Gary James' Interview With Peter Rivera of
Peter Rivera is the original lead singer and drummer for the '70s Rock group Rare Earth.
Rare Earth enjoyed great success with songs such as "Get Ready" and "I Just Want To Celebrate". The group has sold over 30 million records worldwide and earned a spot in The Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio. Peter wrote a book about his life with Rare Earth titled Born To Wander. It's a book that tells what it was like to be the first White band to sign a recording contract with Motown Records.
Q - Peter, why did you write the book?
A - Well, you know, over the years you tell war stories. You sit around and talk about everything. People used to say "You should write this stuff" because they found it interesting and humorous. I thought, yeah, right. But I got a lap top computer. I just started sitting in airplanes reminiscing, pretending I was writing. In fact, the first sentence of what I wrote was "People tell me to write a book. Well, how do you write a book? I guess you start with this." I just started writing randomly, no form to it. I would skip around. I met this fella via e-mail. He said he was a big fan. He felt he knew more about me than I did. He wanted to know if I would give him permission to write about me, I guess. I said "funny you should ask. I started writing some stuff myself." So we talked a little more and I said "Look, why don't we just collaborate?" I said "You as a fan probably have all these questions" and so he did. He would e-mail me questions much like a fan, but he put them in a timeline. In other words, I started out with a little about my up-bringing and a little about high school and the first band and how did that happen and how did I get into music. I would answer these questions into a tape recorder and then I would send him the tapes. He would start writing in form and send them back to me and I would read that. Then I would re-write it in my own words, adding and subtracting from and correcting. He would say a certain sentence in a certain way with some kind of inflection that wasn't mine. I would say no, I would say that this way and I would re-write it. I did it in long-hand. As I read in a page in a three ring binder, the back of the page before it was blank, so I would draw arrows and re-write and add to it and structure it. This went on and on for almost three years.
Q - You had to self-publish the book, is that correct?
A - Yes. I didn't have to. I know nothing about publishing or where to go with it, so I decided look, I'm gonna roll the dice here and get a couple of thousand of these things printed myself. My wife and I designed the cover, picked out the pictures and worked with a gal on computer to put all this into form. And then we self-published. I paid for it myself and they delivered it to me. There's still a lot of 'em sitting in my garage.
Q - So you never approached a major book publishing company then?
A - No. Well, I did a little bit. What happened is, they explained to me that you have to have a literary agent who actually goes in to make a deal. It just seemed like so much red tape that I thought I'll just do it myself and maybe someday some kind of promotional tool will open up for me and I could move some books. So, that's just the way it's gone. We are in the developmental stages with Classic All Stars, the group I'm with, in going big time with internet marketing. We're putting all those plans together and the book will probably come back into play because we will be making offerings to a database of customized e-mail mailing lists to people in our demographics. So, I'm not worried. We'll get on it. I've sold quite a lot of books and then there's quite a lot of 'em I haven't sold yet. So, that's how it happened.
Q - What has been the reaction from your former band mates to the book?
A - I haven't heard any reaction from them. We don't talk. I don't know if they've read it or not. The book is accurate from my standpoint. I don't know. People see things differently. But this is my perspective.
Q - In 1965 you were in a group called The Sunliners. Each guy in the band was bringing home $450 a week. How many sets a night were you doing? How many nights a week were you working?
A - We were working in some clubs in Detroit six nights a week with Monday off. We would start at 9 o'clock and we'd play until 10 minutes to 2. So, we'd break it up into 5 sets of 45 minutes each. If you had big crowds, you might take a bigger break. That went on from 1964 right on through to 1969, 1970. Five, six years of it.
Q - Did you get a percentage of the bar?
A - No. Basically we would negotiate for a weekly fee for the band. Because our popularity grew, more and more people came. There was more beer and drinks sold. We went back and asked for raises and got 'em. We'd go to a little bigger club for better money, get raises there and eventually we got to where we went to East Lansing, Michigan, the Michigan University campus where they have two or three clubs. We'd go up there for two or three months at a time and come back down to the biggest club in Detroit. We did that for quite a while.
