FireHouse – The Making and History of their debut album
Written by Kevin Tanza on December 30, 2020
“We never thought of what was going on at the time as monumental success. We had goals that we were trying to achieve. There wasn’t a whole lot of time to get overwhelmed. We just stayed focused on doing our best to sound good every night. We were out on the road working (with very few days off) and on those days off, we were busy doing laundry! Ha!”
- Guitarist Bill Leverty to me about the success of FireHouse’s debut.
Thirty years means a lot of things. They are a time for reflection, for change and for evolution. It’s also an entire life and events that a person can go through. But it can also give you a better understanding of what you went through and the scale of what you have achieved, allowing you to comprehend the magnitude of your deeds.
This was certainly the case with the Hard Rock band FireHouse, who made a name for themselves with their 1990 self-titled debut, quickly becoming one of the most popular bands in the entire world and achieving monumental commercial success, with the album selling more than 2 million copies in the United States alone.
FireHouse is widely regarded as the last great 80s Hard Rock band to be successful during the rise of Grunge and their debut is a classic of the genre, so in order to celebrate the 30th anniversary I talked with founding member, songwriter and guitarist Bill Leverty and the record’s producer, David Prater, to discuss about the origins of FireHouse, the making of the album and a lot more.
“It felt like magic. It also felt like home. We all really believed in what we were doing and were determined to make it.”
- Leverty to me about FireHouse playing together for the first time.
FireHouse might have released their debut album in 1990, but it wasn’t an easy journey to get there.
The band from Charlotte, North Carolina, had to fight during the vast majority of the 80s in order to grow and develop, establish their songs and make a name for themselves in their music scene, but it all goes back to guitarist Bill Leverty, who had dreams of making it as a Rock musician since he was a little boy.
From a very early age, Bill was into Rock music and he has mentioned most of his influences in his website, but he told me that “Lynyrd Skynyrd, Ted Nugent, Van Halen, Michael Schenker, Scorps, Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, Aerosmith, Randy Rhodes, Al DiMeola, and The Dixie Dregs were some of my biggest influences”.
The early 80s were the time were Leverty started to play music, trying out in multiple bands and starting to develop his own craft. It’s worth pointing out that perhaps the most consistent group he had before forming FireHouse was a band called White Heat, which he had around 1984, when he was only 17 years old and was still developing his skills as a guitar playing.
But even the creation of White Heat proved to be quite the ordeal for Leverty, as it tends to be the case with a lot of musicians, having the tendency of jumping from one group to another until finding a degree of balance and consistency.
“It was an evolution. I answered an ad on a bulletin board in a music store for a band looking for a guitarist. I auditioned and got the gig,” Leverty told me about the birth of White Heat. “That band was called Star Rider. They had to let me go about 2 months later because they had the opportunity to get a great new singer who came as a package deal with 2 guitar players, one of whom owned a P.A. system, and they didn’t want a third guitarist. About 6 months later, their singer, Bob, called me back and asked me to rejoin the band because things didn’t work out with the other guys. I joined back with him. We were playing UFO, Van Halen, Scorps, BOC, Priest, Sabbath, and a few originals. We soon changed the name to White Heat. We played several bars around town. The club scene was really good around here back in those days.”
White Heat started playing, rehearsing and evolving as musicians as Leverty was becoming a much more capable guitarist and songwriter, which is something that is important to point out: the fact that perhaps the songs of FireHouse’s debut album were the accumulation of almost seven years of musical development until reaching the final product that landed in our hands back in 1990.
The band also did the promotional strategies that were common back in the day: putting flyers everywhere, including in some of the other bands’ windshields. The guys of White Heat, especially Bill, would go to these bands’ shows and start putting flyers in the windshields, thus generating much more interest and curiosity from Rock fans in Charlotte.
Of course, there was a certain reasoning behind this approach: White Heat had a booking agent that knew all the bar owners in their circuit and he could arrange gigs for them, with the only condition that they had to draw a crowd in order to make it happen.
It was also in 1984 that they found themselves looking for a drummer and they had about twenty auditions without finding the right one until they met someone who would go on to play with Leverty for the vast majority of his music career: Michael Foster.
“We brought in the drummer and got them to play any songs on our setlist that they knew,” Bill said to me about the auditions for the drummer. “Most of the guys who tried out were really good, but we didn’t feel like we had the right guy. Michael came in and his groove blew us all away. He could also really swing which was very important to me. We gave him our setlist of about 40 songs and he came back the next day and knew them all. What sealed the deal was when we heard him sing. What a great voice! We knew he was the right guy.”
That’s how the work relationship between Michael Foster and Bill Leverty, which still carries on to this day, started. And White Heat kept on playing and developing, trying to make a name for themselves in the industry, but things would turn out differently for Michael and Bill.
A couple of years later, Michael and Bill tried to form their own band, which eventually became FireHouse. They tried a variety of different singers and bassists, including a brief stint with a second guitarist, but none of those changes stuck and they were having issues to maintain that level of consistency that is necessary to have a quality band. But there was a light at the end of the tunnel while watching a show in a club in Richmond, VA.
“There were a lot of bands playing in bars back at that time in Richmond, VA,” Bill told me. “C.J. (Snare) was the best singer out of all of those bands. He sang all of the cool songs that no one else could even come close to singing because he had such great range and power. Perry (Richardson) was right behind him holding down the rhythm section and singing all of the high harmonies. Michael & I both felt that they were outstanding.”
