Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Sparks Drummer Project (4): Hilly Michaels, 1976

"It was heavenly being able to play with one of my most favorite bands in the world."

This is the fourth installment of my conversations with the individuals that have drummed with the band Sparks (as well as their predecessor band, Halfnelson). The first three are with David KendrickHarley Feinstein, and John Mendelssohn.  Recently, I spoke with Hilly Michaels, who drummed with Sparks on the 1976 Big Beat album, as well as the subsequent tour. Hilly has had a remarkable career working with Sparks, Mick Ronson, and other rock luminaries, and he remains active in music today, planning a summer release of newly recorded material. His official Facebook page  is essential to check out, as a good deal of his music can be referenced there. Also highly recommended is his Electronic Press Kit, which summarizes his career through 2013.

Hilly  was a fan of Sparks before he became a member - he had heard their early single "Wonder Girl" on the radio in 1972 and loved it, and after seeing them on television in 1975, knew that he hoped to play with them one day. He is a true gentleman appreciative of the opportunities he has had, and just as enthusiastic about the future too. He brings an intriguing combination of power and technical skill to Big Beat, and I am grateful to Hilly for sharing some time with me.

Two important notes: First, this link to Big Beat, as well as the one above, are to the 2006 remastered version. This is important; the production on the original album, as Hilly and I discuss, was subpar; on the 2006 version, one can truly appreciate the majesty of Hilly's drumming. And I do not use that word lightly. Second, I want to thank Thomas Ferranti for all his assistance is coordinating this interview.

Early Influences

Monte: What inspired you to become a drummer, and who were some of your early influences?

Hilly: When I was about 11 my parents went to the Bahamas and they brought me back a pair of Bongos. I remember grabbing two unused pencils and using the rubber parts as the tip of a stick, and putting the bongos between my legs and played along with music. When I was about 13 my folks broke down and bought me a vintage, grey, mother of pearl Ludwig drum set.

A friend of mine played guitar, he was only 13 too and he would bring an amplifier to my house, where my drums were set up. It was just one microphone and one rhythm guitar, all going through the same crappy little amp, and my drums.  He would come over every day for about a year, and we used to jam for hours and hours. Lot of British Invasion, all kinds of songs. It was the greatest workout I had in my life.

I had some great teachers like Andy Newmark. He was a top session drummer and he gave me some golden words of wisdom in the early 1970s. He pointed to a metronome, and said “Hilly this has got to be your best friend.”

He showed me some warmup exercises, some rudiments – we started off with a single stroke, then a double, now a flam, and it got more and more complex. Before every Sparks show, I’d be in my hotel room exercising with two really heavy drumsticks, which is much harder to do. So when I actually used a lighter set of sticks, it was a breeze. I was all warmed up and I took Andy’s advice.

The other guy that gave me more than words of wisdom is the Reverend Patrick Henderson. I co-wrote a song with him on one of Michael Bolton’s records called ‘Every Day of my Life.” He toured with Leon Russell, very Pentecostal playing, and really focused on my drumming. He’d say, “you’re almost perfect, you’re almost there on the sweet spot, when you are changing from regular time to half time you’re slowing up a bit, watch that…” and he was my mentor for six, seven months, during the time we were both playing with Cherry Vanilla. He was her keyboard player.

(A critical) stage was joining Cherry Vanilla’s band, and working with this fellow Patrick, and some other brilliant  musicians she had in the band. I played with Cherry Vanilla for a good year. We were like a house band at Trudy Haller’s in New York City. We’d play twice a week for months and months. I literally would sweat my ass off. It was balls to the wall backing her up. Without Cherry Vanilla there would be no Hilly Michaels.

Joining Sparks

Monte: How did you become a member of Sparks?
Hilly In The Sparks Days

Hilly: When I was playing with Cherry Vanilla, all kinds of luminaries would come down, like Lou Reed, Ian Hunter, Mick Ronson...It was very Bowie-ish, Andy Warhol flavored, crazy stuff.  After one show, Mick Ronson comes into the dressing room, and he puts his arm around me and says, “Hilly, your drumming is great, why don’t you be my drummer? And he said, “Hilly, why are you wearing so much makeup? I never wore so much makeup when I was playing with David!” He was laughing and laughing.

