What would a classical enthusiast pay to hear a brand new Mozart composition, or to what lengths would a die-hard rock & roll fan go to see Jimi Hendrix in concert again? The answer is nearer than you think! Let’s dig into the makings of this underrated Bach of the new millennium.
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Steven J. Morse was born on July 28, 1954 in Hamilton, Ohio, USA, the son of a minister (father) and musically trained pianist (mother). Both being psychologists too. Steve spent his first few years in Ohio before moving to Georgia via Tennessee and Michigan (where Steve played in his first band, The Plague, with his brother Dave). The move to Georgia played a significant part in Steve's musical development, as enrolled in the Richmond Academy in Augusta, Steve met future Dregs bassist Andy West while in the 10th grade. By the late 60's the Dixie Grit were formed, consisting of Morse and West on guitar and bass respectively, Johnny Carr on keyboards, Frank Brittingham on vocals/guitar and Steve's older brother filling in on drums. The band's repertoire included covers of Led Zeppelin and Cream amongst others.
Morse comments on his musical upbringing in Augusta and this particular era of his career: "Dixie Grit became loved and hated in that town. Many of the folks that went to that coffeehouse (The Glass Onion) and our concerts loved the band. Everybody that went to the dances we played at hated us. Well, at that time, originals and covers like Zeppelin were considered unacceptable material to play at a dance. Still, we played some actual gigs, including opening at some local concerts. The guys were all talented, and we really had a pretty cool band. Anyway, we eventually disbanded. At that point, Andy and I were keen to keep on playing instrumental music on our own to the same people that liked the Dixie Grit band. So, since we were the only ones left from the group, or the dregs of the group, we called it Dixie Dregs. Our first gig as the Dregs probably was in 1971 or 1972, not that I wrote it down, but just using cues from my own educational timeline."
The history of Dixie Grit was rather short-lived however, as Morse, who had been suspended from high school for not cutting his hair, decided to commence studies at the University of Miami's School of Music, which had a good reputation among budding musicians in America.
Andy West later enrolled in the University of Miami as well, and part of their musical studies were devoted to a lab project called the Rock Ensemble II, where the individual members learned to adapt to a group situation. The band rehearsed and performed at school on a regular basis and people took notice. There wasn't a shortage of fans on campus, one of them being Rod Morgenstein, a drummer hailing from Long Island, New York, who said “...there was this one other guy who stuck out like a sore thumb [laughs]. He had long blond hair, and he played a solid-body Fender Telecaster with a Stratocaster neck, this whole hybrid guitar, and his sound had some twang to it. And he would change pickups as he was soloing, and his lines didn't sound like stock bebop lines. And the teacher was always telling him, "Why can't you sound like this guy?" He was just doing his own thing, and I knew he was awesome. He was very quiet, kind of did the class, and then went off and did his own thing. That was Steve.” Morse continues: “During this time, I was in a traditional jazz program. My principal instrument was the classical guitar, and I was a rock and roller, southern style.”
One day, when the drummer of the Rock Ensemble II had broken his arm in a surfing accident, Rod Morgenstein was asked to fill in, and the young drummer was happy to oblige. At this time, the group consisted of Morse on guitar, West on bass, Frank Josephs on keyboards and Bart Yarnald on drums (eventually replaced by Morgenstein). Graduating in 1975, Morse and West waited for Morgenstein to finish studies at the university. Once out of school, there was no need to keep the name “Rock Ensemble II”, and the Dixie Dregs became the group's official name. By the way, that “hybrid guitar” Rod spoke about, was assembled by Steve himself and included (along with the Fender body and Strat neck) a Gibson tune-o-matic bridge, a tailpiece from a twelve string, Gibson frets for the neck, five pickups and three toggle switches. No wonder Steve once called it his Frankenstein Telecaster! As time (and the guitar) wore on, that guitar evolved into the custom made Ernie Ball Musicman Steve Morse model guitar, which Steve plays to this day.
The group rehearsed original material like "Odyssey" (an ambitious fusion piece which would end up on the "What If" album from 1978) as well as tricky covers of Mahavishnu Orchestra songs and southern rock gems such as "Jessica" by the Allman Brothers band. The unique ability to fuse laid-back jazz, energy filled bluegrass, groovy funk and rootsy rock & roll was one of the band’s defining characteristics from the start.
The Dixie Dregs would soon be cutting records on a consistent basis, but primarily they were a gigging unit, spending most of their time on the road. As early as 1976, they were recording demos for record companies, in between the multitude of gigs they played. Never a commercial band, it wasn't easy for the Dixie Dregs to attract attention in the fickle music industry. Their talent was evident from the start, but finding a label willing to promote the music and care about them as an artistic outfit, would prove difficult.