Future FireHouse bassist Perry Richardson with Maxx Warrior.
The band in question was Maxx Warrior, which was a very underground Heavy Metal band from Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. They started as a group in 1980, but didn’t become Maxx Warrior until 1982, when future FireHouse vocalist C.J. Snare and bassist Perry Richardson joined them. They released a self-titled EP in 1985 and they had somewhat of a respectable following in the underground scene back in those days.
And while C.J. Snare is widely regarded as one of the great Hard Rock vocalists and songwriters of his generation, Perry Richardson doesn’t always get the same credit when it comes to his contributions to FireHouse and his quality bass-playing. That in itself is curious when you consider that Perry didn’t start in music because of Rock.
“I must have been about 8 or 9 years old,” Perry said about his beginnings in music back in 2017. “I started singing in a gospel quartet in South Carolina, and I did that until I was 14. My dad was in a country and bluegrass band. He played bass and acoustic and he shared with me what he knew, and I took it from there. That’s where it all started.”
“Perry and I have been in and out of bands together for a long, long time,” Snare said in 2000 when Richardson left the band. “We were way down in the trenches and way up on those peaks together. We saw a lot of shit, both good and bad. We were like brothers. I wish him well.”
As an interesting fact, Maxx Warrior opened for Stryper in 1985 in Charlotte, North Carolina, and Richardson would go on to join that band in 2017.
Maxx Warrior’s 1985 self-titled EP, with C.J. Snare on vocals and Perry Richardson on bass.
Michael Foster and Bill Leverty had their sights on C.J. Snare and Perry Richardson to join their band and form a very strong four-piece group, but the process proved to be a lot slower than what perhaps they thought at first.
“Over time Maxx Warrior broke-up. I sent CJ some songs that I had written and asked him to sing on our tape,” Bill says in his website’s bio about FireHouse coming together. “He just tore it up. We did a show in Virginia with him as our singer a few weeks later and I’ll never forget him telling me that after performing live with us that he felt like this was the right band for him. (…)After we had a tape with CJ’s voice on it we took it to Perry. He really liked it, but had promised the band that he was in at the time that he’d complete 6 months of gigs. We just said, ‘We’re coming to get you when those 6 months are up!’ We sold our P.A. system, moved to Charlotte, North Carolina, and started recording demos in my bedroom.”
And it was done: the classic FireHouse lineup was formed and they were ready to rock. It’s also important to point out that the name FireHouse was suggested by Michael Foster, who at the time had plans to become a firefighter–in fact, the original idea for their debut’s album cover involved firefighters, but they eventually discarded that concept.
The band quickly started to demo their own songs and play shows in hotels (plus conventional jobs) to make enough living to finance the name while also growing a certain following, which was essential to get the ball rolling with the band.
All the songs that would end up in FireHouse’s debut were in the demos that they recorded in Leverty’s home. “It was great, and yes, all of the songs that were on the debut were originally demo’d on that Tascam 4 track recorder,” Bill told me. “We had the drum kit mic’d up in the basement of the band house and ran the audio snake through the air conditioning duct work upstairs and into my bedroom where I had a mixing desk and the 4 track recorder. I think our demos sounded pretty good back then.”
A White Heat demo of Helpless, which ended up on FireHouse’s debut.
It was also during the 1987/88 period that the band would play in hotels to make some money and overall play in any place that gave them opportunity to do some shows. They played a wide variety of music in the hotels and corporate parties they attended to, going from songs by the likes of Ratt, Van Halen and many other Hard Rock bands to tracks made in the 40s and 50s so that the people in the parties had something to dance to. Perhaps the latter wasn’t the type of music that they wanted to make at the time, but it meant a living playing music and doing shows, plus I would argue that this period gave them a sense of musical versatility that would prove monumental for the band in years to come.
But a very important factor that is worth pointing out is that Bill not only gained a phenomenal vocalist in C.J. Snare, but also a fellow songwriter with whom he has developed an almost brother-like chemistry when making music.
“He was an integral songwriter from the start,” Leverty told me when I asked him if C.J. started writing songs from the beginning. “He brought in so many great songs and ideas. He was working on songwriting all the time. We worked really well together from day one. People don’t know, but he’s a maestro keyboardist. The guy has so much talent and creativity, not to mention a real knack for catchy melodies and lyrics. He’s a complete artist in every sense of the phrase.”
What’s interesting is what happened after this. After a few years of hard work and dedication in the underground scene, FireHouse was making a name for themselves and made some connections in the music industry. Perhaps their most important connection was in Los Angeles with bassist Dana Strum and vocalist Mark Slaughter from the band Slaughter and of Vinnie Vincent Invasion fame, who helped the guys of FireHouse to record a better-produced demo of the songs they had until that point.
Vocalist C.J. Snare on stage.
When the band came back to Charlotte, they started to hand over these demos and the songs were played in the biggest Rock radio stations they had at the time, with the track Home Is Where The Heart Is going #1 in the biggest station in the city. This brought FireHouse a lot of attention and the places were packed every time they were playing in Charlotte, which started to make it easier for them to get record companies to look towards North Carolina.
“I always heard that if a record company wants to see you play, they’ll fly to Timbuktu to see you,” Bill told me. “You’ve just got to make a recording that makes them want to get on a plane. Charlotte was a great town and I think living there actually helped us because we were comfortable there, surrounded by a lot of great friends.”
