Mark Rivera Interview: Saxophonist on Billy Joel, Ringo Starr - Rolling Stone
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Saxophonist Mark Rivera on His Years With Billy Joel, Ringo Starr, Foreigner, and More

No one has been in Joel’s band longer than Mark Rivera. He’s also on Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer” and was onstage with John Lennon at his final public performance

mark rivera unknown legends billy joel saxophone

Saxophonist Mark Rivera looks back on his nearly 40-year tenure with Billy Joel, plus his time with Ringo Starr, Foreigner, and others.

Mike Colucci

unknown legends
Rolling Stone interview series Unknown Legends features long-form conversations between senior writer Andy Greene and veteran musicians who have toured and recorded alongside icons for years, if not decades. All are renowned in the business, but some are less well known to the general public. Here, these artists tell their complete stories, giving an up-close look at life on music’s A list. This edition features saxophonist Mark Rivera.

In the fall of 2013, saxophonist Mark Rivera found himself in a very tight spot. He’d spent the past eight years juggling his duties in Billy Joel’s band with his role as Ringo Starr’s musical director and multi-instrumentalist, but the Piano Man booked a last-minute U.K. tour the same week he was supposed to tour South America with Ringo.

“I freaked out,” says Rivera. “I had to tell Billy, ‘Billy, I already committed to Ringo. I didn’t know anything about this.’ He looked stunned for a second. And then he did the thing where he weighed one hand against the other, moving them up and down. ‘Billy Joel … Ringo Starr … Billy Joel … a Beatle … Billy … Beatle.’ And he goes, ‘Hey, don’t worry about it.'”

Joel wound up bringing in saxophonist Andy Snitzer to sub in for the overseas shows, marking one of the only occasions where Rivera has missed a show since joining the band in 1982 for the Nylon Curtain tour, replacing Richie Cannata. Every single member of that 1982 Billy Joel band is long gone with the sole exception of Rivera.

“That first band I played in was like Billy holding the wheel on a big eight-cylinder Buick,” says Rivera. “It would just cruise and do what it had to do. This band now? It’s that same Buick with four-wheel drive, the best radial tires, power steering, and air conditioning. It has everything that anyone could possibly want. I’m proud and so incredibly humbled that we’re coming on 38 years together. It’s unbelievable to think about.”

Rivera is best known for his work with Ringo and Joel, but he’s also played with everyone from Simon and Garfunkel and Foreigner to Peter Gabriel, Hall and Oates, and Sam and Dave over the years. We spoke to him about his long journey through the music industry.

How is your lockdown going?
Good. I exercise a lot, walk six miles a day, and I swim. I get out. I call this our “Covid paradise,” obviously very sarcastically. My wife and I had the virus in March, so I’ve been through it. I know it’s no joking matter.

How bad were your Covid symptoms?
We had a 101–102 fever for two weeks. Couldn’t smell, couldn’t eat. My wife Sandra and I slept probably 14–15 hours a day. When you got up, the first thing you thought was that you needed a nap. It kicked our butts. That’s all I can say.

I guess the silver lining is that you have the antibodies now.
Yes I do. In fact, I got a second antibody test last week. That doesn’t alleviate the fact that we all need to be extremely vigilant. I must say, I’m a proud New Yorker. I believe that Governor Cuomo has done an amazing job. I stand behind him 100 percent.

This must be a real change for you. You’re used to playing the Garden every month and stadiums all over the world.
I play all the time. I play with 12 to 15 different bands at any given time. I have my own band. We’re entertainers. I just spoke to [Billy Joel bassist] Andy Cichon and [percussionist] Crystal [Taliefero]. All of us are feeling the same thing. The biggest thing we’re missing is the human contact. As performers, we feed off the energy of the crowd and it’s not there. I’m very much looking forward to our first show back.

I can’t say enough about what Billy has done for this entire … some people call it a community, but it’s a village we have that he’s created. He’s been so incredibly gracious and generous. I don’t have adjectives to describe. Remember the movie As Good As It Gets when Helen Hunt is trying to tell Jack Nicholson how much she appreciates him? He’s looking at her like, “Please stop with your words.”

