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Dick Wagner and Steve Hunter

The Great Guitars of
 
The Great Guitars of

Even the world’s greatest rock and roll showmen can’t monopolize the affections of the world’s youth without some help. Sorry, Alice Cooper. Sorry, Lou Reed.

Yeah, they had help. Big time! Especially from Dick Wagner and Steve Hunter! Both Cooper and Reed enlisted hired-gun guitarists Wagner and Hunter to help sustain their creative zenith during the 1970s.

Indeed, Wagner and Hunter were the session community’s dynamic duo during the era of cocaine and casual wear. When your recording session needed some monster guitar solos, you called Wagner and Hunter first. Period. Just ask Kiss. Or better yet, ask Aerosmith. After the post-Van Halen explosion, however, the need for high-octane blues players like Wagner and Hunter diminished significantly.

Thankfully, both guitarists are still active in professional music circles. Check out Wagner’s beautiful reworking of songs he penned with Alice Cooper and others on his retrospective release HITStory. If you’re in L.A., check out Hunter’s killer blues outfit, The Blues Counsel. Certainly, we have not heard the last of these two guitar icons.

Dick Wagner

Vintage Guitar:You’ve done tons of session work for many of rock’s most notable talents. Let’s start with your tenure in Lou Reed’s band, sharing lead guitar chores with your longtime partner in crime, Steve Hunter.

Dick Wagner:That band definitely took Lou Reed into a different direction. Reed talks bad about the Rock and Roll Animal and Lou Reed, Live albums we played on, now. He puts that whole era down. Well, in every place we ever played back then, the press was always putting down Lou Reed and talking about the great guitars of Hunter and Wagner. He hated that! He came to us during the tour and made us stop playing to the audience and entertaining them because we were stealing his show. We didn’t mean to, we were just hot! We did a lot of great work together and I’m very proud of it. Playing guitar with Steve Hunter was one of the highlights of my career.

How did you and Steve meet?

We were aware of each other in Detroit, when he was playing with Mitch Ryder and I was playing with The Frost (a Michigan band that enjoyed success in the late ’60s), which was real popular in the Midwest. Then, we met in Ft. Lauderdale, where my band, Ursa Major, was playing a club. We talked, and I invited him to come up onstage and play. It sounded fabulous right away! At times, it was hard to tell who played which parts, but it was real distinctive.

Have you talked to Hunter lately?

Actually, Steve and I have talked about doing an album together.

What equipment did you use in Reed’s band?

I was playing a Les Paul TV Special, which has since been stolen. I used a 100-watt Marshall half-stack. A guy named Red Rhodes did some work on it. I was also playing through an old Echoplex and a MXR phaser.

Although your tenure with Reed is historically significant, it was your longtime partnership with Alice Cooper that really etched your name in the history books. When did you first meet Alice?

I knew Alice back in Detroit, when The Frost was really huge. He was just getting started. We were playing this high school gig and Alice came back in the dressing room and introduced himself. He loved The Frost.

The first time I heard Alice live was at the Toledo Pop Festival, when he was doing the electric chair. I couldn’t believe it! The Frost was a pretty straightforward rock and roll band, and Alice’s band was definitely a little weird! I’ve always loved theatrics in rock, though. It seems most of the records I’ve played on are with pretty theatrical people.

You were a ghost writer/performer on Cooper’s records before you joined his band, correct?

Right. Cooper’s School’s Out was the first really big album I played on. They would usually bring me and Steve in when they needed some hot solos or things the other players couldn’t pull off in the right way. The first song (producer) Bob Ezrin, Alice, and I wrote together was “I Love The Dead.” I sold my portion of the song to them because I needed money. So, I wasn’t credited on the album. At that time, Alice and his original band were living in a mansion in Connecticut. It was a bizarre place. They drove around in these old Rolls Royces and I was like, “Okay!”

You did sessions for several other big artists, like Aerosmith and Kiss, as well.

Yeah. Kiss, they came out of nowhere. They didn’t have the studio knowledge guys like me had to accomplish that kind of stuff. They did most of their own stuff but once in awhile they needed something special, a style they couldn’t really pull off. Same with Alice’s original band. They were younger players and they couldn’t do what Bob Ezrin and Alice Cooper were envisioning, musically.

Any advice for up-and-coming session players, particularly for guitar solos?

When you do a session for anybody, know the song! If you take the song personally, your solos will fit and take off as an extension of the song’s philosophy. When you’re doing a solo, don’t just blaze away and hope for something. You want to ask what the song’s doing melodically and let yourself go from there. Solos are an extension of the songwriting.

The creativity in the studio must have been intense during your first few years as a session player!

