An Interview with Ron Rocco of Black Sheep

By Andrew Daly
andrew@vinylwriter.com

All images courtesy of Ron Rocco

The annals of rock history are full of players who aren’t so well known but were impactful just the same. Veteran drummer Ron Rocco is one of those players.

Rocco’s early years amongst a vibrant Buffalo scene gave way to a series of ever-so-close to stardom gigs in Black Sheep, Light Years, and Cheater, roles which found the drummer sharing space on the tour bus with Lou Gramm and Billy Sheehan.

While Rocco ultimately did not reach the grandest stages, his integral role in the trajectory of multiple legendary bands cannot be understated.

I recently caught up with Rocco regarding his long and eventful career in rock music.

Andrew:
Ron, thanks so much for digging in here with me. As a young musician, what was it that first gravitated toward the drums?

Ron:
This first one may surprise you: Lou Gramm (Lou Grammatico). Back then, I was in the sixth-grade band, but I was still only in the fourth grade. Lou was a very good drummer, and when I saw him play that thick chrome snare drum, I went home and told my parents I would do almost anything to earn one. In fact, even though we have had our ups and downs, if it weren’t for Lou, I would probably never have become a drummer.

Andrew:
Aside from Lou, who were some of your earliest influences that most shaped your style early on?

Ron:
On a national level, there really only one: I was really drawn to John Bonham’s style, and I would say mainly him. To this day, people say I remind them of John Bonham. To me, that is a great compliment. Some are technically great on the drums, and some seem to almost speak when they drum. That is where my heart is. The money was great, and being in a band was really a big thing.

Andrew:
Going back, you were an early part of a burgeoning Buffalo rock scene. Take me back to that time.

Ron:
The Buffalo and Rochester scenes were on fire. You could be in an average band, and still play six nights a week. We went up and down the NYS Thruway, from Rochester to Albany, or further for some of the bigger named bands. My first really memorable gig was 1969. My first band Rooster opened for a band called Light. They were very good. The guitarist was sort of chubby, but very good. [Laughs]. A year or two later, I was reading an article in the paper, and it referred to the band Light, and it said how the guitarist had become the guitarist for The Cars. Sure enough, he slimmed way down, and I realized I had played with Elliot Easton. [Laughs].

All images courtesy of Ron Rocco

Andrew:
One of your earliest gigs was in 1975, with Zulema. How did you come to work with her?

Ron:
Well, I had a falling out with Black Sheep, which ended up with me on the outs. Never tell off the lead singer, in front of the other guys. [Laughs]. I got a call from a female agent and friend of mine on a Sunday night, and by Monday afternoon, I was living in a studio apartment in NYC with five other guys packed in. Zulema lived below us, in a gorgeous apartment with a white grand piano. She deserved it. She was very good. At one point, her album was number thirty-eight in Billboard Magazine with a bullet. Our first gig was the Sugar Shack in Boston. I never forget when everyone said Sammy Davis Jr’s manager just walked in to see Ms. Z. In the end, money issues came up, and I was very home sick, so I left Zulema, mainly over money. It turned out differently than what we discussed. Boy did I have second thoughts when I found out the drummer from the David Bowie Fame album replaced me. [Laughs].

Andrew:
As you alluded to, you were an early member of cult 70s band Black Sheep with Lou Gramm, who would later go on to form Foreigner. Take me through the formation of Black Sheep.

Ron:
I’ve known Lou all my life. I met him in the elementary school band, and then something strange happened. He was a great singing and drummer. In my senior year, he started showing up at many of my gigs. He was very complimentary, and nice. As it turns out, he was looking for a drummer that he felt would be right for where Black Sheep was heading musically, so he could step out front, and become Lou Gramm as we know him.

The formation of Black Sheep was in two stages. One with Lou on drums, and then one with me, and a total direction change. I was very disappointed, and had left the band numerous times. I sort of deserved what I got in the end I suppose. With Lou on drums, the band was doing music that I was crazy about. Things like Traffic, Spooky Tooth, Dave Mason, Humble Pie, etc. I couldn’t wait to join. When I joined, they decided to model themselves after the English band Free. It was a bit mundane for a drummer, especially coming off a nine piece horn band. As I look back, I did learn a lot about not over playing, and there is Lou once again having indirect influence on me.

All images courtesy of Ron Rocco

Andrew:
Black Sheep soon signed with major label Chrysalis Records. Take me through the band signing its first major-label deal.

