Friday, September 20, 2013

A Conversation with Tommy Farese

Long a fixture on the Long Island music scene, vocalist and guitarist Tommy Farese worked the clubs of the Island throughout the 70s and 80s.  Though he was a front man for numerous bands over the years, it wasn’t until the late 90s when he reconnected with a couple old friends, did he become known to the rest of the country. The group was the Trans-Siberian Orchestra. Tommy is a featured lead vocalist on four of their classic songs, starred in their movie “Ghosts of Christmas Eve”, and for twelve years was the M.C. and a featured singer on their annual Christmas tours. I caught up with Tommy at his house on Long Island – still recovering from Hurricane Sandy -  as we discussed some of his early bands, the ups and downs of performing with TSO, his current group The Kings of Christmas, and the upcoming tour dates that he is involved with for this 2013 Christmas season.

Dan Roth:  You were a big part of the Long Island music scene in the 1970s and '80s.  Tell me about some of the early bands you were in. I know you were in The Hombres with Johnny Gale.
Tommy Farese:  They were a great band. Johnny Gale is probably the best guitarist I’ve ever played with – I’d put him against anybody. He is one of the greatest guitar players on the Island, but very unknown to most. The Hombres played from ’76 until ’79, and then I did a version of a band called Samantha with him, which was another big Long Island group at one time.

The Hombres in 1977
Keith Gale (drums), Julius Manno AKA Al Martin (bass and vocals),
Tommy Farese (lead vocals), Johnny Gale (guitar and vocals).
There were two periods of the Long Island club scene. The CTA period is when the Creative Talent Agency had all the big bands – they had Twisted Sister, Rat Race Choir – any band on the Island that was drawing the most people and making the most money. They would hold a lot of clubs hostage – meaning, “You’re going to take five shit bands if you want Twisted Sister on Thursday night.” It became completely out of hand where club owners could not afford to pay five crap bands that weren’t drawing anybody just to have a Twisted Sister or a Zebra or whoever. Around 1980 or ’81, the club scene started to change to the Irish Pub circuit; you didn’t have to have a light show or a road crew or anything like that – you would just walk in and play.

Tommy Farese with Kivetsky

Johnny had asked me into this band called Kivetsky. They had started back in ’70-’71 and I was in the band for 10 or 12 years. It’s a stupid band name; don’t ask me where it came from. But believe it or not, they were a really big draw. We did everything from the 1910 Fruitgum Company to Led Zeppelin – pretty much anything ‘50s, ’60, and ’70.

DR:  And you were in Swift Kick, The Furys, Insex…
TF:  Yeah, Swift Kick was Tony Bruno, Ricky Panzica and Richie Raccuglia on drums. That was a good time, playing on Friday and Saturday nights. Those were the risqué days when I was ‘Front Man Extraordinaire’, telling everyone to take their clothes off. [Laughs].
DR:  I wanted to ask about the band Cathedral that you were fronting while Paul O’Neill managed you guys. Was this the first time you got to know Paul?

TF:  I knew Paul before that because he used to come down and see a band I was in with Teddy and Bobby Rondinelli called Tusk back in the early ‘70s. So sometime in the early ‘80s, Mark Cunningham and I started working together and he asked me if I wanted to form this band with him – it would be somewhat different from anything I’ve ever done. He thought I would be perfect for it because he was looking for my kind of vocals. So we did it and O’Neill was managing it. He was looking for a Savatage-type band at that point and he wanted us to be Savatage.
Paul does not like the way I sing because he doesn’t like blues. He thinks he knows blues. His idea of the blues is his album called Streets. He thinks that’s the blues. I guess everybody has their own version of the blues. Paul never really dug the way I sang but he knew I was a good front man. I don’t think he pushed us as hard as he could and he was looking for someone to take my place – Mark didn’t want to hear about it. Mark and I were tight and we had this great chemistry on stage. The band looked great – we all had hair down to our asses [Laughs]. We were a good-looking band, the music was great – it was different – and it should have become something. But the bottom line was that Paul didn’t like the way I sang – I couldn’t sing the way he wanted me to because I don’t hear that. He got me to do it on TSO albums because at that point my voice had changed so much over the years – from ’81 to ’95 is a long span. To be able to do what he wanted in ’95 was a no-brainer for me, but there was no way back in ’81.
That band should have made it. That band should have been the “Savatage” band that he was looking for, but he finally found his niche with [Jon] Oliva. He just fell in love with that whole thing and he had more control over them – he had no control over us. He tried to write with us but Cunningham wasn’t too keen on him getting that involved. Our music was very dark - picture Savatage-type music, but darker and with R&B vocals over it. I was doing real R&B, bluesy vocals on it.  It was real different and no one was doing anything like this at that time.

We got booked on the 1984 Aerosmith tour. At a gig in Worcester, we got three encores and their road manager threw us off of the tour. Long story short, Paul wound up breaking up the band and taking half the guys for this band called Heaven.

DR:  I had heard that you guys did record an album though. Was that ever released?

TF:  No, never got released.

Tommy Farese and Mark Cunningham with Cathedral

DR:  Were you a fan of Savatage at all? Or that style of music?
TF:  To be real honest, it’s not my kind of music, but I appreciate what went into it to do that stuff. Heavy Metal was never my thing. I grew up on the Four Tops, Temptations, Otis Redding, Frank Valli and the Four Seasons. If I had to go the other way, I’m listening to Bad Company, Deep Purple with Coverdale and Hughes; these are the guys that influenced me. To me it was all about R&B vocals – not show-offy stuff, but just sittin’ in the pocket and making the song more melodic. I don’t hear melodies with TSO sometimes.
DR:  Interesting that you say that, because you never hear any TSO vocal songs on the radio.
TF:  He doesn’t write vocal songs.

