The following is the set of liner notes for Firefall: Greatest Hits, a single-CD compilation released by Rhino in 1992. Excerpts of the notes written by Stephen K. Peeples have been posted and updated on the official Firefall website since the mid-1990s.
As of this post, March 2021, the country-rock band is still active, with Jock Bartley, Mark Andes, and David Muse from the original lineup plus longtime bandmates Sandy Ficca (1984) and newcomer Gary Jones (2013). Firefall’s most recent album is Comet, out in December 2020.
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I N T R O D U C T I O N
As dusk enveloped the spectacular vistas of Yosemite Valley in Yosemite National Park, a huge pile of wood lay stacked at the edge of a high cliff. Nature lovers from far corners of the world gathered on the Valley floor, waiting till dark when the woodpile was torched and slowly pushed off the cliff, the burning logs forming a blazing cascade down the mountain’s stony face.
The image of this primitive light show, staged at Yosemite for tourists, stuck in Florida-based Rick Roberts’ mind for a long time. Then, in 1973, as he and his new Colorado-based band were about to play their first gig but still needed a name, the image flashed back: Firefall.
Two decades later, in 1992, that still seems an especially dead-on handle for the country-flavored rock ‘n’ roll band that carried the torch of musical forebears such as The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, and The Flying Burrito Brothers into the mid-’70s and beyond.
For the better part of the next decade, Firefall burned it at both ends, musically and personally, and then appeared to flame out — at least on record. By 1983, they’d cut eight albums (scoring gold for the first three, with the third going on to platinum-plus), and put 13 singles on the charts.
Firefall: Greatest Hits is especially for the many fans who’ve been asking for a collection of the band’s best-known songs, and wondering if they’ll ever hear any new Firefall music. We’ve gathered all their hit 45s and a handful of the choicest LP tracks, plus a new, previously unreleased Firefall recording penned by co-founder Jock Bartley — “Run Run Away.”
R E D – H O T P R E – H I S T O R Y
Firefall’s connection to the pioneering country-rock bands is at once direct, convoluted, and fascinating. The group’s roots can be traced back to late 1967 when country-rock godfather Gram Parsons bailed out of his International Submarine Band and took off with Roger McGuinn, Chris Hillman, and their flock in The Byrds.
In October 1968, after recording the group’s prototypical country-rock LP Sweetheart Of The Rodeo (Columbia), Parsons refused to tour in segregated South Africa and flew the coop. A few months later, McGuinn and Hillman discovered their manager had been ripping them off, and Hillman split, too.
By December ’68, Parsons and Hillman were airborne once again, this time piloting The Flying Burrito Brothers. The new fivesome also featured occasional Byrds steel guitar player Sneaky Pete Kleinow, and the bassist and drummer from Parsons’ old International Submarine Band, Chris Ethridge and John Corneal.
Within a few months, the Burritos boasted a third ex-Byrd when Corneal was replaced by Michael Clarke, who’d most recently been with Doug Dillard and Gene Clark’s band. And later in ’69, guitarist Bernie Leadon, ex-Hearts & Flowers and Dillard & Clark, became a Burrito.
After rolling the first two Burritos albums, Parsons decided he’d had his fill; he exited and dropped out of sight for a while. He was replaced in mid-1970 by guitar/singer/writer Rick Roberts, who had sung (uncredited) on The Byrds’ Untitled LP (Columbia) earlier that year.
With Roberts in the Burritos fold, they recorded The Flying Burrito Bros., their third album (released in June ’71 by A&M), and Last of the Red Hot Burritos, the fourth and final new LP (February ’72, A&M). But like the first two, the last two were praised to high heaven by the critics and ignored like hell by record buyers. So after three years and four stiff albums, the band members were fed up with the whole Burritos enchilada.
Most of the key players on the West Coast/Colorado country-rock circuit had crossed paths many times by then. They’d jammed and sung informally, sat in with each other’s groups, and written songs together. They’d caroused with the womenfolk, told many a tall tale, and shared mass quantities of controlled substances (thus making “Rocky Mountain High” a double entendre). Career-wise, they also shared the acute frustration of repeated, unconsummated flirtation with the Success Goddess.
The whole scene was taking on incestuous undertones. To paraphrase the summer ’71 Stephen Stills hit, it was time to change partners.
