Touring Musicians Panel: Bette Midler Band Visits Berklee
Bette Midler's core touring band led a panel discussion at Berklee and later gave a group of students a behind-the-scenes look at the stage production and sound check before a sold-out show at TD Garden on June 12. The seven storied musicians on stage— guitarist Tariqh Akoni ’91, percussionist Taku Hirano ’95, drummer Sonny Emory, bassist Sam Sims, keyboardist Darrell Smith, guitarist Jeff Pevar, and multi-instrumentalist Morris “Mo” Pleasure—spoke at length about life in the music industry and shared experiences and tips from their years working alongside artists as varied as Michael Jackson, Steely Dan, Stevie Wonder, Elton John, Aretha Franklin, and Ray Charles.
On Networking and Getting the Gig
"In terms of making connections, you are making them right now,” Akoni said to the room of aspiring students gathered in the Shames Family Scoring Stage at 160 Mass Ave, citing his first big opportunity as a fill-in gig in LA at the suggestion of saxophonist and Berklee professor Walter Beasley. This paved the way toward a resume that includes Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, the Temptations, Herbie Hancock, and Elton John. “I still work with people I met at Berklee—including Taku. We used to go to different clubs together and network together.”
"For the most part it will never get to the cattle call audition stage," said Hirano, who has toured and recorded with Whitney Houston, A. R. Rahman H'14, Dr. Dre, Fleetwood Mac, and Jay-Z. "In close to 20 years of touring, I've auditioned three times, and I’ve not gotten any of those three gigs. My whole touring career is about getting a call, word of mouth."
"You also have to know in terms of a gig, there's a trust,” Akoni said. "I know absolutely every one of these guys is bringing it every night, and I have to know to cover my position."
Which is in fact how the Bette Midler band came to be assembled, added Morris “Mo” Pleasure, who serves as musical director on Midler’s current Divine Intervention tour proving the importance of networking and creating solid relationships in the industry.
Band of Brothers
For the seven musicians on stage, the connections run deeper than the music they share— drummer Sonny Emory was best man at the wedding of Pleasure, whom guitarist Pevar enlisted as godfather to his child.
“These experiences last your whole life,” said Pleasure, who has recorded and performed with Ray Charles, George Duke, and Michael Jackson. “These are pretty much my best friends. You can call on these people."
“Every one of these guys, my trust is in their skill,” added Emory, who has worked with Bruce Hornsby, Steely Dan, and Earth Wind and Fire. “Not just because we're great friends.”
"These seven people, we've all worked together countless times, and we all keep calling each other,” Akoni said, jokingly adding, “Hopefully!”
Evolution for Survival
"Now a musician has to have the whole package,” Pleasure said, rattling off the finer details of setting up an LLC, filing taxes and securing health insurance as an independent musician, noting that they knew little of these details when they began in the industry.
"You have to constantly evolve in order to survive," bassist Sam Sims added, who noted that he’s the only one on the stage who didn’t go to school for music, instead coming from a business background which has proven useful in his evolution within the music industry working with artists like Herbie Hancock, Isaac Hayes, Maxwell, and Boney James.
“Come up with your own innovations— there are ideas in this room that can take off that nobody’s ever thought of before,“ said guitarist Jeff Pevar, who has toured or recorded with Crosby, Stills, and Nash; James Taylor; Ray Charles; and Joe Cocker. “Understand what people have done before, but don’t let anyone tell you what you should or shouldn’t do. Ultimately everyone should create their own strengths.”
“What I’m seeing is people who used to be doing these huge gigs now may not be; oftentimes it’s because they didn’t evolve. They’re still living in their heyday or expecting things to be a certain way and not stepping out of their comfort zone,” added Hirano, who has ventured into endeavors from production, remixes, and sound libraries to clothing design and serving as a consultant for a Nine Inch Nails tour. “We, all of us, continually try to evolve and better ourselves and I think [that] is why we’re working.”
“We continue to try to advance ourselves and our art every day. In our 40's and 50's we’re still woodshedding all the time and influencing one another and being challenged by one another,” Akoni added. “And that never ends.”