Interview by Janne Stark, for FUZZ magazine
Hang On Sloopy, Rock And Roll Hoochie Koo, and Real American. Three classics with one thing in common – Rick Derringer. Besides having played guitar with people like Johnny Winter, Edgar Winter and Steely Dan he has been active as producer and also has a long solo career in the school of heavy blues rock – a true Dino! I met up with the band at Sweden Rock Festival in June 2008.
Last year Rick reunited the band that once played under his name and released two studio albums and a live, Derringer (1976), Sweet Evil (1977) and Live (1977). The line-up featured, Rick, second guitarist, Danny Johnson, bass player Kenny Aaronson and drummer Vinnie Appice. Danny has released records with bands like Axis, Private Life, John Kay & Steppenwolf, and replaced Steve Vai in Alcatrazz. Kenny Aaronson started out with New York heavy rockers, Dust (which featured Marky Ramone on drums) and has since played with The Stories, Hall & Oates, Bob Dylan, and Robert Gordon, while Vinnie Appice, is known for Heaven & Hel, Dio, Black Sabbath, Bruiser and Axis. Rick Derringer was born Richard Zehringer in Ohio in 1947. Only 17 years old he had a major hit with the song, Hang On, Sloopy with his band The McCoys. A band he says was actually much heavier than people thought.
Rick: If people had heard the McCoys in those days they’d be very surprised. The McCoys’ problem was we were not the light weight band that our records portrayed us. We were actually a pretty heavy weight band, which is why Johnny and Edgar Winter liked us when they heard us. They thought we were great players and a good band. So in fact Johnny Winter And was actually Johnny Winter and The McCoys, but they didn’t want us to use the McCoys’ name because they had this lightweight conotation. We were a heavy band but people didn’t know that. We’re actually doing a heavy version of Hang On Sloopy tonight.
Stark: How did the classic Derringer line-up first get together?
Rick: I had heard Kenny playing with the Stories with their big hit Brother Louis and I decided that he was the kind of bass player I wanted in this band. So I called him and asked and he was into it. Then I had heard Vinnie play, he was young and came from a family of drummers so I thought he was hot. I approached him next, and actually spoke to his mother. She said he was not in New York anymore, but in Louisiana, in another band. I went to Louisiana, and it turned out he was playing with Danny’s band Axis. So I heard them together and asked both of them.
Danny: I said it was no big deal as he had already broken up my band (laughs).
Kenny: When he called me I was playing with Leslie West and Mick Jones in the The Leslie West Band. Corky and he had a falling out, so Carmine was in the band, so I new Carmine before I new Vinnie.
Rick: We opened for everybody. We were the number one opening act, for bands like Aerosmith, Foreigner, Zeppelin, Benetar, you name it. We opened up for Peter Frampton when he recorded “Frampton Come Alive”. We figured as we could open for all these bands we could be headliner, but what happened was Vinnie and Danny left the band and went back to Axis, right before we became headliner, so we were stranded and 32 years later here we are.
Stark: What I think is cool about the Derringer line-up is the way the two of you (Rick/Danny) interact musically, trading off solos etcetera.
Danny: I said Derringer needs another guitar player like he needs a hole in the head, so when I play with him… sometimes people tell me – you go for it, too. But when I do the same thing, man, he’s so fast!
Rick: But when we got this thing together I was sitting at home thinking, I can’t play lead guitar some of the times when I’m singing so in my head I was thinking, let Danny play.
Danny: He lets me play as much as I want. He even lets me play more, but I choose to play the amount I play.
Rick: That’s what good about the band. We are not as pre-determined as some people might suspect. We are actually quite spontaneous and what you’d consider a real band. Danny plays what he wants to play, Kenny calls the shots when he wants to do stuff.
Stark: Besides your stuff you also did some covers, like You Really Got Me and on the non-official Live in Cleveland you also did a cover of Rebel Rebel.
Danny: We talked about what would be the song we could do that everybody would know, a cover. We did You Really Got Me before Van Halen. Rick used to do a guitar solo, which he’ll do tonight.
Rick: Which brings up the story, I don’t know if you’ve read the Van Halen book. In that book he says how he likes to tell how he was headlining on a tour where we were on with him and that I would go out each night and play Eruption. To make matters worse he said we would go out and make his hit You Really Got Me and he said he had told me to stop doing that and I would still be doing it, so he had to fire me from the tour. It’s actually on record we were doing You Really Got Me years before Van Halen existed and the solo I played on that record is what Eddie is calling Eruption. So if that is the case that would mean in reality that Eruption was stolen from us!
Kenny: Eddie’s a lying sack of shit, I was there and I know the truth of it and it’s a load of crap! (laughs)
Rick: The point is, the tour he’s talking about, it wasn’t even his tour, it was a co-headlining tour where we headlined one night and they the next.
Danny: That’s why I don’t play that much guitar solos, Rick’s such a great guitar player.
