Saturday, April 27, 2019

A Conversation with John O.Reilly

John O.Reilly, the world-class drummer from Long Island, NY, is probably most renowned for his keen sense of timing and his 15-year stint with the Trans-Siberian Orchestra. But John has been on a remarkable musical journey since the early 1970's, playing with a multitude of bands and artists over the years including Blue Oyster Cult, Rainbow, O'2L, Richie Havens, Joe Lynn Turner and many others.  In 2018, John brought his collective blend of band and industry experience to Yuletide-rock sensations The Wizards of Winter, as he assumed the drum throne for their tour and upcoming new album.  While we certainly couldn't cover John's entire career in one afternoon (though we tried!), we did chat quite a bit about some of the defining points of his long and interesting career.

John O.Reilly with The Wizards of Winter, December 2018, St. George Theatre, Staten Island
Photo courtesy Jeff Smith of ReflectionsNYC

Dan Roth:  The bio on your website states that you started playing drums on your 10th birthday.  Was there a defining moment for you that steered you towards drums and an interest in music?

John O.Reilly:  Like so many others, it was seeing The Beatles on television - that's what got me started. They made such an impact on so many, including me. Where I grew up in Queens, NY, three of my best friends were drummers. My mom took me to Bohack's, where we did all our shopping, and we used our collected plaid stamps to get a snare drum and a cymbal on a stand - that was my first one! The other guys who all played drums were all better than me, so they were guys that I looked up to.

My next real encounter was right before my fifteenth birthday. At the time, five of my good friends were all drummers also and we were always involved in neighborhood drum-offs. We were hanging out in a local music shop one day when I met George Christ who was a pseudo-cowboy looking kinda guy. It was 1967 and musicians were dressing like no one else back then. He drove a van with "Magic Bus" written on its side, and he had a band called Gripweed. I wound up joining Gripweed for one day and then the band broke up. But three days later, I ran into him and he was telling me of this new band that he was working with, and that he needed some help moving the band's equipment around. He asked me if I wanted to be a roadie. I had no idea what that was, but he explained that I help move the equipment, set it all up, and I get paid $10 a show. That band was J.F. Murphy and Salt. At that time, they were known as J.F. Murphy and Free Flowing Salt. That was a real life-changing moment for me.

DR:  They were certainly a successful band in many regions of the U.S. and were on some major record labels.

JOR:  Yes. I signed my first record deal with them to Columbia when I was 20 years old. But from 1967 to 1971, I went from being their roadie/tour manager/lighting director/sound guy to playing in the band. I started out just carrying the gear, and I was always amazed how we blew every band that we played with out of the water. They were such a great, great band.

DR:  They were such a diverse band too, with so many different influences in their music.

JOR:  Very diverse. And this was when AM Radio ruled. We were very successful in certain pockets of the country. We’d sell out a club in St. Louis five nights in a row but couldn't get arrested in NYC. I toured with them and would set everything up and play drums after the soundchecks.

DR:  Ah, so you still weren't drumming for them except for soundchecks.  Did you have any other opportunities to play?

JOR:  We had a great manager - Lou Linet. One day, Lou took me aside and told me, "I manage this other band that is looking for a drummer, and they checked you out at one of the soundchecks, and they would like you to come down and audition." I asked him what they were like and he said, "They are kind of like the New York Dolls-ish" and at that point I was such a musical snob being around these great musicians that this didn't really appeal to me. I asked him what the band was called, he says, "Wicked Lester” Lou was urging me on, saying "I'm sure you're tired of being a roadie at this point, here's a chance to play drums" I thought it over and decided to pass on the audition. Jump ahead many years later, I was recording at the Record Plant in Manhattan - this was 1980 or 1981 -and KISS were in one of the other studios there. I knew who KISS were and I had bought their solo records by that point. Gene Simmons comes walking up, and I said to him, "Gene, I noticed that you thanked Lou Linet on the back of your solo album." Gene responds "He was honorable man. An honorable man. How did you know him?" I explained that he managed the band that I was in, J.F. Murphy and Salt. Gene looks at me, and says, "You were the drummer!" And then Paul Stanley came walking up and Gene says, "This is that drummer from J.F. Murphy and Salt!" and Paul started humming the melody to one of our songs, and says, "That song should've been a hit!” I was stunned and I said to both of them, "I don't remember Lou Linet ever managing KISS." and Gene says, "Lou managed us when we were Wicked Lester” I just went [jaw drops]! That was another career defining moment for me. [Laughs] I was like Oh. Ok. Oops! [Laughs]

DR:  Wow.  That was quite the audition to pass on.

JOR:  Yup.  [Laughs]  Oops.  I had no idea of the connection as I hadn't followed them that closely.

DR:  But you did go on to become the drummer for J.F. Murphy and Salt.

