On a deliciously crisp autumn day in September 1978, I crossed the Quad at Syracuse University and set my wondrous eyes on Steve Forbert for the first time. I was 17 years old, a freshman in college and plenty green around the ears. But as I paused between classes, I realized that up there on the newly-constructed stage something was happening! Or at least about to happen. Steve Forbert, a singer/songwriter who I was only vaguely familiar with at the time, was going through the ritual of an afternoon sound check. Steve looked young, a little skinny, a tad road-weary, but definitely “Alive On Arrival” to play his songs.
Steve had embarked on his first major tour in support of his first album, Alive On Arrival, but as I stopped and looked on with a handful of others and we watched him strum his acoustic guitar, blow his blues harp and check the microphones, all of us could feel a real sense of expectancy in the air.
Later that night, Steve and his backing band would thrill thousands of Syracuse students and townies with his wistful and introspective songs. I remember it as a thrilling, long set that featured a whole bunch of different kinds of music; folk, rock, blues, and more. At the end of the show, I remember watching an especially enthusiastic audience member up front climbing onto the stage to boogie with the band. The kid, who definitely knew the song was handed a tamborine and as he danced along to , “You Cannot Win, If You Do Not Play,” the entire quad cheered both him and, of course, the star of the show, Steve Forbert.
Earlier at the sound check Steve had appeared shy and a bit tentative to me but by the end of the night, this young singer was transformed into a confident and self-assured performer, smiling and playing to the rapturous crowd, urging them to sing along. Steve was completely caught up in his own music and it was contagious. The next day I tracked down my new college buddy Mike, who owned a copy of Alive On Arrival, to take another listen. Then I rushed down to the on-campus record store to buy my own copy and I swear I listened to that record until I wore the grooves out. My friends and I were hooked to a new sensation who had serenaded our campus. Little did we know then that this was an artist that many of us would be listening to for the next three decades.
Samuel Stephen Forbert was born in Meridian, Mississippi, in 1956 the same year Elvis Presley was all over the radio singing his classic, “Heartbreak Hotel.” After a typical southern upbringing, Steve started playing guitar when he was young and kept playing, formed or played in a bunch of teenage bands, recorded a bit without much notice and then set his sights on a bigger prize.
In the late ’70s, Steve grabbed his suitcase, guitar and blues harp and headed for the same destination that so many other singer/songwriters before him had sought out; The Big Apple, New York City. But it must have been much to Steve’s dismay to discover that it was the punk scene that was hot and not the kind of music he was playing. Born naturally gifted with a smooth and homespun raspiness in his voice with his own unique style on harmonica and the ability to write great songs, Steve was quickly stuck with the same label so many other musicians like him had been given, “the new Dylan,” a moniker and albatross that nobody particularly wanted. After all Dylan had already happened more than a decade ago. If you were going to be successful, you had to offer something new and different.
Now faced with clubs in New York City that were mostly interested in booking bands like Blondie, The Ramonies, and Television, Steve found himself forced to try to make a living playing small halls and churches, and eventually was busking on the streets and living through at least one very cold New York City winter.
Fortunately, he was eventually discovered before he starved to death and signed by Nemperer records to a binding contract he would live to regret. But for now, Steve Forbert was able to release the critically acclaimed, Alive On Arrival, featuring a whole host of catchy, somewhat autobiographical songs that are still favorites today. These songs had titles like, “Grand Central Station,” “Big City Cat” and “Tonight I Feel So Far Away From Home,” that told of his trials and tribulations in the NYC.
Steve Forbert quickly followed up on the success of his debut record with a slightly more rocking/pop-influenced, Jackrabbit Slim, complete with Memphis horns, and gorgeous background vocals and lots of electric guitar. That album’s lead track featured Steve’s biggest hit, the piano-driven, hook-laden, “Romeo’s Tune,” which bopped its way to No. 11 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in 1980. Suddenly, promoters were coming to Steve to get bookings at larger venues where often he’s headline or opening for acts like Bonnie Raitt. Steve seemed to be well on his way. All in all, it wasn’t a bad way to kick off the new decade.