We ended up being very good friends. I ended up moving into a brownstone in the West Village with him and his wife Susie, and our friend Danny Shay. It was a four story brownstone with a rehearsal room on the first floor, and Mick more of less invited me to start a band. While we were doing this, one afternoon the buzzer went off and our friend says, “Hey Ronson, it’s those Sparks guys!” I guess Mick knew they were coming over, I didn’t have a clue.

We were sitting around talking, and Sal Maida from Roxy Music and Milk and Cookies was with them. Joseph Fleury was acting as their helper – John Hewlett was their manager. Russell said to Mick, “we really want you to play lead guitar with us. We want you to produce the record. We just got signed to Columbia.”

It was so surreal to me because I was with two of my musical heroes, Mick Ronson and Sparks. Russell said, do you have a place to play?” And Mick said, “yeah, we have a full rehearsal room on the first floor.” And Russell said, “do you have any drummers around?” And Mick said, “my drummer! Hilly! He’s great!” So Russell said, let’s go jam through some of our new material.” Mick took charge, and he came up with these amazing guitar parts, and everyone had their tape recorders going.

The energy and the potential that we experienced playing this Sparks material with Mick at the leader – it sounded absolutely amazing.

Jeff Salen
Ron and Russell were very intent on having Mick join the band. But Mick didn’t know this. He said, “yeah, I love the material, we sounded great, and I’d love to produce you.”

The following day Mick was kind of meandering around the house. He said, “well, I just got a phone call from Sparks management and they want me to join the band as their guitar player, in addition to producing the record.  They’d love to have me produce, but only if I commit to joining the band.  (They said that) there’s no one who can do my riffs and style.” But he said “no – I don’t want to go on tour with Sparks.  I’m working on my own band – with you!”

Now, I hadn’t even been asked to join the band at that time. Nothing was mentioned to me. I just chalked it up as an amazing day. It was definitely one of the greatest highlights of my life.

I received a phone call a couple days later from John Hewlett.  He said that Ron and Russell would like me to drum on the record, but they also insist that I join the band. I felt like I was stuck between a rock and a hard place because my allegiance had been to Mick for a year and a half, looking to put the band together. So I said, “okay count me in unless I have a problem with Mick about this.”

So the next time I was in New York I said to Mick, “I got a phone call from Sparks management. They want me to play on the record but they also insist I play drums with them to support the record. I feel bad about saying yes unless I have your blessing.” Mick says, “Hilly, play with Sparks. Don’t worry about it. Go do it. You’ve never done a major tour like that. It’ll be good for you and you have my blessings. Go do it.” That was the deciding factor in this. Mick was one of the most kind, generous, warm hearted people I ever met in my life.

Monte: How was the rest of the Big Beat band formed?

Hilly: They said they were going to use Sal (on bass). And I asked, “who’s going to be the lead guitar player?” They said, “we know this guy, Jeff Salen, from Tuff Darts.” We went into the rehearsals and we started digging into the songs – but always referring back to the tapes. But we didn’t want to inundate him with Mick Ronson’s stuff. He was already nervous trying to fill Mick’s shoes.

Sal Maida
Monte: He does a great job on the album.

Hilly: I think so too!

Monte: How did Rupert Holmes end up in the picture?

Hilly: Russell really wanted to do this big lush production of I Want To Hold Your Hand with Marianne Faithfull. She backed out and they ended up cutting it with just Russell singing it. (Rupert Holmes scored the music).

Now, I have all the respect in the world for Rupert Holmes. He helped me get my recording deal with Warner Brothers. He helped me out with my demos, a super nice, talented guy. But when I found out he was going to be the producer, it just didn’t make any sense.

(When)  he showed up for rehearsal, the first thing he did was, he sat on my drum riser and all he did was listen to my snare and my kick drum for a few songs. He got up when we were done and he said “Hilly, you’re a monster drummer. Your kick and your snare are right on the money. It’s a pleasure, I’m really happy you’re the drummer, and you and Sal sound fantastic together. In fact the whole band sounds great together.” And, he ended up producing it.