Band photo - back cover of "The Last Illusion".  Reilly, 2nd from left

JOR: Yes, Bobby Paiva left the band, and I took over the drums. I had recorded some demos with the band, which was a real learning experience for me. Back then I tended to overplay a bit, and we were recording a ballad that called for a big drum fill. Rather than play a nice legato, drum fill and lay back into the chorus, I did this big over-the-top thing. That did not go over well. [Laughs]. No one said anything, but I got the look! Shortly after that I met up with Kevin Ellman, this great drummer who I really respected, and I was telling him about that session. Kevin gave me the best advice I ever got. He told me "You've got good meter and good time. Whatever it is that you are hearing in your head, cut it in half " That stuck with me forever.

DR:  Were the J.F. Murphy albums your first official recordings?

JOR:  I was on their last two albums, The Last Illusion and Urban Renewal.  But as it turned out, my first official studio recording was with Earl "Fatha" Hines, the great jazz pianist.  I had recorded some demos for J.F. Murphy and was playing live, when I met Fatha.

DR:   How did that come about?

JOR:  There was a well-known nightclub on Bleeker Street in New York called The Village Gate and Earl used to come down and check out the bands playing there. One night, I was playing there with J.F. Murphy and Salt. He came backstage, and came up to me, I was there in my cowboy hat, all decked out in Conchos, boots, and spurs [Laughs] and Fatha says to me, "I like your fire. I like your style." After that I was contacted by the local music contractor for the musician's union to play on his next album, This Is Marva Josie. Fatha was really a trip. We recorded at a small studio in the West Village and at that time, I was not proficient at sight reading music. The producer came over and handed me a chart for the first song. Fatha stepped in and said "Don't give him no paper. I want to hear him do what he does best." I just went [Wipes Forehead] Saved! [Laughs] That would have been embarrassing. We ran each track down a few times and rolled tape, we basically cut the album in a day. That was my first real recording experience.

DR:  The J.F. Murphy and Salt albums are really diverse.  A bit of psychedelic, jazz-rock fusion, traditional Irish tunes, and straight-ahead rock.

JOR:  The band was very talented but all over the place. The record labels didn't know what to do with us. We had this song called "New York City," which got played on WNEW-FM all the time, but Clive Davis at Columbia Records couldn't figure out how to cut it down to three minutes to get it played nationwide. Clive thought the hook was really strong, but how do you get rid of that whole middle section, and still have the song make sense? We had some radio support, like the one in St. Louis and other stations in the mid-west that really got behind us, but it was tough going for the music we were making.

The band was great though we had our share of turmoil. Then there was the big purge at Columbia and Clive Davis was fired and disbarred and suddenly we were like "J.F Murphy and Who?” The real bummer was that Davis had reached out to Lou Linet, told him that he believed in the band, and that he could do something more with us. Davis had just taken over Bell Records, wanted to do everything he could to make the label grow, and he wanted to sign us as his first act. Lou passed on this offer, Bell Records of course went on to become the immensely successful Arista Records, and our manager got fired.

DR:  One song that I would like to ask you about is "Urban Renewal" which was this adventurous ten-minute medley of West Side Story music on your final album for Dunhill Records.

JOR:  Oh wow.  [Laughs] That was a real workout!  We adapted that from the Buddy Rich Big Band's version of the West Side Story Medley.  We played all of this stuff live in the studio as a band, no click tracks. That was a real trip putting that together.  We wanted a real show-stopper for our shows and it was so much fun to play.

I want to share a story about this song though. In 1973, we played the annual Christmas concert for WNEW-FM; we opened for a popular Canadian band called Lighthouse. This was a sold- out Christmas show, and we were ready to go on and open with "Urban Renewal" and just knock it out of the park! We were all a little nervous; we were on this huge stage, Murphy would be on this concert grand piano, which we had never done on stage before, huge crowd. We hit the stage and launched into that song. Everything is going great right until we hit the transition - the song breaks for this solo clarinet part that leads into the "Rhapsody in Blue" section. There was dead silence. We're all looking at each other and Ronnie Allard, our sax and clarinet player was standing there without his clarinet. Jack Murphy signals to him to pick up his clarinet, and Ronnie says "I left it upstairs" - in the dressing room that was three floors up! [Laughs] Murphy finally signals to me to do something, and I just started playing this groove, and the band started jamming for maybe three or four minutes until we somehow transitioned into that next "I want to be in America" section. Just a little bit of train wreckage in front of a sold-out crowd at Lincoln Center, and in front of my entire family who came to see me play for the first time.

DR: After Jack Murphy ended the band, what was next for you?  I know Murphy eventually went on to some great success writing Broadway shows.  Was this when you started working with guitarist Johnny Gale?

JOR: I had gone through a couple of bar bands during the mid 70’s a few of them with Gale. I got involved with the band Whiplash, which was playing the tri-state club circuit that had an investor with lots of money, and the band was going to go places. Turns out that our manager was a smuggler; it was the first time I ever saw two million dollars in a suitcase [Laughs] that I was not supposed to see. It was a real wild time. We were playing a lot of industry showcases, and almost signed with Polygram. We had a $350,000 two-album contract sitting in front of us with our manager Al Dellentash. We had our pens out and ready to sign, when our manager told us that he wanted one more person to hear us play - an executive that was coming over from Atlantic Records. We wound up doing one more showcase for him, and we blew it. We should've signed that contract. [Laughs] Our salary was cut off; our truck was taken away, and that was it. I left the band and a few years later and Dellentash was sent to prison. Google his name, as you can’t make this shit up!

