Gary James' Interview With Guitarist
He's traveled the world playing guitar for some of the biggest names in Pop and Rock. We're talking Lionel Richie, John Fogerty, Don Felder, Peter Frampton, Prince, Christine Aguilera, and Britney Spears. He's appeared on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno, The Late Show With David Letterman, Saturday Night Live, Good Morning America, The View and the Ellen DeGeneres Show. We are talking about the one, the only, Mr. Ben Mauro.
Q - So, you're a guy from Syracuse, New York. What venues did you play in Syracuse?
A - Lost Horizon, Shifty's, I only played open mic there. It used to be John Puma ran the open mic. I'd go down there by myself and play every week. The Beginnings. I don't remember a lot of the places to tell you the truth.
Q - The group you were in was called what?
A - Meltdown. It was Ricky Chisolm on vocals and Paulie Serra on sax. He's another Syracuse guy that my story is kind of intertwined with. Then a bass player, a guy named Delmar Breedland, who I thought was just the most amazing musician in Syracuse at the time. I would go see Atlas. I would go see Mark Copani play. I would go see Joe Jewel and Rick Calestra. As far as playing in bands, I really just had that band, Meltdown, that played all over Syracuse and eventually I ended up moving out to New York City.
Q - Before I talk about New York City, I want to talk about your college studies. You went to Onondaga Community College and studied Classical guitar. But you were a Rock guitarist. Did studying Classical guitar help your Rock playing?
A - It definitely did. At the time I wasn't really drawn to Classical music. When I got out of high school I knew I wanted to do music, but I had no idea how to get an actual job in the music industry. I had heard about Joe Jewel at O.C.C. and I could actually go there for free because my Mom was a nursing instructor there. I figured if I went to school, it might be something to help me find a job. I was also a big Randy Rhodes fan. I knew that his Mom had taught Classical guitar in Burbank and I knew that he studied Classical guitar. So that was kind of the motivation for me. Plus, I thought it might be something fun to try. Once I started studying with Joe, I ended up loving Classical guitar. It was definitely not what I expected, but Joe said I had the talent for it, so that really made me feel good. It was just really satisfying once I kind of started learning some of the Bach pieces. Classical music makes you develop your technique to the highest level. So, I think if you can play Classical guitar, you can pretty much move on to play any kind of guitar.
Q - Where did the money come from for you to move to New York City?
A - I didn't move to New York City immediately after O.C.C. I went on the road with a band that played all the big hotel circuit back then. We would be hired by the hotel and live there for about three weeks at a time before moving on to the next one. It was pretty cool 'cause I got to travel all over the country. At one point we had a house gig in Memphis. We were there for like three months and I answered an ad for a band that was looking for a guitar player in New York City. The girl that was the lead singer drove to Memphis and picked me up. I then drove back to New York. I started playing in their band and slept on her couch for like two months until I could find somewhere else to live. That was kind of my start, the hotel band and then I ended up in New York City. I wasn't sure where I wanted to live and then I ended up in New York City.
Q - What was the name of that band?
A - The Blues Other Brothers. There was some people from Syracuse that played with them. That first band I had, Meltdown, our trumpet player, a guy named Tony Gombers, left the band to work with The Blues Other Brothers. They were really busy traveling the whole country and then I think about a year later, after my time at O.C.C., my friend Paulie Cerra and I both joined that band and both traveled with that band. They used to play the Marriott Hotel and a couple of places in Syracuse. Mostly it was just a working band. I didn't have to pay rent anywhere 'cause I basically lived in those hotels. It was exciting to me 'cause I was actually making a living as a professional musician.
Q - Were you doing five sets a night?
A - It was four. It was kind of like a show band, an R&B show with a horn section. We did like a lot of Blues Brothers and Otis Redding. That kind of Soul music. So, it was a lot of fun and then the rhythm section would just kind of play Rock music for two sets. So, we did two sets for a show and two sets of like Rock music. I got to sing a lot. We would do anything from Aerosmith to Van Halen. All the cover band, Rock kind of stuff.
Q - You did that for how long?
A - It was about, I would say two or three years.
Q - So, you were able to save enough money to make the big move to New York?
A - Well, not really. Basically, I moved to New York City without really knowing a single person. I knew that girl I answered an ad for, but never met her. I basically moved there without knowing anyone and without having any money or anything. I just basically did it because it was something I wanted to do. I wanted to give it a try.
Q - You were playing at the Cafe Wha? Were they paying you good money?
