Gary James' Interview With Billy Joel's Horn Player
Carl Fischer has played and toured with some of the biggest names in the music business. We're talking Diana Ross, Maynard Ferguson, Blood, Sweat And Tears, and his current boss, Mr. Billy Joel. Carl plays trumpet in Billy Joel's band. We spoke with Carl Fischer about his musical background and the artists he's played with, including Billy Joel.
Q - You said that you got the Billy Joel gig because of who you know. That is probably the only way a musician can get to work with a name like Billy Joel, isn't it?
A - I think it's a combination of a whole bunch of things, seeing how you play and how you act, being in the right place at the right time. Obviously if you're not technically proficient in your instrument it doesn't matter who you know, you're not going to get the gig. I was very fortunate 'cause I was doing a Broadway show called Movin' Out in New York City, which is Billy's music, and the music director of the show was also a former music director of Billy Joel and he's guitar player Tommy Byrnes. And so I was doing the show and Billy was ready to go back out on the road. I was just doing a show and the show was getting ready to close and that's kind of how it worked out. They asked me to come to rehearsals. In a perfect world it worked out perfectly. (laughs)
Q - When you get off the stage with Billy Joel, what happens next? Does he go his way and all the band members go their way? Does he ever call a meeting to talk about what went right during the show and what went wrong?
A - When the gig's over, the gig's over. We run into either vans or separate cars, depending on where we are in the country or the world. Billy usually goes home and we go to our hotel or we all go home. It's that simple. Once the gig is over we get out quick. I made the mistake of staying. I was the green horn in the band. I made the mistake of staying around after the gig, which was a mess because it took us 2 1/2 to 3 hours to get out of the gig. Soon as that last downbeat is played we're running off the stage and into the car to get out of Dodge, so to speak.
Q - I can understand not wanting to get caught up in any traffic jam.
A - Yeah, plus we're there hours upon hours early, so there's plenty of down time before the gig. It seems like it's the same case with a lot of artists I play with too. A lot of people think you just show up and play, but there's a lot when you're playing arenas and even smaller theatres that goes into it with sound checks and rehearsals like I like to call them because you have to get the sound right and you have to get the music right. It usually happens right before the gig, obviously. So it's a whole blocked out day. You don't just show up and get out. So by the time the last downbeat is done, everybody is usually out, regardless of the artist I've played with.
Q - Your father was a musician. He used to say, "I'm going to play. I'm not going to work."
A - (laughs)
Q - I understand what he meant by that. However, the public doesn't think that what your father did or what you do is work. Does that bother you?
A - No. It doesn't bother me. I appreciate the throwback to my father. He's one of my idols. I appreciate that. It doesn't bother me. What does bother me, and it's not really a bother and I like to bring it to people's attention and this is the perfect platform to do it, is I get paid to travel. I get paid to work on my craft. I've spent hours upon hours since I was five years old, perfecting or trying to perfect, working on my craft. Lots of time spent. When I go out, the mantra for me is you get paid to travel and you go to play. That's the fun part. That's when you kind of get your satisfaction and your gratification because when you get on a bandstand and everything's working on all eight cylinders it's a beautiful thing. Everything kind of comes together. So those years in a practice room when I couldn't go out to play basketball, I was ten years old, are paying off now. That's the difference. What I don't like about the corporate field, the nine to fivers that go to college, and college is still trying to figure out what you're doing; most of the musicians I know and play with started their work when they were in their single digit ages. Well, that to me is the life long lesson I like to bring out to people. I'm reaping the benefits of it now, finally forty years later. I think I was a better trumpet player at five. (laughs) Joking of course.
Q - When you were growing up, wasn't guitar the popular instrument? Yet you picked up a trumpet. How come? Was that because of your father?
A - Yeah. It's a great question. My dad was a great trumpet player. He doesn't play anymore. My grandfather, who unfortunately I never got to know, was a touring trumpet player. So, I just wanted to be like my dad. Actually, my first instrument though was drums. Even at five, six years old I had a bit of anger management. All the drum sets that were given to me I would break the heads on 'em by playing 'em really hard. For some reason my dad had bands and we had a basement growing up in New York. A lot of houses had basements. He would rehearse his bands down there. And he'd have the bands set up for a couple of days at a clip. I'd go down there every morning and play all the instruments. I'd play drums. I'd play guitar. I don't know why, I just really liked the trumpet. I think now when I look back on it I idolized my dad and still do. I wanted to be like him, and my dad incidentally played bass too. I don't know why I never played bass, but the trumpet seemed like the most natural instrument for me.
Q - As long as we're talking about the trumpet, there's the way Al Hirt played the trumpet and there's the way Louis Armstrong played the trumpet and then there's the way Herb Alpert played the trumpet. I've never heard anybody play trumpet like Herb Alpert, have you? What exactly was he doing with the trumpet anyway? To me, he made the trumpet sing.
A - I kind of understand the question, but I'm not exactly sure. How did Herb play differently than Louis Armstrong or Al Hirt?
Q - That's part of it. The other part is have you ever heard anyone play trumpet like Herb Alpert? I haven't. Maybe I missed something.