This was proven right when Mike Caplan from Epic Records was impressed by the band’s demos and went to Charlotte to watch FireHouse live. He was pleased by their live performances and decided to offer them their first record deal in December of 1989, which quickly got the ball rolling to the making of their debut album.
“That was back in the heyday of the Hair Metal bands and I originally wanted to sign Heaven’s Edge,” Michael Caplan told me in a phone call. “But they ended up signing for Columbia Records because these guys were friends with Britny Fox, which was another band that Columbia had at the time. We heard about FireHouse… I don’t think they were White Heat by this point. And I had been working with David Prater (producer) on something else and I knew that he was the right guy to work with this band.”
“At the time, I had no idea that the album would be that well received. Almost a year after the record came out, Derek Oliver, a British friend and A&R rep at Atco/East-West, called me and said ‘You know Dave, I think that your Firehouse record’s really going to do something big, I really do’, and I thought; ‘Oh come on. I don’t believe you’, then he said; ‘No, really, I’m pretty sure it’s already platinum!’ And sure enough, when I looked at Billboard, the ballad ‘Love of A Lifetime’ had entered the top 5 in the latter part of 1990, and at that point, the people in front of us were Garth Brooks, Boyz II Men, Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston, and then FireHouse. So, when you get to that point, you suddenly realize; ‘Oh boy, we’ve done something here’.”
The role of a producer is often misunderstood in the music world and sometimes it can be underappreciated when the reality is that they are capable of making or breaking an album. A quality producer knows how to give an outside perspective to the songs the musicians our doing and how to get the most out of every single one of them in order to get the best final product.
This was certainly the case with producer David Prater, who was charged by Epic Records to take FireHouse’s songs to the next level. He previously played music in the 70s as a drummer, most famously for Santana and Baby Grand, but made the transition to producing in the 80s, mostly notably by working with FireHouse’s fellow Hard Rockers Night Ranger.
“Well, oddly enough, that had had started just before I began playing with Carlos (Santana),” Prater said in 2019 about his transition from musician to producer. “I would go into the studio and record material that I had written. I was also a very good guitar player at the time, and specifically as a soloist, so I would play the drums, and I would teach everybody the chord changes and the melodies. At that point it was primarily instrumental, but I just loved the whole aspect of putting an idea down, making it work, and then walking out of there with just an enormous sense of confidence, having taking something on and accomplished it. (…)But I wasn’t the one calling the shots until ’86/’87. Glen Burtnik was my first one, and that was very important.”
And a few years later, after having worked on a couple of albums, including the Diving for Pearls debut album, Prater decided that he wanted a bigger and better chance at making it as a producer as he was quite confident of his abilities.
“Well, almost a year after I made the ‘Diving for Pearls’ debut record, in a fit of frustration I marched into Michael Caplan’s office at Epic Records one day in the winter of 1990 and told him that unlike with Diving for Pearls, I deserved a shot at making a record with an artist or band that would have a legitimate chance at making a huge impact in the hard rock marketplace,” David told me in our discussion. “I told him that as a producer, I felt every bit as formidable as Mutt Lange, Bob Rock, Bruce Fairbairn et al.”
And while David Prater is mostly known because of his work producing Dream Theater’s Images and Words in 1992, his first major test and success as a producer was working with FireHouse’s debut album.
After his discussion with Caplan, Prater had a chance to talk C.J. and Bill on the phone, thus getting to know each other for the first time before getting started on the project:
“They grilled me on everything you could imagine; what pre-amps do you use? What’s your favorite vocal mic? Favorite guitar setup for getting awesome guitar sounds, etc.,” David told me. “The same thing for drum sounds. This went on and on for 15 or 20 minutes. Finally, after we terminated the call, Caplan told me how massive they were in the Charlotte area and asked when I could get down there. I said, ‘This afternoon if you need me to.’”
It was a perfect scenario for both parties. The guys of FireHouse were obviously extremely eager to work with a producer on the first album and get the big break they had been striving for in the majority of the 80s. And on the other hand, Prater was pretty clear to me about how much he wanted this gig at this point of his career:
“As a producer, I’d already fought the musical equivalent of WWI, WWII, the Korean War and Vietnam. I salivated blood at the chance to prove my worth on the world stage. I had been through hell and back so many times I had a standing reservation. Having played on and produced so many projects, I couldn’t remember how many nor whom they were for. We’re talking literally thousands of hours by 1990. By then, as a producer? I had the temperament of a young Mike Tyson. If you were a non-believer in my ability to produce hit records, I wanted to knock you the fuck out…”
The last part wasn’t going to be necessary as the band was certainly impressed by Prater’s credentials and working ethic, so they entered the studio fully determined to do the best possible work with the songs they already had–it’s worth pointing out that the entire album was already written by the time they started recording with Prater.
“We first demo’d the songs at Prater’s studio just to prove that we could come in under budget and all get along,” Bill told me about the experience of recording in that studio. “We slept on his floor. After that, we went up to Bear Tracks Studio in Suffern, NY to record the debut album. We were up early in the morning and worked late into the night. It was a dream come true working in that world class studio.”
Bill Leverty on stage in the early 90s.
The band has praised Prater throughout the years, saying that he had a lot of knowledge when it comes to studio work and you can obviously hear throughout the entire album: FireHouse’s debut sounds extremely crisp, clean and large in terms of production, which is quite amazing for a band that was only starting out, but that also goes to show the level of faith and investment the record label had in the band at the time (which would prove to be quite ironic in the coming years with the rise of Grunge).
