Les is More
Les Dudek on The Allman Brothers,
Cher and making movies
by Michael Buffalo Smith
Les Dudek is a much sought after session guitarist due to his talent and versatility. Dudek has performed with and written songs for such artists as Stevie Nicks, Steve Miller, Dave Mason, Cher, Boz Scaggs, Maria Muldaur and The Allman Brothers Band. He co-wrote “Sister Honey,” which appeared on Stevie Nicks’ Rock A Little album, and “Blue Eyes” on Steve Miller’s Wide River album. Les released four critically-acclaimed solo albums with CBS Records (1976-1981), collaborated on the “DFK” album with other CBS artists and appeared on Cher’s Black Rose album, writing several songs and playing guitar. He also appeared alongside Cher in the movie Mask.
We spoke to Les by phone back in 2001 from his Florida home.
I know you reside in Florida now. Where did you come from originally?
From Rhode Island, originally.
Did you come from a musical family?
No, not really.
When did you begin playing the guitar?
I started playing when I was about ten or eleven and was playing bars by the time I was fourteen. But, back in those days, man, it wasn’t anything special. It was all about having to sneak me in and out and hide me in the kitchen during the breaks.
Who were some of your early musical influences?
I had a bunch of them. Obviously, The Beatles. But see, my sister was six years older than me so I always caught up on the trends way ahead of time. When Elvis came in, I was right there for that. In a house where your bedrooms are adjacent and she’s always blasting the latest and greatest, you’re bound to pick up on it as a kid. I dug Elvis, The Beatles, The Beach Boys -- all the stuff that she came up with. And then she just got too mushy for me; she got into Connie Francis and all that stuff. I kind of leaned toward The Beatles. Then I started getting into the blues. I pretty much dug Freddie and Albert and B.B. - all of the Kings. I got into Mike Bloomfield for a while, that super session stuff. Early Blood, Sweat & Tears was good, that was kind of a departure from things. I was into Paul Butterfield, Steve Miller, which is ironic because I ended up playing with Steve Miller.
How did you hook up with The Allman Brothers Band?
I had a band in Florida called Power at the time and we were doing a lot of shows trying to get a deal in those days. The keyboard player knew Dickey Betts real well because he had grown up in Venice, Florida and Dickey was from Sarasota. When Duane died we heard that Dickey was going to start a band separate from the Allman Brothers. He was auditioning players and Peter found out about it and said why don’t we go up there and see what’s going on. So, we went up and hung out with Dickey for a weekend, jammed with him on the back porch there in Macon. We said our goodbyes and went on home and then I got the call back. So, I went back to Macon and was working out with Dickey and then Gregg caught wind of the fact that Dickey was doing his own band and kind of threw a hissy on that so Dickey kind of backed out of it. That band with Dickey did some demos for Phil Walden and we were supposed to be getting something happening but it never came about.
So, they started on the Brothers and Sisters album and I was down there one night when they were cutting “Ramblin’ Man” and Dickey would come over and say “What do you think about this?” and I’d throw a couple of ideas at him. Then he’s go back out and do it and come back and say, “What about this?” (laughs) He was talking about the guitar parts. Finally, he said to hell with it, "why don’t you just come out here and play with me?" That’s how we ended up doing “Ramblin’ Man.”
And you played on “Jessica,” too?
I co-wrote that one. I never got any credit for it. Dickey says he still feels bad about that. Maybe one of these days he’ll write me a check (laughs) and put my name alongside his. He was really stumped on that one. We were at his house there in Macon. At the time, I was rooming with Joe Dan Petty, who just died recently. He had wanted me to be in Grinderswitch with him. He was starting a band and that’s when I turned him on to Larry Howard and Rick Burnette, cats that were playing with me down in Florida at the time. One night, I was over at Dickey’s when they were still doing the Brothers and Sisters album. Dickey had the one part of “Jessica” written, the melody on the verse section. He said, “Play this, man. Let’s see if we can do something with it.” We kicked it around for 45 minutes or so and my girlfriend and his wife were in there cooking us steaks, so he got frustrated with it and put his guitar down. I kept messing with it and I came up with the bridge. I said, “Dickey, come here a minute, man.” (laughs) I said, "Play this after you play that." He said, “What do we do next?” I said, "Walk it all the way up to the top and stop." He said, “Well, what do you do after that?” I said, “Start over!” (laughs) He was just ecstatic. We ended up not even eating our steaks. We threw the guitars in the back of the pickup; he wanted to go and play it for everybody. Right when we did it, it started snowing in Macon. It was kind of a spiritual moment, how it all came to be. He marched me into Walden’s office and he promised me some points on it and this and that. It took us six nights to cut the thing in the studio. At that time, Phil Walden was trying to get me into The Allman Brothers. He said, “Stick with me. I’m going to make you a star. I’m going to put you in The Allman Brothers.” I had already had talks with Dickey and he kind of felt that he pretty much wanted to take over with the guitar slot. I think for a number of years he was kind of the second guitar player under Duane. Not taking anything away from Dickey, he was kind of shafted because, if you look back on the early stuff, Dickey wrote it, like “Elizabeth Reed” and a lot of the good tunes and he played it, too. It’s like the quarterback who always gets the limelight, but Dickey was always a real contributor to that band, I thought.
