An Interview with Firefall’s Jock Bartley – Pt.I
Tires crunching over icy streets on a February evening in the north Denver suburbs, straggling evening commuters drive past a nondescript house on a typical subdivision street, unaware of the treasures tucked within. One wall adorned with gold and platinum albums, a row of guitars standing to attention on their stands by the front window, guitarist Jock Bartley rises from the teetering stacks within the home’s well-used office and comes to the door. Now sixty but retaining an easy manner and a young rocker’s love for living and talking about a life in music, Bartley’s name, by his own admission, isn’t on the tip of the tongue when the subject of iconic guitarists comes up, which seems odd when surrounded by this wall of accomplishments marking a career that’s crossed paths and stages with Clapton, The Byrds, Tommy Bolin, Fleetwood Mac, Steve Winwood, Chris Hillman, Stephen Stills, The Doobie Brothers, and a veritable who’s who in music since the late 60’s. Bartley’s primary claim to rock history is, of course, the act that he and ex-Flying Burrito Brothers songwriter/singer Rick Roberts founded in 1974, Firefall. The band went on to create a library of hits that, while casual music fans may not immediately connect them with the band’s name, they’d certainly know the tunes : You Are the Woman, Just Remember I Love You, Strange Way, Livin’ Ain’t Livin’, Mexico, Cinderella, Goodbye I Love You, So Long, and the other classic tunes that pushed Firefall into the upper echelon of touring and recording acts in the 70’s and 80’s, including the fastest selling Gold-record in Atlantic Records’ history.
Bartley’s professional career began in the Colorado music scene of the late 1960’s. Following his exit from studying art at CU in Boulder, he replaced Zephyr guitarist Tommy Bolin, who went on to play with the James Gang and Deep Purple, as well as a brief and shining solo career, before his death from overdose in 1977. When Zephyr folded after the release of “Sunset Ride,” Bartley went on to join the touring band for Gram Parsons and The Fallen Angels with Emmylou Harris, during which time he first met Roberts at Max’s Kansas City in New York. Back in Boulder, the pair began jamming with bassist Mart Andes, a veteran of Spirit and Jo Jo Gunne. Joined by guitarist/songwriter Larry Burnett from Washington D.C., Firefall was formed and eventually solidified with the additions of former Byrds and Burrito Bros. drummer Michael Clarke. The band’s break came as Jock, Rick and Mark were supporting Chris Hillman on an East Coast tour, during which Hillman became ill and was unable to finish the shows at The Other End in NYC. The trio flew in Clarke and Burnett to finish the shows as Firefall, attracting the attention of Atlantic Records A&R representatives, who immediately signed the group to a multi-album deal. In a bid to fill out their sound before the early recording, multi-instrumentalist David Muse was invited to join the band. Together, they were flown to Miami’s iconic Criteria Studios, then-home of Stephen Stills, The Bee Gee’s, CSN, The Allman Bros. and other top acts, and with Poco producer Jim Mason behind the board began a career that spans over four decades and continues today with plans for a new album. OnStage reached Bartley at his home on this brisk evening outside Denver as he sat on the carpeted steps and enthusiastically expanded on the passion, history and philosophy that have both driven his personal career and have much to say about living a life in music.
Tell us a little bit about your early experiences in music. When did you first know that this was what you would do with your life?
