THE TOMMY STEPHENSON INTERVIEW
by Trace Keane
Before he was the keyboard player for Joe Walsh and Barnstorm, before the 15 Gold and multi-platinum record awards, before the fame, the fortune and the dogs… there was Energy. When you ask a man with as long and successful career as Tommy Stephenson where it all started, the beginning started very early.
Tommy Stephenson: My dad was playing people like Oscar Peterson, Count Basie, Jimmy Smith the organ player, great pianist every day. When I was 5 he bought an upright piano and put it in our den and played a boogie woogie song by Pinetop Perkins. He is actually still alive down in Austin Texas, an old black boogie woogie player. It was called “Pine Tops Perking.” I listened to him play it and I’d never seen a piece of sheet music, and in about a day I learned to play it note for note, and learned a couple of Pinetop’s other songs. People in town began to hear about how I could just play this stuff, it was all by ear. It’s amazing because I could play it better when I was five than I can now, the boogie stuff is really hard to play. Organizations around town like the Jaycees, or church centers would invite me down to their meetings, my mom would drive me down ( I had a little suit and tie) to these places. They would pay me anywhere between $20.00 and $50.00 and I thought there is something to this music thing and I’d better pay attention to it.
Trace Keane: That was an awful lot of money in those days.
TS: No kidding, it really was. I couldn’t figure out what the big deal was, but as a kid when you get that instant feedback, you start going OK, this is great, it wasn’t so much the money as being the center of attention to all these adults. I really didn’t even know what I was doing musically, I just knew I could sit down, listen to something and play it. I did that from the age of 5 to 10 years old. My mom actually lined me up with some lessons in between, but the teachers were very strict and taught straight out of a book. I got bored right away, I’d go to a recital, sit down and begin a piece that I was supposed to play (a Bach or Chopin piece or something like that) and in the middle of it I would just space out. In the middle of the piece I was supposed to play I would stop playing the arrangement and I would start playing the boogie boogie stuff. The people would just go nuts, judges would go crazy and I won every one of my recitals.
The turning point really came to me, (I would listen to the radio, but I was more of an athlete) but the day I heard the Beatles sing “I Want To Hold Your Hand” on AM radio something just washed over me. I’ve never felt that feeling ever in my life about anything. It was better than sex. It was at that point that my cousin Stanley Sheldon (later of the Peter Frampton Band), who didn’t know how to play at that time and another friend knew we wanted to have a band. Stan went down to the local music store and bought an old cheap bass another friend bought a guitar. Before those guys even learned to play their instruments, we would get Beatle wigs and outfits and lip synch at parties, pretending to play along with the Beatles. By the time we were about 15 we could play 3-4 songs (all in G) like “Louie Louie,” “Do Wah Diddy,” all basically the same songs and we started a band called the Lost Souls. We played under that name and were the hit of the tri-state area. We were too young to get into nightclubs, so we’d sneak out to places and see people like Mike Finnigan play places like the Oak Lodge, which was between our hometown of Ottawa and Lawrence Kansas. We started playing things like high school proms, and rented out armories, put up posters and fliers and actually made a pretty decent income while we were in Jr. high school and high school.
The minute the Beatles came out it became the greatest way to meet girls, ask any musician and they will tell you the reason they got into it was to meet girls. We played until my high school graduation in 1968. In 1969 I went to three semesters of college and all the bands booked out of Lawrence, Kansas. They were all big show bands; everybody had horns, an organ player, bass player, guitar player and drummer, lead singer, that type of thing. It was all Blood Sweat & Tears, Chicago, The Sons of Champlain those groups. I went to all of them… Spider & the Crabs, The Young Raiders, The Roaring Red Dogs, The Flippers. Finally the only rock group that the booking agent had was the Blue Things. Rocke Grace (who was the original player with Joe Walsh and Barnstorm) and I and John Bartle (who was Tommy Bolin’s childhood friend and on the run for draft refusal, and would later appear with Tommy Bolin on the cover of Live At The Jet Bar, and with Johnnie Bolin in DVC and Chill Factor) and the drummer Mark Craney (who was the final drummer for the Tommy Bolin Band in 1976) had a group called The Blue Things.
