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Lou Gramm on Foreigner’s Rock Hall nomination, forging ‘arena rock’ ahead of Saturday show in Akron

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AKRON, Ohio (WOUB) — Lou Gramm was one of the millions touched by The Beatles’ 1964 performance on The Ed Sullivan Show.

Sixty years later, Foreigner – the band Gramm fronted through nine Platinum albums – is nominated to join The Beatles in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

Gramm, who departed Foreigner in 2003, figured they’d never be nominated. Especially after recently ousted Rock Hall co-founder Jann Wenner allegedly told bandmate Mick Jones it would be a “cold day in hell before Foreigner gets into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.”

However, Foreigner’s stature in rock history is substantial.

The “arena rock” torch-bearers were the first since The Beatles to have their first eight singles notch the Top 20 on Billboard’s Hot 100; then they racked three additional Platinum singles (Waiting for a Girl Like You, Juke Box Hero, I Want to Know What Love Is) thereafter.

Foreigner’s classic line-up could reunite in Cleveland this fall, if their Rock Hall nomination is selected for the 2024 induction class.

In the meantime, Gramm — already inducted to the Songwriters Hall of Fame by Billy Joel — returns to Ohio with his All Stars for a performance of Foreigner’s greatest hits at Akron’s Goodyear Theater (1201 E. Market St.) Saturday.

Gramm spoke with WOUB’s Ian Saint ahead of Saturday’s concert, which is a fundraiser for the CarsonStrong foundation, a 501(c)(3) organization dedicated to providing resources to children and families dealing cancer and other serious illness.

Gramm spoke with WOUB ahead of Saturday’s concert. Find a transcript of their conversation below, edited for length and clarity. 

A promotional image of former Foreigner singer Lou Gramm. He is against a white background and wearing a leather jacket.
[lougrammofficial.com]
Ian Saint: How do you feel about Foreigner’s “arena rock” classification?

Lou Gramm: I mean, I love arenas. A lot of people say they’re cold, and you can’t hear when anybody else is playing and stuff — but I felt right at home in big arenas. I love that big, huge sound; and it was the right thing for me. I like that better than smaller venues. I mean, these days, I like theaters and outdoor amphitheaters and things like that… but back in the day, when you could play big arenas like Madison Square Garden or Cobo Arena, it was the best thing in the world.

Foreigner’s classic albums each had different top producers: Double Vision by Keith Olsen, Head Games by Roy Thomas Baker, 4 by Mutt Lange. What were your takeaways from working with them?

Gramm: Well, they all had different approaches to the music and the sound. They had their vision of what they heard the band liked, and they had to meld that with our vision — which I thought was more important than theirs. Their job was to help get us what we wanted, and in a very creative way. All those producers were excellent to work with; and they had their own identity, too.

When we recorded [1978’s] Double Vision, Keith had just finished [mixing Fleetwood Mac’s] Rumours. I remember going into the studio, and he played us a couple cuts from Rumours, just to show us the kind of things he was doing — and it was obviously awesome, that’s a tremendously-produced album. So we had no worries about working with him, and I think he did a fantastic job on Double Vision; I think it’s one of the best-sounding Foreigner albums.

Roy Thomas, that was kind of another story. He worked with us on [1979’s] Head Games, and he obviously had a lot of great credits with Queen and a number of other people. I thought his production on our Head Games album was a little understated, and I’d hoped for a little more pizzazz from him. I think he was just going through a time in his life, where he had some problems at home and stuff. So we’d hoped for a little more from him; but he did a good job, too.

Then with Mutt Lange on [1981’s] 4; boy, was that a trip. Mutt had just produced AC/DC’s Back in Black. He was very strong-minded and opinionated, and so was [Foreigner bandleader] Mick Jones; so I was an audience of some real head-to-head confrontations, in terms of how Mutt heard the production of the song and what Mick was looking for.

And even I had a little heated conversation with Mutt during Juke Box Hero. You know how Juke Box Hero starts out with a tempered vocal, and then it ends up really rocking? He wanted me to start screaming right from the word “Go.” And I told him, that’s not how I heard the song — because I wrote the majority of Juke Box Hero — I said, I want it to have lightened and darkened shades; I want it to start out a little on the understated side, and then build to the full-on big choruses. And we didn’t see eye-to-eye on that; but at the end of the album, after it was mixed and everything, he came to me and said, “you know what, Lou? You were right to stick to your guns. It couldn’t be any better than the way it is.”

Speaking of your vocal instincts, is it true that the first song you sang with a band was Motown classic Stop! In the Name of Love, as performed by the Supremes?

Gramm: Yes. That’s the first song I sang as a lead singer, while I was playing the drums. Not only do I love the first British Wave, but I’ve been a Motown fan since I was old enough to listen to music. Between the Temptations, [Four] Tops, and a number of other great Motown artists — Marvin Gaye, in particular — I’ve been largely influenced. I think Motown is right in there with the first British Wave, as far as substantial influences on the way I sing and the way I write.