To be completely serious: a heartfelt thanks to him for taking care of this group of people. Everyone I speak to on the crew and the band feels the same way. I know other situations where guys have played with certain bands for years and they made three-year commitments and the rug has been pulled out from under them. I applaud our Piano Man and God bless him.

I want to go back here and talk about some key moments in your life. How old were you when music entered your life in a serious way?
In a serious way? I was six or seven when I started singing in glee club. But I remember the Three Stooges. I could sing “Play a Simple Melody.” It was a very difficult melody. My parents learned I had good pitch. As far as being serious, I was always a kid in a band. But the serious moment would have to be February 9th, 1964. Everyone will say the same thing. It’s when the Beatles were on The Ed Sullivan Show.

I’d already been playing saxophone. I already had a guitar. But when they were on The Ed Sullivan Show, my whole life changed. My Aunt Iris bought me the album before the show. She wanted to prepare me. But when I heard John, [sings] “It won’t be long, yeah!” that voice just shattered me. I’ve never heard music the same way. I was definitely bitten.

What drew you to the saxophone?
My uncle Vinnie, my godfather, played the saxophone, in a wedding-type band. I liked it. They bought me a saxophone that “fell off the back of a truck” in Red Hook, Brooklyn, near the projects. It “fell off the back of a track” [laughs] and my father was able to afford to buy me a saxophone.

But it was in a hope chest for about a year. They didn’t want me to just start playing it, so I’d open up the hope chest and stare at it while my parents were out and put it back in right with all the doilies and stuff. About a year and a half later, I got to play it. I started taking lessons from my uncle. About a year later, he said I was better than him.

In the Sixties, did you see any great concerts in New York?
Oh, absolutely. I saw Hendrix four times. I saw Cream. I saw Led Zeppelin. I would go to the Fillmore every Friday or Saturday, any weekend that I wasn’t working. I was a big fan of Moby Grape. In 1967, I saw them at the Village Theatre. I was going to see Moby Grape, but Skip Spence, the guitarist, had a bad trip, apparently, and they had to cancel the show. Lo and behold, Rosko [William Mercer], the DJ on WNEW, said, “Now the total sound: Cream.”

I got to see Cream’s first performance in New York. It was insane. Fresh Cream had just come out. I saw tons and tons of shows, a lot of R&B, the Chambers Brothers, Sly [Stone].

Seeing Zeppelin then must have been amazing.
I saw them at the New York State Pavilion [in August 1969]. Tons of other shows at the Fillmore like Deep Purple opening up for Creedence Clearwater Revival. There was a real, real plethora of great music.

How did you wind up touring with Sam and Dave in 1972?
My friend Marty got me an audition. At the time, I only played alto saxophone. All I had was one saxophone. I get there and I’m one of two white guys. I knew all the parts. [Hums “Soul Man”] I grew up playing those as a kid.

The musical director, this guy Ben Little, the trombone player, he walks up to me and goes, “You blow bari?” I go, “Sure!” I’d never touched a baritone sax in my life. I went out and I rented a bari sax that day. I got my father to loan me $100 for the deposit. I went and got a bari sax and a mouthpiece and reeds. I shredded that for five, six hours and went the next day to the rehearsal and got the gig.

The other part was that I had to learn the steps. I had to bend down. And when I bent down with the bari sax, which weighed about half my weight, the trumpet player was swinging the trumpet over my head. You don’t want to make mistakes with the choreography.

Tell me about working with Sam and Dave. I know they weren’t very close offstage.
It was a little rough. Sam [Moore] to this day is a friend and a true gentleman. Dave [Prater] … they had already gone through their heyday. They had a private jet back in the day. Sam kind of was able to temper his expectations. Dave was just very upset with how things were turning out. He was angry.

The two of them would take a chartered plane after the show. One night, we shot craps and I took all of Dave’s money. I’d never shot craps in my life. I don’t know how I did it. I don’t know what happened. But he ended up having to sit in the station wagon with us. It was seven guys in a station wagon, with a U-Haul behind us with all our gear.

Onstage, you wouldn’t know there was any animosity. You wouldn’t know anything. But it was tough. The shine was definitely off. It was sad.