“Our A&R guy, Michael Caplan, liked us for who we were and didn’t try to change us at all,” Leverty told when I asked if there was outside pressure from the label. “He put us with an up and coming producer, David Prater, who didn’t change any lyrics and didn’t mess with the music much either.”
This last part was fundamentally true and it was something that Prater confirmed me as we were talking about the material the band by the time they started to work together.
“With the exception of ‘Love of a Lifetime’ and one or two others, all the material had been recorded with Dana, but the role of the rhythm section with Perry Richardson and Michael Foster had to be genetically modified,” David told me. “I have great respect for Dana Strum and appreciated his efforts, but, because of my experience as a drummer in Santana and innumerable other rhythm-intensive bands, I felt uniquely qualified in my role as someone to make the grooves for the songs on the debut FireHouse sexier. ‘All She Wrote’ and ‘Shake and Tumble’ needed to pump and stomp. I told the guys that I wanted dancers in strip clubs to argue over who got to dance to the FireHouse tracks.”
One small detail that definitely caught my eye was the fact that a man named Cosby Ellis was credited in the album as one of their songwriters. But according to both Leverty and Prater, he was an early White Heat member that contributed a lot to that period of the band’s existence and later on left the music business, so the guys decided to credit him because of his input on these songs.
Legendary producer David Prater.
But focusing on the production itself, the key to make a great record is always the element of discipline and that was something that Prater practiced in what was by and large his big shot to make it as a successful producer:
“When I’m working alone, I function best on a predominately isolated nocturnal schedule. I’m a terrible early morning riser. On a project with many participants, however, it’s always best to start between 10:00 a.m. and 12:00 noon. Sometimes that’ll be dictated by factors outside the studio environment; interviews, radio call-ins, flight arrivals and departures etc.”
“Having said that, the one rule that I still observe from is ‘never begin a creative task after 12:00 midnight’ Legendary engineer-producer Niko Bolas taught me that in 1987 during the making of Glen Burtnik’s ‘Heroes and Zeroes’ I still swear by it today.”
“This means, if the lead-guitarist wants to begin laying down ideas on a new song starting at 12:30 a.m., the answer is no. If he starts laying down ideas at 10:30 p.m. and it extends to 12:15-12:30 a.m., that’s fine. If you’re not careful, eventually you’ll start the sessions closer to 5:00 p.m. and stop at 5:00 a.m. We call that ‘Dawn Patrol’ That’s how you acquire a ‘Studio Tan’”.
That’s how they started and that was the schedule they followed to deliver one of the last great Hard Rock albums of the 1980s. Even though it was released in 1990, FireHouse’s debut is 80s Hard Rock personified.
The moment that the guitars kick in the opening track, Rock on the Radio, we know we’re dealing with a band that means business and knows their craft. This is where all those years doing shows in hotels, rehearsing and doing demos paid off; the song has that anthem-like feel that all good Hard Rock bands had at the time and they delivered it in the first official songs of their entire careers!
“That started with a guitar riff,” Bill told me about Rock on the Radio. “The hook/chorus came next, then the verses which C.J. wrote. It originally was more of a straight beat and Prater suggested that we swing it to more of a triplet feel. It was a great suggestion.”
One of the strongest aspects of FireHouse’s debut is not only Bill Leverty’s guitar playing, but also its powerful and clean sound, whether it’s on the riffs or in the solos. Part of this is obviously Prater’s crystal-clean production, but also the fact they triple-tracked his solos.
“In the first record, all the solos were tripled-tracked,” Bill said in an interview with Hot Guitarist Video Magazine in 1992. “So I knew exactly what I was gonna do. Every picking, every technique, every vibrato. Everything. I knew exactly what I was gonna do so I could tripled them, like the Randy Rhoads kind of thing where he tripled all his solos. I was really into that.”
You can watch the whole interview here; it’s a very interesting insight to his creative process during 1992-circa FireHouse:
“Bill and I rarely had any disagreement musically, although I begrudgingly indulged his philosophy about triple tracking the guitar solos L+C+R,” David told me about Bill’s desire to triple-track his solos. “I told him he was a great player and he didn’t need all that ‘extra-reassurance’ to sound BIG. By the time we did the next record, all his solos were mainly single-tracked.”
Being a drummer himself, David Prater wanted to go big with the drum intro and he wanted to challenge some of the opening tracks of the most successful albums, such as Def Leppard’s Hysteria or Michael Jackson’s Thriller. And to do so, he focused a lot of his efforts on the drum intro of Rock on the Radio, a song that, according to his own words, “took forever to record compared to the other songs”.
“Obviously, I had a big hill to climb,” David told me about reaching the heights of those aforementioned albums. “That’s what inspired me to create the opening ‘drum-extravaganza’ for the beginning of the record. The record needed something big, something bold and something undeniable. Unfortunately, to this day my creation was never formally recognized nor compensated in any way…”
“Based upon a traditional 6/8 African rhythm, I initially played and recorded all the parts as a road map for Michael Foster to learn. Then, when Michael walked into the cutting room to learn his parts, I literally grabbed his arms and told him, ‘Let me show you what to do, okay?’ It was important for Michael to re-record every part.”
“I slowly played the parts while holding his arms like sticks. I love teaching and am very patient as long as a student gives a sincere effort. He was a joy to work with and an instantaneous learner (not to mention a really sweet guy to boot). My final analysis? Michael Foster is an excellent drummer and showman. At the end of the day? I knew we had something special.”
