By Gianmarc Manzione
Originally published on Culturespill.com
“People will always consume musical Twinkies, but only the real stuff can satisfy a genuine hunger. When your lover leaves and hits the bed of somebody you know, Twinkies won’t save your life.” — Rocky Frisco
It is no piece of hyperbole to say that the story of Rock ‘N Roll’s birth cannot be fully told without mention of the great Rocky Frisco–one of the reasons why he factors into Peter Guralnick’s bestselling book about Elvis Presley, The Last Train to Memphis. Frisco has served as pianist to some of rock’s most lauded visionaries, such as the great and hugely influential J.J. Cale, whom the likes of Eric Clapton, Mark Knopfler and Richard Thompson credit as a pivotal influence. Frisco and Cale were high school buddies in the mid 1950s, and Frisco has played in Cale’s band throughout his life. And he has one hell of a story to tell–costly run-ins with crooked record company fat cats, the night he bought Chuck Berry a bottle of whiskey and watched him down the whole damned thing before duckwalking across the stage, a 7-day bike ride from Tulsa to Texas to interview Elvis that left him burnt to a crisp in the deadly southern sun, racing a Morris Mini in the Canadian Grand Prix, running for office in Tulsa, starring in Disney movies with Dave Matthews–you name it, this guy’s been there, done that. It is not possible to overstate how thrilled we are to present to you our exclusive interview with this rock ‘n roll renegade, the one and only Rocky Frisco, a man whose grace and humility belie the kind of resume any lesser man would boast of.
Gianmarc: You’ve been in and around the music business for quite some time, sitting in with Flash Terry’s band and playing your earliest gigs with J.J. Cale as part of Gene Crose’s band in the late 1950s. You’ve subsequently played with an amazing host of other acts over the years—Eric Clapton, Widespread Panic, Leon Russell, Clyde Stacy, Garth Brooks’s sister (with the Betsy Smittle Band), Johnny Lee Wills (just to name a few.) Who among these many bands and artists was/is the most fun for you to play with?
Rocky: I never played with Leon Russell. I met him as Russell Bridges once when Doug Cunningham brought him to one of my dances at the YWCA in Tulsa. Leon was 14 at the time. The most fun has definitely been with the Cale Band since I rejoined them in 1994. John took me on my first trip to England and the rest of Europe in 1994, something I had always wanted to do. I have been back a number of times since then. I thoroughly enjoy playing with the three Tulsa Bands I work with these days. Tom Skinner is a genius Oklahoma singer-songwriter and his Wednesday Night Science Project is packed with incredible musicians. Tom started Garth Brooks in the business some years ago as his rhythm guitarist. On Thursday nights, I play with Higher Education at McNelly’s Irish Pub upstairs. HE includes Dustin Pittley and Jesse Aycock, two unbelievably good young singer-songwriter-guitarists. Either of them could walk onstage and play with Knopfler or Clapton although they are in their middle 20′s. The band also includes David White, one of the best Bass players I have ever worked with, me on piano and a list of different drummers, most usually, Dylan Aycock, Jesse’s brother. Dylan and Jesse’s dad, Scott Aycock is co-host of Folk Salad, a local radio show that features many local artists. Scott is also a great songwriter whose CDs I have played on. Sundays find me playing with the host band at the Tulsa Sunday Blues Jam; the Kevin Phariss Blues Band is the old Flash Terry Band. Kevin was Flash’s band manager and second guitarist. Scott Santee was Flash’s sound man and he is now our lead guitar and main vocalist. He’s one of the best lead players in Tulsa, but he is known for his self-effacing humor, so few people realize exactly how good he is. He’s famous for ending each song with “I wrote that song.” Harry Williams was Flash’s drummer for many years and we are lucky to have him with us. Harry is in the Oklahoma Blues Hall of Fame. I was inducted into the Hall just this year. Our present Bass player is Tiny Davis, a Tulsa music legend in his own right. The lineup is completed by Mike Winebrenner on Sax and Iona Gilliam on vocals. Iona is not only a wonderful singer, she is incredibly good-looking and charismatic. One other group I’m excited to be working with is “Li’l Tee.” Tee is Teresa Gross, a tiny little lady with an enormous voice and great charm. The band consists of Tee, me on piano and Bob Withrow on Guitar. I put Bob in my alltime top ten guitarists list. He plays with great skill and finesse. Bob and I played in the Mickey Crocker Band some years back when Warren Haynes sat in with us for one summer.
That’s Rocky Frisco on the Keyboards with Eric Clapton and J.J. Cale (In Shades & Hat)
Gianmarc: Among the many fascinating anecdotes available on your website, rockyfrisco.com, is the revelation that, during basic training with the U.S. Army in Fort Polk, Louisiana, your commanding officer would sneak you off base to play in local bars and, of course, earn him some free drinks. What are your fondest memories of those days?
