Gary James' Interview With
The Guitarist For The Big El Show
Larry Seth, know professionally as "Big El" was doing an Elvis tribute show in 1975! That's long before anyone else had ever thought of doing it. Elvis was still performing in 1975! Onstage with Big El was his lead guitarist, John Fiocchi. John talked with us about his time with Larry Smith, a.k.a. "Big El".
Q - John, I saw Big El in concert in Syracuse N.Y. at the Civic Center on June 14th, 1978. When I think back about that night, a few things come to mind; Midway through the show, Larry says "We've been here before, haven't we?" Now that's exactly what Elvis said at the Onondaga Country War Memorial in July, 1976 when I saw him. Elvis had performed in Buffalo, N.Y. near Syracuse before that night. I wondered how did Larry know what Elvis said in his show in Syracuse two years before? Did he listen to a recording of the show? And it would had to have been a bootleg recording. After the show, I interviewed Larry. His manager, it seemed to me, was trying to act like Colonel Parker. He said "You got five minutes!" He was puffing away on a cigar. I remember a woman coming up to Larry, un-buttoning her blouse and asking him to autograph her chest. He said, before he signed his name, "Now I know how Elvis felt when he sang 'All Shook Up'." I also remember a tall woman who was most likely a Civic Center employee trying to pick up one of Big El's bodyguards. She wanted him to come home with her. He said "I wish I could, but I really can't." So those are my remembrances of The Big El Show.
A - (laughs) That's some story, I'll tell you. That's really great.
Q - John, let's talk about you now. You played guitar for Larry from 1981 to 1983.
A - Early '83. I had left to join another band. I shouldn't have done that. Larry had long talks with me about it. Then I was asked to come back 'cause this band wasn't getting off the ground, so I just went right back to Larry. He was a security blanket for all of us in that band. (laughs) He just paid really, really great money. I mean, you would never see many like that.
Q - Larry was really on the ground floor of this whole Elvis tribute business. To be playing a theatre, not a club, and packing the place was amazing. And this happened in June of '78, a little under a year after Elvis died. Larry was ahead of his time.
A - Right.
Q - Before we talk about the group you joined after leaving Larry, how did you get that gig with Larry?
A - OK. I knew you were going to ask me this. (laughs) Well, this is really pathetic. To get a gig like that through a connection would logically be more impressive or more understanding so to speak. To just open up a newspaper and see an ad and answer the ad... I didn't' realize what was going on. I was 23 years old. I was completely naive. I wasn't like other musicians. I should've been like with the Amish or something. (laughs) I had all these morals. I didn't know what was going to be in store for me when I got in the music business, sexual promiscuity in the numbers, drugs and payoffs and politics. I had no idea that stuff even existed, even though I had played with bands before I met Larry. It wasn't like on this scale. When I joined Larry there was criminal activity. It wasn't all on a vast level, but it was the nature of the industry at the time. It wasn't Larry's fault. Larry was the most comical and hospitable person I ever worked with in the music business. No one in the entire music business treated me with more respect like Larry did. Larry would pick up on the fact that band members were tired and pressured from playing shows and he would do the most outstanding job of cheering us up! He would have us laughing so hard and I have always wanted to thank him for going the distance. Larry had a diverse voice and covered Elvis' material from various decades of his career, the '50, '60s and '70s. Although many shows were set up to emulate a specific period of Elvis' career, Larry would often pull something out of his hat, maybe dating as far back as the '50s.
Q - Larry Seth was not a recording artist. He was just going around doing an impersonation of Elvis. We call it a tribute now...
