Tag Archives: Syracuse

Steve Forbert – “What Kinda Guy?”

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.

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My Friend Don Meineke – NBA Legend

One weekend last summer, I had occasion to visit my fiancee Janet’s hometown of Centerville, a sleepy and sultry suburb of nearby Dayton, Ohio – the town where the Wright Brothers grew up and first dreamed of flying. On that warm late summer weekend, I had the thrilling experience of meeting, among a group of Janet’s parents friends, a very tall, unassuming gentleman named Don Meineke, who is not only one of the nicest guys I’ve ever met, but as it turns out, was also was the first man ever to be named NBA Rookie of the Year.

As it happened, Janet and I were in Centerville that weekend last summer, visiting her parents and my future in-laws, and we were invited to an old-fashioned neighborhood shindig. It seemed her neighbors, the Walshes, were having an outdoor patio party, the kind of thing that was popular back in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s in close-knit neighborhoods. Back in those days it was commonplace for families who lived within spittin’ distance of each other to get together for no particular reason and have a dandy of a time, just talkin’, drinkin’ beer and wine; in other words celebrating life. I suppose this kind of thing stopped happening quite a while ago in most towns when people began locking their doors at night and stopped getting to know their neighbors.

But in Centerville it still goes on. (Although I’m pretty sure they lock their doors at night.)

I went along, looking forward to meeting some of my future in-laws’ good friends and enjoying a nice summer night, as well as meeting my in-laws’ best friends and neighbors never expecting to meet and talk half the night away with Don Meineke. When we arrived, Don was sitting completely contentedly next to his equally hospitable and kind wife, Mary Jane. After the introductions, and after being told that Don had not only been a college basketball standout for the University of Dayton Flyers, where he is still held in great reverence, but also a star for the former Fort Wayne Pistons (now the Detroit Pistons), I moved to the closest chair near Don so I could listen and learn more. He looked like a guy with a few stories to tell and that night, Don didn’t disappoint.

Having personally been a tall teenager and an aspiring basketball player myself, and someone who still has a keen interest in the game, I was anxious to hear about what it was like to play “old school” basketball in the 1950s. Don regaled me with countless stories of his days playing, first college and then NBA basketball. He told stories of the low pay and big men he played against, including one of my heroes, Bill Russell and all the miles he traveled to get to the next city and next game – Syracuse, New York, Boston, etc.

But perhaps most fascinatingly, Don told me of his association with fellow Fort Wayne Piston star Jack Molinas, a man whose life has been chronicle’s in a book titled, “The Wizard Of Odds: How Jack Molinas Almost Destroyed The Game Of Basketball.”

According to author Charley Rosen, and confirmed by Don Meineke as I sat next to him in complete awe, Molinas was a guy with a tremendous amount of talent who threw it all away by fixing a bunch of basketball games. Don told me he was questioned by the team owner and the commissioner of the NBA, but they had nothing on him. For Molinas though, his criminal activities connected to basketball landed him in jail, then after he was suspended from the game, in the company of mobsters which led to, according to Rosen, “a gruesome and mysterious murder.”

Wow! Suddenly Don Meineke was telling me his story and the sad, but inevitable fall of Jack Molinas and I was more than a little intrigued. Don had other stories as well, about other records he set, and his years after he retired from the NBA and I sat and listened with rapt attention until it was late and Don and his wife had to call it a night. I spoke to Don again last December I went to a University of Dayton basketball game where Don and a number of other former stars were honored. (The team is quite competitive, winning the NIT championship last season by defeating North Carolina in the final game.)

I spent some more time at yet another party speaking to Don Meinike on my most recent trip to Centerville, I went to a Fourth of July gathering and Don and I posed for pictures together and talked some more. It’s not every day, after all, that you get to hang out with an NBA legend.

I hope that Don Meineke will always be my good friend.

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Goin’ Back

“I think I’m goin’ back to the things I learned so well in my youth,
I think I’m returnin’ to the days when I was young enough to know the truth…” – Carole King

I first heard this song, “Goin’ Back, written by Carole King and performed by the great Nils Lofgren (and others including Bruce Springsteen back in the day), early one Sunday morning on the radio station WBCN. I had recently finished at Syracuse University and I was interning at my favorite rock radio station for a Sunday showcase program called “The Boston Sunday Review”.

