Dr. Hook were always something of a musical conundrum for me. Sharp, witty purveyors of great songs, but somewhat disregarded by the professors of cool on account of their more chart-friendly fodder.
As a kid turned on to punk and new wave, I steered clear of admitting interest in a band best known at the time for hits like Sexy Eyes and When You’re In Love with a Beautiful Woman. Yet I have good memories of my big sister playing the sublime Sylvia’s Mother on her dansette, and also of the regular airplay over the 1976 summer drought for A Little Bit More, followed that year by the poignant If Not You.
This was a band camped just the right side of middle of the road rock and country as far as these young ears were concerned, and perhaps there was always more to Dr Hook than met the eyepatch. There was the Hook of the heartfelt ballads but also another, far cheekier, more irreverent band, one enjoying the fruits of their success after all those years on the breadline putting out more edgy product.
Fact is that Dr Hook rode the international pop, rock and country charts for around 15 years, attaining more than 60 gold and platinum albums and gaining No. 1 chart status in more than 42 countries. What’s more, there was proof that the affection remained 30 years on, judging by the success of their 2014 retrospective double disc set, Timeless. And now, Dennis Locorriere, a founding member and the band’s distinctive lead vocalist and guitarist, is out on the road playing those hits again.
It was Dennis who put together Universal Music’s Timeless collection, selecting and sequencing 40 tracks from Hook’s extensive catalogue, writing its liner notes too. And while bandmate Ray Sawyer – with that highly-recognisable eyepatch (having lost an eye in a near-fatal roadcrash in 1967) and upturned cowboy hat – was key to the original Dr Hook image, it was the voice of Dennis that set them apart.
He certainly became the face of the latest compilation, undertaking a punishing press schedule of TV and radio in the UK. And after successful Timeless tours with his band in New Zealand and Australia in 2015, he’s bringing the show to these shores later this year. Furthermore, Dennis – resident here since around the time of the millennium – promises not only great music, but also the fun and humour synonymous with the band’s name.
When I caught up with the very entertaining Mr Locorriere on the phone at his place on the south coast, he was trying to get to grips with another lacking British summertime (clearly just before that late heatwave caught us all out). And it was soon pretty clear that this had all the hallmarks of a pretty much laidback chat, with absolutely no hint of any side or that I was addressing some kind of distant superstar.
“The sun’s out, but by the time I’m done talking to you it might not be! July’s been more like November. But hey look, if I was really a weather guy I’d probably not live in the UK. When I grew up in New York, seasons were like clockwork. You could set your watch by them. ’Hey, it’s Spring – before the catalogues come out, buy your corduroys’. I thought that was how things go. I’ve been here 15 years and there was a semblance of a summer for a while, but then it was like, ‘We’re going to scrap that’.”
It seems to be the time for me to be talking to treasured US imports, I tell this amiable 67-year-old, having also recently conversed with Geno Washington of the Ram Jam Band fame.
“Hey, with the year this has been for celebrities, I’m happy to be spoken to rather than about! I’m glad this is an interview and not an obituary. But do you know why it’s so shocking now? Stars used to be around until maybe they were 40 then they thought it was unbecoming and disappeared. You’d see a photograph of them shopping with sunglasses on when they were 60, then you’d hear they’d died.
“Now they dance right to the precipice – baby boomers like Mick Jagger, Bruce Springsteen, leaping off amplifiers. So when these guys go, we’re like, ‘What!’ It’s sad, but I chuckle a little when people in their 70s are dying, especially those who lived the way that they did! Rock’n’roll takes its toll.”
You’ve moved around a bit over the years, and were based in Nashville for a while, I understand.
“Yeah, maybe 20 years.”
But now you’re on the Sussex coast. So why the move over here?
“I like it here, and always liked it here. In the last decade or so it’s become a matter of the heart, and also for romantic reasons. But I’ve always liked the UK, because they’ve always liked me.
“Also, with America, after the farewell tour of 1985 I wrote songs and sang on other people’s albums but didn’t really pursue the road thing, because with Hook we did it 300 days a year for 15 years. That was the way you did it then, when people wanted to see you. We did a lot of that, but then I packed it in and my son, who was 15, came to live with me and my life became a little more about earthly concerns. But when you step back into it, you have to travel and do all those things again.”
