Jeff Carlisi: Hold on Loosely

It’s no secret that Jeff Carlisi was heavily influenced by The Cars when he co-wrote what may well be 38 Special’s most recognizable and beloved song, “Hold On Loosely.” He is unfailingly candid about it whenever he tells the story of its creation. But it wasn’t just that one song: The Cars and Benjamin Orr would play a pivotal role in Jeff’s musical career long after he fiddled around with those first chugging 8th notes.

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38 Special: L-R Jeff Carlisi, Steve Brookins, Don Barnes, Donnie Van Zandt, Larry Junstrom, and Jack Grondin

38 Special was a popular 80s band out of Jacksonville, Florida. Well, I guess I should say they still are, since they just announced a new tour for 2020, though I believe Don Barnes is the only original member remaining. Anyway, the group of high school pals started churning out Southern rock songs in 1974 but, in Jeff’s words to me, “the first couple of albums were garbage and got no play.” Jeff felt the band was stuck trying to imitate the genre’s icons of the day, like Lynyrd Skynyrd, The Allman Brothers Band, and The Marshall Tucker Band. In doing so, they were failing to set themselves apart from the rest of the swamp.

In 1979 they got an infusion of fresh water (see what I did there?) when Jim Peterik, co-founder of the band Survivor, joined their songwriting sessions. Their third album, Rockin’ Into the Night, finally put the band on the charts when the title track peaked at #43 on the Billboard Hot 100. 38 Special was finally getting some national attention, but they were still sputtering a bit to find their signature sound.

Jeff clearly remembers the first time he heard “Just What I Needed.” He told me, “I was driving in my car and JWIN came on the radio. I thought I was going to throw up. I thought it was terrible; I couldn’t switch the radio station fast enough.” But within two weeks he couldn’t get enough of it, drawn in by the simplicity and genius of the riffs and the infectious chorus.

As Jeff explains in this video excerpt from iVideosongs, he started messing around with that beginning riff and it morphed into the backbone of “Hold On Loosely.” Don Barnes and Jim Peterik loved it, adding lyrics and fleshing out the music. It was a huge hit, and all of a sudden 38 Special was a staple on both rock and pop radio. Over the next decade the band released “Caught Up In You,” “If I’d Been the One,” “Back Where You Belong,” “Like No Other Night,” and on and on… They now had a sound all their own, featuring, as Jeff aptly calls it, “the ever present 8th note.”

Because of that little opening riff in “Just What I Needed,” Jeff believes that The Cars helped boost them out of the mire 38 Special was stuck in and put them on the road to success.

“I think the one band that I owe the most credit to as far as really hitting my stride as a songwriter, especially when 38 Special started becoming successful in the early 80’s, was the Cars…I really owe Ric Ocasek (the Cars’ leader) a lot of credit as far as enlightening me into how you can create something different, very original and unique – that when you hear it on the radio for the first time it’s like ‘whoa, it’s that band.’ Some people say ‘as soon as I hear your songs on the radio I know that it is 38 Special because nobody else does it that way.’” — Jeff Carlisi, American Songwriter interview, July 1992.

When Jeff left 38 Special in 1996, he could not have predicted that The Cars — or at least, one member of The Cars — would have an even deeper impact on his life.

38 Special and The Cars were both at their most popular in the 80s, though the two groups didn’t really cross paths. Jeff never met any members of the band until 1999, when he and Ben ended up together in the supergroup Big People. Jeff recalled in the book, Let’s Go! Benjamin Orr and The Cars, “Derek picked Ben up at the airport, and I was in awe of this guy. I’ll never forget the first time he walked through the door for rehearsal and I said, ‘Hey, you’re Ben Orr!’ and he just said with a smile, ‘So, that’s what I’ve been told.'”

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Backstage at a Billy Joel concert, 1999. Photo courtesy of Jeff Carlisi.

When they were pulling together each individual member’s contribution to the setlist, Ben made it clear that he would only perform Cars’ songs that originally featured his vocals. Jeff was surprised to learn that Ben actually sang many of the band’s hits; like so many others, he assumed it was all Ric on the albums. Learning the songs for Big People elevated the music to a whole new level for Jeff. “I was always a casual fan, but I became a much bigger fan of The Cars after playing those songs with Ben.”

One day Jeff tried to explain to Ben how “Hold On Loosely” came from “Just What I Needed.” He even went as far as playing the two riffs side by side to illustrate the influence for Ben. Remembering, Jeff laughs, “Ben just looked at me, and he had that dry wit, you know. He said, ‘Sorry, pardner. I just don’t hear it.'”