A - (laughs) That's a great question. How I would answer that is very simply. Everybody kind of has a unique sound, especially on trumpet and wind instruments. It has to do with your physical make-up and your oral cavity, the way you purse your lips and your aperture and your lips. And it's very personalized. It's a lot of minute muscles and a lot of things that are going on internally that give you your unique sound whether it be physical make-up or trained sensible prowess. So, each player, especially in brass instruments, what separates the boys from the men is developing and having your own unique sound. When I turn on a Louis Armstrong recording and I hear two notes, I immediately recognize that sound. Obviously with your Herb Alpert correlation you recognize his sound. My guy was Maynard Ferguson. When I heard Maynard's sound I knew who that was and the same with Dizzy Gillespie and Chuck Mangione and all those trumpet greats. So what I tell my students and young musicians on any instrument for that matter is don't be afraid to be you, and Herb Alpert is a perfect example of that. So, it's kind of a multi-faceted question, but hopefully I did a good job of answering it.
Q - You did! When you said it was a great question, I run with that.
A - That's a great question, man, I have to tell you. That threw me for a loop. I appreciate it.
Q - I want to keep you on your toes. I don't want to ask you questions you get all the time!
A - (laughs)
Q - When you were traveling with this circus band in Florida, was that the James E. Strates Shows? Were you still in high school then? Did you do that on your summer break?
A - Man, you really did your history on this one! Wow! Not many people know about it. Actually it had two names. Showtime Follies / Hippodrome Circus. The difference with the names is when we played smaller outdoor arenas or outdoor parking lots, it was the circus. And when we'd sometimes play school gymnasiums it was this Showtime Follies circus show. I remember it was out of Sarasota, Florida. How I got into it as far as me touring was I was a very conventional pupil so to speak. It's to kind of get out of school when I was a junior. I got my diploma early. I got my GED very early in my junior year. I was one of those crazy kids, man. I wanted to play. That was actually my first traveling gig. I believe I was seventeen I guess and I did about six to eight months on the road with the circus and learned a lot about myself and learned a lot about being a touring musician and that was the beginning of a very long traveling career. It's a curse and a blessing in disguise I guess. (laughs)
Q - Did going on the road at seventeen live up to your expectations? Was it boring? Was it fun?
A - Well again, it was a circus band. We traveled in travel trailers pulled by panel trucks. So we lived in camp sites and parking lots wherever we were playing. It was a very eye-opening experience about paying your dues. It was fun having the freedom and seeing what the real world was about and getting along with people and seeing other people not get along. It was a very eye-opening experience for me, learning how to be a good traveler and how to get along with people, being diplomatic, especially when you're thrown into a situation where you're not even playing the same musical aspect. You're playing in a circus, playing circus music. So you're not even there playing Rock music or Jazz music or Classical music. It had different musicians in the orchestra. I say orchestra, there were three guys when I was in the band. There was a Hammond organ, drums and myself, (laughs) all coming from different walks of life and trying to learn about each other and trying to play the music the best we could. So, it was a good experience for me, but one that I would never want to go back to. It was something that was much needed in my young career I think. All my experiences I learned from and that was definitely a big part of it for me, that first touring experience.
Q - You've toured and recorded with Blood, Sweat And Tears, Diana Ross and Billy Joel. How long have you been with Billy Joel?
A - I'm coming up on eleven years. I can't believe it.
Q - How do you arrange it so you can go out and tour with these other artists?
A - That's another great question. You're knocking 'em out of the park! The arrangement is very complex, but very simple. Billy Joel is the man. He's loyal. He's my guy. In every situation I go to, whether it be Diana Ross or Blood, Sweat And Tears, it's stipulated that the Billy Joel tour comes first. Currently right now we're not touring a whole bunch. We had a great run in the summer with stadiums, but we have residency once a month at Madison Square Garden and we've been there going on three years now. We play once a month. He's the first artist to be franchised as a musical artist in an arena, so it's very, very fun. So, that of course we do. With Blood, Sweat And Tears, it's funny that you mention that and Miss Ross. I have been able to juggle and they've been very understanding. What I do is I have very good subs for myself in those bands. I guess about a year and a half ago was my last Miss Ross tour. I left Diana Ross about a year and a half ago just because I was getting very busy with Blood, Sweat And Tears as I became the musical director, which was very fun for me. As of last week I left Blood, Sweat And Tears just because I've got too much stuff going on. I got a couple of new projects coming out that I'm working on. Obviously Mr. Billy Joel and his band come first and foremost. So, I don't want to spread myself too thin. I'll still probably be coming in as a sub trumpet player for Blood, Sweat And Tears if they need me and I'm available. It's always good to leave on good terms. It's a great organization. The same thing with Miss Ross. She's not carrying a full horn section anymore. She's only using one horn. When I was with her she was using four horns. Being a trumpet player and knowing there's not a lot of work out there for musicians and especially trumpet players, I try to hold onto gigs for as long as I can. Make no mistake about it, Mr. Billy Joel is very loyal and I'm very loyal to him. It's a great, great relationship I have with that band.