Robert: Could you have been happy teaching history all week, and playing in a bar band on the weekends?.
Lou: I think I could have, and it was a real possibility. I was allowing myself a certain amount of time to make it in the business, but after that, I was prepared to teach kids American History, and play other people’s songs in bars..
Robert: It looked like you might not to have to worry about that however, as Black Sheep signed with a prestigious record label in the early ’70’s, and eventually earned a slot opening for Kiss. The sky was the limit. Then, after just one show, life threw you and your bandmates a curve, right?.
Lou: After just one show, on Christmas Eve in Boston. We had two albums out already on the label, and we were primed to make the big step, you know? We really felt that Capitol Records had us under their wing. This Kiss tour was going to be a long one, and they were allowing us almost an hour every night to play in front of sold out crowds. We knew that if we played our cards right, we could garner a substantial following and set ourselves up for a hit album. We were so excited. And we received a standing ovation in Boston. Opening acts are not supposed to answer a standing ovation, but when we came off the stage, Kiss’s tour manager said, “Go out and answer that.” We were so surprised, but he was very happy for us. We played another song, the crowd went nuts again, and we stayed around and listened to Kiss’s show. They were great. It was just one of those great nights, you know? Then the band piled into our station wagon and drove home while our crew was tearing down our equipment. They were a few hours behind us. In the middle of the night, I got a call at my apartment, informing me of an accident. Our equipment truck and our three roadies had slid off the New York State Thruway on their way home, and the truck tipped over on it’s side. This was on Christmas morning. The bass player and I went back out there to pick up the guys. We saw the truck, and it didn’t look good. The door wouldn’t open more than 3 inches, so we couldn’t see the equipment, but we knew it was bad. We came back later in the day to see what our equipment looked like, and almost all of it was destroyed..
Robert: Kiss was your big break. You had to get to the next gig and play, but you didn’t own any instruments or amps, or anything to haul them in if you did. What did you do? .
Lou: We all had to beg our parents – on Christmas Day mind you – to help us buy some equipment, and maybe a small van. But in 1974 or ‘75 the U.S. was in a recession, and none of our families could come up with enough money to make a difference. I took it upon myself to make the call to Kiss’s tour manager. I let him know what happened to us, and told him that we were sorry, but we could no longer fulfill our obligation to the tour. So that wasn’t good. Then we got a call from Capitol Records, dropping us from the label..
Robert: That was bad..
Lou: That was very bad..
Robert: As bad as it was, the situation would have been fixed if either yourself, your bandmates, or your respective families had enough money. Did this change or inform your relationship with money? Did it increase your desire to get ahead?
Lou: It certainly did. We were making hardly any money at all, anywhere we played. Even with Kiss we were paid the bare minimum. We could travel, we could eat, and we could get hotels, but as far as earning real wages, I think we were each making $125 a night. So for a while, it was only about being able to stay on the road and improve our craft, at any cost.
Robert: After the crash you had no record label, no tour, and no musical income. Then you and Mick Jones met and changed each other’s lives forever. How did that occur?.
Lou: Black Sheep’s manager was also an A&M records representative, and they had a band named Spooky Tooth on the label that everyone in our band really liked. When they came to Rochester, our manager arranged for us to see their show, and Mick was playing guitar. We met after the show, and I told Mick I thought he was great. I gave him our Black Sheep albums and asked him to check them out if he got time. A few months later, my parents reached me and said that someone named Mick Jones had called the house. I called him back and he told me that he had listened to the albums and thought they were pretty good, but he felt that I was [hesitantly] you know, very good..
Robert: He recognized right away that you weren’t a drummer.
Lou: [laughs] He said that he was in New York City, and had a manager and a rehearsal space. He was no longer in Spooky Tooth, and was putting together his own band. He had auditioned quite a few singers and hadn’t found what he wanted yet, and asked me to come to New York to audition. I thanked him, but I told him that I was in a band already, and that even though we had a few big setbacks, we were still in the fight. I politely declined..
Robert: You were turning down an audition in New York City with an immensely talented musician, to stay loyal to a band that didn’t own any equipment. What did Mick say when you told him no?.