DR:  I often thought that “Christmas in the Air” had some potential as a radio-friendly song.
TF:  Yeah, that one should have. But they never promoted it; he never considered it for radio. He thought “Christmas Nights in Blue” was going to be a radio hit. He swore up and down to us that it was going to be a Number One hit. They pushed it and pushed it – you can bait that hook all day long but nobody’s biting.
Far be it from me to predict what’s going to be a radio hit. If you told me that "They're Coming to Take Me Away, Ha-Haaa!"  was going to be a hit, I would have laughed at you at the time.  And that's par for the course in the music business. You might have three or four songs on your album that you think are guaranteed hits, and all of a sudden someone points out a song that you think is album filler - and that's the one they want to run with.  You never know what will be the hit. To me, as a musical guy, if I don't hear a melody with a verse, a chorus, and a bridge with that hook, it's not radio-friendly to me.
I hear a lot of things on the radio today that are not radio-friendly. I think a lot of times they are just filling up space because there are so many stations. And each station is a genre, and they play that genre all day long. How boring! What happened to the days of AM radio? You turned it on and heard Frank Sinatra into Led Zeppelin into Crosby, Stills & Nash. into whatever. That's how I grew up with music.  You turn on the radio today and listen to one station, you think, "Is this all there is?"
DR:  So after Cathedral - this would have been the mid 1980s - what did you move on to?

TF:  I continued doing Kivetsky - I was with them the whole time. I was always working on the Island; that was my bread and butter. I never really left the clubs. I knew, if all else failed, I could always go back to the clubs, have a better time and make a living.

DR:  I wanted to skip ahead a little bit and ask about this terrific blues-rock record, Gale Force, you made with Johnny Gale in the early '90s. This was years after you played with him in The Hombres, obviously. 

TF:  Yeah. Well, Johnny Gale is his stage name. His real name is Neal Posner. I used to use the stage name of Tommy Fury. I was going to change that to ‘Tommy Force’ and call the name of the record “Gale Force”.  I wound up leaving halfway through the record as he and I had a falling out, as a couple of outside agencies got involved.  But I will say this: Regardless of what happened between the two of us, he is the greatest guitar player I ever played with. Nobody can really hold a candle to him.
DR:  And then you did this band called Place Called Rage? Was this the first time you and Al Pitrelli had worked together?
TF:  Al and I had played together a million times before that. We would do these jams in Rockville Center where Michael Bolton and a bunch of other guys would come down and we would all just jam out and have one hell of a time. Anybody who was anybody would come down - Joe Lynn [Turner] would come down.  Al and I knew each other for a long, long time. I knew him since he was a little kid.
As far as Place Called Rage, Al called me up and said he had this deal with a Japanese label and that he thought that I would be perfect for the band. 

DR:  A lot of the press on that record said it "captured the essence of the Long Island sound". Would you agree with that?

TF:  It was a combination of all the things that we like to hear. We threw that into the writing. A lot of people don't know this, but Al's favorite band in the world is the Allman Brothers. He's a Dicky Betts fan and he copped every lick he used to do. If you would come to soundchecks that we used to do, Al would play the Allman's "Jessica" - note for note, top to bottom. So that was his influence. My influence was everything else and we put it on the Place Called Rage record. Don't forget - we recorded this album in one week. Could it have been better? Of course. We only had a certain window of time to do this record.  Right after we did the record, we were going to look at doing a tour, but then Al got the gig with Savatage.
DR:  Where did the band name come from?
TF:  Place Called Rage? I have no idea. [Laughs]
DR:  I was going to ask why there was no follow-up to this record.
TF:  Al did the Savatage thing and I went back to playing the clubs. Eventually Al would call again about the Trans-Siberian Orchestra. He didn't know that Paul and I knew each other when he mentioned my name to him. Paul was looking for a singer for "Ornament" and "This Christmas Day". He auditioned like 45 or 46 singers - most were Broadway guys. Al brought my name up and Paul says, "Tommy's around? Get him in here. Maybe I can finally get him to sing the way I want him to sing." The rest is history.
DR:  How was this recording process different from what you had done with your other bands?

TF:  [Laughs] The long and short of it? O'Neill will do 150 takes of something that you can get in two. I did literally a hundred and some takes of "Ornament" to only go back to Take 2 [Laughs]. But that's just Paul. He is such a stickler, that even after we did those takes he would compile and edit. He would like the way I sing the word "the" in one sentence as opposed to the way I said "the" in another sentence.  He will go as far as to punch in syllables. He would tell me "I like the way you sang the beginning of the word, but just the way you said "a" ", and he would punch in syllables, taking the "a" from another part of the song. Or in "Ornament", he would like the way I would sing the "t" in one verse, but not the other, so he would have me sing that one word and he would record the "t" off of it.
I'm sitting there baffled and Pitrelli is looking at me like "Just go with it".
DR:  So this is 1995. Did you have any idea as you are laying down these syllables in the studio that this record and act would one day become as big as it is?

