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Interview with: Rock Romano
Interviewed by: Erin Norris
Date: January 21, 2011
Archive Number: OH 605
EN: 00:03 Today is Friday, January 21, 2011. This is Erin Norris with the Houston Metropolitan Research Center Houston Music Oral History Project, talking today with Rock Romano. Mr. Romano, welcome.
EN: Thanks for coming.
RR: Thanks for having me. I appreciate it. Should I look at you or the camera? I’ll look at you.
EN: You can look at me.
RR: It’ll look like a TV interview then.
EN: (laughs) Let’s start at the beginning with your musical background. Do you come from a musical family?
RR: I’ll tell you, I grew up in Houston. I was born here, and I grew up in the Northside-Fifth Ward area, around a little Catholic Church, Holy Name School and Church, where I went till the eighth grade. I went to St. Thomas High School and St. Thomas University, and that takes us to about 40 years ago. My family wasn’t particularly musical. My mother sang in church but not in the choir. It’s just something that I discovered along the way somewhere when I was nine or ten. I was in the fourth grade, fifth grade and I found that I was a good singer. The lady, Mrs Benerito, who was our choir director, really liked my singing, and so when I was in the fifth, sixth grade I started singing in the choir and started taking vocal lessons from her. I would get out of class to do it, so it was fun, and I didn’t mind at all—such as it was. She was a beautiful lady. She put productions on at our school and our church and had a group of singers and actors around her. I realize now that she was quite a show person. She always had lots of makeup, and her eyebrows were painted on, and I realize now that she was kind of an out there person. I think she was an influence on me. I never had pretty much any other kind of music lessons except that. I went and took a couple of guitar lessons when I had already been playing guitar for several years when I was maybe 18 or 19 years old just to have a guy look at me and tell me that I was doing all right and I was holding my hands right. (chuckles) But by that time I already had taught myself a lot of guitar.
02:39 So anyway, I started playing music at about age 13. My younger brother Joe, who is also a musician that grew up here and he’s got a duo, he’s a jazz musician. He was five and I was ten, and he got a little plastic ukulele for Christmas, and I stole it from him and got the little book and flipped through, and I learned how to play chords. Within minutes I could entertain myself with this little thing and play “Hail, Hail, the Gang’s All Here” and things like that. I learned maybe seven or eight chords out of this book. My birthday is in February, and I don’t know if it was that year or the year after, but my parents got me a wooden ukulele because I had just never stopped playing it. My older sister Roseanne, who is three years older than me—we used to just sit around and play and sing all the time. I would play, and we would both sing. I could only play in the key of C because that’s all I could figure out from the book, and all the songs in the book were written in C, so I just figured that’s what you did, and so there were a lot of songs that were way too high for me to sing, so I would whistle. On the way to school all the time I would memorize songs. I’d memorize Pat Boone’s “Love Letters in the Sand.” Before long it was Elvis and Ricky Nelson and that kind of stuff. My sister and I really could entertain ourselves, and I remember sitting on the porch at my grandmother’s house in Louisiana singing and whistling songs into the day. I never even thought about what people were thinking of us or anything, but we had a great time doing it. Roseanne and I learned to sing harmonies together.
My brother Joe and I sort of caught up to one another, because out of St. Thomas High School I went to the Basilian seminary. I did a year in the novitiate there in Pontiac, Michigan, in that religious order. I came back to Houston to go to the University of St. Thomas and quickly got out of the order as soon as they would let me out. But during that time my brother, who was five years younger than me, caught up another year, and by the time I was about a junior—I went five years to St. Thomas on a special art history program, so Joe and I were caught up with one another, and we were in school together for the last couple of years. I was at St. Thomas. We played music together, we talked a lot, a lot of philosophy, a lot of angst, that kind of stuff. But by that time—
05:38 I’m going to jump back to when I was 13. About a year after I began, maybe two years after I began playing the ukulele, I started running into guys who played the guitar and discovered that the guitar was just like the ukulele. It’s tuned exactly the same except the D string, the fourth string on a ukulele, is tuned up an octave higher on a guitar. Otherwise they’re exactly the same. A tenor ukulele would be tuned exactly like a guitar except without the two lower strings, so it wasn’t too much of a stretch, except physically, to work out how to play those other two notes and to have full guitar chords. You go through a phase of your hands hurting and burning and getting calluses on your fingers, but that comes fairly easy. The next thing I knew, I was playing with guys in my neighborhood and we had little bands. Before I was out of the eighth grade, we played a dance at my grade school, but it was in the summer after I got out of the eighth grade, or it was right at the end of me being in the eighth grade. I had a rock band, and we were called The Sultans. I think every other rock band was probably called that by then. (chuckles)
EN: And this was about what time period?
