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May 2016

The Long and Winding Road to Success (Part 3): Lenie Colacino, Musician

MostExcellentOrder of Sir Paul.Lenie.Joe_resized

Here is the third and final installment of my three-part interview with musician and voice-over actor, Lenie Colacino, of The Most Excellent Order of Sir Paul – The Ultimate McCartney Concert Experience and an alumnus of Broadway’s Beatlemania!

You can find part one of Lenie’s interview HERE and part two may be found HERE.

*If you have any questions or comments for Lenie or for me, please type it in the box that reads ‘Leave Reply’ at the bottom of this page.*

Starring as Paul in Broadway’s, BEATLEMANIA!, Lenie Colacino is a musician and actor who has toured the world, from New York to New Zealand, and from Brazil to B.B. King’s, in many national and international tours of the Broadway show.

He is the founder of The Cast of Beatlemania, a completely live show that has delighted audiences in the US and Canada, South America, Austria, and Japan. It has been performed for members of the British Royal Family and for US presidents.

He’s also sung and voiced dozens of national ads, including those for Hershey’s, Tropicana, the US Army, as well as for Nickelodeon’s Emmy Award-winning animated series, The Wonder Pets. 

Lenie is also the founder of The Most Excellent Order of Sir Paul, a show completely dedicated to the music of Paul McCartney, rock’s greatest living legend. 

A true left-handed player, Lenie plays a vintage left-handed Hofner violin bass and is an endorsed artist by Hofner.

Over the years, Lenie has shared the stage with such greats as Dion, Billy J. Kramer, Pete Best, Laurence Juber, and many more.  

A recognized expert on the Beach Boys, Lenie contributed to Wouldn’t It Be Nice, Brian Wilson and the Making of the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds by Charles L. Granata

Colacino lives with his wife and their dog, Trooper, in Montclair, New Jersey. His interests include vintage guitars, film, and the New York Yankees.

How do you define success? Do you feel successful?

I think a lot of people see the kind of life that I lead and they think it’s the most glorious thing. I could tell them, “Well, if you’re a dentist, maybe I envy you because you have a steady income. You’re not worrying where your next paycheck is coming from.” I would define success as being happy in your work. Maybe it’s not the most money you’ve ever made. I’ve made a lot more money in my life than I’m making now, but I would define success as being happy in your work. Love what you do. If you don’t, do something else. It’s my mantra, basically, and a lesson I learned many years ago.

And if you take a job, and you have no kick coming, don’t complain. I was into the Dale Carnegie courses and one of the tenets of that philosophy is the three Cs: 1) Don’t criticize, 2) Don’t complain, and 3) Don’t condemn. No one wants to hear criticism. No one. Even if it’s exactly well-placed. Don’t criticize anybody, ever. That’s a tough thing to not do. I try to live by that. And if I have a job, something I live by is give service to the song.

To what do you most attribute your success? You didn’t get the big encouragement at home, growing up. Was it something just within you or something else external?

I credit my [current] wife with giving me a lot of that because I’d stuffed down…the little games you play in your own head…the self-speak, like, “Yeah, you really should get a real job. Look, you have a wife and kids now. You can’t pursue this high school dream anymore.” Once [my ex-wife and I] were divorced and our kids were grown, and I met my eventual second wife, is when I came out of that way of thinking. There is a way you can do what you love and still have a home life and still have balance and be happy.

I think if I chose to give up the musical life for the more secure paycheck kind of life, I’d be miserable. And I was. I know what that feels like. On the other hand, I don’t want to be one of those guys who’s out on the road forever, without any stabilizing home life, which I treasure. I have three beautiful children and four beautiful grandchildren. I don’t want to miss anything in their lives, so I don’t.

So what’s been the biggest career challenge for you, then? Has it been the being away so much and trying to balance the personal and professional? Or has it been something else?

That’s a tough question and I want to answer it as honestly as possible. I think, for me, it depends on what point in my life I’m at. Right now, the biggest challenge is booking as many gigs as I can for my own act. That’s been a real challenge because I want to do that myself. I don’t want to go through the agents and managers because I’ve had bad experiences there.

Earlier, it would’ve been, “Okay, I’ve got 10 weeks at this money,” but I’m looking at my five-year-old children and going, “Ugh.” That’s a tough call. “I’m gonna be where??” I did a tour of New Zealand in 1983. I’ll never forget this because we take it for granted now that communication is very easy. Back then, no internet. The only contact I had with anybody back home, including my parents, my wife, my children, was a phone. It was ridiculously expensive. It was like $20 a minute to call from New Zealand. Their television went off at 3 o’clock in the afternoon. There were no American newspapers. Information was completely at a trickle there. So that was very tough, saying “yes” to that. I remember getting home, finally, after two and a half months of being away. The kids didn’t know who I was. Yeah, I want to avoid that feeling.