I remember that I was driving in my car on my way to ‘BCN (I had to get their by 4:30 a.m.to assume my duties in the news room) and a DJ named Tracy Roach (who also co-hosted the BSR) played the song. It was a magical moment when it almost seems like a disc jockey is communicating directly with you by playing a particular song, moments that rarely if ever happen anymore with radio. But there was something very nostalgic about the words and there was something about strength that I supposed I needed to hear.

“A little bit of courage is all we ever lacked,
So catch me if you can cause I’m goin’ back.”

That was the line that stuck with me and it was as true then as it is now. Oh man, what we could have accomplished with just a little bit more courage. If I ever have the chance to deliver a message to people both young it would be this: Have faith in yourself and the courage to dare. Because we have everything inside us we need for life to be, as the song says “a magic carpet ride.” We just need a little bit of courage.

I thought of this song last week after reconnecting with a couple of old pals, Eric and Mike, on Facebook and Linked In. (Thanks to my old friend Sue for the tip.) These two guys were about the greatest friends a person could ever have and I met them during my Freshman year of college. We all lived on the same floor of Flint Hall on a hill called Mount Olympus. I think it was the highest point on an already high hill atop which Syracuse University sat. We used to say “the snow always falls first on Mount Olympus” and it was probably true. I’m really looking forward to reconnecting with Eric and Mike and a few others like Ellen and Sue and Laura from those “salad days” when I was green with youth. There was a bond that existed; a friendship, a love, something that I can’t describe but can only feel. Amazing, isn’t it. More than 30 years later I can still feel it. If you had friends like this when you were between 18 and 21, I’ll bet you know exactly what I’m talking about.

I guess its no great mystery why we wax nostalgic for the days of our youth. We were young and full of energy. We had few responsibilities, obligations and expectations other than to do our best. Every day was a new adventure and anything was possible. But even more importantly, I think we do this because this was the time in our lives when we were most full of joy and hope. The world had not begun to beat us down. We thought we could be heroes. We thought we were indestructible.

A little bit of courage was all we lacked…

Oh, the memories seem to sweet. I remember drinking way to much and not studying nearly enough. I remember the energy that seemed to reverberate all around me. I remember how exciting it was to be in a dorm with so many beautiful women so nearby. I remember nights out on Marshall Street (the big commercial street on campus) and bars like Sutter’s Mill, Hungry Charlies, The Orange which later became Bugsie’s and Faegan’s, where I would later work as a DJ. I remember playing beer pong and other drinking games and then staggering back to our rooms. I remember study hall, where we did actually learn a thing or two. I remember a tunnel that connected Flint Hall to Day Hall on Mt. Olympus (with that much snow you sometimes needed a tunnel). Down in that tunnel we congregated at the bookstore, a little fast food joint where you could get a burger and fries late at night. That’s also where we did our laundry. I remember a little club called the “Mount Inn,” (yeah, it was a corny name) where during my second year I worked pouring beer and booking bands. I remember scurrying down the long, seemingly never ending steps to get to the main campus for class and then slowly trudging back up. I remember those rare days in Fall and Spring; warm days when it felt like heaven on earth. We didn’t get many days like this, so we made sure to take full advantage; congregating outside and shedding some of our layers of clothes, playing ‘bee (Frisbee) till it was too dark to see the plastic disc anymore. And just talking. Talking about nothing and everything. Talking about our pasts and what we hoped for in the future. But most of all I remember laughing so hard that it hurt sometimes and it makes me want to cry right now as I type these words and remember how happy I was.

Syracuse changed my life in so many positive ways and helped me believe in myself and I thank my friends, especially my best friend Kevin, for always being there when I needed him and helping me to find the courage I lacked. It was a long time ago, and so many things have happened since. I’ve lost my father and my sister, Elizabeth, to deaths far too early in their lives. I’ve had one career in radio, another in sales and another still to come. I’ve became much more cynical. And I definitely don’t laugh nearly as much.

But when I get down and blue it’s easy to reach into the past and think of the friends I had then and still have now and slowly the blues slip away. As the song says it was “long ago and far away,” but it often also feels like yesterday.

A little bit of courage was all we lacked, so catch me if you can ’cause I’m goin’ back.

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