RR: This would have been in 1958. I was born in 1945. I should have said that. I grew up in a big Italian Catholic family. We never had any money, but we sure ate well. That was what we were famous for. My father made eyeglasses. I had four older brothers—Albert, Anthony, Jerry, and Jimmy—that came before Roseanne. I’m just trying to see here. I grew up in the tradition of the Italian Catholic family with St. Joseph tables and all the Italian festivities that came and went. But we were fairly modern. We just kind of kept up. We got a TV in 1950 when I was five, and Joe was born in 1949, I think.
It was 1958 or so when I was starting to play in bands—’58, ’59—and then when I went to high school I stayed playing with the band that I was in in grade school, but I ran into this bunch of other guys that had a band, and I kind of became their consultant. They’d ask me, “What should we name our band? What should we do this?” And so they were always asking me these questions, and then I started kind of sitting in with them on these country club circuit gigs. We played dances and parties. My other band, The Sultans, we played a lot of parties at St. Pius and different places like that as things went on. I really drifted into this other band, and by the time I was a sophomore at St. Thomas, we had a band called the Jim Askins Combo, and it was these guys. It was five guys and me, and we did all the current songs of the day. We did a lot of blues stuff and Chuck Berry and Jimmy Reed songs and everything. We’d try real hard to learn stuff like “Misty” and Doris Day songs and whatever so we could play parties. We just played all the time, and we made money playing. It was really cool. I stayed with those guys playing all through high school.
09:18 I went off to the seminary, and everybody went to their various schools. But I came back to Houston, and I went to the University of St. Thomas for two semesters, and in the summer they let me release from my vows because I was in a religious order. It was the teaching priest that taught at the St. Thomases, and that was my reason I went that way. I think every Catholic boy thinks he has a vocation or he ought to or something. It was years later—I was 50 or something—talking to my mother, and I was talking to her about that and she said, “You know, I never could figure out why you did that. You didn’t seem very suited for that.” (laughs) I went, “What? I did it for you.” (laughs) It was funny. But anyway, when I went to college my first year, I was still of the cloth. Then I got out of that. But in the last six months of me being at St. Thomas my first year, on Saturdays I was going over to my house and rehearsing with the old guys that I played with in high school. By the time I got out of the Basilians, we were rehearsing for real and were starting to play gigs.
I was in another band called The Baroque Brothers that I got in playing bass with those guys, and they were the first band that played at this place called La Maison over at McGowen and Bagby. It was a huge, important club in the evolution of Houston music history. The people that had that eventually started a club called Liberty Hall that brought some of the most famous people in the world—everybody from Dr John to Dan Hicks and the Hot Licks and Bruce Springsteen—to Houston on their very first tours. I saw a lot of great music. But that’s jumping ahead just a little. So I’m still in college playing with The Baroque Brothers. It was a nice, salty, four-piece rock band. We opened at the Sam Houston Coliseum for Jackie Wilson for an all black show. It was fantastic. We were afraid, and this crowd just received us so well. It was like no fear after that. I eventually got out of The Baroque Brothers. It was a hard decision, but The Six Pents was my passion. During that time The Beatles hit and all this stuff, and so we were trying to be British and we were trying to do all this stuff. But we wrote original songs, and we got a record contract with a local outfit, Andrus Productions. We did about 10 or 15 local singles, and we became one of the top bands in Houston for playing around the teen clubs and stuff like that during the ‘60s. Between, I’d say, ’65, ’64½ and ’68 we played, maybe ’67. At that point some of us had to go off to Vietnam. Things got shaken up along the line, and we changed some members. My old mates from high school, we all stayed playing together until right about ’69, and then a few of us stayed together but personnel changed. People went off to do different things. We were all starting to graduate from college and stuff.