Moving on, when I left that band, Ralph, that was a tough thing for me to do because we were very socialistic. We were like Band of Brothers. There were 10 of us. We were like, “We’re more than a band. We’re a community here. No one leaves.” It was very much like a cult, you know? (laughing) When I decided to go, ooh wow, that was a tough decision to make. Moving on…I think…I’m a person who likes to stay. I’m a homebody, but I think you have to shift in order to be successful. You have to adapt. You have to accept that change. You have to embrace it. And sometimes that, to me, is the toughest thing in life.

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So if you had the chance to do your career over again, would you do anything differently?

Oh sure, I’d do a million things differently, but I’ve learned that the worst thing would be to regret anything you’ve done. I have to accept the poor decisions I’ve made, the things I wish I had done differently. I can’t change that. All I can do is learn from it and move on and I think anybody, hopefully, would tell you the same thing. When you’re 20 years old, you’re in no position, I was in no position, to make life-altering decisions for myself. Maybe I didn’t get the best advice. Maybe I made the wrong choices, or followed my heart, or I followed my libido, (laughing), rather than doing the right thing.

What do you see for the future of the music industry? Can a young person now follow your exact path and be successful or do you think they have to go about things very differently?

They have to do things very differently. I think anybody would tell you that. When I was young the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow was the record deal. That has completely disappeared. I mean, that was the way you made money. You wrote songs, you sold your records, and touring was part of what you did. Now, it’s nearly the opposite in that the only real money people make in this business is by performing, by getting your fees, and maybe, if you’re lucky, to sell a few CDs at your gigs or online. The money is way skewed to only performing. Even veteran acts, people I have a tremendous amount of respect for, who’ve been artists for 30, 40 years, are playing the same venues I’m playing with my Beatles band or my solo act. They’re out there doing it and that’s the only way they’re getting by in life or making any money.

For young people coming up, by all means, I certainly would encourage you to follow your talent. If you’re a songwriter, if you’re a singer, then write and sing and do the best you can. I would say avoid managers. (laughing) The two-word phrase is “music business.” Make sure you understand the second word. If you go in naively, which, when I was young it was easier to do because it seemed like an easier path to success. “All I have to do is sing and some manager will come and take care of me and I’ll be rich and beloved. I don’t need to worry about anything.” Well, you do. You need to know what’s going on in every aspect of what you’re doing.

I admire people like Taylor Swift because, apparently, she got that at an early age. Although I don’t own any of her music, I will tell you that I admire her from a business standpoint. She has built this empire and she’s one of the few who makes a living selling records. Very few people do anymore because of the way things have changed — Spotify, and all the downloading, and the free music. You know, right now, I can find anything I want to listen to on YouTube, just about any song I ever wanted to hear, or dreamt of, or it just popped into my head. I don’t need to do much more than click a button somewhere and “boom,” there it is. When I was a kid, if an album was coming out and the release date was this day, I waited in line at the record store with a bunch of other teenagers, then got it and put it on my parents’ record player. I’d wonder what the lyrics were. I couldn’t go online and find them. Things are way, way different, but I would encourage anybody to follow what’s in their heart, because like I said, regret is a terrible thing if you’ve wasted your talent. I think it’s harder now than ever, unfortunately.

Well then, you have shows like American Idol where people think, “I’ll stand in line and do my best and hopefully I’ll get picked and I’ll be on TV and it’ll be great.”

I have to tell you, I have a very big problem with shows like that and never watched a minute of them. To me, they’re for the glorification and pocket-lining of the producers of the shows. If people became stars, they were basically owned by the Simon Cowells of the world, who are the ones that got wealthy, not the singers. I’m sure some of those guys or gals who were on any of those shows are singing in a casino somewhere tonight. I’m sure those people felt, “This is my big break.” It is, but at whose expense? You’re lining the pockets of the people who are producing these shows, not your own. That’s gonna come later if you’re lucky enough to have a career. Or maybe 15 years down the line you’ll decide you want to be a chef. That happens, too.

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What advice do you have for someone, keeping in mind the music and business aspect of things, who wants to break into the industry?

