September 10, 2021

Where’s the dot? Everyone knows it’s DOT 38 Special…

I can hear you out there, muttering under your breath about the lack of journalistic rigour. “Where’s the dot?” I hear you say. “Everyone knows it’s DOT 38 Special, because the band was named after the Smith & Wesson .38 Special bullet casing. Why, there’s a whole legend about how the band got their name, when they were rehearsing at a remote warehouse and someone complained about the noise. The cops turned up, but the door was padlocked and the guys couldn’t come out. So the cop says, ‘No problem, we’ll let this .38 Special do the talking,’ and shoots the lock off.”

Well, it makes a great story, and it’s only slightly marred by the fact that it isn’t true, as we shall hear presently. Absolutely the first thing I ask Jeff Carlisi though, lead guitarist and founder member of the classic Florida rockers 38 Special, is whether or not the band’s name should be spelled with a dot. He bursts into a raucus laugh. “This has always been a thorn in our side! Technically, we did not use the dot, OK? A lot of it was artwork that the record company did, and whatever. And it loosely came from a story that was somewhat fabricated about the police saying these .38 specials are going to do the talking for us, when they came and raided our rehearsal house. All bollocks!”

A&M Records promo shot L to R: Jack Grondin, Larry Junstrom, Steve Brookins (front), Jeff Carlisi, Donnie Van Zant, Don Barnes

I complement the Jacksonville native on his excellent grasp of UK vernacular, which he acknowledges with a gracious nod, before enlarging on his shocking revelation. “A friend of ours actually came up with the name, and we said let’s make it simple, just 38 Special, no dot.” Unfortunately, the band’s own PR hasn’t been as simple as their original vision. If you have laid eyes on the two spectacular new coloured-vinyl reissues of their classic albums Wild Eyed Southern Boys and Special Forces, one of them includes the dot on the front cover artwork, and one of them doesn’t, so the debate continues. Jeff sees it as a glorious opportunity for mischief. “Then we really play with people’s minds,” he says. “We ended up telling people, yes there is a dot, but it comes after the eight!”

So, what about the rehearsal warehouse story? Surely every cowboy boogie band has to have their door shot off its hinges at some time in their career? “Yeah, the place did exist, and it was out in the middle of the woods, basically. We boarded it up, and it was so far away from any type of civilisation, I don’t see who we could have disturbed except for the raccoons and the snakes. As for being raided by the police, it was a fabrication; the record company said we needed a great story. All right, we’ll lie! And when we moved from there, to our rehearsal facility in downtown Jacksonville, a lot of police officers became our friends, and they would patrol the place for us and come by and hang out and what have you – so it’s a loose fabrication.

Not every story regarding 38 Special is made up, of course. Their front man, Donnie Van Zant, is the younger brother of legendary Lynryd Skynyrd front man Ronnie Van Zant (and elder brother of current Skynyrd front man Johnny Van Zant); that much is true. In fact Jeff and Donnie had history way before 38 Special, as he elucidates: “I was in a band with Donnie called Sweet Rooster, in our senior year of high school. Like so many kids, as you’re growing up, you’re usually in a new band every year. I had some interesting band names: The Doomsday Refreshment Committee, I liked that one; that was actually quite good. Marshmallow Steam Shovel and then Sweet Rooster; that was in 1970.” Carlisi then went off to university and was out of the picture for four years. “Donnie and Don Barnes and I think (drummer) Steve Brookins had a couple of bands during the four years I was gone. Then when I came back in ‘74, it was OK, here we go, this is the real effort. They knew I was getting out of college and had called me a couple of months prior and invited me to join the band. I actually got out of out of college with a degree in architecture, and people say, how did you go from architecture into playing music? Well in 1974, for people that are old enough, interest rates were 16% and climbing, and nobody was building anything, so it was perfect timing. Had the economy been great, maybe I could have been the next Frank Lloyd Wright! But yeah, I came back and I figured maybe a couple of years, then go back to the real world. But the rest is history, so it was very lucky.”

