Rick Keene Music Scene – A Conversation with Robert Berry

The Rules Have Changed for Musical Virtuoso Robert Berry

Special to Rick Keene Music Scene by Ron Roxtar

Robert Berry always strives to do his best. It seems he’s been good on his word since the release of 3.2 The Rules Have Changed. It is his best work to date.

This album is a follow – up for the original To The Power of Three album released in 1987 by super-group 3. Berry was bassist and lead vocalist on that album and was joined by two prog rock legends. Carl Palmer and the late Keith Emerson. For Emerson, Lake and Palmer fans, wanting a final taste of the legendary keyboardist Keith Emerson; they will get it through Berry’s brilliant playing on this new 3.2 album.

In his career, Berry has performed with some very talented people. Sammy Hagar, Ambrosia, Greg Kihn and GTR. Robert and I spoke at great length about the new album, the glory years of 3 and the fond memories and insights of his friend and fellow band-mate Keith Emerson.

Roxtar : Let me start off by saying I love 3.2 The Rules have Changed. It’s a great album. You yourself have said it’s your greatest musical achievement. Why is that?

Robert : You know it started out to become my dream come true. For 27 years I’ve always wanted to do a follow up album for To the Power of Three with Keith (Emerson) and Carl (Palmer). Keith had been poisoned by the idea of it because of some fans writing him letters saying he shouldn’t do rock songs or have female back up singers. They thought he was ruining his legacy. He was very susceptible to that sort of thing. He thought it wasn’t working out. The thing is we had a top ten record with Talkin’ Bout and Keith was the sound of that song.

Roxtar : It’s a really good song. How did you get this new album to happen?

Robert : Yeah well here’s the thing, the record company put out a live record of that tour we did. I was excited about it. Carl always liked 3 so he was good with it. Keith was like “Whatever it’s money in the bank.” When Keith sat down at night and listened to the live album he called me immediately and said “Robert, we were such a good band. We were on fire.” So I sheepishly said “Why don’t we do a follow up?” I told him if I got us the right deal I’d call him back. I got in touch with Frontier Records and the president of the label was happy about it because he’s wanted a follow up for over 10 years. Now here was a chance for it to happen so they jumped on it. I called Keith back, he got super excited and we started working on it. That was the dream for me. I was so happy. If this was the last thing I’d ever do with my friend I wanted to make sure it was a great one.

After he died, I still had all the materials we had laid out the perimeters for just sitting there. We had at least five songs written and at least 20% of Keith’s keyboards done.

Roxtar : So is it safe to say that there’s still some of Keith’s playing on this album? At least 20% of it?

Robert : I have to be honest. A few months after Keith passed away I called Aaron Emerson up and asked him to get in on it. I sent him some of the stuff we had been working on and he found it too hard to play. After all, anything Keith Emerson plays on is too hard for anybody. Aaron told me I’d have to contact the estate that sort of owned Keith’s music and so I did. A few months went by and I didn’t hear back from them. Finally I said “Look I’ve got this material and you won’t know what Keith played on so I’m going to release it.” They then got back to me saying we couldn’t use his keyboard parts because they wanted Keith to be credited as a songwriter. I was like “That’s crazy.” Everyone knows Keith is remembered as this keyboard virtuoso.

In being honest I had to redo it. The playing came through my fingers from the stuff that he played, but then again he chose the parts. He chose the sound.

It got me excited about the material again. My goal wasn’t to sell millions of copies or have another top ten hit. My goal was to have another album we could be really proud of. I decided I was going to finish this because we had it all mapped out and I can play all kinds of instruments. I also have a state of the art recording studio. It was like because I can, I do. So I decided to finish it up.

The reason why I feel it was my greatest achievement is because it was so emotionally hard to get past the loss of Keith and now hearing the lyrics more I realize what I was writing at the time. The lyrics sort of shifted after he was gone. I used to have these conversations in the studio by myself and it was like I was channeling Keith. I would ask myself “What would Keith do here?” and try to imagine our conversations much like we had done back in ’87, ’88 or conversations we’d had in these later days. It wasn’t meant as a tribute to Keith but when it was done I was really proud of what it was.

