“All I really know is being a rock ’n’ roll guitar player,” says Dick Wagner. “That what my life has been about.”
And it’s been a glorious life. Wagner is one of the few truly “star” sidemen in the history of rock. His intensely melodic and biting style had propelled him into the limelight since the late 1960s, when he emerged as a member of Detroit area band the Frost – one of the few groups to match the six-string firepower of their regional contemporaries the MC5. From there his work as a sideman began, wrangling pick-up gigs behind such formative artists as Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis and Roy Orbison.
As his skills and reputation grew, Wagner developed into a key player in 1970s musical history. He led highly influential bands for Lou Reed and Alice Cooper, plus authored hundreds of songs including “Only Women Bleed,” which was written by Wagner for the Frost and became a smash for Cooper when both men collaborated on Cooper’s historic 1975 album Welcome to My Nightmare.
Wagner formed a six-string partnership that’s the rock ’n’ roll equivalent of the classic Hollywood dance team of Astaire and Rogers with fellow Gibson-playing legend Steve Hunter. Their introduction to “Sweet Jane” on Lou Reed’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal is a brilliant example of powerful, perfect guitar orchestration, and their playing on Aerosmith’s classic Get Your Wings is a stunning and rarely equaled essay in tone, strength and immediacy.
Although he’s also made three solo albums and now leads his own band, Wagner will remain revered for his contributions to works bearing the names of more famous artists. And despite a heart attack in 2007, Wagner – who’s now 69 – has lived to tell it all in his recently released and highly entertaining autobiography Not Only Women Bleed, available as an E-book. Wagner also assembled his own band when he recovered from his heart attack, and they’ll be mounting a tour this summer playing cuts from his three solo albums and from his illustrious catalog as a sideman.
We recently reached Wagner at home by phone, and spoke about his arc as a guitar player, his longstanding relationship with the Gibson Les Paul and his amazing adventures in rock history.
Do you feel you have one particular shining moment in your career?
Wow, I’ve been playing so many years with so many great people. But there are moments in playing to me that stand out. I remember the first note played by the band for Lou Reed’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal. When I heard that note, I felt, “This is going to be a great band… historic, important.” I think that’s been borne out.
That note sounded at the first rehearsal at Tanglewood [amphitheater] in Massachusetts. We were putting the band together for two weeks of rehearsal, then did a concert and then left the next day for a European tour. It was very high pressure: “Let’s get this right.” And we really worked hard and it really paid off. After Europe we came back to the States to play L.A., Cleveland, maybe Detroit, and we ended up New York City at the Academy of Music in Brooklyn where we recorded the concerts that became the Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal album.
Lou claims not to like it now, but he certainly loved it then. It was over the top and the band was fantastic – although he eventually fired everybody and formed a whole new band doing a little more of a funky kind of thing. We were designed for stadium style rock, with big, majestic songs and arrangements. It was such a pleasure to play in that band. After that I took the band over to Alice Cooper and it became the Welcome to My Nightmare band, so that band had two lives.
There were many more times, of course. The group of musicians that put together the Frost, the band Alice Cooper first saw me in, were great. Shortly after that Alice and I were writing songs and we’d eventually collaborate on Welcome to My Nightmare.
The 1970s and 1980s were spectacularly busy for me creating. And the ’60s was a very formative time. I got to play with Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison…
With both Alice Cooper and Lou Reed, and later for Aerosmith’s Get Your Wings sessions, you famously collaborated with Steve Hunter. And your on-again, off-again relationship as a musical duo has spanned much of both your lives. How did it begin?
Steve and I met in Detroit. He was playing with Mitch Ryder and I was playing with the Frost. It was at the Goose Lake Festival, which had 200,000 people, where we were both playing. That’s where we took notice of each other. Then I was playing a biker bar in Florida for two weeks and Hunter came walking in one night. He was touring with the Chambers Brothers. I invited him to come on stage and jam, and he and I played for a couple hours. It was just beautiful. Our guitar playing seemed to compliment and intertwine right from the first. So that’s how we got started as the dynamic duo.
