Gary Shea: The venerable veteran rocks on and on

From New England to Alcatrazz, to his newest project. Second Hand Smoke, Gary Shea has always heard the deep, trebly rumble of bass at the bottom of a groove as an instinctive language. In an incredible career currently spanning four-plus decades, Gary Shea’s bass playing has always been consistently rhythmic, inventive and textbook solid. With the band New England, he recorded three albums for the Infinity/MCA label, landed in the Top 30 and toured all over North America. After that, as a member of the uber-talented Alcatrazz, he went on to further international fame and earned a couple of gold platters on the journey. He has worked with some of rock’s greatest names, traveled the world and things are just getting started.

J.M.: Gary, thanks so much for taking some time, a lot of fans out there want to know stuff.

 G.S.: Thanks for your interest Jonas, it’s a pleasure to talk to you.

J.M.: And so, as all good tales begin…

You grew up in Southington, Connecticut. What are some of your earliest memories of a song or an album freaking you out in that good way?

G.S.: There was always music in my house. My grandfather Henry Schuster played piano for Rudy Valee back in the 1920`s and my dad had an extensive record collection. I used to stay up late at night as a kid with my transistor radio under the covers, listening to all the music from Motown, The Beach Boys, The Ventures, Gene Pitney, etc. Two of my earliest favorite songs are ’The Girl from Ipanema’ sung by Astrud Gilberto, and ‘Fingertips Pt 1.’ by Stevie Wonder. Both songs made me want to dance. A short time later The Who’s, ‘My Generation’ really did it for me. Songs like that and ‘I can See For Miles’ were a full on sonic assault at the time, and to me, the beginning of Heavy Metal.

J.M.: I agree, and punk too. Did you know you wanted to play music at a young age?

G.S.: Yes, I wanted to play drums at 5 yrs old. My dad showed me flams and parradidles with his parade sticks from his Boy Scout Fife and Drum Corp. But he had been a Navy anti aircraft gunner in WWII and he didn’t want the noise. I had to wait until I was old enough to get a job to buy my first guitar.

J.M.: Who were some of your earliest musical influences and who moved you to follow your heart and take it to the big stage?

G.S.: I was intrigued by the amount of music The Beatles could create on guitars and I also loved The Yardbirds and The Kinks. A friend had a guitar laying around and I decided to learn some chords and take lessons. A major influence was my first guitar teacher, Bob Marcucci. I am left-handed and when he suggested I play righty, I thought he was crazy. He made the case that since I was a beginner, it would be easier in the long run not to have to buy left handed instruments or play upside down. It is beneficial to me now because I have more strength in my left hand, which is great for holding down the bass strings. Another great influence was my high school principal who threw me out of school 22 times for dress code violations. I told him I was going to play Madison Square Garden despite what he thought. About 10 years later, I played MSG.

J.M.: Yes, I was there, it was awesome. So, like the great Chris Squire of YES, you played guitar first but made the switch to bass while still in your teens. You also have a personal motto, ‘No Bass, No Party.’ What is it that continually drives you to the bottomof it all?

G.S.: I always tell people to listen to music on the radio and roll off all the bass. What you’re left with is a very tiny and thin sound. To me bass is warm and moves you, kind of like a big bear hug. It makes you move, tap your feet, and groove. Hence my, ‘No Bass No Party’ credo.

J.M.: Do you play any other instruments well?

G.S.: I play some guitar, tenor and baritone ukelele.

J.M.: How would you explain your approach to writing parts that will best serve a song?

G.S.: The first parameter is the chord progression and knowing what the bass can play within that framework, when to lay back and then when to go for it. The second and other big challenge is to mirror the drum parts, locking in with the kick drum, and making every beat count.

J.M.: I’ve had the good fortune to interview John Fannon and Hirsh Gardner, of New England. You’re rounding out the field, thank you my friend for being grist for the mill. How did New England first come together?

G.S.: That’s a long story. The short version is that Jimmy Waldo came to Boston in the early 70`s with a progressive rock group from North Carolina called Fatback. Eventually Hirsh, John, and myself, replaced the other members. The band played all over the North East and the Midwest under the names Fatback, Jack, and Target. The band broke up for a couple of years and John and Hirsh got back together to work on John’s new songs. Soon after, Jimmy came in to add keyboards. They couldn’t find the right bass player so they asked me to return to Boston from L.A. and I did. We rehearsed for almost 3 years not playing live, but choosing to record at a studio in Philadelphia, which was owned by a friend of John’s. We chose the name New England to describe our English/American sound, while knowing that any band picking that name had better be really good.