Bernie Leadon had been the first of the last red-hot Burritos to burn out — in mid ’71, after the third album’s lukewarm reception. He shipped out with Glenn Frey (ex-Longbranch Pennywhistle with J.D. Souther), Don Henley (ex-Shiloh), and Randy Meisner (ex-Stone Canyon Band with Rick Nelson) in Linda Ronstadt’s band. A few months later, the guys re-christened themselves Eagles.
Pedal steel player Al Perkins (another Shiloh alum) and Hillman went from the Burritos on down the road to Manassas, Stills’ post-Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young monster blues/rock/country/Latin party band. After that, Perkins and Hillman teamed up with J.D. Souther and Richie Furay (ex-Buffalo Springfield, ex-Poco) in the Souther, Hillman, Furay Band.
Clarke, after eight nearly non-stop years flying with The Byrds, diddling with Dillard & Clark, and farting around with the Burritos, bagged the whole business and headed to Hawaii for an extended vacation. And final Burritos members Kenny Wertz, Roger Bush, and Byron Berline splintered off to become Country Gazette.
T H E F I R E F A L L I G N I T E S
Rick Roberts, by the early ‘70s based in Colorado and signed with one of Stills’ song publishing companies, celebrated his post-Burritos freedom by recording a solo album, Windmills, in 1972. That May, a song he’d written with Stills and Hillman, “It Doesn’t Matter,” became a #61 solo 45 for Stephen.
Later that year, Roberts was in New York City to play a gig, and coincidentally, so was Gram Parsons. He’d resurfaced and hit the road with a show that included Emmylou Harris and The Fallen Angels. Kansas-born Jock Bartley, coming off a stint with Zephyr (replacing Tommy Bolin as lead guitarist on the album Sunset Ride), had been hired in Boulder as a singer/guitarist for The Fallen Angels. Like Parsons, Roberts was impressed by Bartley’s lead and slide work.
In mid-September 1973, after recording a pair of brilliant solo LPs (G.P. and Grievous Angel, the latter not yet released at that time), Parsons died, supposedly of heart failure; the circumstances remain shrouded in mystery.
Back in Boulder, Bartley ran into Roberts, who by then had cut another solo album, She Is A Song, and the duo began performing together. Encouraged by their audiences and peers — and vowing to avoid the mistakes made with their previous outfits — the two decided to build a better rock ‘n’ roll band.
Roberts and Bartley rounded up Philadelphia-born bassist/singer Mark Andes, who’d been a major figure on the SoCal (Topanga Canyon) rock scene during the late ‘60s-early ‘70s with bands like Spirit and Jo Jo Gunne. Andes had plugged out and was living in the mountains outside Boulder, but was coaxed out of retirement. He brought jazz as well as rock elements to the new band’s sound.
Larry Burnett was a Washington, D.C.-based singer/writer/guitarist Roberts had met while performing in the nation’s capital a few years earlier. When Roberts contacted him in ’73 to see if he was free to join Firefall, Burnett had been driving a cab to make ends meet. Rick sent him a one-way plane ticket west; Larry parked the hack, packed his sack, and never looked back.
Roberts, Bartley, Andes, and Burnett then auditioned several local drummers, but none had world-class chops or experience. Finally, Roberts called up his former Burritos bandmate Michael Clarke, who was hired on the spot, over the phone. When Clarke landed back in Colorado and assumed Firefall’s drum throne, the lineup was ready to gig.
The band woodshedded in Colorado clubs for more than a year, mainly around Boulder and Aspen. They worked on writing new tunes and honing a powerful, guitar-driven rock/pop/country style, which put equal emphasis on strong melodies and sophisticated multi-vocal harmonies. They recorded a demo tape produced by Chris Hillman and began shopping it to several major labels.
In early 1975, after CSNY’s mammoth 1974 tour and latest divorce, Stills put a new group together and signed a solo deal with Columbia. They cut the Stills album, and for the six-week supporting tour that summer, Stills added Roberts to the band on guitar and vocals.
C O N F L A G R A T I O N
Firefall’s big break came unexpectedly, at around the same time. A few months after splitting with J.D. Souther and Richie Furay, Chris Hillman hit the road with a backup band that included Firefall’s Bartley, Andes, and Roberts. By the time they were scheduled to play The Other End in NYC, Hillman became ill and could not complete the tour. Firefall flew in its other two members from Colorado to finish the engagements.
