To the generation raised during the golden age of MTV, Tim Cappello is a legend. Best known from his role as the oiled up, chiseled bodied, pelvis thrusting, saxophone playing wonder who belts out an anthemic rendition of The Call’s “I Still Believe” in the 1987 film “The Lost Boys.” It was a performance so memorable it burned itself into the fabric of pop culture, garnered him legions of fans from around the globe and was parodied by Jon Hamm on Saturday Night Live. Although he is often imitated, he is a performer who can never be never duplicated! Tim Cappello is the genuine article.
His story begins many years earlier, when his love of music began to led him down an amazing path. He began cutting his teeth as a professional musician in small clubs in his home state of New York and it wasn’t long before he picking up steam. Armed with a tremendous amount of talent, some well-connected friends and a sprinkling of luck, Cappello would soon find himself working alongside musical heavyweights such as Eric Carmen, Peter Gabriel and Carly Simon. He would even share the stage with the unstoppable musical force known as Tina Turner and is featured on her legendary tracks, “We Don’t Need Another Hero” and “One of the Living” from ‘Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome.’
It is often said the life of a professional musician is never an easy one and Cappello will be the first to tell you that truer words have never been spoken. He has seen share of struggles over the course of his career. However, legendary sax man continues to pour his heart and soul into every performance, large or small. As an artist, he serves as an constant reminder to budding musicians everywhere that hard work, unrelenting drive and true passion for your craft can allow you to reach amazing new heights — as long as you still believe. The best part of it all? The story is far from over!
Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently caught up with Timmy Cappello to discuss his rise through the musical ranks. Along the way, Cappello offers up some amazing tales from his epic journey and a look inside his experience of becoming an unsuspecting pop culture icon. Most importantly, we get a glimpse of what the future might hold for him as an artist!
Any time I talk to a musician, like yourself, I like to go back to your very early years. What are your first musical memories?
My father was a trumpet player and a conductor! He had a music school in the middle of White Plains, New York. All of us kids would go down to the music school after we got out of school. We would beat on the drums, bang on the piano and run amuck on all the instruments we could find. It was a great way to discover what you had a liking for or what you were drawn to! It was really wonderful! The other thing that impacted me, even more than the music school, and gave me a real love of music was that my mother loved to sing and play piano. She wasn’t a professional or anything but she truly loved it. When I was just a little boy, maybe 3 or 4 years old, she would take me down to the basement where the piano was located. She would give me a phone book and a couple of pastry brushes from the kitchen and let me pretend like I was playing the drums! It was all the stuff from The Great American Songbook. That really gave me a love of it. My father was really great about teaching us the proper way to hold your drumsticks or the best way to hold an instrument. My first two instruments were drums and cello. He was really great at teaching me the theory and was really patient. Those are the two things that really got me started!
As you start picking up the instruments, who were some of the artists you were drawn to early on?
It is kinda funny. There was so much going on in music back then. Everybody had their favorites. Everybody loved The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Kinks and all that stuff. I would have these weird tunes that I loved. I remember being 4 or 5 years old and loving a song called “Dick Tracy” [by The Chants]. It’s so funny because all the tunes that I loved, I was really embarrassed to love back then, you know, because it was comic book and all. I swear, man, this groove is still killing and so slamming! I was really drawn to that sound, like from the soundtrack of “Hairspray,” that really local, Baltimore mashed potato type stuff! I loved The Marvelettes with “Playboy” and “Please Mr. Postman.” There was something about that little loping, slow twist that I loved. I remember being so ashamed to love the song “My Boy Lollipop” by Little Millie Small. I never admitted it because everyone thought, as kids, it was the stupidest, poppiest song there was! Later, I realized it was the first Jamaican ska song to ever hit the U.S. chart. I knew there was something about that beat I loved! [laughs] I always loved a great, deep groove.
At what point did you gravitate toward becoming a professional musician?
