Few musicians from England have made such a mark on America as John Parr. Calling the USA his second home, he has spent decades building a successful career working with some of the biggest stars in the business, including Meatloaf, Heart, The Beach Boys, Celine Dion, Rob Lowe, Tina Turner as well as writing songs for films including ‘Three Men and a Baby’ ‘Running Man’ and ‘St. Elmo’s’ Fire’, where his song became a No. 1 hit Worldwide and gained John many awards.
Currently touring the UK in the musical “American Anthems” and recording his next album, John kindly took time out of his busy schedule to talk exclusively to Rock Zone UK.
You are currently touring the UK as special guest star in the new musical “American Anthems”. Can you tell us a little about the show and more importantly your role in it?
“American Anthems” is brand new to me. Basically, it’s the story of a Rock Star who walked away from a concert at Madison Square Garden 20 years ago and disappeared off the scene. After many fruitless years of trying to find him, his old band and crew had all but given up then in the last act they find him and Rocky Rhodes and the band are reunited for one last show at Madison Square Garden. Not a million miles from my own story except I do not play Rocky Rhodes. The show plays out against a soundscape of the great American songbook of the 80’s – with songs from every hit act of the decade. I show up in the last act to play 3 of my hits from that era. Great songs, sexy dancers and a strong cast – it’s a lot of fun…
How did the opportunity to take part in this project come about and was treading the boards something that you held on your to-do list for a long time? Can we expect more acting from you?
It came the usual way – the phone call…. I had booked 3 weeks holiday from my American tour – well that’s history now and it’s a busman’s holiday…. I did a big theatre show a few years back called Paris – not the country but Paris who sparked the Trojan wars by stealing Helen from the Greeks. It was one of my greatest experiences working with phenomenal people and the London Symphony Orchestra.
You have enjoyed an amazing career in the USA. In fact there can’t be many British musicians who have made such a mark in America. Why do you think this has been the case and do you have any suggestions as to why your songs seem to have resonated more with the American public than back in the UK?
America gave me a chance. Frankly, the British media could never get past “St Elmo ’s Fire”. I just write music – I was blessed to have grown up in the richest era of rock, pop and soul music. As a kid I loved to be entertained and be moved – thrilled by music and performers. I have never followed fashion or the dollar – I did and still do it for the love of music. From a media perspective I think I am difficult to pigeon hole and, as in life, people tend to think they comprehend you in ten seconds. So, in truth, I feel I didn’t get a fair hearing by the British media of the day. I would be labeled “too American” whatever that means…. I had played to full houses all my life in the UK – so the material had been tested and was getting a reaction but could not get a record deal. In desperation I gave America a shot and within a year I had a number one – the following year came “St Elmo’s…” then 12 Hollywood movies (3 of which went global number one at the box office). Those movies had some of my best work in them and yet never got a single radio play in England. Very frustrating as you can imagine – making it in your own country is important to me – but the fat lady isn’t singing yet….
Do you live in the United States “full time” and if so how often do you get back to England? Where do you consider to be “home”?
My home is Yorkshire. I have lived in the North of England virtually all my life – though much of my professional life is spent in America. England is my home.
In addition to performing in “American Anthems” I believe you are in middle of recording your new album. Have you put recording on hold whilst you tour?
No I record on my days off. I am just finishing “The Mission”, my 6th album, which is inspired by the military – the soldiers, their families and the sacrifices they make, the dedication they have to serve and the pleasure and the pain of it all. It is not marching bands and drums – it is a rock record with real power and emotion but with real subject matter.
I leave for the States the week after “American Anthems” winds up here. I go to Fort Bragg in North Carolina to record with the 82nd Airborne Chorus – 2 songs that I have specifically written about them. The 82nd is one of the most famous regiments in U.S. history and their exploits have graced many a movie.
I then play to 250,000 people at the 1st ever Vietnam Veteran’s Parade. They returned to America in 1969 where they were spat on and called “baby killers”. They were perceived as having lost the war. It was a disgrace and now 33 years later the boys that risked their lives for the freedom of others in the mid sixties are finally getting recognized for their sacrifice – I am proud to be involved and have written a song “The Boy I Left Behind” as a tribute to those who came home and the ones left behind.
