By Jeb Wright
Bill Leverty came to fame when his band, FireHouse, won the Favorite Heavy Metal/Hard Rock New Artist at the 1992 American Music Awards. The band were riding high on the hit songs “Don’t Treat Me Bad,” “Love of a Lifetime” and “All She Wrote” from their debut album and seemed poised for greatness.
They never achieved greatness, but they ended up doing okay. In fact, 1992’s Hold Your Fire featured one of the groups’ hardest hitting songs in “Reach for the Sky” and FireHouse is still out on the road playing their back catalog to cheering fans.
Bill Leverty, however, is much more than a hair spray era guitar slinger. He has a solo recording career that has seen him take on everything from hard rock to Americana music. His latest solo release, simply titled Drive, sees Leverty tackle ten songs that were important to him before he started playing guitar. Young Bill, it seems, listened to all kinds of music, which makes Drive a most interesting collection of tunes.
Who would guess that the guy slamming the six-string for FireHouse would be a huge fan of Steely Dan, or Stevie Wonder, or the Ohio Players? Yes, Bill Leverty is a rocking rolling, classy, jazzy, funky sort of guy. And on Drive he goes the distance, slapping his stamp on these classic songs, both guitar-wise and vocally.
In the interview that follows, Bill discusses how each song influenced his musical future and what the songs mean to him, personally. He shares past stories of his parents yelling to turn it down and how he was nervous while remaking these classic songs and adding his own solos to them.
Always a musician, Leverty gives much of the credit for the amazing sound of his solos to his newest guitar, a C.R. Alsip.
Just what is a C.R. Alsip and where can you get one? Read on to find out!
Jeb: Drive is a very cool remake album. How did you decide on these ten songs? Were they personal to you growing up?
Bill: Yes, they were all very personal. In choosing these songs to cover, each had to be a song that I loved before I started playing guitar, that I still love today, a song that hadn't been covered to death in the genre that I'm known, and a song that I thought that I could put my own spin on, while still staying true to the original recordings. That narrowed it down to these ten songs.
Jeb: Since there were songs that you loved as a kid, let’s talk about them. Track one is “Fortune Son” by CCR. What about this song struck you as a kid?
Bill: I had CCR's Willie and the Poor Boys album and I loved "Down on the Corner" so much that I couldn't get past it. I literally wore the grooves off of that song. One day, I decided to turn the vinyl over and there was "Fortunate Son." Holy COW! This was the first song that began my parents' loud repetition of their famous phrase, "Turn that down!" I had no idea about what the lyrics meant. I only knew that this song really had so much energy and vibe that I just wanted to play it over and over really loud. This was also the time when I learned how to play air guitar.
Jeb: Tell me about the solo on this thing. At the end you’re going crazy.
Bill: The first solo is over the verse's chord progression, so it lends itself to a minor scale, which is more in my wheelhouse; but the outro solo is over the top of the chord progression of the chorus, which is in a major key. Major key guitar shredding has a certain tonality to me, and has a more unique sound to my ear.
I spent my formative years of lead guitar training with minor thirds. This outro solo was very challenging for me because I don't normally think in terms of major thirds when playing fast. With this outro solo, I tried to break up the phrasing so it wasn't a big blur of notes, and I tried to play "over the bar" with a few of the phrases to keep it interesting.
Jeb: Next up is “Spanish Moon.” I love Lowell George. Little Feat were a great band. From your time in FireHouse I would not have guessed you to be a “Dixie Chicken” kind of guy. What was it about Lowell’s playing?
Bill: I love “Dixie Chicken” too, and it was on the radio here in Virginia the year before, but “Spanish Moon” was the baddest tune in my collection.
Lowell's guitar playing is just so tasteful. He has a guitar sound all his own. When you hear him play, you know it's him. All of his melodies are so strong and unique. I was really inspired by his writing, singing, and the overall sound of his band. They just sounded like the coolest band I had ever heard with all that instrumentation. I love the way he sings. Lowell George is the definition of cool.
