Larry Russell Interview
Interview via e-mail with former Billy Joel bassist, Larry Russell (Jul 22, 2006)
Reniet: What do you remember about the band being contacted to play at Mar Y Sol?
Larry: I don’t recall how we were contacted, I was very young at the time, and didn’t care much how we got there, as long as we did.
Billy’s manager at that time handled all the travel/touring details. You see, Billy Joel at that time was completely unknown. He was a struggling artist packed with so much talent that his record company could not keep up with the costs of really promoting him to fruition. And he had a band that completely believed in him and his music and wanted to go all the way to his see it’s success.
Reniet: What do you remember about getting to the island? (where did you come from, where did you stay or any interesting memories about being in Puerto Rico)
Larry: The day before (April 1) we performed at the huge, cavernous Miami Convention Center, opening for The Beach Boys. It was a lousy place for a small and intimate band like ours. How could a song like “She’s Got A Way”, really reach the audience? It was a mismatch venue wise. But I do understand the need to expand and test the waters…
Once we landed at San Juan Airport, I remember noticing a local girl there, and somehow gave her the number to The Cerromar Beach Hotel, where we were staying. God! was she gorgeous. I had and still have a weakness for Spanish/Hispanic women… We then took a very small plane to Dorado Beach, where the hotel was located and then checked in. Alan (our guitarist) and I roomed together and within minutes Ivi Munez. the girl that I had met 40 minutes earlier called. I asked her to come to backstage area of the festival grounds to arrange a backstage pass.
Meanwhile back at Dorado Beach, we traveled by car to a helicopter strip to take us to Mar Y Sol but we had to do the flight three at a time. I remember getting in first with my big Fender Bass (in it’s case) with drummer Rhys Clark and Billy Joel.
It was the first time for me being in a copter, and I remember the door that I was rubbing up against was not too secure but the view was amazing…and swooping into the area was just overwhelming to see the thousands of people gathered there in one seemingly unsafe place.
There was a huge “WOODSTOCK” vibe to it. but with palm trees and real mountains as opposed to Woodstocks’ gentile foliage and hills.
Reniet: Last time we spoke you mentioned something about people’s reaction to Billy Joel’s band performance. Tell me more about it.
Larry: Well, we were slightly unsure what they’d think. really. Up until that point, we were a very folky, intimate, cerebrally provoking act. Nothing too fancy, very simple four piece band, Thinking back on it now, I think we should have had one more band member to fill things out and make the sound match the Cold Spring Harbor record, but that would have complicated the expenses for the record/management companies. We knew when we saw that crowd we had to toughen our set, but we were not prepared to do that with songs like Travelin’ Prayer, etc. But….somehow whatever we played that day, they loved….everything worked. And even though we sounded nothing like the bands that were scheduled to perform. somehow that in itself, set us apart from the others.
Song after song, our momentum built, and by the time we were at our last song, the crowd was ready for more.
The last song that day and everyday was ‘Tomorrow Is Today’, which on that day was really outstanding. But when we finished that song, they didn’t want us to leave, and so we had to resort to a harder styled cover song with Billy doing a fine impersonation of Joe Cocker, singing ‘The Letter’ with piano chops and Cockers’ gyrations as well! After that I ran off the stage to smoke a joint and our manager told me we had another encore, and so this is where the audio picks up the story, where he got his then girlfriend Elizabeth and road manager/sound person Brian Ruggles to sing back ground vocals. Then he remembers to introduce the band: “Oh and on the drums that’s Rhys, on the bass that’s Larry, on the guitar, that’s Al, and I’m Billy Joel if you didn’t catch the name”. and then goes into the best version I have ever heard of ‘Jumping Jack Flash’. His vocal range was unbelievable—truly amazing, but then again, he was only 22 at the time.
Reniet: I know this gig happened early in Billy Joel’s career. How long have you guys been playing before this?
Larry: It was a three month process putting this band together. To put the record straight (and it has never been addressed) we were the band that launched his solo career–period!
I was the first to be auditioned around August-September 1971, at Baggies Rehearsal Studios in Manhattan and then we moved auditions to a Long Island recording studio called Ultrasonic where we started auditioning drummers and guitarists for over two months.
This actually took a long time because the record company was not paying the musicians, they barely had money for food expenses for us, or at least unwilling to do what should have been expected of them. But at that time, I didn’t care, I felt that Billy had a good shot at making it, and money could be in the future, it was, but not for me. I have cried over this for years, but opt now to not, because, I was taught by my Mom that there is a reason for everything…and my life is far from over, meaning there is a tomorrow and life still goes on.
After we gave up hope to find a decent drummer in NYC for Billy’s new band, they decided to get Rhys Clark, the drummer that played on the Cold Spring Harbor LP, I was so glad for that decision. Then we found our guitarist Al, a very young 17 years phenom, who sounded like Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page and Hendrix rolled into one! He also looked like Mick Taylor from The Stones.
Our first show was a ‘live’ radio show from Ultrasonic Studios (where we rehearsed) and was broadcast on WLIR-FM radio. It was truly Billy Joel’s ‘first’ gig. After that we performed a week of shows in Greenwich Village at The Gaslight Au Go Go (where Dylan used to play) and yet another three days at My Fathers’ Place, another well known spot on Long Island.
