Joe Puerta Interview
Playing Kent Stage
Ambrosia scored their first Top 20 hit in 1975 with “Holdin’ On To Yesterday” and then went on to have a few more hits over the next few years including their Gold Record “How Much I Feel” in 1978.
However in 1980, the band really took off as they had two huge hits with “You’re The Biggest Part Of Me” and “You’re The Only Woman (You & I),” which earned them a Grammy nomination.
You can hear those hits and many more when Ambrosia plays The Kent Stage along with Orleans (“Dance With Me” and “Still The One”) for a great evening of “Yacht Rock” on September 29th.
We got the chance to speak with Joe Puerta from Ambrosia to discuss his incredible career (Ambrosia, Sheena Easton, Bruce Hornsby and The Range) and his upcoming appearance in Kent.
Greg Drugan: Hey Joe! How has the tour been going so far?
Joe Puerta: It's been going great! We've been having a really fun year, making new freinds and new fans every where we go. We've really been enjoying it.
GD: That's great! You're going to be playing in Kent with Orleans, have you guys played with those guys in the past?
JP: Oh yeah! Over the years we've played with them many, many times and we've become very good friends with them. We've done several different packages with them and other classic rock bands from that era.
GD: Taking a look back in the past, when did you meet up with David Pack and decide to form Ambrosia?
JP: I met up with Dave when I was a teenager. I had a band that I put together in high school called The Centuries. We were playing all the hits of the day and I ended up putting up an ad saying we were looking for a guitar player. Dave answered the ad and I think I was only fifteen years old. I think we impressed him because we played a really good version of "Light My Fire." We were both in and out of bands over the years.
After high school, Dave was one of the first guys to join another band I was forming and that band eventually morphed into Ambrosia.
GD: You co-wrote the band’s first hit “Holdin’ On To Yesterday” when you were in your early twenties. Who inspired you to write that song?
JP: I first wrote that song for that first original band. We were more influenced by bands like Crosby, Stills and Nash and Buffalo Springfield. It wasn't quite a country song, but it had that West Coast sound. As we were working on it, we put a little more blues feel to it. Actually "The Thrill Is Gone" was a big influence on that song, believe it or not! Then with the magic of Alan Parsons producing our first album, he added just a magical sound to it. (The album) became almost mystical. People really love that record; it's like a stew, you put a lot of different ingredients into it and it comes out the way it is.
GD: That song has a much more progressive-rock feel to it, it reminds me a little of “Wooden Ships” by CSN.
JP: It has a little bit of that in there, but if you put them side by side you realize that we aren't copying them. Because we brought Alan in to mix it, he just took it to another level. We were very lucky early on in our career to be able to work with Alan.
GD: He is an amazing producer and artist in his own right. Who inspired you to pick up the bass and do you play any other instruments?
JP: I was a guitar player. The band I joined, we had two guitar players and we were looking for another singer because we liked Crosby, Stills and Nash so much. I suggested that we bring in Dave Pack and he also played guitar. So we had three guitar players and one day our bass player (Jim Gamble) turns to me and says, "Joe, I'm going to start a sound company and you're going to be the bass player and I'm gonna give you my bass." So I traded him a couple of speakers for his 1963 Jazz bass.
I played that bass on many of our records and Jim Gamble went on to become one of the major sound equipment designers in the world. He was an electronics genius. He designed the mixing console for major tours and I went on to become the bass player.
GD: Who was the first artist you saw in concert and how did that impact you?
JP: The first major national act I saw was The Yardbirds. It was on Catalina Island out here in LA and was just blown away. You had Jeff Beck on lead guitar and it was such a powerful, powerful sound and I had never heard anything like that. The Yardbirds were heavy power rock. Jimmy Page was actually playing bass! (laughs) The regular bass player couldn't do the tour for some reason, he couldn't get a visa. So Jimmy Page stepped in to play bass. So it was Jimmy Page on bass and Jeff Beck on lead guitar, you could imagine the power they produced!
GD: Wow! You're lucky you got to see that. Not many people got to see him play the bass besides on that tour.
JP: Yeah, it was a pretty small window there.
GD: A few years after “Holdin’ on to Yesterday” the band went to a more of a pop sound with “How Much I Feel.“ Was that a conscious decision to go more pop or was that just a natural direction that the band took?
