Mike Finnigan has been a part of an amazing amount of rock and roll music over the last four-plus decades. A big highlight was playing organ on the tracks “Rainy Day, Dream Away” and “Still Raining, Still Dreaming” on Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland album. He has also played organ and/or sang with many other artists including Crosby, Stills & Nash, Etta James, Dave Mason, Ringo Starr, Joe Cocker, Bonnie Raitt, Taj Mahal, and Eric Burdon.
This interview was for a preview article for a benefit concert in Santa Barbara on 8/22/14 for The Rhythmic Arts Project (TRAP), an educational program that integrates percussion as a medium to address reading, writing, and arithmetic, as well as life skills, with children and adults with intellectual and developmental differences. It was done by phone on 8/12/14.
Jeff Moehlis: What can we look forward to at the upcoming show?
Mike Finnigan: What I’m looking forward to is how it’s going to go, because I haven’t played with [drummer and TRAP founder] Eddie [Tuduri] in probably 25 years. We’ve known each other for quite a long time. The other guys are all people I’ve played with at various times, in various settings. It’s just going to be a pretty loose deal, but it’s going to be fun because of that. It’s basically going to be a bunch of guys on a high wire [laughs], if you know what I mean. I mean, we’re going to have one rehearsal. But we’re going to be playing Rhythm & Blues music.
I don’t know if you know the other guys playing. Jim Pugh is another keyboard player that I used to work with with Etta James. He played with Robert Cray’s band for about 25 years, and has played with all kinds of other people, lots of records with a lot of different people. He’s somebody that’s a very good friend of mine and that I admire a lot. He and I will take care of the piano and organ.
And then there’s a couple of guitar players, Bill Lynch and Chris Pinnick. Bill’s an old buddy of mine from way back. I met him in the 60′s even. He lived in Lawrence, Kansas, and we played around Kansas City and different places in different bands. We played together over the years in different kinds of set-ups. Chris, I only have played with once. He used to play with Chicago. He’s a real fine guitar player, and I guy I’ve know, but not that well, for quite a few years. I just know that he’s a really great musician.
Tim Scott’s a bass player that used to play with Jack Mack and the Heart Attack, among other bands. He’s a really good singer and bass player, and he and I were in a band together that was just kind of a fun band called the Zen Blues Quartet. We made a CD a few years ago, and we’ve worked together in all kinds of configurations. He’s coming down from Seattle – he moved up there a couple of years ago – to join us. So we’re going to have one rehearsal and it’ll be loose and dangerous, so that’s fun.
JM: It sounds like with that group of musicians you can get away with only one rehearsal.
MF: Well, we have to [laughs]. You always want to be prepared.
And then Tata Vega, of course, she’s a giant. She’s a fantastic singer, and is just one of my favorites. I’ve known her, not really well, but I’ve known her for about 20 years. We actually did some singing together once for a film score, and I’ve been aware of her for many years, of course. She’s just somebody I admire tremendously.
MF: Well, the experience was wonderful, of course. I was really young. I mean, I was 23, I guess. This band I was in, we were in New York City making an album for Capitol Records. We were all from Wichita and Kansas City. We’d been playing around the East Coast in clubs and stuff, and this guy Tom Wilson, who was a pretty well-known producer that had produced Bob Dylan and all these other people, kind of discovered us. We were in there doing this low-budget record at the Record Plant in New York City, and Hendrix was in there at the same time working on his third album. We met him. He was working in there in the evening, and we were in the daytime. He asked me and a couple of the other guys in the band, the sax player Fred Smith and a guy named Larry Faucette who played percussion, he asked the three of us to stay and do some recording with him. And Buddy Miles was there. He was a friend of ours from way back because he started out in Omaha, so we played in all the same joints and stuff.
So it was just kind of a jam. He made it into two different cuts for his album, “Rainy Day, Dream Away” and “Still Raining, Still Dreaming”. That’s how it came about. We didn’t really know. When the album came out was when I found out I was on it. That’s how that worked out. But it was thrilling, of course, because he was such a huge influence on so many people in popular American music. It continues to this day, really. He was quite an innovative musician, so I felt fortunate to have played with him and record it.
JM: Are there any other recordings with him that haven’t seen the light of day yet, or was it pretty much just that one big jam?
MF: Well, there might be. We were in there for a couple hours, and I’m sure there’s more stuff on tape, but I don’t know what it’s worth. I mean, to Hendrix fanatics I’m sure anything at all is worth something, but that was pretty much the extent of it.
