Ozzie Ahlers has played alongside some of the most iconic artists of our time. He is a composer, performer, and all around musician. In fact, he is probably a musician’s musician. He believes in the power of music and has left his stamp on musical history with his studio work, his original bands, his compositions, and his live performances. In this interview, Ozzie generously shares his knowledge of the business and his advice to young and aspiring musicians today.
Carl Hose: Ozzie, I appreciate this. You’ve got a lot of years doing serious business in the music business, so talking to you is awesome. I mean, Jimi Hendrix, Van Morrison, Jerry Garcia, Greg Kihn . . . I don’t want to drop names, but you’ve been associated with some top notch and iconic musicians. You’ve written a soundtrack for Gumby, you’ve played on many great albums, toured with the best, and had your own successful bands. Any regrets about the path you chose or has it worked out the way you originally intended?
Ozzie Ahlers: Yes, I had a very different picture for my career. At 18 years old, I had planned on being in a very successful band. We had a movie deal and everything. Unfortunately, that dream fell apart . . . more like shattered. I guess when you’re young and living in a laundromat in Greenwich Village, you wonder if it’s all worth it. But it caused me to strive to the next level and work with my new band Glory River, and to be produced by Jimi Hendrix. There were many low times, but those were far eclipsed by the high times. When you work alongside great musicians, your field of vision gets enriched, not just by the audience appreciation, but with the feeling that you’re on the right track; that you’re doing the right thing and you’re connecting with other musicians and the listeners out there.
OA: Wow! That could be a very long list. Eric Clapton comes to mind because his journeymen approach to music is much like mine. Nothing too flashy, just always tastefully crafted. I know it’s too late for a few, but the great Stevie Ray Vaughan comes to mind. I love his flow. I like his approach to the blues, and being a keyboard player, I could have respectfully added my very best blues comps behind him, just be the support team. Another is Bob Marley because I dig reggae music so much, and his approach was so casual, I felt I could have grooved heavily with him.CH: Anybody you would have liked to play with that you haven’t had the chance to play with?
CH: Do you have a particular method when you compose? Is there a routine, a particular time you like to write, any funky habits you’ve developed over the years?
OA: My method, or I should say my inspiration, for music usually comes to me at the most unlikely times. I love to compose when I’m riding my bicycle. I come up with a phrase or a feel, bring it back to the studio, then get it down as quickly as I can. I could also hear a song that has nothing to do with what I’m writing, but I will take a piece of it or feel from it and make it my own. I learned early on that my take of someone else’s music is usually so far from the original sound that it is unrecognizable to anyone else. So there’s is the rule for plagiarism; steal from many and it becomes yours. As far as funky habits, yes, I definitely love to get a brand new instrument, whether it”s a keyboard, guitar, organ, piano or synth, and just try some sounds on it, and the moment that I’ve tried a new sound, there’s a possibility that it may spark a piece of music in my head.
CH: Do you prefer the recording studio or playing live?
OA: I don’t have a particular preference for either one because they are such different animals. Playing live has an energy all its own, especially when you’re working with musicians you like. We feed off each other and there is a telepathic communication. The recording studio allows you to try to get that unattainable perfection we strive for. As we try to get down to music exactly recorded, exactly as we think we hear it, we may falter. Although we can get inspired to give our best performance and hope that’s the take. One thing is for sure, as they say, album projects are never finished; they are just abandoned. There is always more to do.
CH: Do you remember when you knew music was the only way for you to go, when you knew it was going to be the career path you followed.
OA: I was about 10 years old and I started playing the guitar and I was emulating all the rock musicians out there; Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis, just to name a few. I put together my first band when I was only ten years old, for my 5th grade talent contest. I enlisted some good friends on an accordion and a small set of drums, and I played the guitar. I won that talent contest and a few others in school, but that wasn’t what drove me. My passion for music is not really explainable, other than it’s where I feel most alive and it is the one thing that has never failed to give me goosebumps. When you are onstage playing your own music, it is a unique feeling. I always dreamed of that and I got my wish; I am very grateful for that.
CH: Was your family musical?
OA: My family was only musical in the sense that they took piano lessons and read some music, but that wasn’t what I wanted to do. The music that I wanted to play had not been scribed yet. The sheet music for early popular songs and the first rock-and-roll songs were an embarrassment at best as to what the the artist really had in mind. So I took it upon myself to play those 45 RPM records over and over and to learn just what they were doing by copying their sound.
CH: Who is the most memorable musician or band you’ve played with and why?
OA: I guess that would have to be Chuck Berry. Being my earliest musical idol and being such a distinct personality to say the least, playing his music at his side was a great experience. I was only 20, and he called me “blue eyed soul.” He was openly angry about having been ripped off over the years, but he still had so much to teach me. Not only in his musical ability, but his business sense, stuck with me. I watched him go head to head with the promoters of the shows we were playing. His contract demanded cash as the balance of payment at a gig. Not a cashier’s check, mind you, but real cash. And if you didn’t have it, the show wouldn’t go on. And I experienced just that one snowy night in Buffalo, New York. No dough, no show. That was a lesson learned at an early age.