JP: It wasn't a decision that we had to make. We were more of a prog-rock band or you might call it classical rock because we were also influenced by bands like The Moody Blues who have a more orchestral sound. The shift into what they call now "Yacht Rock," but back then they called it "Blue-eyed Soul." When we heard the song we knew it was a hit. We said, "This is a major hit." We did have a couple of hits but we weren't really known for having them. It became a Top five record and it changed our identity. It broadened our bass of fans. On another level, the people that knew us for prog were kinda confused by it. It took a while to morph the two into the identity that is now Ambrosia today. It's not that uncommon for artists to have that kind of background. Take for example, Phil Collins. You got "Groovy Kinda Love" and then you have Genesis. Todd Rundgren has "Hello It's Me," then you got Utopia.
It's not that bizarre to have multiple tools in your toolbox of what you write. You might have something completely pop one day and the next day you have something that's bizarre and artistic.
GD: I love that analogy "Tools in your Toolbox." That's great! You had continued success with two huge songs in 1980. Do you remember watching “Biggest Part Of Me” climb the charts?
JP: Of course. We were following the charts and it kept going up and up and up. It was number one on some of the charts. It's one of those songs when you're playing it live, everyone is singing along. (laughs) Everyone sings, "Make a wish baby!" We talk to people after the show and they always tell us that it was their wedding song, or they tell us how much it means to them. It's always fun to see that reaction from the crowd.
GD: After Ambrosia broke up in the mid-1980s, you toured as a part of Sheena Easton’s band. What was that experience like?
JP: It was kind of a shock to me when the band went its separate ways. I've been in this band basically since I left high school. It wasn't too long after that when I got a call saying that Sheena Easton was looking for an American touring band. She's Scottish but she was moving to California. They were looking for a bassist who could sing; when they asked me I said sure. Then they asked if I knew a keyboard player who could sing. I said that I had a friend, Bruce Hornsby, who could do that. So Bruce and I joined that band! Bruce was actually going to be a member of Ambrosia, a touring member at least. We did about two months of rehearsal then he said he wanted to work on his own music. When I got the call (for Sheena) I recommended him and we did that for a couple of years. What's funny is that you will see Bruce Hornsby and myself in some of the Sheena Easton videos; "Strut" and "Sugar Walls" were two of them.
GD: After you left Sheena Easton’s band you became a founding member of his band called The Range. How different were those experiences?
JP: That was phenomenal! I was always a fan of Bruce. That first album came out and we sold millions of copies and we actually won the Grammy for "Best New Artist" for Bruce Hornsby and The Range. So I have a Grammy because of Bruce so I thank him for that. We always knew he was an amazing talent, that's why we asked him to play with us. Then he went all to a whole other level with hit after hit.
GD: Do know where your Grammy Award is, do you have it on display?
JP: It's on the mantle on the fireplace.
GD: Excellent. That's where mine would be too if I had one!
GD: After a few successful years with The Range, you decided to get back with Ambrosia with all four original members and embarked on several successful tours. Why did David Pack decide to leave the band? Was it the touring schedule?
JP: It was primarily the touring schedule. He's a super talented guy and was having some success as a producer. The thing with production, you never know when you have to be in the studio. We wanted to get the band back out on tour and it became too much of a conflict. We'd have a gig booked months in advance and he would agree to do it. Then he'd cancel at the last minute because he had to be in the studio. It caused some friction and we decided that we would have to go our separate ways.
GD: It seems that there has been a resurgence of ‘70s music, especially in movie soundtracks and the so called “Yacht Rock” stations. To what do you attribute this?
JP: I think there's a whole generation of fans that grew up with that music. When they turn on the radio today, they really can't relate to what they're hearing. People relate to the music that they grew up on and when they listen to today's music, they're not getting anything back emotionally from it. People come to the shows and they are reliving the soundtrack to their lives.
GD: I think good music is good music. As long as it’s being played by real instruments and sung by real people with no auto-tune, I’m all about it! When the younger generation hears these older songs they think, "Wow, they're actually playing instruments and singing songs without a computer!"
JP: There's a lot of artists today where it's all about choreography rather than singing the songs. I went to see Britney Spears' show and I don't think she sang more than a couple of lines live. It was mostly pre-recorded because she was dancing so much.
GD: So tell me about your upcoming show at The Kent Stage. What can fans expect?
JP: All of our hits are going to be played. Orleans is the same way. We will be doing some of our progressive songs that people know. It's going to be a good mix.
GD: Sounds like a great time. Joe, thanks so much for your time and I look forward to seeing you at the end of the month!
JP: Sounds good! I look forward to meeting you in person.
Be sure to catch Ambrosia and Orleans at The Kent Stage on Saturday, September 29th. Tickets are $35-$45 and can be purchased here.