DON MANCUSO is the guitarist and a major songwriter in the band LIPS TURN BLUE. The band started out as DDRIVE years ago, which had originally taken the name of Don’s second solo album DDrive, from 2004. Upon starting the band’s new album the band decided to change the name due to the name D_Drive also being used by a young prog-metal band from Tokyo. In the ’70s Don was part of the legendary band Black Sheep, along with singer Lou Grammatico – who went on to Foreigner. Black Sheep released 2 classic albums on Capitol Records. Don went on to various bands including Cheater, Red Heart, as well The Lou Gramm Band (see their 2009 self-titled album).
In this interview Don discusses the new Lips Turn Blue album – the making of it, the songs, the late Phil Naro, LTB’s current happenings, as well a bit on Black Sheep, and what else he has on the go.
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How much of the album was done when Phil was still with you?
Probably 90 per cent of it was done while Phil was still with us. He couldn’t sing after he went through the 2nd round of the chemo and therapy he was doing, trying to beat it, but he was in on what songs we were going to pull from earlier albums. You know, we ended up using a couple of songs, where he couldn’t sing, we had to go back in the catalogue and we picked up a couple of DDrive songs and we re-did those around his vocals.
You co-wrote most of the songs with Phil. Were the lyrics his and it was all put together from that?
It was a group effort – Phil and I wrote a couple of songs, and Phil and I and the keyboard player, Eric Beiber wrote. We all contributed with music, words, ideas, melodies. And there was a couple that Eric wrote with just Phil and Steve Major, the producer up in Toronto.
Can we talk about some of the songs? I just saw the new video for “Pray For Tomorrow”.
That was a total remake. That’s what started the album going. Phil had some friends during the pandemic that said it would be a great idea to do an acoustic version of it, and we said ‘it’s a good idea – we’re sitting around anyway.’ We all kinda chipped in at our home studios and we got that rendition of it.
“Just Push” was the first single. Can you tell me anything about that song?
That was an idea Phil brought to the table, and him and I worked on it actually til we completed the song. It was during the pandemic, so we couldn’t actually work face to face. We were working on the internet, doing tracks with the other guys, and the producer coordinated it, sending all the tracks up to Toronto to have them mixed. It was our first take on the pandemic.
I like “Build My Castle”, that’s a great one. and I like Phil’s intro to that, it’s kind of a different approach.
Steve came up with. It’s actually off my 2nd solo album with Phil. And he wanted to re-do it in a different light, so we added keyboard passages, and melodies with keyboards, and changed the solos around a little bit, and he did the thing with intro and the chant in the breakdown in the middle, also. A great song. That was actually getting some airplay in Pittsburgh.
“Better Than I Used To Be” ?
Yes. That’s one of my favorites. That one is close to my heart. I actually wrote the basic hook part, and most of the lyrics on it – with Phil’s help. And Eric Beiber contributed, I think he wrote the solo section. That’s a good one. It’s the story of my life – haha – ‘I may not be perfect, but I’m always better than I used to be.’
There’s a couple of things on here that have kinda reflective lyrics, and I’m wondering if those are things that Phil wrote – “No Need For You To Call” and “Life’s Crazy Ride”
“No Need To Call” was one that I helped him with. He had just had a falling out with his fiancé, and I had a new girlfriend, and we kind of wrote that one. And the other one – that was basically how he summed up his life before it was over — for everybody, not just for him, for all of us.
Was he well aware of his situation when he wrote that stuff?
Oh God yeah. He was in the middle of wondering how long it was going to be. It was tough.
What stands out for you on the album – what are you happiest with?
I think “Sit Up” is one of my more .. .I mean even though it’s a real R & B metal tune, it’s got a great hook to it, and it’s one of those ones that makes you want to move. That one, and “Better Than I Used To Be”. There’s a couple of Eric’s that I really like, that are really amazing.
“Chain On Me”?
That was one that Lou and I wrote with Bruce (Turgon). We re-did it from the Black Sheep days; it was on the Encouraging Words album. That was Phil’s last request, he said ‘I always wanted to do that song.’ And I was like – ‘you got it – let’s do it!’. And he did it, he pulled it off great.
The last cut on the album Lou sings on.
Yes. That’s from my 2nd solo album. And we decided to add that in to the que when Phil really couldn’t do any more. And we didn’t want to put anything out that was half-baked. So we took a song that Phil and I wrote from my 2nd solo album, and had the new guys play on it. The only other original guy we left on it was Joe Lana, he also passed away 5-6 years ago.
Who’s idea was it to do the Beatles’ cover? It’s an interesting choice.
That was mine and Phil’s. That was another one originally off of my 2nd solo album that we always loved, so we said ‘let’s re-do this one too!’