Jeb: “Spanish Moon” is the best remake on the album I think. Be honest, you kicked this one in the ass.
Bill: Oh thanks man! Lowell wrote a masterpiece with this one. I hope people will like my version. I really hope that people who have never heard the song before will buy the original recordings, both studio and live. I tried to combine elements of both in my version.
I've had some phone conversations with Lowell's widow, Elizabeth George, who has been very supportive. She's a wonderful person who has given me her blessing, so I'm truly grateful for that. I think that Keith Horne and Andre LaBelle are the guys that make my version sound as good as it does. I'm honored to be on an album with those guys.
Jeb: “Free Ride” is a classic. I love that opening, the way that you have to slide the chords together. What do you remember considering this song as an influence?
Bill: I remember hearing this song on the radio in 1974 and just being knocked out. That opening figure is such a clever riff. Everything about the song makes it a pop smash, but with the [Rick] Derringer rhythm guitars and solo, it was a hard rock/heavy metal smash, as well.
I guess that combination really struck me as a kid. The vocal melodies and hooks are so well written and performed, and that breakdown in the middle still blows my mind to this day.
Jeb: On “Free Ride” you really take some liberties with the soloing. Was that fun? Did you worry about being disrespectful when you look liberties, or were you careful to make sure they all fit within the original context of the song?
Bill: I do worry about that, to be honest. I probably shouldn't, but I do. Rick Derringer's solo is just so perfect for the song. How can I possibly fiddle with that? Well, I tried to keep his signature parts of the solo that were most memorable to me, and then added my own herbs and spices where I felt I could. I think that what I put down is respectful of the original while still adding a few bells and whistles at the end.
Jeb: I will speak about vocals later on, but “One” may be the best vocal on the album.
Bill: I was lucky. I come from great parents who used to turn up the radio in the car. I will never forget driving to the pool one summer afternoon and hearing "One" for the first time on the radio. I was completely mesmerized.
I had never heard Harry Nilsson's version until recently when I went to buy the license to cover it. I thought Three Dog Night had written it. There are a lot of vocal harmonies in that song and I tried to put them all in there. I really like the way Chuck Negron sings it, and I wanted to try my best to sing it in a similar style. He has such an amazing voice.
Jeb: What was it about this song that influenced you?
Bill: The emotion is what really hit me as a kid, and has really stuck with me for so long. That emotion led me to say to myself, "One day, when I make a cover tunes album, ‘One’ is going to HAVE to be on there." The lyrics, the vocals, the arrangement are all so perfect. It's one of those songs that will always bring up memories I have as a young dude.
Jeb: “I Shot the Sheriff” is an all time classic. It took some balls for a white boy to take on that song…the only other white boy I can think of was Clapton. Were you into Bob’s version or Eric’s?
Bill: Eric's. This is another one where I was wrong about the origin. I heard Clapton's version first on the radio one summer when I was a kid on my way to hockey camp, so I thought he had written it.
Clapton's voice sounded so cool to me, and he sang the song with so much feeling that I really felt bad for his situation that he found himself in after shooting the sheriff in self defense. I didn't lock in on Clapton's brilliant guitar playing back then. I was so floored by the overall sound of the band and the recording.
Jeb: This style of playing, reggae, is not tough per say, but it is different. Did the structure of this song speak to you as a young guitar player?
Bill: I don't know if it was the chord structure, or just the way the melody worked over top of the chords. The lyrics and vocals are what really got my ears to perk up when I heard this one.
On my version, I tried to bring in a little bit of the reggae vibe, especially in the intro. The upbeats in reggae have to have a certain feel for them to sit right in time, so that was a groove that I really enjoyed trying to lock in on. Again, this was an education.
Jeb: “Fire” is not the Hendrix song but rather the Ohio Players. For starters, tell me how you made this into such a great rock song.