Q - You write: "In Detroit, especially in the Winter, we would spend time in rehearsals 'cause there was nowhere else to go." That was probably a major plus for your band because there were no distractions.
A - Absolutely. We talked about that many times, the fact that there was nothing else to do but stay in rehearsal. When you stay in rehearsal, what are you doing? You're doing your craft. You're learning what not to play as well as what to play. What works, what doesn't work. Your honing your skills. You're wood-shedding. When we got to L.A., guys all of a sudden bought a house. They wanted to go to the beach. As time went on, that was one of the problems I had. I would say we need to practice more. We need to come up with more stuff. Our record sales are leveling off. What do we get ready to go? Well, we don't 'cause we haven't rehearsed. That was the beginning of the foundation falling apart a little bit. I blame myself for that ultimately. I take full responsibility. If I had it to do over again, I would've been stronger. I would've been more insistent. My insistence came down to where I challenged the management. The band thought I was turning into a crazy man. When I left the band, I was really leaving the management. We called and said "You are no longer our manager." And then what he did before I could get home was, he went to the other guys and said "Don't say a word to Pete. He's gonna try to steal your name." That was not my intention at all. So, they wouldn't talk to me. So, who talks now that you don't talk? Your attorneys start talking and here we go. Two, three years of litigation. Nobody wins in that. Everybody loses, except the attorneys. We all know that.
Q - When you worked in a factory job, you asked yourself "Is this all there is to look forward to from now on?" Was that not a major revelation for you?
A - Well, it was. I had joined The Sunliners. I came out of high school and my family being factory workers, they were very proud. In fact they had a party for me when a week after I was out of high school my uncle got me a job at a factory. Everybody applauded it. All along now, I was in the band, but we weren't working clubs yet. We were working a wedding here, a party here. So, the natural thing in any circle of family was to get a job. Dad worked in a factory and I watched him for years and my uncles worked in a factory. I don't want this. I didn't know what I wanted at the time. I was in music. My half-brother really criticized me in front of the family for wanting to pursue music. I went to the job for two weeks. I remember going to my mother and saying "I don't want this." She said "Don't embarrass your uncle Harvey." At least give the two week notice. I did and shortly after that, maybe a month or two, we got a job in a bar.
Q - "For the duration of our careers we made our living on the road." How did you do that? How do you make money on the road? Don't your expenses eat up the profits? Did the money get so phenomenal for the group that you actually made money?
A - It got good. I'll be honest with you, from '69 'til about '74, those five years no matter how much money we made, all we did is put it into our corporation. We issued paychecks every week. Everybody got a pretty darn good paycheck. Everyone was living just fine. When you get three hit records, your price goes up. You go out, do six shows in eight nights. You come back with a pretty good piece of change that will sustain you through the next month or so. Then, in the meantime, you go out and do some more shows. You keep adding. You position the money in profit sharing and pay for insurance. Yeah, the costs were tremendous. Looking back, we could've been much more thrifty and much more sensible about our expenditures. Right now we would've been in a much better position than we were.
Q - On page 144 of the book, you wondered how many times you were actually booked for more (money) than the contract said and who was pocketing the difference. Who was pocketing the difference? The management or the agent?
A - Well, I don't know if it was the either or both. A lot of times there were some propositions on the table that if we could shut our mouths a certain way we would get a little windfall here and there. How do I know? Because of the chaos in the band and the lack of leadership in that connection...that communication. How do I know we weren't booked for $12,000. The agent got $12,000 for us. The manager and him sat around and said "We'll put it to the band, will you play here for $10,000? and you and I will split the $2,000. I don't know for sure, but I think so.
Q - Who was booking the band?
A - Back then we had different agents, but William Morris was our agency. I believe that they were probably fine. In between, the agencies are buyers. Some guy in Cleveland wants to throw a show with Rare Earth. There's buyer in Cleveland. He gets a hold of the buyer. The buyer gets a hold of the regional buyer and that buyer is the one that deals with William Morris. There are two or three hands in there. To know exactly what happens with every dollar is pretty difficult. When you reach a certain level like a Neil Diamond or someone of that caliber, then what you do is set up your own branch of your company that deals directly with your agency and you can eliminate those guys. But, when you're trying to climb the ladder, there's a whole lot of people who are brought into the mix that you don't really know how they fit in. But, they all make sure that you believe they are a necessary evil.