As far as the most memorable band that I have played with, it’s someone you probably haven’t heard of. The Edge was a rock reggae band that I formed with my friend Jimmy Dillon during the 80s. We had a symbiotic relationship between the members and it showed in our music. We wrote together and played together. We had a very smooth flow and a unique sound. But the success music Gods didn’t shine upon us and we were forced to break up. But I’ll never forget the experience of playing music I loved with like-minded players. As I mentioned, playing your own music to audiences is a great and very satisfying experience. Craig Chaquico (ex-Jefferson Starship) and I got to do that for16 years. We wrote the music for 10 albums and performed live around the world.
CH: Do you keep up with the musical technology that’s made home recording and composing so much more convenient, or are you still old school, where the band gets together and does business. I mean, nowadays one person can record an entire album, but I feel like there’s a lot of creative give and take missing, which just steals so much of the heart and soul of music.
OA: Yes, I keep up with musical technology, especially for home recording because most of my projects are done at my (home) studio, unless I am overdubbing at a studio. My new technology is the interactive streaming online with interesting new players. I love doing my webinars because I am able to reach out to the people who want to learn keyboards. The people who are in touch with me have questions and are truly involved in learning and growing in music, no matter what their background or ability. These in my mind are very cutting edge people. As far as technology being cold or taking away from the heart and soul of music; yes, the paint by the numbers music that is out there is a little frightening. But there are so many people who are still being creative. There are still the folk singers, the R&B artists, the jazz people, the singer songwriters who want to write that next great song; and because of that, it will be great.
CH: What is the one song you wish you’d written, either because royalties would have made you comfortable forever, or simply because the song is perfect?
OA: Hah. Of course, that one song would have to be White Christmas by Irving Berlin. Not only because it is the most covered song in world history but because it is perfect. Take away the short verse (common with most songwriters in the 30s and 40s), when you get to the actual chorus of “I’m Dreaming Of A White Christmas,” the entire song is only 16 bars. Amazing, huh? That’s probably about 10 million dollars a bar. As far as a perfect song, I would have to say on any given day I have a new one. It could have been Hey Jude or Johnny B Goode or Blue Suede Shoes or What’d I Say. Too many great songs to even imagine one. Possibly a list of a thousand would scratch the surface.
CH: What’s your favorite piano or keyboard. What kind of setup do you use for recording or live?
OA: As far as the pianos go, my favorite keyboard would have to be a Steinway grand. It is of course the feel and warmth of touch that we all want. My favorite overdub instrument is the Hammond B3 because it speaks so perfectly with all those beautiful voices. You can solo, comp, or put a beautiful melody line behind a voice and it just blends in perfectly. It almost mixes itself. It is the most expressive instrument that I know. The setup I use for recording is a weighted Korg SV88. It still gives me a great warm sound as well as all the sharp attack that I need. The live shows that I play usually require back line, so I will use a Korg whenever I can, but a weighted keyboard is the way to go. If I’m lucky enough to have a real miked grand on stage, that is my most comfortable instrument.
CH: Okay, a couple of fan questions. Coffee, tea, or neither?
OA: New Orleans dark chicory coffee with real cream.
CH: Beatles or Stones?
OA: Both. George Gershwin or Robert Johnson?
CH: I feel either answer is the right answer, and leaving one out over the other is sinful. I’ll say Robert Johnson, but they are two extremes. Man, yeah . . . Robert Johnson. What’s your favorite food?
OA: Creamed Finnan Haddie, or almost anything served at Commanders Palace (in NOLA).
CH: The music business has changed severely. I don’t have to tell you that. If somebody starting out wants to make it in the music business, is there still a way to do that, say for a session musician, songwriter, or somebody just wanting to put a recording band together?
OA: You just said it. Putting a band together or being a studio musician gets you in the thick of it. Contacts in music are real important, both for creativity and the pure business part. I always tell younger aspiring musicians that it’s great to have success with a band, it’s great to be a successful studio musician. But in the end, I wanted to be a songwriter and producer. After the gig is over, that’s when the royalty money will allow you to still be supported in your creativity, even when you don’t have that band or studio gig.
CH: What are you up to these days, Ozzie?
OA: Right now I’m very focused on my The Keyboard Klub and live webinars, as it keeps me in touch with all the students and younger musicians who are striving for success in their careers. I have a worldwide audience and the diversity keeps me on my toes at all times.
CH: Any projects, anyplace people can check out your work?
OA: I am working on a new DVD/CD project with Craig Chaquico to redo some of our hits from the ten albums we did. They will be recreated with an inspiring National Parks theme and sold to a target audience.
CH: Is there a way to follow you on social media?
OA: I let go of Facebook sometime ago. My website Oz@ozzieahlers.com is open for business 24/7/365. I am able to answer every email and every question sent to me, and it is also a driving force behind my webinar material. I am even able to do custom DVD’s for my professional musical clients. Staying in touch with people on a personal level is very important to me.
CH: Thanks again for giving your time to Playing the Muse. Much respect from me to you.
OA: My pleasure to work alongside a talented guy like you.