Gary James' Interview With John Hall of
Orleans




He's best know as the founder of the band Orleans and their hits "Still The One" and "Dance With Me". He co-wrote Janis Joplin's "Half Moon", Steve Wariner's number one Country hit "You Can Dream Of Me" and also "Power", which became the theme of the No Nukes concerts in the 1970s. He's collaborated in the studio or on stage with Little Feat, Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt, Graham Nash, Chet Atkins and Carly Simon. And then there's his political career. He served in the Ulster County, New York legislature, then as a trustee and president of the Saugerties school board and won a seat in Congress in 2006. In 2011 he returned to the band he formed, Orleans. And now he's an author! He's penned his autobiography titled Still The One: A Rock 'n' Roll Journey To Congress And Back. We are talking of course about Mr. John Hall.

Q - As we speak John, you are still a member of Orleans, correct?

A - I am. I have been since Larry (Hoppen, Orleans lead singer) passed away. It took me a couple of years after I got out of Congress before they were ready or I was ready. When Larry died four yeas ago this past July, Lance (Hoppen) called me and said, "You're the only guy that doesn't have to practice, (laughs) can you come and finish out our year of gigs that we have? Everybody in the band needs to work." I said "Sure, absolutely." It went so well and we sounded good and felt good that we just on booking, or I should say our agent and manager have been booking since then. It's really remarkable to be in a band that started forty-four years ago and people still come to see us today. I can't complain.

Q - One of the earliest and biggest supporters of Orleans was Syracuse, New York.

A - Oh, I know. I'm pretty grateful for that. Many is the time we played Yellow Ballroom and of course the Quad at Syracuse University had a big crowd outdoors and was a memorable show. We were kind of based in Woodstock 'cause that's where we lived and I kind of gathered everybody together there. We played as much in Ithaca as anywhere else because Wells' (Kelly) dad was Dean Of Architecture at Cornell. He grew up there. Larry, whose family lived on Long Island, went to Ithaca College, so the two of them met during that time. When I managed to talk Wells into coming down to Ithaca and being part of my sort of developing band, the bass player and drummer both quit for different reasons and Wells and I were looking at each other going, "Now what?" And he said, "I know this guy from Ithaca, Larry Hoppen, who plays any instrument and sings great." I said, "Well, let's call him." And we did and Larry joined us there. He moved to Woodstock as did Lance when he joined the band a few months later, but Ithaca was always a second home. I'm grateful to the Kelly family for having me stay there every time we played in town and Sherman and I are still in touch and Captain Kelly and other members of the Kelly clan. And of course once you're in Ithaca it's just a hop, a skip and a jump to Syracuse or Cortland or Rochester or Utica. Basically that whole snow belt area along the thruway and the canal became sort of our stomping grounds.

Q - Why did Central New York like Orleans so much?

A - Well, I think it was partly because we had roots there and played there lot. We played The Salty Dog in Ithaca lot. I grew up in Elmira. I was a little further down state there, but we were a New York band, an Upstate band primarily. We just made that circuit until... we had two records out on ABC, neither of which had a hit single on it. They were both pretty good records, especially our fans would say, the first one. So we were at that point, kind of a club band that did original songs, but also jammed a lot. We were known for getting people up on the dance floor and keeping them there and for musicianship and vocal harmonies. When "Let There Be Music" got in the Top 40 and "Dance With Me" got in the Top 5, it was like suddenly a lot of the other people discovered us and I think Upstate New York always felt that they discovered us first, which they did.

Q - One of the more revealing items in your book is that Larry Hoppen took his own life. I always thought it must've been a heart attack.

