An Interview with Bobby Messano, formerly of Stanky Brown & Starz
For many, guitarist Bobby Messano entered the major rock zeitgeist as the replacement for Brendan Harkin in Starz. But dial back to earlier in the ’70s, Messano’s story begins with a near-signing to Sire Records, a brief respite as a postman, and a significant run as Stanky Brown’s axe-slinger, before fate found him auditioning for Starz in 1977, a gig which he secured.
With his blues-inspired licks and multi-layered approach, Messano provided a capable six-string compliment to lead guitarist Richie Ranno on the group’s uber-underrated classic Coliseum Rock (1978). Messano’s impact was immediate, having lent his licks and chops to cuts such as “So Young, So Bad, “Take Me,” and “No Regrets,” and the tour that followed was a thing of glam rock splendor.
Unfairly ignored and done dirty by Capitol Records and Aucoin Management, Starz came screeching to a halt in 1980, finding Messano on the move again. Eventually, the New Jersey native found himself in the studio with Peter Criss and company, lending his talents to the ex-KISS drummer’s Let Me Rock You (1982) before rounding out the decade with the likes of Joe Lynn Turner, Lou Gramm, and Clarence Clemons.
Tired of the rigors of the AOR lifestyle, in 1989, Messano made a life-changing and career-altering choice to reconnect with his roots as a bluesman for his first solo effort, Messano (1989). In the 33 years since, while it hasn’t always been easy, Messano has cultivated his passion, and despite small monetary returns, Messano is as creative and busy as ever.
Stony-faced and still resolute amongst the shifting tides of an ever-changing scene, Bobby Messano recently settled in with ClassicRockHistory.com for a far-reaching interview.
Tell me about your newest release, Music and Other Sundries.
My producer Geoff Wilbourn and I made a conscious decision to do a project. He usually forces me to record, and he did so here again. There was no particular genre, just whatever I wanted to write, which was a lot like the ’70s for me. So, I just started writing, and things took off from there. I usually have some kind of chorus in mind and work off of that, and I usually write the entire album in a few days. But I must say in regards to doing things that way: don’t try this at home, kids. [Laughs]. But I hate writing, so it was the only way it was going to work. Having said that, what happened was actually fabulous.
What does your process look like these days in terms of song construction?
I’ve always got tons of ideas musically, but I have to be forced to turn them into songs. All my songs are based on real-life, usually a relationship gone awry or the world on fire, and I usually start with a title. Boy was I prepared. [Laughs]. I stayed in California with my friend Jeff and wrote almost all of it there. My long-time bud, Dennis Harrold, who has co-written a lot with me, just killed it on some lyrics.
How did the production and miscellaneous nuts and bolts shake out?
We had an amazing crew and cut it in two days at my favorite studio, the Sound Emporium. We mixed it in two days and mastered it in a day. The cover was done by Steve Whitsitt, who is my favorite photographer. We tracked it analog, then Pro Tools, and then it took six months to get 200 180-gram records. But it’s my first album on vinyl in almost 30 years, so it was worth it. How’s that for a story? [Laughs].
This is your fifth release since 2019. What’s led to the sudden bout of productivity?
Well, two were re-reissues: Holding Ground from 2004 and Messano from 1989. And Lemonade came out in 2018. I love that album too, but it was supposed to be an artist I was co-producing with, Joe Michaels, at Dockside in Louisiana. We found out two days before that she wasn’t showing up, so I wrote the whole thing in 24 hours in hotel rooms. Nothing like pressure. [Laughs]. But the pressure worked for me – as always – as it’s one of the favorites that I’ve ever done.
So, that’s those, and The Songs I Never Sang was one that I did at home out of boredom during my year at home through COVID-19. I very rarely do cover songs, so I put together a bunch I loved, and it came out great. I didn’t want to do it alone, so I sent it out for musicians to play remotely: Kinny Landrum played keys, Mel Watts – who was in Little River Band – played drums, and my friend from high school, Joe Escobar, did all the horn parts. I did all the vocals, backgrounds, bass, electric and acoustic guitars, and mandolin. I guess it wasn’t so bad; I made it into the first round of the Grammys. Not too bad, but I guess not as good as Billie Eilish. She and Finnias did it in the kitchen, but they had $900,000. I had $400. [Laughs].
