Drummer Ron Riddle: “He’s one of the finest guitar players I’ve played with…”

Spanning four decades and beyond, Ron Riddle’s music career is nothing less than stellar. Perhaps best known as the drummer for Blue Oyster Cult, Ron is also credited with the scoring of music for more than 400 films for national and worldwide broadcast. His clients include CBS, The Discovery Channel, National Geographic, Turner, The History Channel, A&E, Animal Planet, Disney, The Learning Channel and Discovery Health.

Ron joined the progressive rock band Happy The Man as their drummer in 1977. They recorded the critically acclaimed album Crafty Hands in LA with Arista Records producer Ken Scott (producer for David Bowie, John Lennon and Supertramp). The end result was the critically acclaimed album “Crafty Hands”. Ron’s ability to play complex multiple meters, coupled with his sensitive yet fiery drumming, has inspired many progressive rock musicians. Ron composed one of the best known Happy The Man tunes ”Service with the smile”.

ATI:   Thanks for helping us with Stanley Whitaker’s retrospective. How did you get involved with Happy The Man?

RR:    I was living in D.C. at the time. Happy The Man had a show at The Cellar Door, and I was totally blown away by them. I had been in a band for a few years before the and was doing very similar stuff—an all-instrumental thing called Wave—with Greg Hawkes and another guy by the name of Fuzzbee Morse (http://www.fuzzbee.com/). It was the only thing I’d heard that was similar to the music that I was doing. I was completely blown away by them and their compositions, the sound of the band. It was fantastic. I remember sitting there, listening to the concert and watching Mike Beck. He was the drummer, a fantastic drummer. I remember at one point, he hit his chime–it was like a wind chime–and it came over right next to my foot. It was kind of like a weird, cosmic sign in a way. So after the show, I went and introduced myself, and Mike and I struck up a friendship. We started doing some tunes together. Then I found out that Mike was leaving the band, and they were having some problems–internal relationship problems–right before, I believe, their second album on Arista. This was about two weeks before they were supposed to go into the studio, and I guess the whole thing came to a head. Happy The Man asked me if I would do the record and join the band. It was a tough situation in many ways, because Mike was a really good friend of mine, but the band was fantastic and it was exactly what I wanted to do. I had to do it.

ATI:   Why did you leave the band?

RR:    That was another unfortunate situation. It was cosmic, and it was explosive, and it was the best that something could be. We then had to deal with the aftermath, and I had to deal with the aftermath of putting that experience into practical life. I’ve always been a fairly independent musician and composer, used to working on my own. They really needed someone who was more enmeshed in their situation. They would practice every single day at their house. Everybody lived together. It was like a commune. That wasn’t really what I was into. There was also an unfortunate situation that happened right after the album came out, when Punk and New Wave really hit hard, which I think did an incredible amount of damage to Progressive music. You couldn’t get arrested with Progressive music after that! So gigs became nonexistent. At that point, prog bands had a really hard time, so I decided to part ways with them.

ATI:   I understand. What was your impression of the band’s music and their playing skill? You said that you were blown away. Can you go in more detail about that?

RR:    Excellent musicianship, the highest caliber, but a real band situation. You usually find excellent musicians having very big egos, but, you know, the band really acted like a band. I think that was the wonderful thing about it. Even the solos were very constructed and composed and worked out. Every note was worked out. The amount of time they practiced and rehearsed and really honed their skill was amazing and incredible, and it made going into the studio a lot easier. I came on board about two weeks before the recording actually happened, so I was more or less flying by the seat of my pants the whole time that we were doing it, which I think was the beauty of my relationship with Happy The Man. I brought an element of improvisation. Well, it was improvisation as we were laying down tunes and recording. I might not have known what I was going to do next. Their parts were almost classically drawn out. I think that had to do a lot with the explosiveness of the combination of the players in that band.

ATI:   How about Stan’s guitar playing?

RR:    He’s one of the finest guitar players I’ve played with, and I’ve played with a lot. He’s world-class. What can I say? He’s a fine, fine, fine, dedicated musician. He’s a musician’s musician.

ATI:   You mentioned that you played with a lot of good guitar players and lots of serious bands. Of course, Blue Oyster Cult comes to mind, right away. But just for the record, can you just belt out a list of good players you’ve played that you’d compare Stanley to?

RR:    Sure. Besides Buck Dharma (Blue Oyster Cult), who is an amazing guitar player, there’s Mick Ronson, who was David Bowie’s guitar player. Joe Satriani (Deep Purple) (http://www.satriani.com/). Alex Skolnick (Testament) (http://www.alexskolnick.com/).

ATI:   So what was it like working with the band in general, and Stan in particular? Any anecdotes or funny stories you can share?