Now a legitimate contender in the pop/rock world, Steve was garnering rave reviews in the press, traveling to England to appear on “The Old Grey Whistle Stop”. Steve was so popular he even showed somehow in a strange conga line, in the video for Cyndi Lauper’s, “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.” But in a number of interviews around the time, Steve seemed not to trust music writers or the things that had brought his such early success. Perhaps it was his own maturity and knowledge of other one-hit wonder acts that had come and go before they even had a chance to say goodbye. But he remained prolific, still churning out songs that appeared on his next album, Little Stevie Orbit, which was not well received, despite some great songs. It was called “uneven” and “disappointing,” unable to deliver a hit of the same calibre as “Romeo’s Tune.”
Soon Forbert found himself at odds with the powers that be at Nemperer Record, who refused to release his fourth album. The inevitable, litigious calamities and general series of unfortunate events followed and soon Steve was trapped into a record deal in which he couldn’t get his albums released. (Happily, many of the songs from Steve’s “missing albums” have been released by Steve on his own web site, including the most recent Down In Flames record) but for much of the ’80s, Steve seemed to many of his fans to have disappeared for a bit. He continued to tour, but there were no new albums or royalties to keep Steve afloat financially. As he sang onstage, these were “hard times, for sure.” In the end it was his continued touring that saved Steve Forbert.
Steve’s so-called “comeback album” came in 1988 and was a winning collaboration in the studio with co-producer Garry Tallent, bass player with Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band. Streets Of This Town is a collection of gorgeous, reflective songs that played well at the time with audiences and critics alike. It is full of songs that speak to the hardships Steve had endured and about the time that had passed, with titles like “I Blinked Once,” and “Don’t Tell Me.” That release on Geffen Records appeared to breathe new life into Steve Forbert and the artist followed that success with another well-written, catchy collection of songs titled simply, The American In Me.
His albums still might not be getting the distribution and publicity they deserved, but Steve Forbert continued to tour relentlessly throughout America and even in Europe. His audience on both sides of the Atlantic adored both sides of the singer/songwriter; the hard strummin’, harp-blowing rocker and the sensitive guy in the spotlight singing slow ballads offering wisdom and warm comfort in the increasingly nihilistic, mean-spirited world. On stage, Steve never had trouble connecting with his fans, whether getting them to clap along or simply sing choruses back to him, like on tunes such as “The Oil Song” (an ever evolving commentary on the environmental impact of one oil barge disaster after another.) Meanwhile, Steve could shift gears and have hushed silence when he needed it for the quieter songs. Mid-tempo tunes like “You Cannot Win ‘Em All” and “New Working Day” reflected a “new kinda guy,” no longer saddled to his earlier restrictive labels and impossible expectations. Steve Forbert was now his own man, winning by the his own set of rules.
The ’90s and ‘Oughts found Steve recording in the studio and performing with new musicians and backing bands, while also playing solo shows. He even offered his songs to some big names in contemporary country music like Roseanne Cash, Keith Urban, Marty Stuart and others. At the shows, adoring fans could purchase rare or live CD’s that Steve would bring along. And once onstage, he seemed completely at home, playing requests, telling stories of those not-so-good old early days. After his shows Steve made it a habit to always come out and meet his fans, many of whom have been with him from the beginning. He’d sign old copies of Alive On Arrival and other early LP’s, pose for pictures or just say hello and shake some hands.
Thirty years after I first first saw Steve Forbert on the Syracuse Quad, he’s still doing what he loves the most and it definitely shows. His fans, now from all over the world, come out to see him every time he comes to town. He has a unique and lasting relationship with his audience fueled by longevity and what Steve might call, “real, live, love.” And the traveling troubadour is always rewarded at the end of the night with standing ovations. To his audience, Steve Forbert has taken on the role of an old friend.
Regardless of whatever bad experiences Steve might have had to put up with, every night he performs he does so with an easy manner and friendly smile; ready, willing and able to bring a smile to a face or even to elicit a tear or two of nostalgia. And when you come right down to it, that seems like all he ever wanted to do in the first place.