Gary James' Interview With Rob Parissi Of
Wild Cherry

They were named Best Pop Group Of The Year by Billboard magazine. They received a pair of Grammy nominations for Best New Vocal Group and Best R&B Performance By A Group Or Duo. They received an American Music Award for Top R&B Single Of The Year. That single, "Play That Funky Music" went to number one on both the Billboard R&B and Pop charts. And both the single and the group's debut album, "Wild Cherry" went Platinum.

Yes, we are speaking about the group, Wild Cherry. We spoke to the wildest cherry of them all, (well, not really, but it sounds good!) Mr. Rob Parissi. When we caught up with Rob, he was in his ocean front home.

Q - Rob, a beach front house? Playin' the Funky music must have really paid off for you!

A - No, no, no. I lived in St. Petersburg (Florida) when I first settled here. I had all my equipment there, right on the water. If we ever have a large hurricane, it's gonna flood the whole area I was livin' in. That's the reality, I realized. So, I came up to new Tampa and bought a home where it's highest and driest, fifty miles away from St. Pete, which is right on the water. I've lived here for four years and then I met my fiancÚ and I said "Let's get a place over there again to hang out, 'cause it's nice over there on the water." But I don't have anything to do with my recording gear or business where I'm at here in Tampa.

Q - What I was getting at Rob, is you must have made a lot of money with that song.

A - The thing is about that song, it became bigger than all of us, believe me. I didn't even know what I did when I did that song. That song became the 73rd biggest song because, I guess what I said, everybody still agrees with. Young kids even. It still bridges the gap I guess for everyone. It seems to be what it is. It's out of my hands now. When I first wrote it, it was what it was and now it's taken on another life. It's wonderful.

Q - How successful was Wild Cherry before "Play That Funky Music" became such a hit? You were on the club circuit. Did you make enough money to live?

A - Yes. We started out just like everybody else. There was such a great group of musicians out there, competing all the time. That made everybody better. So, even when we got good enough to get into the Pittsburgh market, there were already bands that had done very well. Musicians were always good. You could make it from there. That feeling was there. It was the same way in Philly (Philadelphia) at a certain point too. Chad and Jeremy, "A Summer Song", part of the British Invasion, came out of Pittsburgh. So, there's a lot of roots we knew and it has very heavy Jazz roots. So, you had to be very competitive 'cause there were a lot of good people and that just means you try to get better. Our competition, the band across town, the drummer ended up with Roy Buchanan, one of the lead singers ended up playing with Billy Joel, Sid McGinnis is playing guitar on David Letterman for the last ten thousand years. He's cemented in that band. I mean, that was our competition in Pittsburgh. The Jaggerz that had "The Rapper". There were bands that were making stuff happen. Trent Reznor from Nine Inch Nails, he comes from right outside of Pittsburgh. That area breeds killer, killer musicians. So, you gotta be good. We got to a point where we were making it our own. We could work as many nights as we wanted to. I was doing whatever girls wanted to dance to. Get the good-looking girls in the club and fifteen minutes later all the guys are gonna be there wanting to buy 'em drinks. (laughs) To me, it was pretty simple math. Do whatever those girls want to do to look good and they wanted to dance. So, you came in with Rock tunes. They would come up to you and suggest songs that were funny sometimes.

Q - What songs were you playing?

A - We were playing Dance, Funk, Rock material. For instance, songs like "Brown Sugar" by The Stones, "Thirty Days In The Hole" by Humble Pie, "Dancin' Days" by Led Zeppelin, "Fame" by David Bowie. Some really early Queen stuff. It was just funky, and Kiss stuff, some of the early stuff, "Firehouse" and "Stutter". Those were good bar tunes. "Alright Now" by Free. That was a good bar tune. We did "Ocean" by Led Zeppelin. That really went over good in clubs. We were always like that, just Heavy Funk. We were lucky. Cleveland is a Rock 'n' Roll town. Pittsburgh is an R&B town. If you come from the middle of that, you see why a lot of White Funk guys come from there. Detroit was only five hours away. So it was like, "yeah, this is all possible." Philadelphia was maybe six or seven hours away. So, all those records were breaking out of the mid-West at the time and we were just all part of that. I mean, man you just look up that area and you are gonna be so impressed. That area just breeds incredible musicians.

Q - That's probably because of the weather. It's not like you can be on the beach chasing after girls in bikinis.

A - Yeah. Down here in Florida, the sun is shining all the time. You better have some fire inside of you or otherwise you're gonna be like Jimmy Buffett, wasting away in Margaritaville every day. It's too nice. That's the way it is. You have to have some kind of drive inside.