Right after Brothers and Sisters came out, Bobby Womack was trying to get me to go on the road with him when Boz Scaggs came into town. Boz had a guitar player that kind of wigged out on him on the road, so he called up David Brown and Phil Walden down in Macon and they told him about me. It was kind of funny because the drummer that was gonna be in the band with Dickey and I was going to go with Womack, also. We had a cab waiting downstairs and we were gonna fly to L.A. to play with Womack when I got a call from Phil who said I should call Boz. He was in Akron, Ohio. It just sounded better to go with Boz. I went downstairs and pulled my bags out of the cab and said, “I gotta get another cab. I’m going to Akron, Ohio!” (laughs)
How long were you with Boz?
Shoot, I was with Boz for about five years. I did the Silk Degrees album with him.
Around that time, didn’t you move out to California?
Yeah. When Marshall Tucker came to town, around that time I was working with Boz,. Toy Caldwell pulled me over to the side and he wanted me to be in Marshall Tucker. We’d been working for about a year and a half, and towards the end of ‘74 we did this long tour with Steve Miller and the James Cotton band. This was just after The Joker, so Steve Miller was huge. And I was popular because of the “Ramblin’ Man” thing. At the end of each night, Miller would bring me and Boz and James Cotton out. Finally, at the end of the tour, Miller just invited me to come up to Seattle with them and cut some tracks. He ended up doing one of my tunes, “Sacrifice,” on the Book of Dreams album. We also cut some of the stuff that was on Fly Like an Eagle while we were up there.
Did you tour with Steve Miller or just record?
Well, we did that four-month tour with Boz and Steve and, for all intents and purposes, I was playing with both of them. After we did the tracks in Seattle, Miller said, “What are you doing now?” I said, “I don’t know, I’m going back to Macon. I don’t see any future playing with The Allman Brothers, so I don’t know.” He said, “Well, why don’t you come out and play with me?” He got a lawyer for me because I was signed to Phil Walden lock, stock and barrel. So, he got me out of the contract and I flew out to hang out with Miller for a while. We were getting ready to go out and do an acoustic tour, just me and Steve. We were talking about it one morning when Boz called and he said, “Look, man, I really need you to come out and play this tour with me.” He had about three weeks of dates left to do and he didn’t want to break in a new guitar player. I told Miller about it and he said, “Why don’t you do it? I want to take some time off and get ready for the next record.”
Then I got signed to Columbia Records and did four solo albums and one band album, DFK.
And you recorded with Cher on “Black Rose?"
Yeah. I did a lot of writing on that. I wrote a duet for us that we performed on The Midnight Special. We hosted it, Cher and Black Rose.
Tell us a little about Cher.
She has a great work ethic. She’s real dedicated to what she does. When I was with her, on a professional level, I went in there to help her do her album. I had heard about it. I was in the Rainbow on Sunset in L.A. and one of my player buddies said, “Hey, did you hear Cher’s auditioning some players for a new project?” I went down there and ended up running into Mike Finnegan and Steve Stills. They had come down for the audition, too. (laughs) We got in there playing and turned it into a big jam session and Cher stopped it. She said “Hey! I didn’t invite all you people down here for a jam session. This is for my project, dammit!” (laughs) She invited us all to dinner afterwards at Nick’s Fish Market on Sunset Blvd. After dinner she came up to me and asked, “Are you serious about trying to help me do some stuff with my music?” I wasn’t doing anything at the time; I’d just come off of a big tour with DFK and Kansas. I was in between things. I said, “Hell yeah, I’ll help you do it!”
She came over to my house and we were kicking around some tunes. She had one guy producing one thing and another guy producing another. I told her, I said, “Look, man, let’s get one producer for this thing.” She said, “Well, I don’t really know anybody right now that I’m happy with.” I said, "Look, I just did an album with this guy James Newton Howard. He played keyboards with Elton John and has written endless scores for movies.” So, we ended up bringing him in. We did the album and went out and did The Merv Griffin Show, The Midnight Special, Tom Snyder...we did a little stretch of dates with Hall & Oates. Played Central Park, stuff like that. And Neil Bogart, who was president of that label, Casablanca -- he had Donna Summer, KISS and Cher -- he was a sweetheart of a guy but he had a heart attack and died. So, that put that one on hold. It all kind of folded up. Cher was really intent on becoming a rock and roll singer again. She was really keeping her name in the background and promoting Black Rose. It could have worked but it fizzled because the record company fizzled.