Ron:
Many don’t know this, but I had always heard that we were the first American band on that label, and that is in fact true. In 1976, Chrysalis ended its deal with Warner and became an independent label headquartered in Los Angeles, which allowed the label to sign American talent for the first time, and that’s when they signed us. Then one day our producer came into the barn that we were rehearsing in, and says, “We’re leaving Chrysalis!” We were all thinking, “Hey, we’re farm boys from Rochester!!” He then said, “We’re going to Capitol,” and wow, we all calmed down. We signed over there, but we got caught in a shakeup in the music industry. Al Cory was on his way out of Capitol, and he was really behind Black Sheep. Obviously, the new management wanted to get behind their own artists.

Andrew:
Black Sheep’s first two records Black Sheep and Encouraging Words are cult classics. What do you recall about the writing of those albums?

Ron:
I’m partial to the first album, as I had a hand in writing three of the nine songs. I got writing credits on “Payin’ Yer Dues,” “Far Side of the Sun,” and “Freight Train.” I have to say, I like both albums. I mean I grew up with them. Of course, I like both albums.

Andrew:
After a successful run of dates with Ten Years After and Ted Nugent, Black Sheep was slated to hop on tour with KISS, but you left the band shortly before the band embarked on the tour. What to your departure, Ron?

Ron:
I was out of the band just before the KISS dates. Yes, I was jealous not to be on those. I can tell you about doing the whole Call of the Wild Tour with Ted Nugent. Ted was great. From what I recall, he would just do scales up and down the guitar like crazy in his dressing room. No rockstar stuff. He’d let me walk in and out, and was very cordial.

One of my fondest moments was doing tour dates with Ten Years After. Ric Lee, the drummer, let us go up a jam with Alvin Lee. Ric took a liking to my drum solo, and he set up a practice set at the foot of the bed. We were playing the Jai Lai Arena in Florida, jamming on drums in his bedroom, while his wife Ruthann was sleeping. I was twenty-one years old. Does it get any better than that?

As for the end, I was out by the time they stopped playing. I don’t think they ever officially broke up. I was in an all original band with Lou’s brother Dick, and Black Sheep’s truck pulled in, all mangled. They flipped their truck on the way home for this show. No one got hurt that I remember. It was shortly thereafter that Mick Jones had called our original manager Jim Taylor about Lou. Lou auditioned for Foreinger, and the rest is history.

All images courtesy of Ron Rocco

Andrew:
Given its pedigree, songsmith, and how close Black Sheep flew to the sun, what are your lasting impressions on what might have been?

Ron:
To be honest. I don’t regret anything that didn’t work out. I had a chance to play with some big names. Things looked sure as gold, but something or another caused things to fall through. Now, I could go on saying if only I got that gig with Grace Slick, but the other side of that coin is I might not have my beautiful and wonderful kids. I choose to let what’s gone by stay gone. I have been blessed to play at a level that I’m still happy with for over fifty years. No regrets here.

Andrew:
Back on the Buffalo scene, in the early 80s you formed a band called Light Years with Billy Sheehan, who had just left local favorites Talas. Take me through the formation of Light Years.

Ron:
It started out as Targa, then we replaced the bass player, Jim Hall, who played fine. Then I got the idea that since the band was fairly popular in Rochester, if we could get Billy Sheehan, we’d have more of a presence in Buffalo. It was Billy who named the new band Light Years. I was so happy to get him that he could have called it Ron Sucks. [Laughs].

Light Years had the best players ever collectively. Targa was really two very talented studio type players in Jeff Craig and Tom Dorren. They wanted a rock drummer, and called me. Billy Sheehan pushed the band over the top. We went into the studio, but in the end, it didn’t work out. We all know the heights Billy went on to reach. I know you have interviewed Billy, so press him hard enough, and you just might get a copy of him singing “You’ve lost that Lovin’ Feeling” with Jeff. He still owes me a copy of that session! [Laughs].

Andrew:
You came close once again with Cheater in 1981. Take me through the formation of that band.

Ron:
It should have worked out. Yes, we had a monster song called “Ten Cent Love Affair.” I will get back to that in a moment. Cheater was you typical magical chemistry band. Don Mancuso and I were older, but the band was formed before we joined. All of the shows were mobbed, all of the audiences went nuts. I always thought it was because they had tons of friends, however, we’d go to Cleveland, same thing, we’d go to Syracuse, same result. Everywhere it was the same. You can’t rehearse chemistry, you either have it, or you don’t. Cheater did.

