Okay, this is a time when one of these ramblings must open with a disclaimer: This FTV is about the band, Mr. Big, but it started out as a musical trivia question posed to me at a local grocery emporium by Dan Bigge. The original question escapes me, but the answer was ‘Mr. Big’. Dan was delighted to hear confirmation that he was indeed correct (apparently there was a good natured debate about a song taking place behind the scenes). We had a good laugh about it because over the years, ‘Mr. Bigge’ (pronounced as ‘Big E’) had become my normal greeting to this former student. On a semi-related note, I will also apologize if I have slipped up and called him ‘Ron’ by mistake. Getting tagged with my brother’s name in my younger years (also a Ron) was slightly irritating, so I do not want to do the same thing to someone else. A third omen pointing me toward an article about Mr. Big showed up in Classic Rock magazine (Issue 293, October 2021). Dave Ling’s interview with two of the three surviving members connected the dots for a band whose 1990s heyday has long since passed. As with all things Classic Rock, this time gap doesn’t mean the band’s surviving members wouldn’t be open to a reunion of some sorts, but it would have to be without original drummer Pat Torpey who developed Parkinson’s Disease and died in 2018. Both founding bassist Billie Sheehan and vocalist Eric Martin discussed the possibility in the CRM article, but each has their own idea of how it would be done if it happened.
Eric Martin’s career as a solo artist in the late 1980s was not lighting the world on fire. Martin had a major-label record deal with Capitol Records but they weren’t excited about the soulful direction his music was taking: “I was down in the dumps because it looked like I was going to be dropped – again. I really didn’t know what I was doing. I liked the records I made, but no one else did.” A call from Shrapnel Records founder and producer Mike Varney changed his career arc. Martin recalls, “Mike told me to pick a team, to be rock or to be soul.” Varney then put bassist Sheehan on the line to pitch a new band he wanted Eric to join. Sheehan was a veteran of Talas and the Yankee Rose era David Lee Roth Band. Martin says, “Although I had seen him in the [David Lee Roth] Yankee Rose video, I didn’t know who he was.” Sheehan said other potential band members included his David Lee Roth bandmate, drummer Gregg Bissonette, and Billy Idol’s guitarist, Steve Stevens.
By the time Mr. Big began working on their self-titled debut album, Torpey was occupying the drum throne and RacerX alum Paul Gilbert was on guitar. Martin opted to not commute from San Francisco to Los Angeles to do the record. He also did not relish living out of a suitcase in a hotel so he brought along his bag of cassette tape demos and crashed at Gilbert’s apartment in a seedy, crime ridden part of the city. Among this treasure trove of potential songs hid the keys to their future: “I still remember playing Paul a demo of To Be With You, which he really liked. I had written it many years earlier about a girl I knew who was always looking for her knight in shining armor. Paul also really branched out on Green Tinted Sixties Mind, which was really left-field for us.” Both songs would eventually appear on their second LP (Lean Into It), but that album was still two years away. The focus in 1988 was taking their speed metal roots and putting out a record that would feature both Sheehan’s and Gilbert’s formidable chops but also garner radio play.
Mr. Big was the culmination of this writing and recording cycle. Released in 1989, it sold reasonably well (reaching No. 46 on the album charts), but Mr. Big did not make them household names in the United States (although they gained a notable following in Japan). The suits at Atlantic Records grumbled about the album sales, but as Sheehan recalls, “We were lucky enough to have one of the best managers in the business in Herbie Herbert to buffer us from those demands. Herbie was right in there and fighting for us – sometimes literally.” Though the band immediately felt pressure to deliver on their sophomore effort, they concentrated on the music and not the image. Sheehan told CRM’s Dave Ling, “Back in 1991, we sell 250,000 copies, and we see corporate record labels draw some guys together who have amazing make-up and hair, they use samples on stage, and they sell five million records. I can’t say that doesn’t rub me the wrong way. I still feel the same today, and we still don’t use any samples.”
