JOHN HERDT Interviews JIM FOX: This interview with James Gang founder and drummer Jim Fox took place in March 2013. Jim also played keyboards on many James Gang songs, including the grand piano intro on “Red Skies”.
(John Herdt): What were your and bassist Dale Peters’ backgrounds in learning music before going pro? Did either of you play in school bands? My feeling back in the day and now is that you were better on your instruments than many of the early rock bands, some of whom got famous before they really knew how to play very well.
(Jim Fox): I started with music theory lessons at age 7 or 8, and drum lessons at age 10. I played in all the high school bands, orchestras, marching bands, etc. In fact, the original James Gang lineup of myself, Joe Walsh and Tom Kriss all marched in our high school bands! I’m not as sure about Dale (Peters), but I do know he started as a drummer and was playing in rock bands in high school. He even replaced me as the drummer in a rock band I had at Ohio State. He switched to bass soon after. I was a music education major in college, and Joe took some theory classes at Kent State that I had also taken there.
(JH): Where did you first hear of Tommy Bolin? It’s my understanding that Joe Walsh recommended Tommy, as Joe spent some important time in Colorado after leaving James Gang in 1971 and crossed paths with Tommy there a number of times. I do wonder though if you’d heard his name around separately from that, with Zephyr, Billy Cobham’s ‘Spectrum’ album or otherwise.
(JF): We were definitely aware of Tommy from his work in Zephyr. It is true that Joe recommended Tommy for THE GANG. I THINK that Tommy had just done the Cobham record immediately before joining THE GANG and I am pretty sure we had not heard it before meeting with him. I am equally sure we heard it pretty quickly after we met. Awesome stuff!
(JH): Who did you deal with on Tommy’s management side and was Barry Fey involved? Did you get along with them okay or did they impact the quality of Tommy’s time in the band?
(JF): I recall that Tommy had a relationship with Barry Fey, but as far as I remember, he never had an active role in Tommy’s management during the time Tommy was with us. I believe we did some gigs that Barry promoted over the years.
(JH): What kind of rehearsals did you have when Tommy joined and where were rehearsals primarily conducted? Did you focus the rehearsals on doing an album first or did you have to cover some live shows quickly?
(JF): I recall that we practiced in my garage (have “Basement Tapes” of us!), with the focus being on learning the new songs we were planning to record. We did not think about live performances in the beginning, as I believe we all felt that part would fall in pretty easily. Later, we practiced at a local party center, which was a place we had used over the years to rehearse. It was private and convenient, and the lady who managed the place used to serve us lunches almost daily from the food she was cooking for that evening’s festivities. We worked on the live show there.
(JH): The ‘Bang’ album is where I got hooked on Tommy. I think the playing and songs are fantastic, but I’m also impressed by the sonic quality and dynamics. The producer is listed as James Gang, how was that structured and did you have any help from some standout engineers you’d like to mention?
(JF): We recorded the main part (and maybe even all of ‘Bang’) at Cleveland Recording Co. in downtown Cleveland, OH. The engineer was Ken Hamann, the owner of the studio and a long time engineer on the Cleveland scene whom I had first worked with in 1964. Ken was a technical whiz, very well versed in the electronics side of recording, but with a good talent for the actual engineering as well. He was devoid of ego and worked hard to get the best sounds he could during the tracking and overdubs. The album was mixed by the famous Tom Dowd, who was a staff engineer at Atlantic Records. While we were comfortable with doing the tracks and overdubs ourselves, we wanted a set of neutral and fresh ears for the mix. Atlantic president Ahmet Ertegun suggested that Tom might be available, and we totally flipped at the thought of working with him. He was everything we had hoped for and more. Most of the mixing was done in New York City at Atlantic Studios. As for the dynamics, I guess the band gets credit for much of that…
(JH): Jimmie Haskell’s string arrangements on that album are brilliant, who brought him into the project?
(JF): We had been using Jimmy Haskell for several years. I can’t recall the first time we used him, but I suspect Bill Szymczyk first mentioned him to us in Los Angeles. My God, the guy did the orchestral arrangements for “Ode to Billie Joe” and “Bridge Over Troubled Water”! I remember that THE GANG once used his young kids to sing backup on an unreleased track. For “Mystery,” I had one telephone conversation with him where he asked how far we were willing to go in regards to “dissonance,” “modern-sounding” arrangement, etc. I told him to go as far as he liked. I love the result as well. It totally blew us all away.
(JH): You are the core of the band back to its origin. How did you feel about ‘Bang’ when it was finished in relation to where the band was at when Domenic Troiano left and the glory days with Joe Walsh?
(JF): When ‘Bang’ was finished, we were all blown away. The ‘Troiano-Kenner’ version of THE GANG had proven not to be what we had hoped for, and Tommy gave us a major shot of energy we needed at that point. I think we felt it was a major step forward musically and a step towards regaining whatever it was that we had when Joe was a member. It was really fun making that record. It went quickly and efficiently, too.
(JH): ‘Bang’ was recorded at Cleveland Recording Company for the most part, but the follow-up album, ‘Miami’, was recorded at Criteria Recording Studios in Miami in the spring of 1974. What promulgated the move?
(JF): I think the studio change was Tom Dowd’s idea. (More on that below).
(JH): Producer Tom Dowd is a legend to me. How did you come to work with him on ‘Miami’, and was working with him a pleasant experience for the band?
