The Guitarist Talks About 38 Special, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Big People
by Scott Greene
Jeff Carlisi, Architect? Were it not for a recession, he could be designing buildings instead of crafting guitar licks in bands such as 38 Special, Big People, and Brian Howe. And what is it about the West Side of Jacksonville, Florida anyway? In his GRITZ interview, Jeff tells us how he was born in Boston, but put down his roots in one of the most prolific birthplaces of southern rock. Architecture's loss is certainly music's gain.
Tell us, Jeff, where did you grow up and how did you come to be in the same West Side neighborhood where all the great artists of that musical period came from?
My family was from Boston and my dad was a Navy man who had one dream and that was to fly. When World War II broke out, it was a great excuse to take up flying so he did and it continued until his last duty, which just happened to be in Jacksonville, Florida. We moved to Jacksonville after my first grade year and I grew up there. I moved to Atlanta after high school to go to college.
How did you get interested in playing music and how did you meet the guys in Skynyrd and 38?
I got interested in playing when I saw the Beatles on Ed Sullivan. I knew when I saw them play that I wanted to do that, and for me, it was not about the girls or looking cool, it was to be able to make music and to play that electric guitar. The first song I ever heard on the radio that made me want to play music was Johnny Horton's version of "The Battle of New Orleans." My early influences were well rounded but I leaned towards guitar bands.
I was in this band called the Doomsday Refreshment Committee. The keyboard player was an older guy and he asked me one time if I had ever heard the blues. I said, "What is that?" and he pulled out some of the great blues players and I was blown away by them and it really inspired me to play. We would go see the band Second Coming (ED. Note: An early Dickey Betts/Berry Oakley band) play. The only problem was (that) Ronnie was the only one old enough to get in as the club was a bottle club. The rest of us would have to beg the kitchen help to let us sit in the kitchen to listen. On Sunday at the Forest Inn, they had these things called Be In's and all the people would come out and sit around and play and, over the course of time, we saw the Allman Brother's band form and take off. I think that was an inspiration to us all seeing them from the beginning and seeing them make it to the level we all wanted to reach.
While I was away at college, I played in a lot of country bands. In fact, while in school I got an offer to play with an up-and-coming country singer named Barbara Mandrel. For me, personally some of my early influences were Allen Collins, Eric Clapton, Leslie West, Barry Bailey, The bands Free and Cream and on the country side, Jerry Reed is a awesome player.
So you were in Jacksonville - did you know the guys in Skynyrd or 38 back then?
We all grew up with in a few blocks of each other. I was in Cubs Scouts with Billy Powell and Leon lived two streets over from me and I can remember jumping on my bike and riding over to Allen Collins house, so yeah, we all knew each other and played around in different bands together. I still look back in amazement at all the people who lived so close that made such a difference in the musical world.
Tell me about some of those early bands.
Well, one I remember was with Donnie and Ken Lyons and it was called Sweet Rooster, but that was just one of many.
So how did you get from Atlanta back to Jacksonville?
When I got out of college with my degree in Architecture, there was a recession on and not a lot of people banging down my door with job offers, so I went back to Jacksonville. I figured I would just hang around for a year or so and see what happened, but within two weeks I was playing in 38 Special. The band was only about a month old when I got back to Jacksonville.
How were those early days of the band and when did you know you had made it?
Well, we knew we had something special but the first two records were not very successful by record industry standards. But when we released our third album "Rockin' into the Night," we got our first radio top 40 single and the record sold about a quarter million records. That helped us stay around for a few more records. Funny thing is, we never looked back and said, "We have made it!" - we just kept on striving for the next plateau. When Wild Eyed Southern Boys came out, we really knew we had created something that was long lasting and that would stand the test of time.
Speaking of standing the test of time-tell me about the song "Four Walls of Raiford" with Ronnie Van Zant.
