BRIEF HISTORY OF FIREFALL Part II
THE FIRE BEGINS TO FALL
Publicly, Firefall was burning hotter than ever. Behind the scenes, the band members were toast. They’d spent more than five solid years gigging, writing, recording, and touring and had finally made it. Yet their financial situation was in doubt. Relationships – both personal and business, inside and outside the band – were in shambles. One or two band members weren’t on speaking terms. The six-headed democracy, with no one in charge, was splitting at the seams. Their bodies, minds, and souls suffered the effects of touring, self abuse, and neglect, typical of the era’s booze’n’blow rock’n’roll lifestyle. And the creative muse (sorry, Dave) proved harder to find. In short, Firefall needed a break.
Attempts to straighten out all the above and more added up to the lengthy delay in getting the next album out. With Joe Lala again as an unofficial member of the group, sessions for album #4 were spread out over several months and both coasts. The Albert brothers produced the first attempt to complete the record, but again the band need a second effort, produced by Kyle Lehning in Boulder and L.A., to finish the album. There was much wringing of hands and gnashing of teeth by the band, the producers and the record company. The resulting “UNDERTOW” album was finally launched over a year after “ELAN.” The lead single, ‘Headed For A Fall’ (a folky tune re-arranged as a power rock song by the Alberts, with ex-Manassas and ex-Souther, Hillman, Furay member Paul Harris on electric piano), put the band back in the Top 40. They kept touring, sometimes headlining, sometimes playing shows with groups like Heart, Kenny Loggins and Marshall Tucker, and appeared on national TV shows. But much momentum had been lost. The second 45 single, ‘Love That Got Away’ (with Little Feat’s Billy Payne playing organ) stalled on the charts during the summer of 1980. Firefall’s gold and platinum streak was over. Financial troubles increased with a growing Atlantic debt and a lawsuit settlement with their first manager.
After the band completed a Japanese tour, Mark Andes and Michael Clarke left the band; Andes would later join the Wilson sisters for great success in Heart. Opting to carry on, Roberts, Bartley, Burnett and Muse quickly replaced them with Kenny Loggins’ Grammy winning rhythm section: bassist GEORGE HAWKINS and drummer TRIS IMBODEN (currently drummer of Chicago). They got busy recording another album right away in Boulder and Nashville with producer/engineer, Kyle Lehning (England Dan and John Ford Coley). Out at year’s end, “CLOUDS ACROSS THE SUN” hit the the charts in January 1981, followed a few weeks later by the single, ‘Staying With It,’ which, unbeknownst nor agreed to by the band, ended up featuring a duet between Roberts and Lisa Nemzo. After TV appearances on American Bandstand and Solid Gold, Hawkins left the band to join the party animals in Mick Fleetwood’s ill-fated solo band, the Zoo. Boulder bassist KIM STONE (later with Spyro Gyra) was his replacement. Then, just after Firefall hit the road to support the new record, Larry Burnett bowed out of the band due to ill health. On the charts, ‘Staying With It’ moved into the Top 40 but “CLOUDS ACROSS THE SUN” never caught on. Negotiations for a new record deal with RCA were in progress, but after a final concert on Maui with Pure Prairie League (Vince Gill’s last gig with them), Rick Roberts told his band mates he was history, and Firefall went into limbo. Later in ’81, Atlantic Records, as an afterthought, released “THE BEST OF FIREFALL” before Christmas, then turned the page and dropped the band from it’s roster..