What inspires you most as a songwriter?
Life. Isn’t that what artists are supposed to draw their strengths from? I don’t write bullshit pappy songs; I’m rock ‘n’ roll ’til I die. I’ve got those no Jack Daniels blues. As for rap and all that other stuff – it’s all bullshit. I write about love, life, death, and being Broke. You wanna know why? Because that shit is real. It’s a long story – I won’t tell it – but I wrote a song called “Sea Of Hope,” and I got an email from a guy in Europe who said my words saved his life. That’s what I’m talkin’ about. You can’t do better than that. I’m always amazed and honored to have written some words on a napkin for that result.
What’s changed for you the most since your 1989 debit, Messano?
I think it’s just that I’m getting older and more mature. I loved playing big arena rock; it’s the coolest thing. But I decided to go back to something that felt closer to my musical soul. In 1990, I started playing contemporary blues again, but when I was playing it as a kid, it was Led Zeppelin, Cream, Jeff Beck, Jimi Hendrix, and Ten Years After – all blues-inspired rock. It now had a genre attached to it – it didn’t then -which was sort of weird. I didn’t want to shelve my Marshalls; I just wanted to play that music again. I also didn’t want to be in my 60s wearing spandex and coloring my hair, which I still have… whew. What I do now still relates to the Messano album, there were hints of bluesy stuff, but this is more realness to it. I do still have humor about all of the writing, though I have too many songs to remember. [Laughs].
Going back, tell me about your days with Stanky Brown. How did you get the gig?
I was working for the USPS, and I hated it. But my dad was the postmaster, and it was a job, you know? I was playing shows late at night, too. So, pulling double duty. Well, somehow, I got fired… I had been sick a lot, and my doctor was actually able to get me on unemployment because of my stress. I was taking anti-depressants because it was wearing on me, and life was generally not great.
So, when I was on unemployment – for a month – I decided to gamble on being a musician. It was tough, my folks were middle class, and it’s so fu*king difficult. The good thing is that I knew a lot of newspaper and music writers, and they dug down and found out who was looking for a gitbox player, and some were pretty big. And Sire Records had tried to sign me around 1974-75 as a solo artist, but I was a kid, scared, and it never went down. But Craig Leon told John Scher – a big promoter/manager – about me, and they called. So, I learned everything, auditioned, and voila – I’m in a band on Sire/ABC Records, Stanky Brown.
Stanky Brown notably toured with Boston, Allman Brothers, and The Outlaws. What are your greatest memories of Tom Scholz, Dicky Betts, and Henry Paul?
The really cool thing, in the beginning, there was the first week I was with Stanky Brown, and we were opening for Kansas. The guys in that band were just so nice to me. They made me feel like I was supposed to be there. I’ve been friends with most of the Allman guys, their crew, and their kids for years. I didn’t have much to do with Dicky. I always thought he was a great player, but I cried for a week when Duane [Allman] died, even though I didn’t know him. The Outlaws were all great. I’m still friends with Don Barnes and Freddie Salem. Henry was just absurdly good, and I’d run into him when I lived in Nashville because he was in Blackhawk.
Now, Tom Scholtz. That’s a cool thing. Stanky Brown opened for them at Rutgers the night before they played MSG for the first time. Brad [Delp] and I hung out all day, and he and I became friends and almost put a band together in the ’80s with Joey Kramer; again, everyone was nice. They watched our soundcheck, and after, Tom came over to me and said, “Wow, man, you really play great!” As you can imagine, I freaked out. Then Tom goes, “Hey, do you want to see my rig?” I just stood there thinking, “Oh, my God…” [Laughs]. So, Tom brings me up, and there’s Scholz-land: Rockman, Power Soak, like all that gear, man. It was amazing. I’m so lucky to have had that opportunity.
How did you first meet Richie Ranno before joining Starz in 1977?
Rich and I knew each other because we both lived in Bergen County, NJ. It was a cool thing back in those days. Phoebe Snow, JT [Taylor] from Kool & The Gang, Al Dimeola, me, and Rich. There were some great musicians, so just because of our proximity, we ended up knowing each other.
