Eric Tagg interview, October 2009

By Georg Forchhammer

Eric, thank you very much for joining us here at Blue Desert.

At first, I’d like to go back to the beginning. You had your debut back in 1975 with the album “Smilin’ Memories”, and already 2 years later came your 2nd album “Rendez-Vous”. You were only in the beginning of the 20ies. What were your expectations of a musical career at that time?

Anything was possible. I made my first real demo while living literally in a recording studio in Holland. I was 20 years old and had been playing in bands in Texas for six years already before leaving for Europe. During my three years in the Netherlands, my Dutch manager and I secured a record deal with EMI/Bovema, who liked that original 4-track demo. I was very prolific at that time, once finishing nine songs in eight days, most of which comprised the songs on ‘Smilin Memories.’ My heroes were Todd Rundgren, Elton John, Bill Champlin, Joni Mitchell, and of course, Stevie Wonder. They had taught me to believe that if you wanted something bad enough, it could be accomplished.

The Dutch label EMI flew me to L.A. on my 22nd birthday to record ‘Smilin Memories,’ where I met Lee Ritenour, David Foster, and the Porcaro brothers. The producer of the record, John D’Andrea, told me point blank one evening that there were literally hundreds of people in Hollywood at that moment that were trying to do the same thing we were trying to do. He said, “The average person has ten bucks in his pocket. Whose album are they going to buy, yours or Paul McCartney’s?” It was quite a reality check. I remember that some agents passed on my project, telling me that Barry Manilow was more the sound of the future. His song “Mandy” hit the airwaves soon after. I didn’t have anything like that.

Three years later, I was sitting in a loft in Manhatten on 28th Street rehearsing with a band called Medusa, who recorded for Columbia Records (talk about a collector’s item!). Down the hall, we heard another group with a female singer. It sounded so atrocious to me that I vowed that, if that band made it in the business, I would quit music altogether. Within six months, that singer was on the cover of Newsweek Magazine. Her name was Blondie. Story of my life.

You mentioned Stevie Wonder as one of your heroes. The song “Love To Love You” from “Smilin’ Memories” has a “Stevie-touch” about it. Otherwise, a lot of your songs have a twist of jazzy harmonies combined with a Brazilian touch. Actually, your style is quite distinct already on your debut album. When did you start writing songs?

I would say that “Love To Love You” has more of a Todd Rundgren influence than Stevie Wonder, but they have both been with me from the very beginning. I remember “I Was Made To Love Her” from Stevie in 1966 and Nazz came out in 1969. I was truly possessed by Todd by 1971 and finally figured out that he was the devil. Then I turned the page and became obsessed with Bill Champlin instead. My parents had a stereo console in the living room and a baby grand in the parlor, so I had to run back and forth with notes in my head to figure songs and chords out. I really studied hard to be able to play my favorite songs note for note like the record, and after awhile, it became easier to hear what was going on. I would literally learn the guitar, bass, piano, and vocal parts so I could teach them to my band.

At one time, that band played 13 Todd Rundgren songs with four-part harmony. Everybody hated us, but we loved ourselves. I began to write songs when I turned the page on Todd. My first 100 songs were real mediocre, but that’s where the songs from “Smilin’ Memories” and “Rendezvous” came from. I was also influenced by Elton John, Joni Mitchell, and Laura Nyro. It wasn’t until 1980 that I discovered Ivan Lins and the Brazilian thing. I woodshedded on his chords for months before I grasped his methodology. He became a huge influence, and I started writing English lyrics to his songs. Later we even wrote a couple of songs together. I admire Ivan very much, and I owe him a lot.

One person, who has been there through your whole career, is Lee Ritenour. Your collaboration is legendary. How did you two meet?

Lee was booked by John D’Andrea to play on “Smilin Memories” (Jan. 1975). I had actually requested a guy named Buzzy Feiten, whom I had heard on the Rascals albums “Island of Real” and “Peaceful World.” I think he also played with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band when he was sixteen. I finally met him years later in L.A. after Larsen/Feiten had made it halfway big. Anyway, Buzzy was unavailable, and Lee was on the date– we hit it off pretty well.

I think they all expected a Dutch guy to walk in the studio, and I showed up with this Texas accent and blew their minds. Lee used to drop by intermittently and check on the progress of the record. He was a real encouragement to me at the time. I saw him three years later in New York at  the Bottom Line club, and he requested a demo. I sent him “Mr. Briefcase” and “No One There.” By 1980, we had recorded a few songs for the “Rit” album, working alongside a hero of mine, Bill Champlin.

