Classic Rock Revisited presents an exclusive interview with...
Walter Rossiís name may not be familiar to many people in the USA but if you grew up in Canada in the mid 70ís he was hard to miss as his music was all over FM radio. Between the years of 1976-1980 he released 3 excellent studio albums which not only showcased his guitar mastery but also proved that he was no slouch in the songwriting department either. Prior to embarking on a solo career he played alongside the legendary Wilson Pickett and was also a member for a brief time of drummer Buddy Milesí Express before Buddy went on to play with Jimi Hendrix in Band of Gypsys. Walter is an undiscovered gem and exactly why he was never able to achieve success in the US is mind boggling, although lack of money and poor management certainly played a large part in him not achieving recognition south of the border. I would strongly advise you to seek out those 3 early records, his self titled debut album, Six Strings Nine Lives & Diamonds for the Kid, trust me you will not be disappointed. Since the early 80ís he has spent most of his time producing other acts but in early 2004 he had the itch to play live again after being away from the stage for many years, he also found time to release a new CD called Secret Sins. The New Year is shaping up to be a busy one for Rossi and he has a few surprises in store for his longtime fans.
By: Ryan Sparks Ė January 2005
CRR: What have you been up to recently?
Walter: My associates and I have formed our own record label called Cosmic Forces, we are distributed by Select (Distribution). As you can imagine there is much to do, our first release is my latest CD entitled Secret Sins. I also just moved into a new home and I'm in the middle of building my new recording studio, writing songs and keeping my fingers in shape.
CRR: Earlier this past year you returned to the stage after a 15 yr absence, why were you gone for so long?
Walter: Good question, I've asked myself this very same question everyday for the last 10 years. I could write a book on this one. Music for me is not just guitar playing, I'm still fascinated by the recording process, it's a wonderful never ending saga of learning, it has no beginning and it has no end. I still get the same kick out of it as when I did my first album released with a group called Influence recorded in New York at Bell Studios in 1969. I went through all the phases from 4 up to 64 tracks to Midi and Pro Tools and it still fascinates me. I got deeply involved in producing, writing scores and jingles yet I always felt a deep emptiness in my gut, this lasted many, many years and then one day I made the move. I wanted to play in front of people again, I missed the shot of adrenalin before a show, hanging out with the boys and sweating till it drips, but most of all I missed my fans, they give me so much energy. I guess in some ways I had lost my sense of self and I questioned why I got into this business in the first place, my axe was my reason to be and I had left it behind for so many years, but that's all over now.
CRR: As you mentioned you released a new CD this past year called Secret Sins Ė The Intimate Session Series Vol 1 which is your first CD since 1994ís One Foot in Hell is that right?
Walter: Yes Secret Sins is a compilation of different songs never released over the last 10 years and it has more of an intimate approach, sometimes I write songs just for myself and sometimes you write a song to come to terms and closure with different bugs in your life, love, family, friends, show business, whatever comes to mind. It's just my way of dealing with certain obstacles. I never planned to release this material until I let someone hear a couple of these songs, one of these particular songs was a tune called ''Burning House'' and when the song ended I turned around and looked at my friend and she was crying, she said "Walter you got to release these songs" then she apologized for her crying. I co-wrote this song with Pye Dubois, heís a good man and has written for Kim Mitchell, Rush and Red Rider if I'm not mistaken.
CRR: Youíre also planning on doing some more live shows at some point next year as well?
Walter: Yes we are planning shows for April 2005 and summer music festivals as well. I've also been offered to do shows in Sweden, Holland and Germany. Itís an expensive proposition though so we'll see. Money is always a huge problem.
CRR: Can you tell me how at only twenty yrs of age you came to be the guitarist in Wilson Pickettís band?