Walk me through your audition. What songs did you play, and how were you offered the gig?
I really wasn’t supposed to be there. Rich had called me and asked me if I knew any bass players because Pete [Sweval] was gone. We set up an audition with my friend Rob Giordano and Rich says, “Hey, come in with him and bring a guitar.” I said, “Sure,” so I went to Brit Row – which was Pink Floyd’s warehouse – in Queens, NY, for the audition. All the guys were there, and we just plugged in and played. To be honest, I really don’t remember playing any Starz songs; we were jamming on ideas and stuff, and they were checking Rob’s bass playing out.
So, it was fun, and they said, “Cool, thanks. We’ll let you know.” I’m pretty sure Rich called me later in the day and said, “Hey, we’ve got Orville Davis from Hydra and Rex coming in tomorrow. Do you want to come back and jam?” I said, “Sure.” Because Stanky wasn’t on the road for some reason, I had fun jamming, so I figured, “Why not?” And Starz was much harder rock than Stanky Brown and much closer to where I was when I was growing up doing rock and blues. So, I went back the next day, Orville killed it, and they looked at me and said, “Hey, you’re joining Starz, and you have no choice.” I said to them, “I’m in a band, and we’re touring,” and they said, “We don’t care. We’re doing a new album, and we’re in a better position.” They weren’t wrong, and so I went for it. So, a big fight happened between John Scher and Bill Aucoin. It was ugly and childish, but I was let out of my contract with Stanky Brown.
Coliseum Rock remains an underrated classic. What memories do you have of the sessions?
Too many. It could be a book all by itself. [Laughs]. It was an exciting time for me. Living the summer in Toronto near Young and Bloor, working with Jack Richardson, man, it was incredible. Starz was right on the cusp, even though Attention Shoppers wasn’t a huge success, and it was a great experience for me as a young guitarist. I had already done the Stanky Brown record with Charles Fisher, who ended up being a major Australian producer with Silversun Pickups, and now, here I am with Jack, who had done Guess Who and Alice Cooper.
Also, I’m a tech head, so for me, I would write notes every time I was in the studio with a new producer or engineer. And I can assure you that I did a lot of that during the Coliseum Rock sessions. The other new development for me was that groupies and bandaids were coming to the studio every day. I wasn’t used to that. We were supposed to play a softball game with Boston when they were recording in Toronto, but we canned the game and just went to the show. I got to see my friend Brad and everyone. It was a great experience.
Michael Lee Smith and Richie Ranno were the main songwriters for Starz. In what tangible way did you affect the sessions?
I had been writing for years with my original band in NJ. Hence the reason Sire wanted to sign me. And I had my first cut on the Stanky Brown album. I loved funk, so it was a funk-pop song called “Chance On Love.” I wrote it with Jerry Cordasco, the drummer, Jeff Leynor, the lead singer, and Ken Shane. Jeff passed a few years back, but my God was he an amazing singer and writer. I just tried to acclimate myself to the way Mike and Rich were writing. It was a very cool, poppy, hard rock with interesting lyrics. Michael Lee Smith was a great lyricist, very funny, and very tongue-in-cheek. Having said all of that, I did end up co-writing a song called “No Regrets” on Coliseum Rock.
In the live setting, what was the interplay with Richie like?
It was simple with the two of us. We played differently, and it worked out great. I’m on the list of “Best Rock Guitarists of The Post Masters Era” – which I hadn’t heard of that until a few years ago – but I love playing rhythm as much as lead. I came from a different place than Rich, more of a funk, Blues, and singer-songwriter land. Richie Ranno is a very cool riffing player that relies on a second guitarist, so for him, he has the freedom. But I came out of three-piece bands, so I played a lot more chords than fills. It worked fabulous for us. We were a double guitar team to be reckoned with in the late ’70s.
Richie is one of the most underrated players in rock history. Give us a few words on him as a player and Starz as a band.
