An Insider's Chronicle of the Orleans Journey
(as told by Larry Hoppen)
The phone rang in January of 1972. It was Wells Kelly.
Wells had recently left our Ithaca, NY-based band, “Boffalongo”, in favor of playing with John Hall in Woodstock, NY. I had absolutely no clue where that phone call --- an invitation to join him and John --- would lead. More than 33 years later (33 & 1/3 to be more accurate) here I am, writing about Orleans --- the band that grew out of that simple but fateful call --- as we release our brand new studio album, “Dancin’ in the Moonlight”, in 2005!
(For the complete “full-circle” nature of the relationship between Boffalongo, Orleans and the song, “Dancin’ in the Moonlight”, click here)
Wells, John and I began Orleans as a trio in February of ’72. John had a new home in Woodstock, having left New York City with his lyricist/wife Johanna for a calmer, prettier and less theft-prone atmosphere. The new start had been enabled by their recent songwriting success --- Janis Joplin had cut “Half Moon”, which not only found a place on her “Pearl” album, it became the “B” side of “Me and Bobby McGee”. (that could put a nice down payment on a house).
Wells and I also moved to Woodstock and began writing, rehearsing and playing a lot of original songs --- mostly from John and Johanna --- with some favorite “cover” tunes thrown into the mix. Many of these covers were Memphis R&B and New Orleans-influenced (Meters, Alan Toussaint, etc.) Hence the name, “Orleans”. We became notorious for switching instruments in the trio format, each of us bouncing from guitar to bass to drums to keyboards, often several times a set. After nine months of that we were ready to add a fourth element to this musical equation. But whom?
The band continued to play lots of gigs – nightclubs and colleges all over New York State, the Northeast, the Eastern seaboard. We were hungry to record, get an album out and get in the game of the larger music business. We sought out a lawyer, found management and showcased long and hard in Manhattan to land a recording deal.
I had been playing a lot of fretless bass and not as much guitar or keyboards as I wanted to. My brother, Lance, had just graduated high school and was already a fine bass player and singer. We had him come up from Long Island to audition and he’s been with Orleans ever since. With this addition, the Orleans vocal identity and double guitar trademarks began to evolve.
The band continued to play lots of gigs --- nightclubs and colleges all over New York State, the Northeast, the Eastern seaboard ... Hungry to record, put an album out and get in the game of the larger music business, we sought out a lawyer, found management and showcased long and hard in Manhattan to land a recording deal.
In the summer of 1973 we secured our first recording contract and made the first Orleans album --- the ‘burlap’ covered LP* --- in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. We were thrilled to work in this legendary studio with two of its icons-in-residence --- Roger Hawkins and Barry Beckett --- as Producers. The 11 tracks took about two and a half weeks from first session to final mix (a mere wink of an eye by today’s standards).
(*note: for all you youngsters out there, “LP” means “Long Playing” disc; a 33 1/3 speed vinyl record. That was way before anyone had ever heard of a “CD”)
By the fall of ‘73 our debut album was released on ABC Records, at the same time as the first Steely Dan and Rufus (Chaka Khan) albums. The reviews were very good and our fans loved it. ABC put out a single of “Please Be There” but did not get it to chart. I think they followed that with a single of “If”, which also went largely unnoticed by radio. Oh, well …
The band continued to write, rehearse and play dates, all the time looking forward to making another album. In 1974, armed with brand new songs (including “Dance With Me” and “Let There Be Music”) we decided to produce ourselves and stay local, recording at Bearsville Studios. We submitted the album, but ABC’s ears said they “didn’t hear any hits” and dropped us from the label’s roster.
Showcasing commenced once again in New York City in order to get another home for our recording efforts. The last set of the last of 7 nights at Max’s Kansas City in lower Manhattan, a Producer from Los Angeles – Chuck Plotkin, head of A&R for David Geffen’s Asylum Records – came. He liked what he heard and saw.