Lou: He said that he’d call me back in a month, in the hopes that maybe my circumstances would change..
Robert: You didn’t anticipate that happening..
Lou: Not at all. I had no reason to. But when I went back and told the band what had happened, they said, “And you didn’t go down there? Are you crazy? This isn’t a band anymore, we don’t even have any gear!” They said, “Go down there and see what you can do. Maybe at least one of us will have made it.” So, I went to New York..
Robert: True or false, you sang ‘Feels Like The First Time’ at your audition, after learning it a few minutes before?.
Lou: That’s true. I went to a studio where Mick and his musicians had recorded a few songs already. The singers who were auditioning would come in and sing to those tracks. They set me out there in the studio with a bunch of words, and Mick sang the melodies to me a few times. I sang ‘At War With The World’, another tune I can’t remember at the moment, and yes, ‘Feels Like The First Time’. When I came into the control room everyone had smiles on their faces, and they all said it sounded pretty good, considering it was the first time..
Robert: No pun intended..
Lou: No pun intended. [laughs].
Robert: So how does your relationship with Mick, which brought us Foreigner and all the classic songs that came with it, evolve?.
Lou: Mick invited me over to his place that night, his wife cooked dinner for us, and he asked me to stay in New York to rehearse a bit to see what happens. The problem was, I didn’t have enough money for a hotel. Luckily, I had a friend who lived in the city whose neighbors were out of the country, and he managed to let me stay in their apartment..
Robert: You’ve had some helpful and encouraging friends along the way. It was a beautiful gesture from your bandmates in Black Sheep to push you to audition for Mick. Do you still know those guys?.
Lou: Actually, about three years ago or so, we did a reunion show. We played an armory in Rochester and had a really good crowd. It was a great night. After the show the band was saying, “That was great! We should do this again. How about next week?” and I had to say “Guys, I had a blast and I’d love to do it again…just not for awhile.” [laughs] We might do it again shortly.
Robert: Black Sheep was made up of local guys and they were fine players, but was Mick Jones the best guitar player that you had met to that point?.
Lou: He had a very unique style. He was not the best soloist that I had ever heard – although he was very good – but he was unique. He wouldn’t use bar chords all the time. He would play chords in different ways that would highlight the note that he was trying to hit, and the overtones would be unbelievable. Mick told me he developed that style because his father played ukulele and left them laying around, so that was the first instrument he ever picked up. I think he kept some of the fingering and some of that style with him..
Robert: And he could write as well..
Lou: It was a lot of fun writing songs with him. Especially that first night, when we finished the majority of ‘Long Way From Home’ (from 1977’s Foreigner album). We knew from very early on that we had chemistry. I would rehearse with Mick in the daytime, and write with him at night. It was going great, but I told the guys that I had to go home. Mick seemed really surprised and said, “You don’t like this?” and I told him, “I love this, but I packed 2 t-shirts, a pair of pants, and a change of underwear for 3 days. I doubled up on everything already Mick. I need to go home.” [laughs] .
Robert: Regarding Mick and your chemistry together with Foreigner, you wrote almost two dozen hit songs, and very often, both of you would make memorable contributions to the same song. One of the most famous examples is ‘Juke Box Hero’..
Lou: I had been working on that song in my basement for many months, after we came off the ‘Head Games’ tour. I play a little bit of keyboard and I noodle around on guitar a bit, and at that time I had a 2 track reel-to-reel machine that I would use to record a little bit of everything, including drums. For ‘Juke Box Hero’ I had the verse written, and a part of the B section and a little bit of the chorus. I remember playing them for Mick and he just gave me a blank stare. He said, “You mean something like this?”, and started playing something completely different. I said, “No, not like that.” and had him listen to the tape, “Like that.” We went ’round and ’round on it. He would be interested in the song one day, and not interested in it the next. But one day he had an idea for the song, and it becames the top of the chorus, the (Lou sings) “Juke…Box..Hero” part. We didn’t have those words yet, but getting that part was a big breakthrough. We started working on it intensely again, and finished it. We knew it was going to be a power house. It wasn’t until we went to record it though, that it grew into the monster it became. I’m very proud of it, and I think it’s undoubtedly one of the best pieces of work we did together..