Q - "Our approach to live performances is to go in there and literally blow them (the audience) out of their seats." How many headlining acts would actually let Rare Earth do that?
A - In the beginning we got our forty minutes. While we were playing, people were filing in, because there was another act after us and then the headliners. So, you know how it goes early on in the show. These positions jockey around with popularity and current hit records. There were shows where Steely Dan opened for The Doobie Brothers, who opened for us. These concerts were booked months in advance and during the time it was booked until we played the show, maybe The Doobies had another big hit single. It totally back-fired. The opening act would blow off the headlining act. Or maybe Rare Earth came on and got their third big hit single right before they're gonna play with Sly (And The Family Stone). Sly was real popular, but he was also going through his drug stuff where he was embarrassing himself and disappointing the audience. Well, you step into a one hour time slot before that and play your current three hit records and you go in there with a fierceness and excitement. It's bad news for Sly after that, at least for a while. People go away saying "Yeah, Sly was great tonight, but man, that Rare Earth really kicked ass!" That's how you keep working on it. That's the pressure of all this.
Q - "After the phenomenal success of Get Ready, we never saw another dime in royalties." You blame that on the high cost of production, but how do you know that Motown wasn't holding back on you? Did you ever do an audit?
A - We didn't know. And, we didn't know how many record plants were actually putting records into circulation that were not counted. When you're in a company and success is going along and things are working, you learned, especially at Motown, that you don't rock the boat. Now, you're supposed to have a manager who is slick enough to go in and sit down and kind of re-negotiate. Our manager was never regarded as a heavy-hitter. In fact, as I said in the book, there were a lot of heavy-hitters who kind of laughed at him when he came out to L.A. and tried to throw his weight around. I think maybe he saw he was a small fish in a big pond and that's when maybe he settled into co-operating with them at the risk of having us become farther away from him and us losing that guidance, which ultimately brought us to say "Let's get different management, someone who will look a little bit more after us." I can only say that's how it all felt. After the record contract was up, after a few years had gone by, that's when everybody goes "Hey, what did we really get paid here?" Do we have more coming? What can we prove? There have been several acts that have sued their record companies and most all of them have settled rather than have gone to court. I ran into a gentleman who used to be the attorney at Motown and I asked him, do you think we got everything that was due us? He indicated that he thought we did not. I asked him if he thought we could ever do anything about it and he indicated he didn't think we could. In order to go back past the statute of limitations, you have to prove that at the time the contract was fraudulent in it's nature. And, I don't think the contract was fraudulent. Nobody perceived back in 1969, 1970 that there was gonna be these things called CDs, cassettes, Classic Rock Radio, MP3s. Back then, when a record was finished in it's chart position, it was finished. It was shelved. But now with all these things I've just talked about, the record starts selling again. Because Motown has changed hands four or five times, they've dropped many acts and Rare Earth is one of them. You can't buy Rare Earth records anymore. All you can get is compilations.
Q - "I don't know what it is about this business, but almost from Day One, you're not regarded as cool unless you're doing some kind of dope or booze." Now, where did that come from?
A - Are you quoting it the way I wrote it?
Q - I am.
A - Did I say "it seems like"?
Q - Not "it seems like", but "almost".
A - That would really be reflective of that time frame, '69 'til early 70s. It certainly isn't the case now. And I know now it's fashionable not to. At the time it was just everywhere and everybody was doing it and it seemed like it was part of the scene. It was almost like the key to get in, it seemed like. Promoters were doing lines of blow. Managements were doing lines of blow...smoke a joint...hash. These pills, those pills. It was just all around all the time. It was just the scene. What can I say?
Q - You were talking about the Hollywood parties where the host could be anyone from Elvis to a politician?
A - Yeah.