12:55 During that time, in about ’65, we started this recording business. I was kind of always the guy going, “Can’t you make it sound different than that?” And they would go, “No, you can’t touch that. That’s the EQ,” or something like that, and they wouldn’t let me touch it. But I was one of the two writers in The Six Pents. We signed with UNI Records, which was Universal MCA out of California. We were doing our recording here with a producer, a real producer named Gary Zekley out of California, but our stuff was being released out of there. We had a moderately successful couple of chart hits, 40, 50 in the nation hits. One was called “Elephant Candy” and the other was called “The Grooviest Girl in the World,” which has been covered by people in Scandinavia and Japan and stuff. That wasn’t my song. That was Gary Zekley’s song, who was our producer. So during all that, ultimately they took us out to California, and we recorded with the absolute A-Team out there. Of course we didn’t do any of the recording. We just sang because The Six Pents, which eventually became The Fun and Games, were known as a big vocal band. We could do Beach Boys and every Beatles song and all that, but we had our own original stuff as well which we were trying to make it with. When we went out to California, I was falling in love about the same time and really becoming disenchanted with the whole commercial music scene, and I teamed up with two of the guys that had become members of The Fun and Games that weren’t guys that I hung out with in high school. We sort of mutinied. We had gotten out of all our contracts and stuff and started another little band, moved that band to Santa Fe, came back here. But in between that time I had had a child with my wife. I just dropped out of school.
15:02 I’m leaving out a lot of stuff intentionally. Mrs de Menil was my patron, kind of, in college. She helped match my grants because I was just a poor boy from the Northside but did well in school, and so she matched my grants. And she knew I loved art history, and so she kind of became a good friend, and she showed me a lot about art and a lot about that world. So that was really influential on me too, and I still paint. I thought I could be an art historian and have credentials as an artist and not have to go to art school because those people all seemed like they were crazy to me (chuckles) or like sort of off to the side somewhere. And I just was convinced that I had the right thing going, and it’s taken all my life to realize that it’s just I’m lucky to get to be doing any of this stuff.
During the musical part of it what happened is in ’69 when I dropped out of The Fun and Games and my contracts in California—I just hated it out there. I really didn’t want to do that, and it was a terrible way to learn, to work my way for four or five years up to getting there and finding out it wasn’t really what I wanted to do at all, and I was dropping out like everyone else in 1968 and ’69 and trying to go off and be countercultural. And the woman I married was quite that way. I was going to have a baby, and I just had to do something, so I went and asked Walt Andrus, who owned the studio, I said, “Look, I want to do this part of it. I want to twist the knobs and become a producer,” because we were already just a really killer vocal arranging band. People would send stuff to us from other states to put vocals on their stuff, and we were well known for that. So anyway, he said okay, and so I started engineering there. He said, “Go tell Frank to tell you what to do.” Frank Davis was the other engineer, who is another artist-musician, and he was just a great influence on me. He still lives in Houston. The instructions Frank gave me to be an engineer was, “Familiarize yourself with that machine,” and he pointed to this big eight-track recorder that we had already been working on since maybe ’67. And I just fast-forwarded it and rewound it a few times and said, “Okay.” And then I was the guy that just came— I was the first guy there and the last guy to leave, and I just made myself really important there, and I made a good living doing that.
