An Interview with Neal Ford (July 2008)

by Bill Thompson

BT:  Can you tell me what a typical Neal Ford & The Fanatics set list looked like in each year of the band's existence?   That is, what songs were played live.   What songs by other artists did you cover?   What originals did you play on stage?  

NF:  Never in my 23 years on stage have I ever had a set or show list. It was all in my head.   I gave the band the opening song then I called the show (unknown to the audience) as I went. I have always been able to read an audience and I always attempted to give them what they wanted. Nothing pleased us more than pleasing the audience. We did a lot of our own songs mixed in with some of the British music and R&B.  Animals, Wilson Pickett, Isley Bros., James Brown, Zombies etc.  We actually rocked on stage much more than how we ended up recording.

BT:   I remember seeing the band at an afternoon performance at Memorial City Mall.   I also have seen posters where you played at Carousel Skating Rink on the Katy Freeway.    What other venues did you play in the Spring Branch area?    What other venues did you play in the Houston area?    What out of town gigs did you play?

NF:  The gigs in the Spring Branch area were before we had hit records. Once the records began to climb the charts and go to the top position, we were in demand by promoters who were bringing in national acts to the larger venues. The Houston Colesium, The Music Hall etc. We played many of the larger Texas cities when acts were on tour. Houston, Dallas, Ft. Worth, San Antonio, Oklahoma City and so on. For example we did all those cities with Jimi Hendrix, The Beach Boys, Sonny and Cher. Jefferson Airplane and others. The Catacombs was sort of our home base, We played with so very many groups there. Some were; Spencer Davis Group with Stevie Winwood on organ, Jeff Beck Group with (I think) Rod Stewart singing an occassional song, The Outsiders, Country Joe, Mothers of Invention and many, many others. We also played large dance halls around Texas. Places that held 1500 to 2500 kids. We only played for kids or concerts. We never played a club that sold liquor as I recall. We never played a week long gig. Only 1 nighters. We also did a record promotion tour (Nation Wide) mostly throughout the eastern US. Sometimes we would fly up to Oklahome City to do a TV Show there. I forgot the name.

BT:   What memories do you have of your fellow acts on those package shows (The Mothers, Eric Burdon, The Outsiders, The Moving Sidewalks), or other musicians that you worked with during the 60's?    Do you have any stories of those experiences that you can share?   

NF:  Too many names/too many stories. I've had Jeff Beck over for dinner, I've jammed all night in John Fogerty's hotel room with John and Tony Joe White then got up and got into John's jet and flown over the North Pole, I've sat up all night in a hotel room with Merle Haggard and Freddy Powers, Did a Galveston celebration with Jim Webb who wrote Galveston, By The Time I Get To Phoenix, Up Up and Away, Mac Arthur Park and on and on, We've played ragtag football with The Outsiders, The Moving Sidewalks (Billy Gibbons) was managed by our manager's little brother so we all hung out at their pool alot, spent time with Paul Revere and The Raiders, watched Jimi Hendrix try to trade 3 of his guitars for one of Jon Pereles's guitars, (Jon would not trade), played for Sonny and Cher to rehearse and then they cancelled their LA band and asked us to play for them during the concerts, (we did), Baby John, our drummer shared an apartment with B. J. Thomas, John Pereles and I shared an apartment on the 14th floor of the Conquistador and Rex Cramer of The Coastliners would stay with us when in town, he later had a group called Bojangles and was dating Liza Minelli who came up to the apartment with him.   Sometimes The Coastliners would come over to my apartment and party and sing with The Fanatics and one night they were all arrested for disturbing the peace and I had to go down and bail everyone out of jail.   Once when we were about to open for Jefferson Airplane the promoter came up to me and asked if I would mind if he put a single act on before us to open the show-I said sure it's OK so this guy dressed in black and playing a black guitar came out and sang two or three songs (Neil Diamond) I later reminded him when I was playing in a Hotel Showroom in Baton Rouge La. He remembered and had me up to his suite, he had the top two floors of the Hotel and gave me front row seats for the entire band and roadies. The stories go on and on. I won't bore you with any more. No one believes them anyway.

