Gary James' Interview With Jimmy Ryan Of
The Hit Men
He started playing guitar at the age of ten. By the age of fifteen he was performing out in public. At seventeen he had a record deal. At eighteen he was the lead guitarist, vocalist and co-songwriter in the band The Critters. And he enjoyed his first hit record then. The Critters would go on to have three Top Ten hits, "Younger Girl", "Mr. Dieingly Sad" and "Don't Let The Rain Fall Down On Me". Jimmy Ryan of The Critters is the gentleman we are talking about. The Critters broke up in 1969 and Jimmy carried on with his musical career. He became the lead guitarist, backup vocalist, often arranger and occasional co-writer with Carly Simon. Jimmy Ryan also recorded with Cat Stevens, Jim Croce, Rod Stewart, Paul McCartney, Mick Jagger, John Entwhistle of The Who, Jimmy Webb, Elton John and Kiki Dee, Matthew Fischer of Procol Harum and The Doors. He also writes music for TV and film projects, that is when he's not with his group, The Hit Men. We talked to the lead guitarist, co-arranger, and co-lead singer of The Hit Men since 2010, about a career that's about as diverse as you can get in the music business.
Q - Jimmy, did I read this right, before going on stage with The Hit Men you suffer from stage fright?
A - No. I had made a comment awhile back, having worked with Carly Simon for twenty-one years. I dealt daily with her stage fright. I used to coach her. It seems that no matter where I'm playing and who I'm playing with, no stage fright. The The Hit Men came along and I was the front guy and that's when it changed. It was kind of like doing an oral report in school. All of a sudden I'm now up front, telling my stories, singing lead. I wouldn't call it stage fright, but it was definitely real. It wasn't me just phoning it in. It was always very easy for me to back up other people. It's something that just came incredibly natural and that's why I had the long career as a studio musician. It's something that was hard wired into me and I had a good knack for figuring out what other artists wanted to hear, what to put into their music to make it work. But all of a sudden when it was my music, now I'm standing trial. Now it's on my shoulders. If Carly fainted or was horrible one night, it wouldn't be my problem. It would be her problem. If I suck, then it's my problem. (laughs) So that changed.
Q - Was it as bad as John Lennon's stage fright? He would throw up before going on stage.
A - Oh, God no. I'd just be a little nervous. I'd just be, "This is a little scary," and go out and do it. Just a little bit of nerves. Just like I've got a lot of people here, I've got a responsibility. The second we get out on stage, our fans really love us. We play the stuff they want to hear. Nothing they don't know. It's all number one hits. They know what they're getting into so they're ready for it. They've all had a couple of beers. They're sitting in their chairs and they start bouncing from the down beat. The thing that's great about The Hit Men is we're all studio musicians. None of us are like hackers. We've all made our lives doing this. We practiced our instruments. We practiced our craft. When I say we're good, I don't mean it egotistically. I mean we are competent musicians. So what you hear really does sound like records. We're not sloppy. We're not hackers. We're real professionals. People know that, so from the downbeat, it's like somebody just put a CD on. So the nerves go away pretty quickly when you see the smiling faces and the people bouncing in their seats and you go, "This is fun! Yeah!" (laughs)
Q - You had a record deal when you were seventeen?
A - I did.
Q - When you were with The Critters?
A - Yeah. Actually, it was earlier than that. I think it was sixteen. I was young for my high school years. I graduated at seventeen. But the summer of my sixteenth year, before I turned seventeen, we got a deal with Musicor. I think Gene Pitney was the bit star on that label. We did one record with them and it didn't sell. We just went in, recorded it 'live', didn't really craft it, and it was an okay song. But that led to the deal with Kapp Records. By then I was seventeen and that's when we started having hits.
Q - By eighteen you had three hits.
A - I'm not sure of the chronology. I don't think it was all three by eighteen. It started at seventeen. I think it was nineteen. We released a number of things. The ones that hit were "Younger Girl", "Mr. Dieingly Sad", and "Don't Let The Rain Fall Down". I think "Don't Let The Rain Fall Down" came out when I was twenty, but we recorded it earlier when I was nineteen. The story behind that was, that was the demo. It was one take on the vocal, just as a guide vocal. We left Kama Sutra 'cause they were basically screwing us. We were getting royalty statements for zero money. We audited their books and found all kinds of sketchy stuff. So we left them. After we left them they released the demo, "Don't Let The Rain Fall Down", and lo and behold it was a hit.