Roxtar : You say you didn’t want to make this a tribute to Keith but obviously in some ways it is. In some of what you were saying about the lyrics in particularly with the song Our Bond. You have the line I hold the love of who you are / the passion of your hands / brought to my ears the music’s blood / that became our bond / a good man may we honour him. Then there’s this complicated musical prog piece.

Robert : That was written just a few weeks after he died. We’ve lost so many great musicians over the last few years and people always talk about their music. With Keith it was a bit the same but people were really talking about what a loss it was because he was this great guy. This funny guy. He was the most famous person I ever knew and he was so accessible. People could walk up to him on the street he was just so friendly. People felt like they knew him as a friend like I did. I thought I needed to write something about how everyone feels about Keith. It was not just about the music but the man himself. I was touched by that.

I thought I’m gong to write something and at the same time I’m going to throw a little bit of Fanfare in there. A little bit of Talkin’ Bout in there. A little bit of Tarkus? I rearranged it all. Of course at the end you hear that piano piece. I kind of just left the note hanging there. So that was a tribute to Keith.

Roxtar : This is all incredible stuff you are telling me. Even more incredible is the fact that you played all the instruments on this album as well.

Robert : Yeah I did. It’s not something I like to dwell on but I did. I have my own studio because I’ve been re-creating music for Paramount and other film companies for years. So in this album I was recreating what I felt was the essence of Keith’s playing.

I have a lot of singer / songwriters I produce because they don’t have a band. They want a more one on one. I bring to life their vision. It’s called Soundtek studios. I spent my life building up this state of the art studio. I have five drum sets, over 130 guitars, every amplifier you can think of, super expensive microphones and soundboards, the latest pro tools. I have to have the best of everything because I’m only striving to do my best work.

It’s also like a museum with all the artists I’ve played with like Ambrosia or pictures of Keith and Carl people have never seen. I’ve got a letter from Ian Anderson telling me how much he liked what I did on a Jethro Tull tribute.

Check out Robert’s studio here : http://soundtekstudios.com/

Roxtar : So what about when you joined Keith and Carl to form 3? It was really the third incarnation of Emerson, Lake, and Palmer. It was more like EBP. What was that like for you?

Robert : That’s an interesting question. Both Keith and Carl told me something that has lasted 30 years in my career. They said “We had Greg Lake in the band and now we want you. We want you to do your best work. Don’t try to be Greg Lake.”

That meant a lot to me. Especially with Keith because he wanted something new. For Carl it was kind of like doing Asia. We were doing some stuff that was progressive. He wanted it to be like the success he had with Asia.

Here I was the new guy and I was a Greg Lake fan so it never bothered me if I got critiqued for being the new guy. If people were saying they wanted Greg Lake and ELP back I understood that. The criticism never bothered me personally but it bothered me that it got to Keith so much.

The record company loved it. The new fans loved it and we had such a camaraderie onstage. They treated me like an equal. There were no ego clashes. We had fun and hung out together all the time. They made that happen because they made me feel comfortable. The thing was we were trying to forge forward with this music and into the 90’s. Then all the grunge music with Nirvana, Pearl Jam and all that came along and changed everything.

Roxtar : How did the fans treat you as the ‘new guy’?

Robert : I have to tell you at the time there wasn’t that much feedback back, but now 29 years later it’s fantastic about how good I was (laughing).

The thing is because we had a top ten hit we were getting younger fans. Of course there was the typical older intellectual ELP fans but I remember in New York seeing lots of younger fans in their 20’s. So those younger fans were fine with me.

Remember the great top ten hit from 3 Talkn’ Bout : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cQ2Kh1W4l4U

Roxtar : I think another reason why it was easier for you was that it was a whole new band with the name change of 3. Even though you were joining established musicians it wasn’t like joining an established band.

Robert : Yeah exactly. Another thing to keep in mind was we had all new material that we’d written. So everything was new. People talk about it as a failed project but it wasn’t. It was really successful.

That’s another reason why the 3.2 album has been so well received. It’s a continuity to what we did before and with Keith’s contributions. This time we knew exactly what we wanted to do.

