This is an interview I did via email with Don Mancuso, formerly of Black Sheep in August of 2001 to promote his first solo album Now You See It. The CD featured 14 tracks, all written or co-written by Don, except for a cool cover of Badfinger’s “No Matter What”. His next album would be titled DDrive, and would be the basis for the band that became DDrive and more recently Lips Turn Blue, who’ve just released a new album – LTB.
(08/01) Rochester based guitarist Don Mancuso has been around the upstate New York scene for decades! In his early days he was in BLACK SHEEP with singer Lou Gramm [pre FOREIGNER], and after extensive tours of the US in the 70s supporting numerous classic bands and 2 LPs Black Sheep split before Don went on to form such bands as AURORA, CELTIC FIRE, and the legendary CHEATER!
Most recently Don has been playing and recording in RED HEART – which features a few ex members of Cheater. Don’s also got his first solo album out titled “Now You See It”; issued independently. Now You See It is a fine mix of rock, along with influences of fusion, southern, and roots rock n roll. It features a number of strong cuts like “Eyes of God”, “Freedom”, the instrumental “Waazzup”, and a decent cover of the Badfinger classic “No Matter What”.
Here Don discusses his career, tells a few Black Sheep tales, and gives the lowdown on his brand new solo album.
Can you give me a Top 10 list of favorite albums?
1) Axis Bold As Love (Hendrix)
2)Guitar Shop (Jeff Beck)
3)Free At Last (Free)
4) Dosage (Collective Soul)
5) White Album (The Beatles)
6) Sergeant Peppers Lonely Heart (The Beatles)
7) Magical Mystery Tour (Beatles)
8)Couldn’t Stand the Rain (SRV)
9) Low Spark of High Heeled Boys (Traffic) I think that’s the title…
10) Goodbye Creame (Creame)
Black Sheep was your first band, with Lou Gramm !? How did you get involved in that band, and what was your early take on Lou? 😉
Actually the bass player Bruce Turgon (who is now with Foreigner) heard me playing outdoors at a dance that I was playing at with a band called Maelstrom. He was at his girlfriend’s house and heard me playing from a half a mile away. (I must’ve been playing pretty LOUD!) He liked what he heard and had me over for an audition, which of course led to being the first american act signed to Chrysalis Records. (see my bio for details) then to 2 albums with Capital Records. That of course led to him getting into Foreigner. As far as my take on Lou, I felt that he was a great person, writer and singer and I loved working with him. We were like brothers from 1973- 1976. Didn’t spend much time apart between touring, recording, writing and hanging out together.
Black Sheep released 2 albums. How did those albums do nationally? And how do you think of them in retrospect? [any favorites?] oh…and how did you get signed on to Capitol ?
The first album “Black Sheep” sold well. I heard somewhere around 80-100,000 copies world wide. The second one “Encouraging Words” didn’t do quite as well. Somewhere around 40-50.000 copies.(from what we heard!) not 100% certain that these numbers are it, but that’s what we were told. I think these albums were GREAT! Some of my finest work and definitely a lot of emotion to it. I didn’t quite have the experience, or chops that I do now, but I have learned a lot from “myself” and what I’m capable of doing both writing and playing wise from these albums.(As you do with every project) I think my favorite one is Encouraging Words though. We had a chance to grow a little before that one and laid out a lot of spontaneous emotion along with some more organized ideas. The way we got signed was through an A&R rep that had heard a demo and quit Columbia Records to pursue his own production company. Stuart Allen Love was his name and between himself, a music lawyer named Barry Platnik and Vincent Romeo a honcho at ICM booking agency in NYC they worked the political magic that gets act signed.
The saying “it’s not what you know, but who!!”. It’s all that and more!
You guys toured with a ton of great 70s bands like Kiss, Argent [Wow! I’m a fan], Manfred Mann, 10 years After…. Any great stories from those tours? Any bands you loved or hated playing with?
I loved playing with all of them! (oh, by the way you forgot Blue Oyster Cult, Ted Nugent, Peter Frampton and Procol Harem) But seriously, they were all my idols, except for Kiss at the time. I never thought much about them until I witnessed them Live! They were WILD!!
As far as stories I’ll give you the worst and the best. When we were touring with Kiss the very first show I was standing on the side of the stage after we had finished our set and all of sudden I’m standing in this huge shadow. I turned around to see Gene Simons towering over me in that unbelievable outfit with an axe guitar! He must’ve known what I was thinking by the look on my face. He told me that he had watched our show and he loved the band! I was shocked and honored. Most headliners shit on the opening acts, basically because they need to make them selves look and sound better. These guys did not worry about that! Alvin Lee from Ten Years after was the same way. We got to be great friends and got into lots of trouble together… The bad story, well we had just finished recording our second album with a new drummer who hadn’t even played out in 5-6 years and was a farmer outside of Rochester N.Y. We had done some work to get the new show together and accepted a last minute gig at the New York Academy of music in NYC warming up for our hero at the time Peter Frampton. Well Peter hadn’t hit the big time with Alive yet and it turned out he was not the draw for the show either! We were plugged in, in place of a group called Montrose (who were the draw on that show). To try and make a long story short, we came out all psyched and had people screaming for Montrose and throwing shit at us to get us off the stage. If that wasn’t bad enough the power went out on the guitar amps and keyboards so Lou, Bruce and the “new” drummer who never played in front of a crowd larger than 200 people were naked in the wind for the rest of the set! That’s Rock-N-Roll!!