Whiplash -  L-R: Johnny Gale, Charlie Cochran, John O.Reilly, Keith Gale
Photo by Lynn Goldsmith

DR:  How did you wind up working with Richie Havens and Yoko Ono?

JOR: That was all with a band I was in called Visitor. That was a killer band live, but we never got signed. We had two drummers, two guitarists, keyboards...we were a great live band. We opened for The Stray Cats, Foghat, Meatloaf, and Todd Rundgren's Utopia in the 80’s. We wound up working with Richie Havens as his  band and recorded a couple songs for a movie called The Girl, the Gold Watch & Everything with Richie singing lead. Both songs were released by Elektra, and I played drums on "Two Hearts in Perfect Time.” That was a real learning experience as we spent a lot of time at Record Plant studios in New York recording our album. The owner of Record Plant at the time, Roy Cicala, was our producer.

DR:  Was this the same band that recorded demos for John Lennon's Double Fantasy album?

JOR:  Yes. One day Roy Cicala called us at our band house in Queens telling us that we needed to be in the studio the next day, and I can't tell you who it's for. We got to the studio, set up our gear and in walks Yoko Ono. Of course, we were all looking for John. [Laughs] It turned out John wasn't around at the time. She brought with her some songs and explained to Roy that she felt it was time for John to come back out and wanted to get things started. Yoko had called Roy, and said she wanted all of the top session players in New York at the time to be in the studio the next day - she was asking for people like Steve Gadd and Will Lee, all of whom were booked with projects. Roy told her that he can have a great band ready for her, and they will do the job. So, we got the call.

It was an up-and-down day for me, because the day we went into the studio to work with Yoko, June 28th, 1980, my brother-in-law died. My brother-in-law was a fireman, and he fell seven floors to his death that day. It was such a surreal, heartbreaking day. We did the demos, working with Yoko for two days. We thought this would be a real shot in the arm for the band, even though we hadn't gotten paid a dime to do record these demos. Roy Cicala had gone down to Brazil to open up a studio down there and then we didn't hear anything for about a month, until the news comes out that Jack Douglas is going to produce Lennon's new album at a different studio. We weren't sure what happened, but Lennon insisted on coming back to Record Plant to have the record mixed. While Lennon is there for the mixing, Roy mentions to Lennon about this band that did all the demo work and never get paid. Lennon had no idea so he offered to Roy that he would sing on the Visitor record that we were working on in return for our work on Yoko’s music. I met John a couple times at the studio, one day of which he came down from the mixing room while we were working on the song that he was going to sing on. He sat in the control room for a bit with Roy, listened to us working on the song and told us how much he liked it. We were all very excited, we thought that we were on the verge of hitting it big to come out with a record with John singing on it.

DR:  So, John Lennon sang on one of your songs?

JOR:  Well, here is the heartbreaking story that thousands of bands have. You think you are on the verge of something amazing that is about to happen to your career, that you are just that close, and everything is lined up. We are all in our band house on December 8th. having a late dinner and we're celebrating about how great this will be that John is going to sing on our album. Then we turn on the news and hear that he was killed. It was such a shock and an unreal situation. We wound up finishing our record but it was never released.. We managed to get the song "Uptown" to WAPP-FM on the last day of submissions for their "NEW YORK ROCKS" Promo contest. The station was syndicated around the country with every song on the record getting equal airplay. If the station's audience liked what they heard they could phone in to cast a vote. Whoever got the most votes for a particular area would be invited to perform in concert. We were chosen along with 3 other bands who were on that record, one of them being "John Bongiovi.” First place in the contest was a recording contract with a major label and Bongiovi's track "Runaway" was all over the radio by the time of that concert.

DR:  So many close calls - could have been the first band on Arista, a huge record deal with Polygram, John Lennon singing on your record....

JOR:  That is every musician's career. Some guys can weather through it and come out the other side, others just bag it. You need the thickest skin you could possibly have in this business. You need to persevere while living with a high degree of uncertainty.

DR:  I want to skip ahead and talk about the two albums you made with bassist Randy Coven and guitarist Al Pitrelli.  All three of you were Long Island guys, did you just meet up organically from playing out?

JOR:  I was in a band with guitarist Lucille Almond called Lucille and the Real Deal and Randy Coven had come to see us play at a club in Glen Cove. That was the first time I had met him. After our bass player left, we called up Randy and asked him to join the band. That was the first time he and I played together. After some turmoil, that band broke up, and lost contact with Randy. One day I am at Tower Records, and I see a CD in the racks by Randy Coven! I called him up and said, "Dude, you got a record out?! Why aren't you out working it?" He told me that he didn't have a band. I said, "You've got a drummer! All you need now is a guitar player." We put a band together with a keyboardist, a singer and a different guitar player than Al. We started doing gigs all over the island, and one day I come into rehearsals and Al was sitting there.