Robert: The radio charts can be a cruel mistress, but you had to know, beyond most shadows of a doubt, that the song was going to be a hit..
Lou: We did, and I think the record company did too. But we had been trying to follow a pattern of songs that we had laid out for ourselves on previous albums. We would come out with a melodic rocker first, a song with melodic integrity and harmonies next, and…wait, that’s not true. Forget all that. We led off the album with ‘Urgent’. [laughs].
Robert: Considering the quality of your writing in that period, you guys probably just turned off the lights, threw a dart at the board and went with whatever song it landed on..
Lou: [long laugh] Well ok, so it was ‘Urgent’, something else (Break It Up), and then it was ‘Waiting For a Girl Like You’. But while those other songs were climbing the charts, FM radio was playing the hell out of ‘Juke Box Hero’. It was the most played song on the record, even though we hadn’t released it as a single. So now, after two rock songs and a huge ballad, Atlantic Records decides to officially release ‘Juke Box Hero’. That wasn’t a particularly smart thing to do, because it was all played out already. I think it stopped at #30 on the charts. It was performing beautifully as it was, and then Atlantic had to go and put a big scuff on it..
Robert: I didn’t intend to fixate on this one song, but I have to ask you if you enjoy singing ‘Juke Box Hero’? It seems like something you’d really have to work your voice over to perform..
Lou: Yeah, it is quite a push, but I still enjoy singing the song very much. And hearing the music when I’m on stage, being played right, is definitely an inspiration – it helps me take myself a little farther in hitting those notes. The music demands that you live up to the performance of that song.
Robert: I don’t want to give anything away in the wording of my question, so I’ll just ask you to tell us the Bryan Adams story.
Lou: Foreigner was in a studio called ‘The Right Track’, and we were recording the ‘Agent Provocateur’ album (in 1982). We were in Studio A, and at the same time, a young Bryan Adams was recording in Studio B. Mick was doing some guitar solos for our album, so I was just hanging around the control room when Bryan walked in and said, “Look guys, I’m in a bind, and I’m wondering if you can help me out. This is our last day of recording, we haven’t finished our background vocals yet, and all of my guys have laryngitis. Is there any way that you could possibly sing some background vocals for me?” I glanced over at Mick, and he gave me a ‘go for it’ sign. So, I went across the way with Bryan, and when it was all over, I had sang on about two thirds of the ‘Cuts Like a Knife’ album..
Robert: You didn’t just do a bit here or a bit there on that album. You did some heavy lifting..
Lou: Yes, I sang multiple parts on many of those songs, and I doubled voices on many of them. If you listen to several of those songs with a fairly decent ear, you’ll hear me. I know that I can still hear my voice. The character and the tone of it, you know? I can tell that it’s me..We were able to finish it all off in one day, and Bryan was knocked out with the help I gave him. That created a friendship between us, and we’ve stayed in touch over the years..
Robert: I love your willingness to do that for Bryan and the friendship that resulted, but as an industry curiosity, I’m wondering if you were paid anything?.
Lou: Bryan didn’t have anything to offer me, and I didn’t want it. He took me aside and said, “Lou, my budget is all used up. I have very little to no money left, but I want to give you something.” I said, “Bryan, I know if the circumstances were reversed, you’d do it for me and not even talk about money. So, we’re not going to talk about money either.”.
Robert: Mutt Lange, legendary producer of AC/DC, Def Leppard and dozens of other big acts, produced Foreigner’s most commercially successful album, ‘4’. His production and your performances are great, but you had some tough sledding with him..
Lou: Mutt was a very nice guy, and very smart musically, but we bumped heads a little bit when it came to my vocals. I was rippin’ (in the studio) – more than my usual – but he kept pushing me to sing higher, to the point where my voice became a noteless scream. I said, “Mutt, you’ve heard the end of ‘Dirty White Boy’. You know I can do that. But to sing a whole song that way is not for me. I like the way that Bon Scott sings very much. I like the way that (Joe Elliott) sings, but that’s not me. Those guys have their own style and they leave their own mark. I’m not a screamer, and never will be.” Still, he kept pushing and pushing, and we had it out..