It was constant flow, and it was electric! Those were great days! Now, it’s a more mellow, wiser kind of creativity. You’ve already been there and you know what your doing. In those days, you’d never been there and you were discovering it all, which was exciting in that sense. I got very excited every time I played a solo. It was a learning process.

Tell me the circumstances surrounding your entrance into Alice Cooper’s band.

In 1975, his management asked me to put together a new band. So I asked all the guys who I played with in Lou Reed’s Rock and Roll Animal band – Steve, Prakash John, and Pentti Glan – to become Alice Cooper’s new band. They brought us in to make a change in the development of the Cooper sound – make more complicated, better songs. They wanted a tighter band. This wasn’t just a rock and roll band out there, flailing away. We approached the stage playing the same way we approached the studio: let the parts make sense and let them all work together. The early Alice Cooper band tried hard, but they weren’t as great of players as our band. We were just better at it. It was a fabulous band from the beginning.

You often used B.C. Rich guitars in Cooper’s band, correct?

Yes. I was playing a B.C. Rich Eagle through the late-’60s Marshall heads. Mine was one of the first Eagles ever made. B.C. Rich also made me a Seagull, which I used occasionally. The Seagull was stolen at the Boston Airport. DiMarzio was making these super-hot pickups for me. They were wound specially for me and Steve.

Let’s discuss the classic Alice Cooper albums you played a major role in shaping, beginning with Welcome To My Nightmare.

Alice and I decided to go to the Bahamas to write this album. The day we arrived, we got caught in the middle of this mini-hurricane. The winds were 70 miles an hour, 24 hours a day. We sat on this lawn with an acoustic guitar and I started playing this riff (hums beginning of Welcome To My Nightmare). Suddenly, Alice goes, “…welcome to my nightmare.” We both started laughing because we were in the middle of this nightmarish weather! At that point, we got the idea of Alice having a nightmare and that became the concept for the record. Musically, we could go anywhere with Alice’s image and the idea of a concept album.

Probably one of the most influential and covered songs from that album is the ballad “Only Women Bleed.” How did you and Cooper write it?

I wrote the music for “Only Women Bleed” in 1968, but the lyrics were really sucky. When I first got together with Alice in ’75, I played him this tape with pieces of my music on it. When we got to the song, he said “Wait, let me hear that. I really like that!” I didn’t think he’d like it because it was a ballad. He said, “I’ve got this idea for a title. How ’bout ‘Only Women Bleed.’”

So we sat down, and in about 25 minutes, we wrote the song at Cooper’s house in the Hollywood Hills. It gave me a great opportunity, as a writer, to explore different melodic structures and rhythms. It was great to do something different from straight ahead Chuck Berry rock.

The next big Cooper album was Alice Cooper Goes To Hell. Any interesting stories behind that one?

We spent about a month in Hawaii writing most of the songs on that album. We rented this house right on the ocean. Alice and I would go out every morning and play 18 holes of golf on the most beautiful, lush golf courses you’ve ever seen. Then, we’d come back and have a nice dinner cooked for us. We had steamed clams and sweet corn. We had the instruments out on the porch and we’d wait until nighttime, with the moon over the ocean, to write songs. You wouldn’t think that was conducive to rock and roll, but we managed to write some great rock and roll songs. That album’s popular ballad “I Never Cry” was written there. When we came back, the songs were either totally complete or Bob Ezrin wanted to add or change stuff. Sometimes, the three of us would sit in the same room and write together.

You, Cooper, and Ezrin wrote “I’m The Coolest,” which is such an atypical song from that album, it fits!

Maybe so! The three of us wrote “I’m The Coolest” on the piano at Bob’s apartment in New York on a Sunday morning. Bob was in his bathrobe! Originally, it was a song we wanted Henry Winkler to do. Winkler rejected it, he didn’t want anything that would typecast him and perpetuate the Fonz image. He said he was really a Shakespearean actor! Hell, he’s still The Fonz, Alice Cooper is still The Coolest, and Shakespeare’s still Shakespeare!

The next Cooper album, Lace And Whisky, seemed a departure for you as a songwriter.

It wasn’t one of those records we wrote on a beach somewhere. That was during our more drug-oriented days, and frankly, it shows in the writing. It’s a strange album because it doesn’t have any continuity. The song “Road Rats” is hot. My guitar in those days had a 71/2 and 15 ips delay, combined. So you’d get a short and long delay. For guitar, it makes it sing!

So, drugs were a big factor for some members of Cooper’s band at this point?