It was a certain time, with punk – things were happening so fast. Music history was flying by in months. We told Rupert, ‘we want to rock out!” and I had just purchased these huge, black, Ludwig drums, over-sized tom-toms, floor tom-toms, in fact I went to the Zildjian (cymbal) factory and picked out my own cymbals.  The drums sounded like cannons at rehearsal, they sounded amazing. Media Sound (Studio) used to be a big church. Lots of old wood, just enough fabric in there, room dividers, it sounded like Krakatoa! And one day Rupert says, “we’re done! And he said, (the engineers and I) are gonna mix it, and we’ll have you down in a couple days and have you listen to it.”

So 24 hours later they invited us back to the playback room, and said “ok guys, have a listen,”  and Big Boy starts, and about 20 seconds into the song, both Sal and I stare at one another and we’re tilting our heads, like “what’s going on here? What happened to the thunderous drum sounds?”

Rupert chose to heavily compress the drums. I love the sound of the bass. It’s a monster bass sound he got for Sal, especially on Confusion, what an amazing bass sound. Russell sounded great, one or two takes to do a vocal.  We’re listening and Rupert turns to us and says, “what do you guys think?” I’m not sure anybody jumped up and down and said, “unbelievable!” It was more like, “yeah, it sounds good….” Of course, you don’t want to put anybody on the spot, and I was in no position to criticize him on his production techniques.

Monte: What is “compression?”

Hilly:  Compression will make huge sounding drums sound a bit small. It’s my opinion that it was over-compressed. My drums did not sound like that (in rehearsals), they sounded monster, but Sal and I just said, "as long as Ron and Russell are happy with it, what do we know? Maybe Rupert had stumbled on something genius with this mix, I don’t know."

Monte: The songs are great, but the album doesn't reach its potential because of the production, in my opinion.

Hilly: I agree with you.

Monte: In the recording, were some of the songs particularly interesting for you to record?

Hilly: Sal and I had the same influences. One was Badfinger, and we borrowed a lot of grooves and beats, as if Badfinger were playing it. I was trying to assimilate what Dinky Diamond might have played with a combination of what Badfinger’s drummer might play, and Ringo of course, and my Pentecostal friend, the keyboard player, keeping it a little funky here and there.

Monte: I assume that Ron and Russell had fairly specific parts in mind for all the instruments?

Hilly: They laid the foundation for the feel that they were hoping to end up with. They really helped us with guidance. But they gave us so much room on the leash. It was remarkable. It was heavenly being able to play with one of my most favorite bands in the world, and actually being able to flesh out songs for Big Beat with them, and then hanging out with them.

They gave me the name Hilly Boy as well. They changed my image completely. Russell said, we’re going to cut off all your hair, and we’re going to turn you into a character. Let’s call you “Hilly Boy!” Next thing I know I’m getting my hair hennaed purple. We had a great rapport and we became very cool friends..

Monte: On songs like Fill Er Up and Everybody’s Stupid, you used a double bass drum, I believe?

Hilly: No. I only use one kick drum.

Monte. Hm! So in Everybody’s Stupid, where you have that amazingly precise kick drum accompanying the verses, it’s just one and not two?

Hilly: Yep.

Monte: That is amazing to be able to do that with such precision.

Hilly: Thanks!


The Touring Band
Hilly: After we did the record with Rupert, we flew out to Los Angeles and we found guitarist Luke Zamperini, and we had our touring band set. Jeff Salen didn’t want to go to LA and rehearse for personal reasons.  We found (guitarist) Jimmy McAllister (in New York). Ron and Russell just fell in love with his playing.  (The guitarists) were only interested in hanging around the motel, or going out and getting completely drunk or plastered and trying to pick up women. Not so much Sal…but I wanted nothing to do with it. I was popping protein pills and eating health foods and taking vitamin supplements and working out, and not drinking at all. And Ron and Russell caught on to that. I’d get a phone call, “hey it’s Russell, Ron is going to pick me up, we’re going to see this Ingmar Bergman film, and then get some bagels and ricotta cheese at the Farmer’s Market, want to come?" I would always say yes!