Bill: I've always loved funk. I was influenced by listening to the local funk station, W.A.N.T. in Richmond VA back in the ‘70's. I had a bunch of paper routes, morning and afternoon, and my morning manager thought I was pretty good at not showing up late, so he worked a deal out with me where we would split the money between a bunch of the paper routes that people didn't want to carry, and he would drive. I was so pumped, because I didn't have to pedal my bike! He'd pick me up down on the corner, and we'd start delivering papers really early in the morning. He'd crank W.A.N.T. radio all morning. I was exposed to so much great funk thanks to him.
I thought that "Fire" was the best funk song ever written, and would be perfect for a rock cover tune. I figured I just needed to bring the guitars more forward in the production. I tried to keep all of the horn parts true to the original, while double tracking them with lead guitar. This makes you feel like you're listening to electric guitar playing with the horn section. I love that combination.
Jeb: Were you a closet funk and disco fan?
Bill: Funk, yes. Disco, not so much. The difference to me was that funk is heavy and has an edge. Even though traditional funk didn't have a heavy guitar, the groove is heavy. The funk attitude is also heavy.
There are a lot of background vocals on the original recording, and I wanted to try to make sure that they were featured because they were so well arranged. Some of these harmonies are really high. One of the things that I like about The Ohio Players' version is that they have two lead singers, both with very distinctively different vocal sounds. I tried to emulate that in my recording. The vocals in this one were the most fun to record on the album. This song has always made me feel good.
Jeb: “No Time” is a great song. I love the Guess Who. Talk about how that band influenced you.
Bill: Their songs that were on the radio are the ones that I heard and loved as a kid. I didn't have their albums, so I wasn't exposed to their deep cuts, but I immediately connected with Burton Cummings' tough voice, which was also so full of range.
I really wanted to push myself and take a shot at one of his songs. "American Woman" had already been covered and was a huge hit for [Lenny] Kravitz, so that was out. I wasn't aware of a cover of "No Time" so that seemed like the one to do, especially with that identifiable guitar melody that reaches out of the speakers, grabs you by the collar, and shakes you around.
As a guitar influence, Randy Bachman was huge for me with BTO. Not Fragile was a very important record for me in my formative years, so his melodic style is definitely in my DNA. I think that "No Time" is one of those timeless songs that is hard rock/heavy metal, and will always be a cool song, not only because of the music and vocal melody, but the sentiment of the lyric is always going to be relevant.
Jeb: You get a great rock guitar sound on this song. How did you dial that in?
Bill: It all starts with my C.R. Alsip guitar. C.R. Alsip guitars are made right outside of Wichita, KS. Mine is a neck-through-body guitar. It's hard rock maple with mahogany sides. This wood combination, along with some other very unique design elements, makes the guitar very solid and it has a very favorable tone.
I used the bridge pickups, which are Billy Gibbon's Pearly Gates pickups by Seymour Duncan, on this one. I plugged the guitar straight into my Splawn Quick Rod 100 for a stereo pair of rhythm tracks and into my Fractal Audio Axe FX II for another stereo pair. That solo was recorded with the Splawn.
Jeb: Okay…”Jesus Children of America” is a Stevie Wonder tune. Tell me how you discovered that song back in the day? And why it was such an influence?
Bill: My Godfather, who lived in New York City, used to bring me an album every Christmas. He had great taste in music. One year, he gave me Led Zeppelin IV. Another year, he gave me Stevie Wonder's Innervisions album. It quickly became my favorite album. I used to love listening to "Higher Ground". The next song on the album was "Jesus Children." This quickly became my favorite song. It may be my favorite song of all time.
I remember listening in the headphones, reading the lyrics to the song on the inner sleeve of the album, and I was absolutely stunned. I've always loved the spiritual message. I loved how his background vocals would foreshadow the lead vocal. I loved the modulation in the middle of the song. I will always love his voice.