Three years later, you played with John Lennon at a tribute show to Sir Lew Grade, which wound up being his last public performance. Tell me about that.
I was in a band in Brooklyn. Jimmy Iovine played in a rival band. We played in a battle of the bands in Brooklyn. He went from being a tape operator to producing seminal records for Bruce Springsteen and John Lennon. We all got to hang out and John decided he wanted to do this tribute to Sir Lew Grade. It was crazy. I just happened to be at the right place at the right time with that situation.

Why were you guys wearing masks on the stage?
That was Yoko Ono showing the duplicity of our government and the country. It was two-faced. Each of us had a face mask in the back and a skullcap. It was very bizarre, but that was her thing. Hey, frankly, I would have worn an ass on my face if it meant playing on TV with John Lennon. I wasn’t going to argue.

I can’t imagine the thrill of being a Lennon fan one minute and then playing “Imagine” with him onstage.
The incredible thing is that the last time he sang that song live, I was with him. Later on, in 1985, I ended up playing with Yoko. It was a great band. We rehearsed up at the Dakota. I remember seeing John’s bloody glasses on a window sill. Through the glasses, you could see Strawberry Fields. It was bizarre — an eerie, eerie thing.

I feel like a lot of people don’t know about this performance. I always read that his last time onstage was with Elton John in 1974, which is just not true.
This was live to track, frankly. But we performed and he was singing live. For all intents and purposes, the last time he sang “Imagine,” I was onstage with him. It’s still crazy to think about. And what’s really crazy to think about as time went on, I played with John, met Paul, and became Ringo’s musical director. It’s a whole bunch of stuff. Who would have thought a kid from Brooklyn would be doing all that stuff?

How did you wind up on Foreigner 4?
That was through Mutt Lange, who I met when I was in my band Tycoon. We were hellbent on Jack Douglas producing our album. He was the man. He had already worked with Aerosmith and it was the sound we wanted to go with. Clive Davis said, “I want your band and I’ll pay $200,000,” which is way more money than Atlantic was going to pay, “but you have to use this producer, Mutt Lange.”

If I could be frank, I said, “Who the fuck is Mutt Lange? What is a Mutt?” Nobody had heard of him at the time. [Clive’s] insistence is what led us to record Tycoon with Mutt. The rest is history.

Anyway, Mutt and I developed a very close relationship. We still do. We keep in touch. I was playing with a bunch of bands at a club called Trax in the city. We had a group and we’d back anybody. One night at around 11:30 p.m. I just walked up into my sixth floor walk-up with my tenor and alto [saxes] and the phone rings and it’s Mutt. “Marcus, how are you? I’m wondering if you could come down to Electric Lady?”

I said, “When?” He goes, “Right now.” I said, “I just walked up six flights of stairs.” He goes, “Well, Foreigner is doing their new record.” It was like, “Boom! That’s that.” I flew down the stairs. I don’t even remember if I got in a cab or took a train. I went down to Electric Lady and played [imitates “Urgent” sax part] as soon as I walked in.

Then Mick [Jones] and Lou [Gramm] had a foosball table and they were mixing some vodkas. We recorded for about five hours. They’re going through every iteration of the songs, trying to change this, double-track that, harmonize this. Finally, Mutt said, “How about this?” And he played the tape and I swear it was the first thing I played when I walked in. They went, “That’s it! It’s great!” Mutt said, “That was his first take, gentleman.” That reminds me that your first instinct is usually your best. If you don’t overthink stuff, you are always better off.

How did that lead to you going on the tour with them?
Mutt knew that I could sing because I sang with Tycoon. The following week, they were going to do a bunch of background vocals. They had “Waiting for a Girl Like You,” “Jukebox Hero,” “Night Life,” and a few other songs they needed to do some serious vocals on. The real background vocals were myself, Lou Gramm and Ian Lloyd. The three of us sang all those insane background parts. Once they knew I could do all that, and Mutt told them I played keyboard, saxophone, and guitar, I got offered a spot on the tour.

Foreigner has so many enormous hit songs, but most people don’t know the names of any of the band members, even Lou. Why do you think that is?
I have no answer to that other than you’re 100 percent right. One time, after I joined Billy’s band, myself, Mick Jones, and Lou Gramm are walking down Broadway. Someone goes, “Hey, that’s Mark Rivera. How is Billy Joel?” I’m standing next to Lou Gramm. I swear. You want to say, “This is Mick Jones.” But you don’t want to do that. It’s bizarre. Here I am with two of my legends, two of my idols and it’s “you’re Billy Joel’s sax player,” which I’m very proud to be, but … nobody knows their names. Nobody knows their names. If you took their photos and put them in a lineup, people would probably pick the wrong people.

