Steve Duchrow, Director of Performing Arts, and Susanne Kepley, Manager of Marketing, had the great honor of speaking with musician Marty Grebb this past week and we’re beyond excited to share some of their conversation in this three-part blog series. Marty plays saxophone, piano, organ, and sings with the band The Weight. In “Part 3,” Marty shares his thoughts on songwriting, what he learned from Leon Russell, and what it takes to be a great rhythm guitarist. Marty and the other members The Weight will be performing music of The Band here at the ECC Arts Center, TONIGHT, Friday, March 13. In addition to Marty, The Weight features Jim Weider and Randy Ciarlante of The Band, and Brian Mitchell and Byron Isaacs of The Levon Helm Band. Enjoy! Missed Part 2: Read Marty’s take on The Buckinghams, The Dells, and Etta James. Missed Part 1? Check out Marty’s reflections on Bonnie Raitt and The Band!
Marty, we understand that this songwriting can be a really complex process, but when you’re co-writing with people or when you were working with Levon or Rick or Richard, is there some unique singular thing you got from them when it comes to the songwriting process?
You bet brother.
Is it for sale?
[Laughing] Well, uh, no, and thank god it’s not. But it is for free. And it is there to be grabbed. And it does come in wonderful phrases from characters like that. I mean, Leon Russell is the most eloquent person and he says things in his own fashion in a Southern gentlemanly way, similar to what Levon Helm did[…]
So when you ask me questions about songwriting, I would say it’s kind of paying attention to conversations and paying attention to what’s there, what’s going on at the time. I think Bob Dylan writes topically a lot. And he also denies maybe some of his soft heartedness. If you listen to song of his like “What Good Am I,” which is one of my favorites, or maybe “The Chimes of Freedom” from his early days. You hear his love of mankind. And you hear him put it into wonderful poetic sensibility and musical sensibility. But as far as buying any of that. I think it’s kind of—he got what he got, let’s say Bob Dylan for example, from all the people he was around and he was like a sponge. And I am definitely a sponge.
I got to sit on a riser above Leon Russell every night and watch his hands. And when I joined his band it was because he knocked on my door and he said “I heard you on this Rhinestone’s album and I heard about you from a few people. Want you to come and audition. I’m putting a band together and we’re going on tour in a couple of weeks and I hope you’re good.” That was it. And then when I was on tour with him—we started rehearsing with him before the tour—and he said “Oh, okay, so you’re gonna play saxophone but you play guitar, too, don’t ya? And I said “Yeah.” And I played something for him and he said “Okay, well, I’m going to put your saxophones on stands so you can walk up to them and play solos but you’re gonna play rhythm guitar and stand above me and then when I play guitar you’re gonna to play piano.” [He said it] all like in one breath like that. I went like “ehhaaaa?” But ya know, I did it. So there’s another school, right there. And there’s another songwriting school, too. That was a huge songwriting school. Being around guys like that, or being around Rick Danko and especially Richard Manuel.
And so I’ll give you an example of another way that I can answer your question, anytime that I have struggled to make something happen in the music business or my life or labored hard at it, it’s never worked. I’ve always, it’s always, like Leon says in one of his songs “I wrote a lot of songs, I wrote some bad rhyme.” [From “Song for You] Those are usually the ones that are the bad songs if I, if I’m sweating bullets over and laboring over it, it usually doesn’t turn out very well. If it just kinda comes out of the sky from God and I go wow and write it down or if I have the musical idea for it or the lyric for it first and that’s usually it and the fire just gets hot, ya know, and that’s how it’s been in my career with getting hired by people too. It’s always been the phone rings and this one says, “hey, will you come and do that.” It’s never me making 100 phone calls and going nowhere.
[…] Leon Russell would call that particular song [“Song for You] a true song…In other words, that’s something that happened in his life that he wrote about. It’s not a story that he made up or he’s just waxing poetically about this and that. And he has told me that his favorite songs are true songs. They come from his real life.
And a lot of that is very, very, very spiritual […] If she wouldn’t mind me saying so, I was allowed to see Bonnie Raitt have a spiritual awakening of sorts before she wrote songs to the Nick of Time album and that’s why that record was so successful. Because she had such a strong connection suddenly, a burst, and those bursts don’t happen forever in your life. Things happen, ya know, people die, children do this, mom does this, dad does that, you’re pulled this way and that way by all kinds of forces that are beyond your control and then there’s these beams of light that come down and hit you in the heart and then there’s the song.
In your bio it says that Leon Russell said that you were one of the finest rhythm guitarists he’s ever worked with. If you could define what makes a great rhythm player, what made you a great rhythm guitar player, what was that?
Well, I would say pretty simply that it’s become a lost art. It’s slowly coming back into the horizon, ya know, there are kids who are taking interest again, but I put it down to the fact that kids lost interest in playing rhythm guitar. Nobody wanted to play rhythm guitar behind Jesus. Everybody wanted to play the great solo and be the lead player and all that stuff and that’s what happened.
But if you listen to guys like Curtis Mayfield and you go back to listen to some of those early Impressions records, you will hear what Jimi Hendrix has said himself “That’s where I got part of my style.” And Jimi Hendrixm when he played a lot besides his solos, he was playing with a trio. So he was playing rhythm guitar parts and when he played solos, it was just the bass going on. But he had to play a lot of these unique ideas and stuff. I think that Leon was referring to [was that] I was playing parts that were being caused by me listening to what the band was playing and not focusing on “hey, I’m going to show you my lick now.”
We hope you enjoyed our conversation with Marty Grebb! We’re so honored that he took the time to speak with us. Missed a part? Read “Part 2: The Buckinghams, The Dells, Chicago, and Etta James” or “Part 1: Bonnie Raitt and The Band.”
The Weight: Featuring members of The Band, The Levon Helm Band, and the Rick Danko Group will be performing here at the ECC Arts Center on Friday, March 13 at 7 p.m. For tickets and information, call 847-622-0300 or visit tickets.elgin.edu.