Then I got the wild hair to move myself and Michael Sumler and Joe Dugan to Santa Fe with our wives and kids and pianos and took a big truck of stuff there, and we just came back about six months or a year later with our tails between our legs. But I immediately got, through a friend of mine, Sam Irwin, who has a band called Duck Soup now and who was in The Fun and Games with me, he helped get me a gig at another recording studio. And that’s when I met Don Sanders. I was recording at a place called H&S Productions, and I was virtually the producer there. I was the engineer, but nobody else knew what a producer was at this place, and I just took the place over. The band that I ran off to Santa Fe with—New Mexico, that is—we became Skinny Minnie—I mean, we became Cat’s Pajamas. During that time my band became kind of the house band of the studio, and I could keep us employed with gigs in the studio and studio musician work. I was producing a lot of stuff there and did a lot of original material. A few people came over from Andrus to work with me. Don Sanders walked in one day, and we ended up really liking one another and working on some stuff. And a wonderful thing is during the last six months or a year, we’ve been going back to all that material, and someone has funded a project where we’re archiving Don Sanders’ material, all of his old stuff through the ‘70s and early ‘80s. And the first stuff we started working on was the stuff that I cut on him at H&S Productions in 1973, so that was pretty wild. And talk about a full circle.
19:40 So from there I moved over to Rampart Studios, where I became the chief engineer, which I don’t know what that meant, but I was the guy who was in there all the time recording people. A guy named Steve Ames took over that studio. He bought the studio from a guy named LW Erath. Steve and I worked together, and somehow I talked Steve into letting me work two weeks and take off two weeks, and I was able to go all over the country producing other acts. By that time, unfortunately, my short-lived marriage—my wife was living in Austin, and so I was using that time to set up a little place in Austin so I could go be around them and be around my son.
EN: Were you also playing music at this time as well?
RR: All during that time I was playing music with Cat’s Pajamas. But once Cat’s Pajamas broke up, I stopped playing in bands. And so from about, I think, late ’73 until maybe about ’75 I didn’t play as a band member unless I was sitting in with someone. But what I did, I engineered a lot. That’s all I did is engineered music and produced recordings in various studios. From Dallas I went to Oklahoma City to do some stuff, to Phoenix, to New Orleans, different things. Sometimes I would be mixing live sound. I mixed sound at the Jazz Festival in New Orleans. I was wanting to get out of that and to play more music and to be more of an artist, and that’s why I was kind of backing away from this situation and trying to get off every other week. What happened is that all just kind of led to me moving back to Houston, and that’s when I ran into Anderson Fair and the people at Anderson Fair. And they just took me in. Everybody— I don’t have to explain all that to the camera—what Anderson Fair is—or do I?
EN: 21:47 Oh no, not at all.
RR: The people took me in as one of them, and I ended up becoming roommates of one of the patriarchal ladies there. We had a house over on Crocker Street that became kind of a crash pad and a way station and the birthplace for bands like Herschel Berry and the Natives and Dr Rockit, which was my band during the ‘80s, and Dr Rockit and the Sisters of Mercy. Coming back to Houston and meeting everyone at Anderson Fair really twisted my head and really changed things. And it must have been through Don or through my friend Mike Sumler—I can’t remember how I ended up at Anderson Fair, but it was just a natural thing. I ended up producing some artists out of there. I produced Richard Dobson while I was still at H&S. Richard Dobson went with me to University of St. Thomas, and he is a roving troubadour who has been living in Switzerland for about 20 years and married a woman there, and he goes all over the world, and many people have recorded his songs—Guy Clark and David Allan Cole. A lot of famous country people have recorded his stuff. I just saw him at Anderson Fair about two months ago. It was a really great reunion. The Anderson Fair movie that came out for the sake of the song that came out last year features Richard in there. It’s really nice. Most people don’t know who Richard Dobson is, but people in the music world, and especially in the folk music and country music world, know who he is because he’s a real great writer.
So anyway, I hung out at Anderson Fair, and during that time I became more of a solo artist, and I tried to learn how to play acoustic guitar. I would even go do solo gigs with electric guitar. But I couldn’t handle that for too long, and I ran into some people and started a little band called Smokin’ Fitz. It was a lady named Bonnie Brown, who now calls herself Basirah, who was an unbelievable jazz keyboardist, and a guy named Kent Cole, who now lives in Austin, who played guitar, and I played bass. We went through a series of drummers and ended up with The Fun and Games drummer, Carson Graham. We played all the little clubs in the Montrose area, which were booming during the early and mid ‘70s—Houlihans #2 and Corky’s and Anderson Fair, of course. That band eventually broke up because Kent moved to Austin and he started restaurants, and he’s now retiring from being an entrepreneur. He has the Magnolia Cafes in Austin.