Rock on the Radio was a clear way of showing what the band was all about and it was only going to get better from there as the band gets on his groove slowly but surely on every song.
If you think about the perfect mix of Pop and Hard Rock, you have All She Wrote. One of the best songs that FireHouse ever made and just a phenomenal composition where they just the capacity to rock with some of the best hooks that were recorded in 1990. Definitely one of the highlights of Bill Leverty’s career as a guitar player and C.J. Snare’s as a singer.
“I had a cassette tape with collection of guitar riffs that I had recorded and gave it to CJ,” Bill told me. “He really liked that riff and came up with the chorus and sang it to me over the phone. He also had a great melody and lyrics for the first verse. I knew we had something special. He came down to the band house and we finished it the next day.”
The song explodes with the vocal introduction and never lets go, complementing solid riffs with endless hooks and a C.J. Snare who takes control of the entire situation with strong and compelling vocal lines. If you wonder why this band made it back in the day in such quick fashion, it was because of songs like this one that are powerful, accessible and done with a certain groove that Prater was very aware that it was necessary to develop.
“Yes, they did,” David told me when I asked him if the band needed guidance. “When Bill and C.J. played me early versions of the songs, they didn’t swing. The songs felt like they plodded. Instead, I wanted them to feel punchy, but, still swing and groove. ‘All She Wrote’ is a great example of that philosophy in action.”
This song is a really strong example of quality songwriting teaming up with a quality producer, ending up with a song that works on so many levels and does so with a degree of what I call “positive commerciality”, which makes the track easy to digest for larger audiences without losing an ounce of brilliance.
And if we talk about groove, then Shake & Tumble is groove itself, with the rhythm base of Foster and Richardson delivering the goods on a regular basis here. They are on the top of their game in this particular song and it shows their best virtues as musicians.
C.J. Snare once again excels, adding a lot of personality and charisma to his vocal performance. It’s a song that relies fully on charisma and groove and I say this as a good thing–it’s a song that shows a band at the height of their powers and filled with confidence.
This was also the album’s first album, which, according to Bill Leverty himself, quickly started the album’s massive success in the entirety of the United States.
“The label released a song called ‘Shake And Tumble’ to a radio format called Metal Radio,” Bill told me. “It was picked up and later made it into heavy rotation by Z-Rock which was syndicated to about 50 stations around the country. That meant that we had up to 50 places around the country where we could play gigs. We rented the cheapest bus we could find and went out on the road playing every town that had a Z-Rock station. The label noticed that we left a trail of record sales everywhere we played.”
But being FireHouse’s first ever single didn’t exactly excited David Prater a lot as a producer, at least at first.
“That was the first track I set out to change during pre-production,” David told me. “When I first heard it, I thought it was the musical equivalent of a car with square wheels. It wasn’t sexy. It didn’t elevate my testosterone. Oddly enough, it was the record’s 1st single. At the time I thought, ‘Who’s the idiot that actually thinks anyone anywhere would actually play this?’”
“Later, Derek Oliver, an A & R representative at ATCO/East-West informed me in his distinctive British accent, ‘Er-ahem, Dave, I think your FireHouse record is going to be a huge success.’ I sincerely thought he was joking.”
And I have to say that he succeeded in his mission as the song works quite well and shows the more playful and loose version of the band after such tight and high quality performances in Rock on the Radio and All She Wrote. And the band also accomplished Prater’s goal of making the song a lot sexier.
“In fact, I’ll never forget the time after the record came out that I went to a New Jersey ‘gentlemen’s club’ and watched a girl stripping to ‘Shake and Tumble’”, David said to me. “That was all the proof I needed to convince me that my instincts were right.”
The next song was another single, Don’t Treat Me Bad. After an acoustic intro, we jump into an energetic, if not simplistic, approach that shows how the band can try different things in every song while maintaining a core sound.
Once again, it’s the Snare-Leverty duo that carries the weight of the song and they do so with swagger, personality and conviction. It’s worth highlighting how these songs were developed for many years and got the input of a top producer, so it only makes sense that they are so rock solid–they had spent a lot of time working on them.
This was also one of the songs that ended up having a music video, which was a great way to introduce bands to a larger audience back in the day.
“We did two versions of ‘Don’t Treat Me Bad’”, Bill told me about the making of the music video. “The first version was at a club in Michael’s and my hometown of Richmond, VA at a club called The Floodzone. It was packed and the audience gave us a ton of energy. The song really hadn’t become a hit at that time yet, but the audience was rocking like it was their favorite song of all time. The director, Jean Pellerin, was great at making us feel confident. He wrote the side story to the video and I caught the guitar that was thrown out of the second story on the first take. I’m so glad I did because we didn’t have a backup!”
The absolute protagonist in Oughta Be a Law is Bill Leverty, who shines with some of the best riffs of his entire career while complementing Snare’s vocals. Foster pounds the drum set with character and personality along with Richardson, who knows how to deliver on a consistent basis on bass.
But I want to emphasize the riffs mainly because it’s one grand example of how they can carry the weight of a song, its groove and the impact that it has as a whole.
“With ‘Oughta Be A Law’ the intro clean-guitar and middle clean-guitar were all made possible by my 1960s Fender Bassman,” David told me. “I really didn’t think much of it at the time, but, there’s a distinctive greasiness within that clean-guitar sound. I think it’s sexy. That’s something you seem to find when a guitar player plugs in to an American-made Fender amplifier. But hey, for the record, I’m not an ‘America First’ kinda’ guy, but, in my humble opinion, Leo Fender really captured something quintessentially ‘American’ when he started making those early amplifiers.”
