...Turn your ears on...

Skip to Content Skip to Navigation

Gary Alt: Who?

His earliest memories are about music. Listening to AM transistor radio and vinyl 45’s with a ceramic needle soon gave way to listening to New York’s WNEW-FM in the late 60’s. But the turning point in Gary’s musical life came when he first heard Eric Clapton* on Best of Cream, a gift from older sister Peggy. She thought he should listen to Ginger Baker, being that Gary was a drummer in the school band, but hearing Clapton’s soaring guitar solo in Spoonful delivered the jolt that turned his head and heart around forever.

For the last four decades, since around the age of ten, Gary has made the guitar his primary instrument. But he also plays piano, drums, and anything else that crosses his path and belongs on a recording.

Songwriting didn’t become a serious passion of Gary’s until the mid-90’s. He admits that before then he assumed he couldn’t write lyrics, yet he always loved the sound and etymology of words. Why didn’t he start sooner? Ask him, and he’ll tell you he wished he knew, and so does everyone else that has had the pleasure of hearing his songs.

Which does he enjoy more, writing and recording his own songs, or playing live? Another question with no answer. Watch him closely, and you’ll probably agree that what he enjoys most seems to be whatever he’s doing musically at the moment. Anyone that has ever seen or heard Gary play is struck by his intense musical passion and delivery.

* Some of the links on this page may play music when you click on them. If you're using the player at the top of this page, we recommend you turn it down or pause it before you click any links.


 





OK, that was the summary. If you like reading and have a few minutes, read on.

Gary was born December 31st, 1958 in Brooklyn NY to Eugene and Barbara Alt, the third of four children, and a welcome tax deduction for the entire year. When he was three years old, the family moved to Westbury, Long Island NY, settling into one of the many housing developments that rose from former potato fields purchased by developer William Levitt to accomodate families relocating from NYC during the baby boom of post-World War II. Mom often relates how when she was pregnant with Gary, she went to see Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni, and she credits that experience for his intense interest in music and uncommon talent. Mom also played piano as a young girl, older brother Ed played clarinet in school and later picked up guitar and singing, younger sister Patricia played flute and French horn, and Peggy played the radio - the last phrase of that statement sounds facetious, but actual it was not intended to be - Peggy’s love of music had a significant impact on Gary.

The music Gary and his siblings listened to on AM transistor radio and vinyl records, played on one of those portable boxes that had a cheap turntable and built-in speaker, was basically top-40, which at the time consisted of Motown and bubble-gum pop. Sure, there was other music in the top-40, but since it didn’t grab him it’s not part of his early memories. What have endured are fond recollections of Diana Ross & the Supremes, The Temptations, Smokey Robinson, and a host of bubble-gum that Gary admits to having listened to with a certain amount of ingenuous embarrassment – The Ohio Express, Gary Puckett and the Union Gap, Tommy James and the Shondells, and so on. In fact, he distinctly remembers nearly jumping out of his skin to The Ohio Express’ Chewy, Chewy. What seemed unbelievably cool to an eight-year old is beyond moldy now, but just as influential to a mature musician as learning the ABC’s on Sesame Street might be to the early development of an accomplished author.

During the early 60’s, a strange sound entered the Alt household. Four young men from a faraway land called Liverpool, England took over the radio and TV airwaves, and dominated the family record player for years to come. Peggy had Meet The Beatles and A Hard Day’s Night, and the kids collected all the 45’s they could get their hands on. Eventually Gary came to have in his collection every note The Beatles ever released. (He relates that he was just a bit too young to remember exactly where he was when The Beatles were first on The Ed Sullivan Show - probably lying prone on the floor in Westbury, straining his neck to catch the four lads between horizontal control oscillations on one of those clumsy old washing machine sized black and white TVs - but does recall several events associated with that other defining moment, JFK’s assassination. Gary was only five years old at the time.)

