James Gang: Interview with Joe Walsh

The James Gang (Tom White)Long before he was known as the life of the party (on and off-stage) with his gonzo guitar-slinger persona as a solo artist and with The Eagles (permanently making his mark with such FM rock classics as “Hotel California,” “Life In The Fast Lane,” “In The City,” and “Life’s Been Good,”) Joe Walsh and two guys from Cleveland—drummer Jimmy Fox and bassist Dale Peters—were turnin’ rock-n-roll fans on to their groove-heavy melodic brand of rock-n-roll via The James Gang. Still a staple on classic rock radio, “Funk 49” as well “Walk Away” and “The Bomber” are early ’70 s rock at its finest.

Now, 35 years later, the Gang is back together and set to tour the states this summer and fall on their Rides Again Tour, making their way to the New York-New Jersey metro area, bringing Walsh back to his ol’ stomping grounds here in the Garden State. Joe spent his high school years here after relocating to Montclair from Wichita, KS. He attended Montclair High School, where he recalled fond memories and more innocent times.

“Oh it was great, for some reason our class got along fine,” he said. “My little brothers’ high school was a whole different deal. I guess drugs got into high school, we didn’t have drugs yet, nobody got pregnant, and basically it was pretty much our high school against other high schools, not necessarily inter- high school factions fighting. It was a great time to grow up and I’m really grateful that I put my time into New Jersey; good memories and it was the very beginning of my musical efforts.”

Joe got his start with a local surf garage band The G- Clefts and later with The Nomads. “The G-Clefts, we were terrible and then I was in The Nomads from Madison, which I played bass in. We used to gig all over New Jersey,” he recalled. When Joe wasn’t gigging around town on the weekends he’d be catching the DeCamp bus into NYC, looking for kicks.

After graduating high school, Joe went off to college at Ohio’s Kent State where he lasted a quarter before dropping out. It wasn’t long after that when Joe hooked up with local group The Measles.

“Yeah, I was in a small band in Akron (The Measles) that worked around the school year, then when school was out I stayed that year and didn’t come back home,” he said. “And then eventually I got to know different musicians and finally got into the Cleveland scene and supported myself and knew I didn’t need a degree.”

It was within the Cleveland rock scene that Joe would answer a guitarist-wanted ad for local five-piece cover band The James Gang. Initially Joe would be just that, a guitar player in the band. It wasn’t till a fateful night in Detroit in 1968, opening for Cream at the legendary Grande Ballroom, that Joe would begin to sing and play guitar. “By the time we left for Cleveland on our way to Detroit, we found out our guitarist and keyboard player quit,” he recalled with a laugh. “So we had to play, ’cause we didn’t have gas money to get home. And so we did exactly that. We figured we’d pick some Traffic or Spencer Davis or something. I knew most of the words, but I hadn’t been the lead singer.”

Although Joe was initially rattled by the fact that it was just three of them on stage, he admits that night he realized in fact this was a positive experience in his development as an artist. “I sang a little bit and then we just opened up the middle and then it was every man for himself,” he said. “Singing didn’t really come natural for me, but this Detroit gig was huge in that I had to sing. I didn’t have any choice and so after that I kinda learned how to sing and play guitar at the same time, which really affected my style a lot. It really decided The James Gang style. Or I would have been just a guitar player.”

After surviving the Cream show, the three remaining members of The James Gang decided to stick it out as trio. Joe recalled, “We decided we could probably be a three piece and ya know, this was the good ol’ days of rock-n-roll when you could improvise. So we just had loose structures of songs that people would recognize and we’d do it our way and do all kinds of strange things and arrangements and stuff in the middle. And when it came around to making a record we got rid of the beginnings of the songs and just used the stuff that we had made up in the middle and came up with some stuff and wrote some words and that’s how The James Gang songs came about. It was just a gradual transition.”

From that point on, the three played as many gigs as they could throughout the Midwest, perfecting their tight power trio sound. Then in 1969, future James Gang/Eagles producer Bill Szymczyk went to check out the band live after hearing their demo and signed them right on the spot. The group released their debut, Yer Album, on ABC Records and by that fall, original bassist Tom Kriss was replaced by an old college buddy of Fox’s, Dale Peters. Thus the classic James Gang lineup was cast.