Playing with Steve is such a thrill because he’s such a great player. I’ve learned a lot from him. We haven’t been able to do things recently, but the album and the history is still there, and it was all made with Gibson guitars, I might add.
What’s the secret to the breathless way you and Steve mesh?
Right from the beginning we agreed we’d try our very best to split all the lead playing 50/50, so we could back each other, or let each other go free, or do whatever the other musician needed. It was a nice agreement between two musicians to constantly support each other. We were always bringing each other up so there was no competition, although I guess there is inherently competition when two guitar players play together. And ultimately we did inspire each other. If you go back and listen to all that stuff Hunter and me did together, it’s all really good… no flat points. That’s why we’ve become a kind of mutual legend. When people talk to me, they talk about Steve; when they talk to Steve, they ask him about me. We’re very grateful.
One of the most striking things about your solos is their intense melodicism and phrasing. You elaborate on your melodies bar by bar, and you’re not afraid to pause to let a note rest, to create tension or to punctuate a statement. Where does that come from?
I started very young listening to some very simple guitar playing and some difficult guitar playing. I tried to become a classical guitar player at first, and began to combine that classical rigidity into my improvisation. So when I came up with melodies I felt I needed to craft them, even spontaneously. Of course, I also listened to everybody from B.B. King to Link Wray. I picked up a lot of styles and blended them into my own, allowing me to put elements of blues, rock, and jazz into my playing.
You just take the music that you love and you write your own music based on the things that have come before. But you bring your own personal intensity and love for the instrument to it, and that gives you your own approach. When I hear good guitar playing I’m drawn to it immediately. It’s a beautiful work; whoever invented the guitar was a genius.
How far back does your musical relationship with the Les Paul model go?
I started out playing Harmony guitars as a kid. I got them at Sears or wherever. My first Gibson was an acoustic guitar. I don’t remember what model. But I loved the sound of Gibson guitars, so I started getting into Gibson guitars. I saw this band called the Eldorados in Detroit. The guys wore blue smoking jackets and they both had Gold Top Les Pauls and played through Gibson 400 amplifiers. I could not believe how wonderful those Gold Top Les Pauls sounded, so that’s what I had to have. I never got a Gold Top, but I got a sunburst – a ’56. I also had [an early ’50s] Les Paul. I went to the Gibson factory in Kalamazoo to find out when it was made. It had that full tailpiece. I had a ’57 Les Paul I sold years ago and shouldn’t have.
Right now my favorite guitar is a 1968 Les Paul Standard. That’s my primary guitar. I also have a Black Beauty as my backup. I used to have a huge collection of guitars, back when I was truly obsessed, but I’ve cut that down some and there’s only a few guitars I actually use. And that ’68 Les Paul is the most beautiful. It’s got a voice… well, it’s hard to describe it, it’s so beautiful. It’s right up there with any of the ’50s Les Pauls. You plug that thing in and it just sings. You can’t help but play good.
Are there any other Gibsons you own or play?
I have an ES-345 and an ES-335. I don’t focus so much on playing other Gibsons. I just play my Les Pauls. I think I have other Gibsons. I’d have to look in my closet.
The role of studio guitarist left you uncredited for some great, historic work, like your playing on Aerosmith’s Get Your Wings. Is that frustrating?
It’s part of the territory. I feel disappointed at the same time. When you have played a historic solo it would be nice to have it credited, but I understand the reasoning behind wanting to keep the image and integrity of the band you’re playing for intact. They don’t want people to know they have outside players on their records. I don’t think I would not credit somebody, but at the same time I hold no hard feelings about it. I got paid. There are no guarantees they’re going say thing about you. They’re promoting their band. So I don’t begrudge anybody anything.
Besides, after a while the word just gets out. People know, people talk. It gets into the press… This is a strange business, but I wouldn’t want to do anything else.
Have you ever tried?
When I was 16 I worked for my father in his concrete step and railing business for one summer, and that was enough. I couldn’t do it.
Instead I had the guitar with me wherever I went. I drove my parents insane playing for 10 hours a day, and they used to send me down into the basement to go down there and practice by myself. My father wanted me to follow him is his business, but I wanted to be a musician. They weren’t totally in favor of it, but they let it happen and I’m very thankful for that.
