A dozen questions were sent to Rocky at the end of February 2003 - instead of answering them one by one he melted everything into one 'short story'. Special thanks goes out to Rocky for taking his time to do this and sharing his thoughts with us. I hope everyone enjoys this as much as I do. Thanks also to Mike Somavilla for his help. So here is what Rocky has to say:
I was born in Brooklyn NY in '48 -- started singing on the street with some friends around '59 -- doo wop stuff, street corner classics like "Gloria" by the Caddilacs and "I Wonder Why" by Dion & the Belmonts. Along with three other guys from my neighborhood in Brownsville I was discovered on the street and signed my first record contract in '62 with Poplar Records. The group was called The Visuals and we recorded three singles -- one of which "The Submarine Race" got a lot of radio play on the east coast and broke the Billboard Hot Hundred.
The Visuals stayed together for five years and after that I started hanging out in Greenwich Village soaking up the folk/ blues scene. I wrote lyrics from the age of nine -- at least I thought I was writing lyrics till a friend turned me on to Bob Dylan. That really turned me around. I put together a duo with James O'Malley -- a great singer/songwriter/ guitar player and made the rounds of folk clubs for a while with the likes of Fred Neil and Tim Hardin and then we joined two other friends, Joe and John Porcelli and formed The Braid -- two acoustic guitars, electric bass, and great three part harmony. We toured the east coast playing mostly college coffee houses and the occasional opening gig for acts such as Harry Chapin, and Tim Hardin. The Braid had a seven-year run culminating in a record deal with ABC Dunhill records. We recorded one album which was never released -- at least that's what we all believed to be the case. All these years later through a whimsical internet search, James O'Malley discovered that the album -- Moon Over Verrazano -- was indeed released! We are now in the process of tracking what exactly happened and the possibility of reclaiming the master tapes.
After The Braid I decided to go solo and recorded my first tunes as Rocky Sullivan. The sessions were at Electric Ladyland in NY. I along with my manager, Vince Cirrincione, who now manages the actress Halle Berry, produced the two tunes that were the result of those sessions -- Brownsville Boy, and Angels Dirty Faces, which is the song that led me to change my name. Angels With Dirty Faces is the name of a classic movie in which James Cagney played a criminal named Rocky Sullivan. I just thought it would look cool on a record label. I never thought it would become my legal name which it has been for over 27 years. Lately I'm thinkin' of changing back to my birth name. We'll see. Anyway, we were in talks with Clive Davis and others, but we never sold the project. That's when I turned my back on New York and decided to give the west coast a shot.
When I got to northern California I didn't know a soul in the music business. All I had was a suitcase full of songs, a wife, a kid, a dog, a cat, and around eight hundred bucks. Luckily, two of my old Visual buddies were living in San Rafael, and we crashed with them for a month or two until we got our own place in Novato where the rents were cheaper. Before that, to make some money one of the guys I was sharing this house with -- Stu Magness -- one of the previously mention ex-Visuals -- and I -- came up with the idea to sell muffins to all the breakfast joints. We couldn't believe that back then you couldn't buy a corn or a bran muffin anywhere in Marin. Stu and and his wife soon tired of making muffins and around the time my wife, Ilona and I moved to Novato we took over the whole funky operation which consisted of six muffin tins and about twelve customers. Ilona took over the muffin biz while I set about the business of getting some kind of music thing going.
One thing led to another and one musician led to another as well. A friend hooked me up with Greg Anton, and together we put a little band together. Players came and went, but Greg stayed on. At first I thought I wanted to put together a tight bar band modeled after Van Morrison & Them, and Eric Burden & The Animals. An American version of the English pub band. Then I heard a radio interview with a band called The Nuns who were sayin' they were the only Punk Band in San Francisco, and that they played in a place called Mabuhay Gardens. Now, back the Bay Area was all about The Dead, and I had witnessed the scene in New York that grew around C.B.G.B where practically every act that played there got signed to a record label. So I figured the best way to get attention was to be part of new and not part of the old. Someone, I don't remember who told me that the Nuns bass player lived in Novato, and worked in the local record store. I walked into the record store and asked Mike Varney if he wanted to play bass in my band. He had heard of me by then -- I already did a couple of gigs at The Keystone in Berkeley which started a buzz. Mike said he'd like to give it a shot but only if he could play guitar. At this point I didn't even know if he could play guitar, but I said okay as long as he could find a good bass player. Then while the new band is still in the planning stages Mike comes to me and says he thinks we can get John Cipollina to join us.
We took a trip to John's house in Mill Valley, played him the demo I 'd brought from NY, and John said yes -- just like that. The original line-up of The Rocky Sullivan Band was Greg Anton on Drums, Steve Lind on Bass, Mike and John on dueling guitars, and me on Vocals. Later we added two female back-up singers -- Trish Robins and Jill Berman. What emerged was a kinda Punk/Fusion/ Pub band that had it's moments. Eventually, the water and oil chemistry of John and Mike got to be a little much. Mike left, and was replaced by Greg Douglass around the same time that John brought Nicky Hopkins into the fold. Greg Anton eventually left and was replaced by a string of different drummers, Joey Covington being one of them.
Through it all, John Cipollina kept the focus on the music while I and my manager at the time, Dennis Chuning scrambled to get the all-important major record deal. Unfortunately, I was unaware that to the heads of the major labels, my aligning myself with John was not seen as a positive. New Wave bands were rapidly replacing Punk bands as the acts to be signed. John was seen as part of the old guard. The conglomerates were taking over the industry and it was all about image and the bottom line. I was told on more than one occasion to come back when I had a younger, hipper band. Without backing the band couldn't survive and soon after dissolved.
Around that time I contracted Lupus -- an auto-immune disease which I've been battling ever since. It robbed me of my energy for many years and kept me away from music. I put one last band together -- I think it was '88 or '89. We did a few gigs but then the stress of it all got too much for me. I spent the nineties writing mystery novels and screenplays. Like my music career, success as a writer was always "close but no cigar." Lately, after a particularly rough bought with Lupus, I found myself writing songs again. The difference now is, having no commercial aspirations for them, I'm free once again to write what I want, how I want. I just wanted to hear some new Rocky Sullivan songs -- end of story.
I think in my meandering way I answered most of your questions. Let me take a look...
Do I consider myself more a writer or a singer? It changes -- but if I had to choose -- I'd say writer. There is nothing like the feeling of sitting down with a guitar and an hour or two later having a new song to sing. Except maybe for being center stage during a standing ovation.
What do I think about the music biz these days? I hardly ever do. The only bad thing about having been there to witness the likes of Hendricks, Jeff Beck, The Stones, et al; is that it gets harder and harder to be blown away by new artists. I haven't heard anything "new" in years. What has been an inspiration lately is that some of the "old guys" like Neil Young and Van Morrison are putting out great albums of new songs that are as good or better than their old stuff.
Is there anything I want to say? Just that, the albums I did were all basically demos recorded over a few days with very little thought to what was going down. My only regret is that the real Rocky Sullivan was never properly recorded. I was never really given a chance to show what I could do in a studio or on stage. Sometimes I think of John and Nicky and what could have been.
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