A - It would've been a heart attack pretty soon. I won't go into what I know of his life and the pressures he was under, but I guess his family and we, friends of the family, our wish is to try and keep the manner of his death kind of hushed up because his life is really more important than his death. Unfortunately there are a lot of suicides. Maybe they need more attention so people are more cognizant about ways to intervene, although a lot of people will tell you they had no idea until it was too late. Not just with Larry, but with other people who've taken their own life. At any rate, Lance, Larry's brother, was speaking to him earlier that afternoon and everything was normal. Larry was working, booking planes and booking gigs and talking to people and then he dropped off the phone and the computer for a couple of hours and the next thing you know he was gone. It's impossible to really get into the head, especially posthumously, of someone who does that. My maternal grandfather took his life when my mother was probably twenty-one or twenty-two. She came home from college and lived within walking distance of the college she was attending in New Jersey, and got to him a little bit late and found him dead. She's gone now, but I think she always felt that if she'd have come straight home instead of having a milkshake with her friends, that she might've saved him. Survivors in the family go on and a lot of times have those kinds of feelings. I think it falls into the category of pointless self-blame. I guess everybody surrounding him maybe could have reached out to him somehow. Wells Kelly (Orleans' drummer) was a suicide. He was an overdose. It's the same thing. In other words, there are people, there were people back then who could've intervened with him when they saw he was getting really reckless. For various reasons nobody did it successfully. But that's another form of suicide really. Most people that O.D. are aware of the fact that they're flirting with death and as an alternative I used to say the high she was looking for is the one that was going to kill her. That came from a recovering person and still living person. It's just a sad story. Larry did a lot of good things and made a lot of great music. I'm grateful for his singing and playing. The first time we met was a jam session in New York and we played on and off for decades. When I was in the House Or Representatives, the band including Larry of course, came up to D.C. or down to D.C. depending on which member. They did a fund raiser in the Union Station train station in D.C. for the Democratic Committee, or D triple C, and I just remember that everybody in the band had pretty strong environmental and political and philosophical feelings. I was the one who was more overt about them and the only one who actually ran for office. But we were all in kind of agreement that we thought what we should try to accomplish. So of course I'm grateful for Larry's singing "Still The One" and "Dance With Me". I sing harmony on it, but is often the case, I wrote those songs out of my own range vocally. So I sang the third below Larry and that was the classic Orleans triad harmony.

Q - Larry did have a very nice voice and I spoke with Wells once and he seemed like a nice guy.

A - Wells was a nice a guy and he was also down to earth enough to talk to anybody like you who would come up to him and at the time be a stranger. He was in a way very humble and accessible and also a very funny man, besides being a terrific musician on piano and drums.

Q - "Let There Be Music" sounds different, at least to me, from "Still The One" and "Dance With Me". As time went on, Orleans got more commercial. Was that something the record company was pushing for? I'm talking about a Top 40 hit.

A - Well, every record company pushes for something that will sell, that'll get onto the charts and sell as many copies as possible. That's how they stay in business, not that many of them are left, but at the time that was the business model. Make an album and hopefully it will have a single or two on it and the singles of course are known as being commercial because they're all over the radio. So, people tend to think of them as commercial songs, but remember we also did on that record the song "Business As Usual" which is kind of a funky tune with lyrics about getting so numb to the tragedies around the world that you just sit at home watching TV and don't do anything about it. Business as usual. Watching the world as it ends. I think there were references to the famine in Biafra at the time, which is a country that no longer exists. There have been so many crises since then I don't know if people still remember Biafra. Our first album had the song "It All Comes Back On It", which was really philosophical song, whatever you do it's sort of Karmacally coming back to you, but it also specifically talks about a President, the man in The White Hose selling everyone a used car and plays with his prophets and dreams he's a football star, but the dreams rained on fire. "I'm a little plastic man and if you think it doesn't hurt you, you better think again." That was Richard Nixon we were talking about. He was carpet bombing Hanoi on Christmas Day in this country where many people like to think of it as a Christian country, although we do have the anti-establishment clause of the Constitution, so it's not officially any religion, but it's just ironic that people tolerated it. Well, they didn't tolerate it for long. Nixon didn't manage to serve his entire second term because he was impeached and then he resigned before the Senate could convict him. Carpet bombing a city with non-combatants, women and children in it on Christmas Day, is a sacrilege the way I was brought up. I had a very devout Catholic upbringing. My brother was a priest and my mom was the first woman in the United States to graduate from a Jesuit seminary. For me, it's kind of coming from the whole development of environmental consciousness and political awareness started out with a basic kind of mortality that I learned as a child.

Q - If your girlfriend Johanna had not been asked to interview Janis Joplin, "Half Moon" might not have been written.

A - It probably wouldn't have been written.

Q - Would we call that your first big break?

A - Yeah. I mean, it was a huge break. It also I guess was a coincidence, although Johanna's writing ability, and she worked hard, The Vilae Voice kicked her upstairs from a being a proof reader to being a columnist and she was writing music criticism and wrote a good review of Janis' Kosmic Blues Band record. Janis' publicist asked for an interview with her for Janis. So, it's luck and it's a break and it's also a product of other things like work and awareness. Myra Friedman, Janis publicist's awareness of Johanna was the fact that Johanna and Janis hit it off when they met at a restaurant and talked. Janis wound up coming by her apartment on the lower East Side and drinking the cooking sherry. That's the only alcohol we had in the house. She was sitting around with me singing songs. It was closing in on Christmas and we were singing Blues, Shuffle Blues versions of "Oh, Little Town Of Bethlehem". I played her a couple of songs I had written by myself and she said, "Nice musically, but the lyrics sound like a young guy," and it was. She said, "Why don't you two write me a song?" She said, "You're a woman. You're a writer. You guys make a song." So yes, a huge break that was a product of coincidence on top of coincidences, but also I would like to think some talent and some work as well.