What was your rig in the Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal era?
I had a Marshall 100-watt amp and a Gibson Les Paul, a TV model, I think. I don’t know the exact model. It sounded great. I don’t have that guitar anymore. It was stolen at the Boston airport.
How did you make the leap from guitarist to songwriter?
My band was backing up Roy Orbison at Green’s Pavilion in Adrian, Michigan, and we did such a great job that he loved it, so we went back to his motel room to hang out. He asked, “How would you like to hear my new record?” I said, “Sure.” So he picked up an acoustic guitar and played “Candy Man” and “Crying” before they were released.
That was a thrill for me, so I decided, “Maybe I should try this.” So my guitar playing turned to songwriting. I’ve been fortunate. I’ve had some hits. Bring able to write songs and play guitar at a pretty high level is a gift. I’ve been blessed.
Some of my songs have taken years to write – to get the right lyric and the right melody. But it’s a really a joy to create a song; it’s making something out of nothing. It’s a thrill even after all these years of writing when I finish a new song.
Welcome to My Nightmare was an important project for you as both a musician and songwriter. You were an intrinsic part of every step of the process of that album’s creation and the bandleader for the historic tour, with its over-the-top theatrics, dancers and gory special effects. What was the process of creating and nurturing that project like?
Writing with Alice is such a joy, because we both have the same sense of humor. We basically laugh all the time and then a song comes out. Some of them, nobody ever hears because they are so ridiculous. But the good stuff eventually comes.
So writing Welcome to My Nightmare was a pleasure not only because it gave a boost to my career, but because Alice Cooper is a genius and an original. Welcome to My Nightmare is the pinnacle of our work together.
After the songs were written, putting it together for the band meant putting it together for the live show, and the live show was the leader in theatrical rock performances. It was the highest grossing rock tour of that time. It was also fun. It was like coming up with a Broadway play, decades before other rock ’n’ roll artists were working in that area. It was also a little worrisome, since we didn’t know if anything we were coming up with would be appreciated by normal human beings.
That tour, which lasted over a year – 120 cities all over the world – the crew, the band, the dancers, the management… everybody on that tour got along so well it was absolutely a joy. It felt strange the last day of the tour to have to leave it.
What was your experience working on Get Your Wings like?
Well, I was brought in as a session player. I was living at the Plaza Hotel in New York City and got a call from [producer] Jack Douglas, who wanted me to come down and play on the Aerosmith sessions. So I grabbed my guitar and went on down to the Record Plant and said, “What do you want me to do?” They played me these tracks and I plugged in and just did what I do. I did it spontaneously, which is what I like to do. None of the band members were even there. I don’t know if they knew what was happening, because I don’t know the politics of all that.
Steven Tyler did come up to me one time – in front of my children and hundreds of fans – back stage at the coliseum in San Antonio, put his arm around me and say, “This is the guy who helped us sell three million records.” That was pretty cool.
So you just whipped the “Train Kept A Rollin’ ” solo out?
Steve Hunter and I both played on those tracks, although not together. We’d be in at different times of day. But in the studio the track comes at you and you just take off. It’s all improvisation.
What’s the Dick Wagner Band like?
Well, I had a heart attack in 2007 and when I woke up my left arm was totally paralyzed. For five years I could not play guitar at all. I couldn’t even lift a guitar. But I kept trying and practiced and eventually it came around. So I called some friends and said I’d like to play live and they became my band. We went on a tour of eight cities. I wanted to be sure that I could actually do it. I knew I had to either retire or make an attempt to be a musician again. That worked really well, so we’re going back out this year. We’ve got about 15 dates booked for the summer and we’re trying to put together a European tour for next year. It’s still a struggle because my left shoulder is still in pain. It’s not easy, but, man, I love being on stage and love hearing people loving the music.
We play a retrospective of all the areas I’ve played music in, from the1960s on: the hits, the significant songs – “Sweet Jane,” “Only Women Bleed” – and then I throw in a few new ones.