Gary James' Interview With
The Former Bassist For Rita Coolidge And Steppenwolf
Gary Link was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania but made a name for himself in Syracuse, New York and beyond! He's played bass for some of the biggest acts in the world, including Steppenwolf, Rita Coolidge and Dokken. But it's his connection to Syracuse where we begin.
Q - We just had The SAMMY Awards recently. Were you ever nominated or inducted for that?
A - No. I've never made the Pittsburgh Hall Of Fame, believe it or not. (laughs)
Q - We gotta do something about that.
A - I know. A lot of my friends are in the Pittsburgh Hall Of Fame. I was playing in Pittsburgh in the early '70s before I went to Syracuse and Mark Doyle and Buddy Grealy. I was playing in Pittsburgh and recorded wit David Werner. I did two albums with him in '73 and '75. I never went out and made a big splash. In '78 I was out having a beer with a friend of mine. I had to get to New York or L.A. to make something happen. That was the beginning of August and the end of August I had a one way ticket to Los Angeles. That was the beginning of that.
Q - How long did you live in Syracuse?
A - I met Mark Doyle through David Werner in '73 when I recorded with him. I went up and played with Mark Doyle and Joe Whiting in '74 and I was there pretty much for a year, year and a half. The Buddy Grealy Band that I was with, Michael Coward and Danny Coward, we actually got hooked up with a Canadian singer and ended up bopping between Syracuse and Toronto. That was maybe '75, '76. At that same time I met Andy Pratt through Mark and ended up going to a Andy Pratt gig which was '76, '77. When I was with Pratt I was living out of a hotel in Boston. Just between Syracuse, Boston, Toronto, that kind of thing. Just floating around.
Q - What was the Canadian singer's name?
A - Michael Lalonde. He had a band out of Toronto called Morningtown Drive. He never made a splash. Ray Daniels was their manager. He managed Rush and a band named Fludd. We had a guy named Bob Murray who was a singer for a band called Wale out of Rochester (New York). Bob hooked us up with the singer 'cause the singer didn't necessarily like his band. He got three guys from Syracuse that went up and replaced his band. We weren't too popular around Toronto because we replaced the hometown boys. That didn't really go anywhere. We just played around Ontario.
Q - Was there enough work for you in the band when you were in Syracuse?
A - We played The Country Tavern, The Brookside. Not really. There wasn't really a lot of work. You had The Yellow Ballroom, but I think that went away shortly after I was there.
Q - And became The Lost Horizon.
A - Yeah. That's it. Dave Rezak managed Michael (Coward), Danny and myself. That was The Buddy Grealy Band. We played around Rochester and in and around Syracuse. I was living on the low down, you know what I mean? (laughs) There wasn't a lot of cash coming in.
Q - I know this sounds terrible and I hate to ask, but did you do anything besides play music? Did you, for example, work in a music store?
A - No. I didn't really do anything. I was living in Pittsburgh and bopping between Pittsburgh and Syracuse and I ended up moving to Syracuse. I didn't live there a real long time, but I had a little bit of money. I recorded in '73 with Werner. I recorded in '75 with Werner. I joined Pratt in '76. Andy Pratt was my first road gig. I was making at that time what I considered big bucks. (laughs)
Q - I won't ask you what that was because that's too personal of a question.
A - I'm not afraid to tell you what it was. I was making $375 a week and $30 a day per diem when we were on the road.
Q - That's not really that bad.
A - No. It was good back then. That was with Doyle and Rick Schlosser. Rick Schlosser went on to play with Rod Stewart, "Tonight's The Night", and playing with Van Morrison was that drummer on "Wild Night". We got Frank DeFonda in Andy's band, So it was pretty much a Syracuse band.
Q - You said that Dave Rezak (DMR Agency) was managing the band. He was not a manager. He was booking the band.
A - Yeah, I guess you're right.
Q - Whatever happened to Michael and Danny Coward of The Buddy Grealy Band?