All images courtesy of Ron Rocco

Andrew:
In your estimation, what led to Cheater’s failure to launch?

Ron:
Why? In a nutshell, I remember RCA Records came to see the band at Uncle Sam’s in Buffalo one night. Place was packed. Someone mentioned that we released “Ten Cent Love Affair” on a local Buffalo label. I didn’t see it with my own eyes, but I heard they all walked out when they heard that. I couldn’t swear to that, but I was in the band, and I’ve heard it many times.

Andrew:
After nearly reaching the top with Black Sheep, and coming close again with Light Years, and Cheater, how did you ride out the remainder of the decade? Did you feel shortchanged at all?

Ron:
I really don’t. Some of not making it bigger is my close ties to family. I’m glad I was here enjoying my parents while they were alive. Really glad to be here when they were sick. Also, there is something in me that keeps ticking. I just bought a $50,000 drum mobile. Where do I think I’m going? It had to be big enough for my stage and road cases. I still get calls to do fairly big shows, and that is still what drives me.

Andrew:
Tell us about your other projects from over the years in Terra Nova, Firecat, and Silver.

Ron:
I was very proud of Terra Nova, not my writing, but still proud of the band. Firecat was the most original band I’ve ever been in. We had a lot of good songs. That band and Silver were with Dick Gramm (Grammatico), and Bill Batazzo. Firecat was originally a four piece, but we lost our star keyboard player, Danny Ciccione, to a tragic motorcycle accident. Joe Pullaro, our singer in Silver, is one of the best singers I’ve ever worked with, and used to be the premier singer in a Three Dog Night type band, which also featured Lou Gramm.

All images courtesy of Ron Rocco

Andrew:
I’ve heard some rumors, but I’d rather have it from the horses mouth. I’ve heard that you were one of the many to audition for ACϟDC, and actually were in the running. Any truth to that?

Ron:
To my knowledge, I only auditioned for any band once. It was for my first band, Rooster. I had my whole left forearm in a cast, and was really surprised when they chose me. The list is long but I don’t know what it’s like to audition, especially not for ACϟDC.

Andrew:
Fair enough. Most recently, you’ve been working with The Shakes. Tell us about the project, and working with Jeff Cosco again?

Ron:
Jeff and I have had some differences, but I will still say he is a great singer. I will also say that The Shakes record is probably the recording that I’m most proud of. I love the recording.

Andrew:
Last one, Ron. What’s next for you in all lanes?

Ron:
Full speed ahead! I just bought a $50,000 drum mobile. For what? I don’t know where am I going, but I’ll be ready if something comes up. It had to be big enough for my stage, my PA, and my road cases. Who knows what the future will bring? All I know is that I’ll be ready.

All images courtesy of Ron Rocco

Interested in learning more about Black Sheep? Hit the link below:

Be sure to check out the full catalog of VWMusic Interviews, by Andrew Daly, here: www.vinylwritermusic.com/interviews

About Post Author

Andrew Daly

With an immense passion for music, a disposition for writing, and an eagerness to teach and share both, Andrew decided to found VWMusic in 2019 as a freelance column under the column Idle Chatter. Over time, the column grew into a website that now features contributors who further the cause of sharing both a love of music and the art of journalism with the world through articles and interviews. While Andrew enjoys running the website, his real passion lies in teaching and facilitating others to do what they do best, and giving them the opportunity to explore their passions in the process. Some of Andrew’s favorite artists include KISS, Oasis, ACϟDC, Elvis Presley, Ace Frehley, The Rolling Stones, Rush, The Pretenders, Led Zeppelin, The Gaslight Anthem, Iron Maiden, John Lennon, The Melvins, Noel Gallagher, Regina Spektor, Rory Gallagher, The Stone Roses, The Strokes, Thin Lizzy, Elvis Costello, Van Halen, Neil Young, Blur, Billy Joel, Bruce Springsteen, and many more.
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3 thoughts on “An Interview with Ron Rocco of Black Sheep

  1. I’ve known Ronny since the late 70s. We met while I was a manager at The Penny Arcade in Rochester NY. He is an awesome drummer and longtime friend. His energy always shows through. I’ve never met a musician more “Into” his chosen musical media. Ron and I aren’t as social these days. (His home are being Buffalo, mine being Rochester) so it was a present surprise to see the interview with him. Brought back a lot of memories.

  2. I know Ron through a friend, he is a great guy and drummer and doesn’t have a large ego . He doesn’t talk down to you . Love him !

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