A - Yeah, but after he left Rob Russen, Rob Russen was angered by the fact he was being sued by the Elvis estate. Larry used to talk to me about this. I don't know where to start about this. I had three days to learn 165 songs. So, I charted some of them out and pasted them to the floor and tried not to let the audience see I was glancing at the floor. It went very well. I asked him "Why are we opening?" and I said "this is a stupid question," and he started laughing,. "Why are we opening for Doc Severinsen?" He said "Because I open for celebrities." He said "You didn't now that?" I said "No. I had no idea." So he explained to me the Rob Russen story. He said "Rob Russen is attempting to sue us now. You don't have to worry about it. I've got all the contacts. I've got a brand new corporation. Everything will be paid for. All the money you make is going to go home in your pocket." He said "This is what you're gonna be doing." It was just amazing that I was opening up for people that I had listened to when I was 15. Now I'm 23 and I'm opening up for them; Ian Hunter, Dixie Dregs. It was just amazing. And there were all those bands that had been playing the Spectrum in Philadelphia, or the Tower Theatre that by '81 they were on a lower scale. They had been pushed into theatres, which was great, but they were always up the street from us; Renaissance, Steve Hackett from Genesis, all these different bands, Jerry Vale and all the Progressive Rock from the early '70s and all the Rock 'n' Rollers; The Hard Rock, Top 40 Bands, Ambrosia, ? And The Mysterians and all those bands were lumped together on the circuit, playing with us all that time as opposed to how it is today where styles like Progressive Rock are compartmentalized. It just wasn't like that back then.
Q - Thank God it wasn't like that! That's one of the things that made radio so great, you could hear all types of styles of music on one station.
A - Right. Larry was part of that scene, that circuit of theatres. It was just amazing to be 23 years old and have that opportunity. He used to bring me out front. I don't think the rest of the band thought it was very good. (laughs) It made them feel uncomfortable. He used to bring me upfront in a song called "My Baby Left Me". He used to show me off in front of those big audiences in those theatres and I was scared out of my mind. I had to just keep playing and not be frightened 'cause I'd never played a stage like that. We played a few places where it was Mafia, which scared me. He said "You just have to keep real quiet and play your guitar. Don't talk to anybody. Stay with the bodyguards."
Q - You're talking about clubs that are owned by gangsters?
A - Yeah. There were big, really fancy chandeliers, just gigantic places. Have you ever seen Fisher's up on Street Road in Pennsylvania?
Q - I haven't.
A - It's a gigantic place. There's a gigantic stage, close to maybe fifteen bars set up across this gigantic room. It's like an auditorium. Those type of places. Some of them were controlled by the Mafia. And he warned me about this in the dressing room.
Q - What was he afraid you were going to say something?
A - He knew I was a kid, an inexperienced kid. He said "Look, do not mingle here." He told everyone in the band. "Do not mingle. Just do your job." Sometimes musicians would mingle, which aggravated the bodyguards anyway.
Q - The feeling was that one of you guys would hit on a mobster's girlfriend or wife?
A - (laughs) I know that they didn't like us talking to other musicians from the other acts. They had bodyguards and Larry had bodyguards. Funny thing about it is, you're telling me there was this one bodyguard with Larry.
Q - Yeah.
A - But when I worked with him, he had about ten bodyguards. We had maybe two or three limousines. We had a bus and some of them drove other people that were in the corporation like the secretary. Then there were these married couples that were in this corporation. I recall it just being Larry Seth Corporation. I can't really remember the name of it. But there was about eight to ten of 'em, married couples and they were very wealthy. They were investors. It was amazing.
Q - The night I interviewed Larry I had just seen one bodyguard. He might have had other bodyguards. I just saw the one.
A - Oh, OK.
Q - Did Larry audition a lot of guitarists for the position in his band before he selected you?