Well, my mom was a musician and my dad was an artist, and I got the best of both. I was the total right brained guy in the family, but piano didn’t take for me when I was six or seven or eight years old. When we got to Colorado and I showed an interest in guitar, my mom figured that the fifty-nine dollar Sears AirLine guitar with an amp built into the case, that I was just gaga over, wasn’t probably a great instrument. But she had heard about a world-famous jazz guitar player named Johnny Smith, who did Moonlight in Vermont with Stan Getz and played with Doc Severinsen and had like 15 albums out on Verve Records – he wrote Walk, Don’t Run, which you know The Ventures later covered – had dropped out of the New York jazz scene and moved to Colorado with his new wife. He told my mom that eight was pretty young, but to bring me in. He must have seen something in me, and I became one of his first students in Colorado. My first guitar then became a Gibson ES-345 Student Model (3/4 size) and a little Fender Champ Amp. Great first equipment. Thank you Mom. So, I had a wonderful guitar and a world-class teacher who I didn’t know at the time was grooming me to be the next jazz guitar prodigy. My first live performance was either at a 7th grade assembly talent show where I played a jazz tune I’d just learned (I don’t remember being nervous at all,) or at a ‘show’ with my mom’s ‘Sweet Adelines’ barbershop vocal group in Colorado Springs. I was dressed up as a pirate and her quartet (she sang tenor and did all the vocal arrangements) was wearing satin outfits. I accompanied them, but I don’t remember on what song.
Then, when I was thirteen or so, the Beatles hit, and of course, that changed everything for just about every teenager. A few years after that, I heard the Fresh Cream album with Eric Clapton, Ginger Baker and Jack Bruce, and when I heard Clapton’s first solo on “I Feel Free” as a teenage kid, the heavens literally opened up and it was like, ‘I want to do THAT!”
Jumping ahead, when I heard Clapton on that album, I thought, ‘who IS this guy’ and the only other album I could find him on was John Mayall and the Bluesbreaker’s, the “Beano album,” and he became my hero. Well, it’s funny, because about ten years later, Firefall is making our first record in Miami, at Criteria Studios, which was like the hit factory, and the BeeGees were down the hall – here’s Barry Gibb walkin’ up and down – Stephen Stills was down the hall and here’s Firefall that nobody’s ever heard of, y’know, making our first record. It came time for me to play my solo on the song Mexico, which I told Rick Roberts, the songwriter, I was just born to play. It was my time to shine. So, I’m out warming up with my ’58 cherry sunburst Les Paul and my Fender Super amp, people are in and out of the control room, and I’m workin’ out. Jim Mason, the producer, pushes the button and says ‘You ready?’ So, I get going, and here comes the first verse, and the second verse, and I’m just right-braining it, then comes the solo, where the day before we’d just added this mariachi horn section in the middle, which I’d never contended with before. I played it out and burned it on the end and it was over. Three and half minutes later, the song’s done and Mason pushes the button and says, ‘That was great! Come on in.’ I wanted to cut it again, since I wasn’t really prepared for those horns, and Mason said, ‘No.’ I said, ‘No? What d’ya mean no? What, we got a time frame here?’ So he says, ‘Jock, take your guitar off and come in here.’ So, I put my guitar down and I’m a little pissed off. I storm into the control room to give him a piece of my mind, I open the control room, and there’s Eric Clapton, who’s been watching me play that one-take solo. And I of course, crumbled and went all Jackie Gleason on him, like any guitar player in those days would, a-humama-humana, you know. And Clapton stood up, shook my hand and said, ‘Keen playing, man.’ He walked out of the control room, and my mouth was still open. Mason just said, ‘OK, what is it you want to do again?’
So, it’s funny how that first Clapton solo I ever heard him play when I was fourteen years old made me stop taking lessons and playing off the paper and to become a real soloist. And his being there while I soloed on Firefall’s first album was the only time I ever met my hero.
Tell us about your experience stepping in for Tommy Bolin after he left Zephyr. How did you come into that opportunity and what were the band’s focus and plans at the time?
My band The Children had played a few gigs opening for Zephyr right before Tommy left. Candy and David (Givens) kinda just asked all of us to join Zephyr. We did and started working on a new record that would become ‘Sunset Ride‘ on Warner Bros. Onstage, I was very focused on standing next to my amp and playing well in those days, not a lot of ‘performing’. Well, Candy was used to Tommy grabbing the spotlight and almost ‘challenging her’ for who was the front person in the band – it was one of their exciting strengths. I wasn’t that kind of performer yet and I recall her telling me to get out in front and start moving around. It felt unnatural at first, but I eventually got into the ‘performing’ part of live shows. Soon, I couldn’t stand still, letting the moves flow out just like the licks were. The Zephyr I was in only played about a dozen shows and made one album and then broke up. Our version (with Michael Wooten on drums) was a more mellow and ‘worked out’ band than the fiery Tommy version, and probably not as exciting musically as the original.
