You may not be familiar with the name Ricky Byrd, but odds are you’ve heard him play. Remember that killer guitar solo on the iconic Joan Jett & The Blackhearts track “I Love Rock ‘N’ Roll”? That’s Ricky Byrd. He’s also played with legends like Who singer Roger Daltrey, Mott the Hoople singer Ian Hunter, longtime Springsteen cohort Southside Johnny, and many more. And in 2013, after decades of providing the guitar muscle for these singer/songwriters, he’s become one himself, releasing an excellent solo album, Lifer (see our review here), on which he sings and writes along with slinging the six-strings.
Ricky recently spoke with Entertainmenttell.com for an exclusive interview in which he recounted the long process that led to the making of Lifer, and dished on some of his famous former bosses.
Ricky Byrd: How are you doing today?
EntertainmentTell: Good, good, thanks.
Byrd: It’s Monday, you know, so it’s a little slow.
EntertainmentTell: Yeah I hear you. I’m feeling a little “Monday” myself.
Byrd: Trying to get the car revved up …
EntertainmentTell: Right. So, hey, I really enjoyed Lifer. I think it’s a great piece of work.
Byrd: Thank you very much, I’m glad.
EntertainmentTell: You’re quite welcome.
Byrd: I’m getting a really good response so that’s really encouraging.
EntertainmentTell: Good. So I understand it was a long time in the works. How long have you been working on that?
Byrd: Specifically, I think I started the process on November of 2001. I went down to Nashville—really I started a little before that because I was trying to figure out who I wanted to produce my record. And I had gotten a copy of Steve Earle’s I Feel Alright. I love the production on it, so I chased down (the album’s co-producer) Ray Kennedy. I went down to Nashville—I think I went down in 2000 maybe. I chased him down into the club—actually it was a Steve Earle concert. I literally grabbed them and pulled them into Steve’s dressing room, and I don’t even know Steve, but that’s the Bronx in me. And I just said, “Hey man, my name’s blah blah blah and this is what I do and I want you to do this record.” So he said, “Send me tapes.” I went back to New York and I sent him tapes, cassettes by the way of demos. I didn’t hear back from him for months, so I figured, “Alright, he didn’t quite get it,” and then I get this phone message saying, “Hey man, we gotta work together. This is great.” He said, “I put them at the bottom of the pile when I get stuff.” So I finally went down there. I think I made one trip between that and when I went down to start the preproduction trip. Right after September 11th, I went down there with the mindset to start recording and we did six tracks. From 2001 until maybe 2004-ish I would make trips down there every once in a while when he wasn’t working and I wasn’t working, and we worked on the tracks. And we got them all mixed in and ready to go and then all this time went by when neither of us was basically available. Also, the trips going down there were very stressful for me because I only had a limited amount of time until I sold my first record and we’re working late at night, and I know I had a flight to catch the next day and I’m trying to squeeze all this stuff in. So I came back to New York and time goes by, and somewhere around 2010—now you can see how much time went by—I ran into my old friend Bob Stander on Facebook. I kind of lost track of him, and I just put Pro Tools in my studio in my home. I’m like a technical moron pretty much, but I can write a good song though. So I said, “Dude, want to come over my house and show me how to get around this Pro Tools thing?” He came over, and I had written a couple of songs already for the rest of the record. I had just written “Foolish Kind” and I said, “Let’s do this one.” You know, a simple acoustic song, so we did the whole thing. Because I don’t have a band, we had to use this process where I would play one guitar to a click at my studio. Then we would go out to his studio in Huntington, Long Island, where he actually had drums, and I had Sean Murray who played with Willy Deville for, like, 20 years, he put a track down. I loved it because it was like in a basement studio, I would stand right in front of Sean and I would wave my arms with stuff that I wanted. If it was a hit coming that I wanted him to do, I would advance-notice a hit.
EntertainmentTell: It’s like you were conducting.
Byrd: That’s the word I was looking for.
EntertainmentTell: Like an orchestra.
