"I don't know about this weather lately. Everybody's getting colds. I've had bronchitis. Oh man, it's bad." The weather classic rock band Vanilla Fudge's founder, singer, and keyboardist Mark Stein is referring to isn't related to the snow storms that have been plaguing our Northern neighbors. Actually, he's complaining about the climate here at home in South Florida.
All this seems strange coming from Stein who's a New Jersey native. But he's resided in Fort Lauderdale for the past fifteen years, one of a growing number of aging rock stars who have sought shelter in the sun.
"My son was living down here in the '90s, and my wife and I were in New Jersey at the time," Stein explains. "When we'd come down and visit, I just fell in love with Fort Lauderdale and the whole tropical vibe. I remember driving up by the ocean and looking at all the boats and the beautiful blue green water and enjoying the warm temperatures. At the time, I was really into swimming and a lot of outside activities, and we just got the bug."
Even if he's not exactly satisfied with the current atmospheric conditions, he still has reason to rejoice. Vanilla Fudge, once heralded as one of the forebears of progressive symphonic rock, have released a new album, only its second since they reformed in 2005. Dubbed Spirit of '67, it finds the band putting its spin on some familiar standards from 1967, the year when the Fudge first formed.
In a very real sense, little has changed. Back in the day, Vanilla Fudge built a formidable reputation by reinterpreting the music of others. The formula proved a highly successful -- take a well-known rock or soul standard, add some bombast, a dose of psychedelia and repackage it as a prog rock gem. Despite some heady competition, it allowed the group to make its mark. Its sonic assault on the Supremes' "You Keep Me Hangin' On" turned that track into an FM smash, helping Vanilla Fudge achieve headline status and become uncommonly influential to bands like Yes, Deep Purple, Uriah Heep, and Styx. (Legend has it the Beatles were so taken with the Fudge's first album that they locked themselves away for an entire weekend, dropped acid and listened to it repeatedly.)
Now, some 45 years later, the band has regrouped with Stein, original drummer Carmine Appice, founding guitarist Vince Martell, and new recruit, bass player Pete Bremy, who subs for retired bassist Tim Bogart. And while their song choices -- "Whiter Shade of Pale," "I Can See For Miles," "Last Train to Clarksville," "I Heard It Through the Grapevine," and "Tracks of My Tears" included -- are all well inscribed in the collective consciousness, the band manages to mesh them with its signature sound.
"We reformed in 2005 and went on tour and did 25 dates with the Doors of the 21st Century, the Yardbirds and Pat Travers," Stein recalls while recapping the band's recent trajectory. "That was a blast, and we got some really good reviews. Subsequent to that, we did an album, a tribute to Led Zeppelin called Out Through the In Door in 2006. A year later we were inducted into the Long Island Music Hall of Fame with Billy Joel, Joan Jett, KISS, and a whole bunch of other artists. And that was really a treat." Vanilla Fudge also toured in Europe and have a solid following in Germany, Poland, Austria, and Italy. "It's pretty amazing to find that after all these years. The crowd was great and the response was awesome," he says.
Stein had previously abandoned the music business for several years to run an ecology company, "But just like Al Pacino said in Godfather III (he affects an accent), 'I thought I was out, and they pulled me back in.' I have a book out now called You Keep Me Hanging On: The Story of Rock's Golden Age. It explains how we were relevant to the evolution of rock. Order it from Mark-Stein.com and you'll get an autographed copy."
It quickly becomes clear that Stein has amazing memories and he's not shy about sharing them. "I remember when I was a kid hanging out at the Speakeasy in London," he reminisces, "I'm sitting in there and I'm 20-years old, and I'm looking at Mama Cass at one table, Jeff Beck at another table, and Jimi Hendrix at the next table. I'm in my newly adorned green velvet jacket and the scarves I bought on Carnaby Street, fitting in with the look that was popular at that time.
"The first big tour we did was with Jimi Hendrix in 1968 and it was amazing," he continues, "I got to hang out with Hendrix and to know him pretty well. When Led Zeppelin first came out in 1968, we broke them in. We headlined and they opened for us because we were label mates. So we really got to know each other. They were learning things from us. They were really spastic onstage when they first came out, but I remember telling Robert Plant to move around more and I suggested to Jimmy Page that he get some bigger amps. It may sound a bit condescending, but it's a fact. Me and Carmine used to hang out with them all the time and party together. They told us they couldn't wait to meet us. Robert will tell you that. There's a quote from him on the back of my book that says exactly that."
Years later, Stein says he ran into Zeppelin again at a tribute concert held for label head Ahmet Ertegun at Madison Square Garden. "I went up to him and said, 'Robert, Robert' and he turned away and said, 'Not right now.' So I yelled at him again -- 'Robert! Robert!' and then he turned back and said, 'Mark, I'm so sorry! I thought you were part of the bloody, fucking press!' So we hugged each other and reconnected. Jimmy Page pretty much kept to himself, but we were pretty tight in the early days. I used to fool around on rhythm guitar and he would give me his red sunburst guitar to take up to my room to practice on. It was pretty amazing because it was the same guitar he used on stage."
Not surprisingly then, Stein admits he does tend to be nostalgic. "As you get up in years, you spend a lot of your time looking back over your shoulder," he allows. "It's especially true when I talk to my grandkids. They don't know who the people are that I'm talking about, but they still get the hint that it was an important time."
At the same time, he makes it clear that he's firmly focused on the present. "Touring is difficult when you get to be our age," says Stein, who turns 68 on March 11. "It's not easy. Once you get into your mid-sixties, it gets hard -- the flying, the schlepping. It takes a certain desire to keep doing it. I happen to like it, even though it's gruelling. Once you're out there, it's still a blast."
Most of all, he's still proud to tout his band and its new album. "I hope people get to hear it," Stein says. "I'm really proud of it. I'm proud of my vocals. I'm proud of the arrangements... This band fucking rocks, and even though we're up there in age, we hold our own. This is the real thing, the whole nine yards."
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