An indepth Interview with Robert Berry, how he got into the business, his relationship with Keith Emerson and the band 3
The working relationship between legendary keyboard player Keith Emerson and singer and multi-instrumentalist Robert Berry started in 1987. The plan was to form a more melodic, song-oriented band (compared to ELP), which would allow Emerson, Berry, and Palmer to follow in the footsteps of the success that Asia and GTR were enjoying in that period. The result of the collaboration 3, and the album “… To The Power of Three”, which was released in 1988. The first single, “Talkin’ ‘Bout” reached #9 on the Billboard Magazine charts and the band toured the US to support the album.
Fast forward many years, and Robert began speaking to Keith about finally releasing a follow-up, and there was an exchange of musical ideas and song collaborations. After Keith passed away, Robert was left with Keith Emerson’s final musical ideas, and from old cassette tapes, keyboard parts written over the phone, to long discussions about style, the framework of the album was set and ready to be produced. After several months of grieving and contemplation about what to do with these co-written songs and musical fragments from Emerson, Robert decided to resume work on the material that was created and craft a record that would ultimately be a fitting tribute to Keith Emerson’s musical legacy and at the same time re-energize and update the musical style started with ‘3’ some 30 years ago. The result is the forthcoming release by 3.2, ‘The Rules Have Changed’, due out mid-August.
I purchased the original album as soon as it was released, 30 years ago, and had always enjoyed it. After the demise of the band I came across Robert’s work here and there, and when I heard that there was a new album coming out I jumped at the opportunity of catching up with him for a chat.
Who or what first got you interested in music and what were your inspirations during this period?
My first recollection of being fascinated by music was when I was quite young. My dad had a big band, and my mom was the singer. They played music like Frank Sinatra or Benny Goodman and there was lots of sax and trumpet around the house. Somewhere in an old 1/4 tape, there is a recording of my dad saying “get that kid out of here”. He had made the mistake of giving his 4-year-old son the drummer’s old snare drum. Just a side note, I still have that drum and have used it on many of my early recordings before 1985. With their band always rehearsing in the living room I got the music bug fairly easy. The song on the new album “Powerful Man” is actually about that kind of influence. I’ll talk about that a little later,
I had eight years of classical piano lessons and two years of jazz piano lessons. I didn’t like to practice my piano so my dad asked the teacher if she would teach me some boogie-woogie songs. Well she was not too happy about that, but my dad owned the piano store where she taught, so she had no choice I suppose. The boogie-woogie could go on for hours, but practicing the classical stuff rarely came through unless my mom stayed on me. And she did. Since my parents had the piano store and my teacher was their prize teacher, I had to be her prize student. I was entered into countless music teacher recitals where they show off their best student to all the other music teachers. I don’t believe I was her best student though. The problem was that you couldn’t play the boogie-woogie pieces at these things, strictly very difficult music from the classical composers: I knew them all. I look at that music now and can’t believe that I played it at such a young age. I wish these days I could just sit down and whip out a Beethoven or Bach piece. Again, this is for later but with the new album, I had to get my piano playing back up to that standard.
When I was 12, two guys that were seniors in high school (17, 18 years old) came into my dad’s music store. They had heard I could play and thought they’d get free music equipment if they had this little kid with the dad that had the well-known music store son in their band. I joined up, they didn’t get free equipment, but I got a head start playing some classic older rock and roll that gave me a great foundation for what was to come.
How did Hush come about?
I had been in a few bands during high school. Some decent bands with some very good players for young guys. But nobody had started as young as me and I seem to be a little ahead of the curve. I was majoring in music in college and playing in a nightclub at night with a fake ID so that I could buy a new BMW: it had been on the top of my list for a few years. The drummer in that band, Mike Dimock, also had a dad that owned a music store. In fact, I taught piano there and sold Fender guitars and amps for him while I was in high school. I knew their family well and Mike and I had really hit it off. After a year or so of playing the nightclubs, a local booking agent called me and said he had an idea, he wanted to put myself and Mike with two other guys and put together sort of a local supergroup. It sounded like a cool idea, so we met, liked each other, and started to rehearse for the next two weeks before a big showcase for booking that was coming up. We had ten minutes to fill. The idea was to segue six or seven7 songs together, playing a verse and chorus of each, so that we could showcase more of what we would be playing for the listeners. No band had done this before, and at that showcase, we got all the gigs.
