Back In The Solo Album Groove With Ben D. Bollinger
In an exclusive interview, founder of the Citrus College Singers details his involvement on Gene Simmons' 1978 album and recounts a "first-class" experience for his students.
Interview by Tim McPhate
KissFAQ: Ben, you founded the Azusa Citrus College Singers in 1968. What was your purpose in founding the group?
Ben D. Bollinger: Well, when I started, I went to USC as an opera major and I left USC and I went to Ramona High School in Riverside for six years. And then I came to Citrus. And you have to remember Tim, I never ever ever touched a pop piece of music. I was all about classical music and opera. And I transferred to Citrus and I realized in building the program that I couldn't build it purely on a classical base. In other words, if we wanted to travel around the world and compete internationally, I had to find a way to raise money with these young people. And so we started doing a tremendous amount of Christmas concerts in all of the major venues in L.A. If you check any of the major venues from the clubs to the finest country clubs, the Citrus Singers did their Christmas show. So, to answer your question, we set out, of course, to create a great music department at Citrus College and ended up realizing we had to take some side trips along the way in order to fund and support that program.
Ben D. Bollinger
Courtesy of Ben D. Bollinger
KF: And moving ahead one decade later to 1978 and the natural question: How did you come to receive an invitation to participate on Gene Simmons' solo album?
BDB: Well, it's really interesting how this happened. I was doing a lot of television work and a lot of studio work and I had a dear friend in Cher. Gene ended up living with Cher for a period of time. And he asked me if I would bring my singers in 1978 to celebrate her birthday at the Beverly Hills Hotel on Sunset Boulevard. And I told him, "Sure, I'd be happy to." And she loved a song called "If." And I had a brilliant young singer by the name of John Cavazos, and the group was excellent at the time. And we went out and sang for Cher and got to meet her and spend some time with Gene. And I got a call that afternoon, "Look, would you be interested in doing my solo album?" And I said, "Gene, I don't know." I liked him -- by the way, as you know, the image these guys portray is not normally who they are. For example, Alice Cooper married one of my Citrus singers, Sheryl Goddard. For the parents of these young people to see these singers around these kind of people -- like Alice had snakes all around him -- they didn't know what to think about it. And as you know, that group didn't let anybody see who they were. They wore outfits and [makeup].
KF: That's right.
BDB: A lot of my parents were concerned that I was doing this. But I told them, "Believe me, Gene was an educator at one time and he's a really good guy." So anyway, I ended up telling Gene, "OK, I'll go do it." Well, the thing to understand about background singing is nothing is written out. And when you go to the studio, you have to have extremely talented people that will listen carefully and will back up what Gene wanted done. And he just loved the first two numbers we did. He was just thrilled to death. So we came back the second day and did "When You Wish Upon A Star." And I don't think Gene has a great voice, but he probably sang on that as well as he can sing. And the track behind him was really quite excellent. And I'll also tell you that KISS hired really excellent people from the Los Angeles area, the instrumental people. They didn't spare a nickel on those albums. Cherokee Studios is where we did the work. Grace Slick and [the band] Queen were in the studio with us there. So the kids got to meet a lot of these professional groups. They learned tremendously during that three-day period, a lot about the recording studio and about the recording engineers.
KF: It sounds like an amazing experience for a college choir.
BDB: If you go back and research Citrus, we were much more than a college choir. We won international competitions in Austria and around the world as a college choir. But also we did a string show that was all pop and we did a Christmas show that had performances sold-out, 1,500 [people] a performance. So this group was far beyond the average college group. You could not hire them three years out. That's how booked they were. So Gene recognized the fact that here's a group with some brilliantly talented people, people now that are in the industry making a living with music. So I think it's maybe the wrong approach to say choir. They were a choral program when they went to Europe. And they were a pop program when they went to Hawaii, Japan and other parts of the world.
KF: I understand completely. [Editor's Note: Gene Simmons credited the group as the Azusa Citrus College Choir on his album.] Can you describe how the ensemble's vocal parts were formulated? Did Gene play the tracks and describe what he was looking for?
