LES FRADKIN
Rehearsals For Retirement
(RRO Entertainment)

 

RRO Entertainment is the label home for rock renaissance man Les Fradkin and in 2015 Les leaves us with what is looking like his final musical statement. Not officially available on CD, the 30 track Rehearsals For Retirement is a digital only download release, so far, with a CD cover art. Les actually supplied mwe3.com with 19 tracks of lyrics—these songs being the subject matter of the following interview. This writer first became aware of Les during his early 2000's comeback following a period of relative inactivity. Back then, Les came back as a kind of instrumental surf-rock guitar hero and this writer wrote the liner notes for both Get Wet albums, which did come out on CD not just CDR. In the ensuing years, Les of course has recorded a number of very cool rock vocal albums, many of which serve as tribute albums to his musical heroes—The Beatles and The Byrds. On the 30 track Rehearsals For Retirement, (Les says the first album has 17 tracks), the subject matter revolves around songs written and sung by Les in his inimitable one man band style—some dating back to songs goin' back to the 1970s that really captures Les Fradkin’s incredible experiences from that era, some of which he remembered for us in this interview. Some guests appear on Rehearsals For Retirement, including a rare guitar solo performance by the late great Mick Ronson as well as an appearance by Hal Blaine, Carol Kaye and the “Wrecking Crew”. Although Les made his name as an instrumental guitarist over the past 15 years or so, his vocal performances here, mixed in with his guitar and studio productions, are really ear-opening. Of course, like so many of the genius musicians and record company guys who were living in New York City duing the 1960s and '70, Les is iconic and the 30 track Rehearsals For Retirement is a fascinating overview of an often overlooked yet completely essential artist who has earned a loyal following during his life and times. www.LesFradkin.com





mwe3.com presents an interview with
LES FRADKIN

mwe3
: You were talking about a career overview back in 2013 after the Suite For Ztar album. Do you think Rehearsals For Retirement truly encapsulates your career? Seems like you missed a lot by just including 30 tracks. What were your parameters in putting together Rehearsals For Retirement and why did you choose to use that title? It’s one of your great songs, true but it seems so finite… I don’t think you’re quite ready for retirement.

Les Fradkin: This best of anthology encapsulates the very best of my vocal music song writing. It also highlights my 12 string electric guitar playing which has always been well received in jangle pop circles and has always been present in all my recordings since 1970, even on the Ztar tracks. There might be a separate anthology coming for my instrumental work. And yes, I am retiring. Actually, the title also serves to illustrate that everything we do in life prepares us for when we stop doing the things we’ve always done.

mwe3: Do you look back on at least some of these tracks and think how success eluded you back then? Maybe some of your songs should or could have been recorded by major artists? Yet, it’s really special to hear how you present them now, mixing original tracks with new parts, 45 years later!

Les Fradkin: Well, perhaps, I could have been much more successful. But a), I never sold out and b) I observed the pain that others endured who were further up the “success” ladder than I—loss of family life, loss of wives, girlfriends, sanity—and I thought, that meal is not for me! Several well known artists have recorded my songs in the past. Some of these tunes, probably would have been hits had they been released at the time. Some were hits at the time. I’ve been very fortunate to maintain a career in the music business for 45 years. But I prefer not to look back. “No regrets”, to quote Tom Rush.

mwe3: Did you mean to focus on your vocal music as the core for Rehearsals For Retirement and if you did then that leaves out a couple hundred of instrumental tracks, from surf-rock to the Ztar album. But I guess that’s another time, another place.

Les Fradkin: As I said, the focus of Rehearsals For Retirement is on my vocal work.

mwe3: What were some of the technical challenges in putting the Rehearsals For Retirement collection together?

Les Fradkin: Matching the sound of tracks that were recorded in different studios, in different eras, on vastly different machines. Also, matching the levels track to track. The 2006 tracks were lowered by a couple of db’s to solve this. I think they sound far better this way. And besides, the loudness wars of the last decade seem to be over.

mwe3: When did you get the idea to do it and start choosing the material?

Les Fradkin: As you know, I’ve wanted to do a Best of Anthology for awhile. In fact, you gave me the idea! I started narrowing the choice material a couple of months ago.

mwe3: How about the mastering issues in including music that went back to the 1970s?

