By Jeb Wright
Shooting Star hit the scene with the release of their self-titled debut album in 1980 poised to take their blend of hard, melodic rock right up the charts.
Expectations were high as they had recorded a high powered album with a big name producer, Gus Dudgeon, which included a ‘sure to be a smash hit’ titled “Last Chance.” Their future was burning bright as they embarked on a nationwide tour opening for guitar wizard Robin Trower. Things, however, didn’t go as planned.
For the next several years the members of Shooting Star were the victims of record company politics, pressing plant issues and management mishaps. The chaotic issues took a toll on vocalist Gary West, who burned out to the point he wore pajamas on stage in protest before walking away from the music business forever. Shooting Star has since had on-again and off-again relationships with singers in the band.
A few years ago, Keith Mitchell (West’s original replacement) came back and it seemed the band may be able to enter the later phase of their career with some stability, yet it was not long before Keith was gone again.
An invitation to perform at a charity event saw Shooting Star founder Van McLain discover Todd Pettygrove, a long time regional vocalist in the band Vandelyn Kross. McLain followed his intuition and asked Todd to try out for Shooting Star. It has proved to be the best match for the band in the lead vocalist position since Gary West.
In the summer of 2013, Shooting Star was invited to perform at the prestigious Moondance Jam in Walker, Minnesota. The high profile event was the debut public offering of Pettygrove. He seized the opportunity and delivered a high octane performance of Shooting Star classics, receiving positive feedback from those in attendance.
In the interview below Todd reveals how he came to be invited to join the band, how he feels he measures up to Gary West as a vocalist, his favorite Shooting Star song and album, and how he felt when I entered the band’s tour bus with his wife.
Jeb: The last time we talked you were playing your first gig with Shooting Star at the Moondance Jam in Walker, Minnesota. What were your thoughts of Moondance?
Todd: I thought, “Wow, this is big and look at all the people.” The stage was nuts; three stories high so that people with backstage access could watch the bands from either side of the stage. Not to mention the lineup we were with, Buckcherry, Cheap Trick and Motley Crue. It was somewhat of a surreal moment for me thinking, “Hey, this isn't just another gig, this is the real deal!” And Robin Zander still wears the white leather Dream Police getup. When we got done, I wanted more.
Jeb: How did you go from being a guy in Topeka, Kansas to being the lead singer for Shooting Star?
Todd: My other band Vandelyn Kross started helping a Topeka, Kansas nonprofit community agency, The Breakthrough House, which supports the recovery of individuals with mental illness. We put together a rock benefit in 2012. We headlined the first show in 2012 and wanted to come up with a way to build it up for 2013. Chet Galloway, the guitar player in VK knew Van McLain and thought he would ask and see if there was any way Shooting Star could help us out. Graciously, they did and a few weeks after the concert Van called and ask if I would be interested in getting together. I went down and auditioned and now here I am. I didn't think they had even been listening to us, but apparently they were.
Jeb: You recently played in England. Describe that experience.
Todd: Um, Incredible. I've never been there before so getting to go, for one, was crazy. Getting to go and perform was even crazier. This was really the first time that Shooting Star performed over there, so that was extra special for me to be a part of that.
The crowd was made up of people from all over the world and some came just to see Shooting Star. Three thousand people may not seem like a huge crowd, but when they are there to see you, its huge. Also, it was my first experience with having fans waiting for our arrival, which makes a guy feel good. Oh yeah, Stonehenge really does exist and there were not any midgets running around it. I always wondered about that.
Jeb: You had to learn a lot of songs quickly. What are some of the more challenging songs in the Shooting Star back catalog?
Todd: You know, all of them have been more challenging than I thought. It's one thing to listen and sing along to the songs, it's another to sing it on your own. Gary [West] apparently liked to fit a lot of words into short phrases and must have had a lot of wind inside of him for songs like “Hang on for Your Life Tonight” and “Hollywood.” The other thing about Shooting Star songs is that the lyrics certainly don't repeat. They all tell a story.
Jeb: You have a great voice; it is very original, however, when you need to get that classic Gary West Shooting Star thing going…you have no problem doing that. Are you amazed at how easily you can get the sound of the classic Shooting Star songs?
Todd: Thanks for that. I don't really try to sound like Gary. For the most part, what you hear me doing with Shooting Star is just me being me. I think it just worked out that my voice is similar to Gary’s. I've always been able to flip between raspy and clean and the songs just happen to be written in a key that fits me.