Roxtar : You’ve played with so many established musicians in your career. What’s the connection with Sammy Hagar?

Robert : In 1985 when Sammy left his solo band to join Van Halen he was signed to Geffen Records. That label was grooming me to be a Bryan Adams, Sting like artist. John Kaladoner the famous A&R guy, he had an idea for me. He thought he would give my stuff to Sammy’s solo band and they could hook up with me or he was going to give some of my stuff to Carl Palmer. He did both. Carl called me first and really liked my songs so we started to get a band together. Then David Lauser of Sammy’s band called me second so it was too late.

Years later after 3 broke up David called me back and was still interested in working with me. We met up at Sammy Hagar’s house and Gary Phil flew in from Boston since he’d joined the band Boston. Alan Fitzgerald wasn’t in Night Ranger at this time. He had actually been touring with Van Halen playing keyboards and background vocals behind the curtain. So we all got together at Sammy’s and it was magic. We became a band called Alliance. It’s funny you ask me about this because we have a new album coming out.

About the time that Sammy was splitting up with Van Halen in the 90’s he called me up and said “Hey I’ve heard the stuff you’ve done with David would you like to come and play bass with us in a trio called Los Tres Gusanos (The Three Worms). That was great because we played The NAMM show, Cabo Wabo and places like that.

Here’s the thing if you go to see his current band The Circle and there’s a keyboard part in some of their songs, well that’s me. I played the keyboard parts for Sammy’s band The Circle which is pretty much the Van Halen songs they do. I did about five songs for them but I think they only do about three of them. I play with Sammy every night, you just don’t see me (laughing).

Roxtar : Wow! So in a way you’re the fifth member of The Circle.

Robert : There you go.

Roxtar : I also wanted to tell you how much I like the video for Powerful Man.

Robert : Thank you. Yeah, that was done by a friend of mine who did a fantastic job. That video has a deeper meaning that people might think. The song itself has a deep meaning. It’s a song written about Aaron Emerson. When Keith was in ELP he was on the road so much he was never really at home. Someone like Aaron would see how his dad had this positive power over the crowd. For me, Powerful Man was about these kids who have rock star dads.

Check out the Powerful Man video here : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cmc87bd-xy4

Roxtar : How come Carl Palmer wasn’t involved in this new album?

Robert : You know initially Keith didn’t want to have him involved because we were going in a different direction. We were going to use Simon Phillips because he worked with me on an ELP tribute album. We did Carn Evil 9 that I rearranged to be a bit tougher. The thing is Carl is just so busy. He’s always touring and this guy’s got so many new ideas. It was Carl who got me into 3.

This time around he gave me his blessing and said I could even call it 3, but he didn’t want to be a part of it because he’s just too busy. I would have loved to have had him. I’m proud of him because he’s playing better than ever.

Roxtar : What’s your best memory of Keith Emerson?

Robert : You know I have to say I really remember the first time Carl and I drove up to rehearse with Keith. We drove up to his big mansion in Essex. There’s this big gate and Carl’s “Asking where is he?” All of a sudden we hear this voice saying “Hey guys I’m up here!” We look up to the second story windows and in one of the windows was Keith with his butt sticking out. He’s talking with his butt cheeks like “Hey how you guys doing?” It was so funny. Here’s one of the best keyboardists in the world and he’s talking to me with his butt cheeks out.

Roxtar : Okay Robert your stranded on a desert island. What are your top three desert island discs?

Robert : Oh man that’s a hard one. I’m so into many different styles of music. I grew up listening to a lot of big band stuff and I’m really into Mexican mariachi music as well. I do remember being in college and in my car I had two albums that I listened to over and over again. One was Stevie Wonder Songs in the Key of Life and the other was Blow by Blow by Jeff Beck. That guy just blows my mind. As far as a third one is concerned I’d probably have to bring a Yes album with me. I mean Chris Squire is just all over the place. I think what Squire, Rick Wakeman and Steve Howe did was just phenomenal.

Roxtar : You spend a good amount of time on the road with Greg Kihn. How did that come about?

