Blue Cheer Metal Monster Guitar Giant

By Dr. Alan Carlos Hernandez on April 8, 2013

HOLLYWOOD (Herald de Paris) — ¬†Blue Cheer was an American¬†rock¬†band that initially performed and recorded in the late 1960s and early 1970s and was sporadically active until 2009. Based in¬†San Francisco, Blue Cheer played in a¬†psychedelic¬†blues/ rock¬†style and is also credited as being pioneers of¬†heavy metal¬†(their cover of “Summertime Blues” is sometimes cited as the first in that genre),¬†punk rock,¬†stoner rock, doom metal¬†and¬†experimental rock.
Jim Morrison¬†of¬†The Doors¬†called the group, “The single most powerful band I’ve ever seen.‚ÄĚ
According to Tim Hills in his book¬†The Many Lives of the Crystal Ballroom:¬†“Blue Cheer was the epitome of San Francisco psychedelia. The band is said to have been named after a street brand of¬†LSD¬†and promoted by renowned LSD chemist and formerGrateful Dead¬†patron,¬†Owsley Stanley.”
Blue Cheer came together in 1967. The formation of the band was organized by Eric Albronda and Jerry Russell, music aficionados who wanted to become involved in the San Francisco music scene of the 1960s. Both moved with Dickie Peterson from Davis, California to San Francisco.
The original Blue Cheer personnel were¬†singer/bassist¬†Dickie Peterson,¬†guitarist¬†Leigh Stephens¬†and Eric Albronda as¬†drummer. Albronda was later replaced by Paul Whaley, who was joined by Dickie’s brother Jerre Peterson (guitar), Vale Hamanaka (keyboards), and Jerry Whiting (vocals,¬†harmonica). Albronda continued his association with Blue Cheer as a member of Blue Cheer management, as well as being the producer and co-producer of five Blue Cheer albums.
The band was managed by an ex-member of the¬†Hells Angels¬†named Gut Turk. Early on, it was decided that the lineup should be trimmed down. It is said that Blue Cheer decided to adopt a¬†power trio¬†configuration after seeing¬†Jimi Hendrix¬†perform at the¬†Monterey Pop Festival. Hamanaka and Whiting were asked to leave. Jerre Peterson didn’t want to remain in the group without them so he departed as well leaving Dickie, Leigh and Paul as a trio. Their first hit was a¬†cover version¬†of¬†Eddie Cochran’s “Summertime Blues” from their debut album¬†Vincebus Eruptum (1968).

The single peaked at¬†number 14 on the¬†Billboard Hot 100¬†chart, their only such hit, and the album peaked at¬†number 11 on theBillboard 200¬†chart. In Canada, the song peaked at number 3 on the¬†RPM Magazine¬†charts. The group’s sound was hard to categorize, but was definitely¬†blues-based, loud and¬†psychedelic.


Herald de Paris Deputy Managing Editor Dr. Al Carlos Hernandez was introduced to Blue Cheer founding lead guitar player Leigh Stephens by great friend, actress Maria Richwine. (Abrazos Maria)  Leigh is a man of few words but a whole lotta metal…

AC: When was the first time you picked up a guitar and decided to play it? What kind of music did you listen to while growing up? Typical childhood? Any musicians in the Family?

When I was a kid my mother always had country swing on the radio. Typical middle class American household. My father liked to mess around with the sax, my mother liked the piano. They bought me a guitar for my 12th birthday.

AC: Who was your guitar hero back then? I understand you were heavily into the blues.

I started following Duane Eddy, The Ventures, Dick Dale, The Beach Boys, Freddy King and Jimmy Reed. I suppose at the time it was the guitar bands that I mostly listened to.

AC: Why blues?

Well, when you listened to surf and country then along comes the blues, you have to pay attention. I remember a girlfriend brought home a Jimmy Reed record and I was hooked.

AC: Who was your greatest supporter?

Friends and family were the biggest supporters.

AC: Why the Bay Area? What was the Bay Area like for you during your tenure with the band from ’66 until ’69?

I was born in San Francisco but grew up in Fairfield. After my first trip back to the Bay Area to the Fillmore, I just packed up and moved back. I had to be there. The music was incredible.