THE PHOENIX RISES
As the months went by, co-founder Jock Bartley felt increasingly dissatisfied with the way things had ended. He was the only original member who hadn’t quit the band. Finally he called Ron Albert, hoping he’d have some ideas about replacing Roberts and re-lighting the Firefall flame. Ron suggested Jock get together with JOHN SAMBATARO and CHUCK KIRKPATRICK. Sambataro was a versatile Miami based singer/guitarist/keyboardist/songwriter who sang on record with Stills, Clapton, Dave Mason, McGuinn, Clark & Hillman, and Barry Gibb, among others. John and Jock had actually met back in ’78 when they both played on the Criteria sessions for Andy Gibb’s platinum album, ‘Shadow Dancing.’ Kirkpatrick was a local Miami singer/guitarist who sang with Johnny on a number of the aforementioned sessions and had worked as an engineer at Criteria on such albums as Derek & The Dominos’ “Layla.” Albert then talked to Alan Jacobi, a Miami entertainment lawyer who had a relationship with Atlantic; Jacobi convinced the label to help fund Firefall’s rekindling. Atlantic sprung for some new demos, which led to a new album deal and the spring of 1982 Criteria sessions for the “BREAK OF DAWN” LP, with Ron and brother Howard producing once again. Backing Bartley, Sambataro and Kirkpatrick were an number of Miami session players. The album featured special appearance by Stephen Stills (vocals, guitars, piano), David Sanborn (alto sax), plus former band mates Rick Roberts (additional background vocals) and David Muse (flute, harmonica and vocoder). The first “Break of Dawn” single, the power ballad ‘Always,’ penned by Sambataro and frequent collaborator Paul Crosta, hit the airwaves in late January ’83 – two years after the band’s last single, ‘Staying With It.’ ‘Always’ topped local charts in several markets around the country, but nationally didn’t quite break the Top 40. The album, out in March, made few industry waves.
The new Firefall nonetheless got the go-ahead to record another LP – and fast. Adding SCOTT KIRKPATRICK (Chuck’s bro) on drums and backing vocals, and Colorado bassist, GREG OVERTON, the group cut their seventh studio LP, “MIRROR OF THE WORLD,” named after Bartley’s song about the effects of violent TV on children. The album had a much harder edge than it’s predecessors, which many programmers thought reflected too great a departure from the classic Firefall sound. Though the first single, the rockin’ ‘Runaway Love,’ written by Bartley, Sambataro and Crosta, briefly appeared in video on MTV and received only limited radio airplay, “MIRROR OF THE WORLD” quickly disappeared.
The band remained a popular live act, continuing to tour without a record deal or current hit throughout the 1980’s, playing fairs, festivals, theaters and bigger clubs, and occasionally joined their friends The Doobie Brothers, The Beach Boys, Little River Band and Bob Seger on bigger stages. Firefall’s original singles were still faves with pop and A/C radio audiences, and as the classic rock radio format evolved, a number of the band’s songs enjoyed renewed exposure. For much of the decade of the ’80s, JOCK BARTLEY was the only original member left, although DAVID MUSE would return to the touring unit for stints sometimes lasting a year or more. Different musicians and singers joined into the touring band over the decade of the 80’s – including STEVE HADJOUPOLOS on woodwinds and keyboards (who tragically died of cancer in 1986) and BOB GAFFNEY on bass and vocals and briefly, EDDIE GLEASON on bass and vocals. As the decade grew to a close, RICK ROBERTS returned to front the group once again. In 1992, Rhino Records responded to the clamor to put out all on CD all the great Firefall music, and so released “FIREFALL: THE GREATEST HITS” which featured all of the singles and AOR favorites, and included one previously unrecorded new song, Bartley’s ‘Run Run Away,’ about the adult victims of past child abuse.
THE PHOENIX FLIES HIGHER
As bandleader, Jock Bartley put it, “In the ’80s and early ’90s, the musical landscape we had been playing on changed dramatically underneath us. By in large, multiple acoustic guitars and three part harmonies became a thing of the past (except in country music). They were a number of great groups and artists out there – The Police, Genesis, John Cougar Mellencamp, Peter Gabriel, Talking Heads – but there also was huge amount of crap. The craft of songwriting took somewhat of a nose dive. Sure, the songs on the radio sounded like hits (because of great production and the use of new studio technologies), but many of the singers couldn’t sing very well and the lyrics were often sophomoric or down-right bad. When so many music fans in the 30 to 50 age group didn’t like many songs on rock and pop stations, they started turning their radio dials. That’s why Classic Rock and also, I think, the boom in country music happened. People still wanted to hear melodic rockin’ songs with interesting and/or meaningful lyrics that spoke to them. There just wasn’t as much of it around in the 1980s.” Firefall gave their old fans that and more, gaining new support from the younger crowd. Though their music was growing and evolving, the band stayed close to it’s roots.