Rocky: The Army Basic Training was very difficult. Fort Polk in the summertime was unbearably hot and recruits fainting from the heat was not unusual. The best part of the illicit bar visits was that some of them had A/C. I was small and thin and I’m still proud of completing the training.
Gianmarc: You also express particular gratitude for having gotten to play with Flash Terry—both back in the day and at his Tulsa Music Hall of Fame induction ceremony in 2003. Just how big a presence was Flash in Tulsa, and what made you so proud to play with him?
Rocky: Flash was responsible for integrating the Tulsa music scene. He invited me to come and sing some songs at his home club in the Greenwood section of town, the Famingo Lounge. We had a deal: I would come and be the white boy at the jam session on Tuesday nights and I would win second prize, eleven dollars. You know, if you adjust for inflation, that was a lot more than I make now, playing in Tulsa clubs, and the gasoline was 20 cents a gallon then. As time passed, other white Tulsa musicians began to come to the jam. I have no doubt that Flash’s influence was a big part of the development of the Tulsa Sound, so, in a way, Flash influenced Eric Clapton and Leon Russell and JJ Cale. Flash died in 2004, one year after being inducted into the Oklahoma Music Hall of Fame, and we all miss him. He was once quoted by the Tulsa World newspaper with the best compliment anybody ever gave me in print, when he said I was the most “colorblind” musician he ever met. That may have been partly based on the night one of the guys at the Flamingo asked me if he could dance with my date, a little beauty named “Foxy” Baker.” I said, “Don’t ask me; ask her.” After that, I was one of the family there. In 1957, Tulsa was a very segregated city.
Gianmarc: Was rock ‘n roll able to do anything to alleviate that racial tension?
Rocky: Very definitely it helped a lot. Tulsa is the city where America’s worst
racially-based massacre happened back in 1921. Rock and Blues Music were
the strongest influences toward integration and cross-racial friendship
here in the 1950′s.
Gianmarc: Another fascinating anecdote you reveal is that, upon touring with Clyde Stacy in Toronto in 1958, you crossed paths with such stars as The Everly Brothers, Jackie Wilson, Chuck Berry, Frankie Avalon, and Jimmy Rodgers. What stories or memories stick with you the most about your encounters with those legends?
Rocky: The ones I got to be friends with were Jimmie Rodgers, Frankie Avalon, the Everlies and George Hamilton IV, all really nice guys. I once got Chuck a bottle of whiskey when he played in Tulsa back when we still had Prohibition (repealed in 1958). He chugged the whole half-pint and then went out and duckwalked across the stage. I wouldn’t have been able to even stand up.
Gianmarc: Would you mind recounting for us the “infamous bike-ride to Texas” and your “interview with Elvis” in 1958, when you were known as “Rocky Curtis”?
Rocky: Actually “Rocky Curtiss.” I took that last name from the Curtiss Wright Aircraft Company, where my father was once a test pilot. I was working for radio station KOME in 1958 (stood for Kovering Oklahoma’s Magic Empire) when the station manager and I concocted the publicity stunt. I pedalled a Schwinn bike from Tulsa to Killeen, Texas, to do the interview. It took me seven days of cloudless skies and Summer heat to get there. We didn’t know beans about sunscreen or skin cancer back then. I was burned really badly; some of the scars didn’t fade for years. Elvis was charming and friendly. He had hired a Photographer to come from Temple to shoot pictures of us together, one of the most thoughtful gestures I ever experienced. In the days before the interview, I spent some afternoons with Gladys, eating cookies and listening to stories about Elvis when he was a baby. She was a wonderful woman and a great mother. Gladys died about three months later and I have always thought that was when Elvis lost his life’s anchor. She didn’t care about the money or the fame; she just wanted her boy to be happy and stay right with God.
Rocky as “Rocky Curtiss” in a Publicity Photo
Gianmarc: You’ve mentioned in our correspondence leading up to this interview that J.J. Cale is a unique friend and the finest person you’ve ever worked with in the business. Would you mind elaborating?
Rocky: John is 100% genuine. He has always been, from the first time I met him. He was the coolest guy in Central High School, because he completely didn’t care about such things. He told me that fame just limits your choices. He said, “Elton John can’t go to the Burger King.” He once said that the bane of being famous is that drunk people want to tell you their life story. “I really love your song, Magnolia; it changed my whole life; it reminds me of the time my sister had the gout and her husband left her and . . .”