Q - Too bad you didn't have a tape recorder going in that apartment at the time.

A - I know. Who knew?

Q - What year did you meet Janis Joplin? Was she a star then?

A - Oh, she was huge. She had already been through Big Brother and gone off on her own. She had had the Kosmic Blues Band with the horns behind her. So she'd done "Cry, Cry Baby", "Try" and of course she had done "Piece Of My Heart" with Big Brother. She was a star. It was really an amazing gift to me and Johanna and also to Orleans because we recorded our own version of that song on our first record that we cut in Muscle Shoals, Alabama and people knew it already from Janis' version and then they found the band doing sort of the original version of it. A lot of times real music aficionados will do that kind of research. People would listen to Peter, Paul And Mary singing "Blowin' In The Wind" and see that it was written by Bob Dylan and then they would go find out what Dylan sounded like and what else he wrote. His path to stardom was helped by other people cutting his songs. Same with Joni Mitchell. She's certainly a huge talent, a huge star and one of my favorites, but I think it was Judy Collins who did "Both Sides Now" first and had kind of a hit record with it and then people saw Janis' name on the credits and looked for her solo work and discovered that it was all magical. Thank God for music fans who have that kind of memory.

Q - Don't forget vinyl. It was easier to study the credits on a record album as opposed to a CD.

A - That's part of it. I thought about putting out a CD in an LP size cover. It's like make that big cardboard cover and find a way to put the CD in it.

Q - It's a novel idea. Why don't you do it?

A - I can't be the only person to think of it. It would be great just to have that much room for graphics and pictures and information. You could do it online, but none of the downloads I've gotten have had that kind of detail in 'em.

Q - You were just becoming friends with John Belushi when he passed away. Was he looking to collaborate on a project with you?

A - John was an aspiring musician and loved to sing. You could tell because he did, like most of the Saturday Night Live cast, vocal imitations of people and actually pretty well and it was hysterical as always. He had instruments set up at his house, a drum set set up and everything. I was having lunch with my family at the Black Dog in Martha's Vineyard right by the ferry one time. He came over and sat down next to us and was flirting with the babysitter and asked me if I would come over and play music with him. He wanted people to come by at jam sessions. I said, "Sure, maybe next week," and I never got to do that. I never made the time. He was a pretty busy guy too, so between his schedule and mine it never happened. John was just an all around talent.

Q - When you're a musician you get applause. When you're a politician people hate you before you've even done anything. So what's the lure of going into politics? Why does someone want to be President? Senator? Congressman? And since you're an ex-congressman, I can ask you!

A - Sure. Well, first of all I didn't encounter that. I encountered a little bit of it mainly after I was already in office because once you start being able to make decisions and vote a certain way, then some people will be against you. But when you're running it's really more of an unpainted canvas. You paint it with your campaign platform and say what you would do if you were elected, but nobody's really mad at you yet. I also ran for county legislature and served a term in Ulster County as a county legislator. I ran for the school board twice in Saugerties, just east of Woodstock (New York) and served four years, two of them as the President of the school board. That's a really good introduction to politics. In fact, I think the school board is the purest form of democracy because you run not as a member of a party, but as an individual. You have to convince people or you have to have already convinced people that they can trust their children's education with you and also because the school board in New York State has the power to levy property taxes, they also have to trust you not to go crazy with that. I'm just the kind of guy who gets involved. I was involved with the Booster Club because my daughter was playing on the tennis team and I was trying to help get more donations or more funding from the district so the kids on the tennis team could practice with new balls instead of a shopping cart full of dead, old tennis balls, because then when you go to a tournament and you open up a can of new balls they bounce over the kid's head. I went from there. I attended a couple of P.T.A. meetings and when an opening came up to be Recording Secretary, which is a job nobody wants to take, I volunteered to take it and I served a couple of years as Secretary of the P.T.A. So, by the time I ran for school board, people knew, at least they knew I cared about what was going on in the schools in that town. They also figured that I didn't need to do this, which is true except that in my case there was always a reason why I did need to do it. With the school board, my daughter had been through her freshman, sophomore and junior years of high school with an austerity budget because the school board couldn't get a budget passed. The budget kept getting defeated at the polls, so I was determined that we would pass a budget that at least in her senior year would be fully funded with field trips, new computers, new band instruments, advance placement, languages, etc. Every year I was on the board we passed a budget and we did it by cutting property taxes 2% the first year. It's a long story how we were able to do that. We had a really good supervisor who knew where to find the money that could be squeezed out of the budget from other places without hurting the education the kids were getting and moved around to accomplish these things. It's a real team effort. The teachers, the district played a huge part as always. The interesting thing about a school board is you don't get paid anything. There are no benefits. Other people get to have dinner and watch TV with their families. You have to gulp a couple of bites of dinner and go to the administration building at the school grounds and be in a meeting maybe 'til midnight and for that a lot of people are mad at you. No matter what you do there's people on both sides that are mad at you. It's a great introduction to politics, but it's also an education. You have to learn how to compromise and how to build coalitions. For me, look, I've been in front of big crowds before. I've been heckled before. I've had things thrown at me. I was playing frat parties when I was at Notre Dame. Beer bottles. If they don't like the music you're playing you've gotta wise up quick or be able to come back with a snappy retort. I also read at least three newspapers a day and was keeping up with what was going on in the world. By the time I ran for Congress this was more of a sideways move. I'd already been involved with a couple of environmental projects and groups that I helped to found and raise money for causes. It's much more difficult to raise money for yourself. That's the hard thing, to have the ego, the self-promotion gene to be able to say I'm the guy! I'm the guy that can do this job representing 650,000 people in the 19th district at the time. You should vote for me and also donate to my campaign fund. Out of 650,000 I'm the best guy. It takes chutzpah. It certainly takes some ego. And it takes a lot of self-promotion and begging. The worst thing about running for office is having to run money. I'm happy to say that I didn't get it from oil companies. I didn't get it from industries that I kind of have a problem with, but I did have musician friends like Bonnie Raitt and Jackson Browne and Crosby and Nash and John Sebastian and Pete Seeger, who I was a fan of since I was a kid and wound up being his representative. All these musicians like that did fund raisers for my campaign and really made it possible for me to raise enough money to run a competitive campaign. I used to joke I didn't have Exxon and Mobile, but I had Jackson and Bonnie. I was definitely lucky again there and blessed to have such good friends and such talented friends who were committed themselves enough to help me, and they did.