Though it was hard work, the constant touring finally paid off. At one show (The Exit Inn in Nashville) a few members of the Allman Brothers entourage (Chuck Leavell, keyboard player and Twiggs Lyndon, stage manager) were in attendance, and were impressed with what they heard. The Allman Brothers were signed to the renowned Capricorn Records label, and one thing leading to another, two record company representatives were sent to a show in Macon, Georgia to see if the Dixie Dregs were worth investing in. The band passed the test with flying colors and were signed to Capricorn Records around Christmas of 1976.
Their debut album "Free Fall" came out in the spring of 1977, featuring diverse pieces such as the funky (sic) "Refried Funky Chicken", the acoustic sounds of "Northern Lights" and the catchy concert staple "Cruise Control". Even though the band had not reached their peak at this stage, "Free Fall" remains emblematic of their work, brimming with energy and optimism. The band kept up the heavy touring pace with shows mostly confined to clubs, though touring schedules were sometimes interspersed with opening slots for better known bands, as well as the occasional festival appearance.
Some argue that the group's second album, "What If", is the pinnacle of the Dregs catalogue alongside 1980's "Dregs of the Earth". It's hard to disagree with that sentiment when listening to the album almost 25 years after its release. Featuring fusion classics like the energetic opener "Take it Off the Top", "Odyssey" or the poignant beauty of "Night Meets Light", the album is an ideal introduction to any new fan of either the Dixie Dregs or Steve Morse, as it exemplifies Morse's exceptional composition skills.
Although playing 150-200 gigs a year at this time, the Dixie Dregs seldom toured outside America, where the band had its strongest cult following. 1978 proved to be an exception, when the band was invited to perform at the prestigious Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland on July 23rd. The show was recorded for posterity, and was later included as a B side to 1979’s "Night of the Living Dregs".
Just when things were looking up, Capricorn Records declared bankruptcy, creating the need to find a new label that would be willing to take on this instrumental act with almost insignificant airplay. It seemed hopeless.
Fortunately for the Dregs (and us!), Arista Records saw potential, and the band signed a contract for three albums. "Dregs of the Earth" was released in 1980 and in terms of writing, playing and production, is loaded with the signature trademarks that scream Steve Morse. There isn't a dull moment on the record, "Pride O' The farm" displaying Morse's feel for bluegrass, "Hereafter" the subtle beauty of his quieter compositions, and "I'm Freaking Out" which still ranks as one of the favorite Dixie Dregs tunes among hardcore fans. Turn it up loud!
In an attempt at a more commercial approach, the band changed their name to simply “The Dregs”. Not that it had much effect musically, as their 1981 release "Unsung Heroes" helped cement the band's reputation as one of the current top instrumental acts, which was reflected in the band earning a Grammy nomination for Best Instrumental Performance. "Unsung Heroes" proved to be the last Dregs record with violinist Allan Sloan, as he decided to become a doctor. Mark O'Connor, a young virtuoso barely out of his teens, was hired to play the violin based on his merits (winner of Nashville's Grand Masters Fiddle Championship) though he was equally capable on the guitar, playing double lead and doing soloing in “Bloodsucking Leeches” on future tours.
Unfortunately, the Grammy nominations didn't seem to help album sales, and the band was pressured into becoming something they certainly weren't used to being - a band designed for playing arenas and scoring top ten hits. In a 1987 interview Steve offers the following about the band's 1983 album “Industry Standard”..."During my career I've had various pressures on me to try this and that with my music or try this and that kind of format," he says, hinting at the vocal presence on the Dregs' swan song, Industry Standard, their third release for Arista and sixth as a band. "That certainly was a productive project. I enjoyed the songs a lot. But the bottom line, thankfully, is that Industry Standard didn't sell any more records than the previous one did. If it had, I might've been in real trouble. I'd have to be writing songs like that for the rest of my life. So that kind of got everyone off my back about vocals. Actually, the management company had made us a bet that if we tried vocals and didn’t sell any more records, that we could get out of our management contract with no legal problems. So, naturally, we decided to try vocals with some of our friends.“
The title of “Industry Standard” was rather telling, as the band were persuaded to invite guest singers aboard for the first time, in an attempt to receive more airplay. Although obviously a commercial move, Alex Ligertwood of Santana fame and Doobie Brothers cohort Patrick Simmons complimented the Dregs well. Though the intricate musical roller coaster may have been parked a few times in favor of conventional song verses, the Dregs trademark sound still shined through, and the two numbers ("Crank it Up" and "Ridin' High") bring a smile to the face, even though they sound a bit dated 20 years on. Plenty of strong material was still in abundance on the record, and the band received a Grammy nomination for Best Rock/Jazz Instrumental Performance.
