TURNING THE PAGES WITH DICK WAGNER: On the Eve of His 60th Birthday, the 'Mystery Man' Discusses the Highs & Lows of an Incredible Career
By Robert E. Martin
Dick Wagner in 2003
|Dick Wagner has lived a life from which the fairy dust of
Rock 'n Roll dreams is born. With a stellar career that spans four
decades, he has written over 300 songs in his lifetime and experienced
firsthand both the innocent and decadence of what has become an almost
He moved to Saginaw 40 years ago at the tender age of 20 and bathed in that reflective starlight of The Beatles, giving local fans a homespun embodiment of joyous musical originality with his first major group, The Bossmen, which gleaned several statewide hits and gave audiences a first taste of his songwriting talent.
The songs Wagner recorded with his next group, The Frost, have become staples of that seminal period of 'Michigan Rock' that gave birth to other such era-defining bands as The Stooges, Bob Seger, MC5, and Grand Funk Railroad.
As the 1970's progressed, Wagner grew and flourished into international prominence, first playing guitar with Lou Reed and finally moving into high gear with Alice Cooper, with whom he co-write such rock classics as Welcome To Nightmare and singles such as Only Women Bleed.
During this period Wagner also performed on such groundbreaking albums as Aerosmith's Get Your Wings and Kiss's Destroyer. As a producer he propelled number one hits for Air Supply and his work with the Save The Children foundation should serve as a blueprint for the lives that charity work can touch.
Ten years ago, Wagner moved back to Saginaw and has remained a devoted supporter of our community as well as a significant, if often under-appreciated, force within it.
On Friday, December 5th the State Theater in Bay City will be featuring a special 60th Birthday Bash Tribute to the memorable music of Dick Wagner and the man that created it.
In conjunction with this once-in-a-lifetime event, recently Wagner agreed to sit down for an in-depth and incisive interview that spanned two sessions. During the course of those sessions, Wagner touched upon the highlights and low points of his career with candor and honesty.
The man has an incredible story to tell. And this is but a prologue to a life that is only now really starting to hit its stride.
Part 1: TAKE A LOOK MY FRIEND
Review: What are your earliest memories in terms of your love & involvement with music?
Wagner: As a child I remember playing on these little toy guitars & instruments. This was before The Beatles broke upon the scene and changed everything, but I was drawn to Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley and a host of others.
Review: So was the appearance of The Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show in February 1964 a crystallizing moment for you?
Wagner: It was for me. I got caught up in the whole excitement of it. Music was about fun back then and didn't have any serious lyrical topics getting in the way of the hooks & harmony.
I remember driving down the highway and listening to the radio and saying, 'What's that?' When I heard it was The Beatles, I couldn't believe the name because I thought it was kind of stupid, but they had five singles on the charts at once and I learned all of them.
I was playing in this band called The Eldorados that lasted two or three years, from 1962-64. Motown was coming on then as well, so we played a little rock, a little blues, and had this sax player named Norm Ray. He eventually played second sax to Boots Randolf.
Then I came to Saginaw and started playing with Pete Woodman and Lanny in this group called The Playboys. We performed at the Village Pump, which is where the Cass River Yacht Club is now located. We would pack the place every night. At first we played a lot of other material, but when The Beatles hit the scene that's mostly what we played. We did other songs like Lightning Strikes by Lou Christie, but there weren't that many other hits out there.
Back then I didn't have any originals, and when The Beatles' first two albums came out, we learned every song. When I realized that Lennon & McCartney were writing songs, I figured I'd give it a try.
Review: Do you remember the first song you wrote?
Wagner: Yes, it was called Lonely & Crying Over You. At that time Del Shannon's manager was doing some recording and invited me to New York City. It was the first time I'd been out of Michigan and I was scared to death. Unfortunately, those records never got released.
Review: So how did The Bossmen come about?
Wagner: The Bossmen lasted from 1964 to 1967. I went to school and grew up in Waterford, Michigan, and moved to Saginaw when I was 20. Warren Keith played in The Eldorados and we moved up to Saginaw to start playing with Pete Woodman & Lanny Roenicke.
We put out a lot of records in those three years and had about a dozen hit singles. That's back when local radio stations like WTAC and WSAM religiously supported local music and gave it strong airplay.
Mainly, we always wanted to give new songs to the audience and developed a strong following around the state. I did most of the writing and at that time was also producing the records, writing the songs, booking the halls, and playing gigs.
