Welcome to Part 1 of an interview with Richie Fontana,
Interview (part 1) Text: Joop van Pelt
Richie Fontana - born on December 17, 1952 in New York City - is an allround musician, who is best known among KISS fans as one of the three drummers on Paul Stanley's excellent 1978 solo album. Richie drummed on Move On, Wouldn't You Like To Know Me, Ain't Quite Right and Tonight You Belong To Me, while Craig Krampf (4 songs) and Carmine Appice (1 song) played drums on the rest of the album. Being the drummer for Piper, one of the bands managed by Aucoin Management at the time, Richie was a close member of the KISS family. KISS and Piper got together when KISS recorded the album that became Love Gun (as Piper was in the same studio working on their second album) and on the tour that followed, Piper opened up for KISS. Besides having been the drummer in Piper, he also used to drum in Sean Delaney's band Skatt Bros. And believe it or not, Richie even was close to becoming the new KISS drummer when Peter Criss needed to be replaced in early 1980! Earlier this year, Richie released his very first solo album (see issue 40 for a review) which was a more than welcome excuse to do an interview with the multitalented musician and ask him all about his KISS related days.
Richie Fontana grew up with the music from artists such as Dion, Bobby Rydell and Chubby Checker. Along with his sister he listened to the pop radio stations in New York and if it was on the radio, they were into it. Attracted to music as a young child (he loved playing his dad's records), it was the arrival of the Beatles that really jump started Richie's musical ambitions. Everything changed and Richie changed along with it. He loved the whole British Invasion thing - and it just went on from there. His musical heroes include a number of bands from that era, like the Beatles, Byrds, Kinks, Hollies, Who, Procol Harum, Led Zeppelin, Elton John and Jimi Hendrix, and musicians from those bands: Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Roger McGuinn, Pete Townshend, Keith Moon, John Bonham, Mitch Mitchell and others.
Hanging out at Max's Kansas City and the glitter rock scene in the early 70s, were you aware of KISS at all at that point?
"I had just heard about them right around that time. I hadn't seen them yet, but I knew the name of KISS, and Wicked Lester before that. After all, we were all part of the New York music scene."
Piper joined Aucoin Management's roster of artists when KISS was starting to become huge after the release of 1975's Alive! album. Where you guys excited to be with the same management, or was KISS never your cup of tea?
"It didn't matter whether KISS was our cup of tea or not. What mattered was that we knew we were getting involved with a powerful organization that knew how to get things done. It was serious business and we knew that it may be 'now or never', so we were steadfast in our quest to deliver the goods. In other words, opportunity had knocked, and we answered the call."
Did you run into KISS members back then?
"All the time. I would always see them at the office and at various (Aucoin) family functions, parties, etc. Little by little we got to know each other. I remember Gene and Paul stopping by a Piper rehearsal just to see what we were about, and to say hi. Those were the days when KISS had yet to be seen in public without their makeup. Up until then very few people had ever seen them unmasked, we did all the time."
How did you end up with Aucoin Management, did the fact that Billy Squier was from Boston like Bill Aucoin play a role or was Sean Delaney looking for new talent?
"It was more the Billy-Bill-Boston thing. As I recall, Billy Squier had met Bill Aucoin on an plane flight. At that point we weren't really Piper yet. It was only Billy, Danny McGary and myself. Billy had developed a name for himself out of the Boston scene, so Aucoin already knew who he was. We had already cut some tracks in Woodstock, New York, that I guess Billy was hawking around at that time. Anyway, Bill Aucoin was interested, and so from there we acquired Alan Nolan and Tommy Gunn. That's when we became Piper and eventually signed with Aucoin Management. We were put into a rehearsal studio for six months where we just worked and worked and worked, until we started doing private showcases for various record execs, including Clive Davis. We signed with Aucoin and A&M Records before we ever did a single gig."
[Laughing] "Yes, but not 'til we were already signed. But, it really didn't matter much, it was harmless and it didn't bother us. We knew how to handle that stuff. There were a number of gay people that worked at Aucoin Management in those days. If anything, it made for a festive atmosphere."
