But it wasn’t till the band got a lucky last-minute break ending up as the opening act for The Who in Pittsburgh that they truly became popular. “Pete [Townshend] just happened to come early to that show and got on the side of the stage,” Walsh remembers. “And I guess ’cause they [The Who] were basically a three piece too that Pete related to our stuff and felt like we were on the same wavelength, or I don’t know… from the same zip code or something.” From there, The Who took the young American rockers under their wing and on tour throughout Europe, which Joe called quite the education. “Pete taught me about what we call lead-rhythm guitar and of course Keith Moon taught me the finer points of hotel demolition”—something Walsh would later perfect with comedian John Belushi and a chainsaw in a Chicago hotel room.
“Well, John, he carried on the tradition,” Walsh said. “Keith Moon taught me how to destroy stuff and I still know how; I just don’t do it anymore. But I know how.”
After releasing their classic Rides Again and Thirds LPs, the band even found time for a cameo in the 1970 psychedelic western Zachariah, starring a young Don Johnson, where the band was rocking full-throttle in the middle of the California desert. Walsh recalled the experience of making the film: “It was hot; it was probably about 110 by nine in the morning. But no, it was great, Don Johnson and I got to be buddies a long time ago. He’s a good guy and just being around a movie set and seeing how it’s made came in handy later on.”
By the end of 1971, Walsh felt as if the very freedom that a three piece provided made him feel limited in his songwriting ability and decided that it was time to move on. “I was pretty burnt, we played like 300 dates in one year,” he recalled. “My songwriting started to have background singing, or keyboard parts, or two guitars even. And it was frustrating not being able to do that being a three piece. And I was painting myself into the corner a little bit as kind of a prehistoric heavy metal guitar player.” So Walsh picked up, moved to Colorado, put together a backup band and released Barnstorm, his first solo outing which, by comparison to The James Gang power trio boogie, allowed Joe the space to stretch out musically, including on both acoustic and electric guitars. He then had success with such solo albums as The Smoker You Drink, The Player You Get and So What, which featured such unforgettable tracks as “Rocky Mountain Way,” “Meadows,” and “Turn To Stone.”
In 1976, Walsh landed the replacement gig to guitarist Bernie Leadon in The Eagles, while Fox and Peters continued with The James Gang, going through a string of different vocalists and guitarists until Walsh recommended former Zephyr guitarist Tommy Bolin. Bolin re-energized The Gang and they went on to treat rock fans to the sizzling riff-rock of “Bang” and “Miami,” then eventually called it quits in 1977.
Throughout the years of heavy touring, Walsh still found time to hang with Fox and Peters. “I’d go back to Cleveland once in a while and we’d talk about the old days and stuff,” he noted. And while Walsh found time to continue a solo career, Fox and Peters also followed their passions. Fox heads The International License Plate Collector’s Association, while Peters worked as an engineer for the well-known radio show Westwood One.
It wouldn’t be until Bill Clinton invited the three old friends to play a rally the night before the 1996 presidential election that it became clear the old chemistry was still evident. “Yeah, well, there was magic,” Walsh said. “I had been in bands… The Eagles, where you have your assignment and your part to sing, and it’s important that you do it a certain way and that everybody does it a certain way. And that’s one way of doing it. And I’m probably one of the best at doing that, but I had really not been in a make-your-own-part-up right now improvising situation in a long time and so that was kind of a kick in the pants. The other thing that I noticed that Jimmy and Dale were right there. They were still able to read me and feel where it was all going.”
Joe and the guys were then invited to play on old pal Drew Carey’s new sitcom “The Drew Carey Show,” where they performed as The Horndogs. Then in 2001, The James Gang was inducted into the Rock-N-Roll Hall of Fame and performed three sold-out shows in Cleveland. And in 2005, the band decided to do it again and played three more sold-out shows to enthusiastic Cleveland crowds.
It was at this time that Walsh, Fox and Peters seriously discussed the idea of actually putting together a full-on James Gang Tour. “It was always in the corner of my mind, I thought that’s one way to go,” according to Walsh. “And luckily we were at that point that The Eagles were having a light year.” And although Walsh admits that even though there’s an excitement and rawness to playing in a trio, it can be a bit nerve-wracking at times. “Oh, it’s really scary being the only melodic instrument,” he noted. “I know how to do it, but I don’t do it unless I have to. But I’m looking forward to it.”
As far as the band’s set goes, Walsh explained, “The set list is the Live In Concert at Carnegie Hall album, not so much solo stuff, just James Gang songs. And we’ll play some shows and see how it goes and then think about a new record.”
When all is said and done, Joe reflected back on the legacy of The James Gang’s music, “’Funk 49” came out really good, it’s held up all these years. And Rides Again was just a really great album. We were in our creative phase and were just lucky enough to have somebody push record.”
And as a testament to the power of great rock-n-roll, Rides Again is still as potent and pure as it was 36 years ago. From the eternally warm riffs and bright licks of “Midnight Man” to the wide-eyed ballad of “Tend My Garden,” to the instant roach-burnin’ groove of “Funk 49,” The James Gang’s music is as good as American rock-n-roll gets. So for those of you who still pine for the days when music meant more than having a cool ring- tone on your cell phone, mark your calendar…The James Gang are comin’ to town.
The James Gang will be performing at the Beacon Theatre in NYC on Aug. 18 and at Borgata Events Center in Atlantic City on Aug. 19.
Photo by Tom White