I see you have been doing a lot of charitable work and working with the US military. Please will you tell us about your involvement and how this came about?
In the 80’s the US Military were getting a hard time – they were advised not to wear their uniforms in the street when off duty. I was incensed. As a Brit we love our military and are rightly proud – I could not believe that many Americans treated their armed forces with such distain. I began writing songs about it and intended to do concerts to raise awareness of the injustice. Unfortunately my career was cut off at the knees by a legal action I was forced to bring against a former employee who had been doing me down- it took the British legal system over 20 years to get me justice- that was Dec 2010. During those 20 years no major label or promoter would touch me. If you are in litigation – even if you are the innocent party as I was, you cannot get a contract to work. Now I am free I have returned to America and have been playing concerts for the military and their families on my own dollar. And it feels great.
You appeared to drop off the radar of UK fans for quite some time – what happened? Do your plans include touring in the UK soon?
I did eventually walk away from it all broken hearted. It seemed like I had been climbing the mountain all my life and just when I was finally near the top I was pushed off. I never thought I would be a musician again. Then many years later a friend persuaded me to do a one off charity show. I did that show and I got the bug back. I began practicing really hard just like I did when I first started out – thousand upon thousand s of hours but I can say I came out the other side stronger fitter and more ready than I ever was.
What inspires you to keep writing and performing? In fact, I am interested in who first inspired you to pick up a guitar and sing (my first musical memories are of watching The Sweet on Top of the Pops and thinking I want to do THAT!)? Also how did your family react when you told them that you were going to write and perform music for a living?
I used to impersonate people when I was little kid in the playground. I’d be The Chipmonks or Lonnie Donegan and, of course, Cliff Richard, but it was the Beatles that made me really want to be a musician. I just loved them and was so excited by each record they would release – all those incredible guitar sounds and riffs – truly inspiring. Mum and Dad were always there for me – Dad was my manager for a few years and drove me and my school band 150,000 miles gigging around the UK before we were even 16. You’re lucky if people believe in you. It truly is a tough, tough game to choose. You need a big heart, bigger balls and that Rocky spirit.
Talking of the early part of your career, I have read that you were in a band called Ponders End and you were one of the best bands in Newcastle at the time. How good were Ponders End?
Ponders End were a Yorkshire band – people would say that Dire Straits and Ponders were the two hottest bands around. Dire Straits got signed and three weeks later our truck blew up and that was the end of Ponders….
Your latest release (“Letter to America”) is available now – what can Rock-Zone readers expect to hear on it? In what ways do you feel you have progressed as a writer over your career?
I feel I am a stronger guitar player than I was and vocally I still have the power and range but with a little more timbre than I used to have. I am still punching my weight and work harder than I ever have to keep improving. The songs just come…. Its like I put the antennae up and in they flow. I am often deeply moved by some of the recent stuff I write and find it hard to sing them in the studio without breaking up (emotionally I mean). I strive to move people with my music and stage performances – I’d rather people hate it than say “it’s nice”. Inspiration wise…. there is so much in the world to write about – yes it’s often difficult to say something new but the secret is to find a new way of saying it.
Finally, over the last 25 or so years you have had some quite amazing career highlights (things that many of the X-Factor “stars” of today can only dream of emulating. If you could only pick one of you highlights, which one would it be and why?
My last show in the U.S. before I returned this year was Madison Square Garden. I sang “ Under A |raging Moon” with Roger Daltry. I had written the song with a friend of mine Julia Downes as a tribute to The Who and the incomparable Keith Moon. It had become Roger’s biggest hit in America. John Entwistle was on stage that night as was John Bonham’s son Jason and Ringo’s son Zak who played the kit – Yoko , Julian and Sean Lennon also joined us on stage for what was a who’s who of Rock and Roll. For a lad from a Northern pit town it truly was a dream come true…
Once again, many thanks for sparing us the time and we hope to see you back in the UK very soon. For more information on John’s current and future plans please check out his website and we will be reviewing his album, “Letter to America” very soon.
For more information on John and “American Anthems”
“Letter to America” Double Album CD – iTunes link:
For more information on “American Anthem” tour dates and tickets see:
By David Wilson