Q - What did The Critters do to support those hit records? Did you tour?
A - The Critters were kind of a tragic band. The opportunity was really, really there, but the Vietnam War kicked in and we lost four out of six guys. They didn't die, but they all got drafted or went into the Service. Unfortunately the biggest lost was Don Ciccone. Don wrote "Mr. Dieingly Sad" and he sang lead on "Younger Girl" and "Mr. Dieingly Sad". So, without him the only one left was Kenny Gorka, the bass player, and myself. We had to replace everybody, but we never really got that sound back again. That sound really was Don. He had a magical voice. So we toured, but it was never the same. I mean, we did those songs. No one ever asked. That's the funny thing. The first thing we did is we went out on the Dick Clark Where The Action Is tour with Paul Revere And The Raiders and The Young Rascals and all these bands and the picture had five people in it, in the handout and no one ever asked, "Where's the fifth guy?" Well, the fifth guy was the lead singer. I could sing, but I didn't sound like Don. I have a very different voice. So Kenny and I just double the lead on it and that made it convincing enough to people. But no one ever asked, "What happened to your lead singer?" So it worked out fine, but in my heart of hearts I didn't last much longer than that because it wasn't working for me and we just had one incompetent manager after another. Nice people, meaning well but not getting the job done. So we never made any money and the band was just a loser.
Q - Bad management. How many bands have told me the same thing. If you didn't have Brian Epstein...
A - In all deference to The Beatles, Brian did do a great job. But he also had two of the greatest singers in the history of Rock 'n' Roll who also were in the same band who also happened to be two of the greatest song writers of all time, and they were in the same band!
Q - What year did you do that Dick Clark tour?
A - '66 I think. Summer of '66.
Q - What was that like?
A - Thirty days of misery on a bus without any sleeping. It wasn't the amount of fun it could have been if it was done a little less on the cheap, but it certainly got us good publicity. It kept our records on the charts. It certainly kept us a big leg up for "Mr. Dieingly Sad". That was released I think while we were on that tour, and we developed life-long friendships. We're still friends with Gene Cornish of The Rascals. He actually came and played on our last CD and he performs 'live' with us from time to time when we're in town. So that's always fun. So, we made friends and everybody feels the same. I just can't sleep on a bus 'cause we just drive all night and perform the next day. You're trashed, you know?
Q - Did you only perform three songs a night on that Dick Clark tour?
A - No. Actually we did more than that. We probably did five or six (songs). The Rascals and us were the headliners. Then it kind of filtered back from there.
The Knickerbockers did three or four songs. Interestingly, their drummer was a phenomenal singer. He ended up replacing
Bobby Hatfield in The Righteous Brothers because they did a Righteous Brothers' song and he did it so well that
Bill Medley grabbed him. I don't know if Bobby dropped out of The Righteous Brothers. I can't remember. But anyway, they were on the tour. Shades Of Blue. Then we would pick up bands from time to time.
Paul Revere wouldn't be on the tour, but he'd play with us wherever he was. We had The Kinks and
The Dave Clark Five on one night too. That was just killer. That was the Hartford Convention Center. I think they played with us there. I was a huge fan of those two bands. To be on stage with them and hanging out backstage with them was such a thrill.
Q - The Critters called it a day in 1969?
A - The Critters called it a day because of bad management and bad agents. Nobody could figure out what to do with us. I don't know why it was so difficult. We had hits. Just book us. We were playing for high school proms on Long Island. When it hit that level I just said, "No, I'm doing this. The next step is bar mitzvahs and weddings.
Q - Who was your agent?
A - I think Ashley Famous.
Q - They were booking The Doors.
A - Yeah. We had a good agency, but if they could get a hundred grand for The Doors or $1,500 for The Critters, which one are they gonna put their attention on? You know what I mean? Just like I worked in the film business for awhile, a film scoring guy. And what you find out about agents is they're a lot more prone to answering the phone that dialing it. So if people aren't calling, if they're not out there pushing you, then you're not getting gigs. On the other hand, this company, Bi-Coastal, that represents us now is phenomenal! They do nothing but dial the phone. We do sixty, seventy dates a year. Never in my life did I do that. Not with Carly, not with The Critters, not with anyone. You know, we're busy! So that's a difference a good agent makes.
Q - How did The Critters lead you to working with Carly Simon? Did you work with her just in the studio or on the road as well?