The friendship between Jeff and Ben was immediate and permanent; they were as close as brothers. They had so much in common: the music in their blood, their deep love for kids, and the desire for copious amounts of hot sauce. They were even near the same size physically, though Jeff told me with a laugh, “His feet were much smaller than mine. I couldn’t figure out how he could walk around on such tiny feet!”

While Julie Snider, Ben’s fiancée, was tirelessly and tenderly caring for Ben’s every need throughout his illness, Jeff with right there with her. Together they saw to it that Ben’s last weeks were as active and comfortable as Ben wanted them to be.

Jeff finally met the other members of The Cars when he attended the video shoot for the band’s last interview in August of 2000. Ben emphasized that he really wanted Jeff to be there, and that he was looking forward to introducing Jeff to the other guys. Jeff remembers Ric as being rather stoic and aloof, but overall everyone was friendly.

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At Ben’s insistence that Jeff be in the photo, Jeff decides to play it goofy. Photo courtesy of Jeff Carlisi, August, 2000.

After Ben’s memorial service in Cleveland, Jeff went to lunch with Greg Hawkes and David Robinson and enjoyed swapping stories with them about Ben and their respective bands. It was good to connect; it was good to bond through Ben.

After Ben passed away, Julie gifted Jeff with an incredible treasure: Ben’s Gibson EB-6. Jeff had long admired it, and Julie assured him that Ben would want him to have it. It remains one of Jeff’s most cherished possessions to this day, a tangible reminder of the love of a best friend, gone too soon.

Isn’t it so incredible that 40 years after Jeff was repulsed and then inspired by “Just What I Needed,” Ben would come along and rock Jeff’s world once again? It’s a beautiful thing. ❤


A couple of additional factoids (because how can I not include a number list?):

  1. “Hold On Loosely” was the 13th video played on the first broadcast of MTV. Jeff vividly remembers a cameraman from MTV coming out to film their live show, back when ‘music television’ was an untried concept. He recounts the memory at about the 17 minute mark in the Youtube video from iVideoSongs.
  2. jeff bookJeff has always had a huge desire to connect kids and music. In 2003 he founded Camp Jam Co., an organization that hosts a variety of music experience programs for learners of all ages and skill levels, in cities all across the nation.
  3. Wanting to also come alongside adults, in 2009 he co-wrote a book called Jam: Amp Your Team, Rock Your Business. He weaves his personal rock-and-roll success story with sage advice for business executives looking to rise to the top of their game. (True to form, he gives full inspirational credit to The Cars.)
  4. Jeff will be a guest on Madame Perry’s Salon on January 27, 2020. Listeners can call in and ask questions during this interview. The studio number is 646-716-9922. Tune in!
  5. I’ve included a few more videos below, including another example of Jeff talking about how “Just What I Needed” influenced 38 Special, as well as some original performances by 38 Special, The Cars, and Big People.

Now, it’s time to rock!

20 Years Ago: Big People!

Two thousand nineteen marks the 20th anniversary of the creation of the last band Ben ever played in: Big People!

Joe Milliken’s book, Let’s Go! Benjamin Orr and The Cars, is an amazing resource for background on this band (and Ben’s whole life, obviously!), with a whole chapter devoted to how the group came together, including quotes from all the major players. I’ll just give a brief summary here:

Originally the brainchild of drummer Michael Cartellone (Damn Yankees, Lynyrd Skynyrd), Big People was a supergroup consisting of guitarist Jeff Carlisi (38 Special), guitarist and keyboard player Pat Travers (Pat Travers Band), and vocalist and rhythm guitarist Derek St. Holmes (Ted Nugent). The initial purpose was to play a few weekend club sets and enjoying jamming together, but others in the business suggested they push forward as a full-time band.

Ben was approached to join the group as the bass player in March of 1999. Cartellone ended up being hired to play drums for Lynyrd Skynyrd before Big People could really get off the ground, but fortunately Liberty DeVitto (Billy Joel) was at the tail-end of his commitment to Billy Joel and he was free to join this exciting new endeavor.

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Big People in 1999. Photo courtesy of Liberty DeVitto.

