Roger Earl was 11 or 12 years old, he remembers, when he fell in love with the Man in Black.
Although Earl would go on to play the drums for Foghat, the classic rock band that pays a visit to The Shed in Maryville this weekend, the songs that drew him to Johnny Cash didn’t even use percussion, at least not in the beginning.
No matter, Earl told The Daily Times recently. He was mesmerized by what he heard, and while it takes a keen ear to draw a line from “Folsom Prison Blues” to Foghat’s “Slow Ride” or “Fool for the City,” the connection is there, forged in the feverish imagination of a young London lad in the latter half of the 1950s.
“I grew up in South West London, and my brother was a big Johnny Cash fan who had all of the early singles from the Sun Records label,” Earl said. “I was the only kid riding my bike to school singing Johnny Cash songs. What I loved about it — and in the beginning, he didn’t even have a drummer on his early stuff, when it was just him and the Tennessee Two — was that there was always this really cool story.”
Earl grew up in a home where music filled the air — literally. His father, who worked for the British car company Aston Martin, played piano, and Earl’s older brother, Colin, also played music. (Colin, incidentally, would go on to perform with the British rock band Mungo Jerry, which rose to fame, at least in the United Kingdom, on the strength of the 1970 single “In the Summertime.”) Around the time Earl turned 15, his dad brought home a single by a piano-playing madman named Jerry Lee Lewis.
“My father, who came from the East End of London, said, ‘Have a listen to this, boy — he can really play the piano!’” Earl said. “I remember that the A side was ‘Great Balls of Fire,’ and the B side was ‘Mean Woman Blues,’ and six months later, my father took me to see Jerry Lee Lewis on his second tour of England, and I was never the same. My mother used to tell people, ‘That addled his brain — he was never the same after that!’ So you can blame it on Jerry Lee and Johnny Cash and Chuck Berry and Muddy Waters.”
Foghat got its start when Earl and the band’s other two co-founders, “Lonesome” Dave Peverett on guitar and vocals and Tony Stevens on bass, parted ways with the Chicago-style blues-rock outfit Savoy Brown in 1970. They teamed up with slide guitarist Rod Price in December of that year, and the following January, Foghat was born. The band recorded demos at the Beatles’ Abbey Road studios, Earl said, and shopped them around, only to be greeted by slammed doors.
“Everybody turned us down — everyone,” he said. “They all said, ‘It’s more of a folky thing now,’ or whatever the excuse was, but there was one person who heard us — Albert Grossman. He managed Dylan, The Band, Janis Joplin and Peter Paul and Mary, and he came to see us in London. We played in a club for him in the afternoon, and after we’d finished playing, he said, ‘Do you know where we can get some tea and biscuits?’
“I was familiar with the area, so I suggested a hotel across the road, and after the tea and biscuits arrived, he said, ‘OK, let’s do it.’ If it hadn’t been for Albert, our careers would have been very different. But that just showed us that if there’s something you really want to do, you just have to keep on trying. At the time, everybody else was saying, ‘Foghat? What sort of name is that?,’ or they didn’t really like what we were doing.”
Grossman heard something that soon would find its way onto FM radio waves around the country, however. Foghat moved to America and recorded its debut album, produced by Dave Edmunds. A cover of bluesman Willie Dixon’s “I Just Want to Make Love to You,” recut as a choogling, freight-train boogie, got the band a foothold on American radio, and for the first five years of the 1970s, it was difficult to go more than 30 minutes without hearing a Foghat song.
“Ever since the very beginning, nobody told us what to do or how to do it,” Earl said. “We worked with some terrific producers, but the band itself, we decided what songs we wanted to do or not, and I don’t think we made too many mistakes on that front. We wrote songs and played songs that we wanted to do — blues-based rock ‘n’ roll, because let’s face it, without the blues, there would be no music.
“It’s the foundation for jazz, for a lot of country music, even gospel. America gave music to the world, and even today, they do that. You’ve got Israeli rappers, Chinese rappers, Japanese R&B stars, but it’s still American music.”
Foghat reached its commercial peak in the mid-1970s, with the release of the studio album “Fool for the City” in 1975 and “Foghat Live” in 1977. In addition to the title cut of the former, “Slow Ride” became synonymous with the band, and to this day it remains one of the cornerstones of the classic rock pantheon.
“As often as we can, we come out and sign autographs after the show, or T-shirts or records, because we like to hang out with our fans after the show every time we get a chance,” Earl said. “They like to tell us stories about their associations with our music, and it’s usually ‘Slow Ride.’ That seems to be the one when they got hooked on Foghat.”
As the 1980s gave way to New Wave and hair metal, Foghat was ushered to the door of FM radio, and Earl and Peverett eventually wound up touring with two different versions of the band. In the early 1990s, however, influential producer Rick Rubin got the original foursome back together, and “Return of the Boogie Men” was released in 1994. Six years later, Price retired from the road life and was replaced by Bryan Bassett, a veteran of Molly Hatchet.
In 2000, Peverett died of cancer and was replaced by Charlie Huhn of Humble Pie and Ted Nugent’s band. Price died in 2005, and after Stevens left the group in that same year, bassist Craig MacGregor, a former member of the 1980s lineup shifts, returned to the fold. He died last year, and today, Foghat consists of Earl, Bassett, Huhn and bassist Rodney O’Quinn (“borrowed from Pat Travers,” Earl added).
The guys don’t play as often as they once did — 60 or 70 shows a year, Earl said, rarely more than two or three times a week, which leaves him ample opportunity to go fishing, one of his passions. When he’s not on the water or the stage, he can always be found in the studio, working on new Foghat material or his solo material, which he performs with his band Earl and the Agitators. Or, he added, you might can look for him in the vineyards of California, where the grapes are grown for the Foghat brand of wine.
“We’ve been doing that since 2005, and I just love working with the farmers,” he said. “When I had some time off, I went there and worked picking the grapes, and one of the things that really impressed me about the farmers is that, in addition to being generous to a fault, they share their knowledge, which I found refreshing.”
A bit of vino, he added, is one of the reasons he’s in such excellent health at 73 years old. (All things in moderation, of course.) But if a fountain of youth is to be found for the Foghat drummer, it’s behind the kit, launching into the epic intro of “Slow Ride” while a thousand fans scream in adulation at the joyous racket he and his bandmates make.
“We get on well,” Earl said. “I love playing, as does everybody else. I’m one of those fortunate people in this world who gets to earn a decent living at something I love doing. It’s still a lot of hurry-up-and-wait when you’re traveling, but the hour and a half on stage is worth it, and I still get chills before I go out there.”