Rocking Out on ‘This Big Old Rock’
Rocking Out on ‘This Big Old Rock’
A Q&A with Les Dudek
By Geoff Gehman
Interviewing Les Dudek is like being strapped to a Stratocaster plugged into a Marshall. A musician’s musician for five decades, he tells amped-up, ramped-up stories about his nice niche in the history of electrified rock ‘n’ roll blues, Duetting with fellow guitarist Dickie Betts on the original recording of “Ramblin’ Man.” Co-writing “Jessica,” another Allman Brothers classic. Playing guitar in the bands of Steve Miller and Boz Scaggs. Steering Cher, his former professional and personal partner, toward a movie career.
You can hear Dudek’s conversational style in such songs as “Old Judge Jones,” an ambling, rambling portrait of a justice mean enough to fine an old lady for spitting on a sidewalk. His expressive, expansive attitude animates his latest record, “Delta Breeze” (EFlat Productions), a 2013 collection of funky meditations, some of which boogie. He combines several flavors of Southern rock with a parade of characters: free-wheeling bikers, overly aggressive cops, greedy politicians, a wise mother, a former lover who deserves a lullaby. The album’s finale, “These Are the Good Old Days.” has a Doobie Brothers-stamped rocking-chair groove elevated by the promise that “I’m leaving my love and memory with this song.”
Dudek, 64, will perform his rainbow numbers with his band on Sept. 24 at the Mauch Chunk Opera House. Below, in a zigging, zagging 80-minute chat from his home in Florida’s Green Swamp region, he discusses his debts to the Ventures and Ry Cooder, a wise mother and a wise promoter.
Q: What was the first song you couldn’t forget, that absolutely, positively knocked your socks off?
A: Guitar wise, the one that blew me away was “Slaughter on 10th Avenue” on the “Knock Me Out!” album by the Ventures. I just loved Nokie Edwards’ lead guitar. This was right after he and [fellow Venture] Bob Bogle had swapped instruments. Bogle played lead on “Walk, Don’t Run” [the Ventures’ first hit] with Nokie as the bass player. Then they decided that Nokie was the better guitarist and they switched. I just couldn’t believe the tone they were getting [on “Slaughter”]. That was the one that nailed it for me.
As far as singing is concerned, the Beatles are one of my favorite vocal groups. It’s hard to put a label on my favorite Beatles song because I love so many of them but I have to say I really like “You Can’t Do That.” [Sings “Everybody’s green ‘cos I’m the one who won your love”]. I agree with Ringo [Starr] when he says he loved the Beatles best when they were a band, when they had to do it all themselves.
My sister is four and a half years older than me and she was always listening to the latest great stuff from the Beatles and Elvis; I love “Heartbreak Hotel” and “Looking for Trouble.” This was back in the day, in the late ’50s and all, when you actually bought singles.
I loved the Beach Boys, too. People tend to forget there was a time when the Beach Boys and the Beatles were battling it out. “I Get Around”—that was a great tune; that was my favorite.
I have to say that the Everly Brothers are one of my all-time favorite acts. They were such a big influence on so many people. Simon & Garfunkel will tell you that; the Beatles will tell you that. Man, I loved those cats.
Q: Did you ever tell Nokie Edwards what his guitar work on “Slaughter” did to you?
A: I’ve never had a chance to tell him. I did get the all-inclusive Ventures book from Don Wilson, one of the founding members. He sent it to me with his signature and Bob Bogle’s signature. That was pretty sweet.
Q: You’ve said that you and Duane Allman learned a thing or three about playing slide guitar by listening to Ry Cooder’s early slide recordings. How did his style rub off on yours?