We'd go into towns and rent these Armory Halls. Bands could do it all themselves back then. You'd pay the hall $75.00 and get two at the door, pull in 200 kids, and make good money.
Plus the radio stations wanted us to make these crazy skits up, which would play on the radio. It turned into this huge theatrical thing between me and Pete, Lanny and Warren.
Review: I was only nine or 10 at the time, but remember hearing some great songs from The Bossmen - 'Take a Look', 'Bad Girl, 'Baby Boy'. Why did The Bossmen break up?
Wagner: When I look back on those years they were fabulous, and I wouldn't trade them for anything.
Basically, we broke up because of some sort of scandal about Pete smoking pot at the time. I got incensed because he was smoking it and told Pete he had to go.
That's when things started falling apart. It turned out that I was the only guy not doing drugs. They all knew I was a totally straight guy so hid it from me. Honestly, I was the last guy to ever do any drugs. But once I got into it, I did a lot of them. But to answer your questions, that's what I think broke up The Bossmen. We had a lot of bad publicity about that incident.
Part 2: THE AMAZING JOURNEY
Review: The Frost was your next big musical phase. How did that come about?
Wagner: I went up to Alpena to see Bobby Riggs & the Chevelles and wanted to talk to him about joining forces. I liked his band and for a while he came to play with me as Dick Wagner & the Bossmen.
Then we changed our name to The Frost. At that time I auditioned for Blood, Sweat & Tears but didn't get the job, so was determined to make a new band happen when I came back to Saginaw.
I met Gordy Garris from Lansing and already had Bobby and Donny Hartman, so we started rehearsing and wrote many songs every day. We came up with all this material and started playing out and people loved it.
Our first big splash was at Meadowbrook in the Amphitheater with the MC5 and The Stooges. It was the first time anybody had seen us. About 15,000 people were there and we blew them away. Word got around, calls started coming in, so we started playing at the Grande Ballroom & The Eastown in Detroit and even opened for Blind Faith at Olympia Stadium.
We opened for a lot of major artists at that time - Janis Joplin, Hendrix, Country Joe & the Fish.
Finally, we took all the music we'd playing for a year and recorded it. That first Frost album sold 50,000 units and went number #1 in Michigan for months. It was a phenomenal success and we started getting calls from Clive Davis at Columbia and Sam Charters at Vanguard, both of whom wanted to sign us.
Review: Of the three Frost albums, the live 'Rock 'n Roll Music' sounds the best, but that first one had great songs yet less than perfect production.
Wagner: That first album was recorded horribly. What happened is that Columbia didn't spend as much time with us as Vanguard did, so we went with Vanguard. It was one of those 'big' mistakes we made.
Sam Charters flew in every week wining and dining us. Vanguard was mainly a folk label that ironically passed on signing Bob Dylan, who went with Columbia, while we went with Vanguard.
Anyway, Charters sold us a bill of goods. We had no idea they wouldn't promote our material. They promoted us in Michigan, but nowhere else in the country.
We went out to San Francisco and opened for B.B. King at the Fillmore West. They loved us, but everywhere we went our records were nowhere to be found. Nobody knew about us because there was no promotion, no record company people coming to support us, nothing. We were on our own.
In retrospect we probably should have continued just playing around the country on our own, but we came back and decided to do an East Coast tour. We went up to Massachusetts and had 17 dates in Canada.
When we got to Canada, Bobby Riggs decided he didn't want to continue anymore, so flew home. I was sitting in Toronto airport with 15 dates ahead of me that I had to cancel. That was the beginning of the end with The Frost.
We'd receive standing ovations here in Michigan, but when we toured other towns that weren't aware of us our treatment was more normal. Bobby was used to the adulation and got bored with it when the reinforcement wasn't immediate.
Review: Of the three Frost albums, which do you like best?
Wagner: I like the third and final one, Through the Eyes of Love. I'm not happy with the first one at all, but people still like it. Except for the songs, I don't know why.
I produced the third album and it sold well, but I was just learning the craft at that time so am not totally pleased with it. I'm happy I got to make it, though.
It's funny. I still get bills from Vanguard claiming that we owe them $49,000 for recording time they charged us. We had the worst deal ever signed. Our attorney that negotiated the deal handled The Beatles catalog, and to this day I don't know if Vanguard was the only deal he could get or if he didn't bother to negotiate.