A - Well, there's a little bit of a story before the Cafe Wha? I'll try to squeeze in. Basically, that was my time of really struggling. I thought that I could move to New York City, but really no working musicians live in New York City. It's too expensive. So, I ended up living in North Jersey when I first got there. After I was able to find a place and didn't stay on that girl's couch anymore, I basically moved into a place with a bunch of roommates. I started teaching guitar. I started working in guitar stores as a salesman, but was completely broke. I was a broke as you could get with only maybe a couple of dollars to eat every day, but I was happy. I felt like I was on my path. Then I started playing in cover bands a little bit more and eventually was able to stop working at the music store. Then I realized I got things going on, but I'm in New Jersey still. So, Manhattan is really where I want to be. So, I found an ad in the paper for the Cafe Wha?. They were looking for musicians for their house band and the house band played five nights a week. So, I started going down to the Cafe Wha? and auditioning. Basically auditioning was sitting around all night and waiting for them to call me up. They might not call me up 'til one o'clock in the morning. Then I would get up and play a couple of songs. Eventually the owner hired me. There was a guy there that did Classic Rock. It was a very eclectic house band. Everybody had a different style and the Classic Rock guy was who was leaving. So that's who I was going to replace. I ended up learning all his material and was able to just jump in for him, like the nights he couldn't make it. Then I ended up getting hired there. Working at the Cafe Wha? did pay pretty well at the time, but it still wasn't enough for an apartment in the city. It's super expensive to live in Manhattan and most working musicians live in either North Jersey, where I did, or Brooklyn or Queens. The only musicians I knew who had apartments in New York City were small studio apartments with at least five people sharing them. I remember one place where one of my friends lived, it had ropes with blankets hanging up in like a small studio apartment to divide the space. There was another guy I knew in Greenwich Village that had such a tiny apartment that he had a toilet and a shower right in the middle of his kitchen with a drain and then like a curtain that went around it in the middle of his kitchen. That was like the living in New York City. So, most people didn't do that. Most people lived outside. It wasn't like I had a job, paying for an apartment in New York City.
Q - You almost have to be rich to become richer.
A - It takes money to pay for marketing. That's why I tell musicians, don't be afraid to play in a cover band. Don't be afraid to do those other things. Maybe working for an artist can be a really fun job or even just playing in a cover band is just a lot of fun and a great release.
Q - Besides playing in the Cafe Wha? house band, did you also play in other New York bands?
A - I did the Cafe Wha? house band for almost three years and the cool thing is the owner still does it. It's a new place. It's called the Village Underground. Lionel played New York City on his last tour and I had a night off and I got to go and it was great. I had a blast. It was just like it used to be, only better. So what it is is, you have a core band that plays all different styles and then throughout the night you have all different singers that come sit in. One set might have a James Brown singer leading the band. The next set you might have an Aretha Franklin type singer leading the band. The next set might be a rapper. The next set might be some kind of Latin music. So, that was a cool thing where I was playing in one band, but it was very diverse. It was great for me for my education I guess you would say. I knew it was a great job, but I didn't want to be stuck there forever. So I quit, then I just started being a freelance musician around New York City. So that's where things kind of started happening for me. I had a bit of a reputation from playing at the Cafe Wha? and then once I got out and started doing all different things, that's when my name started getting around.
Q - What do you mean by a "freelance musician"? Are you referring to studio work?
A - No. There wasn't really a lot of studio work. The cool thing about New York City is there's a lot of 'live' music, so a working musician, if you hustle, you could actually play every single night of the week. So that's what I would do. I think my average was about thirty to forty nights in a row that I would play. I would play in wedding bands. One of the bands I would play in was kind of a Top 40 cover band. I played in some Funk bands, a couple of Hard Rock bands. Mostly it was R&B kind of music. When people in New York City go out to clubs, they want to dance. And that's to R&B music pretty much. There was also a circuit of people that would release a record and then have to hire a band to do a showcase. So, I got in on a couple of those shows and all of a sudden it started to be the same musicians getting hired for showcases for different artists. But mostly it was really just hustling. Some nights we would do a little above the city like Upstate New York. We would do like a cover band show of three sets. Then we would drive into Manhattan and we would play a lot of clubs in Manhattan and you'd start your set at 1 A.M. So, we would play from 1 A.M. to 3 A.M. or 1 A.M. to 4 A.M. on weekends. So that would be like two shows a night basically. So, that's basically what freelance meant. It was like whatever call I would get I would try to say yes. Sometimes for instance with Latin music I didn't really have a big background in that, but I learned early on if something comes up, you say yes. Can you play Latin music? Yes. I'll figure it out before I get to the gig. Around that time I looked at my schedule and I was playing in ten bands at the same time. I don't know how I was doing it, (laughs) but somehow I was able to juggle all that and it was right around that time that I got asked to audition for Lionel Richie.
Q - If you don't know Latin music, how do you play it?