Who else was in Black Sheep? Any recordings past Lou Gramm’s time with the band?
The only people that were in Black Sheep during 1973 through 1978 when we broke up were myself, Lou, Ron Rocco (first drummer), Bruce Turgon, Larry Crozier and Mike Bonnafiedie (the second drummer) that was it. Everything we recorded was released on either Chysalis, or Capital.
What can you tell me such band’s as Aurora and Celtic Fire? [who else was in them, any recordings, tours…] ?
Well, Aurora was a fusion band that I was in for 2 years after BS. We didn’t do any national touring, but did a lot of TV shows and club dates. Linda Rutherford & Celtic Fire was a Celtic Rock band that did a good amount of touring and had 2 CD’s out on their own label. I was the guitarist on the second one only “Flames of Eviction”. Great Stuff and Linda and her family are some incredibly talented and creative musicians. Our claim to fame was playing at Woodstock 99 on the “Emerging Artist Stage” It just so happened that both the main stages were down when we played, so they broad casted us over the whole network of media equipment over the 5 mile coverage! More people saw me play guitar that day than on 4 dates combined on the Kiss tour. Not bad! You know the story on Cheater, we had an EP out and toured nationally and were like the Beatles of upstate NY when we disbanded.
Cheater was a fairly popular band in the Buffalo area for years. What are your fondest memories of this band, and the scene back then? Buffalo had a big HR scene in the 80s. Did Cheater have much success or following outside of the region?
Yes Cheater was huge in the area of upstate NY, Ohio, Florida and one, or two other places in the country. It was mostly from people that lived in NY had the EP and would turn people onto it where ever they happened to move. We had fans in Texas, Calif, Tennessee and who knows where else. Not millions, but 100’s. My fondest memories are of the people & the music that band created. We were actually supposed to be sign after spending $60,000 on the Cheater Album, which was produced by an assistant of Mutt Langs, Nick Blagona. Just before they signed us and heard the record they decided that our singer Jeff Cosco sounded too much like Steve Perry of Journey and for them to release it, we would need to get a new singer. Well, being the people we were there was no way we were going kick out the singer we loved working with and that helped create these songs, so we allowed ourselves to get dumped and ate the cost of the record. Only recently we finally got the masters back and are going to have them re mastered for release!
What’s the deal with the Cheater CD coming out of previously unreleased recordings? What can you tell us about those? BTW, aside from originals did Cheater play many covers? [if so, anything in particular?]
See above! Cheater did play covers like Zeppelin, Humble Pie , Journey (of course).
You also did some sessions with Ian Lloyd. What project was this for?
The thing with Ian Lloyd was a demo that Bruce Turgon was doing for his solo thing. We did it at the Hit Factory in NYC.
Wish I had a copy of that! Someday I’ll have to nail Bruce down and get one. It was wild working with him he was one of the lesser known staff writers for Foreigner from what I heard. Great voice, it just took him a while to work into it in the studio. (He said it was blowing himself out on the road with Stories after Brother Louie)
In recent years you put together Red Heart [w/ Jeff Cosco, also of Cheater]. What can you tell me about this band? How is the CD you guys recorded? And what are you currently up to with them?
Red Heart is basically a Modern rock band with a classic rock edge to it. We have the original drummer from Black Sheep (Ron Rocco) and between myself Jeff and Ron we wrote all the material on it. It’s got some great songs on it and it was recorded and produced by Jeff Cosco at his 8trk studio. We play a lot of clubs, festivals and so forth in the Northeast part of the country. A couple of our songs from the Bridge CD are being considered for movie soundtracks. We’re doing warm up dates for some national acts like Kim Mitchell. (Who is another one of my idols by the way!) We’re also working on the next CD.
When did you decide to do a solo disc? Is it safe to assume this was done over a long period of time?
I decided to do a solo disk about 2 years ago. Yes, it did take all 2 years and then some to complete. Way more than I had hoped..
Now You See It features a wide range of rock songs, jazz and southern influences, etc… What can you tell me about how the process of putting together such an album? 😉
I took all the ideas out of a library that I keep at home of all the original pieces of music that I’ve recorded over the years. Some are even original demo’s of the Celtic Fire cd that I really thought came out cool and left it just the way it was. Most people don’t recognize it as being Celtic Fire of course because it’s me doing everything and it sounds much heavier. As far as the different types music on it, I did that intentionally. I love everything from R&B to soul, to Punk, to classical, to Celtic, to Reggae. I love anything that has an edge to it. You have to understand that many people have used me as a hired gun guitarist/writer and all they know me for is hard rock, which I love and can do very well, but I needed to show people that there are another couple of sides to Don Mancuso.