That’s interesting, because I was struck by how many legendary Black singers have since covered your songs. The [1985] Motown Returns to the Apollo television special even closed with Motown’s full ensemble covering I Want to Know What Love Is, and [the Supremes’] Diana Ross sang your lead. 

Gramm: Oh, how cool. I don’t think I ever caught that. That sounds just fantastic. Can you send that to my site?

Sure; we can embed the YouTube video in the article.

Gramm: That’d be fine. I appreciate that. I’d love to listen to that.

Diana Ross singing your song on national television, 20 years after her song was your first lead vocal performance, is profoundly full-circle to watch during your Rock Hall nomination.

Gramm: Absolutely. Strange how things turn around, though, isn’t it? I’m going to write that down, soon as we get off the phone.

Similarly, Mariah Carey is in your Rock Hall nomination class; and her cover of I Want to Know What Love Is holds the Guinness record for longest-running #1 song in Brazil’s history.

Gramm: You’re kidding me. I never knew that. The longest-running #1 single in Brazil’s history… I’ve [encountered Mariah] periodically over the years. She’s very nice.

What’s it like to witness your songs transcend genre, geography, genders, generations?

Gramm: I hear genuine respect, and I like that. I have no problem with someone who’s looking for the right song, and if they’re unable to write it at this point of their careers, then to ask permission to use one of our songs on their album. We always grant it, and we’re honored to have a budding artist consider one of our songs — it happens more than you’d think, and it’s pretty awesome.

Foreigner’s 1977 self-titled debut has “arena rock” standards like Cold As Ice and Feels Like the First Time; but is it true that the band hadn’t even played a gig before recording that album?

Gramm: Yes, it is. As the band formed, we certainly knew about each others’ history, but we hadn’t had any warm-up gigs. We hadn’t played any bars, or anything like that, to see if we were a good band. We totally did it on faith, and our reputations as players. We finally played together when we recorded the songs, and that was a hint of what was to come — and when we started touring, it was a lot of fun.

Before Foreigner, your band Black Sheep was signed to Capitol Records, and living a “jukebox hero” dream of touring with [Rock Hall inductees] KISS when tragedy struck.

Gramm: We played one show with KISS, in Boston, and we were set to do the whole tour with them. But that night, on the way back to Rochester, it was Christmas Eve — and the truck slid off the New York State Thruway. The truck was destroyed, our crew had bumps and bruises, and our equipment was 80 percent destroyed. We were supposed to be in Florida, to pick-up the KISS tour, the day after Christmas. We had no truck, and no equipment; so we asked Capitol Records if they’d front us some money against our royalties — they said No, and dropped us. And that was the end of the band.

You were 25 when Black Sheep folded. It would’ve been easy to lament that you’d already accomplished what most aspiring musicians can only dream of — two major-label albums, opening for KISS — and settled down. How did you rebound from your devastation, and forge your detour with a band now nominated for the Rock Hall?

Gramm: Nobody would’ve faulted me for walking away from a life of music at all, I don’t think. But I was driven. I believed in myself, my singing ability, and my writing ability.

I’d met Mick a year or two earlier. Black Sheep’s manager was an A&M Records representative, and [Mick’s pre-Foreigner band] Spooky Tooth was on A&M Records; so when Spooky Tooth came to Rochester, we got to go backstage and meet them. I gave Mick the two Black Sheep albums, and told him I thought he’d like them.

Two weeks after our truck crashed, Black Sheep was still getting together, to try and figure out if we could do anything. Mick called and says, “I heard what happened to your equipment, I’m really sorry. But I’m not in Spooky Tooth anymore; I’m living in New York, I’ve got management, I’m beginning to put a band together. I heard your Black Sheep albums, and I really think that your voice would work perfectly for the kind of music I want to do. Would you consider coming down and auditioning?”

And I said, “gee, that’s a nice offer, but I haven’t closed the last chapter on Black Sheep yet.” He says, “I can call you back in about three weeks.” So I told the guys in Black Sheep that he called, and they were like, “Lou, we’re pretty much done. It doesn’t look like we’re going to recover from this accident. Why don’t you go see what you can do with the guys in New York City?” I was loyal to Black Sheep, but they were more realistic than I was. They knew that was over, so they gave me their blessings; I went to New York, and got the job.

Ohio DJ, Kid Leo, was key to Cleveland’s successful campaign to place the Rock Hall here. Did he play a role in Foreigner’s rise?

Gramm: Definitely; Kid Leo at WMMS. I remember when we started touring, going to that Cleveland station and spending, not a 25 minute interview — we spent about two-and-a-half hours with him, and he shot one-liners like a comedian. He was a great guy, incredible knowledge of music; and he was very supportive of us, and our style of music. We kept a really good relationship with him, long after he was done at WMMS.

Lou Gramm plays the Goodyear Theater (1201 E. Market St.) in Akron on Saturday, benefiting the CarsonStrong Foundation. For tickets, and Lou’s full tour itinerary, visit https://www.lougrammofficial.com.