One thing I would say, and I don’t want to seem like I’m pontificating about anything is, if you’re a writer or a singer, find your own place. Find your own style. I know that I suffered from this in the 70s when our manager was putting pressure on us. “You’ve gotta write songs that are popular now. Do you guys know any disco songs?” This was our manager. We wanted to be more like Peter Gabriel and he wanted us to be more like KC and the Sunshine Band. Rather than saying, “Go to hell. I’m gonna write what’s in my heart,” I said, “Yeah, okay. Let’s write a disco song.” That’s a recipe for disaster. Period. Follow what your passion is about. It may be a difficult road, and you may have to do “vocational playing,” but be true to yourself. It may not work out. You may fail, but you won’t have any regrets. You gave it your best shot, what was in your heart to do.

And if you have no ambitions to be a writer, if you just want to be a singer and interpret other people’s songs, well, that’s great, too. Do that. If you take a false step and do something just for the money, I think you’re doing yourself a big disservice and it will just come back to bite you in the ass later on.

What’s next for you? Where do you see yourself in five years?

Well, God bless McCartney. I hope he lives forever, but it’s tough to do this Beatles gig at my age and do it convincingly. (laughing) You’re trying to play someone in their mid-20s, it gets a little harder as you get older. I want to continue with the McCartney thing as long as I can, but as long as he’s alive, he’s at least 10 years older than I am. That’s a big help.

I just want to play. I want to sing. I want to have fun with my friends. The most rewarding thing I’ve done has been this McCartney thing, in that I’ve got a lot of people around me whom I adore. I’ve got Larry Hochman, who is an orchestrator for The Book of Mormon, Something Rotten!, and She Loves Me. He’s a fantastic musician I met through the Wonder Pets episodes. As successful as he is as an orchestrator (his job is sitting there with a pencil in his teeth, looking at 16 bars of music and trying to make it sound good for The Book of Mormon), he loves doing this with me and he loves the aspect of playing live music, because it’s something he doesn’t get to do often. And there’s Joe Pecorino, who was in Beatlemania! with me. He was the original John in the show. He’s since gone on to do other off-Broadway stuff like Hedwig and the Angry Inch. He was the music director for that. He’s a fantastically talented guy. My guitarist, Monroe Quinn, has worked with Billy Preston, Micky Dolenz of The Monkees, and Peter Noone of Herman’s Hermits. My drummer, Vinny Grauso, has done work with Beatlestock, The Cast of Beatlemania, and The Alan Quin Orchestra. We all have a great relationship. We’re all good friends. We love playing and have such a good time on stage.

After 40 years of playing in front of audiences, this is the most fun I’ve ever had. It’s because I’ve found the right combination of people who share my common goal, which is just to have fun. When I give them their paychecks at the end of the night they say, “You don’t have to pay me for this. This is fun.” My answer is always, “I can never pay you what you’re worth to me.” I wish everybody could have that experience. That’s what I hope to continue to do. It’s a great feeling to not only have success through booking gigs and have audiences liking what you’re doing, but you happen to be playing with guys you love and respect and they show it right back to you.

The Long and Winding Road to Success (Part 2): Lenie Colacino, Musician

Lenie Colacino, Order of Sir Paul

Here is part two of my three-part interview with musician and voice-over actor, Lenie Colacino, of The Most Excellent Order of Sir Paul – The Ultimate McCartney Concert Experience and an alumnus of Broadway’s Beatlemania!

You can find part one of Lenie’s interview HERE.

*Please check back in or subscribe to my blog to be notified when part three is posted. If you have any questions or comments for Lenie or for me, please type it in the box that reads ‘Leave Reply’ at the bottom of this page.*

Starring as Paul in Broadway’s, BEATLEMANIA!, Lenie Colacino is a musician and actor who has toured the world, from New York to New Zealand, and from Brazil to B.B. King’s, in many national and international tours of the Broadway show.

He is the founder of The Cast of Beatlemania, a completely live show that has delighted audiences in the US and Canada, South America, Austria, and Japan. It has been performed for members of the British Royal Family and for US presidents.

He’s also sung and voiced dozens of national ads, including those for Hershey’s, Tropicana, the US Army, as well as for Nickelodeon’s Emmy Award-winning animated series, The Wonder Pets. 

Lenie is also the founder of The Most Excellent Order of Sir Paul, a show completely dedicated to the music of Paul McCartney, rock’s greatest living legend. 

A true left-handed player, Lenie plays a vintage left-handed Hofner violin bass and is an endorsed artist by Hofner.

Over the years, Lenie has shared the stage with such greats as Dion, Billy J. Kramer, Pete Best, Laurence Juber, and many more.  