David Prater seemed to agree with me when it comes to the rhythm section because he had no qualms about flattering Bill Leverty’s work on guitar.
“Bill always had it together in that respect (making riffs),” David said to me. “With some guitarists I might comp their guitar solos whereas with other players I won’t. I don’t have a ‘one size fits all’ approach for every record. For whatever reason, Bill’s rhythm playing thankfully seems to have been distilled long before I happened to work with him. He’s always performed like a professional studio musician.”
Perhaps the fastest song so far, Lover’s Lane is a compelling and fun song where gang background vocals complement Snare, thus delivering a blow-for-blow chorus that simply tears everything apart. It’s another example of FireHouse’s underrated musical flexibility, which is something that they were going to prove throughout their careers.
“That’s one of those riffs that I can’t play slow,” Bill told me. “Ha! That song is a great example of Michael’s amazing drumming and his ability to swing. He’s just got that feel where he can play really dynamically, and his timing is very smooth and relaxed. It’s hard to explain, but he’s got the power and the groove.”
And quite frankly, I don’t think I should add anything else about that song. The man himself said it better than I ever could.
I particularly like the in-crescendo nature of Home Is Where the Heart Is. Because it shows the band taking their time to develop the song and show a bit more complex element to their music. Sure, it’s not Progressive Metal or anything of the sort, but is definitely good and shows that they can slow down the pace from time to time and deliver a good blow, so to speak.
“I had the music to the chorus and the title/hook, but the chorus wasn’t complete,” Bill told me about the making of the song. “CJ wrote the punchline to the chorus which was ‘though my journey’s just begun, home’s where the heart is’. He also wrote the first verse and the verse melody. We wrote the lyrics to the second verse together.”
One of the definitive examples of the Snare-Leverty collaboration and I really like the final solo before the end of the song, which shows the latter delivering the good on the guitar.
In Don’t Walk Away we have a slow and dirty Hard Rock song that shows C.J. Snare at his best, flaunting his vocal diversity and range. His vocal versatility is certainly underrated and here we can have a testament of that quality of his.
In fact, when I was talking to producer David Prater, he was surprised that I said that this was one of Snare’s best vocal performances in the album.
“Really? Man, I didn’t see that one coming,” David told me. “Well, he seemed to know exactly how he wanted to sing it before he came in. It was over and done with very quickly. Honestly? I really don’t recall anything particularly noteworthy it. It was a stripped down and sparse arrangement from a production standpoint.”
Sometimes simplicity is the key and Don’t Walk Away could be viewed as a sleeper track of sorts in the album, eager to surprise new and old listeners that perhaps were not familiar with this little jewel of a song.
Perhaps the most surprising track in the whole album is the interlude Seasons of Change, which is Bill Leverty on his acoustic guitar playing some really compelling melodies. It doesn’t sound like something you would expect from a 80s-style Hard Rock album, but it adds another layer of musical diversity to FireHouse’s debut and it shows yet again that Bill Leverty is much more than an archetypical guitar hero and how he can do a bit of everything with his songs.
“I don’t know exactly,” Bill said when I asked him how he came up with the idea for the song. “I think it was just from playing the acoustic guitar a lot. I came up with a bunch of separate parts over the years and CJ really helped me with arranging them. The classical piece toward the end was his idea. He helped me write that and I’m so glad he did.”
I’m also glad he did because it’s a nice little detail that I honestly don’t think any new listener sees coming and it makes for a richer experience.
Overnight Sensation is without a doubt my favorite song of the album and I think it shows the four band members at their absolute best, displaying energy, melodies, power and charisma in quite a compelling manner.
From the moment that Leverty attacks with that opening riff, you know that something special is coming and the song never stops, with the band going and going and going, showcasing the swagger and the hunger of a band that truly wants to make it.
“Cosby Ellis came up with that intro riff idea and we worked together to complete it,” Bill told me. “That later became the music behind the chorus. We played it for CJ and he immediately came up with the lyrics and melody to go over it. We worked together to come up with the pre-chorus. CJ helped me write the solo, humming me melodies he heard in his head and giving me arrangement ideas and direction.”
It’s just a powerful song and the best representation of the most Hard Rock aspect of FireHouse’s sound. But definitely not the most important song of the album.
Of course, one of the definitive tracks in FireHouse’s catalogue (in fact, perhaps the definitive song in the band’s history) was the ballad Love of a Lifetime, cementing the band’s legacy in Hard Rock history for all time.
To this day it is one of the most known songs in Rock history and it has been used for all kinds of romantic celebrations all over the world. It was such a monumental moment in the band’s career and it was vocalist C.J. Snare who came up with the bulk of the song.
“For example, when I wrote the song, ‘Love of a Lifetime’, I didn’t have a love of a lifetime in my life,” C.J. said in 2014 about the ideas for the lyrics of the song. “But I thought it was a nice ideal and it was something cool to write about. That was the hook that I happened to come up with. This was way before FireHouse when I put all that together. It’s not about any one particular person, although since I wrote that song, I’ve probably had about three love of a lifetimes (laughing), or ones that I thought were ‘Love of a Lifetime’ that turned into the ‘Next Worst Enemy’ and ended up with an ‘All She Wrote.’”
