John Ford Coley
Monday August 20, 2018
Interviewed by: Joseph Suto
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John Ford Coley is best known as one-half of England Dan and John Ford Coley. The duo amassed six top-40 hits with four of those cracking the top-10. In 1976 their biggest hit “I’d Really Love To See You Tonight” peaked at #2 held off the top spot by Wild Cherry’s “Play That Funky Music”. “England: Dan Seals went off to enjoy a successful career in Country Music before passing away in 2009. John Ford Coley also dabbled in acting, producing among other things before resuming active touring which continues today. These days you’ll find Coley out doing on average 50 shows a year. He touches down at the Riviera Theatre on September 8 as part of a double bill that also features Greg Kihn.
Rock Show Critique: We’ll start off with a little bit about the past.
John Ford Coley: I don’t have a past.
RSC: (laughs) It’s only future, right?
JFC: The only thing for me is present and future.
Rock Show Critique: Obviously the music business has totally changed from the way it was when you first started out. Going back to the 70s, what was it like watching your songs climb the charts, since you had a bunch of songs that did really well for you? How did you enjoy that process?
John Ford Coley: Well, you’re absolutely right about the industry changing. From what it was then, and what it is now is light years apart. There was an opportunity back then, in that time the pressure was a lot lower. There was a lot more people that were willing to give other people a chance to get into the industry. And it was based about songs pretty much. It wasn’t so much personality. It was if you had a good song, it didn’t really didn’t make any difference whether you were photogenic, or ugly, or pretty or whatever. It was based on the music. Now it’s not based on the music as much. It’s based on the way you look, what you can generate. And so watching a song climb up the charts, I mean then that was really exciting because first of all we didn’t expect it. We weren’t planning on ever trying to be stars, per se, we just wanted to be musicians and be able to go out and play and provide for our families and stuff. So, yeah, it was really thrilling when it finally did happen because we’d been around so many people that we had turned into friends that we toured with like Elton John, or Bread, or Three Dog Night, guys like that who were saying, “Man it’s going to happen for you. Don’t worry. It will happen.” So eventually it did. So it was nice to have the confirmation of those other people.
RSC: You guys wrote a lot of songs, but a lot of the bigger hits seemed to be covers or other people had written them. How were those songs presented to you? And how did you go about choosing to record those specific songs?
John Ford Coley: The songs that were given to us that we ended up recording like “I’d Really Love to See You Tonight”, or “Love is the Answer”, things like that, that was brought to us by other people. For the sake of illustration, when they brought us “I’d Really Love to See You Tonight”, we didn’t want to do that song, we only wanted to do the songs that we had written, and that we were close to. The unfortunate thing is that I think of all the songs that we had written, so far they had generated about $1.90 worth of sales, so when they brought it to us we thought, “Man, that’s a woman’s song. We don’t really want to do it that way.” They said, “No, try it. Try it. Just do it, and we can discuss all of that later.” So we did, and son of a gun, it took off the way that it did. The guy that wrote the song was Parker McGee, and I found myself at that point going, “Hey, Parker, buddy, what else you got?” It was kind of a quick change when you recognized that there were other people that could actually write things that were going to get presented on the radio. Then you realized just how mercenary you can become. I love it when people say “Well I won’t compromise my music. I won’t this, I won’t that.” And you look at them now and go, “I was one of those.” You look at them and go, “Yeah, okay.”
RSC: The recording processes have changed a lot over the years. Do you try to stick close to vest like the way you originally recorded songs, or do you welcome and embrace the newer technology? How does that all work for you?
