Mark Stein | Interview

Interview with David Streeten  |  June, 2013 
Mark Stein, a consummate performer for over four decades and a member of Vanilla Fudge was in the first incarnation of the Tommy Bolin Band after his departure from Deep Purple. He played on Tommy’s second and final album, ‘Private Eyes’ and toured with the band until departing October, 1976.

You met Tommy at Deep Purple’s Long Beach gig in February 1976. What can you recall from that evening, both from a musical and personal perspective?

I recall going to see Deep Purple back in the 70’s when Tommy Bolin, the new up and coming guitar sensation had replaced Ritchie Blackmore. The Long Beach arena was packed that night & back stage was filled with Rock celebs. Ronnie James Dio had strolled in, quite the familiar face, while in the distance, Nazareth, the opening act was blowin’ the audience away with “Love Hurts.” 

As I passed through the corridors I ran into Jon Lord, my old Hammond mate, he smiled and was the cordial gentleman that he always was, making me feel at ease. Suddenly Tommy appeared from the dressing room looking every bit the new Rock Star on the block, decked out with feather earrings, great looking long flowing locks accented by the traditional long scarf that he wore backwards as it sashayed side to side. Ian Paice was right behind him and smiled saying “Hey Mark’’ as he introduced me to Tommy. Tommy was cordial when a voice said the area had to be cleared so Purple could get ready for the show. I grabbed a drink and went to my seat. Shortly after, Purple took the stage and the decibel level was incredible as they began to play. Tommy looked and sounded great. He brought a fresh sound to the band with his unique style and he seemed really comfortable. It was rumored that he was going solo and would be putting a new band together. I remember thinking of how cool it would be to be in his new band.  

It wasn’t long after that gig that you found yourself in the first incarnation of the Tommy Bolin Band. You have previously mentioned that Reggie McBride was the key in you getting the gig. Can you tell us about the actual audition with Tommy and who was in the band at that particular time?

During this period, I was putting together my own band. Reggie McBride, fresh off playing bass with Stevie Wonder, and Bobby Cochran, guitarist with Steppenwolf & I believe the late Bruce Gary on drums was also there somewhere in the mix. While in early rehearsals, Reggie said he got a call from Bolin’s Tour Manager to come to SIR in LA on Santa Monica Blvd to audition for his new band. The next day Reggie was excited to tell me he got the gig. So I told him to tell Tommy that I was into joining the band as well.

Tommy told Reggie to bring me to rehearsal and right from the start it was magical. At first, it was Tommy, Reggie, and myself blending together with Norma Jean Bell & Narada Michael Walden coming to join the band over the next few days. This period was obviously promoting Tommy’s ‘Teaser’ material, was there any work in progress material from ‘Private Eyes’ introduced at this stage. To my best recollections, the material was initially from ‘Teaser’. However we jammed on long excursions showing our collective abilities both musically and vocally. 

The band which comprised; Tommy (guitar/vocals) yourself (keyboards/vocals), Narada Michael Walden (percussion/vocals), Norma Jean Bell (saxophone/vocals), and Reggie McBride (bass) was impressive to say the least. On paper this band was potentially HUGE... Any comments? 

Yes! this band was potentially huge. It possessed a myriad of talent – on paper, what a track record, Deep Purple, Vanilla Fudge, the Mahavishnu Orchestra and Stevie Wonder for starters – progressive rock/fusion dream band! LA was buzzing over the group and was looking forward to seeing the band play, and for me personally, I was excited to be getting back into the mainstream after being away from the fray for several years after the breakup of Vanilla Fudge.

On a more personal level, did the band socialize together? 

I don’t recall the band hanging out that much, however Tommy & I did  become friendly and his then girlfriend Karen Uliberri & my wife Patty all hit it off well together and became great friends. There were some nice nights shared socially, however Tommy’s demons always got the better of him which ultimately made it tough to stay connected, unless of course we all shared the same demons, which we didn’t!   

From a technical musical perspective, is there anything you would like to mention about Tommy’s playing/singing/songwriting? 

Tommy Bolin was a super talented guitar player. His style, while echoing many of the greats of his time, was fresh and his own. He had the capacity to write great licks and songs. As a singer, his voice wasn’t of a melodic nature, but he did come across with a “cool” attitude which worked well both live & in the studio. In retrospect, he really could have gone on to be one of the greats.   

The concert set-list on the first tour comprised of two non Tommy compositions, ‘I Fell In Love’ written and sung by yourself, and ‘Delightful’ written and sung by Narada. It would appear that it was very much a democratic ‘band’ set-up as opposed to just a Tommy Bolin solo project? 