DR:  Was this the first time you had met Al?

JOR:  Yeah! Never met him, never heard of him before. Even though we were both on Long Island, you didn't really hear much about the players or bands that were in other counties than the one you were in. We started playing clubs and playing the songs that you hear on the Sammy Says Ouch! album. We had played that set for about a year and a half, so these songs were really tight and rehearsed by the time we went to record. All the songs you hear on that album were recorded live in studio except for a couple overdubs for solos. One of my favorite songs from that first album was "A Minor Disturbance."  Mark Wood played this incredible electric violin solo on there, and you can't instantly tell that it's a violin. I used to play that for people, and no one could figure out what instrument that was!

The album was really well received but Al got the gig with Alice Cooper and Randy moved back to Canada with his wife Michelle. While up in Canada, he met Phil X, and they put a band together, and played a lot from this album. When Randy came back to play the States and needed a drummer, he called me up, and we toured a bit with Randy, Phil, and I as the band. While on a break from Alice Cooper the three of us went back into the studio to record our second album, CPR.

DR:  So, it is the same band, but the album was released as Coven Pitrelli Reilly CPR.  Was that a band decision?

JOR:  No, that was the record label. I think they wanted to gain a bit of traction from Al's involvement with Alice Cooper. That record was a little different as we did a couple covers on there and brought in Zakk Wylde and Randy Jackson to sing. Mark was back to do a couple solos too. It was such a blast making these records because we were such a tight band. Nothing was done with a click track, it was all just laid down live. It was great working with Randy and Al because we each had this sixth sense of what the other was going to play; we were really locked in.

DR:  What was it like working with Randy Coven?  He was such a monster bassist and played with so many people, but never seemed to gain the notoriety I think he deserved.
Al Pitrelli, Randy Coven, John O.Reilly

JOR:  If you got along with Randy and dealt with what you had to deal with in order to work with Randy, he was fine. Randy was always a very busy player because he was playing his bass as a lead instrument. He was always on top of the beat. His playing really matured later in his career after working with Leslie West and Yngwie Malmsteen, but we didn't keep in touch after the CPR days. He pretty much expunged me from his resume, which is fine. Unfortunately, those things happen in this business.

DR:  One of my favorite albums that you are on is Gale Force, with your old Whiplash bandmate Johnny Gale on guitar and Tommy Farese on vocals.

JOR: That is a great record. Tommy, Johnny and I go way back - we were in a bar band together called Kivetsky years before. Johnny's brother, known now as Keith Karloff, was the principal songwriter on that album. This is another band that got that close to a major recording deal, this time on Interscope Records. The president of Interscope, Jimmy Iovine heard our demos and was blown away by our recording of "Boom Boom.” Gene Simmons was managing Johnny at the time and arranged for Jimmy to come to SIR Studios in NYC for a showcase. He loved it and was looking to give us a $500,000 contract for 2 records plus tour support, and he wanted us to tour like crazy up and down the 95 corridor to help break the band. He told us that his A&R people are going to think he is crazy to sign a blues band out of New York City. [Laughs] Turns out that is exactly what happened - they told Jimmy that they could spend $500,000 to sign a bunch of bands and see what sticks, and that's what they did. They signed Primus and a few other bands instead of us. But Johnny has gone on to great things, arranging and consulting on the Broadway show “A Bronx Tale” among other things. He is an amazing guitar player, knows how to get a killer tone, knows what to do with it, and does it better than anybody.

DR:  It's a great record, and possibly the best Tommy Farese ever sounded.  He sings his ass off on this album.

"Boom Boom" by Johnny Gale/Gale Force 
John O.Reilly-Drums, Johnny Gale-Guitars, Harvey Brooks-Bass, Tommy Farese-Lead Vocals

JOR:  Absolutely.  We were all blown away.  Neil [Ed. Note: Johnny Gale's given name is Neil Posner] was a big part of that.  He was responsible for getting that kind of performance out of the band.

DR:  With all of the various bands that you were involved in on Long Island, how surprised were you to get a call from Ritchie Blackmore of all people?

JOR:  I first heard about Ritchie putting Rainbow back together again when I was on the road with Joe Lynn Turner. One of Deep Purple's former tour managers came to one of our gigs and was telling Joe that Ritchie was looking for a bass player and a drummer for the band, and how Ritchie was now managed by Legends Artists Management. At the end of that run we played a benefit show at Webster Hall where I met Ritchie’s assistant Jim Mangard. He told me about the Rainbow gig and asked for my number, which of course I gave him, but forgot to get his! Turned out that a singer that I was working with at the time, Lucia Cifarelli, worked for Legend Artists so I went to her, and she graciously made sure my demo tape got in there. I got together with producer Bob Stander, and we put together some of my tracks - in fact, some of the Gale Force tracks were among the stuff on my tape. I sent that in but didn't hear anything, months had gone by and I had given up. Then one day my phone rings, and Jim Mangard, asks me to come down for an audition! I was told not to learn anything special for it, so I went down, and it was the weirdest audition that I had ever done.