He’s playing down the writing side there, Dennis having had his songs recorded by the likes of Bob Dylan, Crystal Gayle, Helen Reddy, Willie Nelson, Southside Johnny and Jerry Lee Lewis. There was a stint playing with Bill Wyman’s Rhythm Kings too. Was that a good way to get back into it all?
“Well, the road is the road, and that’s why you have to love why you’re on the road. The rest of it is a crap shoot. What will I eat? When will I eat? Will there be time? What’s the hotel going to be like? Will there be traffic? Everything is a variable apart from the time you hit the stage every night, giving people what they came for.
“The day I don’t like the reason I’m on the road, then I’m just riding around on the motorways looking for bad tea! But when you walk out there and the show makes sense, people are happy and you feel like you did what you were supposed to do, the rest of the bother of the day melts away.”
Does this New Jersey lad who teamed up with a bunch of lads from the Southern states ever get back to Union City? Do you still have friends and family there?
“I don’t. The last time I was there was around 20 years ago with my best friend, who lives in San Francisco. We grew up there and walked around and found it so different. The neighbourhood I came from burned down when I was in my 40s and was completely rebuilt. If you spun me around and pushed me there I wouldn’t have known where I was.
“To address the Bill Wyman question though, that was so amazing. I met Bill at a charity event we did for Jim Capaldi at The Roundhouse, where I was in this unbelievable band with all of Jim’s friends – from Paul Weller and Pete Townshend to Bill Wyman (also Joe Walsh, Steve Winwood and Yusuf Islam).
“As a child of the ‘60s, to see Bill, I was over the moon. Last time I’d seen him was on The Ed Sullivan Show when I was a kid. I went up, in my exuberance, and said I’d love to sit in with his band sometime. A couple of months later his guitar player Terry Taylor came to me and asked if I still wanted to do that. I said, ‘Yeah’, expecting to show up at a venue and sit in, but they sent me a 30-city itinerary, so I realised I was in the band!
“On a simple level, being at the back of the coach and looking up front to see Bill Wyman up there was a full circle for me. I ain’t looking for much. People would be shocked how little I’ve ever really wanted. I didn’t do all this for celebrity and certainly not for money, because when you get it you just roll it back on to the table and gamble again. It’s these little full circle things that make it, and that’s one of the highlights of my life, even though it didn’t happen until I was 60.”
There were just under a decade of huge hits? Did that all become a little surreal? Was it an enjoyable ride, or did it put a strain on friendships.
“It didn’t put a strain on friendships. We actually fared well that way. We were friends and relied on each other a lot – like a pack of chimpanzees. The road if anything bonded us. We were all different kinds of people, but still had this common bond. It was like being in the Army. Doesn’t matter where you’re from originally when the tracer bullets go over your head. You’re all on the same team.
“It did get a little ‘Where are we now?’ But you only ever look at your success later in life. When you’re doing it, it’s like ‘That was cool’. When Sylvia’s Mother went to No.1 we kind of hugged each other, but then realised we had to do the same again. It wasn’t like we were going to dine out on that one record for the rest of our lives.
“Everything you accomplish puts the pressure on you to accomplish something else. We did have a good run, but once we got to a point where people were looking at us like ‘I remember you’ status, maybe we’d done it and it was time to do something else. I’d just turned 34 on the farewell tour and had been doing it since I was 19. And I think that’s a fair shot at it.”
The Dr Hook years only really accounted for 18 years though, while you’ve been a solo act for around 30 years.
“I was talking to someone last night about Paul McCartney. The Beatles had their success over seven years, while the band he’s got now has been together longer than that.”
Has your impressive solo material been relatively overlooked, do you think?
“In as much as when I was with Dr Hook I had Sony and EMI behind me, whereas my solo material came out on an independent label – sure. When I put out my solo albums and go to TV or radio everything’s really cool, but when I talk about Dr Hook it seems to make sense to everybody – it’s familiar and something they know.
“Let’s face it, my last solo album, Post Cool (2010) – I loved that album, and the fans I have are pleased with those records. I have fans that want to know what I’m doing now. That doesn’t mean they’re going to be killer sellers, but that they’ve always liked this guy and wonder what he’s doing now.