After Smokin’ Fitz broke up, I started a band with Herschel Berry called the Natives. And then after that I experimented around and ended up with my band, Dr Rockit. I didn’t want to play bass anymore; I really wanted to play guitar, and I wanted to start playing more blues, so Dr Rockit started as a blues band and then ended up being more of a pop band, kind of a rock and blues band. We would play gigs and share nights at parties with The Fabulous Thunderbirds. We opened for lots of people. I could give you a long list of people that I shared the stage with, but it really meant that you were playing the opening set for everybody from Herman’s Hermits and The Animals to Bo Diddley. Bo Diddley turned out to be a really great friend. I opened for him twice at Fitzgerald’s in the ‘80s, and he became a close—not a close friend, but one time I went to see him at Rockefeller’s. It was years later. They wouldn’t let me backstage. I said, “Tell Bo Diddley that Dr Rockit’s outside.” And he sent his guy back and said, “Come on.” I go back there. I hadn’t seen Bo Diddley in three years, maybe. He said, “Hey Doc, I got something for you.” And he reaches down in his pack, and he had some photographs that he had taken of my band opening for him at Fitzgerald’s. He loved our band. We used to hang out backstage and stuff. And it was us playing, and then he had some pictures of himself, sort of art photographs where he was standing like this with these lights shining behind him and a little Statue of Liberty with smoke coming up around it and stuff. It was beautiful. And so it’s just my greatest rock and roll story of them all. I’ve met a lot of people and I’ve worked with a lot of people as an engineer and as a producer and as a guy backstage teching things up.
I’m leaving out a ton of stuff, and I’m leaving out a ton of names that I wish that I was mentioning throughout this, but it doesn’t really matter because we’re just trying to kind of get to how I got to doing what I’m doing now.
I played Dr Rockit. We were together until about ’84, ’85. That band split up. I think it was ’79 to ’84, ’85. The girls, my Sisters of Mercy, left the band. The Sisters of Mercy were the nuns that taught my mother. She got a big kick that I called my background singers the Sisters of Mercy. They went on to seek their own fortune, and I’m good friends with them today. We’ve had a reunion since. I got married in about ’87. Dr Rockit continued to play. About ’87 I got married for the second time and sort of just dropped out of my career and out of the public in general. I still played gigs. Dr Rockit became more of a party band, and we played. I tried some different things to do as a job. The whole time I was building a little studio in my home using cassette decks. I had four-track cassette decks, and then I got an eight-track machine, and I knew my life was over at that point the day I picked that machine up. I’m going, “Uh-oh, I’ve done something here that I’m not going to be able to turn back from.” I had a whole recording studio in my living room, which was not a commonly done thing at the time. And so I was struggling to try to be a commercial artist and playing party gigs, but I was no longer really on the music scene anymore.
28:19 What happened is this guy where I used to record Richard and a bunch of the Anderson Fair gang had this little studio over on Tulane Street in the Heights. He came over one day and he said, “Oh, you’re putting this studio together. Do you want to buy this microphone?” I said, “Sure,” and it was like a $500 microphone for 100 bucks, a real studio mic, my first one. Then he came over and said, “You don’t want to buy this tape deck, do you? You don’t want to buy this reverb unit, do you?” And I said, “Sure, sure,” and I’d buy everything he would bring over. And then one day he came over and said, “I’m going to have to move out of the house over there, and the studio is going to be vacant. You don’t want to take the place over?” And I got on my knees and begged my wife and, sure enough, she agreed to do it. So in ’88 or ’89 we moved over to 1312 Tulane, which had the little studio that I used to record all those people in. It was not my studio. It was a guy named Charles Bickley. His father built that studio in 1958. He had it in the ‘70s with a whole bunch of different gear in it, and I took it over in ’89 from him. It took six months to get all of Charlie’s junk out of there and to start moving my home studio gear into it. I hung out a shingle and never turned back, and I’m still in the same place 21 years later, and I’ve recorded all kinds of people there, mostly prominent local people or just people like you, people that just want to make a CD. But it’s a real studio with a big grand piano and all kinds of equipment. Over the years I’ve had to update it with more modern equipment and stuff.
