The late Joe Guercio was the musical director and conductor for Elvis Presley from the summer of 1970 until the summer of 1977 when Elvis made his last concert appearance. Elvis was known for spontaneity and improvisation on stage and the band had to be ready for anything. This helped make Guercio maybe the best ever at his craft. In describing what it was like to work with Elvis, who would often just turn around and start a tune, Guercio once said it was “like following a marble down concrete steps.” There probably isn’t a more challenging role to be found on a rock n roll stage than being the “MD,” so when someone really shines at that helm it’s impossible to ignore. That’s the case with seasoned rock vet and musical director Marc Ribler.
Five years ago, when Steven Van Zandt decided to resurrect his first solo outfit, the horn-driven Disciples of Soul, he turned to Marc Ribler for help. Ribler, who had been working as musical director for Darlene Love, brought together the bones of the band, with Rich Mercurio on drums. Jack Daley on bass and Andy Burton on keyboards. Sax player Eddie Manion had been working on horn charts when Ribler got involved and Eddie and he decided on who the horn section should be – ultimately, they picked Stan Harrison, Clark Gayton, Ron Tooley and Ravi Best.
He then helped expand the group’s roster by adding a trio of backup singers, who deliver as much brass as the five-piece horn section. As the group hit the road, this traveling musical caravan developed a Mad Dogs & Englishman-like sense of wonder and like Leon Russell before him, Ribler kept the band on track, following Steve Van Zandt’s in-the-moment changeups, and impromptu appearances with guests like Elvis Costello and Paul McCartney. Like Guercio, Ribler was always ready for anything and the shows were heralded here and abroad as “thrilling.”
The experience with Van Zandt created a bond and kinship that is anchored to their shared love for the musical moment of the late 1960s. So when Ribler told Van Zandt that he was mixing tracks for a new album of his own, Van Zandt offered to release it on his Wicked Cool Records label. More importantly, he also provided a kind of production guidance that has resulted in making Ribler’s The Whole World Awaits You, an extraordinary 12-track experience that reflects all of those influences. Here you will hear Chris Hillman’s Byrds, The Rascals, and even some Tom Petty. The record is bright, fun, firm, and full of moments that will make you want to twist, shout, and kick the volume up a notch or two.
Steve Van Zandt agrees and told Copper: “When Marc isn’t putting together amazing bands for me he’s writing great songs and has been doing it for years. His new album for Wicked Cool plays like a greatest hits collection. He can do it all.”
We caught up with Ribler and talked about how working with Van Zandt helped transform a set of his songs into an exceptional musical expression that is set for a summer release (on July 16) and hopefully a stage near you sometime soon.
Ray Chelstowski: Having spent the last few years working in the soul realm, did you consciously decide to move your sound more toward bands like the Byrds and the Hollies?
Marc Ribler: Growing up in the late ’60s listening to radio in Brooklyn there was a station called WABC where you would hear a James Brown song, a Sam and Dave song, then the song “Spirit in the Sky,” and [the DJ would] close with the Byrds. It was an incredible melting pot that felt like [being in] the projects where I lived. I have such a sentimental affinity to that time in my life and have come to realize that the greatest sonic landscapes come from that period. It makes me feel most at home when my music can have some of that texture.
What’s funny is that this album was recorded four years ago. We had been out with Steven and went in to record his album Soulfire. He then left to finish off a two-month commitment to Bruce Springsteen with a tour through Australia. I had been writing songs for a few years and thought that it was a good time to go and record them.
RC: What is different from the early mixes and what did Steve help shape?
MR: So, we are about a month into the pandemic and Steven and I were on the phone and he asked me what I was doing. I told him that I was actually mixing my record. He said, “I didn’t know you were making a record! I wanna hear it!” So he listens to the songs, calls me back and says, “I’ve got some good news, and I’ve got some bad news. Let me tell you the good news first. I love a lot of these songs and I feel like we could work on them together.” I said, “that sounds like good news and even better news!” After working with him for so many years I was just so excited to bring everything to the next level, and it did. We share so much common ground that things got almost telepathic, there was a lot of harmony between us. We refined some of the vocal arrangements. With the guitars we didn’t get too far away from what we already had but instead capitalized on them a bit more.