John Ford Coley: Well I think that you end up having to embrace the new technology, or it’s going to out-class you and out-pass you by. I recorded a brand new CD, called Eclectic; it’s got 26 brand new songs on it. But we actually did this one not-standard, and not anything that we had done before. It was going to pretty much going to be an acoustic record. And we decided to add instruments on about 12 or 13 of the songs. And so as a result, as opposed to going in and recording the song straight down with the band, or just acoustic, I went in and recorded everything vocally, and guitar, and piano first. Everything else was built around that. That was pretty interesting. I look at some of the new songs and how they ended up, going my goodness, how in the world did you get from that point to this point? I mean there’s one song called Cottonmouth Grove that every time that I listen to it I still go, “How did we do that?” I don’t even remember how it was done. It was just all of a sudden it takes on a life form of its own, and you just kind of sit there and marvel with it, but you go with it. So it wasn’t done in the traditional way where we sit down with the band and we present everything. The band was an afterthought.
RSC: Obviously if you had a crystal ball three decades ago, would you ever think that the music business would turn out like the way it has right now?
John Ford Coley: I wouldn’t think the world would have turned out the way that it has. I mean, gosh, it’s insane. The drama now … I can say this because I don’t care, the people that have gotten into the music industry, man I know more about foot surgery than these people know about music. They’re concerned with selling something. They don’t care whether it happens to be pool tables or lawn chairs, the songs are selling something. So they don’t really care about music. That, to me, has been the hardest part. I think probably the last person that I was in the industry with that actually cared about music was Herb Albert. And that’s been a long, long time ago. Now it’s, again, people are not trying to be musicians. They’re trying to be stars. The things like American Idol and The Voice, and things of that nature have completely rearranged what people think about music. When you go into a Guitar Center, for the sake of illustration, you realize that they’re going bankrupt, they’re going out of business. The reason why is because they’re not selling guitars, they’re selling microphones because everybody just wants to stand up and be noticed as opposed to being something that is creating something worthwhile. That’s my take on it.
RSC: Well, you currently are out on the road. You’re going to be here in North Tonawanda coming up in a couple weeks here with Greg Kihn Band. What can we expect from you for that show? Will you being doing that as an acoustic solo, or will you actually use a backup band for that?
John Ford Coley: You know, I don’t know. By and large, unless I go out with somebody like an Ambrosia, or Orleans, we don’t really have a backup band. I mean I’ve always played acoustically solo, and which is something that I truly enjoy doing, because you have an opportunity to talk to the audience. You can tell stories, and joke, and laugh, and kind of play songs in a more intimate way. And so, for me, everybody wants to go down memory lane. And that’s pretty much where I go with it. Occasionally, I’ll play some new songs. We just play music that kind of brings people back into the past, no politics, no religion, no anything that’s going to be controversial or divisive. We’re just there to play music and kind of make people laugh.
RSC: How many shows do you usually do a year, roughly? What does it average out to be?
John Ford Coley: I know we play about 50 dates a year. That’s kind of conservative; sometimes I’ll play a little bit less, sometimes maybe a little bit more. I really enjoy going out maybe three times a month, so I’m not gone every weekend, you have an opportunity to kind of spend time and do things … We’re not going out and doing the six weeks, two month tours any more, thank God. Because those things were killer. They were killer.
RSC: Yeah those are grueling from what I hear. Some of these bands even went out longer than that.
John Ford Coley: Oh yeah, some of them go two months, three months. And then you say well, gosh, I can’t quite understand why those guys all hate one another and won’t play together (laughing). It’s because we got sick and tired and wanted to kill one another while we were out there. I understand how that works.
RSC: Yeah I can imagine.
John Ford Coley: That was why I enjoyed being on film sets so much, because when you go out with a band, about the first three days you discuss everything that you know, everybody’s told every joke that they know, every story that they know, and then you’re sitting there going, what do you wanna talk about? Well nobody reads so as a result, they can talk about what was in People Magazine, that’s about the extent of it. If people don’t want to talk to me about music, I’d just as soon talk about clipping fingernails, it’s that boring to me. I read a lot and studied all kinds of medicine. Then when you go into the film industry you’ve always got day players coming in so you’ve got someone new all the time coming in. They’ve always got a new joke or a new couple of jokes, they’ve got new stories, so you’re always being entertained all the time. And, I mean, that was really enjoyable.
