|Crossroads: Rick Derringer|
Pivotal moments in musicians careers propelling them from obscurity to infamy
by Mark E. Waterbury
"Rock and Roll Hoochie Coo" is one of those songs that has stood the test of time and is still beloved by rockers from multiple generations. Rick Derringer, the author of that anthemic rock tune, has also survived well, and one of the main reasons he is still around is because he has always been doing music for the proverbial right reason: he absolutely loves creating and playing music! Although perhaps no subsequent songs penned by the guitarist reached the popularity of ".. Hoochie Coo," his passion has kept him busy lending his talents to a plethora of prominent musicians and bands throughout his multi-decade music career, as well as providing a fairly steady stream of solo material. Looking into the new millennium, Rick has changed his musical direction somewhat, but has not changed the philosophy that has made him legendary in the eyes of guitar enthusiasts as well as rock fans in general.
Growing up in a musically inclined family in small town Indiana, Rick Zehringer had an early passion for wanting to play music, although in those early days he had not really thought of making music his career. "When I first started, I just wanted to play guitar," Rick remembers. "Watching my uncle play guitar as an impressionable kid, I really felt the impact of music right there. It wasn't a record or TV or a movie, it was someone making music right in front of me, and that really had an effect on me." Rick actually had his first gigs playing in his uncle's band at a local club. But in his hard-working heartland family, Rick was a realist, thinking that he had to have a "real job" since a musical career was probably a pipe dream. He was leaning towards a career choice as a commercial artist, but since he still had a passion for music, he formed a band called The McCoys at age thirteen. "It wasn't something we did because we thought it would be successful. We just did it because we loved it and we loved music and just wanted to play." That passion kept The McCoys busy playing mostly cover songs at gigs all over the area. They were so popular during regular Saturday shows in Greenville, Ohio that they raised enough money so the town could build its community pool. Still, no thoughts of career success entered their minds until three producers from New York who were performing in the area with their band the Strangeloves had The McCoys open up for them one night. After hearing The McCoys play, they asked them if they wanted to come back to New York the next day to record their song "Hang On Sloopy". "That was right when I was scheduled to enter the art institute," Rick reflects. "We recorded the song, it became an instant hit, and I never went to school. It then became clear I was going to be playing music as a my job. And my time in the McCoys was a solid foundation for playing music, the work ethic and still loving music."
The McCoys kept performing, including a stint opening for the Rolling Stones. They began producing their own records with Rick learning the production side of music as he went along. Through Steve Paul, the owner of The Scene in New York City where the McCoys were regular performers, Rick would hook up with Texas guitar slinger Johnny Winter, who needed some help with his own production. "He really needed somebody to help him, because as a Texan he didn't feel he was being listened to properly by the New York producers who previously worked with him. He needed to work with someone he could trust and believe and talk to, and I ended up being that guy." Changing his last name to Derringer, Rick produced and performed with Johnny and, a few years later, he joined White Trash with Johnny's brother Edgar Winter. Both had previously recorded one of Rick's songs "Rock and Roll Hoochie Coo," but when Rick included his version of the song on his 1973 solo debut "All American Boy," the song hit number fifteen on the charts, the album reached number twenty-five, and more of the rock world woke up to the talents of Rick Derringer.
For the next three decades Rick released several more solo albums, and performed and recorded with Alice Cooper, Steely Dan, Barbara Streisand and Bette Midler. He worked on production for Cyndi Lauper's demo tapes that helped garner label interest, and was instrumental in the discovery of "Weird" Al Yankovic. Rick produced five albums for the music parody master, winning Grammy's for production on two of them. Rick also dabbled in television as musical director for the Lifetime Channel show "Way Off Broadway" for an entire season. Soon after the world entered the twenty-first century, Rick was still busy with the various facets of his career, but was leaning on a different tack with his solo music. "I tell people sometimes that this is a job where you never have to get bored if you do it properly. There are so many things that you can do you don't have to do one thing only. And it was always in the back of my mind even since I was a little kid that I loved jazz. I always played it and listened to it, and with White Trash, we had delved into it a little bit. I felt that the whole rock thing had panned out after I had worked with "Weird" Al. So I decided I was not going to pursue the rock music that the business still wanted me to do." Rick recently did four recordings with Mike Varney for Mike's blues label Blues Thrill International that were not at all ingrained in the rock philosophy. Then Rick's wife actually suggested that he do a smooth jazz version of his classic "Rock and Roll Hoochie Coo". "At first I thought it was a weird idea, I mean that's a rock and roll song! But then I thought about it, and ("Hoochie Coo") is blues-based which is what all jazz is, and it has all the things that smooth jazz likes, being well-played in other markets. So I recorded a smooth jazz version and it came out great. Within a couple of weeks, I had a record company deal to make three smooth jazz albums. Even though I had thought about (jazz) all of my life, the final doing of it was very spontaneous and I couldn't have asked for more." The first album "Free Ride" is ready to be released, and along with its signature "Jazzy Koo" features jazz versions of Edgar Winter's "Free Ride" and "Frankenstein" as well as a number of Rick's original compositions. Radio is catching on to it, a tour is forthcoming, and for someone who has made his mark as one of the household names of rock and roll, Rick is looking forward to this new direction." I think this will bring a lot of new fans into the smooth jazz world. A lot of people who were into my earlier music certainly aren't the same age, and a lot of them are into smooth jazz as well. I've had really good response so far, and I am just like a guy running in an election right now waiting to see how it turns out. I'm fifty-five years old and have had a long career making a lot of different records, and you can't take the past away, but I plan to go out and do smooth jazz now. That's what I do now. And I am totally enjoying myself, this is a breath of fresh air. It really strikes me in my heart and I love doing it."
RICK'S ADVICE FOR MUSICIANS: "The best thing that you can do is just listen to your heart. Play the music because you love it. The bottom line for me is I always played music because I loved it, not necessarily because it was a business. But at some point it became my job, and what better job is there in the world other than being a musician or entertainer and playing in front of people. You've just gotta love the music and keep playing it and then let it pursue all of the directions that it naturally takes. You will go out, you will play concerts, you will record, you will make CDs whether they are picked up by major labels or not. If you are true to your heart, there is no telling how far it can take you. If you really play it with your heart and with that motivation, then people will find your music. You need to find that place in your heart and then other people will identify with that because we are all human."