A - That I'm not sure of. I know that I went to this keyboardist's house in Landisville, New Jersey and his name was Sal. He was a classically trained pianist who had studied with professors in Philadelphia since he was a child. He was an amazing pianist! I sat down with him and we ran over the material for two days. Then he said "Now we're going to go to the audition." I said "After learning all this material?" He said "yes." So we went to this auditorium at a VFW hall. My hair was down past my shoulders. (laughs) I just didn't fit the part. I went in and did "Reconsider Baby" and he asked me to play the Blues. He turned around and said "Whoaa, you're hired. Now you're not Samson are you?" I said "What do you mean?" He said "If I ask you to cut your hair, you're still gonna play great, right?" (laughs) I said "Yeah." He was there with an undershirt on and a pair of jeans and he looked like Elvis. The thing about Larry was, he could look like Elvis just around the house, so it was pretty amazing. We had a horn section out of New York. Ed Waymira was also a guitar player in the band. His wife was a singer, which I can't remember if her name was Andrea. We opened up for Larry. Larry would come on. Then we'd open up another show and Larry would come on again. Then the headliner act would come on. And that's how that worked for a long period of time. It was really fun.
Q - Were you a fan of Elvis before you joined Larry's band?
A - Yeah. I grew up on the '50s Elvis. I was just really amazed by that stuff, even like I was by The Beatles. But Elvis was before The Beatles, so his music was inside of me. All the Rockabilly, the Rock 'n' Roll type stuff. Even when he sang Gospel, that was really great. I always liked him a lot. I thought he was an innovator. So many people, I don't want to say steal, but they just took from him. His movies. You see it in so many Rock stars, David Bowie. There's tons of them.
Q - The bands you were in before Larry were Top 40?
A - Yeah. Top 40 and Rock. And Progressive Rock. I had played in all types of different bands. I had started on guitar when I was seven. But my Dad was a Classical and Jazz guitarist in the '30s and '40s, so I didn't really need a teacher. He was my teacher, so he just really pushed me to start learning things like Johnny Smith and Charlie Byrd. He used to back Frank Sinatra. So I was learning all that kind of stuff. One of the first bands I played in was Pike's Peak, which was an original band that played clubs in Pennsylvania and New Jersey in 1977. I was 18 years old and we had two managers. One of the managers, Dennis Hill, wrote Rock music reviews for Philadelphia newspapers. He had informed us of a connection he made with Warner Brothers Records. He submitted our demo of originals and claimed that the record company wanted to fly us out to California, sign us up and place us on tour. It was then that Bruce Pike's wife, the other manager, fired Dennis and continued booking the band into small clubs. This is the way I understand it to be: Dennis had presented the offer to us at a meeting and the next week he was fired. Then I joined other working Top 40 / Rock cover bands. I worked in many bands until I finally met Larry.
Q - How many dates a year were you playing with Larry?
A - It was very consistent. I can't really answer that accurately. I just know that we were playing so much.
Q - John, it sounds like you had a great gig. Why then did you leave?
A - I was very sensitive, naive and had people hounding me, other musicians hounding me. I was kind of a stupid kid. I thought because I had played Jazz Fusion... in other words, there was a Jazz Fusion scene with groups like Weather Report and The Mahavishav Orchestra. There was a lot of instrumental Jazz Fusion music. Al Di Meola. It was hitting the scene. It was at the Tower Theatre in Philly. All the guitar players on the circuit were trying to play like that. I had learned how to play like that when I was 15. They were just learning. They would come out to see me play with Larry and they would spend the whole night talking to me about "You're wasting your time playing Elvis music. You should be playing Jazz. Why are you doing this?" Things like that. Actually some of them, I had taught. They were understudies of me. I was so young and impressionable, I think I just made the stupid mistake of being lured away by these people. Ed Lucarini, who was one of the managers, and I mean he (Larry Seth) had several managers which really blows me away; he had this guy, Carl. I can't remember the other guy's names, a very tall man. Ed Lucarini drives all the way down to my house. I was staying with my parents at the time. He walks in the house and says "John, The Big El Show wants you back. Is this band making any money?" And I said "No." He said "You gotta come back." I said "Well, my car is not running." He said "Well, don't worry about that. I have transportation to pick you up and take you back and forth." I said "What?" He said "Yeah. Larry wants you back." I said "OK." So I re-joined. And that's when it continued, until finally Larry had an upset in his life.
Q - What does that mean?
