Friday, October 7, 2011

An Unplugged Interview With The Silent- Giant Of The Music Industry -Joe Lala

Joe Lala(second from left) with Stephen Stills Manassas

By Ray Shasho

Tampa native Joe Lala has had a truly amazing music and acting career. He helped form the group Blues Image in 1966, and later scored a huge hit with “Ride Captain Ride” in 1970. He was also a member of Stephen Stills incredible band Manassas, and the blues rock band PG&E. 
And that was just the beginning.
He then became a session percussionist and has been credited on such recordings as Jackson Browne’s, “Hold Out”, David Crosby, “Oh Yes I Can”, Crosby, Stills & Nash, “Daylight Again”, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, “American Dream”, Dave Mason, “Some Assembly Required”, McGuinn,Clark & Hillman, Poco, “Crazy Eyes”, The Souther, Hillman, Furay Band,  Rod Stewart, “A Night On The Town”, Stephen Stills, “Stephen Stills Live”;“Stills”; “Illegal Stills”; “Right You”, Stills and Young, “Long May You Run”, Joe Walsh, “The Smoker You Drink, The Player You Get”, Dionne Warwick, “Heartbreaker” and  Bill Wyman, “Monkey Grip.” 

This is just a partial list of studio credits.
Joe played with Eric Clapton, Ringo Starr, The Byrds, Chicago, The Eagles, The Bee Gees, Andy Gibb, The Allman Brothers Band, Rod Stewart, Rick Derringer, Firefall, and so many other great artists.
Use the following link to see his entire musical credit list
Lala has accumulated over 32 Gold records and 28 Platinum records.

Then Joe got into acting. Some of his film credits include "Active Stealth", “Sugar Hill”, “On Deadly Ground”, “Deep Sleep”, “Havana” with Robert Redford, “Out For Justice”, “Marked For Death” “Eyewitness To Murder” and “Born In East L. A.”
His TV credits include “Ali an American Hero”, “Miami Vice”, “For Love or Country” The Arturo Sandoval Story, “General Hospital”, “Melrose Place”, “Seinfeld”, “Hunter”, and “Who’s The Boss.”
Lala says,“I have to check my ID every morning to see who I am.”

I spent a wonderful laid-back Friday afternoon with Joe Lala and his two Dachshunds inside his Tampa condo. He says, “My dogs are great companions”.
I felt comfortable hanging out with Joe. He’s one hundred percent Sicilian but speaks Spanish fluently. If you didn’t know about his Italian heritage you’d swear he was Cuban, but that may be because of his Ybor City roots.

So Joe, you really got your barbers license after you graduated from Jefferson high school?

“Yea, in 1966,I was playing music at night and cutting hair during the day. I went to Tampa Barber College.”

Then you, Mike Pinera, "Manny" Bertematti, and Malcolm Jones formed Blues Image in Tampa.

“Yes, then we ran into Frank “Skip” Konte in Norfolk Virginia, he was in a band called Blue Chip Stock.”

 Your first keyboardist Emilio Garcia left the band to become a pilot, is that right?

“Yea, he works for Bacardi now.”

The band moved to Miami in 1967, what was that like?

“Our manager set us up in airplane hangar- type venues like “The World” on Biscayne Blvd. 
“We opened for acts like the Doors and Janis Joplin. You know, all those big mothers. When we opened for Cream with Eric Clapton and the Yardbirds with Jimmy Page, they’d go to the promoter and say, how dare you book someone that good before us. (Referring to lead guitarist Mike Pinera of Blues Image) Pinera was intimidating to other guitar players. Clapton told the promoter and came that close to saying he wouldn’t go on after Pinera. Mike was at his probable best, he was a monster- guitar player."
"Then Frank Zappa was staying at the Castaways and he told us to come to his room. He said you guys need to get out of here. (Meaning get out of Florida) So we saved our duckets and drove out to LA. When we got there we called Frank and said we’re here, okay now what? Later, The Animals manager Kevin Deverich signed us up with Atco records.”

You had your big hit “Ride Captain Ride” in 1970, and there was a lot of speculation about what the song was really about.

“Yea man, there were so many interviews that asked if it had anything to do with the Pueblo? Seventy three men on the Pueblo in North Korean waters, and then got busted. The song was about, you’re a great band, you have great talent, you’re fabulous, but we need a hit record, and we don’t hear the cash register. We need something commercial. But the song originated by staring at the seventy-three keys on Frank’s Fender Rhodes organ."
(Then Joe began singing…“Seventy-three men sailed up from the San Francisco Bay”)  Most everything we did was unrehearsed; it was a fabulous jam band.”

Tell me about the band in LA.

“We were the house band at a club called “The Experience” on the Sunset Strip."

Jimi Hendrix once said that Blues Image was "one of the best up and coming bands around". How well did you know Hendrix?

“I knew Hendrix quite a bit. Hendrix was a perfect gentleman, and one of the sweetest and nicest guys you ever want to meet. I mean, he was amazing. He didn’t want to be what he was made to be. He didn’t want a bone through his nose or burn his guitar. We’d have these massive jams at The Experience and everyone would show up. Guys like Johnny Winter, Rick Derringer, and Jimi Hendrix. And all Jimi wanted to do is sit on his f-ing Marshall amp, he would not take center stage, he’d sit back there and put his cigarette between the guitar strings, when it was his turn to play he’d sit there and go man. Jimi had a style and a presence, how do you compare this guy with anybody he was amazing, and an incredibly cool guy.”

I brought up Robin Trower and Stevie Ray Vaughan’s similarities to Hendrix. 