Atlantic A&R reps caught the show and quickly offered the group a multi-album contract.
Sessions for the first Firefall album ensued during December 1975 at Criteria Studios in North Miami, Florida, where people like The Allman Brothers Band, Stephen Stills, Eric Clapton, and scores more had recorded legendary LPs (many were Atlantic artists, hence Criteria’s nickname, “Atlantic South”).
The Firefall producer was Jim Mason (of Free Flow Productions, the Austin, Texas-based outfit behind redneck rockers Jerry Jeff Walker, Rusty Weir, and Steve Fromholz).
As the recording progressed, Firefall’s lineup expanded from five to six. David Muse, from Tampa/St. Petersburg, was recruited as the band’s utility ace, playing saxes (alto/tenor/baritone/soprano), keyboards (piano/organ/ Moog synthesizer), flute, and harmonica.
Sparks flew with Firefall’s national debut in spring 1976, as the group’s sound caught fire on record, on radio, and onstage. Roberts’ “Mexico” and Firefall’s (original) version of “It Doesn’t Matter” took off out of the box on album-oriented rock (AOR) stations, while the first single, “Livin’ Ain’t Livin’,” established the sextet on the pop side during the summer.
Firefall’s followup 45, “You Are The Woman,” was a mega-hit with pop and mellow-rock audiences, and the group’s first (and only) Top 10 single.
That success plus exposure gained on tours with headliners including The Band, Fleetwood Mac, The Doobie Brothers, and Lynyrd Skynyrd helped boost the album as high as #28 on the charts; by November, it had mined RIAA gold.
A rare (for the era) third single, “Cinderella,” kept the fire stoked well into 1977, going Top 40 in the spring.
Meanwhile, Firefall was writing and laying down the tracks for their sophomore effort at Criteria in Miami and at Haji and Devlin Sound studios in Los Angeles. Jim Mason was once again behind the board, and the band was augmented by the snappy, funky Memphis Horns plus a percussion trio led by Joe Lala (Blues Image, Manassas, Stills) which eventually became known as “The Cuban Army.”
Luna Sea landed during late summer ’77, and its leadoff single, “Just Remember I Love You” (with former Poco frontman/future Eagle Timothy B. Schmit guesting on backing vocals), soared to #11 in early fall. The album was certified gold on October 3, after less than two months on the charts, where it peaked at #27.
“Just Remember I Love You,” however, reinforced Atlantic’s — and radio’s — perception of Firefall as a soft-rock ballads band. The group, on the other hand, saw itself as a smokin’ rock unit that just happened to have a few mellower hits that got lots of pop and adult contemporary airplay.
As a result, the second Luna Sea 45, the more rock ‘n’ roll “So Long,” didn’t get the major push or airplay the first single had, and barely cracked the Top 50 in early 1978.
Undaunted, Firefall came back stronger than ever that October with Élan, their third album, recorded at Criteria and L.A.’s Record Plant. This time out, the band brought in heavyweight producers Tom Dowd (Aretha Franklin, The Rascals, Cream, The Allman Brothers, Eric Clapton) and the team of brothers Ron & Howard Albert (The Allmans, Clapton, Stephen Stills/Manassas, Crosby, Stills & Nash).
Don Gehman, who engineered the Miami dates and mixed the whole LP with the Alberts, would go on to produce John Mellencamp in the ‘80s. Guest musicians included Joe Lala and West Coast percussion ace Steve Forman.
Anticipation was for high for Élan that it shipped gold, meaning half a million copies were in the stores on release day. Hoping to put any identity issue to rest, the band and Atlantic chose “Strange Way” as the album’s first single. The Roberts tune was a ballad and a rocker rolled up in one, alternating mellow, plaintive verses with angry, ballsy choruses.
Not surprisingly, “Strange Way” went over big with both Top 40 and AOR radio during autumn and winter ’78, as the band embarked on another series of concert dates, this time as headliners.
“Strange Way” and other oft-played tracks like “Sweet And Sour” (with future Traveling Wilburys/Little Village drummer Jim Keltner on drums) helped boost Élan past the million mark in sales as 1978 gave way to ’79. It was certified as Firefall’s first platinum album in mid-January, just as “Goodbye, I Love You” was saying hello to the Hot 100. Three months later, “Sweet And Sour” was issued as a single, continuing the long hot run.
