20th Century Records was the first place I heard the music of Ambrosia. I was in my first floor office, calling radio stations regarding Barry White, when I heard a rough mix of “Nice, Nice, Very Nice” cascading down the stairway. President, Russ Regan, had the largest, loudest, and best sound system I had ever heard. I wanted so badly to run up into the boss’s office to hear what sounded like a prog group from England. I loved all the records Russ was issuing, but this music had my heart and soul. The Beatles, Moody Blues, Elton John, Hollies, Cat Stevens.....
And as the day ended, I caught Russ as he was walking down the hall and out the front door onto Sunset Boulevard. “Hey Russ, what were you listening to this afternoon, sounded like a band from England?” Russ smiled, “Now quite, Billy, they call themselves Ambrosia and they are from San Pedro, California. Did you like what you heard?” I was shocked, “Yeah, loved what I heard!!!”. “Come by my office in the morning and I will play a few tracks for you.”
Morning couldn’t come quick enough. I knew I had to go on the road on Monday, so if I didn’t get hear this new band on Friday, I would be out of luck. Russ was always so busy, often times it was hard to corner him, and understandably so. Out of the first 10 records he had issued at 20th Century, three of them were hits!!!!! Amazing beginning. But as I walked into my office on Friday, my assistant, Linda, informed me that Russ had left a message saying to get up to his office as soon as I arrived.
As I walked into Mr. Regan’s domain, he was threading a quarter inch tape onto his reel to reel tape deck. He smiled, “Something to drink?” “On, no thanks Russ, excited to hear these guys.” Russ smiled, “You are developing some good ears.” With that, the reels on the tape deck began to turn and at full volume I heard “Nice, Nice, Very Nice” from a Doug Sax’s sound system. The 12 string guitar rang so clean and true. Drummond created a great feel as North laid a solid organ texture. The vocals were so expressive as Puerta and Pack exchanged lines. Next came “Time Waits For No One” which wasn’t a song, but a composition. At that moment I had
no idea that the legendary, Leonard Bernstein, had inspired it. It didn’t stop there, “Holdin’ On To Yesterday” came next and caught my Top 40 ears with its great blues approach. As the song ended, Russ broke my trance, “So what do you think?” “I love it, when can I see them perform?” This gave Russ a laugh as my enthusiasm was something that he hadn’t really witnessed yet. Russ explained that these were just rough mixes, but that they were pretty far along on the album. He told me he would keep me posted and as soon as there were some final mixes and some sort of a show, I would be included. If I could have gotten a way with a hug, he would have gotten one.....not something you do to your boss when you are 24 years old.
Weeks passed and the buzz around the record company on Ambrosia was building. The head of promotion for 20th, Paul Lovelace, knew of my passion for Ambrosia and tried to keep me up to speed. Freddie Piro, their manager/producer, became a frequent face in the crowd, as he and Russ began to close in on what would be on the album. Art work was in progress and a publicity photo began to circulate. (included here). Finally there was a show case announced for a few of the members of the record company at the studio where most of the recording had taken place, MAMA JO’S. I was included!!!!!
MAMA JO’S was located in North Hollywood, CA. on a large lot, at Lankershim and Roscoe. It contained the studio and several smaller cottages (3 of them) which comprised the offices for Rubicon Productions. At the back of the property was a garage where the band had set up their equipment. Very simple set up bass, guitar, drums, organ, and a PA system. Freddie Piro introduced us to the band members and then they secured their instruments, tuned up, and played. In the confined area the sound was excellent, Freddie knew something about how to impress. The vocals were spot on and the playing was some of best I had ever heard. Pack had played guitar in Leonard Bernstein’s mass, Drummond was a hard study on percussion/drums, North played the organ with such intensity his fingers would bleed, and Puerta (who started on guitar) played, not only great rhythm on bass, but also melody.
Meeting each of them for the first time was so easy. They knew what they
had, but they acted just like guys from San Pedro. Somehow they knew about me and were curious about radio and my back round. As I remember there was some discussion about guitars as that was always something that intrigued me. It was a brief meeting, but one that made me want to be a part of Ambrosia as I knew something big was about to happen.
When the test pressings of the album made their way around the company, I gravitated to “Holdin’ On To Yesterday”. I thought it should be the lead single as well as a track for AOR. It would work at rock stations like KLOS, but also at Top 40 stations like KHJ and KRLA. Russ had entertained the idea of starting off with “World Leave Me Alone”, a Pack composition that had a great guitar lick in it. I had no idea what the band or Piro had picked, but I knew I could get stations to play “Holdin’ On”. To this day I am not sure how Russ came to his decision, but he gave us that song as the single. I think there was some sort of a “you better go get this record” to his promotion team, but VP Paul Lovelace was backing me as he always did.