Talking about Lee Ritenour, your greatest commercial success was undoubtedly the two “Rit” albums from 1981 and 1982. Furthermore, you recorded your 3rd album “Dreamwalkin’” in 1982 – album which by many is considered your finest one. It must have been a very busy, but also great period in your life. Listening to these albums, it sounds as if you had a great time! After all these great musical achievements, you more or less disappeared from the music scene in the middle of the 80ies. What happened – were you satisfied with what you had accomplished so far?

I have to be careful when I tell this story. It’s actually not half as romantic as one might think. All through the Ritenour period, I was commuting from Dallas to L.A. to write and record. I never actually lived in California, though everyone that should have hired me in Dallas thought I did. I didn’t have much work at that time, and couldn’t keep a steady band gig because I was sporadically going to L.A. I had to support my family by working on a landscape team during the daytime. If I had chosen to move to Hollywood at that time, we would have been forced to live in an extremely bad neighborhood, which would have adversely affected my kids, who were junior high age.

On one occasion, Lee asked me to go to Japan again on tour, and I was ashamed that I didn’t have any money to tide my family over with while I was to be gone. It was quite a quandary– My wife and I knelt down in tears to pray in the kitchen. You’ll never believe what happened. At that exact moment, the mailman came to the door with a package of books that was too large to fit in the mailbox. It just so happened that among the mail that day was a check from BMI for $5000. It came as we were praying! That was my first taste of royalties from the song “Is It You.” Couldn’t have been better timing.

Another time, Lee asked me to go out on tour after the album “Banded Together.” I had to tell him that the money wasn’t enough to support my family in my absence, and he said, “Wow– that’s too bad.” We amiably parted ways at that time. It was kind of sad. I knew that he had Phil Perry waiting in the wings to take my place, and he’s a great singer, but I wondered how they thought they were going to sound like the record. I guess, in jazz circles, that doesn’t matter that much. I turned my attention instead into songwriting with a friend of mine in Dallas named Kelly McNulty. He was co-writer of “Dreamwalkin” and “Turn the Heat Up,” which came out on Rit’s ‘Portrait’ album around 1984 or so.

We wrote about 50 songs together and played many of them live in Dallas nightclubs during the mid- to late 80’s. One of those songs, “Another Waste of Time,” just came out on the latest Marco Taggiasco CD, featuring Andrea Sanchini on vocals. I also became a studio singer in Dallas (mostly commercials and backgrounds), which meant I didn’t have to work on the landscape team anymore. I was happy to be with my family and support them without going out on the road, happy to be out of the ‘rat race,’ and happy that my relationship with God was growing deep enough that ‘stardom’ didn’t mean that much anymore. Believe it or not, I never wanted to move to California, Champlin or no Champlin. It just seemed very superficial and plastic to me. Don’t get me wrong– the players and friends I made there were fantastic, and they taught me so much about the biz and the craft. But I didn’t have a whole lot in common with the guys I was working with.

As a believer in Christ, I really looked up to Abraham Laboriel, Alex Acuna, etc., but many of the cats were on a much higher financial plane than I was. I was down in the dirt and they were way up there with the swimming pools and privacy gates and the like. They had their own landscapers! I was definitely a stranger in a strange land, but it wasn’t a fairy-tale like my years in Holland. L.A. is a nice place to visit. I was shown very early on that friendship would not supercede the business side of music, and it was a little sickening to me. On one occasion, I wrote a song with three other guys, and in the end, the royalties were not split down the middle, but our shares were all pro-rated to what one guy thought everyone’s contribution to the song was. It left a bad taste in my mouth. I can leave that behind real easy. Maybe Bill Champlin will tell you about our experience on the publishing side of our ‘hit single’ together.

I can understand and respect your decisions, but still it must be great knowing that there are still faithful fans wanting to hear all the great Tagg classics. I mean, with the internet, especially Youtube and Myspace, a lot of the west coast artists from the early 80ies have had their 2nd rebirth musically.

It is gratifying to hear from people who have been affected by one song or another, but I have always stayed pretty far-removed from the action and actually never knew that anything I was doing was very special. I loved getting to play with the L.A. cats and recording with some of my musical heroes, but honestly… I have never been very successful in a worldly sense ($$$). I think the Lord was merciful that way. He knew I wouldn’t have been able to handle it. I’m probably one of those one-hit guys that everybody says “Whatever happened to…” about. Some of my most loyal supporters live in Japan, and it’s just too hard to get over there to make it happen very often. I hope to go again someday soon.

