Lou Gramm: From a Black Sheep to a Juke Box Hero

By Jeb Wright

Lou Gramm and Foreigner took the world of music by storm when they released their 1977 self-titled album.  The band consisted of members from different countries, so that no matter where the next gig was held, there would always be a foreigner in the group. 

By the time 1978’s Double Vision was released it became clear that the band were really the creative juggernaut of two individuals, guitarist Mick Jones, and vocalist Lou Gramm.  The two men possessed a certain musical synchronicity.  The band was able to blend hard rock with pop sensibilities, mixing raw rock and roll energy with well written songs.  The band’s first four albums have, cumulatively, eclipsed the twenty million sales mark in the USA alone.

With success came strife.  Jones wanted the band to continue in a more pop direction, while Gramm wanted the band to keep to their hard rocking roots.  When the song “I Want to Know What Love Is” became a huge hit, it was clear that Jones was pushing for more ballads and the big money and fame that came from their success. The musical differences led to Lou finally quitting Foreigner.  He was poised to be a solo artist, and had success with his 1987 solo album Ready or Not, which featured the hit song “Midnight Blue.”  Lou could never match the success of that album, as the trappings of fame, as well as his growing drug addiction, and an ever changing musical landscape kept him from duplicating the success he had with Foreigner.  To make matters worse, in 1997, Gramm was diagnosed with a brain tumor, the treatment of which had significant effects on his voice, his weight and his self-esteem.

Over 35 years have passed since Lou first appeared on a Foreigner album and now Gramm   has released his official biography titled Juke Box Hero.  Lou opens up in the book and discusses his early days growing up in Rochester, New York and how his band, Black Sheep, nearly made the big time before an icy highway put their dreams at bay.  He speaks in-depth on his success in Foreigner and the trials and tribulations he has had overcoming the treatment for his brain tumor.  While Lou had treatment for a brain tumor, people with alcholol and drug problems need to learn about going from detox to a rehab program.

In Juke Box Hero Lou tells a tale of dreams coming true, nightmares coming to life and, most of all, of hope, perseverance and a true love of rock and roll.

Jeb: Your health is better, the weight is better and the voice is better.  It’s got to be a great feeling after such a hard fight to start seeing positive results.

Lou: It really is.  I was wondering if I ever was going to see them.  I learned I needed to be a little more patient; good things come. 

Jeb: Tell me why you decided to write the book, Juke Box Hero, at this time in your life.

Lou: Plenty of time had gone by and I’ve had a full career.  I still want to stay active in a number of ways, but in-between all of the history of the band, my solo albums and all of the exciting truck crashes and things like that; I thought I had enough material to do a book. 

I contacted a fellow named Scott Pitoniak, who is also from Rochester, New York.  He does sports biographies, so this is a little left of center of him.  I enjoy his style of writing and I thought we could collaborate, so I contacted him and it has been nothing but good. 

Jeb: Did you know him before this book?

Lou: We did not know each other.  He had a daily article in our local paper.  He is a big music fan.  Someone put us in touch with each other and we met.  We struck a common chord and we were off to the races.  He is very good to work with.  He didn’t just leave it to me to tell my stories.  He prodded me along the way.  We didn’t do it on a timeline when we talked.  We would jump all around with my career with Foreigner.  He, then, took all of it and put it on a timeline.  When he was getting the information out of me we were going in leaps of fifteen or twenty years!

Jeb:  You’re having your book release at the community college in Rochester that you actually attended.  Why did you choose that location?

Lou: It is a great school and I have a lot of memories there.  That was the time in my life where, although I knew I needed an education, and I got my Associates Degree, I made the decision where music was going to be my life.  I knew I was going to proceed at full speed. 

Jeb:  That’s great for the college that you are doing such a huge event there. 

Lou: It is going to be An Evening With and I am going to talk about everything there is too talk about.  I am going to take questions and I am certainly going to tout the school.  We are going to play some songs acoustically.  You also get the book as part of the ticket price.  After the show is over people can line up and I will sign the book for them. 

Jeb: There are a lot of rock and roll biographies coming out at this time.  Your story is unique, as you have the story of coming up and joining Foreigner, your health and drug addiction. 

Lou: It was interesting when it happened.  Some parts were very emotional to talk about and some were very cathartic.  Some parts really pumped me up and some made me angry.  It was really a cross section of emotions to talk about it all. 

Jeb: Are you doing a book tour?

Lou: We are going to do a book tour.  We will do some in store appearances and we are going to do more things like the community college sort of thing.  If I have a show somewhere on Saturday, then I will get in town Friday afternoon and do an appearance at a book store on Friday night.  You can also buy the book on line. 

Jeb: Do you have to go to an appearance to get a signed copy?

Lou: We are starting to sign some books now and have them for people who order on line.

Jeb: It sounds like you’re very excited about this project.

Lou: I am, as it is so different for me.  It is not something that you’re going to write a sequel too [laughter].  This is a onetime only sort of job. 

