Being in the right place at the right time definitely has its advantages; but to go the next step with your stroke of good luck takes talent, determination and passion for what it is that you are pursuing. Bass player Rick Wills had all those ingredients, and more, one of which is a delightful sense of humor, and therefore he is still going strong in rock & roll at age 70.
Wills spent fourteen years in Foreigner, through their most fertile song-making period, from 1979’s Head Games to 1991’s Unusual Heat. Then he spent ten years touring with Bad Company, did a few weeks touring with Lynyrd Skynyrd; has recorded with the Small Faces, Peter Frampton, Roxy Music and his old friend David Gilmour, whom he played with back in their youth in a band called Joker’s Wild before Pink Floyd called the guitarist away. And more recently he was playing with another old friend, former Who drummer Kenney Jones in the Jones Gang. It’s a nice life if you have the love for it.
At the moment, Wills is thrilled about an upcoming Foreigner show at Sturgis on August 4th. Labeled as “The Only Show Like It In The World,” the Sturgis Buffalo Chip will host not only the current members of Foreigner but will bring together all the original members – including Wills, singer Lou Gramm, horn player Ian McDonald, drummer Dennis Elliott and keyboardist Al Greenwood (bass player Ed Gagliardi passed away in 2014) – for one hot-blooded night of musical hits that continue to rock in the present day as much as they did when they were first released.
Glide spoke to Wills just a few days ago about this huge concert, his time in Foreigner, his love of the bass and what can happen when hanging out with Kenney Jones.
We had such a good time when we did the shows last year and we said, look, if something comes up that looks special and everybody wants to do it, let’s take it on board and see if everybody’s happy about it. And that’s what happened. The Sturgis thing came in and we were offered the opportunity to do the show with the band that is currently out on the road as Foreigner now, with Kelly Hansen fronting it. And what happens is they’ll do the first half of the show and then we’ll change over and then the original members will come out and we’ll finish the show. Then at the very end we’ll all be onstage to do the finale, I guess. We get so excited about doing these things because we just never thought it would happen and it has happened and everybody is enjoying themselves so much that I think there may be more things in the future as well. But Foreigner has been such a big part of my life now and it’s been so incredible, the whole journey that we’ve been through. I mean, none of us could have ever imagined that forty years after it started that we’d still be doing it and still be wanting to do it and play live still.
And having fun
Yeah, that’s the main thing. We got together last year for a couple of things up in Michigan and all the original members and we had a ball, we just had such a good time together. It was up at a casino, the Soaring Eagle up in the north of Michigan, so we were kind of right out in the middle of nowhere, as they do tend to put casinos in these places (laughs). But I think they put them there for a purpose, so we can’t get out to do any nonsense and get into trouble (laughs).
You don’t still get into trouble, do you?
(laughs) Well, you know, we’ve quieted down a bit now that we’ve gotten older. We’re not so silly as we used to be, put it that way.
Over the past few years, we keep hearing that Lou and Mick Jones might write some new songs together. Do you think there is a chance all of you guys can get together and do some recording?
I think there is always a chance, because I had lunch with Lou about a month ago, over his birthday, and he was in great form. Dennis Elliott was there as well, the drummer, and everybody just seems very positive about things. No one wants to push it too hard because we don’t need to, to be honest, but we’re in a position now where we’ve achieved all the things that we wanted to achieve and now is the time to enjoy some of the fruits of our labor, as it were, from way back. I think, more than anything, it’s the question of, as long as we enjoy it, we’ll still think about doing more things.
Is it easy to just fall back into these songs you played for so long?
Yeah, I mean, we’ve lived with them all our lives and each individual has been doing different things. I spent ten years playing on the road with Bad Company. I’ve just spent a few years playing in the UK with Kenney Jones. We all keep our hand in it. We can all still play. There’s no problem with that. When we got together last year and started rehearsing, we all realized that there was nothing lost there and was still as good as ever. It sounds better, I think, because we’ve probably all gotten better over the years. And I hate to say this, but it’s like riding a bicycle, you don’t forget how to do it. You can just pick up your instrument, look at each other and know where you’re at kind of thing. It’s kind of in-built in us somehow. It’s nice, it really is.