In 1977 you recorded two albums with Piper, please tell me about those days. How was it to be a young musician, with things seemingly going well for you, establishing a career and all that..?
"It was fantastic, ya know, 'foot in the door' as they say. Knowing that you've finally reached your first goal, and that you've just become a major league player, and that you're about to make a record for a major label; yes, it was very exciting. Of course I never took anything for granted, but deep down somehow I knew that it would happen for me, I just didn't know when. I was driven. I was very much into the music that Piper recorded. I've always liked hard-hitting melodic rock 'n' roll. When I met Billy Squier and heard his songs for the first time, I said 'Yes! This is perfect'. Everything just fell together nicely. Piper was a special event in my life, after all, it started everything for me."
What's your fondest memory of Piper?
"There are many but... If I had to mention one I'd say it's when we received an encore from 20,000 people on my birthday at Madison Square Garden in my hometown of New York City. That was one of the first shows that we had opened for KISS. Oh, one more: still on the KISS tour; when we played at the Spectrum in Philadelphia. Again, an audience of about 20,000, probably the most electrifying show that we ever did. The crowd in that arena was borderline berserk that night. We got a reception that was so intense, it was kinda scary, but wonderful. Phily audiences were known for their enthusiasm. In fact, before the show, KISS came to us backstage to make sure we weren't afraid. Sounds wild but it's true. It was a fantastic show for us. Ok, that's two fondest memories."
Before disbanding, Piper toured as opening act with KISS on the Love Gun Tour, their biggest tour to date back then. How many shows did you do and how did you experience it all?
"We did about 10 or 12 shows with KISS. Playing on their stage was amazing. Of course the rigging was very involved with all the pyrotechnics and the hydraulics they were using on that tour. Getting onto that stage was like boarding the space shuttle. Every show was mega."
Were you aware of the inner band troubles KISS was going through or the tension that was growing between the band and Aucoin Management?
"No, not really. I guess we caught wind of it a bit later, but we were mainly concerned with how things were going with our own band."
Did Piper or any of the other bands have similar problems with management?
"Well, I can't speak for the other bands that were with the company but the one thing I do remember is that we would always be on our guard as far as the amount of attention that we were getting. Knowing that you're not the only act in the stable means you have to look out for yourself, because you want the attention/concentration from the company. Naturally, all you can think about is how your own career is going, and it can sometimes be frustrating knowing that your management is also thinking about the other acts as well."
Were any of the KISS members helpful in any way during your Aucoin days? Did you hang out, discuss business, or otherwise deal with KISS?
"I can only remember talking with the guys in KISS about the musical side of things, guitars, etc., during the Piper years anyway. We did get to hang out together when KISS was recording the Love Gun album, and Piper was recording the second album titled Can't Wait. The reason is, we were both recording at Electric Lady Studios in New York at the same time. KISS had studio A, and we had studio B., so we had the run of the entire studio. We would hang out in each other's sessions and so forth. This went on for weeks. I think that's what led to KISS later requesting that we open for them on the road. We had just come off a tour with the Babys, when we just jumped onto the KISS tour, late '77 into '78."
From '76 - '79 the sky was the limit for Aucoin Management, signing new acts such as Piper, Starz, Virgin, New England, Toby Beau and Spider. But in 1980 Aucoin almost went bankrupt and had to cut back on things, close down offices and fire a lot of people. Suddenly there were no longer breakfasts served on silver trays, no masseuses coming into the offices. Were Aucoin's (financial) problems in a way the reason why all these bands disbanded sooner or later?
"Piper had already broken up before all that hit the fan. I'm just not sure about the other bands. Some of them may have folded on their own anyway. It may not have been the Aucoin financial thing because it still went on for a while through the Billy Idol years... things fell apart after that."
Aucoin V.P. Sean Delaney co-produced Piper's second album, Gene Simmons produced Virgin's never released album, Paul Stanley co-produced New England's debut album, you drummed on Paul's solo album, Skatt Bros. featured former members of Starz, Toby Beau and Piper... I don't mean this disrespectful, but it looks like one big 'incestuous' family. So, how did these things come about with one person helping out the next one, etc.?