“It always perplexes me when people stop trusting you. They wanna talk about a record I put out in 1976 and still listen to. It makes me wonder, ‘Have you heard my new album? You’d like that.’
“But music has the power to be the soundtrack of people’s lives, and a Dr Hook album will remind someone of when they were 20, while Post Cool will remind someone of when they were 60. I’m lucky also because when I play the audience winds up being that generation but also their kids … and if the timing’s right, their kids’ kids. And I absolutely love that. For one thing it means your audience won’t suddenly all die one year! And it’s nice to know it has that longevity.”
I had a similar conversation a while back with one of your ‘70s singer-songwriting chart contemporaries, Gilbert O’Sullivan, and will ask you the same – do you tend to get a lot of people telling you they were the product of a romantic night with Dr Hook playing in the background?
“Well, I wonder how it worked so well for them and not me! But to broaden that, I get people walk up and say, ‘My Dad loves you. We’d go camping and sing Dr Hook songs on the journey’. They’d start talking to me as if they’ve known me forever.
“I have to tell you, I’m not a guy who tends to carry celebrity around on my shoulder. Sometimes I’ll be stopped on a street and asked, ‘Can we take a photo?’ And for a split-second, I think, ‘Why?’ but then say, ‘Okay’.
“I was in a teashop and this guy was looking at me in the queue, then came over and said, ‘Is it strange that you’re standing here and no one knows who you are?’ I said, ‘Well, first of all, you do!’ Secondly I wasn’t looking around to see if anyone had spotted me. I was just hoping the next three people in front of me didn’t order a Panini!
“My concerns are more ground-based. But if you’re eating or you’re busy, you can’t just dismiss that. I know how I would feel – as a massive Beatles fan – if I rushed up to Paul McCartney and said something and he shouted, ‘Security!’
“You’ve got to take that into consideration. That’s a power you get handed. You could ruin that guy’s day. I talked to a guy for about 20 minutes the other day and he told me I made his whole summer. And I said, ‘Well, remember that tomorrow when it’s pissing (down).’”
So why did you feel – after all the solo years – that the time had finally come to reflect on the Dr Hook era, first in 2007, then with the Timeless collection and subsequent touring?
“I’ve touched on it every once in a while. It’s my history and my legacy. In the last dozen years I’ve done a lot of solo tours, just me and a guitar, this journeyman guy with 40 years’ worth of songs. And obviously some of that involved Hook stuff. But I was also singing people new songs, and when they liked them, I recorded them and put them out – that made me feel like a real artist.
“But what opened my eyes to the Hook thing – despite daily reminders of who I used to be! – was that in 2014 Universal acquired a lot of catalogues from EMI and now have all the Dr Hook stuff. They came to me and said they were told I was the guy to talk to. They wanted to put out a comprehensive set and wanted me to help. I jumped in and compiled a two-CD set, Timeless, the first containing most of the songs people know and the other the funny ones, rocky ones and more obscure ones.
“I did a lot of promo for that, including TV and a lot of radio, spoke to a lot of people, and it started to really click that this stuff meant a lot of people, hearing endless stories of how much that meant in their lives. I was going into TV stations and having girls coming out of the back offices to say hello. I’m 67 now and thought, ‘If you’re ever going to do this …’
“I can still sing and kind of look like an older version of the same guy, so when I walk out on stage people don’t say to each other, ‘Who the hell is this?’ I thought maybe this would be a good time.
“After all the promo, I went to Australia for a 26-date solo tour, having not been there for 15 years, then back to New Zealand and Australia last year promoting Timeless. That went really well. And this was for 40-year-old material!
“I’m not a big nostalgia guy. I respect my past and I’m not the kind of guy who’s going to end up singing Sylvia’s Mother in a chicken-in-a-basket place. I will fade away integrally, I hope. But if I didn’t do this, I’d always wonder if I should have.”
Time marches on, and Dr Hook lost drummer John Wolters (with the band from 1973 to 1985) in 1997, bass player Jance Garfat (1972 to 1985) in 2006, keyboard player and fellow founder member Billy Francis (1967 to 1985) in 2010, and guitarist Rod Smarr (1980 to 1985) in 2012. So is this the closest we’ll ever get to a reunion?