Were you a big Billy Joel fan before the audition you had with him?
No. I’d be the first to be honest with him. My record collection was Hendrix, Cream, R&B, Traffic. Traffic was a huge influence on me. When I was a kid, I wanted to be all of Traffic. I wanted to play like [saxophonist] Chris Wood and sing and play keyboards like Stevie Winwood. That is where I come from and a great deal of where Billy comes from. But no. I didn’t own a Billy Joel record before the audition.

How did you get the audition for Billy Joel?
David Brown, the guitarist, and I were in a bunch of bands prior to that. We were in a band called the Late Boys because every gig we did we were always late, so we just decided to call it the Late Boys. We played a bunch of gigs. One of the gigs was out in [Roslyn] Long Island at My Father’s Place and [bassist] Doug Stegmeyer was there. And Billy and [saxophonist] Richie [Cannata] had already parted ways. There was a mutual understanding that was going to happen.

The Nylon Curtain was already recorded. Doug said, “Hey, are you looking for a gig?” I said, “What’s up?” He said, “Billy is looking to replace Richie.” I was like, “Yeah.”

Doug was the musical director. I went out to Long Island with my alto. He said, “I want you to learn ‘Only the Good Die Young,” “Just the Way You Are,” and one other song that I can’t remember for the life of me. But he wanted me to sing background vocals, whatever it was. So I sang it, played on “Only the Good Die Young” and we got to “Just the Way You Are” and I played the solo [sings solo].

At the very end of the solo, Billy literally stops the band. I was like, “Shit. Did I screw it up that badly?” He comes up to me, gives me a kiss and says, “As long as you want to be in my band, you’ve got a gig.” He’s kept his word and apparently I’m keeping mine. It’s amazing, thinking back, that I’m the only person still standing from that group.

Why do you think that is? Why are you the lone survivor of the class of 1982?
It’s a humbling thing to think about. Why do I think it is? I’m still that guy when I was 17. “What do you need? I got it. I’ll do it.” I have sung vocal parts for every incarnation of this band. I can remember every one of them, from the time when I was the only guy singing the high background parts to when Pete Hewlett came in the band and I sang below him. Now there’s Crystal, and she tears everything up, and Michael DelGuidice is a spectacular singer.

You only play two hours a night. The other 22 hours of the day, it’s how you get along. I’m a firm believer in that. People say, “What’s the trick?” I say, “There’s no trick. It’s attitude, aptitude and gratitude.” It’s that simple. You lose track of it. Whatever gift you have as a player or a writer, that’s one thing. That’s your aptitude. You attitude is what you take into it. And be grateful. In this horrible time, I am so over-the-moon grateful to Billy, as we all are. My gratitude to him is something I have always expressed.

Your first Billy record was An Innocent Man. It must have been fun to work on the throwback sounds for that one.
Yeah. It was great. I was very involved in that record from playing in the horn section with Michael Brecker, Dave Sanborn, and Ronnie Cuber on “Tell Her About It” and “Easy Money,” and singing the backgrounds on “Uptown Girl” and “Tell Her About it,” and playing the triangle on “An Innocent Man.”

The difference from being in Foreigner — which I’m incredibly grateful for the opportunity; I love the band; I love the music — but the moment I joined Billy’s band, I was part of a band. Besides the fact that it said “Billy Joel,” I was one of the guys. I felt like that from the first meeting with the guys. I felt like I fit in.

You went out with Simon and Garfunkel the year after you joined Billy’s band. How were they as bandleaders? They’ve both said that this was a difficult period where they weren’t always seeing eye to eye.
Right. It’s funny. I’ve worked with three duos [Sam and Dave, Simon and Garfunkel, Hall and Oates] and they didn’t always get along. With Paul and Artie … it’s unfair to say anything less than Artie has a beautiful voice, but he was in the shadow of Paul’s brilliance as a songwriter. You got the sense that was the case. At rehearsals or onstage, Paul was always happy-go-lucky and really chill. We’d run rehearsals and he’d break a string and be like, “Let’s take five.” Then you’re gone for an hour and a half.