The buyers were local high school and college bookers and they loved what we had brought to the show. By the way, I had got my dad to contact a big importer of English musical equipment to the US and find out how I could get a Mellotron. Yes, it was the first time a local audience was exposed to real violins, choirs, and flutes. We were a force to be reckoned with, LOL. The only bad thing was that the newly named Hush had only learned a verse and a chorus of six or seven songs, we didn’t have time to learn the whole song for this showcase. So now we had 20 or 30 gigs starting in about a month and we needed to have two hours of music ready to go. It was a great way to start a new band. Years later my band 3 kind of started in the same way, we had two songs to present to record companies and that was it. We got signed immediately by Geffen and had a short lead time to get them a full album.
How did you first meet Keith Emerson?
I had met Carl Palmer about a year earlier, it had been recommended he listened to my cassette tape by John Kalodner at Geffen Records, Asia’s label. We tried for six months to start a band with a few different people but nothing seemed to click. My manager, Brian Lane, called me one day and said that he wanted me to meet Steve Howe. Steve Hackett had left GTR and they needed a songwriter and guitar/keyboard player. I thought it sounded really interesting so I met Steve at his home. We hit it off really good with the songwriting and as friends. He is quite a talented guy if you didn’t know. LOL Oh, I thought you probably did. I spent the better half of the year writing and rehearsing with GTR, but had difficulty with their singer. I had told Brian that I was willing to give up my solo career and my possible new band where I’d be singing with Carl Palmer, for GTR if I could at least sing one song on each album. I thought that was the deal but the singer was having nothing to do with that. In fact, even when I sang harmony or background parts of some type he would come out and double me live right there on my mic.
I decided that this wasn’t a good fit for me so I left GTR and had planned on heading home from London. Brian Lane called me the day before I was to leave and said that Keith Emerson would like to have lunch. I was a little shocked, I had just backed out of my first big break and was a little unhappy about my decision. I accepted the invite of course but was quite nervous about meeting him. I had spent time with several big names before but this guy, the king of the keyboards, the Jimi Hendrix of the keyboard players? We met for lunch and right away he made me very comfortable. Such an easy going, fun, warm personality. I thought I was meeting some mad scientist or some computer programmer type that didn’t speak the kind of English us common folk speaks. But he was the exact opposite. We hit it right off and spoke of plans to possibly start a new band. At the end of what was about a two-hour lunch, he said he only had one thing he wanted to ask me. I thought uh oh, what could it be? Maybe he wanted to own all the songs? He wanted to be the singer? LOL funny if you ever heard him sing – but no he simply said: “would you mind playing a few ELP songs if we go on tour?” I told him I’d be honored and said I would never expect him to leave behind such a legacy. I saw another part of his personality right there, he looked at me with those caring eyes of his and said “really?” I didn’t get it then, but years later as we spent time writing, recording, and touring I realized that Greg had made things very difficult when it came to control. I, on the other hand, am a team player and want the team to all benefit equally. He was pleased as we parted that day. Then came the first trip out to his house in Sussex with Carl driving. To say I was excited, well I don’t think I have to explain to any of your readers how I felt. It’s hard to put into words anyway.
ELP broke up in 1979, reforming as Emerson Lake & Powell in 1985 and releasing that album in 1986, but two years later it was 3 who were together and releasing an album. How did that all happen?
3 actually got together in the middle of 1987, we wrote and recorded a few demos. After sending them to Geffen we went in and did a video to the song “8 Miles High” we had been working on. Brian had hired a video crew for a thousand pounds to spend two hours with us. His only instructions were to make the video look like the movie ‘Close Encounters’. Not sure what he really meant, but the crew took it to mean lots of lights blurring out the camera when they were shooting past us. It was genius to me. That video looked so energetic and actually had the feel of what we would become on stage, a much less formatted band than ELP was. We had our parts that were written in stone, but there was room to jam and expand in a different way every night. That came across in “8 Miles High” before we had ever stepped on a stage together.