Chuck got us signed to Asylum to make a new album, including re-recorded versions of both “Dance With Me” and “Let There Be Music”. A genuine music fan and a student of song structure, Chuck taught us a lot about writing and arranging our tunes. We all got on well in the L.A. Elektra studio and, in early 1975, we released the LP “Let There Be Music”.
The title song was our first chart single, breaking into the Top 40. When it peaked in the high 30s, “Dance With Me” was released. In a matter of weeks it was on the fast track up the charts! We had established our first serious national radio presence! Based on the soft-rock sound of that atypical (for us at that time) recording, we were booked on a tour of the USA opening to Melissa Manchester. We hit the road in our first tour bus as “Dance With Me” continued to make its way to #6 in Billboard.
Because John, Wells and I we were always writing new songs no matter what else was going on, we always had lots more songs than could ever fit on whatever album was being recorded. Because we each considered ourselves to be singers, we wanted to sing the songs we each wrote. As we looked to make a follow-up album that would build on the success of “Dance With Me” and the “Let There Be Music” album, slow-brewing tension regarding the importance of certain songs and who was going to be represented as writer and/or singer began surfacing to an extent we could not ignore.
We went into 1976 knowing that we would be making that follow-up LP in Los Angeles with Chuck. Prior to those sessions we added a new band member – a very young and as-yet undiscovered Jerry Marotta on drums and percussion - to support Wells’ rhythms and to satisfy Wells’ desire to play more keyboards out front. We were now being managed by some very powerful and respected Hollywood heavyweights and were excited about the prospects for our careers. We had more than enough strong songs and wound up recording several extra songs beyond what we could put on the album.
Orleans’ “Waking and Dreaming” album was the result of those 1976 sessions. Cameos by Linda Ronstadt, Michael Brecker and Blue Mitchell added to our 5-piece unit. The cover was a striking and, at the time, controversial naked-from-the-waist-up shot (not our idea) which has since shown up on the Internet as one of the “10 Worst Album Covers of All Time.”
There’s no such thing as bad press, right?
We considered several contenders for first singles, but the stand-out favorite was “Still The One”, which came out in August of ’76. “Still The One” quickly burned up the charts that autumn as we toured the country, this time opening to label-mate Jackson Browne, an artist whose music we all admired and loved. Sometime in October, “Still The One” peaked at #2, missing the top slot only because of the popularity of “Disco Duck”. Sad, but true!
That tour went for 10 weeks, ending sometime in November. We had a great run with Jackson (who, on this tour, captured the tracks for his “Running On Empty” live album the following year). We were set to do a short tour of the Northwest with Tower of Power immediately after, but I had sprained my left index finger catching (or rather, NOT catching) a football after the last Jackson gig and couldn’t continue. So, we all went back to Woodstock for the Holidays. We’d had a great year!
Shortly after New Year’s Day, the ABC TV Network began running a promo campaign using “Still The One” as their theme song. I personally was surprised at how little time had passed between the song being at the top of the charts and the beginning of the ABC campaign but, of course, what’s not to like about that? Having any song in front of millions of people every day is great promotion, even though we may not be the ones singing that particular version. Who knew that campaign would last as long as 2 ½ years in some parts of the country, truly cementing “Still The One” into the fabric of American pop consciousness?
John, Wells, Jerry, Lance and I began rehearsing in Woodstock, March of 1977, for upcoming dates we already had on the books. While we sounded fine on the new material brought in by all of us, there were still mounting tensions about what direction we’d go and how best to present ourselves live. One day, John suddenly announced that he was leaving the band to pursue a solo career!
Obviously, this decision had not been made on the spur of the moment, but with considered forethought and discussion with others. At the time of the announcement, it was already a foregone conclusion and one we all had no choice but to accept as “the new reality”.
This was a turbulent time for all of us. Orleans finished its contractual obligations. John went his way as did Jerry, who had no stake or long history with the band. Jerry landed on his feet with Hall & Oates and eventually went on to work with Peter Gabriel (among others). Wells, Lance and I were left with the question of how we would go forward both individually and collectively.