If we kept going I believe The Frost could have been one of the greatest groups out there.
Review: As musical structures got more expansive in the early '70s, did drugs impact the sound of the band much?
Wagner: I don't really know because I wasn't doing any myself. I didn't recognize whether it was affecting the sound or not. We tried to make more expansive music and opened for Pink Floyd and Mountain and did a lot of shows with Nugent & Seger. Actually, the first album I did after that with Ursa Major was an expansion of where The Frost might have gone.
Review: When The Frost broke up, did you just want to take a long break?
Wagner: Not really. I went to New York and Dennis Arfa, our manager at the time, came in and saw The Frost. He pitched me on joining this band he was putting together called Ursa Major that was going to consist of me, Billy Joel on keyboards, and Rick Magnolia on drums.
We had some rehearsals and then all of sudden Billy flaked out and tried to commit suicide. After that episode he moved west and became the 'piano man' and all that.
But during that time he was hospitalized, he brought the whole project down, so the only person we could think of as a replacement was Greg Arama of the Amboy Dukes. He played bass, organ, and keyboard, so we went out as a trio.
Part 3: ROCK DREAMS (or welcome to my nightmare)
Review: How did you first meet Alice Cooper?
Wagner: Ursa Major toured and had 17 dates opening for Alice Cooper and then 15 dates opening for Beck, Bogart & Appice.
I'd met Alice in Detroit. He came backstage at a Frost show once, only I hadn't heard his band yet. I finally saw him at the Toledo Festival. They were late on the scene at that time and had been involved with Frank Zappa on the West Coast, but then they got with Bob Ezrin who made them commercial.
Eventually, I received a call from Ezrin. He wanted me to play on some of the records Alice was recording and do some writing. He said he admired my songwriting, so I played on a few tracks of School's Out uncredited and then Bob and I wrote the I Love the Dead song, which was the finale for Billion Dollar Babies.
I'm not credited on that song either because I sold my interest, as I needed money at the time. You're not supposed to 'buy out' other peoples' songs, but I didn't care.
Review: Bob Ezrin was a major player of '70s Rock. He produced stuff for Lou Reed, Kiss, Aerosmith, as well as Alice Cooper. How did you hook up with him?
Wagner: I met Bob and hooked-up with him when he put Lou Reed's band together. Ezrin was producing Lou's Berlin album and Steve Hunter and I both played on that. This was before Alice.
We rehearsed in Lennox, Massachusetts, and went to Europe. When we returned we played the Academy of Music in Brooklyn where the two live Lou Reed albums were recorded, Rock 'n Roll Animal and Live Part 2. We had a great band. Steve Hunter and I did dual guitar leads and we tore it up in Europe.
Lou is quite a character. At that time he was really blown away on drugs. Those were pretty drugged out days, but nothing as bad as the late days of Alice Cooper.
People would do pot and coke, but Lou got into heroin and amphetamines. Needless to say, that band was short lived. We got a call from Lou saying we were all fired and then he went to record the Sally Can't Dance album.
To this day he says he hates all the Rock 'n Roll Animal stuff. What happened is that every review in Europe praised Hunter and me and panned Lou, saying he wasn't professional and couldn't sing. He wasn't happy by that and started asking us to cut our solos short. Lou didn't want to be outshadowed by the band.
Lou is a strange guy. He loved it at first, but didn't get the response he wanted for himself.
After the Lou episode is when I got the requests to play with Alice. I played most of the guitar parts on Billion Dollar Babies and Muscle of Love. Glen Buxton, who was Alice's guitarist at the time, was totally out of it. He couldn't even play onstage. They'd have another guitarist backstage doing his parts and would turn Glen's amp off onstage because he was so gone from drug abuse. Eventually it killed him.
Review: What was working with Ezrin like?
Wagner: The first time I met him I was 25 and he was 21. He strutted in with this waist long black hair and I thought, 'Who is this guy?' He started demanding this and that, so I'd play things he wanted us to try and it was good.
He was difficult to work with on certain levels, but we became friends and collaborated a lot. He's a very good keyboard player that was classically trained and never played in rock bands. He played once with us in Lou Reed at the Roxy in L.A., but wasn't used to being a band player. He's a good writer and a smart guy and definitely takes over in the studio.
Everything is done his way and that's it, but it works. He still owes me some money. We had different deals cut that never got written on paper, certain percentages of records that were owed to me, but to me that's all water under the bridge.
