Mary Harris & Burleigh Drummond of Ambrosia: The Gonzo Today Interview

 

by Kyle K. Mann

 

“I remember exactly when I first wanted to become a musician,” Mary Harris says firmly. “It was when I was four years old and saw the Beatles on Ed Sullivan sing ‘She Loves You, yeah yeah yeah.'”

“For me it was seeing John Lennon sing ‘Twist and Shout,’ Burleigh Drummond grins. “That’s what I remember.”

We are seated on couches in their beautiful Southern California home, armed with refreshing beverages. I’m taking notes, having decided it’s the most casual way to interview the two.

Neither look old enough to have seen the Beatles on Sullivan, that iconic moment that changed a generation and reverberates to this day. When I comment on their youthful appearance, they laugh. “I get up and run every morning,” Mary exclaims.

“I’m up at dawn doing yoga,” Burleigh adds. “The other thing that made me want to be a musician,” he continues, “was watching Turkish cymbal-makers at work. I can still see them spinning the shiny gold, spinning, making…”

Burleigh Drummond lived in various worldwide spots as a child, due to his father’s career as a full Colonel in the U.S. Army, and Burleigh discusses him. “He wrote speeches for JFK!” Burleigh’s grin is large, and I admit that blows my mind. I reflect as we sip our drinks, thinking about that. Yow, JFK! Could talk for a long time about just that. But, back to the music.

Mary Harris and Burleigh Drummond are current members of the rock group Ambrosia, founded in 1970 by drummer Burleigh, bassist Joe Puerta, keyboardist Chris North and guitarist David Pack. All sang with the group, with Puerta and Pack handling most of the lead vocals.

Ambrosia had their fair share of hits, several of which are still widely played. Pack left the group in 2000, which was when Mary performed with them for the first time onstage, eventually becoming a full member in 2012. The band also currently features their longtime guitarist Doug Jackson and guitarist/lead vocalist Ken Stacey, and their blazing live show tours widely, playing their hits and complex progressive rock album tracks, as well as new original songs.

“How many major bands do you know that have husband and wife teams?” I ask.

Mary and Burleigh look at each other. “Well, there’s Pat Benatar and Neil Geraldo,” Mary answers slowly. A pause.

I nod. It’s pretty darn rare. There’s a lot more on my mind about Ambrosia, including the Ralph Steadman cover, but I want to go to Mary’s years on the road with Jimmy Buffett, which included her being credited as the Vocal Arranger. I ask how she became a member of the infamous Coral Reefer Band.

“My friend Brie Howard was in the band, playing percussion and singing. She called and said he was looking for another singer to join up. I remember going to a place in Malibu, singing, and that was that… the easiest audition I ever did. Afterward we sat and Jimmy told me what was important to him: good singing, good personalities, and good camaraderie.”

Mary pauses, thinking back to the early 90’s. “Jimmy said something I’ve never forgotten. ‘I may not be the best guitar player or singer, but I’m a great Jimmy Buffett.'” We laugh, it is indeed a quality line.

Burleigh chimes in, “Mary was under a lot of pressure. She lost 15 pounds and didn’t sleep for a week.”

“At first,” she continues, “I was expected to dance with the two other singers on the left. But I had almost always played keyboards on stage with my singing. That first week of rehearsals…” Mary sighs. “Charlie the tour manager, finally had me move over with Brie, and sing and play percussion with her. Then, we did a live album with [noted engineer and producer] Elliot Scheiner. Those two singers got canned. Elliot pushed me, and became a friend. I became the Vocal Arranger on the next 4 albums.”

But, how exactly did that happen?

“I just became the Vocal Arranger.” She smiles. “I don’t remember how it happened.”

I look over to Burleigh. “Was there any chance of you joining the band?”

He gets a prankish look. “The only way I would join Buffett’s band…” He pauses for effect. “…is if he asked me.” I laugh.

“Jimmy’s drummer has been with him forever,” Mary explains.

I ask what her reaction to playing in a big-time band for the first time was, but Mary shakes her head. ”I had been in ‘Animal Logic’ with [ex-Police drummer] Stewart Copeland, [jazz bassist] Stanley Clarke, [guitarist] Michael Thompson… that was pretty big, and before that I was in [the early all-girl group] Red Shoes, we played the Roxy, we were on TV, so I was used to being on stage.”

Then there is Pink Floyd, who Mary has recorded with. I ask her to elaborate. “Its backing vocals on a couple live videos, not on the record. We just saw [Pink Floyd longtime engineer] James Guthrie and we asked him about it. One was “Dogs of War” and the other…”

I lean forward.

“I can’t remember.”

I lean back. It flabberghasts me that Mary can’t remember. Pink Floyd is only one of the biggest groups in music history. Later, I listen to the video track on Youtube. Yep there she is. Wow.

Well, onward. What stories she can tell me about the Coral Reefer Band? The ones she can tell? She grins.

“We used to do “bus theater” where the two tour busses would pull up alongside, and people would act stories out through the windows. It would start that way, and, people would get crazy, mooning each other… of course, I didn’t do that. Our bus usually won.”

“You were with Buffett for years… why would you leave such a gig?”

“I needed to spend more time with [their son, and now touring musician] Micky… it was hard being away so much.”

I nod, marveling, but happy that it has all worked out. “Let’s go back to Ambrosia. How often are you doing gigs currently?’