I thought that if I could make the soundscape full of guitars, it would be the same song, only dressed up a little differently rather than having the keyboard as the foundation instrument. I used a single coil Strat for all of the guitars in my version.
Jeb: “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” is my favorite Steely Dan track ever. I was nervous when I saw that on here, as that is tough music…its Steely Dan! Were you nervous putting that on the album? Was it a challenge to work up?
Bill: Yes, I was nervous and it was a challenge. It was the last song that I recorded for this album and I was a little unsure whether I could make it work.
In these situations, I ask my wife and she always gives me her honest opinion. I sang the song for her with my acoustic guitar as accompaniment and she said, "You should record it like that, acoustically."
Well, that was my initial intention, and I laid down the acoustic guitar track; but, once I got into it, I couldn't resist digging into the song and adding more elements. I decided to attempt to play all of [Donald] Fagan's keyboard parts with clean electric guitar, so there's no piano on my version. I'm sure that there are a lot of Steely Dan aficionados out there who will hear some do-dads that I didn't get exactly like the original; I just hope that they'll go easy on me!
Jeb: “I Just Want to Celebrate” is just a great song and you rock it up big time; talk about Rare Earth.
Bill: When I was a really young kid, I used to have one of those hippie lamps that had two cylinders with little vents on each cylinder. One cylinder would spin around the light bulb clockwise, and the other would spin counter clockwise. These cylinders had psychedelic designs on them and they would cast freaky designs on my walls, spinning around like what you might now see in a ‘60's movie. I would play Rare Earth's "Get Ready" over and over and over again with my hippie lamp spinning, lighting up my walls. I got out my tennis racket and that was my mic. I would sing this song like I was the lead singer of Rare Earth. Little did I know that he was the drummer!
About a year later, I heard that big Rare Earth voice on the radio singing "I Just Want to Celebrate." I thought it was the toughest tune on the air and I identified with the spiritual vibe. Learning this song for my album was very educational, especially with the vocals. Peter Rivera's voice is so full, and I wanted to try to find my voice in that style. I can't thank him enough for the schooling.
Jeb: You have some fun with this one I can tell. Share the recording process on “Celebrate.”
Bill: Well, like all of these recordings, I'd map out a blueprint of the arrangement that I was going for with a scratch guitar and vocal. I'd program a basic drum beat and lay down a scratch bass track. Then, I'd bring Andre LaBelle over to lay down the keeper drum tracks. I told him to play whatever he wanted.
After he was done, I'd call Keith Horne to come over and play the keeper bass track. I told him to play whatever he wanted. These guys are both such consummate professionals that they know when to play, when not to play, and exactly what to play. They both have tremendous musical vocabularies and I gave them complete freedom to play anything they wanted. I am so honored to have them on this recording. They are both MONSTERS!
Anyway, after the rhythm section was laid down, I'd start stacking the guitars up. Then I'd stack up the vocals. In this song, I decided to sing some A cappella stuff at the end. As the song breaks down, and the music fades out, what's left is a funk vocal quintet, singing impromptu lines.
Jeb: Who knew you were such an amazing singer? You could be a lead signer, Bill. Was it hard to make your voice fit into all of these great songs? It must have been daunting as you are singing vocals done by Stevie Wonder, Burton Cummings and Donald Fagan.
Bill: Oh thanks man! I'm always a student in everything I do when it comes to music. I've been singing since I was a young boy in the church choir and I just love to sing. I guess that I've wanted to sing more as I get older because to me, singing is the ultimate form of artistic expression. People can feel what's in your heart through your voice. I struggled on some of these songs more than others.
The Fagan song was more in my natural range, so that one didn't take me as long as covering Stevie Wonder, or The Ohio Players, but all of these songs were a great education for me in so many ways, and especially with vocals.
I hope that people will think of me differently after hearing this album. Most people who know who I am, know me as the guitar player for FireHouse. I'm grateful to be known for that, but I hope this album will allow people to see another dimension of me as an artist.
