KENNY PASSARELLI INTERVIEW
By Trace Keane
Trace: Do you remember the first time you met Tommy Bolin?
Kenny: If I remember correctly it must have been around 1968, he must have been about 17 then as he was about two years younger than me. I remember blowin’ into Denver and he had these big white baggy pants, it was sort of the beginning of the “love ins” or “be ins” and hippie guys who had some money in Denver. Their dads would kind of help them rent some commercial space. I remember this guy named Bob Pinneta had a gig; I was in a band called Beast at the time, a band that really didn’t go anyplace and that’s where I met Tommy. Tommy had come and he was one of these kids and always wanted to jam and whenever he did everyone saw what a monster player he was. We met there and we never really had a band together, but we played in different bands and we would sit in hang together and would talk music. Tommy was always like a young brother to me, and right when we were going to do something, something else would come up. I was in a band and right when we were going to do something Zephyr was formed and they got a deal. Then my band broke up and I headed for California in a different band to work on a different deal. Later after Zephyr broke up, and Tommy was back in Boulder I was coming back from Canada with my tail between my legs because my band failed to get a deal, and was returning to school at The University of Denver about Spring of 1970 or 1971. Tommy called over Spring Break and he said “what are you doing man, your outta’ your mind, you’re not going to be some lawyer. Come to Boulder and jam with me and I’m bringing in this jazz flute player named Jeremy Steig.” I go and do that and the next thing he and I went to New York on Spring Break from college for me. We went with Jeremy Steig, and Jan Hammer. We were all of a sudden thrown into the heavy duty New York jazz scene and were opening for Tony Williams Lifetime at the Café Au Go Go. We had Alphonse Mouzon on drums and me on Fender Bass playing just funky. We had Bill Evans’ bass player Eddie Gomez on upright bass, Bill Marshall and Tommy playing psychedelic guitar like Hendrix doing his Tommy Bolin thing. Jeremy playing psychedelic flute and Jan Hammer, it was just killer. We were a high energy bazaar band. I had left New York to return to school and I think that’s when he stayed in New York and did the Billy Cobham thing. By the time he came back to Boulder he had this group called Energy. I went and finished the school year and Tommy and I later returned to New York and we were playing with John Hammond Jr. and he had come to listen to Jeremy Steig because they had gone to school together. His father had been the illustrious producer with CBS and he had also been a Vanderbilt. His dad had never believed in his son to that point, he had been playing the blues and had been thrown out of Harvard, at that time he wasn’t the famous cat that he is now. His dad had discovered Bob Dylan and later Bruce Springsteen and many others. So John Jr. came and checked me out and said “how’d you like to play the blues when you finish school?” I went off to play with John Hammond and Tommy went back to play with his group Energy.
Then I got a call to go up and play in Vancouver again, so I went up to British Columbia and I went there maybe about six months, when the phone rang and it was Tommy. He said “look man I know you are busy and stuff, but I’ve recommended you for a gig. This Joe Walsh guy needs a bass player. At this time I was listening to Weather Report and the like and was still in that New York state of mind, and I was like “Funk 49”? That’s teeny bopper shit.” And he says “No, no, no. There is something happening there, Joe Walsh is working on some stuff that is a lot deeper, and he is a very cool guy.” He said I’m going to give him your number, and I’ll be damned Joe Walsh called me. Joe said “Tommy really speaks highly of you, I have a bunch of solo stuff and have left the James Gang, do you want to come down and check it out?”
