T Bear – Interview

T Bear is a diverse musician with an equal menagerie of music!  He is warm, inviting, friendly, thoughtful, insightful, complex, heartfelt, intense, funny – I can go one and on. When you speak with T Bear, you are talking with a raw honesty that is unfelt in many musicians.  He opens his entire world to you and lets you completely in and you walk away a better person for it.

Click here for T-Bear’s website. And, click here to find him on Facebook,

Interview by Nica Strong. Photographs courtesy of T Bear.

Nica Strong: Congratulations on your new album, The Way of the World. I noticed that you took a hiatus. How were you comfortable doing that and what brought you back?

T Bear: I spent my entire life playing music.

I was born in New York City. I grew up in the Caribbean. Puerto Rico, Puerto Prince Haiti, Florida, back to New York. I grew up on Cuban, Puerto Rican, Calypso, Mento and Reggae music. And then, while I was in Haiti it was, I guess you would call it French Creole music.

I started as a percussionist playing on anything I could find, and playing in drum circles and things like that. Later, when I got back to the states, my parents had a piano, and I learned how to play. I played the piano kind of like it was a percussion instrument. But it was fun and I got into it. I got into everything. I would buy vinyl records, and I would slow them down on the turntable from 33 down to 16.

My turntable had 4 speeds on it, 16, 33, 45, 78, and I slowed it down to 16, because that was half of 33, it would stay in the same key, virtually in tune. With the record slowed down, I could follow it with my fingers. That’s how I learned to play.

NS: Oh, wow!

TB: All my life I was playing, and I got pretty well known as a session player, and played on a lot of records. I got signed to RCA in 1978 and made 4 albums for them. Then I got signed to a European label and made 4 albums for them. I was also playing on a lot of people’s records – some hits and well-known records. Then I met a very strong minded woman, got married, and she said, “If we’re going to have kids you can’t be on the road anymore. You can’t tour. You gotta go get a day job,” which I got to appease her, at a light bulb company. I sold light bulbs, kind of door to door in the daytime, and then at nighttime go out and play gigs. And then she finally said, “Enough with the gigs. We’re having kids now. You need to take a break from it. You’ve had your fun…” blah, blah, blah.

I spent 20 years with her. After the kids were kind of raised, we fell out of love. We got divorced and I met a new woman about 2 years later. I married her, and she said to me, “I know who you are. I have a lot of the records you played on. My ex-boyfriend was a guitar player in your band 25 years ago.” She nagged me for 2 years to put a band together and get back into music. That’s how I got back into music. In her 50’s she was going back to college to get her degree.  She would sit on the other side of the piano at her desk. I’m looking at it right now, and I would sit at the piano. She would do her homework. I would play songs. She would say, “Oh, that’s a good song! Whose is it?” I said, ‘I’m writing it right now.’ and she said, “Continue.” Finally, I was playing sessions again.

I was at Robby Krieger’s studio called Horse Latitudes. He was very generous, and said to me, “When are you going to start making records?” I said ‘Well, I don’t know, Robby. I don’t have deep pockets, and I’m not signed to any labels, so no one’s gonna pay for it.’ And he said, “Well, you need to make a record again. Why don’t you use my studio?” I told him, ‘I can’t afford your studio,’ and he said “You can’t afford not to make your record. I’ll give you the studio, you just pay the engineer”. For the next year and a half, when the studio wasn’t in use I’d go in and record them [starting with the 2 or 3 songs I’d written] and 23 tracks later, with 21 originals, I came up with a record called Fresh bear Tracks.

NS: I love the cover!

TB: Right? And a guy that does video games art did the cover for me – a neighbor. And Nina, my wife who got me back into it, unfortunately, was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer. And a few months later she passed away, before the album came out. The last song on the album is called Nina’s Song. They play that in Paris on the radio almost every day. They love that song, it’s a beautiful song.

That album is dedicated to her. Before she passed she wrote me a ‘things to do’ list for my life. It said, 1-Finish the record. 2-Never cancel another gig. 3-Go out on tour again. 4-Live your best life. 5-Fall in love and be happy. I honor her every day by doing what she wanted me to do, and I love doing it, and I will always have her in my heart and in my mind. And all of a sudden I got signed by a record company. Everything happened – except Covid came along. They put the record out and we couldn’t tour. We couldn’t go out of the house. We couldn’t do anything.  That being said, a song on that album called Give it Up, was written by Stephen Stills and myself and Stephen played on it.  It went to number one in Europe on their charts.

NS: Great!

TB: When I recorded Fresh Bear tracks, everybody in the world showed up because they wanted to play on it and support me getting back into music.  Stephen Stillsd showed up. Robby Krieger played on it. Edgar Winter the East Street Horns, some of the guys from The Heartbreakers, some of the guys from Steely Dan, some of the people from The Wrecking Crew, and on and on and on.

