Throughout my lifetime, I have never really questioned why music has been my passion. If pressed, I would say that part of the reason lies with my parents. My mother was a Neapolitan gypsy who loved to sing, and my father was a carpenter who enjoyed playing the guitar. Whenever they got together with their friends, the wine would flow and music would fill the house. As far back as I can remember the music was always there. I would sit and watch my father’s fingers moving along the neck of the guitar- taken by the sound they produced. I never tired of listening to him. He had a limited repertoire and so he played the same four chords endlessly. That didn’t matter to me. I wanted badly to touch that guitar.
It was at the end of grade school that I finally earned the right to hold the magic instrument in my hands.It came as a reward for bringing home a medal of honour for Application and Personality. From that moment on my life changed direction. I found myself spending hours on end passing my fingers over those six strings. That old beat-up acoustic guitar of his was, to me, the most beautiful object in the world. In short order my friends, games, and my beloved Torpado racing bicycle were soon forgotten. I decided to take my first formal guitar lesson when my fingers were long and strong enough to properly grasp the guitar neck. I was almost 15 at the time. I called for an appointment and showed up to the lesson full of expectation. I walked into a 6X4 room and was met by a very large man smoking a smelly twisted cigar. The ensuing experience convinced me to learn to play by myself.
Elvis Presley, Little Richard, The Ventures, Duane Eddy – they were all over the radio at the time. The songs were fine; but what captivated me were the effects they created- especially the guitar sounds. What else! That cinched it for me. The guitar became the only thing I could think of, after school, on weekends, at the dinner table, anywhere, everywhere and any time. Imagine if you will, eating at a table with someone holding a fork in one hand and a guitar pick in the other, that was supper at the Rossi household! Halfway through high school my friends began to take notice as my style began to develop. I was into copping licks off the likes of Howard Roberts, BB King, and Albert King. I loved the blues and there were so many players out there to show me the way. Of course, this proved to have a positive effect on my social life, as I tended to be on the shy side. Guys back then were into cars and competition, and music helped me to connect with the girls. I will be the first one to admit that, along with my guitar, women have been a constant in my life.
My mother passed away when I was in my sophomore year of high school, and I had to cope with a new way of life. It was around that time that I acquired a Fender Esquire guitar and a Fender Showman amp. My life’s routine soon revolved entirely around my playing. After school, studies and making supper for my father, I would take a bus to downtown Montreal. There I would play three sets a night in a band called The Soulmates at the Grand National or the Esquire Show Bar- at that time two of the city’s biggest R&B clubs. I got to see R&B artists like King Curtis and others live and up close- talk about a great learning experience! I was becoming a good enough player by now for people to sit up and take notice. I was also years ahead of the other guys my age in life experience. But, it was a chance meeting that gave me both a lifelong friend and my start in the world of music.
It was 1967 and I showed up early for a show at the Esquire starring an R&B artist called TV Mama. That’s when I made the acquaintance of a drummer by the name of Buddy Myles. He was in the show and we became fast friends. When the show left town he decided to stay for two weeks, and we spent all our time together jamming and hanging around with other musicians on the scene. Near the end of his stay, he got a phone call from New York. It was Wilson Pickett calling to confirm Buddy’s return for the upcoming tour. During the conversation, Pickett spokeof the need to replace his guitar player.
Impressed as I was to be listening to Buddy’s end of the conversation with a legend in the music industry, I was overwhelmed when I heard Buddy recommend me to Pickett as the replacement! Four days later, another phone call from New York confirmed my audition date for May 12th at Massey Hall in Toronto. One train and one bus later found me in a seat of the Massey Hall auditorium waiting for the band to take the stage for a full rehearsal.