AC: I understand Blue Cheer started out as a five piece blues band. Was this in the Bay Area? What kind of gigs did the blues band do around town?

Blue Cheer was a five piece blues band. In the beginning Bill Graham would not hire us but he did turn us on to Chet Helms at the Avalon Ballroom. Chet hired us as a five piece blues band. We played locally at clubs like the Matrix.

AC: Legend has it that your manager was Gut Turk, a Hells Angel. What kind of guy was he? Did he help or hurt the band in the beginning?

Gut was a really good guy and helped us immensely. He had a head shop called Joint Ventures in the Mission district and let us rehearse in the basement. He introduced us to Owsley, Ken Kesey, Neil Cassidy and all the Merry Pranksters and Hells Angels.

AC: I’m told that he named the band Blue Cheer after some Owsley LSD. Was it a ‘Summer of Love’ type marketing idea?

No. Gut brought Owsley over one day and he had just completed a batch of his new LSD called Blue Cheer. Owsley suggested we name our band after it. We did.

AC: I also understand that you where 100% drug free. Did the pervasive use of drugs around that time inspire you to cut the band from five to a three piece band?

No, we cut the band down to three because three of us wanted to go a different direction. Gut and I were just pot smokers, the other band members got heavily into hard drugs which ultimately led to the split up. I was asked to leave and then Gut was asked to leave.

In retrospect I am glad it happened. You have no idea what it’s like to be playing at the Fillmore and the drummer stops to throw up on stage because he just got off before the set. I had had enough. Totally embarrassing as well as a total turn off for the audience. It happened more than once.

AC: Your influences include Clapton, Bloomfield, Buddy Guy and Hendrix Рall of those cats were blues based. Why did you play a blues style when the SF groups like The Airplane and others (who were making a ton of money) were doing Psychedelic stuff?

We started playing blues but it morphed into this scrambled psychedelic mishmash.

AC: Who chose the tune Summertime Blues? Legend has it that when you cranked your amps up to 11 and laid it down, people actually moved back from the stage. Is that true? Why the volume?

The volume thing just happened. We ordered a lot of amps and used them all. Yeah we played the Steve Allen Show in Hollywood and the audience visibly whiplashed. It was Dickie’s brother’s idea to do Summertime Blues. We played all over the Bay Area. The Avalon, The Fillmore and California Hall.

AC: When Summertime Blues hit, you started touring nationally. Tell us about playing with Hendrix in LA and Florida?

We played with Hendrix at the Shrine in L.A. Our entire set he sat stage right filming the whole thing. He filmed everything. It was quite intimidating. Florida was fun.

AC: Is it true that you were billed over Pink Floyd in LA? What was that like?

Yeah we played the Shrine with Jeff Beck and Pink Floyd. The only reason we were top billed is that we were the only ones with a hit at that moment.

AC: I know it’s not true, but people believe that as rock stars of that era you made a ton of money…

We never made any money. Only enough to eat and keep the machine going to tour. We were ripped off right and left.

AC: What about going to England?

I went to England to check out the music scene. One day there was a knock on the hotel room door and it was Mickey Waller (Jeff Beck group). I don’t know how he found me but he ended up introducing me to Ronnie Wood, Rod Stewart, Keith Emerson, Ian Stewart (played with the Stones and ran their rehearsal hall) and basically everyone else you could think of.

I was pretty shy at that time and never would have met these people without Mickey. Came back later to record the Silver Metre album with Mickey and Pete Sears. Spent almost five years over there but got tired of the weather and missed San Francisco.

AC: How dramatically did fame and a little fortune change the way you lived your life?

Fame is subjective. Compared to my next door neighbor, I am famous. Compared to Paul McCartney, I don’t exist. There was no fortune.

AC: What is more dangerous: addiction to fame or addiction to substances?

I think both are equally as dangerous. I, fortunately, don’t have an addictive personality.

AC: Cats like Roger Waters, Hendrix, and Jeff Beck were your peers back then. Why do you think they went on to superstardom while Blue Cheer, with similar potential, kind of went away?

Well, if Blue Cheer had stuck together in its original form it would have eventually developed into something better and reached new heights. I mean, have you heard Pink Floyd back in those days before Dark Side? It takes time. Hendrix was already there. Beck was already there.

