Born: October 4, 1965 Primary Instrument: Guitar, electric
October 4,1965, El Paso, TX -- Johnny Cash is arrested for smuggling amphetamines across the border from Mexico. Meanwhile, in the thriving metropolis of Philadelphia, Skip Heller is born.
HartfordRaised in and around the City of Brotherly Love, he develops an early interest in music, largely the result of seeing John Hartford on the Smothers Brothers and Glen Campbell television shows. At age 4, he buys his first record, EARTHWORDS AND MUSIC, with money he got for his birthday, thus beginning a lifelong habit of running to a record store every damn time he has money in his hand.
His school years are uneventful. There's a brief bout with piano lessons. Also, he discovers rockabilly music at age 8, and decides he wants to play guitar. His grandmother takes him to see an Elvis Presley concert at the Spectrum (the local sports arena), and in effect seals the deal. He loses all interest in piano lessons (since none of what he's being force-fed has anything to do with Elvis, Ricky, or even Jerry Lee) and starts screaming for a guitar
As his little mind is being progressively warped by early rock'n'roll and some big band records he comes across at his grandmother's house, he stumbles onto the weekly Dr Demento radio show, and is exposed by this to a music from a wide variety of periods and American cultures, including everything from the klezmer comedy of Mickey Katz to the iconoclasm of Frank Zappa. Demento also plays John Hartford. If Skip's parents have anyone to blame for the questionable musical and sociological development of their eldest son, it is Dr Demento.
In 1975, Skip's little sister, Jennifer, then five years old, suffers a fall from the fenced-in porch of the second floor of his grandmother's South Philadelphia apartment and is rushed to the hospital. For about six weeks, every day after school is spent in the waiting room of a South Philadelphia hospital. The understandably nervous mother, then in vocational school to become a librarian, has the presence of mind to find stuff to occupy the time of Skip and his younger brother Joel (then 8). For Skip, she finds the thickest Elvis-related book she can get her hands on -- Irwin Stambler's Encyclopedia of Country Music. The young Skip, with little else to occupy his time, absorbing the book for months, reading, re-reading, and memorizing bios of country music performers ranging from Uncle Dave Macon to Bill Monroe, Merle Haggard, and Kinky Friedman. He soon after discovers WRCP, a local country station, takes out a subscription to Country Music magazine, and starts collecting country records along with comedy, old big bands, and early rock'n'roll. A budget 45's rack at the Berlin Farmer's Market makes things easier, with singles three for a dollar. Also, he manages to trashpick old records around the neighborhood.
As his interest in country music grows, he discovers a public TV show, Philadelphia Folk Festival, which shows live performances from the annual event, and gets to see John Hartford, David Bromberg, Norman Blake, Steve Goodman, Tom Rush, and many other significant performers. At the same time, his radio is crackling not on with WRCP, but WDAS, the local black music station, and he hears and falls in love with the music of Earth Wind and Fire, Funkadelic, and, above all, Stevie Wonder.
At age eleven, he finally receives his first guitar. The first song he can play all the way through is Freight Train by Libba Cotten. An obsession with the Beatles follows. He gets after school jobs at a local radio station, then a record store, and a paper route. His record collection grows to include the Ramones, Joni Mitchell, Billie Holiday, and Allan Sherman. he starts playing in garage bands around Audubon, NJ, where he attends middle school and high school. Two of his music teachers there, Mike Kaufman and Jay Cohen, encourage his interests. His electronic music teacher, Richard Smith, doesn't.
While in junior high, he discovers punk rock. But the time he's in tenth grade, his favorite bands are the Blasters (led by dave and Phil Alvin), X (including brilliant drummer DJ Bonebrake), Wall of Voodoo (fronted by Stan Ridgway and featuring the phenom guitarist Marc Moreland), and the Dead Kennedys (led by the hilarious but also very serious Jello Biafra). He finds himself absorbed into the local punk/post-punk music scene, and is accepted enough to be allowed underage into the bars, where he first meets the Alvin brothers and DJ Bonebrake.