A - I did all her records through 1992. It's a funny coincidence. The last Critters' record was produced by a guy named Dan Armstrong. While we were mixing he said, "I want to bring my girlfriend by. She's a singer. You'll like her." It was Carly. That was his girlfriend. At the time Carly was his secretary, living with her sister, sleeping on the couch. When The Critters broke up, I called Dan. He had a guitar store in New York. He also became famous as a guitar designer, making those clear plastic guitars. That was his guitar. I worked with him on that. When The Critters broke up, I said, "Do you need anybody to work in your store?" He said, "Actually, I need a store manager. Wanna do it?" I said, "Absolutely." So I worked in Dan Armstrong's store for about a year and during that year Carly and I became very close friends. We'd double-dated with my girlfriend, Dan and her, and hang out and sing songs in the store after hours. We actually did a couple of jingles together. She started her career as a jingle single singer, But then she started writing and she started writing with a vengeance. Really, really good stuff. Not the stuff she was doing with her sister Lucy, the Simon Sisters. "That's The Way I Always Heard It Should Be", "You're So Vain", and things like that. So she got herself a deal and called me and said, "Look, I got a record deal. C'mon in. I want you to play on my record." I said, "Hell, yeah." I played on her first record and when it came time to do the second record she decided she wanted to do it in England. She said, "Do you want to come to England and do a second record?" I said, "Yeah." She said, "Now I need a band 'cause I want to do some live dates. I'm going to audition." I said, "Wait a minute. I have a band, some remnants from The Critters. Why don't you listen to these guys and see if you like 'em?" And she did and she loved 'em and that became her first band. You can see that band on YouTube, our first concert ever.
Q - You also worked with Jim Croce. Was that in the studio or did you also do some road work with him?
A - Thank God it was not on the road.
Q - Or you would've been on that plane.
A - Yes, I would've. The way it worked out, I played bass with Jim Croce. I didn't play guitar. His guitar player was Maury Muehleisen. Originally Maury was the star and he was his back-up. Then Jim got the deal and he said, "Why don't you be my guitar player?", and that's how that happened. I came in and played bass on two songs, "You Don't Mess Around With Jim" and "Leroy Brown". I never went on the road with him because if I'm not mistaken, it was just him and Maury. I don't think he took a band with him. I'm not aware of it. When I saw him 'live' in New York it was just him and Maury.
Q - You played bass on two of Jim Croce's biggest hits!
A - Yes, they were.
Q - What kind of guy was Jim Croce?
A - The nicest guy. Exactly what you would imagine. He was a wonderful storyteller. A real affable guy. Friendly as hell. Not a negative bone in his body. Just easy to work with. Just the nicest guy, yeah.
Q - I almost wish you had spent more time with him.
A - I barely knew him. We went to college together. He was two years ahead of me. I certainly knew of him. He was playing around the clubs in Philadelphia, but we didn't get to really sit down and talk and schmooze until I actually played with him on his albums. But even then, the friend that brought me in was Tommy West. I had been friends with him before and he was also a Villanova guy. So we were all kind of like buds from the day. But when you're in the studio and time is money, there's not time to hang out and talk. So it was more of a professional relationship. I came in. I was the guy. We chatted a little bit, but now we gotta do the vocals. "Thanks for your help. Bye." (laughs)
Q - And then we jump to Paul McCartney. You were in the studio with him?