Things were going okay and one day Bartle came to me and said, “I have a friend in Colorado who had a band called Zephyr, I grew up with him in Sioux City, whose name is Tommy Bolin. You need to give him a new band, he’s quit Zephyr and is forming a new band (Energy) and is looking for a keyboard player you guys would hit it off.” He gave me Tommy’s number in Boulder, I called him and he said come on out. I packed up everything I owned, my C3 organ, a couple of Leslies, a Wurlitzer electric piano put it in a U-Haul trailer and went to Boulder. On the same day I drove out there I met Bobby Berge and Tommy (Bolin) and we had a rehearsal. We had Kenny Passarelli playing bass at that time. After the audition, Tommy said you got the gig and they sent me Jeremy Steig’s album Energy to listen to and learn a couple of songs off of it so I would have an idea of what I would have to play. I did the best I could at that point because this stuff was a step ahead of what I was doing.Bobby Berge took me aside and told me I did really great but encouraged me to work on my solos a little bit.
I just adore Bobby, he as much as Tommy got me to elevate my playing to a level I never imagined. If it weren’t for those guys and that band I would have never had the career I did. I really owe my career to people like Tommy and Bobby Berge and John Bartle for turning me on to them. You know the story of Energy, my cousin Stanley Sheldon and I were living in a van in Tommy’s backyard eating green apples that grew on their tree. That was how we stayed alive. Once in a while the owners of the Tulagi club where Bonnie Raitt, Big Mamma Thornton and John Lee Hooker played would hire us to play backup for them. The people who owned the deli above would give us a sandwich occasionally and that was how we stayed alive. Tommy and Karen (Tommy’s girlfriend) would help us out because we weren’t making any money. We had Jeff Cook and Gary Wilson with us for awhile. Barry Fey was managing us because he had managed Zephyr and put them on a national stage opening for Mountain, and a plethora of people that Tommy had gotten to know, they had a somewhat successful record. I played with them from about 1971-1973, I kept getting calls from Joe Walsh, who had quit the James Gang and was putting a new group together. Kenny Passarelli had left Energy to play with Walsh. Joe Vitale, Kenny Passarelli, Stanley and I were all living together in the same apartment complex. Kenny and Joe Vitale kept calling me about coming out to play with Joe Walsh, telling me they needed a keyboard player. They kept trying to persuade me to join them, Tommy and I had a great, tight, bad ass band and a strong friendship. Walsh’s style was quite a bit more methodical, as opposed to Tommy, who could just plug in and go. Joe would build a song and was not as much of a jammer as Tommy (who could play any style any time any place, didn’t make any difference, Tommy could just play anything).
From Energy to Barnstorm
TS: I was learning so much playing with Bolin I kept turning them down. Joe was flying me out and was asking me to join his band and I said no, I’m not interested, but I have this friend Rocke Grace (we had played together in a couple of bands with John Bartle including The Blue Things) who plays the keys and I brought him. He got the job and ended playing on the album and first tour that they did.
So I phoned Rocke Grace and asked him if he would be interested in it. They flew him out and they made The Smoker You Drink, The Player You Get album, with “Rocky Mountain Way” on it. Grace had another song (“Midnight Moodies”) on that. They were on the road trying to reproduce what they had done in the studio and had so much keyboard stuff on it (Joe Vitale had done a lot of the keyboard work in the studio). I decided after 4-5 times of them calling me, they were out on the concert circuit trying to break that album, that I just needed to make some money. Everyone in Boulder was encouraging me to do this, telling me it was going to take me to the next level. So I was the first to leave Energy. I didn’t want to, Barry just couldn’t do anything with us, and we had no record label. We even had a deal pretty much done with a major label, but we did a show and Barry had reps from several labels there. They told us in between sets we were great and wanted to sign us. We proceeded to celebrate and get drunk between sets and went back out and played horribly the second set and blew the whole deal. They changed their minds and decided not to sign us. I was just tired of starving, so I decided to join Walsh, and within six weeks of joining him we had the Number 1 record in the world with “Rocky Mountain Way.” We had other hits with“ Turn To Stone” and “Meadows.” Then we went in and made the So What album. Stanley ended up leaving Energy next to join Peter Frampton, and that’s when Joe Walsh recommended Tommy to the James Gang when Dominic Troiano didn’t work out. They had a lead singer in Roy Kenner. Berge would then land a seat with the Buddy Miles Band.