A - Well, one of the hardest parts about doing music with different genres, especially if it's not in English; I recently did a trip to Mexico with a big Latin artist and none of the songs are in English, so you get used to thinking okay, this is the chorus, this is the bridge. But if you can't understand the language it's like, Oh my God! You really have to pay attention. I've done some gigs with Chinese artists. So it's like you can't understand a word they say the whole night, but if you can follow your chart or you know your arrangements, you should be okay. But a lot of times it's those gigs that end up being the most fun.
Q - So who, for lack of a better word, "discovered" you from the Lionel Richie organization? Did they see you on stage? Was it a referral?
A - It was a referral. Lionel Richie had a musical director, Randy Stern, who now runs an agency booking weddings and private gigs in Los Angeles. They were looking for a guitar player for one show in New York because they had a guy leave. So, Randy asked a bunch of people and my name came up from three different people. One of them was a girl named Angel that I had played with in one of the ten bands. I remember her calling me to ask me if she could give them my name and I remember telling her, "Hang up the phone right now and call them back right away." (laughs) So basically they had one show in New York City. They didn't want to fly somebody from L.A. They just wanted somebody from New York to fill in. So they asked my friend Angel and they also asked if they could get names of other people they could ask for recommendations. They got my name from three people so that's why Randy called me.
Q - Is it important you like the music of the people you're performing with? You played with Britney Spears. You played with John Fogerty. Did you like the music of both artists?
A - Well, of course it's better if you like the artist's music, but in the end I guess it really doesn't matter 'cause it's a paying job. I wasn't a huge fan of Britney's music. I was a fan of hers, but I wasn't a huge fan. I remember when I did get the job with her I had to go to Tower Records and buy like eight of her CDs. I remember feeling a little bit funny walking up to the desk with eight Britney Spears CDs.
Q - If you had told them you just got a job to play guitar for her, they wouldn't have believed you.
A - That's right. (laughs) John Fogerty I was familiar with his music because my Mom was always playing his "Centerfield" cassette in the car when she took me and my brother to school every day.
Q - Yeah, but how about Creedence? She didn't play Creedence?
A - Of course. I grew up in Syracuse with Classic Rock radio, so I loved Creedence. Classic Rock and Southern Rock were my favorite music growing up. So, Creedence was a big influence, but especially his solo stuff that my Mom played in the car every day. I think probably the biggest thing that I guess might be a surprise is it's really more who you're working with in the band. That really comes down to be the biggest thing because that's really who you're with most of the time. That really makes a big difference. Britney and Fogerty had all-star bands with super talented musicians, so they were both a lot of fun.
Q - When you do a tour with John Fogerty or Britney Spears, it ends and you have to go find yourself another gig. Why don't people like Fogerty and Britney offer you a permanent spot in their bands? I know how it works. They put you on a retainer.
A - Well, there's a couple of sides to it. For one, definitely the norm when you work with an artist is that you just do that tour and that would pretty much be it. A lot of times the artist will do a tour and then they'll just take a long break. They might take two or three years before they do anything again. So, it's not really like you get fired. It's just there's really not any more work at that point. I think a lot of times when they do start up again it's the management companies call and a lot of times they will just get a new band. So again, that's the norm. But what isn't normal that I've been really lucky to be a part of is, I've been a regular member of Lionel's band for fourteen years. So, sometimes it does work out. An artist like Lionel, the musicians are a big part of the show. There's not a lot of pyro. There's not a lot of crazy lights. There's not dancers. There's not all this production stuff. So, it really boils down to the musicians and the guys in the band end up being a big part of the show and Lionel has just been great over all these years to be loyal to us. But he also knows that we do a great job for him and wants to keep us around. In the Pop world a lot of times the band is not the focus. It's more the dancers or the lights. The band is really not the focus of things. It doesn't really get looked at as that important I guess at times.
Q - That's too bad.
A - Yeah. It's just the reality of it. With John Fogerty I was a member of the band. I did an Australian tour with him. I did like a little Florida tour. I did a couple of shows at Beacon Theatre, which were just awesome, but really at the time I was on a break from Lionel and I was able to do the John Fogerty stuff. I think they wanted me to be available for them the whole year, but I had a lot of work coming up with Lionel and really Lionel is my main gig. So, I was able to work with Fogerty as long as I could, but Lionel has a lot of work. So, I couldn't stay with Fogerty full-time. It's kind of a hard thing to balance because Lionel works a lot, but of course there's been years where he doesn't work a lot and you have to kind of balance it. An artist paying a retainer doesn't really happen much anymore. There are a few that do, but for the most part when you're not working you don't get paid. So, you basically just kind of have to hustle and find work. For me, if Lionel takes time off then it's an opportunity for me to find something else to do.
Q - Without an agent?