Martin also remembers the emerging glam-rock scene as well: “Back then, everybody in the band had long hair but none of us were prepared to wear make-up. Maybe we were too ugly to be pin-ups. But you know what? We kinda liked our ugliness.” They also liked their reputation as the new ‘supergroup’: “At first we thought it was cool, like being acknowledged as the best of the best, though it brought some baggage. Herbie was our Svengali and mentor, but we wrote those records completely for ourselves. We really were not trying to chase a trend.” The biggest change from the first album to Lean Into It was a matter of time: Mr. Big was written in about eight days. “It was a good freshman effort,” says Martin, “but with the second one we put a lot more energy and time into the writing.”
Besides Sheehan’s and Gilbert’s virtouistic abilities on bass and guitar, it was Martin’s voice that helped set Mr. Big apart from the rest. Looking back, Martin says, “I was still fairly new to the world of rock music. I felt like a bit of a chameleon. I didn’t want to just sing corporate rock, If we were going to do that I would always add my little-devil soul stuff. The guys would say: ‘Hey, Otis Redding, do you want to dumb that down a little?’” As much as the band prided itself for playing guitar driven rock, it was the release of a ballad that put them on top of the charts. In 1992, To Be With You went to No.1 in fifteen countries and was put into heavy rotation on both pop radio stations and MTV. Their live shows still featured numerous moments of Sheehan and Gilbert displaying their shred chops. As a joke, Gilbert answered a journalist’s question about how fast he could play by taping a guitar pick on an electric drill bit to show everyone how fast his nimble fingers could fly across the neck of his guitar while keeping up with the pick spun up to dizzying speed by the drill.
One thing led to another. The idea of ‘drill picking’ his strings was turned into a song, then became part of their stage show. Sheehand followed suit and to their surprise, someone at the Makita power drill tool company approached them inquiring how much of an endorsement fee they would like for using their product. Sheehan says, “Herbie called them and said ‘One million dollars’ and they actually agreed to it. True story.” The effect was used on the song Daddy, Brother, Lover, Little Boy but then the record company stamped (The Electric Drill Song) ahead of the song’s title on the record. Martin sighed as he remembered the incident: “It detracted from the novelty of the real title – kind of like ‘You want more sugar to the sugar?’” Another demo track was labeled ‘CDFF’ for ‘Compact Disc fast forward’ but the record company made it part of the title for CDFF – Lucky This Time. Martin still does not understand why they did it.
Using power tools on stage can be a dicey proposition. Think of the mess that could ensue if Jackyl lead singer Jesse James Dupree slipped up while chainsawing a guitar or stool apart during their signature tune, The Lumberjack! Using a couple of electric drills on stage should be much safer, right? “We were playing to twenty thousand people in Atlanta opening for Rush,” Martin says trying not to smirk too much. “I was behind the amps, and when we came to that part of the song, I heard ‘diddle diddle, diddle…’ and then it stopped. The crowd burst out laughing. Paul was running across the stage like a chicken with its head cut off.” Gilbert’s hair had gotten tangled up in the spinning drill bit mounted pick. Sheehan finishes the story: “One of the crew guys hit the ‘reverse’ button [on the drill], and although Paul’s hair unzipped, it got caught in the other direction.” Their next tour, the band decided to have a little fun with this gaff when they again played Atlanta: “Paul decided to wear a wig and recreate that scene as a joke, only the drill caught his real hair from beneath the wig. Oh, dude. That was a good Mr. Big laugh.”
It was still a long slog to the top of the charts. Mr. Big was playing at Finky’s in Daytona Beach, Florida when To Be With You reached No. 1 on the U.S. charts. “[Finky’s] was a (expletive deleted) club and until that point none of the fans knew who I was,” Martin recalls. “After a show, people would ask me to go backstage and get Billy and Paul’s autographs. I swear to God. They’d ask, ‘When is the singer coming out?’ and I’d reply, ‘I’m right here!’ Then To Be With You happened, and the devil inside me went; ‘Hey-y-y-y’.” Sheehan grins broadly when he notes that being Number One is a life-changing event: “To this day we still feel the effects of that point in our lives. Wherever we go in the world, somebody knows us thanks to that song.”
