Industry Pro: Musician & Musical Director CP Roth
Today’s profile subject is a working musician who has played, in the studio and onstage, with some of the top acts of the 70s and 80s up to the present, as well as being in a popular 90s band, Blessid Union of Souls. He’s currently the drummer and musical director for comedian Denis Leary’s band. His story contains many career lessons, including the fact that his day job out of college set the course for the rest of his career and introduced him to countless top members of the musical scene, many of whom helped him find work in the early days. He also became adept at a brand new technology, establishing himself in a niche area very few people had even heard about. Read on for more information…
Hometown: I was born in Philly, but grew up in Princeton, New Jersey.
Current position/projects: People would know me most now as the drummer and musical director for Denis Leary’s live band. And then, along with three other people in that band, I’ve got a band called The Liza Colby Sound. I’m drumming. My brother Adam is the guitar player. Alec Morton, formerly of Raging Slab, is our bass player, and Liza is also a backup singer in Denis’s band.
You also score TV shows? Those things are getting hard and harder to get, but in the last decade, the best gig that I’ve done was scoring a series of claymation cartoons that Sesame Workshop did called “Bert & Ernie’s Great Adventures.” Before that, I scored a Comedy Central show called “Shorties Watchin’ Shorties.” I also did a lot of advertising, including action scoring for Lego games. If it comes up, I do it.
Early love of music/music experience: Two things come to mind: 1.) When I was a little kid, we lived in a row house in south Philly that had a teensy backyard. Every Saturday, a local funeral home would sponsor a radio show featuring a couple of hours of marching music. I am told my dad would put on the radio and I would use a toy as a conductor’s baton and march around the yard. 2.) Feb 9, 1964 rolled around and my family was gathered around the TV like every other family in America and these four guys came on. Of course, that was the Beatles on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” I noticed one of these guys was playing something very similar to this stuff I had up in my room. It was an old drum set a guy had given my father. The next day, I put together these drums the way I remembered Ringo had them and I turned on a rock radio station. My dad, who was a very accomplished sax player, ran into the room. I really didn’t know what I was doing, but he was blown away that I was keeping time with the song on the radio with the one drumstick that came with the drums. He went right out and got me a second drumstick. (Laughs.)
College & degree: My mom decided that I needed a proper liberal arts education so I ended up going to Ithaca College for a couple years. I transferred to Manhattan School of Music, but I left there after one year so I only had three years of school.
First job in the entertainment industry: I’d been playing gigs since I was ten years old, mostly on drums and bass. But the first “you can now tell people you are in the entertainment industry” job I had was on a sound-alike record, which were made in the 70s to take the current hit sounds to overseas audiences with a native singer, which was very lucrative. I worked at Dynamic Sound as an arranger. I transcribed the charts and recorded them. I was fired when asked for a raise.
What do you consider your big break? When I was just out of school, maybe 21 years old, I hung out at the legendary Manny’s Music Store in Manhattan. As luck would have it, at the same time I was looking for a job, they had an opening for a drum tech. I was hired for that, but as a teen, I had learned analogue synthesizer technology, which was something very few people knew. I ended up becoming Manny’s first ever synthesizer salesman and used the employee discount to invest in some very expensive synthesizers.
Working there was also a great way to see how the business worked. Everyone came there for their tour gear and all the biggest management companies and every record company in town had accounts with us. It was an amazing experience. And from there, I built a career as a synthesizer session man in New York, which led to gigs with Rick Derringer and Edgar Winter and Ozzy Osborne and some really big time 80s dance music producers and that that lead to the Blessid Union of Souls. So yeah, getting that job at Manny’s was huge.
Career path: When I first moved to New York, I had been playing bass for low-level dance record sessions. On a couple of dates, I brought along my synthesizer to throw some additional tracks on once the rhythm was down. The engineers would ask me about it. They recognized that I knew how to work the thing. That’s when I found out that doing synthesizer was a real niche and in demand. From that point, I started working my way in.
