Robert Berry – Interview re: Keith Emerson Collaboration

I had a chance to speak to Robert Berry as he releases his 3.2 album, The Rules Have Changed, and begins touring soon. He describes the tour as a 30-year history of solo work and music he performed with others. The 3.2 album started as a collaboration with Keith Emerson, which Berry finished by himself.

Emerson’s death was a blow to Berry, his fans and to the world of music. He was an icon and trailblazer with a distinctive sound unlike anyone else. You can feel him in his music, and that’s why it’s so wonderful that Robert Berry has worked so hard to make Emerson’s last vision before he died a reality. The first song, I’m a Powerful Man, written by Emerson and Berry, accents the lengths Berry went to to make this album happen.

Fredda Gordon: What an undertaking you took with your new album, The Rules Have Changed. I understand that you played all the parts, is that right?

Robert Berry: Yes, I did. It didn’t start out that way. I had about 20% of Keith’s playing on there and his estate wasn’t going to let me put it out because they want him to be remembered as a composer, not a player. I said ‘Really? He’s a great player!’ but that was their regulation. I told them ‘I can re-create it and you’re not going to be able to tell the difference.’ I’m not him, but I’m capable of doing that, which is what I did. I struggled to get the parts that he had already done exactly. You can’t tell the difference.

FG: I was impressed with the classical and the jazz aspects of the music.

RB: That was something that Keith and I had talked about, how we wanted to run the gamut of what our life experiences had been. Oscar Peterson was a jazz guy that was really important to Keith, and a lot of other jazz guys, and somebody that I also liked. We never got to the point of putting that jazz piece in there but we wanted a solo. I probably couldn’t play in a real jazz band and keep up with them, but what I did on [the album], the jazzy interpretation, was right up my alley and I felt that it’s what [Keith] would’ve done if he was here.

FG: Do you prefer the studio or playing live?

RB: Everything about music I love. I even built speaker cabinets, a guitar and a bass drum just to figure out how it all works. My Mom was a singer in my dad‘s band and she didn’t quit singing in that band until the eighth month of being pregnant. So I like to say I was in a band before I was born. It’s all music to me. I can’t help it. That’s my life, my whole life. The only thing I could do. When people ask me “What else could you have done?” I answer, ‘I can mow lawns.’ That’s the only other talent I have and I hate doing it. I don’t do any yard work at all if I can help it.

FG: How long have you been with the Greg Kihn band?

RB: Maybe 15 years now, quite a while for Greg. I used to open for him with the Robert Berry band quite a bit. He got this damn radio show and he was so good at it. For 18 years he had the top morning drive radio show in the Bay area. He was making lots of money, talking about all this touring and having a good ole-time, but he let his live performance go. People forgot about him across the country as an act that had hit records. So I got with him and we started rebuilding that and did the new album, finally. That’s always my goal, to get new material out and to get on the map. He’s on the map, doing a lot of Rick Springfield shows, opening for him. I have my 3.2 thing going, so we come together for 10 shows a year, maybe more, while everything else is going on. It’s been really fun. He’s a great guy to work with.

FG: Can you talk about how long you talked to Keith Emerson about the 3.2 album before it became real?

RB: When we put out the first 3 album we had a top 10 hit. We were all really excited about it and were on tour, doing good and we got along great. But then Keith got a couple letters from fans berating him and telling him he is ruining his career playing these songs. I think what they were really saying is they wanted Greg Lake back and they didn’t want Robert Berry, which I totally understood, but Keith took it to heart that these people were criticizing him and saying “you’re ruining your career, you shouldn’t be doing this,” and “Where is Greg?” and “How dare you have female background singers.” [I thought] ‘What? Who are these guys?’

RB: Well, Keith was really susceptible to criticism so he broke up the band. Just like that. For 27 years Keith and I did other things together. We did some commercials, I played on his solo album and I recorded his album in my studio. We did a lot of stuff. But I would never bring up doing another 3 album because I thought he really hated it. But someone put out a live 3 album back in 2015. Keith said they could put it out because it was money in the bank. He listened to it when it came to him and loved it. He called me up right away and said “Oh my God! I just had no idea we were such a good band. I totally left it behind 27 years ago.” So I said ‘Why don’t we do another one?’ and he said “OK.”