Burleigh looks at me alertly. “60 to 70 gigs a year, and we want to get that up to 100.”

“You book the gigs, at present?”

Burleigh nods. “About 60 % of the dates, yeah.”

“You have an all-new album in the works?”

Mary brightens.  “There are a lot of song possibilities!”

“Mary wants to focus on Ambrosia,” Burleigh notes. “The new album… let’s really do what we’ve been promising the fans for years. Our last album of new material was 1982.”

“Our new songs are written by all members,” Mary says seriously.

Clearly there is a lot of creativity going on with Ambrosia!

The band live is outstanding, being tight, in tune, and enormously laden with vocal and instrumental talent. I can attest to that having seen them play venues in multiple states in this decade, in a wide variety of venues. With a fresh album of new material coming, the nearly 50-year-old group are at the top of their field. My mind turns to the origins, and I ask Burleigh how he came to join the Los Angeles-area band. He laughs.

“I was studying drums at Drum City. Musician’s Contact Service… I saw a 3×5 card from the rest of the band so I replied. They liked my name!”

At about this point the vodka kicks in, and I lose focus momentarily. Burleigh says something about his VW van being a factor, that the band liked that they could carry their equipment in it. And something about a “goatee down to your bongos.”

I snap out of it and resume taking coherent notes. “When we met up, we all talked for hours every day. You know, when you’re 18 or 20, you play records for each other, you’re excited.” He smiles at the memory, and I ask if he remembers the first time he heard Ambrosia on the radio.

“Holdin’ on [to Yesterday]… no, I don’t remember. But, I do remember we all gave 100% to do what we had to do.” He frowns. “Our manager was taking 100% of our publishing. I wrote 80% of the lyrics to ‘Make Us All Aware.’

“That’s a great prog song,” Mary comments. (Later when I get home I give it a listen. What an outstanding tune. Crazy difficult and utterly beautiful. I’m stunned and numbed.) Mary continues, “It’s one of the most creative piano parts [performed by Chris North] possible.”

Burleigh picks up the story. “So money was a huge issue. Everybody was scrambling for the scraps. By the time you get to the third album, Chris couldn’t hang. He left because the money, it wasn’t worth anything. I knew if I didn’t write anything I would suffer the fate of Chris.”

Ok, wow. I’m shaking my head, and ask Burleigh about the last album with the Ralph Steadman cover, titled ‘Road Island.’

“We created that album to return to our prog roots. We were fans of ‘Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,’ we loved the book. Warners was happy with us, we had had some hits… Steadman hung out in the studio with us. We went to lunch and got shitfaced trying to keep up with him. He did caricatures of us all. Kinda struck a nerve, exaggerating some aspect of you that was not public but he made it public.”

Now we are listening carefully, this is intense.

“We took a train ride up to Ralph’s house. His studio was this huge room with tons of stuff in it. I looked up to see this thing spiked up on the wall. I kept looking and realized it was the hugest rat I’d ever seen, decomposing. Ralph said he was drawing it at different stages…”

We all have a sip of our drinks, and Burleigh continues “I think the cover of that musician screaming… it was some kind of primal scream. Everybody was unhappy. We were trying to break away from our manager. We all had angst, we were all accused of selling out.”

And the last single? “‘Feelin’ Alive Again.’ That’s David Pack trying to write a hit single.”

Which went nowhere. But there was a minor hit… Burleigh speaks. “‘How Can You Love Me.’ That one always bugged me, I didn’t like the first drum track. At one point I threatened to burn the master tape in the studio with a lighter if we didn’t re-cut it.”

Listening to the track back home, I am impressed. Solid tune! I carefully pay attention to the drums… seems pretty dang good to me. Also, that YouTube video of the band kicks my butt.

So, what are hard parts of being on the road, the terrible road?

“Burleigh gets more sleep on the road than home!” Mary says.

“Six [hours] if I’m lucky,” he counters.

We talk about hotels, hotel beds, hotel food… some better than others, of course. Airports, flying, riding… the numerous inconveniences. Then I turn to my favorite band of all time, Mary and Burleigh’s ‘Tin Drum.’

The super short version is that Mary and Burleigh’s family band is special, and has yet to gain wide recognition despite 3 stellar CD releases. “I still get inquires,” says Burleigh. “We had opportunities… I had a guy call me up when we had [their evocative ballad] ‘Surrender’ and say we could break the tune wide open, but it would take a million dollars.”

Mary: “We spent a lot of money on Tin Drum…”

I bring up the original five person band, featuring Brie Howard, bassist Marco Mendoza and guitarist Mike Hoffman. Burleigh just sighs. “I let go of this amazing thing.”

“Ambrosia has the clout,” Mary adds.

After seeing Ambrosia packing ’em in, with long lines of fans waiting after concerts to get their old legacy albums signed, I can’t disagree. But something tells me it’s not over yet, for the Tin Drum configuration of tunes and energy. For one thing, Mary and Burleigh’s talented children, Micky aka Burleigh and daughter Sierra, both incredible musicians, have played in the band in recent years. It’s very cool, and practically beyond description to see the kids and parents playing music onstage. In whatever configuration you see them, the entire Harris/Drummond family have an outstanding, unique chemistry.

Yep, as I make my goodbyes and head out the door it seems to me that, for these veteran musicians, who just happen to be married to each other and play in the same band, that the best is yet to come!