By Esteban Cisneros*
Ronnie D’Addario – keep an eye on the name. It matters. Because it’s a name that we need to add to the pop encyclopedias. Because it took us forty years to recognize him as one of the top songwriters of our times. It is not our fault, however: that’s how the world works sometimes. What remains amazing in this story is that, in addition to its depth and how each and every episode of is fascinating, it continues to be written and it is very far from being over.
Let me continue: Ronnie D’Addario composed and recorded some of the most impressive pop songs since the late 70’s. Only, they never found their way to the top of the lists, the radio or the racks of big record stores. One of those songs was even destined to be a hit for The Carpenters in 1981, but it did not happen. Instead, he worked steady as a session musician, recording engineer and, for years, backed up Irish folk legend Tommy Makem, of The Clancy Brothers & Tommy Makem.
Ronnie never aimed at superstardom, but his songs deserved much better luck and recognition in those days. Like the luck we have nowadays, because his music comes to us fresh as new well into the 21st Century, thanks to the world wide web and the craving of people dissatisfied with the current music scene.
Everything finds its place. And just to make matters best, Ronnie is father to Brian and Michael D’Addario, better known as The Lemon Twigs. Talent, it is clear, can be inherited and in what a fashion! In this case, the twist of fate was genius: the juniors (whose Do Hollywood, released in 2016, is a masterpiece) have made us listen to the senior. And things alligned.
A new greatest hits anthology and a 3-CD boxset including Ronnie D’Addario’s early albums is out on April 7th on the You Are The Cosmos record label. It’s a piece of history to be cherished and studied, because the parallel worlds of the pop narrative will let this music go on and on; we need new heroes, new legends, new songs. Revising the past (its obscure corners, going out of the path everyone takes) is always worth it because -we know- there’s still too much to be discovered, many different ways to say that thing we want great music to confirm us: it is good to be alive.
Mr. Ronnie, as if nothing is enough, is the nicest guy. We talked about his career, his songs, his records… and The Lemon Twigs, of course. It has been quite an honor!
Who is Ronnie D’Addario?
I see myself first as a songwriter, then a musician and singer. To support those things, I engineer, arrange, and produce. That’s why I bcame a recording engineer in the first place – to get my songs on tape, and now digital.
I’m a dad. My kids are the most important thing in my life. My wife, Susan and I really miss them when they’re on tour, and they miss us. Humor is important. My boys and I not only share similar musical tastes, but we like a lot of the same comedy. Brian and Michael are very funny too. We love Kevin Meaney, Monty Python, Johnny Carson, John Mulaney of the new guys.
Let’s go back in time. How did your interest in music begin? How were your formative years?
The biggest spark was seeing The Beatles on Ed Sullivan in 1964. My mom bought me a guitar that summer, and I was off and running. I remember some music before The Beatles hit, like “Let’s Twist Again,” but the Fab Four was the big one.
My formative years was a series of ten schools, mostly boarding schools, both Catholic and private. Back then there weren’t a lot of kids that played guitar that young, so I was always the kid that played guitar in each school. Even before I played, three other boys and myself would sing Beatle songs in the schoolyard before class. We were in the fourth grade. I remember their names–Sal, Andrew, and Stanley. I arranged our harmonies. We did “Please Please Me.” I noticed that on the come on, come on part, George stayed on the same note, while Paul’s “come ons” kept going up, so I had the guys practice that. We didn’t just sing in unison. We sang parts, even though we were only nine years old. The nuns would let us go around to the classrooms to perform. They gave us one copy of the Meet The Beatles album. We took turns taking it home on the weekends.
Where did you grow up? Was your environment musical?
I was born and raised in Manhattan, New York City, in the theater district so my mom took me to a lot of Broadway shows. At intermission I would always head toward the stage and look down into the orchestra pit. I was consumed by music. I saw Oliver with Davy Jones before he was in The Monkees! My mother was musical and my father was a professional musician, but I never knew him. My mother loved The Beatles and I liked Sinatra, so there was no generation gap there.
How did you begin to play music? How did your career start?
At the time of the British invasion, my mom bought me a Mel Bay book which had diagrams of chords. She didn’t play but she helped me figure the book out. I have an old reel to reel tape of me playing “Here There and Everywhere” using just three chords, which is quite a challenge, both for myself and the listener!
I guess my career started as a studio musician where I played guitar, bass, and sang on sessions, then getting into bands and playing gigs. First, original songs, where we got paid next to nothing, and then cover songs where we got more money.
You played with Tommy Makem for years, a very fruitful period. How was playing with him?
I played with Tommy for about twenty years. It was a wonderful experience. He was a great guy. Very level headed, nice, and generous. He taught me a lot about performing with his stage patter and telling stories about the songs, which is easier to do with Irish folk songs than pop/rock songs. The subject matter is more varied. Because of him I got to play PBS specials, Carnegie Hall, and other beautiful venues. I saw first hand how respectfully people treated him and a lot of that came my way because I was his band.