You used a number of singers, but don’t do any vocals yourself, why? And aside from Jeff, what can you tell me about a few of the others?
I don’t like the sound of my voice unless it’s used for texture, or harmonies. I’m not a great singer and I didn’t want to settle for doing it myself just because I could. There’s a lot of my voice on there, but it’s disguised. Maybe someday I’ll find a song that I like the way I sound on and do it then! The other singers.. First there Garrett Crumb who co- wrote and sang the first cut Alota Nerve and the tenth cut Black-N-Dizease, which is getting some airplay in Germany on the Lord Litter’s Radio Show. The other main singer writer on is Pat Petrone. We go back to high school together and have done many bands. He has the most incredible Ballad voice. sounds kind of like Steve Winwood. That’s what prompted me to do a lot of the mellower stuff on there. It just complimented his voice very well. He also sings on Eye’s of God, which is definitely the heaviest cut though! I also had a friend that I wanted to do some writing with that is on their, Dawn Sherman. She has a wonderful voice and a real feel for writing in that country/rock type of vein. So that’s why Freedom is in there. (Besides the fact that I LOVE the performance and sound of the guitar solo!!) It’s one of those things that only will happen once!
Decent cover of Badfinger’s ‘No Matter What! Why did you do this track [being a trademark tune of their’s] ? And are you a big BF fan?
Thank you for the compliment on the choice. I loved Badfinger and had this version of No Matter What that I had done with another band that I liked, so I had just got a deal on a used Leslie 122 tone cabinet, which I needed to finish it and whaallaa! By the way the singer on that one’s name is Vince Guarnerie. Forgot to mention him in question 12 He’s a good friend and the only guy I know right now that can hit those high notes!
Can you give me a few words about some of your personal faves [or stronger tracks] from Now You See It? Are there any tracks you’ve been [or will be] pushing to local radio stations?
Every song on the Now You See It CD is my personal fave. I had plenty of ideas to pick from and these were all the A cuts. It depends on what type of music you like or are interested in playing on a radio station. For hard rock I really like Little Tail and
Black-N-Dizease, for more current sounding stuff I like Eye’s Of God.. (Very Heavy) For Pop I recommend Lonely Look! And for soulful rock I’d say Waaazzup. (I even have trouble recreating that one live!) If you like more of a classical edge then I Fly. Well as you can see I’m going to mention every song on there because I love them all, so I’ll stop here and let your readers decided. It’s interpretation anyway.
How has response been thus far to the CD? What promo / marketing plans are you undertaking? & Will the disc be mainly available at your web site, or will it be in [local?] shops? Any plans to promote it live?
The response has been GREAT! It’s the first project that I’ve done to date outside of Black Sheep that’s in the Black after only 4 months. The promo right now is just word of mouth, internet, and talking to anybody and everybody I can about it. I have Phil Naro (who might possibly sing, co-write and help produce the next one!) shopping it overseas in Canada and the US. I very little to nothing about marketing and promo, so can’t imagine how well I would be doing if I had that end together! I have hired a personal manager though to help try and get this done as well as book live performances for the show.
I’ve only played one show so far in my own home town, so I’m looking for opportunities to get into other areas and see if it does as well there as it does here. We’re trying to get airplay in Buff. and go there to play. At this point I’ll do whatever it takes to get this disc into peoples hands that would dig it as much as the hundreds that already have it. It is availible on the web site and also in Rochester at Media Play, The Record Archieve, the Bop Shop and the House of Guitars. I sell a lot of them at live shows, but the shows are with Red Heart and the Park Ave Band (R&B/rock/reggae/fusion) in the tri state area that we play in. I’m pretty sure that Red Heart will be doing a couple of songs off of the Now You See It disk in their show and the Park Ave Band is the main band that is with me for the Now You See It show’s. We just add the violin, chello, sax and all the vocalists (along with an extra guitarist or 2) and it’s the Now You See It show!
What other projects are involved in at this time? any plans?
See above! I think I mentioned everything I’m involved with except I am producing albums for a few friends out of my studio in Rochester NY. It’s great because I get to play on a lot of different stuff and help someone else live their dream!
What’s your association with Phil Naro? Any comments on him?
Yep, Phil’s a great singer and song writer. We’ve been in a few different projects together and we’re even toying with the idea of having him Co-produce the next CD and have him doing some writing and vocals on it.
What sort of music do you listen to these days? any current faves?
I listen to Aerosmith, Collective Soul, Jeff Beck, Hendrix, Incubas, Just about anything with any heart & soul in it!
Ever open for or familiar with Uriah Heep?
Nope, but I did love seeing them live and listening to them. Saw them in Rochester at the Dome arena . Great show, but as far as favorite songs I loved almost every song that they wrote!… Demon’s and Wizards!!
Interview: KJJ, Aug, ‘2001
An Interview with Ron Rocco of Black Sheep