Atlanta Rhythm Section will be part of Ultimate ’70s show at BergenPAC

rodney justo interview

COURTNI MEADOWS

Rodney Justo, second from right, with Atlanta Rhythm Section.

Atlanta Rhythm Section, formed in Georgia in the ’70s, will make a rare New Jersey appearance at BergenPAC in Englewood, Oct. 8, as part of the Ultimate ’70s Tour, also featuring Pure Prairie League and Orleans. “I had moved to New York City a while back and I can’t tell you what a thrill it is to be back in that area,” said Atlanta Rhythm Section singer Rodney Justo. “I’ll probably have some friends come to the show; we don’t get up there that often and I’m really looking forward to it.”

With hits such as “So Into You,” “Imaginary Lover” and a remake of Classics IV’s “Spooky,” Atlanta Rhythm Section established a sound that separated them from the pack. When asked about “the sound,” Justo was quick to give credit to guitarist Barry Bailey’s searing licks and clean tone.

“A lot of people want to sound like Barry Bailey and I tell them, ‘I’ll get his guitar and set his amp exactly like he sets it and I’m going to let you play it (but) it’s not going to sound like Barry Bailey, because it’s in the fingers,’ ” said Justo. “Barry has always been a very underrated guitarist. He can’t play anymore because he has M.S. and he had to hang it up about 15 years ago, and it has finally reached the point where he doesn’t even play at home.

“Barry was a musician — do you know what I mean? I know you know the syndrome where sometimes you see a guy … I don’t care if it’s drumsticks or hold a guitar or sit in front of a piano, but the second they touch the instrument, they don’t even have to play a note, you know there’s something there. You can just put a guitar in his hands and watch him grab it and you’ll think, ‘I have a feeling this guy can really play.’ I knew (Bailey) before the band started and he’s always been a beautiful, beautiful guitarist and he is a good guy, too.

“It’s a blessing and a curse,” he continued with a laugh. “We’re a very peculiar band because, where the hell do we fit in? People say we’re Southern rock. Eh, I don’t know. We’re not Marshall Tucker, we’re not The Outlaws, we’re not Lynyrd Skynyrd. To me those are Southern rock bands. We don’t sing about pick-up trucks, and Merle and Buck … that’s not our thing. ‘Spooky’ was a re-cut of another song and the big hits were classic rock hits. Luckily, those kinds of hits keep us working.”

The cover of the self-titled 1967 album by Rodney Justo’s band, The Candymen.

Atlanta Rhythm Section initially formed out of the ashes of various other projects.

“I’ll tell you a funny story,” said Justo. “Three of us were in Roy Orbison’s band The Candymen, which is how we started, and we were in California and had a record out called ‘Georgia Pines,’ which was starting to get some action. Our manager was on the phone and he was talking to somebody back in Atlanta and he says, ‘What? They’ll be the last one on it? Chicago? Beautiful. What? Spartanburg, S.C.? Great. Atlanta is on it?’

“I thought they were talking about my record and he hangs up the phone and says, … ” ‘Spooky’ is a smash.” And I said, ‘What?!’ That record had been out for a while and I can’t tell you how much Dennis Yost hated it. Dennis, of course, was in the Classics IV. He came to me and said, ‘Well … it looks like my next record is going to be ‘Spooky’ on Liberty and (producer) Buddy (Buie) made me sing it like a damn sissy.’ (laughs) So, I learned something from Dennis Yost, the secret to life: Don’t give a shit. Because they were broken up and their record went Top 5. They got back together because the record was a hit and then they had another hit with ‘Stormy’ and then they broke up again and then they got back together. Every time these guys broke up they had a hit record and they had to get back together and we’re out in California wondering why our record wasn’t a hit. (laughs)

“Roy Orbison, though, he was the sweetest guy. I could tell you stories about him all day long, especially now looking back. … People always ask me, ‘Did you learn anything from working with Roy Orbison?’ Like I was going to learn how to sing or something. That doesn’t happen. I will tell you this: He was such a nice guy and he made a lot of really bad records that disc jockeys would still play, to give him a chance, because they had met him and he was such a nice guy … He would spend time with people like you couldn’t believe and he treated everyone very respectfully. When you sat with Roy and talked with him, you were the only guy in the room. That’s just the way he was. He was a great listener, had a great memory, he had an incredible sense of humor and loved to laugh. He loved jokes and was a practical joker. He was a lot of fun and it was a big loss when he died, on a personal level.

“I met Roy back before bands had hit records. Before bands had hit records, it was people who had hit records. A single artist like Bobby Rydell or Gene Pitney or Roy Orbison or Neil Sedaka used to travel around the country and nobody had their own bands. They might travel with a drummer or a guitar player but nobody had their own band: They couldn’t afford it. So they would work with whatever local bands that they could, and Roy showed up and my band was the band that backed all of the artists that would come to Central Florida. They all had two, three, maybe four hits and we would learn their hits and then they’d do ‘What I’d Say,’ a Bo Diddley song, a Chuck Berry song … they all did the same songs. So that’s how I got to meet virtually everybody, and that’s how I met Roy. He was the first or maybe second person to travel with his own band and Bobby Goldsboro was the rhythm guitar player in his band, so I took Bobby’s place.”