TF:  No. I thought I was doing a friend a favor. That's basically the way I looked at it. I never thought it would go anywhere.
DR:  Can you tell me about the other arrangement that you had for "This Christmas Day"?
TF:  Well, the original story was that there were no background vocals in "This Christmas Day". I automatically heard background vocals when presented with the song and Paul was like "No, just sing the song and were not going to put in any background vocals". I had sung - just so I could get into the ending of the song - this little three-part background thing. [Dave] Wittman layed it on there just for me to sing to, with the idea that he could take it off later so Paul didn't have to hear it. I came back one day to do another take and all of a sudden, I hear the "Merry Christmas, Merry Merry Christmas" - three black chicks. I said to Paul, "I thought we weren't doing background vocals" and he says, "No I came up with this idea the other day." I thought "Really?". But I left it alone. Long story short, Even though he did change it to "Merry Christmas, Merry Merry Christmas", mine was similar - sung a little differently with a little more melody to it.
DR:  You wound up recording four songs for Paul: "Ornament", "This Christmas Day", "The Snow Came Down", and "Find Your Way Home". These songs are very different from what you had done up until this point.
TF:  Oh yeah.
DR:  How did it feel to be called on to sing songs like this that were so far outside of your more bluesier, rockier style?
TF:  It's like anything else - Say you're an interior decorator and you have great taste, but the person that you are working for has completely different taste. Not saying one taste is better than the other's, but this is what you do. You give the guy what he wants. I gave Paul what he wanted. There were other songs that were being sung that I just wish I could've gotten a little piece of. But it was tough putting the restraints on.
DR:  You mentioned earlier that Paul didn't care for your vocals with Cathedral. What was it about your voice that now clicked for him?

TF:  I have always had a gruffy voice, but I had a much higher range back in the early days. I was known for screaming and my voice would split up into three octaves. As I got older, my voice came down. Paul was specifically looking for a blue-collar guy who was going to sing about his daughter being missing. My voice - at that point in my life - fit the bill for him. I just laid off the R&B stuff. I just sang it the way he sang it to me and he got what he wanted.
DR:  Do you have a favorite TSO song, whether out of the four that you recorded or any of the others?

TF:  I thought "The Snow Came Down" had a lot of potential, though I did not like my performance on it, but Paul seemed to. That's one of those things where I would have done it differently. But it's his thing and you don't argue with somebody who is paying you to give them what they want.  I always loved "Christmas in the Air"; I always thought that was a potential hit song. And one more: "Old City Bar" - the original version - the way John Margolis sang it in the studio - he just nailed that song.
Trans-Siberian Orchestra - "The Snow Came Down" (Performed Live in Concert 1999)
Tommy Farese - Lead Vocals

DR:  Why no lead vocals on the Beethoven's Last Night record?

TF:  They started checking out other lead singers. I got it - why go with the same thing when you have all this other talent to introduce? That was his whole game plan - to have a host of people come in.
In the beginning, we were basically doing him a favor. We were doing this because we believed in what we were doing and the deal was "Hang in there, guys. When things get good we're going to take care of you. You got a job for life."  Being a man of my word, I always gave 110%. Tony [Gaynor], same thing. And it goes right down the line.  The first five, six years of that thing, we didn't make any money. Well, I didn't make any money. There were probably people making money, but it wasn't me, it wasn't Tony, it wasn't the bunch of us.  But we did it because we were changing people's lives. We were shaking hands with fans after the show and hearing stories of how we rejuvenated their whole belief in Christmas again.  To me, it became more of a spiritual thing than a performance thing - when I got up there and sang "Ornament", I would see big burly truck-drivers crying. This wasn't about me anymore or anybody on stage.  It became about giving something back to people that they had lost.
As time went on, promises were broken. Like I said, we were all men of our words - we kept our end of the deal. A job for life meant a job for life. That didn't mean you had to be on stage, you could be doing whatever. They're employing hundreds of guys on each side every year. To let guys go that have families that started this thing with you, built it, gave it credibility and sold your product all those years - you should look out for them a little bit. That was the only tiff I had with the whole 'letting this guy go' and 'letting that guy go' and watching everyone disappear before my very eyes - if you notice, the band rarely gets touched. That to me was like playing favorites. If you have singers on rotation, why not guitar players on rotation? There are a million guitar players out there that could give it more flavor or a different take on things. Same thing with bass players, same thing with drummers; keys have come and gone - but the core band is still there.
DR:  An extra instrumental Night Castle song was released as a download-only. Although you didn’t sing on it, you had a slight connection to it – “The Flight of Cassandra”.
TF:  Cassandra is my daughter's name. Janey (Mangini) wrote it - it's a brilliant instrumental. In my opinion, this is the best instrumental that TSO could have put on their record but didn't.
DR:  It is a great piece. I don't want you to speak for them, but any idea why it didn't make the record?
TF:  If I had to guess, it would be because Paul didn't write it. Or Paul had no input in writing it. But, the song performed live? Absolutely brilliant. We did it with O'2L a couple of times.
DR:  We talked about how you recorded four songs for TSO. Were there any others that might have hit the cutting room floor or wound up being sung by other singers?
TF:  Not for me, No. But there were songs that were sung by other people that I thought were brilliant that wound up getting done by other people. Michael Lanning was originally slated to do "Christmas Nights in Blue" but James Lewis got it instead. And they gave Michael "Christmas Dreams". And the kicker is - Michael wound up singing "Christmas Nights in Blue" live and he would go into "With a Little Help From My Friends" which was just brilliant.
DR:  So you recorded this Christmas Eve and Other Stories  album in 1995, and it was released in '96. Was it a surprise to you when a tour was planned three years later?