Right! Well, my father sort of struck a deal with me, being a music school owner. Like I said, he was a trumpet player but he also would have loved to have been a classical guy, a symphonic player. I made the mistake of saying that I thought a bass was a cello. I really loved the jazz sound and the walking bass when I was a little kid. I called it a cello and he just took that and ran with it! [laughs] He made me saw away at the cello which I really didn’t enjoy! My father died when I was quite young and he was quite a young man at the time. As soon as he died, I stopped playing the cello and went to the piano and studied jazz piano. When I got into jazz and all of those extended harmonies, I really fell in love with it! I played piano for awhile and I started playing soprano sax around the age of 14.
While we know you primarily as a sax man, it is cool to hear what lead you down that road.
I was never going to back down and not play. No matter what I had to do, I was never going to back down. I really never had a family, so I could starve and not have anyone depending on me. I guess it was that much of a priority. Years later, I kind of feel bad because not having a family, I have missed out on a lot. But you make that choice, right?
What was your first gig as a professional musician? How’d you get your start?
I was really, really fortunate to go to school with two brothers that were drummers. They were both incredibly talented and also really knew how to get gigs! There names are Jerry and Rick Marotta. I was up at the New England Conservatory of Music and I came down to study with a jazz guy named Lennie Tristano, who was my idol as a kid. He was a jazz piano player but he also taught many really great saxophone players. Lee Konitz and Warne Marsh are his two most famous pupils. I loved his style of music and I was disillusioned at the conservatory, so I called Lenny. I said, “I really don’t like it up here.” He said, “Yeah, man! Come on down and we will have a good time.” Coincidentally, my friends Jerry and Ricky Marotta lived in the same building. They said, “Come on down and stay with us and we will see what we can do. We will get some gigs.” So, my first gig was with a guy named Jim Dawson. He was a quiet, very mellow, ‘70s, kind of James Taylor type of guy, which was the music that I really loved. He has a beautiful voice! A guy was opening for us at a place called My Father’s Place out on Long Island. It was a comedian. At that point, I was mostly a piano player. He said, “Hey, would you come up and play a couple of things with me. We’ll just improvise some stuff and have people call out some things and you can play some music behind me.” I said, “Sure!” It turns out, that comedian was Billy Crystal!
No kidding? That is pretty wild!
Yeah! He was about 25 years old at the time and I was 19. I played with him for about five years. I was really just in the trenches in the clubs. Then, there was a guy in the 1970s who had a song called “All By Myself.” He was a guy named Eric Carmen. I was playing at every club I could think of and jamming to try to get a gig here or there. Eric’s manager came into a club where I was playing and he said, “Eric is putting together a band. Would you be interested in doing it?” That was my first real gig. Boy, did I think I was hot shit then! [laughs] Wow! I was making a couple hundred bucks a week and thought, “Wow! This is incredible! I have arrived!” [laughs] Little did I know! [laughs]
There was a period of time early on where you struggled with addiction. Ultimately, you broke free of those. What can you tell us about that period?
This was the mid-70s and there was just so many drugs around. I really kind of thought the music business was a front for the drug business. I say that because you did a gig, they gave you your salary and then they came by with the coke, heroin, the pills and everything else. It just seemed like the old company store thing! [laughs] They’d give it to ya and take it right back! I was certainly stupid enough to go for that hook, line and sinker. It was pretty bad for a while. I took a lot of drugs during my early 20s. On my 25th birthday, I just quit everything! It was an epiphany of sorts and something that happened with my family that was very dramatic to me. It made me realize what I was doing not only to myself but to them. It cut me so deeply that it was not hard to quit. I gave up smoking at the same time and I think the smoking might have been more difficult than the heroin! [laughs] I was very resolved. Have you ever had one of those things where you thought you just couldn’t do it but something changes in your mind and you say, “Oh, yeah. This is a piece of cake?”
What are some great moments for you when you look back on everything you have done over the years?