Robert: How did you two resolve it?.
Lou: I ended up giving in a little bit. I put a little more of an edge on my voice than I normally would have. I still didn’t think he was satisfied with that, but when we finished the album, he took me aside and said, “You know that heated argument that we had? Well, I have to tell you that you sang those songs just right.”
Robert: The intensity of Foreigner’s work at that time differs greatly from what you would be doing just a few years down the line. Was your break with Mick primarily because you wanted to continue in a rock direction and he wanted to go in more of a pop direction?.
Lou: To be fair to Mick, I think it was more of a rock direction versus a middle-of-the-road direction. I found that he was playing his guitar less and less, and playing his keyboards more and more. It still felt like a rock band, but it felt like a rock band softening up. I didn’t see any reason why we had to do that. He was a great guitar player, and he had great ideas. I don’t know if that’s because the hit makers of that day were softer and smoother and he wanted us to follow and not lead, but I resented the fact that we were headed in that direction at all. I let him know it, and that was the beginning of a methodical falling out..
Robert: How did that translate to how Foreigner went about it’s business at that time? Did you two stop writing songs together?.
Lou: When he continued to write songs in that vein, I purposely chose not to come up with any melodies or lyrics for them. Then he would go ahead and finish the songs himself, and insist, contractually, that I sing them. I can tell you that I didn’t like singing them at all..
Robert: When the band was having big hits with the ‘middle-of-the-road material’, you had to be making more money as a result, no?.
Lou: I don’t think so.
Robert: The general perception – especially in the 80’s – is that in exchange for artistic compromise on a monster ballad, you get to back up the Brinks truck.
Lou: No, we probably made about the same. I don’t believe we were making more. And there was a backlash to it, because our audiences on the road were clearly diminished – enough that I was able to see just how much smaller the crowds were while I was performing onstage. And every now and then, in between songs, I would hear someone yell, ‘You guys have gone soft!”, or, “You sold out!”, or something like that. That really hurt..
Robert: I don’t want to diminish any one demographic of music fan because music is for everybody, but I’d have to imagine that along with having less fans, you were seeing a different type of fan show up to your gigs as well?.
Lou: Yes, once we started doing ballads, I definitely saw a change. ‘Waiting for a Girl Like You’ was a fine song, and I like it. ‘I Want to Know What Love Is’ is great. But then the first song of the next album was ‘I Don’t Want to Live Without You’. So, do you see where we’re going with this? I was smoking mad. Honestly! To the point that I refused to sing anymore, in order to guarantee that I wouldn’t be associated with any of that crap..
Robert: You are greatly respected by singers in general, and by many hard rock and heavy metal singers in particular. During this period that you’re describing, did any them ever say, “Lou, what are you guys doing? Why aren’t you guys rocking anymore?”.
Lou: I can’t say that ever happened. Given our modicum of hits, I think a lot of my peers just assumed that we knew what we were doing. Fools, Robert. Fools I tell you. [Robert laughs]
Robert: In 1987, amid your strife with Mick, you released your first solo album, ‘Ready Or Not’, and had a big hit single, ‘Midnight Blue’. You were in a contentious situation with your musical partner, and both of you were out there competing in the same arena. Was there a fear of failure?.
Lou: No, I was not fearful. I had concerns though. I had concerns about what type of backlash was going to occur with Foreigner and Atlantic Records, and unfortunately, my concerns came to fruition. Atlantic Records promoted ‘Midnight Blue’, and the song did extremely well, but every single after that saw less and less promotion..
Robert: Why do you think Atlantic chose to do that?.
Lou: I had heard that there were some big meetings with (Atlantic Records executive) Ahmet Ertegun and Mick. The story was that Mick’s camp said, “If this record is a success, you’ll never see Lou perform with Foreigner again.” The album was really flying, and then I felt someone apply the brakes..
Robert: That era left a lot of bands casting a wary eye at their lead singers. Phil Collins, Sting, and Steve Perry all left huge bands to achieve massive solo success. Mick may have feared that happening, which is understandable, because for most listeners a Foreigner song is whatever one you’re singing..