We all got off on a bad tangent towards the end. We toured all over the world and there was constant temptation. It was hard work and many hours involved. So, you get tired and you get caught up in stuff. It was drinks, then drinks and drugs. Then, it became primarily drugs. Now, it’s nothing. I was the last guy to do drugs! I was 32 before I ever got high. Once I did, though, I really enjoyed it.

Now, we’re all healthy and alive and still playing music. I’ve been straight since 1984. The drugs will create a situation of concentration or frustration at times. If you’re working 18 hours a day, cocaine helps keep you going. To say that the drugs created the songs is not true. The talent is inherent.

Let’s talk about what’s currently happening in your life. I understand there’s quite a buzz about your “Remember The Child” song.

It’s being used by therapists in their sessions all over the country. I wrote the song in 1984 and it’s about child abuse. I started a foundation to raise money for scholarships, education and counseling for families and abused children.

A Dick Wagner pro recording studio is in the works, as well.

Yes, it’s going to be a 48-track digital recording studio, plus it’ll be a video studio so we can make music videos. I’m trying to energize the Michigan music scene and find some talent out of this region. I’m trying to get a production company and an independent label going.

Do you ever plan on writing with Alice again?

Alice and I are going to be doing some writing together for his next album. It’s going to be a lot of fun. He called me one day about doing some writing again and I said, “Sure, let’s do it!” We’re possibly going to write a Broadway musical.

Steve Hunter

Vintage Guitar: Your first notable gig was with Mitch Ryder, but sharing guitar duties with Dick Wagner in Lou Reed’s band really made you famous. The intro you wrote for Reed’s “Sweet Jane” is still being talked about today. How did it come about?

Steve Hunter: I had written that in Detroit while I was in Mitch Ryder’s band. I developed it over a couple of years, messin’ around with it in front of the fireplace. I tried using it when I was playing with the Chambers Brothers, but it didn’t really work. Then, during the last couple of days of rehearsal for the Lou Reed tour, Lou’s management came in and said, “We need something to open the show with, so Lou just doesn’t appear on the stage. Can you guys jam on something?”

That’s when I said to Dick, “I’ve got this little thing I wrote. We can try it and if it doesn’t work we’ll just jam on ‘Sweet Jane’ or something.” I showed everybody the song, and as soon as the band started playing it, it was awesome! It was the first time I’d ever heard it played right. In Europe, we used it to open with “Vicious,” but it wasn’t a good show opener. Lou decided to change the opener to “Sweet Jane” by the time the album Rock and Roll Animal was recorded. It just so happens that “Vicious” is in E minor and “Sweet Jane” is in E major, so it worked because the last chord is the five of the E.

How did the Lou Reed band come together?

It was sort of between Dick Wagner and Bob Ezrin. Bob knew the Canadian musicians like Whitey Glenn, from Toronto. Prakash John is also from Toronto. Dick knew the keyboardist, Ray Colcord, from New York.

Dick Wagner mentioned that your styles often crossed over in those days. This is especially evident if you listen closely to the distribution of the guitar parts in the stereo spectrum on “Sweet Jane.” Can you tell me who’s who?

In the beginning of the intro to “Sweet Jane,” I’m doing all the soloing. So, wherever I am in the stereo field, that perspective is kept on the whole album. For Lou Reed Live, which was taken from the same night as ….Animal, Dick’s on the left and I’m on the right.

How were the lead guitar duties divided between you and Wagner?

We wanted to keep the solos equal so, we’d sit down one night and go through the material so it was totally even. We didn’t want it to look like there was a rhythm guitar player and a lead guitar player, because that’s what we both did. We worked out who played the melody and who played the harmony. For example, Dick played the harmony and I played the melody on “Sweet Jane.”

Wagner reckons that Lou Reed didn’t like the fact the band was so hot.

I think Lou Reed still hates the fact that Rock And Roll Animal is one of his most revered albums. I think Lou felt overpowered by us and it wasn’t the way he wanted to project his lyrics. He wanted the focus on the lyrics. I’m kind of bummed out I don’t have my gold record for that album. That one means a lot to me.

What gear did you use on Rock and Roll Animal?

I was using a early-’70s, 100-watt Hiwatt Hundred amps. They had a certain kind of edge to them that was different from a Marshall. I had an Echoplex and the MXR Phase 100. My guitar was a ’59 Les Paul TV Special with just a P-90 pickup in the back. I also used a ’60 Strat at the end of Rock And Roll.

What were you doing in the interim between the Lou Reed and Alice Cooper gigs?

I went back home to Illinois. Then, Bob Ezrin called me and said Alice’s Welcome To My Nightmare thing was happening.

What did you contribute, guitar-wise, to Welcome To My Nightmare?

