FROM LOCAL LEGEND TO HITMAKER:
Q&A With Dan Hartman
By Larry Portzline
July 5, 2014
The following interview is from a series of conversations I had with musician / singer / songwriter / producer Dan Hartman between August 1989 and January 1992.
As his fans know, Dan played bass and guitar and sang for the Edgar Winter Group, whose big hits in the early 1970s were "Frankenstein" and "Free Ride" (an original by Dan). He also had tremendous success later on with his solo hits "Instant Replay" (1978) and "I Can Dream About You" (1984). He then went on to produce some of the biggest names in the recording industry, including Tina Turner, James Brown and Joe Cocker, scoring even more mega-hits and gold records along the way.
I'd hoped to compile the notes from our chats in an article to be published in our shared hometown of Harrisburg, PA -- but time slipped away, Dan became ill, and then it was too late.
I've always felt guilty about not completing the article, not just because Dan had been kind enough to talk with me at length about his life and career, but also because, as a fan of this local hero, I wanted to share his story. Undoubtedly there was a lot more to tell, but the opportunity never arose.
One topic we spent quite a bit of time discussing was Dan's 1989 experimental album "NEW GREEN clear blue," a major musical departure of which he was very proud. Parts of that conversation appear below as well.
I also interviewed a number of other folks for the planned article, including Dan's parents, his brother and former bandmate Dave, and several members of the Legends, the popular local band that helped to propel Dan to stardom. I also spoke to the late Greg Johnson, a Harrisburg keyboard player and friend of Dan's who played on Joe Cocker's 1987 album "Unchain My Heart." Excerpts from those interviews also appear below.
There are a variety of resources about Dan on the web. I hope the following bits of conversation will complement them and help to illustrate who Dan was -- an extraordinarly talented musician with a big heart.
(Note: all of the interviews have been edited for space and clarity.)
LP: Tell me about your early days and how you got into the music field.
DH: I started studying classical music at the age of 6, and over the next three years I went through double the amount of instruction that a kid would normally go through. For some reason it came naturally to me. But by the time I was 9 I'd been playing a lot of piano recitals around the Harrisburg area and just got bored with it.
Dave Hartman, Dan Hartman, Ralph Schwartz, Denny Woolridge.
LP: What kinds of music did the Legends play over the years?
DH: In '64 we were doing British Invasion stuff like everyone else -- the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Kinks, Gerry and the Pacemakers. We covered a lot of Top 40 hits, did some soul and some surf music, but later we started to get into the Byrds and the whole California scene. And as the band personnel changed over the next few years we gradually added some harder stuff like the Who, Jimi Hendrix, Cream, Steppenwolf, Grand Funk. It was a lot of high-energy, shock-the-audience music, which was what was popular then -- the "power rock" kind of thing.
LP: The Legends had a big following in Central PA. What were your gigs like and where did you play?
DH: In the early days when I first joined we played a lot of high school dances. We played John Harris and Bishop McDevitt in Harrisburg, Susquenita in Perry County, and it seemed like every other weekend we were playing a dance at East Pennsboro in Enola. Plus we frequently played the Progress Fire Hall, which was the biggest dance venue in the area. The local music scene was very exciting at the time because there were plenty of Friday and Saturday night gigs -- lots of well-attended fire hall dances that were hosted by popular DJs like Curt Whitcomb and "Lucky Pierre," a guy with a French accent on WFEC. And we had a good reputation so we always attracted pretty big crowds. We played in Lykens, Oberlin, Salunga. We did some pool parties and wedding receptions here and there, like at the New Cumberland Army Depot. Some VFW gigs. Then by '69 or '70 we were playing places like the Railroad House in Marietta, which was considered one of the cooler "hippy" clubs in the area. And we started stretching out and traveling a lot, playing in New York and New Jersey. It was great. Eventually we were doing all original songs and playing actual concerts rather than just weekend gigs.
LP: What kind of personnel changes did you go through?
DH: The original lineup in 1964 was Dave on guitar, Denny Woolridge on bass and Ralph Schwartz on drums. Then I joined and played organ, and we all sang. Dave and Denny both went into the military a couple years later, so Larry Swartzwelder replaced Dave
LP: How did you end up in the Edgar Winter Group?
DH: I'd been writing the bulk of the material and singing lead for the Legends for a long time, but some of what I was writing didn't really fit the three-man sound that we'd kind of been locked into. So I started recording some demos and sending them around. It seemed like a natural progression. I put around 13 songs on tape -- both Legends and solo stuff -- and started taking them to New York. What I'd hoped to do was get a record deal for the Legends, or maybe for myself and take the whole band with me. I don't know how many trips I made to New York but it was quite a few.
