Mark Rivera’s been the go-to guy behind the saxophone (and musical director) for Ringo Starr’s All-Starr Band since the mid ’90s and has also logged 29 years with Billy Joel. He’s also played with numerous other big names, including Paul Simon, Sam & Dave and Foreigner.
But this fall, he’ll be on his own with his very first solo album. Both Ringo Starr and Billy Joel are guest performers on the album. The single, “Turn Me Loose,” came out last month. It’s a rockin’ song that makes a strong statement.
“The single is pretty powerful,” he says. “The entire CD won’t be ready until say mid-October. And the reason for that is to allow myself a enough time once I get off the road in July with Ringo, then I’m going to go back in and finish the last couple of tracks, do some dates in the city in New York and put a band together of some very dear friends.”
Rivera got his first big start with Sam & Dave.
“I was playing in local bands. And they were looking for somebody to play saxophone. And the funny thing was they were looking for a guy to play baritone sax. And I went down there with my alto, played the alto sax, the baritone parts with the alto and I got the gig.
“Well, they said, ‘You’ve got to bring the baritone.’ I said, ‘Oh sure.’” I never even touched a baritone sax in my life. And I went and rented and lo and behold, next day I had the gig and I was out on the road with them. I learned the songs, I learned the steps and I was onstage opening up for Ray Charles. The first gig we did was in Central Park opening up for Ray Charles.”
He calls Billy Joel one of his two favorite songwriters.
“My two favorite modern-day composers who are of the greatness of Cole Porter, the real song tunesmiths of our time, are Billy Joel and Paul Simon. ‘Cause those are the guys who write the lyrics, sing the songs, write the music.”
He worked with Simon on a solo tour during a break from working with Joel. “I met and was introduced to Paul Simon’s manager. They were looking for a sax player.
“I try to be very straightforward with people. And we were reading the charts, the horn charts. And Paul says, “So what do you think, Mark?’ ‘Sounds like they’re stale,’ I might have said. And all the horn players looked at me like, ‘Oh this guy is gonna get fired right away.’
But he says Simon was curious. “‘But what do you think it should be, Mark?’ And I come up with some ideas for a little pop horn parts, and they said, ‘OK, write that down.’”
Rivera says he never saw the Beatles in concert. But seeing them on “The Ed Sullivan Show” changed his life.
“Ringo and I were all up at the Woodstock museum at Bethel Woods. And we walked through the museum and there was a photograph of a family sitting in the living room with a small box television. And I pointed to it and I said, ‘Ringo, that’s how I saw you.’”
Rivera was also on the stage with Billy Joel at Shea Stadium the night Paul McCartney surprised the crowd at the “Last Play at Shea” concert. He says the band never knew until the last minute if McCartney would get there in time.
“Well, we knew he wanted to make it, but he didn’t think he was physically going to be able to make it. He flew over from London, and thanks to some of the friends that Billy has in the New York Police Department, they whisked him through Customs.
“And from the time his plane landed until the time we were on stage, it was maybe a half an hour, which is unheard of to get from JFK to Shea Stadium through Customs.
“Then we went up and did our first encore for one or two songs, came back off, and sure enough, in a white shirt and a black tie, there’s Paul just pushing his hair back, literally got out of a plane and ready to go. Came on, we did, ‘I Saw Her Standing There,’ and then we ended with, ‘Let It Be.’
“And Billy was so so gracious. (For) the last song to be played at Shea Stadium, Billy insisted that Paul sit at the piano. And that to me speaks volumes of Billy’s respect for Paul. And it couldn’t have been better. The Beatles opened it and Paul closed it.”
Rivera also played with John Lennon.
“I played with John Lennon in 1975. We performed on a ‘Salute to Sir Lew Grade’ as well as a performance that John did for Julian because he couldn’t get back to the UK,” he says.
He called him “the kindest, wittiest, and most ‘in the moment’ person I’ve ever met. That was after I could even believe that I was in the same room as him.”
And, of course, he has nothing but praise for Ringo Starr, for whom he has spent so much time with in the All-Starr Band.
“He is so unassuming and such a nice man. Genuinely one of the nicest people I’ve ever met,” he says.
“And this whole ‘peace and love’ thing is real. The man, I’ve never met anyone more walking the walk than he does. He just feels like this world and our human race could be a better place if we would just take a moment and get along. He really is that guy.
“And as far as the actual process of the band, it’s like he jumps on the back of a thoroughbred and allows it to gallup. He doesn’t say what he thinks it should be. And I have to say this incarnation of the band is really receptive to that.”
Who would Rivera like to see in the All-Starr Band? “I’d say Stevie Winwood. He was a huge influence on my CD. A couple of tracks that as soon as you hear them, it’s like, ‘Oh! I what this is leading to. It could be something off “John Barleycorn” or something.”
Is there a chance Ringo’s songs could change by the end of the tour?
“I don’t believe so. I would love for him to do ‘Octopus’ Garden,’ but I don’t think that’s going to be the case. I think he’s happy. The songs and the sets are going over quite well, I think. I think Ringo’s songs are going to stay as they are. I could be proven wrong, but I don’t know that that’s the case yet.”
He describes the CD as “me looking back on a career that’s got quite a bit of background. The people that I love most of all, Foreigner, Traffic is one of my favorite bands of all time. Obviously I’m a huge Beatle fan, and Jimi Hendrix. So if you put that in a blender or Cuisinart, that’s pretty much what comes out of this record.”
One thing his solo album will reveal is that Rivera can sing.
“I love to sing. And people don’t expect to hear what they hear out of my mouth because they’re so used to me being a background singer. Hopefully, we give them a good surprise.”
Is there a chance that one of his songs may be added to the All-Starr Band tour? He says it probably won’t be the case.
But, he says, “Everyone who’s heard (“Turn Me Loose”) … in fact, Rob Shanahan, the photographer, said, ‘Dude, that song belongs in the set. It kicks ass. It’s pretty good rock ‘n’ roll.’”
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