There was a lot of damage left behind by Emerson, Lake & Powell financially: they played arenas and rarely sold out so they lost money. As much as I loved the album and loved Cozy’s playing, it just wasn’t the draw without Carl. 3 decided to start as a new band would start, bring this new album to the fans in small venues and we played something like 1000 to 5000 seaters. Sold out, fans seeing Emerson, Palmer, and the new guy ‘Yank’ up close and personal, Never before or never again would that be possible, it was truly a great experience. We also made a profit and didn’t create any loss for anybody involved in our tour and business. Keith owed so much money from the Emerson, Lake & Powell disaster that he thought he didn’t make any money with 3, but that was so untrue. 3 paid off his debt so he was free of their past. Just to show you how well we actually did, I built a house in a very nice area of Silicon Valley and paid cash. Not that the band was about money. It wasn’t. We were about starting their career in a new way and mine in a first launch.
We had hoped for longevity and of course a hit record. We got the hit record with “Talkin’ Bout”, # 9 on the Billboard charts which brought us new fans. By the time it rose to the Top 10 we were seeing younger people coming to the shows: the Ritz in New York actually had quite a few young girls in the audience. They wanted to hear that new band that they had heard on the radio, but then there were the die-hard ELP fans who wanted to hear ELP material. They wanted nothing to do with this new guy that wasn’t Greg Lake. This began to takes its toll on Keith, and he would get quite a few fans telling him that they hated that he was playing on more pop-rock songs and they hated the female background singers. In fact, one guy wrote him a letter that it was embarrassing for Keith to be doing that. He left his phone number on the letter and Keith called him, he was sensitive that way. All this criticism led to 3 breaking up after just a year and a half of working together. Right, when we knew who, what, and how we should do a follow album up Keith was done with it. I would find that in later years that fan criticism really held a spell over him,
Were you simply asked to step aside so Lake could return?
I explained a little bit about that in the previous answer but let me just say this – Keith and Carl had always told me to be myself. Do not do what you think the fans want or what Greg would have done, just be you. There is nothing more empowering than two of the greatest musicians in our lifetime wanting me to be me. They had also had their fair share of problems with Greg. Don’t get me wrong, I actually only met Greg once and we got along great. I am a fan of his voice, his playing, and that special thing that made him great enough to take John Wetton’s place for one show in Japan: the job he did with that was amazing. But as far as ELP was concerned, he wanted the power and made most of the money. He wrote the hit songs and the writer gets the publishing dollars and therefore lots of times seem to have a bigger say so. I think Keith especially felt slighted by that. After all, who in the band was the only one of a kind? From 3 on, the ELP reunions were about money. Of course, now remember that this is my point of view, but I did remain friends with Keith and Carl and you can read between the lines during certain conversations how they felt.
3 was very high profile, yet from there you appeared to take a step into the shadows as it were. Was that a conscious decision, and if so, why?
This is a very interesting point of view for me. It actually made me think about all the other musicians I love that seem to disappear for a while. What happens to me is a book of its own. I had many songs I had written with Steve Howe. I had many songs I had written with Keith and Carl, and I had songs during that period that I had written for other purposes. One day I was working in my studio with Andy Latimer from the band Camel and he asked me about all this material, and asked what I was going to do with it, to which I said “nothing”. Those bands are gone for me. He told me that he thought I should put it out, fans would love it, and it was just laying around anyway. I thought about it and decided to take his advice. I put out ‘Pilgrimage to a Point’ mail order from my studio and it sold like hotcakes, I couldn’t believe it. Not high profile, but honest and rewarding. Then in the mid-1990’s, I got asked to play with Sammy Hagar as he was having problems with Van Halen and needed a bass player for his solo gigs. This was a great time in my life, Sam is a dynamo, to say the least. It was the hardest rock as in Hardrock that I had ever done. I found myself enjoying that edginess so I wrote an album I called ‘Takin’ it Back’. To me, it was time to take back my career and I wanted to move forward. I signed with a company in Germany that went bankrupt about three months after my album was out, strike out for me.