Somewhere along the way, Gary got sidetracked, or as he would say regressed, into Monkees fandom. For a couple of years he not only collected all their records, watched all their TV shows, saw their movie Head, and bought “mod” clothes at their Greenwich Village store Zilch, but also distributed various related memorabilia around his side of the bedroom, including a model of that modified Pontiac GTO made famous by the TV show. Meanwhile, Ed’s side of the room was “decorated” not with pop idol scraps, but with model airplanes and assorted paraphernalia that accompany the hobby – a passion he still enjoys, but which Gary shared only briefly and to a much lesser degree.

Probably sometime between the release of Magical Mystery Tour and the White Album, Gary repented of his Monkee-mania and never turned back to those early bubble-gum days. With the help of Mom and Dad’s record collection, which included Chopin, Tchaikovsky, Mozart and other classical masters, as well as Benny Goodman’s Carnegie Hall box set, a Herb Alpert album or two (and despite a regrettably unhealthy dose of Ferrante & Teicher), Gary’s musical horizons continued to expand. This led to an even deeper appreciation for the unsurpassed artistry of The Beatles. In later years Gary would take music courses that dissected most of their recordings and spotlighted their high level of sophistication, especially compared with so much of the other rubbish on the radio.

In the fifth grade at sprawling one-story Bowling Green Elementary School, Gary decided to join the school band as a drummer. His teacher, David Hamill, was a huge influence on him. Gary remembers Mr. Hamill as a very patient man with a real love for music and his students. Every year the band would play a song called Fidgets, which they thought was incurably cool, and Mr. Hamill’s excitement during rehearsals and especially at school concerts was hard to miss. Gary was a natural musician that tended to master each lesson before Mr. Hamill even had a chance to finish teaching it, so Mr. Hamill took a shine to him. It wasn’t long before Gary was asked to do double duty in the school orchestra. He was initially happy to do that, but soon discovered the huge difference between the band and the orchestra – while distributing several dozen brass and woodwind instruments to a roomful of ten year old kids generally produces enough noise to keep Lithuania awake, doing the same with bowed string instruments is musical suicide – the young, inexperienced fingers fumbling around en masse seem to possess the unique ability of reproducing the sound of boiling cats. Still, playing in the band, orchestra and marching band throughout his elementary and high school years taught Gary invaluable lessons about being part of the whole, following the direction of one central person, and adding what he could to the overall music that’s being created.

Up to this point, Gary’s main musical influences were The Beatles, Motown, Chuck Berry, Tchaikovsky and Chopin. Then the event described in the first paragraph on this page happened. For the first time, at the ripe old age of ten, he heard Eric Clapton and Cream. How does one describe the feeling of discovery he experienced? It was like he’d been climbing the apple tree in his backyard for umpteen years, thinking he was at the top of the world, but then suddenly reaching up and finding he had landed on the moon! Eric played the guitar like no one Gary had ever heard before. With his unmatched vibrato alone, Eric could play one note that would give the eager lad the chills. And although he was playing simple blues riffs in the pentatonic scale, he would know just when to switch between major and minor to produce emotional highs only enhanced by his trademark “slashing and whining” and long sustains. Gary was especially enamored of the studio version of Spoonful. To this day he cites it as one of the most amazing guitar solos ever recorded. In no time flat, he was buying every Cream record he could get his hands on, and then reaching back in time to John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers With Eric Clapton album. The blues! While there are many styles of guitar playing of varying levels of sophistication, Gary remains convinced that everything anyone needs to know about playing guitar is on that album. His list of ten desert island disks would include that one, and he says you can throw away the other nine; nothing else matters. He had already begun playing the Goya acoustic guitar Dad had bought him as a gift to Beatles records, teaching himself Birthday and other songs without the benefit of lessons, but it was listening to Politician on Goodbye Cream that opened his eyes to improvisation. It was like a light going on in a dark room when he realized what Eric was doing, and that he could do it too (modesty would prevent him from claiming he ever came close to emulating Eric, but we would disagree on that count – just listen to Gary play for ten seconds, and the Clapton influence is quite evident). He would listen to their live recordings for hours on end, exhilarated by the interplay among those three stellar musicians. Eric Clapton became his favorite guitarist (still is), Ginger Baker his favorite drummer, and Jack Bruce his favorite bassist/singer. His favorite songs at the time were reportedly NSU and Sleepy Time Time from Live Cream.