There have been so many great moments! I will never ever forget it just being me and Billy Crystal in the car driving up to Niagara Falls. This man has a mind like an incredible lush garden. He is so funny. At the time, I was around a lot of comics because of him and they were all kind of mean and competitive. He was right up there with all of them, in terms of how funny and smart he is, but he was such a kind man. That is so rare in a comic. Driving all over the country, just me and him, was amazing. There was no band! Just us! Those car trips were amazing!
I did a tour with Eric Carmen but it got cut short. For some reason, I can’t remember why, he cut it short. I went from there to playing with a great rock/reggae, singer/songwriter named Garland Jeffreys. He is really great! If you have never heard of him, you should definitely check him out. He made an album called “Ghost Writer” that is really awesome! I played on one of his albums called “American Boy and Girl” with a friend of mine from college named Robert Athas. He went on to become Kane Roberts! Kane and I were good friends in college and both went to The New England Conservatory. Jerry Marotta got me the gig with Garland Jeffreys and then he started playing with Peter Gabriel. He took me under his wing and got me the gig with him too. I went right from Eric to Garland to Peter.
Being around Peter Gabriel, I quickly realized, he was one of the smartest guys. He too was a very gentle guy. Most singers and people running the band can be pretty tough. They are tough people! They know what they want and, most of the time, they aren’t too concerned about your feelings when they tell you what they want and why! [laughs] He was such a sweet and open person. He would always find these wild places to go to. It was funny. We were on tour and he said, “We are all going to this conference on security.” It was this whole thing in the ‘70s about the latest advances in security technology. Of course, his next album ends up being titled “Security.” [laughs] He always wore things on his sleeve like that and was always interested. That was really wonderful. Unfortunately, that was during the worst of my drug use, so I didn’t get as much out of it as I could have and should have. I regret that.
I then got to play with Carly Simon. As you may know, she had this horrible stage fright. When we started doing gigs, she knew I was someone who loved to run around and dance around. She really wanted a band of people who would do that because she had that horrible stage fright. She felt that with more activity going on and the more guys who wanted to be buffoons would be great! [laughs] Unfortunately, it didn’t last too long. The stage fright got the best of her and we really just had to close down the tour because of her horrible condition, which she later conquered at her famous concert at Grand Central Station. She proved she had overcome it! That was a really tough one. She used to ask us to hit her as hard as we could before she went on stage. She would ask me to stomp on her feet as hard as I could because the pain would take her out of her fear a little bit! I was wearing Doc Martins! It was wild but that is how determined she was to fight this thing! But you know, if your mind is set a certain way and your body is afraid, it is really hard. One time we were in Pittsburgh and it was when she had a real hard rock album called “Come Upstairs.” We are playing and we are really rocking out. They would announce her and she would come out. This time was different though! She came out facing backwards. She was really almost unable to walk. She was turning away and, at a point, I saw her bend over and she was starting to wretch. It made us all feel for her. On one hand, you feel so bad for her but, on the other hand, you have so much respect! Can you imagine being so scared for something that you are going to vomit but still put yourself in that position and do it anyway? You don’t need the money! She did end up completing the concert but it got a little crazy. At one point she said to the audience, “I am feeling a little uncomfortable up here. Maybe if some of you came up on stage with me I would feel a little more like it wasn’t me against you.” As soon as she said that, everybody rushed the stage! I grabbed my horn and ran for the wings! [laughs] I just barely made it! They knocked over all my keyboards and there were all these people on the stage sitting there, giving her back rubs and stuff while she was singing! Oh boy! That was tough! After it was done, she sent all of us long handwritten notes to say she was so sorry. She paid us for the whole tour and she recounted conversations we had had on the bus while on tour. I really have so much respect for her and I think she is so great!
You also played with another musical legend — Tina Turner. I imagine that was quite a learning experience for you as well!