Q - Do you remember the names of the hosts at those parties?
A - Well, yeah, I do. But, I wouldn't put any names down. It affects too many people. If we were all single on this earth, we might say more. There are some of these people that are deceased as I said in the book. I'm not going to rag on 'em in a certain way. That part of the sensationalism just doesn't matter to me. What am I gonna do? Sell a hundred more books? Who cares? Some of these parties we went to, there were politicians, ball players, professional people. I was in the back room with a guy who just pitched a no-hitter. Of course he was off for the next four days, but he was there looking to get a gram of blow. Somebody whipped out some blow and right up his nose. I'm thinking man, you're playing major league ball. I was just blown away. I did, in the book, tell about some of my own stuff. I openly admitted I was locked into a lot of pills. I wasn't a saint, but I'm not gonna rag on anybody.
Q - I believe part of the appeal of Rare Earth was due to the fact that you had a White singer, you, who sounded Black. When people discovered you could really roar on some of those songs like "Get Ready", they just loved it. Maybe John Belushi could've given you a run for your money on that song.
A - (laughs)
Q - And some guys try to sound Black and it just doesn't work. Case in point: David Lee Roth. He went on The Tonight Show several years back with a Blues band that he was performing with in Las Vegas. He looked and sounded ridiculous.
A - Is that right? I have never, ever tried to sound Black ever in my life. Do I admire the attitude and the soulfulness, the way some Black R&B singers kind of phrase things or say things? It is an attitude. I've always kind of loved that attitude. For some reason when Ray Charles says "Baby", it means a whole lot more to me than when Frankie Avalon says "Baby". It's just my own personal taste.
Q - When "Get Ready" came over the radio, I really didn't know if the singer was White or Black. I had no idea.
A - Well, you know we were on Motown Records. We grew up in Detroit. We had that influence. We loved all the Motown acts, the Stax acts. How do I know that unconsciously or sub-consciously we weren't developing that way? I think we were to a lot of people. You probably couldn't help it. You gotta remember the nightclubs. Every night I'd sing forty songs. I wanted to do "Ain't To Proud To Beg". I wanted to do "Hit The Road Jack". I just went towards that Soul / Blues R&B music. Maybe some of it rubbed off, I don't know. When we came out on Motown, our first concerts for the first year were all Black audiences...Washington, Baltimore, because that's who started playing our records...Black radio. There were a lot of Detroit singers that had that kind of feel. I think Mitch Ryder was going after that a little bit. But, I don't really know what to say about all that.
Q - You recorded the lead vocal for "Celebrate" in twenty minutes. Does a singer need then to do take after take after take?
A - It all depends. Some of 'em are quick. Some of 'em take forever.
Q - You didn't feel guilty then like David Cassidy did about getting a song down in a short period of time?
A - I felt the other way. When I struggled, I used to feel it's taking me so long I must not be too good. The more that I sang and worked in the studio, I realized that some came quick, some didn't. The "Celebrate" thing was a fluke. It was the only one that was ever like that too. "Get Ready" was quick too. I put the lead on that in probably half an hour. And I did it up in the offices of Motown. I didn't even do it in the studio.
Q - "Something was definitely missing even when we were riding the wave of success as high as you could ride it." What was missing? Personal happiness? Recognition? Money? What were you referring to?
A - I think it was probably personal happiness. It could've been a bit of spiritual grounding. When the band was on the road, we had moved away from Detroit. We were in a new city. We're flying out doing shows that are bigger and bigger. Playin' Cow Palace. Drugs were starting. I think what was missing was being able to live without all that. Just being a simple, grounded person at the time. Once you get on this ride man, it goes.
Q - At one point in your life, while in L.A., you made kitchen cabinets, worked on cars and were a delivery boy. What were you delivering?