A - I'm sorry. I wasn't ready to give the right word for it. OK. It could have been that Rob Russen was putting the pressure on him and the lawsuit was getting deeper and deeper. That could've been part of it. I seem to think it was. He (Larry) started drinking a lot, martinis. He was depressed about something. Like one night he was in the dressing room and broke down and started crying. He said "I'm just a loser. I'm not Elvis. I'm just an Elvis impersonator. I've let you people down." That was the extent of the meeting. I didn't understand what it meant until much later when he was suffering the torment of his lawsuit. I don't know if I should tell you this.
Q - You want to get in contact with Larry, so this interview will hopefully get his attention.
A - Rob Russen was getting sued by the Elvis estate, so that's Rob's problem. And then Rob was suing us. I don't know for sure. I'm just saying it may have been what it was and finally Larry decide to fire the entire corporation and just keep Carl. That happened the last few months of our existence in '83. So now we had Carl and all the other people were gone. So then those people sued Larry. Then Larry disappeared. He disappeared. I called Ed Lucarini on the phone. He's like "I don't know. He won't return my calls. I don't know where he is." Then there was this rumor that he had divorced his wife and disappeared. No one could find him. I had to re-join another working band. Then I was told by Rosemary, the secretary for the corporation who lived in Villas, New Jersey in the last of the '80s, that he was working as a security guard at the Echelon Mall in Cherry Hill, New Jersey.
Q - What a comedown for Larry Seth.
A - He was just a recluse. She owned one of the VHS tapes of one our shows and I borrowed it from her. I took it to my parents' house to make a copy and I couldn't get the VHS machine to work. It was eating tapes. I panicked, drove back to her house, gave her the tape back and just got so busy going out on the road, that I never get back to her again. And so, I don't know where she is. She owns one of the concerts on VHS. It could be put on DVD and would probably be very enjoyable.
Q - And you can't find her either.
A - Yeah. Plus, I just cannot remember her last name. She was married to one of the bodyguards.
Q - Where is Larry Seth today? Is he still working as a security guard?
A - I really doubt it. There were two lawsuits against him. So I think Rob Russen may have been suing for the rights to Big El, for the name or possibly other things because we were using that name. We were packing places. I remember playing the Brandywine Club in a snow blizzard and you've got women that are at the front of the stage to get his autograph, in a line that went out all the way out of the theatre, way out to the end of the parking lot. I'm walking in with my guitar case looking at this and the bass player says to me "Can you believe him?" "No, I can't." His musicians were always in shock. It was like working for a star. It was very, very strange to be us 'cause we were very young. You're living inside a bubble. You don't know what kind of a person you are. People tell you you're great all the time. It doesn't make you any better walking down the street, but you don't realize that because you're too young and naive. That's the way the entertainment industry is. Look at Judy Garland, how they got her hooked on amphetamines. Everybody's so gullible it seems.
Q - So, all these women would line up to get Larry's autograph. Some of 'em probably got more than just an autograph, right?
A - (laughs)
Q - Were there "groupies" for Larry Seth, is what I'm asking?
A - Yeah, there were so many I couldn't even count.
Q - That must've meant you and the other guys split the women?
A - (laughs) No. Not me. I was married. I was pretty faithful to my wife. I can honestly tell you I was considered to be a freak because of that. They called me John Boy Walton because I was so straight all the time. I wouldn't mess around with the drugs. My Dad trained me as a musician and he was against all that stuff. He absolutely put me against drugs. There were groupies all over the place and musicians were sleeping with them left and right. My upbringing was based around morals that derived from the Amish culture and so realistically a person like myself, who may have played an instrument as well, did not belong in the social environment of the music business. It was OK for people to indulge in the sexual promiscuity and the drugs, but it was not for me.
Q - So, are you still in the music business today?
A - I'm really not active in the music business. I write a lot of music and I practice a lot and I give guitar instruction. That's what I'm doing now because I have three children. It's tough right now.