TF:  Oh yeah, I had no idea. I got a phone call out of the blue saying "We're going on tour". My answer was "Who is this?". It was Paul and he tells me that we're doing this Christmas tour, but before we go, we have to do this DVD. We were doing this made-for-TV movie and Paul says, "They want me to hire an actor but I want you because you're the father in the story".
So we did this thing in Jersey. The Ghosts of Christmas Eve. [Laughs] Our whole day was waiting on Jewel or Michael Crawford. I had the toughest scene, because at the top of the stage ceiling they had about four tons of crushed-up plastic bags for the snowstorm I wound up in. We had to do like seven takes of that. There is one point in the video - it's only for a couple seconds - it just came down [Laughs]. Me, Al, all of us - covered in these plastic bags, spitting them out of our mouth...[Laughs] But before we got to this, every time I was about to go on and do this scene, we would hear "Stop production, Jewel is on her way". This happened like four days in a row - I would be ready to go on and "Stop production, Jewel is on her way", "Stop production, Michael Crawford is on his way". What am I, wood? [Laughs]
DR:  Besides singing and playing guitar on tour, you also took on the role of the Master of Ceremonies: introducing the band, telling some jokes, warming the audience up for the second half of the show. These mid-show breaks have become things of legend at this point, with so many fans fondly remembering this portion of the show.
TF:  We used to have a lot of fun.
DR:  Chris Caffery did something similar with the East touring company. How did you wind up taking on this role?
TF:  I was a front man. That's what I did on Long Island. I didn't go as far with TSO - the club scene with adults is a little different than when you have children in the audience [Laughs]. So I cleaned it up and we had so much fun.
Two instances that stand out in my head:
The Tabernacle in Atlanta, last show of the 2000 tour. We let all hell break loose. We were playing gags on everybody. We powdered [Steve] Murphy's drums. On the opening number - I forget which song it was but it had a big crash on the tom-toms, Murphy had no idea that we powdered all of his drums. He hits the drums and the powder just covers him [Laughs]. The guy looks like a reverse-Jolson - he's in whiteface. [Laughs]
We also had these mechanical rats that we had running behind the background singers that were scaring the living daylights out of them - they thought they were real rats. I had the guys at the soundboard tweak the monitors so everyone sounded like chipmunks. At this show, I came out to sing "Old City Bar" and they got one on me. My buddy George Cintron was playing acoustic guitar. They put George on a stool and I couldn't see him as the stage is pitch black as I am walking out. When they turned the lights on,  George had this giant sombrero on with this little car with eyeball lights that is running around on the inside of the sombrero. [Laughs] I took one look at that and I couldn't get through the song. The antics we did were hilarious.
The second instance that is hysterical to me, was one year when we were playing a gig in Omaha. Guy [LeMonnier] had gone out on Halloween as a cow. He had somehow managed to pack the costume with him in his luggage - I'm looking at this costume and said, "Now that would be a gag, wouldn't it?"  Guy says, "You think I should?" I told him, "If you do, don't tell me". Long story short, one night I'm doing the introductions and Guy comes walking out in this cow costume. [Laughs] The audience is hysterical. Guy - the actor that he is, complete deadpan - didn't break a smile. He is standing there with these ten udders. I'll never forget - I had a towel over my shoulder and I threw the towel over the udders. Now the audience gets even more hysterical. I walked over to the microphone and said something like "This is udderly ridiculous" and the audience just broke up. It was just one laugh after another. Between Guy, Michael, all the chemistry we had on stage - all we did was laugh. There were other people on stage that didn't care for it - they would call the office and tell them that things were getting out of hand. But if you looked at the audience, they were having a ball, which is what entertainment is all about. You laugh, cry, you feel something.
Slowly but surely they started cutting the intros down. It went from 15 minutes to 10 to 8 to 6 then down to 4 minutes. You know what? You can't properly introduce 18 people in four minutes. I finally told him that I'll do half of the intros and Al can do the rest. I didn't want to be bothered any more.
We were doing three-hour shows back then. You cannot bombard people with three hours' worth of music. An hour and 45 minutes is pushing it. To have people glued to a seat for three hours - it's like watching The Godfather straight through. And even that had an intermission in the theaters. That 10 or 15-minute break gave people permission to go to the bathroom, get a drink, and have a few laughs. How long can you sit quietly? The first half of the show was very quiet - people are taking it all in and getting emotional - that was what the first half was for. Now you want to break them out of that stupor, put a smile on their face and get ready to rock out for the second half. Why he had a problem with the intros, why he kept cutting it back and cutting it back was baffling to me. Not only to me, but Caffery too.

My only real enjoyment from the shows, besides seeing people’s emotions, was emceeing – because it was fun. We had a lot of fun. It was a lot of laughs and it made the audience get into us more;  now they didn’t feel like there was this wall between us and them where we are these rock stars swinging our hair around and posing all night. I’m not that guy.
DR:  One thing that really shines through in both this interview and the one I did with Michael Lanning is the camaraderie and fun you guys had on stage.

Tony Gaynor, Tommy Farese,  Michael Lanning, Guy LeMonnier
on stage with TSO in 2004
(Photo courtesy of Brian Reichow)
TF:  We had a great chemistry. We won over the entire country. The music, the personality, the chemistry on stage – that’s what made the show what it is. On the East Coast, Caffery did it all too. Give credit where credit is due.

