Joe Cocker’s death reminded me of this interview I conducted in 1999 with guitarist extraordinaire Jeff Pevar, who played with Cocker as well as Rickie Lee Jones, Ray Charles and David Crosby. It first appeared in the short-lived Da Boot fanzine, and later on the original Old Grey Cat website.
“The way a guy plays guitar is a combination of dexterity and taste and inventiveness and passion. Peev has all of those things. He’s just a massively talented guy. I mean, you can’t say one guitar player is the best, or that one guitar player is better than another, Clapton’s better than Hendrix or Hendrix is better than Clapton. What you can say is what appeals to you. And Pevar’s just right in the pocket for me, you know? Pretty much any style he’s playing–the blues, rock ‘n’ roll, edge-of-jazz kind of stuff, he’s there. [And] besides being talented, he’s just a wonderful guy. He’s one of the nicest guys in the music business. To have that kind of talent and not be a jerk? It’s just insanely wonderful. He’ll be my friend all my life.” —David Crosby, 1999
The Early Years
I was probably about 9 or 10 when my brother Stephen brought an electric guitar home from college and left it with me for the summer. I think he showed me a chord or two. By the time he got home at the end of the summer I’d not only mastered the two chords he showed me, but picked up a bunch of other things, too. After he saw how I’d taken such an interest in it, he decided to just leave the guitar with me.
I’m a self-taught musician. There was a guy down the street from where I lived in Bloomfield, Connecticut, named David Kaplan, who showed me my first couple songs on the guitar. I think the first song we worked on was the Kinks’ “Well Respected Man”; he also taught me some Beatles songs. I picked up a book of songs that were played on the radio – it had the guitar chord diagrams included in the music. Because I was familiar with the tonality of the songs, it all started to make more sense to me when I was figuring them out on the guitar. Often, I learned from listening to records, and picking things out on the guitar from them. For instance, [a few years later] when the Allman Bros.’ Live at the Fillmore East album came out, I learned every guitar note on it.
The Beatles were my favorite band, but the transistor radio was often glued to my ear. I was an AM radio junkie; I used to go to sleep with it on my pillow. At the time, AM was amazing–almost every type of music was played. You’d have Motown on the same station as Johnny Cash and the Beatles. That time period was a musical renaissance. It seemed like the people in the companies were guys like you and I who were excited by all kinds of music. So you had producers, artists, musicians and a lot of other people running the show who were in it because they loved music. Obviously, along the way, the big suits realized they could make a lot of dough at it. I think that’s when it changed.
My first band was made up of friends from school. We used to get together in someone’s cellar and jam. One of the guys got into the band because he had a PA system; another got in because he had a drum set. We used to play “I’m Not Your Stepping Stone” and other songs that were on the radio. We wrote a few things, too. We got together whenever we could and jammed until the neighbors complained and called the police or someone’s Mom couldn’t stand the noise.
By high school, I’d immersed myself in music and was playing with local bands. It was all I wanted to do. I was torn because I wasn’t into school the way they were teaching it, and just the things that they were teaching. You know, algebra class–it’s like, wait a minute. These are supposed to be numbers, not letters (laughs). Right around the time they started taking apart frogs in biology class, I just wasn’t into it. I had no interest in taking a scalpel to this poor thing and opening it up. And I was so enamored with the guitar and music that I knew that was my path, that music was what I wanted to do. So I left high school.
My first recording session was at a studio in Hartford called The TapeWorks, owned by a man named Doug Kupper. My association with him became a very important part of my early musical development; he took me under his wing and not only hired me for more session work, but he showed me the ropes in the studio. I have to say, Doug’s generosity at the time in my life was a life-long gift that I’ll always cherish. He was my musical “big brother,” if you will, not to mention a great friend. As time went on, he made his studio available to me on his off-hours, as well. I used to go in there at night to record and write. It was my new school… and no frogs!