We got a good start at AOR radio, thanks to Richard Chemel. We worked both “Nice Nice”, (Lyrics were by the band and Kurt Vonnegut Jr. who wrote “Slaughterhouse-Five”) and “Holdin’ On”. But when I hit the road, “Holdin’ On” was the song I played for my Top 40’s. And all of the sudden there began to be quite a few of them playing it in good rotation. Denver, CO. became a very strong market for the song. Scott Kenyon was at KIMN, and he added it into a strong rotation. That was the first major Top 40 station to play it. I then set my sights on KTLK in Denver and Dennis Constantine, who at that point he was the MD. He liked it and began to spike it. His consultant was John Rook, and every record that went on the station had to get his OK. Rook was out of my reach, but not out of Russ’s. After a few phone calls the door was opened and KTLK joined KIMN on “Holdin’ On To Yesterday”. With two major stations in one market there was immediate attention to the single. Within weeks there were sales and request and a performance was booked at the legendary Ebbett’s Field for AMBROSIA. You can imagine we were all very excited!!!!!
I was sent to Denver to oversee the show, and be sure the radio and retail people were treated well and involved. Spencer Pyne was the local promotion rep for our indy distributor there, and was a music nut like
myself. He immediately gravitated to Ambrosia and marveled over the low bass tones at the beginning of “Time Waits For No One”. Joe, Dave, Chris, and Burleigh all related to him and to all the great sales people that came to support the show....as did my radio friends. North brought the house down when he put on a frog’s mask during “Mama Frog”. It was the beginning of some magical times for all of us at 20th Century Records as our new sensation became, Ambrosia.
“Holdin’ On To Yesterday” went on to peak at #17 on the Billboard HOT 100 on 8-30-1975 after 14 weeks on the chart. “Nice, Nice, Very Nice” had a great run at AOR, as well as a brief entry onto the Billboard HOT 100 peaking at #63 on 12-6-1975 after 5 weeks on the chart. The album AMBROSIA received a Grammy Award for “Best Engineered Album” awarded to Alan Parsons, who had also worked with the Beatles on ABBEY ROAD. Alan went on to produce and engineer (along with Tom Trefethen) Ambrosia’s second album SOMEWHERE I’VE NEVER TRAVELED, with the famous pyramid cover, eventually creating his own music under the name of The Alan Parson’s Project, debuting on 20th Century Records.
Ambrosia’s touring became a critical part of their careers as they shared the stage with Fleetwood Mac, Heart, The Doobie Brothers, and many others, still continuing to find time for writing and recording as their true passions. Manager, Freddie Piro, negotiated a deal with Warner Brothers Records to move the band from 20th Century Records to Warners for their third album, “Life Beyond LA”. Produced by Freddie Piro & Ambrosia, it contained the smash hit “How Much I Feel” which peaked at #3 for three weeks on the Billboard HOT 100 on 11-18-1978 after 21 weeks on the chart. Penned by Dave Pack, it signaled a move towards more Top 40 accessible songs, but the album still contained rockers like the title track “Life Beyond LA”.
As time would have it, there were some bigger and better moments on the horizon which we will explore when Ambrosia enters the studio to create the ONE EIGHTY album. Freddie and the band snatched me away from my record company duties to become a part of their team (Associate Producer) on their new record. So next up will be, the in studio adventures in the making of Ambrosia’s most successful album to date when undersongs.com presents AMBROSIA PART 2.
There is a document that rests quietly in my MAC OS X. The title is, RUSS REGAN INITIAL MEETING PDF. If you open that file, you can read it:
Studio Pass 6/21/72
Is Authorized To See: Regan
So why would anybody save a RED Universal Studios pass for 45 years? It must have some sort of significance.
It does, this is the pass that opened up the door to my career in the music business. Fresh out of college, with a degree in Radio/Communications, all I wanted to do is to work with music. Produce, play it, write it, sing it, review it, embrace it, criticize it, love it. Since hearing the first chord of “I Want To Hold Your Hand”, I knew what emotion beat loudest in my heart.
I left the University Of Illinois the day after I finished my last exam. As I walked out of Altgeld Hall, I threw my @2 test pencil to the winds and turned west towards Los Angeles.
For weeks I stayed at the Rausches (the home of my Aunt Imelda & Uncle Chuck) and roamed about Hollywood and the surrounding areas, looking for work. I inquired at record stores, studios, record companies, publishing companies, film companies, sheet music stores, no one was interested in me.