A - They moved to California in '77 with Steve Fishman playing bass 'cause Steve was in the band before me in Syracuse. I met Michael and Danny through Mark (Doyle). Mark was in Jukin' Bone with Danny. Then I ended up playing in the Grealy Band. I was with Pratt I guess when they moved to L.A. in '77. A year later I moved to L.A. Michael right now is in Portland, Oregon and Danny is somewhere in Florida. Danny pretty much got involved with club management and restaurant management. Michael was playing once in awhile out there and wasn't doing much of anything else. It's a funny story. When I moved out to California they were playing in a local club. I'd been there for a week and I went to the club to see them and sat in and did the whole second set with them. This guy walked into the club with his girlfriend and everybody was telling me from Pittsburgh when I moved out there, "You're gonna have some snakes around. Just be careful of the smooth talkers." I got out there in a club, a guy walks up to me and starts talking to me. He said, "Man, you guys are great. I've never seen you." I said, "Well, they've been here for about a year. I just came out. I just moved out here. We're just jammin'." The guy said, "Just jammin'? Man, you guys are awesome." I said, "Well, I played with 'em back East." The guy ended up telling me he had a record deal and a producer. I ended up going down and watching these guys rehearse. Jeff Barry was their producer. He's the guy that wrote "Do Wah Diddy", "I Honestly Love You", "Be My Baby", "Goin' To The Chapel", all the Tommy James hits. He wrote with Phil Spector and Ellie Greenwhich. He was their manager. He had a deal. I was there for a month and signed a record deal. The name of that band was Chopper. It never went anywhere because of the politics and business. It was a real commercial Pop band, but there was disputes between Jeff Barry, who was our manager. He had a deal with the record company and we had a management deal with him. He pretty much took us to the cleaners. (laughs)
Q - I hear stories like that all the time. You toured Europe with Dokken in 1980. Dokken didn't get a name in the States until the mid-1980s. Was Dokken popular in Europe at that time?
A - (Don) Dokken went to Europe in, I believe it must've been '79. He went over then with Juan Croucier, who ended up playing bass for Ratt. I think he had Juan and somebody else. I was jamming with an all-girl band in Manhattan Beach in 1979, late '79. Don came in with Bobby Blotzer who ended up being the drummer for Ratt and we talked. I didn't know who he was. I found out later who he was. I knew guys who knew him around that time. So, he called me, September, October of '80 and said, "Hey, man. You wanna jam with Bobby and me?" We went down to the beach, a warehouse kind of thing, and we jammed. It was pretty cool. Don called me back and said, "Gary, listen. I got this German tour coming up. would you want to do it?" I asked him when and he told me. I wasn't busy at the time. I was playing local clubs. He said we need a guitar player and drummer. So, we went to Hollywood and saw this band named Euphoria that had Greg Leon on guitar and Gary Hallendale on drums. So Don asked them if they wanted to do that. We actually put that thing together and learned like eleven songs and jumped on a plane and flew over to Germany. At that time Don had already been in touch with Dieter Dierks of The Scorpions. We got over there and played those gigs. He kind of solidified his deal, whatever it was. There's actually a bootleg 'live' thing that's out somewhere of the four of us from Germany. It's like a little CD. We got back and I never heard from him again. We didn't really part on good terms.
Q - How did you get that gig with Steppenwolf?
