A BRIEF HISTORY OF FIREFALL
(With excerpts from the liner notes of “Firefall’s Greatest Hits” on Rhino Records by Stephen K. Peeples)
As dusk enveloped the spectacular vistas of Yosemite Valley in Yosemite National Park, California, a huge pile of wood lay stacked at the edge of a high cliff. Nature lovers from far corners of the world gathered on the valley floor, waiting till dark when the woodpile was torched and slowly pushed off the cliff, the burning logs forming a blazing cascade down the mountain’s stony face. The image of the primitive light show, staged at Yosemite for tourists, stuck in Florida-born Rick Roberts’ mind for a long time. Then in l973, as he and his new Colorado based band were about to play their first gig but still needed a name, the image flashed back: Firefall. That seems an especially dead-on handle for the country flavored rock’n’roll band that carried the torch of musical forebears such as The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, and The Flying Burrito Brothers into the mid-’70s and beyond.
For the better part of the next decade, Firefall burned brightly it at both ends, musically and personally, and then appeared to flame out, at least on record. By 1982, they’d cut eight albums (scoring gold for the first three, with the third going on to platinum-plus), and put 11 singles on the charts. FIREFALL GREATEST HITS satisfied many fans who’d been asking for a collection of the band’s best known songs – all their hit 45s and a handful of the choicest LP tracks, plus a new, previously unreleased Firefall recording penned by co-founder Jock Bartley –“Run Run Away.”
Firefall’s connection to the pioneering country rock bands is at once direct, convoluted, and fascinating. The group’s roots can be directly traced back to middle ’60s to The Byrds and Buffalo Springfield, who were themselves influenced by folk luminaries like Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie. In late l967, country rock godfather Gram Parsons bailed out of his International Submarine Band and took off with Roger McGuinn, Chris Hillman, Michael Clarke and The Byrds. At around the same time Richie Furay broke away from Stephen Stills, Neil Young and The Buffalo Springfield to form Poco with Jim Mesina, Rusty Young, Randy Meisner and George Grantham. These two groups gave birth to the musical genre that would soon be called ‘country rock.’
In October l968, after recording The Byrd’s prototypical country rock LP “Sweetheart of the Rodeo” (Columbia), Gram Parsons refused to tour in segregated South Africa, and flew the coop. A few months later, McGuinn and Hillman discovered their manager had been ripping them off, and Hillman split, too. By December ’68, Parsons and Hillman were airborne once again, this time piloting The Flying Burrito Brothers. The new experimental fivesome also featured occasional Byrds steel guitar player Sneaky Pete Kleinow, and the bassist and drummer from Parsons’ old International Submarine Band, Chris Ethridge and John Cornea. Within a few months, the Burritos boasted a third ex-Byrd when Corneal was replaced by drummer Michael Clarke, who’d most recently been with Doug Dillard and Gene Clark’s band. Later in ’69, guitarist Bernie Leadon, ex-Hearts & Flowers and Dillard & Clark, became a Burrito.
After bank rolling the first two Burritos albums, Parsons decided he’d had his fill; he exited and dropped out of sight for a while, heading to the south of France to hang with Keith Richards and the other members of the Rolling Stones. Gram was replaced in the early 1970s by singer/writer/guitarist Rick Roberts, who had sung (uncredited) on The Byrds “Untitled” LP (Columbia) earlier that year. With Roberts in the Burritos fold, they recorded “The Flying Burrito Bros.,” their album (released in June ’71 by A&M), and “Last of the Red Hot Burritos,” the fourth and final new LP (February ’72, A&M). But like the first two, the last two were praised to high heaven by the critics and ignored like hell by record buyers. So after three years and four stiff albums, the band members were fed up with the whole Burritos enchilada.
Most of the key players on the West Coast/Colorado country rock circuit had crossed paths many times by then. They’d jammed and sung informally, sat in with each other’s groups, and written songs together. They’d caroused with the womenfolk, told many a tall tale, and shared mass quantities of controlled substances (thus making “Rocky Mountain High” a double entendre). Career-wise, they also shared the acute frustration of repeated, unconsummated flirtation with the Success Goddess. The whole scene was taking on incestuous undertones. To paraphrase the summer ’71 Stephen Stills hit, it was time to change partners.
