Danny Liston: A Southern rocker delivered from alcohol abuse

Wednesday 5th November 2008

Mike Rimmer spoke to DANNY LISTON, once a member of the mainstream Mama's Pride and who now sings of God restoring hope

Danny Liston
Danny Liston

The music business is filled with the stories of bands who so nearly made it. There are also plenty of tales of self-destruction with mainstream artists heading for an early grave fuelled by drugs and booze. Sitting before me in my hotel suite in Nashville is a man who brings both of those stories together. In the '70s Danny Liston's band Mama's Pride were as close to mainstream success as it's possible to get. They were signed to the Atlantic record label, home of Led Zep and a slew of world famous soul singers and a big hit album seemed certain.

Legendary label boss Amet Ertugen was a fan of the band. "It meant a lot to us," Liston comments. "We didn't know who he was at the time; I kept calling him Abdul, and my manager would go crazy! But finally one day, Amet being the gentleman that he was, stopped me and he goes, 'Hey kid, it's alright. Otis Redding used to call me 'Omelette' so you're in good company!'"

Ertugen was an industry legend with a seemingly flawless ability to spot talent. Liston has plenty of vivid memories about the record label executive. He shares, "I got sober 20 years ago and one of the things that I did on my 10th anniversary of sobriety was, I really felt like I needed to write Amet and apologise to him because he put a lot of faith in us. I mean we lived large but we lived large musically. He put us in the best studios. We worked with guys like Arif Mardin, Tom Dowd and he surrounded us with the best. But we were just so out of our element we had no idea what we were doing. Substance abuse was like a way out, you know? So I wrote him a letter and said, 'I feel like I owe you an apology.' And it was true; the fact that Amet Ertugen signed us helped me in rough times musically; it was like, 'Well I mustn't be awful or he wouldn't have signed us!' And so I thanked him and I told him, 'You were sort of a father figure to us.' Most of us grew up in single-parent houses. We were from a working class neighbourhood. And I told him, I said, 'I just wanted to apologise for not living up to our end of the bargain.' Just sent it off thinking, 'Amet Ertugen, like he's gonna remember!' About two weeks later I got the nicest letter back from him saying, 'Yeah I wish things could have been different but Dan I'm so glad to hear that your life is together. If there's ever anything I can do for you. . .' and he puts his phone number, and he says, 'If you've got anything you'd like me to hear please feel free to send it to my home.' By this time I had smartened up and knew how big the guy was! And he's extending this kindness to a guy from the Midwest. I mean, I'm no sweat off his brow! But that was the kind of guy he was."

Southern rockers Mama's Pride had support from critics and had managed to build up a decent sized fanbase but ultimately didn't manage to convert it into big time success. Liston reflects, "A large part of our downfall was that the record company and the management company hated each other. They'd had an experience with Skynyrd four years before and even though Amet signed us, you could tell there was always a bit of suspicion. You could tell that there was some kind of tension going on. We really liked our manager so it was tough."

It might have been possible for Mama's pride to overcome these difficulties if they'd recorded a breakthrough album. Though their first two sold well enough, everything looked good for their third album to be huge. The band did a few gigs opening up for Lynyrd Skynyrd who were one of the hottest bands in America at the time. He remembers, "[Lynyrd Skynyrd's] Ronnie Van Zant came backstage and he goes, 'What do you guys think about me producing your third album?' He goes, 'I love your material,' and we had this ongoing rapport trading ideas back and forth." Having a name like Van Zant on board almost certainly would have gotten the record label back on Mama's Pride's side. However, two months later on October 20th 1977, Lynyrd Skynyrd's touring plane went down in a forest in Mississippi killing Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines, his sister Cassie Gaines and members of the band's crew.

Liston remembers that day well. "We were sitting in a bar in our neighbourhood and all of a sudden it came across the news. . .I think we'd just played or rehearsed or whatever. . .but we all looked at each other and went, 'It's over.' There was a different A&R guy at Atlantic who hated us and we were like, 'We are so out the door it's not even funny.' So then we spent the next five years jumping from label to label; one record here, a single there, that kind of a deal." And slowly the band drifted further from the success they craved.

Danny Liston was raised in St Louis in a catholic family. "I was the youngest in the family," he recalls, "so I was destined to be the priest, you know? They tried with the other ones but somebody was gonna wear a collar!" He laughs. "We were part of a church but you know, not really IN the church."