Jeb: How did you balance between being honest and being too honest? 

Lou: I handle things like my alcohol and drug addition by being honest, but without elaborating so much that it starts to sound like a trashy magazine.  I explain how I was feeling and the guilt and the angst that went along with that.   I also talk about how hopeful I was when I finally found myself to rehab. 

Jeb: You don’t glorify things.

Lou: No, not at all. 

Jeb: When you talk about the health issues, you can really feel the wide range of emotions that you went through.  Was that difficult to go back and relive?

Lou: It was.  To be honest, and Scott would tell you, I broke down a couple of times and I had to excuse myself a couple of times when talking about it. 

Jeb: I bet it was fun to look back at the pre-Foreigner days?

Lou: It really was.  My band Black Sheep were really struggling and we finally got our big break.  We were signed to Capitol Records and did two albums for them. 

Ultimately, it was not meant to be.  Our truck crashed after we opened for Kiss on Christmas Eve of 1975.  We were supposed to open for them for the whole tour.  Our next show was supposed to be on the 27th.  On the 24th, our truck crashed on the way home from Boston, where we opened the tour with them.  We had two days to come up with the equipment and a way to get it to the next show. We begged Capitol Records to front us some money and we even begged our parents.  There was a recession in ’75 and nobody in the band had parents with that kind of money lying around, so we had to call the manager of the band Kiss and tell them that we would not be able to continue and, because of that, Capitol Records dropped us. 

We went from the highest high, when we opened for Kiss on Christmas Eve at the Boston Music Hall, where we got a standing ovation…the tour manager for Kiss usually wants to get bands off the stage as fast as possible, as Kiss is the main act, he told us to go out for an encore. 

We went bonkers and were on top of the world when we drove home after the show.  There were the five members of the band and our manager all in the same car.  About three hours later, the crew and the equipment hit a patch of ice on the New York State freeway and they slid off the freeway and the truck tipped over.  They called us at about 2:30 in the morning stranded. 

I got one of the guys in the band up and we drove all the way up to Albany from Rochester to pick them up on Christmas morning.  We had to cancel the tour because we had no transportation for the equipment and when we were finally able to get the sliding door up on the truck, I would say that 85% of the equipment was destroyed. 

Jeb: You have a tendency to have major events like that.  Did you ever think, “Why couldn’t it have been smoother?” 

Lou: If it had been smoother, then this would not be a very good book (laughter).

Jeb: Talk about breaking up with Foreigner.

Lou: I left the band three times and the third time was the final time.  The first two times were because I wasn’t given much artistic freedom within the band when it came to my ability to co-write.  Every time I came up with an idea it had to be critiqued by Mick before he would decide whether he was going to use it or not.  It was like I was raising my hand to tell the teacher something.  It really did a lot of damage to my self-confidence. 

When the opportunity came to do my own album, I jumped at it.  I did it to show him that I was certainly capable of doing this, but mostly, I did it for myself and to show myself I had what it took. 

Jeb:  Because you were the singer and Mick was the guitar player, I thought, back in the day, that Mick was the rocker and you were the ballad guy.  I now know that is not true. 

Lou: Oh no, it was totally the opposite. 

Jeb: I had bought every album until I heard “I Want to Know What Love Is.”  It is a nice song, but I was like, “What happened to my band?”

Lou: Yep.  Because that song crossed over to Adult Contemporary and Soft Rock, it was a huge, huge hit.  Because it crossed over to those areas, it made it bigger than big and that made it very tempting to Mick to want to do that again.

“I Want to Know What Love Is” was the last single on the album. The first single on the next album was another ballad, “I Don’t Want to Live Without You.”  I thought to myself, “Get me out of here…right now.” 

Jeb:  A lot of fame and a lot of money went with those ballads. 

Lou: I co-wrote “Waiting for a Girl Like You” with him.  I also co-wrote “I Want to Know What Love Is” but he jilted me out of it. We worked on that song for about ten or twelve weeks. 

When we would complete a song, we would each write down on a little piece of paper what we each thought that the split should be.  I wrote “Mick 65, Lou 35.”  I thought that was being fair.  He wrote, “Mick 95, Lou 5.”  I saw that and I said, “You’ve got to be kidding me?”  He said, “No, I think that is what is fair.”  I said, “Well, why don’t you have all of it then because I know that is what you want.”  He said, “Okay.”  He, then, made zillions of dollars. 

The next song, “I Don’t Want to Live Without You” he had written already when we got together before the album was written.  He wanted to be sure that all of the ones that would potentially be classics were all him. 

Jeb: Outside of the book, you are getting elected to a couple of Halls of Fame.

Lou: Yes, the Rochester Music Hall of Fame and the Songwriters Hall of Fame. 

Jeb: The Writers Hall of Fame will see Mick and you take the stage together. 

Lou:  We are doing a couple of songs with the house band. 

Jeb: How long had it been since you had spoken to Mick?