T H E F I R E B E G I N S T O F A L L
Publicly, Firefall was burning hotter than ever. Behind the scenes, the band members were toast.
They’d spent more than five solid years gigging, writing, recording, and touring, and had finally made it. Yet their financial situation was in doubt. Relationships — both personal and business, inside and outside the band — were in shambles. Their bodies, minds, and souls suffered the effects of prolonged touring, self-abuse, and neglect, typical of the era’s booze ‘n’ blow rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle. And the creative muse (sorry, Dave) proved harder to find. In short, Firefall needed a break.
Attempts to straighten out all the above and more added up to the lengthy delay in getting the next album out. With Joe Lala again an unofficial member of the group, sessions for album #4 were spread out over several months and both coasts. The Albert brothers produced some of the earlier material at Criteria, but sessions were also held with producer Kyle Lehning at Boulder’s Northstar, Denver’s Applewood, and L.A.’s Cherokee and Pasha Studios. There was much wringing of hands and gnashing of teeth between the band, the producers, and the record company.
The resulting Undertow album was finally launched in spring 1980, a year and a half after Élan. The lead single, Roberts’ “Headed For A Fall” (arranged by the Alberts, with ex-Manassas and ex-Souther, Hillman, Furay member Paul Harris on electric piano), put the band back into the pop Top 40. But much momentum had been lost.
The second 45, “Love That Got Away” (with Little Feat’s Billy Payne playing organ) stalled at #50 during the summer, as the album ran out of gas at #68.
Firefall’s gold and platinum streak was over.
After the band completed a Japanese tour, Andes and Clarke quit; Andes joined the Wilson sisters in Heart. Opting to carry on, Roberts, Bartley, Burnett, and Muse quickly replaced their original rhythm section with bassist George Hawkins and drummer Tris Imboden (from Kenny Loggins’ Grammy-winning band). They got busy recording another album right away, but instead of working in Miami and L.A. with Ron & Howard, the sessions took place in Boulder and Nashville with producer/engineer Kyle Lehning.
Out at year’s end, Clouds Across The Sun hit the charts in January 1981, followed a couple of weeks later by the single “Staying With It,” a duet featuring Roberts and Lisa Nemzo.
Hawkins then left Firefall to join the party animals in Mick Fleetwood’s ill-fated solo band, The Zoo. Kim Stone (later bassist with Spyro Gyra) was his replacement. Then, just after Firefall hit the road to support their new records, Larry Burnett was forced to bow out of the band, due to ill health.
On the charts, “Staying With It” moved into the lower Top 40, but Clouds Across The Sun never made it higher than #102 in its 13-week run. Negotiations for a new record deal were in progress, but after a final concert on Maui, Roberts told his bandmates he was history, and Firefall officially broke up.
Later in the year, Atlantic put together The Best Of Firefall for Christmas ’81 (it peaked at #186 in four weeks), then turned the page.
T H E P H O E N I X F L I E S # 1
As the months went by, co-founder Jock Bartley felt increasingly dissatisfied with the way things had ended. Finally, he called Ron Albert, hoping he’d have some ideas about replacing Roberts and relighting the Firefall flame.
Albert suggested Jock get together with John Sambataro and Chuck Kirkpatrick. Sambataro was a Miami-based singer/guitarist/keyboardist/songwriter who’d recorded with Stills, Clapton, Dave Mason, (Roger) McGuinn, (Gene) Clark & (Chris) Hillman, and Barry Gibb, among others.
John and Jock had actually met back in 1978 when they both played on the Criteria session for Andy Gibb’s platinum single “Shadow Dancing.” Kirkpatrick was a local singer/writer and musician who’d worked at Criteria as an engineer on such albums as Derek & The Dominos’ Layla.
Albert then talked with Allen Jacobi, a Miami entertainment attorney who had a relationship with Atlantic; Jacobi convinced the label to help fund Firefall’s rekindling. Atlantic sprung for some new demos, which led to a new album deal and the spring 1982 Criteria sessions for the Break Of Dawn LP, with Ron and his brother Howard producing once again.
