Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Music Music Music... Rock & Roll Part II

Back in Cincinnati. Back to a day job. Back to working for a living instead of living the life of a professional musician (which now after playing professionally for 18 months, it certainly was WORK). Less than 10 days passed by before I received a call from one Richard Sciutto. Rich told me that he and Jim Oldfield from the Bell Jar days were starting a band and they needed an upgrade in the keyboard department. It was strange, because Rob Nadler (formally from The Take and Straight Up) had his “audition” the same night I did. This meeting in October of 1991 spearheaded the birth of the Bad Habit Band you all know and love today.

The history section of the Bad Habit Band Website has the following story:

The year was 1990. Picture if you will Jim Oldfield walking across Seymour Avenue checking on some properties that he managed. At the same time a hurried copier repairman - Richard Sciutto - was driving down that same road, smoking a cigarette, and talking on his cell phone. Jim wasn't injured during the altercation, but the two musical acquaintances and this chance "meeting" lead to the formation of one of Cincinnati's most talented live music groups - Bad Habit.

Jim Oldfield (a founding member of Cincinnati's 70's rocker "Bell Jar") and Richard Sciutto (Freedom Suite) - wanted to "get back out into the clubs and play some great music". They added 3 other musicians - another guitarist, keyboard player and drummer - to get things kicking. They also played one show with Dangerous Jim and the Slims lead man Jim Miller before going it alone as a 5-piece group. In October of 1991, Guitarist Rob Nadler (The Take) and Keyboardist Jim Questa (Mara) were called into action to form the strong nucleus of the band you see today. Drummer / vocalist Jim Sullivan was the 5th member who powered Bad Habit through their first 2 years on the Cincinnati live music scene.

In 1993, Jim Sullivan's work schedule made it impossible to keep up with the ever-increasing schedule of Bad Habit shows. Jim Questa called his friend Brian Lee who was fresh off the road with The Take, starting a series of drummer changes that has only been exceed by the legendary band Spinal Tap. Other Drummers who have played with Bad Habit include Todd Farler (Mara), Stephen Schwarz (Prizoner), Rick Lanza (The Relics), and Shawn Wells (Twisted Fate). Brian joined Bad Habit for the third time in 2006, and never looked back.

Today, Bad Habit is known as the "who's who" of the Cincinnati live music scene. Rarely have musicians come together in a way that actually enhances their musical differences in a positive way, much less stay together for any length of time. But this group of polished professionals feeds off of each other’s strengths to form a truly unique mixture of styles, sounds and personalities. The result is a musical group that can truly play nearly anything and make it sound like their own creation.

October of 2009 will mark the 18th year of the Bad Habit Band. This amazing run would not have been possible without the support of our families, our partnerships with Greater Cincinnati's finest live music establishments, and the best fans any music group could ever wish for. The Bad Habit Band would like to raise a glass to all of you - many thanks for your support, and here's to many more years of good times and great music.

Just over the last few weeks, Bad Habit has been reborn into a 4 piece musical group. But studio rehearsals have given the band new life and a cleaner, clearer sound that the public hasn’t heard out of BH for years. I am really excited about the possibilities moving forward.

However, Bad Habit isn’t the only group that I’m working with. DV8 called me into service when their keyboardist gave his notice in mid June. This is another talented group of musicians who really love to do their thing. It’s more pop oriented with a bit of a classic rock edge, but the combination of two awesome vocalists (one male, one female) and a solid group of musicians make this a fun group with which to work.

Over the last month we’ve played some outdoor shows and some small rooms around Cincinnati. We will also be opening up for John Waite (the Baby’s, Bad English) on Friday, July 24th. It’s cool to see new clubs and new (and old as it turns out) faces, especially people who say, “Hey – didn’t you play with Bad Habit?” My answer remains, “I still do.” :)

Next Up – Hockey, The Coolest Sport On Ice

Music Music Music... Off To The Islands "Mon"...

In 1990 and after much soul searching trying to figure out if the Mara thing was all it was cracked up to be, I received a call from Danny Morgan. Danny was (and still is) a singer songwriter originally from Cincinnati Ohio who has carved out a great musical life for himself in and around the Gulf Coast of Florida. This was an opportunity to play music full time and make it a profession instead of a sideline. It also meant playing 5 or 6 nights a week, every week exposed to a different side of the music industry.