Eventually, in late 1977, Lance, Wells and I brought in our Ithaca friend Bob
Leinbach, former Boffalongo-mate and now a Woodstock neighbor, to play keys, trombone and sing. We also added R. A. Martin, a fabulous keyboardist/singer from L.A., who also played great French horn and tenor sax. We cut some new tune demos with the legendary house engineer for Steely Dan and Fleetwood Mac, Stuart “Dinky” Dawson (who had been mixing Orleans live before we disbanded). To this package we added home tapes of still more new tunes. Our lawyer found us management in New York and we went shopping for a new contract.
As it turned out, it was the home demo of “Love Takes Time” that became the deal-clincher with the newly formed MCA-owned firm, Infinity Records. We cut an album with famed Producer/Engineer Roy Cicala at the Record Plant in Manhattan in late1978 and eagerly anticipated its release. We very much wanted to continue to build on the momentum of “Dance With Me” and “Still The One” at radio, so we were thrilled when “Love Takes Time” was a hit ‘out of the box’ in early ‘79.
Concurrently, John had been working on the No Nukes project. In June 1979, he and M.U.S.E. (Musicians United for Safe Energy) headed by Bonnie Raitt, Jackson Browne, Graham Nash and John produced the highly successful No Nukes Concerts at Madison Square Garden and the live album that resulted from those concerts. It seemed that everyone was happy and succeeding at his respective chosen path.
But times got tough in the music business in ’79. Vinyl prices were rising with the price of oil! The 8-track was on its way out! The now widespread use of blank cassette tape to copy LPs had put a huge dent in record sales across the board. Labels were discarding employees like old shoes … and that included artists! Rosters were cut to the bone and deals were hard to come by. Only the strong survived!
Unfortunately for us, Infinity Records spent themselves out of existence. Now an “orphan” lost at MCA, we were required to deliver another album to them. Orleans’ self-titled follow-up LP to Infinity’s “Forever”, spearheaded by Wells, Lance and myself, was recorded in the winter of ‘79/’80 using a remote truck parked next to Wells’ guest cabin. Mixed by us at Trident Studios in London, England, it includes performances by Bob Leinbach and R.A.Martin as well as John Hall and Jerry Marotta on several tracks. So, we managed to bring all the alumni in up to that point on that LP, which was satisfying. It also marked the first appearance of youngest brother Lane Hoppen on anything Orleans. However, that LP is relatively scarce, most copies belonging to diehard collectors and/or serious Orleans fans. It yielded no hit singles and Orleans once again found itself without a label.
After finishing our 1980 tour schedule, Bob and R.A. went their separate ways. Under less than ideal circumstances, Wells left, too, leaving only Lance and I to carry on Orleans if we so decided. We did.
Orleans continued to tour through the early 1980s, playing gigs with a band that sometimes included on drums Ithaca resident and Wells’ protégé, Charlie Shew, sometimes Jerry Marotta, sometimes Nicholas Parker (brother to Chris and Eric). Our new guitarist was left-handed upside-down (Hendrix-style) player Dennis “Fly” Amero. Youngest brother Lane filled out the band on keyboards.
These were certainly not the “glory days”. We played a grueling schedule of club dates, week after week after week … Many of the clubs went under just after or just BEFORE we got there! During the depths of this serious US recession and through a new production /management team we had hired, we managed to land a record deal with a small new label called “Radio Records”, distributed through Atlantic Records.
The Orleans “One of a Kind” LP was cut in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, in the summer of ’82. The album included brand new band member Michael Mugrage, replacing Fly on guitar in a precipitous, producer-suggested change of personnel during the sessions. As much as I appreciate and respect Michael’s contributions, I sort of regret that decision on a personal level. Oh, well…It hardly mattered in the end, as the label folded roughly one month after the release of this new album. Diehard fans have this LP and call it “the snowflake album” because of its cover art.
By this time, John had cut a couple of solo LPs, then formed the John Hall Band, making a couple of albums with that group which included Boffalongo and Orleans alumnus Bob Leinbach! (see how intertwined this all is?) They had some radio success with a song called “Crazy” and got some good video rotation on the then-new MTV. The John Hall Band opened to Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band on a national tour.