Backing Bartley, Sambataro, and Kirkpatrick were synths player Alain Salvati, drummer Joe Galdo, and Joe Lala, with special appearances by Stephen Stills (vocals, electric guitars, acoustic piano), David Sanborn (alto sax), plus former bandmates Rick Roberts (additional background vocals), and David Muse (harmonica, flute, synths, and vocoder).
The first Break Of Dawn single, the power ballad “Always” (penned by Sambataro and frequent collaborator Paul Crosta) hit the airwaves in late January ’83 — two years after “Staying With It” had debuted. “Always” topped local charts in several markets around the country; nationally, it peaked at #59. The album, out in March, barely scratched the Top 200 (#199 in three weeks).
Firefall nonetheless got the go-ahead to record another LP — and fast. Adding Scott Kirkpatrick (Chuck’s brother) on drums and backing vocals, and Colorado bassist Greg Overton, the group cut Mirror Of The World in Miami with the Alberts, and Atlantic released it as 1983 drew to a close.
The album had a harder edge than its predecessors, which many programmers thought reflected too great a departure from the classic Firefall sound. With scant airplay, Mirror Of The World quickly disappeared, as did the single, Bartley’s “Runaway Love.”
T H E P H O E N I X F L I E S # 2
Though they continued to tour without a record deal or current hits throughout the ‘80s, and with Bartley the sole original member, Firefall remained a powerful and popular live act. The band’s original singles were still faves with pop and A/C radio audiences, and as the classic rock format evolved, their most airworthy album enjoyed added exposure. And as the decade drew to a close, Roberts returned to front the group once again.
All this has sparked a flare-up in Firefall’s fortunes during the early ‘90s. There’s been a jump in concert bookings, and, as mentioned earlier, increased demand for the CD reissue of these original classic recordings and requests for new tunes. So we’re closing this collection with the newly recorded, previously unreleased “Run Run Away,” written by Jock Bartley about the adult victims of child abuse.
From the ashes rose the phoenix to fly once again, goes the famous ancient Arabian myth. In Firefall’s case, there could hardly be a more appropriate metaphor. But no matter how brightly Firefall burns in the future, the musical embers gathered here will always glow.
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Thanks from the author to Joe McGee, John Rogan, Pete Frame, and Michael Ochs, and to fellow North Miamians Ron & Howard Albert for their continuing inspiration. Thanks in 2021 to Rory Aronsky.
Grammy nominee Stephen K. Peeples is a multi-media writer-producer who was raised by career newspaper journalists and music-lovers in Miami and Los Angeles. He earned a Grammy nomination as co-producer of the “Monterey International Pop Festival” box set with Lou Adler and Geoff Gans (Rhino/MIPF, 1992); Peeples also wrote the liner notes booklet. Over the years, he has written liner notes for nearly a dozen more albums, including “Les Paul: The Legend & The Legacy,” Capitol Records’ acclaimed 4-CD box set (1991), and most recently, “Silver Raven” by the Kai Clark Band (2020). • Peeples was the original, award-winning writer/producer of “The Lost Lennon Tapes” radio series for Westwood One from 1988-1990, and writer/producer of hundreds of WW1 programs in the preceding five years. • His first music industry gig was as an Associate Editor (radio and West Coast country) at Cash Box magazine in Hollywood in 1975. He went on to be a Media Relations-PR executive for Capitol Records (1977-1980), Elektra/Asylum Records (1980-1983), and Rhino Entertainment (1992-1998). • Moving into the Digital Era, Peeples was Rhino’s first web editor (1996-1998), then elevated to content editor of Warner Music Group websites (1998-2001). • Based in the Santa Clarita Valley just north of L.A., Peeples was the award-winning Online Editor for The Signal newspaper’s website from 2007-2011, and wrote-hosted-co-produced SCVTV’s WAVE-nominated “House Blend” local music TV show from 2010-2015 (archived online and still airing in reruns). • The Santa Clarita journalist is now a News Editor at SCVTV’s SCVNews.com, SVP/New Media for Rare Cool Stuff Unltd. and developing a biography of notorious Texas Artlaw Boyd Elder. • For more info and original stories, visit https://stephenkpeeples.com/. For exclusive behind-the-scenes interviews, subscribe to Peeples’ YouTube channel.
Article: Firefall: ‘Greatest Hits’ – Liner Notes by Stephen K. Peeples, 1992
Author: Stephen K. Peeples
Category: News and Reviews
Article Source: StephenKPeeples.com