A recognized expert on the Beach Boys, Lenie contributed to Wouldn’t It Be Nice, Brian Wilson and the Making of the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds by Charles L. Granata

Colacino lives with his wife and their dog, Trooper, in Montclair, New Jersey. His interests include vintage guitars, film, and the New York Yankees.

How do you feel overall about how your career choice has impacted your life? I’m getting that you feel it’s been mostly positive.

Absolutely. I think if I’d gone the other way and not listened to my true, inner heart on these things, I’d be a very unhappy person. I think I’m one of the happiest people around because I have this. For me, it’s an anchor. Whenever I’m down or feeling that things aren’t going well, I’m very grateful for the fact that I can sit at the piano and play a couple of songs and feel better about things. Music is the best medicine. It allows an outlet for everything — if it’s going wrong or if you’re happy or sad. No matter what mood you’re in, music is always your companion. It’s a tough thing for me to [articulate]. I think other musicians know what I’m talking about. It’s always there. My guitar is always hanging on the wall, within reach.

I think Neil Young put it really well when he said after you get to a certain age, “My guitars don’t belong to me. I’m just using them until the next guy comes along.” That’s kind of the way I feel now. My collection of basses and guitars is going to outlive me, but my obligation to them is to play them. I know a lot of musicians or musician-wannabes who collect instruments and they hang on a wall. If they don’t get played, I think that’s a crime against nature. It’s there for you to play. Whatever gifts you have, you’d better use them. There’s no greater waste than a waste of talent. A lot of my friends are that way. They have a tremendous talent and they just don’t care because maybe their lives are different now or they don’t need the money. To me, I’m grateful that I still depend on this for a living because it spurs me on to keep playing, to keep my music chops up. I think if you let them atrophy, you’re really committing a crime against God. I don’t want to sound too heavy, but God gave you whatever he gave you and it’s your obligation to use those gifts the best you can. It may not be a fantastic gift, but whatever talent you’ve got, I think you’ve got to use it. Regret might be the worst thing you could ever feel.

I think it can give other people so much joy. You got that talent for free. You own it. It helps to give it away because it can make so many other people happy, too. 

I agree 100%. I think all performers or all talented people are basically narcissistic. They want that adulation from the audience. If you ever experience it, it’s something you get very addicted to. It’s like, “Yeah, I want you to love me. I want you to think that everything that comes out of my mouth is fantastic. I think that gives you a certain obligation to your audience in that, “I want this to be great. I’m going to make sure I warm up and do my exercises and make sure I’m not just mailing in my performance.” Every performance you give, you’re giving it your all. Every song you sing, you’d better do justice to, not just breeze through. I think that’s the true essence of it.

Joe Pecorino (left) and Lenie Colacino (right) of The Most Excellent Order of Sir Paul

How did you go about finding a manager? What makes a good manager?

It’s kind of two different things. Sometimes, managers will find you. I’ve gone through four or five managers and I’ve got to say, my managerial experience has not been good.

My first manager was in that early band, Ralph. He was trying to steer us toward a record deal at his company. He basically split the band up. He encouraged me, and believe me, I’m not saying it was a bad thing, to go for that audition in New York for Beatlemania!, and when I left the band it did cause quite a ripple. Although I didn’t think I was an essential member (there were other guys who were more involved in it), when I left it was not under very good circumstances. They were not happy that I left the band. It took me years to repair my relationships with those guys, some of which are still, to this point, very touchy. He also sort of interfered in the Broadway show. He was demanding from the producers that I do this, or I be that. They were very upset with him and me. I had to get rid of him.

I had agents, which are different from managers. They’re supposed to get you work, such as jingles and voice-over work. I had agents that would send me on auditions and I wouldn’t get paid for some of these things. I was hired to do the voice work on the remake of Yellow Submarine. Most people don’t know this was even going on. The director, Robert Zemeckis, was remaking Yellow Submarine. It got squashed in mid-production. I was doing voice-over for the ‘Paul’ character and I was very, very happy about that, that I was going to be the voice of my idol, McCartney. My agent at the time was making it very difficult. Every session I did for these voice-over things he would say, “Where’s my money?” He wanted his 20% of what I was getting paid. It was like, “Can you relax? I’m gonna send you the money.” He made things difficult as far as the chain of command of talking to the directors. I just wanted to do my job. I didn’t want all of this nonsense going on, but eventually the project got scrubbed anyway. It was all about his percentage. He stopped getting me work. Then I stopped doing voice-over work about, I don’t know, five or six years ago. It got very tedious.

So my experience with managers has not been good. Maybe there are advantages out there, but I think you’ll hear the same story from a lot of people. They’re not looking after your best interests, but that’s their schtick, that’s what they say anyway.