Another feature of the band’s origin I’m keen to find out, is how they came to have two drummers. It turns out that my knowledge of the genre is somewhat lacking, as several similar bands had two sticks men – although it may not have been the original plan, as Carlisi explains. “Well, I was the last one to join, but Donnie and Don, the two drummers Steve Brookins and Jack Grondin, and Larry Steele, the original bass player, had already been working together. When I came to a rehearsal, Larry wasn’t there and they had decided to get Ken Lyons on bass, and I asked the same question, you know, why two drummers? I knew Steve, I didn’t know Jack; he was from New Jersey, and had moved here because he was going to university in Jacksonville. And they said, well, we really liked both of them. We heard Jack play; Steve was our friend and we heard him play, so we just said, well, let’s have two. I mean, it was as simple as that. It made sense to them because the Allman Brothers had two drummers and the Doobie Brothers were using two drummers. But it was unique in the sense that they played as if they were tied together; they spent hours rehearsing, and when you were standing on that stage with two drummers doing exactly the same thing, it was powerful. And it was fun to look at! They had individual styles; Steve was more of a backbeat drummer and Jack was more of a straight-ahead rock drummer. So we used them effectively; maybe the only thing you really did was took out one bass drum so you wouldn’t get the flamming, and maybe one snare drum, but other than that it was pretty good.”

Hot pink vinyl reissue of 1980’s Wild-Eyed Southern Boys.

And so the band became a six-piece, with Donnie Van Zant at the front, Don Barnes on guitars and vocals, Jeff Carlisi also on lead guitar, both Steve Brookins and Jack Grondin on drums, and Ken Lyons on bass. It made for gruelling touring. “Let’s put it this way,” says Carlisi, “If we were a three piece band like ZZ Top, we could have just taken one cab everywhere we went. As it was, we had to get a bus to go anywhere.” They gigged relentlessly under these conditions for a couple of years before landing their contract with A&M Records, and then the albums started flowing freely: their self-titled debut was released in 1977, followed by Special Delivery in 1978 and Rockin’ Into The Night in 1979. Nevertheless, it’s their next two LPs that pique our interest, because these are the ones that have been selected for reissue, 1981’s Wild Eyed Southern Boys and Special Forces from 1982. Why those two records particularly?

“Well, I think,” starts Carlisi, “and this is just speculation, but Wild Eyed was our first major selling record. Prior to that, Rockin’ Into The Night  (the title track from album no. 3), was our first top 40 single, and we went from the first two records selling 20, 30,000 copies respectively, to all of a sudden 250,000 copies and a song on the radio. It certainly kept us employed.” The timing of Wild Eyed Southern Boys, and its lead single Hold On Loosely, was serendipitous, as MTV, the world’s first major cable music channel, was launched that summer. “Hold On Loosely was the 13th song ever played on MTV on the first day! So we had the perfect storm of MTV and that song. Until then, we had just been a southern rock band, as if the world needed another southern rock band. We realised that on our early records, we were trying to be everything from the Allmans to Marshall Tucker, to Skynyrd, to Outlaws, to Charlie Daniels, you name it. And we realised we couldn’t do it, because we were a little bit younger than those guys; they were early and mid ‘70s, and we were coming towards the end of the decade and we had to do something different.”

Inspiration came in the unlikely form of Boston electro-pop-rockers The Cars, whose debut album was released in 1978. It contained their first single, sung by bassist Benjamin Orr, called Just What I Needed, which may have been exactly what 38 Special needed. “I didn’t like it when I first heard it,” says Carlisi, “in fact I couldn’t stand it, I would change the channel – but I grew to really love it. And that was kind of the inspiration for Hold On Loosely, playing the eighth notes and what have you. So we created a different sound, more of a modern sound if you will, but keeping the sensibility of the southern attitude, the blues roots, aggressive guitar playing and such. Wild Eyed was the first record that really encapsulated all of that, and we carried on that style into Special Forces with the single Caught Up In You and we did some other interesting things, like Chain Lightnin’. So I think those were the first two records that really put us on the map and built our fan base.”