The wide-open musical attitudes of punk rock lead him to rediscover James Brown, rockabilly, and Woody Guthrie, and he also starts to find out about jazz, which eventually pulled him away from the then-dwindling punk rock scene and towards the jazz scene, where he served an apprenticeship with pianist Eric Spiegel. By the time Skip heller was a senior in high school, he was playing jazz for money three to four nights a week, as well as working weddings and bar mitzvahs many weekends as a member of the Marc Shaw Orchestra.
The mid-eighties Philly jazz scene was quite a hotbed, with rising players like Uri Caine, Christian McBride, Joey DeFrancesco, Daryl Hall, and many others who would establish international reputations. Many other fine players with whom Skip worked kept it local, including Heath Allen, Mark Knox, Ted Gerike, and Bill Meek. The players' range of ages, tastes, and attitudes helped Skip develop his own artistic voice.
In 1986, he formed his own trio, with bassist Brian Christie and drummer Jeff Stabley. The group played Heller's first jazz compositions, which were mostly terrible. Wanting for his own artistic voice, he decided to use Bill Evans' instead, and spoke through it badly. back to the drawing board.
Unfortunately, Reaganomics had worked as well as most policies of a post-Nixon Republican administration, and Philly's once-thriving Center City jazz scene was now more about where the clubs used to be. Skip formed Speak No Evil, a rockabilly band with eclectic proclivities, and became a staple of the local bar-band scene. He started writing his own songs.
After about five years of slogging it out playing the local Philly fun pits, he met Ed Jollimore, who was aspiring to be a record producer, at an NRBQ gig. The two became buddies, and when Jollimore heard Skip's original songs, he decided to produce his -- and Skip's -- first record, which became Fallen Hand Of Love. It gave Skip his first brush with the press. FHOL only generated one review, but it was glowing enough to encourage him to keep writing songs. Also, he sent a copy of it to Stan Ridgway, who responded by sending a postcard with a picture of Lord Buckley on the front and a message on the back that said Make another one right away! Former Blaster Dave Alvin told him, You're a great guitar player, but what ya really are is a songwriter!
These endorsements kept him working at it. Soon after the release of FHOL, an old girlfriend sent him a plane ticket to visit her for a few days in California. He'd never been to California, although he thought he knew about it from the songs of X, Wall of Voodoo, Merle Haggard, and the Blasters, as well as the novels of Raymond Chandler. In February of 1993, he made the flight, and was changed by the experience.
FHOL's follow-up, Moon Country, not only documented the effect of California, but also the rise and fall of the long-standing relationship that brought him out there. The graphic lyric writing and stylized arranging were unlike anything Philadelphia was producing at the time, and the local press praised him roundly. Finally, positive local attention. Unfortunately, it froze him in his tracks.
Reading the reviews for me was like reading my job description. Before then, I just wrote songs and didn't think about how I did it. After reading all those reviews that described what I was writing, I tried to write the way other people said I did, and the flow of things just shut off.
While MC reflected his concurrent lyric interests in Alvin, Ridgway, and Chandler, it departed musically in a drastic way. The harmonies and textures owed more to sixties pop, especially Burt Bacharach and Brian Wilson, with nods along the way to Raymond Scott, Esquivel, Frank Zappa, and Les Baxter. Also, MC found a great deal of its focus in realizing an American approach to bossa nova.
But his attempts at making new music came to naught. When Frank Zappa died in December, 1993, Skip stopped playing the guitar. He decided to try his hand at music journalism. Deciding he was best off having something to shop to publications, he wrote letters to musicians asking to interview them. Among these was Les Baxter, the principal architect of exotica. Baxter responded with a phone call, and invited Skip to come visit him in Palm Springs. He arrived on Halloween, 1994.
Les Baxter rekindled his spark to make music, and, before 1994 was out, the first instrumental compositions by Skip Heller were recorded, in Morrisville PA and featuring Uri Caine. Over the next year, Skip started composing and playing again, as well as publishing musicians such as Burt Bacharach, Carla Bley, Curtis Mayfield, Esquivel, and Dave Douglas.