I was working at Santo’s Auto Service at the time as their parts manager. I scheduled a couple of days vacation, worked a full day on Wednesday, had dinner at home, hopped into my 78 Volkswagen Rabbit and drove 11-1/2 hours straight through to Sanibel Island, Florida (a very beautiful barrier island just off Ft. Meyers Beach).

I arrived in Sanibel about 1:30 in the afternoon. I picked a spot in a public lot and took a quick nap, trying to contact “Morgan” (as he is known by his close friends and employees) every so often. I managed to reach him around 5:00 and he gave me directions to his home. After showing me where I would stay for the next 18 hours, we hopped into the van and headed to the South Seas Plantation on Captiva Island.

After watching Danny’s show in this very quaint but very expensive night club, I sacked out in his van while he played the rest of his show. When the show was over, Morgan, guitarist Danny Frazier (of the Frazer River band), drummer Kenny Cox and I headed back to Moran’s home to sleep the rest of the night.

The next morning I auditioned for Danny and his band, landing the job easily. Danny and I headed off to a local restaurant where I signed a one year contract to play with Danny’s band, then hopped back in the VW Rabbit for the long drive home arriving back in Cincinnati early Friday afternoon.

Upon arriving home, I grabbed a nap because I was due to play a show in Clifton with Mara that night. Things were very strange with the band, and while I didn’t tell anyone where I was going or what I was doing over the past few days (not an uncommon occurrence ever), something didn’t seem right. Apparently, word had leaked out to the rest of the Mara guys that I had indeed auditioned with Danny’s band. That night I told the guys that I would be leaving to play full time with Danny when he came to Cincinnati in about 2 months. My last show with Mara at the time was held at “Nightlights” in the Eastgate area.

My time with Danny would be an incredible learning experience not only from the business side of music, but personally as a musician and the level of proficiency I would eventually attain. Moving from a part time prog-rocker to a jack of all trades musician wasn't really that difficult considering the background of my pre-teen days playing all kinds of popular music and standards. I learned Danny’s set list of jazz standards, reggae, island, 60's / 70's pop, and Jimmy Buffet songs - NINE SETS of them. And I wouldn't just be playing keys and singing, I'd also have to play left hand bass on the keys. This was the most difficult part, as my left hand has always been weaker than my right.

Over the next 15 months of playing 5+ nights a week in some of the most beautiful parts of Florida (Sanibel Island, Captiva Island, Naples and Key West just to name a few), my musical performance abilities really came out to shine. I could totally separate my left hand bass and right hand chords and leads, playing different parts in different time signatures and feel without even thinking about it. The sense of accomplishment was incredible and a testament to the God given talent I was blessed with at birth.

But while my musical abilities blossomed, 18 months on the road began to shake me as a human being. The recording opportunities I thought might be there really weren’t there, and any exposure or opportunities I might receive to move on to the “next level” were discouraged to the point where it became a similar experience to Mara’s “is this all there is” feeling.

We were due back to Cincinnati in the spring of 1991, and I decided at that time to stay in Cincinnati when Danny was scheduled to head back to Florida. This of course put Danny in a terrible bind, as he had become to depend on my proficient playing abilities. As a result, I sequenced Danny’s entire 9 set song list – nearly 150 songs – into a Roland MV-30 sequencer / band in a box. It became “Jimmy in a box”, and Danny still uses many of those sequences to this very day.

Next up – Rock & Roll Part II

Music Music Music... Rock & Roll Part I

My introduction into rock bands started in 1991 when I joined a couple of high school friends playing pop music together. Animation was that first group, lasting about 9 months. Chris Mundy and I combined forces with the vocalist, guitarist and one awesome female drummer (you ROCK Kenda!) from a band called "Scimitar," becoming "BALANCE" - a band that would last 18 months. After a few months on my own I met up with vocalist Philip Olmes - we cut a 45 (that would be a two sided polyvinyl chloride disk played on something called a "record player" - look it up) with two original songs on it. That lead to a band called "AM/FM" - we played a handful of shows with Chris Mundy on base and guitarist Jason Aronoff, who after a short time invited me to play with progressive powerhouse Mara.

Mara was - in the beginning - a progressive rock style original music band that was based out the “Pill Hill” Clifton, Ohio area. Taking cue from their musical hero's and influences such as Genesis, ELP, Yes, King Crimson and others, Mara was a pretentious and creative group of accomplished musicians with plenty of money to buy whatever musical device they desired. One such member played something Chris would whimsically name the "Nutty Octave Device" - an electronic clarinet if you will. It was the most bazaar musical instrument that I had ever seen at the time, and it became the focus of many jokes and stories over the years (including a mention on Mara's first commercial release).

