Gary James' Interview With Bob Dylan's Ex-Bassist
He played on Don McLean's recording of "American Pie". As a solo artist he's recorded for both Epic Records and MCA Records. But he may be best-known for his time with Bob Dylan. In 1975 he was hired on as Dylan's bandleader, opening act, as well as playing bass for Bob Dylan. He continued on with Dylan during his Rolling Thunder Revue days and on the Far East portion of his 1978 World Tour. He also sang and played on many Dylan records.
His name is Rob Stoner and Rob talked with us about his life in music, then and now.
Q - Somebody was at The Palace Theatre in Syracuse, N.Y. recently celebrating Dylan's 70th birthday. Is this the type of event that you would have played in the past? Or was this an exception?
A - Every May when it's Dylan's birthday, I get a lot of gigs. (laughs)
Q - Where do they hold such events?
A - All kinds of places. Nightclubs, private parties, theatres, you name it.
Q - And you bring your own band in?
A - Yeah.
Q - Before Dylan, you had a songwriting deal with Lieber and Stoller?
A - That's right.
Q - This is when you were in high school?
A - College.
Q - Where did Lieber and Stoller hear about you?
A - They heard my band playing at a club. They knew one of the guys in my band socially too.
Q - What was the name of that band?
A - Meat.
Q - How then did your time with Lieber and Stoller lead into you becoming an in-demand studio musician?
A - Well, I was playing all over Manhattan, which is my hometown. Eventually some people who were looking for a young player to back them up started calling me. I got heard by various record producers. I had credentials. I was playing everywhere. I was for hire. So just one thing led to another and people started calling me for work.
Q - Let me back up for just a minute here. Did you have any songs placed with recording artists when you were with Lieber and Stoller?
A - No. Nothing really panned out from that, but we did have a deal with them for awhile. We made some recordings but nothing really ever came of it. We did go into the studio with them, Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller.
Q - What instrument did you play on "American Pie"?
A - I'm the bass player and the harmony singer.
Q - When you were in the process of making that record or even afterwards, did you think to yourself, this song's got potential?
A - No. At the time, everybody thought it was too long and too verbose and thought it might be an interesting album cut. Nobody had any clue that it was going to be the monster classic it became.
Q - In 1973 you signed with Epic Records.
A - Right.
Q - And that was a solo album.
A - Yeah, right. It was actually a singles deal and it was in Nashville, Tennessee and I put out some Country singles.
Q - Did Epic promote you?
A - No, not really. That was just one of the many artists they signed.
Q - That was something I never understood. Record companies would sign a singer or a band and then never really get behind them.
A - Yeah, right. It was a very common syndrome.
Q - Why was that practice in play?
A - Maybe they figured you get a hit record just by sheer luck or something. I think some of it was a tax write-off situation.
Q - You had a band, Rockin' Rob And The Rebels. Did they have a record deal?
A - No. They never had a record deal. They were just a really popular Manhattan band.
Q - You played clubs?
A - Yeah. It was a club band. Really a bar band around the Northeast. We played up and down the Northeast corridor from say D.C. up to Boston.
Q - You mention some people you toured and recorded with on your website. Did you tour or record with Jerry Garcia?
A - I played a festival with him in San Francisco in 1972, a Folk festival.
Q - How about Ringo?
A - He played drums with Bob Dylan and The Rolling Thunder Revue.
Q - Before you ever played with Bob Dylan, were you a fan of his?
A - Oh, big time.
Q - You were?
A - Sure. He's the greatest. He's the one and only. He's like nobody ever, before or since.
Q - That always helps, that you like the person's music you're playing.
A - Well, it's a plus. A job is a job, but it's better if it happens to be somebody you're a fan of.
Q - After you got the gig in his band, you couldn't talk to him before a show.
A - No. That's other people. Other people complain about that. He just likes to keep his head clear. He doesn't want to have a bunch of conversations with people. He just wants to concentrate on the music and so I would be the one person that he would talk to. So he would have everybody talk to me and then I would in turn give him the synopsis of what everybody else wanted.
Q - Because you were the band leader.
A - Exactly. I was the conduit of information to him. It was just a musical administration role I had to fulfill.
Q - But if it had to do with a spotlight problem or a hotel problem, that was taken care of by the road manager.
A - Yeah, right. Musical stuff, he didn't want to hear about that either. I'm sure Elvis didn't either. I'm sure Elvis didn't deal with that bullshit with his musicians. I'm sure he had some delegated person they would talk to.
Q - When Dylan performs these days in a place near you live, you go to see him?
A - Yeah. I used to go see him.
Q - Do you get a backstage pass so you can drop by to say hello?
A - You mean now?
Q - Yeah.
A - Yeah. Now I can
Q - Nowadays you teach guitar?
A - That's how I make my living, so I don't have to travel. I hate traveling.
Q - That must be kind of lucrative for you?
A - It's a good living. It's as much money as I would make on the road.
Q - Who are your students? Kids or older people who know who you are?
A - People of all ages. I have people in their 80s and I have kids as young as 7.
Q - You're teaching them bass guitar?
A - No. I play six string, regular guitar, although I'm known as a bass player from working with Dylan, I've always been a guitar player primarily. So, I teach people bass guitar, regular guitar, piano, voice, theory, any composition, any musical subject they want, I can teach them.
Q - You must have your own studio then?
A - Yeah. I'm in-house.
Q - That must be one big studio.
A - No, it's not that big. It's just enough to accommodate all the instruments. It's got a waiting room. It's a nice little studio.