I promised Zombieslayer a post about my short venture into the world of record producers, fusion guitarists, “shred-heads” and, of course, those vultures who bring all fun to a halt — lawyers and record distributors. Dear ZS… I hope this meets with your approval.
One day sometime in 1990, I believe, I came home from work and Denise told me she had met some new neighbors and they were real nice. She said that “Mark” produced and recorded music – he was working on a children’s CD. I remember thinking to myself, “So, what’s new… everyone in Nevada City is recording a CD.” Well, we got together for dinner and I met Mark Varney and his charming family. He was a school psychologist and we talked about everything except music. The conversation turned to faith, so we invited them to church. One Sunday, Mark and I were chatting after our gathering and he told me that his brother was a record producer – Mike Varney. I said, “Do you mean Mike Varney of The Nuns?” His mouth dropped open and he said, “You’ve heard of The Nuns?” I said, “Sure, I’m a huge John Cipollina fan.” Well, we were instant pals and began gushing on about shared guitar heroes. he asked if I’d ever heard of Allan Holdsworth. “Sure! Gong and UK!”
As it turned out, Mark had his own record label, Legato Records. He had signed Frank Gambale and was about to produce a CD with Gambale and Holdsworth shredding over some fusion standards, with Chick Corea’s Elektric Band.
Here are some of the highlights of our association with Legato Records:
- Denise became the office and business manager, the FAX machine and phone were in our closet and much of the Legato catalogue resided in our basement!
- As the office and business manager, Denise had a wonderful phone relationship with some of the hottest young guitar talent of the late 80’s and early 90’s. As one unaffected by stardom and fame, she was the perfect “mother figure” to shepherd many a young, aspiring Berklee student through the contract process and into the grinder, er, I mean the music business.
- After proving ourselves competent and discriminating in our taste for searing guitar solos, Mark delegated to us the responsibility of picking up the five or six demo tapes we received daily at the PO Box and screening them. Mark was a busy man. I remember fondly coming home from work and playing speed metal, fusion and other forms of guitorture, full blast as Denise cooked supper.
- I drove Mark to Los Angeles to record Truth in Shredding and we stayed at my in-laws house for the weekend in the studio. I got to carry the master tapes (joy!).
- We found Frank Gambale at his home… he had just finished tiling his bathroom floor… part of a remodel he was doing himself. Frank was absolutely wonderful.
- We sat in the sound booth through the entire recording, with Frank Gambale soloing within a few feet, while the Elektric Band shared the studio. It was recorded live with very few retakes or overdubs.
- Mark and I drove the masters to Allan Holdsworth’s home, where we met his wonderful wife and children. Alan, his wife, Mark and I went out for supper at a posh Indian restaurant in Costa Mesa.
- Alan is a huge brew fan, so I joined him for a beer at his home.
- We left the masters with Alan, who recorded his solos and mixed the final CD in “The Brewery,” his private studio.
Another highlight was going down to the NAMM show in Anaheim in January to hobnob with the industry big-wigs and legendary musicians. I rubbed elbows with John Sebastian, Steve Morse, Neil Schon, Jorma Kaukonen and another hero, Harvey Mandel… In 1993, we got VIP passes to the Ibanez Axe Attack, a jam featuring Steve Vai, Joe Satriani, Shawn Lane, Paul Gilbert, Reb Beach and a few others I don’t recall… Lanny Cordola, perhaps?
But, it was really fun when the guys signed to Legato or appearing on Guitar on the Edge stopped by our booth. For example, here’s Mark with Blues Saraceno. As I recall, he was there with his dad, because he was too young to get his driver’s license. Quite the prodigy! And, he was very nice… In fact, all of the guys we met were smart, focused, polite and a pleasure to work with.
Renowned finger-picker Muriel Anderson was as sweet as could be. She and Denise got along very nicely. She’s also tiny, so we took a photo of her standing next to Mark on a chair.
Mike Varney, Mark’s famous brother and creator of Shrapnel Records dropped by to hand out promotional goodies! The fellow laughing on the left is Todd Duane, my personal favorite of all the guitarists Mark worked with. I spoke to him about his style and he explained that what I described about his music was the result of his being a drummer before he played guitar. He approaches the guitar as a percussion instrument! And, a heck of a nice guy… a real gentleman.
Tom joined Mark and I for this show and we got a photo of him with the legendary, now deceased, Shawn Lane.
But, best of all was our “trophy girl,” Denise. The guys all got a kick, finally meeting the “office manager” from the closet!
Yes, there we have many fond memories of the few years we were “in the music business.” But, the best thing of all was finding lifelong friends in Mark Varney and his family.
Ah, the memories. Would have loved to meet the good folks at Shrapnel records. Unfortunately, our demos never made it your way. We had good songs with bad vocals. I even tried my hand at vocals once because the hardest thing of all in music is to find someone with the voice and charisma to make it, but who’s not a complete jerk.
Thanks for the post. I really hope the Varneys are doing exceptionally well. They tried hard to bring virtuosity to the masses. It seemed to me though that all their talents that they discovered only made it big when they went to established bands, like Blues went to Poison, Marty Friedman went to Megadeth, etc. If I’m not mistaken, wasn’t it Varney who brought Yngwie to America?