Then one day, while setting the table for dinner at my aunt and uncle’s, a friend of theirs arrived, Joan Tighe. She was an attorney at Universal and knew quite a few people, as she was very interesting and engaging. After dinner she asked me how I was doing. I explained my frustrations, but not with a sad face, more of a determined one. She smiled and said, I might know someone who could help, Russ Regan at Uni. Uni? I had no idea what Uni was. It was the label of Elton John, Neil Diamond and Strawberry Alarm Clock. I certainly knew who those people were. My inexperience shown through, but that only endeared me more to Joan. Two days later I had an appointment to see Mr. Regan.
A red studio pass was issued to me after I arrived at Universal the following week. I wore my fraternity (Evans Scholars) suit jacket, tie, and slacks. I must have looked like a lost high school kid from the mid west. Mr. Regan’s secretary welcomed me and said that it would be a few minutes, would I like something to drink? No thanks, too nervous.
Shortly, HE was standing in front of me with an extended hand, introducing himself. Smiling eyes and energy that simply took one over. As he escorted me into his office he looked over his shoulder and said,” I only got about ten minutes, kid.” But my heart didn’t sink, didn’t sputter, I knew I had to rise to the occasion. I sat in front of his desk and simply told him about myself, my passions, and how driven I was by music. He asked me if I listened to the radio? Of course!!!!!! WLS and WCFL in Chicago, constantly. I had been listening to KHJ and KRLA since arriving in Los Angeles, to this he smiled.
Then we talked, a comfortable conversation where I felt that he allowed me to be his equal, like a friend. It was no ten minutes. It was close to an hour. I had no idea that much time passed, until he finally said, “Bill, I have an idea for you. I understand you play guitar and want to make music, but maybe you should consider just being a part of the business, like me. Why don’t you work within the business for a while and then pick an area you want to pursue? Radio sure would seem to be a good place to start, doing local promotion. Would that be of interest to you?” I did not blink or hesitate...YES!!!!
Right then and there he picked up the phone and called Sid Talmadge at Record Merchandising in Los Angeles. Within five minutes he had an appointment with Sid and Sam Ginsberg for me on Monday.
Russ explained, “It’s at 1525 Berendo, not far from Soul City. You can get there by bus or maybe get a ride from someone. But there you can learn about the record business. You won’t start doing radio promotion, but probably something within the warehouse. It is like an apprenticeship. But what you learn there will be invaluable through out your career in the business.”
I got the job, worked in the warehouse doing the order desk until the local promotion job opened up. Sam Ginsberg gave me that job. And I never looked back. A year and a half later Russ Regan and Paul Lovelace hired me at their new company 20 Century Records to be National Promotion Director. And from there it was Barry White, Maureen McGovern, The Defranco Family, Ambrosia, and many more.
In 1978 I would join Rubicon productions where I would be part of the production team for Ambrosia, when they recorded their biggest album ONE EIGHTY. I was credited as Associate Producer.
So you see, that little RED Studio Pass was a door, which gave me my career. It still rests quietly in my Mac computer. I’ve attached it here.
KENNY WAYNE SHEPHERD The Beginnings
In 1992 I was the VP of radio promotion at CURB RECORDS. That year one of the most highly anticipated releases was by blues artist, Delbert McClinton. It was titled “Never Been Rocked Enough” and had Bonnie Raitt, Tom Petty, and Melissa Etheridge as support artists on the album. The single was a rock tune, “Every Time I Roll The Dice.” We did fairly well with the song at radio, well enough to fund a few live concerts for radio stations. One such show was in Shreveport, LA for KTUX and the then program director Ken Shepherd. Ken had been airing the song for me, so I went down to Shreveport to support the show. It was there that I met his son, 13 year-old, Kenny Wayne.
His father introduced me to him, backstage, and said that Kenny was quite a guitar player for his age, and that he wanted me to hear him play. Kenny had a Stevie Ray Vaughan Fender Strat, and played for me without an amp. He was good, real good. He asked if I could get Delbert McClinton to let him jam with him on stage that evening. Delbert wasn’t very enthusiastic about the idea without any rehearsal…not even in Shreveport, Louisiana. Kenny understood, but I told him we would make it up to him.
Several months later I attended a Radio and Records convention in Dallas, as did Ken Sr. and his son. A jam session was arranged and young Kenny played quite a few three-chord progression songs with the assembled musicians, but was a stand out when soloing.