Man, Rich has always been a great player. I think he’d agree that he is more of a rock and acoustic player and is great at both. He finds great lines and riffs in everything he plays on. That’s always been his strength as a guitarist, plus he’s a fabulous writer. As for Star, for me, being in that band was an amazing experience. We played arenas every night, and even though I did Giants Stadium before I joined the band, it was intense doing so many huge arena shows. Starz got me prepped for the Steve Winwood and Lou Gramm headline tours. It was an extraordinary time for me.
What’s the funniest/scariest story from your time with Starz?
We were still on the Weekend Warriors Tour at the end of ’78, but we had a New Year’s Eve date with J. Geils in Providence, RI. This was just before we would rejoin Ted [Nugent] on New Year’s Day at Nassau Coliseum in NY. I was very sick, running a fever, and my girlfriend Debbie had made the trip on the tour bus with us. I just was not feeling well when we went onstage; it was really bad.
So, during one of the songs – and remember, I’m a bit shaky – someone in the first row put a hand up for a hand slap. There’s this trick most performers know where you slap the hand with one or two fingers, not your whole hand because someone can grab your hand and pull you into the audience. These were the days before stage diving. [Laughs]. Well, someone slapped my two fingers, and someone else grabbed my hand and wrist, and I tumbled over; Gibson Explorer, cable, and all into the audience.
My first thought was, “Holy. Fu*k. How am I gonna get out of here?” Seriously, these guys had death grips on me, and the one that grabbed my fingers split a silver pinky ring that dug into my pinky, and blood started pouring out – Happy New Year! [Laughs]. So, what ended up happening was our two guitar techs jumped in, beat the guys down, grabbed me, and pulled me back onstage, which left me covered in blood. Sometimes this isn’t fun. The next night at Nassau, I was still sick and got hit in the head with an empty bottle of Jack… and this was a crowd that liked us. [Laughs].
To your recollection, how did things end for Starz?
There are a lot of conflicting stories about that. I have a great memory, so I’ll just say it was on a DC-10 flying from L.A. to NJ in February of 1980 after we played the Starwood for five days straight. We had already done a bunch of writing for the follow-up to Coliseum Rock. I was confused about it and didn’t want it to end, but shit sometimes happens when you’re in a band, man.
Post Starz, you worked with Peter Criss in a session capacity. How did you meet Peter?
Well, I knew Peter from the Aucoin days, not well, but we’d say “Hi,” and chit-chat a bit. I also knew Ace [Frehley] and Gene [Simmons]. And Paul [Stanley] and I knew each other from the Coventry days in Queens, NY, when I was in Pooka, and they were in Wicked Lester.
You came in for the Let Me Rock You sessions. What were your impressions of Peter at that juncture?
I still didn’t really know Peter well. I knew his wife Lydia [Criss], but I was brought into the NYC side of Let Me Rock You by Vinnie Poncia and Bob Schaper, his engineer. I met them on the last Tycoon album for Arista, and they started hiring me for lots of session work. The album was bi-coastal between L.A. and NY. It was a real who’s who of gifted players.
How significant were your contributions to Let Me Rock You?
I think my contributions were significant. I played some solos and lots of rhythm guitars. The coolest thing was that I sang background vocals on almost every song with Vini, Eric Troyer, and Rory Dodd. Holy shit, man, what an experience. Here were the best singers in the world, letting me sing with them. It was like doo-wop street corner singing. I recently listened back to Let Me Rock You, and I teared up because I am proud of my work on it. I look at that album now, and holy cow, look at the people on it: Steve Stevens, Caleb Quaye, Mike Braun, my friend Phil Grande, Mike Landau, and James Newton Howard. Fu*kin’ wow.
You worked with Joe Lynn Turner for Rescue You. Give me the rundown.
Well, Joe Lynn Turner and I grew up together in Bergen County, NJ. We were in bands playing the clubs. I was in Stanky Brown when Joe was in Fandango, and then I joined Starz. I was with him the night before his Rainbow audition, seeing our buds in the band Friends. We stayed in touch with each other through the years, and when he was getting ready to do his first solo album, he called me up and said, “Hey, do you want to do it?” And I said, “Oh, of course.”