A - Well, the band I signed a deal with in '79 was called Chopper. That was the band that Jeff Barry handled. The keyboard player in that band was Kim Bullard. Kim went on to program for Yes. Kim now plays piano for Elton John. But Kim didn't sign a management deal. Two guitar players, myself and the drummer did. So Kim was kind of freelance. We went on to play four piece, Chopper, around town without a keyboard player. In late '81, Kim called me up and asked if I wanted to audition for Poco 'cause Charlie Harrison was leaving Poco. This is even funnier. I went and auditioned for Poco, Paul Cotton, Rusty Young and Kim up at SIR in Hollywood. It went well, but at the time I was 30, 31 and I really wanted to play Rock. Poco was a great band, but it wasn't really wasn't my bag. Kim called me and said, "What do you think?" and I wasn't really on fire about it. And they just thought I didn't express any real interest. So that kind of fell by the wayside. Two weeks after I auditioned for Poco, Steve Palmer, who was the drummer with John Kay and Steppenwolf, called and talked to Kim and said, "Hey man, do you know any bass players?" 'cause their bass player was leaving. Kim said, "Yes I do." He said, "Can I give him your number?" and I said, "Yeah." Next thing you know I got a call from John Kay on my answering machine, which I still have the cassette. I saw Steppenwolf when I was 17. It was Canned Heat, Steppenwolf and The Doors in the Civic Arena in Pittsburgh in 1967. I was in the front row with my brother. He was four years older than me. So, I was right there. My brother had all their albums so I pretty much knew all of the Steppenwolf songs. John called me and said, "Would you be interested?" I said, "Sure. Not a problem." I called my brother and said, "Hey, listen to this." So I put the tape on and said, "That's John Kay from Steppenwolf." Pretty cool. I went to John's house and auditioned. John was in Hollywood at the time. It was Michael Palmer, Steve Palmer, Michael played guitar. Steve played drums. Michael Wilk played keys. He's the present keyboard player. He's been with him since '81. I had to play like three or four songs, "Born To Be Wild" of course and "Magic Carpet Ride", one of John's songs. Anyhow, it went really well. The guys walked out and said, "You were great," and left me sitting there with John Kay who was like one of my heroes and we started to talk. He said, "This is how we're set up. We're set up as a limited partnership." He told me a little bit about each of the guys and he said, "You got any questions?" I said, "Sure. What else do you play?" He said, "Well, we do 'Rock Me". I said, "Yeah, I know that." He said, "Movin' On". I said, "Yeah, I know that." He named about four or five songs and I told him I knew the songs. He said, "How do you know the songs?" I said, "Well, I saw you when I was 17 and my brother has all your albums. I pretty much know everything you did." He was impressed by that. So then he said, "All things considered I like the way you play. Would you like to join the band?" "Absolutely." So, I joined the band and they had just done an album with a guy named Wilton Guy on bass. So John said to me, "Well great. Okay, this is what we've got going on." A week later I jumped in a motor home with the van and went from L.A. to Mondo Lake. That was early '82. We did '82, '83. '84 amd played all over the country. Did one album in '84. It was real kind of Pop(py) and it just didn't go. So, late '84, John called us together. We were playing Harrah's up Lake Tahoe and said, "Guys, the album isn't moving and I've decided to disband as we are." That was late '84. He went out in early '85 with the keyboard player. He went out with a keyboard player and guitar player, ran a drum machine and sequenced bass. They toured three piece with fake drums and fake bass and added a drummer and did it with a fake bass for another twenty-five years.
Q - You played bass for Rita Coolidge. That's a switch. What did you come away with from that experience?
A - Well, we broke up in '84 and I played locally in about '85. I had a pretty hard time. I went through a soul searching time there. I was like, "What am I going to do? I just played with John Kay." I guess it was May 6th I got a call from Ron Rainey's office. Ron Rainey managed John Kay and Rita. Tom Mooning was the drummer with Todd Rundgren's Nazz back in the '70s. Mooney was gonna play on the second Warner album and him and Warner didn't really get along. It didn't work out. What happened was, I knew Tom from way back. Rita was managed by Ron Rainey and so was John. So, when Curtis Teal left Rita to go play with Etta James, Rita needed a bass player. So, Ron Rainey's office called me and Ron said, "Gary, Ron Rainey. Rita needs a bass player. Tom Mooney mentioned your name. would you be interested in doing that?" I said, "What's it involve?" He told me and I said, "What do I need to do?" He said, "Nothing. Rehearsals start next week." I said okay and I joined the band. It was a different kind of a thing, but it was more R&B, which when I was 14 or 15 I was into The Temptations, The Four Tops, Smokey And The Miracles, Little Anthony And The Imperials and that whole R&B thing. Coming in with Rita was kind of cool 'cause we did that kind of thing. Tom was a great pocket drummer. Rita had great musicians, great backup musicians and we rehearsed. She didn't go out a lot. The first tour we did we went to Korea and played Air Force bases. We stopped in the Philippines on the way back. No, it wasn't the Philippines, it was Okinawa. Then we went to Australia. She played around. She didn't really do major, major touring. We didn't have like a bus tour thing. We'd fly here. We'd do the work at a hotel somewhere, but it was cool. It was really cool. The thing about Rita was everything was first class. She was just a very classy lady. So, wherever we went, she was treated with respect. It was different. I was more rocked out. I might have been a little too rocked out for Rita. But it was good for awhile. It didn't really end on a good note. It was just kind of a strange thing between Tom and myself. We coined the term the "love business" just because the way it went down. I was replaced in the band and I didn't know about it until after the fact. I ended up being told by a friend of mine. "Hey, I hear you're going to Japan." I said, "What?" He said, "You're going to Japan with Rita." She looked at me and went, "Oops!" So I made the phone call and found out Rita was going to Japan with her band but I wasn't going. And that was the end of that one. (laughs)
Q - You were in L.A. from 1992 to 1994. That was at the height of the Grunge movement. So what was going on in L.A. at that time?