Review: Welcome to My Nightmare was the biggest Alice Cooper tour ever. In fact, it was one of the biggest tours in the history of rock music.
Wagner: It was the biggest tour in terms of international notoriety of its time. That tour grossed $9 million dollars, which was huge. But now $100 million is huge. But it did set the stage for theatrics in Rock 'n Roll.
At that time Alice was having trouble writing so his manager, Shemp Gordan asked me to go with Alice somewhere and write. He was trying to come up with this 'concept' album.
So we went to the Bahamas and were in Nassau at these cottages on the ocean. One day this hurricane started up. Alice and I were on a couple of chairs in front of this cottage and I'm strumming an acoustic guitar and these 70-mph winds start blowing. We're out there trying to write this song and I came up with this riff. The next thing I know Alice is singing, 'Welcome to my nightmare' and it was all about this storm going on around us.
We both went, 'Eureka', and phoned Shemp and Bob and told them we had the concept for the album.
With Alice it's like spontaneous genius. The combination of the two of us was pretty great.
Review: Were those good days?
Wagner: I'd write the music, Alice did the lyrics, but we'd contribute to each other's bit. We'd get along great and all we did was laugh. Every writing session began with hilarity and then settled into some serious songs.
We had 45 people with us on the Welcome to My Nightmare tour and all traveled on private planes that were leased from New England Air. Everybody got along the entire tour with no problems. I'd like to relive that.
Review: Was that the whole 'rock 'n roll' orgy time of sex, drugs, music, wild times?
Wagner: Yeah, we did it all. Those were very interesting times. Huge crowds everywhere you went. The follow-up to that album was Go To Hell, so things were quite solid then despite all the mayhem and the drugs. You could go to a party and walk into a bathroom and find an entire bathtub full of cocaine.
Review: When did things start fading?
Wagner: By the second tour. We didn't tour with Go To Hell and then we did another album, Lace & Whiskey, which is when things started coming apart. You can hear it musically.
There were too many drugs and distractions. People started hating each other. Alice was off the deep end, isolated from everybody, sitting alone in his room.
We did this 'King of the Silver Stage' tour that featured chickens with machine guns. It was hokey stuff and I hated it.
Alice and I were supposed to go on the Tonight Show together. He would sing some ballads like Only Women Bleed and I would play acoustic guitar. At the last minute it changed and the band actually got up with Doc Severinson and his band and played with them. Alice had his chickens with machine guns and that was what introduced the tour, as opposed to me and Alice doing these beautiful ballads that would show class on the Tonight Show.
Nobody liked it or the show very much. Eventually things broke up in 1977. I got this offer from Clive Davis to record a solo album for Arista. But at the same time Shemp and Ezrin came to me with this offer from Atlantic. I had to make a choice, so I went with Bob and Shemp.
Bob was going to work on the album with me and Shemp would put me on the road. The result was The Richard Wagner Album, which didn't get exposed at all. It would even get filed in classical sections!
That was a low point. I was getting ready for my solo career and when that didn't happen, they wanted me to stay with Alice, because at that time Alice would not record or tour without me. I was his security blanket, only I had aspirations of my own.
I never got along with Shemp that much, anyway. He wanted everything on the cheap, and I wanted the band treated in the style of a rock 'n roll tour. You had to fight for every dollar with Shemp. When the first Alice band broke up, Shemp bought them out for $25,000 a piece.
Part 4: NIGHTS AT THE PLAZA (and tales of the present)
Review: What eventually happened with your solo career?
Wagner: Alice finished an album and was going to do another tour in Australia. He wanted me to go meet in Las Vegas. Shemp said whatever dates I played I could open for Alice for 30 minutes of my album and then fall back in the band.
Well, Shemp phoned not too long after rehearsals began and said, "We're not going to do that. We're going to send you out on the road and have you play with the best local musicians in every town."
I was appalled. Like I could just blow into town and play with local musicians. I asked Shemp if he'd even listened to the album. It takes rehearsal time and isn't something you can jam to.
Dick Wagner with Aerosmith circa 1976
So I said, 'No way'. That's not going to happen. The deal is off. It's too bad. I had all these songs like Motor City Shakedown, but I just quit. I was very depressed at that point. Everything was falling apart.
