An Interview with Mark Stein of Vanilla Fudge

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Read Time:14 Minute, 27 Second

Vanilla Fudge is a band that has paved the way for Psychedelic Rock for many bands such as Uriah Heep, Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin, and Yes. By arranging songs in a manner meant to be a slowed-down trippy experience, Vanilla Fudge surely has made its mark in Rock history.

I had the pleasure of speaking to the voice himself, Mark Stein. If you would like to learn more about Vanilla Fudge via the band’s website here. If you would like to learn more about Mark’s new album, There’s A Light, head here. Once you’ve done that, dig into this interview with Mark. Enjoy!

Anthony:
Mark, how have you been?

Mark:
I’ve been good. I just got off the road with doing some Vanilla Fudge dates. We got Robby Krieger from The Doors, and had five cities, just got back in town the night before last and yeah, it’s been going really well.

Anthony:
Alright. So, you’ve been touring a bit since COVID starting to lighten up a little. That’s great.

Mark:
These were the first shows in two years, and for us, and most Rock bands, you know?

Anthony:
In those two years that you weren’t touring, you were working on your solo album, right?

Mark:
Yeah. I was putting together the tracks. About six weeks into the pandemic I had written a song called “We Are One,” which is out now. It’s my first single. My album, There’s a Light will be out this month, November 26th. And we’re all excited about it. So “We Are One” reflects the pandemic, I got a positive message and people are really digging it.

Anthony:
That’s great. I can’t wait for that to come out and hear it.

Mark:
I hope you’ll like it.

Anthony:
I loved the video that came out and I’m looking forward to hearing the full album. So, how did your first tour in the two years go?

Mark:
It was hectic, but it was good. I’ll tell you one thing…the Suffolk Theater out in Long Island…I think it was sold out. So, it was really packed. People were just yearning for Classic Rock music after two years, which was really cool. And us too, it was great to hit the stage. We played Virginia and a couple of days in Pennsylvania. The last gig was at the Keswick Theater in Glenside, PA with Robbie Krieger. That went really well.

Anthony:
So, let’s touch on your musical background. You started playing music when you were very young, right?

Mark:
I did. My uncle, who lived in Bayonne, New Jersey, had an upright piano. I used to watch him play. I was in amazement watching him play the piano, and playing the songs of the day. When he went into the kitchen, I’d sneak over, I must have been maybe five, six years old…I just was born with this natural ability. I started one finger melodies, and everybody was going, “Wow! Obviously he’s got some kind of talent that was leftover from another life, maybe at that…so young.” So, I just started getting into playing, and my dad started me out with accordion lessons, which was prevalent in the 50s. I got bitten by the Rock ‘ N’ Roll bug when Buddy Holly came out…that whole thing with The Crickets. Soon after, I started playing guitar. I was playing rhythm guitar and doing Rock ‘N’ Roll songs. I ended up playing in shows when I was 11 years old, in New York. I actually cut a record when I was 11. [Laughs].

Anthony:
Oh, wow. That’s very impressive, and quite an accomplishment at that age.

Mark:
I was actually on TV in Washington DC with Sam Cooke and Lane Newton. Here I am, 11 years old, still in grammar school, I was out there getting exposed to the crazy, insane world of sex, drugs, and Rock ‘N’ Roll at 11 years old. [Laughs].

Anthony:
So, you were exposed to that at such a young age and just took off from there…

Mark:
I took off from there, man. I had some great vocal groups at Bayonne high school. We cut records and had a record out when I was maybe 16. It’s called Mark Stevens and The Charmers. I had changed my name…Mark Stevens and The Charmers. I hooked up with Neil Scott, who was a 17-year old promoter, who later became Neil Bogart, the head of Casablanca records, which is the label that launched KISS and Donna Summers in the 70s. So, I’ve been doing it all my life. I’ve been doing it for 60 years, man.

Anthony:
It’s a lifelong thing. It’s a commitment.

Mark:
With Vanilla Fudge, we had our first success with “You Keep Me Hangin’ On.” We became an iconic band, and one of the first Progressive Rock bands. We went on to tour with Jimmi Hendrix, and when Led Zeppelin came out, they opened for us. Pretty amazing — Led Zeppelin and Vanilla Fudge were right at the center of the Pop music universe in the late 60s. We toured the world and had three albums on the Top-100 Billboard charts.

Anthony:
What prompted Vanilla Fudge to record slow-down Psychedelic Rock versions of other’s songs?