Upon my arrival as Mara's new keyboardist, the band started to take more of a turn towards a harder edge (a trait that would follow me pretty much wherever I headed). Popular music in 1984 was right in the middle of the Glam Rock mTV era where big hair, make-up and 3 chord rock songs were the big sellers. In typical fashion, Mara borrowed a taste of this and a pinch of that to their progressive styling’s to create original music that was accessible to the 3 chord rockers, but acceptable to the prog-rock snobs (like myself of course). Mara brought on singer Marty Farris about the same time Dream Theater released their single "Pull Me Under", putting Mara on a similar prog-rock track producing powerful rock songs with intricate rhythms and big vocals.

"Breaking The Silence" was Mara's first release. We recorded it on an 8 track reel-to-reel recorder syncing the keyboards to SYMPE time code (not really an exact science for a bunch of 20 something year old kids), but it sounded simply incredible. Our close friends all became a part of the process taking photographs, designing the cassette jackets (yes, audio cassette – look it up), printing them, cutting, folding, inserting the mass produced tapes – EVERYTHING! At the end of the day we had a package that people could purchase at our live shows. You could take Mara home with you.

I thought for sure that this was - at last - my vehicle to stardom.

Over the next few years we would play clubs, open for national acts such as Andy Summers, Marillion, Shooting Star, and “3” (Keith Emerson, Carl Palmer, and Robert Barry). We even did a show in Dayton, OH with Donnie Iris and Joan Jett and the Blackhearts in front of an estimated 18,000 people (WOW what a rush!), all the while writing more and more material. We upgraded to a 16 track recorder and added a bunch of outboard gear to record “Poetry & Motion” – Mara’s first full CD released that included select cuts from our first cassette.

Jason Arnoff, Jim Questa, Marty Farris, Todd Farler, and Chris Mundy
MARA 1987

By this time Mara had a “posy” of managers, agents, and a road crew – even our own step van (the “Taco Queeb” van – don’t ask…) to go from local gig to local gig. By the time we started the writing process for “America”, we were well on our way – so we thought…

Unfortunately as time went on, the struggles of life and the unrealistic expectations of men who refuse to grow up started to have an adverse effect on the band. Half of us wanted to hit the road and start making more of a name for ourselves. The other half wanted to stay local and "do it like Allen Parsons," breaking into the music business from the recording studio. While we continued to play in local clubs to rave reviews, I had to make a personal, professional decision.

Next up - Off To The Islands "Mon"...

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Music Music Music... In The Beginning

My musical history is so long and varied (spanning 40 years now) that I'll be breaking this information up into sections. Have patience. :)

When I leave this world I will likely be remembered because of and through my music. Music doesn't completely define me, but music certainly is a major part of my life and without it, I would be a shell of the human being I am today.

Picture if you will a small house on a small, dead-end street, the lady of the house cooking and cleaning. Her husband is looking over bills while a black and white TV churns out the drivel of the day. The telephone rings, and the woman of the house picks it up. The conversation goes something like this:

"Hello Loretta - Ruth Junker here."
"Hi Ruth - how are you?"
"I'm fine - Jim is over here"
"Is he behaving himself?"
"Well, yes - when did he learn how to play the piano?"

My parents walked over to the neighbor's house and listened as I picked out the songs I heard being played by my teacher in kindergarten. Shocked and astounded, my parents decided this was a talent that needed to be nourished and developed.

They picked up a cheap Magnus Chord Organ for my birthday, complete with a 12 song songbook. I learned all 12 songs in a month, and wore out the organ in 6. Fully intent on purchasing a piano that Christmas, my parents took me to the Wurlitzer store in Tri-County Mall. While they were talking to a salesman about pianos, I hopped up on the largest organ in the store and started playing with both hands on both manuals. My legs were too short to reach the pedals, but I stood up and played them too as best as I could. Thinking, "You can make a lot more sounds with an organ than you can with a piano," my parents bought the smallest organ in the store...

That organ came with a 36 song song book and three cassette tapes. I drank up the books designed for an adult like a hungry baby gobbles mother’s milk and had them mastered in less than 6 months. By the time I was 6 years old, I started performing for others besides my parents.