Big People pulled together a setlist that was packed with hits, as each member brought the best of their rock-and-roll resume to the stage. Under the encouragement and wisdom of manager Charlie Brusco (and later Billy Johnson) and tour manager Joe Dlearo, the band began rehearsals in April, 1999, and the guys knew they had stumbled on something great. In Let’s Go! Pat Travers said, “At the rehearsal studio for our first play together, I suggested playing ‘Just What I Needed,’ and when Derek, Ben and I sang together for the first time, wow! What a blend. Our three voices, with myself on the bottom, Derek on top and Ben singing the lead, had this amazing sound to me that was tight and sweet.” (p.180)

As the guys played together over the next few months, their harmony continued to build, both in rock-and-roll badassery as well as in friendship. They were picking up more and more gigs, and the audiences loved  them. Eventually they landed a tour with Styx, which gained the band even more exposure. They were really clicking along and had plans to write original material together.

It was also during this time that Ben met Julie Snider, the woman to whom he would soon become engaged, and who would tenderly and tirelessly care for Ben until the end of his life. Footage and photos of Ben during this time show him to be relaxed, happy, and looking much more youthful than he did in the mid-90s.

There are SO many great quotes in Joe’s book about all of this, and I’ll feature some of them in future “In other words:” posts, but you’ve just got to read the book to get a true feel for the promise and excitement that everyone was feeling about Big People’s potential.

I recently had the honor of connecting with both Liberty DeVitto and Jeff Carlisi and asking them about their time with Big People. They each have such fond memories of those idyllic days, and find it hard to believe that twenty years have gone by since they were all rockin’ together.

And while I don’t want this article to be a downer, we can’t ignore the fact that it sucks so much that it all had to end. Ben really was the hinge that held it all together, and when he passed away in October of 2000 the band’s momentum fell flat. Their manager prompted the guys to hire a new bass player and get back in the game after Ben died, but their hearts just weren’t in it anymore.  Jeff told me, “We didn’t have any interest in keeping it going once Ben was gone.” Liberty echoed that sentiment when he said, “When we lost Ben we lost a rockstar. There was no sense in going on. We love Ben. He was a great guy and a great singer and player.”

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Courtesy of Eddie Duggan

Big People’s first official show was on July 24, 1999, up in New Brunswick, Canada, at a place known at the time as Shediac Can-Am Speedway (now called the Shediac Centre for Speed). The three-day weekend event, called Rockfest ’99, featured acts like Nazareth, Collective Soul, ZZ Top, Styx, and April Wine.

The guys were excited on their flight to Canada, eager to make their public debut. The show itself went well. Like all bands playing out for the first time, there were rough edges to smooth out, but Jeff felt really good about the music and about the natural chemistry between the guys. “I remember calling my wife after the show and saying, ‘It’s like I’ve always been in this band all my life.'”

Their second playout followed in August of that year, at a festival called Itchycoo Park ’99: The Camping Experience. This is the show I really want to focus on here, since it’s one we can actually watch.

flyerHeld in the middle of a big farm field in Manchester, Tennessee, Itchycoo was kind of an unusual event in its day in that it combined a music festival with camping. It was a bit of a throwback to Woodstock in that way, and is considered an early (if unsuccessful) forerunner to long-established camping concert events like Bonnaroo (which is held on the same site), Sonic Bloom, and Coachella.

Looking at the extensive list of bands on the bill, this event should have been an absolute smash (at least in my opinion!). It featured some of the most iconic names in music history, including Sammy Hagar, Joan Jett, Paul Rodgers, Styx, Ann and Nancy Wilson… so many legends! Check out the posters below; you won’t believe it. And the whole weekend — all four days — for only $80. Holy cow!!

As you can see, early advertisements of the original lineup don’t list Big People, but later they were added to the roster to perform on Thursday, August 12, at 4:00, sandwiched between Rick Springfield and Mark Farner. Jeff believes they actually played Friday, probably between Paul Rodgers of Bad Company and preceding John Entwistle of The Who, and the event guide (above right) supports that schedule. Of course, the actual slot doesn’t matter;  Big People was going to take the stage!

As it would turn out, the event organizers were in for a pretty crushing blow. Expecting to draw at least 60,000 people (but hoping for 80,000), the event actually only sold around 20,000 tickets. On top of that, the Tennessean reported a few other stink bombs:

  1. a few of the acts were no-shows, including Ann and Nancy, who were slated as the grand finale
  2. the agency providing security for the event departed in mid-afternoon on Sunday, causing the officials to recruit spectators as security guards for the remainder of the festival
  3. promised electrical hookups for RVs weren’t provided
  4. vendors complained bitterly about the lack of communication, poor overall organization, and puny profits.

