Oliver Tuthill   Oliver Tuthill Oliver Tuthill Oliver Tuthill Oliver Tuthill
 
The Memories

Career Highlights

How did you get started in music?

When I was six years old, I asked my mother to buy me a guitar from the Sears Catalog. I started lessons so she bought me a beautiful hollow-body Gibson Guitar that I adored. I loved Gene Autry's music and played all his songs. When I was eight, I started writing my own songs and I cut my first demo when I was ten. From then on, I was hooked. I've been writing and playing music ever since.


Performing


You performed in a number of clubs in Chicago during the 60s and 70s.

Oh yeah, so many it's hard to remember. My personal favorite was No Exit in Rogers Park. I loved playing to a live audience. You could feel the excitement in the crowd if you were good. A live audience keeps you honest and on your toes. I loved playing in the clubs on Chicago's north end and in Old Town. It could be three in the morning in Old Town, but it looked like it was high noon in Chicago's Loop. Crowds of people were everywhere.

 

I understand you opened for the rock group The Flock, who were huge in the Midwest in the mid-60s.

That was in Old Town around 1966. They had a hit record that year and were fabulous live. They were the first rock group I ever met who used a violin player in their live performance. I forgot the name of the venue, but what I remember most about that night was that The Flock's tour bus was set on fire. The thing was destroyed. It was just a blackened heap of burned metal.


Opening for Styx


For two years, you were the opening act for Styx, the biggest touring rock group in the world in the early 80s. What was it like working with Dennis DeYoung and James Young?

It was an incredible experience. They were huge in Chicago and the Midwest and had a big following at the time I opened for them in the early 70s. They had released several albums on the Wooden Nickel record label, and Bill Traut, President of Wooden Nickel, liked my songs and put me in touch with their manager, Vince DePaul. Vince liked my stuff and became my manager also and had me open for Styx fairly regularly. When I first met Vince, Styx was going by the name TW4.

 

How did you get along with the members of Styx?

Well, with the exception of Dennis DeYoung, not that well. It was a little tense at times because I was an acoustic artist and they were hard rockers. I did play a couple of hard rock songs, but I did them on my Martin D-35 acoustic guitar. Also, I was from the north side of Chicago and they were from the south side, so it was that Cubs vs. White Sox kind of mentality.

 

You mean you guys didn't like each other?

Well, Dennis DeYoung, their lead singer, was always a gentleman to me. I would be in my dressing room and he would always come in and ask me to join them. But with the exception of Dennis, they pretty much ignored me. Dennis always told me I looked like Barry Gibb and was very kind and gracious to me. James Young always seemed tense and uptight, but I think it was because he was getting geared up to perform. I think the drummer, John Panozzo, was a little upset with me because I sat on his stool while I performed, but he never complained to me. In hindsight, I should have acted with more consideration. I was very saddened when I learned he died.

 

I understand that you were asked to join Styx as a singer/guitarist.

Yes, I had decided to move to Los Angeles in 1973 to pursue a recording contract because Bill Traut of Wooden Nickel (Styx's label at the time) would not sign me, so Vince asked me to join Styx. I said no, which I did without thinking, but I wanted my own solo record. I was actually offered the opportunity to join several groups, but I turned them down. Now, I can see that was a mistake. Later I learned Styx fired Vince as their manager and took on Tommy Shaw as a guitarist/singer. I always said that Tommy Shaw took my job.


Record deals


Going back to your songwriting and singing, although you never signed with a major label, you did have several record deals during your career.

I had a number of record releases throughout the 60s and 70s. They were all on small independent labels. GNP Crescendo was probably the biggest when Gene Norman signed me to a recording deal in 1979. My first record, Individual of Society, came out in 1966 on Chi-Line Records and got a great write up in Cashbox Magazine. I thought I was on my way, but the record didn't make it because of poor marketing and publicity, and because I didn't tour.

I had another record on Plastik Records in 1966 — a song called "Inferno," which I wrote with my lead guitarist Chris Edwards, who still plays live. It was always a kick to hear it on the radio when you were driving somewhere in your car.

In 1967 I had a regional hit with Prophonic Records with my song "Light of Day," which hit the top 40 in Michigan. Chris Edwards also plays guitar on that song. Later that year I had a release on Flint Records called "Traces," which is not the same song as the one done by David Gates and Bread, which didn't do very well.

 

Talk about "Light of Day," your first top 40 hit

I wrote it when I was living in Flint, Michigan. The song was originally primed for release with me singing the lead vocal, but it wound up being sung by Cecil Washington. Under pressure from Prophonic Records, my manager, Bill Latchaw, pleaded with me to let someone else sing the song so I asked Cecil to sing it. (I was the bass player of The Group, the band that backed up Cecil.)