I still play as much as I can. I’m in a band. Herschel and I reunited. I pretty much stopped playing Dr Rockit and got into Herschel’s band about five or six years ago. I think it was about six years ago, when my second divorce happened. That’s when I kind of started playing again, to tell you the truth. My studio never stopped during all that time. It’s never been a massively successful thing, and I’ve kept it in the music business but not of it on purpose. I really never liked the music business at all, and it’s kind of a thrill to me that there’s no music business anymore because of the Internet and because everybody’s stealing everybody’s music. I just never could handle the music business and just really didn’t like the people I met there, but I loved putting music together and recording and the art of recording, and I got really good at that, much better than being a musician, which would have been my first love had I probably not gotten married that second time, because I had retired. When I became Dr Rockit, I retired from any kind of audio engineering. I just never was going to put a microphone in front of another guy’s amp again. And that’s all I do now is record and midwife other people’s music.
31:30 It’s not all I do. I recently got into a band a couple of years ago with a guy named Big Al Bettis, and he is an incredible guitar player. I played bass for him for a couple of years, and then he switched me over to rhythm guitar, got a rhythm section that played bass and drums, and a harmonica player. We became kind of this triple threat, and we’re playing now. We play gigs now in Houston, and people are coming to our gigs. And it’s a big, fun bar band is what it is, which is something I never dreamed I would do. I thought I was such an artiste in the ‘60s and songwriter and a signed musician and all that. I’m having a ball just getting to play cover tunes and some original stuff, and we’re playing at Phil’s Texas BBQ down the street, and on the nights we play a lot of people come see us. We even rehearse once or twice a week. Herschel’s band, the Herschel Berry Band, is a real credible band still of all original material. Any given night we’ll do 40 original songs with a few Lou Reed covers or something like that. But Big Al’s band just does everything. We cover old classic rock. Al is just a blazing guitarist, and we do a lot of country. We do a bunch of blues behind our harmonica front band. And so we cover all the bases, and we just have fun doing it. It’s infectious. People see that we’re having a good time. We’re not rolling any big stakes here or expecting to get signed to a major contract; we’re just having a ball playing—a bunch of old cats having a ball playing. And I am the old cat in the band, of course, but at 66 I’m still getting to do it and still having a lot of fun doing it. And so that’s what I do for fun is I play music. I still try to write music and I still paint. I’ve had pieces in the Art Car Museum shows. Back in the day, Mrs de Menil sponsored a show for me right before I dropped out of the world. I actually sold a piece at one of the Art Car Museum shows a couple of years ago. I still would love that to get to be what I do at the end of all of this is just to paint and kind of entertain myself as an artist. I have no expectations of getting in the art world or being a real famous artist or anything like that, but I still think my stuff is credible and someday somebody will see it and go, “Wow! That’s pretty cool.” And I’m giving enough of it away that it won’t all disappear.