By the end of 1995, he was again involved in musicmaking, producing a Baxter reissue for Dionysus Records, and he had re-connected with DJ Bonebrake. The two co-lead of jazz quartet session which resulted in the critically-praised One More Midnight disc, which sold dozens. He also wrote and produced an arrangement of “Days Of Wine and Roses” for a Del-Fi Records tribute to Henry Mancini. By January 1996, he was living in LA’s Silverlake district, and starting to produce records. His first project, the debut of San Francisco band Frenchy, won a Bay Area Music (BAM) award for best local recording. However, he found the band so despicable as people that he decided not to work with bands anymore, only solo artists.
To follow up Frenchy, he put together a deal to produce a new album for rockabilly rebel Ray Campi. The resultant disc, Train Rhythm Blue, was not only his first American release in years, but simply his best ever by most press accounts. Skip chose the players (except Rip Masters, whose inclusion Campi insisted upon to preserve the Rollin’ Rock spirit) and the tunes. For drums, he got Bonebrake. Skip played most of the lead guitar, but brought in Dave Alvin and Tony Gilkyson as well. Stan Ridgway came in to play harmonica. Alvin’s participation didn¹t at the guitar level.
“This was my first production in LA,” recalls Skip, “and Dave was really trying to hook me up. I was playing him something we’d laid down the basic tracks for, and Dave suggested steel guitar. The budget for the whole record was about TWO THOUSAND DOLLARS. I had about a hundred bucks left. So Dave, without telling me, called Greg Leisz and explained the situation and kind of called in a favor. Greg called me and offered to play for a hundred bucks. The whole deal was one kindness after another like that.”
On the heels of finishing TRB, Skip signed to Ultramodern and went right to work on Lonely Town, his bossa nova noir disc. The $600 dollar budget was too miniscule, and, although Skip himself dislikes “almost everything on that record but ‘Last Affair’ and ‘Satellite,’” it gave him his first taste of real national press, including a feature story in Option magazine.
While preparing LT in the late spring of 1996, he joined exotic diva Yma Sumac’s touring group. He returned a year later to tour again with her. After that, he vowed never to speak to Yma Sumac ever again.
By 1997, Skip’s output was a succession of acclaimed new rockabilly productions, lounge-oriented reissues, and bar gigs on the LA roots music scene. His reputation as a guitarist had quickly become formidable. His own 1997 release St Christopher’s Arms garnered much critical praise but no sales. It has been pointed out that following Lonely Town with a record that fell somewhere between Jimmy Webb and Flatt & Scruggs was not the world’s strongest career move, leading a local major-label A&R man to remark:
“Skip Heller? Your one-stop shop for career suicide.”
(Not long after making that remark, that A&R man who advise his company to cut loose a Grammy-winning album that went gold in favor of hanging on to a cartoon novelty album that stiffed. He’s no longer in the record biz).
In early 1998, AMOK Books publisher Stuart Swezey approached Skip to write the music for a disc that would feature true crime author John Gilmore reading from his books with musical backing. Also, vintage rhythm’n’blues impresario Jim Dawson commissioned Skip to arranged and produce a new disc for honking sax legend Big Jay McNeely. The two projects were recorded just about simultaneously (with McNeely even making a cameo on Gilmore’s). They marked Skip’s own return to writing instrumental music. Also, they returned Heller’s close friend and mentor, Robert Drasnin, to active music-making as a jazzman.
The McNeely disc, Central Avenue Confidential, died in the marketplace for lack of promotion but did have a few advocates in the press and jazz radio for its seamless meld of Big Jay’s soulful R&B tenor with a jumping bluesy jazz organ combo.
The Gilmore disc found international press praise as much for its soundtrack as its focal point, and found a small but devoted cult around the world.
By 1998’s end, Skip went in the studio with a handful of arrangements and a few hundred bucks short of two grand to make Couch, Los Angeles, a record centered on his post-lounge instrumental side, blending space-age pop, noir, hard bop, and cartoon music. Within a year, that record would result in his being hired to write his first film score, for A Man Is Mostly Water. Suddenly, the rockabilly projects were supplanted by assignments that centered more on his abilities to arrange for ensembles oriented around jazz harmonies. The disc garnered enough press notice that soon he was invited to perform its contents with the Minnesota Contemporary Ensemble, and was suddenly in demand in other cities to perform his arrangements and compositions.