We went out and did some jamming that night at a club together, all of us. There was a place called The Scene, which was a big, popular place in that era, in the 60′s. Steppenwolf was playing there, and we got up to sit in and Jimi Hendrix just started tuning up and blew up his amp. So that was the end of our sitting in for that evening.
JM: A missed opportunity, right?
MF: Yeah. Thanks a lot, man.
MF: There’s a lot of reasons for that. It had a lot more to do with different things we were all doing. I was involved with several different projects at the time, and really couldn’t in good conscience break loose. I mean, he was a friend of mine, and I really admired his playing. He was a good guy. I would’ve been happy to…
They were trying to put a band together. His manager was Barry Fey – he did all the big promotions in the Denver area, and all over that part of the country for a while. He was pretty much the main man. He was trying to convince me to do it. And, I mean, I was very much interested. It’s a long story, but I had some other commitments that I really couldn’t get out of very gracefully. But I did go and play with him a few times.
You know, he hung out. We saw each other a lot of times after that. He got drunk and fell asleep in my backyard on the Fourth of July one year, I remember that [laughs]. Me and my wife had to pull him out of the sun. You know, he was passed out, and a couple of us picked up the chair and moved him into the shade when we noticed he had been baking out there in a coma for a while.
He was a great guitar player, a very talented guy.
JM: And very diverse. The range of stuff that he played is amazing.
MF: Yeah, there’s no telling what he could’ve done if he hadn’t died so young. He was a very talented guy.
JM: I also have to ask you about Crosby, Stills & Nash, who I know you worked with for a long time. What was a highlight for you of working with them?
MF: Oh my Lord, I mean I worked with them for 27 years. Well, I was doing a lot of other stuff at the same time. They weren’t constantly on the road or always in the studio.
I got a chance to make several albums with them, and travel all over the world with them. There’s just a million things that were really great about that. They’re all my friends. Stephen Stills is our daughter’s godfather. Maybe not the best choice, but that was the one we made [laughs]. Only because he was such a crazy fucker. Not that I wasn’t.
I tell you, one of the most interesting things that happened, and was kind of a highlight, was… I think it was Daylight Again. We had done all of the rhythm tracks, and there were some rough vocals on it in Los Angeles. The plan was to go to Hawaii. I mean, they were in the chips and living large in those days. They wanted to go to Hawaii and do the vocals. I sang a lot with that band, too. There were additional vocals, the three of them and some additional vocals sometimes on different things. So we rented this place right on the beach in Hawaii, just a fantastic setting. It was like some kind of dream scene, like the beach was 25 yards out the backdoor. We’d go to the studio every day.
Crosby, at that point, it was not too long before he went to prison. You know, he had some problems with substance abuse, among other things, that eventually wound up getting him put in jail where he sobered up finally, under lock and key. But at that time, it was not too long before then, and every day he was supposed to show up in Hawaii to do this work on these vocals, and he never came. And so I wound up being the third voice on about two-thirds of the album. In other words, it was Stills, Nash & Finnigan [laughs]. But that’s not what the album said. I think Timothy B. Schmidt actually sang on a couple tracks, too. David had one track that he sang, or maybe two that he sang by himself with some additional vocals. But in terms of the ensemble stuff it was the three of us, or else the two of them and Timothy Schmidt. That was kind of unusual to have that. Historically it was kind of odd. I’ve still got that album, and occasionally I hear tracks from it, you know, “Southern Cross” and different tunes like that, and I go, “Oh yeah, that’s when I was Crosby.”
JM: Is that the only album that you filled in as one of the three?
MF: Oh no. I sang on a lot of their records, and played on a bunch. I can’t remember all of them. But between 1980 and 2005, everything they recorded, pretty much, I was on.
JM: In addition to the people we’ve talked about already, I know you’ve worked with a huge number of other artists. Are there any that particularly stand out to you?
MF: Oh yeah. Well, I’m playing with Bonnie Raitt now. I’ve been playing in her band for about four years. We’ve been friends since the ’70′s. I had been working with Maria Muldaur back then, and that’s when I met Bonnie. She and Bonnie were friends, and Bonnie and I were friends ever since. You know, we just never did anything because I was always working with somebody else that was a friend of hers. A few years ago, I’d been playing with Joe Cocker for several years, and she called and asked if I’d be interested in coming with her and doing an album, which we did in 2012, and touring. So I’ve been with her since actually 2011, I think. That’s been really great, because I love her, not only as a musician but personally. It’s really been fun to work with her for the last several years.