It shouldn’t be a surprise, then, that the Itchycoo Park festival did not return the next year. Interestingly, only three years later the Bonnaroo festival would sell out their event on the same site, and that event has continued to be a roaring success for nearly twenty years.

As for the Big People experience? Luckily for us, we can witness it ourselves, even 20 years later.

The band launches into “Just What the Doctor Ordered” with guns blazing. Liberty’s explosive drumming and Derek’s vigorous vocals let you know that in spite of the smaller-than-anticipated turnout, these guys are here to kick ass. And they do! Every one of them are masters of their craft, seasoned professionals with the hearts of grown-up kids looking to jam with their buddies. So much freaking talent on that stage!

derekDerek acts as the main frontman for the group, playing to the crowd and ushering each song into the next. He is a natural showman, animated at times, clearly thrilled to interact with the audience. We can excuse him for fumbling around the lyrics a bit  because his voice is an indomitable siren call to rock.

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I’m addicted to watching Liberty play. Always a splashy drummer, his movements are exuberant and fluid, his sticks clearly an extension of his arms. I simply canNOT sit still when he’s going at it.

 

jeff.gifJeff Carlisi roams the stage unruffled. At times he stands facing the crowd with all the aloof confidence of young Caesar, at other moments he is grinning like a kid at his first rock concert. When it’s his turn in the spotlight he steps up to the edge of the stage and blazes through his solos with restraint, like it’s just a walk in the park.

pat.gifPat Travers definitely brings the most ‘hard rock’ attitude to the stage, wowing the crowd with his passionate guitar playing. His performance of “I La La La Love You” is captivating. I love it, too, how he covers the keyboard parts for “Let’s Go” by handling most of it on his guitar and later switching to the synthesizer.

And then there’s Ben. He smiles throughout the show, looking much more lit up and youthful than he has in so long (compare this to his performance at Viele’s Plant just a year before). His vocals are strong and sexy. And the camera clearly loves Ben. There are many slow pans, capturing his content, cat-that-ate-the cream looks. Later, when he removes his sunglasses, we can see he is clear-eyed and happy. Serene. At peace. It’s so great to see him connecting with crowd, and joking around with his bandmates. 

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The stifling heat threatens to make things difficult. Big fans are set up around the stage, but it’s clear the guys are affected.  Derek mentions it a couple of times, Liberty is pouring water over his head, and the guys are mopping their faces between songs. At one point Pat stores his guitar pick on his cheek, apparently adhering it with his sweat (ew! lol). But there’s Ben, looking as cool as a cucumber in his heavy leather jacket and shades. Electric angel rock-and-roller all the way, baby!

Big People’s happy, confident chemistry is palpable. Derek’s hyper-puppy energy offsets the cool demeanor of Pat and Jeff as they volly through their lead guitar solos like it’s the US Open. Liberty’s energy is both controlled and contagious, while Ben is, as always, unassuming and quietly badass. They are on a big stage but they make it feel more intimate by the way they interact, trading smiles, jokes and rock-and-roll flirts with each other through the set. All five connecting, all five communicating with each other.

It’s obvious these guys love each other so much, and that is something that both Liberty and Jeff emphasized to me. Jeff said, “In those two years or so, the six of us [including Julie] traveling on the road… we lived so much life together. That’s the best part about that whole thing: those relationships. They changed my life.”

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Big People, 1999. Photo courtesy of Jeff Carlisi.

Jeff has given me the go-ahead to start a Facebook group for Big People. Please come join! It will mainly serve as a centralized collection site for all information and memorabilia I can round up about the group, as well as biographical tidbits and current happenings of the various members. Jeff indicated that as he came across stuff in his own files he’d send it to me to share, and I am hopeful that others will contribute as well. And of course, I welcome all fans to chime in with their thoughts, memories, and photos, too.

I’m hoping to write lots more about Big People in the future. In the meantime, please click below to enjoy the one concert we currently have access to, live at Itchycoo Park!

Setlist:

  1. “Just What the Doctor Ordered” (Ted Nugent)
  2. “Just What I Needed” (The Cars)
  3. “Caught Up In You” (38 Special)
  4. “I La La Love You” (Pat Travers)
  5. “Let’s Go” (The Cars)
  6. “Hold On Loosely” (38 Special)
  7. “Bye Bye Love” (The Cars)
  8. “Hey Baby” (Ted Nugent)
  9. “Boom Boom, Out Go the Lights” (Pat Travers Band)

Enjoy!