Jay Jay French was the lead guitarist and is the business maven behind Twisted Sister, one of the world’s most successful rock bands with more than 20 million records sold. But the band had to claw their way up from less-than-humble beginnings, taking 10 years and encountering failure after failure before hitting it platinum in the early 1980s with the smash album Stay Hungry and the rock anthems “We’re Not Gonna Take It” and “I Wanna Rock.”
Jay Jay’s new book, Twisted Business: Lessons from My Life In Rock ‘n’ Roll (released September 21), co-written with Steve Farber, is part memoir and part business advice book, a combination that isn’t as odd as it might seem, especially once you start reading. (Full disclosure – Jay Jay is a Copper columnist and a friend, and this isn’t a book review per se. Plus, I don’t want to give away too many spoilers.)
Frank Doris: In the first of many surprising disclosures throughout the book, you mention that the first song that made an impression on you wasn’t a rocker, but the sappy pop song “Hey Paula” by Paul and Paula. Why?
Jay Jay French: It was not only the Number One song on the WABC-AM chart that week (in 1963) but it stayed Number One for several weeks, which made me wonder why and how that happened. It really is such a nondescript ’50s doo-wop chord progression but it did the job. It hooked me on pop radio 11 months before the Beatles broke all the rules!
FD: My father, like yours, begged me not to consider becoming a rock star (my dream as a teenager and through my 20s), thinking there was no future in it and that I’d ruin my life. What was your dad’s take on it?
JJF: I doubt that my dad ever thought that I could really become a rock and roll star. Why would he? Really, what are the odds?
We had a talk about his work when I was around 10 years old. He asked me if I wanted to be a jewelry salesman like him. It was a very fleeting thought. I asked him if he made a lot of money. He told me that diamond dealers did, but he only sold gold jewelry, because there was too much danger in selling diamonds. I never forgot that warning.
A couple of months after the conversation, one of his peers, a diamond salesman, was robbed and murdered in broad daylight in Miami, and a diamond dealing rabbi in my apartment building was robbed, and I not only was a witness, but I was nearly a victim (as detailed in the book). The idea of selling jewelry was [then] out of the question for me. [After] that point we never spoke about any kind of career goals. As time went on, he became supportive, however, and he died the day Stay Hungry went platinum, although he was aware of [the album]. The last photo of him before he died, in which he is holding platinum album award, is in the book. It was a bittersweet moment for sure.
Stay Hungry has now sold about six million copies worldwide.
FD: When did you first realize you had to play guitar? Not just to be cool or meet girls, but because you had to?
JJF: My brother Jeff, who was 10 years older, played guitar. I used to watch him and was envious of the attention he got while playing. That was probably why I wanted to learn how to play.
FD: You mentioned your first good guitar was a Fender Telecaster, bought because you worshipped Mike Bloomfield. Who were some of your other early influences?
JJF: As much of a Beatles fan as I was, I never cared to own any of the instruments they had (ironically, a Gretsch White Falcon was by far the most expensive guitar I saw on 48th Street in 1966). [48 Street in Manhattan was known as “Music Row” for its many music stores where stars and professionals shopped, at places like Manny’s and Sam Ash. – Ed.] I also didn’t really want to emulate George Harrison.
Bloomfield’s playing on The Paul Butterfield Blues Band’s debut album (1965), however, sealed the deal. I had to know how and why he played the way he did. That was followed in short order by Clapton’s playing on the Blues Breakers’ debut (Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton, 1966), Keith Richards’ Chuck Berry guitar riff intro to the song “Down The Road a Piece” and then Albert King’s guitar tone on “Crosscut Saw” from the Born Under a Bad Sign album.
FD: You were pretty nervy as a kid, and, well, went into drug dealing for a time. Where did you get that chutzpah and disregard for getting caught? Or, did you live in fear of being thrown in jail, beaten up, or worse? What about the moral implications? What about the fact that you might have fried your brains and those of others?
JJF: I pretty much thought that I was invincible and way too smart to get caught. I got really good at taking huge amounts of drugs purely as entertainment. I was a very lucky person and I know that!
FD: Then, you basically quit the whole drug thing cold and went on to insist there would be no drug or alcohol use in Twisted Sister. The book goes into this in detail, but can you talk about that here?
JJF: The drug scene that tore through the New York City hippie culture in 1967 started out as “all peace and love.” [People were using] mostly psychedelics. By 1971 into 1972, heroin came on the scene and it started to take its toll with the death of many friends, either by OD’ing or [being] murdered during drug deals. I knew it was time to get out to save myself.
FD: You and I played and hung out at a lot of the same Long Island clubs in the 1970s, places like the OBI North, Hammerheads, Rumbottoms and Speaks…although I don’t remember if I ever made it to the glamorous Mr. T’s. The tri-state area circuit was quite a scene in the 1970s. What was it like in those days? And how did it affect the band when the drinking age went from 18 to 21 and disco came in?