Even you and Dennis, you still have that rapport?
Absolutely. I really started out with Dennis choosing me anyway, because when they made the change from the original bass player, Ed Gagliardi, I happened to be in New York, which is just one of those things, to be in the right place at the right time. I’ve known Mick Jones for probably fifty years now – I met him in Paris in 1966 – and I let him know that I was in New York so he said, “Why don’t you come over to the studio and play with us,” basically. And I told him how much I had enjoyed the music they’d been making, which is absolutely true. I thought it was fantastic and I loved it. It was like “First Time,” “Double Vision,” “Hot Blooded.” And it just fitted.
We worked together and I just played with them and Dennis got off his drum kit and said, “I want him,” meaning me, to be the bass player. And Mick said, “Well, we can’t just do that, Dennis, cause we’ve got other guys we want to try out. But we’ll definitely keep Rick in mind.” It was just what they did, you know. I went back another time and rehearsed more with them and then they gave me a call to say that I got the job and became a Foreigner (laughs). It was pretty life-changing, I tell you. I had to move from the UK to New York and that was really tough (laughs). But yeah, it just all fell into place and we all got on so well. We just had a ball, we really did. Everything was going so well, the records were selling, the shows were selling out. So we were very happy boys.
Oh yeah, we did. It’s hard to keep following things that are so successful. Double Vision was just huge, such a big album for them and they had a huge tour. So yeah, I did feel pressure going into Head Games because I wanted to contribute to the level that they were used to and I wanted to be very much part of the success pattern. I mean, we made some changes on Head Games. We went in a slightly more heavier direction, I think, because of the things that were happening in the world musically with punk and all. We kind of thought, well, we’ve got to take that on board and be up-to-date, as it were. And I think some of the things we did on Head Games worked very well; although some didn’t work so well and one of the things I did think hurt us was the cover. It was a mistake to use the girl in the bathroom on the front. Some people like it but a lot of people didn’t and we found that was a bit of a backlash. So although it still sold millions of copies, it wasn’t as successful as Double Vision and that made us really sit down and think before we went in the studio to do the 4 album. We knew we had our work cut out for us.
What was the first song you recorded with Foreigner?
Well, the first song I ever cut with Foreigner was “Dirty White Boy,” and we just hit that off like in two takes and it just sounded great. We were really happy with that. I loved “Head Games,” as well. I thought that was a really good song. People often ask me, which is your favorite Foreigner song, and it’s impossible to answer that because there were so many good ones, there really are. I’m very happy to be part of this whole thing and have enjoyed it for so long and being able to still enjoy it and still be able to go out and do some shows is just great.
Of all the songs that you recorded with them, when you were in the studio which one do you recall being the hardest to get down, to get right?
That’s a good question. I can’t remember them being hard. We used to work on things, basically the four of us. Lou, Mick, Dennis and myself would go in while Ian and Al were working out parts that they were going to add to. But we would work out the basic arrangement between us and just get it right so that it felt right and all the parts would come together. I don’t ever remember anything being really difficult. I mean, there were times when we thought it doesn’t sound quite right and we would rethink it, especially on 4. We did a lot of rethinking on that because we really wanted to come back with a big album on that one, with Mutt Lange producing, so we did do some, what we call rewrites, where we would record it once and then think about it and have another go in a different way. But I don’t remember it ever being difficult. We always seemed to work well together.
How was Mutt Lange as a producer? Was he a taskmaster or was he open to your ideas?