Walter: I use to hang out at the Esquire Show Bar in Montreal back then, artists like King Curtis use to play there, what a sax player he was. One afternoon when I didnít have much to do I popped in to see who was playing at the bar that week, it was a blues singer called TV Mamma. I had never heard of her but on my way out a big black man with a huge afro proceeded to talk to me, he said "Hey man, you look like a musician" to which I replied "Yes", he tells me his name is Buddy Miles and that heís the drummer with TV Mamma so then he asks me what instrument do I play and I told him "Guitar" then he invites me to jam with him the next day at the Esquire during the afternoon when no one is there. I accepted his offer and we jammed non stop for 2-3 hours, we really got off both musically and personally. After his gig with TV Mamma ended that week Buddy decided to hang out in Montreal for a couple of weeks and we quickly became good and close friends. One day he gets a phone call from New York and to my amazement he was on the phone with Wilson Pickett which blew me away. Pickett was filling him in on the new schedule of his up coming US tour and he also told Buddy he was looking for a new guitar player, Buddy told him about me and 2 weeks later I was auditioning for Pickett's group at Massey Hall in Toronto where Wilson was doing a show. I used to know all of Pickett's songs inside out; he was one of my favorite R&B singers along with Otis Redding, James Brown, Curtis Mayfield and Marvin Gaye. Anyways I took the bus to Toronto and arrived early for the audition at Massey Hall, Pickett's band was doing a sound check and Buddy was playing drums, I was pretty nervous Ryan. Pickett finally arrives and they started playing a song called ''99 & 1/2'', I noticed the guitar player on stage had it all wrong and Wilson started to give him shit, when their sound check was completed Buddy and Wilson got off the stage and they walked toward me and introductions were made, Pickett calls back the band to the stage and invites me up to play, he asked me if I knew ''99 & 1/2'' so I said "No problem", the song starts with a guitar intro, Pickett counts the song in and 8 bars later he stopped the band and tells me " Walter be in New York next week". That's it, that's all, that's how I got the gig. When I finally returned home to Montreal I was excited to tell the good news to my Father but his reaction was "Who is Wilson Pickett? You're wasting your time, get a job my son and don't forget to stir the tomato sauce".
CRR: It must have been a very daunting experience in the late 60ís being the only white person in an all black band at the time, Iím guessing that you werenít always welcomed with open arms in some cities?
Walter: A daunting experience to say the least. I was just a 19 year old kid with one thing on my mind, my guitar. I was around black people since I had left high school and I used to see racism on TV but I was not prepared for what was about to happen to me. When I got to New York for rehearsals all was fine and I had no problems, I even fell in love with a beautiful black woman there, Carlton the bass player in the band gave me a little attitude once in a while but when we finally toured the Southern States, Alabama, Georgia, Texas and Mississippi that's when the shit hit the fan. We used to play to segregated audiences, imagine a packed arena with white people to the right and black people to the left, 20,000 fans split down the middle, there was so much tension. Imagine how I felt up there on stage, I witnessed the KKK bullshit and we were often refused gasoline, 2 out of 3 gas stations would not permit us to use the washrooms and when the boys in the band would get the munchies or need cigarettes I would go into the restaurant and order and as I would walk out with the goods I was called a nigger lover. The hard core rednecks were the dangerous ones and I experienced quite a few close calls, guns in the US were so easy to buy, as easy as buying a bag of chips and there were no questions asked only ''Will you need ammunition sir?'' Pickett was very worried for me and so was Jack Philpot the tenor sax player and band leader. I often use to ride with Pickett in his limo; he always wanted me close to him. They both were very supportive and loving.
One night at one of our concerts in Montgomery Alabama during the song ''Land of 1,000 Dances '' I noticed Pickett changing the show routine, he brought the band down to a very low volume and started preaching to the sold out segregated audience about racism, he went on and on about what it means to have soul then says ''Why do black people think that white people have no soul? Soul is from within no matter what color you are'', he calls me to the front of the stage and introduces me and says ''As you can all see Walter is white and he'll prove to you all that white people also have soul, Walter show the people how much soul you got''. I cranked up my volume full blast and took a 10 minute screaming guitar solo and as I was playing Wilson danced all around me, the people stood up and went wild. The tension in the audience calmed, it was amazing to see 20,000 people getting along, dancing and having a good time. This became the new routine for all the following concerts. What a beautiful experience
CRR: You also toured with Buddyís group The Buddy Miles Express also didnít you?
