Gary Van Scyoc has a unique perspective on John Lennon. He was part of a band called Elephants Memory Band or John Lennon's Plastic Ono Elephants Memory Band as they were later known as, that featured John Lennon. He performed with John Lennon on The Mike Douglas Show and The Dick Cavett Show. He was featured in John Lennon's "Live In New York City" music video, which aired on MTV, VH-1, HBO and Showtime. Gary also appeared in the feature film, Imagine. PBS aired a documentary on John Lennon's New York years on Monday, November 22nd, 2010 as part of their American Masters series. Gary Van Scyoc was interviewed for that documentary and will be shown performing as well.
Gary Van Scyoc talked with us about his career in music and his time with John Lennon.
Q - Was there an Elephants Memory Band before there was an Elephants Memory Band with John Lennon?
A - Yeah. The band had actually been together for three previous albums, four if you count the soundtrack for Midnight Cowboy, which they did. They had a gold record for that classic movie. A lot of people would have recognized Elephants Memory from that. They had a hit single, I believe it was in '69, called "Mongoose" which got fairly high on the Billboard charts. I think it made the 40s there somewhere. That was probably the most successful single they had I think previous to John. But they had a Buddah record. They were the first naked on the cover band ever, on Buddah Records, the Bubblegum people. That's out there. I think it's been re-released on CD. They had a political album which is obviously going to lead to the John Lennon thing called "Take It To The Streets". It was on Metromedia Records. It was a family, political album for the day. This all preceded me getting into the band. I came in at that point. I spent a year doing political rallies in New York, Greenwich Village, in the vicinity, in 1971. Later that year is when I met up with John.
Q - So, the band was pretty well established before you joined forces with them?
A - Yeah. The band was pretty much a successful band as they go.
Q - Did they tour?
A - Yeah. They were pretty active. They were like one of the bigger bands in New York at the time. They were doing Max's Kansas City. We were almost like the house band for awhile, back with The Velvet Underground.
Q - What were you doing before Elephants Memory Band?
A - I have a whole previous career to Elephants Memory. My career goes all the way back to my roots in Pittsburgh. I had a hit record when I was nineteen with a band called The Dynatones. It was a record called "The Fife Piper". It was on a label called St. Clair out of Pittsburgh, but the rights were bought by the Hanna Barbara people, The Flintstones guys. They put out an LP. Then I moved on to a band called Mr. Flood's Party on Cotillion, a subsidiary of Atlantic. Then I made my way to Columbia Records where I was with a band called Pig Iron. That was a great national kind of band playing festivals, touring the circuit of colleges. It was a great fun band. We appeared with bands like Dreams and The Flock and other horn bands of the time, the '70s. Simultaneously playing with Elephants, almost at the same time. I was in a house band at a studio called The Hit Factory. I was doing a lot of R&B records on the side for Atlantic. So, I kind of had a lot of other things going on. I did Howard Tate. He was a pretty well respected R&B guy, I think. I did his record in 1970, self-titled "Howard Tate". That was a pretty big deal for me at the time. Playing with Elephants Memory was just something I was doing kind of just to stay active in town. When I wasn't in the studio doing jingles and Howard Tates stuff and Atlantic stuff, I was doing John Hall at the time. Excuse me, Carl Hall.
Q - I was going to say, John Hall was with Orleans.
A - Coincidentally, I had an offer at that same time to go upstate and play with John Hall. I think it was a slip there. Of course, you don't realize at the time what the project can become. He invited me up to Woodstock to that band Orleans and I turned the gig down. (laughs) But I wouldn't trade it for my time with John. That was important.
Q - Orleans was a very popular band in upstate New York and specifically Syracuse.
A - I'm sure. Well, if you're a Syracuse guy, in '76 I want out with Benny Mardones and played up there with that great hit of his, "Into The Night". I don't know if you're familiar with that.
Q - Oh, am I familiar with that. I've interviewed Benny Mardones probably four times, more than anybody else.
A - (laughs) I tell you I had a great time. I went out with him one weekend. I forget how we got hooked up. I ful-filled the bass duties and went up to an outdoor festival. It was just amazing. I had great fun.
Q - So, you didn't tour with Benny Mardones then?
A - It was all about this big gig, this home-coming kind of thing for him.