Like you said, there’s been so many. I guess maybe the most outstanding thing was playing with Etta James off and on for about 20 years, because she was such a tremendous artist and friend, somebody that I’d admired ever since… I mean, I had a history with her going back to my childhood. Not a personal history, but I was buying records by her when I was really young. She started recording when she was about 15. I always loved her, loved her singing. She was just so good, you know. I got to play with her a good deal, from the early 1980′s a little bit, and then I played with her quite a lot from about ’87 until just shortly before her death, which was not too long ago. It was a few years ago, I think.
That was really thrilling for me. I guess it’s just because of the fact that when I was like 11 or 12 years old I bought a record of her’s. Whenever I worked with her, not all the time but occasionally, it would occur to me that once I was a little kid in Troy, Ohio sitting in front of the drumkit playing along with her records – I used to play the drums [laughs] – and now I’m actually playing in her band and singing with her. I sang a duet with her on one of her albums, and I used to sing with her a lot live. That was just kind of unreal to me, to have somebody that was such a huge influence on me and that I loved so much, that I had chance to actually become her friend and play with her. That was huge.
JM: So I know you also recorded a couple of solo albums. I managed to track down your first one, which is a really great album. That was produced by Jerry Wexler. What was it like to work with him?
MF: That was wonderful. Jerry remained a friend of mine from that point until his death, and he lived quite a long time. He always said to me, “You know what, I really messed up on that album, man.” He goes, “You just were too good at too many things. We went down there to do a Rhythm & Blues album and wound up doing everything that even occurred to us.” He said, “I failed you as a producer. It was too eclectic, and we were all over the map.” But we had a good time [laughs].
Of course Jerry Wexler was somebody that I was well aware of for many years. I owned a lot of Atlantic records. Jerry Wexler’s the guy that coined the term Rhythm & Blues. That’s kind of a trivia thing. But he worked with so many artists that I admired, and he was a walking encyclopedia of popular American music, really. Getting to know him and be with him for a long stretch of time was really a thrill for me.
He first contacted me by telephone. My wife and I hadn’t been in Los Angeles that long, and I got this call. “This is Jerry Wexler.” I mean, this is out of nowhere. I’d never met the man. He said, “I like the way you sing, and I think we ought to do something together.” And I said, “Oh yeah? Well, who is this? Really? Come on.” I thought somebody was putting me on. So that was my introduction to Jerry Wexler. I can’t think of too many people that were involved in more important moments in popular American music than Jerry Wexler. He was quite an influential guy, that was involved in so much great music.
I did a recording the other day – I was doing some overdubs on an album by a friend of mine called Steve Tyrell, who does kind of mainstream pop music, and he was a great producer and songwriter. He used to produce B.J. Thomas and all these different people. He’s done a lot of film music and he produced records by Ray Charles and Aaron Neville and Bonnie [Raitt] even. He’s had a career as a singer for the last ten or twelve years. He sings kind of Michael Buble-ish kind of stuff. He’s good. Anyway, he’s doing an album of music from the Brill Building, because he got involved in production and songwriting back in the late ’60′s and early ’70′s, so he’s worked with all these people. But anyway, at this session, Mike Stoller was there, of Lieber and Stoller, because Steve’s recorded a couple his tunes for this album, “Stand By Me” and another Drifters tune. Mike came by the session and was hanging out, and he and I were talking about Jerry Wexler. And Steve knew Jerry, too. All the records that The Coasters did for Atlantic Records, it was actually Atco which was part of Atlantic, and several other productions and things that he had been involved with. It was kind of a gas to hang out with him and reminisce a little bit. Him and Jerry [Lieber] had a great deal to do with the soundtrack of my youth.
JM: What advice would you give to an aspiring musician?
MF: Good luck [laughs]. You know, the way music is now, there’s no real good advice to give anybody. I guess the best advice would be, try to stay true to yourself and follow your bliss. That’s about it. It’s a very tough way to try to make a living, that’s for damn sure. It’s never been easy, that’s for sure. I think it’s a lot harder now.
My son is a musician, and that’s not something I thought was going to happen. I don’t think he did either. He came to it kind of late. He studied production and engineering at L.A. Recording Workshop, at precisely the time that the digital revolution was rendering all that stuff kind of obsolete. There’s no music business as such now. It’s kind of up in the air, and up for grabs. I mean, if somebody wants to be a musician, of course they’re going to be, because being a musician isn’t something that’s really some kind of carefully considered intellectual decision. It’s more of an obsession, I think. Like Duke Ellington said, “Music is my mistress, and no one comes before her.”