At that time, 38 owned a rehearsal hall in Jacksonville and there was a sandwich shop right next door that went out of business, so Skynyrd bought that space and made it into a recording studio, which was great 'cause we could all hang out and if we needed to record something, we could just walk next door and lay it down. Ronnie always wanted to have a project outside of Skynyrd because he loved country music so much. One night Ronnie had this song called "When You Have Good Friends" and he called some friends together and it included Don Barnes, Larry Junstrum, Steve Brookins and Allen Collins, so we recorded a demo of that song and when we were all leaving he ask me to stay because he had another song he wanted to work on. It was just he, I and Kevin Elison. Ronnie started singing this tune and he was trying to remember the words so I said, "Hey, man, just get your piece of paper and look at what it says." He looked at me funny and said, "I never write any words down, man. I just sing them."
I was stunned and to me, that showed just how much of a great songwriter he was. He knew just what he wanted to say and knew just how it should sound and when the song was done, it had his deeply inspired touch. He remembered the words and he sang them to me. I heard it in a traditional American folk blues and (it) just so happened (that) Gary had a Dobro sitting in the corner so I picked it up and started playing this arrangement. At this point, it was one or two a.m. and Ronnie sat at microphone in the middle of the room and sat two chairs face to face. He had a bottle of Jack Daniels. He opened it up and we spent about an hour working the arrangement out and getting in the right frame of mind and recorded it in about three takes. It was a special moment and one I will never forget.
How much over-dubbing was done to the version on the Skynyrd Legends album?
Quite a bit, really, and at the time it was done, I was a bit disappointed. But at the same time, I was grateful that it was included in the record and that people would be allowed to hear something that was so special. I know that they added Billy playing keyboards, some other guitar parts and a bass line to it and my thought was that it lost its original feel, but I was still happy that it was included in the record. Several years later, a fan in Kansas came up to me and said, "Jeff, I want to thank you for the song "Four Walls of Raiford." I told him I wished he had heard it before the over-dubs. He said, "That's the version I am talking about!" It was then I found out about the box set from Skynyrd and that it had been included on it. I ran out the next day and got it and when I heard it I said, "Yes!" It was the untouched version and I could feel the magic in the song again.
What record do you think defined the .38 Special's sound or style?
Well, Wild Eyed was the greatest selling record to that point but "Caught Up in You" came off of Special Forces and it was the first top ten charting song. The Wild Eyed Southern Boys record was still the best selling record we had and that was the image that was being marketed for the band, so I guess it defined us as a band. I have to say that we worked hard to include as many different styles of music into our sound. We had Jim Peterik as a collaborator up to the Tour De Force record but he was getting busy with his own band, Survivor, so I believe that's some of the difference you hear on that record. When you take away someone who is as talented a songwriter as Jim is, then you are taking away part of what made those songs from the last three records what they were and it's not that they were any better or worse songs, they just had a different sound. I think any time you add a new writer to that, you are going to get a different sound to the music you are making.
Tell me what your favorite song was to play and any shows or bands you toured with that stick out in your mind?
My two favorite songs to play were "Robin Hood" and "Fantasy Girl" as far as sheer enjoyment of playing. As for bands, five stick out in my mind as great to tour and hang out with: Rush, Hughie Lewis, Starship, Bad Company and Bon Jovi. All those bands were great to tour with and we also had a lot of fun off stage with them also.
Tell me about the band after Don left.
Well, we got a tape from our manager of a band called Jack Mac and the Heart Attack and as soon as I heard it, I knew he (Max Carl) was a talented singer and he joined us quickly along with Danny Chauncey. We got a good break as we had the song "Second Chance" and we put it on this record and it ended up being our highest charting single ever. I know it was not what most folks think of as a 38 song but we were trying to redefine who we were as a band. We never looked at a song to see if it was a ".38" song. We felt a great song was a great song and it deserved to be recorded and heard. We did two records and toured and had a good run 'til Max decided he did not want to tour and be away from home so much, so we decided to see if Don would come back and see if we could find the magic we had.