Byrd: I was Phil Spector with a shag—actually Phil Spector did have a shag at one point …
EntertainmentTell: He had a lot of different hairstyles!
Byrd: And then Bob put his bass (tracks) down—Bob Stander played all the bass on the record. Then we’d bring it back to my place and we would work totally stress-less. All my guitars were lined up against the wall in cases. We did all of the overdubs—except for the keyboards, we did them at a real studio so we could use real B3s and real acoustic pianos. So we finished that song, I sent it to Ray and said, “Dude, this is the only way I’m going to finish this record. It’s getting too expensive and we don’t have the time, time’s just going by.” And he listened to it and said, ‘this sounds great” and this is what you hear on the record. He said, “Just finish the rest of it up there.” So it turns out I wrote a whole other batch of songs, because in the interim, I reconnected with my pal Richie Supa. I played with Southside Johnny with him, so there are two co-writes and I wrote another half a dozen myself. So it turns out in the end, only “Turnstile ‘01”—which I insisted be on the record because it was my take on September 11th, that’s what came out of me right after that—that’s the only older track that ended up on the record, so it’s all brand new; when I say “brand new,” you know it’s (from) the last couple of years except for “Wide Open,” which is about, I’m going to say, 15 years old. I wrote that when I had my Sony deal. It’s been covered a couple of times, by Chris Farlowe and a couple of other cool European artists. And then we sent the masters to Ray, he mastered it, we mixed it, me and Bob (Stander). And then to top it off I was having a lawyers meeting and I ran into a cat named Rob Fraboni, who’s a famous engineer/producer, best friend of Keith (Richards), and he came in as this thing was playing on the lawyer’s system. He said,” What the f*ck is this?” I said, “It’s my new record.” I knew Rob from a long time ago. We were never close friends, but we knew each other. He said, “ Whoa, rock and roll man. Listen I got this new software that I’ve been developing for the last 15 years it’s called ‘Real Feel’ and basically what I does is it takes the, (I’m going to give you my layman’s terms of what it is—I actually saved his text of what it is, the technical jargon) but it takes out the numbers between the digital spaces so it is what it says, real feel. So, in other words, does it sound different? He keeps telling me, “Don’t listen for the sound to be different” but it feels different and it feels like it’s hitting you in the chest. And what I noticed is you can turn this record up all the way, and you know how when you’re listening to digital music, when you turn it up a certain way, it starts to get a little glassy, it gets a little kind of annoying at the top?
EntertainmentTell: Yes, a little shrill.
Byrd: So this, I mean, because it’s all numbers …
EntertainmentTell: Right, exactly.
Byrd: So we threw this on, he put it in the software, and when I listened to them side by side, I could feel the difference. To me this sounds like an analog record. You know, as much as you can without using actual tape, and when Ray was mastering it down in Nashville he put some voodoo on it to give it more of an analog mix. That’s pretty cool trivia because it’s only been used on a couple of records and I couldn’t even put it on the album I couldn’t put it down on the back in the liner notes. He said I could talk about it but I couldn’t put it down. He’s still working on all the licensing.
EntertainmentTell: That certainly sounds like a lot of people would want to get that. Analog sound in digital recording is something that a lot of people are trying to achieve these days.
Byrd: And it’s cool because I’m one of the first people to have it. And you know what? In the world of pop music, I don’t think it really matters anymore, that warmth. But when it comes to music like this you want to feel the band and some of the “schmiz” on the instruments.
EntertainmentTell: Lifer definitely had that old-school sound. On some songs, it had that Al Green feeling.
Byrd: Oh I love that.
EntertainmentTell: I really heard a lot of that, as well as on the rock and roll stuff, a Humble Pie feel. The album seemed real natural—it didn’t seem harsh or very digital at all. It did sound like it was recorded live.