J.M.: On those records, you play some really beautiful melodic runs on songs like ‘Alone Tonight’ and ‘Livin’ In The Eighties.’ You also lay in some great harmonic phrases on ‘Shoot’ and ‘Walking Wild’, among others. Would you say those are some examples of writing and playing ‘for the song’?

G.S.: Thank you for the kind compliment. Yes, those are some good examples. I like to go home and try and to write several different bass parts for a new song. We pick from those ideas. It’s about enhancing the melody of vocal parts and adding a strong beat to drive other instruments. It’s also a compliment to John’s song writing that he wrote some great tunes and never repeated himself.

J.M.: You then helped form Alcatrazz, naming the band and bringing New England band-mate, keyboardist Jimmy Waldo along. There must have been a certain dynamic you had with Jimmy that you knew would serve the new band. Can you tell us a bit about that?

G.S.: When I got the call about playing with Graham Bonnet, Jimmy was living just down the street from me in L.A. We were both looking around for gigs after the Vinny Vincent project broke up and I suggested Jimmy. He and I have a long background of mischief and we both think alike musically. Jimmy knows how to play with guitarists. Unlike some keyboardists who make bands sound wimpy. Jimmy is just the opposite. He knows when to lay back and when to throw in the kitchen sink. There were times when he would play organ foot pedals and play a left hand Mini Moog bass part, while I played bass and played my Moog Taurus bass pedals. We had some serious low end going on, long before the detuned 5 string basses came in vogue.

J.M.: In Alcatrazz, you also worked with Yngwie Malmsteen and Steve Vai. Those cats are way above the average human level of musical ability, to put it subtly. Is it intimidating to create and perform with such uniquely talented musicians?

G.S.: Rewarding and hard work yes, but not necessarily intimidating. We were all on the same page. Each with our own prior successes, and had a blast playing our music around the world.

J.M.: And is it equally gratifying to be considered a peer by those same musicians?

G.S.: Yes, it’s very humbling and I consider myself very lucky.

J.M.: The North Ridge earthquake literally rocked many people’s worlds and you relocated your family to Michigan afterwards. Did you lose any treasured gear in the hell that was?

G.S.: The funny thing is that we lost more items from the moving company than we did from the earthquake. All three babies and 14 basses arrived safely, but I lost my favorite Sony tape deck and some other items during the move.

J.M.: And did you listen to your wife back when she told you to insure it? Sorry, moving on… Tell us about your current project, Second Hand Smoke. Who else is in the band and can we look forward to an album and possible tour?

G.S.: SECOND HAND SMOKE are based in Detroit, which has a very healthy music scene. A year ago, I set out to find some musicians that could help me level buildings and stir up some dust. I found just the guys I was looking for in guitarist Jamie Waggener and drummer Mark Chudy. Jamie toured Japan with the rock funk group, Cheribum, and he rips on guitar with a heavy blend of past and modern styles.  Mark, who toured Europe with Shock Therapy, keeps up the high energy with his flashy drumming and intensity. We have just started playing live around town and the reaction has been extremely good. Meanwhile we are working on new material with plans for a CD in the near future.

J.M.: In your career, you’ve also played with Vinny Vincent, (when he was still Vinny Cusano), Graham Bonnet, John Hyde, Herman Rarebell, Jan Uvena, etc, etc.  You’re dedication is evident and you’ve created an inspiring body of musical work that endures. Can you attribute such a stellar ride to any one idea or personal belief?

G.S.: I always say, “Think BIG and never take no for an answer”. You have to follow your dream and stick with it through thick and thin. Nothing comes easy but if you do the homework and keep a great attitude things will come your way.

J.M.: Okay, your All-Time Dream Band.

Bass guitar: Gary Shea. ...


Guitars: Andre Segovia

Drums: Buddy Rich

Vocals: Luciiano Pavarotti

Keyboards J.S. Bach

J.M.: Now that’s a grouping. Who are some of artists that you’re really into these days?

G.S.: I listen to a lot of jazz, everyone from Stan Getz to Diana Krall, Pat Metheny, Gypsy Kings. I also dig rock bands like Buck Cherry, The Flower Kings, and artists like Adele.

J.M.: Can you leave us with some words of wisdom, something you know that works, if you would?

G.S.: Winston Churchill said it best; “There is nothing to fear but fear itself.” It’s not 100 % about talent. You also need a dash of guts and a big helping of determination.

J.M.: Well Gary, I am truly grateful to you for taking this time. Cheers and much continued success to you.

G.S.: Thank you Jonas, it’s been great talking to you too. Thanks so much for your support, hope to see you down the road soon and all the best!.

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