Gary’s discovery of Cream naturally opened up new musical vistas to him, and he soon started listening to Hendrix, Jeff Beck, and Santana, as well as tracing the roots back to Albert King, T-Bone Walker, Sonny Boy Williamson II, and Robert Johnson. At the same time, he also developed a love for what was called metal in those days, which included Led Zeppelin, Mountain, Iron Butterfly, Black Sabbath, and Deep Purple, among others. (Most of that “metal” stuff he grew out of, but some of it still endures, like a few Led Zep, Mountain & Deep Purple songs – no Black Sabbath, thank you.) Along with these discoveries came FM radio, with New York’s WNEW being the station of choice. Now he was becoming infected with the sounds of Hot Tuna, CSNY, Joni Mitchell, The Band, The Allman Brothers, Santana, Pete Seeger, Phil Ochs, Arlo Guthrie, Jonathan Edwards, Rory Gallagher, Roy Buchanan, Loggins and Messina, and so on - he remembers seeing Hot Tuna on In Concert, a TV show that came on late Friday nights, and being blown away by Jorma’s fingerpicking on an electric version of Water Song. He eventually tracked down the Burgers album, and soon after got himself a $4.50 ticket to see Hot Tuna play at CW Post’s Hillwood Commons - his first proper rock concert experience, and another head turning moment in his life.

When Gary was around thirteen years old, by this time attending WT Clarke High School, Mom and Dad bought the family a piano. Gary took piano lessons for three years from a college student named Keith Sutter, studying Mozart, JS Bach, Scarlatti, Kabalevsky, Bartok, and doing Hanon exercises ad nauseum. But he also spent a lot of time in a book called Reader's Digest Treasury of Best Loved Songs. It contained pop songs that spanned everything from Hoagy Carmichael to Rodgers & Hart, and from Burt Bacharach to The Beatles. For the first time, Gary started to really analyze song structure, particularly the songs of Bacharach/David. Like a person with an engineering mind who’s not content to look at a watch to learn the time of day, but wants to know how it works, he had always had an insatiable appetite for understanding how music was made. He had always read album liner notes voraciously, and wondered “Who are Goffin & King? Who are Larry Williams, Buddy Holly and Chuck Berry? Who are George Martin and Geoff Emerick?” Now he was really digging deep, looking beyond the artists that brought the music to the masses, and into the basic building materials of those great records – the songwriting itself. As a result, the songwriters Gary lists as those he has come to admire most are Lennon & McCartney, Bacharach & David, Stevie Wonder, Gary Brooker & Keith Reid, Donald Fagen & Walter Becker, Elvis Costello, Neil Young, John Fogerty, Jimmy Webb, Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Steve Winwood, and William “Smokey” Robinson. While some of those writers are quite sophisticated in their use of melody, rhythm, chord progression, and song structure, a few are not. But what Gary loves about those that are not, especially John Fogerty and Neil Young, is the fact that they have created hundreds of songs that are all exceedingly simple in virtually every way, yet every one is unique, recognizable, hummable, and vital. Gary asserts that he has yet to figure out how to achieve that, but he hasn’t stopped trying.

