John Ford Coley – Interview

As an avid fan of 70s music it was my pleasure to speak with singer-songwriter and musician, John Ford Coley, who was half of the 1970s musical group England Dan and John Ford Coley. The duo had four top ten hits, including “I’d Really Love to See you Tonight,” two top twenty hits, and were nominated for a Grammy Award, before parting ways in 1980. Over the past four decades John Ford Coley has continued to write music and to perform, frequently touring with musicians from various 70s and 80s musical groups. He’s currently performing as part of “Rock the Dock,” a concert featuring several original artists playing some of the most memorable 70s and 80s hits…songs now titled by many as “yacht rock.” Joining John Ford Coley is Peter Beckett (the voice of Player) Walter Egan, best known for his hit single “Magnet and Steel” and the band Ambrosia, with their hit “How Much I Feel.” “Rock the Dock” will be arriving onstage at Bergen PAC on April 27th.  Don’t miss this evening of nostalgia and great “yacht rock” hits!

Interview by Rebecca Wolf. Photo courtesy of John Ford Coley.

RW: How long have you been touring with these artists on “Rock the Dock”?

JFC: I just got back from 10 days, 11 days. I was gone for 13 days prior to that. I go again next week for about 4 days. We just are moving all the time. There’s no slowing down. 

RW: With the same people you are going to be performing with in NJ or was that a different group of artists? 

JFC: Actually, it’s a lot of the same people. I played on a cruise ship with Elliot (Lurie) and with Peter Beckett and I think Walter Egan is going to be on this trip, along with Ambrosia. Then I played by myself on another cruise and then I did about three dates on the East Coast all the way from Virginia, Maryland and Delaware. I just came back from that and that was entirely by myself.

RW: Nice, I’ve never been on any of the rock cruises. They always sound good.

JFC: They are good. There are a lot of really good bands and a lot of the guys are still original members. So, you have the opportunity to mingle with some of the people that were the founders of bands. The ones we were on, the first one had people like Ambrosia, Firefall, Dave Mason, people of that caliber. The second one we had people like Al Stewart, Vanilla Fudge and The Cowsills, on the other one. There were just a lot of really good people…. Mickey Thomas and Starship and stuff, good stuff. 

RW: It’s great to still see those artists out there.

JFC: It really is. I’ve known a lot of those guys for many years so the ones that are originals it’s good to catch up. I looked up and there was a guy and I thought, “Doggone it, that guy looks so familiar.” I said, “Who is that?” Someone said, ‘That’s Mark Stein, from Vanilla Fudge.’ So, I went over to him and I said, “You’re original right?” And he said, ‘Man, are you kidding? I founded the group.’ I said, “Ok, you played in Dallas, TX in 1969. Three Dog Night opened for you and we opened for Three Dog. We worked together before.” We just keep coming across those kinds of things.

RW: I’m actually a concert photographer and I’ve photographed a lot of the bands you’ve mentioned. I love going to those shows and photographing the original members. It’s great knowing they’re still out there.

JFC: We look at it like they’ve got blood in the ground. With a lot of the…we call them tribute acts…there’s a little bit of contention with the acts that are not original members, especially if they act like they are….signing autographs and pictures and stuff like that. It’s like, “I’m sorry, you weren’t there when the blood was being spilled.” We kind of get a little snotty about that I guess. Like I said to people the other night, I’m the last surviving member of my band. However, unlike others I had at least a 50-50 shot. Everyone else had four or five guys.

RW: Is it different touring now, at this stage in your life?

JFC: It is. First of all, we don’t go out for the length of time we used to in the 70s. We’d be gone for two months, sometimes three. Now we go out on weekends chiefly. So, for me to come out on a ten day runaround that’s kind of unusual. Playing is different because you got all of those who come to truly hear the music, as opposed to just being an event like we had back then. So, they’re reminiscing and they’re remembering a lot of the songs and it’s very nice. 

RW: Were there people who were your favorites to tour with or open for back then? 

JFC: Oh, absolutely. We all had people we really admired and wanted to be around. I’ve connected with a lot of them again. Richie Furay out of Poco and Buffalo Springfield, we used to tour a lot and we’ve kind of seen one another frequently. Again, Firefall, Orleans, Al. We lost Gary Wright recently. So, we end up losing people as well. I used to travel a lot with Terry Sylvester from The Hollies and Jimmy Griffin from Bread. The three of us did a trio deal for awhile and that was all night long just hits. That was kind of fun. 