DR:  In an interview about this era of Rainbow which was later included in Jerry Bloom's biography of Blackmore called Black Knight, Ritchie is quoted as saying this about you: "John O. Reilly, who used to play drums on Long Island, I heard about him and was particularly interested in his time keeping. It was very steady. He's not a showy type of drummer; he is more of a timekeeper which I think is very important. It's very hard to find a drummer in these times that plays in time. So, to me it's the first thing a drummer should be able to do. But it's very hard to find a drummer.".  Did Blackmore's quest for proper timekeeping come across?

JOR:  Well, for the first ten minutes of the audition I played drums by myself. Ritchie sat in front of me and would tell me what he wanted to hear. First, he asked me to play a groove and snapped his fingers to the tempo he wanted to hear. Then he asked me to play something fast, again snapping his fingers to a tempo. Then he asked me to play a shuffle. Now, if there is anything that I pride myself on, it's knowing how to play a shuffle at any tempo in a variety of styles. I asked him what kind of shuffle did he want to hear? I could play a Chicago Two-Hand Shuffle, a Texas Swing, a rock shuffle...He was surprised! He asks me to play a rock, and then a Chicago shuffle. I never had anyone check my time like that. So yeah, I got his penchant for time keeping right there in the audition.

Then finally after all this drumming - just me and no one else playing anything - he asks the rest of the band to play. At that time, it was Rob DeMartino on bass, Paul Morris on keys, and I forget who the singer was, but it wasn't Doogie yet. Then Ritchie puts down his guitar and asked me to play a drum solo. When we were done, he asked me if I played football (soccer). I said "No, but I can learn." And that was my audition. I then didn't hear anything until Ritchie called me about a month later and asked me if I wanted to be in the band.

DR:  What were the recording sessions like?

JOR:  Well, Rob left during rehearsals, and I brought Greg Smith into the band to play bass. We all got together in this huge house in Cold Spring, New York and really had a great time. Ritchie had a reputation for being a taskmaster, but there were some days that we just would be out there kicking the soccer ball around. Ritchie liked to write what he called the "cornerstones of the album" - four key songs that anchor the album and that is what we really worked on up there. “Black Masquerade." was one of those four and one that came together quickly. That is one of my favorite tracks on the record. The rest of the album was written in the studio.

DR:  With everyone that you have played with over the years, was this just another gig to you or did you find yourself getting starstruck at all?

JOR:  Yep, I knew I was in a great place. We would have the weekends off, and the band would all go back to Long Island while Ritchie would stay up there. Often, he would ask me to hang with him at the house on the weekends to “Have a Bash” And I remember thinking "How cool is this!” Here's a guy that I used to watch on Don Kirshner's Rock Concert with Deep Purple, and here he is sitting in front of me as we play together, just the two of us.

DR:  You wound up in his next band too correct?

JOR:  Yes. While at following years Christmas dinner he played me the recording of what would become Blackmore's Night, which they were just getting together, and I wound up being in the first incarnation of that band in 1997.We toured all of Japan, all through Europe staying in some very cool castles! We always had a good relationship, and we still do. The last time I heard from him was while I was on tour with The Wizards of Winter - he called to invite me to his 2018 Christmas party. A weird twist in all of that is that Chuck Burgi wound up getting hired for the Rainbow gig replacing me for their tour, and a few days later I joined Blue Oyster Cult replacing him! Who knew? [Laughs]

DR:  Let's jump ahead to your longest gig, playing drums with Trans-Siberian Orchestra.  In 2002, Steve Murphy was the drummer for their western tour unit. Takanori Niida was the backup but has also said that he was to be the drummer in the proposed third touring unit.  Then you wound up drumming for TSO West while Murphy was listed in the program. Can you explain what happened and how you got the gig?

JOR:  In 2002, I was doing a number of steady local gigs, the weekly Richie Cannata jam in NYC. Was one of them. I had done a few albums with Westworld, and I had fallen completely out of touch with Al after that second album we did with Randy and a couple albums we did with Joe Lynn Turner. Al had done that TSO thing, went out with Megadeth and then came back to TSO. Along the way he had run into Tony Harnell and a mutual friend of ours, producer Bob Held - both of whom brought my name up in conversation to Al. Al called me one day out of the blue, saying that he had taken over the West band and that he might have something for me. Now I knew nothing at all about Trans-Siberian Orchestra. I think I had heard about them from being on Rosie O'Donnell's show, but I didn't know what they were. He asked me to come down to the studio and meet the guys. I came down to one of the small studios they were using at the time in New York and who is there but Bob Kinkel. Bob and I met each other back in the Record Plant days in the 80's when I was recording there, and Bob was working there. So, I knew Bob longer than I have known Al. I remember Bob was working on "Queen of the Winter Night," and we all just hung out and talked until Paul O'Neill showed up and I got to meet him. We ended the day with Al giving me a couple of their CDs and told me to learn four songs just in case there were some changes within the backup band.