Mark:
Well, my first major influence was Felix Cavaliere when I went to see a band called The Young Rascals, and they were amazing. They didn’t even have the bass player, it was Felix on a Hammond organ, with soulful vocals, he was playing bass pedals, man. Eddie Brigati was a really cool frontman, with the tambourine and the maracas. Dino Danelli was probably the best drummer I ever saw at that time. And Gene Cornish was great, his presence as rhythm guitarist…I was really turned on by that blue-eyed Soul band, and Felix was my main influence to get a Hammond organ when I was 18 years old — I was so blown away by the sound. Then as time went on, I was exposed to a band called The Vagrants out in Long Island, which spawned Leslie West…Rest In Peace to Leslie… a great guitar player — the greatest tone. The King of Tone he was called. He [Lesie West] had a great tone in his guitar and played some great records…Mountain, West, Bruce, and Laing… a lot of history there. But the first band I saw, they were taking songs and putting arrangements to other people’s songs, slowing them down, and adding all of these dynamics, and drama was a band called The Vagrants. When I saw that, it changed my life, ’cause that’s what I wanted to do — I wanted to take songs and put my own matter to it. So, I started to re-imagine other songs, and it was a combination of that band and the voice-over The Rascals, which really morphed into a band called Vanilla Fudge. And we just started taking Beatles songs, and Motown songs, and all the hits of the day, and putting our approach to it. We hit it big when “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” came out, blew everybody’s minds, and the first album was released. It was the advent of underground radio. At the time, three-minute songs were about the length you could go on AM radio. But when we came out with these long elaborate symphonic arrangements because of WNEW in New York, and San Francisco FM Station, and Chicago and LA, and when the album first came out, they just played the whole first side of the album non-stop, and we became the darlings of FM radio. Man, we were really hot.

Anthony
I was listening to your self-titled last week, what a record…

Mark:
Yeah, what was interesting is that we took “Eleanor Rigby,” and we turned it into an audio play, we slowed it down, we created all of this mystery and mystique and all these effects. The thing is it was a four-piece band, and we were so good as young guys, collectively that some of the critics thought it was all kinds of overdubs on it, and it wasn’t just four guys, it was impossible, but it really was. It was just pretty much our club show. George Harrison was so impressed by our arrangements of “Eleanor Rigby,” and “Ticket to Ride,” that he used to play this album everywhere he went in England, the first album. And Ringo [Starr] thought we were insane — he called us a bunch of madmen. [Laughs].

Anthony:
That must have been quite an experience, going through all that, especially with bands like The Beatles listening to your music, and getting feedback from them. It must have been surreal.

Mark:
No, it was amazing. Going to England for the first time…the first time I went to a Jimmi Hendrix show over there, and all of a sudden I’m backstage, and there’s a winding staircase and who do I see? I see Roger Daltrey and Keith Moon, and all the guys from The Who dressed up like lords from the 18th century. I was so impressed, and so blown away. Being in the middle of that English, London thing, and here we are coming out, and getting known, and I was a fan of everybody…we wanted to look like The Who, so, when we got back to America, our first album broke the Top-10, and we were just so excited. Here we are, 20-year-old guys having a huge album, and when we were in England. We went and shopped on Carnaby Street in King’s Road. We got all these fabulous velvet jackets with the high collars, and the cinched waist like it was like the 18th century with these great-looking pants, scarves, and heeled boots. We got off the plane, man, and it was just really cool, and so many people at JFK greeted us. It was like a dream, it was fantasy, and not only did we bring Progressive, and Symphonic Rock to the table, we also brought fashion back to America, and that started the whole thing. So, Vanilla Fudge should be in the Rock ‘N’ Roll Hall of Fame, and I don’t know why we’re not…

Anthony:
You guys should be! All the accomplishments and things you brought over back with you…

Mark:
We influenced bands like Uriah Heep and were a heavy influence on Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin. As they say, nobody dares to be different…

Anthony:
You guys are pretty much the forefathers of Psychedelic Rock, like you said, you should be in the Rock ‘N’ Roll Hall of Fame, maybe one of these days…

Mark:
Maybe one of these days…

Anthony:
Hopefully, that’ll happen. You’ve worked with so many big names…Michael Jackson comes to mind…

Mark:
Well, I was playing with Dave Mason back in the late 70s, we had a great band, and I was recording, touring, and writing with David. There was one time we were recording an album called Old Crest On a New Wave, that’s when New Wave was out, so it was kinda a play on words, ’cause David was a Classic Rocker. So, we recorded this album around 1980 in LA, we were in a place called Hollywood Sound. I was on a break and I came out, and I saw Michael Jackson leaning up against the soda machine, down the hall at the other studio with The Jacksons, they were doing some work, and it was right after his great album called Off The Wall, which is a multi-platinum record.