Let me think. Let’s see, I played slide guitar on “Cold Ethyl,” and I played 12-string guitar on “Only Women Bleed.” I played the guitars solos on “Steven” and also, I played a guitar synth on “The Awakening.”

Do you remember some of the equipment you used on Cooper efforts like Goes To Hell and Lace and Whiskey?

The basic tracks for those two albums were essentially recorded at the same time. I was using a B.C. Rich Eagle and a Marshall head. We were using 16-track tape machine with two-inch tape. We had Pultec EQs and tube compressors and limiters. The console were transistors which operate like a vacuum tube, so you can warm ‘em up like tubes.

What guitars did you use in Cooper’s band?

I used B.C. Rich guitars a lot. I still think Rich’s are the best American guitars made in that era. They built Dick and I Seagulls for the Nightmare tour. For Alice’s Goes To Hell tour, I had a B.C. Rich Eagle. The Alice tour I did with (longtime Elton John guitarist) Davey Johnstone, I used the B.C. Rich doubleneck guitar.

Any world tours with Reed or Cooper that really stand out?

The tours I did with Dick are all my favorites. The Lou Reed Rock and Roll Animal tour was one of my favorites because it was the first time I’d ever toured Europe. We had so much fun. We didn’t get paid hardly anything, but playing in front of sold out audiences was wonderful.

Like Wagner, you ghosted on Cooper albums before you were a member of the band, correct?

Yeah, I ghosted on Alice Cooper’s Billion Dollar Babies. I didn’t really know Alice all that well. I remember being in the studio and Bob asked me to play on “I Love The Dead.” He said, “I want you to play blues over this song called “I Love The Dead.’” It was really hard to get into it during the first pass, because I’m listening to the lyrics “I love the dead before they’re cold…” and I’m wondering how I’m supposed to play blues over that without cracking up too much!

After that, it got to be a lot of fun. I think I played on five songs, including “Generation Landslide.” Like a lot of session work, it was one of those 1 a.m. things where the tape was just rolling, so I hardly remember some of the things I did on that album.

That must have been a great time for you. You were around all of this fame and money.

Yeah, I was blown away! Here I am in New York, staying in this beautiful hotel. I get in the studio and there’s Alice wearing a pink mink coat! I thought, “This is cool!” It was a great time. It was what I’d always thought the record business was all about.

Do you make a lot of bread as a session player?

I never made a $100,000 in a year’s time, but I lived off the dough I made touring with Alice for a year sometimes.

The best money I ever made was working on the Bette Midler film The Rose. They pay huge dough! At the time, we were recording live, as well as acting, and some of the guys were singing. So, that’s three unions and the minimum on those three is big dough.

Your longtime association with Ezrin led to session work with David Lee Roth, correct?

Yeah. I hadn’t worked with Ezrin for 10 years and all of the sudden he calls me and he says, “I’m producing Dave’s album and I got this guitar player who is awesome, but we’d like to have you help him get a handle on some blues things. The guitarist, Jason Becker (who was later diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s Disease) was a little like, “I don’t really need this.”

But I showed him some of the licks I knew and some of the Albert King records, and we hit it off. Bob called me a week later and said “Why don’t you get together with Brett Tuggle and see if you guys can write something, because we still need some material.”

We wrote “Baby’s On Fire,” and he loved it. David called me up and said, “Would you like to come to Vancouver and be on the record?” I co-wrote four of the songs on the record A Little Ain’t Enough, and did some rhythm guitar and slide stuff. I played slide guitars on “Hammerhead Shark.” That happened at a time that I was really hurting for dough. I hadn’t worked in almost a year.

It’s hard to believe a guitarist of your stature would have hard times.

Well, the ’80s was a big blow to guys who play like me. Blues-based rock and roll guitar players were simply not in demand. I didn’t foresee that. Then, there’s all these rumors I kept hearing through the grapevine. I heard that I was independently wealthy and made so much money with Alice Cooper and all these people that I’d retired and was livin’ in the mountains. Other rumors were that I got into television and film scoring and I’m making a hundred grand a picture. Another one was that I’m a heroin addict. I haven’t done any drugs in 20 years!

The real Steve Hunter story is I feel like I’m still paying dues! Sometimes it’s tough to make the rent. I went into Tower Records with $20 in my pocket, I had to buy a CD to work on a couple of songs. The guy at the counter says, “Are you Steve Hunter?” I said, “Yeah.” He starts gushing on me – apparently he was a big fan. That was uplifting, spiritually and emotionally, but at the same time I’d just plopped down my last 20 bucks. It’s important musicians understand that you can have some really rough times.

Photo courtesy of Richard Wagner

This interview originally appeared in VG‘s Feb. ’98 issues.

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