Gianmarc: One of the lingering narratives surrounding Cale’s illustrative career is that some of his own best-known songs tend to be associated not with him, but with Eric Clapton, who turned Cale’s “Cocaine” and “After Midnight” into huge hits. Some people like to suggest that Cale, consequently, fails to get the credit he deserves and is overshadowed by his more famous contemporaries. But judging from his recent work with Clapton on The Road to Escondido, Cale himself seems to enjoy a great relationship with Clapton and doesn’t much mind being, in a sense, the man behind the music. In your long experience with J.J., can you discuss how Cale responds to his comparative lack of commercial success over the years?
Rocky: Maybe a lack of personal fame, which is changing now that “Escondido” has paired him with Eric, but as far as money is concerned, he has done very well. I think he likes it that way. He drives rusty old pickups and wears jeans or fishing clothes, even at our most prominant gigs. I wear some pretty fancy threads on the gigs. One fan asked me on the 04 tour, “Aren’t you overdressed for a Cale Concert?” I told him, “This is what I wear when I mow the lawn.”
Gianmarc: You played on J.J. Cale’s excellent 2004 album, To Tulsa and Back, which was his first since 1996’s Guitar Man. Songs like “Stone River,” “The Problem” and “Homeless” delivered quite a bit more political statement than I ever recall hearing on a J.J. Cale album. What encouraged J.J. to head back to the studio after the long lay-off, and what inspired the album’s more political material?
Rocky: John genuinely cares about people and the health of our planet. I was really impressed by his courage in making those statements in such a repressive, unamerican period of time, when our government has turned rogue and our “leaders” are mass-murdering war-criminals.
Gianmarc: You yourself have demonstrated a rather active political conscience in your life, contributing to the 1977 nuclear protest album For Our Children: The Black Fox Blues, and even running for office in Tulsa. Can you elaborate on your life as a political activist—what inspired you to use your musical talents as a means of political message, what motivated you to run for office yourself, etc.?
Rocky: The deal with Black Fox was that it wasn’t just a nuclear power plant, but that the design was an experimental “thought exercise” the designers were appalled to see being actually built. Carrie Dickerson’s legal battle with the power company brought out the “Reed Report,” showing that the original designers had resigned their lucrative jobs to protest the plan to actually build it. Thanks to Carrie, we stopped the plant. My latest run for office convinced me it’s a waste. I doubt you can fix anything through politics when politics is the source of all of the problems. When Ron Paul was mostly ignored by the mainstream media, I gave up on politics. None of the other candidates, including the two present ones, even came close to Paul’s integrity. I strongly disagreed with many of his positions, but saw that he was the only one who could be trusted to honor his oath of office.
Gianmarc: We share an affinity for Ron Paul, and your statement that our government “has turned rogue” also resonates loudly with me. In your view, how does today’s political climate compare to, say, the days of Vietnam, JFK, LBJ or Nixon? Is one any worse than the other? How so?
Rocky: I think it’s all worse now, since the President doesn’t even pretend to
act within the law. John Adams said the USA is a nation of laws, rather
than men. That’s obviously no longer even partly true. The present day
America is a nation ruled by powerful outlaws who break the law with
impunity, but require absolute obedience from the citizens. We no longer
have a legal government, but rather the latest of a long line of outlaws
who have hijacked the Ship of State.
Gianmarc: You seem to have become disillusioned with the political process, partly because of your experience running for office. At the time when you say you returned to rock ‘n roll and never looked back in 1969, there was a genuine belief that music was capable of changing the world–a spirit Neil Young carried on with his “Living With War” album a couple years ago. I think of anthems like “Ohio,” “Fortunate Son,” “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” Is music capable of provoking change?
Rocky: I’m saying this with only the tip of my tongue in my cheek, but I think
the only thing that has the capability of changing this world, so
polluted by citizens who are shallow, lost and stupid, is The Return of
Christ and that this Christ will not be the storybook Jesus the churches
pretend to follow, but rather the Lord of the Storm, the God of the
Elephants and Whales and Zebras. Recall the bumper sticker that said,
“Jesus is coming soon, and boy is He pissed!”
Gianmarc: Your own long-standing relationship with the music business has undergone quite a few evolutions over the years. Most notably, you “retired” from the business in disgust after losing thousands in royalties to a corrupt A & R man in the 1960s. Would you mind recounting that episode and why you dropped out of the scene for a while after that?
Rocky: I was working very hard to support myself, my wife and two kids when I found out that the Columbia Records guy in charge of my account had embezzled around $45,000 from the account. He had been giving the band members money every Christmas to keep quiet about it, but one of the guys had a strong conscience and sent me $500 one Christmas and told me what was going on. Before I could do anything about it the guy from Columbia died. I’m not sorry I quit playing in disgust, since I spent that time in basic electronic research and racing MGs and Mini Coopers, activities that enriched my life immeasurably.
Gianmarc: Is the music business any more or less corrupt now than it was back then? How, in your view, has the industry changed over the years?