A - Again, so much of my career has been being in the right place at the right time. The fact that I ended up in that guitar store gave me a twenty-one year career with Carly Simon. Being with Carly Simon, we were in the studio doing "Night Owl", which is the James Taylor song, and we had Bonnie Bramlett in there singing with us of Delaney And Bonnie. Doris Troy, who had the original hit with "Just One Look". We weren't getting it. The back-ups weren't that great. Richard Perry kept hitting the button, saying, "Try it again." Then after one take he didn't say anything. I thought maybe we got it. Then there was just silence for awhile. I kind of looked over Carly's shoulder into the window of the control room and there was somebody in there that was talking. Somebody just came into the studio. I wonder who it is? I looked and, Holy shit! Its friggin' Paul McCartney! Oh, my God! Now were in AIK London, which was George Martin's studios. Paul was working in the studio next door. There were a number of studios in this complex. He just wandered in. He was on a break and just thought he'd wander in and see who else was there. So he hit the Talk Back button and said, "Richard Townsend, are you having a bit of trouble with the vocals? Would you like a little help on that? I might jump in." We're like, "Holy shit! McCartney is going to sing with us!" So he came out and I actually have a picture of of us all singing together around the microphone. He came up with the vocal part that ended up being on the record. It was very, very good. So I was singing with McCartney and got to meet him and hang out a little bit. After everyone went home, he hung out. It was just Richard Perry, Carly, myself and Paul hanging out in the studio. I can't remember if Linda (McCartney) was there or not. I think she might've come in that night. He showed up a number of times. But he then told us he'd been called to do a soundtrack and he wrote a song for it, but didn't know if it was any good and would we like to hear it? (laughs) So we said, "Yeah, we like to hear it." He sat down and played us "Live And Let Die". We were like the first people to hear this song. So the next day he invited us to come over. They were going to record it with a big orchestra. So we got to see him and George Martin and the London Symphony, or whatever he used on it, and Wings record "Live And Let Die". That was very special. But there was another time, and he won't remember this because it was so bizarre. He introduced Wings to the world by doing a show at the Hard Rock in London, the very first Hard Rock before there were any other Hard Rocks. Occasionally they would have bands there. Not often. It was an invite only, and I got an invite to go see it. So I'm sitting there and I'm sitting very close 'cause it's a restaurant, not a concert hall. I'm sitting only a few feet away from 'em. They're doing this first Wings concert. Their first guitar player was Henry McCullough from Stone And The Crows. Henry got absolutely shit-faced drunk. I don't know why. He's a Scotsman who loved his liquor. And he turned around to me. I knew him. He was a friend at the time. He turned around and said, "Jimmy, I'm too drunk. I can't play anymore, mate. And he handed me his guitar. (laughs) I stood up and said, "Alright, look, I'm a studio guy. I got big ears." He wasn't doing real complicated songs at the time. I just jumped in and started playing. Of course it was little bit different than what Henry was playing. Paul turned around and looked at me and had this quizzical look and I smiled. He shrugged his shoulders and kept on going. I finished the first concert with Wings. Those are my McCartney years. Short and sweet.
Q - That's some story!
A - (laughs) Yeah, but again just being in the right place at the right time.
Q - Isn't that true of everything in life when you really get down to it?
A - Probably.
Q - But besides being in the right place at the right time, you were prepared. So there's three parts.
A - Well, for me it was always easy. I just loved the guitar. Since I was ten years old it was the instrument I wanted to play. So I did my homework. Everyday after school I'd come home and practice.
Q - Henry was lucky that McCartney didn't fire him on the spot.
A - I'm not sure he didn't! I don't recall Henry playing with him very long.
Q - You also worked with The Doors.
A - John Densmore and I became pretty good friends when I was living in England. I played with them briefly after Jim died. They were gonna go out as The Doors and I went in as their bass player. Richard Perry was our common friend. Besides Carly he produced Nilsson, Ringo and a million other people. He suggested to them that they call me, so they did. I went over and played with them for awhile. Fun guys. Really, really nice guys. Incredibly talented. but it never came to anything. Honestly, without Jim Morrison it was just another bunch of guys playing. there was something unbelievably magic about him. It was easy to see. The guy was like Rock God. I don't mean to demean them, but they were kind of like his backup band. The whole show was Jim Morrison.
Q - What if I told you there are people who I've interviewed who have told me Jim Morrison faked his death and is very much alive.
A - Why would he fake his death?
Q - There were a number of paternity suits pending against him for one. That is what I read somewhere.
A - Now I'm getting it. That's makes sense.
Q - Did you know The Doors sent their road manager over to France to investigate Jim's death? He never saw the body! There was a coffin in a room, sealed. He never asked to look inside because his own father died when he was a young boy and he was so traumatized he couldn't look inside the coffin. He came back to L.A. and (Ray) Manzarek asks him, "What did Jim look like?" And he answers, "I don't know. I didn't look inside the coffin." Did you know that?
A - No. He went to Paris?
Q - He did. He never saw any body. He saw a closed casket.
A - Which is unusual because normally closed caskets are when you have an accident. If you die of natural causes; I mean he supposedly died of a heart attack from a cocaine overdose or something like that if I recall correctly. It wouldn't have affected his face. And he was a Christian, so he would have a wake. They didn't cremate him like five minutes after he died. If he was Jewish he would have to be cremated immediately, in the ground within twenty-four hours, but none of that is true. So yeah, I hear you.
Q - I don't believe any of Jim's family members traveled overseas to find out what was going on. Nor did any of the major newspapers or Rock publications investigate Morrison's death. There was no autopsy.