It was Tommy on banjo and myself on acoustic guitar and harmony. He would allow me to play whatever chords I wanted to his songs. His banjo was more pecussive than actual sustaining notes so we didn’t clash. It was fun musically because he had a good sense of rhythm and his vocal phrasing was consistant and made sense, so it was a pleasure to sing harmony with him. We talked about songwriting a lot. I got to witness when he first wrote a new song, like “Farewell My Friends.” He would want to end the show with a crowd pleaser like, “The Wild Rover” and I would say, “No. Do the new one.” He would say, “No—too dangerous.” Then when it came to the end, he would charge into the song I wanted. His encore, of course, was “Four Green Fields”
AND he introduced me to George Harrison at The Bob Dylan Tribute after party. Dylan came to see Tommy perform at Makem’s so I met him too. Bono came to see Tommy play and I borrowed a guitar pick from him. (That’s right—an actual Bono guitar pick!)
What other projects were you involved with, apart from this and your solo albums?
In New York City, I worked at a recording studio (Dimensional Sound) and a film studio (Filmsounds). I did live sound at Folk City for local acts in Greenwich Village, but also Rick Danko, Peter Tork, Richard Thompson, Delores Keane, and Silly Wizard. I did live sound and lights at Tommy Makem’s Irish Pavailion on 57th and Lex., mostly for acts who were well known on the Irish scene. Once and a while you’d get someone like Bob Geldoff or Noel Harrison, who besides being an actor was a legit folk singer. After Noel played, one night, his Dad, came over to me and said: “More light! My son needs more light!” It sounded just like a Rex Harrison impression from My Fair Lady.
I did a U2 press conference at Makem’s. I played in a few Irish bands. Tommy was the biggest.
How do you write songs? What is your process?
It varies. Sometimes I’m fooling around on guitar or piano and a melody comes, and without thinking, some words pour out that sound like the right feel for the music. Then I have to make sense out of them. There are times when I start with a title, which suggests a certain type of music. Those lyrics are more focused because you know from the start what you’re writing about. Some songs are a sincere expression of what I’m feeling. You have to be careful with those because you can’t forget the craft that’s involved too. Otherwise it can be embarrassing or you’re the only one who gets it. Some are pure craftsman kind of songwriting, where you’re just working on writing a good song. Sometimes it’s an interesting chord change that is the inspiration…
Most of the time they just come, rather then sitting down trying to write something. I wrote a musical and was given all the lyrics first. Someone else wrote them. The meter of the lines and subject matter, already having been written, made it very easy to write the music to it. I did it super fast. Not all the verses were the exact same meter so I had to adjust them to fit the music and vice-versa. I was pleased with how it turned out. It was performed too. It was called McGoldrick’s Thread. Marianne Driscoll wrote the book and lyrics. I’m thinking of releasing my original demos of the songs along with the overture. I have to clear it with Marianne.
Let’s talk about your albums. How was recording them?
They were good memories because I was so driven to write and record. It was also hard because I never had the recording equipment that I needed to do what I heard in my head. Analog, unless you can afford great stuff, is a lot of work. You have to bounce harmonies from maybe six tracks to one track, especially when you’re doing all the parts yourself. You lose generations and hiss builds up. I think I got the best out of it though. I did get inspired every time I got a new tape deck with more tracks. I went from two track “sound on sound” recording, to four track and then eight track. If I wanted more, I would have to go to a recording studio–constantly watching the clock and hoping the engineer would keep track of any “down time.” That’s time the studio would deduct from your bill if it was their fault things were taking so long.
Digital is so easy and inexpensive—endless tracks. I love it, but my boys love analog. They’re very “retro.” Engineering yourself can be clumsy too. You’re trying to play your instrument and you have to adjust some equipment. You’re getting up and sitting back down. You’re putting nicks in your guitar trying to hold on to it, while you’re trying to punch in and get back to your instrument in time. It’s tiring!
Probably your best known story, until now, is that of Falling for Love, your song recorded by The Carpenters…
In 1981, I mailed “Falling For Love” to three different places—the label A&M in LA, their agent, and their manager. Richard Carpenter heard it and liked it. He liked my version too. The Carpenters recorded it with Karen doing a rough vocal. She was very sick and in a New York hospital. She died before doing a final take. Richard said her guide vocal wasn’t good enough to release. I never heard their recording.
Over time, your music has found a place. How was the contact with You Are The Cosmos made?
Pedro Vizcaino, who owns the label, messaged me through Facebook. He asked if he could release it. He heard about my music from his friend Pablo, who might have listened after he heard The Lemon Twigs talking about Dad’s music. Pedro really has a love for powerpop and was so excited about my stuff that it was contagious and I said yes and thank you.
How has the process of making and releasing the box-set and LP been?
Pedro and myself did it all through e-mail. He’s in Spain and I’m in the United States. We went through all the artwork and album information online. Besides releasing the 3-CD box, he wanted to put out a Best Of from the three albums. We made the list together. The box and vinyl was his idea. His artist came up with the album cover for the vinyl. I gave them some pictures from that period.