You know what? There is nobody better in the history of any form of music! I was with her for 15 years and, no matter what the circumstances, she worked hard! This is somebody who wanted to work hard! She knew she was setting herself up. She isn’t some sort of fluffy person. She is someone who really came up in the chitlin circuit, knew how to work, knew what it took and was really going to do this! She was working hard and singing two 2 1/2 hour shows for 4 or 5 nights a week! In that 15 years, I never heard one fraction of one note that couldn’t have been used on a record! That is how incredible a gift she has and a testament to the depth of her musicality and concentration.
You mentioned it being a learning experience. Like I said, I went to conservatory, studied jazz, knew a lot about harmony and rhythm, how to write it out and was a trained musician. Trained musicians, we can get a little snotty sometimes! “You don’t know what this chord is? You don’t know that it is a raised 5th and a flat 9?” She didn’t know any of that. I have to admit, I learned a lot from her and the way she saw music. She would say something like, “Oh, don’t play that chord that sounds like running water.” Or, “That is too blue. Give me more green.” My first thought as a music snob was, “Oh come on! I have to figure out what green or water means? Take some time and learn what a chord is!” That was my big mistake! It took me a few years to realize that if I could realize what she was saying by learning to speak her language, she was always right! She was always right and in a way that taught me so much. Her musical instincts are absolutely impeccable. People like to say, “Oh yeah, she’s got the great legs. She’s got a great voice. She’s a great singer and dancer. She is a great personality.” They talk about the hair and everything else. Those are all true but the thing I have the most respect for is as a band leader and a record producer. Very rarely did she take a credit as a record producer but, I swear, she knew everything everybody was playing and she knew how to make it better! The thing I take away most from that experience was that music isn’t about how literate you are in it or how much of the language you have learned, it’s about the feeling. It is a language that conveys emotion and things that are deeper than emotion. The stuff like what note or chord it is, it is really secondary. I was so lucky to be around one of the major musical forces of the late 20th century! She truly is amazing!
You have seen and experienced so much as a musician. Looking back on your career what is the best lesson we can take away from the journey?
Ya know, I am not really sure. I mean, it’s not like you are sitting here talking to Al Green or someone with an incredible musical vision like Tina Turner, James Taylor or Joni Mitchell. I am really just a trenches guy. I have been very lucky, like I said, that the people I knew were able to drag me along with them and to be around a lot of great people. I was always just a guy waiting around for the phone to ring. You know what I mean? You’re a sideman or a person who is there to support other people. You still have to get your chops together so you don’t mess up and keep them together. You have to learn to play and sing in tune so you are able to support these people!
When I was a kid, one of my heroes was Captain Beefheart. To me, “Trout Mask Replica” was the ultimate in musical originality and bringing music forward. I keep saying this to my wife and she is really getting tired of hearing it but music should go forward. Maybe it is because I am an old guy now but I feel like music should progress. Progressive is sort of the way I think of myself, both politically and musically. If you look from Louis Armstrong to Lester Young to Charlie Parker to Joe Henderson, and I would put Lennie Tristano in there too, it moved. If you look at Little Richard to The Beatles to James Brown to Sly and The Family Stone to Steely Dan, it moves. The thing that makes me a little sad now is that it has stopped moving. Now, with the Internet, you really have to do a lot of searching to find great bands and music. These huge corporations now own all of the music that everyone really hears in the culture as a whole. They are so huge and they put all of this music through such a tight meat grinder that a crazy genius like Sly Stone or James Brown could never make it now. Quite frankly, I am a very positive person, I like to stay positive and there are lots of things that I like but if I hear one more guy warming Van Morrison up yet again with those same four chords and slightly growly voice, I am gonna vomit! Ya know what I mean? It is so important that things move. You are much younger than I am. You grew up using the Internet to search for music and you’ve told me you have trouble finding really great stuff because there is so much out there. Sometimes I think I am just becoming an old curmudgeon. Ya know, my father hated our music! Every generation does that! Ya know, I find myself wondering, “Where are all the crazy people?” If you don’t have a wild man like James Brown or someone like Captain Beefheart, you can’t have Tom Waits. If you don’t have these really progressive wild men and women, how is anything going to move anywhere? When I listen to the radio, I hear the Van Morrison rip-offs and the dance music divas. The big thing that seems to catch everyone’s attention is when they mix country music with dance music or throw a little of this with a little of that and that is what gets everybody excited. I don’t know. To me, that is my big question. How are we going to go forward?