TK: At that point Tommy, your playing with Joe Walsh, you’re on a major world tour, got a hit record, is the money at that time at that level?
TS: We were making a ton of money, with all the perks you could imagine. The per diem just for meals was way more money than I had ever made before. Limos, private jets, it was the full blown deal. We were doing shows with some of the greatest bands in the world. Lynyrd Skynyrd was opening for us. We did a tour with Eric Clapton where we opened the show and Eric was the headliner. A lot of the guys from Derek and the Dominos like Carl Radle, Jim Gordon, Bobby Whitlock, Dickie Simms on keyboards, who got ill and I got to cover the keyboards. I got to open the show with Walsh and close the show with Eric Clapton. There was a couple of nights where we played West Palm Beach Florida and at these shows we had Pete Townshend, Eric Clapton, Joe Walsh, Keith Moon, all the guys from the Dominos, Joey Vitale, Passarelli, all the guys from Barnstorm with all of us on stage at the same time with Eric playing “Layla.” It was just an absolute mindblower. We were following Led Zeppelin on tour and we would run into them in certain cities and that when Joe intruded me to Robert Plant and Jimmy Page. Jimmy called Joe to help him with his guitar and Joe said “come on you’re coming with me.” That’s how I got to be friends with those guys. You can imagine coming from Kansas and playing with guys like Stanley, Tommy and Bobby and a short time later I’m playing with the biggest names in the business… it was amazing. I was walking five feet off the ground.
Later on in the tour when Joe’s wife was in a car accident with his daughter and he was in the process of a divorce, we flew back into Boulder. I was in my condominium and he knocked on my door one day and his wife was standing there. He opened up the door to the condo across the hall and sent her inside and said to me “Listen, I divorced her today and I buried Emma (his daughter) today, I need you to take care of her she is very distraught, when I call you to be ready to move out to LA just be ready to come.”
Everybody moved out to LA except Joe Vitale, who stayed in Canton, Ohio when were in LA working Joe put him up the whole time. We were on hiatus and Joey always wanted to do his own record called Rollercoaster Weekend. He played everything on it except for Rick Derringer on the guitars, and wanted to go out on tour with it. In the Cleveland and Ohio area, the Balken Brothers ran all the concerts . I got a call from Vitale and he talked to Passarelli and Bob Webb, the guitar player who was very instrumental in showing Joe a lot of his tricks like playing through Leslies. You can actually find his name on the back of the first Barnstorm album. At the time we had a percussionist named Richie Garcia and they asked me if I wanted to go out as Barnstorm. Vitale and Passarelli had co written some of the songs so we could play them. We lived just outside of Canton in Kent and that’s where we rehearsed. We opened for Van Halen, Aerosmith, The Rolling Stones, just a lot of top bands, many with Van Halen. A few shows with the Stones, we were the first or second band on the tour. This is when Elton called. We then hired the bass player (Greg Philbin) from REO Speed wagon, who co-wrote “Ridin’ the Storm Out.” We did a few dates with him and then it was decided it wasn’t working financially. Everyone wanted to get hooked up with Walsh.
TK: Were the promoters all on board with this even though you weren’t playing with Walsh?
TS: Oh yes, and the crowds loved us. Vitale has a great voice, Passarelli and I did all the background vocals. Joe Vitale co wrote a lot of Walsh’s songs, often times writing the music. He also invented that talk box, he put a tube instead of a cone in the speaker magnet, and Vitale is just a genius and inventing these things. Great engineer and producer.