How long after Don's return did you know it was maybe time for you to move on, and did you not write some of the songs off Resolution?
Well, about a year in, we all started to feel unhappy again and it took maybe another year before we had all had enough. We went our separate ways and yes I wrote some of the songs that made it on to that release but I never played on it. I think it really was like a marriage where we grew in different directions and I truly wish them the best of luck and I am very proud of our time together and the things we were able to do as a band. I think some of the music we made will stand up as some of the best ever made and we are all to be proud of that.
So how did you feel when you got home and woke up the first day and there was no studio time booked or bus waiting for you to hit the road on?
It was kind of scary. You know, I had done that for so long and everything was different. I took some time to spend with my daughter as she was very young and it was a great time to be at home, but that longing to play was still burning in me and I wanted to play again.
So when did that happen and with whom?
Michael Cartellone, who is now playing drums with Skynyrd, was dating a girl I knew in Atlanta and she called me and asked if I wanted to get together with her and Mike. We went out to a club where a friend was playing and Michael and I ended up on stage playing and having a blast. When we were done, Michael said, "Man, that was fun! I am not doing anything (so) let's put something together." I figured it was one of those things musicians say to each other but we got back together a few weeks later. In the time between the first jam session and this second get together I had run in to Derek St. Holmes, who Michael and l both knew, so we asked him to join our band and he said, "Sure, it sounds like fun." We decided to add another player or two and make it a well-rounded band. I had always been a Cars fan so we got in touch with Ben Orr and he agreed to joins us on bass. Next, we asked Pat Travers to take on the other guitar spot so we had a group of world-class players and a well-rounded sound that included many different styles that would be blended into our own sound. The first time we got together as a group to practice, Michael said, "I just got the call to try out for Skynyrd" and we knew he would be leaving us. I remember thinking, "Man, we just got going and the guy whose idea it was is leaving!" So Pat said he would call Liberty Devitto and see if he was interested. I thought he was kidding - I mean Liberty was playing with Billy Joel but Pat said, "That tour is ending and who knows when Billy will go back out," so Liberty decided he would join us also. This group of guys is the best I have ever played with and I have never had so much fun.
How did you get the name Big People?
We were looking for names and nothing stuck, Pat was talking to some guy back home and the guy asked him what he was doing and Pat said, "I am playing in this new band with Jeff Carlisi, Liberty Devitto and Benjamin Orr" and the guy says, "Man, that sounds like some big people" and that's how we got the name. Pat left the band after about a year to focus on his own band.
So how did it go and what about when Ben got sick?
We did a tour opening for Styx and that went well until May of 2000. Ben was told he had pancreatic cancer and we lost him five months later. He was a trooper and when he got out of the hospital he said, "When I fall down and can't pick myself up we'll know it's over. Until then- we rock!"
We played that whole summer and it was awesome. He played with passion and fire and the shows we did were the best I can ever remember playing. I think we all played for each other - Ben for us and we for him and that is what made those shows so special. The band will sorely miss him. So now Big People includes Derek St. Holmes, Kyle Henderson from The Producers, myself, Liberty and Rob Wilson.
So tell me what folks can expect from a Big People show?
We play a collection of our hits from our bands and we are working on writing and will be recording our first CD as soon as time allows.
Tell me about playing with Brian Howe.
He is a great singer and I have known him since his days in Bad Company and he asked me to do some shows and I have to say it's been a really great time. We play good music and the players in that band are top notch. We have written several songs together and in the coming months, Brian and I are going to record them and continue to play together and have fun.
Is there anything you would like to say to the fans?
I would like to thank them for their support and for their interest in my work. I enjoy playing music for them and I hope they will come and check us out when we play.
I would like to thank Jeff for his time, Its is a rare thing to find so many talented people from one band who all show dignity and class and I for one think it's a huge part of what makes their music so special. They are truly role models for us all on how to treat people. I also want to thank Jeff for sharing from his personal collection of photos for this interview. And, a special thanks to Julia Free -SG