BDB: I think it's really important to understand the whole process of background singers. You know, it would take me two hours to explain to you that all of those pop guys from Britain and throughout the world were looking basically for the black choral response. They wanted something that was really a soul and spirit; they wanted something that "responded" and they wanted good voices behind them. And today, I'm sure you're aware, they can sing any note they want to sing and they can use the tuner and bring it into tune. That was not the case at all with us. Gene would sing a phrase and say, "Look, can you back this?" And we would stop for a minute and we'd say, "How about a three-part female sound Gene? Listen to this." And then he'd say, "No, I think I'd like to have..." And then we'd put tenors in the high register in with it and mix it. And in those days, the sound was maybe not as quite as "forward." The recording technique was to somewhat bury the background. Certain groups actually brought it forward -- you'd get a different sound. The mix is so very important. Now the guy that mixed for Queen was the guy who was mixing for Gene's material that night.
Ben D. Bollinger
Courtesy of Ben D. Bollinger
KF: That would have been Mike Stone.
BDB: Yes. And he was wonderful to the kids. He explained everything he was doing. If you listen to the recording with Gene, there's not a lot of bass in it. In other words, he wanted that kind of gospel, high-tenor mix with the female voices. So you get that kind of response, except for "When You Wish Upon A Star." What we went back to was a pretty straight tone emulating the Disney quality. I have to tell you, in all honesty, the great thing about that group in '78 was you told them what you wanted and they gave it to you. If we wished, we could have done many, many, many [recordings]. We got many requests after Gene to do background work but we didn't because we knew we were taking jobs away from people.
KF: Would you say this group in 1978 was the finest you had during your career?
BDB: That would be hard to say. They would be amongst the finest. I had some magnificent groups and brilliant voices so I would be afraid to say it was the best. But I would say that many of the young people in that group went out to Broadway and to New York and became major talents.
KF: Ben, you are credited as the director of the ensemble on the album. You're there in the studio, with your students and with Gene. Can you give us an outline of your role in that setting?
BDB: My role is somewhat passive because when I went in, I was going to conduct "When You Wish Upon A Star," and I realized that with Gene and with Ace and with those guys, they're not a real disciplined [band]. These guys kind of operate on their own battery, you know what I mean? And they wouldn't be doing anything and we'd be sitting around doing nothing. And then they'd come down from upstairs and say, "OK. Here's what we're going to do. Let's try this and let's try that." There's no question that Gene was the key to the whole thing. And he treated the kids first-class. Anything they wanted, it was there for them. So basically what I became was a surrogate to what Gene asked me to do. If the group was setting up an up-tempo set, I would just kind of roam back -- not so much conduct -- but roam back in and listen in and hear if the part singing was being done in a manner that was acceptable to me. And in every case it was. To be honest with you, and I'll be very frank, I think maybe a lot of those kids knew more about that genre, about that music, than I did. I used to tell them, "I know what I'm doing when it comes to Brahms and Shostakovich and instrumental or vocal, but when it comes to pop music a lot of you kids are way ahead of me so let's not play games."
KF: (laughs) Ben, I sent you the tracks that feature the ensemble. In listening to them some 35 years later, what are your thoughts?
BDB: I listened to all three of them. I haven't heard them for probably five years. But I listened to them and I'm still very pleased. In other words, what we got out of that recording, was exactly what Gene wanted to get out of it.
KF: You just described Gene treating the students "first class," so this was a positive educational experience and Gene interacted well with them?
BDB: Yes, he really did. And it's really interesting, they had read a lot of things about Gene [and KISS] -- you know, maybe they were anti-Christian or anti-this or anti-that, and had sexual innuendos [in their songs]. And I said, "Listen, don't ever judge anybody in this industry until you meet them and see what you think." Because I used Alice Cooper as an example. Alice Cooper married a Baptist minister's daughter. Was he satanic because he had snakes crawling all around him? Well no, of course not. He was an extremely bright businessman. I met him and he's a very sharp guy. Well, with Gene Simmons, the kids got to meet him and evaluate for themselves what kind of man he was. And he treated them with respect. He was a class act. He was fun -- all the guys were fun. The kids got to see them without their masks on. The biggest mistake I made in the whole thing was I put my name on the album. I should have never done that.