Les Fradkin: That was finally solved to my satisfaction with the Mastering Suite in a program called Propellerhead Reason. The tools in that program allowed me to work in wide stereo, with multi band compressors, limiting, broad band eq, etc. And the emulation of an SSL mixing desk is really remarkable. The issues with matching these tracks were considerable and quite a challenge. I think the results speak for themselves.

mwe3: How far back does the Rehearsals For Retirement set go?

Les Fradkin: Some of the songs date back to the 1970’s but some of them were written as far back as 1965-67. “Christopher’s Sorrow”, for example, dates from 1966 as a song but the recording is from 1971. “Song Of A Thousand Voices” is from the late 60’s but this version dates from 2006. “You Can Cry If You Want To” is the third song I ever wrote.

mwe3: What was the earliest music you chose and what was the most recent?

Les Fradkin: The earliest music, when written, was “You Can Cry If You Want To” The most recent is the updated lyric rewrite for “Where Have All The Heroes Gone?” which dates to 2010. All the mastering was done in 2015.

mwe3: Is “Jangleholic” autobiographical?

Les Fradkin: Yes! It takes you thru decades of my life, doesn’t it?

mwe3: So your musical upbringing really started with The Beatles and The Byrds?

Les Fradkin: My original inspirations, musically were classical and baroque music, from my Mother, plus The Ventures and folk music. The Beatles and The Byrds, The Searchers, The Beach Boys and other groups, sealed it for me as far as the 12 string guitar and the appeal of pop/rock.

mwe3: You seem to bring to bring everything up to date with that “Jangleholic” track. You recorded it back in 2006? Seems like 2006 was just yesterday!

Les Fradkin: Yes, it dates from 2006. My intention with my 2006 albums, Goin’ Back and Jangleholic and Under The Covers was to include a mix of oldies that influenced me, done my way, with Original material, written to sound as if it was back in the 60’s and 70’s. I always thought that baby boomer fans would enjoy hearing new songs done this way.

mwe3: “Song Of A Thousand Voices” takes you back to the early 1970s. Do you still have the original version that you wrote and recorded?

Les Fradkin: Yes, I still have it, but the original tracks, belong to Universal, who merged with MGM Records very long ago. Executives at Universal wanted a ridiculous amount of money in advance for a license to use those tracks. I told them I was perfectly capable of recreating the entire record without their involvement. And so, I did a new version, which, pretty much encapsulates the original, while adding a few ideas that had been a part of the original demos such as the vocal scat at the coda.

mwe3: I was interested in knowing how that song became a hit for French singer Mireille Mathieu back in 1971?

Les Fradkin: Evidently, she passed thru my publisher’s offices back then, heard the song, and loved it. I’m very grateful for her fabulous performance of this tune. Actually, I also rather like Roberto Jordan’s version, in Spanish, called “Donde?” It’s on his 3 CD greatest hits.

mwe3: This version is from your album Under The Covers from 2006. Why did you decide to add the Ztar sounds on this updated version?

Les Fradkin: I thought the expressiveness of the strings and brass could be improved.

mwe3: Is your 1971 version of “God Bless California” the earliest track on the Rehearsals For Retirement CD set?

Les Fradkin: It’s the earliest recording.

mwe3: Wow you sound like Roy Wood and Robin Gibb.

Les Fradkin: Well, that’s interesting. Both were influences on me, that’s for sure.

mwe3: You wrote this track way back in 1968 during your MGM period.

Les Fradkin: I wrote it around 1967-68. I didn’t get to MGM until 1970. It was one of the songs I felt sure would land me a recording deal.

mwe3: What can you tell us about your times at MGM, you were working alongside Mike Curb back then? I know he fired a lot of the great bands of the time. Then, MGM was one of the biggest labels in the world, what happened with Curb and why did you leave MGM?

Les Fradkin: That’s quite a question! My time at MGM, at first, was very creative and enjoyable. I had a lot of support from Eddie Deane and Wally Schuster, my publishers, and had great creative support from Steve Katz, my recording engineer. Steve remains, to this day, a close friend. I really had almost no interaction from Mr. Curb. My label support team was Mack David (songwriter) and Danny Kessler, owners of Sunflower Records and Sol Handwerger, MGM promo man. Evidently, Mr. Curb went on to successes with Together Records (with Gary Usher) and Curb Records, in Country Music. I left MGM because I wasn’t getting paid. Typical for those days, really.

mwe3: Is this the definitive version of this very early track “God Bless California” (1971 Version) and what did you add or subtract to the original mix for the new CD?

