Tuesday, July 2, 2024

Hot Hero Sandwich — On the Flip Side with Drummer Mike Ratti, Part II

by G. Jack Urso

 

Mike Ratti, drummer for the Hot Hero Band, has been instrumental in helping me navigate the complicated and complex nature of the music business. Whenever I have a question about the music for the series, people in the industry, how things got done, and how they’ve change, Mike has been my go-to man. A master raconteur, Mike always has a story or two to illustrate his point, and he paints those stories with details that make a writer’s job much easier.

After having focused on other aspects of the series in the past year, the Hot Hero Sandwich Project returns its attention back on the music with interviews with Music Coordinator Jimmy Biondolillo and Sound Engineer Ed Stasium, and an upcoming feature highlighting Hot Hero Sandwich’s Music Director, the legendary Felix Pappalardi of the band Mountain and producer of some of the era’s top Rock acts, including Creem, The Youngbloods, and Hot Tuna, among many others.

In this interview, Mike gives us some background on the industry of the era leading up to the Seventies and reveals how Hot Hero Sandwich producers Bruce and Carole Hart inadvertently got Mike Ratti fired and along the way we’ll encounter Lynyrd Skynyrd, Ted Nugent, and find out how Stephen Stills came to perform on the show.
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The Way We Were

Ae13U: Mike, can you give me some background on what the recording session was like leading up to the Seventies. From my limited understanding, the musicians seemed to have had less input than the executives in the past than by the late 70s when the bands, at least the big ones, began to exert more control.

Mike Ratti: It was set up that you go into a studio. You had to have somebody engineer it. You had to have somebody produce it, meaning you had to have somebody representing the record label and all the powers to be, why you were in that room, and then you had to have somebody document that — a contractor.

Caricature of Mike Ratti by Hot Hero Sandwich writer Sherry Coben (1979).
Every session was like that in the music business, no matter who you were. As the business became as popular as it did in the late 50s, now 60s, where now you're having bands and musicians, it wasn't a free-for-all. They didn't allow musicians, managers, agents, to be a part of it. It was like when you come into the room — look at all those old pictures of The Beatles [in a studio], what’s everyone wearing?

Ae13U: Suits and ties.

Mike Ratti: Because it was, you know, even across the pond, it was the same way.

Ae13U: Right.

Mike Ratti: More and more of the business became more and more of, I mean the big money, the big concerts, the big bands, and then I'd say some probably somewhere in the 70s it started to change over where you know we're not going in with the producer, the contractor, we're bringing in our own bands . . . with the Byrds, with the Mamas and the Papas, with Led Zeppelin. . . . You did not need a contractor or a producer hired from the label.

Ae13U: So, by 1979, during the production of Hot Hero Sandwich, that was the waning days of the old model, or maybe it was surpassed by then?

Mike Ratti: Yeah, it could be a window of years, but yes, that’s exactly as you say Jack.

Ae13U: By now I've got nearly every scene of Hot Hero memorized, including the music and the bumpers.

On most series, the soundtrack music would be played by contracting musicians, but during my research the only actual music I hear on the series, besides the guest performances and some music videos [like Donovan’s “I Love My Shirt], is music the Hot Hero Band itself performs, the songs, bumpers, and instrumentals — no one else, correct?

Mike Ratti: Right. I was there every recording session. I was there every meeting — and “I” meaning “we” [referring to the Hot Hero Band] . . . We’re not here to discredit anyone, just set the record straight.

Ae13U: Having a house band for the show really changed the old way of doing things, particularly with Felix on board.
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Come Together . . .

Ae13U:  Alright, let's pick up the story when the Hot Hero Band was brought together. This somehow involved the Rex Smith Band, right?

Rex, 1977: Lars Hanson, Lou Vandora, Rex Smith, Orville David, and Mike Ratti.
Mike Ratti: The Rex Band with Rex Smith and myself, we were disbanded by the management company Leber and Krebs [Note: founded by legendary managers Stan Leber and David Krebs] for Rex to go on to do Sooner or Later [1979 TV movie] with the Harts. I think I might have told you this story, but we got fired because we played Madison Square Garden. That's where, that's where Bruce and Carol [Hart] in the audience saw Rex.

Ae13U: Fired? I didn’t hear that story before!

Mike Ratti: Oh, what? You've never heard that story?

Ae13U: I never heard that story!

Mike Ratti:  Oh, alright. Sit back . . . so, the band Rex [fronted by Rex Smith] was on tour, right? First of all, let me back up. We were managed by Leber-Krebs. Leber-Krebs were a big management company, which back in the 70s and 80s had to have. You couldn't play the game, be a part of this, unless you had a manager or management company. They were the ones that had the contacts with everybody.

Ae13U: Right.

Mike Ratti: They managed . . . Aerosmith, Ted Nugent, AC/DC . . . Humble Pie when they [both] were in the states. So, they acted as the management company when the band was here. When they were overseas, they had their own management company and that's how the business was.

So, they [Leber-Krebs] had signed Rex a deal with CBS Records for five albums. In other words, they said the CBS records we have this artist, we have this band, we're going to put them out there, our responsibility, we take all the financial end, whatever . . . Well, we did one album and went on tour for a year. Did another album and went on tour for a year . . . and we were on tour with Ted Nugent and the co-headliners were Ted Nugent and Lynyrd Skynyrd.

Ae13U: Oh, man, what a ticket!

Mike Ratti: So, we were on tour. We were the opening act for those two bands each night since they were co-headliners. One band would end the night, then, the next night, the other band would close. We played with them into October of 1977 and we were hanging out with Lynyrd Skynyrd that night, they said, yeah, “We'll see you up in New York at Madison Square Garden.” November 10th was the date. Same building, three bands. “We'll [Lynyrd Skynyrd] see you up at the Garden because we're heading to whichever gigs you guys are heading.”


Back up north two days later, we're on the road, it was October 20th and we got word the plane went down and there was the accident [which killed three members of the band and serious hurt the others]. So, my first thought is. “Uh oh, there goes the gig in Madison Square Garden. My family's not going to be able to come and see me.”

Ae13U: What happened afterwards?

Mike Ratti: We're still playing, working our way up because we're getting closer to the city.

That was brought up at some point. I couldn't tell you exactly when and it was. It was that the show was going on. Ron Delsener, the Big New York promoter, said, “The show will go on with Ted Nugent and Rex, and that's what I said to everybody, “We're going to get the shit kicked out of us. They’re gonna boo us. They’re gonna boo us!”

Ae13U: Replacing Lynyrd Skynyrd under those circumstances, not a good position.

Mike Ratti: We were like, “Oh, man! Oh, man!” So, we finally we did that date. We did, it went over.  I mean, people were still talking. WNEW and Allison Steele [legendary NY DJ] raved about it the next day on the radio. She said that opening act . . . I've never seen a band like that . . . we got RAVE reviews.

It was in November, November 10th, We played couple of shows after that and then came the holidays . . .

Ae13U: November 10th, what year would that be?

Mike Ratti:  1977. November 10 is the same day as the first episode of Hot Hero Sandwich [Nov. 10, 1979]. That's why this day means a lot to me — same day.

A ticket for the Nov. 10, 1977 show Lynyrd Sknyrd never made.
(Uncle G's Classic Rock Concert Memories).
Ae13U: So [after the holidays] in 78, we go into practice for a third album. They decide to send us up to Woodstock [NY] and rehearse and record what we're doing with Eddie Offord, a big producer, he produced Yes.  So, he had a studio, I believe it was at Levon Helm’s barn, the one that burnt down.

So, we're recording and we're doing the songs that we're preparing for the third album live to see how it sounds. Eddie is just recording us and its big barn, and we're up there for a couple of weeks and around February we take some time off — and this is as early spring — I get a phone call from Leber-Krebs management at my parents’ house, which I don't live there, I just happen to be there raking the leaves, and I'm thinking it is an emergency or something's wrong, right? I didn't even know they had my parents’ number.

And I was told, “Hi Mike . . . We're having a meeting. We need everybody there. You have to come in.” I said, “OK, when?” She said “Tomorrow! But I need to get in touch with Lou [Lou Van Dora, guitar] and Lars Hanson [guitar and keyboards].” Well, Lou is on vacation in Brunswick, Georgia, where he’s from, and Lars, I think is in the city somewhere. I could track them down. I asked what about Rex? She said, don't worry about Rex.

So, I call up Lou and he jumps on the plate and we went back in that office for meeting the very next day . . . and it's the band minus Rex Smith, and we're having a meeting with David Craft at his office. He says, “Guys I know we're preparing for third album, you’re working hard, you know, we gave it a good shot . . .” I’m biting my lip because I don't like the way that sounds.

So, we're sitting there and he says, “What we decided to do was disband the group . . . we're going to go a different route with Rex . . . we have an opportunity for him to be in a made-for-TV movie special and we're going to go that route.”

So, of course, we say, what about the band? Basically, then he thought we didn't want to accept what he was saying. He said, “Look, the band is over. I'm putting him into a major TV movie.”

And we asked how did this come about? He said, “He [Rex Smith] was discovered one at one of the shows when you played Madison Square Garden [Nov. 10, 1977]. There were writers and producers out there that like what they saw and approached us. They tracked us down and gave us a pitch of what they would like to do.”

We were asking the questions and then at that point he said, “Look, the meeting is over. We’ll settle up everything.” I asked, I said “David when can we expect our last paycheck?” And he looked at his wrist — he did not have a watch on —and said “Last week.”

Ae13U: Ouch! “It’s a Long Way to the Top If You Want to Rock and Roll,” huh? Were Robert Brissette and Mark Cunningham [bassist and guitarist, respectively, for the Hot Hero Band] in on this?

Mike Ratti: No. This is leading up to that. This is how it led to Hot Hero. Robert played with Rex in the band Tricks. He was asked to be in this band, but he went back to college and he said no, I'm not quitting school again, so he passed on it to be the bass player. We got Orville Davis to be the bass player. Mark Cunningham was the guitar player when Rex did the demos in a band called The Flying Tigers, which was right before this deal, he [Smith] brought tapes up to New York and got the deal, got people interested. Mark was the guitar player. It didn't work out. Mark went his way . . . with Rick Derringer, we continued as Rex.

Ae13U: OK, got it.

Rex Smith, including the Hot Hero Band’s Mark Cunningham, Robert Brissette, and Mike Ratti, burn up the air waves in this promotional music video for the track “Superhero” from the album Forever.

Mike Ratti:  So we were told that these people in the audience said that's the guy [Rex Smith] we want for our movie and they tracked him down.

Ae13U: Let me get this straight. They saw the band Rex perform at MSG on Nov. 10, 1977. Thought Rex Smith would be perfect for their movie, reached out to the Leber-Krebs management company, who, based on that offer, decided they were going to disband the Rex band, correct?

Mike Ratti: Yes, based on he was going to make a movie, they were going to pay for everything. Now, could they have kept the band? Probably. Was that important to them, though? No, the band was still then trying to do something, but they're saying we want to do this. We're going to put him in the studio. We have the songs written to the movie. [Note: By Stephen Lawrence and Bruce Hart who also wrote the Hot Hero Sandwich theme song.]

All of a sudden it was like a “win” situation for that office based on business. They got somebody here jumping in on their bandwagon and all of a sudden they don't have to pay any money for this, — and now they did not need us. We didn't need mean anything to them.

Ae13U: “Welcome to the Rock and Roll business boys. Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.”

Check out a segment of music from the Rex performance on Nov. 10, 1977!

Mike Ratti: So Rex was brought into Carole and Bruce’s stable because they saw us play November 10th, 1977, at Madison Square Garden. With that, they then did the Sooner or Later movie with all of those hits and that album went gold, and who produced it? Charlie Calello.

Ae13U: Jimmy Biondolillo’s mentor! Now it all comes together. Jimmy sat in on those sessions and that’s how Bruce and Carole met Jimmy. [Note: Jimmy Biondolillo became the music coordinator for Hot Hero Sandwich. See his interview with the Project for more information.]

Mike Ratti: Right. Now fast-forward less than a year and now the Harts have the Hot Hero thing that they're working on and they decide they need a band. Wouldn't it be great to have a band? The kids would love that.

They didn’t want to get studio musicians — old guys — so the Harts said, not putting words into their mouths, but what about the band and the musicians we used in the movie [Sooner or Later]?

Mike Ratti during the Rex Era.
Ae13U: Although there was a band with Rex in the movie, they decided not to use anyone from the Rex band itself? Seems kind of pointless.

Mike Ratti: Well . . . I had the part but I blew it Jack. I had to do a reading with Rex and Bruce. They [his agency] sent me. The agent said, “This is his drummer. This is his look. He can talk. He's not an actor . . . I just hung out with him for an hour, just observing him. He's the perfect guy for you. He's the perfect drummer.”

Well, he came and walked into the room with the first. Bruce says, “OK, here's the line Mikey. Just go off and do it.” And I go, “Uh . . . Uh.”

“NEXT!”

Ae13U: [Laughter]. Ah, the limelight . . .

Mike Ratti: Everybody that was in the band [in Sooner or Later] were actors, except for Mark [Cunningham]. Rex brought Mark in because, he said, “Look, I want something legit and he does play and I've worked with him.”

I think I think he felt bad that it didn't work out with Mark with the right band and Rex just reached out and said, “Hey, I got this little bit for you. You'll be on screen, you know, you get paid. You know how to play the guitar. It’ll be the real deal.”

And that's how Mark was brought in. They reached out to Mark based on that and said we need some musicians, do you know anybody? It’s going to be kind of like Sooner or Later, except it's going to be a TV show for kids. Mark reached out to some people and they all said, “What?”

Don't forget this is 1979, right?

Ae13U: Right.

Mike Ratti:  All the musicians are, “I'm gonna make it. I'm gonna be Led Zeppelin. Don't tell me what to do. I'm not going to do a TV show!” So, TV and music were separate in those days, there was no marriage like it is today. It was totally separate.

There were a couple of people that turned it down. He reached out to myself, to Robert [Brissette] and Ritchie [Annunizato], his childhood friend, and that’s how the Hot Hero Band became. Again, based on November 10th, 1977, when we played Madison Square Garden.

Ae13U: Fantastic!

Mike Ratti: If the Harts didn’t see that performance, there would be no Sooner or Later, there would be no Hot Hero.

Ae13U: The two are really intertwined. It was about that time when Felix Pappalardi was tapped for Hot Hero Sandwich. According to a Nov. 24, 1979, Record World article, Carole Hart said she was with a psychic friend, along with Bruce and their film editor [presumably Hot Hero editor Patrick McMahon] who said she saw the name “Felix,” and they all immediately knew that must be Felix Pappalardi!

Mike Ratti: I could see how that definitely happened. Felix Pappalardi was now with Leber-Krebs [who managed Rex Smith] and David Krebs was dealing with Carole.

Ae13U: Ok, so things are coming full circle. Regarding the details going on in the recording sessions for the show, there was the band, Felix, the engineer Ed Stasium. Jimmy Biondolillo was there at times as well, right?

Mike Ratti: Jimmy did come in a few times and I remember him sitting in the control room sitting next to Felix. He [Jimmy] had to document that [the session work] to NBC, the Harts, their people, Local 802, AFTRA — they all had to have, “What the hell did you do?” Felix didn’t do that. We didn’t do that. Did Jimmy do that? I’m going to say yes. Musical directors [like Felix] had nothing to do with it.

Ae13U: I know that the musical guests were the Harts picks, but did Felix have any input there?

Mike Ratti: Stephen Stills [Episode 4] was a favor for Felix.

Ae13U: Really? That’s news!

Mike Ratti: They were best friends in Greenwich Village back in the early 60s. He came in to do that as a favor. How do I know that? My path crossed with Stephen Stills when I was in LA with Rex doing what his one of his final albums in the early/late 80s, that was right after Hot Hero, and I was in an all-night supermarket, they called it the supermarket of the stars, and who was in line in front of me, Stephen Stills! I tapped him on the shoulder and I told him who I was, and he said, “Yeah, I remember that show. I did that for my buddy Felix Pappalardi. That was a favor.” So yeah, he did that as a favor for Felix.

Stephen Stills performing “Sugar Babe” on episode 4 of Hot Hero Sandwich.

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Concluding Thoughts

As Mike Ratti details above, the Rock and Roll road is a rough one. Success can lead to failure, tragedy to opportunity, and along the way are the suits who will sell you out for the next big thing. So, why would anyone willingly go through this?

Well, for over 40 years the memory of Hot Hero Sandwich has been sustained by the performances of the band. No records, cassettes, or singles. No VHS, CDs, or DVDs, just music that was played over tiny TV speakers and then forgotten — except that it wasn’t. Probably every Hot Hero fan could recall the theme song, or the other songs, long before the internet. It's a credit to the songwriters, the band, and Felix Pappalardi.

That’s not just music. That, true believers, is magic — and it doesn’t come in a suit. 

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2 comments:

  1. After over 50 years of listening to the music of the 60s and 70s I finally have an understanding, and a new respect, for what the musicians had to go through. Thanks for your great stories and your career Mike R. Thoroughly enjoyed the interview. Look forward to enjoying the vids.

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  2. Something how kismet, or fate, plays a part here in the firing/hiring of Mike and the HHS band. Of course, it took a lot of hard work too which this article helps us lay people to appreciate. Well done.

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