Outside the 716

A respected musician

Robert Berry, known in the music industry

for working with icons like

Greg Kihn and Keith Emerson,

re-imagines the progressive rock band 3

 

© photo by Dave Lepori

    If you are a fan of pop music, odds are good that you have listened to Robert Berry, even if his name isn’t as well known as many of the people he has performed with.

    His diverse body of work spans more than 40 years, playing alongside iconic progressive rock musicians like Keith Emerson and Carl Palmer in 3. The prog pop trio, which released one album in 1988 before disbanding, has experienced an unexpected resurgence during the past several years, rebranding as 3.2. Berry is also a music producer, a solo musician, and has played in bands including The Tubes, Ambrosia, Alliance and The December People.
  He plays bass alongside Greg Kihn, whose 1980s hits include “The Break-Up Song” and “Jeopardy.” Berry is equally comfortable with everything from mariachi music to complex progressive rock. After coming to prominence in the West Coast band Hush in the 1970s, he briefly replaced ex-Genesis guitarist Steve Hackett as a member of GTR, the 1980s supergroup formed by Hackett and Yes guitarist Steve Howe. He is currently producing an album for Los Tigres del Norte, who have been dubbed “The Mexican Beatles.”
   “Music is just music if it’s done right,” Berry reflected. “I’ve strived for that ‘done right’ part by working with so many people and understanding their different styles.”
   Berry was born and raised in California’s Silicon Valley, and began performing live when he was only 12 years old, learning the ropes of the music industry from the grizzled 18-year-olds he played alongside. Even then, he believed in surrounding himself with successful people. As a young man, he studied piano and trumpet, then taught himself guitar and drums. A music major at San Jose State University, he learned to play violin, cello and tuba.
   “I had a backup plan to be a music teacher,” he said. “But I’m the worst teacher on earth because I want to get right to playing ‘Stairway to Heaven.’”
   Based in Campbell, California, a suburb of San Jose, he owns a recording studio, where he can be found five days a week, unless he’s on the road.
   “I’m as busy as I want to be,” he reflected. “And I keep really busy.”
   Every Thursday, Kihn drives more than an hour to collaborate with Berry for writing sessions. The pair have worked together for nearly 15 years. Kihn expects to release a new album next year, with Berry influencing the finished product. Berry is also recording a solo album for Roger Steen from the Tubes, mixing sounds on a Neve console that was built in 1974. (Music fans will recognize the name — a bigger Neve was the subject of Dave Grohl’s documentary Sound City.) Near Berry’s home base are the headquarters for technology companies like Apple, Google, eBay, and Netflix.
   “I have a building with three studios in it,” he said. “My studio has the best of everything, and I rent out the other two. I have the latest Pro Tools. I have 100 guitars, 30 or 40 keyboards, and three drum sets. Because I play music with a lot of people, I need a variety of sounds.”


The first 3
    Progressive rock fans remember the band 3 as Keith Emerson’s project between 1986’s Emerson, Lake & Powell and the reunion of Emerson, Lake & Palmer in 1992. 3 featured Emerson on keyboards, Carl Palmer on drums, and Robert Berry singing and playing bass. Berry wrote or co-wrote five of the eight songs on the initial album, To the Power of Three, including the top-ten hit “Talkin’ Bout.” Despite radio airplay and a successful tour, the band only released one album before breaking up, becoming a footnote in progressive rock history.
   “Emerson, Lake & Palmer stopped working in 1979-80,” explained Bruce Pilato, a former journalist and Palmer’s longtime manager. Based in Rochester, N.Y., Pilato has worked inside the music industry for decades.
   “ELP never really broke up,” Pilato said. “Carl went off and did Asia, and they had a huge album, with three platinum albums in a row, so that was rocking. By 1986, ELP hadn’t been together and decided to re-form. Carl was still contractually signed to Asia to do another album. He told the other guys, ‘If you can wait eight months, I can do it.’ They didn’t want to wait, so they went out with Cozy Powell. They did one album, which was great, but the tour was a financial disaster.”
   Two years later, Pilato said, Emerson wanted to play again, but Lake wasn’t interested.
   “Keith called Carl and said, ‘Do you want to come out with me? We’ll find somebody else and we won’t call it ELP.’ They found Robert Berry and called it 3. They got some attention with a single and an MTV video. They also did a really cool version of ‘Eight Miles High,’ which was a song the Byrds had done. I was still working as a journalist then, so I interviewed them. They did one album and one tour, and along the way did a couple of radio broadcasts — one for a show in New York and another in Boston. Then the band broke up. It was kind of a one-off thing.”
   One reason for the breakup was because Emerson received unexpected criticism, according to Berry.
   “Back in 1988, there was no Internet or widespread email,” Berry explained. “You couldn’t communicate like we do today. Two guys sent letters to the management company. One said Keith was ruining his reputation by playing these (shorter) songs, instead of long ELP songs. Well, Yes was doing it, Genesis was doing it. Everyone had done it. Keith had never done it before, so he was criticized. Carl never got criticized because he had done that with Asia.”
   The other letter writer objected to scantily-clad background singers, who toured with the band and were featured in the video for “Talkin’ Bout.”
   “I don’t know a guy in the progressive rock world who loved ELP, who would care if there was a girl onstage. But it bothered Keith so much that he broke up the band. That’s how fragile he was with criticism. He strived to be the best, and he was. But he always had that little bit of self-doubt.”
   Emerson committed suicide in March 2016 at age 71. Reports linked Emerson’s death to a fear of playing piano during an upcoming concert slate, because he had suffered from nerve damage and carpal tunnel. But Berry believed there were myriad reasons beyond that. He was devastated by his friend’s death on a personal level. Professionally, too. They had been planning a comeback together.