Gary lived through another musical revolution that transpired around the same time as his early piano lessons. Jazz/rock fusion had grown out of the ensembles of Miles Davis, a few of the most notable practitioners of the genre being John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra, Return to Forever, and Weather Report. The first time he heard McLaughlin, the revelation was somewhat similar to his first listen to Clapton, except that he was at this point ready for and accustomed to new experiences, so nothing really surprised him. But it did persuade him to reassess his musical growth up to that point. Listening to these bands led him back, as always, to their progenitors, especially Miles Davis. He also came to love the music of Joe Pass, Larry Coryell, McCoy Tyner, Oscar Peterson, Maynard Ferguson, and especially George Benson (before George became a big pop star – he really is a phenomenal guitarist, you know).

This little treatise wouldn’t be complete if we failed to mention the profound impact Buddy Rich had on Gary. Around the time of all this jazz discovery, when he was still a drummer in the school band, he was smitten by and absolutely in awe of Buddy’s drumming. Gary says that, aside from Eric Clapton, Buddy is perhaps overall the finest musician he’s ever seen or heard. Unfortunately though, Gary was never able to translate his love for Buddy’s sticking into anything practical in terms of his own musicianship. That because he could never afford a full drum set, although he did collect various pieces one or two at a time, including a Ludwig hi-hat with Zildjian cymbals, but other pieces roughly akin to the garbage pails he used to bang on in his formative years.

Gary’s first “professional” band experience was with a group called Manifest Destiny. The band consisted of drummer/vocalist Artie Pierce, bassist Milton Robinson, organist Henry Reich, and Gary on guitar. Except for Artie, who was in his early twenties, they were all in their early to mid-teens. This is how Gary came to join that band: Artie, Henry, and a guitarist named Glenn had been playing as a trio under the name Sumatra II. Glenn couldn’t play a lick, but he had some impressive amplification. Henry knew Gary from school, and since they were looking for a rhythm guitarist, he invited Gary along. Gary’s equipment at that time consisted of a Zim-Gar guitar (never heard of it? Neither has anyone else), and some little brand-X amp that barely made a sound. Playing that sorry axe effectively evidently required steroid use to develop finger strength sufficient to press the strings against the fretboard, the action was so bad, but somehow Gary managed without any artificial performance enhancers. And the electronics were downright bizarre. That guitar/amp combo cost him all of $40. But he forged ahead, playing rhythm to classic 60’s and 70’s rock and R&R, never daring to show his hand against the lead guitarist, although knowing that he could easily eclipse Glenn’s disastrous playing. (Meanwhile, Gary suggested Milton as a bassist to make the group a five-piece; he had met and played with Milton exactly one time at a mutual friend’s house, enough to know how good he was.) Then one night, Glenn failed to show up for rehearsal. Rather than declare the evening a total loss, the band decided Gary should try filling Glenn’s shoes, at least temporarily. Being quite happy to hook up to Glenn’s Electroharmonix fuzz box and huge Sunn/Kustom amp/cabinet combo, Gary proceeded to send his band mates into a state of shock. Why had this guy been relegated to playing rhythm in the first place? They immediately voted to oust Glenn in favor of Gary, and decided that they didn’t NEED a rhythm guitarist. Gary remembers hearing Henry around school proudly declaring “my guitarist plays just like Jimi Hendrix.” A bit of creative hyperbole? Gary thinks so, but others would disagree and call it simply the unvarnished truth.

Their signature song was Humble Pie’s I Don’t Need No Doctor, but they also incorporated Black Sabbath, Led Zep, Cream, Focus, J Geils, Deep Purple, Hendrix, Brownsville Station, The Grateful Dead, Jethro Tull, Chuck Berry, and similar material into their act. Their claim to fame was coming in third place at a local Battle-of-the-Bands. Gary’s best friend and “roadie” Charlie recalls Gary's shabby equipment that included the Zim-Gar and a Kasino amp borrowed from Artie eliciting laughter from competing guitarists, whose wise-cracking jaws proceeded to drop to the floor once Gary launched into his first guitar solo. They knew it was all over at that point, and were actually embarassed to go on. Manifest Destiny broke up due to lack of rehearsal space, believe it or not. It was tough being a hard-rocking teenager in those days, growing up in the suburbs where each house is twenty feet from the one next door. Gary had the police summoned to his house more than once.