But it’s not possible to do things on your own. You pretty much have to have an agent or manager, right?

Well, not at this point. I do a McCartney show now and I still work in The Cast of Beatlemania. We do have agents, but I don’t deal with them.

My own show, The Order of Sir Paul, we do that ourselves. My wife and I book it. We take care of everything, which is a lot of work. If you’re not an agent or someone who’s had experience booking, you can find the going a little tough because venues may only want to work with established managers and agents. I find it much more rewarding to do that ourselves because then we don’t get screwed around.

In my band, The Cast of Beatlemania, which we’ve been doing for a long time, we do work with various agents and management companies, but I’m always the last one to know. What I like about being what they call a ‘sideman’ is, “Okay, here’s the gig. Here’s how much it pays. Can you do it?” I can either say yes or no. If I say ‘yes,’ then I have no kick coming about what I’m being paid or the circumstances of the gig, because I agreed to it. My attitude is, “Okay, that’s the gig. That’s what I’m going to do. Thank you very much. I’ll do my best.” I don’t have all the headaches of arranging the rooms, of arranging the equipment rentals, and everything else that goes into making your own gig work. Do I have enough PA for this venue? How are tickets going? Have I done enough promotion? I understand how that works and I’m on both sides of it.

 

What is a typical day like for you now? How different is it from what it was 10 or 15 years ago?

When I’m working a day job, and I’ve been doing that on and off as well, a typical day would be like today, although I’m talking to you. I’m going to take my dog for a walk. I try to get in at least an hour of playing if I’m not gigging. I have to take care of myself. I try to run every day. I try to eat healthy. Being physical, taking care of myself, warming up. I’ve been a bit lax about this, too, but I have these various vocal exercises I try to do. Sometimes you need to take a few days off from doing it because gigs can wear your voice out. I have to say it isn’t easier as I get older to sing the high parts that came a little easier in my 20s. You really have to take care of the instrument.

If I am working, that’s a whole preparation thing. Usually, if I’m getting on a plane, or I have a gig I’m driving to, that day starts really early. If it’s an 8:00 p.m. performance, usually I have to be on site by two or three in the afternoon. There are long sound checks. We have costumes, wigs, if I’m doing a Beatles gig, makeup, all these preparations that go into [it]. Then, finally, the gig happens. After the gig, usually you have this nice spent feeling if the gig goes well. Maybe you’re at the bar with the fellas for a drink or two, then you’re in a hotel room. Then you’re waking up and driving someplace else. The day starts over again, depending upon how many gigs you have that week. Sometimes you’re on a ferry. Sometimes you’re in an airplane. It varies, which is part of the thing that I think is attractive. You don’t want it to be a routine.

I still like the adventure. When I was younger, I wanted to see the world. “I want to see what Michigan looks like.” Okay, now that you’ve done that, the wanderlust feeling gets satisfied. For me it did, anyway. Some people I know are still out there doing it, like “I can’t wait to get to North Dakota.” I’ll say, “Well, I’ve been there, done that. I don’t need to go again.” That’s my own feeling on that. I’m atypical that way. I’m not like the average guys, who are living the teenage life still, in their 60s. I know a bunch of guys like that. I won’t mention any names. They’re dear friends of mine. I’m like, “Ok, good for you. I’m gonna be home as much as I can.”

As far as balancing your professional life and your private life, I imagine you find it easier now than when you were first starting out. And you mentioned a day job — that’s not the Beatlemania or Sir Paul thing?

Right. I had worked for the various cable companies for 20+ years on and off, currently off, but my main gig had been as an instructor. Because of my theatrical background, I found it kind of easy to get up in front of people and talk to them about what their jobs are going to be like, sort of like a motivational speaker. My wife tells me I should do that for a living, rather than music, but it’s not my passion, for sure. I found that an easy thing to do and as I worked for companies, if I needed to take time off I would do that and do gigs. I’ve found a pretty good balance there. I was lucky. If I did five or six gigs a month that was enough. It still is enough for me. I don’t want to be full-time, on the road.

There’s a Beatles band called Rain, which some of my friends are still in. Those guys are out there maybe six weeks at a time and then they’re off two months. I can’t do that. I’ve got to be around the northeast. I can’t take a week in British Columbia and then go on to northern Canada, then Saskatoon. I can’t do that and I won’t, even if the money was unbelievable, which it isn’t. I think a lot of these guys are playing because they love to do it or they love the glory aspect of it.

I loved getting up in front of an audience every night, which is very addictive, I gotta tell you. Even if it’s a little audience of 10 people or 10,000, I’ve been there on both sides of that. I know what that feels like. I don’t want to seem like I’m putting those guys down. It’s just not for me.