NS: You have treasure trove of artists.

TB: Yeah, it’s like a who’s who in the session business. And it was very well received. It got great reviews – 4 Star 5 Star, 9 out of 10 over in the UK. They never gave a 10 to anything, but they gave me a 9 and that’s okay. It launched me again. The record company [asked for another record]. During covid I was writing music every day. When I start writing I start with the lyrics. I write the lyrics, stories, poems, little novellas and then I put it to music. I was writing things to get me out of my house because the silence was deafening. This is where Nina and I lived. And now I can’t even leave the house. I have to figure out some way of kind of transporting me. you know, into a fantasy world, so to speak. So, I let music and stories do that. Way of the world is all about that. It’s all stories about transporting me away. And it’s all homage to people that I’ve admired in my life, or needed to be recognized. That’s how that started. That’s why I took the hiatus, and what brought me back.

NS: Oh, what a beautiful story! I am so sorry for your loss, but it was a beautiful story. And she’s there, watching.

TB: Oh, yeah, she is.

NS: That is such a beautiful story, and I think she wrote a song on your album to Wonderland, right?

TB: She put in some of the lyrics on Wonderland. Wonderland was again a story called malice with an M. Not Alice, Malice in Wonderland. And it’s all about Laurel Canyon, and where I did some damage to myself. I am clean and sober a long, long time, and that’s when I … I’ve got 41 years of sobriety and the year before I got sober I was living on a street called Wonderland, right down from the drug dealer, and I would go from my house down the street every day, sometimes twice a night, and then finally, I got clean and sober. Robby Krieger plays on Wonderland on the Fresh Bear tracks because he spent a lot of time in Laurel canyon with a lot of musicians. That’s what that’s what that one’s about. And, Nina threw me a couple of lines that really worked really well in that poem, so I gave her a credit on it.

NS: Give me an idea of what you think is your music style. I find it jazzy-ish, but I do see some undertones of what you were talking about with Caribbean sounds. It’s eclectic and very unique to you. 

TB: Yeah, it’s very eclectic. I guess it’s when a painter who’s going to paint a canvas. you know he has a palette. And on it he puts different colors and different things that he wants to use.  Sometimes he’ll take a little of this color or scrape a little of that color and kind of mush it together, or whatever. Well, that’s the way I write music, and that’s the way I play.  I will sit down and look at the words, and I’ll say what kind of beat, or what kind of music does this deserve? That’s how I come up with it. I don’t box myself in. I mean years and years and years ago, when I made records for major record companies, there was always a guy assigned to me. And he would say, ‘Look, what’s in the charts. You gotta follow what’s in the charts”. And I would say that by the time you put this record out, what’s gonna be in the charts gonna be different than it is today. So why? Why do it? They answered, “Because we signed you, this is what you gotta do.” Yada, Yada. I learned fast, and after a couple of records, not to listen to those guys and to listen to your heart. And that’s what I do – I listen from the inside out, and I want to be known as honest, genuine, and authentic. And that’s what you get from me.

NS: That’s exactly what I got. Even when I was looking at some Youtube. I think you were in your house, and you were playing. You were so genuine. You bring people in, and envelop them. It’s like you have your own, one-on-one session and you’re playing just for me.

TB: That’s what I do! I believe that when you make music and you record music, or you’re playing that you’re really having a one on one. It’s that people don’t realize it’s not the masses that you’re recording for, it’s a recording for one person. It’s the person that’s gonna listen to you. And you’re having a relationship with that person. I never think of multiple people or multitudes. I think of one person, and I imagine that, you know, like, when I’m singing in the studio, and I’m and I’m doing a vocal. I imagine one person there in front of me where the microphone is, and that’s the person I’m singing to.

NS: You are the first artist that I’ve heard say that.  Usually everybody’s thinking about their broad spectrum of fans. That’s what I got when I listen to your music. There’s such an intimacy there that’s very unique that I don’t hear from a lot of artists.

TB: Being raised as I was with different people, different races, creeds, colors, whatever religions. It made me realize that people are people, and they all have a voice. and I’m going to listen that voice. Yeah. And in turn I have a voice. and if I’m really lucky they’re gonna listen to my voice.

NS: Was there a particular song that flowed easily? Or, was particularly challenging? 