Bernie Leadon had been the first of the last red-hot Burritos to burn out in mid-’71, after the third album’s lukewarm reception. He joined forces with Glenn Frey (ex-Longbranch Pennywhistle with J.D. Souther), Don Henley (ex-Shiloh), and Randy Meisner (ex-Stone Canyon Band with Rick Nelson) in Linda Ronstadt’s band. A few months later, the guys mutinied, jumped ship, and re-christened themselves Eagles. Pedal steel player Al Perkins (another Shiloh alum) and Hillman went from The Burritos on down the road to Manassas, Stills’ post-Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young monster blues/rock/country/Latin party band. After that, Perkins and Hillman teamed up with J. D. Souther and Richie Furay (ex-Buffalo Springfield, ex-Poco) in The Souther, Hillman, Furay Band. Michael Clarke, after eight nearly non-stop years flying with The Byrds, Dillard & Clark, and The Burritos, bagged the whole business and headed to Hawaii for an extended vacation.
THE FIREFALL IGNITES
By the early ’70s, RICK ROBERTS moved to Colorado and signed with one of Stills’ song publishing companies, celebrating his post-Burritos freedom by recording a solo album on A&M Records, “Windmills” in 1972. That May, a song he’d written with Stills and Hillman, ‘It Doesn’t Matter,’ became a #61 solo 45 for Stephen. Earlier that year, Chris Hillman and Rick had seen the phenomenal undiscovered singer, Emmy Lou Harris, perform in a tiny club near Washington D.C. Knowing he was looking for a female singer partner, Chris called Gram. Soon Gram, Emmy Lou and a number players from Elvis’ backup band went into a studio in L.A. to make his brilliant solo album, “G.P.” on Warner Bros. They hit the road with a new band, The Fallen Angels. After their first show in Boulder, they realized the guitarist originally hired for the tour, wasn’t cutting it. Kansas-born JOCK BARTLEY auditioned and was hired as lead guitarist for The Fallen Angels. Jock was the local hot guitarist who’d just come from a stint with the Boulder band, Zephyr, having replaced Tommy Bolin as lead guitarist on the album “Sunset Ride” on Warner Bros. (Bolin would go on to play with the James Gang, replacing Joe Walsh, and then join Deep Purple before his untimely death in 1977). During the second concert after Bartley joined the Fallen Angels at Houston’s Liberty Hall, Neil Young and Linda Ronstadt made a surprise appearance on stage (it was the first time Emmy Lou and Linda had met and sang together); in the crowd for that show was Jimmy Page and Robert Plant. As fate would have it, coincidentally, Gram and the Fallen Angels played two nights in New York City at the infamous venue, Max’s Kansas City, followed a night later by a solo performance of Rick Roberts, his Burrito replacement. It was there Rick and Jock first met. Like Parsons, Roberts was impressed by Bartley’s lead and slide work. In mid September 1973, a few days after finishing his 2nd solo LP, “Grievous Angel,” (months before it was released), Gram Parsons died in a motel out the Joshua Tree desert, supposedly of heart failure. The circumstances remain shrouded in mystery.
Back in Boulder, Bartley ran into Roberts, who by then had cut another solo album, “She Is A Song” on A&M. The duo began practicing and performing together. Jock’s innovative guitar style added a rock edge to Rick’s melodic folky tunes. Encouraged by their audiences and peers – and vowing to avoid the mistakes made with their previous outfits – the two decided to build a better rock’n’roll band. Roberts and Bartley rounded up Philadelphia- born bassist/singer MARK ANDES, who’d been a major figure on the SoCal (Topanga Canyon) rock scene during the late ’60s and early ’70s with the bands Spirit (‘I Got A Line On You’ and ‘Natures Way’) and Jo Jo Gunne. Andes had plugged out and was living in the mountains outside Boulder, but was coaxed out of semi-retirement. He brought jazz as well as progressive rock elements to the new band’s sound.