RR:    Well, actually, this one particular story is pretty funny. When I got into the studio, I remember I drove in my van with all my equipment from the East Coast to the West Coast. This all went down so fast—I had two weeks to learn this material, drive across country and then set up in a new studio. I think I got there the night of the session. I had driven across the country for three days and was totally burnt out. We set up right away. Ken Scott wanted me to start doing drum sounds right away. I started doing that. Ken and I had a very interesting relationship, because I’m an extremely hard hitter, and he’s someone who’s very demanding with drummers. Hitting hard has never been a weak point for me. But I think it was something where there was a bit of an attitude. I was the new guy. I had just replaced Mike Beck. This all happened without Ken Scott or Arista being privy to this whole thing. So when I got there, there was this friction. So, I’m doing drum sounds, and Ken is just being as brutal as he can possibly be.

We were doing drum sounds for hours and hours and hours. My hands were, like, totally bloody. We were going way into the night. I remember coming out, going to the drinking fountain on a break and going, “Holy shit.” Kenny, the road guy at that time, had some cocaine. I had never done cocaine before at that point. He said, “Well, why don’t you try some of this. It will keep you going for a little while longer,” and I said, “Okay, sure.” I was just so naïve to the whole process; I was trying to snort the stuff with a coffee straw. At any rate, Ken Scott comes out at that particular point, looks at me, and he’s furious. He completely goes off on this tangent and is thinking or spreading the rumor that I’m the drug dealer of the group, and I sent the group down this drug lane, and I’m the cause of the demise. It was funny, and it was brutal, and it was creative, but it was totally off the mark.

ATI:   How did you clear the situation?

RR:    The situation was never cleared. I might have tried to tell him at one point, but he really wasn’t a direct communicator. We just had at each other when the tape started rolling, trying to get drum sounds. It fueled this whole feeling of anger and misrepresentation. There are five people in a band and Ken Scott in a room—it’s like rocket fuel. That was the great thing about it.

ATI:   At the time, Stan was a guitar player. He took on the vocals only because no one else wanted it, and he did only a couple of tunes. When you heard him sing, did you expect him to develop into vocalist?

RR:    I didn’t really think that far ahead. It was just such a–the best word that I can think of is “cluster fuck.” I heard Stan’s vocal, and I was impressed with his vocals, even back then. His vocals are different. The only person that I can really compare his singing to, particularly then would be Getty {unintelligible]. There’s a similarity there. I didn’t think that Stan wouldn’t become a singer, but he did a great job on it. Certainly nobody else wanted to tackle the responsibility of being the lead vocalist. So, my hat goes off to him.

ATI:   Interesting. You and Greg Hawkes from The Cars co-wrote this band’s brilliant signature song, “Service with a Smile”. What did Greg think about the song’s rendition and about the band? Did he know that the song was put into play?

RR:    He did know that the song was put into play. I told him we were going to record it. I think he was happy that the song was getting out there. I don’t remember having a conversation with him after that. The song was probably written a few years before, with the group that I was in with him, called Waves. That’s where the song comes from. We had recorded it previously, and when I got with Happy The Man, I instantly thought of that song and thought that it would be a real shoe-in for the band. It worked out great.

ATI:   I hear you. Great guitar lead, great drumming, great everything—especially the originality of the time signature. My compliments on a great song.

RR:    I love that time signature.

ATI:   And it doesn’t sound weird. It doesn’t sound forced.

RR:    I think most of the odd signature stuff on that album sounded pretty smooth. It wasn’t. I can definitely say, with the band’s writing and the band’s playing, which has a lot to do with it as well, it wasn’t like “Okay, we’re playing 7/8 or 11/8 right now.” It doesn’t come across that way. It comes across as music, which is the way that odd time signatures should come across.

ATI:   You mentioned that Happy The Man is really a musician’s band. Everyone is awed by this group of musicians. Have you had any feedback from other musicians and producers about the band, about Stanley, about the song that you’ve written? Have you heard anything?

RR:    Nothing but positive things. I know that I played it for tons of people and tons of colleagues and producers, and, you know, there’s nothing really out there like it. It’s really a one-of-a-kind situation. It’s an event that took place and hasn’t really repeated itself, at least that I’ve heard. I think it’s struck everyone that’s heard it in a positive way. It’s that kind of a band, where you don’t really separate the parts from the whole. That’s the beauty of it. No one could say anything but ecstatic praise about Stanley’s work on that record. It’s impeccable.

ATI:   I think you nailed it. The whole group of musicians was so amazing. Everyone played it the way it should be played. The fact that you don’t pay attention to the technique is the highest compliment. You think of it only when you force yourself to. This is great music.

RR:    I think instrumental music that has this degree of musicianship–you don’t find cohesiveness to that degree, and that’s really its biggest compliment.

ATI:   What do you think is the band’s legacy in music?

RR:    I think it’s a musician’s band, and also those who are music aficionados with a sophisticated taste in music, people who aren’t looking for commercial music or pop vocals, and people who are able to really explore what music is, not just a formula. I would hope that new audiences listen to it, and it keeps going in some form or another. That would be my hope.

Click here to hear Ron Riddle interviewed on NPR’s “Out of Bounds” radio show.


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