Duke Jupiter - 2001 Interview with Rickey Ellis

In The Spotlight - Duke Jupiter
Interview with Rickey Ellis
Written by: Lee Bradfield (November 2001)

Duke Jupiter is a band name edged in melodic rock history. Not exactly reaching the starry heights of bands like Bon Jovi or Def Leppard, but at high enough a level to at least to record numerous albums, tour constantly with many of rock's finest artists and bands, and to even get featured here at Glory Daze nearly sixteen years after their last studio album.

Indeed, we're talking major flashback here! Revered as one of the most popular bands from the upstate New York area, Duke Jupiter have even been known to stop traffic and cause downtown pandemonium whenever they've played live, well at least on one recorded instance in their hometown of Rochester.

Years after the event, and years after the band played their last gig, Duke Jupiter are given a brief glimpse in the sun, as answered by bassist Rickey Ellis, and as asked by Glory Daze's Lee Bradfield. May the band play on.

Hi Rickey. Firstly, welcome to GLORY-DAZE..
Thank you for having me.

Tell us about the city of Rochester, we've heard so much about it. upstate New York, it faces out onto Lake Ontario, and is only a stones throw away from Buffalo right?
Yes, Rochester is about 60 miles east of Buffalo and actually sits on the south end of Lake Ontario. It is a great music city. Maybe a little more into pop music and less of an edge than Buffalo, but the night-life is great. I also spent many years playing the Buffalo circuit.

What other bands and artists of note came out of the area?
Wilmer & The Dukes (from the 60's), Lou Gramm of Foreigner, Billy Sheehan, used to play bass with Talas and David Lee Roth and then had some nice success with his band Mr. Big. I believe the Voodoo Dolls are from Buffalo.

Tell us about what you were up to musically in your pre Duke Jupiter days?
Just local, cover band projects out of Buffalo and Rochester. I worked with Duke Jupiter's manager in the past. This is how I was first introduced to the band. I didn't even purchase a bass until I was almost 17 years old. I joined Duke Jupiter when I was 20.

Before joining the band, had you been aware of them and enjoyed their music? How did your replacement of the late George Barajas come about?
I had heard of the band, but never listened to any recordings. About one month before the first call, I saw them perform at a club in Geneseo, New York. To be honest it wasn't what I was into as the band just stood there and played. No stage show at all. I was young and full of fire to perform, both musically and energetically. I didn't stick around long that night.

When their manager called weeks later and asked if I'd like to audition, I figured it couldn't hurt to give it a shot. By the time I got there they had already hired someone, but knowing I drove about an hour to get there, they decided they would jam for a bit. I must have done well as they hired me and let the other guy go.

At what stage did you join the band relative to George's illness?
I actually filled-in for George for about three months, I think it was in 1980, while the doctors were trying to figure out what was ailing George. He came back for a bit, but when they finally found that he was ill with cancer I received a call to join the band as a regular member.

This, I believe was in 1981, just months later. I really wasn't planning on sticking around for long as I wanted to attend music school. I'm really glad I changed my mind as the experiences I had in the next couple of years were great.

You were drafted in to play bass on the 'Duke Jupiter 1' album when George became too ill to record, but he had already played on certain tracks. Which tracks did you play on?
I played the whole album except for 'Rock 'n Roll Band' and 'Walk That Way'.

The benefit concert to assist George Barajas with medical bills must have been a very emotional experience for all - tell us about that event from your perspective?
I wasn't planning on taking George's place, but just to fill-in until he was better. My Mom passed away of cancer while I was filling in for those first few months so I had a hard time dealing with taking a job because of an illness. I was really hoping George was going to get better and come back. George had many fans, they all welcomed me, but let me know that I would never fill his shoes. I just let them know that I did not want to fill his shoes, but to just keep the ball rolling while he was down. Once they knew I was going to be around for a while I was welcomed with open arms.

I'll Drink To You' became such a hit on Billboard and MTV, it must have been great for the guys to experience some well earned success at last, but did it also lead to label pressure / expectation from Coast To Coast to have more hits?
I don't know if Coast To Coast ever had it together enough to put pressure on anyone. That sounds negative and I don't mean it to. It's just that they never seemed very together. Marshall had such a back-log of material by then that I don't think it was ever a real big problem.