It was very chill and they were an absolute joy. I’d sometimes sit on the side of the stage with [drummer] Carlos Vega because they’d be doing songs without any drums or saxophone. We’d be sitting there, looking at them and just flipping out.

You also played sax on “Train in the Distance” on Paul’s album Hearts and Bones.
Yeah. It was just Paul and Roy Halee, producer. There’s nothing with sax on the song. It’s just chugga-chugga-chugga [like a train]. And then all of a sudden at the end, Roy said, “I want it to sound like there’s a train in the distance. I don’t want you reaching and soaring. Just be like a faint train.” That’s what came out. I think I did two passes on that. Look, when you have a person that actually knows what they want, it’s easy. That was a thrill.

Tell me about playing on Peter Gabriel’s So, especially “Sledgehammer.” That’s probably the most iconic horn part you ever played.
It was insane. I was touring with Foreigner on the Agent Provocateur tour when I got the call, so my saxophones were in a road case way the hell back in a semi. I think they were parked at Madison Square Garden since we had a show the night before or the night after. I called my saxophone-keyboard-guitar tech because I didn’t have a single horn. He goes crawling through all this gear and manages to come out with my alto, tenor, and bari. All three horns are on that song.

I was a huge Genesis fan and an even bigger Peter Gabriel fan. So now I’m meeting up with [producer] Daniel Lanois and I’m really taken back, but I’m trying to be cool. My mother used to say, “Treat the people who are famous like they’re not. Treat the people who aren’t like they are.” I say, “Nice to meet you. Blah blah blah.”

Now we’re in the studio. It’s myself and Wayne Jackson from the Memphis Horns. There’s nothing on the track besides Tony Levin’s bass, Manu [Katché]’s drums, a little bit of weird keyboard stuff, and the guitar player [David Rhodes]. It was just a groove. Peter pressed the talkback button and said, “Just play the first thing that comes into your head.”

I swear, on my eyes, the first thing I played was [imitates the “Sledgehammer” horn part]. Swear to God. Peter freaked. We double-tracked and triple-tracked. It went on and on and on. That’s pretty much it.

I bet you were surprised to see it become this massive hit.
It was great. I’ll tell you one other story. As I was saying, I was with Foreigner and I only had two or three days to be home. We have a son who was a year and a half old. I had two days to be home with my family. What do I do? Tell my wife I’m going to go to the studio to record. She flipped out.

So now fast-forward to 1986 and I’m back home after the Foreigner tour. We’re driving along. Our son is in the back row in his car seat. All of a sudden, “Sledgehammer” comes on. My wife goes, “That’s our favorite song!” Our son is bouncing along to it. I go, “Sweetheart, that’s the song I left to record on.” She gave me a kiss. That, my friend, is the power of radio.

Do you get royalties for that song? You created a key part of it.
I do. It’s the same with the vocals for “Jukebox Hero” or “Tell Her About It” or “Uptown Girl.” Any time those are in a movie or commercial, I get residuals.

I spoke to Billy a number of years ago and he told me that he only likes two or three songs on The Bridge. As someone that played on it, how do you feel? I think he’s being a little hard on it.
Look, I love “Temptation.” “This Is the Time” is my favorite all-time Billy Joel song. There’s my answer. People say, “What is your favorite Billy Joel song?” I say, “It’s one I’m not on. There’s not even a saxophone on it.” My three favorite Billy songs are “‘This Is the Time,” “So It Goes” and “All About Soul.” They are just great songs.

Everyone goes, “You must love ‘New York State of Mind.'” Yes, I love “New York State of Mind.” Yes, I love “Piano Man” even though I don’t play on it. They go, “What’s your least favorite Billy Joel song?” I go, “‘Captain Jack’ because it’s so fuckin’ long.”

David Brown plays some beautiful stuff on “This Is the Time.” That’s still the original band that I joined. “Baby Grand” is also on that and “A Matter of Trust.” But I know it’s hard for Billy to step away from himself as a writer. I’d never put words in his mouth, but I think at the time he knew he had more in him. He might not have been happy with how it turned out or what happened going forward. Look, all his records are great. There aren’t a single record where you can go, “That’s crap.”