TB: The easiest song for me. Well, I don’t know if it’s easy, but the easiest song for me on this record is Breathe. I wrote that in about 5 to 10 minutes. It’s one of the few times that I wrote the music and the words simultaneously. I sat down at the piano and I thought to myself,  I’m really stuck here. What am I gonna do? There’s nowhere I can go. There’s nothing I can do. I mean, I’m scared to go to the grocery store. I gotta wear a mask and gloves to go down the elevator in my building and get to the mailbox.  I spoke to friends, and they said we can all get through this together  if we do this one day at a time. And I thought to myself. Yeah, okay I’ve heard that that phrase. But what am I going to do now? And that was it – I thought, breathe – I’ve got to breathe. I gotta breathe. You’ll get me through this. You know, cleansing breaths or whatever. So I sat down, and when night time starts to fall and you know, who am I gonna call? The sky… and I looked outside, and it was one of these beautiful sunsets in LA. And I said, the sky’s turning to rust. I don’t know who to trust it’s will I ever fall in love again, or be bust? And I just kept writing and writing and writing, and within like 10 min. Just breathe. Okay, and I’m scouring the area for clues. We get all the news that’s fit to print. It’s never front page news when there’s holes in your shoes. So it’s a lot of homeless. It all came together just like that. And a lot of people that are therapists have heard that song, and some people call it therapy. I call it Bearapy.

I spent the last year playing with Walter Trout and Walter always says to me, “Have you got a song for my next record? What are you working on?” And I did a little piano and vocal demo of Breathe. He heard it, and [asked if he could record it]. I said, sure! So, people are starting to record that song. That was the easiest, but yet most heartwarming and self-soothing song. The hardest song on the album to do was maybe Red Harvest. In a way, although it came together really quickly. That’s the bonus track on this one. 

See, every one of these songs is an homage to someone. So, Before the Fall is an homage to Brian Wilson and Mozart and Amy Winehouse. The Way of the World is an homage to Bob Dylan. What would Bob say at a time like this? Jewel is not about the singer Jewel. It’s about a date I went on with someone called Julie, a well-connected Hollywood woman who worked for Lou Adler, was his assistant for 40 years. Let’s see, This Bird Has Flown, that’s a line from Norwegian Wood. So, the homage is to the Beatles. Your Husband’s Got A Gun, that’s all about a guy that’s doing something that he shouldn’t be doing. A Change Will Do Me Good.  That’s Bo Diddley and that went to number one in Europe on Easter Sunday. They Can Kill You is a soul song all about what you women do to us. You can kill us, in so many ways.

NS: In a good way! (laughs)

TB: In a very good way. I was traveling through the south when I was really young.   There was no FM – there was AM. And I had a 1972 VW bus, and I was going through either Georgia or South Carolina, and the freeway and the highway 95 hadn’t been built yet, so I was on an off kind of road like a two-lane road. That was till we got back onto the interstate where it was completed. I’m going through this, and it’s a Sunday and I remember turning on the AM trying to find something. I’m dialing, I’m dialing, and I finally come to this preacher, preaching the gospel according to him. I remember this one line he said, “For five minutes of pleasure Sampson lost his power.”

NS: Samson and Delilah!

TB: So that’s what They Can Kill You comes from. The bonus track, Red Harvest, is a poem I wrote about the Russian invasion of the Ukraine and it’s very powerful, because the Ukraine is my DNA. My father was born in Poland, in Warsaw, and his family came from Kiev through Poland into the United States, and so I have that DNA in me.

NS: And what is going on now…

TB: I was horrified by what the Russians were doing to the Ukrainian people. When they were in the first 2 weeks of the war, I sat down and wrote a poem called Red Harvest. There’s not going to be any normal harvest, because the Ukraine is the breadbasket of that part of the world. They have hundreds of thousands of fields of sunflower where they have sunflower oil and wheat grain. It’s the breadbasket of the area, and it’s not going to be a normal harvest this year. It’s going to be a red harvest. So that’s what I wrote. And I called the Record company and said, “I want to go in the studio right away.” Not as a song on my record, I said at the time I said, Let’s just put it out on Youtube. Put a link on it, and you know, get maybe some some currency for the Ukrainian Red Cross and for the World Kitchen that’s feeding everybody. I called a bunch of friends of mine to come in and record. They all came in and then I thought, ‘Who am I gonna get to sing this?’ I thought I can sing some of it. But I want to get someone to sing it as a duet with me.

NS: Nice!