TK: Now you’re playing in the big leagues…
TS: Yeah, when I first was trying marijuana and I was hearing the guitar work on “Good Times, Bad Times” and was thinking “my God, this something I’d never heard before.” Zeppelin was a huge influence, and The Who. Pete had actually given Joe his first real break, he had let him open for The Who in the late 60’s and it made the James Gang album Rides Again started selling like crazy. Then they had “Tend My Garden” and “Funk 49.” It just snowballed and once I started knowing people I just started getting gig after gig after gig. After Joe I actually did a short stint with Joe Vitale, Passarelli, myself and Bob Webb. Since Vitale and Passarelli had co-written all that stuff with Joe, we were out on tour with Barnstorm opening up with Aerosmith, Van Halen, and in the middle of that tour Kenny and I were rooming together and the phone rang and it was this guy with an English accent asking for Kenny Passarelli. I told him he’s not here right now and he said “this is Elton John,” and I thought it was just a joke, one of the other guys in the band just fuckin’ with me. So I hung up and the guy calls back and says “no really this is Elton.” I took the number down so when Kenny comes back to the room I said Elton John had called and he says yeah right, he calls him back in front of me and Elton tells him “I’m going to do a new album called Rock Of The Westies out at Caribou Studios would you join us?” Kenny said he was interested and can I call you back? Kenny turns to me and says that was Elton and he wants me, what should I do. I said well you gotta take the gig, but you gotta at least finish the tour, we can’t replace you and still stay on tour. I woke up in the morning and Kenny was gone, it was that fast.
So Barnstorm pretty much fell apart at that point. Joe was still out on his own with LA studio players Brian Garofalo and Ricky Fataar. His sales were kind of going down, the Eagles sales were dropping off a bit. Irving Azoff, Joe’s manager to this day, was representing both Joe and the Eagles. He put the two bands together like a corporate merger for Hotel California. That went through the roof, there was lots of drugs and infighting, but they put up with each other. People were arguing over who material would be used because the money is in publishing. Which is why when they split up they said they wouldn’t perform together until hell freezes over. That’s where that tour name came from. My manager today, David Spiro, is the one that put that together. He picked Joe up when his management dropped him when he was having problems. He helped Joe get cleaned up… meanwhile back at the ranch I was with Gary Wright (of Dreamweaver fame), Stanley Sheldon was with Peter Frampton.
TK: It seems almost like you were made to play the big stage, you knew how to network and how to spin one gig off of another. Where so many others struggle to have that breakthrough opportunity.
TS: You know Trace here’s the deal, if you want to play the big arena, first of all you gotta be able to play. You gotta be at the right place, the right time and know the right people. When you are around these people and you have the ability to play you can go from one to the next to the next to the next. When I played with Bolin I got to play with all the true blues masters, the guys who wrote all the stuff that Cream redid. Albert King, Albert Collins, BB King, John Lee Hooker, all these great players, we would back them up with Tommy and Energy. But once I got to the big stage it started with Joe, then Clapton, then Gary Wright, I toured the world with him. I and Stanley were both managed by Dee Anthony, so we had The Starship all through Europe and were on the same tours together.
TK: I’ve heard you say that Walsh did not allow any jamming?
TS: That was it. Joe is a guy who from show to show to show plays it note for note the same, the solo is the same. Same way with the Eagles. That’s one of the reasons he was so in awe of Bolin. Tommy Bolin could just plug in and go to any genre, Joe couldn’t do that. He could only play what he had written or been taught. It was just that way.
After the Storm With the Dreamweaver
After Barnstorm broke up I moved to Florida. Vitale gave me a tip about how Criteria Studios was the place to go. It was Clapton and The Bee Gees, Ozzy and Black Sabbath. I did quite a few session there. I got a call from my cousin Stanley Sheldon, who was touring with Frampton in late 1975 or early 1976. They wanted me to fly to Kansas City to play with Gary Wright (Dreamweaver), an all-keyboard group, four plus himself. Both groups were managed by Dee Anthony. Two background singers (one being his sister) and Art Wood on drums. Steve Porcaro from Toto was playing with him but had another project to do. This was previous to his brother Jeff passing away. My audition consisted of playing three chords of “Dreamweaver” in his hotel room.