Les Fradkin: This version includes Rickenbacker 12 string overdubs, not present in the original version. It adds a sonic punch that resonates today, but might have been considered a bit out of fashion back then. Definitive? I’ll let the public decide.

mwe3: “Black Gypsy” is another early ‘70s track. You sounded very disillusioned by it all! You mentioned you played it to John Hammond up at Columbia Records back then. Can you remember recording that track? Where was Columbia located then? Were they in the black rock yet? Were you still with MGM or had you moved to Laurie Record already? Did you decide to remix it just for Rehearsals For Retirement? I can’t believe Hammond passed on this track! Did you use the original track to remix or did you use acetates etc?

Les Fradkin: So many questions! I was disillusioned by the frustration of my generation with the Vietnam War. I liked the alliteration of “Broken this…broken that…” John Hammond didn’t pass on the song. He loved it. And demoed it in 1969. That demo, which I have a copy of, remains in Columbia archives. I can remember recording the track. It has the same musicians as on “God Bless California”. Columbia was in Black Rock then, on 52nd Street. I was with MGM from August 1970 to February 1972. I hooked up with Laurie Records in 1973. No acetates were used. The influence on the song was the open G guitar tuning of Robert Johnson and Blind Willie McTell. I fooled around with the chords until this chord structure “appeared”.

mwe3: Who was the "Black Gypsy"?

Les Fradkin: Can’t exactly recall who it was. But I was probably referring to blues musicians like McTell or Robert Johnson, who was an inveterate wanderer. Actually, Blind Willie McTell was an influence on my 12 string playing as well.

mwe3: “Christopher’s Sorrow” is unusual, as you said. This track dates back to 1970 as well? Who was Richard Davis, the bass player on the track and tell us about the string arrangement too. Can you remember recording the track at Sound Exchange? Where was that studio? 1970 does seem like a hundred years ago! Okay maybe just nearly a half a century. Tell us about the added parts you put on the track in 2015.

Les Fradkin: The original ideas date from 1970. The melody is loosely based on Gregorian chant. Richard Davis is a famous jazz upright bassist who played with Eric Dolphy, Elvin Jones and Van Morrison. He was overdubbed by Steve Katz back then while I was away at college. I thought his contribution to the track was magnificent and right in keeping with the mood. I can remember recording the basic guitar and vocal at Sound Exchange with Steve Katz. It was done live. Mickey Leonard did a beautiful string arrangement on the original. I added Mellotron in 2015 to darken the sound.

mwe3: Did you really write “Sometimes A Girl Must Carry On” for Mary Hopkin back in 1970?

Les Fradkin: Yes. It was intended to follow up her Paul McCartney penned hit “Goodbye”.

mwe3: You said you met Allen Klein around this time and he gave you a hard time. What was that like?

Les Fradkin: I knew Allen from Riverdale N.Y. where I grew up. He didn’t give me a hard time. He just wanted the publishing for Apple and it was already taken by MGM. That was the reason for the cut.

mwe3: You demoed “Sometimes A Girl Must Carry On” for your unreleased Fearless Fradkin album. Was that album planned for the Sunflower label?

Les Fradkin: Yes, it was.

mwe3: What was the story on that label?

Les Fradkin: It was founded and owned by Mack David, a famous songwriter and Danny Kessler, an ace promo guy. They brought me in thru Robbins Productions, my publisher, as the first Sunflower Artist. They had chart hits with two Grateful Dead albums and a big pop hit with Daddy Dewdrop’s “Chick-A-Boom (Don’t Ya Just Love It)”.

mwe3: You were involved with many labels back in the 1970s.

Les Fradkin: Yes. MGM, Sunflower, Laurie, RCA, ESP-Disk, Bell and Arista… for the Beatlemania Cast LP.

mwe3: You recorded this version of “Sometimes A Girl Must Carry On” in 2006. Is the original track still around?

Les Fradkin: Yes, but it's just the demo I did for Mary Hopkin.
I showed it to her again last year and she still likes it. But I don't think she records anymore.

mwe3: “Lonely Together” goes back to 1980. What else is involved in the history of that track? Is that a remake?