So, she got real depressed for a while there, trying to decide what to do. And I said, “Your natural progression is staring you right in the face.” She said, “What’s that?” I said, “You should be a movie star. You’ve already done the music thing and you can always fall back on that. You’ve had your two TV shows, one with Sonny and one by yourself.” I said, “Go for an Oscar. Go for the gold.” So, we got on a plane and flew to New York and met with Robert Altman who was doing a play in New York called Come Back to the Five and Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean. She let him know that she really wanted to get into acting, so she did the play. In the interim, she was also doing some of the big Caesar’s Palace type of shows.
Was Mask done around that time?
No. That was actually after we split up. She did Come Back to the Five and Dime and then she did Silkwood. Right after Silkwood is when she and I took a split. I started getting back into my thing and then one day out of the blue I get a call and it was Cher, telling me I should come out to read for a part in this movie called Mask. She told me to come over and let her tell me about it. So, I went over. She said, “You are perfect for this script -- they need a long-haired guy who plays guitar and rides a Harley.” We’d been riding Harleys for a year. We’d been method acting for a year, man. (laughs) She said, “Don’t think that you already have the part. If you get it, you get it on your own.” She gave me the script and I got so inspired that I wrote a song. I demoed it so, when I went down, all I was riding at the time was my Harley, so I went in wearing full leathers to meet Peter Bogdanovich. Peter just sort of had a conversation with me and said, “Do you see yourself in this movie?” I wanted Sam Elliott’s part, (laughs) but they cast me as Bone, one of her boyfriends. Then I pulled out a cassette and handed it to Peter and said, “Here’s a theme song for your movie.” The next day I got a call from Peter and he was flipping out over the demo. He wanted to use that song. We actually shot a scene with me playing that song on my dobro with Cher sitting next to me on a park bench. But they cut that scene from the movie. It was such a cool scene. It pissed off Peter because they took it out, too. Universal cut a lot of the budget and they started cutting up the movie. I was supposed to have a budget to go back in the studio and cut the theme song with Cher singing for the beginning credits and in the middle of the movie and in full production at the end. Bogdanovich ended up suing them for $11 million dollars. I don’t know what ever became of that but Peter called me up because I had Cher come over and sing it on my 4-track. It was just a sketch of the song; it was never meant to be used. She’s singing out of tune in places, but he kept calling me, wanting to use that. He wanted to do a director’s cut of the movie. I was like, “Peter, give me some money and I’ll cut it but there’s no way I’m releasing this demo. She’d kill me!” But I’m going to end up putting this song on my next album.
Are you doing the album now?
Yeah. I had some things already in the can that I wanted to put out. I have two tracks that Jeff Porcaro from Toto played on. Those tracks are smoking! And I have this track called “Boomerang” that will fry your head. And I have a song on there that I co-wrote with Stevie Nicks that Mick Fleetwood was about to beat me up for because he wanted it for Fleetwood Mac. I tried to get Stevie to do it when I went on the road with her. The song was called “Free Style” and I may even call my album Free Style.
What’s Stevie like?
Oh, she’s a sweetheart. I did the “Whole Lot of Trouble” tour with her and that’s what it was, man, a whole lot of trouble. (laughs) Not because of us, but because it seemed like the devil was throwing his pitchfork at us every way we turned. We were in the rehearsals before the tour and I got in a motorcycle crash on Sunset. The road manager got in a bike crash on the same night. I broke my right arm and wrist and ended up putting it a velcro cast and I did the whole tour playing with my fingers! I was supposed to be the hot rod guitar player on that tour but the roles got switched.
Looking through some of the other stuff that you’ve done, I see where you played on Bobby Whitlock’s Rock Your Socks Off album. Did you work with Bobby or was it just that session?
For some reason I went in to Capricorn to talk to Phil and I went down to the studios and Whitlock was in there cutting his album. When he found out I was there, he kidnapped me. He handcuffed me and said you are gonna cut some stuff on my record with me. (laughs) I didn’t really know him until I got there but we had a lot of mutual friends. We had some fun doing it.
Let’s hit the internet rumor mill. Do you think you might be doing any work with Dickey Betts anytime soon?
The door is always open. We have been golfing buddies. We do need to do some things together. Last time we did it we got two hits! (laughs)