BT:  The Fanatics Fan Club seems to have been fairly active.   Any memories of dealing with fans and the fan club?

NF:  We had a great fan club and really appreciated them. We played for them on several occassions. Sometimes we would rent a ballroom at a hotel or something like that and play exclusively for them and spend time with them afterwards. We love it and them.

BT:   Where did the band rehearse?   Did you guys spend much time together outside of your rehearsals and performances?

NF:   In the beginning we rehearsed in WT's living room in Spring Branch. Later at the Ames house and The Catacombs. We did spend a lot of time together but we had our own seperate lives too. We were very close and had great times together. Many, many laughs. Lanier was half (or more) insane and Richard Ames our manager was one of the funniest people I've ever known.

BT:  Tell me about how the songs were written.   I notice that there were collaborations among different sets of band members.   Any memories about how specific songs were written would be great.

NF:  Starting out I wrote most of the songs myself. I would relay the melodies to the band and as they worked on the music and added this and that, I would add them as writers. Jon was really the only one in the band besides me that wrote songs. Jon and I would co-write together.

BT:   "Shame on You" has become something of a cult classic among psych/garage fans.

Here's the real story on "Shame On You".  I wrote the song around 1965 (I think). We recorded it at Jones Sound Recording in the Heights. The owner Doyle Jones and Mickey Gilley were the engineers. I took the tape to Nashville and got an offer from Hickory Records owned by Acuff/Rose Publishing. At the time they were being very successful with acts like The Newbeats-"Bread and Butter", Sue Thompson and other pop acts. The main song that they were interested in was "Shame On You".  If you look on the single you will see that it was released as the "A" side and was being promoted as the single until Joe Ford at KNUZ flipped it one day and played "Gonna Be My Girl" which was written by Jon Pereles.  The phones lit up and KILT jumped on the flip side also and it leaped to # 1 staying on top of the charts for weeks. This changed the whole direction of our album and future recording efforts. Prior to that we were doing a harder rock oriented music like "Woman", "I Will Not Be Lonely", "Pain" etc.  "Gonna Be My Girl" took us to doing more of Jon's compositions which was a much lighter pop/rock sound. I called it Hard Bubblegum.  In retrospect, I wish we had stayed more in the original style.  "I Will Not Be Lonely" was my original direction for us and the real me at the time.  I never intended to sing "Shame On You" as you hear it on the record. It just developed to that in the studio. I'm totally shocked to see it on so many internet sites and on so many compilation CD's. It and "I Will Not Be Lonely" are getting more play and recognition now than back when we did them.

BT:    I agree that the harder rocking songs have held up better over time than the "hard bubblegum", but I do like both styles.   I think the poppier songs like "Wait For Me", "Gonna Be My Girl" and "I Have Thoughts Of You" compare favorably to a lot of The Monkees songs. 

Any other stories about working with the Houston radio personalities like Weird Beard, Joe Ford and Paul Berlin?  

NF:   All the DJ's in Houston whether on KNUZ or KILT were great to us. We always helped them out with dances that they would sponsor at places like Teen Canteen, Mt. Carmel etc.

BT:   How often did the band appear on local TV shows like Larry Kane?    Did you get to do any nationwide appearances on TV or radio?

NF:  We did Larry Kane too many times to remember how many. Yes, we did national radio promotion tours and TV but I can't remember the names.

BT:  Skipping ahead in time, can you give me some information on "The Neal Ford Foundation" - how the band was formed, production of the album, gigs that you played, etc.    Also, were any singles released from the album?     I found on the Internet the story of the guy who ripped off some of your equipment.    Do you have any other stories from that period of time?   I think I saw where Rick Mensik is now running a club in Fairbanks, Alaska.   Do you stay in touch with any of those guys?