Jeb: Were you a Shooting Star fan? If so, what was your favorite Shooting Star album? Song?
Todd: Well, yes I knew who Shooting Star was and I knew their music. I've always been very diversified with what I listen to. Pretty much I like all types of music. My favorite SS album is Silent Scream. My favorite SS song is ”Summer Sun.”
Jeb: “Last Chance” still gets the crowd going.
Todd: Yes it does get the crowd going and don't mess the words up or you might get hung!
Jeb: I see Shooting Star is going to play the Melodic Rock Fest put on by my friends over at www.melodicrock.com. That will be a cool gig, as there are a lot of good bands on the bill.
Todd: I am looking forward to this show. Two or three of the bands on the bill were at Firefest in Nottingham, England with us and rocked the house. H.E.A.T. is especially high energy and on the way up for sure. Some of the bands I'm not familiar with, so it will be fun to meet them and see what they are all about. If you are there I promise I will recognize you.
Jeb: What bands did you play in before Shooting Star?
Todd: I started the band Vandelyn Kross with Chet Galloway, Randy Walker and Bryan Porter back in ‘83 and we are still going. Too long to tell the whole story of Vandelyn Kross, but over the course of many years we now have Shane Proctor playing drums and he fits right in. We are currently working on a new CD to be released spring of 2014.
Jeb: Are you surprised to discover Shooting Star’s worldwide appeal? Are they a ‘bigger’ band than you may have thought?
Todd: Yes, I had no idea. My Facebook friend requests started coming from around the world which caught me off guard and is very cool.
Jeb: Now that you’re playing a lot of the classic Shooting Star songs, give me your take on what Gary West brought to that band.
Todd: Besides the given, his voice, he is what the Shooting Star fans know and remember. I mean when you are driving in your car with the stereo cranked up, the singer is who you relate to first, right? That's who I am compared against so I have to convince everyone that I can do the job.
Jeb: Talk about Van McLain…aside from being just a damn sexy man, he can play the hell out of the guitar.
Todd: OK Jeb, you are starting to worry me a little with the whole damn sexy man comments!
Van brings to mind respect, perseverance, survivor, considerate and, yes, he does have feeling when he plays. I've already learned new things from working with him. Experience is an awesome teacher and he has a way of making me feel relaxed. Van plays with a lot of feeling and emotion...it's all about being in the pocket with him.
Jeb: You are in great shape…do you have Van hitting the gym yet?
Todd: I'll get him there one way or another! I see some pre-show warm ups in our future, of course for me it’s a Bud Light and spearmint cough drop. Some have coined me the Shooting Star Wolverine.
Jeb: Rumor has it there may be some recording done with this lineup of the band. Can you divulge any info?
Todd: We do have a few new songs in various stages and we have been in the studio. There is talk about releasing another Greatest Hits, which would have a couple songs with me singing on and then also putting out a new album. Probably won't press any physical albums, but it would all be available for download. I can't wait and probably driving Van nuts because I'm so excited to move forward with it.
Jeb: Would the band ever consider re-recording the classic songs with this lineup, including you on vocals?
Todd: We may re-record a couple of more recent songs with me singing for another release of Greatest Hits, but as much as I would like re-record them all, I think there would be some angry maniacs out there. Really, I believe they should be left alone. They are great just like they are and that's what the memories were made out of for the fans.
Jeb: Are you used to getting the rock star treatment yet or do you still feel like just a normal guy?
Todd: Nah, I just feel like a normal guy. When we did the Cincinnati show the power blew during the first song. I wanted to just sit down on the front of the stage and hang out with everyone until it was resolved. I couldn't be more excited about being a part of Shooting Star.
Jeb: Who are some of your vocal influences?
Todd: You know, that's a really good question that I don't have a really good answer for. What I've always listened for in the music is the individuality of the singers, so I can't pin down specific influences. I listen to what sets them apart and what makes them unique.
If I had to pick one, it might be Steve Perry, as he always impressed me and he sings with emotion and dynamics. That's what it should be...an expression of how you feel inside and what the song means to you.
Jeb: Name an artist on your iPod that if your band members knew was on there would get you a lot of shit.
