Rich Balter Photography / Courtesy of Loaded Concerts

Recalling Zebra’s Legacy with Randy Jackson

Are they the unsung heroes of tri-state hard rock?

Day one of the 2016 Food Truck & Rock Carnival at First Energy Park in Lakewood, New Jersey was a near washout with most scheduled bands cancelling. Food trucks and amusement park rides remained closed, and second-stage headliners Clutch cut their set short when rain hampered their instruments. Meanwhile, first stage co-headliners Blue Oyster Cult and Alice Cooper performed in front of a sparse crowd brave enough to stand in the downpour. Day two was predictably damp and muddy, however, the excitement in the air could not be tempered. The night would conclude with headliners Twisted Sister playing their last-ever East Coast show. A few hours before Dee Snider and company walked out on the main stage, a crowd gathered just outside the stadium to catch the third-stage headliners, a band whose storied career is closely tied to Twisted Sister: Zebra.

Although the trio’s stellar set was warmly received on the unseasonably cool September evening, some in the audience found it disrespect that the band were not invited to support Twisted Sister on the main stage. After Zebra’s set, singer-guitarist Randy Jackson remained diplomatic, saying he was “not at all offended” by his band’s positioned that day. Eight years later, he goes into more detail.

“It’s because of our simple setup,” Jackson explains. “If we were a traditional rock band, it would be easy for us to get on and off the stage. [Headlining the third stage] afforded us more set-up time that day. When it comes to actual touring, we have it pretty easy. We bring a keyboard module on the road that has all of our sounds on it. We hook that up to keyboards that are rented for us. I take a few guitars and a couple of pedals with me, and it doesn’t matter what amps a venue has because, unlike most bands, [Keyboardist/bassist] Felix Hanemann and I play through the PA system. The only one who has any difficulty is [drummer] Guy Gelso, because he uses amplifiers, but he makes it work.”

‘Unsung’ is a strange word to describe any musical artist, especially one who has released a number of classic records and dominated the tri-state hard rock scene between the mid-seventies and early eighties. Zebra have the songs, talent, and live-show reputation that should have made them arena-rock superstars. Yet, for whatever reason, they never achieved that level of commercial success. Still, while many of their musical peers were shooting stars who burned brightly before fading away, Zebra remain active 50 years after forming. Perhaps most surprisingly, the band has maintained the same lineup – Jackson, Hanemann, and Gelso – throughout.

It has also been just over 40 years since the trio released their landmark self-titled debut. Although Zebra always seem to be on tour in celebration of these anniversaries, they will be playing one of their biggest-ever gigs at New York City’s Sony Hall on May 18.

Zebra formed in New Orleans in 1974 intending to recruit a singer, but eventually gave up the search and let Jackson assume vocal duties. From there on, they never again considered augmenting the group with additional players.

“Originally, we were a four-piece group called Maelstrom,” Randy Jackson continues. “The keyboardist departed, however, because we were not doing enough progressive music. We also had to learn some dance songs to make money.”

Eventually, Felix and Randy started “investigating” the keyboard again. And just months after forming, they adopted the tri-state area as their second home and became a dominating force in the then-vibrant club scene along with The Good Rats, Kivetsky, Rat Race Choir and, yes, Twisted Sister. Mixing rock originals with reverent covers of songs by Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, and The Moody Blues, they soon built a loyal following. They actually defined the term ‘following;’ Each week in this writer’s Brooklyn neighborhood, people would page through copies of East Coast Rocker, The Aquarian, and other local newspapers, not to find out who was playing at their favorite clubs, but to find out where Zebra were performing. It did not matter if the band were performing in the next town over or in the furthest reaches of Long Island – these fans would pack in cars on Friday and Saturday nights to experience the energetic live shows of their favorite trio.

Before the advent of the Internet or social media, and before music publications gave Zebra much attention, band information was spread by word-of-mouth. “You have to catch their last area dates before they head back to New Orleans,” was a common refrain.

“It was smart having two bases of operation,” says Jackson. “We never overplayed in either place.”

A common misconception, Zebra did not split their time in the respective territories based on climate. “We actually played our first New York show [at 1890s in Baldwin, Long Island] during one of the worst snow storms.” The storm devastated the tri-state area, leaving snow drifts over seven feet high – a joy for kids, but a nightmare for those looking to earn a living or enjoy a night’s entertainment. Jackson laughs. “Coming from New Orleans, we thought it was normal weather. Yes, it’s easier performing throughout the North East when there is no snow, but that is not how we based our shows.”

Despite Zebra’s success on the club circuit – or perhaps sensing that it would dissipate by the mid-eighties, the band sought to expand their following with a record deal. Like good friends Twisted Sister, they discovered this was an arduous task, but eventually signed with Atlantic Records and, in 1983, released their self-titled masterpiece. At the time, it was the fastest-selling debut in the label’s history [a label which has included Led Zeppelin and AC/DC], and it featured many of the songs the trio had perfected during their clubs days… songs that are now somewhat jokingly referred to as their ‘greatest hits.’