RSC: You did quite a bit of acting I guess. How did you end up getting involved in the acting?
John Ford Coley: You know, it was a complete fluke (laughing). A friend of mine was a guy by the name of Alex Rocco. Alex had been the guy that was in The Godfather and had been, he played Moe Green and he’s on the table, at the end he gets shot in the eye on the massage table. And so we were friends, and then his step son wanted to be a director so they ended up doing the film, called Scenes From the Goldmine so he calls in all the favors that he knows, and says, “Hey, John, we got this thing, my son’s doing it, would you be in it?” And I’m like “Well, heck yeah, I mean sure.” So then it was in that, you know, Charles Manson or Helter Skelter and they ended up getting Timothy B. Schmit to play the drums, so it all ends up being kind of like that and they go, “By the way you’ve got to play drums because you’re the drummer in the band.” And I went “Okay.” And so they did the songs and we sang the songs and then I sat down for about two months learning the drum parts for all of these songs, and what was really funny about it was I would learn the songs from the top to the bottom. We get in to do the filming and we’re setting up ready to go and they said, “Okay, this is the shot we’re going to start on the second half of the second course.” And I’m going, “What? Whoa. Why?” And it’s second verse, second chorus, second half, going, “Man, you’ve got to play this thing down from the top. Play it down then I can figure out what I do on that part. Down from the very top.” (laughing) So it was quite an experience, but I mean the acting thing, I just fell into it, because they started just kind of feeding me lines because I would ad lib so much and so they would end up just giving me more lines all the time. So it was really a lot of fun. I did two films with with Mark Rocco, called Dream a Little Dream and Scenes from the Goldmine. I get to throw Corey Feldman down the stairs. It was great.
RSC: I’m just going to leave you with one question here, because it looks like we’re just about done with the questions almost (laughs). So you’ve played a lot of shows over the years obviously and everything, is there any concert that you played or performance that really stands out per se like maybe size of the crowd or special meaning or anything, or a special venue that you played? Was there anything, what stands out for you looking back?
John Ford Coley: I think the first one that really got me was Elton John took us to England for a month and we opened for him over there and the first concert, the reaction that we got, and Elton came out and introduced us and just stated the subject of great intro, and just the response from the people and how they would clap over their heads. I remember I got so choked up because I felt like we were being accepted, that it was kind of shocking to me.
And then the second one was I was in the Philippines the first time playing and they had asked me to play certain songs because those certain songs had been major hits over there, and a couple of them were songs that I’d never played before although we had recorded them, just never played them because they weren’t popular here at all. They were huge there. And so there was a song called “Just Tell Me You Love Me” from the film Just Tell Me You Love Me that Dan and I had done some music on. This song was written by Carol Connors and Dick Halligan. Dick Halligan had been the trumpet player in Blood, Sweat and Tears. So I’m playing this song, all of a sudden the audience is singing that song louder than I am and I was in such shock and I’m a pretty spontaneous, you know, I’ll cut right through it kind of guy. I was so shocked that I stopped playing and I stepped back from the keyboard and just looked at everyone and said, “How do you know this song?” But then to find out every school child in Asia knows that song. You go over there and I’ll say, they go “John Ford Coley,” and I go, “Yeah, do you know the song I’d Really Love to See You Tonight?” and they go, “Oh, oh yes, yes,” and then I go, “Remember the song Just Tell me You Love Me?” “Oh, yes! We know that!” That’s amazing and that is so inspiring. So I mean it didn’t mean anything here at all. The movie was a flop. So it was really gratifying to have those kinds of experiences. I took my wife with me one time to the Philippines and we went over to Malaysia and we went to Malaysia first. And I said, “I can’t explain this to you, but they’re gonna be singing these songs louder than I am.” And when she heard them singing she was like, “You’ve got to be kidding.” So that really sticks out. That’s a very highlight in my life.
RSC: Now do you still play that song over here at all or do people still not really know that song over here?
John Ford Coley: They don’t know what it is. But over there, yeah. I play it all the time.