Rocky: It’s the same old corrupt money-grubbing sewer, with fancy new clothes.
Gianmarc: You say that in 1969, you quit your regular job, grew your hair long “and started playing rock ‘n roll again and never looked back.” What brought you back to the music business at that time, and why did you, as you say, “never look back”?
Rocky: I was doing most of the actual work for an IBM machine leasing company in Tulsa, maintaining the equipment of my own account and also the account of an inept bumbler who couldn’t fix a bicycle bell, let alone an IBM machine. When the boss was kicked upstairs, they made the bumbler the new manager. When I raised hell with them, they explained that they couldn’t give me the management job. “Who would fix the machines?” I told them they still had that problem, since I was quitting. I never again worked for “The Man.”
Gianmarc: Other artists from your generation—such as Neil Young, Bob Dylan, and even Leonard Cohen—are enjoying amazing popularity and success in the 21st century. What is it, do you think, that keeps people coming in droves to see these guys live after all these years and, at least in Dylan’s case, buy their new albums by the millions?
Rocky: Their music is written from the heart, not from the wallet. People will always consume musical Twinkies, but only the real stuff can satisfy a genuine hunger. When your lover leaves and hits the bed of somebody you know, Twinkies won’t save your life.
Gianmarc: Now I’m going to put you on the spot, Rocky: Who is the greatest guitarist of your generation?
Rocky: In which genre? See what I mean? Would it be Chet Atkins or Billy Grammer? Eric or Knopfler or Jeff Beck? I recall Stirling Moss once saying that the greatest racing driver of all time probably never saw a racing car, was maybe born with the reflexes and ability, but lived his (or her) entire life in the outback somewhere. One of the finest guitarists I have ever worked with, Bob Withrow, is practically unknown outside the local music scene. Who can say what other great guitarists are virtually unknown? As far as influence over other great guitarists, I have to say Cale is unmatched.
Gianmarc: You’ve also dabbled in film, Rocky, starring in the 2003 Disney remake of Where The Red Fern Grows, among other projects. Can you elaborate on your interest in movies? Are they as much fun for you as playing music?
Rocky: One aspect of acting in films is the people you meet. Dave Matthews was in “Fern” and he’s a very nice guy. My stint as a crowd extra in “UHF” allowed me to meet Weird Al, one of my heroes, and the great Billy Barty. My dream is to have a speaking part in a production with Billy Bob Thornton, the greatest actor/filmmaker alive. It’s a different kind of fun, since you don’t get to see the finished product until months later. The music is right now.
Gianmarc: You mention an interest in working with Billly Bob Thornton and praise his work in film. I’m sure you also know about this involvement in music. I was struck by his love of Warren Zevon; Thornton played on the album Zevon recorded as he knew he was dying of cancer, sadly passing away just shortly after its release. I wonder if you have any thoughts on the work of Zevon, yet another unsung genius who never really got his due as a songwriter?
Rocky: I’m not really familiar with Warren’s songs, except for “Carmelita,”
which is a favorite of mine. I know the song from hearing Brad Absher
and Steve Pryor do it.
I think the lack of commercial success Warren suffered was because most
Artist and Repertoire Agents, with a few notable exceptions, are shallow
Culturespill: In yet another of your many lives, you were a racer—driving a Morris Mini in the preliminary races for the 1967 Canadian Grand Prix. Since you’ve also repaired Mini Coopers in your spare time, I’m curious: any thoughts about the new Mini Coopers that BMW put out on the market in the past few years?
Rocky: The BMW “Mini” is charming and small, but it’s not really a Mini. I have a 1967 Cooper S on my driveway that I rebuilt in 1998 with a 1990′s bodyshell, so it has rollup windows and the big rear window. The reshell means it’s not a concourse car or true collector’s item, but it has a factory racing engine built by Adrian Goodenough for the Sebring 24 hour race years ago. I met Adrian a few years ago when I was in England and he identified the parts used in the engine. The little beast will do an honest 132 mph on a cool day. The BMW car is 16 inches longer, a foot wider and higher and it weighs 1000 pounds more than a real Mini, so it’s not anywhere near as fast or maneuverable as the Austin-Morriss car. I still wouldn’t mind having one for highway travel.
Gianmarc: Are there any newer or up-and-coming bands/artists that either you or J.J. enjoy? Anyone you’d like to recommend?
Rocky: Can’t speak for Cale, but the artists I like the best and think will be
very large in the future are Dustin Pittsley and Jesse Aycock in the
Blues-Rock genre, Rachel Stacey in country and England’s Lata Gouveia in
the folk and pop categories.
Gianmarc: Thanks so much for graciously allowing me some of your time, Rocky.
Rocky: Thanks for giving me a chance to; it was fun.