A: You can hear a lot of Ry’s influence in the tonality and the licks, how you land on the notes and slide off the notes. Ry was more acoustic with the dobro and Duane took that concept and turned it electric and I was doing the same thing. Duane was playing in modal tunings when you tune the guitar to a chord like D or E. I found out that just before he died he started to teach himself standard tuning, the reason being that he didn’t want to have to carry a modal-tuned guitar or waste a lot of time tuning it that way when he was playing live. When I was out with Boz [Scaggs] or Steve Miller I had a second guitar tuned that way, but I decided that even changing guitars was a pain in the neck. So I decided to play in just a standard tuning and I’ve been doing it for a lot of years. People can’t understand; I just tell them you just have to perfect it.
The other important part is knowing how to pluck the strings. Ry and Duane and Derek Trucks—they’re all playing guitar with their fingers as opposed to, say, Johnny Winter, who plays with his fingers with picks on them, as you would on a steel guitar. Playing with your fingers gives you a whole different texture; it cleans it up and gives it more of a tone.
Q: On your last record, “Delta Breeze,” you seem to really get out your philosophical ya-yas. In several tunes you inventory highs and lows and in-betweens, wins and losses and ties. Did you set out to make a record about reckoning?
A: No, not really. I wrote most of those songs in the ’90s after my dad had passed and I decided to come back to Florida to hang out with my mom. I left home early. I didn’t finish the last three years of high school because I was already out playing; I completed high school later through an adult-education program. So I got an opportunity to hang out with my mom for those missing three years before she died. I converted a shed in the backyard into an eight-track studio and I recorded a lot of my library stuff, two-minute instrumental ditties for background music for television shows or commercials. I also recorded demos of tracks that ended up on “Delta Breeze.” Some of them are pretty personal. “Take My Money” is obviously me beating up politicians, all the people you couldn’t stand in high school sitting around the board table trying to figure out how to take money out of your wallet [laughs].
When I went into the studio to cut the tunes I was thinking of Cream, of the simplicity of doing just bass, guitar, drums and vocals. That’s why I don’t have one single keyboard on that album. I was thinking of putting my old DFK band member, [keyboardist] Mike Finnigan, on the album but he just wasn’t available and I didn’t think I could find anybody who could do it as well as Mike
Q: You dedicate “Delta Breeze” to your late parents, Harold and Alma. In “High on the Water” you reference a mother’s inspirational saying. Did your mom leave you an inspirational saying you carry like a keepsake?
A: My mom instilled in me a couple of clichés that are old but still true. One is “Actions speak louder than words.” In other words: Don’t let anyone bullshit you.
Q: You helped convince Cher, who hired you for her band Black Rose, to jump from singing rock ‘n’ roll to acting in films. What did she give you besides a red macaw to go along with your blue macaw?
A: [Laughs] She brought her bird to keep my bird company [Note: Dudek’s beloved macaw, Zorro, stars on the cover of his “Gypsy Ride” album and in his song “Zorro Rides Again”]. When I auditioned for her band it was kind of a mess, with four or five different producers. I told her: “This sounds interesting but you need to get more precise with a producer.” I recommended James Newton Howard. I had just done a record with him, he worked with Elton John, he’s scored countless movies since then. He was the one guy to bring it all together, and he did.
Cher’s management was against her rock ‘n’ roll career; they fought her tooth and nail. She ended up not lending her name to the album we recorded [“Black Rose,” Casablanca Records, 1980]. We were pretty busy and we had a number of successes. We did some gigs with Hall and Oates and we played TV shows; we even hosted “Midnight Special.” But the project was never the success that Cher envisioned. She was on Casablanca Records and she was depressed when her friend Neil Bogart, Casablanca’s founder, died [in 1982]; he was the one person who supported her as a rock ‘n’ roller. I told her: “I see what you have to do next. You’ve done the Sonny & Cher show and the Cher show. You’re always going to sell millions of your disco records. So why beat up the rock and roll thing? You need to be an actress; you need to be in the movies.”