LP: That must have been a tough decision.
DH: It really was. The Legends were the only band I'd ever been in. Plus Joe Caloiero and Larry Sadler were my best friends at that time. That's the way it often happens -- you spend so much time together that you're not just musicians, you're best buddies. But I had to make a decision, and as hard as it was, I decided to leave the group. One of the last things I did for the Legends was write the song "Rock and Roll Woman." I figured that if I was going to leave, at least I could give them a song that might propel their career somehow. At that point Larry Swartzwelder had rejoined the band, and I went back to Central PA to produce the song for them at Baldwin Sound Studios on Trindle Road in Mechanicsburg. We put it out on a label that I started, and then it was picked up by Epic Records. It wasn't a huge hit or anything, but it got some regional airplay, which was nice.
DH: When we first started in 1972, it was Edgar on vocals, keyboards, saxophone and percussion, Ronnie Montrose on lead guitar, me on rhythm guitar and vocals, Randy Jo Hobbs on bass and Chuck Ruff on drums. That fall we released our first album, "They Only Come Out at Night," and it really bombed in the beginning because nobody liked the cover. A lot of groups were into the "glam rock" thing at the time, so we were all wearing makeup on the cover, and apparently people thought we were a bunch of transvestites. It was a bit controversial and nobody would touch it. But then the song "Frankenstein" came out as a single around the end of the year, and it was a huge hit. Then in the spring of '73, "Free Ride" came out and that was a hit, too. And of course I was thrilled since I wrote it, sang lead and played guitar on it.
LP: It had to be amazing to tour with such a popular band.
LP: How did you end up making the switch from guitar to bass?
DH: Randy Jo Hobbs, who'd been our bassist up to that point, got sick in the dressing room one night before a concert in Texas. I don't know if it was sex, drugs or rock and roll, but he wasn't going on. Of course there were 10,000 people there waiting for this concert to start, so someone said, "Well, Ronnie Montrose isn't going to play bass because he plays lead guitar." And I said, "Then who's going to play bass?" And they all looked at me. So I picked up the bass, even though I didn't know any of the bass parts for the songs, and I went out there and played. And we got three encores. Later on when it was clear that Randy wasn't coming back, they said,
LP: In September 1975 you returned to Central PA with the Edgar Winter Group and played a concert at Hersheypark Arena. What was it like to come home as a rock star?
DH: It was a lot of fun. I was just so full of anticipation and nervousness. But it was great. A fantastic show. I'll tell you, though, I was worried that something awful would happen. We had been touring for so long at that point, and it seemed like something would go wrong every night, whether it was the lights or the sound or whatever. So I was thinking about that in Hershey. I didn't want to let anyone down. We used to do crazy things -- like Chuck Ruff the drummer would run backstage, jump onto a springboard, fly way over the drum riser and land on the stage out in front. God knows he could have broken his ankles or landed wrong and killed himself. Plus Edgar played different instruments, so he'd run around switching back and forth between them -- from keyboards to sax to percussion and back again. He also had that synthesizer with the strap that he'd swing around his neck and throw around on the stage. It was very high-energy stuff because we wanted to give people their money's worth.
LP: Is this when the famous "bass suit" made its appearance?
DH: That came a little later. It was actually one of the first cordless guitars in existence, and I invented it. It was built right into this silver bodysuit so it looked as though the bass was coming out of my body, and the volume and tone knobs were on the sleeve. When it worked it was great, but the tunings were a little strange, plus I can't tell you how many times I got shocked. It wound up being just one more thing that we had to worry about on tour: "Well, I wonder if this will work tonight." After a while I couldn't stand wearing it anymore so I gave it up.
LP: Why did the Edgar Winter Group last only four years?
DH: It just ran its course. By the third album we were doing material that we thought was interesting and different, but it didn't catch on. I have to admit we were a little disappointed in the fans because they didn't stretch their vision at all, which frequently happens. At concerts they only seemed interested in hearing our hits, so after we'd play "Frankenstein," "Free Ride" and "Rock and Roll Hoochie Coo," which was Rick Derringer's big solo hit, people would get up and go to the bathroom. This was happening even in big coliseums. We kind of felt like saying, "If you only came to hear three songs, go home and play your records." At the same time, we sort of burned out because we'd worked so hard and had been so focused. So halfway through the tour we sat down and said,
Chuck Ruff, Rick Derringer, Dan Hartman, Edgar Winter
LP: What happened after the breakup?