Lou: We had not spoken in over ten years.  When I found out that we were the winners, I called him and congratulated him.  I think he was shocked that I called him.  We had a good conversation and we knew that we were going to be asked to do a couple of songs and we said that we would talk again.  We are going to meet a couple of days before the show and rehearse, and I have not spoken to him again, but it is coming right up. 

Jeb: Are you wondering if you guys will still have that spark?

Lou: I don’t think it will be that difficult to do songs that we’ve done a million times. 

Jeb: Do you ever see a day where you and Mick could be back in Foreigner together?

Lou: His management and my management are tossing around the idea of a farewell tour.  I would really like to do that.  It would be really great to do that instead of leaving it with such a bitter and unfinished ending. 

Jeb: What are your plans after the book? Will there be a new album from Lou Gramm?

Lou: My band goes out and we play all of the hits from Foreigner and from my own albums.  However, I don’t think there is any point in doing anything new because radio won’t play anything new from someone like me.  I don’t know if it is the corporations or what.  If I have something new, they will still only play the old hits.  The only bands getting new songs played on the radio are the new, popular artists.  Classic Rock radio won’t even play new songs from Classic Rock artists.  The Eagles put out a new album a few years back and I never heard any of it on the radio.  The Stones put an album out and they would not even play it. 

Jeb:  Does that shut down your desire to write songs?

Lou: Absolutely it does. 

Jeb: That is sad. 

Lou: It is sad, but that is the corporate end of this business. I really have nothing to say about it and I have no power to do anything about it. 

Jeb: I saw you only a year or two after your surgery when you had to come back to Foreigner for contract obligations.  There was an ambulance next to the stage and I thought, “What in the fuck is he doing out here?” 

Lou: I had my operation in 1997 and because of that Foreigner had to cancel a tour of Japan and the Southeast Asian rim.  My operation was in early April and in September, we were playing.  I was still really sick and I was very medicated. 

I was so out of it that I couldn’t remember the words to the old songs.  I had all of the lyrics to the old songs taped on the floor.  I had no business being on stage, but the bills had to be paid.  Management and Mick were pressuring me hard. 

Jeb: That was reality, but the fans didn’t know that, or understand what was going on.

Lou: Not only that, but because of all of the steroids I had to take I gained over 100 pounds and the critics were crucifying me after every show.  Many of the fans were shouting very rude things to me on stage saying I was eating too much spaghetti and stuff like that.  It was heartbreaking.  I was not there by choice and I knew exactly how I looked and I knew I didn’t belong on stage.

Jeb: Did that experience hurt your recovery?

Lou: I think it did.  I spent hours and hours on the bus.  I have always had trouble sleeping on a bus and having all of the medication and everything made it even harder to sleep.  I rarely got more than an hour or two of sleep at night.  That enhanced my clumsiness and it made me look even more medicated than I was. 

Jeb:  You have really worked hard on your physical health and your emotional health.  Which was harder to overcome?

Lou: My self-esteem was really buried in a deep, deep hole.  I knew that the guy that I was seeing in the mirror was not me.  Until I was able to cut back on the steroids, which was the doctor’s decision, not mine…I would diet and I would exercise to lose the weight and nothing would come off.  That only added to the frustration.

When they finally cut back on the steroids and the other medications, I began to lose weight.  I am just under 200 pounds now, so I have lost 70 pounds.  Before the operation, I weighed between 140 and 145 pounds my entire life.  I told my doctor that I wanted to get back to 140 and he said that would not be good for my health to be back at that weight.  He said that if I can get to 175, then that would be good for me.  That is my goal.  

Jeb:  How would you rate your voice now?  With zero being when you came back from your surgery and 100 being how you were back in 1978. 

Lou: I put myself between 87 and 92 percent.  The medication really did a number on my voice.  I was doing a lot of squeaking and I was short of breath.  There was a lot of incidental damage done, but I am looking better and I am feeling very good.  I would say that my voice is pretty damn strong again.

Jeb:  Did you ever question if you had the fight in you to get through all of this? Did you ever think, “I can’t do this anymore.” 

Lou: I did think that.  It was one of those things where you have to give it one more try.  It was, ‘Try something a little different.’  You make small gains and you build on it, that’s all. 

Jeb: The Foreigner albums have to be like your kids, but, that said, if there was one that you liked to visit more than the others…which would it be?

Lou: I really enjoy 4, but honestly, and this is not a particularly popular answer, but my favorite Foreigner album we ever did was the last one that we did, Mr. Moonlight.  I think the songs are very different, the writing is strong and the playing is relaxed and confident.  I think it is Foreigner at its best.  Unfortunately, we had a small independent record company.  I would say about 75% to 85% of the population didn’t even know we had that album out. 

Jeb: Lastly, I want to thank you for talking with me.  Good luck with the book and we will all cross our fingers for a Foreigner reunion!

Lou:  You never know and do keep your fingers crossed.  

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