I do have to say that, for the most part, Marshall (singer and keyboardist Marshall James Styler) likes to work on new material rather than digging up and revamping old songs, although there were songs we worked on every year, and still some never made it to the studio. I'm told that 'I'll Drink To You' was worked on for years before making it to the version that stuck. Marsh was and is a very hard worker and slaved over his songs.

In 1983 you displayed your acting talents in the film 'Joey'. tell us how that came together, and what that experience was like?
Talent? You are being very polite. Duke Jupiter was supposed to do some music for that movie. The producers saw photos of the band and thought I had the look they wanted. I went for an audition after our manager told them that I acted, sang and played guitar. I had never acted as even a flower in grade school, I couldn't sing, and I played bass. Regardless, I got a supporting role and every time the leading actor would sing, it was my voice overdubbing the parts. That was weird. I was hired with the agreement that if I helped the actors look as if they were really playing music, they would help me with my lines and movements. I was on the set at all times when music had anything to do with it. Not once did anyone give me a minute of help on the lines. I still think it is something I can do a great job at, but never pursued it any further.

The 'Duke Jupiter 1' album proved to be a sonic way station for the band, moving into a more powerful and melodic AOR sound which was clearly well entrenched by 1983's 'You Make It Look Easy' - since that style was very popular at the time, it must have been an unpleasant surprise when Coast To Coast dropped the ball?
Again, Coast To Coast never seemed to have it completely together, but I'm not sure where the finger should be pointed, that is if there is a reason to point a finger. The band enjoyed an amount of success that many other bands and musicians would love to have. Our success never got to the point of stardom, but it was a great way to make a living.

I do think the record company could have done a much better job in some areas. We would be out promoting the band and current album and many times we would find that there were no albums in the cities we were playing. That didn't make much sense.

So many people have so many theories on why we never pushed it over that success edge. Some point at management, some at the record companies, some at timing. I think it was a combination of all of the above with the addition of the lack of a look. The band never thought about a 'good look' or the 'right look' for the band. I think that hurt us in a big way.

Duke Jupiter - Rockin' In A Motel Room (1981).. David Corcoran - drums (in the seated position), Greg Walker - guitars (with guitar in hand), Rickey Ellis - bass (all bedded up), Marshall James Styler - vocals, keyboards (trying to watch TV)

Were any videos recorded for tracks like 'The Band Played On', 'I'm Available' and 'This Is Japan'? Also, which tracks were released as singles from this classic record?
We did a video for 'I'm Available', but it was very low budget and looked it as well. I believe it had something to do with a Kodak promotion of a new technology. It never received any attention from MTV. I think 'This Is Japan' was the B side of a single and it did get some attention, but not much.

It seems unlikely that anyone was expecting Motown to launch a rock label back in 1984! How did Duke Jupiter come to be one of the first bands signed to Morocco Records?
I'm not sure if I know exactly how that came about. Our manager at the time was a real go-getter. There were never many bands out of our area getting record deals, but Duke Jupiter had three in it's lifetime. I have to credit hard work on the management end.

The deal struck with them seemed like an unusual arrangement considering their history. Did the band feel 'out on a limb' as such?
No, I don't think so. It seemed like the record company was really going to put some effort into the ROCK attempt. There were other bands on the label, but shortly after we signed they dropped most of them. They kept us on. that is why our last album was actually on Motown.

After the previous album eluded the success it deserved, the band must be commended for immediately bouncing back with another AOR classic 'White Knuckle Ride'. What was the mindset during the recording of that album?
After the attempt to polish it up with 'You Make It Look Easy' and it not going where we wanted to go, we went back to where we had success. Back to Glen Kolotkin as our producer. He just knew how to record a rock and roll record and he still does (enjoying success with Santana's big record last year). I think if this record was promoted correctly it would have been a very big success.

The single 'Little Lady' enjoyed some success, especially with extensive airplay on MTV - but one can't help wondering why equally classic AOR cuts like 'Rescue Me', 'Don't Turn Your Back' and 'Me And Michelle' didn't achieve similar success and acclaim?
As you mentioned 'Don't Turn Your Back', 'Me and Michelle' and I think 'Top Of The Bay' could have all been great singles. They did release 'Rescue Me', but my personal opinion was that that was a big mistake as I never thought that song was us. I remember thinking 'they're making a big mistake', but hoping they knew more than me. I think if they would have released one of these other songs that I mentioned, it would have received much more attention. Then maybe followed by 'Rescue Me'.