By the time we performed at Mar Y Sol, it had been 4 or 5 months of touring college towns on the East Coast, again……and that was after we all moved out to L.A. in January 1972, to be closer to the record/management company—boy, was that culture shock!!!.
We also performed in Los Angeles at The Troubadour, (yet another very famous venue of the time) still during a tour schedule which was done so scattered, which flew us around the country in a crisscrossed, uncoordinated, ‘grabbing at straws’ manner.
But in closing, at the point and on the day that we performed Mar Y Sol, we were ready for anything!
We were always getting multi-encores EVERY show we performed, opening up for major acts of that era, and Mar Y Sol was no exception and we loved it!
Reniet: In several websites I’ve read about how this gig was what really got Billy signed and I’ll quote one of them:
“Columbia records took notice of Billy Joel at the Mar Y Sol Pop Festival in Puerto Rico, which took place on April 1, 1972. Billy played in rainy conditions, and earned some major standing ovations from the crowd”.
– Barry, New York, NC
Unfortunately this is not mentioned in his official website (except that he was signed that year) or any other official sources (that I know of) making this a possible rumor. You were there, what’s the truth?
Larry: Well, at this time, I probably should not comment why Billy does not address the Mar Y Sol or even our band, which to me is confusing, we were a good band, that helped get him signed to his record contract with Columbia….maybe it’s just too many years under the bridge for him. He’s had many successes since then and doesn’t want to go back in time…I understand that, If I were him, maybe I’d be the same.
But……we were there….and we did love him and his music, the great moments getting people to share the secret of his music and talent.
In my heart, I wished that he would just give us and that event some recognition, it was his triumphant moment that set the big wheel in motion for him in his place in history. BTW,for the record, our performance was on Easter Sunday, April 2.
Reniet: You also mentioned that Billy was offered to appear in the LP but he decided not to. Why was that?
Larry: That’s because of a technicality in his contract with his producer, that’s all.
It’s a shame because people would have heard of him sooner and this powerful, historic performance before they heard of ‘Piano Man’. It may have helped sales for ‘Piano Man’ LP as well…
Reniet: After the gig, did you guys stayed there for the rest of the festival or part of it or did you leave right away?
Larry: No, we left immediately. I had friends from NYC travel with us. A great friend named Susan Goldsmith (who I wish I could contact now) was there and somehow rented a car. I grabbed Ivi Munez and took her with me in Susan’s car. Al was with us in the car as well. It took us hours to find our way back to The Cerromar, back in the Dorado area. But I remember driving through some very poor areas in P.R. which saddened me.
People living in shacks, very simple means, very disturbing to me. But we made it safely and Ivi never left my side–Hey! she was on stage for the whole performance, but behind us naturally, in the back behind the drums.
Reniet: Any other memories?
Larry: Yeah, the next day we awoke, Ivi, me and Al!
Poor Al! I made Ivi stay in the same room with Al on the other bed. We were courteous to him and didn’t make love in front of him, I would never do that to anyone, even if I was stoned on pot!
We had breakfast outside in the area where they served us delicious food. Rubbing shoulders with the stars of the day. I arranged a jam session with Jazz Iconic legend Jerry Mulligan to play with us in an outdoor area not to far from where our breakfast was served, in a little alcove. With some persuasion, I managed to borrow band equipment from the J Geils Blues Band for this impromptu session, it all worked out very seamlessly…Billy, Mulligan, the band playing Be-Bop Rock! Very cool
Reniet: Outside the Mar y Sol subject, tell us your story about you and the band: when did you join, why & when where you no longer in the band, etc.
Larry: OK, I will give you the short version:
Billy and I had known each other since 1967 when I was drummer (yes, I said drummer) with a local, slightly successful group called The Age of Reason. The Age of Reason had a record deal with United Artist Records, with a single released, was rated on American Bandstand, and performed on all the major NYC TV shows, and major venues from that era.
We also played early that year at a venue called My House where Billy’s band The Hassles held court. For weeks we opened for The Hassles, thus my relationship (at that time) with Billy Joel, then known in The Hassles as Billy Joe!
Several years later, in 1971 I ran into Billy’s then manager, and a conversation began about Billy’s new LP and that Billy needed to put a band together. I then told his manager that I was now playing bass and was interested in Billy’s new project. Through his manager, I listened to Cold Spring Harbor which hadn’t been released yet. I loved it because it was so Beatles! And that started the ball in motion to become the first in the band to be auditioned.
After 1972 when the record company could not distribute the record units to the cities where we were touring, it became increasingly apparent that this idea of touring was a stupid, and costly one.
After we stopped touring, I went back to NYC after living with Billy, Al, Brian and Bob in a Hollywood Hills house, feet from the famous Hollywood sign. I had to pick up the pieces of my very young life and pay attention to the area of making money. I got another opportunity to play bass with a touring company of the Grammy Award winning rock musical, Godspell. That stint lasted many years, racking in over 1000 performances…until I became very bored playing those very nice songs.. but enough was enough…
Many other profitable and interesting opportunities luckily came my way and I enjoyed my life performing with some really talented well known American icons who enriched me musically.