AC: You were in Blue Cheer from ’66 to ’69. What recording do you think is your best work?

I don’t take any pride in any Blue Cheer recordings.

AC: You quit the band to do two solo albums. How did the solo efforts do?

Not so good. I had no direction.

AC: How do you feel about your Cheer guitar work influencing a new generation of hard rockers such as Nebula, Swedish Maniacs and the Hellacopters (who reference your punk/acid/metal style)?

I am always amazed by the people that I influenced. I had no idea.

AC: Many people feel that you invented the heavy metal style of music. How much do you think your work has influenced the rock music of today? Can you hear any signature riffs in any other guitar players?

Oh yeah, I hear a lot of us in other people. I believe that we were, in some way, responsible for metal.

AC: Who are some of the contemporary acts you listen too?

I have not listened to anyone for a couple of years while I was recording this latest CD. I wanted it to come from inside me as a tribute to all the old guitar players that made me want to give it a go.

AC: How do you feel about the Blue Cheer tribute bands (such as Italy’s Black Widows) records?

I am not aware of any of these bands but if they are having fun…

AC: Why did you leave the music scene?

I went to work in the movies in special effects. I have always been an artist so I wanted to explore something else. I have worked on several really good movies. Dances With Wolves, The Abyss, and Honey I Shrunk The Kids to name a few. It was a lot of fun.

AC: You have a significant presence on Facebook and new media. How do you feel about new and social media¬†–¬†does it change the way you market your new projects?

I have some ambivalence regarding social media. In some respects you can reconnect with old friends that have drifted away but in others I think it acts as more of an anti-social device, leaving people lacking in face-to-face social skills and becoming posters and tweeters with virtually no real human contact. As far as marketing, the internet is downloads and it helps there, but then again you don’t get the contact with a real CD cover with liner notes etc. I am not sure it helps that much.

AC: What kinds of things are you working on right now? Still Gigging?

I just finished ‚ÄúA Rocket Down Falcon Street‚ÄĚ – my new instrumental¬†CD with guests Pete Sears (from Silver Metre, Jefferson Starship, and Moon Alice), Johnny Colla (from Huey Lewis and The News), Fred Rautman (from the Candye Kane Blues band), Melissa Olsen (from the Kate Gaffney band), Eric Chun (from David Hasselhoff) and many more. You can go towww.leighstephens.net and listen to samples of the new CD. If you like it you can purchase it there also.

AC: What advice would you give to young people who want to pursue a career as a serious lead guitar player?

Practice, practice, practice. Find your own style.

AC: How can people get in touch and interact with you?

I can be found at www.leighstephens.net

edited by Susan Acieves


Comments
Maria April 9, 2013

WOW!!!. Al Carlos, thanks so much for the interview….how wonderful to see my old friend, Leigh – still making great music!! I hope that everyone has the opportunity to hear this new CD – Brilliant!
~Maria
XOXO

Thomas Sauve April 9, 2013

Al Carlos, Thank you so much for your interview with Leigh. Leigh (and Maria!) have been friends of mine for almost 40 years. I have always found Leigh to be, not only, an amazing talent but also humble to a fault. His efforts and connections from his time after Blue Cheer are a who’s who of (especially British) rock & roll. With all of that, he is still surprised by, and incredibly appreciative of, the fans and followers of his music. Thanks again. Well done! Thomas Sauve

Johnny Kirby November 27, 2013

Hey Leigh, Thanks for posting your stories. I saw Blue Cheer at Filmore West when you headlined. Ike and Tina Turner Revue and Freddie King opened. I will never forget that show. I made it a point to see Silver Metre when you opened for Quicksilver (Dino version) at the Fillmore West. Great band you had. Ole mickey waller was one of my favorite drummers. I think you wore some kind of red velvet cape that night. Cheers to you, J.C Kirby.

Elia Esparza August 4, 2014

Wonderful interview, Dr. Hernandez! I‚Äôve never really been into Blue Cheer I am into learning what drives passionate and talented geniuses like Leigh. And, I‚Äôve always had a soft spot for lead guitarist. Thanks for the advice, Leigh: ‚ÄúPractice, practice, practice. Find your own style.”

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