The Long and Winding Road to Success (Part 1): Lenie Colacino, Musician

lenie_violinbassI’m happy to be presenting for my readers the first of a three-part interview I had with seasoned musician, Lenie Colacino, of The Most Excellent Order of Sir Paul – The Ultimate McCartney Concert Experience and an alumnus of Broadway’s Beatlemania!

A mutual acquaintance connected me with Lenie via Facebook, where he graciously agreed to grant me an interview. Lenie was very generous with his time and chatted with me by phone to tell me all about his career journey. He talks honestly and humbly of the ups and downs he’s experienced over the past 30+ years. He offers his wisdom and advice to aspiring musicians and provides fascinating insight into the music industry. He shares so much great information, in fact, that I couldn’t fit it all into one or even two blog posts, so this interview will be published in three parts over as many weeks.

*Please check back in or subscribe to my blog to be notified when parts two and three are posted. If you have any questions or comments for Lenie or for me, please type it in the box that reads ‘Leave Reply’ at the bottom of this page.*

Starring as Paul in Broadway’s, BEATLEMANIA!, Lenie Colacino is a musician and actor who has toured the world, from New York to New Zealand, and from Brazil to B.B. King’s, in many national and international tours of the Broadway show.

He is the founder of The Cast of Beatlemania, a completely live show that has delighted audiences in the US and Canada, South America, Austria, and Japan. It has been performed for members of the British Royal Family and for US presidents.

He’s also sung and voiced dozens of national ads, including those for Hershey’s, Tropicana, the US Army, as well as for Nickelodeon’s Emmy Award-winning animated series, The Wonder Pets. 

Lenie is also the founder of The Most Excellent Order of Sir Paul, a show completely dedicated to the music of Paul McCartney, rock’s greatest living legend. 

A true left-handed player, Lenie plays a vintage left-handed Hofner violin bass and is an endorsed artist by Hofner.

Over the years, Lenie has shared the stage with such greats as Dion, Billy J. Kramer, Pete Best, Laurence Juber, and many more.  

A recognized expert on the Beach Boys, Lenie contributed to Wouldn’t It Be Nice, Brian Wilson and the Making of the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds by Charles L. Granata

Colacino lives with his wife and their dog, Trooper, in Montclair, New Jersey. His interests include vintage guitars, film, and the New York Yankees.

Let’s start with you telling us more about yourself, where you grew up, how you got exposed to music.

The first seven years of my life, I grew up in Brooklyn, NY. Then my mom and dad emigrated out to Long Island in about 1960 or so. Music was always a part of the household. My mom and dad were not musicians themselves, but they loved music. The record player was always going. I think my first inclination to get into that life was the influence of the music they loved to listen to.

I always had a musical ear. My first musical experience was in the sixth grade, because I was selected to play a role in an operetta, HMS Pinafore, by Gilbert and Sullivan. I discovered I had a singing voice at that time. I wasn’t considered a prodigy, but it was considered kind of unusual that I had a pretty good musical ear at an early age. I loved to sing. I sang at all sorts of school functions.

Then I think everything changed, as it did for a lot of people my age, when the Beatles came along. Pop music went from the Frankie Avalons of the world to the more rock and roll type-singing. I caught the bug like millions of other kids my age. That’s what started me on a career in music, actually.

So, from that point was it kind of an epiphany for you, like, “This is what I want to do for the rest of my life?” Or was it just sort of a hobby for you at the time? 

No, it was the former. This is what I want to do with the rest of my life. When you’re that young you…well…I had no idea what it really meant to do that. I think I had the fantasy that, “Well, this is the easiest life anybody could ever imagine. I get to sing for a living? Let me do that. Let me get a guitar and all the girls will love me and I’ll be rich.” You know, that common fantasy that every school boy had, I imagine. It took me many years to discover that’s not exactly how it goes.

I must say, though, the thrill of it, the idea of that lifestyle was very seductive. I think when you’re in with a bunch of friends or you join high school bands, they all have the same sort of feeling about where their lives are going to go. Some, like you said, think, “Well, this is just something I’ll do for a little while before I become a dentist.” There were those guys, but for me it was always, “No. This is what I want to do. This is what I’m going to do, come hell or high water.”

Were your parents encouraging?

