January 10, 2024

FTV: Walk Away Joe


     When I first joined a band called Cloudy and Cool, the other three guys in the band were all in the Air Force and stationed at K.I. Sawyer AFB just outside of Marquette.  The lead guitarist / vocalist, Ray, was a Sargent and through his connections at the base, C&C were the house band at the NCO Club.  After I joined, we enjoyed a regular three night stand at the NCO Club every month (and a host of special occasions like holiday parties).  Ray, as I have mentioned in the past, seemed to know every rock and country song ever written.  Because he had the uncanny ability to play any song requested, our job was to tag along with him wherever he went.  He would turn around and say, “Key of A, follow me!” and off we would go.  If we repeated a song enough times and it went over well, it became a regular in our set.  Others were simply ‘one offs’ that we played once and they never saw the light of day again.  This went on for the two years I was in the band.  About two months into my tenure in Cloudy and Cool, we renamed the band  ‘Knockdown’ after the keyboard player got transferred to Thule, Greenland 

     We added a couple of James Gang tunes to our set after playing them live the first time as requests.  You will pardon me for not remembering the exact order of events, but our spontaneously learning a song on the fly happened so often, I can not remember which song came first.  Either way, learning Walk Away and Funk 49 threw me a curve.  In both cases, Ray asked me, “Do you know the words to Walk Away (or Funk 49 – the order doesn’t matter as I ended up singing them both)?”  I had heard both songs plenty of times on the radio and when other bands played them, but my old band never played them.  In those moments, the ‘yes man’ in me seemed to take charge:  “Sure, Ray, kick it off!”  Knowing the first line and perhaps the chorus of a song is usually not a problem.  Getting the rest of the verses out on the first run through is more of a challenge.  Nonetheless, we did a credible enough job to send me back to the Jame Gang’s albums to make sure what we did was in the neighborhood of the original arrangement and ‘poof’, we had two more terrific songs on our set list.

     Ray carried the lead vocals when I joined the band.  The evening they dropped by the house to see if I could actually play, the first thing he asked was, “Do you sing”?  He got a ‘Yes’ from both me and the keyboard player I had been jamming with (he had arranged our audition via his mother who worked with Ray at Sawyer).  Ray asked me how much I sang in my previous band.  He seemed pretty happy when I said, “About 80% of the lead and a lot of background.”  “Can you sing harmony?’ he asked.  “Probably… if we did in my old band, it was mostly by accident.”  “That is okay,” Ray continued, “We can work it out as we go.  I am tired of people thinking they are doing harmony when they sing the melody with me.” 

     For the record, I was asked to join the band after the keyboard player left the audition.  Ray explained they needed a drummer and only had him there because he said he knew a drummer.  I owe the keyboard guy a debt for introducing me to the band.  Ray gets a bigger thanks for upping my vocal game because once he showed me how to harmonize,  it came rather naturally.  As to why he insisted I sing the James Gang tunes, he later said, “You sound more like Joe Walsh.”

     Joe Walsh hadn’t crossed my mine in a while until I saw a feature on the James Gang on the Louder website.  When they came up on my radar back in the day, they were a trio that included Walsh on guitar, keyboards, and vocals, Dale ‘Bugsy’ Peters on bass, and Jimmie Fox on drums and vocals.  Until recently, it never dawned on me that the James Gang name most of us assumed meant ‘that band of outlaws James Gang’, originally meant ‘Jame’s Gang’ after Jimmie Fox.  The band first came together in Cleveland, Ohio in 1966 – a typical band of high school kids looking to have some fun and play some gigs.  Fox had first played drums with The Outsiders but left them in 1965 just prior to them having a one-off hit with the song Time Won’t Let Me.

He returned to them for a while after their new drummer was drafted and when he left again, Fox decided it was time to form a band of his own.