“Champagne Jam” (1978) was Atlanta Rhythm Section’s highest-charting album and contained one of their biggest hits, “Imaginary Lover.”

Regarding the Ultimate ’70s Tour, he says the other groups “are all pals of ours and we work quite a few dates with them and Firefall, and we’re lucky. But what I don’t like about some of those shows is that sometimes we only play five or six songs. I wanna play! (laughs) If I’m leaving my house, why the hell do I only want to do five songs and soft-rock ’em to death? (laughs)

“When we started off, we were going to be a rock ‘n’ roll band. The hits, like I said, they are classic rock hits but we didn’t think we were going to be like that. We thought we were going to be more like … oh hell, I don’t know what we thought we’d be … more rock ‘n’ roll, I guess.

“A lot of times I see young people at our concerts and I say, ‘What the hell are you doing here?’ (laughs) They say, ‘Are you kiddin’ me? My parents brought me up on classic rock. I don’t listen to the stuff that is out right now.’ I was visiting my daughter and my granddaughter and they had the TV on and the volume was off but it was playing music and I’m seeing words up on the screen and I’m looking at these words and I’m thinking, these are songs? How long did it take to write? If it was a four-minute song then it must’ve taken four minutes to write it. It looked like they just started writing stuff down. There is not a lot of craft; I don’t want to sound like an old guy complaining about that ‘God damn rock ‘n’ roll music! Don’t be listening to that stuff.’ I’m not like that and I want desperately to like the stuff, but it’s not happening (laughs).”

Justo can’t help but laugh when he talks of tours in the past and the shows of today and, once again, today’s music.

“It’s so great that we have all this work coming up because last year was poised to be our best year since the glory years, and then it all fell apart. This show is 60 minutes and this will be great! I’m lovin’ it and it looks like we are going on second, and I guess Orleans is closing.

“Our tours aren’t like the tours we used to do when we were young and would go out for three months at a time. That’s a different world. We try and work 50 dates a year and most are like this or we play for an hour and a half by ourselves with maybe a local band as an opener or another act like ours. But I will say that we are happy to hear that we are doing this ’70s show because we get to be friendly with these guys. We look forward to seeing them; we hang around in the hotel after the shows like in the old days. I miss the old days when we all used to bunk up with two guys to a room and we didn’t have any money. Now we’ve all got our own room and you can’t say, ‘Do you want to get something to eat?,’ because one of the guys may have just fallen asleep (laughs) or they call me after I’ve fallen asleep and I’d been thinking, ‘Oh God, please don’t call me. I need to sleep so bad.’ (laughs)

“We had two gigs this week where we had to catch planes at 6 o’clock in the morning, which means we had to get up at 4. This is like my worst nightmare. (laughs)

“We’re happy to be working and playing ’70s music. It seems like you can define music by decades, and I love ’60s and ’70s music. I had a little band here in Tampa when I wasn’t working with ARS and I had that for 12 years and we did only ’60s music and our motto was, ‘Remember the days before music sucked!’ (laughs) There are no real songs out there and most people will tell you that it’s the songs, the songs, it’s the songs.”

He also has concerns about production techniques and lack of authenticity in today’s sound, preferring classics from days gone by to today’s sterile methods.

“I see some of these singers on some of these shows like ‘American Idol’ and some of these people, the way they can sing … whoa, this guy or this girl has a great voice, but I don’t see any pain there. They’ve got words and they’ve got technique.

“There was a song by The Zombies. It went, ‘No one told me about her’ … you can hear that guy breathe. We’ll never hear that again. They will take that out. Guitar players, you could hear them move their fingers on the strings … gone. If I could only listen to music for one day, I’d flip a coin and I’m either going to listen to Beatle records or old Ray Charles records. Those old Ray Charles records … he was really a gospel singer 2.0. You could see the gospel influence from when he started singing. He was very passionate, the band was making mistakes, it was disjointed but it was just so passionate with so much feeling. Gosh, I miss that so much.

“Some of the music isn’t even good but it’s great. Because something is or isn’t good doesn’t mean you have to like it. Most woman want to be either Etta (James) or Aretha. After those two, the tree starts getting small and I could talk about this all day long. You want to hear a good singer? Find out what a guy does with crap songs. Find some old Jackie Wilson records and see what that guy had to deal with. Listen to him sing ‘Danny Boy.’ I can imagine his manager saying, ‘Jackie, you’ve got to get ready for Vegas. This is all going to end one day. Learn “Danny Boy.” ‘ Jackie gets ‘Danny Boy’ and he turns it inside out. I saw him do it live when I was a young kid and I was just mesmerized. It was totally different and he was unbelievable.

“Young people today don’t know who guys like him or Bobby Blue Bland are. There are singers, and then there are people who can sing.”

Atlanta Rhythm Section performs with Orleans and Pure Prairie League at BergenPAC in Englewood, Oct. 8 at 8 p.m. Visit ticketmaster.com. For more on the band, visit atlantarhythmsection.com.

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