Super Sideman: Sax player Mark Rivera on touring with Billy Joel, working with Ringo Starr, and where to find the best slice in Brooklyn

Some people declare their major at 19. Or lose their virginity. Or try a Manhattan for the first time. At 19, Mark Rivera was just getting his first real gig: playing sax for Sam & Dave. From that auspicious breakthrough, Rivera worked on a number of projects, any one of which could have been a career-defining highlight: marquee gigs working with Foreigner, Billy Joel, Paul Simon, and Ringo Starr.

This weekend, Mark Rivera plays his sax somewhere in the outfield at AT&T Park, one member of the leviathan band that Billy Joel has assembled to flood monster venues: Shutting down the Nassau Coliseum with an assist from Paul Simon (Rivera himself blazing through his old bandmate’s song “Late In The Evening”); rocking Wrigley Field in Chicago with help from Jennifer Lawrence and Amy Schumer (not as odd as it sounds–Joel’s catalog features in Schumer’s summer blockbuster Trainwreck); and playing an ongoing residency at Madison Square Garden, for a record 24 consecutive sellouts (and counting).

Somehow, in between gigs, Rivera managed to record and release his first solo record, Common Bond (2014), a heavy blues-rock album with contributions from bandmates like Joel and Starr, and Rivera himself deftly handling vox. And beyond all of that, Rivera is a gentleman, who doesn’t forget for one second the blessings that have come his way in this exciting lifetime. We were thrilled to get a chance to speak with Mr. Rivera by phone, and encourage everyone to check out this little gig he’s playing in SoMa this weekend.

Wingtip: Take us back to 1975.

Mark Rivera: 1975? I played with John Lennon. I backed him. I was in a band called BOMF, if I remember correctly. It was just a local band. We did original music, and at the same time, Roy Cicala, who owned the Record Plant, his wife sang in the band, and Jimmy Iovine at that time was recording John’s Rock And Roll album, I believe, they’d already done Walls And Bridges. And he was asked to do a tribute to Sir Lew Grade, an English gentleman. And I did the gig.

WT: Were there supposed to be more sessions or shows with the Lennon project?

MR: We did a couple, we did the TV show, we did another show, like a birthday greeting to his son, it was a taping in the Record Plant, and then he produced the Gary U.S. Bonds record that I was on. I don’t know how far that went along, if that got released or not, but those were the only sessions I did with him. Then, soon after that, the band broke up, he was on to other things, and unfortunately a few years later he was killed, so…

WT: How did you hook up with Billy Joel?

MR: [In] 1980 I joined Foreigner. I played on [4, I sang on that, and then I toured with them from late 1980 or 81 into the early part of 1982. Then Billy had the record, The Nylon Curtain, out, and he and Rich Cannata had parted ways and he was gonna replace Richie, so I was asked to come in and join the band.

WT: And then you worked on the next record, An Innocent Man. What was Phil Ramone like, working with?

MR: He was wonderful. Phil was an absolute gentleman. He was like a wonderful chef, he knew who to call in for what. A perfect example is when he called in Phil Woods to play the sax solo on “Just The Way You Are.” You couldn’t have called a better person, and how he went about his production was just masterful. He put the right people in the right circumstances and made it happen.

WT: [What were] your impressions of the USSR.

MR: It was great. I was there with Billy in ’87 and then I was there again with Ringo in ’91. And a lot changed. I mean, Russia was a trip. They wanted to be American. Billy wanted to break the wall down, and he kind of successfully did so. The record prior to that was The Bridge, which was metaphorically correct because it did bridge–his music was what they wanted and what we wanted to give them. So it worked out perfectly on both parts.

WT: [How did] your time working as Ringo Starr’s music director help you put together your own band for Common Bond?

MR: The trust that Ringo imparted in me–he had me as a music director from like the second rehearsal. He just knew that I knew the guys, I knew the songs, I knew the backgrounds, I knew the chords, I grew up playing them. And, quite frankly, I hadn’t even thought of it, but the fact that I played with all of these great musicians and I was able to speak to them on a very level playing field, gave me a great deal of confidence, and the fact that I became friendly with Ringo, and had the nerve to ask him to play on the record, had the nerve to ask Billy to do so, and guys like Steve Lukather, Nils Lofgren, all these friends of mine played on the record and it came with the confidence probably that Ringo helped me gain. I was always relatively confident in my abilities, but to feel confident as a musical director is–especially for, we’re talking about a Beatle–It’s not like some guy in a bar band said, “Hey, by the way, could you call a couple of guys and do a gig?” it was a big deal, a great honor. It still is a great honor. I’m going out in September to put the band together again.

WT: How did you put together your track list for [Common Bond]?

MR: Well, we wrote a bunch of songs. Jimmy Brelower, myself, a woman Karen Manno, the lyricist on a number of songs. And some great musicians–we just got together and jammed, got some ideas, but the songs themselves–two of the songs we had for quite a while. “Hard To Let Go” we had for some time. And then “Turn Me Loose,” I think was the first one that came to mind. Little by little–I mean it took a long time, between my touring, and Jimmy’s work schedule, it just took quite a while to put the record together. But as far as the tracking, you know, eight originals, Hendrix’s “Spanish Castle Magic,” and Danny Kirwan’s “Tell Me All The Things You Do.” That’s a Fleetwood Mac song. That was like one of my favorite songs as a kid, so that was an easy call. In fact, “Tell Me All The Things You Do” was the first thing we cut because we wanted to jam and see how the band felt playing together and it came off great. So I think that opened, I go by records, I go by side two–that opens up side two on the vinyl.