It was a comedic thing; we were fun guys to be around. A couple of guys in the band didn't like that and wanted to keep it as a serious rock thing. It was great for the first five, six years - nobody ever said a word to me. It was all "You're doing a great job! You are coming back next year right?". But as soon as we got into the arenas, they started telling us that we can't do this kind of stuff anymore. They're telling me that it doesn't translate. Meanwhile you got comedians like Andrew Dice Clay out there in arenas that translated just fine. Whether you could see us or not, you could hear us. The comments are there, the funny lines are there, the whole camaraderie thing is there and fans liked all of this. And now were supposed to take this serious. That isn't what got us here. And that's when we started wishing we could go back to the theaters. Those days were the best and you'll never get those days back.
And here is one thing that Michael didn't cover, but I will because it is so. This was very strange. They always had a divider put up between the singers and the band. All the singers would be on one bus, the band would be on another bus. And they weren't supposed to visit each other. Carmine [Giglio] for instance used to love coming on our bus because we had the X-Box and PlayStation. He would come on our bus to play and they would get livid with him.  It was just a lot of childish rules.  There was a 'no fraternizing' law, meanwhile more people hooked up on these tours than in any other tour in the world [Laughs]. This was also the only the band in the world where the crew was treated better than the entire band and singers.
DR:  Did you ever have the opportunity or desire to perform with the East touring company?
TF:  I wanted to do it at least once so my family could come see me at the show. I wish that they had one tour where they just switched the two bands, so the West guys would play the East dates and East guys play the West dates.
DR:  You mentioned the singers bussed together; did you guys rehearse together?
TF:  What you do in the room and what you do on microphones are two different things. You can rehearse all day in the room, when you get to the mic on the stage, that’s where you need the rehearsals the most. Everyone was told to stay on the mic and the soundman is going to mix it. The soundman does not know who is singing what; there are too many things going on and he can’t be bothered with figuring out who is singing the high part, the low, the mid, across ten microphones. The idea is he puts the mics on. If you as a singer are too loud, you back off. The West Coast background vocals were always horrible. I never wanted to take part in them, but they needed the bodies up there. Bob Kinkel on the East Coast gave those guys enough rehearsal time with the mics so they could nail the background vocals. Pitrelli, as much as I love the guy, had no tolerance for singers. He would give them 30 seconds and that was it – the rest of the time was for the band to rehearse.
DR:   As the tours grew in popularity, so did the size of both the venues and the shows themselves. What was it like being part of that amazing burst of growth and moving from theaters to arenas?

TF:  It was great, but if I had my choice I would go back to the theaters; they were always my first love. The arenas got a little too impersonal. I felt bad for the people that were sitting all the way at the top and the back. It’s like going to a ball game and sitting in the bleachers; I’d rather sit home and watch it on television.

DR:  Maybe the response to that from TSO’s perspective was adding the bigger light show as well as the rear rising stage and the cranes that extend from the stage to try to bring some of the stage action to those folks in the far seats?
TF:  Yeah, yeah. Fill it with lights. Don’t forget – when we started these tours, we didn’t have these kinds of lights. We didn’t even have the star curtain on the West Coast. The East had it and we got it like a month later. We had a couple Par Cans– just bright white, backlit, and that was it.  There were no moving trusses, no lasers. The show went over like gangbusters. I remember standing ovations after standing ovations. As the show grew and more stuff was being added, I noticed less standing ovations and less audience reaction. Just everyone staying seated and staring.
DR:  The show that TSO puts on today is light-years ahead of those early Theater tours. There is a contingent of fans that long for the intimacy and less-fire-filled shows of today. Can you appreciate where they are coming from? 

TF:  Absolutely. I will equate it to seeing Humble Pie at the Fillmore and then seeing Humble Pie play Madison Square Garden. Big difference. You get more out of the little show than you can get out of the big show. 

DR:  In my interview with Michael Lanning, he mentioned that he filled in at times for other vocalists when they couldn’t go on. You mentioned earlier that you were singing “Old City Bar”. Did you ever wind up singing another “part” in the show?

TF:  Yeah, I did “Old City Bar” when Bart [Shatto] broke his ribs. I filled in when Jeff Scott Soto got sick. I even did “Angel Came Down”/”Angel Returned” one night. 

DR:  Did you ever miss any shows? Did anyone ever come on and do your songs? 

TF:  I am the only guy on the West that never went down. I never missed a show. I am the only singer that never had someone go on for him. And it was tough on the West tour – when you are coming from sea level on up two miles in one day – people were going down all the time. And here I am sitting there smoking Marlboros [Laughs].  Its years and years of playing in clubs and knowing how to get through this. 

Perfect example was Kelly Keeling. I love Kelly, but he came across cocky, especially in the beginning. I told him to be careful on a tour like this and to learn a couple different versions of how to sing his two songs. This way, in case he wasn’t feeling it one night, he could sing the other version and not crap out. He wanted no part of my advice. One night he gets on stage, he opens his mouth and nothing comes out. He did the biggest no-no in the world: he ran off the stage in the middle of the song and left the band hanging. 

For a singer to sing only two songs, with all the waiting in between is not easy.  To come out and do one song after waiting a half hour while the band plays and then come off and wait again, it’s struggling. It’s hard to explain. You can sing all you want backstage, but it’s not the same.  
DR:  You mentioned how the original Margolis-sung version of “Old City Bar” is one of your favorites and that you filled in for Bart in concert. I know this wasn’t your song, but I wanted to get your perspective on it. For many years, this song seemed to be revered by fans of the West Coast group, but didn’t always have the same favorable reaction by fans of the East group.   

TF:  [Laughs] It was 20 minutes long. The song got loaded down so much, by the time you get to the end of the song, you go, “What time is it?[Laughs] I could’ve gone for a steak dinner, a ride around the park, and I wouldn’t have missed anything. [Laughs]. It was ridiculous.  
But the reason that Bart got away with it is because Bart – I have to give it to the guy – went balls to the wall with it.  He would be outside the building before people came in – in his full bum outfit – in the dumpsters, rummaging through garbage. People were handing him money thinking that he was an actual bum. They had no idea that he was part of the show. It was really about teaching people a lesson. Some people were nice to him, some people were like, “Get this guy away from me.”. Then when you found out the guy was part of the show, you felt like an asshole. 