In 2004 another opportunity came up, I got asked to join the band, Ambrosia. I was thrilled, one of my favorite bands. The perfect blend of progressive and pop. I got to sing songs like “Life Beyond LA”, progressive, and “Biggest Part of Me”, beautifully crafted blue-eyed soul-pop. I spent two years trying to get them to do a new album. I had a studio, two of the other guys had studios, and I couldn’t get them to budge. I had written a few songs that I thought were really good for that band, and Joe Puerta the bass player had a few that were really good already but I just couldn’t get them to move on it. I learned something very important during my time with them. Their material was so demanding to sing, that when we toured I would constantly gargle with Listerine so that I wouldn’t get sick. For the first nine months, I was doing great. But as time went on my voice got rougher and rougher. By the time I gave them notice that I was going to leave, I was struggling with some of the high notes vocally. What had happened, and what I didn’t realize, was that the alcohol in the Listerine was stripping my vocal cords. Just like the way alcohol dries out a wound when you put it on your skin, it dried out my vocal cords. I didn’t realize this until six months or so later when I was a little under the weather for a gig I was doing, so I drank lots of water. All of a sudden I realized I was singing better than I had in years. The show I would do locally was a sort of greatest hits of my career, so I’d actually play “Talkin’ Bout’” and I’d also play “Biggest Part of Me”, both very demanding, and they were flying out of my mouth with ease. I did a little research and found out what I had done to myself by gargling the Listerine. So we move up to around 2008 and I get a call from Greg Kihn, his bass player Steve Wight had a stroke and he needed someone to fill his shoes. From then on I’ve been touring and writing songs with Greg. He’s a very prolific guy and lots of fun to work with. The music is very simple and it was a challenge to wrap my head around at first. But we put out an album last year that got very high marks from all the reviewers and Greg Kihn fans. So to answer your question – LOL, I have been busy trying to stay in front of an audience but sometimes things don’t go as planned. I have a song on the new album that Keith and I wrote called “What You’re Dreaming Now”. It’s about moving forward. That my motto – ‘today was a good day, now what can I accomplish tomorrow’. You can’t let disappointments or failures stop you.
I have come across your some of your work with different musicians over the years
I have been blessed with the gift of creativity. I am never at a loss for a lyric, a musical section, or for that matter a complete song. One of the great joys I have is working down at my studio Soundtek. Five days a week, when I’m not on the road, I work with mostly unknown singer/songwriters that are at my studio to record their most important work. That song that came out of them, that is unique to their life that will live on forever in their families. They don’t have to be famous, they don’t even have to have a completed thought or arrangement, I am there to do the parts that they don’t have. Be it lyrics, chords, arrangements, or just playing the instruments to complete their vision. I do from 100 to 300 songs a year for clients like that. Sometimes I have bands like the Celtic rock band Tempest in the studio and I am mostly producing, I have done twelve albums for them over the years. I love every bit of my musical life. Nobody is too small or too big, it’s all just music to me. Imagine if Keith and Carl would not have given me that same opportunity, you would not be talking to me now.
Why 3.2, and why now?
Why now is a loaded question, as for 28 years Keith had wanted to leave 3 behind. He would always say how much fun we had, but never really talk about the music, the criticism was hard on him. But then a record company wanted to put out the 3 ‘Live in Boston’ performance. It was really just a paycheck for Keith at the time so he signed the deal. I was very excited that there was enough interest in 3, that 28 years later a new album would come out. Not really thinking about it again, Keith received the CD in the mail. He was home alone one evening, enjoying a glass of wine as he’s been known to do, so he decided to put on the CD. He listened to the whole thing and immediately called me. His voice sounded so excited. He said “Robert, we were really a good band. No really a good band.” I couldn’t believe my ears. I had always thought that but never thought he’d give it another chance, and there it was. The open door to my 28-year dream. After we spoke about how much fun we had had and how the spark on stage with the jamming was just the best time ever I broke the question. I said that a record company had been bugging me for years to do a follow-up album but I knew he wasn’t interested. I said “What about now Keith? Any chance you’d consider working with me to do one more really great album?” He gave it a mild “yes” and that was enough for me. I called the record company and asked if they were still interested, they were. I called Keith back, we discussed the ideal parameters for such an album and the record company agreed to every detail. Keith was amazed at their deal, the advance involved, and the interest being so high. He was ready to start so we did.
How much of the material was originally developed at the time of the first 3 album?