Byrd: I had a couple of rules doing this record. First off, I had to create a record that I could play live from top to bottom, and it would get me off. So that means that the song had to be not stripped down, but certainly sound like a band. Since I’m the only guitar player, I made sure when I closed my eyes sitting in my big green chair downstairs (which doesn’t exist anymore, by the way—the hurricane took my studio) but I wanted to close my eyes and see the band: one guy is on the right, the other guy is on the left. Bass in the middle next to the drummer and then the horn on the right, and the keyboard set up over there. And when I played a solo, I would actually, on 10 out of 11 songs probably, I muted the rhythm guitar so when one guy started playing a solo there’s no more rhythm. And I sang mostly all of the backgrounds; I had some great background singers. The other thing was the groove. I wrote songs around grooves that I loved like “Dream Big”—that kind of greasy “brah dow dow” you know, that old kind of stuff. I’ve been doing a lot of interviews and I’ve come to realize that the easiest answer for all of this is that I’m cut from the cloth I’m cut from. I grew up as a teenager in the 70’s—FM had just come about, I was very into British music and this is really a love letter to that. It’s my first record, so I said “Let me get this out of my system and write an all-original love letter to the music that made me want to do this for a lifestyle.” So this is music for people who miss this kind of music pretty much. And I have a mission statement on promo stuff that I do that says, “Ain’t no rock without the roll”—it actually says “Ain’t no rock without da roll” and I feel that, to me, my kind of music is all below the waist, whether it’s Al Green or Otis Redding or The Faces. And that is the “roll” part—it all comes from the juke joints down south. It all starts with Johnny Johnson, Chuck Berry’s keyboard player and even before that Louis Jordan. It all has that kind of sex thing to it, the grooves, you know? And I was describing it as “Harlem Rose” so what I did with “Harlem Rose,” I wanted to have a Chuck Berry-ish feel, but what I did was, I did that half-skip shuffle beat I made the drummer play, Shawn Murray, because I didn’t want that “Johnny B. Goode” club band guy who plays four on the floor, because the real way to do the Chuck Berry beat is like that. That’s the way Steve Jordan would do it. It has a little shuffle to it and when I close my eyes and listen to that song, I see the skeletons dancing if you know what I mean. Yeah, so that’s the kind of vibe that I was looking for. You could feel, definitely, an era but you know no one’s doing it anymore and I just wanted to throw mytwo cents in there and also the fact that I was paying the check, I was going to certainly eat anything the f*ck I wanted to off the buffet table. Period.
EntertainmentTell: You hit a lot of those spots there, a lot of different good feels on there, and I really enjoyed it.
Byrd: Well the thing about my history is that everybody that I love in rock and roll except for Mott the Hoople and maybe Slade but everybody else has their roots in R&B and soul, which is how I learned about it. There’s nothing on there that sounds like Yes or feels like Yes or Robert Fripp. That wasn’t my music when I was a kid—not that there’s anything wrong with it, as they say in Seinfeld.
EntertainmentTell: Definitely. You’re paying tribute to the stuff you love. You can hear it in every song—it’s really great. Now, I remember you in a band called Susan. I used to have that LP.
Byrd: The blue one?
EntertainmentTell: I think so, yeah.
Byrd: That was the promo copy.
EntertainmentTell: It was a good band. How did you transition from that into The Blackhearts?
Byrd: OK, so Susan … I grew up in the Bronx and we moved to Queens when I was about 13 and I started playing in local bands of course like everybody else. You played in church bands, you played “In the Midnight Hour” 100 times. And Susan, actually … Where are you from?
EntertainmentTell: I’m a Philly boy.
Byrd: OK, so you probably have the same thing there. You know The Village Voice, right?
EntertainmentTell: I’m familiar with it. We were certainly aware what was going on up there.
Byrd: The Village Voice is still a paper but they haven’t done this in a long time: If you were looking for a band or were in a band, you always went to the back pages of The Village Voice, and this band Susan was moving down from Boston and they were looking for a guitar player. I joined that band and we were like a Raspberries kind of band, which was also part of the cloth I’m cut from. I love the band Pilot, I love The Raspberries.
EntertainmentTell: One of my favorite bands!
