Musician Ronnie Wells
Talks His Career, New Albums, ‘Shiftin Willie’ and More
By Amber Topping
New Jersey musician Ronnie Wells does it all. He sings, writes, produces and plays the drums and the bass. While managing two careers for numerous years (one in the medical field), he recently began working music full time in 2010. With years of experience behind him as front man of groups like “Ronnie Wells & The Fabulons” and “The Sound Exchange,” as well as performing with many hit groups of the ‘60s, he used his many talents to create his first solo album, “My Bad” in 2012. He’s now jumping into the next new album and working on his solo performance act.
Can you talk a little bit about your background and how you became interested in music?
At the age of 15-16 I started playing drums and took a liking to that. And then into high school, I played in the high school band and I also played in Drum Corps. While playing, I began singing and a group came to me (who already had a drummer) and asked me if I'd be interested in fronting the group singing. And that went on for a few years. I, maybe three years, four years later, started picking up the bass. And I had an affinity for playing bass for quite a while. So I started adding bass to my performing. And through that, a local agent had hooked me up with several of the recording acts of the time in the '60s. And I was getting gigs playing with those groups when they were appearing in the Jersey/New York area. At that time of course, there weren't big halls or stadiums or anything with groups having hit records out. They just played normal clubs. And that was the typical thing they did. And as time went on, I played and sang…And yeah, that's how I started.
Do you have any fun or interesting stories of those days in the groups you were in? Like "The Sound Exchange?"
Well, I wouldn't call it funny, but before at the age of 18, we wanted to play New York night clubs so you had to get a Cabaret card. And myself and my drummer at the time went over to apply. And the two girls standing in front of us, waiting and waiting—they were getting mad waiting to get their cards—turns out it was Diana Ross and Mary Wilson of “The Supremes.” And that was interesting ‘cause they were gonna appear at the Copa in New York. And in order for them to appear, of course, they also needed Cabaret cards. So if you're under 21, you needed a Cabaret card in New York at the time.
Yeah that's a fun story. Doesn't happen that often, right?
A funny story came later on when a friend of mine, who owned a tractor trailer [training] company, was always writing little jingles and trying to get them heard by people. And he wrote a song about a truck driver called “Shiftin Willie.” But he had no musical background. So he came to me and he said, “You know Ron, could you write some music for this and maybe even sing it?” So I took his lyrics and played around with them and wrote the song and recorded it for him—not to be released or anything like that. However, he called me six months later and said, “Conan O’Brien's coming through the school and is interested in this song.” How he heard it, I have no idea. Anyway, he did a segment live with his crew in New Jersey and sang the song, not accurately, but he sang it anyhow on his show—wound up being heard by a lot of people.
So what was that like for you having your song on the Conan show? Were you surprised? Think it was funny?
Funny! He did it as a comedy skit. The guy who wrote the lyrics, my friend, was reciting the lyrics while Conan O’Brien was playing guitar and singing the song. Of course, it was not even close to accurate, but they used it as a comedy skit. And of course then he played the real song the way it was recorded by me.
Eventually you also went into the medical field, so how did that help you grow as a musician?
Up until 2010, I was in the medical field covering two hospitals. Sometimes, I'd work late or get back from a gig very late and have to go to the hospital early in the morning before getting a chance to change. And the patients looked at me kind of funny walking over, you know, the bell bottoms and hair and trying to treat them with a lab coat over it. So it was kind of funny, kind of interesting switching back and forth between day and night—two different lines of work.
So in 2012 you released your first solo album "My Bad." Can you tell me a little bit about your album?
With the exception of the “Shiftin Willie” thing, it's the first time I decided to take seriously the knack of writing. So I wrote three songs at the time—originals. But to put an album out, I figured I only got time to write seven to eight-nine songs. Let me put an album out with three of my originals and then take songs from the Great American Songbook, the standards, and add on to it. And that's how my first album came about. I mixed the both together. That would actually steer me in the way I would perform. I would do a mixture of everything from standard pop hits to soft rock to my originals…and country…So that stayed with me as the way I would perform as time went on.
Next you have another solo album coming, "Say it With a Song." Is it going to be similar to "My Bad” or a little bit different? What can people expect to find on that one?
Kind of the same, as far as a soft rock type of feel. And again, if I don't write all the songs, I will add some standards that are previously written. It depends—I have it half done right now. I'm deciding which way to go. If I have time to write more and record more then I will put it out in that way. All my originals or some originals, some covers.
You're also working on your solo performance act. Do you have any upcoming shows that are happening soon?
Yes, March 14th I'm gonna be doing a show in East Rutherford, New Jersey. That'll be at a place called Al Di La—it’s an Italian Bistro Night Club. And it's a very nice set up there for shows.
Do you plan on taking the act anywhere else besides New Jersey?
Yes. Depending on bookings, I'm really headed towards doing a lot of hotels and even possibly some cruises next. That's what I'm aiming for really. More so ‘cause the night club situation is not what it used to be. So there's not a lot of venues to work as there used to be. So that's why I'm really aiming toward hotels and even cruises to do the show.
Would you describe your show as like an entertainer type show?
Yes, definitely. A matter of fact, depending on the venue and the lead, I may even bring a comedian with me, background singers and widen the show a bit. It all depends of course on budget and everything else. But that's what I ultimately would like to do.
You can learn more about Ronnie Wells and his music at his website: www.RonnieWellsMusic.com