I was "discovered" by Bob Braun, a local television celebrity who hosted the "50/50 Club" for many years in the 60's and 70's. He was at the Tri-County Mall where I just happened to be playing the organ to a throng of people who packed the front of the store to see this little "toe head" of a kid making music. Braun approached my parents and within 30 days I was to make my first of 3 appearances on his show. From that point up until high school I was to perform on every television station in Cincinnati (only 5 of them at the time), and even nationally as a "Showtime" guest on the New Mickey Mouse Club in Anaheim, California. And that's while also performing a rather demanding schedule of personal appearances for music stores, shopping malls, restaurants, conventions, etc.

At the age of 9, my parents answered an ad in the newspaper - producers looking for talent. Gene Hughes from the Cincinnati do-wop group The Casino's and Snokkie Lanson from the Lucky Stripe Hit Parade were the two people who sold my parents on financing a recording that would likely catapult their little boy from obscurity to super-stardom. Several thousand dollars later I found myself in a recording studio laying a lead instrumental organ track to the original background of The Casino's "Then You Can Tell Me Goodbye", and then an original instrumental composition entitled "Chicago Line." I even worked out the chord charts with the studio musicians in the room so we could bust out my song in about 45 minutes.

While the experience in the studio was very cool, the financial burden and inability (unwilling may be a better word - you choose) of the promoters to keep their stated promises took a huge toll on my Parents, and in particular my father who suffered his first of 3 heart attacks and the first of 3 strokes in the months thereafter.

During my 4 years at Roger Bacon High School I played drums and percussion (to the dismay of my parents of course - by the way, the parents curse works...), not only becoming section leader my senior year, but writing and performing my own musical compositions. After spending a summer with Amelia High School as their drum instructor I was done with marching percussion, but not with performing.

Next up - Rock & Roll Part I

The Silence Is Broken

Hello world! :)

Perhaps the world doesn't need another collection of electronic noise in the form of a blog from a middle-aged white male. But I'm so pleased that - at least for now - the government hasn't clamped down on my freedom of expression. I plan to make the best of the opportunities that are in front of me, which is something I am proud to say I have done throughout my relatively short lifetime.

So - who am I? The answer to this question will be worth $300.00 worth of psychological visits. Not only am I writing a blog, I'm preserving my own mental health.

Stats, Birthplace and Education
I am a 45 year old man, half 3rd generation Italian (father) and half 4th generation German Dutch (mother). I have a shaved head (was blonde) and blue eyes, 6'2" tall and weigh much more than I should. I am politically conservative and personally liberal (a contradiction that I will explain in detail another time).

I was born and raised in St. Bernard, a small city about 6 miles north of the Ohio River right up Interstate 75 made somewhat famous by "Ivorydale", the huge Proctor and Gamble soap plant where Ivory Soap was produced for the masses. I was sent to public schools through 3rd grade, then transfered to a private Catholic grade school from 4th grade on thanks to the grace and financial fortitude of my parents (mostly my mother, but more about that later). After graduating from Roger Bacon High School in 1982, I entered the Southern Ohio School of Broadcasting. Unfortunately, both time and money prevented me from finishing my associates degree program, so it was off into the working world I went.

Working Stiff
My employment record shows either incredible loyalty, or incredible stupidity. During my senior year in high school and first year through college, I worked at United Dairy Farmers - first in St. Bernard, then in Roselawn. I transfered from convenience store clerk to auto parts gofer, first working at J & R Automotive in Bond Hill, then Santo's Auto Service in Wyoming. It was at this time that I discovered a trait inside of me that I've drawn on throughout the rest of my life - my ability to adapt, change, accept a challenge and succeed. At Santo's I started as a general laborer, assistant and cleanup person. Over a short period of time I learned how to do simple repair work - oil changes and tune-ups - then more advanced repair duties. Then after running a 67' Jaguar E Type convertible through the front window of the repair facility, I found myself a new position (within the same company believe it or not - thank you Tony!) as parts manager. Over the next 6 years I would create a spare parts facility complete with a computerized inventory system (Mac's Rule!), and by the time I left in the spring of 1990 Tony had turned his little two bay gas station into a 6 bay master repair facility.

Fast forward 9 months to August of 1991. Fresh off the road from giving a music career a shot (more on this later), I landed a job at a manufacturing facility in Sharonville as a "stock clerk". Over the next 18 years, I would survive 17 managers, 10 promotions, 6 downsizings, 2 ownership groups and 2 locations. I still work for that company, and by the grace of God I still will by the end of the year.

Next up - Music Music Music...