By Michael Casper
Boston is coming to the State Fair. Other than a gyro and a cream puff, is there any other reason why not to make a trip to West Allis?
Their debut album, Boston, was released nearly 39 years ago to the day they will storm the stage on the 6th. That record still ranks as one of the best-selling debuts in US history with over 17 million copies sold.
I caught up with Gary Pihl (pronounced peel) who joined Boston in 1985, and who plays lead and rhythm guitar, keyboards, and provides backing vocals.
Gary was raised in the suburbs of Chicago for the first 12 years of his life, and then relocated to the San Francisco Bay area and has led a musical life ever since.
"I was in several bands in high school," Gary said "and one of our guitar players told me about a guy who was really good and giving guitar lessons at the local music store, and that we all should take lessons from him. The guy was great, taught us some cool stuff, and we went to see his band named The Warlocks who were playing at a pizza parlor. A few months later that band changed their name to The Grateful Dead. Turns out it was Jerry Garcia giving us guitar lessons (laugh)."
At 19, Gary had his recording debut with Day Blindness in 1969.
"After my time in Day Blindness," Gary said "I was in a band called Fox with Roy Garcia and Johnny V (Vernazza), who went on to play in Elvin Bishop's band. We were really fortunate to get to be on some shows with bands we looked up to including opening at the Fillmore for Free (with Paul Rogers). We were on shows with Janis Joplin, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Eric Burdon and War and Mose Allison."
Gary spent four years in a band called Crossfire. He recalls, "Mitchell Froom was our organist. He's gone on to be a great producer (Paul McCartney, The Pretenders, Los Lobos, Crowded House, Suzanne Vega, Sheryl Crow, etc.). We were opening some shows for Norman Greenbaum when he was performing as a singer/songwriter on acoustic guitar. I remember one show, we had done our set and left the stage to Norman. He was halfway through his set when we noticed the audience was getting restless and wanted him to rock out. In the middle of one of Norman's songs, our drummer, Steve Jones, got back on stage and started playing! Norman turned around in shock. Then he looked at the rest of us on the side of the stage and waved us up. We'd seen him about a half dozen times so we sort of knew his songs. Mitchell and his brother David (our pianist) have perfect pitch and were telling me and our bassist what the chords were as we went along. The crowd seemed to dig it and we ended the show with a rocked out version of Spirit in the Sky."
Pihl's first big break in came in 1977.
"A friend told me Sammy Hagar was looking for a guitar player," Gary said "and in the middle of auditioning for him Sammy's manager called and said there was this 'gig with Queen and Thin Lizzy…Queen cancelled, Thin Lizzy is going to headline, you guys can open if you have a guitar player.' Sammy turns to me and says, 'Hey can you do the gig…it's in two days?' Of course I said, 'Yeah, sure I can do that (laugh).' I learned all the Hagar songs I could in two days. We did the show, and I ended up staying with him for the next eight years. One of the first gigs we had was opening for Boston in 1977. They liked us, we liked them. They wanted us to open their entire second tour, and that's what we did through 1979."
Then Hagar got the call from Van Halen in 1985.
"Tom Scholz, the founder of Boston, said to me, 'Hey, heard you're out of a gig…why don't you come back here and help me finish the Third Stage album, and maybe we'll tour.' I've been here thirty years now. I was thrilled! It was a dream come true for me to work with one of the greatest bands of all time! I would have crawled on my hands and knees from California to get to work with Boston. As it turned out, I flew directly from Farm Aid in Champaign, Illinois (my last gig with Hagar) to Boston, so I wasn't out of work for a day. I thought, how lucky could a guy get?"
The Third Stage was nearly completed.
"There was one more song to be recorded," Gary said "called I Think I Like It, and I figured it would take maybe a week…we'd go over the arrangement, we'll both play guitar on it. One thing led to another, and after about six weeks Tom suggested I move back there, we'll finish the album, and tour, and start work on the next album. He said he figured the new album would take about four years to create."
Scholz is something of a perfectionist.
"He wants to get things right. He'll work on a song for months, and if he thinks it sucks…he'll throw it away. It's not that he's slow, he just wants to get it perfect."
Scholz also has his own electronics company, and Gary eventually began serving as Vice President of Scholz Research and Development, assisting in building Tom's Hideaway Studio II, and is a crucial part of the massive technical undertaking of managing the stage equipment on Boston tours, including all of the back line and audio equipment.
"We make products for electric guitars," Gary said "that's what we use today. We're probably the only band that plays with the actual amps we've built.
Pihl is an expert professional photo editor, and did all of the editing for the graphics that were required for Corporate America as well as the remastered Boston and Don't Look Back CD's.
Boston's future includes gigs like our state fair, and making new music.
"We're always coming up with guitar riffs," Gary said "and song ideas. I don't know when, but it wouldn't surprise me if someday there's another Boston album. We're musicians. That's what we do. We tinker with riffs, somebody writes some lyrics…yeah, we're always writing songs."
When you see Boston, you'll still get the same enthusiasm and energy from their stage show, as you did in the 70's.
"People actually ask how we can sound so good live," Gary said "do we use prerecorded tracks? No way. All six of us sing. So if we hit a wrong note…that's really us hitting the wrong note (laugh). We'll change arrangements once in a while, but we play most of the music just like the records. We get asked if we get tired of playing some of the old songs, and I suppose we would if we were just sitting in our living rooms and playing them, but standing on stage, looking out at the audience, people are smiling, singing along because those songs meant so much to them. I tell you…I get a lump in my throat. There's no better feeling than that."