Les Fradkin: “Lonely Together” is one of dozens of songs I wrote with Diana Haig. “High Time” is another. “Lonely Together” was written with McGuinn, Clark and Hillman in mind. It has a kind of country rock feel. I knew their manager, Al Hersh, very well. In fact, for awhile, Al managed me as well. This track is the original demo recording, done on a Tascam 4-Track tape recorder. The Mellotron was played by John Hawken of The Strawbs and Renaissance. The drums were dubbed by Greg Diamond. The bass was played by Jim Gregory (Jobriath, Ian Lloyd Band). My 12 string is the old reliable Rickenbacker. I had discovered the use of multi compressors, which helped that part sound with much more sustain.

mwe3: How did you meet Diana Reid Haig and how did you write that track with her?

Les Fradkin: I met her at a T-Shirt store in NYC in 1975. We started writing together, pretty much straight away. The words came first on this one.

mwe3: Was that another track you wrote in NYC? It has a kind of Byrds like guitar chime to it.

Les Fradkin: Yes, it was written in NYC. The Byrds guitar sound is deliberate, since the song was intended for McGuinn, Clark & Hillman’s “City” album.

mwe3: “You Program Me” goes back to 1980 as well. Is that really a track that you predicted the rise of the internet and computers? You were 15 years ahead of it!

Les Fradkin: Yes, it does.

mwe3: Is that an original track or did you do some recent added production? Are all the string sounds from the mellotron? Do you remember the tron you used way back when?

Les Fradkin: This is the original 4 track demo recorded on the Tascam 4-Track. The speech insert occurred live as I hit the record button. It’s an ambulance call which sounds kind of like a Siri voice on a Mac iPhone. All the string sounds are the Mellotron 400 that I owned at that time. I traded my Mellotron MkII for that M400 with half a dozen tape frames. I always thought that song should have been a hit for somebody.

mwe3: “Memories Of Love” was recorded in your home studio in 1982 with the late great Mick Ronson? In the city or upstate? How did you meet Mick Ronson and can you remember recording the track with him? Is that the original and/or did you do any recent post-production for Rehearsals? Any other memories of Mick?

Les Fradkin: “Memories Of Love” was recorded in my home studio in NYC with Mick Ronson on lead guitar. I was originally alerted to his talent by Roger McGuinn who worked with Mick on Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue and on Cardiff Rose. I met Mick thru Hilly Michaels, a great drummer and a great friend. I remember this recording quite well. Mick cranked out that solo in a very spontaneous manner on his Fender Telecaster. This is the actual original track/demo we did. Some vocals were improved for this release.

mwe3: “Spare Change” sounds like a track you’d write up at Laurie Records. It even sounds a bit Michael Brown inspired.

Les Fradkin: Actually, it was inspired by Tom Scholz and Boston. This was to be the single from the band I had with Mick and Hilly. As for the Michael Brown inspiration, that, admittedly, is always floating about in my music.

mwe3: The second version of “God Bless California” sounds more modern. It sounds like a Beach Boys song! And you have Hal Blaine on drums too! How did that happen that you used some of the wrecking crew on that track? Where was it recorded and written?

Les Fradkin: It was intended to sound like The Beach Boys. I had a production client who wanted this song for that musical purpose. I told him that we had to hire Phil Spector’s guys, The Wrecking Crew, to achieve that sound. Hal Blaine, Carol Kaye, Don Randi and Mitch Holder all appear on this recording. So does Eddie Bertrand on 2nd rhythm guitar. I play the Rickenbacker 12 string and the MIDI Brass and vibes. This was recorded and written in California in 1996. I added my final lead vocal shortly thereafter.

mwe3: “I Will” sounds McCartney-esque. Plus you use the same title! Tell us about the Godzology anthology and how that track fit on that?

Les Fradkin: This is a very pretty acoustic piece. The title is coincidental and the song was influenced by McCartney and also by Henry Gross. It’s the same track as released on “Godzology”.

mwe3: “Down On My Luck” sounds like Dylan or Harry Chapin or even Arlo Guthrie. Truly Jangle-Folk. What about that 12 string? Did you ever record a track like that before? Tell us about recording that track on “Digital Performer” with the other players. When was that one made?

Les Fradkin: This was a response to events happening in my life in the mid 1990’s. I love the lyrics. The starting point for inspiration was Dylan’s “Desolation Row”. The 12 string is the Rickenbacker. The other players were wonderful musicians, Paul Harris, and Dave Santos, among them. Recorded in NYC on my Synclavier 3200 and Digital Performer 4 track in 1994. I had never really written anything like "Down On My Luck" before. So it was news.

mwe3: Then you’re also featuring several tracks from your 2004 album Reality. Do you feel that album remains the highlight of your early 2000 career?

