America guitarist 'wouldn't change a thing'
As luck would have it, America’s founding members Gerry Beckley, Dan Peek and Dewey Bunnell met rather fortuitously at a United States Air Force base while their parents were stationed in the ’60s. But it wasn’t until 1969 they would find within themselves a formidable trio who excelled at multiple-part harmonies and, more importantly, had the songs to back it up.
It didn’t take long until the group started gigging around the area dubbing themselves America: A name chosen in the event anyone thought they were British musicians trying to sound American.
In record time and without much ado, the band secured a deal and had a new album on the streets just two years later.
And while co-collaborator/guitarist/vocalist Dan Peek — considered an integral piece in the America puzzle and, moreover, the band’s early success — left the group early on in 1977, his contribution is still recognized and lauded to this day. Peek sadly passed away from a rare disorder called fibrinous pericarditis in 2011.
46 years and counting
After 46 years and counting, the band still is a regular headliner drawing capacity crowds with multiple hits and a massive catalog of songs to choose from. The group also released 17 studio albums and 45 singles garnering five No. 1 Billboard-charting singles propelled by timeless songs as “Sister Golden Hair,” “A Horse With No Name,” “Tin Man” and “Ventura Highway” to name but a few. Additionally, the band won a Best New Artist Grammy in 1972 along with having the late producer George Martin for a successful seven-album run.
At present, the live band is led by a formidable rhythm section in bassist Rich Campbell (Natalie Cole, Three Dog Night and Dave Mason) and drummer Ryland Steen (Reel Big Fish) and further rounded out by guitarist Bill Worrell.
In 2015, America also released a collection of 10 previously unreleased songs aptly titled “Lost & Found,” which will also get sparsely included at its upcoming show.
Best Bets caught up with vocalist and guitarist Gerry Beckley while running errands in his hometown of Venice, Calif., as he reminisced about his younger years with great delight.
“I was 17 when we signed our first record deal in 1970. I remember the album came out in the UK in 1971 and later in the U.S. in early 1972. We were very, very excited,” he said.
Beckley recalled the experience of courting labels with the enthusiasm akin to that of a young teenager learning he had just won the musical lottery.
“I had made some contacts since I was doing sessions in London and we made the rounds trying to find a deal. Do remember we didn’t have any tapes yet, so we had to go around and play live for the record labels,” he said, laughing.
Because the band was so young and naive at the time their master plan was conceived — getting signed and touring the world — the reality of it all happening rather immediately didn’t really sink in until later.
“I don’t want to sound casual or flippant about it, but when you’re young and unknowing, you kind of chart your own course and see what happens. Luckily, in our case, the start was very smooth. It was really a magic time to be in this band,” Beckley said.
But even during the height of its career, America toured the country and often included casinos; a practice often scoffed at by then-current acts.
“We used to go and play a week at Sahara Tahoe Casino (formerly in Stateline). Unlike other shows on tour, it wasn’t a one night kind of thing and, to be honest, not too common to us: We would do a week or so there. Casino gigs were not considered rock environments at the time and had a stigma attached. Clearly, those hurdles have been leapt,” he said.
Fans expecting to hear the band’s most popular fare will be in for treat.
“The show has become pretty set over the years, and clearly, we want to do all the hits that people expect. There is the possibility of doing a concept tour playing one whole album and taking an intermission someday down the road but, to be honest, half of the album is already in the show,” he said.
Practicing for tours these days is also handled quite differently than in the ’70s.
“Regular rehearsals just don’t happen anymore. If we have a casino we’re playing at, we go rehearse during the day in the showroom. It’s not like we have weeks and weeks of lighting cues and stuff to go over, ” Beckley said. “We do have special video for our songs, but any changes made to the set are made earlier on in the year well before a tour.”
And unlike countless bands who’ve endured short-lived careers and wholly regrettable life choices, America’s co-front man is quite content with where he’s been.
“At the risk of sounding cliché, I wouldn’t change a thing. Whatever the course was that brought us to this point in our lives, Dewey and I are grateful and never take anything for granted,” Beckley said.