A very important part of my good fortune has had to do with the people I’ve encountered along my path. There’s been a wonderful domino effect: One person, one situation leads to another. That’s sort of how it’s worked for me, just going along, working on things, and then being introduced to other people…
Rickie Lee Jones
A dear friend of mine named Michael Ruff is the main reason I signed on with Rickie. I met him in Connecticut; we’d played together when I was around 18-years-old or so. He was one of the biggest musical ass-kickers for me at that point in my life. In my opinion, he was a child prodigy – a profound jazz-level player, even as a teen. We started jamming together and it just blew my mind. He was just so much further along than any of the musicians I had ever encountered before. He took some chances. He moved to Woodstock, then to Los Angeles. He hooked up with Jose Feliciano and, of course, Rickie Lee Jones – he became her band leader. He called me and said, “Look, Rickie’s auditioning guitar players for the upcoming tour. There’s a bunch of guys auditioning, but if you want to get on a plane, I’ll get you a spot.” Through his influence, inspiration, and encouragement I was able to land the audition and the gig.
We started rehearsing without Rickie to get a handle on the tunes for the upcoming tour. One day, though, she showed up unannounced. She put a guitar on and looked at me … and she came over to me. The band was grooving to one of her tunes, this mid-tempo, sexy kind-of-groove, and she came right up to me and put her head next to mine, while we both played our guitars… almost hugging me. It felt like a tribal meeting of some sort. I guess she was simply getting “the vibe” from me in her own way. Part of me was totally freaking out, but I was talking to myself…. “Okay Jeff, just relax, have fun. It’ll be fine…it’ll be over in a minute.” I pushed myself to relax, to overcome my own fears and just be confident. She’s certainly one of the most passionate, intense musical beings I’ve ever met.
One thing that she said to me that I’ll never forget, which I think is one of the best things any artist can say to anybody that they’re working with, is – well, you know, I’d learned all the music from her records. We were playing the songs and I was even playing the guitar solos from her records. She came up to me one day and said, “Jeff, you’re a great guitar player. I don’t want you to have to feel like you have to play exactly what’s on the records. When it’s time to take a solo, play from your heart. Tell your own story.” It kind of clicked in my head all of a sudden – that’s the idea here, isn’t it? I’m not supposed to be someone else. I’m supposed to interpret the music my own way.
I ended up touring with her a bunch of times – the States and Europe, Israel and Scandinavia. She asked me to come out to California to work on some music she was recording. It was my first major session for a record. I walked into the studio and Jeff Porcaro was on the drums, Lenny Castro was on percussion, David Hungate was on bass, and James Newton Howard was producing. On my way to the studio, I was so nerve-racked I actually stopped and got a beer – and I don’t drink! But I drank a beer because my hands were literally shaking. We went in and everything was great. I recorded “It Must Be Love” with her that day.
Ray was playing in New Haven, which is about an hour away from where I live in Hartford. When I saw the ad in the paper, I decided I’d go see him – I’d never seen him play live before. Then, the night before the gig, I got a phone call from a musician friend who told me he’d heard through the grapevine that Ray’s guitar player had left the band and that I should check it out.
I drove to the theater early that afternoon and arrived right around the time the band was getting there for soundcheck, and immediately got introduced to Clifford Solomon, the bandleader. I told Clifford I was interested in the job; he said to come in and check out the show. Here I am, watching the show from the sidelines. All these big band musicians are in tuxes, sitting down in front of sheet music. And I’m thinking to myself, “Oh, shit. I can’t do this. I don’t read music well enough.” But something inside me said: “I HAVE to do this. I have to push the boundaries. I have to at least try. ‘Cause if I don’t try, I’ll never know.” So I told Clifford I was interested in the gig.
He asked me if I had a tape with me to give to Ray. I said no, but that I’d gladly send one, but they needed something right away. Now, I’d been working at Doug Kupper’s studio in Hartford, writing and recording my own stuff. Luckily, Ray had two shows that night and, at the end of the first show, I got into my car and drove from New Haven to Hartford, dubbed off a tape of a couple of the bluesier/jazzier songs I’d recorded at the TapeWorks, and got back in the car – and arrived back in New Haven just as they were leaving. It was incredible how it all worked out… almost crazy. There have been certain moments in my life when I feel as if there are angels, music angels, watching over me.