White Knuckle Ride (1984), The Line Of Your Fire (1985), The Band Played On Twenty Years Of (1994)

After Morocco folded, you were still contracted to another album so it wound up on the Motown label. How did the band get motivated to write and record one of the top 10 AOR albums of all time 'The Line Of Your Fire', knowing it would receive little or no label support?
Of course, at the time of writing and recording we didn't know they were going to ignore it. We were told that it would get more attention from the record company than any of our past albums received. It kept going back and forth. At one time they were really into it, but then whomever was designated to it seemed to get fired for one reason or another. They seemed excited when it was released, but there was a concert we played in L.A that, I believe, made a big change in their feelings toward us.

We played a double bill with Lita Ford. She was from out that way so there was a packed crowd of her followers out at 'Magic Mountain'. It was the only time Motown heard and saw the band live. We were booed. Lita's fans just wanted us off the stage. We should have never agreed to do that concert. Our manager probably thought it best to go with the flow when that gig was offered, but we should have refused to play in that situation. We should have never been put in that position.

Duke Jupiter was a GREAT live performing band. Better live than any of the recordings. But Motown saw us in the worst of the worst situations. It was after that concert that they told us it was over.

Side one of 'The Line Of Your Fire' features four co writes with Bob Halligan, who would later write tracks with Icon and Kiss for their 'Hot In The Shade' record. How did that collaboration come about?
Bob did a lot of work in this area. I'm not sure, but I think he was from Syracuse, NY. We were having trouble flushing the songs out on this one. Once again, we were trying to polish our sound up a bit. Marsh is a great writer. The ideas he comes up with are just genius. We just needed some help from an outside source to bring the sound up to date. Without outside help the band was just butting heads.

How did classic tracks like 'Dancing On The Ice' and 'I Want To Love You' go down during the 1985 Canadian tour?
I really don't remember much about that tour. It was a real low-budget kind of 'let's bring this band to its knees' tour. Mostly small clubs. Those songs never were real big in our live show. I guess 'I Want To Love You' made it into our regular rotation, but 'Dancing On The Ice' didn't make it into the live set for long.

On a more sombre note, and bearing in mind your close proximity to New York City, how has the recent cowardly terrorism affected you, your bandmates and families?
Boy, you said it right, cowardly terrorism. Well, of course just being in tune with the news, donating cash and time wherever we can. My wife and I try our best to pick and choose what to explain to and what to shelter from our two boys (our girl is just 4 months so she is lucky to not have to understand).

I have a local funk group called Me & The Boyz. September 11 slowed the club scene down a bit and is still having an effect on business from what the club owners are telling us. We can't let these terrorists get to us because that is what they are trying to do. I want to do what I can to keep my family safe and happy, but also want to continue living the way we always have. I believe we are doing just that.

AOR seems to have discovered a new generation of fans, which added to the existing classic era fans create a considerable worldwide support base. Bands like Hobbit have enjoyed success through independently released discs - bearing this in mind, what are the chances of a classic AOR reunion album from Duke Jupiter in the future?
I made some phone calls shortly after the September 11 attacks because I was approached to see if Duke Jupiter was interested in putting a show together to raise money for the relief effort. After speaking with Marsh we agreed that it would probably take so much work to do it that they would have probably rebuilt the WTC by the time we were ready.

I would love to play as a group again, either for a recording or just a reunion concert, but I would have to be convinced that we wouldn't stink up the place. I have too many great memories of a great sounding band to end it on a sour note.

Rickey, thank you for the opportunity to interview you and review the CD - if more musicians in this genre were as obliging and friendly, AOR would be in a much healthier position than it is.
It was my pleasure. I am honored that you asked. I appreciate that you keep the memories of those times alive.

To find out more information, go to www.dukejupiter.com. To purchase a copy of Duke Jupiters 'The Band Played On, Twenty Years Of', contact Rickey Ellis directly at [email protected]

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