15 years after “Dreamwalkin’”, your are suddenly back with a fantastic album, “Through My Eyes” – once again together with Lee Ritenour, a lot of great musicians from the “old days” (Abe Laboriel, Don Grusin and Bill Champlin) and your brother Larry Tagg. As far as I know, you hadn’t recorded with your brother since your 2nd album back in 1977. My guess is that maybe he persuaded you to record an album again…?

Actually, my brother and I worked together on Lee’s album “Banded Together,” in 1984. He wrote a song called “I’m Not Responsible” that I got to sing. Larry was still in the band Bourgeouis/Tagg at the time, and he lived in Sacramento, so we didn’t have a lot of contact in those days. I asked him to play some bass on the Through My Eyes project in 1996, and he drove down and hung out with me for a few days. It was a blast. He’s a great player. I learned how to play bass on his axe back when I was 14. I copped all the parts on the Byrds, Animals, Buffalo Springfield, and Paul Revere and the Raiders albums. That was 1967. Then my Sunday school teacher took the class to see Jimi Hendrix. That was my first concert, and it changed my life. I saw Hendrix three times, the Cream, the Doors, Three Dog Night, and Sly and the Family Stone back in the day. That was some real music to me.

After the album “Through my eyes”, a lot of us thought “Wow, Eric Tagg is back on track again”. The album is regarded as one of the greatest west coast music album of the 90ies. Did you consider working full time with music again after “Through my eyes”?

When I was approached to record that album, I was already a worship leader at a church in Dallas, and I hadn’t looked back that much or regretted the direction my life was going. Fortunately, I was able to take some time off and write some tunes with an old friend of mine who had played with Tagg/McNulty, producer Michael MacGregor. We gave it our best shot, but we knew it was a pet project, not a pop thing. I think we got away with murder, getting to use songs no sane label in the U.S. would ever pick. Japan has been very nice to me; I have been over there eleven times, including the two times with Lee. My last tour of Japan was with Larry Carlton, Harvey Mason, Don Grusin, Alphonso Johnson, and Eric Marienthal. They were monsters. Then I came back home to play with church volunteers. That’s when I was really torn between wanting to play high caliber music with professionals and working with amatuers on worship music. I can’t expect everyone to understand, but my life is not my own. I surrendered everything to Jesus a long time ago, and I’m convinced that the Lord has the best plan.

You know, when I wrote the lyrics for the songs on “Through My Eyes,” I was really trying to walk a thin line between heaven and earth with the message. Some of the songs might appear to be human love songs, but the point of view was usually the love that God has for his best creation, us. Check out the lyrics to “Never Too Far.” I was thinking that Japan wasn’t quite ready for blatant Christian texts, so I toned it down a little. Big mistake.

The first song I heard on the radio in Tokyo last time was from Kirk Franklin, and believe me, he isn’t ashamed of the gospel. I was ashamed of myself. There’s just not time enough left in this world to worry about what people are going to think. They are ready for Jesus whether they know it or not. Japan didn’t care that Franklin was preaching Jesus;  they liked the song. I was kicking myself.

And last year – another decade later – you recorded a song on Marco Taggiasco’s latest album “This Moment”. What’s the story behind what I might call your “3rd comeback”?

Andrea Sanchini started calling me on the phone out of the blue a few years ago, and we became good friends. I sent him a demo, and he and Marco recorded “Radio Silence” and “Another Waste of Time.” When my wife heard the first mix, she thought it was me singing. Andrea really did his homework on that one. I’m proud of him and hope they do well. I finally put the background vocals on the song over the phone. We’ve never met, but Andrea is coming to my house for Christmas this year, all the way from Rome. I’m very excited! I hope we can write something together. And you know what? We’ll split the royalties down the middle.

Well, even though you are not in the music business anymore, it’s obvious that you still love writing music and performing live. What can all the Eric Tagg fans expect from the future?

I wouldn’t say that I’m not in the music business anymore. That sounds a little washed up and bitter. Let’s just say I’m between comebacks. I am learning that there are other things in life to get excited about, even musically, and I spend much of my time immersed in worship music. God is using me to reach people in a different way now. It’s not about me anymore. I’m a little mellower and don’t take myself quite as seriously as I once did. Music used to be all I knew– now I’m a follower of Jesus… and I know a little gardening, too.

More info about the Eric Tagg releases here.