New York was the capital of advertising then. And I was the little punk rock synth guy playing sessions with the best musicians money could buy that week. It was a head spinning thing to walk into that. That was the early to mid-80s and both the players and the producers were sorting the technology out. The real power brokers in that scene ended up being the engineers because they saw everybody, knew who the good players were, who the nice guys were, who could work fast, and who excelled at one style over the other.
While all that was going on, the remnants of the punk/new wave thing was happening down at CBGBs. Me and my brother Adam, a guitarist, basically lived at CBGBs. We became the go-to people for punk or new wave sessions. We were even brought in to write on other writer’s sessions, to give it the right punk rock flavor.
During that time, there was a great set-up with an agency called Premiere Talent. As soon as they heard your punk rock band was starting to get a name in New York, they would immediately start booking you for dates on Long Island and in New Jersey. Now sometimes you’d be playing for hostile crowds but there was a lot of opportunity. I mean, I opened up for U2’s first tour with a band called Regina and the Red Hots. There was a lot of DIY opportunity. And since it was New York, you could be doing some little thing and if you got the right press, they could be reading about it in Tokyo.
In the early 90s, I had road gigs for Rick Derringer and the Derringer Band. I also had a few months as a ringer, playing keys for Ozzy Osbourne, which was good and bad. I was young enough to think that’s how touring was done all the time when I was being treated to an experience in five star touring. The Derringer Band was an unbelievable players’ gig, though. Most bands were recreating the record onstage each night with everything all planned out around lighting cues, but they were from a boogie woogie background and they played new stuff throughout the concert. They never lost that. I just don’t think you could do better than that unless you’re playing with a guy like Prince.
Where did you go from there? Eventually, that all fell apart and I went out to Los Angeles for a band in the Black Crowes mode which sort of had a record deal. It never panned out and I came back to New York licking my wounds and thinking it was all over for me at age 33 or 34. And then I went to Cincinnati to do some work for a dance music producing team. I ended up meeting the musicians working in the studio down the hall from them and we formed the Blessid Union of Souls. We were signed by EMI. I played keys and bass and co-produced everything we recorded. When the guy who signed us left the label, our record got put on the shelf for two years, but it was eventually released and did very well. We did two more albums while we were together.
How did you get hooked up with Denis Leary? My brother met Denis at Emerson college in 1976 and I met him and another friend, a very talented kid named Chris Phillips, when I visited my brother in Boston for the first time. Denis was completely non-stop and hyper but very funny and he won me over. I would sit in on drums for a band my brother was in when I was in town and that’s why, in Denis’s mind, I’m always a drummer first.
So when I got back to New York after Blessid Union, I called on Chris who I knew a lot of people in advertising and at post houses and through him and through Denis’s company, Apostle, I got “Shorties Watchin’ Shorties.” And another one of those advertising connections led directly to the “Bert & Ernie” thing and some “Electric Company” stuff.
In New York right now, there are all of these post houses that used to be jingle houses and they shifted from just creative to one-stop-shopping, with studios, composers, voiceover talent, and players. The post house guys are the new kingmakers in New York and that’s who I send my reel to when I’m looking for work.
Eureka moment (when you realized you did or did not want to do something or that you should do something differently, etc.): So much of it happens when you are a little kid. When I was a teenager, I played in bands but I never sorted out how bands got to make a record. How did the band get to do this? When I was 13, I found out that a guy who grew up in my town named TJ Tindall, a kid four or five years older than me, that he had gotten a gig playing with The Chambers Brothers. This was a year or so after they released the single, “Time,” which was a huge, huge hit. It blew my brain up to find out that this white kid, someone who walked the same streets that I did growing up, got that gig. That was like, “Oh shit. Now I know it can be done.” Every day after that was different.