So we flew to New York, where she met Robert Altman [director of films ranging from “McCabe & Mrs. Miller” to “Nashville”]. He ended up casting her in his play “Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean.” That parlayed into “Silkwood” [Cher’s first notable film]. We had already split company when, a few years later, out of the blue, she called me and said “‘LD”—that’s what she called me, “LD”—“I’m doing this new movie and they’re looking for this guy who has long hair and rides a motorcycle and plays guitar. Do you know anybody like that?” And I said: “Get out of town.” And she said: “Look, I opened the door; now you need to walk through it.” She gave me a script on Friday and told me I had to arrange a meeting with the director, this guy named Peter Bogdanovich [director of films ranging from “The Last Picture Show” to “Paper Moon”]. It was her way of paying me back. I gave her some good advice about the movie thing: I gave her affirmation.
Over the weekend I wrote a song for the film, which was called “Mask.” On Monday I rode to the meeting with Bogdanovich on this beefed-up Harley Sportster—a lot of major bikers call it “half a Harley” but they’re wrong. I was wearing a leather jacket my mom gave me when I was 15. I pulled out a cassette of the song for Bogdanovich and he loved it. I ended up playing it on dobro in the “Little Egypt” scene in “Mask.” It was cut from the film but it was restored for the director’s cut. I also wrote “Trouble with the Law” for the film; it was never released until I put it on “Delta Breeze.”
I’ve got my wardrobe from “Mask.” Me and Sam Elliott and Dennis Burkley, who plays Dozer—he’s the really tall biker—are the only ones who kept our wardrobes. We told the wardrobe people: “You’re not taking our colors, bubba.” I’ve got the chaps and the belt and the dobro I used in the movie. So that’s some pretty heavy memorabilia.
Q: What’s the extent of your memorabilia collection? I know that one of your treasures is a photo on your mantle of Berry Oakley, the late bassist in the Allman Brothers Band, wearing Duane Allman’s belt.
A: I actually have that belt. It was given to me by Joe Dan Petty, a guitar tech for the Allman Brothers who played in the band Grinderswitch. I call myself “The Keeper of the Belt.” I’m glad I got to play with, and become friendly with, Berry. You know, I was supposed to jam with him the night he died [after a motorcycle accident eerily similar to Duane Allman’s fatal bike crash]. I ended up being one of his pallbearers.
I’ve got a couple of Duane’s album slide bottles. You know, it cracks me up that the Guitar Center was selling repackaged “original Duane Allman album slide bottles.” I told them: That’s not original; that’s got the safety clip on it and Duane died before the safety clip was originated. You guys fluffed that one up.
Ricky Nelson was a neighbor of mine on Mulholland [Drive in Los Angeles]. He was a really good dude and a great cat. We hung out one night at his place listening to the DFK album; he asked me to bring it over so he could hear it. We listened to that record all night long. He gave me his phone number on a match book cover; I still have that. He wrote “Ricky Nelson” as if I would forget who he was [laughs].
Q: I’m curious about the genesis of “Old Judge Jones,” one of your most popular songs. It’s very listenable and hummable, with a nicely bounding, gliding riff. At the same time it’s about a pretty tough cookie who fines his preacher and is pretty liberal with the hanging noose.
A: I was slated to do a gig with the Doobies, War and Pablo Cruise at Spartan Stadium in San Jose. For some reason my drummer couldn’t make it. I was trying to cancel the show but the promoter was saying “No, man, you can’t cancel.” I ended up calling [veteran session drummer] Jeff Porcaro, a great guy who ended up playing on five of my albums. Of course he says “Where’s my ticket?” and he flies from Los Angeles to my house up in Marin County. We were rehearsing when, all of a sudden, we went off on a blues shuffle and I came up with [an instrumental] line that was so haunting and so cool. I thought: “Oh, I have to remember that one.” I came back to it when I was writing for my second album [“Say No More,” Columbia, 1977]. [“Old Judge Jones”] turned out to be the quickest song I’ve ever written. I wrote the lyrics in an hour; I couldn’t get them on the paper fast enough.