No, as a matter of fact, they were very discouraging. Maybe that was a factor in my determination. As a parent and a grandparent myself, I certainly understand where they were [coming from]. They were Italian immigrants and my father was an incredibly hard-working fella. He didn’t want his son to be what I wanted to be. He wanted me to be what he was and more successful. He wanted a better life for me and he thought this was the road to ruin. I don’t blame him. It’s not like I have resentment for that. In fact, I respect it because I understand what he wanted for me was good, but he didn’t really understand the passion in it. I think there are a lot of people who don’t understand that passion, that drive. “Why don’t you get a real job?” is what I always heard from both my parents forever.

[My parents] did have some pride with me. We did many concerts where they lived and my mother would always get all of her elderly friends to come see our shows. She was proud, but not outwardly. It was just her upbringing. They weren’t the gushing, supportive type. They were hard school, grew-up-in-the-Depression Italians.

When was the first time you performed in front of a large, say 500+, audience?

Well, our high school events were really well-attended. There were a bunch of high school bands and we would have these concerts in the gym. They were attended by between 500 and 1,000 people constantly. So my first exposure to an audience that size was in my teens. Those were tough proving grounds. Usually it was one of those battle of the bands type things where you had four or five bands set up in the same gymnasium. You played a few songs, then another band played a few songs, and [the audience] voted.

So, after high school you went to university, correct? 

Mm-hmm, yeah. 

Was music your major?

It was. Actually, I was very involved in the college choir at that time [at Oneonta State College – NY]. My first two or three years of college, I didn’t play in any bands. I’d basically given that up, so I dove into music theory. Singing was always my passion and group singing, too. I love the sound of human voices together, so there was a concert choir in college that I was very involved in. It did some very weighty pieces, like Bach’s B Minor Mass, which we rehearsed for the entire semester. I enjoyed all of that without being in a band. At that point in college I said, “I’m going to get my teaching degree to please my parents or to please some notion of normalcy. I’m going to play the game and get a job,” because it’d been drilled into my head that music was no way to make a living.

I left college in my third year. There were some tapes lying around from a band I had recorded with before I left for college, like two years prior. Someone at Gulf and Western picked up the tapes and it became an album. Then suddenly I needed to get a band together to perform the songs on this album. That was one step where I kind of got jolted back. I thought, “Well, I finally got that record deal.” (I was 21 years old.) “Yeah, life’s gonna be great.”

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Singing is your passion and you play bass guitar. Do you play other instruments, as well?

Yeah, I play the piano and the guitar. Bass is my main instrument, but I found that the guitar and especially the piano were terrific in scoring things out and writing songs. Every song I ever wrote was mostly on the piano because it’s all laid out there. The guitar is a bit more of a negotiation. I have a pretty good foundation as far as theory goes, but piano is a little easier.

I was self-taught, for the most part. I took singing lessons. I’ve seen about five vocal coaches in my lifetime, so that I did study a lot. I took guitar lessons for two or three years with various teachers. I think I learned early on to have a good foundation, a good knowledge of your instrument, whether it’s playing an instrument or singing. It’s essential to what you want to do with it. That doesn’t mean you have to sound like Pavarotti. You can use your voice to sound like whatever you want it to sound like, which led to some of my later work in jingles and voice-over work.

What happened after that record deal in college?

It was pretty disastrous. It was the early 70s and I was living in Manhattan. It was very bohemian. We were playing all these gigs and doing pretty well in support of this record. By the end of that year, the band had basically broken up and no one that we had gotten together wanted to be in it anymore. The gigs were sparse. Money was very, very tight. I couldn’t pay for anything. I was having a really bad time making a living.

Then, my record producer at the time, Michael Wright, may he rest in peace, was engineering for Scepter Records in the 60s and 70s. He knew of this band in Scranton, PA, of all places — a band called Ralph, which was a local legendary band that was looking to replace its guitarist and singer.

[Michael] recommended me for the job. Having no prospects at that point, I took the gig and left the only home I’d known, which was Long Island, NY. I moved to Scranton, PA, which was as depressing as it sounds, but the band was great. I worked with that band for four years. It was a 10-piece band, very sophisticated. We were trying to be a progressive rock band in a time when Yes and Genesis were very popular. I did that for four years, and then I got the call for the Beatlemania show.

Tell us more about that gig. How did that all fall into place?

It’s really weird. The band, Ralph, was doing okay. It was very socialistic. I think we were making about $100 each, but living on a communal property at the top of a mountain, rehearsing all day. It was very early 70s.

I would see TV ads with the original Paul for the show, Mitch Weissman, and I would say, “Wow! They got the right guy. That guy looks just like Paul. I could do that, but they don’t need me. They got this guy.” Then I got a phone call from the aforementioned Michael Wright, who was living in Manhattan. He said, “They’re holding auditions for the next Broadway production of this.” The original cast was going to go on tour and open in Los Angeles. They needed another cast for Manhattan. So I said, “Why not? Let’s give it a shot.”