Referring to OnStage’s recent interview with Leslie West, you mentioned how impressed you were watching him perform in Denver when Zephyr was booked with Mountain. What was it about his performance that you thought set him apart at the time? Were there other players whose live performances stood out to you then?
Yeah, I was in awe watching from backstage while Leslie West rocked out with Mountain when they played Denver with Zephyr, which was then temporarily called ‘The Bees’. Others? I saw the early Who with Pete Townshend 3-4 times, which was amazing. Of course, George Harrison and the Beatles in general were my biggest influence. Um, Stephen Stills in CSN. Dave Mason on his wonderful ‘Alone Together’. I soaked it all up, learning new licks and styles all the time. Having the trained background, thank you Johnny Smith, and a melodic style ingrained into my playing early on, it was great taking here and there from recorded rock & roll of that amazing time period, the 1960s. It absolutely helped me when I got into a famous band in the 70’s. And it’s cool now having young guitarists learn my licks and emulate my style of melodic playing. Music is a big circle like that; the up & coming generations of musicians are influenced by and borrow heavily from the recordings and styles that are popular. It’s happening today to a lesser degree musically, I think, though certainly vocal shows like American Idol and such are a huge influence on how young people sing.
So, you’d had some success with Zephyr and of course the opportunity to play with Gram Parsons. Then you met Rick Roberts, who’d been with The Flying Burrito Brothers, and the two of you worked with Chris Hillman before founding Firefall in 1974. The first album became Atlantic’s fastest gold record with multiple single hits and you found yourself touring with Fleetwood Mac. It’s been a lifetime work now, with Firefall still touring and recording. When you look back, did it turn out the way you’d envisioned?
I don’t think I ever thought about how it would go. But it’s funny that when I first started playing in bands, I used to practice writing my signature for autographs…if I make the ‘J’ this way, y’know? So I knew I was I was going to be a guitar player. And early on, it was nice knowing that. But the immediacy and the enjoyment of making music, when you’re smoking onstage and the crowd is there with you, there’s nothing like that. So, I didn’t know how it would go, but I felt in my bones that I was going to be, I don’t know about a famous guitar player, but this was what I was going to do. I met Rick in New York City at Max’s Kansas City, and I had fallen into Gram Parsons with Emmylou Harris and the Fallen Angels band out of pure chance. It goes back to, when you’re a success at anything, and I haven’t been like a huge success, I’m no Jeff Beck and not everybody in the industry knows my name, but I know how lucky I’ve been to have been on a national and somewhat international level since the mid-70’s while there are again hundreds of thousands of deserving musicians who never got that shot.
You talk about the influence of Cream and speak fondly of the harder edged material that Larry Burnett wrote for Firefall but that the record company discouraged. Do you feel like Firefall was stereotyped over time, pigeonholed into an albeit successful but more defined path? Were you satisfied with that?
No, we weren’t. Now, that said, we were really satisfied with being perceived as being big rock stars, and when we were on tour with Fleetwood Mac or the Doobie Brothers or The Band or Chicago – the biggest crowd we played was 135,000 people – and the reason we got to do that was the lighter songs, You Are the Woman and Just Remember I Love You. But the downside of that was that after those two songs came out on two different albums, the record company afterward basically wanted ten You Are the Woman’s on a record, and we’re going, ‘Hey, we’re a rock band that has three or four really nice ballads aimed at getting girls to tune into radio stations.’ And the other problem was that we never quite had a large enough marketing program that tied the name of the band to faces and songs. So, everybody knew the songs, but didn’t know who played them – and that’s something we still run into. So, there’s pros and cons to it but we really weren’t allowed to rock and roll too much by our label, even though musically that’s kind of who we really were. Part TWO, click HERE
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