Your original question on what lesson I have learned is almost a negative one. I was absolutely positive that music would just keep evolving and changing. I think around the Reagan era, we hit a speed bump that we have yet to get over. Obviously, I grew up in the ‘60s and there was just so much going on at the time. A lot of it I hated! [laughs] I mean, I am not a Grateful Dead fan and I wasn’t a fan of a lot of the groups that came out. When I heard a lot of them, I thought, “Oh my god! Just go home and practice a tiny bit!” But during that period, there were just so many new sounds. We had “Rock Around The Clock” and then 10 years later you had Sly and The Family Stone and funk! Things were just popping up like crazy!
I always really, really wanted to do something different but I never really achieved it. I had a band when I was in my mid to late 20s. It was around the time CBGB’s was big with new wave and punk. The band was called The Ken Dolls. I really wanted to do something different. I wanted to take the outer reaches of what I thought I could do and try to live there for awhile. We were really against the grain. We were very dense harmonically when everybody was super simple and when the CBGB’s scene was very aggressive. We were very overtly sexual in a very positive way as opposed to a dark S&M kind of way. No matter what, I can say I was the only band ever banned from CBGB’s for being too blue! Hilly Kristal was the owner of CBGB’s. We were getting Friday and Saturday nights and we were packing them in. Everybody loved it but he said, “I can’t hang with this. I don’t like this.” We would show movies and there was a little bit of nudity but, believe me, it wasn’t bad by anybody’s standards. It was Redd Foxx as opposed to some of the comics now that are so dirty. It was suggestive. At least I have something for my gravestone! [laughs]
You led quite a life before my generation discovered you in “The Lost Boys.” This character, who was on screen for a few moments, caught on with so many people. When did you discover this character became an icon? Did you realize you were having an influence on people?
Umm, like a year ago! [laughs] It’s funny. I did 10 years of touring, which is a tough life, before I got into Tina Turner’s band. I toured 15 years with her and did a couple of tours with Ringo Starr’s All-Starr Band. It is a hard life and one that you put everything into. If you don’t want to drink and take drugs, it takes so much discipline. It’s hard. So, I did 15 years with Tina and, at this point, it is such a footnote. When I go somewhere, no one ever says, “Oh, you are the guy from Tina Turner’s band!” Nope. It’s always “The Lost Boys.” [laughs] It is such a fluke because it took two hours out of my life to shoot that scene! You work so hard and the thing you get known for is so much smaller! I flew off to Santa Cruz in the afternoon, put on that outfit and went to the set. We did two takes and we were back having a party in Corey Haim’s room by like 10 o’clock! I am so happy for it though. I guess that is the thing, you do things with a good heart, hope for the best and then you get lucky. You sorta have to be preparing for it even though you don’t know you are preparing for it. For example, MTV in the ‘80s was a big deal to kids. Tina Turner had a lot of videos that I was in and that is how I got the role. People call me up with projects like “Miami Vice,” different TV shows or movies, just from doing her stuff. The roles were usually something like a psychotic killer, a drug dealer or something like that.
