- The James Gang, 1970 (from left): Jim Fox, Dale Peters, and Joe Walsh.
Forty years after guitar rock got really loud and 20 years after mullets freely roamed the landscape, Cleveland is still a classic-rock town, and the James Gang might be Northeast Ohio's greatest contribution to the music that defines it. School chums Jim Fox and Ronnie Silverman formed the band (originally a quintet) in 1966, but it became a national name after guitarist Glenn Schwartz left in '68 and singer-songwriter-guitarist Joe Walsh replaced him.
"We wanted to play a kind of music that really wasn't being played in the United States in those days, which was the harder-edged, British blues rock," recalls Fox, who still lives in Mayfield Heights. "The Yardbirds, that kind of stuff. When we found Glenn, it was like a dream -- like, 'We can have a band out of this.' Glenn was the short-term answer, and Joe was the long-term one."
The Gang's classic lineup -- Fox, Walsh, and bassist Dale Peters -- came together for the band's second album, 1970's half-electric, half-acoustic Rides Again. In an era that saw pop musicians evolve into mythologized rock gods, the James Gang emerged as three cool regular guys who, in their best moments, could go toe to toe with Led Zeppelin. The band's heaviest moment, "The Bomber," seamlessly took a psychedelic stroll through Ravel's Bolero and Vince Guaraldi's jazz classic "Cast Your Fate to the Wind" before returning to a solid-steel riff. Movie soundtracks still use the band's music to convey grit and blue-collar authenticity.
After 1971, Walsh went solo, then joined the Eagles; he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with them in 1998. A rotating lineup would record six more albums before the group disbanded in 1976. Since the late '90s, the Rides Again lineup has played a series of well-received, sold-out reunion shows, including President Clinton's inaugural ball.
The trio reconvened in town last year, with the intent of writing a new album, but wound up playing three sold-out shows instead. (Fox says they plan to write the new record this summer.) As the James Gang saddles up for a national ride, regional musical notables offer their take on the band's enduring influence.
Henry "Hank" LoConti (owner, the Agora):
"If I live to be 100, I'll remember Jimmy Fox walking into the Agora, because he had a lanyard around his neck. And on the end of the lanyard, he was wearing a bung from a keg of beer as a medallion. It was 1966, and he looked 17 or 18, and he wanted to play. They played all-original music, and at that time, if you didn't have a dance band, you had a problem. So I used to put them in on Sundays.
"I think the James Gang was just a raw music group, period. Whether it was Joe Walsh or Glenn Schwartz, the guitar was strong. Glenn Schwartz was as good as or better than Joe Walsh, but Joe was a better songwriter, and I think that's what they needed. I think he is one for the ages. He went on to become a legitimate musical legend, and he never got a bigger hat size."
Eroc Sosinski (bass and vocals, Wish You Were Here, Michael Stanley):
"They helped tie together the whole Northeast Ohio scene. Cleveland was the hub, but the scene extended from Lorain in the west to Youngstown and Painesville in the east, to Kent and Akron-Canton in the south. [They are] underrated by many, but not by the greats -- both Pete Townsend and Jimmy Page were big fans."
Dylan Francis (lead guitar, the Black Diamonds):
"They're one of those bands that had such a powerful influence on my playing and the band that I can't even really call them an influence; they're more an element of rock, a necessity for all bands with any taste whatsoever. 'Funk #49' -- there's no one out there in a band who doesn't like it, or at least can't appreciate what it did. I think that aside from being a quintessential rock song, it also bridged the gap between funk and rock."
Corey Bing (guitar, vocals, and drums, Fistula, Ultralord, and Accept Death):
"I was in seventh grade, getting high with some older kids I knew, and they were listening to [the Gang's 1969 debut] Yer Album, and I will never forget how much the guitars sounded heavy for something sounding sooo vintage. I always thought Joe Walsh had tough riffs and hooky lyrics. Ohio is the hotbed for riff monsters."
Scott Hamilton (owner, Small Stone Records):
"What sets them apart is the tone of their gear, the feeling of their individual playing, and of course the almighty Joe Walsh. He should've said fuck you to the Eagles and kept the James Gang around for 25 years.
"Their best song is 'The Bomber.' It feels good and sounds great. I have always loved that jazzy and tripped-out bridge in it too. How would I rank them against the other classic rock bands? One, Aerosmith (on drugs). Two, the Who. Three, the James Gang."
Wally Bryson (guitar, the Raspberries):
"Ohio cats have always been way underrated. You have to be really good to get out of Cleveland. They're a great rhythm section. Jimmy's a stand-up guy and a good musician. Dale is a really, really solid bass player -- like the Who had [John] Entwistle, holding the thing down. It's an amazing foundation to play around. And Joe can play and sing and work the crowd. And he's really melodic. They were always good to go see, and they always delivered. They seem totally unaffected [by their success]. They're real guys. The real good [bands] always are."
Damien Perry (guitar, Red Giant):
"They're the perfect power trio, in my eyes. I think they have a complete sound, for being just three people. And the deal was sealed when I saw them live last year at the Beachland. I kept saying, 'He's still got it.' Sometimes, the older guys, you can see how you're not seeing the band that you would have seen.
"I thought the James Gang did a great job. It didn't have 'cheesy reunion show' written all over it."
Bill Louis, program director, WNCX-FM 98.5:
"Their influence is still being felt, and the fact that they could balance some songs like 'Funk 49' and 'Walk Away' with some really delicate pieces of music, like a 'Midnight Man' or 'Ashes the Rain and I,' shows that they were really more than a one-trick pony. You listen to 'Tend My Garden,' and wonder if [Boston mastermind] Tom Scholz ever heard that song before he wrote 'More Than a Feeling' -- the bridge is damn near identical, and at that time he was living just down the road in Toledo.
"July 20, 1969, the night of the lunar landing, Led Zeppelin was playing Music Carnival on Warrensville Center Road, and the James Gang was asked at the last minute to fill in. Joe Walsh, supposedly, schooled Jimmy Page on some of the finer points of playing slide guitar.
"For their ability to influence other bands and to stand up as one of the premier power trios of all time, there's no question that they deserve some ranking for what they accomplished. People say it was Joe Walsh's band, but there was a band before Joe arrived, and there was a band afterwards. And Jimmy Fox is the man that made sure it all came together."
"I'm proud of our legacy. It amazes me that here we are, almost 40 years later. People know the songs. The songs are on the radio. The songs are in movies. The songs are on television. The songs are covered by other more contemporary performers. I'm proudest of the fact that we did the main thing we set out to do, which was make some music that someone might care about down the road."