A - When the thing ended with Rita, I ended up pretty much declaring myself, well not declaring myself, I pretty much decided that I needed to change a few things. So, I got sober and I got married and I had a baby and had another baby. I got married in '91 and had my daughter in '92 and my son in '93. So, I pretty much got married and kind of decided, well I guess I'm done with this. I didn't do much of anything. I played a little bit, but pretty much decided it was time to move on from that. I moved here (Nashville) in '94 and ended up playing in a couple of local bands here, a Blues band then I played in a fifteen piece band with a singer and horns. And then I think it's about five years now, I joined up with The Beaker Street Blues Band. It's just a really good six or seven piece band, depending on whether one guitar player joins us or not. I've been doing that. John (Kay) got back with me in 2009. I work for SONY Music Entertainment. I'm in Operations for SONY in Nashville. Actually, it's not SONY, it's President Distribution, but we're run by SONY Music Entertainment. That's my employer. With John we do ten or fifteen dates a year on weekends and maybe a trip to Europe. It's a great, great time.
Q - With The Beaker Street Blues Band you're obviously playing Blues?
A - Yeah. A little bit of Rock 'n' Roll, but it's mostly Blues, old Blues, new Blues. Guitar, bass, drums, keys, sax player that plays horn, and a trumpet player. Everybody sings lead.
Q - I take it there's a lot of work for you guys?
A - Not really. We don't work a lot. When we work we get paid well, by well I mean we don't go down on Broadway to the Honky Tonks and play Country music from nine to two. We don't do that. The gig we're doing tonight is in downtown Franklin where I live. It's a little club. We sell out and we do a two hour, two hour and fifteen minute show. Everybody sings lead. It just rocks. Great guys. Great friends. We have a ball.
Q - How different would your career have been had you been a guitar player instead of a bass player?
A - (laughs) I don't know. I don't have an answer for that one. I started out playing guitar, but I just realized I didn't have that thing. It was 1970 and I was in Union, Kentucky with a band named Borrowed Time and I met the singer at Penn State when I went to college there. I was a roadie with them for the Summer 'cause I was in school. He said, "Why don't you come down to Kentucky and hang out with my guys and roadie with us and just live on the farm." So I did that for a couple of months in the Summer of '70. One morning I came downstairs and the guitar player said, "Hey Gary, man, you want to jam?" I said, "Well, yeah." He said, "You play bass?" I said, "Well, I have." He said, "Well, let's play." That was Sid McGuinnes who went on to play with Peter Gabriel and now he's Letterman's guitar player. He's been Letterman's guitar player forever. We sat down and jammed and Sid said, "You're a bass player!" I went back to Pittsburgh and bought a bass. That was 1970 and that's the end of that. (laughs) Or, the beginning of that. I love it. I play acoustic guitar. I can play Stones and Beatles. I can sit and people can yell out songs from the '70s or even early '80s and I can play 'em on acoustic guitar. I've done private functions just like that for friends, but I'm a bass guy. It's all about that bass.