The Mark Stein (Vanilla Fudge) Interview
By Shawn Perry
I first met Mark Stein in 1985 at a rehearsal studio in Van Nuys, California. Guitarist Lanny Cordola was playing with him in a new band called Danger Zone, and had invited me over for a listen. Lanny told me Mark was the original singer of Vanilla Fudge, a late 60s psychedelic band out of New York. With that kind of information, I didn't know what to expect. To my pleasant surprise, Mark and his wife/manager Patty couldn't have been more amiable as I settled in and watched the rehearsal. Danger Zone was a powerful and tight three-piece unit. Mark's soaring vocals were unbelievable.
At the time, I didn't know much about Vanilla Fudge, although I was vaguely familiar with their seminal underground hit, "You Keep Me Hangin' On." As I learned more about them, the individual members, their style and impact on others like Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple, I realized they were much more than some fly-by-night, one hit wonder.
They were a vital nugget in the rock and roll quagmire blossoming brightly during the summer of love. Even as the bulk of their repertoire consisted of extended cover songs, the Fudge was the kind of a group everyone aspired to be.
On May 14, 1988, I stood on the side of the stage at Madison Square Garden and watched Vanilla Fudge perform "You Keep Me Hangin' On." It was the Atlantic Records 40th Anniversary concert. At one point or another, I caught a glimpse of Phil Collins and Robert Plant sneaking a peak, aware that they were fans as much as superstars in their own right. At least, they knew where it all started.
Vanilla Fudge formed in 1966 with Mark on keyboards, Carmine Appice on drums, Tim Bogert on bass, and Vinnie Martell on guitar. All four members sang, but Mark handled the lion's share of the lead vocals. The group released their self-titled debut in the summer of 1967 and attracted a large underground following. They went on to headline the Fillmore West, appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show, and eventually toured with Jimi Hendrix, Cream, and later Led Zeppelin.
But it wasn't meant to last as the Fudge called it a day in 1970. Appice and Bogert started a new band called Cactus and later hooked up with Jeff Beck for the Beck, Bogert, and Appice album. Martell vanished into the shadows, while Mark became an in-demand session musician for much of the 70s and early 80s. He recorded and toured extensively with guitarist Tommy Bolin, and would later work with Alice Cooper and Dave Mason. In 1983, Vanilla Fudge reunited for the Mystery album. Three years later, they went on tour for three months. Shortly after his final appearance with the Fudge in New York City, Mark left California and moved to Florida. He was done with the music business.
As any musician will tell you, the desire to lay down a track and hear it back, the tug of the spotlight, the excitement of interacting with other players, well...it's in your blood. For Mark, the tragic events of September 11, 2001 and its aftermath moved him emotionally enough to want to seriously make music again. He contacted his old friend, Yellowjackets bassist Jimmy Haslip, and they put a band together, recording an inspiring version of "America The Beautiful." The momentum carried through to a whole new batch of songs comprising Mark's first official solo album White Magik, which is now available exclusively on the Mark Stein web site.
It had been years since we had talked, and I was anxious to finally lob a few questions over to Mark that hadn't been answered. Being out of the limelight for so many years, Mark was eager to talk about the new album, but we touched on the old days as well. It was high time for him to set the record straight on the past, while tooting his horn about the present and future.
You previously recorded a solo album in the late 70s that never saw the light of day.
That was a project I had over at Columbia, produced by Dave Mason. Yeah, they never released the album. It was a big disappointment. I remember my manager was going to call me from New York and tell me what the first single was going to be. But he calls me up, all freaked out and paranoid. He tells me it looks like there's not going to be a single because there's not going to be an album. The record company had spent over $200,000 on this project.
It was probably a combination of things. The 80s were about to break, the new wave thing was coming in. The record I made was your typical classic rock album with rock grooves. The odd thing was that during the course of the recording the vice president of A&R was coming down to check it out and he was really psyched about it. It was a blow. It wasn't easy to get signed to a major label as a solo artist.
I read an interview with you where you say at one time in the early 70s Ahmet Ertegun wanted you to go into the studio and cut a solo album. And for some reason, you didn't and said it was a mistake.