Well that was what made this band so cool! Tommy was proud of the personnel in his band and wanted to utilize everyone’s talents which made us more exciting.   

Are there any highlights and/or gripes that you would like to share re that first tour? 

Well the Roxy gig in LA was a Helluva night, the energy was incredible with rave reviews. The Tommy Bolin Band had arrived! Billboards on Sunset Strip promoting the band buzz! buzz! buzz!... what a rush!!! Then, just a few short weeks later we played the Bottom Line, a club in New York. John McLaughlin, Jan Hammer, Peter Frampton, and all of the executives of Nemperor Records including Nat Weiss, President & CEO of the company were all there, anticipating the kind of show they heard about at the Roxy. On the way to the gig in the limo, Tommy was drinking heavily & doing huge lines of coke & lord knows what else. By the time we hit the stage, he was so fucked up that after ‘Teaser’, the 1st tune, he started to stumble all over the stage, then proceeded to tell Nat Weiss (President of his record company) “Why don’t you stick those french fries up your ass!” Well, I turned around to Narada as he kinda shushed me up as if to say let's just get thru the set. 

Tommy was immediately dropped from the label that night and suddenly the future of the band was in serious jeopardy. About a week later I got a phone call from his manager, Barry Fey who told me he got Tommy picked up & signed to Columbia Records!   

It was around this period that you started to experiment with synthesizers, and, if I remember correctly, partly influenced by Tommy and Narada? 

Yes, this was the time when I started to make the transition to synths & multi keyboards. Much of Tommy’s recent work was fusion oriented so I had to meet the challenge & get competitive, so I got my hands on my first mini-moog. I listened to Jan Hammer a lot & practiced & learned the art of note bending. Narada was on my case all the time to get better – I gotta say, it was truly an inspirational time for me, I worked hard & in time it paid off. The results were an integration of old and new and actually, to this day, my piano, organ & synth chops owe a lot to that period.   

Narada was the first to depart (replaced by Bobby Berge) prior to the ‘Private Eyes’ sessions. It’s no secret that Narada has stated that Tommy’s life style choices were the main reason for his departure. It’s also no secret that Tommy was getting more heavily into both his drug and alcohol issues at this time. Realizing the potential of the project, alarm bells must have been ringing? 

Alarm bell rang non-stop! There was a time when Tommy & I developed a friendship, as I stated before, I tried to get him to tone it down, but it just got worse, Narada was deep into his Sri-Chinmoy spiritual path & nothing could have been more counter productive for him than Tommy’s  negative path.   

‘Private Eyes’ was recorded early June, 1976. Reportedly it was recorded in under a week with little rehearsal time. The results tell a different story ... what are your recollections of the sessions? 

I recall laying down the backing tracks at Cherokee Studios in LA. I think we rehearsed some of the stuff outside the studio, but under a week? No way!! I don’t recall how long it took. I do remember Tommy & Dennis going to London to do lead vocals, guitar overdubs and solos at Trident Studios, where it was mixed as well. This is all to the best of my recollections.   

To what extend were you involved in various arrangements for the album, such as background vocals etc (background vocals to ‘Busting’ Out For Rosy’ comes to mind)? 

My input to this project was more of a supporting role. I did arrange some of the backing vocals on several tracks. Basically, I was asked to keep it simple.   

There has been much debate over Dennis MacKay’s handling of the album’s production. Personally, I think it has stood the test of time incredibly well, quite groundbreaking for the day, would you agree? 

I thought it was a good record. In retrospect, I would’ve liked to do more keyboard wise, but as they say, hindsight is 20-20.   

Were you privy to Carmine Appice’s involvement with his contributions to ‘Someday Will Bring Our Love Home’?

I believe I recall listening to a playback during those sessions when I suggested to Tommy to have Carmine come down to play on a track. He was in town so it worked out.   

You were involved with the subsequent tour after the recording of ‘Private Eyes’. Obviously this was more to promote the soon to be released album and didn’t include material such as ‘I Fell In Love’. What are your memories of this period? 

I recall the band playing various venues around US. I think I recall doing some shows on the East Coast opening for Bob Welch around the time he had the platinum selling ‘French Kiss’ LP. During that time I believe we did the King Biscuit Flower Hour radio program. Once I recall opening for Rick Derringer at the Aragon Ballroom in Chicago, but the thing that really stands out, now that I’m thinking about it, while in the New York area we had a few days off and I went to visit my folks in New Jersey. After spending the night, my dad said he’d drive me to the venue in Philly (I think it was the Tower Theatre) where we were opening for The Outlaws. He said he had a short cut that would get me there early, so wouldn’t you know it, we got lost! By the time we finally pulled up to the theater, we pulled into the alleyway and I could hear the band playing the opening tune. I was totally freaked! This never happened before. I rushed up the stairs with no time to change and jumped on my keyboards almost exactly on the downbeat of my solo as Norma and Tommy smiled with both relief and delight. It couldn’t have been scripted better. After the show I apologized over and over as they were letting me have it for almost being a no/show, later, my mom said she didn’t speak to my poor ol’ dad for days.