Two days later I was back in that same studio, and I was told that I might want to learn some more of the material. The rehearsals had started, and I got to meet Jane Mangini, Johnny Lee Middleton, Angus Clark and everyone for the first time. They wound up offering me the backup gig, and I did some songs with the West band during rehearsals. I remember something happened - Steve Murphy was there - I was never too sure what it was, and I heard a few different stories. Their tour manager at the time pulled me aside and told me that they might need me at their pre-production studios in Connecticut the next day. I tried to explain that I had some gigs lined up already, and then I was told that I was to be in Connecticut the next day. By the time I got home that day, Al called me and said, "Here's when the gig starts, here's when it ends, here's how much it pays. Do you want it?" And that's how I found out I had the gig.
John O.Reilly with TSO 2004
Photo courtesy Brian Reichow

I was learning everything on the fly. By the time I got to Connecticut, I really only knew five songs. I was relying on charts and some cheat sheets to get things together as quick as I could before we went out. I was really in the hot seat.

Takanori stayed on as my backup.  He did play one show on the 2002 tour though, he came out and played the last two songs of one of the shows that year.

DR:  As different as the TSO job was/is to all of your previous gigs, it had to have helped to at least have some folks around you that you had worked with many times, like Al, Mark Wood and Tommy Farese.

JOR:  Oh, I felt comfortable from that standpoint.  The only weird thing about it was that I couldn't play acoustic drums.

DR:  Had you ever played electronic drums before?

JOR:  Never. They are brutal. I don't care what they will tell you about them, they are such a different animal. You really have to sort of trick yourself. You can tension them to make it feel like a drum set, mount thumpers under your throne. But you don't get that visceral thing that you get by playing acoustic drums; everything is coming through your monitors or your in-ears. The reason to use them is total control; Bam - it's the same thing every night.

DR:  I imagine that there is some value in guaranteeing them to sound the same every night.

JOR:  Yes, but you're not guaranteed that they will work every night.  I've had that happen where all of a sudden, the kick drum would go dead, or the snare drum goes dead.

DR: That doesn't happen with acoustic drums. [Laughs]

JOR:  [Laughs]  No it doesn't. I will tell you this though - and Johnny Lee will corroborate this - Paul did not like drums and bass in the mix that much. It was always vocals, piano and guitar. Vocals were the most important to Paul. There were many times that the kit was taken almost completely out of the mix.

DR:  Did you work with the other drummers at all?

JOR:  Only if the back-ups got too far off their parts, which was very rare. Paul encouraged Jeff Plate and me to steal from each other. If one of us was doing something that the other was interested in, we would trade off.

DR:  Was TSO still playing theaters in your first year?  Or had they moved to playing some arenas at that point?

JOR: It wasn't until 2003 or 2004 that the west tour played an arena. I believe the first one was the Rose Garden in Portland, Oregon. That first year was tough, as many of the arenas were only a quarter full. But then the next year it was a bit fuller, the next year it was sold-out, and then the next year we were doing matinees. It didn’t take long for the west tour to grow.

DR:  I have had the pleasure of interviewing five key performers that were in the West cast as it grew from the early days and every one of them spoke about how things were less rigid than the East and they got away with a bit more of their own contribution back then.  Can you speak to that?

JOR:  The whole vibe was a lot looser back then. Paul was always with the East coast band and spent very little time with us. He let Al be in charge of mostly everything while the East coast band was pretty much under Paul's thumb as to what he wanted and how he wanted it done. The West coast band definitely had more freedom. We had a great combination of players - attitudes, personalities, musical abilities - and we just clicked. We had basically the same core band from 2002 through 2016.  Towards the later years though, Paul wanted both bands to be identical. There was no more ad libbing, no more jamming. The West coast band played for the longest time without a click track; we just played together as a band. The big turning point was everyone had to go to in-ear monitors. Both Al and I went kicking and screaming. Neither of us wanted any part part of them. I like to play to the room. But when we headlined the Wacken Festival in 2016 with two bands on adjacent stages, we all had to use them. 
John O.Reilly with TSO 2007
Photo courtesy Brian Reichow

The West Coast band was always considered the red-headed bastard stepchild. We were a little unruly to say the least. [Laughs] Whoever came in new to the band - whether it was a violinist or keyboard player - you weren't going to change us. You were going to adapt to us. We never wore watches on stage, because wearing watches was considered, just bad luck. We never played music before the show in the band dressing room - also, considered bad luck. Some former west members liked to come in and play their own music in the dressing room to get ready for the show. None of this ever had to be said, but you got the vibe right away.

DR:  For many years, Jeff Plate performed a drum solo on the East coast tour.  Why did you not do a solo?

JOR:  On the west tour we had to trim down our set length as much as possible without giving up any of the songs or production effects. Adios drum solo and long introductions for band and singers…Any way to shave the band and road crews travel time.

DR:  You had worked with Al Pitrelli previously on those two albums and tours with he and Randy Coven.  Was it different working with Al in his capacity here as musical director?