Only one of the songs came from the original 1986 or 87 cassette tape. There were also some linking section for new songs and some solo chord sections I used from that cassette. The rest was written from new digital files Keith had sent me, and lengthy phone conversations where we both had our digital pianos going and would play back and forth: I would record my version of what he was playing on the other end of the line. A lot of times he would say “no, no, you’re missing a note there” or “that chord needs the 9thwith the …” That was fun. He was creating and teaching me his ideas at the same time, as I would consistently miss a little subtlety that was Emerson-esque. I had about 20% of his parts already done and played by him on the album.
Was the original plan for you and Keith to work on the new release together?
This was to be the follow up 3 album, there was only the idea that we were to continue where we left off. We had talked to Carl and he was committed to his own band, so that was not a consideration. Our actual choice for the album was Simon Phillips, but we weren’t going to even talk to him until we had got together at Soundtek and recorded the basic parts of the newer songs.
Keith and I lived fairly close to each other, while Carl was always on the road. To be honest with you, and maybe a little snobby, I had been disappointed in the efforts of ELP since 3. I didn’t hear that fiery playing, those amazing arrangements, or the greatest songs. ‘In the Hot Seat’ wasn’t too bad, but after that, I just didn’t feel that they were playing up to their potential. It wasn’t that they weren’t capable, I believe it was just the spark of creativity was not gelling after all these years. I also didn’t care for the Keith Emerson Band stuff. To get the most out of Keith I believe you have to either be a keyboard player and speak his language or just piss him off so much that he brings all that energy to the playing, LOL. That was referring to the way it sounded to me that he and Greg had worked at times. Again, just my point of view and not based on me being there at the time.
I do have some more pieces on that cassette tape, and I have lots of music in those digital files he sent me. But my heart is with this album. There will never be another phone conversation, a goofy joke, a happy day, a stressful day, an idea that is burning to get out that includes a very brilliant, lovely man with a heart of gold on the other end of the phone. This was my last chance to work with my friend, the bandmate of my greatest success, and to complete a 30-year dream. This is the only time this could ever happen.
Will a band be put together to tour?
From the beginning, Frontiers wanted us to do a few live shows. Keith was not keen on this as his arm had been bothering him and he was trying to wind down the live performance. We had the exclusive right to choose if and what we did live, so my idea was just to let it set until we saw how the album had done. He would consider it if he felt like it, which was good enough for me. Now, of course, that can’t happen where Keith is involved. But I must say that the response to the album has been so wonderful that I am trying to work on a tour now. I had no idea that so many fans of progressive music would discover this album, and take it to heart for exactly the reason it was done. A follow up that gets what 3 should have been, right. Fans have embraced it, and that has sparked my interest in taking it on the road. Hopefully, there will be an extensive tour early next year. That is what I am dreaming now to coin a phrase!
What will the next piece of work be from Robert Berry?
In all honesty, I am feeling like the 3.2 tour may be something that keeps me on the road a lot and working more progressive concerts and productions. It’s funny to say, I think it’s time as I’ve been waiting for this for 30 years but —it’s time!
As I said earlier, I am in the studio every day that I’m not on tour with Greg or playing somewhere solo. In November/ December of every year, my holiday band December People gets together and we do shows for different charities. December People is Gary Pihl, guitarist from the band Boston, David Lauser, drummer for Sammy Hagar, Dave Meed, keyboardist for The Tubes, Jack Foster from the Jack Foster band, and myself. It is a special brand of holiday songs you have to hear to believe. You can check out the website if you enjoy rock Christmas music but you’ve never heard something like these versions.
Throughout all this, I will be enjoying studio clients from 13 years old to 70 doing what they have always wanted to do – record their original songs. I love it and it also keeps me finely tuned for when that song pops into my head or just some idea to spring off of.
I appreciate you helping to spread the word on 3.2. It has been a labor of love and I am very proud of the final product. I finished it exactly the way Keith and I had set the outline. We spent three months preparing for what we hoped would be a rekindling of a fun time, a very creative time, and a very successful time. Yes, I know that critics like to say it wasn’t but I would say a Top 10 hit and a successful tour launched a very successful friendship that lasted almost 30 years. I hope you hear that when you listen to ‘The Rules Have Changed’.
By Kev Rowland