What’s the best piece of career advice you ever got? One of the partners in a jingle company I worked for, a brilliant orchestrator, ended up in an awful divorce. In the mid-80s, I had a session with him on the day they made the whole thing final. He came in in the afternoon and just had this hangdog look on his face. He took one look at my little punk rock ass and said, “Kid, you’re going to make a lot of money in this business. You gotta remember one thing.” I said, “What’s that, Steve?” He said, “It’s only money.” (Laughs.) That was some of the best advice I’ve ever gotten.
Worst job (or day) in entertainment industry: When something you created hits and then something goes wrong with it, you take it really personally. The worst thing, the thing where I really made my feelings known, was with Blessd Union of Souls. We were scheduled to appear on “Jenny Jones Show.” We were going to do a snippet of our new single and play the bumpers in and out throughout the rest of the show which we thought would be a good opportunity to show off our hits. We got there and they were coaching the guests on the show on how to act like whatever they were supposed to be. In this case, it was women that seemed like strippers learning how to play bad girl high school students. It wasn’t a huge surprise that the show was a sham,
but being there, having to stand there while this show went on and present your music in this forum, was so humiliating. I felt so cheap.
Best job (or day) in entertainment industry: My best day was with Blessd Union of Souls, too. This was after “She Likes Me for Me” came out in 1999. In 2000 and we got a very high paying gig to play, no joke, a Girl Scout Jamboree in Portland, Oregon. This was a national jamboree, tens of thousands of screaming little girls. The headliner on the gig was The Temptations. There was only one original member left: Otis Williams. We were sharing a sound guy with the Temps. He was a good friend of mine on the road. We get off stage and he has this big smile on his face. And he says that while we were playing, he’d seen Otis come out of the trailer and watch us do a few songs, and then go back into the trailer where everybody was. He said to the band, “Boys, we gotta step it up a notch. They’s entertainers.” He was telling his band to get their shit together. That’s a big deal coming from that guy. I considered it a huge compliment.
Brush with greatness: My biggest brush with greatness was going to John Lennon’s house. In 1978, Yoko Ono had bought John a Yamaha baby grand piano from Manny’s for Christmas. It was a new invention at the time and a couple of days after Christmas, we got a call that there was something wrong with it. I was rolling my eyes when the call came in, thinking, “I’ve sold 50 of these things and of course it would be his.” I got on the phone with his business guy and confirmed that wasn’t something I could walk them through over the phone. They wanted me to come up and I agreed, thinking I was going to be dealing with one of their crew. But the guy said John wanted to be there.
The day of the appointment, I changed my clothes three times before I left the house. I wanted to put on a good impression. My hair was punk rock short and dark purple. And I went up to the Dakota where they lived and the business guy took me up to their apartment. The door opened and John and Yoko were standing there. We made some niceties and then John and I headed down the hall and he started talking as I peeked into each room we passed and tried to remember the details. We had a few minutes of conversation while I was working. He asked me if I was in a band and I told him I’d just joined a punk rock version of the Ronettes called Regina and the Red Hots. He asked me a bunch of questions and I answered them. We talked a lot about synthesizers.
Regina and the Red Hots ended up getting a deal and we were in the studio, at the Record Plant, on December 8, 1980. John and Yoko were down the hall mixing Yoko’s song, “Walking on Thin Ice,” though we didn’t know it at the time. (Note: John Lennon was killed that night outside the Dakota.) We went in the next day and you can imagine what the vibe was. And the studio manager handed me a print out of that day’s studio report, a long sheet of paper, with the four studios and the name of each band and what they needed for that day. I thought that was a beautiful gesture and I still have it.
Next move (or next five moves): We’re working to develop this Liza Colby Sound band. Liza really is a young Tina Turner. She’s phenomenal. And then I also have a movie deal I can’t talk about yet where I am not only the scoring composure but I’m the musical coach and mentor for a young cast of girls who would actually be playing their own instruments and playing them very well. As soon as we get started and I can talk about it, I’ll call you back and tell you more about it.
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