LARRY BURNETT was a Washington, D.C.-based singer/writer/guitarist Roberts had met while performing at the Cellar Door club in the Nation’s Capital a few years earlier. When Roberts contacted him in ’73 to see if he was free to join Firefall, Burnett had been driving a cab to make ends meet. Rick sent him a one-way plane ticket west; Larry parked the hack, packed his sack, and never looked back. He brought a number of soulful original songs with him that would soon contrast and compliment Roberts’ more commercial ones.
From their very first practice, the band had 20-25 original songs to play! Roberts, Bartley, Andes, and Burnett auditioned several local drummers, playing a few local gigs, but none had world class chops or experience. Finally, Roberts called up his former Burritos bandmate and ex-Byrd, MICHAEL CLARKE, who was hired on the spot, over the phone. When Clarke landed back in Colorado and assumed Firefall’s drum throne, the lineup was set.
The band woodshedded in Colorado clubs for more than a year, mainly in Boulder and Aspen. They worked on writing new tunes and honing a powerful, guitar driven rock/pop/country style, which put equal emphasis on strong melodies, sophisticated multi-vocal harmonies and fiery musical interludes. In early 1975, FIREFALL recorded a three song demo tape produced by Chris Hillman and began shopping it to several major labels. At the same time, the new group’s members pursued other musical avenues. After CSNY’s mammoth 1974 tour and latest divorce, Stills put a new group together, and signed a solo deal with Columbia. Stills cut his solo album at Caribou Studios near Nederland, Colo., and for the six week supporting tour that summer, Stephen added Roberts to the band on backing vocals and guitar. During the set, Rick sang his song, ‘Colorado,’ a Burrito tune that Linda Rondstat had made famous.
THE COMET RIDE – 1976-1978
Firefall’s big break came unexpectedly, at around the same time. A few months after splitting up with Richie Furay and J. D. Souther, Chris Hillman hit the road with a backup band that included Firefall’s Bartley, Andes, and Roberts. By the time they were scheduled to play The Other End in NYC, Hillman became ill and could not complete the tour. Firefall flew in it’s other two members from Colorado to finish the engagements. Atlantic A&R reps, who’d been impressed by their demo, caught the show and quickly offered the group a multi-album contract. They signed on and made plans to record their first record in the winter of 1975. Wanting more color and texture to their music, Firefall called upon DAVID MUSE, a high school buddy of Rick’s in Bradenton, Fla., who played sax, flute, harmonica and every imaginable keyboard. It was the final musical piece Firefall would need. With ex-Poco Producer Jim Mason at the helm, the band went into rehearsals in Boulder.
Though Caribou Studios was available and nearby, it was quite pricey and would probably be ‘too close’ to home, families and all the distractions that might take away the needed focus. So Firefall flew to Miami, Florida to record at one of the top studios in the country, Criteria Studios, who had hosted many artists including The Bee Gees, Eric Clapton, The Allman Bros., CSN and Stephen Stills. The band got down to focused work and the magic flowed. The first album, engineered by Karl Richardson (Bee Gees), took one month to record and mix and was made on 16 track tape. It was released by Atlantic Records in the spring of 1976 and became Atlantic’s quickest album to sell gold status (500,000) in it’s storied history. Sparks flew with the album called “FIREFALL” and the group’s sound caught fire on record, radio and on-stage. While the first single, ‘Livin’ Aint Livin,’ climbed into the top 40, songs like ‘Mexico,’ Robert’s original version of ‘It Doesn’t Matter’ and Burnett’s ‘Cinderella’ took off on album oriented rock (AOR) stations. The group toured with Leon and Mary Russell, The Doobie Brothers and The Band (on their final tour before making their farewell documentary movie, ‘The Last Waltz’). The second single, ‘You Are The Woman,’ raced into the Top 10, becoming an overnight mega-hit with pop and mellow rock audiences. Firefall continued to tour the summer of ’76 with Fleetwood Mac, who’d recently added Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham to their lineup for their groundbreaking “White Album.” Firefall cemented relationships with Mick and the band that would last a year and a half. A rare (for the era) third single, ‘Cinderella,’ though having received saturation FM airplay, fared less well on AM radio, hindered, as they would later learn, by a few influential woman’s organizations on the east coast who didn’t like the ‘message’ of the (fictional) lyrics. But Firefall blazed very brightly in 1976 and 1977, making a sizable mark during their first year in a crowded industry with their fresh and melodic music.