So I gave him the tape and got the call the next day. They wanted me to come to New York to do a rehearsal/audition. During the audition, which they taped for Ray, there was one short written-out guitar solo, very simple, for a song called “Riding Thumb,” that Ray wanted played verbatim. Luckily, the bandleader sang it to me; it was so short, and my ear was quick enough, that I was able to play it without having to try to sight-read the part. Then we played some blues, which was my forte.
I soon learned that Ray really loved my blues playing. It was a bond that I had with this person who was, for me, Mr. Music. For all intents and purposes, I was technically under-qualified to be in his band, but I could read enough chords to get through the charts. And my blues soloing was strong enough that Ray really dug what I was doing. We really hit it off. In addition to all of the sides of his musicality that are very studied and specific, the guy is just an open nerve. He was a blues guitar fan; I was able to get him to literally shake in his chair. I’d play that one stinging B.B. King-kinda note and he’d turn around to me and say, “Ow! Ooh! You nasty boy!” It was an eye-opening experience for me. Here’s this Jewish kid from Hartford getting Ray Charles to actually squirm on his chair! It gave me such an affirmation – I knew then that I must be doing something right.
Ray has a huge book with hundreds of arrangements, each one numbered and in order. Before each show, we’d get a slip of paper with the numbers of the songs that would be performed that evening. He’d often pull out the bluesier songs that had room for my soloing; I was featured a fair amount. But there were a lot of the same songs we played every night, too, and I started to fantasize about playing other music. So, about six months into the second tour in 1986, I asked to have a talk with him. I knew from reading about him that he’d played with other artists and then left to form his own band. I told him, “Ray, I’m at a point in my life where I also feel like I need to put my own band together. I hope this doesn’t create any bad feelings between us because I feel very lucky to have worked with you and I’ve learned so much.”
He said, “Honey, the only thing I ask from my boys is that they play for me. And you play your ass off. The only thing I want from you is that I always have a number so I know how to contact you if I need you. Not your girlfriend’s number ’cause that could end overnight!” He was great. And, actually, the following year he gave me a call and asked me to join on again – and I did for a few months. I went to Europe and played the summer with him and then gave my notice. That was the last time I toured with him.
Michael Lang, who was involved in putting on Woodstock, was managing Rickie Lee around the time that I did my second tour with her. He was also managing Cocker. I’d heard through a friend that Joe was going on tour, and was looking for a new band. So I called Michael and told him I was interested. That’s how I landed the audition. That was in 1988, in support of Joe’s Unchain My Heart record.
Joe was huge in Europe, especially in Germany. The thing that I most remember from that tour was that the Iron Curtain was still up; we were asked to play two places in East Germany, East Berlin and Dresden. Supposedly, they’d never had an American rock ‘n’ roll concert there ever. And, at these outdoor shows, there were more people there than I had ever seen in my life. The reports were between 100,000 and 150,000 people. It was literally people as far as I could see. It was such a profound feeling to be standing in this place behind this wall with people who couldn’t walk to the other side. There was this young lady involved in the tour who I met; she told me she’d been waiting 10 years for a car. You know, you put in a submission and then you wait. It was mind-boggling.
But Joe was a sweetheart of a guy to work for; he treated the band really well. On off-nights, he’d take the entire band and crew out for a huge, amazing dinner and pick up the tab. He was a high-class guy. And he was a big Ray Charles fan. At the end of the tour, he wrote a little thing in a book for me: “It’s you, me and Ray!” He was just so enamored.
When I quit Ray’s band… a friend of mine named Rick Van Loon lived in New York, and had his own band. He said, “You need to be in New York. I want you to come play in my jazz group.” It was a fusion-thing. He goes, “I don’t have a big apartment, but you’re welcome to the couch.” I’d always known that I had to move to New York or L.A. So I was sleeping on this guy’s couch, barely making any money, walking the streets and going, “Hmm… can I afford this slice of pizza?” But from hanging out in town, one thing led to another. I started playing clubs and word started to get around; it was kind of an investment time. Through that groundwork a lot of opportunities started coming my way–kind of that domino effect [again].