Q - You thought of the name Wild Cherry for the group after seeing it on a box of cough drop? Is that story right?

A - Well, we didn't have a name and we were practicing and that's what happened. I had just got out of the hospital for some problems and they had tubes down my throat and I was about to get drafted and go to Vietnam. So it was a crazy thing. We were putting the band together and I got out of the hospital and had a gig four days later and didn't even have a name for the band. We were still rehearsing. Somebody said "What are we going to call ourselves?" I had been so frustrated at that point in getting it together that I took a box of cough drops and said "I don't even care if we call ourselves Wild Cherry. What I'm saying is, the band's gonna make the name. The name is not gonna make the band. We just need to get busy." They stopped and looked at me after that and I said "What?" They said "The name of the band." I said "What?" They said "Wild Cherry." I said "I'm just giving you an analogy right now." Two days before the gig, we didn't have a name and I approached them again and said "What's it gonna be?" I had thrown so many names at them and they just shot them all down. They said "How about that Wild Cherry?" I said "We talked about this two days before. We'll call it that for this gig, but we'll change it after that 'cause we're not gonna have that name." Every one of those little girls said "We love that name. It's a great name." I couldn't get rid of if that name because those guys kept bringing people up. (laughs) So, it was not my idea, it was somebody else's idea. I was always trying to change it. I never thought it was good.

Q - So, how long did it take you to write "Play That Funky Music"? I think you said five minutes in one interview.

A - Yeah. It's a five minute thing.

Q - What came first, the lyrics or the music?

A - There was the beat that was going on in this big Disco club we were playing. It started at that point. I left a meeting in the band room because we were having a hard time getting gigs. Disco was coming. Rock clubs were closing down. I was having to take gigs at the discos on the off nights. But when we would get there, our little sound system couldn't compete with that big system in a club. That was my first complaint to myself; we gotta get that punch out of our sound system. We weren't getting that. So we were struggling to play Rock / Funk tunes in this big club and then they would take breaks and put on these dog-gone Barry White records and they'd sound so large. I got into the dressing room one night and I told the guys "we're gonna have to change something here because we're not gonna make it here. We've got to get thirty-five songs that work in every club, because we can't play these Rock clubs and then we can't those disco. One song list has got to work for everyone." And the drummer finally ended up talking about these Black people who were coming to see us at this disco. They would come up and tease us. When the Disco machine would go off, they'd say "You White boys gonna play any Funky music?" Those guys were upset because we were like a Rock band, a Funk band, but we just had to go a little further into that and those guys were fighting me. Finally, the drummer just spoke up and said "Yeah, it's like they keep saying 'play that Funky music, White boys'" (laughs) and I said "Yeah, that's a good title." I was gonna release an "A" side of a Commodores song, because at that time a lot of White people didn't even know who they were. But they were having some Black hits that were nice and funky. They were on Motown too. They were kind of close to what I was doing. I just took it over the edge and really rocked it out, but their structure was like that Motown / Funk Brothers rhythm section. The designated parts in their production were pretty much like that. I heard one of their songs on the way back that I liked and nobody except Blacks knew. I was on my way to the stage and I was listening to the beat of the song and I just started writing lyrics; play that funky music and I wrote the last verse in the car on the way home and you're right... it was a five minute thing.

Q - That guitar intro to "Play That Funky Music" is probably just as famous as the guitar into to "Sweet Home Alabama".

A - Yeah, and that was an accident too. When I showed those guys the song, I got 'em through it. It was after a gig one night actually or the night after 'cause we were playing so much. They said "How we gonna start?" I said "Just use that same part we're talking about. Just start it with that." Play it eight bars and then everybody blew it up, come in. And that was an accident. Just one of those things. This is what sounds right. OK. Let's do it.

Q - That song always gets people up and out on the dance floor.

A - Bryan Basset, who is now playing with Foghat, did the intro on that song. We played the night before at a club that we were destroying, that was about an hour and a half away from that. We just got fresh. We had already done it enough that we were getting that kind of reaction. It was maybe a week after I wrote that song and we were playing it in clubs and were getting a real nice reaction to it. So, this was the night before we recorded it and we were playing it in a club we had lots of people at and they were all into the band. That was a good thing because that was one of the better places we played. We'd always have a crowd. People would always be crazy. When we did it that night, I said "let's do this tomorrow the same way we're doing it right now", before we did it right there on the stage. The next day in the studio, after we got that reaction that night, I said "Remember last night? Let's count it off the same way." And so we did two takes and the second take was the one. I just went in and did all that verbal stuff. Those were the ideas I had in my head, all those vocal things I did in-between, that was the next day improvised in the studio. But I did it all in the first take 'cause I knew what I wanted it to sound like. And sometimes you take a lucky guess.