He continues, "My mother was a touring musician. She played with a country and western group on a big station called KMOX located in the middle of St Louis. So she was a touring musician and she had given it up to get married to my dad. That's where the name Mama's Pride came from. My brother and I had played separately. I was originally a drummer and played in these soul review bands and he played guitar. We actually played in a couple of them together. We lived in an apartment building and I had an old Irish landlady and in order for me to practise on my drums, my mother used to have to take her to the local bar so that I could practice. Well she finally figured out the game and threatened to throw us out on the street so I had to find a different instrument to play. So I started playing guitar. I'd watch my brother give guitar lessons but he was so impatient with me. I'd watch him play and when they'd leave I'd come in and try out what he had taught somebody."

Danny Liston: A Southern rocker delivered from alcohol abuse

Eventually Mama's Pride was formed and the band moved to California and hit the club scene. "We also played after-hour clubs. You talk about getting tight; play from nine to five every morning! You're either tight or go home." The hours of labour paid off when Atlantic records came to call. The band must have thought that their ship had come in when they got signed. Danny Liston agrees, "We had no idea how powerful Amet was. When he came to Tampa to sign us, literally by the end of the set he was standing in front of us by himself on the dance floor snapping his fingers screaming, 'GO CATS, GO!' And I'm thinking, 'Who is this crazy dude?!' He wanted to sign us in Tampa and we said, 'No, we want to go back to St Louis to sign. That's our home.' But he kind of dug that."

Suddenly they were in the big time. They were shipped off to Criteria Studios in Miami. Eric Clapton had recorded the '461 Ocean Boulevard' album at that studio. It was a real rock'n'roll experience for Mama's Pride. Liston remembers, "You stay in a fantastic house when you record. We drive up in this '64 Ford van and we're looking for the backhouse, you know. It's like, 'Well the band must be staying over the garage or something,' and there were these maids there. The girl's name was Fanny and she goes, 'You must be those Mama Pride boys!' We're like, 'Yeah, where do we stay?' And she goes, 'In the house.' We're like, 'We get to stay IN the house?!' Like I said, we're kids who grew up in flats!"

He continues, "It was very surreal being surrounded by guys like Tom Dowd and Arif Mardin, all these huge names. And when you made a request for something you had it. I remember one night we said, 'Man, I'd love to have some barbeque and live music! Where is there a place?' They said, 'We really don't want you to leave the house.' And I was like, 'Well what fun is that?!' The limousine driver went out, brought back a live rhythm & blues band and barbeque for us! They set up in the mansion in the living room and played for us and we ate barbeque. I mean, it was off the charts!"

Sounds like a great life doesn't it? But like many bands before them and plenty since then, the rock'n'roll lifestyle can eat you up and spit you out if you aren't careful. Liston reflects, "For the first six or eight months it was like every guys' dream - excessive everything. And the more notoriety we got the more of everything for free we got. But there came a point where all of a sudden. . .there was an old song by Peggy Lee called "Is That All There Is?" and it's one of the most depressing songs you've ever heard in your life! But all of a sudden that song started playing in my head. I hated the song, it wasn't like I had all of Peggy Lee's greatest hits, but that was the way I started feeling inside. It's like, 'What is it? What's missing?' I couldn't do any more coke. I couldn't drink any more whisky. Couldn't be with any more women. I mean everything was maxed out on the sheet. But it was like, 'Where's the peace? Where's the fulfilment here?' I was fulfilled for about eight months and then it was like somebody pulled the plug; you know in a bathtub when you see that drain? That was the way I felt my life was going. It was spiralling."