DH: It was a major stepping-stone in my life. Getting off of that insane, merry-go-round whirlwind was like finally being in the real world again, where there's no more fantasy, no more rock-star life, and you're yourself again. You have to go to the store and get your own groceries and sweep your own back porch. I was basically on my own for the first time in several years, and it took some getting used to. But I was very happy to turn around and look at everything that I'd just been through. I was very thankful for the experience.
LP: You went on to have a couple of major hit singles of your own: "Instant Replay" in 1978 and "I Can Dream About You" in 1985. That must have been very gratifying.
DH: It was. I did some earlier solo stuff that wasn't very successful, and I was kind of confused about what I wanted to do musically. So I decided that instead of doing another record on my own, I'd produce other people. Over the next couple of years I produced Foghat, 38 Special, the Plasmatics, the Average White Band, and I also did some writing for people like Diana Ross. Then in 1978 I released my album "Instant Replay," and the title track reached number one on the dance charts (video). It got huge airplay around the world all the way through 1979. Then in 1984 I did "I Can Dream About You" for the soundtrack to the movie "Streets of Fire." The producer Jimmy Iovine, who's a friend, called me up and said he needed a "blue-eyed soul" song for this film. I happened to have a demo of "I Can Dream About You" sitting on a shelf, so I put some overdubs on it and sent it to them, and they loved it. And it became my biggest-selling song.
LP: Wasn't there some controversy surrounding the MTV video?
DH: In the movie they shot the song like it was a live concert with another guy singing it. And then they told me that they were going to take that version with this other guy"s voice and put it on MTV. And I said, "No, you won't."
LP: Your songs have appeared on quite a few movie soundtracks, haven't they?
DH: I had songs in "Fletch," "Down and Out in Beverly Hills," "Ruthless People," "Bull Durham," "Scrooged." But these days I'm actually turning down soundtrack offers just because the late '80s were so soundtrack-laden for me. It was a time when I didn't really want to do much solo work, and the soundtracks were a way to do just a couple of tracks here and there.
DH: I co-wrote that one with my writing partner Charlie Midnight. I also produced it and sang background on the choruses. It got a couple of Grammy nominations and James won a Grammy for singing it. It was his first hit in something like 15 years, so it was nice to be part of that.
LP: You also produced his next album, didn't you?
DH: He actually asked us to while we were making "Living in America." He wanted Charlie and me to write and produce the whole album, and I played on a lot of it. James Brown is such a character. He was outrageous. But we never had any inkling that he was doing drugs. He was always friendly, he would come to the studio ready to work, and he was very conversational. We always had a good time together. We would talk and laugh and order food. He was just a normal guy, but occasionally he would say some crazy things. In fact, the name of that album, "Gravity," came about because of something he told us. We were flying to Las Vegas to do his big performance scene in "Rocky IV," and he said, completely out of the blue, "Ya know, I defy gravity." And we kind of looked at him and said, "You defy gravity?" And he said, "Yep. I was flying in my jet one time, and we started diving 2,000 feet. We went down and I just closed my eyes and said, 'This plane is coming back up.'
LP: What about Joe Cocker? You co-produced his albums "Unchain My Heart" in 1987 and "One Night of Sin" in 1989, both of which were multi-platinum albums and earned some Grammy nominations.
DH: Joe is such a great guy. He's so well-tempered and really funny -- a very dry sense of humor. I really liked working with him. He's gone through a lot in his life, but he doesn't drink himself under the table anymore. And he might not be as spry as he was 10 or 15 years ago, but he swims every day and his health is good -- better than it had been. He's very cooled out these days.
LP: And Tina Turner's album "Foreign Affair" in 1989? That went to number one in several countries and gave her a big hit with the single "The Best."
DH: When she and I first talked about it, she said she wanted a raw, more soulful kind of record -- something that sounded live. The album was actually very easy to do because she already knew what songs she wanted to record, which is half the battle. So all I had to do was get my players in the studio with the engineer and put a live sound together. In fact Edgar Winter played the sax solo on "The Best."
LP: Why did you settle in Westport, Connecticut?
DH: Westport used to be a quaint, artistic community, and it still is to a certain degree. Plus I like being close to New York. I previously had a studio here called the Schoolhouse which was an old, one-room school. I produced a bunch of people there, too, like Johnny Winter, Muddy Waters, the Plasmatics and Holly Johnson of Frankie Goes to Hollywood. I was there for six years, and then I bought a house with seven levels on the side of a hill overlooking the Saugatuck River and called it Multilevel. The studio isn't huge, but it has two playing rooms and a control room, which is all you really need. The performers can also stay with me while we're working, which is great.