Q - Testing that song before a 'live' audience long before you recorded it probably made all the difference in the world.

A - It did. I'm telling you, rehearsal is a wonderful thing and then playing it out in front of people is one thing a lot of great guys do. Springsteen pops into The Stone Pony in Asbury and plays and sometimes he brings a bunch of old Doo Wop dudes from that area in there. And they all sing together and have a good time. Sometimes he's just trying out new material. Bruce, he hangs out. He keeps in touch with everyone. He tries new stuff out there.

Q - I'm just guessing that when "Play That Funky Music" became such a hit, the record company came to you and said "write another song like that", and you did what?

A - I did what they asked me to do. I was stupid. I told them in the beginning, "one song does not make a career. I have no idea what you're talking about. I can't even resume that. Let's move on." And then they kept coming back saying "We don't hear anymore hits there." And I said "I told you, there are three here if you release them correctly." As it turns out over time, if they would have, it would have been better. But what I did was, I caved and I tried to appease them. Chapter Two. We played "Play That Funky Music, What's Happening Now?" It was stupid. It was the wrong thing to do. And I told them in the beginning it was the wrong thing to do. But they were telling me about all the other bands that were doing well out there and signed to the same label as we were, that were a pain in the ass. But as it turns out, those pain in the ass bands ended up lasting a hell of a lot longer time than we did. I caved. I have to blame myself.

Q - What bands are you talking about?

A - Oh, Boston. We were told by CBS they were difficult to deal with. Could I help ease the situation and just write what they were asking me to write? (laughs) Yeah. No. Wrong.

Q - Please tell me you weren't cheated by management or cheated out of record royalties.

A - I got that the first time. I got a second chance. I went though all that. I worked. I was lucky. I was working out of the Brill Building when I was fifteen, sixteen. It so ended up that Ellie Greenwich, who wrote with Phil Spector and her husband Jeff Barry (wrote) all those Ronette songs. "Be My Baby". She wrote "Hanky Panky", "Leader Of The Pack". We just became best friends for like over thirty years before she died. Ellie and I were writing partners. She wrote the flip side of "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun" for Cyndi Lauper. We wrote for Ellen Foley. She did Night Court. She also did all the background vocals on Meatloaf's albums. I was always in that crowd. I knew better, but things happen. You go through everything. You make mistakes yourself, but then you're in such purgatory, you know what you did wrong. So you're waiting for an opportunity for a second wind. When that thing ("Play That Funky Music") happened again in 1990, I already went through ten years of mud. I knew what I did wrong. I had everything ready to go. The wind just wasn't blowing. There was no wind in that sailboat. In 1990 that song exploded and turned into one of the biggest songs of all time. It's like "Wow!" OK. This has nothing to do with me now, but when that happened, I put everything away. I started investing. I was a dumb-ass long enough. How long do you want to be on your knees?

Q - By that time you pretty much know what you had to do.

A - And I listened to everybody else too! Even when I worked with Bruce Springsteen for awhile on the Gary (U.S.) Bonds project. I found out he went through the same stuff with his manager. Ellie Greenwich just kept telling me, "You gotta survive."

Q - What songs did you write with Ellie Greenwich?

A - We wrote a song that was a hit in Europe, we still get paid for it, "Toys In The Attic" for Ellen Folley. She had her own album out at the time. At the time, "Take Me Home Tonight", Eddie Money. He had Ronnie Spector singing on it. Ellen just got that gig doing Night Court. She had a deal with Steve Papovich. He signed me to Epic Records. He just died last year (2011). Steve was responsible for Meatloaf. He started his own label, Cleveland International. He had Ian Hunter. Very nice. Steve had some real nice things going on. He almost was in charge of Epic. He signed me to Epic Records.

Q - I couldn't help but notice that on your website, you state you're having some problems with agents booking fake Wild Cherry bands. You have the F.B.I. involved. There is no official Wild Cherry band that is together, is there?

A - No, there is not. It has to do with a two way factor. We were a one hit wonder that were only out there for fifteen minutes at the time. I didn't cultivate it long. You don't know what I look like, like Lionel Richie or Lady Ga Ga. So those kind of guys (Patrick Kirby Entertainment Team, Chicago; James Lundell, Wild Cherry Team, New York; and David Woods, United Entertainment) can put together bands like that. Luckily I've had friends in some nice positions that have been approached by those guys. Every time it comes about, we just put a stop to it. They're tacky booking agents. They're flesh peddlers.