Walter: Yes we mostly played Colleges and Universities in the US and a few big clubs once in awhile. We recorded the original version of Buddyís anthem "Them Changes" in Chicago when we were doing a 2 night stand at the Beaver's Club, we also had Billy Cox playing with us, and he was a fabulous bass player. Buddy and Billy ended up doing the Hendrix live album Band of Gypsyís at the Fillmore. If you ever get to hear my original solo on "Them Changes" and then you hear Jimi's version you'll hear a great resemblance.
CRR: Did you get a chance to meet and play with Hendrix at all?
Walter: Yes but not on a professional level. When Buddy and Billy were rehearsing for the Band of Gypsyís concert in New York Jimi was in Toronto answering to drug possession charges. I was hanging out at the rehearsals and when Jimi finally came back to New York I got to meet him, we all hung out at his pad for a couple of days. I got to play with him in his living room and I also assisted on a couple of Jimi's sessions at Electric Lady Studios, too bad it was just as a spectator though. Jimi was a genius, very high and very shy. He has influenced most guitar playerís word wide. May he rest in peace.
CRR: Around this time you had also formed your own band called The Influence which got you some attention south of the border with a tour that saw you opening for The Doors and Steppenwolf. What do you remember about those shows and what happened to The Influence?
Walter: Influence was a rock satire progressive group, a little like Frank Zappa's Mothers of Invention. Louis McKelvey and I shared the guitar work, Jack Geisinger played bass, Dave Wynne was on drums, Bobo Island did keyboards and vocals and Andrew Keiler sang. We were one of the first Canadian groups to get signed to an American Label which was ABC Records. We recorded at Bell Studios in New York and everywhere we played we got critical acclaim, musicallyas a group we were way ahead of our time. There was a lot of interest in us and eventually it landed us gigs with Procol Harum, Steppenwolf and The Doors but unfortunately due to management problems we split up after one album. What I remember about the shows is that it was a totally different type of audience compared to my days with Wilson Pickett. The late 60's were about anti- war demonstrations, anti-establishment, anti-racism and flower power, drugs, hippies; make love not war slogans, peace signs, the sex revolution and good music. It was all quite amusing. I had more freedom to express myself with Influence as a guitar player at a much greater volume, Louis McKelvey and I use to play Indian type scales in harmony, Influence was a cross between The Who and Frank Zappa. I miss them all very much.
CRR: Who were your earliest influences on the guitar growing up?
Walter: Well Ryan when I was growing up there were no guitar heroes like we have now.I used to listen to early BB King, though I preferred Albert King. I also liked Lonny Mack, Howard Roberts and Steve Cropper from Booker T and the MG's, they did all the recordings for Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Sam and Dave etc. at the Stax studio in Memphis Tennessee. Pickett brought me there on a few occasions and they were nice people, very laid back. I never recorded with Pickett in those days until 1979 when Andre Perry at the Morin Heights Studio called me to play on a new Wilson Pickett album he was producing I Want You which came out on EMI.
CRR: At various stages of your career you were asked to join Bowieís band and Three Dog Night. How seriously did you consider some these offers?
Walter: I always considered serious offers as they donít come around everyday; unfortunately I had to refuse both offers with David Bowie and Three Dog Night due to my Father's health. My sister had gone back to live in Italy and I was the only one left to stand by my Father in the last year of his life. England and Los Angeles were just too far away from Montreal.
CRR: Did you ever wonder how your life might have been different had you joined any of these bands?
Walter: Yeah, I thought about it for 10 fucking years, there is so much to say, I'll say it like this, Iíve died many times in my life. One positive thing though, I've learned how to deal with the mediocrity and blindness of the Canadian Music Industry from top to bottom and nothing has changed. I speak for all 'real' Canadian Artists.
CRR: Youíre well known in Canada and youíve won various awards over the years yet you were never able to break the American market, why do you think that is?
Walter: America protects Americans, when I started recording Canadian Artists were never welcomed in the USA. I guess it's a bit better now with Cťline Dion, Avril Lavigne and Le Cirque du Soleil etc. because money talks. American bands have an easy time coming into Canada and I wish it was as easy for us Canadian Artists to cross the American Border. In my case it also had much to do with bad management and no financing. I could talk about this for hours, there should be a free trade artist agreement between Canada and our close loving neighbors but then again what did free trade do for Canadians?