Yeah, in retrospect, it was a huge mistake. After Vanilla Fudge broke up in 1970, I was young, 22 or 23-years-old, and my role was over. I was really insecure. Frankly, I've always felt secure being part of a band. Even though I was offered a solo deal, I felt so uncomfortable with it that I didn't pursue it at the time. Naturally, if I had the opportunity with Ahmet to do it now, I think we could have done the White Magik album. I think he would have liked it (laughs). It's kind of silly when you look back. But really, that's just the way it was. It was a long time ago. That's the reality of it. I'm sorry I didn't take him up on that.
So now, after a couple of detours, is it fair to say that White Magik is your first official solo album?
How long did you work on this record?
It took almost two years. It started out with the recording of "America The Beautiful." After the 9/11 fiasco, my wife Patty and I were watching all the horrors on CNN. So she says, "Mark, come and check this out, look at these incredible dogs." You know, they were used to sniff through all the rubble. They were breathing in all this dust, walking over glass and debris, and getting burned. We've always been real sensitive to animals.
So, I had this arrangement of "America The Beautiful." I just thought it might be a really cool idea if I recorded it, put it on my web site, have my fans download it for a fee and all the proceeds would go to the American Veterinary Medical Foundation (AVMF), who provide immediate medical needs to the search and rescue dogs. I was telling Randy Pratt about it, he's the owner of Electric Randyland Studios in Long Island. He said, "It's a great idea. Why don't you get some players together and I'll help you out with it." That was incredible because I thought I was just going to do a piano and voice version of it.
The first guy I called was my old buddy, bassist Jimmy Haslip from the Yellowjackets. I hadn't talked to him in a long time. He got all excited about it. He said, "Yeah, that'd be great." I said I didn't really know of any players at the moment cause I hadn't worked in a couple of years. And he said, "Maybe I can help get some players together. Give me a day to make some calls." Eventually, he got all these cats together -- John McCurry on guitar - he's played with Billy Joel and Cyndi Lauper; Jimmy Campagnola, a top session sax player who's played with Natalie Cole and Eric Clapton; and Bobby Rondinelli on drums. Bobby played with Blackmore's Rainbow and Sabbath for a while.
We all met in Long Island, right after Thanksgiving (2002). We cut the track and it came out great. The band really played well together. There was a lot of magic. That's when I decided it would be really great to do a solo album. I had my energy back and I got into a sort of creative flow again. I started writing new tunes and arranging new tunes. Ultimately, they ended up on the White Magik album using all the same players that were on the "America The Beautiful" track.
There's this running theme in songs like "American Dream" and "Shame On Humanity" that walks a fine line between patriotism and cynicism.
Yeah, there's a lot of satire in my lyrics. I had these melodies written for some time but I didn't have any lyrics yet. I guess they're just a reflection of the times. For "American Dream," I was sitting at the piano. I happen to live in Fort Lauderdale; my condo faces the Atlantic Ocean. I was looking out and I saw this guy out there throwing a net across the water on this really calm day. This lyric comes to my mind..."The fisherman casts his net across the quiet sea..." And I thought about this guy trying to gather food to feed his family. We're all going through tough economic times, I think most of us are right now in the world, and that's where those lyrics came from. Don't ask me where they came from, they just came out (laughs). It wasn't like, "I'm gonna sit down and be cynical and be sarcastic." They just came out.
Your rendition of "I've Been Lovin' You Too Long" is incredible. Did you ever know or play with Otis Redding?
I didn't know Otis Redding but I hung out with Dave Porter one night in Memphis. He was part of a songwriting team with Isaac Hayes back in the 60s, the whole Stax review. That night Vanilla Fudge were doing a show in Memphis and I remember Steve Cropper, who was with Booker T (and the MGs, who backed Otis Redding), had come to the show. Porter invited me over to the Stax studio and we hung out till dawn -- partying and talking music.
I recorded "I've Been Lovin' You Too Long" for my wife Patty. It's one of her all-time favorite songs. She said, "Mark, you do that great." So, I've dedicated it to her.
What does Ben E. King's "Stand By Me" mean to you?
It's a favorite of a friend of ours, Salina Palmer Ball, who I've known for 20 years out on the west coast, out in California. I was talking to her, and she asked: "Mark, I wonder what your version of 'Stand By Me' would sound like?" "'Stand By Me'?" And she said, "Yeah I think you could do a really cool version of that." I sat down at the piano and came up the intro, which is sort of bluesy. Throw it up on stage with some candlelight and the lines: "When the night has come..." The arrangement just came. I'm glad I did it because I'm really pleased with the way it came out. A lot of people who have heard it have been getting off on it.