Stark: Yes, you really complete each other.
Rick: You’re absolutely right. In fact I told Danny the tapping style that Eddie says I stole from him, way before Eddie - actually Danny showed me how to do that!
Danny: I wouldn’t call it stealing when you say: "Hey show me that."
Rick: So where did Eddie get that style from? The style that he says we stole from him, he actually learned from us. I love Eddie, he’s a great player, but man, Denny was tapping earlier that I was, before we even knew Eddie Van Halen. He showed it to me, so it all comes down to Danny Johnson and Danny learned it from a guy in a music store. In reality Eddie may have taken the stuff he learned from us and evolved into the monster that he is, but he may very well have taken it from hearing our stuff.
Stark: Back with Johnny Winter, you were soloing, too?
Rick: Yes, sure. Johnny, as well like us, he encouraged me to play as much as I wanted in those days.
Stark: So, what’s your musical influences?
Rick: Django Rheinhardt, Les Paul, Chet Atkins, Wes Montgomery and those people, but then eventually I got to become friends with people like Jimi Hendrix and heavier guitar players, or people we call heavy guitar players now. But that’s the cool thing about music, we are all that we have heard from the very minute we were born. It all goes into our brains and it all becomes what we are now. There’s no competition in music. On the other hand that would be a great idea for a tour. Actually I’ve thought about it for some time. How about a tour where it actually says – Eddie Van Halen versus Rick Derringer – tonight cage match. Put us in a cage and we each do a song each. At the end they bring in an applause meter or something. That’s a great tour if they wanna see it like that (laughing).
Danny: I’m guessing Janis Joplin and all those people hung out together and wrote songs. They didn’t compete. I mean they did a little bit, but Dylan wrote with Joan Baez and they were hanging.
Stark: What about Danny’s influences?
Danny: Ironically it was Johnny Winter’s White Trash. It was BB King and the usual suspects like Page, Beck, Clint Eastwood, actually people that don’t play guitar like Elvis Presley.
Rick: Actually Stevie Ray Vaughan took a lot from Clint Eastwood in the looks. The whole image thing is a big part of the music deal.
Danny: It’s actually bigger than just the music. You can think we’re not gonna be very good. What I mean is when were playing tonight probably half the kinds don’t know who we were, but if we have the confidence in our heads that we know.
Rick: I’m gonna be playing a guitar that has an alligator top, instead of quilted wood, real alligator. The rest of the skin I had a strap made out of. So the strap is made out of the same alligator as the guitar. Now, that’s cool to me, it’s more than the music. That’s part of what Danny’s saying – it’s bigger than the music what we do. It’s bigger than the twelve notes we’re dealing with.
Stark: Kenny, I saw the Dust CDs have just been re-issued.
Kenny: Yeah, I signed a few and I wondered where it was coming from. I think they were originally bootlegs from Germany but they may be legit now. I’m not making any money out of them.
Rick: I made a deal with a German label recently and they wanted to do a deal. I said I don’t own it. They said – we don’t care that you don’t have it in your possession, we will find it, as long as you sign the deal. I said OK. These things are totally out of control these days so you may as well do the deal and at least get some money.
Stark: When recording the Derringer and Sweet Evil albums. How were they recorded? Were they demoed before or did you just go in?
Rick: We played the songs before we went in to record it.
Danny: We actually rehearsed and we did some pre-production in another studio. We were already sizzling before we entered and recorded. Rick and his manager at the time, great manager Steve Paul, who managed Johnny Winter and Edgar Winter. Him and Steve were pacing around thinking who they could get to produce it. We were going to go with Bill Szymczyk who had produced Rick’s All American Boy, but he pulled out in the last minute as the Eagles went in to record. So they were like, what about Pete Townsend, shall we call Page. Between the two of them they could get anybody on the phone. I go - I know a producer that would be good for this band – Rick Derringer. I brought it up, but Rick didn’t wanna do it at the time as he was in the band, but he went with it. I mean he produced Johnny Winter, Johnny Winter, And and he (has since) produced Weird Al Yankovich. So Rick produced the first record. We were so well rehearsed. Vinnie and I were so young that I remember one time I was playing rhythm and he was playing lead and he goes – Stop! I don’t like the way you’re playing. You’re not grooving, you’re just waiting to play another guitar solo. He put this clicker on, nobody used a clicker at the time, and put it through a Marshall just to get the timing right. We were so regimented so we practiced with the clicker and then we would try it. He rehearsed us so good. On the second record, Sweet Evil, we used Jack Douglas because he had done Aerosmith. So Rick could just lay back and experiment with his guitar sound, coz when you’re producing, and I think he did a great job on the guitars on the first album, but it’s hard to produce and be the guitar player. Sweet Evil had the kind of darkness to it and I think that record should have been bigger.
Stark: Rick, you also produced a demo with Savatage, but no album?
