September 26th, 666
Ram Jam might not have the same profile as bigger and more prolific American heavy rock bands originally formed in the '70s, but with two albums, a hit single called Black Betty, striking cover artwork and its own share of controversy the New York group has earned its own share of fame. Ali "The Metallian" and guitarist Jimmy Santoro, who joined the group following the band's self-titled debut, sat down one early spring morning to unearth much of the band's history and reminisce about the band's music, line-up and business dealings. Read on for another Metallian Exclusive. - 31.03.2007
METALLIAN: Jimmy, why don't we begin by retelling how you came to join the band following the release of the American Ram Jam LP.
SANTORO: Howie Blauvett, the bass player, was a very good friend of mine. We had been in several New York bands prior to his getting into Ram Jam. When Ram Jam needed a second guitar player to back up the first album on tour Howie recommended me.
METALLIAN: Was there a band leader at that time that would be responsible for the final decision in matters like this?
SANTORO: The band was originally built around Bill Bartlett the lead guitar player. Two characters, Jerry Kassenetz and Jeff Katz, were the producers of the band. They made most of the decisions about the band because they ended up being the producers, the managers and the publishers. They were one big package and worked out of Great Neck, Long Island in New York. They had brought Bill there and built the band around him.
K&K, as they were known in the business, were known for a lot of bubble gum music in the late '60s. Bill Bartlett was in fact in such a group called The Lemon Pipers. Ram Jam and the song Black Betty were the comeback for K&K. They haven't done anything since then.
METALLIAN: What were the names of the previous bands you had shared with Blauvett?
SANTORO: We were in several long Island-based bands. None of them were famous. They were just local favourites. Howie was in a group called The Hassles, which Billy Joel was in before he made it big. The Hassles had several albums when they were in high school. Howie and Billy Joel were close friends. I just missed Billy Joel in a band because he was in a band called El Primo and had suddenly left to California. Billy Joel played the keyboard, but he was replaced by a guitar player that was me. They changed the name to August when I joined. August featured Gerard Kenny who later became famous in England writing corny music for Barry Manilow and jazz tunes. He also wrote musicals.
METALLIAN: Your work can only be heard on Ram Jam's second album, Portrait of An Artist As A Young Ram. The album is often seen as harder.
SANTORO: We came off the road following the tour and Bill Bartlett was writing music similar to the first album. Black Betty was the only song on the first album that was hard rock. The others were basically boogie and shuffle. They sound like the Stones. K&K had instructed me to write heavier music because Kassenetz liked Aerosmith. The engineer of the second album and I started writing music in the back room. I would come up with riffs and he would write lyrics. At the same time, Bill was writing his own music. He had taken the other guys and was writing and recording his songs. When I was finished with my songs I would go into the studio with the other guys, minus Bill, and record my songs. We had two separate bands going at the same time really. Bill had his sound and I had my sound. When it came time to picking songs for the second album the producers went with my songs.
The album didn't go anywhere for a few reasons. The first blow was that Myke had been in trouble and had been busted a year earlier. He hadn't told anybody. When the album was released he also had his court date. He couldn't tour with us. When the record company heard that Myke couldn't tour they got afraid and stopped supporting us and stopped all publicity. We replaced Myke with a different singer, but Bill had by then left the band. I think he was angry because his songs had not made them onto the record. He didn't even play on the album. Even though his picture is on the back of the LP he hadn't played anything on it.
METALLIAN: What was the name of Myke's replacement?
SANTORO: It was a guy called Randy from long Island. I don't remember his last name. He was in the band for six months and I haven't seen him since. The producers gave us such a hard time too. I was working with local agents to find shows and the producers prevented us from working. They were saying they need 20% off the top and we thought they didn't deserve it because they weren't doing anything for us. That ended the band working locally. There was no tour lined up and K&K had not paid me any royalties after the album had come out a year later. I had enough and I quit. So the other guys followed. The band just fell apart.
METALLIAN: What sort of a trouble was Myke in?
SANTORO: Back then it was a serious thing in New York if you were busted for drugs. He wasn't a heavy drug user, he was like everybody else, but he ended up going to jail for a year.
METALLIAN: Do you believe Bill resented you at the end?
SANTORO: Yeah, I think so. He didn't say 'goodbye' to anybody when he left the band. He showed up at the studio”¦ the producers called everybody in the room and told us that Bill has left. They said he took off to California.
METALLIAN: Were you a fan of harder music?