I had to go back to Chicago for a week to negotiate a recording deal there and when I came back a friend of mine told me "I" was giving a concert that night — a concert I knew nothing about. I went there and Cecil and the band were using a different bass player. I felt like I had been sucker-punched — the record was a big hit in Michigan and I had been rejected as the singer first and now as the bass player.

 

"I Don't Like to Lose" was also a success, wasn't it?

This song was on the flip side of "Light of Day." It was a big hit in Europe. I started getting letters and calls for the record in the 80s. I was also getting calls from record dealers and collectors offering me money for original pressings. It was also released in 1994 by Goldmine Soul Supply Limited as a CD.

 

But you were the songwriter, so you must have had some decent financial compensation?

Since 1967 I've made almost nothing for both the songs "Light of Day" and "I Don't Like to Lose" in the context of record sales through Prophonic and royalties collected by BMI.

 

What? That's unbelievable! How is that possible?

I can't explain what happened. It wouldn't hurt so bad if the songs had fallen into obscurity, but the A side "I Don't Like to Lose" became a cult hit in England and was put out on CD in Europe. I still get emails and fan letters from folks in Europe about the song.

 

In 1979 you signed a recording contract with GNP Crescendo Records to record the Kim Fowley song "Santa Ana Wind."

Fowley managed and produced a number of big names like Joan Jett, the Runaways, and the Ramones to name a few. He seemed pleased with my rendition of his song, which happens to be a very commercial tune. I wish it could have sold better. I guess, in a way, when that record didn't sell well I started thinking more about acting.

 

Your music seems to hold up well over the years, and from your CD, it's obvious that you're as talented as some of the biggest names of your era. You've even mentioned that you should have had a very successful career as a singer/songwriter in a very competitive business, but as it turned out, you didn't. What happened?

I was a very poor politician and made some very bad mistakes. Also, I think I sabotaged many wonderful opportunities because I had no confidence in myself and was extremely narcissistic. I'd lose my temper with record producers and generally acted like I was mental, which I was at times. When I think back to some of the things I said and did while in the presence of some very successful, powerful individuals who could make your career, I just shudder.

Also, I was an amateur boxer and fought in a hundreds of outlaw bouts where there were no regulations or oversight by any commission, and people would get hurt. Many times I would come to meetings with black eyes or a bloody swollen lip. This was very unnerving and made people quite uncomfortable. Also, there was always the danger of breaking my hand, which would mean I couldn't play guitar.

 

Didn't anybody try to stop you?

My manager Hal Marshall convinced me to quit boxing. One night at the Rainbow, he laid several thousand dollars in cash down on a table in 100 dollar bills and said I could keep it if I gave up boxing. I never laced on another pair of boxing gloves to this day, but became a sportswriter instead.

 

Why did you take up boxing? It seems like an odd activity for a musician.

I fell in love with a fighter by the name of Cassius Clay. When I was a sophomore in high school, I went to a religious boarding school in the Midwest. My roommate was from Louisville, Kentucky (Ali's hometown), and had pictures of Cassius Clay all over the walls. All he talked about was Cassius Clay (Muhammad Ali) and it grew on me. Plus, kids and adult counselors at this school could be very violent and mean. Boxing gave me a way to get respect. When people saw you fight, they knew you had violence in you and would be polite to you, for the most part.


Acting


Did you have much success as an actor?

Some; I had the good fortune to act in quite a number of TV series and movies and meet many wonderful actors. I worked in the Universal hit Quincy when it was the number one rated show in America. Again, I believe I would have had far more success if I had been emotionally stable and emotionally literate. Having a drug problem didn't help either.

 

Didn't you perform one of your songs in an Academy Award-winning film?

Yes, I played "L.A. Blue" (included in my new CD release) in the film Melvin & Howard. Mary Steenburgen, who won best-supporting actress for that film, listened to me play "L.A. Blue" a whole bunch of times and would tell me, "I just love your song." Academy Award-winning director Jonathan Demme personally picked me and the song for the film. Unfortunately, I wound up on the cutting-room floor, but Jonathan gave my manager the six-minute print of the film and I put it onto DVD.

 

Didn't you just film a documentary out on the Sioux Indian Reservation?

I was there for about 10 days and shot 40 hours of footage. It was incredible. I had a chance to meet Russell Means, the actor and activist, who agreed to be interviewed for the film. It addressed the health care crisis in the American Indian community, which is absolutely horrific. It's like a third world country on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

 

Drug abuse has destroyed so many lives and ruined so many acting and musical careers. How'd you get off drugs?