The band breezed through an instrumental warm-up of a Pickett standard called 99 ½, and it was obvious that the guitar player lacked the necessary skills. Then the Wicked Pickett, as he liked to call himself, showed up and the band launched into the song for a complete run through. No sooner had they started, that Pickett stopped the rehearsal to chew out the guitar player and call me up onto the stage. After a somewhat chaotic and intimidating introduction, he there and then ordered me to play the opening of the song! I took a deep breath and let her rip. I had barely gotten halfway when he stopped the song, and turning to me simply said: “ Welcome, to the Wilson Pickett group. Be in New York next week. “ Those two sentences changed my very existence. I was 18 years old and I was going on a major US tour with one of the greatest R&B artists of all time…… There was one little problem however and he was waiting for me back in Montreal. My father’s reaction was as expected, and after initially disowning me, he finally agreed to let me go , secure in the knowledge that other factors would prevent me from leaving. These were in order of importance: my Italian citizenship and a lack of a green card. So it was, that my first attempt two days later to cross the border in a bus, with my Italian passport and a candid admission that I was going to the US to play in a band, proved to be a momentous fiasco.
However, neither the guard who returned me, nor my father, would hold me back. A call to Buddy set me straight on how to go about things, and the solution proved to be quite simple. I simply shipped my guitar ahead and took the bus across with a bunch of weekend sightseers! I spent two of the most incredible years of my young life on tour with the mighty Wilson Pickett. We played to steady crowds of 20 to 30,000 people. Acts like Sam & Dave and Otis Redding opened for us and the fan reaction was just incredible. At first, I was just the lead guitar, but as time wore on Pickett came to use me in the act. It developed out of an incident on our first tour in the southern states. Pickett had a deep understanding of life and his profession, and he went to great lengths to take care of me, as I was both the youngest and only white member of his ensemble. So it was on our first southern show, which was in Atlanta, that Pickett decided to change the show format without warning anyone beforehand.
We were 14 strong and we all wore black tuxedoes and white shirts with black silk bow ties. At the end of the show, we were presented one by one to the audience in the form of a brief knee-bend bow to the crowd. That night he put me up front and alone. He then proceeded to speak of soul and the colour of skin to the segregated audience. Having made it clear that it was possible to be white and have soul, he called on me to show the audience what he meant through my guitar playing. The audience reaction to my ensuing solo proved him right. It ended with the band and the fans caught up in a frenzy of dancing and singing. It became the standard closer for the rest of the tour, which went through places like Alabama, Georgia, Texas, and Arizona with California as the final stop. I must admit that it was a particularly strong learning experience. Being the only white person in the group, I quickly learned to live with the negative reactions of both white and black people from without and within my travelling entourage. Wilson Pickett saw to it that I came out of the whole thing all the better for it,and for this I have nothing but good things to say about Pickett the man. As arduous as it was touring, deep friendships evolved and Buddy and I soon became inseparable friends. We saw things pretty much the same way, and we slowly tired of the R&B scene. The constant repetition and the gruelling pace of touring wore us down. The glamour and excitement grew very thin. Things were cinched in 1968 when we played the RKO Theatre with Pickett headlining the Music Marathon.
The show was a seminal moment in Rock history, with a line up that was as impressive as it was diverse- a groundbreaking show. Imagine if you will Sonny and Cher opening with their hit ‘ I Got You Babe’… Followed by The Blues Magoos and The Mandela- with my friend the gifted Dominic Troiano on guitar…The Young Rascals and then The Cream in the first North American appearance: Ginger Baker, Jack Bruce and Eric Clapton with their 20 foot double-stacked Marshall amp set up…and to lead into Pickett we had none other than The Who. Pickett never did get over coming on after the destruction and smoke that they left behind each time.After that experience, all I could think of was getting out of my tux and playing all out on my own terms. Added to this was another equally important factor: my father’s failing health.
Letters from home told me that my father was having more and more difficulty coping. What’s more my sister had moved to Italy, and I was the only family he had left in America. This weighed heavily on my mind and I could not see myself leaving him alone under such circumstances. I received offers to play from Little Richard and Janis Joplin but I turned them down. I had decided to break from Pickett and I did so at the end of my second year with the tour. I said goodbye to the group in Vancouver, and headed home to care for my father and the new music I wanted to play.Once I had established a routine that ensured my father’s well being, I got into the Montreal scene. It took me little effort to locate the ingredients for a fine band and soon The Influence was born. Toronto soon called and after playing the club scene, we were signed by Bernie Cougleman. We cut our album at Bell Studios in New York. Entitled simply The Influence, it got enough attention to set us up on a two-month tour opening for The Doors and Steppenwolf.