You'd think that when the band finally petered out, it may have given him the opportunity to sort out the emptiness inside, but no. Mr Liston's new career was to own a bar! "That was in '81 or '82, right after the band broke up. I went over my options; I never finished high school so I thought a brain surgeon was completely out of the question! There were a lot of companies that I wanted to be the CEO of but they weren't hiring. So I thought, 'What do I do well? I drink extremely well!' I mean literally! That was my thing! So I bought a neighbourhood bar. It was almost like the band thing again; for the first six/eight months it was like, 'Wow, this is cool! I don't have to pay and nobody can cut me off. If they do I can fire them!' It seemed like a great idea at the time but that's when everything hit the fan. About a year/year and a half into it those old feelings started coming back; the angst and the depression and it's like, 'Man, I can't drink anymore, my head is just falling off!' And I started seeing resemblances; my father died when I was seven of cirrhosis and I started seeing a lot of resemblances between me and him and I always swore that I would never die on my kids like he died on me. I was mad at him for a while. And actually there was an odour because I guess your liver is not able to filter the poison in the alcohol enough. The odour was like a flashback, and that was when I knew, 'Uh oh!' In the meantime Liston had got married and his wife was not a big drinker. Liston remembers, "She would tell me, 'You know, you're like waaay out of control! You have no boundaries. You have no idea of when enough is enough, on anything!' So that was when things got real bad."

Liston describes to me how his life began to turn around. "I had to work construction during the day to actually pay the bills and one morning I got up to go to work. It was like any other morning - hung over - and I went to work on this rooftop in south St Louis; I was working for this guy that we were putting in windows. I was on the second storey of this house putting in these windows and fortunately I was by myself, and all of a sudden. . . I'd heard these stories, you know where these people say their life flashes before their eyes, and that's what happened! This huge screen opened up. It was probably seconds but I realised where my life was headed and I realised all the opportunities that I had passed because of my dependence on substance. It was the first time in my life that I had admitted to myself that I had a problem. Being a kid raised by the nuns you knew when you were in a problem you dropped to your knees, you know? So I did, I actually knelt on this rooftop and said to God, 'I don't see a way out of this.' It was like being in a maze. That's what I tell people; addictions, it's a disease. It's like going to someone with cancer and going, 'Just get over it!' I was petrified because it was like, 'What do I do?! How do I get out of this thing?!' So I was just like, 'God, I don't see a way out and I don't know what to do!'"

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Reader Comments

Posted by Lyn-Anne in Hawkesbury, N.S.W. Australia @ 05:48 on Mar 16 2015

This is truly the best album I've ever heard. Danny is his track "I want to change the world" has in my opinion done just that. I heard it first about a year ago on a program in Australia named Studio B, but I didn't go looking for it. I heard it again on Studio B again about a week ago and got it from iTunes. This album, Danny and his wife are a true blessing. I wish he'd do more of this stuff. I've been looking for God Used Mississippi but with no luck. I love his voice, the style of music and I can relate to the lyrics better than anything I've ever heard. I listen to it every morning when I walk my dogs. It has changed my world by giving me an insight formGod in every day. I love Amazing Grace. I love most I Want to Change the World. God bless Danny, his wife Pam and his family, and any animals they have for ever. Cheers Lyn-Anne

Posted by david taylor in town creek al @ 11:16 on Dec 12 2008

i bout got your cd learned! let me know when you need a bass player to do a show! i wont let you down. dt

Posted by Victoria Cruse in Granite City, IL @ 03:09 on Dec 11 2008

I just bought your CD this past Saturday. I have listend to it everyday at work since. I love the whole CD and you really blew me away the way you did Amazing Grace. I had a girl that I work with come over to my desk yesterday to listen to it. She loved it as well. The article was also get and I am so proud of you. Thank the Lord and your wife for hanging in there. Although the Lord never leaves us and he never left you as you now know. You have always be a kind soul and thank you for signing my CD on Saturday as well.

Thank you and God Bless,

Posted by Al @ 16:35 on Nov 7 2008

'Give him a chance! Let's carry him along not dig the grave for him and kick him in it!'"

This sums up this whole article for me. However long it takes you to find God, or more accurately, however long it takes you to listen AFTER you've found God, there is always the pressure of that feeling that you MUST change NOW! IMMEDIATELY!

God has been there a long time and articles like this show that not only must we be patient with ourselves as we journey on God's path, but that God has time to watch, encourage, restore and wait on YOU getting yourself in tune to Him. He WILL be there to pick you up. If need be He'll be there over and over again. Amazingly, when you realise this then the old cynical chestnut of just continually asking forgiveness becomes moot because by then something has sunk in and you DO find youself in tune with Him; and you DO find yourself changing, ever so slowly.

One of my friends recently said to me, "The old Al wouldn't have done that, he'd just've said sod them". I asked if I'd changed, believing I hadn't. His answer was that yes I had.

Thanks for this article.

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