Rick: Yes, that’s a good story. Atlantic Records called me and said they had this band Savatage and they wanted me to produce them. So he told me to do some demos and send over to Atlantic and they’ll make their decision. I went it and worked with the band and I though we were doing a really great job. I went in and the guy, Jason, from Atlantic who I think is now president, he was an A&R back then, he said great, popped up a bottle of champagne, said the stuff sounds great. We all drank champagne - You’re gonna produce the next Savatage record and two days later I get a call – It didn’t work out. What? We’ve listened and we think the lead guitar player is much better than the solos you’ve chosen and we get the impression what you’re trying to do is, you’re jealous of him and you’re trying to hold him back. All I could do was to say – Wow?! Because when you’re trying to work with a lead guitar player, he might have said – Hey, I like this solo better, and I might have said, as a guy that has been around, may have said no I think this solo is hipper. I mean I wasn’t ever trying to control or hold this guy back, but I was trying to do the best job I could. So I was very surprised of the outcome, and that was end of the story and life went on. At the time I was amazed on how things just turn.
Danny: I don’t think they knew what a producer is. I was talking to a band, Dokken, they’re my friends, and they go - This guy says he’s a producer but he’s destroying our sound - and it’s a well know guy, Dwight (something) who’s been a sound man for years, and who we were gonna use in Alcatrazz. We were offended when he worked with us and he said you’re not ready to do an album. But years later as I developed into a producer myself I thought, the guy was right. We didn’t have the songs. The guys in Dokken says: "this guy has ruined our record." I asked him: "what do you think a producer is supposed to do?" “Well, for one thing I think he should get off of our case”. I mean the engineer gets the drum sound. They thought that was all a producer was going to do. I asked if the guy was helping them saying I don’t like that, I like that. He said: "Yeah!" So in other words they didn’t want anyone else telling them what to do.
Rick: Many times over the years people have asked what the definition of a producer is. I can tell you a lot of different definitions, but Bill Szymczyk has a great story and it’s about Howling Wolf. He was producing a Howling Wolf album and he said Howling Wolfe came into the studio one day and says: “You’re the producer, produce me a bottle of wine”. In the end there are a lot of different definitions. The basic definition is, there was no album, now there is. The producer is the guy that gets credit for now there is. He’s responsible for everything. On the other hand a record company would say: "last record sold 200 000 with this guy, let’s bring in this producer and now we want it to sell at least 250 000 albums." In other words, the record company’s definition is can this producer sell more records. I can tell you, from producing a lot of albums, he doesn't necessarily have the power to make the album you want to make. Lots of times I’ve worked with bands where I’ve said to the guitar player for instance: "this solo is the one we should use" and he would say: "no, but that’s not right, I didn’t play the right solo." In the end I have no power to override if that artist wants to say - I want it this way. I can only make the record they will allow me to make.
Danny: On the subject, I did a record with a band called Private Life which was produced by Eddie Van Halen. He helped get the deal, he was financially handling it and we recorded in his backyard, the 5150, so he had the power. A lot of times I would take a solo and he'd say: "you’re done with that," and it was the first take. I’d go: "come on, I kinda messed up in the middle." He said: "I know, but Danny, I’m looking at it like this. I’ve been recording before and made some mistakes, but I land on my feet. If you do something in rock n roll and you land on your feet." In other words, like Steely Dan, who are perfectionists, but every now and then they would hear a mistake and you’d say, it’s kind of a mistake, but listen to how they pull this off, but younger musicians, they don’t hear that, they want it all so perfect. Like when I produce myself, I become so anal that I get like 15 tracks of guitar. Rick was at my house and I played my solo record for him. He was actually gonna borrow a staple gun. I asked him if he’d play on my record. He said yes, if you get me a staple gun. I got him a Les Paul, tuned it up and asked him to play. But he wouldn’t until he got the staple gun. He listened to my record. I said: "you’re a producer tell me what to do" and he says: “Do one instrumental, make it a bit longer, mix it and you’re done. You’re doing it today”. I can produce somebody else better than me. You have to know how good someone is and how good they are not.
Rick: When I produced Johnny Winter it was always fun because I would inevitably play a solo and I’d go: "try that again" and he would always say: "WHY?!" So, in the end you’d go – ok. Is playing it again necessarily gonna make it better? Johnny was feeling there was no such thing as better. Edgar is totally opposite. He would drive people nuts. Actually back in the days he would do 80 takes and he’d be drinking all the time, so realistically it would be getting worse and worse the longer he went on and he would just drive some of his engineers and people to the breaking point where they would just flip out.
As the band left for the show, Rick let me know that the band recorded a live DVD at BB Kings, which is something to look out for.
We at Dinosaur Rock Guitar would like to thank Janne Stark and the Rick Derringer band for this interview. Copyright ©2009 Janne Stark, FUZZ Magazine.