On Storm Front and River of Dreams, he used different musicians. Is something like that hard on your ego?
Look, the funny thing about Storm Front is that Mick Jones produced it and Billy said he wanted to emulate “Sledgehammer.” Who don’t you call?

You.
Which is fine. At the time, I was out with Hall and Oates. And so everything happens for a reason. I love playing with Daryl and John.

You finally found a duo that work well together.
They work very well together. Again, you have one powerful, powerful force in Daryl. He’s incredible. “Maneater,” was originally just a reggae tune that Daryl turned around. “Out of Touch” was something where Daryl changed the words. They are a great team. The thing about them is that Philly connection, that soulful connection.

It’s possible I was on the road when Storm Front was recorded. I’ll take that to the grave. That’s why they didn’t call me. [Laughs]

After River of Dreams, did you sense that Billy was done making new records?
He alluded to that. It’s hard to say. If you had told me after Storm Front and a certain amount of time had passed that we’d be doing what we’re doing now, I’d say, “Man, whatever you are smoking has got to be really good.”

I know that Billy is still writing classical music. I still like to think that something is going to come out and he’ll write something. I remember the famous quote when Elton said, “You don’t write enough records,” and Billy said, “You write too many records.” Frankly, I agree with Billy 100 percent. Without casting aspersions, can you sing one melody off the last three Elton John records? I can’t even name a title. That’s just how things are.

How did you wind up on the Ringo Starr tour in 1995?
That’s when it gets amazing. Clarence [Clemons] had done the first two tours. I was a big fan. The first tour, Ringo had three drummers with Levon Helm, himself, and Jim Keltner. Those two tours went out and I was like, “Wow.” I thought I’d never be in that band.

Turns out Bruce decided in 1995 to get the E Street Band back together. I don’t think Clarence told Ringo until February of 1995. By May, we were already rehearsing. This guy George Travis, a wonderful guy, used to put the tours together for Ringo and Billy. He does Bruce, Madonna … Just an amazing amount of stuff, not unlike our [production manager] Boomer Thrasher. Everyone works for Boomer. He is God and I’ll go on record to say that.

It was George Travis and David Fishof. It was his idea to do the All Starr Band. George said, “You gotta hear this guy, Mark Rivera.” Ringo says, “What does he do?” “He’s a sax player.” Ringo said, “I don’t want a fuckin’ sax player.” He had a bad taste in his mouth because, in his eyes, Clarence hung him up. George was like, “Just give him a shot.”

What was it like when you got there?
I had my road case with my alto, my tenor, my bari, harmonicas, guitars, and all this stuff. We get to rehearsal and, at the time, Felix Cavaliere, who I love dearly, like my dear uncle, he was supposed to be the musical director.

Felix, bless his heart, does what he does, and he doesn’t do other things. He was supposed to have all these ideas and charts and know what vocals are going where. But I grew up playing all those songs from all those guys in the band, between the Who and Bachman–Turner Overdrive, Grand Funk Railroad, Billy Preston. I knew all that stuff because I’d already played it from the time I was 15.

Anyway, I come along, play the part, I sang all the background parts. Then we get to that song “I’m Your Captain” by Grand Funk Railroad. “Who is going to play the acoustic part?” I was like, “Oh, I’ll play it.” And as we’re going through the song, somebody couldn’t figure out where it went to D minor. I said, “That’s a D minor.”

It was a high part and nobody wanted to touch that. Again, I was like, “I can do that.” I’m playing acoustic guitar and I snuck up to the microphone with the two-part harmony bit. Mark [Farner] turns around and was like, “Wow.” He was very impressed.

We did another song and Felix didn’t know a particular chord. Someone is like, “What happens on the bridge of such and such a song?” And Ringo with his arms folded went, “Just ask Mark. He knows everything.” So, by default, I got the gig as musical director and it’s been the same ever since.

I’m a huge fan of the Who. Tell me your favorite memory of John Entwistle from that tour.
The Ox. I love him so much. He was stone-cold deaf. The man was deaf. He also had a road case that was about six feet tall and four feet wide and four feet deep. The two front panels would open up and flare out. They were all his famous leather jackets. Up and down on each side, there must have been ten pairs of boots that matched each leather jacket. It was unbelievable. I had a photo of myself and Ringo holding one of the boots.