34:11 Every day I record people in my studio—almost every day. Over the years it’s been— Just last winter, besides working on this great project with Don Sanders, I was able to record a great live CD in the studio live on CJ Chenier, who is Clifton Chenier’s son, who was one of the inventors of zydeco music. CJ used to play saxophone when Dr Rockit used to open for Clifton Chenier at Fitzgerald’s in the ‘80s. He was a saxophone player for his dad’s band. But now he’s the honcho guy, and he’s got CJ Chenier and his band. My place is called—at first I called it Rock Romano’s Purple Onion Studio. I named the Purple Onion after the first beatnik joint that was over on San Jacinto Street or something like that in Houston, the first beatnik. I loved the beatniks. My family didn’t, but I did. I’ve always thought of myself as a beatnik more than a hippie. They’re not really the same thing, but they are to me. I’m sort of a hippie beatnik. CJ Chenier’s project was one of the most wonderful things I ever did. My place became known as Rock Romano’s Red Shack. Most people call it the Red Shack because that’s what it is. It’s a little red shack behind my house. But it’s a real recording studio, and it’s full of the most high-tech, modern, computerized recording gear, but I’ve got the old timing microphones, and it’s just a funky little place that’s some kind of converted garage apartment since the ‘50s. It’s been just full of recordings and recording every day since the ‘50s, so it’s full of great karma and vibes. And I think the old man Bickley still haunts the place too. There was some wonderful stuff I found up in the attic of the house and the studio that had belonged to him.
So over the years I’ve just— I want to say this one thing: that when Elvis came along and that whole rock and roll thing, I went through the generation gap with my dad, just like everybody. My mother tried to champion me on through, but I was about 30 before I sat down with my dad and had a good talk with him and told him it was half my fault and that people loved me and what I did because of what he taught me and stuff. So I tried to do all that to kind of get that rectified. He lived to be 90 years old, and I got to help take care of him when he was old. And my parents too, my parents sending me to music lessons in the fifth grade. I was a kid who just didn’t know what was going on. I was oblivious. I was just one of those kids, probably ADD and OCD and all that if I were living today as a kid. But I remember one time they also gave me this little thing that was an electronic kit for Christmas, and it was a little breadboard pegboard thing that you could plug these components into. You put a template down and plugged these components on top of the template, and it would make transistor radios and crystal radios. It even had a little thing that would broadcast. And so I took the microphone from it and taped it to my ukulele, and I could play through the radio on my ukulele. I’ve heard stories about Les Paul sticking a phonograph needle into his guitar so that he could amplify it, and it makes me think of that, that the things that I do now are electronic and music, and it’s the same stuff. So it’s kind of cool. (laughs)
EN: 38:21 Considering how many people you’ve either fronted for or played with or recorded or generally worked with, if you had your dream band to work with, who would be in it?
RR: Wow. That’s an interesting question. Well, without hesitation I would choose a guy that you’ve never heard of. Maybe you have. His name is Mike Sumler, Michael Sumler. He was associated with Don for a while. The best songwriter I’ve ever known, and he was the guitar player I ran off to Santa Fe with. He was just visiting here from Fayetteville, Arkansas, the last two or three days. I hadn’t seen him in three or four years. He’s one of my biggest influences. He changed the way I thought about things. He would be in my band, okay? And I just can’t even think. I just love all kinds of music, and I loved playing jazz with Smokin’ Fitz. But my heart and soul is in rock and roll and in bluesy rock and in Chuck Berry, and if I had to think about—I can’t even think. The people that I would mention are probably people that are that famous. There’s a guy that plays with Robert Cray. He’s played with Bonnie Raitt all his life and Taj Mahal, and his name is Tony Braunagel, and he’s the best drummer I ever met. I got to play with him very recently. A guy named Tommy Dardar, who is a local musician, harmonica player, great blues shouter, he had a benefit at Dan Electro’s Guitar Bar over here in the Northside of Houston, and Tony came down to play for that. He’s a great friend of Tommy’s and has produced music out in California on Tommy. So I got to actually front a little band with Tony Braunagel playing. Ezra Charles was my piano player who, by the way, hired me to build electronic stuff for him back when I was moving back in the ‘70s. There are so many good people I know that I can’t even tell you. I could just make up a dream band, but they wouldn’t necessarily be the ones that I would just want to always be with. Those are two guys. I can think of some people that I haven’t opened for or produced but that I’ve sat there and marveled