(laughs) He’s a taskmaster, trust me. He’s from South Africa and he’s a workaholic. I mean, he loves being in the studio, he loves to be in control, but so does Mick Jones. So there were times when it was tense and it was a little difficult at times because there were two different opinions going on. Mutt would see it one way and maybe Mick and Lou would see it a different way. Some of the stuff we did, for instance “Juke Box Hero,” was extremely difficult for Lou because of the key it was in, it was in E, a very high key for a singer to sing in, and Mutt really pushed Lou to the limit on that. He really did. And that happened quite a lot on that album. So yeah, Mutt was a taskmaster BUT a very, very good one and he knew what he was doing. He’s a very professional man and extremely nice too.
He has a great sense of humor, trust me. I’ve known Kenney a very long time and he’s got one of the best sense of humors ever. He’s extremely funny.
For your bass and your rig, has it changed much over the years?
I’ve still got my basses from that era and I still use them. They are my babies, basically, I’ve had them for so long. They are sitting right next to me while I’m talking to you. They’re old but they’re really good. I still use the same kind of amps, the Ampegs I used to use, I still use those. I can’t use a similar rig but we do it differently onstage now. Because we have in-ear monitors, we don’t have equipment onstage like we used to have where it was very, very loud behind us and we used to have monitor wars all the time. Everyone would say they couldn’t hear this or couldn’t hear that. Well, that doesn’t happen now because the sound we hear onstage is coming directly into our ears from our monitor mixing desk on the side of the stage where we individually choose our own mixes and we can get it absolutely perfect in our ears. And also it stops the loudness onstage. Really, if you stood on the side of the stage at a Foreigner show, you’d hear drums and that’s about it, because the sound is going out front from the PA and the monitors are all in your ears.
How do you think Jeff Pilson is doing playing your bass parts?
Jeff does a great job. I mean, they all do. They replicate what we did extremely well and they play it with great passion. Kelly does a fabulous job being the frontman for the band and each one of them is so respectful to all of us, the original members I’m talking about, but it’s really nice to be with them and see what they’re doing in keeping the music alive for the fans out on the tours they do. I think this year’s been very successful with Whitesnake and Jason Bonham with them. They’ve had a great summer and will hopefully continue to do so.
Did you ever have that much energy as Jeff has?
Not quite (laughs). I think my head would have fallen off by now, the way he shakes his head, and he’s always dripping with sweat. I mean, he really works that stage extremely hard. I’m not like that. I’m more of a stand where I am when I get in my comfort zone and play as well as I can, listen to what’s going on around me and just try to play the best I can. That’s my way of doing things (laughs).
You had mentioned Kenney Jones and I just finished reading his new autobiography and he talked about this horrible car crash you guys were in. Do you remember that at all?
(laughs) Yes I do. It broke my collarbone and I had to go in the hospital. I had fractured ribs and broken collarbone and glass stuck in my forehead. We were coming home from Steve Marriott’s house where we’d been recording quite late at night. It was in the fall, I think it was either October or November, and the roads were wet and lots of leaves on the road, and we were going through a forest in Epping in the UK and we just didn’t go around a corner. We went straight on and hit a tree head on. Kenney shot out through the windscreen and missed the tree we hit and fell into the forest. The car spun round, it was a Volkswagen Beetle, and the car spun around and hit another tree on the side and it was crushed in on the door where I was sitting, I was the passenger, and broke my collarbone and I couldn’t get out of the car at first. A guy ran up the road who’d heard the bang and he said, “You guys okay? I can’t believe you’re alive. You must have hit that tree at fifty or sixty miles an hour.” And that’s where we kind of stayed until the ambulance arrived and they managed to extract me from the car. And Kenney was so freaked out cause I was covered in blood. It didn’t look good and they took us off to the hospital and he was released after about an hour. They cleaned him up but I had to stay in and it was very painful I assure you (laughs). Yeah, we have some memories, Kenney and I, believe me.
I didn’t realize he had such a great sense of humor
Are you still doing Jones Gang with him?