Now when I see the album – I love the cover, but I see there is no vinyl option of it , yet. When I look on Discogs and on Amazon I only see the CD.
No? I thought they were going to do that, I heard they were going to do it. I know I want vinyl.
Now you guys have moved on, and you have Iggy Marino as your new frontman. How many shows have you done?
We’ve done 2 shows so far, one in Rochester, and one in Phoenix, Arizona.
So you are part way or mostly done a new album as well?
Yes, about half way. We’ve got a lot of it in the can.
Will we still see Phil in any of the credits?
Oh yeah, he’ll be on 2 or 3 of them, I think, as far as credits. He wasn’t able to sing on them, but he was part of writing them, And I think we did have some vocal parts that are still usable that we’ll probably slip in here or there, I’m sure.
Is there a projected date for the next album?
No. We’re just trying to put together a tour, and get out and promote the Hell out of this one. It’s going to take time, I mean we’re not a super huge classic rock band or anything, so we’re going to be toughing it out for probably the next 6 months to a year to try and get that out there. And in the interim we’ll slowly widdle away at the next album.
Are you still working with Lou at all, on the side?
No. I still play with him periodically when he needs me, and he calls me up and says ‘I’m in trouble I need a guitar player and a band.’ But he’s actually retired, but he’s been doing these guest spots with other groups who want to bring him in to the fold just for a few gigs, or special shows, kind of ‘all-star’ band stuff.
I just want to ask about Black Sheep. Is there anything in the vaults that would interest you guys in putting them out as reissued with anything extra?
No, probably not. Lou was actually thinking about that a few years ago and tried to check in to who owned it, and it was like a circle-jerk, no one could really nail it down as to who owned it. So to do something like that might be a lawsuit in the making. I’ve got digital copies of the mastered albums that I just turn friends on to, and give it to them if they want it.
That’s a shame there’s not newer pressings of them out there because they’re hard to find and they’re albums.
Oh they are! That’s why I’m glad I’ve got the digital remaster of it. I was really fortunate because it’s a cut-out in the catalogue now, and luckily a DJ who happened to get a copy of it before they burned them all, he sent them to me, and I was ‘Oh thank you – you’re my hero!’
Did Black Sheep have any regional hot spots, aside from where you guys were from in Rochester and New York – any places where you guys got a lot of air-play or had a hit?
Yeah, we had a hit in Knoxville, Tennessee. We had a hit in Japan. And I think in Europe there were a couple of classic rock stations that were giving us a lot of air-play – like in Germany, Switzerland, Austria.
Was that back when the albums came out?
Yes, when the albums were out and we were touring with Kiss, Hall & Oats, and Ten Years After, and all that.
What else are you working on now?
Basically, right now my main focus for original acts is Lips Turn Blue because we’ve got the deal with MIG Records over in Germany, and the record’s doing good. Then I’m still working with Tony Carbone and Derek Crom in Johnny Smoke. We’re going to be coming to Buffalo in January, I think, at The Rock. And I’m still working with Lisa Gee, from Chicago, who’s last albums and EPs were done with a different drummer, he’s a session drummer out in California, but now I’ve been working with Carmine Appice on her new stuff. We’ve got 5 songs in the can; she’s going to be releasing an EP, and she’s got 1 song we’re still finishing up, it’ll be a separate single with Carmine. (ed: single premiers June 18)
I interviewed Carmine a few months ago. A busy guy.
Yeah he is. Great musician, I love working with him.
Do you know the name Mike Marconi?
Oh God yes! I used to go watch him when I was in Black Sheep just to learn new licks and get my sound down. He was one of the guys – him and Mike Nicoles were my local heros. He’s a good guy, great guitar player. He was in a band called Wale here. They were a good band. They were the one voted ‘most likely to succeed’ over Black Sheep. haha. We fooled them.
Can you give me a bit of insight in to Phil as a writing partner, bandmember, and person, how you got along with him and that?
We got along great because we loved writing together, and playing together. Every opportunity we would get we would both work at it, but we were always involved in other projects to keep moving forward, learn more stuff, and hopefully grab more contacts.
Anything else you can add in about the album..
It was the biggest labor of love any of us have ever done. It was like pulling teeth to get it out. Luckily we were blessed with a guy that got behind us – Bruce Pilato, he manages the band and he kind of tied up all the lose ends and got it to a point where we can get it out to people. So, you gotta hand it to him.
Are you guys going to be adding a store to the website to order CDs and merchandise directly?
Yeah. We want to. Because I mean with the gigs we played we probably could’ve sold hundreds of those t-shirts with the cover art on them.
Do you know much about it (the cover)?
Yes. It was done by a gentleman in the mid-west who’s referred to as ‘Man In The Mountain’ , and he does all graphic art covers, a lot of CD stuff, and big time artwork.