Traveling With The Stars01 February 2016 Written by By Alan Richardson
Published in February 2016 Articles
My 11-year-old son, Christian, has been taking drum lessons for a couple years.
Last October, Christian was in a dressing room with members of Elton John’s band, who were at Treasure Island putting on a private show for Oracle. Elton John, himself, came into the room and asked Christian if he was a musician.
“No. I’m a drummer,” Christian said.
I wasn’t there when it happened, but several of Elton John’s band members — and Elton, himself — told me the story. My son’s distinction between being a drummer and being a musician had them laughing so hard they had trouble staying on their feet.
Christian is welcome backstage at any gig that Elton John is at because I’m Elton’s Monitor Engineer — in charge of the sound crew. I’ve been working in the Performance Sound Technology Industry since 1979 and have toured with a number of A-List performers, but I’ve been with Elton for the past 20 years.
“Explosive” is the only word I could find to describe my two decades with that incredible performer. The prestige that comes from working in Elton’s inner circle is profound. He has a reputation in the industry for perfectionism, so if you can make him happy, people imagine that you must be good at what you do.
My position in every performance is to be by Elton’s side, which has turned out to be a wonderful way of meeting some incredible people. I stand in the wings just out of sight of the audience in a place where Elton can see me eye-to-eye. Elton is the kind of world class performer that attracts people of power. Many of them will avoid the circus atmosphere that would inevitably occur if they were in the audience and stand beside me during the performance. In that way, I was able to meet Tony Blair, Paul McCartney, Eric Clapton, Sting, Bill Gates, and Prince Charles…. (I could go on.)
Some of the encounters were unforgettable. In at least one case, the “unforgettable” part went both ways because Bill Clinton attended a show in Russia. He was schmoosing backstage before the performance and, as he was being escorted to his seat, Clinton walked past me, looked me in the eye, shook my hand, and said, “Nice to see you again.” We had met at an earlier concert two years before, and the guy still remembered me!
I was born to a Methodist minister in the Missouri boot heel where my grandparents owned 500 acres of cotton. It was a place of cotton fields and not much else — a boring region for a kid to Memphis. This was during the late 60s, and Memphis was a happening place. Our new home was only a mile from Graceland and we would occasionally see The King standing by his front gate signing autographs or riding his Harley through the city.
I played clarinet in my 5th grade band, but I really wanted to play drums. The happiest moment in my life occurred when I came home from school and saw my new drum kit set up in our family room. I never took lessons, but became accomplished enough in high school to perform in several bands, eventually actually getting paid for gigs.
The course of my life changed in one day in 1978. I was a senior at Pacific Senior High School, outside St. Louis. The school had won a contest sponsored by Carefree Sugarless Gum. We succeeded in collecting more gum wrappers than the other schools in the competition and our prize was a concert by a band called Atlanta Rhythm Section, who was riding a wave generated by a hit song “Imaginary Lover.” I was one of a few dozen students who volunteered to set up their equipment in our school gymnasium. I can’t remember much about the performance because my mind and heart had been carried away by that fascinating technology. I began hanging around bands when they were setting up, helping connect the various amplifiers, microphones, and speakers as best I could.
My feet had been set on a new career path. The change in direction was a good one. Even though I had become a good drummer, even wonderfully talented drummers have a difficult time actually making a living. “What do you call a drummer who has broken up with his girlfriend?” runs an old joke. “A homeless person.”
I attended Sound Master Recording Institute in Los Angeles. The school was owned and operated by Brian Ingoldsby, who was the president of ABC Records. I enrolled in 1979 and enjoyed every part of my education. We would spend two weeks in classroom study, followed by two weeks of working hands-on in a studio — a cycle that continued throughout my entire two years of study. In those days, everything was analog. One day Brian told us that he had been at a meeting. “I have seen the future of music,” he said — and pulled a CD out of his pocket. We were confused but impressed by what we were looking at.
Brian became aware of my passion for the technology and my thirst for mastering the principles and techniques of recording. He considered me a star pupil and gave me a job as second engineer working with him in the school’s recording sessions. I acquired a lot of practical knowledge, but decided that studio work wasn’t for me because I didn’t enjoy spending five hours listening to a snare drum, trying to get the sound perfect. What I most enjoyed was live Performance because I could feel the energies motivating the performers and moving through the audience. Performance always has a isky, now-ornever, quality that appealed to me. The sense of drama was addictive.