TB: I called David Crosby because I used to play with Crosby, Stills, and Nash. I made records with them, and I played in Stephen Stills’ band, and I did Southern Cross with them. I called up Crosby – may he rest in peace – and said, ‘Can you sing on this song that I did, for the Ukrainian Red Cross,’ and he said, “Alright, send it to me. I’ll listen to it, see if I want to do it.” So I sent it to him and 2 days later, crickets… nothing. I called him up again and he says, ‘Well, I haven’t listened to it yet. I’ll get it to it next week.” Crosby could be like that, you know. But he had a great voice, and I wanted him to sing on it. And that night I get a phone call by some guy called Paul. I thought it was my lawyer, because I have this British lawyer called Paul Quinn, and he’s always calling me about things. And I had spoken to Paul earlier in the day, so I wasn’t surprised that he called me back. He says, “Hey, it’s Paul I want to sing on Red Harvest.’” And I said, ‘Paul, you’re a fucking lawyer, you’re not a singer. Piss off’. He’s like “No, no, no, no, I want to sing on it. It’s Paul Rodgers.” I said, ‘The singer, Paul Rodgers from Bad Company and Free?’ He said, “Yeah. Bruce called me and spoke to my wife. She’s Ukrainian. She loved it, she gave it to me and I fell in love with it. I want to sing on it.” The next day he went in the studio. 

NS: You’ve collaborated with so many people! If you had someone that you haven’t collaborated with, that, you would love to collaborate with, who would it be, and what type of music would you like to do if there was a different type?

TB: That’s really interesting. There’s a couple of people that I would like to collaborate with. Keith Richards is one. Let me see. Who else. Brian Wilson is another cause I think he’s the Mozart in our generation. Paul McCartney, Ringo. I’d love to work with them. I would like to collaborate with Sting. Maybe Annie Lennox. And there’s 2 more, Mark Knopfler is one, and David Gilmour. That’s my bucket list.

NS: You said you played piano. You’ve done the percussion. Any other instruments?

TB: I can play a little bit of guitar. I can play a little bit of bass. I can play a little bit of drums. but I’m really focused on the keyboards at this point in my life. Yeah.

NS: Can you share any “aha” moments?

TB: I was working in a music store as a teenager in New York. There were all these bands that used to come through town. One time one of the Roadies came in to pick up some gear, and I was showing somebody a Wurlitzer piano. I’m about 16 or 17 at the time. He comes over to me and he said, “Hey, you play really good, we’re gonna have an unannounced jam tonight at the Fillmore East. Why don’t you come down? Here’s a backstage pass.” I never got a backstage pass in my life to anything. I got passes to the Fillmore East a lot from roadies and things they would hand out. Free tickets, or whatever, and it was only 5 bucks to get in those days, anyway.

NS:  But not to backstage!

TB: So I go down there and I realize that this is not just a jam. This is the Grateful Dead jamming with Traffic and Hot Tuna, and a couple of others people. I’m standing on the side of the stage watching all this. Roadie hands something to Jerry Garcia – says something to Garcia. Garcia looks over to me and beckons for me to come out on stage and shows me a Wurlitzer that’s sitting there. I sit down and play. To this day I don’t know if I was in the right key, what I played, if I followed anything correctly. But I sat there and played and looked out and thought to myself, ‘This is what I want to do for the rest of my life.’  And, I had that same “aha” moment when I played the Schaeffer festival with Richie Havens.

NS: Do you have any advice for someone breaking into the industry? 

TB: I would say at this point in this world there’s one way of making money and that’s to get a job in the theater playing in a Broadway show. That would be a kind of regular gig. Aside from that, if you really really love music? Become a teacher of music. Teach people. That’s a regular kind of gig. The other thing I would say to somebody is never turn anything down because you don’t know where something is gonna lead you to something. Someone might hear you. Someone might see you. You might meet somebody, whatever. And there’s going to be a lot of crap that you’re gonna have to go through. They call used to call it dues. It’s a really hard world out there. It’s really hard to do things like music in certain areas like in LA. Where I live, people don’t respect it. They don’t support live venues, and now it’s like pay to play. You get X amount of dollars from the door. And you get 25% of whatever it comes in after that or 50%. So you could walk out with a whole 50 bucks in your pocket and play there all night if you’re lucky. But that being said, it’s a different world now. I’m really grateful to having been signed by a record company. I’m really grateful that I’m able to do what I do and tour with good musicians. So, I don’t turn things down. I try to be supportive – try to be a great hang. Try not to be negative. Let somebody, when they look at you, not think, “What’s he gonna beef about now?” When they look at you, let them think, “I’m glad this guy’s on board, because I don’t have to think or worry about him.” And, know your stuff.

NS: How would you want people to view your music now? And what do you see for yourself in the future going forward?

TB: For the music I would say it’s kind of retro soul Americana. One of the reasons I got signed to this record company is because of the answer to the question they gave me. “Who are you making these records for?” And I said, ‘I’m making records today for people that have a relationship with music in their lives. That’s the niche that I want to reach.’  I’ll never have success with the masses. 40 million people are never gonna follow me. I just want 1% of those 40 million.  And that’s it. Then I’ll be able to pay for the records. Make a living. Be happy. Never cancel another gig and fall in love again.