Todd: I'm not sure anything would surprise these guys. They are all the time giving me a hard time about what my "go to" song is. You know, that song you get up and do at the bar off the cuff…hell, I don't have one, but I didn't know those were the rules!
Jeb: Are you more Bon Jovi or Led Zeppelin?
Todd: Bon Jovi.
Jeb: Blue Oyster Cult or Journey?
Jeb: Loverboy or Kansas?
Todd: Loverboy. In this situation I'll go with the party band.
Jeb: Here is a tough one…Best Shooting Star album… the self-titled debut or Hang On For Your Life?
Todd: Yeah that is tough. I have to go with the self-titled debut. That's what made them.
Jeb: I have noticed the band is playing more gigs lately. Is the plan to play out more?
Todd: Yes. Since Van was unsure of Keith Mitchell’s future with the band, not much was planned for 2013. I believe we will pick the pace up in 2014.
Jeb: I think you should sing and play the violin parts…get to work.
Todd: Did the guys put you up to asking that question? They joked about that not long ago--at least I think they were joking! Oh yeah, I'm sure I could pull it off, he says with a smile.
Jeb: How difficult was it to fit in with these guys? Steve Thomas and Van go back to the early days of the band and Dennis Laffoon has been in the band since the ‘80s and, let’s face it, there have been a few singers come and go.
Todd: It was easy to fit in. I was a little intimidated, I must admit, but they all made me feel very welcome. I'm not just some hired gun to look pretty [laughter]. From the start they considered me an equal in every aspect of the game. I knew Dennis a little bit from the ‘80s, so it was easy to connect with him and share some of the same stories from playing the same places when he was in Powerglide. Vandelyn Kross was either behind them, or ahead of them on the Midwestern circuit.
Steve...how couldn't you connect? He is just a great guy. Van has made me feel very welcome, many times saying, “Todd you can do and say whatever you want, you are in the band.” He might regret that one of these days [laughter].
Jeb: I will name a few Shooting Star classics and you give me your thoughts on singing them…. “Hang On for Your Life Tonight.”
Jeb: “Bring It On”
Todd: Great Groove that shouldn't stop.
Todd: High expectations and lots of emotion.
Jeb: “Touch Me Tonight”
Todd: Never thought I'd be singing that one.
Jeb: Get Van to add four songs to the set list…”Summer Sun,” “Train Rolls On,” “Straight Ahead” and… REALLY push for this one as it ROCKS….”Are You Ready.” I want to see the band perform these tunes.
Todd: “Summer Sun” is already in the lineup and what a great song to sing. Yeah, I'll tell the boys you want these others on the list because it's all about Jeb!
Jeb: I like how Shooting Star has really taken the business aspect of the band and made it a family business.
Todd: We are very self-sufficient, I would say. Of course, when you've been burned like they were you find ways to survive. I've learned quite a bit about recording since joining up. I don't mean about the technical part, but more so how to go about the process of building and recording a song.
Van makes it easy. He has built some studios for some people around Kansas City. One of them he has access to and I must say it is amazing. Talk about gung-ho. What I don't get is the energy Van, Steve and Dennis all have. They don't just sit around. They are busy all the time.
Jeb: As a lead singer, have you become a prima donna yet? Are you driving Van crazy with outlandish demands?
Todd: Well, I do think someone should get me a road case for my microphone stand and carry it for me. At least get me a road case with wheels. Also, am I the only singer out there who has to hear constant complaining about how much delay is in the monitor? I mean c'mon, look at all the effects guitar players use. Other than that I don't think it is asking for too much [laughter].
Jeb: Last one: I am pretty sure that when Van and you met me at that bar in Topeka I bought you a beer. And at Moondance I pretty much showed you around the place. I am starting to think you owe me!
Todd: Too funny. I'm still laughing about you walking onto the tour bus at Moondance with my wife, who had been out wandering around and thinking, “Oh great, who is this dude that latched on to my wife? I’m gonna have to kick some ass!
Jeb: One more…describe the best gig so far and how you felt after that particular show.
Todd: I would say the best gigs so far have been the outdoor rehearsals we did this past summer at Dennis's Frontier Steakhouse. It was crazy how many fans showed up and all we did was post it on Facebook.
Being accepted by the Shooting Star Maniacs is the best feeling so far. They literally were rehearsals for me to get comfortable, but being up close and personal like that makes it a lot of fun. I've met a lot of great people doing those outdoor shows and it's something I will always remember.
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