No, I don’t. We called it a day about a year or so ago, a year and a half/two years ago. We’d done a lot of shows and I got to the point and said, “Kenney, I really don’t want to keep doing this in this form.” We were kind of doing private functions for people and parties and stuff, which was nice, but I just knew I wanted to move back to the States. So I wanted to get myself organized to settle up in the UK and buy a place here and move over here. I knew things were beginning to stir within the Foreigner camp and I wanted to be around, I wanted to be here. The manager of Foreigner lives here, literally a half an hour from where I do now, and he said it would be good for me to be in the States. And I said, “Yeah, I think it’s time to do it.” So my wife and I found a place here near Sarasota and we’re very happy. We’ve been here nearly a year now and just enjoying it, but we’re finding the heat a little much in the summer (laughs). It’s just very hot and very humid and I find the humidity the hardest thing to deal with.
Welcome to my world
Yeah, I would have never guessed you were from Louisiana by your accent (laughs). I have a little one myself (laughs).
You knew David Gilmour way back before all the fame and glory for both of you. How did you meet him and be in a band with him?
What happened was, I moved to Cambridge, the university town Cambridge in the UK, in 1960. I was about twelve or thirteen years old and was crazy about guitars and being in groups. By moving to Cambridge, it allowed me to meet people likeminded and David Gilmour was one of them. He was in a local band and I got into a local band. David’s a little older than me, about two years older than me, and we were very competitive. We went through our stages in local bands in the Cambridge area and David was being watched because he was not only very good-looking and a very good player and a very good singer, it was obvious he was going to go somewhere. So he was really being watched by quite a lot of people, people like Andrew Oldham of the Stones and the Beatles manager, Brian Epstein, people like that, so you really got to do something and were like, why don’t you get together with the guys you really want to play with and we’re going to send you abroad so you can get your act together, as it were, and that’s what we did.
In 1966, we left the UK and we went to Spain. We took the train all the way through France down to Spain to this tiny little village and we got ourselves together there, Willie Wilson, myself and David Gilmour. And that’s where it all started. We just worked in Spain for about six months and then we moved to France, to Paris, and we worked the French circuit for a year. And then David got the call about Pink Floyd. He knew them well, they were all from Cambridge area, and it was a very logical choice cause Syd was not in too good a shape in those days. He’d taken a lot of acid and was basically, well, he couldn’t cope with playing guitar in a band. So they brought David in and the rest is history, as they say, cause boy have they ever been successful.
Besides doing the Foreigner show, what else have you got going on in your music world?
Right now, I’ve been literally home-owning, or homemaking, so I say. But I went to New Zealand at the end of December last year and I spent a month working there with some friends of mine, a guitarist named Dave “Bucket” Colwell, a singer called Ronan Kavanagh and we brought in two musicians, New Zealanders, and we toured for a month. We did fourteen shows and it was just a lovely experience to see that country and get to play shows. But it was also a lot of traveling, more than I realized, and very tiring getting there and back. Eighteen hours of flying is not much fun.
Are we ever going to get a record from you?
(laughs) I don’t know. I’ve been trying to think about writing a book. My son wants me to write a book and I think I’m going to get him to help me do it cause I’ve had the good fortune to play with so many really great players and great musicians over the years – Peter Frampton, David Gilmour, Small Faces, Roxy Music; I even got to play with Lynyrd Skynyrd for a while, for eight weeks, and Bad Company, of course, and Foreigner – and I think I’ve got quite a story to tell. It’s just a matter of sitting down and doing it.
For more information on the Foreigner concert at Sturgis, visit the website http://www.buffalochip.com/
More Glide Foreigner Interviews
Lou Gramm – https://glidemag.wpengine.com/23220/lou-gramm/
Kelly Hansen – https://glidemag.wpengine.com/117986/kelly-hansen-foreigner/
Jeff Pilson – https://glidemag.wpengine.com/23067/jeff-pilson/