JOR:  “Church and State” is a key phrase here. We’re Brothers, but this is business. Al and I have a great relationship. He is an amazing guitarist, bassist, and musical director. One thing that we did, which that the East band could not do (because of Paul) was tweak things along the way. We had it worked out during the show that if there was something that maybe didn't work right or something that Al thought we could improve upon, he would signal to me at that point during the Show, and I would remember where we were at, and get together at the next soundcheck and tweak things. With no click track, we could move things around, change a part, or do something different.

DR:  TSO used to throw in some classic rock cover tunes into the set, like "Layla" or "Immigrant Song".

JOR:  You know what was weird about that? If the band we were gonna cover was still around or still touring, we wouldn't do their song. You never knew what Paul thought the right fit for us would be  One year we did "Radar Love". "Radar Love"??  Where did that come from? [Laughs] But we enjoyed doing those and sometimes we got to make our own call on stuff like that.  The first year that we went to Canada, Al had this idea during soundcheck.  He says, "Why don't we do the Canadian National Anthem and blend into a Rush song?" Within 15-20 minutes we had a segue of a Rush song and "O Canada" that we performed during the show, and it came off great! That goes to show you how great of a band we were.

DR:  Other than that one show where Taka Niida got to play a couple songs, did you ever miss a show?

JOR:  No, but I came close once. The year we toured with that big toy box on stage, I got a bad cold and a cough that I could not get rid of. They filled that toy box with fog before the show started, and we had to sit inside there for a good ten minutes breathing all of that in before it opened up. I was really pretty sick. I thought it was turning into walking pneumonia so at one point I went to have myself checked out. They didn't know if I was going to make the show or not, so they rehearsed with Ronnie Lee Hise Jr., the tech and backup. I wound up being cleared and arrived as they were wrapping up soundcheck. I just remember seeing Ronnie as he finished soundcheck - he was beet red and sweating. [Laughs] He says, "Don't you ever do that to me again!"[Laughs]

DR:  Did you ever get to play on any of the albums?

JOR:  It was mainly me and Jeff doing the studio work with Dave Wittman and Al doing the programming. There were some songs that Jeff and I would both play, and Paul would pick one that he liked and went with it. There were also some songs that only I did and only he did. Then there are other songs that we would listen to once the album was done, and it sounded like they edited together parts of what we each had played, so we couldn't tell who it was. [Laughs]

The first album that I played on was The Lost Christmas Eve. I remember when I first got the demos for that, there were already drums on there, and Al basically telling me, "Do what you do." I worked up three different versions of each song and gave them to Paul, and he picked the ones that he liked. In the end for that album, I played drums on "Wizards in Winter" "Queen of the Winter Night" ” "Christmas Jam," and "Siberian Sleigh Ride.” Takanori also drummed on a couple songs, "Faith Noel," and "Christmas Nights in Blue” I did a bunch of others after that album, such as "Believe,” "Forget about the Blame," and "Nutrocker.” Many of them didn't have names at the time as there were no vocals on them. But after that Lost Christmas Eve album, Paul got a bit of that demo-itis where he’d want the tracks to sound exactly like the demos, so you have to duplicate what's there. All the demos were done with the same programming and the same electronic kit and sounds in the studio.

DR:  Ah, so you were playing those electronic drums in the studio too?

JOR:  They wanted the same drum sounds that were going to be played live to be on the records.

DR:  Your last tour with TSO was 2016.  Did you have any sense that you were going to be let go afterwards?

JOR:  It came outta left field! I remember that day. Paul called to tell me he needed to make a change. He couldn't give me a reason at the time, and we were never able to sit down and have that heart-to-heart conversation because he passed shortly after. He did compensate me for not doing the next tour, which is unheard of in this industry. One thing you can say about Paul is that he was a very generous man. I don't have anything bad to say about anyone in the organization, because when my wife was alive and her MS was in control, she was allowed to travel with the band for the last ten days of each tour. Before my wife passed, she always referred to those days with TSO as some of the best times of her life, and I am so grateful that we had those times together.

It really took the life out of me because I wasn't expecting it at all. It was definitely a disappointment and a struggle. It was then that I really realized how hard my wife's death had hit me. [Editor's note: John's wife Cathy passed away May 12, 2015] It was tough to carry on without her because she was my world. I still think back to the day she passed, and the first person I saw that morning was Jane. Jane and her husband Travis were so supportive, as was everyone in the TSO organization. Everyone from TSO who knew Cathy loved her, she was just that kind of person.

DR:  I understand that he let you go without having a plan or a drummer lined up?

JOR:  As far as I know he had no one certain in mind. Once services were arranged, I flew to Florida and met up up with the entire TSO family to say goodbye to Paul. It was so heartfelt to be embraced by Paul’s Family, to honor his memory.