I was recommended for this MTV game show called Turn It Up. I did the pilot, the show was picked up and I got the gig. My friend Rob Stevens, who produced the band, worked with Yoko Ono, too. He called me. She was doing a song – I think it was a demo for an upcoming play. It was this punk-vibe tune in the studio – guitar, bass and drums. Yoko was there, in the vocal booth, doing her thing. She was great; I really enjoyed her. We went in, did the rhythm track while she was singing in the booth. Then they asked me to do another guitar track – licks and fills, and a solo in the middle and a solo at the end. So I’m playing, doing fills, doing the verses around her vocals and I do the solo in the middle and then we do the ride-out and I’m just, like, going nuts, playing very animated and wild and rock ‘n’ roll. I finished the take and I look and there’s Yoko jumping up and down and clapping her hands above her head. It was just such a trip to see her react like that.
I met Marc Cohn a couple of years earlier, through James Taylor. I had a short association with James around a time when he was interested in meeting new musicians. I went into the studio with him to record a couple songs–a couple of them made his album That’s Why I’m Here. When Marc moved to town, he met with James, who suggested to Marc that he put a band together and gave him my name. I did some early demos with Marc.
Then Marc got his deal with Atlantic and put out his first record. He was auditioning guitar players for his first major tour and I got the gig. We did a great tour together – just the two of us. It was an eye-opening experience for me. All of the artists that I’d been performing with had larger ensembles. Marc and I were playing before 2000-3000 seat audiences in Europe and in the States as a duo. It was very exciting. I was playing acoustic and electric guitar and on a couple songs he just sang [to my accompaniment]. On ‘Fever’ I played fretless bass. The pared-down thing really taught me a lot; my association with Marc was truly a highlight for me. He’s a gifted musician.
During that time, Crosby, Stills & Nash asked Marc to open up their acoustic tour. Our first gig was at the Blossom Music Center in Ohio. That was the first day I met David. It was a historic meeting for me. Right from the get-go, we all bonded immediately. Crosby and Nash were so excited; they came into our dressing room asking to sing with us. I found myself figuring out harmony parts with David and Graham. I was like, “Pinch me, I must be dreaming.” One of the things that I love about Graham and David is that they share the same hunger that I do to play music. That’s one of the wonderful things about being a musician. It helps you stay in touch with that child, with that little kid who just wants to go out and play. And, luckily, they’re still smitten by that bug. That’s one of the reasons why we all enjoy playing together so much.
Crosby & Nash
As Crosby put it, they were watching Marc and I play and Crosby looked over at Nash and said, “Okay, we’re stealing this guy.” After the second or third gig, Crosby came up to me and said, “Listen, Nash and I have been talking. We love the way you play.” He said that he and Nash do a lot of work outside of the thing with Stephen. And they’d love for me to be included. My mouth dropped.
The first gig was actually a four-piece ensemble with Craig Doerge at Caesar’s Palace in Tahoe. It went great. And then, from there, we actually ended up doing some trio things; it went so well that a tour was booked. They were kind enough, and generous enough, to include my name in the billing. It was billed as “David Crosby and Graham Nash with Jeff Pevar.” It’s a testament to what kind of people these guys are. A lot of people are into the whole “star” trip and you’re just the back-up musician. But these guys have treated me like a friend right from the beginning.
Croz and I had known each other for four or five years before he found his son James Raymond. After James and David met, and David heard James’ music, Croz said he immediately thought the three of us should get together and play. We did, and the vibe between us all was happening. James is such a profound talent. So we decided to book some dates to get out and play as a trio. It came together very quickly; we did about three rehearsals and, in January of 1997, we did a dozen dates up the West Coast. Of course, David and I had been working together for a while. But James is an incredible, incredible musician. He’s an astounding guy. His sensitivity and his musical vocabulary fit like a glove.
After the tour, David called me and said he wanted to do a CPR record. We had some lead time before we were actually going to record, so I booked myself a lot of trips out West so that we could get together and write.
Every song co-written between the three of us happened different ways. “That House” started as a little idea I had on the guitar, which is the intro of the song. Interestingly, I wrote it on David’s boat, The Mayan. I brought that musical idea to James, and we got some more chords together. And David had these wonderful lyrics that he’d already written that fit right into the tune. The three of us got together, and arranged it, and even added the end section of the tune at rehearsal just before we tracked the song. It was magic. And “Little Blind Fish” -David had given me a number of his lyrics. I pulled it out one night after going to a blues club and just put some blues changes to it. It just worked like crazy. I showed it to him the next day–he was in New York doing some business. And he said, “Put Crosby-Pevar at the top of the page.”
