Brilliant songwriter/musician Gar Francis talks about the Blues, Keith Richards, New York, and his lyrics

"No smoke and mirrors or hiding the truth behind any hidden meanings just put it out there pure and simple and everyone can relate to what you are saying."

Gar Francis: One Music, One Song, One World

Gar Francis (Gary T Venittelli) was born and raised in Plainfield, New Jersey. In the 1960’s Gar started his first band Romeo, Red, Ripper, and Rufus. The 1970’s brought on a new band and Gar’s serious decision to write original music. He formed The Rockids who were a regular at CBGB’s and Max’s Kansas City in Manhattan sharing a stage with The Ramones, Blondie, Talking Heads, Roger McGuinn and many other New York upstarts.

In the early 1980’s after playing all nighters in New York and New Jersey, Gar decided to take a break from live performances and began to focus on songwriting only. Taking a job as a soundman for a local Trenton band, Gar could sit behind the stage and watch and see what made the audience move. After the keyboard player was involved in an auto accident Gar was recruited to fill in on guitar. Seeing an opportunity to get his songs out into the public he began writing songs. The band changed its name to Ricochet.

                                                             Photo by Vanessa Joy Photography

During this period Gar was asked to play a session for some New York friends of his. Playing guitar and singing backup on the recording it was later that Billy Idol’s vocal was overdubbed on the track and it was released as a single. Gerry Ragovoy who wrote songs for Janis Joplin was the producer. He played the Keith Richards role in Rolling Stones tribute band Sticky Fingers. Later he formed the Gar Francis Band. In the new millennium Gar wrote and produced the critically acclaimed blues album “Queen Of Your Dreams” for Blues Diva Jeanne Lozier. Gar was recruited in 2005 to write and play guitar for the Legendary 60’s garage rock band the Doughboys whose debut album (after 40 years) “Is It Now?” 

As a side project Gar wrote and produced two garage blues albums “Another Mule In The Barn” and “When The Devil Hits Home” as Plainfield Slim & The Groundhawgs. In 2010 brought the release of the second Doughboys album and the first Gar Francis folk album “Love & Protest”. In 2012, Gar finished the 3rd album with the Doughboys and his Americana album THE MORE THINGS CHANGE, THE MORE THEY STAY THE SAME; both albums were released on the newly formed Bongo Boy Records. “Shakin' Our Souls” was the 3rd Doughboys album with Gar in guitar and songwriting. In April 2012 Gar has written and produced singles on Bongo Boy Records for regional artists. Gar has been awarded for songwriting: The John Lennon Song Contest, The Unisong Music Awards and an Honorable Mention in the Billboard Song Contest. With all this, Gar still finds time for his first passion, writing songs.

Interview by Michael Limnios

What do you learn about yourself from the music, what does Garage Blues mean to you?

I've learned the truth about myself from music. I've learned that there is a rhythm in my being that controls what I do and how I react to just about everything I do. I've learned that a lot of things I can't verbalize come out in the lyrics I write and the emotions I feel are expressed in the rhythms of these songs I write such as aggression, sadness, happiness etc. As far as Garage Blues, to me it is breaking life and music down to it basics. Again the simplest form of showing your emotions. No smoke and mirrors or hiding the truth behind any hidden meanings just put it out there pure and simple and everyone can relate to what you are saying.

Photo courtesy of  Bongo Boy Records. Gar's is co-owned label with his music manager Monique Grimme

How do you describe Gar Francis sound and progress, what characterize your music philosophy?

I love music to be raw to the point and spontaneous. You can ask the musicians and engineers I work with that I like to capture the feel and emotion in a song as fast as I can before it escapes. Although they may want to tie me to a pole sometimes that is the way I work. Sometimes the musicians don't even have time to totally know the song and I want to hit the record button. I feel the magic is in their instincts not their brain. Most of the guys I play with have been musicians their whole life and even if they don't realize it, I know that their hands know where to go on their instruments just because of the experiences and knowledge they have from all those years or playing. I've learned that you can beat the life out of a song by trying to make it perfect as possible.