Eventually, during the time he was bandless, Gary was able to save up enough paper-route money to buy a Carlo Robelli Les Paul imitation, soon to be replaced by his first REAL instrument - a Gibson Les Paul re-issue - but at that time his only means of amplification was a Sears Silvertone AM/FM stereo with a built in turntable that he disassembled and turned into a small amp - at full volume it roughly emulated an extremely quiet version of Clapton's Marshall stacks used during the Cream years. That is, until one fateful day when the Silvertone had taken all the abuse it could stand - an unidentified piece of electronics flew off the circuit board with a burst of smoke - that was the end of that. Around the time of his early married years, Gary added a Gibson ES-355 to his arsenal, and FINALLY sprung for a Music Man 210 amp. The Goya acoustic had long since bit the dust, to be replaced by a Madeira, a Guild knock-off brand.

But back to the early high-school years, around the age of thirteen or fourteen Gary met a fellow named Joel Samberg, who was one grade ahead of him in school. They immediately developed a strong friendship that has lasted all these years. Joel was an extremely talented songwriter, who had penned tunes from the age of twelve that still ring with the maturity of someone much older. They started playing together everyday after school, and soon developed an act that was compared with Simon & Garfunkel, although in hindsight it was closer to what Jim Croce was doing at the time when he played acoustically with his lead guitarist, especially since Gary did no singing at the time. Joel wrote most of the songs by far, but the duo also developed a collaboration wherein Gary would bring some music to Joel, who would then write lyrics. They probably wrote an album or so worth of songs that way. As it turns out, Joel is the grandson of Benny Bell, famous for his Shaving Cream song that Gary remembers hearing in the early 70’s when it enjoyed a huge revival. In addition to writing a book about the life, career and legacy of Benny Bell called Grandpa Had a Long One, Joel also recently created updated versions of Shaving Cream, one called Shaving Cream Re-do and the other more recent one called Presidential Shaving Cream. Gary helped him out a little with both of them, especially the video to the latter, which can be seen on YouTube. One of Joel’s old songs actually wound up on Gary’s Tribute collection with updated words by Gary. Gary also monkeyed around with the chorus quite a bit, and the title is now Old Friends. That song was improperly credited when it first appeared on Gary’s 2006 release Open Road, since when he “wrote” it he didn’t fully realize how far back in his musical memory he had reached for the main melodic idea - it was Joel’s all right.

When he was fifteen years old, Gary began a study of the Bible that changed his personality, hopes, purpose, and priorities forever. Since then he dabbled with music off and on, but never made it a top priority. He played with various bands here and there, but never with the intention of making a career of it. It was not until around 1995 that he started to get serious about songwriting. Since he had sold his last musical instrument save the family piano, someone decided that he really needed at least an acoustic guitar, so she bought him an Alvarez-Yairi. Gary decided that he ought to do something with it. So he started writing songs, at first mainly for his young kids, who needed all the encouragement they could get in the face of the treacherous world they were born into. He began to improve in his songwriting, and eventually penned three tunes with Eric Clapton in mind – since Gary declares he’s not much of a singer, he used to find it helpful to imagine someone else singing his songs, so he started out sort of writing “for” somebody-or-other.

A good friend of Gary's named Cindy heard him play one of his songs called Alien’s Heart with daughter Lindsay singing, and Cindy encouraged him to put out a CD of his songs. He initially laughed off the suggestion, thinking one song doth not a CD make, but the more he thought about it, he realized that he had actually developed a little catalog that might be enough for a CD. So he self-produced his first CD and released Alien's Heart in 2001. To this day he is quite proud of that accomplishment, but also embarrassed at the multitudinous mistakes he maintains were made during the recording process. He never listens to it anymore for that reason. He followed up in 2005 with It's About the Kids, a collection of 23 songs for kids of all ages who need encouragement to maintain spiritual qualities in this crazy world. That CD was a marked improvement over his first one in several ways, but he learned tons more about recording and mastering when he produced his third CD, Open Road the following year. That CD he still listens to and enjoys.