“Oh yeah. Four of the guys are gone, while Rik (Elswit, guitarist, 1972-85) lives out in California and has his own life. He’s in his 70s, teaches guitar and still plays in bands.
“Ray (Sawyer) is 80 and not in the best of health, I hear. We haven’t spoken in a long time. People think that means we’re enemies, but we weren’t the same people. He’s 13 years older and from Alabama, and when we came off the road he’d go fishing while I’d go to New York, visiting bookstores. It’s not unusual we have separate interests.
“For me, right now, I can’t bring back the band. But I was the singer and I’ve got a band that plays this stuff as it’s supposed to be played. It’s like a sense-memory. That’s dawned on me too – like smelling chicken soup and remembering your grandma’s house. You hear this music and it brings you to a place.
“We need to respect that and embrace that, playing this music like they remember it. I thought this would be a good time to do that, and the New Zealand shows confirmed that. And now I’m getting to do the Timeless tour I didn’t do in 2014.”
Much of the earlier Hook material came from the pen of the multi-talented Shel Silverstein, not least classics like Sylvia’s Mother, Carry me, Carrie and The Ballad of Lucy Jordan. In fact there’s some great footage out there of the band playing a couple of those songs in 1972 on Shel’s houseboat in Sausalito, California. Let’s just say it looks like they’re having a good time. Did Shel inspire you to write your own songs, to make your own way?
“I’d always written, however credible. But you could hardly turn down songs like Carry Me, Carrie and The Ballad of Lucy Jordan. I was a big Shel Silverstein fan before I’d ever met him, so knowing I was going to work with him just blew me away. I embraced that and embrace that to this day.
“The answer to your question though is almost the opposite of what you might expect. It probably kept me from writing, or at least kept me from presenting my material to the band. When you’ve got a genius like that then say, ‘Okay fellas, now I’d like us to gamble our lives and careers on this little ditty I’ve penned’!
“I always drew cartoons and wrote poetry too, and put out a book of those a few years ago and had a really nice response and good reviews. I was just putting them on my blog because I didn’t know what to do with them. Then a publishing house approached me and said. ‘We love this, would you like to put it out?’
“It dawned on me then that I was hiding my light under a bushel. I think part of me felt I was going to be seen as a Shel clone, although I don’t write like him or draw like him. But he inspired me to express myself always, and I never felt that singing one of his songs was a lack of self expression. He had this worldly material.
“I asked him in his later years (Shel died in 1999, aged 68), after doing a one-man play of his, ‘Man, why did you trust a kid with all these worldly songs?’ And he said, ‘Because I always felt you were an old soul’. I love that. And the body of work – Sylvia’s Mother, I Don’t Want to Be Alone Tonight … I mean, great! It’s no disgrace. Look at someone like Sinatra, who wrote nothing. Being an interpreter is valid.”
Taking your ‘old soul’ point, the band were introduced to the world as Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show: Tonic for the Soul on an early poster. That was a pretty perceptive description – or prescription – as band statements go.
“Yeah, that was on a poster we stuck in the window of a bar, because the guy there said we needed a name. It was hardly calculated, and certainly nothing I thought I’d still be talking about now!”
Harking back to those formative band days, your fellow founders previously played together as The Chocolate Papers. Did you ever get to see them live?
“No, that was something George (Cummings), Ray (Sawyer) and Billy (Francis) did as kids. You can go to websites where they call everybody who was in that band ‘former members of Dr Hook’. But that’s not true. If it was, what about my best friend who lives in San Francisco? Dr Hook didn’t start until Ray and George went up to Union City and met me, then said they knew a keyboard player and sent for Billy. When The Chocolate Papers was happening I was probably 14.”
I’m sure this can’t be an easy question, but which Dr Hook songs are you most proud of and look forward to playing most after all these years?
“It changes. As a singer and performer I like the story-songs. I have something more to sink my teeth into. Sing something like Lucy Jordan and you get involved. Sing something like Sexy Eyes, it’s a good radio record, sounds great and was a big hit, but it’s not quite the same literature.
