A few weeks ago, we published a Flashback post on the Best, a forgotten classic-rock supergroup that featured John Entwistle, Joe Walsh, Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, and Keith Emerson. They toured Japan and Hawaii in 1990 with a set that mixed hit songs from all their careers, but the whole thing ended after just five shows.
Fronting the band was Canadian singer Rick Livingstone, who we unfairly called the “weak link.” Upon further viewing of their September 26th, 1990, set at Yokohama Arena, it’s clear that he did as well as anyone could possibly expect from a complete unknown standing alongside rock icons. We phoned up Livingstone at his home in Florida to hear the entire saga of the Best, and he shared with us some never-before-seen photos from the tour. These are his words.
I’m a Canuck. I was born in Toronto, but I grew up in Winnipeg and I spent a dozen years in Vancouver. From age eight, I was a singer. It was my passion and it never stopped. In Winnipeg, I played in little high-school bands and then eventually moved onto original, creative bands. I did the same thing in Vancouver.
In 1985, my band Agent got picked by one of the managers that worked for Bryan Adams and Loverboy. He said, “Look, I think you guys can do some stuff.” He got us a worldwide recording deal. We had an album and it did really well on the Canadian charts, but Canada is like three percent of the world market. If you’re not happening in the States, you’re not happening.
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But we got that recording contract from Virgin Records worldwide. They contracted [Jeff “Skunk”] Baxter to be our producer. And it got released and it did fairly well in Canada. But like I said, “Eh. So what?”
Anyway, I developed a great relationship with Baxter and he was heading back to Los Angeles. He said, “Look, I’ve been dying to start my own band at some point and I’d like you to be the singer.” I said, “OK. Sure.” So I eventually moved down to Los Angeles and spent two years on his couch. I got to know him pretty well, day in, day out.
Right about the time I moved down, the New York club China Club decided to open up a Los Angeles version. It was open for about 18 months before it collapsed, since management was taking profits and putting them somewhere else. But every Tuesday night was jam night and Baxter and I would dutifully drive down there. He was part of the jam-night band, and so was I. We’d play and then big stars would come in and jam with us.
There were about 80 of those jams across 18 months and they started to become world-renowned. People would come and it wouldn’t be surprising to find Sting or Mick Jagger on the stage jamming along with us. Giants of the industry decided it was a cool club to be at.
One particular night, the band configuration was me and Baxter and Keith Emerson, John Entwistle, Joe Walsh, and I believe Simon Phillips was playing drums. It just happened to be a night where there were a bunch of promoters from Japan in the audience. They cornered Baxter at the end of the night and said, “Why don’t you come play some concerts in Japan?”
Baxter took it upon himself to talk to everyone on the stage that night to see if it was something they wanted to do. As it turns out, it was.
I wasn’t their first choice for singer, I’ll tell you right now. But they did have a quandary. They didn’t want to get some superstar singer up front because then it would mean they were doing mostly his songs. How could some big superstar singer sing all the other songs? They wanted to do songs they had written.
They wanted somebody not famous. The first person they asked was Terry Reid. He turned down Led Zeppelin [when they were first forming in 1968]. He turned them down, too. When he turned them down, Baxter suggested me and they unanimously agreed, with Baxter’s pushing.
Everyone insisted on doing their own songs. Joe said, “I’ll do it, but I’m not doing any Eagles songs I didn’t write.” Entwistle said, “I’ll just do Who songs that I wrote.” And that’s what we did. And the same with Simon. We did a song that he wrote for Jeff Beck.
With Keith [Emerson], it was easy because he was part and parcel of the ELP writing process. We did mainly instrumental stuff. He didn’t want to do any of the big hits like “Take a Pebble.” He just wanted to show his keyboard prowess.
With Baxter, he had written parts and played parts in Steely Dan and the Doobie Brothers, so it was easy for him to just select songs.
Skunk, onstage with Joe Walsh
Courtesy of Rick Livingstone
Before the tour, we went into SIR studios in Los Angeles for a couple of weeks and we worked out the details of the set. It was a real juxtaposition of genres, but It moved together really smoothly. And I gotta tell you, all the guys, for the superstars they are and were, they were all kind and authentic. They treated me kindly. It was never a question of, “You’re nobody and we’re the stars.” Never.
