Renowned jazz/R&B guitarist recalls his work on Peter Criss' 1978 solo abum, meeting Gene Simmons and the New York session scene.
Interview by Tim McPhate
KissFAQ: John, by the time 1978 rolled around, my understanding is that you had been a session musician for more than a decade and had launched a solo career. Can you give us a general outline as to the status of your musical career in 1978?
John Tropea: I guess by '78 I was just finishing up my third album with TK Records. And I was very busy doing record dates and jingles too. I'd started to work with Tommy LiPuma a lot and some of his associates. We did a lot of record dates out of House of Music in West Orange in [New] Jersey. Me and Tommy did [George] Benson's "Weekend In L.A." out there and stuff with my band and a bunch of other bands. And a lot of times we would do horn dates out there and rhythm sections, me and Steve Gadd out there with Will Lee, myself, Deodato, and the late Hugh McCracken.
Courtesy of John Tropea
KF: You have a heavy jazz background. Who do you cite as some of your guitar influences?
JT: In the early days, when I first started playing, I listened to Johnny Smith, Howard Roberts and a Brazilian guitarist named Louis Bonfa, a phenomenal Brazilian classical guitarist. In those days, I'd listen to Tal Farlow and a bunch of other guys. But mainly Johnny Smith. Until I went to college. I met George Benson when I was at Berklee in '64 with Jack McDuff. He was a big influence. Of course, I should mention Wes Montgomery.
KF: Are there any rock players you admire?
JT: Well, you know, it's funny, I wouldn't call myself a rock player but I loved Hendrix. I thought he was absolutely terrific and so cutting-edge in the beginning days. I didn't play like him because R&B and jazz was my niche. Also, at Berklee School of Music, I played R&B. I used to play with the Three Degrees and a bunch of other R&B bands up there, including my own. To me, if you play rock and roll, you've really got to play rock and roll. I've done rock and roll solos, absolutely. And without going into detail, I've fixed other people's solos -- two or three times over the years -- famous rock and roll guitar players. But that's just a craft, to fix a solo. They can't get a hold of them and stuff, you know, in those days they didn't have Pro Tools or anything. So I would go in and take whatever they played and fix it. But to get back to that, I'm not really a rock player. But you tell me what to play, and I'll play it.
KF: So with your education and background, did you enjoy playing sessions outside of the jazz genre?
JT: Oh, yes. First of all, I loved working with Bob Ezrin. We did one record for KISS, I believe, where I even did some of the horn charts too. I also did "Alice Cooper Goes To Hell" with Ezrin. So I don't mean to sound like I didn't play rock and roll. I wouldn't go onstage and play rock and roll, let me put it that way. I was good in the studio with it. But I wasn't really one of those dancing around rock players. But I love playing [with] overdrive, roots and fifth and stuff like that, and supporting the whole rock band syndrome.
KF: How did you come to get the invitation to work on Peter Criss' solo album?
JT: Well, I'm pretty sure that we all got the invitation -- [Allan] Schwartzberg, Jimmy Maelen, myself, and Neil [Jason] -- is because we worked with Ezrin on other stuff. I mean that would be the reason why I would be on that record. I didn't know Peter Criss except for the stuff I did with Ezrin. That would be the connection.
KF: I'm thinking it would have likely been Sean Delaney who oversaw the "Peter Criss" sessions you played on.
JT: Honestly, it's been so long. I get those sessions mixed up with the "Alice Cooper Goes To Hell" record and whatever I did with the KISS record. So I'm a little mixed up with the three dates, the three projects.
KF: It's interesting, I was aware of the Alice Cooper album and of course Peter's album. I don't know that I've seen your name tied to another KISS album.
JT: You know, I could be wrong. I remember speaking a lot with the bass player.
KF: Gene Simmons.
JT: Gene. [It was] at the Record Plant. And we were there for about a week and I remember getting really friendly with him. We would talk for hours in the lobby, in the lounge. And I don't know exactly what the record was that I was doing at the time, maybe if you can dig around. I know I probably didn't play on all the cuts. In those days, that was the case a lot of times. They would call different guitar players in for different songs. And that was the case for Peter Criss' record.
KF: You're credited on three tracks on Peter's album. The album was recorded at Electric Lady in New York and at Sunset Sound in Los Angeles. You probably would have been at the New York sessions, which I believe was headed by Sean?
JT: Yeah, I was at Electric Lady.
KF: Do you remember meeting Peter at all?
JT: I know I met him. I don't remember too much about him. I remember more about Gene. I remember that Peter was a very nice guy, and so was Gene for that matter. They were all very nice. You know, you have to understand, we were doing 10 to 15 record dates a week, working from 10 in the morning to 2 in the morning.
