Mark Rivera opens up about playing with Billy Joel, Ringo, others and new book
Mark Rivera is best known as Billy Joel’s saxophonist, as well as musical director for Ringo Starr and his All Starr Band. Rivera has shared the stage with some of Rock ‘n’ Roll’s greatest performers, including John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Elton John, Simon & Garfunkel, Foreigner, Peter Frampton, Tony Bennett, Sheila E., Joe Walsh, Hall & Oates, and Peter Gabriel.
His new book is called "Sideman: In Pursuit of the Next Gig", and he's going to be appearing at the Fest for Beatles Fans, March 31-April 2 at the Hyatt Regency in Jersey City. We spoke on New Jersey 101.5:
Will anyone be offended by the book?
"Some people might take offense... if their names are not in the book. My mom used to say nothing good can come out of bad words, as a way to look at it. I'm still hoping to have something left in my tank.
There's too much of Billy's wonderful line, which I always go back to; it's prophetic 'Because you know that it's me they've been coming to see to forget about life for a while.' So if I'm going to write a book, I'm not going to remind them how screwed up things are; they don't need that. We're entertainers.
We come to you to escape all that!
One million percent! And, you know, that's why I get, I get upset when I hear people getting on stage and pontificating. Look, this is the greatest country in the world. And your opinion, and my opinion, they could differ dramatically. But that's the beauty of our country. You say some stuff like this in Russia or China, you're in jail.
Did you ever work or play with someone you disagreed with politically?
The stage that I get onto every night, no matter who I'm playing with or who I'm performing with. That is my emotional moat. Nothing could get in there. No taxes, no discrepancies with family or any of it.
It just goes away because that's when you come together. And you might have a kind of band that you don't get along with or you don't agree with at all because it's human nature.
But with Billy's band, I have to say, it's like the most incredible family because it's almost like we could agree to disagree. Do I agree with everyone? Of course not. This is not some utopian society, we have our discrepancies. But again, it's the key to what I do, and I'm sure it is to what you do.
We're communicators, right? Speak to people. And like this conversation, we're going back and forth, and when you play music.
I read a great article or a great quote by Sheila E., I think was yesterday or the day before, and she said 'funk has to be funky. And the only way funk stays funky is you leave space between the notes.'
In a conversation or a relationship, you have space for that respect and interbeing, Look, I just love what I do. If you've seen us perform ever, people come in, but one friend of mine, Clint said, 'You have the IV. The "infection vibe'. What a great thing to say!
What's it like being Billy Joel's Saxophonist?
It's a dream come true. I mean, the only thing that I would ever say that would eclipse that is when I played in 97 with Ringo in the band was like all my heroes from 1967. And it was like Peter Frampton, it was Gary Brooker from Procol Harem, Jack Bruce from Cream. And I was just literally beaming because that was my year. I was 14 years old. It was a lot of peace and love and a lot of great records. I still say that the most fertile year music. Hendrix put out two records, the Beatles put out two records; it was just an incredible time.
Billy's band is the greatest. As Tommy Byrne says, 'We're the greatest bar band you'll ever hear.' And Billy leads us forward and he respects our playing, and that's one of the greatest things about being a member or playing with Billy; I never say for. But I've worked with Billy, is that he allows us to run.
It's like if you're on a thoroughbred, you don't let them try it. You want to kick them a little bit, let them go. Billy lets me, Crystal Taliefero, Mike Delguidice, gives us this, this spotlight. And it's incredible. It's always enthusiastic.
Some people say, does it ever get old? Do you ever get- I said, Dude, when you're on the side of the stage and 20,000 People are revving up, if you've entered the Garden, there's like four levels.
The first level is when, for the musicians, that are we're on the side of the stage and you know, giving each other like little hugs and lovey, and they give just supporting each other a little prayer, whatever you might do.
The second level is when the natural comes on. And everybody knows that Billy's coming. That's the second of the third levels. When the lights go out and the band gets on stage. And he had this rule of law.
Then all of a sudden, the spotlight hits Billy and the place goes ballistic. And it's 20,000 people and the Garden.
I don't know if you noticed that the Garden is built on springs. And when we play songs like 'You May Be Right' or 'Only the Good Day Young', the stage literally moves, it pulses. Everybody's moving. And it's just so; I tell people who say 'Does it ever get old?' If you come on the side of the stage, and you hear that crowd, that 20,000 people roaring, and they're all their enthusiasm is if that doesn't get you going to get your heart going, you should check your pulse because you might have expired. It's incredibly invigorating.
What's it like being Ringo Starr's musical director?
Well, in his words, 'I'm just a drummer in a band.' That said, you have the greatest drummer and the greatest band of all time. So leave that aside.
I believe the answer is, these guys are all used to being the frontman. Then they have never been a sideman. I've been a sideman all my life. Even when I was a kid and I was the lead singer in the band, we were just a bunch of guys in a band.
How does Ringo take criticism? Like anybody else. Well, direction criticism exactly, if it's for the good of the gig. I've had to correct Ringo a couple of times. Paul McCartney a couple of times, I had to correct everyone from Greg Lake, John Entwistle, Mark Farner, for any one of these guys are in the band. Look, we all make mistakes. That's the reason I was able to become Ringo's musical director, and I still am. It's because I know this material. I was ready to be in Ringo Starr's band when I was 16.
I had already heard all that music when I was 18. Grand Funk sold out Shea Stadium night, I think by '71. So I already played all the songs that I played, all the Rascals music. When I was 14, I played their entire collection album, so I was prepared.
My father would always say, 'you can be confident, but not arrogant.' So if you know you're correct, you could lead with that confidence, but not with a sense of like, 'Oh, I know better.'
This is how it goes, and Ringo wants the band to sound a certain way. And my endgame is to make Ringo's band the best it could possibly be. And that might sometimes mean that you have to speak, and you have to have the diplomacy and the goods. And that's a fine balance.
People ask me all the time, 'What's it like correcting a Beatle?' He wants it. He wants it right, as we all do. And that makes it easy. And I've always had a relatively easy personality because I don't fight. I figured we got to be able to talk it through. And if we're not able to talk it through, then we should just go our separate ways. And I've been fortunate to be in every band that I've ever been in, to leave them with that kind of attitude. And it's amazing how people will respond to kindness or just a sense of respect that you have to have. If you have respect for yourself, that will, in turn, overflow to them, and they'll know they're being dealt with respect. And I get it back every time.
Opinions expressed in the post above are those of New Jersey 101.5 talk show host Steve Trevelise only. Follow him on Twitter @realstevetrev.
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