While working on Open Road, or maybe just before, Gary met Jason Arvanites and his wife Elaine at a party. Jason has written a boatload of songs, and produced his own CDs (how many? we’ve lost count). A quick friendship developed, and Jason wound up singing five songs on Open Road, Elaine one, and Alycia Wright, a friend of theirs that they recommended, another. Since then, thanks in large part to Jason, Gary has learned a tremendous amount about recording techniques, and has amassed new tools to implement what he has learned. That’s in part why he’s convinced that his CDs produced since then are by far his best work. Give them a listen and see if you don't agree.

Somewhere around late 2008 or so, Jason and Gary decided to collaborate on a CD, which finally emerged November 2009 as Beef Wellington and the Mad Cows. That’s a fictitious band name, sort of like Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band – the actual album title is Masticated Bovine. While making the "Beef" album, Gary amassed a bit of a backlog of songs and recordings, which was released a week after "Beef", and is called Not For Sale To Minors.

Meanwhile, around 2001 or so, Gary was invited by a friend named Linda Lotito (now Lehrbach), to join a band they subsequently named 10:58. It was a six- or seven-piece, depending upon who showed up, and they played a number of successful gigs before calling it quits for various reasons. A few years later, they decided to reorganize, and tried a bunch of different configurations, until finally settling on a four-piece called Rain that included bass player Larry Hayden from 10:58. Rain became Thunderhouse, which was finally reformed as HAL, which is Hayden, Alt and Licklider (Larry, Gary & Jeff).

April 2011 saw the release of Gary's latest CD, Art of Survival, with thirteen tracks covering everything from post-punk rock to funk and acoustic pop.






We asked Gary to list some of his musical favorites, and here are the results:

All-around musicians: Eric Clapton, Buddy Rich (in that order)
Guitarist: Eric Clapton
Male singers: Tony Bennett, Jeffrey Gaines, McCartney, Gregg Allman
Female singers: Aretha, Ella Fitzgerald, Judy Garland, Billie Holiday
Pianists: Chick Corea, Artur Rubenstein, Rudolf Serkin
Drummer: Buddy Rich
Bassist: Jack Bruce
Songwriter: see above
Songs: It’s Too Late by Carole King, Whipping Post by Gregg Allman
Bands: The Beatles, Cream
Sax players: Wayne Shorter, Kenny Garrett
Clarinetist: Pete Fountain
Trumpeter: Wynton Marsalis

Ten favorite guitar solos:
. Spoonful - Eric Clapton from Fresh Cream UK release
. Crossroads - Eric Clapton from Wheels of Fire
. Have You Heard - Eric Clapton from Bluesbreakers
. Machine Gun - Jimi Hendrix from Band of Gypsys
. Five Long Years - Eric Clapton from From the Cradle
. Midnight at the Oasis - Amos Garrett from Maria Muldaur
. Something - George Harrison from Abbey Road
. Long Tall Sally - George Harrison from The Beatle’s Second Album
. While My Guitar Gently Weeps - Eric Clapton from The Beatles
. Third World Man - Larry Carlton from Steely Dan’s Gaucho

Ten desert island disks:
. John Mayall - Bluesbreakers With Eric Clapton
. Cream – Wheels of Fire
. The Beatles – Abbey Road
. The Beatles – Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
. The Beatles - Meet The Beatles
. Jeffrey Gaines – Jeffrey Gaines
. October ProjectFalling Farther In
. Steely Dan – Aja
. Carole King - Tapestry
. Artur Rubenstein – The Chopin Collection (Box Set)


So there you have it. Now don’t complain to us about the time you spend in front of your computer. We did, after all, suggest that you only read on if you like reading and have a few minutes.


Thanks.



 







It's good for you