KF: I totally understand. For the purposes of this retrospective, these albums are being put back in the spotlight. But for musicians such as yourself, it was just another session.
JT: Well, you know, I don't mean to make it sound like it wasn't a big deal. It was a nice shot in the arm to say that you played with Gene Simmons or Alice Cooper or Ezrin and Peter Criss. Those are among the higher-level dates. And then there were a lot of dates when I wouldn't even meet the artist. I mean, when I played on "2001" I didn't even know it was me playing the solo when I heard the record on the radio, until I realized, "Wow, that's me." I only remember the rhythm section playing. Everything was done in pieces in those days.
KF: Peter's solo album draws heavily upon R&B and traditional rock and roll flavors. And of course, KISS are very much straight-ahead hard rock. Do you recall that the material on this project reflecting a different direction than KISS' typical musical blueprint?
JT: Oh, I absolutely was aware of that. I mean, playing acoustic guitar on Peter Criss' record definitely takes it out of a hard rock kind of thing. It was definitely understood that it was not the same thing as a KISS record. It was his solo album. Today, we would call it a vanity project. But not a vanity project that's vanity like, but for somebody who's a star.
KF: You've mentioned some of the other musicians on the tracks you played on were drummer Allan Schwartzberg and bassist Neil Jason. At these session, I believe there was also guitarist Elliott Randall, and pianist Richard T. Bear. Do you recall tracking with the band live? Or were your parts an overdub situation?
JT: As I remember, I think it was Elliott and myself together with the rhythm section. There may have been a day when we went in and either fixed guitars or did some acoustics on top of what we did. I'm sure there was a day like that because we usually did the rhythm section first with the percussion and then we would sweeten it with any additional guitar solos, doubling and whatever.
KF: And of course, Peter Criss is a drummer but he didn't play on these particular songs. Do you remember that striking you as odd?
JT: Nah, not really. I just viewed it as this big star group and everybody was doing their own solo record. And Peter had not only played great drums, he was a nice singer. I just thought it was the evolution of that kind of a situation, much like when I was with Deodato and I did my own solo album.
KF: Generally speaking, can you give us a snapshot as to how you would have formulated your guitar parts? Did you have a free reign to play? Or was a direction discussed?
JT: Most of the time, with a thing like that, there was nothing really written but chords. And it was discussed with the producer and if there was an arranger. When you worked with Bob Ezrin, Bob never really wrote anything down but he had a pretty clear idea of what he wanted. He'd say, "I want power chords over here. And Tropea I want you to do a solo over here." And that was the same with the Criss record. Nothing was written except for chords, but there was communication between the producer and the guitarist. And Elliott and I would work out parts. We always had a nice knack of working together. There were a few guitar players on the New York scene and we were really good at not overstepping each other's boundaries and really working together for the sake of the record.
KF: Steve Lukather, one of L.A.'s top session players, is also on Peter's album. Obviously, there are some really talented players on this record.
JT: Yeah, I love Steve. He's great.
KF: You recalled playing some acoustic. In terms of your gear, would you remember the guitars and amp you were using for sessions in those days?
JT: I think, if I remember correctly, I played a 12-string on it. I think I blew a high string. Other than that, I played a Fender Tele and I had my own pedal rack. Most of the times in the '70s, most of the gear I used was MXR, like an overdrive and a phaser and a compressor. Today, I pretty much use the same, except it's Boss.
KF: Boss make some great workmanlike pedals.
JT: Yeah, they're really good.
KF: John, I sent you the three tracks you played on: "I Can't Stop The Rain," "Easy Thing" and "Rock Me Baby." In listening back to these tracks 35 years later, what's your take?
JT: My first impression is thet're really good. I think going into digital recording today, they really had a nice production. Everything was good. I was proud to be on it.
KF: Peter's album takes a lot of heat with KISS fans given it was outside the standard KISS fare. And to be candid, some fans simply think Peter's album is lackluster. In listening to these tracks, do you hear anything deficient from a musical perspective to your ears?
JT: I really didn't get that far into it. I would have to listen to the whole album and evaluate it that way. But nothing jumped out at me that it was lacking. Is it the best album with the best choice songs in the world? I just thought it was a successful drummer with a successful group coming out and doing some of his songs and some of the things he wanted to do as a solo artist. And it was his first record. I don't know how many records he did after that.
KF: After he left the group in 1980, he did two. And in more recent years, he had an album in 2007. KISS releasing four simultaneous solo albums caused quite the stir in the music industry in 1978. You alluded to this earlier, but did playing on a KISS member's solo album seem like a big gig for you at the time?