My first gig was Royal Stadium in Kansas City. We did the Peter Frampton-Gary Wright tour all through the US in 1976-77. We played for 340,000 in Chicago. All through Europe, based out of London, everywhere but Russia. In 1977 I left Gary Wright and was living in LA, where I just did session work and got married. In late 1978 I joined Robert Fleischman, (the first singer for Journey before Steve Perry). He wrote “Wheel In The Sky” with Neal Schon. Barry Fey was his manager. We had Mark Craney on drums, Doug from Frank Zappa’s band on bass, Phil Brown on guitar, great band. We worked with SIR Records. The label got rid of Mark Craney and the bass player (they thought they played too much). I stayed at Clive Davis’ condo at 72nd and Central Park West the whole time I was there. We recorded an album called Perfect Stranger. Stanley also played on it. Jimmy Iovine produced it. Robert wanted to write all the material and it bombed. We opened up for Aerosmith and Van Halen on the tour, but the album never really took off.
Paul Butterfield had put the remnants of The Band back together and called it the Danko/Butterfield Band, I was at a gig where Rick Danko was playing and he saw me there and came up and said, “I know you through Blondie Chaplin.” Blondie sang “Sail On Sailor” with the Beach Boys. When I was with Joe Walsh we did a bunch of shows with the Beach Boys and we always did the same thing ending the show with everyone coming on stage and singing “Help Me Rhonda.” So I joined the Rick Danko/Butterfield Band. Levon Helm played with us a few times. In the middle of the tour Richard Manual, great singer, joined us which was great. Bruce Springsteen, Joe Cocker, Van Morrison, Dr John. Just about everybody who was in the movie The Last Waltz showed up at one time or another on that tours, I was with them for two and a half years. Levon played 4-5 gigs with us, but they were big gigs. It was a great tour, our first show was the 10th Anniversary of Woodstock Reunion Show. Sold out Carnegie Hall, Robbie Robertson showed up but didn’t play. That went into the early 1980’s.
F-5 Dodging The Dream Killers
In 1995 I started playing in Colorado and ran into Mike Drumm (of The Tommy Bolin Archives) and he asked if I wanted to put Energy back together for the Bolin Fest, so we did that show in 1996. We were playing a show in Vermillion, South Dakota on the USD Campus, and Ted and Norm Waitt. Co-founders of Gateway Computers, Ted Waitt now owns Vizio Television. Norm Waitt is CEO of Gold Circle Entertainment, executive producer of My Big Fat Greek Wedding and many other movies and albums. They are from Sioux City and are lifetime friends with the Bolins. Norm approached us about doing a Tommy Bolin-themed album. He financed our F-5 album Dodging The Dream Killers with Stanley Sheldon. They originally wanted to get Billy Ryan on guitar, but he wasn’t available. We got Michael Reese from Kansas City, I got a drummer from KC named Alex Valasquez, and F-5 was born. Michael and I wrote all the material, recorded it in a very nice studio in the country on Norm’s Antipreneur label (that also published Johnnie Bolin and John Bartle’s album by Chill Factor, Some Like It Cold.) Michael Shrieve produced it, from the Woodstock movie fame. He was a great guy to work with. He arranged to have us record in a beautiful studio in Santa Fe New Mexico. It was state of the art, first class equipment and arrangements. Bob Stark an incredible talent, really produced the album. We got great reviews, but between the fusion, smooth jazz, and rock, they didn’t know what to do with us. 1999 top 10 best new jazz bands with that year. It lasted one and a half to two years and was a great experience.
During that era is when Roger Waters and Pink Floyd were together in LA and putting together The Wall, and one night Roger came to a gig to see us and offered me a place in the surrogate band in The Wall (the movie) as the keyboard player. I was under contract with Danko and they offered me a ton of money to play a 3-city mini tour, two gigs per city, in Los Angeles, New York and London while they filmed this. I couldn’t do it but Roger introduced me to other people. It’s just been being at the right place at the right time, knowing people and networking. There was a thin time because of my drug use, that Walsh or Irving would say they loved me and my playing, but because of my behavior offstage they just couldn’t depend on me. So I had some dry years trying to get straight and finally I did, it has come full circle.
These days Stephenson is as busy as ever, with pending offers to work with some big name bands, and the reformed F-5 (with Michael Reese). Here are some links:
Providing good home for displaced and rescue animals. They are an organization Tommy Stephenson feels passionate about
Tommy Stephenson would like to gratefully acknowledge the following: Jutta Gabgiel, Ray Gomez, Norm and Andrea Waitt, John Bartle, Johnnie Bolin, Norm Comstock and Arjay.