Q - That gig was probably Long Brach Park in Liverpool, New York.
A - I really don't have a recollection of what it was. I just remember it was outdoors. There were bonfires. He was received like unbelievable. So, it was like great. Anyway, got off the track there with Benny. Sorry.
Q - That's alright. We're getting a better understanding of what your background is.
A - Everything ties into everything. This is before the whole John Lennon thing. I was doing mainly making a living playing studio stuff, doing jingles, Tijuana Smalls, Ben's Rise, that kind of stuff. On a first call, studio player kind of deal. I was very fortunate before the real guys moved into town.
Q - Where did John catch your act? Did he see you somewhere? Did he hear one of your records?
A - A little bit of both. Because we did a lot of these political events at NYU (New York University) in New York, played the Student Union on a regular basis, all the local clubs in Greenwich Village, The Folk City and all those great ones, besides Max's Kansas City at the time, so we made this tape at a radio station called WLIR on Long Island. A lot of the bands in New York, that was their local stop. You played 'live' on the radio for like forty minutes on, I forget what it was, Saturday morning or Sunday. We did that and taped it. The tape made its way to Jerry Rubin, who'd done a lot of those political events and was a friend of ours. He had befriended John and somehow the tape was presented to John from Jerry, is the story I got second hand. John listened and just loved the tape. First of all, he can't miss the now deceased Wayne Tex Gabrial on guitar. He heard all the qualities of Eric Clapton there and his tone. If there was anybody on the level of Bobby Keyes, it would certainly be Stan Bronstein. He was formerly with Tito Puente and a lot of name Latin bands. He was a tremendous player and still is to this day. He heard those qualities and that simple, big, bottom bass that I play, that big R&B sound that I was just telling you about, doing all those R&B records. I played a regular Fender bass. Sort of similar in his eyes I guess, or his ears, to Klaus (Voorman). He just heard all the ingredients that he liked. So he was very interested and apparently decided to come down to one of our rehearsals at a studio called Magne Graphics down in Greenwich Village. It was owned by a couple, Bob and Jolana Pruett. We rehearsed there on a regular basis. He stopped in one night. He didn't even make it into the room. Our road manager was apparently out there talking to him for awhile. We wouldn't really let anyone come in to our rehearsals 'cause we were trying to write songs at that point. It was kind of closed. So they (our road managers) were trying to come in to tell us John Lennon was outside. We just thought they were putting us on. I think we kept him waiting for about an hour before he finally made his way in.
Q - What was your impression of him?
A - He was very cordial. We hit it off right away. We had extra guitars, so we jammed for hours and hours and hours. We went through every old Rock 'n' Roll song, every Elvis, Dizzy Miss Lizzy stuff he could think of.
Q - What month and year would that have been?
A - This would be December of 1971.
Q - Were you in awe of John Lennon? Were you a Beatles fan?
A - Yeah. I was a huge Beatles fan.
Q - So, meeting John Lennon for you must've been something like The Twilight Zone.
A - Yeah, at first. You're taken back. It was exciting. He had on a white suit like he had on on "Abbey Road". I don't know if it was exactly the same one or not, but it certainly looked like it. It had that same English, double-breasted cut to it. He's very striking. It was very exciting. We really played hard. We hit it off. We had no problems communicating in terms of chords or songs. Anything he could throw out there, we could do. We were into some reggae stuff at the time and he just loved it. He fell right into that. So we hit it off musically and he was asking us if he could join the band. (laughs) We looked at each other and said, wait a minute, this is not going to work. So we decided on a merger. Plastic Ono being himself, Yoko and Jim Keltner, Elephant's Memory Band. Yoko was quick to speak up and say "Oh, POEM, Plastic Ono Elephant's Memory." I think that was used in some of the early press for the announcement of the project to do the next album.
Q - You made how many albums with him?
A - We did "Some Time In New York City" first. Then we did the Apple / John Lennon produced Elephants Memory album, self-titled "Elephants Memory". It has like a dead elephant on the front, which was a Peter Beard photograph. Then we had two albums with Yoko, a double album with Yoko and then it was their split-up time.
Q - Then I believe you appeared on Mike Douglas and / or Dick Cavett.