“I was very good friends with Bill Graham, when I heard about that it just broke my heart.” (Joe was immediately sent into a somber mood after remembering the helicopter crash that killed promoter Bill Graham)

So why did Blues Image break up?

“Mike was enticed by our former manager to leave the band and join Iron Butterfly. We all said, are you crazy? Then later we all went our separate ways.”

I heard Iron Butterfly missed an opportunity to play Woodstock because their helicopter never showed up.

“Blues image was supposed to be at Woodstock too, we took a gig at Binghamton instead. Our manager said there’s only one road in and it’s going to be raining, you don’t want to be there. We said, don’t you think it’ll be beneficial that we’re there?”

So you were living in LA, what did you do next?

"After I left Blues Image, I was with a band called PG & E. They did a song called “Are you ready” and we did a record for CBS. I worked as a session guy around LA and then I got a phone call. I was house-sitting for somebody. The phone rang and the conversation went like this, hi this is Stephen, I’m thinking of putting a band together. I said Stephen who?  Stills. I said yea right. We met at the cigarette machine at the Whiskey- a- Go- Go with Dallas, we talked for a minute. I’ve got this idea about putting a band together, come to my house in Colorado and let’s see what happens."
"The Colorado thing sounded good so we cut some stuff down in Miami. Then I went to Stephens’s house in England to rehearse before we hit the road. I was in England for about four months. I cooked for Jerry Wexler and for the band. I made homemade sausage balls, Chateaubriand, and these baby potatoes. We kept a low profile while we were there. That house in England was bought from Peter Sellers, and then Ringo Starr before that. It was built in the fifteenth century. When I first moved in I found a stethoscope and a blood pressure monitor next to my bed. Peter Sellers was married to Britt Ekland at the time. She was insatiable. I found out that he would check himself with the blood pressure monitor after having sex with her."

I guess he left it there thinking that a bunch of rock stars could probably use it. Manassas was a great band. Did you and Stills know each other when you were both attending high school in Tampa?

“We did not know each other in Tampa. He went to Plant high school. He loved the Latin influence of Blues Image though. His dad worked for the CIA, and had a seafood plant in Costa Rica."

Here’s a quote from Stephen Stills about you,  "Joe Lala was an answer to a prayer, I desperately wanted to find a 'Spanglish' a latin-cuban player, cause I was going absolutely crazy trying to play that kind of music with those Turkey white drummers. No matter how good they were, no white drummers could cut it, and my songs were getting more and more Spanish flavoured".   

Why did Manassas break up?

“There was lots of drama in the band. We were together for about two and half years. I went back to LA and did a lot of session work. Then I started getting calls from artist like The Bee Gees and Dan Fogelberg, and I never had to worry.”

Joe, I need a juicy classic rock story, something those rock and roll aficionados don’t already know.

“I had to throw Mick Jagger and three women out of my hotel room. We played Carnegie hall together when I was with Manassas and we had suites at the Carlyle in New York. There was Mick Jagger in my room with three little beauties. I told Mick okay party’s over. He said what’s that all about? Well, this is my room and I think I’m going to bed now, unless you’re going to share. The next day Bill Wyman said that Mick was furious with me.”
“Then when I was touring with Crosby, Stills and Nash, we were at one of the hotels that looked like one of those round guys in circles. Graham Nash went to go take a pee in the middle of the night and walked out his front door buck naked without his key. He used a house phone in the hallway and called downstairs to the front desk. He said, I’ve locked myself out of my room can you send a man up to my room to let me back in, I’m naked. They sent a chick up there instead and he ended up having sex with her.”
“I consider myself really fortune to get to hang with these guys and play with them in the late 60’s and mid 70’s. Those were some day’s man, those were some days.”

Now that the travel restrictions have been lifted, do you have any thoughts about going to Cuba?

“I was there in 1979 for the Havana Jam. It was at the Karl Marx Theater formerly known as the Teatro Blanquita. One night Fidel came to check us out. I had to pinch myself in the green room; I was there amongst all the greats like Dexter Gordon, Jimmy Heath, and Weather Report. Woody Shaw and I became very close friends, and Stan Getz was a very funny guy. There were three hundred and fifty amazing players.”

Who were your biggest musical influences?

"I love Latin jazz, straight ahead mainstream jazz, Coltrane, Charlie parker. My favorite kind of music was the organ trio’s, Jimmy Smith, Jack McDuff, you know that shuffle thing, when I listen to that man I wet my pants."

What was your favorite acting role?

“It was probably working with Robert Redford in “Havana.” The movie was almost Casablanca but fell short. I was nervous and Redford fed me my lines. He said, don’t worry I’m here for you man, come on. Working with Robert Redford was really something.”    
“You know, I raised Christina Applegate, her mom and I was an item at one time. I’d hold little Christina on my lap while reciting lines to her, and she would read them back to me perfectly. She was great.”

Have you ever married?

"Yes, not to Christina’s mom but to Ginny McSwain my ex wife. We’re still close. She just won her third Emmy award for a show she walked off of. She’s a dialogue director."

How was the Firefall reunion concert in 2008?

“The Firefall reunion was a gas. I was never a member of the band but I played on anything that ever happened. That concert was BAD man, Firefall is a fun band.”   

So you continue to play your gigs, you’re still getting auditions, and now you do private acting workshops.

 “Yea, I want to give back something to the city that gave me so much. I’ve been very blessed in what I’ve done.”

What’s different about your music career versus your acting career?   

“When I do my acting thing I really have to do my homework, when I do music it comes natural man.  It just happens.”

I thanked Joe Lala for the interview and he hugged me before I left. Joe still takes care of his mom who is in denial that she will become ninety- five years old in October. He’s an amazing man, with amazing accomplishments. A Silent- Giant of the music industry. 

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