This year I played the Florida Folk Festival; my friend Jim Stafford got me on the bill with Arlo Guthrie and Billy Dean and John McEuen from the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. I decided to break out an acoustic version of “Old Judge Jones” and I liked it. Now I’m thinking about doing a record of acoustic versions of my tunes, songs like “Deeper Shades of Blue” and “We Just Disagree.” I’m thinking of turning “Ramblin’ Man” into a folk song with a flute and a “Push Push” Herbie Mann twist.
Q: I’m guessing that fellow bikers really dig your song “Wide Open in the Wind,” which has the very catchy, bumper-sticker line “All leathered up, ready to ride, looking for love from a Dyna Wide Glide.”
A: That’s me, man [laughs]. I wrote “Wide Open” specifically for all my biker friends. The other favorite song of mine among bikers is obviously “Gypsy Ride”; that’s a fun one to ride. And when I toured with Steppenwolf I added “Born to Be Wild” to the bill.
Q: So, Les, what tops your Bucket List?
A: It would be nice to have a gold or platinum record. I’ve had lots of gold and platinum records for playing on other people’s records [i.e., Steve Miller’s “Fly Like an Eagle” and Boz Scaggs’ “Silk Degrees”] but never one of my own. I don’t see that coming; I don’t think the brass ring is out there anymore. I think of the way that Clear Channel beats up radio and Live Nation beats up all the concert halls. I don’t sell enough tickets to interest the Live Nation people. And there’s no format or foundation on radio to break a single anymore. In other words, the hits are gone.
I always wanted to visit the Pyramids but that’s not I going to happen because [the Middle East is] such a hot zone. I would love to see world peace but it will never happen, not the way humanity is sometimes. I’m really disappointed in humanity, if you really want to know. Actually, you can hear my disappointment in humanity throughout my records, in songs like “Gold ‘n’ Snakes” and “Ghost Town Parade.” There’s no consideration; there’s no compassion. I’m more for doing things for animals.
Q: Sounds like some of your top Bucket List items could also top your Fuck It List.
A: Yes, pretty much. You know, every now and then I run into one of these Polk County [Florida] good ol’ boys and one of his big sayings is: “It just doesn’t matter.” No matter how you fix it, somebody’s going to come along and screw it up anyway. The goal is to try to be as happy as you can be, plug through life, live it up during your time on this big old rock.
I’d like to live long enough to have aliens make themselves known to us. I believe in aliens. My dad was 30 years in the Navy and he said he saw a UFO and he would never kid me about something like that. So I’m saying to all those aliens out there: Hey, visit me, man, and take me for a ride. That’s my ultimate Bucket List item.
Les Dudek: The Scoop
His father was a Navy radioman; his mother danced with the Rockettes.
He and Bruce Springsteen were contracted within a week of one another by the same A&R executive for Columbia Records. “Bruce and I signed back in the real days, when Columbia was the biggest label in the world. We’re a couple of the last Cinderella stories.”
His library of short background instrumentals includes tunes that have scored shows from “Access Hollywood” to “Friends.”
He likes to play “We Just Disagree,” a hit for Dave Mason, in honor of the writer, the late guitarist Jim Krueger, his friend and former partner in the band DFK.
Another one of his Bucket List items is to own a matching pair of D-45s, a six-string and a 12-string, made by Martin Guitar. “I really love my good buddy Roger McGuinn’s D-45s. Two exceptional Martins–that’s what I want at the end of my life period.”
One of his favorite pieces of advice came from Bill Graham, the late, fabled concert promoter, at a Santana concert. “Bill comes over to me and says, very seriously: ‘Les, I want you to make me a promise.’
“’What’s that, Bill?’”
“’I want you to promise me that you’ll never quit guitar.’”
“’Are you serious?’”
“He was so serious, I had to shake on it. That seems just like yesterday. And I still get chills thinking about it.”
Geoff Gehman is a former arts writer for The Morning Call in Allentown. One of his favorite Les Dudek lines is “Even rainbows leave their shadows behind.” He can be reached at email@example.com.