A - Yeah, both. If we want to include the TV work and a 'live' performance at Madison Square Garden for "One To One", that's another album in there. So, the chronological order would be: we did Mike Douglas Show first on television. Then we did "Sometime In New York City", right into our album, "Elephants Memory", produced by John. Then we did The Dick Cavett Show. Then we did "One To One", the 'live' performance at Madison Square Garden in August. Then we headed to L.A. for some roadwork. We actually started on Yoko's album in a studio in L.A. and then finished it at The Record Plant in New York.
Q - So, you spent two years with John Lennon in Elephants Memory?
A - Two years, yeah. Then we were into '73 until almost July.
Q - This band never did tour the way so many bands did and I'm wondering why.
A - We couldn't because of the Green Card situation. That was the deal. We were gearing up to do it. The way that John looked at that performance ("One To One"), that night was, people ask me what's he talking about when he's singing in the concert "We'll get it right the next time." What he meant was the whole day was a rehearsal for us. He took it seriously. But it really wasn't about that day to us. We'd been gearing up and rehearsing at The Filmore East for weeks, for a tour is what we were hoping for. There was hopefulness at that point that he was finally going to get the Green Card. We had been buying equipment for months. We were gearing up for a tour. That's what it was really about. So, John in one way wanted to do a really great concert and I think he did it. He really gave himself totally that day, thank God, 'cause it's one of the only documented 'live' performances. He really got into that performance and was really proud of it.
Q - Did you keep in touch with John after Elephants Memory?
A - Nobody could really get to him during those off years. When he was back and I heard he was in town, I did talk to him and sent him a tape that had some originals that I was trying to work on at the time. I was writing. But that was it.
Q - You were hoping what, that he would record your songs?
A - He really liked my stuff. To go back to the "Elephants Memory" album, I came into the Record Plant one night. We started at seven and went 'til seven in the morning until it was a finished mix record. That's what we did. One song a day. So, I went in a little early at 6:30 PM and surprisingly John was already there. He was sitting at the piano composing piano lines to one of my songs from our album called "Winridge". That was just like, wow! That was it for me. That was a great moment in my life. I couldn't convince him to take credit on the song, but he loved the song and picked it for the single from our album. He phoned it into Apple and announced that he thought that was the single, but he ended up being over-ruled by somebody else at Apple and the actual leaders of our group who wanted more of a political song. Everything was about politics then.
Q - Working with John Lennon actually opened the doors for you to work with other people, didn't it?
A - Yeah. I guess you could say that. At the time I didn't realize that.
Q - You worked with Mick Jagger, Paul Simon, Jerry Garcia.
A - Mick Jagger would actually come down to our sessions with John. We used to jam with him in the middle of the night. He would just stop by. John and him just got along unbelievable. You could see that Mick almost idolized John to some degree. It was a beautiful thing to see. Friends from the mother country. They bonded big time. You could just see it that they'd been friends for a long, long time. So, we got to play with him a lot. Paul Simon strangely enough I met back in Pig Iron time. We were on Columbia as Simon And Garfunkel were and I used to see him up there all the time. I ended up playing on a group of sessions for Paul that he was actually doing as a professor at NYU. He was actually doing a songwriting class at that time. It wasn't a real up period of his. So he had taken on some other duties. Jerry Garcia, there was a Hell's Angels connection there. Elephants Memory was kind of like the East Coast Grateful Dead as far as the Hell's Angels were concerned. They loved us. They protected us. They were our doorman at all of our concerts in New York. It was a very relaxing feeling actually. (laughs) You really didn't have to worry about your wife getting hit on.
Q - Besides Lennon, did you ever meet any of the other Beatles?
A - I never did. They would call on the phone. Paul would call in from Scotland when we were working with John. The session would have to stop for an hour because they would be jawing it up and laughing at the same time. You'd look over at The Village Voice and see a big article saying "John is not speaking." It was such jive. It was all sibling stuff with them.
Q - Your work is included in the new John Lennon exhibit at Cleveland's Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame. What does that include?
A - Well, I haven't been out there to see that, but I guess it's the same stuff that was in the one in New York that my wife and I went to see, is what I'm guessing. They just moved it out there because I think they closed the one in New York.
Q - I didn't know they even had a Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in New York.