Lou: You’re right about that, because many fans thought ‘Midnight Blue’ was Foreigner and that made Mick angry. I had Nils Lofgren (of Springsteen and Neil Young fame) playing guitar on the record, and he has a great solo on that track. So I do think there was some of what you’re suggesting, coming from Mick’s end..
Robert: I’m sure it didn’t make matters any easier when, two years later, ‘Just Between You and Me’, became another big hit for you..
Lou: After that song, matters became even more difficult. Atlantic Records gave me zero promotion for it and didn’t even allow me a second single..
Robert: When you go from the democracy of a band, to a solo career where I assume you are calling the shots, does that make it hard for you to go back?.
Lou: I wouldn’t call Foreigner a democracy by any stretch of the imagination. It was really Mick and the manager, with Mick being a benevolent dictator..
Robert: Did you feel that you had a full partnership in the music?.
Lou: When he wanted it to be that way I did, and he wanted it to be that way very often. I did too. I enjoyed writing with him. The songs were always interesting, and I knew that when our ideas were recorded, they were going to be complete and dynamic songs, you know? I never got tired of collaborating with Mick. But things change, and people’s direction and styles change. Mind you, I didn’t want to be the same artist I was 30 years ago and sit there paddling water either. I like change too. But, I felt that the changes we were making were moving us towards a rocking chair.
Robert: In the late 90’s you encountered something that rendered any of those career concerns trivial, as you had a dangerously large brain tumor removed, leaving you with complications that you suffered from for almost a decade..
Lou: The tumor was benign, but it was large and in a very difficult place to remove. I had a great surgeon in Boston, who was the purveyor of laser surgery on tumors that were deemed inoperable. I saw three different surgeons before that, and all of them sent me home and suggested I get my affairs in order. There was no hope. Then one night, I saw a segment on the television show 20/20. They showed Dr. Black using laser surgery on a tumor that other doctors had deemed inoperable, and I saw that it had succeeded and the patient had recovered. At the end of the show they gave his phone number, and I was speaking to his office first thing in the morning. His secretary said, “Get on a plane and get here right away. We just had a cancellation for Thursday.” By 5 am Thursday I was in Boston, on a gurney, being wheeled into an operating room for 19 hours of surgery..
Robert: The surgery was technically a success, but your problems were just beginning..
Lou: They successfully removed the tumor, but apparently it had been growing inside of me since birth, and had grown large enough that it had done real damage. My pituitary gland and other regulatory things were operating at a third of what they should have, so I was on a multitude of prescription pills, and giving myself shots several times a day. After the procedure, I was able to speak ok, but I had to pause every 2 or 3 seconds to remember what I was going to say. The surgeon told me that he didn’t want me performing for at least a year, and up to a year and a half. Yet, not even six months later, I was with Foreigner flying off to do concerts in Japan and Australia.
Robert: Not only were you defying your doctor’s orders by travelling and performing far earlier than his prescription, but you were receiving diminishing returns for your efforts onstage. Your physical appearance was a bit of a shock to people.
Lou: Because my pituitary was damaged, it was struggling to turn food into nutrients. Anything I ate that could possibly be turned into fat, turned into fat. I gained almost 130 lbs. I went from weighing around 145 lbs in my heyday with Foreigner, to almost 280 lbs..
Robert: Even though there was barely any social media at that time, I’m sure you still heard people making remarks about your weight. That must have been difficult.
Lou: No social media, but we were still reviewed in newspapers the day after every show, and the articles were brutal. Not only was I being criticized for the way I looked, but I wasn’t singing well either. I couldn’t move, I couldn’t swagger, I couldn’t get around the stage. I barely had any clothes that fit me. I just planted my feet and tried to sing. I was embarrassed. It was very, very difficult to even decide to continue. .
Robert: Which begs the question, why did you agree to do it?.
Lou: Foreigner and management insisted that I hit the road with the band. They should have let me heal for a year and a half, and allow me to manage my weight and get some exercise. Then we could have gone out and made a credible appearance. Instead, they disregarded my doctor’s prognosis, put me out there over a year too early, and really damaged Foreigners’ reputation.