JT: I played on other sessions that were a bigger deal, absolutely. And when I say bigger deal, it's because I like their music better. Like when I played on Claus Ogerman's record with Michael Brecker. Or when I overdubbed on Sanborn's record. That was more in line with what I did. But I was always proud of the fact that I worked with KISS, and Alice Cooper and Bob Ezrin. It was one of the compartments that I was proud of. I did a lot different things. I was playing on those rock and roll records, then I was playing on "Everybody Plays A Fool," which was R&B. Most of my records that I played on in those days, I would say 70 percent, was R&B. Then I'd find myself on jazz records -- Ron Carter's record and Hubert Laws and Billy Cobham. It was kind of overwhelming to be able to get calls to play on so many different styles of music, with these guys that were heavyweights. So to answer your question, I'm very proud of the fact that I worked with Peter Criss, and KISS and Ezrin.
Courtesy of John Tropea
KF: You started playing guitar at age 12 and went on to study at Berklee College of Music in Boston. With musicians, there is the age old debate of self-taught musicians vs. formally trained musicians. Are you a proponent of formal training and taking lessons?
JT: Well, first of all, when I was 12 years old, I went to New York and took three [private] lessons a week from one teacher, Giovanni Vicari. I think it's a combination of everything. From the first week I was up at Berklee, I was playing seven nights a week with R&B groups and some jazz groups, but mostly R&B. So I don't think it's just one thing, unless you're just aspiring to be a classical guitarist. Just being self-taught is not the only way to go. Although, if you look at George Benson, he really is a phenomenal self-taught guitarist who doesn't read a note of music. But he's one in 10,000. So I think you need to study with a teacher, it's good to go to school and it's good to play out live -- a combination of those three things is my way of thinking. And when I was 12 years old, I have to say, I always wanted to be the guy in the studio recording with the artist. I set out to do at 12 years old what I did my entire career.
John Tropea - "Long and Winding Road"
KF: Fantastic. You obviously made that happen. In terms of your recent solo activity, you released a studio album, "Take Me Back To The Ol' School," in 2007. This album contains a beautiful rendition of the Beatles' "The Long And Winding Road," featuring Lalah Hathaway on vocals. You play some beautiful guitar lines in this cover. How did you go about arranging this version?
JT: Well that record was co-produced by me and Will Lee. Me and Will developed the arrangements together. The credit goes to both of us. I'm very proud of that record. I'm working on my 13th album right now. I did a video with Chris Palmaro called "Boulevard Strut."
Tropea / Palmaro Project - "Boulevard Strut"
KF: That came out last year?
JT: Yeah, in 2012. That's going to be on the new album and the title is "Got Your Rhythm Right Here." It's really heavily emphasizing rhythm playing, although I solo too.
KF: Is there a tentative release date?
JT: Hopefully it will be done by the end of the summer. [I've been] on the road with the Blues Brothers. [I'm hoping] to finish it up in August, depending on my schedule.
Courtesy of John Tropea
KF: Aside from touring and your new album, do you still do a lot of session gigs?
JT: Well, I'm not the 25-year-old hotshot session player anymore (laughs). The business has changed all around. People send me MP3 tracks to solo and I send them out. Like the last Deodato record, I did my solos out of my own studio. I never played with any other musicians. It's just changed. There's still dates that are going on, of course. But I don't do as many as I used to, none of us do.
KF: So it's more of a virtual session scene.
JT: Exactly, yes. Although, I'm doing this new record live. The new record is with a rhythm section. We actually have the whole thing simmarranged. As soon as we do the rhythm track, the horns come in, like the old days. Because it's a different thing when you sit next to an organ player and a drummer and a bass player and you develop the recording that way.
(KissFAQ thanks John Tropea for his time and contribution to Back In The Solo Album Groove, our 35th anniversary retrospective dedicated to the 1978 KISS solo albums.)
About John Tropea:
A musician's musician, John Tropea is one of the most admired and highly regarded guitar players of his generation. With the ability to play in a variety of styles, Tropea has written for and collaborated with major recording artists from around the world. His resume includes his own solo career and work with Deodato, Laura Nyro, Harry Chapin, Paul Simon, Alice Cooper Eric Clapton, Dr. John, and many others. His credits on Peter Criss' 1978 solo album are guitar on the tracks "Easy Thing," "Rock Me, Baby" and "I Can't Stop The Rain." Tropea began his guitar studies at age 12 and went on to Berklee School of Music in Boston, where he studied jazz guitar, harmony, composition, and big band arranging. He is currently working on his latest solo album, "Got Your Rhythm Right Here," which is set for release in 2013. Learn more about Tropea at his official website or on Facebook.