DR:  Let's talk about The Wizards of Winter.  After about a year of being let go from TSO came the announcement that you were now the drummer for this band.  How did you hook up with them?
John O.Reilly with The Wizards of Winter 2018
Photo courtesy Jeff Smith of ReflectionsNYC

JOR:  The keyboardist and musical director of The Wizards, Scott Kelly, had reached out to me after he had read my book (The High Paid Musician Myth). He liked some of the ideas in there and wanted to discuss some business and marketing, which is what I do. Scott and [vocalist/flutist] Sharon Kelly came up, and we discussed some ideas for the band. I applauded them for what they have done with that band. They have worked their asses off becoming a national touring act and releasing two albums without benefit of a record label or management per se. They were looking to make some changes to move things forward both in business and possibly within the band as well.

We continued staying in touch over a period of time, talking business, and I helped to create a digital lyric booklet for their fans. One of the changes that they were looking to make was in the drumming department in the band and during one of our conversations one day, Scott asked if I would be interested in drumming for The Wizards of Winter. I took some time to think about it and said, "yes".

DR:  Were you aware of them before they had reached out to you?

JOR:  Oh, yeah. Heard about them through social media.

DR:  What made you say "yes" to them?

JOR:  They are real, honest and great people. Through all of our business discussions I never got a sense of bullshit or putting on airs. They were always very upfront with me with everything. I really enjoyed going out on tour with them, and we're going in the studio shortly to record a new record!

DR:  Are you excited about that?

JOR:  Very excited! Honestly, I am just very excited about The Wizards of Winter. I'm playing with great people and I get to play acoustic drums! Are things rough sometimes with travel? Sure, but we work it out. And it is so wonderful seeing and hearing the audience’s reaction. The fans love it and it was so great to feel that appreciation night after night.

One thing that The Wizards also do is poke fun at itself, which TSO would never do! The fans love that, and it helps make it a fun show. I also want to mention one of our vocalists, Vinnie Jiovino. Vinnie is one of the most professional singers that I have ever worked with. All he does is think about the gig. He has fun too, don't get me wrong, but he is so focused on the gig. He doesn't talk much on the day of the show to save his voice, keeps to himself with the humidifiers and such. And when showtime hits, he delivers every fucking night.

DR:  The Wizards of Winter have released two Christmas albums so far. What do you think of their music?

JOR:  I love it.  If you listen closely, there is a real Celtic feel to it, and I don't think that's by accident.  I think that's just the way Scott writes.

DR:  You mentioned playing acoustic drums with the band.  Was it good to be back on an acoustic kit again after all that time?

JOR:  Absolutely! Are you kidding me? I love it. The kit I use with The Wizards of Winter is the same one that I used in Rainbow, Blue Oyster Cult, and all the gigs that I did with Joe Lynn Turner. I've had that kit a long time. I am very comfortable with it because I know what I can get out of it.

DR:  With each band that you have played in over the years, you often wind up playing with someone from a previous band of yours.  The Wizards of Winter is no different as you get to work with your rhythm section partner from Rainbow, Greg Smith and Tony Gaynor, the longtime narrator from your years with TSO West.

JOR:  Working with them again has been a lot of fun. It's like riding a bicycle. Once a bass player gets a sense that you are in control of what you're doing and knows that they don't have to chase you for tempo or drag your ass along. It sets them and the band at ease. Greg and I have that great relationship. And Tony is a trip and a great guy. He was cooking for us on the tour bus, which I've never experienced before. He is such a huge personality and really is serious about his narration.

John O.Reilly soloing, followed by "The Gales of December" 
The Wizards of Winter; Lerner Theater, Elkhart In. 12/21/18

DR:  Are there any drum parts that you have come up with over the years that you are most proud of?

JOR: No, I've always been a songwriter's drummer. To me, it's the support that I can give a band. One memorable moment that will always stick with me happened early on with TSO. We we're doing "The Three Kings and I," and right in the middle of the "Hallelujah" section of the song we all left out the same note at the same time, which created a short pause. In that moment, the sound of the band in the arena came back at us in this incredible "whoosh!!” Al and I just looked at each other like "What just happened?" [Laughs] It was just a really unique moment that I will never forget.

DR:  You have drummed in so many bands and have written a book on the music business.  Have you ever wanted to be a bandleader?

JOR:  No. Never wanted to have my own band, never wanted to own a studio, never wanted to do anything other than do what I do for a band. I just don't have the patience to deal with people and their schedules to keep all the moving parts together. Some guys love that stuff, not me.

DR:  If you weren't playing drums, is there another instrument that you have an affinity for?

JOR:  For a while I dabbled in some piano. I love the piano.  But then again, after the 2016 tour I bought Al and myself ukuleles. I bought myself a little chord book, and I started my morning every day with a cup of coffee and playing the ukulele. [Laughs] I think everyone should be issued one of these at birth because they bring so much joy.  You can't screw it up, and it is so much fun.

DR:  John, thank so much for taking the time.  Someday we will have to chat again and include all the bands that we didn't get to today.

JOR:  [Laughs]  Anytime.  Thanks so much, Dan

For more info:
John O.Reilly:
The High Paid Musician Myth:

The Wizards of Winter: