If you were lucky enough to be around and going to concerts in the ’70s, you got to see some legendary hard rock bands that had varying degrees of commercial success, from one-hit-wonders to bands that became household names and everything in between. One such band I followed rabidly was Starz. I saw Starz at least a dozen times, mostly in New York City and the surrounding “tri-state area,” both as a show opener and a headliner, and they never failed to deliver as good a show as any band they were up against, and often blew the band they were opening for out of the house. One of the most visually impressive stage shows for the time, Starz was both fronted by a supremely talented front man, Michael Lee Smith, and anchored by a unique and accomplished drummer, Joe X. Dube. Surrounded by a huge concert-tom Tama kit before most of us had ever seen the brand logo, Joe was a versatile and creative player whose approach to hard rock drumming was equally informed by his two biggest influences, Gene Krupa and Keith Moon. What I didn’t know at the time was that “Dube,” as he’s known, had already been around the block as a member of the early-70’s pop band, Looking Glass, who’s mega #1 hit, “Brandy (You’re A Fine Girl)” you’ve heard more times than you can count. Starz only did four studio albums but they’ve all stood the test of time next to any of the great rock albums of the ’70s. The band still gigs regularly with four of its five original members, and continues to enjoy a loyal and devoted following. No monkey business, they’re still boys in action and they still tear it down…
SS: How did it all begin for you?
JXD: The two primary influences on my drumming style are Gene Krupa and Keith Moon, both of whom I met. I met Gene Krupa when I was 13. He was playing at a jazz club called the London House in Chicago and he was playing with a quartet. We sat right in front and when he came out to play his first set he looked like he had just woken up. I was absolutely stunned by what I saw that night. When he finished the first set and took a break, my father invited him to sit down with us and I couldn’t believe I was sitting with Gene Krupa. It couldn’t get any better than that! He signed something for me, wishing me luck with the drums, which I still have, and he said, “Let me give you a piece of advice,” and I thought he was going to give me the secret magic code for entrance into the drumming world, but instead he said, “Stay in school and get that high school diploma.” I thanked him and we went home.
Then, I met Keith Moon when me and Brenden [Harkin] went to a Lynyrd Skynyrd record release party in Union Square, probably around 1976 or so. The Who were on MCA at the time and they happened to be in N.Y.; so we go to the record release party and who is there but Keith Moon. I see him in a corner and he’s got a blonde on each arm, and a cigarette and a drink in each hand and he’s laughing his ass off, and just being Keith Moon. I was a fan since the “Happy Jack” album [A Quick One] and saw them on their second or third tour of the States–I’d seen him play the Fillmore, I’d see him at Woodstock, I saw him play Forest Hills, and I was just awestruck. I was in Looking Glass and I’d met a lot of people, but there’s Keith Moon, and I all of a sudden become speechless. I went over and just froze but I got to meet Keith Moon, so I’ve met both my idols.
SS: How did Looking Glass happen?
JXD: In 1968, after starting school in the Fall, I had a teacher who said, “Hey, I’ve got some friends that are looking for a drummer.” He knew that I was a player and a big music fan. I called the guy and he said to come down; so I threw all my drums in the van and drove down to New Brunswick, carried them up a five-story walk-up in a horrible part of town, set up and jammed for a few hours, playing Hendrix and Cream, and that became the band that preceded The Looking Glass. It was me and Pete Sweval, who was the bass player in Looking Glass and later in Starz, playing together when we were seniors in high school. The Summer after I graduated high school, that band would go down and play every week on the Jersey Shore, playing on the same bill as Child, a band that had a guitar player named Bruce Springsteen, and he was pretty f*ck*ng good. He’d play a gold-top Les Paul through a Marshall stack and crank the shit out of it; it was much different from where he eventually wound up. We both released our albums on CBS.
SS: So, Looking Glass started at Rutgers University with a different line-up. How did you and Pete end up in it later on?
JXD: Well, there was Looking Glass version one, which was a five-piece band with Elliot Lurie singing and playing guitar, and Larry Gonsky playing piano, and a drummer and Pete Sweval was playing rhythm guitar at the time, and they had a different bass player. That band broke up because Elliot and Larry wanted to go make some money, so they went and started doing lounge gigs. Peter found another guitar player and switched to bass, he got a singer and they needed a drummer and we started a band called, Tracks, which was a power trio with a singer, and we played pretty hard blues-rock. This is 1969. The singer got another gig and eventually Peter ran into Elliot and Larry who told him they had had enough of playing lounge gigs and they talked about putting the old band back together. So, Elliot and Larry, and me and Peter started Looking Glass, version two. We kept the name because people knew us and we could get work, it was easier to book.
Then when those guys were getting ready to graduate, we were sitting around Elliot’s apartment one day and they said they’d been writing material and asked if we wanted to peruse music or just go off and get jobs. Obviously, we all chose music and we went off and got a 180-year-old farmhouse in West New Jersey that was Mary Chapin Carpenter’s aunt’s house and we moved out there and lived on food stamps and a couple of gigs a month, while we wrote and rehearsed what became the first Looking Glass album, that included “Brandy,” and we ended up producing that version of that song ourselves.
After we had signed with CBS, Clive Davis called up Ahmet Ertegan at Atlantic and asked who he thought should produce us, and both of them felt that Steve Cropper, who had just gotten a producing deal with CBS, should do it. We went down to Memphis with the idea that we would record four tracks with Steve Cropper in his new studio, bring those tracks back to New York, and if we felt it was any good, go back to Memphis and finish up the record. When we listened to the four tracks we did with Cropper, it was good, but we all felt it was not what we’d had in mind; Memphis was a different kind of a groove than what we were figuring for this band. CBS had a guy on staff named Sandy Linzer, who’d done tons of pop records, so we went into the studio with him, literally around the corner from where I’m sitting right now, and we did some tracks with him, including “Brandy.” He told us to come back in a few days so he could do his own thing with them, and when we did, he’d done all kinds of crazy stuff with “Brandy,” put wind blowing sounds and ships bells and all kinds of crazy stuff on it. He was thinking of something like, “Listen to the rhythm of the falling rain,” by the Cascades where there were actual raindrops. We said that wasn’t what we wanted and we realized we’d already done a few versions of it on our own, and we just said give us a good studio and a guy at the board and let us do it. So, the version you hear is the one we did. We kept the bass and the drums from the version Sandy Linzer had done and wiped everything else and layered all new parts over it, including the horn parts we wrote ourselves.
SS: That came out in ’72 and the band was together for at least another few years, with Brenden Harken eventually joining, right?
JXD: Well, we had a huge hit with “Brandy,” did “American Bandstand”, did Kenny Rogers, telethons, a lot of TV. We had considered ourselves a serious hard rock band before “Brandy” came out. We’d done a two-week tour opening up for Jeff Beck, we played Carnegie Hall; then “Brandy” comes out and we suddenly were considered a pop band. We did a ton of touring and when the time came to do a second album, we told the record company we wanted to have Arif Mardin do it, who at the time was a staff producer at Atlantic. At the time he was allowed to do one outside project a year, and for 1973 we were his outside project. Arif was a master, an amazing producer, I mean the guy was just phenomenal. We had a song on the second album that Elliot wrote and sang called, “Jimmy Loves Maryann,” which was as big a hit in some parts of the country as “Brandy” had been. We were hearing it everywhere but it didn’t break through, it didn’t go gold and we got pissed.
After we started touring for that album we wanted to be the hard-rock band we thought we were; we were a band with two lead singers and two songwriters–Peter and Elliot each wrote and sang half the stuff. We wanted someone to play more rock guitar so we found Brenden [Harkin] in the ads in The Village Voice. We rehearsed with him for about a week and then his first show with us was the “Mike Douglas Show” down in Philadelphia and the second gig was one of those chicken wire bars in the middle of Illinois, the Electric Cow, in a corn field with bottles flying. After the tour was over Elliot had us all over to his apartment on Central Park West and says that he thinks the public is gravitating towards the kind of stuff he writes and sings, and that we should change the name of the band to feature his name, or that he’ll have to go solo. Me, Peter and Larry looked at each other and said, “Well, good luck buddy.” None of us wanted to be someone’s back-up band, we all considered ourselves a band. Elliot left and we put an ad in The Village Voice and got Michael Lee Smith, and within twenty seconds of the guy opening his mouth we all said, “This f*ck*ng guy is amazing.” So, me, Peter, Larry, Brenden and now Michael, we had tons of gigs already booked as Looking Glass, so we just kept going, we played for about another year as Looking Glass. And Michael Lee Smith can sing “Brandy” as good as Elliot can.
After about a year of that, you couldn’t pay us to play that song anymore because we were writing stuff that was much heavier. We got a new manager, Allan Miller, and we got a new deal with Arista records, which had just started, and we did an album with Jack Richardson up in Toronto that nothing happened with, as only singles got released, not the album. That ran its course and after the album was shelved, Alan Miller went to work at Aucoin Management who were only managing Kiss at the time. Peter [Sweval] ran into Sean Delaney at a gay bar downtown one night, so we suddenly had two in-roads to Aucoin and they signed us. At the time we were called Fallen Angels and we decided we wanted another guitar in the band so we ran another ad and after around forty guitar players we finally got Richie Ranno. Then it was me, Peter, Larry, Brenden, Michael Lee Smith and we hired Richie Ranno; we changed our name to Starz and started writing songs and actually did a few gigs as a six-piece band, two guitars, bass, drums, keyboards and singer–the second gig we did was at the Academy Theater in Philadelphia opening for Kiss, one of the two times we played with them. After that show we decided there was just too much going on and we made the decision to get rid of the keyboards and go to being a five-piece band, to make it a little more guitar-driven, so we asked Larry to leave. We started working on songs and eventually hooked up with Jack Douglas, then signed with Capital and did the first Starz album here at the Record Plant in NY.
SS: How did you get connected to Jack Douglas? He had nothing to do with Aucoin or Kiss.
JXD: We knew him from the Aerosmith records and Richie said, “This guy makes the best records ever,” so we asked Aucoin to find out if Jack would entertain working with us and Jack said yes.
SS: He did the first two records, but not Attention Shoppers. Why did you not continue with him?
JXD: Yes, we did the first two albums with Jack at the Record Plant. When it came time to work on our third album, he was not available because he was working on an Aerosmith album that was taking way too long because of where they were at at that time, so again we said, “Shit, this is not rocket science, just give us a good studio and we’ll do it.” Probably one of the biggest mistakes I’ve ever made in my life–we should have waited for Jack, because while all the songs on Attention Shoppers were good, sonically it was not what people expected and it really turned a lot of people off. We should have waited for Jack to be free and continued with what had become a winning combination.
SS: Attention Shoppers was also the last album with Brenden and Peter, correct?
JXD: Yes, that was the last album with them; they were both changing direction and style and so me, Michael and Richie decided to replace them with Bobby Messano, who Richie knew from North Jersey, and Orville Davis, who was the bass player in Michael’s brother’s band, Rex. We got them in, wrote a bunch of songs, went back up to Toronto to do the record with Jack Richardson, who had done the Fallen Angels record, and that came out as Colosseum Rock . We toured behind that record, but because Aucoin at that time was in total dysfunctional chaos, we ended up breaking up, which we should not have done. We should have taken a hiatus, but instead we imploded and everybody went their own way and that was it.
SS: You put out Colosseum Rock in the same year as Attention Shoppers; was that a calculated move to try to get back on track with the following that might have been turned off by Attention Shoppers?
JXD: I would think that had something to do with it, yes, that’s an astute observation. We realized after Attention Shoppers came out, and after a great tour, which was one where we recorded the Live In Louisville album, we were really kicking ass, we realized we needed to get back to what people were expecting of us and what a Starz record should sound like, which really was the first two.
SS: For the record I thought all four studio albums were gems. Sonically however, Coliseum Rock, to me is particularly incredible. Not many records at that time sounded that slick. It sounds like a Pro Tools recording but that wasn’t available for another ten years or so. How did that album get recorded?
JXD: Coliseum Rock was recorded at Nimbus 9 studios in Toronto. The state-of-the-art recording machines at the time were only 16- or 24-track, 2-inch Ampex or Studer tape machines. Jack had two 16-track machines that he synched together with a click/pulse used in film sync overdubbing. We would record the basic bed track with eight tracks of drums, two tracks of bass, two initial guitar parts and a scratch vocal on the first machine’s reel, mix it down to a stereo reference mix and bounce it over to the other machine where all the overdubs took place. Jack’s theory was that all the repetitive running of the original tape over the recording head while doing the later guitar and vocal tracks would denigrate the fidelity range on the initial tracks that you weren’t working on, but were just needed for reference purposes. All the overdubs took place on the second 16-track machine that had a two-track stereo mix for reference, keeping the initial drums, bass and two-guitar recording untouched by repetitive passes over the machine’s head. When it came time to mix, he would then sync the two machines back up using the click/pulse that was on both 16-track tapes and send the track recordings from both machines to the board for final mixing. I think that’s why the recording sounds so good.
SS: To digress, what was the band, Free Beer, because you played on the first album and Jerry Marotta played on the second?
JXD: Those were friends of Brenden’s that got a deal on Buddah [Records], and he produced that album, so Brenden got all of his friends to play on it. It’s still one of my favorite albums – it sounds fabulous, the songs are great, and all those guys are excellent players and they all can sing. So, it was just one of the projects that Brendan was doing in between everything else that was going on. Great record.
SS: Let’s talk about Tama. When Starz began, it seemed they were really pushing you as a major guy to represent their brand. That great photo of you with your arm up in the air next to the Starz sign on stage, behind the concert tom Imperial Star kit, was everywhere. They had Cobham and Simon Phillips, and possibly Lenny White by then, but I don’t remember a single hard rock drummer being pushed by Tama at the time.
JXD: There wasn’t. When we were about to start the first album, Aucoin says to me, “You need a drum deal, you want Pearl?” And I said, “No, Peter [Criss] plays Pearl.” And he said, “Well, there’s another Japanese company and I’ll set something up to meet them.” So, we went to this Japanese restaurant and after multiple pots of sake, we had a deal, which is how I believe the Japanese companies prefer to do it; you make your deals over multiple pots of warm sake. At the time it was just Billy Cobham and some session guy who’s name I can’t remember, I don’t think Simon Phillips was even there yet, but it was very early in Tama trying to make in-roads in America. They gave me that huge white kit that I called, “Great White,” and we were out on the road every night with Aerosmith or Blue Oyster Cult, or Ted Nugent or Foghat, and Tama was running that ad in every issue of “Circus” and “Creem” and all that time they were sending me stuff while I was on the road to check out. The stuff would either break or I’d say, “Send me two more.” When I did my first album with Looking Glass, long before I got that deal, I’d taken the Ludwig cymbal stands that I had and took out the top section that has the cymbal tilter on it and I basically combined two stands and rigged up my own boom stand. I showed that to Tama and not long after that Tama came out with the first boom stand.
SS: I’d imagine you did not get a piece of the action for the design of the first boom stand.
JX: No, I definitely did not [laughs].
SS: I’d not seen a lot of rock drummers other than Neil Peart that had a huge kit at that time.
JXD: I remember both Neil and Nick Mason coming over to me after soundcheck when we opened for them and asking me, “What are those?” which I think is obviously what Tama wanted–to expose their drums to guys like that. All those guys would sit at my kit and go, “Hmmm, not bad!” I can’t tell you how many times that happened with different drummers from different bands. I remember very clearly when Neil did it.
SS: So, you’re still with Tama?
JXD: Funny you should ask, because I recently found the contract I signed with Tama in 1975 and there was no end clause in it, it still says they’ll give me whatever I need if I ask for it. I guess if I needed anything at this point I’d look up the local Tama guy and tell him who I am and see what he says.
SS: Coming to the present, when Starz does gigs now it’s all the original guys, other than Pete, obviously, right?
JXD: Right. Probably around 2003 or 4 I went to see Richie at a gig in North Jersey. He and I always kept in touch, and it turns out George [DiAna], who plays bass with us now, was there too and he knows all the Starz songs; both of us got up and played with Richie, off the cuff, and did a few Starz songs, and that was the impetus for us thinking of getting back together. Peter is no longer with us, Orville is not inclined, but we got Brenden to play, so it was me, Michael, Richie, Brenden and George. We did our first gig as a reunited Starz down in Virginia somewhere and it was absolutely amazing; the place was packed, people were freaking out, we sounded awesome and we said, “Gee, this is pretty good.” There’s not a lot of money in it, and it costs money to go do shows like that, so we have to be very judicious about where we play or for how much. We’re not a charitable entity and we all have jobs and lives.
SS: I’m sure it’s been said before, but to me Michael Lee Smith is as good as anyone–Jagger, Tyler, Plant, name anyone–as a front man, as a singer and as a lyricist.
JXD: I’d have to agree completely. I hired Michael out of the back of The Village Voice, just as I did Richie and Brenden. I told you he blew us away the minute he opened his mouth at that audition for Looking Glass. Michael is a storyteller and wordsmith par excellence. I know there are others that write as good as him, but I don’t think there’s anybody better than him. He’s absolutely a student of the English language, he’s a wry m*th*rf*ck*r, and he really likes putting stuff together in very inventive and creative ways. And then he sings it over the melodies he comes up with.
When we were working on Violation, for instance, we had all the music down and there were several instances where we didn’t even know what the song was until Michael walked into the vocal booth and sang it. It was him listening to the bed tracks, and crafting what he wanted to say. As a drummer, I think you know, sitting behind Michael Lee Smith for a couple of decades doing gigs was just the best seat in the house. It was phenomenal, just unbelievable the way he could work a crowd.
SS: You certainly never revealed the full extent of who you were as a drummer on the Looking Glass stuff–you stuck much closer to commercial drum parts, let’s say.
JXD: Looking Glass was a pretty traditional rock and roll band and it was important to have multiple harmonies and good songs, but when I started playing that big white kit, my playing changed to adapt to the kit. I had no ride cymbal. There’s just hat or toms used for a ride, and crashes, listen to any of the albums and you’ll never hear a ride cymbal. Not until the forth album did I even think about a ride cymbal. It was toms, hat and crashes.
SS: When you guys were happening I really didn’t understand your playing. You’d do stuff that was totally unpredictable and different and it’s taken me years of becoming a more educated player to really fully appreciate how different you were. I’m not surprised to hear you cite Keith Moon as a big influence. You’d put a fill where no one else would and it would work perfectly. I still can’t get over the drum track to “Cherry Baby”–the intro just kills me. There’s a lyrical quality to your playing and you can’t say that about a lot of hard rock drummers. It’s beautiful.
JXD: I try to play the drums like a musical instrument. Richie said to me after a gig recently, “There’s nobody that plays the way you do, and we wouldn’t have been what we were if not for the way you play, and I play, and the way that Michael sings.” Not to be egotistical about it, but I do believe that if you took any one of those three things about of the band, it would not have been the same band. Look at the Stones, Charlie Watts, or Deep Purple; the only guy who’s been there the whole time for them is Ian Paice, and the Stones could never be the Stones without Keith, Mick and Charlie.
SS: I’ve said it for years, and I know you hear it regularly, but you guys should have been huge. For as great as your recorded output was, the level of your live performances, everything. Any opinion on what kept you from reaching the heights you should have?
JXD: Managers and record company. While it was our careers and our lives we’re talking about, to them we were just another business opportunity. If it didn’t work out, there’d always be another one coming along soon enough. With the phenomenal success of KISS at that time, we might have just been a tax deduction/diversion to Aucoin. We were hungry, they were not. It was the anything-goes ’70s. Both the record company and management were totally caught up in the fast times of L.A. that was rampant then. They were a clueless bunch of drug addicts that were only successful in spite of themselves. I wished they were as vested in the success of Starz as we were, but you know you’re in trouble when the people in control act more like psycho rock stars than the band.
SS: Any particular favorite album, favorite moment in your career?
JXD: Yeah, I consistently say that Violation is my favorite record. It was a statement, we really wrote it as a story. I guess you could call it a concept album. But we really wrote it as a story of what it would be like after World War Three. The way that we ordered the songs, and what they were about. You know, it’s about this guy who’s a hoodlum, and he goes down in the subway and does all kinds of bad shit, but then he goes into a St. Vincent de Paul store and finds an old 45 of “Walk This Way,” and he discovers music, he discovers rock and roll, he discovers love; he plays it for his girlfriend, Cherry Baby, and she likes it too. Well, after World War Three, the world is governed by “The Committee” and they want no part of this. Ultimately at the end of the record they’ve given him a lobotomy and sent him to Buffalo, and there he is, sitting on the curb staring up at a streetlight and he doesn’t know if it’s a streetlight or the moon. So, it was a set-piece, but Aucion made us change the order, saying we needed the single to be first on the record [“Cherry Baby”].
SS: How about career high? A gig or a moment that has stuck in your mind?
JXD: Well, the two nights at the Louisville Auditorium on the Attention Shoppers tour, the band was really at its peak, performance-wise, and the album sounds like a studio album, only live. The energy of it, the tightness of it. There are no overdubs on that album and it really epitomizes, in my mind, how we sounded at our peak. This was a band that was absolutely kickin’ it.
SS: I can remember how impressive your stage was–the mirror balls under the drum riser creating a moving star-scape, and the star scape going across all the amp cabinet grills and inside your concert toms, it was one of the most impressive stage shows of the time, without a doubt, very creative and very original. You guys had it all and anyone who ever saw you and is a fan says the same thing–you should have been as big as anyone. The talent was there, the show was awesome, the songs were excellent on every record.
JXD: Yeah, it was pretty cool. I can’t argue with you on that [laughs].