I was sitting in the front seat of a car with a very well-known Hollywood casting director doing lines of cocaine. I mean, drugs were part of the whole show business culture then, and if you refused to partake it could cost you, if you get my drift. Not that I wouldn't have done it anyway. I loved being high, but we wound up at a party and I got into an argument with another casting director who was casting one of the biggest shows on television, and he had promised me he would have me read for a part but never did. He was in a particularly ugly mood that night and he insulted me, so I was ready to flatten him. People pulled me out of the party and I was cursing and screaming. I was really worked up. I started getting a really bad nose bleed from all the coke. I remember all the celebrities standing out on the lawn looking at me in horror. I never used cocaine again.


Composing


What's your process for composing?

Basically I write by ear. I hear the melody or experiment with different sounds or chords and find the melodic theme I want to use and expand on that. For instance, when I composed the soundtrack for my first feature film, Dysphoria: An American Tragedy, I sometimes layered multiple melodic lines on top of one another to give the music a richness and texture that sound on sound will bring to it. Other times, I use a single instrument. For the girl who plays the daughter, I created a simple five-note piano theme that plays softly in the background whenever her character appears, except for the ending after she has made a life-altering decision.

 

Do you have a favorite composer?

Oh, there are so many I adore, but if I was forced to pick one, I guess I would have to say Bernard Herman. He wrote the score of many Hitchcock films and they made those films so much more of an intimate experience for me. Herman was a perfectionist and it shows in his work. He could take a theme and really develop it into something with alternating tempos and counterpoint harmonies. Also, Pino Donaggio, who did the soundtrack for Brian DePalma's Body Double; he comes so close to emulating Herman and even expanding on his sound. I should also mention Richard Band, who scored Re-Animator and can write music like Herman. I also love the music of Franz Waxman, who scored many of the old Universal horror films like The Bride of Frankenstein; Max Steiner, who scored the 1933 version of King Kong; and Jerry Goldsmith, Ennio Morricone, Thomas Newman, Danny Elfman — oh, I could go on and on.

 

If you want to thrive and survive, play live.

What was the best advice you ever received from a composer?

I still remember Jerry Goldsmith, whom I met at 20th Century Fox, explaining to me the importance of finding your main theme and then expanding upon it. He had just scored Alien and was grabbing a lot of headlines then. I went back to see that film many times to better understand what he had done with his theme, which was absolutely mesmerizing. He also did the same with Basic Instinct. His death was a terrible loss to the film industry.

 

Someone mentioned that your composition for Dysphoria was more of a classical piece.

That's very flattering. When I wrote it, I was actually inspired by Peter llyich Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. One in G minor. It is one of the most beautiful and haunting symphonies I have ever listened to. I was hoping to capture some of the richness of content, to merge a symphonic form of mine into an emotional mood piece that would capture the listener's attention, but some have told me that there isn't enough movement to make them happy.

 

How so?

It all goes back to theme. My theme for Dysphoria in the 4th Movement was simple and sparse, and I built on it slowly. Some folks complained that there wasn't enough movement. I love working within long, haunting, melodic motifs that can be expanded upon slowly and simply, enriched and layered.

 

I understand you have been speaking with an experienced composer to score a new thriller you've written.

Yes, I have been in discussions with Richard Band, whose work I greatly admire. He can write a score similar to Bernard Herman, and he can orchestrate as well as conduct a full orchestra, which he did for the soundtrack for Re-Animator with the Rome Philharmonic Orchestra. Until now I have done all my own scoring and I will do more in the future, but for my new thriller, I'm hoping Richard can do the score for me. Let's face it, he's a brilliant composer/conductor, and I think he would make the film that much better, just as Herman did for Hitchcock.

 

Have you ever worked with an orchestra?

I have and it was wonderful. It was a 52-piece string orchestra. I had them play the music first in a low octave and then play it again in an octave above what they had originally recorded it in. The result was spectacular. I merged the two octaves and it created something magical and amazing; it was my first classical piece and I am very proud of it. I hope to one day record a song with a full orchestra.

I've also worked with horn sections. When I recorded "I'm in Love Again" for Crescendo, Neil Norman, who was producing with me, brought in some horn players and I immediately knew the sound I wanted to hear. Over the next couple of hours, we worked it out and recorded it the next night. It came out superb, and I hope to release that song on my next CD.

 

Any advice for young people trying to break into the business?

Be nice. Always be nice. And be professional. Show up on time and act like you care. It also helps if you have talent, and that's something that only comes from the Creator. But work hard with what you've been given. I've known artists with little talent who worked very hard over the years and made some pretty decent music. Also, if you want to thrive and survive, play live. Play clubs, parties, and find an opportunity to open for a name act on tour somehow. This is a people business. If people like you and you have talent, then the sky is the limit.


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