It is really interesting because I hear a lot of people talking about the song I sing in that movie in positive terms. For a long while, people were really making fun of me for it. To many people it was liking it in the way you might like “Plan 9 From Outer Space.” People were liking it because it was wrong funny in just the right way. I agree with that! I really do! I always wanted things to be a little wrong. I was always trying to push it. I did a movie with Bob Dylan that is so bad that it literally killed the director! It was called “Hearts of Fire.” This is literally one of the worst movies of all time. There is a scene that actually shocked me. I was a drummer in the movie and I would get the most wrong outfits that I could possibly get and put them on. Another example is, when I played with Carly, she would say, “Whatever you can do! Take it out as much as you can!” I was in LA and I found this big fish head from like an old Esther WIlliams movie. I came out in this little leotard with the big fish head and I was blowing! It would make her happy! I came out in a diaper and baby bonnet another time, things that you really shouldn’t do. Finally, I just came out in a leather G-string and a dog collar and leash and made her pull me out on stage! We all had a good time with it until the reviews came in! [laughs] The manager called me up and said, “Hey. The reviews are in. Bring your pants! This shall not stand.” [laughs] The really wild thing was when people started going online and you could have a bulletin board, website or chatroom. People at that time could just say you were gay and that was the biggest insult you could hurl at somebody. What an incredible time we live in that now that is just gone! Thank the Lord! You can’t say that now! In certain ways we live in great times!
You couldn’t be more right! What has you excited these days when it comes to playing live?
I really love this reggae/jazz band I play in called Island Head. That is a really, really fun thing for me! I grew up as a jazz player and I love to make music so much! It is a really excellent band! That has been really fun. You asked me if earlier I knew I was having an influence on people. No. Until Eben McGarr of Mad Monster Party called me nine months ago and said, “Would you like to do this thing? There are a lot of people who would like to meet you.” I had absolutely no idea! I kind of feel like I have a new lease on life in a certain way musically. Like I said, I am still a trenches guy! On the weekends, I got my tux on and go out and do gigs. It’s not easy to make a living as a saxophone player. The instrument is almost totally out of popular music. We just have to do whatever we can do from session work to playing weddings to playing company parties to playing clubs for not a lot of money. You do what you can! To have this really feels great! A few hours ago, I saw a video of a group called The Darkness. Do you know them?
Absolutely! The Darkness is an amazing group of musicians from the UK. Actually, I interviewed Dan Hawkins, the guitarist, earlier this year for their latest album, “The Last of Our Kind.” They are a great group of guys and amazing musicians.
Cool! I saw this video and someone asked them if they had any influences or people they would really like to play with that people wouldn’t guess and they started talking about me! [Check out The Darkness discussing Timmy Cappello here] They said they would really like to collaborate! I guess I am going to call these dudes! It feels like such a wonderful time to get out there and be with people. I am kind of a loner, so to get out and meet a bunch of people and talk with you is really so much fun for me! It is something I never thought would happen. Before that Saturday Night Live thing they did about me, I always felt like, “Oh, don’t ever tell anybody that is who you were because people will laugh and say you are just an inside joke.” Since doing this and meeting people that is not the case at all! I was just being kind of paranoid!
It is so cool to hear you are enjoying this time. It’s a whole new chapter in your story, man!
Yeah! I am getting out there and meeting people. In 2016, I am definitely going to put out my first solo record!
That is awesome! What can we expect?
I may have a couple of originals but, for the most part, it is going to be some of the songs that I just love to perform and will give my own twist to! It’s definitely going to happen over the next year. I am sort of in the stage of picking the players, picking the tunes and figuring out how I want to make it. I feel confident that it will definitely happen in the next year! It really is a wonderful time for me!
I am looking forward to hearing about how you put it all together! I am sure we will have a lot to talk about! Thanks for all of your time today, my friend! We will be spreading the word on all you have going on!
Yeah! Thank you so much, Jason. It has been a pleasure and I really appreciate it!
Editor’s Note: Shortly after our interview, Timmy Cappello was connected with The Darkness! With a little luck, we will be hearing some big things in the near future. In the meantime, accept no substitutes, be sure to connect with Timmy on social media via Facebook!
Jason Price founded the mighty Icon Vs. Icon more than a decade ago. Along the way, he’s assembled an amazing group of like-minded individuals to spread the word on some of the most unique people and projects on the pop culture landscape.