Gary James' Interview With Ralph Scala Of
The Blues Magoos

In the mid-1960s, The Blues Magoos were riding high with a song called "We Ain't Got Nothin' Yet". That song went Top 5 and the group went on the road with the likes of Herman's Hermits and The Who.

Keyboardist / vocalist Ralph Scala talked about that time in musical history known as "the "Swingin' Sixties."

Q - Ralph, Rolling Stone Encyclopedia Of Rock described your group as "A lightweight, blues-rock band." What do you think of that description?

A - Well, that was good because in all practicality, were very young kids and just basically learning how to play our instruments at the time. We were studying music and then we'd write songs as the commercial end. But, then when we went home, it was all Country-Western, Rhythm and Blues and Delta Blues rehearsal sessions. Everyone's practicing their instrument. I practiced the guitar day and night and played the piano, the organ and studied all the Stax-Volt type of music arrangements...things like that and Bluegrass, Country music, just constantly. Then, when we went to do our commercial stuff, we'd write songs like "We Ain't Got Nothin' Yet", "Pipe Dream" and things like that. So, in essence, we were lightweight because none of us had material enough to play Blues so to speak, to a level that would be considered heavyweight or medium weight.

Q - How did the group come to the attention of Mercury Records?

A - Playing in a high exposure area like Greenwich Village, the place inundated with A & R people day and night. We got picked up by an A & R guy who went on to a pretty prominent career. He saw us playing at The Cafe Wha! or something like that. We had original songs which was important. You couldn't play in The Village in those days unless you had original material. No cover bands were playing. We got The Allman Brothers, The Allman Joys. We made friends with them when we were first touring in Florida. We brought 'em up to the city. They couldn't get into any of the clubs we played. They had to play at the disco clubs. You had Trude Heller's and The Eighth Wonder. They only played cover music. So, that's how you got discovered in those days. Rich Shorter was the guy who found us. We had a bunch of original songs. It's a crazy story. He brings us up to Bob Johnson's. Bob Johnson was a producer at Columbia Records. He was producing Bob Dylan at the time. He was the producer of "Highway 61". He brings us up to Bob Johnson's office on the 900th floor of the Columbia Record building, right? We brought the whole band up...the PA system, everything...drums, guitar, piano and set up in Bob Johnson's office, which couldn't have been more than 14 x 10. We auditioned for him right in the office. He said "great!" They put us on Verve / Folkways, which was the Folkie label. Folk-Rock was big in those days. This guy, Rick Shorter wrote folk-rocky type things. Then we got recorded and put out and started to play out more in The Village, and the next thing you know, two more guys came up...producers. By this time, we had already written "We Ain't Got Nothin' Yet". So, we were playing these songs live and those two guys come up and say "we can get you a better deal." They produced us and engineered us and they got us on Mercury (Records). That's how you get discovered.

Q - How long did it take you to get discovered?

A - Six months. I was out of highschool 18 months and I was already on tour.

Q - Would you play the clubs ever night?

A - Oh, yeah. We were playing for food, friendship and a place to play. Eight bucks a night a piece, ten bucks a night a piece... You put all you money together and we're crashing Hotel Albert. So, that's all you do. And then, when you really get desperate and starving, we'd take a day or two off and go back to our parents house and crash. I slept through the 1965 blackout of New York. I was so exhausted. It was like a Monday night or something and I had just been out for eight weeks. I said I'm gonna see my parents who are having a nice, big dinner and went to sleep the night before and just slept right through the whole thing. I slept all through Monday. Those were the days when you could sleep 18-20 hours a clip

Q - Was "We Ain't Got Nothin' Yet" a Top 5 hit worldwide?

A - Yeah, I think so. It was number one on Cashbox and number five on Billboard.

Q - Was there ever a follow-up?

A - "Pipedream" went to number ten on Billboard.* Then we had "One Big One". That was Top Ten. "Tobacco Road"...those were the days when the FM stations were first coming out, so one of our big innovations was to record a 45 that ran the whole length of the record...both sides. We recorded something like 4 minutes and 50 seconds. We recorded one 45, and both sides were the song...extended play. That was actually our first record release..."Tobacco Road", which we learned from The Turtles. (laughs)

Q - Did you play both the Fillmore East and West?

A - No. We never played the East. We played at the Avalon Ballroom and the Fillmore West. There was no such thing as Fillmore East

Q - What was it like playing the Fillmore West?

A - Do I gotta get into it? It was a lot of fun. We hung out with a lot of good people. Moby Grape...we became good friends with those guys. We played with The Jefferson Airplane. There was a lot of competition in those days. When we played in Hollywood, we practically had a gang fight with The Doors. A lot of jealousy. It was the day and age when who could come up with the craziest new sound and the greatest arrangements and the greatest topic for a song.

Q - Tell me about this fight with The Doors.

A - Yeah. We were playing on the same bill, playin' in a club down the street, not in Hollywood. People eggin' you on. It was really competitive. That was the genre that made these bands happen. You used to sit around and think up crazy songs.

Q - So, I guess you don't have any kind words to say about Jim Morrison then.

A - I loved him. But, you're jealous at that age. When you're that age, you only like guys who are older than you... people who are your age, you never listen to them. You hate them.

Q - You opened for both Herman's Hermits and The Who. Was that overseas or in the US?

A - US tours

Q - What was that like?

A - Well, The Who was kind of unknown, but, we had known them for years. We knew their records. We knew all about the. We became friends real fast. They liked the fact that our audience was liking them, 'cause we brought in an audience for them. A lot of the gigs, audiences would just come to see Herman's Hermits, so they didn't care who we were, even though they knew who we were. It wasn't like you were opening. This was a tour that had 3 main acts on it. This was a 3 act show. So, we got along really good with The Who because we liked their stuff. They liked our stuff. You exchange a lot of ideas and techniques. We would always get in on the inside of how they do their tricks - with the breaking up of their guitars and amplifiers. We'd have them lend us dummy amp so we could beat that up in our show. Little trade-offs.

Q - Why did the band break up in 1969?

A - Musical maturity. A number of the members wanted to pursue the study of music, if you can follow that. At this age, you're talkng 20 - 21 years old, four of us had a concept of becoming better musicians and playing better music and one person didn't really fall into that category. They were more interested in just making musical product. And that's why the band moved to California and continued to tour out there and that developed into a whole other life and musical career for me personally.

Q - Who was it that was just interested in making a product?

A - Peppy. The rest of us were students of music.

Q - So, what are The Blues Magoos doing these days? Do you record?

A - It's difficult. There's a lot of opportunities and a lot of interest in that kind of music. However, you're dealing with people that have different...I can't say lifestyles, but, different commitment levels. I know 3 of us have not stopped playing in pursuit of our musical skills, whereas others have just pursued engineering skills. In fact, the two that don't play music, make the most money. The irony of it is that the three who really pursue being musicians, don't even consider music their profession. They consider playing music their avocation. The two that don't peruse playing music are still very prominent and lucrative in the music business. So, they're into the musical product, where the other people are into being musicians.

Q - Do you tour?

A - Never. There is no reason to. We did a concert 3 years ago that was an eye-opener. It was fun to play that type of music again. I actually had to re-learn how to play that type of music.

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