JJF: With the drinking age at 18 and the ability to make phony drivers’ licenses in school shop class, the amount of kids available to go to the bars was insane. The bars held huge numbers. Speaks in Island Park held 2,000, Detroit in Portchester held 1,500. Hammerheads in West Islip held 3,000. The Mad Hatter in Stony Brook held 1,250. The OBI East in Hampton Bays held 3,000, the Glen Island Casino held 3,000, the Soap Factory held 3,000 and the Fountain Casino held 5,000! These were all copy band bars, not professional concert halls.
This scene was unique and I don’t believe that this incredible scene will ever be replicated again.
FD: Twisted Sister had plenty of competition in other local club-circuit bands of the day like Railway and Gunn, Harlequin, Cintron, Rat Race Choir, and the Good Rats, who, especially, never got the success they deserved. Why do you think you guys make it big when the others didn’t?
JJF: The top tier tri-state bands were: Twisted Sister, The Good Rats, Zebra, Rat Race Choir, Another Pretty face, The Stanton Anderson Band, Crystal Ship, Southern Cross, and White Tiger. The Good Rats always played original music. The money a band could make at the top tier was insane and very few bands wanted to risk making the jump out of the circuit where (as far as money goes) they would have to start [again] at the bottom. Twisted Sister always knew that the events that created this scene couldn’t last indefinitely, so we always planned to take big risks and move on.
FD: Some readers may not realize what a radical concept it was for a rock band to dress in drag and wear makeup back then, although by the 1970s, glam rock and people like David Bowie and Elton John were popularizing such looks. How much crap you get for that? Or, was it the other way around?
JJF: Twisted Sister was created at the right time. We never got any pushback about how we looked; In fact, many bands that existed before us started to wear makeup just to try to keep up!
FD: MTV really changed everything, didn’t it?
JJF: MTV did change the entire music scene and we rode that wave for better…and for worse.
FD: Most people don’t know how hard it is to achieve success as a rock band, and become really good at it. You guys played thousands of dates. How physically and mentally punishing was it? And how euphoric to be on stage?
JJF: We gave it our all every night. When you play thousands of shows, whether you know it or not, you get better, I call it “the boredom of excellence.” Most people don’t get up at 4:00 am to figure skate, but the best ones do. That dedication to excellence is repeated in every endeavor that pays off, whether that means a gold medal, a leading film role, first chair at the Philharmonic, climbing the highest mountains, or making mega-selling records and tours. As far as [being] euphoric? As a professional, one strives to be great every night so that the audience gets off. If the audience goes crazy then I’ve done my job.
FD: I don’t want to give away the business framework model mentioned in the book or for you to give away the store here, but you mention things like sticking to it, learning from your mistakes, staying true to your vision, and the importance of trust. What is some advice you’d give not just to aspiring musicians, but anyone seeking to become successful?
JJF: Read the book. I give you a roadmap to understand how to turn roadblocks into pathways. Reinvention is the key to success, and I was turned down more times than a bed sheet and came back more times than Freddy Kruger and Michael Myers!
FD: Whether you become a successful rock band or entrepreneur, what do you gain – and give up – along the way?
JJF: The price one pays for blind ambition can’t be stereotyped. Everyone handles it differently. I will say that many younger people who reach great success and fame make the mistake of thinking that the success (and money) will last forever. Wrong!
Fame is rented, never owned!
FD: Tell us about your relationship with co-author Steve Farber. And, how did you wind up becoming a motivational speaker and a business advisor?
JJF: I met Steve at a social media event in 2011. He was a guest speaker. While watching him, I said to myself, “I could do that.” That got me thinking, and Steve became my mentor in the public speaking business, which led to the development of the book. I could not have done this without his ability to hone my messages into a coherent narrative.
FD: Why do you think your band has struck gold in licensing songs for commercials and other media? And, did you ever think one of your songs would be in a dog food commercial?
JJF: Timing and the right songs got us to where we are. We have had our music in hundreds of movies, TV shows and commercials. Our music has been used in many different applications. Our position is, counter to many ’60s bands that were opposed to their music being used in commercials, is this: There are millions of songs that are out there with millions more added every year. As long as there is an outlet for our music where we can keep it in the public consciousness (as well as get paid!), we will do it. While many young people will say that they never heard of Twisted Sister, most will sing along with “We’re Not Gonna Take It!” I can live with that.
FD: The book talks a lot about what entrepreneurs and musicians should do to become successful. Looking back, what might you have done differently?
JJF: The biggest mistake we made is detailed in the book…read it!
FD: Where do you see yourself going from here?
JJF: Let me just enjoy the moment, Frank!
Thank you and all the readers of Copper.