LP: Getting back to your early years, you actually started producing while you still lived in Central PA, didn't you?
DH: I started producing before I even joined the Legends -- around 1962. I must have been 1 year old at the time! I produced some local R&B, rock and gospel acts at Baldwin Sound in Mechanicsburg. People would hear what I'd done on someone else's record and call me up and ask if I'd produce them, too. I even wrote and recorded an advertising jingle for Sutliff Chevrolet out on Paxton Street when I was 16. So it's always been something that I could fall back on throughout my career -- to keep my mind going, to keep me musically inspired, and to keep me moving without having to make statements of my own. It's not easy to keep a solo career afloat because it's so dependent on having hit records. It's like being stuck on a treadmill.
LP: Can we expect another solo album from you in the future?
DH: I've actually finished five songs that I'd like to put on a new album. I've been itching to do one again, so it'll be a combination of pop and dance music. I should be ready to shop it to the labels soon, so hopefully we'll get a deal signed and get it released.
LP: Will you go on tour?
DH: If there's enough of an audience that wants to see me, then sure, I'll go out and tour. The last time I toured was after "I Can Dream About You" was released. And before that I hadn't toured since the Edgar Winter Group. But when I do play live here and there, the audience reaction is still amazing. Almost 20 years later, people still freak out over "Free Ride." That's something I sometimes forget about playing live -- that reaction. I lead a pretty quiet life now, and I'm not often in the public eye, but when I do go out and play, it's so great to be back in front of an audience again.
A Change of Musical Direction
With "NEW GREEN clear blue"
LP: How did the album come about?
DH: It's something that I wanted to do for a long time. I don't really listen to a lot of new age music, but I'm a big fan of Brian Eno, Harold Budd and Vangelis, who sort of fall into that broad category. I'd been listening to them for years and wanted to do something similar, so my friend Peter Baumann, who founded the label Private Music, suggested that I do an album for them. They specialize in instrumental music, which is fitting since he was a member of Tangerine Dream.
LP: Were you worried about leaving the world of rock and pop music to try something very different from what people knew you for?
DH: In everybody's life there comes a point when you have to decide if you're going to do something you've always wanted to. You can't
LP: Did the "new age" classification bother you?
DH: I don't consider it new age music, and I certainly I didn't set out to make a new age album. I'd prefer to call it ambient. It's more neoclassical than anything else, really. But because there's no category called ambient, the industry has classified it as new age.
LP: You did quite a bit of research on the psychology of music for the album, didn't you?
DH: I did. In fact I took a year off from everything else to do it. The research took a few months, and then I spent another six months writing and recording it. And the most interesting thing I found is that music can affect the way people feel on an unconscious level just like color can. You can walk into a room that's a particular color and feel a certain way, or you can walk into a different room with a different color and feel another way. Sounds can do the same thing. So I studied how the keys of songs and certain tones and musical shadings can affect the subconscious mind. The idea of the record is to slow down the listener enough for the subconscious to open up and stir some emotions or make you feel certain things. It wasn't just a musical experiment but a very personal one as well. Some people have told me that when they've listened to it, thoughts of their childhood have come back to them. They've thought about their parents or something that happened to them when they were 10 years old. For some it's a little uncomfortable, but for others it's very happy. We don't usually think of sound as such a powerful tool, but it really is.
LP: How did you apply your research to the writing process?
DH: You can't just read books and then write from theory, so I had to communicate with my own subconscious somehow. It wasn't like going into some Zen meditative thing, but it was very intuitive and intimate. I had to sort of go into my mind and dwell on a thought, and then sit at the keyboard and start experimenting. I messed around with some of the shades and tones I'd read about and recorded some ambience around the melodic sense of it. It was actually very hard. I was ready to throw in the towel a couple of times, but then I took a piece that I'd recorded to Peter Baumann and played it for him, and he said, "This is brilliant. This really stops time. You're definitely on the right track." So I kept working. And the more I worked on it, the more I felt like I was learning about myself.
LP: In what way?
DH: I didn't make any major psychological discoveries, but I feel like I came in contact with some of the basic reasons that I am the way I am, especially in terms of my creativity.
LP: How has the album been received?
DH: The industry reaction has been very positive. Most of the people that I know in the business really liked it. Nile Rodgers said it was great. The reaction of the critics has been to ignore it, but I honestly don't care because I didn't make it for the critics anyway. I think they were expecting something more traditionally new age, or maybe something more jazzy. But if I'd wanted to make it more palatable and listenable I wouldn't have made everything so slow and placid. I don't care that it's not "commercial." The record company thought it would only sell a few thousand copies, but right now it's over 25,000, which is good for that category. I really didn't expect it to sell at all, so I'm very pleased.