RW: Is there is anyone you wished you’d the opportunity to perform with that you haven’t had the chance to? 

JFC: I wanted to tour with Todd Rundgren. I wanted to do some things with him.

RW: Well, he’s still around! 

JFC: He’s still around but he runs in a little different circle. He did that Ringo Starr’s All-Starr Band thing.

RW: Actually, he does his own shows. I’ve photographed him several times.

JFC: Ok, I haven’t seen him on his own shows. I ran across John Waite recently. I never toured with him before. That was an enjoyable show. He was a really nice guy. I think now we just kind of look at people and say, “Ok, are you a jerk or not.” We just go out and play. We aren’t trying to impress anyone anymore. We’re not dancing around, trying to get all the girls. It’s a little less entertaining for us on some level.

RW: I know when you first started you trained as a classical pianist. Did you think you were going to be a classical musician or did you think you’d become more of a pop musician? 

JFC: I didn’t think about any of them. I thought I was probably going to go into law or construction, whichever job opportunity came up first. That, or a cowboy. So, when the music thing happened…I’ll tell you a story…the thing that really spurred me on. We were playing in the band in high school and in college. So, I’m in college and I don’t have a piano up there. I’m not really practicing the way I should so when I came in for rehearsal the band told me I was about to be fired because I wasn’t progressing the way I needed to be. I was pretty upset by it. So, the next morning I’m going to school and I’m pretty upset. And, I’ve heard audible voices in my life three times. That was the first time. I dang near drove off the road it scared me so bad. I think I’m going crazy. What I heard was, “I gave you the gift. What you do with the gift is up to you but if you don’t use the gift I will take it from you and I will give it to someone who will.” At that point I became excessively driven and very serious about music. It saved me from being a bag boy at a grocery store. I became very serious about it and I’ve continued to be ever since.

RW: When did you start playing guitar?

JFC: I started my second year in college. Dan and I were thinking about becoming a duo so we began to learn various things. Neither one of us really knew very much about guitar but we started doing a Simon and Garfunkel thing. It’s like the other night, I had one of the best experiences that I’m going to remember for quite a while. I got asked to play with Peter Asher from Peter and Gordon. He did all the Linda Rondstadt records and James Taylor and people like that, as a producer. After I played my song and I left the stage I’m backstage and Keith Putney came up and said, ‘Do you want to get up on stage and play “World Without Love?”’ I was like, “Oh man, it’s been so long. Quick, sing me a verse so I can remember it.” He sang a few words and I was like, “I know it.”

So, I went onstage and Susan Cowsill and I were singing together and I didn’t forget a lyric. I didn’t flub one. All of a sudden I get this vision and I see Dan and I driving to the various gigs that we did because we’d always sing those songs, those duos….The Everly Brothers, The Righteous Brothers, Chad and Jeremy, Simon and Garfunkel, Peter and Gordon. And, I saw us singing those songs and I got kind of moved. Susan looked at me and said, ‘Are you ok?’ I said I was good. The next day I was telling Keith Putney about it and I got very emotional. I got tears in my eyes and thought about people coming up to me all the time and saying, ‘This song meant so much to me.’ And I thought, “So, that’s what it’s like!” It really set a tone for me and it moved me. So, that was unusual. You’re never too old to learn stuff. 

RW: When you’re at home are you fiddling around on the guitar or the piano? 

JFC: Both of them. I keep everything out so I can just grab it. There’s one in the living room, one in the bedroom, several in the music room. Most of the time if I’m on the piano I’m playing Bach, Beethoven or Chopin, geniuses like that because I truly love it and it’s inspiring. I’ll watch television and I always have a guitar in hand, so it’s something that’s constant.

RW: Do you have a preference for piano vs guitar or are they different entities?

JFC: They’re two different entities entirely. They’re so diametrically opposed to one another because there’s more I can do on the keyboard. I can read on the keyboard…read music and there’s more chords I can do. On the guitar it’s more folk music for me and I enjoy that immensely. It’s a little bit more finger picking. It’s just a different feel, so you’re inspired in a different way. When I came back to Nashville I thought I was a fairly decent guitar player but I discovered I’m not a guitar player but a guitar owner. There’s a vast difference. They can play you under the table. Fortunately, I had the presence enough when I’d play with people and they’d play something I was’t familiar with, I’d say, “Whoa, stop, show me what you just did,” and they would. So, my guitar playing went up exponentially. It was a wonderful feeling to be able to progress on something. 