I remember I walked into the audition and saw a bunch of guys who were not very good. They got through maybe five or six lines of a song before they were told, “Thank you.” I got up there and got through my first song. I had four or five songs prepared. I’d always been a Beatles freak anyway. I realized I was doing well when I didn’t get the hook. As soon as my audition was over, they offered me the job on the spot, so I said, “Yes.” It was quite a shock to me.

For the next year, I did the Broadway show, then [for a few more years] I did national and international tours.  I really got to see the world. We went to 17 or 18 different countries, all over the world, playing this music that I loved to play and still play to this day. I had a great time doing that. It was a fantastic experience, but in my youth or naiveté I didn’t realize that, “This will end. You’d better shift. You’d better prepare for what’s next,” which I never did, as a kid or young adult.

So after five or six years, I found myself without work again. My marriage was in terrible shape. I had two young children, twins. They are now in their late 30s. I wasn’t much of a father or husband. I wasn’t around much. So I decided, “That’s it. I’m going to go into the straight world. I’m going to get a job,” which I did, at a cable company. Very soon after that is when everything fell apart. The marriage fell apart. I was completely miserable being in the straight life. I didn’t like my work. There I was in my mid-30s, very unhappy.

Slowly, but surely, I got back into the work I love. I credit my [current] wife, Barbara, with encouraging me with the “do what you love and the money will follow” theory. I got back into music in a different way. I didn’t want to go on the road again. I wanted to get into jingle and voice-over work, which I found a lot of fun, much easier to do. The work was in New York, right across the river. Even if you got an audition that week, or seven auditions that week, they were paid auditions, so it helped pay the bills.

Luckily, through hard work, I was able to get myself onto what they call ‘finals,’ which are jingles that become commercials. I had a really good run there for several years with jingles for the US Army, Hershey’s chocolate, Tropicana, Folgers, a bunch of national ads. You know all those “Be all that you can be” ads from the 80s and 90s? I sang in a bunch of those, which could’ve been the easiest work I ever did, six seconds of singing. I thought, “This is a good way to make a living.”

Eventually, I got more into doing voice work. Sometimes, when doing the jingle work, you would get called to do the voice-over or ‘doughnuts’ they would call them, which is spoken around the singing part. It might be 10 seconds of saying something like, “Try Tropicana. It’s great!” or whatever the script was. Then I got more into character voices, as well. Then I got more into character voices, as well. I hooked up with the show The Wonder Pets, [worked] with some great composers, and did a bunch of voice-over work for that.

The big thing that happened in the jingle business, however, is that the union (Screen Actors Guild), which I had to join, went on strike. This was, I guess, the mid-90s and at that point the jingle business changed from hiring writers and singers to sing these things to going to what they call ‘needle drops,’ which was finding some record that they liked without hiring a composer or singers. The industry kind of got used to us not working.

Even once the strike was over, we found it very difficult to get work. It came full circle. The only way to make a living in music anymore (there was a brilliant article on this in the New York Times a few weeks ago), except for the elite, like the Taylor Swifts of the world, is to go out and play your music live. Selling records is a thing of the past. Everything’s streamed. It’s easy to get for free. Artists can’t make a living composing and recording anymore. “Keep your chops up,” is the mantra now. Sing as long as you can.

Guys I knew who were making six or seven figures a year in the jingle business are now working in bands. I find that there’s no shame in that. I love it. I still love performing. I have a bunch of gigs coming up this year. It’s basically all that’s left to a lot of guys in my position, that is, who had success, who did records, who did work in jingles, whatever. I’ve sung at weddings and funerals. Whatever the work is, I tend to not turn down anything, just to keep singing. I have a great friend in the business who calls it “vocational playing” — it’s work, you’re getting paid, smile, do the best you can, and move on. Some of these guys play for $30 or $40 a night, guys who’d been in touring bands making thousands and thousands of dollars.

If this is what you love to do, do it. It beats the hell out of your day job, which I’ve been doing and not doing for 30 years. I know the difference. I know a lot of guys who are resentful, who say, “I used to do this or that. I used to make this kind of money and I don’t anymore.” I think, “You guys are nuts. Be grateful for every second you have doing anything that’s not digging a ditch.” That became my very humble philosophy after 30 or 40 years in the business.

Part 2 of Lenie’s interview is now available HERE. Subscribe to my blog or visit my Facebook page for an update on when Part 3 is posted. Thanks for reading!

 

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