Q - Why can't you shut these booking agents down?

A - You have to get $50,000 worth of business that they generate before you can even start to do that, before the F.B.I. kicks in. Those guys are booking those bands for instance for like $750 a pop.

Q - What can happen to a club owner that books one of those fake Wild Cherry bands? I went to get this message out.

A - If somebody finds that out, first of all, it's false advertisement. It's fraud. But what can happen is, the club owner can get sued. The agent, we're still looking for him. He's got to be doing a certain amount of business. But in the mean time, the clubs can get an injunction filed against them. We can go into any state and file an injunction. If we've got to do one club at a time, I guess that's what we'll do. The best thing to do is don't book the band. That's where you're gonna do yourself and everybody a favor.

Q - And so these days you're playing Smooth Jazz. How is that market for you?

A - It's good for all of us in the way that it's good because Smooth Jazz itself has diminished since it was really its hottest around 2000. It's done nothing but go downhill and disintegrate back into an avant garde thing. I think it's the radio programmers who have something to do with that. Anybody who knows how to do it right, right now will agree with everything I'm saying, but I don't want to go too far into it. The only thing I know is, there's a lot of Smooth Jazz people that are making incredible music that are not making the money they should be making. So, that's about it. That's my little venture into there. I have roots in the Smooth Jazz genre. I love it. Some of my best friends are in there. But as far as how far I want to compete in there, knowing everybody's situation right now, I'm not so happy. I want to be there. So, I'm trying to do some vocal, Adult Contemporary things that will fit into that Smooth Jazz format too. But they have to break in major radio out there, still something that's vibrant. I think that genre started out really hot. I love it. I still love it. But anybody that's into it will agree with me they have shot themselves in the foot and put themselves out of business. There are so many radio stations that are changing their formats from Smooth Jazz into Country. Can you imagine what a shock that will be to their listeners? They never found out how to package that Smooth Jazz thing. One thing I found interesting about Smooth Jazz is they try to incorporate vocals because they have to bill out. You've got to make enough money as a radio to survive. So that means you've got to draw a lot of people. You have to get women. If you have Hard Rock stations, all you're gonna sell is tires, beer and advertise strip clubs. Now, if you get the women, you can get Macy's and all the heavy accounts. All the big accounts. You can stay in business as a radio station. But you've got to format yourself to be able to attract women too. Now when they use people like Sade or Spencer Day, a young guy on the scene, those vocals work in Smooth Jazz. There's just a way to program it. If you've ever been in radio you understand that. That whole genre, they were confused. No one had a grip on how to do this. They had 'em for awhile, then they lost 'em.

Q - Do you go out and perform your Smooth Jazz material?

A - No. It's unfortunate. I can make three times more going out and playing "Play That Funky Music" than I can going out and doing ninety minutes of Smooth Jazz. This is the state of that art. I've told a lot of friends of mine who are artists, as long as it's like this, I'm never gonna tour. I can make that much playing "Play That Funky Music" for five minutes. Those shows make that much that they can pay me that much. You get a call from a Smooth Jazz promoter, he wants you to play for ninety minutes for $1,500. It's like, "Dude, I make that much sleeping. I'm sorry." I don't mean to be mean, but that's what it is. That's the state of the art. That's where it is. So, I'm not going to do anything. I don't need to do anything. I've invested again pretty well. If something I do that people hear and love so much that it becomes a large situation, then of course it would be fun to just go out and play 'live'. Do it! Let's have a party! That's it.

Q - Where do you draw inspiration from to write? Are you out in the clubs, listening? Is the antenna up?

A - Yeah, the antenna is up all the time, even when you're not working. When you're here working, you're putting down these ideas that your antenna has been up about. Your antenna might be up about five or six things. You're always gonna be thinking, an Elvis is in the building for the time being. Let's put it that way. So, when I get an idea, I write it down. If I think it's good, I work on it. If I don't, I don't. What's nice about this is I can do what I want to. If it's good, fine. If not, no. But I'm a writer getting back to my roots. I write everyday. So, some things are gonna be bad. A lot of people who have hits, they'll write fifty songs to get ten. You just have to write every day. It's like any skill, any craft. Like Tony Bennett once said, "If you want to get good, study the masters." And that's just what you keep on doing. When you get good, you gotta get better. You're never comfortable as long as you're out there competing. If you get one hit, you got to get another one. (laughs)

© Gary James. All rights reserved.