     The original James Gang included Tom Kriss on bass, Phil Giallombardo on keyboards and a rotating cast of guitarists.  Among those who filled the slot before Joe Walsh was John ‘Mouse’ Michalski who had played with another one-hit wonder band, The Count Five (Psychotic Reaction).  Fox invited yet another Cleveland guitar legend, Glenn Schwartz, to join when he heard him play at an audition for a nine-piece R&B band.  Around Christmas of 1967, they found out Schwartz was actually AWOL from the Army.  After breaking up with his wife, Glenn departed for California where he would later resurface with the band Pacific Gas & Electric (known for their Top Forty hit Are You Ready).  A few days into 1968, a friend of Schwart’s knocked on Jimmie Fox’s door and asked if he could try out for the band.  Joe Walsh was now part of the five-piece iteration of The James Gang.

     The band became a four-piece when Gialombardo, who was still in high school, left.  They became a trio on June 9, 1968 when the second guitarist informed them he wasn’t going to make it to the gig that night.  It was no ordinary Sunday night show he decided to skip.  This was an opening slot for Cream at Detroit’s fabled Grande Ballroom.  In need of the money, the band performed as a trio that night, liked what they heard and decided to carry on that way.  Bassist Kriss would leave the band in November of 1969 when his father was diagnosed with lung cancer.  His replacement, Dale ‘Bugsy’ Peters joined the band and first appeared on their July 1970 release James Gang Rides Again.  Earlier in that spring, the James Gang opened six shows for The Who during their U.S. tour.  Guitarist Pete Townshend was impressed by the band and invited them to the United Kingdom to open for The Who’s fall tour.  Townshend told Rolling Stone magazine that Walsh was the best American guitar player and the two formed a long friendship.

     January of 1971 saw the Gang appear on the BBC show Top of the Pops and they returned to the U.K. in July for their own tour.  The up and coming band shared the stage with other notable acts of the day like Grand Funk Railroad, the Kinks, Humble Pie, Three Dog Night, and Led Zeppelin.  Two more albums (Thirds and a James Gang Live in Concert) kept them busy in 1971 but the pressure was beginning to weigh on Walsh.  In December, he left the band and moved to the mountains of Colorado.  The James Gang carried on with a new vocalist and guitarist, Roy Kenner and Domenic Troiano, recruited from the Canadian band Bush.  This lineup released two albums in 1972 (Straight Shooter and Passi’ Thru but the musical chemistry with Troiano never worked out.

     Troriano would later join The Guess Who.  Walsh recommended future Deep Purple axeman Tommy Bolin who hung around for two more albums and the band’s move from ABC Records to ATCO.  After some interband drama, both Kenner and Bolin departed in 1974 and the band again went in search of a guitar player.  After a few rounds of ‘band member roulette’, the band called in quits in early 1977.  Fox later said, “It became a quest to find a suitable replacement for Joe Walsh.  Some of the albums were good but we were always looking to find that particular thing we had with Joe and I don’t think we ever found it again.  So, after all those changes, Dale and I talked it over and said, ‘Enough is enough.’  That’s when we decided to let it go.”  Fox said he decided to just take some time off and not start looking for another band” :  “If John Lennon had called, I’d see about that.  That was my attitude.”

     The classic line up did get together for occasional reunions, the first one to do three songs during a Joe Walsh show in Cleveland in July 1991.  They got together again in November 1996 (again in Cleveland) for an election rally for Bill Clinton.  In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the group would always seem to find time to get together in Cleveland for a few shows.  They did launch a full fledged reunion tour in the summer of 2006.  In 2012, it was reported they were working on recording new and classic James Gang material with help from Walsh’s solo sidemen Joe Viltale and Michael Stanley.  Nothing more was heard from this line up until it was announced they would perform two shows as part of the Taylor Hawkins Tribute concert – one at Wembley Stadium in London and the other at the Kia Forum in Inglewood, California.