That continued throughout the tour. We would hit a different city and Ron would rent a car and we’d site see, or go to these novelty stores and buy wind-up cars and crazy post cards from the 1950s. Russell was a collector of odd, little seen items like that, from the 40s and the 50s. So, for many months, I had the immense pleasure of hanging out with Ronnie and Russell and I couldn't ask to hang around with two nicer guys.

Monte: Any anecdotes you remember from the tour?

Hilly: We were playing the bottom line for all these Columbia Records executives, and they had a long table that started at the stage and went back, you could sit 12 people at this table. At the end of Big Boy, Ron had this bit where he would take his piano bench and break it on stage; he’d go crazy like Pete Townsend.  We were watching him winding up the song, and going crazy with his piano bench, and Ron lost his footing and he tripped, and he did this nose dive onto the CBS records table – he slid across the table like a 747, knocking all the glasses off, he really damaged his leg, and back stage we had to take all the sodas out of the garbage cans packed with ice, we had to soak Ronnie’s leg in there!

(I also remember) being clobbered by a beer bottle thrown indiscriminately at us – it hit me right above my eyebrow and I had to go to the hospital. But, I finished the song and when the lights went on at the end, everyone turned around and looked at me, and Russell gives me a look like, “Oh my god…” I was completely covered in blood, I had no idea what hit me.


Sparks in Rollercoaster
Monte: Any thoughts about the making of (the 1976 suspense film) Rollercoaster?

Hilly:  Mostly sitting around all day, waiting for the crew to set up the shot and the stage. It was exciting. Ron was super-excited that Lalo Schifrin was doing the music. We all had much expectation about how the movie would come out, how it would play. We were in a great mood all afternoon. It didn’t matter if we had to sit in the corner for hours. The MC that introduced us – “let’s have a hand for Sparks!" – he didn’t get it in the first take. It was a second take, and he was sweating profusely. We were all cool, just milling around the place, walking around Magic Mountain, making jokes, speculating about how the movie would turn out. All we knew is that it was about a guy played by Timothy Bottoms, blowing up rollercoasters. We had our five minutes…as Russell has said, you couldn’t go on an airplane without seeing Rollercoaster on the movie menu!

Post Tour

Monte: I’ve always wondered: What if they had stuck with you guys for a second record, in the same style as Big Beat? I believe that the album after Big Beat was relatively weak.

Hilly: I agree with you. It was one of the ‘suits’ at Columbia, and he insisted on producing their next record, Introducing Sparks.  I love a few songs on there. Those Mysteries is really good, and Occupation….one of my favorite songs still. But I thought the production was pretty lackluster, compared to Kimono My House or Indiscreet. I thought it was a notch down. But again, that voice inside me says, “what the hell do you know?” I was still a young green bean.

Monte: Was it a disappointment when they dissolved the touring band and went that direction?

Hilly: I was crushed, because I had become so close with Ron and Russell.

They were second guessing themselves at this point. They said, “we’re going to disband the group, and we’ll see what happens.” They kept Sal, and me and (guitarist) Jimmy McAllister flew back to NY, and then Sal followed a month or two after. Things weren’t working out with Sal and the new producer. So there were the three of us, and we said, now what are we gonna do?” So, I picked up the guitar and wrote Calling All Girls, and we started cutting demos on my behalf.

I was going out with Russell’s old girlfriend, a very beautiful woman. When we got back from the tour, someone told us that she got tired of waiting for Russell and went to Germany and got married. She stayed over in Germany for four years. During that time, I wrote every song on Calling All Girls about her. There was one song on there though called You’ve Got Something On Your Mind where I was paying homage to Sparks. It made it to Caddyshack without the lead vocal on it. It’s during the Rodney Dangerfield boat chase. I followed up Calling All Girls with Lumia.