The Santana jam in Albuquerque is legendary. Any memories as to what you played, and, is there any audio available from that show (there MUST be something out there!)? 

That was a great night, the guys in Santana’s band were really into our band, lotsa smiles. I recall jamming with Carlos & Tommy, it was a rush and after the show, we were all backstage enjoying each other’s company. I remember chatting with Carlos , for some reason about Led Zeppelin and he brought up the fact that he thought that John Bonham wasn’t such a good drummer, naturally, my opinion was contrary to his, but I let it slide. As far as available audio, I’m not aware of any which is truly unfortunate... ah, the recordings we didn’t make, the pictures we failed to take along the way, the baseball cards & comic books we never saved! Kudos to the rare few that had such vision.

There were various line-up changes around this time, but Reggie McBride’s replacement, Jimmy Haslip was an inspired choice it would seem? 

I can’t recall why Reggie left, but a talented young bass player, Jimmy Haslip, who I was friends with, replaced him. I recall calling Jimmy to tell him to come over to my house & woodshed all the material with me, 'cause I got him a shot to play in the band. He was excited for the opportunity & well, the rest is history. A few weeks later, we played Mile High Stadium opening for Peter Frampton.

There’s a classic shot from Tommy’s final birthday party which includes yourself, Patty, Karen and Linda Blair – any memories from that?

It was a happy time. Tommy was in a upbeat mood that night and I recall him being pretty together as well. I was a bit startled when Linda Blair arrived, after all, the last time I saw her was when a certain priest was exorcising her screaming “The power of Christ compels you!”

You left the band presumably in October 1976. Again, it’s no secret why you left, but it must have been incredibly frustrating and painful, realizing the initial potential? 

Yes, it was frustrating, it all was building up in me. I was tired of all the drugs & talks & whatever. People were pissed at me, even some of the Columbia execs, but I made that decision to leave, I simply didn’t want to be around when the trainwreck happened. Ironically, a very short time later, it did.   

Did you follow Tommy’s (albeit, short term) career after you left? 

I went to see the show at the Santa Monica Civic, it was strange being in the audience. Tommy was good that night – and so was the band. I’m afraid there wasn’t much more time on this earth for him at that juncture.   

How did you hear of Tommy’s passing? 

I had put a call into the Rainbow Bar & Grill, the famous watering hole for rockers in LA. I was looking for a friend, when Linda Olivieri, the chick that worked there sounded very depressed over the phone. I said “you sound kinda down” and she proceeded to tell me that they just found out that Tommy had died, I was blown away, although I always knew it was inevitable. After that Karen called us from England to tell us she had just found out and was devastated.  

In 1977 you helped organise a tribute for Tommy’s family. Please elaborate. 

Tommy’s folks were living in Sioux City Iowa and were in terrible shape financially. To be quite blunt, no one really gave a fuck. Their son, the one with such great talent and great hope for the future, the son that filled them with great pride was suddenly gone forever. After speaking with them, Patty, my wife and I realizing that all Tommy’s business people had abandoned them. We decided to recruit a variety of artists and with the help of Mario, the man with all the influence at the Roxy in LA, a benefit was put in motion to raise money for the Bolin family. George Duke & his band, myself along with Glenn Hughes, Carmine Appice, Peter Banks (even a fledging new artist named Eddie Money) showed up. The event was promoted well with the help of outside media & radio. Ritchie Blackmore had pledged his time, but even with his name posted on the marquis, along with everyone’s, he never showed up. We drew a packed house and raised a substantial amount of funds (at this writing my memory escapes specifics) that all went directly to the Bolins back in Iowa which got them out of immediate dutch.   

Given that’s it’s 36 years since his passing, are you surprised at the current level of interest in Tommy’s career? 

I’m not surprised. He reached and affected many with his unique brand of rock. However, in retrospect I’m a bit saddened once again realizing if only somehow his demons were gotten under control Tommy Bolin could have gone on to be one of the greats.

The Tommy Bolin Memorial Fund was originally established by Johnnie Bolin in memory of his brother, in association with the Siouxland Community Foundation. The Ultimate mission is simple... To preserve the music, the memory and the legacy of Tommy Bolin.