On Tour with the Stars
After receiving my diploma in May 1981, Brian gave me a reference that landed me a job with a concert Touring company, called A-1 Audio. At the beginning, I was assembling touring systems and working with wiring networks. Four months later they sent me into the field to work with my first show, which was a performance by Frank Sinatra at the Beverly Hills Hilton Hotel. Sinatra had a 44-piece orchestra and we had to set up small contact mics for the strings and standard mics for trumpets and trombones. We put a mic inside the piano and set up a direct box for the bass guitar. Frank brought his own microphone, which was made of gold (or was at least gold plated). I spent the next two decades bouncing from band to band.
I spent a couple years with Tony Orlando, who turned out to be friendly and was a good guy to work for. Tony had some hearing problems that created a few difficulties, but he was always respectful towards me.
My next seven years were back with Sinatra and I traveled the world helping The Chairman of the Board to sound his best. We performed for sold-out venues throughout the U.S. and Canada, plus Europe, Asia, and Australia. Frank had a reputation as a hot head and an associate of known criminals. He was always great with me, however. He called me “Kid.” It was a friendly nickname. Sinatra always took good care of his crew and would put us up in the same hotel where he himself was staying. One time in Tokyo, he didn’t like something about the hotel, so he took all 100 band and crewmembers with him to a better hotel. I think the manager of the first place was pondering whether or not to perform hari-kari.
In 1988, two members of the Rat Pack — Dean Martin and Sammy Davis, Jr. — joined us on tour. Dean Martin was a fantastic human being and a wonderful man. After two weeks, Dean left and Liza Minnelli came onboard. Liza was always friendly, but had some strange manners, which is only to be expected from any daughter of Judy Garland. Sammy was an unassuming person — gracious and friendly to everybody. The tour ended in Hawaii and Sinatra threw a luau. I approached Sammy, as he was speaking with the concert promoter, and told Sammy that at his convenience, the crew would like to take pictures with him. He turned to the promoter — who had put up the money for the concert — “Excuse me,” he said. “I have something important to do.” We took tons of pictures with him.
My last show with Sinatra was before 50,000 people at an Irish soccer stadium. It was raining and Sinatra climbed down from the stage, walked into the audience, and sang 4 or 5 songs while sanding in the midst of his bedraggled fans. It was the only time I saw him do such a thing.
I began touring with Kenny Loggins. It was 1985 and Top Gun had just come out featuring his “Danger Zone.” Kenny was a cool guy. His tour was the first I was on that had a genuine family feel. Family members were always welcomed. On days off, the whole crew would do things like go snow skiing or water skiing together. We would sometimes play softball games against the staff of a local radio station. Kenny was always right there in the middle of the action. In January 1993, I began touring with Bon Jovi. Jon Bon Jovi, himself, is a New Jersey Rock-and-Roller; not inclined to be a jovial sort of person. He doesn’t get along great with a lot of people but he and I are always good together. Our first show was Binghamton, New York and we subsequently toured throughout the world. Bon Jovi felt like a New Jersey Bar Band. It was good and people were having good times. The band members didn’t live up to their reputation: drugs and groupies were minimal. I met some people with Bon Jovi that I’m still good friends with. Two decades later, whenever our paths cross, the guys from his band will always come up, give me a hug, and say hello.
In 1994, I toured with a number of bands beside Bon Jovi including Bob Dylan and Steve Miller. I only spoke with Dylan a couple times. He’s a reclusive individual. Steve Miller turned out to be another softball player and we had pickup games whenever we could. Steve Miller only toured the U.S., but was huge and set attendance records in some places. The young kids loved him. In 1995, I was scheduled for another Bon Jovi tour, which fell through. I was rescued by a phone call from Elton John’s production people and found a home. My traveling days were far from over, but I was no longer trying to figure out what my next band was going to be.
Elton tours 230 days a year so my wife, Cathy, has been a single mom since the birth of our first child, Hannah. Cathy misses me, of course, but appreciates that I have steady work. Even though I’m gone so much, with Elton, I can fill in the off times at home with my family. She loves the family quality of Elton’s crew. They make her feel that she belongs.
Elton will be 69 in March. He said that he has at least seven years to go and, after that, “We’ll see.” I guess that seven years from now I’ll see, as well. In the meantime, by the time this issue of the magazine is published, I’ll be with Elton in Italy.
Maybe in seven years I’ll retire, but can’t imagine retirement being any better than this.