So there isn’t much advice other than buckle up and just try to have a good time. You know, you’re probably not going to make any money, but you might have some fun. I met so many guys that were very talented people, and people that I’ve known with terrific ability and talent, that really couldn’t get anywhere just because of the way things are, and the way they’ve always been. It’s just such a tough deal, and there’s a lot of luck involved in making any progress in the business. So, if mere talent were enough then I probably would never have gotten anywhere, because there are a lot of people with more talent than I. As long as you’re having a good time… But some of these guys that I’ve known for years, they had to get out of the business years ago in order to get by and really make a living. Some of them had families and had to just hang it up to get another kind of work, another kind of job. But it doesn’t mean that they can’t have fun, and that’s really what it’s all about, finally. Making a living as a musician or a songwriter, in any area of music, is just so hard, and the opportunities are so few.
But my son’s actually doing pretty well. He’s had some success. There’s nothing I can do really other than give him a little bit of advice when he asks for it. Seems like he does better when I’m out of the picture [laughs].
JM: One thing to clear up. I’ve read online that you recorded with Janis Joplin, but elsewhere I read that she had left Big Brother & The Holding Company before you played with them.
JM: This next one is little different from the other questions. Your wife [Candy Finnigan] is well known for her work with treating addiction. I know that in the music world that’s been a huge problem.
MF: Not so much as it used to be. Well, it’s pretty much a huge problem in society as a whole now. It used to be pretty rampant in my business, yeah, you’re right. I was talking about that with a guy the other day, and how different it is now. In the old days, almost everybody in any band would at least be drinking some, and chances are doing something else. My wife and I both quit drinking in 1986, and neither one of us have had any drugs or alcohol since then. That’s kind of what got her interested in the problem. When our children – we have a daughter and a son – when they were in their mid-teens sometime she went back to school. She just said, “You know, they’re going to be gone. I’m going to need something more to do besides take care of your ass.” So she got a degree and then studied intervention with the guy who was kind of the founder of that whole process, and became a drug and alcohol counselor and crisis interventionist. She’s been doing that work for over 20 years now, and helped a lot of people. That show that she was on on television, Intervention, is actually being brought back. They’re going to start filming it again in the fall.
JM: Will she be on that again?
MF: Oh yeah, she is. It’ll just be her and one other guy. But that’s just kind of a sideline. I mean, that’s how she came to the public view, as someone that does what she’s doing. That’s helped her a lot in terms of being able to broaden her reach as an educator and influence. She wrote a book, too, that was released about 6 years ago, called When Enough is Enough. It educates families about drug and alcohol addiction, and also what they can do to not only help themselves but possibly help the other guy, the person afflicted. It has some good commonsense advice. Pretty tough, actually [laughs].
She works with people all the time. Most of her time is spent working with families, and a lot of young people. She has a couple of groups that she does every week in a couple of places here in L.A. where she works with families, people that are in treatment and their families, in large groups of 50 or 60. There’s like 20 people that are in treatment and their families. That’s what she’s really interested in. That’s what she discovered about intervention, not that it’s any big news, but the alcoholic or drug addict’s orbit is such that at least another 7 people are going to be affected. Not necessarily affected in becoming addicted, but affected in that it fucks up their life, you know, in one way or another, to one degree or another. It’s kind of like if you hang a mobile from the ceiling, and everything’s in perfect alignment, and then if one piece gets out of whack the whole thing gets sideways.
JM: What are your plans, musical or otherwise, for the near future?
MF: I’m going to start working on another album with Bonnie Raitt in October. We’re going to start getting together and rehearsing and going through some new material for her next album. That’s her process. The last album I did with her, which was the first album I’d ever done with her, that won a Grammy last year. That was a nice thing, a thrill for her and me and all of us. But she’s got a lot of them. I’ve played on quite a few of them, but I played on a lot of stiffs, too. That’s what’s right in front of me right now. I’m looking forward to that. After we do the album we’ll do more touring.
There’s various other things. Like I said, I’m still doing sessions with a lot of people. I work with these guys The Phantom Blues Band. We’ve got three CDs that we’ve done. We work with Taj Mahal, too, off and on. And we record with a lot of other people. So we stay pretty busy. I produced an album for an artist named D.A. Foster. He’s a blues guy. He did it with The Phantom Blues Band. That’s going to be released probably next January. So that’s pretty much what I’ve got in front of me.
JM: Still doing what you love, right?
MF: Yeah, I still love what I’m doing. I feel very blessed.