(JF): I discussed Tom earlier, and how Ahmet had suggested him as possible candidate for the final mix of ‘Bang’. Working with Tom was a clear highlight of my musical career. He was brilliant, he actually worked on the Manhattan Project which is where the atomic bomb was developed and he also engineered Cream’s ‘Disraeli Gears’ album. (Can you imagine one human doing both of these things?) He came from a musical family, and was musically well-trained, though it was his background as an engineer (not in the recording sense of the word!) that brought him to music. Tom was a great communicator and had terrific ideas on arranging, sound placement, etc. He had also worked with some of the true giants of the modern music world and seemed to have learned something from each one of them. In my life, Tom remains as my “Reader’s Digest Most Unforgettable Character,” and I’ve known a few “characters” in my life…
(JH): I’ll be honest with you, when ‘Miami’ first came out I was a bit disappointed. I felt that the bar was set extremely high with ‘Bang’ and while the playing on ‘Miami’ was fine some of the material didn’t have the same spark. Since then I have grown to love the album. Songs like “Summer Breezes” and “Head Above the Water” are fantastic. Did you feel like Tommy, as main writer, was as into that album as much he had been on ‘Bang’?
(JF): ‘Miami’ was a very difficult record to make, and even nearly 40 years later I remember it as challenging. I think the troubles Roy Kenner was going through at the time have been well documented. He was preoccupied by necessity with non-musical things stemming from a very minor drug bust in Los Angeles that involved, rehab, community service, etc. For a time, we felt that might be no alternative but to replace him, and much time and effort was spent auditioning other vocalists, all to no avail. In the end, Roy freed himself up enough to finish the recording process, but while we worked very hard on the record, I feel as if we were never satisfied with it completely. I agree that there were some good moments on it, and with the benefit of time, they are a bit easier for me to see. Still, a tough record to make with mixed results in the end.
(JH): How did you guys record the songs on the two albums? Did you record live tracks and then do overdubs, or were the tracks built up one instrument at a time as is pretty common today?
(JF): We never worked any other way than with live basic instrumental tracks. The whole concept of “band” in those days was “playing together.” We certainly did overdubs, tweaking of individual tracks, etc. to the extent it was possible back then, and usually did the vocals separately.
(JH): Which are some of your favorite tracks on the two albums? There are some honeys to choose from.
(JF): I always loved “Standing in the Rain,” “Mystery,” “Alexis” and “Red Skies”. Lately, “The Devil is Singing Our Song” has been in rotation on satellite radio and it sounds really fresh to me today.
(JH): Did that lineup of the band socialize very much together or even just jam occasionally, or did Tommy split for Colorado or elsewhere between band responsibilities?
(JF): We did a good bit of socializing. Tommy either returned to Colorado or stayed in Cleveland, depending on the amount of down time between obligations. We were usually pretty tightly scheduled, so I don’t recall a lot of casual jamming, though we did rehearse a fair amount and that always entailed some jamming along the way.
(JH): How did Tommy’s relationship with the band evolve through Tommy’s time in the band, and what are some of the things that might have shaped the ups and downs?
(JF): The relationship in general was very good, at least the way I remember it. As the frustration over the lack of progress towards finding a new lead singer grew, things got more difficult, as I think we all felt the pressure to make the necessary changes. Clearly, drugs also played a part in the ups and downs of the group interaction.
(JH): Tommy left James Gang about a month after ‘Miami’ was released in July 1974. Was the split acrimonious or did you just mutually feel it had gone as far as it could?
(JF): While the split was not acrimonious, it WAS abrupt. I don’t recall the timing as well as you do, but at some point after the release of ‘Miami’, it had become apparent that the album was not going to have any impact on the business or on the positive progress of the band. Tommy just called our manager one day from Colorado and said he was not going forward. I waited a couple of weeks and then called him to bust his chops, telling him that I noticed he had been missing rehearsals, etc. and we had a good laugh. THE GANG went on and replaced him and Roy Kenner with Richard Shack and Bubba Keith, and on we went…
(JH): In July 1974 Tommy played on a track called “Invisible Song” from Rainbow Canyon’s debut album, ‘Rollin’ in the Rockies’, which you produced. Did Tommy record that with the band or overdub in a separate session?
(JF): I was producing Rainbow Canyon at Caribou Ranch in Nederland, CO, while THE GANG was on a break. At some point, we needed a guitar solo for “Invisible Song” and the band were looking for someone to perform it. I suggested Tommy and they were very enthusiastic about him. He drove up from Boulder one afternoon and did the solo as an overdub in a very few takes. I recall one very funny (to me) thing about that day. After he arrived, Tommy, who notoriously did not drive a car, told me that he had driven himself to the studio, and that it was the very first time he had ever driven a car by himself. I was horrified and asked him why he didn’t just ask for a ride or make other arrangements. He laughed and said that he wanted to do it and that it was about time he learned to drive! CLASSIC Tommy!! For those who know the twisting mountain roads of that area, it is both scarier and funnier.
(JH): Would you care to relate any standout stories about that lineup’s experiences? Many of Tommy’s fans started with Deep Purple because they were so huge, but a significant number started with him in James Gang and stories that help tie them (us!) closer are rare.
(JF): Rather than relate specific stories, let me just say that Tommy was just about the most energetic and enthusiastic player I have ever worked with. He was literally non-stop 24/7 music, and as far as I could tell, nothing else was interesting to him at that point in his life. He would gladly have played for 18 hours every day or more, and it did not matter if he was on a stage, in a practice room, in his hotel room, alone, with a crowd…whatever! It was a privilege to be a part of that excitement for as long as it lasted.
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