EntertainmentTell: Raspberries. And Pilot too.
Byrd: The Raspberries … dude, I saw The Raspberries in Central Park. They sounded like Humble Pie. I mean, it was sick.
EntertainmentTell: I missed that, but I did see them at BB King’s when they reunited a few years back.
Byrd: Yeah, and you know, what’s funny—here’s a piece of trivia for you: When I started writing, right in that Susan period, I started recording my own songs, there was a song called “Just for You” that was covered, my first-ever cover was by a band called Fotomaker which had …
EntertainmentTell: (Raspberries guitarist) Wally Bryson.
Byrd: Exactly. Wally and …
EntertainmentTell: A couple of Rascals, right?
Byrd: It was Gene Cornish (ex-Rascals), Wally, Frankie Vinci sang it. And who was the drummer?
EntertainmentTell: I think it was Dino Dinelli from The Rascals.
Byrd: It was Dino—you’re right. so that was my first cover.
EntertainmentTell: Good song—I remember that.
Byrd: Funny enough, I went to see The Raspberries do one of their shows, like what you’re talking about, except it wasn’t at BB’s, it was at some club. And I went over to Wally—now dude, this is like 30 years later easy, and I said “Hey man, you cut my first song” and he said, “I love that song.” Isn’t that funny?
EntertainmentTell: That must’ve been a good moment for you.
Byrd: Yeah, it was cool, man. He was cool in that band. So Susan did one tour opening for Graham Parker and the Rumour. Basically (Susan frontman) Tom Dickie left to form The Desires. We kind of scrambled around to try to keep it going. That broke up and I was living around New York, and funny enough, I became a bike messenger. It was in that weird period, I was still a kid really, you know, 18-19 and broke. I mean, Susan didn’t make any money, and what does a musician do when he can’t make play music?
EntertainmentTell: Waits tables, or …
Byrd: Bike messenger. I was the worst, though, dude … I used to take ups and smoke pot all day and never deliver anything. At that point, now I meet Carol Kaye and she is my girlfriend and she works at Lieber Krebs, who managed Aerosmith, Ted Nugent and Humble Pie, and so now the dots are connecting. Humble Pie was one of my favorite bands. She introduces me to (late Humble Pie singer) Steve Marriott. We become really good friends, so we’re hanging out and Steve, it’s like at the end of Humble Pie, you know with the Bobby Tench, Sooty Jones, Jerry Shirley, and Steve says to me, “Man, you know man, I’d love you to play with us.” I don’t know if the other guys would do this, but he asked me. And then John Waite left The Babys to come to America. Somebody hooks us up, we started writing, and then Carol calls me one day and said, “Kenny Laguna called, Joan (Jett)’s manager, and said they were looking for a guitar player and said, ‘Your boyfriend’s a good guitar player, huh?’” So I went down to play with Joan and joined the band, part of the “I Love Rock ‘N’ Roll” record was recorded. But we went into the studio and the sound and the feel of the four of us was so good that we recorded basically the whole thing and kept one or two of (original Blackhearts guitarist) Eric Ambel’s guitar tracks—Eric is a great guitar player and producer. And “I Love Rock ‘N’ Roll” came out and we hit the road and there you go.
EntertainmentTell: I remember at the time people describing you guys as being like Beatlemania, the frenzy that you inspired.
Byrd: Yeah, but you know, funny enoughj when we were sort of a hardcore rock and roll band and when “I Love Rock ‘N’ Roll” came ou,t we had to build up a new following because we lost a lot of those first people. You know, there’s always a thing where people think you sell out when you have a hit record. But of course, we built it up to spectacular proportions.
EntertainmentTell: Joan was really an early punk rocker with The Runaways.
Byrd: Yeah, and what I brought to it was sort of a Stonesy feel. I was never a punk rocker, never. I didn’t have anything to do with that. I was totally … Jimmy Page and Paul Kossoff (of Free), and Steve Marriott—that stuff.
EntertainmentTell: But you had some pop hits with Joan Jett, so it moved that way a little bit?