SANTORO: I was a fan of Led Zeppelin, Hendrix and harder type of music for sure. It was easier for me to just write riffs like that. I loved Aerosmith too, and AC/DC. I liked harder-edge and loud rock. I didn't just play that type of music. I tried to play a little bit of everything, but my choice was a harder rock sound.
METALLIAN: Did the band completely fall apart or was there ever an attempt at a third album?
SANTORO: The producers were not good at sharing the wealth. I am sure they treat Bill all right now because he was the one who started the thing. In fact, this last summer I spoke to Jeff Katz on the phone briefly, for the first time in twenty five years, and he said that is Bill is somewhere in Indiana, doing OK and is somehow getting royalties for the song Black Betty even though he didn't actually write the song. Blues musician Leadbelly wrote the song. None of the other guys profited from the band, first or second album. The second album was re-released last year and I happened to see it on eBay. I collect the band's memorabilia and I tried to order the CD. The guys in England wrote back and asked if I am the guitar player. They said they were trying to find me and had been talking to Myke Scavone. They said they would send me some free copies. They put me in contact with Myke who is in New Jersey. So I went down and saw him. He is actually very angry also that no money was made from the first album. He is also angry about the second album. So if Myke didn't get anything, then nobody else did, although Jeff Katz claims that Bill is making some royalty.
METALLIAN: Who is being paid for the CD re-releases?
SANTORO: I don't know. I am trying to get the lawyers to find out. Myke and I are trying to find out. It is hard to make money from record companies, especially if they are overseas.
METALLIAN: Presumably, you should re-release the music yourself so you would earn from it.
SANTORO: I never thought about it.
METALLIAN: What happened with the rest of the members?
SANTORO: Howie died about 12 or 13 years ago. He had a heart attack. He wasn't really taking care of himself, I was actually in a band with him a year before he died. He had started a blues band on Long Island called Spit Ball and called me up looking for a guitar player as a replacement for someone else. I ended up playing with him for a year. Howie was playing rhythm guitar in that band. I told Howie that he, I and our old drummer from August, who was in the blues band with Howie, should form a band and do our own thing like we used to which was like Hendrix and Cream hard rock with jamming and guitars. He didn't want to do it. Howie ended up dying a year later.
Peter died four years ago according to Myke. I am not sure why, but I guess it was something connected with his liver. He was a big partier in the early days and even though he was clean and sober when he died the damage had been done.
METALLIAN: Going back again, what was the story behind the 'ram' theme in the band?
SANTORO: I don't know where they came up with the band name, I am sure Kassenetz and Katz came up with it, and I just stepped into it. The second album's cover won an award for its design. There was a book by James Joyce called A Portrait Of The Artist As a Young Man and they just changed it to 'Ram' and did that cover. It is a novel.
METALLIAN: Jimmy, what is going on in your life these days?
SANTORO: I am a music teacher in Long Island at an elementary school. I teach guitar too. I am in a wedding type of band. My girlfriend sings with me. We also have a band that plays in the church on Sundays in Westbury, Long Island. It is all rock and roll and if we have to change the words to fit the church then we do. We play things like Evanescence in the church. We do Tom Petty and Motown. We play U2. My two kids play in the band with me. My older son is 19 and my younger one is 16 and plays bass. This is the only church on long Island that plays rock and roll. This band is called The Six because it plays at six o'clock on Sundays. The wedding band is called Ovation.
METALLIAN: How would you compare today's music bands with the '70s and what advice would you have for younger musicians?
SANTORO: I miss the guitar solos. They all just seem to play songs. There was more jamming before. I guess I am a guitar player so I look at that. I just got satellite radio, which is interesting to me because they play a broader range of groups instead of playing the same stuff over and over again. Today's radio is like AM radio used to be in the '50s and '60s. It is not very interesting.
I went through a lot as a guitar player learning how to be a good player by playing all sorts of music. This way your style can be a little different. As far as the music business, always bring the contract to a lawyer. Groups and people sign bad contracts in the beginning because they think they will be stars and will make a million dollars no matter what the contract says and that is not true. Kassenetz and Katz told me one time that people would sign anything because they want to be rock stars. They based their whole contracts on that. They realize people will sign anything to be stars, but the producers make all the money.
METALLIAN: What would you add to the band's history at this time?
SANTORO: We were reviewed once in Playboy and the writer commented that our album was not as good as our performance. We were better live. I just wish we had played together on the second album, instead of being in competition with each other. I also scored music for a National Geographic film called The Sunset Coast. There was a companion book to this slide film.
James Santoro had also joined the '50s-styled band Happy Daze and played Radio City Music Hall after Ram Jam. Ram Jam's music is now available on CD in standalone and 'best of' formats.