Joe was using our buddy Chuck Burgi on drums, one of the best drummers on the planet. We had all been friends for years, and Chuck was actually later in Rainbow. But what was incredible for me was that Al Greenwood from Foreigner was playing keys and writing. And Roy Thomas Baker, who had produced Queen, was at the helm. All I can say is, wow, what a project. I played bass and guitar and did 90% of the background vocals on it. To this day, Rescue You is one of my all-time favorites that I have played on. I thought it was groundbreaking. Some thought it should have been heavier, but I disagree. It’s perfect as it is.
Before going solo, you toured with Lou Gramm. How did you get the gig?
I really wanted the Lou Gramm gig. I was playing with Martee Lebow, who was an amazing singer on Atlantic Records, and at the same time, Colin Hay and Daryl Hall had released solo albums and were going to tour. I got the Colin Hay tour and passed on it. Daryl wanted Paul Pesco, I think, but neither did a solo tour. I was not happy about auditioning at that point – feeling my non-existent oats. [Laughs].
So, they asked me to audition after a rehearsal I was doing with Martee. I went in and played and sang everything well, I thought. And then, I went home to Bearsville, NY, where I was living. I got a call on the weekend from the road manager, Steve Nider, who said, “You have to come back on Monday and do another one.” Well, I was at another rehearsal with Martee at the same studio, but I wasn’t happy, so I went back Upstate and played again.
So, after the second session, at 3 am, my phone rang, and I heard, “Hey, Bobby, listen to this…” and a bunch of drunk people, including Lou Gramm, screamed, “CONGRATULATIONS!” I said, “Wow, how cool. But why 3 am?”… “We came to tell you at the Martee rehearsal, but you were gone, so we went and had sushi and saki…”… “Uh…okay…”… “You have to be in NYC with your gear at 9 am. We have a live TV feed to Japan at 5 am the day after tomorrow.” I was excited, but in my head, I was like, “Uh, help…” [Laughs].
While your early career is defined by rock, you’ve carved out a niche as a blues player. Where do you feel the blues stands today as a genre?
As Joe Lynn Turner said, “You want to go broke? Be a solo artist. You want to go really broke? Be a blues artist.” I’ve had a lot of success as a contemporary blues artist. It’s been fantastic. My God was a No.1 album on the Billboard Blues Chart, and I did that at age 61. I am constantly touring, doing festivals, have won awards, and did my first solo EU tour. I’ve released seven blues solo records and have gotten 38 Grammy first rounds nominations. It’s all amazing but still a teeny, tiny genre. It is all small venues, small money, and small everything. It’s a far cry from the Stevie Ray Vaughan and Eric Clapton mega tours.
The truth is that most blues artists are starving, and they work day jobs. That’s a tough one for a full-time pro musician. We are dropping like flies, but luckily, I am making decent royalties. I’m producing more and doing more solo acoustic tours because it’s more lucrative. As far as the genre, well, it’s sad, the blues people are getting older, and the establishment tends to turn its back on older artists. They would rather go for the newest guitar fashion icon or an 8-year-old shredder. That’s not what the genre is about. I went back to playing what I played at home as a kid. For a long time, I played blues cover songs, and as I grew older and had major life experiences, I finally turned into a blues artist, not just a blues-influenced guitar player. I’ve seen thousands of them in my years; where are they now?
What’s next for you, Bobby?
Well, I seem to find myself within a genre that caters to young artists. A part of me is afraid of it turning to shit because the powers that be are too busy catering to the life experiences of 15-year-olds. Yes, some have had torturous things happen, but the majority play fake blues guitar, and they sing fake blues lyrics. That’s not the genre I went back to. I mean, I’ve been asked to open for 15-year-old flavor of the month types for the same damn money I made in high school. What the fu*k is that? Sorry, man, but no thanks. Have some respect, you know? And it’s not just me; that’s happening to a lot of us out here. But for my soul, there is nothing in the world like playing a Chicago or Texas shuffle. It moves me to my core. So, I guess I’ll just keep being Bobby Messano, or as a fan once said, “Dude! You’re Bobby ‘Fu*king’ Messano!” Yeah… I guess I am. [Laughs].
Bobby Messano: The ClassicRockHistory.com Interview article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2022
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