someone already signed up for the house earlier in the day. He suggested that anything could happen, and that he was waiting on the results of the background check of the potential tenant, and that I should hold tight for one day then call back. When I did, I was told that the background check did not pan out, and that he would have a half-hour to meet with me at the house, which was on the same property as his own house, once I got out of work for the day.
“Hi. I am Mark Texeira.” Said the home-owner… “Sorry that I need to rush along, but I need to get going to work.”
“No problem.” I said. “What type of work do you do?”
“I’m a drummer… playing for Duke Robillard.” He answered. “We’re playing in Northern Massachusetts tonight.”
“No WAY!” I replied. “I’m a drummer too!”
After a few minutes of talking, it was apparent that we were friends with many of the same people. He told me that he had been hearing about my band for many years, but with his playing schedule he never got to any of my local gigs. I said the same back regarding ever seeing Duke Robillard. Within twenty minutes, we signed rental agreements pertaining to my occupancy of the small house, and by that weekend I was sleeping in there.
Over the next few months, Mark and I became great friends through late-night conversations. Whenever he returned from a gig and saw that my lights were still on, he would knock on the door and we would share music-related stories, as well as share with each other musical artists that the other may have not been previously exposed to. One such night, I was telling Mark that I had booked mastering time at Gateway Mastering with Bob Ludwig, a legend through mastering many, many, hit records. Mark asked how I got the many thousands of dollars to master there, and I told him that I had just received a bonus from my day job, and that it was time to move the project ahead. Mark asked if he could hear a few tracks. After selecting three songs for him to hear, Mark told me that he knows potential when he hears it and that instead of putting that kind of money into mastering, I should considering adding some stand-up bass, and a few other subtle “ear-candy” tidbits that keep the listener tuned-in to a song.
Mark’s words made me think into the next day, at which time I placed the mastering project on hold, and instead booked some studio time at a studio that Mark had suggested. I arranged, over the next several months, for some great talent to play additional tracks on the record while I saved the money for sessions in multiple steps.
I purposely left bass off of three of the songs, as I was envisioning Will Lee of Paul Shaffer’s/David Letterman’s band playing on the tracks. Eventually, Will and I agreed to meet at a location in New York City so I could give to him a copy of the songs to hear. Luckily for me, one of the drummers that I most look up to in the world, Anton Fig, was also there. Anton and I struck up a conversation, and by the end of the night Anton had agreed to listen to my Sun Studio recordings in effort to learn if there were any songs that he would be interested in drumming on. A week or so later, Anton contacted me, stating that he had ideas for many of the songs, but that there were a certain few that he would like to get started in on.
Over the several weeks that ensued between Anton Fig and me, it was agreed upon that Anton would take on the project from that point and produce the entire balance of the record, with my granting of full artistic license to him. The results so far have been amazing, with much more of the story still to be written…