CRR: From the time you began your solo career in 1976 with your self titled debut album you were really on a roll there for about 4 years, each album seemed to top the last one. Were the songs coming fast and furious during that time and do you feel you were at your creative peak?
Walter: I'm an Artist Ryan and my songs are the mirror of my life, they are my inner self, my fantasies, my insecurities, my anger, and my way to obtain closure with certain issues I must deal with. I never think when I write, sometimes I don't touch my guitar for two weeks and in the middle of the night Iíll get out of bed, light up a cigarette, make myself an espresso and pick up my axe and it just comes to me. That's how a song like "Soldiers in the Night" came to be, it all came to me in one shot. I believe when artists feel they have peaked musically then it can only go down hill from that point. I don't measure my worth by how much airplay I get or how many CD's I've sold, that's just luck and business. I create because I need to, no matter if anyone hears it or not. On the contrary, I get so stressed at not being able to do all I would like to, time seems to get shorter as you age. I still got the flame burning inside me. I still feel 19 years old. Music is like the Universe, it has no beginning and it has no end, so much to learn, and so much to experience. How can anyone say they were at their creative peak? If you admit to that you obviously have or have had limitations in your creative process. This is not the case for me. I'll still be rocking at 99, music keeps me young, itís too bad that my body won't listen.
CRR: Your second solo album Six Strings Nine Lives was an absolute masterpiece and I remember it was all over the radio at the time. The songs were longer and more complex, was this deliberate effort on your part to expand your sound?
Walter: Six Strings Nine Lives was a magical period of my life, we recorded and mixed it in under 3 weeks at Tempo Studio. Many good musicians were on that album. Music was great in those days, Supertramp, Pink Floyd, Genesis and so many more. Radio stations would support the unconventional artists and I simply felt I belonged. I was never one to follow the trends and on that album I simply did what I wanted to do. Often enough record companies try to mold you into something you're not, but obviously they never think about the artist's integrity. I just didn't give a fuck and did it my way'.
CRR: The cover of this album with the fold out replica of your Gibson Les Paul was certainly one of the most lavish covers on vinyl of itís time.
Walter: I love my 59 Les Paul; it's been with me through thick and thin. I'm a little jealous though as maybe it's the first time in rock history that a guitar is more recognizable than the guy who's playing it. Seriously though the average album jacket in those days was approximately $0.11(cents) to manufacture and my jacket ended up costing over a dollar. Bob Lemm from Aquarius Records and I came up with the idea and as great as the jacket was it was also one of the reasons why I didn't get an American Record contract. Aquarius Records insisted that the jacket remain as it was and the feedback from the American Record Companies was. "But we don't even spend this kind of money on the Rolling Stones" so there you go.
CRR: How many takes normally will you do on a solo, are you going for something spontaneous or do you work at it until you get it right?
Walter: How many times can you shower and shave before you make love to the woman you love? Sometimes I don't shave Ryan. When I'm recording guitars the most important thing for me is the sound, the sound has to fit the track, the right sound will give the right emotion. I usually don't overplay before a take, I manage my energy and Iíll help to assist the engineer by explaining and playing a couple of notes in order for him to mike my amps properly, which takes time. Also what is most important is the choice of microphones you use, sometimes a cheap Shure mike will sound better than anything else. I also need to hear the rough mix a certain way, it has to excite me. When all is ready, the engineer better be ready to record me, I'll do a couple of takes and that's it, what comes out is what you get. You can spend time and refine your guitar solos to a point that it's impeccable but you lose the initial feel and to me music is all about feel, listen to Pavarotti, it's only feel.
CRR: A long time ago rock critic Martin Melhuish wrote in Billboard that visually you were a cross between James Dean and Attila the Hun, was that an accurate description of you at the time?
Walter: Don't know about James Dean but Attila is a cool motherfucker. In reality I see myself more like a cross between Eggplant Parmegiana and Ravioli with Meat Balls.