One could say Al Bullitt is a man on a mission — a musical mission, to be precise. For the past 25 years, he’s pursued the possibilities of reconnecting audiences with the songs they’ve come to cherish by sharing music from the groups that were responsible for those seminal sounds.
As a result, he’s a busy man. In addition to managing a pair of popular tribute bands, Shining Star — which covers the music of Earth, Wind & Fire — and Hollywood Swinging, a group that recreates the music of Kool & The Gang, his Bullitt Entertainment organization is putting together plans to launch a Motown revue called “Motor City.” Bullitt himself also plays guitar in his BBI Cover Band and spends many of his weekends on the road.
Not surprisingly, it’s not always easy for him to find time to talk, even when the subject concerns Shining Star’s upcoming appearance for Second Harvest Food Bank of East Tennessee’s Music Feeds concert series. However, after a few false starts, we finally caught up with him on a Sunday morning as he was driving from a gig in Wisconsin the night before back to Chicago, the city he calls home. Even then, it took several calls before it was possible to get a clear cell connection.
Nevertheless, for a man who has his hands in so many projects, the difficulty is understandable. By his own admission, Bullitt is a proficient multitasker.
“I’ve done a couple of different tributes in the last couple of years,” he said. “I’m the arranger, producer, designer. ... I wear a lot of hats in the situation: manager, roadie. ... I’m totally behind the scenes.”
Bullitt said he got the idea to go into the tribute band business after witnessing other groups that had done the same. He was especially inspired by the music of Earth, Wind & Fire, and it was with that in mind that he created Shining Star.
“When I was coming up in the ‘70s and the ‘80s, Earth, Wind & Fire was a powerhouse band,” Bullitt said. “Now they’re in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. They had a lot of great songs. So the guys I know said, ‘You know, I can do this,’ and as a result, I thought it would be a good act to put together.”
In fact, the 10-piece Shining Star takes the tribute several steps further, not only by playing the hits and deep tracks off the albums, but also by recreating the choreography, costumes, hairstyles and an overall experience of seeing Earth, Wind & Fire in 1975. Bullitt said that even diehard fans have told him how impressed they are with the way the group reproduces the trademark material.
However it’s not only the audiences that are awed. Bullitt said that a member of Earth, Wind & Fire’s horn section attended some rehearsals and offered his encouragement as well. Bullitt also mentioned that the group’s original bass player, Verdine White, stopped by one day and shared his thoughts at the same time.
“They weren’t just an R&B band, they were a world band,” Bullitt said of the original outfit. “They played a lot of different styles. It was very intricate stuff.”
Still, he credits his talent pool with being able to recreate those inventive arrangements.
“I have a great group of musicians,” he said. “But my motto is I’d rather have a great member than a great musician. So I have great guys that are very precise about the music. They’re really spot on with the harmonies, the horn charts, the guitar solos and all the parts.”
Bullitt said he had little problem putting his bands together. Some of the players he grew up with, while others had recorded with various recording groups in and around Chicago. He also got to know many of the musicians while gigging on his hometown circuit.
Bullitt himself tours with his BBI Band. The initials stand for Brass Bullitt Inc, although he no longer has the horns in tow when he travels, mostly for economic reasons. Nevertheless, his tours have taken him to many parts of the U.S. and even overseas.
“It’s really a blessing to be able to perform and to put these other bands together,” he said. “It puts us on another level.”
Nevertheless, Bullitt admits that Shining Star could stay busier, but with a 10-piece band, the economics aren’t always as easy to negotiate. With a four-piece Beatles tribute band, for example, the cost to the promoter is far more feasible. Nevertheless, Bullitt maintains a stable of some 27 musicians who are able to shift between his different bands as needed.
“They know I have their backs,” Bullitt said. “I’m blessed to have both great people and great musicians. Every time they go out, the promoters and the agents tell me they’re always happy to work with them.”