Robert : I was in Ambrosia for a while and that was fine. I was trying to get them to do a new studio album and they just weren’t interested. They weren’t even playing as much as I thought they’d be. They’re a great band and I love those guys but I want to put out new music so I quit the band.

Right after that I get a phone call at eight in the morning from Greg Kihn. He says “Hey Robert I guess you might have heard Steve (Greg’s bass player) had a stroke so I want you to be in my band.” So I sat up in bed taking it all in. Right after leaving Ambrosia and wondering what I was going to do next here’s Greg Kihn offering me a gig. Little by little we began writing together and after about six years I got Greg to do a new album called Rekihndled. I’m really proud of that album.

Roxtar : So if you’re not playing with Greg I guess you’re focused on this new tour for the 3.2 album.

Robert : Yes exactly. I’ve got some really great players in my band for this 3.2 tour. They have to be because of all the material we’re playing. We’re doing some GTR songs because I worked with them for a bit. We’re doing some of the songs from the original 3 album. We’re doing an Ambrosia tune and of course my version of Carn Evil 9. We even do a tough version of Roundabout from Yes. Then we do songs from the new 3.2 album. It’s a really hard set so the guys have to be good.

I’ve got Andrew Coyler on keyboards and he’s playing all of Keith’s keyboard parts so you know he has to be good. I’ve got my long time guitar player Paul Weller who got along great with Keith. On drums I have Jimmy Keegan. Jimmy was the drummer in Spock’s Beard for many years. He’s not just a great drummer but a great singer too. So yeah we’re out there playing some great stuff with great musicians.

Red: My Uncensored Life in Rock by Sammy Hagar

The following is an excerpt from Sammy Hagar’s book;

When I was growing up, Fontana, California, was all orange groves, grape vineyards, and chicken ranches. I could eat oranges, grapefruits, and tangerines all fucking day if I wanted. I had to walk through an orange grove just to go to my next-door neighbor’s house.

There really was no neighborhood.

It was long before tract homes. At the corner of each of the long country blocks, there were these big, ten-foot-tall cement tanks with open roofs on them, called water weirs, which fed water to the houses from clean, clear Lytle Creek in the foothills.

The water weirs had a float on them, and when the water got too low, the float would kick on and they’d fill back up like a toilet. Each one had a ladder going up so guys could ser vice them, and kids would drown in them all the time. We always heard a rumor that some kid got polio from one of them. But it was our drinking water and it was ice-cold. In the summer, we used to jump in and swim. Not swim, but dunk down, get cooled off, and climb out.

I don’t want to say we’d piss in them, but we did. My dad moved to Fontana because he heard the steel mill was hiring. When I was born in Monterey County Hospital in Salinas, California, Dad and Mom had been picking lettuce in the fields and living in a camp where everyone else was Mexican. The Kaiser Steel Mill—the first steel mill west of the Mississippi— pretty much made Fontana.

Growing up, every kid in Fontana was just trying to get through high school to get a job at Kaiser Steel. We thought it paid great. Originally, you didn’t even need a high school diploma, but, as Kaiser Steel built up, and other plants opened up, making pipes or big beams, you needed a high school diploma. Unless, of course, they got a big order and needed the people. Then they’d hire anybody, and lay you off when they got the job done. But everybody was happy to go there and make whatever they were paying.

It was a brutal job though, working at a steel mill in a 160- degree heat, pieces of hot metal flying out at you. My dad worked in the open hearth, the hottest, hardest work in the plant, where they pour the ingots into big troughs and make steel. Molten fucking steel. He came home with his clothes drenched from sweat, and he used to take salt tablets every day before he went to work.

He had probably the lowest job on the totem pole, and they moved his schedule almost every week. He would go from swing shift to graveyard shift to day shift. Sometimes he’d come home at mid- night and go to work again at six in the morning. He got burned real bad one time—the side of his face was completely taken off.

Just from the heat. It wasn’t steel hitting him. It was that he got too close or there was a flare-up or something and it just fucking ripped the skin off his face.