WT: In 2013 you were prepping the record, but you were also prepping for New Year’s Eve at the Barclay’s Center, and this massive residency at Madison Square Garden. I wonder if you could talk about what it’s like to have a standing gig at Madison Square Garden?

MR: It’s the greatest venue in the entire universe. I mean, we played the Coliseum for 500,000 people; [when I] played with Foreigner, we’d do stadiums of 85,000 people; Simon & Garfunkel, we played out in Tel Aviv, I think it was, for 120,000 people. But Madison Square Garden is a destination where people from all over the world come. At the end of the gig, I’ll see people from Taiwan, I’ll see people from Perth, I’ll see people from every state in the United States, and they all come to the greatest venue–in my opinion, again, I’m slightly biased–but I think Madison Square Garden is the greatest venue in the world. And I’m playing there with, to me, the quintessential New Yorker. He basically personifies–as Tony Bennett once said, “He’s the walking American Songbook,” and I couldn’t agree more. We’re playing the greatest gig in the world with the guy who kinda owns it. By the end of the night, when we get to the encore, we do either “Uptown Girl” or “You May Be Right,” Madison Square Garden is built on springs, so when the crowd is bopping, the whole stage, the whole venue actually rocks a little bit. You can be on stage and you’ll feel it. The first time it happened I was kind of terrified, because I was in the Kobe earthquake, and every time something moves around like that it’s uncomfortable. In fact one time we were upstairs at the Garden, and I believe Paul Simon was at the Theater At Madison Square Garden, down below us, and he had like a pin-spot light on him, and we were at the end of our set and his light started moving back and forth. It’s pretty freaky if you think about it to have that kind of power. But Billy fans at Madison Square Garden, there’s basically nothing like it. It really is like nothing else. We do these great gigs, we just played Fenway, we’ll be at AT&T Stadium. That’s going to be great, but the point being: nothing is like the Garden. As massive as these audiences are, the connection to the audience at Madison Square Garden is epic. We’re speaking their language and they love it.

WT: Okay, lightning round: Mets Or Yankees?

MR: Yankees.

WT: Favorite Billy Joel record?

MR: Record or song?

WT: Lets go record. Album.

MR: The whole album, That’s a tough one. I might say The Bridge. The one I had the most fun working on was An Innocent Man, but that’s just my preference. I love The Bridge. I love the songs on it. And then, what, song?

WT: Sure, let’s go song.

MR: “All About Soul” or “Leave A Tender Moment Alone,” neither of which we ever do. [laughs]

WT: Favorite Ringo Starr drumbeat?

MR: Oh, “Tomorrow Never Knows.” That’s easy.

WT: Where’s the best slice of pizza in Brooklyn?

MR: Uh, In Brooklyn, geesh, there are some places I used to go to, but I have to say Paulie Gees is coming up now. Have you heard of Paulie Gees?

WT: No.

MR: Paulie Gees is in Greenpoint, but there are a couple of places way out… It’s really tough. I’m out on a limb, ’cause a lot of my friends will say This guy, That guy. There used to be this place called Bella Pizza on 11th Avenue and 60th Street, they made the best Sicilian pizza. I loved it. But Paulie Gees has got some great pizza now.

WT: Favorite sax player beside yourself?

MR: Michael Brecker.

WT: What item can you not live without on tour?

MR: My iPhone. [laughs] People might say [in a mock-emotional manner] their saxophone or their diary. My iPhone. That’s my connection to the world.

WT: Finally, just a closing thought, What is the key to a long career in a fickle industry?

MR: The key to any relationship in the world: Be considerate of other people. Understand that people have opinions. Ringo told me one time—we were coming from a gig and the particular bass player in that band said, “Ah, that night sucked and there were all these problems.” And I said, “I know one thing, man, that was a great fricking gig.” And Ringo turned to me and said, “You don’t know a fucking thing, man.” He goes, “No one knows. You can feel what you feel, but you have no right to say what someone else should feel.” And with that said, understanding that people–we’re all in this together. It’s like a band, it’s like a team, you know, when one guy crosses the goal line, 10 others pushed him there, and understanding that no one man wins alone. I’ve never been told not to come back and I’m very blessed with that. In this fickle industry, the fact that I get to play a saxophone and get paid, and get this adulation every night, I don’t once forget that I’m blessed.


Mark Rivera’s album Common Bond is now available. For more information visit Rivera plays with the Billy Joel band Saturday night at AT&T Park. Tickets available at Ticketmaster and StubHub.
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David is Wingtip's storyteller. In addition to editing the Modern Gentleman's Blog, he has written for Wax Poetics, The Source, SF Weekly, and the East Bay Express, and others. His inspirations include Rumble Fish, Paul's Boutique, and Balzac. He studied English at the City University of New York at Hunter College and journalism at the University of Southern California. He lives in Berzerkeley with his wife and daughter.

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