The band never reached that rarified air again. When Gilbert departed the band, Richie Kotzen came on board for the period between 1999 and 2002. After two albums made with Kotzen, they disbanded in what Ling calls, “fairly acrimonious circumstances.” They managed to regroup for the 20th anniversary of their debut album and released three more records after that. With Torpey’s ticket already punched to Rock and Roll Heaven, Gilbert’s solo work and Sheehan’s other band commitments (Winery Dogs, Sons of Apollo) complicate the idea of the band mounting another tour.
Martin would love to go on the road using a rotating cast of drummers: “I would do that in a heartbeat. I had this idea of using all the drummers that Pat liked – the guy from Korn (Ray Luzier), Gregg Bissonette (ex-David Lee Roth & current Ringo Starr’s AllStarr band), Matt Sorum (Guns N’ Roses, Velvet Revolver, Billy Gibbons) – a different one on each song. Billy and Paul told me I had lost my mind. Matt Star did a great job drumming [with Mr. Big] but without Pat, who was the anchor of the band, I’m not so sure about touring again.” As the band wrapped up their last engagements in 2019, Martin commented, “Yeah, that’s the last hurrah – that’s it. It feels a little uncomfortable to keep going without Pat Torpey.” Sheehan’s idea? “I would like for us to go out and tell stories and play songs, without a drummer. That could be a good evening, I think.”
Gilbert did not weigh in on any of the reunion speculations, but Ling either did not reach out to him or did not get a reply if he did. A busy man, Gilbert has been focusing on solo projects, instructional articles published in several guitar magazines, and his own humor-filled instruction videos. He spent the first decade of the new millennium joining with many high profile musicians in tribute band projects. Watching the videos made by these (mostly) one-off groupings show Gilbert to be more than just a guitar shredder.
In 2003, Gilbert joined with ex-Dream Theater drummer Mike Portnoy to form Yellow Matter Custard. Taken from a lyric in I Am the Walrus, the name correctly leads one to the idea they were a Beatles cover band. This group reformed in 2011 and performed three shows across America.
In November of 2003, Gilbert and Portnoy again teamed up for a Led Zeppelin tribute band, Hammer of the Gods. In 2005, they produced an epic show dubbed Cygnus and the Sea Monsters honoring the work of Rush. Gary Sherone (Extreme) and Bill Sheehan joined the fun when Gilbert and Portnoy formed Amazing Journey to play the music of The Who. I called these outings ‘tribute bands’ but the level of musicianship and the quality of the music they produced transcend the ‘tribute’ level. These were masterfully done ‘bands’ done to honor the music Gilbert and Portnoy obviously love.
Paul Gilbert has not been sitting idle in the third decade of the 2000s, either. In May of 2021, he released a music video for Werewolves of Portland and this November, his holiday CD / digital release TWAS (the vinyl version came out on December 10th). Gilbert recently described his first holiday outing on his webpage: “TWAS is my new album of Christmas songs! My guitar rips through the classics, while respecting the melodies. Portland’s fines blues & jazz musicians provide soulful grooves & smart chords, I hope you will find some good times here.”
Tune in to WOAS-FM 88.5 or pick us up at www.woas-fm.org and we will spend some time spinning the Mr. Big albums we have in honor of Mr. Bigge. I tried to score a copy of TWAS prior to Christmas break so listeners could get a chance to hear some of Gilbert’s holiday renditions, but alas, it was not in the cards. In any event, I do not need to remind anyone who wants to relive the band’s 1990s glory there are many vintage video clips of Mr. Big out in cyberland.
I should also mention that our Mr. Bigge solved another mystery for me. I noticed several of the cranes in use at the SpaceX facility in Boca Chica, Texas bore the name ‘Bigge’. The company is not related to Mr. Bigge, but he did shed some light on the name. There were two Bigge brothers who came to this country from Europe, one of which started the Bigge heavy equipment company. Dan told me he learned about the company when one of his relatives was traveling on business. When he booked a room at a posh hotel out west, they asked him if he wanted the Presidential Suite. Apparently they assumed he was the big Mr. Bigge from the crane company. Probably not a problem that Mr. Big ever encountered.
Top Piece Video: Proof of Mr. Big’s rabid fans in Japan – 1991’s live performance of BIG LOVE