There was a point when I would come out during the intros and say, “A lot of people gave this guy money, we just want you to know that your money is going to a good cause”.  Bart would collect all this money and then we would all go out and buy presents for kids that are sick in hospitals using this money. We would go to a hospital on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day and hand out these presents to cancer patients – little kids. A lot of people don’t know this. It was never advertised and we weren’t allowed to say anything, but I want to say it now. We did it every Christmas Eve and all that money that was given to him went to a really good cause.

The thing that pissed me off, was that one person called into the office and complained, “If I knew the guy was in the show…I can’t believe he took my money, blah blah”. The office turned to Bart and said, “Don’t do it anymore.”.  So now, he wasn’t allowed to go outside the building anymore and do what he fell in love with doing. 

DR:  After so many years of singing “Ornament” and “This Christmas Day”, did it ever get old or routine? How did you keep things fresh and keep interested?

Tommy Farese & Al Pitrelli - "Ornament"
performing on early morning radio

TF:  My favorite versions of “Ornament” and “This Christmas Day” were when Al and I used to the early morning radio while on tour. It was just him and me with acoustic guitar. We worked out arrangements that were a little different and I sang it a little different. 
DR:  You have shared the TSO stage with many great vocalists over the years. Any of them stand out as favorites? 

TF:  Two. My favorite TSO male vocalist of all time is Michael Lanning.  But besides Michael, my favorite is Sophia Ramos. She is amazing. The voice on that woman – she got a standing ovation every time she went out on that stage. I used to stand on the side of the stage every night in awe of her voice. Why she is not a huge star today is beyond me.

Lanning was always the surprise of the show. Everybody had this “rock look” with the long hair, and here comes Lanning walking out on stage.  He was the most unsuspecting character in the world looking like your next-door neighbor, and he opens his mouth and everybody is floored. All of a sudden, he breaks out into Joe Cocker; he just sings his ass off. 

DR:  Your last tour with TSO was 2010. Did you have any indication that this would be your last tour with them?

TF:  I heard the train coming down the tracks. After Tony went, I was the last one out. I kind of knew it was coming.

DR:  Can you describe the circumstances of your departure?

TF:  I got a phone call from [TSO manager] Adam [Lind] in June of 2011. He basically said that they had heard that I was writing songs for this band that had some former TSO members in it  – they were calling it “TxO” at that point. I said, “Yeah, I had some songs that I wrote for myself that I am giving to these guys because they are starting their own venture. What’s the problem?” Adam says, “It’s a conflict of interest and Paul is very hurt”. 

I said, ”Why? I broke bread with these guys. We all banded together. We were family. Remember family? That’s what this was supposed to be? Am I supposed to turn my back on them? These guys are like family to me. We spent a lot of time onstage together, we spent our holidays together. I didn’t spend my holidays with my family – I spent them with these guys.

I guess they were looking for a reason and could not come up with anything, so this is what they came up with.

DR:  Do you think they didn’t want you to do anything with former TSO performers? 

TF:  I guess because it had something to do with Christmas. What’s the difference? They weren’t playing TSO-kind of music anyway. So when they fired me, I joined these guys. I started writing songs for this band and I took control of the whole thing. I wrote what I consider pop music.

Tommy Farese & Al Pitrelli
(Photo courtesy of Stacey Porter)
DR:  Were you surprised by all of this? This had to have hurt after so many years of knowing and working with Paul and Al.

TF:  I was disappointed in certain people whose names will go unmentioned.

I was the one who wound up telling Tony that he was let go. I had gotten a phone call from Paul who said that he just got off the phone with Tony and he let him go.  I then called Tony and said, “I heard they let you go.”. Tony says,”What!? He didn’t tell me that!”. So I inadvertently wound up telling Tony that he was let go.  That was their real backdoor way of letting him know that he was fired, without telling him themselves.

When you promise people things, I take you at your word. We didn’t have signed contracts with TSO until 2006, 2007. There was no such thing as a contract. It was a handshake, and they knew I would be there. And I expected the same from them – whatever they promised me, I expected. So when someone turns to you in 1999 and says, “Just hang in there with us guys, when this thing takes off, were going to take care of you and you got a job for life.”, I take you at your word. I don’t expect that 10 or 11 years down the road for you to say “Oops. I don’t remember saying that.

DR:  Are you still in touch with Paul or Al?

TF:  No. I do talk to Adam every now and then. There’s a bunch of people I miss. I miss Kinkel. I miss Caffery – even though he and I only played together in ’99, he and I always had a good rapport. There were a bunch of them that were just “real people”.

DR:  For your fans that are still holding out hope that they may see you grace the TSO stage once again, what would it take for that to happen?

TF:  An apology. And not just to me, to everyone that they hurt and lied to over the years. That wouldn't cost them anything. But after all is said and done, I have no hard feelings.

DR:  So you decided to join up with these guys that you had written songs for. I was hoping you could clear up some of the stuff that was being put out on the web at that time. There was a pretty harsh blog being posted…

TF:  I was so wrapped up in writing songs at that time. Someone asked me, “What do you think about keeping a blog about this band?” I said if you’re going to blog, be vague. And then I heard it wasn’t so vague.

DR:  There was a lot of information being thrown around on the blog and on Facebook - statements like “Were taking Christmas back”. 

TF:  That was a bad statement to make. 

DR:  And then the “TxO” name. There was even a logo floated out there. 