     As for why Walsh walked away from a successful band like the James Gang, it would be that same old song and dance – pressure.  As the songwriter and melodic instrumentalist in a three piece band, Joe was beginning to crack under the strain of producing the next big record.  Steve Marriot of Humble Pie asked Joe to come to England and join his band when Peter Frampton decided to strike out on his own.  Walsh declined the offer and retreated to Colorado, eventually forming a solo band he called Barnstorm (whose drummer was the aforementioned Joe Vitale).  The band stayed together for three years and produced three albums in that time.  Rocky Mountain Way is the best known song from that period.  Joe’s path forward from album number three (1974’s So What) came via contributions made on the album by several members of the Eagles.  Walsh’s producer, Bill Szymczyk, had recently been hired by the band and he suggested  Walsh join the Eagles after founding member Bernie Leadon left the band.

     Walsh made his recording debut on the Eagles fifth album, Hotel California (released December 8, 1976).  He and Don Felder combined for the memorable solo in the album’s title track that is still cited as one of the all time greatest guitar solos.  Even though the Eagles kept him plenty busy, Walsh has still managed to release twelve solo albums.  The fact that the Eagles’ follow up to Hotel California (The Long Run – released 9-24-79) took two years to complete gave Joe plenty of time to hit the road with his solo band.  Tension in the Eagles finally caused the band to break up in 1980 so Walsh continued his prolific recording and touring schedule even though his album sales diminished during this period.  A guitarist’s guitarist, Joe Walsh was never idle very long and a complete record of his musical pursuits would fill hundreds of pages.

     Up to the year 2006, Walsh was married four different times.  In the 1980s he even found time to date Fleetwood Mac singer Stevie Nicks.   She recalled, “Joe had been the great love of my life.  We broke up because of the coke.  He told one of my friends he was leaving me because he was afraid one of us was going to die.  The cocaine habit had gone so over the top the only way to save both of us was for him to leave me.”  Indeed, that he survived the coke habit and his acute alcoholism is a remarkable story in itself.  Joe said his road to recovery actually began with a visit to an ancient Maori site in New Zealand called Otatara Pa where he had an ‘epiphany’ (although he doesn’t elaborate on what exactly he experienced).  It took a 1994 blackout when he found himself landing in Paris with his passport with no recollection how he got there to make him realize he needed help.  He entered recovery and has been sober since 1994.  The song One Day at a Time from his last studio release, 2012’s Analog Man gives a pretty good summation of his life since he married Marjorie Bach in 2008.

     Marjorie Bach is the sister of Ringo Starr’s wife, Barbara, thus making the former Beatles’ drummer and Walsh brothers-in-law.  Walsh actually met Ringo back in the mid-1970s at a jam session in Los Angeles.  Joe hoped to impress Ringo by playing the guitar solo on the song And Your Bird Can Sing.  Ringo was impressed, but had to confess that he thought Walsh was nuts.  Apparently, Joe did not realize the solo was played by two separate guitars meaning, as Walsh says now, “I think I am the only guy who can play it, including George.”  Walsh went on to produce Ringo’s Old Wave album and joined his All-Starr band in 1989.

     Besides being married to sister’s, the two have another bond.  Both are in continuing recovery for their alcohol problems.  They take their sobriety seriously and have put in many hours volunteering to help support substance abuse organizations.  Musically, Walsh says performing with Ringo is sometimes surreal, but yet a no brainer:  “He’s not just the greatest drummer in rock history – from the greatest band in rock history – he is also the greatest guy I know and the most kind and helpful friend you could ever want.”  Joe admits that when they are in the studio or on stage, he still looks over and says, “That’s (expletive deleted) Ringo Starr – I just don’t believe it.”

     As the title of one of his semi-autobiographical songs says, Life’s Been Good to Joe Walsh.  He is happily remarried and sober.  He volunteers his time to many charitable and environmental causes and has helped organize benefit concerts to help VetsAid in a similar fashion to Willie Nelson’s FarmAid concerts.  Not only has Walsh survived the wild, reckless rock and roll lifestyle, he has stayed on his new path for more than thirty years.  Even with the legacy of those wild times he left behind, it is hard to find anyone who has a negative word to say about Joe Walsh.  We should all strive to be a little more like Joe Walsh and find a way to improve life a little more each day.

Top Piece Video:  The classic James Gang performing Walk Away in 1971.