Of course, “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now” is the title of a live record I did with David. John Gonzalez, who’s David’s guitar tech – and is also a member of Anastasia & John – came up with the title for that record, which was kind of a play on words from David’s If I Could Only Remember My Name album. I thought, what a great title for a song! As we were amassing music for this CPR record, a lot of it was somewhat jazzy and lower-tempo and sweet. I thought, “Man, we need some rock ‘n’ roll.” I’m a guitar player who loves to play rock ‘n’ roll and blues, too. I love to hear David sing in that “Long Time Gone” or “Almost Cut My Hair” blues/rock style.
So I came up with the music, and used the title of the live record for the song title. I was driving in between Connecticut and New York a lot and, on those drives, I’d write lyrics. I finally showed what I had to David; we ended up e-mailing lyric changes back and forth until we came up with the final set. It’s a song about anybody who’s been down and come back. I was actually thinking about David: “I’ve been through rocky waters/been over the falls.” He’s a sailor; and he’s been through very rocky waters.
On the CPR record, there’s music that forges new territory for the type of music that might come out on a “David Crosby” record. Which isn’t to say he hasn’t put put some really weird and cool stuff, ’cause we know he has. But there’s a wide harmonic vocabulary on this record that incorporates all of our influences, I think. Certainly, there’s a little bit of Stills’ influence in some of the guitar approaches. He’s always been one of my favorites. And I’m sure Stills listens to a lot of the same guys I do; we’re both influenced by Louisiana- and Texas-blues.
Over the last ten years or so, I’ve been singing more and more. I live in the Hartford area; when I’m off the road, I play with my own band, whether it’s billed as Jeff Pevar Band, Jeff Pevar & Friends, whatever. When I perform, do most of the lead singing. I interpret traditional blues songs and different songs that I like. Some are instrumental, but I sing a lot.
After I met David and Graham, I started singing harmony a lot with them. Obviously, if you’re going to have some good teachers, they’re the best. Since meeting them ’til now, my singing has improved vastly, I think. But, the whole lead singer thing – some people are just really blessed with this great instrument right from the get-go. I’ve been trying to cultivate mine. I don’t feel like my vocal abilities come as naturally as my guitar-playing ability. So I just have to work harder!
I stay very busy when CPR isn’t working; I work with a lot of artists and am now producing other artists’ records. It’s been a blessing that I’ve played in many different kinds of bands – bluegrass bands, jazz bands, swing bands, rock bands and blues bands. It’s contributed to my ability to easily work with lots of different musicians and artists. I just produced a record for a friend named Doug Ingoldspy; I met Doug through Anastasia & John. They were in a songwriting circle in Santa Barbara with Doug that Jimmy Messina put on. Doug asked me if I’d co-produce his album. He’s a great songwriter.
He did the rhythm tracks in Santa Barbara at Jax-Tracks Studios and sent me multi-track tapes to work on my guitar parts in my studio. Then he hired me to come out and mix the record with him in Santa Barbara. The record features some great guests: David Crosby, Anastasia & John – he cut one of John’s songs, too – and Doug’s old friend Kenny Loggins, who sings some background vocals. And Jimmy Messina is featured on guitar on one cut; I play most of the electric guitars and some mandolin.
I lived in New York City for a number of years and still commute, when I need to. But I’m not a big fan of the city lifestyle as a general diet. I’ve always been from the Hartford area. [My wife] Dana and I found this really great little place that’s down a dirt road right on a river. It’s like, do I want to wake up in the morning to a car alarm or do I want to wake up to ducks? Ehh, I’ll take the ducks.
I’m actually building a recording studio in Connecticut near my house to write and produce my own music and to produce other artists. I listened to some of my older compositions recently. There are some good things there, I think. I might have to re-record some of them to put out sometime. I’m also toying with the idea of putting out a solo acoustic record – in addition to the ensemble blues stuff that I do, in addition to the instrumental stuff. I realized, if you want to do everything, then do everything. Why limit yourself?