Hey, Zombieslayer! Yes, Mike Varney signed Yngwie. Mike is a nice guy and a total genius!
Mark started out as the president of the official Allan Holdsworth fan club. His first find was Frank Gambale, #1 Jazz guitarist for a number of years. Not bad for his first time out. He also did a lot for Shawn Lane and I remember seeing him many times come off the phone, trying to get Shawn to fly out and record. But, Shawn had a phobia about flying and I think he stuck pretty close to Memphis. Mark did a lot for him and was actually happy when he got signed, even though he didn’t get him.
It was the business that drove Mark out… he’s one of the most conscientious people I’ve ever met and there was just too much unethical stuff going on…
That’s too bad. I heard Hunter S Thompson’s comments about the music industry were right on. Sad that the industry is that way, and sometimes, I’m actually glad I didn’t make it in music.
I’ve heard Frank Gambale and Allan Holdsworth. It just amazes me that Mike Varney worked with pretty much the who’s who in the guitar world.
Yes, the business is what drove Mark out and here’s the difference I saw in Mike and Mark… first, I only met Mike a couple of times and Mark would tell me anecdotes about him, so I could be completely wrong. But, it was a matter of personality. Mark was very sensitive to who he worked with, what kind of people they were and how much nonsense he was able to put up with. Mike, from the little I saw or heard, was just “wired” to navigate that world, without getting dirty. Mike Varney seemed to be generous, principled, honorable, very saavy, pragmatic and just tough enough to hold the “bad guys” off at a comfortable difference. So, I think that’s why he worked with the best… the artist was treated well, they were well represented/promoted and Mike was able to do well, too.
It was obvious that Mark really loved and cared for his brother, Mike. Mike was very helpful and Mark only had good to say about him.
There were some other guys, who were fine players and all around nice guys… Brett Garsed and T.J. Helmerich stand out. Brett played with Nelson and took a bit of a ribbing about his “image” during that part of his career. In real life, when the hair was down and he was wearing jeans and shirts with sleeves on them, he was very pleasant.
One final observation… I hope this makes you feel better, ZS. There is an amazing amount of talent out there and, I think, much more originality and unique style than popularly thought. But, so much depends on being at the right place, at the right time. I’m sure you rock… but, it just didn’t happen. I heard somebody tell me this… I wish I remember who it was. They told me that, what you need to do is love the music you play and be content to do it when you can… play on the weekends or teach guitar… things like that. Be the best local band, play with others who simply love the music. As I go looking for the guys I met during that short time, I see them fall into three categories: 1) I can’t find them, because they are gone. 2)They are in a band. Gambale is touring with Chick Corea, back where Mark Varney saw him in the first place. 3) They are teaching/doing session work, perhaps putting out their own CD and they seem to having the time of their life.
Sound familiar? Yeah, I think that’s how it is with just about anything.
P.S. You should hear the band from our church, including Levi of culturezoo, Joe of Average Joe, Melanie — Joes’ wife and Sadie’s husband, Dan. They are joined by Steve, an excellent drummer. They are so good… they are definitely the best band I’ve ever heard, under the category of “rarely practice.” They seem to do it for the Lord and for fun.
Bo, I had a recent chance-meeting with someone of interest at the gym of all places. I attend spin classes and struck up a conversation with a couple I see on a regular basis – really nice people. It came to the subject of what we did for a living and Lonnie told me “I’m in a band”. I went on to ask him “Wow, what’s the name of your band?” (sure I would have no idea of which ban he was in)…and he replies “WAR”. And I respond…”You mean thee WAR?” Turns out it was Lonnie Jordan, founding member/lead vocalist/keyboardist. He went on to tell me he is one of the living members left and has been lucky enough to escape the trappings (drugs, etc); they are still out there performing. Fun, huh?
wow, Donna… that’s an impressive brush with one of “the beautiful people.” Don’t you think it’s their down-to-earth, regular side that keeps them sane and away from all the harmful substances… if they are able to move among regular people.
Amazing, I found this post quite by chance from the google cache! Thanks so much for posting your thoughts. I for one purchased a copy of every CD release that Legato records put out!
Glad you dropped by… I hope you are still enjoying those CDs… I have most of them, but a few slipped away.
Great post. I loved Legato and Shrapnel records. It’s interesting to hear how they operated and how down to earth so many of the players were. I knew Legato wasn’t around for very long but was never sure how much music they really put out. I have a hand-full of their releases like Frank Gambale, Carl Verheyen, and Jon Finn. Does anyone have or know where to locate a listing of their catalog?
Joel… sorry it took so long to comment. I know of no comprehensive listing, although Mark Varney does have the catalogue again, I think. Some of the Gambale and MVP CDs have been reissued. I find them occasionally on eBay and Amazon.com…
I think that’s the best I can do… just search them on the web. Many of the artists have their own sites now, which makes it real easy to get their music….
Hope this helps.
Thanks for the article. Very educational. My family and I take a trip to Memphis every summer. We go to Graceland, Beale Street, the Sun Studio, and then to the blues clubs for the evening. Always a good time!
Awesome… I may be going there in February and then on to Nashville…
How will we apply this to this personal life?