Q - In 2010 you lost your congressional seat because you were outspent by Super Pac commercials. How much do these commercials have? You're either a Republican or a Democrat. You're going to vote for your party. A commercial isn't going to influence you one way or the other.

A - Well, actually I think that's not always true. First of all a commercial can encourage you to get out and vote as opposed to staying home. A commercial unfortunately is much more effective it seems when it's a negative commercial about the other guy. That's something Gary, that I wish weren't so. I tried as much as possible and I think succeeded to a great extent where we were making commercials for me having them be for something and doing as few attack ads as possible, but Super Pacs don't have compunctions like that. This whole escalated money race came into being, Citizens United, after the decision by the Supreme Court which allowed individuals, millionaires, billionaires, and corporations including foreign owned corporations to contribute unlimited amounts of money for and against any candidate and to contribute to some of these Super Pacs that can be named something innocuous like "Americans For Good Things" or "Fathers For A Stronger America". Make up a name and file your papers with the F.C.C. and this dark money can come in that's undisclosed until after the election, like who gave it and where it went. In 2010 a lot of people got clobbered. To be completing the picture here it was also the first big Tea Party election and it was a wave election for the Republicans the way 2006 was a wave election for Democrats, but commercials can definitely push people harder. My first '06 election I won by 1 1/2 percentage points and my second election I was closer to 15 percentage points. I worked really hard for the district, but it was also a Presidential year. 2008 was the year that Barrack Obama won his first term as President, so there was a huge Democratic turn out, especially in New York which by registration is majority Democratic. The next one I lost in 2010. I ran six times counting all my lower election offices and lost one and that was the one.

Q - And didn't I read someplace a rumor was started stating you wouldn't be effective because you were re-joining Orleans?

A - No. I didn't hear that. I never heard that myself, not to say it didn't happen. But there was an ad that I saw the most. I forget which Super Pac brought it, but it was a black and white picture of me that looked kind of shady, not a picture that I would pick, sort of horror music, spooky music in the background. And the voice over saying, "John Hall voted for a government take-over of our health care that we didn't want or need. Defeat John Hall." I saw that on all the network stations. I couldn't afford to buy NBC, CBS, ABC and Fox out of New York because they broadcast to a whole radius that included Connecticut, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Long Island. So I was buying, or my team was buying, advertising time only on cable and specifically in the towns and counties that I represented. Five counties and forty-three municipalities. We didn't have the money to be on broadcast TV so before the election I'd be in D.C. when we were in session, voting on whatever was coming up. My colleagues from Long Island, New Jersey or Connecticut would come up to me and say, "Why are they advertising against you in my district?" I said, "Well, they're against me but they're buying these big stations in New York in a huge radius that covers your district." There was more money than they knew what to do with so that they were buying this huge swath of air time. So I went from a big win two years before, I forget how much I lost by. It was enough that it wasn't close.

Official Website: www.JohnHallMusic.com and www.OrleansOnLine.com


© Gary James. All rights reserved.


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