HOW ROGER DALTREY AND THE
DISCOVERED AND SIGNED LAW TO MCA
Thanksgiving Day, 1975. My band LAW was playing that night at a Tampa, Florida disco. We were quite discouraged because our first album had just bombed completely.
Michael Thevis had signed us to his new Atlanta-based record label, GRC, in the summer of ’75. He paid us a $35,000 signing bonus and we thought we were on our way to the big time. Our manager, Gary LoConti, was doing his best to balance our need to work high-paying gigs while also taking the time to rehearse and record our album. He brought in Ron and Howard Albert to produce us. They were best known as the recording engineers for Eric Clapton (Layla), CS&N, and many others.
Thevis was infamous as the nation’s “Porno King,” so dubbed by a widely read Reader’s Digest article. He was largely responsible for setting up video peep shows in adult book stores around the country. We attended a party at his opulent Atlanta mansion just after signing with GRC and he seemed to be just a nice, rich guy. But as we were to soon learn, he was actually quite sinister.
Later that fall he was arrested and indicted on interstate pornography distribution charges and he was interred at a federal prison in Lexington, Kentucky. He asked us to come and perform for him and his fellow inmates, which we did.
His legal troubles mounted and he was soon too overwhelmed to pay any attention to his record label. With the label’s distribution deals in disarray, our album was virtually invisible. That was the situation we faced as we prepared to play that night at that Tampa disco.
I spoke that afternoon with my girlfriend in Atlanta, Kathy Sullivan. She was excited because our friend (and former roadie) Jack Williams had invited her to go with him to the Who’s hotel to meet Roger Daltrey. The Who was staying there for a week, flying out to various gigs in the Southwest and returning the same night to their Atlanta hotel. Jack was a hustler and he had somehow insinuated himself into the Who’s inner circle, especially with Roger Daltrey himself. Jack was also a songwriter. Daltrey invited him to bring his tape to the hotel for a listen.
I told Kathy to enjoy herself and tell me all about it later. We played the gig that night and returned to our hotel. It was a miserable experience--a disco, complete with mirrored ball and flashing floor lights. Someone asked us to play “Do the Hustle.” Instead, we hustled our asses out of there as soon as we could.
Back at the hotel, the phone
rang in my room. It was my girlfriend Kathy. She sounded hysterical. “You’re
never going to believe it!” she squealed, “you’re never
going to believe it!” She told me that someone wanted to talk to me. OK, I said,
put him on.
It was a British voice. “Hello Steve, this is Roger Daltrey.”
After practically dropping the phone, I said something brilliant, like “How’s it going Roger?”
“Steve,” he said. “I’ve just heard your LAW album and your girlfriend told me what’s going on with your label. My manager and I want to talk with you about signing your band to our production company.”
Now bear in mind, the WHO were at the top of their game in 1975. I had seen them perform once and it was the second greatest concert I had ever witnessed (next to the Jimi Hendrix Experience). They were personal heroes of mine, and here I was talking with their lead singer. We had done shows with quite a few national acts like Bob Segar, Alice Cooper, and many others. I was acquainted with many "stars." But this was THE WHO!
Roger and I chatted for a
couple of minutes. He gave me his manager’s phone number at their hotel. His
name was Bill Curbishly (he still manages the Who to this day).
Needless to say, our mood turned from despair to great hope in a matter of seconds. It was really quite unbelievable. Here’s how it happened:
Jack Williams picked up Kathy and they went to the Who’s hotel. They were admitted to Daltrey’s suite and Jack had a boom box with his songwriting demo tape in it. He hit the play button and instead of his demo it was the first track on our first album, “Wake Up.” It happened to be on the other side of Jack’s tape, and he just happened to put it in the cassette player backwards. He stopped the tape, but Roger said, “Hold on there, I want to hear that.” He listened to the entire album, called in his manager to hear it, and then called me. He never did listen to Jack’s songs (until much later).
After hanging up with Daltrey I called our manager, Gary, in Cleveland. He then called Bill Curbishly. We had the next day off to travel from Tampa to Huntington, West Virginia for our next gig. It was decided that our bass player, John McIver, and I would fly to Chicago to meet up with Gary, Curbishly, and Daltrey. We met them in Curbishly’s suite the afternoon of our gig in Huntington. We had tickets to fly from O’Hare Airport to Charleston, W.V. and get to Huntington just in time for the gig.
Roger Daltrey and his manager Bill Curbishly couldn’t have been nicer. They liked the band a lot and wanted to see us perform live. So they added us to their upcoming show in Cincinnati, December 6th, 1975 (this was the same arena where, a few years later, 11 people would be killed in a stampede at another Who concert).
Cincinnati was not one of LAW’s strongholds. We’d played there a few times, but our closest real following was in Columbus. Fortunately, many of those followers attended the concert, and we felt like we were playing at home.
Toots and the Maytalls, a Jamiacan reggae band, opened the show. They were not received well. In fact, they were booed. I was appalled. I thought they were great. Would they boo us, as well? They didn’t. In fact, it was a powerful show. We played our asses off and the entire arena was standing and dancing by our last number.
LAW, at that point, was a 4-piece band consisting of Ronnie Lee Cunningham on lead vocals and keyboards, John McIver on bass, Tom Poole on drums, and myself on guitar. It was probably the weakest of all LAW’s various lineups because Tom Poole just didn't have the amazing energy we once had with our first drummer, Steve Lawrence. Still, we kicked ass live. The Who were impressed. We primed their audience and worked them into a frenzy before the band even took to the stage. So they added us to several other shows in the coming month or two.
