Backstage with Ron Onesti: Backups Who Moved To The Front
Oh my God, the music legends we are losing! It’s an obvious statement, one that we are all shaking our heads about, especially as of late. The other obviously scary thing is that it’s really only going to get worse. As our music heroes from the sixties and seventies are now well into their own sixties and seventies, the circle of life will continue to take them from us physically, but their music will endure eternally.
One of my favorite sights to see at our shows at The Arcada Theatre is when a proud parent brings their twelve year old to a classic rock concert. And the kid knows the words to the songs! A teen sporting a Pink Floyd t-shirt at the theatre gives me the confidence in our youth that OUR music will survive, and that I will have future ticket buyers coming to the theatre!
As I read the biographies of these recent losses the entertainment world has suffered, I found their humble beginnings to be quite interesting. For example, last year we hosted original Eagles’ guitarist Don Felder at The Arcada (He returns March 29). As we chatted in the dressing room earlier in the day, he gave me the story of the how The Eagles first formed.
“First of all, none of the ‘Hotel California’ guys were actually from California. Don (Henley) was from Texas, Glenn (Frey) was from Michigan, Randy (Meisner) was from Nebraska and Bernie (Leadon) was from Minnesota. Don went to L.A. to convince Linda Ronstadt to record some of his songs. She didn’t think his songs worked for her at the time, but she thought he was such an awesome drummer that she asked him to join her band,” Felder said.
Glenn Frey moved to L.A. to work with J.D. Souther in a band called Longbranch Pennywhistle. Weird, I thought! The band was breaking up, and Ronstadt knew of Frey through her live-in boyfriend (J.D. Souther, who also dated Stevie Nicks, lucky guy!). So Henley and Frey went on the road touring with Ronstadt sharing hotel rooms, and after a short time created a musical friendship that would last the rest of their lives.
Ronstadt is quoted as saying, “They really wanted to form a band together because they played so well off of each other’s singing and songwriting abilities. They asked for my blessing, and I not only let them rehearse in my house, I also suggested that they use Bernie and Randy in their band. They worked out the original four-part harmonies there. They did Witchy Woman for me, it was amazing, and The Eagles were born!” she said.
So many other “behind the scenes” entertainers became stars, but some I found out about that really shocked me. Ronstadt actually sang backup on Neil Young’s recording of “Heart of Gold” with James Taylor! David Bowie’s actual name was David Jones, and his original stage name was Davy (sometimes Davie) Jones! The success of The Monkees made him change it! So Bowie meets John Lennon at a party thrown by Elizabeth Taylor and less than a year later, Lennon sings backing vocals on the Bowie smash hit, “Fame!” Another “Bowie- Backup” was an R&B legend who broke out big, Luther Van Dross! He recorded the backing vocals on the Bowie classic, “Young Americans.”
Mick Jagger sang uncredited backup vocals on Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain” even though he was already a huge star. Sonny & Cher worked regularly for producer Phil Spector before they made it big, and Cher sang backup on the Crystals’ “Da Do Ron Ron,” the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby,” and the Righteous Brothers’ “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’!”
Two years ago when former Doobie Brothers frontman Michael McDonald performed his Christmas show by us at The Arcada, we talked a bit about his days with Steely Dan just prior to joining the Doobies. “I was only twenty-two when I toured with Steely Dan. I did backup vocals and played keyboard, especially on their hit “Peg”, and it helped me define much of the music I put together during my solo career,” McDonald said.
Glenn Frey did the backup vocals on Randy Newman’s hit, “Short People!” He and the rest of The Eagles did the backups on Bob Seger’s “Fire Lake.” The Eagles really made many friends as they grew, and their generosity is exemplified by the amount of albums they appeared on as contributors.
There are literally hundreds of examples where a backup singer or musician grew to be a superstar in their own right. It was really interesting to see just how much crossover there was especially that short time period from the late sixties to the mid-seventies where so many vocal giants backed up for each other. Many of the Beach Boys sang on Jan and Dean and Chicago albums, David Crosby of Crosby, Stills and Nash sang backup for everybody including Elton John, James Taylor, Art Garfunkel and Carole King. Toni Tennille from “The Captain and Tennille” also sang for Sir Elton and Garfunkel, even contributing to Pink Floyd!
When you think about it, popular music is quite incestuous. I have come to know quite a few celebrities who have shared personal experiences with me that involve other celebrities’ effect on their own music. They play on each other’s records, share attorneys and accountants, even swap tour managers and sound engineers.
Our “green” room where the celebs hang out is covered with personal notes from one celeb to another celeb performing in an upcoming show. Tanya Tucker sent Kevin Costner a note saying, “I love you Kevin!” and Graham Nash wished Don Felder good luck on his upcoming show. Pretty cool!
At the end of the day, musicians are a close “Band of Thieves”. Much of it makes up the secrets behind the music, things most fans never really know until much later, if ever at all. For me, I love being “on the inside.” I get to see the human side of these superstars, and it reinforces to me the fact that the celebs are real people too, with the same kind of craziness we all deal with. So next time you are at a live show, pay special attention to those people “in the back.” You may be asking me for a ticket to THEIR show next year!