The number of gigs per year had certainly not decreased by 1983, and it was all starting to take its toll. Sadly, even at this relatively late stage of the band's career, the touring did not seem to help the band sell more records. Morse gives his perspective on this rather sad period in the group's history: "People in the band felt a sense of security. We concentrated on other things besides the music. Everybody was taking everything for granted, assuming that the gigs would just be there. I remember towards the end of one tour our edge slipped away. We did three gigs in a row that were miserable for me (they probably sounded fine). I just decided that I would rather cut people's yards with hay cutters than do this." Morse decided to quit the group, which disbanded shortly thereafter. True to his word, Steve went on to cut hay.
Not that Steve ever got far from playing music, but perhaps putting down the guitar for a time resulted in picking up the pen and writing about it instead. In November of 1983, Steve’s first article was published in his own column titled “Open Ears” in the American magazine “Guitar for the Practicing Musician.” Over time, Steve would eventually write over 100 columns, and in one of two published compilations of these columns states “..my essays have always leaned more toward the philosophy of being a musician rather than just technique. As a writer, I am a novice, but I feel my goal will have been achieved if a positive thought is illuminated when you read what I’ve got to say. In the long run, I believe that a musician’s quality is equal only to his quality as a person.”
Steve eventually scratched the itch to play music again, and desiring control of both the musical and business side of things, Steve opted for a smaller format. The Steve Morse Band was formed, starting out with Jerry Peek on the bass and drummer Doug Morgan, discovered in an opening band for the Dregs, called “3 P.M.” Old friend Rod Morgenstein eventually replaced Morgan a few months later, as he became available. The band signed to Elektra records, and "The Introduction" was released in 1984. The quintet of the Dixie Dregs had merged into a trio, and, much to the delight of six-string fans, Steve had more room for blistering guitar work. Bluegrass showstopper "General Lee" featured a guest appearance by Albert Lee, and the band even scored a minor hit with "Cruise Missile", sending budding guitar players home to practice.
Steve's talent as a composer was conspicuous in the Dixie Dregs, but his prowess as a guitarist came to the fore with the Steve Morse Band. The group's follow-up record "Stand Up" was completed in 1985 and it seemed the band was onto something big when they landed the special guest slot on Rush's 1986 tour of North America. Sadly, Elektra Records almost seemed disinterested in promoting the band. In the end, Elektra did not release the album on CD, and Rush fans, eager to experience the band's latest studio album, left record stores empty handed as the discontinued LP was difficult to find (Steve’s manager now has a license to print the CD, and the album is often available at shows). Morse wanted stability and did not find it at Elektra or with the Steve Morse Band. It was time to re-evaluate.
Steve would eventually end up as the new lead guitarist for Kansas, and as he recalls "I still had my band together and I saw Phil Ehart at a concert and suggested that he put his band back together, and he said "Actually, that’s what we’re talking about doing, putting the band back together with Steve Walsh (the original singer).” “I offered to play on the album if he did, in fact, get Kansas back together...The band was trying to reestablish itself with new personnel, so it was important that it be a strong unit” Morse continues. "Power" came out in 1986 on MCA Records, and is not just recommended for Kansas aficionados, but also for fans of the best melodic hard rock you're likely to hear. Steve put his stamp on the writing process and several songs echo his compositional style. Morse contributed more than one classic guitar solo, and singer Steve Walsh has the kind of emotion attached to his voice that few possess. Numerous songs off the album made their way into live shows, where Steve even demonstrated his ability on the violin occasionally.
Halfway through his stint with Kansas, Morse decided to cut his hair and start working as a commercial airline pilot. This didn't come as a complete surprise to fans, who knew Steve had been flying for years. Morse came to new conclusions while working as a pilot: "I recommend it to everyone, if they can afford to change their whole way of thinking about their career in life and see what they really like about it and what they don't." Meanwhile in Kansas, business got in the way of music once again, and the band's 1988 follow-up album, "In the Spirit of Things", saw a band struggling to keep record company executives out of the recording studio. "Power" had been written by a band eager to explore new musical avenues though for "In The Spirit of Things", the record company brought in people to write hit songs for the band. Steve wasn't entirely satisfied with the way things were going, even though the band may have been musically successful. Morse comments: “I was working on that album while I was an airline pilot, and continued to finish it when I quit flying. The producer, Bob Ezrin, was very impressive to me, despite pressure from outside the band to come up with hit singles.” Steve eventually came to the conclusion that he should leave Kansas. A time-out was in order.