Gary LoConti and Bill Curbishly started talking terms. The idea was that Curbishly and Daltrey would first sign LAW to their company Goldhawke Productions, then sign us to their label, MCA. They would buy out our contract with GRC Records in Atlanta and put us in a studio to record our second album with an advance to cover our expenses while recording.
Curbishly also laid down “the law,” in one regard. We were not, under any circumstance, to give Keith Moon any drugs, period. If he asked, we were to sidestep the question or risk being thrown off the tour. Sure enough, the first time I spoke with Keith he asked me if I had any coke. I told him I did not (and I didn’t), and he called me a “fucking wanker.” I told him in response that I hadn’t been fucking anyone for several days, would he please send his rejects my way? He laughed at that and we became buds. From that point on he went out of his way to say hello to me. But he never did set me up to get laid. His girlfriend (later to become his wife) had joined the tour and he was being a good boy.
It took a couple of months to finalize our contract with Goldhawke Productions. During the negotiation we let our drummer go. We asked Steve Lawrence, the L in the original L.A.W., to rejoin the band and he accepted our offer. He quit in the first place because he wanted to play funkier music, not the boogie rock that we had been playing. Now, with John McIver on bass we were very funky, but we still rocked. With Steve back in place, we felt that we were better than ever.
With the band now consisting of myself on guitar, Steve Lawrence on drums, John McIver on bass, and Ronnie Lee Cunningham on keyboards and lead vocals, we started to write material in the spring of ’76 for our first album on MCA. But there was still something missing. Ronnie Lee was a great front man, but he was stuck behind the keyboards most of the time and we were coming up with songs that his voice wasn’t quite suited for. We decided to find another singer to share vocal duties with Ronnie Lee and provide another focal point on stage.
Our producers, Ron and Howard Albert from Criteria Studios in Miami, suggested a couple of candidates who we listened to and passed on. Then they came up with Roy Kenner, who had replaced Joe Walsh in the James Gang along with Toronto guitarist Dominic Troiono, then later Tommy Bolin. The James Gang had finally split up and Roy was living in Toronto and was unemployed. We all liked his singing and liked his looks so it was decided that I would fly to Toronto, “interview” Roy, and make a decision based on my impression of him. I liked Roy immediately and he liked the new demos I played for him, so I officially invited Roy to move to Ohio and join the band, and he accepted the offer.
LAW, which was originally a 3-piece power trio, was now a 5-piece funk rock band. Somehow, through all the changes we had made over the years, we held on to our fan base in Ohio, PA, Atlanta, Detroit, New York and Florida and started working harder than ever to expand it. We still had several WHO shows to play. Roger Daltrey and Bill Curbishly approved of the changes in the band and we all looked forward to recording our album at Miami’s famed Criteria Studios.
It was the summer of ’76 and it was sweltering in Miami. Our manager, Gary LoConti, arranged for us to stay at the same house on 461 Ocean Boulevard that Eric Clapton had stayed in and named his “comeback” album for. It was right on the beach, roomy and quite comfortable. We contracted with a catering service called Home At Last to cook our meals and wash our clothes and keep the house in order. One thing we noticed is that the palm tree Clapton stands next to on the album cover was gone. Howard Albert told us that the man who used to own the house planted that tree in the 30s and that when he died in late ’74, the tree suddenly died, as well.
Several times we had good looking girls knocking on our door “looking for Eric.” We invited them in and that led to all kinds of debauchery. One day, we met Neil Young at the studio and brought him back to 461 for dinner. I also met Bob Marley and Rod Stewart during our stay there. All in all, it was a very enjoyable four weeks.
With the album in the can (but not yet mixed) we went to Jacksonville to play the Gator Bowl with the Who, LaBelle and Black Oak Arkansas. My two brothers came to that show from Jackson, Mississippi and I was so proud that they got to see the band at its peak and to meet the Who, as well. Pete Townsend was particularly affable that day. We then went back to Miami with the Who and Black Oak for a show at Yankee Stadium.
The next day we went back to Criteria. Daltrey and Curbishly were to meet us there that afternoon to listen to the rough mixes. They never made it, though, because Keith Moon had gone beserk in his suite at the Fountainbleu Hotel that day and severely cut himself on the bathroom mirror. They found him passed out in a pool of blood and rushed him to the hospital.
As it turned out, LAW’s connection with the Who did not bear commercial fruit. The album “Breakin’ It” contained a few gems, but it was largely uncommercial. The first single was “The Shelter of Your Arms,” written by yours truly. It garnered a good review on Billboard and broke into the Top 100. Dick Clark played it once on American Bandstand and the audience gave it a fair rating. Listen to it here.
On the whole, though, the album fell between the cracks. It was too rock for R&B radio stations and too black for AOR (“album oriented rock”) stations. Our producers, Ron and Howard Albert, wanted to produce a disco album a la KC and the Sunshine Band. They imposed their preconceived notions on the band and it didn’t work. They underproduced my guitar tracks and overproduced the sweeteners—horns and strings. The material itself, while powerful on stage, didn’t translate well into commercial, radio-ready tracks. Some of the songs were weak. In retrospect, we should have found and recorded a few outside songs, as many chart toppers of the day did. We should have found some hits. There was no question that we could play our asses off. With the right song we might have achieved what our friends in Wild Cherry achieved with “Play That Funky Music,” which was released about the same time “Breakin’ It” was released.
Gary LoConti tells me now that there were also political forces within MCA Records and Goldhawke Productions that conspired to hold the record back--changes in key personnel, for instance. I didn’t know much about that at the time. We were fairly oblivious to the business side of things. Oh, if I only knew then….”
At any rate, the band continued to tour, opening for major acts and also playing small theatres and large clubs around the country as headliners. It would be another year-and-a-half and one more album before I finally quit the band in December 1977. But that’s another story.