A - After the litigation, Rare Earth got back together in 1980. We went on the road for three years 'til about '83. When I left in '83, my kids were babies. I was playing Little League. I wasn't on the road anymore. So, I thought, well, that's that. One of the recording studios I used to go into, the guy who owned it, his brother made all the cabinetry for the whole studio. I like to work with my hands. I used to hang around with these guys. They were just kind of buddies. I hung around the shop and marveled at the tools, the smells and the noises. I wound up buying all these tools for myself and learning how to use them. I turned my garage into a shop and recluse into it week after week and built stuff. I built a kitchen in my house 'cause it was a challenge. I had time. Why not do it?
Q - Where did you work as a delivery boy?
A - Oh, that was kind of a joke thing. I was a delivery boy meaning that I took the Bee Gees' tax form to Guam. They hired me. I remember at the time saying I'm a delivery boy for cryin' out loud! Look, I would do anything that caught my interest, regardless of what you or anybody else thought about it. If it meant changing brake pads on my kid's car or helping a neighbor mow his grass, I'd do it. I don't have any hang-ups about that or how I look. I'd go to the hardware store in dirty jeans covered in grease. In fact, I was doing a video on my oldest son, on his baseball for presentation to college. I went to a studio and there was a guy there who ran the studio. He was kind of "Peter Rivera, Rare Earth. Boy, I remember your records." I had a little grease under my nails from doing a brake job on my kids's car. I said "Dick, you got a bathroom here? I gotta clean up. I got grease on me." He said "What do you got grease from?" I said "Doing my son's brakes." He said "You, Peter Rivera, doing a brake job." I said "Dick, what should I do? Sit in a corner on a stool and just kind of be Peter Rivera?"
Q - Are there two Rare Earth bands out there today? You have Rare Earth. Gil has a Rare Earth.
A - No. There's not two Rare Earth. I am simply Peter Rivera, the original drummer, lead singer of Rare Earth, or Peter Rivera, formerly of Rare Earth, or Peter Rivera, a Rare Earth All Star. That's what I am. At the time of litigation, the judge said "Peter, you're not trying to steal the name." As a matter of fact, the group was called HUB. We did two albums for Capitol Records. I said "No Judge, I don't want the name." He said "These guys (former band mates) can use the name Rare Earth, but they'll have to pay you because they sued you wrongly." So the court case was over. Now, Gil and the guys went on as Rare Earth for a little while and they stopped. That was '77. In 1980, we all got back together again as Rare Earth. In '83, when I left, they continued on as Rare Earth. They got different members. Eddie died. They fired Mark. Mark died. It's only Gil and Ray Monette left. They have a few guys in the band and they call it Rare Earth. Could I challenge that for the name? Possibly. Would I win? No, I wouldn't because in this country we live in, if you're making a living using a name and a long time later somebody tries to take it from you, they simply can't do it. I've never tried to take it from them. On the other hand, because I've been with Classic All Stars and promoted me as "Formerly Of" and we book dates featuring former lead singers of Rare Earth, Sugarloaf and Iron Butterfly, some people in the press and the on the internet have put down that I am Peter Rivera of Rare Earth or Rare Earth's Peter Rivera. Well, recently Gil and Roy have asked me not to hold myself out as Rare Earth. Well, it seems they may not want to challenge that. So, they've also thought that the fact that I have the name RareEarth.com from a doctor in Boston, there is a paragraph on the page that says I am no longer with Rare Earth. I don't tour with Rare Earth. This webpage is in no way designed to deceive you. In this country, we can own any domain name we want to. They felt that the fact that I was selling my book and just merely talking and owning the name was a little too close and it upset them. I thought, you know what? They have the band Rare Earth, so I agreed to give them that domain name RareEarth.com. But, in return I'm asking them to quit bothering me, just let me be "Formerly Of...Original Lead Singer / Drummer Of". So, anyway, that's where we're at.
Q - Your song "Losin' You" established Rare Earth as Hard Blues Rockers. Is that how you viewed Rare Earth's music...Hard Blues Rock?
A - I would say that we were Rhythm And Blues. But, I never said we were about the Blues and I never said we were about Rock. I always said we were somewhere in the stadium. I didn't know what section we were sitting in. I thought we were R&B. We rocked. We were powerful. We were strong. We had a lot of thrust. But, I never labeled it anything.