I ended up living in New York at the time and got together with Michael Kamen, who produced an album for Tim Curry and I ended up writing this song for Air Supply. They didn't want to do it, but Clive Davis wanted them to and it became a huge hit for Air Supply.
Review: What was it like living in New York City at that time?
Wagner: It was off the hook. I was living in this suite at the Plaza Hotel that cost about $500 a day. Any time of the day or night I'd have people over and we'd order these elaborate meals that would be delivered on sterling silver platters. In fact, anything you wanted at all you would just have to call the Plaza desk and ask for Ramon.
When I lived in New York, I loved it and thought it was the best city in the world. But it was so expensive and crowded. The last time I went it was kind of sad. All the old restaurants I used to love are all gone and it's more populated than ever.
Review: This brings us to later portion of your career. What was your follow-up project to working with 'Air Supply'?
Wagner: At this time I wrote the Remember the Child song and toured the country with John Bradshaw. He was doing meditations in front of 2000 people that would sob when the music was presented, and I found it a different way to present music with poignancy.
That project took me right out of the loop for awhile and it was a nice rewarding change. I did that for a couple years and then at some point moved to Nashville and tried to get something going out there, which is really tough.
I'd meet these publishing companies and they would ask my background and when I told them of my work with Alice Cooper they would say, 'So how is Alice's snake?'
It never worked out for me in Nashville. I had some good collaborations with Nashville writers, but I was only out there for 3 years and the rule of thumb is that you have to invest 5 years of your life in Nashville for anything to happen.
So I moved back to Saginaw and have been here for 10 years now. Maryanne Reynolds Burt was the Bossmen Fan Club President and I sent her some of my new music and we started talking about management stuff.
Anyway, I came back to Saginaw with the idea of opening a studio and also playing with the Symphony. I did the symphony gig right away and finally got the studio open, but with the current economic times, that wasn't working financially, so I had to close it a few months ago.
Review: How many songs have you written over your lifetime?
Wagner: I have 190 some songs registered with BMI that were actually recorded. I still write for projects, if somebody is coming in and needs some songs. I'm a project writer, for sure. I have another 150 songs on the shelf that have never been recorded for anybody, some of which are very good.
But I have a publisher now in New York that is working on getting some of my material into movies and shopping it around. Hopefully some of it will get recorded. I'm looking forward to having a hit. It's been a long time.
Review: What about the 60th Birthday Show at the State Theater on December 5th? What will that consist of?
Wagner: I'll be performing particular songs from each period of my career - the '60s, '70's, 80's, 90s'. My son is coming up from Austin Texas to do some of the Ursa Major material and Donny Hartman is coming down to do a few Frost songs and Ray Goodman is coming up to play with my band. He played with Mitch Ryder. It will probably last about 2 hours and be a good show. I'm focused on it now.
Review: What are your feelings after all this time?
Wagner: I like to think I have regrets, but I don't I'm such a cynic sometimes. I probably wouldn't do any of it over again, except maybe for the years of doing too many drugs. Now, I would moderate. I'm not saying I would never have done any drugs, because there is something about that time. But whatever, I have no regrets on that level.
I'm very fortunate. I've had a good career, maybe not as prominent and successful as I'd like it to have been, but I'm closer to succeeding as a solo artist now more than ever.
Review: Still, the songs you have written and recorded have really held up through time.
Wagner: I started out loving music and learning that I loved the guitar, I got into it, made it happen, became successful and had some negative stuff occur that goes along with it.
But there's nothing I regret about it, really. I'm sort of semi-retired now and no longer have the responsibility of the studio over my head.
Dick Wagner with Alice Cooper at The Soaring Eagle Casino in 2003
|Plus, I saw Alice recently at Soaring Eagle Casino and we
talked backstage and he wants to start writing together again. He's
in Phoenix right now and has some things going with Burt Bacharach and
Carole King. It's a little conglomerate of writers, so something might
I'm playing with my band and enjoying it more than ever. Honestly, I'm thankful that after all the years of touring on the road and living in L.A. and New York and Nashville that I actually came back to Saginaw.
I recently got married to my high school sweetheart, Sandy. I bought a house with a nice studio in it, have a decent car, and I'm still here, so I have everything a person could want
I wish I could have had more success with the studio, but it is what it is. 911 killed me. I had 4 projects signed to go and 80 grand worth of work that all cancelled after 911. The backers dropped their money. But I'll never stop playing as long as people want to hear it.