at that I would have. I’d love to have John Lennon in my band. (laughs) It would be kind of silly maybe to say that. I wish I could be in a band with Bo Diddley. I’d love to play bass for Bo Diddley. There are some other people that figured prominently in the way I think about music today. There’s a guy named Kenneth Blanchet who plays in a group called The Hightailers. He played bass for me for six or seven years, and he’s a guitar player now. He’s like me; he was a bass player that really wanted to be a guitarist. Mike Sumler really influenced my songwriting, although I was writing long before I knew Michael. I was trying to write songs like The Turtles and The Beach Boys and The Beatles and stuff, and I’m trying to write my own songs. And ever since I knew Michael, I’ve been trying to write songs that come from me. Those songs did too, but I was kind of trying to make it then. And it’s a different thing. It’s a form of art or something. Long ago I gave up illusions of trying to make it. Dr Rockit was just an accident in the ‘80s. I didn’t move back here to start a band like Smokin’ Fitz and be a jazz player and be an artist. I had been hired as a creative director for an advertising agency. They wanted me to quit Smokin’ Fitz, and I just quit the advertising agency instead and decided to starve instead of having to give up my music because I was playing in a band again. But the— (slight pause) Oh, I lost my train of thought. I can’t remember. Anyway, probably if I put a band together now that was my band, I’d try to talk Carson into playing again, I’d get Mike Sumler to be in it, I’d resurrect a few people from the grave to be in it. But I don’t think I could answer it. That’s just too hard a question to answer. I wanted to tell another story in there, but I lost my train of thought, so sorry. You can edit all that out. (both chuckle)
EN: 43:19 One final question. How do you define yourself as a musician? Are you a jazz player? Are you a rock musician? Are you a blues player? Do you define it to that degree?
RR: I think I’m a wannabe jazz player. I’ve never had the discipline to practice enough to be a good jazz player. You can play rock and roll by putting one finger on the guitar and going da, da, da, da, da, da, da, da (in singing voice) and you can be a blues player or a rock player. I’m really a rock and roller deep inside. I would like to think of myself as an artist—not just a painter but as a musical artist. I combine all those things, and when I play now I still use jazzy chords. I like to play jump blues, which is a form of jazz, and I get to do a lot of that in the band that I play in now because of this harmonica guy who plays a lot of that kind of stuff. When I sit at home on the edge of the bed with my guitar, I still work out jazz solos. About two and a half years ago, a guy that played lead guitar for my band in high school who was one that had to go off to the Air Force during Vietnam, he quit in real bitterness behind his first marriage over and never played guitar. He was so accomplished. He was a brilliant jazz player and a classical player, and he quit. He hadn’t played in 40 years. We started doing reunions of our high school band in my recording studio. Seven years ago we were doing the 40th year reunion of our Class of ’63, and we did a 45th reunion. And during those sessions I finally talked this guy—well, I didn’t talk him into it. I just put the guitar in his hand, and he had to come play his parts. And so he fell in love with the guitar again, and he’s now my jazz teacher. I’m real slow compared to him. He’s passed me up. I love playing the blues. I love rock and roll, the right rock and roll, the primitive rock and roll that I grew up on—Elvis and Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley and that stuff. Rock and roll got very sophisticated in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and I love a lot of that music. My current band now plays some Beatles songs, and it’s just great. And we sing harmonies too, and that’s real different for a bar band. I define myself as just a—I’m really eclectic, but I’m a blues rocker that loves jazz and tries to play jazz, but that’s mostly what it is. Then probably more than all of that I’m a producer. I help other people make their recorded music. And I think that I have a unique approach—not a unique approach but a different approach—because I’m a musician and I come at it first as a musician, and I can remember all the frustrating moments of working with people who didn’t know what I was talking about when I was trying to get certain sounds. So I can relate to a musician who comes and starts talking about something being pink or something (chuckles), and I can almost understand what they’re talking about. So I define myself as all of that. I’m a painter, a musician, and an artist and a producer. And so every day I get to work with musicians and artists, and it’s very cool, and it’s very fulfilling to me. And my son has gone on to become a writer, and he’s a writer of fiction and books, and he just signed a deal with Little, Brown. (laughs)
EN: All right. Well, thank you so much for visiting with me today.
RR: Okay. Thank you. I appreciate it very much, Erin.
[end of audio file] 47:30