Jeb: On the cover you are holding a CR Alsip guitar. What is the story behind that guitar?
Bill: I met a guy named Jake Willoughby a few years ago and he asked me if I wanted to do a clinic in his music store. I said, "Sure." We scheduled it, and when he picked me up at the airport, he told me that he was thinking about building guitars. He asked, "Would you be interested in playing them?" I told him that I'd like to try one out before I gave him an answer.
Well, after about a year, he called me up, told me that he was ready to build one, and we talked about what I wanted in terms of tone and playability. I had thought that it was going to be a good guitar because he sounded like he really knew what he was talking about, but I had no idea how top quality this instrument would be.
It's built so well, with the ultimate in craftsmanship. I was so excited about the guitar when I first got it that I took it to the next FireHouse gig, ran up to Frank Hannon [guitarist for Tesla] and said, "Man, look at THIS!" Frank, who was blown away, now owns two, or three of them.
I actually met Jake at a show we played opening up for Sammy Hagar. Jake introduced himself backstage, I did a photo with him, and that's when he told me he had a music store and wanted me to play a clinic in his store.
I worked in a music store when I was a young man, and could totally relate to everything he was telling me about his store, his customers, and his town.
C.R. Alsip should be the next Gibson or Fender. The design is genius, and they have everything I need to achieve the guitar sound that I hear in my head. These guitars practically play themselves AND they stay in tune; that's icing on the cake.
If you want to check out his guitars, go to http://www.cralsipguitars.com. I've recorded a few sound clips you can hear on his website. These guitars are so amazing.
Jeb: You must have had a lot more than ten songs that you wanted to do. What songs did you want to do but did not make the list? Will you do a second covers album?
Bill: I don't have any plans to record another cover tunes album, but there are a bunch of great songs out there that I might have to record some day.
So many songs that I wanted to record seemed very obvious to me, and that's probably why I didn't think it would be cool for me to do them. I love Van Halen, Led Zep, Ted Nugent, UFO, Ozzy, etc., but doing some of their songs wouldn't take me far enough out of my comfort zone, and many of them didn't come into my life until after I had started playing guitar.
I really want to grow as an artist and this cover tunes album is an opportunity for me to stretch out a bit. It is also an opportunity to let people learn what my early musical influences are. These influences are what make me different, and I would love for people to hear these differences.
Jeb: What is up with FireHouse? Any new music on the horizon or tour plans?
Bill: We're always touring, more in the summer and less in the winter. We recently put out an album called Full Circle. It's a re-recording of most of our hits and a few other songs that we thought would be cool to re-record.
We plan on recording a song, or two, this summer, or this fall, after our busy summer season. We're still rockin' & rollin' 22 years after our first album came out. I'm extremely grateful to our fans for sticking with us.
Jeb: If you do another cover album I have three songs I want to know if you would do. The first is “Fire and Water” by Free.
Bill: I love that song! Everything that Paul Rodgers has ever done is great. What a voice!
Free was such a great band. I really love Paul Kossoff. I actually did a cover of "All the Girls are Crazy" which is a Back Street Crawler cover. Jimmy Kunes did vocals, Andre LaBelle played drums, Keith Horne played bass, and I played guitars and keys. I hope to do more with those guys. It's a recording that I love to listen to.
Jeb: How about something really crazy…”Play that Funky Music White Boy” from Wild Cherry.
Bill: I used to sing and play that one in a cover band. It's a great song, but I don't think it's one that I'd record.
Jeb: Would you ever consider doing a version of “Sweet Lorraine” by Uriah Heep? I would love to hear your take on that song.
Bill: I'm not familiar with that one. I'll have to go to iTunes now!
Jeb: Where can people get Drive and will you autograph copies?
Bill: You can get them at www.leverty.com and yes, if you just ask me to sign it and tell me to whom, I'd love to sign it for ya'!
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