Things didn’t work out for us afterwards, so we split up, and I went back to New York to hook up with The Buddy Myles Express.The Express toured the college scene and we recorded an album. Billy Cox was a member of the group and it was an honour and a pleasure to have spent some fine moments in his company. The album contains the original version of ‘Them Changes’. The song was later covered by Jimi Hendrix with Buddy and Billy at the Filmore East on The Band of Gypsies album. My work with Buddy elicited an offer from Three Dog Night to join their ensemble, but the same concern prevented me from accepting their offer. Toward the end of my tour with Buddy, I spent an eventful time with him as he worked with Hendrix on the ‘Band of Gypsies’ album. Jamming with Hendrix and getting to know him was a sheer pleasure. However, the constant commuting finally got to me and I decided to strike out on my own. In 1971, I put together a power trio called Charlee. RCA signed us and we cut an album called Charlee. Doug Pringle’s CHOM FM based in Montreal launched it on the newly created Rock FM niche. One of the songs –‘Lord Knows I’ve won’- went to No.1 in Australia for 3 weeks. This led to a tour with the New York Dolls and another offer! This time it came from an unexpected source-England. I was summoned to the offices of Yvan Deschenes, then President of RCA Quebec. It turned out that David Bowie’s agent, Tony DeFries, had heard me in studio when he was in town dealing with RCA. The offer was to join Bowie’s band, which was then readying itself for the ‘Ziggy Stardust’ tour. Turning down such an offer was a very hard thing to do, but I had made my choice, and there was no going back on my wanting to stay close to my father. Charlee met with some success and I was beginning to carve a place for myself, even if the record industry was having a difficult time cataloguing my style. I still shake my head in disbelief about that period in my life.
Believe it or not, a DJ from Dayton , Ohio- of all places– fell in love with the album and gave it extended airplay.
Result? We sold 6,000 copies out of 1 record store in one week! And as an import to boot! However, the powers to be wouldn’t follow through and it was soon back to Toronto. In Toronto, I met up with Luke Gibson and became part of his group called Luke and The Apostles. We soon took Toronto by storm, and wound up playing the Strawberry Fields Pop Festival before a crowd of 275,000 people. Remember- this was 2 years after Woodstock, so the vibe was still fresh and boy what an unforgettable happening it turned out to be for our group. GBX was looking for exposure at the time, so they offered us as many amps as we wanted for the show. How could we pass up an opportunity like that? That evening we came on stage at midnight, introduced as a local band. What the people got was a vision and a sound worthy of their numbers: 36 GBX amps backed by a double set of Ludwig drums…Anyone who was there that night will never forget the experience. Shortly thereafter, Bernie Finkelstein got us a showcasing at Ungano’s in New York for CBS Records. Things were just taking off for us when Luke decided that he wanted to go back to nature, and he retreated to life on a farm. So much for hope and effort!
The 2 ½ years I spent in Toronto were full of good times and great people- Dominic Troiano, Val Stevens, Doug Riley, King Biscuit Boy, Cathy Young, and David Clayton Thomas of Blood Sweat and Tears…nothing but fine memories. Back in Montreal, I dove head first into studio work and soon found myself working constantly- even though I did not know how to read music. I worked extensively for Tony Roman of CANUSA Records, and for Yves Lapierre of Studio Tempo, both of whom were recording the majority of the name French acts in Quebec at the time. Every now and then, I would go to the States to work with Buddy Myles. Then the inevitable happened and my father had a major heart attack. From that point on, we were inseparable- Augusto and son! In 1974, I met Michel Pagliaro and we got together with Marty Simon, Dwayne Ford, and Buster Jones to form The Rockers. Michel had a French hit out at the time called ‘J’entends frapper’. This, added to his success with ‘Rain Showers’ and ‘Lovin’ you ain’t so easy’ gave Michel a high profile. Once we jelled as a group, we were extremely busy. We made several TV appearances and the bookings were plentiful. CBS signed us up for 3 albums, and we even wound up recording at the same studio where Elton John recorded his Yellow Brick Road album. Le Chateau Studio in France.