At times, the album has a very Americana, almost Springsteen-like feel to it. Was this intentional?
I've always had this dream to have a band with a really tight rhythm section, a great rock guitar player, a killer sax player and myself on piano and organ. And I love the E-Street Band because that's good Americana kind music. I was sitting out on my terrace with my friend and I said, "One day, I'm gonna put a band together like that...a great American band with a really great sax player." It's like you throw it into the air and a spiritual thing comes back at you. And it all started with "American The Beautiful." It all just kind of came together like divine intervention.
With that in mind, do you have any plans to take this band out on the road to promote White Magik?
If it warrants it. I'd love to get out there and play again. We're putting the album out on my web site and looking to do some sales, domestically and internationally. And try to get a buzz going on the album. If I get the funding, sure I'd go out and promote it. It cost a lot of money to go out on the road, you know. You have to do deal with the whole presentation, salaries and everything. But if the record warrants it, I'd like to do it.
Have you gotten the kind of positive feedback you'd need to warrant it?
There's only a few people who have actually heard it, but a lot of people are saying it's about time. I'm really excited about the record. We had a great time doing it. I'm real proud of it and I hope my fans out there will like it. I think they will.
Let's take a step back, a short trip to the heady days of the 60s and 70s.
I don't remember a thing (laughs).
Well, I'll try to make this as painless as possible. I think some people may be unaware of the impact Vanilla Fudge had on bands like Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple. Do you recall what the influence was and how it began to spread?
Vanilla Fudge was probably one of the first experimental bands of that time in the late 60s. In those days, they played three-minute songs. We came out with the long version of "You Keep Me Hangin' On" and the other covers on the first Vanilla Fudge album, and it blew everyone's mind. I think it was the first album to ever make the Top 10 without a hit single. These long versions were played on underground radio in the late 60s.
One of the things about Vanilla Fudge was -- we were a powerful live act and we had these bands who went on to rule the planet, like Purple and Led Zeppelin, opening for us. I just saw some black and white footage of Led Zeppelin from 1968. They looked so young. (laughs) They were young! And Jimmy Page had like a one-pickup Telecaster. The first time they came to America, they opened for Vanilla Fudge. Yeah, we definitely had a profound influence on them as well as Deep Purple.
Legend has it that Vanilla Fudge were associated with members of the underworld at one time, specifically with guys like Henry Hill. What was your relationship with him?
Henry Hill was a friend of my manager, Phil Basile. We used to see him at the shows. Actually, we were pretty good friends, we got on really well (laughs). We used to hang out, party a little bit.
But, it didn't go beyond that? He and his cohorts weren't strong-arming anyone to get you gigs or anything (laughs)?
If they were, I never saw it (laughs).
Tell me about the famous shark incident in Seattle with Led Zeppelin?
It was 1969 at the Seattle Pop Festival. I remember it was an incredible concert. All the big bands of the day were on the bill -- The Doors, Led Zeppelin, Ike and Tina Turner, you know everybody who was anybody. I remember we were playing "You Just Keep Me Hangin' On" and I turned to the right to see Jim Morrison staring at me, just looking at me kind of strange. The show went over really cool. And then Zeppelin came up. We were all great friends in those days.
Anyway, we were all staying at the Edgewater, on a body of water. We were just partying all day and all night. Vaguely I recall John Bonham and Jimmy Page, well, they like to fish. So they were just having fun, fishing out the window. I don't know what exactly they caught (laughs), some kind of fish. Frank Zappa said it was mud sharks. I was taking Super 8 films of the band on the road at the time. And we were partying. The rest of it was created by rumors. The last time I saw Robert Plant, he said he didn't know what they were talking about. We were just having fun.
So, has it been blown out to proportion and become something it wasn't?
I'm not saying it wasn't. It's kind of ambiguous. They were one of the many rock bands on the road partying. Of course, I gave the Super 8 films to Bruce Wayne -- not Batman (laughs) -- he was our road manager. I don't know whatever happened to any of those films. They just disappeared. I'd kind of like to have them back (laughs).
I guess we'll never know.
They could be buried under the sands of Zanzibar (laughs).