The group went back to Miami and Criteria Studios with Jim Mason to make their second album. It was to be called “TROPICAL NIGHTS” and included a number of songs that would later be dropped. Instead of a hotel, they rented one of the ‘Home At Last’ mansions that Eric Clapton made famous on his “461 Ocean Blvd.” album. Percussionist JOE LALA, (ex Manassas and CSN percussionist and an occasional touring Firefall member) and the legendary Memphis Horns added punch to the record. But in L.A., Atlantic C.E.O., Ahmet Ertegen, listened to the playback of the final mix and stated, “You boys need to go back in the studio and re-do this record (as Fleetwood Mac had with the White Album). It must be stronger to follow up your great first album. Write more songs, go back on tour, take your time.. no problem.” And so the band hit the road again and prepared to rework a few existing songs and add a number of newly written ones, including the future single, ‘So Long.’ The new album was renamed “LUNA SEA” with a new cover and released in early 1977. The debut single, ‘Just Remember I Love You,’ re-recorded with ex-Poco and future Eagle, TIMOTHY SCHMIDT singing background vocals, shot up the charts into the Top Ten. The album was certified gold on Oct. 3, after less than two months on the Billboard charts, where it peaked at #27. The song however, reinforced Atlantic’s – and radio’s – perception of Firefall as a soft-rock ballads band. The group on the other hand, saw itself as a smokin’ rock unit who happened to have a few mellower hits that got lots of pop and adult contemporary airplay. As a result, the second single off ‘LUNA SEA,’ the more rock’n’roll ‘So Long,’ didn’t get the major push or airplay the first single had. Non-stop touring, managerial problems, alcohol and drug abuse by some of the band and internal friction began to tear at the group – but it was the ‘big time’ and they were enjoying ‘star status.’ All differences were swept under the table. The band toured extensively with Fleetwood Mac during their Rumors Tour (playing sold out stadiums nationwide) and also played with The Doobie Bothers, Chicago, The Marshall Tucker Band, The Beach Boys and Lynard Skynard (frequently playing with them right up to Skynard’s terrible plane crash).
Firefall came back stronger than ever in 1978 with their third album, “ELAN,” recorded first at Criteria and later at L.A.’s Record Plant. The band brought in heavyweight producer Tom Dowd (Aretha Franklin, The Rascals, Cream, The Allman Bros., Eric Clapton) to make the record. But band and producer, though getting along fine, had different musical visions. Atlantic was poised to release Dowd’s effort, when Firefall’s new manager, Mick Fleetwood and Limited Mgmt., demanded the group be allowed to ‘beef up’ the record. And so, for a second time, the band re-worked an album (and greatly increased their on-paper debt with the label). And again, their dark luck with managers continued – Limited Mgmt. and Firefall soon parted ways. The production team of Ron and Howard Albert (The Allmans, Clapton, Stephen Stills/Mannassas, Crosby, Stills & Nash) were brought in to finish the project. Don Gehman, who engineered the Miami dates and mixed the whole record with the Alberts would go on to produce John Mellencamp in the ’80s. Industry anticipation was so high for “ELAN” that it shipped gold, meaning half a million copies were in stores on release day. Hoping to put any identity issue to rest, the band and Atlantic chose ‘Strange Way’ as the album’s first single. The Roberts tune was a ballad and a rocker rolled into one, alternating mellow, plaintive verses with angry, ballsy choruses and featuring a smokin latin-flavored flute solo at the end. Not surprisingly, it went over big with both Top 40 and AOR radio during the autumn and winter of ’78, and the band embarked on another series of concert dates, this time as the headliners. ‘Strange Way’ and other oft played tracks like ‘Sweet And Sour’ (with future Traveling Willbury’s/Little Village drummer Jim Keltner on drums), helped boost “ELAN” past the million mark in sales as 1978 gave way to ’79. It was certified as Firefall’s first platinum album in mid January, just as ‘Goodbye, I Love You’ was saying hello to the Hot 100. Three months later, ‘Sweet And Sour’ was issued as a single, continuing the long hot run.