A year ago, recording engineer Tom Gordon and friend Kristian Darling orchestrated the release of a 27-track holiday album which benefited juvenile diabetes research. The run of 10,000 CDs included names like Weezer, Collective Soul and Mike Love.
This year an expanded version of the album, More Hope for The Holidays, was made, and includes an EJ band member, John Mahon. The musician recently spoke with EJW about his work on the charity CD, contribution to a new Jose Feliciano recording (which includes a cover of Elton’s 60 Years On), thoughts on performing in Sin City, and many more topics. . . .
EJW: What was the name of your very first group, and what sort of material did you perform?
JM: I think I played a couple gigs with my brother’s 7 piece horn band, the Washington Square, when the drummer went to college. They did Chicago, James Brown etc…Then I joined a rock band called Sorge Brothers Band. We did lots of Allman Brothers, 2 part guitar harmony rock. Then there was Sneeze, a top 40 band and Hard Times, which was all funk and R&B, like Average White Band, Herbie Hancock, Grover Washington. Being from Canton, such a small city these bands always had the same people floating through them. After that I got into jazz.
EJW: You were a teenager when you decided to become a musician for good. Had you tried any other jobs by then?
JM: Oh yes. I was a lifeguard, a caddy, worked in a lumberyard and drove fork lifts and trucks, managed a warehouse, grounds keeper at a college, music store salesman, drum teacher, made and sold my own bell trees, Hells Bells. Finally, when I was in a decent working band and doing more recording, I decided to go full time, when I was about 23.
EJW: In the early nineties, you were part of the jazz ensemble, the Windows. How many albums did they release, and have they broken up for good?
JM: Windows was started by Skipper Wise and Ed Cohen. Skipper went on to create the very successful Blue microphone company. I recorded Live Laundry, Blue September (where I met Al Stewart and Peter White) and From the Asylum, where I was a featured vocalist. It was an interesting band because we did jazz and pop-ish vocal tunes – one of the original Smooth Jazz bands I suppose. I doubt if we’ll ever play again but you never know. How many farewell-oh-not-really concerts have you seen?
EJW: Who are some rock/pop artists you enjoy listening to?
JM: Elton just gave me an album by Plan B, The Defamation of Strickland Banks. Very cool – R&B I guess you’d call it. I’ve been playing Keith Jarrett. I also have been playing Fleetwood Mac and Journey again – what a band! Lettuce is one of my new favourites. Progressive Electronic. Stanton Moore‘s band is killer. I put my cable TV on the Holiday channel and what a learning experience that has been. Steve Lawrence had a beautiful voice.
EJW: You recently sang I’ll Be Home For Christmas, which was released as part of More Hope For The Holidays CD, the proceeds of which benefit the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. Could you tell us about how you became involved and about the experience?
JM: Basically the people doing the project are friends of my sister in Reno/Lake Tahoe, Nevada. It just so happened I was working on some Christmas songs and they asked me if I could submit something. My mother and grandmother both had diabetes and I have some good friends whose children have it. It’s very difficult for a child to regulate their nutrition and insulin in the land of McDonalds and Hostess.
EJW: Prior to joining up with Elton, you were acquainted with his bass player. Did you and Bob Birch play together in another band, or did you meet through doing session work?
JM: Bob and I met on a casual gig in LA. We both moved here around the same time – both struggling to make ends meet. I formed an original pop band called The Stickmen with a talented friend Fred Stickley and we hired Bob to be our bass player. That was around 1988. Bob is the perfect bass player – graduated with a music degree so his knowledge of theory and harmony is superb. He sings great harmonies and he’s never late. Bob says, “on time is late!”
EJW: Earlier this year, you were recognised by your former school. What was the honour for, and what was it like to be back? Do you still have family in the area?
JM: My high school gave me their Alumni Award. It recognises former students who have gone on to become successful or do unusual things or give back back to the community in unselfish ways. Compared to the other people I’d say I fit under the “unusual” category. One fellow grad actually gave his kidney to a stranger so I was humbled just sitting next to the guy!
I was asked to perform – not easy at 8 a.m. – and I used some other grads who I’ve been in bands with, Tim Hunt and Dave Marchione to accompany me, along with the band director Joe Menendez – a great saxophonist. We did a song of mine – Father in My Hands, and Tiny Dancer.
I have an older brother in Canton and lots of other great friends and family as well.
EJW: I understand you have written a number of your own songs. Do you plan on releasing them through a solo record and have any been covered by other performers?
JM: Jose Feliciano just released a song I wrote with Bob Birch on his new album, Genius of Jose Feliciano. It’s called I’ll Remember You. The cable TV series LA Ink uses my music now and then. I am currently working on some new songs and really trying to get them finished soon. I find it difficult to compose on the road. I can write lyrics in a hotel room but I am distracted too easily. The Discovery channel is a day killer!
EJW: There has been talk about a return to Las Vegas, although not necessarily another residency. How do you feel about going there again?
JM: I would love to play in Las Vegas again. We all really loved our run at Caesars Palace because you can unpack the suitcase for a whole two weeks, lose lots of money gambling, go to strip clubs, eat like a pig, drink like a fish and stay up all night. Vegas Baby! So far we are not scheduled to play there, but I think we’ll hear in January what is going to happen.
EJW: You’ve been married to your wife, Pam, for 30 years. Is it difficult to be on the road so much?
JM: Yes and no. When I get home I cannot remember which drawer the silverware is in. That is a problem. I recognise the dog but I wish the cats would have moved away. That said, I think it is healthy in a relationship to spend some time apart. Keep it a little bit fresh.
EJW: Do you have children, and would you want them to follow in your footsteps? Why, or why not?
JM: Nope – No rugrats, crumbsnatchers or whippersnappers. Sometimes I regret it and sometimes I rejoice it. I think becoming a musician is a great thing if you have the dedication and perseverance. It is a full time job and you are the boss. Parents ask me often, “my kid wants to play guitar etc., what do you think?” Learning an instrument is a form of meditation. And it’s less time spent playing video games and hanging out at the mall if your kid is in a band – Hey, you might even know where they are. What you do with your newly acquired talent is totally up to you. . . .