It wasn’t that easy, he actually said “maybe?” So I said ‘let me call the record company.’ I got a great us a great budget, complete control, everything, and he goes “Wow, let’s do it!” And we immediately started working. It was maybe a week or two after this new idea came along that we started talking by phone and exchanging some stuff. He sent me some songs and I had this one that we didn’t use in ’88 that we were going to rework, so it was immediate. But we only spent a couple of months working on it. He wasn’t around that long.

FG: That has to be really hard for you.

RB: The compound loss for me was… he’s kind of my most famous friend, a hero of mine. When I was young, I was playing his music and then I get to play with him and we became good friends, that’s a dream come true! Also [he’s] the only guy I’ve ever had a top 10 song with. When I got his phone calls or emails, it’s like Christmas or something. It’s like a little trophy every time you get to talk to a guy like Keith Emerson. It’s huge. And my 27 year dream that I didn’t think was going to happen was coming true. We were working on an album again.

There was one other thing that’s hard for me to explain that Keith and Carl both have done for me as a musician. Let’s see if I can put this into words. Before 3 I was just a guy with a local band, it did pretty well, we toured a bit, had a record out but it never really did anything on an international scale. After I was with Keith and Carl everybody thought I was really good even if they never heard of me or heard me play because I was able to keep up with Keith Emerson and Carl Palmer. So it gave me a stamp of approval to base my studio off of my Robert Barry band and every album I put out after that.

The foundation that Keith built for my life as a successful musician at that point is immeasurable. And that’s why he meant so much to me. It was a big part of who I became. So that made it hard. For six months I thought ‘There’s no really reason for me to finish this album.’ Why would I do it alone? My dream was to do with Keith. Then it became a different challenge. It’s all cemented in stone what we were going to do and I thought ‘I was the voice and half the songwriter in 3. Keith was half the songwriter and the sound of 3.’ Not that Carl wasn’t integral, he’s fantastic. I thought ‘I can do this.’

FG: It keeps him alive to some extent, along with the rest of his music.

RB: And people [say] “Oh, [he] killed [himself] because [he] couldn’t play anymore.” Well, Keith could play! It’s obvious by the parts I had to re-create how good he was. How the parts were created and written. He still had it, and that’s the part that’s important to me. And, not only did we have it together with the sound of 3 and the style that we liked to do, but he still had his piece at 100%. Sure his arm hurt, sure he had a couple of stiff fingers, but he could still play.

FG: His music lives.

RB: Yeah that’s the great thing about art. I even have a song on there about what you’re remembered by. We’re remembered mostly by what were our passions in life. If it’s baseball, music or something else. People look back and say “well that guy really liked that.” If he’s all about baseball [they say], “you know what he would say about this game now” and think of [them] in those terms. We think of Keith as the greatest player there ever was in rock ‘n’ roll keyboards.

I always write about what I care about I’m a very positive person but that album went deeper than I even knew subconsciously. I look at the lyrics now, and what I was writing subconsciously, and it’s really there. How I was feeling, maybe how I thought Keith was feeling and how I thought his fans were feeling. The song “Our Bond” is about that and it showed me that if you really dig deep into yourself, honestly, people can connect with that. I don’t know how, but they do.

FG: That’s good advice for any artist.

RB: I think that’s what’s lacking in people that are trying to climb that ladder because they are thinking “Oh, I just saw Adam Lambert with Queen, maybe I can get into a band and do that.” No, he’s doing that, you have to be original. You have to do what’s honest to you. You’ve got to dig deep and take all your life experiences and that toolbox [as] I call it and say “who am I? What parts do I like and what am I going to bring to it? How am I going to mix up the stew where it becomes me?” Around here the tribute band is the big deal and as much is I like it that people are playing and being successful its very disappointing to see the audience asking for autographs for an Eagles tribute band like it’s the real Eagles.

I feel that everybody that’s alive can do anything they want to do if they really want to do it. You could be a rocket scientist if you wanted to you just have to study. I mean I don’t want to do that, that sounds like a stretch for me but you could do it if you wanted to.