Les Fradkin: It definitely remains, some of my finest song writing.

mwe3: I remember being so jolted by it after you’d done the surf instro albums.

Les Fradkin: That was my intent.

mwe3: I guess the message of Reality is even starker today. In 2004, life was still pretty good!

Les Fradkin: No, it wasn’t. It’s just that Main Street America was still asleep then. Some folks are still snoozing.

mwe3: Did you choose your favorite Reality tracks for the compilation?

Les Fradkin: Yes, I did. These hold important messages and should be heard. Hopefully, this anthology will bring that about.

mwe3: The anthology title track, “Rehearsals For Retirement” originally from Reality. I guess it’s still a caustic track, plus now we’re ten years older too. It’s still rates among your best vocal tracks. So it turns out to be the theme of your preretirement anthology!

Les Fradkin: I didn’t mean it to be caustic. I’m trying to express how I think everybody may feel. Who’s gonna take care of you?

mwe3: Your wife Loretta wrote Reality with you. How is she doing these days? Tell us about life with Loretta in Colorado?

Les Fradkin: Loretta is fine and now, and she is retired. So we have much more time for other things than just work.

mwe3: What did you add in “sweetening” to the Reality inclusions on the Rehearsals compilation? I see the Ztar was added recently to these tracks? What ever you did it sounds great.

Les Fradkin: I just tightened up some of the orchestrations. Also remixed things for better low and mid clarity and transparency. At the time, those were problems associated with Logic as a production environment. Reason corrects those problems.

mwe3: “Heroes” is a recent song? But then you say it was written in 1973, so it’s a remake? It’s about the fatality of life? Anyway, it’s timeless and timely!

Les Fradkin: “Heroes” is a song written in 1973 with Barry Butler for my debut with Laurie Records. It’s original lyrics were a bit dated, what with references to Harry Truman, World War II and other things. The original demo was done by Barry and myself at A-1 Sound Studios in NYC. The first released recording was sung by Tom Selden. Recently, I thought the song had potential for these modern times, and requested the publisher that I be allowed to update the lyrics. They generously said yes. It’s not about the fatality of life. It’s about finding one’s own sense of courage, in desperate times. Sort of similar to the approach of the lyric of “System Crash”, if you like.

mwe3: “Under The Covers” is from 2006. Wow, that was a great year for you! I think you made 3 albums at least.

Les Fradkin: That was a very busy year. I recorded six days a week for months. Actually, I made more than three: Goin’ Back, Jangleholic, Under The Covers, If Your Memory Serves You Well (Dylan tribute), Under The Covers and Spirit Of Christmas. Plus I produced Napoleon’s Ghost and Venus In Bluejeans. And Pepper Front To Back and 12 in 2007. Exhausted after that? You bet!

mwe3: Is “Under The Covers” like a tribute to your fans? We’ll all meet at that great LP cover in the sky.

Les Fradkin: Yes, sort of. But it also uses the allegory of a love affair to get the point across. A very good song, I think. Inspired by Gary Puckett and The Union Gap and The Byrds.

mwe3: So why did you so far only release Rehearsals For Retirement on digital? You had done such a great job with your Suite For Ztar CD pressing in 2013 – I guess it’s harder to make an actual CD of a project this vast.

Les Fradkin: Yes, it’s prohibitively expensive to press a double CD these days. And vinyl is even more expensive.

mwe3: Tell us something about Michael Brown and the last music you made with him.

Les Fradkin: Well, I’ve known Michael for over 4 decades and we were friends. He guested on “I Could Make It Last Forever” on this anthology which dates from late 1972. I’d always wanted to do a project with him and he always wanted to do an instrumental album. And in 2014, that opportunity presented itself. We completed 4 songs before his untimely death. That is now released as an EP called “Finale”.

mwe3: What’s next for you Les? I remember you were talking about a 4 CD box set. Is that still in the cards or another instrumental Ztar album perhaps? Or is this really pretirement?

Les Fradkin: As for the Ztar, the company is out of business so that is no longer, a featured instrument. I'm in discussions with the Hallmark Guitar company for a Les Fradkin Limited Edition Signature Guitar. I’ve been doing music for 45 straight years. I plan on enjoying retirement in good health.







 

 
   
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