Orange vinyl reissue of 1981’s Special Forces.

Read Velvet Thunder’s review of the two reissued albums

Bassist Ken Lyons was replaced early on by Larry Junstrom, but apart from that, the personnel had remained steady. Don Barnes was taking a lot of the lead vocals as well as playing lead guitar, so I was wondering if Carlisi, as a non-vocalist, was considered the de facto primary guitarist, or whether the approach was more even-handed on the guitar front, more back-and-forth, if you will. “Definitely back and forth,” says Carlisi. “I mean, Don was a very, very good guitar player and stylistically, he would tend to take the edgier songs, and I would take the more melodic songs. We just evolved that way. I mean, our influences when we first started playing, were certainly blues. Free was a big influence on us. I did a gig with Paul Rodgers a few years back, and I brought my Free Tons Of Sobs album jacket for him to sign. You know, from Paul Kossoff to Andy Fraser, just what a brilliant band. And I told Paul, a lot of the swagger that you guys had, we got as well through osmosis. But also, one of my greatest influences is Brian May, and Queen. People say, are you kidding me? Because you don’t sound like Brian May. Well of course I don’t. Only Brian sounds like Brian, and why should I try to sound like Brian? It’s just his attitude, his melodic approach to guitar playing. Freddie Mercury would finish a vocal, and Brian would carry on with just as much credibility and a story to be told. I always wanted to do that, so that was a big influence. But, you know, certainly Clapton, and Keith Richards, The Beatles all the way through. Country music, of course, was a big influence on us growing up in the south. And some of those players, guys like Jerry Reed, were just phenomenal guitar players – you have to take the blinders off and listen to everything.

Talking of different influences, there’s some great, driving harmonica playing on Special Forces, specifically on the track Rough-Housin’. When that comes powering in, it’s tempting to wonder why it wasn’t used more, but it turns out that no member of the band possessed that particular talent. “Dude was actually Don Barnes’ brother!” explains Carlisi. “Jim Barnes was his name; he was older than the rest of us, probably four or five years older. He was living in Atlanta, I believe, but we wanted to put a harmonica on there and Don said, my brother plays harp. So we said, go get him!”

While we’re on the subject of additional personnel, female backing vocalists were always very prominent in the band’s sound, so I wondered whether they were ever considered part of the band as such? Carlisi is very clear about that. “They were not considered members of the band, although it was something that actually started very early. I don’t know how we found them or who found them for us, but Dale Krantz (who sang on the third album Rockin’ Into The Night), was of course, in the Rossington Collins band and was married to Gary Rossington from Lynryd Skynyrd. She and another girl had been singing with Leon Russell, and so they went on tour with us. They were very good; really, really good. And then they went off do their thing, and we got somebody to replace them, and then somebody to replace them – because we didn’t have enough vocal power within the band, as there were basically just two singers to fill those parts. Later on, we had a sideman who was a keyboard player, who had a good voice. So yeah, it was out of necessity, but I never cared for it much, actually. I mean, it’s just what you have to do.

You know when the ‘horse’ get hit with the arrow? ‘Message for you sir…’

There’s another sound on Special Forces I wanted to ask about, which is the thunderclap that opens the aforementioned Chain Lightnin’. It’s a nice effect, but it doesn’t sound much like real thunder to these ears, so I’m wondering whether it was accomplished by someone kicking an amp that contained a spring reverb or some such thing. I’ve generated some deafening, accidental thunderclaps by putting my amp down too hard, so I know it can be done, but it turns out I’m wrong on all counts, and it is actually the real deal. “No, it was actually thunder! It’s difficult to get sound effects because you have to pay for them if they’re in a sound library, and they’re quite expensive. The first time we tried to do that was on an instrumental on our third record, called Robin Hood. It’s one of my favourite songs from our back catalogue, inspired by Monty Python And The Holy Grail.” Another British culture reference? I’m starting to warm to this guy…