Byrd: Well, I don’t know, man … you listen to that stuff, does it sound punk to you?
Byrd: I think the combination of all four of us made it more of a rock and roll band. I mean, Joan’s personality was always punk and maybe “I Wanna Be Your Sog” or stuff like that … But when we did “Starf*cker” or some of the straight-up rock ‘n’ roll stuff, it sounded like a rock band. And if you listen to the first record, the second song on the record you can hear me play those chords. I was still finding my way at that point too so I was still trying to become me … Everybody does this, no matter who, if it’s Rod Stewart or anybody, there are very few people that originated something. Like Chuck Berry … Louis Jordan’s guitar player played double stops that Chuck Berry took and turned into Chuck Berry, but who the hell knows the guitar player from Louie Jordan’s band? So it’s all borrowed.
EntertainmentTell: You were with The Blackhearts till about ’93, is that right?
Byrd: I’m going to say ’91 officially, and then I did a Vh1 special with them in Colorado. And that was it. I immediately went into the Roger Daltrey record and then we did a radio tour and played some special gigs like Carnegie Hall and stuff like that. And that went straight into Ian Hunter and I toured with Ian Hunter.
EntertainmentTell: Who, I would imagine, is one of your heroes?
Byrd: You have no idea.
EntertainmentTell: That must’ve been amazing for you.
Byrd: Yeah, well, Ian knows that I adore him. We did this whole Scandinavian tour and wound up in London and (Ian Hunter guitarist) Mick Ronson had just passed away and you know we’re playing in this big London theater. And I’m starting off “All the Young Dudes” and everyone’s wearing Mick Ronson top hats Mott the Hoople top hats and I really got emotional. I was like “Wow.” I saw Mott the Hoople in 1973 when I was 16. So it’s pretty much a whole circle. But you know what, “Rock and Roll Boy”—dude, that’s my gesture to my pal Ian.
EntertainmentTell: I totally heard that on that song.
Byrd: I mean, I didn’t try to hide it. I don’t know if you have the hard copy of the record, but I wrote a whole liner notes thing about him, dedicating that song to him and everybody else that helped me maneuver through my teenage years. And that song, the first song on the record, is the last song I wrote. The record was already mixed and I was given a DVD for Christmas of The Ballad of Mott, from their reunion tour a couple of years ago, and I realized that I had forgotten that group. So I started writing it and then I started writing the lyrics. I realized I was writing about my history and how I started in New York hanging out in Max’s Kansas City, and those people who I actually saw in Max’s are in the song. The little asides that I do, like in between the first and second verse where my friend Dina says “Do tell”—I tried to get Ian (Hunter) to do it but he was right at the end of his record and he couldn’t get into the city, so we couldn’t get it together. And at the end I say, right before the guitar break, “I’ve been waiting to do this for years.” Which he actually says, “I wanted to do this for years” on the fade out of “All the Young Dudes.” So that was totally me, just going, “Thanks for the schooling.” The reviews that I’m getting are like, “We hear what you’re doing, we get it, we love it, and it’s all great.” Nobody’s saying “Ah man, this is retro.” They say “No, this sounds like Ricky, but we see what you’re doing” and it’s all original. It’s not a cover album. You see Justin Timberlake on Saturday Night Live and I love him. I think he’s hysterical and he’s a great all-around entertainer and he does this song with this big band and you know people of our demographic know that it sounds like The Temptations, but kids don’t know it. Well, the only difference is, I’m announcing it. I’m like, “Dude, this is my love letter.” What can I tell you? If you like this kind of music, buy this record. You’re going to love it.
EntertainmentTell: When I put this on I was like, “OK, I’m going to like this. I hear where he’s coming from and I’m going to dig this. This is cool.”
Byrd: And one other rule is that there was some real trick guitar playing, which I accomplished, I believe.
EntertainmentTell: Yeah, it does definitely show off your skills. So, besides the solo album, what other kind of things are you doing right now?