The invitation to join Lynyrd Skynyrd onstage at an Atlanta concert in the late 80's became yet another turning point for Morse, who realized that playing music wasn't that bad after all, even though it meant trying to stay afloat in an industry dominated by making money more than music.
Steve was back, and his favorite project (officially his first solo album) was about to be launched. Joined by Morgenstein on drums, Lavitz on keyboards and Jerry Peek on bass, "High Tension Wires" (1989), featured a new side of Steve. Intricate arrangements were replaced by a more acoustic, and melody driven direction. Although including an exercise in guitar wizardry, "Tumeni Notes", the album was surprisingly more on the thoughtful and introspective side with songs of melancholy, optimism, and beauty. Steve was once again a force to be reckoned with. The late 80's was an era for monster guitarists (such as Steve Vai, Joe Satriani and Eric Johnson) and Steve ended up winning Guitar Player magazine's readers poll for Best Overall Guitarist five years in a row (he then became ineligible, allowing other guitarists a shot at the title).
The late 80’s also saw the first Dixie Dregs reunion come alive. Rod Morgenstein was still there, and so were T Lavitz and original Dregs violinist Allan Sloan, though Andy West had moved on to other projects. T Lavitz had recently cut a solo album, and the bass player was a guy from New Jersey, Dave LaRue. With a feel for funk and impeccable technique, Dave was almost instantly asked to join. He didn't hesitate.
After the reunion tour it was time to promote "High Tension Wires". Morgenstein had recently joined Winger, and Dave LaRue had proved a capable foil for Steve in concert, so was asked to stay onboard. LaRue wasn't short of musician friends, and remembered a drummer from a band project called Stretch that he had been involved with. It was Van Romaine. Having graduated from the University of Miami ten years after Steve, Van did one audition, and was in. Romaine completed the trio with Morse and LaRue, and the Steve Morse Band rose again. They are a working unit to this day.
When it was time to start writing a new album, Steve felt a change of direction was in order. As a contrast to "High Tension Wires", 1991's "Southern Steel" resulted from the trio's extensive road work, where they were able to get a feel for each other and flex their muscles musically. Highlights include the beautiful "Vista Grande" provoking images of endless desert plains, the melodically soaring "Wolf Song" and funky odd-time signature workout of "Sleaze Factor". The album was a return to the rock and band format, and many of the tunes still appear on the SMB set list.
"High Tension Wires" and "Southern Steel" marked the beginning of a new era. Steve was back in working mode. The trio became an even tighter unit by continuous gigging, and the inspiration present would result in a steady flow of studio releases over the coming years.
With 1992 came the release of the Steve Morse Band album "Coast to Coast" as well as the second officially released Dixie Dregs live album. Ironically given the title "Bring 'em Back Alive", the record featured a wide selection of classic Dixie Dregs tunes performed to near perfection. Recorded in Steve's old stomping grounds of Atlanta, Georgia, the band for the recorded show and subsequent tour once again featured LaRue on bass, Morgenstein on drums, Lavitz on keyboards and Sloan on violin. Sloan was present for a few gigs, but couldn't commit to long periods of time on the road, as he was busy with his medical career. The replacement violinist's credentials made the other fusion fans in the group (everyone of them!) more than excited. Jerry Goodman, former violinist of the renowned Mahavishnu Orchestra, joined the Dixie Dregs and is part of the group to this day. The Mahavishnu Orchestra was a great influence on the Dregs when starting out in the early 70's. The guys in the band picked up on this and the Dregs first studio album of original material in ten years, titled "Full Circle", was issued in 1994. The album also marked the return to Capricorn Records, the original label that the Dixie Dregs signed to, and is the latest Dixie Dregs studio offering at present.
Steve once again turned his focus to the Steve Morse Band, producing "Structural Damage" in 1995, followed by "Stressfest" the year after. "Structural Damage" embodied the distinctive features which we have come to expect from a composer like Morse, with influences ranging from country and funk into hard rock and classical music. "Stressfest" on the other hand, leaned towards the heavier side of the spectrum, with songs more suited to live settings like the title track and the exciting jamming of “Rising Power” turning into showstoppers.