“You know when the ‘horse’ (Concorde, played by Eric Idle), gets hit with the arrow? ‘Message for you sir…’ and there’s a part where the song breaks down in the middle and we wanted to get the arrow sound, like zzhwing-ing-ing! It was difficult and we couldn’t do it – we were in the studio flapping rulers on the tables, going boi-oi-oi-oing – we tried, but we could never get it done, and the rights from the movie were too expensive, so we were never able to reproduce the sound. But for Chain Lightnin’, we ended up buying the thunder effect from a sound bank. Then one of the local news stations in Atlanta started using it when they went to the weather on the Six O’clock News; you’d hear the thunderbolt and the beginning of the song.”

L to R: Don Barnes, Larry Junstrom, Donnie Van Zant, Jack Grondin, Jeff Carlisi, Steve Brookins

It’s a shame they couldn’t get hold of a professional-quality ruler flapper, (maybe Don’s brother would have known someone), but other instrumentalists were not so hard to come by. Don Barnes left the band in 1987 and stayed out for five years, his guitar slot being taken by Californian Danny Chauncey; Brookins left at the same time and 38 Special became a more conventional single-drummer outfit. When Barnes returned though, the band ended up with three lead guitarists, which is unusual, but by no means unheard of, especially in their genre. “It’s very difficult with three guitar players as you know, because you can tend to be redundant or just play the same thing one of the other guys is playing. Skynyrd was brilliant at doing three guitars, because they structured their parts so brilliantly – but it’s harder to do three guitars than it is to do two. It sure sounds good when it’s working though.” Certainly it never seemed to do the Eagles any harm, or Iron Maiden, but 38 Special went back down to two when Carlisi himself left the band in 1997; according to his own admission, it was “kind of a mutual I-quit-you’re-fired type of thing.” He went off and formed a band called Big People, which never recorded an album, and sometimes unfairly gets branded as something of an abortive project. For Carlisi though, it was paradise.

“Big People was an idea originally started by Michael Cartellone, who’s the current drummer in Lynyrd Skynyrd. He had been out with John Fogerty (of Creedence Clearwater Revival), and was a member of the Damn Yankees (which included Ted Nugent). We had met a couple of times and he moved to Atlanta and was dating a girl I knew, so he said, hey, you know, let’s get together and play some, whatever. Derek St. Holmes was living there as well, Ted Nugent’s singer, and I’d known Derek for many years. So we got together and said, yeah, maybe we can put together a little blues thing and play some weekend clubs. But then a mutual friend of ours said, why don’t you guys round it out, get another guitar player and a bass player, turn it into something special? So we started throwing names in a hat, and I think Derek suggested Pat Travers, who I knew previously, and then I said, Benjamin Orr, because the Cars, as I said, was such a big influence on me, and he had a great voice; let’s just see what he’s doing. So next thing you know, everybody’s in, they fly into Atlanta, we’re having our first rehearsal and Michael Cartellone whose idea this whole thing was, says he’s got an audition with Skynyrd. So Pat Travers said, well don’t worry about it; I’ll call Lib. I said Lib who? he says Liberty DeVitto, Billy Joel’s drummer. I said, Yeah, right, you’re going to call Liberty DeVitto, and he’s going to come and do this? He said nah, he’d love to; Billy Joel’s about finished with his tour… So he goes over in the corner and makes a call. He happened to catch him just coming off stage; Billy was doing his last show at Madison Square Gardens, and he’s talking away and he comes back, says he’s in, he’ll be here next weekend. And it was like, it was a brand new life for me. It was just fantastic, and all these guys are tremendous singers. We started off originally just doing covers of our own songs; we’d do maybe four Cars tunes and some 38 Special tunes, and Billy Joel and Pat’s stuff, and some Nugent, with the idea that we were going to develop as a band, and start writing and whatever.