A - Yeah. The Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame had an annex they opened in New York. It ran a couple years. It was really nice. That's where this John Lennon / Yoko Ono exhibit actually originated. So, I did go see it. It wasn't a lot, but what I really liked was they had the "One To One" concert. They had clips from that. I think some of the clips might have been from the evening performance, whereas the VHS was from the afternoon. I thought I saw a couple clips in there that might have been different that they were using and I thought that was cool. The album covers. Some of the things I played on, "Some Time In New York City", I think was part of the exhibit, just those typical type of things I would be on.
Q - You took bass lessons from Ed Lord of The Glenn Miller Orchestra.
A - How the hell did you find that out?
Q - You dig deep in your research, that's how.
A - That's great, man.
Q - What could Ed Lord teach you? Did he play stand-up bass or electric?
A - Well, he did play electric. That's the funniest story in the world. I used to teach. I've always taught. I consider myself an educator and always have, even during those same periods we've been discussing. I had a music degree and went on and got another degree from Hunter College, City University in New York. I had an ad in The Village Voice for students always and I used to see this other ad in there. It had Lord, bass teacher. So to make a long story short, Ed Lord answered my ad and came to me for a lesson. (laughs) Now, he was just checking out the waters. Do you know what I'm saying? He was just checking out the competition. You had to know Ed. He was a funny guy like that.
Q - You're saying he's not with us anymore.
A - No, he's not. So anyway, he came to me for a bass lesson. It was just obvious, fifteen minutes into the lesson, that he was hosing me. (laughs) I found out who he was and I was so impressed 'cause I just love that Swing stuff. It's so important, laying down a walking bass. That's what that whole thing is primarily about. So, I decided to take lessons from him. One of the reasons I took lessons from him is, I had just after Pig Iron, auditioned for the band Dreams. They were in need of a bass player. I'd played opposite them several times. This was with the Randy Brecker Brothers' band Dreams on Columbia, the famous Brecker Brothers horn players. I didn't get the gig because I didn't read well enough on bass clef. So, that's why I went to Ed Lord, to improve my reading on bass.
Q - Any idea how long he was with The Glenn Miller Orchestra?
A - You know, I really don't know anything about him in terms of his length on the gig or whether they had fifteen bass players altogether. I really don't know. I've heard other people speak of him. I've been in Manny's and heard his name come up as an educator and former player. People like Lionel Hampton speaking about him.
Q - You have a business called Bass Styles Inc. Is that where you personally teach someone how to play bass?
A - Exactly.
Q - I would guess that would be expensive, considering your credentials.
A - $60 and hour.
Q - That's not too bad.
A - I don't think so. Compared to what they charge for vocal lessons in Manhattan, as much as $150 an hour I've heard.
Q - Who are your students?
A - Well, it's a mixture. It's beginners. I take them as young as thirteen. They have to be at lease thirteen because at thirteen they're like adults already. They're just little mini-adults. I can't handle the kids, the under thirteen crowd. It's not my thing. But then I have professionals that come who run into a similar situation that I did years ago. My reading wasn't up to par and suddenly the band is giving the guy grief because he can't read the chord charts properly. So, there's a million reasons why professionals come to get help. So I help them and then I have the stage band kids from the high school. He's in the stage band, the stage Jazz band. He has to really work on reading and getting his Jazz chops together to maybe take a little solo or something like that. So, it's a wide dichotomy of stuff.
Q - Are you still recording?
A - Yeah. I still get calls to play on friend's records or little projects here, there. Still doing The Beatles shows. After John had passed, I put together a project that ran one year. It was called Imagine. It was with Randy Clark of Beatlemania, who had done the John character on Broadway for a long time. Randy and I put together a really good band that you can see on my website or on YouTube. We just wanted to do a limited run and we closed the show. We didn't want to be dis-respectful. At that time there really weren't any Tribute Bands around. That whole thing hadn't got out of hand really. We just wanted to do a nice, tasteful show and I think we did.
Q - I've interviewed Beatles Tribute acts, but is there an Elephants Memory Band Tribute act out there?
A - I'm afraid to say there is. (laughs) They're from Australia and they got a Yoko kind of looking girlfriend to the guy who's doing John. It's supposed to be "One To One". The bass player had a bass made from scratch to make it look just like mine. They're really into it.
Q - What a nice gesture!
A - It's very flattering. He e-mailed my website. I really couldn't believe it. This guy is gonna be me. (laughs) I tell you, it never ends.