FG: When did you know you and you going to music?

RB: I hated piano lessons with a passion. I say that but when my friends used to come to the door and say “Hey, can you come out to play baseball,” or something, I would always say ‘Oh, I have to practice my piano.’ So, evidently it was my safe place. I wasn’t anti-social, but I wasn’t much of a sports guy.

As far as being in a band, I was 12 years old and a band came into my dad‘s music store and they asked my dad if I would be in their band. They didn’t even ask me. I was there because we had the box guitars and amps which is the kind the Beatles were using. He looked at me and goes “Want to be in a band?” I never even thought about it at 12. I said ‘OK,’ like it was something you just do. Like it takes no skill. ‘Yeah, OK, I’ll be in a band, no big deal.’ So he put me in the car and dropped me off at practice. The guys were all seniors in high school. And that’s one of the reasons why I got a head start. These guys knew how to have a band, they knew what they wanted, they knew what they were doing, even though we were playing cover tunes. They knew how to make it work. When you get in your first band at 12 years old usually nothing happens. You don’t know how to get gigs, you don’t even know how to run a rehearsal. I bypassed all that which is very cool. I still see two of those guys. They both moved up to Oregon which is quite a ways from where I live in California, but I see them once in a while. I can’t thank them enough for that opportunity.

FG: Did you see any concerts at that time that inspired you?

RB: I saw Genesis with Peter Gabriel in a small 2500 seat place. I love Genesis but the sound quality was just amazing. It was my first time experiencing that kind of sound, with that kind of power to it, actually sounding rich and wonderful. Usually a concert can be a little bombastic. As good as the sound system is, it can be harsh.

Also, I saw Jeff Beck in the Concord Pavilion which is a pretty big place, about 7000 or 8000 [people], and he had an opening act, his band Jan Hammer, for the first hour. Instead of introducing Beck, who’s my favorite guitar player in the whole world, he just walked out and started his song, right in the middle of their song. They went from third gear in a stick shift car to fourth ‘BOOM’ with no announcement. He just walked out and he was playing. It was so powerful that I’ll never forget that show. Plus, I always say Jeff Beck doesn’t know how to play guitar he’s just is a part of it the guitar. He can’t help himself. I didn’t go to that many concerts I was always playing. I started so young.

FG: So what do you do for fun or relaxation when you’re not doing music?

RB: I have to force myself twice a year. My wife teaches second graders, eight-year-olds she has 26 of them every day. You think working with musicians is tough. She’s always in demand with these little kids, its so cute, I love that. But, she needs a vacation, I don’t. I do what I love and I feel like I’ve never worked a day in my life although I work every minute of every day of my life for 30 years. But twice a year I take her on some vacation for a week.

FG: I would imagine it’s good for both of you.

RB: It takes me about three days. I’m like a mess. I’m writing a book for my kids, not for anybody else, about my life and how lucky I’ve been. There’s always been somebody that believed in me who help things happen and I want them to see that you get what you give. I’ve always tried to give my best and take care of whatever I can for people and be there for them, and it’s come back to me. So, my first three days I’ve got my computer out by the pool and I just try to think about the past, and the guys that got me out of my dad’s music store at 12 years old, and I write about my life. I’m just a little tense that I can’t be in the studio and there are no gigs because I’m on the beach in Mexico, the water is warm and the drinks are good [said negatively]. Then after the third or fourth day I’m going ‘Hey the water is warm and the drinks are good!’ [said positively] and I’m happy. Then a couple of days later I come home and sort of re-boot out of vacation mode. So, yeah, it is good for me in the long run.

FG: Do you listen to music at home when you’re not working? You have so much music going on, so maybe you need a break.

RB: I’m glad you noticed that before I had to say it. I’m in my studio five days a week. My wife, she would love to listen to the radio but it’s off when we’re in the car. It’s not because I don’t want to hear something because I really like checkin’ out sounds, and what’s new, but the nervous system sometimes just needs a little peace and quiet. I’m getting my brain beat out all day by drummers and guitarists shredding solos and keyboard players with too much technology for me to even think about. I just got to sit back sometimes and have it quiet.

Interview by Fredda Gordon. Image courtesy of Robert Berry.