Byrd: Well, I’m involved in this thing called Rockers in Recovery. I’m on the board of directors. I’ve been sober almost 26 years—it’s for people that are either in recovery or support recovery. So we put together this really cool band with myself, Liberty DeVito from Billy Joel’s band, Christine Ohlman from the Saturday Night Live band, Mark Stein from Vanilla Fudge, Kasim Sulton from Utopia, and Richie Supa, who’s also on the board, is a famous songwriter—he’s done a lot of stuff with Aerosmith and a million other artists. We’ve been doing these shows for around five years and it’s building rapidly. It’s going all over the country, and we play this sober, alcohol-free, big gigs, and sometimes there are treatment centers, and now we’re finding clubs that will let us do it alcohol-free. We’re playing in L.A. in August at a big theater—we’re just trying to spread the message that you can still be a pirate and a greasy-ass rock n roller, sober.
EntertainmentTell: Are you going to do some of your own material with that band or just covers?
Byrd: No I’m going to keep it separate, but you know right know I’m playing, practicing the record. Look, it’s a new world and music business, and I have to be ready for anything. I’m quite good at acoustic performances because when I was trying to figure out what to do after I left the Blackhearts, I actually did a whole bunch of acoustic stuff. I even went on tour in Belgium, just me and a Gibson J-200. So I’m going to reconstruct that. I’m going to learn the album top to bottom and transfer the heavy stuff—there’s stuff I can do in a heartbeat acoustically, but there are some that I’m going to have to strip down obviously. And I’m putting together a band. I’m getting great reviews, hopefully I get some more sales—it’s only been out a month. The music business is gone so we’re doing it ourselves, and I’m working social media and I know when people hear it they’ll love it. I’m just trying to get people to listen because there’s a million things out there and hopefully I can get some radio play. I’ve already gotten a couple of stations that heard it by accident and added it to their playlist, like classic rock stations that play new stuff too, and hopefully I’m doing it in a slow build. I really have no choice—it’s better to come out slow. I could drag this out another year and really work this record and take it to Europe but I’m trying to find a band. I have a drummer, the same guy who played on the record, and I’m trying to find people with no issues—ha ha, good luck!
EntertainmentTell: That is a challenge, huh?
Byrd: Well, I learned early on that it’s best to get people coming out of the Betty Ford Clinic as opposed to coming in.
EntertainmentTell: Probably a good plan.
EntertainmentTell: So I guess your ultimate destination is to try to tour this and do some shows?
Byrd: Well, I’m definitely going to do shows. It’s expensive to tour. I have no problem getting into a van and doing some gigs around the northeast or something, and I recorded a record to play live and I think it deserves to be played out. It’s definitely going to be acoustic stuff and live gigs. Whether I get on a real tour and do something depends on record sales. So the new business model is, when I make money from the CD I put it right into the business and buy some more stuff that’s going to sell me some more records, and you just keep doing that until it gets to the point where so many people know you that you could actually take it on the road. I’m being very anal about notating every sale that I get for the record on an Excel sheet so once again, we’re the record company. And If I get a gig in Pennsylvania or Philly, I have 300 people that bought my record—I have their e-mail addresses, and that’s what I’m trying to do, which probably goes on in record companies. I’m enjoying it. I stay up real late, I put like the first Led Zeppelin record on my computer and I keep the door closed. I’m there until, like, 3 o’clock in the morning doing this. It’s good—it’s like getting your hands dirty in your own career; it’s like building a car from the ground up. And with any luck I’ll get to drive it down the highway at 80 miles an hour.
EntertainmentTell: Yeah. I hope you’ll get down to Philly, I’d love to check that out.
Byrd: I think that’s going to be easy, northeast is not a big problem. You know … the Stone Pony, a couple of cool places in Philly. Getting it to Sheboygan may be a little more difficult.
Special thanks to Susanna Nesses for her help with this interview.
For further information, and to order Lifer directly from the artist, go to www.rickybyrd.comBuy Ricky Byrd’s Lifer on Amazon