My dad’s parents had been migrant farm workers who came out from Kentucky on a covered wagon. They’d picked cotton all the way through Texas, and my dad was born in Texas. Two kids were—that’s how long they were in Texas. They had thirteen kids.

He had a younger sister, but he was the youngest boy. My dad was handsome and athletic, but he was a bad little fucker. He would beat the shit out of his big brothers. My uncle told me my dad chased his big brother, my uncle Charlie, up a tree. My dad sat there, smoking a cigarette, waiting for him to come down to beat his butt. Charlie slept in the tree rather than take an ass-kicking from my dad.

My mom, Gladys, was born in Los Angeles. Her dad came over from Italy when he was eleven years old and never learned to speak, read, or write English. He and my grandma—she was Italian, too— never owned a house. They lived in a trailer and were always on the move. He was a chef and he went where the work was. He cooked in Yosemite and went up to Klamath when the salmon were running.

He would hunt and fish and work only when he had to. During the winter season, he would cook in Palm Springs, make these huge buffets at the lodge where President Eisenhower stayed. But when the season was over, he’d pack up, take all his money, steal every- thing he could out of the restaurant, and take off in the middle of the night. The guy was a complete thief—a real crook, my grandpa, and a prick, too. Once in a while he was nice. I’m named after the fucker, Sam Roy. They raised my mom and her sister that way. She grew up in a tent and didn’t finish seventh grade.

Mom and Dad got married when she was fifteen. Mom always said all the girls liked him in high school. My dad had dreams. He wanted to be a big-shot kind of guy. He liked hanging around big shots. Bob Hope used to let him caddy on weekends, when he was growing up in Palm Springs. She was sixteen years old when she had my oldest sister, Bobbi. Practically the day she had the baby, as soon as she came home from the hospital, she got pregnant again with my other sister. My sisters Velma and Bobbi are nine months apart.

My father could beat up anybody. I was so proud of that, growing He was such a bad-ass. When he was younger, Bobby Hagar fought bantamweight. He won his first eight fights by knockouts.

He was a little guy, five foot eight, same size as me, but that son of a bitch could hit—he could have been something. But he got drafted during World War II, shortly after he’d gotten my mother pregnant again with my brother, Robert.

My father shipped out as a paratrooper.

He’d never even been in an airplane and suddenly he’s jumping out of them. On his first jump, over a battlefield in France, his parachute went way off course. He tangled in trees and smashed his face into a tree trunk. He had a Tommy gun and, as he was coming down, he was scared, so he sprayed the ground with bullets. He banged into the tree and broke his jaw. He cut himself down. He dug a hole, and stayed in a foxhole for a few days. His jaw was killing him. He was disoriented, obviously all banged up from hitting this tree, but he had his gun. Nearby was a German soldier, also separated from his unit, and they played a fox-and- mouse game until my dad killed him in a shootout. I think it really screwed up his head. Killing someone one-on-one isn’t like shooting people you don’t know. My dad lived with this guy for a couple of days, sneaking around, not sleeping at night, really not wanting to mess with each other, but every now and then, taking a potshot.

When he returned to his company, he was crazy. He was freaked out that he shot the guy. Plus he was a bad-ass anyway. He emptied his magazine in the ground in front of his commanding officer.

Told him to dance. That earned him a dishonorable discharge, to say the least, and by the time he came back to California, he was a complete alcoholic and madman. The war had really fucked him up. My mom said when he got home from the war, he used to jump up from bed in the middle of the night and shout, “Where’s my Tommy gun? Where’s my Tommy gun?”

I was born a few years later, on October 13, 1947, and by that point we were bone fucking poor. But even as I got older, I never knew just how bad off we were. My mom was a great cook and she could make do with things, so we always ate good. I went around hungry a lot because I never had any money. If I wanted to eat, I had to go home and either wait for Mom or cook something myself. I was cooking for myself when I was eight years old. I saw what my mom did. I could boil spaghetti and take canned tomatoes- or fresh tomatoes out of our garden. I could make tomato sauce. It didn’t seem poor to me. My mom was clean as a pin.