In 1984, Florida native, drummer SANDY FICCA joined into the group. The big guy immediately added new strength and power to songs like ‘You Are The Woman,’ ‘Strange Way’ and all of Firefall’s other ‘lighter’ hits. Soon, taking from the recently disbanded Boulder band, Fiction, Jock enlisted the services of bassist and stratospherically high vocalist, BIL HOPKINS, guitarist/vocalist, MARK OBLINGER (who replaced Chuck Kirkpatrick), and DANIEL CLAWSON (ex-Pure Prairie Leaguer) who filled the sax, flute, keyboard slot. Firefall grew increasing tight and wowed audiences nationwide with their musicianship, singing, professionalism and energy – it was very much fun again! Sandy moved out to Boulder, and again, the entire band called Colorado home. The band members were older now, none had alcohol or drug problems, most had children and wives, and for the most part, they were good friends. Though the size and number of gigs the band played had decreased, Firefall found new strength and purpose, found new respect and love for what they were fortunate enough to do for a living. After Mark and Dan left, powerful Denver vocalist and guitarist STEVEN WEINMEISTER joined to take on the lead vocals once sung by Rick or Johnny. Then singer/guitarist STEVE MANSHEL and JIM WADDELL who played that sweet alto sax, flute and keys were added. Other members of the touring band in the 1990s included brief stints by BRAY GHIGLIA, BRUCE CRICHTON, BOB FISHER and STEVE JENKS.
While touring the Midwest in 1993, Firefall encountered first hand the early devastation of the terrible Flood of ’93. In cities like Alton, Illinois, Des Moines, Iowa and St. Louis, the band felt the tragedy and overwhelming impact of the flood. One of their gigs was canceled and a few had to be moved back from danger. The night they returned home to Colorado, a song woke Jock up at 4:00 AM – he sat up in bed in the dark with the hook playing in his head. Getting up, he hurried into his music room and, twenty minutes later, ‘When The River Rises’ was finished. It is a uplifting song with a positive message of gaining strength in adversity. The next day, Steven, Bil and Steve joined him to work out the intricate harmonies. Two days later, the band recorded the song in Colo. Spgs. at Startsong Recording Studio, with engineer/programmer, Tom Gregor, co-producing the song with Bartley. Five days after it was written, ‘When The River Rises’ was taken back to St. Louis where it was played on the radio for the first time. The flood waters had not yet crested. Vowing to give a large portion of the publishing to Flood Relief, the song was sent to numerous radio stations in a dozen flooded states. Soon it was receiving heavy regional airplay and was used by CNN and other TV networks and stations behind coverage of the disaster.
The band parlayed the attention that ‘River’ brought to Firefall into the search for a new record deal. Many smaller companies showed interest but no major labels. They decided to go with a Colorado independent label, REDSTONE RECORDS, who’d had a few impressive successes in the smooth jazz genre. Though Redstone might be out of their league trying to break a band in the piranha tank of rock and pop, the band knew – it was time for a new record. “MESSENGER” was recorded in Denver and Boulder and was released in mid 1994. Bartley had been writing songs for ten years for just this opportunity.
Along with the hard edged ‘When The River Rises’ and ‘Secret,’ his songs ‘Love Find A Way,’ ‘Very First Moment’ (co-written with Rick Roberts) and ‘Who Ran Away’ gave the album a familiar but updated Firefall sound. Bil Hopkins’ classy song, ‘Say It’s Over’ (written with Mark Oblinger) and Steve Manshel’s powerful ‘Innocent Victim’ gave depth to the CD. Bartley, Weinmeister, Hopkins, Ficca and Manshel played and sang on the entire CD, with Clawson and Waddell adding most of the keyboards, sax and flute. MARK ANDES and RICHIE FURAY made guest appearances on the sessions. Bartley teamed up again with old friend, Jim Mason to Produce the CD. Lyrically, “MESSENGER” was much more diverse than anything the band had released to date – yes, there were love songs and one or two ballads, but also there were songs about child abuse, environmental catastrophe, and sexual abuse/rape in the chilling, ‘No Means No.’ The first single, ‘Love Find A Way,’ made a respectable showing on the Gavin Radio charts and on the airwaves, but Redstone didn’t have the distribution clout to get the CD into big retail store chains, and consequently sales were disappointing. But the album was critically acclaimed as “their best record since the early days of Firefall” and gave the group a new touring impetus. Manshel left the group around 1998; the band has been a five piece unit ever since.