KF: Yes, you are indeed credited on the album.
BDB: Yeah, I shouldn't have done it because then kids started calling me from all over the country and I had to change my phone number.
KF: And here it is, all these years later and I'm calling you again (laughs).
BDB: Well, it's incredible. I did a lot of albums and never used my own name; I used a pseudonym. In this one, I just thought, "Well, with my friendship with Cher and knowing Gene at that time, I will go ahead and use it." And I shouldn't have.
KF: So a bunch of KISS fans were calling you?
BDB: The kids would call at all times of the night, from all over the country -- in New York, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh -- saying, "What do they look like? What are they like? What kind of guys are they?" At first, I tried to be nice but then I had to change my number.
KF: Ben, did you or the school get compensated for the work?
BDB: They made a contribution to the foundation. I refused to accept any money for it. The kids knew going in that they would not be paid for it. I did not want them paid for it. But he made a contribution to the foundation, which helped them in their travel. And we often did that because we didn't want to get the kids in a position where they were taking money from background singers that would have only gotten that wage. We worked at a lot of studios. It was an amazing time and I had to kind of cut it off after this because we did this album and you can end up doing an awful lot of that work and it's one experience the kids should have in college, but it's not the only one they should have.
KF: So there were some other pop/rock recordings that you were featured on?
BDB: I was, but I prefer to not go into that. If I did, some of them -- I'm just not very proud of.
KF: But you are proud of your involvement on Gene's album?
BDB: Yes. I was OK with this because I liked the fact that they were all doing solo albums. I liked the fact that Gene was really sharing his soul with people. There was no foolishness to this album. If you listen to "When You Wish Upon A Star," Gene was saying, "Here's who I am."
KF: That's absolutely correct, Ben. Gene has stated that the song meant a lot to him growing up and he was adamant about interpreting it on his solo album.
BDB: He was. And I suggested to him at the time, "What a perfect example," because those Disney sweeteners, we did a lot of that kind of stuff. And it's so simple. You just straighten the tone and sing a four-part structure and bend the rhythm a little bit and that's all you had to do.
KF: The KISS solo albums were hugely promoted when they were released in September 1978. Was the fact that the ensemble was featured on Gene's album heavily publicized around campus?
BDB: No. To be honest with you, if you're a chemistry teacher, an English teacher or a French teacher at a university, you don't get very much recognition. In '73 we were getting tremendous recognition all over the world. And if you said, "Citrus College," they said, "Citrus Singers." And I found it important not to flaunt it or not to say, "Look what we have done." Because we weren't doing this for the college, we were doing this for the students to expand their horizons. It was important for them to have this kind of an experience. When they sat in a classroom, everyday, it was Brahms and Mozart. And now they had to step out and do Gene Simmons. And they realized within the field of music, you have to have an extremely gifted person and be able to do many, many facets in order to make a living with music. And I think they realized that. They realized that in the studio; they realized that in the way they were treated. And by the way, young people recognize when they're being looked down on or whether being respected. And I had the feeling through that entire session that Gene and KISS treated the young people with the utmost respect. And when the students walked out they had a very fine experience.
KF: Sometimes fans don't get to hear these type of stories so I think it's fantastic to learn this. Did you ever interact with Gene after the album was released?
BDB: I'll be honest with you, after that experience, I never had contact with Gene again.
KF: Did you stay in contact with Cher?
BDB: No, I have not. I did meet her at the Hollywood Golden Apple Awards. We did the Hollywood Golden Apple Awards for many years. I did say hello to her but I haven't seen her for many, many years. I know that, [around] this time with Gene, her daughter was just a little beautiful little blonde girl and her mother was also there at the hotel. We had an airplane write "Happy Birthday Cher" in the sky. And on the hotel lawn the singers sang "If a picture paints a thousand words." Remember that piece?