We happened to have a track that we were doing called “Save Me,” which had a similar groove to some of the Michael Jackson grooves on Off The Wall. So, I introduced myself, I said, “Michael, I’m Mark Stein I’m not sure if you remember Vanilla Fudge…you remember “You Keep Me Hangin’ On,” and “Take Me for a Little While?” And he was hipped to it, and I said, “Why don’t you come in the studio? I want you to hear this track we’re doing, it’s something like you’re doing on Off The Wall.” So, he followed me into the studio, and then I put up the track, “Save Me,” and he started snapping his fingers, and dancing around the console and I said, “Dude, go in the studio, man there’s a mic all ready for you, get the earphones on just start on this song.”

So, he does it, he goes right in the studio, we put the track up, he put the phones on, and in one take, he was amazing. He just blew everybody’s mind. And we were like, numb. I was like, “You believe what’s going on? That’s Michael Jackson singing with us on this track.” So, we came back to the studio and everybody was…it was just a moment for the ages for me. We thanked him, he left, he had to go back to work with his brothers, and it was a crazy night. So, I make a rough cassette, and my wife and I ran over to Tim Kriegler’s house in the valley. It was about 3 o’clock in the morning by now. We woke him up and he had written this song, and I said, “You’re not gonna believe this man, we got Michael Jackson on this song.” He woke up in a hurry, and there were really lots of smiles going on in those days, so, it was a great time to be recording. If you listen to “Save Me by Dave Mason,” you’ll hear Dave Mason, Michael Jackson, and Mark Stein doing multitrack background vocals, and it’s there. Check it out.

Anthony:
Wow. I’ll have to go back and listen to that one for sure!

Mark:
That’s how it all happened. Yeah, I think you’ll dig it. It’s cool. The Hammond organ I played on there was a little funky so it was very cool man.

Anthony:
Tell me about your new album, There’s A Life.

Mark:
Oh, yeah, There’s A Life. Well, this is my first solo album that’s actually on a label, it’s on Decca Records, Decca Entertainment, and these guys are great, and they have a great team of people. The album is about how the country used to be, how I feel it is now, and the hope for the future. Songs like “We Are One,” “All Lives Matter,” and songs like “Racism,” which is my song. It’s about the fact that I’m sensitive to the fact that it does exist. So, I had this idea to write a song. Listen to the track, it’s a powerful track. It’s almost got like a Vanilla Fudge arrangement. It’s heavy Rock, and there’s also a song called “All Lives Matter.” I did covers of “Ball of Confusion,” the old Temptations hit from the 70s, and ironically the lyrics are relative to what’s going on, in this crazy confusing world today.

Anthony:
It’s crazy how relevant things from that long ago are still relevant today.

Mark:
Yeah, man. I just put my arrangement mantra to “Ball of Confusion,” and I put my thing to it, and it’s a totally re-imagined version of it. So we’re looking forward to it.

Anthony:
It sounds like you’re keeping busy!

Mark:
Yeah, the old man is busy. [Laughs]. We are the “old buzzers.” That’s what we call ourselves. We’re blessed that we can still perform, and still rock with the best of them. The Lord has put us here for a purpose, I feel, and that’s what we’re doing.

Anthony:
Is there anything else you’d like to share with us before we go?

Mark:
Well, I just wish everybody the best of good health and keep rocking. I think we all need to g vaccinated. I don’t wanna get into a political thing. I just think for our own good, I think vaccination’s a positive thing. I don’t know about the booster shot, but I can tell you that I’ve had friends that scoffed at the vaccination, and were sorry that they did because they ended up in hospitals. And I’m talking like 15-16 days. I would suggest getting vaccinated because pretty much 90% of the vaccinated population are held a lot safer than the ones that are not, but of course, it’s a personal choice, and I respect that.

Well everybody let’s keep rocking. Go check out my album, it’s a theme of a lot of love and politics, and everything we’re talking about in today’s world, and hope for the future there’s is a light. There’s a light that burns so deep within us if only we could find a way to keep it turned on, that’s my spiritual feeling. That everybody, I think possesses and has the ability to stay positive through whatever you’re going through. So, listen to the single, pick up the album, and let’s have a great year, and great years to come.

Interested in learning more about the music of Mark Stein? Check out the link below:

Dig this? Check out the full archives of A.M. Radio, by Anthony Montalbano, here: https://vwmusicrocks.com/a-m-radio-archives/

About Post Author

Anthony Montalbano

Anthony Montalbano grew up in New York and North Carolina. Anthony is a baker by day and a contributor to the Vinyl Writer cause by night. With a passion for podcasts, Pop Punk, video games, and more, Anthony brings a unique and fresh perspective to the team. Anthony's column is a catch-all for the things he loves most, and he wouldn't have it any other way.
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