The song was actually written and recorded as a demo by Snare on his own instead of having the whole band involved in the creative process. He would also play it from time to time in live shows that he did on his own, alone with his piano, way before the release of FireHouse’s debut.
Interestingly enough, it was also around this time that C.J. Snare was friends with Jon Bon Jovi, which wasn’t very surprising considering that Jon helped the likes of Cinderella and Skid Row to land their first big breaks in the industry. And it was Bon Jovi who told C.J. to not publish Love of a Lifetime because “it would ruin your career”. But the powers that be had another thing in mind.
Jon Bon Jovi and C.J. Snare on stage.
“So I came up with another song that went on the original demo that got us our deal with Sony Music and Epic Records,” C.J. said in 2014 about the recording of that song. “They approached us after the whole record was done and they said, ‘You know, the power ballad is really big these days, and we feel like we could do a little bit better than this one. So maybe we could bring some outside writers to help you guys with that one.’ And I said, ‘Well, I have another one.’ And the guys were looking at me with, like, ‘What are you talking about, dude?’ Because at that time, Slippery When Wet was out, and Bon Jovi was hitting on all cylinders. They were firing on all.”
David Prater could not speak higher of C.J.’s performances in the studio and how he was always willing and ready to give his best during every recording session, which goes to show the lengths the vocalist was prepared to go in this particular point of his career to prove his worth.
“C.J. is the consummate professional lead-vocalist who arrives warmed-up with the song’s lyrics memorized,” David told me. “He can hit every note he goes for and is rarely out of tune. I barely even had to ‘comp’ his vocal takes because we both knew immediately when he hit a clam. For instance, I might record 3 or 4 takes and ‘compile’ the best bits onto a master lead vocal but it was never a grueling task like working with some singers I’d rather not mention.”
But despite his compliments about Snare, Prater was as straightforward as he could be when I asked him about this song:
“At the time I thought it was a cookie-cutter arrangement for an unremarkable power-ballad,” David told me. “Looking back though I’ve grown to absolutely love it. The performances by everyone still holds water…”
“I’ve recorded many, many ballads in my career. Ballads that tug at your heartstrings. Ballads that serve as a salve for a wounded heart or broken soul. I approached the song as if I were producing a Michael Bolton or Celine Dion ballad.”
“I purposely incorporated a formulaic arrangement into the song. It even comes replete with a corny whole-step modulation before the final chorus. Like I did for one or two other songs, I coached C.J. on the melodic variations he sang on the out-choruses. Every idea I heard in my head I sang to him. After working with it for a minute or two, he’d make it into something he was comfortable with and we’d then record it. C.J. and I had a superb working relationship.”
“When it was all said and done, however, I remained very concerned that the label would think it was ‘cheesy’. I felt I may have overdone it. In the end? Shit, they loved it!!!”
I think Helpless suffers a bit because of its place in the track list. Coming after Overnight Sensation and Love of my Life, it’s complicated to keep up with the previous quality and that might be an issue, but that doesn’t make it a bad song by any means. It does feel a bit generic and not as good as the rest of the album, but it’s done with the energy and impetus of a band that doesn’t want to waste a single second of their debut.
Somewhat of a not-so good ending to the album, but that doesn’t it stop from being an absolute banger and Hard Rock masterpiece.
“Hell yeah!!!” David told me when I asked him if he was still pleased with the album. “Doug and I cross-referenced all our work against the records our competitors were releasing. Def Leppard, Aerosmith, Ratt, The Cult, Motley Crüe etc. Until our mixes sounded bigger and more exciting, we’d keep making small adjustments until we were convinced we that our mixes were every bit as good as anyone else’s. Because of that I think the FireHouse debut has aged very well.”
Reception, touring and legacy.
Overnight Sensation and All She Wrote live in Japan in 1991.
“It really was right off the bat because it was our first major release but it really felt like we had paid a lot of dues just to get to that point. There had been a lot of bars, a lot of smoke filled clubs and little places we had to play. (…) Then when the album did finally come out and received those kinds of accolades, the fans responded and showed their appreciation by stepping up and forking out their dollars for it. It was really, really gratifying but on the same token, it was an indicator of the times.”
- J. Snare in 2005 about FireHouse’s debut winning American Music Award for Best New Hard Rock/Heavy Metal Band in 1992.
FireHouse’s debut was a monumental success from the get-go, quickly becoming a double-platinum album and establishing the band as one of the hottest groups in the Hard Rock scene of the early 90s. Considering that this band had been developing their craft and working extremely hard since their White Heat days in the mid-80s, this was a huge rewards for them, also seizing what would be later be viewed as the dying embers of Hard Rock’s heyday.
One of the high points in the band’s tour for that album was sharing the stage with fellow Hard Rock band Warrant, who were also riding a wave of success with their very own 1990 album, Cherry Pie.
“They were so cool to us from day one and we are still great friends to this day. That tour was fantastic,” Bill told me. “Every night was sold out everywhere we played. We had over 40 thousand people in Chicago at the World Amphitheater. They taught us so much about touring. They brought 100% to the audience every night, even getting huge fines for playing past curfew. Trixter was also on that tour and we are still great friends with those guys as well. It was a great package and I hope we can all go back out and do it again one day.”