Why did Vanilla Fudge break up in 1970?
Vanilla Fudge broke up for several reasons. To begin with, we never really got along that well, even from the beginning -- it was just one of those things. A psychic once told me that collectively we were an astrological disaster. Maybe we spent too much time together because we were touring constantly in those days. But let's not forget the fact that the band failed to evolve with any true songwriting leadership. Our first album was the best thing we ever did creatively with our rendition of you "You Keep Me Hangin' On" and the way we had rearranged the songs of other famous writers of that era. Frankly, you can only ride a one trick pony so far.
You did some session work after the Fudge and one person you played with was Tommy Bolin. What do you remember about your days with him?
I remember we were in California in the early 70s. Hard rock was big then. But then there was talk about this great guitarist named Tommy Bolin playing with Deep Purple. He replaced Ritchie Blackmore. This guy was great. I heard he was leaving Purple and putting a band together. Through some contacts I had in L.A., I managed to get my ass down there and play with Tommy. I think it was at S.I.R. in Santa Monica. To make a long story short, we ended up playing together. We knew it was going to be an important band. For me, it was a great way to get back to performing and get back in the scene. Narada Michael Walden was in that band, probably at the time one of the greatest drummers in the world. You had Reggie McBride on bass and Norma Jean Bell playing the sax.
Were you and Tommy close?
Yeah, Tommy and I did become close. I think he relied on me to hold it together. I was kind of like a musical director when we recorded the Private Eyes album. In fact, that album just went gold.
Do you think he could have gone on to bigger and better things?
Yeah, I think he would have done well. I don't know how big he would have become, but he was definitely unique. In my mind, he would have had some great success and gone on to work with a lot of good people.
How about Dave Mason? Did you have a good relationship with him?
I had a good relationship with everybody, I think. To me, the people I've played with are like family. Dave and I became pretty close friends. I saw him a couple of years ago here in Florida. When I played with Dave Mason, we had a great band. We had a great vocal sound together. We had a lot of fun and did a lot of creative things together.
In the mid 80s, after the Mystery reunion album with the Fudge, you put together Danger Zone, whom I had the pleasure of seeing on more than one occasion.
The power rock keyboard trio (laughs).
Right (laughs). What had you hoped to accomplish with this band?
The 80s was the hard rock and heavy metal decade. Bobby Arechiga was a great drummer and myself. We had a couple of guitar players. Lanny Cordola played with us. Danger Zone was a really powerful trio. It was unfortunate we didn't get signed to a label.
You got back together with the Fudge for a few shows in the late 80s.
We were on the road for a couple of months. The first part of the tour we were playing in the wintertime. Bad weather came in and some gigs got cancelled. But we had to stay out there. We played New York and Chicago. In some cities, we had a real good house. We sold out a lot of the major cities. We're putting out the Real Deal CD on my web site from one of those shows.
Were there any plans to record and tour on a regular basis again?
Yeah, there was talk about it. But for one reason or another, it just didn't move forward.
What's your take on the currently revamped Vanilla Fudge? Have you seen them?
I haven't seen them. I've heard bits and pieces about it.
Does it bother you that Carmine and Tim have hired other guys and gone out as Vanilla Fudge?
To me, Vanilla Fudge or any rock band is like a sports team. The Yankees of 1960 had their players; the Yankees of 1970 had their players. It's still the same team, but with different players. If you're a purist, it would be hip to see the original guys. But, hey, they have to go out and make a living.
Do you think the four original members of Vanilla Fudge will ever regroup and perform together again?
I think if Vanilla Fudge were ever fortunate enough to make it to the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame, then that would be the appropriate time for all four original members to reunite.
Mark, you've been in and out of the music business for 40 years or more. Today, it's in shambles with the downloading controversy supposedly affecting sales, and yet guys like you have web sites and stay in touch with their fan base, taking a whole new approach to selling records.
White Magik is a labor of love. I didn't make it to make a living. It's just something I wanted to do. I think the fact that technology has afforded guys from my era to have web sites is a good thing. I don't think any of the major labels are signing anyone over 30 years old. I guessed I missed it by a couple years (laughs). But seriously, what better forum is there than a web site? You have worldwide communications where everybody can come and visit you and say "Hi." And you can sell product and stay in touch with your fans. It's perfect for someone like me.