What can we expect of those releases?
It’s a nice package to have, and I think people who like pop and rock will like it. I hope it sells and we can press more! I’m looking forward to the next one. You Are The Cosmos is releasing my latest three Cds in the same way over the summer. That includes a brand new album that I just finished called, The Many Moods Of Papa Twig. The other two are A Very Short Dream and Time Will Tell On You.
What do you think of music in the Internet era? Is digital really the future?
Well, having been through analog, I think digital is a marvalous and easier way of recording. That goes for video too. I do respect the people who prefer to stay in analog. The thing that bothers me about digital is mp3s. We finally got to the point where you can now hear at home the same quality that we heard in the recording studio, and then comes mp3s, that are compressed for convenience so you can fit five hours onto a CD and even more on a DVD, but the fidelity isn’t as good. Plus people listen with ear buds that don’t reproduce the bass unless you press them against your ears. Now folks are getting used to listening to music out of the tiny speakers on their laptops.
One of the great things about the Internet is that everyone has an outlet for what they want people to know about. This collection was a result of that. I hope the future has some room for melodies and films with good stories. It’s good to see young people at concerts like The Zombies Odessey and Oracle tour. The whole row behind us was teenagers. The Beatles have touched every generation for five decades. So has Sinatra, who was even before my time. The fact that The Lemon Twigs are making inroads with their songs is a good sign. I work in a high school and most of the students seems to prefer classic rock. Michael and Brian do new music, but they’re well written songs, so all ages seem to like it.
Your sons are conquering the world. How was raising them? How did they learn music?
They were in show biz since they were nine—Broadway shows, TV, movies, and now music, which was always their first love, more than acting. They learned music from having instruments and recording equipment all around them. I taught them simple drum beats, guitar chords and licks. I demonstrated different types of chords on the piano and trained their ears so they would recognize, say a diminished chord, or a major seventh. They were born will musical ability and my wife, Susan, and I would point them in the right direction. They took it from there and learned the rest on their own very quickly. Susan was responsible for their acting. She used to be an actress. I think that added to there ease on stage. She also sings and has an ear for harmony. They were, and are, such cute kids—very smart and funny.
You’re prouder than proud! How was working on their debut album as a father? How much input did you have?
The only thing I did technically was mixing “How Lucky Am I?” But they always play new things for me and I give them my opinion and suggest things and they do the same for me. I taught them how to use my recording equipment and they experimented on their own too. Rado, from Foxygen engineerd and produced them in LA, and Brian mixed their album in our basement studio. I would come down once and a while and suggest things. Brian picked it up very quickly. I went with them to master the album, but just as another ear. They were definitely in charge.
Back to you! Do you remember one or two especially great moments in your career? And maybe an awful one?
Having my song recorded by The Carpenters. Having my my song unreleased by The Carpenters.
How is Mexico viewed from there?
They shouldn’t pay for that fucking wall! Salma Hayek is a babe. I love mole sauce.
Now, a question I kind of love and kind of hate (you can pass!)
Can you name 10 essential records for you?
I’ll keep it down to two albums per group. I need 20 and this is not in order.
The Lemon Twigs, Do Hollywood
The Beatles, Revolver
The Beatles, Magical Mystery Tour, the US version
The Beach Boys, Pet Sounds
The Beach Boys, Greatest Hits, the double album
Procol Harum, Procol Harum (with A Whiter Shade of Pale)
Procol Harum, A Salty Dog
Paul McCartney, Ram
Frank Sinatra, September Of My Years
Emitt Rhodes, Emitt Rhodes
Brazil ‘66/Antonio Carlos Jobim, The Best Of
Badfinger, No Dice
Gilbert O’Sullivan, Himself
Richard Rodgers, Carousel
George Gershwin, Rhapsody in Blue
Gilbert and Sullivan, HMS Pinifore
Burt Bacharach, Casino Royale, the soundtrack to the 1967 film
Dionne Warwick and Burt Bacharach en Rhino Records
Varios, Motown Hits
The Four Seasons and Leslie Gore and J.S. Bach, Greatest Hits
The Kinks, Kronikles
The Lovin’ Spoonful, Mamas and the Papas, The Byrds, Dave Clark Five… The hits… And much more!
I like The Stones too!
Okay, I cheated a little.
As a closing line, anything else you’d like to add or recommend
Just to thank you every one out there for their interest and kind words. Thank you, thank you.
ECG, marzo 2017
*Esteban Cisneros (León, Guanajuato) es panza verde, músico de tres acordes, lector, escritor, dandi entre basura. Cuanto sabe lo aprendió entre surcos de vinilo y vermú. Cree con fervor que la felicidad son los 37 minutos que dura el primer disco de Dexys Midnight Runners. Procura llevar una toalla a todos lados por si hay que hacer autoestop intergaláctico.