The following year two major events took place in my life. The first was my father’s death resulting from a thrombosis. The void he left in my life would take a long time to fill, but it was as if he allowed the possibility of undertaking a solo career to now become a reality. Discussions with George Lagios made it clear that it was time for me to record on my own. So it was, that in 1976 I signed as a solo artist with Aquarius Records, then under the management of Donald K Donald, Terry Flood and Bob Rags. April Wine and I now shared the same roof! Between 1976 and 1977, I was booked into the Phase One Studio just outside Toronto, and under the production of George Lagios and Michel Pagliaro I recorded my first solo effort titled simply `Walter Rossi`. (It was on this album, that I had the privilege of introducing the ‘talk box’ to the music industry. It was put together by Peter Traynor, the founder and owner of Traynor Amplifiers. I used it on my song ‘Dance with me’and on Pagliaro’s ‘Chateau d’Espagne’. Peter did it with me specifically in mind. Peter Frampton later showcased the ‘talk box’ on his single ‘Do you feel alright’.) The reaction to the album was favourable. Reviews by Martin Melhiush, David Farrel, Ritchie York and Montreal’s Juan Rodriguez created interest and I wound up opening for The Stampeders…talk about opposing styles! It garnered enough interest to get me a Juno nomination in 1977. Throughout this, I still kept busy as a studio session guitarist, but my next album would change that situation.
In 1978, inspired by the personal approach of such groups as Pink Floyd, Supertramp and Genesis, I wrote a song called ‘Soldiers in the Night’. I wrote that song in a tiled bathroom with an acoustic Ovation guitar…in thirty minutes. On hearing the song, George Lagios took us into Studio Tempo, in Pte-St. Charles, and three weeks later we had another album- but no title. Just as ‘Soldiers’ had come to me, so did the title for the album- Six Strings Nine Lives.The album’s jacket added interest to the album, with it’s unique foldout image of my Gibson Les Paul Custom serving as the outer cover, and it’s replica serving as the dust jacket. (I consider myself honoured by the fact that until the advent of the CD the production costs of that jacket stood as one of the highest in the history of the industry.) It was a hit and the airplay was outstanding. Before I could turn around, I was on the road and touring extensively – playing to sold out audiences at every show. By the year’s end thesupport grew to the extent that I was awarded the 1979 Juno in the Most Promising Vocalist category. That same year, the album also earned crossover recognition in Quebec at the initial Felix awards, by being nominated in the Best Album of the Year category and winning in the Album Art division. We toured quite regularly – filling halls wherever we went. The crowds were always behind me , and I got to love my fans. It seemed like they were the only real family I had. They appreciated what I was offering them and who I was; just an older shy kid who loved to play his guitar.
From the shows, to the studios, to the bars after hours – I had friends all around me, and I never knew what it was to spend time all alone.You know, life is so unpredictable. So full of surprises. To me, one of the most important surprises, is that my old Gibson Les Paul has ( through all the marketing process) become far more recognizable than my own face. It should seem odd- yet it is so fitting. After all, my guitar has been my constant companion and closest friend. It`s been with me throughout all my travels- and I`ve been on the road since I`m 18. It has brought me the biggest joys, and made me reflect on my life and my sense of self- worth. It has supported and helped me in my darkest moments. To know that my fans have made such an association, is the greatest gesture of recognition that I could possibly have hoped for in my life.
Well, that’s how things happened for me in breaking out and making my place as a solo performing artist. It’s been a pleasure sharing this time with you, and I hope there’s something in my experiences that will be of help to someone out there.