NF:  Here's a true story--I was offered a TV show sponsored by a local furniture co. It was called Neal Ford in Soul Country. It got a lot of play on two of the Houston TV stations. I wanted the band to play on it with me but Richard Ames did not want the band to play on it nor did he want me to do the show. He thought it was contrary to our fan base and that it would harm our image. He told me if I did not give up the TV show that he wanted the band to go on without me. I got upset and asked for a release from my contract and he gave it to me. That was a very deeply sad event because it was my band that I had put together and it was my heart and soul at the time. It really hurt me that the band would go along with it. Looking back at the whole situation I realize that Richard's reasons and direction was right and I was wrong. However, his thinking he could continue without me was not right and it never should have come to that. That's how Neal Ford and The Fanatics became The Fanatics. I think they worked two jobs afterwards. I went to Las Vegas and performed at The Fremont Hotel then Bakersfield Ca then I came back to Houston and formed The Neal Ford Foundation.

The Neal Ford Foundation was; Rick Mensik-B3, WT Johnson-Bass, Larry Barnett-Drums and Kirk Roberts-guitar. We rehearsed in Rick's living room in Rosenberg for weeks then went to Lubbock Tx. to break in the act. We played 5 nights a week and got very tight. We then started playing Marriot Hotel Showrooms. First in Acapulco for 4 months then others. We then started playing the Nevada Del Webb's Sahara Hotel/Casinos. We played a lot in Lake Tahoe and actually opened the Sahara in Reno.  We owned our own Showrooms in Lubbock (Bojangles) and in Dallas (Rick and Neal's). We went on tour for 7 years in a row to Alaska and Hawaii playing mostly US military bases. I got burned out in 1983 and retired from the road and the life of a performer. During that time we recorded two albums: one in Lubbock and the other in Dallas. Neither was worthy of recognition. We surpressed our creativeness when we became a show group playing cover tunes for the steady money and nice showrooms. We all had wives, kids, responsibilities and fell victim to a safe and comfortable lifestyle. Rick is a club owner in Fairbanks, Alaska. He moved his family up there in the late 80's. I last saw him in Rosenberg at his Dad's funeral. Rick was the funniest entertainer I ever worked with. A super talent and dear friend.

Another little bit of info for you is that in 1970 the Texas Prison System gave the first grant to fund a prison system to set up an educational system within the Texas Prisons to educate prisoners that they could obtain high school and college degrees. This was headed up by Dr. Lane Murray of Huntsville Tx. She and her husband, Dr. Thom Murray, who were dear friends, asked me to write, produce and perform the title song for a documentary film about the program entitled "Tatoo My Soul".  I did so and it won second place that year at the New York and Chicago film festival.  I think the players on that session were Wayne Rogers-organ, Bill Kinnerly-bass, Steve Keller-drums and I can't remember the guitar player.

BT:   Can you tell me what you've been doing musically since the Foundation days?  

NF:  I moved to Nashville in 1983 and began to produce and manage country acts. I managed Rex Allen Jr. and for a short period of time Tony Joe White. You remember Tony Joe had a big record with Poke Salad Annie back in the late 60's and wrote the classic Rainy Night In Georgia. He also wrote Steamy Windows for Tina Turner. I believe Tony Joe White and Delbert McClinton to be two of the best artist of our time. I brokered a Nashville Publishing Co. sale to Espy Music Group and Michael Jackson's manager, Frank Delio that sold for high 7 figures. I returned to Houston in 1990 due to cancer in my family and stayed there for 12 years (not in the music business) and then returned to  Nashville just after the 9/11 attack. I returned here to write songs and to write on a children's concept character "Banjo"  a little burro who is compelled to do good deeds when he hears an old man who never speaks play his banjo.  Soon it will be available on the internet. I am working with a Power Country Trio called FLETCHER. All brothers, two being twins that write, play, sing and perform their own style of rockin' country. They have just completed a new CD entitled FLETCHER. Two of the songs I wrote with the lead singer Mitchell Fletcher and producer-Blue Miller formerly of the Miller/Gibson Band. The first release went out to100's of country stations in secondary markets today. It is called We Don't Wanna Die.

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