The main thing I remember was how soft-spoken he was. He would sound like, [deep, indecipherable grumble]. Nobody could understand a word he said. At one point, at the end of whatever he was talking about, he’d chuckle. Everyone would laugh, but nobody heard a friggin’ word. He was a gentle soul with a huge heart.

I’ve seen videos of that 1995 tour. There must have been moments where it felt like this classic-rock fever dream. You’re up there with a Beatle and members of the Who and Cream and you’re playing songs by Grand Funk Railroad. The whole thing is really wild if you stand back and think about it.
It’s unbelievable. My second band, in 1997, was possibly my favorite band that I’ve ever been in. It was Peter Frampton, Jack Bruce, Gary Brooker, Simon Kirke, myself, and Ringo. It was a six-piece band. And the hits … it was an unbelievable parade of hits. Not just marginal hits, but massive hits like “Sunshine of Your Love,” “White Room,” “A Whiter Shade of Pale.”

You played the organ on that one.
Let me tell you a little story about that. As the musical director, I oversee the rehearsal. Let’s say we have a week to rehearse. On day one, I always make sure we do three Ringo songs and at least one by each of the guys. We do about seven songs and so by the end we’ve done everything and have about two days to rehearse. The first day, I wanted to go over “A Whiter Shade of Pale.” It’s a beautiful song and I know it would be one of the last ones since I always write the set list. It was the third-to-last song before Ringo’s last tune, which is often “Photograph.”

Anyway, I had “A Whiter Shade of Pale” in that slot and I went over to the piano. Gary Brooker looked at me. He called me “Stoker” since everything was nautical with him. Hey went, “Hey, Stoker. You play the organ on this one.” I was like, “I only play this on piano. Let’s do ‘Conquistador’ instead.” I slid myself out of that responsibility for the day.

I brought a keyboard into my room and shedded that for about five hours. The next day, I played the organ. Every night I nailed it, I have to say. Every night, the entire set would run though and I’d play all these great songs with Peter and Simon, who would do [Free’s] “All Right Now.” But the third song from the end I’d  be like, “Learn that part. Learn that part.” It wasn’t something where I could screw up and nobody would notice. It’s something that is embedded in everyone’s DNA. It was every night and it was a joy.

Ginger Baker guested at some shows, so two thirds of Cream were on the stage with you.
Oh, man. He came out and played “White Room.” We were in Denver. That’s where he lived. I’m like, “Are you friggin’ kidding me?” It was unbelievable. Unbelievable. I was like, “I saw these guys in ’67 and now it’s like 1997.” It’s like [hums the Twilight Zone theme]. It’s so freaky and so incredible.

When Billy started touring heavily in 2014, you had to stop going out with Ringo. How did all that go down?
[Bassist] Andy Cichon had a prior engagement with Shania Twain on that 2013 tour, so he had to bring in a replacement for him too. After that, Billy said to us, “Listen, I want you guys to be in the band.” We said, “Absolutely.” Ringo was talking about a tour and he sent out dates. I would have had to miss three Billy Joel shows. It wasn’t even a whole tour, but it wasn’t going to happen. I was committed to Billy.

Now, I’m in the same boat as before, but flipped. I had to call Bruce Grakal, Ringo’s manager and someone that has been with him forever. I said, “Bruce, I have a conflict. I don’t know how to tell Ringo what is going on.” He says, “Marky, don’t worry about it. He loves you. Just call him and he’ll understand.” I’m like, “Aw shit.”

My father used to say, “Follow the bad road quickly.” I did not wait. I hung up the phone and immediately called Ringo. He was like, “Hey, Mark. I’m excited. We’re going on tour!” I said, “That’s why I’m calling. I have bad news.” He said, “You’re not hurt, are you?” I said, “No, but I have a commitment I cannot get out of. I want to give you all the time so you can replace me.” He goes, “Oh, that’s too bad.”

I expected him to say, “It’s been nice having you in my life all this time.” It was just a simple, “I understand. I love you. Be well.” I thought that was the end of the conversation. I said, “I love you. I wish there was more I could say.” He said, “There is nothing more you can say.” I was waiting for him to say, “Have a good day. Goodbye.” At the very last moment, he says, “You’ll still be my musical director, won’t you?” I was like, “There is a God!”