What experiences in your life make you a GOOD MUSICIAN and SONGWRITER?

Listening. In a band situation (as my mother used to say) you have to learn how to play well with others. Playing with so many great players through my life has made me appreciate what others have to offer. You can't learn anything if you think you have all the answers and don't pay attention to what other people have to offer. As a songwriter again listening is a major part of the process. I love to just ride around and try and get lost sometimes and just observe the surroundings that I'm in at that moment. There is inspiration everywhere if you just open your eyes and ears.

How/where do you get inspiration for your songs & who were your mentors in songwriting?

Inspiration comes from everywhere. Your life experiences. The funny thing I've just come to realize is that when you are a young songwriter you tend to write about things to come and how to get the girl. As you get older you tend to reminisce about the memories and write about how you lost that girl. haha.

My mentors are just about every songwriter I've come across but the main ones would have to be the old blues and folk guys, the Beatles for melody, the Stones for the grease, and Bob Dylan for his lyrics.

Gar with his acoustic band playing Americana Folk music live at SHOWTIME, New Jersey. Lee Fink, Gar, Mike Caruso, Rocco Scavone. Photo by J.R. Teller

What the difference and similarity between the BLUES, AMERICANA, and GARAGE ROCK feeling?

The differences between the genres are the accents. The similarities are it all comes from the same place. When you break them all down they all have the same beginning. It started with someone banging on a log. Just like it started with me as a kid getting yelled at for banging on the dining room table at dinner time.

Which was the best moment of your career and which was the worst?

The best moment in my career was realizing I had the confidence in myself to be as good as I wanted to be. Joining the Doughboys was a big step. They were the guys I looked up to in high school (they being a couple of years older then me). I found myself standing toe to toe with them and knowing I had something to offer a band of this caliper. Every musician has limitations and when you accept that and work off your strong points you can achieve anything you want. The worst part of my career was when I didn't have the confidence and always second guessing myself. All the other stuff was just icing on the cake, playing shows with the Yardbirds, the Pretenders, Robin Trower, Roberta Flack, etc.

What is the “feel” you miss most nowadays from the 60s feeling, and Romeo, Red, Ripper & Rufus era?

Oh my God? Romeo Red Ripper and Rufus. I can hear the laughing now. The sixties was a very special time with music exploding everywhere. What I remember the most was just sitting in someone's backyard playing guitar and singing songs for no other reason then having fun. No expectations about making it in the business or marketing plans or promoting yourself just singing songs for our own enjoyment. That is what I am trying to get back to, that feeling of innocence of music.

Why did you think that Keith Richards and Rolling Stones continues to generate such a devoted following?

Keith Richards does everything from the heart and people can feel that. He is the epitome of Rock & Roll. (He looks a lot like my dad that's why I relate to him) haha

(Gar Francis during the reunion of the Rolling Stone Tribute band "Sticky Fingers" Summer 2012)

Photo Courtesy of Bongo Boy Records)

Which memory from tribute band Sticky Fingers makes you smile?

All of them. That band captured the vibe of the Rolling Stones in their souls. Plus we had the limos, the bodyguards, the wine women and song. The reason we stopped doing it was we were losing our own identities. It was great being called "Keef" in the beginning but that is not why I got into music. I wanted to be a songwriter not an imitation of a character.

How has the music business changed over the years since you first started in music?

Technology. You can make a record in your bedroom. But you can't get the same feeling of a bunch of guys or girls in one room all together making great music. The business part of music always sucked and still does except now you have more control over what exactly you want to do with your career. There are thousands of bands nowadays and only a hand full of superstars but if you are happy making your own kind of music you now have the materials to do it at a lower cost because of technology.

What advice would you give to aspiring musicians thinking of pursuing a career in the craft?

Persistence, and do it for the love of making music not money. If the money comes great but that should not be the reason for making music. If your only concern for making music is the money put on a Mickey Mouse costume grab your guitar and go to Disneyland.

Are there any memories from Doughboys, which you’d like to share with us?