So I flew down on my dime, drove up to Boulder and auditioned for Joe. He played me some stuff that would become the first Barnstorm record and I was floored, I said man this stuff is great! I went back to Vancouver and packed my bags. It was a Tommy Bolin thing, he got me into Barnstorm and he later replaced Joe in the James Gang. I never would have gotten that gig without him. I didn’t get much of a chance to see Tommy after that, I was on the road with Joe for two years. After that I was with Stephen Stills in Manassas. He was touring with the James Gang and later Deep Purple so we didn’t get many chances to see one another after that. I was working with Stephen (Stills) so much and after that I was with Elton John for two years straight and never got to see him during that period at all, 1975-76. After that I had worked on a solo deal with RSO records, and after that I had a screen test with John Travolta for Saturday Night Fever if you can believe that. The work with Elton John had really moved me to another level, and while working on my project with RSO, Barry Fey called me, he wanted me to work on Tommy’s solo project (Private Eyes) and he wanted me to play on it. I had crossed paths with him when he was with Deep Purple and things had changed with him. He had separated with Karen and just didn’t have that same innocent spirit that made him such a beautiful guy. I ran into him at The Sunset Marque in Los Angeles and that was the last time I ever saw him. The guy was really special to me in making me believe in myself and making me believe that I wasn’t really a lawyer at heart, that I had what it took to be a musician. He was really the guy that got me in with Joe Walsh, I owe my career to him in many ways. My life would have been so different without his influence. Looking back, the timing was just never right for he and I starting our own band, which is too bad because we would have had one hell of a band. Especially now, with the last 20-30 years of songwriting, we could have really enjoyed ourselves at this point of our lives.
Trace: I have the opportunity to work with Stanley Sheldon from time to time on a series of radio documentaries about Tommy, he has always credited you with getting him the gig with Peter Frampton, tell me how that came about?
Kenny: I really appreciate Stanley for remembering that. When I was with Joe Walsh we did a few gigs with Peter when he was with Humble Pie before he became a superstar. Peter and I connected and he liked the way I played, and I got the call at the exact time I got the call to do Elton John and I couldn’t do it. I remember Peter was pissed that I couldn’t do it, I said “Peter I know this really great bass player in Boulder who plays fretless bass named Stanley Sheldon.” I really appreciate the fact that he remembers that because it did come through me. Stanley was spending more time with Tommy musically than I was. Tommy and I were hit and miss as far as being able to play together, but they were great times indeed. I’ll never forget those days in New York. He and I were living in Greenwich Village, poorer than shit, sleeping on someone’s floor. Playin’ our asses off in a time when jazz was transforming from bebop into fusion. We were hanging with Mira Sorvinas, and Stanley Clark who was like 19 then. We were hanging with true jazz legends during a formidable period. We went down to Hendrix’s studio and there was all kinds of stuff going on then, it was so exciting. He really looked out for me when he got me the Joe Walsh gig, he had no ulterior motive about him, and it never would have happened without his recommendation to Joe. I remember him telling me “I think you’re going to catch a break here.”
Trace: I spoke with an old friend of yours the other day, Otis Taylor. He credits you with getting him back into music.
Kenny: I produced five of his albums. I have known Otis since we were kids in Denver, and when he retired from music he was an antique dealer and I was one of his clients. When we were kids he was the straightest hip guy I ever met, we were all maniacs and he was this totally straight guy that was as cool as anyone you ever knew. He played harmonica and was an extremely smart cat who knew how to make a living out of playing music. When I started to make money in 1975 with Elton John, I bought a house outside of Boulder and I was Otis’ big client. I’d buy stuff from him every week and we would always get together and play. We always had that rapport. I had finished my career in about 1985 with Crosby Stills and Nash, I had moved to Santa Fe (New Mexico), and had an apartment in New York. I was writing mostly and was moving around a lot. I went back to Denver in 1994 to work on a piece of contemporary classical piece if music. Otis called me and told me of this friend who had opened a coffee shop on the hill in Boulder, it was a place where years ago Joan Baez and others had played, he asked me to come out and play with them. A three piece band with Eddie Turner and no drummer and it brought back so many memories of my time there with Tommy and it was so cool. We played a number of shows and I said let me make an album for you, I’ve made so many records for other people that this will be something you can do for your kids. It was his first record named Blue Eyed Monster, which we didn’t get a deal, we played more shows, did another record, and finally did a third record, White African, which got numerous awards and that launched his career.
Trace: What did you think when Tommy joined Deep Purple?
Kenny: I really saw that as a stepping stone to give him more name recognition, more writing experience, I never thought of it as a long-term move as much as I did a vehicle to get more exposure.
Trace: What are your favorite memories of Tommy?
Kenny: My best memories of Tommy were him playing live. I was at the first Zephyr show that Barry Fey put together. I remember seeing him play with Dr. John and so many others. His live performances will be what I remember him most by; there was no one else like him.
Kenny Passarelli has had a stellar career as bassist for Joe Walsh’s Barnstorm, Steven Stills, Elton John, Hall and Oates, Otis Taylor and many more top bands.