Looking back at on its creations, Jackson admits there are a few things he might have done differently.

“I might have put ‘Bears’ or ‘Wait Until the Summer’s Gone’ on the first one instead of ‘Slow Down’ [a cover of Larry Williams’ seminal rock and roll classic]. Otherwise, there was nothing so radical that the record company or producer Jack Douglas [Aerosmith, Cheap Trick, John Lennon] did that would have made me want to go back and redo the album.”

The momentum from their debut should have continued with the band’s second album, No Tellin’ Lies, which featured the aforementioned club favorite, “Wait Until the Summer’s Gone.” Unfortunately, it failed to live up to expectations – not that Jackson is “crying over it.”

“How many bands never get a record deal? And how many bands release one album that goes nowhere and they’re never heard from again? But we’re still here, doing it after 50 years, and we refuse to look [at our career] as a cup half full.”

Still, the frontman has a few theories why things happened the way they did. “We released ‘Wait Until the Summer’s Gone’ as the first single [and promoted it to radio], but stations complained the vocals were too low in the mix and refused to play it. They were right, so we rushed back in the studio and recorded another vocal track for the song and got it back out to radio, but by then the thrill was gone. The stations were on to other things. That really hurt.”

In hindsight, if he were able to go back in time, Jackson would have also focused on writing songs for No Tellin’ Lies while on tour promoting the band’s debut. He also regrets the band decision to tour with Sammy Hagar to promote the second album and turning down the opportunity to play in Europe – something the trio has not done ‘til this day. Jackson, however, hopes to remedy that later this year with overseas dates. Immediately after the tour, the band got to work on the stellar, but underappreciated 3.V, which suffered from a lack of promotion (despite including “Time” and “He’s Makin’ You the Fool,” which were fan favorites).

In 1990, the band finally captured their live sound on the fan treasure Zebra Live. Recorded at Sundance, and despite being an absolute gem and a collector’s item for fans who experienced Zebra live, the disc arrived too late. By 1990, thanks to MTV and home video, in-concert records had lost their charm, essentially becoming the soundtracks for live videos. Still, the disc included a cover of Led Zeppelin’s “The Ocean,” which proved why the band were once revered for their Zeppelin covers during their club sets back in the day.

Surprisingly, the trio have never released a covers album, though Jackson admits it could still happen. “So many people have done Led Zeppelin covers records,” the singer contends. “You would really have to do it justice.”

After 50 years, Zebra are still performing at a high level and Jackson, unlike many veteran rock vocalists, has maintained his voice and is still able to hit the high notes. “A lot of it is luck,” he laughs, “but I do take care or my voice. I get a lot of sleep. I try to maintain my health. I think my style of singing in falsetto might also have something to do with it. I switch between the high and the low notes, which uses a completely different set of muscles. That comes down to voice training and warming up before shows. The voice is a muscle. Like an athlete, you cannot just go out there cold. You have to warm up or risk hurting it.”

Today’s Zebra audience is comprised of young fans and long-time fans who are now grandparents. Hopefully, that crowd will not only get to see a new documentary soon, which will include footage from upcoming shows, but also hear a new, long-awaited Zebra album.

“We are in the middle of doing it,” admits Jackson. “Guy recently sent me four drum tracks. Felix and I will soon lay our stuff down. We are doing it by e-mail and it is working out great.”

The Internet has also become an important tool for the band. It is the ideal way for the trio to stay in touch with their fans. “Back in the day, we’d have signs made to advertise our shows,” Jackson says. “Today we have social media at our disposal.” Meet-and-greets have become an integral part of most band’s tours, too, and at just $99, Zebra’s pre-show meet-and-greets are more reasonably priced than most. “We’ve always met with fans, whether it was paid for or not. We adore talking to fans. Everyone seems to have a Zebra-related story or want to show us something.”

In addition to touring and hopefully travelling to England for the first time, Zebra are putting the finishing touches on their second documentary. “We’ve released a documentary (2008’s The DVD), but there was a lot of territory we didn’t get to cover. There were people we didn’t get to interview,” shares Jackson. “And we are going to show footage from way back in the day, footage we discovered after Hurricane Katrina. It will be interesting to see us during the seventies.”

Although no one would fault the trio if they were bitter about their shortcomings, Jackson maintains a positive attitude, feeling fortunate he has been able to sustain a career in music. “Of course it would have been great to go play and make a million bucks,” he says, “but we enjoy remaining so close to our fans.”

Zebra’s frontman is adamant that “it has always been about the music and playing music.” He says, “The fact that we can still do it, and to not have to do anything else for a living is reward enough. Yes, timing is everything. [An artist] only has to have X amount of talent in any business to be successful, but you do have to have good timing. There are other people [on Zebra’s level] who have a lot less to show for it than us. At a certain point, it comes down to whether or not you can earn a living. I believe Zebra has had a successful career. If we would have been any more successful, I would not have been home as much as I have been. I love my family and I love how everything is; I have been married-for more than 40 years and who knows if it would have lasted if I was always out on the road.”