Singer/songwriter Ricky Byrd writes and performs poignant storysongs in a sandpapery-soulful style that borrows as much from Otis Redding as it does from Steve Earle and John Hiatt. Hard to picture? Sure, but as is the case with most true artists, you’ve just got to see the man live.
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This dynamic former lead guitarist for Joan Jett & The Blackhearts loved his 12-year run at the top playing “I Love Rock’n’Roll” in a different city every night. His decision to leave wasn’t easy. But it’s been a long strange wonderful trip for the kid, who at 14, used to sneak into Max’s Kansas City to dig the New York Dolls. Four years later, he’d be leading powerpop act Susan on national tours to support an RCA debut.
As the prototypical skinny-kid-with-guitar, he ate up Brit Rock and spewed it out in cover bands. Never missing The Faces, Zep, The Who, Mott The Hoople and Humble Pie when they came to town. It soaked in but good.
Little did he know he’d wind up playing, writing and recording with Who frontman Roger Daltrey on his 1993 solo effort Rocks in the Head. And how much of a storybook chapter to an American rock’n’roller’s life was it when all-time Mott hero Ian Hunter called to ask if Byrd would join him as lead guitarist on an international tour? But as heady as both experiences were, it was with Joan Jett where Byrd flew highest. “I had that Stones drunken sailor thing goin’,” Ricky says with his characteristic smirk. “ And Joan had the T-Rex glitter/punk thing. That combo was The Blackhearts.”
Ask Byrd about his career and you might get a sense of his cheeky humor. His personal take on life is positively refreshing. “I’m 17, singing in Susan, in Hollywood, laying by the pool of this crummy old legendary hotel. To my right is Marianne Faithful reading poetry. Out comes Tom Waits in a black suit, hat, the whole bit. I look at my friend and go, ‘we’re here, baby! Rock’n’Roll!” Susan winds up touring with Cheap Trick and Graham Parker.
When Susan ends, Hall & Oates guitarist G.E. Smith asks Byrd to go on tour with him. They tour, opening for Squeeze. Ask Byrd about that and he’ll most likely tell you the image he has of one deadhot day in bumfuck nowhere Texas, sitting on motel poolchairs with guitars, both bands harmonizing on Beatle songs.
As the 80s begin, Byrd’s 20, hanging out in New York City at an uptown club called Privates. He meets John Waite who’s just left The Babys. The two start writing with plans to form a band. At the same time, Byrd meets an early idol in Steve Marriott. The two start jamming. So while the Byrd/Waite union is churning out material, and the Byrd/Marriott union is churning out big fat fuzzy riffs, Joan Jett enters the scene. She’s selling albums out of the trunk of her car. Joan’s hot for a new guitarist. Byrd had seen The Runaways at CBGB’s.
“So here I am,” Byrd remembers, “auditioning for Joan, making plans with Steve Marriott and still writing with John Waite!”
“We rocked,” Byrd recalls his first few Joan Jams, “so I joined.” Simple as that. The Blackhearts had already recorded a few songs for I Love Rock’n’Roll. Yet, when Byrd joined, the cohesiveness was so overpowering, they recorded them all over again. They’d be knocking ‘em dead on the road when the call comes in that it’s gold. Climbing up the charts. “When you’re on tour,” explains Ricky, “you don’t know what’s going on. Next thing we hear it’s #1.”
Twelve years later, after playing every major venue in the free world, including Shea Stadium (“I would’ve rather it had been Yankee Stadium,” comes the smirk), Byrd splits. He had toured with ZZ Top, Aerosmith and every other band he once loved. Now his songs are getting recorded by artists all over the world as well as performances in television and movie soundtracks.
“Playing with Joan was great,” says he. “But I always had this feeling I could do something else. I have this thing for more soulful rock’n’roll. In ‘93 I made the decision that it’s time.”
Byrd announces his departure. Roger Daltrey calls almost immediately. “Being a kid who grew up in the Bronx and waited on line five hours to see The Who, I was like, wow.” Daltrey takes Byrd on a radio and television promo tour and they do acoustic versions of Who classics as well as cuts off his new CD. You can just picture Byrd beaming as he plays the chords to “Behind Blue Eyes.” Byrd celebrates his birthday by recording with Daltrey at Abbey Road Studios in England where Roger gives him one of Pete Townshend’s famous Les Pauls as a gift. (“I still don’t know if Peter knows this,” smirks Byrd.)
At a Carnegie Hall benefit, Byrd looks cross-stage at Daltrey during soundcheck and jokes, “hey, ain’t cha gonna swing the mic?” Roger laughs. His mic is cordless. Later that night, during the show, “I feel this big whoosh buzzing right by my ear, I look to my right and Roger’s got this big grin on his face and the mic is swinging by my head.”
THIS is the American dream.
Ricky’s putting a New York band together when another influence, Ian Hunter, calls. Byrd winds up touring Europe strumming out those old Mott The Hoople chords standing stage-left to another hero he used to wait hours in line to see. “He was the nicest guy, as was Daltrey,” gushes Byrd, still filled with youthful enthusiasm.
Back in New York, Byrd, now clean and sober, starts putting another band together. “I put up with a lot less crap now,” he declares of his drugless lifestyle. “It’s like, ‘let’s get it done.’ I just don’t have any time for nonsense. Hey, I played. I ran out of dance tickets and now I’m sober and that’s the end of the story. I had a great time. I don’t regret anything. It was a ball but it got too rough. It’s all about looking in the mirror in the morning. You either like what you see or you don’t and at one point I didn’t like what I saw. It just wasn’t fun anymore.”
1995. Putting together a band. Yet again. “You either get the real guys who have some problems but will do anything if it’s rock’n’roll or the pro guys who play with lotsa bands and you’re just one more. It just didn’t work for me anymore. It was too all over the place. I knew the right guys were out there but I just couldn’t find ‘em.”
So he stopped looking.
“I couldn’t find anybody with the right imagination or commitment.”
Byrd started haunting songwriter circles showing up and not telling anybody who he was. He’d wait his hour, do his three songs, and “was scared to death.”
Four years later and Ricky Byrd is the consummate solo artist. His heartfelt originals throb with intensity, hitting universal chords with funky panache.
He wears his influences proudly. Just after Sinatra died, he totally hushed a noisy New York crowd with an a cappella “One For The Road.” His “No Band No Headaches” tour has a palpable industry buzz going on in his beloved New York City. With drummer Simon Kirke (ex-Bad Company) and bassist Kasim Sulton (ex-Todd Rundgren) just two of Byrd’s revolving rhythm section, he’s been stunning jaded Big Apple crowds into submission with every gig.
“This is the future for me,” he concedes. “Hard acoustic!”
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