In 1974, Louis Grammatico, at the age of 24, was already a seasoned veteran of upstate New York’s music scene. His band, Black Sheep, had just released its first album and things were looking up. The group was scheduled to open for KISS on Christmas Eve when an accident on the icy New York Thruway destroyed most of its equipment. Without amplifiers and instruments, Black Sheep was unable to fulfill its live performance commitments and the band broke up.
While Grammatico was contemplating his next move, he received a phone call from Mick Jones, a guitarist he'd met a year earlier. Jones was assembling a new band and he invited Grammatico to audition for the lead singer slot. Jones chose Grammatico over 35 other hopefuls and the two began writing songs together. Grammatico shortened his name to Lou Gramm, and the band he and Jones created became known as Foreigner.
The band’s first eight singles entered Billboard’s Top 20 charts, an accomplishment duplicated only by The Beatles. Over the next decade, Foreigner's hits included "Hot Blooded," "Feels Like the First Time," "Cold as Ice," "Long, Long Way from Home," "Double Vision," "Blue Morning, Blue Day," "Head Games," "Dirty White Boy," "Urgent," "Juke Box Hero," "Waiting for a Girl Like You" and "I Want to Know What Love Is."
Gramm and Jones were a prolific songwriting team, but they often clashed artistically and Gramm left the band in 1989. His first solo effort, "Ready or Not," contained the hit single "Midnight Blue," which holds the record for most airplay of any song of the 1980s. Despite the breakup, Gramm and Jones remained friends, and Foreigner still reunites every so often for tours. To date, the band has sold more than 70 million albums worldwide.
Gramm and his band will appear on Saturday, July 14, at Mequon Rotary Park as a part of this weekend's Gathering on the Green. The legendary singer spoke with OnMilwaukee in advance of the show about his five decades in rock and roll.
OnMilwaukee: What’s more difficult in this business: getting to the top or staying there?
Lou Gramm: I can’t speak for other groups, but for us, I’d have to say it’s harder staying at the top. Foreigner was lucky in the way we just came out of the gate really fast. With one album, we were getting a lot of recognition, a lot of airplay and, in short order, we were headlining arena shows. Part of that is because Mick Jones and I really worked well together as songwriters. We were new at it but we just clicked. Every time we came up with a song, we wanted to push ourselves to see what else we were capable of.
And you worked hard. Those first albums came out pretty quickly.
It didn’t feel like work, but when I look back, yeah, I’d say we worked very hard. Mick and I were writing every night while on tour. We amassed a lot of ideas and bits of songs, and we couldn’t wait to get back in the studio and turn them into finished pieces suitable for recording. To me, those were golden times. We were either on the road or in the studio.
Was Foreigner a collaborative band in the studio?
There were six of us at first, and while Mick and I were the principal songwriters, and usually brought a chorus and verse to the table, there were lots of good suggestions from the other guys. Everything went into the pot. I think that everybody in Foreigner was heard, yes.
By the time you were in high school, you were already drumming and singing with a band. What kind of songs were you covering back then?
I was in love with R&B and still am. The Four Tops, Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett – all of that great music. One of the reasons I left Foreigner is because Mick wanted to take the band’s sound in a more synthesized, electronic direction, and I wanted to stay with the rock and blues. That’s what I love to sing.
Were your parents supportive of you pursuing a career in music?
(laughs) Ah, well, yes and no. My parents were both musicians, and they were fully aware of the pitfalls associated with this business. They warned me of what I would encounter and wished me the best. But I still managed to run headfirst into some trouble. There’s a lot of pressure that goes with being in a highly successful band.
How did you turn that around?
It’s no secret that I was a drug addict for a dozen years. It got to the point where I didn’t want my kids to see me like that. After a show at Madison Square Garden in New York, something took hold of me in my hotel room. I fell to me knees and begged for help. The next day, my attorney booked me into a rehab center and I got clean and sober. I knew God had answered my call for help, and I became a born-again Christian. To this day, I serve my Lord and Savior.
After you got clean, you were diagnosed with a brain tumor.
Five years clean and sober, and I was told that I had an inoperable brain tumor. I was given a death sentence. They said it was been growing in my head ever since I was born and there was nothing anyone could do. That night, I happened to be watching a show on the news about a doctor in Boston who was doing some amazing things with brain surgery. I called his office, and they said bring your MRIs and get here immediately. 36 hours later, I was on his operating table. I don’t know what where I’d be now if I hadn’t happened to see that segment on TV.
What can the audience expect from your set on Saturday?
I’ll do a few cover songs and a couple from my solo albums, but they want to hear the Foreigner songs and that’s what I’m going to give them. At least three-quarters of the show will be the music they’re coming to hear!