Rochester has a rare opportunity to see a Motown favorite
It’s not every day when a band with multiple Top 40 hits plays a show in Rochester, but Sunday’s edition of the Think Bank Down by the Riverside free outdoor concert series promises to bring in some musicians who hit it big. Rare Earth, a Motown product that spent 10 years on Hitsville, U.S.A.’s roster, headlines Classic Rock Night this weekend, with Ringo Starr tribute artist Ringer Star opening. Rare Earth’s lineup has changed over the years, but lead singer and saxophonist Gil Bridges has remained the frontman since they began as The Sunliners in 1961. Their song “I Just Want to Celebrate” has been featured in TV shows, movies, and commercials since its release in the 1971. We were able to talk with Gil about his band’s storied past, making hits with Motown, and the future of music.
Med City Beat: What’s your touring schedule like? Is Rochester just a one-off show or is it part of a bigger run?
Gil Bridges: We can’t tour as much as we used to, so this is just a one-off show. At this point, we can’t really go out for months at a time. We do have a show the day before [in Iowa], but that’s it as far as shows go.
MCB: How did you get your start?
GB: I couldn’t even believe it was happening to us. One of our managers was a hairdresser, he did [Motown Records founder] Barry Gordy’s wife’s hair. He brought her in to see us play, and she flipped out and told Motown about us. We eventually signed with Motown because they promised us a whole separate division of the label featuring Rare Earth. That told us right there, they were really gonna get behind us.
MCB: And that turned into nearly 60 years of music — what was it like at the start?
GB: We played clubs for seven years before we released a record. At that time, Motown was the top record label in the world. All the Motown artists had hits, and that’s what people wanted to hear, so we played hits for a while. We played “Get Ready” for two years, it expanded to a 21-minute song and became our closing number at every show. When we went to Motown and told them we wanted to record a 21-minute song, they flipped out, but that’s what it was. It hit the top 5 and was on the charts for three years. With the Vietnam War in those days, we played a lot of concerts for the services. They used to come up to us and tell us their stories… if they needed to get brave, they put “Get Ready” on. That really did something to us.
MCB: That really speaks to how powerful music can be.
GB: Exactly, and it’s just been such a blessing to be able to do what I love for so long.
MCB: What was it like to record songs in the Motown building and to watch them become hits?
GB: Motown had a really great stable of songwriters. Barry was a good songwriter himself … He wrote the first hit for Motown. For “I Just Wanna Celebrate,” they had a recording studio in Detroit with four of five different soundproofed rooms, with a piano in each one. Writers would sit in each one all day and just write. Our schedule was to record from midnight to 8 a.m. each day, and they charged us $100 a song. You can’t beat that, that was unheard of. That day, a couple writers came running out of a room saying, ‘Come listen to this song!’ We sat down and pounded it out, and we flipped out. We loved it. We started recording at midnight and by 8 a.m., we had it done.
MCB: What?! From nothing to done in eight hours? That’s incredible.
GB: Yeah, we had a great producer by the name of Tom Baird who really helped the song along. To this day, I still hear the song eight to ten times a day — a casino near my house leased the song for a few years. It’s been used by Gatorade, Ford, all these companies. Sixty years later, and I still get royalty checks. It just goes to show what one hit song can do for you.
MCB: Do you think that the old model for musicians to “make it” still holds weight today?
GB: Everything’s totally changed today. It’s all about posting your stuff on the internet, and streaming, and having it on your phone. You can go to YouTube and get almost any song you want for free, but also, if you can just get good video of yourself, just post it and see what happens. If a million people find it, you’ve got a hit.
MCB: That’s exactly right — I mean, look at the top song in the country right now. Lil Nas X was making music in his basement when he made “Old Town Road,” and it’s just broke the record for most weeks at the top of the Hot 100. Seventeen weeks in a row.
GB: Wow. That’s the modern world for you.
MCB: I want to know about your live shows. In a career that’s been so long, what’s a great story you have?
GB: Well, it’s just been incredible. We’ve played with what feels like nearly every band out there. I remember one concert, it had to have been in the summer, and I wanted to walk down near the stage and see what our openers were like. I get down to their room, and our opener was in the dressing room painting themselves up like clowns. I’m thinking, ‘what the hell is that?’ I went back to the rest of the band and told them, ‘if you walk down to the other room you’ll see these people dressing up and painting their faces.’ That band was KISS.
MCB: *laughter* Are you kidding? That’s insane!
GB: Who knew, right? I just wish we had a camera.
You can catch Gil and crew performing their top songs this Sunday night at Mayo Park in Rochester. The music starts at 7 p.m.
Story written by reporter and musician Isaac Jahns.
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