There have been times I’ve shown up three days before a tour starts. I crack the whip, do rehearsals, didn’t even get to see the first show, and I was on a plane the night before a Billy show to get back out. I’ve been so, so blessed with this balancing act that I’ve been doing. Want to hear a story?

Sure.
In July of 2010, it was Ringo’s 70th birthday. Joe Walsh called me up and said, “Hey, Mark. Do you know Paul? Paul wants to sing ‘Birthday’ for Ringo and he wants it to be a surprise.” I said, “OK, who is in the band?” He goes, “You, me, Paul, Rick Derringer, Edgar Winter, and Gregg Bissonette. I was like, “OK.” It was a secret, covert operation. We had to go to Radio City Music Hall in the afternoon to rehearse, unbeknownst to Ringo.

Now we’re onstage and we start playing. He says, “By the way, I haven’t played this in about eight years. Just bear with me.” He plays [hums the bass part slightly off] and stops. We go through the whole song. I say, “Well, actually Paul …” Everyone stops dead because here I am correcting Paul McCartney. I said, the bass line goes like [hums it correctly]. He goes, “Oh, right, I forgot that part. Let’s do it again.”

The next time we run it, Paul jumped in two measures early to the “we’re going to a party” verse. At the end of the song he goes, “How was that?” I go, “Actually, Paul …” Everyone looks at me like, “This guy is going to be fired.” I said, “Actually, Paul. You came in on the ‘party, party’ part two measures early.” He says, “I’ll tell you what, mate. We’ll do it one more time. I’ll play the bass and you sing it and I’ll sort it out.” I’m singing “Birthday” with Paul on bass, my favorite bass player, and I’m tripping.

I think of all the great guest spots at Billy shows, the Springsteen one was the best. Did you get tips on the “Born to Run” solo from Crystal? She played it all the time with him.
I played it on tenor. I just listened to it. Again, I played that with cover bands. Any time I played with a band in New Jersey, we’d do it. If a sax player doesn’t know the solo to that song? Dude, you weren’t really paying attention. People ask me, “Do you guys rehearse for a Billy Joel show?” I say, “No. We show up for soundcheck. We’ll run through a couple of songs. Michael DelGuidice will sing a few songs and we’ll work on background harmonies. Once Billy shows up, we don’t do a single Billy Joel song. We do Led Zeppelin, Hendrix … all covers.” Billy loves his covers. That’s how it is.

Let’s say you were talking to a young musician who was about to go on tour backing a major solo artist. What tips would you give him or her for how to maneuver through that?
Get along. Just get along with people. Again, confidence versus arrogance. However well you play will take you so far. Having a good attitude will take you far and being grateful will take you across the finish line. If you show gratitude when all is said and done, whoever the boss is, whoever the bandleader is, whoever is making the decisions, they will recognize you for that special talent. You can be a great player and be a dick. It doesn’t work and you won’t work.

I’ll tell any young person that is thinking about it, “If you’re ready to have your heart broken, let’s go.” You’re going to hear the words “no” and “not quite” all the time. This business is full of rejection. Despite all these great stories I’m telling you, there were times I couldn’t pay a phone bill or do certain things.

Are you confident that you’ll be back onstage with Billy in 2021?
I think all of humanity needs to take a step back and realize that we’re all in this together. Democrats, Republicans, Americans, Europeans, every color, we’re all in this together. If we can do that, we deserve to go out and perform.

I believe, and I know in my heart of hearts, that people are so, so starved for escapism and entertainment. There’s this void that is in our hearts. The true line that comes to mind all the time is, “Because he knows that it’s me they’ve been coming to see to forget about life for a while.”

We need to forget about this. Billy’s music will be the thing that will heal millions of people. I believe when we finally do our first show at Madison Square Garden, when that comes to be, it’ll make The Last Play at Shea look like a gig at CBGBs.

That’s how much it means to me. That’s how much it means to everyone. We all need to forget about life for a while. Billy is the guy. Of all the love I have for people in music, when he performs and when he puts it out there and those songs connect with people, we all forget about life for a while.

 

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