Origins of 3.2
    In 2015, RockBeat Records discovered the 1988 recording of 3 performing live in Boston, and sought permission to release the show as an album.
   “I was approached by RockBeat about releasing that radio broadcast,” Pilato recalled. “I got ahold of the three guys. Keith was still alive. I said ‘I can put a record deal together. They’re going to clean them up and they’ll sound good. Do you want to put them out?’”
   Palmer was on board, and Emerson signed a contract as well, considering it as money in the bank, according to Berry. When management contacted Berry, he recalled jumping up and down, sensing an opportunity for listeners to rediscover the band.
   “I wanted people to see how good we were,” Berry said. Understanding Emerson’s complex memories about the original band, Berry had never brought up the idea of a follow-up album, but admitted, “My dream was to do a second 3 album 27 years later.”
   Cynics might suggest that progressive rock’s heyday peaked in the 1970s. But in Western New York and much of the Northeast, the genre remains popular, despite an aging audience.
   “Yes was a band that I loved early on,” said  Bob Schanbacher, of Angola, N.Y., who plays a guitar with a group that frequently experiences name changes. Most recently, they were known as Picking for You, focusing on classic rock with a folk streak.
   “I remember when I first heard Rush, and my brother was a big fan of Emerson, Lake & Palmer, so I listened to a lot of those albums,” Schanbacher said.
   Now 58, Schanbacher remembers 3’s first album, and has encountered Berry’s name over the years.
   “He’s recognized as a project musician who travels in different circles,” he said. “Berry’s name pops up in a prog band, then he’s doing Christmas music. He’s not a one-trick pony.”
   Jon LaPorta, of Orchard Park, N.Y., has a roundabout connection to Emerson. Approximately 20 years ago, he helped design navigational menu graphics for a concert DVD of Emerson, Lake & Palmer that was released in the early 2000s.
   “I worked for a company called Eastco in Orchard Park that did CDs and DVDs for groups all over the world,” LaPorta said. Pilato, who became ELP’s manager in 1992, hired the company, and brought master tapes to Orchard Park.
   LaPorta, 48, hosts a Spotify podcast called “Lifetrax,” during which guests discuss five influential songs that have shaped their life. He reflected fondly on the experience of designing DVD graphics.
   “We took the images and converted them into artwork,” LaPorta explained. “We designed all that and built the menus. The band loved what we did, so we were invited to Rochester for a rehearsal before they went on the road. I don’t remember where it was held, but it was small and pretty guarded. That was something really fun to do with a legendary act.”
   After the rehearsal, LaPorta’s musician friends spoke with Emerson. But LaPorta talked to Greg Lake, who autographed a $1 bill. LaPorta has saved the keepsake.


