When the rock band Foreigner exploded onto the music scene in the late ’70s, it was Lou Gramm’s powerful vocals leading the charge.
How the soft-spoken gentleman could nail those challenging far-reaching notes to become one of the most recognizable vocalists of the ’70s and ’80s era is nothing short of a gift from the rock gods themselves.
Gramm was the driving force that propelled the band to the top of the charts time after time, giving the group a signature sound and a proper identity.
Foreigner albums were a must for any self-respecting music lover of the day, and many fans cherish their collection of vinyl today.
It wasn’t just Gramm’s vocals that attracted them, but the well-crafted songs — songs he wrote or co-wrote with Mick Jones. Seven multi-platinum albums and 20 Top 40 singles, including “Cold as Ice,” “Juke Box Hero,” “Urgent,” “Feels Like the First Time,” “Hot Blooded,” “Double Vision” and “I Want to Know What Love Is,” were penned by Gramm. Foreigner’s first eight singles cracked the Billboard Top 20, making them the first band since The Beatles to do so.
The success of the band’s self-titled debut album, which sold more than four million copies, set the band on a hectic tour schedule that carried through subsequent top-selling albums like Double Vision, Head Games, and 4.
The constant pressure of always being “on” took its toll on many a rock group in those days and it certainly took its toll on Foreigner.
Gramm took his leave to pursue solo projects in 1987.
The Rochester, New York, Grammy-nominated rocker released Ready or Not, which produced the top played song of the year “Midnight Blue.“ He capped his first year as a solo artist with the title song to the soundtrack of The Lost Boys, “Lost in the Shadows.”
His second solo album Long Hard Look, released in 1989, offered a couple more top ten hits, including “Just Between You and Me.” From the same album, the song, “Hangin’ on My Hip” was featured in the 1990 film Navy SEALs.
In 2013, Gramm was inducted into the prestigious Songwriters Hall of Fame in New York City as well as the Rochester Music Hall of Fame.
His autobiography, “Juke Box Hero: My Five Decades in Rock ‘N’ Roll,” is among the top-selling rock books in America.
He is still rocking live performances all over the world, including a stop at the Edgewater’s E Center on Saturday, Sept. 8.
We talked with Lou Gramm about his career, his music and the show he brings to town. Here is his take…
You helped make Foreigner one of the top bands of the day. What are your thoughts on being the voice of Foreigner, one of the best of the era?
Gramm: I had a lot of fun doing it, it was a real experience, and I think we accomplished a lot. I hope the name lives on forever.
The ’80s rockers and their fans have aged together through the years, and those bands aren’t really hair bands any more.
Gramm: (He chuckles) No, but mixed in with the older people are kids, too.
Of all the songs you’ve written was there one that should have been a bigger hit or one that became a hit that surprised you?
Gramm: I think most of the ones that became hits had hit potential. There were a few that weren’t released as hits that ended up becoming AOR (Album Oriented Rock) classics that I think if they had been chosen as a single right away, it could have been a big hit, too. For instance “Jukebox Hero,”—they made that the fourth single on Foreigner’s 4 album. By that time the album was played out.
What inspires you as a songwriter — when you’re angry, heartbroken, in love, hungry?
Gramm: All those things and creative ambition, wanting to vent a little bit and make a statement. There’s a lot of things that can instigate a song, you know, and the skill is to take that raw thought and know where to go with it.
Of all the songs you’ve written is there one that has special meaning or means something to you personally?
Gramm: It’s hard to say, they’re like your children. Yeah, that’s what I was told to say many years ago (he laughs). Ah, gee, there’s so many good ones that you think are your favorites at the time and then two years later you do a new album and you have new favorites. I like “Jukebox Hero,” that’s one of my favorites.
Where did “I Want to Know What Love Is” come from?
Gramm: That was Mick’s inspiration, and he played it for me. He had a little cassette tape of him and a slightly out of tune piano he had in his house, and he was singing the verse part, the real tender part. The chords were there and together we worked on it, put the B section in and then added that very majestic chorus. I’ve had so many fans either text me or write me that that was their wedding song.
Your songs were more than just hits, they were part of the musical landscape. That is very cool.
Gramm: It makes me very proud. It kind of backs up and substantiates your creative efforts.
Touring then versus touring now had to be excruciatingly difficult.
Gramm: It really was — like when Foreigner’s 4 album was flying up the charts and we were having one hit single after the next, we were on the road promoting that album for about 15 months. We had little more than a day at home every four or five weeks. Our health, and our morale, everything wasn’t in a good place — we were just exhausted and beat to a pulp. Traveling, especially bus traveling is difficult, too, when that’s what you have to look forward to every night.
These days you’re doing it because it’s actually fun?
Gramm: Yep. And we fly. We’ve got a situation now that we put in our contract that the promoter provides the stage, the lights, the sound, the amplifiers and our guys bring their guitars, our drummer brings his sticks, and the keyboard player brings himself. I bring my microphone because I have a certain preference, I’d say 95 percent of everything on stage is supplied by the promoter. We don’t have the costs of a bus and a bus driver. We don’t go around with three semis, we just fly ourselves in, play the show and fly home the next day. We get to breathe and spend time with the family.
Of all your accomplishments, accolades and awards, is there one that means the most?
Gramm: I’m extremely proud of Mick and I being inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. That’s so meaningful to me because I feel Foreigner’s first strength was the quality of the songs. To be recognized for that and be inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, I’ll tell you what, the company there is unbelievable.
It feels good, it really does.
We didn’t see that coming. When we heard we were nominated, I really hadn’t even thought of a songwriters hall of fame, and then when they nominated us, I started reading up on it. It’s pretty prestigious.
Why aren’t you in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?
Gramm: We didn’t even get nominated. We don’t know why either. I don’t think we insulted anybody, or anything, I honestly don’t know why. But it’s been so many years since we were eligible and then not being inducted I don’t even think about it anymore.
Are the rumors true about you performing with Foreigner again?
Gramm: I did a few shows with the original band, and there may be more in the future, but nothing in stone yet. It was very exciting to do that with the original members, and I think it would be fun to do it again. We’ll see what happens.
Were you always in charge of your own destiny, meaning did you stick to your guns when it came to the music you wanted to record?
Gramm: Absolutely, I don’t think I could have stayed under anybody’s foot for too long, you know? I put my albums out at a time when Foreigner seemed to be recording hit singles, which were ballads a lot of the time. I just felt I wanted the fans to know that at least I still liked to rock, so on my solo albums, I made sure that they were rockin’.
To still find joy in the music when so many musicians don’t, speaks volumes.
Gramm: I’m fortunate to be doing it on my terms. I think there’s probably a lot of artists that still have to get on the bus and sing. I’m very fortunate that I can do it like this and it’s better for me, my health, and my family’s stability.
What can fans expect at the Laughlin show?
Gramm: There’s six people in the band, and two of the guys in the band were part of Foreigner back in the early and mid ’90s. Jeff Jacobs, the keyboard player, and Scott Gilman, the sax player, ... when I put my band together I thought of them. They weren’t tied up doing anything and so they became part of my band, and I have musicians mostly from my hometown of Rochester, New York, and we do all the Foreigner hits, too, and the hits from my solo albums, and maybe an old Beatles song.