Our house was spotless. Our clothes were always laundered. She ironed them, stayed up until four in the morning doing ironing for other people and then ironed our clothes.

My mom always had a chicken coop and we always kept chickens.
Whenever we moved (which was a lot), we took the chickens.

We never owned a house, and we were always leaving my dad be- cause he was a terrible alcoholic who beat up my mom. When my dad would come home drunk, we’d sneak out of the house in the middle of the night and go sleep in the orange groves. Mom hid blankets wrapped in plastic bags, a flashlight, and little stashes of water and food out in back, ready for the times we had to jump out of the window in the middle of the night.

It was always on payday. He got paid on Thursdays, and when he wouldn’t come home directly after work, Mom would begin making plans. He’d come home drunk, start yelling and screaming.

He never beat us kids, but he’d thump my mom around. Everybody in the family hated my dad, but they were all scared of him. My sister Velma hit him over the head with a baseball bat one time, because he had my mom on the ground. She came up behind him—she was about twelve years old—and bashed him in the head and bloodied up the place bad. My mom got up and we ran. We got out of there.

So we’d leave my dad, and once he was left alone, he would lose the house. He’d stay there, wouldn’t go to work, and wouldn’t pay the rent, until he’d get kicked out of the house by the cops.
He usually got thrown in jail. That was the standard end result of his binge. Sometimes he’d get in the car and get thrown in jail for drunk driving. We’d have to go find a new house every time and move, or my mom would borrow a trailer that her father owned.

But somehow we’d always end up with my dad again. Right before I was born, my mom had a miscarriage. She didn’t want to get pregnant. She hated my dad by then. She knew he was crazy and didn’t want another kid. She just wanted to raise the kids she already had and get the hell out of the marriage. She had known that for a long time. She had a miscarriage and immediately got pregnant again. She was bumming. She didn’t like to tell me that, but later on in life she pretty much told me. “You’re lucky to be alive, boy,” she said. “If I’d have had that other baby, if it wouldn’t have been a miscarriage, I never would have had you.” I loved my dad, but he was crazy.

For some reason, my dad was tough on my older brother, Robert. Dad would call him “flea-brain” and my brother would start crying, which only caused Dad to make more fun of him. “Wahhhhh,” he would say. “You sound like a damn siren, you little shit.”

He hated my sisters, too. When they turned into teenagers and started seeing boys, that was when the whole thing blew out. He got so drunk he beat up one of my sister’s boyfriends. That was the end of the deal for him and my mom.

I was his favorite. I was the king. I was “muscle-brain.” He called me Champ, like I was the next champion of the world. He would introduce me to his buddies. “Hey, here’s Champ,” he would say.
“He’s got a left hand on him.” He was going to make a boxer out of me. Every day, I’d come home from school, and if my dad was there, he’d make me train. He’d make himself a BLT—he was a big BLT man—and sit there in his work clothes, ready to go to work.

“Put on the gloves,” he’d say. It wouldn’t matter if I’d brought a friend home; my dad would say, “Put on the boxing gloves with your buddy here.” He’d make my brother get on his knees to box me. He made me box every day. He’d put on the gloves with me, and teach me. He would take me to gyms and make me hit the heavy bags. “Step into it and twist your body,” he would tell me.

My dad was left-handed, so he could pop you totally unexpected, like southpaws can. Even if you know how to fight a little bit, lefties come backward at you. Plus, he was a hard puncher.

Some boxers have that gift. There are just guys who can punch. There is something to the magic of timing, how you put your weight, and all these things. Being a southpaw and knowing how to punch, he just knocked people out. He was a one-punch wonder.

Because my dad hit so hard, I learned how not to get hit. By the time I was eight years old, I was getting really fast. I would stand on the outside and move in. He’d try to hit me once in a while and
I’d weave. He loved that. He used to really brag it up about me. My brother was bigger than me. He could hit harder. I didn’t want to get hit by him, either, so I just kept becoming faster. In and out, in and out. I had a great left jab for a little kid. I used to beat up my neighbors, my buddies. I’d give them bloody noses and my dad would give me a quarter.

Sammy Hagars’s book is available at most book stores …