The paths of Orleans and John continued to be pretty much parallel until we all got a phone call on October 29, 1984.
At about 8:30 that morning as I was about to begin the day’s work building a new deck outside my home, the phone rang. It was a very good friend of mine calling to tell me that Wells Kelly had died in England the night before. As my friend was a chronic practical joker I thought he was kidding, putting me on. But he wasn’t.
Wells had been on tour with Meat Loaf and, on a night off, there was a big party in London. Never particularly known for moderation, Wells had ingested too much of too many things and fell victim to it, very much like John Belushi had a few years earlier.
We were all stunned, shocked and sad about this tragedy. To everyone who knew him, the loss of Wells hurt badly and it hit home. What a waste! Here was a fellow musician, friend, father and husband. He was 34, vital, handsome, funny, fabulously talented … but that night he simply made some terrible choices and went over the line. It could have happened to any of us.
I remember going for a walk with Bob Leinbach and John Hall to talk about it. Although I had not spent much time with John in the preceding 7 years, we quickly agreed to perform together when we were invited to a memorial party for Wells in Ithaca, where his parents and other family still lived. (Lance was unable to attend).
That occasion was truly special on many levels. One of the things we quickly realized was, that even though we’d not sung and played together for quite a while, we still sounded really good and enjoyed each other on stage immensely. The chemistry was very much still there between John and me. In a way, it was Well’s death that provided the catalyst for some healing between us and opened the door to new beginnings. Thank you, Wells!
Meanwhile, there had been some interest from MCA in Nashville expressed to Johanna Hall about Orleans making an album there with Tony Brown. Tony, who is today one of the icons of the Nashville music industry, was a veteran of Elvis’ band and an upcoming producer under country label mogul Jimmy Bowen’s guidance. John, Lance and I decided to pursue this possibility. We started going through our songs, making new demos of the ones we liked best at John’s studio in Saugerties, NY, spending a lot of time as a group in Nashville.
The resulting album was the pop/country hybrid, “Grown Up Children”, released in 1986. It contains cool cameos by Ricky Skaggs, Chet Atkins, Bela Fleck, Steve Wariner … and it featured some of Nashville’s finest musicians on the tracks, including the late, great Larrie London on drums. One song conspicuously absent (to us) was “Juliet”, a tune that John had helped me finish writing. We had high hopes for it but Mr. Bowen decided that our label mates, The Oak Ridge Boys, should record it instead of Orleans. Hmmm…. They did and had a big hit with it. Meanwhile, our album got very little airplay. It was too pop for country radio and too country for pop radio, I guess. But, as always, our fans liked it (if and when they could find it).
By 1988 we realized that, while Nashville was a great place for us as songwriters, it was not so accommodating to Orleans’ career as a band. We decided to relocate the center of our activities back to Woodstock and return to our musical roots in rock and pop. We also started working with Peter O’Brien on drums, a NY City boy who’d moved up to the country, befriended by John. We also continued to work with Bob Leinbach, still living in Connecticut, who had been a part of the live band’s reformation even through the Nashville period.
We slowly re-established our presence in the Northeast over the next couple of years, even as Lance decided to take up permanent residence in Nashville in ‘89. In 1990 our close friend Robbie Dupree approached us with his new partners in a Japanese recording venture. Their idea was for Orleans, after 18 years as a touring band, to make a live album. We loved it!
The plan called for a two-night concert on a weekend in early October at the local and beautiful Bearsville Theatre. We’d added local multi-instrumentalist Paul Branin (tenor sax and hot guitar) and planned to invite some special guests to perform with us: the late great Rob Leon, John Sebastion, Jonell Mosser. The peak fall foliage would be breathtaking. We’d invite anyone who’d ever had anything to do with Orleans’ work over the years. We’d play the same long show each night to have alternate versions of all songs from which to pick the best performances.
That weekend was everything we had hoped and planned for. Friends we had not seen in 15 years were there. The weather was postcard perfect. We had two nights of great shows and tons of fun, winding up with a motherlode of music “in the can”. We worked on the mixes as Robbie and his partners worked on the package and release details for Japan.