TF:  That was dumb. I mean, it’s funny. That’s just my sense of humor. TxO – Ex-members of TSO – it made perfect sense.  But there was no way in hell that name was going to stick with me. 

DR:  There were a couple different websites as well, with varying members listed. Keyboardist Carmine Giglio… 

TF:  Carmine was definitely going to do it. It’s hard to nail Carmine down because he’s working a lot. Paul Morris got involved. Yeah, it was going to be a bunch of ex-TSOers, but we were looking at putting together a super band together. Tommy Byrnes was going to play guitar on it. Byrnes actually played “How’s Your Life?” on the record – that’s all him – he even played the keys, the strings and everything. When the band finally does hit, it will be a band to be reckoned with, but that’s next year. 

DR:  I know you wrote “The Empty Chair”, which is a real highlight of the album. 

TF:  I basically wrote all of them, but I have to give credit where credit is due. “Christmas in Long Island” was me, and Paul Morris came up with the keyboard. Maxx and I wrote “Letter to Santa”. “Sleigh Ride” was written by me, Maxx and Dave Silva. Basically, I wrote all the lyrics and melodies to the songs and everyone else contributed. It really was a joint effort. 

DR:  Which songs do you sing lead on?

TF:  I sang lead on “Christmas on Long Island”, “Empty Chair” and “Pages of My Life”. All three of us sang on the “The Soldier Song”. And the backgrounds are Guy and me.

DR:  And Tony Gaynor was preparing and working on the narration, but did he also sing on the record?

TF:  Tony sang “Henry the Horse” and he also has a part in “Sleigh Ride”.

DR:  How was recording these songs different from recording with TSO? 

TF:  [Laughs] Like being let out of prison after 25 years.  And I don’t mean that in a derogatory way; I’m just doing what I do as opposed to what somebody else’s vision is. If you’re a hired gun - which I’m now taking it as that’s what we were, I didn’t see it that way in the beginning – you’re basically doing what somebody else’s vision is. I get that. If a guy is casting a movie and is looking for a certain character, the actor’s job is to give that guy what he wants. Doing your own material has always been more freeing to me.

DR:  Did you enjoy working once again with Guy, Tony, and Maxx?

TF:  Yeah. It was under different circumstances. We weren’t living in the Waldorf anymore. The conditions weren’t the greatest, but I have to give all the kudos to Richie [Kossuth] from Twelve Twenty-Four. He let us record at his studio and stay at the house. He was one hell of a guy and without him none of this would have went off.
DR:  Were you, or are you worried about musical comparisons to TSO?

TF:  No. This music is not even close to what they do. It’s night and day. 
DR:  The reason I asked that question, is that many fans were jumping to conclusions as soon as the news broke about this band of former TSO performers making a Christmas record, before they heard one note of the music. 

TF:  For argument’s sake – even if we were, which we weren’t – but even if we were, what’s your problem? We don’t live in a free country? You’re going to tell me that TSO has cornered the market on Christmas? They cornered the market on that style of music? I hate to tell you – Emerson, Lake & Palmer was doing rock and classical style long before TSO.  If you want to talk light shows, Pink Floyd cornered the market on that. And “Rock Theater”? The Who’s “Tommy” had that covered years ago. TSO didn’t invent Rock Operas. They are simply taking from what they saw from before and adapting to it to them. 

Instead of getting insulted about it, to me, impersonation is the sincerest form of flattery. You should be happy that somebody wanted to follow on your coattails. There’s a bunch of bands out there like the Wizards of Winter who write songs along the lines of TSO – and if you closed your eyes you could swear they were TSO on certain songs – and I think the material is damn good.  The Wizards have this vocalist Michael Clayton Moore – he’s a really good singer. And they have real flute and real violin – that’s actually heard. 

DR:  The CD came out in 2011. Can you explain what happened with the Kings of Christmas tour that went out? It certainly was a confusing scene for the fans. 

TF:  I canceled the tour dates two months before we were supposed to go out. The booking agent, who was working for me, decided to go against our wishes and not cancel the dates. So behind my back, she used our names – mine, Tony, Guy, and Maxx to book the dates, but then recruited Maxx and a bunch of other guys from the band and elsewhere to tour. So whatever happened on those five dates were all on her. I don’t blame Maxx anymore – it’s all on her. So if it went over like a fart in church, which I hear it did, it’s her problem.  

I felt bad for those guys, and Maxxy was estranged from us at that point. I was like – go out and learn your lesson and come back and let me know how it goes. I’ve been doing this way too long to know whether it’s time to go out or say, “Hey, Let’s just wait another year”. I am not going to put on a bad show. The first thing people are going to remember is the first impression you give them. That will be the last thing they walk away with. If you come to a show and the show is terrible, you are not coming back. The show wasn’t ready and I was not going to tour until it was. 

DR:  So you mentioned waiting until the next year. In 2012, you had plans on going on out the right way? 

TF:  We were, but then I got destroyed here by Hurricane Sandy. This house was five feet under water. This half of the house wasn’t hit as bad, but all of the floors still need to be replaced. I had to re-do all of these walls. The other side of the house was just gone. We were going to go out and do the dates. Maxx wasn’t going to do it with us anymore, so Michael Lanning stepped in and the four of us were ready, but I couldn’t walk away from this.  

DR:  So here we are in 2013 and you, Michael, Guy, and Tony are rehearsing for a brand new tour with the Wizards of Winter. How did you connect with them?

TF:  [Wizards Musical Director] Scott [Kelly] got in touch with me through Facebook. We got to talking and Scott is a hell of a nice guy. He suggested that I come down one day and play a gig with them. It sounded good to me, and he suggested maybe a couple dates. I said, “How about I bring three other guys from TSO and we do some shows?” We had a lot of fun doing TSO; we could have a lot of fun doing this. One thing led to another and we decided to do it.