A - Yeah, without an agent. Most musicians, I would say 98%, do it all themselves. It's all word of mouth from people you know. There's guys out here (California) that are Musical Directors and a lot of times when an artist is looking for a band for a tour, they'll get in touch with certain Musical Directors and then those Musical Directors will put together an audition. I guess you could almost look at those Musical Directors as an agent, but it's not really the way it is. You're not really working for them. They're just trying to help the artist find people. If they can recommend people to get hired it looks good for them. Everybody I know that plays with big artists and does what they're doing, is all because they're really good at networking. They're really good at talking to people and kind of keeping in that loop of what's going on and who's going on tour and who's looking for a drummer.
Q - Are you ever asked to do studio work with some of the people you tour with?
A - I do every once in awhile, but mostly my career has been 'live' music, like a touring guy. Even in Lionel's band. I've done a couple little things with him, studio-wise but mostly the way it works these days is an artist will hire a producer to work on a song and that producer will bring in their own people. So a lot of times, even if you play with an artist, they might not have you on their record. Now, when I was in the Fogerty camp, I did see that when he records his records sometimes he does use the guys in his band to play on it. I did one thing with him. It wasn't for a record. It was for a TV show or something. I did that a little bit with him but there's a certain amount of guys out here that only do studio work. They make a good living at it. They don't have to travel. They get to come home at night and that's all they do. They're really good at it and they're doing records every day of the week, but mostly like the touring guys, some of us get to do that and some of us it's not really a big part of our careers. What I've really focused on is recording my own music in my breaks from Lionel. That's what I've found makes the most sense to me to put my time and effort into.
Q - I was just about to ask you about that.
A - It's about three years now that I've been working on a solo CD and it's pretty much done. I've got one more lead vocal to finish and then I'm pretty much done. I've released a couple of EPs along the way, two fire songs EPs, but my debut CD release is going to be December 6th (2014). I'm actually playing a show at the Palace Theatre in Syracuse to celebrate. For me, over the last few years when I have a break from Lionel I've been in the recording studio. I've got Lionel Richie's drummer, a guy named Oscar Seton and also a friend of mine from Syracuse, a guy named Gary Davenport, who actually played with 805, towards the end of 805. With those guys I've been recording music. I'm going to have I believe fifteen songs on my CD. It's a great job playing with Lionel. I can't even tell you how much fun it really is. And again, the big part of it is the band. These guys have been in almost the exact same band for fourteen years, since I started. A lot of these guys are really my best friends, pretty much like family to me and they're just great players. I always feel honored and excited just to get to work with them. Anytime I can get to do that and of course with Lionel Richie, who is just incredible, it's great. I feel super fortunate to do it, but I'm always pushing to do my own music. It's getting closer and closer, so I'm pretty happy. I can't tell you how fun it's been going to work with a guitar every day. It was really my dream when I was sixteen. With me, it wasn't trying to be a star or a Rock star or be rich. It was really more just to have a job playing guitar and singing. I was always happy with that. I'm kind of thankful that I'm still able to do it and that I still enjoy it so much.
Q - Now that you have this reputation going for yourself, is it still required that you live in Los Angeles? Could you come back home to Syracuse to live?
A - I go back to Syracuse probably two or three times a year anyway just to see my family. I could see eventually maybe having a house there. I would love that eventually, but for me it's still good being in Los Angeles. The thing I learned about moving to L.A. is there's just so much opportunity here. It's really mind-blowing. I thought New York City had a lot of opportunity and it did, but Los Angeles, there's just so much opportunity here. There's a place called Center Staging that is a rehearsal place and they also do a lot of auditions there. It just looks like a warehouse if you don't know what it is. But then when you go inside, it's the best of the best equipment rooms. You can have them set up each room however you want. The crazy thing is, it'll be one day there's like twelve studios I think, maybe a typical day might be Billy Idol in number one, Janet Jackson in number two, Earth, Wind And Fire in number three, Pink in number four. It's really like the center of entertainment. Sometimes I get calls where people will say, "Hey, what are you doing? Can you be at Center Staging in fifteen minutes?" I live fifteen minutes from them. "Yes. Who am I going to see?" "I can't tell you, but just come. Bring your guitar." "Okay. Good-bye." I got to play with Prince. He had like a little band he was working with. I was able to play in that band because I was able to drive to Center Staging and show up in fifteen minutes. A big part of it is you're kind of in the mix out here with a lot of people who are doing exactly what I want to do. I do love Los Angeles. You do hear people talk bad about it, but I really love living here. It's really a beautiful place and there's just a ton of musicians here. I feel right at home here, but to go back to Syracuse and maybe have a house there eventually and start playing there a lot more, that's like a dream of mine. But, I would probably try to keep both places 'cause I really do like Los Angeles.
Official Website: www.BenMauro.com
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