RC: What does Steven specifically bring to the process?
MR: Steven’s historical overview is so deep. On one song he said, “I’m hearing ‘I am the Walrus’ at 2:42, that tom tom?” I said, “I know what you mean (laughing)!”
He has a way of keeping you inside where he feels your boundaries lie [but] without making things [feel] finite. It’s more about [him] trying to bring the best out of the area the artist is working in as opposed to trying to bring too much of himself to the sound.
On the song “This Is How the Song Goes,” Steven was really good at trimming the fat, in bringing the orchestration one level higher, and even suggested adding a trombone. That hadn’t occurred to me. I’ll produce artists who use horns and use horns myself. But Steven’s suggestion added an incredible lift to the song. It’s actually our favorite song on the record because of the trippy-ness of it.
RC: You’ve written a lot of successful ad jingles. How has that experience informed your creative process?
MR: The whole jingle experience was the last thing that I had ever expected, especially having success with it. When I was younger I sang on a few but had never really submitted anything as a writer. But when I started writing jingles the commercials [back] then tended to be more song-driven. Before that, in the 1980s, it was like, “I’m a Pepper, you’re a Pepper, wouldn’t you love to be a Pepper too?” They were like children’s nursery songs with corny words. “This Life” was a song I had laying around and it became this HIV awareness ad for Trojan condoms. The reason I think that it worked is because it was more song-oriented. It was about creating an emotional pop song as opposed to creating another “Trojan Man” [jingle].
From an editing standpoint there’s no fat. You have 15 or 30 seconds. So your skills as an editor have to be even more refined. For Steven, when the E Street Band performed at the Super Bowl he had to cut one of Bruce’s songs down to fit within the amount of airtime they had available. He’s so good at that that you don’t feel like you’re losing anything. For example, the second song on the record, “I’m Coming Around,” initially had four verses and an instrumental intro. Steven’s suggestion was, “Let’s start with the vocal. No intro.” A five minute song is now the shortest song on the record and I don’t think that we lost anything.
In music it’s always been “don’t bore us, get to the chorus.” With jingles you have no time to get to the chorus. I used to write for a lot of other people and labels would call me because they needed hooks that were radio friendly and could sell quickly. So [the musical hooks] totally relate to jingles in that sense.
RC: How important is it to have an outlet like the Underground Garage channel on Sirius Radio to promote your music?
MR: It’s like the only artists’ development platform that exists now. It’s such a rare thing these days. Steven is like the only champion for the things we grew up listening to and for what the business was. That said, it’s a struggle. But we’re able to do what we love because Steven is walking the walk and talking the talk as he always does.
RC: You’ve opened for stars like Sly and the Family Stone and played alongside royalty like Sir Paul McCartney at The Roundhouse in London. Outside of Steven, who have you learned the most from?
MR: Well I’d say that it was seeing the grace of someone like Sir Paul. We didn’t know if he was going to sit in with us. We had some songs prepared but Steven told him to just sit back and enjoy the show. In the middle of the performance he leaned over to Maureen (Steve Van Zandt’s wife) and asked, “Do you think that I could still go sit in with them?” And of course we got him up for the encore. In the middle of “I Saw Her Standing There” Steven gives him the guitar solo and in the middle of the solo Sir Paul tosses the second half to me. Just to have that kind of grace and generosity, to see people that we tend to put up on pedestals behave like considerate human beings is a tremendous teacher. It’s so easy to be disappointed by people you admire, and I have [been]. So anyone who demonstrates that kind of grace is going to make a lasting impression.
RC: What do you want most for this record to do? How do you define a “win”?
MR: Well it’s already been a win for me because with it I think that I have done some of my best work and received tremendous guidance with Steven’s input. If it can become a vehicle that acts as a base that I could [use to] tour with and continue to make records, that would be great. I think some of these songs are hit-worthy but all of that remains in God’s hands.