KF: Sure, the Bread song.
BDB: She loved that number and so John sang it to her. We had a nice arrangement. To be honest, it was like a friendship thing. "Would you do this?" "Yes, I'll be happy to do it for you." We met in the night and passed and that was it.
KF: Switching gears, today your family operates the Ben D. Bollinger Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater. Can you tell us about this endeavor?
BDB: Sure. We've been here 28 years and we've had fascinating experiences and we've had tough times like any other business, but it could never exist without my son Mickey and my daughter Mindy. And they're doing better work now, in the last five years, since I retired, than I was ever capable of doing up until that point. So, if you don't mind,
I'd like to turn it over to Mickey and let him explain what they're doing and how they're doing it.
Michael "Mickey" Bollinger: Well, it's interesting, we've always been based around Broadway performances and this whole thing started because of dad's Christmas shows out at Citrus College and that whole concept is what created this. So we started out doing just basically Broadway productions and fine dining and over the years we've morphed into a lot more than that. We've got a summer concert series going on. We have groups that perform plays -- so there's something going on here all the time, in music and theater. And it's been very successful.
KF: And you are located in Claremont, California?
KF: Over a typical week, what type of entertainment does the pavilion feature?
MB: Thursdays through Sunday is when we do our Broadway musicals. And Tuesdays and Wednesdays is when we do our tribute bands, our summer concert series. We also do children's workshops.
Ben D. Bollinger (middle) and family
Courtesy of Ben D. Bollinger
KF: What are some of the Broadway shows you are featuring currently?
MB: We do a little bit of everything. Right now, we're doing "The King And I." We just got through with "The Full Monty." We have "The Sound Of Motown" coming up, which is a show that we've written that showcases all of the great music of Motown. We've also got "Seven Brides For Seven Brothers" and our Christmas show, of course.
KF: How many people does the facility hold?
KF: And this is a family-based business, correct?
BDB: Yes, Mindy's the producer, she's taken my place. And Mickey is the general manager -- he runs the entire facility.
KF: Thanks, Mickey. Ben, one final question. I understand you retired from Citrus College in 2005. And I am aware that the music program has built quite a nice reputation, including cultivating positive relationships with industry organizations such as The Recording Academy. Are you proud of your legacy?
BDB: I am extremely proud. I'm also proud of this experience with Gene. I was dean of the division when Gunnar Eisel and Bob Slack walked into my office and said, "Ben, we want to build a recording arts studio." I almost threw them out physically because I only had two classrooms on that side of the building. And the more I thought about it, I called them in, went up to the president, and [we] decided to do it. Now when I did this, most of the financial support on that campus had to float into that facility. It was very expensive. Well when that happened, the faculty wasn't happy with Ben Bollinger. And we built the recording arts studio that brought some of the top [companies in] -- Universal, Sony -- I could tell you hours of what went on. But I have to say that Bob Slack has done a magnificent job there working with the Grammys. And I have a tremendous sense of pride knowing about the program that I built -- but also the fact that we stepped away from just having just a choir. We built a first-class music program.
(KissFAQ thanks Ben D. Bollinger for his time and contribution to Back In The Solo Album Groove, our 35th anniversary retrospective dedicated to the 1978 KISS solo albums. For more information on the Ben D. Bollinger Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater, please visit their official website or Facebook.)
About Ben D. Bollinger
Internationally renowned and universally admired, the Citrus Singers program was founded in 1968 by Ben D. Bollinger. The mission of the Citrus Singers is "to cultivate, refine, and develop talent, preparing students to ascend to the highest ranks of the music industry." Bollinger, who was also the school's dean of fine and performing arts, retired from Citrus College in 2005. In 1985 he founded the Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater, which offers an array of entertainment from musical productions and children's workshops to a summer concert series. Situated in Claremont, Calif., the pavilion is a family business. Staff members include Bollinger's wife Lois, who is CFO, and his daughter Mindy and son Michael, who serve as assistant producer and general manager/vice president, respectively.