In the years between 1996 and 2003, Firefall has toured extensively in the U.S., including three trips to Alaska, Europe twice and Japan twice. They have been involved with a number of social ’causes,’ trying and give a little something back to people – playing concerts for the John Elway Foundation (supporting child abuse victims), Denver Firefighters and Children’s Hospital Burn Victims Camps, Special Olympics fundraising events (hosted by Arnold Swartzenegger and Clint Eastwood in Lake Tahoe) and twice at American Airlines Celebrity Ski Events in Vail for Cystic Fibrosis (where celebrities like former V.P., Dan Quail, Boomer Esiason, Jim Palmer and Dan Jansen sang onstage with them!). In ’97, Jock Bartley was asked to compose a song for Suicide Prevention. He wrote the heartfelt ‘Call On Me’ which became the anthem of the cause and in the process, became a national spokesperson. Working with the Kristin Brooks Hope Center, the (800) SUICIDE Hotline Network and the American Association of Suicidology in Washington D.C., he helped to put on (and was director in) three benefit concerts to raise awareness and save lives – two in Nashville, featuring artists like Michael McDonald, Wynonna Judd, David Pack (Ambrosia), Rusty Young (Poco) and Victoria Shaw, and one in San Francisco where the powerhouse rockers, Journey, headlined with Firefall opening the show. In September 2005 Steve, Chris and Jock twice performed as ‘Acoustic Firefall’ at live benefits and radio fundraisers for Hurricane Katrina victims, helping to raise over $35,000 for the Red Cross. Also in September 2005, Steve and Jock played at a ‘Rockers For Kids’ benefit for Denver Children’s Hospital raising money for teens at risk – three of Jock’s paintings hung in the art exhibit that featured rock & roll artists Paul McCartney, David Bowie, Jerry Garcia, John Entwistle, Ron Wood, John Mellencamp and others.
In April of 2004, while ordering replacement gold records for an ex-Firefall employee who’s original awards had been stolen from his house, Jock inquired as to the status of the sales figures of the first Firefall album, knowing that back in 1977 hard sales figures were nearly at platinum status at over 950,000 units sold. The award manufacturer told him to call RIAA, the certification organization. RIAA told Jock to call Atlantic Records. On that subsequent call, it took the woman at Atlantic Records about thirty seconds to say, “Oh yes, that album has sold 1,300,000 units. We’ll certify if platinum today.” So, over twenty five years after FIREFALL’s first album actually sold over a million copies, it was certified platinum, over one million sales. A “Platinum Party” was held at Denver’s Hard Rock Café on May 16th, JB’s birthday, celebrating primarily the original six-man band’s success.. but also the longevity of the later incarnations of Firefall. On stage at the very beginning of the festivities, Jock said, “This new platinum record was certified decades after it was actually sold a million copies. This party is to honor and acknowledge the six original Firefall band members who created those songs and that distinctive sound that became so successful – Rick Roberts, Mark Andes, Larry Burnett, Michael Clarke, David Muse and I. Together we made music that was magic – songs that still get massive radio airplay nearly 30 years after they first appeared. Sure we had some business and personality conflicts, but the enduring legacy of the band is these wonderful songs and studio performances that still stand the test of time. I respect and love each and every one of those Firefall founding members. This celebration is for them.. and for you, the fans.” The platinum FIREFALL endures because of the strength and integrity of their songs. It flourishes because of the energy and spontaneity that is so evident on stage and in the studio.
FIREFALL will continue as long as there are people who want to hear great music and great singers and musicians. Thank you, one and all!!!