LP: Will you do another similar album?
DH: I have a two-record deal with Private Music, so the next record will be half "dance ambience" and half "dream ambience." I don't know how people are going to react to it, but I can see the two fitting together well. The first half is going to be very dance and soul oriented, but all instrumental. And it'll flow into the second half, which will be the meditative side of the record.
LP: It sounds like you're really going in a different direction these days.
DH: You have to do what you believe is best for you. It's like people who work at jobs they don't like, but they keep on doing it because it makes money. Well, I could do five more pop records, but right now that wouldn't be nearly as rewarding to me as doing this album. I'm really proud of it.
Former Legends (and Their "Road Manager")
Talk About the Old Days
Dan's father Carl on being the Legends' "road manager":
"In the beginning they didn't have anything to wear on stage, so I took them out and bought them their first jackets -- all four kids. Also, I was the only parent of the four boys that had a station wagon, so I used to haul all of their equipment. I'd get to the firehouse or wherever they were playing and help unload their stuff, and then I'd go back home and at 11:00 I'd be out there again waiting for them to finish. On the way home Dan would say they got paid 20 bucks for playing, and I'd say, 'Man, that's great, that gives you five bucks apiece.' And he'd say, 'One of these days we're gonna make it big, you wait and see.'
Dan's guitarist brother Dave on one of the early Legends' oddest gigs:
"In 1965 we played a pool party in Lancaster -- the first outdoor job we ever did. The people in charge set us up on a stage at the far side of the pool, and the whole way through the first set, not a single person clapped after the songs. The band was really established by then and we used to get pretty big crowds wherever we played, but these kids just stared at us from the other side of the pool. It was weird. This was a well-paying, highly recommended job, too. So after the first set, we came down off the stage and stood there saying, 'What the hell are we doing wrong here?' There were even some chaperones standing around, and they didn't make a move. We didn't know if they hated us and wanted to throw us into the pool with all of our equipment or what. One of the guys finally said, 'Maybe we should just pack up and get out of here while we can.' But then a couple of the kids walked all the way around the pool and came up to us and said, 'Boy, we never heard anybody as good as you guys.' The next thing we knew the whole crowd rushed over and everyone wanted our autographs. And then during the second set they finally started dancing and enjoying themselves. For some reason they'd just been intimidated by us. But for a while we weren't sure if we were going to get out of there alive."
Bassist Denny Woolridge on the band's talent:
"When we first started we practiced quite a bit, learning all the songs that we could and playing them over and over.
Drummer Ralph Schwartz on the party atmosphere of gigging:
"We played some frat parties in the area, like at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster. It could get pretty crazy. One time we even had to stay overnight because there was a lot of booze flowing and we weren't feeling very well. We also played a wedding reception at the New Cumberland Army Depot one time where Dan fell off the organ stool backwards. Let's just say we were in a partying spirit. There was a woman there who kept filling our glasses, and somehow my drums got champagne in them. In fact my floor tom-toms had about a quarter-inch of champagne on the heads. We were splashing all over the place the whole time we were playing. It was one of our more interesting gigs."
Bassist Joe Caloiero on Dan's departure from the Legends:
"We were very happy for Dan because we always knew that one day he was going to do something big. He had to do his own thing, of course, but when he left we didn't know what would happen to the band. It was going to be difficult to pick up the pieces. But we did it, and we actually got bigger in Central PA partly with Dan's help. He wrote and produced some of our music, including our single 'Rock and Roll Woman,' which I sang. Also, Larry Swartzwelder had rejoined the band on guitar. We were disappointed that the song didn't take off outside the area, but we continued playing it live and people loved it. We also stayed in touch with Dan, so it wasn't like we parted and never saw or spoke to one another again. But yeah, we were kind of worried."
Dan & Greg Johnson on
Joe Cocker's "Unchain My Heart" Album
I told him I'd love to
hear some of the material.
"In July 1987 I went up to his house and studio in Westport, Connecticut and played organ on one track ['Satisfied'] and piano on another ['Trust In Me']. I was really nervous about playing in front of Joe, but he gave me as much encouragement as Dan did, which was really nice. Joe's like an old road warrior. Very cool. We'd do a take, and when I'd play a particular phrase that he liked he'd say, 'I need more of that.' They were trying to get the performance out of me that they wanted, which is what producers do. I'm certain Dan could have found a studio musician in New York to do the same thing, so it was a really nice gesture on his part."
Some Web Resources on Dan