Also, he had discovered the records of Chicano Music Godfather Lalo Guerrero, and embarked on a project of transcribing Guerrero’s historic 1940s-60s hits, and put together a band to play them live, debuting on Cinco de Mayo 2000 at Club Fais Do Do to a sell-out crowd. The Guerrero project became ongoing for the next few years.
In 2001, Skip was hired to score Flintstones On The Rocks and a song for the cartoon Dexter’s Laboratory for the Cartoon Network. Also, he was commissioned to write a big band piece for the ICE Contemporary Music Ensemble. He also joined the backing band for Chicano legends Cannibal and the Headhunters.
The best of it all happened over the course of October, 2001. He was invited to stand in for guitarist Johnny Spampinato in his favorite band, NRBQ, for the midwest leg of a tour. The Q stint -- a joyous experience for Skip -- concluded on Chicago on October 13. On October 14, he and Skye wed in Hollywood before 160 close friends, and honeymooned in New Orleans.
While his ensembles continued to play live and record, no new releases were heard from Heller until 2002, when Dionysus issued Career Suicide: The Skip Heller Anthology 1994-2001. About half the disc was unreleased material, including film and cartoon cues, and appearances by Lalo Guerrero, Uri Caine, Big Sandy, Katy Moffatt, and others. It also featured cuts from various rockabilly records Skip had produced (Ray Campi and Sammy Masters), making this the first where all his varied styles were represented. Again, the international press was strong and positive.
In October 2002, the Skip Heller Quartet released Homegoing, Skip’s affectionate return to the Philly organ bars, although by no means a neo-retro retread of the old days. Mixng classic organ combo jazz with klezmer music, blues, Mahler, and more, Heller came up with probably the most original organ combo record in recent memory, including two tunes featuring Dave Alvin on vocals. A short midwest tour followed, and, for the first time, the mainstream American jazz press got on board.
The quartet -- SH: guitar, Robert Drasnin: alto saxophone and clarinet, Harlan Spector: organ, and Howard Greene: drums -- remains Skip’s main working band, with plans for a new disc underway. At the time of this writing, plans for more dates around the USA are in the works, along with several different records. As Clayton Moore wrote in ATOMIC magazine, “Whatever Skip Heller does, the results are bound to be damned interesting.”
Not that he let that stop him from his usual eclectic pursuits. On the eve of his Fall 2002 Midwest minitour, he was in the studio recording a 1930's Raymond Scott-styled film cue. In May 2003, his new arrangements of some of Lalo Guerrero's music for full orchestral instrumentation were performed by Guerrero and the Foundation Society Orchestra (under the very capable baton of Gary Buchanan), with Heller himself as guest soloist.
(Interestingly, Heller has recieved very little attention for his restorations of Guerrero's music. In fact, only Johnny Whiteside ever mentioned Heller's contribution, ironically enough in the LA Weekly, a magazine that has regularly turned a deaf ear to Heller's music. Guerrero's music, while acclaimed for its innovation, had never been transcribed by anyone in the Chicano community, let alone presented in its original context. In fact, Heller's name has been left off out of any publicity, despite the fact that his Guerrero shows have been the most consistently attended and praised by audiences as the real deal.)
By January 2003, due to the marathon efforts of publicist Kevin Calabro, it was getting difficult to read about jazz without reading about Skip Heller. All About Jazz featured Heller and Gary Osby on the cover of their Philly edition, Downbeat rated Homegoing four stars, Atomic ran a feature, and daily and weekly papers ran reviews and features. In their August 8, 2003 issue, Goldmine put his picture on the cover, atop the big cover pic of The Police.
The organ-based quartet -- usually Heller and Drasnin with Seattle rhythm section Joe Doria on organ and John Wicks on drums -- remains Skip’s main format. Without Drasnin, the trio recently released a critically acclaimed live disc, The Battle In Seattle, and, with Drasnin, cut a new studio disc, Fakebook, to be released in early 2004.
Fakebook got Heller signed to Hyena Records, a real honest-to-god jazz label, and he now looks forward to taking my best shot under the best possible circumstances.