RW: Do you go out and play little gigs in Nashville? 

JFC: I do. Occasionally someone will call and say they’re going to do a round and will say to come over to play. You don’t go out to make money. You go out to play, for the experience, to play with new people and to hear their songs. Plus, there’s an opportunity in Nashville to play new songs. When I go out on the road I’m kind of relegated to certain songs from the past. They want to go down Memory Lane. They could care less about what I’ve been doing for the last five years. They want to go back to what they remember and that’s fine with me. But, when I go out and I do these little songwriter-in-the-rounds you can play whatever you want.

RW: When you and Dan got the songs that became your hits, how did you get them? Did you find them? Were they presented to you?

JFC: They were presented to us. They were difficult for Dan and I to do because we considered ourselves singer-songwriters and wanted to be known for writing and performing the songs. The only thing is that none of our songs, especially at that time, were considered worthy to be on the radio. They were more story songs….more folky kind of things. They didn’t know what we were when we first went in. We went to the record companies to play our songs and Dan and I played so many different kinds of styles. We’d go into the record companies and we’d show them our little songs on guitar and they’d look at us and go, ‘What are you guys? Are you country? Are you pop? Are you rock? Are you fusion jazz?’ We’d say, “Yeah, pretty much,” because we just played everything. But, they just wanted to lock us into a style. Years later, when we did Dr. Heckle and Mr. Jive, we really branched back out. We had one song, “Hollywood Heckle and Jive,” a very raucous song. We went into the radio stations and they were like, ‘Who is this?’ They didn’t believe it was us. They were like, ‘That’s not England Dan and John Ford Coley.’ We’d say, “No, seriously, that’s us.” They’d say, ‘That’s not the England Dan and John Ford Coley we want,’ so at that point I knew we’d been relegated to a slot and you’re not going to progress past that because they can’t see past that.

RW: Who do you listen to if you’re hanging out and want to listen to some music?

JFC: That reminds me of a story. I was giving an interview one time and I was driving home from Memphis and the lady said, ‘Just for example, which CDs do you have?’ I said, “I’ve got a 6-CD changer and I’ve got Van Halen, with Sammy Hager, Edith Piaf, the French singer, Shawn Colvin, Bruce Hornsby and Def Leppard. Then I’ve got French tapes.”

RW: You’re very diverse.

JFC: It’s very diverse because I get bored listening to the same thing all the time.  I really love people like Dan Fogelberg, Joni Mitchell, a lot of the old people, Dylan, Peter, Paul and Mary. Those are the people I’ve gravitated to. Then again, we played with Zeppelin, Fudge, did a lot of stuff with Three Dog. You get a very wide range of music and I appreciate a wide range of music.

RW: Did you ever get to play with Dan Fogelberg

JFC: I did not. For me he was probably one of the greatest singer-songwriters this country has ever produced. 

RW: That was a big loss. It’s hard that we’re losing more and more artists now from that era.

JFC: What’s even scarer is we’re all getting up there. Like I said, we lost Gary Wright and I played with him on his last show. What was so heartwarming was, he was at the very beginning stages of dementia. But, when he took that microphone it was Gary Wright and he put his heart into it and the way that audience embraced him, that’s one of the best memories. 

RW: I think most audiences who like music from that era are going to the shows knowing that the artists likely don’t sound as they used to. They’re there for the connection to the artists and the nostalgia created by their music.

JFC: Yeah, you wonder if everybody is okay with it but you go, “Well, they came to see me, so obviously they’re ok.” I vocally don’t sound much like I did back then. I can’t hit some of those notes. But, I tell a lot of stories and a lot of jokes. You’d be surprised at the reception I get from telling stories because they’re funny. You talk about the events that went on during that time, spread a little dirt and make people laugh. That’s quite a huge thing for me.

RW: Well, as a huge fan of 70s music, I’m looking forward to “Rock the Dock”.

JFC: It’s a really good show. Ambrosia is a tight band. You’ve got three of the four original members and there’s Peter Beckett, the lead singer of Player.  We each do two or three songs. I do the most, three or four of our six hits. 

RW: Well, I’m sure the audience will love it because it’ll be people who grew up in that era.

JFC: That’s exactly right. It’s really a nice walk down Memory Lane.