"Aucoin Management was very self-contained, the talent was all there under one umbrella, so we would sometimes work together in one way or another. Yes, it was a family, one big creative machine."
Was there never any competition between all these bands and perhaps even between some of the other bands that were on the Casablanca label (such as KISS, Village People)?
"As I mentioned before about Aucoin, the main concern was the amount of attention each act was getting. I think that was the extent of any kind of competition. As far as Casablanca went, KISS was so unique that I really don't think they had any competition. That's not as much of a concern with successful acts. They have different kinds of issues..."
How did you end up playing on Paul Stanley's solo album?
"He called me, it's as simple as that. Well, the office called to tell me that Paul was requesting my presence at Electric Lady Studios for some recording sessions. I remember arriving there and Paul playing for me the songs that we were to record. It was really great to see him stretch his creative muscle; Paul is very musical. The tunes really showed depth in his writing ability, plus they still had that KISSesque signature to them. I still feel that the Paul Stanley album is an excellent record. By the way, the extent of my tenure with Paul didn't end there. I guess it was after the KISS solo albums had been released, that I was called back to cut some tracks for the Alessi Brothers, a session that Paul Stanley was producing. He used the same team of Bobby Kulick, Steve Buslowe [who played bass on Paul's album - ed.] and myself. My memory is a bit blurry but I also remember working with Bruce Kulick as well, but that may have been on a session that Bob Kulick was working on, I can't remember exactly. Anyway, as a result of working on Paul's album, we had this studio session clique going for a while."
Did you know at that time who the other two drummers on Paul's album were?
"Of course I had heard of them before, but while I was working on Paul's album, I had no idea who else might be appearing on the album. The funny thing was that one year later I ended up in Skatt Bros. along with Craig Krampf."
Yeah, I wanted to ask you about ending up with Craig in Sean Delaney's new band Skatt Bros. What do you remember from that period?
"Sean had it in mind to have a band with double drumming. Craig and I were a bit leery at first, but once we started doing it we realized that it was very powerful. Plus, I was glad because I could sometimes play guitar with the band. Skatt Bros. was like a group of six solo artists. It was a very prolific band, and because each member was a writer we were cranking out tunes like crazy. It was all quality stuff regardless of the style. With Skatt Bros., it seemed like whatever tune we were working on, we felt it had a really good shot at appearing on the charts. Anyway, after a while Craig left the group to concentrate more on his career as a session player, so I remained the sole drummer of the band, recorded the second album, and toured Australia."
In '79 Peter Criss became more and more unreliable due to his drug abuse and the fact that he couldn't get along with Gene and Paul anymore. He often didn't show up for sound checks, and backstage there was even someone in Peter's make up and costume ready to fill in if he wouldn't make it to the actual concert. Spider drummer Anton Fig replaced Peter on the albums Dynasty and Unmasked - were you ever asked whether you'd be interested to replace Peter, either on stage or in the studio?
"From what I understood at the time, I was being considered as the possible new drummer for KISS. What happened was, I was living in Los Angeles working with Skatt Bros., when one day I received a call from Bill Aucoin's west coast secretary, and I was asked to come down to the office alone. When I got there she told me that Bill had called, that he was with Gene and Paul, and that they were talking about me. I guess I was a likely candidate for the job considering that I had previously toured with KISS (with Piper) and that I had played on Paul's solo album. They knew me and they were familiar with my drumming style, plus I sing. But, obviously it never came to be. It wasn't until later that I found out the reason it didn't happen was probably because I had been photographed, and that my image had appeared on album covers and in magazines with Piper and Skatt Bros. Ya see, this was back in the days when KISS had yet to appear unmasked, and they needed somebody who was an unknown so to preserve the mystique."
Did you ever get to hang out with KISS' second drummer Eric Carr?
"I met Eric in a New York night club just after he joined KISS. I had never met him before that, but that night I introduced myself, shook his hand and said congratulations to him. He seemed like a very nice guy."
(continues in the next issue)close