Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Mark Rivera Interview: From Billy Joel to Ringo

After decades of playing saxophone for the biggest names in music, both onstage and in the studio—Billy Joel, Foreigner, Peter Gabriel, Elton John—ace instrumentalist Mark Rivera has finally got himself a regular gig: as musical director of Ringo Starr and His All-Starr Band.

Since joining Ringo in the mid-‘90s, Rivera has performed in All-Starr Bands comprising legendary rockers like Billy Squier, Joe Walsh, Edgar Winter, Billy Preston, Greg Lake and Paul Carrack. This summer, Ringo and Rivera are joined by Steve Lukather (Toto), Gregg Rolie (Journey, Santana), Richard Page (Mr. Mister) and Todd Rundgren. In addition to Ringo’s Beatles and solo hits (“Yellow Submarine,” “With a Little Help from My Friends,” “It Don’t Come Easy,” “Photograph”), the band plays the other guys’ hits, from Toto’s “Rosanna” and “Africa” and Rundgren’s “Hello It’s Me” to Mr. Mister’s “Broken Wings” and Santana’s “Evil Ways.”

Before the tour—which began in June in Niagara Falls and ends July 21 in Los Angeles—began, Rivera (whose forthcoming debut solo album, Common Bond, featuring as guests both Ringo and Billy Joel, includes the recently released single “Turn Me Loose”) spoke about playing with Ringo for all these years.

Kevin Filipski: How is it being the Musical Director for a Beatle?
Mark Rivera: I love it! I play a lot of stuff for Ringo: sax, flute, keyboard, guitar, percussion and vocals. Whatever he wants me to do, I do! It’s going on 17 years that I’m in the band, so I am the eldest statesman aside from Richard….we call him Richard, Rick or Ringo, depending on what mood he’s in. If he gets testy, we’ll say, “Now Richard…!” We speak to him pretty candidly, and he’s very approachable, very sweet and a joy to work with. I love playing the Beatles’ songs and Ringo’s hits, and I get to play greatest hits of different bands every night. I’ve gotten to play with members of Cream and Procol Harum, and now there’s Steve Lukather from Toto and Todd Rundgren. Every tour is a who’s who of rock’n’roll. Ringo jumps on a thoroughbred and lets it ride.

KF: How do you figure out what hits to play for the different stars in the band?
MR: Each time we do this, each band has its own flavor, so there’s a slightly different twist on it: everybody’s got his own specialty. We always try to keep it as close as possible to the original songs because people want to hear that—as does Ringo. But even though he wants to hear the hits, I’ll make suggestions: when Greg Lake was in the band, Ringo wanted only Emerson Lake and Palmer songs, and when I suggested King Crimson, Ringo asked, “who remembers that?” So we started the set with “In the Court of the Crimson King” and the audience went crazy!  

KF: You’ve toured with Foreigner and Elton John, and have been in Billy Joel’s band for nearly 30 years. How is touring with Ringo unique?
MR: It’s amazing who we see in the audience every night: Ringo draws everyone from 16 to 60, sometimes a lot older and a lot younger. In South America, there were kids in the audience who were four or five years old who were dressed in “Sgt Pepper” outfits, which was awesome!

KF: You’ve played with some of the biggest stars in music, you have your first solo album coming out and you tour regularly with a Beatle. Just how much fun are you having?
MR:  I keep pinching yourself and thinking about how lucky I am to be in this business. I have a wife and two sons, I’ve been married for 29 years and my family gives me the grounding I need. If you buy into the hype that you’re great, then you have to believe it when they say you suck, and that’s tough for people to deal with. But for me, with Ringo there—the most levelheaded, laidback person in the business—it’s fantastic. I’ve had a great run, and I’m still running!

Ringo Starr and His All-Starr Band
On tour through July 21, 2012

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