Jeff Carlisi on a recent pilgrimage to the UK

“Then fast forwarding quickly, I guess probably a little over a year into the project, Ben was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. But when he was given the diagnosis, he said, hey, book as many shows you can, when I can’t get up and sing anymore, then we’ll know it’s over. Really. And he went out that entire summer of 2000. The band got so tight, not only as musicians, but as a family, being there for Ben and a lot of the people that he touched. He just sang like a bird, talked to people, and like a trooper went all the way to the end and we lost him at 52 years old. It was so sad; I really missed him. I mean, it was it was just such a sad thing. It was the best year and a half, two years I’ve ever spent with a bunch of guys. As a result, well, we stayed together, Liberty invited me to join the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame band after that, with Ricky Byrd and Will Lee; Paul Shaffer was in it at the time. That was fun, because we got to back up a lot of different artists. I’ll never forget being up there playing Woolly Bully with Sam the Sham! Yeah, that was cool!”

As for 38 Special, they have kept going to this day – they went through a few drummers and the odd keyboard man, but the lineup stabilised again in the late ‘90s and remained solid until well into the 20-teens when health issues forced Donnie Van Zant to retire. Studio output has been sparse in modern times, with Drivetrain from 2004 being their most recent album; Don Barnes is now left holding the flag as the only remaining member from the early days. Perhaps the most traumatic thing to have happened to the band was the famous fire at Universal Studios in 2008, which destroyed a massive collection of master recordings and archive material, including those from 38 Special. It could have been worse for them at least; the two new reissues would not have been possible if their cache was gone completely, but it still leaves a hole in the archives, as Carlisi laments: “Yeah, the fortunate thing – if there’s a good side of it – is that, because there have been re-releases and what have you, the music’s out there. The master tapes have been digitised. People ask me, did you have outtake songs that didn’t make the records, that are lying around and might be released? I said, Yeah, we definitely did. But whether those songs were digitised or not, I don’t know. And if they weren’t then they’re history. At least our music is still there, but if you wanted to take any of those songs, and remix them or do a different version or re-edit them, it would be pretty hard to do now. But there were records by jazz artists from the ‘30s that they hadn’t digitised yet, and they’re gone forever.”

Carlisi counts himself as semi-retired now, and has accomplished various things in addition to his recording career – he founded a company called Camp Jam, which was a summer music camp for kids, which led on to his book Jam, co-written with Dan Lipson. “At one of the Friday night concerts at the camp, I did a talk to the parents, saying how being in a band is one of the greatest team building things that you can do, much better than sports, much better than football or soccer or baseball or whatever. Because you don’t have time out, you don’t have overtime, you drop the proverbial ball being in a band, and you lose right then. And so you know, musicians communicate, not by shouting out commands like go to the C, go to the F minor, whatever; we use our eyes and our ears, and it’s amazing how we can communicate just by looking at each other. So anyway, whether your children decide to be professional musicians, or whether they just play music for entertainment or whatever, it’s a valuable tool to have, they’re going to learn a lot from it. So that’s what the book is about, basically. I mean, there are some funny anecdotes of what 38’s career was like, but we kind of had the angle of, how does it affect business? And how do you make decisions that may hurt somebody, for the betterment of everybody?”

All positive, uplifting stuff. But seeing as Jeff Carlisi and 38 Special parted company well over 20 years ago, what is his relationship with that music now? What about the two reissued albums, whose initial release was 40 years ago? Clearly, he still holds the music in great affection. “A lot of people probably wonder,” he says, “why do I care about it, or why am I talking about it? I think it’s good, it’s a nice salute for somebody, to think that that those records were important enough to be worth spending the time to do a nice reissue product. I mean, it’s always nice as a songwriter, as a musician, to know that as a band, we made enough difference in people’s lives to warrant something like this – that’s what music’s all about. I was talking with somebody recently about how you’ve got those records that you may have gotten in the ‘60s or early ‘70s. You listen to them now and they take you right back there, and they’re just as good, and that’s what reissues are all about. So I have to say, I’m very proud of them. And it’s nice to be able to talk to folks that are fans and share our feelings.”

So, it’s yesterday once more, as The Carpenters sang. See, I’ve been doing what the man said, taking the blinders off and listening to everything.