It was then I decided to join Ken and Kenny Wayne for a trip to New Orleans, where we met blues guitarist, Bryan Lee. A legend in the New Orleans music circuit, Bryan was kind enough to invite us to THE OLD ABSINTHE BAR (closed in 1997) to jam. Kenny was quite excited at the opportunity until the manager of the club explained at the doorstep, that Kenny was under age and it was a problem having him on stage. After some financial negotiations and other assurances
we worked it out, and Kenny jammed with Bryan and his band. He killed it and from that moment on, Kenny forged a life long friendship with Bryan Lee.
When I got back to LA, I called Ken Sr. and said, it’s time to do something with Kenny Wayne, let’s record a few songs. We started in Shreveport in a local studio, but ended up doing a good portion of the tracks in a studio in New Orleans. We wanted to name the act, the Kenny Wayne Band, but after doing a title search had to change it to the Kenny Wayne Shepherd Band because of a conflict. I produced four songs, which were presented to record labels, along with a video, in order to secure a record deal. The songs were:
What You Do To Me, 3:02 (Nadeau, Shepherd)
She Belongs To Me (Magic Sam), 3:00
Suits Me To A “T” (Buddy Guy), 5:12
Say Yeah 2:40
A 3 Way Productions 8/20/93
Mastered at Future Disc Systems West Hollywood, CA
Irving Azoff signed Kenny to GIANT RECORDS, and hired David Z to produce and engineer the album at The House of Blues Studio in Memphis. I had moved over from CURB to ZOO ENTERTAINMENT as Vice President of radio promotion. I took a few vacation days to fly to Memphis to hear the record and try to help. When I heard the rough mixes I felt it lacked a solid radio hit. Kenny, Mark Selby, and Tia Sillers, were working on a new song “Deja Voodoo”. At my urging they cut the record after I did an arrangement rehearsal with the band. “Deja Voodoo” went on to be a big rock radio hit, being heard by 64.47 million people to date, and Kenny never had to look back. The album it came from, “Ledbetter Heights”, spent 20 weeks topping the Billboard blues chart and Guitar World voted Shepherd #3 after B.B. King and Eric Clapton.
Kenny, Mark Selby, and Tia Sillers became a great song writing team eventually writing “Blue On Black” which skyrocketed the Kenny Wayne Shepherd Band to a whole other level. Before long Kenny was touring with BB King, who had Delbert McClinton on his bill as the opening act. Many was the night that BB had Kenny Wayne play the guitar solo to his biggest hit, “The Thrill Is Gone.” I always wondered if Delbert realized that Kenny Wayne Shepherd was the kid with all the blonde hair and a Strat backstage in Shreveport that wanted to jam with him. I honestly think that he did.
Music. Where does it come from and where can it go? It starts deep inside when you are young. All of the sudden you are humming some song you heard on the radio, and you can't figure out why. For me it was "Mack the Knife" by Bobby Darin. I had no idea what the lyrics were saying, but that melody stuck. That was the first one, I was nine years old. And all these years later it is still the same, the melody gets in my head and I can't get it out.
And I remember when lyrics began to mean so much. "Abraham, Martin, and John" by Dion in 1968. Bobby Kennedy was going to bring America back to where it had been after his brother was assassinated. How could it happen again? I did find some comfort from my friends in college. There, I really started to learn to play guitar, which helped me find my first girlfriend, who I wrote a song about. It said something very simple, but very real to me. And when she left me a few years later, I wrote my first break up song, and it was therapeutic. But amongst all of that, I had found my voice for writing, and began to do it in earnest.
It wasn't until 2006, having spent years in the record business helping artists find their dreams, that I found mine. I had discovered Kenny Wayne Shepherd and helped bring Ambrosia to the top of the charts....such talent. And when Joe Puerta of that band heard a song I had written which talked about going home to Chicago for Christmas, he liked it, said we should record it, and we did. My friend, Jim Cortez, created a video around it which instantly captured You Tube viewers. It became a #1 record on the mediabase oldies chart, found great support on AC radio stations, and was used on ER, the NBC hit TV show. And that was all great for me, truly. But the real moment came when I was walking through a mall in Milwaukee where several radio stations were playing the song. Two teenage girls came walking out of a store, singing my song, arm and arm. It is one of those real moments of pure happiness. And I have never looked back.
Music comes from many places, so you just have to be open to it. That is what has inspired me to share that part of my life on UNDER SONGS, and I hope some of my friends will share some of their musical moments with me. I will offer many songs, and each has a real part of me attached. And I know all song writers will feel the same way about their tunes, that's what makes it great. So lets enjoy the moments, and perhaps we can all help each other along the way, as that is what the Beatles and many others did for me. And if you are one of the lucky ones who grew up loving music, let's walk this new road together. Off we go.........