I was the only one that hadn’t sold 9 billion albums on that stage. In a sense, I was a frontman/sideman kind of a guy. I knew I could cover the songs, but am I going to be Roger Daltrey? No. Am I going to be Donald Fagen? No. Don Henley? No. I’m not going to be any of those guys. I’m not. I just have to do the best I can.
At one point we were doing an Entwistle song called “Too Late the Hero.” It has a flute intro and I play flute. John said, “Come with me.” I got in his car and we drove down to Guitar Center. “Here’s a flute, learn the part; you’re playing the start of it.” And Joe Walsh bought me leather pants from some place. They were all genuine, authentic people.
Skunk in a borrowed steward’s outfit on a plane during a tour with the Best.
Courtesy of Rick Livingstone
We were contracted to play four dates in Japan and one in Hawaii. But when we got to the outdoor stadium in Osaka, it was a monsoon. There was three feet of water in the stadium, so we took the whole thing to a local bar and just played there. Obviously, you can’t fit the number of people from a stadium into a bar, but we had a good time, mainly jamming.
It wasn’t nerve racking onstage, but I could feel the adrenaline because, aside from a performance I’d done in Canada where there were a million people watching on TV for a charity gig, it was the largest crowd I’d ever played to. There were 20,000 people or more in the various arenas we played. But when those lights are shining on you, you can’t see anything, really.
There was talk of doing more shows, but a funny series of events happened after we got home. At first, Keith was like, “We’re doing an ELP reunion tour.” And then Simon was enlisted by Toto, and Joe Walsh was told the Eagles were getting back together, but he had to clean up.
That left Entwistle and Baxter. They did actually do a couple of dates in America, but it was a different configuration entirely. It was the two of them with Joe Pusateri on drums and [Starship’s] Mickey Thomas for the singer. That lasted about three or four dates and then that was the end of it. At that point, Entwistle was like, “We’re doing our ninth reunion tour with the Who.” And so that was it. Everybody dispersed. Within a few years, everyone was back with their original bands. It never came around again.
All the while, I was in Los Angeles and in a dozen other bands. But 999 bands out of 1,000 never make it. They say that preparation meets opportunity and blah, blah, blah, but most of the time, it doesn’t happen. I’ve worked with great musicians, but there’s a lot of great musicians out there. I’ve met a lot of kitchen musicians that are better than the guys making millions of dollars selling records. That’s not the point. That’s not how it happens in this business.
But in a sense, I was lucky. I never really grabbed that golden ring by the hand and hung onto it and swung with it. It allowed me to become a man. I got married. I had a daughter, Jude Tanner. She’s 22 now and a singer-songwriter just starting out.
Meanwhile, I developed a promising television career. In order to keep one foot in the music world, I became a music supervisor, music editor guy. And while it wasn’t singing, which is what my passion is, it was lucrative because it was television in Los Angeles. I’ve been nominated for eight Emmys.
All this time, Baxter has remained my mentor. About four years ago, he was being honored at the NAMM convention. All of the surviving members of the Best were in the audience and Baxter asked me to sing with him. That was the last time I saw Keith Emerson. He died three weeks later.
Footage of the Yokohama Arena Best show disappeared until it showed up on YouTube around 2008. At first I was like, “Oh, this is cool. We did this over 15 years ago.” And then I started reading some of the comments. And … wow! It was my first experience with that sort of thing. I never had to read about myself in the paper or anything like that.
The comments just devastated me. It took me a little while to get over it. Then reading on, I would go like, “They’re trashing me pretty badly, but they’re trashing John and Baxter. They’re saying that Keith can’t play like he used to.”
Everyone wanted to get on there and say bad things about everybody. It took me a while to realize that it was just hate, that’s it. Why let that influence your life when you’re trying to be a loving, kind person and trying to surround yourself with those kinds of people?
And hey, what do I care? I’ve had a great life.
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