“When I try to write I try to say something. When people say I’ve a lovely voice, I think, ‘Maybe I should say something with it’. Otherwise, I should have just learned to play saxophone!”
Let’s be honest, here – growing up, I wouldn’t have admitted my appreciation of your finer works, let alone the – shall we say – more orchestrated material like Sexy Eyes and Better Love Next Time. It took me a while to go back and realise just how good many of those songs were. Do you still encounter plenty of snobbery like that about the band’s output?
“People often say that’s where Dr Hook sold out, but for all the Carry Me, Carrie and Lucy Jordan type songs, if we hadn’t had that body of mainstream hits we’d be a footnote. And our families would have starved. We had to make a conscious effort. We were a bunch of hippies, but had families and were going bankrupt.
“Looking for radio material kept people coming to the shows. We still did our show, but I’d always say when Hook had another hit record our show would just get three minutes longer! Yet you hear all the time, ‘This is where Dr Hook got twee’ or ‘This is where they sold out’.”
Despite what I said about some of the later material, seeing you play those songs live today – having stripped away the more ‘80s production – certainly proves they’re great songs.
“That’s one of the things I love about the solo performances. It’s a man and a guitar. Even if you get Kiss and take away the blood and explosions, you get a guy singing you a song. So is it a good one?
“If you’re going to be out there alone, you want songs you can practically recite. With the Hook thing now, it’s tougher with a band – it’s like travelling with a circus. But it makes my life easier in going out on stage armed with material I know they love. That was one of the reasons I stopped doing it – the atrophy. Why was I writing a new song when they had plenty they already liked?
“I didn’t want my past to shrivel me up and make me die. I wanted a little bit more …”
I know a song about that, but keep quiet, and Dennis carries on.
“It wasn’t an ego thing, but more, ‘Can I lift this weight and do this myself?’ Now I’ve done some acting, the poetry book, the solo stuff, played with Bill Wyman, and I’ve done a lot these past 25 years. So going out and doing the Dr Hook thing seems like a part of my life I’m re-investing in.
“It doesn’t feel like ‘You better do that, pal – it’s all you’ve got!’ Because then you wind up resenting your own success, when people come up and say, ‘Man, I remember you!’ Check your f***ing pulse! After a while it’s like going up to an older person and saying, ‘Wow, I bet you used to be gorgeous!’
“One of the most horrible ones I ever heard was, ‘You used to be the good looking one’. Compared to what? What should I do? Stand around ugly people a lot, so I don’t lose that credit? Constantly I have to stand back and tell myself, ‘Okay, I know what they meant’.”
Is that something you bear in mind when you hire band members now – how good looking they’ll look up on the stage with you?
“No, but it’s hard not to avoid being the oldest! And the funniest thing is that I used to be the youngest, by 12 or 13 years. Now I’ve got guys in the band who are hot-shots and great players. My drummer was having a birthday and said, ‘Ah man, I’m going to be 47.’ I said, ‘Oh, shut up! If I was 47 I’d still have 20 years to play with!’
“Before you go, I’ll tell you this. When we recorded and started playing The Ballad of Lucy Jordan I was in my mid-20s, while Shel wrote that when he was probably pushing 40. So the line ’At the age of 37 …’ probably meant something to him. To me, at that age, I’d think, ‘Wow – 37!’ Now I think, ‘Shut up! You’re 37 and on the roof?’
“Your perspective changes. You mentioned If Not You, and a guy recently told me, ‘I love that song, and every time I have a new relationship I introduce that. Thanks for writing it’. I laughed and said, ‘Ah, but what if I wrote that for someone I didn’t really care for?’ That’s not the case, but where it comes from and where it lands is two different places!”
At this point, Dennis realises he’s gone off on one (and with good reason) and reins himself back in, closing our already over-running conversation (and I certainly wasn’t complaining) with a concluding line.
“Anyway, come see the show. I’d like you to know I don’t just talk a good game. It’ll be a great show.”
This feature was originally commissioned to promote Dr Hook starring Dennis Locorriere’s Timeless world tour visit to Preston Guild Hall on Friday, December 9 (7.30pm), with tickets £34/£31 via the box office (01772 80 44 44).