A - Wow! Cool. I wish I was in touch with Densmore. I'd ask him straight up. (laughs) I haven't seen him since I lived in England.
Q - John Densmore and Ray Manzarek would be very cagey about answering the question, "Is Jim Morrison alive? Did he fake his death?"
A - It's interesting that John's response to the other two was not, "We're not The Doors without Jim Morrison." His response was, "When Jim's ready to go back out on the road, I'll re-join." Everybody thought ha-ha, wink, wink. He's never coming back 'cause he's dead. But that's what he said. His words were as if he was alive. Now I see that in a whole different light. Oh, my God!
Q - Was it a big leap to go from being a Pop musician to writing music for films?
A - Yeah, because I'd never done it before. I broke in slowly and easily. The way that happened is as a studio musician you don't just get record dates. You get jingle dates, commercials. So I started playing on jingles, underscores for commercials. One of the jingle companies said, "You wanna take a shot a writing one?" I went, "Sure", 'cause I'd certainly written songs before. So I started writing. I hooked up with a company called John Hill and by that time I had seen the writing on the wall and I started building my own studio, and the way I financed was I started calling jingle companies. I had a real Steinway piano and I'd say, "Why don't you use my studio for demos?" It's only in my apartment. It's nothing spectacular, but I have a real piano. The words real piano very much rang a bell with them because little project studios tend not to have a Steinway piano. They have crappy, little pianos. This is before electric pianos, the real good electric pianos. They hadn't been invented yet. So, having a real Steinway started getting me tons of work as a studio, as an engineer in a studio. And the deals I cut with them were if they used my studio I would give them a ridiculously low rate if they'd let me sing on the commercials because singing on commercials is just where there's a boatload of money. So that worked out very well and I got on a couple of commercials that did extremely well, Dodge, Colt 45, Budweiser, Chevy and all those things. I started making really, really good money, but I hated the business. It was dishonest. It was horrible products that I didn't believe in. I just felt something was wrong. It wasn't working in my heart. By then I'd gotten quite a lot of experience doing underscores. So I started calling TV stations. I said, "Look, I've been doing commercials. Would you be interested in me doing promos for your TV stations?" A guy picked me up and he hooked me up with CNBC and I did a couple of things for them that they liked very much. And he said, "Would you like to take a shot a writing theme music for TV shows?" I'm like, "Hell, yeah." I nailed it! So I wrote the themes, the music. CNBC, they way they work it is all the shows have basically the same theme from six in the morning to six at night, just variations on them 'cause they're all financial shows, just with different anchors with all the same stuff. So, I nailed it. From 2011 to today they're still using my music on CNBC. Up until three years ago (2014) they were using my production of that music too. During that time I learned how to score for orchestras and I ended up scoring the theme for NBC News, ABC News, CBS News. I was like your go to news guy. During that time I hooked up with a documentarian. She started throwing me films to work on. So now I'm scoring for PBS, Discovery Channel, themes and background music for Discovery documentaries and then The Hit Men came along. What was happening with all this stuff is if you start doing that, you have no life. You work twelve hours a day. You have to score hours of music. The CNBC thing was about 120 cues. Now some of 'em were short. Some of 'em were only five seconds. Some were two minutes long. Now, when you're writing that kind of music, it's full orchestra. Even if you're doing it with synthesizers and samples, you still have to write the parts just like you're doing it with the Chicago Symphony. Every single part is hand written. It takes hours, but they didn't give you hours. "We gotta have it now." There's all these self-imposed deadlines. So I found myself working eight in the morning to midnight, every day for three months. It was just sucking the life out of me. I was making great money. I was getting lots of work, but when The Hit Men came along I stopped pursuing it, and it's such a competitive business that if you're not on the phone pursuing it, you get forgotten very quickly because fifty people other than you are pursuing it. So, I never had to turn anything down. It was simply the minute I started taking The Hit Men seriously and stopped making the phone calls, the work stopped coming in. (laughs) So it was a very smooth transition and The Hit Men were making enough money that I could back out of that and not really have any financial loss. There was a little dip, but then we started getting popular and the money started coming in. We got a lot of gigs. So now I'm exclusive with The Hit Men and just loving it. This is what I started off doing. This what I always wanted to do, starting with The Critters, to have my own band that was successful. All the backup stuff was if I can't be a successful artist, let me help successful artists. That was a stop gap more than this. This is really what I want to do.
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