DR:  How are the rehearsals going? And what can fans expect from this tour? 

TF:  They’re good. It’s not going to be as polished as a TSO show, but then again if you go back to ’99, 2000, 2001 – none of those shows were polished either. You will see a looser version of what you see with TSO today. And I might do “Ornament” acoustically, the way I liked it. 

DR:  Are you doing any material from the Kings of Christmas record? 

TF:  No. I think the band and we have enough on our plate right now learning the TSO songs that we are going to perform. I also don’t want anyone to really hear the Kings of Christmas music without the proper setting and preparation. It’s not something I would just throw out there. 

DR:  Are you excited to be going out performing live after a couple years away? 

TF:  Yeah, I am looking forward to getting together, having some fun on stage again, and doing what I’m known for. 

DR:  Certainly, there will be many fans who will be excited that you and the others are back together again and performing so many of the songs that you became known for. However, what do you say to those fans that say that you shouldn’t be performing TSO material anymore?

TF:  Get over it. Very simple. You don’t have to come. We’re not doing this to pack the house. We’re doing it because we enjoy performing together and the fans that do come will see a hell of a show. 

DR:  I wanted to ask about a couple other bands that you have been involved in over the years. You sang with O’2L? 

TF:  That was Jane’s creation. She is brilliant at what she does. She is an amazing keyboard player. You give her a mac studio and some outboard gear and she plays all the instruments. On those records, whatever you hear, with the exception of the guitar, is all Janey. She let Al play sometimes. [Laughs] All those instruments on there – the saxes, the horns – everything is her.

We toured the Midwest a lot though – Tennessee, Kansas, Texas. It was essentially TSO on stage. John O’Reilly on drums. Scooter (Chris Altenhoff) on bass – that kid can play. He is one of the greatest – and youngest – bass players that I have ever played with. I was really surprised that TSO let him go. 

O’2L – “Rain”
Tommy Farese - Lead Vocals

DR:  And you and Michael Lanning did backing vocals for Van Helsing’s Curse. 

TF:  I’ve known Dee [Snider] for years. We go back to 1970. Believe it or not, I was a roadie for his early 70s band Peacock. I did lights for him. 

DR:  I wanted to ask about the series of records that you were involved with in the ‘90s for Blue Dolphin Records in Japan called “Rock Superstars” that consisted of all cover tunes.

TF:  Oh God. Let me preface this by saying, “Please – don’t anyone buy those records”. [Laughs]  If you have them already, please use them as coasters or throw them out immediately. 

DR:  I’ve seen them go for hundreds of dollars on eBay. 

TF:  Are they? What fool would buy those records? [Laughs] You know, I don’t even own copies of them. That is how bad that stuff was. 

DR:  Can you give us an idea of how you got involved in that mess? 

TF:  Al Pitrelli got these record deals with this little record company in Japan. The problem was that they had a roster of musicians that they wanted to play on these records. The deal was that he only had two weeks to do everything – If you got the deal on Monday, the stuff would have to be turned in on the second Monday – finished, soup to nuts. Meanwhile he would have to fly people in from all over the place and schedule them to play or sing. So you got Snake Sabo from Skid Row, James Labrie from Dream Theater, Corey Glover from Living Colour.  Long story short, there was no way you could get all of this done right in that short amount of time.  

They paid a lousy $15,000 for the records and all the money went to paying these guys, paying the airfare and hotels, and recording costs. At the end of the day, we didn’t make any money. So Al called me up and asked me to help him out. He had to have 12 songs on the record and whatever songs these guys weren’t singing, he wanted me to sing. So, I started doing this clean-up job for Al, and then Al got the job with Megadeth. Al asked me to take things over and finish it out. I didn’t want anything to do with this nightmare, but I didn’t want to leave him hanging. 

So we turned in that first record and I find out that Al signed this deal for two or three more records. So here we are sending rough tracks to Japan. They’re telling us “You send to us, we mix”. When I heard what they put on the record, I was like “I had better mixes before I sent them to you. What did you do to them?” They destroyed them. I asked them to please take my name off the record. So long story short, I was stuck with this disaster that has my name all over it, and these big-name guys who we had come and play on it are looking at me as if I had something to do with it. So I advise everybody – do not buy those records. Don’t hold anybody on those records to task for what happened.

DR:  Though these wound up being real rough recordings with bad mixes, were there any actual performances that stood out to you?

TF:  Corey Glover. Corey was unbelievable. He could sing on the worst material in the world and make it sound like gold.

DR:  There were many TSO performers on these records – Paul Morris, Mark Wood, Katrina Chester, and George Cintron.

TF:  Once we got all the people that they wanted on the record, then I was free to use whoever else was available. So I called up Katrina, and George and everybody.

DR:  So what’s next for you? Will we see a Kings of Christmas tour?

TF:  Yes, hopefully. You’ll see it in 2014.

DR:  Why have we never seen a Tommy Farese solo album?

TF:  I don’t like to go solo. I like people around me. I could have done that years ago. My big love, believe it or not, is big band music, the old standards.

DR:  I saw that you have released a series of standards on YouTube. Where did they come from?

TF:  I did those after my father died. That was his era and he loved that music. As a tribute to him, I did a whole record full of that stuff. It was just something I recorded for my family.

Tommy Farese - "Under My Skin"

DR:  Well, thanks for taking the time here for the interview. 

TF:  My pleasure. I’m happy to get the truth out there and hope to see you at one of the shows.

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