Emerson’s excitement
    On the day that the live 3 album was shipped to him, Berry was busy at his studio. That night, he got a call at home from Emerson. The keyboard star lived in Santa Monica, 330 miles down the California coast, and had listened to their live performance for the first time minutes earlier, while sipping wine and reflecting on the past.
   “Robert?” Emerson said, excitement surging through his voice. “We were a really good band.”
   “We talked,” Berry recalled. “He said the jamming was fiery and the solos were open-ended arrangements where we could take off and improvise. ELP didn’t have that because they were more structured. When he heard some of the articulated tempos that Carl and I were playing, he said, ‘I can’t believe how good we were.’”
   For ten years prior to this, Frontiers Records had been asking Berry about the possibility of another 3 album.
   “I took the opportunity and said, ‘Keith, how about doing a follow-up?’” Berry said. “He said ‘Maybe.’ So I called the company and said I have Keith with an open door. Their only request was that it sound like [the original] 3. I negotiated a dream deal for Keith, and called him back.”
   Berry wasn’t being offered as much money as Emerson. When Emerson heard the amount on the table, he was surprised.
   “Who has that kind of money?” Emerson wondered.
   “That struck me as funny at the time,” Berry said. “I told him, ‘You’re Keith Emerson.’ He thought nobody cared anymore. I couldn’t believe that he was doubting whether anybody cared. I said, ‘[The record company] wants you and they want a 3 album. They want what we did. You just called me and said what we did was good.’”
   Berry replied to the record company with a streak of mischief, saying that Emerson would agree to a new 3 album — rebranded 3.2 — but only for an additional $10,000. A deal was struck immediately.
   “Keith never said that, but I just wanted to call him back and say, ‘I got you another $10,000,’” Berry laughed. “He said I should be his manager. He was excited. That’s how it came about and we started working.”


Finishing the project
    The pair began working remotely. While there were discussions about Carl Palmer playing on the album, Palmer was busy with his own band, ELP Legacy, which frequently tours North America. (“They’re incredible,” Berry mused.) He agreed to perform on three tracks, but the record company and artist couldn’t agree on a contract, Berry said.
   “Carl and Robert are good friends,” said Pilato, Palmer’s manager. “When Carl wants to work with other musicians, he’ll sometimes say, ‘We could always call Robert and get him to play bass and sing.’ So that might happen someday down the road.”
   Emerson and Berry began assembling songs remotely via FaceTime.
   “When we worked together again, it was easy,” Berry said. “Keith’s a funny guy and I’m an easygoing guy. It just blossomed. We had six or seven of the nine songs written. He sent me digital files, so I had most of his keyboard parts.”
   Many songs needed to be filled with keyboard solos. Emerson planned to play a few shows in Japan, visit his grandchildren, then travel to Berry’s studio to finalize the recording. He committed suicide before any of that occurred.
   “When he died, it was really rough on me,” Berry admitted. “We were friends and had a hit record and had done a lot of things together. As a keyboard player, he was the best of the best. I wasn’t going to finish the album.”
   Berry’s manager, along with Emerson’s son, Aaron, convinced him otherwise. This was the last work Emerson had done, they argued. The world deserved to hear it. But the Emerson estate would not allow any of Emerson’s keyboard recordings to be used.
   “I threw a fit,” Berry said. “But the Emerson estate had the right to call the shots. Their excuse was that they wanted Keith Emerson to be remembered as a composer.”
   As a classically trained piano player, Berry eventually agreed to rerecord all of Emerson’s keyboard parts himself.
   “It took me months. Keith had done about 60 percent of the album, so I recreated his parts with the exact keyboards, the same sound and feel. And then I had to finish the last 40 percent. I thought, Oh my God, I have to do these solos. How am I going to do that? I came up with a plan to go into a solo section on a Hammond B (organ) with reckless abandon, the way I thought Keith would play it, full of fire. I had worked with Keith for so long that I could do it.”
   While Berry jammed, he realized in the moment that he was making mistakes. After listening to the recording, however, he was encouraged.
   “I thought, that’s exactly how I want it to be, only without the mistakes. So I learned it, then played it again. I’ve always believed that it’s easier to fix an idea than it is to get one. It was exciting to sit back and think, Even though it’s me playing, it’s not me. Where did that come from? It’s special.”
   The 3.2 album, The Rules Have Changed, was released in 2018. Although Emerson had helped create the sound, Berry played all the instruments.
   “It wasn’t my intent to do it all,” Berry reflected.


Working man
    In the fall of 2019, Berry embarked on a nationwide club tour, playing songs from his deep catalog. He recruited fellow musicians Andrew Colyer (keyboards), Paul Keller (who had played guitar on tour with the original 3 back in 1988), and Jimmy Keegan (drums). The success of 3.2 led the record company to ask Berry for a follow-up album. That became Third Impression, released early in 2021. The record company produced a video for the song “A Fond Farewell.”
   There will be no more new 3.2 material, Berry insists.
   “I wasn’t going to do a third in the series,” he reflected. “I had only one (unreleased) song that Keith and I worked on, and it was a big one, at nine minutes long. Once I committed to doing the last record, I said ‘This is it. I can’t do anything more with the 3 name because I’ve used everything I have with Keith.’ It’s a trilogy. Three albums, three names. The first album started with three of us, the second had two of us, and the last one was a little bit of Keith but really just one of us.”

 

© 2021 by Jeff Schober

Visit www.BuffaloTales.net

Free long-form feature stories each month