Bill also told me a funny anecdote about touring for that album with Slaughter, which has been a band very attached to FireHouse’s early days in the scene:
“We started off headlining clubs, then played theaters with Slaughter. We pulled a prank on Slaughter the last night of our tour when we sent our drum tech out on their stage wearing nothing but a diaper and angel wings when they played ‘Fly To The Angels’.”
The early 90s were a very interesting in music because there was a wide variety of genres in Rock and many of them enjoying mainstream success. 80s style Hard Rock was still having commercial pull, even though that things were starting to change and FireHouse managed to become one of those last groups that enjoyed the power and influence that the scene had during that era.
Producer David Prater was very clear to me about how good those times were and how much he enjoyed the success of that particular album.
“‘Can we please do it one more time before I die?’ That’s what I’d like to see happen,” David told me about his thoughts looking back on the album. “Unfortunately, those days are gone forever. There really isn’t a ‘music business’ anymore. The entire business model from back then has been thrown out and in its place, we now have streaming, downloads and 360 deals. Not to mention every Tom, Dick & Harry consider themselves a producer. Or a DJ. Gimme a break…”
“I don’t mean to sound jaded or bitter, however, I’m extremely disappointed in how the most talented people involved in the making of a record seem to be the ones treated with the least respect. I really miss the days of having a robust, sturdy record production infrastructure; realistic budgets, great studios with great engineers on staff, great equipment, competent A&R personnel, experienced artist management, etc.”
It’s a sad indictment of the current state of the music industry, but FireHouse’s success was one of the last cases where Hard Rock had genuine and absolute mainstream acceptance and he was a huge part of that success.
Of course, getting the American Music Award for Best New Hard Rock/Heavy Metal band in 1992 over the likes of Nirvana and Alice in Chains is one of FireHouse’s more famous achievements and still remains as perhaps one of the genre’s last great achievements on the mainstream media and C.J. Snare has a very funny story about receiving the award in the ceremony.
FireHouse getting the American Music Award for Best New Hard Rock/Heavy Metal band in 1992.
“When we won that, it was really funny because our bass player, the guitar player, our drummer (and_ myself, we all had a specific list of people that we were going to thank just in case we won,” C.J. said in 2016. “Now, when they called out Firehouse; and the reason they had called out Firehouse was because apparently we had had the most spins and record sales and things like that up to a certain cut off point. We knew that Nirvana was starting to dominate the airwaves with ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit.’ We were like ‘Man! This isn’t going to happen, but just in case, right?’ Well, when they called our name as the winner, it was actually the guys from Slaughter because they had won it the year before. The other guys in my band panicked! They were like ‘Oh my gosh! You do it!’ So they gave the responsibility to me to name all the names when we got up there. I don’t know if you’ve ever watched it on video tape or from the night of the show…”
When I asked Bill about this story, he had a somewhat different perspective on that event. “As I recall, we all wanted to speak, but we were told by our manager that if we were to win, we’d have very limited time and they would cut us off if we took too long,” Leverty told me. “We all voted for CJ to be our spokesman because he’s our lead singer and really good at talking to the audience.”
“It was awesome! I remember meeting so many great people that night who were pulling for us and we won,” he continues. “We couldn’t believe it. The ballots had gone out before those other bands had blown up so the timing was everything.”
Much has been said about the animosity between the Grunge and Hair bands of the time, with the former saying that the latter were superficial, manufactured Rock and the latter saying that the former were just glorifying depression. Regardless of what’s been said and done between these two camps, Bill Leverty told me he holds no animosity or ill will towards the Grunge bands:
“I liked a lot of those bands, especially Soundgarden. We were disappointed in the industry people who completely turned their backs on our genre while they embraced grunge. There were some who didn’t, don’t get me wrong, but it became a really tough time for bands of our genre to get airplay.”
FireHouse would go on to achieve more commercial and critical success with their 1992 follow-up album, Hold Your Fire, and despite Grunge taking a huge toll in the Hard Rock scene in the 90s, the band carried on, still doing very well in other countries and they kept on touring throughout the years, without breaking up or leaving the music business as a whole.
“I think that our fans are responsible for that,” Bill said to me when I asked him why he thinks FireHouse endured even during the Grunge years. “They’ve stuck with us through thick & thin. As a band, we all want the same thing: longevity, which is something that you really have to work at to achieve in this business on and off the stage. Without the fans, longevity isn’t possible, no matter how hard you try.”
FireHouse is still touring to this day while Bill has enjoyed a solo career, with his recent album, 2020’s Divided We Fall, being a very good record that truly deserves more attention, and C.J. has a more Metal-based group, Rubicon Cross, in which he has shown the influence of Maiden, Priest and many other groups in his musical upbringing. Michael Foster has done drum clinics, filled-in for drummer Steven Sweet of Warrant in their 2012-2013 tour and has remained with FireHouse throughout the years, constantly delivering the types of shows that longtime fans want to listen from them. Perry Richardson, while no longer in the band since the year 2000, joined 80s titans, Stryper, in the bassist role and he has been delivering great performances with that group.
Cover of FireHouse’s debut album.
And it all started with that 1990 self-titled debut, which quickly became a classic of the genre and gave them the opportunity to live their dreams.
“That’s easy,” David said when I asked him about how the album’s success influenced his career. “Without the FireHouse debut, there would be no record producer named David Prater. Imagine that…”
“No. I think of it as a snapshot in time, and even today, I like the way it makes me feel,” Leverty said to me when I asked him if his perception of the album has changed throughout the years. “I love playing these songs. I hope I get to play them for another 30 years!”