The making of the first album was a big high for me. To accomplish that was such a great feeling. A band that started in the 60's that deserved to establish their contribution to this music was gigantic for me. We have become this very tight family and we fight like all families but we also laugh a lot and have many good times. They have become great friends for me. We have this common thread coming from the same place that can't really be torn.

"We have become this very tight family and we fight like all families but we also laugh a lot and have many good times." Photo courtesy of Bongo Boy Records

From whom have you have learned the most secrets about the music?

Well that's why it took me so long to get here. In the past ten years or so I started going back into history and researched the old blues and folk singers. I had to discover for myself the secrets in music. I never got it as a kid. The secret to music is anyone can do it. You can bang on a rock and that is music.

What’s the best jam you ever played in? What are some of the most memorable gigs you've had?

I don't really like jams. They are too self-indulgent for me. Who can play faster, who can play louder, who needs it. I like it short and sweet. The best gigs for me were any gig I walked off a stage with a smile on my face. Way too many to remember. I've shared a stage with the Ramones, Talking Heads, Roger McGuinn, Pretenders, Yardbirds, etc and some not so famous players that never made it to the big time but are just as memorable.

Do you have any amusing tales to tell from The Rockids and your experience at CBGB with Ramones, Blondie, and Roger McGuinn?

I was 19 or 20 when I first walked into CBGB's. It was scary. It was a very narrow bar and as I was walking towards the stage to set up my gear there were a bunch of bikers at the bar telling stories and having a laugh. Well just as I was walking past them one of the bikers who had a captain hook type of artificial arm was telling this story of how big something was and when he opened his arms he hit me square in the stomach which cause me to lose my breathe. As I was trying to catch my breath I just looked at the row of bikers and said "no problem, it's cool". Me being about 110 lbs and a row of burly biker dudes what was I going to say? I later loved playing CBGB's. I recently went to a museum in New York City and they had parts of the club on display. It made me realize that I was a part of that scenes history whereas when I was there in the 70's it looked like a rat hole. You never know what you are a part of.

When talk about blues and rock, we usually refer to memories and moments of the past. Apart from the old cats, do you believe in the existence of real blues rock nowadays?

There is an existence in real blues today you just have to look for it. There are far too many showboats out there today. Every guy with a souped up guitar playing 100 miles an hour doesn't make it for me. The real guys feel it in their soul not their fingers. I'm not putting anyone down but how can you beat Howling Wolf? I know there are some new kids with old school hearts out there playing somewhere. Have you heard Plainfield Slim & The Groundhawgs?

Gar also known as the Blues musician Plainfield Slim during the taping of NYROCKS TV show at Comcast Television. Photo courtesy of Bongo Boy Records

Some music styles can be fads but the blues rock is always with us. Why do think that is?

It is a very true form of music. It is the very foundation of which rock and roll was built on. If the foundation goes the house falls down.

Do you know why the New York City is connected to the underground avant-garde garage culture?

There are so many crazy people here. Like I said before anyone can create music or art. It is all around us. Sometimes someone's crazy idea turns into a new movement. I've seen it a thousand times in the 60's. Anything can be accepted in the right time. New Yorkers see it all the time. Just walk down the street.

What are some of the most memorable meets and of all the people you’ve meet, who do you admire the most?

I was just telling the band about the time I meet Hogey Carmichael at a party when I was starting out in the music business. I was so impressed because he was the songwriter that wrote Stardust, my parents wedding song. The second one was an almost meet. I was driving in NY looking for a parking spot when I saw Keith Richards walking down the street with his wife Patty Hansen. I began blowing the horn and waving at him like he would know who I was. I admire Keith for who he is and for his contribution to the music world and for always sticking to his guns. Literally.

Gar Francis - Official website

Bongo Boy Records, is the record company Gar and Monique Grimme started and currently. Bongo Boy's roster have artists like legendary 60's Rocker Genya Ravan from Goldie and The Gingerbreads and the latest Mark Lindsay (Paul Revere and The Raiders). Photo by Barry Davis

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