Robert: And yours as well?
Lou: I felt my reputation was destroyed. I was obese and really ashamed of myself, even though I knew it wasn’t any of my own doing. I would hear inebriated fans out in the audience between songs, yelling, “You better cut back on the pasta!” and heckling me with things like that. If it was a different circumstance, it might have been funny. But when you’re out there on stage trying to entertain people, and they’re shouting things like that at you, it cuts right through you..
Robert: I know you’re a man of strong Christian faith. Could you imagine having gone through what you did without having that kind of belief?
Lou: No, I could not. I just couldn’t. When they woke me up on the morning of my surgery to bring me to the operating room, they had me on the gurney and were wheeling me down there. I swear to you, Robert, for the 3 or 4 minutes it took to get there, I had no idea where I was. I was deep in prayer – not so much asking God to pull me through this, but simply asking that his will be done..
Robert: You felt at peace?.
Lou: Very much so. But I didn’t have a choice – they were sedating me. [both laugh]
Robert: Using sedation as a segue, I’ll mention that it was a stint in drug rehab – in the early 90’s, before your surgery – that brought you to your faith, and changed your life around. How bad off were you?
Lou: I wasn’t using needles or anything like that, but I was doing a lot of blow and drinking a lot of vodka. I don’t have cool stories from that period of me hanging out with the guys and partying and having fun. It was just me getting what I needed, and going back to my room and doing it all by myself, all night. I was hurting myself. I used to kid myself into thinking that I could handle it. When I humbled myself, and I humbled myself to God, that was the turning point..
Robert: You’ve been sober for decades, and many of the crippling symptoms from your medical ordeal subsided years later, when you discontinued the use of prescription steroids. Accolades for your life’s work started to come in as well. You and Mick were inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, with Billy Joel doing the honors..
Lou: I was very surprised by it, and very pleased by it. To tell you the truth, I was thinking more about the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame at the time. I didn’t know there was a Songwriters Hall of Fame until they told me they put me in it!
Robert: Your induction was important because it was cause for you and Mick to communicate again. When you received word you decided to call him, and you spoke for the first time in many years. Did you have some trepidation about it?.
Lou: I did at first. I was calling him regarding good news though, so I was hoping that any past problems would be brushed aside due to us having something to celebrate. The call went fantastic. It was like talking to him 20 years ago..
Robert: Since that point, you’ve made a few guest onstage appearances with Foreigner to mark their 40th Anniversary, and you and Mick walked onstage together at Madison Square Garden and played ‘Urgent’ and ‘Cold as Ice’ at a sold out Billy Joel show.
Lou: It was a great experience, especially being that it was at the Garden, a place that not only holds so many memories for Mick and I, but personal memories for me as well, including singing the National Anthem there for many a Ranger game. So it was special that it was there, and in front of Billy’s great fans, who just went crazy for us. It was an incredible night, and Mick and I still talk about it. .
Robert: You and your own band are continually out there playing dates, and you look and sound the best you have in a very long time. There’s a lot of goodwill out there for you, Lou. I’d imagine you feel it. .
Lou: I appreciate you saying that, and yes, I do feel it – especially at the shows, coming back from the audience when I’m on stage.
Robert: We’ve been told that for some biological reason, it’s not possible to hear what our own voice really sounds like. I’m wondering if you realize how unique your voice is? Do you understand what all the fuss is about?.
Lou: [hesitantly] I’ll say that given the right circumstances, I have the ability to do some very good things with a melody, and I don’t think I’ve ever lacked in sincerity when I’m singing a song..
Robert: Spoken like a drummer who just happens to sing..
Lou: [laughs] I just thank my fans for being patient with me and for standing by me. It feels great.
Purchase Lou’s biography: Juke Box Hero
Visit Lou’s website for tour dates and more: www.lou-gramm.com
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Follow Lou on Facebook: @lou.gramm.music
Robert Ferraro is a former producer of radio talk shows and Major League Baseball broadcasts, who interviews pop culture figures. Previously, he held over 50 menial jobs, all of which he quit when he couldn’t find anyone interesting to talk to
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