The heavier direction for the trio may have resulted from Steve joining Deep Purple in late 1994. Purple had lost founding member Ritchie Blackmore in 1993, completing Japanese and European tours with Joe Satriani. The search began for a permanent guitarist, and the story goes that Steve was on top of everyone's list. Steve's only major concern was about the possibility of a dress code, and learning leather or spandex wasn't mandatory, try-out gigs were booked in Mexico around November of 1994. The guys developed mutual admiration for each other musically in rehearsal, but it would take the band the debut live show in Mexico City to fully realize their potential. Steve was asked to join almost instantly, and work soon commenced on the new line-up's debut album, "Purpendicular", issued in 1996. The album is a favorite among Deep Purple fans because of its variety and superb songwriting, and Steve was welcomed by fans almost from day one. Morse would grow a real fondness for the individual musicians as time went by in the studio and on tour. “It's amazing how little talking is needed to put a tune together with these guys. Just after going through a progression a few times, Ian Paice puts together a bunch of different possibilities for the different parts, and you don't need to say anything to him. He's really a natural. Roger, the bass player, has been the band's producer and co-songwriter for so long now, he just naturally figures out what works and what doesn’t. All of a sudden, he'll give a cue to the band, and pick up on it instantly. One of my favorite things about Deep Purple was Jon Lord's organ playing, and it was great jamming with him when we first got together down in Mexico, in November of '94. We immediately had some kind of telepathic communication about how we back each other up.” The legendary British hard rock band are constantly out on the road, and have toured the world on more than one occasion since Steve joined the band. A follow-up album to "Purpendicular" came out in 1998, simply called "Abandon". The line-up's most notable live album is 1999's "Total Abandon", which captures the band in full flight on tour in Sydney, Australia. The entire band is firing on all cylinders, and the album is a pure delight as far as guitar playing goes. It’s also Steve’s favorite Purple record. Another live album worth mentioning is "In Concert with the London Symphony Orchestra: Live at the Royal Albert Hall", which is a recording of Purple live in concert with the orchestra for two nights at the famous London venue in 1999. The concerts both featured classic Purple songs, as well as solo material highlighting individual members' work outside of the band. Morse invited Dave LaRue and Van Romaine to London for two brilliant renditions of "Take It Off The Top" and "Night Meets Light" (both from the Dixie Dregs album "What If" from 1978).
The last six years have seen Steve devoting more and more of his time to Deep Purple, in addition to the Steve Morse Band, various sessions, solo tours, and the occasional Dixie Dregs reunion. Steve’s characteristic humor shows in a recent interview where he said about the reunions “We're like a telethon that gets put on every year”.
2000 saw the release of Steve's critically acclaimed second solo album, titled "Major Impacts”. The album concept came from new record label Magna Carta, and was based around the idea of having Steve write an album of original songs, each one a tribute to a guitar player who had influenced Steve, including George Harrison, Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck, Keith Richards, Alex Lifeson and John McLaughlin amongst a host of other axe wizards. Perhaps it was prophetic that the subject matter of Steve’s first “Open Ears” column from 17 years earlier (November of 1983) echoed precisely the album concept. In the article titled “Creative Influences” Steve says “My first music teacher told me that the definition of style was a repetition of ideas that you alone are associated with. All of the famous guitarists I've met or read about, who have easily identified styles, are concerned about everyone literally copying them. But on the other hand, they must have started off at some point by copying other people's solos. Imitation is the greatest form of flattery, and it's not a bad thing to do, up to a point. But there comes a time when you want to transfer literal influence to creative influence... Creative influence is when you try to identify the essence of what attracts you to that particular player... Remember that copying licks is fine for getting your vocabulary down, but you do yourself a disservice if you don't try to find your own voice.” "Major Impacts" also serves as an ideal introduction for new fans because of its consistently high quality and demonstration of Steve's versatility as a composer and player. Morse is currently busy working on a follow-up, which is scheduled for a tentative release early next year. 2003 will hopefully also see the release of Deep Purple’s first studio album in five years. The band are due to start work on it in October of 2002, and the launch of it looks likely to mark the beginning of yet another tour around the globe for Morse in true Purple fashion.
The current Steve Morse Band album, "Split Decision", released in March 2002, is also on the Magna Carta label. The title and cover reflect the concept behind the record, being a demonstration of the electric and acoustic side of Steve as a composer. The first ‘side’ features an electric Morse pulling out all stops while the second is a collection of mellow acoustic pieces. A lot of work went into the production of the album, and kudos go to assistant engineer Brian Moritz for his work, as the record re-defines the meaning of the word "overdub". Standout tracks include "Gentle Flower, Hidden Beast" with its infectious funky riffing, "Great Mountain Spirits" with its beautiful melody and "Moment's Comfort", which is a touching representative of the acoustic side. It is simply essential Morse listening.
Steve once said “I'd like to have the versatility of Phil Collins, the integrity of Metheny, Holdsworth or McLaughlin, the chops of DiMeola, Malmsteen and Van Halen, and the musical finesse of Segovia.” Why don’t we tell him he’s made it?
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