I restarted my own solo career after working in the fine arts as a marketing manager at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, the Detroit Opera, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, the Oregon Ballet…I would do these nine month campaigns of promoting opera, symphonies, ballets, and theater. Then in 2008, a fan got in touch with me and said, you ought to do something again! And that started me off on Pop This.  I found all these cool demos I had somewhere, and just released demos that I had made with an array of people over 30 years.

I worked with Kevin James Hook, who passed away last year. He was a real Sparks fan. He came over here for a month and helped me with Pop This, and helped me perform live as a bass player, and then no sooner did he go home, did I fly to England and stayed with him for a month, remixing it. One of the nicest and talented guys out there.

Current Work
Hilly: I’m starting on a new record now, with Danny Maggiore, who plays percussion, sings, plays drums and engineers. People are really going to enjoy where I’m coming from these days. It should be out in the early Summer.

There are some good people out there, just down to earth people, and that’s who I try to associate with these days. Thomas Ferranti – he is a real dude! All the YouTube videos and the Facebook site – that is all thanks to him. It means so much to me.

Brian Pothier (http://www.pothierproductions.com/) is helping me. He is a brilliant musician and engineer, and we just produced this girl from Cameroon, Xania, doing pop tunes. It took nearly a year and a half to do, and all those people I mentioned are helping me tremendously.

Summing Up

Monte: When you look back on your time with Sparks, how do you sum it up?

Hilly: That fateful afternoon, when Ron and Russell and Joseph and Sal knocked on the door, was (one of the) greatest days in my life. I learned so much about music in general, and Ron and Russell, I just can’t say enough about them. They were so friendly, so upfront, no behind the back stuff, just two really cool gentlemen. They deserve everything good. I regret not keeping up my friendship with them. You never know, but as their old bass player Ian Hampton once told me, he said, “Hilly, they never go back.”

Thank you for including me with the other drummers, for whom I have a great deal of respect.

Monte: Thank YOU!

Hilly: I LOVE SPARKS. Those are the last three words I’m going to say!

Monte: You and me both!

A Note On Hilly’s Gear

As discussed, Hilly used Zildjian cymbals and Ludwig drums while recording Big Beat. He had this to say about his sticks:

About a year before I started with Sparks, I went to see Rod Argent, and after the show I went to see the stage as they packed up, and I picked up two of the sticks that the drummer didn’t want anymore and I loved the feel of the sticks. Years later when I was touring with Ian Hunter some guy approaches me who worked for a custom drum stick company for drummers, and I showed him the sticks. He said yeah, those are ours, and I ordered a gross. He says, what do you want on there? I said “Hilly Michaels, Professional Model.” They were medium, all wood, they definitely were not sewing needles. But they weren’t caveman clubs either. They fit in my hands so well they were like an extension of my hands.

EXCLUSIVE LINK: Hilly has kindly allowed me to share the following link to a series of unlisted YouTube videos of an entire Sparks concert from the Big Beat tour. I am grateful to Hilly for allowing me to share, and I hope you'll enjoy...

...Sparks at the Capital, November 27, 1976, with Hilly on Drums.


  1. Whoa, Monte! You're really outdoing yourself. These interviews just get better and better. I appreciate the technical questions - the original mix of BB always bugged me, and I never knew why it was released that way. Now I do! Darned producer was half deaf from scratching his ear canals with Piña Colada straws.

    And, just as good are the insights as to how the various iterations of Sparks came together over the years. Hilly's confirmation of the age-old Mick Ronson rumors (There *are* tapes! Somewhere.) is amazing. Man, I'd love to hear that Never-Was version of Sparks.

    Thanks again. I'd mentioned Max Weinberg's book on drummers before. Honestly, you've already matched it with just these columns, as far as this Sparks fan is concerned. And a special thanks to Hilly for sharing the show on utube. Not only a great drummer, he's a really nice person, too.- :)

  2. Thank you Logan! I appreciate your kind words. Hilly did turn out to be a fantastic person. I'm going to do a follow up with him early summer, when his new record is getting ready to launch. Should be a lot of fun.

    Sparks with Mick Ronson...yeah, I'd like to hear that too!