By Zach Schepis
Photo courtesy of Joe Ferry
Joe Ferry is a living legend in the musical community. There’s simply no way to confine his sprawling resume to a single paragraph. But try this on for size: the man has toured with, produced sessions for, and played bass on sessions with the Skatalites, Dr. John, Living Colour, Pete Seeger, Art Blakey, Huey Lewis & the News, along with practically every member of the Rolling Stones.
He’s played on Letterman, started his very own recording label, he’s written music for major motion pictures, and has won a Grammy for his work with the Skatalites. He currently teaches studio production at SUNY Purchase, and even published an award-winning novel reccounting his childhood in the underworld, titled Connected: Mob Stories From My Past.
It might seem ridiculous that Ferry would have any time left to make music, but he’s just as creatively fervent as ever, playing bass with his new reggae outfit, Joe Ferry & Highlife, which will be dropping a new single, “Burning Spear”, and music video on August 1st. BTR sits down with the maestro to reflect on a long career, legends from the road, and slappin’ de bass mon.
You’ve enjoyed a musical career that has been going for 35 years strong. Where did the journey begin for you?
I began playing bass in Top 40 bands. One if these bands wanted to record an album. So I played bass on that project which we cut at RCA Studios in NYC. That led to a staff producer job for RCA Records, as well as a lot if session work. This was in 1976/77. It just mushroomed from there.
How about some of your biggest nonmusical creative influences?
My father, Tony Ferry. Van Gogh. Hunter Thompson. MLK. And a professor of mine from LIU, Terry Malley.
What do you love most about playing bass guitar?
I can do what I hear with it.
You’ve played bass with Dr. John, and collaborated with everyone from Huey Lewis and the News to the Rolling Stones. What are a couple of your fondest memories working with such prolific artists?
I remember how warm and friendly The Skatalites were. They accepted me into their inner circle immediately, which was rare I think. The reggae & ska artists were very cool people–Prince Buster, Toots & The Maytals. Really cool & fun to work with.
How do you go about balancing time spent as a musician, producer, and teacher?
It takes some serious time management. I have a number of Teaching Assistants who help me because I’m on the road a lot. I couldn’t do it without their help.
Speaking of teaching, I heard you taught Regina Spektor. How was she as a student?
Regina was a good student, and a sweet person. We were very close. She showed immense promise even at age 18. I’d never heard anyone so young who was so mature musically. I used to bring her to the opera on campus. We saw Don Giovanni & several others at Purchase College. Her career was in full swing before she even graduated.
Album art forBig Ska.
How did it feel to win a Grammy? Did you have any idea you would receive that kind of recognition?
It was gratifying because it was with the Skatalites. I was happy that the band was the center of attention in the music business for a while. It helped usher in the ska revival of the mid-1990s.
It seems like reggae and ska hold a warm place in your heart, between your last band Joe Ferry and the Big Ska Band and your most recent project, Joe Ferry and Highlife. What draws you most to the genre?
It’s real music. Roots music. It has so much to it. Politics. Life. The beat is infectious. It settles me.
Your single “Burning Spear” will be released August 1st. What can listeners expect?
I hope they’ll find that “Burning Spear” settles them too. It’s a chill track. Just float with it. I hope they feel it.
What words of advice would you give to aspiring musicians/producers who are looking to embark on their careers?
Don’t give up. Don’t let them get you down. Believe in yourself. Diversify. Practice. Be nice to people. Return phone calls immediately. You’re never too old to learn. You don’t know everything. Pay attention.
To hear more from Joe Ferry, check out some of his ska records at his official site and stay tuned for the release of Highlife’s new single “Burning Spear”, available August 1st.