The double “Orleans LIVE” CD set came out in Japan in February of 1991, followed in April by our first trip to perform in Japan. We had a terrific and memorable time playing Tokyo, Nagoya and Osaka, meeting many Japanese fans and industry people while eating as much sushi as possible! 1993 saw the American release of “Orleans LIVE: Volume 1”, our own single CD version and the first release on our very own “MAJOR Record Label”. Essentially, this is our “Greatest Hits Live” collection.
Still without a ‘traditional’ label in the USA, we went ahead and recorded a new album – “Analog Men” - for the Japanese label. It came out there in ’94 and was followed by our return to Japan for more shows. Later that year, we played at Woodstock ’94, which was literally in our backyard of Saugerties. Our slot as the last “local” act AND the first International act, was luckily on the first day, when the weather was still sunny and dry. We went on just before Blues Traveler, which, at the time, was a new band. Playing for 350,000 people is quite the unique experience!
The following year found us touring as an acoustic trio. While most of the venues were small listening clubs (very nice format, by the way) the real highlight of ’95 was being out on the “Can’t Stop Rockin’“ tour with Fleetwood Mac, REO Speedwagon and Pat Benatar, opening the shows in that acoustic trio form.
Slowly but surely, we continued to write and record new material. We were writing more and more together as a group and trying different combinations of writing partners. Recorded at John’s Saugerties studio once again and released through an
independent label out of New Orleans, the “Ride” album emerged in the summer of 1996. Ride included just a couple of reworkings of the best and still unheard-in-the-US tunes from Analog Men. The single “I Am On Your Side” began to make its way up the charts quite well, but the label proved inexperienced and it folded shortly afterward. Oh, well …
Orleans, never being ones to quit, continued on, but a lot of wind had been taken out of our collective sails. In late 1997, we decided to take a break. Time went by. John was spending a lot more of his in Nashville. Lance was doing sessions and touring with various Nashville-based artists. I moved my family toFlorida in 2000. All three of us were pursuing various musical and personal projects.
In summer 2001, nearly four years after our last gig, John called and asked if we wanted to play Opus 40 as Orleans. Opus 40 is a unique spot in Saugerties, a natural amphitheatre surrounding a bluestone sculpture which artist Harvey Fite had built over a 4-decade time period. It is an idyllic setting where we had played most every Labor Day weekend since the early 1980s. It sounded like as good a way asany to maybe ‘get back on the horse’, so we went for it.
It was a huge success! A real winner! The weather was perfect, the music was magic and the crowd was the largest we’d ever had there. We were all excited by the evidence that we’d “still got it” after nearly 30 years!
That day we decided to go forward together once again, this time with our friend and colleague Phil Mayo as manager. Wanting to put out another product that was meaningful to our fans, we compiled the “Still The One LIVE 30th Anniversary Retrospective” CD from our own personal archives. It chronicles from 1973 to 2002 through some of our favorite recordings of Orleans in concert … plus the photos that go with them. We added one studio cut previously unreleased in the USA, a favorite of mine and a Christmas song “New Star Shining”.
In 2003 we decided things weren’t moving fast enough, so we changed managers yet again to Jake Hooker in Malibu, CA. We also began to work with world-class drummer Charlie Morgan, who had been (among many other things) Elton John’s drummer from 1984-‘98. Youngest Hoppen brother Lane also became a regular band member again.
As 2004 opened we began to plan a new studio album. This would be our first since the barely noticed “Ride” CD. Armed with a bunch of good, new songs and the best from that last studio project, we recorded the new tracks in May and June 2004 at Charlie Morgan’s Thynne Man Studios, then mixed the new tracks with John Marsden and mastered them all with Bob Olhsson in early 2005.
Now near the end of ’05, as we build our brand new website, plan to proudly participate in a PBS Concert in 2006 and offer to YOU, our fans, this new album called “Dancin’ in the Moonlight” it is simultaneously an ironic surprise and more than satisfying to us that, after 33+ years as Orleans, We’re Still Havin’ Fun!
And the story continues ...